Anndddddd I've had this for so long on my compute I finally finished it and man, it is done.
They don't quite understand how it happens.
She goes missing. Tony stops sleeping.
S.H.I.E.L.D had sent her to gather surveillance of some form of unusual activity up in Canada. She had left at three in the morning with nothing more than a duffle bag containing a change of clothes, a small stash of weaponry and a single lone picture of Tony tucked in the pocket of the bag itself.
Eight hours after she left, a message was delivered to the tower explaining that Natasha was MIA and S.H.I.E.L.D was doing everything they could to find her.
Tony stopped sleeping.
For exactly two weeks, he's hacking into governments and trying to find a mere part of her existence warped in some coding lodged within an orbiting satellite. His fingers burn and after two weeks everything looks blurred and skewed. That's when Thor brings him a cup of coffee, but he doesn't really understand that it's decaf and there's something in it but once Thor pulls him out of his computer chair he kind of catches on.
(clever bastard, to be perfectly honest.)
After that, he stops accepting drinks from the clever bastard.
Almost a month afterwards, they receive another message.
While the rest of the group is sprinting for the jet, gathering up weapons and starting the humming engines, he's already half ways across the world.
He rockets straight through Europe, and watches Russia unfold beneath him. Somewhere in his shadow is the acquired family, flying tense and with lurching urge.
When they find her, she's not really Natasha.
You see, she is Natasha. Shrunken and deaged and transformed into a child. She doesn't recognize any of them, shrinking back in terror from the man dressed like America who tries to coax her closer. The man with the bow and loud movements makes her shrink away, the way he watches her with heavy eyes. She flinches from the roars of the beast tearing apart the science labs and prisons (and hell).
It's Thor that manages to get her to come close.
He speaks to her softly in Russian, hands outstretched and somewhere his hammer hides. His form is massive compared to the sheer thinness that is Natasha. She babbles back with raw words and a frightened expression, and Tony is trying so hard not to just break apart right here.
Her resolve is weakening. Anyone can see that.
Tony is numb, watching the starved child stagger forward. She steps awkwardly, nearly collapsing after putting weight on her left leg. It's swollen and nasty, and he just wants to gather her up in his arms and hold on tight and fix her.
But he's the man dressed in wires and metal, and she cringes away.
It makes his insides burn in ways he doesn't understand.
Thor takes her gently, casting a look at Tony carefully. She's struggling slightly in his arms, trying to escape his careful grip.
"We need to go." His voice is raw beneath his mask, and everyone is watching him with a mixture of sympathy and fear. The building is shaking and rumbling, and the Hulk is released and angry and oh so very eager to smash things.
Tony wants to hit something.
But first, he must fix the small little girl who is no longer his Natasha.
He's alone in his room, leafing through a book that she had tucked beneath the mattress one night. 'Alice In Wonderland' is scrawled on the dark blue cover, with a collection of symbols like a heart and the spade. The entire book is madness, words laced with riddles and strange delusions.
A knock emerges.
"Who is it," he smirks
He knows exactly who it is. The knock itself is quiet but firm. Natasha is beyond his door, waiting for him to unlock it because picking the lock is quite rude.
"Stark," the voice is smooth as it creeps through the door.
He's slipping the book back beneath the mattress, wondering how long it will take her to realize this hiding spot has been discovered. "Stark who?" She hides books everywhere around the tower, hoping the rest don't notice her hobbies.
There's a slight pause, and he can hear her smirk.
He nearly breaks his neck trying to get to that damn door.
(the door swings open and she's trying to keep her cool mask as she stands before him fully clothed. He's resolved to fix this)
Clint is the one that gets the harness on her. She's relatively calm in Thor's arms, allowing him to carry her all the way to the jet without a single Russian word. Clint's whispering to the rest of them through the com units, trying to pass along important parts of her history.
"She never learned English until she was fifteen. She looks like she's maybe ten now. Which is bad. She was tortured and experimented on for the first five years of her life with the Red Rooms. Things will set her off. And when she goes off, she goes off bad. Like surprise party bad."
The infamous surprise party.
(A few S.H.I.E.L.D agents discovered her birthday by hacking her files, and decided to throw her a surprise party to welcome her into the ranks of her new group. The party began with a dark room and twelve hidden bodies, and ended with a trip to the medic, eight bodies suffering bullet wounds.)
(the party became a warning)
(Natasha does not like surprises.)
There's one more piece of her history.
Clint's voice is bitter, and Tony can feel rage coursing through his veins. "She was six when they started to rape her."
He doesn't know everything of Natasha. He knows the way she smiles, and how she laughs. He knows how she hides books around the tower, something so personal she's terrified for someone to discover and bring to light. He knows how riding elevators up and down calms her. He knows her quirks, and he dislikes.
He knows bits and pieces of her past. He knows she suffers trauma. PTSD. Her back should be smoothed and unmarked, rather than torn up from lashings and that the straight little scars all the way up her spine should not be there.
He knows she suffered things. She doesn't tell him, though. She doesn't have to. Natasha is calm and controlled. She soothes down the turmoil and pain. Forces it to be steady when it's really raging.
Now, though. Everything is different here.
Things are raw.
When Thor places her down in a seat on the jet and tries to do the harness up, she panics. She punches him in the face by reflex, trying to push against him wildly. Her hit did nothing, but caused him to back away by impulse. She watched them with large eyes, trembling in the large seat.
Clint kneeled down beside her, giving her space. Slowly he took out a cube from his bag, a small rubix cube. She watched him twist the colours around again and again, scrambling up the pattern and order before he handed it slowly to her. "You have to twist the colours around, and make them all match up. Like this, see?"
She began to expertly twist it, biting her lip and narrowing her eyes. Within moments the cube was handed back, colours assorted properly. Clint smiled at her warmly, and reached over to mess her hair up. She flinched at first, before relenting to his touch. "Good job, kiddo."
Natasha doesn't understand his words but she gives him a hesitant smile.
Suddenly her harness was done up properly and secure, and she still hadn't noticed. He handed the cube back again, messing it up once again.
She blinked at him, before setting back to work.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
She was tired. Hungry. Dirty.
Despite this, she refused to sleep. Refused to eat. Refused to be placed in the tub of warm water.
Thor was slowly pulling out answers out of her. Each word she gave, the more grey his face became
"They would leave her in a tub of freezing water for hours to test her reactions. Then they'd throw her in hot water again, before switching all over again." Thor frowned, his hands clenching into angry fists. "I want these people dead."
Tony can taste the ozone.
In the end, Tony grabs her easily. His hands lock around her waist and settle her down on his hip. She startles, trying to push away from him before giving into his hold. He carries her up to his bedroom, into his massive bathroom where he sets her down on top of the counter. He works at filling the tubs, keeping a hand constantly in the water while he takes quietly to her.
Clint had spoken to her in English, and she hadn't understood a single word of what he had said. What she had managed to comprehend was the mere fact that Clint was speaking softly and gently. He wasn't threatening her. Wasn't going to hurt her.
He's explaining some project he had in the works, trying to work past atomic levels and design something new and better than ever before. She's watching his, small little hands clenched to the edge of the counter, eyes glued to his moving form.
He easily snatches her into his arms, wrestling her brittle and tired form into the elevator and all the way up to his room. She's silent, nothing but terrified eyes and frantic movements that try to topple herself out of his strong grip.
(he can't let go)
Her fists are bloody.
The punching bag is in shreds.
The damage is worse than what Steve had ever managed, and she's still fighting him despite the fact that she's struggling to breathe through the panic attack that had knocked her to her knees.
"For God's sake, Natasha, breathe." He pleaded, setting her down on the elevator's floor. She pulled away, skin pale and eyes wide and lungs burning.
Finally after long minutes she begins to calm, her hands gripping his until he thinks she is grinding his bone to dust. (he doesn't really care.)
They ride the elevator all night, her eyes watching him carefully. They just rise up and down, constantly drifting.
He can taste ink and smoke.
He lets her test the water herself, dipping a finger in hesitantly. Once she's sure she won't be drowning in a vat of burning water or frigid temperatures, she allows him to dunk her in completely clothed.
(completely clothed means wearing an oversized set of scrubs that fall down to her knees, and he doesn't have the nerve tonight to undress her as a child.)
(it just seems utterly wrong)
They sit in the bathroom for over an hour until a chill sets into the soaking wet girl and Tony lifts her out and dries her off with a fluffy towel. (the very ones Natasha used to tease, eyeing the sheer amount of fluffiness with slight distrust.)
Somehow she ends up in one of his ACDC shirts, mimicking the size and fit of the scrubs before. He takes a lighter and burns the scrubs carefully, watching it transform into flames. Natasha smiles bitterly, watching with wide eyes that are burning with hopes and everything ever taken away from her.
He coaxes her into bed, and tucks her in tightly. He'd considered her old room, but the sheer amount of weaponry squirreled away within the room frightens him. She doesn't really fall asleep, wired by anxiety and this idea of a new world.
He reads Great Gatsby to her. Her favourite book, tucked beneath his dresser. He spends the night coaxing her to sleep with a world of lights and parties and silly little people who don't understand what love is.
(she dreams of bright lights and dark corners)
(he dreams of green lights)
He finds To Kill a Mockingbird taped to the bottom of her bedside table by sheer accident. He discovered Anne of Green Gables tucked inside a pocket of her trench coat. He also found several guns and twelves knives but that doesn't really matter, because that's what he figured he would find.
He doesn't confront her about this hobby. He figures she keeps it as a secret to ensure no one can take it away from her.
He gets it.
He hates it of course, but he gets it.
Thor stretched her down on the couch, her leg bandaged and done up against her will. Just like the broken ribs, and the raw cuts all over her back. Natasha doesn't want them touching her. She tries to resist, despite the sharp pains that make her gasp.
(It had been Steve who held her down while Bruce set to work and Tony who made funny faces at her until she managed to give him a watery smile.)
Steve finds her at one in the morning in the training room. He doesn't even bother to try and understand how she snuck past with her crutches the security of the room, or even Tony whom had taken up guard around her. He just smiles at her lightly, watching her wobble about on her bad leg, trying to step into ballet positions.
He comes up to her cautiously with his hands outstretched. She watches him with wide eyes that glitter in the shadows, and he hates the way she flinches at his touch.
Steve lifts her up so she's standing on his feet, her hands locked on his waist. "There was a girl back home you remind me a lot of." He's rocking with her to an imaginary song.
After a couple minutes she starts to laugh.
Natasha smiles at him.
No one knows Russian.
Bruce knows French and English, along with various bits and pieces of Spanish. Steve knows bare bones German, and Clint's language skills are nearly nonexistent. Tony could never understand anything beyond French, claiming that's why he hired Pepper.
Thor has allspeak, making him the translator.
He doesn't mind, because it makes her trust him just a touch more. He likes sitting next to her, telling her stories of his world and worlds he had seen. He told her stories when Loki was younger and all of the mischief they had caused together.
He likes how sometimes she'll creep just a bit closer to him, her tiny frame next to his larger one.
It takes two weeks, but it's worth it when she cautiously takes his hand lightly.
Thunder rolls across the horizon, making the bronzed sky of New York melt into shadows.
She has a grip on her gun, holding directly at Thor the moment he enters the training room. Her eyes look black, her entire existence fading away into the Black Widow.
"Lady Natasha," he carefully lifts his hands up in surrender. "It'll be alright."
The bullet won't do much, to be honest. He just doesn't understand why she's no longer herself, but rather a dark reflection.
They stand like that for nearly an hour, thunder roaring and lightning cracking the sky. She keeps the gun leveled at his skull. He doesn't try to talk her down, but rather waits. Waits for the storm to slowly leave, waits for the Black Widow to dissolve.
When she does the gun drops loudly.
"I think I've figured it out." Bruce informs Tony tightly, bent over a desk covered in formulas and equations. "They injected her with a series of chemicals, all that I think I can reverse. The deaging process was never properly maintained. Her mental state is increasingly delicate these days, because the Natasha we know is starting to emerge. I think we can break it."
There's a slight noise and they both turn around. Natasha looks at them both.
She runs around the tower wearing Tony's shirts that look oversized on her and a pair of black shorts. Pepper had purchased her a series of clothing all variously sized. Natasha however began making off with Tony's shirts whenever he wasn't looking.
She points a finger at Bruce firmly, her eyes looking surprisingly hard at him. "Good."
He remembers brief moments of changing, her leg pinned beneath wreckage. Her voice trying to sooth him, the roar of the Hulk overwhelming them both.
Natasha glares at him. "Good," she announces again, before turning away.
The change is startling.
It at first starts slowly, her mind expanding to engulf old memories and skills. Slowly her bones stretch, making her wail shrilly as she grows. Her hair darkens and slowly the little girl in unfolding into Natasha all over again.
Tony keeps a tight grip on her hand, feeling it become stronger. She nearly crushed his bones as she clamps on tightly.
Steve sits in the corner of the room, his eyes intently watching her. He doesn't dare move an inch.
Thor speaks in a tangle of words, some English and some Russian. Bruce is running his hands through her hair, and Clint is waiting in the air vents.
Tony is praying to every God he knows, and Thor gives him a strange look.
Natasha opens her eyes.
"I'm not letting you go again," Tony informs her blandly as they lie in tangled sheets together. She feels dizzy, trying to sort out the right memories from the wrong ones. "Just so you know."
Natasha ignores him, reaching out for his hand and squeezing it lightly. "I love you too," she smiles lightly at him.
He grins and pulls her closer.