21 Ch21. Offer

"I can't." Natasha solemnly spoke, "If I betray SHIELD I will be hunted down and-"

"And you forgot the part where I can use magic." Tom interrupted her, causing her to abruptly spring back up into a sitting position and look at him weirdly... with just a hint of expectation in her eyes.

"I looked through your past-" Tom started.

"You did what!?" Natasha shrieked, clutching at the bedsheets under her as her eyes showed horror and fear of being rejected.

Her past was her biggest vulnerability and something she hated. Knowing the man in front of her, the man she was admittedly forming a small crush on, knew of the things she did... It made her want to bury herself in the nearest hole out of shame and...

While Natasha was freaking out, Tom realized where he went wrong and stood up from his armchair, swiftly walking towards her before he took her hands into his and sat next to her, gently making her body half-turn toward him.

He reassuringly looked into her eyes, trying to convey that it was fine. That all was good and there is nothing to be afraid of, that he is not going anywhere.

Only when the panic in Natasha's eyes subsided, nevertheless still leaving them submerged in deep crushing pain born from trauma, did Tom deem her ready to listen again, "I have seen a few fragments of your past with my special ability. Not much, but enough to understand you are not proud of it. I won't judge you." He let go of her left hand and put his now free hand on her cheek, caressing it with his thumb.

Natasha mutely nodded, biting her lower lip in a distraught manner.

"Make me laugh." She whispered, making Tom's eyebrows furrow as his thoughts escaped through his lips.

"How?" He cluelessly let out before he even registered it. Yes, he wasn't perfect at this kind of thing...

"Keep talking about your offer. Your attempts are funny enough." Natasha laughed a bit, but her eyes betrayed that she was not exactly 'okay' just yet.

Tom exaggeratedly pouted at her jab, "Now that's not nice. And here I give it my best to convert you onto my side, agent Romanoff."

Before Natasha could answer, Tom leaned forward, loosely circling his arms around her torso before he toppled them both onto the bed, lying side by side while their legs dangled down from the edge of the bed.

As she was just lying there, looking into Tom's brown eyes, Natasha was inwardly amazed at how comfortable she felt around him. If anybody else tried to grab her like that, she would instinctually react, causing a whole lot of pain to the courageous bastard.

'Did he really manage to lower my guard so much?' Natasha's thoughts were alarming and her instincts and training screamed at her in protest but... a part of her, the same part that stayed a little girl and longed for affection, that overpowering little part, made her feel giddy and exhilarated.

"I'll be honest with you. I am not influential enough to prevent Fury from issuing a manhunt on you." Tom decided to be blunt, "But I have many ways to ensure they would never find you even if you stood right in front of them."

Natasha slowly nodded in a reluctant understanding.

She could appreciate blunt honesty. If he was trying to promise her to never face hardship again by his side, she would just scoff at the stupid notion. What he offered was... realistic. But was it enough to give up the certainty she currently had?

Her life was shitty, but she at least knew what to expect from it.

"I am also not offering you freedom." Tom quietly continued, "My offer is more or less a looser leash than what you have now. You are beholden to SHIELD right now and from what I had seen, the only way to retire for you is if SHIELD ceased to exist or to get a bullet to the head. Whether said bullet comes from another SHIELD operative or an enemy, now that depends on your usefulness and luck." He summed up her situation in SHIELD.

The only visible reaction of Natasha was a barely noticeable twitch of her lips but inwardly, she felt extremely sour at the truthfulness of these words.

"As an ex-Russian super-spy, you will never gain the highest clearance in SHIELD. Sure, you could eventually work your way to being trusted, but will it be worth it?" Tom firmly gazed into her conflicted emerald eyes, forcing her to confront his question.

At that moment, her half-year in SHIELD flashed through her mind...

The never-ceasing missions, the lack of free time, the almost constant surveillance, the distrust... It felt as if she was in the Red Room again, only this time she was not being tortured in the guise of training nor had to watch brainwashing material so in the end, it was still better.

But Tom was not done yet...

"And then there is the belief that you are redeeming yourself by working for SHIELD." Tom said, his words echoing in Natasha's head like bells. She was not even finished contemplating his previous question and he already hit her biggest issue, making her shocked. "Tell me, do you really think you can redeem yourself from killing for Russians by killing for Americans?"

Tom's voice was so incredulous it made Natasha embarrassed at how stupid it sounded when he said it out loud.

"I've seen your past." Tom pressed, despite the uncomfortable and distraught expression on Natasha's face his prior words brought out. "Let's take your most recent target. You know nothing about him. You were only told to kill him for the safety of the world. How can you be sure he is not just a business competition or obstacle for somebody high up in the SHIELD hierarchy? SHIELD is governed by the World Security Council which is manned by politicians. You know how these things go."

Tom might have somewhat trusted Fury's good intentions but Fury was only one man. Despite being the Director of SHIELD, he couldn't oversee everything. Work was delegated, missions were being given out by various people, and not everything could be properly checked...

Simply put, there was no way Natasha could have been sure if her targets are really as bad as her supervisors are saying. She was an assassin, and not a very trusted one at the moment. She was not given a reason for the kill. She was just told to do it... or else.

That wasn't really surprising with her current position in SHIELD but Tom would bet it didn't make her feel any better about it.

"I understand that you have no choice and your only consolation is believing that you are doing the right thing." Tom wryly smiled and wiped a tear that fell down her cheek.

His speech was... touching a bit too close to Natasha's sensitive spots. He knew that. He made sure to touch every point she had doubts about. His Sacred Gear was scary as hell if used well.

It might have been a bit underhanded but Tom really wanted only the best for her. Her current lifestyle was not healthy. Not physically since she only had three free days with no mission in the past four months, and even during those she was expected to train SHIELD agents, and definitely not mentally since the girl was a pain-filled wreck of doubts, concerns, and regrets.

The only reason why she even held herself together was her unyielding and adaptable nature.

"But you don't need to hear that from me. You know best." Tom moved for the 'kill', "You are trained to recognize manipulation. You know SHIELD is trying to subtly manipulate your opinion. If you continue down this path, maybe one day, you will actually believe that working for them, killing for them, is redeeming yourself for all the bad things you have done in your life. And who knows, maybe it will even make you happy."

Natasha couldn't take it anymore and pushed herself up, back into a sitting position as she tried to come with the feeling of revulsion coursing through her at that kind of image.

She ran from the Red Room because she wanted to be free and the image of her being satisfied, even happy, with this kind of lifestyle, made her feel ill.

The most horrifying part, however, was that she could easily imagine it coming true.

She took a few years of Red Room brainwashing and came out of it relatively unaffected but SHIELD's method used her own doubts and insecurities against her, her own desires to make her find their way as the correct one.

She understood that... but when it was so bluntly pointed out to her, she wasn't confident she would not eventually crumble under the pressure. Especially since she had no way to avoid said pressure if she stayed in SHIELD.

Slowly and carefully, she reached toward the Queen Piece on the table in front of her and took it into her grasp, clutching it in her hand and feeling the piece's surface as her thoughts ran a mile a minute...

Tom just patiently watched her in silence with his hands leisurely behind his head, still lying on the bed as she mulled over her choices. He told her his piece, trying to make his alternative seem better, now it was time for her to decide what life she wanted. He would not interfere in that. He did enough.

Two choices, two different paths.

Both had their pros and cons and either could lead to her eventual happiness. Maybe.

That part depended solely on her, to be honest.

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