Natalia didn't use her wings very often.
When she was training they weren't necessary. When she was trying to sneak to a location unseen they would get in the way. She only put them on when she was supposed to be infiltrating a location. Meeting with a target. Seducing someone.
They were a deep red, similar to the red wine she pretended to drink at those social gatherings. They were big, but not too big, and the feathers fluttered in the wind. Beautiful. When she returned to the Red Room, she would remove them, give them back, and move to her next mission.
Natalia never gave it much thought. Yes, everyone wore wings, like hers. Everyone also wore shirts. It was just something people did. Other's moved more than hers, but they were probably just more expensive, made to look more alive. Wings were pretty, but that was it. She never questioned them.
Clint used his wings all the time.
Since he joined SHIELD they had grown bigger and bigger. His wings were broad but spindly, not the strongest things ever, but big enough that he could use them to climb to his perches. When he was in one of his nests, they would fall behind him like a purple cloak, and helped coin the code name 'Hawkeye'.
He could remember them being so small they couldn't stretch part his hands, let alone how far down they draped now. How she could wrap them around himself to stave off the cold.
Clint liked his wings.
"This woman is very dangerous, and this could be our only shot at taking her out. We do that, we strike a blow against the red room."
Clint grimaced in thought. "Couldn't we bring her in sir? Her intel would be more useful than just taking away their favourite toy." He flicked through the file for the thousandth time.
"Negative." Coulson said firmly. "She's far too dangerous to try. And the last thing we need is a dangerous, pissed off KGB agent in our organisation." Seeing Clint's uncertainty, Coulson met his eyes. "You copy?"
"Yeah." Clint muttered, "Yes sir." His wings were rolled up against his back.
"What's up?" Coulson asked. "This isn't your first mission like this."
"I know." Clint said, "I just..." He sighed. "I know it's part of their tactics, but..." He plucked the one picture that had been snapped of his target, blurred. Wings just the wrong shade to match her hair. "Something just seems... wrong."
"She puts you off." Coulson commented. "That's what they do. That's their main strategy. Don't let her." His wings hung around his shoulders. "This shouldn't feel right. You know that."
Clint nodded, closing the file. He swallowed. "How's May?"
Coulson's wings drooped and his face fell. "Not good. I went to see her in administration last week, but... it was like she didn't even see me."
"She'll be okay Phil." Clint tried to comfort him, but he was just as worried. He loved May, she was fun, great at her job, caring, protective. But now... "She will."
"I hope so."
Clint awkwardly patted him on the shoulder. "Let's go be good guys."
It was a simple mission really. Natalia was to go in, socialise, pretend that she belonged there, no- be like she belonged there, smile, talk, dance with strangers, pretend to drink the champagne. Drug her target in the men's bathroom after seducing him into a stall. Steal his card key for the hotel room upstairs.
Take out the security guards on her way.
Walk in and complete her objective. Do her job.
Clint Barton scouted the gala with an increasing sense of unease. He wasn't sure what it was about this woman. She just seemed... wrong. Not in the way he was used to, even.
He shook himself. He knew that if he got distracted, the Black Widow would take him out without hesitation. Hell, even if he wasn't distracted that might happen. This was gonna be tough. He kept his interest hidden, so as not to attract her attention, but caught the identity of the guy she was playing.
Clint used the gadget some kid from sci-tech had made to open the balcony door without issue, closing it again behind him, and stood in the dark corner, his wings wrapped around him fully to camouflage him into the shadows. He levelled his breathing and heartbeat, like Melinda had helped him do, feeling his bow on his back.
He was ready. As ready as he could be, anyway. He would have preferred to be a building or two over, but they didn't know where she was going.
He did now. The Black Widow was coming here.
The door opened and Clint held his breath.
Then she entered. Deep red wings at her back, her slight stature hiding the deadly force he knew she was. Clint watched as she made for the bed, turning her back to him.
He readied to pounce, but before he could she had spun around with unnerving speed, landing a solid kick to his gut through his wings. Clint grunted in pain, and ducked the swipe she made with a knife, making to sweep her legs out from under her.
Too fast for that, she jumped, and Clint took the momentary opportunity to pull his bow free and swing it at her face. It made it's target, but the next second her hands had closed around it, attempting to pull the weapon from him. Clint pulled back, his wings coming to his aid in attempting to shove her away, but only succeeded in causing both to overbalance and topple to the ground.
Rolling with it, Clint pulled an arrow from his quiver and levelled it at the Black Widow.
It was then that he realised what had been bugging him about her. What it was that was wrong.
She had fallen onto her stomach, and both knew there was no way she could right herself before Clint's arrow hit home. That wasn't what got his attention though. It was that, during the fall, one of her wings had fallen loose. Like they were attached to her by some kind of harness, her left wing hung like a broken swing. It was like she had no wings. Her eyes, which he were expecting to be dark, cold and murderous, were lost, wild and confused.
Clint made his decision quickly, and jammed the tranquilliser into her neck, knocking the Black Widow unconscious in a matter of seconds. She glared at him venomously, spitting some kind of Russian curse before her body sagged and her eyes shut.
Clint examined the wings, their attachment to her. He was right, it was a harness to her back. There wasn't even a hint of feathers underneath. Using his arrow to cut them off, he heaved both the Black Widow and her supposed wings up in his arms, and used his own wings to climb down from the balcony.
Coulson was going to kill him for this.
Natalia woke in a cold, empty room. For a moment she thought she was back at the red room. Then it came back to her. She jolted into action, trying to rip her arms free, but then realised that they weren't restrained.
She was seated in a sparse room, a dirty carpet on the floor, the bunk which she was sitting on was bolted to the wall, no springs in the mattress. A sink was welded to the wall, and she was dressed in some standard issue clothes with an eagle symbol on them. The wings were gone.
She could see three different security cameras watching her every move, so she sat, waiting.
She didn't wait long. A few minutes later there was a knock on the reinforced door, and a man entered. He was older than her, had thinning brown hair, wore a nice suit and a pair of large golden wings. He carried a paper plate with a sandwich. "Hello." He greeted softly. "My name's Phil Coulson. I brought you some food." He put the sandwich on the bunk beside her, sitting in the bolted down chair.
Natalia glared. She knew this tactic. Bring the person you're interrogating a gift. Something they want. Make them think you're on their side. And drug it to make them cooperate.
Coulson seemed to notice her hostility. "I know. You think I'm here to pump you for information." He sighed softly. "Not gonna lie, we'd appreciate that. But that's not why I'm here." He paused. "I'm here to tell you that we'll protect you, for now. My colleague thinks you deserve another chance. I believe in second chances. Take this one. They don't come around that often."
With that short introduction and offering, Coulson left.
Natalia stared at the sandwich.
She didn't eat for three days, despite Coulson's frequent visitations with food.
After those three days, the other one visited. She knew him. Mostly from the wings trailing behind him. She liked the colour.
"Hey." He greeted, smiling transparently. "You gonna hit me again?"
Natalia gave no response. She stared ahead like no one was there.
He gave her no mind. "Coulson says you haven't been eating." He said, bearing yet another sandwich. "You think that maybe you should?"
Good God, this man was infuriating. Natalia wasn't sure if it was her lack of sleep, lack of food, or lack of orders, but she was closer to breaking her silence now to snap at this man than she had been in three days of Coulson's gentle questions.
He must have noticed, as he chuckled. "It's good." He said in a patronising tone, taking a bite. "Mmmm, nice salad."
This was another test. Trying to get her to react. Natalia did not react.
"Definitely not spiked with truth serum or poison." He grinned, putting it back down. His point was proven. "Not that I'd lug you through Saint Petersburg just to poison you here, jeez, I'm way too lazy for that."
Natalia was silent.
"Not that you'd know there's no truth serum, I guess." He said thoughtfully. "Ask me a question! Then I can prove it."
Natalia glared. She knew this game. He was being far to obvious with his intentions.
He threw his hands up. "Okay!" He said. "You don't wanna talk. But I am a fifty foot pink elephant. Just so you know." With that odd remark, he left.
Natalia stared at the sandwich for a while after that, before caving and taking a small bite.
It was a pretty nice salad mix.
The next person to visit was even more different again. He wore a long black coat, a pair of matching wings, and an eye patch. He engaged in a staring contest with Natalia for several minutes, after which time he sighed angrily. "I'm gonna level with you." He said. "You are a right pain in my ass. I didn't want you here." He slowed, leaning back. "But Agent Barton thinks you can be an asset to us." The distrust in his eye was clear. "I happen to value his judgement, or else I wouldn't be wasting my time trying to help you, when my agents could be doing their jobs. So you do something to prove him right, and you do it fast, got it?"
Natalia was pretty sure her disdain showed. She didn't care. If they were going to kill her then so be it.
Next she was woken in the night to an unidentifiable noise. Natalia sat up, instantly alert in her darkened cell. A moment later her door opened.
"Hey." He greeted softly, shutting the door behind him, his wings slipping in and out of the shadows. "I bribed the night shift guy on surveillance to accidentally switch off your cameras. If you wanna know anything... you can ask. No one's watching."
Natalia was silent. But her eyes were wide. He was coming to answer questions, not ask. What technique involved giving information? Telling your captive that, for the first time, they weren't being observed. She could kill him here and now. Her fingers twitched.
"I'd really appreciate it if you don't attack me." Barton joked. "I- uh, thought you might want something that wasn't a sandwich, so I brought some chocolate." He handed it to her, and looked surprised when Natalia took it. She was surprised with herself as well, actually.
Barton hesitated, then sat beside her on the bunk, his legs hanging off the side. "Is there anything you wanna know?" He chuckled. "Dumb question. Duh." He took a breath, "I-"
"Why did you spare me?"
He stared for a solid few seconds, then laughed softly. His wings shook with mirth. "Oh man, you don't know how many times I've been asked that lately." He paused. "I-I don't really know. Because... I don't think you were given a choice in what you were. I think you deserve that choice."
Natalia's eyes fell to her knees. "You have a lot of faith." She murmured softly.
To her surprise, he shook his head. "No. I don't know what you're gonna choose. You deserve the choice, but I don't know you." Barton swallowed. "If you want to join SHIELD, you'll have some hoops to jump through, but you'll be welcome. If you don't, there are a lot of options. Fury would keep you under surveillance, so you don't go off the grid, but if you wanna live a normal life, we'll help with that too."
Though Natalia didn't look at him or make a sound, it felt like he was reading her mind. "We can't let you go back though. Not that I can see why you'd want to." A question.
"I have to."
Natalia was silent again. She had learned not to ask those questions.
He cocked his head. "What do you remember about it?" When he saw the cold electricity in her eyes, he backtracked. "Don't tell me!" He exclaimed, holding his hands out peacefully. "Just... think about it. What'd they ever do that made you loyal to them?"
That quiet was back to her, the kind Clint saw when they were watching her alone in this cell. Contemplative, but not calm. Waiting. "I know. I shouldn't be doing this so fast. You can probably grade me on how shitty I'm doing in interrogation."
"Interrogation?" Natalia's voice sounded a lot more innocent in her own ears. Hopeful. Was this an interrogation?
His eyes widened. "No, I didn't mean it like that, I- I was just joking. Promise."
Natalia's green eyes remained on him steadily, and Clint was struck by what a nice colour they were. "Talking about interrogations though..." He tested, watching for her reaction. "Is it too much to ask for your name?"
Natalia glanced away. She shouldn't. That would be surrendering information for nothing in return. She liked him though. Barton. That was what the tall man in the coat had called him.
"I get it." He murmured, "You don't wanna give up any information. I just wanna know what to call you. Do you have a nickname or something? I'm getting a little tired of just talking about 'that Russian who relocated my spleen'."
It was a joke, and it almost made Natalia smile. Her face did soften a little as a compromise. She thought about it, and eventually decided, "Natasha." She said. "You can call me Natasha."
Barton did smile at her words, a boyish grin that lit up his face. "Well," He extended a hand for her to shake. "It's nice to meet you Natasha, I'm Clint."
Natasha felt... better. Most days at least. It was liberating to know that she could do what she wanted now, but figuring out what that was was harder than she thought.
Her nights were haunted though. She woke up screaming from nightmares she couldn't remember or process. She spent her waking hours terrified, feeling those memories she didn't want at the edges of her thoughts, just waiting for her to push a little. But she didn't want to push. She didn't want to remember what she had done, what they had done to her.
The anxiety bled into her almost nightly conversations with Clint. She liked him. At least she thought so. He was... kind. He filled the void with his own voice, yammering on about nothing important. It felt like he understood. But she knew deep down that he didn't. Not really.
She listened to him talk anyway though, because it was nice to pretend. He was nice. She didn't say much, sometimes barely enough to keep whatever it was they had going. She asked questions though. Occasionally.
After a couple of weeks, something that had been niggling at her since waking up came to the surface. "Why do you wear your wings all the time?" She asked softly when Clint stopped talking.
He seemed confused. "Why do I- what?"
"Your wings." Natasha repeated. "Why do you wear them all the time?"
"Wear them?" Clint was struck dumb when he realised what she meant. He was pretty sure his heart broke then and there. "Y-yours..."
"You took them." Natasha mumbled, suddenly feeling like she'd asked the wrong thing. "Are yours permanently attached?"
Clint stared at her, open-mouthed. Horrified. "I-I... I'm sorry, I can't- Natasha, I'm sorry." With that he ran from the room, leaving a confused Russian assassin in his wake.
He swept through the dark corridors of the base, his wings twitching sporadically. Permanently attached? Wear them all the time? Did Natasha even realise that other people had wings? What had they done to her in that place that she didn't even know what people's wings were, let alone grow her own?
Clint wasn't sure where his legs were taking him, but he eventually arrived at admin. He swallowed. There was no one around, no one to talk to, to share this revelation with. They had their theories about why she had no wings, but... Clint hadn't expected this. Going two for two on bad decisions, he quietly opened the door to the legion of cubicles.
All were deserted and dark except one. Clint made his way over, blowing the occasional file onto the ground with his spindly, twitchy wings.
He sat on the ground beside her cubicle, seeing the shapes moving under her jacket, hiding wings he knew were a beautiful blue. "Hey Mel." He greeted. "I- uh. I know I should have visited sooner, just..." He trailed off. When she said nothing either, the tears started to burn at his eyes, and he struggled to stay in control. "M-Mel, she- she doesn't even know that my wings are real." He stuttered.
That made May pause in her paperwork. She looked down at him. "What?" She asked flatly.
Clint took a shaky breath. "She doesn't have wings." He said, making Melinda's wings twitch. "That's why she was putting me off on mission. The wings she had weren't real."
"That's why you spared her."
"I- kind of." He admitted, wrapping his wings around himself. "She doesn't- Mel, she doesn't understand. She thinks they're all fake. How... how do I fix that?" He felt like he was going to be sick.
"You don't." May said coldly. "Clint, if you're trying to fix her, you can't. You can't change what's already happened."
Clint quivered. "Then what do I do?"
"Whatever you want." May said shortly. Clint could see the pain buried deep. But he knew he couldn't help Melinda. Not now, at least. Instead he decided to nut up and help the person he could.
He put a hand on May's shoulder in farewell. "'Love you, Mel." He murmured.
Clint knew that Natasha had nightmares. He would know that even if they didn't have twenty-four hour video surveillance of her room. He knew.
That didn't mean he was prepared for the state she was in when he returned.
She wasn't tossing, she wasn't screaming, and she wasn't sobbing. She lay perfectly still, one arm suspended off the side of the bed. Her brow was furrowed, in fear, confusion, Clint couldn't tell.
And she was talking.
Clint wasn't sure what she was saying. The Russian was too fast for him to comprehend. It sounded like a repetition though. Some kind of hypnosis? Had they programmed her? Was it wearing off? Was she a sleeper? Was this their plan all along?
Maybe he made some noise. Maybe he was too close. He was definitely too deep in thought, because the next thing he knew Natasha had him pinned, her elbow digging into his throat.
Her green eyes were wild and vicious. Clint grunted. "Natasha." He gasped around his suddenly limited air supply.
As quickly as it came, the moment was gone, and Natasha released him. "You shouldn't be here when I'm asleep." She murmured, moving to the other side of the room, as far away as she could get.
Clint massaged his throat. "Noted." He rasped.
She eyed him cautiously. "Why did you come back?"
Clint rubbed his face, keeping his wings behind his back. "I- I shouldn't have run away like that. I'm sorry." He moved to sit on the other end of the bunk, giving her the space. "You... you scared me before."
Natasha stared like she didn't understand. Of course she didn't. That was the whole problem. Clint toyed absentmindedly with one of his primaries. "I- Natasha, wings aren't... fake, do you know that?"
She frowned, paused, and shook her head.
"They're not." Clint said softly. "Everyone has them, they... they usually start growing when you're a kid."
Natasha licked her lips. "Why don't I have any?"
"I don't know." Clint said quietly. He didn't want to go into that tonight. "Do you remember anything, maybe from when you were younger?"
She was already shaking her head. "I don't remember much. They- did things." Natasha admitted. It was the first mention she'd made to the red room. She glanced back to Clint's wings. "You mean it. You're not... joking, again?"
"No. I promise."
Clint could see her eyes darting to his wings, then away, then back to them again. He saw her hands, unnaturally still, since he had noted Natasha habitually fiddled with them. He swallowed nervously. He didn't entirely trust her. He wasn't that stupid. But... "You can touch, if you want." He offered, extending one towards her, slowly.
Natasha recoiled slightly. "People don't usually do that." She murmured.
"No." Clint acknowledged. "But it's okay." He didn't want to push. Instead he just kept them draped over his shoulders.
A moment later tentative fingers brushed his feathers, and Clint smiled. His mischievous side wanted to knock her over with one, but he stemmed the desire. Her gentle touch felt nice. Calming.
Natasha looked in awe. Clint was right. His wings were part of him. They trembled in reaction to her touch, alive, almost like they had a mind of their own. She examined further down their length, taking in their structure, the joints, how they could fold in, how lithe they were. She was loving their deep colour even more now.
When her fingers reached the base, where they connected to his back, Clint barked out a laugh and squirmed away. "Sorry." He grinned, wings curling defensively on reflex. "I'm ticklish there."
That look wasn't one he'd seen on Natasha's face before. The distant ghost of a smirk. Knowing and smug. Dialled down, but definitely there. Clint chuckled. "Don't even think about it black widow." He warned teasingly. "I kicked your ass before, I'll do it again."
The glimmer in Natasha's eyes was also new. Delighted, but still cautious, uncertain. Clint wondered how long it had been since she had joked. "You got lucky."
Clint laughed out loud. "Ooohh, them's fighting words!" He cried in an affected accent. It was a blatant attempt to make her smile, but he didn't care. He wanted Natasha to be happy, for her to see that it was an option for her. He wanted her to live.
He brightened as a thought occurred to him. "Hey, why not?"
"What?" She asked, the mirth disappearing faster than it had appeared. Clint couldn't be talking about what she thought he was.
"Spar." Clint clarified. "I'd have to talk to Coulson about it, but... I bet it'd be nice to stretch your legs."
He looked so happy with the idea. Natasha swallowed, willing her heartbeat to slow. She had fought before. And it would be... interesting to see the rest of this place. She banished her feelings and nodded. "Okay."
Clint beamed. "Great!" He said. "I'll talk to Coulson tomorrow. Odds are he'll want a chaperone, but I think we'll be fine."
His smile did make Natasha feel better. He was so bright, and his smile so boyish and genuine. She nodded again.
Clint hesitated before leaving. He felt that he should do something. A hug, a pat on the shoulder, something. They'd taken a step tonight. He felt closer to her now. Maybe he even trusted her a little. Before he did something that ruined it, Clint stood. "Goodnight." He murmured with a gentle smile.
Natasha mumbled a farewell in return, and lay down in another attempt at sleep when the door clicked shut. She shifted uncomfortably, wishing for another shirt. This one had started to make her back itch.