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I was stiff and irritable the next morning, my voice dull after last night's screams. The moment I'd been dragged back down into unconsciousness, the dream had popped up again to play right from the beginning – only this time it had played all the way through, uninterrupted.
I'd never been so glad to wake up.
I plonked myself down at the table, my resolve further sharpened by last night to form some sort of escape plan. Of course, that was easier said than done.
"Sleep well?" Tony enquired as I made a grab at the toast rack. There were dark rings under my eyes, and my hair seemed to have turned into a nest for some sort of exotic wildfowl. My answering glare could've melted stone.
"Fine, be like that," he huffed.
I had a piece of toast in my hand before I remembered that I'd need a knife to butter it. The memory of the scalpel in Doctor Winters' hand made a pellet of bile rise in my throat.
I poured myself a bowl of cereal instead. Spoons. Much safer.
The table was surprisingly empty; Tony was sitting at the head munching on a piece of toast, eyes fixed on the screen of his laptop, and Clint had briefly joined us to help himself to waffles – I wouldn't have placed him as a waffle kind of guy. Otherwise, the place was strangely silent.
"Where is everyone?"
Tony shrugged, still somewhat injured by my frosty reception. "Who knows? It's a big place, even if I do say so myself. I'd guess Banner's in the lab-"
"-Nat's in the gym," Clint muttered, the majority of his attention devoted to working syrup into every pore of his waffle.
"Cap's usually there too. Has a thing with punch bags." Tony wiggled his eyebrows.
Hmm. So everyone was otherwise occupied. I considered the possibilities – today would probably be ideal for having a quiet snoop around without being interrupted. Check out the security systems, the exits, even the rounds of the guards (if there were any).
Something must've shown on my face, and Tony leapt at the slight giveaway. "Aw, not leaving us so soon are you? And just as you were becoming bearable."
"Who said anything about leaving?" I asked sweetly, the picture of innocence.
"Didn't I tell you? My face is a compulsive liar. I have no intentions of escaping." Today, at least. Today, I was merely planning my escape. Unless, of course, an ideal opportunity happened to come along. Like an unattended, open door. I wouldn't be able to resist.
Tony grunted, no doubt in amused disbelief, but went back to whatever it was he was doing that seemingly required him to hammer the spacebar energetically.
I took his silence as a cue to leave. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Or in my case, when life gives you a decided lack of superheroes, you make an… escape plan?
I returned to my room, and after a quick shower, changed into some fresh clothes. The sheer volume of jumpsuits with plunging 'v' necklines made me wrinkle my nose in distaste, but eventually I managed to dig out another pair of black jeans, coupled with a grey tank top and black jacket. They'd even managed to find a pair of lace-up sneakers in my size. For a moment, I felt a brief surge of warmth for my captors-come-hosts. In a way, I guessed they weren't so bad.
Focus, I admonished myself. This is no time for sentiment.
I had no idea of which way to go, but down was a pretty good option. Ground floor meant doors, and doors meant freedom.
Feeling rather conspicuous, and more than a little guilty, I slunk down the corridor, and down the seemingly endless flight of stairs, plunging further into the underbelly of Stark Tower.
At the table, Tony Stark grinned to himself, and sipped from his cup of coffee.
Navigation had become strangely easy now that I wasn't consumed by blind panic. I was able to spot the simple pattern of the building's layout, how the corridors sat at right angles to one another in square loops like the ribs of some mammoth beast. A staircase descended to the lower levels in a tight spiral, a thin metal handrail the only thing between me and a dizzying several storey drop that only seemed to serve the purpose of emphasising the size of the place, and intimidating any visitor within. Let me tell you, it worked a treat.
I came across a set of sleek metal doors without handles, fitted snugly into the walls on every floor I came across, that despite my curious tugging refused to budge. I eventually gave up, concluding that they led somewhere where my eyes weren't welcome. Otherwise, why would they be locked?
I jogged down flight of stairs after flight of stairs, and pretty quickly I'd worked up a sweat, and my breath rattled painfully in the back of my throat. I was clearly out of shape, but it felt good to move after such a long period of paralysis; I enjoyed the sensation of my legs propelling me along at an effortless pace.
I had come up with the theory that since this was a tower, the only exits I could possibly use were going to be right at the bottom where the base finally touched down in the midst of the city. Unless of course I suddenly sprouted wings, in which case I was spoilt for choice with the vast number of windows I could throw myself out of.
I eventually reached a huge room with whitewashed walls and a flagstone floor, the sort you might see in a magazine. A desk made of some kind of richly coloured wood ran along one wall. Expensive furniture was scattered around with the careless air of someone with too much money to spend, and strange, exotic pot plants were crammed into every corner. Maybe this was some sort of lobby? Large black security cameras were perched hawklike on the ceiling, not even attempting to be inconspicuous. The sight made the back of my neck itch, as if someone were standing just behind me.
I curled my hands into fists at my sides, and inhaled deeply, composing myself. Easy. I'm looking, not leaving.
Right in front of me, the wall was a transparent sheet of glass, with a gigantic pair of double doors set into its polished surface. I was now at ground level - my heart did a little gymnastics display as I gazed out at the pedestrians ambling by without a care in the world, and the cars roaring past in very direction. A tempting cross-section of life was being proffered to me on a silver platter, and yet it was muted; the sounds not quite as sharp, the colours not quite as bright, the warmth and fervour of the moment dulled through the filter of glass as if that might help soften the pang I felt whenever I saw the life that I could never have.
I stepped closer, my eyes fixed greedily on the door, but at the same time making sure to keep my arms at my sides, and my posture loose and relaxed. At least that was how I hoped it came across. Letting my palms fall to the doors' handles, I gave a hesitant tug, then a push, not really expecting any sort of give. I was right; they were locked somehow, probably electronically given Tony's frankly religious faith in fancy tech. There had to be some sort of keypad, or trigger...
I let my gaze swirl around the room, and my eyes alighted on the computer behind the desk.
I swung myself into the chair, let myself whirl around a couple of times (man, I loved swivel chairs!), and impatiently jabbed the power button. The screen lit up as the machine whirred into reluctant life.
"Shoot!" I muttered. A box had popped up onto the screen, demanding a password that I didn't have.
I ran frustrated fingers through my hair and tried to resist the urge to just take the stupid machine and throw it through the window. That would get me out, sure. But it would also get me a heap and helping of unwanted attention, and possibly even a few police cars to boot. And that would land me right back at square one.
"Miss, Mr Stark has asked you to return upstairs."
"What the...?" I leapt up from my seat, searching for the source of the smooth emotionless voice that had echoed through the room just seconds before. The room was completely empty. Just me. But I had definitely heard a voice, the words as clearly spoken as if their owner had been standing just a few feet away. It hadn't been a hallucination - had it? The last thing I needed right now was to start losing my marbles.
"Hello?" I called uncertainly.
I jumped violently. I most certainly hadn't imagined it that time. "Who are you? And where are you?"
"My name is JARVIS. And I'm afraid the location of my central system is classified."
"Hmm. JARVIS. Catchy."
"Thank you." There wasn't an ounce of emotion in those clipped syllables. Clearly this 'JARVIS' had a very poor sense of sarcasm.
"And the reason I can't see you is because...?" My fear had quickly curdled into annoyance.
"I am an AI miss. I have no physical form." This time his voice was shaded faintly with regal disdain. "I'm assuming Mr Stark hasn't told you about me."
"No." Mr Stark - that had to be a laugh. In my mind he was either Tony or Dumbass."Why, has he told you about me?"
I scowled at his cordial tone. As usual, I was being kept out of the loop. One step behind everyone else.
"As I said miss, Mr Stark requires you-"
"Yeah, yeah, I heard." I brushed off JARVIS' reminder. I still couldn't believe that Tony Stark's best bud was a computer. Scarily, that seemed to make some sort of sense. "Quit whinging will you?"
The computer fell into an offended silence. It seemed like I'd finally discovered his mute button.
What was more interesting was that I'd been summoned back upstairs – maybe down here I'd gotten too close to success, in fact so close that I'd made him call my bluff.
Just then, the metal doors set into the wall slid open, seemingly of their own accord, and Tony stepped out, wearing his trademark smirk. "Miss me?"
"Not particularly," I replied shortly.
"That's very rude, considering that you're my guest."
"More like prisoner. I can't even take a walk without one of you dogging my heels." I rolled my eyes. "Anyhow, I though I was supposed to be coming up to you, not the other way around."
He shrugged. "I got bored. Pretty easy to do when you're me."
"Oh, the horror," I said dryly. "By the way, I love the robot butler."
He grimaced. "I forgot you and C3PO hadn't been introduced."
"I though he was called JARVIS?"
He looked baffled. "C3PO? Starwars joke? No?"
It was my turn to shrug. "What's Starwars?"
"Only the pinnacle of human achievement." His patronising tone spoke volumes.
He stepped back behind the doors, and gestured for me to follow him into a tiny metal cubicle, with mirrored walls and a shiny panel of buttons.
"What is this?" I gingerly followed Stark's lead.
"It's an elevator. It takes us between floors, much faster than stairs."
"Why do you have stairs then?"
He grinned. "Exercise."
"How does this… thing even work?"
He pushed one of the buttons, and adopted a spooky voice. "Witchcraft…"
"Hilarious," I muttered.
The doors slammed shut, and though one buckled slightly as I tried to prise them apart, they held firm. Bubbles of panic rose in my throat. "You have got to be kidding me," I growled.
"Hey, cool it will you?"
The floor juddered beneath my feet, and then a tug in my gut told me we were rising, fast, with only a thin platform of metal between certain death and us. The tiny, windowless box made me feel like I was in some sort of coffin. My ears popped painfully as we continued to shoot upwards, the floor seeming to pitch from side to side like a ship in a storm. I grabbed the handrail to steady myself, and when I let go my handprint had been crushed into the steel. Sometimes I forgot my own strength.
I was only too happy to stumble out into the open as soon as the doors slid open once more.
"Jeez, what was that?" Tony asked, sauntering out after me.
I puffed out a shaky breath. "It just kind of freaks me out, being trapped in a dark, airless box. What if it just… stopped? Or what if whatever held it up broke, and we fell right to the bottom?"
"It scares you that much?"
I shrugged, embarrassed. "Sort of. I guess it takes some getting used to."
"And yet you can jump four storeys without batting an eyelid?"
I laughed, a harsh noise in the back of my throat. "That was different. I had no other choice. Anyway, I had space then." I struggled for words, to explain how the elevator's walls had pressed down on me from every side. "It was too… small in there." I mustered a smile. "I'd rather take the stairs next time."
His face was serious. "I'll give you some advice: those doors downstairs are remotely locked. The only way to operate them is through JARVIS by voice command."
I groaned. Typical. I cheese off the only computer able to bust me out of here.
"He's been programmed not to respond to orders you give him." He smiled thinly. "Fury was very thorough. Oh, and that glass is shatterproof. The worst you'll do to it is crack it, and then pay to repair it."
"I don't have any money."
"So don't crack it."
A thought occurred to me. "You were watching. You knew I'd go sniffing around for the exit."
He snorted. "Of course. I'm not called Tony Stark for nothing."
My temper flared. "I though you were all for letting me go," I said hotly.
"You should be thanking me!" He seemed indignant, like this was somehow my fault. "I hauled you back up here before you did something stupid and got yourself into even more trouble."
At that moment, I couldn't bear to look at him, to be in the same room as him. I thought he was on my side. I though he was going to help me. "Where's the gym?"
I turned away. "I need to blow off some steam."
The gym was impressive: a vaulted, airy room with dimmed lighting, and a shooting range tacked onto the side. Mats were laid out on the floor - no doubt for bouts of hand-to-hand combat - and other equipment lined the walls, all brand new and begging to be used. Two or three punch bags were slung up in the corner.
A cupboard was tucked behind the entrance, its door swinging open carelessly; I peered inside only to be greeted with a wide array of weapons, ranging from small handheld pistols, to hefty black clubs, to- were those swords? My eyes were drawn to a slim bladed knife right at the back. Part of the blade peeked out of its sheath, glinting wickedly in the half-light. It was small enough to sneak down my trousers, hopefully without tracing an outline against my leg. My fingers itched; no one would miss it.
I snuck a glance over my shoulder. Natasha was on the shooting range, and even through the soundproofed glass I could hear the steady thunk of bullets. The only person in the room with me was Steve, who was intent on beating the pulp out of a punchbag.
There were probably cameras, but I didn't care. I stuck my hand in, pulled the knife out, wincing at the grating of metal on metal, and unceremoniously shoved it down past my waistband, cradling it next to my thigh where hopefully no one would see it.
I hadn't been stopped. Heady with my success, I decided to join Steve over at the punch bags. Now, I had a weapon.
I took the punch bag next to him. I had no idea whether there was any sort of technique involved, but it didn't exactly look hard. I lashed out, and my fist met the sacking with a satisfying thump.
There was something appealing about how my knuckles sang after every punch, and the rhythmic beat of skin on fabric, a sound that I could lose myself in.
When I finally stepped back, my back was sticky with sweat, and my knuckles blushed purple with bruises. In places the skin had split.
Steve had also stopped. We hadn't spoken since my hysterics the night before. I probably should have felt embarrassed or something, but I'd channelled everything into the punch bag, and now I felt strangely calm - a blank canvas.
"Better?" he asked.
"Yeah," I panted.
He suppressed a smile.
"What?" I demanded.
"Nothing, just… Your technique is terrible."
I chuckled weakly. "I guessed that would be the case."
"Was it Tony? It's usually Tony."
"Partly. It's…" I sighed, gesticulating with my hands. "It's everything. My situation as a whole."
He nodded seriously. "I get it."
I was half tempted to tell him hotly that he had absolutely no idea, but something in his eyes stopped me. The memory of him hugging me silently, patiently, until the tears had run out stopped me.
"You're the only person who does." I threw a half-hearted punch at the bag. "Apart from Tony when he isn't on Arsehole setting." I considered. "Although he's always on Arsehole setting."
He gaped at me. "Did you just crack a joke?"
I laughed. Properly. The weird sound coming from my mouth almost made me flinch. "I guess I did."
"About last night-" he began.
My defences shot back up. "Don't."
"Look, it was a bad dream. That's all." A dream that made my skin crawl when I so much as mentioned it.
He nodded, my icy tones declaring the topic off-limits. "I just wanted to know if you were okay."
"I'm fine. Honestly," I lied. "Now how about teaching me how to throw a proper punch?"
He leapt on the chance to change the subject, and I abandoned my thoughts in order to actually learn something. If I was honest, I was bored, and needed something to take my mind off things. I also only had a week, a ticking expiry date within which I had to do something rather than moping around feeling sorry for myself.
Steve gave me a quick demonstration, and then I wrapped my knuckles like he showed me, and had a go. By the time lunchtime finally rolled round, I could barely flex my fingers. Although, according to Steve I'd marginally improved.
Marginally hadn't exactly been what I was aiming for, but any improvement was better than nothing. And, as I touched the lump in my jeans where my knife was hidden, I grimly reasoned that I was going to need all the improvement I could get.