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Neither Cruelty Nor Kindness, Just Lies

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     Natasha's brows furrowed minutely, silently taking in her surroundings. She was chained to the ground, arms hiked up behind her almost to the point of dislocating her shoulders, she was stripped completely in case anything she owned could be used as a weapon. It was smart when it came to dealing with the Black Widow—though even in the nude, she could do plenty of damage.

     That was, of course, when she wasn't drugged out of her mind. And she hated being drugged. Even in operations where S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors rushed to remove bullets and sew up wounds, she refused to be sedated, didn't even take painkillers for the intense paranoia of not being fully conscious.

                   She remembered what happened the last time all too well.

     She knelt there on the coarse ground, dirt digging into her skin and looked up at Bucky (not a Skrull, not an imitation, no, just James Buchanan Barnes, who apparently was the most incredible triple agent that the world had ever seen) staring down at her.

                             Natasha didn't have the heart to ask why.
                        (He knew her well enough to read it in her eyes
                 and at least had the decency not to make her beg for answers.)

     "You're the only Red Room operative that's ever gone rogue, you know. It's a huge credit to your ability." He crouched slightly so she didn't have to crane her head up so much—was she supposed to thank him for that? "You're incredible, Natalia, I never lied about that. You're precise and intense and stronger than a thousand soldiers put together. They broke you over and over and over and you just kept coming back like a weed. Nothing could break your spirit. Do you know how impressive that is?"

     She didn't say a word, didn't try to interrupt, didn't laugh or cry, just looked at him.

     "Don't give me that, мышка. You can't look like you're going to be strong and brush this off and not let my words touch you, not when I've reached so far into your soul."

     Natasha didn't stop looking at him, a silent fuck you, a nonverbal don't tell me what I can't do, but it wouldn't help her situation any. If anything, it just made James chuckle in response.
     "Always so stubborn, Natalia. I did love that about you."

                       (But wasn't that a lie too?
                        Had any of their love been real?
                        Had he loved anything about her at all?)

     "I was lucky to work with you," he rambled on, still crouched there, gaze distant and fond. "We did so many things together…"

     This wasn't helping her understand why she was here like this, what was driving the events that were playing out. It didn't look like Barnes was acting, but he'd always been a consummate actor when necessary, and it didn't look like there was any surveillance but that was easily hidden in corners and walls. His speech sounded completely coherent, almost patronizing, as if he were talking to a child who didn't quite pick up what he was saying, and it frustrated her that he was completely right—she didn't get it at all.

     She raised her head slightly to catch his gaze, and he smiled.

     They had been on a mission in the middle of Siberia. That should have been the first tip-off, honestly, going to such an isolated location to infiltrate an enemy facility, but on top of that, it was a high-security mission that almost nobody knew about. The information had been taken solely from Barnes's account of the time he'd spent in HYDRA hands and aerial snapshots of the area that showed some sort of building with easily a hundred heat signatures within. What the photo didn't show was the network of underground tunnels, a maze of intricate transport systems that could carry people to and from the place with ease, and a purposely cooled basement that would block heat signatures for anyone beneath it.

    So Natasha and James had set off, dropped off by a plane, landing in three feet of snow with a parachute and suited up for a fight in the freezing terrain.

    Having had it set up the way it was, infiltration was easy. There were people killed—they must have been "disposable" in their eyes—and she and Barnes snuck along the hallways, avoiding a multitude of traps that he "spotted" barely in time to safely avoid them. And then, as they got deeper and deeper, there was one he hadn't said anything about, letting her lead the way, and did nothing but watch as she was instantly caged, electrocuted, and dropped through a trapdoor into the basement.

    The agents waiting for her took advantage of the shock still humming through her to sedate her heavily, and must have removed her clothing and weapons then. Doubtless it was James's idea to have her shackled in addition to being locked in this cell, knowing what she was capable of, and Natasha wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed that he didn't underestimate her. But then, having been by her side for so long, why would he? And in some twisted way, with him now kneeling next to her, he still was. She didn't have it in her to be grateful.

    "You must understand how difficult this is for me," James said when he'd sunk down to her level. "I didn't want to do this. You deserved better, I told them, than to be cooped up in this place. But we knew it had to be done as soon as you left the Red Room. You were too far out of their control for them to ever really have allowed your freedom. One way or another, at some point in your life, you'd end up here, back under their thumb."
    "Just like you," Natasha spoke for the first time.
    "Oh, no, no, love." She flinched internally at the moniker. "I was never brainwashed, you see. I joined them of my own free will. They had an arm for me, a job for me. I'd lost my best friend and the world I knew, and they gave me a reason to keep living. I was doing what I had always done, killing people for those who wouldn't want to get their hands dirty, and they just wanted to add a pawn to the game. If you'd kept in line, you could have been their queen, Natalia, but you had to slip away."
              "And yet you left them."
    "Trade one master for another, what does it matter? Granted, it was harder after Steve came back, but imagine, an opportunity to learn everything from the inside, feed information to people and be rewarded handsomely for it, and get the adrenaline rush I've always wanted?"

    Natasha looked away. She was certainly strung up like one, there was no denying it, but at least her mind was clear.

              "So you never did switch sides. And you never did any of it for me."
              James looked thoughtful at that, and shrugged. "I had to get close to you somehow. Does that count as for you? If you're asking if I loved you though…"

    He didn't answer, and she wasn't sure she'd want to hear it anyway. It meant nothing to her, she told herself, not when everything else was a lie. The one person she thought she could trust implicitly with everything, every little secret, every part of her broken soul, and all of it was simply another tidbit filed away to use against her. How could she have been so blind?

                                                (But then, wasn't love always that way?)

    A beeping interrupted the break in their conversation, if you could call it that, and James stood back up, lifting his phone to his ear. There was a series of "mhm"s from him, and a "five minutes", but that was all Natasha could hear. It was frustrating not knowing what was going on. When the phone was returned to James's pocket, he gave her a half-smile, and stepped towards the door.

              "Sorry, work calls. I'll try to come visit later."

    And then he was gone.

    In the cell, there were no windows, one solid metal door, and cement all around her. The shackles were made of some sort of reinforced metal, both chained to the floor and magnetically attached somehow as an extra level of security. If it didn't infuriate her so much, she would have been impressed. With no visitors, no food, no light at all, time was lost in the darkness. She'd kept relatively good count for the first ten hours, then slowed slightly without noticing for the next two, and finally dozed off, losing track altogether.

    Days bled together with nothing but her own thoughts circling around and around, interrupted at odd intervals by someone in doctor's robes and a mask, who injected her with something she couldn't identify. Whatever it was, it was keeping her alive without her having to eat, but her strength was certainly fading. Her muscles were thoroughly fatigued from the way they were held, having given in to terrible cramps for a long while before simply stilling into the stretch, unable to do anything at all.

    What seemed like an interminable amount of time later, James stepped back through the door. Natasha stared at his face with bloodshot eyes.

    He bent down in front of her and pushed her matted hair back from her face, wiping a little bit of the grime from her forehead in the process. She must have smelled terrible, she realized, though it had become something she was so accustomed to that her nose didn't even register it anymore. Her mind told her to pull away from his hand, but she couldn't bring herself to, even after all this.

    "Hey," he said softly, like he was speaking to an easily startled animal. "Looks like it's just the two of us now."

    Natasha's brow scrunched, a silent question.

    "I, uh, ‘killed' the rest of the people here to get revenge for your ‘death', so they're all moving out at the moment. As far as S.H.I.E.L.D. will be able to see, there won't be a soul here." He used air quotes and everything. "I had some restructuring work to do in the organization and I'm finally finished."

    "Congrats," Nat croaked out.

    "Let's get you a bath, shall we?" James pricked her arm with a syringe and emptied a tranquilizer into her veins that forced her to go completely lax, unable to even hold up her head, and he took the opportunity to undo the shackles and carry her to the bathroom. There was a surprisingly large tub there, and he filled it with warm water before lowering her into it. If he hadn't just drugged her, it would have been a gentle, kind gesture, so much like the times when she came back from a mission seriously wounded and he tended to her. She couldn't help but wonder if this was just a little out of habit.

    She couldn't so much as move her arms, but he gently sluiced the water over her, washing away dirt and sweat that had accumulated over her weeks of captivity. He sat on the edge of the tub and shampooed her hair, making sure none of it got in her eyes, and then toweled her off when the water drained away. Being unable to do anything else, she fell asleep in his arms.

    When she woke, she was strapped down again, but not in the cell. This time, it was to a padded chair, surprisingly comfy, and James was sitting in a chair at her side, waiting for her. She couldn't fathom why, especially given how quickly he'd disappeared the first time. But now he acted like he had all the time in the world—and maybe he did. She still didn't have full control of her muscles again, or at least as much as she could have, given the atrophy and damage, but she managed to eat as James fed her the first solid food she'd had in ages. Being able to taste something felt amazing, and even with the simple food that he spooned into her mouth, it felt like heaven.

    Shortly after, James smoothed down her hair again and placed a device on her head. As it folded down in front of her eyes, she could tell that it was some sort of virtual reality simulator, with a bright screen and stereoscopic vision. A film of some sort came into focus, and she had nothing she could do but watch. It began with little bits of history, of S.H.I.E.L.D., of HYDRA, of the KGB and various secret organizations all over the world. They were so similar—something that Natasha was well aware of—but seeing it all put it in perspective. Yes, the footage was biased, as any media was, but as far as she could tell, there were no untruths in it. She snorted. She was apparently a horrible judge of untruths though, wasn't she?

    It shifted from documentary to something strange and familiar, something she couldn't place right away.

                              One, two, three, one, two, three, step, step, step, turn, two three…

    Natasha gasped. It was a video of her in the Red Room, ballet technique perfected as she prepared for a show. The girls were smiling and laughing, completely ignoring the pain in their feet, a few bleeding toes, happy to have pulled off such a good rehearsal. She was in the center of them, red hair and a gorgeous golden leotard, the main character of the opera. Her heart clenched at the sight. Had she ever been that carefree even in all of the danger? How long had it been since she smiled like that? Even with James… just before his betrayal, even with him, it hadn't been so open and childish and eager.

     For the first time in months, tears pricked her eyes.
             (It was amazing what digital manipulation could do
              to video nowadays, tailoring expressions,
              but she couldn't have remembered this even if
              she tried her hardest, that life so far away,
              wiped from her memory long ago.)

    Then there was security camera footage of her seriously speaking to one of her handlers, though there was no audio of course, and then when he left and she rounded the corner, James approached to steal a kiss, leaving her beaming as she walked back towards the barracks. They had been so in love—or she had been, regardless of his stance on it, and a silent tear coursed down her face.

             (He'd never have done that where anyone would be able to record it,
              with their relationship being a secret,
              but in her grief, it didn't even occur to her that
              all of this was a lie as well, clinging to her memories by a thread.)

    There was the exhilaration on her face after a perfect shot, the satisfaction as she looked at the blood on her hands after killing someone who had hurt one of the other girls, the childish joy of trying on her widow's bite for the first time. This was what she'd left behind, a place where nobody would judge her for her vengeance, where she could be who she was meant to be, where her potential was truly realized. This was the place within her that she'd locked away for so long, out of fear of herself. This was…

             (This was all being implanted into her mind,
               slowly and steadily, and it was working.)

    She spent endless hours in that chair, feeling like she was floating, eyes becoming unfocused and slightly glassy as they stared at what had morphed into strange, hypnotic patterns. Her cheeks were tracked with dried tears, but she felt oddly calm, at peace with everything, and finally the video came to an end, leaving her to blink rapidly and come back to reality.

    James was back (or perhaps he'd never left her side?) and raised the viewer out of the way. At some point during the session, he'd released all the restraints, and she was free again. He offered her a hesitant smile, and in a moment, she launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck.

    "James! Oh god, James, I don't know what I did. I never meant to leave you." She sobbed into his shoulder, hugging him tight.

    "I know," he replied kindly, holding her close. "I know. It's okay."

    "You're my everything, James Barnes," she said, throat still scratchy from the crying and general disuse. "I love you."

    "I love you too, Natalia," he breathed happily, kissing her over and over. "I'm so glad you're back. I'm so glad, my love. I missed you."

    She couldn't find anything to say in reply for a while, simply holding him and soaking up his affection. She understood why he did what he did now, knew that he'd loved her the whole time but his aims had to be different because of what had been asked of him, what his mission was. He'd managed to take down key players in so many organizations while she'd been on a futile moral quest, and now she knew where she belonged again… and it was with him, always with him.

    "So," he said after the longest time, after they'd moved to a comfy little couch in a room that he had decked out in strategy maps and newspaper clippings, "now that I've essentially dismantled what was left of the KGB—"

    "You mean killed them all," Nat giggled.

    "Yes, that." He agreed. "Now that I've done that, there are a whole host of people with various expertise, both physical and intellectual, that have been cut loose. Bit dangerous, don't you think?"

    "For us? Nah. For others? Probably. Wouldn't want them in the wrong hands and all that."

    "Exactly. So—"

    "Mister Barnes," Natasha's eyes widened in surprise, and she beamed at him. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"

    "That we build our own secret organization and take down all the others? Why yes, yes I absolutely am, Miss Romanova."

    Natasha laughed loud and long and kissed him breathless. "Have I told you lately that I absolutely adore you?"

    James grinned. "I could do with a little reminding."

    And so she kissed him again, over and over and over. The rest of the world would go down in flames, but it could wait. After all, it had already waited half a century, hadn't it? One more day wouldn't hurt.