46 Chapter 45: All the world's a stage.

Stark was compromised. Severely so.

Rogers was AWOL, running after his boyfriend as if everything would fix itself if only he found him.

Thor wasn't coming, having at long last drawn a line between his duty as a foreign alien prince and as their teammate.

Clint… Clint was tired. The toll of being merely human, however gifted, in a constant struggle against supernatural threats had started to make itself known. He was obviously thinking of retirement, though he hadn't shared the news with her yet.

Bruce made no secret of his wish for retirement, but unlike Clint, he wouldn't be allowed to simply leave. With what happened in Johannesburg, however… He was, no doubt, less inclined to wait for permission.

Natasha cursed in her mind, wishing she wouldn't have to think about this. But after all this time and what Ultron had done to the team, she wasn't sure there was going to be a team in the future.

She held in a laugh. They were being played with. Ultron called himself a puppet? There were people with strings here, but it certainly wasn't Ultron.

But… World Peace?

World Peace… was worth it. Whatever the methods, whatever the price, it was something worth killing for. She could understand Ultron on this.

But that wasn't it. Not his dream, or intention, or motive. Every instinct she had, everything she knew, was raging against this vague hope that this was all there is to Ultron's plans. She had known for a while now that there was more, and Stark confirmed it.

War was coming. An existential war. Perhaps. Not certain in any way, and probably more fiction than truth.

Still, planetary unity would only help on that cause, but… when she saw Ultron, she didn't see a leader, nor a general. She didn't see someone with dreams and ambition, but someone like her. Someone desperate, and drowning. Someone who was going through the motions, praying that the next one would make them feel something. Someone, who when they died, wanted to say, "I did my best. I was good." knowing it would be a lie.

Stark saw a son, a brother, a fellow genius, a man who shared the same dream as him. He saw a master player on the other side of the chessboard.

But what Stark didn't understand was that he and Ultron weren't even playing the same game. Stark's field was that of chess, but Ultron's hands held cards. Stark led by logic and countermoves; Ultron dealt with luck and hope and prayer, as he gambled everything he had.

Where Stark saw distractions and ingenious moves and suicidal goals, she saw ruined plans, abandoned ideas, and the improvisations of someone who kept losing every round but refused to give in.

Perhaps, she was wrong. Ultron wasn't human, after all. But, she was rarely wrong.

Regardless, she was sure of one thing: Ultron didn't plan on dying.

Natasha took a left, the motorcycle passing past the slow-moving cars, making her way to the church. Iron Man, who had been flying close by, waved a hand before speaking. "I'll be going ahead, Red!" He then increased his speed, thrusters sending him out of her sight.

Natasha sped. Regardless of how much Stark hurried, he'd only arrive a couple of minutes before her.

Predictably, she was soon able to see the church. JARVIS had said that Ultron was most likely there, and knowing the dramatics the AI preferred to indulge in, he could very well be there, instead of hidden in a safe house somewhere in South America.

She parked her motorcycle in a nook in-between buildings to keep it out of sight. Then, instead of entering the abandoned church, she ran to the back and searched for a good place on its upper floor windows to throw her hook. Finding one, she connected the thin metal wire she had brought with her belt, before she started climbing up the wall. Unlike Stark, she wasn't about to make her presence known by going in through the front entrance. Especially since she didn't know when backup was going to arrive. Well, pseudo-backup, when Clint became able to find a place for the Quinjet because urban areas weren't the best place to fly a jet over. Bruce had chosen to remain in the jet, unless something went completely out of hand and the Hulk became needed.

The moment her feet landed on the upper floor, she heard music. A soft, mournful piano sound.

"They tell me I'm too young to understand,"

She could make out a voice singing. A familiar male voice.

She walked closer, though there wasn't a lot of space. The upper floor of the church was only an open space, so that those in the church nave could view the arch and mosaics above. There was some solid stone for her beside the windows of the clerestory, at least. Thankfully, she found a position that allowed her to view the interior of the church.

"They say I'm caught up in a dream,"

She confirmed whose voice it was that sang. At the place where a choir would usually be, a piano had been moved. Ultron sat there, in his child persona, and played. Obviously, JARVIS was right regarding Ultron's theatrical tendencies.

"Well, life will pass me by if I don't open up my eyes," he sang.

"Well, that's fine by me."

He sang well, Natasha could admit that. But he acted even better. For what could this elaborate performance be but an act?

The melody picked up speed. "So wake me up when it's all over,"

She saw Stark and JARVIS sitting in one of the front benches, the Iron Man armor still in place, but with no helmet on.

What was going on? If Stark wished to help Ultron, wished to save him, shouldn't he be rushing over to stop him, to talk to him? This song… it wasn't a happy one. She had heard the original. This wasn't it. That had been a celebration of life's journey. This sounded like—

"When I'm wiser, and I'm older,"

"All this time I was finding myself, and I,"

—a goodbye.

"I didn't know I was," Ultron paused, fingers stilled, the instrumental accompaniment ending. "Lost."

Although the song was over, the AI kept sitting at the piano. He then spoke, somewhat loudly. "Ms. Romanov, Mr. Barton, it is good to have you join us."

"Red's here already?" Stark asked.

Natasha didn't startle at his observation. It would have been difficult to hide from a being like Ultron. She did check to see where Clint was, however, for she hadn't seen him enter. She finally noticed him squatting at a window sill, on the other side of the church. Their gazes met.

"Quite kind of you to wait for the end of my performance." Ultron continued. "I appreciate it. Would you do us the honor of coming down?"

Natasha looked at Clint at the question. He shook his head. Nodding, to show she understood, she then left her hiding spot and jumped onto the first floor.

"Thank you." Ultron said. "And Mr. Barton?"

"He likes high places." she said.

"I see. Very well then." he agreed. "Is there something you'd like me to play for you?"

"Is this what it is? A recital?"

Ultron nodded. He started to play the melody of his version of "Wake me up" on the piano again, even as he spoke. "The first and the last, Ms. Romanov. So, any requests?"

Stark stood up, JARVIS doing the same by his side. "Hey, you didn't let me request anything!" Stark argued.

"You are an exception, Mr. Stark." Ultron said serenely, hitting a few higher notes as he did so.

Ignoring the banter, she cut to the point. Sometimes, there was no need to manipulate the truth out of people. "I've been told you've been thinking of suicide."

Ultron rolled his eyes. "I wonder where that came from?"

"For the record, I don't appreciate all this sass from you." Stark said. "Was I saying anything untrue?"

"No," Ultron said. "But proving something as not false, doesn't make it necessarily true."

"A last resort?" Natasha asked.

He paused for a moment, thinking his answer over, before addressing her. "Something to consider if things seem too bleak, no?"

"My apologies for interrupting your riveting conversation on suicidal ideation," JARVIS said, looking at Ultron. "But I must ask, would you mind giving us the Mind Stone?"

Ultron's fingers hit a few wrong notes before stopping altogether.

"That was a fast turn. I thought you more patient, JARVIS." the AI said. He sounded just the same, serene. But Natasha could feel herself freeze.

The lack of music had suddenly made the space feel hollow somehow. The heavy silence seeping on abandoned stone and painted glass, causing invisible shivers to rain down her spine; her training the only thing keeping them contained. Something had changed.

Ultron stood up.

Natasha took a step back. They were in danger.

"I wished to sing at least one more song." Ultron said, sounding truly sorrowful.

Her hand reached for the gun in her holster, but she didn't even have a chance to raise it in the AI's direction.

Her muscles strained against a resistance that hadn't been there before. Her lips froze, pursed and unchanged, and her eyelids wouldn't blink.

Natasha stared at the now smiling AI in front of her.

She couldn't move.

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