If Natasha had to pick her least favorite aspect about this whole unfavorable situation, -- and Bogom, the list was quite long, there was plenty to choose from, -- is that Tony completely ignores their existence.
She had enough common sense to not expect a warm hug and open doors once they returned from the (quite unwelcoming, if she was completely honest) cold nest that was the beautiful Wakanda. Tony was merciful, despite appearances. But just because someone decides to forgive, does not mean they also forget. You don't put daggers on a bed and then complain they cut you.
And yet, the rigid gazes and nonchalant demeanor caught her by surprise nonetheless. She knows it was foolish of her now, to expect him once again to erase their every fault with a sponge as he did in the past. To look the other way at their wrongdoings.
In a way, when you're so used to doing things perfectly, you stop trying. That was the mistake that cost her this, she concludes.
It is such a shame when you realize you have pushed someone who has treated you warmly once so far, to a point where they don't care anymore, only when you feel every hair on your skin rise in a shiver when their once mellow, fond eyes gaze down at you in an icy indifference.
The Russian winters come to bite at her skin when she sleeps, sometimes. They're unforgiving, ruthless, and cold. Natasha thinks Tony's eyes are colder.
When she first heard about this 'Atoning method', for the first time In many years, the unfamiliar taste of fear spread at the back of her mouth and traveled through her whole body, poisoning her veins and making a home in her belly.
She could see Clint and Steve's petrified figures from the corner of her eye. One looked at her. One looked at Barnes. Who, now that she reviews the events in her mind, looked strangely calm about It all. The frames of his face remained unflinching and unmoving. It felt like looking in a mirror.
She also recalls the slight crack in Steve's voice when he finally decided to talk. The once firm and assertive tone was long gone, replaced by an incredulous but quiet whisper that was almost covered by the wild thumping against her ribcage.
"That...That can't be right. No. I-I-There, uh, there has to be something else, right? Another sentence, another punishment, anything, --" He seemed almost desperate there. They all had. "Anything at all? They can't be...They can't be serious, can't they? Your Majesty, please tell me this is a joke. Please."
T'Challa's eyes reflected pity, but his word was nothing more than a death sentence to their ears. "I'm afraid there is no farce behind it, Captain. After discussing with the board, and negotiating thoroughly, this was the only deal Mr. Stark could get for you. The pardons came. But with them came conditions and terms that not even we could sweeten. The price was too much for both of us. "
" What did they want?" Her voice sounded calm then, but inside, she was fighting to prevent it from shaking.
The reply left them in stunned silence. Natasha can't remember if any of them talked after that. The King continued: "Stealing someone's humanity is the lowest crime a man can commit. I have listened to all of your stories about Mr. Stark. I even met him myself. If he's anything like the person you portray in your stories and the one I've met, I can assure you, there is nothing to worry about."
'That's the problem, ' she thought then, bitterly. 'I don't know if he's going to be the man we know. I don't think I ever did. '
At that moment, she would have given everything for Tony to ignore them. To act like they weren't there. To leave them alone. Natasha even prayed to whatever Gods were above (and for the first time, she actually hoped they existed) for Tony to pretend like they don't exist.
She continued to mutter pleads in Russian under her breath even on the ride with the special car Tony sent for them, since, to quote the driver: 'He couldn't be bothered with coming.' Natasha didn't know why she was so scared in the first place. She could protect herself against Tony just fine.
The years spent in the Red Room hardened her skin as well as her character until it was impenetrable and she was untouchable, a force a few would want to meddle with. If Tony took away her weapons, she still wouldn't be helpless. Natasha forgot how being helpless felt like a long time ago.
You never need weapons when you're a weapon yourself.
Perhaps fear stayed because she knew of what Tony was capable of. She has met with a glimpse of his wrath before. She might be a Black Widow, but she knows better than to think she could take on Iron Man on her own.
Tony was a futurist. If they'd take one step further in this game, chances are Tony's already at the finish line. It's not only the physical factor but the intellectual one too, which can't even be compared.
Tony had them beat before this even started.
So, maybe, it was self-preservation and awareness that made her hesitant. Or maybe it was because if it really came down to it… She wouldn't have it in her to hurt Tony anyhow.
'Love is poison, ' one of her teachers used to say, in that hollow, empty voice of her that still sings hushed lullabies in Natasha's ear at times, when her past comes back to haunt her in the late hours of the night.
Only if she knew how right she was. 'It slows you down when it really matters. Decreases your level of efficiency and clouds your judgment. It makes you weak. Weakness means Death, Natalia. Remember that.'
Now, waiting awkwardly in the living room of the Stark Tower, seated next to a pair of equally awkward Bucky and Steve, Natasha now only hopes for her prayers to not be needed. Bucky's leg bounced rapidly against her own and his eyes scanned the room at least four times. To look for a way out or inspect the new grounds out of curiosity, she didn't know.
The tower, design-wise, remained untouched as far as she could tell. The same spacious dark leather couch they used to spend hours upon hours slumped on, wrapped up around one another creating a mess of tangled limbs, watching countless films and TV shows some didn't want or find any interest in but stayed nonetheless.
Same old glass coffee table, same impossibly large TV, same view from the kitchen she, Clint, and Thor used to steal all the snacks from. The only difference was, this time, they weren't seen as guests, or friends, or teammates. Natasha worries if they'll even be seen as people instead of Tony's personal--
Sickness raises in her throat but she forces herself to relax and swallow it down with a gulp. If Steve and Bucky noticed, they were considerate enough to not make a peep.
One thing Natasha did learn about Steve was that he always played with his fingers when he was nervous, uncomfortable, or stressed. Right now she figures he's all three of those things. She watched how he popped and twisted the digits like there was no tomorrow, distracting herself from the pit of nervousness festering in her belly, too.
Natasha didn't know if she started a conversation to put herself at ease, or Steve. "Remember when he sat us down and forced us to watch all Star Wars movies after you told him you never saw one?" She reminded him, lips sketching a half smile on her face.
Judging by how the corners of his mouth raised in a crooked grin and tension seemed to leave his shoulders, Steve didn't seem to care which one was it. Natasha would lie if she'd say the sorrowful and look of longing in his eyes didn't pull at her heartstrings.
"I was scared he was gonna have a heart attack, " Steve spoke through a small laugh. "I've never seen anyone so offended and deranged at something in my whole life. I couldn't even feel my butt by the time his marathon was over, but...It was nice. Knowing he wanted to share that with us.".
"That's our Tony, " she murmured in agreement, staring out the tall glass windows with a fond smile neither men could see, but knew was present. ", doing nice things for everyone. ".
'And not getting shit in return' stayed silent on her tongue, and it burned horribly. "He did try to punch you though, but Thor and Bruce held him back. You were lucky. Never mess with Stark and his movies. Chances are you won't get out alive, everyone knows that."
Steve merely chuckled. "You have no right to say that to me after you, …".
They stay like that for a while, remembering memories of more simple, happier times. Natasha almost feels comfortable. Almost feels like she's home again, waiting for Tony to step out of the elevator after one of his usual lab binges (and get scolded at by Cap for the stains of grease ruining his shirt, which will start another playful banter) so he could take them out to his favorite restaurant like he used to do every Friday night.
Of course, as it does in life, harmony is short-lived.
Time seemed to stop when Tony actually appears from the metal doors of the elevator. They all visibly stiffen and the tension from before came back with a vengeance, serving them with the harsh slap of reality. The brunette is holding a suitcase attached to his wrist by a chain. Whatever it's content, it gives Natasha a bad feeling.
Almost every step he takes echoes in the silence filled the room. Tony's walk is casual, but firm, his chin is high, and his dark lenses sunglasses sit almost perfectly on his nose, hiding his eyes from the world. He radiates the confidence and power Natasha only saw when he used to walk up into the business meetings he always used to arrive late at but ended up winning anyway.
It's the same now. This isn't a get-together. This is a business meeting.
" I see that you guys arrived, at once, " Tony's voice is laced with something like boredom and carelessness. It was hard to tell how he really felt when those blasted sunglasses blocked his eyes.
It would be so much easier to see the truth behind his eyes than listen to the lies coming from his mouth. "How was the trip? " Something about the passive way he asked that told Natasha he really didn't need or wanted an answer to that question, so instead, she responded with:
"I'm surprised reporters and Paparazzi didn't install tents outside already, " she commented, folding her arms across her chest. The woman wanted to hug him, to embrace him after a whole year of being separated, but she doesn't think it would be appreciated now.
Natasha didn't want him to see just how affected she was by the ordeal. If Tony wanted to put on the indifference mask, she would take out hers. "thought our return would make more waves."
Tony hummed, the tip of his fingers drifting on the tablet he took out briefly. "Give it a few hours. A day tops. I wouldn't worry about them, though. It's not like you'll actually have to deal with them, " leaving the screen for a moment, he took off his glasses and gave her an impassive look that made her pause. "They're down there, and you're up here, after all."
Whether he realized the implications that sentence held, especially used in these circumstances. Natasha doubted he didn't.
"Where's Sam and the others?" Bucky, who didn't speak until then, finally pipped, refusing to meet Tony's eyes when the man turned to look at him. "It's just… When we arrived, we got separated. They okay?"
"Should be, " Tony replied vaguely with a raise of his shoulders. "since Sam's a veteran, they went easier on him. He's on house arrest at his own apartment. So are Lang and Barton. Taking into consideration they have families, I could get them a deal. As for Maximoff...Let's just say she's playing 'Little Birdie In A Cage', like you guys, in a maximum security underground prison. No one gets in, no one gets out. "
Trying to ignore the remainder of their incarceration, Steve stepped forward, particularly closer to Bucky as though he wanted to put a wall between him and the man they fought with years ago. His blue eyes were pleading, but Tony's face remained stone.
"You can't expect me to believe you'd be okay with something like this happening, Tony, " he spoke softly, trying to step closer to the other man but Tony held his palm up, signaling that it was better to keep a distance. Although saddened, Steve continued. ", I know you're angry, Tony, and upset, but what they're asking you to do is wrong. It's inhuman and cruel, and we have to find something better."
"There is nothing more I could do, " responded Tony, chillingly calm. "And I never said it was anything but what you described. It's not sunshine and rainbows, I'll give you that, but trust me, -- as hard as it is for you, -- the other option was way worse. This isn't good, but it is something."
"Anything else would be better than this, " Steve hissed, irritation clear in his voice. "I would gladly spend the rest of my life in prison than stay here, bend at your whim to be, --" he couldn't even finish his sentence, realizing what he was saying.
Bucky's eyes moved nervously between the two heroes, as did Natasha's, who moved to stand as an obstacle when Tony rose from the chair he was sitting on previously to make his way to Steve, who seemed to who a very interesting nonverbal conversation his shoes.
"To be what?" Tony spoke lowly, with an edge of danger. "To be what, Rogers?"He repeated the question, an affronted frown affronted the middle of his eyebrows when Steve stayed silent.
"Tony, let's calm down, --"
"To be raped?" As soon as the word was spit through his gritted teeth like venom, Natasha closed her eyes with hardness. She tried not to flinch when Tony laughed. It was forced, and pained, and terrible.
"Is that what you thought was going to happen? That big, bad Stark planned to bring you back just to rip your clothes off, strap you on a table and have his wicked way with you until you couldn't move or talk?"
Steve's face lightened up with color in less than a second, "No, no, Tony please, that's not what I wanted to say! It's not even what I was thinking, just LISTEN to me for a minute!"
Tony's face darkened, walking past Natasha who was too exhausted to stop him. Tiredly, her eyes moved to Bucky, whose fists were balled at his sides and lips sucked into his mouth, but didn't move to protect his friend, which made confusion (and a drop of suspicion) appear in her mind.
"I wouldn't touch you, " Tony started acidly, anger blazing in his dark brown eyes like a fire. "If you begged." Silence once again fell over them. Once he calmed down, the heat in Tony's eyes melted. Ice covered his features once again.
" They wanted me to kill you, " he announced conversationally, but the three felt the ground running under their feet at the news. ", that was the initial punishment. Have the bodies of the traitors presented in front of the council, by my hand. They knew I could find you easily enough. And they were right. It didn't take me a huge amount of time or effort to find out the snake hole you were hiding in.
But I didn't WANT to kill you. And I knew Ross didn't want to kill you, either. He wants to humiliate you. Embarrass you. Deprive you of any possible shred of power or dignity that you might have left. Why would he kill you? If he did, he wouldn't have anyone to brag or be smug around. He wants you alive to witness that he won. And you lost. I knew that. Which is why you're standing here right now.
I came up with this, so your stuffed beheaded heads wouldn't stay as trophies hanged high on that creeper's wall. You're fucking welcome.
But by all means, go ahead. You want me to call the UN and say I changed my mind? To say their initial punishment was a better deal for both me and you? Do you really want to do that? Because we can go to the board right now if you really think this is a fate worse than death. What's it going to be?"
The lack of words spoke volumes.
"Figured. " Tony rolled his eyes, placing the suitcase on the glass table. He opened it with swift moves, revealing the objects locked inside of it. Natasha's eyes extended just a bit when she finally learned what hid in the carriage.
Her stare at the crimson leather of the collars was concentrated and attentive as if she burned every single detail of the accessory in her mind. The shiny golden buckle reflected against her irises. It was Tony's hand, without a shade of doubt.
The collars appeared to be of high quality, comfortable, and, of course, expensive. The color didn't appear to be random, either. Tony was the only one she could link this to. Only he would give this amount of attention to something.
She didn't realize Tony had moved until Natasha heard the collar being clipped around her neck. The woman inhaled slowly, chest raising in slow, steady breaths. She raised her gaze slowly, and hers and Tony's eyes locked. The snow inside of them wasted away bits by bits, along with the stone that cracked around the irises, too.
The material of the collar felt nice and soft on Natasha's skin. The leather wasn't so rough that she couldn't stand it. It bit at her skin just the right amount. It fit perfectly, curling around her neck as though it was always meant to be there.
"I'm not going to play Ross's game, " he whispered. "I'll just make him think I will. "