She Who Thicks Man's Blood with Cold

The title comes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge, which I reread last night on a whim and found the line particularly suited to Natasha and dreams.

A heavy dose of angst is mixed in with this cottoncandy-bingo prompt ("Nightmares"), but there is (hopefully) catharsis.

Warnings for (oblique) mentions of rape and child abuse.

Sometimes, she dreams.

These are the bad nights, the ones drenched in sweat and blood, the effluvia of her past. In her dreams, she's running through back alleys, finding her mark, killing the people who may or may not deserve their end. She's sprinting across rooftops, evading police, and throwing up in the shower after, never understanding why.

The hospital fire was bad, made worse because she can only forget it, can only put it out of her mind when she's awake, and this is the dream that haunts her the most. When she's walking around in the real world, she can convince herself that she deserves to be in the sunlight, she can tell herself that she is atoning for her crimes, and that maybe one day she'll pay the blood back. When she falls asleep, though, her brain betrays her, and she can't wipe it out from behind her eyes, can't stop reliving the fear, the adrenaline, the heat, the guilt that it was her decision and she should have instead chosen to step out of the shadows and let the men gun her down.

But then she wakes up and the dreams disappear, float off into the ether as she dresses, heads to the gym and runs until she can't breathe.

These aren't the worst nights.

The worst nights are when she remembers other things, the things that came before she knew how easy it was to kill, before the Red Room, back when she learned how to turn her brain off and slide into that other place. These are the nights that she wakes with a sore throat and the moisture on her face is not sweat. These are the nights where she remembers what it was to be small, so small, cowering under a shadow that no amount of light could dispel. These are the nights that she can't shower enough to get clean, when no amount of hot water will erase the ghost impressions of hands around her throat, on her belly, between her legs.

Clint is somehow always there on these nights, sitting quietly nearby while she freaks out, only putting his arms around her after she's finished sobbing and has sagged into his chest. She'd be afraid that he knows her so well except that she just can't anymore. She needs him there so fucking desperately that it terrifies her to the point of rage, but it's the same desperation she sees behind his eyes when he dreams about his own demons, so maybe it's okay.

She wants to tell him, has wanted to tell him everything since he put his bow down instead of putting an arrow into her, and she doesn't understand it, but she knows, has always known that he's the same as her. Wandering but not lost, looking to atone for all the years behind him.

So sometimes, instead of heading to the shower, instead of stripping off her clothes and hiding under the spray while he waits silently for permission to join her on the porcelain tile, sometimes she just talks.

It's not always like this, but on nights like tonight, when the fog of her childhood is so thick around her that the water can't wash it away and she can taste the nausea of her dreams in the back of her throat, she shivers against him as she babbles.

And when she's all cried out and done with words, he kisses her forehead, tells her that it's going to be okay, that he's there with her and will hide the body of anyone who tries to harm her. She knows that it's how he tells her he loves her, just like she tells him the same by curling against him in the dark.

Curled like she is now, tucked into his side and listening to his heart beat, the slight irregularity that always accompanies his worry calming her, grounding her, reminding her that the past is the past and there isn't anything she can do to change it, but the present and the future are hers. He threads his fingers through her hair, massages the back of her head and she knows, completely and thoroughly that he will stand by her, watch her back until his last breath, and just as surely she knows that she would die for him, too.

So on nights like these, when the memories are too sharp and she's tired of crying and she wants to feel something that isn't fear or revulsion, she runs her fingers across his chest, her only warning before she climbs on top of him. He never questions her when she does this, lets her pull off his underwear and take him inside her, and he holds her hands in his until she cries out, falling apart on top of him, her heart shattering along with her body.

She loves him all the more for the way he holds her afterward, loosely in his arms, not grasping or restraining, just stroking her back. She loves him because she can trust him to know what happened to her, why she could use her body the way she did, why she can disconnect from reality so easily, but he will never mention it to another soul, never let on that he knows why she sometimes shrinks away. She loves him because he doesn't flinch when he looks at her, just helps her staunch the blood flowing from her memories, and she loves him more still because he knows everything about her and still cradles her on his chest like she's something precious. Most of all, she loves him because he will never need to hear it aloud.

So, yes, sometimes she dreams, but on those terrible nights, he's got her back.