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Auld Lang Syne

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Natalia is seven, or maybe eight. Maybe as young as six, or as old as nine, no one keeps track of that kind of thing in the Room. Not that they tell her, anyway. They tell her how old she's supposed to be and that's how old she is.

She's been in the Room for three years. She has killed six people on purpose and three more because they happened to near the bomb she planted under a banquet table. Their deaths hadn't been the mission, but they were considered acceptable losses.

Her trainers tell her she is very good at what she does.

She knows how to use weapons sized for her hands, and how to pretend, how to be disarming and how to disarm, despite her small stature. She is unusually strong and graceful for her age.

She should be. They made her that way. She doesn't remember a time before the Room, with the paneled halls and iron-framed beds with deceptively soft bedding and surprisingly warm blankets (if you are good enough), and the click of metal around your wrist that tells you it's time to sleep at night. Logic tells her she had parents once, but she doesn't remember them. She doesn't like to think about anything before the Room because sometimes, when she dreams about it (she thinks they are dreams) it's too hot and it hurts and people are screaming.

Natalia doesn't scream in her sleep like some of the other girls do. The ones that do don't last very long.

They're having dinner when the others come. She's between missions, being trained to be someone new. (She is still young enough that she needs help learning how to pretend, needs the occasional reminders that sting and correct, and she sometimes dreams about the day when she will be grown up and able to learn on her own.) The meal is some kind of chicken with onions and thick sour cream and bread with butter and milk to drink; again, as long as you are good at what you do and you earn it. Natalia almost always earns it. She likes the way it feels to be the best, just like she likes the way it feels to have a full stomach and a warm bed.

Sometimes she is reminded of the alternatives so that she doesn't forget or become too soft or complacent.

The walls shake and people scream and panes of glass from the windows shatter and someone is yelling. Lots of someones are yelling, in lots of different languages. She recognizes some of them: Russian, English, German, and French. She hears voices telling them to fight back, to run away, to remember their training, or to not let themselves be taken alive, and with such conflicting orders she finds herself trying to choose what to do. It's an unusual situation for her.

She ends up under a table against a wall, her knees pulled to her chest. People in chaos make mistakes. People reacting instead of acting make poor choices, uninformed choices, so she waits. Sitting under the table reminds her of the party in Tula where she'd pretended to be lost, crying and working her way into a terrified tantrum so the staff would take her into the kitchen. Then, it had been easy to get close enough to the food that she could drop poison in unseen.

Her very first lessons had emphasized how to seem innocent and harmless, how to cultivate compassion, concern, and attachment in those around her in order to deceive them.

When the first man finds her, he helps her out gently rather than grabbing her, and she knows he'll be an easy mark. Another man, this one tall and broad with a funny hat and red hair several shades lighter than her own looks at her suspiciously and she knows he'll be harder to convince. She pays particularly close attention to the dark-haired woman, both because she seems to be in charge and because most of her trainers have been women, while most of her targets have been men. She doesn't think for a moment that the woman will be easier to deceive, but she knows that if she can convince her, the men will fall in line.

They use mostly English that she pretends not to understand in the hopes that they'll speak more freely around her. Whoever they are, she's sure they're enemy agents. Without a formal mission, she doesn't know what she's getting into, but intel is more powerful than guns or knives and she thinks maybe, if she can find out enough and then get away, her trainers will commend her for it. Maybe they will even realize just how good she can be and will let her work by herself more often. She thinks perhaps she would like that.

*****

Tony is seven, and isn't allowed in his father's lab. He can remember lying on the floor surrounded by tools and circuit boards and batteries when he was smaller, and he's pretty sure his father's lab was where he built his first toy, a little motorized car with a wobbly wheel. But he can't tell for sure when the last time he was allowed in there on purpose was. Maybe he never has been, maybe he was just better at being sneaky when he was smaller.

Regardless, now he is seven, and he isn't allowed. Mr. Jarvis says it's because he's a child, and there are children's things and grown-up things, and that it's not because he's Tony, just because he's too small. He tells him that when he's older he'll be able to work in his father's lab and help him build robots and computers and cars and all sorts of things.

Tony believes him, until she comes along.

He knows he shouldn't sneak, but he can't quite help himself because it's the best way to find things out that the grownups don't want to say, so he tucks himself into the alcove behind the stairs as soon as he hears the cars outside. He hears Aunt Peggy's voice first, and smiles because she is his favorite of all his father's friends. She talks to him and asks him about his inventions and math and science and calls him "Tony" instead of "Anthony" and will sometimes even come up to the nursery and play games with him. If she's here for a visit then he might even be able to have dinner with the grownups tonight.

Then they come into view and his happiness turns into confusion. His father and Mr. Dugan are both with her, and Mr. Dugan has something in his arms. Something with curly red hair and a blue dress and white tights and shiny black shoes and Tony realizes that it's a girl about the same size that he is. All the adults look very serious, and Aunt Peggy looks downright mad. They go straight from the garage to the other set of stairs, the ones opposite his hiding place.

The ones that head straight to his father's lab.

******

The girl has been in the house for almost a week when Tony finally sneaks into her room. He doesn't exactly mean to, and he knows he's not supposed to, but his Dad has gone away again, and the two agents that are supposed to be guarding her room are really bad at it. Or maybe they just don't know that you can take the ornate brass grate off the wall and slip between the two rooms without opening the door. They'd gone and put her in the room right beside him, and he could hear her through the shared wall.

Adults didn't usually believe him when he told them things like that (that he could hear the light bulbs buzzing or the second station coming through the radio just past the first one, or when the hum of the old refrigerator changed because something needed to be replaced, but he was always right). She isn't making all that much noise, but he's pretty sure the head of his bed is against the same wall that hers is, and, well, he wasn't asleep anyway.

She is sitting up in the bed by the time he pushes himself through the narrow space and looks at where he's slipping through the wall. He makes it to the edge of the bed before she finally says something, her whisper soft and only audible to him.

"What are you doing here?" Her accent is already fading, she sounds more like Aunt Peggy or Mr. Jarvis now.

"You were making too much noise," he says simply and climbs up onto the bed next to her, causing her to slide back against the other bedpost.

"I was not," she insists and frowns at him. It is a very good version of a Grown-Up Frown. He likes it.

"Were too. 'S okay. I'm always making too much noise. Mr. Jarvis says I'm 'boisterous', but he doesn't mind. Sometimes it even makes the corner of his mouth move a little bit like he's trying not to smile."

"What are you doing?" she asks again.

It's a very good question, but he's not really sure. He's a little bit bored, and a little bit restless, and more than a little bit worried about her, even though he's still upset and jealous that she gets to be in his father's lab when he doesn't.

"Are you not afraid of me?" Her voice makes the words dip in a funny angle and Tony tilts his head as if trying to follow them.

"No. Should I be?" He usually isn't afraid of things he ought to be, Mr. Jarvis says so all the time, but he can't imagine why she should scare him.

"They are," she replies simply, and it's understood who "they" are. The adults.

"Does he let you help invent stuff?" he blurts out, realizing suddenly that he very badly wants to know.

"What?"

"When you're in Dad's lab, does he let you help him invent things? What do you do down there? I can't go down there, he doesn't like it when I'm in there because I'm not careful enough."

She's looking at him like he thinks she might look at a puzzle or a diagram she's trying to figure out. "I don't invent things."

"Oh. So what do you do?"

"I sit. Mostly. Sometimes they tell me to run back and forth across the room, or walk on a balance beam or do flips."

"Why?" he asks, because he hadn't been expecting that.

"I'm not sure," she says primly. "It doesn't matter. It's what I'm required to do."

"That sounds stupid."

"It does not."

"Does so."

"I am not stupid!" she's still whispering but hisses it out a little louder, leaning towards him like she's forgotten to stay on the far side of the bed. Her hand gets close enough that in the moonlight he can see red marks around her wrist peeking out from the sleeve of her nightgown.

"Didn't say you were. I said what they were telling you to do sounded stupid, not you."

Natasha pulls her hand back, moves away from him again, but he notices how she rubs her fingers over the marks, and then grips her wrist for a second before she realizes what she's doing and goes back to just rubbing at it like it itches.

"What happened to your hand?" he asks, and she drops them to her lap like she's been burned.

She doesn't answer him, but she doesn't go back to fidgeting, either.

Sleepy again, Tony burrows his way under the blanket until it reaches his chin. He kind of expects her to protest, maybe even kick him, but after a few minutes she curls up under the blanket next to him, mirroring his pose, her hands and arms positioned just like his are, only reversed. It's then she seems to realize that he's looking at the marks again.

"Where I come from, they cuff us to our beds so that we can sleep without dreaming or hurting anyone," she explains softly.

"That's... really awful," he says. He can't think of anything else, can't imagine what that would be like.

She shifts so that her right hand is free and resumes her earlier movements, except this time he thinks she's doing it on purpose.

"Is it hard to sleep without them?"

"Sometimes. It's... strange."

Tony's eyelids feel heavy, but he reaches over and wraps his hand around her wrist. She jumps a little bit under his touch but then relaxes, and doesn't pull her hand away.

*****

They both wake up in the morning to the banging and commotion of Mr. Jarvis and the agents trying to figure out where Tony's gotten to. Once Mr. Jarvis realizes what's happened, he chases the guards away, giving them the same look Tony's seen him use on the grocer when they forgot the apples or the sugar or the cheese.

He takes the both of them down into the kitchen where Mrs. Anna's already awake and working on bread and the soup that will probably be for dinner, and sits them at the table before turning on the waffle iron.

"I realize that Mr. Stark left specific instructions as to your upkeep, Miss Romanova. However, I am not going to put up with a child left to my care being isolated in a single room with only the walls and those two buffoons for company. Your English is apparently passable, as young Master Stark found out, so you can attend lessons with him today."

Tony bounces in his seat at that, because lessons are boring when it's just him and Mr. Jarvis and the books.

Natasha nods, and that seems to set the course for the days that follow. His father and Aunt Peggy aren't around, and no one else seems to want Natasha for anything, so no one interferes once Mr. Jarvis says how things are going to be.