A/N: This story is COMPLETELY UNRELATED to The Ninja Illuminati, but some premises are similar. Do not assume that the backstory that Karin relates here is the same as the one present in Ninja Illuminati, because it isn't. I've had people do that with other fics before (mainly trying to decide without my approval that GC was a prequel to RaH), even when certain key factors (like major ships) were completely different.
Her eyes are black.
Tony doesn't realize this until after the Vanko situation is long over, and SHIELD is doing clean-up.
But her eyes are black now.
'Natalie Rushman' looks away from the compact she's using to examine a miniscule cut near her hairline, and quirks and all-too-perfect eyebrow at him. "Excuse me?"
"Your eyes. Weren't they green?"
Something in her expression sours. "Contacts."
Tony knows the signs of someone trying to shut down all conversation, but this woman infiltrated his life and, funnily enough, also saved it. It only takes a second to decide which course of action to take. "Yeah? Why's that?"
"Reasons." She says, turning back to her compact.
"I gotta say, you look great either way."
"Thanks." She rolls the very eyes they're talking about.
"The black don't really look your color, but that might just be because I'm used to the green." He presses.
"Yeah, well, they were my husband's." She says, instead of anything that makes sense.
Tony takes a moment to parse that, because he really doesn't like the implications of his first interpretation of the sentence. Unfortunately, he can't think of anything that isn't equally unnerving. "Your eyes were your husband's?"
"Like, you took them out of his head and stuck them in your own?" Tony asks, desperately searching for clarification that he is, for once, wrong.
"That's a really ugly way of putting it, but essentially, yes. He was dying, and I wasn't, and he asked that I take them." She pulls out a small package, and when she opens it, there's a brand new pair of green contacts.
"Uh-huh. That's, uh, normal for you?" Tony asks, because eyes as a dying gift is… it's weird, but not as horrifying as whatever he was imagining.
She stops for a moment and manicured fingernails tap against a leather-clad knee. "Not for me, but it wasn't entirely unheard of in his family. Eyes carried power, for them."
She gets up and nods at him, then turns and heads for the bathroom, contacts in hand. "Try not to ask too many questions, Stark. Some of them will only lead to trouble."
"One more?" He asks with a charming grin, and he's sure she knows that he'll ask no matter what she says. "Does that mean they were green before?"
She actually laughs at that. "The exact opposite. For reasons I also don't feel like getting into, my eyes were red. Green is just what people question the least."
He runs into her again when Loki is a problem, on a quinjet in Germany. Her grip on the wheel of the jet is white-knuckled, but her face is calm and empty.
"—not overly fond of what follows." Loki says in response to Cap's little quip, and the entire jet shudders as something lands on it.
That something opens the jet's doors from the outside, grabs Loki, and just fucks right off.
Tony makes sure he gets his requisite one-liner in before he fucks off as well, but he doesn't miss the expression on Natali—Natash—Widow's face. He clicks the comms on for the few seconds he's in the air as he follows the unknown and Loki to the ground. "You know these guys, Natashalie?"
"Don't call me that, and… not really. But I've met so-called gods before. It's never fun."
The conversation ends there as Tony slams into the unknown and off a cliff.
He gets the feeling he just missed a really great line.
"Love the new look, Natashalie. Especially the eyes." Tony says once they're all in the Helicarrier and relatively fresh and clean, and he's complimented Banner on the absolutely awesome and mildly terrifying fact that he can turn into a giant green rage monster. Tony is going to focus on the awesome factor, because the terrifying part probably makes Bruce sad.
"Thanks, they were a gift." She drawls instead of rising to the bait.
"Is that some reference, or…?" Cap trails off, looking around like he's hoping someone will help him.
"More of an inside joke." She answers, pulling herself up to lean forward on the table, shoulders hunching as she rests all her weight on her elbows. "Stark, I believe you were about to get on Dr. Banner's nerves with science?"
"I don't get on people's nerves," Tony scoffs, ignoring the disbelieving noises the people around him make. "But we already covered the basics."
"Let's start with that stick of his. It may be magical, but it works an awful lot like a HYDRA weapon," Cap says.
"I don't know about that, but it is powered by the cube. And I'd like to know how Loki used it to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys."
"Monkeys? I do not understand."
"I do! I understood that reference."
Tony rolls his eyes, because that kind of enthusiasm is—because that kind of ignorance is—because it's Cap. Fine. He rolls his eyes because it's Cap, and every time he does something, the not-so-tiny part of Tony that's still bitter about Howard wants to find extra reasons to hate him.
"It's not magic," the Widow says, getting them back on track. "Close, but no cigar. That's… that's tech. Pretty tech with shiny lights and distracting effects, but still tech."
"You've seen something like this before?" Tony asks, and if his gaze focuses on her eyes, trying to see the hint of black behind green lenses, it can only be a good thing.
"This in particular, no. Similar stuff, though. Not similar enough, in terms of energy type for me to track the Tesseract, though, which is annoying. The mind control, though, is relatively familiar." Her fingers go tap-tap-tapping against her upper arm. "Scorpion seals, we called them. They worked differently, though, and they weren't this fast or… elegant."
"Do you think your old teacher would know?" Fury demands, and wow, Tony actually has no idea what's going on.
"Know? Probably not. Have a guess or be interested enough to get involved… potentially." She purses her lips. "He's hard to predict, but he's smart enough that having him on our side would be preferable to not."
"A man like that i—"
"Person." She corrects.
Fury starts over. "A person like that isn't one I want on my ship. I've got enough trouble with just Stark."
"Hey," Tony puts a hand over his heart. "You don't want me here?"
"You don't follow orders." Fury says, mouth a grim line. "Don't need more of that on board than I already have."
And if his good eye flicks over Steve and Thor as he says that, Tony is just barely polite enough to pretend not to notice.
Tony can't help but keep an eye on Loki's cage, when he and Bruce go off to the lab. It's just a camera and audio feed, but it picks up the moment that the Widow makes her way in.
"There's not many people who can sneak up on me."
"But you figured I'd come."
"I hoped." Loki smiles, and it's just as mirthless as Tony expects it to be. "It is, after all, a great honor to encounter the Lady of the Whirlpools."
Tony can't see the Widow's face from here. He wishes he could. Bruce crowds in next to him, and they exchange glances.
"Haven't heard that name in a while."
"Barton told me quite a lot. I asked him about you, to tell me everything, to go backwards, from now to the beginning. It took me longer than it should have, perhaps, to realize that he was speaking of far too many events for a human lifespan."
"That's just how it goes sometimes." She says.
"I suppose it is." Loki stalks closer to the glass. "Tell me, why do you join these humans? You could rule this planet if you so chose."
"By your side?" She scoffs.
"Hardly. I remember your kind. You and your teacher may be the sole survivors, but you were great, once."
"I'm not interested in ruling from the top. It's a boring place to be." She shifts her weight, but Tony still can't see her face in any of the cameras. "Been there, done that. Left for a reason."
"I thought that reason was the fires."
"Who did you think set them?"
"Mm. Perhaps. But I survived the resurrection of Kaguya and the momentary existence of the Shinju, a manifestation of the very Yggdrassil your people claim keeps the worlds intact. I survived the very destruction of the Hidden Continent. What makes you think I won't survive you?" She takes a step closer to the glass. "I'm sure whoever sent you is—"
"I SENT MYSELF." Loki roars, slamming a hand against the glass.
She doesn't flinch.
"That so?" Her fingers go tap-tap-tapping against the railing around the cage as she starts walking to the side, circling it. "You know, that's what Madara thought, too."
"A pathetic man, long dead."
"His power lives on. His family line… you know that power. You've seen it."
"And yet you abandoned them." Loki smiles, something pained in it, even in the camera's subpar quality. "A mother disgusted enough by her own children to leave forever."
"Don't project, it's unbecoming. My children were long grown when I left. Long dead when I cut most ties, and even so, the descendants…" She shakes her head. "Sole survivors is a bit of a poetic way to put it. Of the Hidden Continent, perhaps. Of the clans and powers… well, you'll find resistance in all kinds of places, if you go hunting for it."
"Is that a hint?"
"A warning." The tap-tap-tapping stops.
"I have an army, one that I doubt even one of your powers would be able to stop."
"Would you like me to call you a monster? If you've listened to Barton, then you know I've seen worse than the ice under your skin."
"You're unbearably naïve if you think I can't tell." She laughs. "And again; that won't be the thing that makes you a monster, if you're as dead set on becoming one as you think you are."
"Who would choose to—" It has the air of a rhetorical question, but she cuts him off with an actual answer before he can finish even that.
"You never met Kabuto." She tilts her head. "All this focus on monsters… are you bringing an army of them to our doorstep, then?"
"Why would I?" Loki grins. "You brought your own."
"So you mean to unleash the Hulk."
There's a half-moment before Loki answers, just too long to be right. "Yes."
There's a fragile silence, and then the Widow makes a contemplative noise. "Well, would you look at that. You're lying. At least mostly. That's interesting."
"I am n—"
"I'll be seeing you."
Tony doesn't know what to think.
About any of this.
Bruce is the one that confronts her when she shows up in the middle of their talk with Fury.
"Did you know about this?"
"You wanna think about removing yourself from this environment, Doctor?" She asks, instead of addressing the question.
"I was in Calcutta. I was pretty well-removed." He counters.
"Loki's manipulating you."
"And you've been doing what, exactly?"
"I'm asking for your sake, Doctor, not ours." She says, which is actually a little surprising until Tony remembers that whole conversation with Loki.
"Yeah, I'm gonna have to step in here." Tony says, actually stepping in between them. "What the hell was that whole thing with Green&Gold down there?"
"He knows some things I normally try to pretend never happened." She shrugs. "Fury knows what's going on, and that's all you need to know."
"Right, because I'm about to trust him with anything." Bruce says, and then pulls the conversation back on track to the HYDRA weapons. Tony manages to keep out of it long enough for Fury, Thor, Steve and Bruce to talk, but then has to jump back in, because—
"Nuclear deterrent. 'Cause that always calms everything right down."
This does lead to an argument that manages to get all six of them involved. It goes about as well as Tony expects, except for the fact that the Widow starts massaging her temples instead of actually talking after just one or two lines. His distraction isn't enough for even Steve to notice, though, even as they're nose to nose and calling each other names, and Tony gets sucked right back into the argument again instead of pointing it out.
"Yeah, this is a team…" Bruce mutters.
"Agent Romanoff, would you escort Dr. Banner back to his—"
"Where? You rented my room." Bruce gestures at the screens with still-visible camera footage of the Hulk cell that Loki's stuck in.
"The cell was just in case..." Fury starts.
"In case you needed to kill me, but you can't! I know! I tried!" Bruce finally snaps.
There's a beat of silence, and Tony notices the Widow's hand fall from her face.
"I got low. I didn't see an end, so I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it out! So I moved on. I focused on helping other people. I was good, until you dragged me back into this freak show and put everyone here at risk!"
"Nobody's at risk, Dr. Banner." He's staring at the Widow, but she doesn't look as perturbed as Bruce was probably hoping.
"You wanna know my secret, Agent Romanoff? You wanna know how I stay calm?"
"I don't particularly care, no." She drawls.
"Doctor Banner…put down the scepter." Steve says at almost exactly the same time.
Bruce glances down to find that yes, he does in fact have the scepter in his hands.
A beeping noise fills the room, and the Widow steps forward and takes the scepter from Bruce's hands.
"Dr. Banner, I know you don't trust me." She says, cutting off Bruce from saying whatever he was planning on. "But you don't need to trust me to understand that out of everyone on the planet, I am one of the very, very few people capable of taking the Hulk. On the Helicarrier, you also have Thor, I suppose, but I doubt he's much good at restraining his enemies instead of simply beating them until they stop moving."
"This about that thing you and Loki were talking about?" Bruce asks after a moment. "'Cause I gotta say, that's not inspiring a lot of confidence in me."
"I've wrangled bigger, more dangerous things than a green giant with super strength and invulnerability." She smiles a little. "For instance, you don't spam natural energy beams."
Bruce blinks. "Like… lazers?"
"Bit wider than that. You're not that different from an old friend, even in the sense that your berserker state is the result of an unfortunate medical condition, and I handled him well enough by the time I was eighteen." She tilts her head, considering. "The Hulk is stronger than Juugo was, of course, but the jinchuuriki? The bijuu? You've got nothing on them."
Thor makes a sudden, surprised noise.
"You are the Lady of the Whirlpools."
"Okay," Tony interrupts. "Loki called her the same thing. What does it mean?"
Fury answers after the Widow gives him an eyebrow-raised look. "None of your damn business, Stark. You wanna ask after this mess is over, feel free. Right now, you have a Tesseract to find."
"It's already been found," Bruce says. "That was the beeping noise."
"I can get there fastest." Tony says, moving towards Bruce.
"Look, all of us—" Steve starts.
"The Tesseract belongs on Asgard. No human is a match for it." Thor cuts him off.
The Widow snorts. "You wanna bet?"
Thor opens his mouth to retort, and then closes it, looking troubled. "You are… not known for your good intentions, Lady."
The Widow raises an eyebrow. "Still human. Still a match for that thing if I'm careful. Hell, I'm thinking we just feed it to Sensei's giant Hashirama tree and call it a day."
Thor gaped. "A… those only exist in legends after the destruction of—"
"It's cute how you think you actually have a better idea of what's going on in the remnants of the Hidden Continent than I do."
Thor looks like he's gearing up for a fight of his own, but Bruce cuts him off from where he's noticed something about the screen that Tony hasn't actually gotten a look at yet, saying, "Oh my god!"
Then everything goes boom.
"So, where's Banner?" Tony asks, after he sees Widow talking to Fury about something. "I already heard that Thor got dumped from the Carrier by his brother, and I know Capsicle's fine."
"Banner's recuperating." Widow says smoothly, and turns back to Fury. Tony's eyes widen as he sees the massive hole torn in the back of her suit.
"Uh… should I ask about great big rip in—"
"It's nothing to worry about." Fury says, just as Widow responds with, "I'd rather you didn't."
They look at each other for a moment, then shrug and turn back to Tony. "We're talking about casualties."
Something twists in Tony's gut. He knows he saved a lot of people with the turbine stunt, nearly getting himself killed in the process, but he's also certain he should have done more. Should have seen it coming, at the very least. "Yeah?"
"Coulson's dead." The Widow tells him. There's a stoniness to her expression, something Tony doesn't think he likes, but it's better than, like, her crying or something, right? She's the Black Widow. She never cries.
"Yeah, I heard." He says after a moment. "I was on the comms."
"We're having a meeting on the bridge," Fury says gruffly. "You're joining us."
He walks right past Tony, and the Widow puts a hand on his elbow and steers him towards the bridge. "Come on, Stark."
"I thought he was your friend. How come you aren't more upset about this?" He asks.
"Do you believe what you've heard about how old I am?" She asks, instead of answering properly.
"I, uh… I'm thinking it makes more sense than anything else, considering that we had two different aliens identify you that way." Tony says after a moment. "In which case, I gotta say, you look great for your age."
"Thanks." She snorts. "But what I'm getting at is this: do you really think Phil is the first death of a friend that I've had?"
"…I figured you were going to say something like that." Tony drags a hand down his face. "Ugh, this sucks."
"So does life. Time to get over it." She steps forward as the reach the bridge and makes a mocking, flowery bowing motion towards the door.
It almost makes him smile.
"These were in Phil Coulson's jacket. Guess he never did get you to sign them." Fury tosses a set of cards onto the table, right in front of Cap, who picks them up and stares at them. They're spattered with blood, visible enough even from Tony's position, and recent enough to leave smears on the table's surface.
"We're dead in the air up here. Our communications, location of the cube, Thor. I got nothing for you. Lost my one good eye. Maybe I had that coming." Fury takes a moment. "Yes, we were going to build an arsenal with the Tesseract. I never put all my chips on that number though, because I was playing something even riskier." He takes another moment, eyeing them all, and his gaze lands on Tony. "There was an idea, Stark knows this, called The Avengers Initiative."
Oh. This bullshit. The bullshit they'd told him he wasn't suited for, because he didn't play well with others.
"The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could. Phil Coulson died still believing in that idea, in heroes."
Tony almost gets up and walks off. He almost leaves, but something keeps him there. He remembers the expression on the Widow's face, remembers the tightness of it, and thinks something is wrong.
"Well, it's an old fashioned notion." Fury says, and turns away.
Tony feels like there should have been a sigh at the end of that.
He heads to Loki's now-empty cell after that, pulling out a tablet and flipping through to the video where Coulson died.
He makes a small noise that can almost be read as a laugh when he sees Loki trick his brother into the cell.
"He's great at the whole trickster thing."
Tony turns and sees the Widow sitting on the railing around the now-empty cell, shoulders hunched and arms locked straight, gripping the railing like maybe this time it'll crumple if she just squeezes hard enough. Her eyes stare unseeing into the floor that opened up and swallowed Thor an hour or two ago.
"Well, he is the god of it. You know, supposedly." Tony keeps watching. "He sure does love to talk."
"Lies are his other specialty. You know, supposedly."
Tony looks up and quirks an eyebrow, finger hitting pause. "Should I keep watching?"
"You already got spoiled for the ending, Stark. All that's left is to enjoy the quips and be bitter that you couldn't change anything."
"You know, I never noticed how cynical you are. I mean, I noticed, but it never really hit me. And now, here it has, like Vanko punching me in the face."
"It's a side-effect of outliving your entire continent." She tells him glibly. "Makes it hard to believe in the lasting power of anything."
"That's fair." Tony looks down at the video, hits play again, and waits out the rest. He taps pause right about when Fury shows up. "So that's it, huh? Agent's dead."
"Pepper will be disappointed. She liked Phil. They were decent friends. Liked to talk about classical music and whatnot. I think he went to her for advice on Audrey a few times."
"That's the cello player he liked?"
"Was Agent actually carrying those cards, or—"
"You think Fury would desecrate a dead man's belongings for the sake of a sick joke?"
"It's Fury, and I think he would if he thought it would make us work together and give us a fighting chance against Mr. Shakespearean Drama down there."
She laughs. "God, I hate you sometimes."
She shakes her head, but there's a smile there.
"How did you keep Banner on board?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." She laughs a little. "Chains, though. The proper technique name translates to something along the lines of 'Adamantine Sealing Chains.'"
"So, if you don't mind me asking, and even if you do, is Natasha even your real name?"
She tilts her head, considering. "Depends on what you mean by real. It's my current legal name, certainly. It's a name that I respond to as I would my own. It's a name that's defined the past few decades of my life."
"But you were someone else before."
She shrugs. "Names change, sometimes. I am not who I once was."
"So, who were you before?"
She makes a face. "Americans never say it right. At least I can ignore that with Natasha. Can't with my original name."
"So do you want me to keep calling you Natasha?"
"I…" There's hesitation on her face. "You remind me of someone. It's strange, and it makes me uncomfortable, and it makes me not want you to call me that."
"Just… just call me Widow, I guess." She finally mutters, frowning down at the metal floor. She shakes her head and flips backwards, landing lightly on her feet. "I'm going to go keep an eye on Clint. He should be waking up soon."
"That's gonna be a hell of a concussion."
The Widow smiles. "It should be."
She's gone before Tony can ask what that's supposed to mean.
He turns to stare out over the empty space that the cage used to occupy, and he supposes the Widow wasn't wrong when she said that all that's left is to be bitter about what you couldn't change.
It curdles inside him, that mantra of I should have done something and he should have waited.
Steve shows up.
Tony gets thrown out of a window.
That's… that's a thing that happens.
(The back of his brain is going over the line 'a couple of master assassins' and feeling disappointed that he couldn't figure out a way to work in the whole 'Lady of the Whirlpools' thing in time.)
"Oh hell." He hears in his ear as something flies out of the portal. Something big. It's kind of intimidating.
"What's that, Widow? Scared?" He taunts, because he is also scared. Very scared. There's an army attacking Manhattan and it has better tech than he does.
"They aren't—that's not—" She cuts off with an inarticulate snarl. "We've got backup, I guess?"
Tony simultaneously brightens and feels a pit of unease make its home in his stomach. "Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?"
"Who the fuck invited Shukaku?" She mutters, quietly enough that she's probably talking to herself more than anyone else. "They're not exactly human, but they can help, if we keep them on task."
"Romanoff," Steve asks, "Who, exactly, are 'they?'"
A giant fucking flaming fox barrels around a building, jumps into the air, and snaps its jaws shut around one of the space whales.
"What the fuck is that?!" Tony demands. "Seriously, what the fuck? What? When did we get giant flaming foxes on our side? Are there more?"
"Not foxes, necessarily." The Widow sighs. "Get down here, Stark. You're going to need a rundown of—"
She cuts off as the fox breathes out a massive fucking lazer.
"What the shit." Tony has no fucks left to give. "What the shit."
"It's a bijuudama, I know it's weird, get down here." Widow orders.
Tony does as he's told, just this once.
(He maybe picks up a space whale on his tail on the way there. Oops.)
He asks. "Explanation? Please?"
"They're the Tailed Beasts. They're on our side."
Tony waits for her to elaborate. She does not.
Banner starts to say something, and Tony cuts him off, because this really needs to be said. "I'm bringing the party to you."
He rounds the corner, and Widow actually stutters out, "I don't see how that's a party."
Tony's heart sinks as he sees them. He aimed the whale for them because he thought one of them would be able to take it when he couldn't. But he was expecting this part of the city to be evacuated.
There's still civilians under the bridge. Tony can't think of a way to destroy this thing that isn't going to result in the body causing massive casualties anyway.
"Get behind me." Widow says.
"Are you sure?" Banner asks, though not much like he's concerned. "I could—"
"Not without that thing dropping down on traffic, you can't. Get behind me."
Tony sees her eyes change color and pattern as he flies in, with red filling in one iris and purple rings covering the entirety of the other.
She holds out a hand at the whale, and just as Tony flies past her, she says something that he can hear even over the wind in his ears, in a voice much deeper than her natural one.
The space whale seems to stutter in midair, and is then driven backwards by some unseen force.
Directly into the maw of a giant monkey with too many tails, because sure. Why not?
Tony stands back up and looks around.
Banner's still untransformed when he lands, and Barton looks remarkably chipper for a man who should be spending the next few weeks, minimum, recovering from a head injury.
"I sincerely do hope you weren't expecting to do that for the whole fight."
Tony turns to a see person who was most certainly not sitting on the railing with a cup of tea, utterly spotless, fifteen seconds ago.
He turns back to Widow, who's pinching the bridge of her nose.
"Sensei," she says. "What are you doing here?"
"Karin, dear, you can't tell me there's an army of aliens coming to take over and not expect me to send help." The person tuts. "After all, last time almost ended with the entire planet cocooned in an eternal illusion and transformed into Kaguya's army."
Thor lands heavily on the ground nearby. "What is—?"
"Tailed Beasts," the Widow cuts him off. "I won't expect you to remember their names or titles, so just refer to them by tail numbers or apparent species for now. Sensei, I can tell Isobu and Gyuuki are out in the water. Are they staying there?"
"Along with Saiken, yes. Matatabi and Kokuo would like to help out with evacuation, Kurama, Son Goku, and Choumei would all like to be involved in actual battle, and Shukaku…"
"You invited Shukaku." The Widow glares. "Who the fuck invites Shukaku."
"He's not as bad as he used to be."
"He's taking apart the historic library for sand." The Widow hisses.
"…he's still not as bad as he used to be." The person insists, sort of. They say it more like they're pointing something out than like they're all that concerned with the information.
"Hi, hello, do we get to have any input on what's going on here?" Tony interjects. "I'd really like to know what's going on."
"Giant animals made of natural energy decided that this is their fight as well." Widow summarizes. "They're here to help, and you should be able to tell them apart from the aliens because most of them actually resemble Earth creatures, are very colorful or pale, are very large, and may or may not be on fire, depending."
"And…?" Tony gestures at the overly pale person with long black hair and no obvious gender markers, still sitting on the low wall of the stone bridge with tea. Tea.
"My teacher, Orochimaru. He's older than I am. Don't bother asking about gender." She waves that off like it's a question she expects no matter what, even in the middle of an alien battle. "He's… maybe helping?"
"Not my kind of fight, unfortunately, but I should be able to help cull some of them. I brought Kusanagi." He taps the hilt of a sword.
Somewhere far off comes the noise of a yowling cat, except it's much louder than any cat has the right to be, like someone took a normal cat and made it the size of a plane instead.
"That's one of ours, then?" Steve asks.
"Yes." Widow says shortly.
"You're going to let me look at your eyes when this is over." Orochimaru says. "Now, were you planning on using Susanoo?"
"For the whole fight? Fuck no, not if the bijuu are here. There are more effective ways to deal with the small fry." She shakes her head. "And Amaterasu is just a bad idea all around. I was planning to just put a funnel of sorts over the city with my chains and bottleneck them in to keep them from getting far enough to be a problem, but as spread out as they are at the moment…"
"A cage would be more effective at this point, yes." Orochimaru taps his chin. "Chibaku Tensei?"
"Last resort, definitely." She makes a face. "I'm probably going to end up relying on Asura Path for weaponry and maybe Animal Path."
"Not unless we see whoever's running Loki's show."
"Can we go now?" Hawkeye asks. "Like, you two can keep talking and all, but there's a city to defend. I would like to go about defending it."
Widow and Orochimaru glance at each other in what may be surprise and embarrassment.
Widow shakes her head. "Right. Anyone need a ride?"
Hawkeye gets a ride with Tony, so Steve is ultimately the only one that would like one and can't get it on his own. Widow goes with him, and they go by flying on the back of a massive beetle with six wings, because obviously that's just something that's going to stick in Tony's life nowadays.
Also, a Hulk happens. There's a giant green monster attacking aliens in the middle of New York, and nobody's all that concerned, because at least the Hulk is vaguely humanoid, and not, say, a dolphin-horse thing.
"I'd have commandeered one of those alien hover-things," she comments, "but Choumei is much more agreeable."
Tony doesn't comment on that, mostly because he's in the middle of feeding himself to a giant space whale so he can blow it up from the inside.
He catches a glimpse of what must be Shukaku, as it (he?) is using sand as a weapon, laughing maniacally, and possibly attempting to dance as it stomps around and attacks things, possibly doing more property damage than the aliens themselves.
At least he's trying to help. If he were against the city, or just indiscriminately slaughtering everything, Tony's a little scared of potential consequences.
Thirty seconds later, there's a… Tony doesn't know how to put it. A glittering gold set of—he zooms in, and those are definitely some kind of spiked chain—bars descends across the city, a grid of gold that fills in with some hazy golden force field between said bars, trapping everyone and everything inside, including the portal itself.
"Please tell me the civilians can get out." Tony tumbles around a group of aliens and fires off a small grenade in their direction.
"My sensing is good enough to tell which life source is human and which one isn't. Unless one of them is hiding something terrible, I'll be able to let them slip out," Widow assures him as the grenade goes off. "Give me a sec, and I can isolate the portal to keep more from getting in at all."
"The funny part," a deep voice that's only slightly familiar comments, and Tony wonders when Orochimaru got a comm link. "Is that she's never been a frontline fighter."
"Fuck you, sensei."
"Language, my dear."
"Keep chatter off the comms, we've got a war to win," Steve orders.
"This isn't a war, child." Orochimaru laughs. "It's clean-up."
Tony swerves around a space whale just in time for a giant golden chain to fly in out of nowhere and tangle around it.
As he watches, the space whale is slowly crushed.
"Remind me never to piss you off."
"These chains were designed to hold down demons." Widow's voice is tinged with amusement. "The very one's helping us fight right now, in fact. These aliens? The Hulk? They're nothing compared to a raging bijuu."
"I'll be the one telling them you said that," Orochimaru says.
"Cute." She pauses a moment, and Tony flies high enough for a moment to catch sight of her over the buildings and zoom in. There's some kind of mechanical thing sprouting out of her arm, and he has a feeling it's not one of her Widow's Bites. "So, I'm on top of Stark Tower."
"I noticed," Tony says, when no one else says anything.
"There's a force field around the Tesseract, and I don't know about any of you, but I'm not eager to accidentally blow up New York City by fiddling with it without knowing what might happen."
"Rinnegan in a grenade past the force field and take it out like that?" Orochimaru suggests.
"As mentioned, I don't know what might happen if I do that." Widow sounds very tired of everyone's shit. "I still don't know what kind of power this thing works on. What if using a teleportation technique nearby sets something off and makes the portal bigger."
"Then we bijuudama them until—" Orochimaru cuts himself off. "Do you think we could just position Choumei in front of the portal and bijuudama everything on the other side?"
"…get her on that." Widow says. "Stark, suggestions? This is your kind of tech."
"I didn't design it," he says immediately, "And without direct access or visuals, or even pre-existing blueprints, I'm not going to be able to help. Is Selvig there?"
"Recovering from a nasty blow to the head, but yes."
Tony almost dies because someone decides to send a nuke just as they're finishing up.
He's not actually sure what the reasoning was. Sure, there was a lot of property damage, but a nuke would have done more.
Maybe they were worried about the giant animals. Maybe they were afraid of the Avengers themselves. Tony isn't sure.
But he flies a nuke through a wormhole before anyone can stop him, and just barely manages to fall back out in time to not get stuck in space on the other side of the universe next to an exploding nuke.
He wakes up to a lot of things, like the Hulk roaring at him and Steve saying they won, and he wants Shawarma.
Widow waits for him to get out of the suit before she punches him in the arm.
"Don't do that again," she huffs. "You didn't need to make the sacrifice play on that one."
"What was your solution, then?" he asks, putting in as much snark as he can.
"Chibaku Tensei, which is basically a low-power black hole." She wrinkles her lip. "Send that through the portal and wait for gravity to do its work and drag the nuke in."
It's a nice idea, but… "Wouldn't work. The nuke's existing propulsion and momentum wouldn't let it be pulled in as neatly as you were hoping, and you were busy getting it to close."
She hesitates, and then—
"Did you just stick your tongue out at me?" He asks, utterly flabbergasted. She crosses her arms and turns away, nose in the air.
(There's a massive hole in the back of her uniform, and Tony suddenly realized where all those chains must have come from.)
"Alert the presses, the Black Widow actually has a sense of humor." He makes a 'headlines' motion with his hands. "I can see the front page now."
"I've already shown you my sense of humor, Stark."
"Most of your humor revolves around off-color jokes about your dead husband's eyes," Tony reminds her. "At least around me."
She rolls the aforementioned eyes, and then gets bustled off by Orochimaru for some reason.
Tony assumes that this, like everything else, is about the eyes.
"What the hell are you doing in my Tower?"
The Widow looks up from her sandwich. "Yo."
Pepper leans around Tony and smiles brightly, hiding her own discomfort. "Natalie! It's been a while."
"Who let you in?" Tony demands.
"I let myself in."
"I've been a ninja since the age of twelve." She raises an eyebrow in his direction. "That's a long lifetime of getting into places I shouldn't even know about."
Tony gapes, then immediately says, "JARVIS, keep an eye on all her movements. I want to know if this happens again. I want to know how. We need to, like, patch holes in all the security or whatever."
She quirks an eyebrow. "I have literal centuries of experience, Stark."
"Excuse me?" Pepper asks. "Centuries?"
The Widow blinks at Pepper, and then turns to Tony. "You didn't tell Pepper?"
"I mean, it's not much of a secret anymore, but it isn't mine to tell, is it?" Tony makes a face. "Also, I promised myself I wouldn't piss you off. Why would I do something that might piss you off? You're terrifying. And a redheaded woman. I have enough terrifying redheads in my life, I don't need to go around making the situation worse for myself by actively making them mad at me."
"Tony," Pepper reprimands him quietly.
"Anyway," the Widow says. "I'm crashing here for a bit."
Tony blinks, and thinks that over. "So, assuming we have room for you, which, given the reconstruction, I'm not saying we do—"
"We have the room," Pepper promises.
"Why do you want to crash here? Doesn't the shadowy government agency or your teacher have a place for you?"
"SHIELD's not exactly safe for me at the moment, and my teacher is…" her fingers tap against the table for a moment. "Unavailable."
"That is frustratingly vague," Tony tells her. "But I'll take it! JARVIS can show you to your floor. I'm having donuts brought in, if you want some."
"I'm staying exactly where I am until the donuts show up."
"Of course! Who wouldn't wait for donuts?"
Tony jerks away at his table as someone shouts his name. He fell asleep on his work again. Why hadn't Bruce—right. Brucey was doing 'things' at some college Tony didn't really know. Giving a lecture, maybe? Or… Tony remembered something about an old girlfriend. Maybe he's visiting the girlfriend under the pretense of giving a lecture?
Betty Ross! That's the name. Her dad is General Ross. Tony knows that guy.
(What an asshole.)
"Stark." A hand waves in front of his face. "Stark."
"I'm up, I'm up." He pushes the hand away, and turns to see the Widow looking amused. "What are you doing here?"
"Pepper's on a business trip."
"She said to keep you from working yourself to death while she's gone." The Widow smiles. "So we're going on a field trip!"
Tony blinks. "What."
"Pack your bags, we're leaving in fifteen minutes. I already have a quinjet prepped, so all you need to do is get one of the suits, and—" She wrinkles her nose. "Maybe take a shower and change, yeah? And grab something to eat, I guess."
"In only fifteen minutes?"
"I'm sure you can manage."
He does. He also gets coffee, because coffee.
They're already halfway to Chicago before Tony asks where they're going through a mouthful of falafel.
"What's left of the Hidden Continent," she answers.
Tony considers that for a moment, chewing. "I thought the entire thing was underwater due to tectonic activity."
"There's a handful of places still above water. The peaks in the former Land of Iron, for one. That's not where we're headed, though." She rolls her shoulders. "Never did get along with the samurai."
"Too much honor. Not enough playing dirty. They didn't like me much."
"Sounds like the Capsicle," Tony comments.
She barks out a laugh. "Steve reminds me of all the worst and best qualities of my idiot cousin. Mostly my idiot cousin. I seem to surround myself with well-meaning blonds who are great at tactics but still mostly rely on brawn even when I'd rather they stay the hell out of my life."
Tony blinks. "I thought you liked Steve."
"Steve's great, but he's also… hm." Her fingers tap against the quinjet's controls. "There's always a point at which your greatest strengths are going to get you in trouble somehow. Much like you, Steve's always on that edge, but his strengths are also the ones that get on my nerves, and ones that he's much less… he's much less aware of how his better personality traits can turn into flaws than you are."
"That's definitely the first time I've heard that."
The Widow shrugs. "It's true, if only because you've been through that. You're, what, fifty years old? You've had your time to shine and your time to fall and your time to claw your way out of disgrace and acknowledge that you fucked up. Steve? He's still Captain America. He's still wallowing in issues of circumstance, but at one point, his flaws are going to become his own greatest enemy, and he's going to have to deal with that."
"Speaking from experience?"
"I already had my character-building exercises, Stark. I was done with that story by the time I was eighteen." She shakes her head. "But back to Steve… if the parts of him that remind me of my cousin play out the same way, he's going to end up letting old friends almost kill him when they go bad, rather than admit that maybe he should just let go. He's going to end up focusing on his own loyalties to the detriment of larger populations. He's going to end up following his own convictions even when it could hurt countless people instead of trying to find a compromise. He's going to end up impressing his own paradigm of the world onto everyone else's stories to insist he understands, even when he has no chance of doing so. He's… he's going to become such a paragon of 'good,' even in his own mind, that he's going to stop being able to see that not everyone thinks the way he does, and that even some good people need to cling to their own darkness to function."
She smiles humorlessly. It's tight and bloodless. "Like me, yes."
They sit in silence for a while.
"That cousin… he dead?"
Tony nods. Well, that was expected. "Before, you said something about how you didn't want me calling you Natasha because I reminded you of someone."
She hisses out a breath. "You sure know how to pick a delicate question, Stark."
"…you remind me of my husband," she says after a pregnant pause. "Not the snark or the womanizing or anything, but… the story, I guess?"
"I'm not following," he admits.
"You got involved in a system you ultimately didn't approve of due to the pressures of people who were older than you that didn't necessarily have your best interests in mind." She starts. "You were manipulated by someone you trusted into becoming someone you hated. You tried to leave a system that forced you to kill, but only managed to change part of it before getting back in under your own terms to try and change it some more from the inside. You fucked up bad, and then you tried to help fix it. You're a genius in some fields, but an utter idiot sometimes when it comes to the people you care about, several of whom you've almost gotten killed. With all your personal issues mostly solved, you're frequently unsure of your own worth as a person outside of your skills and wealth, and constantly strive to prove to the people you care about that you're worth keeping in their lives by showering them with gifts and developing new toys in your lab. Am I hitting the nail on the head yet?"
Tony sits in silence for a while. He wants to leave, but this quinjet is a fairly small one.
"You're terrifying." He says, in the end. "So does that make you Pepper?"
"Pepper's way too nice and civilian to have someone like me associated with her like that." The Widow shakes her head. "God, I feel like I'm going to get blood on her outfit just by looking at her for too long."
They're over open water by this point. The Pacific, apparently.
"So, I remind you of your husband, and Steve reminds you of your cousin. Any other comparisons?"
"In personality or in…" she struggles with words for a moment, "Or with story or role or whatever?"
"Either works." He shrugs.
"Well, for roles, I'd actually parallel my husband to Loki and my cousin to Thor, if only because of the whole Indra and Ashura business, though…" She squints at him for a moment, and then shakes her head. "Never mind, we're safe."
Tony kind of wants to know, but he also reaaaaally doesn't. "What about Brucie?"
"Juugo. Deeeeeeeefinitely Juugo." She purses her lips to try and hide a smile. "God, those two would get along so well if they ever met. Medically-induced rage monster that's actually a really nice guy that just wants to hang out in nature and chill away from people? They'd be bonding in no time."
"Hm… I didn't know anyone back then that worked exclusively with archery. TenTen was a total weapons nut, though, and we met a few times. She was an interesting woman." She chews a little on her lip. "If we parallel my cousin and husband over to the Asgardians, I'd probably slot Kankuro or Shikamaru over to you. Shikamaru was the smartest man I ever met, but Kankuro's puppets were the closest parallel to engineering that the continent had."
"Hm… Rock Lee." She nods to herself. "Fury and Hill would have been Hatake Kakashi and Katou Shizune."
"And then there's you."
"And then there's me." She agrees.
"So what's your story?" He asks after a moment. "You had all this stuff to say about me and Steve, and you brought up your husband and cousin, but what about you?"
"I've got a lot of red in my ledger."
"That's not an answer."
She shoots him a momentary dirty look, with a raised eyebrow and quirked mouth and everything, and then focuses back on the sky she's piloting them through.
"Well, I was a raging bitch for a while. Not without reason, mind you, but… well, teenagers. Most of the girls in our profession had their violent streaks at that age. Hinata didn't, but I'm pretty sure she never even hurt a fly while she was off the clock unless she was training. Sakura kept hers into adulthood, but that may have been Tsunade's influence." The Widow presses her lips together in a thin line. "But, like any idiot, my story is basically that I fell in love with someone while they were in the middle of their story, and they nearly killed me."
Tony blinks. "Like, nearly got you killed, or—"
"Shoot the hostage." She clarifies. "It took me years to get over that, not counting the night I broke out of prison. I hadn't gotten much sleep that night and I ran into a war right after, so I was kind of mood-swinging all over the place."
Tony considers that for a second. "Please tell me you aren't talking about your husband."
She gives him a wan smile.
"What the fuck." Tony drags a hand down his face. "You married the man who shot you?"
"To be fair, he tried to kill literally everyone he cared about at least once, unless they died before he could." She shrugs. "Even the daughter from his first marriage, though that was an accident."
"First marriage?" Tony asks before he can help himself. "Wait, no, going back, what do you mean everyone?"
"His brother, my cousin, his old teammate/first wife, his teacher, his daughter, uh…" She frowns. "I don't think he ever directly tried to kill Suigetsu and Juugo, but he did abandon them to the samurai after the Kage summit."
Tony gapes at her. "Why the fuck did you marry him, then?"
"Not counting the daughter thing, almost all of this occurred during a single stretch of like… three months, maybe? I mean, he was planning on killing his brother for a long-ass time, but most people would have agreed that was justified from his perspective since the brother had slaughtered their entire immediate and extended family when my husband, Sasuke, was seven and the brother was thirteen."
Tony stares with wide eyes. "What."
"Yeah, we all thought he'd just snapped from the stress of ninja life and gone on a rampage, and Sasuke vowed to have revenge by killing him in return. Finding out he had done the whole thing on government orders was what led to Sasuke snapping and trying kill everybody else as well, for whatever reason made sense at the time of the attempted murder." She shrugs again. "It's ninja life. You get used to a little death here and there, and he did get better. Eventually."
Tony keeps staring.
"And about the first marriage…" She shrugs. "Not much to say. He married a girl he'd known longer than me, because it was what everyone expected and he mistook fondness for a friend to be love for a romantic partner. They had a child, and then realized within a year or two that it wasn't working out and got a divorce. Couple years passed, and I married him instead, and we worked out better."
"Until he died and gave you his eyes."
"You really care a lot about the eyes, Stark."
Tony shifts in his seat. "It's… I mean, at least I understand why giving you his eyes was actually a tactical thing and not just… a really weird ritual."
"Hey, people have traditions that are always going to be a little weird to outsiders. That doesn't make them wrong." Her fingers go tap-tap-tap against the wheel. "But yeah, any other questions? I'm basically offering you my life story. Not a lot of people get that."
"Other than 'why are you telling me all this,' and 'what's up with the whole Lady of the Whirlpools thing,' I guess I'm still kind of curious as to the marriages. Like, why the first one didn't work and how yours did."
"You're thinking about Pepper, aren't you?"
The Widow barks out a laugh. "Oh, that's adorable. No, but the first marriage fell apart because they wanted different things in life, and because they'd repeatedly spent so much time apart that they didn't really know each other anymore. And I don't mean taking a couple weeks apart with calls or something. I mean months or years at a time with zero contact whatsoever. She very much liked being able to call someplace home. He very much enjoyed wandering about the continent without much contact. He only met his daughter a handful of times before the divorce, and Sakura, the first wife, had insisted on joining us on his travels while she was pregnant, up to and including giving birth in a cave with only me for medical support, which was… very unwise."
Tony gapes. "Wow, that's… dedication, I guess?"
"She was incredibly dedicated to him. He was… not very dedicated to her." The Widow frowns. "She deserved better, honestly. He was a good fit for me, but he was all wrong for her. She needed someone willing to be by her side at home on a regular basis."
"Did he do that for you?"
"I was more mobile than she was. I'd lost my ancestral home before I was born, my hometown by the age of thirteen, and my new home by fifteen. I spent the two years after that living nomadically as I hunted down the evil older brother I mentioned earlier, and then went back to rotating between research labs to be wherever I was needed most. I had nothing I would consider a permanent home after a while, and… well, Sasuke visited us at the labs more often than he visited her, even when they were still married. Not for an affair, of course; his opinion on sex was that it was solely for procreation and otherwise an incredibly boring thing that was best left to other people—"
"Probably the biggest difference between him and me, then."
"—but it was still a sign that the situation wasn't any good for poor Sakura." The Widow shrugs again. "It all worked out in the end. After the divorce, she entered a polyamorous relationship with her best friend and another old teammate, which was definitely gossiped about, but I don't think Sakura cared, and Sai definitely didn't care, and Ino reveled in the attention."
"And you got the man of your dreams?"
"Well, it took me a hell of a lot longer than it took Sakura to move on to Ino, but yeah, I did." She licks her lips. "We were happy, while we were together. We even made the kids thing work a little better than he had with Sakura. We were both assholes, of course, but we were happy that way."
"A love story for the ages."
"Hey, it worked. Don't knock it." She smiles fleetingly, but it drops away. "The Lady of the Whirlpools thing is… ugh. My family name translated to whirlpool, and so did the name of our ancestral home, since it was named after us. Due to its destruction prior to my birth, I was the only person left alive that was fully of Uzumaki blood by the time I was… sixteen? I think that's when Nagato died. I had kids, and so did my cousin, of course, but those kids were pretty heavily tied to the other parent due to doujutsu inheritance, and only a handful of descendants ever really got the full Uzumaki education in fuuinjutsu. So I kind of… after my husband died, I went back to the ancestral home, set up camp, and became a legend."
"So why are you telling me all of thi—"
"We're here, buckle up." She pushes the throttle down and they start descending towards a group of fairly small, temperate islands in the middle of the ocean.
He stares for a second, because that is not the subtle evasion he expected from the Black Widow, and almost misses when she actually answers.
"I told you, you remind me of someone I cared about, and sometimes it's good to talk about the past."
Tony's never seen so many shiny new toys to play with in his life.
He's also never been quite so distracted by person after person after person going stiff at the sight of them and then bowing and shouting something that always starts with "Uzumaki-sama!" The rest of the contents change from person to person, but it always starts with that.
"Ms. Big-shot, huh?"
"Can it, Stark. I'm making Pepper happy by giving you new toys to play with. Isn't that your dream come true?"
"Is this place yours?" He asks, instead of answering.
"Orochimaru's. We're all that's left of the originals, so…"
Tony nods, going back to looking over the tech she's showing him. "Okay, is there a reading I could do to get a better idea of your meaning of chakra? It sounds a lot more quantifiable and scientific than what I usually hear, so I'm really interested now."
"I thought you'd never ask."
"So do you have any surviving descendants?"
"…Do they know about you?"
"There's a reason that 'The Lady of the Whirlpools' is a title that persists throughout the ages."
"Did you know?" Steve demands of Tony once he's out of the hospital. "Did you know that SHIELD had a HYDRA infestation?"
"Widow told me, yeah."
Steve froze, and then turned to look at the redhead next to him.
"You're not very discreet, Steve." She tells him, patting him on the cheek. "I mean, Stark's a showman and all, but he's a lot better at keeping a secret."
Steve gapes, then rounds on Tony. "You could have helped!"
"And you could have helped with the Mandarin, but that was my issue, while this was yours."
"It was a world issue," Steve insists.
"And the Mandarin was blowing people up countrywide, but it somehow still fell to me and Rhodey to deal with him. You had Widow and that new guy and Hill and Fury."
"Fury's dead." Steve says immediately.
Tony blinks. "Right. Like Phil's dead."
Widow coughs into a fist. "I didn't tell him about—"
Steve looks from one to the other. "Didn't tell me what?"
"…so when a person bites me—"
"There's something you're not telling me about this, isn't there?" Tony says, after he's bundled Steve off to the showers in preparation to give him his own floor instead of making him live in easily shot-up apartments in DC again. "Something happened."
"Remembered when I said that one of the things I saw in Steve that reminded me of my cousin was the kind that was liable to make him let an old friend almost kill him rather than accept the fact that letting go might be healthier for him? And that I was going to stick around Steve until he grew up a bit more because I could see the incoming self-destruction of all sorts?"
Tony's eyes widen. "Shit. What ha—"
"Bucky Barnes was brainwashed and repeatedly cryofrozen by HYDRA, and has been the Winter Soldier since the late 1940s," she says in a rush.
"Fuck. Is he okay?" Tony's mind raced. "He needs—fuck, he needs counselling, right? We should probably get him some food or something too. Maybe fly in that Sam Wilson guy?"
"I get the feeling it isn't over yet, but… I don't know. Maybe." Widow rubs at one temple, then grins slyly at him. "So. That was oddly caring and responsible of you. You aren't usually that open about it. Is this a sign that Tony Stark wants to be Team Dad?"
Tony blanches. "Oh god no. Bruce is Team Dad. I can be, like, Team Beer Uncle."
"You try but are ultimately too scared of feelings and disappointing people and just shove money and nice presents at people until you feel like you're helping?" She asks.
"Stop doing that," he complains.
"…so when you say you get the feeling this isn't over yet…"
"He hasn't… learned his lesson, so to speak. The world conspired to work in a way that let him keep believing he was in the right no matter what." She chews on her lip. "It's like… remember what we were told about Thor? Like, how his whole thing with Earth started? I can't remember how many drinks you'd had by that point."
"I remember it."
"Right, so I keep thinking about how it's like that. Thor learned his lesson that even monsters are people or whatever, but ever since then, the enemies he keeps getting are ones that he can fight if he just smashes them hard enough with his hammer. No diplomacy, of course, and no trickery unless he gets his brother to do it." She sighs. "And that's kind of what I think might be happening with Steve right now."
"Universe keeps telling him he's right, so he keeps being more and more sure of himself, until he isn't just not questioning his good decision, but not pausing to question the bad ones, either."
"Basically." She reaches up and kneads at her eyes. "Ugh, I hate hunches sometimes, especially ones that come super early."
"There's more?" Tony can't quite keep the disbelief out of his voice.
"Just… be careful." She says. "Your… I don't know. Your story, I guess? It's not over. Or maybe it's backtracking. Or overcorrecting? Or… I don't know. Maybe story isn't the right metaphor, but it's just… hunches."
"Right." Tony swallows. "No pressure or anything."
Tony can admit that Ultron is largely his fuckup. He's not a moron. Bruce had a part in it too, but Tony was the one who didn't think it was worth it to unplug the mind stone from the scanners and argued that they should just let it keep playing out simulations while they partied. They'd basically given up anyway, so what harm could it do?
A lot, apparently. A bot had almost escaped out the window before Widow's chains had snatched it and ripped it to shreds.
And JARVIS was dead.
And Ultron was loose somewhere.
"We still have the mind stone." Widow says in the middle of the big argument.
"And that helps… how?" Steve asks. He's been chilly to her for months, Tony thinks. He's bitter over the betrayal, maybe?
Tony quietly thinks that they're only ever a single argument away from Steve asking the Widow why she always takes Tony's side, which is bullshit, because she calls Tony out on his shit all the time.
(But, well… Steve always thinks he's going to win, so he makes things public, while Tony's a bit more willing to just wait it out until the Widow comes and tells him exactly how he managed to fuck up again, and why Pepper's mad this time.)
"It's been a few years since the Tesseract. I can track the kinds of energy these things use, now. How did you think we found it the first time?" She picks up the spear and spins it around in her hands. "Ultron is technically just code, but if he… coalesces, I suppose, then I can find him, along with anyone or anything else that's been augmented by this thing."
"Like the twins in Sokovia," Tony adds.
"Bingo." She points at him in acknowledgement.
They cobble together a plan, more or less.
"Hawkeye's married. Okay. That's a thing."
Tony's brain is being a bit fizzy. Like soda, but sadder.
"You didn't know?" Widow asks from the table. "I thought you'd have hacked some files or satellites by this point."
"I try not to pry too much into your lives. There is some need for privacy."
Widow's had that look on her face for a few hours now. The 'I want to call someone out on their shit but it'll only make things worse' look. He waits until he has a chance to talk to her without anyone except maybe Hawk-ass hearing, and she tells him.
"I kind of want to shake those twins by the shoulders and tell them to get over themselves. Maybe stick them in a Hell-Viewing Illusion based off of my own memories."
"They don't seem like bad kids—"
"Shit, really?" Tony considers that for a moment. "Are you sure?"
"Yep. I checked the file."
"They look so young, though!"
"Maybe you're just getting old." She suggests.
"That's really r… you hypocrite."
She grins at him.
"I almost forgot that you're almost as old as Thor."
"Y—wait, you said a couple centuries."
"Fifteen is technically a couple."
Her grin widens. "I'm going to go check on Laura's pregnancy. I think she wanted to ask you to check out the tractor out in the barn."
By the end of that adventure, Tony's pretty sure that the Widow's managed to basically adopt the twins. You know, just a little.
"They need somebody looking out for them. At least I speak their language; Sokovian is legally its own language, but it's technically just a dialect of Serbo-Croatian, which I'm fluent in. Also, let's face it, I'm the only person we know other than Clint and Laura that has literally any experience with childcare whatsoever."
She's not wrong.
(Tony still isn't sure how the whole "bite me and I'll heal you" thing works, even after learning more about chakra, because biology was never really his specialty anyway. But you know what? The fast twin is alive and that's all that matters.)
(Tony can't wait to get home to Pepper.)
(He's maybe a little scared of the idea of telling her that the twins are going to be living at the Tower with them and Widow until the new Avengers Facility upstate is opened, but he's pretty sure she'll understand.)