Chapter 1: Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot...
Natalia is seven, or maybe eight. Maybe as young as six, or as old as nine, no one keeps track of that kind of thing in the Room. Not that they tell her, anyway. They tell her how old she's supposed to be and that's how old she is.
She's been in the Room for three years. She has killed six people on purpose and three more because they happened to near the bomb she planted under a banquet table. Their deaths hadn't been the mission, but they were considered acceptable losses.
Her trainers tell her she is very good at what she does.
She knows how to use weapons sized for her hands, and how to pretend, how to be disarming and how to disarm, despite her small stature. She is unusually strong and graceful for her age.
She should be. They made her that way. She doesn't remember a time before the Room, with the paneled halls and iron-framed beds with deceptively soft bedding and surprisingly warm blankets (if you are good enough), and the click of metal around your wrist that tells you it's time to sleep at night. Logic tells her she had parents once, but she doesn't remember them. She doesn't like to think about anything before the Room because sometimes, when she dreams about it (she thinks they are dreams) it's too hot and it hurts and people are screaming.
Natalia doesn't scream in her sleep like some of the other girls do. The ones that do don't last very long.
They're having dinner when the others come. She's between missions, being trained to be someone new. (She is still young enough that she needs help learning how to pretend, needs the occasional reminders that sting and correct, and she sometimes dreams about the day when she will be grown up and able to learn on her own.) The meal is some kind of chicken with onions and thick sour cream and bread with butter and milk to drink; again, as long as you are good at what you do and you earn it. Natalia almost always earns it. She likes the way it feels to be the best, just like she likes the way it feels to have a full stomach and a warm bed.
Sometimes she is reminded of the alternatives so that she doesn't forget or become too soft or complacent.
The walls shake and people scream and panes of glass from the windows shatter and someone is yelling. Lots of someones are yelling, in lots of different languages. She recognizes some of them: Russian, English, German, and French. She hears voices telling them to fight back, to run away, to remember their training, or to not let themselves be taken alive, and with such conflicting orders she finds herself trying to choose what to do. It's an unusual situation for her.
She ends up under a table against a wall, her knees pulled to her chest. People in chaos make mistakes. People reacting instead of acting make poor choices, uninformed choices, so she waits. Sitting under the table reminds her of the party in Tula where she'd pretended to be lost, crying and working her way into a terrified tantrum so the staff would take her into the kitchen. Then, it had been easy to get close enough to the food that she could drop poison in unseen.
Her very first lessons had emphasized how to seem innocent and harmless, how to cultivate compassion, concern, and attachment in those around her in order to deceive them.
When the first man finds her, he helps her out gently rather than grabbing her, and she knows he'll be an easy mark. Another man, this one tall and broad with a funny hat and red hair several shades lighter than her own looks at her suspiciously and she knows he'll be harder to convince. She pays particularly close attention to the dark-haired woman, both because she seems to be in charge and because most of her trainers have been women, while most of her targets have been men. She doesn't think for a moment that the woman will be easier to deceive, but she knows that if she can convince her, the men will fall in line.
They use mostly English that she pretends not to understand in the hopes that they'll speak more freely around her. Whoever they are, she's sure they're enemy agents. Without a formal mission, she doesn't know what she's getting into, but intel is more powerful than guns or knives and she thinks maybe, if she can find out enough and then get away, her trainers will commend her for it. Maybe they will even realize just how good she can be and will let her work by herself more often. She thinks perhaps she would like that.
Tony is seven, and isn't allowed in his father's lab. He can remember lying on the floor surrounded by tools and circuit boards and batteries when he was smaller, and he's pretty sure his father's lab was where he built his first toy, a little motorized car with a wobbly wheel. But he can't tell for sure when the last time he was allowed in there on purpose was. Maybe he never has been, maybe he was just better at being sneaky when he was smaller.
Regardless, now he is seven, and he isn't allowed. Mr. Jarvis says it's because he's a child, and there are children's things and grown-up things, and that it's not because he's Tony, just because he's too small. He tells him that when he's older he'll be able to work in his father's lab and help him build robots and computers and cars and all sorts of things.
Tony believes him, until she comes along.
He knows he shouldn't sneak, but he can't quite help himself because it's the best way to find things out that the grownups don't want to say, so he tucks himself into the alcove behind the stairs as soon as he hears the cars outside. He hears Aunt Peggy's voice first, and smiles because she is his favorite of all his father's friends. She talks to him and asks him about his inventions and math and science and calls him "Tony" instead of "Anthony" and will sometimes even come up to the nursery and play games with him. If she's here for a visit then he might even be able to have dinner with the grownups tonight.
Then they come into view and his happiness turns into confusion. His father and Mr. Dugan are both with her, and Mr. Dugan has something in his arms. Something with curly red hair and a blue dress and white tights and shiny black shoes and Tony realizes that it's a girl about the same size that he is. All the adults look very serious, and Aunt Peggy looks downright mad. They go straight from the garage to the other set of stairs, the ones opposite his hiding place.
The ones that head straight to his father's lab.
The girl has been in the house for almost a week when Tony finally sneaks into her room. He doesn't exactly mean to, and he knows he's not supposed to, but his Dad has gone away again, and the two agents that are supposed to be guarding her room are really bad at it. Or maybe they just don't know that you can take the ornate brass grate off the wall and slip between the two rooms without opening the door. They'd gone and put her in the room right beside him, and he could hear her through the shared wall.
Adults didn't usually believe him when he told them things like that (that he could hear the light bulbs buzzing or the second station coming through the radio just past the first one, or when the hum of the old refrigerator changed because something needed to be replaced, but he was always right). She isn't making all that much noise, but he's pretty sure the head of his bed is against the same wall that hers is, and, well, he wasn't asleep anyway.
She is sitting up in the bed by the time he pushes himself through the narrow space and looks at where he's slipping through the wall. He makes it to the edge of the bed before she finally says something, her whisper soft and only audible to him.
"What are you doing here?" Her accent is already fading, she sounds more like Aunt Peggy or Mr. Jarvis now.
"You were making too much noise," he says simply and climbs up onto the bed next to her, causing her to slide back against the other bedpost.
"I was not," she insists and frowns at him. It is a very good version of a Grown-Up Frown. He likes it.
"Were too. 'S okay. I'm always making too much noise. Mr. Jarvis says I'm 'boisterous', but he doesn't mind. Sometimes it even makes the corner of his mouth move a little bit like he's trying not to smile."
"What are you doing?" she asks again.
It's a very good question, but he's not really sure. He's a little bit bored, and a little bit restless, and more than a little bit worried about her, even though he's still upset and jealous that she gets to be in his father's lab when he doesn't.
"Are you not afraid of me?" Her voice makes the words dip in a funny angle and Tony tilts his head as if trying to follow them.
"No. Should I be?" He usually isn't afraid of things he ought to be, Mr. Jarvis says so all the time, but he can't imagine why she should scare him.
"They are," she replies simply, and it's understood who "they" are. The adults.
"Does he let you help invent stuff?" he blurts out, realizing suddenly that he very badly wants to know.
"When you're in Dad's lab, does he let you help him invent things? What do you do down there? I can't go down there, he doesn't like it when I'm in there because I'm not careful enough."
She's looking at him like he thinks she might look at a puzzle or a diagram she's trying to figure out. "I don't invent things."
"Oh. So what do you do?"
"I sit. Mostly. Sometimes they tell me to run back and forth across the room, or walk on a balance beam or do flips."
"Why?" he asks, because he hadn't been expecting that.
"I'm not sure," she says primly. "It doesn't matter. It's what I'm required to do."
"That sounds stupid."
"It does not."
"I am not stupid!" she's still whispering but hisses it out a little louder, leaning towards him like she's forgotten to stay on the far side of the bed. Her hand gets close enough that in the moonlight he can see red marks around her wrist peeking out from the sleeve of her nightgown.
"Didn't say you were. I said what they were telling you to do sounded stupid, not you."
Natasha pulls her hand back, moves away from him again, but he notices how she rubs her fingers over the marks, and then grips her wrist for a second before she realizes what she's doing and goes back to just rubbing at it like it itches.
"What happened to your hand?" he asks, and she drops them to her lap like she's been burned.
She doesn't answer him, but she doesn't go back to fidgeting, either.
Sleepy again, Tony burrows his way under the blanket until it reaches his chin. He kind of expects her to protest, maybe even kick him, but after a few minutes she curls up under the blanket next to him, mirroring his pose, her hands and arms positioned just like his are, only reversed. It's then she seems to realize that he's looking at the marks again.
"Where I come from, they cuff us to our beds so that we can sleep without dreaming or hurting anyone," she explains softly.
"That's... really awful," he says. He can't think of anything else, can't imagine what that would be like.
She shifts so that her right hand is free and resumes her earlier movements, except this time he thinks she's doing it on purpose.
"Is it hard to sleep without them?"
"Sometimes. It's... strange."
Tony's eyelids feel heavy, but he reaches over and wraps his hand around her wrist. She jumps a little bit under his touch but then relaxes, and doesn't pull her hand away.
They both wake up in the morning to the banging and commotion of Mr. Jarvis and the agents trying to figure out where Tony's gotten to. Once Mr. Jarvis realizes what's happened, he chases the guards away, giving them the same look Tony's seen him use on the grocer when they forgot the apples or the sugar or the cheese.
He takes the both of them down into the kitchen where Mrs. Anna's already awake and working on bread and the soup that will probably be for dinner, and sits them at the table before turning on the waffle iron.
"I realize that Mr. Stark left specific instructions as to your upkeep, Miss Romanova. However, I am not going to put up with a child left to my care being isolated in a single room with only the walls and those two buffoons for company. Your English is apparently passable, as young Master Stark found out, so you can attend lessons with him today."
Tony bounces in his seat at that, because lessons are boring when it's just him and Mr. Jarvis and the books.
Natasha nods, and that seems to set the course for the days that follow. His father and Aunt Peggy aren't around, and no one else seems to want Natasha for anything, so no one interferes once Mr. Jarvis says how things are going to be.
If you're looking for chronological order... this won't be that fic. The following chapter jumps ahead quite a bit (don't worry, there will be more moments from their childhood later) - but y'all have been so awesome and patient and left such amazing comments that I wanted to get this up for you despite that. (I figure you'll forgive me disordered narrative more quickly than you will outright neglect, lol.)
All of my current fics are going on a brief hiatus. Due to some offline commitments and responsibilities (moving to a new apartment, overtime at work, and etc) I haven't been able to write for the last month or so and therefore don't have anything to post as I scribble madly away at my new NaNo project like I'd hoped to. (This is also related to why I haven't been able to respond to comments for the last several weeks, but I've read and appreciated every single one of them and will get to replies soon. You all are awesome.)
Don't worry though, I'm by no means abandoning my fics in progress. I'll see you on the other side of 50K and have a happy November/NaNo/Thanksgiving etc until then!
He almost doesn't recognize the woman sitting on his doorstep, almost thinks she's some kind of runaway or junkie or crazy fan with her obviously dyed-black hair that sticks away from her head in a straight spike-y mess and the industrial jewelry and torn clothes. There are a couple of paper bags next to her, one obviously holding booze and the other folded over so the contents aren’t visible.
Then she looks up at him and he realizes who he's seeing and it feels like his heart stops for a second.
It's been three years. Not that he's been counting. But three years, give or take a month, since he's laid eyes on her, or heard from her, or had any idea whether or not she was dead besides being fairly certain Aunt Peggy would take pity on him and at least inform him if she'd died.
"You look like shit, Romanov," he says as a greeting and she waves a hand dismissively.
"You're one to talk, Stark."
He looks down at his clothes, casual but actually clean (enough) for the board meeting he's just had to sit through at Obie's command. The fact that she put no effort behind her retort worries him just as much as the slope of her shoulders, the bag heavy with bottles, and the state of her hair and clothes. He stops just in front of her, feet hip-wide and hands in his pockets, rocking from the heels to the balls of his sneakers and back again, and standing so he blocks the lowering sun. "You wanna come in or something?"
Natasha lets out a breath and he can actually see her deflate, sees something in her relax and sag with exhaustion. "Yeah. Sure."
The bag from the liquor store has scotch and tequila, and he winces a little when he sees the size of the bottles. Not that he hasn't had a bender or a hundred in his life, but this is... a lot. Especially since he doesn't think she's stocking up to stay for awhile. He tries to take the other bag and peek inside but she snatches it away and sets it on the far side of the counter before shrugging carefully out of the black leather vest she's got over a gauzy black tank top and black camisole. She winces as she does it and he sees the shadows of bruises on her arms and upper back like someone had grabbed her, a lot. There's remnants of what he was sure had been a very good fake tattoo on the curve of her shoulder, smudges of eyeliner still above and below her eyes, and chipped black nail polish on her fingers. Her knuckles look like they're on the tail-end of healing from punching someone or something.
"You look like a reject from a goth rave," he blurts out, and reaches over to rub fingers over her hair. It's stiff with leftover gel or spray and sticks to itself enough he doesn't even try to comb through it. She lets him take in the texture before pulling away and reaching to tug the next layer off over her head.
"All nihilism and dark thoughts," she quips, but the smile doesn't quite reach her eyes.
"What the hell happened, Nat?"
She stops when she gets down to the camisole, and he thinks it looks like one of those shelf-bra things. Her hands rub over the legs of her dark jeans like she's trying to push them away from her skin, but she perches on the edge of one of the bar stools, leaning more than sitting on it. "I had a job for SHIELD."
"Undercover, I take it? Unless you've finally had your rebellion that you skipped in high school."
"I was never in high school, Tony."
"I'd say you didn't miss anything, but how would I know?"
"A lot of it's classified."
"I'll just hack in as soon as you fall asleep and find out."
"Why wait 'til I'm asleep? I need a fucking shower. How's your hot water here?"
"You have to ask?" He gestures to the door off to their left. "Master bedroom and bath are through there. There's... a lot of bottles of shit in the shower. And a tub. Garden tub, but no plants, so I don't know why they call it that."
"Got any sandpaper?" she asks with a grimace and they both pretend not to notice how she drags her nails over her skin, too lightly to tear skin but wishing she could scrape off the layer of whatever she feels like she's covered in.
"Fresh out. Well, actually, no, there's some down in the workshop, but-"
"Not serious, Tony. Just... I'd really like that shower. Shower first, then everything else."
Despite her words she heads over to the cabinet before the bathroom and pulls out a tumbler, then twists the cap off the tequila and pours herself a healthy swallow. She shoots it back and lets him take the glass away, only then does she head towards the bedroom, working the button and zipper of her jeans down as she goes. She kicks them off along with whatever underwear she was wearing as she walks through the doorway, and pulls the remaining top over her head. "Burn those, will you?" she calls back, and he appreciates, kind of distantly, the curve of her back and how smooth her skin is despite the bruising (which he can now see is extensive) before picking up the clothes and following her into the bathroom.
"Seriously, or facetiously?"
"Seriously. Burn. Them. I know you have fire down there in your cave of wonders. I never want to see them again."
"Come back once you've read the files and I'll let you help me with my hair," she says over the water, and he takes the hint and leaves.
The files are stupidly easy for him to get into, but then, she knew that. Doing it this way meant that she wasn't - technically - breaking any oaths she might've given about confidentiality. He isn't sure why he hadn't looked her information up before hand, he could've seen what she was doing anytime during the last few years he'd wanted to he just... hadn't wanted to. He'd been mad at her for leaving, mad about the fight about Obie, still mad that she'd missed Jarvis's funeral even though that was two years before she last left.
The more he reads, the more he hates himself for not looking. And the madder he gets, at SHIELD, at the drug runners she was working for (against), at her for taking the damn assignment in the first place. It's not that he doesn't think she can do dangerous work, or that someone should (probably maybe) do the work she's doing, but some of the things he sees in the files make his stomach twist into oily knots and together with how she looked coming in and the bruises, and the tendency he knows she has to do whatever is asked of her if it's painted in the guise of a "mission"...
He's back in the bathroom by the time she steps out of the enclosure and reaches for a towel. There's a ton of steam, and the scent of something woodsy and vaguely floral - rose and sandalwood, maybe, a distant part of his mind supplies. She looks so calm and collected as she raises one eyebrow at him and then reaches for the lotion, and with her hair hanging loose and wet, curling again like it's supposed to, he could see how she could convince just about anyone else that she's normal. Fine.
"How... why..." he can't get started what he wants to say, wants to ask. He's bad at being careful of other people, he knows that. "Did they hurt you?" he finally asks weakly, not sure what else to say.
Natasha, bless her, gets his meaning. And her eyes darken in a way he doesn't like, but what she says is "Nothing happened that I didn't let happen, or plan on happening."
His eyes get wider. "You say that like it makes it okay."
"It does," she sighs, but he's not sure either one of them believe her. "It... this is what I was trained to do. Meant to do." When he starts to open his mouth again she pins him with a look. "It is. But I am doing it on my own terms. At my own discretion, for who I choose. That makes all the difference. It has too," she finishes, and he sees a hint of her at sixteen, and twelve, at whatever age she was when Howard brought her home. That sense that she doesn't know if what she says is true, but that she's determined to make it true because it has to be or she'll fall away.
"Stay here," he blurts out, he can't help it, didn't mean to, but he doesn't regret it. "I mean, here, here. Not here necessarily, just here. With me for awhile. Don't go back right away. Take... you need some time."
"I need some time? What makes you the expert?" it bites a little bit and there's a touch of the ever-present "you left me first" accusation that never really goes away.
"Sweetheart if anyone is an expert on you, it's probably me," he points out and that earns him another scowl but she doesn't exactly argue his point.
"We'll see," she relents. "Now go get the other bag I brought and help me take care of this mess." She gestures to her hair, and when he comes back dutifully with the bag she tumbles it out onto the counter to reveal boxes of bleach and dye and comes and plastic gloves.
"It needs to be red again," she says simply, and he thinks he sort of understands. In any case, he helps her with it, mixing dyes and creams and making sure to coat every strand, first taking away the black and then later painting it over with a deeper red than her natural shade, almost a crayon color if not for the expertly picked out highlights she creates, but once it's dry he decides it suits her.
He introduces her to the new JARVIS, and laughs at how she wrinkles her nose at the disembodied voice until she hears how subtly sarcastic he can be and then she smiles in approval, (which means more to him than he'd like to admit to). He's high-handed and orders her new clothes, then hands her a pair of his rarely used swim trunks that have a drawstring waist and a t-shirt from some concert or other that's soft and faded and not too terribly big on her because he'd been a skinny kid when he'd been a teenager.
At first they sit on the floor in his living room, doing shots despite the lack of limes, and telling each other stupid stories, some they both know by heart but others that are newer, the result of lives splitting and going in different directions. He notices, but doesn't comment on the frequency with which she mentions her new partner, and she sees the lack of irritation in his manner when he talks about his new(ish) PA. He makes a note to look up the partner's file later because he's always secretly wanted to give someone the "shovel talk" and she makes it a point to check into this Miss Potts when she has a free moment without him hovering around because she will never trust Obadiah any farther than a baby could throw him.
They end up in Tony's bed just like when they were seven years old, opened and closed parenthesis and his hand wrapped gently but securely around her wrist as they sleep.
It really wasn't Pepper's fault.
Natasha realizes that. She's met Tony, has even played the part of his lady of the hour when needs warranted it, and she is completely unsurprised that there's a regular routine in place for dealing with this sort of circumstance. But it amuses the hell out of her anyway.
She wakes up to JARVIS pleasantly noting the time, weather, and surf conditions, which is strange but apt considering she doesn't think she's ever seen Tony on a surfboard. Her head is pounding in a way that makes the beautiful view a form of torture and doesn't imply very good things about the state of her stomach, and she's pretty sure that the AI is well aware of that and taking some kind of perverse computerized pleasure in his job. Still, it's wonderful to wake up surrounded by clean sheets and sunshine and the pleasantly familiar smells of metal and ozone and gear oil and Tony and home.
After the requisite trip to the bathroom (and happily, a startling lack of nausea she in no way deserves after how much she drank the night before), she grabs an elastic to pull back her now blessedly red hair and pad into the kitchen to see if there's any coffee left or any food she can stand the thought of eating.
She nearly runs over Pepper, because honestly, she wasn't expecting anyone else to be there.
"Good morning," the woman says pleasantly, and she can only assume that it is the infamous Miss Potts because JARVIS doesn't seem worried and she's far too conservatively dressed to be a likely girlfriend.
"I'm afraid I wasn't able to locate your clothes, but I've arranged for a car to take you wherever you'd like to go." Natasha arches an eyebrow as the woman looks her up and down briefly, then puts a sunny, professional smile on her face.
"I told Tony to burn them."
"My clothes. I told Tony to burn them last night, so he probably did. It's okay, he ordered me more, and I'm fine in these until they get here." She acts as though she’s completely unphased by the car comment, using the sort of vaguely uninterested and distracted approach she's learned from watching Tony talk to investors over the years. She neatly steps around the other woman to continue on into the kitchen and digs out a mug with the ease of long practice. Even though he'd bought he place after she'd left, and she’s never been here before, he’s arranged it the same way Jarvis had always kept his kitchen and her guess is right.
The regular coffee was all gone - selfish ass, she thinks to herself with a fond twist to her mouth, and so she presses the button for cappuccino instead and hopes the milk will sit okay on her stomach.
"You're Pepper, right? Tony told me a lot about you." While she waits for the overly complex machine to do it's job caffeinating her, she finds a loaf of bread and sticks a couple of slices in what she surmises is a toaster oven. When she turns the knob it at least glows orange in a way that isn't too worrying.
"I am, yes."
There’s marmalade in the fridge, and real butter, and she sneaks a peek out of the corner of her eye at Pepper's reactions while she pretends to ignore the looks she’s getting and makes her breakfast.
"You've already lasted longer than the rest of them combined, so good job," she says brightly and balances her toast and coffee in one hand so that she can access the stairs to the lab. Pepper trails along behind her, and she sees her reflection have a moment of confused horror when Natasha's palm-print actually opens the door.
"You can't go down there!" she finally blurts out.
Natasha smiles. It’s a little devious. "Apparently I can." Maybe she winks. Just a little bit..
Pepper follows her down, but Natasha ignores her as she surveys the workshop. It’s brighter than Howard's had been, and more relaxed. She approves of the classic rock blaring from the speakers and thinks about how Clint would appreciate the music, the car collection beginning to form off to one side, and the comfortable looking couch sagging in the corner.
Tony is standing in the middle of organized chaos, working on three or four screens at once, touching them directly rather than using a mouse or keyboard. She deliberately makes noise he can hear over the music and he looks up, then smiles, a real, genuine smile.. Some unseen gesture lowers the volume enough to be heard.
"Hey boys! Look who's home!" he calls out, and three excited bots roll over to her, You and Butterfingers stopping just shy of her feet but Dummy kind of bows into her side so that she has to brace herself to keep from spilling her coffee.