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It’s a cold Monday morning when it all goes to hell. Tuesday the 19th, to be exact. Natasha supposes she should have expected it, her record considering- the last time she’d had a Tuesday the 19th, she’d ended up with a pair of broken ribs, and a nice stab wound to match. The time before that, her cover identity had been blown and she’d been forced to sprint through Prague with nothing but a butter knife and a shaving razor. So really, this isn’t a huge leap, and when Clint corners her before their mission, looking as if he’s expecting her to bite his head off, she’s not surprised.

“What?” she asks suspiciously.

“Listen. Don’t freak out.” He’s trying to act controlled, but she sees his foot is tapping against the floor, betraying his nerves.

What?” she growls, because Clint is nothing if not calm under duress, and for him to be this worried to tell her means it’s bad.

“Don’t freak out,” the switch repeats.

“No promises.”

“So you know how I’ve been getting you your monthly Substop?” he hedges. She inclines her head stiffly, her heart sinking. “And you know it’s very illegal.”

“You don’t want to get it anymore.” Her tone is flat. Okay. Okay. This is… unexpected, from Clint, but it’s fine. She has sources-

Clint sighs with what sounds like exasperation. “No. I can’t get it anymore.” As her eyes widen minutely, he adds hastily, “Not for the time being.”

Natasha’s body tenses, forehead creased as she searches his face for signs of a joke. “What do you mean you… How can you not, I- I don’t…”

“Nat, listen to me.” He grasps her arms just below her shoulders and squeezes gently. “I’m trying, okay? The crackdown’s been crazy. SHIELD just shut down the only remaining supplier this side of the Atlantic; there’s basically not a gram of the stuff left in North or South America-”

“Then we go to Europe.” She shrugs out of his grip. “It’s okay, I can just, I don’t know, take a flight or something. You can cover for me? Yeah, that’ll work. I’ll go. Today. Now. Yeah, I’ll go now.”

His hands are back on her arms. They feel cold, are they cold? She notices raised goosebumps on her own arms. That’s funny, she doesn’t feel cold.

Clint’s speaking softly, in that low-pitched, soothing Dom tone, and she wants to slap him for it. “Calm down. Cool it, okay, I’ve got this. Just give me a couple of weeks, alright? I can dig up an alternate stream… a few small shipments’ll probably start coming in after the weekend.”

“But that’s…”

“I’ll have it in less than two weeks. And you must that have that extra from last time leftover, right?” His fingers skim over her hair as she nods, concern radiating from the gesture. “Okay? So can you go ten days or so?”

She nods again, side-stepping him neatly as she catches sight of Tony entering the room. The damn sub is too nosy for his own good- something that had gotten him a spanking from both Pepper and Steve on multiple occasions- and the position they’d been in was decidedly too dom-sub for him not to ask questions. Clint follows her gaze, draws back from her and greets Tony with an easy grin, starting up a conversation about his new high-tech bow. Natasha’s heart is racing too fast for her to be able to hear much more than the roar in her ears.

She lied. She doesn’t have the extra he’d given her last month. It finished last night in a dose that she can already feel wearing off. She’d used it up, because they’d gone on more missions this month and she’d been wearing thin, and she thought she’d be getting more in a few days; she hadn’t known….

Ten days, ten days, ten days. She can go ten days. Ten days without dropping. It’s possible. Maybe. If she doesn’t get agitated between now and next weekend.

Tony can’t do it. He drops after basically every fucking mission, leaving Steve or Clint or Banner or Thor to deal with him. She’s a little jealous of that actually, because everyone else on the team has dommed for Tony andy Clint, and it’s not fair because she can never take part- or never wants to, really. The Substop doesn’t give her dom biology; it just inhibits her sub impulses, She’s tried, but even on extra Substop she doesn’t get any satisfaction out of domming for Clint. She had to lie and say the Red Room had drummed any inter-Bearing relationships out of her when a very hurt Tony had confronted her about her refusal to help him through a post-mission subdrop. What could she have said? ‘Sorry, Stark, but the problem is, I’m a sub too and I don’t think I would’ve been much help’. She doesn’t even enjoy sex, although it’s not quite like she misses it.

Tony may drop after every mission, but she’s not Tony. She’s been trained for this, trained to push down her base instincts and project whatever she wants. Clint hadn’t even realized she was a sub until three weeks into her acquisition by SHIELD. This is hardly out of the range of things she’s had to do before, for the Red Room, or on covert ops. She can do this. Ten days, no dropping.

She steels her shoulders and moves forward to join Clint and Tony. Both men shift a little to open into a little semi-circle. Clint brushes against her shoulder and gives her a small reassuring smile, which she returns, hoping it doesn’t look as shaky as she feels.

It’s fine. She can do this. Ten days.

She tries to ignore the little pit of guilt weighing in her stomach from lying to Clint, who presented as a dom to her.

======

The mission goes to hell, doing an excellent job of keeping to its preceding Tuesday the 19th’s traditions. ‘Going to hell’ isn’t a strong enough description. It’s a fucking trainwreck. Guards with more advanced weaponry than they’d been prepared for, incorrect information, out-dated maps with doors that should be there but aren’t, Tony, what did he want her to do about that? To top it off, the security somehow knew they were coming, and managed to ambush Clint and Thor, giving both a healthy amount of injuries.

So yes, all in all, a fucking trainwreck.

By the time Natasha and Steve manage to bust through the inner chambers- only a split lip, couple of cracked ribs, a sprained wrist and a spattering of cuts and bruises between them, meagre worry compared to the state of Clint and Thor- they’re both just about done with this mission, ready to retrieve the papers and get out. Intel- shitty as it is- says there’s one safe in the room in front of them containing the papers, which should be a quick enough job.

So when Steve smashes his shield against the lock and she kicks open the door, neither are prepared for the hinges to swing back and reveal a dreary, dimly-lit, dormitory-style room. Six rickety dressing tables. Six half-open, filmy windows. Six wrought-iron beds. And six little girls dressed in lace nightgowns huddled against the far end of the room, eyes wide and frightened.

“Shit,” Steve swears.

“What?” Banner’s voice pipes up immediately over the comms. “I just changed back; do you need the big guy again?”

Neither answer him.

Steve edges closer to the girls while Natasha stands stock-still, just staring at the children. Fuck. Fuck. No. Fuck. Not today. She can’t deal with this today. She can feel the flashes of memories curling at the edges of her consciousness, and she’s not willing to let this take her down, today of all days. The mission goes to hell in a hand-basket. Clint and Thor get ambushed. They stumble into what is apparently a child-trafficking ring. She’s out of Substop. And she lied to Clint.

Why did she have to be born a fucking sub.

Steve’s already at the far end with the girls; he glances back, his expression urgent. “Natasha, I need you to help me with this!”

“Cap, do you need backup?” Tony, over comms.

“No, we’re fine,” Natasha answers for him, willing her vision to clear as she strides over to the girls. “We have a situation. Are all the guards taken care of?”

“Reports!” Steve orders, grabbing two of the girls and swinging two others onto his back. Natasha lets one more climb onto her back, then hefts the last girl onto her hip.

“Barton is injured worse than I first reported,” comes Thor’s voice. Natasha panics- “He’s fine. He will make it, but we will be of little help.”

“Security?” Steve presses.

“Took them all out,” the god replies grimly.

“Good. Stark, Banner?”

“All clear from my standpoint, Cap!”

“Yeah, the big guy took care of the last of them.”

Steve nods, satisfied. “Alright. Meet you at the extraction point. We have a few young extra passengers today.” The meaning of his last statement is not lost on anyone, if the silence over comms is anything to judge by. “Nat, you good?”

“Peachy. Take care of yourself, dinosaur bones.”

“Okay, really?” he snipes as they make their way through the halls, both on high alert for any remaining security. “Dinosaur bones? That the best you can do?”

“Extenuating circumstances,” she replies, setting the girl in her arms down so she can quickly knock out a guard that’s woken up. “All clear. Ask me again after mission, I’ll come up with something better.” In one move, she picks up the child again, patting the knee of the other one on her back to make sure she’s okay.

“Don’t listen to him, Romanoff!” Tony’s voice is gleeful. “Dinosaur bones is pitiful, but given the current situation I’d give it a B+ at least.”

“Your standards are dropping,” Steve shoots back, tapping Natasha on the shoulder. He gestures down the hallway to their right. Understanding immediately, she shrugs off both girls clinging to her and springs into the hallway.

It’s one punch to incapacitate the first guard, a flying kick to send the second into a wall, and she darts back and gets the girls. One, two, three.

“Clear. So what is it, Rogers, do you prefer Capsicle?”

“Hey!” Tony objects immediately. “That’s mine!”

“You can share,” Natasha says smoothly. “Not like you have a copyright on it.” A telling pause. “Stark. You didn’t!”

“What?” He has the grace to sound defensive as Steve’s mouth drops open beside her. “I patent things for a living; it was force of habit!”

Natasha doesn’t know whether to grin or throw her hands up in the air. She settles for the former upon seeing Steve’s affronted face, but a hysterical, almost choked laugh bubbles out of her instead.

It draws his attention instantly. “Are you okay?” His voice is knowing. Fuck him.

“You never saw the Red Room, did you?” she murmurs, ensuring she comes across amused, as they continue through the winding building. Almost to the jet, almost to the jet…

“No.”

“Mmm.” She knows exactly how to manipulate her voice so it conveys equal parts condescending ‘Of course you didn’t’ and ‘Wouldn’t have expected any different’. “That back there? Pretty much a five-star hotel compared to what I got. Trust me, this isn’t dredging up anything.”

Lies.

There were hand-cuffs attached to the bedposts. The girl on her hip has cracked lips. The ankles of the one clutching her neck have been chafed with rope, and her wrists are red and raw. But most of all, it’s their eyes. Frightened. Full of unbridled terror. Just as Natasha’s had been many many years ago, before the Red Room tortured it out of her and replaced it with a blank, empty stare, waiting for Clint to breathe life back into her.

“There’s a med-jet coming in for the… young passengers,” Banner announces over comms. “Drop them to the right of our jet.”

Steve and Natasha respond with the affirmative. From there it’s quick work to unload the girls into the arms of SHIELD medical agents, fearful and compliant as they are. Natasha almost can’t tear herself away, but she forces herself to follow Steve without so much as a glance backwards. She’s fine.

Back on their own jet, she pushes past Cap; the man’s walking too goddamn slowly. The mission’s over, she needs to see Clint, and she wants a hug.

Fuck that last part.

“Clint?” she calls out, moving swiftly to the back of the jet. She knows, logically, that he’s okay, he’s fine, his injuries aren’t that severe, but it’s a struggle to force herself not to devolve into a panic. To his credit, Steve’s just a few steps behind her. “Barton!”

“He’s fine, you over-protective Dominants.” Tony’s smirk is a little too cheeky. “He’s on the med-jet; you must’ve walked right by him in your apparent haste to get back here.” He’s loving the irony.

Natasha’s eyes fly to the window- and shit, there goes the med-jet. Perfect. Just. Fucking. Perfect.

Steve notices her expression, giving Tony a reproaching look that’s met with a blinding grin. For once, Natasha realizes with a start, Tony doesn’t seem to be dropping. It makes sense- this mission wasn’t particularly difficult for him… he’d been their eyes on the roof, taken out a few goons and let out Banner. Practically a Level One task.

Still, Steve casts his gaze critically over the sub. “You okay?” He lays a hand on Tony’s shoulder, and the man leans into his touch with a quiet sigh and a nod. Natasha tears her eyes away from the scene. but not before she feels a stab of pure, unadulterated longing swelling up from deep within her.

She’s not going to do this. She won’t. Natasha wrenches open the door at the back of the plane where they keep the supplies, slinks down into the furthest seat, and rests her head against the cool metal. the vibrations from the plane taking off thrumming uncomfortably into her skull. Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.

She’s gotten through drops before, with the Red Room. It was a necessary skill, although one she hasn’t used in a good ten years or so. She’s going to drop no matter what, she knows that, but at least she can put up a front until she can get back to her room in the tower.

Maybe she’ll get through this after all.

====

Fuck, she’s dying.

There’s a current of distress running through her veins, leaving her miserable and tired. She’s so sore, and the weight in her stomach hasn’t settled- in fact, it’s gotten worse, fuck this all- and the teasing conversation she can barely make out coming from the main compartment of the jet isn’t helping anything. Her head hurts; her eyes hurt. She digs the heels of her palms into her eyelids, willing herself to calm down.

This is biology. Mind over matter. Come on, Romanoff.

Romanova.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova.

Red Room.

She’d looked exactly like those girls. Had she really been that afraid?

Her breathing begins to speed up as the memories flash before her: the handcuffs. The dormitory-style beds. Killing Rita. Killing Sveta. The church. The college. The children’s hospital. Наталья. Молодцы, Наталья. Well done, Natalia. New mission, Natalia.

New mission new mission new mission new mission new mission new-

Natasha’s heart is beating quickly, the unsteady thump-thump-thump slamming against her rib-cage almost painfully. She’s not only dropping; she’s crashing, the result of ten years of no drops reaching a crescendo and pouring over her.

Her muscles tense as Tony drops into the seat beside her. She hadn’t even heard him open the door.

“Tut, tut, no seatbelt?” She doesn’t point out his obvious lack of one. He’s close, but she wants touch. The relief she feels when he shift so their shoulders rub sickens her. “So all in all, what a fuck-truck of a mission.”

“Yeah,” she manages, glad that her voice doesn’t tremble.

“Fuck-truck of epic proportions.”

“Don’t need to convince me.” Natasha lets out a small laugh, which she’s surprised she can do because she can’t fucking breathe.

Tony gets up and stretches, but then he stills suddenly. There’s a rigid tension as he takes her in. “Romanoff…”

Ah, shit, he’s not going to leave. “Yes Stark?” she asks sweetly, deliberately meeting his gaze, firm and steady even though she’s anything but.

Without warning, he reaches down and grabs her hand, letting go just as quickly. “You’re cold.” It’s a statement.

“That a crime?” she manages. If he wants to keep talking, she’s not going to be able to. The effort it’s taking for her voice not to tremble is immense.

“Why are you shaking?” he demands.

No answer, just what she hopes is an intimidating glare back. She can’t muster up the presence of mind to keep talking.

It doesn’t work. Tony crouches down in front of her, his head at the same height as her chest. “What’s up, hot stuff?” He’s looking up at her with concern, and she knows he’s crouching because he sees her as a distressed Dom; he’s trying to give her comfort in the way a sub would, but all she wants is the touch and she grabs onto his shoulders. It only concerns him more. “Romanoff. Hate to say this, but you’re kind of worrying me here. What’s wrong?”

She lets out a shuddering breath, forcing herself to let him go.

“Are you okay?”

Natasha nods, unable to speak. The world around her is spinning on its axis, leaving her dizzy and off-kilter. The blood roars in her ears. She wants to go home. She wants Clint. Even though Clint probably won’t even want to see her after she lied to him…

“Are you- oh my God…” Tony’s voice is barely above a whisper. “Fuck, are you- you’re dropping?”

In response, Natasha closes her eyes and turns into the wall, too far down to care about composing a response.

“Natasha, what the hell?” Tony breathes. Then, in a moment that deserves way more credit than she usually gives him, he climbs back into the seat next to her and pulls her into him, his fingers rubbing at her shoulder.

She doesn’t fight the movement.

“How is this happening?” Tony’s confused, but he’s smart, so she doesn't bother croaking out an answer. “Okay, okay, that doesn’t matter. Easy, just breathe it out. You’re fine, just breathe.”

The touch is helping but the voice is all wrong, and it’s just adding to her splintered mind. Everything aches. He’s not a Dom; his voice is just something else she has to listen to, has to force herself to pick her way through, heavy and leaden.

Tony’s still speaking, doing his best to speak as low as possible. “Just hang in there, alright, I’ll-”

“Stark, everything good back there?” Steve’s voice crackles in over the intercom. Perceptive motherfucker. He probably saw them on the cockpit camera and thought Tony was dropping. Natasha’s never helped Tony through a drop before, reason enough to care. “Nat? Is he alright?”

Tony pulls back from her slightly. “Should I tell him?” he whispers. When she doesn’t answer- no, you can’t tell him, nobody can know- he runs a hand over her hair. “Natasha, can Cap know?”

For the love of all that is holy, she nods. What’s the point, anyways? Stark can’t keep a secret to save his life, and they’re all going to find out soon enough. More than that, she needs- she needs the balm of a soothing Dom to ease her aching, fractured mind.

Tony’s hit the intercom button. “Cap, Natasha’s dropping.”

There’s a few beats of dead-silence. They both wait, Natasha’s breaths coming ragged and gasping, before the intercom crackles again. This time he’s projecting to the entire jet; they can hear the faint echoes of the noise coming through in the main compartment. “Banner, I need one of you up here to fly the plane.” His voice is emotionless, and Natasha wonders dimly if he’s going to be pissed at her.

Half a minute later, the door to the cabin opens and closes almost silently, and then Steve is beside them.

“You’re sure?” he asks Tony, who replies with a see-for-yourself gesture. “Thank you for taking care of her.” Tony flushes with pride at the appreciation, even moreso when Cap gives him a quick squeeze. “Good boy.” The sub always was too easy around praise. “Go sit with Thor.”

“Aw, come on,” Tony whines.

“This isn’t a zoo exhibit for you to watch. Go.” His tone brooks no argument.

Tony pulls away from her and Natasha wants to cry because even his arm around her had been keeping her poised on the edge of the precipice, but now she feels like she’s suffocating, and she just wants Clint…

Then there’s a warm body next to her; another, heavier arm over her shoulders and curling around her back. Steve pulls her close, almost into his lap, his second arm resting gently on her neck, keeping her hot forehead tucked into his shoulder. Standard sub-hold, but it feels fucking incredible. She lets out a long, shuddering breath. “Hey, Nat. It’s okay, I got you. Easy, you’re okay, I got you.” He’s whispering soft assurances into her ear, and with every tremble of her limbs she can feel the distress seeping out of her, leaving her in the darkness with Steve’s soothing presence.

“There you go,” Steve praises- and fuck, now she’s reacting like Tony to some simple goddamned praise? Fuck being a sub, fuck how needy subs get when they drop- and his hands gently brush over her matted hair. “I’m here, you’re okay. I want you to keep breathing for me, alright? Just how you’re doing. That’s it, just like that.”

The tightness in Natasha’s chest slowly begins to untangle itself, twisting into a new sensation that it takes her a while to realize is security. For the first time in her life, the person with her during a drop is comforting her, not abusing her, and a warm feeling of safety begins to envelope her.

Steve’s hand rubs soothing circles on her lower back, his other hand still carding through her hair. “Easy, there you go… I’m here, don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. We can stay as long as you like…” She buries her face into him, the comfort almost too good to be true. Steve gives her an analyzing look. “You dropped pretty hard, didn’t you?”

A nod into his shoulder.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

She shakes her head, her eyes hot.

“Does Clint know?”

Natasha pauses, then nods again. Shakes her head. Nods. Unsure what he’s asking, and panic begins to well up because that means-

“Hey, hey, calm down, Nat.” Steve’s pitched his voice low. “I’m not mad. I promise I’m not angry, and you’re not in trouble.” An edge of steel to his tone. “Clint, I can’t guarantee.”

“He didn’t know!” she interjects, because Clint’s already going to be pissed as hell about lying to him, and if she gets him in trouble with Cap, he’ll kill her. “He didn’t know I would drop, I- I didn’t-”

“But he knew you’re a sub?”

“A little. Kind of…” she hedges.

“Coulson?”

“No.”

Steve makes an exasperated noise, but when her eyes fly up to his, he shakes his head and drops a light kiss onto her forehead. A look of surprise flits across his face, almost as if he wasn’t expecting her to let him, but she’s so starved of touch that she doesn’t give a shit. “We’re going to have to deal with this, you know that right?” She nods miserably. “But not right now.”

They stay like that for the rest of the flight, Natasha curled into Steve and cursing herself for her inability to pull away.

======

When the wheels touch down, Steve lets her make the first move to uncurl away from him. She’s embarrassed, not meeting his reassuring gaze. Tony’s obviously told Thor and Banner, from the way the two Doms are giving her her space. Natasha walks ahead of them all, refusing to look at either Steve or Tony as they step of the plane and-

Fuck.

Seriously, Tuesday the 19ths.

Clint’s standing there, a few bandages circling his arm and his head and a little pale, but otherwise appearing fine. Standing next to him is fucking Coulson. She shoots Steve a glare, knowing he must have called him, which the soldier steadfastly ignores.

Natasha can tell from the way Clint’s bouncing on the balls of his feet that he’s been briefed on the mission details, including what they found in the dorm room. He's worried she dropped, from the apprehensive glances he keeps shooting her and Coulson.

Well, it’s a little too fucking late to be worried about that.

“So, I take it we need to have a little discussion,” Coulson says. Natasha feels a well of guilt bubble up in the pit of her stomach. She quashes it down. Clint’s entire body sags, his fear confirmed.

Thor nods happily, seemingly uncaring about the sombre mood in the room. “I agree! Natasha’s Bearing has changed. Shall we discuss now, perhaps, over drinks?”

“Uh, why don’t you and Tony come with me…” Banner pushes the god into the next room, and practically has to drag Tony along with them.

“Why us?” Stark whines.

“Because this is about Natasha, her handler, her team leader, and the one person who obviously knew something. Come on, Tony…”

And they’re gone.

Coulson doesn’t beat around the bush. “A sub, Natasha? Is this true?”

She nods. Goddamn it, she’s fucking non-verbal today. “Yes,” she bites out.

Coulson’s normally-calm demeanor is crumbling, his jaw clenched. “How could you not tell any of us?!”

“Sorry,” Natasha replies automatically, moving on auto-pilot to take a step behind Steve. She’s still in the final jittery stages of a drop, and she can’t take him yelling at her. Clint glares at Coulson.

“I don’t even- how?” The switch rounds on Clint. “Have you been helping her through drops? Why has she never dropped on the jet after a mission like Stark?”

“I- no,” Clint stammers. Natasha wants to bang her head against the wall, knowing he’s just gotten them both in a lot more trouble. He hastens to cover it up. “I mean, she’s never dropped before. On the jet, I mean.”

“I gathered. I’m asking why.”

“I don’t know, ask her!” And Clint fucking throws her under the bus like the damn traitor he is.

“Natasha?”

“I don’t know,” she lies smoothly. Never mind both Coulson and Steve’s number one rule for the team is no lying. She can deal with that later. “I usually have it under control.” She pauses, weighing her words. “Red Room taught me techniques.”

“Funny.” Coulson’s voice is icy Dom, and she shrinks back involuntarily. “I would’ve thought a simple-enough evacuation, albeit a surprise one, couldn’t have ruined that excelled control, then.”

Steve glances between her and Coulson, then lays a calming hand on her arm. She wrenches away from him. “Okay, okay. This obviously isn’t going anywhere. Barton, we know she hasn’t been dropping. There’s no way Coulson would have missed every single one in the last ten years.”

Clint shrugs sullenly.

“How’s she been doing it?” Coulson barks. “I need an answer, now!”
“I don’t know!”

“Barton, you’re only making it worse for yourself!”

A pause.

“Substop,” Clint admits through gritted teeth.

The room is silent. Then-

“Substop?!?” Steve explodes. “You’ve been giving her Substop?”

Clint rushes to defend them. “It wasn’t so bad when we first-”

“That was ten years ago!” Coulson is furious, his breathing heavy. “It was still illegal!”

“Yeah, but it was just considered a soft drug, so-”

“The crackdown started six years ago because of all the risks, you know that!”

“I know, I know, but she didn’t have any side effects and we both thought-”

“Enough.” Coulson swings around to Natasha. “And you ran out?”

She nods, causing Clint to glower at her.

“Seriously Nat? You lied to me!”

Natasha’s head is spinning; it’s bad enough to have a Dom angry with you on a normal day, but coming out of a major stress-induced drop to have a Dom and two pissed off switches yelling at her is making it difficult to think.

“I’m sorry,” she tries, a steady mantra of they’re mad they’re mad they’re mad pulsing in her mind. “I didn’t want- I thought…”

“Don’t even try, Barton,” Coulson snaps. “Her lying to you about being out of Substop is not the main issue here. In fact, it’s not even a minor issue. It’s not even an issue.”

“I’m sorry.” Clint rubs at his jaw, the characteristic hunched posture of a sub in trouble overtaking him. Natasha knows exactly how he’s feeling, the guilt and the acute disappointment swirling in her own gut, not to mention the hard lump in her throat. “I’m honestly sorry.”

Fuck being a sub.

Coulson sighs, laying a hand on the back of Clint’s neck. “Okay.” He steels his shoulders. “You want to deal with this now?”

And when Clint nods miserably, Coulson gestures to the elevator. “Go on. Your quarters. I’ll meet you in five.”

“Yes sir”.

Natasha feels the familiar rush of relief, just as she does every time Coulson or Steve punishes Clint. It’s widely considered an abusive practice to leave a guilty sub, the pain and self-flagellation a facet of emotional abuse as laid out in ‘Sub Rights’ volume II. The Red Room had done that to her, as punishment… she clearly remembers the anger over minor occurrences, with no respite for weeks, until the sub in question was practically insane from the guilt.

The picture frame on the coffee table is shaking- earthquake, she thinks, until she realizes it’s her own trembling obscuring her vision. She’s shaking, when had she started shaking?

“Natasha,” comes Steve’s low soothing voice, and she’s trembling so much she’s making the two of them shake. “Calm down, I got you.”

Coulson glances at his watch. “I have to get to Clint. Can you deal with her?” He motions to the elevator. “If she needs it, you can send her up to me once I’m done with Clint.”

Steve replies, she knows he does because she sees his mouth move, but she’s too busy trying to ground herself to hear him. She knows what he’s going to do. He’s going to yell at her about some made-up offense- or even this offense, because God knows she deserves it- and then leave her, and fuck, she knows that’s not logical, but she can’t help it and she thought she was over this, but these fucking sub emotions…

Steve takes one look at her face and leads them to the couch, pulling her completely into his lap this time and beginning his reassurances again. “You’re okay, you’re okay… I’ve got you. I got you, just relax, you’re here with me…”

It feels so fucking good to be wrapped up in a Dom’s arms, to have a clear voice in her head to cut through all the sharp pieces.

It’s a while before Natasha calms down, and the first thing out of her mouth is “I’m sorry” because she feels like she has to make up for it.

He shushes her. “No, you don’t need to apologize. I understand.”

“Are you angry?” She hates how needy the question makes her sound, but fuck, she is needy. She feels like Tony. Fucking sub biology.

He hesitates. “I’m disappointed in both of you. Not mad.”

“I’m sorry,” she repeats.

Steve nods this time. “How do you feel?”

“Like shit,” she mumbles, and he barks out a short laugh.

“I bet you do.” He lifts her wrist to his mouth and kisses it gently. “Nat, do you feel bad, though?”

Her breath catches in her throat, because what he’s really asking is Nat, do you need me to punish you? And no Dom has ever, ever thought about what she needs or what she wants. It’s not like subs like being spanked. Fuck, she hates it. It’s embarrassing and vulnerable and she’s sore afterwards but the alleviation of the guilt is what matters. And the comfort afterwards, but she’s never had that. If they were feeling merciful in the Red Room when she fucked up, she was thrown unceremoniously over her trainer’s knee, his hand came down a dozen times and she was up again, back into the ring, face streaked with tears. Or, you know, she had her arm broken for screwing up. Among other things.

Steve takes her silence as the affirmative, and makes to stand up, but Natasha clings to his suit. “No.”

“No, you don’t feel bad?” He’s taken aback, she can tell.

She does, but that shit feeling that comes after a stress-induced drop. She feels awful about lying to Clint. Steve can’t deal with that. The Substop… not so much. In her mind, it was a necessary evil. She never had any orders not to take it, and isn’t everything they do illegal and dangerous anyways? So she shakes her head. Clint’s upset, but her moral compass just swings further south than his, she supposes.

Steve wraps his arm around her again and they just sit there. Natasha knows this is a new complication. She hasn’t dropped in ten fucking years, and now she’ll be like Tony. Weak. Her emotions are already all over the place, linked to what Coulson, Clint and Steve think of her, and it’s been one day.

Fuck being a sub.

Chapter Text

Natasha’s still curled up against Steve, her splitting headache slowly abating. Her mind, previously hot and splintered and laying in ripped tatters, gently sews its pieces back together, her frazzled nerves quietly cooling until eventually, she’s floating in a blank timeless plane. And then she’s in darkness, listening to Steve’s soothing voice, even though the dull, achy weight in her stomach prevents her from relaxing fully. She drifts in and out of alertness, appreciating his hand on her head, and the weight against her back, until eventually she finds herself lying against him purely for the sensation. 

The second she comes to this realization, she jolts up. Steve’s hand lifts instantly. 

“Hey there.” His smile is warm and welcoming. “Come back down to the real world?”

Reflexively, she twists to look at the clock on the microwave- and shit, it’s been 50 minutes that she’s been curled into Steve like an infant. She shouldn’t be surprised, really… Regular drops usually take at least 15 minutes or so of boneless drifting, and she was coming out of a stress-induced drop so strong she has a suspicion it could be classified as sub-shock (a fact that she refuses to think about).

Steve follows her line of vision and chuckles, the vibrations traveling down his body and into hers. “Yeah, we’ve been here a while. Are you feeling better?”

She can’t quite put a finger on what it is that causes a spike of irritation to peak inside her gut. “Yeah,” she answers after a beat.

Not sensing her change in mood, Steve pats her back. “You sure?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good… Hey, so, if you’re feeling up to it, we could discuss the rules now?” He sees her expression. “Or later, if you prefer. Whenever.”

“… I’m sorry, discuss what?”

“Rules….”

“What. Rules,” she enunciates each word deliberately. The Red Room had rules. Don’t ask for more. Don’t disobey your trainers. And above all else, never fail.

“They’re simple enough,” Steve explains. “Don’t lie, don’t risk your life unnecessarily, you know the type; I’ve heard you telling Tony. I just thought you might like a refresher.”

Natasha jerks out of his grip. “Don’t you dare,” she hisses, knowing her face is a mask of the venom she’s feeling.

“Dare what?” He’s confused, his hands up, palms out… placating. “Are you-” She’s up, off the couch, eyes blazing, “What are you doing? Nat?”

“Don’t you fucking dare talk to me like I’m a child!” she spits. “I’m a sub; I’m not five!”

“I didn’t-”

“You did.” He’s still shaking his head, and Natasha growls out, “You did.” She’s so beyond pissed off, she can barely think through the hot rage. This is exactly why she didn’t want to present as sub- okay, no, that technically wasn’t the main reason at all, but it was a reason. 

“I didn’t mean to.” Sincerity shining in his eyes, the fucker. “I apologize if I came across as patronizing at any point.”

That was… nice enough. She nods curtly. “Fine.” She suddenly remembers Clint with a start and a new rush of overwhelming guilt- she’ll have to go talk to him. 

“Your rules are entirely up to you,” Steve starts again, and oh, fuck, this is him making an effort not to be patronizing? “Tony’s are different to Clint’s.”

Shit, this conversation is giving her a headache. She’s tired, and she has to go sort things out with Clint, and he won’t drop it. “Cap,” she’s close to growling, but not quite, not yet, “I’m not living by anybody’s fucking rules.”

“You don’t have to live by them,” he corrects gently. “This isn’t that type of 24/7 thing… unless you want it to be. You don’t have to eat or sleep according to our specifications; you just have to comply with basic things. Like not killing a team-mate, for example.” He’s going for a joke, but it falls flat. Should’ve read the audience, smart-ass. 

“Because I’m a sub?”

The frown on his face reeks of pity. “Look, I know this role is new to you. And you hate it, I know. I get it. I know how the KGB treated subs…” Her face tightens at the mention. “We don’t have to discuss this now… or you could have this conversation with Coulson or Clint, if you prefer-”

“Steve.” Natasha’s tone is icy cold, her insides constricting automatically at Clint’s name, filling with acute anguish. “If you, Coulson, Clint, Thor, Banner, or the damn President write down a list of the most reasonable rules to ever exist, or a list of things I don’t do anyways by choice, I will make it my mission to do every single thing on the list. Multiple times. Daily.”

“This is for your own benefit.” Steve’s not yelling, nor is he angry, but she’s acutely aware of his frustration. “It protects your mental health.”

“Fuck that,” she snarls. “All subs are different.” She’s not too different it seems, because she can’t shake this fucking pit inside her.

“Okay,  alright.” Steve pitches his voice low. “Sit down again. We can wait for dinner to be ready; I won’t bring this up again. Come on, come sit down.”

The steady baritone flows over her and she wants to comply, so badly it scares her. Thank God subs could only be put under with drugs, trauma, or permission. Natasha wrenches herself out of that headspace, her breathing hard and fast. He did not just do that. He’d better not have just tried to-

What the hell are you doing?

Steve looks like he’s walking on eggshells. “Calming you down.”

“Do I look like I want to be calmed down?!” Subs were more responsive to authoritative orders; how fucking dare he try to get her to listen by using her biology against her? A flush of raw embarrassment tinges her cheeks, lined with betrayal. 

“Natasha…” Steve groans, running a hand through his hair. “Throw me a line here. I’m trying to help you.”

“Listen to me, Rogers,” she spits his last name out, prowling closer to him. “If you ever try to dom me again, I’ll call the Subs’ Rights people. And every journalist I know. Wouldn’t that make a great headline? I can just see it now: America’s hero caught abusing sub team-mate!”

Steve’s face is ashen, the implication too awful. “I didn’t abuse you!”

“You tried to dom me,” Natasha says acerbically.

“Nat, we’re team-mates. I dommed through your drop; I didn’t realize it would be a problem.” After a tense moment he adds, “I dom for Clint and Tony all the time.”

“You’d like to do that with me, wouldn’t you?” she says with contempt, a new idea forming. It’s cruel, and it’s not true, but if it’ll get him off her back…  “Two sex toys not enough for you? You want a third to get your rocks off?”

“Excuse me?” he asks, voice hard.

She moves in closer to where he’s sitting, and gives him her best smoldering fuck-me eyes, one hand on each of his shoulders. “You want to tie me up and fuck me senseless? Is that why you’re so interested in making me a sub?”

“You are a sub.” She hears an edge of steel. “And no. That’s not why. Nat you know that’s not why.”

Natasha lets out a throaty laugh, her face close to his. Of course she knows. But: “Do I? Because here’s what I think. I think you want some fresh meat. If I give you a good hard fuck, will you stop all this rules shit?” She shoves him away; he’s so steady, he rocks back only a few inches. “Probably not, huh? Damn perverts, all of you. Did Barnes enjoy getting on his knees for you?”

“Natasha, that’s enough!” He’s standing now, eyes fire.

She’s smaller than him, but it doesn’t feel like it as she stalks into his personal space. “I promise you, Rogers,” she hisses venomously, “You ever try to dom me- you evertry to get near me again, I’ll fuck you up so bad even your precious Peggy won’t recognize you.”

It’s a low blow, and Steve’s face shows it. She doesn’t bother turning around, doesn’t bother with an apology as she strides away. 

=====

“Do you have something you’d like to say to me?” Coulson asks. In his hand, Fury watches her with his arms crossed, face pixel-perfect on the latest StarkTab. 

No. She does have things to say to Clint, but that’s neither here not there. 

“Not really, no.”

Coulson raises an eyebrow. “So that’s how you’re going to play this?”

“I’d like to go back on Substop.” No bullshit. Straight and to the point. 

Her handler’s face reddens. Before he can say anything, Fury butts in: “Agent Romanoff, contrary to what you seem to believe, your position within SHIELD is not immune to goddamn international law.”

“I don’t know if you noticed,” Natasha says, “but I break the law on basically every mission. Federal as well as international.” Hypocrite is implied. 

“And I would overlook that,” Fury agrees, “but you being on that drug is not only about yourself. It puts civilians and your partner in jeopardy.”

Clint,” Coulson says, and the name sends a flurry of distress up her spine. She almost sways at the throbbing in her head, but doesn’t. “You could have told me. I would’ve helped you adjust.”

“I didn’t need help adjusting.” Natasha fixes both of them with a steady gaze. “I don’t now either. I’m doing fine.” Coulson snorts, no doubt aware of her little… tussle earlier, with Steve, but Fury chooses not to call her on it. “SHIELD has no say over what I do in my personal life. We don’t even drug test.”

“Be that as it may, Romanoff, you are not going to remain an employee of this agency if you go back on that damned drug!” Fury barks. 

She looks to Coulson for help, but the man shakes his head. “I can’t in good conscience allow you to go back on missions. The side-effects are-”

“I’ve experienced none.”

“And why was there a huge pushback six years ago and not earlier?” Coulson asks rhetorically. “The effects are long-term. Sudden. You don’t see them coming, and once they do, it’s too late.”

“It’s my body,” Natasha starts to say, voice hard, but she’s cut off by Fury:

“You can spin that wheel all you want,” he says firmly, his tone as authoritative as she’s heard. “You go back on that fucking drug and you no longer have a position at SHIELD. Have I made myself clear?” She clenches her jaw, refusing to comply.  “Romanoff!”

“Yes, sir,” she grits out. 

“Glad to hear it. Coulson, I’ll be seeing you later.” And with that, he signs off.

Coulson watches her, disappointment evident in his features. She’s unhappy, because she wishes she could give him more, be a better person for him, but she can’t. She almost wishes she could force herself to feel bad. 

“I apologize…” Natasha starts, the words cloying in her mouth- even though she does mean them, just not in the same way Coulson wants. “This isn’t what I intended.”

Coulson sighs, his fingers pinching his nose, then sliding across to rub his temples. “I expected better. I really did.”

“I know.”

“And you have no regrets?”

“None.” Not entirely true, but close enough that it is, basically. This is what it feels like to be a sub- the pounding head, aching body, hot eyes, miserable dizziness that comes from a sin… to be in someone else’s control, to have someone hold power over how she feels, is not something she would ever wish to relive. 

Coulson’s almost pleading, begging her to understand. “Your life, Natasha.” 

“Is mine to risk.”

“And Clint’s?”

She swallows. “Is not. But he made his choice. I didn’t force his hand.”

“He was punished for that.”

“And I’m sure he felt lighter for it.” The unspoken statement is clear: Clint felt guilty. She does not.

That’s the whole issue, isn’t it?

“And the civilians?” Coulson presses. “Their lives, their consent?”

“Better me to rescue them than nobody,” Natasha says calmly. This isn’t something she hasn’t thought about. Perhaps, it’s her regret. 

Coulson lets out a long sigh. “I’m furious with you right now.”

“I know.”

“And disappointed.”

“I realize that.” She doesn’t offer anything more.

“Okay,” Coulson says. 

A pause. “Are we done?”

“Go.” He’s angry, face pinched in hard lines, but she doesn’t care. 

Time to track down Clint. 

===

She finds him in the kitchen, rummaging through a cupboard, probably for Cheetos or some other disgusting food. The sight of him makes her stomach lurch, a hard lump forming in her throat. Logically, this is Clint, and he’s probably going to forget about it in a day. In her mind? Doesn’t matter.

“Clint.” When he looks her way, she tips her head to the side. Follow me. 

Soundlessly, he follows her up the fire-escape stairs, all the way to his quarters. If she wasn’t attuned to his movements through years of Red Room training coupled with a decade-long partnership, she wouldn’t have known he trailed her. 

“Why are we here?” he asks once Natasha pushes him into his living room and shuts the door. He moves closer to her, about to touch her, but she moves backwards swiftly, even though a grounding touch is all she wants right now.

But no. She needs to get through this. Needs the deep layer of misery to clear, so she can go back to normal. She knows from her past that the longer she waits, the more debilitating the internal torment becomes, and she can’t afford to not be thinking straight. 

“Listen, Phil called me. I know you and him had a… disagreement. And with Fury” Clint’s eyes are so understanding that it hurts to look at him. He shouldn’t be looking at her like that. Not after what she did… “Screw ‘em. You want to go back on Substop, we can do that. We can go freelance, we won’t even-”

“I need- I want you to punish me.”

“You- What?” No answer. The clock ticks obnoxiously in the pin-drop silence. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. “For what?”

“Lying. Getting you in shit with Coulson. Endangering your life. Dragging you into my mess,” she reels off, rote, almost practiced. Trying to sound like she hasn’t been cataloguing, in her head, for the last few hours, and failing miserably. “Take your pick.”

Clint gapes at her. “You can’t be serious.”

Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Natasha simply stares back at him, unblinking. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if he doesn’t agree- already she feels unbalanced at the thought.

Clint groans and runs his hand through his hair. “No.” 

Her stomach drops. Twists. She raises her chin. “Need I remind you that you’re obligated to?”

He eyes her, taking in her posture, confident and erect. “Would it help if I told you I’m over it?”

“Does it ever?” she retorts. Stupid question. 

Clint’s sigh echoes in the quiet. “I guess it doesn’t. Hell, Nat, you don’t do things by halves, do ya?” Shaking his head, he moves towards the couch. “Alright then. Come here.” He’s already slipping into his dom persona, even though she notices him wince as he sits. 

“No.”

“Changed your mind?”

Natasha shakes her head slowly, before disappearing into his room. A few seconds later, she emerges, carrying one of his belts.

The second he sees it dangling from her hand, Clint’s off the couch. “No.”

“Stop being a baby.”

No.” There’s an edge to his voice that she’s rarely heard directed at her. Well, good. Better he learn now that presenting as a sub doesn’t make her a porcelain doll. “You want to be punished? Get over my lap. You want to be whipped? Find someone else.”

“Sub Rights’ Act. Sixth Amendment. Section Two.” Natasha doesn’t want to do this to him; she really doesn’t. But there is no way in hell she’s about to lay across his knees like a docile little sub. “Denying atonement is considered abuse and will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.”

“I know what it says!” he growls. “I refuse.”

“Tough.” Natasha flings the belt at him; he catches it deftly, fingers curling around the cool leather. Without saying another word, she turns and bends over the dining table, her back perfectly arched. She doesn’t buy the modern bullshit spouted by Tony, Coulson, Banner- hell, even Steve. Subs have no power: it’s a fact drummed into her ceaselessly. If she’s going to be punished, it’s going to be in a way that for once, she has control over. There will be no humiliation, no broken bones, no blood. But no vulnerability, either.

Her way.

The clock continues obnoxiously. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. 

Natasha can practically hear him thinking.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

There’s a rustle behind her. 

Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick-

A sudden whistle and then- crack! A line of burning pain sears into her skin. 

Natasha gives no outwards reaction, although the relief spreading across her chest is instantaneous. She curses the emotion. 

Clint knows her well; “Count,” he orders after a few seconds. He wants to use her voice to tell her limit? He could have fun with that. Natasha could keep her voice steady and clear reporting to Coulson with blood dripping from a knife wound in her torso and a bullet lodged in her shoulder. This isn’t about to break her.

“One,” she says. Then, just to piss him off: “Sir.”

Crack! 

“Two, sir.” The knotted guilt in her core is dissipating, the lump in her throat clearing. Good. 

Clint’s breathing harder than her, and even though she can’t see him, she knows his expression: eyes narrowed, brow furrowed, angry and frustrated. 

A whistling sound, and then the belt strikes her again, twice in quick succession. Her head is clearing with the knowledge of atonement. 

“Three. Four. Sir.” 

The fifth stroke whips against her upper thighs; she intakes a tiny breath at the new sting, and instantly hears the clang of the belt buckle hit the floor. Damn him.

“We’re done.”

“I didn’t even count it.”

“I said we’re done.”

She would argue, but she’s far from a masochist and the internal anguish has dissipated entirely, so she pushes herself off the table and stands in one fluid motion. Clint moves towards her- as if to hug her- and Natasha sidesteps out of the way. 

“Tasha…”

“Thank you, Barton.” She regards him coolly, pleased to see his demeanor stumble. 

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Clint stares at her, crossing his arms, his thumbs up. “Is this what you’re going to be like from now on?”

“I apologize, sir. I didn’t realize it would upset you.”

He runs a hand through his hair, distress making him tug at it.. “Nat, come on. Did I say something insulting?”

“No, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me that!” he growls. “Stop it. Fuckin’ Christ, you’re so damn annoying.”

“Am I?” She doesn’t care. That’s what she tells herself, anyways. “Good thing I’m not your sub then isn’t it?”

Piercing blue eyes dig into her own. “You know what you’re doing. I know what you’re doing. Stop.”

“I’m not doing anything.” Belatedly: “Sir.”

“Nat, I swear to God…”

She raises an eyebrow, the corner of her mouth tugging upwards. “Should I bend over again, Barton?”

Clint grits his teeth, his jaw clenched tightly. “Fine. Fine. Okay, cut off your own nose. Go for it. Have it your way.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“We’re done here then?” Natasha asks, a mask of politeness coating the undercurrent of rebellion. 

“Guess we are.” Clint doesn’t seem mad. He just looks tired, and concerned, and so damn defeated that she wants to reassure him. No, she’d have wanted to reassure him. This Clint, this authority figure named Barton, who alone held the power to change her internal workings… this one holds too much power for comfort. 

She nods once, sharp yet careless, and strides out of the room. 

===

Thirty minutes later, she slips into the kitchen, hoping to grab some food and get out without anyone noticing. Just as she’s grabbed a container of salad- and put a slice of leftover pizza in the microwave because she’s only human- and closed the refrigerator door, Tony ambles in, eating an apple.

“What’s up, Widow?” Tony smiles widely at her. “Come down for some sub-grub?”

She refuses to dignify that with a response.

“That’s the most disgusting excuse for lunch I’ve ever seen. Salad? Really? Are you trying to be a walking cliche, or does it just happen?”

Still no answer.

After a second, she notices Stark’s grinning in a not-so-innocent manner. “So….” He begins, with the air of an old lady about to regale her geriatric buddies with some scandalous gossip at her weekly seniors’ Bingo night. “I heard you’ve been getting into fights.”

Natasha glares at him, stone cold. “Have you.” It’s a statement, not inviting further elaboration. Of course, a sideways glance is an opportunity to engage in Tony Stark’s world.

“Yup. Cap looked about ready to punch a hole in the wall earlier.” She feels a flash of… something, akin to satisfaction, but bordering on vindication.

“Wow. You’re more caught up on Tower gossip than TMZ. Well done.”

“You wound me with your sarcasm.” Tony places a hand over his heart, clutching dramatically at his chest. Natasha only rolls her eyes. 

“Look Stark, I don’t have a bone to pick with you,” she says carefully, “so if you leave me alone it’ll work out better for the both of us.”

“Hey, I’m allowed in my own kitchen, aren’t I?” he says- and he does have a point, she supposes, even if his presence is making her want to strangle something. “Wow, wait,  I just realized, I could throw you out if I wanted. You’d better stay in line, Widow.”

“You’re telling me that’s never occurred to you before?”

His lips quirk up; of course it has. “I’ve never voiced it before.”

“Same thing.” The microwave beeps. Natasha retrieves her pizza. 

Tony sniffs it approvingly, causing her to wrinkle her nose and yank it away from him. “Pizza! Well, that’s marginally better, I suppose.” His warm brown eyes raking over her hold more concern than she’d like. “You need food after a drop like that. Trust me, been there, done that, bought out the t-shirt store.”

Natasha struggles with what to reply. Her first instinct is to bite out “You would know, the poster boy for unhealthy coping”, or “Keep your nose out of my fucking business”, but at the last moment she cools and settles on a milder: “That’s not something you need to concern yourself with.”

“Just lending some perspective.”

“It’s not needed.”

“Noted, for the future.” For Tony, he’s being almost… cooperative? “Drops are off-limit. JARVIS, write it down. If I so much as mention the word around Miss Russian super-spy, douse me in a jet of acid.”

“I’ll have to object to that, sir,” comes the affronted AI’s reply.

“Huh. Maybe you’re right. Batrachotoxin is more vogue nowadays.”

If JARVIS had a human form, Natasha’s sure he would be rolling his eyes. “I would be happy to cut you off in a less dangerous and potentially life-threatening manner, if you insist.”

“Ugh. Buzzkill. Whatever, we’ll discuss it later,” Tony replies. 

Natasha feels entirely off-kilter, and it’s not a feeling she particularly relishes. “Uh, alright. Well. As enjoyable”- she stresses the word pointedly, obviously meaning the opposite of fun- “as this has been, I’m going to take this up.”

“Hey, wait.” Stark’s vibrating in that too-pleased-with-himself way. “I just had another thought.”

“What’s that.” Natasha doesn’t think it’s possible to say something with any more apathy.

“When you,” he points to her, “and I,” at himself, “are congregated in a room together, like so, the room we are in automatically becomes the sub hub.” She sucks in a breath. “Come on, that’s a little funny. I thought it was funny. Give me something here, Romanoff!” He shakes his head, feigning disappointment. “At least JARVIS appreciates me.”

“I do, sir.”

“See?”

Natasha’s pulse is quick, her head spinning. She’s not like him. She is not like Stark. She leaps to her go-to defense mechanism. “Good boy,” she purrs. “Well done, you made a joke!”

Stark’s entire posture instantly fills with tension, although he remains still. “Y’know, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, coming from a fellow submissive.”

“Smart boy, clever boy.” The words drip with venom.

“Yeah, still not feeling it.”

“At least I don’t drop to my knees at the slightest lick of praise,” Natasha says, eyes traveling derisively over his body. 

“So?” Tony demands, his neck stiff. “Am I supposed to be like you?”

“Good boy,” Natasha says again, lashes heavy. “Keeping your temper, nice job.”

The vein on Stark’s neck is strained, standing out against his tight skin. “Keep it up, Romanoff, and you’ll find yourself needing an ass-whoopin’ sooner than later.” It catches her by surprise, and she curses herself for displaying a flash of her reaction because ah, fuck, he spotted it.

Tony’s mouth drops open, jaw slack, before he quickly recovers. “You already did!” he crows, and okay, she can’t really begrudge it with what she said to him but goddamn it, he sounds so fucking delighted. “Golden girl got her ass handed to her finally, eh?” He shakes his head, lips thinning. “Can’t say I’m surprised, if I’m being honest here.”

“If I tell you you’re a perfect little sub will you leave?” she hisses. 

“See, that,” a finger’s wagging in her face, “Right there, that’s why. You and me, huh?” He smirks, coming across less calculated than he’d intended, because he’s thrown, and she can tell. “Two peas in a pod. Or two subs in a tower, as the case may be.”

She leaps for him, slamming him agains the wall, forearm pressed against his throat. What was that Steve had said? ‘Don’t kill a team-mate’? Well, she probably won’t kill Stark, so he won’t have anything to complain about. Her arm tightens. Probably

It’s a familiar pose, except her trainer was usually on the other end, his cold arm bruising her thin neck for a move not perfected. Was she like Stark, she wonders? Weak and powerless? Is she like Stark?

“Let- go!” Tony chokes out, eyes wide. “JARVIS, a little help here?” The floor tile beside them opens up and she glimpses pieces of his suit being lifted up; before he has time to put anything on, she drops him with a sneer, breathing heavy and ragged. “You out of your fucking mind, Romanoff?”

“Maybe,” she replies coolly. “But better that than a sub like you, right?” A sub who people can control. A sub who needs a dom. A sub who’s weak

“You have issues.”

“Don’t we all?”

And she’s gone, leaving Tony rubbing his neck, alone in the kitchen. 

 

Chapter Text

———————————

December 1992. Russia.

———————————

 

“Все сабмиссивы к главной учебной комнате..” All submissives report to training. The intercom goes silent, then crackles again. “Теперь!” Now!

Natasha doesn’t know why they don’t just call them by name. There are only two subs left within the remaining fourteen widows. Katya is four years her senior. Natasha is barely eight.

But already she is one of the best.

She sprints through the cracked hallways, meeting Katya right outside the main training hall. They nod wearily at each other, and push through the doors. Both are hoping this is a physical session. Those are the easiest to deal with. It’s a simple matter of being worked to the point of exhaustion, to a point where Katya once passed out, to leave them shaky and vulnerable.  

Neither drops during these physical sessions. They used to, but not anymore. Before, Natasha and Katya hadn’t even known what was happening to them, only that their heads pounded and they couldn’t walk straight, and their hearts were racing, and they clung onto each other because nobody else would touch them.

Then it had become clear.  

’During a subdrop, the mind becomes hazy, the outside senses dulled,’ Madam Polina Dmitrievna had explained in Seduction Class. ‘A sub can only be dropped willingly, or by trauma. With permission, a drop is pleasant; I’m told it feels like floating. A stress-induced drop is hellish for the sub, and almost impossible for most subs to work through alone.’ She’d given Katya and Natasha a steely, pointed look as the other girls sniggered wildly. ‘So you are aware, when interacting with others. Of course, we expect better from you.’

  Instructors Yakov Yuryvich and Anatoly Viktorovich are there today, with Madam Polina Dmitrievna. “English today,” she says, her lip curled back. “Natalia, with Instructor Yakov. Yekaterina, here. I will be reading progress reports.”  

Natasha runs to the far end of the hall obediently, keeping her eyes downcast. She hates working with Instructor Anatoly, who takes a sadistic pleasure in harming the girls, but Instructor Yakov scares her the most. He will not lash out senselessly, but when he does, there is a vacant merciless violence about him. As if he sees right through her.

“доброе утро, Яков Юрийвич,” she greets, stupidly. He slaps her across the face instantly; thankfully with his weaker arm.

Instructor Anatoly looks up. “Polina Dmitrievna told you English. You are a bad girl. A bad sub.”

  “I am sorry.”

“Begin,” Instructor Yakov orders, gesturing to the punching bag.

And she does.

 

XXX

 

Submissive widows are not permitted touch. The girls are ruthless, but they have groups of allies and alliances. They don’t care about each other, of course- that would be stupid, and weak- but it’s for safety. Sometimes the younger ones have not yet had the dangers of attachment drilled into them, and they form tentative friendships.

But nobody has ever gone near Natasha, or Katya. The punishment would be far too severe. They are both excellent operatives, Natasha knows it, or they would not have been kept here this long, but their biology is a weapon that can be turned against them.

They will have no dependence on touch, Polina Dmitrievna says. No dependence on praise. If they drop (when they drop), they must get through it themselves.

And they do, they do.  

It is torture, but they do.

 

XXX

 

When they finally make their way back to the dormitories after a physical session where they have not dropped, they pray the girls are not there. Sometimes, Polina Dmitrievna lets the others out on purpose.

All doms feel a desire to protect and care for any distressed sub around them, they were told in their Western Culture class. You must be aware of this. You can use it to your advantage.

This was something they needed to be taught, because none of the doms in training felt any sort of desire to protect Natasha, that was for sure.

When they drag themselves into the room, it’s not empty, and Natasha wants to cry. Elya is there, and Nastya, and Dasha.  

“Look at this!” Katya and Natasha whip around. Sveta is behind them, just entering. “I was wondering why we were let out so early.”

Sveta is the oldest, almost fourteen. She’s been on two real missions- for training, but the documents she retrieved were valuable, and the guards she took out real. Elya is Katya’s age, and Dasha is eleven. Nastya is only a year older than Natasha.

Sveta hates Natasha, because Natasha embarrasses her in the gym when they spar. She’s never beaten Sveta, but it takes Sveta long enough to throw her down that the instructors are always getting antsy.

“What’s wrong, Natashenka,” Sveta purrs, grabbing Natasha’s hair- and Natasha is too exhausted to do anything but follow the insistent tugging, as Elya and Dasha grab onto Katya. Sveta throws Natasha onto the cold concrete floor.

Not only do the doms in training not feel any sort of desire to protect their sub counterparts, they actively love to torment them, to exert any small measure of control that they can have access to. By, for instance, trying to force the subs into a stress-induced drop when they’re so physically and emotionally spent that they’re just teetering on the edge.

For anyone, even a Neutral, a grueling and painful training session like what Katya and Natasha have just been put through, with no food, water, and very little sleep beforehand, would leave them sensitive and emotionally vulnerable. For the two young subs, ‘sensitive and emotionally vulnerable’ translates into, ‘a little more stress, and down we go’.

“Come here, Nastya. Look at her, how pathetic she is. You think this thing,” Sveta nudges Natasha with her toe, “can complete any mission? A dom will say, Natashka, tell me who you work for and I will tell you what a good girl you are…” She kicks the small body at her feet. “And this one will spill all our secrets.”

“That’s not how it works!” Natasha yells, punching Sveta’s toe. She’s so tired she can barely see straight, but she lands it evenly. Her head is pounding. Her entire body is sore and tired and she has training today, with Valya and Lina, and she’s easily better than them both but maybe not like this, not with how bone-dead she feels…

Sveta, humiliated, grabs a fistful of Natasha’s hair, her Russian accent slipping through. “You have no right to speak to me like that! You weak little sub, Natalia, you see what I do to you…”

And now it will start, what has happened before so many times. Sveta won’t touch her, no, but she will curse at her and verbally abuse her and Katya until the two of them drop, and then stand and laugh.

“Girls.”

Instructors Nikolei and Yakov are at the door.

The six girls look up; Natasha feels a soaring relief, because instructors at the door mean schedules have been shifted, and they need to be somewhere.

Nikolei barks, “Elvira! Daria! Yekaterina! I require you in the hall. Your class is waiting.  

“Yes, Nikolei Mikhailovich.”

He waits for the three girls to scurry past him, reaching out to hit Dasha as she does, for using his name and patronymic. “English today!”

“Sorry, Instructor Nikolei.”

He follows them out, shoving Dasha forwards again for moving too slow. On English days, they are not to call their instructors as they would in Russian, with first and middle name; it’s a bad habit, Polina Dmitrievna says, that would give their origin away instantly.

“Anastasia, Instructor Anatoly is about to start your class in weapons room B.” Nastya is in the class above Natasha, with two other girls. Yakov lets her past him, and then casts a critical eye around the room- and all Natasha can think is, please, no, don’t leave me alone with Sveta, please.

She says nothing.  

Yakov looks down the hallway. “Natalia. Now.”

She scrambles up, almost running to the door; he’ll think it’s her haste to be obedient, but she just wants to get away. He catches her shoulder as she makes to move past, and she turns confused eyes on him- is she not needed in her class, with Valya and Lina?

His cold fingers wrap around her arm, hauling her forward so fast she’s walk-skipping. She’s thrown into an empty room that’s littered with guns with no bullets, bloodstains on the wall.

“Instructor Yakov?” she asks carefully, her eyes already scouring the room for the best weapons. Guns are empty. Which one will work best to bludgeon him with? The one one the floor, there, has a knife attached. Perfect.

It’s not that instructors taking the girls into rooms alone for their own purposes is unheard of- if it happens, if the girl isn’t strong enough to fight him off, that’s her problem, as far as the management is concerned. But, if a girl does claw her way out of a sticky situation, injuries to the instructor be damned. This is what they’re training the girls for, after all.

And Natasha is no weakling.

“Did you drop?” Instructor Yakov asks roughly.

Her throat tightens; what’s the best way to respond? No- which was the truth? Or yes- and he’d think she was in the vulnerable mentality of coming out of a drop, giving her the advantage… but he might know she was lying…

Eventually, she settles on, “Yes.”

“Liar.” He backhands her, hard. “You didn’t.”

She nods grudgingly, eyes fire.

“But you’re on the verge of one?”

Again, she glares at him, but nods.

“Stay in here until you stabilize. Nobody will question you.”

Her eyes widen in shock. Is this a trick?

Instructor Yakov sighs. “I have money against Anatoly on your survival. More money than you’ll see in your lifetime. Better not to send you out to your class this afternoon on your way down."  

She accepts the reasoning, but only once he leaves does she curl into the corner and practice every trick in the book to stabilize her emotions. Deep breaths. Meditation. The goal is not to work through it; the goal is to shove everything down, like she would have to do on a mission.

 

XXX

———————————

July 1993. Russia.

———————————

 

Katya kills Dasha during training, and then one day Sasha kills Katya, and now there are just twelve black widows, and Natasha is the only sub left.

Natasha hates Sasha. She hates her because once, what feels like a long time ago when Natasha was seven and there were sixteen black widows, the class of ten and eleven year olds was too large: there were eight of them, half of all the widows. So Instructor Antoly held death matches in the courtyard, and ten-year-old Dasha killed eleven-year-old Nika, and eleven-year-old Sasha killed eleven-year-old Olya.  

Eleven-year-old Olya was Natasha’s friend. When they punished her, Olya took care of her. Olya said she had a little sister, outside in the place that they weren’t supposed to talk about. Olya said Natasha had hair like her sister.

When Natasha had a nightmare about the fire that had taken her parents just two years previously, she woke up shaking, and Olya was there. When they dragged Katya and Nika and, for the first time, Natasha, to those terrible sessions designed specifically to push them to drop… when Natasha dropped, Olya put on her soothing dom voice like they’d taught her in training, and helped her out of it. And once- just once- Olya had said she loved Natasha.

She’d said it when Natasha was asleep. Natasha thinks it was supposed to be a secret, so she hadn’t told anyone.

And one day Olya was gone, and Sasha wasn’t even sorry. Natasha had tried to make Sasha see that what she’d done was wrong, and that she should at least feel bad- because it was last year and she’d been seven, and seven-year-olds were stupid- and Sasha had slapped her and told her to go to bed and leave her alone.

Natasha has a little pebble under her bed that she stole from the courtyard where Olya was killed, that same day. She keeps it under her bed, and in one month when it’s the day Olya died, she’s going to throw it at Sasha’s head, hard.

She knows she has to do something, because Polina Dmitrievna taught them about death anniversaries, and Natasha knows dates now. She doesn’t know what you’re supposed to do on death anniversaries for someone who doesn’t have a grave, so she had decided that throwing the pebble at Sasha would work fine.

Madam Polina Dmitrievna had also taught them an English saying, ‘it’s the thought that counts’.

 

XXX

———————————

September 1993. Russia.

———————————

 

She’s not yet nine when she breaks Valya’s arm. She’s hurt the others before, but this is Valya, who she usually doesn’t speak to, but they’re semi-allies, and she breaks it so bad it’s snapped in two places.

Instructor Nikolei yells at her for it. She was not supposed to cause harm. It’s an important week next week; they have special expensive (stolen) guns being brought in just for three days, before they’re shipped off to a buyer, so the girls can practice. Anton Petrovich is coming too, and he wants to see all the girls so he told the instructors to make sure they can all shoot and fight. Now Valya won’t be able to, and when Anton comes, he will be angry.

When she’s dragged upstairs to her room, guilt wrapped around her stomach and knotted in her belly, Sveta takes great pleasure in yelling at her. So do Nastya, and Anya, and Sasha, and Elya, and even Tanya, who generally keeps to herself.

They tell her what a terrible person she is, and how awful it is what she’s done, and Sasha, who remembers about Olya and still has a bright red scar on her forehead, tells her that Natasha will soon be just like her.

Then they’re all called to class.

Natasha is alone.

She cries.

 

XXX

 

Instructor Yakov comes to find her, when she is not in class with him and Instructor Nikolei. Valya is getting her arm fixed, so it will just be her and Lina.

Natasha is too upset to turn her head, even, when Instructor Yakov enters the room. He looks at her, and sighs, and says “Remember, I have a lot of money on you. Get up, now,” and when she still doesn’t move, he heaves her out of her bed and sets her feet on the floor.

“Move, Natalia,” he tells her, and she doesn’t. She is a terrible person, and terrible people who do awful things should lie in bed and die before they do something even worse, like kill Olya. Instructor Yakov sighs, and hauls her up; he carries her into the room that still has empty guns on the floor, and still has bloodstains on the wall.

“What is wrong with you?” he demands, putting her down.

She tells him.  

Instructor Yakov looks like he is going to laugh at her. Natasha balls her hands into fists, because if he does, she will hit him. He doesn’t though. “Lina has broken your arm before.”

“I know.” She struggles to explain. “But this week I wasn’t supposed to.”

“Did they yell at you?” he asks.

“да.”

“English. Who did?”

“Instructor Nikolei. And Sveta. And others. They said I was дурной- bad, evil person. They said I did something terrible, and I’m a монстр, and-”

“I see.” Instructor Yakov cuts her off, then starts muttering under his breath. “How the fuck do they want me to train you, if they let you do what you want and then one day you do the same thing and they torture you for it.” He snaps to attention. “Go stand against the wall, Natalia.”

“почему?"  

“English,” he snaps. “I won’t tell you again. Don’t ask questions.”

  She complies. “And now?”

“Now stand there.”

“но почему?” she demands, brave because he’s too far to slap her, and she doesn’t think he’ll cross the room for it.

“English!”

His tone is scary, and she’s been bad enough, so she listens. “But why?”

“Do you want me to send you to Instructor Anatoly to punish you instead? He will beat you, or maybe ask Svetlana to beat you. Maybe he won’t punish you at all, and you can cry all week because you feel terrible.”

“This is punishment?” Her tone is scathing.

“It would be, if you stood there silently.” He thinks better of it. “Stand on one foot. No moving. No touching the wall."  

Okay, this, she can do. This makes sense to her. Physical punishments, not just standing in the corner. What type of punishment is that? As she balances, the guilty knot unwinds.

She remains standing beautifully on one foot, perfectly graceful, until Instructor Yakov glances at his watch. “Come here, Natasha.” She appraoches. “If this was outside,” she almost gasps- they’re not supposed to talk like that, “I would tell you not to do it again. I have a feeling you will do much worse, however, and be rewarded for it. So, given the situation, given that Valya is fine and for your violence you were punished, I will only ask- do you feel better?”

She nods. She does.  

“You may go. Alina is waiting for you downstairs with Instructor Nikolei; tell them you were with me, and he will not question it.”

 

XXX

———————————

January 2002. Russia.

———————————

 

Instructor Yakov is not always nice to her Some days he slaps her harder; some days he lets her mistakes slip. Some days he is kind for a long stretch, and then that look she hates, the vacant merciless violence, is all that she can make out on his features the next day.

He is not there all the time, either, not like the Instructor Nikolei and Instructor Anatoly and Instructor Andrei and Madam Polina. He leaves for months at a time- once, a year, and then he comes back for weeks or months as if he’s always been there.

One day, when Natasha is seventeen and she has killed more people than she can count to in Portugese, Instructor Yakov is there. The next, he is gone. He does not return; if he does, it is after she has already graduated.

She finds she does not care. She has not needed his help for a long, long time. She can get through drops on her own, now, and has been able to without significant trouble since she was twelve… she can shove away the feelings until it is safe to let them overwhelm her. It’s still hellish, but at least she can do it.

The other girls don’t bother her, and if they do, they soon regret it.  

She is a sub, but she graduates despite her weakness- the only sub to ever graduate from the Black Widow program.

 

XXX

 

———————————

Present day. New York.

———————————

 

Natasha grabs her phone the moment it buzzes. Fucking great, it’s Coulson.

Stay inside today.  

Instantly, she seethes. Here he goes again, thinking he can tell her what to do and she’s just going to take it, like she’s not her own person…

Sorry, made plans, she replies. She hadn’t, of course, but there’s no way for him to know that, and it’s probably best to display a strong front in the early days.

A few seconds pass, and then the phone vibrates again. That wasn’t an order, but you’ll probably want to once you check the news.Two seconds later, another: Or just look outside.

She does, and closes her eyes briefly when she sees. “Shit.” Dozens of TV crews, photographers, and journalists are clustered outside the tower, almost climbing over each other in their eagerness to be as near as possible, their cameras jostling high over heads and shoulders and mics. They’re as close as they can get without being slapped with a million-dollar lawsuit for trespassing.

Someone had leaked her new Bearing to the press- it was Stark, she knows it was that motherfucker, revenge for yesterday, the bastard- but it doesn’t matter who, right now. What matters is that they know. And now she has to deal with it. 

She stalks down the stairs, bypassing the elevator, and even Jarvis knows better than to offer his cursory ‘good morning’. Nobody’s in the kitchen; nor is there anyone in the living room, or the lobby, giving her a clear path straight through the revolving doors and into the cacophony of shutter clicks and ongoing broadcasts. The moment they catch sight of her, they start clamoring to get as close to her as possible, and the tower security immediately establish a perimeter around her.

She’s grateful, but it’s not needed. “Thank you, but you can step away. These people are familiar with what happens to anyone who crosses over the curb, I’m sure.” A murmur of acknowledgment that’s half-whine, half-snicker passes in a wave over the steadily-building crowd. Yes, they know. Several of their colleagues’ newspapers have had to shell out good money for that very error.

Natasha casts a critical eye over those clustered at the front; she knows several of them- not personally, but by name, and they’ve interviewed her and the team after big-scale events, or whenever Fury felt like trotting them out to bolster their image and appease the Council. She’d always been a pro at this type of thing: fluidly covering for Clint’s passive-aggressive, I-don’t-want-to-be-here answers, distracting from Steve’s unwillingness to play by 21st century politics he didn’t agree with, clarifying when Thor said something wildly offensive, and expertly smoothing out the edges of Stark’s bravado when he went too far, as he inevitably did.

There was a reason she and Banner were Fury’s favorites.

This should be a piece of cake. 

“I understand you have some questions?” She’s a little… taken aback, now that she’s actually counting, how few subs are here. There are some, but the doms command the majority. Probably because the aggressive stereotype of street interviewers and paparazzi isn’t a career that attracts many subs; nor does it give prospective employers motivation to hire subs who, in their opinion, won’t shove to the front of a crowd for the best picture, the best angle, the best quote.

It’s ridiculous, and even if Natasha herselfwasn’t the most aggressive person she knows, the fact that Stark will go to any and all lengths to get what he wants, and is a shark in the meeting room… well, the traditional impression of subs is ludicrous, to put it mildly. 

“Natasha,” starts one photog, and fuck him, because she knows this guy, and three weeks ago she was ‘Agent’, or ‘Ma’am’. 

“Agent Romanoff to you, thank you, Martin,” she corrects icily, a fixed smile plastered on her face.

He bristles, and that’s when she knows this isn’t going to be as easy as she thought. “Agent Romanoff, there are reports on the deception of your Bearing-" 

Natasha cuts him off before he can finish. Better to rip the bandaid off, right? She might as well get used to saying it, anyways. “The rumors are not entirely unfounded. I am a sub.” Immediately, pens begin scrabbling on paper and cameras begin flashing with gusto now that a story has been confirmed.

“But you’ve always presented as dominant,” Martin continues, pressing a mic close to her body; she steps out the way smartly. “When did you decide to become a sub? Are you on drugs to suppress your original Bearing?” His eyes narrow. “Miss Romanoff-” 

Agent Romanoff.”

“-as far as we are aware, there are no drugs that would allow you to be a sub if you are not biologically inclined… so to be clear, are you saying that you intend to suppress your dom Bearing and present as neutral?” His tone is dripping with confrontation, attempting to force her into a corner or goad her into divulging information.

They crowd erupts, because he’s presented a new angle, one that’s far more noteworthy. 

“Miss Romanoff! Are you aware that all drugs currently produced to suppress Bearings are against both federal and international regulations?”

“Natasha! Will the Avengers be allowing a team member to buy from the black market?”

“Channel 9 news here- how do you justify the use of illegal substances with your status as role models for the younger generations?”

“I will repeat myself.” Natasha takes a deep breath, purposefully looking at them all like they’re a bunch of unruly kids- which, to be fair, is how they are acting. “I am a sub. I am biologically-inclined to be a sub.”

“How did you present as dom, then?” Martin asks, still grasping for his illegal substances story.

She narrows her eyes, straightens her shoulders, glares at him and bites out in the most aggressive tone she can muster: “I acted, Martin. It isn’t that hard to fool some people, apparently.” It isn’t a full lie- the Substop had suppressed her sub biology, allowing her to present as neutral effortlessly, and she’d acted to present as dom on top of that. She hadn’t actually had any dom impulses, because as these idiots had noted, no drugs in existence can give you a Bearing you don’t have.

Still. It’s not a full lie. (If they wanted Little Miss Truthful they should’ve interviewed Tony, who knows his wealth makes him immune to almost everything, and takes pleasure in announcing his various misdeeds to the press, knowing full well he will suffer no consequences).

She knows they won’t question her further. They’ll assume she can push down the sub long enough to present as dom in public (which she can, and is currently doing just fine), and that she’d presented as sub in the privacy of the tower. Nobody would bring up Substop.

“Natasha!” A different journalist crams a mic at her. “Stella Woodpine from Weekly Breakdown. Will you remain on the Avengers team?”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Agent Romanoff, and why would I not?” Well, actually. She wasn’t currently speaking to three of the other five, or their shared handler, so… Not a terrible question, if you knew the behind-the-scenes.

Which Stella Woodpine doesn’t, so it’s a godawful question.

The journalist soldiers through. “You have no registered dom on your public record as of this morning, and you’re not collared, either.” Instinctively, Natasha’s hand flies up to touch her empty throat, and drops just as quickly. “Those are odd circumstances, for a sub.”

Hushed whispers are going around the crowd. Sub’s rights have come a long way since the twentieth century, thanks in large part to the National Association for Subs and Switches, or NASS. Before the advancements they’d made, a sub needed a dom for everything. Subs couldn’t open a bank account in their own name, or rent a house, or even apply for a driver’s license without their dom’s permission. Most places wouldn’t give jobs to a sub, and if they did, the dom had to sign off on it.

And not fifty years ago, switches weren’t even recognized. When they finally were, a lot of switches worked in freak shows, where people delighted in seeing the same person go into subdrop and then turn around and dom their partner five minutes later, because at least you had a paying job. Outside of freak shows, anyone with ‘switch’ ticked on their public record could only make money in seedy parts of town where nobody cared what your Bearing was as long as you did the work and didn’t ask questions.

It’s better, now. Switches are basically accepted. Still, subs have a registered dom on their record, for safety measures- if a sub gets in an accident, for example, and drops, it’s better to call their dom to help them through it than to send them to the hospital. So, ‘safety measures’. That’s the official reason, anyway.

“I have no registered dom,” Natasha says, “and I fail to see how that affects my ability to function capably as a member of the Avengers.”

“We don’t know the details,” Woodpine says, “but at least some of our tax money is funneled to the government agency that signs your paychecks. Is everyone involved in agreement? I’m enquiring for safety reasons, of course,” she adds after a pause.

The fuck she is. She’s enquiring because she can’t imagine a sub not having a registered dom because her head is too far up her goddamn ass.

“What everyone involved thinks is none of your concern,” Natasha replies through gritted teeth. “Neither is my safety, for that matter.”

“Not when civilians’ safety is in your hands. Not when you’re being sent on missions- which we get absolutely no details on!- instead of someone more capable, and you botch it up because you’re not taking full precautions, and on our dime, no less.” Woodpine will not be swayed, and for the love of all that is holy, she doesn’t even care about the damn taxes. She knows that’s what the public cares about, so she’s hanging on like a dog on a bone. “I have a hard time believing the general public will be okay with this.”

“I don’t give a fuck what the general public is okay with,” Natasha spits. She’s fine, she can handle this, but she’s getting upset- no, she’s getting slightly bothered, not upset- at the implication. “Are you suggesting I’m too weak to do my job?" 

NASS will have a field day with this footage, she knows- they’ll have comparisons of interviews before and after it came to light that she’s a sub, dissecting and analyzing the questions and behavior of the journalists. How these people are treating her is wrong.

Honestly, that’s what’s making her hands shake: the knowledge that this is what she has to deal with now, forever. Natasha had always rolled her eyes in irritation at Tony’s purposeful antagonism of the press, but now she feels a flare of empathy.

She squashes it down. She is nothing like Stark. He is weak, and she is strong.

Martin interjects. “Natasha-”

“It’s Agent fucking Romanoff, and if I have to tell you one more time-”

“Nobody would dare suggest that a sub is weaker.” No, they wouldn’t, because the liberals would skewer them. “Although, of course, physically… studies have shown that subs tend to build muscle mass at a slower rate, but that’s neither here nor there." 

“Excuse me?” Natasha's going to kill these people. She’s literally going to walk out of here covered in blood. “So you are doubting my ability to do my job. A job I’ve been doing successfully for years, two of those as part of the Avengers.” 

“Of course we are!” someone from the back shouted. Whoever it was, they should thank their lucky stars she didn’t catch their face or they would soon have found their bank account drained. “We weren’t aware of your status before, and now that we are, it’s only right that you go through all the legal measures our subs go through!”

“Stark is a sub.” Natasha’s voice is calm, but there’s an undercurrent of fire, and her pulse is hammering.

“Stark has the suit!”

“Yeah, he’s physically on par with the other Avengers!”

“Tony is collared!" 

“He also has a registered dom!” 

“He has his own money- our taxes don’t pay for him to put our safety at risk!”

Jesus fucking Christ. They can’t even decide what their issue is. They just wanted a story, and they were attacking her in any way to get one. They don’t even fucking care about any of this. Clint doesn’t have a fucking suit, and she can take him on the mats any day. But she’s a sub, so she’s supposed to shrug and nod, and assuage their concerns with a sweet smile and polite demeanor, or they would shout disrespectfully at her just like they do to the sub celebrities who won’t play by their ball game.

Behind her, the revolving doors turn and Clint steps out beside her, obviously having seen the live broadcast. “Tasha, what are you doing?” he asks in a voice so low, only she can hear. “You don’t have to bother with these shitheads…”

“That’s enough!” Natasha barks at the journalists, ignoring him. Off the Substop, it’s much harder to present as dom, or even neutral, when she’s upset… but she didn’t go through years of the Red Room for nothing. She’s trembling with fury though, in a way that she’s normally never affected, because this is fucking personal. “Get the fuck out of here, and for any of you who are even thinking about questioning my abilities as an agent or as an Avenger? I invite you to join me for a round in the sparring gym.”

They gape at her.

“I said leave!”

They disperse, but only a few feet, turning around to talk into their broadcasts. Clint trails her into the tower, a gentle hand on her arm. “They’re like that with Tony, too… Don’t listen to them.”

“I’m not, Barton. I don’t give a fuck what they say to me,” Natasha snaps, shrugging him off roughly. The relief that she didn’t call him ‘sir’ is palpable on his face.  “Please leave me alone.”

He doesn’t follow her as she bursts through the stairwell entrance and takes the steps two by two until she’s a good eleven floors up. Then she leans against the wall and sinks down, holding her wrist tightly and breathing hard. 

Fuck them.

Just. Fuck them.

She’s been in there less than five minutes when the stairwell door opens from the floor above, and heavy footsteps thump down to her level. Thor. 

He gives a subdued grin when he sees her, then comes to stand in front of her. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Sure. Why not.” Natasha points beside her. “It’s not like anyone cares about what a sub wants, is it? Do what you think is best for me.”

Thor’s appalled- that it’s true, or that she would think that of him, she doesn’t know. “I care very much. I’ll leave, if you prefer.”

She stares up at him curiously, oddly touched at how insulted he is. Finally, she nods.

“So I may stay?” he asks, for clarification.

She nods again, once, still studying him.

He slides down the wall so they’re shoulder to shoulder. After a moment of silence, he says, “Your interview went well." 

Natasha smiles bitterly, brushing her hair from her eyes. “And here I was wondering why we never send you undercover… You’re a terrible liar, Odinson.” 

“I was attempting politeness, Romanoff,” he mimics her. And then adds, quieter: “Since you seem to have experienced so little of it today.” 

She shrugs with one shoulder, a pretense of indifference. “Yeah, well. What can you do.”

“I enjoyed your display of Midgardian cursing,” he informs her, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I would say you put the man of iron himself to shame, but that… that is a difficult record to beat.” 

Natasha smiles again, but it’s more despondent this time, more real. “Stark’s dealt a lot of shit out in his day.”

Thor booms a hearty chuckle. “He has. Now you, on the other hand…” He shakes his head. “You have not.” 

She sighs, and rubs her forehead. “They made it personal.” 

“They have before,” Thor points out quietly. “They’ve gone after your heritage, your past, Barton’s past. In front of me. Many times.” 

“This is different.”

“How?” he asks, and she doesn’t have an answer.

It’s different because she’s still dealing with it. She’s not dealing with it, to be truthful. She’s raw, and exposed, and vulnerable, and the whole world can see her shame. And because they were disrespectful in a way they’ve never been before, even while prying at her most painful secrets.

When Natasha doesn’t answer for a while, Thor says carefully, “Is it really that awful to be a sub? I’m told Clint and Coulson quite enjoy it, on occasion.” He’s going for a joke, which she appreciates.

Instead of replying, she takes his large hand and curls the fingers over her wrist. “Feel.”

She watches his face as he presses his finger over the thrum-thrum-thrum of her pulse. “Rapid. And unsteady.” Suddenly, he drops her wrist. “Is it my presence? Please, don’t feel you must have this conversation for my benefit-”

“Not that.”

A pause. “You are distressed.”

“No.” She winces. “Well, yes, I suppose. In a way.”

Thor reaches a hand out, instinctively wanting to comfort her, but quickly withdraws without being told- without even a change in her expression- his hand returning to lay uselessly at his side. “Being a sub does this?”

“Tangentially.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Natasha sighs. “Everything is different in the most basic sense. I’m… more sensitive. The damn sub hormones. I can pretend I’m fine, and I can definitely do my job-”

“I never doubted you for a second,” he says genuinely, cutting her off as if this is something so important to him, it absolutely cannot wait. “And do you, Natasha, have faith in my abilities as a team member, despite my own Bearing?”

She stares at him, and then covers her face in her hands and chokes out a laugh because God, Thor is so Thor, and she kind of loves him for it. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

He beams with pleasure like it was something he was genuinely worried about, then gestures at her. “I’m sorry. Continue.”

Natasha is still smirking when she does. “Physically, you see?” And before she can talk herself out of it, she says, “Touch me.”

“I- what?”

“I know you’re itching to. Big macho dom instincts, all that jazz.” She nudges him, adding in the sharp point of her elbow when Thor just looks at her, unsure. “I’m making a point. It’s fine; you can put your arm around me." 

He does, gently, then draws her closer when he finds no resistance.

Natasha swallows. “Now talk to me.”

“We are talking now, are we not?”

“Not that way. How you talk to a sub." 

Thor smiles and jostles her. “I could, but I’m fearful it will result in the loss of my prized appendage." 

“Someone call the media- god of thunder just made a dick joke,” Natasha mutters, pretending she was talking to herself, but saying it more to irk Thor, who constantly praises how refined Asgardian culture and humor is. Refined, her ass. It’s all the same, just more pretentious-sounding on Asgard.

“I did not.” He squeezes her shoulder. “It is my word against yours.”

She snorts, then elbows him again. “They’ll believe me. You’re a terrible liar, remember?" 

Thor looks down at her, and she lets her mask down for just a second, lets him see the frazzled nerves and insecurity and anger. Then the shutters slam down, but Thor’s seen already, and he looks pained.

He rubs her arm, up and down. “Those people are monsters. They should be behind bars.”

“My sentiments exactly,” Natasha says, not letting herself relax into his hold. This is all to prove a point. To explain to him. That’s all.

“You did well out there, however.” His voice is lower now, balm and coolness. “Nobody was more impressed than I at how you held your composure.” 

“You call swearing at them ‘holding my composure’?” she murmurs. 

“I would have ripped them to pieces,” he says, only half-joking. “I am proud of how you handled them, Natasha, and I am so very proud to have the privilege of calling you my ally, and a team-mate. You are strong, and resilient, and a brave warrior, and-”

Okay, that should do it.

Natasha lifts Thor’s arm off of her, then reaches for his hand and, again, wraps his fingers over her wrist. “Now.”

He feels, for a few seconds, and then cradles her wrist, this time, instead of dropping it; suddenly, he remembers she only allowed him near her to make a point, and he lets go. “Far slower.” 

“That’s what I hate,” she says in a low voice. “I don’t want to react like that. My body, my emotions… they shouldn’t be under someone else’s control.” She wonders if he understands the magnitude of what she’s confiding in him.

On that note, why the fuck is she telling him this?

“But mine.” Thor offers his hand, and she places two fingers on his neck, instead. His heartbeat is slow and ambling. “Mine is slower than yours. I react as you do.”

“Maybe,” Natasha acquiesces. “But you don’t… you’re in control.” 

“If I remember correctly, it was you who ordered me around.” He pitches his voice at a mocking falsetto. “No, Thor, put your other arm around me! No, that’s far too tight. Now say this. No, you are saying it wrong. Oh, for the love of Vanaheim, leave me be.”

Natasha stares at him. “That’s not even vaguely how it went.”

“My word against yours.”

“Terrible liar…” she reminds.

“So you say.”

 She snorts. “Right. So I say.” She lets her head fall back against the wall with a thump and takes a deep breath; Thor’s eyebrows furrow immediately. “For fuck’s sake, calm down.”

“It is almost painful, for me,” he says, his hand waving over her, but not touching, “to see a sub in such-” 

“I know. I know. You and every damn dom.” He won’t pick up on the sarcasm lacing her tone; of that she is confident. And she doesn’t like the reproachfulness in his tone. It’s not like she likes being upset and pissed at the world, and knowing there’s a quick fix literally sitting a foot away from her. “It’s a weakness.” She refuses to stutter over the words, and in her effort to avoid it, she barely manages to stop it coming out rushed. Thor opens his mouth, probably to protest, and she shakes her head. “No. It is. It’s nothing I can help, but it’s the truth.”

“You are the strongest person I know.” He’s so sincere it makes her feel sick.

“I’m not asking for reassurance, here.” Or for pity. She wants nothing from him. “Look. You feel the urge to protect and comfort me, and I feel the urge to be fucking cuddled by you. There’s a difference.”

“Not to me.”

Her look says it all. “You won’t fall apart after a tough mission.”

“Neither will you.”

“I did.” She exhales deeply. “And people order me when they talk to me.” Subs don’t have to follow orders, unless they’re collared with a contract, but it’s just a social norm- doms throw out orders. They don’t expect them all to be followed, but, well, it’s how they talk, and it bothers her. “And when I’m under, I’m vulnerable. I want to fucking make all you dipshits happy. I want to be touched.” I always want to be touched, she doesn’t say. “I feel guilty for doing things, for making people unhappy, and I can’t fucking help it. I can’t stop it.”

“I see.” He does, she knows. “I would, of course, support you if you were to decide it is best for you to resume using… that drug, from before.”

“Substop.”

“Yes.”

Sighing, she shakes her head. “Thank you. Clint offered, too. But five years from now if I’m hallucinating every five minutes, and on the road to dementia, where would that leave me?” She rubs her wrist idly where he’d felt her pulse. “And I can’t leave this job.”

Fury had brought her out of the dark. Clint had thrown her a lifeline when she didn’t think escape was possible, but it was Fury who let her in, Fury who was the ground she stood on. He was her second chance, and the agency meant more to her just by virtue of being SHIELD. She wouldn’t leave.

Thor says slowly, “There is nothing… I cannot change your body. I wish there was a way, on Asgard perhaps… but alas, there is not." 

“Yeah, don’t worry about it. I’ll figure it out. Learn to live with it, whatever.”

Thor nods, then gets up. He opens the stairwell door, but before he leaves, he turns to her. “I will always welcome contact with you. If you would like to just… be touched, as we did today. I will never tell anyone, either- you have my word." 

“Thank you." She swallows. "I- thank you.” 

He slams the door shut. A second later, it opens and his head pops back in. “Natasha?”

“Yes?”

“Talk to Clint.”

The door swings shut. It’s barely closed before he’s inside again. “Natasha?” 

“Yes Thor?”

“It was not my intention to order you, and of course you mustn’t think I expect you to follow it, because-”

“I know. Don’t worry about it.” 

He grins widely at her. “I look forward to the day you grant me permission to hug you.”

And then he’s gone.

Chapter Text

Natasha stays in the stairwell for a few minutes, clasping her wrist. Then, before she can talk herself out of it, she heads for Clint and Coulson’s floor.

Phil isn’t actually living at the Tower, but he’s lounging in Clint’s room often enough that he might as well be. The floor is only four flights of stairs up from where she is, so she chooses to take the steps two at a time rather than risk a confrontation with Steve or Tony in the elevator.

Which reminds her, Stark had better watch his fucking face, because the next time she sees him, it’s going to have her fist flying straight at it.

She channels the surge of red-hot anger into shoving open the stairwell door, brow furrowing when she sees the glass panel on the outside glowing blue: nobody inside. Green indicates that people are inside, while white means the rooms are occupied, but the residents don’t want to be disturbed- it’s basically an upgrade of the old sock-on-the-door thing she’s been told people do in college. Coulson and Steve actively campaigned to change the system to a simpler blue/green, where green is ‘taking guests’ and blue is anything else, but Tony finds the current model hilarious.

Clint does, too, because he says he enjoys giving people an inferiority complex, given how active his sex life is, and all.

“JARVIS,” Natasha says, and is instantly greeted with, “Right here, Agent Romanoff.” “Where’s Clint?”

“Agent Barton is in the main lounge. Would you like me to inform him that you are on your way?” the AI asks calmly, and she feels a swell of completely irrational relief at his smooth tone. At least she can count on Stark’s robots to treat her exactly the same, if nothing else.

“No, that’s fine,” she replies. Then, pointedly, “Is it clear, if I go now?”

“All Tower residents appear engrossed in their activities. I do not foresee any movement in the next ten minutes, and no interactions in the path from where you are now to where Agent Barton is.” And fuck him, but she’s almost amused, because he’s managed to sound unfailingly polite and incredibly disapproving simultaneously.

“I don’t suppose you’d warn me, if that were to change?” She’s being a little paranoid, maybe- it’s only eight floors down to the 7th floor lounge, and then through a few rooms at the most- but she doesn’t think she’ll be able to keep it together if she runs into either Steve or Stark.

A pause. Natasha can almost sense JARVIS sigh. “Would you like me to warn you, Agent Romanoff?”

“I would appreciate that very much, yes,” she replies, enjoying the AI’s frustration a little more than she should.

“I will monitor the situation,” says JARVIS, and then: “May I offer some advice?”

“If that advice is that I should hash it out with Cap and your bastard big-mouth boss, then no.”

If JARVIS had a human form, he would be bristling. “Agent Romanoff, I believe you would benefit from talking to your teammates. And you did attempt to strangle Mr. Stark, might I remind you.”

“Thank you,” Natasha responds dryly. “I’d entirely forgotten.” She pushes the elevator button firmly, filing his response away for later, since it’s basically proof that her suspicions about the leak were correct. “Just keep an eye out. Let me know if anyone’s headed my way. Lecture me about inter-team relations later.”

“As you wish,” he says coolly, and then goes silent.

The elevator’s just come to a smooth stop on the seventh floor when JARVIS- the backstabbing robot from hell - tells her, “Agent Coulson is now with Agent Barton in the lounge, as is Captain Rogers.”

“Thank you, you useless machine,” she grits out, stalking through to the communal dining area, and connected open kitchen. “One day I’m going to find your electrical source and shove my Widow’s Bite into it.”

“I wish you luck,” he snarks back, and she has a feeling he doesn't just mean with that particular endeavor.

Thor’s in the kitchen, as is Banner. The Asgardian gives her a small, sweet smile, while Banner looks awkward and focuses intently on his cereal.

“Would you like some pasta?” Thor asks, gesturing to his plate, and the pot on the stove. Surprisingly, they’ve discovered his culinary abilities far outmatch most of their own, and Natasha nods, letting him get up and fill a plate for her.

She takes a seat next to Banner, because she thrives on awkward. “Hey there.”

“Hi.” He’s obviously searching for something, anything to say. “Want some cereal?”

“No, you hang onto it.”

“Okay.” He’s so mild-mannered and shy, it’s difficult to believe sometimes that he’s a dom. Then again, most people who knew her wouldn’t have pegged her as a sub. After a side glance at her, he adds, “It’s nice to see you. How are you… How are you holding up?”

She plasters a smile onto her face. “Oh, I’m doing well, overall.” Thor sets a plate of steaming pasta in front of her, and she sniffs appreciatively. “This smells delicious.”

He winks at her. “Secret recipe.”

“Jane’s secret recipe?” She takes a bite and almost moans around the fork as the steaming sauce cools on her tongue. It’s that good.

“Her intern’s intern, actually,” Bruce supplies.

“She has an intern’s intern?” Natasha knows the intern- Darcy- having met her a few times. She’s never heard this other intern mentioned before.

Thor looks put-out at having his food’s excellence attributed to someone else. “His name is Ian. He’s quite charming, actually,” he permits, shoveling a huge spoonful of pasta into his mouth. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to impede his ability to sounds coherent. “Jane is almost as fond of him as she is of Darcy. Not that she would ever admit to either, of course.”

“Do I sense some jealousy?” Natasha teases, and beside her, Bruce nods seriously.

“As a doctor, that’s exactly what I’m getting from him.”

“Jane has more PhDs than you; were you aware of that?” Thor asks, effectively shutting Banner up. Natasha cackles, tailing off abruptly when Steve walks into the kitchen, a determined set to his chin.

“Captain Rogers.” She inclines her head.

“I was just looking for you,” he says. It seems like he’s decided to pretend their earlier conversation never happened; good. “Can I have a word? Privately?”

She indicates her heaped plate, having barely taken two bites. “I’m a little busy.”

“Let her eat, Captain!” Thor commands, grinning though a mouthful of pasta. “And join us!”

“I can’t,” Steve replies. His face is pinched, eyes narrowed at her. “This is important.”

“Well, you can wait ten minutes for me to eat,” Natasha informs him coldly, very slowly and deliberately taking another bite. God, Thor can cook well.

Steve folds his arms. “No, I can’t. It's urgent. We need to have a discussion right now.”

Even though she’s not sitting next to Thor, Natasha notices him tense, almost imperceptibly. “We can have it in ten minutes,” she repeats.

“Get in the games room, Romanoff,” Steve barks, patience apparently wearing thing. Well- patience with her at least. Which is the fucking opposite of how it should be because he’s the one who’s at fault in their fight. “That’s an order.”

Natasha stands up instantly; so does Thor. “What did you just say to me?”

Thor clears his throat. “I hope you did not mean to imply that you may order her around due to her Bearing,” he says, his voice colder and more dangerous than she’s ever heard it.

Steve blinks. “No. Jesus Christ, this oversensitivity is exactly why we need to have this conversation!” His jaw clenches. “Get in the next damn room. As your commander, I’m ordering you. If you don’t comply in the next two minutes, you no longer have a spot on this team.”

After he leaves, the three in the kitchen stare at each other.

“You can tell he was in the military,” Banner offers, after a pause.

Natasha sighs, rubbing her forehead as she looks wistfully at the pasta. “I don’t even know what he’s pissed about.”

“You and Barton blew some public appearance off a weeks ago that he just found out about, probably.” Bruce is probably right, seeing as that happens at least once every few months, and it always ends in Steve being reamed out by Fury for not being able to control his team. As if he could, if he wanted to. The closest an authority figure has ever come to controlling Natasha and Clint is Coulson, and only because he basically supports them 95% of the time.

She shrugs, and nonchalantly returns to her pasta. She’s done in five minutes, but makes him wait another minute while she washes her dishes and cutlery. Six minutes of stewing, for his rudeness. Sounds about fair. Banner and Thor give her sympathetic looks as she heads off, knowing how unpleasant it is for a sub to be yelled at, particularly by an angry dom (not that it’s especially fun for anyone).

“What?” she challenges, arms crossed, walking into the games room. Steve’s wearing a hole in the floor behind the billiards table. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it could have waited.”

He turns around, and the fury is evident in every line of his face. When he speaks though, his tone is deceptively calm. “I’m hoping- hoping, Nat- that I have this wrong, and it’s some big trick. Or maybe a prank. Maybe I just misunderstood, I guess-”

What, Rogers?” she demands again.

Steve’s eyes are focused, deep blue and boring into her. “Did you attempt to strangle Tony?”

Oh.

That’s what he’s pissed about. She should have expected it, honestly, because Stark is an asshole who can’t deal with his own battles and probably ran crying to Steve the moment she left him in the kitchen.

“I didn’t attempt to strangle him,” Natasha retorts calmly, and it’s the truth, because there were no murderous intentions involved. Also, as a matter of pride, there would be no ‘attempt’ to strangle him, if that’s what she was going for. He would be dead, end of story. “I choked him for a limited amount of time.”

Wherein the definition of ‘limited’ is debatable.

Steve explodes, his voice rising with every syllable. “What the hell. Because he said something to you about being a sub, right?” She doesn’t answer, just fixes him with a steely look. “For fuck’s sake! You know when I first found out about it, and then I looked at his neck, I didn’t believe it?”

“Really,” she says, playing bored, although she wants to go- fuck her- curl up with Thor.

His voice lowers, anger seeping from every word, like he’s barely holding himself back. “He’s my sub, Romanoff, and I prioritize his safety over whatever internal bullshit you have going on.”

That was low, and she barely hides her brief flicker of hurt. She wants to leave. “He’s not your sub,” she says, instead. “He’s Pepper’s.”

“She might have collared him, but he’s mine, too,” Steve says, and then throws his hands up. Natasha’s never seen him this frazzled, this frustrated and angry and on-edge, and it makes her more than uneasy that it’s directed at her. “That’s not what we're talking about! You fucking strangled your teammate!

The yelling is grating on her nerves, much as she’s trying to let it go. In the same way that Thor’s calm utterances had slowed her heartbeat, taking the brunt of Cap’s self-righteous wrath and disappointment is speeding it up. Usually, he’d be more careful about this type of thing; she’s seen him make a visible effort to calm down whenever Clint or Tony piss him off, and always with success. Hurting the team’s little weakling, apparently, is crossing the line.

And… beyond sub biology, personal to her, a shouting dom in her face has historically not ended up working out in her favor. Historically, it’s ended up with her bruised and bleeding on the floor, or six feet under in a hellish drop.

And so her second instinct is to scan for anything she can use as a weapon- her first, primal impulse is to apologize and fuck her, maybe get a hug, but she’ll give in to that when hell freezes over- and mentally cataloguing, whether that be the billiard sticks or the knife stashed in her left ankle boot.

She knows, she knows, that Steve is safe, logically. That he won’t hurt her, and if he did, she could damn well take him, because she’s not that weak little sub on the cold stone floor.

“Okay,” she says loudly, blood ringing in her ears. “My pasta is waiting.”

Steve’s eyes are so narrowed, his eyebrows form a distinct ‘V’ across his forehead. “We’re not done.”

“I think we are.”

“I don’t care what you think; you’re going to hear me out.” Damn, when she brought up Peggy and Bucky, she had no idea he would take it this personally. No, that’s a lie; she did. It’s what she’s telling herself, though, and that’s what matters. “I don’t care what your issues with Stark are. You are not to lay a hand on anyone- team member, civilian, or otherwise- unless they pose a threat. A real goddamn threat!”

“Stark poses a very real threat to my sanity.”

That was the wrong thing to say. His eyebrows lash together even more. “If you can’t manage that, I’m sure Fury can find you another position.”

“Threatening to kick me off the team twice in ten minutes?” Natasha’s mouth twists into a wry grin. “Must be some sort of record, even for you.”

Steve’s fists clench. “If you can’t be around Tony without slamming him into a wall,” he hisses, “then you’d better damned well stay away from him. This is your only warning.” With that, he’s leaving, the muscles in his back tense as he exits.

Natasha relaxes, watching him go.

Then she heads back to the kitchen; Bruce and Thor look up when she enters, both wearing identical, apprehensive expressions that relax into smiles when they see her. Instead of taking her seat next to Bruce, she slips into the chair beside Thor. His large hand subtly comes down under the table to rest on his knee as he resumes his conversation with Banner, a clear offer.

She’s not going to take it, because she doesn’t need to. She’s tired and unsettled, her heart-rate high, but she’s not Stark, and she sure as fuck doesn’t need a big strong dom to help her out when things get rough.

Stealing a piece of pasta from Thor’s plate, Natasha glances at him out of the corner of her eye. He’s talking animatedly to Bruce, who’s chuckling, but although his right arm is moving in huge sweeps as he illustrates his story, his other arm is almost eerily still, his hand palm-up.

She lets out a small breath.

Touch is… nice. She’ll never admit it, even under torture, but the sentiment is a result of both her childhood, and of a life where people have gone out of their way to keep their distance. Clint is the only one who knows how much a simple affectionate gesture can mean to her.

As she slowly shifts her body closer to Thor’s, she thinks, if only Polina Dmitrievna could see me now.

Red Room subs don’t need doms.

She allows herself to trace her nails over Thor’s palm.

She doesn’t need him. But, with a terrible sort of acceptance, she admits to herself that she would like to take his hand, to feel his slow, steady pulse until hers matches his.

Stark would leap at the opportunity for any comfort, big or small.

Her chair scrapes the floor as she gets up. “JARVIS, is Clint still in the lounge?” Upon hearing the affirmative, she nods at the men. “See you later.”

Thor waves, sorrowful.

She sees Coulson on her way to the lounge, going in the opposite direction to her; she lets him make the first move, and when he smiles as he passes, she returns it.

“I’m getting popcorn for Clint and myself,” he tells her, holding up an empty bowl. “Want some?”

She shakes her head no, glad that he, unlike Steve, seems to have moved on. “I just ate, but thanks.”

“You ate?” His interest is piqued.

“Thor made Jane’s intern’s intern’s pasta.” She doesn’t wait for him to try to figure that out. “It’s delicious, and if you don’t get there soon, between him and Banner there won’t be any left.” Coulson hurries off immediately, and Natasha steels herself before pushing open the transparent glass door to the lounge.

She can see the back of Clint’s head, although he doesn’t turn around when she enters. She’s well aware that he knows it’s her, both by the sound of the footsteps, and by the fact that any one of the others would have said something to announce their presence by now. Still, he says nothing.

It’s not malicious. She appreciates that about him, actually; he won’t talk to her unless he’s sure she’s not trying to make her way around undetected. It’s a little laughable, because if she was trying to avoid discovery, he wouldn’t know she was there, period- and he knows that- but the thought is nice, nonetheless.

“Hey,” Clint says, literally the second she moves into his line of sight.

“Hi.”

“What’s up, Natasha?” He thumps his forehead in angry disgust at himself. “Sorry, should I call you pet? Slave? My little subbykins?”

At least he’s pissed. It’s better than pitying. “Whatever you want,” she replies. “As long as I don’t have to call you sir.”

That gets his attention; his eyes snap up to her. There’s a hint of wariness, and a hell of a lot more relief. “I would never expect that,” he says, quietly.

“I know.”

“I thought you knew me better.”

“I did,” Natasha replies, then amends, “I do. That’s why I’m here.” She sighs, rubbing her temple. “About what happened… what I made you do…”

He waves a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I get it.”

“I don’t-” she starts, and he cuts her off again.

“Nat, I get it.” He grabs her hand and pulls her onto the couch next to him, leaning into her, warm and solid and close. “No need for explanations. “When did we turn into such saps, anyway?”

She laughs. “Probably sometime after Cap moved in.”

Clint snorts. “Yeah, either that, or Phil. Who, by the way, says we’re going soft.” He’s disgusted. “Can you believe it?”

“Well,” Natasha considers it, “we did attend his mandated team bonding exercises without complaint.”

Mandated,” Clint emphasizes, then snickers. “And short-lived, too.”

“How long did it take his face to return to normal after you and Stark turned it into sex therapy?” Which they had done, and enthusiastically, too. Apparently, the two of them had tried to be intimate, and failed miserably, having zero chemistry. Natasha could have told them that if they’d asked, without either needing to shove their tongue down the other’s throat. Oh, well. Learning from experiences, and all that.

“I forgot about that!” Clint crows, clutching the TV remote. “His face went so red. Sex that night was great, though.”

Natasha stays silent for a few seconds, smiling, before nudging him. “Hey.”

“Mm?”

“Sorry.”

He tilts his head to the side, and then suddenly a mischievous grin breaks out over his face. “You know, I think this is the fifth time ever in our partnership that you’ve apologized to me.”

“What?” Natasha’s aghast. “Fuck no. I’ve apologized twice, including this time.”

“That’s not a good thing, subbykins,” he says, shaking his head, and she clips him smartly across his ear. “Fine, so subbykins isn’t right, got it. How about baby girl? Princess? Little Wido-” Natasha twists his ear, hard, and he yelps, batting her away. “Ow, okay, okay, stopping. Stopping right now.”

“Glad to hear it, master,” she bites back, but she’s smiling, too.

Clint shudders minutely. “That’s repulsive.” After a moment, he meets her eyes, fingers twiddling with the hem of his shirt. “Hey, listen. No pressure. But if you’re alright calling me… you know, not my name… well, I had a few ideas.” Natasha’s not sure how to react, certain she’s going to punch him if he suggests ‘sir’ or any respectful title. Any title at all, actually. Clint forges on. “Okay, so the first one I thought of- it’s a little presumptuous, I guess, but- ‘King of the Skies’.”

Natasha’s breath whooshes out and she gives an exaggerated groan as she realizes he’s joking. God, of course he’s joking; this is Clint.

He’s still going, straight-faced. “Or ‘Badass-archer-who’s-saved-my-life-more-times-than-I-can-count’, although that’s a helluva mouthful.”

Natasha thumps his chest with a snigger, more affectionately than anything. “More like ‘archer who regularly gets his ass handed to him by badass agent half a foot shorter than him’.”

“Nah, too long” he dismisses insantly. “Look, if those doesn’t really work for you, there’s a few more. They still need tweaking, but… 'Master of the Universe’, that was one. Or I was thinking, just to keep it simple,” he waves his hand over his body, “Adonis.”

“Yeah, I like that one,” she plays along. “Does that make me Aphrodite?”

He gestures to her, purposefully leering. “Aphrodite got nothin’ on you, pet.” He hasn’t even finished the last word before yowling as Natasha punches him, then smiling ruefully. “Guess I had that one coming.”

“Ass,” she says, fond.

“I do have a nice one,” he agrees, before throwing an arm around her and pulling her close; that she lets him is a testament to their bond. “Speaking of, and while we’re being saps… I missed your dumb ass. Even if it was, what, two days? Damn, I really am going soft.”

Natasha says nothing. Clint pulls away, eyebrows knitted together.

“What, you’re just gonna let me say that I missed having you around giving me shit? And give me nothing?”

“Fine.” She smiles. “I missed having you around,” he preens, “because you make me feel incredibly intelligent and graceful. Like a good person, too.”

“Really?” She’s not at all taken aback at his surprise; that was astonishingly emotional and vulnerable, especially for her.

Natasha does love the element of surprise. “Yes,” she nods, “given your startling lack of those traits. It’s a nice comparison point, you know?” Expecting the shove, she catches herself on the edge of the sofa before he can tip her off, smirking.

“Should’ve expected that.” Clint groans good-naturedly, pulling her back in. “Now I need to watch something big and badass to get my manliness back.”

“What manliness?” Natasha mutters, and he whacks her with his elbow.

They’re just settling down to watch a movie when the glass door swings open, and in walks Coulson with his popcorn, followed by Tony. He’s munching on a plate of french fries, his neck pebbled with purpling bruises, deep black around the edges.

Natasha tries not to look at them.

“What the hell happened to you?” Clint asks, shocked, his hand coming up to brush across his own neck, mouth twisted. “Rough session with Pepper?” Tony often plays with Bruce, Steve, Rhodey and on occasion Thor too, being much more affectionate- in other words, Natasha thinks, needy- than he lets on, but they all know if he participates in rough scenes, if ever, Pepper is the only one he’ll allow it with. She’s collared him, after all, even if their relationship is the definition of open.

Tony snorts. “No. Romanoff.” His eyes slide to the right of Clint, who can’t quite hide his horror in time. “Speak of the devil. Or the maniacal Russian hellraiser, as the case may be. What’s up, Red?” A Chesire-cat grin is forming on his face as Coulson wearily takes a seat, popcorn in hand. “Bad time with the press?”

And there goes any shred of sympathy Natasha might have conjured up. She’s up from the couch immediately, noticing Coulson dropping his face into his hands from her peripheral. “Get out of here.”

Clint places a hand on her arm, although he doesn’t get up. “Don’t, Nat,” he says urgently. “It’s not worth it.”

He probably thinks she’s going to attack him again; Natasha shakes him off. “You shouldn’t have done that,” she says, her voice low, sweet but menacing.

“Who says I did?” Stark shrugs, tossing a french fry in the air and catching it in his mouth- if possible, his smirk expands. “Last I checked, conjecture isn’t quite evidence.”

“You’re convincing nobody.” Natasha folds her arms.

“Aren’t I?” He pouts. “Here I thought I was on my way to an Oscar.”

“Give it up, Stark.”

He shrugs. “Hey, hypothetically, one might say that one had it coming. Given, you know, a certain incident. Fries, anyone?”

“That was a shitty thing to do, no matter what,” Clint tells Tony. And then, to Coulson: “Tell him.”

Coulson sighs, then gets up. “It was unnecessary,” he allows, before slipping out, saying something about getting drinks.

“Absolutely.” Tony nods, mock-serious. “Of course, it was a terrible thing to do. If only we knew who did it…”

Natasha’s eyes narrows, almost slits. “We all know it was you, and you’re right- I don’t have proof. But when has that ever stopped me?” She smiles, all sugar.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demands.

“It means,” she replies, enunciating each syllable, “that one day in the future, you might find you regret it.”

“Are you threatening my sub, Natasha?” All of their heads turn as one as Pepper walks through the door, one hand coming to rest protectively on Tony’s hip; the sub leans into her, smug.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Natasha replies. She keeps her tone cold; she’s not about to let Pepper push her around. Clint, next to her on the couch, is silent. Other times, Natasha finds his fear of Pepper hilarious; it mirrors how people who are not Clint act- used to act- around her.

For her part, she’s indifferent to Tony’s dom. They’ve never really developed a friendship, even though Pepper’s at the tower enough. Natasha and Tony have never gotten along, always passive-aggressive or borderline antagonistic towards each other, and Pepper has that as well as the Natalie Rushman debacle as black marks against Natasha’s name. Not that she’d ever admit to it.

Pepper fixes her with a stern gaze. Natasha’s not offended though, because Pepper treats everyone she’s not pleased with like her unruly subordinates. “I will handle Tony’s behavior privately,” she says. “I understand you’re personally involved, but I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it in this instance.”

Bullshit. If Tony doesn’t feel guilty about it- or if what he did didn’t break one of his and Pepper’s rules- there will be no private discussion. Maybe a grim look, but that’s it. Or who knows? Maybe Pepper was delighted. Maybe she high-fived him. Maybe he was rewarded and the two of them spent the morning laughing at her reaction to the media.

“I don’t doubt that,” Natasha tells the other woman, lying outright. “But that’s never how I’ve handled my own fights.”

“Maybe not in the past,” Pepper concedes. “However, in this case you will. He is my sub, and I won’t stand by if you hurt him again.”

Natasha shrugs, acutely aware of Clint’s attempt to stay as silent as possible, for fear of turning Pepper’s wrath on himself. “You do what you want. I’m warning you though: keep him in line. Because if you don’t control him, I will.”

Tony is scowling, but Pepper just looks at her coolly. “You know, for someone who’s so insistent that subs are not the lesser Bearing, that’s a strong statement.”

It’s like a punch to the gut. Natasha almost takes a step back, so jolting is the realization. Keep him in line.

Her own words leap out at her, emblazoned into her mind.

Keep him in line.

“What is a dom’s purpose?” Polina Dmitrievna had asked, eyeing Katya and Natasha. “рассказать девочек!”

“We must keep unruly subs in line,” came the chorus back, word-perfect.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK-

“Tasha?” Clint grabs her shoulder, rising; she shrugs him off, although not roughly.

“Would you mind leaving us?” Pepper asks him, and, after a quick glance at Natasha to gauge her reaction, he does, albeit unhappily. “Sit on the sofa, Tony.” Then she’s standing next to Natasha. “You’re not okay, are you?”

To hell with Pepper. She’s not saying a word and letting this woman poke at her underbelly… while Stark’s sitting smirking on the couch, to boot.

Pepper follows her sightline, and her eyes travel up to the ceiling, then close. Then she says, “Tony, on second thoughts, I think I’d like some privacy.” He grumbles, but does as he’s asked, and Pepper smiles. “There. Just us girls now.”

The change in atmosphere is like whiplash. “Right…” Natasha says slowly, unsure of where this is going.

Pepper regards her for a few seconds. “Why did you hurt Tony?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Natasha asks, eyebrow raised.

“No. I’m not stupid; I know he must have run his mouth off.” Before Natasha can say anything, she adds with a frown, “Not that anything he said justified that response.” She takes a breath. “He wouldn’t tell me what.”

“For someone so insistent on privacy,” Natasha mimics Pepper’s earlier statement to her, “that’s a little hypocritical.”

“It’s between you and Tony, then.” Pepper nods, straightening and relaxing her shoulders. “Alright. I won’t pry.”

Honestly, Natasha’s shocked that Stark didn’t immediately Pepper a detailed rundown so they could both laugh at how upset she became at mere words.

“Do you need help?” Pepper asks abruptly, after several moments.

“I- what? Are you offering to help me get back at Stark?”

Pepper gasps. “Natasha! God, no. Christ’s sake, the six of you act like children.” She title her head to the side. “Well, five of you. I doubt Bruce could cause trouble if his life depended on it.”

“I think it’s actually when his life depends on it that he causes more trouble than the rest of us combined,” Natasha corrects, a sly grin forming. She’s not certain what Pepper wants, and friendly joking puts her back on equal footing.

She’s rewarded with a peal of laughter. “I suppose if we’re counting the Hulk, Bruce is the most trouble, yes.” Pepper becomes serious again. “I actually meant… if you need to talk to someone.”

“You,” Natasha says, because throwing people off balance is what she does- if someone is skirting a topic, she’ll make it explicit- and Pepper flushes.

“Well. Not necessarily me, but the offer’s there.”

“If I took you up on it?” She won’t, of course. She thinks Pepper knows that, too.

“We could get coffee,” Pepper suggests. “Look, we don’t have to discuss whatever’s bothering you.” Delicately, she avoids mentioning what she damn well knows is the issue. “We could just… have a girls’ night. Go to a spa, maybe.”

“A spa,” Natasha repeats. Just because she likes fucking with Pepper.

“Yes, a spa, have you never been to one?” Natasha puts on her best poker face. Pepper blanches. “You- really? That’s it. Fury is going to get an extremely strongly-worded email tomorrow about his agents’ vacation time.”

“Relax,” Natasha says with a small laugh, before the other woman can gain too much steam. “I wouldn’t be opposed to a spa day.” And by ‘I wouldn’t be opposed’, she means ‘I would rather be mauled by an angry bear’.

“We could invite Maria. Maybe Jane, if she’s in town with Darcy.” Jane is a switch, and the light of Thor’s life. Darcy, a sub. Maria is a dom, and Natasha has gone down on her, in a foursome with Coulson and Clint. “We don’t have to finalize the details now. When shall we plan for?” Pepper stands, as does Natasha.

“Preferably later rather than sooner,” Natasha says. “I want to, uh. Work through some things. Before we plan anything.” She isn't meeting them, ever, but if she does, if she reacts to Darcy like she does to Tony- snarky, ridiculous Darcy- she will never forgive herself. Because suddenly… suddenly, she’s not sure how much of her resentment towards Tony is borne from his personality, and how much from his Bearing alone.

Fucking ‘keep him in line’.

Pepper grasps her shoulder and squeezes gently. “I understand. We can grab a coffee, just the two of us, anytime. However, Natasha, in case I wasn’t clear enough before…” she doesn’t have to say it; it’s obvious where she’s going, “…I’m serious about Tony. I won’t let you harm him again.”

Natasha looks Pepper in the eye; she owes her that much. She may believe she was justified in hurting Stark- or, maybe not, the pesky voice in her head pipes up- but even she can see how badly he was bruised makes it a gray area. A dark, dark gray area. “You don’t have to worry. And anyway, Cap got to me before you.”

“Oh, he did?” Pepper’s not the least bit surprised, and suddenly Natasha knows she’s the one who told Steve, not Tony.

Well, he was going to find out eventually. It’s not like Tony would have agreed to stay shut up in his lab for five days until the marks faded.

“Threatened to kick me off the team,” Natasha says, watching carefully. “We weren’t exactly on the best of terms to begin with.”

“No, I’d imagine not.” Pepper purses her lip. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s beyond saving.”

“I’m not interested,” Natasha says, stung at the implication that she should be the one scurrying to salvage their relationship. She was no more at fault in their argument than than he was; Pepper doesn’t know the full story.  Steve had tried to Dom her, without her permission, and she isn’t going to forgive him that easily.

“Of course you’re not.” Pepper sighs, for what seems like the hundredth time, then smiles. “Oh, well. Did he come down on you hard?”

Natasha snorts. “I think his exact words were, ‘If you can’t be around Tony without slamming him into a wall, you’d better damned well stay away from him.’”

Pepper looks oddly impressed. “I didn’t think he had that in him.”

“Oh, yeah.” She smiles, a heavy weigh behind her eyes. “You don’t know quite what he can be like.”

“What does that mean?” the dom asks sharply. She’s… a lot more perceptive than Natasha usually gives her credit for.

“Nothing.”

“Natasha…” Pepper’s eyebrows furrow, creating deep creases up her forehead. “I don’t- I can’t believe I’m asking this about Steve, of all people, but… Did he try something?”

Natasha’s silence is enough.

Pepper pales, then leaps into business mode. “Do you feel safe here? Do you want me to take you to my house, or Sam’s? Or SHIELD? I can have him removed from the Tower by this evening, if you want, while we press charges.”

Natasha is so, so glad that Pepper doesn’t doubt her. Pepper thinks Steve raped her, and she believed it on Natasha’s word. The word of someone who, at their first meeting, was lying about every aspect of herself.

“He didn’t; it was nothing like that,” she says, voice hoarse. “He just… misunderstood, I guess. Tried to calm me down.”

“He tried to Dom you without your consent?” Pepper’s eyes flash.

“He thought he had it, unconditionally. He didn’t.”

Pepper’s calmer, but still angry, still breathing hard. “He knows better. Fuck it, I’ve seen him with Tony; I know he goddamn knows better. He’s not some amateur.”

Now Natasha’s feeling incredibly awkward, because she didn’t quite intend to unleash Pepper’s fury onto Steve (and also, she’s certain if Pepper confronts him, what she said to him will be revealed in short time, and Pepper will undoubtedly accost her about it). “Look, I don’t want it to be a big thing, because it’s not, really. I’d been curled up on his fucking lap five minutes before he tried to.”

She’s downplaying how furious she is at him, but it’s half-true, what she’s saying in Steve’s defense. Anyway, he wouldn’t have been able to send her into a drop, not without her permission (and it takes a hell of a lot more to make a sub drop than a few words). He could definitely control her physicality with his voice, though, as she and Thor could to each other. And he had no right to try that.

Pepper lets out a sharp breath. “If you’re sure you don’t want me to lay into him…”

“Please don’t.”

“Alright. I really think you should skin him alive, though.”

“Noted.” Natasha smiles. She won’t. Her tactic is to push the wounds down deep inside and let the blood clot- it always has been- not to lay herself out and cauterize them. Sure, she heals slower, if at all, but that’s the sacrifice she makes to avoid the unnecessary pain and confrontation.

Just then, Tony bursts into the room.

Pepper glares at him, cross. “I thought I asked from some priva-”

“Code Red. Bad guy in Times Square with a shit-ton of mechanical arms.”

“That’s my cue.” Natasha strips off her jacket, then begins sliding her extra guns out from underneath the couch cushions and strapping them to her ankle and hip holsters. “Nice talk, Pepper.”

“See ya, Pep.” Tony drops a quick kiss on her lips, gives a cheeky salute.

The two of them dash off.

This, this, Natasha can do.

Chapter Text

Natasha’s sprinting through the rooms next to Tony, the two of them heading for the building lobby, when she notices him lagging behind.

“Nobody will think less of you if you want to stay back,” she says, over her shoulder. Well, she would, but she doesn’t think he’ll mind.

“Why would I stay back?” He’s catching up, although he’s still distracted and fiddling with his wrists.

“If you want to drop, or something.”

He swears under his breath, and she feels a tiny bit of shame for the comment when he refuses to react further. Before they reach the equipment room next to the lobby, where the others will be, he grabs her upper arm- not gently- and she instantly shakes him off, frowning and turning on him instinctively.

“Whoa.” Stark raises his arms, palms facing her. “Cool it, hotshot.” He reaches into his pockets and pulls out two slim wrist-bands, resembling metallic bracelets. “You’ll want to put these on.” With how their relationship has been these last few days, her first thought is to refuse. But he sounds so begrudging about giving them to her that she takes one, examining it closely.

“A weapon?”

“No.” He extends an arm, hitching up the long sleeve; an identical metal cuff is enclosed over his own wrist.

Stark’s looking at her expectantly, like he thinks that’s enough for her to figure out what they are. They’re definitely not a weapon, if he’s wearing them… those things would be useless under the Ironman suit. He’s holding his arm out as if the fact that he has one is significant, but she has no idea how. “GPS tracking, in case of abduction?” she asks, fingering the cool metal, not willing to clasp either around her own wrist until she’s certain of their purpose.

“Oh.” He tilts his head to one side. “Not a bad idea. But no.”

“Then what?”

Tony sighs. “Don’t go all Tasmanian Devil on me.” She inclines her head, although she doesn’t understand the reference. “It’ll release an anti-toxin if you’re hit with a dropper.”

The instant it registers, she shoves the bands back at him. “I’ll be fine.”

“If they have droppers? Hate to break it to you, Romanoff, but you won’t be.”

“I’ve avoided droppers for a decade,” she informs him coolly, beginning to walk towards the equipment room again. “And that was when I was on Substop.” When the combination would have been lethal.

Stark grabs her again. “Just take the damn things.”

“I don’t want them, thank you.”

“I don’t want to give them to you either!” He scowls, excess energy causing him to vibrate on the balls of his feet. “It’s dangerous for the rest of us if you drop in the middle of battle.”

Natasha stares at the bracelets for a beat before her decision is made and she accepts them, slowly locking them over her wrists. It’s too much to hope, but maybe… “Do they…” she asks in a low voice, “Will they…”

“Won’t work for anything except droppers.” Stark sounds almost sympathetic, but not quite. “The anti-toxin detects the compound and neutralizes its hydroxyl group, making it ineffective. The chemical composition in your body during a real drop is way too complex for the same method to work.”

“Oh.” She doesn’t let anything but a brief flicker of disappointment show. Then, quieter, as she pulls the sleeve of her leather suit over the bands, “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He looks just as awkward about accepting the gratitude as she was about showing it. He shifts from one leg to the other- a minuscule change in posture that she never would have picked up on if not for her training- as if he wants to say something. “I- ”

The door to the equipment room bursts open. “Come on!” Clint calls, his bow in one hand, and a clip in the other. He tosses it to her before turning his attention to Tony. “Better suit up quick. Looks like it’s gonna be a rough one.”

‘Rough one’ is an understatement. They take the jet, because it’s too far to walk and five costumed superheroes and a Hulk may not make for the most uneventful subway ride. It’s not hard to figure out where to go once on the ground; they head in the opposite direction of the throngs of screaming people.

“Holy shit,” Clint breathes when they see guy shooting up the city. He’s human- from the description, Natasha had been expecting aliens; thank God for small favors- but he’s in some sort of contraption, with about a dozen huge metal arms, flying into buildings like a wrecking ball and sending them toppling onto civilians below. He’s too big and too high up for most of them to approach with without risking serious harm, which is going to make this very difficult.

“Okay.” Steve takes a deep breath, in commander mode. “Bruce.” The scientist extends his arms, and with a few grunts, Hulk is standing next to them, fuming as always. “Hulk, I’m going to need you to engage with him. Damage his weapons if you can, but the engine is the priority. I want him on the ground as soon as possible. And whatever you do, keep him focused on you.” Hulk rushes towards the source of the commotion with a satisfied growl.

Clint’s scanning the rooftops, looking for a vantage point; he points out a block south. “There’s best for me.”

Steve glances to the building. “Tony can take you up. Aim for where he’s vulnerable, but don’t call attention to yourself. And I need constant commentary.”

“No problem.” Clint draws an arrow from his quiver, the familiar determined set to his jaw.

“Where he’s headed, the usual. If you’re in danger, too,” Steve says. Then, to Tony, “Don’t stray more than three blocks away from the rooftop. If he heads towards Barton, you’ll pull him out.” At Tony’s nod, he continues, “Deal damage, but stay out of grabbing reach, you hear me? Same with you, Thor. When Hulk grounds him, Romanoff and I will join you.” The instant he finishes speaking, Thor raises his hammer and shoot up; Tony grabs Clint and flies towards the rooftop.

Natasha inwardly sighs at having to take point with Steve, but she’s not petty enough to show it in the middle of a mission. Truth be told, she’d called it from the moment she saw the guy; it’s what makes sense, seeing as they’re the only two who can’t engage with him until he’s on the street.

He’s looking at her now, nothing different in his expression save for a flinty glint in his eye. “You and I will get civilians to safety until we’re needed in combat.”

“Got it.” She returns the gaze until he relaxes; neither of them will cause trouble this mission. She’d never even consider challenging his orders out of spite, and she’s glad to see he has faith in her for that, at least.

“JARVIS says he goes by Alan Raznikoff,” Tony announces via comms right before the man spots them.

The mission goes alright, but there are a few hiccups, as always. Clint gets thrown from the roof, and while trying to catch him, Tony ends up taking both of their weights and slamming himself into the side of a concrete building. He’s not badly hurt- and better him in the suit than Clint- but he’s shaken.

They ground Raznikoff quickly, and Steve and Natasha join the others in hand-to-hand, trying to disable his weapons. Towards the end of the battle, when he’s down and basically captured, Steve follows him into a building to apprehend him, while Tony huddles in a corner piecing together bits of his damaged suit, and Thor and Natasha hurry to support Clint, who is considerably banged up from his fall.

They’re heading towards the jet, confident that Steve will have apprehended Raznikoff- basically all of his metallic weapons were disabled, after all- when Raznikoff comes charging out of the building, guns firing wildly… and straight into Hulk, who roars and punches once to knock him out.

Steve emerges a few seconds later, looking shaken and… not quite right.

On the jet back, Tony drops, as always. Natasha’s not feeling too great, but she holds herself together, because she’s not like Tony, and she will never be. Just looking at the engineer listening to whispered praise from Bruce makes her feel disgusted.

Thor keeps his hand out, the offer implicit, but she stares straight ahead, trying to ignore the pounding in her head. Clint’s slouched next to her, complaining about and cataloguing each and every one of his injuries. She doesn’t know where Steve is; probably in the back somewhere. It’s unlike him to neglect Tony after a mission, though.

When they reach the tower, Pepper meets them at the doors. Tony’s been curled into Banner literally the entire ride home- God, could he be any more pathetic?- but he still reaches for her like a fucking baby. She leads him away, and Natasha knows they won’t let anyone into their room all night, until she decides Tony’s better.

The rest of them pile into the elevator. Steve’s tense- incredibly tense, actually; he’s pale, too- but it’s probably because he’s pissed she didn’t drop so he could convince her to apologize to him when she’s pliant.

Okay, maybe that’s… no. Even as a snide thought, she knows he wouldn’t. Knows it’s not really fair to think.

She can’t dwell on him for long, though, because her own mind is starting to blister more. She has to find a private space, and now.

She looks down at their feet, counting and re-counting shoes in an effort to ground herself. The elevator’s going up so slowly. Clint’s weight’s shifting oddly, too, and she looks up, suddenly alarmed that he’s going to pass out.

He’s staring at her, and- oh. He’s shifting while signing, his hands moving quickly and off to the side where nobody else will see.

Are you okay?

She nods.

Clint purses his lips. I can help. I won’t say anything.

Natasha signs back, I’m fine, as strongly as she can.

He’s learned, because he doesn’t argue any more.

When the doors ping open, Natasha and Steve both head straight out; Steve goes out the right door, towards the lounge, so she goes left. Banner looks helplessly both ways before choosing to go to the kitchen. Thor hurries after her. Clint takes a step out of the elevator, thinks better of it, and lets the doors close; he’ll be up with Coulson, and just like Tony, they won’t come out until morning.

Natasha slows, hearing the footsteps behind her. The footsteps stop.

She starts walking again, and they resume. Natasha whips around, quick as lightning. “No,” she snarls, her hands balling into fists. If he comes closer, she’ll run into him and stay there, and she absolutely refuses to demean herself like that.

Thor doesn’t look offended; he tilts his head to the side, eyebrow raised. “I will do nothing you don’t want me to.”

“I said no.” She hurries into the nearest room and slams the door, leaning against it and breathing heavily.

She’s not dropping. She’s not dropping. She’s not dropping.

She. Is. Not. Dropping.

Natasha wrenches the band Tony gave off her wrist, throwing it onto the floor and closing her eyes at the satisfying clink as it bounces off the floor. She’s fine, kind of. In a way.

It’s not a real drop.

She’s not… her eyes are hot and achy, and her heart is pounding a painful rhythm inside her chest, faster and faster the more she tries to slow its beating. Her thoughts are splinters she can’t quite stitch into sense, or even an emotion- but they’re there, at least, and they’re not sharp painful little cracks in her mind.

Fine, it’s a drop. It’s not a major drop, though.

Okay. She breathes deeply. Minor drop, minor drop. She can do this; she’s fought much worse countless times in the face of countless taunts and countless kicks.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

It’ll take a while; it always does, and the fact that she holds it off seems to make it worse. If she just allowed herself to even lean into Thor on the jet on the way back, she probably wouldn’t have dropped at all.

Still. Better this than that.

It’s alright. She takes a deep breath in through her nose, eyes closed. It really is just a minor drop, something she can work through in ten minutes or so.

Natasha traces the lines on her palms, one by one. And then again when she’s done. The movement is calming, soothing in its mundanity and repetitiveness. Her breathing slows.

Her mind is heavy, hazy, unsettled. A minor drop can be battled through like a panic attack: unpleasant, to put it mildly, but it can be done. And even if she did nothing, even if she sat in one place letting her thoughts ram into the insides of her skull, it would still fade on its own. She was lucky, this time.

No, fuck that, not lucky. Next time she doesn’t want to drop at all. She’ll have to work something out.

Finally, her heart rate has slowed to a beat she’s comfortable with; she gets up slowly, her arms and legs feeling like jelly. She’s in that shivery state coming out of a drop where she’d really like to be held, but there is no way in hell she’s giving in to that, not like last time.

In fact. She’s going to do the opposite.

Natasha wrenches the door open with a lot more force than necessary, her hands still shaky. She’ll go outside with the doms, she decides. She’ll go out, and be fine, and sit there and prove to them- and herself- what she’s fucking made of.

No touching. No going near anyone. Just friendly, none-of-us-died, relieved, exhausted conversations like she always used to have after every damn mission before she got off Substop.

Banner’s not in the kitchen, strangely enough. He burns enough calories as Hulk that he eats more in a day than the rest of them in a week combined, after a transformation. Thor’s not there either.

Natasha heads towards the lounge, and is met with both Thor and Banner, the two of them looking upset and stressed. Banner’s phone is to his ear.

“What?” she asks immediately. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Thor says, smiling- but it’s tight. “You go rest.”

“What’s wrong?” she demands again, harsher. “Tell me.”

“Steve’s…” Bruce pauses, searching for words. His cell phone is in his hand, re-dialling. Whoever he called hadn’t picked up. “Have you ever heard of domdrop?”

Natasha stares at him. Yes, but she’s always thought it’s a myth propagated by subs, having never seen a dom drop in person. Domdrops aren’t like sundrops; they’re more like pure, extreme anxiety and distress. His thoughts would be clear, at least. “Why?” she asks. Very few things can cause a dom to drop, and basically the only thing she’s ever heard of is their sub being in extreme danger, or dead. “How?”

“We don’t know.” Thor glances back at the lounge; through the glass door, Natasha can see Steve on the couch, staring glassily at the opposite end of the room. “He will be fine. Dr. Banner was gracious enough to check him over.”

Bruce shrugs helplessly. “I don’t understand how he reacted like this, but yeah, he’ll be fine in an hour or so. I’m assuming it was seeing Tony in danger, but the same thing’s happened a lot. That level of stress shouldn’t have caused this.”

Natasha glances back into the room, and then at Thor. And then at Banner, who’s furiously dialing a number.

“Go on.” Thor gives her a gentle push, and she hates herself for wanting to latch on to it. “Go rest. We shall take care of him.”

Banner cuts his phone call, giving an annoyed growl. “They won’t pick up!”

“Who?” Natasha asks, knowing the answer before he says anything. “Stark.”

“Yeah.” Bruce runs his hand through his hair, frustrated. “Neither are Clint and Coulson. Thor already tried their rooms. Damn soundproofing.” He shakes his head, sliding his phone into his pocket. “Look, I’m famished. I’m gonna go grab something to eat and then try to reach them again. You guys should eat too, or go take a nap.”

“I shall come with you!” Thor says. He looks back towards Steve. “I will prepare something hot for Captain Rogers, to aid in his recovery.”

They’re not saying it. Neither of them is bringing up the fact that she’s a sub and could easily go in there and help him out. With a start, Natasha realizes that not only do they not expect it, but they’re not even a little begrudging.

Maybe it’s the remnants of the drop, or maybe it’s because it’s better for team dynamics if she does, or maybe it’s just because she has a damn heart, but Natasha finds herself saying, “It’s fine, don’t bother Stark or Clint. I’ll go.”

Bruce turns around, his eyebrows furrowed. “Nobody expects you to.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She brushes off his concern. “I’m offering, aren’t I?”

Thor’s giving her the exact same expression as Banner; God, it’s like they’re copying each other. “Natasha, you don’t have to…”

“Is anyone forcing me?” she asks, making a show of looking around. She sounds a lot more confident than she feels.

“Are you sure-”

Yes. You go make him some food, and feed yourselves before you collapse. I’ll be in the lounge.”

Steve doesn’t even look up when the glass door opens, even though she knows he heard it. “Hey, Cap,” she greets, falling to her tried-and-true personas to alleviate the uncomfortableness. “Make some space. Nobody likes a couch hog.”

He meets her eyes, and she almost winces at the vacant expression in his eyes, stopping herself at the last minute. “Natasha.” Her name is said like he’s not entirely sure who he’s talking to.

“Yeah, it’s me.” She moves a little closer. “Come on, make room.”

He’s a little more aware of his surroundings, and he sits up straighter, although his eyes are still unfocused. “No.”

She rolls her eyes. “Why not? You need a sub; I’m a sub.”

“You don’t- you don’t have to be here,” he says in reply, voice choked.

Natasha slides in beside him on the couch. It’s disturbing to see how affected he is; whatever made him this way, it has to be something major. “Well, I’m here anyways.”

Steve stays ram-rod straight, the muscles in his back so hardened from tension that she can see the lines through his shirt. He refuses to move near her, although she knows how desperately he must want to- for her, coming out of a very minor drop, the desire to be close to him is overpowering. She can’t imagine what he must be feeling.

“You don’t need to be here,” he says again, taking a deep, steadying breath. “I’m fine.”

“I already told you, I’m here. It’s up to you, Cap.”

Steve moves away from her. “I was terrible. I yelled at you, I- without your consent… Nat, I- God, I can’t think straight!”

Natasha lays a calming hand on his arm, and is almost alarmed when he shudders under her touch. He’s reacting exactly as she does during a drop, which means for him to be this resistant is hell. “Steve,” she says, her voice low. “We were both terrible, to each other. I brought up Peggy and… ” She catches herself just in time, realizing it might not be the best idea to bring up his old sub when he’s like this. Or Stark. “I was pretty shitty too. We’re good. Let me help you.”

(The only thing is, this is the first time in her life she’s ever voluntarily tried to convince someone she’s more at fault than they believe, and she can’t decide if she’s annoyed at him for it.)

Steve swallows visibly, obviously internally battling with himself. And then just when she thinks she’s going to have to literally jump onto him to get him to accept some help, he extends his arm and loops it around her, hesitantly at first. She willingly accepts the touch and leans into it.

After a few moments he lets out a deep breath, and then pulls her into him.

And fuck her, but that feels amazing.

It’s for Steve, she rationalizes, as she burrows deeper into him, letting him hold her tightly and stroke over her arms and her hair.

“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you, this helps so much… you don’t even know…”

“I do,” she reminds him wryly. She can feel his hear banging out of his chest, loud and rushed and uneven. “You did the same for me.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, squeezing her arm. “I should have understood. I should have listened to you.”

“Stop it, Steve.” Natasha groans, thumping him. “I’m sorry. You’re sorry. It’s done.”

Steve’s eyes are closed, head resting on hers. “I’m fine now. You don’t have to do this.” He makes no move to detach himself from her, though.

Natasha just chuckles softly and shakes her head, knowing he’ll feel the movement. “I’m here for as long as you want me to be.”

He sighs, long and shivery. “Thank you,” he breathes.

She doesn’t reply. It’s not like this is unpleasant for her; in the jittery stages coming out of a drop, this is downright incredible. He calmed her just as she’s calming him, and although his touch brought her to ‘normal’ in about thirty seconds since she was already basically fine, this… isn’t bad at all. Touch is nice.

“Are you okay?” she asks finally, once they’ve been there for a while. She feels like she can ask, so she adds: “What happened?”

This is so rare, that he must know exactly what triggered it. There’s no way it could be just from Tony, or Clint- or her- being in danger today. That happens all the time.

For a long while, Steve doesn’t answer, and Natasha doesn’t think he’s going to. Then he says, very quietly: “Bucky was alive.”

“What?” She sits up so quickly she knocks the top of her head on his chin. She’s seen pictures of his collared sub; he was a hero, Captain America’s best friend.  “Wait, what do you mean, was?”

Again, he’s silent for so long, she’s not expecting the answer, and she’s let him curl her back into him by the time he does. “He… fell. I thought he was dead, but…. somehow. I don’t know. He told me. Showed me. When he tried to bribe me for his escape.”

“Raznikoff?” she clarifies. “He gave you information in exchange for you letting him go?” So that’s how he’d gotten out of the building. It was smart of Steve, though, to let him go knowing he’d run straight into Hulk. Underhanded, too.

Steve nods. “He said Bucky was alive, and some people found him. He gave me codes, access. I was looking through it on the jet, Nat, it’s torture. They kept him and experimented on him, and he was definitely alive for at least two goddamn years after I thought…” He’s getting upset again, so she lays a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay. Calm down, Steve, it’s okay…” It’s not, though. This isn’t something anyone can fix.

Poor Bucky, though. She feels a stab of pity for the man, even having never known him.

Steve collects himself. “The files end two years after he fell. He probably died then. But he died alone, after being fucking tortured, and I just…” He lapses into silence again.

Sometime later, Thor and Banner burst into the room, followed by Clint and Coulson- all four stop short, even though they knew what they’d see. Steve smiles at them and gladly takes Thor’s offered food, unraveling himself from Natasha.

The others, clearly relieved that their leader is back to himself, lounge around on the other sofas, cracking jokes and ribbing each other. Steve and Natasha participate, both aware of the extra eyes on them.

“Thank you,” Steve says under his breath, when Thor’s being extra loud.

Natasha nods, missing the contact now that she’d experienced it for so long. “Don’t mention it.”

Chapter Text

———————————

December 1995. France.

———————————

Natasha doesn’t know where they are, except that they are somewhere in France, or maybe Quebec; her status is need-to-know only. This is less of a mission and more of a test, for Elya and Anya. They are the only two left in their class, after Nina was hit by a sniper last February, and Sasha tripped a bomb too early just two months ago. 

When Natasha heard about Sasha’s death, she felt a tinge of gratification. She knows… she thinks, maybe, there’s a reason she felt that way, but she can’t remember. That day Sasha died, she was up all night trying to think, but she couldn’t recall any insult, any degradation from Sasha that was any worse than what she got from Sveta, or Elya, or Anya, or Nastya. It bothered her, for a few days- it’s been drilled into her by Nikolei Mikhailovich that a gut instinct is to be listened to. But she couldn’t put her finger on why she should have felt differently about Sasha, so eventually she stopped thinking about it. 

“Noelle.” A sugar-sweet smile plays on Anya’s lips. The fourteen-year-old is dressed in a skirt that leaves little to the imagination, a grating french accent twisting through her words, even though nobody is close enough to hear. Of course, Anatoly Viktorovich is always listening in; as the head of their class, he’d be keeping a close eye on the mission. Nikolei Mikhailovich as well, maybe, since he’s head of Natasha’s class and she’s here with them. “We may have better luck if you get on your knees,” Anya continues.

“Peut-être,” says Elya, her hand nervously tapping on her hip. “Fais-le.” Do it.

They’re here to draw out the dirty CEO of a company that’s giving Anton Petrovich trouble. And apparently, Alexandre Dubois has quite a thing for pretty young subs. Katya has been dead long enough that when they told her of the mission, Natasha only thought ‘why me?’ for a split-second before she shoved it down.

Except they have been standing here for two hours, and although the CEO is dining in the restaurant across the street, he hasn’t come anywhere near them, and barely spared them a second glance through the window. Elya and Anya chose the location, and there will be consequences if they fail.

“I can’t kneel,” Natasha replies, her own short skirt riding up her thighs as she shifts from foot to foot in the cold. It’s their test; she has the upper hand here.“Look at the floor; it’s filthy!”

Immediately, Anatoly Viktorovich’s harsh voice in her ear- “French!”- accompanies a firm pinch on her arm from Anya. 

“Parles en français, ou avec un accent francais,” Elya hisses. Anya lays a hand on Natasha’s shoulder and forcibly shoves her down to the ground, scraping the sub’s knees on the gravel. As she does, she places a hand over her comm so the instructor doesn’t hear and snarls, “Useless sub! Only worth keeping around for a honeypot.”

Natasha doesn’t bother resisting as she’s forced to the floor. It may be their mission, but she’ll face the consequences, too, if she deliberately messes it up. Instead, she studies Dubois, through the window. 

He’s a terrible liar- if you’re trained to spot the signs. His foot taps every time he lies to the person across the table, who he’s convincing to sign some papers, and every lie is accompanied by a small sip of coffee. 

He’s lying right now; the foot is tapping away and he’s drinking coffee like he’ll never see it again.

The man across the table is unsure; he pushes the papers away from him. A small frown flits across Dubois’ face as he glances sideways out the window- and meets Natasha’s eyes. Hastily, she looks down. After a few seconds, when she thinks it’s safe, she raises her eyes.

Dubois is gesturing fluidly as he talks animatedly to the person across the table, offering a pen.

His foot taps. He takes a sip of coffee and smiles.

The man across the table signs the papers.

One of the men drops their credit card onto the table. They stand. A waiter collects the card, while another hurries over with their coats. The first waiter returns with the credit card as they finish buttoning their coats.

A shiver runs through Natasha. She knows what will happen next.

Alexandre Dubois exits the restaurant. After a quick exchange with his driver, he looks both ways before crossing the street, to the girls.

“Quick- il arrive!” says Anya, the urgent tone in her voice belied by her steady, flirtatious stance. Natasha does her best to look demure and innocent, eyes downcast and shoulders hunched, as he approaches. Most of it is deliberate. A small part of her wants to make herself as small as possible so he doesn’t see her.

“Bonsoir, monsieur,” Elya purrs, her body curving towards him with all the grace poured into her by Polina Dmitrievna.

“Bonsoir, chérie,” Dubois replies. Although she does not look up, Natasha feels the hardness of his eyes on her, even as he replies to Elya. “Que font trois jolies filles si tard?” What are three such pretty young girls doing out so late? As if he doesn’t know.

Anya brushes her fingers along his suit sleeve.“Le travail ne commence qu'après le coucher du soleil, pour nous.” Our job only starts after sunset.

Dubois grins, big and wolfish, his stained teeth peeking out behind thick lips.“Le plus vieux metier du monde, eh?” He chuckles. “C’est vrai, mais. Les belles de nuit se voient rarement de jour.” It’s true; ladies of the night are so rarely seen in the day.

He reaches down and slides three fingers under Natasha’s chin. Wrenching her face up to meet his eyes, his smile grows larger, more predatory, and her heart rate spikes instantly. “Comment triste, d'être privés de voir une telle beauté quand son visage pouvait être vu facilement.” How sad, he laments, that he could not see Natasha’s beautiful face in the sunlight.

Anya jumps at the chance, stating the price they’d agreed upon.“Cent quatre-vingts francs pour une nuit. Un rabais.” Francs. So they’re in France, then.

“With her?” Dubois points to Natasha, who uses sniper breathing to keep herself calm.

“Non.” Elya gestures at herself and Anya, switching to broken English to mimic him. “We, ah, come cheaper. She is, how to say… in demand.”

“I will take her.” He is insistent, as they knew he’d be. As Natasha had hoped he wouldn’t be. She breathes deeply, clenching and unclenching her fists.“Seulement. Only her.”

“At a hotel? She costs two-fifty, and you must pay for the room.”

He clears his throat. “Pas un hotel. I prefer to take… chez moi. It is easier.”

Natasha hears Anya give a tiny intake of breath. It’s what they’ve been counting on- Dubois is rumored to take prostitutes home with him to avoid being videotaped, or any possible form of blackmail. The location of his home is exactly what they need to break in and… take care of things.

“If you take her to your house… Deux cent quatre-vingts francs, monsieur,” says Elya, firm.

For a second, Natasha thinks the price is too much, that he’ll refuse… she closes her eyes and hopes and prays but then-

“Putain!” Dubois wrenches open his jacket and grabs his wallet, throwing two hundred and eighty francs onto the ground at their feet. “Voleurs, toutes les putes. Here!”

Anya hauls Natasha to her feet- at 5’3”, she has no trouble lifting her, as she’s a whole nine inches shorter. “Go with him.”

Natasha should move. She should. All her training tells her to just go with him wherever he wants to take her, and they will get her out once she’s in his house. But all she can see are the stained teeth of a man who drinks coffee every time he lies.

“Come, minette.” 

Natasha wants to slap him for calling her kitty. But she cannot move. 

“Don’t be shy.” He takes pity on her- she thinks that’s what it is, maybe. “T’es très belle.”

She shifts uncomfortably. Behind her, where he cannot see, Anya takes one of her fingers and twists. “Merci, monsieur. You are too kind.”

“Your name?”

She hesitates- her heart is pounding; she does not want to go with this man- and it costs her. Anya’s hand slaps across her cheek, leaving a burning imprint. “Noelle,” Natasha stammers quickly. “Sorry, Noelle.”

“How old are you, Noelle?”

Less than three weeks ago, she was ten. She is one of the youngest on record to be sent out to seduce. “As old as you want me to be, monsieur.”

His grin expands, and his teeth are so yellow. “Have you been told before, what a beautiful sub you are?”

She has not. But she has been told since she was seven- many times- that when she is older, old enough to go on seduction missions, the men will tell her she is beautiful. And how she must respond is drilled into her, so deeply and so ingrained that she easily falls back on the learned behavior to cope with her mounting panic.

“Je suis la tienne,” she purrs, sliding down to her knees and looking up at him and his coffee-stained teeth through heavy lashes. I’m yours.

He loves it, and beckons her up with a crook of his little finger. “Come, then. Say goodbye to your sisters.”

“Au revoir, Annette,” says Natasha dutifully. “Au revoir, Eloise.”

“Good girl,” says Dubois, stroking her cheek. “Into my car, now.”

When she slips in behind him, she hears the door locks click before he raises a white cloth and shrugs apologetically as he presses it over her mouth with a murmured, “It’s necessary, ma minette.” She’s been briefed and warned that he may use any number of methods to knock her out on the drive over, so she doesn’t resist, breathing in through the harsh chemical smell until the world goes black.

Later, she thinks, if she hadn’t been terrified out of her mind, she would have remembered to stop breathing and only pretend to pass out. As it is, none of her instructors could tell if she faked sleep or was genuinely unconscious through the tinted windows, so she faced no consequences.

When she comes to, she is in a plush, luxurious bedroom. Dubois sits on one corner of the bed, drinking coffee.

“La belle au bois dormant,” he croons. Sleeping beauty. “Come to me.” He takes her wrist to guide her to stand next to him, and then weighs his hand on her shoulder until she understands, and drops to her knees on the thick, carpeted floor. “Good girl. Don’t worry, I am a nice man.”

He takes a sip of coffee.

XXX

She is being carried over someone’s shoulder through the barbed wire gates guarding the grounds outside their training facility (not home- they’re never permitted to call it home). Her arms and head dangle down a man’s back, her legs held firm by an arm. It only takes her three steps, with her eyes closed, to identify the gait as Anatoly Viktorovich’s. Her too-short skirt is riding up in the back, and she wants to reach behind, but she feels too boneless and exhausted to walk, so she pretends to still be asleep and lies motionless.

Her instructor does not realize she is conscious, and when they reach the door, she hears Polina Dmitrievna and Yakov Yuryvich. She is the manager of all the girls, and he is in charge of sub training, so it makes sense that they are interested in the outcome of this mission.

“Oна пошла вниз?” asks Polina Dmitrievna. Did she drop?

Anatoly Viktorovich grunts an affirmative in response, and Polina Dmitrievna sighs a curse at the sub.

“Я возьму ее,” Yakov Yuryvich offers to take Natasha, “Вы идете отдохнуть.” You go rest.

Anatoly Viktorovich thanks him with a second grunt. Natasha feels someone adjusting her skirt, tugging it down, before she’s tipped forwards into Yakov Yuryvich’s arms, one hand under her knees, and the other supporting her back.

He takes her down the corridor towards the west wing. They’re barely out of hearing range before he says in English, “You’re awake, aren’t you?” She doesn’t answer. He shakes her firmly. “Aren’t you? Answer me!”

“Пожалуйста,” Natasha murmurs, without opening her eyes. Please. In Russian, because she can’t think in English right now.

She’s jostled, and then there’s an acute painful sting near her knee, where he flicks her sharply. “You are also smarter than that, Natalia.”

English day today. She doesn’t want to force her heavy mind to pick through splinters of memory and find words in English. She must, though. Yakov Yuryvich- Instructor Yakov, she reminds herself- is unpredictable; today seems like one of his good days, since he hasn’t dropped her like a sack of potatoes yet. It’s better not to push him, though. His bad days mean vacant violence and merciless tormenting beyond anything even Instructor Anatoly can dish out.

The instructor takes Natasha’s silence as assent to the change in language. “How long were you there before Elvira and Anna pulled you out?”

“Twenty, maybe thirty, minutes,” she replies after a length of time. Thinking is hard. He does not seem to mind her making him wait.

“What did he do to make you like this?” Natasha turns confused green eyes on him. She’s dropped before, many times. “You went into sub-shock.”

Oh. That’s why she feels like this even though it’s been hours since she dropped. Elya and Anya had spit abuses at her when they’d retrieved her, calling her weak and useless because she had to ditch her comm once she was in the house. Instructor Anatoly had joined in during the first part of the flight back to Russia. After that, everything is a dark blur.

“He yelled at me,” she answers, assuming he means Instructor Anatoly. “He slapped me many times.” Her cheeks hurt, she realizes dimly. “So did Anya and Elya. Instructor Anatoly hit them too, though, because they messed up when they-”

“No.” Instructor Yakov looks a little funny. Maybe because she’s sideways. “Dubois.”

“Oh.” Natasha’s head lolls against his chest as she struggles to recall. The arm under her back is freezing, the cold seeping through her thin top. “He didn’t… He didn’t get time to…” She changes tacks. “I kneeled for him.”

Instructor Yakov rolls her over his forearms a little, so her back is to him, and then rolls her back. “You have many bruises.”

“He drinks a lot of coffee,” she says by way of answer.

Instructor Yakov raises an eyebrow. “And he burned you with the coffee?”

He doesn’t understand. It makes sense in Natasha’s head. She struggles to explain. “No, I kneeled the whole time.”

“You said that.” After a long silence when it’s apparent that she isn’t going to say anything further, he asks, “The bruises?”

She thinks about the answer to the question for so long that she forgets the question, and when Instructor Yakov repeats it, more sharply, she says, “He has a lot of rules.”

There’s a slight change in Instructor Yakov’s breathing that sounds like he’s holding back a snort, but she’s too exhausted to care. “Maybe it will teach you. You are the worst at rules.”

“Я знаю,” she sighs out. I know.

He rolls his eyes. “English!”

“See?”

He begins climbing the staircase leading into the west wing. “So you kneeled and he beat you a lot. Nothing else happened?”

Natasha shakes her head. It hurts. “He was going to. He would have. If Elya and Anya hadn’t come.” It’s difficult to form coherent sentences when everything is so jumbled in her head. “They said it was my fault. I threw away my comm. He had a scanner at his entrance!” She leans her burning forehead against Instructor Yakov’s cold arm. She is so thankful that he lets her. “He had a gun. They tripped a security wire. He was going to shoot them but I took him down before they got in the room. I was good.” And then, more quietly, and after several seconds: “I was strong.” She needs someone to tell her that she’s not weak and useless and if nobody else will… well, she’ll just have to lie to herself then. “I am strong.”

Instructor Yakov puts her down at the top of the staircase. She sways, vision blurring for a second, before he steadies her with a hand on her neck. “Walk,” he says, and Natasha does, but she can’t stop talking.

“I’m good, strong, good,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself as she trails him down a long, grey corridor, talking in a high, thin voice. “I am strong and brave and good. Good girl. Strong Natasha. Good girl. Très belle, très jolie. Good girl, Noelle, good girl. Kneel for me, there’s a good sub. Très belle, Noelle. Ma minette. Très belle. Très-”

He stops walking so suddenly, she bumps into him.

“Ow. You hurt my head. Yakov Yuryvich is not good. Not like Noelle. Noelle is very good, and strong. Ma minette est très belle, très jolie. Ma-”

“Enough, Natalia!” barks Instructor Yakov.

She stops instantly. He sighs, then strides towards her, and she thinks he is going to hit her, but instead he just sighs again and picks her up. She is so cold.

He deposits her in an empty room, and locks the door behind him, telling her that he will let her out tomorrow morning. He is doing her a favour, Natasha knows. The girls would tear her to pieces in this state.

The next morning, Nikolei Mikhailovich drags her out for her Italian lessons. Yakov Yuryvich has disappeared again, and he does not return for several days.

 

———————————

June 2000. Brazil.

———————————

The man in bed next to her is mind-numbingly boring. 

You would expect, Natasha thinks, a man old enough to be her father to have enough life experience to be able to tell at least ONE interesting story. But no.

She had subbed for him at night, taken any hits or slaps with eyes downcast and a ‘Whatever pleases you, sir’ always on her lips, and faked her way through a few orgasms to fluff his ego. She’d expected him to fall asleep soon after. Instead, he turned out to be a fan of pillow talk. 

After hearing about the time his youngest son went off to college, she’s about to put a bullet through his head just to put an end to this torture, but he lets out a sudden snore, draping a heavy arm over the fifteen year old.

Finally. Took him long enough.

She goes through his belongings with a practiced ease, eventually finding the files that confirm his betrayal of the KGB on his phone, behind five layers of security. 

Looks like the bullet may not go to waste, after all.

“Got it,” she says quietly, just loud enough to be picked up over comms.

“Был он?” asks Nikolei Mikhailovich. Was it him?

Natasha murmurs a yes, and then she’s on the bed, a knife in her hand, and the man hasn’t even stirred. Fool.

Before he gets a chance to open his eyes, she’s slit his throat, and then she’s out of the room with anything valuable. A quick stop at a mirror to check her appearance- yes, she looks exactly like a well-fucked prostitute walking out of a five star hotel would- and she’s into the lobby and out the door.

All in a day’s work.

 

———————————

Present day. New York.

———————————

They’re watching some children’s cartoon that Natasha’s never heard of before called Anastasia. She’s sitting at the end of the three-seater, with the rest of them distributed along the rest of the couches. Clint and Coulson are leaning into each other, fingers intertwined, on the same couch as her- Clint’s legs are tangled with hers, half her blanket draped over him.

The girl in the film’s name is Anya. Which Natasha was… not thrilled about. It’s a stupid name, and to have to root for a protagonist with that name is a little absurd. If Anya was the villain, then sure, she could get behind this film. As it stood, she smirked a little every time something went wrong in the character’s life.

She keeps silent for much of the film, but when Anastasia remembers who she is, and she and her grandmother reunite: “That’s ridiculous.”

“What?” asks Clint. “The evil magic? Because I gotta tell you, Tash, it’s a bit late in the game for that.”

She throws popcorn at his head, looking apologetically at Coulson when some lands on him. “The name, asshole.”

“What’s wrong with Anastasia?” he demands.

“Her own grandmother? And her close friends?” Natasha snorts. “They would never call her Anastasia.”

“It’s a fantasy,” Clint complains, collecting the popcorn kernels she threw at him, and throwing them right back at her. 

“Still. It’s set in a real place, and about semi-real people,” says Bruce, surprisingly on Natasha’s side. He’s usually the first to groan if any of them get started on the inaccuracies in action films, and for that reason point-blank refuses to be in the room while they watch any of the James Bond or Mission Impossible series. “They could at least make an effort.”

“Would they call her by a title, where you come from? Princess, perhaps?” Thor’s genuinely curious, and- she thinks- a little excited to find out about a culture more similar to Asgard. It had shocked him to read the tabloids referring to ‘William’ and ‘Kate’, sans ‘Royal Highness’ or any other respectful prefix. 

“Naw, they wouldn’t! Nat always makes shit up about Russia.” Clint gestures at the TV as, on-screen, Anastasia embraces her grandmother, weeping. His comment earns him a stern look from Coulson, and he adds quickly, “They didn’t know she was the princess, remember. That’s the whole point.”

“What would they call her?” asks Steve, directed at Natasha.

“Nastya, mostly.” She tilts her head to the side as the villain’s green swirling magic lights up their faces, bathing the room in an eerie glow. “And Dmitri would be Dima. Vladimir’s friends would say-”

“Let me take a wild guess here: Vlad,” says Tony.

“…Vova,” Natasha corrects, pleased to see him huff and roll his eyes. “Anya’s right, though.”

“Anya’s a pretty name,” says Clint. “I slept with this- ” He breaks off abruptly with a sheepish grin as Coulson glares at him. “I mean… Anya’s a really pretty name, right Nat?”

Sure, if you think people who thrive on misery are attractive. Natasha doesn’t remember everyone from the Red Room- it’s been a decade, and she prefers not to think about it. But one memory in particular of when she was eleven years old and terrified she will never, ever forget, and Anya was a large part of that. In hindsight, Anya had been fourteen years old and just as much a victim as Natasha herself; the rationality behind that knowledge still doesn’t mean that she’ll ever be able to hear the name purely again. 

So many years, so many names ruined beyond repair. Anya, Elya, Sveta, Alexandre, Andrei, Anatoly, Polina, Ivan, Anton…. the list is endless.

Clint’s waiting for her, and she can’t bring herself to give more than a half-hearted murmur of agreement on how beautiful a name Anya is, so she adds, “It’s the diminutive of Anna.”

“Oh, diminutives!” Steve’s nodding, eyes holding a spark of memory. “Yeah, I remember now. During the war, whenever we came across Russians, they’d have all of these different names for each other- we could never keep ‘em straight.”

“So it’s true,” says Tony.

“Thank you, Steve, for weighing in as the authority on all things Russian,” Coulson says, the snark directed more towards Tony than Steve; the latter ducks his head, smiling.

Natasha turns to Clint. “We’ve been in Russia three-dozen times. How do you not know this?”

He shrugs, leaning into Coulson, his legs still tangled in her blanket. “Uh, maybe because when I’m shooting people’s heads off, I tend to skip the small talk?” Shoveling a handful of popcorn into his mouth, he continues, “But next time I’ll definitely ask.” He begins a mock interrogation, popcorn still in his mouth. “Hi, hey, I’m Clint, can you just tell me real quick- what’s your name, and what do your friends call you? Okay, cool. Bye now.” He mimes shooting a gun, then promptly collapses onto Coulson, playing dead.

“Hey,” Coulson nudges his switch. “You’re getting crumbs all over me.”

“Sorry.”

Steve’s eyebrows are scrunched as he tries to remember, ignoring Clint’s theatrics. “There were three names, I think?”

Tony narrows his eyes, directing his comment to Natasha. “You have three names.” Somehow, he manages to make it sounds accusatory. “Natalia Alianovna Romanova.”

“Natalia is my name. Natasha is my diminutive.”

“Oh, wait.” Suddenly, Clint sits up straight, and his fingers begin tapping arrhythmically on his thighs. He’s steadfastly avoiding her eyes. “You didn’t choose a new name. When you joined SHIELD, I mean. You just made your… friendly name… your legal name.” He sounds a little put-out by it; Natasha understands why, since to him, the new name had been representative of turning over a new leaf, so to speak. 

But no. She has been called Natasha since she was born, by her parents, and since she was five, by the other widows- and later, when her KGB missions required her to seduce or gain trust, by her marks. Now, though, on any SHIELD infiltrations in Russia, she insists on using fake names, even just to order coffee, much to Clint’s confusion. He assumes she’s paranoid, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

In Russia, she would have to go by Natalia in general conversation. And the truth is that she can’t stand anyone calling her that, not anymore. Natalia is the helpless little girl abused by her instructors and peers. She is no longer Natalia. 

At least, that’s what she tells herself.

Deep down, no matter how much she convinces herself otherwise, she knows the truth is that she feels a kinship to little Natalia. It’s why when she was given the option to change her name, she chose Natasha and not an entirely new moniker.

“Is Alianovna a traditional middle name?” asks Coulson. He probably picked up on Clint’s change in tone, and of course, being Coulson, realized the cause and is trying to change the subject to get his switch’s mind off of it.

Natasha humours him. “It’s daughter of Alian. My father was Alian Romanov.” It’s surprising how fascinated they all are by her country’s naming conventions; she has everyone’s attention, even Tony’s. 

“I heard, a few times, both first and middle names… ?” Steve trails off. 

“It’s common,” she answers. “When I was… growing up, we called our instructors by their first and middle name. Polina Dmitrievna was Polina, daughter of Dmitri. Yakov Yuryvich was Yakov, son of Yury.” She cocks her head to one side, eyes trained unblinking on the TV. There’s a still sort of silence in the room, all of them well aware of how rare it is for her to volunteer any information at all about her childhood, no matter how small. “Son of George, in English. You can’t just use the first name.”

“That’s so interesting,” says Steve. From anyone else it would have sounded like sarcasm, but he’s entirely genuine.

On the TV screen, Anastasia- Nastya, really- rolls across the ground while green swirls of magic twist through the air, and their attention shifts.

When the film finishes, Steve and Thor head back to their rooms, while the rest of them continue lounging and talking. Natasha drifts over to the bookshelf to pick out something to read, and then  plops down on the single-seater.

Bruce is leaning against Tony as they whisper in each other’s ear about some new gadget, probably. It’s hard to stay focused on the tech talk, although she could if she wanted to. Natasha’s warm and comfortable where she is, but she can’t help but feel a glimmer of… something… when she sees Bruce and Tony, and Clint and Coulson, cuddled into each other on the other couch.

It’s not jealousy.

Or insecurity.

Or longing.

It’s not any of those things. What it is, she doesn’t know. 

When Bruce brushes a hand through Tony’s hair and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like ‘you’re so clever’, Natasha can’t help but snort quietly. Well. She could help it, if she felt so inclined, but if she chooses not to…

None of them comment on it. Several minutes pass. When she’s polished off her bowl of popcorn, Coulson whispers something in Clint’s ear that she can’t quite catch from across the room. 

“Of course,” Clint says in a low voice.

Coulson smiles gratefully and drops a kiss on his lips before lowering himself to the floor and- he’s not- yes he is, he’s kneeling for Clint. Clint’s got his hand on Coulson’s neck and is stroking calmly and smoothly. 

She sucks in a breath. 

It’s not the first time she’s seen anyone kneel since that time she was eleven. She has- of course she has, in films and TV shows and maybe at the odd restaurant or two. It’s such an intimate thing to do, though, that she’s never seen anyone she knows by name do it- except Tony, and Tony is weak. And even then, she’s seen him kneel, what, five times in total? When she was on Substop, she generally left to her quarters well before Clint or Coulson had time to get affectionate.

Sometimes on missions she had to ‘impersonate’ a sub- fucking laughable in hindsight. She never kneeled. Not even once. If they gave her the option, she stated it as a hard limit, and if they didn’t… well, they went home with one less bone intact.

Coulson is not defenseless. He is not weak or helpless, and he doesn’t live for praise. He should not be degrading himself like this, and Clint shouldn’t be letting him. 

She stiffens as it occurs to her that if Coulson kneels for Clint, then Clint must kneel for Coulson, and the image of Clint lying docile as his knees scrape the ground is too much to stomach. 

Clint’s watching her. “Are you okay?”

“What are you doing?” Natasha asks, voice raspy. “Why is he…?”

“He’s kneeling because he wants to,” Clint answers, although it comes out more like a question- the question being, why the hell do you care so much.

“Never kneeled before?” Tony butts in. She shakes her head.

On your knees, Noelle. 

“Still, you’ve seen me kneel.”

If you listen to me I won’t have to hurt you, minette.

“You’re different.” She says it with enough bite that all of them understand what the difference between Coulson and Tony is, and Bruce’s arm tightens around Tony. “I don’t know why he would.”

“Because he wants to,” Clint says again, as if it’s that simple.

“Why would he want to?” Natasha asks.

Coulson looks up. “I just do.”

They all lapse into silence, each absorbed in their own partner, while Natasha pretends to be focused on a book. She turns the page every few minutes, but out of the corner of her eye, she watches Clint and Coulson. It disgusts her, the feeling traveling down and curling around her toes, that she’s watching for Coulson’s sake- to make sure Clint isn’t doing anything to him.

That she could think that of Clint sickens her. And yet, she still watches.

Coulson is sitting very still, a cushion under his knees. That’s good, at least. His knees won’t be sore, after. Hers had been, when-

That’s neither here nor there. She shoves the memory down, eyes sliding to Bruce and Tony while she controls the red-hot fury that spikes every time she thinks of it. The sub is curled into Bruce’s embrace, a StarkTab laid between them. The affection is so… easy.

As she looks back at Clint, who’s gently stroking Coulson’s hair and neck, but otherwise silent, she lets out a silent sigh. 

It’s not abusive. Coulson isn’t being demeaned. It’s Clint, for fuck’s sake, and he would never.

It’s almost- now that she thinks of it- loving, in a way that Natasha’s never really seen before. Tony usually doesn’t like to kneel since he can’t sit still for so long, and when he does, it’s only ever been as a calming-down measure, suggested by one of the doms.

This looks nice, and comforting, and not at all unpleasant. The flash of something that she feels may not be jealousy, or insecurity, or longing, but it’s something damn close.

Clint whispers something and Coulson rises in one swift, graceful motion, moving past Natasha as he goes to get a book. 

“Didn’t know we had two weak subs like Stark here,” she mutters snidely, quietly enough that only he hears. Even if the other occupants in the room don’t hear what she said, nobody misses the way Coulson makes a deliberate effort to straighten his shoulders.

“Nat,” says Clint. Part concern, part warning, part question. He reaches a hand out to Coulson, who takes it gladly, and settles at Clint’s feet again. 

Natasha raises her hands, palms up, hating herself at this moment but unable to control it. “What?”

“Not now, please…” says Clint. “If you’d like us to, we can leave. If we’re making you uncomfortable.”

“You’re not.”

“Okay.”

Bruce and Tony are watching the exchange with wide eyes; Tony’s smirking a little. 

For a few minutes, they’re all silent again. Until Coulson lets out a small, happy sigh as he rests his head on Clint’s leg, and Natasha rolls her eyes with a quiet huff.

Fuck him for being able to do that.

What is your problem?” asks Tony. He’s itching for a spectacle, and they all know it.

Well, Natasha can get a few digs at him in, and she’s happy to. “He’s acting like you.”

“Natasha,” Bruce groans, pulling Tony closer. She hates it.

She shrugs. “Am I lying? Look at him. He’s degrading himself; he looks pathetic down there, cowering all-”

There’s a harsh scrape as Clint stands up so suddenly he pushes the coffee table back a few inches. “Alright,” he says, breathing deeply. “I’m gonna stop you right there before you say something we’re all gonna regret. Phil needs some sub time, so I’m taking him upstairs so he can get that in peace.” Without you ruining it, is unspoken.

Coulson nods at the implicit order and rises, heading to the elevators ahead of Clint. The archer stops in front of Natasha on his way out.

“Come hang out on our floor later tonight?” It’s his way of saying he understands, and they’re good. She nods.

She waits for him to drop a kiss onto her cheek or the top of her head, or brush her arm as he usually might, as goodbye. He does none of those things- does not touch her at all- and follows Coulson out.

Natasha isn’t used to wanting anything specific. Of course, as a child, she’d wanted a lot: toys, dresses, cake. Then later: clothes, food, sleep. She has never, in her life, wanted more people telling her what to do, or more people ‘taking care’ of her.

As she identifies that right now, that’s exactly what she wants, she finds herself warding off a wave of anxiety.

XXX

Natasha finds Thor in the kitchen (where else?), her entire body vibrating minutely with reeled-in nervous energy. He closes the fridge and turns to greet her as she approaches, waving with a hand holding a half-eaten sandwich.

“Natasha!”

“Hey, Thor.” She’s not sure how or when to ask him.

“What’s up?” She snorts at that; he just looks so pleased with himself, and obviously Tony or Clint have been teaching him some things. Thor’s face falls. “I said it wrong?”

“Nope, spot on.” She doesn’t elaborate, guessing that he wouldn’t appreciate being told it’s just him. There’s a small, awkward silence, as she opens her mouth to say what she came here to say, and at the last moment decides against it. Thor waits for her to speak, and when she doesn’t, he gives her an odd look, then glances at the fridge.

“Did you eat dinner?” he asks, as if the answer matters to him.

“No. I’ll eat a big breakfast tomorrow.” Natasha doesn’t miss the flit of disapproval across his face. 

He begins a laundry list of items in the fridge: “You should try the turkey sandwiches; they are divine. And if you are not partial to meat at this late hour, there is some delicious vegetarian- ”

“Order me to do something,” Natasha says in a rush, rocking on the balls of her feet before she forces herself to stop. 

Thor stares at her. “Why? Are you making a point, as before?” She shakes her head. “Then why?”

What can she say? She doesn’t want to tell him of her sudden need to feel cared-for after observing the gentle affection between the couples in the lounge. She just wants him to do something

“I just want you to.” Natasha stares him right in the eyes to avoid looking down, a hot flush creeping up her cheeks. “Actually, you know what, never mind.”

“No, no!” Thor stretches out a hand to stop her exiting, although he doesn’t reach far enough to touch her. “If you would like me to order you as a dom, then it is my honour.” She waits, her heart beating faster than it ever has. “One command, or a session?”

“No.” She shakes her head almost too fast. “One, just one.”

Thor purses his lips, studying her. “Alright. Then I would like you to heat up the leftover pasta and have it for dinner.”

Natasha’s eyebrow’s lash together. She thought she could trust him to respect her- it’s why she’d gone to him and nobody else- and he pulls this fucking shit. After a few beats of silence, she says in a low voice, carefully filtering out any hint of betrayal and filling it with quiet fury instead: “That’s not funny.”

“I did not say it in jest.” Thor nods to the fridge. “We have no contract or relationship, so of course I will not mind if you choose not to.”

“No.” Natasha folds her arms. “Order me like you would a sub.”

“But that would be my first thought,” he replies obstinately. “My first and most important thought as a dom is towards my sub’s health and mental wellbeing. Everything else is second.”

She wants to laugh and scream at the same time. “Okay, but I meant something more… submissive.”

He looks at the fridge, and back at her. “But,” he starts again, “Jane subs for me, and when she works far too much, I tell her to eat.”

“Right, okay, I got that.” Natasha rubs her temples, feeling a headache coming on from the frustration. “Order me to do something else.” He doesn’t reply, so after a few seconds she continues, “Like, for example, you could-”

“Natasha,” Thor interrupts her with an air of kind caution, “If you wish to relinquish control, then perhaps telling me what exactly to command you defeats the purpose.” He closes the refrigerator door as she stands wordless in the centre of the kitchen. “I care very much about you. And I would like you to eat. As a dom, that is my order to you.”

He moves past her, reaching out hesitantly to squeeze her arm gently as he does so. And with a quiet, “Goodnight, Natasha,” he’s gone.

Natasha stands in the kitchen alone for a very long time. Long enough that she sees the windows of light in the corridor outside disappear as someone in the lounge flicks off the lights. Long enough that eventually, the intervals between the whirring of the elevator mechanisms grow longer and longer, and then the whirring stops entirely. Long enough that she can’t hear anything at all. 

The Tower is silent. 

She does not move.

A cricket chirps outside.

Natasha goes to the fridge, takes out a plate of leftover pasta, and heats it up.

Chapter Text

It’s almost one a.m. when Natasha exits the elevator on Clint and Coulson’s floor. The panel outside their door glows green; it would be a lie to say she’s relieved by the soft light. She’d been cutting it close, knowing they’d be asleep soon.

Before she can talk herself out of it, she ignores the doorbell as she always does, picks the lock, and slips in. She’s not trying to hide her visit, so she doesn’t bother silencing either the door or her footsteps. In the living room, Clint and Coulson are sprawled together on the couch, watching reruns of some old sitcom that she knows Coulson’s attached to. Both look up when she enters, with twin smiles- welcoming, if a little cautious. 

“Are you busy?” Natasha asks, trying not to sound awkward, but aware she’s failing miserably. “I just wanted to… say hi.” It’s a lame finish.

Clint exchanges a look with Coulson, and then- as if the silent exchange never happened- nods enthusiastically. “Yeah, c’mon in! We’re watching Seinfeld.”

“Oh,” is her eloquent reply. Still, she takes a seat gracefully on the single-seater, being careful to keep her distance from the couple.

“It’s a great show,” says Clint after a beat. “Phil introduced me to it. You haven’t watched it before, have you?”

“No.” And then adds, to fill the air: “I was taught about it, though." 

“Ah.”

They lapse into stilted silence. Carefully avoiding each other's eyes. She was vicious towards Coulson, so she’s not surprised at how she’s obviously broken whatever trust they’d built. A decade, down the drain. Just like that.

Coulson turns his upper body towards Natasha. “This one’s a classic. They’re in a parking garage, looking for their car.”

She stares; when she had been taught about Seinfeld, it was presented as the epitome of classic American comedy. “I see.”

“So, um. Yeah. All caught up now. It just started.” He settles back down to face the screen.

They watch quietly through the intro before Clint cocks his head to one side. “Hey, have either of you seen that famous film? Where the guy goes to prison for murdering his wife? And he hides his escape tunnel with posters?”

“Shawshank Redemption,” Natasha supplies. She’d been taught that one too, except she’d actually watched it as well.

Clint slaps his knee and points to her. “That’s the one.”

“I’ve seen it,” says Coulson. 

“So have I. Why?” Natasha asks Clint.

“Oh, just, y’know… Nothing, I was just wondering.” He shrugs, his fingers grazing Coulson’s side. “It’s good. It’s a good movie.”

“Yes,” says Coulson pleasantly. “It is.”

Usually, they would be talking and laughing and teasing each other, and Clint would not have to bring up Shawshank Redemption in order to make conversation. But Natasha is an expert at ruining relationships, so here they are. Actually watching the TV show.

To be honest, it’s not nearly as bad as she was expecting from Coulson’s summary, but she’s not paying attention to any of it, and- she would bet her life on it- neither is Clint, or Coulson. Despite the requirements of his job, Clint loves to talk, and Natasha knows this interaction must be grating on him. 

“Oh, hey, I forgot to ask,” he says brightly, suddenly. “Did Stark manage to upgrade Cap’s suit?”

“Hmm? Oh, Steve’s… Right, that.” She makes an effort, just for him, although the question is so out of left field that honestly, it can’t even be called small talk. “I think he did. I haven’t- last I heard, it was in the lab.”

“We should ask Tony about that tomorrow,” says Coulson.

“Yeah, definitely,” says Clint.

Natasha smiles. “I’ll remind you.”

“Perfect.”

And again, with no more words left to say, there is silence.

After a few minutes of nothing, punctuated by the talking on-screen, Clint says, “Apparently it’s gonna be cold tomorrow. Clouds, as well.”

Natasha wants to slam her head against the wall because really? This is what they’ve come to? Or, more accurately: this is what she’s reduced them to?

Coulson’s nodding. “Mm, yes, I heard that too.” Another pause. “I… Uh, the cloud cover should be good, for that mission the B-team’s on, in Belarus.” Phil Coulson is a senior SHIELD agent and therefore capable of understanding that the weather in New York is not reflective of the weather halfway around the globe. “And then sunny later in the week?”

“Sunny later in the week,” Clint confirms, with far more enthusiasm than necessary.

“Great.” Natasha’s cheer couldn’t even be called half-hearted. She wants to apologize to Phil, but she doesn’t know how to bring it up. “I’m sure Fury will be happy to hear that.”

About ten or so seconds pass before Coulson sits up and makes a big deal of stretching. “So, ah, speaking of Fury…I have an early day tomorrow. Gonna turn in.” He leans down to kiss Clint; the archer draws him closer.

“Night,” he murmurs, as they pull away from each other.

“Night.” Coulson smiles at Natasha, letting her know that the goodbye was for her, too. Then, to Clint, he adds softly, “You coming?”

Clint glances at Natasha, then at Coulson. “Nah, I don’t have to go in tomorrow at all. I’ll be out here.”

“Okay. See you when I get back from work, then.” Another brief kiss.

As he passes her, Natasha rallies her nerves and grabs his arm; then she lets go, just as quickly. “I just wanted to say- I… Sorry. About before.” She does not look at him- and then, realizing that this is her handler of ten years and he deserves a proper apology, she raises her eyes. “It was uncalled for, and I didn’t mean it. You… are far from pathetic. The furthest, actually. You- I’m sorry.” 

Coulson had stopped short as she started speaking, and as she went on, his posture relaxed until he was looking down at her with the easy, affectionate sort of smile he usually reserved for Clint. “That’s alright, Natasha.”

“Thank you.” She inclines her head, eyes sliding to look at Clint; he’s watching his switch leave, and when the door to the hallway has shut, he looks at Natasha. She tries with as much as she has not to give away the tension running through her. He sees it anyways, as she knew he would.

“Come here?” he asks, and she rises from her seat and quietly joins him. He doesn’t say a word, just places an arm around her; she doesn’t look at him as he studies her. 

A few minutes pass, and they sit together and listen to the clock tick and the pipes hum. 

And then Clint asks softly, “Do you want to talk about it?”

She swallows, and then, in a low voice: “I can’t.”

“You don’t have to.” Clint is the only one- the only person in the world- who knows how much touch means to her; how much it was withheld. “But I’m worried about you.”

“Clint, I can’t.” She says it with more force this time, but no malice. Her tone is almost pleading. “You don’t understand what it’s like.” Then, with more vulnerability than she’s shown in a long time, because it was his partner she was cruel towards and she owes him this much: “I want to.”

Clint rubs her arm, his presence solid and distressing. “You want to what?”

Natasha doesn’t answer. There’s a certain moment, a breaking point, until which emotions can be contained and quashed and controlled with relative ease, but after that, it’s like falling off the edge of a cliff. She has reached the very edge of the precipice and if she speaks, she is afraid of what she might say. Of how she might say it. 

And so she turns her face and turns her body and she meets his eyes… and then her lips tumble onto his and her hands are crumbling through his hair and he’s kissing back and she’s on his lap and she has one knee either side of his and his hands are gripping her thighs and hitching her close and—

He pulls away with a start, cheeks flushed. Ordinarily, Natasha would make a joke. Glad to see I can still make you go bright red, Barton. Instead, she looks at him with something like desperation.

Clint threads his hands together behind her neck, the weight grounding her; then one hand travels down her back to the lower curve of her spine, and he uses the other to bring her forehead down until hers is resting on his and they’re both breathing each other’s air, her hands clasping his shoulders tightly, hopelessly. 

“Nat,” he says. He pulls her closer; her nose bumps against his cheek. “Nat.” 

“I can’t,” she says, sounding hoarse and hollow even to her own ears.

“You can.”  Natasha closes her eyes, lets him kiss her softly. She doesn’t know what they’re talking about anymore, what it is she can’t do- doesn’t know if she ever knew. “I’m worried about you…” Fingers trail the bare skin under her shirt, caress her neck, wrap themselves in strands of her hair. “Talk to me.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” she says, and grazes his lower lip with her teeth.

Clint’s body jerks slightly underneath her when she moves to his neck and nips gently, half-heartedly. “You sure about that?”

She gives a half-shrug, her fingers resting, still, on his shoulders. 

Then, suddenly and without warning, a bone-deep exhaustion seeps through her and settles deep in her core, and she slides off Clint and returns to her previous position beside him, shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Hey.” Clint nudges her. “Talk to me.” When Natasha doesn’t reply, and doesn’t meet his prying gaze, he drops his head onto the top of hers and slips his arm around her. “Hey.”

She opens her mouth, but she’s not even sure what’s wrong, and she can’t put that into sentences, so she closes it again.

“Can I talk, then?”

Natasha sighs, long and tired. It’s not aimed at him, just… at everything. Life. People. Then she nods, her hair scraping against Clint’s chin.

Clint speaks again, quietly, his voice reverberating through the top of her head. “You apologized to Phil.” Natasha gives a noncommittal murmur, but doesn’t look at him. “Don’t feel bad though?”

She shakes her head, still looking straight ahead. “I’m fucked up, if you hadn’t realized.” It comes out with a lot more bitterness than she’d intended it to, and Clint’s arm tightens around her. 

She thinks- or hopes, maybe, she’s not quite sure- that he’s going to drop it, that the conversation is over and they’re done picking through the unsalvageable remnants of her own self, but—

Clint stands, and extends his hand to her. “Come on.”

He doesn’t have to say it; they both know where they’re going, and walk side-by-side to the balcony. Natasha uses Clint’s hand as a stepping stone to leap nimbly onto the small ledge covering the top, and then leans down to hoist Clint up.

New York at night. 

From this high up, it’s almost silent, the racing cars below streaking bright lights under soundless air- a paradoxical, ethereal reality that is only theirs for now. 

They are silent for several minutes. The night is punctuated by gentle rushes of wind, and birds, but not much else.

“Once, when I was eleven…” Natasha starts lowly, and then stops. Starts again, after a pause. “Phil didn’t deserve that.”

“No, he didn’t,” Clint agrees, but his tone is neutral. 

“If you hadn’t stopped me…” she whispers hoarsely, “I’d have torn him to shreds.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do.” Natasha lets out a long breath and rubs her temple. Cutting people apart, bleeding them dry where their weaknesses lie… it’s part of her job. It’s how she got so good at what she does. “I know, because I did already. To Steve.”

“Peggy?” Clint asks, and although there’s a hint of reproach in his tone, there’s no judgement.

She’s not… guilty, exactly, but there’s a shame that stops her from being able to meet his gaze as she answers, “Peggy, and Bucky.”

Clint whistles. “Damn. No wonder he looked like someone ran over his puppy.” They watch the bright lights of an airplane fly out, move slowly over the skyline, and disappear into a cluster of dark grey clouds. “Why Phil?”

He knows the answer. She has to say it anyways. “He kneeled.”

“Yeah, I got that part. Why kneeling?”

Natasha swallows. Observes the flickering yellow glow of a skyscraper roof-top light as shifting clouds cover and uncover its beam. “At first,” she says, carefully avoiding looking at Clint, “I was… worried. For him.” Not scared, never scared.

Clint stiffens as he realizes the implications of what she’s said, and then he just looks sad, and a little bit angry. “Tasha...”

“Stop.” Her eyes are fierce; she does not want his pity. “Don’t. Just- don’t.”

He inclines his head in agreement, a sort-of apology written in his features. “Go on,” he prods after a moment.

It is costing her so much to admit this, but she has come so far, and she’s been scaring herself lately with her uncontrollable anger hurting the people she cares about, so: “I wanted it.” 

“You wanted it?” Clint stares at her. “I don’t- but you can have it. You can ask any of us to dom, any time, all of us would- hell, I would-”

“No, I can’t.” 

“Why-”

“I just can’t.” Natasha says it with such conviction that he doesn’t even bother asking further, understanding that this is a graveyard he can’t dig through in one night. She takes a deep breath. “I can’t… I didn’t want to, you have to understand, I didn’t want to say or do any of it and I-”

“Natasha,” Clint grasps her hand, “Calm down. You didn’t want to say any of what you did to Phil?”

“Yes. No. I mean, not- Yes.” That isn’t what she had meant, but it’s right, too, so she lets it go.

They lapse into silence, Clint stroking the back of her palm gently. 

Eventually, Natasha says hollowly, “I disgusted myself, for wanting it.” He doesn’t say a word, but his fingers weave through hers and squeeze. “I was talking to myself, really, I think. I don’t know.” After a beat: “Phil didn’t deserve that.”

“No, he didn’t,” Clint agrees, for the second time. "But you didn't deserve it anymore than he did." They both understand the weight of what he means, when- and who- he's referring to.

Natasha closes her eyes and listens to the wind whistle around them. It’s biting, but the chill feels good. “I don’t really know what to do anymore,” she admits. And then says, because she’s had enough of exposing herself today, “Let’s go inside.”

Chapter Text

 Embarrassment clenches in her gut. It’s so rare for her to reach her breaking point like that, even with Clint, and she knows that Coulson knows- even if Clint hasn’t told him. He has his ways (as he reminds them, every single time they fudge their mission reports and somehow he knows what really went down.)

She slept on their couch, without telling them. She’ll let Clint assume it’s because she didn’t want to be alone in her own quarters and was too embarrassed to crawl into bed with them, but really, she just wants to make certain that Clint and Coulson don’t talk about her in the morning.

There’s only so much she can take.

Natasha opens her eyes and stills her breathing at around 5 a.m., woken by shadowy figure tiptoeing around. After a second of staying absolutely silent as she assesses her surroundings, she wants to kick herself. Coulson had said, in front of her no less, that he has an early day. And Clint won’t be up until nine, or even ten, so this was a waste of time.

Great. Just perfect.

She is so off her game with this sub thing.

Clint saunters into the room, as predicted, at nine-thirty sharp. When he sees Natasha on the sofa, wide-awake now that someone’s entered the room, his eyebrows furrow. “… hi,” he says slowly.

“Good morning.” She says it with a steely conviction completely disproportional to the words, and Clint’s shoulders droop minutely. 

“That’s what we’re doing, huh?” he asks wryly, coming to flop onto the sofa beside her. She doesn’t reply. “You could’ve come and slept in our bed.” 

She has, before. Especially after missions when Clint is injured, or she is, or (rarely) Coulson, and they just need the closeness and physical contact to reassure themselves that they’re all alive.

The fucking is just a bonus.

“Listen,” says Natasha, very slowly. She’s carefully choosing her words; she’s had all night to think about this, after all. “I… You know what we talked about last night.” It’s not a question, so she doesn’t let her voice lilt up.

“Sure,” Clint answers with a degree of wariness.

Natasha has had a lot of time to think about this. In her line of work, several hours may as well be a lifetime. This whole thing with her being sensitive around the barest mention of submissives, and anxious, and the laundry list of issues she’s having right now? Not okay.

Also not okay? Admitting to the instinctive spike of disgust that curls in her gut every time she thinks of herself subbing. 

“I’d like your help,” Natasha says, wording this very carefully. “I want to sub for you.”

Only her training lets her pick up on Clint’s swallow. “Are you…” Trailing off, he takes a breath and continues differently: “That’s great. As long as you’re able to.”

Wrong thing to say. She fixes him with a Look. The whole point is that she isn’t able to; that’s why she has to. 

(maybe if she does this, she’ll be fixed.)

(maybe if she does this, she can have what Coulson has.)

Glancing around the room like he expects someone to pop out, Clint says, “Um, so… you mean, now?” A nod. “You don’t have to, you know that right? I don’t think there’s anything-”

“I do.” Natasha doesn’t let him tell her there’s nothing wrong with her. Because it doesn’t matter. She can’t do her job, she can’t protect herself, and she can’t protect anyone around her if she doesn’t get this under control. 

Even if she fucking kills herself doing it, she’ll get this under control.

No more blow-ups. No more waves of panic. If she can sub for Clint once, willingly, without being forced into a drop, it’ll fix the problem.

(she hopes.)

(she really, really hopes.)

(hope is for fools.)

“Can I…” She cuts herself. It’s safe, with Clint- he’s the only person this would work with, honestly. The panic is just barely buzzing under her skin at the thought of letting him near her as a dom (kept under control with tactical breathing), rather than crashing through her mind as with anyone else. Even so… “I don’t want you to do anything real. No drops. Just sit and do your thing.” 

Basically, what Thor had done after the fuck-up with the press, or what Steve had tried to do when she blew up at him. The difference is that now she’d be doing it with no ulterior motives other than to be able to handle it, in a rational state of mind. Giving in to her weakness, as it were.

Voluntarily.

Irony at its finest, isn’t it, that her inability to give in to her weakness is what’s making her even more weak. Fuck everyone and their mother.

Clint’s nodding. “Yeah, yeah, of course. We can start simple, maybe work up slowly. Baby steps.”

Baby steps.

Shifting closer to her on the couch, he asks “How about I just help you calm down?” He noticed her using sniper-breathing to calm her body. Which, now that she thinks of it, was way too obvious.

She is so off her game with this sub thing. 

“Yeah.” Natasha sighs, and then repeats: “Do your thing.”

Clint reaches for her and pulls her into him in what she can only describe as ‘holding her’. It’s warm, and comforting, and nothing they haven’t done before a million times. As usual, she stiffens and her knee-jerk reaction is to avoid melting into the touch at first, and then give in.

Dropping a kiss onto her forehead, Clint starts talking in that low-pitched voice, and Natasha feels herself begin to relax.

The thing is- the thing is, it’s not okay.

Clint looks happy.

Like, proud-happy.

She’s not even letting him drop her; he’s just touching her, for crying out loud. 

And here’s the thing. Natasha loves Clint- would give her life for his in less than a heartbeat- and understands him just as well as he understands her, but sometimes being that in-sync with a person makes it more difficult to be vulnerable. For someone like her, at least.

They say love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Natasha thinks pride and pity are, too. Clint’s satisfaction stems from seeing her achieve something he doesn’t think she’s capable of. If she can do this, he’ll be triumphant on her behalf; if she can’t, he won’t be, and that may as well be the same thing as pity.

Pity has never been something she can tolerate.

Yeah, this is dumb. Natasha doesn’t want to work up to letting Clint dom her properly, either during sex or out of it, if every time she forces herself to do something, he’s going to look at her like she hung the moon. Like she’s his fucking kid or something.

She stands suddenly, knocking Clint’s hand off her shoulder with the movement. “Okay, that’s great. Thank you.”

And there’s the disappointment.

“What- no, wait, what?” He scampers after her, following her out of their quarters. “I barely even did… I mean, that was like a minute, tops. Not even. I know you, and you were fine- Well, as fine as you get.”

“Yes,” replies Natasha, perfectly pleasantly. “But I’d rather quit while I’m ahead.”

“… right,” says Clint, slowly. “Okay. Okay, sure. We can try a little longer tomorrow?”

“I suppose so.” No.

She very politely refuses Clint’s invitation to join him for breakfast. By the time she’s about to get off the elevator at her own floor, though, she’s had enough of herself- hiding out is the exact opposite of what she should be doing. Enough.

“Coming with?” Clint asks, looking so hopeful that she feels guilt twist in her gut as she nods. She doesn’t deserve him. 

In the kitchen, Steve, Tony, and Sam are clustered at the table, while Phil’s pottering about the stove.

“The sleeping beauties awaken!” Stark cheers as they walk in, showering them in cornflakes as if they’re a newly-married couple walking down the aisle. 

“Dude,” Clint complains. “It’s ten a.m.”

That is quite late, Natasha thinks privately. Clint and Bruce are the ones who sleep all day, or sometimes Stark- but then he goes for three day stretches without sleeping so it evens out (or so he insists).

Tony continues throwing cornflakes over them until Clint snatches the bag and pours a generous amount into his own mouth; flakes scatter all over the floor and under the stove.

“I thought you had work?” Clint asks his partner, and Coulson grabs the bag from him before he can empty it over his mouth again. 

“I did,” he replies, passing the bag back to Tony, “but the mission I was handling ended an hour after I got in.”

Natasha catches Sam’s eyes and smiles genuinely. They haven’t met since the whole HYDRA thing went down. “Hi.”

“Hey there.” He’s up, moving towards her and enveloping her in a warm hug. “Long time no see.”

“What are you doing here?” Taking the plate of pancakes Phil offers her with a smile, she slides into the empty seat beside him, Clint joining her at the table. 

Sam mock-scowls. “Nice welcome. Thanks.” He says nothing about her changed Bearing, nor gives any indication that it even crossed his mind, which she appreciates.

Stark props his feet up on the table as he crams a forkful of pancakes into his mouth; glaring, Natasha pushes his legs off. “He’s here to drop off his wings. I’m gonna fix them.”

“Nice,” says Natasha, “Maybe we can have a set of competent eyes up high.”

Sam fist-bumps her solemnly, but none of them speak as they all wait for the subtle insult to land. All of a sudden, Clint drops his spoon and sits up straight, and his brow furrows. Then he says, eyes narrowed, “Wait.”

Steve, Tony and Sam burst into a peal of delighted cackles, and even Coulson attempts to hide a smile behind his hand at the archer’s soured expression.

“I am super-freakin’-competent,” Clint complains. “It might as well be on my business card.”

“You have a business card?” Phil asks with interest, like something’s just clicked in his head. 

“No, but I was planning on—”

“Hold on. Is that the glittery purple thing that fell out of your pocket the other day?”

They stare at Clint, and then all simultaneously bend over, clutching their stomachs - it’s not even that funny, but come on. A glittery purple business card? Only Clint. 

“What were you going to do,” Steve asks through gasping breaths, “casually hand them out on missions?”

“Hey, half-dead guy I just shot,” Sam mimics Clint, striking a pose and miming shooting an arrow, “Here’s my card. Pass it around if you live. Thanks man, I appreciate it.”

“Okay, okay,” Clint grumbles. “I get it, it’s— Oh come on, even you Phil? You’re supposed to be— Fine, I got it, no shiny business cards. Jesus. It’s like I’m the only one who does stupid shit in here.”

Natasha considers this. “Well, mostly.” It earns her a hard kick under the table from the archer. 

“Don’t even,” he says darkly, arms crossed, glaring at them all in turn. “Tony was going to make a world-protecting robot until Pepper vetoed it. I’m sure that wouldn’t have gone bad at all. And you,” this is directed at Steve, “I heard about your little vending machine incident.”

Steve groans and his head thumps onto his arms on the tabletop. “Are you telling everyone?” he asks Natasha, muffled. 

She pats his back. “There, there. We all do stupid shit on missions.” Then adds: “Maybe not as stupid as hiding maximum security hard drives in vending machines.”

“I hate you.” He looks up firmly, then nods. “It was a safe place. Behind a lot of gum.”

Sam shrugs. “Hey, look. If you wanna gamble the fate of the nation on whether or not HYDRA happens to carry like eight dollars—”

“-or whether or not they have any moral objections to breaking through a vending machine,” adds Tony.

“—then that is totally your call,” Sam finishes.

“Thank you,” says Steve, pleasantly enough, obviously having decided to take what he can get on this particular issue.

“It’s still a stupid call.” Clint grins. “Totally your call, though.”

Cap groans, but good-naturedly. “Fuck all of you,” he says, just as Bruce ambles through the door, bed-head in full effect.

“Do you not know what a hairbrush is?” Tony demands.

Bruce doesn’t even answer, just gives a weird mumble-groan and goes straight for the coffee machine in the corner. 

Natasha glances around the full room, counting mentally. “Where’s Thor?”

“He went to see Jane in Poland.” Coulson nudges Clint to give him space at the table.

“And he was incredibly shifty about it,” Tony adds. “He may be king of Asgard, but big guy can’t lie.”

And that is exactly when the phone rings. “Call from: Director Fury,” Jarvis announces smoothly, placing the call on speaker.

Turns out there’s a social event in Syracuse that they were all supposed to go to- and that every one of them conveniently forgot about. When Fury very pointedly reminds them, Clint takes one look at Phil, and promptly starts coughing.

“Sorry,” Coulson says, not even trying to act apologetic, “Barton’s been feeling sick lately and I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to take a trip. He has a mission scheduled for tomorrow.”

“He’s sick?”

“Very sick.”

“…Fine,” Fury snaps after a pregnant pause. “But you-”

Holding the phone against his ear even though Fury’s voice is on speaker around the room, Coulson says, “No, I’ll have to stay to take care of him. He drops sometimes, when he gets sick- high emotions, you know. It’s a shame, I was looking forward to this.”

They can basically hear Fury fuming over the phone- at being obviously lied-to, more than over any real anger that Clint won’t be present. The archer is probably worse at these schmooze-and-booze events than the rest of them combined. When a slap rings out that’s very clearly the sound of Clint and Coulson exchanging a high-five, Fury barks out, “Banner, Thor?”

So that’s why Thor had run off to Poland this morning under the guise of spending time with Jane. 

Asshole.

“I actually forgot, and I have a time-sensitive experiment running in the lab,” Banner says slowly. “Um, for Clint’s mission. Tomorrow. The mission tomorrow. So, you know, as much as I really wish I could make it, it just doesn’t seem feasible at this point…”

Sam’s making desperate cut-throat motions to indicate that none of them should mention his presence- he’s not technically required to be anywhere, but he’s an associate of SHIELD, and Fury can ask.

Natasha can imagine the epic eye-roll Fury is probably executing when Tony begins wheezing. “Stark, I can hear you pretending to sneeze, and quite frankly I don’t give a damn if you’re on your deathbed. Banner can handle the lab, and you are going to get your ass on that plane if I have to drag it there myself.”

“But,” Tony wheedles, attempting a few pathetic little coughs, “I think I need to be taken care of too.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Rogers will be with you,” Fury responds pleasantly enough, and Steve glares at Tony so hard, Natasha’s surprised the shorter man doesn’t go flying across the room with the force of it. “That won’t be a problem, I presume, Captain?”

“No, sir,” Steve grits out, arms folded. 

“Romanoff!” Fury barks. 

She doesn’t even bother trying. “I’ll be there.”

“Excellent. I expect the three of you to be on your best behavior.” He hangs up.

Clint, Coulson and Bruce stand grinning widely at Steve, Tony and Natasha. After a few seconds of glaring at the floor, Steve groans. “Fuck all of you.”

“I know you want to,” says Clint, clapping him on the back. “We’re irresistible, but you have a flight to catch. Maybe after.” He darts out of the way before Steve can whack him, so Natasha kicks him instead.

XXX

The party is shit, as these things tend to be. The filthy rich mingling with the filthiest rich, desperately one-upping each other by pledging more to charities than the next asshole in a tuxedo, but somehow never managing to donate as much as they spent on their clothes for this evening.

Natasha has spent the last hour firmly declining offers from a steady stream of doms, while Tony, from what she can tell, is dealing with ass-lickers, and Steve with the usual mix of fanboys and snobby septuagenarians who can’t quite fathom that Captain America isn’t republican. It’s not that surprising that Fury didn’t push for the others to show up: Clint is a disaster at these types of events, and Banner is the definition of a wallflower. Thor looks pretty but these events tend to be filled with doms (and overwhelmingly male), who don’t bother trying with him.

Natasha, on the other hand? Even when the whole world thought she was a dom and she could scare anyone away with a slight baring of her teeth, horny creeps would still approach her, assuming that they were special. Like she would say yes to them

Morons.

Now that it’s widely known that she’s a sub, everyone and their mother thinks they have a shot with her. At least the women tend to be respectful about it; the men just turn the aggression up to 10 and assume she’ll be into it. 

Currently she’s relaxing- okay, hiding- in a corner to avoid the steady stream of doms throwing themselves at her. 

It’s not really working. 

Tony catches her eye from across the room, and two seconds later he’s politely excused himself from the group he was in, and joined Natasha in the corner. “So this is terrible.”

“I hate Fury,” is all he gets in reply.

“Get in line,” Tony mutters darkly. “You want us to convince these fuckholes to give generously to causes suspiciously in-line with SHIELD’s objectives? Do it yourself.” He waves over a waiter and plucks a glass of wine off the tray. 

Natasha doesn’t reply, except with a murmur of indifferent agreement. She’s not exactly on good terms with Tony, and just because he seems to have decided that she’s the best option to talk to in this godforsaken hellhole doesn’t mean that she’s going to be quite so quick to forgive and forget.

“Incoming, three o’ clock,” says Tony, suddenly. Natasha had already seen the man striding purposefully towards them, having spotted him making eyes at Tony thirty minutes ago. He seems to be warning her, but she has a feeling the guy’s aiming for Stark.

Sure enough, he stops in front of them, raises an arm onto the wall and leans onto it with the type of dominant swagger common in cheap pornos. “Hi.”

Tony’s eyes flick up to the ceiling very, very briefly before he smiles- and to his credit, it’s a larger smile than Natasha would have the patience to give right now. “Hello. Enjoying yourself?”

“Well, I am now,” the man says. He is objectively hot, with five o’ clock shadow framing a jawline to kill for. “I can’t say the party has much to do with that.”

Tony clears his throat. “Well, glad to hear that. Try the canapés. Excuse us.” He makes to walk off with Natasha, but the man stops them with a hand on Tony’s arm.

“No, wait, hey.” Extending a hand, which Tony shakes with all the enthusiasm of a child in a broccoli store, he continues, “I’d really like to get to know you better. Maybe both of you?” He looks at Natasha, who snorts.

“Sorry, buddy, not interested.”

Something flashes in his eyes, but he grins- “No worries.”- and turns back to Tony. “I’m Scott. You’re Tony Stark, right?”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” Tony isn’t even making eye contact; Natasha looks around to find Steve, because bailing his sub out of an awkward situation isn’t her job and quite frankly the last thing she wants to do, but she can’t spot him in the crowd. “Now, I’m flattered by the attention, but I have a dom so try someone else.”

Scott moves closer to Tony. Pitching his voice low, he says quietly and firmly, “Forget your dom. You want me to show you a good time? I can-”

Natasha’s barely paying attention to the douche, but she has a corner of her eye on Tony, so the first thing she notices is that his breathing slows, and when she looks up, alarmed, his pupils have dilated slightly. Tony’s fists clench, and he opens his mouth angrily, but Natasha beats him to it.

She shoves the man up against the wall, arm against his windpipe until he can barely stutter out a plea for help. “Did you just try to dom him into agreeing with you?!” she demands, even though they both know the answer.

“Everyone does it!” he chokes out, so she jabs her forearm harder into his throat.

“Maybe in the 1930s,” Tony hisses; looking down, Natasha sees the heel of his shoe grinding into the man’s toe. “That’s illegal now.”

“You can say no!” Scott protests. Apparently, he’s never learned basic survival skills because first Natasha wanted to beat him up,  but now she’s going to kill him. “It’s just flirting! To convince you. You can still say no!”

“If he says no,” Natasha spits out, “then you don’t need to use his body against him to convince him.”

As she was talking, Tony had waved over security, and he points to Scott like he’s an insect. “Get this thing out of my sight, if you don’t mind.” He nudges Natasha and she lets go, the man clutching his throat and wheezing. As he’s lead away, Tony raises his foot and kicks him sharply in the groin, and Scott doubles over, groaning. Security drags him off.

“Fucker,” says Tony, seemingly over it. “You know, I think I’m going to try some of those canapés myself.”

Natasha stares at him. “Maybe you should go find Steve.”

“Nah.” He shrugs, and then, as a tray passes by them, his eyes light up and his gaze follows the food like a child. “Ooh! Oysters.” He disappears.

For the next hour, Natasha deflects a steady stream of doms, alternating between unfailingly polite and professional, slightly flirtatious, and outright rude according to their mannerisms. Fury’s given them all ‘suggested’ quotas of how much money they should weasel out of these scumbags towards SHIELD’s goal, and Natasha more than triples it in the hour without even trying. She figures, since Steve tends to not be great at asking for money, and Tony is a hit-or-miss on his best days, that that should cover them.

After convincing a balding old man to give five grand, she’s sitting, bored, at one of the empty booths. 

Maybe she’ll head out soon. The jet’s not going back until the early morning, or whenever Steve and Tony decide to leave, but she could always fly commercial.

Or maybe she could guilt-trip Clint and Coulson into coming to pick her up. 

She’s lost in thought when a man slides onto a seat across the table from her. A casual once-over puts him squarely in the ‘not Natasha’s type’ category. 

“Hey there, gorgeous,” he greets, and doesn’t seem at all perturbed by her answering sigh. “No luck tonight?” Unlike the majority in this shitty place, he’s forgone the suit-and-tie combo and is instead dressed in a simple dress shirt and jeans. Loaded, then. Or at least rich enough that he thinks he can get away with it.

“I was having a lot of luck in having a peaceful night, before you showed up,” Natasha responds, stirring her drink. 

The man grins, shrugging and extending his hand for her to shake (which she doesn’t). “Since when is peaceful ever fun? I’m Greg, by the way.” When she still doesn’t shake his hand, Greg reaches out and pats her awkwardly on the shoulder instead. “So who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?”

“Natasha.” She’s tempted to lie, but she’s certain he already knows who she is, and he’d just turn the dishonesty into another conversation topic.

Greg beams, apparently having taken her response as evidence that she’s into him. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Can’t say it’s mutual.”

God, that doesn’t even phase him. What is it with men? They see a nice pair of boobs and their dignity goes flying out the window. “So,” he starts again, “were you looking for a dom tonight?”

“No.” 

Actually… 

“Possibly,” she amends, her mouth forming the words before her brain can think about it. “What did you have in mind?” 

This is stupid.

She is fully, 100% aware that this is stupid. 

This may actually rank right up there with ‘riding on the back of a Chitauri’ as one of the dumbest ideas she’s ever had.

But then again, that had turned out pretty well.

Greg looks like someone just told him Christmas was coming five months early. “You- you’re serious?” he sputters, but to his credit, he recovers quickly. “I can make you feel so good…”

“I already said fine, quit the lines.”

Her heartbeat is quickening already, but Natasha steels herself. She will do this. She knows she can’t, at this stage, sub for Clint.

Or no. She can- she could force herself to- but it would be agonizing, and here’s a nice bearded solution conveniently dropping himself into her lap. Maybe subbing for a stranger would be easier; nothing too much, just let him drop her a little and then kick him out.

She can do it, physically. It’s not something she’s incapable of. So what if it’s a little panic-inducing? The point is, she has to do it once. 

“Should we go get a room?” Overeager bastard. Probably hasn’t been laid in a good decade. 

Natasha shakes her head, twisting her lips into a coy, flirtatious smile. Hook, line and sinker. It isn’t even really fair at this point. “Put me under first?” she asks demurely, gazing up at him through her eyelashes.

“Here?” Greg looks around the booth.

“Just so I know we have,” Natasha runs a finger over his chest, “chemistry. We can get a room after, and then you can make me feel so… good…”

A few corny lines and he’s already hard. This is fucking unbelievable. 

Raise your standards, Greg. Her little spiel just then was an embarrassment to humanity. 

“Okay,” he says, too quickly. “Okay okay okay. Okay, let me just- okay, I can-”

“Okay,” Natasha purrs. As long as he can send her into a minor drop. Just a minor, consensual drop with permission, and then she can leave. Just to prove to herself that she’s not incapable of it. Then she’ll ditch him.

He moves closer to her, and her wrist is in his hand, and he’s craning his neck low to whisper in her ear. Natasha’s pulse is already hammering, and he hasn’t even said anything. It almost feels like a panic attack, and she doesn’t get those.

She wills herself to relax. She won’t go under if she doesn’t let herself. 

Greg leans down and drops a light, feathery kiss onto her neck, then looks up at her for approval- what is this, high school? Seeing something in her face that satisfies him, he bends down again and begins- oh for fuck’s sake, is he trying to give her a fucking hickey? This is the worst idea she’s ever-

“Okay, okay, break it up!” It’s Tony, impatiently rapping his knuckles on the table of their booth. Greg waves his hand in Tony’s general direction, but doesn’t move off Natasha. Tony sighs, and picks up her drink. “You know, a side effect of growing up filthy rich is I don’t like to ask for things twice,” he says, and then pours the drink over Greg.

“What the fuck, man, we were-”

“Party’s over.”

“Who the fuck are you?! Do you even know who I am?!” 

“No, but I can guarantee my toilet paper is worth ten times more than your entire house,” Tony replies calmly. 

Natasha takes one look at Greg, who’s started bitching about his drenched shirt being Armani, and decides to hightail it away from this train-wreck. There’s no redeeming this one.

She’s heading back to the bar for another drink when Tony rushes up to catch her and grabs her elbow. “Come on. The bar in the back room’s empty.”

“No.” Shrugging him off, she stands with her hand on her hip, scowling. She helped him out a little, and suddenly he thinks he owes her or some shit? “That was completely unnecessary, Stark, what the fuck.”

“Trust me.” Tony looks like he’s going to laugh for a second, but then thinks better of it. “Trust me,” he repeats. “You would have regretted it.”

Natasha rubs her temples, feeling a headache coming on. There’s just too much crap to deal with right now. She doesn't even bother arguing with Tony, and starts to stalk off towards the bar again.

Once more, he stops her. “Back room. Bar. All to ourselves. Is any of this making sense to you?”

She really, really just needs a drink and some peace and quiet, so she follows Tony through a discrete wooden door next to the bar, which just turns out to be some type of dance floor, with a bar in the corner of the room.

The room has plenty of alcohol, and it’s wonderfully, blissfully empty. “Not bad,” she allows. “Almost makes up for you breaking up my date. Not quite.”

“Have you never seen Dateline Sub TV?” Tony demands, voice tight. There’s something sharp hidden in his tone, running just under the surface.

“I can take care of myself.”

“Sure you can- until you let him put you into a drop.”

It doesn’t matter, anyways, because she probably wouldn’t have stayed there longer than a few more minutes. (she just wants to be normal.) Not that she’s going to say that to Stark. “Not your call to make.”

Tony spins on his heel to face her, executing an eye-roll so giant it’s almost impressive. “You shouldn’t sub for random creeps.”

“People do, all the time,” Natasha replies, a little hotly. “It’s not a huge deal any-”

“I didn’t mean the general ‘you’.” He goes to the bar and walks around it; ducking underneath, he comes up a few moments later with some shot glasses and a bottle of vodka. “Like I said before: been there, done that, bought out the t-shirt store.”

Natasha doesn’t allow herself to pause and dwell on what he’s picked up on that makes her different to everyone else. Well, she knows. But it’s easier to keep back the panic that threatens to rise when she remembers that more people around her know her vulnerabilities now, than not.

“Drink,” Tony orders, offering the contents in his hands. When she doesn’t make a move, he says, “Even if you’re not getting drunk, I am, so you might as well join in the festivities.” After a pause, he rolls his eyes. “Christ, it’s like I’m trying to poison you.”

Natasha snorts, but she doesn’t take the proffered shot glasses, instead just plucking the bottle directly from Tony’s hand. When he raises an eyebrow quizzically, she opens the top and holds it out. “When in Russia, do as the Russians do.”

“Somehow I doubt Syracuse, New York, really qualifies as Russia.”

Natasha shrugs. “With me and you in it, this room is 50% Russian. I’m rounding up.”

That wins her a snort from Tony, who accepts the bottle and takes what she considers a tiny sip, pulling back with a soured face. “So,” he starts, when he’s done making a fuss over the burn. “Subbing, huh?”

“Jesus, Stark.” Shaking her head, Natasha elbows him slightly as she takes the alcohol and drinks herself, torn between wanting to talk about it with someone of the same Bearing, and wanting him to shut up and mind his own business. The harsh liquid slides down her throat, leaving fire where it touches. “Talk about subtlety.”

“To be fair, I’m not exactly known for being delicate.”

“True,” she allows.

He squares his shoulders and takes the vodka, pinching his lips for another, slightly larger sip, and making the same face at the aftertaste. “So. Subbing. You’re doing it wrong, by the way.”

“Didn’t realize there was a wrong way.”

He nods sagely. “Start small. Touch. Then do the subbing.”

“What is this, impromptu therapy?”

Tony laughs derisively, and she can tell from his mannerisms that he’s doing it more to keep them on an antagonistic playing field, where she’s less likely to feel talked-down to. “Please. I don’t even think therapy can make a dent in all this.” He waves his hands in the general direction of her body, some vodka sloshing over the top of the bottle and dripping onto the wooden floor between them.

Natasha glares, but it’s half-hearted since she knows this tactic. “Look who’s talking.”

“At least I managed to find a dom. Several, actually. Ones who aren’t, y’know, going to fuck me and leave me high-and-dry.” 

She knocks the bottom of the bottle as he goes for another gulp, making the alcohol splash over him as he pulls the bottle away just in time to stop it upending over his face. “What if I don’t want a dom?”

“Right.” Tony scoffs. “That’s why you were throwing yourself at Chewbacca over there.”

Natasha doesn’t have a reply to that, except for: “Drama queen. He wasn’t that hairy.”

“Natasha, I could’ve braided his chest hair.” He tries to demonstrate on the air, spilling more of the vodka. They’re silent for a few seconds while Tony takes a more liberal sip- and then, apparently filled with liquid courage, he asks, “Why don’t you sub for Katniss, if that’s something you’re into now?”

She sighs; fuck it. “Tried.” She doesn’t ask before grabbing the bottle out of his hands and taking a long, burning swig- “Easy there, Romanoff,” says Tony, looking begrudgingly impressed- “Clint knows me too well.” 

Nobody would have understood what she meant, of that she is certain. But Tony nods, meeting her gaze and holding it with an odd, almost relieved quality in his eyes. “Yes,” he says. “Exactly.”

There’s a story there, one he’s not telling. Natasha doesn’t think he’s going to elaborate, and she knows better than to dig through anyone else’s skeletons, but then Tony sighs. 

He hold his palm out until she deposits the bottle back in his hand. “After…” Tipping the bottle back, he takes several long gulps, disguising his discomfort with the topic with his usual false bravado. “Damn, this is strong stuff. Cheap as fuck, but strong. Anyways. After, you know, Obadiah…” His eyes slide to the side to confirm that she knows, and Natasha gives a slow nod. It’s her job to know these things, after all. “Um. Yes, so anyways. After Obadiah, I couldn’t sub for a while. But especially not for Rhodey.”

Natasha repeats her own words again: “He knew you too well.” Then adds, nodding at the alcohol: “Give.” 

Tony snorts and runs his fingers through his hair with one hand, passing the vodka to her with the other. “Putting it mildly. He was offended, I think, but I couldn’t. He was just so goddamn proud with every little step forward.”

Her chest lifts, and expands at the same time so that her heart’s beating fast but in the good way. Someone gets it. “They’re just so goddamn proud,” she echoes, a little breathless. She drinks with an odd feeling of satisfaction. And then adds: “Not patronizingly,” because she feels like Tony might have misunderstood her, or she him.

“No.” He’s staring off into space, looking directly at a demon that exists only to him. “Like, all I did was come out of a drop without having a panic attack. I didn’t achieve fucking global peace.” He sighs; takes the bottle and chugs some more vodka. “He knew me well enough to know that I might as well have. And then it’s almost like-”

“Pity,” says Natasha, and her own expression- wide-eyed, a little hungry for validation- is reflected back at her.

“Pity.” Tony raises the vodka in a ‘cheers’ gesture at her, thanking her for the word. “That’s it.” It’s too much for either, and they quickly avert their eyes. 

They continue passing the bottle back and forth, Tony cajoling Natasha into drinking more of the bottle to match his pace. “Remind me again why don’t we hang out more?” he asks, clapping enthusiastically when she downs a good quarter in one go.

As he hops up to get them some water, Natasha answers in a wry tone, “Because you’re an asshole.”

“That’s it!” Tony points to her like she’s a game show contestant. “Although I think another contributing factor might be that you,” he says, slamming down the filled water glasses with far more flamboyance than any real anger, “are a psychopath.”

“I didn’t say I’m not an asshole as well,” Natasha points out, resting her head against the wall. “Your turn. Drink.”

“So I told the press your little secret, big deal,” Tony complains after he drinks. “You strangled me.”

“Let’s not play the blame game.” He leers at her, pretending at a victory, but they both know the reason she’s saying it is because she doesn’t want to admit how much the digs about her submissive nature affected her. It’s clear, of course- she fucking strangled him for them. Still. 

“Anyways,” says Tony, after a beat, “all’s fair in love and war, I think you’ll find.”

“Snitches get stitches,” Natasha returns after drinking her turn, because apparently they’re exchanging cliched old sayings now. And he hadboth complained to Pepper and told the press, which was a little below-the-belt. 

Sitting up straight, Tony holds out a hand, looking the spitting image of a politician attempting to stop an unpleasant interview. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, Annie, let’s dial it down a little. Nobody calls a Stark a snitch and lives to tell the tale.”

“And yet, I breathe,” Natasha bites back sarcastically. Then she tilts her head to one side: “I’m orphan Annie?” That one’s new.

“The orphan Annie of my nightmares, maybe,” Tony mutters darkly. “But I mean, what the fuck did you expect. Genuinely asking here. I holed up in my lab for an entire day before Pepper noticed.”

“You- wait, what?” Natasha stares at him. He… hadn’t gone running straight to Steve and Pepper to show off his injuries? Tony nods. “I… oh.” She takes a large swallow from the bottle and puts it back down. “Oh.”

“I admit,” he allows, clinking the glass with his nails, “you might’ve gotten screwed-over thrice, what with the getting chewed-out by the reporters, Cap, and Pep. But I can’t say I regret it.”

There’s silence for a few moments before Natasha says, very lightly, “Maybe I regret it.”

Tony raises a water glass to her, his movements slightly off-balance. “Well, then, maybe I respect that.”

Natasha cocks her head to one side as she considers this new information. Her mind is… not entirely clear, but she’s not exactly wasted. She may have had a good amount of vodka, but then again, she has an infamously high tolerance, and so does Tony. “We’re quite drunk,” is what she ends up saying, as an odd gesture of proposed peace.

“We’re quite drunk,” Tony agrees, and so accepts the peace. After a moment, he says, “So, let’s move on to the next hairy elephant in the room.”

Nudging him roughly in what’s almost a shove, Natasha rolls her eyes. “He wasn’t even that hairy.”

“We need to discuss this. I can’t in good conscience let you continue living with such unacceptable taste in men.”

“Okay, come on, it was attractive…” After thinking about it further, and making a quick choice between her dignity and winning this argument, she amends, “In some lights.” And then: “Maybe very low levels of light.”

Tony laughs. “How would he even shave that, hypothetically?” he wonders, miming cutting a beard. “Obviously he clearly doesn’t, but if he wanted to.”

“Who knows.” Natasha shakes out her own hair, running her fingers through the bouncy curls. “Weed-whacker?”

“Lawnmower?” Shuddering, Tony takes another swig of the vodka bottle, and then lifts it up to examine it. “Hey, almost three-quarters through! Here.” And he hands it off to Natasha, a pondering expression gracing his features as he stares off into the distance with exaggerated curiousity. 

Natasha watches him carefully as she drinks. This probably- almost definitely- is going to be something ridiculous. Behind them, she hears the door open and close as someone enters, but the steps of their gait are familiar enough that she doesn’t bother turning around, even if she’s too buzzed to pinpoint who it could be without considerable focus.

“Isn’t the obnoxious length of the beard a consideration?” Tony asks. “You know. For women especially.” Natasha follows his sightline down to the top of her skirt and grimaces at the mental image. “If he went down on you it would feel like riding a carpet. I mean, rug burn all the way inside —”

“Jesus, Stark…”

“Who’s getting rug burn?” Oh. It was Steve who came in earlier. He’s leaning against the closed door, one eyebrow raised, and one side of his mouth quirking up in an amused smirk. “Not Nat, I hope?”

“Oh hey. What’s up, Capsicle?” Tony slurs, making himself sound a lot more drunk than he is. Dramatic, as usual. 

Steve shrugs, the lines around his eyes crinkling. “Dunno, not much. I finish up in there to find that I’ve been thoroughly ditched, but apart from that…”

“You,” says Tony, standing up and pointing to Steve with the vodka bottle, “do not have to deal with doms. Your complaints card is revoked.”

There’s a soft smile on Steve’s face as he takes the almost-empty bottle from Tony and presses a light kiss to his cheek. “I was looking for you. You okay?”

Tony nods as he collapses onto the floor once more, pulling Steve down as well. “I’m fine. Just discussing things with Cheeto Crotch. World domination, wookies, your ass, politics. The usual.”

“Cheeto Crotch…?” Steve trails off questioningly, and then grins when Natasha thumps Tony hard. “Oh. Well,” he shrugs, “it’s not inaccurate.”

Natasha thumps Steve hard.

Tony sits up straighter. “Wait wait wait. When did you two sleep together? Last I heard you were all ‘we’re work partners!’ and shit.”

“We had a post-saving the world thing with Sam,” says Steve casually; Natasha lets him sling an arm around her and joins him in grinning wickedly at Tony. 

“And I missed that?!” Tony places a hand over his heart. “Wow. That cuts deep. I’ve saved the world too, you know. Or need I remind you about the time I flew a nuke-”

Steve shoots a hand over Tony’s mouth at the same time as Natasha grabs the vodka back from Steve and takes a giant gulp. “C’mon, Rogers,” she says. “If we’re going to hear the nuke story for the billionth time, might as well be drunk enough to stand it.”

Before Steve can say something- which would undoubtedly be a protest since he can’t actually get drunk- Tony shoots up with his characteristic energy. “This calls for Asgardian-brewed liquor. Hold on, I stole some from Thor yesterday.”

As he scampers off to get it, Steve looks at Natasha. She looks back at him. “I wondered where you’d gone.”

Knowing it’s his way of asking if she’s okay without outright saying it, Natasha holds up the almost-empty bottle of vodka and says, “Russia.”

Steve asks lightly, “Mind if I join you?”

“Join us!” She throws one hand in the air. “My motherland welcomes everyone. Except, um, Americans.” Her lip curling up, she surveys him critically. “Yeah, we might have a problem.”

“How drunk are the two of you, exactly?” Steve asks, eyebrows furrowed. 

“Not drunk enough.”

He leans back to check Natasha’s eyes, looking serious. “Don’t get mad, but… are you going to drop tonight?”

Although subs can only drop with drugs, trauma and stress, or permission, several subs end up dropping every time they drink because they’re ‘sad’ drunks, and end up drinking themselves into highly-emotional moods. And most subs won’t go out without a dom friend- sort of like a designated driver- to make sure that they can drink without worrying about an asshole dom weaseling permission out of them when they’re too wasted to care. 

Closing her eyes, Natasha lets the pleasant buzz travel through her mind, the question failing to phase her. “Not a chance.”

“I’m not going to, either, but that doesn’t mean I’d say no if the offer’s on the table.” Tony’s back with one shot glass, some more vodka, and Thor’s liquor. “Pepper’s out of town. I’m assuming I can crash at yours, Steve-o?”

“Since when do you ask?”

Tony pours the vodka into the two empty shot glasses from before, and gives one to Natasha before handing Steve a glass filled with Asgardian brew. “Cheers, Cap. No, wait! On three.”

“Last one to down it has to drink double- no, triple- the next round,” Natasha suggests, eyes gleaming. As she expects, Steve and Tony protest wildly, but she manages to convince them with overt digs at their masculinity.

“This is such a bad idea,” Steve says, even as he adjusts his grip on the glass. “Thor’s stuff is strong…”

Natasha ignores him. “Okay, on three. Ready?” At two nods and determined expressions, she starts the count: “One, two-”

All three of them drink on two, and can barely finish their shots, they’re laughing so hard.

XXX

A quarter of an hour and several laughing fits later, Steve stands, clutching his chest. He pulls Tony up with him, and then extends his hand to Natasha; she smiles, but doesn’t take it and leaps up fluidly with a grace that belies her drunkenness. 

“Can we ditch this little shindig yet?” asks Tony, stretching. “There’s a seat on the jet with my name on it. And I mean that both literally and figuratively.”

“We’re not taking the jet,” says Steve, already walking towards the far door. There’s two from this back room: one that goes back to the main hall, and another on the far side that exits the building. “I already called Hill and asked for rooms for tonight.”

Natasha snorts. “Bet she loved that.” Hill, of all people, is someone you do not treat like a glorified personal assistant if you want to keep all limbs intact. And then, as realization hits: “Wait, rooms? For where? Why?”

“Hotel rooms.” Steve says is simply, and Tony raises his hands to the heavens, stumbling slightly as the movement tips him off balance.

“Thank fuck. Five-star, right? Please tell me it’s at least four-star.”

Steve laughs, and pulls his sub towards him, holding the door open with a flourish and a polite “After you.”

Natasha’s kind of staring at them. She’s not drunk. Not really. But thinking is slower than usual. “Hotel rooms why…?” 

She’s perfectly aware this isn’t some kind of threesome proposition. Firstly, she will never be able to physically drink so much that she wouldn’t pick up on something like that. Secondly (and mainly), Cap is not that subtle.

“To sleep, Nat,” says Steve, brow furrowing, like he thinks she might have the wrong idea. “Because it’s like 3 a.m. and I thought it would be better. You can still go back, though, if you want—”

“No.” Hotel rooms sound nice. Five-star hotel rooms sound even better. “Okay. Yeah.”

It’s more like a hotel room. Not one, because even Maria isn’t sadistic enough to make the three of them share a queen bed— even if she is being treated like a glorified assistant— but it’s a suite, singular, with two rooms connected by a living room. It’s for a family, which means she has the children’s room: obnoxiously loud and decorated with smiling sea animals that look more maniacal than friendly.

Upon seeing the king bed in the master bedroom, bursting with pillows and blankets, Tony belly-flops onto the duvet, followed quickly by Steve. Natasha gives a slow, tired smile- a little fond, a little sad- as their hands instinctively curl around each other. It’s been a long day, and it would be nice to have a cooling, grounding touch for herself. 

“Well… I’m gonna go…” Even as she speaks, Tony is murmuring to himself about thread count as he strokes the sheets, and Steve’s eyes are already closed. “Night.”

“G’night,” Steve mumbles in return, after a pause where it seems like he has to rouse himself. 

She shuts the door. Doesn’t sleep, though. Gives herself fifteen or so minutes to wind down but when she’s still in her fancy clothes at the end of it, she doesn’t even bother pretending anymore. She wishes Clint were here, because she could go sleep next to him, and if she acted like it was nothing, he wouldn't make a big deal of it.

Suddenly, just as she thinks it, her phone vibrates in her purse. Clint.

Hey. Going to sleep now. I waited up, but *someone* decided not to tell me they’re at a hotel.

Smiling slightly, Natasha replies: That’s what you get for ditching me here. You’ve been replaced by the Hilton

It only takes a few seconds for his reply: Hilton?? Swanky shit. And then: Bring me free stuff

You live with a billionaire, she texts back.

Old habits die hard. Before she can reply, her phone buzzes again. Miss you :’(

Go to sleep, Natasha replies after a minute. I’ll raid the mini-bar for you.

There are other messages she missed while at the party, both from Thor. Natasha scrolls through them quickly.

Please extend my apologies to Director Fury. My absence was unavoidable ;) ;) :p

And after that: How are you? I look forward to seeing you soon.

Not bothering to reply, Natasha looks at her untouched bed. Is there any point pretending she can sleep? She decides against it, and pads softly into the living room, noticing the sliver of light shining under the crack of the master bedroom’s door. 

It’s too quiet for them to be having sex. Either they’re awake, or they forgot to turn off the lamp.

Pushing open the door gently, Natasha creeps into the room. Yeah, it’s the light. 

She reaches above the headboard and switches it off, and then she stands there and watches the way Steve and Tony sleep curled around each other, like she’s a serial killer or some shit. Touch is so nice, and everyone always takes it for granted. She never has. 

Suddenly, there’s a rustle and Steve rolls over; when he speaks, he’s careful to keep his voice barely above a whisper. “Natasha?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you joining us or what?”

“No.” She’d like to.

She’d really like to.

It’s been a long, hard, tiring day, and it would be nice.

But if it’s too obvious that she needs a steadying touch more than wants it, she won’t do it.

“Why not? There’s plenty of space.”

The little choice is agonizing. Going back to her room is to be alone; sliding into bed is akin to yet another confession. It’s being vulnerable, being weak, being needy.

Decisions, decisions.

“Come on,” says Steve, sitting up a little. “Get in here.”

Natasha just looks at Steve, and Tony, and the bed, and the phone in her hand with Clint and Thor’s messages. Her feet move— the wrong direction, away from the bed— and her back presses against the wall before she knows what’s happening, and then her legs are lowering to the thick carpet.

She’s just… done. 

All of this.

It’s too much. She doesn’t even know what is too much, only that it is. 

And she would like a hug.

In a heartbeat, Steve’s off the bed, and the sudden shift in weight causes Tony to jerk upright, flailing disorientated for a few seconds. “Wha— Where’re you go— What’s hap—Oh.”

“I’m fine.” Natasha waves them off before they can flutter around her like mother hens, although she makes no move off the floor. “Sorry.”

“Don’t need to apologize.” Strangely enough, it’s Tony who says it, not Steve. “The carpet looks appealing. Nice and soft.” And he promptly moves to join her.

It’s not like she can’t get up. She could, definitely. If she wanted to.

This is just easy. Takes away the decision. She’s so tired.

Odd, isn’t it, how before she became a sub again, she would have thought nothing of slipping into bed with anyone on the team- not as often as she’d have wanted to (that would be weird), but often enough that it satisfied her. She can’t do that now. Everything is magnified. It would be weak to crawl in with them like a pathetic little sub craving touch. 

It’s only human. 

Tony’s warm body slides down the wall on her left; Steve joins her on the other side. Natasha sighs at the contact of their arms against hers, even though they’re just sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. Pathetic, maybe, but also human. 

“You don’t need to sit with me.”

“Yeah, we know,” says Tony. “Appreciate the heads-up, though.”

Natasha doesn’t want to get up, but: “No, I’m serious, you don’t have to—”

“I don’t see you holding a gun to our heads,” Steve says, looking right and left with exaggerated alarm. “That must mean— Wait, this is a confusing concept…”

“Yeah, yeah, take it slow,” Tony picks up. “Okay, so what do we know? There’s no weapon here. No observable method of force. So that must mean…”

“We want to?” Steve finishes, in an awed tone of voice. “Wow. Groundbreaking.”

“Isn’t it?” Stark beams. “We deserve a goddamn Nobel prize for that one.”

“Assholes,” Natasha mutters. Almost silently, she drops her head onto Tony’s shoulder; it’s fucking Stark of all people, but he’s a sub, so the obvious need for contact is okay. Subs don’t need subs. This is just two kind-of friends.

“So let’s say,” she begins, slowly, tiredly, playing with her fingers in her lap, “that the guy from the party sucked you off. You wouldn’t get rug burn on your legs?”

Tony stares, and then bursts into drunken chortles; Steve stares, and Natasha pulls her fingers down from her chin for two feet to mime a beard until he gets it, and then looks horrified. “Wait, so— Rug burn… that’s what you were— Fuck.”

Tony’s nodding vigorously, way too delighted with the memory. “I saved her ass. Well, more accurately, I saved her-”

“Yeah, okay,” Natasha cuts him off. “Remind me to fall at your feet in gratitude tomorrow.”

Tony knocks his head against hers playfully. It’s a relief, being like this with him. They were always antagonistic, but almost sibling-like… their personalities just didn’t quite mesh. They’d never, ever actually been at each other’s throats before, not like recently. 

(She is well aware who the fault lies with.)

“This carpet is very comfortable,” says Steve suddenly, apropos of nothing. “Very thick.”

“Yes,” Tony agrees, and they exchange a meaningful look.

Standing in one swift motion, Steve hurries over to the bed, bundles every pillow, blanket and duvet into his arms and then flops down onto the floor again.

“No, you don’t need to-” Natasha starts, but he cuts her off with a very polite, “Gun, head, nonexistent.” Tony takes one end of the blanket, Steve takes the other, and they wrap it around themselves and around Natasha, automatically shifting closer so they can all fit.

She lets them.

Still, she makes no move to… cuddle… or whatever, until Tony grumbles, “Okay, look, I get that you’re not into it, but like… I’m freezing here. So if you’re gonna hog the middle, you gotta let me…”

So she lets Tony throw an arm over her, and nuzzle into her neck, and she doesn’t stiffen when Steve’s fingers curl around her forearm. Her heartbeat has already slowed to basically a crawl.

It’s kind of pathetic.

“I should go,” she tries weakly, in a last-ditch attempt.

Steve bumps his nose into her forehead. “If you leave, we’re just going to follow.” And then adds, after a beat: “Go to sleep, Cheeto Crotch.”

 

Chapter Text

Natasha wakes to bright light streaming through the windows; for a moment, she’s not entirely sure where she is— her arms are pinned, brushing a hard metal edge, and her neck is bent at an odd angle. It takes less than a second for her to identify the heaviness as Steve and the sharp edge of the arc reactor— then, she lies in the warm cocoon for a few more seconds until the pride and disgust kicks in, and she pushes the bodies off of her (maybe with slightly more force than necessary).

“Wha— ” Tony flails. “Ow. Morning, sunshine,” he adds sarcastically, running his hand through mussed hair.

“Sorry.” Natasha has the decency to look abashed, and more decency than she usually tends to have because it’s actually genuine. “It’s morning.” Steve doesn’t seem to know what to say, and his sharp instincts are probably telling him that she’s a minefield waiting to explode right now, so he wisely says nothing, only smiling at them both and beginning to gather up blankets. With a groan, Tony gets up and stalks to the bathroom. Natasha finds painkillers in her bag and takes three for her splitting headache. She doesn’t look at Steve, even as he leaves the room to go to the sofa outside, leaving the door open.

Funny how what seemed acceptable in the dark somehow isn’t anymore. Like, for example, curling up with her head pillowed on Stark’s shoulder. Jesus.

There’s a little lace-edged menu propped up neatly on a table in a far corner of the suite, and Steve busies himself with examining the breakfast selection, far too engrossed in the choice between a side of hash browns or toast for it to be real. Natasha, needing to centre herself, waits quietly for Tony to come out, then slips into the shower.

She’s in a weird mood. Everything was fine in the middle of the night, but now in the morning, it’s like one of those stupidly literal metaphors where everything is illuminated. In this case, her own weaknesses.

And it’s not helping that she has an itch. She dropped a couple of days ago, a minor one after the battle, but she hasn’t dropped since then, and that was from trauma, too. She doesn’t need to, but with all the shit that’s been happening lately, and how unsteady she feels, she’d like some sort of… stabilization. Not a drop, necessarily. (No dropping, her mind insists). Just… someone to sit with. Someone to talk to her.

The shower is set to scalding and she thought it would relax her, but it only fogged up her head. She turns it off, irrationally annoyed at the drops of water beading on her body.

When she comes out, Tony’s on the bed all casual, one knee propped up, and the door is closed. He’s wearing sunglasses, and she raises an eyebrow.

“Hangover.” He’s not whispering, but his tone is low.

“You’re not eating?” Steve’s got the food already, by the smell of it, probably set up on the table outside.

He grins at her. “Nah, I was just making sure you hadn’t drowned in there.”

“Nice of you.”

“Yeah.” He hops off the bed. “So, we’d like a nice breakfast. And when I say that what I really mean is don’t jump down anyone’s throat because you’re pissed that you gave away that you’re a closet snuggler.”

Wow, Stark, way to be sensitive.

“Why would I do that.” Funny thing is, it’s such a thing at this point that they both take it as a joke.

“Yeah, well, by ‘anyone’, I mean Capsicle. Even if he makes a comment you don’t like.”

Letting out a soft sigh, Natasha rubs her temple, fighting the desire to jump down Stark’s throat for this conversation. Okay, easier said than done. “Don’t worry. I’m not feeling very well— I think I’ll just skip the breakfast. You guys have fun.”

Tony’s face softens. “Natasha, come on…”

“I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day.” She absolutely means it to come across passive-aggressive, like ‘how dare you insinuate that having me around would ruin your meal’, but… it ends up being sort of honest. She’s tired of being a ticking time bomb, of not knowing how to control her emotions. “Thanks, but you go ahead.”

“Look, can I just say something? A piece of unsolicited advice?”

“What.”

“I know what it’s like. You know that I do, right?” He waits for her to give a short nod. “You gotta reel in that temper, because trust me— you won’t get very far on it.”

“I haven’t even gotten into a fight with either of you!” Natasha’s offended, a little. What the fuck. This feels like he’s jumping on her for something she hasn’t even done yet. “Not yesterday, anyway.”

Tony looks at her.

She sighs again. “Alright, fine. What?”

“When someone’s being nice, and you get upset, that reaction’s on you, not them.”

“Debatable, but continue.”

Stark rolls his eyes. “You’re allowed to just not say anything. Your default is to react like a spring-loaded machete and you can just not, if reacting like a sane person is beyond you.”

Natasha looks at him silently.

Tony waits.

Natasha continues to look at him silently.

Tony gets the point. “Great demonstration,” he gives a very sarcastic thumbs-up, “but maybe death stare isn’t the way to go.”

For lack of a better alternative, Natasha continues to glower/death stare at him.

He sighs. “Nat. Just say ‘I don’t know what to say to that’ and change the subject. It’s misplaced niceness, for fuck’s sake.”

“I know exactly what I want to say to you,” Natasha tells him plainly, “but you won’t hear me say it.”

“Guys!” Steve calls before Tony can reply. “Food’s getting cold.”

Stark settles for sticking his middle finger up at her behind his back as they head into the little dining space in the suite.

“Good morning. Did you both sleep well?” Steve’s cheery greeting is undermined only because Natasha knows he must have spoken to Tony while she was in the shower, so… Did you sleep well, Natasha?

“At first,” she slides into a seat, avoiding both their eyes, “then it got a little uncomfortable and I couldn’t stay asleep. I probably would’ve been better in my own bed.” (Lie).

She should have slept in her own bed, not crawled in with them on the floor like an infant. She’s kicking herself because what on earth was she thinking?

Steve seems disappointed in her answer; she’s a little regretful, wanting to take it back, but it’s too late now. (Another lie. She could easily thank them again for curling up on the carpet with her).

“Well, personally,” Tony says with gusto, “I slept like a log. Even though the two of you snore like freight trains.”

“I don’t snore!” Steve protests loudly, causing Tony to smack him with a spoon— “Head. Splitting headache. Indoor voices.”

Natasha smirks. “Nice try. I don’t either.”

“Deny it all you want.” Grabbing a slice of toast and spreading a liberal amount of butter on it, Stark continues, “The truth will prevail.”

“You think if I snored, I wouldn’t have gotten hell for it in the army?” Cap scoffs. “Right.”

“Who knows, maybe the ice screwed up your sinuses. It’s not impossible.”

“It’s possible,” Steve does not look convinced, even as he agrees, “but it didn’t happen. I don’t snore. Right?” He glances at Natasha for back-up, and she nods.

“I fell asleep pretty quickly, but it would’ve woken me if you had.”

His eyes bore into her. She knows what he’s thinking. I thought you said you didn’t sleep all night. “There you go,” he says to Tony, “Case closed. Hey Nat, pass me a bagel?”

XXX

The plane ride back is uneventful. Swanky as shit, as usual, and Stark-financed, as usual. Steve, although he got drunk off Thor’s liquor, managed to metabolize it fast enough that he is not hungover. Natasha’s head has mostly subsided by the time they’re in the air, but Tony’s still complaining. She’s not sure how much of it is real and how much of it is him just being Tony. From everyone at SHIELD and all the Avengers (apart from Steve and Thor), he’s probably the only one who handles his alcohol as well— or possibly better— than she does.

Still, he drags Cap off to the back row on the jet and they snuggle together like lovestruck teenagers, Steve whispering in Tony’s ear the entire time.

It doesn’t really help Natasha’s itch.

XXX

Oh, shit, is Natasha’s first thought when she sees who’s in the lounge, but Hill’s already seen them, her eyes narrowed minutely, and to back out now would be cowardice. At least Thor’s there too, and Clint.

The archer bounds over to them when they walk into the room, dropping a quick, apologetic kiss onto Natasha’s lips as she glowers at him. “How was the party?”

His question earns him matching glares from Steve and Tony. “Well, you would know,” Tony snarks, “if you’d actually, I don’t know, been there?”

“I was sick.” The grin on his face stretches ear-to-ear. “So, got any juicy gossip?”

Steve collapses onto the couch with an exaggerated sigh as Tony launches into a colorful description of what exactly the mayor of New York got up to last night. Thor approaches Natasha, his steps bouncing.

“Hi.” She grins at him. He looks like a big golden retriever.

“Hello.” He beams back. “Good trip? Tony did not seem to find it agreeable.”

“Eh,” Natasha shrugs with one shoulder, “You know how it goes.” Thor is practically vibrating with pent-up energy. “I look dead and you look like you won the lottery; what’s up?”

“Jane!” he bursts out, barely after she’s finished her question. “She was offered a position here. She may be moving in the near future.”

“That’s great.” Natasha is genuinely happy for him— it’s hard not to be, he looks so delighted. “I hope it works out.”

“As do I.”

“When will you know for sure?”

Thor’s about to answer, when Hill materializes at their side too quickly to be real. “Romanoff.”

“Yes?” Natasha’s expecting some sort of mission or field report. Actually, no. She’s off active-duty, it’s probably an inquiry into how much they raised last night.

“Did you enjoy the party?” Hill’s tone is inscrutable.

“Oh.” Natasha studies her. “Yes.” With a voice that says no.

“Glad to hear it.” With a voice that says I give no fucks. She touches Thor’s arm lightly. “Mind if I take Romanoff for a second? Duty calls.”

Natasha sighs and squares her shoulders before following the other woman out into the hall, where it’s jarringly quiet in relation to the packed lounge.

Here we go.

“So.” Maria nods at Natasha, her expression blank in a careful way that reveals more than any emotive display would. “Talk.”

There’s little point beating around the bush. “I apologize. Nobody knew.”

Maria regards her coolly, assessing the genuineness of a monotonic apology with those sharp eyes that cut through even Fury’s bullshit. “We fucked and then I just left, I didn’t think to stay—”

“I didn’t need contact,” says Natasha sharply, half-disbelieving that Maria is really pissed that she didn’t know to stick around for post-coital cuddles. “Still don’t. I was on Substop, then, anyway.”

“Still, if I had known…”

“You didn’t.”

“Right.” Hill is back to ice. “That brings us to the issue of lying to the person you’re eating out. I think that might have qualified me as need-to-know.”

“Really?” Natasha manages to sound bored— and then adds, because she thinks she knows what’s wrong here: “Coulson didn’t know.”

A flash of… disbelief, maybe, passes over Maria’s face before she schools it. “I… didn’t believe it, when he said. Huh.”

“The more you know.”

“You still should have told us.”

“Looks like you’re not the only one not included in ‘need-to-know’.” She still has not forgotten— will lick her wounds and move on, but never forget— that when they went into hiding, Fury and Hill’s circle of trust had included each other, but cast out Natasha.

Maria’s posture is tall and rigid, managing to simultaneously be both defensive and highly aggressive. “Let’s not pretend those two things are anywhere in the same ballpark.”

Natasha doesn’t push the point— firstly because Maria is slightly right, and secondly because it makes her look bitter, and she’s not. She is not— was never— personally hurt that neither Hill nor Fury trusted her; she’s just professionally offended. As a professional. “Let’s not pretend that the reason you’re pissed isn’t because you didn’t get to lord it over me after sex.”

“No, I’m pissed because you didn’t tell me something I should have been told.” Like it was a mission. Chain-of-command, and all that jazz.

“Can’t take not being told something important? Join the club.”

Hill scowls. “Back to that again? What was this, petty revenge for doing our jobs?”

“Yes, Hill, because my sex life revolves around retribution.” (Well, it doesn’t now, she can’t help thinking. What her sex life used to be and who it belonged to are a completely different matter.)

“I wouldn’t be surprised.” That… was low.

Natasha fixes Maria with her best ‘You’re overreacting’ face. “It wasn’t personal, alright?”

“I’m sorry, what part of you lying about your Bearing when you slept with us is keeping it professional?”

Huh. Natasha notes the ‘us’; Maria’s never-ending crusade to save everyone else. Well, Natasha is a not a monster, and nobody needs to be rescued from her. “What’s wrong with you?” She adds, hoping to end the discussion: “Am I the first sub you fucked or something, that it?”

Maria’s eyes narrow. “That’s besides the goddamn point.”

“I’m confused; what exactly is it you want here?” She won’t show it, but she’s impressed; Natasha is well aware that she isn’t the first sub Maria’s fucked, and Hill refusing to even defend herself in order to stop the discussion veering off-course is admirable.

Typical Hill, but still. Impressive.

Maria’s scowling. “ What did I expect? I don’t know, I was hoping for some acknowledgment and maybe a genuine apology?!” But the woman has also injected, probably unconsciously, the threads of a barking, commanding tone into her voice, and Natasha feels her body responding to it. She wants to back down, to please Maria.

“Alright.” Natasha shrugs. “Sorry I ruined your straight-dom record.”

“You didn’t.” There it is. She’s getting to Maria. Good. An urge to reach for her hand spikes.

Natasha swallows. “First sub you got your tongue into, that must suck.”

“That’s enough, Romanoff.” There’s the ordering again, and sure, Natasha doesn’t have to follow them, but she’d like to, is the point— when they’re said in that incredible, authoritative voice.

“Why? Don’t like being reminded that a sub made you scream?”

“Are you fucking with me?! Get a goddamn grip, Natasha, and own—”

“Can we stop.” It’s not a request, because Natasha does not make requests when the outcome matters to her, not if she can help it; it’s a white flag, an appeal. An acknowledgement that she is spinning out of control in an effort to keep it.

After a few tense seconds, Hill’s shoulders relax, recognizing the words for their vulnerability. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Natasha cracks a slow smile. “Then please continue.”

 

Shaking her head, Maria’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “That bad, huh?”

 

“No.” After a beat where Maria just stares her down, one eyebrow raised, Natasha sighs. “Sure. Maybe.” A few more seconds pass. “I’m sorry, okay? I never meant to get anyone else involved.”

Hill rubs her temple. Very slowly, she says, “Small— small-ish— arguments like that, getting too much…”

“Not normal, I know.” Thank you, Maria. Yet another mark on the ‘Ways Natasha is a Screwed-up Individual’ tally.

They both know that the longer she goes without dropping in a normal, healthy way, the bigger this itch is going to get. And the more susceptible she’ll be to dropping due to small missions, or slight trauma.

“You know,” Maria is being really, really careful with her words, “I could always… take you down. If you wanted.”

“Thank you,” Natasha replies icily, “I’ll take that into consideration.” She gets where Maria is coming from— having an agent this unstable can’t be safe— but it’s not welcome.

“I overstepped.”

“No,” the sarcasm is evident. “Don’t worry. If it gets too much, I’ll approach you or another senior agent.”

“Not as a senior agent, as your friend.”

Natasha stares at her for a microsecond too long. “Because you want another sub to fuck, another toy— Fuck me, I— no.” Breaking herself with a guttural groan of frustration, she curls her hands into fists and takes a steadying breath. Okay. Okay. She’s on the defensive. She has to stop.

She has got to fucking stop.

“Sorry. Sorry, I— God, no. Okay. No. I know what you meant. I know exactly what you meant.” Maria is looking at her like she’s having a mental breakdown— which to be fair, is definitely how she’s acting. She tries to come up with something to say, but it’s difficult: ‘thank you’ feels like Hill would be doing her a favour, which is true, which Natasha is decidedly not okay with. Same with ‘I appreciate that’. ‘I’ll think about it’ is too dismissive, and anything more concrete is too promising. She doesn’t want Hill to follow up later.

Finally, she settles on, “That’s nice of you,” and leaves it at that. Descriptive, validating the kindness in Maria’s offer, but not an ounce of encouragement.

Hill shrugs, understanding. “Yeah, no pressure.” In an instant, she’s back to deputy director, mask on as per usual. “I have to get back. Will you be at work next week?”

“I’ll see.” Natasha hesitates, makes a good, hard mental evaluation of herself, and then says: “Maybe some training would be more up my alley right now.”

“Training the junior agents, you mean?”

“Yes.”

Maria nods. “I’ll see what I can do.” She turns quickly on her heel, and is gone without a goodbye. As per usual.

XXX

She slips into the lounge, where Clint is still listening in rapture as Tony acts out the intricacies of high-brow society with maybe a few more high-pitched voices than necessary. Thor’s disappeared, but Steve is in the corner, a broody frown on his face.

Making a snap decision, Natasha flops dramatically onto the couch beside the archer and swings her legs onto his lap. (If she has to have an itch, so be it, but she sure as hell doesn’t have to give in to it.)

“Hello,” says Clint, beginning to knead her feet, and oh, that feels good. Not in a sub way or a wanting touch way. In a foot massage way. “Got anything to add to the party?”

Shaking her head, Natasha leans back against the cushions and allows the touch to calm her. It’s not enough, doesn’t put a dent in the desire to just… be. But it’ll have to do. She lets Tony and Clint’s banter wash over her, pretending tiredness. They’ll believe it.

When Pepper walks through the door ten minutes later— and from Stark’s pleased reaction, he had no clue she was coming— she sighs and pulls herself up. Pepper is more perceptive than most.

The woman lets the glass door slide shut and claps her hands to get their attention, without so much as a smile or greeting. “JARVIS, lockdown please.”

“What? Why?” Clint’s hands immediately delve under the coffee table for his back-up bow, and Natasha reaches for the gun under the couch cushion she’s sitting on.

Pepper raises her hands. “No threat. I just want us all in here.” Now she smiles, looking around. “Well, this is perfect.”

“Perfect for what?” Clint still has one hand on his bow, like Pepper might be some robot in disguise. Like he’s almost expecting her to say ‘perfect for murdering you’ and then pounce, like from a fairytale.

“I want to talk to you all.” A pleased smile skirting the edges of her lips.

“What’s up, Pep?” Dropping a kiss to her cheek, Tony curls his fingers around hers.

She motions Steve over with a perfectly-manicured hand, and makes him sit on the spare couch. Then, with a gentle nudge, she gestures to Tony to sit on the sofa next to Natasha and Clint. “Given the way you’ve all been behaving lately,” and none of them miss the steely stress on ‘all’, “I thought we could talk about conflict resolution.”

“Conflict reso— What? Like what?” Steve asks, looking very unsure of this idea.

“Like how to talk to someone who does something you find disagreeable.” None of them say anything. Natasha thinks it might be because they’re all at least partially intimidated by Pepper. “We’ll try some strategies out for a while. And then I’ll leave, and I thought the four of you could talk. How does that sound?”

“Like I’d rather be stabbed in the eyeballs?” Natasha suggests, as an alternative she’s genuinely willing to try.

Pepper, for her part, is not impressed. “Thank you for your input.”

“Is this… really necessary?” asks Steve.

“From what I’ve been hearing lately— unfortunately, yes.”

“You can’t make us stay here,” Clint points out, making what Natasha thinks is a very logical argument, “We have places to be.”

“Watch me,” is Pepper’s cool reply. “We’re going to have a very frank discussion about how to deal with feelings and other such terrible things,” said with what Natasha feels is a disproportionate amount of sarcasm, “and you are all going to cooperate, or we will have words.”

Clint just stares at her. “Are you… is the teacher voice intentional, or does it just come out?”

She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Once again, thank you for the input.” Pepper just has a way of making Natasha feel five years old. “Okay, can I start? Steve, I know this isn’t up your alley, but I’d really love if you would join in.”

Appropriately called out, he sits up straight with a barely-concealed grimace. “Yeah, yeah. Sure, of course. Do you have a plan, or…?”

“I thought we’d start with one tactic for today,”— “For today?” Natasha echoes, and is ignored— “There’s three steps: desire, reason, future. Got it?” They’re all just staring at her. “Usually you’d all repeat it. Desire, reason, future.”

Silence.

She sighs. “Alright, I suppose that was asking too much.” She points to Tony. “First, state your desire— what you’re disagreeing on. For example, I don’t like it when Tony forgets to eat or spends nights in the lab. So, I would like it if he stopped doing that. Then reason. Tony, I don’t like it because I care about you and your health. Third, the future. I’d like it if you let me know if you skip two meals consecutively so we can work on it.”

Pepper’s smiling at them like she’s just given them the key to the fucking fountain of youth or some shit, but Natasha has no idea how this is useful, and from their body language, neither do Steve or Clint.

“What’s the next step? Tony?” Pepper asks.

Obviously used to this, and knowing the costs of not answering, Tony closes his eyes briefly and replies, as if memorized: “Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and provide an explanation for your behaviour if desired.”

“Go ahead,” she encourages.

“I acknowledge your feelings, Pep,” he says, with a little tired monotony, but smiling nonetheless.

“And an explanation?” she prods.

With a huff, he continues: “I get engrossed in my work and forget.”

“Thank you. I understand how focused you get on your research. I think we could talk about setting timers for each meal, and having JARVIS remind you.”

Natasha slumps back against the couch, scowling as she watches the exchange. This does not sound like an HR meeting for the most troublesome Avengers. This sounds like—

“This is therapy.” Clint narrows his eyes as if expecting Pepper to defend herself; when she doesn’t, and simply nods, the mood in the room changes.

Instantly, Natasha and Clint are off the couch and headed for the door; twin, furious glares hit Pepper when they find the door firmly locked.

“Let us out,” Natasha practically spits. “JARVIS!” There’s no reply. “Look, we were fighting, sure,” here she tactfully neglects to mention that she is the common denominator in all aforementioned fights, “but we resolved it all ourselves. We’re obviously well-versed in how to resolve conflict.”

Straightening her spine, Pepper fixes them both with stern look. “Sit down. I just want to have a civilized conversation about our feelings. Why is that so awful?”

“Fine,” says Natasha pleasantly, “I feel like I don’t want to do this shit. And I don’t want to do your bullshit conflict resolution therapy.” First of all, she’s a goddamn spy. Her missions revolve around getting people to do what she wants. If she wants to resolve conflict, she can.

“Me neither.” Clint gives Pepper a smug smirk. “And the reason for that is that it’s ridiculous shit. And in the future, if you lock us in a room, I’ll pour superglue in your shoes.”

“No, you will not,” Steve says firmly just as Tony growls out “I’d like to see you try, birdbrain.”

“Okay, you know what, fine,” Pepper has her hands up. “I won’t make you do the exercises. Today,” she adds threateningly. “I have to talk to Hill anyways, so I guess it’s for the best.”

Steve’s “yeah” is a little long, the relief evident.

“I think you all could really learn a lot from each other, and if you just gave it a try, I imagine you’d surprise even yourselves.” Natasha and Clint fold their arms and give her deadpan stares until she breaks.

That’s the intention, anyways. She does not break, so they continue glowering uselessly at her back, even as Pepper slips out the door, after the tell-tale whoosh-click of the glass sliding open and shut.

“Your girlfriend,” Natasha spins around to face Tony, “is a patronizing bi—

Steve and Clint are both in between her and Stark in the next instant. “Don’t even think,” Steve is firm, his hand closed around her arm, and oh, that feels nice, steadying, “about finishing that sentence.”

“Tasha, chill,” Clint demands, both his arms in front of her. “You’re not mad at him, you’re not mad at Pepper. She was trying to help.”

“It’s almost like you could call it,” Tony’s tone is far too thoughtful, “misplaced niceness.

“Quiet, Stark. And both of you get away from me.” Despite the words, her tone is measured and even polite, and they step back at once, eyes searching over her. Steve’s mouth drops open a tiny bit.

“Natasha…”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re reacting to us?”

She’s tired, stressed, generally not feeling great— nothing particular, just this whole sub thing— and now she just wants to be alone, logically, but also? She definitely doesn’t want to be alone.

She scowls at Steve. “I will shove my fist so far down your throat it’ll come out your ass with your breakfast.”

Grinning widely, Tony asks with a leer, “You offering the reverse? Because I gotta tell ya, you’re hot enough to pull it off for me.” Steve glares at him. “Hey, I thought this was Honesty Hour? Share ’n’ Care? The official Avengers Sub Club?”

At that last one, Natasha raises an eyebrow at Steve. “Speaking of… you on some drug we should know about, Rogers?” Her light tone makes it clear: the previous topic is off-bounds, and the conversation is over.

“No. I think she might’ve wanted me to talk about… y’know.” Scrubbing a hand over his face, he flops down onto the couch, managing through some impossibility of the laws of physics to look graceful. “Subs’ rights in the 40s. Bucky.”

“That must have been fun,” Clint says bitterly, also flopping down, and looking decidedly un-graceful. When he does, Natasha follows suit, no longer able to position herself for maximum contact, now that they all know she wants it. “Not for Bucky, of course. But for you. Damn, I bet you ran the place. Captain America, dom, soldier. All the 1940s housewife subs doing your bidding.” He tries to subtly lean against Natasha, and she shrugs him off, annoyed. At herself, maybe, more than anything.

“Do you think I liked seeing my sub treated that way?” Steve demands, his eyebrows knitted together. “They tortured him just because he was a sub, every—”

“Define ‘tortured’.” Natasha’s tone is clipped, short. She does not really care, she just wants to understand. Casual curiousity.

Taking a quick breath, Steve’s eyes flick to her, and he pauses before answering. “Not torture, maybe. Bad enough. They’d have him sent to the Major every chance they’d get. He was an ass, he’d yell, sometimes Bucky’d drop. Typical for the time, no one questioned it.”

“You were there though, right?” Clint’s face is pinched. Natasha knows the description is probably dredging up a few memories for him; he doesn’t talk about it, and even she doesn’t know every single detail, but his childhood wasn’t pleasant.

“Yeah.” Steve sighs, running his fingers through his hair. “It wasn’t that often. The whole atmosphere was different though, you guys wouldn’t get it. Stuff they did back then just wouldn’t be accepted now.”

“Well, yeah.” Tony shrugs. “Kinda the point of, y’know, NASS and all of them. Subs could only invest in real estate, apply for jobs, etcetera without their registered doms’ written consent in, what, the 60s?”

“I wouldn’t know,” says Steve with a wry, pointed smile. “But yeah, that’s basically what it was like for him. And they used slurs and shit. On me and on him.”

“Which slurs?” Tony’s got a half-smirk on, before he does a comical double-take, eyebrows at his hairline. “Wait, on you? For what, being too star-spangled? Gotta say, I agree on that one.”

“Because he like doms.” Natasha understood immediately. They’d put her on Substop in the Red Room a couple of times and sent her on missions to seduce men who who were attracted to other doms. Women, as well, once or twice. It was always highly-secretive; eschewing typical Bearing relationships was more accepted now, but still not encouraged— and those missions were a decade ago.

Steve corrects her, “I like doms and subs. And the only reason I didn’t face more backlash over the amount I flirted with Peggy was because, yeah,” he half-shrugs in Clint’s direction, “Captain America.”

“Well, that fucking sucks.” Clint leans back against the couch cushions.

“70s and 80s weren’t that bad,” Tony points out, an attempt at injecting optimism into the conversation.

“Speak for yourself.” Shaking his head, lip curled back in a sneer, Clint says, “There’s your money talking. 70s and 80s were pretty fucking awful.” With a long, side-look at Natasha, who glances questioningly at him, he clears his throat. “Circus wasn’t all that fun. Either.”

“They didn’t clap for you enough?” Stark asks. Natasha reaches over Steve swiftly and socks his arm hard, and the soldier looks only a little disapproving.

“I’m a fucking switch, what do you think happened?” the archer asks, arms folded, his torso rigid and spine straight.

“Oh,” says Stark. And then: “Oh.

“Yeah.” Clint’s expression is vaguely smug (which Natasha knows is from the validation, and she holds in a snort). “They only recognized us in, I think it was ’68? ’69? The circus was over the fucking moon to take me in. I was one of the star attractions. The archery was just a bonus.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony says sourly, before looking at Natasha and then continuing, “70s might’ve been bad for you, but at least the 2000s weren’t. I had fucking Obadiah on my ass.” His eyes take on a distant, glassy glaze.

Natasha almost can’t believe this. They’ve turned it into… some type of competition? Who had the worst life? There’s a weird, uneasy pit in her stomach… it’s not normal, it’s not typical behaviour, and she doesn’t want to take part.

As if on cue, Stark turns to her. “You were on Substop; 2000s must have been peachy for you,” he says, with a questioning lilt to his voice.

Heart beating quickly, Natasha inclines her head, and does not offer anymore. Well, for most of 2000 she was 15, and still with the Red Room, so not really.

Tony doesn’t push, although he looks close to doing so. “What worked best for you?” he asks Clint, and then to Steve: “Or for Barnes, I guess. Moving past.”

“I don’t know,” Clint replies, a note of sullenness creeping into his voice. His eyes slide to Natasha again, and then he adds, “SHIELD, maybe. Safe place. Moving slowly.”

“Yeah,” Tony nods sagely, “That’s what I said. Started slow myself, then moved up.”

Natasha looks at from him, to Clint, to Steve. And back. “What exactly,” she says, very slowly, “is going on?”

Tony coughs. “Friends, talking, is what is looks like from here. Birdbrain, you concur?”

Like hell that’s what it is. “How stupid do you think I am?” Natasha growls, and she rounds on Clint. “I can’t believe you of all people—”

Immediately, Tony rises and steps between them. “No, no, okay, hold on. It was my idea. I talked to Pepper, okay?”

“You all talked about it?!” They’d all hatched this ridiculous plan to try to get her to talk about her own experiences and what the fuck.

“No!” Stark protests quickly. “Me and Pep, sure. These other two, I don’t know.”

“There was no plan,” Steve assures her. “… that I was aware of,” he adds after a pause. “I just thought it might help you.”

She turns wounded eyes on Clint, who huffs, guilty but proud. “Yeah, I just figured, after Pepper said… might help. It’s not like I like sharing this shit.”

“Wow.” Her tone is ice. “Thank you. How kind of you to, on my account.”

“Don’t be like that.” Clint’s on edge, from the few details he’d shared earlier, and she can see this has him untethered. Well, good. He can go cuddle up with Phil. “C’mon, take it in the spirit it was intended.”

Stark raises his hands, peacekeeper. “Let me present the logic, if I may. You’re not trying ways on your own, so we just thought if we talked about how we personally got through—”

“I’m not trying?” Natasha repeats, stung. Well, fuck. She swings around to face the other two. “Is that what you all think? I’m not trying?”

Stark starts to back-track, and she’s unsure how real it is. “No no no no. No. I meant—” He breaks off.

Here’s the thing: Natasha knows she isn’t trying as hard as she could. She could go to therapy every day— that would be trying damn hard.

But she’s trying either way. Being around them all? Fighting with everyone every minute of every day because she can’t help it and they can’t help antagonizing her— and still, through all of it, remaining at the tower? Not running away? This is her trying, and if it isn’t good enough then fuck it, maybe she might as well leave.

Something about misguided niceness plays in her head and she wants to listen but—

It’s too much. It’s patronizing and they think she’s not trying and they tried to trick her into therapy and they think she’s not trying but she’s here, isn’t she? She’s fucking here. Doesn’t that count for something?

They think she’s not trying but she really just wants a hug and the fact that she’s standing here, in the tower, and she hasn’t punched any of them or collapsed on top of them is trying.

“Nat?” It’s Clint. He’s already dealing with his own shit, he doesn’t need to deal with hers. “He’s an ass, he just says shit. That’s not what he meant.”

“I can’t do this right now,” says Natasha. When all three open their mouths, she cuts them off, “I can’t be here right now.”

“Here?” Clint looks stricken. “As in, the tower?”

“Yes.” She looks at his face, feels unimaginably guilty, thinks better of it. “No.” She’ll leave one day, when the three of them won’t beat themselves up for it, on a day when nobody will be able to link themselves directly to it. “Just— in here, this room. Not right now.” She walks towards the door, and all three follow.

“Natasha…”

“I get it, okay?” she says harshly, turning. “I fucking get it, now let me be.”

“Can I come with you?” Clint asks. “I’ll just sit with you. I won’t talk. We can watch a movie on your bed or something.”

“Cuddle,” the word is so childish, weak, “That’s what you mean.”

To his credit, Clint doesn’t back down, and tips his chin up as he answers. “Yes. Because God knows you need it.”

Natasha stares at him for a moment— Steve and Tony are right there, isn’t this a violation of some code?— and then buries her face in her hands. In frustration with him, mostly.

Here’s the second thing: Natasha knows her emotions are making her unstable. She knows she’s craving contact, and allowing someone to hug her or even dom her into a drop (unthinkable) would feel incredible.

Here’s the third thing: Natasha cannot. Maybe before, when they didn’t know. That was her plan. Come into the room, ‘fall asleep’ against Clint while watching movies, blame lack of sleep the night before. Everyone always had to push, though, which is basically the opposite of what they were fucking advocating.

‘Move slowly’. Well, she tried to, and they steamrollered her into therapy. And now she can’t even do what she was going to.

She sighs. She needs to get out of here, and she needs to do it without a fight, because if she has another fight, she’s either going to end up killing one of them, or having a mental breakdown. Completely sidestepping Clint’s offer (how the hell is she supposed to politely react to that?), she says “I’m not pissed.” At the 3 sets of raised eyebrows, she adds, “Genuinely. I’m just tired. I don’t feel like dealing with all of this right now, so I’m going to go up to my floor, and then hit the gym.”

Clint, understanding immediately, nods and gives her a thumbs-up. Tony, on the other hand—

“Hold your probably-Soviet horses.” Stark makes to follow her, and she turns and shakes her head.

“I’m not angry,” she repeats. It would be a lie, except it’s the truth. She’s too tired. “I’ll be down for dinner.”

“Stay down here, then, if you’re not pissed.” Tony, in typical Stark fashion, phrases it as a challenge.

Surprisingly, it’s Steve who speaks up. “No, I understand.” He nods towards the door. “We’ll see you in the evening?”

With a curt nod and a semi-grateful smile, she slips out.

It’s too quiet in her room, just her and her thoughts. She tries to pinpoint what exactly is making her so… susceptible, subby. Is it the remnants of the hangover? She handles her liquor well, but she hasn’t been off Substop and drunk in… well, maybe ever. She can’t quite remember.

It could be the conversation with Tony yesterday— more open than she usually is, making her more emotional right after her conversation with Clint. Natasha certainly feels unstable. Not any more angry than usual, just… teetering on the edge.

Or it could be because of the way she let herself behave last night, sleeping in between Steve and Tony. Touch is something subs like, sure, but she doesn’t need it. She’s not like Stark or Clint. It’s an addiction, she decides. Physically staying away from doms cold turkey is the best way to handle it. Giving herself snippets of comfort just makes her crave it worse, apparently, and she can’t afford that.

She lets herself stew for a while, practicing stretches for strength and flexibility, before she finally gets bored of being holed up in her quarters alone and decides to head to the gym.

The elevator, when it arrives, is thankfully empty.

“JARVIS, coast’s clear en route to the gym?” Just double-checking.

“Mostly. Your destination, however, is not.”

Damn it. “Who?”

“Captain Rogers.” There’s a pause. “You may be needed.”

“I don’t want to spar.”

“No, there may be trouble.”

“In what way?” Natasha asks, instantly alert. “He’s okay?”

“I attempted to verify that, but I’m afraid I cannot discern. I recommend you check on his status.”

“Anyone ever tell you how useless you are?”

“You, Agent Romanoff, as well as Agent Barton. Daily, in fact.”

“Yeah, well. Useless.” Even so, she heeds JARVIS’ advice and rushes out of the elevator, steps quick but silent, one hand on her gun and the other checking her Widow’s bite.

But Steve is alone, his dark figure standing out against the pale wall on the other side of the giant, Stark-financed gym. He’s not moving.

“JARVIS?” Natasha says carefully, scanning the room with her gun.

“Agent Romanoff?”

“When you said ‘trouble’,” she moves closer to Steve, “did you mean other people?”

“Captain Rogers is alone,” he replies, confirming her scan.

Holstering her weapon, she makes her way over to the dark figure; he’s on the floor, and he doesn’t look up when she nears. He doesn’t tense or relax, either; there’s no indication that he’s heard her.

PTSD, she thinks, and is careful to stay out of range.

“What’s wrong?” Natasha steps closer to him, urgency underlining every soft movement, even as she’s careful not to startle him. “You okay Rogers?”

There’s no answer; he’s staring off into space, fingers clenched into fists. She feels like shit for feeling a spike of gratitude over his distress— here is an opportunity for her own gain— but Natasha has never been one to bask in the misfortune of a friend, and she’s not about to start now.

Determined to redeem herself, she tries to snap him out of it with words: “Rogers!” Maybe appealing to the army side of him would help. “Steve,” she says again, sharper.

“Yes.” It sounds hollow and whole. “Can you— I need help. Again. Please.”

Not PTSD, she realizes. Domdrop.

‘Sure, no problem,’ is what she’s about to say. But, huh. She’s not the best in the business for nothing. “Domdrop?” she says with deceptively easy affection.

Steve nods, the vein in his neck stretching against taut skin. “I was hoping— Please? It’s a lot to ask, I know. But.” His fingers curl and uncurl around the material of his shirt.

“Something trigger it this time?” She still hasn’t moved closer.

Nodding fervently, Steve meets her eyes; his own are heavily-lidded, and clear. “I don’t— I think, I can’t… Can you come here, with me? Just to help me?”

Natasha reaches out and touches him, then; the simple contact is enough to soothe her own nerves momentarily, but she’s watching Steve: a soft smile curves around his lips, eyes glowing.

“You asshole,” she growls, using the grip she has on his shoulder to shove him away from her.

He rolls back from the impact, and when he looks up, his face has completely changed, confirming what she suspected.

Natasha has been angry at the team; she’s been upset with them, and jealous of them, and frustrated with them. She’s never, ever, not in years, felt as much pure hate as she does right now. It’s rage directed out, magnified into hatred by shame directed in, and it hurts.

 

“I’m sorry, I thought it would be a good way to help…” he trails off, hands raised in an apology.

“You— I thought, you said you understood. You—” She doesn’t know what to say; what can she say? She’s so fucking tired of being a fucking sub and all the fucking fights that come along with it. “What the hell, Steve.” And it comes out a lot more raw than she intended it to.

“I was trying to help, I just thought—”

“You just thought you could fake a breakdown to manipulate me into doing what you thought was best?” Fucking Steve. Fucking Steve. This is just So. Goddamn. Rogers. And he’s just So. Goddamn. Earnest.

“It’s obvious to everyone you need some time under,” Steve says, not unkindly. “We— I just thought, if you had a way to do it while saving…” He lets it hang.

Clint would tell her to pick her battles, to look at the intentions behind things before jumping in fists first.

There’s a reason he’s the archer while she does hand-to-hand.

“Saving what?” Natasha demands. “Saving what, Steve? My pride?” He stays silent. “My dignity?” She scrubs a hand over her cheek, pulls it through her hair. “How does lying to me preserve any shred of dignity I’ve got left?”

He’s shaking his head. “You have dignity. You’re the only one who doesn’t see it.”

“I don’t care. You tried to manipulate me.”

Steve crosses his arms, face hardening obstinately. Like it does when he thinks he’s right. Dig your heels in, atta boy. Way to de-escalate. “Don’t twist the situation.” And it’s a call-out, which she knows. There’s helping a friend, and there’s outright manipulation, and when those two overlap, they cease to be either. “You’ve lied to help Clint before. You would have done the same, and you know it.”

“Yeah? And if I’d done the same, I wouldn’t be such a shitty actor as to give it away.” Damn, Steve, why’d he have to be such a shitty actor. At least she might have gotten a long hug out of it, and kept her pride. She can’t decide if she’s mad at the attempt, or mad at its failure— because now she has to be more angry, because she figured it out, and it was manipulation and pity and bungled goodwill all rolled into one. Not something she can let slide, even though she wants to. “Don’t. Interfere. In my life.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?” Steve demands, throwing his hands in the air. “Tell me what you want me to do. You’re falling apart, and you won’t let any of us help, and—”

“I am not falling apart!”

“For crying out lou— Okay, sure, fine. You’ve gotta learn to accept help though, or—”

“It’s not up to you to decide how I accept help!” She’s so fucking done. With all of this. “I— I get it, I do, but for fuck’s sake, Steve, that’s so goddamn demeaning.”

“But you’re just so goddamn stubborn!” he snaps. Like her not allowing him to act in his capacity as team leader is a personal offense.

“Me?” Natasha is incredulous. “I’m stubborn? This is so fucking typical. You’re just— You are So. You.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“All your macho 1940s sincerity…”

Steve stiffens, seeing an implication she hadn’t intended. “I’m not being offensive. I’m trying to help. Don’t you dare compare me to the people who talked shit about Bucky.”

“You drew that comparison all on your own,” Natasha responds coolly, heart beating fast. “All I’m saying is you need to tone it the fuck down.”

“You’re my teammate.”

“I’m not your sub.”

“You are my fucking friend, and I’m sick of this. I would do the same thing for Tony. For Clint. I would have, for Bucky.”

“For Bucky?” Natasha wants to laugh. “I hate to break it to you, but they’re all your subs in some way and I’m not. And I know if Clint or Tony figured out what you were trying to do, they’d react the exact same way. I never met him, but I’d be willing to bet Bucky would too.”

“You didn’t know him.” Steve’s jaw is clenched, forehead tight. “You have no idea what he’d do.”

“Do you?” she challenges. “He was never in the same situation.”

“No, he wasn’t, because Bucky had a fucking life, and people who loved him!” Steve bites out. “People abused him, same as you, and he fucking got through it without issues, and the people he trusted? They trusted him back. You don’t—” He breaks off with a gasp. “Shit. Shit. Nat, sorry.”

Natasha feels the blood drain out of her face. Because that’s one strike too far, and then another, and then a third. She leaps at him; he catches her fist and turns, but doesn’t defend himself from the next strike; his face is ashen.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean that,” he says, and he sounds so genuinely sorry that she despises him.

“Go to hell,” she says— it should come out choked, but instead it’s steely and thin as she pounds her fists and her feet into every part of his skin that she can see. “You’re an asshole.”

“I know,” says Steve, dodging from strikes that come too close to his eyes, or his crotch, or his neck, but letting the others land their punishment. “I know. Jesus, ow.”

It’s the exclamation of pain that stops her; she stares at him, breathing hard, more hurt than she can possibly imagine— almost more than she’s ever experienced before— twisting and kneading her chest. It explodes, and she punches his chest hard, then again, then again and again and again and again, kicking and slamming fists and heels wherever she can reach—

And then with one final blow, she slides down onto the mats, laying on her back. After a beat, Steve joins her, looking miserable.

“Natasha…”

“It’s fine.”

Several minutes pass. They can hear water in the pipes traveling down the walls, which means someone on the floor above— probably Bruce— has just started a shower.

Natasha takes a breath. Makes up her mind. “Bucky didn’t go through the same as me,” she says, clearly. Ready to go there, if needed, because it’s important to her. She can’t just… let someone else whose opinion she cares about think less of her.

Steve smacks his forehead with his hand, and rolls onto his side to face her; she remains on her back, impassively staring at the ceiling tiles. “I know, I know. Jesus, you think I don’t know that?”

“Well, I thought you did.”

It’s enough for him to look entirely miserable again. “That was completely uncalled for. And untrue. I should never have said that, or any of it.”

“You were obviously thinking it for a while.” There’s a tiny, tiny catch in her voice somewhere in there.

No, Nat,” Steve is fierce, “No, I wasn’t, and I wouldn’t.”

“It’s fine,” she replies, distant. “I get it.”

“I swear to you I don’t think that.”

“It’s fine,” she repeats. The ceiling tiles are a funny shade of white.

“It’s not fine,” Steve is still talking, doesn’t he realize she’s over it? “It was a terrible thing to say, I just went for the worst thing I could think of and it’s not true. And I’d trust you with my life. I have.

She sighs. These floor mats are wearing thin. Does anybody ever even wash them? She makes a mental note to ask JARVIS. “Yeah, you said. Don’t worry about it, I—”

“Can you listen to me?” Steve is so earnest and so fierce it hurts. “I don’t think that.”

The whole ‘trust’ part was below the belt, especially since although it’s one of the only— if not the only— things Steve knows about her enough to use against her in a way that matters, it’s also one of the only things that cuts deep enough to tear.

But there is nothing to defend, there. Fury and Hill don’t trust her; the man she shed a tear over in public doesn’t trust her.

There’s a short, heavy silence as Natasha breathes and allows herself to consider his words. Then she asks, with far more hurt seeping through than she intended, “Then why would you say it?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m sorry either way.”

Neither of them look at each other for a minute, lying side by side on the mats. Finally, Natasha says “Okay,” and Steve nods, a little relief showing in the relaxed set of his shoulders.

“I’m sorry. I feel terrible.”

“With all the shit I’ve said lately, it wouldn’t be very fair of me not to let this one go,” Natasha points out wryly.

He nods, but unhappily. Then, pointedly not looking in her direction, he starts slowly, “I’m just… talking about Bucky, earlier. Thinking about how we used to be. It fucked with me. With my head. That’s no excuse, but… that’s why.”

She laughs despite herself; it’s only part-forced. “Something fucked with Captain America’s head enough to turn him into an ass? Call the tabloids.”

He snorts. “Everyone thinks I’m so damn good. Even— Even Peggy. I’m not.”

There’s… a lot of self-hate in that spontaneous confession. Natasha blinks. “Are you serious? You’re the nicest person I know.”

“Until I get mad. Or until someone challenges what I think is right.” He shakes his head. “I have to work to be good— I have to think about it, not like Bucky or Peggy. They just were.”

“Huh.” Natasha considers this, considers what she knows of Captain America, trying to untangle the flawed self-perception from the grain of reality. Well, first of all, the fact that he’s beating himself up so much is exhibit A. “I think you’re good. I think we just made you a shit-ton more cynical.”

“Who, the Avengers?”

“No. The 21st century. HYDRA. Politics and politicians. Maybe all of us, too, I guess.” She shrugs. “You just want to save the world, is your problem. And then you get asshole-y when you’re reminded you can’t. Or when you’re upset, too,” she allows, when he raises an eyebrow.

“I should leave the world-saving to someone bigger and better than me?” he asks, joking.

“Nope.” Natasha rolls onto her side to face him, a few of her curls fanning down her forehead and over her cheeks. “See, that’s your problem. You think the world can be saved at all.”

Steve meets her eyes and gazes at her for a few seconds. “You know, you and Bucky are a lot alike.”

With a snort, Natasha rolls onto her back again, observing the ceiling tiles again. Does he meant that as an insult or a compliment?

After a moment: “We didn’t go through the same thing,” she repeats again. It’s important. “I’m not just being weak about it.”

Steve nods slowly. “Even if you had… everyone deals with trauma differently. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to react differently, not necessarily.”

“Still.” She won’t let it go. “We didn’t. If all I got was a few verbal beat-downs when I was twenty along with a slur or too, I’d die happy.”

“And if I could hunt down and slowly disembowel every one of the bastards in the Red Room, I’d die happy.”

“Whoa, Rogers, that’s pretty violent. Maybe don’t say that on the demo reels.”

Steve’s hand is trailing along the mats, coming close to brushing her arm, but not touching. “Do you… can I talk without you biting my head off?”

“Depends,” she answers honestly.

“I can live with that,” he replies, grinning slightly. “You’re struggling. If you just— one of us, any of us, it would make it so much more pleasant for you. Instead of leaving it until you drop at trauma and then locking yourself in a room to get through it…” He’s speaking quickly, aware that his time’s running out. “I know you don’t need help, but maybe you want it. It’s not a weakness, it’s just who you are, and nobody cares.” As a final thought: “It would probably help with the not-biting-heads-off thing, too.”

Natasha’s fear, disgust and anger had spiked from the first line, and she wills herself to calm down before replying. She imagines allowing one of the Avengers to lead her into a drop. Her heart-rate pounds so fast and so hard she can feel the beats in her fingers.

No. No.

“I don’t need anything,” she says hoarsely after a long pause where she has to force herself not to react prematurely.

“No, of course not.” Was that a trace of sarcasm? Steve’s face is entirely unreadable. “I said you might want it though.”

“I don’t need anything from you— from anyone— I don’t fucking want anything, I’m fine…” She inhales. Misguided niceness. “No.” Then, very, very clearly, Natasha says, “I don’t know how to react to that right now.” She’s expecting him to laugh.

“Okay, sure.” He’s not offended at all, or smirking, and she doesn’t feel demeaned or defensive either, which is… huh. A way better result than she expected.

Studying his face carefully, she adds, “I would like it if you don’t bring it up again.” Okay, that came out a little rude. Minorly rude, whatever.

“I wasn’t trying to be—”

Desire, reason, future. “When people keep bringing… that type of thing up around me, I have to be on the defensive constantly. It’s exhausting. I will bring it up if I want to.” She says all of this in a very careful, clear, methodical way, focusing on the technical aspects. Her tone is almost monotonous, but the genuine feeling is given away by her anxious, darting eyes.

Steve’s eyebrows furrow. Oh. Shit. She forgot he was there too. He’ll probably think— “Wow.” Is he being patronizing? He better not be fucking patronizing… “I thought that thing was bullshit but it actually… yeah, it worked.”

“How do you feel, Cap?” Natasha asks, waggling her eyebrows in his direction, deflecting from herself.

He laughs, one hand on his chest. “Damn. Yeah, I feel like I understand you, and we’re on the same wavelength. Fuck, that was actually really good. Okay, let me try.”

“What?” She shoves him in protest. “No. This isn’t pass-the-parcel.” Although he schools it, for a moment Steve looks so genuinely disappointed that she snorts and sits up, crossing her arms. “Alright, fine. Go for it.”

“Okay.” God, he’s excited. About practicing therapy. Jesus, Rogers. “Okay, um… I know you haven’t done it. Except once. It’s not aimed at you. I just want to try it.”

“Go on…” She’s genuinely curious now (and appreciates him not dwelling on her what she said more than he could ever imagine).

He takes a breath, hesitates, and then rushes out: “I don’t like it when you— when people— bring up any of my war buddies, or Peggy. Sometimes I— it’s okay if I do. Otherwise, it’s like you said, always having to be prepared in case it gets sprung on me. Which is fine. I don’t mind. It’s just…”

“They’re dead. And you only lost them two years ago,” Natasha supplies.

“Yeah.” He scrubs the back of his neck, looking like he really, really regrets doing this. “Uh, right. So, desire, reason, future. I don’t know. I like talking about how we lived back then. Everything changed so quickly, I like reminiscing sometimes.” He rolls his eyes. “Just say it.”

“Like my grandpa?” Natasha laughs. “Telling us war stories?”

“You don’t even have a grandpa.”

“Biologically, I do. I wasn’t made in a laboratory, unlike one of us.”

“My body was made in a laboratory. Hey, you’re doing this wrong!”

Natasha crosses her arms, grinning. “How am I doing it wrong?”

“You’re supposed to acknowledge my feelings, and explain your point of view,” Steve jabs a finger at her. “This is distinctly not what I recall was supposed to happen.”

“You didn’t acknowledge my feelings,” Natasha points, and then adds quickly (because the having-feelings-acknowleded part was the part that made her afraid of this whole thing, and she does not at all want to go through it): “That makes sense. They’re historical figures to us and that’s why we joke about them, but they’re your dead friends.”

Steve stares. A beat, and then: “Um. That felt pretty good.” After another short pause, he says with a goofy grin, “Okay, I want to go again.”

“Shit, Rogers, we’re really doing this?” Natasha laughs, incredulous but affectionate.

“I would also appreciate it if you would stop leaving doors open in the middle of winter.”

Her eyes narrow. “Stark keeps the heater set to one degree below hell.”

“And you make it so it’s one degree below freezing,” he points out, then shakes his head quickly. “Wait, let me finish. Desire, reason. It’s because it reminds me of the ice. Future… in the future, if I feel like being turned into a popsicle, I’ll give you a heads-up.”

Glaring at him, Natasha folds her arms, although she’s smiling. “You are so full of shit. No. Fuck off.”

“What?” Steve demands, crossing his arms to mimic her. “I believe this is where you acknowledge my feelings and promise to change your behaviour. Catch up, Romanoff.”

Natasha’s about to reply when there’s a soft thump from the vents and Clint’s head pops out. “Hey, I heard someone say— Wait, are you guys doing therapy without me?” With a fluid leap, he jumps down onto the mats. “What’d Cap just say?”

“He feels like he’s being frozen when I open the doors in winter,” Natasha recounts with a healthy amount of mockery. “Allegedly.”

Sure he does.” Clint grins. “Bullshit, Cap.”

Acknowledge.”

“Fine, we acknowledge you are full of bullshit.” He takes the shove with a chuckle. “Can I do one too?”

“Sure,” says Steve, eyes crinkling at the corners with mirth.

Clint wastes absolutely no time. “Okay, you,” he points at Steve, “have got to stop eating my fucking doughnuts, and you,” he points to Natasha, “Stop messing with my dogs.”

There’s a short pause. Then: “… you don’t have dogs,” Steve says, as if stating the obvious.

“They live at the shelter but they’re my dogs.” He states it firmly, like it’s a universally-accepted truth. “She keeps trying to get them adopted because she thinks it’s funny.”

“I’m trying to get them to good homes!” That is about one-third true. The other two-thirds… yeah, it’s hilarious. (She never pretended to be a good person).

Scowling, Clint answers Steve’s raised eyebrow: “I don’t want to take care of them and train them to not shit everywhere. I just want to play with them. They’re still mine.” He clears his throat. “So— you, doughnuts. You, dogs.”

“That’s not how you do it,” Natasha points out, a ghost of a frown on her face. “Do the whole thing, otherwise you’re just nagging.”

Steve backs her up. “Yeah. You’re nagging.”

“Nah, two of you are smart enough to figure out the rest.” Steve and Natasha fix him with Looks. “Fine. God. Okay. Cap, please stop eating my doughnuts. Then… I don’t get to have any. In the future, you can ask. Or… I could just order extra. Whatever.” Turning to Natasha, he continues: “I don’t like it when you mess with my pups. They, uh— I like— They mean, y’know, a lot. Kind of. Not really, but we got somethin’ special goin’ on, so— not cool. I don’t know for the future.”

“Maybe if she finds a good home for one of them she could run it by you first?” Steve offers, and Clint nods, as the door to the gym opens and Thor enters.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.” Then, letting out a little huff, he flops down onto the mats. “That was a lot less fun.” Thor waves at them, a huge smile on his face. “What’s up, big guy?”

Thor shakes his head, shrugging at the same time. “Are you not sparring?”

“No,” Natasha grins wickedly, “We’re doing conflict resolution. Therapy.”

“Oh?” Thor, undoubtedly having never been to therapy, looks delighted at his good fortune in having interrupted. “I have heard it is good for you. Darcy has recommended it to me many times. May I take part?”

“Definitely.” Moving over to make space, Clint points to a spot on the mats. “So basically, we’re doing a version where you say when someone does something you don’t like.”

“I see.” He looks around at them all. “For all of you?” Clint nods. “Should I simply… begin?”

Clint hesitates, very obviously considering telling Thor there’s a pre-therapy ritual (probably consisting of a song-and-dance routine), but Steve kicks him not-so-subtly. “Yeah, go ahead.”

With his head cocked to one side, Thor considers each one of them in turn, and then straightens. “Alright, I am done. Here it is: Clint, stop your incessant mockery of my cape. Captain Rogers, you insist on buying healthy food every week and then eat nothing but the rest of our snacks. Every week. Natasha and Clint both, at times I fear to enter the kitchen because I cannot discern if we are under attack or if the two of you have merely neglected to clean up. Again.”

The other three stare at him.

Finally, after a long moment where Thor just smiles brightly at them, Natasha says slowly, “Okay, now… say why.”

Thor nods seriously. “Clint, your mockery of my cape is rude and unpleasant behaviour. And Natasha, leaving plates everywhere is disgusting and unhygienic. Steve, you are not learning from your mistakes, wasting money, and lying to yourself in addition. All three habits are—”

“Whoa there, hold on just a second!” Clint yelps, almost high-pitched. “You’re doing it wrong!”

“Oh.” Thor looks crestfallen. “Oh, I apologize.”

“You— not like that,” Steve says, a little shell-shocked. “Say why it bothers you. Don’t criticize us. Christ.”

“Gladly.” Eyes traveling up as he thinks, Thor says after a pause: “Mocking my cape is mocking my culture, the sign of my prowess as a warrior. Leaving dirty dishes out is frustrating to me because there is little space to cook. And finally, I request a certain number of pop-tarts each week, and no matter how much I order, I always run out.”At this last part, Clint fixes Steve with a smug, triumphant look.

“Better,” Steve allows. “Anyone want to do the explaining part?” When Clint raises his hand, he gestures to him. “Clint.”

“I make fun of people I like.”

“Really?” Thor is very clearly pleased. “It’s an earthly bonding ritual? In good faith?” At Clint’s half-nod, he grins. “Then you may continue.”

“Well, if it doesn’t bother you anymore, it’s not fun,” Clint says petulantly. “Ugh. Therapy fucking sucks. My turn again?”

“Why not.” Natasha figures they have nothing to gain or lose, at this point.

“Thor, I would like it if you made that weird French dessert again. With the chocolate.”

“I thought you should tell me what you don’t like,” Thor points out.

“You’re right.” Clearing his throat, Clint says: “I don’t like it when you don’t make the weird French chocolate thing. It’s dismissive of my tastes.”

“I will take that into consideration,” Thor replies jovially.

Clint lies down on his back. “Wow. I feel so well-adjusted.” When Natasha high-fives his outstretched hand, he adds, “I don’t know what Pepper’s talking about. We’re awesome at this.”

“Oh, Steve?” Natasha says, continuing when he looks at her, “I don’t want so much paperwork. Because it… reminds me of the Red Room. They made us do a lot of paperwork.”

“Oh yeah?”

“God, so much paperwork, you can’t even imagine. In the future I would like that to stop.”

“You know, I think that’s a perfectly valid reason. Incidentally, paperwork reminds me of my war days, so… we’ll have to deal with that too.”

“Lots of paperwork at the circus,” Clint pipes up. “So much.”

“Yeah, we’ll have to figure out a solution,” Steve says thoughtfully.

“We have no paperwork on Asgard!” Thor chimes in.

Clint claps him on the back. “Good for you, man.”

“You know who does like paperwork?” Natasha asks suddenly. “Coulson.”

The others are silent, and then sit up straight.

“That is true.”

“It would only be fair.”

“It would be nice of us, in fact.”

They lie down again. “I guess that’s sorted,” says Natasha.

There’s silence for a few moments as they all consider the conversations of the last ten minutes.

Then Clint lifts his head up curiously. “Am I, like, the only one who’s feeling really acknowledged right now? Because for the record? Feeling really acknowledged right now.”

“Nope,” Natasha pops the ‘p’. “Same here.”

“I feel pretty great too,” Steve agrees.

“We are so functional,” Clint says, without a trace of irony.

Chapter Text

 

 

———————————

November 1991. Russia.

———————————

Andrei Federovich drags her into the classroom by her skinny arm. For a moment, Natasha thinks she’s being dragged to Class One’s room— the class of twelve-year-olds, and her heart stops.

But no. Instead of Masha and Sveta, it’s Nastya, Rita, and Tanya. Nastya and Rita leer at her as she’s thrown down, while Tanya simply stares. They’re only a year older than her— eight, although Tanya recently turned nine, and Natasha’s six but she’s almost seven— but there’s hardened malice in their posture.

“Are we practicing on a Class Four today?” Nastya asks the instructor.

“Niet.” His answer is short. Natasha watches the interaction curiously, noting Nastya’s accent, and the instructor’s reply. She did not know today they had to speak Dutch. Or Dutch-accented English (the younger classes, only, are allowed that).

Andrei Federovich takes a seat on a chair in the centre of the room, and motions Natasha closer. He is the scariest instructor, she thinks, just because he is head of Masha and Sveta’s class, and they are the scariest girls. Even though he has never interacted with her before, or trained her class, yet.

“Come here, Natalia.”

Instantly, Natasha’s head snaps up. There’s something, something, in his tone.

Whatever it is, she wants go near it.

“Good sub, goed meisje.” He crooks his finger at her, and he’s smiling so, so encouragingly.

She does not trust Andrei Federovich, but maybe she was wrong. There’s just something about his low, rumbling tone that makes her want to be near him. She wants to listen, to make him happy.  Slowly, very slowly, she makes her way over to the chair. Not quite sure if this is a good idea, but it feels good.

“Good girl,” he praises when she’s right by his side, one heavy hand on her neck, rubbing softly. “Such a good girl, Natalia. Natasha.”

Years later, she will hate herself. For now, she does not know better. She melts.

Andrei Federovich wraps one arm around her pliant body, pointing at her meaningfully with one hand. Natasha does not know what Nastya, Rita or Tanya could possibly learn from watching her curl into the instructor, but right now she does not care.

It feels good. Safe.

She understands that she misjudged Andrei Federovich, and resolves never to lump people in with the company they keep. He is a nice man.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, speaking lowly, as he shifts her so that he’s basically picked her up. “You are so good, Natasha. So obedient.” Then, as she sighs happily, she thinks she hears a snort. “Anastasia. Kijk! This is for observation, not amusement.”

“Ja, Andrei Federovich,” Nastya replies, using his name and patronym.

In one swift move, Andrei Federovich is out of his seat, hitching Natasha onto his hip to do so. He strides over to Nastya and slaps her sharply, then twists her arm behind her back until she cries out. “Anastasia,” he snarls. “Hoe vaak moet ik u zeggen? Nederlands!” Natasha only started learning Dutch two months ago, and she’s not so good at it yet, but she knows he’s mad.

“Sorry, sorry!” Nastya’s arm is still gripped behind her back, at an angle that must be painful. Natasha would normally be tense this close to a violently angry instructor, but he is holding her and she feels protected. Nastya is always mean to her, so she is okay with this. Andrei Federovich is just protecting her. “Sorry, Instructor Andrei.”

His grip on Nastya’s arm loosens only marginally. Beside them, Rita and Tanya are silent and still. “Maak me niet herhaal mezelf.” Do not make me repeat myself.

“Ja, meneer.”

Finally, her arm is released, and Andrei Federovich takes Natasha back to the chair. “You saw?” he asks the girls. “She is young, it is easier. Te makkelijk. But same principles.”

Rita is studying Natasha closely. “If our mark is a sub? Dan zal dit werk?”

Andrei Federovich removes Natasha’s arms from around his neck. “Possible. However, most subs are familiar with this feeling and will not be so willing to divulge information. You can try this.” No sooner has he finished speaking when he grabs Natasha’s wrists and throws her to the cold stone floor, so hard her head cracks against the floor.

“Get up,” he spits, the soothing timber replaced by venom and fury.

Natasha does not understand what is happening. No— she does, she understands, he tricked her, but she doesn’t understand why. She has never done anything to him. “Andrei Federovich?” she asks softly.

He reaches out and slaps her straight on the mouth. “You are half-under, so I will allow once. Do it again and I will take you to Anatoly for beating.” He observes her through half-lidded eyes, a sadistic smile playing on his lips. “Tell me bad thing you did this week.”

“Nothing.” Natasha’s head is starting to spin. She had really thought she was safe. She’d never felt that feeling before.

“Natalia…” he says warningly.

“Niks, niets.” There are many things, but she won’t tell him.

“I don’t believe you.” His harsh voice echoes in her ears, pounding. “You’re a bad person. Tell me!”

“But I— I didn’t!” She rubs her head. There are things, but everybody does them. Not just her. “Niets,” she says again, helplessly.

“Natalia.” Andrei Federovich is so angry at her. “I will give you three seconds. Three seconds, and then if you do not tell me, I will send you to Anatoly. However,” suddenly, the voice is like silk again, “If you tell me, you may come sit with me until it is time for your class.”

Her heart soars. That feeling— she felt so safe. Like a combination of warm and safe and fuzzy that she’d never experienced before, ever. It’s a drug, and she wants it.

He begins the count-down. “Een. Twee…”

“I…” Desperately, she tries to be strategic. Something small. Nikolei Mikhailovich and Andrei Federovich have something of a semi-friendly rivalry. “I put the pin on Nikolei Mik— Instructor Nikolei’s seat.”

Turning on his heel to face the other three girls in the room, Andrei Federovich opens his arms as if to say, See? “It will never be that simple,” he explains. “But concept is the same.” As Natasha nears him hesitantly, thinking— hoping, stupidly— that he would keep his word, his head snaps around and his eyes narrow. “Stay away, сука.”

“I just—”

He laughs, cold and chilling. “You are so pathetic. You think I want you near me after you told me how bad you are? After you gave yourself away so easily? Walgelijk, waardeloos Natalia. Worthless.”

“Please.” She has never begged an instructor for anything before, but she’s also never experienced this dizzying rush of emotions before.

“Pathetic, worthless, useless sub. Go rot in hell for all I care.”

“But you said—”

The slap rings out. “You are arguing with me?” He shoves her away. “Leave! Think about what you did. Think why I don’t want you near to me.”

Andrei Federovich pushes her out of the room, and slams the door shut. Shivering, Natasha curls into a ball on the floor, trembling all the way down to her toes.

She is bad. Andrei Federovich would still be hugging her and stroking her back if she was good, but she’s not.

Her head is spinning with a dizzying rush of emotions and she can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. Nikolei Mikhailovich is bad. But a pin on his chair is also bad. And also worthless. And if this was a real mission she would have just given herself away so he’s right.

Natasha grinds the heels of her palm into her eyelids, feeling the world shift under her feet. Everything is spinning, moving too sluggishly but also too fast for her to process. Her thoughts have turned into little sharp cracks, cutting jagged lines across her eyes every time she tries to focus. Her head hurts. Her eyes hurt. Her everything hurts and she just—

Olya, she thinks suddenly. Olya’s section has reading time right now, to do current events and politics so they are up to date.

But maybe Olya won’t want to see her. Maybe Olya will see how disgusting she is, and she is the only one who is nice to Natasha. Natasha doesn’t want to ruin that.

Or maybe… maybe Olya will know what to do. She might know a way to make Natasha good again, to make Andrei Federovich like her again and hug her like that again.

She thinks it and then she’s running, faster and faster down the hallway to the little room where she knows her friend likes to sit and study. The older girl looks up, startled and automatically tense, when Natasha bursts in.

The moment she sees Olya, the tears leak out.

“What’s wrong, Nata?” Olya pulls her down to the ground and wraps her arms around her, a cocoon of safety in a world where pain is default. They rarely hug or touch, so Natasha knows she must look terrible. More urgently: “Nata. What did they do? ”

Natasha doesn’t have an answer. She doesn’t know what’s wrong, so she curls deeper into Olya. “I— My head.”

“Okay,” Olya soothes her, cool fingers skimming over Natasha’s sweaty brow, through her matted curls. “It’s alright, I know what they did— they started with Nika a few years ago. We’ll just sit here until you feel better.” It says a lot, that Olya is paranoid enough that she speaks with a Dutch accent, yet willing to stay with Natasha in what is a clear breach of Polina Dmitrievna’s rules for Natasha, Katya and Nika.

They sit together until Natasha’s eyes are still hot, but she doesn’t even have any tears left. She waits for Olya to throw her to the ground.

 

XXX

 

The second time they try it, it is Nikolei Mikhailovich, head of Natasha’s class. She already knows him, and she knows he is not nice, so even if she was going to fall for it again— which she definitely is not, not as long as she lives— she would not go near him.

Yakov Yuryvich is there too, and he hits Natasha until she finally goes to Nikolei Mikhailovich. When he starts the voice— and now she knows, from Olya, that he is being a dom, even though she doesn’t understand how it works— she melts. She tries not to, but she does anyway.

Nikolei Mikhailovich is even better at being mean to her than Andrei Federovich, so even though Natasha is seven now, she feels worse. He leaves her, and she is a mess, and Olya is busy with class, or the other girls are always there, and so she can’t hug Natasha.

Natasha cries in her room for what feels like forever until Yakov Yuryvich comes up and throws her over his knee with a sigh, and then she doesn’t understand how but she feels better.

Olya explains to her in hushed tones the next day that it was because they made her feel guilty. It’s called Stage 1 Acclimatization.

 

XXX

 

Polina Dmitrievna explains sub and dom biology to all of them, in the next few weeks. Natasha understands, then, and she hates everything.

 

XXX

 

The third, and fourth, and fifth time it happens, Natasha is forced to sit with them again, and again she can’t help but react to being told how much they appreciate her, how good she is, even though she knows it’s a lie. Five times, she cries on her bed until Nikolei Mikhailovich or Yakov Yuryvich feel she has suffered enough. The third time, it was a whole week. Natasha had almost driven herself insane by the end of those seven days.

The sixth time, she can’t stop her heartbeat from slowing down at the affectionate contact. But when she’s called names, she raises her eyes to meet Anatoly Viktorovich’s and smiles, her chin up.

Polina Dmitrievna inclines her head, and there are no more of those sessions.

The next week, training with Katya and Nika starts— even though they are both eleven, and she is only seven. But she passed Stage 1 in one-third of the time they did, so Polina Dmitrievna feels she is ready.

If Natasha knew how grueling it would get, she would have pretended to be affected by Stage 1 for two more years.

 

———————————

March 1992. Russia.

———————————

“Иди сюда, Ангел.” Come here, angel. Natasha approaches carefully; she has not been here as long as the others, but she knows Anton Petrovich is not somebody to mess with. “Vieni qui,” he says again when she does not move— more forcefully, although his smile remains.

Polina Dmitrievna shoves her forward; Natasha feels proud that she does not fall, only stumbles.

“Да сэр.” Yes, sir. She approaches softly, head bowed in submission. It’s another trick, she knows. It’s okay now. She doesn’t let herself believe it, so when they throw her to the ground, it only hurts her body.

“Good girl,” he says, in English this time. In one smooth pull, he has her on his knee. “Ты такая красивая”. You are so beautiful.

“Я твой,” she murmurs— I’m yours— because she has been taught, and he flushes, glancing at Polina Dmitrievna with an expression Natasha can’t quite discern. “Ты научил ее хорошо.” You’ve taught her well. Then, once again, his attention is back to Natasha; his finger lifts, and he slides it down her cheek, resting below her chin. “What language was that, earlier?”

She doesn’t know. She understood it, kind of, because she knows Spanish but… something similar. Not French. “итальянский?” she tenses for a blow as she hazards a guess. In Russian, even though she should reply in the same language he speaks, because she doesn’t know how to say ‘Italian’ in English.

Anton Petrovich’s eyes crinkle at the corners, and Natasha feels a strange sense of pride. “I-tal-i-an,” he pronounces, slowly.

“I-tal-i-an,” she repeats back, pronunciation perfectly anglicized.

The man nods. “You’re so clever.” Runs a hand down her hair, another strokes her back. He drops a kiss to her cheek, one hand still on the tail of her spine. “Долл.” Doll. Despite herself, Natasha squirms on his lap when his fingers brush over her ribs. Anton Petrovich lets out a little laugh and shakes his head, stilling her with a large hand. “нет, Милая моя.” No, sweetheart. Still, she risks a few more squirms to get herself comfortable.

His lap was soft, before but now there’s a bump, and it’s annoying to sit on.

He’s still stroking her hair, and then he pulls away, laying a gentle kiss to her temple. “Я только что пришел, чтобы увидеть самую новую маленькую девочку.” I just came to see the newest little girl. “She is very beautiful. I wish I could stay.” His fingers stroke, stroke, stroke her hair. “сейчас я должен идти.” But I must leave now. “Next time.”

Natasha does not like this man, the one who seems so dangerous, but who calls her clever. She is far enough into her training that she is not stupid enough to let herself be affected by him— she could easily pull away, or take the insults she’s half-sure are coming any second. But it is Anton Petrovich, and even Andrei Federovich is scared of him. When he says he has to leave, Natasha pouts, playing up because she thinks maybe having such a powerful ally would be useful.

He laughs, and gently sets her on the floor with a promise to come see her when he is in town next January.

It’s March now. Natasha frowns. He wouldn’t be a very useful ally if he only shows up once a year.

“Прощай.” He kisses her cheek goodbye, and she kisses him back, and then he is gone.

 

———————————

September 1992. Russia.

———————————

Polina Dmitrievna is teaching them seduction. ‘Them’ being Class Three and Class Four.

Step one, she is saying, is touch. Always touch, always direct. Touch everyone you talk to. Read body language— Andrei Federovich will teach them more in that class.

It has been four days since Olya died, and Natasha can’t think.

Clothes. Short dress, push-up bra. She’s showing them examples. She demonstrates how to flirt, and calls up Sveta and Masha, to show the younger girls how to pout and lean forwards so the valley between their breasts deepens. Natasha wants to laugh, because Sveta and Masha are thirteen, and Sveta has breasts but Masha is all bones, and she thinks Masha looks silly. But even if she really wanted to (she doesn’t), Natasha’s mouth won’t smile.

She runs her little fingers over the small rock she took from the courtyard four days ago.

Make-up, says Polina Dmitrievna, accentuates their features. She warns them not to look like шлюха, sluts— unless they’re playing prostitutes.

In the last few days, Natasha has been belted more times than any other period— the welts run from her back to her thighs. Because she’s not concentrating in class.

Polina Dmitrievna is teaching them how to curve their hips in an inviting way when they dance. She’s already shown Natasha how to seduce doms, with Katya and Nika: kneeling, or more subtly, looking up through their lashes, heads tilted to one side, hands clasped. Little hints that tell the recipient of their attention that they’re subs.

“By the time I am done training you, you will know how to use your bodies, and your Bearing, to make men fall at your feet,” Polina Dmitrievna had promised at the start of class.

Natasha does not know anything except that Sasha killed Olya.

 

XXX

 

“Наталия!” Yakov Yuryvich growls her name, wrenching her away from Lina so hard there will be bruises. “Что делаешь?” What are you doing? He pushes Lina towards Valya, who was watching the fight. “Начать!” Begin!

Natasha doesn’t know what to do because she is trying but Olya is dead. She stands still, as she is supposed to, while Lina and Valya begin fighting. Yakov Yuryvich watches them for a few seconds, barking out an occasional instruction— “Валентина, правая нога вверх!”. When he’s satisfied, he grabs Natasha and hauls her to the other side of the training hall.

They’re in the combat hall today, doing hand-to-hand with Yakov Yuryvich while Nikolei Mikhailovich does torture methods with class three.

Natasha has so many bruises and cuts covering her body— from all the instructors, over the last five days. Each one has left their signature. Most of the belt weals are from Anatoly Viktorovich and Nikolei Mikhailovich; the discoloration on her neck was Yakov Yuryvich slamming her against the wall during sub training with Katya and Nika until she couldn’t breathe, his eyes especially vacantly violent that day. There’s a palm-shaped bruise on her shoulder, blossoming green at the edges— also him. It used to be clear to see, but now all the bruises are overlapping into one another, leaving her body mottled. Andrei Federovich and Polina Dmitrievna favor slaps, and they are responsible for the purpling along her jawline and cheekbones.

She stands still where Yakov Yuryvich lets her go roughly, mentally preparing for him to begin hitting her. She’s dropped so many times in the last five days; she didn’t realize how much she needed Olya to be normal. How weak she is without Olya there.

(Now she knows. She wouldn’t have gotten through Stage 1 Acclimatization in a third of the time if Olya hadn’t been getting her through drops.)

It’s not her fault, though. She honestly hadn’t known.

Now she knows.

The instructor grasps her arms in a vice-like grip, bending down to her level and snarling, “Что не так с тобой? Глупая девчонка.” What is wrong with you? Stupid girl. And then: “Если я больше ударил тебя, я тебя убью.” It’s true, what he said— if they beat her anymore, they’ll kill her, and she knows it.

“Прости,” she apologizes softly— for what, being too easy to kill? Not concentrating in class?

Yakov Yuryvich’s eyes slide to where Valya and Lina are still tumbling on the ground. “блокировать ее, алина!” he shouts at Lina angrily, only turning back to Natasha when the other girl has Valya on the ground. He stares at her for a long moment while she tries not to cower, his cold hand holding her still.

Then he says, in English, “Your friend is dead.” Natasha’s body jerks. “She is not coming back, and you will die too if you continue this.”

He tugs her shirt up to her neck and eyes the bruises critically, with a sort of cold clinical gaze. “сколько тебе лет?” he says abruptly, asking her age.

“семь,” she replies after a pause. Seven. She will be eight in November, she knows. They all have their real birthdays and names, even if they don’t know anything about the outside people they used to belong to.

He nods once. “You are the worst at rules, but— попытаться сделать это до восьми, как минимум.” Try to make it up to eight, at least. He finishes speaking, then without warning grasps a patch of unmarked skin on her ribs, pinches and twists. She gasps at the unexpected pain, and then he drops her shirt and steps back. Punishment for not concentrating in class just now, she knows.

Yakov Yuryvich shoves her forwards. “Go. And concentrate. Think about yourself.” Natasha has an odd feeling that somehow, he knows Olya used to help her through any drops she could. With her gone, not only is Natasha more emotional and unstable because of it— she’s also lost her support. As she starts to run back, he grabs her arm, swinging her to the side roughly with the momentum. “And throw that чертов rock away.”

Natasha swallows, and nods.

She thinks about it, while she’s dodging hits and punches— and she realizes that he is right. Back in her room, she slips the rock out of her pocket and hides it under her bed.

(She stops carrying it around, but she does not throw it away. Attachments are dangerous but weapons are valuable, and this one is extra-special).

Olya may be dead, but Natasha decides she will not die. She refuses let them break her. And she will not let anyone make her this weak or dependent again.

(She still marks the date Olya died, so she knows).

 

———————————

October 1998. Japan.

———————————

She is somewhere in the middle of Osaka, her back-up has disappeared, her comm is lost, they took her gun, and if these people don’t kill her, she is going to be dead when she gets back either way.

There’s a furious horde of men chasing after her, and she’s in a random bar, with no intel and no idea how to get out. She’s memorized the area maps enough that if just she had time, she could figure out how to rendezvous at the emergency point, but right now, her priorities are to get out of here, and fast.

She’s in the back corridor of the bar, back pressed against the wall, when someone grabs her arm roughly. “Got you,” he says, the thick stench of cigarettes wafting around his heavy German accent.

She turns to the man with a simpering smile, tilting her chin down so when she looks up, her eyes are framed by dark lashes. “You got me,” she repeats, injecting a hint of British into her own accent. “Now,” she trails a hand up his chest, slowly, teasingly, “What are you going to do with me?” As she says it, she tugs her dress with her left hand so that the top rides down, and pushes her shoulders together— noting with satisfaction when his eyes linger on the swell of her breasts.

The man chuckles, but she doesn’t miss his swallow. “What do you suggest I do with you, sweetheart?”

“Mmm, I don’t know.” Natasha presses herself closer to him. “I’m sure you can think of a lot of things…”

When his left hand curls around her waist to hitch her closer, she stays loose and flirtatious. When his right hand finally, finally lets off the trigger of his gun, she can tell the action makes him hesitant, so she waits until the renewed tension leaves his body. When he pushes her legs apart with one knee, and a hand palms up her thigh, she smiles— then she clamps her legs shut, flips, and slams him to the ground. Slitting his throat with the blade in her heel, she grabs his gun and his cell-phone, and drags his body into a cubicle in the women’s restroom.

Now to meet up with her trainers before they decide she’s more trouble than she’s worth and put a bullet in her head.

 

———————————

April 2002. California.

———————————

She’s at a bar in Los Angeles. New city, same mission. It’s always the same mission. She’s almost bored of it, really.

“Nice place.” A man with sandy-brown hair hops onto the stool in front of her. “Pretty busy for a Tuesday night.”

She doesn’t comment. This is her first Tuesday here, anyways. “Drink?” she asks pointedly instead.

The man shrugs. “Surprise me. No beer.” His eyes are trained on her target. Interesting. He’s trying to be subtle about it, but it’s a dead giveaway even though the dark shades.

“Sure thing,” Natasha replies, a note of flirtation creeping through the American twang. She wasn’t briefed on a possible third party, and she needs to check if he will be any trouble. Carefully mixing an Old Fashioned, she briefly considers the merits of drugging him, before discarding the idea. If he was really involved somehow, he wouldn’t even be drinking, so it would be foolish of her to rely on a strategy that may not even pan out.

Okay, never mind. Natasha dumps the drink she was mixing, opens the fridge, takes out a cherry soda and opens the bottle.

When she slides the soda across the table, the man smirks. Clearly, he was expecting something else. After he glances at the menu, she’s amused to see him count out the exact amount, with tax, and lay it carefully on the table.

“What, no tip?” A quick once-over shows he’s a dom, so she goes the tried-and-trued submissive route— even as she stays well aware of her target in the back corner. He’s into her enough that he’ll come back for her at the end of the night; right now, her priority is to get whoever this guy is, away.

“You opened a soda,” he points out. Natasha sees the ruse for what it is: a talking point, trying to make conversation with her. Well, he didn’t need to bother. He has her attention anyways.

“Still. It’s customary.” She picks a cherry off the pile behind the soda machine and closes her lips around it.

“I think you’re just used to it.” He’s fixated on her mouth, and she’s not entirely sure how much of it is real. “Pretty girl like you, bet the customers tip a lot.”

“Oh, they do,” Natasha assures him, hopping up so she’s seated on the bar. “My customers are very generous.”

“Yeah?” He nods to a man at the other end of the room. “Even him? Looks like a tight-ass if I ever saw one.”

“He’s especially generous. I told you, they all are.” ‘Except you’ is heavily implied.

The man scoffs, then nods at Natasha’s target. Bingo. “C’mon, even him? Guy’s wearing a three-piece suit. What kind of asshole…?”

“He’s a regular,” Natasha informs him, deliberately slightly haughty. “One of my favourites.”

“Yeah?”

She nods, almost wanting to laugh. He thinks he’s being subtle? “Gave me a hundred bucks today to keep the drinks flowing tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” That got his ears to perk up. “Why, somethin’ special happening?”

Watching him carefully, Natasha shrugs. “I wouldn’t know. Some meeting, people he wants to impress. The usual, with these types of guys.” The man’s body language has entirely relaxed, and he’s barely even looking at the target now. Amateur. She wants him to leave entirely, though. “You’re forgetting something, cowboy.”

“What’s that?”

“We still haven’t resolved the matter of your own tip.” She slithers closer to him, upper body bent as low as it’ll go without looking unnatural. “Why don’t we go out back and you can show me how generous you are?”

“Uh…” It’s not that he’s not attracted to her. It’s that he’s some type of mafia or law enforcement, probably, she’s just told him whatever meeting he was planning to crash is tomorrow, and he definitely isn’t going to take her out of here and fuck her with a comm in his ear. “You know what, gorgeous? How about I see you tomorrow and we pick up where we left off?”

She pouts, but withdraws with a sigh. Hook, line, sinker. “Fine.”

 

XXX

 

“Suck,” he commands, and her lips close obediently. She’s in power here, even if he doesn’t know it.

She’s on her knees in a hotel room with eight men around her, six of their dicks bulging through their suits (the seventh, she knows, is strictly gay, and the eight has a wife and three children and mental loyalty she’s impressed by). Her target’s guards. Too many to take out at once, given that each has two guns on their hips and probably more stashed in their boots. Staring resolutely ahead while their boss’ hands fist through Natasha’s hair.

It was easy enough separating him from the meeting, once he’d made the buy. Short dress, little flash of lace, and he was putty in her hands.

He does not trust women. This is a test, as much as anything. She gets him off in five minutes and 43 seconds, and by the time she is done, he has pulled her dress so far up her back that his guards have a nice view of her. She does not protest, doing her best imitation of subspace (she has still never experienced it, but Polina Dmitrievna is thorough in her teaching). Only then is he satisfied, and he orders the guards to leave.

Stupid.

He lies dead in his bed when the sandy-haired man from before bursts in, but Natasha is already climbing out the window. He leaps towards her— not fast enough; her gun is already pointed at his head.

In a split-second resolution, she decides against shooting him and hoists herself up and out with a smirk. “Better luck next time.”

By the time he sticks his head out the window, she is gone.

That will be the first and last time Clint Barton underestimates Natasha.

(When she is 20, she will underestimate him, and he will be the one holding a gun to her head).

 

———————————

Present Day. New York.

———————————

“Natasha!” She’s not sure if this is a good idea after all. “Come in.”

She steps into Thor’s quarters carefully, taking in the Asgardian decor, installed courtesy of Stark. Usually, she finds it interesting; right now, the ornate pieces are overwhelming. “I was thinking maybe…” she starts, then stops and rephrases. “Can I hang out with you in here for a bit?”

She’s still rattled, has been from yesterday— it’s why she came to Thor at all. Yesterday she was unsettled, but she couldn’t do anything about it because of the fucking therapy intervention bullshit.

“Of course.” He’s genuinely happy to see her. “You are always welcome. I enjoyed our therapy yesterday; would you like to do more?”

“Uh, no, not really. What’re you up to?” Kicking her feet up onto the coffee table in his living room, she raises one eyebrow at him— trying to be casual, act casual, like this is all so casual and she doesn’t feel like running out of the room right now.

“I was eating, actually, when you came in. And watching a documentary Jane told me to.”

When he sits down next to her (careful to keep a respectable distance), she elbows him, the grin on her face giving away that she’s teasing: “TV dinners? We may just make a 21st-century man of you yet.”

“By virtue of being alive,” he replies seriously, although his mouth quirks up, “I am a 21st-century man.”

She snorts. “Yes, okay, whatever you say. So what’re you eating?”

Thor picks up a plate sitting on the coffee table— that she’d already noticed, of course— and hands it to her. “French toast.” As she sniffs it appreciatively before passing it back to him, his eyebrows furrow. “I take it you have not had breakfast?”

“I’ll eat later.” She slept terribly, and she didn’t feel like having breakfast.

He doesn’t look pleased. Natasha doesn’t like it. “Have some of mine, if you want.”

“No, that’s alright—”

“No, please, I insist,” he presses, his tone perfectly polite. There’s no thread of authority, no undercurrent of listen-to-me, and Natasha takes it without further argument. “See? It is good, right?”

“Yeah, damn.” It’s endearing how proud he is of his cooking, she thinks, as she takes a second bite. “Okay, that’s enough, I don’t want to finish your food…”

“Nothing would make me happier.” Thor’s observing her carefully as she chews through another mouthful of sweetened toast. “Natasha…” he starts slowly, then, “I fear— I do not want to overstep. But would I be very wrong if I assume that you are perhaps here for another purpose?”

With a tiny sigh, Natasha sets the plate down. “I want to— Can you just. Be. Here, I mean,” she adds, after she realizes that she’s not making much sense. Thor nods; from his body language, he understood that she’s not feeling great. Satisfied that he won’t push her, she relaxes into the couch cushions, swinging her legs up to tuck them underneath herself.

“So,” says Thor, “I am aware that a documentary on Ancient Greek civilizations and the rise and fall of the ecclesia in Athenian democracy would interest Dr. Banner, but you…” He trails off; she’s already wrinkled her nose at ‘Greek civilizations’ and by ‘Athenian democracy’ she’s fake-gagging. “Don’t you feel that reaction is a little overdone?”

“Thor.” She fixes him with a steady gaze. “Ancient Greek civilizations. Athenian democracy. Whatever the fuck— eclectic?”

“Ecclesia,” he pronounces carefully. “It was around 400 BCE during the Golden Age—” He breaks himself off and ducks his head, the tips of his ears reddening. “Point taken.”

“I can’t believe what a nerd you are.” He’s smiling like it’s a compliment. “That’s a bad thing.” Well, kind of. Honestly, she has a healthy respect for nerds and is kind of one herself (although not to do with Ancient Greek history) but that’s besides the point, currently.

“‘Nerds’ are admirable.”

“Debatable.”

“No.” He’s smirking wide so she smirks back as he says, “Do you know what Jane’s intern said to me?”

“I don’t think I’m ready for anything Darcy says…”

Squaring his shoulders, Thor puffs out his chest and juts his hip out in an imitation of Darcy, drawling in an attempted American accent: “Age of the geek, baby.”

Natasha almost falls off the couch, she’s laughing so hard. “Oh my fucking— I can’t believe you just— JARVIS, please tell me—”

“Recorded, Agent Romanoff,” he replies, and she could swear there’s a hint of amusement in the cool tones.

“What?” Thor asks. “Was my imitation not to your lofty standards?” Ass, he knows full well why she’s sniggering.

She elbows him, still breathless from laughter. “Shut up. That’s geek. It’s different.”

“I fail to see how.”

“Geeks are like…” Well. “Stark, I suppose? Technology. Nerds are like… well, like Asgardian gods, apparently.”

“Then nerds,” Thor says, scoffing, “are clearly superior.”

They lapse into easy conversation, talking about Jane and Darcy, and Darcy’s intern Ian, and Natasha’s schedule for the next few weeks (training junior agents). She finds herself relaxed in Thor’s company.

After a while, he hands her a book she’d been meaning to pick up from him— loaned to him by Steve, about a young man in Tokyo. Natasha curls up in one corner of the couch with the book, riveted from the first page.

Thor re-starts his documentary, although not without some ribbing from Natasha. She’s more than a little taken by the novel, though, so she lets it go quickly.

Twenty minutes and three chapters later, she realizes what she’s doing and puts the book down. “Hey, this actually isn’t too bad,” she murmurs (lies), sitting up. “I’ll watch with you.”

the very birthplace of civilization, the narrator is saying, the home of the world’s first cities…

No avoiding it.

Her reason for coming here was to force herself to get over herself. She tried to sub for Clint, she tried with the hairy guy in Syracuse. If it doesn’t work with Thor, who else would it work with?

She hates reacting to minor arguments, and she’s scared she’ll drop properly soon if she doesn’t get a handle on herself.

So this had better work.

Natasha had better make this work.

(maybe if she does this, she’ll be able to have what Tony has.)

… over a thousand of these city-states, jostling with each other for land and power. They never were politically unified, or at least…

She tries to move closer— and she does, but not without significant effort; panic begins buzzing under her chest just from the thought of it, and she has to keep stopping to breathe and let it die down. She knows Thor will avoid asking and won’t push, and, relatively satisfied with that knowledge, she inches closer to him.

If she can let Thor stabilize her, willingly, without being forced into a drop, it’ll fix the problem.

(she hopes.)

(she really, really hopes.)

(hope is for fools.)

in the south of Greece, around the reed beds of the river Erotus, lay the city-state of Sparta…

She moves so her body is pressed against his, shoulder to shoulder. Thor, much as he’s trying, can’t ignore her anymore— she’s moved two seats across— and he looks down. When he meets her eyes, he raises an eyebrow, head tilted to one side.

Because Natasha wants to be over this, whatever this is, if there even is a this, she nods. Smiling almost like he can’t help himself, Thor lets out a quick, happy sound and swings his arm over and around her, coming to rest on her back and pulling her against him.

Natasha feels the breath leaving her in a rush. It feels good. Really, really good. The contact is a nice, calming balm spread over her mind, and, in her sensitive state, dropping her into relaxation so fast it’s dizzying.

… for their Spartan overlords. They were ruled with an iron fist. The Spartans, every year, declared…

“Okay?” Thor asks, his cool hand running up and down her arm; he sounds so pleased, she can’t bring herself to say no.

It’s not a ‘no’, though. It’s not. She’s fine. It’s easier than what she tried with Clint, or with the dom at the party the other night; he’s not even speaking to her.

She’s not in a drop, she’s not on her way to a drop, she’s not anything.

So why can’t she do this?

… The country was continually criss-crossed by hundreds of traveling Bards, who recited…

The lights in the room seem a little too bright. She’s suddenly oddly aware of her breathing, every intake of breath magnified in her ears.

Okay. Okay. Easy.

They’re watching a goddamn documentary.

Thor is talking, maybe— he might have been talking for a while, he’s kept a running commentary on the documentary so he probably is talking, most likely.

got the alphabet, they seem to have been able to remember vast tracts of poetry and pass it on in quite…

There’s a tension that creeped its way into her shoulders when she wasn’t paying attention, and the dizziness has twisted its way into nausea.

She wants to move, but she’s rooted to the spot. His arm is so very, very heavy.

“-tasha? Natasha. Natasha!”

‘Yes’, she says. She thinks she says it. She’s not entirely sure.

Suddenly, the weight around her moves off, and Thor moves away, giving her a foot or two of space that feels like fresh air.

“Hey,” she manages to speak after less than a second, the effort unimaginable. She fights the urge to double over until she’s not lightheaded anymore.  What is wrong with her? “You don’t need to, I—”

“What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Natasha. What happened?”

She takes a breath. Then another. “I don’t know,” she admits, finally.

There’s a short pause. “You are pushing yourself,” he says, very gently.

“I’m fine.”

Maybe wisely, Thor chooses not to get involved in an argument over how fine Natasha is or is not. “There is no need to push so hard.” He studies her briefly while she stares back, chin up. “Here.” A large hand, palm-up, is suddenly on her knee. Slowly, she looks at it like it’s going to bite her— then, before she can think about it or talk herself out of it, Natasha takes it, threading her fingers through his.

The effect is instantaneous; as before, she feels instantly steadier, but the… nausea, or panic, or whatever it was, stays curled at the edges of her consciousness. He is not a physical threat, with her fingers linked through his, and his body a good foot away.

“Alright?” Thor asks, watching her carefully.

This time, Natasha actually considers it, and when she nods, it’s honest.

They stay like that for several long minutes, Natasha allowing herself to become used to the feeling of willingly letting— and wanting— someone else to provide a steadying touch for her. She’s only holding his hand (carefully, like it’s a china doll that might break if she’s too heedless), but she doesn’t pull away, even though her cheeks are flushed from mild mortification and disgust that’s steadily increasing with each passing second. Still, she doesn’t move— refuses to give in and let herself move— not until the nervous energy thrumming beneath her skin has completely settled, and her mind is more aware and alert than it has been in days.

She lets him help her, and there’s embarrassment curving through every thought, but it’s done now.

Finally, she pulls away. “Thank you.” It’s more curt than she intended. A tiny part of her wants to throw up.

“It was my honour,” Thor replies seriously, not seeming bothered by her tone. “I am happy to provide companionship whenever—”

He cuts off abruptly as Natasha slowly, giving him time to pull away, leans up and presses her lips against his. She’s not completely sure why she does it. It’s not like she wants to fuck him right this minute.

They’ve kissed before, undercover on missions. Once or twice in the tower when they were all drunk, or to mess with the others. Never alone.

It’s a brief kiss, and soft. They both pull away at the same time, less than two seconds. “Thank you,” Natasha repeats. “I’m gonna go shower, but… thanks for the breakfast, too.”

Thor smiles, one hand reaching up to brush her jaw before dropping again. “While appreciated, that was not necessary.”

“I’m well aware, thanks.”

“I do not want you to think that in order for me to provide comfort to you, you must—” His eyes widen as she gives her trademark half-smirk and kisses him again, hot and heavy and hard. She’s still not quite sure why she’s doing it.

This time, she grinds her body into him— not too much, just a taste— and smirks wider when she pulls away and his pupils have begun to dilate. This is good. She’s back in power. “We should fuck sometime,” she says, conversationally. “Maybe with Jane.” She’s only met Jane a few times, briefly, but why not up the ante?

“Maybe,” Thor replies, and she knows he’s thinking of her and Jane together because his pupils are blown. “I— maybe,” he repeats, lamely.

Natasha winks at him and leaves.

 

XXX

 

Several of them are in the lounge when she walks in after a nice, steaming shower: Clint and Tony are playing a video game, Tony stretched out against Pepper on the couch, while Clint is on the floor, leaning back against Banner’s legs. The archer is playing with one hand and shoveling mouthfuls of buttery popcorn into his face from a half-full bowl on the floor (probably, knowing Clint, his breakfast).

Right after Natasha enters the room, Thor bursts in, beaming. Bruce and Pepper smile at them both, but Clint and Tony are far too engrossed in their competition to pay them any attention.

Natasha smiles at Thor, but does not make any mention of the early morning’s interaction, and he gives a smile back in acknowledgement.

“You look very chipper,” Pepper observes, glancing at Thor over the pile of files in her lap.

When is he not? Natasha thinks. The god sprawls on a couch, nodding happily. “Yes. I slept very well last night.”

“Any particular reason?” Banner asks out of curiousity, and then immediately looks like he’s regretting it. Thor, Tony and Clint (in)famously have no filters when it comes to their sexual proclivities.

But Jane’s in Poland, so Natasha, at least, is aware that they aren’t about to be regaled by Thor’s discovery of his latest favorite sex position.

“I slept with a sound mind,” he says. “It was nice to get things off my chest, as it were.”

“Oh,” Clint says, his attention drawn. “You mean when we talked.” The emphasis is clear: they talked it out, and that is all, Thor, thank you very much.

“Yes. When we did therapy.”

Pepper does a comical double-take, and Banner and Tony are only split-seconds late on the uptake.

“Wait.” Tony pauses the video game, ignoring Clint’s protests. “You guys actually did therapy?” Glancing at Clint, then at Thor, he adds suspiciously, “Like, you sat in a circle and sang kumbaya, or…?”

“We did Desire, Reason, Future,” Thor explains, stretching himself up tall. “It was enlightening.”

Natasha doesn’t look at Pepper, but she can still see the other woman smiling out of the corner of her eye. Great. Just perfect. This is exactly what they need. More ammunition for Pepper Potts to go around thinking she’s right.

Well, she is right, in this case. But that’s besides the point.

“Who did therapy?” she asks now, and Natasha steadfastly avoids her probing eyes, pretending to be fascinated by the paused video game screen.

“Myself,” replies Thor, “and Steve, Clint, and Natasha. It was very productive.”

Natasha remembers the almost-was fight with Steve— okay, it was a fight, but it ended far quicker than it should have, could have— and decides to throw Pepper a bone (not that she needs one at this point). “Yeah,” she agrees with Thor, “It… yeah, it was. Very productive.” She risks a glance at Pepper only to find the red-head smiling at her with a soft, gentle expression like she’s proud of Natasha, and fuck.

Maybe she should do therapy more often.

No, fuck that, maybe she should just lie and tell Pepper she’s doing therapy more often.

“That’s great,” says Pepper. “Really wonderful. Thank you.”

“We talked about—” Thor starts, and Clint says “Whoa!” at the same time as Natasha says more tactfully “Maybe we don’t need to share everything.”

Pepper looks like she’s hiding a smile. “Therapy is private, Thor. You should feel privileged that what was shared was told to you, and leave it at that.”

“I understand,” he says gravely. “My sincere apologies.”

Stretching, Banner gets up from the sofa with a “I’m gonna go grab something to eat”, and Clint huffs but shuffles over to lean against Stark’s legs instead.

“I can’t believe,” Tony looks absolutely mutinous, although Natasha’s not sure how much of it is his usual drama-queen behaviour, “that you all did therapy without me. When it was my idea.”

With a calming hand on his arm, Pepper says, “I had no idea you enjoyed therapy so much. We can definitely talk more about that later.”

Clint cackles at the expression on Stark’s face. “Yeah, go, have fun.”

Smirking as Stark’s ire instantly dies down, Natasha settles down next to Clint on the floor, instinctively grabbing a handful of popcorn. “What are you playing?”

He presses play— Tony wasn’t paying attention and his head snaps up as the music starts playing, but it’s too late; Clint’s character smashes into his three times with a giant sledgehammer before he has time to react, sending jewels and scrolls flying in a burst of colour. He immediately begins collecting them off the ground while Tony’s character lies dead.

“Hey!” Stark protests, while Natasha silently points to any jewels Clint missed. “Didn’t the ring leader teach you manners? Give ‘em back, circus-boy.”

“I thought you don’t like to be handed things,” Clint replies with a grin, nodding in thanks at Natasha’s murmured, “One on your left. Purple scroll.”

“Hey.” Tony leans forwards and flicks Natasha’s ear, retreating hastily before she can retaliate. He has the advantage, since she’d have to both get up off the floor and turn around to get him back. “Be on my team.”

“She’s not on anyone’s team,” Clint interjects, more than a little pandering, “She is her own woman.”

Natasha snorts, but nods. “Okay, cheesy, but I’ll give you that one.” Then, as bright light surrounds Tony’s motionless character, she adds: “You’re going to want to get out of there before he regenerates.”

“Right. Good call.”

Tony crosses his arms, video game controller dangling at his side as he waits impatiently for his character to re-load. After a beat he says “Pep?”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Pepper puts down her pen with a sigh. “Yes?”

“Have I ever told you,” he asks, “what a strong, confident, beautiful, independent woman you are?”

One eyebrow raised, Pepper looks him up and down. Then she lets out another sigh and says, “He missed your Power Gem. Between the little rock and the fern.”

“What?” Clint looks at the screen in horror. “No!” Glaring at Natasha, he makes to turn around, but she stops him with a hand on his arm.

“If you go back,” she explains calmly, as if to a child, “Tony will kill you.”

“Damn right I will! Fuck you, Robin Hood!”

“I can’t believe you missed that!” Clint snaps, both hands working the controller furiously as he tries to find a hiding spot. “That thing gives him all his powers!”

“So you get one then.” Natasha shrugs lazily, licking her buttery fingers. “Anyone want popcorn?” When nobody replies in the affirmative, she grins and takes the bowl into her lap.

“I can’t just get one.” Ducking into a back alley, Clint looks around wildly, the screen swinging back and forth between left, right, up down. “They’re so rare, they only appear—”

“There’s literally one in the trash can behind you.”

Clint stares at her and then at the screen, and with a whoop he picks up the shimmering item.

“Okay, fuck you both, this is cheating,” Tony growls. “No ifs and buts. This is clearly, irrefutably, categorically a breach of—”

“Tony,” says Pepper quietly.

“I will watch my language when I no longer share a house with con artists and—”

“No, Tony…”

“What?”

“The guy on your left that you— no, the other one, the mage— yeah, him. He just put two amulets into his pocket and his XP is three hundred less than yours.”

“What?” Tony asks breathlessly.

“No way.” Clint watches Tony’s side of the split-screen as the mage is beheaded and the amulets pocketed, his eyes narrowed. “I’ve had an amulet forever and he’s never gotten one.”

“I have two now, bird brain!”

“Not as good, but you can get a talisman off the shelf if you kill the baby dragon,” Natasha points out. Clint cocks his head to one side, considering, and then:

“Here!” He thrusts the controller at her. “Do me proud.”

Wordlessly, Natasha shifts her bowl over to him and opens her mouth expectantly. Clint sighs but obediently feeds her popcorn as her fingers expertly begin dancing over the controller. “Keep it comin’, Barton.”

Step one, build up weapons. It only takes her five or six minutes before she’s found clear patterns in where the game developers leave items— it’s like tracking a target, there’s always a signature; these games were made by real people, after all— and she scrolls through her inventory, noting the steadily-increasing volume of Stark’s protests with satisfaction.

Step two, defense. She kills a few people for their gold and buys the best protective clothing available at the market, Clint giving his opinions on colors and styles.

Step three, find the target. Well, that’s easy. Stark— who, huh. Wait a minute, what?

“You’re not playing?” she asks Tony in surprise. He’d gotten up to stretch and his hands are noticeably empty, but his character’s still jogging through the city. Both Clint and Natasha’s heads snap around— and yep, Pepper.

“Fuck,” Clint swears. “Okay, watch the timer,” he adds quietly. “Stark and I have a duel scheduled in the city square.”

“So?” That makes her job easier. She loves it when the target comes to her.

“First one there gets the Scroll of Enlightenment and I realize how that sounds but I need that scroll.”

“Are there benefits?”

“Five times strength,” Clint replies grimly. “And double XP.”

Five times?” Well, damn. “Okay, got it.”

“What is XP?” asks Thor. He’s familiar enough with the basics of video games, but the details always confuse him.

“Experience,” Clint answers, distracted. “It’s easier to kill people the higher you are than them.” As Pepper slices through an opponent and neatly picks up the sack of gold he drops, Clint swears. Then he shuffles closer to Natasha and re-popcorns her mouth. “Okay listen, Tasha, I need you to win this for me. You got this, just stay focused alright?”

“I believe in you,” Tony’s saying to Pepper, “You’re a CEO, how hard can this be? You’re gonna win, I feel it in my bones. Today’s your lucky day.”

“You don’t need luck,” Clint tells Natasha. “I know you can do this.”

“Show ‘em what you’re made of,” Tony wraps an arm around Pepper, “This is nothing. I have so much faith in you. So much. Copious amounts of faith.”

“Natasha,” says Clint loudly, shoveling such a large handful of popcorn into her mouth that she almost chokes, “is a world-renowned assassin. This is child’s play for her.”

“You’re also a world-renowned assassin,” Natasha points out, muffled through the popcorn, but he ignores her.

“Pepper is a CEO,” Tony counters. “Of a tech company. She helped design this game.”

Well, that’s interesting. Natasha turns around to raise an eyebrow at Pepper, who rolls her eyes, although her fingers never stop working the controls. “That’s an exaggeration. I signed off on design elements, among other things.”

Tony points to her. “Designed the game.”

“Graphics are real nice,” says Natasha. “I like the concept. Magic in the modern urban world.”

“Thanks.” Tony ruffles his hair self-consciously.

“Not you, the designer.”

“Thank you,” Pepper smiles.

“City’s true to life?” Natasha asks, because this looks a hell of a lot like Osaka, and this is Pepper Potts the perfectionist they’re talking about. If she’s right about the amount of research put into this… Without waiting for an answer, she ducks into an alley and through a side-street and yes, there’s the shortcut that’s not on the maps. She starts running and makes it to the square, swooping forwards to grab the scroll.

“Yes!” Clint crows, jumping up. “Yes, yes, fuck you! You’re going down, Stark!”

Thirty seconds later, Pepper enters the square, but before Natasha can attack her, she opens her inventory and puts on her defensive clothing.

Which has five Power Gems stitched into it.

“Holy…” Clint’s mouth drops open. “Where did you get all of those?” he demands.

Natasha smiles. A worthy opponent.

Although, actually… even with her 5x strength and 2x XP, they’re pretty evenly matched. This isn’t a guaranteed win.

Pepper walks forwards. Natasha walks forwards too. Neither of them makes a move.

“You know,” says Pepper, “it does seem kind of a waste…”

Without replying, Natasha grabs the spare controller off the table and throws it to Thor; he’s been pretty quiet so far, enraptured, but he catches it smoothly. “Make a character.”

“Main menu, if I remember correctly?”

“Yeah.”

Everyone watches, the momentum and excitement of the impending fight lost.

“Gender?” he asks when he gets to the appropriate screen.

“Female.”

Clint and Tony are staring at her, twin expressions of confusion. “Natasha,” says Clint, like she’s very, very slow,  get her, she’s standing still!”

Natasha picks at a kernel of popcorn underneath her nail. “In a second.”

“Do you have specifications on appearance?” Thor asks.

“I’m thinking red hair,” Pepper says thoughtfully. “Natasha, thoughts?”

“That sounds perfect.”

He nods as he fiddles with the settings. “Okay… name?”

“Rushman,” Pepper replies before Natasha can answer, and she shrugs in agreement.

As if a lightbulb has gone off, Clint and Tony’s eyes narrow. “No,” they growl at the same time.

“Don’t you dare! You traitor!” Tony tries to pry the controller from Pepper, and she manages to snatch it back and quickly sits on it, dissolving into hysterical laughter as his face reddens.

Clint attempts to leap at Natasha, but fails miserably; she holds him off with one foot and begins swiping at Stark’s Power Gem-wearing character— “Pepper GIVE ME THE CONTROLLER!” Tony snarls— until he lies dead in three smooth strokes. It’s easy— without someone controlling the gems, they’re useless, and her 5x strength is no match for Tony’s.

“Are you done, Thor?” she yells over the din of Clint and Tony screaming at her, and Pepper cackling madly.

“Yes!” A red-headed female appears in the square as he answers; Natasha snatches the controller from Thor just as Clint dives for it, and begins swiping at Clint’s character with the only weapon in her inventory, a tiny wooden sword.

He manages to wrangle his own controller from her when his XP is down to half, and she’s a brand-new character so he could kill her in two strokes, but Tony’s face darkens.

“He’d better not win!” he hisses, before abandoning his efforts with Pepper and body-slamming into Clint; the archer topples over, Stark wrapped around him. They begin rolling around on the floor, fighting for the controller.

Meanwhile, Natasha keeps taking stabs at Clint’s character, who’s standing still and smiling innocently at her as she slowly erodes his XP. Pepper’s doubled over on the couch, snickering so hard she’s clutching her stomach.

“At least one of us could win! Let me play!” Clint yells at Tony, gripping the controller tightly to his chest.

Tony bats it out of his hands. “I’d rather die!”

Slash. XP 50.

Cut. XP 40.

Slash. Slash. Kick. XP 20.

Clint manages to get a firm hold on his character’s controller and slashes wildly with his giant club, knocking Rushman down. ‘Warning: XP 10’ flashes across the screen, and Pepper stops laughing, sobering abruptly. With a steady, we-do-what-we-must nod at Natasha, she kicks off her high heels and then, with the air of a soldier walking into gun-fire, jumps onto Clint’s arm, wrenching his hand away from the controller and sending the item sliding under the couch. With a gleeful yelp, Tony dives for it, only for Clint to grab his calf and pull him back.

Natasha swipes at the screen, brow furrowed in concentration.

Slash. XP 15.

Come on, come on, come on….

Slash. XP 10. ‘Warning: XP 10’ is emblazoned across Clint’s screen in dark red lettering, and Natasha slashes again and—

‘YOU HAVE BEEN KILLED BY RUSHMAN.’

“Fuck. Yes.” Natasha laughs as Pepper claps, and she immediately begins the process of running around the square collecting all the items dropped by Clint and Tony’s now-dead characters. Power Gems, amulets, scrolls, weapons, gold…

“Holy shit,” Tony breathes, the room suddenly quiet as Natasha scrolls through her and Pepper’s joint inventory with sadistic pleasure.

“Thank you,” she says to the men, with a special wink at Thor, “Your words of encouragement really helped.”

“Oh, incredibly,” Pepper agrees. “If you hadn’t been so insistent, we never would have believed in ourselves. And look at what we accomplished!”

Tony flips them off while Clint has the decency to look at least begrudgingly impressed. “Fine. Good game, whatever.”

“I’m going to password-protect the account,” Natasha decides, having noticed the spark in Tony’s eyes.

Pepper nods. “Probably wise.” After a beat she adds, “Thor, we will of course reward you generously for your help, should you ever wish to create your own character.”

“Thank you very much. And if you were to ever visit Asgard, I would reward you generously in kind.”

Pepper eyebrow quirks, and then she snorts. “Not the same thing, but okay.”

Tony’s watching the game replays, scowling. “See now that is cheating. And that. That is unethical.”

“It’s a video game.” Natasha’s tone says ‘get over it’, even though she’s still a little giddy at the victory herself.

“And how did you even know to cut across the map like that?”

“Oh.” She considers how much to say. “That side alley exists. In the real Osaka.” She’d found it right after she dumped a man’s body in a bathroom, and she’d rather not get into how. “You did your research,” is directed with a note of admiration at Pepper, who nods.

“I mean, well. As I said before, I signed off on anything that was completed, and that includes research.”

“But you asked for it to be done,” Natasha presses.

“But I asked for it, yes.”

“I’m done with you all.” Clint throws his hands up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to my boyfriend, who doesn’t backstab me,” he glowers at Natasha, who grins back, “and who I don’t backstab.”

“Yeah, wow,” Tony says. “That sounds like a very backstabbing-free relationship.” Pepper rolls her eyes but smiles with affection as he continues, “What a beautiful partnership, lacking in double-crosses. You know, sometimes? I wish I had that.”

“One day, man.” Clint and Tony stare wistfully off into the distance. “You’ll get there.”

“Hey Clint,” says Natasha meaningfully, “Has Coulson noticed an increase in his paperwork today?”

A smile forming, Clint purses his lips. “What happens in therapy, Natasha,” he says finally, reaching across to smack her shoulder, “stays in therapy.”

“If you say so.” She grins back at him, then stretches her arms above her head and gets up. “Well, this was fun. Nice beating you all.”

“Gym?” Clint correctly predicts.

“Yeah, I’m thinking— Oh wait, hey, I haven’t sparred in a while. Any of you want to join me…?”

Curling his lip, Stark shakes his head, but Clint gives her a thumbs-up. “Let’s go.”

They’re both leaving through the door when he nudges her just in time to see Thor glance at the popcorn bowl on the floor, the ghost of an exasperated frown on his features. Natasha sighs and rolls her eyes, but goes back and picks it up. “Happy?”

Breaking out into a sheepish smile, Thor nods. “Thank you.”

“Wow,” Pepper murmurs, watching them leave with both eyebrows raised. “You really should hang around here more often, Thor.”

 

XXX

 

On her way out of the sparring hall in a tank-top, a small towel slung around her neck, Natasha’s passing through the side hall with the punching bags, noting the plastic darts strewn across the floor in confusion. A snigger alerts her to someone’s presence, and then she ducks when there’s a quick whoosh; she’s not fast enough, and ducking to stop it hitting her torso causes the dart to bounce squarely off her forehead.

(because yeah, she could have done the whole run-roll combo to avoid it entirely, but she’s pretty sure that would be more grounds for mockery than a plastic dart to the forehead)

The one snigger is joined by a second, loud enough for her to snap around to the source— Sam and Steve, huddled like schoolgirls on the floor against the far wall, partially hidden by a combination of punching bags and shelving.

“Hilarious,” she says darkly, picking the dart up and throwing it back at them. Sam ducks, and so does Steve, and they end up ducking right into each other, hissing in pain as their foreheads bounce off. “See, now that was actually hilarious.”

Sam laughs and then springs up to hug her in greeting before pulling her down so she sits cross-legged facing them. “Productive work-out?”

“Yeah.” With a critical eye, she scans over the discarded punching bags on the floor, along with Sam’s wings. “You?” Then again, they were playing with darts when she walked in, so probably not quite that productive.

Confirming this, Sam shrugs, while Steve’s lips purse. “We were trying a new move with the wings— didn’t really get anywhere.”

“I can see that.” She grins, gesturing at the scattered darts.

“Hill thought it would be a great idea,” Sam complains, arms folded. “I told her, man, it’s physically impossible. Physically. Does she listen? No.” He snorts. “Women…”

Natasha smacks Sam at the same time as Steve nods solemnly, so then she hits him too.

Rubbing his shoulder with a whole lot more grimacing than Natasha feels is needed, Steve asks, “Where were you all morning?”

Briefly, she considers lying. But then Thor might mention it, and then she’d be fucked. “Thor’s room.”

Sam gives a low whistle, waggling his eyebrows in a suggestive fashion. “Doin’ some of the good old no pants dance?”

No. Watching a documentary.” And ‘having a panic attack’, but she’s not about to tell them that.

“A documentary?” Steve’s eyebrows are at his hairline. “On what?”

“Ancient Greece.”

“Oh. Huh.”

“Thank you,” Sam tells Natasha seriously. “If you weren’t around, I’d never be up to date on all the slang. I’m sure Cap here appreciates it,” he adds, clapping Steve on the back so hard the other man jolts forwards. “So we got boning, we got fucking, we got netflix and chill. And now we got ‘watching documentaries on Ancient Greece’.”

Natasha scowls at Sam for approximately ten seconds before giving up. Then she brightens as she remembers Thor’s line from earlier. “Oh, want to see something? Hey, JARVIS?”

“Yes, Agent Romanoff.”

“Playback from this morning, please.”

Steve pales. “No no no no no, that’s fine, don’t—”

A projection of Thor on the couch flashes up between them, his hip jutted out and chest puffed up. “Age of the geek, baby.”

Sam laughs so hard he cries. Then he makes JARVIS replay it four more times, and takes a video on his cell phone for good measure. “If I put this online, it’ll go viral. I guarantee it.”

“Oh, c’mon,” Steve chides. “That’s not, y’know. Let’s avoid cyber-bullying.” Natasha shakes her head in amusement. Obviously he’s been doing his homework on the modern world— maybe a little too much research.

“He’ll love it,” Sam objects, and they know it’s true, “Can you imagine all the memes? It’ll be a thing. He might go on Ellen.”

“She’s already invited him on.” Natasha knows this because Thor asked Pepper what an Ellen was, and even though Fury made him decline the appearance for fear of irreparable damage to his image, Thor had spent the entire week bragging about it.

“Okay, but.” Steve looks very uncomfortable. “Can we not video people without telling them?”

“He knows JARVIS recorded it,” Natasha points out.

“Yeah, well. Look, I’m just— I think people should be asked beforehand, that’s all.”

Brow furrowed, she considers him, willing to back off if this is genuinely bugging him… but then she breaks into a wide, gleeful grin as she notices his pinkening cheeks. “Wait a second. I know what this is about.”

Sam, who had also been studying Steve, matches her expression. “I need to get ahold of the surveillance from when they bugged your apartment before the whole shit with HYDRA went down.”

“This is, what, the sixth time he’s implicitly mentioned it?” Natasha asks Sam, who nods. Whatever is on those tapes? Is probably gold, and they all know it. “Maybe Fury—”

“Fury doesn’t have them!” Steve says hotly, red up to his ears. “And also, for your reference, I did nothing embarrassing. It’s just. Invasion of privacy, disrespectful. All that.”

“Bullshit,” Sam cackles. “You were probably singing Spice Girls songs in the shower.”

Face blank, Steve replies, “I don’t know who that is.”

Sam is not deterred. “Belting out a little— what would it be, then— Judy Garland? Some Crosby?”

“Maybe he just fucked someone and HYDRA heard it all,” Natasha interjects smoothly, delighted when the tips of his ears flush even more scarlet.

Steve looks like he’s about two seconds away from sticking his fingers in his ears and going la-la-la until they drop it.

“Hey, no shame, no shame.” Sam shrugs. “All I’m saying is, if someone bugged my apartment for weeks, they’d sure as hell have a few lifetimes’ worth of incriminating evidence.”

“Thank you,” Steve grinds out. “That’s so helpful. Really.” In a blatant attempt to shift the focus off himself, he adds, “But great job admitting you sing the Spice Girls in the shower.”

“Nah, man.” Sam makes a pshh sound, waving the air. “Beyoncé all the way for me.”

“Your crush on her is embarrassing,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes, and Sam looks affronted.

“I do not have a crush on Beyoncé. I want to watch Ancient Greek documentaries with her.” He solemnly holds his hand out for a fist-bump, which Steve obligingly gives him.

Natasha needs better friends.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

They’re at SHIELD headquarters listening to someone from PR drone on and on about fostering a good public image. Natasha has a pack of gummy bears, and is throwing them into Clint’s mouth across the table whenever the presenter isn’t looking, seeing how far they can stretch the distance before he has to miss them on purpose to prevent the PR guy from noticing him.

“… certain members of the Avengers expressing strong political views, but this can be, and has been, interpreted as aggressive or pushing an agenda by the media. To that end, in public, at least, please…”

So far? They’re doing pretty good. There’s only, like, six gummy bears on the ground, tops. The presenter turns to the screen to talk through a graph; Natasha flings three candies at once, in quick succession and each in slightly different areas. It’s tough, but Clint gets them all.

“… language. While SHIELD understands the considerable amount of stress during battle, most conflicts in city centers are broadcast online to some degree. As such, profanity is…”

Tony is slouched in his seat, mutinous, and flips Natasha off when she beautifully curves an orange gummy bear into Clint’s waiting mouth. Smirking, she shrugs back at him, and Clint chews open-mouthed, visibly restraining himself from smacking his lips for the full effect. (It’s not Natasha or Clint’s fault that Tony has the subtlety of a jackhammer, and is therefore an unsuitable candidate for mid-seminar gummy bear throwing).

“… consider getting social media accounts,” Tony’s hand shoots up, “and, if you already have an active online presence, consider allowing content to be pre-approved by our department. After the…”

Carefully, carefully considering her aim, and the relative bounciness of a gummy bear, Natasha lines up her next shot. When the presenter finishes the slide and moves onto a text-heavy bit on the benefits of attending fundraising events, she flicks the bear so it arches smoothly across the room, rebounds off of Steve’s shoulder, and drops at a perfect angle for Clint to catch it. Stark scowls.

Steve looks slightly (okay, very) disapproving, but hasn’t said anything so far for fear of alerting the PR guy— and probably also because it’s clear the only thing keeping Bruce and Thor awake is the suspense of whether or not Clint will manage to get the shot.

“… the foremost concern being secrecy. We try to remain a covert organization, and current activity is highly confidential regardless of whether or not our past activity was disclosed online during the battle in DC…”

Natasha only caught the tail end of that point, but it is 100% aimed at Stark, no question about it. She’s just trying to figure out the best way to throw the entire bag of gummy bears across to Clint (she wants a turn at catching them now) without Tony intercepting, when Maria pops her head through the door. “Situation in Queens.”

“Thank fuck.” Stark raises his arms to the heavens with far more drama than necessary, and even Steve and Banner perk up. “No offense to you,” Tony adds, looking at the man from PR. “For a monotonous presentation that was fairly average. I just fail to see why we even need to attend these things.” This said with full seriousness despite the fact that every one of the points was specifically tailored to various incidents, with copious examples accompanying each slide.

“Avengers assemble!” Clint cries, and Tony shoves him.

“It was my turn to say that,” he says, scowling. “We agreed.”

“You snooze, you lose.”

“I will rip your asspads off mid-battle, see if I don’t.”

“Um,” Clint scoffs, gesturing at himself, “Are we pretending most of Queens wouldn’t love that? Have you seen my ass?”

Natasha grins, devilish. “Flash them, then. Test out the theory.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, wear loose pants and fall off a building.” She shrugs, eyeing him critically as Tony nods his approval. “Plausible deniability.”

“Okay, well, where?”

“Not Brooklyn!” Steve pipes up immediately, apparently perfectly fine with it as long as his home borough wasn’t in any danger.

“I’ll pay you a hundred bucks to flash Times Square,” Banner interjects.

“This is exactly why you’re all here,” the guy from PR snaps, arms folded as he glowers at them all. “In case you’re ever wondering in the future. This is exactly why.

“Fine, sheesh, no flashing the good citizens of New York,” Tony says, hands up in surrender.

“Agents,” at the door, Hill is not amused, “Whenever you’re done with your… discussion, the jet is waiting to fly you out. You know, so you can get there as quickly as possible and prevent innocent deaths.” Appropriately chastised, they hurry out— Bruce and Tony even offer quick, mumbled apologies as they dash through the door. “Romanoff.” Hill grabs Natasha’s arm as she’s about to pass, gesturing at Clint, who’s behind her, to file pass. “Leave without her. She’ll join you.” After a second’s hesitation, the archer nods and grabs the bag of gummy bears from Natasha. When all of them, including the PR guy, are gone, Natasha tilts her head to the side and raises an eyebrow. “Fury wants to see you.” Maria begins walking briskly down the hall, and Natasha follows wordlessly.

It’s not like she needs an escort, but SHIELD has ‘policies’ and ‘rules’, and God forbid Maria Hill allow her to find her own way if Fury expressly asked her to get Natasha to him.

“How are you?” Maria asks, when they’re almost there. It’s so predictable, Natasha wants to smile. Not leaving enough time to finish a conversation that could get awkward or uncomfortable is one of Hill’s trademarks.

“Good.”

“You look better.” Outside Fury’s door, she lets the panel scan her retina for entry. “Than when I saw you last, I mean.”

Before Natasha can answer, Fury growls from inside: “Are you gonna wait for me to get up and open the damn door for you?”

“He’s all yours.” Maria opens the door, then grins at Natasha before nodding at Fury and walking back the way they came.

“Close the door,” Fury orders.

She does as he says. “The team was called.”

“They can get started without you.” He’s standing behind his desk, the fingers of one hand tapping on the glass surface. “I thought this might be a good time for one of those pesky employee performance evaluations.”

“Where’s Coulson?” Natasha keeps her tone smooth and unaffected. She’s 90% she’s not being fired. Maybe 85%. Except Phil’s not only her handler within SHIELD, but also the liaison for the Avengers, so any meetings shouldn’t technically be taking place without him.

Fury sits, gesturing for her to do the same, and she slides into the high-backed chair facing him. “I thought I’d take care of this one.”

“Aww, I feel special.”

Snorting, he leans forwards to put his weight on his forearms, fingers interlocking. “So, to get the formalities out of the way… any comments? Questions, concerns, suggestions?”

“The fries in the cafeteria are never crispy,” says Natasha.

The corner of Fury’s mouth twitches. “I’ll speak to Linda.”

“Thanks.”

He reclines against his chair, fingers still clasped together, but resting against his torso instead as he examines her with an uncomfortably-penetrating gaze. “And what about you?”

“Me?” She plays dumb.

“How are you doing? Off Substop, no dom, no effects?”

Natasha stares at him, a hint of a glare in her expression, purposefully working her jaw so she looks pissed off. “Is this a normal part of employee evaluations?”

“It is for submissive agents.” Fury doesn't miss a beat. “SHIELD needs to know we’re meeting your needs, and that you’re able to do your job without posing a field risk to yourself or to other agents.” When she doesn’t say anything, he leans forwards once more, his eyes never leaving hers. “In that light, Agent Romanoff, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine.”

She’s rewarded with a snort. “Really? Because Hill might’ve let something slip about your meeting the other day.”

Natasha’s going to kill Maria. She’s going to make sure all traces of Maria are removed form existence. Outwardly, she doesn’t show any reaction, except that her eyes narrow minutely. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh you don’t.”

“No sir.”

“You wouldn’t be on the verge of a drop 24/7, then, would you?” Fury’s eyebrows fold, the sarcasm positively dripping from his voice. “That must be some other agent. My bad. My agent knows better than to let her damn Bearing make her more vulnerable to threats.”

“It’s being handled,” Natasha replies as stonily as she can, still trying to recover from having her feet pulled out from beneath her with the bluntness of his approach.

“How?” She doesn’t answer, because she’s definitely not going to tell him she cuddled with Thor. With her lack of answer, Fury continues, softer: “Natasha, I’m aware this situation isn’t ideal for you. We have resources available for submissive employees, you know that.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need a dom in a white coat to put me under,” she says coolly.

“Well, you sure as hell aren’t going to the Avengers for help.”

How the fuck did he know that in the first place? She’s about to explode at him, or Hill, or both, until she catches herself- the way she was when Maria met her, it’s obvious she hasn’t been letting anyone dom for her, Avenger or not. “It’s my business,” she says instead.

“It’s absolutely your business,” Fury acknowledges, and she waits for the inevitable but: “It becomes my business, agent, when you put yourself at risk to the extent that I can no longer trust that I can safely send you undercover.”

“I’m perfectly capable of any mission you want to assign to me.”

“Excellent. Tianjin, six months long-haul solo recon and infiltration. You leave tomorrow morning.”

She slowly takes the manila file he slides across the desk to her, skimming the details of the mission. “You know I can’t take this right now,” she says lowly, after a tense pause.

Fury rolls his eyes like he expected that answer- which of course he did, because she told Maria she’d rather stick to training for now, and that’s exactly what her schedule says for the next month. “You know your own limitations- thank fuck for that, at least.”

Natasha bristles, shoving the file back across to him. “I was trained not to need drops like most subs, and to get out of them quickly on my own. The skills are rusty, but they’re there. I just need some time to get back into it.”

Fury scowls. “That sounds like a goddamn perfect solution,” he growls. “Why not fall back on tactics the KGB tortured into you?”

She takes a slow breath. “I’m handling it.”

“So you’ve said. Until I’m satisfied with how you’re handling it, I think I’d be justified in benching you.”

Natasha’s feels her stomach drop, mortified. “My performance in our last battle was impeccable, you don’t have any grounds to—”

“You’re going to drop on a mission and risk your safety.”

She snorts. “I’ll manage, trust me.”

“Well, I don’t.” She looks away, and he winces, then sighs with the ghost of an apology on his face. “Look. My door is open to you, if you feel so inclined. So is the entire Submissive Provisions Department.”

“If and when it affects my missions, I’ll consider it,” she allows, mentally running through all the ways she could kill Hill for getting her into this in the first place.

Fury folds his arms, regarding her firmly. “If it affects your missions, you’re benched, no two ways about it. But I don’t want you forcing yourself through this on your own, regardless of whether or not it’s affecting your admittedly-exemplary job performance.”

She can’t help herself, and finds herself asking: “Why not?”

There is absolutely no bullshit in Fury’s expression when he meets her eyes; somehow his steady gaze is calculating, detached, and unbearably protective all at once. “Because the girl Barton dragged in here nine years ago was a lonely, distrustful shell of a person who would have sooner died from a gunshot-wound than ask for a surgeon. And I will be damned if I let you turn back into that.”

After a beat, Natasha says quietly, “Maybe that’s just me when I’m not on drugs.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.” She inclines her head, and for a moment there’s silence, and then Fury barks out: “Now get out of here, Romanoff. Your team’s fighting evil and you’re in here sitting on your ass.”

She runs into Maria at the airstrip, shouting commands at the people getting her jet ready for take-off in a way that is very reminiscent of Fury. Her eyes slide over to Natasha as she approaches, a quick once-over, before she smirks. “Let me know if you’re pissed off, so I can grab my side-piece.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Natasha returns, but it’s good-natured enough- she’s not furious at Maria, not really. They begin walking, side-by-side, to the plane Natasha’s taking to meet the rest of the team. “We both know I’d beat you unarmed no matter how many side-pieces you had.” She can’t resist adding, after a pause: “At least give me a heads-up next time.”

Maria winces, stopping near the pilot’s door of the small, dark plane. “Sorry. I mentioned it in passing. I didn’t realize he was gonna drag you in there until he told me to get you.”

Natasha shrugs, the part of her that was angry mollified by the genuine apology. “Team’s in Queens?”

“Nope. Fight transferred over to Manhattan so you’ve got less of a journey.” She taps the plane’s door. “Have fun.”

————————————

It’s a bad mission.

Not bad bad. It lasts forever though. There aren’t any casualties, thank God, but Natasha’s finding it so much harder not to be affected by minor stressors than she did in the Red Room. Almost more than Stark, even. She’s jittery already— nothing too awful, but if this pattern continues, she’ll be on the brink of a drop for a while until some trauma forces her down.

What did she expect, she thinks wryly, as she trudges into the jet with the exhausted team, all of them picking charred fabric and chunks of dust and debris off their clothes. No practice for nine years? Obviously she isn’t going to bounce right back into it.

Coulson’s waiting for them at the tower, like he always is. As usual, his worried eyes perform a quick sweep of the team, even though he knows there weren’t any serious injuries: Clint first, then Natasha, then the rest, and only once he’s assured himself that nobody is irreparably damaged, mentally or otherwise, do his shoulders relax.

Clint folds into his partner’s arms immediately, and Coulson begins talking to him, winding him down. As Pepper steps out of the elevator to envelope Tony in a hug, Coulson raises an eyebrow at Natasha, a clear invitation. She shakes her head.

Although— sitting with Thor would take the edge of the jitters, she thinks, and probably stave off the compounding effect of minor triggers making her more and more precarious. Well, it would lead to a drop eventually, but the point is to avoid it for as long as possible. She drags herself into the elevator with the team, and luck is in her favor because although Thor doesn’t have the highest floor, the floors everyone chooses to get out on with their partners somehow works out so that she and Thor are the last ones left.

The elevator lets out a happy little ding and opens smoothly. She follows him to his door. “Okay?”

“Of course.” If he’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. “After you.”

“What were your plans for the morning?” Natasha asks, kicking off her shoes near the entrance and immediately going to the couch to relax into the thick, fluffy cushions. She’s still in her catsuit, but whatever. No big deal. “More documentaries?”

“Perhaps. For now I was going to change and then go down to eat.” He shrugs off his cape, examining its burnt spots with a distressed frown. “How did your suit survive? It looks unmarred.”

“Oh, is it?” She runs her fingers over the soft leather, feeling for ridges. “Um, a little here. I might’ve just dodged most of the flames. Plus I think Stark made the material inflammable in the latest upgrade.”

“I shall have to ask him to do the same for me, then,” Thor pronounces grandly, flopping down beside her.

“You know how he feels about capes.” As she speaks, she grabs his hand, keeping in mind the panic attack from last time and not wanting to push it too far when she doesn’t really need it. It’s nice. Steadying, not too much, not any more or any less than required.

Thor honest-to-God pouts. “His feelings about my cape should not influence its degree of protection!”

Except Natasha’s pretty sure Tony would purposefully set the thing on fire 24/7 to prove his point, namely that capes are ‘dangerous as fuck’ and Thor wearing one is ‘irreparably damaging to his reputation’. In fact, she wouldn’t put it past the billionaire to have accidentally-on-purpose made the material more easily damaged to that end. Come to think of it— “Wasn’t your cape fine during New York? There was an explosion, if I remember correctly. Cap shielded me and himself, but not you…”

Thor blinks. “I… suppose I might have faced that one head-on. My armor is not affected by fire.” But he doesn’t look convinced. He strokes her hand, thumb following the cuts and small scars left from years and years of assassinations and infiltration and battles. “Are you alright?”

“Fine.”

“Good.” He pauses. “I do not desire to infringe upon your privacy, so please immediately tell me if you do not want to answer.”

“Shoot.”

Thor looks around wildly, one arm thrown across her, and the other held out for Mjolnir. “I’ll hold them— wait. We are alone?” He says this very confused, like he has more faith in Natasha believing there to be intruders in his apartment that he inexplicably can’t see than he does in his own eyes. “Right?” He’s even more confused by her peal of laughter. “From your reaction, I am… assuming there is no danger, so I misunderstood. Or a joke?”

“No.” She takes pity on him. “Haven’t you ever heard someone say ‘shoot’ before?”

“Not to my recollection.”

“I guess it’s fallen out of use somewhat,” she acknowledges. “Go on.”

“That’s what it means?”

“That’s what it means.” Then she amends: “Or like, ‘shit’, but you know. Context.”

“Okay, to shoot,” he grins widely at her, “I was wondering… again, cut me off, please, if this is invasive, but… were you this sensitive to triggers, during childhood?” Natasha opens her mouth to answer, but he cuts her off: “Forgive me. I just could not help but notice that your Bearing has not been entirely stable lately.”

She thinks about not answering, then sighs. “No. This is a new development.” A tiny bit boastfully, so he doesn’t see the pain behind the words, she adds, “I used to never need drops at all.”

“At all?” He’s a little awed, and for good reason. It’s a specialized skill-set, and not one that can be easily taught, despite SHIELD and other government agencies’ best efforts. At least, not ethically.

“At all. Ever. I also could avoid dropping with stress, generally.”

“How?”

“Practice.” And a gritty will to survive. She thinks that’s the key ingredient that’s missing here, that’s making it harder than anticipated to slip back into her old routine. No danger anymore, no paralyzing fear, no threats. Not wanting to disclose anything too personal, she doesn’t say so to Thor. “It gets easier and easier.”

“That is impressive. Even on Asgard…” he trails off.

“My trainers were very good at what they did.”

Conflicting emotions war over his features, curiosity eventually winning out over the knowledge that he’s pushing his luck. “They gave you less and less time under until you could manage long stretches, I imagine? And a similar method for helping to deal with stress, more and more until you became accustomed to dealing with it?”

“Something like that.” More like extreme amounts of stress until the only option was die or fight through it. She doesn’t tell him that she has never dropped willingly, by a dom for her own needs, not as far back as she can remember. He doesn’t seem to have grasped the sheer brutality of Red Room training, and she’s not about to break the news. This suits her just fine.

“And you’re attempting to regain that ability,” says Thor.

“Bingo.” It would be easier to be close to the team again, physically speaking, when she’s re-trained herself. It’d be like being on Substop: she wouldn’t need them, so it would be fine. “I just… I’m good, it’s all fine, but I figured having you around would be easier than not. Take the edge of, y’know?”

“I understand. Feel free to stay as long as it takes to stabilize.”

“Thanks.”

After a minute or so, she’s fine enough, but not perfect, which is how she needs to be if she’s going to stave off a drop for as long as possible. There’s still a mild desire to be near Thor, which she knows will only get worse if she leaves it now. Her leg is going dead, though, so she shifts to get the blood flowing. Thor looks down, making as if to let go of her. “Good? Then let us go eat!”

He absolutely doesn’t mean to make it sounds like she’s burdening him, or forcing him to stay here, and she knows that, but can’t help but wince. “Um. I would actually… a little bit— I mean, a few minutes more, maybe? Sorry.” She hopes her cheeks aren’t tinged red, because she feels like they’re burning. She doesn’t want to have to do this again too soon, and since she’s already here…

Thor just nods, perfectly happy, and settles back down, seeming oblivious to her embarrassment. Natasha sits next to him quietly for a few more minutes, willing her body to hurry up and calm down so they can both go eat and they aren’t stuck here taking care of her. Eventually, all the residual jitters fade away, her heart stabilizing to a strong, steady thump-thump-thump, and she’d sooner be downstairs eating than here with Thor, which means she’s perfectly fine.

“Thanks,” she says again, letting go.

“Happy to help you.” He beams at her.

Something twists inside Natasha, then. Something that tells her even the score, and she wants to see Thor abandoned to her mercy. She imagines him underneath her, unable to think or talk or do anything but scream her name. The image doesn't turn her on, not even a little, but it satisfies her in a sadistic sort of pleasure, and she wants it.

So, before he can stand, Natasha swings a leg half-way over. Then, slow and steady, she leans up and kisses him, giving him plenty of time to pull away before her lips meet his. He doesn’t move away from her, nor does he try to break the kiss. She pulls away after a few beats, sensing something is off.

“What’s wrong, handsome, too hungry?” she murmurs, leaning down to nip at his ear-lobe, then moving down to his neck.

“What is it you are trying to achieve?” Thor asks, gently clasping one hand around her wrists.

“I don’t know how they do things on Asgard, but down here we’re usually trying to achieve one thing,” Natasha replies. He’s dropped her wrists but he folds his arms, preventing access to his chest. Well, she can work with that, she thinks, letting her fingers trail down to knead at his thighs. Moves closer to the apex, smirking when she feels him twitch, even though his face is still wary.

“Natasha.” Thor moves away carefully. “I informed you last time, this is not a situation where repayment is necessary. We are friends and comrades.”

“What’s the matter, don’t want it?” She drops her gaze slowly, seductively, peeking sorrowfully at him through dark lashes. It’s a practiced script. “Damn. Here I thought you were attracted to me.”

“That is not the reason.”

“Then what?” she demands, feeling a little nauseous, but not really sure why. Belatedly, remembering to be sultry, she licks her bottom lip— watching his eyes drop to follow the motion— and adds, without touching him: “Come on, less talking. Let me make you feel good…”

“No,” he says slowly, reaching a hand out, but withdrawing before he makes contact. “Why are you doing this?” He says it like he knows why, he’s just waiting for her to admit to it.

“Because I want to,” Natasha bites out through gritted teeth, pissed off now. “And if you don’t want to, that’s fine, but stop putting it on me.”

“You don’t want to either,” Thor says plainly, and her mouth drops open at the gall of it. “You don’t.” She raises an eyebrow, and he repeats, more sure: “I know you. Please refrain from pretending otherwise. It is disrespectful to both me and to yourself.”

Natasha scoffs, but she hasn’t touched him again after he refused (this is not the day she adds ‘sexual assault’ to her considerable resume). “But I know you too,” she purrs instead. She knows men, anyways, and doms, and they’re all the same. “Trust me. I know how to get a dom off in under two minutes. Unless they’re a woman,” she adds after a pause, “Then eight.”

“You forget I’ve seen you flirt with others.”

“What’s the matter, you jealous? I can fix that.”

“You are manipulating me. I don’t enjoy it.”

Manipulating him? Natasha barely manages to restrain herself from gaping at him.  “The hell? Don’t be an ass.” Then she cocks her head to the side, although a little voice in the back of her head is screaming at her to think. “Oh. Are you into that? I wouldn’t have pegged you for the rough-in-bed, use ‘em and ditch ‘em kinda dom, but I guess we all have our kinks. Don’t worry though, I’m open to everything.” She doesn’t even know what she’s saying. She’s never had someone outright refuse her and then turn around and blame her for it.

“You flirt like this with your marks,” Thor says darkly, apparently through with waiting for her to admit it. “Targets.”

Crap, was she really…? “I— what?”

He stands abruptly, arms crossed over his broad chest. “There is no imbalance of power here for you to right. I am your friend, not a mark. Although I was— and I remain— happy to help you, right now I would like you to go.” He adds, gentler: “I understand your past, and I am far from angry. But I would like you to leave.”

Well, fuck.

On a mission, if someone’s speaking a language brokenly, it’s simple enough to fall into the trap of thinking that they’re not sharp, or quick-witted. It’s one of the first things SHIELD warns new recruits against: someone’s ability to speak English or French or Russian or whatever the language du jour is has absolutely no bearing on their intelligence, or their ability to kick your ass to the ground if things go south.

Sometimes, with Thor’s archaic language and lack of Midgardian knowledge, it’s easy to write him off. Other times, like now, Natasha’s acutely aware of the fact that Thor is a fucking prince. Well-versed in tactical command and politics, he also blows the other Avengers— and to be honest, most of SHIELD— out of the water when it comes to emotional intelligence.

Natasha’s hadn’t thought she was stupid, either, but apparently this sub thing has turned her into a complete idiot. Dimly, she thinks ‘oh shit’ as the realization slams into her like a wrecking ball, her throat tightening instantly. But she refuses to let Thor see she’s affected.

“For fuck’s sake,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Let me know when you’re over your little temper tantrum.” With an extra derisive scoff for good measure, she stalks out, slamming the door.

Then heads into the stairwell and sinks to the floor because fuck.

She should have seen it, she should have known, it’s what she did before, when Clint first brought her in… Her body was her only victimless weapon, and she wielded it mercilessly.

Woke up sweating in a hotel room in Athens because she had a nightmare, with Clint sleeping beside her? Made out with him the next morning. Told Clint the details of her training over vodka and tacos?  Jumped him right after. Had a tiny but visceral reaction to news of Andrei Federovich’s suicide? Fucked Clint until he came apart screaming her name. Every time, she thought she wanted it; it was only later she realized she didn’t want the sex, she wanted to get rid of the vulnerability, and sex was the only way she knew to steal power from someone she couldn’t kill.

(Later, even on Substop, she used sex consciously as an excuse for the post-coital contact, but Clint had quickly figured that out and solved the problem).

The thing with Clint and sex was, he let her and sometimes initiated it, because he understood she needed it, but Thor wouldn’t. And Natasha had thought she was over this but apparently fucking not.

Let me make you feel good? She hates herself.

And Thor… oh God, poor Thor.

What was it he said? ‘I am your friend, not a mark.’

He said he wasn’t mad, so at least that’s not another bridge burned but… she can’t believe herself.

She slips her phone out of her pocket and stares at the screen, willing herself to move. Her fingers begin dancing across the keyboard, conjuring excuses and justifications and all sorts of deflections. After a minute, she erases them all, and writes simply, I’m sorry.

Before she can talk herself out of it, she sends the message to Thor. She waits a minute, anxiously, until her phone beeps quietly.

Don’t worry about it. I understand. And then two peace sign emojis.

Natasha blows out a breath. It’s good. That’s good. (Not enough, though).

What a god-awful thing to do to someone. Her head is heavy. She of all people— of everyone here, she knows what it’s like to have her body used for other people’s goals. And here she did it to someone else, to a friend. Sure, Clint was her partner, but he’d understood her, and he’d made it clear even a decade ago that he was there for her, no matter what form her coping mechanisms took.

Thor, fuck.

Icy-hot anxiety worms its way through her, clamping around her insides and twisting. She tries to talk herself out of the wave of guilt that washes over her, but the magnitude of it is soul-crushingly heavy, whispering her sins from every crevice until she wants to throw up from it all. Her breathing is shallow from the panic— there aren’t any options. Not Thor, and not Clint, not after last time; she can’t do that to him again.

It’s been over an hour; the phone is still in her hand. Instinctively, she calls Tony.

After three rings, he picks up, speaking in a rote, mechanical voice in an imitation of an answering machine. “Hello, you’ve reached the voicemail of Tony Stark.”

“Hi,” Natasha says, trying to sound normal.

“If you’re calling to return all the highly-valuable crap you stole from my game, please stay on the line. For all other purposes, including but not limited to bad guy in New York, aliens in New York, aliens in Paris, aliens in Tokyo, aliens in—”

“Stark.” After she cuts him off, she doesn’t say anything.

She can feel him growing impatient on the other end of the line. “Are you getting to the point first, or am I dying first? Because it’s a toss-up.”

Natasha doesn’t— can’t— talk, tension growing at the base of her spine. What if he thought… ? She’s never given a damn what Stark of all people thought of her, but suddenly the weight of his opinion caves on her shoulders.

Over the line, she hears him sigh. “What did you do,” he asks, less of a question and more of a statement. “Listen, if you killed someone, I’m not getting involved.” Before she can answer, he adds, “Okay, okay. I’ll get rid of the body but the paperwork’s on you. Final offer, take it or leave it.”

“Tony,” Natasha says.

Silence. Ten seconds pass.

Then: “Talk to me.”

He’s not stupid— apparently she’s the only idiot in this fucking tower— so he figured out it’s something to do with subs. Otherwise they both know he’s not the first one she’d call.

“I fucked up,” she tells him, voice hoarse.

The reply is immediate. “No, you didn’t.”

He’s so confident it hurts. “You don’t even know what I-”

“No, but I do know what it’s like to be where you are. Whatever happened, it’s not un-fixable.”

“I know,” Natasha says, harsher. She does. “But you don’t get it, I— I fucked up, bad.”

She can hear him breathing slowly. “Okay.” He exhales noisily. “And you’re feeling guilty?”

“I— maybe. In a way.”

Another obnoxiously-loud exhale. And then an inhale. “Alright. Okay. Just… So that’s not ideal, but. Alright, here are your options. Go to someone on the team for help, or within SHIELD. Or go to a Sub Centre.”

“I can’t.”

“Sure you can.” He’s inhaling so loudly, she realizes, because he knows she’ll unconsciously match her rapid breaths to his. “I’ll drive you, if you want.”

“I don’t need you to take me, I know how to drive a damn car.”

“Do you want me to come over?”

No.”

“Barton?”

“… no.”

“That didn’t sound like a no.”

“It was a no.”

He chuckles, almost bitterly, filled with a time she never saw. “Look, I’ve been there, it fucking sucks, I know.” She gives a noncommittal hum in response. “Um. Ah— yeah, coming, one sec. Hey Nat?”

“Yeah, I know. Big man, big company to run. I’ll catch you later.”

“I can easily blow them off,” Tony says gently. “These rich asshats need to know they’re not the centre of the universe. Pepper’s here to deal with them, anyways.”

“No, I— No. You go. I’ll deal.” She hangs up.

No sub can ever work through guilt on their own, not like they can with drops. Natasha learned to twist situations and events to come out on top, so she’s never at fault even when she is, but if she fails and the guilt settles over her in a penetrating layer? She’s fucked as much as anyone else.

Her eyes are hot and aching. This is the exact reason she went on Substop in the first place. She feels like crying at the overwhelming sensation of being entirely alone in this mess. She sits in the stairwell as long as she can take it, held there for several more hours by the knowledge that she’ll either have to go to a Sub Centre, where the press will no doubt get wind of it and torment her from here to eternity… or choose one of her teammates, and do to them what she did to Clint when she made him punish her.

When she realizes she’s too selfish to pick the Sub Centre, Natasha thinks about leaving entirely. Fleeing the tower, tracking down her old dealers for some Substop and (maybe) coming back when she’s got herself under control.

Except the achy, knotted roots in her stomach and the pounding in her head won’t clear until she gets Substop, and she genuinely thinks she’ll go insane if she has to wait that long.

Taking a steadying breath, she steels herself and runs through the list as objectively as she can, already detaching from the actions she’s considering. Not Thor, Clint, or Tony, for obvious reasons. Not Banner, because making him angry is the opposite of what anyone wants. Natasha imagines Steve’s face, and absolutely does not want to go to him, so she tries to think of someone else. Anyone else. Pepper’s in a meeting with Tony. Coulson… she could.

Clint would kill her.

She could, though.

Clint would kill her.

Nobody else is in the tower.

Taking a long, slow, deep breath, Natasha stands, and makes her way to the elevator. “JARVIS.”

“Agent Romanoff?”

“Where’s Steve?”

“Captain Rogers is in his quarters.” Pause. “If I may, your vital signs are showing significant deviation from baseline.”

“Yeah, thanks. I figured that out.”

“Of course. Shall I let Captain Rogers know you’re looking for him?”

Stepping into the elevator, Natasha shakes her head and replies, “Nah. I’ll just go there. Can you take me down?”

“Certainly, Agent Romanoff.” With a smooth whirr, the elevator heads down.

Natasha spends another twenty minutes pacing the hall on his floor, unable to bring herself to go in. Forcing someone else to dom in a way they’re not okay with… well, Clint did it. And Cap’d do it, too, because she’s going to force him, but that doesn’t mean she’s not feeling shitty about it. Belatedly, Natasha realizes the flaw in her plan: if she feels bad about forcing Steve to dom, afterwards she’d just feel guilty for that, instead.

Okay. She closes her eyes, takes a slow breath, and begins justifications. There’s nothing else she can do, and nobody else to go to. So really, her only option is Steve. And okay, it’s not the nicest thing to do, but punishing her in a way that she’s not comfortable with wouldn’t be fair. After all, he’s supposed to take care of sub team-mates under his leadership.

In fact, if he refused, he’d be completely disregarding her comfort and security for his own. Only one of them can get their way, and since she’s the one with the miserable stone settled in her core, she deserves some leeway.

Right. She stands swiftly, and, with no hesitation, knocks on his door in two sharp taps. (Maybe there was a tiny bit of hesitation, but she chalks that up to traitorously-trembling hands).

After a few seconds, it swings open. Steve grins at her, open and relaxed.

“Natasha, hey, you missed lunch so we thought—” As soon as he gets a good look at her face, he knows something’s up. “Nat, what’s wrong?”

Natasha pushes past him without invitation, into his bright quarters with the understated furniture and soft red curtains. She stands facing the room, back to the door, until she hears Steve close it with a quiet click.

Taking a breath, she glances around, taking in details that have changed from the last time she was here: a framed picture of Brooklyn, above a very mopey-looking plant, its leaves dark green where light from the window is streaming onto them. “That’s new,” she murmurs, nodding to the plant as she walks towards a small pile of vinyl records on a side-table. Steve doesn’t reply, merely leaning against the wall with one shoulder as she examines the cases, worn from use. “Does it count as hipster if they’re from your time? Oh, Lionel Richie. Nice.”

“Yeah, Sam’s making me.” He gives a half-shrug, lips quirking. “Can’t complain, though.”

“No, not about Richie.” She steels herself for what she’s about to do— posture lengthening, chin up— and turns on her heel. “I did something, and I need you to punish me for it.”

No sooner has she got the words out than Steve’s spine visibly straightens, like it does when he’s prepping for a fight. In a sense, he is; they both know it. His words, however, are still soft: “What did you do?”

For a second, she considers not telling him. “Came too close to fucking Thor.”

“That’s not—”

She cuts him off. Whether or not he thinks it's an acceptable thing to feel torn up about has zero effect on how she feels, and they both know. “Not for the right reasons. Trust me on this one.” She surveys the room with a critical eye. “So. Let’s get this show on the road. Ready when you are, Cap.”

Steve barks out a laugh. “Not so fast.”

Oh, great. Natasha almost wants to roll her eyes. Sure, she was expecting a fight, but not this early. “You’re obligated to. This isn’t up for discussion.”

It was the wrong thing to say, and she knows it the second his eyes narrow dangerously, scanning her face. After a beat, he says carefully: “Not the best way to approach this. And I wasn’t refusing, I was just saying to slow down.”

Natasha folds her arms and does not reply. Her head is pounding.

Fingers moving up to rub his temples, Steve sighs. “Okay. Can you sit down for a second?”

“Why?” It’s almost not a question; the way she says it turns it into a dare.

“Just sit down, please.” His lips are pursed, posture rigid. “So we can talk.”

“I’d prefer to stand. I don’t think there’s anything we need to discuss.”

“You’re welcome to stand, but we’re definitely talking.”

“Like I said.” Natasha shakes her head, eyes cold. “There’s nothing to discuss.”

“Alright.” It’s a limit for him; she knows it even before he nods towards the door. “I’ll see you at dinner then.”

Natasha feels her eyes widen minutely before she can shutter her reaction. He’s supposed to help her. She knew he’d refuse, like Clint, but not at this point, not about fucking talking. Clearly she’s caught him in a terrible mood or something. Great.

“Huh.” She makes no move towards the door, a fact neither of them miss. “I wonder how the world will react. Captain America refuses to help a sub teammate. America’s hero, indeed.”

Steve says absolutely nothing, just crosses his arms and looks at her coolly.

“Denying atonement is considered abuse and will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law,” Natasha quotes the Subs’ Rights Act verbatim, smirking. She has the upper hand here, she knows. (The upper hand, except that her stomach is in knots and there’s a piercing weight boring through her chest). “And all because I’m more comfortable standing.”

“I want to talk.”

“Right now, sir?” she asks, the deferential word an implicit challenge, thrown from her lips like an insult.

Steve’s eyes narrow, and Natasha almost wants to back-track for all she’s worth, to capitulate and just agree to this because she needs it desperately, and she knows it. “No,” he pronounces, very clearly.

“Not now?” she says, deliberately misunderstanding.

“Natasha,” there’s a deadly edge to Steve’s voice, a wall she’s pushing against, “You know what I meant.”

“Did I do something wrong, sir?” One eyebrow arched defiantly, daring him to challenge her. “If not, I’d like to get on with it.”

Steve examines her, his jaw taking on that stubborn set she knows so well. He’s the most stubborn out of all of them, even more than she is. Natasha will get what she wants, but she ebbs and flows as the situation moulds itself in order to do so. Steve will put his head down and refuse to budge once he’s decided something.

He has to punish her, though: for all his charades, he would be abusing her if he left her. It took Clint ten seconds to figure it out. Steve might be slower, but he sure as hell isn’t stupid.

It would be advantageous, Natasha thinks suddenly, to get everything out at once, if he’s going to be digging his heels in at every minor thing. One large argument is more likely to go in her favor than several small. So:

“I didn’t bring a belt,” she says. “Figured you’d have enough lying around. Or a strap or something, whatever you like. Whip, maybe. You’re the boss, here.”

“I’m not going to whip you!” There’s the anger she needs. Natasha relaxes, one side of her mouth sliding up into a lazy half-smile.

“Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice. Sir.

Steve’s crossed over to the other side of the room, next to his wooden dinner table. At her words, he drops into a chair, legs splayed, head cocked to one side. “Don’t I?” He’s angry, the tension in his shoulders evident.

Natasha pauses, pulse hammering. Not the reaction she was hoping for… “According to the Subs’ Rights Act, amendment six—”

“I know what it says,” Steve says, harsh.

“Then you know that if anyone catches wind of this…” Natasha trails off purposefully, threateningly, but he doesn’t bite.

“As long as this is a power-play,” says Steve, perfectly calmly despite the vein visible at his temple, “I refuse to be a part of it.”

“I’ll tell—”

“You can tell the damned president if you like. Stop what you’re doing, or get out.” Now some of his ire has bled into his voice, but he’s still careful to keep it level for her— it would be cruel to yell at an already-guilty sub, and God forbid Captain America ever be intentionally cruel.

He’s still refusing to help her.

Natasha glares at him, and he stares back, jaw clenched. “Fine,” she says finally. “Okay, fine.”

“Fine?”

For fuck’s sake, he’s going to make her say it?

… Shit, he is.

“Yes, it was a power-play— alright, I admitted it, there you go.”

Steve inclines his head, and then stands smoothly, arms folded. “Thank you. Can we talk now?”

“Do I have another option?” He looks towards the door plainly. “Guess that answers the question.” Slowly, she takes a seat at one end of the couch, stiffening when Steve comes over to sit at the other end. In the state she's in, his presence is enough to send her reeling, like a drug that's right within reach but that she can't touch.

He waits until she meets his gaze, his own serious. “I’m not forcing you to be here. You can go to Clint again.”

“Yes, sir,” Natasha bites out. No, she can’t go to Clint again.

Steve sighs. “You’re still doing it.”

“I’m very sorry, sir,” she says, all sugar.

Natasha.”

She swallows. “I— Yeah, okay.”

“I’m serious. Stop.”

“I’m trying, alright?”

“Try harder.” The words are not said gently, and Natasha’s eyes snap up at the hard edge. At the same time, something inside her unravels and seeps out of her. There’s no pity, here, no acceptance or allowances made because of her past, or because he knows how difficult this is for her. She stays silent, processing. Steve watches her for a moment, and then his face changes and he asks, “What are your safe-words?”

Her breath catches. “What?” She didn’t agree to being dropped, or sex, or any type of session. “We’re not—”

“I know. I’m asking anyways.”

She pauses, fingering the soft edge of the dark leather armrest. “I don’t need any,” she says, speaking it like a promise. Flirtatious, almost. I can take whatever you want to give me, soldier.

“That’s not a good thing.” Although his tone isn’t reproachful, Natasha has the strangest feeling she’s being reprimanded, and she bristles.

“Will you relax? I don’t need safe-words.” After a second, she adds: “Or want them, for that matter.”

He scans her face. When he speaks, it’s not a question. “You’ve never had any before.”

She can’t read him, and her head burns, and she’s so off-kilter it hurts. “I’ve never— this is punishment, we’re not— you don’t get to safe-word during discipline.”

“Yes, Natasha, you do,” and it’s somehow spoken firmer and sharper than anything he’s said so far. “Okay. Red, yellow, green work for you?”

She’s so off-balance. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” At the same time, she has a bitter urge to laugh.

“Second thing: you do not have permission to call me sir.” The wording is deliberate, she knows— at once a nudge into the right headspace, and another refusal to take part in her games. “If you tell me you want to, I won’t stop you. But I don’t want any more power-plays.” Natasha nods, biting the inside of her cheek at her sudden urge to be good, to make up for how she acted earlier. Okay. That’s new. “Nat?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to?”

She didn’t want to. But he told her she can’t, and so… reverse psychology at its finest. Of course, she’d rather lose a finger than admit to it. “Not really, I guess.” Straightening her shoulders— it’s not a power-play, but she needs a fucking semblance of control— “So where do you want me? Over the back of this thing?”

“I told you,” Steve says sharply, and suddenly she finds it difficult to look at him, her traitorous submissive side cringing at the tone, “I’m not taking a belt to you.”

“Yeah, I remember.” God, her head is spinning. Everything hurts. She wants a hug. “And I told you: whatever floats your boat, you can use, soldier.”

Steve leans back against the couch, teeth skimming his lip as he considers. Eventually he looks at her again. “From the way you approached this, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to lay a finger on you— and I won’t be,” he continues firmly. “In any way, shape or form.”

“But—”

“It’s not up for debate.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. She needs something, her head— “Steve,” she says, willing her voice to be steady, “What do you want me to do, beg you to punish me?”

“Christ, are you— no, of course not.”

He moves closer to her until his knee is touching hers, and now she’s just confused. “But you won’t do it…?”

“I will,” he says. “I’ll help you, but in my way— because I’m choosing to, not because you’ve manipulated me into it.”

“So then what…?”

He observes her, thinking, then glances around the room. “I want you to kneel on the carpet there for a minute while I go get something.” Natasha’s heart quickens before she wills it to slow down and nods, standing up just a second after he does. Steve’s forehead creases: “What?”

“Nothing,” she says, shaking her head with a brief smile. “Sure.” She can do it, she thinks, as she eyes the patch of cream carpet. Not being able to do something is much more of a weakness than doing it.

“No, stop.” Steve had walked a few steps away, but now he’s facing her, arms crossed.

“Why?”

Steve’s blue eyes search hers.  “Do you want to kneel?”

“I can,” Natasha says, a little derisive because of course she can, physically. “It’s not like it’s— I can, of course. Easily.”

“I didn’t ask if you can.” His gaze is probing. “I asked if you want to.”

She kind of hates Steve a little bit, right now. He waits as she weighs up how to answer, her pride against the truth. Finally, she says, softly: “No.”

She’s rewarded by a pleased smile, the corners of Steve’s eyes crinkling. “Just sit there, then. I’ll be right back.”

Someone, he’s twisted it so that she’s asking to be here, without the cover of any power-plays. There’s nothing she to do but wait, breathing shakily through the lump in her throat.

Less than two minutes later, he returns with a jug of water, a wine glass, and a rounded glass partially-filled with water.

At least, she thinks it’s water. Could be vodka, or poison, or really anything at all. She’s learned not to judge the hard way, in her line of work.

“I used to make Bucky stand in the corner on one leg when he was outta line. The balancing element helped him focus.”

“Yeah, I know that one,” Natasha murmurs absently.

“Yeah, I don’t think standing in the corner, even on one leg, will cut it for you, though. So,” he says, gesturing to his supplies with a small flourish, “We’ll up the ante a little.”

“In what way?” Natasha asks carefully, very unsure if she’s going to like this or not.

“Handstand against the wall.”

She gapes at him. “Are you serious?”

“Handstand against the wall,” he repeats, only continuing when she toes her shoes off and takes a few steps back until she’s leaning against the wall, still standing. “Here are the rules for the punishment: I have certain exercises in mind. I’m going to put this glass of water on you, and you balance. If the water drops or spills, we move on to the next exercise.”

“For how long?”

“I said handstand, not stand against the wall.”

She huffs and rolls her eyes, but flips up obligingly, and then repeats the question.

“Indefinitely. However long it takes you to get through fifteen positions. I’ll stay here watching you for days if needed.”— “I dare you to sound creepier,” she mumbles— “Shut it, smartass. The final rule—”

“There’s more?”

“One more. If you safe-word out before the water spills during any of the exercises, we’re done.” He takes in her reaction, smirking slightly. “Any questions?”

Oh, he’s clever. This would be easy for Clint or Tony— it wouldn’t work for Clint or Tony, because they’d safeword immediately and it wouldn’t even be a little difficult. They’d still feel like shit.

Safewording is not an option, for her. She's never safeworded out of anything in her life, and she's not about to fucking start now. No way in hell. She considers over-turning the water deliberately, and then doing the same for all fifteen positions, which would get her out of this in maybe two minutes tops.

But no. The knot of acid guilt curling through her torso is enough reminder to do as he says. Her pride won’t allow her to do that, anyways, and Steve knows it.

Cocky bastard.

“No,” she bites out, in answer to his query.

“Okay then,” he says. “Stop leaning against the wall.” She walks herself a few feet away from the wall with her hands, and he waits for her to get steady, and then places the glass in the dip between the soles of her feet, not letting go until it’s balanced. “I’ll be reading on the couch.”

The instant he let go of the glass, Natasha’s entire body had stiffened instinctively to keep it there. It’s only filled maybe a third of the way through, but any movement— even gentle swaying— would cause the liquid inside to slosh to the tip and onto her feet.

Okay, she thinks, as she clenches her abdomen and legs. She can do this.

Steve’s casually flipping through a book on the sofa, the bastard.

Natasha would normally be able to hold a handstand for a quarter of an hour— more, if moving around on her hands to keep the balance counts. The problem is she can’t move at all. She can’t sway, she can’t twist, and she definitely can’t tweak the position of her feet.

It’s hell on her entire body, but her abs and back in particular begin to burn out after barely two minutes.

When her abdominal muscles falter momentarily, her arms and legs clamp up to keep her body perfectly still, and she regains her balance, muscles trembling. In total, it’s not even been four minutes when her legs loosen, and she clenches her stomach and breathes deeply to stay straight. It’s too late— as the glass tips precariously, she feels a few beads of water drop onto the soles of her feet, although the glass doesn’t fall.

Steve looks up, somehow knowing, and pads over to her. There’s a flash of fear— she failed, she was going to fail anyways, but even when they set you up for failure it’s still your fault— but he just takes the glass and flicks his fingers to indicate that she should flip upright.

“Can you do an arabesque?” he asks.

Natasha snorts— of course she can do an arabesque— and fans her right leg out. “On my toes, or…?”

“You can stand normally,” he tells her. “You can also have one hand on the wall for support, if you want.”

Well, this should be easy, she thinks— but oh, she forgot the water. Steve presses his palm down on her thigh until her leg lowers to ninety degrees, and then places the water where his hand was. The fact that it takes him a good fifteen seconds to get it balanced at all should have been an indication of how difficult this would be.

She’s not only working to keep her leg straight up and still, but also against any rotation— which is fucking hard. When the burn gets intense, she focuses on a spot on the far wall, breathing deeply.

In, out. In, out. In, out.

Chest open, leg turned out, thigh still, arm extended.

Breathe in, out.

In, out.

In, out.

She takes a deep, shuddering breath, the air expelled in almost a sigh.

“You okay?” Steve glances at her, and she nods after a beat, mind distanced. Not in a bad way, just— focused.

After a short while, Natasha finds herself resting most of her upper body against the wall, even her head, as she struggles to keep her leg still, a sheen of sweat coating her entire body. Her right hamstrings are shaking as she slumps against the wall, still determinedly contracting her leg and glutes.

“Nat,” Steve says, “I said hand, not entire torso.”

Breath coming in short gasps, Natasha pushes herself up off the wall. Barely ten seconds later, her leg twitches involuntarily and the glass crashes to the floor, spilling water all over the carpet.

“Shit,” she swears, instantly dropping her leg— ow, fuck, that hurt. Her ass is going to kill tomorrow. “Sorry, I—”

“It’s okay,” Steve says, bending down to pick it up. “It’s just water.”

He gets her to plank next, which is far, far easier, in terms of balancing— she lasts thirty-three minutes before she forgets the glass is there and rolls her shoulder to get a cramp out, spilling the water down her back. Steve picks it up and refills it silently as she takes the opportunity to rest, pressing her cheek to the floor.

Her entire body hurts, every muscle crying out when he motions to her to get off the ground.

Oh, God, she can’t get through twelve more of these (but yes, she can, and she will). She stands in front of him warily, waiting for the next instruction.

“This.” Steve holds out his phone, showing her a picture of a toned woman stretched out in the scorpion yoga pose— Okay, not too bad. Her head will support her feet, at least. “Go on.” As she places her forearms on the floor, he adds: “But keep your calves parallel to the ground.” Natasha almost groans, and she knows her face shows it because he gives a tiny snort.

Even as she kicks her feet up, her muscles are already protesting. It takes a while to get her balance, given that this position— calves up— is strenuous on her abs, back, arms, plus largely relies on her hamstrings as well. Her left one’s alright, but the right one is completely fatigued from the arabesque earlier.

Steve grabs her feet to hold her steady as he places the water— in a wine glass this time— on her carefully, letting the stem slide in between her shins so that the  cup lies nestled between them.

It’s not even passed fifteen seconds and Natasha’s entire body is already quivering with the strain.

Even so. It has never been in her nature to give up.

She has more leeway in this position, with the stem of the glass holding the cup fairly steady if she shifts the bulk of her weight from arm to arm, or shuffles a little forwards or backwards to keep her balance.

To keep her calves straight, she needs her legs to be firmly locked. For her legs to stay steady in this position, against gravity even more than during a handstand, every muscle along her torso, back and shoulders, remains engaged. And then, of course, her arms and neck. It’s hell on what feels like every muscle in her body.

She fixates her eyes on a wall socket approximately in line with her vision, breathing hard. Her mind is clear, in a way, with the amount of effort and concentration this takes. She has to consciously keep her entire body engaged, or else the glass will fall. It’s almost serene. Floaty. At some point— she was too distracted to realize when— the guilt in her bones had seeped out. Maybe during the handstand, even. It’s a little unnerving that she hadn’t noticed it.

She could safeword.

The thought skitters into her brain, demanding attention, offering respite. There’s almost… there’s a part of her that thinks maybe the rules Steve set out are a trick, even if she knows it’s not.

There’s a second part of her that coils in disgust at the very idea of safewording, admitting weakness.

And then there’s a tiny, third part of her that wants to. That thinks it might be a good idea.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Natasha glances at Steve, who’s still flipping through the pages of a dog-eared book, not looking at her.

She takes a deep breath.

Her thighs sway. To keep her calves still, she’s forced to inch forwards on her forearms, widening her base until she’s steady again. The water in the wine glass came dangerously close to spilling out, but luckily she stabilized in time.

She breathes deeply again, eyes closed.

Breathe in, breathe out.

In, out.

Then suddenly, her calves decide they’ve had enough and begin trembling, and she swears silently in her head and tries to press her shins together to keep the damn wine glass still. Her body is so fatigued, though, entire muscle groups are trembling, almost jerkily, and the glass wobbles and before she can even think about it—

“Red,” she says, so quietly she doesn’t even think he’ll hear it, thinks the glass is going to fall and steels herself to deal with it… but then Steve is by her side, grasping her ankles to hold her up as he plucks the glass carefully off her legs. Natasha rolls forwards to lie on her back, allowing herself to take giant, gasping gulps of air. After a few seconds, she drags herself off the floor, every muscle crying out as she does.

“Careful, easy,” Steve says, looping a hand around her waist until her legs are steady. Then he lets go gently. “That was really great. I— you feel okay? That was a helluva workout.”

About an hour, she sees, as she glances at the clock.

“You look a little out of it,” Steve says, extending his hand as if to touch her, and then withdrawing.

Natasha nods, and doesn’t bother explaining. She hasn’t dropped, but… she’s not entirely all there, either. Yes, she’s physically spent, but she’s surprised to realize that she’s also mentally exhausted, her mind silent for once.

Steve studies her face for a moment, and then asks: “Can I hug you?”

Natasha’s gut instinct is to say no, and shove him away for even daring to ask, but she pushes it down and thinks of a compromise. For herself, really. “If you throw in a little shoulder massage, sure,” she murmurs, giving herself a reason to be involved in the affection.

Steve grins and pulls her against him, wrapping his arms around her; then he begins working at the juncture of her neck and back, and Natasha almost falls into him, it hurts so good.

Chuckling when the weight of her forehead leans against his chest, Steve moves his hand up to massage the back of her neck, thumbs working skillfully at the tendons.

“You’ve got magic fingers, Rogers.”

“I’ve heard that one before.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter,” she says, thumping him, and he snorts.

When he moves down to her shoulders, she hisses at the pain (too tender, too knotted). “C’mon,” Steve says, “Let me do your back properly.” She lets him guide her over to sit chest-to-back on the couch. “Here,” there’s a glass of water in her hands and she groans, and Steve laughs, “No, Nat, to drink.”

She hadn’t realized how thirsty she was until the cool water hits her throat, and then she can’t get enough of it. A particularly sore spot—

“Ow, fuck, Steve.”

“Sorry.” He doesn’t sound sorry, earning him an elbow to the gut. “Hey!”

Natasha arches into the touch as he kneads her knotted muscles with his knuckles, water momentarily forgotten. Holy shit. Whoever taught him to massage like this… whoever it is, they deserve an award, because holy shit.

“Hey,” Steve’s hands stop, which is frankly just rude, and he nudges her, “Finish the water.”

“Yes, sir,” she grouches instinctively, in mockery, and then stills abruptly.

Steve only scoffs and clinks his fingers against the glass until she drinks, and only then does he resume the kneading.

Natasha drags her nails along the rim of the glass.

“So usually,” she begins, trying really, really hard to be casual, even though it’s a lost cause, “when you punish Tony, or Clint, or whoever…” Steve doesn’t finish the sentence, waiting for her to finish even though she’s well aware he knows what she’s asking, “You give them safewords?”

“Always. I’m far from the only dom who does, either.”

She’d suspected it, but to hear it confirmed is a little unbelievable. Of course Natasha knew safewords were a thing during sex or drops— things she hadn’t ever experienced in the Red Room, or after— but punishment? “But it’s meant to be discipline,” she says carefully, slowly. “It’s meant to… you’re in charge of it.”

“Can’t I push a sub to their limits even if I don’t intend to?” Steve asks— rhetorically, but she answers anyways.

“Hypothetically, yeah.”

“There you go then.” He works out a particularly nasty knock in her upper back, and she grits her teeth until the pain subsides to a pleasant pressure, trying to figure it out. Because he said it like it should be obvious, like there’s no more explaining to do. But a hypothetical, maybe, might happen scenario isn’t justification for giving a sub a safeword to use during punishment; they’d just use it every time.

So she presses, “But then how are you in charge of it?”, almost frustrated because she doesn’t get it. “They could just… end it whenever, then.”

“Well,” Steve says, reaching behind him to grab the jug. He takes the glass from her and refills it before handing it back, “You had a safeword just now. You didn’t end it whenever.”

Natasha sort of understands, but she really kind of doesn’t. “Okay, but— That doesn’t work. You’re supposed to— then you’re not in charge of it.” The last part is half-challenge, half-insult, trying to provoke him, a little, so she’s surprised when Steve doesn’t tense or stop massaging.

“Who was in charge just now?” he asks— maybe rhetorical, again.

“Me,” Natasha says firmly, another intended-insult to his authority; then her brow furrows and she back-tracks. “I mean…” She pauses. “You.” Another pause. “Both of us?”

It doesn’t make sense, but Steve drops a light kiss to the top of her head, which means she’s somewhere in the ballpark of where he wants her to be. She frowns. “Whatever, this is ridiculous. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

After a few moments, Steve says: “I don’t want to overstep, here…” he starts slowly, massaging her shoulders more firmly when she tenses, as if to say relax, “but I’m really proud of you.”

Natasha takes a breath, and then knocks the back of her head against his nose with a brief, “Noted”. There’s a new kind of feeling dancing across her nerves, and she’s glad Steve can’t see her face. The next thing she says is: “Move down a bit and press hard? No, you went left too far— go right some.”

“Here?”

“Little more… Now down. Yeah, that’s— ow, fuck, right there.” She settles forwards, giving him better access to her back. “Keep going.”

Even though she can’t see him, she knows Steve mock-salutes as he says “Yes, ma’am.”

Chapter Text

Clint finds her on the roof.

When she hears him climbing up from the balcony below, Natasha reaches down to give him a hand up, flashing him a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. Clint’s carting a giant pack of cheetos, which he places in between them as he moves to sit beside her.

“Want some cheetos?” He nudges the bag with his elbow. “They’re flaming hot. Like-”

“If you say hot like you, I’ll push you off the roof.”

“No.” He twists his face into mock-affront, snatching the food away like he’s offended. “I was going to say like you, but since you assumed…”

Natasha laughs. “Give.”

It’s early morning, on a weekend, but the streets below are already filling with people scurrying around roadside vendors. Clint throws a few small pebbles in the vague direction of a pigeon that lands on the ledge near them, waiting for an opportunity to grab the chips. It takes off at the noise.

A few seconds pass. “So,” he says, popping a cheeto into his mouth, “Wanna talk about it?”

She feigns dumb. “About what?”

“Whatever’s got you lookin’ like that.” At her raised eyebrow, he shrugs. “Or, you know, wherever you were yesterday.” Suddenly, he gasps, exaggerated. “Are you taking missions without telling me?”

Natasha shakes her head, rolling her eyes. “I was just… around. I talked with Thor for a bit. Spent some time with Steve.”

“Sounds fun.” He wouldn’t push properly, not if she didn’t volunteer information herself.

“Not really.” She runs her teeth over her bottom lip. “Maybe. Kind of. I don’t know.”

Clint’s eyes narrow at that, at her tone. “What do you mean, you don’t know? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s none of your business,” she says, snarky because she wants to be. There’s no bite behind the words.

He takes an obnoxious bite of cheetos, spraying her with powdered orange. “You’re my business. You’ll always be my business. You can’t escape.”

“Aww. How sweet. Let’s get that engraved. On a necklace or a bracelet.”

“I was thinking more permanent. Tattoos?”

“Sure, why not? Just ‘you can’t escape.’” As she says the words, she blocks out a potential location on her bicep. “And then your face underneath.”

“This face,” Clint says, demonstrating a maniacal, delirious expression, before sniggering. “It’d scare off all your marks.”

“I’m not seeing any downsides to this fantastic idea.”

“The tattoo that keeps on giving.” He grins. “None of us have tattoos, have you ever realized?”

“Um.” Natasha runs through a quick list in her head of all the Tower occupants. “I’ve never explicitly thought that, but I do know.”

“Do you know for sure though? Because there are some hard-to-see places on the human body. I can’t speak for everyone, just the ones I’ve seen naked at some point.”

“Which is most, to be fair,” she points out, “between sex and missions.” Including that unforgettable night where three of them had ended up sprinting through the streets of Rome buck naked (she’s proud to say she wasn’t one of them).

“What can I say, I have a way with the people.” Clint leans back to rest on his forearms. “I don’t know about Cap, actually. Does he have any?” He thinks he’s being subtle.

“How are you a spy,” Natasha says flatly, smiling a little.

Clint doesn’t give an inch. “Fine, don’t tell me.” He has an award-winning pout, and he knows how to use it. “I’ll just wonder forever if Steve has an ass tattoo.”

He knows there’s something running through her mind, but she wasn’t planning on saying anything, to anyone, and that hasn’t changed. Even if he’s the safest harbor she’s ever known. Natasha turns away from the view to continue the joke, to rib him, but when she looks at him, his eyes are so steady and tender and Clint that she swallows and looks away.

“You’re the worst,” she mutters. On the street below, a car rear-ends another. They watch the police arrive in companionable silence, and it’s a few minutes before Natasha says quietly: “He gave me safewords.”

Immediately, Clint’s eyes widen. “He gave you— You— Wait, hold on, back up, what?”

“Cap gave me safewords.”

“Okay…” Clint says slowly, looking suddenly very worried. “So you… okay. That’s, um… not terrible, I guess?”

“What?” Natasha demands, annoyed. “Why do you look like that?”

“Do I have to tell you that when you sub for someone or fuck them you shouldn’t be on the fence about whether you liked it or not?” He’s gripping the edge tight, fingers white. It was Clint who drilled that into her when she first arrived.

“Not like that.” She wraps her hands around her mug. “It wasn’t supposed to be for… I went to him for punishment.”

Clint cocks his head to one side, eyebrows lifted. She knows he’s thinking back to when she came to him, and how that went. “You’re both alright?”

“Yeah.” He waits. “I didn’t know you got to do that.” She’s a little embarrassed at how it comes out.

“Safeword?”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t know,” he repeats slowly. “Crap, shit, crap. I’m so sorry, I never thought to—”

“It wasn’t your job to tell me.”

“You always get to, okay? Always should.”

That’s…. good to know. She doesn’t want to have to have this conversation again, so she figures she might as well clarify while they’re here. “Always, or just if it’s something new or unusual or…?”

“Every time. For anything.”

“Okay.”

“The dom gets to, as well.”

“What?” She’s bewildered. “Why?”

“You could be pushed to your limits by a sub. It happens.” He says it nonchalantly, but Natasha feels a stab of regret and sudden understanding when she thinks of his belt against her skin.

“Oh.”

With casual familiarity, Clint drapes an arm across her back. It’s a little warm to have someone radiating heat next to her like that, but she leans into the touch. “Why, are you planning on taking it further with Steve?”

“No.” Natasha snorts.

“With anyone?”

She knocks the side of her head into his shoulder- a little stupidly, she thinks in hindsight, since it probably hurt her temple more than his bone. “Ow. Why would I?”

Clint pulls back to fix her with a look. “Yeah, why would you?” he repeats, like he knows exactly why she would.

Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, daring. “If you have something to say, мудак, spit it out.”

“No, that’s okay. I like watching you pretend you despise people touching you.” As if to prove his point, he pulls her in closer. “When you seek out people with all your convoluted excuses…”

Her eyes narrow. Twenty bucks says he was in the vents at some point when she was with Thor. “I’m acclimatizing.”

“Yeah, see, this? So entertaining. I want to see how long you can keep it up.”

“That was different,” she protests, not shrugging him off because she feels like that would help his argument in some way. “It’s a physical thing. I needed that.”

“You do,” Clint agrees amicably. “You also want it.”

“Sure,” Natasha says. “I want it so I can retrain myself not to need it. If that’s what you mean, then yes, I absolutely want it.”

He responds with a snort. “This is great, please talk to Phil. Let him know how much I physically need him to make pancakes for breakfast every morning, will ya?”

“It’s biology. Need is different to want.” She recognizes distantly that admitting she needs it no longer sends waves of panic crashing over her. It’s because she has it under control now, she thinks. Maybe not entirely, but there’s a plan in place. She’s retraining. Slow but steady.

“Okay, yeah, definitely.” Clint’s nodding along. “So like I said, I have a strong biological need for those syrup-drenched pancakes.”

“What makes you think I want it?” she demands, sitting up and facing him. “That I want any of this?”

“Because,” and suddenly his eyes are far too penetrating for her liking, “we both know you could’ve found a stash of Substop in the first two days if you wanted to.”

She grins, sharp. She has an answer for this. “No, I decided I didn’t want to leave SHIELD. Fury said—”

“Fury wouldn’t have known you were taking it, not if that was important to you. It’s not like SHIELD drug tests. You could’ve faked a few drops now and then and nobody would’ve known.” His eyes travel up and down her body, mocking, as her face goes a little slack. “Damn, Romanoff, getting rusty.”

“That’s it?” Natasha recovers quickly. “All your evidence is one plan I didn’t think of when my mind was half-fucked after a decade of normality?”

He’s undeterred. “You watch Tony. All the time. Like you can’t help it.”

“Because it’s honestly a little disgusting how—”

“You watch Phil. And me.”

Natasha grits her teeth (she’s not about to say either of them disgust her). He’s not even making points; this is all conjecture and speculation based on nothing. “That’s all?”

“Well,” Clint inspects the backs of his hands, feigning casualness, “You also told me, so there’s that, too.”

She had not. Now she knows he’s full of shit, because she has never— will never— except he looks so smug, and Clint never looks smug without a good reason, so she wracks her brains trying to think, and then when she remembers she gnashes her teeth.

“You see.” One of these days, she’s going to send Clint back with a broken nose and nobody will be able to stop her. “I told you.” In fact, she’ll probably get gift baskets for doing it.

Natasha knows she said it, knows it was true when she did, and she can remember speaking the words right here on the roof, but she can’t recall the feelings associated. She’s honest with herself only in her moments of vulnerability, and later anything exposed to the elements is pushed down and concealed, hidden even from her own sight. It’s how she’s always been. “That was… I was in a bad place. That night. You know.” She straightens her shoulders. “Things are different now.”

Clint looks at her for a beat, and then he nods. “Okay.”

That’s uncharacteristic. He’s stubborn as a bull. “That’s it, you’re dropping it?”

“I’ll drop it if you answer one question.” With a long, drawn-out sigh, she nods. “Wait, you feeling alright? Physically, you good? Nothing rough around the edges?”

“Um, no?”

He meets her eyes. “Promise me you’ll be honest.”

“Clint…”

Promise.”

She rolls her eyes. “Fine. I promise I won’t lie.” That’s not quite the same as ‘be honest’, and his raised eyebrows say he knows that, but he accepts it.

“Great. So if I told you, right now, that Cap and Thor are downstairs on the couch with a perfectly-sized space in between them, how does that make you feel? Gut instinct.”

“Gut instinct, obviously, is I’d like to sit with them,” Natasha snaps, wrapping her arms around herself. It’s more than she would have admitted a week ago. “So would you,” she adds defensively.

“Would you?”

“Would I go sit with them?” She doesn’t even have to think about it. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t need to.”

“I know that, you already told me you’re physically fine right now. But you’d still want to sit with them, so why wouldn’t you?”

“That’s not— No. I wouldn’t want to. I mean, I don’t want to, it’s just… biology. We’ve been over this.”

“Nat,” Clint says gently, “what I’m trying to get at here is that it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s biology. Maria’s more into doms than subs- that’s her biology, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean it’s not what she wants. Or that she needs them.”

“But I need them,” Natasha says. The crux of the problem.

“You have issues about needing doms— and I get that, trust me, I get that.” He kicks his heel against the edge of the building to emphasize. “We’re not talking about that right now though. We’re talking about you doing things you want to, because you want to, and not because you need to.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything, her mind a little panicked around the edges. She takes a breath and shifts to rest her forehead against Clint’s back, partly for the support, but mostly because she doesn’t want him to see her face.

His fingers stroking over hers, Clint says, “You’re allowed to hate it, okay? That’s fine. If I don’t know you as well as I think, if I’m way out of line… tell me and I’ll go track down some Substop right now and help you get past Fury. But if you don’t hate it, stop convincing yourself you do. It’s just making you miserable.”

“Clint,” Natasha says, hoarse. “Can you shut up for one second?” Her heart is beating fast, because she knows it’s true. That’s kind of the problem.

She’d never thought of it that way. She can’t really parse though her own logic in her head anymore, her reasoning for avoiding everyone and what she’d like to do. It’s certainly a vulnerability to need- and she’ll never be fine with that- but is it weakness to want? Taking a short breath, she tries working through it, getting it back. Okay, so… this isn’t about need, this is about want, and yeah, she wants to sub for them all, but she doesn’t… want to want to.

Why not?

Because you’re acknowledging they have control over you, she tries— but Clint’s right, they wouldn’t have any, not if she was doing it out of want and not need.

Because you panic when you get too close to submissive, the logical side of her mind supplies. That one seems more right. It’s still not an insurmountable issue, and it wasn’t a part of her reasoning before. She’s made leaps and bounds with Thor.

Because subs are weak and pathetic, she thinks, only that doesn’t seem right anymore. It hasn’t seemed right for a while.

She huffs out a breath and runs her hands through her hair, giving a frustrated little growl.

“Can I talk again?” Clint asks cautiously.

“No,” says Natasha. And then adds for good measure: “Fuck you.”

He throws his head back and laughs so hard it scares off the pigeons a few feet away. “Know what I love?”

“Being a dick.”

“Being right.”

———————

Of all the places she could have gone, of all the people she could’ve talked to, she would never have guessed that the one she would choose to go to would be Pepper Potts.

It’s not like there’s no logic behind it. There is. A highly structured, cogent series of rational reasons. Mainly that Pepper is a neutral third (or eighth) party, and Natasha really needs that right now.

She needs to talk to someone who knows people, generally speaking, but not Natasha, specifically. There’s nobody else in the tower who fits the first criterion except maybe Phil, but he’s been her handler long enough that she doesn’t want to talk to him.

To be honest, she doesn’t want to talk to anyone. She’s not stupid, though. The first thing they teach you in the Red Room, and in SHIELD (funny how that worked out), was to know when you’re out of your depth, and get the hell out of Dodge. She can’t really do that, though, so the next best option is to move onto Rule #2: if you don’t know enough, you better damn well find out enough.

Pepper’s in the living room, a stack of documents on her lap. She’s clearly busy. Maybe another time— No. As she steels herself to go in, Natasha’s heart quickens. It’s been thumping rapidly and out of time, one minute irregular and the next back down to an easy rhythm, ever since she left Clint.

She’s fine, though. She has it under control. Closing her eyes, breathing in deeply and ignoring the buzzing beneath her skin, Natasha moves towards the warmly-lit room.

She walks up to the door and gives a fake little gasp, like she hadn’t known Pepper was there and was taken aback by her presence. “Oh. Hi.”

Looking up, Pepper looks surprised before flashing her a brief smile. “Natasha. How are you?”

Natasha tilts her head to the side with a pointed look at the couch, only moving towards the couch (but not close to it by any definition) when Pepper nods. “What are you working on?”

She wants Pepper to somehow read her mind without her having to say it. Because she doesn’t really know what she’s here for, only that from everyone in the tower, Pepper’s the most likely candidate for providing an actual solution— being the most well-adjusted by a long shot— to a problem she doesn’t really know how to voice.

“R&D is bringing in a few new developers. I’m just vetting them before we hire someone who’ll blow up the labs.” Natasha’s not sure if she means intentionally or by accident, but knowing the enemies Stark Industries tends to make, both are equally likely. “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you?”

“Sounds like a pain,” Natasha says instead of answering the question. She takes a few more small steps into the room, then stops abruptly when it feels too close, resting against the wall.

Her heart is thumping in her thumbs. Is that normal?

Pepper’s eyebrows rise, and Natasha sees her body language shift, almost imperceptibly. “It is a pain. Nothing worse than the paperwork you have to deal with, though, and that’s twice you’ve ignored my question now.”

Rolling her eyes, Natasha shrugs with one shoulder, blinking hard to try to clear the dread creeping over her. “I’m fine. Keeping busy. Little of this, little of that.”

As she speaks, a wave of dizziness sweeps over her unannounced, the same type of dizziness she usually feels in the split second before passing out from a wound, except now there’s no bullet in her abdomen and the moment ticks on and on.

“A little bomb diffusion, a little assassination.” Pepper shakes her head.

There’s a pause while Pepper clearly expects Natasha to at least smile. She doesn’t. “Not quite. Mostly a little training, a little paperwork. Some fighting. Fighting villains, I mean, not people.”

Pepper puts down her pen. “Is something wrong?” she asks carefully.

“No. Why do you ask?” It feels like she’s not in her body, or like she’s underwater. Not drowning, just… one medium separated from the rest of the world.

Pepper’s eyes travel over Natasha, who’s still leaning against the wall, and then she says, “Come sit by me.”

Natasha considers the request for a long second before she nods. Her footsteps are silent as always, but everything in her body feels off. Like she’s gearing for a fight, and stress is coursing through her body in preparation, waiting to be channeled.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Pepper asks softly. She has dominant instincts, too, just as Natasha has submissive ones, and right now hers are probably screaming at her.

The nausea rolls into fear and the fear is a physical weight pressing down on her collarbone. “I— I don’t know.” She knows this feeling: she’s high on adrenaline and she doesn’t know why; what’s scaring her more is she has no idea what the fuck is happening and whatever it is, it came on so fast…

Substop, she thinks. Dementia.

“You seem a little unsteady.” Although her hands are nowhere near Natasha, Pepper places them in her lap with deliberate movements. “Is it me? Should I leave the room so you can be alone?”

“No.” Natasha rubs her temple. Her head sways. “I came to talk to you.”

“Alright.” If she’s surprised, she doesn’t show it. “How stable do you feel?”

Natasha has a suspicion that her voice is going to shake if she speaks again, so she just shakes her head. Her chest is tight.

“Okay. Can I touch your arm?”

Natasha hesitates, then swallows and answers truthfully. “No.”

“That’s perfectly fine. What about your hands?”

Nodding, she lets Pepper twine their fingers together as she strokes over the backs of Natasha’s hands. She’s cold, goosebumps speckling over her arms, but the chills are hot, sweat beading at her forehead.

“There you go. I’m sorry, I know this isn’t fun.” Pepper’s speaking quietly, soothing. “From my end this doesn’t feel like a drop. I think you might be on the verge of an anxiety attack, or maybe in the middle of a mild one, so just try to calm down for me, alright? Focus on me.”

The touch in her hair is grounding. She’s still a little dizzy, but her heartbeat is slowing drastically, Pepper’s touch working on her sub body to calm the anxiety (if that’s what it was).

“See? It’s passing already.” She keeps stroking over Natasha’s cold hands, turning her palms and wrists so there’s constantly a new form of contact to focus on and draw her out of her head.

Natasha breathes deeply, trying to process. She hadn’t pegged it as a panic attack because she could breathe fine, and that was the quintessential symptom, wasn’t it? She hadn’t felt like she was dying. “I’ve never had anxiety.” The second she speaks, she realizes it’s a lie. Since getting off Substop, she’s come close to, or had, a few small panic attacks. She just hadn’t identified them as such.

“I think that was unexpected for both of us. Was it because of something I did?”

“No.”

“Okay.” Pepper’s keeping up a scratch-stroke motion on her wrist and it feels incredible. “Are you going to tell me what it was? You don’t have to.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Then I’ll just sit here with you until you want me to stop.”

Pepper is so respectful. Of everyone. It’s the first reason she came here.

She feels peaceful for all of a second before it hits her: she just turned into a pathetic mess in front of Pepper-goddamn-Potts.

“I’m fine now,” she pulls her hands out of Pepper’s, “Sorry. That was— I have no idea what happened.”

“You had an anxiety attack.” Pepper never beats around the bush.

“No, I didn’t.” Natasha narrows her eyes. “That wasn’t… that.”

“What was it then?”

A pause. “Dementia,” she says eventually, wry.

“You know,” Pepper says, her tone light but her eyes serious, “When I first became CEO of Stark Industries, there were a lot of people who didn’t think I could do it. One day during the first three months, I made a bad call and we lost fifteen million dollars in an hour.” Natasha gives a condescending little sigh, and Pepper continues, tart: “Chump change to the company, maybe, but not to me.”

Natasha’s not quite sure how Pepper ascending to the throne of Stark Industries relates to anything, so she waits with one eyebrow raised.

“I’d never had any type of work-related breakdown before. That day I finished off a meeting where I had to defend myself to several very angry investors, went into the bathroom, sat on the floor and cried. Then I got unbelievably drunk.”

Oh. Pepper’s sharing a moment, so Natasha will feel better. Bonding, or whatever.

Natasha doesn’t say anything; Pepper looks at her seriously. “Natasha, I bawled.”

“Right.”

“On the floor. With mascara running down my face.”

“Got it.”

“My makeup was all over my eyes. Not to mention the snot.”

Despite herself, Natasha barks out a laugh. “Oh, God.”

“It wasn’t pretty.”

Exhaling loudly, Natasha leans back against the couch, closing her eyes, her feet pulled up underneath her. Pepper says nothing, simply waiting. Not pushing.

After a long silence, Natasha says quietly, with her eyes still closed: “I want to be a sub.” As she says the words, the low thrumming anxiety in the background rears its head anew. It’s not only the first time she’s said it out loud, but also the first time she’s even thought it explicitly. She wants to cry suddenly; there’s a heavy lump in her throat and she doesn’t know why. “I don’t hate it. I don’t want Substop. I don’t know what to do.”

“What’s the biggest barrier right now?” This is the second reason she came here. Pepper is reason and logic and strategy all rolled into strength. She doesn’t leave any time or space for the panic to creep in. “Really think about it before you answer.”

Natasha’s got her beat. She’s considered it all day. “I want to be comfortable, but it feels like I can’t be.”

“Why’s that?”

So maybe she hasn’t thought as much as she should have. She tries to articulate. Her eloquence used to be a given, but these days everything is difficult. “Because— because I don’t know anything.”

“Give me an example of something you don’t know.”

Sometimes, Pepper can be annoying. “I don’t… I don’t know, I said, I—”

“Try,” Pepper instructs, cutting off the spiraling with ease.

Natasha thinks, because it’s easy to spin a complex web of lies on the spot, but the truth is harder. “I don’t know who gets to safeword for what, or… when you’re supposed to safeword and when it’s an overreaction.”

“Never,” Pepper interrupts.

Natasha snorts, then turns to face the dom. “It’s obviously an overreaction sometimes. If you’re just, I don’t know, on the couch together eating chips and you safeword. Or you’re just having regular sex.” Pepper says nothing. “Sometimes I’m uncomfortable because of other people doing things that don’t even include me. I couldn’t safeword then, that would definitely be inappropriate.”

“To be clear,” Pepper cuts in, “you’re talking about people in the tower? Not at SHIELD or in public?”

“Yes.” Her point made about how safewords have a time and a place (and that time and place is definitely not ‘always’ and ‘everywhere’), she continues, more hesitantly. “Sometimes… sometimes I feel like sitting with one of the doms when we’re all in the living room. A lot, but…”

“But at other times you don’t want anyone near you, and you’d rather they didn’t take it as blanket permission to approach you in shared living space.”

“Yes.” Natasha’s relieved. Pepper gets it. “It’s still… well, you just saw. Sometimes I’m okay and sometimes I’m not.”

“You know that’s what it’s like for most of the people here, right?” Pepper asks, gentle. “About whatever their issues are.”

“Yeah, sure.” Natasha rubs her forehead. “They just seem to be a whole lot better at hiding it.”

“That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Pepper replies dryly. “Don’t you think this would all be a lot easier if you stopped trying so hard to hide when you’re not okay?”

“I don’t want to be treated with kid gloves,” Natasha snaps. “I’m not a fucking infant. Not an option.”

“Alright. It was a suggestion.” She’s acerbic in her reply, almost scolding, and Natasha’s eyes fly up but Pepper just holds her expression steady until she tears her gaze away.

It’s a running theme, she’s noticing, that she’s more willing to open up to the people who don’t take shit from her. No pity there, not in that sharpness. No ‘Natasha’s damaged, this is already a big step for her, I’ll let this one slide’.

Pepper opens her mouth to speak but pauses, then, as if she’s trying to find the right words to say what she wants to. “Were you— Did you come here specifically to talk to me about this?”

Natasha almost winces when Pepper asks the question in a cautious tone, even though she’d been expecting it. It’s the only logical conclusion, given that she panicked upon beginning the conversation— she wouldn’t have done that if the conversation wasn’t foreboding to her in some way. “Yes.”

“Why me?”

And that’s the question she definitely doesn’t want to answer. “I figured… I don’t know, I like you,” she ventures. “You have your shit together.” And you believed me about Steve, she doesn’t add. It takes a lot to earn Natasha’s respect in a personal sense, but once she’s given it, it’s there forever.

Pepper’s almost teary-eyed, like she knows it’s about more than what Natasha said. “I… appreciate that.” She clears her throat as Natasha looks away awkwardly. “It’s an interesting problem, definitely. Let me sleep on it.” The reversion to business language is nice, less personal.

“Right.” Natasha nods and stands. “Of course. No rush.” She feels suddenly as if she should shake Pepper’s hand. “Okay, well. I’ll see you around.”

She flees the room— flees the tower, even— and only relaxes when all her nervous energy is used up beating Clint sparring in the SHIELD gym three times (with Maria smirking on).

———————

Pepper makes her move the next day, when they’re all in the living room.

“Is everyone here?” she asks, the innocuous question instantly drawing the attention of everybody in the room.

“Bruce isn’t,” says Tony, after a second.

Pepper nods as her eyes scan the room, mouthing names silently. Thor, Natasha, Steve. Clint, Phil, Tony. “This is fine.”

“Is something wrong?” Natasha asks, so that Pepper gets it. She has no idea what this talk is about. Natasha has not spoken to Pepper in days. She’s as clueless as the rest of them.

Pepper gives a short, tiny nod, and Natasha relaxes with the knowledge that Pepper’s not going to call her out or make details of their conversation public. “You could say that.”

“Is this another therapy meeting?” Clint’s gaze slides to Natasha, although he flushes and looks away when she catches him. “Really?”

“No. This is not therapy. This is ‘I’m going to stand here and yell at you’, and you are damn well going to listen to every word.”

Phil and Clint try to be subtle when they shuffle into each other, but it leaves a foot of space between Phil and Tony. Stark looks at the gap, then at Pepper, and plasters himself against Phil’s side. Thor looks vaguely terrified, and even Steve looks like he’s about to shit himself.

Natasha’s finding this all highly amusing.

“Why are you yelling at us?” Clint’s the designated mouthpiece, apparently. “We didn’t even do anything.” After thinking, he adds, “Today.”

Pepper rubs her temple. “I… suppose it’s not really yelling at you.” She takes a look around, rolls her eyes, and then perches on a beanbag next to the TV, somehow looking graceful doing it. “You need to— I need you to listen to me. All of you.”

“We’re listening,” Steve assures her.

“Tell me what consent is. Someone. Anyone.” They exchange glances. Nobody responds. There’s a sense that whoever provides an answer is stepping up to the chopping block. “Phil?” Pepper prompts.

“Well, all parties are in agreement. Each person has full authorization to do whatever it is they’re doing.”

“Alright, that’s a start.” Pepper nods. “In terms that are a little less contractual?”

Clint bristles. “Why are we even doing this? We’re all fully aware of what consent is.”

“Doesn’t seem like it,” Pepper shoots back. “Since you volunteered, why don’t you tell me?”

“Fine. It’s when you talk and you make sure your partner’s okay, and you ask before. Or make sure during.”

“What else?” Nobody says anything. “Come on, think. Not to put you on the spot, Natasha,” and Natasha puts on her best stony face, “but your change of Bearing has exposed a lot of holes in how we act. This is important. Somebody add something.

“Even if your partner has agreed!” Steve’s getting into this now. Natasha snorts quietly. Of course he’d be into this. “You should check in with them. Even if they’ve said yes, they might be uncomfortable.”

“Yes.” Pepper clears her throat. Then opens her mouth, closes it, and clears her throat again. “Let me ask you a question. Open to the whole room. Who should be comfortable?”

“… everyone,” says Tony, like she’s lost her mind.

“Fine. And who should be uncomfortable?”

“Pep, genuine question, are you feeling up to par? Because— alright, alright, geez. Nobody should be uncomfortable.”

Clint keeps looking at Natasha like he’s waiting for her to snap at Pepper for what is clearly an intervention, and one that’s beginning to border the wrong side of patronizing. When she simply smiles benignly at him, he points at Pepper and makes a face, nudging her as if to say Can you believe this. Natasha shrugs. Whatever.

Clint glowers at her. She wants to laugh.

“Okay,” Pepper’s saying to Tony. “Yes. Nobody should, at any point, be uncomfortable. Everyone— and I do mean everyone— should be fine. So what’s another element of consent to consider?”

Blank faces stare at her.

One of Natasha’s biggest weaknesses is that she likes to seem implausibly smart or unbelievably well-connected, or both. Either way, she likes to pull the rug out from under people now and then. It’s something of a character flaw. So she scoffs, leans back and says like she’s tired of hearing all their incompetent drivel: “Consider everyone around you, the people who can see what you’re doing but who may not be involved.” She smirks as everyone’s heads whip around to her. “It’s not rocket science. How many hints does she have to drop before you get it?” Idiots is implied.

She’s not entirely on board with the idea that if someone does something around you that you don’t want to see, it’s a breach of consent. Free world, and all that. But she’s not going to argue the point with Pepper, because if it means she ends up shielded from things she doesn’t want to see, well. Win-win.

“Right.” Pepper’s not smiling as she stands up from her beanbag and begins pacing the room, looking at each of them in turn as she speaks. “Not only do you never, ever do anything with anyone that either of you doesn’t want… You also don’t kneel in shared space. You don’t feed your sub in shared space. You don’t yell at them, or collar them. You do not,” her voice rises, danger dripping from every syllable, “force anyone to play spectator to something they don’t want to see.”

Stark’s eyebrows furrow. “But… that’s everything.”

“Oh, it’s not everything. You want everything? You don’t use pet names. You don’t use authoritative terms or titles. You do not do anything even vaguely submissive or dominant when other people are around!” Pepper takes a deep breath, examining their reactions sharply. “In a group of people like this, you have no idea what’s attached to a bad memory for someone else. Everyone has the right to feel comfortable in their own damn home without you destroying that.”

“Uh,” Steve raises his hand, “Not that I’m not on board with what you’re saying. It’s just… what, I’m supposed to ask the room at large before I rub Tony’s feet?” Thor points at Steve in agreement.

Pepper slides back down onto her beanbag. “That’s why I was thinking of a safeword system. For everyone, I mean, not just partners.” She nods in Steve’s direction. “You’re right, you can’t feasibly ask before you do everything. But you can stop.”

“Is this really necessary?” Clint is the most sensitive to implications that he’s not completely functional. He knows he’s not, but it’s only alright for him to acknowledge it, no one else. Sometimes when Natasha looks at him, she hears the echoes of Freak that run though his mind.

His question is rewarded with an icy stare from Pepper. “Great question. Who wants to give me some examples of when you haven’t respected each other’s boundaries? Just a few examples, we don’t have a year to go through them all.” Phew. Natasha wants to whistle. Pepper is taking no prisoners.

Of course, nobody says anything at all, once again, except this time a heavy silence hangs between them as they shift in their seats. “Listen to me. I have very little patience for this today. I care far more about your safety than whatever hang-ups you have about sharing with the group. God help me if I’m letting you fuck each other up more than you already have.” She adds, after a weighted pause, “I’m waiting…”

Natasha glances around the room. Thor, Steve, Clint, Phil, Tony. Fuck it, she doesn’t care. She’s trying to take ownership of her mistakes. So she says, highly casual, “I made Clint whip me.”

Pepper doesn’t react, even though Natasha knows this is news to her. It’s news to Steve and Thor, too, but Thor is too polite to give any outward indication of his feelings. Steve’s eyes, however, flick to Natasha with sudden understanding that says he’s piecing together how she approached last night. Beside her, Clint threads his fingers through hers— whether for himself or for her she doesn’t know, but she lets him.

“That’s one,” says Pepper. “And you were at fault there, too,” she tells Clint. “Knowing your own boundaries is just as important.”

Steve glances at Natasha, then away, a little flushed. He squares his shoulders as if preparing for battle. “I tried to dom Nat.”

“You did.” Natasha’s never seen Pepper’s eyes turn more piercing. “We’ve talked. One of the more critical offenses.”

Natasha’s waiting for Thor to say something about her jumping him, because she knows he’s thinking it, but thankfully he doesn’t bring it up. Clenching her jaw, she looks to him and her eyes flick down to her lap, briefly, in what’s not quite an apology (she’d already apologized), but close enough; he smiles, acknowledging it.

“I have one,” Stark pipes up, hand half-raised. “Ignoring the obvious breach of my boundaries when she strangled me, I suppose it could be said that I was being combative by bringing up a hot-button issue.”

“Um, JARVIS, can I have that saved as a recording?” Clint asks immediately.

“Are we just brushing past the fact that there’s one clear denominator in all of these incidents?” Tony snaps, defensive. Refusing to look at Natasha, he folds his arms. “Sure, we were all at fault, but in my book, some of us a hell of a lot more than others.”

Clint’s gripping her hand tight, probably to stop her lashing out, as Natasha stiffens. She grew up without any knowledge of boundaries, and none of them did a great job at showing her any better. Everyday she’s walking through a minefield of triggers—  he would be far more of a mess if every conversation he had involved Obadiah. But that’s far too personal (and cruel) to say, so she sits back and fake-smirks as Pepper glares and Tony mumbles something of an apology.

“Anyone else?” Pepper asks.

Through her peripheral vision, Natasha sees Coulson swallow before he speaks up. “I, ah… I kneeled. Right here, actually. I accepted Natasha’s apology for how she reacted, but I never thought…”

Pepper smiles, more gentle. “Thank you. Natasha, Phil, can I use this as an example?” Phil says yes, and Natasha just meets Pepper’s gaze. If she says no, she knows Pepper won’t continue talking about it, which is why she gives a curt nod. (Her permission is also partly given because if she were to refuse, she’d look vulnerable. Which she isn’t.)

“Phil should be able to feel safe to kneel without being attacked for it. We can all see that.” Pepper waits for grunts of agreement or nods before continuing. “Natasha should also be able to feel safe in her own space. What happened wasn’t fair to either of them.”

“Oh, fuck.” Clint groans and knocks his head back against the couch. “Alright, okay, maybe we do need some tower-wide safeword system.”

“I’m glad you agree.” Standing once again, she crosses her arms. “What’s a good word?”

“Gallbladder!” Thor suggests.

“Kidney stone.” Clint.

“Maybe fewer body parts,” says Coulson logically, “given our line of work.”

“Use the phrase ‘Ironman is incredible’,” is Tony’s bright idea.

Natasha snorts. “Doesn’t it tell you something that even you acknowledge the only way anyone would every say that is under extenuating circumstances?”

“How about red in another language?” Clint suggests.

“Rouge!” Thor shouts, because he’s learning French.

…“Красный. Rouge, rosso, red! Красный, don’t, пожалуйста!”

Anton Petrovich speaks all the languages, but today he understands none.

Natasha bites down, hard, until the red coats her teeth, the color spilling from her lips twice over…

“No,” Natasha says. “No other languages.”

Clint squeezes her hand in apology before he speaks. “Something simple, then. Avocado?”

“Any objections to avocado?” Pepper asks. Nobody says anything. “Say it anytime, anywhere, if you’re uncomfortable.” Shockingly, she manages not to even look at Natasha as she continues, “If you’re having sex and you don’t like it, safeword. If someone else is doing something you’re not involved in but it’s making you uncomfortable, safeword. If someone is eating chips and you’re not okay, you safeword.”

Thor’s eyebrows rise, and he says carefully, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I can’t help feel that this system is vulnerable to misuse.”

Pepper sighs, probably because he has a point. Natasha can imagine Tony screaming avocado as Clint takes the last of the cupcakes, or something equally mundane. “I can’t control that. I’m just trusting you all to take it seriously. Please. Okay?” Nods all around.

“Well, that’s all. I really hope this works out for everyone.”

“Thank you, Pepper,” Steve says, sincere. “I appreciate you bringing this up.”

“Thank you for listening to me.” Pepper runs an affectionate hand over Tony’s hair as she passes him on her way out. “I don’t want to have a conversation like this again,” are her final warning words, said with an edge of steel.

When she’s gone, Clint looks around at them all, a little shell-shocked. “Am I the only one who’s a little turned on right now?”

——————————————

 

It’s a few hours later, after lunch, when Natasha realizes she has a feeling. Not anything physical, just… a feeling. Of sorts. She doesn’t need anything (or anyone), but it would be nice. Some contact or care would be nice.

Thor was her go-to guy. It’s a little embarrassing now, after she made out with him. She hasn’t spoken to him one-on-one since, because he left to see Jane right after the meeting with Pepper. So either way, his absence from the tower means he’s out of the question.

She ambles into the living room, posture tensing out of habit when she hears someone else in the room, unseen. A more thorough sweep of the room reveals Steve on the floor, back to the wall, partially hidden from the entrance by the couch. He’s scrunched over a tablet on his lap, gnawing on his lip.

Before Natasha can talk herself out of it, she thinks of Clint and blurts, “Can I sit with you?”

If he’s surprised, he doesn’t give any indication of it. He gives her a brief once-over though, and she notices his eyebrows furrow when he realizes she’s not anxious, distressed, or anywhere near a state where she’d absolutely need contact. “Sure. Trying to get better at the no dropping thing?”

Natasha had started to make her way over to him, but she stops short a few feet away at his question. “No, not trying to get better at it.”

Steve misunderstands. “Maintain it, whatever.”

Shaking her head, Natasha traces the hem of her shirt with one hand. “No. I just want to sit with you,” she says quietly. It feels like she’s forcing the words out. “I don’t need it, I’m not using you. I just want to.”

When Steve’s eyes widen slightly and he doesn’t say anything for half a second, Natasha shrugs one shoulder and shuffles backwards. “Never mind. You don’t have to say yes, of course, I was only…”

“No way, don’t you dare.” In an instant, Cap grabs her wrist and jerks her down beside him, throwing an arm around her and pulling her in close, sending a rush of endorphins through both of them. For the first time, Natasha feels like this is just her, sitting with a friend, and not a sub sitting with a dom.

After a few seconds, Steve gives her a huge, blinding grin. “Hey Nat.”

“Hey Steve,” she imitates, then changes the subject to get the attention off herself. “What’re you up to?”

“You know that junior agent Raul lost his arm in the mission in Belarus?” He waits for her to nod before showing her the tablet. “I’m helping Stark design a prosthetic. He’s doing the tech, I’m making it not-ugly.”

Natasha tries not to look disgusted at the designs. They’re… mediocre, at best. “Oh. Well, it’s not ugly. I mean— it is, but not atrociously bad.”

“Please, don’t hold back,” Steve bites out, sarcastic. “Tell me what you really think.”

Flicking through the designs, she lets out a small laugh. “These are objectively shit.”

“Wow, you’re going easy on me.”

“Sorry,” she says, handing the tablet back to him. He begins scrolling through himself, head cocked to one side. “It looks like any generic prosthetic you can buy. The designs are fine enough, but the tech is below average.”

“This is better than anything else on the market!” Steve zooms in on a little plate that, from what she can tell, allows full range of motion through the wrist. “There’s nothing superior to this right now.”

“There must be. We had better back in the 80s.” Natasha casts her mind back to Yakov Yuryvich’s metal arm, and the way the interconnecting plates slid over each other, smooth and silent and deadly.

“What could be improved on this?”

She thinks back, sifting through the memories. Full mobility, waterproof, enhanced strength. Precision and control that allowed writing and hand-to-hand. “Literally everything. We were way better.”

“Who’s we?” Cap demands.

“Soviets. I’m telling you, we were leagues above this.”

“Okay, one,” Steve ticks off on his fingers, “this isn’t the Cold War, and two, odds are you Russians stole whatever tech you had from us.” Natasha makes a face at him. “Do you have pictures of the prosthetics they used?” At her look, he gives a wry grin. “Okay, dumb question.”

“Actually… maybe not. You could see if SHIELD or Stark have pictures of people involved with the Black Widow program back then. One of my old teachers had a prosthetic.”

“A Red Room teacher?”

“Mm.” She thinks of metal bruising skin.

Steve starts talking at a low volume, almost as if he’s speaking to himself out loud. “I think we could tweak the top a little so it could work for hand-to-hand. He’d still be able to stay a field agent…”

Natasha leans her head against his shoulder to look at what he’s scrawling on the tablet. “Definitely. My instructor used that thing 24/7.”

“It could take some damage during combat?”

“He could fling three 90-pound girls across the room with one hit, and the prosthetic never had a scratch.” She was going for something of a joke, but Steve looks pained. “Oh, come on, maybe that doesn’t happen now, but you’re telling me kids didn’t get beat up in your day?”

He shakes his head slowly. “I guess. My ma drilled it into me not to hit the sub kids though. Ever. Even back then, she’d blow her top if she saw anyone doing it.” He runs a hand through his hair. “Once I was rough-housing with Bucky, and I swear he was twice my size, but she didn’t let me leave the house for a week when she caught us. Buck never let me hear the end of it.”

Natasha laughs, imagining poor, tiny Steve getting yelled at while Bucky sniggered behind him. “I bet that was useful.”

“Yeah, Bucky thought so too. Every time he was pissed at me, he’d go roll around in the dirt and I’d get in trouble for it.”

“He sounds charming.”

“More trouble than he was worth.” Steve stares into the distance, then breaks his gaze and shakes his head, smiling. “What is this, by the way?”

“What?”

“You know what.”

She sighs. “Clint says I have to do things I want.”

“That’s a good way to live,” Steve says, his tone neutral.

“Mm.” Her head is still against him. “Good way to become weak, too.”

“We’re not robots. A little dependency isn’t a bad thing.”

Natasha rolls her eyes, awkward and trying to change the subject. “Are you sure you aren’t a robot? Last I checked you were made in a lab…”

“Here, since you apparently know everything, why don’t you make yourself useful and help me design.” He shoves the tablet into her hands, spinning the prototype on the screen 360 degrees.

“You’re so useless,” she mutters, but begins pulling up the specs and making adjustments to the pieces of the arm, upper lip curled back in derision at the calibre of the tech.

“Ow. That cuts deep.” Steve shifts them both so her back is against him, giving her arm a wider range of movement while allowing himself to look at what she’s doing on the screen.

“Seriously useless.”

“I’m this close to calling avocado on you.” Natasha snorts, blowing hair out of her eyes as she concentrates. He continues, too casual: “What did you think of that?”

“Of what?”

“You know. The Pepper talk.”

“What about it?”

“What did you think of it?”

Natasha is tempted to respond, What did I think of what? She doesn’t respond for a few seconds, just sketching out a rough design of electrical circuits over the current schematics. “I asked her to, actually,” she says, eventually.

“You didn’t. Did you?” Steve’s mouth is a little open. “Why would you do that? I mean, I’m happy you did. Don’t get me wrong. But…”

Again, she doesn’t answer for a moment. The ‘why’ is a hard question. She decides she can point him in the direction of the feeling that lead her to Pepper, and says quietly, “You know, I didn’t know safewords were allowed during punishment?”

“Well, no shit. I figured as much.”

Natasha laughs, slightly taken aback but feeling a swell of affection for Steve. No kid gloves, never kid gloves. “Alright, Captain Smart-ass. Forgive me for underestimating your intelligence.”

“Some spy you are.”

“I make decisions based on past evidence.” It’s a little more subtle, and she waits the split-second it takes for the insult to land before smirking and turning back to the designs.

“Sure you do. My turn: yesterday you realized you don’t know much about anything, and went to Pepper for a list of ‘dos and do-nots’. See what I did there? Now that was evidence-based reasoning.”

“That was conjecture. Also, wrong.”

“Oh.” Steve deflates, then looks at her with a considerable amount of suspicion. “Don’t tell me the avocado thing was your idea.”

“You wouldn’t believe me?” She feigns offense.

“Nat, even I wouldn’t have come up with something like that.”

“It’s hilarious how you think you’re so functional yourself,” she snarks, finishing off an outline on the tricep segment. She begins shading in.

“Excuse me, I’m playing catch-up on seventy years of customs better than you are with a time you were born in.”

“Shameless.” She shakes her head, amused. The amount of times he uses the frozen-in-ice incident to his favor was unbelievable. “And if you think you’re functional, you’re delusional, Cap, you know that?”

“I have exactly the right amount of delusion for a poor, pitiful soul who was frozen all alone for seventy miserable years.” His grin says he knows full well it’s his trump card and he loves it.

“And so do I for a poor, pitiful child who was abused by her trainers, or did you forget that?” Putting down the tablet, Natasha widens her eyes, one corner of her mouth pulling up. “Flung across a room, only a little girl.”

Steve pauses, then nods sagely. “Ah. I understand what that’s like. See, I’m currently being abused too. Emotionally abused, by you.”

“I’m being exploited.” She’s smiling so wide it feels like her face will split. “Look at me, doing all the work to fix your shitty tech. Who’s gonna take the credit when it’s done?”

“I’m providing emotional support.”

“You know what emotions are? Useless, Steve. You’re useless.”

“From where I’m sitting I’m definitely the more useful half of this hug.” Steve flexes his arms as if to demonstrate how supremely useful he’s being.

Natasha frowns, brow furrowing, momentarily thrown. “We are not hugging.”

“Right, sorry. We’re clearly cooking.”

“We’re sitting,” she corrects. “Sitting with affection.”

“Actually, to get technical, you’re using me as a backrest, so in fact—”

“Hey, it’s my well-adjusted buddies!” Both of them look up, startled, as Clint saunters into the room, twirling an arrowhead in his fingers. “Wait, what’s going on here? You’re on the floor. Why are you on the floor.”

“I’m being exploited.”

“I’m being abused.”

Clint shrugs. “Sounds like a good time. Room for one more?”

“Always.” Steve lifts his arm up on the other side, but Clint shakes his head and drops down in the middle of them.

The arrowhead is suddenly nowhere to be seen, and Natasha feels a suspicious object next to her ribs… “Barton if you poke me with that arrow I swear on all that is holy—”

“See?” Steve meets Clint’s eyes, shaking his head solemnly. “Abusive.”

Chapter Text

“Can I have a volunteer?” Natasha asks, a little too much teeth in her smile. Predictably, nobody raises their hand. “Shame. Guess I’ll pick someone then.” She wouldn’t be light on them, either. That’s what you get.

“Go easy on them, Widow. They ain’t even been here six months.” Sam’s ‘training’ with Steve in the arena right by where she’s putting the new batch of recruits through their paces. Both of them think it’s hilarious that her schedule for today has the freshest, greenest bunch of wimps Hill could foist off onto her. Training Level 1 juniors is usually bad enough. But these, not-even-through-the-probation-stage so-called ‘agents’? It’s like pulling teeth to even get a verbal response out of any of the idiots. Not a backbone in sight. Definitely not worth spending an entire morning on.

(Okay, maybe it’s a little worth it, purely for the moment when she walked in and all their jaws dropped, and a guy in the back audibly whispered ‘Is that the fucking Black Widow’ like he was about to be swallowed whole. It’s tough to get that kind of reaction out of the juniors who’ve been here a while; they’re just as scared of her, but they like to pretend they’re tough shit.)

“Alright, I want someone up here now.” Natasha’s patience is wearing thin. “You won’t like it if I have to pull one of you out myself.” They still don’t move. She’s never been around probationary agents much herself, having been trained solo courtesy of Clint and bypassing the earlier levels. So there’s no real base of knowledge to work with here, to tell her if this sort of selfish, individualistic behaviour is common to the newbies, or if this is a particularly bad batch of recruits. God knows by the time they get to Level 1— which she has trained, extensively, over the years, and hated every goddamn minute of it— they’re shoving each other out the way to prove themselves. As it should be. “Fine. You.”

The crowd parts like the sea of Moses around her finger. (On second thoughts, she could get used to this).

“Name,” she demands, cocking her finger at a relatively well-built man who’s trying to disappear behind the person beside him.

“Gabriel, but most people call me Gabe.” To his credit, although it takes him a few seconds to work up the nerve to speak, his voice is clear when he does. A sub, clearly. Holds himself well.

Fucked up on the name, though, so: “Did I ask what your girlfriend calls you?” His eyes slide to the side, confused. “Last name.”

“Diaz.”

“Up on the mats, Diaz.”

The rest scurry like ants to form a ring around the two of them. Sam and Steve are kind of uselessly pushing at each other, watching the arena. Diaz takes his time assessing Natasha’s posturing, surreptitiously copying her stance to fix the mistakes with his own. Smart boy. He may just make it to Level 1 after all.

Natasha doesn’t even really feel bad for putting them through this, because generally it’s Hill training the very new agents, putting the fear of both authority and death into them before their six-month probation is up, at the end of which 50% have already quit. Natasha has it on good authority that Hill is much worse than her.

Diaz didn’t volunteer, unfortunately, which means he gets a quick warning— “Cross, uppercut, hip throw”— before she lets loose in a flurry of motion. He blocks the first punch. The next hits him straight in the jaw, leaving him stumbling and an easy target for the final throw. He’s on his back less than two seconds after she speaks.

“What did he do wrong?” Natasha asks. Nobody answers. She rolls her eyes. “Listen. All of you? You’re the closest thing SHIELD has to interns. You’re also completely expendable.” This is not entirely true. Or even close to true. “I could break a few necks right now without even a write-up.”

Someone squeaks.

Sam snorts. Steve clears his throat. “Uh, Romanoff.”

“My bad, I’d probably have to fill out some form or another. You know how SHIELD is with the paperwork.” She laughs invitingly, delighted when a few of them chuckle miserably along with her. None of them are sure if she’s joking. Okay, maybe now she’s beginning to understand why Hill still trains these kids, even when it’s definitely way under her pay grade. “What. Did Diaz. Do wrong.”

A woman near the front speaks up, her voice increasing in confidence as she goes on. “He… put too much into blocking the first punch. Too much momentum, he wasn’t steady enough to move around the next one.”

“Name?”

“Roberts.”

“Not specific enough. Over-twisted on the block, left himself open to the next move with not enough time to defend.” She barks at the agent on the floor, “Up!” He scrambles to his feet, arms up and ready. “Do exactly what you just did.” As he goes through the motions, she stops them at the block. “If you’re going to twist that far, you need to grab onto your attacker’s fist and take them with you. Otherwise you’ve blocked one move, but done nothing to stop the next. Got it?”

They work through more throws, fixing technique and adjusting. She has them pair off after a few. Sam strolls over to her, chugging from a water bottle.

“You about done terrorizing them?”

“They suck,” she complains, truthfully.

“You can’t break their necks,” Steve informs her, like this is something he feels he needs to remind her of.

Diaz and another agent— Saito, or something— are grappling within hearing distance, and she sees both of them exchange a look. “Relax, boys. Even if your necks are out of the equation, your arms and legs are still fair game.”

“They won’t even want to stay if you talk to them like that.” Steve at least has the sense to lower his volume, even as he objects to her methods.

“Please,” Sam scoffs, “Have you seen Hill with them? I’ve heard her say she considers it a favor if she snaps their necks, that way they can’t be tortured to death when they inevitably fail on a mission.”

“That’s not particularly nice.”

“The world isn’t particularly nice, Cap.”

Diaz throws Saito down on the mats, using the exact technique he’d just learned from Natasha. Atta boy, she thinks, and gives an approving nod before turning back to the conversation, when—

“You’re getting beat by a sub, dude,” cackles Chen from where he’s got his knee on his partner’s back, on the mats next to them. Natasha had noticed Chen, had picked out his problems with authority during the demonstration. He’s a big, burly guy with an obvious chip on his shoulder from fuck knows what, but Natasha, quite frankly, does not give a shit about whatever woe-unto-me crap has given him his issues.

She, along with Steve and Sam, fix Chen with a steely, warning look. He’s not looking at them. Unfortunately for him, really. He continues, even as Saito shoots Diaz an apologetic look (good, Natasha thinks, at least Saito seems like a decent kid). “Man, that’s kinda pathetic.”

Diaz looks like he wants to melt into the floor. Natasha turns back to Steve and Sam, and motions to them not to react or act like they’re listening, although she angles her body sideways to watch from her periphery. It’s situations like these, impromptu displays of dominance, that’ll tell you the most about these agents. This could end with Natasha recommending that all three be summarily kicked out, or none.

“You wanna try him?” Saito shoots back, laying a protective hand on Diaz’s neck, which, huh. Interesting. “He’s got a mean swing.”

“Sure.” Chen claps his partner on the back and stands swiftly. “Come on, Diaz. Let’s see what you got against a real dom.”

When Sam’s jaw clenches, Natasha shakes her head minutely. She’s waiting, she realizes, for Diaz to put the fucker in his place. Giving him a chance to.

“Don’t I gotta agree to fight you first?” Diaz asks, playing at casual. He’s rattled, though, and it’s apparent.

Chen ignores him like he hadn’t spoken. “Alright, pretty boy, lay it on me.”

Natasha feels anger course through her, but she holds it down, lets it simmer. Don’t do it, don’t do it, she wills, but Diaz squares up.

“He’s good,” Saito warns. “Don’t underestimate him.” Saito is kind of a moron. Diaz is better than him, but Chen is army trained and can wipe the floor with the majority of the recruits, Diaz included.

Chen laughs. “Just gotta promise him I’ll let him suck my cock after and he’ll lay right over for me, won’t you, babe?”

Sam’s face reddens, and Steve takes a step forward. He doesn’t get there first though. In three seconds, Chen is flat on his back, nursing a broken nose and a probable concussion.

“Look at that,” says Natasha, smiling, as a collective gasp goes through the room, “You just got beat by a sub. How pathetic.” On the floor, Chen moans.

She cocks her finger at Saito and Diaz. “You two, with me.” They follow her a few feet away to the corner where she’d been talking to Sam and Steve, tail between their legs, looking like they’re headed to the executioner’s block. She regards them coolly. “I’m disappointed. I expect better from SHIELD agents.” Even wannabe ones, she doesn’t add, but they all hear it.

Diaz’s shoulders droop, almost imperceptibly; Saito takes one look at him and spits out, “It’s not our fault. You saw how he was!”

Natasha ignores Saito and barks questions at Diaz. “You from a nice part of the country? Pretty liberal, into subs’ rights?” After a beat, he nods. “You’re not used to talk like that.”

“No, I— Yes. I’m not.”

“Well, in here,” Natasha tells him, serious because he’d better learn this now, “the population’s not split 50-50. There’s one of you for every nine of them, and we sure as hell have our share of bad eggs. You’re going to get trod on in every way possible, and you better learn to fight back or you won’t make it through.”

“This wasn’t his fault!” Saito says again, apparently on a crusade.

“Did I say it was?”

“You said you were disappointed.”

“He let Chen walk all over him. Yes, I’m disappointed. Were you not?”

Saito doesn’t answer.

“You both let Chen walk all over you.” She lets her gaze sweep over them in turn. “We don’t want people like Chen at SHIELD, but we certainly don’t want people like you, either. Grow a spine, and do it quick.”

“Yes, Agent Romanoff,” Diaz says, elbowing Saito, who glances at him, then looks down at the floor, contrite.

“Yes, Agent Romanoff.”

She dismisses them with a nod.

“That was overkill, don’t you think?” Natasha spins around to see Maria, leaning casually against the door to the gym. Steve and Sam are next to her, but they’re grinning widely.

Natasha shrugs, a little wary. Maria doesn’t seem pissed, but she outranks Natasha, and Natasha really doesn’t want another mark on her record (not because she cares, but because Coulson said if she gets another one that he deems avoidable, he’s giving her extra paperwork for two weeks).

“Did you think it was?” Natasha asks back, when Maria doesn’t say anything.

Maria quirks a smile. “Maybe a little.” She shrugs, too. “Nothing those two didn’t need to hear. But physically attacking an agent for saying something you don’t like…”

Sam scowls, and crosses his arms. “If she hadn’t then I would have. Just because you have the self control of a saint don’t mean we all do. Don’t be a bully.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, bumping Sam’s shoulder. “Don’t be a bully.”

Sometimes Natasha thinks Sam and Steve together turn into high-schoolers. From her face, Hill feels the same way, because she rolls her eyes and jerks her head to the door.

Natasha follows her out, and when the door is closed, she says, “You’re not even supposed to be here. Weren’t you meeting with Pepper? Why am I even here if you can take the class?”

“We finished early. She went back to the tower. And my presence or absence is entirely besides the point, wouldn’t you say?” She sounds amused, but it’s always hard to tell with Hill. Woman’s got a stone-cold poker face.

“I feel like Clint and I are always getting chewed out by you,” Natasha grumbles.

“That’s because you do things to necessitate getting chewed out.”

Maria still doesn’t seem mad, though. Natasha sighs. “Okay, so are you putting this on my record?”

“What’d Coulson promise you?”

“Two weeks’ extra paperwork.”

Hill’s delighted. “Wait, does that include my paperwork?”

“No,” Natasha says, drawing out the syllable in what is definitely not a whine, “Hill, for fuck’s sake.”

“Fine.” Maria laughs. “I won’t write you up this time, even if I should. Only because someone needed to punch Chen in the face, and none of the other recruits were going to.”

“Bunch of wimps.” Natasha adds, after a pause: “Oh. After you’ve fired Chen, you should make a note of those two. Saito and Diaz. They’d be good field partners.”

“I’ll look into it.” Which, Natasha knows, is as close of an agreement that she’s going to give.

When Hill marches into the gym, Natasha heads the other way— she’s quickly joined by Sam and Steve, who scurried out at a walk-run pace the second Hill started tearing into the recruits, not that either would ever admit to it.

“That was fucking awesome,” Sam proclaims, catching up to her. “I think you might be the first agent to ever really lose it with the recruits.”

“Please.” Natasha scoffs. “Hill’s currently ripping into them.”

“Yeah, sure, she ain’t going easy on ‘em, but she is definitely not punching any faces, I’ll tell you that much.” Point made, he repeats “It was awesome. Wasn’t it awesome, Cap?”

Natasha can see the warring emotions on Steve’s face. “Uh. Yes? Okay, yes. That does not mean I condone unsanctioned violence by my agents. Just, y’know. For the record.”

“Screw the record.” Sam wraps an easy arm over Natasha’s shoulder. “Can I set you on some other people I want punched?”

For a second, Natasha pretends to consider it. “Sure, why not.”

“They might not be rookies.”

“I’m listening.”

“They might be from, like, the upper echelons of SHIELD.”

“Sam.” Steve is fighting a losing battle here. Natasha can see his face tightening when he tries not to smile.

“It might be someone real high up,” Sam continues, undeterred.

“This offer is just getting more and more attractive,” Natasha says as she brings her own arm up to rest against Sam’s back and matches step with him. Steve trails behind them, scowling. (Pretending to scowl).

“There’s a possibility it’s Fury.”

“Sam!” says Steve, at the same time as Natasha announces “Done”, and shakes Sam’s hand solemnly. “Natasha!”

“Don’t you get all high-horse on us.” As if to solidify their newly-formed partnership, Sam draws Natasha in close to him; she reaches up to twine her fingers through the hand dangling by her neck. “We know all the shit you pulled.”

“There are textbooks, Steve,” says Natasha, with some sympathy. “Multiple textbooks.”

He glowers at them, but the corner of his mouth is turned up, taking the edge off of it somewhat. “That was before. Now I’m the leader.” In a pompous tone, he adds, “I gotta set an example for you miscreants.”

Sam flips him off, but Natasha just shakes her head. “We let you be the leader.”

“Yeah,” Sam immediately jumps on her thread, “You’re lucky we even listen to your pasty ass.”

“In fact, I don’t really feel like listening today,” Natasha informs him primly, as she and Sam turn away.

“What’cha gonna do, Steve?” Sam asks, turning around with a shit-eating grin. “Hey Nat, let’s go punch all the Level 8s in the face while we work up to the 9s and 10s.”

Steve is a Level 8.

They’ve only made it a few steps before Cap barrels into the middle of them, grabbing each of their arms before they can go sprawling at the impact. “You both suck. For the record.”

“What, did it hit you that your only threat is paperwork?” Natasha asks.

“Or benching,” Sam adds with a grin. “Not gonna lie, I’ve considered pissing you off to get a break once or twice.”

“I have other threats,” Steve combats lamely. “I can do… things.”

“That’s true.” Natasha shrugs; Steve’s still holding their arms, so she twists around him to look at Sam. “He’s got an excellent Disappointed Face.”

Anticipating the push, she only rocks back on her heels before shoving Steve back. He tips into Sam, who lets out a quiet war cry, but doesn’t retaliate physically. He isn’t stupid enough to start brawling in the SHIELD hallways, even if they are on the mostly-empty ground floor, and even if it is a fake brawl. The only one in sight is Tony, coming down the end of the corridor. “How dare you touch me. And you besmirched my lady’s honour!”

“She—” Steve, used to retaliating in self-defense, is clearly about to say Natasha hit him first, before he reddens. “I barely touched her!”

“My honour, Steve.” Natasha looks sad. “It is besmirched.”

Steve looks at her for one second, then gives her no warning before using his superior height to reach over and run his knuckles over her scalp. “Now how’s your honour?”

Captain America is giving her a noogie. So it’s pretty fucking besmirched, Natasha would say.

Sam lets out a peal of laughter, the traitor. Natasha can’t help but grin, too, although she bats Steve’s hand away and shoves him twice as hard as before in retaliation. Stark’s close; he passes and nods at them as he does, but she notices his face tighten and his footsteps quicken.

Steve’s in the process of giving Sam a wet-willy, and it’s not that Natasha doesn’t want to stay and take copious blackmail photos, it’s just that she’s realizing she has something else to deal with.

“Uh, hey, I just remembered— I need to meet with Stark about something,” she says hurriedly to Steve and Sam.

“Alright, catch you later,” Sam says, grimacing as he touches his ear gingerly. “Fuck you, Steve.” Steve just laughs and waves as she turns down the hallway in the direction that Tony went.

She sees him when she turns the corner. His shoulders are tense, squared, like he’s prepping for a fight. She’s pretty sure he knows she’s following, but he doesn’t care enough to stop her. Somewhere between the training gym and now, his hands have balled into fists.

Natasha follows him through the corridors until he slips into an office she’s never been in. It’s Raoul’s; since he’s on sick leave, it’ll be empty. As clear a sign as any that Stark wants to be alone.

Natasha shoulders the door open before he can do something stupid like lock it (which, really, would just piss them both off- her for having to go through the effort of unlocking it, and him for the indignity of being unable to keep her out). She shuts the door and rounds on Tony.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He glares. “Get the fuck out.”

“I saw the way you looked just now.” And the way you look right now, she magnanimously does not add.

“I said, everything’s peachy. Are you deaf?”

She looks at him, head tilted to the side, one eyebrow raised. It wouldn’t work on everyone, but Tony has never needed an invitation to talk.

“Alright. Fine. You really want to know?” He throws his hands up on the air. “You. You are what’s wrong, Romanoff.”

“Okay.” She’s about to cross her arms instinctively, then thinks better of it and lets them hang loose. “Very true.”

“I am 95% sure, although it remains to be confirmed with certainty. Scientific method, and all.”

“Mr. Thorough, that’s you.”

Tony ignores her, eyes narrowed. “Note I didn’t specify a location. You are definitely what’s wrong with the tower, and quite possibly with the world in general, although like I said. More work needed on that front.”

Ah. “You mean your world in general.”

“What is man but the centre of the vast universe?”

“You’re shockingly self-aware today.”

“Thank you.” Stark’s lip curls back. “How nice to be blessed by a compliment, O Consecrated One.”

Natasha knows exactly what the issue is, but she’s going to wait for him to say it. Or at least hint to it. “I prefer exalted, but consecrated does have a nice ring to it.”

“Oh, sure. Anything you want. Exalted it is.” He gives a quick little bow; when he stands upright again, his eyes are blazing. “Did you every think— did it ever cross your narcissistic, self-centered shell of a mind— that the rest of us are tired of dealing with your shit?”

“Of course it did,” she replies, honestly enough. It’s clearly not what he was expecting.

“Right, okay, of course it did. Of course. But you do it anyways because you’ve deluded yourself into believing you’re special.”

He’s circling, not willing to dip into the middle. Tony hasn’t ‘dealt with her shit’ (as he so eloquently put it) in a while. Steve has, Thor has, Clint has… even Pepper, sort of, but not Stark, not recently.

“Got news for you, cupcake,” he continues. “Everything special about you was poured into you by the villains in the story. Your lady-boner for Hawkeye means the special is now on our side, which, yay, not complaining. I’d be lying if I said I’d be pumped to fight you.” He gestures at her. “But we both know the suit could take you if it came down to it.”

“Are you threatening me?” Natasha asks it casually, not going for intimidating in the least. He has dealt with her issues, and she’ll deal with his. Fair’s fair.

Tony snorts. “No. I’m giving you a reality check.”

“Stark, look at me.” He does, grudgingly, jaw clenched. “Tony, I’m not stealing Steve.”

For a beat, he stares at her. All the anger seems to deflate, leaving boiling self-righteousness. “Screw you,” he returns hotly.

“Am I off the mark?”

He refuses to answer, going over to the office chair with wheels and flopping down onto it, kicking his feet up onto the desk.

Steadfastly avoiding looking anywhere in her direction, Tony says, “I know he’s not mine.”

Okay. “I am off, then.” Natasha has a feeling she isn’t, but she’ll give him an out if he wants it. She takes the floor to make herself lower than him, spreading her legs.

“In a manner of speaking.”

Not for the first time, Natasha is glad for her ability to read body language like a personal code. In a manner of speaking meaning yes, this is about Steve, a little, but also about… “When did you see me with Pepper?”

Tony bristles, anger visibly coursing through him as he turns to her. “Oh, so there was more than once? Fucking incredible.”

“No, just the…” She clears her throat. “When she asked you to leave the room, that. And then—”

“Then you were sitting on the couch holding hands with my dom while you stared into each other’s eyes.” It’s a little shocking to see how much Tony is hurt by this. “You know, fine, I get it. She can collar you too if she wants. She’s allowed to do that. It’s normal, right?”

“Did you hear what we were talking about?” Natasha’s on shaky ground. If Tony heard their conversation, she’s not sure she can look him in the eye.

“No.” His gaze travels up and down, over her body. “You were worried.”

“Not because of— it’s not like that.”

“Then what’s it like?”

She won’t tell him. “Don’t you trust Pepper?”

“I do. Of course I do, don’t even try to—” He breaks off. “You’re a sub.”

“I’m new. I’m special. Is that it?”

“Well, it shouldn’t be, but it certainly seems that way doesn’t it?” He rolls his eyes. “Everyone likes something to fix. Hell, even me. My whole life is built on fixing things. It shouldn’t be a surprise that she wants you.” He scowls. “Guess that means she has a type, right? Fucked-up subs. Bam, there you are, a perfect fit for the mold.”

“Are you done?”

“Why, do you need to leave to see my dom?”

“Look.” Natasha sighs. “I’m not going to tell you what I was talking to Pepper about, but if you don’t trust that it was nothing then you have bigger things to worry about. Like, oh I don’t know, your entire relationship.” He looks mutinous, but Tony Stark has never been a stupid man, and he hears the truth enough to shut up for three more seconds. “Trust me, I don’t want Pepper.”

“That does not eliminate the very real possibility that she wants—”

“You’re not even serious,” Natasha points out, huffing out an incredulous breath.

Tony’s scowl deepens as he crosses his arms. “You know how much non-business related time I’ve had with her in the last week?”

“That has nothing to do with me.”

“Sure as hell doesn’t seem so.”

Natasha sighs, throwing her hands up. “So all this is because you feel, what, abandoned? Neglected? She’s been busy for a few days and you’re pinning it on me?”

“If not you then why the fuck else isn’t my dom coming within spitting distance of me?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not me.” He looks disbelieving. “Trust me, Tony. I’m not taking Pepper away from you.”

There’s a short pause. Then: “Fine,” he bites out, his tone harsh, but his body language relaxes, so Natasha lets hers as well.

“And Steve…” She clears her throat. “I don’t want to step on any toes, so I can stay distant. From him. And anyone else. If you want.”

There’s a short, heavy pause, and then Tony sighs. “Did you know,” he says, more casual than the atmosphere calls for, “I used to be his favorite. The only sub, so, y’know, by default, but still. First place is first place.”

“Ego can’t take it?” She understands what he’s saying. It’s not that he specifically feels strongly about his relationship with Steve, and more the principle of the thing. Besides, it’s more of a technicality: Natasha has always been closer friends with Steve than Tony has, and he never cared until her change of Bearing displaced his position on one particular list.

Barking out a laugh, Stark nods in a rare moment of self-deprecation. “Ego’s dying.” He shrugs, then sighs. “You’d be good together, though. Go for it, you have my blessing.” Then he gives a wicked little smirk, as if he’s trying to inject levity into the conversation, shifting the spotlight off himself and his newly-unearthed problems. “He’s a great fuck, trust me.”

“Oh, I know.” Natasha laughs, but something must show in her eyes because Tony studies her, head cocked to the side.

“You… don’t like sex?” he guesses. “Um. What?”

“No, I do.” In specific circumstances. With specific people. She pulls her legs up to brace her feet flat on the floor, knees bent.

“Then…?”

“It’s just… it’s complicated. Why am I discussing this with you?” Natasha knows the only reason he’s into this new change of topic is because he’s just exposed himself and his insecurities to her a great deal more than he was comfortable with. This, for him, is a welcome switch. And she’ll give it to him, because, well. Her team-mates do a lot for her, and she has a heart.

Tony, almost giddy in his quest for gossip, slides off the chair and onto the floor beside her. “You were right, earlier,” he informs her solemnly. “Stepping on toes? Really hard to avoid that in the tower, with all the relationships going on. Communication is key. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to need to know exactly what you intend to do with our good captain.”

“You are incorrigible,” she tells him flatly.

“Well, fine, you don’t have to tell me, but. If you’re asexual, or whatever along those lines, it makes some of the jokes I’ve made really fucking awkward, so there’s that.”

“I’m not asexual.” It comes out defensive.

“There’s nothing wrong with that.” Tony’s chiding, almost.

Natasha’s eyebrows rise. “Are you asexual?”

“No, and I know what deflection is.” He pauses. “Actually, you’ve fucked enough people on your free time— and trust me, the rumors spread fast around here— that I think I’m barking up the wrong tree. So, back to my original point: live! Go forth! Be free and sub for Steve!”

“Why do fucking and subbing have to be the same thing?” Natasha demands.

Tony stills. “Oh,” he says quietly. Then: “Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“No interest at all?”

“None.” After a short pause, she elaborates: “I like sex. Sometimes, with some people. On the subbing, I’m… I don’t know, ambivalent, maybe? I don’t want to mix the two.”

“But Cap’s a great dom.” He raps his knuckles on the desk to emphasize the last two words. “So is Barton, although I’m personally not interested.”

“I know.” Dropping her head back against the wall, Natasha stares up at the ceiling. “It’s not like that. I like Steve and Clint and I trust them. I don’t… hate the idea of subbing for either of them. But I’m not attracted to them as doms.”

“But… you are attracted to them.” Tony sounds like he’s getting a headache. “You’ve slept with them both, I know for a fact.”

“So? Why can’t sex just be sex?” She knows for other subs, it’s natural. Even if they don’t drop, they take on a submissive role during sex.

“Okay,” Tony says slowly. “I won’t pretend to get it.”

“You don’t have to get it,” Natasha returns, tart.

“But you’ve never even tried.”

“I don’t need to have tried. I know it’s something I’m not interested in,” she explains, perfectly pleasantly, but with an underlying warning.

Tapping his fingers on his knee, Tony shakes his head. “A drop in the bedroom— or even just subbing, no drop— it’s like the best possible combination of mental and physical bliss. You know how you feel right when someone’s put you down into a drop?”

Natasha’s eyes flick to the side in a semi-eye roll as she shakes her head once in an obviously not way. Tony’s jaw hangs slack.

“Never?”

“I don’t— Possibly when I was very young.” She’s severely regretting admitting this. She’d assumed lying would lead to questions, but if the alternative is Stark staring at her with this wrenching mix of pity and confusion…

“How do you… how does that even work?” he asks, a little high-pitched. “How did you get through as a kid?”

“It’s part of the special the villains poured into me,” Natasha tells him sweetly, smiling with all her teeth.

Tony at least has the grace to look abashed, and he rubs his neck. “Okay. That was maybe not fair.”

Natasha shrugs. “It’s true enough.” In a bid to change the subject, she informs him, “Listen, I have to go finish up some… things. For Coulson.” It’s a lame finish, but whatever. Stark’s not a lie detector. Tony gives her a thumbs up, but he looks a little lost, suddenly. For a second, Natasha considers tracking down Steve or possibly Rhodes, if he’s on the base, but then she remembers: “Pepper’s at the tower right now. Her schedule’s free for the day. If you want to take advantage.”

“Oh. Thanks.” When Stark nods, he’s playing cool, but his eyes have a glassy tinge. “I didn’t know that.”

“Now you do,” Natasha replies simply, unwilling to let him spiral. He has Pepper. She’ll deal with him.

————————————

An hour later, Natasha is sitting next to Steve in the living room, watching Stark out of the corner of her eye.

Despite telling herself that she didn’t have the least bit of interest in Tony’s health, that he has like twenty doms at his beck and call, Natasha had still called out early to get back to the tower. She was pleased to see Steve in the living room along with Pepper and Tony, because it meant she had an excuse to be in the room and satisfy her nosiness. So she’d slipped in beside Steve and pretended to be filling out reports on a tablet.

She’s relieved to see that after a good twenty minutes with his dom, Tony’s serene, although there’s still exhaustion seeping out of his frame if you’re looking for it.

Natasha moves closer to Steve, lowering her voice and speaking barely above a whisper. “You should tell Pepper to spend more time with Tony.” At Steve’s raised eyebrow, she elaborates, “Not my place. You can.”

“Don’t think it’s quite my place, either,” Steve’s tone is wry, “But for what it’s worth, I think she’s got it covered.”

Following his gaze to the couch where Pepper’s gently stroking Tony’s back, Natasha notes the calm whispering meant only for Tony’s ears, the way he’s curled into her, the way Pepper looks more relaxed than she ever does. She also notes the dark circles under his eyes, the way his foot has only just stopped tapping. “Maybe.”

“Why’d you bring it up?” Steve’s careful to keep his voice to a murmur, but a note of concern slips in.

“Nothing. Just a hunch.”

“A hunch, huh?” When Natasha doesn’t reply, unwilling to divulge her source, he adds: “Pepper seems to have a handle on it.”

Natasha doesn’t think it’s that easy to brush off; clearly Stark’s harboring some major insecurities. “Still. You should maybe be around him more, too.”

“O-kay.” Steve doesn’t sound like he’s going to be taking her very cogent advice into consideration. “He seemed fine to me, but sure.”

Like Tony’s going to advertise if he feels unwanted. “Oh, come on. You know how needy he is.”

For once in her life, she means it more as a neutral fact and less of a derisive insult, but Steve doesn’t pick up on that, his hand snaking up to her arm as if he’s preemptively holding her back from lunging at Stark. “I thought we went over this,” he says.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Natasha replies, digging her elbow into his side in retaliation.

“Well, excuse me for— what was it?— using past evidence to come to conclusions.”

“This is why one of us is the master spy,” she says primly, examining her nails more for dramatic effect than anything else, “and one of us thinks literally running through walls is subtle.”

Steve’s about to reply when, suddenly, he stiffens. Biting his lip, he glances at Natasha out of the corner of his eye, then looks away quickly.

“You might want to look at Pepper,” he tells her quietly, still avoiding her eyes, but she’s already turned her head to face the couple on the opposite couch.

She sucks in a breath when she sees. Tony’s… Tony’s on his knees. Sitting at Pepper’s feet, one arm wrapped around her legs, cheek resting on her knees.

Pepper’s fingers curve protectively over her sub’s scalp as she addresses Natasha. “I’m sorry. He was a little off when he came in, and he dropped quicker than I thought he would.” Her tone is grave; she’s genuinely trying to balance Natasha’s wellbeing with Tony’s. “I didn’t ask him to kneel. We can go upstairs.”

“Just say the word.” Steve isn’t touching her as he speaks, which she’s grateful for. It allows her space to think. She’s evaluating, still, whether or not she can be in the room, because one part of her mind is panicky, while another part thinks Tony and Pepper are cute.

Closing her eyes, Natasha sidles closer to Steve, relieved when he wraps his hand around her cold wrist, seeming to understand what she wants. She needs to feel grounded to make the decision. A dom’s presence may be a crutch, but it’s a useful tool if it helps her work through triggers.

“It’s fine,” she grinds out eventually. “But no French.”

Pepper’s eyebrows rise. “No Fr— you mean the language?”

She jerks her head sharply.

“Tony doesn’t understand much French.” Pepper nods her acquiescence anyways. “Let me know the second you’re uncomfortable and we’ll leave.”

Natasha gives a tight, curt smile in return, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. Uncomfortable? She’s already uncomfortable. It’s a steady, workable uncomfortable and not uncontrolled agitation, so she’ll deal.

Steve shuffles closer and leans into her; from his creased brow, he’s uncomfortable seeing her uncomfortable. “Is this okay?” he asks.

“Fine.”

“You’re alright?”

“Yes.” She’s surprised to find she’s not lying. It’s not like she’s particularly happy to be in the middle of this, but she’s glad to see Tony getting something he needs. That’s a first.

They’re there a quarter of an hour before Steve’s earpiece flashes from the coffee table beside them. A split second later, JARVIS cuts through the quiet. “Excuse me, Captain Rogers. It seems there is a situation developing in Queens.”

Cap’s already up. “Avengers Assemble,” he says wryly, before his eyes flick to Tony.

There is absolutely no room for debate in Pepper’s tone when she speaks: “He stays here.”

“Of course.” As Steve and Natasha pass, he brushes a hand over Tony’s neck; the sub leans into him briefly before turning his head back into Pepper. He looks pretty far down. Natasha has a feeling Pepper’s going to keep him home a few days.

————————————

In the equipment room, Natasha hesitates for a split-second before pulling the metal cuffs that Stark gave her out of her locker. She clasps them around her wrists firmly.

“What are those?” Clint demands, pointing.

“Tony gave them to me.” It’s not an answer.

Scowling, Clint clicks his fingers against one of the bracelets. “He said he’d do my upgrades next. There’s a list.”

“He can do updates in whatever order he wants,” Banner says as he walks in, having overheard. He doesn’t need equipment, so Natasha’s not sure what he’s doing in the equipment room. Probably got tired of waiting for the rest of them.

“There’s a list,” Clint repeats. “It goes in a specific order.” He continues to glower even as she straps guns onto every conceivable part of her body, then remembers his previous question. “Is it an upgraded bite?”

“Touch it and find out.” Natasha grins wickedly, pulling her sleeve down over the cuffs as she does.

“Romanoff, Barton.” From the corner of the room, Cap looks at his watch pointedly. “Can we get a move on?”

“Sure,” Clint replies moodily. “I guess I’m never gettin’ those damn bullet-arrows.”

He’s a giant baby, but he’s her best friend. Natasha takes pity on him. “Relax, Barton. It’s not an upgrade. The metal’s laced with anti-droppers.”

Clint says absolutely nothing, gives no indication that he even heard, but as they head out he tries (and fails) to trip her up, which is good enough.

————————————

The mission’s run-of-the-mill. Screaming, people in masks, hostages. Two thousand hostages, which is why the Avengers were asked to help, but it’s hardly out of the range of what the NYPD deals with. Just a bigger scope, is all.

And worse repercussions for whoever’s in charge if anything goes wrong. (Natasha suspects this is 99% of the reason they were called in to lead at all).

With Thor in Poland and Stark out of commission, they’re a few people short, but it’s going fine.

It’s going just fine, until it isn’t.

————————————

“Tasha. Wake up.” As she drifts into consciousness, the first sense she’s aware of is pain snaking along her wrist, more acute by the second. “Natasha, wake up.”

She stills the second she’s alert enough to register her surroundings. Doesn’t bother with stupid questions like ‘What happened?’ or ‘Where are we?’ as she sits up, her head spinning dizzyingly. A metal shackle is clasped around her wrist, tight enough to bruise. She works at it for a few seconds, then gives up.

Clint’s sitting on his heels a few meters from her, eyes raking over her every movement, assessing. Doing the same to him, she’s relieved to see a nasty gash down his left forearm, and a whole spate of smaller cuts and bruises, but nothing requiring urgent attention.

“How long was I out?”

“About ten minutes longer than me. I don’t know how long I was out though. You good?”

‘Anything broken that wouldn’t be visible?’ is what he’s really asking. Fucked-up ribs, internal bleeding.

“I’m alright.” Her wrist is sprained, maybe, and she has a concussion, but that’s about it. Her own metal cuff is gone. “You?”

“Gonna need some stitches on my arm, that’s all.”

There’s something rounded on the ceiling, which she looks at pointedly, and then signs, Surveillance?

“It’s the only camera as far as I can tell. Visual only.”

Natasha, like him, switches to speech— signing when their captors have visuals but no audio would be beyond stupid. “Did you get a glimpse of whoever took you down?”

“No. There’s finger bruises on your shoulder and they’re big, so, y’know, there’s at least one dude or a very big woman involved.”

She snorts, twisting to look. “Helpful. I caught two men, both white. Maybe European.” She’d killed one.

“Not the Egyptians, then.” Clint scratches his chin. They’d taken out an Egyptian crime syndicate a few months ago. “A HYDRA cell on its last legs?”

“It’s possible.” But unlikely. In their business, abductions serve two purposes: information, or revenge. Since HYDRA was taken down, there’s not much a few surviving cells could do with any information, no matter how groundbreaking. Lone members may well want revenge, but the targets of that would be Cap, Sam and Natasha, not Clint. “Or the pissed-off Western European branch of that drug trafficking ring based out of Taipei.”

“Or something to do with Raznikoff. Latest sources say his followers are still kicking.”

With a sigh, Natasha lays back down on the cold ground so that the dizziness resides while whatever drugs they were given can work themselves out of her system. She doesn’t bother scouring the room further, trusting that Clint’s sharp eyes would have done a thorough job. “Well, this is just great.”

“What’s that tone for? This isn’t your idea of a good time? I’m hurt.”

She huffs a laugh. This is what Clint does, coaxes a smile out of her in the worst situations. “Come closer.” It’s odd to have him a few feet away, not tapping on her face or bugging her in other little ways.

“Can’t.” He lifts his forearm to show off an identical cuff, except he’s shackled to the opposite wall to Natasha. The chain allows him to get as near as he is, but no closer. She hadn’t noticed the chain, as it lay hidden behind his body.

Natasha stares at it, then tears her eyes away. “Well. They’re not completely incompetent, at least.”

Picking at the cuff around his wrist, Clint sighs morosely. “I’m really not in the mood to get tortured today.”

It’s her turn to pull a smile from him. “Really? I’m totally in the mood. They caught me on a good day.” Her eyes crinkle at the corners when he exhales out in a small chuckle, his shoulders loosening.

“Fair enough. Do you think—” He breaks off as the heavy metal door in front of them creaks at first, then groans loudly as it’s swung open.

A man and a woman step through the doorway, both fit and lithe. The woman is blonde and beautiful, and she’s carrying a needle. The man, a gun. That’s what they can see, anyways. The man remains in the shadows, his face masked by the darkness. Watching. Protecting, maybe.

Both Natasha and Clint automatically give their attention to the woman. She's the boss. Between the two of them, at least.

“Hello, darlings,” she coos. Vague hint of a Russian twinge, Natasha notes, under the British. “It’s lovely to make your acquaintance.”