Sorry it's been so long! There were exams, then holidays and vacation... just think of this as your belated Christmas/Hanukkah and New Year's update all in one. It is extra long ;) Thanks to VioletK for her quick suggestions.
Last time on Trial by Fire: Clint comes back from his mission, they try to hook up again, Natasha freaks and agrees to tell him her life story.
WARNINGS: The first half of this chapter is super angsty, as to be expected. There's mentions of rape and violence and other sticky situations. Everything is PG, but if that turns your stomach start reading a few paragraphs after the last ~8~ (line break).
"There was a fire when I was two. I went back and looked through the records- the Room erased everything about me, but I managed to find the fire department records. They say it was an accident. Sometimes I think I remember the smell of gas- but hell, it could've easily been a cigarette or a candle. It doesn't matter. My parents had no way out, so they tossed me out the window.
"A soldier was the one to find me. Or at least, he told me he was. I guess he was the one that named me. Man had no imagination, probably picked out the most common first and last name in Russia. He brought me to an orphanage, and I grew up there.
"You know what that's like," Natasha said softly, and Clint's fingers tightened on her arm in recognition. "But in Volgograd… there wasn't halfway adequate funding. We never had enough food, or blankets, or beds. In the winter, if you were lucky you'd get a sweater. If you didn't know how to fight or steal, you just wasted away." She wet her lips.
The box spilled onto the ground, already half pulp from being left in the snow. She scrambled up, clawing her way forward and kicking away another girl who got too close. Refusing to let go without anything, despite an elbow to the face. Later, she huddled on her mattress, guarding those ratty boots from prying, hungry little eyes.
"I was lucky," she continued, voice hoarse. "The soldier who found me would come around every once in a while, and bring some food or clothes. Once he gave me a doll. He was… kind. But he just disappeared when I was seven.
"After that I'd steal. A man found me snagging a cookie from a baker, followed me back to the orphanage. He gave me a coin, and told me I could have it if I stole him a pair of gloves. It was a test, and he took me away the next day.
"The Room wasn't that bad in the beginning," she confided. "They told us it was a girls school, and it was easy to believe that we were finally safe despite the discipline. There was food, and a warm bed to sleep in every night. Everyone was under ten years old, and we spent all day learning to read and speak in a ridiculous amount of languages, along with a mountain of physical. We ran, did gymnastics and martial arts. There was a lot of testing, supposedly to ensure that we were healthy. None of us thought it was odd there was no science or history, since no one had been in school before."
"Natalia!" she shot up, instantly alert.
"да?" As soon as the word left her lips, she realized her mistake. "I mean, yes?" Too late. The teacher advanced.
"This is English," she snarled, hand shooting out to tangle in her hair.
"Yes, ma'am. Sorry, my mistake," she gasped. A sharp slap- she had chosen the wrong words.
"We can not afford mistakes in the program!" she spat in disgust, throwing the girl back into her seat. "No lunch today," she said nonchalantly. "Now, translate."
"Every month, they'd test and rank us. The girls at the bottom just disappeared, and we were told they had simply been moved to an easier class. We started with 30 girls, and left with 12. Those left were proud to be the smart ones, the ones that got to stay.
"When I was ten, we were moved in the middle of the night to a larger facility. Suddenly we were actually training- working with weapons, fighting each other, competing. The girls who refused were beaten- if they wouldn't get up they were removed. One by one, we started questioning the program.
The whistle hadn't been blown before Oksana was on her. She got in a glancing hit to Natalia's jaw before the shock morphed into anger. After that, it was just blocking and striking mechanically until Oksana was pinned under her, with only a welt on her cheekbone to show that a fight had taken place. Breathing hard, she moved to get up, until the instructor's palm clamped down on her shoulder.
"вы не сделали (you are not done)" Natalia looked up, uncertain, but he didn't waver. Swallowing against the bile in her throat, she looked down at Oksana, a silent apology. She was met with only fear.
The other girls looked away when her fist came down on Oksana's nose.
"The Guardian came for us after a few months. He spotted me because I was small, and he liked the red." She tugged on a strand of her hair bitterly. "He liked the younger ones, doubly so if they cried and begged. I did, just so he would go easier."
She turned on Clint with tortured eyes, sure that he was appalled. "I haven't been pure in a long, long time."
"I don't care," he declared fiercely, lacing their fingers together. "You don't have to keep going if you don't want to."
"No. This feels… right," she said, surprised to find the words rang true.
"I stopped believing after that. Realized I had to keep myself from being one of the ones removed, that it was no longer enough to be one of the girls- I had to be the best. And eventually, I was. Every month.
"And I realized the Red Guardian favored me. The manipulation started long before they taught it to us. I learned that if I pretended to enjoy it when he was in the right mood, or play the terrified little girl when he wasn't, I'd get little rewards- a nicer mattress, permission to miss a French class. I said and did all the right things, and the bastard never realized I was playing him. Pretty soon I was one of the only ones he called for, and even the trainers watched themselves around me." Natasha had been so caught up in her story, she hadn't noticed how white Clint's knuckles had gotten. Turning, she saw an eerily icy gleam in his eyes. "Clint?"
He gave her a tightlipped smile. "If that bastard's still alive, know that I've got an arrow with his name on it." Natasha smirked at that.
"Sorry, beat you to it. Jealous?"
His eyes darkened. "Sweetheart, more like infuriated. I could never be jealous of a mark."
Satisfied, she continued. "Of course, it couldn't last. The man liked little girls, not women. Once I started getting a little more mature, he got tired of me and gave me to his son, Ivan. He was a lot like us- orphaned, but raised by the Guardian because he was just sadistic enough to carry out his dirty work.
"He became one of our… trainers. The seven of us left had become deadly in practically every martial art known to man, versed in killing with anything. The training became more specialized- how to break into facilities, identifying and administering various poisons, and, of course: how to seduce men.
"We were taught everything, in theory and in practice." She swallowed hard, and Clint made a little choking noise in the back of his throat. "I was one of the best, having already had some experience with it. Ivan took his liberty with us. He liked to drug us first. We couldn't move or speak, but we could feel everything, and that made it ten times worse, and the bastard knew it."
She came to strapped down onto a table. Straining, she spotted a glass syringe on a tray table as well as Ivan's pockmarked face.
Mind whirring, she tried to save herself the only way she knew. Like father, like son, right? "нет ... пожалуйста (no… please)" she murmured demurely, summoning a few tears. Ivan only laughed. The sound was brittle, harsh in this sterile room.
"хм ... ты хитрый один (hm… you're a crafty one)," he said, stroking her cheek with a smirk. "но я боюсь, что маленькая девочка акт не работает на меня (but unfortunately the little girl act doesn't work on me)" The needle jabbed into the side of her neck, and he took her with the tears still pooling in her eyes.
"I got sent out on my first mission when I was about fourteen. It was easy- clean, even. They didn't stay that way, but after a while the disguises and the faces kind of meld together.
"And then I met Alexei. He was one of the guards at the facility. We'd steal a few moments here and there. He was sweet. Never looked at me like I was damaged. I liked that. We never did anything really, and it was probably better that way.
"It was too pure to last. I wanted some semblance of normal human contact so badly I just ignored the consequences. It was a great way to escape, to pretend that things were going to be ok- selfish, I know."
Arms wrapped around her in the dark, and she sighed into his neck, breathing in the smell of soap. "I can't stay long."
"I know. But here's good until you have to go." She wasn't going to argue.
A few moments later, she broke the silence. "What would you do if we weren't here?"
He chuckled. "What do you mean?" She turned, training her eyes on his. "Ok… I suppose I'd live in a city. I always wanted to be a doctor. I'd go to medical school, and get an apartment. And we could get married," he said softly, uncertain. She smiled.
"I'd be a ballerina," she replied. "And I would say yes."
"And we'd have kids."
"Of course. A boy first, than a girl."
"The girl would have your hair, and both would have your eyes."
"And the boy would look exactly like you. Both would be smart," she murmured, closing her eyes and losing herself to the illusion.
"And for your birthday, I'd buy you a puppy. And we'd move into a nice house, and live happily ever after. No more hiding in closets."
She sighed wistfully. "No more hiding."
"One day we got careless, wandered too close to a camera. The next, they pulled me out of training and there he was, tied to a chair and beat up. They… gave me a gun and told me to shoot him. He looked like he was in pain, but kept telling me it was ok, that we shouldn't both have to die. And… I pulled the trigger like a goddamn coward. They told me it was brave, right. I should've killed us both when I had the chance-"
"No." Clint said sharply. "You're smart, and beautiful, and brave, for fuck's sake. If you had given up, that would have been cowardly. It wasn't your fault." He smirked against her ear. "Besides… that way you would never have had the pleasure of meeting me."
"Cocky bastard," Natasha muttered, but ended up smiling despite the pain nonetheless. "The rest is old news. I shut down. Ivan was mad, and it was unpleasant, but nothing hurt as much after that. Guess I finally learned to compartmentalize," she said with a bitter laugh.
"I went on more missions, cut it pretty close. I was about to give up again when I had to kill a weapon's manufacturer. I stumbled on his cache by accident. The mission specs required me to drag the body into the basement, and I walked right into all the TNT and C4 a person could ever use.
"They never saw it coming. I waited until the others had been assigned to missions- there were only three left, and we'd stopped talking long ago, but I just couldn't kill them too. I snuck out, pretending the Guardian had sent for me. Set up the thing to blow the place to bits and cause the roof to sink in. It was incredible I wasn't caught, but they're all dead now.
"You know the rest. I was out, but the bastards had only taught me how to kill. I kept doing jobs, but I liked the independence, liked having the ability to choose, and not be punished. It wasn't ideal, but it held out until you found me.
"So," she said, turning to look at him. "I guess that was a little over detailed, but it's why I can't…" she gestured between them.
"It's alright. We'll work something out, always do," he said, flashing her a grin.
The slap came out of nowhere. "Ow!" Clint said, holding his cheek. "What the hell was that for?"
"I tell you all that and all you give me is a sappy one liner?!" Natasha yelled back.
"Um, sorry? I'm a pretty tacky guy." She deflated at that.
"Sorry… I just really had to hit something," she muttered.
"Wow, you psychopath. Next time I'll bring Sitwell with me or something." That got him another sock on the shoulder. "Hey!" he said, then mock wrestled until he was lying on top of her. It was a mark of trust that she didn't reverse their positions, since everyone in a three mile radius knew she was perfectly capable of kicking his ass.
"Hm… you're letting me do this," he whispered, lowering his head to her neck. Looking up at her, he hovered for a second before kissing her clavicle. "And this…" he said, moving up to her jaw. Then he hovered above her, propped on one elbow. "Your move." She responded by tugging his head down to hers. It brought her back completely to the present, losing herself in the sensations.
They sat back up after trading kisses for who knows how long. "Just… take it slow, alright?" Natasha asked, blushing slightly.
"I'll never push you again. You call the shots if you want to move on. Meanwhile… I'm trying not to do a victory dance, because I really," he kissed her. "Really like kissing you."
"Mm…" she purred. "Can't say that I mind." They sat there a moment longer before Clint suddenly lay down on the floor and shimmied away from the railing. "Shit, shit, shit…" he said, looking around wildly. "Babe, I need you to um, do me a favor."
"What?" she said, dumbstruck at the sudden turn of events.
"Um, down, Coulson, there…" he babbled before gesturing downwards. She followed his hand, and there was their handler, walking to a sedan and looking very, very unamused.
"What did you do?" she said blankly.
"I may have gone to bed without submitting my report." She quirked an eyebrow, and he winced. "And I forgot to make it to the debriefing. Actually… lets just assume I never checked in."
"For Christ's sake, it's been over 12 hours! No wonder he's livid."
"…help?" he said, making his best puppy face.
"You owe me big time. Sit here and contemplate when you lost your goddamn sanity while I figure something out." she grumbled, groping for the ladder. After a few seconds, her head popped back up. "And just a warning- call me babe again and I'll have tell everyone infantilism is your thing."
He winced. "Noted."
Coulson's afternoon had been going pretty badly. He loved his charges, though he'd be caught dead before admitting it, but this was one of the days that pushed the limits. Barton had always been bad about writing up reports, but disappearing completely without any conclusion was just absurd. When he turned from questioning a terrified driver and found himself looking at a thatch of red hair, he was certain the day was about to get worse.
"What, Romanoff?" he snapped.
"Oh nothing…" she said innocently. "Just thought I'd come say hi." He raised his eyebrows. Agent Romanoff had never taken time out to greet someone besides Barton in all her time at SHIELD. Barton. His eyes narrowed.
"You don't happen to know where Barton is, do you?" he asked, peering behind her suspiciously. Her arm shot out and she steered him forcefully toward the main building.
"Nope, what's he done now?" she asked absently. Coulson launched into the narrative, sounding doubly wounded, and didn't even bother to ask where they were headed until he got in the elevator.
"Where are we going?"
"Oh, I'm just going to help you look," she said, looking up at him with wide eyes. "I need to… see him about something too." This was just getting more and more suspicious, but he followed nonetheless.
They went through the cafeteria, med bay, even returned to their shared quarters. There was no sign of Barton's return, and Romanoff's withering look when he tried to open the bedroom door gave him no choice but to turn away.
"Have you checked your own office?"
"Yes, of cours-"
"Let's try again," she demanded, yanking him back to the elevator.
He was just thinking up crafty ways to get her off his back when the office door opened, revealing Barton panting, still clad in his tac geer, with what appeared to be an entire spider's web living in his hair.
"Clint…" Natasha said, gesturing towards his head. Coulson took his own seat while his agent tried to scrub the sticky residue out with his own hands.
"So… what's the story?" This wasn't the first time, and he was willing to bet it wouldn't be the last.
"No story," Barton said innocently. "I… just got back."
"Your quinjet landed 15 hours ago."
"They let me off to go for a drive. I needed some air."
"You were the pilot."
The agent froze. "Um… are you sure?"
"I checked three hours ago."
"Check again," Romanoff interjected, shooting him a look.
Barton nodded furiously. "Yeah, check again." Sighing, he complied.
The results weren't as expected. Scrubbing a hand over his face, Coulson said, "Are you telling me you allowed Agent Warner to pilot the quinjet in spite of his complete lack of aerial training, and that in a burst of dyslexia I didn't spot that the last two times I checked records?"
"Um… yes?" Barton said, surreptitiously stepping on Romanoff's foot. He got a jab in the ribs for the effort.
"I see," he said dryly, not missing a second of this exchange. "One of you better start talking right now. You're making less sense by the second."
"As I see it, he's in trouble for missing a briefing. Which he is now able to complete," Romanoff said smoothly. "Did you kill the target?" she asked her partner.
"Did you fuck things up in any way?"
"There, we're done here," she said, pulling Barton out of the room.
"I'll find out what you did-" he called after them, and was cut off by the door slamming. He stared at the frame, dumbstruck and confused as hell, before opening his desk drawer. He really, really needed an Excedrin.
"Thank you," Clint said breathlessly. "That went surprisingly well."
"Not so bad yourself. How the hell did you manage to get your gear on while in the vents?"
"I have my methods," he said airily.
"Well, I guess you'll just have to demonstrate some other time." He screeched to a halt. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" he asked, voice cracking.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," she replied coolly, though her smirk said otherwise.
He groaned. "Minx."
"You know you love it." He grunted the affirmative, secretly relieved beyond measure that they were back to the usual banter.
"Fine. How did you do the flight records while you were with him?" she only smiled in response. "Patricia?"
"Nope. I actually owe her a favor." His eyebrows shot up.
"Since when do you willingly accept help?" She glared at him. "Fine, fine. I estimate we have about half an hour until Coulson comes after that."
His partner snorted. "More like fifteen."
"Well than… let's not go back to the apartment yet."
"Got anyplace in mind?" she asked.
"Uh, you decide." Before the words had gotten out, she had tugged him into a supply closet, locked the door and was kissing the breath out of him. "God I hope the novelty of this doesn't wear off," he muttered.
"Stop talking." He was all too glad to comply.
It was rarely perfect or pretty, and was all around dysfunctional. But they would make it work together.
Tell me what you think! This one was quite a challenge to write, and some feedback would be nice.
Unfortunately, this story is coming to an end. The next update will probably be the last, and I'll try to get it up in a week. There are no guarantees, but reviews are great motivation ;)