"He is aware, in a distant part of his mind, that there are worse things that can be done to him."
Characters (this chapter): Natasha Romanoff, Tony Stark, Bucky Barnes, OCs
Content Warnings: None
He is aware, in a distant part of his mind, that there are worse things that can be done to him. Permanent damage can be done to his body. Limbs, taken and replaced. He can be reprogrammed, and the process will set back his training by weeks, or months. There are more painful methods that can be used to teach him this lesson, electric shocks to his nervous system or elixirs that burn like acid as they circulate in his blood stream. He can be completely decommissioned, and his body will never be found.
It does not matter. Those options are not present.
He is lowered, and he is proud that he does not flinch, though it would not matter. He doesn't struggle, because he knows that the outcome is inevitable. He will be overpowered. There are too many guards, and he is drugged and injured, and the building will self-destruct before he is allowed to escape from his handlers' control. The ladder descends slowly, and he hangs on to the coarse, wooden rungs until his feet touch the bottom.
He knows it will be unpleasant to look up; he does anyway. The vertigo, the nausea, the creeping, aching fear that strikes him just behind his eyes overtakes him, but he can't relinquish this last gasp of light before the cover is sealed and he is left in darkness.
The hole is narrow, and not very deep. He knows, because he is breathing and the air isn't thin and he knows that if they wanted to kill him he knows that he would die conspicuously, in front of the others, he would be an example, so he knows that there is air, that there is enough, but he feels that there is a terrible, a crushing, a pressure, and it's like a fist closing around his lungs, and it burns like a fire every time he tries to breathe. He paces. There is not far to go. He paces again. The meager length of the cell. The pit. He licks his lips. He closes his eyes. He opens them again. It doesn't make a difference. He can't see anything.
He feels the muscles in his stomach jerking, and he goes to his knees, heaving, but his stomach is empty. His throat fills with bile, and he can't keep it down, and soon enough he has the acrid stench of stomach acid for company in the empty heart of the Red Room.
There's no use counting. Minutes. He tries, knowing there is no point, no one is listening, but he doesn't know when it's supposed to end. That's the point. He's supposed to spend his time in there waiting, and waiting. And waiting. And he knows that is the point. He understands that he is supposed to feel as if he has been forgotten by the world, as if there will never be an end to it, as if he does not exist, as if the world is only that little space, that nothing, that thin emptiness, and that no one is thinking of him, because he does not exist at all. He knows he is being made to feel these things, but he feels them anyway. He can't help it. It is an effective punishment. He knows that when he exits the cell, when he is allowed to exist again, anything outside the hole will feel like a blessing. He does not want to understand this, but he does.
He speaks to himself. At first, the sounds is comforting, but as his voice grows ragged and the words start to come out in German and Russian and English and French and he stops understanding what they all mean, it is no longer a comfort to know that he is clever.
Cleverness doesn't mean anything when there is no time and no one and no thing. He attempts to scale the wall, even though he knows this will be impossible. They are rough and coarse but they are solid, with nothing to grip, and though the cell is narrow, it is long enough that he will not be able to suspend his body in the air between the walls. Trying is frustrating, but standing still hurts, and pacing makes his heartbeat manic and his breath comes short and he doesn't know what else to do and he knows this is the point.
Dark and thin and raw and alone.
There is no hope down there. That is the intention. You are left alone until you forget what it means to hope. Food is delivered through a hole in the ceiling, but it never arrives with light, and it is always hard and stale and there is no flavor, it just tastes like dust. Somehow, there is enough water in it to sustain him, though his lips crack as they grow parched.
He knows that this is the point.
South Station is not heavily policed, but there are cameras everywhere. She tucks her hair behind her ears, obscuring it with a cap and hood, waiting until all of the passengers have retrieved their belongings before she slips out of the bus. Waiting until the driver enters the station, she hoists her bag over her shoulder and walks into the lobby with a group of passengers arriving from Philadelphia.
Natasha knows without checking that she has an hour before the bus bound for New York. She uses the time to relieve herself in the restroom, and purchase a breakfast sandwich. The over-lit building stings her light-sensitive eyes.
She boards the bus without incident. The fake name she gave must not have drawn anyone's attention. She'd used an American Express gift card to make the purchase, and she thinks she will be able to use it a few more times before a pattern emerges and it becomes unsafe. She will purchase more when she arrives in New York.
The wireless connection on the bus is enough to work with. Natasha chooses the seat closest to the bus restroom. She pulls out her laptop, leaving her bag on the seat next to her. No one tries to sit beside her. She downloads all the files she needs before the bus leaves the station, and spends the next five and a half hours making the necessary plans. It will be difficult, but she can accomplish everything she needs without outside assistance.
New York is quiet when she disembarks. It is early. She has decided to visit her assets on the East Side before the necessary procedure with Tony Stark. She takes a cab.
They are setting up for their morning workout when she arrives. She waves at Antonio and lets him hug her when she reaches the park. He pats her shoulder, too, the greeting he usually reserves for his masculine acquaintances. She assumes this is because he was sufficiently impressed by her skills the last time she worked out with them.
He wants to show her photos of his daughter, and she looks at them, making noises she'd heard Pepper Potts making once in similar circumstances. The child is small, but her expressions are active and engaged, suggesting advanced intellectual capacity. She tells Antonio this, and he laughs, talking about the television shows the child watches, and a propensity for using words that seem funny to him, "It's some four-point SAT shit". This is all customary. It is a relief when the others arrive. She knows most of them already, and those that are new seem to have heard of her reputation, and are not surprised that she intends to join them.
They leave their bags underneath a cluster of benches, and start with a run to warm up. The highway is flickering to life on her right, and she watches the cars passing them without concern. In the center of the group, she is virtually invisible, just another sweaty body. She's light-skinned, but she's wearing dark grays and blacks, and the speed of the cars, will make it impossible for the drivers to distinguish between her and the other runners.
It's brisk, and though running has never been a priority for her, it is good to warm up after the cramped hours she'd spent in the busses.
The weight training is what she came for. There is a competitive air among the group, but she ignores it in favor of recalibrating her muscles. The injury she sustained while fighting the Winter Soldier on the bridge has healed, but constant conditioning is essential to maintaining the quality of her strength. Antonio is no longer impressed by her abilities, and he is a decent spotting partner, but she feels others in the group staring at her as she lifts. The distraction is causing them to perform fewer repetitions in their own workouts. She rolls her eyes, and it makes Antonio laugh.
"They're just not used to a chick who can bench press them out of business."
She snorts, and keeps lifting. The sweat coating her skin is familiar, but it does not muster any recollections. She chose to work out with this group because their routine was so vastly different from anything she had ever known before. They work the same muscles, but their demeanor is nothing like her previous trainers', and the gymnastic feats they perform on the bars are less about grace and discipline than they are about showmanship. It is not useful for combat, but that is not the purpose of exercise. The purpose is to remain fit. And working with a group of amateur acrobats means she can do so without the remaining unsorted memories diverting her attention when she does not need them.
After a few hours, she has paid enough attention to all of her major muscular groups, and made enough casual conversation with Antonio and the others to continue their beneficial relationship. One of the men offers to get her a cab, but she defers, lying about taking the train, knowing she will be able to catch a cab faster than he can.
Tony, once he tears himself away from his latest mechanical infatuation, is excited and confused to see her.
"This is weird. Normal visitors come through the front door. And Jarvis usually says something. Jarvis, what the hell buddy, do I need to invest in a dog?"
"My apologies sir. Agent Romanoff has proven herself to be very evasive. I was not on the alert for a home invasion because she has been classified as a friend-"
"Well, we'll have to fix that then, won't we?" Tony's nose is twitching as he speaks. "Not the friend thing, the home invasion thing. Friends don't let friends invade their homes without making it challenging, am I right?"
Stark will keep talking until he dies. She doesn't need to fill the spaces in between his words, because he's already constructing the conversation for her.
"Let's see. You're here because you want to arrest me? No, that's not it. I haven't done anything illegal yet. And anyway you'd be severely outgunned, and I get the feeling you're a planner. We already know you're not here to spy on me, because we know how well that worked out for you last time-"
"It worked out very well for her, actually-"
"Maybe you're here to replace Jarvis!" Tony snaps. "I think he talks too much, personality's not as hip as it was ten years ago. It's time for a change."
She smiles as he removes his work gloves, stepping around the clutter and wreckage adorning his workroom to shake her hand.
"Oh wait, no. There's something terrifying and all-powerful threatening the planet. Yeah, that's it you have that look in your eye, the world is about to be destroyed and you really need me to come to the rescue and save it. I knew it, you know my horoscope warned me about this and I am so glad I took it seriously-"
"I need a favor."
That actually silences him for a second, and he has to blink through his confusion.
"You're asking me for a favor?"
She shrugs one shoulder.
"I need a time-released estrogen formula, blood tests, an MRI, and a set of stirrups." Watching him, she can tell he's got everything she needs. "For a manual exam."
He barely catches that last bit.
"Sure. Okay. I can do all that." His head rocks from side to side. "Well, most of it. Hormones aren't really my wheelhouse, I'm more of a 'machines go boom' kind of guy, you should really-"
"I know." She sighs. "All you have to do is replicate a sample. That's all. Nothing extra."
He takes a deep breath, letting the air fill up his cheeks as he exhales slowly.
"Do I get to find out what this is all about?"
Her left eyebrow twitches.
"If you do the MRI, you'll see."
He rubs his palms together.
"Element of surprise! Duh. What am I scanning?"
Thanks for reading everyone! Sorry to start the chapter out on such a bummer. We'll see more of Tony soon?