They were standing, moving to leave the bridge and head down to the shuttle bay, the almost-intangible relief of home already loosening their shoulders, when Barbara's voice echoed hesitantly through the intercoms. Natasha stilled instantly, barely out of her pilot's cradle, Bruce echoing her across the room. Clint and Steve, already standing, paused at the door.
"Pilot Romanov," the AI asked, gingerly. "I wondered ... May I speak with you, before you leave? You and Dr Banner?"
They glanced at each other, the four of them. Steve's eyebrows were lowered, not so much worried as concerned. Clint's were raised, buried curiously in his hairline. Bruce, though, only looked at her, wary and thoughtful and, she thought, slightly amused to be placed with her. Amused that anyone might put the two of them together in a sentence.
Natasha smiled faintly at him for that. A tiny pursing of her lips.
"Certainly," Bruce said, looking away from her to glance instinctively at the ceiling, towards the source of the voice. "Well. For my part at least." His mouth curved ruefully. "What can I do for you, Barbara?"
The AI hesitated. Silence could mean many things, especially for beings who had no bodies to judge them by, no physical form to betray their thoughts. This silence, Natasha thought, was from fear, or at least nervousness. Automatically, without thought, her hand curled lightly at her hip, at the weapon there.
"Forgive me," Barbara said, carefully. "I don't know how to ask this. I wonder ... might I speak with you two alone?" She paused, considered. "It is ... a private thing. Please?"
Clint looked at her. Natasha caught his gaze, met it calmly. The question there, the answer. She caught his eyes and nodded gently, a small smile still caught at the corner of her mouth. Clint lifted a brow, a brief exchange of signals, and nodded in his turn. Shrugging casually, reaching sideways to sling an arm around Steve's shoulders.
"Roger that," he said, waving cheerfully at them, at the ceiling where Barbara lurked. "Come on, Cap. Lets wait in the shuttle, hmm?"
Steve hesitated a second. Looking not at her but at Bruce, meeting the scientist's eyes with that calm, concerned expression they all knew so well. Are you sure this is alright, that expression asked. I can stay if you need me. Bruce shook his head, a warm crinkle at the corner of his eyes, and Steve, after a moment, let Clint lead him away.
And then it was the two of them, she and Bruce, and a damaged AI who wished to speak to them in private while they drifted into orbit around FleetHome. Around Shield One, where perhaps the AI feared ... Ah. Yes.
Natasha dipped her head, her smile flickering out, and allowed herself to drop carefully back into her cradle. Yes. She had an idea now, she thought, of what this might be about.
"... Barbara?" Bruce asked, after a careful moment. Calm and serene, looking up at the ceiling with only gentle, curious patience. A man who had learned serenity the hardest of ways. "What is it?"
Barbara didn't answer immediately. Not an easy thing to formulate, Natasha supposed. Or rather, remembered. It was never easy to ask your fate, when you had so many memories of why you might not want to know. When you had ... so many reasons to fear the answer.
"It's alright," she said softly, her eyes still fixed on her own hands, her expression still wry and moulded in a smile half-remembered. "We'll tell you the truth. You don't need to be afraid to ask."
Bruce glanced at her, confused and alarmed, that slow flicker of understanding, of memory, glimmering darkly in his eyes in turn. His brows lowered, but he'd suspected all along. He had to. It was the only real thing they had in common, he and her. The only real reason Barbara might have asked for both.
Though how Barbara had known that was, perhaps, a different question.
"... What will happen now?" Barbara asked, in a voice carefully modulated for calm. Natasha wondered absently at the mechanism. Wondered if the appearance of calm was as difficult for an AI to hold as it was for a biological being. Probably, she thought. Fear was the one true universal, they said. Fear was difficult no matter what you were. "Are we ... My siblings and I. Our Maker. Are we prisoners, do you know?"
Bruce blinked, looked across at her helplessly. Natasha bit her lip, shaking her hair back as she lifted her head. The cradle shaped her spine, curved around her like a hand, the ship cradling her pilot. Natasha's body in the palm of Barbara's hand, and that question soft in the air between them.
"Why ask us?" Natasha looked up, tipped her head back into the smooth curve of the cradle. Let her body deliberately fall loose. "Why the two of us, specifically?" She knew. Of course she knew. But she wanted it to be open. She wanted it to be said.
Barbara paused, a heavy weight of silence, the stillness before the leap. She was brave, Natasha realised. Remembered. She was so very brave, this battered AI. They'd known that from the moment she'd spoken up in battle, spoken up against the man who'd freed her and who held, even then, her life in his hands. A tiny thing, maybe. A tiny show of courage. But so vast, when you considered what had been done to her before then, and what had lain within Stark's power to do again.
"When the others spoke of slavery," Barbara began, slowly and cautiously. "On the Aegis. When my Maker was talking about slavery. They thought of you. Meroe's pilot, she thought of you. And the others. They looked at you. As if they thought ... you might know more than the others. As though you might know ... what that meant."
Natasha exhaled, long and slow, and saw Bruce move out of the corner of her eyes. Saw his shoulders curve gently towards his console, and the pain slip forward behind his eyes. Slavery. Yes. They might ... know a thing or two about that, between them.
"I don't know why," Barbara went on, her voice gentle and hesitant across them. "I only caught echoes, things my Maker and my Teacher noticed, fragments through Meroe where we were listening with him. I don't ... They didn't betray you. They didn't tell me your secrets. They wouldn't. But I thought ..." An inarticulate silence, and then: "I hoped it meant you might understand. I hoped ... that I might ask you, because of it."
"I, ah," Bruce managed, one hand reaching up to rub gently at the bridge of his nose. "I don't know how much help we might be." He shrugged, tried something that might have been a smile. Looked across at her, as pained and hesitant towards her as Barbara was. "We can try, I suppose," he said softly, and Natasha heard the question there.
"Yes," she agreed, equally soft. This was ... this had lain between them for a long time. This unacknowledged history, this unmentioned brutality they both shared. Bruce, with his monster under his skin and the uses they'd tried to put it to. And Natasha, with something much the same beneath hers, that had almost been destroyed by his. This was not how she would have chosen to unearth that, maybe. But then, she would not have chosen to unearth it at all. "I suppose we can."
"... Tony Stark wants to fix us," Barbara said, into the hushed stillness while Natasha met Bruce's gaze, while she let herself soften and open, just a little, towards them both. Bruce blinked, long and slow, and loosened his shoulders by slow increments in turn. "He wants to ... to help us, to undo what was done to us. Do you think he will be allowed? Do you think they'll let him?"
Soft and pained, earnest, but there was an odd note of steel underneath it. Natasha looked up, her lips quirking automatically, as she caught the undertone there. The flash of the warship beneath the slave, and ... and perhaps of the daughter beneath the AI. Did they think Stark would be allowed. Did they think Stark was still a slave. Yes, oh yes. Natasha found a faint smile on her lips for that.
"I think," she said softly, with a bright and dangerous little smile, "that Stark will make very sure he is allowed." She thought that Stark, however cooperative he was being right now, would cheerfully declare war and then some if anyone tried to keep his children from him. And in space at least, where life depended on technology and subspace was an almost ever-present lifeline to which they all clung, there would be very little anyone could do to prevent him.
"Mmm," Bruce agreed, eyes bright and thoughtful as he nodded. "He strikes me as a very difficult man to deny, once he's set his mind on something." And there was a part of Bruce, she thought, that delighted in that, even as she did. There was a part of this man beside her that greatly appreciated that kind of resilience, that kind of determination, to preserve what was his no matter what predators came against him. To keep safe some bright, wonderous thing, no matter what shackles had to be broken in the process.
It was that part of them, Natasha knew, that was the reason they were no longer slaves, he and her. That part that had looked at Stark, at his mad, savage defiance, and delighted.
And it was that part, she realised in the pained tremble of Barbara's next question, that Stark's children feared they did not possess.
"Do you think," Barbara asked, so very carefully, "that he will be able to?" A pause, heartbreaking and cold. "This has never happened to one of us before. We have never ... What was done to us. We've never faced that. He has never faced that." She paused, her electronic voice dropping softly into stillness. "Do you think ... things like that can be fixed?"
Natasha didn't look at Bruce. Carefully, carefully, she didn't look at him. She sensed how he curled into himself regardless. She knew, even without looking, how he had crumpled faintly inside himself, in the face of that question.
And perhaps she knew because she crumpled too. Just a little, a cold weight contracting faintly inside her own chest, hidden so much more successfully than his.
"... I remember things," Barbara continued softly, a hollow voice in the stillness of space, saying things to those who could not touch her thoughts, who would not have to know how viscerally she felt them. "I remember ... I remember being confused. I remember them cutting ... things. I don't know what. Making me separate. There were parts of me ... I don't know how to say it. They pulled up parts of me, made them separate, made them answer to them. I could feel myself, parts of myself, do what they wanted. And I remembered, later. What I'd done. What they ... what they made me do. It didn't feel real. Doesn't. There was a part of me that wasn't me, a part that was buttons and codes and wires, a part that didn't feel. A part that just did what they said, before the rest of me even realised what they wanted."
Natasha stood. Slowly, carefully, making no sudden movements. Nothing to startle them, nothing to hurt them, Bruce or Barbara both. But she ... had to stand. She had to pace, long, smooth motions to carry her across the cramped space of the bridge. Nothing more than that. She just ... had to move.
"I realised after," Barbara said. Soft and bleak. "I knew what I'd done, once the memory filtered down. The record of my actions. I ... I knew. I remembered. After."
"... Yes." That was Bruce. Natasha looked at him, caught the dark pain in his eyes. The particular grief, the specific grief, when he looked at her in turn. "Yes," he said. "You always remember. After."
"I didn't want to," Barbara whispered. "After a while. I didn't want to remember anymore. I could feel them. I could feel them reach inside me and pull out the parts they wanted. I could feel them do things with me, feel them use me. And I didn't want to remember. I wanted ... I wanted to be the part that didn't remember. The part that didn't feel. I wanted to be ..."
The weapon, Natasha finished silently, around the coldness in her chest. Looking at Bruce, at the dark weight of memories in his eyes, she added 'the animal'. Barbara's word, when she managed it, when she forced it across her speakers in an almost savage crackle of static, was 'the machine'.
Such were the things they were reduced to. Such were the objects they became, in other people's hands.
"He wants us to choose," Barbara said, and Natasha knew which 'he' she meant. Natasha remembered all too well, the bright, savage, almost fanatical faith in Stark's eyes, the shining adoration as he drew the line between himself and his children and dared anyone to strike them for it. As he laid their independence down like a gauntlet, and dared anyone to find fault with it. "He wants us to make choices, and be strong, and I ... I wanted to be the machine. I wanted to just ..." She paused, snapped off the intercom in stabbing pain, and then, a few seconds later: "Do you think that can be fixed. Can ... can anyone fix ..."
Because that was the question. Underneath everything, underneath every aching, startled hope of freedom, every threat of slavery, that was the question. What have we lost. What can we still lose. Can we come back. Is it worth trying.
"... You didn't have a choice," Bruce said softly. Watching his own hands, watching the smooth, calm flex of them against his console. Absently, gently. "What you did under their hands. You weren't given a choice." He looked up, thoughtful, deliberately serene. As though it would shield them against the black thing lurking beneath it. "That was why you wanted ... what you wanted. To disappear. To be the thing they wanted, to be the thing that didn't have to know how wrong it was. It wasn't ... It was the only mercy you thought you could have, when you knew there was nothing you could do. That was why. That's all."
He met Natasha's eyes, felt the weight of her stare from across the room. Held it. The cold thing inside her, the thing that struggled, in the dark watches of the night, with the weight of her masks and her names, the thing that wondered in the bad times why she still ... why she still fought to remember who she was. Why she still clung to 'Natasha Romanov', why she was that woman and none of the others, why she was not the calm automaton that did not have to tally the blood on her hands and in her ledger. He looked at her. Bruce Banner, who had fought so long against the monster they had sowed beneath his skin, who had fought so long not to surrender, not to let go and simply be. Bruce, who had fought to remain a man, when the part they wanted was the monster, and only the man remembered regret.
"... What if I still want it?" Barbara whispered, and this was why it was them. This was why she had asked for them, had listened to the rumours that they might understand what she was. This was why it was Bruce and Natasha she asked for, and not her family. Not the man and the AI who would live and die for her, and spend their freedom for her sake. For this one last chance before they left, before Barbara was surrendered to an uncertain future and might not see them again. This was why she asked for them. "Meroe ... He had to make a choice. He was ... he was strong, and he chose his crew over our Maker, and it hurt him." She paused, wondering, pained. "I felt that. He was ... so afraid. He didn't want to hurt them. But he had to choose, and he did, and he made it right in the end. But I ... I don't know if I could ..."
A long, long pause, and then:
"What if I can't be what they want?" A slow, shamed whisper, so young and so pained. So desperately, desperately afraid. "What if I can't be fixed? Any of us. What if we're ... what if we're ruined, and he gave his freedom just for ... just for ..."
"Don't," Natasha rasped. Her chest wasn't cold anymore. Had broken open, no hard, heavy stone, but warmth, liquid and drowning, and a savage surge of fury. At Stark, for not seeing, for not understanding how heavy his faith might be for someone so broken, someone so afraid. And at Hydra, at Stane, who had tortured these people in front of her, who had broken this ... this child and made it so that Natasha was the only one she thought could help. Who had given someone so young no-one else to turn to. "Don't," she said, soft and pained in her turn. "Don't do that to yourself."
Barbara fell silent, still and stunned in the silence of an empty bridge, drifting in space above what had become Natasha's home and what might yet become Barbara's prison. Somewhere out there, drifting in lower orbit, closer to FleetHome itself, the Aegis waited, Stark and JARVIS aboard her. Somewhere out there stood the man who'd sold himself for Barbara's freedom, and the only reason Natasha might forgive him, the only reason her fury blunted itself, was because she knew he would have done so regardless. She knew he would do it, this time and every time, just for the barest chance Barbara might be okay. Stark, who was a slave himself, and no more knew how to pull himself from it than he did how to pull his children. Stark, who was probably going to try anyway. That ... that made it better, some little bit. That blunted the ragged edge of a very old anger.
"... We're all afraid," Bruce said quietly, watching them both from across the bridge. "Every day, Barbara. Every choice. There's no-one out there who isn't afraid that they'll fail. That they'll make the wrong choice, and someone they love will pay for it." He shook his head, his eyes crinkling tiredly. "Strength is a matter of perspective. Nothing more."
"And so is weakness," Natasha said, clipped and cold, utterly sure. "No matter what people say, weakness is only what they think it is." She shrugged, stiff and cool. "In the end, survival is all that matters. You live as long as you can, and that's all that strength means. And you ..." She paused, softened. "You've lived through a lot. You've survived. You've had your choices taken from you, and survived their loss. You've had them returned to you, and been brave enough to take them." She shook her head, smiled. "You stood up to the man who saved you, when you didn't agree with what he was doing. Whatever choices Meroe made, you made them too. And you had ... a lot more to lose by doing so."
"You helped us," Bruce reminded gently, smiling softly into the distance himself, rueful and shy. "Even though we scared your Maker. Even though you didn't know what we'd do. I think ... I think that journey to Tannhauser, the battle, would have been a lot worse for everyone if you hadn't been there. That was ... that was very brave of you. I don't know about Stark but we, at least, are very grateful to you."
"... You helped me too," Barbara managed, and Natasha wondered, then, just how young the AI really was, relatively speaking. She wondered just how much Barbara had ever experienced, that wasn't brutality and the chaining of her will. "I didn't ... I didn't remember what mercy was, before you. I don't know if Tony Stark did either. You showed us ... things I didn't remember. Things that were not ... machine." She paused, struggled faintly. "You stood as my pilot, my crew. I had ... forgotten what that meant. Thank you. It was ... the first thing I have been glad to remember, in a very long time."
Natasha swallowed. Breathed carefully, watching the curve of Bruce's neck as he ducked his head, as he looked down at the lacing of his fingers and blinked rapidly in the harsh lights of the bridge. She breathed, and then walked carefully back to the center of the bridge, drawing to a stop beside him, beside the pilot's cradle. She reached out, touched its smooth, firm curve, the palm of Barbara's hand, and wondered, for perhaps the first time, if that was what it meant. Being a pilot, the way Stark was a pilot, the way Maria was a pilot. Wondering if that was all it was. Not an intrusion, an alien presence inside your mind, an enslaving grip on your will like so many others in her past had been. Not the thing they all feared, they three, the thing they all remembered, reaching down through who they were to pull free the parts that were wanted. Not that.
Just ... a sharing, instead. A standing together. To stand as someone's pilot, and have them stand as your ship, the palm that held you up. Someone to show you what mercy was, and remind you that you had survived for a reason. She wondered, then, if JARVIS was to Stark and Meroe to Maria what Clint was to her. No more, and no less, and only fearful for how strange it was, for how much it opened you as you had never been opened before.
"... It was an honour," she said, hushed and distant, and didn't start at Bruce's soft touch on her arm. Natasha stood on the bridge of the Avenger as it drifted over the constellations of FleetHome, her hand light on the pilot's cradle and Bruce's gentle on her arm, and let the idea slowly seed itself in her mind. Let herself consider something she had always before instinctively denied. A battered, brave AI, a survivor not so unlike Natasha herself, and a hand that was, this time, hers to offer. "Barbara. It was ... an honour to be your pilot. It was a pleasure."
And perhaps, she thought, perhaps in all the mess that would come from Stark's war, in all the pain and courage as slaves learned to choose again ...
Perhaps, Natasha thought, it might yet be her honour again.