One of them had impaled her.
Her side burned at the reminder. The punch of the blade pushing through her flesh, the near razor smoothness hadn’t hurt at all. It was like it happened to someone else, but she’d felt the blood rush from her body, the ice spreading through her extremities and she’d stared down at the bridge aware that she was all that had stood between Pepper and being taken.
Then Pepper had screamed.
“It is important that you complete the trials.”
“Yeah? What trials? His little Mandarin House of Horrors?” She took another bite.
“It is a trial of the dragon.”
“Well the dragon can shove it up his snout,” she told him, then took another bite.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. You have been chosen for this honor.” Yeah, it felt like she’d been chosen. “To embrace the dragon is to know wisdom and grace, to be admitted to the halls of the worthy…”
“Are you sure you’re not Asgardian? Cause I’ll tell you what I told him—I don’t need the answer to that question.”
“What life does your master want?”
The monk blinked at her slowly.
“Or should I ask you what you want?”
The man’s smile grew. “You are the worthiest of opponents, Widow.” The monk passed his hand over his face and the features shifted and changed. Then The Mandarin stared at her. “What betrayed me?”
“You were playing it a little too heavy-handed. The monk before never lifted his hands from his legs.” No, he had sat rock still, his formal language never varying. This one… close, but no cigar.
The Mandarin smiled. “Very observant.” He glanced around the room. “You have created a difficulty for me.”
“Really?” She finished wiping her fingers and tossed the cloth back onto the tray. She began to flex the muscles in her legs to warm them. He knelt between her and the open door. He wasn’t shackled, not to mention, he looked well-rested. “Sucks to be you.”
“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
“Did you get your copy of The Art of War in the embossed illustrated version or the Cliffs’ Notes?”
Smiling, The Mandarin eyed her. “Your tongue is almost as cutting as your blades.”
“I hear I’ve got a talented one, shame to waste it.” He won their last fight because he used something to hold her still. The rings on his hands, one for each finger, drew the eye but he didn’t shift his posture as he settled his hands against his thighs.
“I hoped that by engaging you, I could persuade you to continue. The game—after all—requires two players.”
“But I’m not the player in your game, am I?” She challenged him. “You put me here as the pawn…”
“…and the prize,” he reminded her. “Better I think than what Tony Stark took from me in the first place. But it is not a victory until I have won it.”
“So…it really pisses on your day that I don’t want to play anymore? Damn, I can’t tell you how broken up about that I am.”
The Mandarin sighed. “I had really rather hoped to keep this civil.”
She didn’t scoff. She didn’t have time to. He flung out his hand and lightning struck her. The sizzle of it rolled over her even as her system jerked and she slammed her head back against the wall. The metal in her hand heated and the shocks rolled over her.
Still buzzing, she looked up as he rose. “This could have one much easier, but perhaps this will be a lesson for both of you.”
Lightning crawled over her. Shocking. Burning. Twisting.
“I don’t suppose you have a gun?” It was a pointless question for Remy.
“I don’t like guns, Boo. Besides—you got me. I’m better than any gun.”
The corridor seemed empty, the chain of rooms going on through a couple of doorways. “Stay together. Cover Tony.”
She flicked her fingers at both of them. “Cover Tony, I’ll take care of me. Get him out. That’s the first priority.”
“Romanoff… you and me? That talk. It’s not going to be fun.”
She snorted. “Shellhead, we make it out of here, you can say anything you want to me. But you have to be alive to say it.”
Not wasting time, she checked her four. All dead. Remy’s still had a pulse, she didn’t waste time, she just snapped the downed monk’s neck then moved to the one Tony had set down.
“Not leaving them behind us.” She met his gaze fiercely. “Move, Tony.”
“This isn’t you,” he tried.
But she snorted and put a foot on either side of the man’s downed head, gripped with her ankles and twisted. His neck snapped as she held Tony’s gaze. “This is exactly who I am.”
The brush of fingers against her shoulder catapulted Natasha from a nightmare to attack, she gripped the hand touching her, and had her legs locked around them even as she twisted and tackled them over, her right hand drawn back to strike before her eyes even opened only to meet pale blue eyes regarding her evenly as James relaxed in her grip offering no fight.
Dropping his hand, she disentangled herself and launched off the bed and not stopping until she’d backed all the way to the wall. James kept his hands spread, palms facing her as he sat up slowly. Steve was visible in the doorway to the bathroom, concern etched into every line of his face.
She tapped her head against the wall three times as she got her breathing under control.
“Tony called,” James said, slowly as he remained on the edge of the bed. “Dr. Strange is here.”
Weariness settled in her bones even as her heart hammered. The adrenaline dump had her skin buzzing, awareness of every breath they took scraping across her.
The first question that skated out from behind the thunder of her pulse was who the hell was Doctor Strange? But the answer followed right after and she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The tension in her muscles threatened to cramp her hands, she could almost feel the weight of the chain she’d gripped for hours—or was it days?
“Now?” She finally managed in a voice that sounded reasonably even.
“He can wait,” Steve told her. When she opened her eyes she found him waiting in the doorway to the bathroom. He hadn’t taken a single step.
Thankfully, neither one asked if she was okay or all right or any other platitude.
She definitely wasn’t any of the above.
Licking her lips, she straightened, unclenching her fists with real effort and then pushing away from the wall. Crossing to the dresser, she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
“I’m standing up, Doll,” James said quietly. She tilted her head enough to catch him in her periphery, then nodded once before opening a drawer and pulling out a pair of yoga pants. She stared at them for a minute, then glanced at her closet. Tact gear would make her more comfortable.
But she probably had to go to medical.
Which meant nothing with metal.
Pants in hand, she closed the drawer and turned. James stood at the side of the bed and Steve still stood in the door to the bathroom.
“Are you done in there?”
He dropped the hand towel on the counter with a swift nod and stepped out. She waited until he’d reached the bed before she angled her path straight for the bathroom, avoiding any contact and once inside she shut the door and leaned back against it. The all too brief sensation of relief bottled beneath the suffocation of being shut into a room.
The door wasn’t locked.
The door wasn’t locked.
She repeated the internal mantra as she set the pants on the side of the sink, then glanced at herself in the mirror.
Bruises lined one of her cheeks. Her throat was still wrapped in bandages, the mottling of the skin visible above and below. If she lifted her shirt, she’d see all the bruises along her chest. There was another around her left ankle, fading rapidly, but still there.
She ignored them. The physiological responses were just that—responses to the combination of overwhelming stimuli and the sudden absence of the same stimuli. She’d been on a tumultuous seesaw of sensation for days. It would take time to level out.
Turning on the water, she ran it cold then cupped a handful and splashed her face with it. Then again. And again. A part of her wanted to fill the tub with water and ice and submerge herself in it.
The chain pulled taut as the water closed over her head. Six minutes.
She could last six minutes.
Shutting the water off abruptly, she picked up Steve’s discarded hand towel and wiped her face. Slowly. Then she pulled on the pants, slowly, and with great care balancing herself with one hand on the vanity. Her breathing evened slowly at an almost plodding speed.
With her fingers, she combed through curls. Her hair hung unevenly. A missing chunk of hair for along the right side of her face left her lopsided. She opened a drawer and pulled out a hair tie, then gathered it all up and pulled it up into a messy ponytail to hide the damage.
She’d cut the rest of it later.
Closing her eyes again, she forced her breathing to regulate and shut off the burning sting turning over in her gut at the idea of having to cut her hair. It was just hair. She changed it all the time. It was as malleable as the rest of her. The silence from beyond the door to the bedroom crushed in on her and she closed the drawer, checked her appearance again, then pulled the door open and shut off the light.
The bedroom was empty.
They were giving her space.
Returning to her closet, she pulled two knives off the shelves. Securing one sheath to her lower back, she tightened the strap across her abdomen. Then she checked her access. It was fine.
The second, she strapped to her right calf. The loose yoga pants hid it well enough. But she didn’t actually care if anyone knew she was armed. Glancing at her gun safe, she debated a Glock. She could put on a shoulder holster, then slip a hoodie over it.
A dragged step behind her alerted her to James’ return to the bedroom. Glancing over her shoulder, she found him standing at the foot of the bed, about seven feet from the entrance to the closet. He had his hands loose at his sides.
“I’m—” The apology wouldn’t unstick itself from the roof of her mouth. She’d attacked him.
“I touched you when you said not to,” James told her carefully, his tone dead neutral. “I tried to rouse you with your name, but you didn’t hear me. So I touched your shoulder.”
She nodded once.
“You didn’t hurt me, Natalia.”
A little shrug, and she glanced back at the gun cabinet. Entering the combination, she opened it and pulled the gun and holster out. James said nothing as she slipped it on, and then covered it all with Tony's oversized dark gray hoodie, he must have left it in her closet again, before she closed the safe door.
Facing him, she slid her hands into the pockets of the hoodie. “I’m ready.” She’d take off the weapons if she absolutely had to, but she didn’t know the doctor and right now, the weight of the gun pressing against her side made her feel better.
“You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to,” James told her, irritation ruffling some of the neutrality in his tone.
“After the weeks of looking for him?” She arched a brow. “No. I’ll talk to him. He just better be worth what Tony thinks he is.”
Or she would be aggravated.
A single nod.
Without waiting for her, he lead the way to the door but she didn’t miss the brief tightening of his expression. She hadn’t moved until he did. Fuck, did she have a problem with James at her back?
The dreams were too fresh. Her head ached. Her body hurt. And the rest of her?
She was a mess. That was what she’d told Steve. Speaking of…
He wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen. The door to his bedroom stood open and it was quiet.
“He went up to meet the doctor and to let them know you would be a minute.”
Licking her lips, she nodded. “Did I….”
“Doll, Stevie is fine. He gets it. He went to tell them to put a sock in it, nothing more.”
She nodded before glancing at the elevator. As much as she didn’t want to go to medical better to just rip the Band-Aid off. James waited for her, patience cooling the air around him. When she headed for the elevator, he moved ahead. He let her be at his back, even if she seemed reticent to let him be at hers. The doors opened at their arrival and he moved inside and to the corner as she took the other one, then folded her arms as she leaned against the wall.
“The penthouse, please,” James said.
Surprise flickered through her.
“Meeting him, Doll. Not letting him treat you until we have your consent.” And got a damn good look at him, his tone implied even if he didn’t say the words aloud.
Letting out a shaky breath, she doubled over and out her hands on her thighs. “Halt elevator.”
It glided to a stop.
James said nothing as she forced herself to breathe. Then she lifted her head and faced him. “I really didn’t want to go to medical.”
“I know,” he said, his voice absolutely gentle. “No one is forcing you. I promise you. No one will.” Despite the gentleness, a core of steel underlay the words.
Straightening, she let out a shaking breath then nodded. “How long did I actually sleep?”
“Forty-five minutes,” James told her balefully. “You’re exhausted, Natalia. We can go right back to Stevie’s floor. We can go to your floor. We can leave the fucking Tower and go anywhere you want.”
No. No they couldn’t. “This guy can tell us what’s wrong with my brain.” Maybe something beyond decades of head scrambling had left her damaged irreparably and her memory a joke.
That would be nice.
“Great, he can also make an appointment,” James told her and she almost smiled.
“James… I know you want to know as much as I do.”
“I want you alive and safe,” James told her. “Everything else can wait.”
“No,” she told him. “Tony won’t let me have access to BARF until this guy clears me. I need more pieces to find Mary… has Logan called?”
A shake of his head.
“Then we go.” Shifting her stance, she moved toward him and held out her hand. The need to touch warred with the need for distance. They’d had so much distance. She couldn’t embrace it. Not even when her skin hummed like her very bones vibrated. He threaded his fingers with hers easily and she pressed her forehead to his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“Never apologize,” he murmured, pressing his lips to the top of her head. “I mean it Natalia, you never have to apologize to me.”
“Maybe I want to,” she told him, lifting her head to meet his gaze as she stroked her thumb against the cool metal of his hand. He could have taken her hand in his right, but she’d held out her right hand and he’d given her his left. It left his right hand free and she savored the contact with him no matter which hand she held. He knew that.
The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened with his smile. “Anything you want.”
“You keep being this agreeable, you’ll spoil me.” It was light, maybe too light considering their often-bloodied history, but his smile only grew. Lifting their joined hands, he kissed her fingers not once looking away from her. Every movement telegraphed.
“Good,” he murmured against her fingertips.
Her palms went a little sweaty and a trickle of it slid down between her shoulder blades but she refused to let him go.
“I’m ready,” she told him.
“You are certain?” He searched her gaze.
She nodded once. No, she absolutely wasn’t, but she could handle it. That was the part that mattered. This was another step on the path to finding Mary. The cost was irrelevant.
“Resume, Friday,” she said. “Please.”
“Of course, Ms. Romanoff.”
She held his gaze as the elevator ascended without releasing his hand, but when they slowed to a stop, the doors didn’t open immediately. Friday waited until Natasha faced them before they slid apart.
The rumble of conversation silenced almost immediately. Natasha swept the room with a look. Tony stood near his naked tree, which leaned at a terrifically bad angle, arms folded and expression fierce as he faced a slightly taller man, also with dark hair flecked with hints of gray near his temples and sporting a goatee.
The suggestion of mirroring ended there though. Doctor Strange gave her an assessing look as she and James exited the elevator. Steve stood near the dining table, arms folded as he leaned against it. His expression softened a fraction when he caught sight of her, but he kept most of his attention on the doctor, as did James going so far as to stand slightly in front of her but near enough to be at her side.
The doctor—if that was what he was—wore the most obscure of outfits. A quilted tunic of a shirt, a flowing red cape, and boots that came up to his knees over a pair of legging like pants. The necklace he wore, gold and heavy, seemed almost too simple and ornate in the same breath.
“Tony,” she said slowly, shifting her gaze to include him in her line of sight. “I thought neurosurgeon meant high tech, not leeches.” At least the jangling in her nerves had settled some and the hum along her skin quieted.
The doctor snorted. “I can assure you, Ms. Romanoff, I do not work with leeches. I also do not perform surgery.”
“Then what do you do?”
“Red, he’s—here to offer us his expertise,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “A consult. Nothing more.”
This should be good. “I can hardly wait.” Tired slammed into her in waves, but she ignored it, locking her legs and staring at the doctor.
“As I was explaining to Mr. Stark,” the doctor said. “And the good captain there, I don’t practice any longer.” He held up his heavily scarred hands, a flash of gold across two fingers of his left hand riveted her. “I understand the serious nature of the request and based on the impossible scan…” the doctor nodded toward James. “He and Mr. Barton gave Christine, I get you wanted my attention. You have it.”
“I wanted you here to help her…” Tony said, closing the distance slightly. “Money isn’t an object and I know how much of yours you’ve poured into repairing your hands though, after your arrival, I’m assuming you found other methods.”
“I don’t work for you, Mr. Stark,” the doctor said. “And even if I did, this would be a conversation between me and the patient.” The doctor flicked a look back to her. “You are the patient, correct?”
“Not a very good one,” she said, snapping her gaze up to his face. “Nice scars by the way. My brain looks like that according to the scans I’ve seen of it. If you can’t or won’t help, we don’t need to have this or any other conversation.”
She didn’t like doctors to begin with and this one looked like he’d been drawn right out of Lord of the Rings. Or maybe Dungeons and Dragons.
Mad scientist or mad sorcerer?
Really didn’t see an upside on either.
“Then again,” she continued just as Tony opened his mouth. “A man like you doesn’t make some grand appearance to tell us to fuck off, you can’t help. We obviously couldn’t track you down, so—why are you here? Unless the scans really did intrigue you?”
With a sigh, the doctor strode around the sofa toward her. James stiffened and the shift of his weight went to the balls of his feet. He was ready to move every bit as much as she was. The gold on the doctor’s left hand flashed again. Sweat soaked the back of her neck. She unzipped the hoodie, loath to sweat her way through it.
When he was three feet away, the light hit the rectangular shape covering his index and middle finger on his left hand. One ring, two bands. The Mandarin’s had been individual rings, octagonal and rectangular in shape. The pattern on the doctor’s ring wasn’t ornate, as if the hammered metal had been through the wringer.
Her gun was pointed right at the doctor’s head and he’d gone still, his eyes narrowed. His damaged hands were up slightly, but there was a spark around his hand.
“Lose the ring.”
His eyebrows skyrocketed. Steve and Tony were halfway to her and they both went still. Next to her, James shifted his weight again.
“I beg your pardon?” The doctor’s tone suggested she’d made an offensive comment.
“Lose the ring. Take it off. Put it in your pocket. Swallow it for all I care. But lose the damn thing.” The weight of the Glock in her palm was a comfort she hadn’t even realized she needed.
“The sling ring isn’t a weapon.”
“I didn’t ask if it was a weapon, I said lose it.” She only had to squeeze the trigger. “I’ve had my fill of rings this week.”
He eyed her carefully, then James before returning his gaze to hers. “I’m going to take it off and put it in a pouch on my belt. Acceptable?”
She nodded once. Her arm didn’t twitch, her aim rock steady. At this distance, she would take out the entire back half of his skull with the exit wound. He slid the ring off, his gaze never leaving hers. The movement was visible in her periphery. Then the flash of gold vanished and he raised both of his hands.
First, he showed her his palms then the back of his hands.
With a nod, she took a single step back and reholstered the gun.
“Rings are an interesting thing to trigger PTSD, Ms. Romanoff.”
“Not if you’ve been tortured with them.” The doctor was still too damn close.
“I’m pulling out my phone,” he told her and like her, his focus didn’t shift.
At her nod, he reached behind him and pulled out the smartphone from his back pocket. Huh. Medieval pants had back pockets? Who knew?
Phone in hand, the doctor pulled up an image. It was one of her CT scans. “This is your brain?” The skepticism in his voice demanded an answer.
It looked like the scan from when they’d returned from the island. The black striations bisecting the brain weren’t supposed to be there. “As far as I know…” she said with a shrug. “Friday…holo screen with my most recent CT scans for the doc.”
A screen appeared to her left and Strange glanced from her to it. His eyes narrowed as he studied it. “Can we enhance the thalamus?”
“Do it, Baby Girl,” Tony said. He and Steve had crossed the room to join them, not that she or James had made it more than a few steps from the still open elevator doors.
“What symptoms have you been experiencing?” Strange asked, cutting a glance from the scan to her. “Besides the intense bruising and obvious signs of recent combat which I presume includes repeated head injuries.”
Folding her arms, she glanced at Tony. “Give him the file.”
“You sure?” Tony frowned.
“Questioning your judgment already?” Another wave of tired hit, her hands were starting to tremble so she kept them tucked down.
Strange loosened his cloak and swung it to the side where it stood, of its own accord, just hanging in the air.
“Not sure,” Tony said his gaze riveted on the cloak then Strange. “Just wasn’t expecting this.”
“You can read my whole file…” she began.
The doctor shook his head, “No, I want to know what symptoms you’re experiencing right now. Your eyes are dilated, you’re pale, sweating and there are tremors in your hands. You obviously have PTSD and have been in a recent battle. I’m aware of who you are Ms. Romanoff, I did read the papers.”
Well, so much for covering that up. “You want to have this conversation I need coffee or vodka. Maybe both.”
“You’ll get coffee,” Tony told her. “You tossed all my liquor.”
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “It’s easier for you to stay sober if you’re not surrounded by it.”
He made a face.
“Nat,” Steve said quietly. “Come sit down? I’m assuming the doctor is interested enough to explore the case which means you should rest.”
A part of her wanted to argue. She’d stand on her own feet. She’d survived days of torture and extreme conditions. Sitting on a sofa or a chair would hardly be some balm for all of that, but it was just stubbornness on her part. Some distant part of her mind acknowledged that.
Strange lifted a finger into her line of sight and it took everything she had not to pull a knife and put it through his hand.
“You were zoning out, Ms. Romanoff. Do you often have fugues?”
Not answering she pointed him toward the sofas. “After you.”
She would not allow that man to be at her back.
He studied her for a beat, then pivoted, the cloak practically floated along behind him.
James took two steps after him and she followed. The elevator doors closed. Steve’s frown deepened, but she circled the room and settled in a chair that had her back mostly to the tree and didn’t really allow the room for someone to sit with her. Tony returned with mugs, and a huge carafe of coffee. He poured one for her then the guys. It wouldn’t do them much good—it was too weak—but they took it anyway.
Suck it up, Natasha. This guy can clear you for BARF. That gets you a step closer to Mary. Logan might have info, but Logan had his own issues and the fact he’d never mentioned their first meeting left her with more questions. Why hadn’t she asked him when she’d seen him at the fortress?
Because you had other things on your mind.
“You wanted to know my symptoms—long-term or recent?” Focusing on the doctor, she did her best to not look at Steve or James where they’d taken positions between she and the doctor, she didn’t want to worry them but she also couldn’t take the weight of their concern at the moment. Tony, she couldn’t avoid, because he stood just behind the sofa, his attention split between her and the doc.
He had a plan?
“Yeah…don’t kill me.” Then he kissed her, slow, deep, and breath-stealing. His fingers were in her hair as he held her still and her mouth parted Surprise rippled through her and she stilled for a long minute as his tongue swept against hers. He tasted like coffee. The sensation registered slowly, the scent of sweat and coffee twining around them along with hints of his cologne. It was almost like being at the Tower.
“Based on what I’m seeing here, you shouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with me. I’ve never seen this kind of scarring on a living, cognitively-aware patient before.”
“Yay me,” she murmured, then set her cup down. Then she repeated her earlier question, “Recent or long-term?”
The sense of disconnectedness wouldn’t go away. She didn’t want to be here or to have this conversation, but what she’d said to James held true.
She had to know.
This was the doctor Tony insisted was the best, the one who could tell them what to do.
But the doc didn’t seem as certain.
A chime from the elevator pulled her attention. Clint arrived wearing a frown and he crossed the room, pausing a beat to stare at the cloak just hovering in the air before he circled to stand near her.
“I thought we were getting a doctor, not a wizard,” Clint murmured.
Natasha shrugged. “Apparently not—he’s a doctor and a wizard, if he could time travel I’d say he was The Doctor.”
“Who?” Clint said, the corner of his mouth kicking up and she snickered. The laughter burst through some of the numbness.
“If you two are done,” the doctor said dryly.
“Not even close,” Clint said without missing a beat.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Natasha told him as she pulled her feet up into the chair and sat cross-legged. It put her ankle sheath in reach.
“Conventionally, you shouldn’t be functioning right now, since you are,” Strange told her. “I’m going to assume you’re not quite human.”
“Probably not, no,” she said with another shrug. She’d been a monster for far too long.
Not wasting time, she checked her four. All dead. Remy’s still had a pulse, she didn’t waste time, she just snapped the downed monk’s neck then moved to the one Tony had set down.
“Not leaving them behind us.” She met his gaze fiercely. “Move, Tony.”
“This isn’t you,” he tried.
But she snorted and put a foot one either side of the man’s downed head, gripped with her ankles and twisted. His neck snapped as she held Tony’s gaze. “This is exactly who I am.”
“The question then becomes, how was this damage inflicted?”
“Problem, I don’t remember a lot of it. Some I do—a few thousand volts of targeted electricity over the course of several years coupled with chemical enhancers and narcotics. I can’t be more explicit. A secondary machine that…set against a table with some kind of neural probes, something they said I helped calibrate…something more fine-tuned. I’d know if I saw it, but I don’t know specifically what they did.”
Liar. She remembered the cutting, the pain, the saw…
Her stomach rolled, and she pulled a knee up to her chest and forced herself to breathe.
“There was radiation bombardment. An alien used me to hitch a ride home when he drained my cells…pretty sure the black marks there weren’t there before that but…I don’t know.” What had she said about her past? It was a horror show of epic horror show proportions?
Strange stared at her intently.
“At some point, I was programmed with trigger words—some were successful, not all. I’ve got mental blocks against huge portions of my memory, some targeted and specific, other just swaths of time.”
“Mental blocks, that makes sense from the damage to the thalamus and hippocampal formations. Some of these appear to have almost surgical precision, and while there still appears to be electrical activity, it’s not going anywhere.”
“Which means there’s a clog?” Neuroscience. Maybe she should buy some books. Spend a few days reading because talking to Strange was like pulling teeth and she was about as cooperative as she could be at the moment.
“Ms. Romanoff, I’m not prepared to give you an answer when I barely understand the methodology and the effect. You show signs of multiple strokes, repeated head trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-concussion syndrome just to start with. Any one of those could lead to severe health complications including failed cognitive function, severe headaches, light sensitivity, nausea, seizures, and impaired memory functions—that you can even converse seems like a miracle. I assume you have some form of Captain Rogers’ serum.”
Not a question she wanted to answer.
“You don’t have to say anything, it’s obvious if anyone looks at the medical records, however, you want to know if there is a clog—your memory is impaired?”
The fact the guys sat there saying nothing was both eerie and comforting. She half-expected Tony to try and take over, he’d been reading her files for weeks. Clint knew about…
“I’ve also had moments where I slip, like I’m not me anymore.”
Pulling her other knee up, she hugged them both to her chest. “Sometimes. It’s like I’m a more primal me. It may have nothing to do with this.”
“But it’s another symptom.”
“Sure, we can call it that.” Her voice flattened even to her own ears.
“Flashbacks. Scalding pain like someone is sticking an ice pick through my eye. A tonal ringing noise that escalates to excruciating. Then…shards of memories—sometimes I can hold onto them. Sometimes I can’t. I had a seizure…” She frowned. How… “How long was I gone?”
She swept her gaze over the guys.
“It was a little over ten days ago,” Tony said. “Unless you had any while you were…” He hesitated.
“Maybe. I know my nose bled a couple of times. I remembered things.” She gave a shrug. “But with everything else, I don’t know if I’d know.”
The words I don’t know tasted hateful on her tongue.
“So I had at least one seizure ten days ago, I’ve endured oxygen deprivation and chemically induced pain including the use of a paralytic recently as well. I have had some auditory and visual hallucinations.”
Strange braced an elbow against his knee, his hand over his mouth as he stared at her. He was going to ask her for more tests. But instead of saying anything, he studied her then the scan again.
“Do you have one of these from before the alien encounter?” The sober inquiry almost made her laugh. Course, the guy had a floating cloak. Aliens probably didn’t sound so weird to him. Then again, aliens had tried to invade New York.
Did they? She glanced at Tony. “I had a scan done…the full scans right before.”
He nodded. “You can authorize him to look at them if you want.” Was Tony really second-guessing himself? The deep well of concern filtering through his eyes threatened to drown her.
“Of course, Ms. Romanoff.”
The image changed and Strange squinted at it. The black lines weren’t there, but she didn’t know enough about these scans to read them that well. As it was, her eyes burned. She considered the coffee then stretched her hand out to grab it.
“I need to do some research and I’m going to need more tests.”
She took a sip of the coffee.
“I’ll be honest, you’re not in the best line of work considering the nature of these injuries.” Strange studied her again. “But even from the scans, I can tell you’ve had these injuries for a long time, you’re functional, cognitively aware, obviously intelligent and your reflexes are sharp, so what are you hoping to gain by seeking treatment?”
“I want to use a machine to help stimulate my memories to get them back. When we used it before it helped restore neural function, about 4%. Tony won’t let me use it without a neuro specialist signing off that I am cognitively functional enough to handle it.”
“That’s not what I said, Red,” Tony told her, annoyance scraping over the words. “You went into a coma last time.”
“I woke up.”
Steve sighed. The weight of his concern shoved down on her and she didn’t dare look at the reproach that had to be sitting in James’ eyes.
“Yeah, Tash, that’s not helping your case,” Clint said quietly.
“Natalia also had a concussion,” James offered.
“She still has one. At least when this scan was taken and this second one, I see elements of it. How many concussions have you had?”
“Recently?” At least three she could think of.
“I think that answers the question. I need to study these scans and do some research. I’m assuming your serum enhances your healing?” The doctor liked to assume things.
She just stared at him.
“You can choose to not answer me,” he said. “But I don’t care if the answer is yes or no, what I care about is putting together a comprehensive profile.”
“Yes, I heal faster.”
“Do you know how much faster?”
Sliding her feet to the floor, she stood abruptly and lifted her shirt to show the fading scar on her abdomen where the sword went through her. “I got stabbed a week ago give or take. So about that fast. Though I healed faster than normal.”
“But you still scar.” He motioned to the second one her abdomen, the scar from where James shot her.
“Depends on the injury. The longer it goes untreated, the blood loss…” She shrugged. “Scars aren’t life threatening.”
She dropped her shirt and sat again.
“So physical injuries heal, but not neurological.”
“There was a suggested theory,” Tony said. “That she could heal most of the outstanding issues if she were not constantly re-injured.”
Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
“Not the right business for that.”
Steve shifted his weight and she glanced up to find him giving her a small smile.
“You might be in the wrong business…”
She answered him with a small one of her own. “Look, Doctor Strange…” Yeah, that name was weird. “I don’t know if you can help. But I need my memories back and I’ve been…waiting a while. Some of them are breaking loose…”
“Have you had a scan since those began to surface?”
“Have you tried inducing one?”
He nodded once.
“Yes,” she said. “Apparently, I had a seizure.”
“We may need to do that again—while you’re being scanned.”
“Cut her again. We need to test how swiftly she heals, this time—leave the knife in.”
“Not today.” She twisted to glance out the windows at the city. The sun was hidden behind gray clouds and the world looked dreary. But it was still daytime. “Maybe not tomorrow. We probably have U.N. meetings.”
Tony snapped his gaze to her. “No,” he said firmly. “We don’t.”
Was next weekend Christmas?
Glancing back at the doctor, she said, “And you should decide ahead of time all the tests you want because I’m only going in there once to do it.”
“Put her back in.”
“I’ll do my best,” Strange said slowly, his gaze still speculative.
“We also have access to other resources,” Steve said, glancing at her again. “Maybe less invasive ones.”
“As do I, Captain Rogers.”
Tony straightened. “Right now, what do you recommend?”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” the secretary said as she lay prone on the table. “You’ve helped us calibrate this device for the last few years and it’s proven essential in both of our successes.”
“I told you, I’m not prepared to speculate. Ms. Romanoff presents with a unique case, one I’ve never seen before. Frankly, it may be beyond even what I can do, but until I study these scans, conduct a few more tests, and do my research, I’m not prepared to answer that. I would recommend rest, in a controlled environment with full monitoring.”
“That would be too stressful,” Tony told him even as Steve simply said, “Rest yes, and some monitoring, fine.”
They were already monitoring her. Hadn’t that been the problem?
“I need a break.” Natasha pushed out of the chair and crossed the floor toward the elevator. The doors glided open and she was inside, hitting the button for her floor and the doors closed leaving her alone inside the elevator as it descended.
She could just go to the ground floor and leave. There was a safe house in Queens. Steve and James knew where that was.
There was another one in Jersey.
Or she could go north to Canada.
Apparently going north to Canada was her thing.
Pain raked through her.
“Not now, Friday. Just not now. Full privacy mode.”
The doors opened to her floor and she made her way toward her room, then into her closet and finally into a corner where she could sit with her back against the wall. The door was open, so it wasn’t a cage.
But the whole damn Tower was a cage.
Rat in a maze.
“We will require more tests. Rebreak her arm.”
Rubbing her hands against her face, Natasha grimaced at the pain sparking along her nerves. The bruises ached. But it wasn’t just that. The damn numbness swallowed her, blanketing her like a clear wall against the world. She was on the inside; everything else was out there.
The chime of the elevator told her someone followed.
Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back against the wall.
The slight hitch to the step.
A faint smile pulled at her as she released a huff of a laugh. Always Clint.
“You’re never going to let me get far, are you?”
“Nope,” he said, dropping to sit on the edge of her bed. “No can do. I don’t mind if you run, just need to keep an eye on your back.”
“I’m fine, Clint. I’m on my floor, inside the Tower, with an overprotective group of friends…”
“Family,” he corrected. “Your location is not why I’m watching your back, Kid. You’ve been through Hell the last few days.”
Another shrug. “It wasn’t that new.”
“That’s the problem,” he said quietly. “Every man up there is worried about you.”
“Not every man.”
“Yeah, I’m not counting the wizard with the floating cloak—and what the hell, did anything in his profile say magic man to you?”
“Nope, just a God complex like most surgeons,” she said, giving him a quirk of a smile. “I attacked James when he tried to wake me up.”
“Okay. I think he can take it.”
She shook her head. “Not the point.”
“Right now? Totally the point.” Clint stared at her steadily. “Do you remember when he popped Steve in the face because Steve told him he had no choices, and you got right between them—you put your hand on his chest and just kept telling him to stand down until he woke up?”
That had been in Switzerland. “James wasn’t himself then.”
“And you’re not yourself right now,” Clint told her, his voice almost gentle. “You warned us…Jedi mind tricks?”
“Oh, you got that message.” Huh. Good to know.
“I got all your messages, Tash.”
“I feel so wrong right now…” She could tell Clint that.
“I know, Kid.”
“I don’t know how to not feel wrong…” She’d told them she loved them. Clint. James. Steve. The only one she hadn’t told…
“Hey, you just got out of there.”
“You’re exhausted, Tasha.”
More than a little.
“They’re not going to let me use BARF.”
Maybe she could hijack the code. Tony had given her authorizations, even if it was compartmentalized…
“Not yet, no…” He sighed. “Can I convince you to come sleep for a little while?”
“If I sleep, I dream…”
“I’ll stay,” he told her. “Or I can get one of your boys…”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“No.” She met his gaze. “I almost hurt James and he was just trying to wake me up. I need… I need to be alone.”
“That’s the last damn thing you need,” he said, and then sighed. “Please don’t ask me to leave you like this. I know everyone walked all over you and you let us—me included. You said you wouldn’t go back into a cell for me, not again. I’d never ask you to do that. But don’t ask me to leave you like this. That’s not how we work, Tash.”
No. It wasn’t.
“Probably, so I’m just going to sit here with you. Okay?”
The elevator chimed and a smile pulled at her lips. “You’re about to have company.”
“Yeah,” Clint said with a wry smile of his own. “No kidding. I mention how much easier it was before you started dating all the boys?”
“Think I should go back to girls?” She raised her brows.
He let out a choked laugh, then his gaze shifted away from her. “Hey Steve.”
“Hi Steve,” she called.
“Hi Angel,” he answered. “As for the dating of girls, I’d rather you didn’t cut out boys all together.”
“So picky,” she murmured. “Girls can be nice. They’re softer. Some of them anyway.” Maria had been soft when she hadn’t been biting. Still… The smirk on Clint’s face made her smile.
“I don’t doubt it,” Steve said and she had to wonder, was he flushing? “I’m pretty fond of a woman myself.”
He loved her.
She blew out a breath.
He loved her.
James loved her.
“Dating boys is making Clint’s life hard.”
“Too bad,” Steve retorted and Clint laughed.
Steve appeared in her line of sight and he dropped to sit on the bed next to Clint and she was in Switzerland again, only then it had been her sitting next to Steve and James who was in the closet. She almost asked where he was when the elevator chimed.
A pair of voices.
A knock against the doorframe. “Is Red decent?”
Natasha snorted. “I haven’t been decent a day in my life, Shellhead. Did you send Mr. Wizard home?”
A flicker of movement. James crossed past Steve and Clint to circle the bed, only instead of sitting on it; he leaned against the wall next to her nightstand.
“Yeah, I’m not responding to the first part of that statement on the grounds that Steve or Bucky might punch me,” Tony teased, but he wandered into view on the far side of the bed, hands in his pockets. He looked like crap.
There used to be a landscape up there. One of mountains with a stretch of blue sky, and snow-dusted peaks, but the artist seemed to be standing in a meadow of some kind with the most beautiful spread of wildflowers.
“See, you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Clint said with a faint smirk. The weariness in his face suddenly visible or maybe she was paying closer attention, again.
The painting had been like spring, summer, and winter all present in one image. She’d found it—where had she gotten it? For as long as she’d lived in the Tower, she’d had it. But before?
“Nice,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes, then focused on her. “Yeah, I sent the wizard home. Still trying to work out when the neurosurgeon became a wizard.” He ran his hand through his hair. Bruises still marred his face and a split to his lip.
Had Montana been like that?
“Do we think he can help?” Steve asked, glancing away from her toward Tony. “I mean other than being abrasive?”
Had she ever been to Montana except to go to the…
“Maybe. He genuinely seemed puzzled and determined so maybe—”
Pain ripped through her head like a storm and she buried her palm against her eye.
“Come on, Nat,” Clint was saying. “Deep breaths. I need you to breathe, Tasha.”
She blinked slowly. Flat on her back, she could see a crack in the ceiling. It hadn’t been there before—maybe an artifact of the search.
And she was lying on her bed.
Pressure against her face had her flicking her gaze to Clint and then to James just behind him.
“There she is,” Clint said slowly, the gray pallor to his skin worrisome. “You are there, right?”
The pain was gone. Well, not gone, but not killing her. The white that had fuzzed out her vision was absent. “I know where I saw that machine before,” she said, even as her stomach rolled. She barely made it away from him, tumbling off the bed and stumbling into the bathroom.
Steve caught an arm around her or she might have slammed her head against the porcelain. That would have been charming. The toilet lid was up and she threw up. The burn of it, everything she’d eaten in the last couple of hours emptied out of her.
Nothing she did stopped it until she emptied her stomach. Even then, the bouts of nausea swept over her. When was the last time she threw up? Thankfully, she’d put her hair into a ponytail or Steve would have been holding her hair back, too. Bad enough he had to hold her up. The toilet flushed, then there was a cold washcloth on her face.
Her mouth tasted like ass again.
“I like your ass.”
A laugh worked its way up. She gazed into a pair of deeply worried eyes, aware of the collection of men standing either in the bathroom with her or just outside the doors. Cool metal pressed against her nape. Even through the bandages that felt great on her overheated skin.
Oh yeah. No wonder that hurt like hell when she threw up.
“Here,” Tony said and a bottle of water appeared in her periphery. Steve caught it, and then twisted it open before he handed it to her. Rinsing her mouth out, she spat into the sink a couple of times, but she could barely take a real sip, swallowing hurt.
“I think I tore something,” she said, carefully, because water shouldn’t feel like jagged shards going down.
“You’re bleeding,” James told her. “We’re going to have to change the bandages and check the sutures.”
“Okay.” She held a hand up to him and he caught it, glanced at Steve and at his nod, James slipped his other arm under her legs. Then she was up and he carried her out of the bathroom. “First aid in the kitchen.”
“Already got it.” Clint stood waiting for them. James set her down on the island and she managed another small sip of water while they got the bandages peeled away from her throat. “Okay, you blew a couple of stitches,” Clint told her. “I’ve seen worse, so shitcan the dramatics, okay?”
Another laugh worked its way up. “No promises.”
Tony glared at her—no, he wasn’t glaring at her, he was glaring at her neck. “You should never have let me put that thing on you.”
“Next time, I’ll break your arm.” She held up a hand. “Scout’s honor.”
Now he rolled his eyes and Steve snorted.
Weirdly, she felt a little better. Or at least—the glass wall between her and the world seemed to have cracked open and she could breathe.
“Hey, Red,” Tony began.
“It’s okay,” she said with a wave of her hand. Or she would have except James had her hand in his. When she would have turned her to head to look, Clint made negative little growling noise he reserved for when she was genuinely aggravating him.
“It doesn’t hurt like that anymore… I just remembered where I’d seen that device Pierce used.” The sour taste in her mouth made her grimace as the needle pierced her skin. Clint was fast with stitches and the tugs and pulls a familiar sensation.
“You’re okay to talk about it?” Steve asked with a measuring look in his eyes.
“I think so—I feel….better. It’s hard to explain but—that device was at The Guest House.”
“The guest house?”
“Nat—that was compartmentalized, Level 10.” Clint stared at her.
“And apparently you knew about it.”
“Only that it existed,” Clint told her. “When the hell did you go there?”
She licked her lips. “Right after I finished Tony’s assessment.”
“Didn’t you have to go to South America right after LA?” It wasn’t an accusation, but a clarification.
“Fury… had plans. You were in New Mexico with Coulson—the whole thing with Foster and Thor had just happened.”
Clint nodded as he rewrapped her throat carefully, the gauze firm but not tight.
“Coulson called in a status report and yeah, I went to South America, I had to check on Bruce and lay some false trails to pull Ross’s bounty hunters away. Then Fury sent me to threaten him personally.”
Steve’s expression was stone, but his eyes—they were just filled with concern. Would she ever not worry him?
“Right. That was after you skipped out of our post-mission drinks.”
She made a face as her gaze snagged on him. “Yeah.” Neither of them looked at Tony, but she’d been screwed up after that mission. He wouldn’t trust her… and after she’d failed him in Afghanistan that made so much more sense why it haunted her…so many broken little pieces.
“So you’ve saved the billionaire, led the hunters away from the other guy, skipped drinks with me, then threatened Ross and you’re back at HQ—you were at the Triskelion, right?”
“No… diner…somewhere in Nevada. Nick didn’t want to meet at HQ. Hot, dusty little place but he had me meet him there and then gave me my next assignment.”
Clint’s frown deepened.
“Lila was teething, you took a couple of weeks to go give Laura a break.”
He sighed. “You were supposed to show up.”
“I got busy.”
The corners of Steve’s mouth tilted up when Clint said, “Yeah, yeah. You always get busy and then I have to apologize to Laura.”
“I got to Lila’s birth, you could handle the teething.” She stuck her tongue out at him and Tony chuckled and a smile flickered across James’ lips.
“Anyway…” Clint glared at her with no heat whatsoever. “The Guest House.”
She blew out a breath. It was all there—a little jumbled, but she could see it. The diner. The cracked linoleum on the floor. The worn nearly thin orange vinyl on the diner seats. The fifties had thrown up on that diner and froze it in orange-colored amber.
“Nick had me meet him in Nevada. Deep shadow conditions.” At Tony’s raised eyebrows, she said, “It means strip all comms, go off-grid, travel under an alias and vanish. No one beyond Nick should ever know I was there or why. There would be no record of the meeting. Totally compartmentalized.”
“Until now,” Tony pointed out with an almost wry smile.
“Yeah, well fuck Nick.”
Steve bit back another smile but Clint actually snorted.
Tony’s grin just grew.
Scraping her teeth over her lower lip, she shook her head slowly. Then paused that action—neither her neck nor her head were on board with it. So she took another sip of water.
James went to her pantry and returned with a sleeve of crackers. He set them next to her, open, and she gave him a small smile. “Spasibo.”
“Pozhaluysta,” he murmured.
Picking out one of the crackers, she considered it but didn’t eat it right away. Her stomach was still doing rolls. Or maybe that was her head. Too bad Strange hadn’t stuck her in an MRI; he would have gotten a hell of a mental snapshot with that part.
“Anyway… when I got there, Nick had a file. It was only a paper copy; it included a map, coordinates, passphrases. He said, memorize it, burn it. The challenge phrases would only work for me. Then he gave me two days, he said go to the coordinates, untraceably—which meant hiking—my mission ops would be waiting for me when I got there.”
And she hadn’t asked another question, simply finished her sandwich, drank her tea then walked out.
“Two days later, I was standing on a mountainside, it had taken me hours to get up there and I found the access portal, then answered the challenge questions. Inside—was The Guest House.” She met Steve’s gaze then Tony’s and exhaled. “Nick knew that for the Avengers’ Initiative to take off—there would be a real chance we’d lose an Avenger. He now had three potential recruits to keep alive and in the event we lost an Avenger, he had The Guest House ready to go.”
She could see the dusty walls giving way to steel and white. They’d buried the entire facility inside the mountain. Labs that would populate a few days a week with personnel who didn’t know how they’d gotten there. Guards on standard rotations who were handpicked…
“It was a hospital?” Steve frowned.
“Not—exactly. It was…” She exhaled. “It was a lab, a series of them, and they had all kinds of samples, medications, and devices designed to sustain and prolong life for those gravely injured, enhanced or not.”
“Nat—did Fury want you there for security or to help provide samples to sustain life?” Clint’s voice was ice.
“Both,” she said slowly.
Steve turned away, both hands scrubbing at his face as he paced away. “So he sent you there to be experimented on. Son of a bitch…”
“Steve,” she murmured, but he was already out of reach so she went to slip off the counter, but James put his hand next to her leg and shook his head.
“Give him a sec, Doll,” he asked more than told, and she settled for putting her hand over his. The taut lines on his face eased.
“You know, I’ve never been fond of the pirate king…” Tony said with a sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
“It was about saving lives,” she said quietly. “No one ordered me to provide the samples.”
“He didn’t have to order, Nat. He sent you there,” Clint said, his knuckles white on the edge of the counter. He suddenly started packing away her first aid kit.
“Well, if I could save a life, any of your lives, then it was worth it. But that wasn’t the only reason I was there. They had personnel that had to be watched and protocols I had to memorize…” It hadn’t been her first trip there, either.
“If you had to memorize them, why did you forget?” Tony asked, pinning her with a look.
“I…” the answer eluded her.
“You’ve helped us calibrate this device for the last few years and it’s proven essential in both of our successes.”
“The device,” Steve said, finally facing her again, his hands at his side. “The one you said they used on you.”
She nodded slowly. “But they didn’t use it there…” At least she didn’t recall them using it there.
Clint’s head snapped in her direction. “But they used it?”
“Not there…the senior tech said they needed it because of the GH—” What was it? “GH-325. It was a fluid…” A blue fluid. “Samples procured from an alien,” she framed the word with mild disbelief. “More fucking aliens… a body they recovered after World War II—or at least that’s what they said. It was a blue guy, severely damaged, but his tissue and samples were still viable after all those years and I couldn’t really say anything—I’m still viable after all these years. The senior administrator told me they’d mothballed some of the operations under the recommendation of the previous administrator, but Nick wanted to keep it up and running. I needed to be aware of it all…because I was going to be your handler. The fluid had incredible restorative properties even better than my own healing and in the event of catastrophic injury I could have one of you taken there to save your lives.”
She rolled her head to the side then winced at the pull on her neck. So why had she forgotten it? Something Nick did? Pierce? Pain flared along her eye and rubbed her face before taking a drink.
“You need sleep,” Tony told her firmly. “The doc’s timing could have been better and normally I wouldn’t have woken you up…”
“It’s my turn to talk to Nick,” she said, ignoring the comment about sleep.
“Nat…” Clint said. “Not right now.”
“More answers. We need more of them. I keep getting weird little puzzle pieces.” But The Guest House was in Montana. The coordinates flashed through her mind. “But we could go there…”
“Yeah, not without a little more research,” Tony said flatly even as Steve said, “Not yet.”
“How’s your head?” James asked quietly waving off the rest of the conversation.
“Not bad,” she said. “Aches a little. It’s like—each time I get a piece back, the pressure just bursts and then…it eases up.”
“Yeah, I’m just hoping we’re not bursting anything else,” Tony groaned, pacing in a small circle. “Strange promised to get back to me within a day or two. He said he shouldn’t need that long to go over everything. I gave him your full file.”
She nodded slowly.
“Are we really trusting Harry Potter?” Clint asked. “I just want to be clear on why we’re handing over Nat’s very confidential files to a stranger in a cosplay costume.”
“Because he’s the best neurosurgeon in the country,” Natasha said, meeting his gaze. “He’s the one guy Tony has been trying to get to for weeks. Tony trusts him.”
“No, I don’t,” Tony argued. “He might be the best, everything I know about him says he is, but don’t mistake trusting his talent for trusting him.”
“Then why did you wake me up and why did you give him my file?” She met his gaze evenly. Tony, just like the rest of them, had been very territorial in his guardianship.
“She has a point,” Steve said quietly. “And the man was an arrogant ass…but he also seemed…”
“Genuine,” James finished. “Arrogance earned is not so bad if he can help. And at the end of the day, it’s Natalia’s decision.”
Easing off the counter, she put a hand on James’ arm to brace in case her legs didn’t hold her but they were steadier than she expected. “Friday…”
“Yes, Ms. Romanoff?”
“The blocked VOIP request from a few weeks ago…”
“Can you contact it?”
“Open line.” She walked over to the kettle and filled it with water, then turned it on. In a very short time, she was going to go to sleep and there would be nothing she could do about it. Tony was right, she needed more sleep. Steve had been right earlier when he said she needed a nap. She was running on pure fumes and that was before the episode.
A ring intoned overhead.
It rang twice.
“Maria, put Nick on the phone.”
“Good morning to you, Natasha.”
“Yeah, it’s not a good morning. Put Nick on the phone.”
A click. “Romanoff.”
“Nick… tell me about The Guest House and the memory machine they had installed there.”
She wasn’t playing this game. “Talk to me or I’m on a quinjet in ten minutes and I’ll find out for myself.”
The fact that was a blatant lie didn’t lessen the threat.
“I’m not doing this on an open line. I’ll be at the Tower in thirty minutes.”
“We’ll be here.”
The call ended and Natasha turned to face the men. “Guess I’m going to be awake for a little longer.” She took a bite of a cracker while she waited on the tea. “So—setting aside the rest of that, why aren’t we meeting with the Committee members tomorrow?”
Tony narrowed his eyes at her. “I don’t know Red, because we tabled all of that while you were gone and we’ve had you back less than a day and you’re already unstable on your feet? No—you wouldn’t like that reason. So how about this one, because I said so.” A very real anger simmered in those words.
“I need to brush my teeth.” She glanced at the cracker, then at the kettle.
“I’ll make your tea, Doll,” James offered even as Clint slammed open a cupboard in search of coffee. She winced at the noise.
It wasn’t just brushing her teeth; it was getting a few minutes to herself. No one followed her back into her bedroom or the attached bathroom. She studied her pallor in the mirror then brushed her teeth thoroughly before rinsing her mouth. The tenderness she always had post-episode was definitely in evidence, but the actual pain was so much less, her ribs hurt more.
She put a hand to her side and began to test them.
Yeah, they were definitely still cracked, but nowhere near as bad as they had been. So maybe sleep had helped some.
“Angel,” Steve’s voice wrapped around her quietly and she glanced at him from where she leaned against the sink.
He smiled, setting his shoulder against the doorframe, but managing to not blockade the door. That awareness swept over her and her smile grew a fraction wider. They were all being so careful with her.
“You need to sleep.”
“I do. I’m barely staying upright.” She motioned to the sink. “That’s why I’m going to eat the crackers and drink the tea and then see if I can keep food down before they get here.”
Because Maria would be with him. Of that, she had no doubt.
“Okay, what can I do?”
She picked up a washcloth and wiped her mouth after she rinsed off her toothbrush, then rinsed her mouth one more time. “What did you think of the doctor?”
“That the level of weird I’ve gotten used to dealing with made him seem almost normal.” A flash of a smile. “You told him an awful lot about you.”
“I need him to clear me.”
“Mary,” he said quietly and she nodded.
“I have to find her. I just—need to know what happened. I thought it was an imperative before but…” She swallowed and put the cloth down. “Even with everything that happened over the last few days, I keep hearing her voice in my head. I know it was forty years ago, but it feels like yesterday.” It hurt like it was yesterday. It hurt like it was now.
“Then…I’m with you. Whatever you need,” Steve held out his hand. “Can I hug you?”
Her smile faded a little. A part of her wanted to say no, that it wasn’t safe, but only a small part. The rest of her… She pushed away from the counter and went to him and let him wrap her up. She leaned into the hug and closed her eyes as she pressed her cheek to his chest. The steady thump of his heart against her ear eased some of the tension threading through her shoulders. Fisting his shirt, she held on tighter.
“We’re going to figure all of this out,” he promised her. It wasn’t a promise he could make. The secrets weren’t locked away in his head. The bedroom door closed quietly, then James was there. She could feel the heat of him even if she didn’t have her eyes open. When she slipped one hand off Steve to hold out to James, he closed the circle around her and she sighed.
“Thank you,” she whispered. James pressed a kiss to the side of her head even as Steve gave her a very gentle squeeze.
“Think you can eat something more than the crackers, Angel?”
“Toast? No eggs. That sounds awful.” So did bacon for that matter.
“We can do toast,” James assured her. “The tea is ready.”
So was the coffee. “You guys need your coffee.”
“Clint’s making it,” James told her. “After he and Tony got theirs.”
She almost laughed. There was only one coffeemaker on her floor.
“Okay…” The moment she began to pull away, they released her. “Toast. Tea. Then Nick.”
She curled her bare toes into the carpet.
“Then sleep,” Steve told her. “At least a few hours.”
“If there is an actionable lead, we’ll figure it out,” James said, raking a hand through his hair and pushing it off his face. “You first though. You have to heal. That’s—not negotiable.”
A faint grimace pulled at her lips even as she swayed slightly. “You’re right,” she admitted. “But I should do it alone…” At his sharp frown, she lifted a hand and carefully placed it against his chest, then set her other hand against Steve’s. That aggravating buzzing from earlier had quieted. Her muscles felt more like they’d been poured in lead. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“The only thing that hurt me was you being kept from me,” James told her. “I can take a hit, Natalia. You don’t mean me harm and I don’t want you to be alone if those dreams come. If that means I take a fist to the face then I take it.”
Tears burned along with the ache at the back of her throat.
“What he said,” Steve told her firmly. “Partners. We can keep our distance, but—you sleep better when we’re there.” It wasn’t a question.
Normally, she did. She’d gone right to sleep earlier, the lizard part of her brain convinced of her safety. They slept better when she was there, too.
“If you do anything, we’re right there. Both of us. You’re not going to hurt us, Angel.”
“If,” she repeated, meeting his gaze then James evenly. “If I decide that it’s too much or I need to be alone…”
“Then we’ll give you space,” James said even though everything in his posture screamed dislike.
She blew out a breath. “I hate this.”
“I know,” James covered her hand on his chest with a gentle grip she could easily slip out of. “One step at a time.”
“And that first step is your tea and toast,” Steve caught her hand and lifted it to his lips. He pressed a kiss to her palm. The softness of his beard tickled her wrist.
Tea and toast.
Then Nick and Maria.
Maybe it was a good thing she’d already thrown up.
Stripping off her hoodie, she unbuckled her shoulder holster, then pulled it off to hand to James. At his raised eyebrows, she said, “I might shoot them if I have it.” Right now, her tolerance for Nick and Maria would not be high even if she would eat that resentment to get closer to some answers.
He nodded, closing his hand around the holster. “I’ll take care of it and them if necessary.”
The sober promise buoyed her a little.
Her tea waited for her in the living room, as did Tony who had a StarkPad in his lap and what looked like satellite footage on it. She glanced down at it as she passed him. Curling into the corner of the sofa, she cradled her cup and the silence hung over all of them like a funeral shroud.
“Hey, James…” She glanced to where he was pouring the coffee through the coffeemaker once more. “Did Clint tell you that me dating boys was making his life harder?”
The derisive snort followed by Steve’s chuckle and Tony’s snicker, made her smile. That was a little better.