The compound was eerily silent. All that space for her alone. She thought she would enjoy a bit of peace and quiet but she was restless. The others should come back soon. She had nothing to fear. The black widow had nothing to be worried about. Wanda was with Vision exploring Scotland or some place near that country. Steve was back in Wakanda for a while discussing options for Bucky Barnes’ health. Clint was back at the farm. He was probably down on his knees begging forgiveness from his wife and children. Laura would not forget that one for a long long time. Sam was back in Washington putting his house on the market and such.
Natasha had nowhere to go, nothing to do so she had stayed behind. The only other person left nearby was Stark but he kept himself away from them in his tower. As long as he was providing for them, she couldn’t care less of what he was actually doing. Unless he was making another ultron of course. He was enough under her manipulation for that not to happen ever again. She knew what she was doing.
She had just been training for a while, until it hurt everywhere and then hopped in the shower. Now she felt a bit hungry. The others surely hadn’t left the fridge empty. Anyway, she could always order food via Friday. Maybe some Chinese or Italian. She didn’t feel like cooking and wasn’t that good at it in the first place. First to the kitchen, the decision will go from there.
Suddenly she felt a prick in her neck and turned around startled. Nothing had warned her of somebody else's presence. The Black Widow had been taken by surprise. Tony was standing there, beside her, with a strange smile on his lips. Her hand automatically went to her neck. She could feel the tiny little mark the syringe had made.
“Tony? What are you doing here? What did you do to me?”
“You don’t like being stabbed in the neck with a Syringe? Stop being such a baby Romanov...” Tony answered with a certain glee that ran shivers down Natasha’s spine.
“What was it inside?”
She was trying to stay calm but really, she wanted nothing but beat the man into submission. Yes, she had done the same to him once upon a time but it had saved his life. And it was a long time ago. Holding a grudge like that was proof once again of his giant ego. For now, she would play along. Until she knew what it was all about that was.
“This?” said Tony all innocently. “Oh, just a little formula of my own. Not tested yet.”
“What does it do?”
“Well, if it worked according to my calculations, and my maths are always right you know, it should give you an accelerated experience of palladium poisoning. The symptoms and all that jazz within three days. And you know what the end results? “
“Bingo! Oh of course I will come maybe at the last hour and deliver you a little something that will slow down the process you know. But you will have to find the counter poison on your own like a big girl.”
“I’m not a scientist! You have proven your point! Undo that now!”
She was ready to attack but Tony warned her that it wouldn’t change a thing. She wouldn’t beat the solution out of him. She could try of course and as he was saying that Friday dropped the guns from the ceiling making it really clear. The AI was on her creator's side. Stark also told her that she couldn’t leave the grounds. The little spider would not spoil the game, now would she? At that he turned around and left. Natasha could hear him singing tick tack again and again. Time was already running out.
She went to the labs directly. Stark's labs were open as if to taunt her. She looked everywhere, turned everything upside down and opened every file she could find. Of course, he didn’t let the formula lie there in plain sight. If she had had time she would have looked further into certain folders. Wanda's powers for example. Ultron was another one. The spy in her knew she wouldn’t get another possibility like that ever. She didn’t want to die though. Not now, not like that.
Her body was already experiencing the first symptoms. She felt dizzy, a bit nauseous at first. Now her head was about to explode. Still, she was restless. Hours seemed to go like seconds. She still couldn’t find a thing. Her phone wasn’t working anymore. Stark technology of course so it had been easily shut down by either Friday or Stark himself. Nobody would come to help her. Natasha would have needed Bruce or Tony. She had betrayed both. They had no reason to help her.
Especially not Tony. She was betraying him on a daily basis, using him at every corner. The syringe, the report that was what Fury had wanted of her. She had no regret for a job well done. Of course, she knew what he had been doing to Stark, playing on his fears and needs to be accepted. But again, part of the job. The man had wanted to play with the big guns, he had to deal with the aftermath. Not really her problem.
He was having fun now for sure, playing with her. He had learnt her game a little too well. She certainly had underestimated him. From the get go. He had allowed for her and her team to stay in his properties, well fed and looked after but after the civil war maybe they had gone too far. That had been one betrayal too many. Stark's enemies tended to die or at least end up in jail. They had forgotten not to make an enemy of that man, so sure they knew him so well they could predict his reaction. The civil war didn’t go as planned. She couldn’t go back anyway. No need to ponder on that.
She was too tired to think properly. A nap would do her good. After. Later. She wanted to look into Bruce's lab. Or what he had left behind. His field of expertise was a lot closer to that virus and things like that than Tony's. Bruce who was god knows where now. Something she couldn't regret as well. They needed the Hulk more than Dr Banner. It was a simple calculation. Ultron needed to be stopped. Bruce was too shy to tell Tony to stop his programming. The genius was stubborn and difficult to deal with. But their little experimentation needed to be stopped now. Science wouldn't help now. They needed brute force. Once again, she had done what needed to be done. They could hate her now. They were still alive now because she had done what was right at the right time.
Bruce's handwriting was hard to decipher. Really why did all doctors have to write so badly? A long time ago she had learnt to read fast, even upside down when needed. The man was working on the serum again. He wanted to undo what he had done to himself. To create an antidote, he was trying to recreate the Original Serum. The one that gave Steve his new body and strength.
The Widow in her was still thinking about opportunities. As much as she liked Steve Rogers, more like him would be at the same time both dangerous and an asset. There was no denying that wars needed soldiers and soldiers like the Captain would go a long way securing a victory. Bruce's lab would be easier to come back to. She just needed to remember that. Metal poisoning wasn't nice to the brain. They had made some research back when Tony was suffering from it. She could already feel so many of the symptoms. The bastard knew what he was doing. Well she hoped anyway.
Tired like she had rarely been in her life, Natasha just crashed in the first bed in her way. It didn't matter if it wasn't hers. A part of her brain thought it was Barnes’ room but even that she couldn't be sure. Sleep didn't come to her. Even if she was calling for it with all she had. Her body was tired so much that moving was out of the question. Her mind seemed just to go back to her past, to the red room, to so many things she just wanted to forget. Little girls were taught how to be useful, how to survive in the worst kind of way. Nobody deserves that kind of upbringing. Those things they made her do. Most of the time, she would push the memories away but tonight they came flooding. Tears came in her eyes. Something she refused to do whatever the circumstances. Regrets were for the weak.
Natasha must have fallen asleep at some point, not that her night had brought back her energy. Her feet took her back to the labs. Where else could she find the formula and the tools to create what she needed for her antidote. The medical bay maybe. Too easy. Tony wanted her to suffer, to look for a cure that she would never find. He, then, would come to her like a knight in shining armour, first to give her a couple hours of respite and then to save her. Tony wasn't a bad man. He would not kill her without a good reason. And after all, Shield had helped save him. She was just a soldier following orders. If Stark wanted revenge, he should go after Fury. For a second, she wondered If it wasn't done already. Fury was once again nowhere to be found. Dead again. One day death would actually stick. Still, Stark wouldn't do that to her. The certainty of that statement faltered even in her mind.
The labs were good for nothing so she went into Tony's room. She wasn't bothered by discretion anymore. If she made a mess of his place, he had nobody but himself to blame. Every draw, every pocket was checked. Nothing. A sort of rage was taking her over. She yelled at the ceiling for Friday just to answer her call, to tell her a way, a clue, something! She was met with silence and that enraged her even more.
“Tony! Where are you hiding, you bastard! Come here at once and undo that shit! I won't ask you another time!” she screamed into his room.
“Not having fun, I gather” he answered quietly.
Once again, he had managed to sneak up on her. She was losing her touch, although her new illness wasn't helping at all. Tony wasn't smiling at her as she thought he would. Somehow, he seemed not to care at all of what was happening to her and that was way worse than anything. If she had been in full capacity, she would have manipulated him once more. Her super power was to pick people apart and find anything they wanted to hide. The world currency was secrets, money, gold was secondary. Stark, for a very famous person, had very little secrets. He had spent all his life in front of the cameras. Even when he was making mistakes, he owned them publicly. The Avengers were ready to hide the truth about Ultron. Of course, they would have used it against him later on. Protection wasn't cheap these days. The Avengers needed money to protect the innocents. Among other things.
“Tony, you have made your point. I understand that back then Shield had not been nice to you in your moment of need. I did what they told me to do. It was not personal.”
“Oh, but it was. And it is now. Not that you would understand, you don't do feelings. You don't know feelings.”
“I can do better! I can understand. You will teach me. You're great at that.” She sounded as desperate as she felt.
“Once upon a time, I would have loved nothing more than to spend time with you, than being friends. I trusted you. You betrayed me many times and many times I forgave you and gave you yet another chance. You know that saying, you don't know what you had until it's gone. To me, it's more I know what I'm going to get back once you'll be gone.”
“You won't let me die.”
“Because I'm a good man?”
“Because you will need to explain this. Prison would not suit you. You wouldn't last a day in there. Rhodes won't be able to protect you from that, you know it.”
“Thing is... I'm not here you see. Friday will have plenty of videos of me doing things in the tower. Security here, on the other hand, will show you alone. Your behaviour will look erratic but metal poisoning does that to people. The Avengers will find your corpse when they'll come back. An investigation will be made. Faulty canalisation, bad water. Accident happens you know.”
Tony told her to keep looking. The answer was hidden in plain sight just like it had been for him back then. He actually had been kind to her. The genius knew she wasn't a biologist or anything approaching, so the formula was already all written. And when she would have found it, Friday then would give her instructions on how to make it. The game was more than fair. He would be back tomorrow to give her a little boost. It was true he had to thank them for that, even though if Shield had not hidden everything that belonged to his father to him, he would never have gone that close to death. It hadn’t been the first time he almost died. He was like a cat with nine lives. One day, he would reach his limit and not come back. How many lives did she have?
Natasha went on searching every room. From the training floors to the medical bay. She was losing her coordination making everything harder and slower. She hated feeling so weak. Tony couldn't understand what it meant for her. It was not like one day he was good in his body and the next, weak as a baby. His Palladium poisoning had taken weeks. The man was doing superhero stuff just for the ego boost. Tomorrow, he would find something else to pass his time and spend his money on. Natasha had nothing else in her life. Quite frankly, that realisation made her sad. Clint had a family. Something she would never have. She would need to trust someone enough first. Something she never managed. Even Bruce. She had shared with him a lot more than with anybody else, except Clint. The Hulk scared her really, that part of him she couldn't fully control. Not to be in control was her biggest fear. Being in a relationship would be a vulnerability she just couldn't fathom.
Was she about to die? It was something she never really thought about. A spy could not go on a mission thinking it would be the last one. Call it superstition. She was a good agent, always taking all the precautions needed for everything to go smoothly. Natasha always had two or three moves ahead of any situation. That was why she was great at improvising because it wasn't actually improvisation. Reading people was a skill she mastered very young in order to survive.
If she had to be honest with herself, and now was the perfect time for that kind of introspection, she never really understood Tony Stark. Fury must have known she was compromised. She didn't go to this assignment like she should have. Biased as she already was, Natasha could not write a fair report. Tony Stark was wearing too many masks for her to understand him. They played him anyway. His need for a family, for validation, things they knew from his past, from when Howard Stark was a member of Shield or from when Shield tried to approach Stane. After all, they just kept on using the same techniques that Stark's godfather had been using on him for years.
They never stopped a minute to think about the harm they could do. Everything had been done for the greater good. No wonder they didn't see Hydra hiding in plain sight. Their ways were way too similar to differentiate. Natasha had not been clearing her ledger from all the blood of her red room days. It was worse than ever before.
She searched from the roof to the basement. If the floors weren't made of concrete, she would have looked under there. Thanks to her hacking skills, she really was able to look everywhere, even when it had been hard to look at the screens, even when it had been close to impossible to focus on the key to press. It was easy to realise that to create anything in those conditions had been close to a miracle. Of course, Tony was a genius so a slower brain in his case would still be better than hers. Something she would never tell him that to his face.
The sofas in the common room were actually very comfortable. The will to move seemed to have left her completely. She simply had no energy anymore. Although somewhere in her mind, she knew that she should not waste any more time sleeping, her eyes were closing themselves on their own. A couple hours would do her good. Couldn't be worse.
The nightmares were horrible. Her mind mixed her days in the red room days with the present, the Avengers with Hydra, all that with Tony at every turn. Everybody was shouting at her on how wrong she had been all along. Blood was gushing from everywhere. The smell was unbearable. She couldn't even look at it. The room she was in was rapidly filling up but the door wouldn't bulge, the windows wouldn't break. Natasha would be drowning in the blood of all her victims. Part of her thought that it was fitting. The main part just wanted to forget the past. What was done couldn't be undone after all.
Tony shook her awake. As bad as the nightmares had been, she had stayed deep in slumber. Her vision was blurry. Her body heavy. He didn't wait for her to be totally awake before stabbing her neck with a needle. It hurts like hell. The man could have been gentler or at the very least give her a warning. Stark wasn't the empathic kind. The product was working though. The dark cloud around her mind seemed to lift up quite a bit.
“Tony, please " she asked with all the emotion she was able to conjure. "I get it now. Just help me. You're a kind man. Please."
" No easy way-out little spider. You have now eight hours left. Use them well. Write your will, carry on looking, it's all up to you."
With that, the man left her again. Tony could be so stubborn sometimes. His ego was going to cost her everything. That formula was meant to be easy to find. For a genius maybe. Natasha had the skills. She just needed to think like Tony. Her profiling of him had been quite thorough. The billionaire wasn't an enigma for her. Manipulating him had been easy enough.
So, he probably had left it in some place he would find amusing. Maybe in her Widow bites. Some stupid idea about her being killed with her own weapon or something. Or in Steve uniform. Tony was a bit jealous of her closeness with the Captain. It wasn't there. Not in the falcon suit either. Tony would probably be mad when he would see the carnage that were both technologies now. She couldn't care less.
Dum-E was the first invention of the great Tony Stark. And as its name was indicating quite stupid a robot. Maybe the inventor would have thought it funny to leave the most precious piece of paper in the hand of something that probably would set it on fire just to be able to use that damn fire extinguisher. She hadn't paid attention to the bots when she searched the lab the first time around. And now, of course, it was nowhere to be found.
Time went by too quickly. The symptoms were coming back in full swing. The spy had no more idea as to where to find her salvation. If she had to die, she would do so in her room, the closest thing she had for a home in her whole life. How pathetic. Somehow fitting for a disgraceful death. A Black Widow should die on the job. Not like that.
Natasha had not been there for the past three days, always falling asleep on the nearest comfy enough spot. Now she was looking at her possession. They were few. A picture of her and Barton's children on her otherwise empty desk. A couple of books on her shelf. She had started a new Russian spying novel she would never know the end of. Never mind. They were always making the job out to be way more thrilling that it actually was.
As she was going through the pages of that book, a piece of paper fell out on the floor. Easy to find! She quickly bent down to pick it up feeling dizzy.
"Dear Natashalie. Bingo you found the holy grail! Finally. Because I'm 100% sure you looked in here last. Fun fact. There is no cure for what you have in your system because what you felt all along was your body successfully fighting it on its own. Tomorrow you'll be as good as new. Did you enjoy my little game? I guess not. Question is, and that is the important part here, did you learn something? I doubt it a little. Don't provoke any other play... Tony Fucking Stark. "
She had learned enough for a lifetime and the next.