Natalia forced herself to remove her hands from her face, wiping her tears with her arm. She knew she looked like a wreck, but even that wouldn’t make James believe her. They both knew how good of an actress she was, even though this was genuine.
"I - I want to figure things out. Where to go from here." She slipped into Russian, her voice still thick with tears. "I don’t know where that is. But I don’t want you locked up. I don’t want either of us locked up. I just had to obey my orders and finish the mission.”
Natalia didn’t dare reach out and touch him, and she was still afraid he’d attack. He said he wouldn’t hurt her, but she couldn’t risk trusting him in that regard. She shrank a little in her chair, starting to feel trapped in her quarters. The feeling of walls closing in reminded her why she hardly spent any time here, and why she took away-missions more often than not these days.
“But I promise, I won’t let anyone else hurt you. I’ll fight for you." Whether James believed her or not, Natalia intended to keep that promise, whatever it took. "And you know I understand. I’ve always understood.”
"You had orders to bring me in, but you didn’t question what they wanted with me?", he closed his eyes pushing his rising anger back down. "Please stop calling me a mission". He couldn’t look her in the eye. Not only did seeing her cry hurt far too much, but he couldn’t risk breaking down too.
"When we leave this room, where do we go? Where do I go?" He hated himself so much. Natalia was right, he had allowed himself to be put into this position. He had let himself be distracted by his feelings for her, and didn’t see what he was walking right into.
He spoke in Russian again, “If you won’t let anyone else hurt me, make sure I walk out of here when this is over”.
"That was fifteen years ago, Bucky, I doubt you were even there," she smiled. Nuzzling closer into his form, her hands went into his long hair and stroked the soft locks. "You need to get out of bed. We’re going for a run." She pushed herself out of the bed and sighed. "Any running clothes I can borrow?"
"I really don’t want to think about what I was doing fifteen years ago, to be honest", he smiled.
Though he’d never admit it, he loved when she played with his hair. Her gentle touch soothing his troubled mind.
"Running?", he groaned. "Are you trying to make me sweat out all the shit in my system? Cause I can think of a few better ways to do that". He mumbled the last part, not meaning for Natasha to hear.
"Yeah, there should be something in the dresser".
Natalia watched him move, her heart hurting when she saw the pain he was in. She thought back briefly, trying to remember if she had locked the door - she had. If anything bad happened, she could handle it in here, and if she had to, she could knock him out again. But she could hardly bear to see him like this.
She said nothing, and stepped forward, cautiously approaching him and ready to jump away if he tried anything. She took the key to his restraints out of her pocket, and undid everything tying him to the chair, backing away and sitting back down once she was done.
She almost opened her mouth to reply to him, but her throat was too choked to speak. Tears were brimming in her eyes again, and she put her hands over her face, as if that would hold them back. Part of her knew full well that he could attack her like this, especially if she couldn’t see, but she couldn’t help it.
He was more than surprised when she stood up and took the keys out of her pocket. He tried to relax his body, to show her he wasn’t making to attack. Even as she unchained his arms he didn’t move an inch, not wanting to scare her. It wasn’t until she was sitting back in front of him that he took his arms from off the table, rotating his right wrist, trying to work out the pain.
He watched Natalia cover her face, knowing that she was trying to cover tears. He sighed, still afraid to move too suddenly. “Please”, he whispered. “Please don’t let this be an act”. He wasn’t quite sure if he was speaking to her, or just voicing his hopes with no intended listener.
"I’m not going to hurt you. I would never intentionally hurt you". Her quarters suddenly felt painfully small. "But I can’t do this, Natalia. I can’t be played with". He wanted to scream, to cry, to break something.
"Am I ever going to be able to be my own person? Will there ever be a time where I won’t be abducted and chained up? Or is that just how my life is?" He couldn’t continue. He choked back tears, "You must understand, tell me you understand" He spoke the last part in Russian.
"Where do I go from here? Where does this lead?" He would never say it out-loud, at least not here, not now, but he was scared. Not of what SHIELD could possibly do to him, but of losing the freedom he had just so recently regained.
Natalia hadn’t hurt this much in a while, and it was all she could do to keep it on the inside and not let it show. She knew she deserved it, and she wasn’t going to complain about it. She kept herself sitting up straight in the chair, focusing on keeping her voice even.
"I told you I had to follow orders," she repeated, her voice becoming flatter and more like the Black Widow than Natalia Romanova. "SHIELD didn’t do anything. They wanted to, but I persuaded them not to." She paused, her voice becoming a little quieter. "And I can’t untie you from that chair until I’m sure you won’t attack me."
The longer she looked at him, the more memories kept bubbling up in her mind, and the more it hurt. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t still love him, but at this point, she doubted it was returned. She wasn’t sure if she had made the right decision, but maybe it was better if he didn’t love her. He deserved better, and she was too tied to her duties to let anyone in right now.
He understood her fear of him, of him attacking her. If there wasn’t that little part of him telling him not to he may just have.
"Are your orders more important than me?", he scoffed. "No, you know what, don’t answer that".
His wrist was beginning to chaff under the metal. “When does this end?” He asked himself out-loud. He looked up at the white ceiling, fighting back tears. Now that his anger had begun to run its course he felt the crushing weight of defeat fall on his shoulders.
"I’ve never been more than some chess piece in, in whatever all this is", he spat. He swallowed hard, looking back at Natalia finally.
"How can you truly expect me to ‘calm down’, Natalia. How do you think I can trust you after what you did?"
He wanted to go on, but the pressure in his head was blinding. More than anything his heart was breaking. Natalia had been the only person he had… he did truly love.
Mirrors and shop windows returned our faces to us,
replete with the tight lips and the eyes that remained eyes
and not the doorways we had hoped for.
- Little Beast by Richard Siken
Every word he was saying ripped into Natalia, and it was all she could do not to completely lose it. She felt her mind shutting down, slowly reverting into the emotionless Black Widow mode she had to use on missions.
"You wanted the opposite thing, though. You wanted me to come with you and abandon SHIELD. You wanted to take me with you so you could stay close to me." Natalia said, her voice shaking. "I told you I couldn’t disobey orders. You knew that up front, and you had your chance to get away."
"And no. There’s no electricity, and no one’s going to put you down." The mere thought of that made her want to break down all over again. "If you don’t calm down, I’ll just keep waiting. This isn’t the Red Room, James." She sat down in a chair facing him, her hands clenched in her lap. She wanted more than anything to undo his restraints, but she couldn’t risk him charging at her and attacking her. She would have to sedate him, and then they’d be back at square one.
"I should have never asked you to stay", he grumbled. "I told you you were free to go".
He flexed the fingers of his left hand. “I wasn’t going to strap you to a chair and force you to stay like you’ve done to me. I can’t believe you of all people would do this”.
He was spitting venom at her, blinded by his anger. As she sat down across from him he straightened his back, putting as much distance between them as physically possible.
“How do I know what you and your organization did to me while I was out?”. His blood was boiling. “I think you should leave”. He turned his head, refusing to look at her.
He had never felt more betrayed. He began to completely detach himself, but the memories of the times he and Natalia spent together kept playing in his mind. Some part deep inside of him still wanted to trust her despite the hurt he was feeling.
Seeing James like this hurt more than anything, and Natalia could barely stand it. When he woke up, she stifled a flinch, and she made herself look at him, telling herself she deserved every ounce of pain she was feeling right now.
"I told you I couldn’t disobey orders. You knew that, and you let me in anyway." Natalia tried to keep her voice even, but it was hard. "I persuaded them to let you wake up in my quarters instead of a holding room, and once you’re calm enough, the restraints will go away."
When James mentioned “them,” she knew exactly what he was talking about, and her mind flashed back to the Red Room. Lukin’s face appeared before her eyes, and she remembered being caught with James, and everything Lukin had done to them afterward. Her throat choked up and her fists clenched, but she did everything in her power to keep her distress on the inside. She was fairly sure she wasn’t as bad as Lukin, but if she ever got to that point, she would want James to kill her.
"I’m not Lukin. Or the Red Room." Her voice was shaking now, and she made herself meet his eyes, despite her own brimming with tears. "Everything I said to you was true. And what I feel for you, too. It’s killing me to do this to you. But no one is going to hurt you."
She paused, and then spoke again, her voice thick. “I told you I was being selfish, didn’t I? I — Part of why I brought you back is that I couldn’t lose you again. I would go back to SHIELD and you would disappear, and I’d never see you again. SHIELD isn’t like the Red Room. They won’t hurt us.”
"I’m chained to a fucking table Natalia!", he struggled against his restraints again. He could hardly hear what she was saying, none of it mattered anyway.
"I’m not anyone’s property. You can’t chain me up when you want me to stay close. What happens if I don’t calm down? Do I get another shot of electricity? Or do you put me down?". He held eye contact the entire time, only letting his eyes drop when he felt the sting of tears behind them.
He felt sick. He was disgusted not only with Natalia, but himself. How could he be so blind? He should have known better than to trust anyone. This was as much his fault as anyone else’s.
He could feel himself shutting down. If he couldn’t feel this wouldn’t hurt so damn much.
Whipping her head to the side, her hair moved along to clear out of her eyes. “I told myself that I couldn’t do good sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. Berating myself is how I get motivated. Sympathy wasn’t what I needed, but it was something that i would’ve like to have. No one really helped me on that one.”
He helped push her hair out of her eyes, moving the last few stubborn strands and sticking them behind her ear. He listened to Natasha’s words, letting them sink in.
He felt like such a child in that moment. Everything thing he’d been doing was incredibly selfish. He was so busy trying to detach himself from everyone he didn’t take the time to think that might not be the best option.
"I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you". He nuzzled her hair again. "I probably would have been shit at it though". He tried to laugh.
When James kissed her, Natalia closed her eyes, drinking in the sensation and burning it into her memory. It ended entirely too quickly, and her eyes flickered open again once she felt the touch of his lips disappear. When he spoke into her ear, she felt her heart give a painful wrench. She reached her arms up around his neck gently, leaning her head up to look at him.
“I’m going to keep you safe," she said, her words soft, and her eyes brimming with tears. Before James could react, she pressed her Widow Bites to the back of his neck, giving him a jolt of electricity strong enough to knock him out. She made herself look him in the eye as he fell into her arms, knowing she deserved every ounce of pain she was feeling right now.
She kept her arms around James, holding his unconscious form in her arms and trying to gather herself. Finally, she turned her comm back on, and spoke into it, her voice shaking.
"Target acquired. I need someone to pick us up."
God, his head was pounding. He could hardly form a single cohesive thought. He tried opening his eyes, only to quickly close them again. The bright white light burning them. What had happened to him? Where was he? The confusion began to burn away as his survival instinct took over. He forced himself to open his eyes, the room around him nothing but a blur. He quickly became aware of his immediate surroundings. The cold steel wrapped around his wrist…
His eyes shot open, forgetting about the pain in his head. He tried to wrench his right arm to the side, but it was firmly bolted to the table. His wrist and forearm were locked in a steel cuff built into the top of the table itself. He tried to pull his left arm back, but it was similarly stuck, although the one on his left had far more intricate cuffs, and they definitely weren’t made of any ordinarily metal.
He felt like a trapped animal, which wasn’t something he was too unfamiliar with. After a few more moments of struggling against his chains his eyes began to clear, seeing the room in its entirety for the first time. What stood out most was the woman with her back against the corner of the wall.
"You", growled, feeling like he was about to vomit. "You did this to me. I trusted you! You played with my emotions, I opened up and you manipulated me…"
"You’re no better than them!” He spat, images of his handlers from the Red Room flashed before his eyes.