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I've Learned How to Paint My Face

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Natasha couldn't remember what happened before the explosion.

She actually couldn't remember the explosion, either, except suddenly she was picking herself off the ground in a jumpsuit that didn't fit, and there was blood and smoke. Her skin stung and there'd been an American voice saying, “Romanova?”

Then she'd woken up, again, tied to a hospital bed. She was wearing a hospital gown, and her hands were bandaged. There was a patch over her cheekbone, and she didn't recognise all of the equipment in the room.

Her first impulse was to cry, and her eyes were burning by the time she drew a breath and repeated in her head the words Ivan Petrovich said when he was pissed off. If she could say them like he would, then everything was still under control.

Everything was still under control. She was alive, she was only superficially injured, she could get out of this.

There was a doctor (Southeast Asian, average height and build, knew how to carry himself, no visible weapons) walking through the door and she looked up, let her eyes burn with tears.

“Romanoff, you're awake,” he said (Australian accent) and she felt herself frowning.

“Romanoff?”

“Natasha Romanoff – you don't remember?”

“Um, that's not my name,” Natasha said, hesitant and uncertain. It's more honest than she'd like.

The man frowned at her. “What's your name, then?”

“Natalia Romano.” She can play Italian (born in Rome, mother American, middle-class with a hunger for better), and someone had said her name before. Romanova. Pick a name that's close and lie, lie, lie with her eyes open and full of tears.

“I want to go home,” she added as the doctor stared at her, and kept her eyes wide when all she wanted to do was narrow them in suspicion.

“Well,” he said with a smile he really needed to work on, “I'm just going to talk to my superior first.”

It was only after he left Natasha realised that she should have made a bigger fuss over the restraints. Blame it on the drugs in her system, but the mistake constricted around her lungs and her bottom lip trembled without any acting at all.

– –

“So, explain to me again,” Stark said, oh-so-carefully, “why you put a twelve year old girl in restraints?”

“Because she could kill you,” and it wasn't the first time Clint had said it.

Could,” Rogers started before Fury interrupted.

“It's procedure to restrain agents who've been altered by strange technology.” Fury had an edge to his otherwise steady voice. “Romanoff knows this.”

Banner, who had been trying not to twist the glasses in his hands, looked at Fury sharply. “And what if it's permanent?”

“Then we get her to some damn good therapists,” Fury said, still with that edge of worry and anger. Clint was pretty sure you had to know him to read anything other than strain, though. “And find a good home, like we'll find the others good homes. But for now, we treat Romanoff like-”

“Like she's a threat?” Banner's voice was still scathing.

“She is a threat,” Clint snapped. “She's Red Room.”

“Her mind's back in the Cold War,” added Fury, who had far more patience dealing with civilians than Clint. “She thinks we're the enemy, it's safer for everyone if she stays where she is.”

“Ah, so now you're in the business of locking up children.”

Like Stark knew anything. Fortunately, before Clint could open his mouth, Rogers spoke up.

“What do you mean, she's Red Room?”

“It's basically a cult,” explained Fury. “Used to be part of the KGB. A few years after the USSR collapsed, they went rogue. Before that, they trained female spies and assassins. Get 'em when they're kids, brainwash 'em, train 'em up. Romanoff was one of their best, but the others sure as hell aren't what you'd call lacking in skill.”

“How young?” Banner asked, and his tone was actually curious. Angry, but curious.

“Four to seven. They got Romanoff when she was six. So, gentlemen,” Fury was smiling faintly now, “the girl we've got handcuffed to her bed has had six years of training at how to lie and kill people. Do you really think that Romanoff suddenly got dangerous when she turned eighteen?”

“But she got out,” Rogers said.

“When she was twenty-one.” Clint was getting really fucking sick of this conversation.

“Clint,” Banner said in that overly patient way of his, where he used first names and the weight of his education behind them, “how can you be so wary of her?”

“In case you've forgotten, I'm married to the grown-up version. I probably have good reason.”

Stark held up his hand, drawing attention. “The others aren't still tied up.”

The others were scientists caught in the blast who survived; the others were now normal – if damn smart – kids.

“The others haven't been trained to go for your femoral artery,” Clint snapped. “And trust me, Stark, she gets spooked, she will.”

It took another ten minutes before Clint was able to extract himself, mostly because then the meeting was called to an official close. While Stark and Banner were arguing for truth, freedom, and the American way, Clint headed down to where Romanova was being held.

(She was Romanova; not Romanoff, not Natasha, not his best friend and wife, but a girl who was a threat that his team refused to see.)

He didn't go into the solitary room (read: cell) at the end of the infirmary straight away, but first observed. Romanova was looking better than when he pulled her from the wreckage; conscious, not covered in ash and bleeding cuts. She'd already reached her adult height, but it was recent, he thought; she was still all thin limbs like a spider. She was wearing a hospital gown that dwarfed her, and someone had given her a brown headband to help keep her chin-length curls out of her face. It made her look impish; cute, even, if you ignored the restraints.

Clint was certain she could get out of the restraints, and that it was going to be a question of when rather than if.

She had also caught sight of him, and was staring at him with red-rimmed eyes, so he tipped his head slightly in acknowledgement and walked in with a, “Hey.”

“Hello.” Her American accent was already like Natasha's, metropolitan and unplaceable. “Are you going to let me go?”

“Ah, no,” he said, giving her a small smile as he moved over to the chair in the corner. Less threatening than standing, and it's not as if this is the first time he's talked to someone dangerous, or even the first time he's talked to Natasha when one of them was tied up.

Her restraints were more secure the first time that he talked to her, though.

“Why not? I just...I want to go home.” Romanova's green eyes were over-bright, and he was pretty sure that the shake in her voice was genuine. Home was familiar, home had her sisters; she was twelve, of course she fucking wanted to go home. But if her aim was to make him believe the innocent appearance, it didn't work.

“We can't do that, Romanova.” Clint pitched his voice to friendly, just enough to not be threatening without also appearing like a target.

She glared at him. “My name is Natalia Romano.”

“We both know that's not true, but-” he said, holding up his hand to forestall her protest, “I know you can't acknowledge that without breaking your cover. So, Miss Romano it is.”

Her jaw clenched. Then she took a deep breath, and her face settled into a wary curiosity. “They told me I'm in the future.”

“Yeah, but we don't have flying cars. It's kind of a rip-off.”

He got a faint curl of a smile in return. “Jet-packs?”

“Nope. Well,” he amended, “only for multi-billionaires.” Stark's suit was more complicated than that, but still.

“That's not very nice of them,” she offered. “They should share.”

“Yeah, but they're not going to. Not for a while.”

Romanova fell silent at that, her body going far too still, like all of her natural urges to fidget had been trained out of her. Which they had. “Time-travel is impossible.”

“I try not to rule things like that out.”

“How did I get here?”

“What did they tell you?”

“There was an explosion. The other children and I used to be...grown-ups. And now we're not.” Her eyes were narrowed as she studied him.

“Sounds about right,” is all he said, meeting her gaze easily.

“That's stupid.”

He shrugged, keeping the gesture casual. “Reality didn't ask me first,” he said.

Romanova kept frowning at him, but the tension had gone down a few notches. “You know my name.”

“Yes?”

“What's yours?”

“Known as Barton around here,” Clint said.

“Barton,” Romanova repeated, faintly suspicious at his wording. Clint cracked a smile at her expression, because god he had to.

“You know, my name doesn't get less obnoxiously American with repetition,” he said, and now her expression changed to disdain. It hurt. She was Natasha, all stillness with emotions and expression spilling out around the edges if only you knew where to look. She was Natasha, but young, and if she hadn't yet hit the worst of what the Red Room would do to her, she'd already-

But she wasn't that kid. She was thirty-five, just her body and mind didn't know it. Abruptly, Clint got to his feet and, fuck, she flinched.

“Just... Speaking of obnoxious Americanisms? The people who've got you, they kind of have a thing against killing children who aren't a threat.” So try not to be an active threat when you break out.

Which she was going to do. She might have been twelve, but she was Natalia Romanova, and people weren't taking her seriously – of course she was going to damn well break out. And while he couldn't kill her – she was Natasha – other people on-board didn't have his attachment.

Romanova was watching him in the silence, her face as expressionless as a doll, although her eyes were wider, and far brighter than any glass. Her eyebrows were arching, and it was such a Natasha expression when she was playing innocent that he huffed a laugh.

“Just...keep it in mind,” he said, and then he fled. He had paperwork to do, and there was nothing useful in the conversation, and he wasn't even going to bullshit about it being a strategic retreat so he could be practical elsewhere, because it wasn't.

– –

There was no clock, but sometime after Barton left, the lights went dim. Natasha counted out what she thought was seven minutes, then slipped her right hand free of the padded cuff. Her hands were still stiff under the bandages, but she was able to untie her left wrist, and then her feet. After a pause, and making sure she couldn't hear any movement outside, she stretched out her feet to ease the ache before slipping lightly to the floor.

Barton had slipped when he ran away and she'd seen most of the code he'd punched into the electric lock. She peered out through the window in the door, hand hovering over the lock. There were other beds, with the other children, and one nurse on duty. Quickly, Natasha punched in the code (guessing at two of the numbers), and when the door slid open, she crept out.

The nurse (strong hands around a hardback book, necklace, Caucasian) didn't look up from her reading. Carefully, Natasha eased herself along the room, trying to make sure her bare feet didn't stick to the floor and make too much noise.

The nurse was stocky, but not tall; hard to tell from being seated, but nothing more than utter basic training, Natasha thought. That was doable. The nurse's necklace could be a garrotte. But there was the other lock she didn't know the code for.

She'd work it out.

The male child in the bed she just passed whimpered, then made the sound again, but higher pitched and starting to panic. The nurse looked up, getting to her feet without thinking about it, and didn't even pause at the sight of Natasha.

“You shouldn't be up,” said the nurse (American, Midwestern), calm, absent, like Natasha wasn't her concern. Natasha didn't mind not being her concern.

The male child whimpered again, and the nurse only hesitated for a fraction of a second before she was by his bed, doing...whatever nurses did. Natasha eased her way around the bed and headed straight for the door.

Another electric lock. She figured. She knew it'd be electric. She could work it out.

“Now,” said the nurse, “why don't you get away from the door and back to your bed?”

“It's a cell,” Natasha said, glancing back at her. “I don't want a cell, I want to go home.” Maybe she could pull the wires? She didn't know which wires, but she'd need to dismantle the lock to get to them anyway.

“Sweetie, they're working on it.”

Natasha glared at her. “I'm not sweet,” she snapped, which was against the guidelines, she should be sweet and nice and biddable and lure them into a false sense of security, but they-

The nurse's expression frowned around the edges, and that was more than enough warning for the hand that reached towards her.

Natasha darted in, grabbed the nurse by the wrist and twisted sharply, then used the momentum to jump up and scissor-kick, hooking her legs around the nurse's neck and flipping her to the floor. She kept her calves around the nurse's throat, and ignored the cries of confusion from the beds.

“Tell me the code to get out,” Natasha said, and briefly pressed down with her leg. “Lie, and I'll hurt them.”

“Three, four, eight, one, six,” the nurse gasped out, and Natasha scrambled to her feet and backed away towards the door. The nurse slowly sat up, one hand on her throat and the other up in surrender. Natasha hit the code into the lock, and the door slid open.

“Thank you!” she told the nurse with a bright smile before exiting. It was a hallway, empty and bland. Left or right, right or left.

There were agents approaching on the right, which meant the nurse had hit an alarm and she didn't see it, stupid Natashka-

Natasha chose left, and ran.

– –

What was left of the (for want of a better name) age-regression machine was spread over one of the Helicarrier's labs, and for the time being, Tony and Bruce had it to themselves. Bruce wasn't entirely sure it was working. Part of it was that he hadn't had a chance to sleep, to properly sleep, since the Avengers and SHIELD went knocking on A.O.'s front door. There had been the labs, after the Other Guy had finished making a mess, and then there had been the explosion.

He was tired, and he was angry. More than normal; it was a loud beat, beat, beat under everything, which made him conscious of things like the panel in his hands. It was a solid piece of metal: he could do damage with it

Bruce ran his thumb over A.O.'s symbol, an α within a Ω, and slowly let out his breath.

He didn't like cages. He'd spent six years running from one. He didn't like cages, and he didn't like people in them; that this time it was a child was frankly obscene.

Tony was being Tony in the background, which meant talking to himself and JARVIS and anyone else in the room, breaking off mid-sentence to start a new one, or dart off entirely into his own head and whatever was in front of him. Bruce didn't mind. Normally, Bruce didn’t mind, but right now instead of their partnership being conducive to productivity and ideas, Tony was annoying the crap out of him.

Bruce needed sleep. He needed to calm down and clear his mind. He needed to solve whatever A.O.'s machine had done to the scientists and Natasha, and he really needed some coffee.

He wasn't allowed to have coffee.

He needed-

“I'm going for a walk,” he said, and Tony waved at him absently.

“Sure thing, Big Guy, I hear the deck is quite nice this time of night. Bracing, you might say.”

“Right,” Bruce said, but even he could hear the fondness around the dry in his voice.

He made it three steps down the hallway before he looked up, and came to an immediate stop. There was a short, red-haired, pre-adolescent girl at the other end of the corridor, a SHIELD jacket hanging too big over a hospital gown. She had bandaged hands, a patch over her cheek, and she was, despite the injuries, completely adorable.

She was also pointing a handgun at him like she knew exactly how to use it.

Slowly, Bruce put up his hands. “Natasha,” he said, very carefully. The girl glared at him.

“I'm not your friend,” she said, voice young and somewhat indignant. American accent, where Bruce expected Russian, which just added to the surreality of the situation.

“No, friends don't usually point guns at each other,” he said, not quite managing to restrain the dry chuckle after his words. Her expression went flat. “Miss....Romanoff, why don't you put the gun down?”

“Go back into the lab,” she said, with all of the faintly irritated, neutral tones of Agent Romanoff.

Bruce hesitated. Guns and the Other Guy didn't mix, but for all he didn't want Romanoff in a cage, he wasn't keen on the idea of her child-self running around armed, either.

“Now,” Natasha said, taking a careful step closer. She had her body angled to present a smaller target, her balance and posture like that of any soldier walking through a danger zone or a movie set.

“Whoa, okay,” Tony said, and Natasha pointed the gun at him instead. Given the way her expression had turned alarmed at the sound of Tony's voice, and that she had her finger resting next to the trigger, the situation had not exactly improved.

“You, too. Back in,” Natasha said, her face neutral as a mannequin’s and voice flat.

“Listen, kiddo,” Tony said, voice even. “Nobody's going to hurt you. And I'd really appreciate it if nobody hurt me or Big Green over here-” As Tony talked, he walked down the hallway, movements smooth and quiet. “-I don't know if you remember, but he's not the most attractive guy when he gets upset, and let's face it, that face is just too pretty. So we don't want to do that, right?”

Natasha kept the gun trained on Tony, and Bruce eased himself backwards, towards the lab door. He didn't go in, he couldn't go in while Tony was in danger, but he could get out of the way should she pull the trigger.

“Now,” Tony was saying, “why don't we go back to your nice safe room where we can talk this out, okay?” His hand closed around the gun, and then Natasha moved.

She twisted and seemed to spin vertically like the hands of a clock, somehow hooking her knees around Tony's neck before flipping him over to the ground in a move that was more violent than the threat of the gun.

The thud of Tony's body hitting the tiles caused a spike of adrenaline in Bruce's chest, one he caught before it could spread and do any damage. He stepped out from the door just as Natasha flowed back to her feet.

She paused, all wary lines like a cat as she looked at Bruce with faintly arched eyebrows. Behind her, Tony recovered enough to roll out of the way.

Bruce went still and slowly put up his hands again. Natasha nodded slightly in acknowledgment, and then ran past him just as two agents rounded the corner.

The female agent took in the scene and, hesitating for a moment, Bruce jerked his head in Natasha's direction. “We're fine,” he added.

“Got it,” the woman said, and her and her partner kept going. Bruce rushed in, crouching down and helping Tony sit up.

“You okay?”

“That, that went well,” Tony said, sounding winded as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“At least she didn't shoot you.” Bruce reached over and picked up the gun. It was lighter than he was expecting, and with a frown he slid the magazine out. “Empty.”

“...ah,” said Tony. “Judging by stance and Agent Romanoff's...normal competence, the odds are in favour of her knowing that.”

“I think the point was you not knowing,” Bruce said wryly. “You right to stand?”

“Born ready,” Tony said, but his movements were a little ginger as Bruce helped him to his feet. “Well, that was all terribly illuminating, I think-” Tony frowned, walked quickly over to the lab's intercom. “Agent Barton, the tiny Romanoff has escaped.”

What's your status?” Clint asked with barely a moment's pause. His voice was clipped, short.

“A tad bruised, but more in pride,” Tony admitted, tapping the table in a Fibonacci sequence. “Nothing permanent.”

I'm on it. Just...hold your position.”

Bruce blinked. In the man's voice was a distinct element of frustrated pleading, and Bruce was willing to wager that it wasn't for Tony and Bruce's sake.

Tony just breathed for a moment, eyes distant. “We'll keep working on the machine,” he said at last.

Thanks. Out.

“Staying out of the way? Not, uh, your style,” Bruce observed, and Tony shrugged impatiently.

“I have moments where I can share the limelight,” he said, dismissing it. “JARVIS, bring up page twelve of the schematic.”

– –

Cap, I know where Romanova's headed,” Barton said in Steve's earpiece. Steve paused to hear him better.

“Where?”

Deck-level, towards the doors.

“Roger,” and Steve quickly changed direction. “You got a plan?”

You hold her until she gets sedated. If she gets out, I'll be there to tranq her. She's dangerous. Not as experienced as Nat, but way more scared.

“Got it.”

She gets tranqed, you've got five minutes before she needs the antidote.

“What happens after the five?”

Higher risk of respiratory issues,” Barton replied. “Get her to a holding cell first.

“Roger.”

Given the Helicarrier was flying, a little girl (Natasha) out in that...

Steve used the emergency stairwell after considering it for a fraction of a second. At the bottom he found a female agent sitting on the ground, one bloody hand pressed to her nose and the other cradling the back of her head.

“Ma'am?”

“She's outside,” the agent managed to get out, and Steve nodded before opening the door. It swung inwards, and even though he'd been expecting the wind to shove it against him, it was still an effort.

The cold was a shock, as were the lights against the black of the sky, and the thinness of the air. He kept close to the wall and scanned the area before spotting her. Not that she was hard to find: the deck lights turned all of Romanoff's colours stark; too-white skin and too-red curls that looked alive in the wind.

The girl had pressed herself against the wall, mouth open in fear, but when she noticed Steve her mouth snapped shut and she moved farther away. She was still pressing herself against the wall, but he had images of the wind tearing her away.

“Romanoff!” he shouted, and held out his hand to her.

She shook her head.

Wrong name.

Romanova!” Try again, and how much time did Barton need to move into position?

No!

He kept close to the wall and walked closer as she stood her ground and bared her teeth. The way her eyes moved, though, spoke of training rather than animal fear. It was a look he'd seen before, on battlefields and in forests, in Hydra factories and in the eyes of a dying assassin in Brooklyn.

She'd kill him, Steve realised abruptly. If she had to, if she thought she had to, she'd kill him and keep running.

“Come inside!” he said, and again, he held out his hand.

Natalia Romanova's body went loose in preparation for movement, and then she yelped as a dart appeared in her side. She grabbed it and threw it away, but she hadn't been fast enough; her hand scrambled at the wall and she stumbled to her knees.

Carefully, Steve advanced, and knelt down as she fell back against the wall. She still managed to land a punch, but then her eyes rolled shut and she went limp.

Target down,” Barton said in Steve's earpiece, and a woman – Barton's spotter – answered him with, “Roger.

Five minutes, Barton had said, so Steve picked her up. She wasn't the first teammate he'd ever hauled to safety, but as Steve carried her through the Helicarrier, he tried not to notice how light her body was.

Barton arrived barely a minute after one of the medics administered the tranq's antidote, and Steve really didn't like the wear the man was showing underneath his shutdown soldier's expression.

“She's okay?” Barton asked, glancing at the girl on the holding cell's bunk. Steve hadn't been able to leave her without pulling the blanket up over her bare legs, and she was lying on her side with her chest clearly rising and falling. She managed, somehow, to look even younger like this, and innocent. As if she never looked at a man and visibly calculated how to dispatch him.

“So they tell me. Yeah,” he added, aiming for confidence and hitting it.

“Good,” Barton said, pulling over the nearest chair. “I'm taking first watch, Cap.”

Steve took one look at the man's carefully neutral expression, and didn't bother asking who Barton was planning on protecting. He knew the answer would be everyone.

– –

She felt heavy.

Heavy-confused-vertigo-

Natasha opened her eyes and then immediately shut them. The wall, and the bed, and everything, were moving in ways they just weren't, and watching wasn't helping.

She remembered the tall blond agent dressed like the American flag and there had been a dart in her arm and now she was on a bed. A bunk. Thin mattress, and a blanket over her legs.

The bed wasn't really moving, except there was that wind outside. Natasha decided to dismiss the wind for the time being, and forced her eyes open.

“Hello, Romanova,” a male voice said. Slowly, she sat up, and there was the agent who called himself Barton sitting on a chair outside her cell. It was a glass wall instead of bars, but it was a cell.

“Hello.”

“You've only been out fifteen minutes,” he said, like it was important for her to know it.

“Oh.” And then, two seconds too long for politeness, she said, “Thank you.”

Barton nodded, and then....nothing. He just watched her from his chair, an arm crossed over his knee. He reminded her of some of her teachers. He was the first agent to call her by her real name, and he was watching her so she glared back, which was probably stupid, but she felt awful.

“How do you feel?” he asked finally.

“I'm okay.” He kind of arched his eyebrows at her, and she pulled the blanket up defiantly. Blankets could be taken away, her teachers had said, in an attempt to break her down. “Am I allowed to go to sleep?”

She might not be allowed to. Or she might not be allowed to later. And she really couldn't read his face at all now, but then he nodded.

“Yeah. You can.”

“Thank you,” Natasha said, not meaning it. But if she could sleep, that would mean she could sleep off the drugs and get some rest and maybe things would be better when she woke up. She could think up a better plan for escape once she had some sleep.

And then she could go home.

Chapter Text

By the time the Helicarrier made port at San Diego, order had been restored. For a kid who hadn't even finished growing yet, Romanoff's younger self could cause some disruption, Maria thought as she filled up her cup of coffee. It wasn't the first time she'd filled it since she'd been woken up with Natalia Romanova's escape attempt.

It could have been worse. There were no deaths, and the list of injuries was limited to: one bullet to Agent Harrak's right arm, one dislocated wrist, four counts of concussion to varying degrees of severity (one achieved when Agent Matejka dodged a bullet), and a badly broken nose.

It could have been worse.

Knowing that did not actually fill Maria with trust and joy. A trained and dangerous prisoner managed to arm herself on Maria's ship, wound agents, and escape to the deck. SHIELD's ship.

(Maria's ship.)

In addition, the Avengers were around, and frankly Maria didn't care for them much more now than when they'd first come together. Unprofessional. Uncooperative. Useful as a sledgehammer, which she was prepared to concede was sometimes the approach needed. But it was a sledgehammer that took orders from no one, not even each other. Barton and Romanoff were SHIELD's, and she trusted them, but the others? Rogers was getting back on his feet, and still seemed to be pining for his Commandos, Thor's culture- well, Thor and his demigod physicists (or whatever they had on Asgard) still hadn't managed to fix their bridge, so he wasn't a concern.

Putting Stark and Banner together was a mistake of epic proportions, but she was prepared to admit that they were one of the few people who could fix this mess. One of the others, Dr. Elizabeth Ross, was flying down to join them, on loan from Culver. Hill had no issue with Ross, but Stark had taken it upon himself to wage periodic cyberwar against SHIELD's security system. 'Testing it', he called his actions, and short of shooting him Hill had no idea how to get him to stop.

It wasn't her call to shoot him, she told herself, and put the issue of the Avengers back in its compartment in her head before returning to the issue at hand.

Fury had done his circuit of the wounded an hour ago, including the scientists-turned-kids. They were all twelve, and if that didn't count as being fucking wounded, Maria didn't know what did. Romanoff herself had been out like a light when Fury checked in with her, still guarded by Barton. It had taken a combination of Fury's ordering and Barton's team-leader, Beamon, stepping in, for the man to agree to get some sleep himself. Barton was senior enough that they could try and ease his mind as much as they could, which meant (for now) agents guarding Romanoff that he trusted. Not all of the agents SHIELD employed could handle a dangerous kid, and the agents that Barton trusted to a) keep Romanoff safe and/or b) shoot her if needed, was an even shorter list. So it was select members from Team Echo until the San Diego office was awake, and then they'd call in some agents from Foxtrot. It was imperfect, but workable, and Maria gave herself the time to enjoy her coffee. She trusted Beamon not to let Romanoff escape, because honestly the agent could handle her no matter what age.

No matter what age, Agent Romanoff probably didn't appreciate that hospital gown, either. Maria knew the woman well enough to say the reasons did, in fact, involve vanity. But more importantly, there was a sense of security that pants provided and a hospital gown just didn't.

Once she finished her coffee, Maria headed to Romanoff's locker. She opened it, and told herself that the moment's hesitation was just because she didn't know the woman's storage system. Moving quickly, she pulled out a black SHIELD t-shirt, a pair of grey sweatpants, and a pair of socks. Black socks. It didn't seem right for a kid, all harsh nothing colours, but Maria left Natasha's yellow jacket hanging where it was.

She paused over the well-read book, but ultimately she left it, too. There were roses and ballet shoes on the cover, and she didn't have a clue what the language was. She didn't want to take the chance, because hell if she was handing over a romance novel to a messed-up twelve year old.

The twelve year old herself was eating breakfast when Maria walked down to the holding cells. Maria put Romanoff's clothes down on the table, and tried not to think about all the damage Natalia Romanova could cause with a tray and a plastic cup. Romanova, not Romanoff; she was an underage KGB agent, not a SHIELD operative in her thirties.

The kid looked up, but finished her toast. Maria was half expecting her to lick the plate. Beamon didn't get to her feet – sure, Romanova could guess at the power dynamic, but no point giving her more clues than necessary.

“So,” Maria said, and Romanova just looked at her. “I am going to pass some clothes over. Then we'll talk.”

“Clothes?”

“Proper clothes. Might be a bit big, but has to be better than that hospital gown, right?” She injected a bit of a smile into her words, but Romanova just kept looking at her. Finally, the kid nodded. She was well-behaved at the swap of tray for clothes - even said thank you. The politeness was a little eerie, and instead of believing the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth quiet, Maria just figured she was sharper now. Biding her time for Escape Attempt Two.

The docs had better have found a solution by then, Maria thought as Romanova quickly pulled on Romanoff's clothes. The sweatpants were too big for a skinny kid with no hips, but Romanova pulled the drawstring as tight as she could. Then she stood still, and Maria was reminded of her own ballet class over twenty years ago. It was a good cover for the balance Romanova wasn't experienced enough to hide yet, too. Far more benign than a child soldier.

Maria kept her expression neutral. Friendly-neutral, rather than neutral-neutral.

She'd really prefer there not be an Escape Attempt Two.

“Good morning, Romanova,” she said, and there was a faint crease between Romanova's eyebrows. “I'm Agent Hill.”

“Good morning.” Romanova's expression, all pleasantly polite, was reminding Maria why she never wanted to be a teacher. Kids who looked that polite when you knew they were contemplating violence were more disconcerting than adults doing the same.

Maria refused to let it rattle her.

“All of the agents injured last night should be back at their posts soon,” she continued. “But it all could have been much worse, couldn't it?”

Romanova's eyes dropped briefly before she set her jaw and tilted her chin up. “Yes,” she finally said.

“Yeah,” Maria repeated. “So, Romanova. I know that you want something from me. You want to go home.” The kid nodded, but warily. “And I know that you've figured out I want something, too. Right?”

Romanova rolled her lips into her mouth, like she was trying to hide her expression, but she nodded again.

“You see, agent, this is my ship. And everyone on it, they're my responsibility. Now, you hurt some of my people. I'd like to make sure this doesn't happen again.”

“Do you mean...a deal, Agent Hill?”

“I do.”

Romanova crossed her arms, clearly aiming for a position of strength. “I want to go home. That's why I tried to escape. To go home. I didn't mean to...hurt anyone.”

Despite herself, Maria arched her eyebrows slightly. “What did you intend?”

“I got frightened. I just wanted to...” Romanova hesitated. “I didn't know your ship can fly.” Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips, nervous as a kitten. “I really am in the future?”

“Yep.” Nice of the kid to dodge all of the violence she committed, but it was probably against her school's code to admit to being a trained killer. She probably had classes in it. Jesus. “But, you're not the only one. Now, we're trying to get you back, because that's what we do. But, there's a line. You understand what I'm getting at, Romanova?”

Romanova eyed her for a moment, and nodded once. “If I behave, you move me up the line.”

“You got it.” Maria tilted her head forward. “I'm sure they miss you.”

Romanova's gaze had started to wander over Maria's body, assessing posture and hand placement, but at those words her eyes snapped back to Maria's face. “Who?”

“Your teachers?” Maria waited for a reaction, and got none. “Your friends?” There: Romanova swallowed faintly.

“I don't-” Romanova cut herself off.

“Clever girl like you? C'mon, you must have friends, right? I bet they miss you.”

Romanova shook her head, the movement barely perceptible. “I miss Russia. I will be good girl.”

She missed the 'a' there, Maria noted. No change in the American accent, but it was a sign of control wavering. Which was not, actually, what Maria wanted – people did stupid shit when they felt like they were out of control, and the very last thing she needed was this girl to do any more stupid shit.

“I'm glad to hear it. So we have a deal?”

“We have deal.”

Maria could practically hear the 'for now', but it would do. All she needed was to buy the scientists some more time before anyone else got hurt.

(And if she spent some time arguing with the Fury-in-her-head about finding out where the Red Room was currently hiding and bombing the hell out of it, well. She was ex-Air Force. She liked the idea of bombing the hell out of places that deserved it.

In her daydreams, the questions of legality and international co-operation didn't have to worry her.)

– –

Of course Natasha plotted escape.

She had nothing else to do, or nothing else she wanted to do just yet. If her captivity continued, she'd have to start stretching and exercising. And they did know what she could do. Some of it. But she didn't feel right just openly doing things, even if she could pretend it was just for ballet. It was also actually for ballet because she loved it and she didn't want to fall behind.

Natasha sat on the floor, and stretched out her legs, alternating between left and right, bent knee and straight, because she really did feel silly just sitting around doing nothing. As she did that, she plotted escape. Even if she did believe Hill (she had too much authority to be an agent - she was at least a major, or would have been if she was KGB), it was a productive use of her time. But she didn't believe Hill. Not really. She wasn't going to break their deal, but she wasn't going to trust in it.

That'd be stupid.

She stopped stretching when the guards changed, the brown-skinned female agent swapping with a lean, ordinary-looking male one. He hid it well, but he was as trained as anyone else here. He had a nice face, didn't introduce himself, and Natasha didn't trust him at all.

He asked if she needed anything, and she replied with a ‘no’ and then a ‘thank you’, and then they both fell into silence. Silence was okay. She needed to study him, and add him as a variable to her Plans.

Roughly an hour after the change of the guard, one of the blond agents from last night walked in, the taller, younger one from the ship's deck. He wasn't dressed up any more, or at least, she didn't think so. His clothes were a bit odd, but they were casual and seemed real.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello.” He appeared to be uncertain, which Natasha wasn't sure if she believed or not. She still got to her feet though – he was very tall.

“I'm-” His voice caught, and he visibly corrected himself. “-Steve Rogers. I understand that you are Natalia Romanova?”

Natasha resisted the urge to sigh. “Yes.

“How would you like to be addressed?”

“Natalia, Mister Rogers.” If she was a first name, then she was more of a person. And a child-person. People tended to be nicer to children, finding them more unsuspecting. And while it was kind of exciting, being treated by strangers like she was dangerous, she really wanted them to forget last night.

Rogers smiled at her, showing even teeth in an open grin. “Then I'm Steve.”

She smiled at him. “Okay.” Then she paused. “Um, Steve? Why were you dressed up like Captain America?”

“Uh, well, I am Captain America.” His voice was quiet and half uncertain, which meant that it was also half certain.

Natasha couldn't work out what game the Americans were playing, and she found herself crossing her arms. Her eyebrows were also up. “Who’s strong and brave, here to save the American Way? / Who vows to fight like a man for what’s right night and day?” she sang, and his smile turned kind of embarrassed.

“The song wasn't exactly my idea.”

“That was in the War- the Second. The Second World War.”

“It's a little complicated,” said Steve America. “But I came here to ask how you were.”

“I'm fine. Thank you.” Natasha tilted her head a little, calculating. “How did you get here into the future, then? If you are from then?” He was reading as sincere, but she didn't believe him. On the other hand, maybe he was another time-traveller.

Rogers looked serious now, and a little sad. “My plane crashed. When I woke up, I was here.”

“What's it like?”

“The future?”

“Yes. There are flying ships, but...” she looked at him hopefully. “I haven't really seen anything else.”

“Sure. Uh,” he hunted around for a chair, and dragged over the one from near the guard. “Take a seat?” She nodded, and sat down on the floor in front of the glass wall of her cell. “What do you want to know?”

Natasha stared at him.

“Everything.”

– –

It felt strange explaining the future. Steve knew it was his present, but still, sometimes it was his present in the future. And he'd always been the person things were explained to, not the explainer. It probably made it easier for him to avoid telling her things he'd been told that she didn't need to know, though. Like, say, the collapse of the Soviet Union (and hadn't that been a shock to read about, in the list of countries he'd been given that had risen and fallen while he'd been in a coma). Steve was firmly aware that if he told the girl that the USSR no longer existed, Barton would hurt him. Steve had grown up poor in Brooklyn, and while Barton was (despite his profession) a remarkably non-violent man, Steve knew how to read a threat conveyed with just the barest amount of body-language. Even if he didn't, the agent standing guard, Nicholas Henry, was on Barton's SHIELD team and had been thoroughly briefed on what was acceptable conversation.

Steve wasn't used to talking to prisoners, either. Not to children sitting behind a pane of reinforced glass, not having a guard listen in on the conversation and call out, “That's classified,” not any of it. It was, in short, awkward as hell, but at least SHIELD wasn't lying to her about being in the future.

“There are computers that can fit on your lap?” Natalia repeated, and her words ended in a giggle.

“Yep,” he said. “And you should see the size of everyone's phones, they can fit into your pocket. And you can just carry them out.”

Natalia's expression was partly disbelieving, but mostly just delighted. “Can I see yours?”

Steve glanced at Henry sitting guard; the man nodded, and so Steve pulled out his smartphone. Natalia's eyes widened, and then frowned, and she gracefully got to her feet to walk over to the glass of her cell to peer closer.

“That's a phone?”

“Ye-e-ep.”

“It looks like something from Star Trek,” she muttered, and bobbed her head to peer at it from a different angle. Then her expression turned sly. “Bet you can't show me what it can do, huh?”

Steve found himself smiling back at her, not entirely sure if he was sharing the joke or was the punchline. “I've got my orders.”

Her slyness was obvious, the expression of an actor in a theatre, and she reminded him of the kids he knew back in Brooklyn. Both when he was growing up and once he'd reached adulthood, there had always been kids like Natalia Romanova; charming kids who'd smile at you before stealing everything you owned. They had generally been just entertaining if you had nothing of value, but unlike them, Natalia wasn't after money or goods; she was after information. It made the conversation a bit exhausting, trying to work out the rules and what she was gathering. Steve hadn't quite realised how much time had passed until Barton arrived, carrying a tray with Natalia's lunch.

“Hey,” Barton said, nodding at both Steve and Henry. Then he looked at Natalia, and his mouth curved slightly to the side. “You're a ray of sunshine.”

“I'm locked up,” she told him, her voice just a little too patient.

Barton's not-really-a-smile deepened. “Like I said. I brought-eth your lunch, compliments of the chef. Today is hamburger and salad. And chips. Those actually are compliments of the chef.” He glanced at Steve. “You're going to have to get your own.”

Steve could take a hint, particularly as Henry had also risen to his feet. “It was good talking to you, Natalia,” he said, and the girl nodded, gave him a little wave.

“Bye, Captain America.”

Lunch, thought Steve as he walked away with Henry, sounded like a damn fine idea. Another downside to his fast metabolism, and if he thought of lunches and lines and food, he wouldn't think about the fact that he'd just left the twelve year old version of one of his closest modern friends in a cell. She was with Barton, and he'd seen the look she'd given him last night where he'd been nothing but a target, and honestly he'd trust her as far as she could throw him, but-

“Is all of Barton's team taking turns guarding Romanoff? Uh, Romanova?” Steve asked the agent, who then glanced at him. Henry was a fairly bland-looking white man, fit but very ordinary, with calm mannerisms and a mild voice. You'd forget about him, which Steve was starting to learn was a valuable skill in a secret agent.

“No, not all of us. We'll have to call in for some help if the situation continues.” Neither of those statements were hopeful in terms of this conversation actually getting somewhere. Still, he had to try.

“Give Barton a chance to go home?”

Henry nodded. “And Beamon and myself. Three people is tight for a rotation.”

“I could help, if...needed.”

Henry glanced at him again, the expression sharp. “SHIELD will manage, but it was kind of you to offer,” he said at last, sounding sincere. Earnest. Earnest instead of sincere.

Steve knew all about sounding earnest and sincere.

“Romanova's on my team, too,” Steve pointed out. “And...so's Barton. Not- not that I'm implying your team is less-”

“And you shouldn't. Romanoff has her own team, and we've had ours for more than a few years. Strike teams are different from the everyday.”

“Yes, but-” Steve stopped. “You know Barton, then.”

“He's a friend,” Henry said as they stepped into the elevator.

“How is he holding up?”

“Well, his wife is functionally missing in action...” Henry's voice trailed off pointedly, his long fingers straightening his SHIELD jacket. “You could make a number of conclusions based on your own observations of his character and their relationship.” No matter how polite the words, it was a brush-off and Steve knew it. “I wouldn't try any of the others for information, either,” Henry went on, as if he were offering advice on what weight jacket Steve should take to a ballgame.

“They wouldn't tell me anything?”

“No. And it's not polite to go around asking questions when you know the person you're asking about wouldn't approve. And if you think that Barton would approve, then you don't know him well enough to go asking in the first place.” Then Henry smiled. “I just need to attend to some things. See you around, Captain Rogers.” And with that, he walked into the men's restroom, leaving a stung Steve to stare after him.

He got it. He did. The Howling Commandos had been his teammates, and he'd have done the same if a near stranger had come around asking questions.

But.

But.

The Avengers weren't the Howling Commandos. It wasn't about the Avengers and being a team, or finding a new one. Not exactly. Barton and Romanoff, Natasha and Clint, were friends, and they were both either in trouble or hurting.

He couldn't just stand by, no matter what other loyalties his friends had.

– –

Tony was actually excellent at delegating. No issues at all letting other people handle the boring things, like packing up exploded age-regression machines for transportation off sea-and-air-going vessels. Bruce could handle it; Tony had some data retrieval to do.

(The hacking of SHIELD's database he was leaving to JARVIS's excellent, although entirely metaphorical, hands.)

The agent guarding the Tiny Romanoff wasn't Barton. Male, average everything, possibly Korean, suspiciously boring. SHIELD was filled with suspiciously boring people juxtaposed with excitingly dangerous ones. Much more interesting than other agencies, in his admittedly limited experience.

“Tony Stark? You have fifteen minutes,” said Agent Suspiciously Boring.

Tony paused. “And then you kick me out?”

“And then I kick you out.”

“...probably literally. Okay,” and Tony turned to focus on Romanoff. As he noted last night around the gun in her hands, she was a pretty little thing. The short curls were a halo around a fine-featured face that was hovering somewhere between child and teenager - tween was the word springing to mind. Bee-stings for breasts, but her eyes weren’t quite as impossibly young as the rest of her. Still, she was a kid, and you'd never think to look at her that she'd done that terrifying leg move and flipped him to the ground. Currently, she was sitting on the edge of her cell's bench, looking like she was waiting for a class to start. “So, Miss Romanoff-”

“I'm not a boy,” she said, tone managing to be both cutting and indignant.

“No, of course you're not. You're a very accomplished young woman,” Tony continued, not even trying to keep the amusement out of his voice. If anything, Romanoff looked more insulted. Not that it had ever been hard to get that expression on her face, but the older version was far more subtle.

Romanova. Natalia. Why had she changed her named to Natasha Romanoff? Clearly, whatever the reason, the twelve year old version had no idea.

“So,” Tony said, “Natalia - is that acceptable?”

“...Yes,” she allowed, and kept her hands folded in her lap where he expected her to cross her arms in front of her chest and glare at him. Tony rolled back on his feet and then forward, shifting into movement and noting as her eyes followed him.

“What do you remember about the explosion?” he asked at last, bored of waiting for her to say something. Natalia tilted her head slightly, but her eyes never left his face.

“Just the, the afterwards,” she said, slowly. “But I've never been in an explosion before, so I don't know what's normal.”

“Ah-huh. And what do you remember? Before?”

Natalia didn't reply, not straight away. She studied him as if the glass between them was a magnifying lens, glancing away only briefly before answering. “Gymnastics class. I was at school.”

“Ye-e-es, your school,” Tony said, drawing his words out. “Sounds like an interesting place.”

Natalia just stared at him, eyes wide and her expressive face blandly, sincerely, blank. She wasn't going to comment, and instead seemed to be a black hole, pulling in information. Or trying to. You're good, he'd told the Adult Romanoff once, and he could see where she'd gotten that inviting stillness from.

But hell if he was about to let a twelve year old dictate the conversation here. The school was a side project, and one he had JARVIS on.

“So, was it....you blinked and appeared? Time passing that you don't remember?”

She frowned, and then, the movement nearly unnoticeable, shook her head.

“C'mon, kiddo. Work with me here.”

Natalia eyed him warily, and then lifted her chin a little. “Why didn't you stop when I was pointing the gun at you?”

Tony raised his eyebrows at her. A question, finally. Not particularly relevant, but - “It was empty.”

“You didn't know that.”

“Did you?”

She gave him such a duh expression, it was like she was a normal kid.

“Ask a stupid question,” Tony said then, bumping his fists together absently before snapping his fingers at her. “Gym class. Were you with anyone?”

“Why?”

“Information, sweetheart. You're a tiny spy, didn't they teach this to you already? Can't make a theory without some facts. I'd ask the others, but they haven't been trained. You have. Which makes you a valuable source of information.”

Natalia pressed her lips together and just looked at him.

And people asked him why he didn't want to settle down and have children. His robots were trying enough, and they couldn't refuse to talk to him.

“You want to go home, right, Natalia? Back with your friends?”

“I was in class, with the other students,” she said quickly. “Not the whole school, just my...my year. We were walking out, and one of my teachers called my name. So I turned. And then it's....like time passing but I don't remember it. Just...” One of her hands moved up to touch her chest over her heart, the gesture more anatomically correct than symbolic. “A feel of time passing. Then I was in the...what is it? Once something has happened? I don't know the English.”

It was curiously fascinating watching the Tiny Romanoff stumble linguistically. But a passing of time meant that her brain hadn’t completely reset to the age of twelve - something older lingered.

“Aftermath,” he supplied.

“Yes. The aftermath of an explosion. Then I fainted. Is that helpful?”

That was...easy enough. Tony eyed her. “It's a start. Don't go anywhere, I'll be back later.”

She glared daggers at him – or maybe bullets. Glared bullets with a freakish accuracy that he could feel in the back of his head as he strolled out of the room.

Tony waited until he reached the elevator before pulling out his phone to check his messages. To check one message, a helpful little text from JARVIS saying that the operation was successful. Good. Once Tony was in San Diego, he was going to do some remote cruising of Natasha Romanoff's file and find out exactly what SHIELD wasn't telling him.

Chapter Text

The only reason Betty was on a plane to San Diego was because Bruce asked her help in fixing an accident. Otherwise, she'd have stayed with Dr. Morse studying the Chitauri's cellular make up. It was pioneering work (genuine xenobiological specimens!), not to mention an honour to work with Bobbi, and the last time she and Bruce worked on anything, it had ended...

Badly.

At least the project on the aliens was about understanding and future defence, not tinkering with human biology.

Not yet, she added to herself, but she couldn't tell if she was being cynical or just reminding herself of what humans were like. Instead, she stared out the window as San Diego International Airport rose up to greet the plane and wondered who was going to greet her at the airport. It was going to be someone SHIELD trusted, because they weren't going to risk her getting lost or kidnapped or whatever went on in their overly paranoid minds.

When she walked out of the terminal, carrying her backpack, Betty wasn't sure what she was looking for. A sign? Some agents in suits (they always looked like agents in suits, and really, SHIELD had to work on that), someone she had to pretend to know?

Bruce waved, and Betty smiled. There was nothing pretend in the way she hugged him in greeting, kissing his cheek, and there was nothing pretend in the way he held her close.

“Betty,” he said, voice quiet and almost reverent. For a moment, she just shut her eyes and breathed him in. Then she pulled back with another smile.

“Bruce. I hope I'm not pulling you away from anything too exciting?”

He smiled as they started to walk through the airport, the expression a little wider than his normal quirks of the mouth. “They can handle me taking a break.”

“Aw, so not the end of the world?” she teased, but underneath she could feel some of the tension ease as he huffed a laugh and shook his head.

“I wouldn't ask you to-” Bruce stopped himself, half-wincing as Betty raised her eyebrows. “Not the end of the world,” he finished.

There was a familiar argument already starting in her head, but she swallowed it. His protectiveness of her wasn't going to go away at this late stage; no point in arguing about hypotheticals.

“I did the preliminary reading,” Betty said instead. “Any updates I should know about?”

“You'll have more data once you're in the labs, but-”

“It's all hush-hush, I know,” she sighed. “But it is good to see you.”

“It'll be nice having someone sane around.”

“Oh, I'm the sane one, am I?”

He slanted her an amused look. “Yes. You are.”

Gosh,” Betty breathed, widening her eyes in an over-the-top show of surprise. “That'll be a change.”

Bruce huffed a laugh. “Don't let it go to your head, we still have other voices of reason.”

“Who-Yes, your team.”

“'Team',” he muttered, the quote marks audible. Well, that was going to make the project more interesting than maybe it should be. “You'll be pleased to note that we also have a driver. She is very idealistic, very new, and actually good at driving.”

Betty bumped her shoulder into his for a silent behave. “Everyone has to start somewhere.”

Bruce shrugged a little, even if he did smile back at her. “I just...they make me uneasy. Our...benefactors.”

“They're helping. At this point,” Betty said, quietly.

“Yeah.” Bruce's voice was barely audible in the airport's noise. “Let's find Ms. Jaskolski. And I'll show you around.”

– –

Phil's cell phone rang.

He didn't ignore it. He had a long, glorious moment where he dreamed that he did. He could have his dinner (reheated Indian) while watching...whatever show he'd found on cable. Something about people flinging pumpkins great distances, and god only knew he appreciated trebuchets. It was, in short, the right speed for his brain after a week of dealing with INTERPOL and Accounting.

But his phone was ringing, and it didn't matter that it was his personal one instead of work, he'd been an agent for too many decades to ignore it.

“Clint,” he said after he picked up.

“Hey,” Clint replied. No darlings, no dearests, no love-of-my-lifes; Phil put his dinner to one side. “Uh.” There was rustling over the phone.

“What happened?”

Clint didn't reply for a bit too long, and the only sound was his breathing. “We're back from a mission,” he finally said. “Avengers included, and, uh. There was a thing. Nat's...she's okay. But. It's...turned her back into a twelve year old. Uh, completely.”

“...What's the outlook?” Phil asked, because he was a professional at dealing with weird shit, and asking questions gained an agent intel until their brain started working again. It was better than asking, 'What', anyway.

There was a shift in Clint's breathing that might, in another time and place, have been translated as a laugh. “They've got Stark and Banner on it. Our guys, too. But they're bringing in Banner's old partner. And we're keeping an eye on her.”

Since Dr. Elizabeth Ross wasn't any trouble unless somebody threatened Banner, Phil assumed the 'her' in question was the agent currently back under the drinking limit.

(A drink sounded nice.)

“Well, we look after our own,” Phil said, wishing that he was speaking to his friend in person. In person he'd be able to read Clint far more accurately, which meant he'd be less likely to say the wrong thing and make him clam up.

“Yeah,” Clint replied, the word more filler than agreement. “I asked if she wanted any books while she was stuck under observation.”

“And she said yes?”

Now Clint almost chuckled. “She's still Nat.”

“Ask a stupid question, then. She ask for any in particular?”

“I think...she thinks it's all an Evil American Capitalist Plot, and if she actually has a preference, she's letting down the Revolution. Or some shit. So no.” There was a question underneath Clint's words and that, at least, was something Phil could help with from New York.

“Some of her linguistics books should be politically neutral enough for her.”

“...I have no idea which ones are okay for a twelve-year-old genius.”

“You can run the titles by me? I've got nephews.”

“Yeah. That's a good idea. And some fiction? I mean, she's...a kid.”

“Maybe some of her sci-fi ones? I know she has some Arthur C. Clarke...2010, at least.”

“Okay.” Clint was sounding bemused now, instead of lost, so Phil counted it as a win.

“Did you want to run through some titles now, or just-”

“No.” The word was sharp; the next ones were deliberately moderate. “Her books are in her study, and I don't- You know, my couch is pretty comfortable. The books aren't going anywhere.”

Phil didn't believe the sentiment of the couch sentence at all (even though it was true, Clint had a damn nice couch), but at least now he knew where the man was. Home. Home was good.

“Sure,” he said, easily. “Just email them or text them.” He didn't ask, how are you? because there was no faster way to get Clint to shut down when he was stressed out like this. And this wasn't his case, wasn't his project, cell phones weren't the most secure communication devices on the planet, and there were so many things Phil didn't know-

“So,” Clint said, voice intentionally casual, “getting up to much trouble?”

“Enough that Darcy is threatening me with decaffeinated coffee,” he replied, letting the fond exasperation colour his voice.

“Minions,” Clint was being overly solemn now, “can be more trouble than they are worth.”

“Minions are a token of seniority and respect, and should be valued as such. And watched, carefully, in case they plot a take-over.” As Phil talked, keeping the conversation light and about office politics and entertaining anecdotes, Clint kept silent. He bantered back, and sometimes he laughed, but mostly he just listened.

Not that Phil minded. He would provide Clint with distraction for as long as he was able, because from New York, it's all that he could do.

– –

Natasha was rapidly running out of things to do.

This had never happened to her before. She was used to having things to do. She was used to classes, and activity, and she was used to having people around her. Boredom happened only when the tasks her teachers gave her were boring.

She had memorised the dimensions of her cell, and the dimensions of the room beyond. She worked out the theoretical properties of the other cells based on the dimensions of the brig. She had studied the guards, but if any of their shifts had repeated it'd been while she was asleep. Not exactly room in that schedule for trying to charm any of them.

She'd contemplated escape before lunch; to do so further would be very silly unless she gained some more intel. She still couldn't understand how she had ended up in the future, and no one really wanted to explain anything. Maybe if that strange man came back, the one with the beard and inability to understand that guns were weapons, she'd ask him. She didn't really like him, but maybe he'd respond to flattery. Yes, next time she wouldn't be so unhelpful. She'd be polite, and curious, and all shy smiles, and he'd tell her things.

As long as he didn't ask about her sisters. Natasha had to think up better ways to pretend they weren't her sisters, because she was being very obvious about it, and her teachers were yelling at her in her head.

But it hurt to think about them, and she was...she was...

If she was home, she wouldn't be alone. She wouldn't have to sleep alone, and another night of sleeping alone made her ribs go tight. Metaphorically. It was just her brain being really dumb and making her lungs freak out and her heart hurt. Somehow.

Natasha wanted a hug from someone. Any of her sisters. Gala Asya Nadya Olya, but she needed to stop thinking about them, otherwise she was going to start crying like a baby and that wouldn't help at all. They were her comrades, but she shouldn't be so worried about them, because they were all soldiers doing their part, and it was wrong to hold them above everything, and she really, really, really needed to stop thinking about them now-

There was the sound of new boots on the floor of the brig, and Natasha sat up. The brown-skinned female agent of before was back, which made Natasha cautiously pleased. She crawled to the end of the bench and sat, waiting as her previous guard left and the female agent settled down.

“Hello,” Natasha said, pitching her voice to be quietly polite. The agent turned to look at her, eyebrows arched but expression not closed off. No real warmth, but no real coldness, either.

“Am I allowed to ask your name?” Natasha asked.

The agent half-smiled. “You can ask. But I can't answer.”

“...oh. Of course.” She felt herself flushing, felt her mouth turn into a wince, and deliberately smiled back. Silly her, she tried to radiate. Silly, harmless little girl.

“Look, kid, you should try and get to sleep. Okay?”

Natasha wasn't sure if 'kid' was better than her surname, but she nodded. “Okay.” She hesitated, weighing up the pros and cons of trying to continue, and then resettled herself with a sigh. Better to be biddable now, and build it up as a strong impression, before attempting something else. The agent got up to dim the lights in the cell, and Natasha could pretend that she wasn't on a ship that flew.

But she was still sleeping alone.

There weren't four other beds with four other people. She couldn't get up and crawl into bed with Gala or Nadya if she felt scared, or upset, or anything, and she was feeling everything. She wasn't being a very good agent at all; a lack of a clear mission was no excuse.

Resolutely, Natasha shut her eyes and breathed out, trying to ignore the prickle of tears. Crying would just let the agent think that it was all getting to her, and it wasn't. She just needed to distract herself, and she'd be fine. She needed something that used her mind and didn't involve schoolwork, but that was everything. And she was going to miss the trip to Leningrad and-

Natasha paused, then started turning the idea of Leningrad over and over. Leningrad had the statue of Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman. And they'd studied the poem recently, she should remember some. If she couldn't, she was going to be very cross with herself.

There, by the billows desolate / He stood, with mighty thoughts elate,” Natasha started in her head, her lips barely moving as she mentally recited. “And gazed; but in the distance only / A sorry skiff on the broad spate / Of Neva drifted seaward, lonely. / The moss-grown miry banks with rare / Hovels were dotted here and there...

– –

“...and there,” Betty said as she finished redrawing the table on the whiteboard, and then her features settled into a familiar scowl. “We have five subjects, all regressed to the same physical and psychological juvenescent point, even though the starting points are different. So we can rule out the machine subtracting time. But why twelve?”

It'd been a while since Bruce had last heard that focused note in her voice, and he couldn't help but smile at her. “They were aiming for twenty-one?” he commented. Betty snorted, rubbing her mouth to hide her sudden smile, and he continued.

“If it was just physicality, I'd say it was reversing senescence. No, wait. It was reversing the aging process, but their minds have regressed as well. They've lost all their experience and skill, which defeats the purpose of having a younger body from when you started. So are we dealing with a machine that fulfilled its purpose, or a machine that hasn't delivered a successful test subject yet?”

Betty made a noncommittal sound as she twirled the marker between her fingers. “No, I think we're dealing with unfinished tech. I just don't understand how they've done all this. If the mechanism is intended to cause a change in senescence, while the subject retains their memories and skill sets, and all of this so quickly...I mean, if it was airborne then Agent Barton would be affected as well.”

“They all had lacerations,” Bruce said, and Betty was nodding, already opening her mouth to continue his thoughts. Oh, how he'd missed that, too.

“-so whatever the stimulant is could have been contracted through the blood. But, what...a virus, maybe?”

“Nanobots,” announced Tony, sweeping into the room as Bruce and Betty turned to face him.

“Excuse me?” Betty's voice raised on the last syllable, honestly confused.

Tony grinned. Between the brightness of his expression, the insomnia-induced circles under his eyes, and his messy hair, he looked more Mad Scientist than ever. “Nanobots. Microscopic robots.”

“I know what nanobots are,” she said sharply. Bruce knew her well enough to read that sudden wince as a self-reproach over her lack of manners rather than anything directed at Tony. Not that Tony appeared to notice either her mild loss of temper or her expression. He just kept moving through the room, gesturing for emphasis as he spoke.

“The nanobots entered through the bloodstream and interfaced with the oft-hypothesised temporal-pituitary gland, thus accessing the...maps, if you will. Imagine the body retains mental maps of its previous forms, like a back-up. Proprioception, interoception, whatever ception you like, is all stored in a...floppy disc, no, scratch that, bad tech...a secondary hard drive. When utilising the temporal-pituitary gland, A.O. could access those stored maps, and uh. Induce a reversal.” Tony brushed his nose, holding his hands out as if he'd just made the science perfectly accessible, and credible.

“...you just like robots, don't you?” Bruce said at last.

“In my defence, robots are cool.”

“It's...very fringe science,” Betty added.

“Pseudo,” Bruce corrected.

“Fringe,” she insisted, and then smiled at his expression. “What? I'm being nice.”

Tony waved his hand at them. “Hello, working hypothesis here.”

Bruce narrowed his eyes. “Working?”

“I've been down in R&D with Akbari and the machine, well, what's left of it anyway...the machine, not Akbari. Akbari is in perfect condition, but she doesn't seem to appreciate my saying so. I've noticed similarities to other tech SHIELD has stolen. Unfortunately, SHIELD's resident expert on nanotechnology is currently twelve,” he added, tone tinged with annoyance, “but we've found enough to raise questions.”

“Nanobots could work as the mechanism,” Betty mused, “but a temporal-pituitary gland? I...I'll put it down as a possibility.”

“Ringing endorsement there, Dr. Ross,” Tony said, and then he brightened again. “Before I forget, it's an honour working with you at last, Dr. Ross. Let me just say – by the way, I really must stop meeting members of your team in crisis – your work on cellular-”

“Tony,” Bruce said, mildly, as Betty flashed Tony a brilliant, pleased smile.

“I'm sure you say that to all the scientists.” There was a bit of laughter in Betty's voice, and for a moment, they could have been three normal scientists in a hotel lobby before a conference.

“Only the ones who are interesting.”

Betty shook her head a little, still smiling. “I'll let them know to refine their CBC to look for tiny little robots on the patient samples I've sent off for analysis.”

“Yeah, on that-” Tony's voice was serious enough that Bruce gave him a sharp look. “Make sure they pull up a comparison between Romanoff's blood work and the others'. She's reacting differently.”

Bruce frowned, and brought up the medical reports on the patients. “How do you mean?”

“Miss Spiderbite remembers time passing,” Tony explained. “The others don't.” He sat down on a table, and then jumped up again, flexing his fingers. “Not that she could remember anything useful, but it's something. She's the only one who has been augmented,” he added.

“Augmented?” Betty asked, the marker once again twirling in her fingers.

“Yeah, that creepy little cult Fury told us about? Experiments as well. Nothing compared to you,” he nodded his head at Bruce, “or Rogers, but it's just enough to give her an extra kick. I'll bet you that's why she remembers something.”

Betty's expression shifted, focused scientist making way for her kind heart and sense of ethics that counted on informed consent. “Cult? What cult?”

Tony waved the question off, the movement sharply dismissive. “Soviet trainee program for tiny adorable spies and assassins. Our very own Black Widow, Agent Romanoff,” he added with a glance at Betty, “was apparently one of their star pupils. The motivations are less important than their methods. So I took the liberty of finding Romanoff's physicals and various classified tests, along with Rogers', and I'm wagering there'll be some similarities. Bruce, care to add in your data? Let's test things.”

Betty was frowning. “If Romanoff has had something done to her, that could explain the variance. But then it's a question of whether the reversal has worked better on her, or worse.”

Tony's mouth turned crooked. “That’s the million dollar question. One of them,” he amended.

“And,” Bruce said, getting to his feet, “I'll get you guys some coffee.” Green tea for himself. He hadn't pulled a long night on green tea before, but he supposed working with SHIELD was a time for new and exciting experiments.

– –

It took Zhenya a moment to find her employer in the large greenhouse, but there, finally, was a familiar white-haired head bent over a pot.

“You know,” she commented in Italian as she made her careful way over, “Mendel had two full-time assistants helping him with his experiments.”

Valeri glanced up from the pea-flower she was examining with a hand-held microscope, and had the grace to look the faintest bit abashed. “I am merely tinkering, Morozova,” she replied, voice mild. “But I didn't call you here for you to comment on my hobbies.”

Zhenya inclined her head briefly in acknowledgement, and then held up the tablet in her hand. “SHIELD's Helicarrier made port in America, at San Diego.”

Valeri gently stroked the purple-and-red petals of the flower, and nodded. “I need you to get my things back.”

All things considered, it probably wasn't Zhenya's imagination that the flower leaned into the caress. She allowed herself half a second to be grateful she'd pinned back her curls before arriving at the villa, and replied. “Yes, Doctor. There's another thing.”

“Oh?”

“The machine exploded. Those caught in the blast, my source tells me, have been altered.”

Now the scientist straightened and turned around fully. “Altered?”

“The full report is here,” Zhenya said, holding out the tablet and then putting it on a bench at her boss's gesture. “But it appears they have been turned into children.”

Valeri was smiling a little, although her hazel eyes were as intent as any hunting bird's. “That is interesting. Do you have any details?”

“Names, but nothing further yet. Mostly SHIELD scientists, but one field agent.” That wasn't the relevant part, and Zhenya had enough training in delivery to wait a moment for emphasis. “She went to my school.”

Valeri arched an eyebrow, stripping her hands of their gloves before taking the tablet from Zhenya. “And it still affected her?”

“It seems that way.”

“Very interesting.” Then Valeri glanced up. “You don't have any...history with this Agent Romanoff, do you?”

She shrugged slightly, snorting. “Romanova was a little girl when I left. She was a bossy thing, showy. I wasn't surprised when later she made a name for herself on the market. But honestly? If she hadn't, I would have forgotten about her.”

“Good. I'll need to talk to the others before we proceed further, but I want you to start thinking about how you'll go about this.”

That got a sharp grin; being professional didn't mean that she couldn't enjoy a good challenge. “Already have.”

“Of course you have.” Valeri's voice was fond. “Make sure you eat, mm? Dismissed.”

Turning on her heel, Zhenya left the greenhouse with a spring in her step. She was back in the fresh sea-air, and once A.O. finished bickering about objectives, she'd have an interesting mission. Still, she was sure to slip her alias back on before returning up the path to Valeri's villa and encountering the housekeeper. Gina the PA fit like a comfortable jacket, and having a challenge was no excuse not to be professional.

It was one of many lessons the Red Room had taught her.