It took a downright embarrassing amount of time for her to notice. Granted she'd been in and out of the tower all month on various missions and she never really went down to Tony's shop in the first place, but still. She definitely should have gotten at least an idea of the situation before Steve and Tony got into a full-blown argument about it in the common area kitchen while she and Clint were trying to have a peaceful lunch.
"I'm just worried about you, Tony. Bruce is, too. This isn't like you."
Tony slammed his mug down on the countertop so hard that Natasha was surprised it didn't shatter. His eyes blazed with fury as he turned back to face Steve.
"Well maybe the two of you should learn to mind your own god damned business. And who are you to say this is or isn't like me, anyway? You guys wouldn't even move in here till three months after that fucking debacle with SHIELD and then you, Captain 'Something Righteous Crawled Up My Ass and Died', weren't even here for more than a couple days at a time for the eight months after that! How long have you actually been living here full time? Three months? Four?"
"It's been five and a half, Tony," Steve said with clearly strained patience, "and it's been sure as Hell long enough to know that you like your lab open. You hate feeling pinned in!"
Clint mumbled a quiet, "You don't know me. You don't know my life," into his sandwich, but Natasha was pretty sure she was the only one that heard him. Tony was far too busy shouting back his reply.
"I don't have to run every decision I make by you, Rogers, especially not when it's about my own damn house! Why do you even care so much that I blacked out the windows to my lab? Maybe I'm looking for some fucking privacy now that I've got so many people living with me. Ever think of that?"
Steve squeezed his eyes shut for a moment in what was obviously an attempt to calm himself. When he spoke again, his voice was tightly controlled.
"It's not just that you blacked out the windows, Tony. You used to drag Bruce in there practically every day to show off some invention or another. You never had a problem with letting me hang out on your couch and draw. Your lab was pretty much the sparkling example of an Open Door Policy! Shutting yourself off so completely like this…Of course we're going to be concerned about you."
"Well there's no need to be! I am fine. My lab is fine. Everything is fine."
Steve exhaled exasperatedly.
"C'mon, Tony. Just tell me what you've got going on in there. It's not like you've got some kidnapping victim stowed away beneath a desk."
Natasha was so surprised to spot the stiffening of Tony's shoulders, the way his eyes darted ever so slightly to the left, the flash of tension in his brow, that she dropped her fork. The loud clatter as it hit her plate brought her instantly to the center of attention, but she didn't care. All she could focus on was that look of guilt Tony was trying valiantly and failing miserably to cover up. It took all of a single moment for her to stop being Natasha and take up the mantel of the Black Widow.
"Who's down there, Stark?"
It said something about the bond they'd managed to build as a team that no one questioned if she was mistaken. Tony didn't even try to deny it, just clenched his jaw and pressed back against the counter.
"Just leave well enough alone, guys. Let me handle this."
"You've got a person down there, Tony!" Steve sounded horrified. "We can't just ignore that!"
"Just let me handle it! Dammit, Rogers! Just fucking trust me!"
But Steve had switched from a concerned teammate to being Captain America, prioritizing the safety of some perceived innocent. Natasha wasn't sure if that was the case, but she did know that whoever was in that lab was someone who wasn't supposed to be in the tower in the first place. The captain turned on his heel and strode purposefully away, Tony scrambling after him with the assassins following.
"Where are you going?!"
"I'm going down to your lab, Tony, and I'm going to find out what in the Hell is going on."
Tony threw himself at Steve, but Clint was on him in a heartbeat, pulling him back by his arms and keeping him in place. The inventor's eyes were wide and panicked, making Natasha more and more suspicious by the second.
"Cap, Steve, please. Don't do this. Fuck, just listen to me!"
"I tried to give you that option, Tony. It's too late now."
Steve turned back to the elevator and Natasha realized just a moment too late what Tony was about to do. She lunged forward to slap a hand over his mouth, but he struggled against her, writhing in Clint's grip.
"JARVIS! Protocol: Snowflake!"
The lights on the elevator instantly went dark and Natasha cursed. She ripped off a bit of her shirt to gag the still-protesting genius. They couldn't risk him giving his AI any more directions. Meanwhile, Steve was still trying to figure out what was going on.
"JARVIS, reactivate elevator functions!"
"I'm sorry, Captain, I'm afraid I can't do that. Protocol: Snowflake dictates the lockdown of all passage between floors."
"Override Delta Foxtrot Sierra Victor Victor Two. Steven Grant Rogers."
Steve shot Tony a thunderous glare before storming off toward the stairs.
"I'm getting into that lab."
It took him four kicks to break down the door that led to the stairwell and only three to get them onto the level with Tony's lab. Natasha would have thought alarms should have started blaring the second they made it through the first door. Hell, alarms should have been blaring since they grabbed Tony in the first place.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS spoke in his ever-calm voice, "may I suggest that this is a poorly conceived idea on your part? Sir's lab has been locked down for a reason. Unauthorized entry would be ill-advised."
"Who's in there, JARVIS?"
"I am not authorized to say, Captain, but I can confirm that Sir had the situation well under hand."
"More like underhanded," Clint muttered, but Natasha could tell he was having doubts.
Steve aimed a kick at the reinforced glass wall that made the entire thing shudder. It didn't break, though, and it didn't lose the black pigment that blocked them from viewing the lab, either.
"Sir promised his guest a safe location to rest and recuperate, Captain. You are undermining this guarantee."
It was pretty obvious Steve wasn't listening as he aimed another kick at the glass wall. A tiny crack appeared in the glass and Natasha had to be impressed by the super soldier serum all over again. She'd seen that wall handle a full-blown explosion with ease. It had to be tough in order to survive Tony…as was evident by the way the genius was struggling so fervently in Clint's grasp. The archer's gaze was darting back and forth between his charge and the Captain.
"I'm not so sure about this, guys…"
Tony's muffled complaints suddenly changed tone. He obviously wanted them to listen. Steve whirled around to glare at them both.
"He has somebody in there, Clint!"
"He's also our teammate! Dammit, guys, shouldn't that mean something?"
"It doesn't mean he can get away with kidnapping!"
Steve kicked the wall again, the cracks in the glass spreading.
"JARVIS said he promised this person a safe place to stay! Does that sound like kidnapping to you?"
"Whoever it is shouldn't be in the tower," Natasha cut in. "If they were meant to be here, he wouldn't have bothered hiding it."
"Well, the jig's up now! I'm pretty sure Tony's smart enough to figure out we're not about to let this go. Maybe if we ungagged him and gave him a choice we could avoid breaking down his wall. You do realize this is the guy who gave us a roof over our head, right? And pays for everything we fucking do?"
Natasha crossed the two steps it took to get to Clint's side and wrenched Tony from his grasp.
"He had a choice. He chose not to share the information."
Clint didn't look happy, but he clenched his jaw shut. Natasha knew it was residual guilt over the whole mind control thing with Loki, but he seemed loath to act against her. Steve aimed another vicious kick at the glass. Tony was struggling again, not that he had a chance.
"We don't have to do it this way, guys. That's all I'm saying. There are better ways!"
Another kick and the glass looked like the screen of a smart phone that'd been dropped down a flight of concrete stairs but it didn't quite break yet. Natasha squeezed Tony's wrists a little to get him to quit squirming. There was a sense of unease in the pit of her stomach as she felt the bones grind together.
"The course has already been set in motion" Natasha nodded to Steve. "Bring it down, and be prepared for anything."
The only response she got was another kick to the glass. It caved inward but still didn't break, not until Steve put his foot to it one final time. Shards of glass rained inward like a thousand tiny daggers. Tony's lab was bright, every light on, and they proceeded in cautiously. Tony started struggling again, but cried out in pain as Natasha squeezed his wrists.
There was a sound of metal hitting metal and they twisted toward the source. It was the back corner of Tony's lab, a small alcove where he tucked away his coffeemaker, a mini-fridge, and a couch. A figure stepped out from behind the wall, planting his feet shoulder width apart and gaze sweeping across the group to assess the situation. He was barefoot and had forsaken his mask but the rest of his uniform was still in place.
It sounded like Steve wasn't sure what to think, like he was torn between hope and not quite believing what was in front of him. Natasha felt a shiver run down her spine as those dark eyes settled on her and then drifted toward Tony in her grip. His eyes narrowed just the tiniest bit.
"Master Barnes," JARVIS's voice came from above, "might I suggest a peaceful resolution to this scenario?"
The Winter Soldier's gaze didn't waver.
"Hostile agents must be eliminated. Myshka's safety is sole priority."
And then he was moving, darting across Tony's lab like an ice skater in the rink. He headed toward Natasha, but Steve managed to intercept him midway. They collided like two forces of nature, both tumbling to the side and taking one of Tony's lab tables with them. Natasha shoved Tony at Clint without a second thought before setting herself up as the next line of defense. Steve was a great fighter, especially in hand to hand, but he had a soft spot for his childhood friend that was a mile wide. Natasha was pretty sure that soft spot didn't go both ways.
The two super soldiers rolled across the floor, trading punches as they each tried to get the upper hand. A flash of silver was all the warning they had before a knife somehow found its way into the assassin's hand. He brandished it at Steve, forcing the national icon back and away. Barnes took the moment's reprieve to find his feet again, darting to the side and around the other soldier. Natasha braced herself for impact but a figure rushed past her. It took her less than a moment to identify Tony's form, now free of his gag or any restraint. She would have shot a glare at Clint if she'd been able to spare the attention.
The moment Tony was within arm's length, he was seized and hustled to the side. The Winter Soldier immediately moved to put himself between the genius and his comrades, pressing Tony against the wall in a clearly defensive manner. The suspicion that had been growing in Natasha's mind since Barnes's first appearance suddenly exploded into full understanding. With hands up in a nonthreatening manner, Natasha took a step back, giving the two men space. She could feel her teammates' eyes on her, but they refrained from making any hasty moves.
"It's alright. We don't want to fight," she said soothingly.
The Winter Soldier only glared harder, shuffled Tony further behind himself despite Tony's protests. The genius's hands were grabbing at Bucky's shoulders, but he ignored them.
"Hostile agents must be eliminated."
"Not hostile! Not hostile!" Tony insisted, ducking down and forcing himself under the assassin's outstretched arm. "James, c'mon, stay with me. You're in my lab, remember? You're safe."
Dark eyes snapped to meet honeyed ones as Tony's hands found either side of the assassin's face, keeping him focused, but the tension never left his frame.
"Myshka was bound. Myshka must be kept safe."
Tony winced a little, but pasted a smile on his face anyway.
"Yeah, okay. Admittedly, that was a bit less than ideal. I'll give you that one, but you don't have to worry, okay? Just trust me. You trust me, right?"
There was a moment's pause and Natasha felt a flash of guilt at the assassin's, "Yes," because, really, what did it say that this man trusted Tony when his own teammates didn't? Tony didn't seem bothered, though. A brilliant smile grew across his face.
"Good, good. That's great. Can you give me the knife?"
One of his hands left Bucky's face to accept the hesitantly relinquished weapon. Natasha did not at all miss the way Tony squeezed Bucky's hand before taking the knife. After a significant look with the assassin before him, Tony turned around to face the team.
"So…I'm guessing you guys probably want an explanation."
Steve sounded half broken, unable to fathom why Tony would withhold this kind of information from him. Natasha knew the answer before Tony even opened his mouth to reply.
"Because you would have barged in here the moment you knew," Tony said with a hard look. "Don't even try to deny it. My wall would beg to differ." Steve at least had the decency to look guilty and Tony heaved a sigh at the sight. "Look, he hasn't been ready to face you. That's why he was hanging out down here. He asked me not to tell you guys."
"It's not like I would have hurt him, Tony! I deserved to know-"
"And he deserved the right to choose!" Tony snapped before visibly having to calm himself. "After everything he's been through, I would think he deserved at least that much. Forgive me for taking his God damned feelings into consideration!"
Bucky shifted restlessly behind him and Tony immediately checked over his shoulder. Natasha couldn't be sure if he was concerned for Bucky's safety or his own. They both seemed pretty comfortable in each other's spaces.
"How long have you two been in contact?" she asked pointedly.
"A few months."
"Nine months, two weeks, six days," Bucky supplied automatically.
Tony winced. Steve looked like someone had kicked his cancer-riddled puppy into the path of an oncoming bus.
"All this time…" Steve's voice wavered as he spoke, "and you knew? You knew where he was? How to find him?"
"Look, Steve, I'm sorry," and Tony did sound sorry. "It's not like I didn't want to tell you…But the brainwashing still had such a strong hold in the beginning and then he wasn't ready to face you…Does it help if I tell you we weren't planning to keep it a secret forever?"
The look on Steve's face said that he wasn't sure himself.
"Is he staying?" Steve asked instead of answering.
"I've got a few more days of monitoring the upgrades I just added to his arm, making sure it's stable, three tops. After that he's heading out again. That's how it always is."
All eyes snapped to the assassin behind Tony. No one seemed more surprised than the genius himself.
"No? What do you mean, no?"
Bucky's gaze lingered on Steve before flicking to Natasha.
"You are not safe here, Myshka. I must remain to protect you."
Tony sputtered, whether from embarrassment or indignation Natasha couldn't quite be sure.
"I don't need protection." Ah, indignation, then. "This is my team, James. I'm plenty safe with them."
Bucky scoffed and trailed a hand down Tony's arm to gently lift one wrist into the air. It seemed oddly…intimate.
"You have sustained injury by their hand."
He gave Tony a look that clearly asked what part of that meant he was safe.
"Okay," Tony acquiesced, "so things might've gotten a little out of control." His eyes dropped to the floor and then rose back up to meet Bucky's. He was half turned away from the rest of them by this point. "That doesn't mean you have to stay if you'd be uncomfortable. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Snowflake."
Barnes raised the wrist he was holding to press his lips against the flesh that was just beginning to bruise there.
"Myshka's safety is sole priority." Tony's entire frame pulled a move Natasha could only describe as melting. Bucky smiled at him before glancing up to glare at the rest of them balefully. "I will not be leaving your side again."
Natasha believed him.
"So let me get this straight," Clint suddenly broke in, contributing to the conversation for the first time, "Tony's been in contact with an ex-HYDRA, brainwashed assassin for nearly a year, has been keeping said assassin locked up in his lab for however many weeks, and is in some sort of weird relationship with him? Not to mention that said assassin is also Cap's old army buddy and childhood playmate?" He gave Natasha and Steve a look that was decidedly unimpressed. "I knew this was bad idea. If I get stabbed in the middle of the night, I'm blaming you guys."
"Don't worry, birdbrain, I'll make sure Snowflake over here at least gives you a fighting chance."
Barnes crossed his arms and looked skeptical.
"I suppose I could settle for a ten second head start."
…Natasha really couldn't tell whether or not he was joking.