Awareness came slowly.
There was a roaring in Natasha’s ears when her senses returned, like coming up from a deep pool. Her head throbbed dully and a low groan rose in her throat, but she instinctively choked back the noise and lay still, waiting for the fog to clear.
Memories of the last several days trickled in gradually at first, and then rushed back into place at once. Her heart started pounding in her chest, and she immediately willed her pulse to slow, but it was too late - if she was being watched, they already knew that she was conscious.
Natasha tensed, every nerve vibrating. The chill in the air told her that the coat and gloves she’d been wearing were gone, and the familiar weight of her weapons was absent as well. Her eyes snapped open. She’d expected to find a guard or a doctor looming over her, maybe even the Polkovnik himself, but she was alone. A metal ceiling gleamed dully above her, a single florescent bulb the only visible source of light.
A fleeting sense of recognition bubbled up within her, and she allowed her gaze travel around the rest of the space. It was a cell, one that was small and relatively bare; the floor was concrete, but the walls were metal like the ceiling and it was windowless. A small opening in the door offered a narrow view of the hallway outside, and vents marked each side of the room, allowing the air to circulate. She was laying on a simple bunk which faced the door, and that sense of recognition returned, more powerfully this time.
She didn’t have a chance to dwell on it, however, because the moment she moved, sitting up on her bunk, there was a noise somewhere nearby.
“Romanoff? That you?”
Natasha blinked, and then her eyes narrowed as she tried to decide where his voice had come from. Her gaze fell on the vents near the ceiling. His voice seemed to have come from somewhere on her right, and she swung her legs over the edge of her bunk, intending to stand and walk closer to the wall on that side of the cell. But as soon as her feet hit the floor, her head throbbed sharply and her stomach churned. She closed her eyes again, swallowing hard and willing the feeling away.
“It’s me,” she confirmed at last, though she didn’t try to stand again.
Her voice had been thick despite her best efforts, and Stark must have heard it because he scoffed.
“You sound like I feel. For the record: ow.”
Natasha drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, then opened her eyes once more.
“Rogers said he saw you getting dragged over there before they tossed him into a cell of his own,” Stark continued. “He woke up first. ’Guess being a lab rat has some perks.”
“So does having a thick skull, Stark, ” Rogers returned darkly. “You should know.”
His voice was coming from the same direction as Stark’s, but it sounded farther away, a little more muffled. If Stark and Rogers were both in cells like hers, then Natasha assumed that Rogers’ cell was on the other side of the billionaire’s. She wondered suddenly how long Stark had been awake - maybe a while if Rogers was already at the point of answering Stark’s barbs with some of his own.
Then again, the Red Room had undoubtedly been careful not to hit Stark too hard - his brain was too valuable for them to risk damaging it permanently. Damaging his intellect, in any case. She could already guess what they had planned for the rest of his mind.
“What about Banner?” she asked. “Thor?”
“Don’t know,” Rogers admitted. “I haven’t seen them since we were outside.”
Stark snorted. “They probably have their own custom suites, real luxury accommodations. Like Rogers over there. He’s a little tied up.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Rogers answered. “I’m in some sort of…metal straightjacket, and whatever it’s made out of, I can’t break it. I guess they weren’t taking any chances.”
No, Natasha agreed silently, they weren’t, not that she’d expect any less.
Rogers’s thoughts much have been along the same lines, because he made a derisive sound.
“We played right into their hands, didn’t we? Handed ourselves over, practically gift-wrapped.”
He wasn’t wrong. They should have seen it for the trap it was - she should have seen it. But she hadn’t. Had she been too blinded by her worry for Clint? Or had she simply underestimated them?
Either way, she’d failed.
“Yeah,” Stark agreed, almost as though reading her mind. “We walked into their trap like gullible little superheroes. We can feel like idiots later.”
"Let’s get out of here now,” remained unspoken, but Natasha heard it all the same, and she was sure that Rogers had as well. She could guess why Stark had chosen not to say it. A quick look around her own cell revealed no visible cameras or listening devices, but it was possible that they were just particularly well-hidden.
“You have something have in mind?” Roger’s asked carefully.
“I’m…working on it,” Stark answered unconvincingly.
The silence that followed must have seemed accusatory, because Stark sighed.
“Look, who do you think I am? MacGyver? All I have is the clothes on my-” There was a thoughtful pause. “Huh.”
Natasha frowned. “What?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
The words were quick, bitten off, distracted. She didn’t believe them, but she didn’t press.
She heard footsteps in his cell, and then the creak of the springs on his bunk and the rustle of fabric. She wasn’t sure what to make of it, but she hoped that he would be able to conceal whatever he was doing, if that was his goal. The blanket on the bunk, after all, seemed to be the only sort of cover available in these cells.
Silence fell again, disrupted only by the faint rustling noises she could hear from Stark.
Eventually, Rogers spoke again.
“So, if escaping is off the table right now,” he began pointedly, obviously for the benefit of anyone who might be listening, “how do we fight them?”
The statement fell from her lips before she had time to consider it - it was instinct, almost, an instinct that two years of freedom had apparently failed to suppress - but for all that, it was no less true. When she’d escaped, she’d done it all outside, away from the Red Room’s immediate control, using what little bit of freedom she had to prepare, to plan. But here, in the Red Room itself, fighting wasn’t an option.
It was Stark who answered her this time. He still sounded distracted and his voice was more muffled than it had been, but his tone was darker and harder than anything she’d heard from him yet.
“Funny, but I’ve heard that sort of thing before. Didn’t listen then and don’t plan to listen now.”
Natasha shook her head at his certainty. “The Red Room isn’t the Ten Rings, Stark. They’ll take you and shape you into whatever they want you to be, and eventually, you won’t resist because you won’t remember that you were supposed to.”
“But you did.” Rogers pointed out. “You fought them.”
Yes. Because of Clint.
She couldn’t even begin to explain that, though, didn’t know why or how meeting Clint had changed her. She didn’t even remember meeting him, not really. All she had left of that time were a few, fragmented memories.
Still, it had been enough. More than enough.
“That was different,” she said quietly.
She’d tried to keep her tone neutral, but perhaps she hadn’t succeeded because for a long moment, neither Rogers or Stark spoke.
“Well,” the billionaire prodded eventually, “the least you can do is give us a few pointers. You know, ‘How To Resist Brainwashing 101.’”
“I doubt they’ll give me that chance.”
“What do you mean?” Rogers asked.
“The Red Room doesn’t tolerate traitors.”
The pause that followed this time was filled with grim understanding.
“You think they’re going to execute you.”
“I know they will.”
Chances were, she’d only been kept alive thus far because the Red Room wanted to question her. Once that was finished, they’d no longer have any reason to keep her breathing. In a strange way, that was almost a relief, if only because it meant she wouldn’t be theirs, not again.
“No,” Rogers insisted. “It won’t come to that. We’ll get out of here.”
The words were infused with all the determination and optimism one would expect from the Captain who’d helped rally a nation during WWII. His resolve reminded her of the boy she’d met so long ago…maybe even in cells just like these. The boy who’d inspired her to fight. But she knew what the Red Room had done to that boy…what they would probably do to these men.
Natasha released a quiet breath and sat back on her bunk, leaning against the wall behind her, her elbows on her knees and her eyes locked on the door of her cell.
It was only a matter of time.
When they did come a few hours later, it was the footsteps she heard first, footsteps that echoed both in the corridor outside and in her memory. The familiar cadence grew louder, and Natasha pushed herself up from the bunk. Her head throbbed again with the movement, but she ignored it and stood.
The rustling from Stark’s cell died down as the guards drew closer, and she hoped that whatever he was doing hadn’t progressed enough to draw their attention. It seemed that it hadn’t, because they passed Stark’s cell without a second glance.
She wasn’t surprised when they stopped in front of hers.
For a moment, she thought about resisting, but she knew that in the end, it would accomplish nothing. The guards were undoubtedly prepared for a fight, and given the way her head still ached, it wouldn’t take much for them to disable her. If anything, it would only guarantee that she entered her interrogation worse off than she was now, and considering the methods the Red Room used, she would need whatever strength she had to endure them.
So, she watched impassively as her cell door opened, then turned her gaze to the guards outside. There were eight of them, each with their hands resting on their side-arms.
The guard nearest the door drew his gun, using it to wave her forward. “Убирайся.” Out.
She waited a beat before she complied, and when a muscle ticked along the guard’s jaw in irritation, her lips curled faintly. It was a bit petty, perhaps, but satisfying nonetheless.
The moment she stepped into the hallway, the guards surrounded her, staggering their positions to block her escape.
“Положите руки за спиной,” one of them demanded sharply. Put your hands behind your back.
They didn’t wait for her to obey them this time. After only a second’s hesitation, her arms were wrenched behind her back and cold metal cuffs were snapped around her wrists. Her fingers curled a little, but she offered them no other reaction, keeping her expression blank.
“двигаться,” the same man ordered. Move.
She started down the corridor and the guards moved with her.
They passed Stark’s cell first, and through the small opening in the door, she was surprised to see that he was standing, his arms crossed over his chest. He was staring at the guards as they passed, his eyes dark, filled with what could only be described as hatred.
They passed Rogers’ cell a moment later, and she caught a glimpse of the “metal straightjacket” he had described. It was locked around his neck and waist, pinning his arms to his chest, his hands concealed in thick, metal gauntlets. Given the way he hadn’t moved any closer to the door, she assumed that the device was probably anchored to the wall as well. His gaze, though, was as hard as Stark’s. It softened only when his eyes met hers, and then she saw the same reassurance he’d tried to offer her before.
Natasha found that she appreciated the gesture, fleeting as her glimpse of him had been. But soon, she and the guards had left the cells behind. She felt an unwelcome sense of déjà vu as she walked, the all-too familiar sight of the concrete and steel bringing to mind the many times she’d been down these halls before.
Perhaps this time would be the last.
That seemed likely when their journey through the building ended in the cold, damp corridors of the basement, the area often reserved for…disposal. She was brought to a small, barren room, one with a drain in the center of the floor. The reddish-brown stains surrounding it made its purpose obvious. Nearby, there was a tall, free-standing metal slab that would have looked vaguely like an up-ended table if it weren’t for the thick metal shackles welded to its face.
Natasha was pushed forward roughly, her hands un-cuffed and her back pressed against the slab with quick efficiency. Her arms were yanked up and the shackles snapped around her wrists. She was fortunate, she supposed, that though the chains were short, they weren’t mounted high enough that she would be forced to stand on her toes. Shackles were snapped around her ankles next, their harsh edges evident even through the material of her boots.
The guards tugged at her bonds for a moment to ensure that they were secure, then apparently satisfied, they stepped back, filing swiftly out of the room. Natasha watched them go before she let her gaze sweep her surroundings, hoping to find something that might give her an advantage.
That was when she heard it: the soft foot-fall behind her.
She tensed; the slab made it impossible to see anything from that direction, but she twisted as much as her chains would allow, her eyes narrowed.
“Покажи себя,” she demanded. Show yourself.
A soft, amused sound followed. “Ah, Natalia, I must admit, I have missed you.”
Natasha froze, her throat suddenly dry.
The Polkovnik stepped around the slab a moment later, his hands clasped behind his back.
“You always had such spirit, regardless of whose memories you were stamped with. You were…unique.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, those same qualities also made your training quite a risky endeavor. They warned me in the beginning that you would bear watching. Perhaps I was too lenient.”
Natasha’s jaw clenched, her hands curling into fists above her. There were a thousand things she’d imagined saying to this man if given the chance, but none of them seemed to make it past her lips now. Her heart was pounding in her chest, whether from hatred or fear, she wasn’t sure.
The Polkovnik stepped closer, reaching out to take her chin in his hand, tilting her head back to examine her, the way a collector might examine a prized specimen. She sneered and wrenched her head away, glaring at him furiously through the locks of hair that fell across her face.
He smirked faintly in return. “It is tempting to try again, you know, to wipe your mind entirely and start from the beginning. Or perhaps we could simply alter you the way we altered Mr. Barton.” Natasha stiffened at mention of Clint, and the Polkovnik’s smirk grew. “Oh, yes, Mr. Barton. I am curious how it is that you were able to retain your memories of him. I assumed that your strange attachment to him had been severed. Yet, here you are once again to - how would America’s Hollywood say it? - ‘rescue him from our evil clutches’? You must still be quite devoted.”
“I told you it was so, did I not?”
Natasha’s eyes darted to a dark corner of the room as Loki stepped forward from the shadows. He wore the same suit she’d seen earlier, and his staff was clutched loosely in his right hand. He moved nearer, his smirk mirroring the Polkovnik’s.
“It would be easy for me to turn her, if that is your wish,” he offered, waving the staff for emphasis.
Natasha’s stomach lurched at his words and her fists tightened until her muscles shook. She would not be anyone’s puppet, not again. She would rather be dead.
The Polkovnik’s head tilted in contemplation, the light glinting off his glasses with the movement.
“Thank you,” he told Loki at last, “but…no. Somehow, I think she would be more trouble than she’s worth, she and Mr. Barton both. And imagine the example it would set. Rebellion in any form cannot be tolerated.”
Loki was positively grinning now. “I agree.”
The Polkovnik gave the Asgardian a small bow. “I shall leave her in your capable hands.” He straightened and started for the door, pausing to glance back in her direction. “Goodbye, Natalia.”
Then he was gone.
Natasha allowed her hands to uncurl and turned her gaze to Loki. It was strange, in a way, that this man, this alien who claimed the status of a demigod, failed to elicit the reaction from her that the Polkovnik did. He simply did not inspire the same primal fear the Polkovnik had cultivated as he’d ripped her mind to pieces time and time again, making what he would of the remains.
Loki must have seen the change in her demeanor, because his eyes narrowed faintly.
“Natasha, is it? Isn’t that what you call yourself now?” He paused deliberately. “It is, after all, what your precious Hawk called you.”
Natasha jerked in surprise. “What?”
“Oh, I see. You don’t actually remember that, do you?”
“How would you know what he called me?”
“Barton told me, of course. Or, at least his mind did. The memories are still there, you see, they’re simply…inaccessible. For him, but not for me.” Loki gave his staff a little twirl, then bent at the waist until his face was only a few inches from hers. “I learned such interesting things. His thoughts were full of you - even muddled as they were.”
Natasha’s breath caught for an instant, and she blinked, caught off-guard for a reason she couldn’t name.
Loki drew back, his Cheshire-cat grin wider than ever before. “I couldn’t help but be intrigued. You remember so very little of what happened - yet you’ve risked your life for him more than once. Why? Is this love, Agent Romanoff?”
Natasha grit her teeth. “Love is for children. I owe him a debt.”
“A debt?” Loki repeated. He paused thoughtfully, as though reviewing all the facts he had at his disposal. “Ah, I think I understand. He told you that you could fight them, and it gave you courage, is that it? Courage enough to break free from your masters.”
Natasha remained silent, but the triumphant gleam in his eyes told her that he knew he was right. She felt exposed suddenly, exposed in a way she never had before, as though something essential to her being had been put on display for Loki’s amusement. She had the sudden, wild impulse to leap at his throat despite the chains holding her in place.
Some of what she felt must have shown on her face, because Loki threw back his head and laughed. “So, you thought to balance the books by saving him in return, and then by doing so you would…what? Somehow redeem yourself?” Loki shook his head and turned on his heel, walking around the slab until he disappeared behind it.
He reappeared on her other side, voice suddenly low, the words delivered beside her ear in a furious whisper. “Your ledger is dripping, it’s gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away! You’re the Red Room’s creation and you always will be…much like your Hawk.”
Natasha raised her chin, her jaw clenched. “He isn’t mine.”
“No?” Loki challenged. “Let’s find out, shall we?”
The Asgardian waved his staff, and as if summoned, Clint appeared in the doorway and walked obediently to Loki’s side. The unnatural blue of his eyes stood out even more sharply in the dim light of the room.
Loki walked around him once, like a shark circling its prey, and Natasha started pulling at her chains, dread curling in her stomach. Loki grinned at her reaction and raised his staff to press it against Clint’s sternum.
Clint’s whole body stiffened, the muscles in his neck cording suddenly. The neon blue of his eyes seemed to brighten before it vanished entirely, leaving the familiar blue-gray in its wake. He stood there for a moment, blinking rapidly, then he doubled over, his hands coming up to clutch at his head, his fingers digging into his scalp as his eyes squeezed shut. He staggered back, a strange, wordless noise escaping from his throat, his chest heaving raggedly. For a fleeting instant, Clint’s eyes opened again, and his gaze met hers, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped limply to the floor.
Natasha wrenched at the metal binding her wrists, her eyes locked on Clint’s unmoving form, on his chest, willing it to rise.
But it didn’t, and Loki’s satisfied laughter echoed in her ears.