Summary: Tony didn't want to deal with this shitstorm. Yeah, he had Nat on his side, but there was only so much a superspy could do against years of ingrained prejudice and fear. In which Tony is a mutant and Really Really Really Hates It. The capitals were on purpose.

Warnings: implied child abuse, emotional coercion/control, mentions of gay relationships, bisexuality

Chapter Summary: In which Black Widow and Iron Man become partners in crime. The rest of the world is understandably terrified. Or; a spider and a robot walk into a trap, and shit hits the fan.

Having Everything Yet Nothing


Empathy: the ability to sense, control, and manipulate emotions

It was something Anthony had always felt, in the back of his mind; swirling mixtures of emotions and attached colors flitting by, and if he could touch, he could manipulate and control them to almost any extent he wished. He worked with the brighter feelings the most – happiness, love, loyalty, trust – and stayed away from the dark, ominous colors of anger, fear, hate, and pain. Anthony loved the way he could make the sick smile and the panicked calm with a single touch.

Up until the month after his eighth birthday, empathy was a gift he mostly kept to himself and sometimes used to help others.

Anthony knew that his perception and control over emotions was unusual (he was a genius, he would notice if everyone could manipulate emotions as long as there was momentary skin-to-skin contact) but he didn't really understand just how unusual. Was it one of those one in a thousand genetic mutations? One in ten thousand? Dad would know, so with all the tact of an eight year-old, he asked, "Dad, I can sense emotions and control them. Is this one of those one in ten thousand genetic mutations you were talking about?"

Dad turned to him and stared silently for a long time. Then, he said, "Tell me more about this ability, Anthony."

And so he did.

After that, Dad started to bring him to the social events that he always complained bitterly about more often. Every time he gave Anthony the name and description of a person and occasionally multiple people, and said, "Make sure they trust me and Stark Industries."

Anthony knew that Dad was using him to make business easier. He didn't like it, but he could understand why. He had someone with the ability to control everyone's trust in Howard Stark and his business, and Dad was the kind of person who would seize any advantage he could. Anthony went along with it mostly because he couldn't see how it harmed anyone (except for the competition, but they were losing already, anyway) and he just wanted to make his father proud of him.

Even if he wanted to, he couldn't force that feeling. Anthony had yet to figure out how to create an emotion from nothing. All he could do was expand and build upon the ones that were already there. There was no pretext for Dad being proud of Anthony, and he had to widen the thread of happiness within him to keep him from tearing up every time he thought of that.

One evening, as they were driving home, Anthony asked Dad quietly, "Is this really how I should be using this? Isn't it a gift or something, to be used for good?"

Dad rolled his eyes, and Anthony had to resist the temptation to flinch as he felt the irritation, disbelief, and disappointment well up behind his words, "It's not a gift. It's closer to a curse. It's a tool to be used and kept secret, because that tool? Is wrong and unnatural and immoral and untrustworthy. And until you can understand that, I will be controlling that tool, Anthony."

Anthony never mentioned it again.

Anthony was ten when Howard first taught him how to use a weapon. He was twelve when Howard first told him about SHIELD.

SHIELD was a worldwide organization funded, sponsored, and created by the U.N. to move against major threats to world peace and stability. In less polished, PR terms, they were an organization of spies and assassins that manipulated and killed to keep the body count as low as possible. Howard and Peggy Carter – the director of M16 – had founded it and were the current co-leaders.

Apparently Howard had decided that merely using Anthony's empathy for business was a waste. Not even a week later, Howard started bringing him to more politically active social events and had Anthony tell him when people were lying and when they were telling the truth.

At thirteen, Howard began to use him for interrogations. With a touch, he could reduce most people to a shivering, pathetic, terrified piece of flesh, easy and pliable. Sometimes the most highly-trained enemies were able to stand up to him, but everyone has a breaking point and after a few sessions with Anthony alternated with more traditional methods, all of them had broken except for the clinically insane.

When he was fifteen, just after he had entered MIT, Howard started sending him on active espionage missions. They were short, often only two or three days long, unless it was during breaks, which were completely filled with SHIELD business. The people at MIT just assumed he was either being a reckless teenager or going to events with his father. To be fair, sometimes his assignments did include those things.

It stung a little, though, that even Rhodey never noticed the slight limp after spring break or the way he favored his left arm a week later.

When Howard and Maria died in the plane crash, Tony didn't feel anything except for numb.

His mother, who had never been home and when she was, always told him how he could not be weak.

His father, who had never been proud of him and only wanted him for the mutation hidden in his genes.

Obi was there, suddenly, with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Tony had never been more grateful for the older man in his entire life, and that was probably saying a lot.

After the funeral, Tony started building walls between himself and emotions of loud music and unceasing numbers. He didn't want to know what his friends really thought of him, when the board was lying to him or how much he had disappointed Howard's acquaintances. His sarcasm sharpened during this, as did his isolationist tendencies. He didn't need friends, anyway – he could build them. Tony had proved this once with DUM-E, and he proved it again with JARVIS. Butterfingers and YU followed.

Slowly, Tony Stark became a separate person from Anthony Edward Stark. Where Anthony had trusted his father, Tony spat on Howard's name. Anthony wanted companionship, Tony needed none. Anthony had been a tool to his father because of his abilities, Tony belonged to no one but himself and used empathy only when he wanted to.

Tony still used empathy, but only rarely, and mostly to ward off uncomfortable situations or give himself confidence he didn't truly feel.

Barely two days after Fury had approached him and offered him a position as a consultant for the Avengers Initiative, he was summoned again to a secure location (it was a glorified, heavily guarded basement) somewhere in Brooklyn by the one-eyed annoyance. Normally he would have just ignored him, but it was SHIELD. Tony had never been able to ignore SHIELD.

Tony eyed the old, almost crumbling room with distaste. "Really, Nicky? You could have at least chosen something classier. I guess I can understand if you feel more at home with old places like these, being a relic yourself."


"Yes, yes, that's my name, don't wear it out."

Tony gave Fury his best shit-eating press smirk. It flowed naturally over his face like it wasn't something he had practiced in front of a mirror for hours as a teen.

"As I'm sure you became aware when you hacked the SHIELD mainframe, the file for the Avengers Initiative says, Iron Man, yes, Tony Stark, not recommended."

"Yeah, I know, what was it Romanov said? Unstable, arrogant –"

"That no longer applies."

Tony shut his mouth with a click, just to make sure it hadn't fallen open in shock. Shock was bad for keeping control. "Sorry, I don't think I heard you correctly," he said in a mild tone that he kept purposefully fake.

"I became aware that there are separate files for Tony Stark and Anthony Edward Stark. The latter was much more difficult to find."

There were two files under his name? Why – oh. "Howard, that fucking bastard, he actually recorded that shit?"

"At least I know now that your daddy-issues are not totally unfounded."

"Fuck off." Tony was already making plans to delete that file as soon as he got back home. Actually, screw that shit, he was going to start as soon as he got out of here. Thank god for personalized StarkPhones. One person already knew about his empathy and his little stint as an unofficial SHIELD agent, and that was one person too many. This wasn't something he wanted to deal with, ever. He had enough problems as it was without dealing with his status as a natural-born mutant. Ugh, even thinking that left him with a nasty taste in his mouth.

"I expect a report, in paper, handwritten, on your abilities outside of Iron Man. I don't expect that Anthony Edward Stark will be a file in the SHIELD system after tonight."

Huh, so Fury did have something of a heart after all. Damn, he totally deserved a medal for finding that one out. "Yeah, yeah. I'll get it done."

Actually, on second thought, it was more likely to be a ploy to get Tony to trust him. If Fury really thought he could manipulate the King of Liar Hill, he had another thing coming.

"Oh, and you get to be Banner's nanny from now on."

"Fuck you, Fury!"

Fury sent him a vaguely amused look and walked out the door. Tony groaned and added another two things to the growing list of things he had to do. Shit, being a superhero was more work than being CEO of SI, and that was saying something.

Tony would never, ever admit, even under pain of death and brutalization of all things electronic, that he had planned out and furnished a floor for each Avenger long before Fury had pretty much ordered them all to move in. Nope, all anyone was ever going to know that the evil, one-eyed leader of SHIELD had wanted to throw a ragtag group of six superheroes against everyone's better judgment, and then decided that Stark Tower (now renamed Avengers Tower) would be the perfect place for everyone to move in.

No one else had to know that Tony had planned to leave the five extra floors alone and unfilled, no sir. Because Tony Stark did not get lonely, damnit, he valued his privacy and he didn't play well with others.

His breakup with Pepper also had absolutely nothing to do with his redecorating spree.

Tony knew Natasha had noticed, though, with those eyebrows of hers that could convey a full-blown rant or pep talk in a single motion. Thank god she decided not to mention it, he would probably die of embarrassment. The fact that the utterly and completely terrifying Black Widow, Agent Natasha Romanov, had something akin to blackmail on him did not give him shudders whenever he thought about it. Yeah.

Tony couldn't help but scowl and let out a grouchy, "Jesus fucking Christ, do these fucktards really have to blow up every damn building they set their eyes on?"

He could feel Cap's disapproval even with his mental barriers up. Tony didn't give a shit; he hadn't had his coffee yet, finished the week's quota of tinkering, or upgraded DUM-E's code. Dealing with a goddamn army of bombs planted in the middle of New York was not something he wanted to deal with right now. Or ever, for that manner.

"Might wanna focus more on not become a flat tin can," Barton commented dryly.

"I am perfectly capable of getting myself away from an explosion. Unlike a certain bird-brained Robin Hood who relies upon others for transportation."

"Chatter!" Cap snapped, order implied. He was using his 'I am Captain America and you idiots had better listen to me' voice, and it was pretty effective. Barton and Tony shut up. He might snark and bitch and argue, but at the end of the day Cap was the leader of the Avengers, and he hadn't gotten there just because he had a pretty face.

Tony switched off the mic when he heard yet another explosion through someone else's com. Time to go to the source. "JARVIS, run a scan for remote control of the explosions," he ordered as more numbers and charts flared up on the HUD. Calculated detonation times, damage, the team's location and status.

"Yes, sir. It would appear that the explosions are being controlled from a remote location via satellite."

Tony smirked, awesome, the villain of the day was an idiot. "Perfect, set out a scrambler and track the nearest bomb for each of the Avengers. Tell them how to neutralize it. How many bombs are there anyway?"

"Twenty-three at my count, sir."

"Well, what are you waiting for? Give me the locations and tell the others."

"Of course, sir."

If JARVIS was human, Tony definitely would have married him by now. Even Pepper hadn't been quite so awesome, and that was saying something. Then again, JARVIS was an AI that Tony had built pretty much specifically to care for him, so. That might have had something to do with it. He was practically coded to love Tony and vice versa. Hey, maybe that actually could work out. It would be a fun relationship too, though the sex would be a bit hard to figure it out. Awesome, looks like it was time to upgrade JARVIS's coding too.

It was kind of twisted when you were debating the best way to encode your computerized butler with the ability to love. Tony had never said he wasn't fucked up, though, so it wasn't like that was going to stop him. It would take one of those strange, rare bursts of momentary sanity to stop him. He'd remember it was a bad idea after that.

It took almost half an hour to clear out all the bombs and double- and triple-check that the area was clear. Finally, Tony gave JARVIS the go-ahead to track the signal to whoever was insane enough to mastermind this bullshit. "I've got the coordinates for the detonator's location. I'm gonna fly over and –"

"Don't even bother finishing that sentence, Iron Man. You are not going to their home base alone," Cap snapped before he was even finished. Tony felt as if he should be vaguely irritated at the interruption. Stupid boy scouts and their aversion to letting him fly solo. Because, really, he had been doing the solo gig for months before the Avengers showed up. He wasn't useless without a team, damnit. And he wasn't a liability when he was on one.

So Tony did what he did best: pissed people off. "Capsicle, all of you guys are ridiculously slow. It'll take you guys an hour to reach the location with ground transportation in this mess. It'll take me three minutes. Work with me here, use that wonderful tactical brain of yours."

"I said no. At the very least, you're taking one of us with you. You can carry at least one person with the suit."

"Look, Spangles, there's this funny thing called g-force that happens at high speeds that humans outside of awesome suits of armor don't deal very well with."

"Then you will just have to go slower, won't you? Take Widow. Do some scouting. And no that does not mean you can blow anything up. Actually, don't do anything unless it's necessary. Let her do the scouting, we'll meet up with you."

Tony rolled his eyes. Rodgers could be ridiculously overcautious. The MARK VII wasn't just for show; he could take a pretty significant amount of damage. "Yeah, whatever. Widow, what's your location?"

She rattled it off to him and he flew towards her location. Tony swooped down, wrapped an arm around her waist, and flew off. "Hold on tight, sweetheart," he said through the speakers in the suit. It sounded strangely amusing in Iron Man's distorted, robotic voice, and didn't that just made everything a little bit better.

Romanov raised a single eyebrow. "Watch it, Stark, or someday you'll find yourself incapable of waking up in the morning."

All she got in response was a low chuckle. Tony didn't push it, because he was fully aware that Romanov was completely capable of going through with her threat, and he wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't. Romanov had made it clear multiple times that she didn't exactly like him, not that it was unusual. He was used to being disliked, and he wasn't going to force the issue. Tony winced internally at just the thought of that; he wouldn't be able to dredge up the guts to force his teammates into liking him. Besides, there had to be a predisposition for it, and he wasn't exactly sure any of them had that.

It took a long ten minutes to reach the location JARVIS had given him instead of the normal three because of the constraints of Romanov's unarmored state. It was not the first time Tony wished he could get away with making each of his teammates a suit. He scanned the area idly. Isolated in forest, the lone cabin by the dirt road that lead to the highway a couple miles away, was probably the location of the bombers. It would be hard to hide the necessary tech out in the open and Tony kind of hoped their opponents weren't that stupid. "I'm gonna drop you off and find somewhere to be…less flashy. Or something. Stupid Capsicle."

The only thing he got in response was a rather rude snort. Behind Iron Man's mask, he pouted. "Come on, Widow, I know you love me somewhere deep down in that cold, spidery heart of yours!"

A raised eyebrow.

"Okay, okay, right, putting you down so you don't find some way to take off my armor and shank me. Got it. Hands off, see?" Tony babbled as he landed and let go of Romanov.

"I'll let you know if something happens." Her comm was switched off for stealth purposes; it was hard to hide sounds coming from your ear, no matter how good the system was. Tony made a note in the back of his mind to work on that.

"Sure, now get your pretty thighs of death into gear and kick some pyromaniac ass."

The eyebrow rose a little higher.

"Right, shutting up."

Tony signaled for the thrusters in his boots and on his back to start up with a carefully practiced twitch of muscles. He got about two feet off of the ground before something with a hell of a lot of force – a small missile, or heavy-duty, armor-piercing round – slammed into his lower back. The HUD flickered before going completely blank, and his suit changed from a weapon and a shield to a metal coffin. Shit.

Motherfucking EMPs.

Tony struggled to get out of his suit, but it weighed exactly 235.74 pounds, but that was a lot of weight for a normal human to move. Despite his best efforts and to his great consternation, his gauntlets were not quite as flexible as bare human hands. Another thing he was working on for the MARK IIX.

Men (and maybe women?) dressed in camouflage and wielding an assortment of weapons ranging from semi-automatics to knives crept out of the forest to form a circle around Tony and Romanov. She already had a handgun, safety off, clutched in her right hand, and a knife in her left. Tony did a quick headcount; there were at least twenty of them in plain sight, and possibly more hidden in the forest or the cabin. For a moment, the two sides stared each other down: SHIELD superspy and brilliant engineer, unknown force with what looked like at least basic military training. Then all hell broke loose.

He couldn't tell who shot first, but Romanov was suddenly a blur of black and red (he saw, once again, where her nickname came from) and bullets were flying everywhere. Tony grimaced, still mostly trapped in his armor. It had been a good two decades since he had last fought in a true life-or-death situation outside of his armor, and he didn't have the option to make mistakes with a teammate's life on the line. Fucking this up was not an option.

Finally, he managed to claw his way out of the MARK VII and unlatch the compartment hidden in the left leg to withdraw a hidden handgun. There were other weapons built into the suit, but all of them required electricity to either access or use. Tony noted that he would have to fix that when he got out of this. He had no more time to think after that, because the enemy was upon him.

Two shots fired at the stomach of one man standing in the distance and carefully peppering the area where Romanov was fighting and slamming the butt of his gun into the closest man's head was as far as he got before the majority of the enemy noticed that he was out of his suit and fighting. After that, Tony was focusing more on staying alive and making sure Romanov was doing the same then attacking. He managed to take another down with a well-placed shot to the left shoulder before the gun was knocked out of his hands and he was forced to rely on purely hand-to-hand combat.

Perhaps a minute later he found himself back-to-back with Romanov, facing a slightly smaller surrounding circle of opponents. He was careful to keep his breathing controlled and his joints unlocked.

"Didn't know you could fight out of your suit, Stark," Romanov commented.

Tony had a feeling he had a lot of explaining to do later. "There's a lot of things you don't know about me, Romanov." His smile was dangerous, all teeth and predator.

Romanov let out a low chuckle, and then the fighting started again.

Tony was careful to keep close to Romanov this time; he would freely admit that she was far superior to him in close-range combat, and sticking with her was more for his safety than his.

Tony dropped down to the ground on one hand and the ball of his left foot before kicking out in an arc with his right leg, kicking out his current opponent's legs from underneath him. He leaned forward in his crouch a little bit to firmly press into a pressure point at the back of his neck to make sure the enemy stayed out cold for a decent while longer.

As he stood back up, somebody – male, large and heavyset, judging by the fact that he could hold both of Tony's wrists in one hand – grabbed his hands and forced him back to the ground. He lashed out with his legs, but it didn't do any good. The man's legs could have been made of steel for all the difference it made. They were equally hard, too.

Oh, the jokes he could make about that one…

The man forced Tony facedown into the dirt and kneeled down on the back of his knees. Tony swore a blue streak muffled into the ground, because that hurt like a bitch. When Tony turned his head to the side so he could breathe a little easier and possibly figure out a plan of escape, he breathed in a lungful of something sickeningly sweet before his nose and mouth was covered with a rag. Chloroform.

As the edges of his vision darkened and he fell inevitably into unconsciousness, he hoped that Romanov managed to get away.

Tony woke an undeterminable amount of time later to find himself hogtied to a chair with his hands and ankles cuffed together in a very stereotypical concrete cell. The first thing that went through his mind was, "A wooden chair, really? I feel like I should be insulted."

"No video cameras either. Might be bugs though," Romanov said from somewhere behind him.

Tony twisted his head to look over his shoulder. Romanov was chained to the wall by her ankles and feet, and her clothes had been taken away and replaced by a sports bra and too-big jeans. At least they hadn't taken away the bodysuit he wore underneath his armor. He commented, "Did they take everything?"

"Seeing as how they strip-searched me, yeah. My bobby pins are gone too."

Well then. Tony had lock picks sewn into the hems of his sleeves and neckline, and he could probably break the chair and get out of the ropes without sustaining too much damage. If there were bugs, when he broke out it would have to be done quickly, so that their captors wouldn't be able to respond in time, and discussion of the escape with Romanov would have to be as limited as possible. But then there was the matter of what kind of guards their captors had put in place; it could be anything from one of the men they had fought before being captured to five powerful mutants. The cell they were deposited in was bare concrete, perhaps twenty by ten. If there were any bugs in the room, they were certainly well-hidden, but it seemed kind of unlikely at this point. The door was steel, heavy-set, and looked like it slid in and out of the wall. They were probably going to have to make their escape when somebody else opened the door, which added yet another layer of complication to the whole thing.

The door slid open with an ominous swoosh. Tony hadn't even known swooshes could be ominous before that. Huh. He could hear Romanov shifting behind him, probably trying to get a read on their opponents.

Two men walked in. The first, probably the more important of the two, was an older man in a navy suit, possibly in his sixties or even seventies with gray hair, watery blue eyes, and equally pale skin. The wrinkles etched into his skin spoke of someone who frowned and glared more then they smiled.

The second was much younger, dressed in dark colors and looking as if he was in about his mid-twenties. He seemed to be of Hispanic origin, with darker skin, short black hair, and matching eyes.

"Hello, Anthony, Miss Romanov," the older man said politely. His voice was smooth and weighted, like honey or sugared cream. It was familiar. "I must admit I expected only Anthony, but really, you are quite welcome here as well," he smiled a bit.

Suddenly, Tony remembered who it was. Agent Brian Richardson, one of the few SHIELD members besides Howard who knew what he was, and his former handler. He had quit SHIELD five years after Howard's death. "I would say it's pleasant to see you again, Richardson, but it's not, and I hate lying," he said through a thin, arrogant smirk.

Richardson's smile widened a bit. "You remember me? I feel honored, Anthony. This will make things much easier, don't you think?"

"Depends on what you want. I'll give you a fair warning, though: the last people who tried to get me to do something against my will ended up dead."

"Really, Anthony, you should be friendlier to an old acquaintance. And Miss Romanov, can't you say hello to an old handler too? If this is really how SHIELD agents treat their colleagues, I really cannot see why I didn't quit sooner."

Tony tensed at that information. Richardson had been Romanov's handler as well? Possibly her first at SHIELD, since she had joined at twenty one according to the records he found.

"I don't consider traitors my colleagues," Romanov said dryly.

Richardson let out a dramatic sigh, "Ah, really? I was desperately hoping we could get along well. Anyway…Anthony, all I really need you to do is give me the information SHIELD had on empathy. A simple thing, right? There was very extensive testing, if I remember correctly. Sadly, I couldn't find the information after Howard died, he was always such a secretive man."

Tony tensed, phantom hands grabbing his arm and injecting a needle, this won't hurt a bit – licked his lips, looked up at Richardson, and spat in his face. He took a large amount of vindictive satisfaction in the look of disgust and surprise on his face. "Fuck you."

The Hispanic man lunged forward at that, and punched Tony in the stomach, hard. Tony wheezed a bit, and took in a couple deep gulps of air. "Thank you for staying away from the face, it costs more then you could pay for," he bit out. Tony was rewarded by another, more vicious punch.

Richardson shook his head in mock disappointment. "Anthony, Anthony, your manners are deplorable as ever! Michael, if you could give him a couple lessons in how to treat his hosts, it would be much appreciated."

The Hispanic man, now identified as Michael, nodded once. Richardson smiled again and swept out the door, letting it slide close behind him. Tony turned to face Michael and lifted his chin with a mocking smirk. His expression didn't change, but his subsequent punches and kicks conveyed his anger perfectly well.

By the time Michael left, Tony felt like shit. He was sure at least one of his ribs was cracked, or even broken. One of his molars had been chipped, and he was still spitting out blood from accidentally biting his tongue. Everything else just felt like one massive bruise. A concussion was also a reasonable possibility. Tony let out a tired groan and slumped a bit in his bindings.

Romanov had been completely silent through the whole thing. Now, she started, "Stark –"

"Explanations later, Romanov. I need some sleep," his tone allowed no argument.


Tony nodded jerkily, even though he wasn't sure Romanov could see him, and allowed himself to fall into an uneasy sleep filled with dreams of needles and electrodes and cruel hands.

Tony drifted into awareness sometime later, still acutely aware of the pain in his ribcage and the deep bruises scattered throughout his skin. "Romanov?" his mouth was dry and Tony had some trouble speaking, but he was still somewhat understandable.

"I'm here."

Tony swallowed, trying to wet his mouth. Romanov deserved to know what the fuck was going on. But telling her that would include telling her about his status as a mutant and former child SHIELD agent, neither of which he wanted to discuss, ever. It's not that he didn't trust her with his life – she had proved many times over that she was capable of pulling her own weight and helping protect her teammates at the same time – it was that he didn't trust her with the softer parts of him he kept locked away. Hell, he didn't trust Rhodey or Pepper with that. The only person he did was JARVIS, and that was mostly because JARVIS couldn't tell anyone jack shit without his permission.

"You don't trust me," she stated. It wasn't a question.

"No, that's not exactly…" Tony swallowed around his dry tongue as he searched for the right words, "it's more like I'm worried that you don't trust me. Iron Man, yes, Tony Stark, not recommended, right?" Because if Romanov didn't trust him now, once she found out about his empathy, she might very well try to have him kicked off the team.

She was silent for a moment. "I was wrong."

Tony's fingers twitched in some sort of nervous tic. That was…possibly the first time someone had ever said they were wrong about him being a crappy human being. It wasn't that he denied that he was a horrible person – he had accepted that a long time ago – it was that he wanted people to trust him to do the right thing. A lot of people wouldn't - couldn't - do that. Tony let out a sigh, and started to tell the story. "You might not know this, but Howard, my father, was one of the founders of SHIELD. I had…" here he paused to gather himself, "a special ability, I guess. I'm a mutant, Romanov. An empath, with the ability to sense and manipulate emotions. To an extent. Howard was ecstatic when he found out, probably the only time he'd ever correlated something positive with me. He started, uh, using me for business deals. Making people trust him more and the competition less." Tony wasn't proud of that part of his history, and no matter what happened, he would always hate himself for manipulating people for such petty reasons.

"Did you ever fail?"

"Empathy isn't…I can't control people with it. I can make people trust more, but I can't control things like how much they're willing to spend. It didn't always work."

"How do you know Richardson, and why does he think you know SHIELD info?"

Tony let a grimace twist across his face. "As soon as my hands were big enough, Howard showed me how to use a gun. At twelve he started using me for SHIELD. It was never official, since it would be, well, illegal, but he did it anyway."

"And he experimented on you."

"Not just him."

"Do you know why Richardson wants the info on empathy?"

"He probably wants to further the research on it, or genetically engineer embryos with empathy. Or both."

Romanov fell silent after that. Tony was pathetically grateful for her matter-of-fact attitude about the whole thing. The idea of someone else knowing his secret was completely and utterly terrifying, and having them freak out on him would probably just make Tony more insecure and nervous. He had kept the whole thing quiet since Howard's death, and the idea of someone else knowing now after just over two decades of no one at all knowing was…scary. Confusing. Worrying.

"I am a manipulator," Romanov said suddenly. "I was trained since I was a baby to get people to trust me, to read my marks and figure out what they wanted. If people and the Avengers can trust me not to use those skills to their detriment, they had better do the same for you."

Tony let out a breathy laugh. "Did you just threaten the Avengers if they decide not to like the fact that I'm a natural-born empath, Romanov?"

"Maybe," Romanov replied in a vaguely impish manner, "and it's Natasha."

Tony stared blankly at the wall for a couple of seconds. Roma – Natasha had just given him permission to use her first name. Talk about kind of unexpected. He didn't call any of the Avengers by their first names, except for Bruce, because they were science bros, and Thor, who didn't have a last name. The idea of calling Natasha by her first name was…novel? Strange? Or something. "Nat?" he asked hopefully. Tony was famous for nothing if not pushing the limits.

"Idiot," she said, but he could hear the tiny sliver of affection in it now. "You don't need permission to use first names, once you've faced down Norse gods and killer robots and all those other insane snafus we deal with."

Tony laughed, and allowed happiness to curl up into the place behind his arc reactor, where guilt and loneliness normally rested. "So, I'm gonna smash this chair, then I'm gonna use the picks in my hems to get us out of here. Sound good?"

"You're insane."

"One of my many charms," Tony bantered as he started rocking back and forth on his toes and the hind legs of his chair. Once he had worked up some momentum, he snapped his chest forward and pushed off with his feet as much as he could to do a small midair flip and smash the back of the chair into the concrete floor. Tony succeeded the smaller remains of the wooden chair scattering around him, chunks of it still attached to him by ropes. His ribs, however, protested loudly and he felt one of them shift painfully. Tony allowed himself and single pained groan before he started to shimmy out of the ropes, careful of his ribs this time. It took him a couple minutes, but he managed it without causing himself any further damage.

Tony settled into a sitting position facing Nat, and paused when he saw that her head was tilted to the side, an amused smirk stretching across her lips. "I used that same move to get out of a similar situation just as the Loki incident was being called in," she admitted. "I think I did it with more style though."

Tony let out a startled chuckle at that. "Howard had me learn some combat, but mostly escape techniques. I was for espionage, not fighting. And being captured was only supposed to be a last resort. He seemed to think not teaching me how to deal with a situation would help me avoid it."

"Sounds like an asshole."

"Oh, he was, trust me," Tony drawled out his agreement as he deftly picked at the hems of his sleeves. Finally, he managed to wiggle out one of his lock picks and got to work. It took him a full five minutes to get one of his right hand and foot free. "Jesus, I'm rusty," he grumbled.

Nat smirked at him. "We'll have to work on that, won't we?"

Tony winced a bit. "I sense pain in my future. Lots of it."

"No pain, no gain, Agent."

Tony groaned and started working on Nat's bindings. "Don't call me Agent, damnit." The locks were simpler and older than the ones on his cuffs had been, but it still took him something like twelve minutes to get her out. "So, now we wait for our next visitors?" he asked.

"Yeah," Nat confirmed. "I think we have some time to get comfy."

"Wanna play chess? I can keep the board memorized."

Nat raised an eyebrow, as if she were skeptical. She agreed anyway, "Okay."

They did indeed have some time. By Tony's vaguely accurate internal clock, it was about four hours until they were graced with the oh-so-awe-inspiring presence of Richardson and Michael. Note the sarcasm, please.

Tony and Nat had decided to move towards the door so that they could get out in the small time between when the door slid open and when it closed. As it was, that might not have been totally necessary; Richardson was old, and there was no way around that, and Michael was not nearly as intimidating when his punching bag was able to fight back. Nat knocked Richardson out with a couple of quick, well-placed punches while Tony took Michael down with a well-timed simultaneous knee to the groin and elbow to the neck. They would both be out of it for a while.

"Do we need to go find your suit?" Nat asked quietly as they slunk down the concrete halls, watching for any attackers.

"It'll self-destruct if anyone but me tries to put it on," Tony explained flatly. He'd had his tech stolen and copied multiple times, and damn him if his suit was going to be used to hurt innocents ever again. Right now, getting out unscathed was more important than grabbing his (ridiculously heavy and difficult to put on without assistance) armor.

Nat nodded sharply. "Let's find the exit, then."

Tony swore as they turned the next corner. Four guards were there, probably on a patrol or rotation of some sort. Nat immediately leapt into action, her first mark dropping like a large black fly within moments. Tony hurriedly followed, working through the remaining three and leaving them for Nat to finish.

"I was never really taught how to fight, just to escape," Tony said grimly as they worked their way through the halls again. "Got me hurt too many damn times to count, too."

Nat didn't comment, but he didn't need her to, not really. The fact that she knew pretty much everything about him now and still treated him as a valuable teammate was enough for him. When they turned the next corner, Nat wordlessly pointed to the large EXIT sign over two double doors. Tony nodded, and they ran outside of the building.

They were in some seedy city district, judging by the sidewalks crowded with dilapidated buildings and barbed wire that popped up occasionally. They couldn't stop to watch the scenery or smell the roses because it was almost 100% likely that there were people after them. So they ran down the streets, sticking to the shadows as much as possible. The glow of Tony's arc reactor through the holes for it in his bodysuit didn't exactly help their stealth, though.

"What I wouldn't give for a cell phone right now," Tony muttered. "Then we could call Fury or something and get this over with in under five minutes."

Nat pulled the latest model of StarkPhone out of her pocket and pulled up the GPS. "We're in Oakland. We've been gone for about a day and a half."

Okay, what? "Where the hell did you get that?" Tony asked, surprised.

"I just relieved Richardson of this. I figured you wouldn't want someone like that with your tech."

"Relieved Richardson of…of course you did. Remind me never to get on your bad side, Nat." Tony hadn't even noticed her checking Richardson's pockets. That was kinda creepy.

Nat smirked at him before returning her gaze to the StarkPhone as they continued jogging down the streets. She tapped in a number before lifting it to her ear. "…Hello Agent Hill. This is Agent Romanov with Stark. We're in Oakland, California…Ridgewood and Clarke…dark blue Lexus RX?...sure."

"So, we're waiting for someone to pick us up?" Tony arched an eyebrow.

"Apparently." Her irritated grimace was enough to tell Tony that Nat agreed with him on the impracticality.

Tony fidgeted as they waited for a car matching the description Hill had given to show up. Nat seemed totally calm and relaxed, but it was always hard to tell what she was really thinking. For a moment, Tony was tempted to drop his walls and figure out what was going through her mind. He grimaced inwardly at that. Just because Nat had said that she wouldn't judge him for his abilities didn't mean she would be entirely comfortable with him monitoring what she was feeling every second of the day. If he brought his walls down, it wouldn't be just her emotions he could sense; it would be everyone's. Tony suspected that a lot of them wouldn't feel as neutral towards it as Nat and Fury were. And there was also the fact that if Tony dropped his walls completely, he wasn't entirely sure he would limit the use of his powers to keep Bruce from hulking out at awkward times.

Not to mention, Tony didn't really want to know what everyone thought of him all the time. Rodgers especially; he knew the man didn't think much of him and considered him pretty much worthless out of the suit. Tony knew that, intellectually, but the idea of being faced with the cold hard facts of that was cringe-worthy and panic-attack-inducing enough by itself.

Eventually, the car pulled up, and he and Nat climbed into the back wordlessly. The trip to the closest helicopter pad and the to the helicarrier was silent, but Nat's presence gave him the stability he would need to give a report on this and figure out what the hell to do with whatever it was Richardson was planning.