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A Study in Crimson and Viridian: Part I

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Three months before the Chitauri invasion, in another universe, Reed Richards develops a two-point singularity power source. It is his hope that with this new creation, the uncertainty engine he's been working on can finally be put to the test. Essentially, the engine would work as an observational device, allowing him to peer past the veil of the universe into other, similar, realities.

He calls it The Bridge.

In the aftermath of the civil war between the superheroes, with Norman Osborn taking control, Reed commits himself to finding a solution. To better analyze the situation, he would need to dissect the events of the previous year, comparing the data of the events of this universe to that of other realities.

The universe is timeless and the realities are endless. Of the infinity-and-one possibilities, he manages to narrow his search to about 418 realities in which the legislated superhero registration act did not result in a conflict within the metahuman community. He sweeps through those, studying the histories of variant Earths. Years are condensed to minutes or seconds—he does not know—and he observes with all the objectivity of a scientist the possibility of Tony Stark's involvement as being a common factor in prolonged conflict.

Not all the realities mirror his Earth in likeness, but he is more interested in the events than the architecture. He takes note of particular case studies in which conflict is averted altogether when Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (or Natasha, in some instances, and Stephanie in others) are romantically involved.

Other times, Reed's stomach churns with the situations The Bridge presents him with. They are barbaric and cruel at their worst, and at their best, serve only to amplify his guilt for his involvement in the war.

He is lost in his thoughts, only half paying attention to the stream of footage, when the reality shifts into the next one. At first, it appears to be another instance where a female Tony Stark becomes involved with Rogers, and Reed is making another note regarding Stark's detrimental influence when—

Oh?

He pauses the timeline, almost a second too late as the world seems to already be dissolving along the fringes into the next reality. For a moment, he can only blink as his brilliant mind tries to register what he has seen. What he thought he saw …

The action in itself is pointless, for the images are being projected directly into his mind. Nevertheless, it dispels the transitory shock in favor of familiar curiosity and he instructs the computer with his mind to feed him all relevant information pertaining to the reality he is being shown.

Earth-199990, he is informed, a reality that features much of the same as his Earth, though there seems to be some differentiations in historical events and a pointedly evident lack of super hero activity. Xavier and his mutants struggle, as always, to fit into this world, but as far as superhumans go, this universe produces them sluggishly. He finds 'himself' and the other Four, but they lead markedly simpler lives with only the occasional resurgence of Doom. Every now and then, Magneto appears to disrupt the peace, but this reality's Magneto has only recently declared his war against the 'primitives' and Xavier's kids do a fair job handling him and his followers.

He shifts his focus to the few other heroes, sifting through their timelines within this Earth and searching…

Nothing.

No war.

There is an incident, which leads to a call for all self-proclaimed 'heroes' to register with the government. It is resolved without conflict and without the identities of any hero being unwillingly compromised. The SRA is rejected, and later, the MRA is retracted. There is peace and acceptance—or as close as the Earth can get to a semblance of it. There are still those who would challenge it, but the heroes of this reality seem to have one unlikely advantage.

Loki.

It is difficult for Reed to focus his thoughts and The Bridge responds by projecting dozens of images in answer to each question that pops up in his head. Of the infinity-and-one realities, of the 418 worlds in which the Civil War between superhumans had been resolved peacefully or avoided altogether, Earth-199990 depicts a reality where, while far from perfect, is relatively—enviously —more stable than Reed's Earth or any other he's seen.

Clearing his mind as best he can, he focuses on the God of Mischief. Loki's timeline is then stretched out before his mind's eye, overlaid above the images of the other reality. It is a glowing green line running erratically throughout the over-arching timeline of the reality and Reed traces it as far back as he can, until he comes to the God's first interference with Earth. From there, he moves forward along the timeline, this time trading his attention between Loki's timeline and what is going on in the world.

Immediately, he cannot discern how Loki could have possibly influenced this reality positively. He follows the timeline to a point he estimates would roughly coincide with Reed's reality, but though the issue of registration arises, it is nothing as drastic as what Reed and this Earth experienced.

Reed hesitates.

Then, telling himself he will not look into his own timeline or that of the Fantastic Four, he pushes forward along Loki's timeline. In any event, this is not my future, he reasons with himself. It is already so different from his own reality that he doubts the future of the reality in Earth-199990 would reflect his Earth.

Reed skims Loki's future, forcibly restraining himself from indulging in curiosity more than he already has. As a result, many events make little sense to him, and at one point he is tempted to retrace his steps across the timeline when he sees the mythic city of Asgard hovering over the rural plains of Oklahoma. Eventually, he relents that there is nothing to learn of the future and his pursuit has only heightened his accursed curiosity.

Going back to the 'present', Reed pauses the timeline again to think.

This reality is so very much what he desires for his own, but he cannot determine the key events which allowed for it to happen.

He permits the timeline to play out again from Loki's origin on Earth, this time taking care to examine every detail.

The timeline begins with only a faint intimation of the God in the form of the Destroyer, which is eventually defeated by Thor. There is a year of absence, and then Loki appears once more, in pursuit of the Cosmic Cube. Reed cannot see into the timeline beyond Loki's actions on Earth, but he expects the God must be allied with another. This Loki is powerful, but in a strange way, he appears young and almost uncertain of himself. It is not a Loki he is familiar with and Reed studies him with interest.

And then—

Yes. There it is.

What first drew his attention to the timeline when the images had been flickering through his mind, before he'd become distracted by the events of Earth-199990. He'd thought it a trick of his mind, perhaps. But no. There it was again.

Reed slows the pace of the timeline so that minutes are days rather than years. He needs to understand.

This is what he sees.

Chapter Text

Earth-199990

Two Years Before Registration Act…

She is simply Stark. Sometimes, it's Ms. Stark, but only by those on her payroll—or Agent Coulson. It's Natasha when Pepper is feeling friendly, and Natasha Stark only when the media can't find an appropriately catchy title to describe her latest scandal. Early in her youth, she had done everything in her power to eliminate the moniker Howard's girl. She has since been lauded as a genius, her brilliance earning her the recognition from the world, even if her father couldn't be bothered to care.

Natasha Stark is a genius, but that doesn't mean she is always in control of her thoughts. More often than not, they tend to follow completely arbitrary paths that maybe, sometimes, prove useful. She sees everything, observes everything, and multitasking comes as easily to her as breathing. Which is good, because if she isn't blasting music at ungodly decibels, she is very easily distracted.

For example:

Nick Fury had called her in (had been calling her for some time now, but she'd been 'busy') to update her on the situation in the Arctic. She isn't interested—Howard Stark's obsessions were not her own—but Pepper was angry with her today and so Natasha had decided it was in her best interest to let the other woman cool off. Fury is late, which is a rare but not unwelcome treat, so Natasha entertains herself by having JARVIS hack into S.H.E.I.L.D.'s mainframe.

She is the image of perfect composure when a shock of red hair sweeps past her peripheral and she glances up from her Stark phone with a wolfish grin.

"Hi, Natalie!"

"Hello, Stark."

Natasha Romanoff's mouth twists into something that's supposed to be a smirk, two parts amused, one part something else that may not be unlike Pepper's fondly exasperated frowns. Green eyes flicker to the Stark phone in her hands.

"What are you up to, Stark?"

The screen of the Stark phone is transparent, and since Natasha doesn't doubt Romanoff's ability to read backwards, she had already pulled up a perfectly innocuous picture of a dog trying to copulate with a cat.

"Waiting for the arrival of our esteemed leader. Well, your esteemed leader. Well, leader. Seen him? It isn't polite to keep a lady waiting, you know."

"You're no lady, Stark," Barton remarks easily as he enters the conference room, eyeing the phone in her hands before exchanging a wordless look with Romanoff.

Natasha plucks at the collar of her well-worn AC/DC shirt, reclining more comfortably in her chair and leers. "I'm incognito, right now. Trust me, I'm a lady. I'm lotsa lady. I can give you a demonstration, if you'd like?"

Barton just shakes his head and declines to comment, taking a seat with Romanoff across the table from Natasha. Idly, Natasha wonders if Romanoff had been waiting for her partner before making herself comfortable. A blip in her ear—via a tiny, wireless earpiece—draws her attention back to her phone. A few finger swipes and the picture of the horny dog is replaced with a window of running code. She types a quick command then pulls up footage of fainting goats.

She's caught somewhere between a pout and a smile when she realizes she's being watched. She looks up to see Romanoff and Barton staring at her with eerily similar expressions that are just as unreadable.

Natasha turns her phone to them. "This is so sad and so cute at the same time. And hilarious. But I probably shouldn't laugh. It's terrible." She shakes her head solemnly and goes back to the video of spontaneously collapsing goats. "Hey, how come you guys are here? I thought Fury wanted to talk to me about his man-crush on my dad."

"Please don't ever utter those words again, and who knows? We just come when we're called," Barton replies.

Natasha's eyes flick up with a lewd smirk and she winks.

Eventually, Romanoff and Barton seem to decide that whatever she's up to can't be that bad (silly, silly, assassins) or they simply don't care.

"Oh yeah, Nat, when are you taking off?" Barton asks offhandedly, apparently picking up on some previous conversation.

The discussion itself holds no interest for her. The two speak in a sort of coded language that Natasha doesn't care enough to decipher. For some reason, however, her brain latches onto one word: Nat. Suddenly, she finds herself analyzing every interaction she's ever had with someone and she realizes, quite abruptly, that she is simply Stark.

She doesn't really know what to do with this revelation, but it occurs to her that she can count on one hand the number of people who've called her Natasha and said it with any measurement of fondness.

She supposes it's really her own fault if no one has ever felt close enough with her to bestow some sort of moniker. Even Rhodey alternated between 'Natasha' and 'Stark' as flippantly as Pepper. And Natasha didn't question their loyalty or the validity of their friendship, but it was … a thought. She was 'Stark' before she was 'Natasha' and she was 'Stark' before even, on occasion, 'Iron Woman'.

Another blip in her ear and she was distracted from her thoughts by her phone and—holyfuckinshit!

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Stark?"

Natasha jumps, looking up to see Fury's good eye glaring at her from the door. Romanoff and Barton are at attention, but they're giving her a look that Natasha translates to mean: Seriously?

She's not paying attention, shooting up from her seat and waving her phone erratically at Fury. "What am I doing? What are you doing? Is this for real?" Natasha thinks she sees a little muscle in Fury's cheek twitch with the intensity of his glower. She rolls her eyes dramatically, snorting. "Oh, don't give me that look. You're the one who's like an hour late. You didn't think I was just gunna sit around twiddling my thumbs, did you?"

"I should throw your ass in jail, you little shit," Fury grumbles, jerking his head and sweeping out the door, long-coat flaring behind him. "Come on, then. And call off your damn AI, Stark."

.0.0.0.

It's anticlimactic, in a way.

Years of Howard Stark waxing lyrical about the man, and here he is, still half in ice with a medical staff of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s finest bumbling around trying to keep his vitals sustained. Not that Natasha thinks it will be an issue. She doesn't ask for permission when she snags the medical tablet from the attending physician, flipping through the reports and scans they'd done thus far. He's only getting stronger, and while the physician hesitates to assure them that the soldier could be up and running within a month's time, Natasha knows it's really more like a week. Tops.

She frowns, for once at a loss for words.

What the hell could she say, anyway?

It was Captain-frickin'-America.

"How long?" she asks, instead.

"Fished him outta the ocean a couple of days ago. Weren't sure if he was even—Well. It took a while to cut through all that ice without damaging the body."

Barton whistles. "Man, Coulson's gunna shit himself."

"Do we know if there will be any lasting damage?" Romanoff asks. "I assume the ice is what kept him so well preserved, but even then, it's like he hasn't aged a day. Is this because of the serum?"

"I don't know and I don't know. We won't know if there will be any sort of cerebral damage until he wakes up—if he wakes up."

"He will," Natasha interjects. She hands the medical tablet back to its disgruntled owner. "That's not the issue, though."

Fury looks annoyed but Natasha can't begin to fathom what she's done to piss him off now. He should have gotten over the hacking thing by now, right?

"Yeah, smartass? What is, then?"

She smiles sardonically. "Guy's been out for—what, seventy years? Dude slept through, like, three different wars, 'bout fourteen different Presidents, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, Star Wars, the Internet, nine-eleven and into a friggin' global recession."

Barton sniffs, "Well, when you put it like that…"

"Obviously, we'll have to assimilate him into society gradually," Romanoff observes without the dramatics.

"Good luck!" Barton says, suddenly. Natasha isn't expecting it when Barton claps her none-too-gently on the back and she jerks forward with the motion, grimacing at him when she recovers.

"What?"

"We need to get him up to speed on the future, right? Who better than the girl who built it?"

She leers at the marksman, "Flattery gets you everywhere with me, Barton." He rolls his eyes, unimpressed, and removes his hand. "But that's a stupid idea."

"For once, Stark, I agree with you," Fury glowers.

Natasha smirks. "It pains you, doesn't it?"

He ignores her. "We'll have to figure something out. It's probably a good idea to stay out of his sight, Stark. I'll keep you updated on his status."

"Sounds good. Yeah. I'd probably break the poor bastard with my level of awesome. You're asking me not to come down and play soldier? I think I can do that. Dunno what I could possibly fill the time with—but, I'm sure I can find something."

"Shut up, Stark," Fury glares at her as if he expects that would actually work. "Once we get him sorted, we'll ask you to come in. It'll probably help to surround him with as much of the forty's as possible."

"I'm not from the forty's," Natasha replies automatically, but there's an edge to her tone now and she can't gloss over it with arrogance and irony quickly enough for them not to notice.

"No, but your dad was and I have it on good authority that Howard was a good friend of the Captain's."

The comparison to her father was irritating. "I feel dirty and used."

Barton snorts. "It's just like you to actually be the only American not to like Captain America."

Natasha frowns at the two S.H.E.I.L.D. agents. "I didn't say I didn't like him, I'm just not jumping at the bit to join the fan club. What about you?"

"Are you kidding, dude? I'm gunna see if I can get him to sign my trading cards before Coulson!"

Romanoff shrugs, "I'm Russian."

Natasha blinks at her, and then scrunches her face at Barton like a petulant child. "I can't believe you have trading cards."

"Not yet, but that's why you invented ebay."

"You only want to piss off Coulson," Romanoff says. "Coulson has the complete set."

"They're vintage," Barton grins.

"He's very proud," Romanoff almost looks genuinely amused.

Natasha is still stuck on, "I did not invent ebay. There are far more efficient ways for me to make money off a national treasure. Fifty percent of the merchandising rights, baby!"

"Alright, children, that's enough. Stark," Fury's one, faintly-bulging eye locks on her like a sniper scope. "While I agree that it's for the best not to introduce the Captain to more than he can handle—"

"Dude, just say 'Mr. Rogers'! You know you want to!" Natasha grins.

"—I still believe it would be easier if you weren't on the other side of the country."

"Wait, you want me to move?" She rolls her eyes. "Man, I am not moving to New York for some Super Scout. Use a phone if you need me, Fury. It's the twenty-first century."

"As much as you'd like to pretend not to give a shit, Stark, I know you'll want an all-access pass to the Captain's files and progress. Your father spent most of his life searching for him, but if you really trust me to make all the calls …"

Natasha groaned, swiping a hand down her face in frustration. "Oh my god, you're manipulative. You just want me to go to New York so you can keep an eye on me, don't pretend otherwise."

Fury smiles, and Natasha decides it's an entirely too creepy look for him. "That's only part of it."

"Why? I'm your consultant, not your damn lackey. And you don't even take my advice, half the time. Or, ever."

"Just think about it, Stark."

She rolls her eyes. "Whatever."

Chapter Text

The next time Natasha sees Captain America is when Pepper gets a call to turn on the news and they see Steve Rogers stumbling into Times Square, barefoot and surrounded by S.H.E.I.L.D. agents.

She hums into her coffee, "That's embarrassing," and only pauses to snatch a slice of toast off Pepper's plate before she makes her way downstairs to her workshop. She gets a call from an anxious Agent Coulson the very next day asking if she could "please come to New York" because a certain Steve Rogers was very eager to meet her. She can tell by the delicate strain in Coulson's words that for once the S.H.E.I.L.D. agent would like nothing more than for her to reject the request in typical Natasha Stark fashion.

She has Pepper cancel her meetings for the day, and then hops on the private jet to New York within an hour of the phone call.

Steve Rogers is all pleasant smiles, dimples and perfectly coifed hair. Natasha smirks, feels the glares at the back of her head, and takes the proffered large hand in greeting.

"Natasha Stark, it's a pleasure to meet you. I knew your father."

The room drops about ten degrees in temperature and everyone but Natasha and the oblivious Super-Soldier stiffens with anticipation. Natasha retracts her hand and feels her smirk transform into a grimace. "Yeah, he talked a lot about you. Guess you guys were pretty tight?"

She watches the cogs turn behind those baby blue eyes as he literally works to translate her meaning into something his seventy-year-old brain can understand. Finally, he nods. "We were friends, yes. He was a very brave man."

Natasha shrugs, noncommittally. "I'll take your word for it, Cap."

Rogers frowns, bemused. Carefully, he says, "Director Fury informs me that you are now running your father's company."

"Uh, yeah …" Natasha casts a furtive glance over her shoulder at Fury, eyes narrowing suspiciously. The days of Stark Industries manufacturing weapons for war are long gone but it's certainly not a point of pride for her and she doesn't like the idea of sharing this information needlessly with a national icon.

"That's mighty impressive for a lovely dame such as yourself, if I may be so bold."

Natasha jerks her head back to Rogers—hears Barton snort—and blinks. It takes a moment for the words to sink in—because Captain fuckin' America just called her 'dame'—and then she steps forward, dropping a hand on one broad shoulder and swiveling on her heels to grin at an exasperated Fury.

"Oh, I like him! I think I'll keep him!"

Agent Coulson sighs. "Stark, please."

She rolls her eyes and looks up at the adorably confused expression on Rogers' face. "By the way, how are you adjusting? You seem pretty together for a guy who just woke up seventy years into the future."

Rogers frowns, dropping his eyes to the floor. "I'm not sure the shock's really worn off. It's all—this isn't really something you get trained for. One moment, I'm in the middle of the second biggest war the world has ever known, and you think you've seen everything and that nothing could really surprise you—and then …"

Natasha shifts, uncomfortable with the soldier's emotional honesty, and glances back towards the four S.H.E.I.L.D. agents watching them with varying degrees of stoicism. She finds a distraction in the slight swelling on the right side of Fury's nose.

"Oh man, did you clock Fury one when you were trying to escape yesterday?"

Rogers clears his throat, looking about as sheepish as a guy his size can be while still looking intimidating. "I thought—"

"He thought Fury was a German spy. Called him Fritz. It was awesome," Barton explains, a grin threatening to destroy the fairly impressive poker face he's been wearing since she arrived. His eyes are bright with amusement and she throws her head back with a laugh.

"I didn't think—the highest ranking black man in the U.S. army is—was a Brooklyn-born captain I grew up with. I just thought—"

"It's fine. No hard feelings, soldier," Fury grumbles, glaring at Natasha.

Natasha barks another laugh, wiping tears from her eyes as she holds onto Rogers' arm to keep herself from collapsing to the ground. "Oh my god! That's—! Rogers, marry me! You're too perfect!"

"W-what—?"

"She's joking, Captain," Coulson sighs wearily, pinching the bridge of his nose as if to ward of a migraine. "Stark, try to behave or I'll have to call Pepper."

Reeling in her mirth, she exhales loudly and steps away from Rogers. "Ooh, you play dirty Coulson. I like it."

Out of the corner of her eyes she sees Romanoff and Barton exchange one of their looks. Barton's shoulders seem to be trembling and Romanoff is shaking her head, just barely.

"You're doing this on purpose, Stark," Fury accuses, single eye reflecting disapproval.

When she glances at Rogers, he looks visibly upset. She has no doubt he must consider her behavior to be very untoward. He seems to have a hard time looking at her, but a harder time looking away and there's a question in his eyes that seems to blatantly ask: are all twenty-first century women like you?

.0.0.0.

"Stark, you should come with your own warning label," Barton says when they enter the same conference room from a week before, sans one former Capsicle.

"He'll get used to me. Or not. I really don't care," Natasha replies as she drops into the seat across the table from the four agents.

"Why do you have to antagonize him?" Coulson mutters, clearly upset with her. She is amused, mostly because she's known Coulson for a while now and she's never been able to get under his skin quite so easily.

She snorts. "Give me a break. Half the shit I said just went over his head, anyway."

"He's a national icon, Stark, you can't—"

"Spare me, lover-boy. I don't—"

"Both of you! That's enough," Fury snaps, still standing, flanked on both sides by his agents. Coulson looks away, properly chastised, and Natasha smirks. Fury sneers, "Stark, apart from the obvious joy you take in making my life more difficult, why are you here? You can't expect me to believe you came here just became Captain America asked nicely."

"Why not?" she asks, feigning innocence with wide eyes and a slack expression.

"Cut the bull."

She raises her hands in mock surrender. "Actually, I wanted to congratulate your deviousness in person, Director. You got me. You win."

Fury looks annoyed. "Excuse me?"

"That was pretty clever of you, talking to Pepper. Using her to convince me to move to New York. Well played, Iago."

Fury is silent. His agents might as well be stone statues for all that Natasha can get a read on them. She stands abruptly, planting her hands on the table, expression darkening.

"I just came here to let you know that the next time you want something from me—you better stay the fuck away fromPepper."

.0.0.0.

After four years, Stark Tower was nearly complete, but Natasha honestly could be less excited. Despite being the pinnacle of modern architecture, the building would not be able to serve its intended purpose as a luxury hotel. Instead, she'd had to redesign the building to work as both a secondary base of operations for Stark Industries, and her own private home. Natasha isn't thrilled about the move, but Pepper is excited and that is enough to content Natasha. Plus, their building is directly across the Chrysler Building, and that was pretty cool.

"Natasha, have you finished packing? We have to go in a couple of hours."

Natasha pretends she doesn't hear Pepper calling down to her from upstairs, grimacing as she gingerly removes the exterior paneling alongside her suit's forearm.

"Natasha!"

She's picking through wires, careful not to disconnect anything, when she hears the sharp clicks of Pepper's heels descending the stairs. A second later, the security on the door is disengaged and she tries not to betray her anxiety with her body language.

"Ma'am, Ms. Potts to see you." JARVIS's voice echoes within the workshop.

Natasha looks over her shoulder, blinking innocently. "Yes, dear?"

Pepper frowns, crossing her arms and arching a perfectly manicured brow. "You haven't packed, have you?"

Natasha pouts. "Can't I just buy new stuff?"

"Be serious, Ms. Stark."

"I am being serious, Ms. Potts," Natasha lays down her tools, swiveling in her chair to face her assistant. "You know I hate packing."

"You know I hate being late."

Natasha gestures, in what she thinks is a very generous way, towards the door, "By all means, don't let me keep you waiting."

"Ha ha. Very funny."

"I don't understand the attraction."

"The renovations on Stark Tower will be finished in a few months. We need to be there when it opens up to the public."

"Pep, no one's gunna want to live there. It became a shit investment the moment Iron Woman came into the picture."

Pepper rolls her eyes. "Come on, Rhodey's waiting. I'll get Happy to send some of your stuff over later, since you're so useless."

Natasha sighs and stands obligingly, grabbing a hand towel off her desk to wipe the grease from her hands. "Rhodey's coming?"

"He's going to ask you to introduce him to Mr. Rogers," Pepper answers flippantly as she ascends the stairs.

"JARVIS, lock up, will you?" Natasha jogs to catch up to Pepper. "You realize Fury's got the guy under complete lockdown, right? He's paranoid his new toy will have a mental breakdown if he's exposed to the outside for too long."

"Weren't you the one who recommended he take precautions with integrating the Captain into society?"

"I didn't mean he should lock the princess up in the tower and throw away the key. I think Fury gets a kinky kick outta keeping our Super Scout all to himself."

Natasha can feel Pepper rolling her eyes but she can only judge her by the back of her head. They take the elevator downstairs and meet up with Happy in the lobby.

"Ladies," he greets them with a smile and falls easily into step beside them.

Natasha peers around Pepper, grinning at Happy. "Hey, Happy, guess what?"

Happy blinks at her, smiling guilelessly. "What is it, Ms. Stark?"

Pepper cuts her off with a disapproving look. "Unless you want the Secret Service knocking on your front door, you'll stop right there."

"Secret Service?" Natasha scoffs. "I can handle them. Besides, I don't think even the Secret Service is in the know about this."

"No offense, Ms. Stark, but if it's that important, I don't think I really want to get involved," Happy says in his best placating tone.

Natasha gasps, shocked, "Happy! I didn't raise you to be a coward!"

He drops his gaze, flustered, and seems overwhelmingly relieved when they reach the car. He opens the back door for them, smiling uncomfortably. "Ladies."

"Thank you," Pepper touches his shoulder gratefully before she slips elegantly into the backseat of the limo.

Natasha glares at him. "You always take her side."

"Uh …"

"Ms. Stark, please get in the car."

Grumbling, Natasha does, Happy shutting the door behind her as soon as they're situated. Automatically, Natasha reaches for the bar and begins mixing herself a drink. Happy takes the driver's seat, rolling up the privacy window and Natasha frowns at her reflection on the dark glass for a second before turning to Pepper.

"Are we going to have a talk?"

Pepper arches a brow, smiling mysteriously while she types away single-handedly on her Stark tablet. "Are we?"

Natasha is bemused but sits back, sipping carefully at her Vodka and orange as the limo pulls out onto the road. "Hey, how come you and Rhodey can know about Star Spangled Man but Happy can't?"

"Because I wasn't there when you told Rhodey and I have no control over the information you wish to disclose with me." Pepper holds out the tablet to her, swapping Natasha's drink for a stylus. "Here. Sign this."

Natasha makes a face, taking the tablet to properly skim over the documents. Pepper takes a sip from Natasha's drink and watches. "This is so lame," Natasha grumbles.

"Well, they're not just going to allow you to tinker with the city's power supply without covering their bases. They want to make sure that whatever you do only affects Stark Tower and nothing else."

"Which is stupid. We're talking about a self-sustaining energy source for an entire city. Why would they turn that down?"

"They need to be sure it will work, obviously."

"Of course it'll work, Ms. Potts. I'm a genius!"

Pepper smiles indulgently. "Yes, I know, but it's a necessary precaution. If they make an exception for you, they'd have to make an exception for every other company promising a limitless green energy supply."

"That's stupid."

"Yes, Ms. Stark."

Chapter Text

Reed frowns and pauses his feed of the timeline. He is beginning to understand something. It's not quite a thought yet, nor a fully formed idea—just a nagging sense of something that is slowly piecing itself together in the back of his mind. He can't grasp it just yet. It's like a forgotten taste or a memory of touch. He just doesn't have the relevant data to full form the thought and it's maddening. What he does know, however, is that something is wrong.

No.

Perhaps 'wrong' isn't the right word.

There is nothing really wrong at all with this reality. It exists as any other, but something about it makes it unique.

Upon closer analysis, Reed discovers that Earth-199990 is a variant of Earth-199934. In the latter, Tony Stark was again born Natasha Stark, and every event between the two realities aligns with absolute precision.

Except.

Except in Earth-199934, he notices, Natasha Stark ultimately marries Steven Rogers several years after Loki's assault on the planet. Civil War is averted, but when Reed scans further ahead into the timeline, he sees that Norman Osborn is still somehow given control over the SHRA and the Avengers Initiative, and that eventually leads to an all-out war between Osborn's Dark Avengers and Asgard. The mythical city is completely decimated.

Once more, it comes down to Loki. Somehow, Loki's character plays a significant role in Earth-199934's departure from its original path, into a timeline that gives birth to Earth-199990.

Reed can't decide whether he's more disturbed or surprised—he's certainly bothwhen The Bridge points him to the key event at which Earth-199990's timeline diverges from the path of Earth-199934.

He shakes himself and scans forward further until he reaches the point of Loki's first arrival, several months before the invasion. Loki has integrated himself into Erik Selvig's psyche, possibly as a means of keeping vigil over the Tesseract. He remains on Earth for some time, but Reed cannot determine his reasoning. This is where Earth-199990 diverges and Reed finds his mind cannot move on until he understands the significance of this reality.

Understanding the universe is a science. For every cause, there will be an effect. For everything that exists, there must be an origin. For everything that exists, there must be an end. Reed's mind feeds upon knowledge and yearns to have its curiosities sated. It is easy enough for him to grasp the idea that they are not alone in time, just as they are not alone in the universe. It was this certainty that allowed him to create The Bridge. While his knowledge of these alternate dimensions and realities is not all-encompassing, he understands enough.

For every choice we make, every step we take, every word we speak—a reality is born. There is no such thing as 'not having a choice'. There is always a choice, even when you cannot fathom it. The funny thing about choices, is that to make one is to discard all others. You can change your mind, later, and go back and try to act differently, but you can't turn back time. A choice, once made, can never be undone.

There are an infinity-and-one choices to be made; an infinity-and-one realities they create.

Reed watches, fascinated, as Loki makes a choice.

Chapter Text

Natasha's ignoring the image of Nick Fury on the far right monitor, hunched over her workbench and running her hands through the hologram of Stark Tower, twisting and turning the model around arbitrarily. She's pretty sure the man is aware that she's long since muted him, but it doesn't seem to stop his shouting.

It's been four months, and thanks in large part to the Iron Woman suit, Stark Tower is, structurally, finished. The Tower is comprised of the world's most advanced technology and finest materials, and it's a point of personal pride that every inch of it is her own. But while Natasha knows it's a thing of beauty, she's never considered taking up permanent residence. If it weren't for Pepper, the Tower would still be left on the backburner, slowly depleting her fortune.

Natasha has to admit she's excited, now. With Pepper's idea of incorporating the self-contained arc reactor to supply power to the building, Stark Tower could serve a new purpose as the first in many new models featuring pure energy. This was going to change the world and for once Natasha could use her technology to help people, without the use of weapons.

While Pepper meets with the interior designers, Natasha's focusing on integrating an upgraded security system and redesigning the building's internal computer to make it run smoother and consume less energy. The arc-reactor will provide them with more power than any other source on the planet, but with the present design of the building, it will only sustain the Tower for about six months. Natasha wants to push for six more.

From out of nowhere, a hand reaches past her and sets a mug of steaming black coffee on the digi-map, disturbing the hologram she's working with. She blinks, straightening, and looks over her shoulder. Lucas Olson smiles pleasantly, a Stark tablet tucked under one arm. As always, he is dressed sharply in a black suit that must be designer, but Natasha hasn't figured out what label.

Her eyes narrow and she turns to face him, staring pointedly at his collar. "You know, I think you're the only heterosexual male who can pull off a silk scarf and not look like a total queen. Or a douche."

Olson's smile twists a little, a single brow arching.

Natasha grins. "There's a compliment in there somewhere."

He tips his head forward, his European accent an elegant drawl, "Noted."

She huffs a short laugh and shakes her head, turning back to her work as she grabs the mug and sips the coffee thoughtfully.

"What makes you think I am not?" Olson asks after a moment.

Her expression is incredulous, but she doesn't look away from the hologram of Stark Tower so he doesn't see. "Not what? Gay or a douche?"

"The first one." He takes a step forward so he's standing beside her.

She smirks up at him, wryly. "Sweetie, you're fabulous, but you're not that fabulous. Also, if you were, that would be a tragedy."

"Oh?"

"It'd mean I couldn't sleep with you if I ever decided to fire you."

To his credit, Olson doesn't bat an eye at the comment. Behind them, however, Natasha hears an indignant squawk.

"Oh my god, Natasha! It's a miracle you've never been sued for sexual harassment in the workplace!"

"I'm pretty sure I have," Natasha mutters absently, turning on the wireframe over the model and spinning it in lazy circles, eyes darting rapidly over the length of the hologram.

Pepper makes her way to them, maneuvering carefully around the moving boxes and trying not to catch the heel of her stilettos on the plastic still covering the floors. She gives Natasha a disapproving glare before smiling apologetically at Olson.

"I'm so sorry about her, Lucas. She was dropped as a child. I'm pretty sure it was only an accident the first couple of times."

Olson gives Pepper his most charming grin. "It's quite alright, ma'am."

Pepper sighs with exasperation, shaking her head. "You're a saint."

Natasha rolls her eyes at the exchange, turning away from them to look at Nick Fury's glowering image. She blows him a kiss and winks but doesn't switch on the volume.

"Natasha, I hired Lucas to be your personal assistant, not so you'd have someone to demean," Pepper is scolding her.

"You're my personal assistant, Pepper. Why do I need another one?" Natasha whines, gulping down the rest of her coffee and setting the mug aside so she can begin working again. Pepper picked up Olson around the time they began renovations on Stark Tower. Natasha will never admit it, but she is relatively impressed he's managed to stick it out all four months working under her without ripping out his lovely dark hair.

"I can't be your assistant and run your company while you lock yourself away in here. You're the one who decided, last minute, to scratch the approved designs for—"

"Wait, what happened to Natalie? I thought Natalie was my assistant, too?"

Pepper sighs again and Natasha can hear the strain to maintain her patience. "You fired her, remember?"

"Did I? Oh. Right. I did. But that's because she lied about her name. And we can't have two Natashas. That's just exhausting."

There's a beat of silence and Natasha can imagine Pepper counting backwards in her head. "Listen, just try to get this done. I'm giving you until the end of the month to finish. I won't let you use this as an excuse to avoid work. And be nice to Lucas. Just because you're lonely without JARVIS doesn't mean you should take it out on everyone else."

Natasha scowls. "I am not lonely. It's his fault for being such a damn energy guzzler. That bastard's the reason I'm doingthis, anyway."

Pepper mutters something and then she and Olson are gone.

Fury is still glaring at her.

Natasha sighs, "Unmute."

.0.0.0.

One of the annoying things about having an assistant that isn't Pepper is that Natasha doesn't really know anything about the man. Sure, Pepper had run a full background check and then Natasha ran some of her own, but there was a definitive lack of camaraderie between them that one developed only after years of working together. Usually, Natasha could vent to Pepper about what an asshole Fury was and the other woman would listen patiently and occasionally offer some input. If Pepper wasn't around, there's always Happy, but Happy isn't supposed to know about the Captain America situation yet so Natasha can't really talk to him, either.

Rhodey's busy doing whatever for whomever. Also, he isn't as understanding as Pepper and had been less than tolerant when Natasha tried to enlist him to prank S.H.E.I.L.D. as revenge for pissing her off. JARVIS is in Malibu, and if Natasha cared to, she could probably link up with him via Stark phone, but she isn't so desperate yet that she'll resort to calling up her AI for a little pow-wow.

Also, she misses her cars.

Sprawled on the rooftop, Natasha lets her legs dangle over the edge of the roof. The gravel is uncomfortable against her back in just a sleeveless tank-top but if she doesn't move too much she finds she can tolerate the little pricks of rock against her skin. It's nighttime, but there are hardly any stars visible in the New York sky. Not that there would have been many more in Malibu, but Natasha can't not complain.

It shouldn't have been possible for anyone to sneak up on her with all the noisy gravel, but she is nevertheless startled to hear someone calling out her name.

"Ms. Stark, I have called a car to take you to the hotel." It's Olson.

She's about to suggest, in typical Stark fashion, that Olson join her in watching the stars and maybe see where the night takes them, never mind Pepper's warning earlier that morning, but all that escapes her is a heavy breath. She can usually fake a plausible smile and put up her usual façade, but today she's been worn a little thinner than usual. Her argument with Fury had left her in a deplorable mood. Obviously, she'd known that their opinions would differ in regards to Rogers, and unlike Fury she knew she had Rogers' best interest in mind—but she hadn't expected Rogers to side with Fury.

She's met the American legend only a handful of times now, but each time it seems like his opinion of her becomes more and more irredeemable. Fury's probably filling his impressionable mind with all manner of bullshit to poison him against her.

She isn't really sure why it upsets her so much. She shouldn't care what the Captain thinks of her—but she does. This was the man her father had spent all her life searching for. The hero in American history books and the shadow she could never quite live up to. She wants to hate Rogers, and maybe a part of her does, but he is just so damn noble. Just so damn good. It is no wonder her father had been caught up in his charms and Natasha hates to imagine that she too could fall prey to it.

"Ms. Stark?"

She blinks, twisting around to peer into the darkness. "Huh?"

"Your car?"

"Oh. Uh, you go ahead and take it. Take the night off, Olson."

She can hear the smirk in the man's voice, though it is difficult to make out his expression in the dark.

"That is very kind of you, Ms. Stark. But what about you?"

"Uh, I think I'll stay here tonight, thanks."

She hears the crunch of gravel beneath the leather soles of Olson's expensive shoes as he approaches, until she can finally make out his features. Green eyes sparkle with amusement and his lips are twisted in a smirk.

"Ms. Stark, exactly where would you stay? None of the rooms have been furnished. You cannot sleep on the ground."

She grins, though there isn't any real humor in the expression. "I won't be going to sleep tonight. I've got a lot to get done. I'm just sorting my thoughts right now. It's not easy being a genius, you know."

Olson chuckles quietly. "I'm sure. And in that case, I will see to it that you have a fresh pot of coffee to sustain you throughout the night."

Swinging her legs from the side of the building, she stands, approaching him with a narrow look. "Huh, no argument? I think you're starting to grow on me, Olson."

"I should hope so, Ms. Stark. I've been working with you for some time, now."

She pauses in front of him, regarding him for a moment before adding, "I'm not gunna pay you overtime for staying. You might as well go home."

His smirk widens to a grin. "That is quite alright, ma'am. I would be happy to stay."

Natasha studies him a little longer. "Pepper's already paying you extra, isn't she?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She shakes her head, snorting in amusement, and begins brushing pieces of gravel off her skin. "Wow, she scares me sometimes."

"She has only your best interests in mind, ma'am."

"Uh-huh." Natasha rolls her eyes and brushes past him. "Well? Come on! Let's see if we can't make you useful yet!"

Chapter Text

The following day, Natasha naps for about thirty minutes and feels sufficiently refreshed to buy herself a new work outfit—since Pepper expects her to attend a mandatory meeting tomorrow with the board of directors and all her things are either still in Malibu or packed in one of the hundreds of boxes around the Tower. She decides to drag Olson along with her because, as much as she likes looking sharp and expensive in designer apparel, she loathes the arduous process of shopping.

Naturally, she complains the entire time.

"Red! I like red! And gold! But—no, no! That's too gaudy! Olson! What do you think? Business-sexy or just business?"

"Ah …"

"What are you doing? Not that many! I just need one outfit! One! Come on! Come on! I'm in a hurry! Oh my god! How much is that scarf? I need it. What? No! It's not for me. Give it to my assistant. Olson! Hurry! Presents!"

Several hours and three detours later, Natasha convinces Olson to join her undercover and grab lunch. She's genuinely hungry and not in the mood to deal with the paparazzi so she promises her inner Pepper that she'll find some ritzy restaurant and socialites to traumatize later, but for now she dons a hoodie and a beanie, manhandling Olson out of his coat and suit and into something less recognizable. She buys him some respectable jeans—which, she tells him, compliment his ass perfectly—and exchanges his dress shirt for something short-sleeved and thin and twice as expensive.

Natasha admires her work while they're waiting for their food, sneaking peaks under the table to check out the jeans that hug the man in all the right places. The diner is small and intimate and far enough from Stark-anything that she doesn't have to worry about being recognized. Olson has been at her side for the last three to four months since the move to New York and most of that time has been spent locked away indoors while she works, so he's not a beacon advertising her presence to the world, which tends to happen a lot when she's with Pepper or Happy.

"You look really, really good, Olson. You should dress like this more often," she says, fully aware that this is the fifth time in a row she's complimented him. She thinks maybe it should bother her more than it does that for once the stares are not aimed at her and rather at her company.

Olson shakes his head, reaching for his water glass. "I'm afraid I would only embarrass myself were I to try and emulate your efforts today."

"You're fine. You do pretty well on your own. Trust me, I am not complaining. Oh, and—" she ducks under the table again, this time to shuffle around the bags by her feet. She grabs the smallest and sits up, tossing it across the table at him.

He's surprised, but he catches the bag with both hands. "What is this?"

She smiles at him, leaning forward on her elbows. "Your present. The final touch. Put it on."

He reaches inside, past the tissue paper, and grins when he pulls out a patterned green and gold silk scarf. "Do you pamper all your employees like this, Ms. Stark?"

Natasha laughs and watches him slip the scarf around his shoulders. "Oh, yeah. A couple of years ago I bought Pepper a pony. And a horse track. This year I was thinking of getting my hands on a Bugatti Veyron for Happy. He shares my obsession for fast cars and that one can do zero-to-sixty in, like, two-point-five seconds. Ugh. Top speed is two hundred and sixty-seven miles per hour. It makes Batman's stupid little Batmobile look like a slug."

"Who is Batman?"

"Ah, no one important. Just some comic-book vigilante."

"Ah."

"Anyway, the Veyron's got a total of ten radiators. One for the engine cooling system, a heat exchanger for the air-to-liquid intercoolers, another for transmission oil, engine oil and—" She finally notices the expression on Olson's face and Natasha thinks it looks a little too much like Pepper's indulgent smile. "I've lost you, haven't I?"

Olson chuckles. "I'll admit I know very little about automobiles, but you seem very excited. Feel free to go on."

"Nah, that's alright," she sits back, sticking out her tongue and scrunching her face reflexively. She's mildly embarrassed to have gone off like that but she pushes it back and tries to shift the focus on something else. "But, yeah. A scarf isn't splurging. Just you wait—if you can hold out for another year with me you will look back on this little scarf and be like—damn."

"It's really unnecessary," Olson says, but before she can argue, he adds, "But I thank you nevertheless. It's beautiful, Ms. Stark."

"Sure," she waves him off and is glad when the waiter finally arrives with their plates.

She has to resist the instinctive urge to flirt shamelessly when the waiter asks if there is anything more he can do for them. Instead, she just looks up and grins at him and he's New Yorker enough not to question why she's wearing shades indoors or has her hood pulled over her beanie when it's sunny outside. She thinks he rolls his eyes at her when he turns to leave but she doesn't care.

Halfway through a surprisingly low-key discussion on completely irrelevant pop-culture topics—all through which Olson proves to know absolutely nothing about anything (Natasha is horrified)—her phone rings and she is surprised to see Pepper's smiling face staring back at her on her phone's screen.

"Wow. Hey, Pep!" She answers, shooting Olson an overly-dramatized look of surprise and intrigue. He smiles and continues eating. "What's up? You don't usually call unless—"

"Natasha. I need you to fire Happy."

Natasha blinks. "… What? Why?"

"He's an insufferable idiot."

Happy's face flashes in her mind, always eager to assist, and her expression twists into something that is a cross between incredulity and amusement. "Um. We talking about the same guy here?" Natasha pauses when she hears some scuffling on the other line. It sounds like voices—one of them is definitely Happy, the other is … "Who's that with you?"

"Those new testing units you ordered are here. Happy and Doreen are moving them into your workshop."

"Doreen? Do I know a Doreen?"

"No. She's with the company that delivered your things."

"Oh. Okay …? So? What—" Natasha hears Happy laughing, unreservedly, and then saying something about not remembering most of his fights because he spent most of his ring career unconscious. A woman's voice, closer now—Doreen, I guess—giggles and Natasha is surprised to recognize the woman is flirting. "Oh my god."

"Exactly."

"With Happy?" Natasha is gaping and Olson is giving her a questioning look, brow arched, while very primly chewing his lunch.

"Yes."

"Does he know?"

"He'd have to be blind, deaf, and stupider than a mule if he didn't, Natasha. Could the little tramp be any more obvious?"

Wow, Natasha mouths to Olson, as if he had any idea what she was talking about. To Pepper she says, "Oh, I'm sure she's just being friendly, Pep."

"Shut up."

Natasha smiles. "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Pep, you called me. You never call me about anything personal and we've been friends for how long?"

"This isn't personal. I was just calling to inform you that your delivery had—"

"Uh-huh. Sure. Well, in that case, I guess I'll let you get to it. Thanks for calling. I'll see you kids when I get home. Daddy and I are having lunch right now. Later—" Natasha cuts herself off, holding the phone away from her ear just a little and waits.

"Wait."

She takes her time, smiling smugly at Olson—who has returned to his lunch by now and is seemingly uninterested in her conversation, which is mildly disappointing—pauses for a second, and then puts the phone to her ear once more. "What Iwant to know is how long this has been going on."

"Natasha."

"Oh, fine. But you'll have to fill me in on the juicy gossip later. Oh! Real quick! The parts that came in—are they for the—"

"Natasha, for the love of God, please focus! This is embarrassing enough, thank you!"

Natasha winced. "Right. Sorry. Um, why don't you ask him to dinner? Or invite him to the theater? Wait! No! I know! I can get you ring-side tickets to the next boxing match. Happy likes boxing. Just give me a few seconds to look into it. And thendinner. Sounds good, right?"

"Natasha, I can't. Do you know how long it's been since—"

"Not to worry, my lovely Pepper! I've got it under control!" Natasha hangs up without further elaboration and hits speed-dial 3.

"Are you playing Cupid for Ms. Potts?" Olson asks, taking a sip of water. He looks amused, eyes bright and lips quirked, and Natasha's impressed he was able to follow her conversation with Pepper at all.

She grins. "It's great. I tell you, I don't get to do this enough. Oh! It's ringing—" she makes a shushing noise and he makes a zipping gesture across his lips. "Hey, Happy! You busy?"

"I—" On the other line, she can hear Happy fumbling with the phone. He grunts, mumbles something to someone, and then he's breathing heavily against the phone; Natasha can just about picture him struggling to juggle heavy moving boxes with a phone cradled between his shoulder and ear. "I'm a little busy, yeah. Some of your stuff's just come in. I'm moving it all downstairs—"

"With Doreen?"

"I—what?"

"Nothing. Never mind. Say, Happy, what do you think about Pepper?"

"W-what? I'm not sure I—" He grunts again and there's a sound of metal clattering.

"Whoa! Hey, Hap! Careful with my stuff!"

Natasha is vaguely disturbed by the man's lack of regard for her things—very, very expensive things—but she contends herself with the knowledge that a flustered Happy is a good Happy. Happy can't lie worth a damn, even over a phone, and his response only proves that he has something to hide. That is very good. At least in this case.

She exhales slowly and bites back on the urge to ask if anything was broken by his carelessness. She has to focus—she's on a mission. "Don't get all flustered, buddy. I just wanna know. Do you think she's pretty?"

"I-I—yes! Of course! But—I mean—she's not just pretty! She's smart, and mature, and funny and—"

It's incredibly difficult not to start laughing, but Natasha has enough self-awareness to know that would just be mean. Happy is just so adorably sincere! She presses a fist against her lips to restrain herself until she's sure she can speak again.

"That's great, Happy. I think I get the picture. So, anyway—I was thinking, maybe you should ask her out?"

"Oh god! No! Ms. Stark, I appreciate—well, whatever you're trying to do, even if it's a little out of nowhere—but this isPepper—I-I mean Ms. Potts. She would never—"

"Well, that's all well and good, Happy, but I have it on good authority that Ms. Potts has a date—uh …"

Natasha waves at Olson to get his attention and then gestures between him and her phone frantically. Somehow, he seems to understand and he pulls out his Pepper-issued Stark phone. Natasha wastes no time finding the dates and times for the next fighting match—it isn't boxing but it will have to do.

"Tonight, actually," she says, swiftly purchasing two tickets and emailing the fight information to Pepper.

"Oh. Well …"

"Here's what I'm gunna do for you: I'm going to make sure Pepper's date is dealt with. And all you have to do is show up. Don't ask questions, just do it. Kay?"

"'Dealt with'? What does that mean? What are you going to do?"

"Nothing illegal," Natasha promises. "Just make sure you're there for Pepper. I'll email you your ticket. Enjoy the fight. And then take her for pizza at that place on 12th Street. I can't remember its name but Pepper loves them. It's not even that expensive. Capiche?"

"I'm not sure this is a good idea, Ms. Stark …"

"Trust me, Happy. It is. Just tell me you'll be there."

"Well …"

"Great! I expect you to name your first born after me! If it's a girl. If it's a boy, I think I like Anthony or Tony. What do you thing, Mr. Olson?"

Olson nods sagely. "Tony is good, Ms. Stark."

Natasha grins at him approvingly. "Olson likes Tony! So—"

"Ms. Stark!"

"Too much? Okay, well, I'll see you around, Happy. But I better not see you tonight. Also, stay away from Doreen!"

"Who—?"

She hangs up, grinning. Olson is shaking her head as she texts separate information to Pepper and Happy.

"You are extremely … forward, Ms. Stark. And I say this with the utmost respect."

Natasha shrugs. "I'm not gunna to deny it. I can be very manipulative and I am very resourceful when I want to be."

Olson quirks a brow, eyes sparkling. "There is no doubt about that." He holds out his water glass, grinning slightly. "Shall we give a toast for the new couple?"

With a laugh, she grabs her coffee mug and clinks it against his glass. "You're pretty confident my plan will succeed."

"You're Natasha Stark. Do you not always get that which you desire?" he says as if it should be the most obvious thing in the world.

"I do what I want and I get what I want," she replies and they both take a sip from their drinks. She makes a face of disgust and forces herself to swallow the cold drink. "Bleh."

"I'm curious," Olson says suddenly setting down his glass.

She blinks at him, waving and arm to get the waiter's attention. "About?"

"While I do not doubt your ingenuous skills of manipulation, Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan are not similarly gifted in the art of deception."

Natasha nods as she spots their waiter exiting the backroom and grins at him. "Yeah. They're both terrible liars. Well, actually, they're alright. I'm pretty sure they would have been able to keep the Iron Woman secret if I hadn't blabbed first, but when it comes to themselves, they're shit. Pepper needs a couple of days' preparation at least before she can keep her poker face intact for the idiots who think they can run my company without me."

"Precisely."

"So?" She glances at him for a second before turning her attention back to their wayward waiter.

"Won't they both realize they've been set up?"

Natasha eventually slumps against her seat in defeat when the waiter continues steadfastly ignoring her.

"Well, Pepper already knew I was setting her up. That's why she called me, obviously. And Happy knows I'm arranging for him to replace Pepper's 'date'."

"But he does not know that he is the 'date' he is being sent to replace and you did not inform Ms. Potts about this fabrication. She will be expecting Mr. Hogan while Mr. Hogan will be trying to come up with a reasonable excuse for intruding on what he has been led to believe is a 'date'."

Natasha nudges her shades upward and looks across the table at Olson. He meets her gaze evenly with a look of curiosity—it's a little like the expression she sees reflected back to her in the mirror, whenever she has a particularly puzzling problem to solve. Only, this isn't a puzzle. This is a very simple case of match-making between her two friends.

"Dude, you're putting way too much thought into this. So what if they know? They'll be a little embarrassed and probably a little mad at me for putting them in the position to be embarrassed, then they'll get over it and have a good time. Simple."

Olson seems to accept her logic, nodding, and then cranes his head over his shoulder, raising an arm.

"You are very good to your friends, Ms. Stark. But what about you?"

"What about me?" She frowns, feeling a little defensive as she senses they are about to go into her personal life.

"Don't you want to find someone for yourself?"

She laughs humorlessly. "Don't you read the papers? Trust me, there are no shortage of men in my life."

He looks back at her with an unreadable expression. A second later, the waiter is at their side, smiling and asking Olson what he can do for him. Natasha gapes while Olson answers, "I believe the lady would like another cup of coffee. Please be sure it is freshly brewed."

The waiter happily informs him he'll "get right on it!"

"Oh my god." Natasha is still staring at Olson, numbed with shock. "Did he just—no frickin' wonder he wasn't interested in me! Ugh! And that little shit was totally ignoring me earlier! Unbelievable."

Chuckling, Olson reaches across the table to pluck the sunglasses off her face. "It is only because you've disguised yourself behind these atrocious things."

"Hey, those are vintage," she defends, although she agrees with him one-hundred-percent because those shades are fugly as hell and that's exactly why she wore them. "Still, at least he has good taste."

Olson smiles mysteriously and sets the glasses on the table. "So, what are the toys for?"

She bites back the immediate bubble of filth and sexual innuendo that threatens to burst past her lips and focuses on what the hell he's talking about. It takes her a moment to remember the rest of the bags by her feet, filled with mostly useless junk she couldn't resist buying as they'd made their way around the mall. One of the bags is filled with collectable and incredibly expensive 'toys', but she'll forgive this transgression since Olson has already proven just how illiterate he is when it comes to American culture.

Hefting the bag to her lap, she begins presenting each purchase to Olson and explains.

"The cards and the figurines are for Coulson. You've seen him. He's always barging in, uninvited."

"Agent Coulson? Yes, I remember him." Olson nods, looking genuinely interested as he accepts one of the action figures, turning it over in his hand.

Natasha smiles at him because in all this time, Olson has never once asked her about Coulson, accepting the agent as just another part of her life. If it means he's one less person she has to lie to, she's happy.

"Yeah. Him. He's crazy about Captain America. He's got most of the merch but I know he doesn't have those and he's beendying for an—" She cuts herself off, frowning, and Olson looks up at her questioningly. She clears her throat, forcing a smile that's probably too strained to look real. "For a complete set."

Olson hums thoughtfully, returning the Captain America action figure. She bags it and pulls out a small box and slips off the lid.

"These are old arrow tips. This one here is Mayan. That one is Egyptian, I think. I don't really know much about them, but they made me think of Barton, so I got them."

"Barton?"

"He works with Coulson, but you haven't met."

"Do weapons from ancient civilizations interest him?"

She shrugs, closing the box and carefully returning it to the bag. "Oh, I don't know about that. But he's into archery. He's actually really, really good. He was in the Olympics, once. I think."

"That's fairly impressive."

She pulls out another box. This time, when she opens it, a little ballerina begins twirling slowly to tinkling music. Outwardly, the box is a simple and sleek black lacquer, but the inside is trimmed in gold and lace.

"This is for, uh, Natalie." She chuckles at her own private joke.

"Your former assistant? I though her name was—"

Natasha laughs. "Yeah, her real name's Natasha, but I still call her Natalie just to piss her off."

"You are still in contact with her?" Olson seems incredulous.

She laughs again. "Yeah. It's a long story. She's scary as shit, though. You don't want to meet her."

"I'll take your word for it."

"Also, I think she and Barton have a thing." She frowns, shutting the music box. "Oh man, that'd be terrifying."

"Somehow, I don't think you're so easy to scare."

She grins and rolls her eyes and thinks, man, you don't even know. Instead, she says, "If they are together, I guess it goes to show that men and women can't be just friends."

"What do you mean?"

"Pepper's always trying to tell me that just because I meet a guy it doesn't mean I have to sleep with him. I disagree, and I'm pretty sure if I were a guy people would praise me instead of giving me grief. What's wrong with having a little consensual fun?"

Olson smirks, amused. "You haven't tried to sleep with me."

Natasha tries not to react to the unspoken implication to his words but her heart still does a strange little flutter that no self-respecting adult should feel just because someone may or may not be admitting that they consider you a friend. Natasha Stark doesn't have friends. She doesn't need them. Well, she has Pepper and Happy and Rhodey, but that's it. And she doesn't need anyone else and she's thankful every day to have those three in her life. People that can see past her bullshit and who, despite all logic, love her and care for her.

She sets the bag down on the floor again, pinning him with the Stark-patented leer in an attempt to cover the fact that his words struck her somewhere near her core.

"Oh, you're only safe because you work for me. I could fire you if you'd like."

Olson laughs, shaking his head. "No, thank you. I quite like my job, if that's alright with you."

"So you like working under me?" She's on the defensive and she hates it. She hopes he can't see past the façade she'd perfected sometime when her father was still alive.

Olson shakes his head with a humoring grin, standing. "Let's go, Ms. Stark. I'm sure you're in a hurry to get back to your work."

She takes his suggestion for what it is—an out, before she can go digging herself into a deeper hole and start something she will probably regret.

The waiter never returns with her coffee and Olson insists on paying even when they both know it will be coming out of her account, but Natasha finds she doesn't care.

Olson is with her all night in the workshop. Neither of them hear from Pepper and Happy.

.0.0.0.

She picks up her suit the next day and is on time to her meeting for the first time in history because Pepper has called in earlier, flustered, to tell her she will be late and she's sorry and etcetera. Natasha just grins and makes a victory sign with her fingers at Olson who doesn't look the least bit surprised. The actual meeting goes about as well as can be expected and she ends up harassing Olson via text throughout just to keep herself awake. His replies are always too slow and she spends the time waiting for his responses by making faces at him from across the room. She hopes that she'll remember to badger him later for his deficiency—seriously, who takes five minutes just to text a four-word response?—but forgets the moment the meeting is over.

Pepper and Happy are outside waiting for them by the car and Natasha can't resist cackling like a madwoman the moment she sees them. Both of them flush adorable and say nothing so Natasha just leers at them both and hops into the limo with Olson and Pepper.

She's watching Pepper silently mix drinks for them when she finally breaks. "Can I ask how it went?"

"No." Pepper responds immediately.

Natasha glances at Olson and grins. "That means it went well and she's just too embarrassed to admit how well." To Pepper, she says, "Pep, we're all adults here. You can tell us."

The only sound is that of the privacy window slowly rising to block their view of the driver's section. Natasha laughs so hard she nearly slides out of her seat. Olson grabs her under the arm to pull her upright and Pepper frowns disapprovingly.

"Put your seatbelt on, Ms. Stark."

Natasha ignores her, if only because she's still laughing so hard she can't move at all. Instead, Olson reaches around her to grab one end of the belt and Pepper meets him with the other half so they can lock it into place around Natasha.

Pepper doesn't say another word to her for the rest of the car ride. When they stop, Natasha is both surprised and angry to find herself outside of one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s undercover buildings.

"What the hell, Pep?"

"Director Fury called. He needs to talk to you," she replies calmly.

"So?" Natasha glowers up at the building and makes no indication to get out of the car. Happy is waiting by the door but he doesn't try to open it. He's probably waiting for Pepper to reason with her and this only makes her angrier. Traitors! Natasha sinks stubbornly into her seat. "I do not want to go in there."

"Natasha, he wouldn't call unless it was important."

"Bullshit. And I'm still pissed at you for talking to him behind my back and moving us to New York."

Pepper sighs, softening a little. "You know it had nothing to do with him. Moving to New York was strategically the best for Stark Industries."

Natasha knows Pepper isn't going to let up and she turns to Olson, hoping maybe he can back her up—but, of course, hecan't. He doesn't know anything about S.H.I.E.L.D. or Fury except for what he's overheard in Natasha's conversations with Pepper. Olson's expression is unreadable and neutral but he doesn't look away like a coward to avoid her beseeching eyes. It's not very helpful, but she manages to contain her indignant rage just a little.

Finally, Natasha sighs. "Fine. Whatever. I hate you all."

Before she can unbuckle herself Happy has already opened the door. If she were in a better mood, she would marvel at his magical skills of perception, but she's not so she just glares at him as well for good measure and stalks inside.

Coulson is waiting for her at the front desk with a small smile. Fleetingly, she regrets not having brought his gifts, but then decides she's too pissed anyway and he doesn't deserve them.

"Ms. Stark. I'm glad you could make it."

"Did I have a choice?" She sneers, not pausing as she marches to the elevators.

Coulson falls into step beside her, not missing a beat. "No. Not really. But it is important."

"What, is it about the Capsicle?"

"I wish you and Agent Barton would stop trying to come up with as many derogatory pet-names for the Captain as you can. It's really not a competition."

Natasha punches the up arrow with more force than is necessary and only has to wait a second before the elevator doors slide open. They step inside and Natasha shoots him a grin that holds absolutely no warmth.

Coulson sighs, "But, yes. It's about the Captain."

He leans towards the panel beside the doors and peers an eye into the scanner. Natasha rolls her eyes at the outdated technology. The elevator jerks upward.

"What, has Fury gotten over playing nanny to Uncle Sammy?"

Not very long after Rogers' unexpected resurrection from the ice, Fury had decided to discontinue the regular updates on the national icon. He seemed to have decided for himself what he thought Natasha should or should not be informed about despite the fact that it had been Stark funding keeping the project in the Arctic afloat when the rest of the government was ready to move their money onto NASA and space exploration. She hated feeling like some dog under the dinner table waiting on their master to feed them scraps. If Fury didn't want her involved with Rogers, fine. What-the-fuck-ever. But she would not tolerate Fury acting like he was doing her any favors by letting her in on the Rogers situation at the Director's leisure.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. has been running some tests on Captain Rogers to—"

She physically jerks away from Coulson and out of her thoughts, shocked.

"Whoa—what? What? Are you telling me S.H.I.E.L.D. woke Rogers up from his seventy-year nap in the Arctic just so they could continue poking at him with needles?" She huffs a short, disgusted laugh. "Wow. You know what? I don't even knowwhy I'm surprised. I shouldn't be. This is so fuckin' typical."

"Captain Rogers volunteered to resume—"

"Well of course he did! He's the fuckin' Super Scout of America!"

"Ms. Stark, Captain Rogers may hold our only chance at unlocking the secrets of the Super Soldier Serum that died with Doctor Abraham Erskine. We've flown in experts on gamma radiation from across the globe to—"

"Dear lord, does S.H.I.E.L.D. have selective memory about all their fuck-ups or are they just really that stupid? Don't you idiots remember what happened the last time you tried to mix Vodka with G? Trying to recreate the Serum by usingGammaSeriously?" Natasha wanted to bang her head through something; she was getting angrier with every other word that came out of Coulson's mouth. "And what do you think can do? In case you didn't know, I'm neither a geneticist nor a nuclear physicist. Try not to get your sciences confused. It's embarrassing. If you want to start playing around with that shit again, I think we both know there is someone far more qualified in nuclear physics and he is not me."

Coulson shifts uncomfortably and doesn't meet her eyes. "Yes, but you happen to be the only one on the payroll qualified to even touch the subject."

"Oh. Ha. That's rich. I'm not on the payroll, buddy. I'm just a consultant."

Coulson looks at her then, a bone-deep weariness in his eyes.

"So consult."

She can't even formulate a response and the elevator doors are opening just as she manages to check her temper—again—before it gets the best of her. She has half a mind to just leave, but her body betrays her by following Coulson out of the elevator and down the hall. She's not paying attention to the agents that brush past them, or the considerably numerable amount of people walking around in lab coats, but her brain catalogues this information automatically, and logs it somewhere in the back of her mind.

Coulson is unwaveringly composed next to her as they walk, but Natasha can feel that something is off with him, as well. She's not sure if he's just as upset about how S.H.I.E.L.D. is treating the historical legend as she is—though it would be for different reasons, obviously, since she doesn't have a giant man-crush on the soldier—or if it's another matter entirely. The part of her that isn't absolutely livid notes the absence of both Barton and Romanoff, which means they're most likely on a mission.

"You know this is stupid, Coulson. I know you know," she says, because she literally cannot keep her opinions to herself for longer than five minutes for fear of spontaneous combustion.

"My opinion has no bearing on the matter, Ms. Stark."

She sneers, "What a diplomatic way of saying, 'yeah, you're totally right, Natasha! Fury is a dick, I agree!'"

Coulson flicks her an unreadable look which only infuriates her the more.

They arrive at the Fury's door and linger outside only long enough for Coulson to be given clearance by the two imposing agents outside the door. Natasha glares at them to no effect.

When they enter, Fury is at his desk, facing at an angle away from the door while he murmurs into his phone. The door is to the peripheral of his good eye, however, so he notices them immediately and waves them over. Occupying one of the two armchairs in front of the Director's desk is a man in a lab coat. He's about her age, with sandy brown hair and blue eyes, and as soon as he sees her his expression twists into a disgruntled frown. She's not especially surprised that he could recognize her first, nor by his immediate reaction, but she still responds with an ingrained smile that spells trouble for anyone that knows her.

Her smile dissolves into a glower when Fury finally ends his call and swivels his chair to face them. Neither she nor Coulson move to take the only open seat and Fury makes no effort to ease the evident tension in the room.

"Stark, I'm sure Agent Coulson debriefed you on our current situation."

"He gave me the Spark Notes bit of it, yeah," she sneers nastily.

Fury nods, nonplussed by her hostility, and settles back against his high-backed chair, looking every part the military tyrant Natasha believes him to be. Maybe, at the end of the day, Fury has good intentions. That still doesn't change the fact that she doesn't trust him. And even more importantly, she didn't like him.

"In light of recent events, we are reopening the Super Soldier Program—"

"Big surprise there," Natasha scoffs.

Fury ignores her. "The President has authorized a hundred and fifty billion dollar cash injection into this project. With Captain America living and breathing amongst us, we are that much closer to recreating the formula."

"I seem to remember a jolly-green incident a while back as the result of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s experiments." She pauses; smirks. "No, wait, two. In fact, you sent me to play patsy to General Ross to ensure your second disaster could be 'contained'."

"The Abomination had nothing to do with S.H.I.E.L.D."

"Sure. Whatever helps you sleep at night." Natasha rolls her eyes. "And you expect me to go along with this? Sorry, but I think I'll pass. Go pick someone else to violate the Super Scout's human rights."

Fury smirks; Natasha is immediately on edge. "Oh, I wouldn't dream of asking you to go against your very strict moral code."

Natasha's eyes narrow suspiciously, gaze darting to the man in the lab coat who is now wearing a very smug smirk.

"Then why am I here?"

Fury stands, gesturing to the man, who doesn't bother to get up when he extends a hand towards her for a handshake.

"Well, firstly, allow me to introduce to you the man who will be in charge of our new Super Soldier Program—Doctor Hank Pym."

Chapter Text

Natasha's first impression of Hank Pym was that he was an idiot. A genius as well, sure, but an idiot all the same. His poorly concealed enthusiasm is nauseating, and maybe, under different circumstances, Natasha would have been able to tolerate it—but not today.

She watches from the observation room as Pym fiddles with instruments and takes measurements of the Captain's vitals. Coulson is standing to her side, hands clasped over each other just under his belly; his troubled frown is concealed by a nearly perfect façade of cool detachment, but Natasha sees right through it. In the room, standing unobtrusively by the desk and scanning the several monitors chirping Rogers' information, is Janet van Dyne. Natasha recognizes her as the daughter of world-renowned scientist, Vernon van Dyne, but she can't fathom what the self-centered daddy's girl could possibly be doing inside one of S.H.E.I.L.D.'s most secure facilities. By the love-struck looks she keeps shooting Pym, however, Natasha could hazard a guess.

"Stark, you don't have to stay," Coulson murmurs, quiet despite the fact that the room they are in is completely sound-proof. It's almost private, if you didn't count the three visible surveillance cameras and a number of other monitoring systems installed into the walls.

Natasha snorts, "You drag me here, and now you want me to go?"

From her pocket, her phone buzzes silently against her thigh. She grabs it and steps away from the observation window, turning her back to Coulson. She flicks a finger across the transparent screen and brings up the files JARVIS has just filched from S.H.E.I.L.D.'s database. It doesn't really tell her much, but only confirms her distrust of Pym.

Doctor Henry Jonathan Pym, widowed, with a Doctorate in Biochemistry. Boring. Also, not very impressive. Pym had taken part in many of S.H.E.I.L.D.'s projects, none of which interested Natasha at the moment. What gave him any right to barge in here and prod at the American legend like he was just another test dummy?

And Rogers ...

"I can't believe he's just going along with this," Natasha scoffs with disbelief, turning back to glare out the window.

Rogers can't see her, obviously, but it still makes her furious when he maintains that same expression of polite bemusement. Even the usual pinch at his brow that seems to accompany any thoughts relating to her would be preferable. She doesn't care what he thinks about her—

Well, that's a lie. She wouldn't care, if maybe his thoughts were his own. But any conclusions he seemed to have made about her all stemmed from Fury and that just pissed her off.

Coulson blinks at her. "Who? Captain Rogers?" He sighs. "Ms. Stark, as I've told you before, his cooperation is vital to—"

"Yeah, yeah. I know. You want more Super Soldiers to throw at the bad guys. I get it. Whatever."

But she doesn't have to like it. And she intends to take every opportunity to iterate this to Fury and Coulson and all of S.H.I.E.L.D. for however long she has to.


Pepper, being Pepper, has a creepy sort of sixth sense for everything Natasha Stark. So, obviously she knows before Natasha has even slipped into the back of the limo that the meeting with Fury had gone just as Natasha had predicted. There's a glass of something that smells strongly alcoholic in Natasha's hand before Happy has even shut the door after her and Natasha downs it in one thirsty gulp.

Nothing is said for the rest of the ride as Natasha stews in her anger. She barely notices Olson's absence, but that's only because she's grown so accustomed to him glued to her side—and if that doesn't read 'Pepper's machinations' all over she doesn't know what does. She can't even feel guilty for all the times she feels Pepper's eyes on her, knowing the other woman hates not being able to say anything to make everything better.

Natasha doesn't want to feel better.

She wants to be angry.

Fucking Fury.

Fucking Rogers.

The more she thinks about it, the angrier she becomes. No one can accuse her of holding sentimental feelings towards the late Howard Stark. Whether or not the man's final—and arguably only—gift had been the very thing that had saved her life didn't make up for a lifetime of misery of forever being cast under the shadow of some legendary American hero she could never hope to compete with. Regardless, the legend of Captain America was one she's grown up with and to see him fall in line as just another mindless drone in the service of war mongers like Fury was despicable.

When the car pulls up in front of Stark Tower she doesn't move.

"Airport," she grinds out, glaring out at the Tower. "I don't care what you have to do, but I want to be on a plane to LA within the next hour."

The air is stiff with tension and Natasha feels Pepper and Happy's eyes on her. Finally, the car starts moving forward and Pepper gets on the phone, murmuring urgently into the receiver. Natasha can't even register what Pepper is saying as words in her current state so she doesn't really know what Pepper says or does, but there is a jet waiting for her when they arrive.

Happy rolls the limo right up along its side and Natasha only pauses long enough to say that she wants to be left alone before she is out of the car and jogging up the ramp. The stewardess has already been informed to keep clear of her because she only hands Natasha a scotch without prompting and stands aside when Natasha moves past her.

Natasha has barely taken a step into the spacious cabin when she freezes.

Casually seated in one of the seats is Olson, staring out the window with his hands folded neatly in his lap.

Fucking Pepper.

He doesn't look at her when he says, "Do I even want to know what those poles are for, Ms. Stark?"

She scowls, eyes flickering to the back of the cabin.

Her hand tightens around her bottle of scotch. "They're stripper poles. What are you doing here?"

He smirks, unperturbed by the hostility in her tone. "Where you go, I go, Ms. Stark."

"I don't need a fucking babysitter."

"That is fortunate, for I have no intention of 'babysitting' you."

She snorts angrily through her nostrils, glaring at him for a moment longer. He is far too calm under the threat of serious harm to his person—because she is way too pissed to be held accountable for her actions—and it's hard to imagine that he has barely been with her four months when she has only ever managed to scare off and alienate everyone else in her life before she'd met Pepper and Rhodey. She's not an easy person to work for—or with. She knows this. Revels in this because she knows by now that she is alone. Pepper and Happy and Rhodey can only ever understand her to a certain degree. Her mind, which she considers to be her greatest attribute, is also her greatest curse. People will never be able to understand her. No one will ever know her, and she's okay with that, so …

Fuck. She frowns down at the scotch in her hand. She hasn't even begun drinking and her thoughts have already begun to spin into the darkness that's been festering at the back of her mind for far longer than she cares to analyze.

She gives up trying to mentally remove Olson from existence by willpower alone and takes the seat across from him. There are two glasses set between them on the table and she fills them both, being extremely generous with the scotch. Olson finally turns to look at her just as she is inhaling the second glass. Overhead, the pilot's disembodied voice informs them that they are preparing for departure; Natasha pours two more glasses.

"Ms. Stark," Olson says carefully.

She ignores him and downs both glasses without a breath in between. It's so smooth and warm down her throat she has to marvel at the quality and takes a moment to feel regret for wasting it on such a dour occasion. She refills both glasses.

"Ms. Stark."

She gulps down the first glass like a starving woman.

"Natasha."

A hand claps over hers just as she is about to grab the second glass. She doesn't try to pull away, gaze focusing on a point in space between them. Olson reaches with his other hand for the neck of the bottle, dragging it to his side over the table noisily.

"That's quite enough, don't you think, ma'am?"

She doesn't resist when he pries the glass from her fingers, as well. She doesn't hear him call for the stewardess, either, but somehow she's beside them and taking both glasses and the bottle before retreating out of the cabin. Natasha's face is twisted in anger she can't quite conceal and she hates being this emotional because her eyes always start prickling like traitorous motherfuckers. But she doesn't cry.

"I don't want to talk about it," she murmurs when he doesn't say anything else, blinking and turning to face the window.

She doesn't even feel buzzed; alcohol at his point might as well be another vitamin and her body has already had to endure stronger toxins than scotch. There is still so much anger broiling just behind a very unstable wall of control and she doesn't know if it's all directed at Fury or Rogers or both but it doesn't matter because she's happy to blame them both anyway.

"I wasn't going to ask," Olson says.

Not another word falls between them the entire flight to Los Angeles.


Natasha has recovered sufficiently by the time they get to her Malibu home. She's excited when JARVIS welcomes her home and she strips out of the blazer she's been wearing all day as she practically runs downstairs to her workshop. JARVIS doesn't even make her punch in the clearance code but she doesn't bother reprimanding him for the security violation because she's grinning so much her cheeks are hurting. She tosses her blazer over the nearest surface and spreads her arms wide, basking in the glow of the electronics as the room comes to life.

"Wake up, children! Mommy's home!"

Black Sabbath's Iron Man blares through the sound system. This is Heaven, she thinks.

"Ms. Stark, Mr. Olson is requesting access. Shall I allow him to enter?"

"Hm?" She turns to the glass door and smiles apologetically, nodding in reply to JARVIS, "Oh, yeah! Sorry, yeah. Let him in."

The door beeps once and Olson steps inside, his eyes skimming across the room with wonder. She grins, crossing the room to stand at his side like an eager child ready to show off her brilliant science project.

"You built all of this?"

"I built Stark Tower, why does this surprise you?" She laughs, hands on her hips as her eyes hungrily roam her workshop. She had missed this. Working on the Tower was fun and new but this—her suits and her cars and every little pet-project that had ever popped into her head—this was her life.

He smiles down at her, amused. "It shouldn't."

He moves to walk around the room and she lets him, returning to her main workspace and waving her hands in front of the motion-sensitive monitors. They flicker to life and she grins when she sees the specs for her latest Iron Woman design. How long had it been since she'd last worked on her suit? Stark Tower had been consuming so much of her time and attention she'd completely neglected to work on the new model.

Skimming over the designs and moving through different parts of the new armor to try and spark an idea of where her brain had been at the last time she was here, she can't help glancing up occasionally to track Olson's progress around the room. She feels it somewhere deep inside her —a jolt of something she can't quite name—when he comes up to the line of cars and she stops everything she's doing to look up at him. He seems to sense her attention because he throws a smile over his shoulder, green eyes bright and knowing.

"Your babies?"

She beams. "My babies."

"Would you like to tell me about them?"

She is indecently happy to do so, darting out from behind her desk to grab his arm and lead him all the way to the back from the garage. "You're going to regret this," she promises him.

Two hours later and she can count on one hand the number of times she's stopped for breath. Olson's been pretty good about keeping up with her and she's impressed to find that he absorbs all the information like a sponge. This only makes her eager to share more—just to see how much he can retain and how much he understands—and eventually they move on to her projects and finally, the Iron Women suits.

"The arc-reactor must be an incredible source for power, then," he says after she finishes explaining the upgrades she's entertaining for the newest suit.

She smirks. "Oh, yeah. I mean, with modern technology people can achieve enough thrust and propulsion to get someone in the air—but only for about half a minute. The amount of energy the arc-reactor contains is not only enough to sustain long periods of flight, but also enough to allow me to maneuver around freely and use the repulsors. It's still isn't perfect, obviously."

"Couldn't you find a way to store backup energy elsewhere—say, Stark Tower—to feed into the suit? The purpose of Stark Tower is to prove that self-sustaining energy is plausible, correct?"

"I'm still working on that, but I've already integrated a similar function into one of the suits, so yes. Kinda. It's good in theory, but tricky actually getting all of that to work like I want it to."

Above them, the alarm beeps for a moment before it's disabled. When Natasha turns, she sees Rhodey walking over to them, looking stern.

"I heard you were in town," he greets, eyes flicking to Olson for a second, then leveling back on her.

Natasha rolls her eyes. Oh, Pepper. "I can't believe she called you. It's like she thinks I can't even take care of myself."

Rhodey's brow hikes high with incredulity. "Can you?"

She starts towards him and meets him halfway with a handshake that dissolves into a sort of one-armed hug. "So what's up? Are you just here to check up on me?" she asks when they pull apart. She rakes her eyes down the front of his US Air Force uniform. "Why are you always dressed like you're ready to invade a nation? Are you just trying to show off?"

"I haven't seen you in months, Natasha. Can't I just drop by to say 'hi' to my best friend?" he asks, smiling vaguely.

"Can you stay for long?"

"Sure. I've got an early morning tomorrow, though."

She grins. "Cool. Grab a change of clothes upstairs and meet us down here for some quality bonding time."

He chuckles and glances behind her to Olson. "Sorry, I thought I could count on Natasha to be a courteous host and introduce us properly, but I guess not. I'm James Rhodes."

"Lieutenant-Colonel James Rhodes," Natasha supplies with a grin.

"Lucas Olson. I'm Ms. Stark's new assistant."

Rhodey's eyes drop to hers, "What happened to Natalie?"

She huffs. "I fired Natalie. Pepper hired Olson. I need my eye-candy, too!"

Rhodey looks put out. "I guess. I liked Natalie, though."

Natasha rolls her eyes and shoves him towards the door. "Get out of my face. Go get changed and order us some pizza. Lots of pizza. You know what I like."

"Yes, ma'am," He gives her a mock-salute and leaves.

When Natasha turns around to look at Olson he's wearing an unsettling smirk. She frowns. "What?"

"I thought it was impossible for men and women to just be friends?"

She rolls her eyes, turning her back to him. "Oh, Rhodey and I already slept together. Once we got the sexual tension out of the way, though, we became fast friends." She makes her way to her desk and minimizes the Iron Woman suit schematics. She pulls up a folder with a list of movies and begins scrolling through the selections. When she feels Olson come up beside her she remarks, "I can't believe you still remember that stupid conversation."

"I tend not to easily forget things once I know them, Ms. Stark."

She hums, nodding. "Yeah. I never forget anything. I just don't always listen." She taps a finger to her temple absentmindedly. "There's a lot going on up here. It's hard to focus sometimes."

"Yes, I've noticed. You listen to music and watch television simultaneously whenever you want to focus on a particularly difficult matter, just so that you can concentrate."

She pauses, blinking up at him, brows furrowing together. "Do I?"

Olson smirks. "Yes."

Rhodey joins them ten minutes later, informing them that the pizza would arrive in half an hour. He comes up on Natasha's other side to look over her shoulder at the movies. He's dressed down in slacks and a t-shirt—which is about as casual as Rhodey will get beyond his own bedroom—and Natasha looks between the two men, measuring.

"Hey, do you think Olson could fit into some of your things, Rhodey?"

Rhodey blinks, glancing over her head at the other man. "Yeah, I guess. You're a little taller than me, man, but my stuff should fit you fine."

"We'll go change, then. Rhodey, pick a movie," Natasha decides, gesturing for Olson to follow her as she heads for the door. "It better be a good one!" she calls over her shoulder.

"These are your movies, Natasha," Rhodey reminds her.

Natasha doesn't trust him at all but she jogs up the stairs anyway, Olson following behind her at a slower pace. She leads him to the guest room, first, showing him where he can pick through a selection of comfortable clothing. She leaves him so she can find her own room where she changes into the first pair of sweats and t-shirt that she finds. In the bathroom, she scrubs her face even though it's clear of the usual grease and grime since she hasn't had the opportunity to work on anything all day.

In another part of the house, she hears the doorbell ring.

She doesn't move away from the sink, palms flat against the marble countertop. She stares at the blue glow of the arc-reactor shining through the fabric of her shirt, listening as one of the guys answers the door to accept the delivery. It's incredibly still in her room and only distantly can she hear the music still blaring from the workshop until someone cuts it off—probably Rhodey—and then the silence is so profound it resonates in her like a heartbeat.

No sound. No distractions. There's only her and her thoughts and …

A knock.

"Hey, boss. You done primping in here?"

She leaves the bathroom, snatching a washcloth on the way out, to find Rhodey peeking into the room, looking much more relaxed than when he first arrived. He's holding a pizza box and the delicious scent of it reaches her nose. Her mouth is salivating when he opens the box, revealing an extra-large meat lovers with extra-extra-meat. She wordlessly grabs a slice.

Rhodey looks thoughtful for a moment, his smile a little weary. "So, I think I screwed up."

She swabs at her face with the wash cloth and takes a giant bite of the pizza slice. She chews for a second but doesn't bother swallowing. "O' 'eah?"

Natasha makes room to allow him in and he takes a seat at the foot of her bed, setting the pizza beside him. She follows, sitting next to the box and grabbing another two slices. She can't remember if she's eaten today but she's starving. As Rhodey begins explaining his last mission and another close encounter with Al-Qaeda, Natasha is only partly listening. She doesn't like thinking too hard about her suits being used for the government bureaucrats, but it's a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils and she's learned to live with her decision to continue to allow War Machine to exist.

"Hmm," she hums thoughtfully around a mouthful of mostly sausage, bacon and pepperoni. She swallows and grins at Rhodey. "Have you noticed you keep getting nuclear bombs dropped on you? How many times has it been just this last year? It's becoming like a thing for you now."

Rhodey's face twists into a miserable frown. "Not funny."

She winks, flashing her teeth in a mischievous grin. "It's kinda funny."

He rolls his eyes, reaching to snatch her half-eat slice. "You wouldn't think so if you'd had to deal with the General."

"Babbage?"

"No one's taking the blame for the explosion—"

"Obviously," Natasha rolls her eyes right back him; there is an unspoken duh in the inflection of her tone. "I wouldn't either."

"The Genera is pissed. He thinks that just because we have the War Machine suit, suddenly all of our problems can be solved." Rhodey's voice was getting louder; Natasha feels a little guilty. She knows it's only going to get harder for Rhodey and she regrets she hasn't been around in the last several months to lend him an ear so he can properly vent. Rhodey would never abandon his duty, but the responsibilities that come with a suit are ones that Natasha can empathize with and she wouldn't wish it upon anyone, least of all her best friend.

She nudges his shoulder with her own, conspiratorial smirk in place. "Did he give you the 'this-is-what-you're-good-for-and-this-is-what-you're-supposed-to-be-putting-a-stop-to-so-all-I-wanna-hear-is-what's-your-solution' speech?"

Rhodey nods solemnly.

Natasha whistles lowly, eyes narrowing and her words are laced with sarcasm and vitriol as something tugs at her chest at her friend's defense. "Wow. Gotta love those four-star guys. They do like to keep it simple. And here I thought that's why we gave them you."

"Natasha," Rhodey sighs. "I mean, it's fine, you don't need to act like this—"

She jumps up from the bed and quickly darts over to her mini fridge to find something to distract herself from the bubbling anger that's threatening to consume her again. Of course, at the end of the day, Rhodey is all too similar to Rogers, isn't he? More than willing to serve his country, and do so with pride, defending them the second Natasha even dares to think a negative thought towards the dicks who presume they know what's best for this country, as well as every other country in the world.

She rifles through the fridge, grabbing herself a beer and begins calling out options.

"No thanks—"

"Oh, c'mon!" She grabs a small bottle of orange juice—which is only present in her fridge as a cocktail mix and nothing more—and carries it back to Rhodey with her beer. "Here. At least have some juice. For the vitamin-C. I've met your mom, you know."

"What does that have to—? Never mind. Fine." He shakes his head, accepting the bottle and setting it between his legs.

She considers the tension that has returned to his shoulders for a moment thoughtfully.

"Here," she says, earning his attention. She holds out her beer and he sighs, shifting on the bed so he can dig into his right pocket and fish out his keys. There's a bottle-opener as a key chain dangling amidst all the important keys. He takes the beer and pops the cap off with ease, takes a sip, before handing the bottle back. She doesn't take a drink, nor does she move to sit again, any expression of humor totally wiped from her face. "So, now, tell me what's really bothering you."

Rhodey groans, recognizing her tone, and drags a broad hand down his face in defeat. "I'm so out of my element, here, Natasha. I'm just a soldier, not an engineer or a scientist."

"Is it the suit?" She cocks her head to one side, a little bemused by the idea of the War Machine armor not suiting Rhodey's needs. She'd built the thing with her friend in mind—even if Rhodey was still under the assumption that he'd finally managed to one-up her that night during their impromptu fist fight when he later took off in the suit.

"Yes—no! No!" He buries his head in his hands, falling back against the bed with the fwump. "Maybe?"

"… Maybe?" she frowns.

His hands still hid his face, and that seemed to give him the courage to admit, "Yeah. Yes. It's only that—I guess I thought ifwe were the ones with a suit, maybe we could save a few more lives—or maybe we'd finally have one over the bad guys, you know?"

"That's not really how it works," she says quietly.

"No. I know that. But I still thought—" He's quiet for a moment, struggling with whatever is bother him—she knows him well enough that she doesn't even have to see his face to read the expression she knows she will find on it. "I guess I thought there would still be time. Maybe we could stay ahead of everyone else. But suddenly it's like everybody and their mother has some sort of tech they want to test against us. We can barely keep up! Is this what the future of war looks like?"

She waits until he removes his hands and meets her eyes before she answers, matching his devastating honesty with her own. "C'mon, Rhodey—we're piloting neutron bombs with facemasks. Did you really expect anything less?" Rhodey frowns and she continues. "All we can do is try and kill as many of those twisted sons-of-bitches as we can."

"What do we do when it's too much? When even the Iron Woman suit can't protect us?"

She doesn't have to even think about the answer. "I'll just make sure that never happens."

Slowly, he pulls himself back up to a sitting position, slumping forward with his elbows at his knees. "When I was out there, in the suit—I felt … slow. I don't know. I felt like—if only I could move just a little bit faster, I could have protected my men a little better."

She grins, moving to stand directly in front of him. She reaches out and raps her knuckles along the top of his bowed head. "Well, that I can do something about. Come on." When he doesn't move, she grips the top of his head and pushes back to force him to look up at her. She is still grinning. "First order of business—we gotta get you to relax, man. Pizza's getting cold and we still have a movie to watch! And then! Then—oh-ho-ho, Rhodey! I think it's time to break out the big-boy toys!"

"What?" He shoves her hand away, standing. The bottle of orange juice drops from his lap and rolls under the bed.

"Tomorrow I'm going to build you a new suit," she states.

He blinks at her, sluggishly. She's already heading towards the door when he remembers to grab the pizza box and follows after her.

"Natasha, you don't—"

She shrugs, and finds it isn't so hard to smile at the thought of providing Rhodey with another suit so he could take it back to his bosses. "Look, Rhodey—it is what it is. If Stark doesn't supply the military with a suit, someone else will. Better us than them, right? So don't worry about it."

He nods in agreement. "For what it's worth, I am sorry. And I'm glad it didn't get in the way, you know." Of our friendshipgoes left unsaid.

Natasha bites back the urge to reply with something caustic, if only because this is about as close as they get to talking about their 'feelings' and she thinks they've already met their quota for the year. She doesn't linger too long on the ludicrous notion that Rhodey seems to harbor that she would ever be the first to walk away from their friendship. Sometimes she wonders just how much of her Rhodey really sees and how much he just wants to see because she can has never been able to pinpoint what she's ever done to deserve such a loyal friend.

"So what movie did you pick?" she asks like the coward that she is, not wanting to face her own emotions and sidestepping the potential conversation altogether.

Rhodey chuckles, and she thinks he sounds a little relieved. "I found some old Captain America footage in your dad's stuff."

She groans, "Oh my god, Rhodey. I don't want to watch frickin' Captain America all night!"

Her stomach does a twist at the mere mention of the man, but she couldn't exactly fault her friend. It wasn't like Rhodey knew that the Spangly Asshole was the reason she'd been in such a foul mood that Pepper had deigned to call the Lieutenant-Colonel up to keep an eye on her. As if she didn't already have Olson for just that.

"Why not? Not all of us get to meet him, Natasha!" He almost sounds petulant.

She glowers at him, elbowing him in the ribs and then dodging him as he tried to retaliate by shoving her back. "You are such a goddamned closet fanboy, Rhodey."

"So that's a yes?" he asks with a grin as they reach the entrance to the workshop and begin the descent down the stairs.

She can't actually bring herself to refuse him so she just grumbles something unintelligible and the join Olson in the workshop where she invites them to settle into the Hot Rod as JARVIS begins rolling the first Captain America documentary.

Chapter Text

It's another two weeks before JARVIS is ready to be integrated with the Tower. Natasha ignores Pepper's knowing smirk and refuses to admit she may have suffered withdrawals without her AI present for her to antagonize. She's loathed to admit Olson isn't terrible company as an assistant, which means she sort of tries not to act like a total jackass towards him. It isn't easy, but he seems to appreciate the effort nevertheless.

One of the things she hates about Fury is that the man doesn't really give a shit if the last time you spoke ended in an explosion of vitriol and that he is thus the last person she really wants to deal with. He's Nick Fury. He thinks he owns the goddamn world. Not answering the phone doesn't mean he can't track you down. So she's not really surprised when she sees the elevator doors slide open to reveal Agent Coulson, but that doesn't mean she's happy about it, either.

"Security breach," she says to Olson as he hands her a mug of coffee.

He hesitates, looking between her and the S.H.E.I.L.D. agent.

"I've been trying to contact you," Coulson says by way of greeting.

Natasha ignores him, glaring up at the ceiling. "JARVIS, what the hell are you doing?"

"I apologize, Ms. Stark, but it appears Ms. Potts has granted Agent Coulson special security clearance. My protocol did not require me to—"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Traitor. Revoke whatever clearance Pepper gave him. This isn't S.H.E.I.L.D.'s fuckin' playground."

"Yes, ma'am. Understood. It is done."

"Ms. Stark, please. A moment of your time?" Coulson doesn't seem overtly perturbed by his reception, waiting patiently.

"I'm busy," Natasha snaps, walking away. She doesn't know where she's going but she doesn't want to deal with whatever bullshit Fury sent Coulson to deliver. She takes a sip of her coffee and moans. "Dear lord, Olson. You make the best damn coffee. Marry me."

Olson chuckles. "That is good to hear, ma'am."

She flashes him a wolfish grin over her shoulder, pleased by how quickly he's learned to adapt to her admittedly unorthodox behavior. There's a reason why she never hires new employees and why she's grateful to have Pepper and Happy working for her. In a couple of weeks, she decides, if Olson is still around, she thinks she'll come up with a proper nickname for him as well. He deserves it.

"Stark."

Natasha huffs and kicks a small empty box out of her path. She sees a sheet off bubble-wrap and smirks, stepping down on it with the glee of a toddler. She waits for three distinctive pops before speaking. "Well, what does your Pirate General want now?"

"It's probably best if we discuss this in private."

"If it's not something that can be discussed openly I'm not interested. I'm done dealing with your ass-hat of a boss. I'm not some trained mutt that'll wag her tail on command."

"Sir, if you don't mind?" The agent is speaking to Olson, now.

She spins around, scowling, and stalks across the room back to Olson's side before the man can speak. "Don't come in here ordering my people around, Coulson! I don't know what more there is to discuss! I've already made it perfectly clear to Fury what my opinion is on—"

"I'm not here on Fury's behalf, Stark," Coulson replies patiently.

Her teeth click shut as she bites back a retort. Swallowing, she speaks past gritted teeth, trying to ignore the bubbling rage in the pit of her stomach. "Then why are you here?"

"It's to do with … Mr. Rogers," Coulson says carefully, eyes flickering to Olson then back to her. "After everything he's been through, I'm concerned for his health and I fear that the Director … is too wrapped up in everything … else … to really notice."

Natasha sneers, shifting her weight to the left, closer to Olson as if to remind herself that she needed to maintain control. "What the hell can I do about that? Fury won't listen to me and Rogers is being an idiot and siding with him instead of me. In case you hadn't noticed, he's not really a big fan of me."

Coulson smiles, and though it's weak, it diffuses her a little. "He just hasn't gotten the chance to get to know you better."

She takes a sip from her coffee, rolling her eyes. "Uh-huh. Pretty sure Fury's taken care of that for me."

"Well, then maybe you should visit more often. Fury thinks that keeping him inside is for the best, but it's been five months." Coulson's smile returns, a little brighter. "I think he'd benefit from a tour of the city, a-la-Stark."

Natasha huffs a laugh, sweeping her eyes over the agent to make sure this is really Coulson she is talking to. "I don't know if he'd survive."

"You two would be good for each other," Coulson says, matter-of-factly.

She balks. "This is Rogers were talking about. And me. Super Scouts and Billionaire Polyamorists don't mix well, I promise you."

Coulson shrugs, holding out a tablet. "You never know. So will you look into it?"

Natasha still isn't over his insinuation and she hesitates. "I don't even know what I'm looking into."

She doesn't move forward to accept the tablet and after a while Coulson sighs, setting it on the nearest flat surface—a moving box labeled DUM-E's Stuff. "Let me know what you think."

He presses his lips together in a tight smile and nods goodbye, turning to go.

Well, okay then, Natasha thinks, bemused. Coulson is already in the elevator when she thinks to call out and say, "Hey! Maybe when I'm done here I can take him on that tour. It'll be a surprise. Don't tell him, alright?"

Coulson smiles just as the elevator doors are closing. "My lips are sealed."

Natasha just continues to stare at the reflective doors long after he's gone. It isn't until she feels the mug of coffee being pulled from her grip that she snaps out of her trance. "Whu—?"

Olson is smiling. "I will make you a new one. This one is already cold."

She blinks, until slowly her expression becomes something between an amused grin and an incredulous frown. "What? You cannot be real."

He chuckles, taking the half-empty mug with her and walking away.


Later that night Natasha finally manages a semblance of order within her new workshop. It's still a far cry from the one in her Malibu home but at least now she doesn't feel like she's trying to build a particle accelerator out of plastic tubes and a flashlight. She's disgusting after spending the entire day locked away working and she's surprised when she notices the time and that she doesn't think she remembers Pepper stopping by to check on her. It's only seven o'clock, so it's not even late by Natasha's standards, but Pepper's whereabouts distract her long enough to break her out of her flow.

The workshop's showering unit hasn't been installed yet so she jogs upstairs to her room. It's a disaster zone and Natasha cringes, toeing around boxes and a deconstructed wall unit. She has to duck under her mattress—which is leaning against the wall for no apparent reason—just to get to the bathroom. Inside, everything is covered in plastic and the smell of drying paint is stifling. She has to wonder for a second where the hell she's been going to shower properly—or if she's showered properly at all in the last five months—but forgets the instant the waters hits her bare flesh.

She stands in silence, the spray from the showerhead pelting water into her scalp, for all of one minute before she can't stand it any longer.

"Hey, JARVIS?"

"Yes, Ms. Stark?"

"Do you think it'd be faster if I just hooked everything up now? Technically, all the important wiring is done. Basically, I'm just wasting time trying to get every little detail absolutely perfect before I hit the switch and that's probably counter-productive, right?"

"I believe you've just answered your own question, Ms. Stark."

"Yeah, yeah. Smartass. Fine. I'll just finish up working on the converter, then. But if everything goes south, I'm blaming it on you, JARVIS."

"I've missed you too, Ms. Stark."

She smirks, switching off the water and stepping out. She changes quickly into another band t-shirt and jeans and heads for the living room to see the televisions that sits in the main room—easily more than half the length of the wall—is on. She pauses on her way to the kitchen as she tries to understand what she's watching.

"Oh lord," she groans when she recognizes the program.

"Problem?"

She turns to see Olson entering the room with two bags of take-out. He holds one out to her as he passes, his eyes on the television screen, and she hugs the bag to her chest like an adoring mother, inhaling deeply.

"Mmm, this smells delicious! What is it?"

"It's a surprise," Olson answers distractedly from the kitchen where he's fishing out silverware and plates. Obviously, Pepper had stocked at some point because Natasha does not remember doing so.

The kitchen is really less of one and more of a bar, with every wine and hard liquor her money can find decorating the walls and cabinets. It's fitted snuggly into an alcove that gives the space an almost intimate feeling, separating it from the rest of the open room while offering a perfect view into nearly every other corner. There's a mini-fridge for snacks and a little area that seems to have been designated for coffee-making purposes. Natasha is sure somewhere in the Tower Pepper must have ensured they had a proper kitchen for proper meals, but Natasha hasn't discovered it yet.

"What's going on?" Olson asks after a moment, still watching the TV with interest.

She rolls her eyes even though he can't see, joining him and setting her bag next to his. "It's that time of the year again. They've probably been running this special all day. I mean, not to sound like a cold-hearted bitch, but this shit pisses me off."

He blinks down at her, handing her a plate and fork. "Why? What is it?"

She frowns. "Seriously?" He looks serious. "They hold a wake every year since the Hulk's rampage on Harlem. Only, it's stupid and manipulative because it wasn't the Hulk. Well, he was there, but he wasn't the one going around killing all those people."

Olson stops what he's doing, looking interested. "How can you be sure it wasn't?"

Regarding him for a moment as she debates just how much she can say without breaking any confidentiality clauses, she sighs, "Look, I used to supply the military with all their best weapons. I've still got plenty of connections. Trust me, it wasn't the Hulk."

Olson nods understandingly, turning back to the program where they're now sweeping over a crowd of citizens holding up candles in front of the Harlem Memorial. "But the creature—is still dangerous."

"As dangerous as anything can be, if you let it," Natasha mutters irritably. "You poke someone long enough and hard enough and they're gunna snap. The repercussions of which are particularly nasty when that someone is the Hulk."

"You sound like you sympathize with the creature."

Natasha shrugs and focuses on pulling out the take-out containers so she doesn't have to meet Olson's questioning stare. "Why not? Everyone thinks of him as this monster, only good for destruction. Once upon a time, I was called the Merchant of Death. How do you think I got that title?"

Natasha's hand trembles over one foam container as she sets it on the counter; Olson doesn't say anything.

"At least the Hulk—at least he didn't choose to be what he is. What he is—that was forced upon him. Now, an argument can be made that maybe Banner made his choice, but Banner isn't the Hulk. And unlike Banner and Hulk, I did what I did knowingly. You don't make weapons of mass destruction with the deluded belief that no harm will come to anyone because of it. Of course, I never once thought that my own weapons could be used against my country. That was naïve, I guess."

There is a dreadful silence that follows her statement that steals the air from her lungs. Even the television has lulled into silence and Natasha tries to resist but it's too late because her mind has already gone there and she's thinking again …

"Come on," Olson says at last, setting one hand on her shoulder. "Let's go eat before dinner gets cold."

Later, even when she realizes that she has slipped by mentioning Banner's name, he never tries to bring it up. They watch stupid old movies together in Natasha's ongoing pursuit to educate Olson on all the culture he's apparently missed while he was living under a rock and any dark thoughts are dispelled for the night and shoved into a far corner of her mind.


She's slept a total of six hours in the past three days but she is still restless that following night. Olson's been a trooper but Natasha knows he can't possibly be accustomed to such erratic sleeping hours and so she orders him to go home. He doesn't argue, which goes to show how tired he must be, and Natasha spends her first night alone in Stark Tower.

It's nearly three o'clock in the morning when she realizes she can't stand the mess of the place. With most of the tech stuff out of the way, Stark Tower is just about done. All that's really left is to finish her work with the arc-reactor, hook it all up and bam! Stark Industries' first giant leap towards green energy. Natasha hopes this good news will put Pepper in a better mood since the last time they'd spoken Pepper had been arguing with her against the logic of repurposing the top ten floors on (once again) such short notice.

She hadn't even realized that the movers had already begun bringing in furniture until she began riffling through the various boxes around her personal floor. She decided to unpack, putting up decorations on a whim (forgetting for a moment just how much time and effort Pepper had put into picking out each item so that they would complement one another within the room). Natasha purposely arranges the furniture and deco in ways that clash, changing her mind at least a dozen times over the course of the night. Eventually, she discovers a magazine that features many of the same furnishings and decides to try and mimic the style for Pepper's sake.

All too soon she finds that it is already daylight. She's collapsed in one of the sofas, staring vacantly out the wall-length windows while idly calculating the degree of the angles formed between the convex windows, floor and ceiling.

"Oh, wow!"

She throws her head back against the sofa to see Pepper and Olson exiting the elevator, both looking equally impressed with the room. With a self-satisfied grin, Natasha twists in her seat so she's kneeling on the cushions and facing them.

"You like?" she asks, spreading her arms wide.

"Is the world ending? I thought you were allergic to clean?" Pepper asks, trying and failing to contain her awe.

Natasha pouts. "What are you talking about, Pepper? When has the penthouse ever been a mess?"

Pepper levels her with a look. "The penthouse is clean because you never leave your workshop, which is always an absolute disaster."

"Is not. I have an order for everything."

"It's chaos, Natasha."

Natasha huffs, slumping forward against the back of the couch. "Chaos with a purpose, Pepper. You wouldn't understand."

Olson chuckles. Pepper smiles fondly, shaking her head. "I'm just giving you a hard time. Natasha, it looks amazing. Really. I love it."

She brightens, grinning. "Great! Olson! What do you think?"

Olson blinks in surprise, as if he hadn't expected to be addressed. "It is incredible, Ms. Stark."

Natasha smiles. "Awesome."

"You'll have to give me the grand tour later, Natasha," Pepper says, walking over to hand her a Stark tablet. "I just came by to get this signed and then I have a meeting with the board in an hour. Unless you think you can make it … "

She signs off on the tablet hastily, throwing Pepper a casual wink. "Sorry, babe. Still have a lot of work to do with the arc-reactor's converter. And it needs to be water-proof. That'll be fun."

"I thought that wasn't an issue with the arc-reactor," Pepper replies, ignoring the obvious change of topic.

"It's not. It's complicated. Don't worry about it. You just have a glorious, wonderful day!"

Pepper rolls her eyes, leaning forward to press a swift kiss to Natasha's cheek. "Fine. I'm leaving."

Natasha watches Pepper leave with a smile, feeling pleased that they were once more on good terms. She doesn't like to think of it as being manipulative when she's genuinely trying to make Pepper happy by helping distract her from being mad at Natasha; but that's exactly what it is. It takes a moment before she realizes Olson is staring at her and she leers at him suggestively.

"See something you like?"

He shakes his head with a smirk, walking away in the direction of the kitchen. "Did you at least get any sleep last night, Ms. Stark?"

Bouncing off the couch, she follows him, grinning in anticipation. "Nope."

Natasha comes up beside him to see him pour coffee beans into the grinder. "You know we have those fancy little gourmet K-Cups, right? You just pop them into the machine and it brews you a perfect blend."

Olson doesn't look away from what he's doing and grins. "Yes, but I've learned that you are very particular about your coffee."

"I didn't realize you were such a connoisseur."

"I am not. But I make a good assistant."

Natasha chuckles, nodding in agreement. "Yes, you are. You're perfect. Don't tell Pepper I said that, though."

"She makes for a terrific mentor. I'm sure she'd only take it as a compliment."

She steps out of the way as Olson pours the new grind into a little filter basket, then packs it into a plastic holder and deposits it into the brewer. He punches a button and the machine whirs to life. While Natasha contemplates tinkering with the machine to make it a little quieter, Olson sets a mug under the dispenser and turns around to face her.

"Now you know my secret," he says, green eyes bright.

Natasha laughs, holding up her hands in a surrendering gesture. "Trust me, I have no idea what you just did. Ask me about cosmitronic cannons, pre-programmed micro-manipulators or S-Matrix Theory Circuitry but—coffee? Yeah. No."

"It is a good thing you have me, then."

Natasha makes a bowing gesture. "Yes, you are my God of Coffee."

Olson grins again, all teeth.

"And I'd probably be the God of … Inventing Stuff?" She laughs again when she thinks, "Though, if you ask Pepper—and everyone else—they'd probably call me a God of Chaos. Or Goddess. Whatever."

Olson laughs, and Natasha realizes it's the first time she's actually ever heard him do so. She grins, feeling doubly accomplished. He looks really good when he laughs.

The coffee is done and before Natasha can reach forward, Olson grabs the mug and takes a step forward, causing her to retreat a step to look up at him. "Now, Ms. Stark, if I give this to you, you're going to have to promise me you will get some rest tonight."

Natasha frowns, backing up until the counter of the bar is pressing into her lower back. "Are you seriously threatening me with coffee?"

"If I must. Per Ms. Pott's orders."

Natasha's eyes narrow, "Oooh, that little—"

"Do we have an accord?"

She blinks. "Sometimes you talk like a—never mind. Yeah, yeah. But I can only promise to try."

"Fair enough." He holds out the cup for her.

Hopping backwards onto the counter in one nearly-graceful move, Natasha accepts the coffee with a giddy grin.

Olson's eyes are sweeping over her and he frowns, as if just noticing a very troubling detail.

"Ms. Stark, what are you wearing?"

Natasha follows his eyes to her legs. She swings them back and forth and replies, "I stole a pair of Pepper's shorts. Good thing she didn't notice. She gets mad when I steal her stuff but it got really hot moving all that furniture around and Pepper still hasn't unpacked my stuff. I think she's waiting for me to do it." She stretches her legs out in front of her, straightening them in the air. "They don't look quite as good on me as they do on her. She's got those long, gorgeous legs. I'm not so lucky. And I've got all these ugly bruises—lookit!"

She sets her cup aside to reach forward and poke at a greenish-yellow splotch on her shin. It throbs and she pulls her hand away quickly.

Olson shifts closer, studying the bruises stippling her legs with interest. "From what?"

"It's from the new Iron Woman suit I'm working on. The Mark VII. It's still in the early stages." It's a testament to just how little can still catch her off guard when Olson wordlessly lays a large hand over the discolored patches of skin. Natasha nearly shivers, mostly surprised by how cold his hand is. She blinks and says, "I mean, it works fine, for the most part. The mechanics are all there, but whenever the shock absorbers malfunction it causes the pressurization inside the suit to go all funky."

Olson hums thoughtfully and Natasha thinks he might actually understand half of what she's saying. After all, they had spent hours going over the workings of her suit when they were in Malibu.

"Do they hurt?" he asks.

"Only if you poke it."

Olson's fingers are curled over her left calf now and she doesn't try to move away from his touch. The cold feels incredibly good and irrationally, she feels the urge to take his other hand and press it to her suddenly warm cheek.

"Hey, you know what I just thought of?" she says before she can help it. He has both hands on her knees now and she drops her leg noiselessly against the counter.

He doesn't look up when he asks, "What's that?"

Her heart beat has picked up, but her brain doesn't care, taking over and forming ideas. "What do you think if I made it bigger? The logo. I want it to say Stark on the side of the building, but I really want it to pop! I'm talking big, here. Reallybig! Huge!"

Olson has both hands on her thighs, fingers spread over the smooth skin and green eyes meet hers, sparkling with mischief. He's really close. Closer than Natasha had realized and somehow he's managed to position himself so that her knees are on either side of his hips.

"You like big?" His lips melt into a grin. It's natural and beautiful.

Natasha licks her lips, smiling. "I like big."

He tips his head forward. "You should do it, then."

Wow, she thinks, already effectively distracted from thoughts of Stark Tower. How long had it been since she was last with someone? Probably for about as long as she's been working on the renovations for the Tower (with some fleeting and almost inconsequential exceptions). Her eyes sweep over the man in front of her, all long, hard lines and smooth pale skin. His dark hair is always slicked back, curling away from his shoulders—always perfect. Bright green eyes, wicked grin that is all white teeth. How the hell had she refrained from making a move on him? And what were the chances of maintaining a professional relationship if she pushed for something further now?

She opens her mouth to say something witty and soaked in sexual innuendo when she remembers—Pepper.

Right.

She sighs, reaching forward and grasping either end of the silk scarf around Olson's shoulders. Pepper had made her promise a long time ago that, while Natasha was free to break the hearts and spirits of any man that crossed her path, Stark employees were strictly off limits if only because Pepper did not want to deal with the legal migraine.

"It's not fair," she is pouting, but she doesn't care. "And I can't even fire you!"

Olson moves with the grace of a cat, shifting forward until his lips are hovering just over her ear and his words are a breath against her cheek. "Why would you want to fire me?"

"I don't," Natasha sulks, leaning into him despite herself. "You're actually annoyingly good at your job."

Olson's fingers dig into her thighs, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough that there is little room for doubt that he wantswhatever this is just as much as her. He leans back enough so their eyes can meet, but his lips are merely inches away from hers.

And then the phone rings.

"Sorry to interrupt, ma'am. Call from Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes. Should I tell him you are … detained?" JARVIS's voice is far too smug than should be strictly allowed of an AI.

Natasha groans, throwing her head back in exasperation. Olson pulls away and she immediately misses his presence. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Put him on, JARVIS," Olson says soberly, straightening the front of his jacket and tucking his scarf back into place. Natasha blinks at him but he has his gaze averted, his expression unreadable and off. It's like a switch has been flipped and for a second Natasha doesn't know who she's looking at. Finally, he says, "I should be going."

Her body jerks forward unintentionally, as if to stop him, but she summons her Stark-mask of indifference and watches him turn away and head for the door.

"Where's the fire?" she asks, her tone a little harsher than she wants it to be.

"I have something I need to take care of."

She rolls her eyes at his back, shaking her head as she hops off the bar. "Whatever. I'll see you later, then."

Natasha heads for the bedroom just so she doesn't have to watch him run off. She hears the door open.

Then, "Yes, later, Ms. Stark."

When the door shuts carefully after him, the sound echoes in the Tower for what seems an eternity.

Chapter Text

 

The converter clicks into place, wrapping itself over the internal wiring and glowing a vivid blue that simulates the reactor in her chest. She pushes away and activates the repulsors on her palms and boots to propel her up and out of the water. She's grinning when she breaks the surface of the East River, streaking past a holiday cruise ship and into the night sky. When she gets enough altitude she swivels her legs and kicks out, jetting back in the direction of the city.

"Good to go on this end. The rest is up to you," she says into the COM of her helmet, weaving through Manhattan and drawing plenty of attention from the pedestrians below and tenants in the buildings around her.

"You disconnected the transmission lines? Are we off the grid?" Pepper's image asks her out of the corner of Iron Woman's HUD.

Natasha replies, "Stark Tower is about to become the beacon of self-sustaining clean energy."

"Well, assuming the arc-reactor takes over and actually works."

Natasha smirks. "I assume." She makes a sharp turn around and falls into line over Lexington Avenue. Up ahead, she can just about see the Tower's unique architecture silhouetted against the backdrop of Manhattan. "Light her up."

The words have barely left her lips when she sees the dark obelisk transform before her eyes. From the bottom and up, each level of the building is lit until the entire Tower is alive. Then, finally, the Stark name is lit and glaring out from across the city at her.

"How does it look?" Pepper whispers, excited.

"Like Christmas," Natasha's lips twist and her eyes flick to Pepper's grinning face for a second. "But with more … me."

It definitely looks like Christmas has come early for Pepper. Natasha takes a dive and sweeps below a bridge, building momentum as she comes up in front of her Tower and makes an abrupt arc skywards.

Pepper is rambling. "We've got to go wider on the public-awareness campaign. You need to do some press. I'm in DC tomorrow, I'm working on the zoning for the next three buildings—"

"Pepper." Natasha shakes her head, and reduces power on the thrusters as she nears the landing pad for the suit. "You're killing me. The moment? Remember, enjoy the moment?"

There's a short laugh on Pepper's end, followed by a resigned sigh. She says playfully. "Then get in here."

She slows just as she reaches the landing pad and hovers for a moment while she regains her balance before she drops with a heavy clang of metal. As she makes her way to the entrance the pad comes to life around her. Various, strategically placed, robotic arms reach out from beneath the floor panels to strip her of her armor by sections.

"Ma'am, Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on the line," JARVIS says directly into her helmet.

"I'm not in!" Natasha replies automatically as her faceplate and helmet are removed. The cool night air is refreshing against her cheeks. "I'm actually out."

"Ma'am, I'm afraid he's insisting." JARVIS says, this time from within the Tower as Natasha steps inside.

"Grow a spine, JARVIS. I've got a date."

After the suit has been completely removed she is left in a dark, slim-fitting long-sleeved athletic top and tights. Inside, Pepper is waiting by the desk.

"Levels are holding steady. I think."

"Of course they are. I was directly involved—which brings me to my next question—" Natasha makes her way to Pepper, swiping the sweat under her eyes. She removes the sensor-bands from her wrists and drops them on the desk next to Pepper with a grin. "How does it feel to be a genius?"

"Well, ha, I really wouldn't know, now would I?" Pepper says, rolling her eyes.

Natasha scrubs at her short hair and smiles cheekily. "What do you mean? All of this came from you."

Pepper snorts and her eyes drop to the reactor. "No. All of this came from that."

"Oh, give yourself some credit," Natasha reaches out, dropping her hands on Pepper's shoulders. "Please. Stark Tower is your baby. Give yourself—twelve percent of the credit."

Pepper's eyes narrow. "Twelve percent?"

"An argument can be made for fifteen!" Natasha removes her hands immediately, backtracking. She steps away when Pepper brushes past her in a huff.

"Twelve percent? Of my baby?" Natasha thinks that maybe Pepper actually sounds offended, possibly livid, but there is no way of knowing for sure the damage she's caused until such a time as the former PA and present CEO of Stark Industries deems it suitable to enact her revenge for the percieved slight.

"Well—well, I did do all the heavy lifting. Literally, I lifted all the heavy things." Natasha says in her defense, following behind Pepper into the living area at a safe distance. Pepper throws an incredulous look over her shoulder before lowering herself to the floor next to the glass coffee table. Natasha adds, "And, I'm sorry, the security snafu? That was on you."

"Ohhh my god. You're not going to let that go." There is a Krug Champagne bottle and three glasses set out on the table but Natasha tries to ignore it. Pepper only fills two.

"My private elevator—"

"You mean our elevator?"

"Of course. But you gave Coulson access to it. Why would that ever be okay?" Natasha takes a seat next to Pepper, searching her face. "I'm going to pay for that comment about percentages in some subtle way, later, aren't I?"

She accepts the glass of Champagne Pepper hands her and Pepper smiles. "Not going to be that subtle."

"I'll tell you what," Natasha tries again as Pepper makes herself more comfortable, snatching pillows off the nearby settee. "The next building is gunna say 'Potts' on the Tower."

"On the lease," Pepper negotiates, knowing full well Natasha would probably agree to anything she asked for. Natasha makes a face and Pepper tips her glass against Natasha's with a delicate clink.

While Natasha takes a sip Pepper watches her.

Then, "So, is everything okay with Lucas?"

Natasha is unsuccessful at remaining unruffled and the Champagne promptly lodges itself into a lump in her throat that she has trouble swallowing past. Pepper blinks at her innocently and Natasha unintentionally glances at the third glass waiting on the table.

She swallows heavily and doesn't quite meet Pepper's perceptive gaze. "I would assume so. Why?"

"Well, I haven't heard from him in a couple of days. I was getting worried. Have you talked to him, at least?"

"Nope." And she does not want to be having this conversation, either. Natasha fishes for a change in topic but Pepper is quicker.

"Did you do something?"

Neither surprised and only mildly offended, Natasha frowns at Pepper, "Why do you immediately assume I've done something?"

Pepper doesn't bother dignifying that question with a response. "It just seems odd. He wouldn't have missed this unless it was important."

"Why would he care?" Natasha sniffs, a little bemused by how much thought Pepper has put into Olson's absence.

"Lucas has been a part of the Stark Tower Project through every step of the renovations."

Natasha rolls her eyes, growing annoyed. She tries to contain it, knowing it will do nothing to deter Pepper from obtaining the answers she seeks and Natasha is really not at her best when piqued. "Because that's his job. Or was. Whatever."

Pepper looks nearly mortified, mouth agape in a manner that somehow still conveys classiness. "Wait, did he quit?"

Natasha shakes her head hurriedly, "No, no. I don't—I don't know. I told you, I haven't talked to him. Why does it matter, anyway?"

She regrets asking almost immediately because she doesn't really want to know and this conversation needed to be over five minutes ago. Pepper cuts her a 'you're an idiot' look that Natasha has grown very familiar with and says, "You're kidding, right?"

"No?"

"I'm not blind, you know."

Natasha frowns. "Huh?"

"You and Lucas. You two are so perfect for each other it's disgusting." It's such a girl thing (in Pepper flavoring) to say that Natasha honestly doesn't know how to process the words for a full second.

Natasha nearly drops her glass, manages to spill quite a bit of Champagne on her lap, but all she can do is stare at Pepper and wonder if the other has lost her mind. "What?"

Pepper arches a brow, sly smile in place. "Are you going to deny that you find him attractive?"

"Well, yeah, of course I do, but—" Natasha's eyes widen as a thought occurs to her. She has to set her Champagne on the table so as not to make any more of a mess. "Wait a minute. You're the one who said I wasn't allowed to hook up with anyone that worked for us."

"Hook up, yes. I will glue your legs shut if I have to. You're free to date whomever you want, however."

Natasha grimaces. "Pep, I don't date."

Pepper shakes her head, but a strange electronic chirp interrupts whatever she plans to say.

"Ma'am, the telephone … I'm afraid my protocols are being overridden."

Natasha frowns, sweeping her gaze over the coffee table and spotting one of her mobiles.

"Stark, we need to talk," Coulson's voice sounds small through the phone.

With an exasperated sigh, Natasha grabs the phone and throws Pepper an accusing glare. Facing the phone to herself, she neutralizes any expression from her face.

"Uh—you have reached the life-model decoy of Natasha Stark, please leave a message."

Pepper giggles quietly, ducking her head. Coulson sounds completely unimpressed. "This is urgent."

Natasha's poker face is Oscar-worthy. "Then leave it urgently—"

The elevator doors slide open and Coulson steps into the room, lowering his phone to his side.

"Security breach!" Natasha turns to Pepper. "It's on you."

"Ms. Stark—"

"Phil!" Pepper exclaims, setting her Champagne down. "Come in."

"Phil?" Natasha frowns, watching Pepper stand and maneuver around the couches to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

"I can't stay," Coulson says to Pepper.

Natasha gets up, grabbing her Champagne and following her. "Uh, his first name is Agent. And what happened to Happy?"

Pepper ignores her, smiling pleasantly at Coulson. "Come on in. We're celebrating."

"Which is why he can't stay," Natasha mutters, faking a grin for Coulson.

The man is completely unresponsive, all business as he hands her a laptop. "We need you to look this over as soon as possi—"

Natasha pulls her hands to her sides. "I don't like being handed things—"

"That's fine, because I love to be handed things, so let's trade," Pepper cuts her off, taking the laptop and handing Coulson her Champagne. Without missing a beat, she snatches Natasha's drink from her hand and replaces it with the tablet. "Thank you."

Natasha rolls her eyes and levels Coulson with a half-hearted sneer. "Official consulting hours are between eight and five every other Thursday."

"This isn't a consultation."

"Is this about the Avengers?" Pepper asks seriously. Coulson stares, although he doesn't look surprised. Pepper, realizing her mistake, backtracks, "W-which I know nothing about."

Natasha is bemused, studying Coulson for a second before heading to her desk. She unfolds the laptop and slides out the detachable monitor, slipping it into place. "The Avengers Initiative was scrapped. I thought—" Natasha turns to throw Coulson a dubious look. "And I thought I didn't even qualify?"

"I-I didn't know that either," Pepper adds hastily.

Natasha snorts and keeps walking, balancing the laptop on one arm as she enters her identification into the keyboard while the mounted webcam IDs her face for clearance. She recites from memory, "Yeah, apparently I'm 'volatile'? 'Self-obsessed'. I don't 'play well with others'."

"That I did know." Pepper says matter-of-factly.

"This isn't about personality profiles anymore," is Coulson's stern response.

"Whatever." Natasha sets the laptop on her desk. She types a series of keys into the touch-sensitive monitor. Several highly-classified profiles pop up—Rogers at the front. Frowning at the unreasonably small screen, she throws it up onto the holo-interface with a swipe of her hands.

She recognizes the severity of the situation when she sees Rogers' face staring back at her, alongside the slightly less familiar face of Bruce Banner. Barton and Romanoff share a profile; in the upper right-hand screen is a blond man. She recognizes his satellite footage from when she'd filched the files from S.H.I.E.L.D. after the New Mexico incident. There are several other pieces of footages playing at once. Natasha focuses on the least familiar of them all and recognizes the footage as being taken from a security camera within one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s bases.

The first thing she notices is a word—a name.

Loki.

And then her eyes fall to the video of the man responsible for what appears to be the complete annihilation of one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most secure facilities. It's chaos, for a moment, as a number of agents are taken out; then the face recognition sets in and the camera locks in on the intruder.

Everything stretches out for far too long. She has tunnel-vision and she can't look away even though something inside of her is stuttering and failing and her mind doesn't seem to be working because …

"Natasha? What is it?" It's Pepper.

Natasha realizes she hasn't blinked and her eyes water reflexively when she remembers how to. Clearing her throat, heart thudding madly in her chest, she risks looking over her shoulder to where Coulson and Pepper still stand. Pepper looks ready to walk over, her expression drawn in concern. Something in Coulson's eyes, however, tell Natasha he knows. Which means … it's real. That's really … really …

"Pep, you should take the jet to DC. Looks like I've got a lot of homework." Pepper cannot know. She can't find out untilNatasha knows and right now, Natasha isn't sure whether she can trust her own mind let alone her eyes.

"Are you sure?"

"Yup. Coulson, you mind giving her a ride to LaGuardia?"

"Not a problem."

Pepper hesitates. "Call me tomorrow, if you get the chance, okay?"

Natasha nods at the images in front of her, numb. "Square deal. Fly safe."

"Don't work too hard!" Pepper says, before she gets in the elevator. She's talking to Coulson about some Cellist in Portland before the elevator doors close on them both.


It's almost daylight by the time Natasha has finished working through the files Coulson left her with. She doesn't want to read them and that is part of the reason why it takes so long in the first place. She spends more time avoiding … Loki's file than she should, but can't help glancing over at the profile image. The picture is grainy, but that face, though twisted in an unfamiliar glower, is unmistakable. It leaves a terrible hollow deep in her belly; it chills her to her core in a way she can't describe and it's all she can do to keep her eyes moving and her mind functioning.

She rereads the same line on "the transmission coefficient for a particle tunneling through a single barrier" before she finally gives up, reclining more comfortably in her desk chair and throwing her head back, eyes squeezed shut.

Why? Why was this happening? How was she so stupid to let something like this happen? Again? But this time it wasn't just about her, and it wasn't about her company. She'd let her guard down again and countless lives could be in jeopardy. Her first instinct was to dispel the blame, but it wasn't so easy this time. She had known of the responsibilities and sacrifices that came with the suit—had willingly accepted it all—and this was her fault.

It was her job to think outside of the box while everyone else was content to live within it. A year ago, when that incident in New Mexico had called Coulson away from one of the most life-changing discoveries of Natasha's life, she had made sure to learn everything S.H.I.E.L.D. had about their 'visitor from the skies'. But arrogance had gotten the better of her, as always. When nothing further developed on that front, Natasha had moved on—focused back on her life with such pinpoint precision that everything else fell to the wayside. She should have looked further into this 'Thor' character—regardless of whether or not she seriously believed what S.H.I.E.L.D.'s profile on him had to say.

A God? Sure, of course he was.

Still, this man was clearly a person of interest—had come with his own neat little destructive robot (classified as 'The Destroyer'), which had taken her much longer to dismantle and analyze than her ego was comfortable admitting to. She should have been looking into S.H.I.E.L.D., as well, but then Rogers had appeared and nothing else mattered. She had buried herself in her work with the Tower and when she wasn't working, she was silently obsessing over the American icon.

She had been negligent and she'd allowed another enemy to slip right past her defenses.

The self-hate is like molten lava. It burns everything inside her; swallows every thought and renders it to ash. She has failed—herself, Pepper, everyone—and her shame drills into her core, acquainting itself with every other personal flaw within.

Thermonuclear astrophysics is put on the backburner and she sets the files Coulson procured on Selvig's extraction theory notes into a semblance of order. It's all documented on paper and it's been too long since she's dealt with anything that isn't immediately interactive that she has had to literally restrain herself from tearing the sensitive files to strips out of frustration. It surprises her that S.H.I.E.L.D. is so paranoid that there are no digital versions of these notes, for fear of them being filched by some hack with a laptop. Or a phone, in her case. She's moderately impressed, because this means that there are things Fury has managed to keep from even her, and all it took was hanging on to a few primitive forms of documentation to stay her wandering eyes.

Normally, this realization would also piss her the fuck off—and encourage her to find other more creative means of obtaining information from S.H.I.E.L.D.—but she's pissed enough at herself that she doesn't have any anger left over for Fury, for once. What she needs is several drinks and to just black this entire night the fuck out. Maybe tomorrow she'll wake up to find that all of this was just some fucked up preemptive nightmare as a result of the binge she fully intends to go on. Fuck sobriety. Fuck reality. Fuck everything.

She doesn't bother retrieving a proper glass. She grabs as many bottles of liquor as she can carry in her arms and wanders back to the sitting area. The Champagne bottle still sits there, accusingly; and what a waste of exquisite and very expensive wine. Purchasing it from LVMH had not been easy—for Pepper. Natasha wants nothing more than to toss the bottle altogether—blast it with a repulsor and watch it shatter to a million pieces. She craves the violence of it, but Pepper would kill her, of course, so maybe Natasha will just shelve it somewhere she never has to see it again. She needs to hide all evidence of this night. She needs it all to just disappear.

Natasha plops herself down on the same spot she'd reserved earlier, hitting the ground with a graceless thud as the last of her strength abandons her. Already, she misses Pepper, but is endlessly grateful that she will not be here tonight or tomorrow to witness the state Natasha intends to put herself in. Unscrewing the cap of a Black Label bottle, she takes a healthy swig. While her mouth and tongue adjust to the full and deep taste, she slumps further into the carpet, folding her knees so she fits in the space between the sofa and the coffee table. The edge of the glass table bites uncomfortably into her knees and her neck protests the awkward position vehemently but she ignores it all; in a few minutes, she will be too numb to remember her name, anyway.

"JARVIS. Music."

Without any of his usual wit, JARVIS switches on her workshop playlist, tuning the volume to ear-shattering decibels.

Natasha drinks.

Even with the music, her thoughts are a mess. There is no order and she doesn't have the strength to will her mind into an impression of it. She can't help but compare what's happened now to the mistakes of her past. Her life has always been a downward spiral. She knew that, even then. All the men and booze and cars and parties didn't hide the fact that she was a total fuck-up; all those things emphasized it. Being a genius didn't compensate for every flaw she'd inherited from her father, and which Howard Stark had helped nurture by raising her as just another one of his inventions. Some people grew into parenthood; others were ill-suited for the responsibilities of the task. Howard Stark was in a class of his own.

Natasha had never known how to trust another human; her only companions had been her creations and her father's workshop, which she would steal away into during his lengthy trips to the Artic. It wasn't until MIT (during which the earliest concepts of the Mark I suit had been drafted) that she met James Rhodes. At the time, Rhodey had been a pilot in the U.S. Marines, serving his term in the Middle East. This is where they first met (the irony of which didn't particularly amuse her), in the middle of a barren desert hundreds of kilometers from civilization, testing out Stark Industries' latest fighter jets. Natasha had been present in her father's stead, although diplomacy had been left to Obadiah while she was under strict orders to keep her mouth shut and not cause any problems—her father's words.

She'd joined Rhodey for the test flight, in part to ensure the marine knew how to handle the aircraft, but mostly to get away from the bore that were Government bureaucrats. Not twenty minutes into the flight, they'd been shot down by enemy missiles. That they survived at all was due entirely to her quick thinking and Rhodey's quicker reflexes and natural affinity for piloting. The craft could not be made airworthy after the crash, but Natasha had managed to salvage parts to create a signal that Obadiah could track by satellite. They were literally missing for a total of four hours before Obadiah and a handful of marines pinpointed their signal and recovered them. In the time it took for them to be rescued, however, Natasha had discovered in Rhodey a strange camaraderie that came only after surviving a life-endangering situation. She'd offered him a position as her personal pilot when his stint in the military was over, but he'd declined. Instead, he eventually became her liaison with the military and their friendship developed from there.

It wasn't that Rhodey understood her any better than anyone else; it was that he didn't pretend to and didn't try, either. Certainly, he knew her better than most, but that was knowledge acquired over many years of friendship. Rhodey had been a pillar of maturity and strength that had grounded her. Soon after, when she'd lost both her parents in the accident, she had been fortunate to have him at her side. There had been no reason for him to be there for her—they hadn't yet formed the friendship they had now—but nevertheless, he was a good man. He had saved her from drowning herself in oblivion as the rest of the world watched her unravel in rapt fascination.

Rhodey was everything that she wasn't. Stable, mature and reliable. Any redeemable qualities she had could only be attributed to his influence. She shuddered to imagine the person she'd be without him.

Then there was Pepper. Pepper had been working as an accountant with Stark Industries for years before Natasha took notice of her. Miraculously, and characteristically, the woman had saved the company millions by spotting an error in their numbers. On a whim, Natasha had rewarded the woman with a promotion as her personal assistant—mostly because she'd been (and probably still was) a spoiled brat with enough money and power to make Solomon blush. It was a decision she'd soon regret when she realized just how seriously Pepper would take the position. Only the reluctant admittance that Pepper made her life infinitely easier (business-wise) prevented Natasha from firing Pepper two weeks in. Not that she hadn't tried, but Pepper had just ignored her and Natasha would get over her ire almost immediately when Pepper showed her just how valuable she was.

Somewhere in her otherwise perfectly shriveled and black soul, there was a part of her that welcomed the companionship Rhodey and Pepper so clearly offered. It hadn't started as friendship, with either of them. In both cases, Rhodey and Pepper took up the roles Natasha's parents had failed to fulfill. They looked out for her, worried for her, cared for her—and it was almost too much. They weren't much older than Natasha, but they were adults and they were normal and human and Natasha was none of those things. She was still a child, only with no one to impress since her parents death, and so she'd become wild and self-destructive and no one else had cared enough to help. The media had lapped it all up with an unquenchable hunger.

Nothing about Natasha's life had ever been normal, either. Her upbringing had been disastrous; being juggled between a dozen different nannies left more damage than she could quantify. Her genius mind had been a curse because while it was capable of calculating reason and logic, she was too young to have wisdom and experience to understand why her childhood had left her with a sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

She'd hated her father to conceal the fact that she'd wanted nothing more than to earn his approval. Out of teenage spite, she'd turned her attention to Obadiah, adopting him as a paternal figure. Her father had died and her last memories of him had been of an argument in which she'd coldly informed him that she'd wished Obadiah had been her father, rather than Howard.

Obadiah had always been receptive to her needs. He'd spoiled her like a favorite uncle would spoil his niece. She thought she'd had him wrapped around her finger.

It wasn't until about two years ago that she'd realized she had been the puppet all along.

Natasha brings herself back to the present when the scotch catches in her throat and burns. She nearly chokes so she sits up to ease the liquor down. Her eyes prickle for more than one reason.

Obadiah's betrayal was something she would never forgive herself for. Her blindness had nearly cost her everything. As a result, she was perhaps much angrier than she would have normally been—and certainly angrier than she'd let on—when she'd learned that her pretty new secretary was in fact a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent sent to spy on her.

A bitter, jaded part of her knew that if it weren't for Rhodey and Pepper, she would never have become the sort of person people could so easily deceive. Rhodey and Pepper made her soft, and that fucked up part of her that craved more of those sorts of relationships—that selfishly wanted more than just the two friends in her life—continued to screw her over by latching on to the first interesting person that came along.

She raised the bottle to her lips and was met with air.

Startled, she blinked at her hand and found it empty. A second later, the Black Label bottle was set on the coffee table with a clink. Sluggishly, her eyes tracked the path from the long fingers clasped around the neck of the bottle, to the hand and arm they were attached to. Up and up and back to see …

Olson standing right beside her.

Or, Loki.

If she hadn't just drunk nearly an entire bottle of scotch she would have jumped a foot in the air from shock. The liquor weighs her down and all she can manage is a glare as weary green eyes regard her in silence.

He looks the same as always: dark hair swept back, three-piece black suit and long coat impeccable and … the scarf she'd given to him. He looks like Olson, and she can almost pretend that nothing has changed—but this man is not Olson. The name was a lie, even if the face was the same.

"What are you doing in here?" She asks quietly and with a sharp edge.

There is not a shred of a telling emotion in his tone; similarly, his eyes give nothing away. "JARVIS is still programmed to allow me admittance."

Natasha scowls. "JARVIS."

"Rewriting clearance protocols now, ma'am."

She watches as the man steps around her and takes a seat on the edge of the settee, leaning his elbows to his knees. His gaze drops to the bottle of Champagne on the coffee table and the third, untouched flute; lingers for a beat before his eyes flick back to watch her. Traitorously, she can't help but notice the bruises under his eyes and the drastically thinner and paler complexion. She squashes down her impulsive concern and allows her anger to take over.

"Lucas Olson: Loki Odinson." He seems to flinch; whether it is her tone or her use of his name, she doesn't know. "You know, you aren't the first person to fake an identity and pose as my assistant. You'd think I'd have learned to be more observant by now."

There was no point in denying her ignorance and she doesn't have the patience to play games. They study each other—two Kings on opposite ends of the board, searching one another for a weakness in their line of defense.

Loki blinks languidly and smiles a different smile than she's seen before. It's sharp and predatory; dangerous. "There was no way you could have known. I used magic to forge an identity for myself that even your machines and your science could not see through."

If she hadn't just seen what he'd done to P.E.G.A.S.U.S. base, Natasha would have scoffed at the notion of magic. Almost conversationally (which is emphasized by her drunk and inert slump against her couch), she says, "I heard what you did to S.H.I.E.L.D. You took something."

"The Tesseract." He doesn't bother lying; she's not sure whether to be relieved or not. It might be that he is confident enough that he feels no need to lie.

She considers his calm admission for a moment before snorting, rolling her eyes, "You have balls, I'll give you that—marching in here like this."

He seems to follow her underlining meaning and replies, "By the time it would take you to assemble your suit, it would be too late."

The words are a clear threat, but there is no hint of malice in his tone. She doesn't trust herself to judge the meaning of this, however, so she remains dubious.

Abruptly, a horrifying realization descends upon her. Her face must reflect her dismay because he shifts closer to the edge of the seat, towards her, and his brows pull together in … something.

"You—" She chokes on the word and uses every ounce of strength to pull herself upright, half standing with a hand on the seat of the sofa to balance herself. What can she say? Words fail her as the truth of the situation finally registers through her semi-drunken haze. It's what's been giving her that feeling of dread, deep in her belly. That something she couldn't quite name …

Everything.

He knew everything.

… And she'd handed it all to him on a silver platter. Everything from Stark tech to her suits. Her goddamn suits! Every last one of them—she'd been eager to show off, eager to impress, and she'd showed him all. Jesus Christ—Coulson! Romanoff! Barton! Even Banner! Every little slip she'd dismissed because what did it matter anyway? He was just a civilian! Fuck! What a novice mistake! How could she be such an idiot?! How was she that blind?!

She is trembling; her anger is nearly physical. The loathing she feels for him is nothing compared to what she feels for herself.

It didn't seem to matter how much she wanted to change, or how much she wanted to make up for her ignorance and mistakes of the past. She fucked up everything she touched. She was a debilitating carcinogen, attracting every deadly virus—The Ten Rings! Obadiah! Vanko!

Sobered, she scans the room, forgoing subtlety because he hasn't yet blinked and his gaze is beginning to make her skin itch. He straightens his posture, not quite defensive, but certainly more alert. After a moment, he reaches into his inner breast pocket and holds his hand out to her. She catches this motion only out of the corner of her eyes and stubbornly refuses to look at what he is holding until curiosity eventually wins out.

The sleek, slender steel bracelets are easily recognizable.

She stands completely then, expression darkening. "What do you want? Why are you here?"

His hand remains in the air for a moment, before his fingers curl around the sensor-bands elegantly and he sets them down on the table.

Even while seated, the man is incredibly tall. Standing, Natasha is barely a head taller than him, but this doesn't give her any sense of power. She wants to see Lucas Olson once more and pretend nothing has changed. But it's impossible. Even in the same skin and attire, the identity of Lucas Olson has been shed completely. This is a stranger and there is something vaguely terrifying about that.

"I've come only to talk."

It is in her nature to stay ten steps ahead, and even if she has just been completely blindsided by the revelation that she has been employing a terrorist for the last five months, her mind absorbs his words and starts following every possible path this situation can take.

When her thoughts come to a conclusion, it's only been three seconds. Her expression twists with disgust and she takes a step back. "Don't tell me you're here to proposition me."

Not a single muscle twitches on his face.

She huffs a short, derisive laugh. "You don't—no. No. You don't get to do that. I'm not interested. Fuck you. You can't have your cake and eat it, too."

He frowns. "I do not understand that reference."

"It means: Fuck. You." Her anger lends strength to her stance; she stands a little taller, shoulders pulled back and hands clenched into fists.

"I do not wish to fight you, Natasha."

Natasha sneers. "Oh, that's cute. You don't want to hurt me? I know I'm hard to resist, but if you wanted to get into my pants, you went about it the wrong way." Loki looks disbelieving and Natasha laughs humorlessly. "What, you think I actually cared about you? You were just some eye-candy while Pepper kept me grounded."

Loki stands, impossibly tall. And suddenly, she can see it. There is nothing human about him; the very air becomes thinner and frigid around him. There is something otherworldly about him and Natasha shudders, taking another step back.

"What?" She snaps when he only continues to stare at her; as if he believed by virtue of staring alone he could force her to see to 'reason'. "Honestly—honestly, what did you expect? Maybe I overestimated your intelligence, but no way you're stupid enough to believe I would ever agree to join you in … whatever the fuck it is you're scheming. You don't want to fight me, then don't. No one's holding a gun to head—you chose this. You chose to take the Cube and kill—"

"I didn't kill anyone."

Yes, she'd read the report. Several injured, many critically, but no casualties.

"No," She agrees, expression shuttering to conceal her thoughts. "But you would have."

"You know this?"

"It's what people like you do."

This gives him pause, and he searches her expression for something. Natasha doesn't blink.

"What exactly do you want from me?" She shouldn't even be asking. It doesn't matter. Whatever his reasons and excuses, her answer would be the same.

"I intend to have this world—to rule it."

She snorts incredulously. How blatantly honest. He wasn't holding anything back, was he?

"That's pretty ambitions. Get in line. You're not the first and you won't be the last. It's my job to stop scum like you from getting their way."

Loki is unperturbed. "I would have you join me. Your science and my magic—"

Natasha sneers her most poisonous and deprecating sneer. "Seriously? You didn't actually come here thinking I would agreebecause you asked nicely. That would be a whole 'nother level of stupid."

"It's already too late. War is coming. I am offering you a choice: stand with me or join the rest of the mindless rabble in subjugation."

Natasha raises her chin defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Yeah, I think I'll take door number two—if those are my only options."

Loki's eyes narrow. "You think you can stop me?"

"You're supposed to be a God, right? God of Mischief? Norse mythology. I looked you up." She takes a long step forward, directly into his personal space and sneers up at him. "You won't get Earth. You won't get anything. You lose in every scenario. I'm warning you now; you start this, and I'm going to finish it."

"I do not want to fight you," he says again, with more feeling.

"You don't have to," she replies seriously, almost beseechingly because she can already envision the million different ways this could result in disaster of a kind no one has ever seen before. " … Just call off your stupid war or whatever."

Loki breaks his gaze for the first time, looking past her towards the kitchen area. "As I said: it is too late."

Of course it wouldn't be so easy. Her tone is hard and unforgiving as she says, "Tough luck, then."

Suddenly, his face morphs—resembling more the man she'd glimpsed in the security footage than ever before. He sneers, nastily, and takes a step forward, towering over her. His hand lashes out like a viper and grabs her by the jaw, strong fingers digging into the soft flesh.

"You think a pretty face can save you? I am giving you a chance to stand at my side—be my equal. These pathetic humans are weak; of body and mind. You are not. You can have so much more than this."

"You're insane," she hisses, spittle flying. She doesn't try to tug away—feels the strength of his hold and knows it would be futile. "I'm not interested."

His face is close now and she can see the fury in his eyes clearly. In the next moment, it's gone. All emotions are blanked from his expression. He looks pensive, instead, as he brings up his other hand and uses both to clutch at either side of her face. His large hands almost completely engulf her head and he holds her utterly still, leaning closer, as if he could read her soul through her eyes.

He says, quietly, "You're making a mistake."

Her jaw aches from his earlier grip but she lets him keep her in place, never wavering under his stare. He doesn't get to intimidate her. She might not have Iron Woman's strength, but Iron Woman is nothing without Natasha Stark's cunning.

"I'm pretty sure I'm not," she replies, just as quietly. Anger still colors her words. She doesn't care.

He's silent for a moment. "Why? Together we would be undefeated."

"Because it's not about winning a war; it's about preventing one." She allows herself to slip into her patented Stark mannerism and smirks emptily. "Besides, I've got it pretty good. I can't just have you blowing up my planet."

His face gives nothing away; similarly, his tone is unreadable. "I have no intention of blowing up your planet."

She frowns. "What are you going to do with the Cube, then?"

Apropos to nothing, he smirks, almost playfully. "That would be telling."

She rolls her eyes, unable to help the barest of grins in response. Goddammit. "The answer is still no."

His eyes drop to her lips and she drops her grin. He lowers his hands, stepping back with an impossibly smug smile.

"We'll see about that."


 

 

Chapter Text

 

When Loki takes possession of Erik Selvig, it is only to confirm with his eyes what he already knows: that the Tesseract is on Midgard and is his to have should he will it. However, Loki is a tactician; he bides his time before acting. Midgardians are weak by nature. They are fragile creatures and it would take very little effort to take the Tesseract right from under their noses. But he is weakened from his fall and he is overwhelmed with a dark and hateful fury. Thor must suffer. Odin must suffer. Loki wants to see Migard burn.

There is an instance where it occurs to Loki, within the mind of Selvig, that the Tesseract must somehow be contained. He does not yet have the power to wield it, but he will. The Other has promised him this.

Many times, Loki takes the path that leads to his defeat at the hands of the Avengers. He chooses to rely on the Other to guide him and waits until he is deemed worthy to accept the scepter into his hands.

Only once does Loki break away from this pattern. There was a time when his mind and cunning were his strongest weapons. Only once does Loki choose to seek the knowledge to better understand the Tesseract for himself. It is this choice that leads him to the Mortal, Natasha Stark.

Some choices are easier to make than others.

Sometimes, you aren't aware of the choice until after it has already been made.

You can't predict consequences, and you can't turn back time. You live with your choices and when the time comes to pay the toll, it must be paid in full. This is how balance is maintained. Without it, realities would unravel and worlds would crumble.

For every choice, a different reality is born. They are infinite and growing. Reed Richards is one of few mortals capable of glimpsing into these many realities while able to retain his sanity. It's impossible not to allow yourself to become absorbed within the realm of 'what-ifs'.

Loki is a God, but even he would be susceptible to madness should he linger too long on the fringe of these different realities. It's happened before. He saw too much and it cost him his Kingdom and his life. Loki had seen the futility of his efforts; the wretchedness that was his lot in life. It is his destiny to fall, relinquishing victory to the Golden Son of Asgard. Time and time again he struggles to achieve power—to cut the ties that bind him to Asgard and Thor—but time and again he has failed. This is his destiny; it cannot be unwritten.

So even though Loki chooses to sympathize with the Mortal, he cannot change his destiny. In the end, his schemes will fail and Thor will prevail once more.

It is the purest kind of coincidence that leads Loki to choose a path that, while not granting him the power and total dominion he bitterly desires, will lead him to the closest he will ever be to obtaining victory.

Chapter Text

When Loki is gone, Natasha wastes no time setting JARVIS onto the task of tracking him down.

"Shouldn't have gotten so handsy, you idiot," Natasha murmurs to herself, grinning in anticipation. She's still a little giddy from the scotch, but her thoughts are clear and she's right where she needs to be.

"That was impressive work, if I do say so myself, Ms. Stark." JARVIS says approvingly.

"I know," she replies, cheekily. Planting the small tracker on Loki had almost been too easy, but she doubted he would have been expecting it even if he'd noticed the way her hand had skimmed the cuff of his sleeve as he'd released her face. If nothing else, his time spent as Lucas Olson had demonstrated his total lack of knowledge in Earth culture and technology. Whatever understanding he had assimilated seemed to be a result of his intelligence and incredible deductive skills.

"How did you know he would come?"

"Villains always feel the need to gloat first. It's villain creed."

"I see."

A pause, and if JARVIS were human, she could swear he'd be studying her right now. The imagery is a little disturbing so she focuses on the satellite map still trying to lock in on Loki's signal.

"Is Mr. Olson a villain, then?"

"It's Loki," She corrects him immediately and frowns. The satellite can't seem to pinpoint Loki's position, which means he's actually managed to find himself a suitable hideout. That, in itself, is a little worrying. Also, it probably means S.H.I.E.L.D. has no idea where he is, either.

JARVIS's question floats back to the surface of her thoughts to momentarily distract her. S.H.I.E.L.D. had already classified him as a war criminal. Taking the Tesseract had taken them to DEFCON 2. But was Loki a villain?

"I'm not really sure." She says, finally, because it's the truth.

Something has been nagging her since Loki vanished (fucking magically and she doesn't even know where to begindefending against that!) and she doesn't know what it is. There is something more to this, and if Obadiah's betrayal has taught her anything, it's that there are always more than two sides to anything.

About four hours after Loki is gone and Natasha has returned to studying the crap out of Selvig's notes, the GPS finally manages to locate him. Natasha drops the notes and scoots forward in her chair to peer at the projection of the world map. There is a tiny red blip on Germany.

"JARVIS, where is this?"

"Stuttgart, Germany. 28, Koenigstrasse."

She frowns. "What the hell is he doing there?"

"I do not know, ma'am."

"Koenigstrasse, huh? That's a shopping street, isn't it?" Her expression darkens. If there were going to be any casualties, this is where it would be. She glances over at the pile of discarded notes she'd been reading and blinks. "—Wait."

She doesn't need to grab the notes to confirm her thoughts; the words have burned into her mind and she recalls an earlier thought.

"Hey, JARVIS, where would I be able to get my hands on iridium?"


With repulsors at 63% capacity, she watches the world shift around her from day to night as she reaches German skies. JARVIS navigates her to Königstraße while simultaneously pinpointing Fury's current location. Her heart is thundering in her chest and her veins sing with a rush of adrenaline. Speaking to Loki earlier had been one thing, but this was something else. This was going to be a battlefield and Natasha's mind was floundering trying to associate Olson—Loki!—with something other than the business aspect of her life. At least with Obadiah, she'd had Pepper's safety to think of and she'd been able to act quickly against her lifelong mentor. This felt different, somehow, and Natasha wasn't sure what that meant.

JARVIS has already made notations on her HUD as to Loki and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s location. She tweaks her flight path in that direction and catches sight of a Quinjet hovering in position over its target.

Natasha increases magnification on her HUD, giving her a close-up view of the shopping plaza. She isn't surprised to see Rogers, although the red, white and blue costume has her rolling her eyes. She knows it's Loki that Rogers' his confronting—recognizes the face—but everything else about him is shockingly alien. He is decked out in what seems like layers of leather and armor, with a ridiculous golden and horned helmet to boot. Romanoff's voice resonates from the Quinjet.

"Loki, drop the weapon and stand down." Calm and collected, as always.

Natasha anticipates his next move before she sees him charge his scepter then aim a blast at the Quinjet. The Quinjet rolls in the air to the left, dodging the attack. In the middle of Königstraße, it is chaos. Civilians are running for their lives, clearing the plaza the moment Loki is engaged. Rogers uses Loki's moment of distraction to throw his shield like a boomerang. It's knocked away, apparently doing little harm to Loki, and Natasha increases her speed a fraction, deciding it's time to get involved.

She knows Romanoff is waiting for Rogers to find them an opening before she attacks, doesn't want Romanoff blasting her by mistake and comes to the logical conclusion of hacking the Quinjet's PA System and linking it to her suit's playlist in lieu of alerting the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents of her presence. AC/DC's Shoot To Thrill begins blaring so loudly it can be heard clearly from a distance. Both Rogers and Loki pause in their fighting to look up.

"Agent Romanoff, you miss me?" Natasha grins into her HUD, then charges her repulsors to 71%, diving down from her elevated position towards their location. She banks around a tall building and jets down like a missile towards Rogers and Loki, streaking past the Quinjet so fast she feels friction along its belly.

20% of the repulsors' energy charges directly into palms of her hands and she hovers for a split second, blasts Loki with both hands, then drops herself to the ground like a sack of bricks. The blast sends Loki flying backwards with a jerk and she revels in his look of confusion before he hits the ground hard. The concrete stairs cave in around him—and if he were human, she knows that the force of her blow would have left him splattered on the concrete instead of nursing spinal bruising. Natasha stands, right hand prepped with another charged repulsor and left arm extended as she locks every weapon in her arsenal onto Loki.

Loki groans, sitting up painfully, and glares up at her without a trace of his earlier smugness.

Natasha smirks, although he cannot see it. "Make a move, Reindeer Games."

Something flickers in Loki's expression and she knows he's remembering being subjected to countless movie nights as she worked to educate him on the finer points of American culture. Not that the Frankenheimer flick was particularly memorable.

She blinks, Rogers suddenly at her side, and Loki exhales a carefully controlled breath before raising his hands in surrender, his extravagant armor dissolving like a mist. His outfit looks just as ridiculously alien without the armor, but Natasha can't help finding it rather fitting.

Natasha releases a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding and lowers both hands, retracting her weapons and dissipating the repulsor charge.

"Good move."

Loki's eyes flick between her and Rogers.

Beside her, Rogers is panting, clearly still out of breath from his bout with Loki.

"Ms. Stark," Rogers greets her, all professionalism and not a hint of the warmth she'd been privy to at their first meeting.

She acknowledges him just as stiffly in return, eyes on Loki and only a nudge of her head in Rogers' direction. "Captain."


The Quinjet flies smoothly out of Stuttgart and Natasha's HUD tells her they're heading for Fury's aerial fortress (which shehad helped design, thank you), the Helicarrier, where it hovers over international waters. Natasha and Rogers lurk near the cockpit; Rogers contenting himself with watching the night sky as it passes them by. Idly, Natasha notes that the top of her head is up to his chin in her suit, but can't remember how tall she is next to him normally—it's been that long since they'd seen each other. In the co-pilot's seat, Romanoff is reporting back to Fury. Their voices filter into her COM after Natasha silently taps their line.

"He saying anything?" Fury asks.

"Not a word," Romanoff replies.

"Just get him here. We're low on time."

Throughout the exchange, Natasha watches Loki. Bound by the hands and strapped to his seat, she doesn't trust this situation at all. Loki isn't looking at anything, staring resolutely forward. She can't read anything on his expression, although there is something disturbingly forlorn about it. She reasons that it's her mind playing tricks but can't shake the strange twist in her belly when she thinks about it for too long. She feels antsy, nerves riled and muscles tensing with anticipation—but for what, she hasn't determined yet. It bothers her that out of everyone on this aircraft, she knows Loki the most—and she doesn't really know him at all.

Hesitantly, Rogers shifts closer to her, straightening his posture.

"I don't like it," he murmurs quietly.

Natasha catches Loki's gaze jerk to the left. He doesn't look at them, but she knows he's listening.

"What?" Natasha replies loudly, forgoing discretion. "Rock of Ages giving up so easily?"

"I don't remember it being that easy. This guy packs a wallop." Rogers' tone is almost conspiratorial. It amuses Natasha that this man is so much the perfect soldier, he can set aside his evident dislike of her to treat her like a comrade.

She doesn't like it.

"Still," She layers on the Stark sarcasm that she knows Rogers hates because it only confuses the fuck out of him. "You arepretty spry, for an older fellow."

She sees the corner of Loki's mouth twitch upward. It's only for a second.

Encouraged, Natasha glances at Rogers to see him struggling with her statement. "What's your thing? Pilates?"

Rogers frowns. "What?"

"It's like calisthenics," She elaborates helpfully. "You might have missed a couple things. Y'know—doing time as a …Capsicle."

She watches Rogers' expressive face as he realizes he is being made fun of. He looks completely unimpressed—and perhaps a little disappointed. Natasha is darkly satisfied by the latter emotion. No one had told Rogers to go comparing her with her father. She certainly didn't appreciate him constantly reminding her about what a great man Howard Stark supposedly was.

"Fury didn't tell me he was calling you in." Rogers says, ignoring her jab like the adult that he is.

She feels Rogers' eyes burning into the side of her face and focuses on Loki, instead. "Yeah, there's a lot of things Fury doesn't tell you."

A crack of thunder cuts off whatever Rogers' retort would have been.

"Where's this coming from?" Romanoff wonders out loud.

A streak of lightning illuminates the aircraft through the windows and Natasha turns to peer into the cockpit. Romanoff exchanges a puzzled look with her over her shoulder and maintains her calm as she shifts the Quinjet's trajectory to steer them away from the storm.

"I'll have JARVIS reroute our course—find us something safer," Natasha is saying, reaching forward and slipping a hand into one of Romanoff's impossibly tight pockets to fish out her Stark phone. It takes several tugs to pull it out.

Romanoff's eyes don't leave the skies. "Fine. Do it."

"Done."

Romanoff's pilot is keeping his calm, wordlessly focusing on steering the aircraft while Romanoff inspects the instruments. After a few seconds, the phone beeps in her palm. Natasha inserts the phone into an empty slot on the console and immediately JARVIS' new coordinates begin uploading into the Quinjet's computer.

"What's the matter? Scared of a little lightning?"

Natasha jerks back around at Rogers' words, looking to Loki to see him sitting forward against his restraints and looking upwards. He looks concerned when he meets her eyes across the small hold.

"I'm not overly fond of what follows." Loki replies with distaste.

Another crack of thunder, this time closer and louder and it shakes the Quinjet before the pilot regains control once more.

Natasha is about to ask Loki what he means when the Quinjet jolts and she knows that it was not a result of the weather. A half second later, a flash of lightning and another crack thunder—definitely too close.

Natasha and Rogers look skyward, but the overhead window panels show only the livid storm clouds above. The Quinjet jerks again and this time Natasha and Rogers move; she grabs her helmet from the seat beside her and slips it into place while Rogers turns to do the same. She reaches out to punch the release button on the panel that controls the hatch door and stalks forward, past Loki, as the thick doors slide open and the ramp descends. She feels the pull of the Quinjet's momentum and the suit compensates by magnetizing her boots.

"What are you doing?" Rogers' voice is nearly lost to the wind.

Before she can answer, a figure drops down onto the lowered ramp and Natasha freezes. The man is large and wielding a hammer; she recognizes him immediately from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s database.

Thor.

"Fu—" She doesn't have time to form the word. She doesn't have time to react.

Natasha is barely thinking to raise a hand to blast the man and nearly blacks out with the force of then thousand trucks ramming into her chest and sending her flying backwards into Rogers.

Holy mother of God.

Her sternum and chest throb from the blow but she forces herself back onto her feet, ever thankful that she'd had the forethought to reinforce her suits with a Titanium alloy.

She curses again when she looks up and sees that both Loki and Thor are gone.

"Great. Now there's that guy."

"Another Asgardian?" Romanoff shouts from the cockpit. Both S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are doing a remarkable job piloting the Quinjet in this weather, but it's obvious from the strain in her tone that she's not having an easy time of it.

Rogers stands, disgruntled from the attack. "That guys a friendly?"

"Doesn't matter," Natasha grinds out in frustration. "If he frees Loki or kills him, the Tesseract's lost."

She leaves it at that and heads for the exit, trying to find a reason why Thor wouldn't kill the man who'd sent the Asgardian Destroyer to do just the same a year ago.

"Stark! We need a plan of attack!" Rogers calls.

She pauses at the edge of the ramp and looks out; her HUD is rapidly analyzing the environment beyond the thick haze of clouds and searching for the tracker she'd placed on Loki. If that stupid thing had managed to stay on while Loki shifted between outfits, there was a good chance it'd work now. The thought that Loki had known all along what she'd done was now becoming more of a certainty when a red blip appears on her map and provides coordinates to his current location.

She spares a second for Rogers. "I have a plan. Attack."

And then jumps.


Natasha spots them on a cliff in the distance and braces herself as she aligns herself on a crash-course for the big guy. Prepared this time, the impact is just as jarring but the Asgardian is caught off guard and is driven off the cliff, hitting the earth below with a shuddering impact. Natasha follows, digs her heels into the terrain to keep herself upright, and falls immediately into a defensive stance. Thor doesn't even need a second to recover; he's on his feet within moments, mythic hammer still clutched in his right hand.

The look he levels on her is all barely contained fury. "Do not touch me again."

Her armored shoulders whine mechanically with her shrug. Her words are robotic and inhuman through the helmet's filter. "Then don't take my stuff."

"You have no idea what you are dealing with."

"Uh—" Natasha makes a show of examining their surroundings, just to be an ass. Simultaneously, she checks the area for any civilians and is relieved that the forest is uninhabited in this area. "Shakespeare in the park?" Thor's expression is murderous; she is unperturbed, executing a mock-courtsey. "Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?"

"This is beyond you, metal man. Loki will face Asgardian justice."

Metal man? Natasha grins bemusedly behind her faceplate. "He gives up the Cube, he's all yours. Until then— Stay out of the way. " She glances back over her shoulder, scanning the distance for Loki's position. He hadn't moved. She mumbles distractedly in Thor's direction, "Tourist."

The force of that damn hammer sends her flying and she feels her chest armor cave under the Godly strength. It happens too quickly and she blinks up at the night sky dazedly while her HUD flickers and glitches, struggling to recalibrate.

Angry and annoyed at having been tossed around like a rag doll for the second time by a jock and his hammer, Natasha seethes, "Oh-kay…"

The hammer dislodges itself from her chest as Thor calls it back to his hand and it pulls her up into a sitting position with it. She feels the suit locking up and it's harder than it should be getting onto her knees. When she looks up, Thor is standing there, waiting, and twirling the hammer as if in preparation. Moving quickly, she holds up her left arm defensively and prepares a charge in her right palm—then blasts him with a repulsor and follows it up by launching herself at him with a small burst of energy and sending a front kick to his chest. The tree behind Thor shatters under his mass and the force of her kick and he goes hurling back into the darkness of the forest.

The hammer is lying discarded on the ground but before Natasha can even think to retrieve it (not that she intends to fight with it, but it seems prudent to get the thing away from the God) Thor has summoned it back into his hand and is on his feet. He strikes a pose, holding up the hammer against the night sky and Natasha watches with alarm as a bolt of lightning strikes down from the skies and meets the hammer. The hammer surges with electricity and as Natasha prepares to blast Thor, he turns the hammer upon her and the electric bolt strikes her directly in the chest—millimeters from her arc-reactor.

The HUD goes white.

There is no controlling the suit or getting away as her body vibrates violently—painfully—with the overcharge. She tries to protect the arc-reactor, struggling to redirect the flow of electricity by blocking it with her arm—but it takes every ounce of strength she has to get the unwilling suit to follow her commands.

Finally, the electricity is cut and it's as if the entire suit becomes slack around her body. She inhales sharply, squinting against the brilliance of her HUD until it gradually dims back to its regular settings.

"Power at four hundred percent capacity."

Natasha blinks, canting her head in stunned awe as she reads the suits stats displayed on the HUD. "How 'bout that?"

The repulsors on her palms are charged within seconds and she blasts Thor with enough to send him careening back for several miles. Her HUD tracks him and watches him land on his feet (like a fucking cat!). There is only a second to calculate her next move before Thor whips out his hammer and uses its momentum to send him flying towards her. Immediately, she forgoes a battle plan and uses all four repulsors to blast herself forward and cut off Thor's trajectory. They crash together in midair. Her steel fingers curl around his breast plate and she drags him into the air with her at a breakneck speed. She isn't gentle, flying him through every branch and obstacle they encounter as she jets them towards the cliffs in the distance.

They hit the side of the cliff with twin grunts and she smashes Thor along it, flying upwards and dragging him along every inch.

Suddenly, Thor strikes with an elbow to the crook of her arms, jarring her enough that she releases him. But he doesn't release her. Thick fingers clamp around her wrist and drag her upwards as Thor uses their momentum to literally run up the side of the cliff. He kicks off and Natasha propels them back with a surge of her boots. Thor is scrabbling to dig his fingers into her armor and she jerks in his hold, giving him a hard knee to the ribs that barely seems to register with him.

The ground catches up with them quickly and tears them apart from each other. They roll along the ground until they can catch themselves, and then as one they are on their feet again. Thor swings back with his hammer for another blow that she doesn't realize has connected with the side of her helmet until she is swiveling her head back around to face him, following up with a right hook. He catches her by the arm and twists his grip to pull her into an open stance. She counters with a left hook—but it connects with his open palm.

It's a stalemate.

She watches the counter on her HUD rapidly drop as every ounce of power goes into keeping up with the other's insane strength. Thor snarls angrily into her faceplate and she feels the steel around her right forearm crumple under his fingers like aluminum. She grunts, hears a bolt snap before she feels it bury itself into her forearm. Gritting her teeth, she ignores the pain and charges her right repulsor—blasting Thor on the side of his face. He releases her and she jerks forward with a head-butt that leaves Thor momentarily stunned—literally seconds because he almost immediately retaliates with a head-butt of his own and she is suddenly airborne again.

She hits the ground butt-first and is thrown into a backflip that she uses to get back on her feet. Her arm throbs and her head is ringing but her vitals read stable so she focuses on the God in front of her, launching herself at Thor. She catches him by the shoulders of his armor and hurls him into the nearest tree. He isn't down long, pulling himself to his feet and summoning his hammer as he stalks towards her. She meets him with a left hook that he ducks and feels his fist connect with her open flank, then a stomp to the back of her knee. She falls to the ground and barely manages to catch herself with her hands. Thor uses her vulnerable position to dig his fingers into the shoulders of her suit and swing her around, over his head, and slam her to the ground (like this is fucking WWF or some shit).

She recognizes the hum of the hammer as it streaks through the air and back into its owners hand and acts quickly, charging her boots and blasting right under Thor's legs, knocking him onto his face in the process. She keeps flying for several yards, swivels back and speeds up. By the time she reaches him, he is barely getting back onto his feet. Her fist connects with the back of his head, and his faces bashes to the ground for a second time.

She backs up, weary as she watches her power drain rapidly. Thor recovers as quickly as ever and throws back his hammer arm for another blow—

"Hey!"

Something strikes Thor's hammer, ricochets, and hits her chest, knocking her back another step. She can barely register the red and blue of painted steel and looks up to see Rogers standing on the edge of the clearing just above them.

"That's enough!" Rogers declares sternly, catching his shield as it boomerangs back to him. He drops down nearly twenty feet to their level. Reluctantly, Natasha lowers her hands a fraction as she sees Thor drop his hammer to a slightly less aggressive stance. Rogers levels Thor with the no-nonsense look of an army veteran. "Now I don't know what you plan on doing here—"

"I've come here to put an end to Loki's schemes!" Thor bellows.

"Then prove it," Rogers reasons. "Put that hammer down."

Natasha panics, "Uh—yeah—no. Bad call. He loves his hamm—"

She should have been expecting it, but it still catches her by surprise when the hammer connects with her chest again (the entire chest piece was going to be fucking useless by the end of this!) and sends her flying back. She's pretty sure she blacks out for a second, feels her body bounce along a number of different surfaces before skidding to a halt under a tree. There's a tang of blood in her mouth and everything is spinning.

She hears the Asgardian shout: "You want me to put the hammer down?!"

And then she feels a secondary pulse, much like a blow of that hammer, and it sends her crashing back into the forest even further.

It feels like an eternity before she's recovered. Distantly, she is aware of JARVIS speaking, but she can't make out a word.

Her ears are ringing and her suit is vibrating. She groans, summoning up strength she doesn't have to flip herself onto her side and ease herself onto her knees. Everything hurts and she's pretty sure she can't take another blow before the suit gives up altogether.

Panicking, she jerks her head upward to check for the angry God—but he's barely getting to his feet as well and for the first time, he actually looks worn. A little ways away from her is Rogers.

"Are we done here?" Rogers asks patiently, pulling himself to his feet and clearly ready to defend himself against the God if Thor decides to go at him as well.

Thor hesitates, then lowers the hammer to his side and examines the destruction they've caused. The entire clearing has been cleared of all trees and underbrush in a perfect circle around them. Natasha doesn't know how that happened, but she recognizes her mark all over the half broken trees that follow a direct line to the south-facing cliffs.

When Thor remains silent and passive Rogers takes it as a positive sign and extends a hand to Natasha. She glares at it, realizes he can't see her through the faceplate and pulls it back so he does. Ignoring his gesture, she stands on her own—trying to pretend that her knees don't feel like they're about to buckle underneath her—and takes a deep, painful breath of fresh air. She watches Thor distrustfully, studying his face for any indication that he's about to go ape-shit crazy on them again.

The God's wrath has simmered. When he looks to her, he seems taken aback. "You are a woman."

She scowls, resting her left hand carefully over her right arm, cradling it against her chest. "Kudos for your astute observational skills, Giagantor."

"Stark. Your arm." Rogers almost sounds worried.

Natasha straightens, frowning at the man that is every inch the American hero her father had painted for her in his stories. She connects the suit to the Quinjet, knowing it must still be around.

"Agent Romanoff, we're gunna need a lift. We've got another guest." She takes another breath of clean, un-recycled air and lets her faceplate drop. Loki's marker has not moved. "We need to get Loki."

"Did he—"

She cuts Rogers off and steps right into his personal space, enjoying the way his Serious Soldier face dissolves into unease. "He's still up there. Guess he knows better than to try and get away from us. Come on, let's go."

Thor begins spinning his hammer again, building up momentum, and Natasha slips an arm around Rogers waist. Rogers balks, moving to step away, and Thor ignores them in favor of shooting into the air and in the direction of Loki.

"What are you doing?" Rogers ask, narrowing his eyes dangerously.

"Unless you can sprout wings, I thought I'd fulfill my annual quota for good deeds by offering you a lift," Natasha replies scathingly. She is not too proud to deny that she's just a little upset by the fact that if it wasn't for Rogers, her ass would be mincemeat right now, and the idea of this alone is insulting to her on many levels. She sees the irony of this and doesn't give a damn.

Rogers looks less angry and more uncomfortable and Natasha immediately understands his reservations.

"Look—don't get your chivalrous panties all twisted in a knot. I just went toe-to-toe with a fucking God and I don't have time to wait for you to join us in the twenty-first century. Either get on or I'll leave your fucking ass stranded here." She watches the hesitation in his eyes and tries a different tactic. "We need to get Loki into lockdown, the sooner the better. The Pirate General is waiting."

The muscles along Rogers' jaw twitch. Mentally, she counts down the seconds …

1 …

2 …

3 …

4—

Finally, he gives a curt nod and she steps forward, slipping an arm around his waist. "Hold on," she mumbles. It's a little like offering a nervous school girl a ride on the back of your awesome new Type 6 Samurai Chopper. Rogers seems to be doing everything in his power to maintain as much distance between them as possible, keeping his arms locked tightly around his shield. Natasha shakes her head and rolls her eyes; the repulsors on her boots ignite to propel them skyward.

Natasha adjusts their flight path so that they are parallel to the ground and sees Thor and Loki in the distance. A little further up, the storm clouds have begun to dissipate and Natasha sees the Quinjet gradually descending to the Asgardians' location.

Natasha reaches the two Gods in the same moment Romanoff aligns the Quinjet along the side of the cliff and lowers the ramp for them. Natasha drops down to the ground and detaches herself from Rogers, ignoring her injuries and forcing herself to march up to Thor and Loki without a falter to her step. Thor seems to be waiting for her with a troubled frown, one hand clamped possessively on Loki's upper-arm. She doesn't drop her faceplate even though her lungs are aching for fresh air. She's certain she looks like shit and doesn't need Thor to get a better look at the damage he's done (and maybe she's not entirely keen on letting Loki see the state she's in, either).

"After you, big guy," she motions for the Quinjet.

Hesitating, Thor looks to Loki for a second before nodding to her, not quite meeting her eyes, and ascending the ramp with Loki in tow.

Chapter Text

When they reach the Helicarrier they are met with about two dozen heavily armed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Director Fury, Agent Coulson and Agent Hill. Fury instructs the agents to take the prisoner, cutting the Thunder God a look that stays any protest. Thor seems cowed, in a way, and she is a little surprised by this, given how quick he'd been to assault her. Sure, she has that effect (quite often) on people, but she's pretty sure that Fury is twice as much of an asshole than she is. Fury pisses her off by breathing.

Fury orders the rest of them to convene on the bridge and wait for him to return while he has a word with their prisoner. He takes his leave while Hill takes point and leads them inside the Helicarrier.

Coulson cuts Natasha off before she can follow.

"What—"

"You need to go to medical," he says without prompting, his eyes level with Iron Woman's slitted ones.

Natasha snorts. "I'm fine."

"I'm not giving you a choice. We also need to put that armor to rest. We still have a Mark VI variant onboard, in storage."

For once, Natasha is glad that Fury had conned her into allowing him to hold on to one of her suits. For emergencies, he'd said. Damn man could be eerily prophetic at times.

She nods to Coulson and follows him; she doesn't want to talk and Coulson doesn't press. She hasn't gotten this thrashed since she'd gone against Obadiah's creation—it's humiliating. If she were anyone else, it might also be humbling; a reminder that she wasn't perfect and there was always going to be someone stronger and better than you, so you just had to roll with the punches and get back up. But she's Natasha Stark—she doesn't lose. A part of her wanted to find Thor and demand a rematch, but this dark animosity for the God was unwarranted. Thor hadn't done anything wrong. He had merely been defending himself—attacking first and asking questions later, like her.

When they reach the medical wing, Coulson parts ways with her. She stands in the doorway to the examination room and watches him go, distracted with her thoughts.

"Iron Woman?"

Natasha glances back to see three lab technicians watching her wearily from within the examination room. Faceplate rising, she waggles her eyebrows at them and says nothing. Natasha catches a glimpse of herself in the reflection of the stainless doors of the lab equipment locker. It's bad—she looks like she went a couple rounds against a brick wall and lost. There's a bump and bruise already forming on her forehead and her lips are looking a little swollen. Her face is littered with numerous nicks and small scratches from getting knocked around with the helmet.

She frowns and walks out without a word, setting her HUD to track down her second suit.

She finds it where Coulson said it would be. The suit is on display in a case and she notices that the room holds several other similar, but empty, cases. She knows immediately that one must belong to Rogers and that ridiculous getup he'd been wearing earlier. She snorts with distaste. What a loyal puppy.

The case is locked with a keypad and retinal scanner for user identification. Natasha stares at these security measures for a moment, then from a storage compartment along her right thigh, she fishes out her Stark phone and holds it up to the keypad. She punches a command for JARVIS. There's a beep as JARVIS completely overrides the security on the case and reprograms it to accept only a specific code. On her phone, a wireframe replica of the case and the suit within are displayed. She slides a finger along the phone's screen and the glass door on the case lifts.

She studies the suit for a moment then takes her phone and powers the suit on, using its backup reserves so she can load up the suit's specs on her phone. After a minute, she presses her thumb to the phone screen, allowing it to read her print, and the screen pulls up a different window. It only reads: JARVIS.

"JARVIS, I've got a Mark VI, Variant-4. Run a system update on it and then back up everything on the suit I'm wearing to the home computer. When you're done with that, copy it over to the Mark VI as well."

"Very well, ma'am. Preparing the Iron Woman Mark VI, Variant-4 for a system update. Data Recovery on standby. Will that be all?"

"Yeah. How's the Mark VII coming along?"

"The Mark VII has been integrated with a new core. With further testing we can determine if it will be compatible for the nano-tech beta."

"We're gunna have to hold off on testing for a while," Natasha mutters.

JARVIS is silent for a moment. "Ma'am, I'm detecting a significant increase in heart rate and temperature. Also—"

"Right, JARVIS. Thanks." She hangs up and closes the case, returning her phone to its compartment. She is still very aware of the throb in her arm (and, really, everywhere-fucking-else) but she's managed to ignore it thus far. The suit is doing its job by preventing her from bleeding out to death and keeping her stable but she knows she should probably get herself checked out by an actual professional. She's pretty sure that goddamn hammer bruised more than one rib, given that breathing is becoming a laborious task the longer she dicks around and avoids treatment.

Sighing, she turns to leave—and stops abruptly when she sees Nick Fury pass by in the corridor up ahead. He doesn't notice her—and she's not even in his blind spot—so she waits, motionlessly, for him to pass. When she's sure he's gone, she moves forward and takes the same corridor in the direction Fury had been coming from. Simultaneously, she links the Helicarrier's security feeds to her HUD through a backdoor and minimizes the footage to the lower left corner of her screen. She flips through useless footage and comes to a current one of the bridge where Romanoff, Banner, Thor and Rogers are settling together at a conference table. She flips through more footage.

A hall camera catches Fury as he enters an elevator and she traces his path backwards with each shot of security footage until she comes to—

"In case it's unclear: you try to escape—you so much as scratch that glass—"

The grainy image shows a cavernous chamber. At its center is a large, rather unique prison cell: a tube of glass and steel. It looks more like a quarantine zone, no doubt equipped with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s latest technology. The cell is cradled within a containment space, almost precariously. Loki is locked within, standing in a wide stance, hands at his back, and looking for all the world like he wasn't a wanted terrorist who'd just tried to subjugate an entire city or stolen the single most powerful artifact on this Earth. Fury is standing by a large control station. He pushes a large, red button and the floor beneath the glass cage opens, revealing a long drop into nothing. The wind howls and she can't catch Fury's next words over the sound. He flicks a switch on the console and the floor seals shut.

"Ant. Boot."

Loki chuckles, backing away from the glass, unafraid. "It's an impressive cage. Not built, I think, for me."

"Built for something a lot stronger than you."

"Oh, I've heard." Loki turns to face the security camera and Natasha falters in her steps, reminding herself that Loki's piercing green eyes can't actually see her because this is recorded footage, not live. "A mindless beast. Makes play he's still a man. How desperate are you, that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?"

Fury steps towards the glass cell. "How desperate am I? You threaten my world with war. You steal a force you can't hope to control. You talk about peace and cause chaos because it's fun. You have made me very desperate. You might not be glad that you did."

She can't see Loki's expression, but his tone is almost a little too like her own when she's bating Rogers just to get a reaction out of him. "Ooh. It burns you to have come so close. To have the Tesseract, to have power—unlimited power. And for what? A warm light for all mankind to share? And then to be reminded what real power—"

Natasha cuts off the feed with lead in her stomach. The fear is back—if it is fear. She's not sure anymore but it's not a good feeling and it makes it hard for her to believe that they can win this. Loki has been playing them all for far longer than Fury or S.H.I.E.L.D. realizes and it's her fault. She let him get that close.

Summoning up her courage as she reaches the chamber, she sends a message to JARVIS to edit her out of the security footage from the storage facility and then proceeds to put the security cameras in the chamber and exiting corridors on a loop, silencing all other mics and hidden cameras. Loki is expecting her when she reaches the glass cage, facing her as she comes to stand where Fury had stood.

His is smirk gone. She matches his expressionless face with one of her own.

"Is that really you in there?" She asks because it's the most reasonable thing she can think of.

A small, ghost of a smile twitches at his lips. "Perceptive, as always."

She looks away from him to study his prison. It's only moderately impressive but she already sees a dozen different ways it would fail. "I'll figure out what you're up to, eventually."

"I've no doubt you will. The questions is: will you figure it out in time?"

Natasha looks to him and scowls. "Where's Agent Barton?"

"Around. He's a little preoccupied at the moment. I can have him give you a call a little later, if you'd like?"

A flicker of anger so dark it tastes like hate broils in her belly. "You're a bastard."

It's all she can say because it's not like he owed her anything. He was the bad guy in this. Of course he would use any methods he could to obtain information on his enemies. It just fucking sucked that he'd chosen to make a fool out of her, pulling tiny, seemingly innocuous secrets from her regarding each member of the 'team'. Every cell in her body thrums with a certainty that if she'd just kept her damn mouth shut, Barton would never have even crossed into Loki's radar.

Without a warning, Loki starts forward. He walks right through the glass cage, body shimmering for a second. Natasha watches him approach her, eyes narrowing, but she stands her ground. He stops in front of her, green eyes dark and unreadable. His looks even worse for wear than when he'd visited her in the penthouse.

"Wow—sure. What the fuck is a prison cell for, anyway?" Natasha grunts, somewhere between shocked and completely not.

His gaze drops to her suit and his mouth twists in a sneer. He says, almost conversationally, "My brother can be a brute."

Brother? Had the reports mentioned they were brothers? She can't remember right now. She glares but can't will herself to look down at her armor and take stock of the damage Thor has done.

"He's a fuckin' beast," she grumbles.

Loki huffs (and it almost sounds like it could be a laugh), then reaches out with a suddenly blue hand, setting it over her right forearm. She feels the chill through the metal and body armor and watches in shock as the metal seems to ice over and then disassemble before her eyes. When the segments of armor hit the ground they shatter—then disappear in a magic mist. Her bare arm is bloody and bare, the body suit underneath having been burned away by the sheer intensity of the cold.

Natasha grimaces when she catches sight of the steel shard lodged into the meat of her forearm and forces herself to look away. The pressure of the suit had slowed the bleeding and the wound had begun to coagulate; without the armor, however, the arm bled anew and throbbed. Jaw clenched, she looks up in time to see Loki's blood red eyes fade back to familiar green—which, huh. Was that an Asgardian thing or a Loki thing?

He is studying her face, waiting.

She rolls her eyes and swallows past the pain. "You know what nobody likes? Nobody likes a showoff."

Something seems to uncoil fractionally from Loki's shoulders. Enough that he takes his hand (back to normal-color, now) and places it just over her injury, not touching. She looks back to her arm and watches in awe as the screw slides out, as if pushed out from within, and then the skin begins the magically stitch itself shut.

"Thor is a brute," Loki murmurs as he takes her wrist and inspects his work. Her arm is perfectly unscathed, but for the drying blood crusted along its length. "But he is sentimental to a fault. If he had known you were a woman, he would not have attacked you."

She frowns at him, tugging her arm away despite the inclination to let him continue to touch her—remembers the last time they were in the Tower together, just before he left, and her stomach twists with something like nausea. It's not the same anymore. He's an enemy now and she can't forget that. Still, she falls comfortably into their usual banter and replies, "Well, if I'd known that earlier, I could have saved on the millions it's going to cost me to repair this."

He hums absently and brings his palm to the side of her face. Out of her peripheral, she can see the faint green glow of his magic. The skin on her face itches, and both her lip and forehead ache dully. She knows without have to look that, like her arm, her face is perfectly healed.

Natasha sniffs. "You're handy, aren't you?"

"In more than one way," he replies with an empty smirk. She averts her eyes with a frown, lips pressed tightly together to keep herself from responding. It was too tempting to forget he was a criminal, now—too easy to forget he was not Olson.

Loki studies her for a moment and, strangely, she feels the smirk evaporate like his armor. Turning, he steps back through the glass and back into his cage.

Natasha struggles with herself, debating whether or not to bring up something that has been bothering her since they'd landed on the Helicarrier.

Finally, she tells herself to man up and says, "You didn't kill anyone."

This halts Loki abruptly, leaving him standing in the middle of the cage; he keeps his back to her.

"Well," she amends, "You brutally cut out that guy's eye and probably caused thousands of dollars' worth of therapy for those people, on top of all the general havoc you caused on the streets, but—you didn't kill anyone."

Loki waits too long to respond and Natasha grows impatient, tempted to hack into the cell and march in there to demand answers because it's pretty obvious that there is more to all of this and Loki is the only one with answers.

"That man—Heinrich Schafer. He was not a good man. I should have killed him."

"Well, I was immediately suspicious when I found out he had personal access to iridium. Did some research into him—and, let's just say, I don't think I'd have shown your restraint."

Heinrich Schafer is a different issue altogether. She's not ready to deal with that yet when her biggest problem is the stupidly gorgeous man in front of her.

"Loki," she says, and it's the first time she's called him by his real name. He turns, brows pinched, and meets her eyes. She doesn't know why it's hard for her to speak her next words. With an honest emotion she cannot name, she asks, "Why are you doing this?"

It almost seems like he's considering her question.

Then his eyes narrow and his eyes go cold. "I thought you didn't care?"

"I don't," she replies, instinctively defensive. She averts her gaze, feigning nonchalance. "Look, I feel like there's something more going on. If we can avoid a bloody war, all the better." She hesitates. A flicker of guilt breeches her façade. "I've told you before, I don't want to be responsible for any more deaths."

"You can't save everyone."

Natasha looks up and holds his gaze so he can see just how serious she is. "I'm still going to try."

Loki takes a moment to consider her words, then nods.

"You heard my conversation with the Director," he says. It isn't a question and he doesn't wait for her response. "Don't trust him. Even if you won't side with me—promise that you won't join him."

It was too easy to answer.

"I promise."


Natasha stops by the medical wing after leaving her battered armor in a heap back at the storage facility. The technicians assure her that none of her ribs are broken, merely bruised. All she can do is let them heal on their own and they advise her against donning the Iron Woman suit for the next couple of months. She snorts out loud at the suggestion. She gets something to wrap her arm in before they notice that despite the blood, there's no more injury, and when they try to give her shit for not letting them check all her wounds she just deflects them all by giving them the Stark treatment.

Coulson is waiting for her by the door (had been waiting since she'd returned and had leveled her with a disapproving look and a sardonic, "You could try worrying a little less about your armor and more about yourself.") and hands her a bundle of clothes and a pair of all black All-Stars .

"Courtesy of Ms. Potts," he explains. "She says you never remember to pack a change of clothes."

"Well, usually I can just go home and change." Natasha stares at the clothes for a full five seconds before Coulson rolls his eyes and sets the clothes on the counter along the wall.

She starts slipping out of the two piece bodysuit, cautious with her ribs. Coulson turns his back to her like a gentleman, clearing his throat nervously. As she changes into the navy button-down and grey slim-ankle slacks, she studies Coulson's back carefully. In the last twenty-four hours, her life has done a complete one-eighty back into Crazyville. She'd almost forgotten what it was like to put on the suit and go up against real bad guys. Her life had almost gone back to normal and she knows a little part of her is glad for this diversion from the mundane.

Loki is … something.

His betrayal still stings like a fresh wound but she knows that the majority of her anger (still boiling just under the surface of the wall she'd built against genuine emotions) is directed at herself. She is too close to snapping. She isn't sure she can take another brutal disgrace. First Loki, then getting thrashed by his gargantuan brother—and worst of all, getting her ass saved by Captain-fucking-America off all people, in a pansy-ass leotard to boot! It was just a little too much for her ego to digest. Not to mention the fact that Fury was clearly hiding something from all of them and even Loki deemed it necessary to warn her against him.

"Let's focus on one thing at a time," she mumbles to herself, sliding into her slim fitting blazer. She grabs her black tie from the counter and loops it around her neck.

"What was that?" Coulson doesn't dare glance over his shoulder.

"Nothing. Help me with my tie." When Coulson hesitates, she rolls her eyes and reaches forward to jerk him around by the shoulder. "I'm decent."

Flushed, Coulson nods and raises shaky hands to her neck as he begins working her tie into a proper knot. She watches his face, sees him slowly regain his composure as several deep wrinkles appear upon his brow.

"Coulson," she says, seriously.

He doesn't look up until he is done with her tie and he forces a smile that neither one of them are buying. She gives him a flat look, brow arched, and he sighs, shoulders slumping a little. "Don't worry. I haven't said anything to Fury."

She's aware of this. That's not what she wants to know. Her face gives nothing away. "Why not?"

He doesn't have an immediate answer for her.

Natasha knows without a doubt that due to recent events, protocol dictates (common fucking sense dictates!) that Coulson report to the Director any information pertaining to Loki. It goes without saying that the fact that the terrorist had been lurking behind enemy lines all this time while acting as an employee at Stark Industries as Natasha Stark's personal assistant is something Fury would be interested to know about. She has no idea what would stay Coulson's usually infallible sense of duty towards Fury but can't help but feel infinitely grateful. It's a degree of loyalty she would have never expected from a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative. She doesn't want to protect Loki—he made his bed when he decided it was a good idea to steal the Tesseract and then proceed to wreak havoc in Germany—but she's never trusted Fury with more information than absolutely necessary.

"When are you going to tell Ms. Potts?"

She starts for the door and Coulson follows her into the hall. With a determination that's shaky at best, she says, "Maybe after I've fixed this fucking mess."

"I'm not sure this is a situation that can be rectified by normal means."

She casts him a sidelong grin as they reach the lift. They both know Natasha is anything but normal.

Coulson returns the grin with a small smile as they step into the lift. He punches the button for the bridge and they stand for a moment in silence. Natasha is thinking about Loki's warning when Coulson breaks the silence with an awkward little cough that catches her attention and has her throwing him an amused look.

He rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet for a moment, cheeks noticeably flushed under the unreasonably bright lights in the lift. "I wanted to—ah—thank you."

She blinks. "For?"

He clears his throat again, refusing to meet her eyes. "The, uh, gifts. Mister …. Ah—Olson—dropped them off the other day."

Natasha blinks again. "Oh." She had completely forgotten. Why would Loki even … ? And when would he have had the time?

For a fraction of a second, she is horrified. She'd never actually intended to give the presents to their intended parties. Barton and Romanoff didn't even like her and Coulson barely seemed to tolerate her on her best days. Natasha was just an impulsive buyer.

"—and I can't thank you enough." Coulson is saying.

"Yeah. No … problem," Natasha replies uncomfortably. "Just you, or—uh—"

He shifts, his expression dissolving a bit into displeasure. "I have Clint and Natasha's gifts, but they've been away on assignment for some time, and now …"

Natasha nods curtly. "Right." Well, that was fine. Maybe she could convince Coulson to return the gifts to her later. They seemed silly now and Natasha is already bristling with the blows to her ego that she doesn't think she can stand for another person to see her as weaker than she already feels. Gifts meant sentiment and to be sentimental was to be weak.

Starks are never weak.

Resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose, feeling an incoming migraine, Natasha asks, "Did you get 'em—uh—signed, yet?"

"Ah, no. Not yet…" Coulson admits. Before Natasha can supply a scathing comment about the man's idol, he adds, "But he promised he would as soon as he got the chance."

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Well, I'm pretty sure I can forge his autograph, if need be. My dad had so much old Captain America junk I could write his biography. I've got, like, a gajillion copies of his autograph. It wouldn't even be an issue."

Coulson looks scandalized; the lift doors slide open and Natasha steps out while Coulson gapes at her.

"Ms. Stark! You can't just forge Captain America's signature!"

Natasha keeps walking. "I said autograph, not signature. They're not the same."

Coulson doesn't run to catch up to her, per se, but he's not quite walking a steady gait, either. It's adorable how flustered he gets for Rogers. Natasha can't help but laugh out loud.

"You're such a fanboy, Coulson!" Coulson doesn't refute this so Natasha adds, grinning cheekily, "You know, I think I should have my own trading cards. What do you think?"

Coulson huffs, clearly frustrated with her. He mumbles, "Might as well just make trading cards for the whole team and quadruple your profits that way."

It's obvious that Coulson is being sarcastic but Natasha stops, wide-eyed. "That's perfect."

Coulson halts, frowning at her. "What?"

She looks at him, her expression flat with shock. "Coulson, that's perfect."

It takes him a moment to register what's going on; he actually groans. "It was a joke."

She shakes her head and takes his arm, resuming their walk. "Maybe. But it's brilliant. Coulson! Why aren't you on my marketing team?"

"Because I hate corporate America."

She gawks at him, releasing his arm. "Did you hear what you just said?" Shaking his head, Coulson speeds up his pace. Natasha is undeterred. "Coulson! Seriously, though!"

"I know it may be hard for you to conceive, but not everything is about money," Coulson grumbles.

Natasha rolls her eyes and jogs to close the distance between them, falling into step beside him once more. "Of course it is. What else do you think keeps all your favorite merchandise afloat? To satiate consumer demands you have to have the means. Beside, you know I provide only the best quality of products. I'd even run everything by you. You know—to make sure I'm not committing some form of irredeemable sacrilege against your beloved idol."

Coulson is quiet for a while, keeping his eyes forward, mouthing twisted in a frown. "Fine. I suppose that would be acceptable."

Natasha laughs mercilessly. "Such a nerd! But you've got a deal! Verbal contract. I'll have Pep write up something official later." She's pretty sure this is what a sulking Coulson looks like. It's unacceptable—if anyone has any right to be in a sour mood, it's her—so she drops an arm around his shoulder and leans her face in close so she's looming just outside his peripheral. "Coulson. Don't be mad!"

"I'm not mad." Stiff lips and a deepening pinch between his brows. Yeah. He's not mad, alright.

"Nerdy is the new sexy!" Natasha exclaims, pulling back enough so that he can clearly see that she's checking him out. "I'm sure your girlfriend is—"

"I don't have a girlfriend," he states matter-of-factly.

"No?" Her eyes widen with curiosity. "What happened to the cellist?"

Coulson shuts his eyes for a second, shaking his head. "Are there any secrets between you and Ms. Potts?" Natasha just quirks a brow at him and he sighs. "There's no cellist. At least, not anymore. She moved to Portland."

Pulling away, Natasha crosses her arms over her chest as her mind begins plotting. "Permanently?"

"I'm not sure. I don't think it would have worked out, anyway."

"What? She didn't approve of your man-crush with the Ice King?" She asks in mock seriousness. "Because if a girl can't appreciate a good bromance, then she's not worth your time."

Coulson frowns at her. "That wasn't the case."

"Then what was it?" She is genuinely curious. Coulson is a rarity among men—kind, honest and respectful. Natasha couldn't imagine what self-respecting woman could turn him down. The bald spot might be an issue, but if a woman was too shallow to look past that, she didn't deserve Coulson in the first place. Natasha doesn't say any of this, of course, but she's pretty sure she conveys the sentiment by giving his shoulder a firm squeeze.

"It's the job," Coulson replies, glancing down curiously at her hand before looking back at her. "You can't maintain a healthy relationship over long distances. Especially not with a plethora of secrets hovering overhead."

Oh. Relationships. Natasha wasn't really good with those, but she could give it a shot.

"Have you tried … talking?" That just felt weird coming from her mouth, but it's what couples did, right? Talk?

Coulson's eyes soften, the expression within them dejected. "Yes. And she understands that my job requires a certain amount of discretion, but I couldn't bring myself to ask her to sacrifice a comfortable life just because of me."

"Wait. You broke it off?"

"No. Not exactly. She said she was moving to Portland. I took it to mean … well …"

"Uh." Natasha stares, stunned (and a little unnerved by the raw emotion). "Coulson. I'm pretty sure that doesn't constitute as a break up. The words have to actually be spoken—or a version of them, anyway. You should go talk to her. Might perk you up a bit. You always look—" she breaks off. 'You always look like you're in desperate need for a lay' is probably not the best way to convey sincerity. She runs her words through a WWPS (What Would Pepper Say) filter, then amends, "Everyone needs someone, Coulson."

Coulson doesn't reply because they've just reached the bridge. Rogers, Romanoff, Hill, Thor and Banner are in the middle of a discussion. Rogers and Romanoff are the only two seated while Thor and Banner stand in similar defensive postures. Neither Banner nor Thor look comfortable to be present, whereas Rogers looks like he's right at home (even in his obnoxious outfit).

The bridge is a massive, dynamic space that fitted the majesty of the Helicarrier's exterior. Like most of the interior spaces within the vessel, all of the interior chambers on the bridge were suspended from the decks, giving the impression that they were hanging from the decks above. The main viewing window is framed by massive struts—it's huge, granting the bridge area a clear view of the sky ahead; an eye in the sky.

Banner is speaking. "Iridium. What do they need the iridium for?"

"It's a stabilizing agent," Natasha calls out, drawing the rooms' attention. Before she makes it any further she twists around and leans conspiratorially into Coulson's side; he looks bemused and doesn't stop, forcing her to walk backwards. "Look, I'm saying—take a weekend. I'll fly you to Portland."

Coulson's eyes flash with a warning—'not here!' they read—and then breaks away from her. Natasha leaves it at that and walks around the table.

"Means the portal won't collapse on itself like it did at S.H.I.E.L.D.," She says, addressing those gathered by the table.

She catches Thor's eyes on her and heads for him. Now that she's looking, she can see the slightest trace of guilt in his eyes as they flit over her figure. Without the additional height of her suit, she is considerably shorter than the Thunder God. Looking at him now, she thinks it's a miracle she escaped with her limbs intact at all. She holds out a placating hand, summoning her most sincere look.

"No hard feelings, Point Break," she says, watching the open confusion in his eyes. It's amusing mostly because he looks torn between feeling guilty, being angry, and just trying to figure out what's going on. Facetiously, she pats his overly developed arm as she passes him. "You got a mean swing."

Stuffing her hands into her pockets, she can feel everyone looking at her and thinks she deserves her own pat on the back just for managing to remain the center of attention even amidst all these other larger than life characters. To her left, Agent Hill is watching her with her usual dour expression. Natasha ignores her and heads for the command station.

"Also," Natasha continues, "Means the portal can open as wide and stay open as long as Loki wants." She lets that sink in with the would-be heroes while she scans the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel attentively at work. She swivels around, gesturing to random departments, "Ah—raise the mizzen mast. Ship the topsails." She points sharply at a blond to her left. "That man is playing Galaga! Thought we wouldn't notice, but we did."

She is making a mockery out of a base of covert military operations and she loves it. If it weren't because the situation actually called for her involvement, she would have never been caught dead on this vessel. She hates that for all her self-assurances that she'd never let Fury talk her into serving him (especially after the man had the audacity to reject her for his Super Secret Club), in the end, she is still standing here just like the rest of his loyal puppies.

Fury's station is located at the very center of the bridge, giving her a three-sixty view of the room. Natasha glances between the four display panels erected on the command station (she remembers the infamous Captain's Chair from Star Trek and seriously considers purchasing it for Fury because it's ridiculous that a man his age would have to stand for any long period of time). She covers her left eye with her hand like they ask you to at the optometrist's when they're testing your vision. Immediately, half the room either goes blurry or is completely obscured—including the leftmost display panels.

"How does Fury even see these?" She asks, glancing over her shoulder at the perpetually humorless Agent Hill.

"He turns," Hill replies simply.

Natasha swivels on a heel, face scrunched in distaste. "Sounds exhausting," she mutters, stepping up to the panels on the right. Natasha grabs a couple windows from one screen and moves them to another, taking up a more serious tone. "The rest of the raw materials, Agent Barton can get his hands on pretty easily. Only major component he still needs is a power source—of high energy density." She brushes her fingertips just under one of the panels then turns to face the others. Without missing a beat, she adds, knocking her hands together for emphasis: "Something to—kick start the Cube."

"When did you become an expert on thermonuclear astrophysics?" Hill asks dubiously.

"Last night." Hill's expression belays no comprehension—nor do any of the other faces, save Banner's. Natasha almost rolls her eyes in exasperation. "The packet. Selvig's notes? The extraction theory papers?" Nothing. Absolutely blank faces. Natasha balks. "Am I the only one who did the reading?"

"Does Loki need any particular kind of power source?" Roger's asks, interrupting any prospective rant.

She looks to him and it takes a second for him to look up and meet her gaze. She can already see just by looking into his eyes that she's getting under his skin.

Banner answers before she remembers to. "He'd have to heat the Cube to a hundred and twenty million Kelvin just to break through the Coulomb Barrier—"

"Unless," Natasha interjects, glancing back at Agent Hill to give her a look. She makes her way to Banner, scrutinizing the man for the first time. "Selvig has figured out how to stabilize the Quantum Tunneling effect."

Due to electrostatic interaction, two nuclei would need to overcome the Coulomb Barrier to get close enough to undergo a nuclear reaction. With something as powerful as the Cube, you would need something powerful enough to control it. Iridium is the most corrosion-resistant metal on Earth, and the second densest element. It was the perfect conduit for the Cube. This, in addition to Selvig's genius theories on Quantum Tunneling, convinced her that it was definitely possible to successfully utilize the Cube. Loki had both Selvig and Barton at his disposal. At this point, Natasha was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Banner looks to her. There's a dismissiveness in his eyes. Unlike Natasha, Banner either isn't interested or doesn't feel it's important to study her—even as the only other intellectual being on this bridge.

"Well, if he could do that," Banner replies thoughtfully, "he could achieve heavy-ion fusion at any reactor on the planet."

"Finally," Natasha smiles, pleased. "Someone who speaks English."

"Is that what just happened?" Rogers mutters.

Natasha ignores him and extends a hand out to Banner. He takes it uncertainly and she gives him her most charming smile. "Good to meet you, Doctor Banner. Your work on anti-electronic collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you … lose control and turn into an enormous green … rage monster."

Banner blinks, mouth hanging open for several beats before he manages to get out a, " … Thanks?"

"Doctor Banner is only here to help track the Cube," Fury says as he enters the room, leveling her with stern look. "I was hoping you might join him."

"I'd start with that stick of his," Rogers says. "It may be magical but it works an awful lot like a HYDRA weapon."

Something jostles in Natasha's memory at the word. Fury shrugs. "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?" Thor murmurs lowly, confused. "I don't understa—"

"I do!" Rogers cuts in. "I understood that reference!"

Natasha rolls her eyes, feeling simultaneously embarrassed for Rogers and hit with an urge to just throttle him for being such a Boy Scout. This is the guy her father was always waxing lyrical over? This guy?

Inhaling deeply, stealing Pepper's tactic for dealing with Natasha on a trying day, Natasha swivels to Banner. "Shall we play, Doctor?"

Banner nods, gesturing to the exit. "This way, ma'am."

Chapter Text

They're in the Wishbone Laboratory, named such for its strategic placement at the hub of the grand wishbone hallway. It is open and pristine, with large bay windows that look out at the Helicarrier atrium.

The Lab is hardly sufficient by Natasha's standards, but she's relieved when Coulson drops by to leave her some equipment Pepper had evidently requested for her. She's thinking of all the ways she's going to show just how much she appreciates that woman when she also spots another change of clothing amidst the tech. She quickly changes into the long-sleeved undershirt and Black Sabbath t-shirt, which Pepper has paired with jeans (because despite her nagging, Pepper understands the need for comfort in the workplace). Coulson shares a smile with her when he leaves and Natasha wonders what she ever did to deserve someone like Pepper in her life.

While Natasha works on a computer at the opposite end of the room, Banner scans Loki's scepter for radiation spikes that will correlate with Selvig's reports from P.E.G.A.S.U.S. base.

It doesn't take all her concentration to go about her tasks. The tests they're conducting are menial and Natasha could do them all in her sleep, but they're necessary if they are to collect all relevant data so they can develop a program to track the Cube. Mostly, Natasha is trying not to reveal just how indecently pleased she is to be working alongside someone who actually knows what the fuck they are doing. There is no hand-holding or dumbing herself down for the benefit of the other scientist—Banner is a genius.

She's pretty sure she's in love.

"The Gamma readings are definitely consistent with Selvig's reports on the Tesseract," Banner says, interrupting her thoughts. "But it's going to take weeks to process."

"If we bypass their mainframe and direct route to the Homer cluster we can clock this in around six hundred teraflops," Natasha replies just as she sets about to do just that, keeping an eye on the incoming data from Banner's computer as it appears on the upper right corner of her monitor. She immediately applies it to the program she'd been writing, which would then focus all their wave-reading technology to lock onto the specific signature the scepter was emitting. Fortunately for everyone, Gamma was rare, so locating the signature wouldn't take too long.

"And all I packed was a toothbrush." Banner huffs a small laugh which has her glancing up because it actually sounds like he's impressed and not just being polite.

It's an improvement. Natasha is used to being regarded with awe over her brilliance (even if it's sometimes begrudging); but Banner isn't just anybody else. It's going to take a lot more than a few tricks and big words to really affect him, but Natasha is up for the challenge. Locking the computer while it runs the program (not that she expects any idiot technicians to come wandering in, as Fury has given specific orders that she and Banner are to be left alone), Natasha cuts across the lab to Banner's station with a chuckle.

"You know, you should come by Stark Tower sometime," she suggests. She means it. She would love to have Banner working with her just for the opportunity to pick his brain. "Top ten floors—all R&D. You'd love it. It's Candy Land."

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a flash of blue through the window that faces the corridor. As she swipes one of the static tools from the table and fiddles with it, she swivels around on a heel to see Rogers enter the lab. Rogers only glances at her and Banner for a second, then makes a beeline for the empty station in the middle of the room where Banner has left his copy of Selvig's notes. Rogers rifles through the packet, dutifully attempting to study Selvig's theories on Quantum Tunneling. Apparently, he'd taken her earlier comment (about none of them bothering to do their homework) to heart, but she highly doubts he will understand a single word in those notes. Nevertheless, she has to give him props for tenacity.

"Thanks, but—last time I was in New York, I kind of … broke … Harlem." Banner is replying to her, and she was almost distracted enough by Rogers' presence to have forgotten what they were even talking about.

She comes to stand beside him and he peers at her over the rim of his glasses; his fingers never pause for a second as they tap away on the keyboard. Natasha's not really listening to his excuses. She's already made up her mind on the matter, so that's that.

"Well, I promise a stress-free environment. No tension. No surprises…" She says reassuringly, walking around to his other side, safely placing the work station between herself and Rogers.

She lets the static rod charge for a second then lightly jabs it into Banner's exposed side, releasing a low-level voltage.

"Ow!" Banner turns on her sharply. His immediate frown dissolves into an incredulous half-grin as he looks at her.

"Hey!" Rogers exclaims. She sees him march over to them out of her peripheral but her focus is all on Banner.

"Nothing?" She asks, squinting to see if she can catch a glimpse of green in his eyes. There's none and she's pleasantly surprised. And maybe only a little disappointed.

"Are you nuts?" Rogers scolds her.

"Jury's out," is her quick response to him. She looks back to Banner to see he's returned to his computer. His profile reveals a grin and she feels smug. "You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed—?"

"Is everything a joke to you?" Rogers snaps, frustration evident.

"Funny things are." She looks at Rogers, pointing indicatively to him with the static rod.

"Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn't funny." Rogers glances to Banner in an apologetic afterthought. "No offense, Doc."

"No, uh—it's alright. I wouldn't have come aboard if I couldn't handle—pointy things."

Natasha considers Rogers for a second. For once, the inclination to give him shit is absent, replaced with a desire to learn more about Banner. Scrunching her face in thought, she begins to pace, heading away from the station.

She turns back to Banner and frowns. "You're tip-toeing, Big Man. You need to strut."

"And you need to focus on the problem, Ms. Stark."

Natasha throws Rogers a deprecating look. "You think I'm not?" Rogers expression clearly expresses his doubts. She snatches the small package of blueberries she's been munching on for the past half hour and returns to Banner's side. "Why did Fury call us in? Why now? Why not before? What isn't he telling us? I can't do the equation unless I have all the variables."

Rogers frowns, confused. "You think Fury's hiding something?"

"He's a spy. Captain, he's the spy. His secrets have secrets." She's never tried speaking levelly to Rogers' before but it's worth a shot. It's an effort to refrain from using a derogatory tone with the oblivious legend. She reaches into the snack package and pops a handful of berries into her mouth. Gesturing to Banner, she adds, "It's bugging him too, isn't it?"

Banner falters over his work, floundering for a response and unable to meet either of their eyes. "Aah—I just wanna finish my work here and—"

Rogers interrupts Banner with a quiet but exigent, "Doctor?"

Banner sighs and ceases his fluttering. After a beat, he removes his glasses to give his hands something to fiddle with. "'A warm light for all mankind'. Loki's jab at Fury about the Cube."

Rogers nods. "I heard it."

"Well," Banner glances at Natasha, slowly relaxing into his explanation. "I think that was meant for you."

A smile flickers unwittingly to her lips and she extends the bag of berries to Banner. She feels smug, even though Banner's the one doing all the talking and not her. Banner blinks, then hesitantly reaches into the bag for a small handful.

"Even if Barton didn't tell Loki about the Tower, it was still all over the news." Banner continues and this time Natasha has to make an effort to contain her instinctive grimace. Barton wouldn't have had to tell Loki anything. Loki knew the Tower nearly as well as she did. He'd helped with the reconstruction through every phase, offering his input in some cases (which she converted usefully and integrated with the original specs—and only now did she realize that even then it was just Loki manipulating her to his schemes). Stark Tower was as much Loki's as it was Natasha's or Peppers.

But neither Banner nor Rogers need to know this.

"Stark Tower? That big ugly—" Rogers stops himself from continuing when Natasha cuts him a sharp—surprised—look. Rogers averts his eyes quickly and almost looks repentant. He continues, "—building in New York?"

Natasha finds it strange that, rather than offended, she is actually amused and rather pleased to hear Rogers voice an opinion of his own. Rogers is pointedly avoiding her gaze now so she stares him down, a wry smirk twisting her lips.

"It's powered by an arc-reactor. Self-sustaining energy source. That building will run itself for—what, a year?" Banner looks to Natasha for confirmation as he says this.

"It's just the prototype," she replies with a mouth full of berries and a shrug. She glances at Rogers and takes pity when she sees the pinch between his brows grow deeper as he fails to grasp Banner's meaning. "I'm kinda the only name in clean energy right now. That's what he's getting at."

"So, why didn't S.H.I.E.L.D. bring her in on the Tesseract project?" Banner poses the rhetorical question to Rogers so the man's attention is back on him. "I mean—what … what are they even doing in the energy business in the first place?"

"I should probably look into that as soon as my decryption program finishes breaking into all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secure files," Natasha says idly, walking around the workstation and whipping out her phone to check on the progress of the program. She comes to stand near Rogers who immediately closes in on her like a bloodhound.

"I'm sorry, did you say—?"

"JARVIS has been running it since I hit the bridge," she explains needlessly. The only reason she hadn't just hacked into the carrier's database as she had with its security cameras was because the information she wanted required a more delicate approach. She doesn't care if Fury finds out she's hacked his system (again), but she doesn't want him interfering before she does. She pockets the phone and holds out the bag of berries to Rogers. "In a few hours, I'll know every dirty secret S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever tried to hide. Blueberry?"

The disappointment in Rogers' eyes is almost overwhelming. She doesn't understand why the other persists in believing he can find a semblance of Howard within her.

"Yet you're confused about why they didn't want you around."

"An intelligence organization that fears intelligence? Historically, not awesome."

If he were anyone else, she could imagine Rogers rolling his eyes at her. But he doesn't. He takes the higher road and avoids her barbed words. "I think Loki's trying to wind us up. This is a man who means to start a war and if we don't stay focused, he'll succeed. We have orders. We should follow them."

Natasha shrugs and pops another blueberry into her mouth. "Following's not really my style."

Rogers raises his chin—as if he needed any help to look down on her. "And you're all about style, aren't you?"

Natasha blinks, twisting her face into an impression of curiosity. Her tone is all snark, but Rogers asked for it. "Of the people in this room, which one of us is A: wearing a spangley outfit and B: not of use?"

Rogers' expression hardens and his lips form a thin line.

"Steve," Banner says kindly. "Tell me none of this smells a little funky to you?"

Natasha can't really decipher the look in Rogers' eyes, but her words seemed to have finally struck a chord. He's doing his best to keep his emotions from his face, but he can't blanket his eyes. Natasha has to look away.

"Just find the Cube," Rogers murmurs quietly. He leaves while Natasha tries to ignore the dirty feeling her own words have left her with.

Minutes tick by in silence after Rogers' departure. Natasha feels Banner's eyes on her before he returns to his work. She can sense his disapproval—not with her tactics for retrieving information from S.H.I.E.L.D., but rather her treatment of Rogers'. Instinctively, she wants to hate Rogers' for inspiring such easy admiration from everyone. She knows it's to be expected; he is the American hero, but she doesn't have to like it. The belligerent child in her refuses to lose Banner's respect to the Super Scout. She feels she has something to prove, but she doesn't know what it is yet. It's the same feeling that haunted her as a child and it is no coincidence that it has returned in the wake of Rogers' resurrection from the ice.

Rolling her eyes, she scrubs a hand down her face and through her hair, returning to her station to check on the progress of her program. The silence between herself and Banner is too much to bear so she says the first thing that pops into her mind.

"That's the guy my dad never shut up about?" She recognizes the whine in her own tone but hopes that Banner won't pick up on it. She doesn't need to be humiliated a second time as a result of Rogers and the last thing she wants is for Banner to think of her as a child. "Wondering if they shouldn't have kept him on ice."

Banner just huffs a short laugh, taking his data to one of the transparent monitors suspended from the ceiling. "Guys not wrong about Loki. He does have the jump on us."

Natasha can't help a dark smirk, feeling her stomach twist in that uncomfortable and unsettling way she's come to associate with Loki. "What he's got is an ACME dynamite kit," she says, leaving her station once more to check on a different computer. "It's gunna blow up in his face—and I'm gunna be there when it does."

"And I'll read all about it."

A new window displaying the Gamma scans slides into her screen from Banner's computer. She quirks a brow at the screen in lieu of looking at him. "Mmhm. Or you'll be suiting up with the rest of us."

Banner offers a short, humorless laugh. "Now, you see, I don't get a suit of armor. I'm exposed. Like a nerve. It's a nightmare."

Natasha doesn't look up at him; says casually, "You know, I've got a cluster of shrapnel, trying every second to crawl its way into my heart." She taps the reactor and meets Banner's gaze over her computer. "This—stops it. This little circle of light. It's part of me now. Not just armor."

She leaves the computer to walk over to Banner, standing on the other side of the monitor so they are looking through various data and spectrographs at each other. There is a haunted pain in Banner's eyes that Natasha recognizes.

She shrugs. "It's a terrible privilege."

"But you can control it." Banner's voice trembles with his response.

"Because I learned how to."

Banner snorts, looking away. He pretends to return to work but he's just sliding windows across the screen without really considering what he's doing. "It's different."

Without preamble, Natasha reaches out to swipe her hand across the screen from her side, clearing all windows.

"Hey—I read all about your accident. That much Gamma exposure should've killed you."

Banner sneers. "So, you're saying that the Hulk—" he catches himself and swallows the word like it's something vile. "The Other Guy—saved my life? That's nice. That's a nice sentiment. Saved it for—what?"

Natasha smirks. "I guess we'll find out."


Daylight is creeping in through the bay windows when it occurs to Natasha that neither she nor Banner have taken a moment of rest. She's wired, her mind too hyped up to allow her to rest and it's apparent in the way she's constantly moving, never remaining in one place for too long. Every now and then she thinks that she might be annoying Banner, but he's completely lost in his work and it's fascinating to be on the other side of this. Watching another become detached from the world around them, consumed by science. She respects Banner enough not to blast loud music even though it would help her concentrate—doesn't need Rogers coming back down here to give her another lecture on the importance of keeping Banner calm. As a result, she's not working at her quickest and has to keep talking just to fill the silence Banner is otherwise content with.

Natasha has linked her phone to one of the monitors so she doesn't have to keep checking it to see how far JARVIS has progressed with the encryption. She estimates another fifteen to thirty minutes before JARVIS has gained access into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s database and then she will know exactly what Fury's up to.

Two bags of blueberries, two vodka oranges, three cans of coke and four bottles of water later and Natasha really needs to pee.

She calls out to Banner to keep an eye on the monitor tracking the encryption's progress while she makes a run to the bathroom (mostly because she doesn't want Coulson walking in and spoiling her fun) and Banner replies with a knowing smirk and a shake of his head. He'd warned her against all those drinks. Natasha resolutely blames Pepper for supplying her with snacks and drinks.

While running down the surprisingly empty corridor, she catches sight of Thor stepping out from a lift. She slows from a jog to a walk when his gaze falls on her—then groans when he makes a beeline straight to her.

"Lady Stark—"

"Just Stark or Natasha is fine," she grumbles, not stopping. He falls into step beside her with ease.

"I wish to express my apologies—"

"Not necessary, Gigantor. It's all good." She really needs to pee and he's trying to apologize? Couldn't he see that she was in a hurry? Seriously, for a God, he had terrible timing. It was all she could do not to do a little jiggling dance with each step.

She glances up at him to see his heavy brow furrowed in consternation. "Even so, if I had known—"

"Look, man. It's fine. I get it—you're actually a big softy and you normally don't hit girls. That's really sweet. Really. But trust me, I've had worse. It's nothing I couldn't handle." She might be stretching the truth, there. It doesn't matter. Not like she's going to admit that her ribs are still throbbing or that she was pretty sure her chest was going to be bruised for a year. Boobs did nothing to cushion the impact of Thor's hammer. It'd probably made it worse.

Thor is quiet for a moment; he is still walking with her and she can see that they're closing in on the restrooms. If her bladder didn't feel like it was about to burst, she'd be relaxed from the relief of finally reaching her destination.

"Very well, Lady Stark," Thor says at last. She rolls her eyes at the honorific but is too busy biting her lip from tension. "I will not belittle your strength by apologizing, then. I was truly impressed with your skills in battle. Even by Asgardian standards, your strength is remarkable."

She doesn't want to get into explaining the fact that it was her suit doing all the heavy lifting—he could very easily crush her with one hand without the Iron Woman to protect her.

She's almost to the restrooms and her mind has narrowed to the little sign with the triangle for a woman so Thor completely catches her off guard when he suddenly stops, pulling her to a halt with him when he grabs her arm and holds it up under his nose for inspection.

"Your arm—"

Natasha balks. "Is fine. Can I have it back?"

Thor blinks, looking over her arm to meet her eyes. "I thought—I was certain it had been injured during combat."

"Nope. You fucked up my gauntlet beyond repair, but as you can see, my arm is fine." She doesn't hide the ire from her tone. Seriously, repairing her suit wasn't even worth it. She might as well scrap the entire thing and recycle what parts were still salvageable.

After a moment, Thor nods, accepting her explanation. If this had been Loki, Natasha is certain she'd never be able to get away with such a half-cocked excuse. Thor is still staring at her arm like he sees something she doesn't but he doesn't press the subject further and eventually releases his grip. Natasha tucks her arm to her side quickly and throws him an irritated look, jogging ahead to the ladies room.

Thor was definitely Loki's foil. If they were truly brothers, Natasha couldn't spot the resemblance. Not only were they physically dissimilar, but their personalities alone were polar opposites.

Her hand is on the door to the restroom when a thought occurs to her and she glances back to see Thor staring off into space, lost in thought.

"Hey, Gigantor." Thor blinks up at her and frowns. She can see that he doesn't know what to think about his new petname and smirks. "About Loki … "

"What of my brother?" Thor asks defensively, straightening as if preparing for battle.

She blinks, lips twisting with amusement, and turns to face him. "I'm just wondering—why's he doing this? What's his M.O.?"

Thor cants his head inquisitively. "M.O.?"

She rolls her eyes. "Plan. His plan. What is it? What's he hope to gain from all of this? He doesn't strike me as the sort of guy who's only interested in taking over Earth because all the cool kids are doing it—so, what? He's obviously intelligent. And he's strong.Rogers' couldn't even scratch him. What could he possibly want with Earth?"

Thor studies her quietly, eyes narrowing. He doesn't seem as aggressive, now—more pensive, instead. "I know only that Loki plans to summon an army to do battle against your world. Our Father sent me to put an end to his schemes, but as to his motivations—I know not. A darkness has taken a hold of my brother. He is no longer the man I used to know."

Natasha hums in agreement, leaning back against the wall next to the door. "He's definitely got issues to work out. Doesn't explain why he wants to take it out on us."

Thor hesitates. "I do not actually believe this has anything to do with your world."

Natasha's expression goes deadpan. "Really? He's got a funny way of showing his disinterest."

"I speculate Loki intends to use your planet to have his revenge against me. He believes I have wronged him—"

"So he takes it out on an entire planet?" Natasha says incredulously. "Dude, you fucking Gods need to learn to resolve your issues like us mortals—ignore it or pay someone to deal with it for you. You don't fucking run next door and just decide to take over someone else's planet because you've got some family drama to work out. It doesn't even make sense."

Massive shoulders slump and the sadness in Thor's eyes is too transparent; Natasha shifts uncomfortably. "Loki desires a Kingdom of his own to rule."

"Yeah, I'm starting to get that," Natasha grunts.

"You must understand," Thor says with a sudden urgency that startles her. He takes a giant's step forward and is towering over her once more. "Loki is not just a foe. He is my brother. He is family."

"That excuses what he's done—how?" Natasha asks, bitingly. She's not thinking about the Cube or Stuttgart. She's selfish in that way.

"He is no monster. He's lied and cheated, stolen and betrayed, but—" Thor is first to avert his gaze, sparing her the discomfort of looking into the brutal honesty within his eyes. "There was a time when he was happy. Or, at least, I believed him to be. He made me laugh like no one else. His charm, his cleverness … We hunted together and I was never happier."

From just looking at Thor and studying the footage from New Mexico, Natasha can see that the Asgardians are a race that pride themselves for their proficiency in battle. They take great pleasure in projecting this appearance, as well, as is evident with the extravagant armor they take with them into battle. Loki doesn't rush mindlessly into things. This is a guy who spent months doing recon so he could infiltrate a base full of humans he could have just as easily crushed with his Godlike strength or trippy magical powers. Not like his titan of a brother who trusts his incredible strength to resolve all his problems. To be fair, there are probably very few who could withstand the might of Thor's hammer, but it's reckless all the same. Natasha would like to believe she's more of a strategist in battle but she knows she's not. She relies on her suit and her quick thinking to get her through an encounter. It's a tactic that's yet to fail her—until Thor, that is.

She was no expert on human-to-human relationship; even less so with sibling Gods. However, it was pretty clear that Thor cared for his brother, even after all the shit Loki was putting everyone through. Natasha could sympathize with this—recognized a similar loyalty in Thor as Rhodey and Pepper had shown her time and again.

Frowning because the last thing she's interested in is getting involved with a celestial soap opera, Natasha grumbles. "Anyone ever tell you—you share too much?"

She's grateful Thor is so disconnected with human vernacular that he doesn't pick up on the slight edge to her words because almost immediately after she's said them, she wants to take them back. Thor is like an adorable (giant mutation of a) puppy she actually can't bring herself to kick when it's clearly already down.

She sighs—then grimaces when her bladder reminds her of her predicament. Okay, bathroom first—contemplate later.

Natasha darts forward and claps Thor on the arm, summoning an empathetic looks she's seen Pepper do. "Hey, perk up. I'm sure you'll be able to slap some sense into your brother."

Thor blinks at her but she's already dashing into the restroom so she doesn't see the way his eyes narrow speculatively.


Natasha sits on the toilet for a long time after she's finished, staring down her jeans bunched up around her ankles. It's a bad time for her mind to be getting away from her—she needs to get to Banner soon—but Thor's words are cycling around in her head, trying to find their place in the puzzle board that is Loki. She realizes it's possible that Thor is too much a sentimental fool to see how far off the reservation his brother has gone. But there's also Loki, who came to her—a mortal and a human—and asked her to join him in his crazy pursuit for world domination. That doesn't seem typical behavior for a vengeful God. So what, then, did it all mean?

She's still struggling with these thoughts while she's washing her hands and staring sightlessly back into her own reflection.

Reports on Thor said he was a Prince or some sort of royalty back on Asgard. There had been no way of confirming with the God in question because he'd gone before Coulson could debrief him, but Doctor Jane Foster and her assistant had been very forthcoming with the missing details.

"I'll just go with Prince, then," Natasha mutters out loud, running her hands under the disinfectant spray while the faucet is still running water.

If Thor was a Prince, then that meant Loki was one as well. Thor had been talking about Kingdoms—and all of the sudden this was becoming another episode of some television drama Natasha never paid enough mind to (couldn't even name a title she could use as an example). She briefly entertains the idea of calling Happy (who she knows listens to radio dramas in the car) and getting his input, but the voice of Pepper in her head scolds her and reminds her that this is serious.

Natasha sighs for the umpteenth time this morning because fuck Loki making things complicated. Fighting bad guys wasn't supposed to be this psychologically messy. You beat the shit out of them and that was supposed to be that.

If, like the devil, one must do little more than think of a God's name so that he may appear, then it should be of no surprise when Natasha looks up at the mirror and sees Loki standing directly behind her. But it does, because there had been no sound or warning—he was just there all of the sudden, like he'd been standing there all along and it is everything Natasha can do not to scream. She jumps, splashing water all over the mirror, and spins around to glare at the God.

She sees a row of empty stalls and an equally empty bathroom and frowns. Loki is nowhere in sight.

Her heart is still racing in her chest, beating so heart she's worried it will burst. She turns back to the mirror.

"F-fuck!" She shouts, limbs spazzing unceremoniously as she falls backwards into one of the stall doors. Loki's reflection isn't looking at her, frowning instead at the spatter of water on the glass right where his face is. Natasha is still shouting. "Fuck! Fuck you!Fuck!"

"Are you done?" He intones, dragging his gaze to her.

She scowls, storming up to the sinks to glare into the mirror. "No! Fucker! What the fuck are you doing in there?"

Loki's expression is guarded. "Waiting. You seemed too preoccupied to speak, earlier. I did not think Thor capable of such thought-provoking conversations—but maybe overestimated your intelligence."

She rolls her eyes. "Oh spare me the family soap opera, because I really don't give a shit."

"Yes. How could I forget?" Loki sneers. "You don't care."

There's the sound of the bathroom door lock clicking into place.

Natasha's smile is razor sharp. "You're getting it."

She can't meet his eyes because Natasha knows she's a liar. It's not that she doesn't care. With her immediate anger at having been caught off guard dissipating, she's left with that aching pit in her stomach that's been slowly eating away at her. She'd thought it dread, before. Dread for what was coming—fear for those who would be caught in the crossfire. And it was, partially. But that wasn't all it was.

Slowly, she's beginning to recognize that other emotion and it's disconcerting because she never saw it coming. It's a gradual thing, the realization, but it terrifies her all the same because there are so many ways it can backfire on her. It's only another problem to set atop all the others—a potentially crippling one because—

She misses him.

Misses Olson and the easy rapport they'd developed; the natural way he'd integrated into their little group. Rhodey and Pepper and Happy had become her family; each so distinctly unique and just a little bit dysfunctional enough to fit into Natasha's life. And Olson had been that; she'd felt it. She had begun to think of him as a friend and she misses the familiarity so much it hurts. Natasha knows better than to ignore this because she's only felt like this about two other people in her life—and they were still with her. Rhodey and Pepper had changed her life for the better and Natasha didn't want to associate this feeling with something bad because Rhodey and Pepper had been her salvation.

Natasha reaches out and carefully presses her fingertips to the glass—right about where Loki's chest is, though all she feels is the cool glass of the mirror—and thinks about how she really should be less blasé about finding Loki in the mirror of the women's bathroom.

Despite everything, she has to remember: Loki wasn't her friend. He certainly wouldn't consider her one—but …

When Natasha had turned to alcohol to solve her problems and numb her pain after her parents' death, Rhodey had been there for her. They hadn't known each other well, but they'd saved each other's lives once and that had been enough for Rhodey to decide he wasn't going to sit around and watch her destroy herself. There had been no obligation, only an unconditional loyalty that Natasha knew she hadn't deserved and wouldn't appreciate until years later. Rhodey had showed her what she'd needed in order to knock some sense back into her.

What did Loki need?

When she looks up, she is surprised by how intimate they appear. Loki is standing closely behind her, looking down as if to study the profile of her face. She can't feel him, and it's hard for her logical mind to rationalize that he's not actually there yet she still she can't help but relax a little—as if she could relax against him and he would be there. But he's not really there and she has only the frigid air for company; the situation echoes their relationship tragically.

"What do you hope to gain by opposing me?" Loki murmurs quietly.

She's aware that she's gripping onto the edge of the counter only after her joints begin to ache from the tension. "I'm not looking to 'gain' anything. Just to stop you."

Loki's eyes flick up to meet hers. "I have an army."

"We have a Hulk."

Loki brow arches, a wry smirk touching his lips. "Oh, I thought the beast could not be controlled?"

"Yeah, I think you're missing the point. There's no throne. There's no version of this where you come out on top." Loki's eyes narrow dangerously, but Natasha doesn't look away. She forgoes sarcasm and tries honesty. "Look—maybe your army comes, andmaybe it's too much for us, but it's all on you. Losing isn't an option for us, Loki. This is our home we're talking about. If we can't protect the Earth, you can be damned sure we'll avenge it."

The flicker of anger she thought she saw in his eyes disappears. He's smirking again, leaning forward, his lips hovering over her ear, green eyes locked on hers through the mirror. "Are you hoping to appeal to my humanity?"

She keeps expecting to feel him—his familiar coolness or a puff of breath as he speaks—and she keeps forgetting he's not actually there, with her. Just another magic trick. Natasha sniffs, rolling her eyes and returns his smirk. "Please. I'm threatening you."

His eyes run over the length of her reflection appreciatively (lewdly—and he definitely spent too much time with her) and his smirk widens. "You should have left your armor on for that."

"Yeah, well, it's seen a bit of mileage, thanks to your dickhead of a brother. Also, you don't have your—uh—blue stick of destiny, so I'm not overly concerned."

Loki actually chuckles and there is nothing malicious about the sound. "The scepter is not the source of my strength. I don't need it."

"That's good, because we don't plan on giving it back," she replies daringly.

They stay like this for a while, half-smiling at each other, but there are phantoms in their eyes and eventually reality wins out and swallows the light-hearted moment whole. The aching pit in her soul is back. She watches their faces transform into something a lot more sober, but she honestly can't distinguish the emotion on either of their expressions. There is pain in Loki's eyes because it seems, like Thor, he is incapable of concealing his sorrow for long.

"Loki," It hurts to speak. Natasha swallows past the dry lump in her throat and asks, quietly, "What happens to you? If you lose."

"If I fail?" Loki's gaze becomes distant and when he speaks, the words do not sound like his own. "There will be no realm, no barren moon, no crevice where He cannot find me. I will long for something as sweet as pain."

She needs to turn around—needs him to be there so she can grab him and shake him because it's not too late. He can still put an end to all of this. She can help him, if only he asks for it. She wants to tell him, but the words don't come. They fill her mouth but she swallows them back down and instead she says:

"You're a coward." Loki almost looks amused, but his eyes are nearly black with warning. She finds the strength to continue. "You are. You're a coward. And if you want to be King, find another planet because this one is taken."

Loki is smiling darkly. "I don't think you understand, Natasha."

"Enlighten me."

"Under my rule, your world would be protected."

She frowns—wants to call bullshit—but something in Loki's eyes stop her. "From what?"

He just smiles mysteriously. She watches him lean his face forward, into the crook of her neck, eyes closed—but it's only a reflection she's looking at. She's still alone. It frustrates her because she wants answers. She wants to pretend she's humoring him—that she's not actually curious—but that is such a lie because she can sense it. Sense just how close she is to the truth. It's there, only a layer away, and she can almost see it—but then Loki looks up, expression sharp and eyes unfocussed.

His expression dissolves into something neutral as he straightens his posture.

"What, now?" she asks impatiently—already knows what's coming because that's just her luck, isn't it?

"I have a pretty visitor."

And then he's gone.

Chapter Text

Natasha has learned by now that what she wants to believe isn't always what is right. It should seem fairly obvious to everyone, but Natasha has always lived under the assumption that she is always right—and for the most part, this is true because she has Stark instincts and intuition and a brilliant mind that fills in all the gaps between. Up until recently, she can count on one hand the number of times she's been wrong. The real kind of wrong—the wrong that led to bad things and bad decisions and people getting hurt (or Natasha getting hurt). She's fucked up plenty of times before and after these incidents, but it's not the same to fuck up because you just don't give a damn and you want to watch everything around you burn—and fucking up because being a genius doesn't compensate for inexperience and then shit happens to good people and Natasha is left watching others' lives crumble around them while she remains safely within her wealthy cocoon.

These last couple of days Natasha has had trouble trusting her instincts. It's put her on constant edge, leaving her wracked with a feeling that's not unlike falling twenty-thousand feet to the ground. She can barely mask her anxiety beneath the familiar layer of Stark bravado and it has her questioning whether she's in any position to be making decisions, yet completely unwilling to allow anyone else to step forward and take her mantel as lead—because she is always lead and she refuses to allow anyone else to assume the position because she is not weak and a few mistakes here and there don't mean she's not prepared to take on Loki and his alien army.

But.

50% of her wants to fall into the familiar pattern of taking charge and making calls, showing off along the way because that's what she does. 40% wants to just say fuck working with other people—since when has she needed anyone to get the job done? (Rhodey exluded). The other 10% is a mess that thinks admitting she's totally lost for ideas is a good idea, or better yet, letting someone else take the reins (and didn't that just burn?). There's that final little fragment of that 10% that she's pointedly ignoring because it's telling her to believe in something that she physically cannot bring herself to accept.

And that is to trust Loki, because Goddamn him, he's probably telling the truth, for once.

Natasha doesn't need it spelled out for her. Despite the God's reticence, it's clear that Loki is not only not working alone, but he's working with someone—if not for, given the visible tension in his shoulders and around his eyes when he'd spoken of He Who Would Make Him 'Long For Something So Sweet As Pain'. The words seem to have only now taken root within her, chilling her under her skin and wrapping like a vice around her heart. This is fear—she knows it well. It's the sort of fear she remembers from those blistering nights in the caves when her life had been balanced precariously between a car battery and her genius. She'd found no victory when she'd escaped those caves; discovered only loss and a sense of self-loathing that ran deeper than anything she'd ever harbored for her father and strong enough that she suspected it had been there, festering, long before she'd ever been alerted to it.

Walking back to the Lab, she feels that same fear now and she has to stop, catching herself with a hand to the wall to recover her breath. It's like a blow to the chest and her lungs are completely unwilling to accept the air she's swallowing like her life is depends on it. The corridor back to the Wishbone Lab is empty. She's grateful for the heavy rumble of the Helicarrier's engines that keep her world from falling into total silence.

For a beat, she feels a pang of longing for the Tower—remembers how Pepper and Olson would keep the music blaring in her workshop, and then leave on every television in every room Natasha was prone to visiting. She takes another breath and the longing is gone—pushed away somewhere she won't have to analyze.

She gathers her composure, reminding herself that she needs to return to Banner and continue their work. It has already been too long—it took only five minutes to get to the restrooms from the Lab and it's been twenty since she ran out of there. Damn Asgardians and their impeccable timing.

Dragging a hand over her face that does nothing to clear her mind, she starts walking—manages to focus for several seconds on just the repetitive motions of setting one foot in front of the other, before her mind returns to Loki and the Cube and the notion of a damn army heading their way. She wants to believe that Loki isn't the bad guy in all this—he isn't the puppet master pulling the strings—but even without all the cynicism she's accumulated, she knows Loki is far from innocent. Whether or not he's the one running the show, she can see it in every action and hear it in every word—this was the path Loki chose.

When she reaches the Lab, Banner looks up at her over the rim of his glasses, an amused smile tugging on his lips.

In the time it takes her to reach his station, she's managed to bottle away all her conflicting emotions and greets him with a smirk and a roll of the eyes. "I ran into Goldilocks on the way."

Banner parts his lips in an 'ah' and then returns to his work, just as dismissive and nonintrusive as ever. Natasha frowns, focusing on the tacit goal of getting Banner to loosen up so she doesn't have to think about Loki and the problems he's causing—and also, she just wants to see Banner smile a little like he actually means it.

Not for a second does it occur to her to mention her encounter with Loki (encounters now, isn't it?). Gradually, it's like Loki is becoming her dirty little secret and it's the reckless part of her (the part that dives out of airplanes and thinks it's a good idea to fly around in a suit of armor that's reliant on the energy consumed by her only life support) that thrills at the knowledge that Loki's role is so much more than anyone else realizes but only she knows just how cunning his scheme truly is. She thinks what's kept her functioning these past two days is the small surge of power she gets from knowing something S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't—knowing she's one step ahead of everyone else. Even if she's been five steps behind Loki this entire time. It's a small consolation and she'll take it.

"Your decryption is nearly done." Banner says, nodding to the transparent monitor between them since his hands are busy typing into his keyboard.

She smiles, pleased, and heads for the station Banner had been using to study the scepter. It's been spared the relative destruction they've wrought with their work and is bare save for a monitor, the scepter, and a collection of Natasha's empty soda cans and water bottles. She grabs the monitor hanging over Banner's area and swings it to her end, seating herself on the station to watch as the decryption tackles the last firewall. Banner leaves his work to stand over her shoulder, watching the screen with interest.

"So—I'm guessing you planted the bug on the Director's station?"

Natasha cocks a brow and glances over her shoulder at Banner, surprised he's initiating a conversation that doesn't have anything to do with the work. She merely smirks, widening her eyes playfully, before returning to the monitor.

"If you promise to visit the Tower, I'd be more than happy to show you all my toys," she says invitingly.

Banner sniffs behind her—his quiet little laugh, she's come to recognize—and doesn't say anything else for a while. Natasha glances over her shoulder again, allowing her eyes to linger while Banner pretends he doesn't know she's staring, keeping his eyes purposefully trained on the monitor. He's fascinating, she decides, because knowing what she does about the Hulk and the experiments Banner had been conducting that led to the Hulk's creation (which, admittedly, isn't much) Banner is nothing like what she'd anticipated. She thought, perhaps, she could expect to find a broken man, or a desperate man who was barely clinging to sanity—something fun like that. The Hulk was a calamity to those who encountered him but that was only when he broke out. Banner lived with the Hulk—his life was a cruel parody of Jekyll and Hyde.

But Banner is none of that. He is calm—with an edge that she doesn't know if it means he's just that close to Hulking out, or if it's just the result of the stress of sharing his body with another. Natasha wants to study him—understand him. Banner and the Hulk.

He doesn't say anything, but his brows hitch up for a second as he indicates to the screen with a jut of his chin.

She turns around to see the screen flashing: Access Granted in bold red just as the East facing doors slide open and Fury enters with a glower.

"What are you doing, Ms. Stark?"

She stares him down with a look of total innocence. "Uh—kind've been wondering the same about you."

Fury's glower deepens. "You're supposed to be locating the Tesseract."

"We are," Banner replies before she has the opportunity to reply. "The model's locked and we're sweeping for the signature now. When we get a hit, we'll have the location within a half a mile."

"And you'll get your Cube back. No muss. No fuss." Natasha bites down on the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning too widely but can't help a tingle of satisfaction to have Banner on her side. It feels a little like a long awaited victory against Fury. After all, if the man could have the Super Scout wrapped around his trigger finger, then Natasha was more than willing to take Banner with his incredible mind and breathtaking anger-management issues.

A bleep and a flicker out of the corner of her eyes brings her attention back to the screen in front of her and she straightens a little.

"What is Phase Two?" she asks.

Fury's hands are on his hips and if looks could maim (because killing her would never be enough)—

A heavy clang resonates throughout the Lab. Natasha blinks and looks through the monitor to see Rogers returned to the same station as before, handling an impressively large weapon.

"Phase Two is S.H.I.E.L.D. uses the Cube to make weapons." Roger's eyes meet hers and for once all that self-righteous anger is not directed towards her—probably. "Sorry. Computer was moving a little slow for me."

Natasha will admit she's impressed, and probably stares for a little longer than necessary but—this is just too perfect. Anticipating an argument that she has every intention of being a part of, she hops off the station. At the same time, the screen loads another window and while she was only half-listening to the shit spewing from the Director's mouth, everything she's reading seems to contradict what Fury is saying.

"I'm sorry, Nick," She calls out, drawing both Fury and Rogers' attention "What were you lying?"

The screen is displaying blueprints for a next-gen bomb. Natasha sobers when she recognizes what it is—and where she'd last seen something like this.

"I was wrong, Director," Rogers says quietly. "The world hasn't changed a bit."

She's never seen Fury look cornered, but his eye darts between three of them and she can almost see the deceptive cogs turning in his head, searching for a suitable lie—something applicable to the three of them. She knows Fury—knows how desperate he must be now to appeal to both Rogers and Banner (Natasha be damned) because they are his golden eggs and even if Rogers hasn't quite realized that, she knows Banner is too smart to fall for that sort of crap. It still pisses her off. She feels defensive and possessive because even if she can't stand the guy, Rogers is practically Stark property by virtue of the serum he had running through his veins. And, in a small way, that means that Banner is her concern as well, because that was her research and her tech infecting his system, even if the accident that had led to the Hulk had nothing to do with her.

Sometimes, she thinks Fury knows this—knows how much it grates her to watch him assume control over what is rightfully hers—and Fury is the little like stern father she never had, stealing away her possessions in an effort to teach her some sort of life lesson (probably that Natasha can't actually own people and she has no real claim to either Banner or Rogers, but that's also Pepper's voice of reason and Natasha knows and feels they are wrong. She can. It's her money. Her tech. She can.)

Fury still hasn't said anything when Romanoff enters with Thor.

"Did you know about this?" Banner pins her with an almost dangerous look.

Nobody threatens Romanoff, however. Her expression is stony; professional. "You want to think about removing yourself from this environment, Doctor?"

Banner huffs a short laugh that's all vitriol and no humor. "I was in Calcutta. I was pretty well removed."

Romanoff starts towards Banner—then halts when Banner moves back. "Loki is manipulating you."

Only then does Thor seem to take any interest in the situation. His heavy gaze falls on Romanoff's back.

"And you've been doing what, exactly?" Banner scoffs.

"You didn't come here because I bat my eyelashes at you."

"Yes, and I'm not leaving because suddenly you get a little twitchy." Banner steps towards the screen that's now displaying the full plans for a bomb. "I'd like to know why S.H.I.E.L.D. is using the Tesseract to build weapons of mass destruction."

Every line of Fury's body is terse with anger. He does not like to be questioned; even when he knows he's in the wrong. He is the sort of man who would sooner cut off his own arm than admit defeat. What disgusts her most is that she can read it on his face—the arrogance of a man who truly believes he knows what is best and cares not for the repercussions of his actions.

Without looking away from Banner, Fury raises an arm and points.

At Thor.

"Because of him."

Thor looks just as startled as either Banner or Rogers. "Me?"

It is only Natasha and Romanoff who are completely unsurprised (Romanoff because of her unwavering loyalties to Fury, and Natasha because it's just the sort of dick move Fury would pull—excusing his actions by placing the blame on a convenient third party with the ever-classic 'he did it!'). She tucks her hands into her jeans and listens, observing everyone carefully.

Fury focuses on Banner. "Last year, Earth had a visitor from another planet who had a grudge match that leveled a small town. We learned that not only are we not alone, be we are hopelessly—hilariously—out-gunned."

"My people want nothing but peace with your planet," Thor says, his incredulity staying his wrath, though Natasha can see it growing in the flexing of his biceps and the stiff set of his shoulders.

Fury turns to face Rogers as if to ensure he still had the Captain on his side, but everything seemed to be unraveling around the Director. Rogers was regarding Fury with open eyes, a pinch between his brow and a curl of distrust on his lips. Behind Fury, Romanoff is edging closer to Banner, who is eyeing her wearily and backing up to maintain distance.

"But you're not the only people out there, are you?" Fury says to Thor. "And you're not the only threat. The world's filling up with people who can't be matched. They can't be controlled."

Controlled.

That's the keyword that has Rogers straightening with indignation.

"Like you controlled the Cube?"

"Your work with the Tesseract is what drew Loki to it, and his allies," Thor rumbles as he stalks closer to Fury, looking every bit the wrathful God. To his credit, Fury stands his ground unflinchingly. "It is the signal to all the realms that the Earth is ready for a higher form of war."

"A 'higher form'?" Rogers asks, alarmed.

"You forced our hand," Fury all but shrugs. "We had to come up with some—"

"A nuclear deterrent." Natasha steps forward as the blueprints of the bomb flash in her mind. "Because that always calms everything right down."

Fury swivels to face her like he was just waiting for her to speak.

He sneers, "Remind me again how you made your fortune, Stark?"

Rogers steps forward. "I'm sure if she still made weapons, Stark would be neck deep—"

"Wait—wait! Hold on!" She turns incredulously to Rogers, rattled to her core at the audacity of the man. "How is this now about me?"

Natasha almost doesn't recognize his expression when he retorts with, "I'm sorry, isn't everything?"

And then she recognizes the tone as the cutting sort of brutal sarcasm she reserves for him.

"I thought humans were more evolved than this," Thor mutters reproachfully.

"Excuse me," Fury jerks back around to face the God. "Did we come to your planet and blow stuff up?"

"You understand that this isn't a game, don't you?" Rogers says, staring her down like he's still got a lot to say.

"I'm sorry—" Natasha pushes off the station she's been leaning against, drawing her hands from her pockets. She meets Rogers glare with a sneer. "What is it about me that bothers you so much? I'm curious."

"Maybe it's your total disregard for everything we do." Rogers spits back.

"'We'? You don't even belong in this timeline, hero."

The room falls into chaos, with Fury and Romanoff trying to deflect accusations from Thor and Banner. Natasha hears Banner scoff—hears him say, "And Captain America is on the threat watchlist?"

"We all are." Romanoff replies.

Natasha smirks nastily and turns back to Rogers. "You're on that list? Are you above or below angry bees?"

Rogers actually looks like he wants to use physical force against her, and that's almost enough to get her to retreat a step when he closes the distance between them, assaulting her space. "I swear to God, Stark, one more wisecrack—"

Natasha holds up her hands and looks around at the rest of the room, eyes wide, "Threatening! I feel threatened!" Something dark twists smugly in her belly at the look of utter revulsion Rogers throws at her. Fucking good.

"You're unbelievable," Rogers mutters with such antipathy he might as well be cursing her out.

She smiles facetiously, "It's a family trait."

"No," Rogers huffs a humorless laugh, shaking his head. "No. You are nothing like your father. You're not even—"

"'Not even' what?" She says challengingly, eyes narrowing.

"You two!" Fury barks, reminding her that they are not alone—there is a room full of people watching her and Rogers, preparing for bloodshed. "Enough. We don't have time for this."

"You cannot even governor your own warriors. How do you hope to prevail against Loki? With the Tesseract at his disposal, my brother is no match for any mortal." Thor spits at Fury, not letting up on the Director. "You speak of control, yet you court chaos."

"It's his M.O., isn't it?" Banner says, and when Natasha looks over her shoulder at him (the inflection of his tone catching her attention) she doesn't recognize the expression. "I mean, what are we? A team? No, no, no. We're a chemical mixture that makes chaos. We're—we're a time bomb."

"You need to step away," Fury warns Banner.

Something immediate and defensive sparks in her chest. "Why shouldn't the guy let off a little steam?" She's actually not thinking when she throws her arm out and her hand finds Rogers' shoulder.

Her hand is slapped away so roughly her body jerks with the force of Rogers' enhanced strength. "You know damn well why! Back off!"

She doesn't know where this anger is coming from. It explodes within her, smothering the mantic veneer she lives by. She feels her expression go slack and her tone go cold just as everybody else goes silent with Rogers' burst.

"Oh, I'm starting to want you to make me," she murmurs.

"Yeah," Rogers scoffs, stepping around her. She feels his eyes sizing her up but doesn't look at him—can't look at him. "You and your big, fancy suit of armor. Take that off—what are you?"

"Genius, billionaire, polyamorist, philanthropist," Natasha intones, responding quickly as always. She drags her eyes to a point just over his shoulder.

"I know guys with none of that worth ten of you." Rogers all but sneers. She arches a brow with feigned nonchalance and sees his nostrils flare angrily. "I've seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You're not the one to make the sacrifice play. To lay down on a wire and let the other guys crawl over you."

Natasha has to look away for a second—swallow a steadying breath—because fuck him. Fuck. Him. "I think I would just cut the wire."

Rogers draws back, incredulity and disgust written clear and visible for her to see when she meets his eyes. "Always a way out." He smiles and it lacks any warmth—almost condescending. "You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero."

"A hero? Like you?" she scoffs, and hates so much in this moment that it hurts. "You're a laboratory experiment, Rogers." It's the first time she's said his name in a long time and she sees something flicker in his eyes in response. "Everything special about you came out of a bottle."

She sees it again—for a second time. Sees her words find that same chink in the man's otherwise impenetrable armor. Something shifts in his face; a ripple in the façade. Her face is slack, stripped of emotion. She feels the muscles along her jaw clenching and unclenching—feels only the hot rage swelling within her core and the desire to hurt just as she's been hurt.

The tension in the Lab is so thick Natasha can barely breathe. Her vision is swimming, chest constricting—and it's almost like her body is malfunctioning, trying to shut down because it just can't cope with what she's feeling right now and yet, at the same time, she feels so alive. It's like waking up to a clear mind and open eyes—every single negative feeling that has festered within her since she was a child is validated in this moment. She sees her father in his study, the few times he was home, locked away with his maps and his notebook, a bottle of scotch in his lap and a constant loop of Captain America's bail bonds routine playing on the projector. Howard had always been a cold man—calculating and always ahead of everyone else by miles—but Natasha had seen him weak. Had seen the misery in his face as he watched the old footage—and that misery had been more regard than he had ever shown her or her mother.

Natasha had been Howard's greatest creation, but Rogers had been the child he always wanted.

She glares at Rogers now and every cell in her body vibrates with a need for payback—she thinks: It was you. It was your fault! You took—

But no.

Even within her own mind, she can't bring herself to admit to the extent of damage Rogers' has wrought to her childhood. He was the monster in her closet; the boogieman under her bed—a leech, devouring all the warmth of her youth, until she was left empty and cold.

And he doesn't even know.

Doesn't know that Natasha is more familiar with his accomplishments and his legacy than she was of even her own. That it was Rogers of whom her father spoke so highly about, taking every opportunity to remind her and the world of what a hero he had been. A boy from Brooklyn—with a brave heart and a kind soul, who singlehandedly saved them all.

Amidst all the anger, there is something else that is burning her apart from within, and it's strange but she recognizes it—betrayal. Because maybe Rogers had been the hero America had needed, and maybe he had been the friend to her father that Howard never deserved—but he'd taken one look at her and had decided he knew who she was long before she'd even had the chance to show him. She wasn't Howard's girl and she wasn't Fury's fuck-up, she was Natasha fuckin' Stark and he hadn't even cared.

You don't know meRogers, she wants to say—spit it in his face and let him hear all the hurt and all the hate of three decades. But she won't. Nothing in this world has ever broken past her Stark façade—nothing she didn't already intend to show—and she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of taking this away from her as well. Control was all she had left, at this point—and only just barely.

"Put on the suit," Rogers says suddenly. "Let's go a few rounds."

"You cannot be serious," Thor scoffs, incredulous. "You people are so petty. And tiny."

And just like that, the storm of emotions settles—it leaves her feeling numbed. She takes a step from Rogers, pressing a hand to her forehead while the others turn their attention on Banner. Rogers is distracted as well and it's enough to allow her to regain her composure.

At most, all she can summon for Rogers now is irritation—nowhere near the vivid fury she'd felt for him moments ago. She feels anxious, suddenly, and her stomach churns with unease. Something is up. She knows it and feels it but she can't figure it out. She doesn't do overabundance of emotions—and now it's fucking with her head and making it hard to focus.

"Agent Romanoff," Fury is saying "Would you escort Doctor Banner back to his—"

"To where? You rented my room."

"The cell was just—"

"In case you needed to kill me." Banner cuts him a pointed look, daring Fury to challenge him. "But you can't. I know. I tried."

Natasha tries to fixate herself on the situation and not the crushing hollow of a pit that's suddenly taken residence within her. Belatedly, she registers Banner's words and it's like a sucker punch to the gut.

" I tried."

Banner's eyes flick from one person to another. They settle on hers for a second longer. "I got low. I didn't see an end so I put a bullet in my mouth and the Other Guy spat it back 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. You want to know my secret, Agent Romanoff? You want to know how I stay so calm?"

It isn't until now that she realizes that while Banner was retreating from Romanoff, he'd managed to back into his station.

No one risks looking away from Banner; Fury unclips his holster and rests his hand on the butt of his pistol.

"Doctor Banner," Rogers says, quiet and urgent. "Put down the scepter."

Banner blinks—looks down to stare at the scepter in his hand like he doesn't know how it got there.

A shrill beep cuts echoes through the Lab from the back of the room.

All the tension Natasha had managed to loosen from Banner has returned and as he sets down the scepter, he draws into himself and heads towards the back computer. "Sorry, kids. You don't get to see my party trick after all."

"Located the Tesseract?" Thor asks.

"I can get their faster." Natasha says to no one in particular.

Rogers frowns at her. "Look, all of us—"

"The Tesseract belongs on Asgard. No human is a match for it," Thor warns her.

Natasha is already turning to leave, eager to escape this group of people. Rogers catches her shoulder and jerks her back around.

"You're not going alone!"

"You gunna stop me?" She slaps his hand and once again, they're stepping into each other's space, staring one another down as if they were a pair of hounds.

Rogers smirks—and it's almost too like Howard's and Natasha really can't take that. "Put on the suit. Let's find out."

"I'm not afraid to hit an old man," Natasha snaps back.

"Put. On. The. Suit."

Distantly, she thinks maybe she hears Banner say something like 'oh my god'.

But it doesn't really matter, because in the next moment flames are erupting from the center of the room and she's hitting a back wall with the force of an explosion that rocks the entire carrier.

Chapter Text

When Natasha recovers, sitting up so quickly her head spins, her eyes immediately find Rogers'.

"Put on the suit!"

"Yup!" She grunts, scrambling to get up as Rogers does the same.

Aftershocks rumble throughout the carrier and she stumbles into the nearest wall. Rogers' hands are around her waist a second later, stabilizing her and leading her out of the Lab. When Natasha can trust herself to stand on her own she extracts herself from Rogers and they rush down the corridors towards the storage facilities. S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and technicians are rushing past them, expressions taught with worry but not panic. From her pocket, her phone chirps and she fishes it, putting it on speaker.

"Hill!" Fury can be heard shouting. Rogers glances at the phone but he says nothing, thankfully—there's no time for his lectures on why bugging the Helicarrier's COMs is unethical.

"External detonation. Number Three Engine is down." Agent Hill's voice filters in over the noise around them, responding to Fury. "Can they get it running? Talk to me."

"Turbine looks mostly intact, but it's impossible to get out there to make repairs while we're in the air." A young man's voice; Natasha doesn't recognize it or care.

"If we lose one more engine, we won't be. Somebody's gotta get outside and patch that engine." Hill says.

"Stark!" Fury bark, startling Rogers. "You copy that?"

Natasha pulls the phone close to her mouth as she dodges around an engineer. "I'm on it!" Reaching out, she taps Rogers elbow to draw his attention and jerks her head as she turns right into the next corridor. Rogers follows and she takes her phone, dislodging a small device from its side and holding it out for Rogers to take. "Here. Put this on."

"What is it?" Rogers takes the device carefully.

"Put it in your ear. We'll be able to stay in touch."

"What?"

With an exasperated sigh, Natasha shoves into him, knocking him against the corridor wall (which really causes her more harm thanhim, jostling her bruised ribs painfully) and out of the way of passing technicians. Rogers looks startled but she's grabbing the earpiece from his hand and gripping his chin to tug his face to one side. She slips the earpiece into his ear canal and sees his shoulders hike up as if all of Rogers' were physically cringing at her touch.

"That's gunna give you a direct feed into my COM. It links to Fury's line. It's incredibly sensitive, so I'll be able to hear you even if you're whispering. Don't worry about it being in there—just speak as if I were standing next to you. Got it?"

Rogers frowns, strangely tentative, then relaxes. "Got it."

"Let's move, then."

The storage facilities are on the deck right above Engine Three and there is a foul stench of smoke and charred electronics. As they cross a ramp, ahead of them Natasha sees the corridor that branches off in two directions.

She slows and points in the opposite direction. "Engine Three. I'll meet you there."

Wordlessly, Rogers nods and takes off.

Natasha turns into the storage chamber and taps an app that activates the wall unit at the far end of the chamber. Locks disengaged, the wall slides apart, revealing the glass cell the Mark VII is kept in. The suits schematics appear on the screen of her phone and she presses the reactor on the wireframe—in front of her, the suit comes alive. It opens like a maw and she pockets her phone and slips into the suit's metal embrace.

As the faceplates drops into place, the HUD comes alive with a visual cacophony of red, red, red. JARVIS had done his job by integrating the Helicarrier's security protocols into her suit—the HUD was flooded with every triggered alarm throughout the vessel. She has to deprioritize several alarms until she can make out Engine Three, then she's on the move, rushing through the corridors and careful to avoid everyone for fear of crushing them underfoot. No one blinks twice about the familiar suit of red and gold armor rushing past them, flattening themselves against the walls to make way for her. She takes the corridor in the opposite direction she pointed Rogers to—heads into a barrage of smoke that eventually dissolves around her to reveal a gaping hole in the side of the vessel.

"Stark!" Rogers shouts into the COM; the sound of wind whistling indicates he's already reached the damaged engine.

Thrusters prepped, she blasts through the hole and cuts around to Rogers' location. The engineer deck is wrecked. She's almost positive that the damage is more aesthetic than internal.

"Stark! I'm here!"

"Good," she says when she spots a pinprick of blue in the distance, amidst lapping flames and thick plumes of smoke. The HUD locks onto the engine and she swings her hands around in front of her to decelerate as she reaches the wall of jagged and twisting metal. "Let's see what we got."

It looks bad. She recognizes the pattern of the damage—has seen it only in strictly non-combative displays when she'd presented the tech to Agent Barton. She swallows past the taste of bile and focuses on the task at hand.

The engine was down, but the damage wasn't so extensive that they wouldn't be able to get it back up. She won't be able to determine the severity of the problem until she gets a better look at the engine. Her HUD scans through layers of debris and walls of steel but she knows she's going to have to find her way in there. There's a chunk of debris jamming the turbine, but she won't be able to access the rotors and work on dislodging the debris if she doesn't get the superconducting coolant system back online.

Shifting a displaced panel back into place, Natasha glances over to Rogers where he's standing on what's left of the engineer deck for Engine Three. "I need you to get to that control panel and tell me which relays are in overload position," she instructs, pointing to the wall behind Rogers.

He nods and turns to obey; she waits until she sees him sliding out the right panel before she takes off, maneuvering around extruding beams and angry flames. She scans the ragged remains of the ship's flank for a weak spot—needs to find a way to the turbine without causing even more damage than necessary. Her HUD catches a hollow area and she determines it to be one of the corridors for the engineers. Swiveling her feet, she directs herself to the wall of debris and works on removing a crumpled access hatch.

She slips into the opening, ignoring the debris falling around her shoulders and clanging against her suit. The corridor is tight, the walls squeezing around her as if barely supporting their own weight. She grabs and pulls at anything she determines as unimportant, tossing it over her shoulders as she shoves her way through the corridor.

"What's it look like in there?" She asks when Rogers has been silent for too long.

The soldier's exasperated exhale is still audible over the background noise. "It seems to run on some form of electricity."

Natasha purses her lips to stay a derisive quip—honestly isn't even in the mood but it's almost second nature for her to be an ass. "Well, you're not wrong," she replies as kindly as she can. "You're going to have to see which ones have been tripped. The overload protection relays should be on your right."

"Are you sure?"

"I designed the thing—I'm pretty sure." Natasha grabs a handful of shredded wall and tugs, toppling more debris to make way for herself.

"Okay. I think I see them. They look like switches?"

"Yeah. Flip the ones that are blinking red. There's no damage, right? Make sure nothing got fried."

A few seconds later, "Got it. Everything looks good. The relays are intact. What's our next move?"

Stepping back, Natasha readies a repulsor and aims a contained blast at another layer of debris. She continues blasting until she gets to the others side and sees the turbine. The engine looks dead, the turbine completely locked, and she has to bite back on a sigh.

"Even if I clear the rotors, this thing won't reengage without a jump," she says to Rogers, scanning the engine. "I'm gunna have to get in there and push."

"Well if that thing gets up to speed, you'll get shredded!"

Natasha rolls her eyes, thinking—Yeah, I know. Thanks—but it lacks any heat and Rogers can't see her anyway. Instead, she says, "That standard control unit can reverse the polarity long enough to disengage maglev, and that should—"

"Speak English."

Natasha breathes sharply through her nostrils as she steps forward through the opening past the debris, shifting on her repulsors so she can hover over the rotors and see the extent of the damage. "See that red lever?" She says slowly, charging her palms. "It'll slow the rotors down long enough for me to get out. Stand by it. Wait for my word."

"Alright," Rogers says unnecessarily; then adds, hesitantly, "Be careful."

Natasha isn't in the mindset to even think to remember Rogers' awkward attempts at camaraderie for future heckling. Her focus is on ensuring the Helicarrier stays in the air—the casualties alone from within the ship and the civilians below would be catastrophic. She's relieved when she feels the Helicarrier redirect course, heading south towards sea. For all that she dislikes Fury, she has to acknowledge that the man isn't a total idiot—which is probably why he pisses her off as much as he does.

Looking at the debris jamming the rotors she sees that it's actually one large slab of steel—the fractured remains of a wall. She decides against using her repulsors to dislodge it and raises her right arm, charging a high-intensity beam and taking aim. The laser cuts through the steel with little difficulty, severing the slab in half. It takes an entire charged cartridge when it's spent, she ejects it and frowns at the debris. It's still firmly wedged between the blades so she jumps off the ledge, using short bursts of energy to get her to the debris before dropping down on it heavily. The slab breaks apart with her weight and tumbles between the blades of the turbine. She catches herself midair, balancing herself by the repulsors on her palms, and then flies back up, positioning herself between the rotors.

Before she has even laid her hands on the blade, the entire vessel seems to drop around her, falling a sharp twenty millimeters in the air. The vessel is leaning heavily onto its starboard side and Natasha knows they've lost another engine.

"Stark!" Fury shouts into her COM. "We're losing altitude!"

She snorts. "Yeah. I noticed."

Shaking her head, she gets back into position between the rotors and leans her weight into her palms, pushing against the blade. She redirects as much power as she can spare to the repulsors on her boots and pushes with everything she has and more. It seems to take forever before she finally feels the blade jostle—and then the rotors begin to inch forward and she's pushing hard, building momentum, until the rotor begins to actually rotate. It's slow—almost painfully slow—and the screeching of metal against metal is almost too much to bear. She has to block out her external auditory input and it creates a slight pressure within her helmet.

Fuck, Natasha grunts. This isn't going to be enough. She wasn't going to have any power left to spare should she be needed for a fight, but there was no other alternative that she could see—she had to exhaust her reserves to get the rotor moving faster. Gritting her teeth, Natasha feeds more energy to her boots and this time the suit feels almost foreign around her body, rattling dangerously.

She knows it's worked when she no longer has to apply pressure to the blade to keep it spinning—it's building speed without her now and she still has just enough power to get her back on board.

"Cap," she calls into her COM. "Hit the lever."

There's a beat of silence, then, "I need a minute here!"

Natasha tries to ignore the rising panic in her chest. Okay. No. "Lever. Now."

The rotors are spinning too fast. Faster, even, than the suit is presently capable of matching up with. She feels the blade leave her palm and her stomach lurches.

She has only enough time to think: uh oh—then her back hits the blade behind her and then she thinks maybe the world around her seems to freeze long enough for her to fully register what's about to happen next and acknowledge she is helpless to stop it. The blades push forward, unwilling to relinquish their momentum, and she's being swept under the rotors like a lifeless doll. It's a little like being inside some vomit-inducing ride, being caught in a dryer and getting attacked on all sides by Thor's hammer. All at the same time. Natasha wants to scream but she doesn't have the air for it, her ribs on fire and her lungs convulsing as she tries and fails to gasp for breath. It's like she's drowning and it's the single most terrifying thing she's experienced in a long time.

Suddenly—mercifully—she's in free-fall, slipping between the blades and falling through to the underside of the turbine until she's completely free from the metal deathtrap. Instinct alone saves her, forcing her body to act quickly and activate her thrusters and repulsors so she can find balance in the air. The suit is all but drained and for one horrifying second, she doesn't think she's going to make it—feels the suit stutter and continue to fall and feels helpless to stop it—and then the repulsors stabilize and she's hovering precariously in midair. Overhead, the turbine is forming a vacuum. She needs to get away and fast if she doesn't want to get swallowed back into it. Her HUD is dead without sufficient power to run it and she has to squint without its magnification, searching for the blue of Rogers' suit above her on the decks.

She spots him through some grates and thrusts her body upward, directing herself towards him.

Rogers is down. There's an agent on the level below Rogers' deck clambering to his feet and raising his rifle to take aim at the Captain. She doesn't think before she directs herself on a collision course for the man—hears the sputtering of shots seconds before her body collides with the man's and barrels them both into the cover of the engine room.

With a pained groan, Natasha rolls away from the man and falls onto her back. "Let's not do that again, Natasha," she mutters to herself, throbbing all over. The suit powers down to efficiency mode, leaving her with barely enough power to lower her faceplate so she can breathe—inhales deeply and nearly gags on the thick miasma of smoke. "Oh, for the love of—"

It seems like forever before she hears uneven footsteps approach her. She keeps her eyes forward until Rogers enters her line of sight, and even then it takes tremendous effort to meet his gaze. She has never been so thoroughly exhausted. Rogers is staring down at her like she's the strangest thing he's ever had the misfortune of setting his eyes upon, but strangely, Natasha doesn't think it's a bad thing. She huffs, not quite a laugh—not quite anything—and Rogers shakes his head in disbelief.

"You're insane."

Natasha exhales a short, breathy, "Yeah."

Rogers looks almost as out of breath as she is, but that's a small consolation. He eyes her wearily, his arms awkward at his sides. "Can you get up?"

She groans pitifully. "Gimme a … sec … and we'll … see."

Rogers nods understandingly.

Then reaches down to grab her by the shoulders and hauls her to her feet.

She thinks she must scream in agony but realizes it's all in her head—she still doesn't have the lung strength to belt something out but that doesn't stop her from spluttering curses all the same. "Fuuuck. Oh my God! Fuck, you psycho! What are you—?"

"We need to get moving," Rogers says, matter-of-factly.

She glares—has no strength to do anything more—and realizes the only reason she's still on her feet is because her suit has locked up and is preventing her from eating it right in front of the Captain.

Rogers' mouth twitches suspiciously. "Sorry."

Natasha opens her mouth to call him on his terrible acting skills because she knows he's having a laugh at her expense—when Fury's voice filters in through their COMs.

"Agent Coulson is down."


Fury is the first to break the silence.

"These were in Phil Coulson's jacket," he says. She sees him tossing something on the table out of the corner of her eyes. "Guess he never did get you to sign them."

Natasha stares straight forward, perfectly still and facing away from everyone else in the room. She and Rogers are seated at the conference table and it's just them, Hill, and Fury. What's left of the crew is still obediently working to keep the Helicarrier suspended in the air until they reach a body of water they can lower her onto—but the crew might as well not be there at all for all that Natasha is aware of them.

There is an eternity of silence in the pauses between Fury's words.

"We're dead in the air up here. Our communications, the location of the Cube—Banner. Thor. I got nothing for you. Lost my one good eye."

Her gaze shifts to her lap—focuses on a spot that could be blood or could be oil on the knee of her jeans.

Fury exhales, his voice quieter—smaller. "Maybe I had that coming."

Pause. Silence.

"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 riskier."

Fury's footsteps echo as he paces—hollow, empty sounds. They resonate in her chest and she feels them like a drum trying to beat its way out of her.

"There was an idea—Stark knows this—called, the Avengers Initiative. 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 we nevercould."

Thump-thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump.

The drum echoes in her chest.

" Phil Coulson believed in that idea."

Fury is closer; behind her. The low baritone of his voice makes her belly churn—she thinks she's going to be sick.

"In heroes." He says, heavily, and she knows these words are meant for her.

Suddenly she's standing, but she has no recollection of her brain permitting the rest of her body to move.

In the corridor, Natasha pauses just outside the door and can't remember leaving the table. She watches her hand rest against the wall and feels like everything around her is slower, suddenly—sluggish. She glances over her shoulder but doesn't look—hears Fury murmur something but doesn't register the words. Slowly, she moves forward, her hand dropping to waist-height, fingers trailing along the wall, catching along the grooves and panels.

Detachedly, she thinks—I'm going to be sick.

And then she's doubled over, both hands flat against the wall and she's dry heaving and choking on nothing.

When she gathers her breath, blinks—she finds that she has made her way to the Detention Level. The cavernous room is even grander without the prison cell to occupy it. She remembers Fury's display—the seemingly infinite drop beneath the cell at just the touch of a button. Now there is only a gaping space where the cell once sat, suspended—and it's gone, like Loki is gone.

Like Loki is gone.

Like—

She stares blankly at the empty space—feels nothing.

Thump-thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump.

The drum echoes in her chest.

She only blinks when her eyes burn in protest. When she does, she swipes at her mouth with the back of her hand. There's only spittle and it smears across her lips—leaves them slick and red.

Footsteps approach—slow, cautious, heavy.

She swallows past the taste of bile.

A beat.

"Was he married?" Rogers' voice is calm—quiet. It doesn't disturb the silence; seems to belong with it.

Thump-thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump.

The drum echoes in her chest.

After a moment, she shakes her head, jerkily. "No. There was a—uh—cellist. I think."

"Sorry." And he means it—of course he does. "He seemed like a good man."

Natasha glances over at Rogers and he's watching her with such a guarded expression—with the sort of look you spare for skittish animals you don't want to frighten. For small children you want to protect. For the weak. A flame flickers in her chest, indignant—and then it's out.

Natasha says, "He was an idiot," and trusts that Rogers' doesn't catch her faltering over the past tense.

"Why? For believing?"

"For taking on Loki alone," she retorts, feeling a familiar heat rise in her belly in response to Rogers.

Anger.

She'd almost forgotten what it felt like.

She backs off from the ledge and starts walking towards Rogers—towards the exit because she can't do this right now. She can't.

The anger is growing and she doesn't want it to. Is scared of it—

And there's another emotion. Fear.

One by one, they're returning.

Emotions.

She doesn't want them back.

She doesn't want them back.

"He was doing his job," Rogers says.

Natasha scoffs. "He was out of his league. He should have waited. He should've—"

Rogers is walking towards her—tries to stall her by standing in her way as she descends the steps to his level. "Sometimes there isn't a way out, Natasha."

"Right," she sneers—then mutters, "I've heard that before."

She brushes past him.

"Is this the first time you've lost a soldier?"

Everything bursts inside of her then. She turns—snaps, "We are not soldiers!"

She knows it when her vision clears and she can see Rogers' face that she's losing control. Has lost control. There's a wall inside of her and it's shattering and it feels like if she sees what's on the other side there will be nothing in this world to prepare her for it and she will lose. She's losing now. She feels the loss but doesn't know what—doesn't understand what she's lost because it never felt like it was hers anyway and her mind is a scramble of thoughts and emotions now and she can't. Nothing makes sense. Nothing—nothing.

Thump-thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump.

It's not a drum. It's the sound of something hammering against a wall. It's a pulse in her belly—hot and angry and terrifying.

It takes too long to settle the cacophony of emotions—doesn't succeed, exactly, if only to regain enough composure to summon her fractured Stark façade. She can't care that Rogers can see her through the cracks. She can't.

Finally, almost contritely, she says, "I'm not marching to Fury's fife."

Rogers' eyes are too honest and too blue but he won't let her look away and she holds his gaze because she needs something to focus on if she doesn't want to break.

"Neither am I," he murmurs. "He's got the same blood on his hands that Loki does."

Natasha flinches as if struck. Rogers', kindly, doesn't not comment on this.

"But right now, we gotta put that behind us and get this done. I know Loki needs a power source. If we can put together a list—"

Natasha's gaze drops, pulled to the side by some unseen force—and settles on a fresh stain of blood on the wall near the control panel for the cell.

"He made it personal." Her voice is distant.

"That's not the point," Rogers' says patiently.

Something sparks in her—sharp and alive and she looks to Rogers', eyes wide. "That is the point. That's Loki's point. He hit us right where we live—why?"

"To tear us apart," Rogers' replies, indulgent.

"Yeah." Her body is vibrating with new energy; she paces forward to expel it, moving past Rogers and feeling his eyes on her all the while. "Divide and conquer is—great, but he—he knows he has to take us out to win. Right? That's what he wants. He wants to beat us—wants to be seen doing it. He wants an audience."

"Right," Rogers agrees, patient. He follows her movements with his body and his eyes. "I caught his act in Stuttgart."

"Yeah," Natasha nods, her hands flailing and touching as the pieces in her mind fall into place. "That's just previews—this is opening night! And, Loki—he's a full tilt diva. He wants flowers! He wants parades! He wants a monument built to the skies with his nameplastered—"

Natasha freezes—feels her heart constrict and blood turn to ice.

He wouldn't dare.

He wouldn't dare.

"I've no doubt you will. The question is: will you figure it out in  time ?"

"Son of a bitch."

He would.

Chapter Text

DETENTION LEVEL: SECURITY CAMERA 001-A [06.13.2012] [REC: 14:03:11:41]

Enter Clearance Code: ************

WELCOME DIRECTOR NICHOLAS FURY

Accessing secure footage …

Access Granted.

/

The angle of the camera allows for a perfect view into the holding cell where the Asgardian war criminal is imprisoned. He is facing away from the camera, head bowed, hands hovering at waist length, as if holding something imperceptible. He remains in this position for a minute—before abruptly dropping his hands, head jerking to the side. He doesn't look over his shoulder, but his posture straightens—alert.

"There's not many people who can sneak up on me." Loki says into the empty chamber.

Agent Romanoff steps forward, appearing at the bottom edge of the screen. She stands in front of the cell, staring—silent.

Then, "But you figured I'd come."

Loki turns, then, and paces forward so his smirk is more apparent. "After. After whatever tortures Fury can concoct, you would appear as a friend—as a balm—and I would cooperate."

"I want to know what you've done to Agent Barton."

Loki's smirk widens to a smile, flashes teeth, and his eyes narrow, contemplative, head canted to the side—curious, almost. He waits a moment, and his smile threatens to become a grin. "I'd say I expanded his mind."

Romanoff steps forward, each step slow and calculative. "And once you've won—once you're king of the mountain—what happens to his mind?"

Loki steps closer to the glass barrier that separates him. He is grinning now. "Is this love, Agent Romanoff?"

"Love is for children. I owe him a debt."

That seems to strip Loki of his humor. His expression slackens. "Tell me," he says seriously.

Silence descends upon the chamber as Romanoff seems to consider the not-quite request. There is a chair set near the cell, intended for a guard to keep watch over the prisoner—but it's empty. Has been empty. Romanoff takes a seat.

"Before I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., I—uh—well, I made a name for myself. I have a very specific skillset. I didn't care who I used it for. Or on. I got on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s radar in a bad way. Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call."

Loki watches her as she speaks—his eyes flicking over her, absorbing every minute detail.

"He spared your life—and all he asked for in return was that you devote it to him? To his cause? His ambitions? Seems selfish."

"He didn't ask for anything. He gave me a choice. I made it."

"You chose him?" Loki faces shifts into a slight sneer. His eyes flash with distaste.

"I chose life." Romanoff shifts forward in the seat so her elbows rest on her knees, feet planted shoulder-length apart. "It's really not that complicated. I wanted to live. I wanted a change. He provided that for me. He knew who I was—what I'd done. He still gave me a choice—and that is more than anyone had ever done for me."

"A choice," Loki says, and it almost sounds like a question.

She pushes off the chair and stands, stepping up to the glass so they are staring each other down, only the glass between them.

"It's never too late. And it's better than being alone. Even a monster needs company."

"Are you a monster, Agent Romanoff?"

"I'm not an innocent—but I've made my peace with my past and I've made my choice. I've got red in my ledger. I'd like to wipe it out."

Loki's face in unreadable, matching the deadpan of Romanoff's words. "Can you?" he asks, "Can you wipe out that much red? You think playing the champion will absolve you of your sins?"

"I don't pretend to be a hero. I'm not a good person. But I do what I think is right."

Loki sneers, his words a hiss against the glass as he leans forward so that his face is level with Romanoff's. "No, you do what he tellsyou is right. You follow his direction—allow him to rule you, as you allow this organization to rule you. No decisions. No responsibility. You're still just a weapon—a tool."

"Maybe. But I trust in him—and he trusts me. In the end, that's all that matters."

"And that is the difference between you and I, Agent Romanoff. I will not content myself with following another's directive." Something transforms Loki's face—something like surprise. He rears his head back and frowns. "I make my own decisions."

"This is your decision? Annihilating an entire planet—and for what? Fun and games? Power?"

Loki blinks at her, and then the sneer returns—only slightly less malicious. "And why shouldn't I? Would I not be a suitable king? You humans slaughter each other in droves and you think me the monster?"

"Aren't you? You would watch an entire world burn than give up your right to a nonexistent throne. Do you really think you're so much better than us?"

Loki grins viciously, "Better? Yes. Oh, yes. You are all cannibals—murderers and thieves! There are no innocents in this world—only vipers. Some may conceal their nature better than others, but the bloodlust sings within you all. You crave power—hunger for it. So much so, that you commit unspeakable acts against one another in the name of Gods and in the name of your own selfish justice. I may be a monster—I was born one. But you humans—you created one."

Romanoff steps back suddenly and the abruptness of her movement seems to startle Loki.

"Banner." She says, "So that's your play?"

Loki's expression dissolves into confusion. "What?"

But Romanoff is already moving, disappearing off the edge of the screen. She's speaking urgently, but her words are not directed to the Asgardian. "Loki means to unleash the Hulk. Keep Banner in the Lab. I'm on my way. Send Thor as well."

She's gone, leaving Loki staring after her, expression closed.

/

End of loop.

[Save] / [Delete]?

File Saved.

.o.o.o.

DETENTION LEVEL: SECURITY CAMERA 005-B [06.13.2012] [REC:15:21.56:02]

Enter Clearance Code: ************

WELCOME DIRECTOR NICHOLAS FURY

Accessing secure footage …

Access Granted.

/

The footage shows an angle of the Detention Level from somewhere behind the cell, looking down on the control station. From this vantage, only Loki's feet are visible through the glass walls of his prison. He takes a step forward—slips into the camera's blind spot—and directly in front of the cell, the lift doors swing open. Thor barrels forward from the lift.

And stumbles into the cell. Loki appears in a swirl of magic just outside the cell and faces his brother, face impassive.

"Are you ever not going to fall for that?"

There's a roar—but Thor has stepped forward into the blind spot. A loud clink resonates within the chamber—and then the entire cell drops several inches.

Loki steps away, staring forward at a point, expression slack from amusement and surprise. A wicked grin steals his lips a second later. He swivels and heads for the control station.

"The humans think us immortal. Shall we test that?" Loki asks, all mischief and dark humor.

He flips open the safety case over the ejection button.

A grunt echoes in the chamber a moment before Loki can press the button.

A man suddenly appears, crumpling to his knees directly into the camera's field of vision.

"Move away, please."

Loki does as told, eyes weary as he looks in the direction of the fallen agent. He's one of Loki's, though he is dressed in S.H.I.E.L.D. gear.

Agent Phil Coulson steps over the unconscious man and into the camera's field of vision, approaching Loki carefully. In his hands is S.H.I.E.L.D.'s latest tech—a hybrid of a rifle and a rocket launcher. It's massive, easily the size of Coulson's torso.

"Do you like this?" Coulson continues, voice calm. "Started working on the prototype after you sent the Destroyer. Even don't know what it does." The barrel seems to ignite from within as Coulson charges the weapon in preparation, panels separating to expel the building heat. "Wanna find out?"

Loki's is staring at Coulson as if searching for something. Perhaps stalling as another rogue agent stealthily approaches Coulson from behind, pistol drawn.

A scream of agony.

Coulson turns sharply—and only his training stays his finger from triggering the weapon when he sees another one of the rogue agents, suspended in the air by Loki's scepter. Something vibrant—electric—seems to flicker within the man's eyes before they go dark. Loki removes his scepter and the man falls to the side, collapsing against the wall and sliding to the floor in a heap, leaving a trail of blood against the brushed metal. Loki pays the man little heed and is already stepping towards Coulson with intent.

Shaking his head, Coulson blinks as if to clear his vision and then refocuses the Destroyer gun on Loki.

"Walk away now, Agent Coulson," Loki says quietly—a warning.

Coulson hesitates—drops his eyes to the gun and seems to be struggling with the decision to shoot the Asgardian God.

"Forget it. It's too late," Loki sighs.

Loki is gone too quickly for Coulson to react—seems to reform out of the air behind the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Coulson doesn't sense him—doesn't hear him—and thus cannot evade the hand that reaches out to grip his shoulder. Loki's fingers glow a faint green where they dig into the material of Coulson's suit.

The strength seems to be leached out of Coulson. He sags, collapsing back against Loki's chest. Loki reflexively reaches around the agent to grasp the man's hand where it is still curled around the trigger of the weapon. Almost carefully, Loki lowers both Coulson and the gun to sit against the wall beside the two unconscious agents.

Thor is shouting—calling for his brother. He sounds frantic—must be thrashing within the cell because it jolts in its seat once more.

Without acknowledging his brother, Loki swiftly returns to the control panel.

"Loki—"

Loki punches the releases and the prison drops. Thor and all.

/

End of loop.

[Save] / [Delete]?

Delete file? Y/N?

Y

Deleting file: DETENTION LEVEL: SECURITY CAMERA 001-A [06.13.2012] [REC: 14:03:11:41]

Confirm. Y/N?

Y

File Deleted.

Chapter Text

This is what she's good at—an art she's long perfected. Shoving back emotions until they can't reach her and focusing on the real and the physical.

Repairs to the suit don't take long. They're temporary—meant to last her only until she reaches the Tower. She's set up shop in the storage room—one of the few remaining places on the Helicarrier that doesn't look like it's barely keeping itself together. Rogers has taken to the earpiece, using it to communicate with her his plan of action as he gathers Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff to ready a Quinjet for takeoff. Natasha allows him to do most of the talking so that she can work, focusing on his words to keep her mind from drifting.

"Sounds good, Cap," she replies distractedly.

"Stark," She hears Barton say and the relief she feels at the sound of his voice is something she doesn't question. "We're going to need you to get us clearance for takeoff."

"On the off chance Fury doesn't already know what we're up to? Sure." She smirks; there is no feeling behind it. "Give me a second."

Blindly, she slips out her phone from her pocket while one-handedly tweaking the wiring on the back of her helmet. She taps a series of commands without looking.

"Thanks," Barton says a minute later and Natasha presumes JARVIS must have done his job and made himself right at home in the Quinjet.

"We're good to go on this end," Rogers says.

Natasha sets the tool aside and inspects her helmet with narrow eyes. "Same here. I'll meet you guys at the Tower."

She can almost hear the hesitation in Rogers' silence. "Stark, if—"

She doesn't need him to finish the thought. "Cap, if the plan doesn't work, then you've got permission to blow the thing sky-high. Got it?"

"Got it."

The line cuts dead and Natasha scrubs a greasy hand over her face, looking up at the battered suit waiting on her across the room. The suit stands in the middle of the room, missing sections—the panels of which are strewn across the tables around her in various stages of completion. She knows she will have to go without some level of protection but it's a risk she's willing to take—as long as she gets to the Tower, she should be fine. She has the few technicians Fury can spare working on soldering the deep gouges on the armor panels and they are handling their jobs with impressive care—which Natasha knows is in part awe from the fact she's even let them come near her dismantled tech.

S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel have slowly begun to return to work—she feels there eyes on her back as they pass through the corridor, burning impressions between her shoulder blades. It feels like a weight that could bring her to her knees if she'd let it. Her heart flutters in her chest—because she might not be thinking about her emotions, but that doesn't mean she can't feel them and her body is strung up like a live wire.

She breathes in deeply through her nose—feels it stretch into the furthest reaches of her lungs.

Both hands settle on the helmet and she looks down at the familiar golden faceplate.

She's not ready—she's really not. But there are too many people counting on her. On them.

It's time to suit up.


From a distance, she can make out the monstrosity Selvig has constructed on the roof of her Tower. It twists something in her belly and she pushes the suit harder, nearly losing power before she's even reached Selvig.

"Ma'am, I've turned off the arc-reactor." JARVIS says solemnly. She hears the 'but' and JARVIS says, "The device is already self-sustaining."

Natasha curses inwardly, pulling her body to a stop above the Tower. She glares down at Selvig, sparing the Cube only a fleeting look where it is being contained in a makeshift replica of the device S.H.I.E.L.D. had been using to contain the Tesseract within the P.E.G.A.S.U.S. base. It's different from the plans she'd studied, clearly built to focus the Cube's power skywards.

Selvig notices her approach and turns to squint up at her.

"Shut it down, Doctor Selvig," she warns, feeling her heart hammering to escape her chest. She's always been in the habit of lying to herself, but even she won't deny the terror she feels at the sight of the Cube—such a small thing for something that could easily bring about total destruction to the Earth.

"It's too late!" Selvig smiles, eyes flooded with a strange, electric blue. "Can't stop now—She wants to show us something! A new universe!"

"Oh-kay." Natasha charges the repulsors on her palms, aims—

She regrets her decision the second she sees her blast connect with the protective barrier the Cube immediately pulls up around itself. The explosion propels her backwards, knocking the wind from her lungs.

"The barrier is pure energy. It cannot be breached." JARVIS informs her unnecessarily when she manages to stabilize the suit.

"Yeah, I got that," she mutters, dropping her gaze to find Loki standing on the balcony below, watching her. Something burns inside of her—violent and black. "Time for Plan B."

She pulls up the schematics JARVIS had left on her HUD hours ago.

"Ma'am!" JARVIS exclaims with more alarm than an AI should be able to manage. "The Mark VII is not ready for deployment—"

"Then skip the spinning rims," she snaps. "We're on the clock."

Dropping down to the landing dock, Natasha keeps her eyes firmly locked on Loki as JARVIS activates the dock and the suit is pried from her piece by piece as she makes her way into the penthouse. She can't decipher the look in his eyes—thinks she might have caught an honest to God smirk on the smug bastard's face—and has to force herself to look away so that she can focus on settling her rapidly beating heart. She feels robotic hands try and pry the right gauntlet from her and jerks her hand away. On the balcony, Loki mimics her pace. They enter the penthouse together from either side.

Curling her fingers in a fist of steel, Natasha must momentarily black out because the next second she's crossed the room and her right hand is throbbing all the way up to her shoulder. Loki is facing away, expression slack—only the slight reddening along his jaw is indicative of the fact that she has even struck him.

In retrospect, sans a suit and with a useless gauntlet—not the brightest move on her part.

She doesn't waver, eyes wide and daring and jaw locked in anger. "Well played."

Loki's eyes narrow. "What?"

She ignores him, sneering, "Although pissing us off—not your best plan. If you were trying to tear us apart—sorry. You failed."

"Natash—"

Her fist moves of its own accord, completely disregarding that she nearly shattered her knuckles against Loki's iron jaw the first time. Loki's head jerks to the left when the blow connects with a smack and when he looks back at her he is pissed which—good. As terrifying as it is, she wants him to be familiar with that feeling. Wants him to be familiar with the hate.

"Phil Coulson," She spits out the name because if she doesn't expel it quickly, she doesn't think she can say it at all. "Remember him? The man you—the man you fucking—"

Loki works his jaw but keeps his hands at his sides and his eyes on her. It seems to take him great effort to push down his irritation and she doesn't know why he bothers. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, don't give me that, you fucking bastard!" She snaps, shoving at the rock wall of his chest and furious when he doesn't budge. "Don't fucking—no. I'm done."

"Natasha—" Loki takes a step forward.

She hisses between clenched teeth, "If you're going to kill me, now's your only fucking chance."

Loki stops—hesitates, then shakes his head, "Natasha, I'm not going to kill—"

"We're done talking." She doesn't shout—keeps her voice level because all her energy is going into keeping herself from launching at him now. Doing something stupid.

She steps around him, stupidly fearless with anger, and heads towards the coffee table (pointedly ignores the bottle of Krug still waiting). Swiping the bracelets from the table, she turns to him and makes a show of slipping them on.

"JARVIS," she says.

Loki seems to realizes what she's up to because he looks away from her and turns widened eyes to the lift—just as the doors slide open and the Mark VII launches itself in their direction, barreling into Loki and knocking him to the floor. The suit crashes through the windows, showering Loki with glass, and then doubles around when it reaches the building across from them and heads back towards the penthouse. She steps away from the furniture and into the open space between the couches and her workstation, arms open and waiting.

The suit is already unfurling itself from its capsule-like position, imitating her pose and opening itself. When it collides with her, she only stumbles back a step—the suit had reduced its momentum sufficiently so that she wouldn't end up brained against the far wall. Iron Woman slots into place over her form, a perfect fit.

Loki is sitting up when she crosses the room to him and grabs a handful of leather, pivoting and adding a boost to the hydraulics to supply her with enough strength to send him flying into the penthouse and crashing through the opposite wall and into the next room.

Natasha is seeing red.

The room. The Tower. The fucking Champagne. Everything was tainted because of him! She wants it gone. She wants to see everything burn—wants to crush it all under the might of her suit and watch everything crumble with Loki in it. She has half a mind to order Rogers to tear the place down—is willing to go down with it all if it means taking Loki with her—and the only thing that stays the urge for now is that she's not done. Loki still needs to suffer—really suffer. He hasn't felt enough pain to understand that she is fucking Iron Woman and she's a fucking Avenger! You do not fuck with her!

A grunt from the other room has her moving forward, thrusters on full and propelling her across the room in half a second. Loki is barely on his feet and she readies a repulsor—then swings her left fist around for another punch. Loki takes it in the jaw, but it hardly seems to faze him, merely nudging him. She recalls the Captain's fight against Loki and how even his enhanced strength had barely fazed the Asgardian.

It doesn't matter. She doesn't need to win. He just needs to hurt.

She throws out a front kick and he catches her by the calf, twisting her around in midair so hard she spins in place for a full second. She lands heavily on her knees and when he takes a step toward her she raises her right hand, blasting him head on with the repulsor she'd been charging. The force punches Loki through another wall and into a bathroom. He crashes into the sink, destroying it completely. Water sprays out in all directions, soaking the God and the room with it.

Somehow, he's managed to keep his hand tightly locked around his scepter. She realizes this only a second before he looks up at her, snarls, and aims the scepter directly at her. She dodges the blast of his attack, thrusters propelling her out of the way and watches as a chunk of wall disintegrates. Loki is huffing for breath, staring at the gaping hole—he's pale, almost phantom-like, and his gaze seems unfocused on the destruction.

She uses the opportunity to raise both hands to blast him again—

And grunts as she crashes through the glass bricks separating the shower from the room, viciously shoved against the shower wall—and how the hell did he blindside her like that? Loki has the scepter horizontally in both hands, using it to hold her in place by the throat. His face is contorted in a snarl but before he can speak she shoves a hand into his face and releases a charge. Loki is removed from her so quickly she doesn't have time to catch herself before she falls to a knee. When she looks up, she sees he's half embedded into the shower wall and already extracting himself. She reaches out and grabs him by the ankle and pulls, sending him crashing into the opposite wall. She leaps out of the shower, skids on the wet tile, and pivots to face him.

With something that sounds like a growl, Loki slowly pulls himself to his feet, half-crouched in the middle of the wrecked shower to glower at her, arms open and prepared for her offensive. She aims both arms at him, drawing every weapon in her arsenal—in part as a scare tactic, but she actually thinks she'd be willing to use her weaponry if Loki so much as twitches the wrong way.

Loki's scowl deepens, drawing his scepter close to his chest, holding it like a barrier between them. "Are you insane? You'll destroy yourself before you can even scratch me!"

"Wanna find out?" She grits out bitterly.

Something heavy and hard knocks into the back of her knees and she stumbles forward. When she glances up, Loki is vanished from the shower. She swivels around with the help of her repulsors and sees Loki standing behind her, scepter aimed at her.

"Na—" She doesn't give him the chance to finish.

Self-preservation is out the window; even knowing what his scepter is capable of she still rams herself into him, knocking them both through two rooms and back into the main room. Loki dislodges her before she can send them both careening out the window and they fall apart, knocking onto the ground and skidding across the smooth surface. Natasha isn't even on her knees before she's aiming both palms at Loki—repulsors charged.

Something heavy and inhumanly powerful slams into her chest and sends her hurtling backwards—something else catches her by the ankle, yanks her back, and suddenly she's being held in place on her knees by an unmoving force on her shoulder. Catching her breath and wincing (because holy fucking cow! She actually heard something crack in her chest!) she looks up—and is stunned.

"What the—Who's side are you on?" she exclaims furiously, glowering up at Thor from behind the faceplate.

Thor's grip tightens on her shoulder and she sees he has Loki by the throat with his other hand. Loki is snarling angrily, clawing at Thor's meaty hand—but it's useless. Loki is a God and he's extraordinarily powerful by human standards, but Thor is on another fucking level altogether. Thor levels him with a warning look and Loki relents with a sneer, keeping one hand around Thor's wrist, nails digging into the tendons of his wrist spitefully. He drops his other hand to his side and she notices that the scepter is gone

She spots it a little ways away, near the bar.

"You are making a mistake, Lady of Iron," Thor says to her with more calm than she feels is appropriate.

"A mis—no," She laughs darkly, struggling to stand—Thor responds by pressing down harder on her shoulder until she hears something pop. She can't tell if that's her joint or the suit and she fumes. "Sorry, buddy—but your brother? He fucked up big time. He's going down so either step up or step aside. If I have to take you both, I will."

Loki's eyes fall on her. "You cannot—"

Thor ignores them both. "You must listen to reason, Lady of Iron."

"What? Are you—" Her faceplate rises so she can speak with her own voice and not the robotic monotone of Iron Woman. Her expression promises violence as she glares up at the Thunder God. "Just—what? Me? Listen to—Excuse me? Coulson—"

"Only my brother can break the spell he has cast upon Coulson." Thor says simply.

Natasha stills—processes the words slowly. She looks at Thor and sees pure honesty and clear determination. She swallows thickly. "What are—what are you saying? Coul—he's dead."

Saying it breaks something inside her a little more.

"Your comrade is still very much alive." Thor says.

And Natasha honestly can't … compute. Everything inside of her echoes emptily with his words.

Just. What?

She frowns—shakes her head and tries to stand again but Thor won't let her budge. "Fury—"

"Should not be trusted." Thor says narrowly. And wow, if this situation wasn't so fucked up she'd probably be able to enjoy the fact that Fury has single-handedly managed to alienate every last one of his most valuable weapons.

Unwittingly, her eyes find Loki's. She purses her lips and frowns—swallowing again. There's something heavy in his gaze. She can read it clearly: Remember? It goes unsaid between them and she wants to allow the burning rage inside of her to consume her. Because—wow. Wow, she was an idiot. Just wow.

Taking a calming breath, she can't actually bring herself to relax but she manages to loosen some of the tension in her shoulders so it's apparent she's willing to listen and not just waiting for an opening to continue kicking Asgardian ass. It's only then that Thor removes his hand from her and she stands, grateful. Thor releases Loki with some reluctance and his hand hovers near his brother's collar as if debating grabbing Loki again just to make sure he doesn't disappear. It's a strange thing for her to witness, because she can sense more in that non-action than she wants to.

After a moment, she still can't move—can't unsee the afterimage of a bloodstained wall burned into her memory. Heavy hands drop on her shoulders and her knees nearly buckle from the weight. She looks up and sees Thor, expression solemn and blue eyes earnest. His large form seems to eclipse the rest of the room from view. She can't see Loki.

"Do you understand?" Thor says, his words a low rumble. He doesn't wait for her response. "Agent Coulson is alive. I know not what the Director led you to believe, but rest assured, your friend is safe."

It's impossible to look away from his eyes—and it is only when tentative hope begins to blossom under the weight of his gaze that she is capable of breathing once more. Swallowing, she shoves his hands away and he allows it. He steps to the side to glance back at Loki—as if to ascertain Loki had not run off while his attention was elsewhere.

Natasha takes in a shaky breath.

Coulson …

Coulson was alive.

She wants to feel relief—feel happiness—but all she feels is a tingling numbness that starts at her fingertips and spreads out into the rest of her body. She feels as if Thor just released the hatch to her emotions, but they're all spilling out too quickly and she can't experience their impact long enough to recognize what they are. Slowly, though, it's like the haze she hadn't realized was there is being wiped from her vision. She can see clearer, all of the sudden, even if she understands no more than she did before. She feels normal. She feels like Natasha again.

She still wants to punch Loki in the face (and Thor too, the interfering bastard) but that's okay. Anger and annoyance are familiar and comfortable. She can work with that.

When her mind has cleared enough and her heart isn't still jackhammering in her chest, she exhales loudly. "Okay, so what—" Thor turns to her, mouth open to speak, and she scowls, shoving a finger into his face, "Okay, you know what, Thor? You interrupt me one more time,and so help me God—"

She lets the threat hang emptily in the air between them. Thor's mouth clicks shut and she catches a twitch of a smirk on Loki's lips. She takes another breath.

Scowling at Thor, she jerks a thumb and points upward. "Why don't you make yourself useful? See if you can break through the barrier and stop Selvig before he opens the damn portal. Go."

"Nay, I should—"

"Go." Natasha and Loki say simultaneously, startling Thor enough that he nods and after only a lingering look to Loki, summons his hammer to his hand and takes off into the air. It's only after seeing the hammer that it occurs to her—she slaps a hand to her chest and sees the dent on the new suit and groans. What a fucking dick.

She looks up at Loki and levels him with the same scowl she'd offered his brother. "Now you—start talking."

Without the threat of his brother or Natasha, Loki looks completely relaxed. He walks over to retrieve his scepter, says, "I thought we were done talking?"

Natasha grits her teeth, fisting her hands. "Don't get cute. I'm still inclined to kick your ass."

"I can see that," Loki says with humor in his voice, watching her.

She's glad for the distance between them. It's hard to let go of the urge for violence that has been building up within her since her confrontation with Rogers in the Wishbone Lab, even if she is no longer vibrating with an emotion so black she can't name. Thinking that Coulson might have been dead had knocked her off kilter and even now she is weary to believe Thor because—were they finally catching a break? Because Natasha was definitely one to look a gift horse in the mouth, even when she knew it was teeming with an alien army set on destroying her planet and she really didn't need reality to throw her another curve ball. She was pretty much at her wit's end, here.

"No. You're right." He says after a moment. "Let me try this another way." Loki's expression sobers, and he drops his head a fraction, as if acknowledging what it's costing her not to act on instinct and continue her assault. "I … apologize."

Natasha balks, sufficiently startled and irrationally angered. Because—what?

"You? Apologize? You?" She snorts. "Look, I'm sorry if you've been possessed by the spirit of a Boy Scout, but I'm not buying what you're selling."

Loki ignores her and goes on. "I want to offer you my assistance. You cannot fight alone."

She glares. "I'm not alone." And wow. Did that just come out of her mouth?

"You still need me."

"I think we're doing pretty well for ourselves if we've got you running scared," she sneers unkindly.

Loki blinks slowly and doesn't rise to the bait. "I'm not running."

Natasha scowls, stepping towards Loki before she catches herself and stops. "Then what is this? You expect me to believe you've suddenly had a change of heart?"

"No."

Natasha wants to tear at her hair in frustration; snarls angrily and snaps, "Loki! Stop being cryptic! What the fuck is going on?"

Loki watches her, then drops his eyes to the scepter and exhales a soft breath. It seems to cost him to admit, "The Tesseract—I sense my connection to it waning."

And that was really the last thing she was expecting to hear.

She wants to know about Coulson but needs to prioritize because, "Wait—what? What does that mean? How does that happen?"

Something shifts in Loki's face, too subtle for her to read. He doesn't take his eyes from the scepter and Natasha finally notices—the once vibrant energy at the blade is dull, now only an empty shard. After a long silence, Loki says, "I can't be sure, but it means that I am no longer in control of Agent Barton or Doctor Selvig."

Natasha hadn't asked how they'd gotten Barton back but if he had been released from Loki's control, then why was Selvig still parading around on her roof about to unleash doomsday on them all?

As if on cue, a loud crack of thunder rumbles overheard and she feels the walls of the penthouse shudder. She doesn't expect Thor to succeed with the barrier, but she doubts Loki would be as willing to speak candidly with the bane of his existence in the room.

"Then who is in control?" She asks because she has an idea but it's honestly a stretch.

"The Tesseract, to a certain extent, is capable of sentient thought. There might not be anyone controlling it." Loki says.

Her jaw is tight around her next words. She averts her eyes to the shattered remains of her balcony windows. "And Coulson?"

Loki speaks carefully, expression neutral. "Even though the Tesseract is capable of existing without an owner, it wants to be controlled. It requires a vessel until it is strong enough to contain itself or—" His pause draws her eyes to him. Loki stares into nothing for a long moment, lost in thought—snaps out of it with a blink a second later. "When my connection began to weaken, it sought another. The next likely candidate would have been Banner—or more specifically, the Hulk. Failing that, it would have become desperate, taking hosts at random until it burned through them—over and over until it found someone who could contain its power."

"Burn … through?" That sounded no bueno. She knows Loki sees the anxiety on her face and his brows pinch together—but he doesn't call her on it.

"The Tesseract is limitless energy—not something that can be contained within a mortal shell. It would drain you to your core, consuming your essence—and it would leave nothing behind before it moved on to its next host." Loki drops his gaze, lost in his mind and speaks as if miles away, "The Tesseract cannot just take anyone—however. It's attracted to desire—it feeds on your hungers and amplifies them. Feelings. Desires. Passion—in excess, these are all fuel for the Tesseract. It wants a purpose."

Natasha cannot doubt his words because immediately her mind supplies her with an image of Banner, scepter in hand, not knowing how it'd gotten there. She remembers the blanketing oppression that was the anger she'd felt when facing Rogers—how it had deflated and abandoned her and seemed to possess Banner seconds later. She can still picture Rogers' eyes and hears his cutting words—so unlike the man in every way—and if she concentrates, she thinks she remembers the brightening glow of the Tesseract's energy within the scepter.

Had this been the Cube's doing all along? Had it begun to manipulate them even then?

It feels like all the anger has been bleached from her bones; suddenly, she is unable to trust even her own emotions and thoughts and it's frightening. She frowns at Loki. "Coulson?"

Surprisingly, Loki hesitates. His eyes flick to the ceiling and then drop away as his face contorts with something that's not quite disgust. "I believe the Tesseract might have sensed—" He's biting out the words like he's loathe to divulge them; she doesn't expect him to continue and is bemused when he bothers. "I was no longer compatible, but—"

She blinks as realization dawns and looks up at the ceiling—listens to the crackling thunder. "Thor. The Cube wanted Thor."

Loki nods, grimacing. "After myself and the Hulk, he would be the only one strong enough to withstand it. I had to—get him out of the way."

Natasha stares and Loki glares back at her, daring her to speak. She doesn't bother because she knows he knows what she's thinking—that Loki had been concerned for his brother and had tried to save him by getting him to safety. Sure, his methods had been a little crude—but the sentiment was there. She very carefully keeps all emotion from her face, even when she feels her lips twitch traitorously.

Loki sniffs and rolls his eyes, clearly not fooled for a second.

When she's certain she won't break out into a shit-eating grin, she asks seriously, "What about Coulson?"

"The Tesseract took possession of one of the men under Agent Barton. When I killed him, it jumped into Coulson. I had to sedate him so that he would be unable to harm himself or others. The spell won't break unless I will it to, and we can't break it until the Cube is contained."

She shudders with relief—feels chills prickle on her skin—until a thought occurs to her. "So, wait—is the Cube, like, still inside Coulson? Like—trapped?"

Loki shrugs his shoulders in a freakishly human way. "It's possible. My magic should protect him from becoming consumed—but …"

Natasha nods. "We need to hurry."

His eyes don't waver from hers. "Yes."

Natasha starts to head towards the window when she halts—

"What is it?" Loki asks, behind her.

"Fuck," She exhales, feeling like she just took another blow to the chest. Her mouth betrays her by saying out loud what she's thinking, "How do I even know I can trust you? I mean, you can't just ask me to trust you. You can't. Not after what you—just. No."

Her heart is hammering in her chest—nervous.

Was she seriously doing this again? Taking Loki's word? After he'd betrayed her once, was she still willing to believe him? She would never have afforded Fury the same luxury, and Fury has never tried stealing from the American government (that she knows) so that he could subjugate an entire planet. Fury does things his way, everyone-else-be-damned, but he is no terrorist. Natasha truly believes he has humanity's best interests in mind—he's just a manipulative bastard about it. Loki, on the other hand, lied and cheated his way into her life, used information he'd gathered from her to steal the most powerful artifact on this planet and now they needed to figure out a way to stop Selvig before Loki's army could come crashing down from the skies to destroy them all.

And now, here he was, conveniently willing to ally himself with them.

Natasha didn't want to make another wrong choice.

"You don't need to trust me," Loki says simply—as if it were that easy. She meets his eyes over her shoulder. "You can simply work alongside me if you choose not to work with me."

It's not a good idea by a long shot.

Across from them, the side of the Chrysler building erupts, leaving a gaping hole. Natasha rushes to the window's ledge, prepared for the worse.

The dust clears and Thor emerges from within, spinning his hammer and surging back into the air.

Natasha blinks. "Guess he's not having any luck."

"And he won't. The barrier cannot be penetrated by brute force alone," Loki says as he comes to stand beside her.

She frowns—inwardly cursing both Asgardians for deciding to take an interest in her world—and nods. "Fine. You can help. On the condition that no one else dies."

Loki is watching the sky wearily. "There will be casualties, Natasha. That can't be avoided."

She watches his face, her own set with determination. "We'll try."

Loki drops his eyes to meet hers—nods shortly. "I'll try."

And then a column of energy bursts from the roof of the Tower—straight up and tearing an ugly fissure into the sky—and all hell breaks loose.

 

Chapter Text

At first she doesn't know what's happening. She stares blankly up at the sky and watches the Cube's energy rip through the clouds and atmosphere—tearing through reality. Eventually, the black hole expands to its zenith, and from her vantage it looks about the size of a small moon. Flaming blue rings of pure energy keep the gaping maw from closing—and then they appear. Like a black swarm of locust, indiscernible at first—merely a dark cloud of movement pulsing through the portal in waves.

"The Chitauri," Loki answers her unspoken question.

It's as if giving a name to them gives her the ability to see more clearly. Her eyes adjust and suddenly she's looking at hundreds of different alien warriors and—right. Army.

Natasha hears the flapping of thick cloth as Thor drops down beside Loki. He's watching the sky with a grim expression that reflects the one on Loki's face.

Reaching out blindly, she smacks Loki's arm, unable to tear her eyes from the swarm descending upon the city. "Loki—what do we do?"

"There is a way," Loki says and they look to each other at the same time. He explains, "A failsafe I had Selvig program, in case … " He trails off, lips sealing shut almost angrily.

Natasha frowns when it becomes apparent he has no intention to continue. They have absolutely no time for this right now. "In case… ?"

Loki shakes his head and stiffens with a creepy sort of sixth sense when Thor turns his gaze to him. He looks like he wants to turn around and bust Thor in the face with the blunt end of the scepter. He doesn't, but Natasha sees it in his eyes and raises both eyebrows to show him that she saw. Loki exhales, forcing his shoulders to relax.

"My scepter. The Tesseract can't defend against itself. We'll have to use the scepter."

Natasha turns her body to him, not amused by his deflection. Now was not the time to start keeping secrets. "In case what, Loki?"

They stare at each other for a long moment and she can see by the set of his jaw that he has no intention of elaborating. Natasha exhales noisily and looks past his shoulder to Thor, who's frowning at his brother (while looking inappropriately relieved).

"I don't have time for this," she mutters, irritated.

If Loki wants to be purposely obtuse, fine. She'll deal with it later. Literally, she can't afford to dwell on it—the fate of the actual fuckin' world was at stake here. She drops her faceplate and rises to the air, swiveling so she's hovering over the balcony, facing Loki and Thor. Fishing something small from a compartment on her thigh, she reaches out and grabs Thor by the wrist, slapping the device into his palm.

"Loki will show you how to put that on. It'll help us stay in touch."

Thor holds up the earpiece to eye level and squints at it.

"Don't fuckin' fry it," she warns him half-heartedly. It's probably a lost cause. She looks to Loki—sees him glowering at her. "Thor and I will try and cut through the hoard. You work on closing the portal."

Loki's lips are pressed firmly together and he doesn't reply—only continues to glare.

Natasha turns back to Thor, who is now looking between the earpiece and Loki with a constipated and hopeful look. She reaches out—because she must have a death wish to treat deities like this—and raps against Thor's heavy brow with her steel knuckles. "Okay, Gigantor. Focus. We've gotta move fast and contain the situation before these bastards spread too far."

Thor nods and she takes off just as Thor turns to Loki, holding out the earpiece expectantly.

Thrusters at 60% capacity, she makes a beeline straight for the heart of the portal. It's like flying into a swarm of angry wasps and her ears are flooded with the sound of their weapons clanging uselessly against her armor as she bursts past them. The Chitauri creatures look like something straight out of a horror video game, greyish-purple skin taut over wiry muscles. She can't tell what's armor and what's not on them so she doesn't linger on it.

They are mounted on hover bikes that make the engineer in her itch to break apart and study. She's moving too quickly between them to be able to discern what sort of weapons they are carrying—knows only that some are long range and that means she needs to be quicker and more vigilant. She targets strategic clusters of them with her repulsors so that she can blast groups of them at a time, twirling her entire body to avoid responding attacks with a sort of foreboding knowledge that if she lets one of them land a hit, their tech would not be unlike Loki's Glow-Stick of Destiny and her suit was not built to last against that sort power.

But they just keep coming. By the dozen—no, there's hundreds of them. She's looking away, blasting a group that seemed to be heading towards her in a semblance of a military formation she thinks she recognizes—when her body full on collides with an alien vehicle (and it's driver). The impact sends the Chitauri warrior and his craft hurtling to the ground and Natasha swallows back the taste of blood because—seriously? Ribs? Still very much an issue here! She wishes she'd had the forethought to get Loki to work his magic mojo on her—then curses herself because, right. No distractions. Don't think, Natasha. Just fight. Just move. Blast. Dodge. Blast.

Fuck.

She's still doing good on power, but she knows this battle isn't half over. She needs to reserve some energy for when shit goes down—because it will (because in her life, this probably wasn't even as bad as it could get and seriously, when did this become her life and did it come with a return policy?) She depletes a good chunk of her ammunition on another wave of Chitauri, thankful that she hadn't wasted her ammo on Loki when she'd had the chance. She's momentarily blinded by the brilliance of the explosions erupting around her as her missiles find their mark.

When she gets an idea of just how far the portal is, she backtracks and dives back down after the Chitauri who escaped her and have turned their wrath upon the city. The portal has stopped pumping out alien Spartans but she's more concerned with the slowly building roar of the city as its citizens scream in terror. She dives low between buildings, maneuvering around the Chitauri to draw their fire but there's too many. While some acknowledge her and try to swerve into her to force a collision, there are hundreds more focusing on the civilian population with malicious intent.

"Lady of Iron!" Thor bellows into her ear.

"Dammit—!" Her body jerks, startled, and nearly crashes into a Chitauri.

She uses her proximity to hook an arm around the driver's neck and yank him from his seat, dropping the creature when his vehicle continues without him and collides explosively with another vehicle ahead. Both aircrafts plummet to the ground to join the destruction below. She banks around another building and flies forward towards a cluster of enemies.

She tunes down her audio because it's really not fucking worth it to bitch out Thor for shattering her eardrums, and grunts, "What's up, Thor?"

"Loki is with the Tesseract—"

"Good," She pulls up her legs in front of her body and uses her momentum to kick a vehicle and send it spiraling into another. Her HUD shows activity from behind and she turns with readied repulsors and blasts two vehicles out of the air. "These guys are cake. Let's focus on thinning them out. Try and keep them from the ground."

She hears Thor's roar resonating loudly in her ears; hears reciprocating thunder in the distance and realizes that Loki must not have shown Thor how to switch off the COM. The bastard. She tunes the volume down to its minimum without muting Thor completely and focuses back on the Chitauri. Somehow, in the short amount of distraction Thor provided she's manage to accumulate a tail—which is what she'd wanted anyway, but she just hadn't been aiming for it at the moment. She's in a busy street and needs to lead them away while the civilians below evacuate—though to where is anybody's guess but she can't worry about that because she's being shot at by potentially fatal (Glow-Stick of Destiny fatal) blasts.

"Stark, we're on your three headed northeast," Romanoff's voice filters in through the COM. It's on a different line from Thor and Rogers and she takes a moment to compile the team under one so she's not dividing her attention. She drops her body midflight and avoids another blast.

"What? Did you stop for drive-thru?" Natasha snarks, jerking to a full-stop in the air to let a group of vehicles zoom past her, then blasting their backs with repulsors. The ticks on the HUD indicating the Chitauri vanish as the cluster ahead of her is consumed in a shroud of smoke. She switches her attention to the 3D map on her HUD—sees several dozen ticks flooding the street near the Tower. "Swing up Park. I'm going to lay them out for you."

She swerves into the street, blasting several vehicles with minimal charges to draw their attention. It works (because clearly this race consists largely of mindless and easily combustible brutes) and she quickly gathers a trail of enemies. She leads them skywards, zig-zagging through buildings and heads for the Tower where she can lead the Chitauri into an open area to allow Romanoff and Barton to do their job. She banks around her Tower and swings downwards, back towards the street, and they follow behind her like sheep to the slaughter.

Dangerous sheep.

With fancy rides and pointy weapons.

As she whizzes over Park Avenue, she hears the tell-tale sound of eruptions and the rattling of a chain-gun behind her as Romanoff and Barton find their marks. According to the HUD, though, she's still gathering followers as quickly as she's losing them. She dives into an alley and prays to whatever deity will listen that no one gets hurt from her recklessness when she hears the explosions of the enemy vehicles behind her crashing into the mouth of the alley that is too tight to allow them admittance.

She exits the alley through the other side and all the air in her lungs is punched out of her when a Chitauri vehicle rams her from the side and her spine bends in a way that it's probably not supposed to at all. She's stuck on the hood of the vehicle by its momentum—barely registers JARVIS' warning in time to roll her body to allow the vehicle to continue without her just as the driver tries to shoot her point-blank with his own little scepter of doom.

Her thrusters kick in and she jolts to a stop, upright, thankfully before she can unite with the pavement. Twisting her torso, she propels herself skyward and back into the thicket of enemies blanketing the sky.

"Natasha!"

Startled by Loki's voice (distinctly in her head and not her COM and it takes her a moment to realize this) she frowns. "Loki?"

Loki sounds pissed. "Tell these imbeciles to stop shooting at me before they end up killing Selvig! I still need him to close the portal!"

This only causes her frown to deepen because she has no idea what Loki is talking—

Oh. Right.

Fuck.

Barton and Romanoff.

Switching to her COM with a new surge of urgency, Natasha tries not to get herself killed when she sees a swarm of Chitauri gather at an intersection ahead of her. "Agent Barton! Agent Romanoff! Cease fire on Loki!"

There's a moment of understandably incredulous silence. Natasha can sense the certain exchanging of glances that must be going on between the two assassins.

"Ha," Barton intones over the COM. "You're a riot, Stark."

"Stark, we've got visual on the target. We're taking the shot," Romanoff says calmly—with only a twinge of annoyance.

Natasha huffs, doubling back and flying in the opposite direction as the swarm gains on her because—yeah, fuck that. "Seriously—don't!"

"Stark, I don't know what—" Romanoff begins to say.

"Is this a joke—?" Barton scoffs.

"—you're planning, but—dammit!"

"He just shot us down!" Somehow, Barton makes it sound like it's her fault.

"Well, I did warn you." She sniff's primly and inwardly sighs in relief when she sees Thor come down from the skies and sweep past her in the direction of the swarm. She calls out to Thor, glancing over her shoulder to see he's taken care of the Chitauri with an explosive burst of electricity. "Hey, thanks, Big Guy!"

When she looks up, she sees the Quinjet swerving away from the Tower and leaving a train of black smoke on its course to the ground. It looks stable enough—not twirling out of control—so Natasha directs herself towards the roof of the Tower and the beam of energy, deciding that Rogers and the assassins can take care of themselves.

She drops down beside Loki and nearly collapses as a wave of exhaustion hits her. She braces herself on his shoulder and he arches a brow at her. He looks half-amused and half-pissed. It's an interesting combination on his face.

"Having fun?"

"A blast," She exhales loudly and doesn't remove her hand, gasping for breath. "What's taking so long?"

Loki looks to Selvig and glares before shifting his attention to the Cube. "This isn't going to work."

"What?" She snaps—more anxious than angry. "What happened? I thought you said it would!"

Loki shrugs, the motion stiff with tempered annoyance. "The scepter is no longer connected to the Tesseract."

Natasha glances at Selvig—realizes then that he hasn't moved since she arrived—and then to the scepter in Loki's hand. She reaches out impulsively and grabs it by the neck, jerking it closer unnecessarily. The crystal that once housed the Cube's power is empty and dead. She'd seen this earlier but hadn't recognized the implication. Obviously, Loki hadn't either.

"What the fuck are we going to do, then?" She grits out, dropping her hands to her sides and stepping away to look at Loki.

He doesn't answer immediately—seems to mull over a thought while he studies the brilliance of the Tesseract. Finally, he mutters, "I have an idea."

She scowls behind the faceplate, glancing past Loki and towards the city—cringes with every pocket of explosions that she sees. "Is it a good one?"

"We need Agent Coulson," Loki says simply.

"I thought you said you put him under so that—oh." Natasha blanches, turning to Loki. "Oh fuck. Wait. Will that work?"

He looks to her, green eyes boring through the slits of Iron Woman's eyes. "As long as he is holding the scepter. It was created to serve as a focal point between the Tesseract and its host."

Her eyes narrow, tone dubious. "Are you sure, because you said—"

Loki takes a little too long to answer. "Just make sure he doesn't let go of the scepter."

Really, they don't have any other options. The entire plan she'd concocted with Rogers had been scrapped the moment Loki switched teams. Still, if Loki is right and they can utilize the Cube's energy still trapped within Coulson (assuming it doesn't kill Coulson in all the one-hundred-one ways that she was envisioning it could), she still anticipates their odds of success are pitifully slim. She bites back a groan. "Is he gunna try to kill us when he wakes up?"

Loki's turns his gaze skyward to study the Cube. He doesn't answer.

Natasha rolls her eyes and glares up at the portal. "Great. Fucking—great."

"I can use my magic to influence him—" Loki says guardedly. "But I can't be certain it will work. Or for how long. The Tesseract is powerful."

This cannot possibly end well. Still, as far as the Tesseract is concerned, Loki's the only one with in-depth knowledge. If it turns out she can't trust him— "Fine. Fuck—fine."

She really hopes that she can.

The portal is still spitting out Chitauri and—

"Fuck—" She gapes.

Loki's head snaps to her and his whole body seems to shift in her direction. "Don't worry. Agent Coulson—"

"No!" She points over his head—at the portal. "Fuck that thing! What the fuck is that?"

Loki turns to look at the portal.

She hears Loki's quiet, "Damn," and knows they're in trouble now.

A massive—something is slithering into the sky through the portal. It's a cross between several mythological serpents, resembling a dragon too closely for Natasha's comfort and sanity. It twists and slithers through the air, descending upon the city.

"Holy—" She's frozen in place.

"Stark, are you seeing this?" She hears Roger asks and his voice is enough to snap her out of the trance. The creature-serpent-Leviathan-of-a-thing hasn't quite disappeared between the skyscrapers of New York City, its scaly vertebrae-like fins visible over the tops of buildings.

"Seeing," She mutters, stepping away from Loki and towards the edge of the roof. "Still working on believing." She swallows, feels her heart stutter, then takes a breath. "Where's Banner? Has he shown up yet?"

"Banner?"

"Just keep me posted." For a monster of that caliber, they needed Banner. Natasha had to believe he would show up—it was the only thing keeping her heart from bursting in her chest. She tries to calm herself with another steadying breath, blanking her mind from thought because—shit, that thing was huge. She doesn't glance over to Loki as she prepares her thrusters for takeoff. "So, looks like I need to go take care of that—"

Loki's hand whips out, catching her elbow and jerking her back harshly. Hisses icily, "Not alone, you don't."

She opens her mouth to argue but Thor decides then to drop down. His eyes narrow on Loki's grip on her—as if he can't decide whether or not to step up in her defense and risk his brother's wrath turning to him again.

"I'm not alone," Natasha says, jerking her head in indication of Thor.

Loki scowls.

After some deliberation, Thor shifts his focus on Selvig. "Doctor Selvig?"

"He's not going to answer," Loki sneers at his brother, unnecessarily nasty.

Thor frowns. "What have you done?"

"O ye of little faith, brother," Loki smiles tightly. "I've not laid a hand on your precious mortal."

Before another fight can break out, Natasha turns to face Thor. "He's been like this since I got here. Looks like his body's under lock-down or something. He won't even blink. I don't actually think Loki had anything to do with it—he needs Selvig. There's no point in rendering him useless."

"It is the result of whatever is controlling the Tesseract, no doubt," Loki says, calming by a fraction and turning to her so he doesn't have to look at his brother.

She turns to Loki. "So something is controlling it?"

"It seems that way."

"Someone at a higher pay grade than you," Natasha says and Loki watches her with a shielded expression. "Any ideas who that might be?"

Of course, she doesn't expect an answer. Loki continues to watch her, unreadable.

"Whatever." She shakes her head and turns back to face the city, says to Thor, "The team's down there. Give them a hand and I'll take care of things in the air."

She has a fuckin' monster to fight.


"JARVIS, find me a soft spot."

Up close, the creature is unfathomably larger and all the more surreal for it. She'd like to think that as the pioneer for the future, her mind would be more willing to accept what her eyes were seeing. That isn't the case at all. She experiences a second of vertigo as her mind tries to apply logic to the situation and fails. JARVIS keeps her steady in the air but it takes longer than it should to remind herself that even if she is dreaming, it's still not a good idea to just sit back and watch that thing break the city in half. Just in case.Even while doubting that what she is seeing could possibly be real, she feels more awe than fear—her mouth slack as JARVIS scans the creature for a point of weakness.

The body of the Leviathan is an exoskeleton of thick vertebrae and armored protrusions. She can see segments of flesh on its underbelly, but JARVIS quickly determines the flesh to be far too dense and just as impenetrable as the armored backside. She stays in line with its flank, cringing every time one of the Leviathan's fins carelessly sweep through a building, slicing into concrete and steel like the towers are made out of drywall instead. Debris rains down on the streets below—large chunks of rubble that could easily crush an entire intersection. Fortunately, and surprisingly, the NYPD is clearing a perimeter and JARVIS (ever the mind reader) shows her on the HUD where civilians are being led underground for protection.

Good, she thinks. That means she can concentrate on the big monster-thing if the rest of the team is taking care of the streets. However, there was still the Chitauri—

Natasha narrowly twists in the air to avoid a charged blast from behind. She flips around, belly to the sky and flying backwards to aim twin blasts to the two Chitauri speeding towards her. Before she releases the blast, the two vehicles jerk in the air—then take a nosedive to the ground where the vehicles explode on impact. Natasha halts in the air and looks up to see a Chitauri vehicle whiz past her overhead. Loki is in the driver's seat.

"What the hell?" She grouses, taking off after the God.

Somehow, Loki hears her—and she's too preoccupied with everything else to worry about the fact that Loki really seems to have a direct line to her thoughts, but she knows it's something she'll be freaking out about later. All he says is: "You're welcome," but Natasha can hear the damn smarmy smirk in his tone and she scowls furiously at his retreating back.

Shaking her head, she looks left and sees that the Leviathan has already turned its attentions to the downtown district. Charging her thrusters to 70% she turns into another street, eyes on the map on her HUD while she cuts between buildings so she can catch up to the creature. It isn't set on any particular path—the Leviathan seems intent in only crashing its mass into as many things as possible. Natasha quickly reaches the Leviathan, pushes for more speed, then veers around a Bank of America so she can intercept the creature's path.

Her face twists in disgusts as she registers the Leviathan's face—more a maw of giant, spindly, dagger-like teeth. Bleh. It's not a pretty sight. She extends both arms ahead of herself to deploy a barrage of CHAFF missiles, still flying in a direct course for the beast. The missiles spread into a cloud formation and pepper the Leviathan's face and sides until it roars in anger, swerving its entire body to follow after her as she sweeps under a razor-sharp fin.

"Well, we got its attention," she says to JARVIS. The HUD reads ammunitions at 97% and power supply at 94%—not nearly enough for an entire army. She can't worry about that right now—needs to focus on one catastrophic problem at a time. Halting in the air when she's put enough distance between herself and the Leviathan, she turns to face the approaching beast. "What the hell was step two?"

It's faster in its anger, completely unscathed by the missiles, and she takes off again just before it can clamp its massive teeth over her. In the distance, she spots a streak of lightening descending to the ground. Thor. He's joined with rest of the team, then. She hears him update Rogers on the Cube's status while cleverly evading mentions of his brother. She's not sure if its cowardice or protectiveness that stays Thor's tongue. He'd had no qualms threatening her with violence to keep her from attacking his brother, but she doesn't know what that says about her or him.

"Thor's right," Natasha says before anyone can think to question him on Loki. "We've gotta deal with these guys."

"How do we do this?" Romanoff asks.

"As a team," Rogers says. "We need to keep the fight focused on us. We can't let these things run wild. With Stark up top, she'll need us to—"

Rogers cuts off abruptly and at the same time, three Chitauri vehicles descend around her, trapping her between them and the monster at her tail. She doesn't hesitate—blasting the two at her flanks with enough charge to send them careening into the opposite buildings. The driver in the vehicle ahead of her tries to twist around to get a shot at her but she fires a blast into the engine of his aircraft and drops several feet in the air just as the Leviathan lurches forward to take a chomp at her and gets a mouthful of Chitauri instead.

"Stark," Rogers' voice comes in through the COM again just as she dives out of the way of another bite. "We got him."

Natasha can't help the smirk that springs to her lips. "Banner?"

"Just like you said."

"Then tell him to suit up." Up ahead the street is barely recognizable under all the rubble and gutted buildings—but the HUD reads Park Avenue and she sees the small cluster of tics that mark the team's location. "I'm bringing the party to you."

She banks around the last building on the block and aligns herself over Park Avenue, towards the Avengers. Behind her, the Leviathan crushes past the side of a building, still in pursuit and deafening in its rage.

"I—I don't see how that's a party." Romanoff says, empty of concern in the face of the Goliath currently seeking to make a meal out of Natasha and her suit.

Whatever sarcastic response Natasha might have made doesn't make it to her lips as she swoops low over the street and through the maze of abandoned cars still laid out in an imitation of New York traffic. The Leviathan follows, its belly crashing into cars and trees, gouging a furrow into the asphalt. She sweeps past the team and comes to a halt several yards away, turning to watch the Leviathan as it tears through the street towards the Avengers. Her eyes flick to Banner where he is approaching the beast—still in human form—hears Rogers say, "Now might be a very good time to get angry," and then Banner is a throwing tight-lipped smile over his shoulder.

"That's my secret, Captain. I'm always angry."

Banner stops in the middle of the street, and Natasha watches with sheer fascination as he twists around to face the Leviathan—his body morphing and expanding before her eyes. It starts at his shoulders—deltoids and trapezius swelling—then down the arms and chest—biceps, triceps and pecs inflating like someone was directly injecting them with steroids. She watches his face and then his neck when he turns away—watches the skin take on a tint of yellow that rapidly saturates with green—and Natasha records everysecond of this. Up until the completion of the transformation when it is no longer Banner standing there, but the Hulk—and then the Leviathan is upon him and Hulk doesn't flinch, reacting with instinct and slamming a solid fist into the Leviathan, through teeth and skull she can hear shattering over the Hulk's own roar of outrage.

The punch brings the monster to a complete halt but the Leviathan's momentum keeps its body moving, flipping tail over head. Natasha propels herself forward with a short burst of speed, calls out, "Hold on!" and takes aim—waits for the split second before the Leviathan's vertebrae separate enough to reveal the fragile flesh between the blades—then deploys a rocket directly into it.

The rocket explodes on contact, rupturing the Leviathan's side in a flurry of flames and alien gunk, severing through the spinal cord and leaving the Leviathan in halves. The massive remains crash to the street and Natasha aims contained blasts to break up the rest so that the Avengers won't be crushed underneath chunks of dead Leviathan. She sees Barton take cover by an overturned Taxi while Rogers uses his body and his shield to protect himself and Romanoff, Hulk smashing his fists into anything that dares accost him.

Then, there is a second of stillness—so abrupt in the aftermath of the Leviathan's defeat. Even now she can't seem to process what she's seen—that such a creature could be real and had very nearly succeeded in devouring her. She remembers the desperate scramble of only minutes earlier like it's something distant—like a shot into somebody else's life and somebody else's struggle.

She doesn't have long to adjust—the second is gone and sound floods her audio. It takes a while to recognize what she's hearing—the dull roars of a battle cry, vengeful and livid. She swallows, scanning the buildings around them as she lowers herself to the ground to join the rest of the team. The Chitauri surround them—an army of them—crawling along the length of the buildings like the insects they resembled. It's nearly overwhelming—just how grossly outnumbered the Avengers were—and then a louder, more powerful roar arouses her from her momentarily despairing thoughts.

The Hulk's roar is a rumble of thunder that drowns out everything else and silences the Chitauri immediately.

Natasha stands with her back to the team where they form a loose circle in the middle of Manhattan, facing the Chitauri threat—and she feels no fear.

Chapter Text

Thor is the first to notice. Natasha is not too far behind him when she sees him tense, raising his hammer in preparation for battle. None of the Chitauri have made any move to attack them and while they're no less of a threat, Thor doesn't seem to be focusing on them. She realizes that his gaze is pointedly fixed on the ground (not skyward, like the rest of the Avengers) where pavement meets the concrete exterior of a building—and then she sees it.

It's almost imperceptible from the thick sheet of dust layering everything, but JARVIS confirms her suspicions immediately by pulling up a temperature reading on the HUD—frost. There is literally frost forming at the base of the buildings crawling with Chitauri, and it seems to have a will of its own because it is slowly climbing higher, spreading upwards and growing thicker, until it becomes apparent to the rest of the Avengers when the frost becomes straight-up ice and it's enveloping the Chitauri who are too slow to realize what's happening—trapping them in place.

The Chitauri clinging higher along the buildings scramble to get away, but the ice is spreading faster with each second and scarcely any escape its grasp. In under a minute, Park Avenue is frozen over, hundreds of Chitauri tacked to the sides of buildings like popsicles, with only the street level left untouched.

"What the hell?" Barton mutters roughly, readying his bow as his eyes scan the area.

On her HUD, a tic appears behind her in the same instant that Barton whips around and releases an arrow that swooshes past her shoulder, nearly grazing the armor. She jerks around, following the path of the arrow to see Loki has materialized behind her. He looks perfectly unruffled, if a little amused to be holding the arrow in his hand meant for his eye. She's not sure who to be more impressed by—settles for neither when she hears the groan of Barton's bowstring stretch as he notches another arrow.

"Whoa—whoa! Chill!" Stupidly, she swivels around to face Barton, stepping into his line of fire and extending her hands out in what she hopes is a placating fashion. Thor, for once, isn't stepping between his brother and a potential threat (definite threat, actually) but is wielding his hammer with a look in his eyes that tells her he has every intention of using it if Barton dares to let loose another arrow.

Barton looks equal parts furious and horrifically incredulous; Rogers steps forward, holding out his own hands between Barton and Natasha like he's expecting to have to play mediator. To Barton he only nods—says nothing else, yet Barton seems to understand the implicit command because he lowers his bow, albeit begrudgingly. Rogers' eyes flick to the Thunder God towering behind Barton before settling her with a dubious frown.

"Care to explain what's going on?" She has to give Rogers credit for sounding genuinely more curious (and concerned) and not quite as accusing as he had every right to be.

"He's here to help," Natasha says, licking her lips out of nervousness because she's told more believable lies half-dead with veins full of palladium poisoning and drunk and it didn't help that she was actually telling the truth in this case—never mind the ever present doubt that she was being played for a fool again.

"Oh, really?" Barton steps towards her and his chest is met with Rogers' open palm. He checks himself, smirking wryly. He won't look away from Loki and the amount of deadly intent in those eyes unsettles her enough that she shifts her stance a little—drawing his attention with a snap. "What the fuck, Stark?"

"My brother has been freed from the control of the Tesseract," Thor declares in his usual overly loud rumble, stepping into Barton's line of sight.

Barton snorts, looking between her and Loki.

"You mean to say that all this time, you were being controlled by the Cube as well?" Romanoff asks quietly, standing perfectly straight, chin tipped upwards and a single slender brow arched in doubt. She doesn't need to move, yet somehow her entire posture seems to lean supportively towards Barton without actually shifting at all. Romanoff's lips twists in an odd, humorless smirk, her tone a deadpan as she says, "We're supposed to buy that?"

It's only then that Loki deigns to speak, if only to say, "It does not matter whether you believe me."

Natasha snorts quietly, rolling her eyes because—thanks, Loki. Way to be useless. To the team, she says, "He's willing to help us. Right now, I don't think we're in any position to be picky about our allies."

Nobody is actually listening to her; all eyes had turned to Loki the second he opened his mouth. Well, besides the Hulk, who was snuffling and grunting impatiently at everyone and everything around him.

Loki says, "Did you think it was strictly by chance that Agent Barton was able to regain his cognitive abilities?" Still, apparently, speaking only to Agent Romanoff. Which was probably actually for the best, because Natasha didn't trust anyone else—especially Rogers, who was being entirely too level-headed for her liking. What happened to bitching her out and griping about how irresponsible she was?

Barton's gaze cuts to Romanoff's and Natasha sees a silent exchange that's all eyebrows and slight lip twitching. Translating the interaction goes about as well as it ever does—which is to say, not at all.

Since no one else is speaking, Loki decides to continue, unprompted. "When my link with the Tesseract became weakened, it provided Agent Barton with the opportunity to escape its hold." Barton frowns, eye still locked with Romanoff's, but he seems to actually be considering Loki's words. "I'm sure you would have noticed the absence of my presence within your mind."

This time, Barton flinches, dropping his eyes with something like shame coloring his expression. Romanoff shifts a deadly look to Loki.

"But if Loki is no longer connected to the Cube," Rogers says suddenly, looking to her. "Then—

She opens her mouth to reply but Loki beats her to it, stepping forward so he's standing at her shoulder. "The Tesseract requires a medium to harvest its power. I was that medium. When my connection was cut, the Tesseract would have sought another host. It would have tried to latch onto the nearest life-source."

Natasha swallows, feeling strangely nervous and inexplicably grateful for Iron Woman's mask. It feels as if her expression would be too easy to read—but she doesn't know what it would say. It makes her uncomfortable to feel so unexpectedly vulnerable (struggling for the words to form a suitable enough argument for why the others should ever place their faith in Loki)—and then she realizes the cause of her discomfort: it's Loki. It's always Loki. She doesn't want to fight him—she wants to be able to work with him because she's honestly terrified of what might happen if they can't come together to fight this invasion. She wants the Avengers to listen—doesn't want to think about why it's so important to her personally that they do—but she also wants to be able to trust Loki—fears allowing him to read her conflicting thoughts because he could use that against her and she—can't. She can't deal with all of that.

She shakes these thoughts and says to Rogers (who is unsurprisingly confused by Loki's overly elaborate explanation), "The Cube's like straight up energy with no off switch. It needs a conduit."

Rogers nods to her appreciatively. "If Loki isn't controlling the Cube, then who is?"

"Selvig. " Romanoff states with certainty.

Natasha shakes her head—and only then realizes she can lower her hands since it's apparent no one is going to try and attack the Trickster God. She replies to Romanoff, "He's still mind-wammied up there, but we don't think it's him."

A rumbling from above draws all of their attention.

Two more Leviathan come slithering from the portal, in addition to another wave of Chitauri. She thinks she might have exhausted her ability to be surprised—feels only a vague sense of annoyance, followed by the fleeting thought: Great. There's more.

"You have a plan." Romanoff directs this to her—a statement more than a question.

Natasha hesitates, glancing up at Loki who looks down at her at the same time, expression placid. She knows what Loki thinks they should do, but she's still trying to figure out how they're expected to pull it off. "It's—a work in progress," she says at last.

"We still have an entire armada to deal with," Rogers reminds them, reasonably. And then, completely out of left field, he looks to the Asgardian beside her. "Loki, what can you tell us about these guys?"

Loki is obviously completely unaware of how surrealistic this situation is, because he replies honestly, and with absolute nonchalance,"What they lack in strength they make up for in numbers. Trust me when I say that you have not yet glimpsed even a fraction of their size.

Romanoff mutters, "Great," and cocks her pistol.

Natasha is still trying to wrap her head around the situation—before she gives up all together and grins at the team behind her mask. "Sounds like a party."

Romanoff frowns at her, critical. "I question your idea of what constitutes as a 'party'."

Barton snorts, eyes on the sky. "I question your idea of what happened in Budapest."

Loki turns to Rogers, ignoring all else. "We need to deal with the portal, first and foremost."

Rogers nods in agreement and Romanoff says, "He's right. None of this is going to mean a damn thing unless we can close it."

"Our biggest guns couldn't touch it," Rogers replies.

Romanoff looks to her expectantly. "Natasha, what's the plan?"

"Loki thinks Coulson can help him seal the portal," she explains—and realizes as the words leave her lips that it was the wrong thing to say.

Romanoff's expression darkens, Thor tenses, and Rogers looks to Natasha—stunned. "Coulson—?"

"He attacked me while the Tesseract was in possession of him," Loki says, unperturbed. "I had to put him under an enchantment to prevent the Cube from destroying him."

Rogers looks more surprised than before. "Coulson's alive?"

Barton looks horrified. "Coulson was dead?"

Natasha's smirk is audible. "Dude, where have you been?"

Probably insensitive, but Barton can take it. Coulson is fucking alive and that's good news. Barton takes a moment to glare at her, then shifts the glare to Loki. With another, more private, smirk, she turns to Loki, smacking at his chest with the back of her hand and says, "Widow can help. She can get you to Coulson."

Loki is silent for a moment, eyes dropping to the spot where she'd hit him—and it occurs to her in the same moment that it seems to occur to him. That sort of easy, offhanded touching—that was the sort of thing Natasha had shared with Olson.

Olson who was actually Loki.

Natasha swallows and waits—for … something.

But nothing happens and Loki blinks—moves on—and asks her, "And you?"

She tears her eyes away from Loki and looks to Rogers. "It's your call, Cap."

Rogers is watching her with a cautious frown. Everyone else is look at her like she's lost her mind—except the Hulk, who looks like he's 0.3 seconds away from grabbing someone and smashing them around like a ragdoll. Repeatedly.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Rogers asks.

Natasha shrugs. "Nope. But it's the only one we've got."

Rogers considers this, then asks after some hesitation, "Coulson's really alive?"

She's smiling behind the mask. "Guess so."

"I can confirm this myself. I was present when Loki enchanted Coulson," Thor says, speaking at last.

Natasha thinks she catches Rogers smiling in her direction but pointedly doesn't look his way just in case he is.

"Alright, listen up." Rogers says, turning to regard the army overhead. "Until Loki can close that portal, our priority is containment. Barton, I want you on that roof. Eyes on everything. Call out patterns and strays." Rogers drops his eyes to her, steady and confident. "Stark, you've got the perimeter. Anything gets more than three blocks out, you turn it back or you turn it to ash. Loki, you and Agent Romanoff—"

Barton turns to her. "Can you give me a lift?"

She smirks at Rogers but he doesn't see it. She steps up to Barton and bunches the scruff of his collar in a fist. "Right. Better clench up, Legolas."

Her thrusters blast them into the air. Barton is stiff, but not with discomfort—unlike Rogers, he seems to hold no qualms over playing the damsel. She deposits him on the rooftop Rogers had indicated but before she can move on, she feels a hand on her arm and barely stops herself from taking off and dislocating Barton's shoulder in the process.

"Hey," Barton says seriously, removing his hand when he sees that he has her attention. "Just because you're suddenly B-F-F's with that asshole, don't forget that this all started because of him."

"Dude, I know," Natasha snorts. "But I'd rather have him on our side than leading an army of these things against us. We can worry about his motives later."

Barton doesn't look convinced but she can't read his expression well enough to know what he's thinking. "Alright, then."

They nod at each other—and it lacks any mutual understanding or the kind of camaraderie Barton shares with Romanoff.

Natasha doesn't dwell on it, instead taking off into the skies and marveling at the teams' ability to adapt to the curve ball Loki had thrown at them by deciding he was going to help them instead of leading his army to certain victory against the Avengers. She realizes that, by comparison, everyone else had been far more accepting of adopting a plan that involved working alongside the God who, up until less than an hour ago, had been trying to pit them against each other in the hopes that they would end up tearing each other apart. It makes sense, if she ignores the slight to her pride that doesn't like acknowledging anyone else could be more open-minded than her.

Barton and Romanoff were assassins—experienced in espionage and working with people they didn't necessarily have to like in order to protect. Rogers was a soldier and she was already familiar with his ability to place duty over personal interest. Obviously, she was the only one with an ego too large to swallow, but she also had more reason than the others to distrust Loki. She wasn't going to lie to herself. Even now she was just waiting for the other shoe to drop—for Loki to reveal a plot more nefarious than the former.

She was steadfastly ignoring the sliver of hope she had that Loki wasn't manipulating her again.

For a moment, however, she is stunned by the realization that the Avengers had listened. Rogers had listened. They had trusted her despite their every sense screaming not to trust the Asgardian Trickster. The thought makes something ache at her core.

In the distant background, Thor lights up the skies, decimating a good chunk of Chitauri flowing in through the portal and taking out a Leviathan in the process.

Natasha focuses on her orders—clears her mind of all other thoughts so that she can reserve as much processing ability between herself and JARVIS to calculate the patterns of the Chitauris' movements and attack patterns so that she can formulate her own. She's no Captain America, but she's still a genius and she trusts in her ability to think quickly on the fly.

The Chitauri are definitely powerful, and their tech is far more advanced than her own—however, it seems to serve only one purpose: offense. Natasha favors optimization and efficiency in her tech and she recognizes this is one of their weaknesses—they are (evidently) a single-minded race and as a result, their weapons serve only the purpose of attacking and inflicting as much damage as possible. It means that the Chitauri are expressly lacking in their defensive capabilities, which would explain why they're such easy canon-fodder. They are aggressive—and now, they're pissed off—which means that, in their desperation to inflict as much damage to the city and the Avengers, they are just as likely to allow a stray attack to find one of their own. Natasha uses this to her advantage, diving and swerving between Chitauri vehicles, inciting their rage by peppering them with low-level blasts. They respond accordingly by whipping around their spears and strange guns to blast her out of the air—only for her to duck away and allow the blast to sweep past her and find another victim.

Eventually, some of the Chitauri begin to catch on to what she's doing and they try to get clever with their attacks—though she takes care of them herself, barreling into them bodily or just blasting them off their vehicles.

She maintains this pattern for some time-before Barton's voice comes in through the COM with something almost like his usual dry humor coloring his tone. "Stark, you got a lot of strays sniffing your tail."

Natasha huffs, rolling her body out of the way, narrowly avoiding a Chitauri's blast—watches the purplish energy collide into the side of a vehicle aiming towards her. She says distractedly, "I'm just trying to keep them off the streets."

"Well, they can't bank worth a damn," Barton says—there is definite amusement in his tone, now. "So find a tight corner."

"I will roger that." She's searching her HUD, scanning the digital map of the area and thinking she should probably have an opinion about just how much Barton seems to be enjoying himself amidst this chaos.

JARVIS locates an appropriate location and pulls it up on her HUD. Its nearby.

Abruptly, she flies into the side street JARVIS had found—then follows it into a tunnel, hears the resonating impacts of the dozen or so Chitauri crushing into the concrete mouth when they fail to follow her around the turn. She hazards a glance over her shoulder to see some survivors bouncing between the walls like this is Mario 64 and they're trying to perfect the wall-jump—before they, too, inevitably meet their untimely demise via vehicular combustion.

When she exits through the other end, she only has two vehicles following her. She quickly deposes of them by flying towards the building directly across the tunnel's exit, then taking a nose-dive for the street and making an abrupt turn in the opposite direction. Two more explosions are her reward when the Chitauri fail to avoid impact with the building—she doesn't have time to savor the victory, however, before she's got another tail of vehicles slotting into place behind her.

"Oh boy," she grumbles, spotting another tunnel and diving for it.

She pushes her thrusters to propel her faster and flits through the tight area with more grace than she was frankly expecting of herself. She barely avoids collision with a colonnade in front of the building across the tunnel—the Chitauri are not so fortunate and those who didn't survive the second tunnel meet their end by crashing headlong into the row of pillars. She releases a breath when her HUD indicates no more Chitauri are trying to run her down and she switches on her COM to address Barton.

"Nice call. What else you got?"

"Well, Thor is taking on a squadron down on Sixth."

Natasha grins, matching his tone with one just as mischievous. "And he didn't invite me."

Chapter Text

She is familiar enough with Barton's tendency to undervalue the criticality of a situation with his usual charming wit, so she's not surprised when she reaches Thor that by 'squadron' Barton should have more accurately rephrased with something like 'one third of the frickin' Chitauri army'. Sixth Avenue is in about as good of a shape as the rest of the city; Juan Pablo Duarte Square is a wreck, grooves gouged into the asphalt and concrete from fallen Chitauri vehicles. The bronze Duarte statue is surprisingly the only thing intact. Skyscraper alley is a mess, the buildings pocked with gaping wounds and not a single unmarked window; the sunlight refracts strangely off the buildings, creating the illusion that the towers are glittering beacons in the distance.

From her eagle's eye view, she sees a sort of barricade has been constructed out of upturned cars, traffic posts, and rubble at Canal Street (which does nothing to protect people from the Chitauri circling the skies, but serves to focus the ground troops on the Asgardian God and allow straggling civilians to escape downtown. Thor is completely surrounded—overwhelmingly so. Groups of warriors detach from the sea of Chitauri surging towards him, impatiently charging ahead of the rest to take the God on. Thor handles them without a pause for breath, swinging his hammer to block each attack and deliver each blow, moving like he can anticipate every action by some Godly divination.

The Chitauri hovering overhead spot her as she approaches and jerk their vehicles to face her, heavy ends fishtailing with the force. Two dozen vehicles speed for her and Natasha comes to a halt, spreading her arms wide and palms out to greet her assailants. Syphoning solar energy through the chest-mounted Unibeam, she releases twin Pulse Bolts from both hands. Like phantom torpedoes, the slow-moving high energy plasma discharges B-line a direct path to her enemies, building intensity over the distance travelled as they absorb the friction and ambient energy and increase in momentum.

Foolishly (or perhaps arrogantly and with the intention of intimidating her), the Chitauri huddle in a tight wedge formation. The twin Bolts are moving too quickly, by the time the Chitauri are close enough to see what is headed towards them, it's too late. The Bolts connect and the impact resonates—a burst so loud and vibrant (plasma white and the angry explosion of flames and black fumes) that it knocks her back in the air. Unexpectedly, another burst of energy strikes down from the skies and the blast continues to pulse for several beats—she feels the pounding of it against her suit—swallowing the Chitauri warriors. The light blinds her and she raises an arm to shield her vision when her HUD can't compensate; she can almost taste the atmosphere in the air.

Then, the energy pushes outwards in a vicious wave as it dissipates and thins out. Steadying herself, Natasha feels the static in the air flicker and pop against her armor. She thinks, that didn't seem right—and glances down to the street to see Thor—hammer raised—standing amid the carcasses of hundreds of Chitauri. She looks skyward to witness the black storm clouds cool to grey, and then dissolve back to white. The realization registers gradually—Thor had used his lightning to feed energy to her Pulse Bolts—and it's hard to focus her mind back on the present and not want to linger on the possibilities he has presented for her tech.

"That was—" She swallows, drops her eyes back to see Thor's attention has been averted by some newly arrived Chitauri.

"Most impressive," JARVIS says.

She feels like an idiot when she can only nod in agreement.

"I need one of those," She says after a moment. In the distance, two Chitauri bank around the clock tower of the Jefferson Market Library.

"Mjolnir or Thor?"

"The hammer's called—Mee-oh-what?" She picks off the two Chitauri easily with repulsor blasts, then drops her body, twists her middle, and kicks out both feet to propel herself downward. "And both."

"Yes, I can see how having a Thunder God on your side could be beneficial." JARVIS sounds like he's humoring her and she smirks with pleasure. "It is fortunate, then, that you did not follow through with your intentions to kill his brother."

It shouldn't surprise her as much as it always does whenever she catches an undertone of personality in his words. Unlike DUM-E or some of her other machines, JARVIS was a smart AI—there were virtually no limits within his dynamic memory-processor matrix. He could adapt and grow; absorb knowledge and make real-world observations, applying all he learned to make adjustments within his own program so as to better serve Natasha.

"Don't get sassy with me, J," Natasha reprimands the AI without any heat. "I think I've still got a Windows '95 disc lying around."

"That is completely unnecessary," JARVIS grouses before slipping into 'broody' silence.

She laughs and sweeps low over Sixth, arms open—braces herself—and closes in on an unsuspecting Chitauri warrior. His back is to her, but he hears her approach and is half-turned—when she barrels into the solid mass of him. He grunts as the breath knocks out of him and he slumps over her extended arm, kept in place by her momentum. She increases speed, thrusters propelling her, and begins collecting bodies as she crashes through the street. Only when she reaches Thor does she pull her body vertical and stop—the unconscious bodies dropping to a pile at Thor's feet as he swings about to face her.

Thor's eyes drop to the mound of alien bodies, frowns—then grins. It's a good look, almost feral against the layers of grime and sweat and the warm flush of battle. "Some would regard this as a challenge, Lady of Iron."

Natasha snorts, shaking off the residual charges still tickling just between her suit and underarmor from the electricity. "Uh—what?"

Thor grins. "I would be remiss to disregard such a blatant invitation. You have already proven your great strength—I shall accept!"

Her mouth hangs open uselessly as Thor swings his hammer, flashes her one last grin, then takes to the skies in one hammer-throw-leap combo. He quickly disappears into the clouds.

"Uh. What?"


Natasha grunts as she takes a blow to the shoulder—anxiously glances to the left to inspect the damage and grimaces when she can see through the gaping hole in her armor to the circuitry below. It was a necessary hazard, but she hates having to sacrifice her armor just to get a better look at the enemy's weaponry. The Chitauri's weapons were demolishing her suit and it was growing increasingly more difficult to avoid them. Their numbers were only growing, but that wasn't a thought she could linger on. Not without dissolving into a panic attack or something similarly unproductive. Ducking left into a tunnel allows her a reprieve from the Chitauri hounding her and gives her about three seconds to think without distractions.

"JARVIS—what d'ya got for me?"

The HUD comes alive with specs as JARVIS speaks. "The Chitauri weapons utilize non-solid projectiles with a high enthalpy. Each attack appears to consist of partially ionized gas—"

"So, plasma. Got it. I already figured as much. How are they containing it, then?" She wonders out loud, more to herself than to JARVIS; the AI is programmed to recognize such rhetorical questions and says nothing. "You'd need something like a magnetic field to be able to contain and guide each attack. JARVIS, scan for—"

"I just did." The HUD loads new data—a breakdown of the Chitauri weaponry they'd managed to scan while trying to survive.

"Good," She says, eyes flicking to her palm as she flies out of the tunnel and arches skywards, towards the swarm of Chitauri heading for Central Park. "The suit uses similar technology; each repulsor is a tiny electromagnetic field generator that focuses ionized particles and then reverses the energy current. Could we use them to disrupt the magnetic fields encasing each plasma attack?"

"Calculating…"

Natasha hums impatiently, swerving her body over the Hulk's bulky frame where he is busy bashing a handful of Chitauri into the side of a building. A group of vehicles drop down from above, making a dive for the Hulk; Natasha twists her body so she's flying face-up and backwards, blasting the Chitauri out of the sky before they could kamikaze themselves into the Hulk.

"We good, JARVIS?" Natasha snaps when she sees another group follow the first, their focus on her, now, instead of the Hulk. She curses silently, twists forward again, and speeds away.

"Calculations are complete. Adjusting repulsor frequencies..."

Natasha grins. "Suh-weet, man!"

Replacing the weaponry specs with the city map, she watches the enemy markers and waits for the alert as the Chitauri aim attacks at her back—before coming to a complete halt, pivoting her body in the air simultaneously and whipping out both palms to blast the attacks with her repulsors. She watches in gleeful fascination as her repulsor blasts consumes their attacks like a wave then dissipate on its own, leaving their plasma attacks to fizzle and dissolve into the air without a magnetic field to contain the bolts.

The Chitauri falter, stunned, and Natasha uses this to her advantage, blasting them with a Pulse Bolt before taking off in search of more enemies.


She's doing her third sweep over the perimeter, has reached Park Avenue again, when she spots Rogers below. He has civilians huddling behind a Taxi cab while he takes on a group of Chitauri—is doing well in keeping them occupied, but from his vantage, he can't see where another pair of Chitauri are slowly encroaching upon the civilians from behind, crouched low to the ground. Natasha can, as can the two women and young man the Captain is fighting to keep safe—the young man throws himself protectively over the two women but they're all too terrified to even scream. Rogers is occupied—Natasha won't make it. She grits her teeth, pushes her suit for more speed—but it's not going to be enough.

The Chitauri raise their weapons the moment they round an abandoned community bus and see the three humans.

A vicious roar rips through the air. Something blurs past her peripheral—and then she thinks she hears the Earth shudder.

When she blinks and looks back to the three civilians, they're still huddled together—and alive. Bounding away is the Hulk, leaving craters and more destruction in his wake. She drops down next to the civilians and they flinch and retreat further into themselves until they recognize her suit. The Chitauri pair that had threatened them are little more than smears on the asphalt, crushed into the crater the Hulk had left. It's grotesque and Natasha steps between the three civilians and the remains of the Chitauri warriors—is unable to look away from what is left recognizable of the bodies, bones torn through flesh, sternum completely collapsed, ruptured skulls and chests …

"You three okay?" Rogers' voice sounds distant behind her. Natasha swallows past the taste of bile and turns to watch Rogers help one of the women to her feet while the young man attends to the other. Speechless from shock, the two women nod shakily in response.

"T-the Hulk," the young man stutters, sounding simultaneously terrified and far more composed than Natasha would have expected of him. She knows it's the shock, but the curiosity of it serves to pull her mind forward to the present.

"Don't worry about the Hulk, kid," Natasha assures him, grateful when her words come out convincingly confident. "He's one of the good guys."

The young man nods uncertainly, staring at a point beside her right elbow—towards the crater, she realizes. Natasha shifts to the side to block his view and he blinks, looking up at her. His eyes are impossibly wide.

"The Hulk—saved us," the young man manages to say. He sounds like he can't believe his own words and Natasha responds with only a single confirmatory nod.

"What's your name, son?" Rogers extends a hand to clasp the young man's shoulder, applying enough pressure to draw his attention to the Rogers.

"Oh my god," the young man says instead, looking between the star on Rogers' chest and the bold 'A' on the Cap's helmet.

"I'm Captain America," Rogers says. (Unnecessarily, Natasha thinks, because she can see that the kid knows exactly who Rogers is.) Rogers nudges his head in her direction. "And that's my friend, Iron Woman. The Hulk—the Hulk is also a friend. I've got a lot more friends out here with me, and we're all doing our best to fight off these—creatures. We want to protect you, but I need you to trust me. Can you trust me?"

The kid nods, numbly. After a moment, he breathes out, "I-I'm P-Pete."

Rogers smiles, all charming dimples and honest blue eyes. "Okay, Pete. It's nice to meet you."

"N-nice to meet y-you, C-Captain America."

Rogers sets both hands on Pete's shoulders, ducking to meet the young man's eyes. "Pete, I need your help. I can't fight these monsters if I'm worried about protecting you, so I need all of you to find the nearest subway station and hide. The NYPD is keeping everyone down there safe while we take care of things up top. You're going to have to run, Pete, but I promise you'll be okay."

"But—what if—?"

Rogers looks to her and Natasha snorts at how predictable he is. She whips out another earpiece, amazed that it's somehow still intact, and hands it to Rogers. She switches to her COM while Rogers instructs Pete on how to slip on the device (only for the kid to take it from the fumbling hero and put it on himself with a smile).

"Hawkeye," she mutters into the COM, remotely triggering Pete's earpiece once it's in place. She sees the device pop up on her HUD and links it to Barton.

"Yeah—what's up? I don't see you flitting around. You still with the Cap?"

"I don't flit, asshole," Natasha grunts, earning a disapproving look from Rogers.

"Hawkeye," Rogers calls out, cupping a hand around his own earpiece unnecessarily Natasha can't help the small huff of amusement that escapes her. "We've got three civilians down here. We need you to be their eyes in the sky."

"Roger that, Captain."

"Line's established," Natasha says.

"Pete?" Rogers says, drawing the young man's attention. "My friend is going to help you guys get to safety. Just do whatever he tells you, alright?"

"Pete? Name's Hawkeye. You ready, buddy?" Natasha hears Barton say through the COM.

Pete startles, then nods nervously—realizes 'Hawkeye' can't see him and opens his mouth to speak.

"Good," Barton says before Pete can reply. "Let's mosey. Cap and Iron Woman are about to have company and we need to get you guys outta there."

"Thanks for the heads-up," Natasha grins wryly, but she had already seen the enemy indicators flashing on her HUD and approaching their location.

Rogers shares a nod with the kid and the two women, then points them towards Grand Central Station. Natasha watches for the approaching Chitauri while Rogers keeps an eye on the three civilians; neither of them move for what feels like the longest minute.

And then Natasha says, "You know those are, like—five grand a pop, right?"

Rogers snorts, neither of them looking away from their respective targets. "You don't strike me as someone who would be hurting for five hundred dollars, Stark. You'll survive."

"It's the principal of the matter," Natasha huffs. She thinks she sees the Chitauri heads bobbing just above a line of cars and shifts her stance into a more defensive one. "Incoming."

Rogers is at her side suddenly, frowning in the direction she'd indicated. Her HUD reads four life signatures—JARVIS runs the scans against what thye'd already extrapolated from their observations of the Chitauri's bio-signature and confirms Barton's warning.

"I've got things covered down here. We need you to man the skies," Rogers says, bringing his shield forward.

Natasha shrugs, prepping the charges on her thrusters. "If you insist," and blasts into the air.

She heads down Park Avenue, towards 42nd Street. She passes the three civilians on her way, catches movement on her HUD and delivers a repulsor blast that connects with two Chitauri vehicles as they appear around the Royal Bank of Scotland. Two more Chitauri approach from the opposite end—but before Natasha can deal with them, they erupt in a twin explosions.

"Two points for me." Barton says into the COM with an audibly smug smirk.

She rolls her eyes and spots Barton's perch up ahead. "It's not a competition."

"Does Thor know that?"

As she nears the building, JARVIS runs a scan and her HUD lights up with dozens of enemy markers all along the length of the tower. She dips her body for momentum, then arches upwards, lines herself right along the surface of the building's exterior and knocks into a series of Chitauri warriors as they attempt to scale the building to reach Barton. Some maintain a stubborn grip and are merely jostled, still clinging to the building with a hand—she releases shorts repulsor bursts in her wake to finish the job.

She swoops up, over the roof, and catches sight Barton's sardonic salute in her peripheral as she aligns herself with 42nd Street and flies west. "Alright. Fine. You're on."

"You're going down, Stark," Barton continues to egg her on.

"You're working with limited ammunition, Robin Hood," Natasha scoffs, her HUD flashing warnings to indicate the number of enemies she's gathered on her tail. She dips under a street lamp and makes a sharp turn onto 5th Avenue. "But my money's on the Big Guy."

"Which one?"

"The Jolly Green one," Natasha twists her body out of the way of an incoming blast as her alarms blare in her helmet and her HUD goes berserk. She frowns, scanning the digital map.

"Hey, Stark. You might want to duck," Barton says with absolute calm.

Natasha drops her body mid-flight like a weight—just as the entire northwest street corner of 5th and 45th explodes, debris flying everywhere as a monstrous roar floods her ears. She distributes more power to her boots to rocket herself back up, so that she is level with the Leviathan's flank. Whipping out her left arm, she aims a high intensity laser at the creature's thick exoskeleton.

"Ma'am, we will lose power before we penetrate that shell." JARVIS admonishes.

She drops her arm and pushes forward, building up speed as she scans the Leviathan for weaknesses. Taking out that first one had taken a lot of ingenuity, good timing, and luck. She's no Thor—who can fry these bastards like a Thanksgiving roast without breaking a sweat—so she has to rely on creativity. The Leviathan seems to be little more than another weapon, useful only for the destruction it causes with its great size. It also seems to serve as a carrier of sorts for the Chitauri warriors, which is as gross as it is interesting if Natasha lingers on the thought for long enough. The only way she knows to destroy the creature is to expose its weak points and finish the job with a well-aimed rocket. Unfortunately, she can hear the Hulk in the distance and he sounds preoccupied so she is going to have to deal with this one on her own.

She swallows, blinking her eyes repeatedly in a way Pepper says always gives her away—a sure sign that Natasha is about to do something stupid and possibly life endangering and knows it. "JARVIS? You ever hear the tale of Jonah?"

There is a meaningful pause in which Natasha takes an idle moment to appreciate her own programing genius when she'd written JARVIS' 'adaptive-personality'. When she has put enough distance between herself and the Leviathan, she swings her body around and pushes forward, thrusters at 63%.

"I … wouldn't consider him a role model." JARVIS says at last.

Despite the note of disapproval, JARVIS initiates the releases on all rockets and missiles. Segments of her armor slide back and her HUD fills with ammunition specs. The creature roars as she approaches. She slips past impossibly long and sharp teeth, takes one last breath as her visual input goes black and pushes deeper into the belly of the monster. The Leviathan roars again—and it echoes all throughout her body.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she fires every weapon in her arsenal.

It's as if the world around her erupts at once. The darkness in her visuals is ripped away by a vibrant orange fury. Her body is being shoved from all directions and her ears are ringing and throbbing and she thinks she tastes blood in her mouth ...

Something eventually gives and she's punched out of the enveloping flames so violently she has no time to brace herself—her back collides with glass as her body rips through a bus stop, shoulders meeting pavement first and gouging a rough furrow into the sidewalk. The momentum propels her further, flipping her over her head and she skips across the asphalt like a flat stone across the surface of a lake—feels each jarring impact like the force alone could shatter every last bone in her body. She only comes to a stop when her body collides into the side of a vehicle, sending it twirling across the street from the sheer force of her body's collision—and she lands hard on her hands and knees.

She exhales a groan into her faceplate in agony. She still feels like she's falling—like she can't control her own body—and thepain. Her body is on fire—her bones feel bruised and it is as if someone were tearing each individual strip of nerve from her muscles and tendons and the pain is an unbearable torment.

In the next moment, the pain is gone—almost gone—and she feels something cool and soothing along every inch of her skin. For a second she thinks: Loki—but then she hears JARVIS' voice in her head informing her that he's transferred the liquid nitrogen in the suit in regulated quantities throughout the underarmor to numb her injuries. She swallows a mouthful of blood and forces herself to open her eyes, gritting her teeth as she sits up and struggles to her knees.

She's barely on her feet for a second before her body jerks to the left as an attack connects with her shoulder—and she doesn't have a second to recover before another blast catches her fully in the chest and she's flung across the street and onto her back. Natasha screams behind gritted teeth—feels blood bubble along the corners of her mouth and what doesn't leak back down her throat drips along her chin. The HUD flares up with warnings as she rolls herself over and onto her knees. She doesn't look up—throws up an arm and releases an uncontrolled Pulse Bolt, letting it expand and grow dangerously and hears when the blast has made impact before the blips on her HUD disappear.

She's gasping for breath, watching the enemy markers appearing all around her position and circling in on her—when she hears a voice that's definitely not emitting from her COM.

"That suit is going to smell for months."

It takes her a moment to realize what he's talking about.

"You just saw me get swallowed up by some monster—" she snarls, not amused. She doesn't bother with snarky pretenses because Loki is an asshole and—what gives? "Why is that your reaction?"

Loki snorts softly; there is no apology in his tone. "I'm not going to try to logic with you when you insist on emulating my idiot of a brother."

Natasha grunts, rolling her eyes, and straightens her posture as a swarm of vehicles descend around her. She flexes her fingers experimentally and preps the repulsors with charges. "Whatever. What's the status on the Cube? Did you guys get Coulson?"

"Agent Romanoff is flying us back to Stark Tower now." Loki says and she looks up to catch sight of a Quinjet streaking overhead, towards the Tower.

She drops her attention back to the Chitauri surrounding her and thinks they might be grinning at her.

"Coulson?" She asks again.

"He's here. I won't risk awakening him until we need him. The less time I have to spend trying to keep him and the Tesseract under my control, the easier this will be."

The Chitauri raise their weapons slowly—as if taunting her, confident in their victory.

She smirks, but it's more a grimace. "Good. Okay—good. Fury give you any trouble?"

"He tried. Agent Romanoff was very persuasive."

Another half-dozen vehicles descend around her. She swallows again—still tastes blood—and begins to formulate a plan. "Awesome. Sorry I missed it."

"You'll make time to pay him a visit, after this, I'm sure." She can tell he's smiling.

She grins. "Damn straight. Okay—keep me posted on Coulson—I've got—"As one, the Chitauri open fire on her. "—fuck—I've gotta—go!"

Her thrusters at 70%, she rockets skyward, just in time, and looks down to see Chitauri after Chitauri go up in smoke. They'd been cocky, allowing themselves to stay in one place so they could enjoy the kill shot—and it had backfired on them beautifully.


She is still shaky from her stunt with the Leviathan and it's a while before her movements don't feel sluggish and she can breathe with a semblance of regularity—thinks there might be something wrong with one of her lungs and ponders how many broken ribs she might have to contend with by the end of this all. She's tracking down Chitauri; notes two markers on her HUD located just a street over and sees a tick indicating one of the Avengers. Natasha swerves around a building, repulsors charged, and releases both blasts the moment she spots the pair of vehicles. She follows the vehicles' rapid descent to the street below and spots Rogers across an overpass caught up in a against a small swarm of Chitauri.

Increasing the charge on her thrusters, she swoops low to the ground, bowling past several Chitauri, sending them flying. She redirects the position of her body abruptly, feet-first to the ground, and cuts the power to the thrusters to allow her weight and gravity to bring her down. Her boots collide with the chest plate of a Chitauri warrior and she feels the crunch of its give before he goes hurtling across the street. She braces herself for the hard landing and retains balance on her feet, swivels around with the momentum and brings up a hand to blast another Chitauri.

She catches the glint of Rogers' shield out of the corner of her eyes and reacts—redirects one hand to aim a blast at the Captain and can't explain how Rogers knows to raise his shield and angle it in just the right way so the blast reflects and strikes down the remaining Chitauri.

"Thanks," Rogers grunts when the last Chitauri drops lifelessly, eyes scanning the area in anticipation of another attack.

The HUD is clear—for now—so she relaxes for a beat and takes a painful breath—hears the gurgle of blood and spit and swallows past the stickiness and the taste of copper. Rogers jogs the short distance to her side, clamping a heavy hand on her shoulder, brow furrowed heavily. He's frowning up at the sky and she thinks she catches a flicker of anxiety. It's quickly replaced with firm resolve, but the glimpse past Rogers' façade strikes something inside her and leaves her feeling uneasy.

It takes a couple tries before she can clear the blood from her throat enough to speak. "Loki and Widow've got Coulson."

Rogers' cuts her an inquisitive look out of the corner of his eye—the other squinted in pain or something else. "Explain to me again how this plan of yours is meant to proceed?"

"Some of the Cube's influence or energy or whatever is still trapped in Coulson," Natasha says, dropping a hand on Rogers' shoulder to steady herself. She ignores the familiarity of their positions; doesn't look too deeply into it because she recognizes it for what it is: a war-weariness that permits no room for trivial rivalries and grudges. "Loki says the scepter is a medium for the Cube's power. Coulson uses the scepter and it'll keep the Cube from consuming him—guess it works a little like a funnel—and then Loki will use his voodoo-mojo-mind-control-crap to get Coulson to use the scepter to trigger the Cube's failsafe."

Rogers turns his head now to squint at her incredulously. "How can the Cube have a failsafe?"

"Loki knows—but he's not sharing." Natasha shrugs and removes her hand at the same time that Rogers does. At Rogers' constipated look of disapproval, she rolls her eyes. "Yeah—I know. I'm not saying I don't think he's up to something, but the portal's open—the army is here. What's he gunna do? Open it some more? No. He seems just as invested in shutting that portal as the rest of us—I just don't know why."

"I don't like it," Rogers says begrudgingly. He begins walking, scanning the streets for more enemies. Natasha follows, falling into step with him.

"Dude, trust me. I know. But, I mean—he didn't kill Coulson. He could have. And he didn't."

"I know. I'm thinking about that, too," Rogers mutters. "I've also been thinking about Fury."

"Yeah—I'm not. If I do, I think I'll just—" She takes a breath and stops. "Yeah. I'm not going to think about that right now."

Rogers pauses, glancing over his shoulder. There's hesitance in his eyes and it makes Natasha falter. His lips part in preparation for words and she can see where his thoughts have taken him—can't believe how much of an open book he is—and doesn't think she wants to hear them. She can't imagine she'd be able to accept them with any semblance of grace. I warned you about Fury from the get-go, and I was right, wasn't I? She can imagine just how much it must cost the American hero to have been deceived by someone he considered his commanding officer, but she feels very little sympathy for him—never mind whatever figment of camaraderie they might pretend to have in the midst of this chaos.

Rogers pulls his gaze away like it's a great effort and swallows. He says, "You should get back up there," but its not what either of them hears.

Natasha sniffs, thrusters engaging. "Yeah, yeah," she waves him off flippantly and is a little surprised when he returns it with a sort of salute.


She doesn't see it coming.

It's not intentional—this is her second thought, immediately following holyfuckingshit! She and Thor are caught up with another swarm and faring well—when, suddenly, she hears Barton bark her name into the COM and her HUD is blaring in warning a second too late because human nature (curiosity) is instinct and overrides reflex and so, instead of ducking or dodging or moving at all, her first impulse is to glance over her shoulder to see what is attacking her. This costs her the precious few seconds she could have used to avoid the collision of one of the Chitauri vehicles as its hurtled at impossible speeds right at her (courtesy of the Hulk, she later discovers). The blow hits her harder than Mjolnir ever has.

She literally blacks out the moment after the impact and comes back to awareness what feels like lifetimes later, half-embedded into the asphalt.

With a groan, Natasha works to extract herself from the street, but it's an effort that costs her every ounce of will. In the sky, a Chitauri warrior speeds towards her in a vehicle, his gunner peppering the ground with plasma bolts in a path leading right to her. She can't get up quickly enough—sees Thor out of the corner of her eye struggle against an overwhelming amount of Chitauri—and calculates the amount of time it would take her to gather a magnetic field around her suit that could protect her from the plasma bolts. She doesn't have enough time.

"Stark! What are you doing? Get out of there!" Barton shouts.

The suit is jammed. She can't get up. Natasha watches each bolt of plasma as it strikes the asphalt and melts into the surface like fire to plastic.

The vehicle is nearly upon her—when it is abruptly encased in ice and violently flung aside.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she catches a glimpse of green and gold—then, "Do you plan to sit there all day while the rest of us do all the work?"

Natasha jerks her head up, and even with the faceplate to conceal her features, Loki seems to know that she is glaring at him—if his smirk is anything to go by. He chuckles, shifting the angle of his stance to extend a hand to her. Her eyes drop to his palm and she snorts. Ignoring the offer, she grits her teeth and doesn't make a sound as she uses a small boost of power to push herself to her feet. Only when she's certain she can remain on her feet without collapsing does she allow herself to breathe. When she looks up, Loki's focus seems to be behind her—but his mouth is puckered in a useless attempt to conceal a grin.

She follows Loki's gaze to see Thor releasing his hammer into the crowd of Chitauri standing between him and them, knocking the stubborn aliens down like pins. Almost immediately, frost begins to seep from the asphalt under the fallen Chitauri, ice rising up and encasing the aliens in a cocoon.

Thor and Loki clear the street in this pattern; Thor's might incapacitating the enemy while Loki uses his magic to make sure the Chitauri stay down. Even against the might of two Asgardian Gods, the Chitauri don't flee. They fight, as zealous as ever, never mind the ease with which their comrades are defeated all around them. Natasha notices a pattern in their attacks—the way they circle around the Gods to aim their blasts at her—and doesn't miss the way Thor and Loki make a point to keep her between them. Her suit is weakened and her attacks suffer the result; the Chitauri latch onto this fact with the attentiveness of instinctive warriors but Natasha has no intention to play the damsel in distress.

"JARVIS—85% power to Mark III Unibeam—set to the same frequency as the repulsors." Natasha watches the HUD as it displays the transfer of power onto the chest-mount—sees Loki step in front of her to block the Chitauri's view of her. Of course, Loki is well-versed in his knowledge of her suits and for the first time since this mess began she's thankful for it because he's buying her time to charge without interruption.

"Brother," Loki says suddenly, startling Thor. Loki doesn't meet the Thunder God's gaze—flicking his wrist to release a flurry of daggers. "How do you battle an advance of Bildschneip?"

Thor blinks, flicks his gaze to her with a frown—then seems to notice the building glow of energy on the chest-mount and grins. Neither Asgardian bothers to clarify what the hell a Bill-Snipe is; Thor pivots around with a new burst of energy, flinging out his hammer in seemingly careless arcs. Mjolnir always returns to his hand, but he never seems to hit his mark. From behind her, ice builds up and lashes out at the Chitauri like angry waves, consuming the street and expanding in a circle around them. The Chitauri scramble away, desperate to escape the grips of Loki's ice and avoid Thor's hammer.

On the HUD, the charge reads 83%.

Loki steps aside and she is momentarily distracted by the wall of ice erected all around them in a semi-circle. The skies are black with pregnant clouds and she sees that Thor has ceased his attacks and is spinning his hammer vigorously, knees bent in a slight crouch as if in efforts to stay grounded. The Chitauri see this and surge towards the opening in the ice wall, some slipping and skidding into one another along the frosted street—and just as they reach the opening, tendrils of ice extend and stitch together to seal the exit, trapping them all within the barricade of ice.

As the charge on the HUD reaches 85%, she sees that all the Chitauri have been herded together directly in front of her. Natasha smirks, watches a secondary wall of ice build up around where the Chitauri are huddled together—then braces herself, imitating Thor's crouched stance, and releases the blast from her chest-mount. The repulsor energy surges outwards and her chest jerks forward with the strength of it. It's followed by Thor's roar as a streak of lightning whips down from the sky and catches Mjolnir, builds up—and then Thor is redirecting the flow of electricity, aiming it at the Chitauri at an angle that causes the current to converge with her repulsor blast.

This all happens in under a span of a second and then Natasha is watching the collective blast sweep over the Chitauri—engulfing them—and punch through Loki's wall.

It seems like forever before the suit can expel all the energy and throughout it all she feels the precarious pull of it—as if her body could be dragged away into the column of energy and consumed just as easily as the Chitauri had been. When the energy cuts, she sags to her knees—expects to become re-acquainted with the asphalt, only to feel a firm vice wrap under her arms and support her against a wall of Asgardian muscle. She doesn't have the energy to look up, but feels Thor's brilliant grin burning into the side of her faceplate.

"This battle harkens back to our youth—does it not, brother?" Thor exclaims with careful giddiness.

Loki doesn't answer and Natasha groans up at the Thunder God, nudging his side weakly with an elbow. "Guys—I'm dead on my feet," she mutters—her words muffled, even to her own ears. "Could use a charge …"

The only thing keeping her suit from shutting down completely around her is the reactor and she is not prepared to test its endurance without the suit's built-in reserves.

"Thor," Loki says, the single word spoken with an unreadable hardness.

Thor steps away and Natasha falls to her knees gracelessly. She sits back against her haunches, head hanging heavily. Out of the corner of her vision, she sees Thor build up a spin with his hammer. He sustains this for only a minute before stepping to her and jerking the hammer to a halt perpendicularly between them. She hears the clink of the hammer tapping against her chest—

And there's no other warning as she nearly bites off her own tongue in an effort not to scream as a surge of electricity pulsesinto her suit and her body convulses with each wave of white heat. Her mind is screaming but her throat clamps shut around any sound. She doesn't know whether her vision is consumed in black or white—thinks it flickers between the two like changing channels—before the flow of energy cuts off altogether.

She feels the needle-pricks of energy all over her skin and grimaces—her muscles constricting and spasming painfully. The HUD is glowing at full intensity in front of her and the suit's charge indicator reads 211%.

There is an eternity of silence as the brothers regard her—waiting.

It takes a little longer to convince herself she's going to be okay. With the suit in such a weakened state, she'd felt the brunt of Thor's power more fully than she had when they'd first met.

She exhales a breath as a sigh and brings both hands in front of her to flex experimentally. With a lazy grin she doesn't feel, she says, "Awesome."

Thor chuckles, and she looks up to meet his approving gaze. "You are indeed a formidable warrior, Lady of Iron. Brother, does the Lady Stark not remind you of the Lady Sif?"

Suddenly at her side, Loki bends forward to wrap a hand around her arm and tug her roughly to her feet, muttering (with no small amount of bitterness), "No, she does not."

Loki releases her and steps away. Natasha stops listening as Thor's attention shifts to Loki completely.

She takes stock of her injuries as JARVIS pulls up her stats and the specs for the suit. Unlike the Iron Woman, she was going to need a little more than a boost of energy to keep her going. It had been only a handful of days since Loki's attack on P.E.G.A.S.U.S. base but she honestly couldn't say how long it had been, exactly. It felt likes weeks—months—since she'd had a decent night's rest—or even just a second to breathe. She wasn't some twenty-year-old with an overabundance of energy and even if she was in the best shape of her life, people—normal fucking people—were not built to endure the kind of beating-after-beating-after-beating she was being subjected to. She doesn't have the Cap's Super Soldier resilience or the Hulk's enhanced strength. She was vulnerable flesh and fragile bone encased in a suit of technologically enhanced armor.

"Thor!" Barton exclaims suddenly. "Got another beastie coming through the portal."

"I shall fell the beast!" Thor bellows, swinging his hammer in a powerful arc and propelling skywards.

Natasha watches him go with idle interest—can't help try to calculate how much strength it would take to build up enough momentum to sustain flight without losing said momentum.

When he's disappeared, she mutes her end of the COM and turns to Loki with a frown. "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be with Black Widow and Coulson, trying to shut the portal."

Nonplussed, Loki's says, "I am. This is merely a conjuration."

Natasha's frown deepens. "One of you is enough. Should you be wasting energy making copies of yourself?"

Loki sniffs, sneering lightly. "If I cannot sustain a mere conjuration, then I am already too weak for the task." His eyes narrow upon her in something that is almost a leer. "Would you rather I abandon you, then? Leave you to mercy of the Chitauri? They may be weaker than you and your Avengers, but they are a bloodthirsty, war-mongering lot. Now that you've angered them—they're out for more than revenge."

A pained groan escapes her before she can snuff it out; Loki scowls. She snorts, "What's worse than revenge? Are you just trying to be cryptic? 'Cause, man—I got the message. They want us deader than dead—reading that, loud and clear." Shrugging her shoulders feels strange—the suit moves smoothly, the boost in power allowing for it to begin self-repairs, but her muscles and joints are stiff and the motion is jerky. Movement on her HUD catches her attention. "Look—I'm fine now, but Cap could probably use your help. Why don't you mosey on over to him?"

Before he can argue—and he looks like he wants to—a gruff voice filters in through her COM.

"Stark! You hear me?"

Loki opens his mouth to say something but he suddenly disappears. The abruptness of it leaves a pool of dread in the pit of her stomach—If I cannot sustain a mere conjuration, then I am already too weak for the taskand it momentarily overrides the dark blanket of anger that threatens to envelop her senses.

"What?" She snaps angrily, fists clenching.

Fury continues, ignoring her hostility to say, "You have a missile headed straight for the city."

Natasha's blood runs cold.

Fuck her fucking life.

She swallows, falling into a low crouch. "How long?"

A part of her doesn't want to know.

"Three minutes. Max. The payload will wipe out midtown."

"JARVIS!" She watches the HUD flood with activity as JARVIS diverts all the energy Thor had charged them with into the thrusters. Good boy, she thinks, rocketing to the air and searching the skies for the missile.

Coordinates filter in from the Helicarrier and mark the missile's trajectory towards the city. Natasha pivots her body in the air and flies in its direction.


In the dark caverns that still haunt her in the night, her life was forever changed. For better. For worse. Up until this moment in her life, she had lived without a purpose. All the money and intelligence in the world were not enough to give meaning to her existence. Her goals—as wild and farfetched as they could sometimes appear to be—were eventually achieved. There was a hunger inside her and it called to be quenched, but no amount of men or partying or expensive collections could appease it.

She'd thought that her genius allowed her to exist on a level far beyond that of anyone else—too see and comprehend more of the world than the simpletons around her. She was better—she was above them—was she not? And it had burned—burned her to realize that for all her intelligence, her existence, in the end, would amount to little more than that of a name. To the world—to everyone—she was just another socialite with too much money to spend and too little regard for much anything else. She was just Stark and it didn't matter if her mind allowed her to see more of the world than anyone else—it didn't matter becausethey didn't care. They didn't care because they couldn't see. It was like explaining color to the blind—or sound to the deaf. How could anyone understand what she saw with her mind? How could they ever possibly grasp the gulf of difference between them and herself?

It came to her in the damp darkness of the caves:

She was nothing.

For all her greatness—it meant nothing.

She was nothing without her genius and her genius meant nothing without a purpose to apply herself to—and had she ever had a purpose?

Her genius, she knew, had surpassed that of her father's by the age of eleven—but Howard Stark had given them the greatest hero in American lore. He had manufactured the weapon that defended them from the Nazis—but what of Natasha? What hadshe accomplished—but to have her image plastered on the cover of every gossip magazine and her technology sold into enemy hands by the only person she'd ever carried any paternal affection for.

Seeing her weapons being utilized against her country by some terrorist organization hadn't been enough to spur her into action. It had been something in the way Yinsen had looked to her—had seen her, stripping her of her facades and recognizing a fellow human beneath an exterior of sardonic words and shallow smiles. Somewhere in the depths of his eyes, she'd found a reason to fight for her meaningless life—if only to repay him by providing him with a means to escape.

And then …

Natasha did not believe hers was a life worth saving. Even before Obadiah's betrayal—before the Ten Rings—a part of her had always been waiting for the opportunity to present itself and allow her to just give up. She would never take her own life—but could never justify a reason to fight for it.

And then there was Yinsen.

Then there was Yinsen who had given his life so that she could keep her own and Natasha would forever curse him because—why should she be permitted to survive when she was barely more than a cold shell of a person? And how was she supposed to erase the image of his eyes as the life he'd given for her slowly drained from them? His dark, lifeless eyes—they would forever haunt her, striking a terror deeper than her captor had ever managed to instill in her.

Those lifeless eyes—accusing, demanding, beseeching.

It was the question that she feared most of all, because she didn't have an answer. She didn't have an answer and she was Natasha Stark.

Why do you deserve to live?

The question hangs heavily in her mind.

Why do you deserve to live?


Agent Romanoff's voice filters into the COM.

"We can close it. Can anybody copy? It's working—we can shut the portal down!"

"Do it!" Rogers shouts into the COM.

"No! Wait!" Natasha says quickly, feeling a stutter of anxiety in her heart—Not yet. Not yet. I've got a plan.

"Stark! These things are still coming!" Rogers argues.

Natasha licks her lips nervously, eyes never straying from the marker on her HUD. "I got a nuke coming in. It's gunna blow in less than a minute."

On cue, she spots the missile nearly three hundred feet away, streaking towards Verrazano Bridge. JARVIS scans it and the specs load up on the screen—AGM-154 JSOW multi-stage warhead. It had a projected impact radius of thirty-two square miles. As she comes upon the bridge, she swoops low underneath, then pulls her palms up and uses the repulsors to bring her to a jarring halt—arcs her head up in time to spot the warhead pass overhead. She ignites her thrusters to propel her upwards, water exploding beneath her, and she curves over the height of the bridge and gives chase to the missile.

Her eyes flicker skywards, finding the portal, and she feels her heart and stomach do a simultaneous twist. She says out load, for her benefit more than anyone else, "And I know just where to put it."

Increasing the flood of power to the thrusters by 10%, she feels the strain against her sore muscles as the suit picks up speed. It's not unlike pushing a vehicle past 145 MPH—she feels herself losing control of her body and her muscles become tense with an effort to keep up with the suit. She ignores the strain to her body, carves an arc to her right to find balance—and comes up to the missile from the side. She aligns herself under its belly and twists her arms backwards, fingers digging for purchase into the side of the missile. She nearly loses her hold as she tries to match her speed to the missile's, knocking her head against its side as it jostles in her hold—as if in efforts to escape.

Up ahead, she is nearly upon the city and she feels her heart hammering painfully in her chest. Angling her boots the slightest degree downwards, she increases the power to the thrusters once more as she fights to redirect the missile. Amid the towering skyscrapers, the portal is a beacon for Stark Tower. She angles herself and the missile accordingly.

"Stark." Rogers says after a moment, grim. "You know that's a one way trip."

She ignores him, mutes her COM again on her end, and says to JARVIS, "Save the rest for the turn, J."

"Ma'am," JARVIS says in Rogers' tone. Natasha feels a strange emotion swell in her chest and swallows. "Shall I try Ms. Potts?"

Pepper's contact ID pops up on the HUD and Natasha looks away—breathes shakily through her nose. Her eyes are dry but her lips quiver. "Might as well."

She calculates her trajectory and finds a clear path between herself and Stark Tower. JARVIS has the thrusters on as low a setting as they are both willing to allow. This means that she's practically being dragged along by the missile without very little control for their velocity. The call rings out emptily into the helmet until she can no longer tolerate it. She mutes the ringer and focuses instead on the Tower.

As she comes upon Park, she activates the chest thrusters and sets them to 67%, grunting with the amount of effort she is required to exert to even nudge the missile off its course. The Tower is nearly upon them—closing in so quickly she can imagine the feel of its impact if she allows for even a second of hesitation.

Gritting her teeth so hard her jaw aches, she pushes her back up against the missile and it's like trying to move a brick wall.

The remains of the Stark logo grow bigger as she grows closer …

The thrusters burst back into life at full strength—

At the last possible moment, she feels the missile's give—and then she's facing skyward and she's still moving at too incredibly a velocity. The underside of her suit bashes against the side of the Tower—and she imagines that is what it would feel to get punched in the gut by the Hulk because it knocks whatever air had been in her lungs and leaves her completely empty for the longest moment—but she's streaking past the Tower and higher into the sky, towards the portal—

And suddenly, the length of space between the Tower and the portal is somehow shorter and longer all at once ...

She wants to look away, but darkness overhead is consuming—she sees a flicker of lifeless eyes and smells the must of sweat and desperation and there is a question in the darkness above her—

"What do you think you're doing?"

Loki's voice rings out through every vacant space of her body—she feels hollow, somehow, and she latches onto the sound of him like it's the only thing that matters.

Her attempt at laughter relinquish only a shaky breath. She swallows, licks her lips, and says, "Uh—saving the world. Isn't it obvious?"

Loki's tone is one of anger; it soothes her nerves for only a second. "Your suit will not be able to withstand the pressures of space. Natasha, you are not going to survive the trip back."

The emotion in her chest returns tenfold—stifling. "Well—gee. Thanks for the vote of confidence." When she hears nothing, she sighs, closing her eyes—says, "It's fine, Loki."

Loki allows the silence to remain for too long. Then, finally, "I don't understand."

She feels as if the emotion in her chest could swallow her completely—can't name it but wishes there was a way to switch off her thoughts and emotions because everything hurts and right now her mind is more a curse than a blessing.

She forces out her words, feeling their truth to her core. "This is our best chance." She breathes, thinks she feels the familiarity of his presence, even if the notion of that is impossible. She relaxes a fraction as she says, "We can't afford to let this nuke reach the city and if we can take out a good chunk of their army—all the better."

"There is no guarantee it will be enough to win."

There is something just beneath the surface of his words—she can't read it, but it brings a wry grin to her lips and she snorts. "Just close the portal and clean up house while I'm gone."

"This isn't a joke."

Natasha rolls her eyes. "And I'm not laughing," she says—knows he can probably hear the grin in her words. "This is a serious moment for me, man—I get to be the hero."

Loki says nothing and Natasha lets her grin slowly fade. Her eyes flicker to the corner of her HUD—Pepper's sweet smile still blinking back at her.

Her heart strains painfully in her chest. She swallows past a heavy lump and says, "Hey—uh, I can't get a hold of—uh, Pepper. Can you let her know—"

"No." Loki says abruptly, startling her. "Just get back. Alive."

Natasha snorts. She doesn't see how that's going to be possible but she doesn't want her last moments to be spent arguing—knows that despite his bullheadedness Loki will relay the message and if not ... Pepper knows. Pepper and Rhoadie and Happy—they know because Natasha has spent ever last second since her return to civilization to make sure that they know.

She lies, "Sure. I'll try."

Loki is quiet a moment. "If you don't, I'm selling your suits on eBay. In pieces."

This time, Natasha actually chokes out a laugh—feels something prickle and burn at the edges of her eyes. "Yeah—okay, then. I guess I don't have much of a choice."

She hears his smirk. "Not really."

She smiles, rolling her eyes. "Jesus—Fine."

The portal is endless around her—and then it is swallowing her before she can prepare herself and it's as if some invisible force is trying to rip the life out through her lungs. There's pressure pushing in from all sides, as if the suit itself were crumpling over her body.

It's an effort just to retain enough breath to gasp, "… Loki?"

The silence is an eternity and a solid presence all around her while her mind screams in agony.

"I'm still here."

Okay, she thinks. Okay. His words penetrate through the searing pain and she clings to them with desperation.

"You're going to survive," he says, despite his earlier words. His words are light when his tone is anything but"You still owe me a drink."

She grimaces a smile as the HUD goes dark all around her. The drinks had been a celebration of the Tower's completion—which they had completely demolished in their impromptu fight.

"That is hardly my fault," Loki says, and it should startle her that he heard the thought when she knows she couldn't summon up the breath for words if she tried—but it doesn't. It doesn't matter.

She thinks, It's a little your fault.

"Maybe a little—but you should see what Thor did to your logo."

Natasha winces and the suit goes limp, the missile slipping away from her grasp as she begins to fall—shoulder boosters disengaging as she watches through bleary eyes and Iron Woman's mask as the missile finds its mark in the endless darkness—a heavy, nightmarish mass in the oblivion. She sees its impact and sees the eruption as it hungrily consumes the Chitauri mothership—and then the brilliance of the flames are too bright and she's tired, so very tired. Her eyes slips shut—just for a minute, she thinks, just for a minute, and then I'll wake up and go home

Then there is nothing.

No darkness.

Only silence.

An eternity of silence.

And a question.

Chapter Text

There's a buzzing in her ears.


"You didn't tell me you had a brother," Natasha says by way of greeting as she steps into the main room and finds Pepper and Olson sharing tea by the balcony window. It's almost romantic—intimate—and Natasha frowns petulantly—for only a split second—while her eyes traitorously devour every detail of their postures to determine what their body language can reveal. It's not the first time she's caught the two secreted away in their own private corner, and while she'd been inclined to turn a blind eye to it at first (what with being so consumed with her work on the Tower), it was becoming harder and harder to ignore.

She knows jealousy—is closely acquainted with the emotion. The problem is she doesn't know whom she is jealous of. Lucas Olson was like God's answer to the lethal beauty that was Agent 'Natalie' Romanoff—only: Olson came equipped with all the best parts that, sadly, Agent Romanoff did not. Natasha had never been in a position where she had to compete with Pepper of all people just to get into a guy's pants—but she also didn't like the idea of her former-assistant-turned-CEO cozying it up with the new guy on account of Natasha not knowing anything about said guy in the first place. It was fine if Natasha hooked up with random strangers—but it wasdefinitely not okay if Pepper did. Pepper was worth far more than that, after all. Olson was certainly one of the finer specimens of the male persuasion to grace Natasha's presence, but even that wasn't enough to warrant the privilege of courting Ms. Virginia 'Pepper' Potts.

Concluding that Pepper wins any competition by virtue of being Pepper, Natasha cuts Olson with a half-hearted glare of warning. It reads clearly: Natasha Stark does not share.

"I assume you've been looking into my background," Olson replies in his usual and obnoxiously elegant way. He shares a smirk with Pepper before turning to face Natasha fully, smirk widening to a smile. "Why?"

His charm is sickening in the way that Natasha recognizes it all too quickly as the sort of charm she is known to employ from time to time. It's absolutely irritating—primarily because it echoes so distinctly of herself that it's also a little jarring.

Natasha rolls her eyes in annoyance as she crosses the room, expertly maneuvering around moving boxes. "Uh—that's what employersdo. Why? Got something to hide?"

Olson's smile doesn't waver. "Not at all. I was merely under the impression that Ms. Potts had already conducted the necessary checks and concluded I was fit for the position. Hence my current employment under your—esteemed—self, Ms. Stark."

Natasha and Pepper's eyes narrow simultaneously—for different reasons. Pepper, looking steadily more annoyed with Natasha, says, "Idid. Is my judgment no longer good enough for you, Ms. Stark?" Which translates, roughly, to: You better have a damn good reason for acting like such a jerk, Natasha, or so help me God—

"As a matter of fact," Natasha comes to stand directly in front of them, arms crossed and eyes wide in an overly exaggerated look of sincerity. She looks directly into Pepper's eyes as she says, "It is. Yours is the only opinion that matters, Pepper."

Pepper looks all the more suspicious, but her lips quirk in a telling smile. Yes, even while acting like a total douche, Natasha still has more charm than this Olson guy.

"However," Natasha goes on, snapping her attention back to Olson with a frown, "That doesn't change the fact that the lastassistant totally turned out to be an enemy spy and—"

"She means: spy from another company," Pepper says quickly at Olson's inquiring look. To Natasha, Pepper scowls and says, "And that was completely different and you know it."

"So? It doesn't hurt to be careful," Natasha says stubbornly.

"I don't keep in touch with my brother anymore," Olson says as if to diffuse the tension building between Pepper and Natasha. He cants his head a little to the left, in thought, and says, "Last we spoke, he was in New Mexico."

Natasha glares. "What's in New Mexico?"

Olson blinks. "A woman."

"What woman?"

"I did not acquire her name." Olson pauses, then flicks his gaze away in thought. "She was a scientist, if that helps?"

Natasha nods, understanding. She leers. "Scientists are where it's at. Give it a whirl, sometime."

Pepper groans. "Dear Lord, Natasha, stop talking."

"What?" Natasha smiles at her, all feigned innocence.

Shaking her head, Pepper ignores her in favor of the opening Natasha had presented them into the life of their mysterious new employee. "Olson—I take it you don't approve of your brother's new girlfriend?"

If Olson were capable of it, Natasha imagines he would be fidgeting right now. He doesn't—his prim European upbringing evidently nullifying any potentially awkward quirks. He sips at his tea with a furrowed brow—as if he's considering every flavor with care—before he says, "She barely qualifies as such. They've spent less time together than you and I."

Pepper smiles wistfully. "Sometimes you can fall in love with someone—"

"He is not in love," Olson says abruptly—his tone hard and empty of all humor. Pepper must have struck a chord—though she looks shocked and completely at a loss for what she could have said to elicit such an abrupt shift in demeanor. Olson takes a breath and goes on, "You cannot fall in love with someone you know nothing about."

Pepper hesitates for a second—as if she doesn't know whether she's permitted to press further into the matter—before she sighs and says, quietly, "I don't know. You'd be surprised. Sometimes—you just know. It's just a feeling you get and if you waste your time trying to understand it, you'll end up missing out on the magic of it completely."

Neither Olson nor Natasha have anything to say following this. Pepper's expression looks far away and Natasha studies it with interest. She's familiar with what someone looks like when they're completely besotted with another—it's the look she's seen on too many a conquest and a look she can see right now on Pepper's face. It strikes a nervous chord within her—something close to panic—and immediately she wants the expression gone. Natasha looks to Olson, but the man's attention is elsewhere—similarly lost in thought, but without the ridiculous look of infatuation plastered all over his fine features. This does nothing to ease Natasha—in fact, it arouses a completely different panic because—What if Pepper likes Olson? Is she going to leave? What if Olson doesn't feel the same way? Why wouldn't he feel the same way? Pepper is awesome! Who the hell does he think he is—?

Realizing that she's growing angrier the more she lets her mind get away with her, she forces herself back into the present—and regret it instantly. It's awkwardly silent without anything to fill in the void. Natasha becomes startlingly aware of just how quiet the penthouse is and it makes something inside of her turn cold.

"That's Pepper," Natasha says quickly with a scoff. The words are no less awkward for having been spoken so long after Pepper's impromptu speech on the merits of love or whatever. "Our resident romantic."

"Someone has to be," Pepper huffs with a roll of her eyes. "You've got the emotional capacity of a spoon. JARVIS is programmed with more emotion than you! Just you wait until it happens for you—and then we'll see who the romantic is. I bet you'll turn into acomplete sap! You'll be demanding flowers and candle-lit dinners—you'll call for every cheesy cliché you can think of and more!"

Natasha snorts. "Huh—no. I never confuse lust for love, sweetheart."

Pepper shakes her head with a fond smile. It dissolves into a look of sympathy when she turns to Olson. "Olson—so you haven't spoken to your brother since … ?"

Olson doesn't meet either of their gazes—keeping green eyes firmly pinned to the plastic-covered floors. "Nearly a year. We had a—falling out."

It's Natasha's turn to groan. "Oh please tell me it wasn't over a girl. That's too teenage-drama-chick-flick for me—and I think I'd have to fire you on principle alone." Olson blinks up at her, a look of total bemusement on his face. Natasha leers. "On the bright side—"

"Natasha—words? Use less." Pepper is glowering again, but it softens when she turns to Olson. "Is it something you want to talk about, Olson?"

Olson's expression is completely unreadable and he averts his gaze from Natasha's to stare at the elevator behind her. "Not particularly."

Natasha's scowl returns full force when she remembers her purpose. "What want to know is why he wasn't listed anywhere on your contacts. I would have thought you didn't have a family—but when I looked into it some more, I saw that you had a mom and dad living in Germany and a brother who—what does he do?"

"Nothing productive. And my family and I are not close, which is why they are not listed under my contacts." If possible, Olson's face seems to drain of whatever emotion he'd apparently been wearing. He looks like a stone and his words are clipped and controlled. "Why is any of this relevant?"

"It's not." Natasha smiles. "Are you not close because you're adopted?"

Pepper gasps. "Ms. Stark!"

"What?" Natasha blinks, feigning innocence. From her back pocket she draws out her phone, taps it twice with two fingers then swipes her fingers outwards to allow her phone's display to be projected in the air between them. "It says here that he's adopted—I wanna know. Is it? Is that the reason?"

Olson's expression gives nothing away but she has his attention. "Is it relevant?"

"If I say yes will you answer me?"

"No."

She smiles. "Then, no. It's not relevant. But you should still tell me."

"Ms. Stark," Pepper exclaims, dangerously close to anger—which means that Natasha can still get away with a little more. "That'senough."

Natasha frowns at Pepper. "What? What's wrong with knowing a little more about your employees? Can you blame me? I'm just being cautious, here."

Pepper glares, eyes fierce. "No—you're being cruel to satiate your own curiosity."

Natasha shrugs artlessly. "Same thing."

Pepper's glare hardens. "No. It's not. I know what you're doing and you need to walk away. Right now."

Natasha shrugs again—but she doesn't wait for Olson to say anything as she turns to leave. Olson's reasons don't really matter and Natasha has never been particularly interested in prying into people's lives out of personal interest—she just liked to do her research so as to better understand her opponents. She wasn't sure if Olson fit into that category yet, but there was something about him ingeneral that made something in her react. If that wasn't a cause for alarm, Natasha didn't know what was.


What she'll later realize is that, while Olson had seemed genuinely distressed by the topic of his family, Loki had every opportunity to construct an identity for himself that held absolutely no connections to his real self. While every lie is built with a foundation of truth, it made little sense for someone who seemed to loath everything about his former life to ingrain it into his newly forged persona.

Perhaps it had all been a part of Loki's ruse—perhaps he'd known, when she inevitably discovered the truth of his identity, that this single glimpse of weakness would allow him a certain leverage over her. If she thought she understood more of him than the others, it would make her all the more susceptible to his charms. It would be the perfect play—utilizing her arrogance to manipulate her. People were always at their weakest when they presumed to have the upper hand.

Or maybe …

Maybe the truth was hidden within the lie—a subconscious desire?

Of a family to call his own—even when he rejected them.


Her mother calls it the Estate; her father refers to it as the Manor. Jarvis addresses it only as the Stark residence and Obadiah—jokingly—calls it the Palace. It is all of these things and more—but it isn't a home to anyone but her.

Natasha knows every square inch of the grounds like the floor plans to the city-block sized mansion itself. She knows that there are exactly 326 trees throughout the complex; 13 different species in total. She can name every type of the 52 types of flowers in the garden because they had been handpicked with care by Maria Stark herself—once upon a time ago when the Lady Stark had been a different woman and shortly before Natasha had been born. Everything that is green and beautiful is Maria—everything that is cold and constructed is Howard. Within the manor, Natasha becomes intimately familiar with all six floors and every room therein. The above-ground floors are open to the public but reserved for Maria, thus decorated extravagantly—for the public's benefit more than her own (after all, among the three Starks, Maria was the only one with an eye for the fine arts and all the long hours she put into the careful arrangement of Victorian furniture and Renaissance paintings was wasted on her husband and daughter).

Much of Natasha's youth is spent exploring her home, hungrily learning its every secret under the watchful eye of her butler, Edwin Jarvis.

Natasha speaks her first word just shy of her first birthday. By age three, she can recite the name of every employee working within the Stark estate—every nursemaid, butler, gardener and chef—but her first word is mama and her second is Obi.

She's only ever heard of her father, but doesn't officially meet the man until she's four years old and sitting in his workshop in the early hours of the morning, piecing together her first circuit board. Everyone is in bed and she doesn't expect it when the doors burst open and an angry man is ushering her out of the workshop and up into her room, circuit board lying in the hallway discarded where she'd dropped it in the midst of her struggle. She doesn't see the man again for several days and only learns of his identity when she asks Jarvis about it the following day. He informs her that Master Stark had returned for the time being and asked not to be disturbed under any circumstances.

At age six, she builds her first engine. Howard is away and her mother doesn't bother to leave the parlor to inspect Natasha's work—merely smiles that listless, red-lipped smile, blue eyes far away and empty of life as she daintily sips at her Manhattan. The stench of whiskey permeates the air and it's as familiar as the scent of sweet alyssums and gardenias. Natasha recalls a distinct flare of hate—but it's gone the next moment because Jarvis is there and is announcing the arrival of Obi, and when she proclaims the news of her newest achievement he grins and takes her hand and demands she show him her work.

Sometimes, while Howard is away, Natasha will sneak into his workshop (he's tried all manner of locks to keep her out, but she's bypassed every security measure he's come up with) to pluck through his project files, scrawling notes and recommendations in the margins with a red crayon. She thinks she's being helpful—until Obi has to pull her aside one day to tell her that she isn't to touch Howard's things ever again.

For most of her childhood, Natasha speaks to her father only through Obadiah.

In her father's absence, Natasha cares for her mother as Maria grows steadily more dependent on alcohol and medication to get her through the days. There's a growing collection of prescription drugs bottled away in orange, cylindrical containers and child-proof white caps. They gather on the granite countertops in Maria's bathroom, crowding together like the little toy soldiers Natasha keeps on the tank of her toilet (a Christmas present from Howard—and on the card, the only note Howard had ever written her: Captain America and the Howling Commandos – Cpt. Steve Rogers, Sgt. J. Fury, Cpl. T. Dugan, Pvt. I. Cohen, Pvt. G. Jones, Pvt. D. Manelli, Pvt. R. Ralston, Pvt. J. Juniper, Pvt. P. Pinkerton, Pvt. J. Logan.)

During the months between Howard's visits to the manor, every room is filled with sound. Music filters into nearly every room from the parlor where Maria waltzes bonelessly with a martini dangling precariously between her fingers. The kitchens are alive with the sounds of chopping and boiling and the shouting of orders and Natasha doesn't know how they manage to keep so busy when they have only a family of two to feed, but if she behaves, she is permitted to sit in a corner to work and sometimes watch. It's as fascinating a process as it is confounding, but she often finds the solution to her problems while watching the chefs hard at work.

Natasha knows when Howard has returned if she returns from school and is greeted by silence.

Eventually, Natasha learns to dread the silence.

She's ten when her father pulls her into his study, breath heavy with scotch and eyes glassy with emotion. He sits her down beside him on the leather couch and pulls the footstool closer to them—flips a hatch and opens the top of the stool to reveal that it is actually a chest.

Natasha is silent and Howard doesn't look at her when he asks, "Do you know why daddy has to go away so often?"

Natasha can only shake her head 'no'. She doesn't know—doesn't think she cares. Sometimes, the curiosity can be overwhelming, but mostly—she just wishes he would go. Or stay. Or choose one. Natasha has known she was a genius since she was four and Obadiah told her so. She's known she was smarter than Howard since she was six and Obadiah had shown her the blueprints for a company project (A secret, he'd said. You can't tell your father. As if Howard would listen.). He'd handed her a box of crayons and watched with a fond smile as she'd scribbled over each flaw in the proposal. Obadiah thinks she's a genius but Howard doesn't even care—so Natasha doesn't care if one day he never comes back, just as long as the music never stops.

From the pocket of his slacks, Howard pulls out a ragged soldier painted brightly in blue. She recognizes the figurine as her Captain America and watches her father twist the toy in his hand as if inspecting ever minuscule detail. The heavy furrow between his brows tells her, eventually, that he does not find what he's looking for. She waits in the oppressive silence until he speaks.

"On our last voyage—we found something. It wasn't what we were looking for—but it was something."

"What are you looking for?" she asks, if only to avoid a lull into another spell of silence.

His eyes snap to her as if startled to see her, and then the expression dissolves into something she can't comprehend (but she will recognize later as misery) and he says, "You understand, don't you? Why daddy has to go away?"

She swallows, drops her eyes to the figurine and can think only of Maria sitting quietly in the parlor sipping Manhattans. "Are you leaving again?"

"Do you understand, Natasha?"

Natasha blinks at the stern tone and looks up to meet his gaze with a frown. She nods once, slowly, and says, "Yes. I understand, daddy."

The words are alien in her mouth but Howard smiles—a fleeting, phantom smile that doesn't reach his dark eyes.

Every time Howard returns from his trips, the silence follows. Sometimes, on a good day, he'll take her to his study and recount his adventures with the phenomena that was Steve Rogers. She listens—she listens and eventually stops trying to avert his attention with news of her accomplishments; or to even express her concerns over her mother's rapidly declining mental health. These are the only times she sees her father—the only times he sees her.

Her parents are gone before Natasha can learn why Maria required whiskey and drugs just to exist within a life she didn't seem interested in living; they're gone before Natasha can learn how to best the shadow of an American hero so that Howard could see the wife and daughter he'd forgotten.

They're gone.

And only the silence remains.


"What are you working on?"

Natasha had seen the approaching marker on her HUD so she doesn't startle nearly as much to the extra company as she does when she hovers out from underneath the balcony to see Olson standing near the ledge with a mug of coffee and a paper bag. She watches his eyes rove over Iron Woman's body with curiosity and gives him a minute to admire at his leisure before she lands heavily in front of him.

"You're still here," she says, hiding her interest with nonchalance as she takes the coffee from him and allows her faceplate to slip back so he can see just how not interested she is with her carefully practiced look of boredom.

Olson smiles. "I'm a little invested." He offers her the bag and she takes it without thinking—regrets it a second later when she realizes she'd missed an opportunity to rib him with the 'I don't like to be handed things' bit. She frowns when, after another moment, it occurs to her that she'd already ruined the possibility by taking the proffered coffee.

Damn.

She laments over her this—until she sees that he's brought her donuts and that makes everything better. She grins down at the bag and says, absently, "Working on a landing pad. For the suit."

"I thought you were done with that."

"Upgrades," Natasha says with a shrug, handing back her coffee so she can use the freed hand to select a donut.

"Already? What are you thinking of changing?"

"It's never too early for an upgrade," Natasha says haughtily, throwing him a look that reads: was that supposed to be a serious question? "And I was thinking—spinning rims. It'll be cool. It'll look really neat for anyone looking up at the Tower. Plus—it's just cool."

"I see," Olson nods in understanding, but his smirk seems more patronizing than anything else.

She glares at him and activates the thrusters on her boots, hovering towards the landing pad. The moment her boots touch down, she drops the faceplate to see the HUD displaying the landing pad is linked to the suit. Around her, the metal rims that had been framing the pad shift—then come to life, rotating languidly as they slip out from the grooves of the landing pad. The metal rims rotate and shift until they are over her, metal plates displacing themselves from the floor to reveal robotic arms which reach out to grab sections of her armor. On the HUD, sections of her armor are highlighted to indicate which exterior pieces are to be removed first.

The process lasts all of two minutes, and then she is completely without armor, watching as the robotic arms sweep the armor panels away. She nabs the bag of donuts from her gauntlet before the robotic arm can retract completely and heads for the penthouse without a word to Olson.

As expected, he follows her inside and she says, "I need to make it more convenient. I wish JARVIS were here, dammit! I need him to run some calculations!" When she turns around, Olson is still behind her holding her cup of coffee. She scowls. "Why are you still here, again?"

Olson arches a single brow, unruffled. "As far as I know, I am still under Stark employment."

She snorts, crossing her arms. "Yeah. Stark. That's me. I thought I made it pretty clear I didn't want anyone working for me I couldn't trust."

"If I'm not mistaken, my contract is with the company and Ms. Potts." Olson smiles, holding out her coffee.

"Still my company," Natasha grouses, taking the cup and taking an angry swig of it. She's not really sure for whom this display of aggression is for. She's not upset, exactly—more confused than anything else. She's frustrated as a result of this confusion and while she can't prove that Olson is at the crux of it, she has a pretty good feeling that he's the reason she's been feeling so strung up lately.

Olson frowns, green eyes bright and sincere. "Ms. Stark, I really don't know what I did to earn such mistrust."

"You plus Lie equals No Trust," she shrugs, thinking about how she doesn't actually give two shits about why he hadn't listed his family under his contacts—just that he didn't and she'd found out and somehow that was justification enough to kick him to the curb.

"Listen," Olson says, expression sobering. "I apologize for not being upfront about—"

"Save it, man," Natasha drawls with a roll of her eyes. "I don't care."

Olson let's her words sit for a moment. Sweeping a long-finger hand through his dark hair, he sighs and says, "You're upset. I'll return tomorrow and if you still feel the same, I'll—"

"What? No. Just go. Don't bother coming back." The words taste satisfying as they leave her tongue but something is off. She frowns, shakes her head to clear her thoughts—says, "I don't think you'll fit in here at Stark Industries."

"How can you know this when you won't give me the chance?" Natasha startles at his words but Olson goes on, serious, "I don't need to fit in with Stark Industries—I'm your assistant. I only need to be able to serve you, which I believe I can do."

Natasha stares, incredulous. Her mouth is hanging open and it's a long moment before she says anything.

Finally, "You're seriously not going to go?"

Olson sighs. "I really would rather not."

Natasha groans and doesn't bother with a response, turning away to head for her desk. Two minutes tick by and she feels their weight at her core—hears only the heavy nothingness of the penthouse as the soundproof walls and windows do their part in blocking out all external sound.

Then the abrupt sound of Radiohead cuts through the silence and she glances over her shoulder to see Olson standing by the bar, Stark tablet propped up on its stand in front of him. It's blaring The Trickster into the penthouse at an impressively loud decibel while Olson frowns down at it in frustration.

"Radiohead?" she asks loudly over the music—a little awkwardly because she did just all but try to fire him. Has been for several weeks now.

Olson doesn't look up from the tablet, frown deepening. "Ms. Potts uploaded your playlist on this device."

"Why?" She straightened, genuinely curious.

He looks up at her and looks just as confused—as if he doesn't really know why Pepper would do such a thing—but he replies, "She says you concentrate better with music."

Natasha sniffs, suddenly uncomfortable, and turns away. "I guess. I just can't stand when it's too quiet—I have too many thoughts. It's hard to organize them."

"I understand." He sounds like he means it.

Natasha smirks and rolls her eyes. "Yeah. I'm sure you do."

Nothing more is said between them and the world doesn't fall apart when Olson returns the next day.

And the day after that.


In the darkness, it finds her.

There is only one thing she's ever truly feared (but it is not fear). It's something beyond words—beyond comprehension—buried deeply in her psyche; it's a parasite.

In the silence, there is nothing to distract her. Her walls crumble under the omnipresence—there is no escape. Every dark thought is truth and truth is her Judge, Jury and Executioner. Truth condemns and she has sinned enough for many lifetimes—and, so, truth is the enemy.

This wasn't always the case. There is an origin to this fear—but she no longer remembers it. It tastes of long-ago's and something else she's not ready to identify.

There is a beauty in the fact that neither Pepper nor Happy—nor even Olson (Loki)—ever question it. They accept the fact of her illogical distaste for silence as just another quirk compiled upon the many others that make her the eccentric genius that she is.

Natasha was never so scared in those caves as she was when the silence fell.

There's a feeling. It sits deep inside her, long unnoticed, and it grows and it grows—and still unnoticed. She sees a glimpse of it now—an echo of a word or a name or just a thought—and it tastes of despair. It is hopelessness and fear and resignation and every other black thought she'd believed to have put away so many years ago—dealt with if not disposed. The closer she comes to uncovering, the more prominent the fear. She doesn't want to know what lurks within this casket of forbidden emotions—but knows she can't help but pry. Her fear outweighs her curiosity—but only for now—and the closer she comes to it, the more she feels as if the ground is crumbling underneath her. She knows that when the casket breaks and the emotions release—her world will crumble apart.

She feels it now—soaks in the blackest emotions she's ever known as they leach through the fragile confines of the casket. She can't extricate the feeling once it's been felt—doesn't know how to erase the resonance of its presence within her. She only knows that she's losing her grip—unable to retain the façade that's kept her whole for so long.

It feels like falling.


There's a buzzing in her ears and when her eyes flutter open—for only a second—she knows what it is: It's the sound of wind whistling past her ears.

She's falling.


She knows pain—can only remember its encompassing embrace. She can't determine what belongs to her and what belongs to the universe around her—her limbs are foreign; her body a stranger. There is only pain and the feeling of falling. Of falling and havingfallen.

There is a second body, hugging the stranger she's wearing—and it vibrates. Vibrates so hard she thinks it could disassemble her in an instant and then she'll never be able to piece herself back together—but there's a buzzing in her ear and its different and louder and angrier and—

It's a roar.

Like a bolt of electricity, her body is alive—suddenly her own and she jolts awake and opens her eyes to see colors. It's disorienting. She has to squeeze her eyes shut and open them again—the colors become shapes and eventually forms.

She swallows a breath—realizes she must have forgotten to breathe in the interim of her death (was she dead?) and gasps,

"What the hell? What just happened?"

Blue and Yellow look at each other.

Then, gradually, her vision sets into place and she sees faces—she sees faces and they look …

Relieved.

Memories begin to flood in—a rivulet of thoughts ...

"Please tell me somebody tried to kiss me," she moans—hears the pain in her own tone and winces.

Rogers shakes his head, but he smiles as he speaks and it reaches his eyes in a way that melts the blue into something warmer. "You managed to fall through the portal at the last minute."

Natasha attempts a frown but gives up quickly. Her brain is failing to summon anything of worth—she remembers coffee and Loki and space—

Right.

Space.

She exhales shakily and when her throat itches, she doesn't have the strength to cough. She moans pitifully and mutters, "I should be jam on the side of the road. What—"

Rogers' glances to his left and she follows his gaze to the Hulk where he's glowering down at her like she just stole the last Poptart. She tries to smile and it comes out a grimace. Rogers' says, "You can thank the Hulk. He caught you and spared you a jammy demise."

Natasha blinks and looks to Rogers', gaping. "Why—Captain America! Was that a—I think it was! I must have really knocked my head because that almost sounded like the—" She finally figures out how to work her lips again and grins cheekily despite the pain. "—worstattempt at humor in the history of ever. But your sentiments are appreciated."

Rogers' huffs, rolling his eyes, and sits back on his haunches. "Charming as always, Stark."

"Always, for you, Rogers," she grins again and flicks her eyes at the Hulk. "And you, Hulk—you. You're awesome. Awesomer thanBanner—but don't tell him I said that. He's awesome, too! Different qualities—you're different types of 'awesome'. Yeah."

The Hulk grunts in agreement and grins crookedly. It earns a short, breathy laugh from Rogers and a larger grin from Natasha.

It's a little weird to have everyone looking down on her—and it's only then that she realizes that she's lying down in the middle of Park Avenue, immobilized by her own suit. She looks around her—ignores the pain that comes with moving her eyes—and sees Thor lurking behind Rogers'. Loki is right beside him and his expression is carefully neutral and distinctly unreadable.

She blinks at him and he says, "We won."

And just like that, all the tension leaves her body—as if awaiting these words—and she meets Rogers' eyes and he nods and shebreathes because—they fucking did it. They won.

"Alright. Hey. Alright," she mumbles, stunned into a half-coherent state of bliss and pain. She can't lift her arms so she twitches her hands, instead. Rogers' smiles and glances over his shoulder to share it with Thor. Natasha closes her eyes and continues, "Good job, guys. Let's just not come in tomorrow. Let's just take a day. You ever tried shawarma? There's a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don't know what it is, but I wanna try it."

Rogers shakes his head again and then everyone turns their attention to the Hulk as he groans in agony (or irritation) and begins slowly morphing back into Banner. Natasha's eyes remain at his waistline throughout his transformation, but just as Banner's form seemingly absorbs all the extra musculature acquired from the Hulk (how did that work?) and his overly stretched pants begin to sag—Rogers' broad and gloved hand slaps over her eyes to allow the other scientist a semblance of privacy. She listens for the soft huff of Banner's breath and grins—although the leer is largely hidden by Rogers' hand.

"Hey, Banner! If you move into my place—it's pants-optional!"

Another little huff—this one more certainly a laugh. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Really, Stark?" Rogers' exhales, removing his hand so he can settle her with his disapproving frown.

She can't move her shoulders so she wags her eyebrows in an imitation of a shrug. "I just survived a near death experience. There have been suicide missions with a better success rate."

Rogers' frown deepens. "That's not probable. By their very nature—"

"Cap. The moment," Natasha deadpans. "You're ruining the moment here."

Rogers' looks more perplexed than before. "What mo—"

"Get off your lazy ass, Stark, and we can start celebrating."

Natasha beams and doesn't flinch too terribly when both Rogers and Thor take an arm and haul her to her feet—never mind that it couldn't possibly require the two of them to lift her, even with the suit. Her pride smarts but the rest of her hurts too much to care.

"Barton! Is that a smile I hear? I daresay you almost sound glad to have me alive!"

"Nah. Just glad to be done. Thinking of clocking out early."

Agent Romanoff's voice filters in, grainy but clear. "I second this motion."


There are fragments of her memory missing between guiding the missile into space and the subsequent fall to Earth that could have just as easily ended her career as Iron Woman—or a functioning socialite in general. She remembers waking up to the faces of herteam—and the idea of this alone is enough to confirm that she must have been dreaming—but then everything is hazy again. There is a brief chill permeating the blank spot of her memory—then a weightless feeling—and then pain. (She knows later that this is Loki using his magic to remove the impossible remains of her suit; and, in doing so, releasing the pressure the suit had been applying to her wounds, thus making her all the more aware of their severity.) After this, she remembers garbled words and blurry silhouettes and too much light and too much white. The pain is a clouding factor—obscuring pretty much all else.

When she wakes up, she knows she's doped up on morphine but she's coherent enough to think—if a little sluggishly. There's a ceiling above her and she counts every irregularity in the tiles before she remembers that there is more to a room than ceilings. She can't move her head—feels the claustrophobic grip of a neck brace and is aware of cotton in her mouth and spontaneous itches throughout her body.

Son of a bitch.

She was in a hospital.

Blinking to her left, she glares at the curtain blocking her view of the rest of the room. There's a machine to her right beeping noisily into the room at slightly irregular intervals and an occupied chair next her bed. She blinks again drowsily at the single eye glare (staring) back at her from the chair.

"Fury," is what she means to say—because that would be addressing the occupant of the chair by their God given name (though not the name she would have preferred to use, but given the circumstance, the less syllables the better). What she really says sounds something more like, "Hoo-wee."

She groans (whimpers) in annoyance and looks away.

"This is probably the only opportunity I will have to speak without being interrupted," is how Fury deigns to begin his apology. It doesn't sound like an apology (not that she's open to accepting apologies from the man in question, but morphine has made her tolerant of listening, apparently).

She glares for want of anything else to do.

"I know that what I did is questionable—" Her glare hardens but he continues, undaunted. "But I stand by my decision, just as Agent Coulson would have and just as Agent Hill did."

Maria Hill is a witch, Natasha thinks, but Fury can't read minds (thank god) so the words will remain in her head until she regains her faculties.

"But you are not a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, nor are Thor or Captain Rogers or Doctor Banner."

She smirks silently (and weakly) with the knowledge that Barton and Romanoff—who are S.H.I.E.L.D.—were going to silently make Fury's life a living hell. Those two were loyal to whatever cause they thought they were serving—but they were also unerringly loyal to their own, which counted as a redeeming quality in Natasha's books (hence why forgiving Agent Romanoff for the 'Natalie' situation had been entirely an act of good will on Natasha's part and had nothing to do with that fact that the woman could break her with a napkin).

"Stark, for any of this to have worked, all of you were going to need to work together as a team. None of that would have been possible without something to fight for."

Oh, we had something to fight for. You didn't need to pretend to kill off one of your guys just to kick us into gear, you self-serving sonnuva—

"I am sorry it had to be Coulson. In my defense, I had no idea he would even recover from whatever Loki had done. Unlike apparently everyone else on the team, was still under the assumption this guy was our enemy. You'll have to forgive me for assuming the worse of an unresponsive agent. I still don't trust Loki and I still expect all of you to be on alert. You might not care for the role, but this world needs its Avengers. All of you proved that today."

She doesn't hear much else because everything starts to fade away again. She sees Fury lean towards the bed and reach for something—and then everything fades away to black.


When she wakes up again, there is food. It's the first thing she smells and the first thing she sees when she blinks her eyes open. The second thing she notices is the incredibly handsome group of squatters that have made themselves right at home in her hospital room. The curtain has been drawn back and she looks left to see Coulson laid out in the bed next to her. He's sitting up and holding a sloppy-looking sandwich in his hands and he's grinning at her—he's grinning at her.

"Phil!" She shouts—probably does some damage to her throat in the process and definitely does some damage to her neck and ribs when she attempts to sit up too quickly and her entire body rejects the proposal. "Oh—shit. No. Oh—ow. No. Uh-uh—less of that, please?"

"You're already on way too much morphine as it is," Banner says. He's sitting in a chair to her right, beside the monitor and drip and has an equally sloppy sandwich sitting in front of him on her bed. She's half tempted to nudge the sandwich off the bed with her knee just to be a jerk because—there is never enough morphine! Banner's smile is slanted and half-teasing. "You must have a really high … tolerance."

"Like you wouldn't believe," Barton says. He and Romanoff have pulled up one of the two-seaters from the waiting room (Natasha can only assume, because if not—she has no idea where this furniture is coming from) right beside Coulson's bed, sandwiches in hand. Barton is completely straight-faced as he adds, "She can drink nearly all of us out of house and home—with the exception of Nat."

Romanoff shrugs without looking away from her sandwich. "I'm Russian."

"Then I challenge thee!" Thor bellows from his own two-seater at the foot of Natasha's bed. Somehow, he looks cramped in the seat and he's accumulated a pile of wrappers around himself and the small mound of sandwiches.

"By the way, Goldilocks," Barton perks up, ignoring the thumb Romanoff jabs into the soft spot just above his knee for using the nickname (making his leg kick out spontaneously with a twitch). "I'm pretty sure I won our little competition back there. I totally took out way more—"

"Whoa! Whoa!" Natasha cuts in, recalling the challenge—and, while initially against it out of exhaustion more than principle, she definitely will not sit idly by while another assumes victory. "Hel-lo? I took a bullet for the team—!"

"No, I took a bullet for the team," Rogers cuts in from his chair between the beds, lifting his shirt to show off the single bandaged wound, right between his ribs. When he notices Natasha taking the opportunity to admire the rest of the view he hastily drops his shirt and scowls.

"Yeah, you just carried one into space," Barton argues smugly.

"I could have died," Natasha reminds him pointedly, waggling her fingers to gesture to the entirety of her body. When that fails, she just arches a brow that says: Exhibit A.

"But you didn't," Romanoff points out sagely into her sandwich.

"Besides, as far as dramatic deaths go, I'm pretty sure I win that one, as well," Coulson says with a casual shrug and easy smile. "Also, I ended up saving the day. I get double points for that, don't I?"

Natasha gapes. "You—! You weren't even awake to compete! You can't just—"

"Yup. Coulson wins," Barton decrees.

"But, certainly I—" Thor hedges, looking put out.

"Coulson," Romanoff says, lifting her eyes to meet the Asgardian's gaze. "Wins."

Thor slumps into his seat. "Very well. I concede this victory to you, Sir Coulson."

Coulson preens, sitting up a little straighter in his bed. "Just Coulson will do, thanks."

"Oh, for the love of—Fine. Coulson wins, goddammit." Natasha groans, slouching into her bed and nest of pillows as best she can. She glares down at the unwrapped sandwich (very thoughtful, actually) in her lap feebly. "So what the fuck is this shit you're feeding me, anyway?"

"Shawarma," Rogers says.

"Some idiot and their idiot cravings," Barton shrugs.

"If you're going to complain, there is a vending machine out in the lobby. But you have to get off your ass to get it," Romanoff adds.

Natasha blinks at Rogers, then the two S.H.I.E.L.D. Assassins; sees Thor lean forward as if in anticipation for her shawarma-sandwich thing and Banner smile as he picks up his sandwich and holds it—he hasn't taken a bite. She looks to Coulson and he's still smiling—she thinks it would be impossible to wipe that smile away—and something inside of her aches and it's in a good way.

"Dude," Natasha says after a moment and schools her face as she strains her hands to reach for the shawarma and raise it to mouth-level. "One of you guys is awesome and I think I'm in love."

She receives collective snorts of amusement throughout the room and a hearty chuckle from Thor. They eat and share their experiences with the Chitauri knowing that this is the only time they will be able to speak of the incident with any semblance of levity. It's a little like meeting at a bar with your friends and talking to each other about the jerks at work—only this was far more graphic and ended with a sort of scraped together conclusion that hadn't been concluded since apparently Loki was still being held captive somewhere within a S.H.I.E.L.D. compound and the Tesseract was still in Fury's hands.

Barton and Romanoff alternate speaking and chewing as if by some silent mandate (and doing nothing to dissuade Natasha from the notion that they might actually share a brain—because that would explain so much) and Rogers contributes only superficial facts, as if still mostly uncomfortable being caught in such a familiar setting with still very strange faces. Banner stays mostly silent, but Thor makes up for most of the slack by going on and on about his accomplishments—throwing in some pointed compliments towards Banner that were probably meant for the Hulk (which Banner later explains is because the Hulk thought the Asgardians were all a bunch of douches and had made it his goal to put them all in their place). Natasha talks smack because she can and because no one takes her seriously anyway—even Rogers has managed to loosen up (but she thinks this is inevitable when put in the same room as Natasha and Barton—and Thor apparently).

She feels good and it's a little terrifying because she half expects the room to explode or something of the equivalent—but nothing happens. They eat and they talk and they pretend that their lives are normal when in fact they're anything but.

And it's good. It's necessary.

She grins the widest and she talks the fastest and she laughs the loudest—because it's the only thing she can do right now.

It's the only thing she can do and she doesn't want to think about how all of this feels like only a beginning.

Chapter Text

Rogers visits the following day.

Natasha is asleep—or, at least, she is asleep until she is roused by the sounds of voices. Habit keeps her breathing steady; it's a combination of the drugs they're pumping her with and practice that allows her to maintain the relaxed semblance of sleep. Her mind is strangely blank as she listens to the sound of Rogers and Coulson's voices exchange, but she's not really listening—enjoys the lull of their conversation but lacks the will to catalog what is being discussed. Her mind is no longer tired, but her body is enjoying feeling so lax and free and she hasn't the heart nor the conviction to urge it to move.

It feels like a good day.

She feels great—can't spot a single twinge in her entire body that isn't completely satiated and lethargic. She doesn't think she remembers what pain feels like and is almost curious enough to pinch herself to see if she can recall the sensation. Eventually, laziness wins out; the only movement is the steady rise and fall of her chest.

"Is she …? … out for a while."

"Well … pretty dosed up."

Words filter in—stuttered sentences that form in a groggy-cottony part of her mind, taking a foggy sort of pathway to get there. As the words become clearer, however, her interest becomes piqued and she applies the minimal amount of effort required to make sense of what is being said. It appears to her that it takes forever before she is able to piece together their words to form a complete sentence.

"Do you know what they've planned for Loki?"

"He's a terrorist—but he's also an Asgardian. I imagine, even with your modern technologies, S.H.I.E.L.D. would have some trouble keeping him under lockdown."

"Yes, well we're still working on building a prison suitable for a God now that we know we need them."

"The problem wasn't the cell. It was that the prison was one built to contain a powerful beast—"

"The Hulk."

"Yes. And Loki—while strong—appears to favor magic over brute strength."

"I'd noticed."

"Is this something S.H.I.E.L.D. is capable of defending against?"

"Magic? No—well, not magic of Loki's caliber. We need Stark, for that."

"Stark? For … ?"

"She's the only one who'd be able to build us a cell strong enough to hold Loki."

"This is a delicate matter. I'm not sure it's one best left in the hands of Stark. She's too reckless. If anything should go wrong—"

"Stark has—a unique way of going about things, but she's a good person."

"I don't doubt that. But she's also a civilian—good person or no."

"Stark? A civilian?"

"Yes. Iron Woman is strong, but Stark is no soldier, and at the end of the day, it's Stark making the calls inside that suit—not Iron Woman. She lacks training. She's like a child making pretend she's a hero, but it's obvious she is still ill-prepared to face the truths of warfare."

"Doctor Banner isn't a soldier either and—"

"Doctor Banner wasn't the one on the battlefield—that was the Hulk. It's not the same."

She hears Coulson's familiar sigh.

"I apologize, Agent. I understand she is a friend of yours," Rogers says; he sounds genuinely apologetic.

Coulson remains silent.

"I'll let you get your rest. We're due to meet at S.H.I.E.L.D. to discuss what to do with Loki and the Tesseract."

"Alright. Thank Agent Barton for the—uh—gifts, will you?"

"Yes. Of course. I'll be seeing you later, Agent Coulson."

"Thank you for visiting. I'll see you later, Cap."

The door shuts and it echoes in her head and in her chest.

She ignores the tickle in the back of her eyes lids and throat—swallows quietly—and thinks about particle accelerators and ion fusion until the morphine lulls her back to sleep.


"Natasha Stark! You idiot! You stupid—stupid—stupid—idiot!"

This is how Pepper chooses to greet her early the next morning. It is still dark in the room and when Natasha jolts in her bed from surprise, she has to bite back on a string of curses as every bone and muscle in her body screams in agony. For a moment, she forgets all about the angry redhead looming at the foot of her bed as she crushes her head back against her pillows, back arching violently—spasming when the action jars her bruised ribs. She clenches her teeth together so tightly every muscle in her neck stretches and strains with intensity. HolymotherofGOD—was she in pain! She wasn't sure which fool had taken liberties with her morphine but she was in desperate need of moremoremore and now!

Pepper is shouting again but it takes Natasha a long time to realize this. Eyes still squeezed shut, she whimpers, "Pepp—er, please. C'lson. He's—"

"Been discharged," Pepper snaps; she sounds closer.

Blinking open her eyes, Natasha sinks further into her bed to get away from the furious banshee that has taken possession of Pepper's body. Pepper is at her bedside, hovering closer. Natasha stutters, "Uh—wh—"

Pepper is very clearly livid.

"Why did I ever agree to work for such an idiot?" Pepper snarls, the span of the bed's length still not distance enough—Natasha doesn't understand the flicker of panic in the pit of her stomach at the sight of her former assistant; she knows Pepper to be incapable of bringing her serious physical harm.

She forces her body to relax with careful breaths and its then that Natasha notices the other woman's state of dress. Pepper is wearing a wrinkled cream pencil-skirt and blazer, her hair as frazzled a mess as Natasha has ever seen it; mascara is smeared in diluted streaks down her cheeks.

Licking her lips nervously, Natasha swallows back the lump of emotion in her throat. She can't meet Pepper's eyes so she finds a freckle on her cheek in the grey-darkness of the room and focuses on that instead. She knows better than to speak before Pepper has said her piece and exhausted her steam, but Natasha can't stop her own mouth from speaking. "Technically—you don't work for me anymore. I mean, you are CEO."

"Of your—you know wh—no. Stop." Pepper rears her head back, spine perfectly rigid and expression terrifyingly cold. "Stop. I can't do this with you right now, Natasha. You almost died! Do you understand that? You almost died! You wouldn't—how am I—how dare you? How dare you do something like this to me? To Happy? To Rhodey? How fucking dare you?!"

Natasha startles—feels as if someone had dumped her into the depths of the Arctic. She is suddenly totally and completely awake. "Pep—I'm—"

Pepper holds out a hand to cut her off, lips pressed tightly together as she takes a calming breath through her nose. Her eyes are rimmed in red but there are no visible tears—however many she may have shed have long been spent and now there is only black fury. "No. You don't get to say you're sorry and expect everything to be okay. Not this time, Natasha. You could havedied!"

Natasha swallows nervously and shifts imperceptibly higher on the bed for better leverage—hates being caught at such a disadvantage and feels the burn of it bubbling just underneath the surface. She doesn't deal well with guilt—feels its profoundness now—and so defaults to her customary (admittedly infuriating) confidence as she says, "Look, yeah. I know. And I wasn't going to say 'sorry'—because I'm not."

Pepper's expression goes blank so suddenly and Natasha swears she hears her heart monitor skip a beep. "Excuse me?"

There are a lot of things she can say; a lot of things she should say. She remembers a promise to herself—remembers the guilt that followed Afghanistan when she'd seen Pepper and realized—truly realized—that there were people she wanted to protect. People she needed to protect.

But something has changed. She feels it—like a dial has been shifted, not quite turned, but enough that she feels the change coming over her. It's a slow burn; such a gradual thing she has absolutely no idea how to prepare for it.

Natasha breathes carefully through her mouth.

She says, "I'm not sorry."

And just like that, Pepper's façade crumbles—and its fury and hurt and pain and worst of all—it's betrayal.

"Excuse me?"

Natasha's heart is thundering like crazy in her chest but she still manages to keep her resolve. "Pep—what do you want me to say? I did what I did knowing—knowing I might not come back."

The resounding slap that follows echoes loudly in her ears for far longer than the stinging remains on her cheek.

Into the silence that remains after the slamming door in Pepper's wake, Natasha mutters, "Well. Shit."


She's still awake when the door opens a few hours later and the nurse enters with her chart. Banner is trailing shortly behind the young woman, wearing a squirmish smile under wire-framed spectacles.

"Hey, buddy. What's up?" Natasha smiles, feeling a little better, physically. It's easy to work with the pain when her mind has something else to consume itself with. She's had plenty to think of between Pepper's outburst, Coulson's non-death, Fury in general, the Chitauri invasion, the Avengers—and, of course, Loki. She's not thinking about the conversation Coulson and Rogers had because—well, she's not. She's known for a while exactly what Rogers thinks of her and that's apparently not going to change just because they took on an alien army side by side.

Banner greets her by raising a hand and twitching a few fingers in a poor impression of a wave; he doesn't say anything while the nurse performs her evaluations, following her movements with his eyes and a strained smile (though most of his smiles seem strained, even when the warmth in them sometimes actually reached his eyes, so Natasha doesn't know whether it's normal or a result of being in a perpetual state of controlled aggravation). Natasha gives the nurse a hard time because it's second nature to her and more familiar than breathing. She wears a charming smile and wins the nurse over after some well-placed jabs at herself and Banner, despite the woman's best efforts not to find her amusing. Banner stands with his familiar awkwardness next to the door until the nurse has swept out of the room.

"Brought you lunch," Banner says, holding out a wrapped package that Natasha recognizes as the shawarma from the night before. He doesn't bother keeping the almost mischievous smile from slinking across his lips.

Natasha grimaces, accepting the food reluctantly. "Ooh. Actually—this was kind of greasy. Not sure it's good for me."

"You're concerned about your health now?" Banner arches a brow, looking genuinely amused. "Didn't you just trying to kamikaze yourself at an alien fleet—in space?"

Natasha shrugs, trailing a finger just under a flap of the folded wrapper. "I'm trying to get back in Pepper's good graces. If I pretend to care about my health, she might budge enough to let me—explain some things."

"The woman who came by to visit you earlier?" Banner asks, walking around the bed to take a seat on the chair to her right. He snorts. "Yeah. She didn't look … happy. Not that I blame her. Even the—the Big Guy—is … actually pretty steamed about your—uh—condition."

She blinks up at him, losing interest in the shawarma immediately. The Hulk was concerned? Was that a thing? Was that possible? And wait—Banner could communicate with the Hulk? Like,now? Could he do it now?

"Huh," she says instead of voicing any one of the millions of questions already forming. "No kidding? Maybe I grew on him?"

Banner slumps against his chair, building a steeple with his hands and laying it over his stomach. He peers up at her from above the rim of his glasses, but his eyes are unreadable. "Yeah. You're like a bad cold; too easy to catch."

She balks, caught off guard by the sudden leap into 'insult' territory. It doesn't bother her as much as it startles her, but perhaps Banner was warming up to her as well. "Ouch, man. Was that called for?"

Banner's expression doesn't change, but it sounds a little like being patiently scolded by a parent when he says, "That was a pretty shitty stunt you pulled. I wasn't particularly impressed. So yes, I think that was called for."

"Strategic losses and all that," Natasha says with a shrug, looking away and taking interest in the small peaks her feet makes under the sheets. She wiggles her toes just to make sure that she still can; her extremities are still a little numb, the morphine not entirely cleared out of her system. "I'm sure everyone would agree—er—understand. They're all—soldiers or warrior Gods or assassins and whatnot. It's what they do."

"And you're not."

She doesn't outwardly react—much.

"What—are you saying I can't?" Natasha hides the bitterness from her tone, lips forming a taught line and brows furrowing together. Really? Banner, too? "You know—this wasn't my firstrodeo."

She feels Banner's patient stare boring into the side of her face. "Is that what I said? No. All I am saying is—I get why you did it. It just—kind of sucks that it had to come to that. It should have been—"

It's too easy to follow his training of thought and before he can complete the sentence, Natasha groans. She scowls at him, toes curling and fingers digging into the sandwich with frustration that borders on anger. "Hey, man. No. Come on. Seriously? Enough with that crap. It's getting old and no one's really buying it. After all this, you think people still look at you and only see the—"

"—monster I become?" Banner doesn't sit up; he doesn't look amused. "Yes. I do." Natasha opens her mouth to argue and he cuts her off, self-depreciating smile in place. "You think this changes anything for me? The Hulk helps save New York from disaster and now everything is water under the bridge? It's not that easy. You can't undo that much damage."

Natasha snorts. "You're the only one who believes that."

"No. I'm not." Banner's eyes narrow to a glare. "And you're naïve if you think otherwise. Stark—the Hulk has killed people. Not casualties in war—not 'strategic sacrifices'—these were civilians.Innocent people and they were killed and even more were hurt because of the Hulk. Because he doesn't care and he only hurts—"

"Yeah—I don't believe that," Natasha snaps, frustrated with Banner but unable to express why. It twists something inside of her to hear him speak of the Hulk this way—thinks it touches on something deep inside her that she's not ready to face. If the Hulk cannot be redeemed, what hope does she have? "The Hulk isn't a monster."

The hardness dissolves a little from his expression and he shakes his head, letting his gaze drift to the door. "You'd be the first to think so." He pauses, and she thinks that might be the end of it—but then he says, "Still. The world needs Iron Woman far more than it needs the Hulk," and she knows nothing she can say will get him to believe otherwise.

The Hulk would always be the monster lurking in the shadows of Banner's mind.

"What's funny, is—" Banner goes on, drawing her attention again. There is something dark and familiar in his expression and it's fascinating. "You don't see it."

She blinks at him—waits for him to elaborate, and when he doesn't, asks, "What?"

Banner smiles, humorlessly—the corners of his eyes are creased with perpetual sorrow. "You think you're like me. You actually think we're alike. You have your curse and I have mine? Is thatit? You think you're just some rich girl in a suit of armor—play Little Miss Superhero for a bit then go back to your glass tower and extravagant life?"

Natasha frowns, hearing Rogers' words echo in her head. She sniffs, "But I am. You think if I wasn't this filthy rich Iron Woman would even exist?"

"So saving the world is just par for the course, then. Part of the grand façade?"

It's strange—Banner's words cut deeper than Rogers'. Yet, where Rogers' had questioned her worth, Banner seemed intent on proving she was something more than she was. Natasha Stark wasn't a hero—not like Steve Rogers. Banner didn't know what she'd done—how many she'd hurt. He didn't understand that this wasn't a matter of nobility—this was redemption. Iron Woman had been a means of survival—

The twisting is a stabbing now and it burns and aches and she clenches her fists and her teeth. She remembers Banner's words—in the Helicarrier, so long ago now, it seems—speaking of taking his own life and failing. Forcing himself to live out an existence he wanted nothing to do with. And he's right—she knows he is and it's a terrible and lonely feeling. Banner is hurtingwhereas Natasha has only ever hurt others. Her damaged heart and the reactor in her chest were penance for her crimes, but Banner was an innocent sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment. He was right—they were nothing alike.

"I'm not the hero type, Banner. It's not a façade. I am Iron Woman—and I'm also Natasha Stark. Nothing changes between putting on the suit and taking it off."

Banner sits forward, reaching out a hand and laying it flat on the bed, next to her leg. She thinks, for a moment, that if her hand had been there, he would have taken it—or so the action seemed to read. He says, quietly and urgently, "I think there's more to it than that."

"You've known me for a day, Banner. It's going to take more than that to understand me."

He smirks—backs away and retracts his hand back to his lap. "You're right. What could I possibly know about you after a day."

There's something in his tone …

Natasha blinks at him, studying his eyes and then his lips—the smirk still tugging at his mouth in a way that seem unpracticed. Then, too slowly, realization sets and she returns the smirk with one of her own.

"Okay. Touché. That's fair." So Banner wasn't comfortable with her psychoanalyzing the doctor and the Hulk? Very well—Natasha could lay off, for now. "You don't know me and I don't know you—and I certainly don't know the Hulk."

"Couldn't agree more." Banner stares at her for a long minute before he snorts and stands.

Her expression is slack from wonder as she regards the other scientist. Not for the first time is she in awe by the incredible intelligence housed behind the veneer of a fragile man. Words, like her mind and her hands, are her tools. They've never failed her and she's never lost in a battle of them. She's also never been forced to concede an argument before it could properly have its beginning.

"You know," Banner says before her mind can wander too far, "You're the first person to ever see us as—individual from one another."

Natasha doesn't know what to say to that so she just scrunches up her face and lets her lips twist in a smirk—allows that to be her answer until Banner chuckles and starts for the door.

"Hey," she says quickly, before he can go. "My offer—it still stands. I wasn't just dicking around with you. I could really use someone like you around the lab."

Banner nods, smiling, "I'm sure you'd be—a character to live with."

"I'm not a bad roommate," Natasha says with all confidence and a smug chin.

"I don't doubt it," Banner nods again and she sees that it's not actually a nod of agreement—just acknowledgment. He hesitates—averting his gaze—and she feels a weight sink into her stomach. "I really appreciate the offer, but I'm not sure I'm ready. Not yet, anyway. I still need—to be alone. Figure some things out. After everything—I just need to find some balance, again."

She swallows back her disappointment with a grin. "It's cool. I get it. Offer still stands, though. Open invitation. You're welcome whenever."

Banner nods and meets her eyes evenly. "Thank you."


Banner isn't gone long before Natasha receives her next visitor for the day. She doesn't bother with cordial pretenses when she sees Rogers' bulky frame appear at the door. He doesn't step into the room completely and she doesn't invite him to do so. They stare at each other for a long moment, equally grim—until Natasha looks away and reaches for the glass of water on the tray in front of her. She curls her hand thoughtfully around the slender glass and doesn't move to pick it up—studies the ripples in the water before deciding she's had enough with the silence. It wasn't worth torturing herself just to get a rise out of Rogers.

"Didn't expect to see you here," she murmurs, tone carefully bland.

"You're looking better," Rogers says, as if she hadn't spoken.

"I could go a few more rounds," she says, grinning lightly—expertly. She's emotionally worn out and this is the last place to have a confrontation of any sort with the Captain. Something about Rogers seems to leach the strength from her where before it would have inspired a burst of ire—a desire to watch his countenance shatter under the pressure of vitriol.

Rogers relaxes a little and smiles—too cautious to be real. "They say you're healing quicker than anticipated."

She hums thoughtfully and taps her fingers to the glass. "I feel pretty damn good. I'm sore—but that's how you know you're healing, right?"

"Yeah," Rogers says, distracted. He drops his hand from the door but remains rooted with only a step into the room. "It's good. That—you're, uh—feeling better."

Natasha studies him for a moment—watches his brows pinch together under her scrutiny—and shrugs. "Yeah."

" … Yeah."

Why was this so awkward?

Very gradually, Rogers seems to be taking on an almost militaristic stance. She guesses that it's his method for coping with situations that are best avoided altogether. Exactly why was hehere? Did he feel obliged to pay her a visit out of some strange sense of duty? Why? Because they'd fought together? It's not like that made them friends—he'd made that clear. She'd woken up and they'd won. The war was over.

"I stopped by yesterday to see Coulson. You were still out."

She snorts. "Catching up on some much needed Z's. How's Couslon?"

"He recovered well. Loki—uh—doesn't think there will be any lasting damage from his exposure to the Cube."

Natasha nods as if she expected no differently. In truth, she hadn't paid it much thought. "He's going to be fine."

Rogers frowns. "You trust Loki?"

It occurs to her that she'd forgotten to consider just how unnatural it must still seem for everyone else. Loki was an enigma and trying to unravel his many mysteries had been put on the backburner while she dealt with the aftermath of—everything. For everyone else, though, he was still very much the war criminal who'd arbitrarily decided to switch teams right at the cusp of victory.

"No, but—" She answers automatically, then frowns—glances to the empty bed to her left and says, "I just really want him to be fine."

If she's honest with herself, that's the only thing that matters right now. There is just too much—her thoughts and feelings are overflowing and she's numb. For all her genius and ingenuity—she doesn't know how to cope. She's not ready to cope—she's just not ready for any of this at all.

Busy. She feels busy. That's the only way to describe her state—it's white noise and blurring thoughts and emotions and just everything and nothing at once.

"Me too," Rogers says.

She doesn't even notice when he's gone.


"Dude, you've got issues," Natasha says without opening her eyes.

She's been awake for a while—unable to sleep in the eerie silence of her room without Coulson's steady breathing. It's been four days and her body is healing at the rate of a normal thirty-something year old woman (who just happens to be in the best shape of her life, thanks much!). She really hates not being able to just plug herself into a wall or arc-reactor to recharge like the suits—or even have a go with Mjolnir and juice up that way. This normal healing stuff was shit and it was killing her to see Thor and Rogers waltzing around, fully healed all because fate or destiny or just life had favored them. Even Banner was in full health—though, in fairness to him, it had been the Hulk out on the battlefield, sustaining all that damage.

"How are you?"

She hums sluggishly. "I've been better."

Loki is a shadow against the wall but she recognizes his presence, somehow, all the same—a familiar chill that raises the fine hairs along her arms and the back of her neck. He steps, soundless, to the foot of the bed but is careful to stay out of the light; she peers at him lazily between her lashes—debates ignoring him in favor of retaining some sliver of normalcy, never mind the creepy staring. She doesn't want to deal with whatever calamity he's here to discuss. She's tired, even if her mind continues to stubbornly reject rest.

There is a breathless, gaping pit in the middle of her chest and its been growing larger over the last couple of days. Any control she may have ever had is lost. All day she's been falling through an endless loop of nothing and everything. There is no in-between—only a volley of emotions like a punch to the gut. She's never felt so desperate and helpless and lost. Today has been the longest day. This last week feels like a century and she's too old and too tired. It's been a long time since she's been able to relax and Pepper's anger had only served to remind her of her own betrayals—Obadiah, Fury and Loki, to only name a few.

She doesn't want this to be her reality—she doesn't want this to be her life.

Natasha squeezes her eyes tighter and focuses on the spots of white that flare in the darkness behind her lids. Quietly, she murmurs, "Aren't you supposed to be in a prison cell, somewhere? How'd you get in here?"

"Well, I didn't use a door."

His response is delayed—as if he had his own thoughts to occupy him—and his attempt at humor falls flat.

Natasha snorts. "Thanks. I kind of figured. Look, I'm not really in any condition to be holding a conversation, so …"

"Would you like it if I just spoke to you?" He asks—so nonchalantly.

She peeks at him through an eye, frowning. "Why?"

His body is unnaturally still—a projection, then. Just an illusion. She can't tell what he's thinking, and though this is nothing new, she can't even catch that usual flicker of mischief in his gaze; his green eyes have never been so dark—so solemn. Natasha sighs, opening both eyes and forcing herself to sit up. She balances herself on her elbows and stares, lips pressed together in a slack line, eyes weary. She runs her gaze over the length of his leather-clad form and her frown deepens.

"Why bother with a projection if it's so easy to bypass security? I'm sure some concrete and steel wouldn't be enough to contain the likes of you."

The projection studies her for a little longer—cants its head and seems to be consumed with a thought. She waits, then watches as a change comes over the projection and it becomes a little less rigid and a little more … well, not human—but living, certainly. If she thinks back to the projection of Loki within the Helicarrier, she can recognize the distinct difference between the fakes and the real thing. It's hard to catch, because eventually the projection seems to settle into its state, remembering to imitate a personality to go with the face.

"Thor has taken sentry over my prison to ensure my real body cannot escape," it replies. Resembling Loki now more than before, the projection allows a small, meaningless smile as he leans forward to brace his hands on the footboard. "Not that I would, were I presented with the opportunity."

"Wouldn't you?" Natasha asks skeptically, scooting back so she can rest against her pillows.

Loki bows his head, peering up at her with a wry and self-deprecating smirk. "And where could I run, Natasha, that He could not find me? Thor means to return me to Asgard as his prisoner where I shall face Asgardian justice. For my crimes, I expect exile—"

"It's not an execution," Natasha cuts in rudely with an arched brow and a half shrug. She continues, the words an impulse and she doesn't know if she even has a point to make as she says, "Here you'd be sentenced to death. Doesn't matter if it wasn't your hand that shed the blood. People died and humans need someone to blame in order to sleep better at night. They need closure."

Loki doesn't seem impressed—mirrors her arched brow with his own and humorless green eyes. "We're Gods. Our lives are too long—why should I fear death? Asgardians celebrate it, for what awaits us in our afterlife is—"

"You fear death," Natasha says simply, staring at him until he meets her eyes.

Loki hesitates—she sees the indecisiveness of the real Loki translate into the projection by the pursing of his lips. Finally, he allows a nod. "I do not fear death—nor do I court it."

"I know," she agrees—because she realizes she does.

She doesn't know how she knows, but she feels she suddenly understands this part of Loki—the part that is broken and willing to hurt countless for the sake of his own wretched sadness. It's been lying there, all along, beneath the mischief in his eyes. A need and resentment that gets the better of the cool and calm façade he wishes was his own—but he's a volatile thing. He's frigid and cold—but he still burns just as hot as the sun. And only a person so damaged as this could ever think themselves' capable of fixing a planet like hers. She understands because Loki craves control just as much as she does and she knows this need—this all-consuming need—because sometimes it's the only thing separating you from becoming the real monsters. It's a purpose, if nothing else—and people like them—like Natasha and Loki and even Bruce—they need a purpose, lest their own minds drive them mad.

Loki does not fear death, but his desires are great and insatiable and she can understand this. Can understand want because want was too easy to confuse with need and needs are what led her to this path—rewarded her with a damaged heart and a lifetime of nightmares and an emptiness in her gut she can never escape. She sees it clearly now—sees the dangerous path Loki is treading—but what can she do?

She still just as broken—still just as damaged.

"Why did you decide to help us?" She startles herself by asking—doesn't know where the thought could have sprung from because it's been the least of her worries lately.

She doesn't expect an answer; she doesn't get much of one, either.

"I made a choice."

She snorts. "What choice?"

But he doesn't answer—and Natasha is too frustrated to care about pursuing an answer.

"I'd like to tell you about the Nine Realms," Loki says suddenly, maneuvering silently around the bed to take a seat in the chair by her bed. Her mind toys with the contrast of Loki's regal posture with the image of Banner slumped in that same chair as if willing it to envelope him completely.

She blinks sleepily and frowns. "Why?"

Loki sits in the chair as if it were a throne; if he had his scepter, the image would be complete. "They've provided you with no radio and the networks broadcast only disaster."

She sniffs, glancing behind him to the dark screen of the plasma nestled in the corner of the room. She's avoided dealing with the news mostly because she wants to be able to pretend her life is still normal and the last week had been a compilation of bad hangovers. She tries not to think about how the Chitauri's invasion and her near-death experience coincides so poetically with the anniversary of her time in the damp caverns of Afghanistan—wishes she'd never checked for the date so she wouldn't have had to remember.

She sighs. Lately, lying to herself has been getting harder and she isn't sure if it's because the degree of the lies required to cover the truth is too high or if she is simply out of practice. "Right. TV is probably depressing right now, huh?"

Loki smiles again—stares emptily into space. "Very much so."

There's something between them—something unspoken. She doesn't know what it is—or even how to begin deciphering it—but Loki does. Seems to be getting there, at least.

"Well, sure. Go ahead. I don't know what possible enjoyment you could get out of talking me to sleep, but count me in as a willing participant."

Loki ignores the jab. It takes a while for him to start and his silence is maddening; when he speaks, his tone is carefully—his words practiced as if reciting the words of another, long memorized. "It is difficult to know, with these old stories, what is truth and what is myth. Looking to the past is like looking at a mountain through the mist—you see it clearly one moment, then it fades."

As he speaks, she watches him and he watches the shadows and with each passing minute, the heaviness in her heart seems to lessen—her body relaxes and her mind settles for the first time since his betrayal. She listens and there is strange lack of thought as she does so—she doesn't consider how the worlds he describes depict an image of places one would expect to find in books of mythology or fictional fantasies. It's surreal and unnatural and magical and far beyond her realm of logic and science—yet there is logic and science to be found, and this is fascinating.

She doesn't know how to accept what she's seen—how she can return to her life knowing that there is so much more to the universe than she could have ever imagined. Gods and aliens, monsters and magic—this was her life, now. This is what awaited her as Natasha Stark and she's not sure how to prepare for it. In this moment, she can sympathize with Captain America—because on a whim, her planet had become the battleground for Gods and monsters and she's struggling to learn how to pick apart at the pieces of her fragmented reality to find any indication of her former life.

She listens to Loki and she thinks about how normal this must be for him—possibly mundane. He is a God, after all—there are things he has seen that she can never hope to know. She wonders—if she could keep Loki at her side, would all of this become normal, too? Would it be easier?

The tranquility is gone the second these thoughts take form; Loki is no longer speaking. He frowns at her. "You're still awake. You need rest, Natasha."

She closes her eyes and shuffles against her pillows, slipping lower into the bed. She's not tired, but if it will keep him from reprimanding her like a child, she's willing to pretend his efforts hadn't been completely wasted. "Next time don't make your bedtime stories so interesting."

"My apologies."

She ponders his words—studies the images her imagination creates of realms she will never know and races she will never encounter. Most of all, she laments that she'll never have the opportunity to study the sciences of these realms. Eventually, she considers Loki's tale long enough to make her come to a conclusion. She frowns, opening her eyes and says, "So, what do you want? You didn't tell me that story because you suddenly felt like sharing. You want something."

Loki reclines elegantly against the chair, elbow propped on the arm, chin resting on knuckles. He holds her gaze and the severity of his eyes is grounding. "I'd like to know—about your reactor."

Her frown deepens, not quite a scowl. "I've told you how it works."

"Not that," he says, waving his other hand dismissively then dropping it to his lap. "I'd like to hear about—"

"No," she cuts him off when her sluggish brain manages to catch up with his meaning.

He watches her—then bows his head in a nod. "Very well."

She had not been expecting such an easy acceptance—it throws her and she's says quickly, "Wait. Why—why?"

Loki's eyes drift, settling on the edge of the bed. His brows draw together in thought. At last, he says, "I need to understand."

Natasha snorts, shaking her head. She turns her glare to the ceiling tiles because she doesn't want to rekindle the fury she'd felt for him earlier. She's never felt so much so quickly and the sharpness of his betrayal had left her sore, like a healing wound—gone, but still felt. "I've already told you so much. I've told you about my suits, my reactor, JARVIS—you know practically all there is to know about me—"

"And nothing at all," he says, louder—tone heavy with meaning. "You've only told me about the Iron Woman aspects of your life. Natasha Stark is still a stranger to me."

She scoffs, flicking an incredulous look at him. "And you're not?"

He doesn't react. Says, "What do you want to know about me?"

She rolls her eyes and grunts, "I wouldn't even know where to begin. I don't know anything about you."

He bows his head again, this time in acknowledgment, and gestures to her with another wave. "So, ask."

The question tumbles out, again, unbidden, "Why did you help us?"

Loki sighs, closing his eyes for a moment. "I don't have an answer for that. Not yet."

"Yeah, very informative—"With a pained grunt, she rolls herself over onto her side, curling an arm under her head. She winces as her body weight settles and the strain proves to be too much to bear on her ribs. With a disgruntled sigh, she struggles to sit up again, extracting her legs from the sheets and swinging them over the side of the bed.

She has a flash back to a morning in the Tower—their last morning as Natasha and Olson—and cold hands on bare thighs. Now, she's wearing only a flimsy hospital gown and her legs—rather than be speckled with a small assortment of bruises—are covered in welts and scored with angry red lines. She feels the bandages over the shifting of her abdominal muscles and all of it is too much—she looks up at Loki so she doesn't have to look at herself.

Loki's eyes linger on the marred skin of her legs a second longer before looking up to meet her gaze. He murmurs, "Ask me something else. Anything else."

She scowls—feels her pride smart with the evidence of the damage her fragile body had sustained. Wants to hurt another so she can forget about her own pain, so she says, "Thor, then. Tell me about Thor."

Loki's tone goes flat, matching his expression. "Thor."

She raises a chin and arches a brow. "Your family. What happened in Asgard? What happened a year ago—because that was you, wasn't it? You sent the Destroyer to Earth to kill Thor—right? Why?"

"It's not so simple a thing to explain—"

"Oh, wow. That's great—"

"But I shall do my best."

He seems resigned, yet he must have known that Natasha forgot little. Her determination to understand Loki was grounded in the fact that he had hurt her—he had hurt her—and such a betrayal was not easily forgiven. Allowing her the freedom to pry him for answers was something he would likely regret; Natasha was no simpleton and she knew Loki understood that. Assuming he answers her questions with truth rather than more lies, Loki had essentially granted her total access into—everything.

"You ask me why?" He begins, quiet, somber. "Ask, rather, why the serpent Nidhogg eats the roots of YggdrasilWhy, when the tree's death means, in turn, the dragon's ruin? Because, Natasha—I am a God. I do as I was born to do." In his anger—or sorrow, perhaps—he regresses to his original formality of speech—and while the words are English (or All-Speak, as he has explained) they sound alien all the same. "I've told you about the Jotuns—and their conflict with the Asgardians. My father—my birth father—was King Laufey, a son of Jotun, yet it was Odin, the All-Father, who raised me as an Asgardian. Neither Asgard nor Jotunheim can I call home; I am left with nothing but my own ambition—and even that, now, I must question. Who am I, after all, but the runty heir to a kingdom of Giants—placed in noble Asgard by a farcical fate."

Loki sits forward, elbows upon his knees; he studies his palms and there is no concealing his anguish, though he tries.

"By sending the Destroyer to attack Thor, I acted in haste—I admit. I acted in jealousy; for Thor ever has taken my place in the hearts of those who owed me affection. Yet, I have never desired his death—I sought only his humiliation—for who am I without Thor? Even a God may be driven to extremes—but despite ancestry, destiny, and the weight of the cosmos, I retain the power of choice. There is nothing in all creation that can exist without its opposite. It is darkness that defines the light. Pain that gives meaning to pleasure. I am and shall always be the black canvass upon which Thor's light shall be yet more blinding."

She feels a righteous sort of disgust and her scowl returns. "You were jealous? So you bring war to our planet—"

Loki's sharp eyes find hers—seem to glow in the darkness and for a moment, she is afraid. "You do not know my mind, mortal. But you, above all, should understand the lengths to which mockery and scorn can drive one."

Natasha sneers. "I've never been mocked—"

"But you know scorn," Loki says—all deadly calm and patience. "And you know rejection."

Natasha feels all expression drain from her face; she purses her lips and her words are cold. "Is that how you justify all the lives lost as a result of your brotherly quarrel?"

"There is no justification for it," he says. "I am not making excuses. I aim only to make you understand why."

"That your hatred for Thor led you to wage war against my planet?"

Loki's gaze is unwavering—it unsettles her heart with something that feels like panic. "Never was I allowed to forget that I was different. Ever was I reminded that I was inferior to my brother, the Golden Son—champion and future king of Gods. Yet, Odin must well have understood that by rearing me within his golden circle, he was rendering me forever discrepant to my own blood kin. What a cruelty to bring up a son in such a manner that he can feel but disgust for his own kind. In truth, I am neither Asgardian nor son of Jotunheim. I am Loki only. And I amalone. Over all the millennia, only Thor has ever loved me. Only Thor has ever looked at me with affection in place of condescension—but now, even his love I have lost."

She bites back a groan—it wouldn't be sufficient to express her exasperation and annoyance for the Trickster God. "Jesus, Loki—!" She reaches out without thinking to grasp at his lapel—and nearly loses her balance when her fingers slip through the projection. Something cold pools in her stomach; she swallows heavily and retracts her hand. It takes her a moment to notice that Loki had shifted forward, as if to catch her—before he, too, had recalled his condition. He frowns and she glares bitterly—says, "Are you completely blind or are you Asgardians really thatthick?"

Loki's frown deepens but he doesn't seem particularly offended. He lowers his hands to his lap and cants his head. "There is no such thing as coincidence among the Gods. Each seemingly random event involves an element both of choice and of Destiny and Destiny itself is the architect of my torment. I fear my unguarded hatred—I fear that it shall consume not only I—but Thor, as well. I can see already the extent to which it has blinded me. My spite is a venomous thing and I cannot help but allow it to control me. Sometimes, I wonder—if, perhaps, Thor had stood as the only thing between the Odinson I was raised to be and the wretched darkness that lurks within my Jotun blood."

"You still have Thor, Loki," Natasha snaps. "You cannot possibly be so blind. You won't accept that he is willing to forgive you because you haven't forgiven yourself."

Loki smirks nastily, but it doesn't reach his eyes. His words are almost reflexive. "Do you speak from experience, Stark?"

Natasha's eyes narrow dangerously. "Oh, are we back on me, now?"

"I believe it's your turn. Your heart—how was it damaged?"

She snorts. "You posed as my assistant for long enough. Surely you read the papers. The tabloids love to tack it on at the end of every piece they do on me."

"I'd like it in your own words."

She reluctantly finds his eyes and can see the determination within. She sighs, raking fingers through her hair. "Maybe next time."

Loki smirks, though she had expected him to be upset. He shakes his head and gradually she realizes his body has begun to fade.

"Then I shall ensure that there is a 'next time'."

He's gone with only that promise by way of parting. She wants to ask what inspired these confessions—can't imagine they're the words of a man destined for death-row because it's not something she wants to think about—so instead Natasha sits in the darkness while her thoughts follow suit. She feels a flicker of regret—wonders if maybe she'd given him some piece of her past he might have stayed longer. She knows she's lonely—doesn't really feel up to dealing with people but also doesn't know how to be without them. It's never mattered whose company she kept—or, at least it hadn't until …

Well, Loki was gone now—and what could she have said, anyway? She wouldn't even know where to begin—doesn't know what she's willing to share. It was easy for Loki to talk about his past, wasn't it?

She had never betrayed him.

Natasha makes her way slowly into the attached bathroom—freezes at the doorway as the sensor lights flick on and she catches sight of her reflection in the mirror.

Hatred bleeds into her expression.

"What are you looking at?" She snarls at her reflection; when it fails to respond, Natasha scowls. "I hate it when you look at me like that."


"Phone call, Ms. Stark," Nurse Collins says as she enters, nodding her head at the hospital phone on the bedside table. "Line 2. Keep it quick, I have some paperwork for you to sign."

Natasha takes on a stricken look, her hand pausing mid motion; the Jell-O jiggles precariously in the spoon. "What? Why? How?"

A smile flickers across Nurse Collins' lips and she turns away quickly to make for the door; Natasha doesn't understand why all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents—regardless of their department—feel compelled to play the part of a stoic. "Confidentiality forms. And your release forms. We'll be keeping you tonight for monitoring but you'll be free to go first thing tomorrow morning. You'll be expected to meet with Director Fury and your fellow Avengers."

Natasha waits for her to go before muttering several colorful curses and grabbing the phone. She tucks it between her cheek and shoulder and mumbles around a goopy spoonful of Jell-O. "H'lo?"

"I'm going to kill you."

Natasha blinks, swallowing. "Rhodey?"

"No, seriously. I'm going to murder you into pieces and scatter your parts so that even your damn robots need an instruction manual just to reassemble you."

"Seems a little drastic, don't you think?" Natasha asks, all innocence. She lowers her spoon and brings the Jell-O cup to her lips, wiggling it a few times so the rest of the treat slips into her mouth with a plop.

"It hardly seems enough."

She smiles, adjusting the phone and swallowing as she makes herself more comfortable in her bed. "Aw, Rhodey—but I'm only just finally beginning to feeling better! Can't we postpone the murdering until later?"

On the other line, Rhodey sighs. "Fine. But only because Pepper's planning a celebratory dinner for your being—you know, alive. No thanks to you. But, I still intend to murder you. Keep that on your agenda for the near future."

"You know I don't keep an agenda. I pay people for that. Pepper's planning a party? I thought she'd still be pissed at me for—like—another month."

"Oh, she's pissed. But it's Pepper."

"Too true." Natasha is grinning now and suddenly—truly—things seem to finally be looking up.

"So, I hear you saved the world. What's that like?"

Chapter Text

It's what she should have expected. Not all of it is bad—in fact, a great majority of the news seems to reflect a general acceptance of the Avengers. Many seem confused, others concerned—these 'super heroes' seemed to have come out of nowhere and there was much interest in the Avengers. Who did they answer to? Who did they serve? These weren't questions she'd prepared an answer for. After all, Natasha had no intention of becoming the government's lapdog. It wasn't that she didn't love her country, and it wasn't for lack of patriotism—but she knew, better than most, of the corruption within their own government. She would support her country in other ways, but Iron Woman was nobody's bloodhound.

They already had Captain America for that.

"Are you listening, Stark?"

"I'm listening," Natasha mumbles, idly clicking through the channels on the plasma tv and finding nothing to catch her interest. Maybe, later, she'll be in the mood to watch the footage of her glamorous missile-escort—but for now, she only wanted to forget the black oblivion of space and the alien armada that might still be lurking in its depths.

The laptop's fan kicks on and the quiet hum fills the room; the base is warm against her thighs and when she turns her attention to it, it's with a disapproving frown. She wonders if it's someone's idea of punishment to stick her with such a prehistoric model—then promises to make a substantial donation to the hospital if it will ensure she never has to lay eyes on such a monstrosity again.

Suddenly, the door opens and Nurse Collins steps in with a frown. Natasha mutes the mic on the laptop and smiles. "Hello, lovely. How can I help you?"

"You realize that the only reason you're still here is because you have yet to sign your release forms, don't you?"

Natasha's smile spreads to a grin. "Yeah—about that. I don't really like to be handed things. And I don't really like to sign things, either. If you could just message my assistant—"

"You don't have an assistant," says Pepper, appearing with a scowl from behind the nurse. Nurse Collins exchanges a nod with the redhead before cutting Natasha a final glare and leaving. Pepper stands, arms crossed, at the foot of her bed with an expression that brooks no argument. "Olson quit, remember? Probably because he couldn't stand working for such a pompous ass."

Natasha blinks. "Wow—you're still mad, huh?"

"Get your stuff, Ms. Stark. We're leaving."

"Ah—but," Natasha drops her eyes to the laptop, sees eight figures seated around a conference table, watching her with varying degrees of irritation. "I'm in the middle of important Avenger stuff." On the screen, Natasha sees Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton scowl and suspects they may be more proficient in lip-reading than she'd initially given them credit for.

Pepper flushes with anger but she only snaps out a curt, "Hurry," before swiveling on her heels and marching out of the room.

Natasha watches her go—a little nervous that she's going to have to go home to that—and wonders if it wouldn't be possible to convince S.H.I.E.L.D. to let her crash with the other agents in housing.

Natasha unmutes the laptop and lets out a heavy sigh. "Wow. Some people just don't know how to appreciate—"

"Stark, if you would please focus. We're discussing—"

Natasha doesn't grace Fury with the scowl she feels twitching around her brow and locks eyes with Banner, instead. "Loki and the Tesseract. Yeah, I know. I don't know what you want me to say. I'm amazing, but even I can't build you a magic-proof prison by tonight and we can't just rely on Curly to keep him in check until then."

"Are you referring to me?" Thor asks, curious and confused.

"Yeah, Goldilocks—she's talking about you." Barton says. "Stark's got a point. We can't contain him."

"Why are we even worried about containment, anyway?" Natasha mutters, lips curling in distaste. This entire meeting was absurd. She already knew how it was going to go. "Are we going to pretend that Loki isn't just as capable of escaping now as he has beenbefore? He broke out of the Helicarrier—thousands of feet in the air—and nearly took all of us out in the process. You think if he wanted to, he couldn't have broken out already by now? If he was going to make a move, he'd be halfway to Vanaheimr or one of the other nine realms, enjoying strawberry daiquiris with a handful of pretty maidens—with us none the wiser."

Thor's eyes narrow with curiosity—linger for a moment, then shift to Fury. "The Lady Stark makes a valid point. Beyond that, Loki is of Asgard. It is there that he shall face judgment for his crimes. There is no reason for Midgard to expose itself any longer to the dangers of either the Tesseract or Loki. My brother's moods are mercurial. There is no way to know how long he might remain complacent. The sooner we take our leave—"

"For the last time—we can't allow you to just zap on out of here with a known war criminal—"

"Known to who, Director?" Natasha cuts in; she doesn't do a good job hiding her anger. "I thought your department's job was to cover these things up."

"Lie to the public. That's your idea?" Rogers' says, incredulous.

"Who's lying?" Natasha argues, flicking her eyes to the Captain. "I just think it's a stupid idea to cause widespread panic when it's completely unnecessary. The people don't want to know that there are monsters and aliens hiding in the dark. Think about therepercussion telling the world would have—and I'm not just talking about the people. We've got countries prepping for space exploration, sending out satellites to study space. If we tell people the truth about—"

"So this is about inconvenience." Rogers is scowling, sitting forward and leaning on the table to focus his glare on her. "You're worried that if people learn of the dangers of space they'll no longer want to invest in it?"

Natasha says seriously, "Yes." Rogers' expression fluctuates through a number of fierce emotions but his image is too small on the screen to make out anything for certain. "Cap, this is in their best interest. If we let something like this affect us, it will set the whole of the modern world back centuries."

"Or it might inspire us to push forward, anyway. You underestimate the will of the people you claim to represent."

Natasha snorts. "I don't claim to represent anything. I'm not of the People. I'm of Natasha Stark."

Rogers' bristles, hands clenching to fists on the table. He exchanges a look with Fury, then Coulson. Finally, he takes a breath and looks back to Natasha. He says, "Regardless, it's still not our decision to make. The people should know—"

"And I'm telling you, Captain!" Natasha snaps abruptly. "I've seen what's out there! Trust me! The people don't want to know!"

The silence that falls over the rooms is deafening, even separated as they are by miles and technology. No one is willing to look at her and she dares them, silently, to argue with her now.

"I agree with Stark. I think we should contain this as much as possible." Agent Hill says, expression sour—it probably killed her just to utter Natasha's name.

"Not our call," Fury says from the head of the table, directly across from the camera. "We'll let the Council decide. We need to figure out what to do Loki and the Tesseract."

"They come with me. That is all you or your Council need concern yourself with," says Thor .

Fury rounds on the Asgardian with his single-eyed glare. "I've told you—I can't let you—"

Natasha rolls her eyes. "What are you going to do about it, Fury? Let them go. The Tesseract does more harm here than good and asfascinating as it would be to study it, I wouldn't trust you and the Cube to be on the same planet to save my life."

"You need to set your personal feelings about me aside and be reasonable, Stark—"

"I'm being practical. We can't keep Loki here. We certainly shouldn't keep the Tesseract here. Thor's offering a solution—I say we go for it."

"You're seriously saying we should just hand them both over?"

"They were never ours to begin with—so yes."

"Are you really going to fight us on this?"

"I can get my attorneys. Make this official." Natasha watches every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tense; feels the weight of every pair of eyes and wonders if she's doing the right thing. "Loki's crimes aren't so severe to demand that he be held here to face the American justice system. What are we going to do anyway? Give him the chair? Send him to Texas? He's a God. We obviously can't hold him. His only crime was the theft of a relic that didn't even belong to us—belonged to his Thor's father, in fact—"

"You can't know that. The Tesseract has been on Earth for far longer than you realize. Than any of us realize." Fury's grinds out and Thor's eyes narrow once more, studying her with blatant interest.

"Who do you think put it here but Odin himself?" Natasha looks to Thor. "Obviously your old man underestimated humanity's damning curiosity and penchant for causing great destruction. We're a power-hungry, war-mongering lot. Make sure you tell him that when you go back home. He needs to find better hiding places for his toys."

"Perhaps Svartalfheim would have been the wiser choice," Thor says carefully.

"I wouldn't trust Dark Elves," Natasha grumbles, remembering what Loki had told her of those who inhabited the realm.

"Fair point, Lady Stark," Thor says after a moment.

"As—fascinating as this all is," Fury grunts, crossing his arms. "Stark, you seem to be forgetting the hundreds of lives Loki's actions cost us. We're not going to just hand him over."

"This matter is not subject to debate," Thor says abruptly, standing and facing Fury. "I attended this assembly as a courtesy. I will take my brother, and will take the Tesseract. We depart for Asgard on the morrow. Do not attempt to impede us."

"Don't worry, buddy. Fury's a dick, not an idiot. He doesn't have the manpower to take on two Gods and Iron Woman." As she says this, she doesn't look away from Fury's single eye.

"This is ridiculous!" Agent Hill snaps, standing quickly. "Sir, Stark has no right—"

Fury raises a hand to silence his second-in-command. He watches Natasha for a moment and none of the others say a word as a they await his response with bated breath.

At last, he says, quietly, "Are you sure about this, Stark?"

Natasha nods. "I'm sure."

Fury sighs, raising both hands in resignation. "I hope you know what you're doing, Stark."

Me too, she thinks as pandemonium breaks out in the room

"Sir—!" The screen cuts to black as the connection is lost.

Natasha sits back with a sigh of relief.

One more day.

One more day and her life would be back to normal.

She just had to survive today.


"You healed quicker than usual," Pepper comments about half and hour after Happy picks them up at the hospital.

The first fifteen minutes had been spent arguing in the car as Natasha tried to convince Pepper to let her stay at the Tower, despite the fact that the penthouse had been nearly destroyed (mostly as a result of Natasha and Loki's fight). When Pepper had refused to allow Happy to drive them to the Tower, Natasha had begrudgingly threatened to fire Happy if he failed to obey his employer's demands. Happy had dejectedly turned the car back around in the direction of the Tower and Pepper had proceeded to ignore her completely for another fifteen minutes.

"Well, they said my ribs would be hurting for another six months, if not more. But yeah, for the most part, I guess I did," Natasha says, sipping at a Coke as she popped a Vicodin. There was no alcohol in the car, which was probably for the best given the amount of pain killers they'd sent her home with.

Natasha goes over the injuries her doctor had listed off when she'd been coherent enough to understand. She remembers the excruciating pain when they'd begun to wane her off the morphine and then remembers how, the following day, the pain had swiftly become bearable.

This morning, she'd awoken feeling refreshed, if sore.

If the temperature of the room had been a little colder than was usual—well, that was nobody's business but her own.


Pepper and Happy return to the office after dropping Natasha off at the Tower. There are all manner of construction workers blocking street access to the building as they work to clear out all the debris from the battle. She's forced to take a back entrance into the Tower and it's odd—the Tower had only just been completed, but somehow it seemed to have matured exponentially since the last few days. Despite the state of art tech, Stark Tower seemed to have aged over the course of a week—felt more like some ancient relic than a stepping stone into the future of Stark Industries. She felt just as old, and the thought was more than depressing.

She takes the elevator to the penthouse, surprised to find it in working order.

She's equally surprised to find that she's not alone.

"Thor?"

The massive silhouette is impossible to mistake. Thor stands with his back to her, facing the city. Shattered glass glitters around him, reflecting the deep red of his cape so that the pebbles of glass resemble little pink diamonds.

"Lady Stark," Thor greets her after a moment, half turning to face her. He bows his head in greeting. "I would have words with you."

"Yeah?" She blinks, stepping carefully around the debris as she makes her way across the penthouse to stand at his side. "What about?"

"You have proven yourself to be a warrior of incredible strength with a heart of tremendous compassion," he begins.

She chokes a little, startled, and gapes up at him. "Wh—no, no-no. Not really, buddy. I think you've got me confused with Captain America or something."

Thor frowns, puzzled. "The Captain is not a woman. I could not—"

"It's—an expression. Sort of." She grimaces—she'd forgotten for a moment that, much like Rogers, Thor was equally as clueless about her world. She finds it a miracle Loki had managed to infiltrate her company for so long and attributes it to his being unbearably attractive—how else could she have missed such an obvious thing? "What I mean is—I'm not any of those things."

Thor's expression takes on a stern determination. "Despite all that my brother has done, you have always given him the benefit of the doubt."

"I don't know about that." Natasha shakes her head. She sighs, ruffling a hand through her hair. She glances behind her to see the relatively intact bar and feels her mouth water with a craving for something harder than the Coke Pepper had allowed her. This conversation was looking to be of a kind that would leave her nursing a massive headache if she didn't have something to dull it down. She turns back to Thor and sighs again. "I don't actually believe for one moment that he regrets anything he's done," Natasha says without nearly as much heat as the statement required. "But I think there was always more going on than we understood."

Thor nods once, eyes heavy; he's studying her face with such intensity she feels, for the first time, almost insignificant under the weighty gaze of a God. "My brother has been hurt," Thor says somberly. "He believes he has been wronged."

"Thor," she says, stopping him before he can go off on some unnecessarily loquacious tangent. She studies him—doesn't bother trying to decipher his expression, tries instead to go over how to word her next thought.

The Asgardian seems to sense her need for his silence. He watches her and waits with more patience than she'd thought him capable of. Sometimes, it's hard not to see the bumbling idiot of a brother Loki had painted of Thor in her mind. She forgets he's a God of many millennia—a warrior and a future king. He's also a brother—and a protective one, at that. Therein lies the issue, because she doesn't know how to say what she wants to say without provoking the Thunder God. She needs to be able to speak her mind completely, lest she find herself decorating the pavement. (That would certainly startle a few of the workers clearing the street below.)

She scratches her head irritably; she's never had to take such care with her words. Meeting Thor's gaze, she grimaces and asks, "You know he just wants to go home, right? That's what this has all been about. You get that, don't you?"

Thor's brow furrows; his head dips lower as if to better hear her. "I am afraid I do not understand, my friend."

Licking her lips nervously, Natasha throws caution to wind and just dive in—says, "I've wondered about this from the get-go, but—why did Loki steal the Tesseract? Do you know?"

His frown deepens. "For it's great power, surely."

"You think so?" She scrunches her face—bites back on impulsive words. They'll do more harm than good, even she sees that—and this is far too important to screw up because she can't control her tongue. "He's said as much himself—he was not working alone in this. Stealing the Tesseract was a catalyst—it brought us together. He's known more about us all along—more than we realized. He knew about Banner—the Hulk. Knew just where to strike—knew when and how. And—" She pauses, because here is the crux of it: "And I think he knew that stealing the Tesseract would trigger the Avenger Initiative. I think that was the point, all along."

She can't say that a lot of the information Loki obtained had come from her. That is a secret she intends to take with her to thegrave. It also doesn't change the fact that Loki had needed that information for something. She thinks Loki must have known she was getting close to uncovering the truth—it would explain why he was always managing to divert her attention in some way or another.

Thor's expression is troubled—she sees denial creeping into his blue eyes. He doesn't smash her head in with a massive fist, though. Instead, he asks, "But—for what purpose?"

Natasha starts to pace—needs movement to keep her focused. Her body is thrumming with energy and her thoughts are in danger of becoming jumbled together in her urgency to say them out loud. "In Germany—he practically handed himself over to us," she says, speaking with her hands. "You know your brother. He's smart—wicked smart! And he's got magic. There were a thousand and oneways he could have escaped us—"She halts abruptly—stares into nothing as her mind takes her back to that night. "Instead—he let us tuck him safely away—in handcuffs! We had him in handcuffs and even if we didn't know it then, you know—our stupid little metal handcuffs wouldn't have been able to restrain someone with the powers of a God if they'd really wanted to escapemuch less aFrost Giant."

Thor gets that same curious look in his eyes that she'd seen earlier, but his mouth remains a firm line. He's listening—she speeds up her words, eager to get them out before he loses his patience with her.

"By the time you showed up, we were too distracted fighting each other to notice. Agent Romanoff thought she'd outsmarted him—but I think he wanted us to know about his plan to unleash the Hulk. Then—when Barton attacked and the Hulk flipped out on us—we blamed Loki. We thought that was his plan all along—and it was! But not all of it! What happened on the Helicarrier—with Hulk; with Coulson—I think that was all part of Loki's plan to bring us together—not tear us apart. He needed us to work together for his plan towork."

Thor is scowling now. "It seems very unlikely that my brother would have sought to bring together the very team tasked to forestall his conquest of your world."

"Then you don't know your brother half as well as you think you do," Natasha snorts. She's pacing again—brings both hands to clutch at her hair while she focuses on keeping her thoughts in line "Believe me—our coming together was Loki's plan all along. He wanted us to win! He wanted us to defeat the Chitauri! It was never Earth he wanted—there is no throne here! There is nothing to rule! Nothing he wants, anyway! It's Asgard he's always wanted! You said it yourself—he desired the Asgardian throne. It's always been Asgard. Earth was just a means to distract you—to distract us. It was a means to an end—and all so he could go home!"

It had taken her a while to put this together—longer than she would have liked. But it had all fallen into place after she'd had time to mull over Loki's words from the night before. She's still trying to figure out if this too was a part of Loki's machinations.

She bites back a grin—chastises herself for the flicker of awe. Her back is to Thor so he doesn't catch her slip—

But damn!

What sort of mind would it take to concoct a scheme such as this?

A beautiful one, she thinks. A fucking amazing one!

"But all this—why?" Thor says after a moment, drawing her attention back to him. She spins around to see him looking totally—almostpitifully—lost. He's shaking his head, staring at the shattered tile and glittering glass as if he could divine an answer from them "I fail to see why my brother would resort to such measures if—"

"Your father collects things—doesn't he?" Natasha asks, impatient to get to her point. "Powerful weapons or tools. Things he's won from realms he's conquered."

"Yes. He has a Vault—but how do you know of this?" Thor's curiosity burns in his gaze; he gapes at her as if she were the mythical God of Midgardian legends.

"I do my homework—never mind it." She shakes her head, waving him off dismissively. Obviously, she can't tell him that all of her information on the Nine Realms had come from the very God she was accusing of holding to still even more schemes. "I think there's something in the Vault. Whoever Loki was working for or with—they want something from that Vault."

Thor shakes his head, "That is impossible. None can enter the realm without the knowledge of Heimdall, the Eternal Vigilant—he who is All-Seeing, All-Hearing. The Vault itself is impregnable—guarded by the fiercest warriors of Asgard. Its passage is known only to—"

"Yourself, your father—the handful of guards you have protecting it. Probably a Royal Guard, if you have one—but most importantly—Loki." She smiles—aims for sympathetic and isn't entirely sure if she succeeds. "Am I wrong?"

For a second, Thor seems unable—unwilling—to comprehend. He looks as if she'd single-handedly crushed every hope he ever had. "What—what are you saying?"

It would be inappropriate to grin; she bites the inside of her cheek to keep from doing so. She knows she should be upset or worried after finally solving the mystery of Loki's plot—even if not completely—but there's a thrill in it. Something incredibly fulfilling in the way everything had just clicked and it was genius and gorgeous and so—so—very wickedly mischievous.

She clears her throat, and when she's sure she can retain composure, speaks. "I'm saying Loki wanted us to win. He wanted us to think we won and so that when you inevitably dragged his ass back to Asgard—which we all knew you were going to do—with theTesseract, no less—"

Thor shakes his head violently and turns his head, holding out a hand to silence her. "Enough! I have heard enough!"

"There is something in that Vault!" Natasha says urgently, stepping up to him and finding his eyes. "Something someone wants very, very bad—someone powerful enough that even Loki fears upsetting his wrath."

She sees it the moment Thor allows the pieces to settle and form the image she is presenting. For a moment, she almost regrets having said anything at all as his expression crumples in anguish.

"If I were to bring Loki to Asgard now—Father would …" Thor trails off, strangely subdued.

"You have to be the one to bring him back after a humiliating defeat at the hands of mortals. In that way, no one would suspect that Loki's schemes had been a success." She leaves him to make her way to the television mounted on the wall, doesn't waste time finding the remote and pulls up the news.

"—devastation of what has been confirmed as an extraterrestrial attack, the extraordinary heroics of the group known as the Avengers—" Blares the sound system before she cuts it off again and turns to face Thor.

"See? He got exactly what he wanted. A success hidden within a failure."

Thor draws back sharply, regards her as if she were a viper—her words poisonous. He shakes his head, staggering back a step, but he can't seem to form words.

"Wait." Natasha reaches out but is too far to touch him. Thor takes another step back and he looks—broken. She grimaces, choosing her next words with care. "Thor, wait."

"This is—This cannot—"

"Thor. Wait." She says again. When she's sure he's listening, she sighs and says, "I honestly believe that this had been Loki's plan all along. We would have scraped away with a victory and you would have carted him off to Asgard and no one would have suspected anything wrong."

Thor swallows, inhales deeply—and in a moment he has gathered himself completely. Everything about him is fierce—resolved. "You said 'had'."

She nods. "I think that was his original plan. But—" She hesitates—can't help it when her eyes drag away from the Asgardian God and find the bar. "I think something changed his mind. Maybe his interests no longer coincide with whoever he was working with—I don't know. I do know that he seems to believe that someone will be coming after him should he fail."

"But—you do believe he's had a change of heart … ?" Thor sounds worried—and hopeful.

"Yes. I don't know what changed his mind, but—Thor. You can't let him know you know. You cannot let him out of your sight. That Vault—it must be protected because I promise you—whoever this guy is that Loki was working with—whatever he wants? It's going to be in there."

Thor watches her for a long moment—long enough that eventually she gets lost in her own thoughts once more.

Eventually, he says, "You are a truly an ally worthy of praise." He steps forward, cutting across the room so that he's standing in front of her. He sets a heavy hand on her shoulder. "You have proven yourself to be a woman of honor. If ever the need arise, know that Midgard has my protection. And you, Natasha Stark—you have my trust and my loyalty. I can never sufficiently express my gratitude."


When the next day arrives, no one argues with the God when he appears before the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director and demands to be given the Tesseract. He receives both the Cube and his brother, equally restrained. A mouth guard is fashioned for Loki, more as a means to conceal the Trickster's identity than anything else; this seems to confuse the others, save Loki and Fury, but the purpose of the partial mask is revealed when the rest of the group arrive at Central Park and find that Natasha has taken the opportunity to call in every media and news station—ensuring the Asgardian Princes are given the send-off they deserve.

She had been against the idea of sharing anything with the public—and Fury had done well to limit exactly how much the people were fed—but she never did anything by halves. If the people wanted heroes and a conquered villain—this is exactly what they would get. A part of her knows she's also doing this to play into Loki's scheme—it's what he wants, after all. He wants to appear defeated—but the slump of his shoulders and the bow of his head can't conceal the glimmer of mischief in his eyes as Thor escorts him out of the Quinjet, Agent Romanoff at their back. Natasha thinks she might be the only one to see it, but then Thor catches her eyes and he offers a single, heavy, nod.

Coulson and Barton arrive by company car with Banner in the backseat. They're the third to arrive, after Natasha and the Quinjet, followed shortly after by Rogers on motorcycle. Selvig is present, but he lingers back, near the Quinjet, seemingly uncomfortable with the press. Natasha watches everyone gather together out of the corner of her eyes, only half focused on the reporters bombarding her with questions and cameras. Only through many years of practice can she make out the individual voices of each reporter. She answers them vaguely, throws in a few hints to the future of Stark Industries (because Pepper would like that), and expertly maneuvers around specifics about the Avengers. She knows that her identity as Iron Woman is no secret, and it didn't take a genius to figure out Captain America's identity—one had only to open a history book. But no one knew that seemingly unremarkable Banner was the incredible green beast who'd once been the terror of Harlem—now a hero to some (but too few to count)—and she was certain it'd be best if the public never knew of the Hulk's dual identity. Agents Barton, Romanoff and Coulson didn't exist as far as the general public was concerned—though there had been demands by several interested parties that S.I. begin manufacturing Black Widow and Hawkeye merchandise.

Natasha grins at the thought and the cameras flash away. Raising a hand high above their heads, she widens her grin and shouts, "That's all the questions I can answer for now!"

"But Ms. Stark—!"

"Ms. Stark, who are—?"

"Ms. Stark—!"

"Is that—?"

"What do the Avengers—?"

Natasha shakes her head to gather her thoughts—the decibel of the reporters' shouts had just increased seemingly tenfold and it was disorienting as ever. Grimacing, Natasha smiles into the cameras, making sure look into each lens. "Sorry—can't be helped! But stick around! You're in for one hell of a treat! Remember—this is how the Avengers get things done!"

The shouting continues, as loudly as if she were caught in the midst of the reporters, while she makes her way to join the group. Coulson is waiting outside the loose circle the Avengers have formed around Loki and Thor and falls into step beside her.

"You're unbelievable," he says with a small smile.

"Blame your boss," she replies with a shrug. Then, without sparing a thought for her next action, she stops them both with a hand on his arm, turning him to face her. Coulson frowns at her grim expression and she feels something clench, then unclench, in her chest. She remembers—You could have died. I thought you were dead!—and it's hard to keep the emotion from her tone. "Hey, I'm glad you're okay—but you've got to promise me you'll never do something that stupid again."

Coulson's frown dissolves into a similarly sober look. He reaches out to set a hand down on her opposite shoulder; says, "Can you make that same promise?"

Somehow—that's a harder punch in the gut than everything else combined.

Because …

What right did she have not to sacrifice her life for her country? Or ask him not to do the same?

That's what it had always been about. The country she'd inadvertently betrayed when she'd allowed her weapons to be used against her countrymen; the innocents she'd sacrificed because she was an arrogant, selfish, destructive fool. An entire squadron of soldiers had died the day she was captured; Natasha Stark had not been so lucky and the memory of their screams—the memory of theirsacrifice (Yinsen's sacrifice!)—would be a constant reminder of her sins.

Natasha sighs, bowing her head.

Coulson's hand tightens on her shoulder. He murmurs, "We've got to do what we have to—so we can protect what we can."

He drops his hand away and starts for the group. It takes a minute before Natasha has composed herself enough to do the same.

It's anti-climactic—for her, at least. There are no words—no speech. Thor looks to everyone and bows his head in gratitude. The Cube is secured within a cylindrical container Natasha had pieced together after salvaging the parts from the device Selvig had set up on the roof of her Tower; there are handles on either end and Thor holds the container out to Loki so that he may take the opposite handle. Loki does so, but the look on his face seems almost malevolent—a promise for vengeance—and Natasha wonders if this too, is an act.

With a shared look, the brothers twist the handles—triggering the Cube to awaken from its imposed slumber. A hot light of energy shoots upwards in a pillar of white. As she squints behind her tinted sunglasses, she sees the vibrant rainbow of colors that are like loose threads—appearing one moment then melting back into the column of whitewhitewhite.

She's almost sad to see the Cube go—but her eyes are on Loki and remain glued to his position long after he's been spirited away to the realm of Gods.

The group begins breaking off soon enough, parting to go their own ways. Natasha doesn't notice until she feels a hand clap down on her shoulder. Startled, she glances back to see Rogers.

"Stark, we've had our differences—but I would just like to say it was an honor to fight alongside you."

He doesn't wait for her reaction, extending a hand to her expectantly. His expression seems sincere enough, but it's strangely difficult to read.

Natasha frowns. "An honor? Cap—we don't even like each other. We did what we had to."

"We don't understand each other, but I'd like to think one day we will." He doesn't lower his hand; the severity of his expression is almost militaristic.

Natasha blinks, shaking her head. She thinks she might be hearing things because—where was this coming from? Eventually, her eyes drop to his hand—and then her hand is reaching out, unbidden, and taking his. Strong fingers wrap around her hand, firm and confident.

"Maybe," she says, grimacing a skeptical smile. "One day, huh?"

Rogers' face melts and he smiles, warm and familiar—and it's like they're meeting again for the first time and he's looking at her, not the daughter of Howard Stark and it's …

It's a pretty great feeling, actually.

Her smile is just a little more genuine when he says, "And maybe—one day we can even be friends."

She snorts and they drop their hands and grin at each other. "Okay—now you're just being unrealistic."

"You're right. What was I thinking?"

He offers one final salute in parting before heading off towards his bike. Natasha watches him go—can't forget his words from the day before but doesn't think there's anything to forgive. It's a blow to her ego and she wants to rage and explode—but that's something she's long learned to control. She buries her hurt and her anger and she decides to ignore it because—she wants her normal life back and the sooner she puts this Avenger business behind her, the better.

Part of the reason she'd wanted to avoid releasing any information to the press on their dysfunctional group of heroes was because she knew—even if no one else would say it outright—that the Avengers couldn't work without calamity. The Avengers weren't heroes—they were a last resort. They were the planet's last defense—and no one wants to think about that. Not after everything they've seen. Humans weren't ready to deal with what was waiting for them in the infinite depths of space—and the Avengers were a reminder of every dark thing out there waiting for a chance to strike out against their unsuspecting planet.

Their group needed time to adjust. They needed time to regroup and to heal because—they were only human, after all.

"Give me a ride to the station?"

Pulled from her thoughts, Natasha looks up and sees Banner smiling. There's warmth in his eyes and it floods into her chest, filling in the strange hole that the Asgardians' departure had left.

She laughs, nodding and gesturing he follow her back to her car. "Station? No. You can have one of my jets—"

"Stark—"

"Natasha."

"Cal me Bruce, then. And …" He trails off when they reach her car. He silent while his eyes roam over the sleek exterior appreciatively.

"Jet's more convenient for you. Private—you get the entire thing to yourself. Fully staffed—or without. However you prefer. The jet's yours and you can use it whenever you want and take it wherever you want—under the condition you come back and visit."

Banner tears his eyes away from the car, shaking his head in disbelief. He smiles at her. "You're really too much."

She shrugs and hops over the door and slips smoothly into her seat. Banner tries to follow her lead but gets his foot caught on the door and nearly faceplants into the gear-shift. She keeps her eyes forward and starts the car to pretend she hadn't noticed and he settles into the passenger's seat with a low whistle.

"Nice, huh?" She starts the car and they're off. "Wait 'till you see the rest."

"Can't wait."

That sounds like a promise and Natasha grins. "So what's the plan?"

"There's still a lot of work to be done for me. A lot of people who still need my help. I was happiest when I got to help people, and—"

"I get it." She nods, although there's an awkward feeling now. Natasha has never been so selfless so she's not sure she can evertruly understand. "Do what you gotta do. Just remember—"

"Yeah, I know."

You've always got a home.

Chapter Text

Reed is not an emotional man—this is something his wife can easily attest to. His is a mind ruled by logic and one of the reasons he has always considered Tony a good friend. They were futurists—they liked to think they knew what was best for people, before people even knew it. It wasn't boasting on their behalf—Reed knows he's a genius, just as he knows Tony is one as well. He's always been able to understand Tony without the need to delve into the man's sticky past. Tony Stark was far from perfect—but the man, if nothing else, has always been one of the good guys.

The war—hero against hero—had been one of the hardest things he's ever fought. It had nearly cost him his family—it had cost himfriends. The Registration Act had caused irreparable damage to their community and there were moments when he would catch Sue's gaze and know.

Nothing would ever be the same.

Bruce was gone—banished—shipped away like extra cargo into space where the Hulk would be less of an inconvenience.

Tony was gone—a figurehead in this war, now nothing more than a vegetable; that is, if Osborn hadn't already found him and done away with the Golden Avenger altogether.

Steve was gone—and God, how that had destroyed Tony. Steve was gone and … he wasn't coming back.

And Thor? What was left of Thor but a machine—a poor substitute for the Thunder God who had vanished in the wake of Ragnarok, right alongside every other Asgardian.

Reed had never felt so alone—and so he'd sought answers like a desperate man—

But what good did it do him to look into the reality of Natasha Stark?

The Loki of his reality was far beyond redemption.

Loki was just another villain among an endless horde—but the biggest monsters of them all had revealed themselves in this last war.

For a fleeting moment—Reed feels compelled to reach out to these million realities and warn them—warn them …

War is coming.

War is coming!

Chapter Text

"What are you doing here? And—" Natasha's eyes flick to the door to see it is completely undamaged. "And who let you in?"

Romanoff is dressed elegantly in a dark suit that hugs every perfect curve of her body. It makes what is mostly a very modest outfit look indecent. Natasha admires the Russian beauty as one would a master's work of art. Romanoff doesn't immediately answer, taking her time to admire what changes Natasha has made to the workshop in her Malibu home—there is a familiarity in the way she maneuvers around the equipment and Natasha narrows her eyes with irritation, recalling the agent's time spent as Fury's spy.

Finally, Romanoff clears her throat and smiles secretively, flicking her eyes in Natasha's direction as pauses before the row of Natasha's armored suits. "It's my day off. Pepper asked me to check in on you, since you won't let anyone else within a ten-foot radius of the Tower."

Natasha snorts, returning to her work on her arm and the armor encasing it. "And you thought you were the exception?"

Romanoff doesn't shrug—seems incapable of inelegance—and merely turns her attention to a table of prototypes Natasha has been working on for the next showing. "No. But no amount of fancy gadgetry can keep me out."

Natasha rolls her eyes, fiddling with a .80 millimeter screwdriver but not really applying it to any use on the arm. She flexes her fingers and wrist but her focus is gone and her thoughts are too many and too quick.

After a moment, because she can still feel Romanoff's eyes on the back of her neck, Natasha says, "I didn't realize Fury actually gave you guys vacation time."

"We didn't really give him much of a choice. I'd say we earned it, no?" Romanoff's heels click across the tiled floor as she crosses the room, deceivingly delicate. She grabs a stool from one of the workstations on her way and sets it next to the desk and sits.

Natasha's eyes only flicker once towards her. She tries to maintain the illusion that she's caught up in her work, hoping that will dissuade Romanoff from … whatever the hell she's up to. It is with no small amount of trepidation that Natasha tries to work out what the other woman has been assigned to accomplish here. She's known the other for a little longer than she's known most of the other agents in S.H.I.E.L.D., barring Coulson, but that hardly makes her an authority on the former KGB spy.

She lets her mouth run with the first thing that springs to mind as she frowns down at the mechanical arm wrapped around her flesh one. "And why is Pepper sending you to come check up on me? Or, better yet, why would you agree?"

"The unusual circumstances of our first acquaintanceship notwithstanding, Pepper is still a good friend."

Natasha looks up, brows raised and lips quirked in an skeptical smirk. "You, my dear, do not have friends. You have partners, maybe. Allies and co-workers, sure. But you don't have friends."

Romanoff doesn't look at all offended, smiling that same, secretive smile that never matches the expression in her eyes. It's one that Natasha can't name and doesn't know if she ever wants to. There is something frigid there. Dark and empty like the caverns in Natasha's nightmares where it's only her and a battery and rock and darkness and there's nobody else. No salvation.

Natasha tears her eyes away as Romanoff says, "You're right. Yes, she is a comrade, not a friend."

All that Natasha can do is nod, nudging wires around her wrist to keep busy. "Don't worry, I won't break her heart by telling her."

Romanoff hums softly. "You're very good at deflecting, Stark."

"I didn't realize I was deflecting, Natalie."

"Of course you are." When Natasha doesn't respond, Romanoff continues. "The Captain stopped by headquarters today. He wanted to know how you were doing."

Natasha sniffs, just this side of disdain coloring her words, "Well, isn't he just a peach? What's he doing back, anyway? I thought he was out traipsing across the backwaters of 'Murrica."

"He is still required to make reports to Fury. Obviously, we can't just let him go off on his—"

The screwdriver clatters noisily to the desk. Natasha is glaring into a spot on the desk between her flesh hand and the hand suited in armor.

"You cannot be serious."

Romanoff doesn't bother with a response.

Shaking her head and snorting angrily, Natasha starts at the clasps on the armor so she can free her arm. "Whatever. If that idiot still wants to play fetch for the military and wag his tale for Fury, why should I care?"

"I thought you and the Captain were getting along? You seemed almost friendly the last time I saw you together."

Natasha wants to immediately argue that, no, she can't stand that bumbling goody-two shoes from another era—but this is Rogers. And even if he thinks of her as a brat with an overinflated sense of self-importance, she can't deny the part of her that was glad when he'd shaken her hand after everything and smiled at her like they could ever be equals.

"We worked well together," Natasha says at last, because she's a coward and even if Romanoff probably couldn't care less, Natasha thinks she's physically incapable of talking about her feelings unless she's drank her weight in liquor. "But we all did. It's nothing special."

"I think there's definitely something special between you and Rogers."

Natasha cuts Romanoff an incredulous and vaguely horrified look. Incredulous because, seriously? Her, too? (Coulson had said the same thing a while ago and it didn't make it any less creepy to hear the second time around.) And horrified because—was Romanoffreally about to talk boys with her?

"No thanks. I like my men with experience. Also, we can't be together for more than five minutes before we're trying to kill each other."

Romanoff sits entirely too elegant in the stool as her green eyes run up and down Natasha's length like she's prey—or, if Natasha were foolish enough to believe, as if she was checking her out. She goes with the second thought because Romanoff looking at her like prey is too disconcerting a thought to entertain.

"You do seem to have a natural propensity for getting under people's skin. I've never seen anyone piss off the Cap the way you do."

Natasha's arm slips free and she casts Romanoff a fleeting smirk. "It's a family trait, I hear."

Romanoff says seriously, "You're a very strange and unique kind of woman, Natasha."

Natasha blinks, looking away from the dismantled armor on her desk to see the agent watching her with more intensity than she'd have liked. She is surprised mostly because the last time Romanoff called her by her first name it was when Natasha had been fending off a wave of Hammer's drones—it's a little ominous to hear it now and indicative of where this conversation may be headed.

She tries to play off her unease with a snort and a roll of her eyes. "This coming from the woman desired and feared by every straight man she comes into contact with."

Romanoff doesn't smile again; Natasha can't decide which she prefers. "Yes, but you're different."

Natasha's brows hike high on her forehead and she swivels her chair so she's facing Romanoff, interested if only because she loves to hear what others thought about her. As if they had any fucking clue what went on in her head. At least Pepper, Happy and Rhodey didn't work off assumptions and didn't pretend to understand her any better than they did. She damps down the spark of indignation; doesn't want to give the agent the satisfaction.

"Oh, so you've figured out the puzzle?" Natasha grins, all irony and no warmth. "Well, let's hear it. Let's see if you can win the grand prize."

Romanoff's eyes are steady, and she remains perfectly unperturbed by Natasha's barbed words. "I don't really know what it is, either."

Natasha rolls her eyes, slumping back against her seat dramatically. "Well, boo, that's boring!"

Romanoff says, "It's the way people react to you. It's fascinating. We watch you—"

Natasha blinks. "Who? You and Barton?"

"Yes."

Natasha leers. "That's kinky."

Romanoff doesn't look impressed. "It's part of the job."

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Oh. Right. Because S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps tabs on everyone. Yeah. Not so flattered anymore."

Romanoff ignores her. "You have a way of drawing out the side in people they'd rather keep hidden. It's a trait that is highly valued in my particular profession, but incredibly annoying in a nerdy mechanic with an oversized ego."

"Ouch, baby. That one hurt," Natasha pouts, placing a hand over her reactor.

"You and I are independent women working successfully in a man's world—"

Natasha groans, bringing her hand to swipe down her face. "Oh god. Are you gunna go all Women's Rights on me?"

"I'm saying—it's rare for a woman to be in our line of work—"

"Please, dear god, let this be over—"

"—and be treated as equals. It helps that the men we work with aren't complete idiots, but all the same, this is a country that still refuses to allow women to serve in active duty."

Natasha snorts under her hand. "What are you talking about? There are loads of chicks in the military."

"Women are not permitted to serve on the frontlines. Though that doesn't mean they don't get caught up in the fighting eventually. But that isn't the point."

Natasha drops her hand to her lap, bouncing her head impatiently against the back of the chair—she mumbles, "There's a point?"

"Stop talking for one second and I'll get to it." Romanoff is glaring now; Natasha's tongue is suddenly lead in her mouth. "This is exactly what I mean. You get to people. You get past whatever pretense they've put up for themselves and you push until they show you something terrible or interesting or both. I'm not sure if that's all it is to you—a game—but I know you have to be at least partially aware of it."

Natasha shrugs. She knows what she's like—takes pride in it occasionally—but it's a trait she only rarely employs on purpose. Most of the time, she doesn't mean for what comes out of her mouth to be as offensive as it is—but she can't help her honesty. It's not like she'd had anyone to tell her it was socially unacceptable to be the way she was—and it was only through careful observation of others that she eventually learned to imitate the masses when her duties as CEO required it of her. A lot of times, she just reacts. Words come quickly to her and so she lashes out with them first and without thought the moment her pride is threatened.

"Like with Bruce," Romanoff is saying, "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s spent a long time tracking him and a longer time trying to convince him to lend us his knowledge on Gamma radiation. You're an asshole—almost a bigger one than the Director—yet you somehow managed to be theone person he decides to trust."

Natasha's eyes narrow. "Well, I don't know about that, but it helps when you treat the guy like a human being and not a walking time-bomb."

Romanoff doesn't comment. "You get to Rogers—make him snap and forget he's basically the poster boy for love and puppies and all that's good in the world."

Natasha can't help it. She grins, "I'm telling him you said that. Sarcasm included. I totally heard it."

Romanoff rolls her eyes. "Rogers is your classic gentleman. It's annoying. When we're not on the field, he goes around opening doors and pulling out chairs for me."

Natasha rolls a shoulder; contains another grin and suggests, "Maybe he's courting you?"

"No, that's just how they bred 'em, back in the day. He does the same for Agent Hill."

"Not me," Natasha points out, already bored with this conversation. She picks up her screwdriver again, twirling it between her fingers.

"Yes. The Captain and Thor share a very similar sort of chivalry that seems to extend to every woman but you."

Natasha blinks. "Uh …"

Suddenly, she has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. The conversation had already taken a turn into weird about five minutes back, but now …

"You do realize that the way Rogers treats you is entirely different from the way he treats others? Likewise, Thor is the sort of old fashioned God who doesn't believe in striking a woman, even if he is willing to fight alongside them."

"I'd beg to differ." Natasha touches her fingers to her chest where she can still distinctly recall the bruise Thor had left her with when he'd bashed her with Mjolnir.

Romanoff says, almost pensively, "I don't even think you register as a woman with them."

Natasha should probably be offended, but she's more surprised than anything so she just stares. "I'll have you know that Rogers called me 'dame' when we first met."

"And then he got to know you."

Natasha shrugs. "Yeah. Well …" She scrunches her face in confusion and frowns at the other woman. "You have way too much time on your hands if you have this much time to psychoanalyze me. What are you even getting at?"

"We used to be able to talk, you and I," Romanoff says instead of answering directly.

"That was when I thought you could be trusted," Natasha shrugs—doesn't feel the bitterness she might have felt once upon a time. "

"I was doing my job."

"You did a good job," Natasha says, plucking a small plate of reflective metal from her desk to keep her hands occupied.

"One of the things I came here to tell you is that—you shouldn't push everyone away and keep everything to yourself. You havefriends, Stark. You have people who care about you. People—even—who are willing to disobey orders for you."

Natasha frowns, startled and confused—and then Romanoff is setting something down on the desk.

It's a box.

Simple and sleek—black lacquer and all too familiar.

"Coulson has never said a thing to Fury—but it's my job to know things."

For a second, Natasha panics—but she swallows it down and looks up to meet Romanoff's gaze, unflinching. "So you know."

Romanoff proves that she is unmatched in the arts of torture and interrogation. The length of time she takes to speak are the longest and heaviest Natasha has ever had to endure. Her heart is racing in her chest—pounding fiercely against the reactor. Sweat breaks out on her palms and the back of her neck and she waits.

Romanoff's face is so impassive—so in control—and her eyes shield her thoughts expertly.

Finally, she says, "Loki spared Coulson when he had every chance to kill him. For that, he has my gratitude. He is still the enemy—but I always repay my debts."


Natasha takes Romanoff's advice.

In a way.

She returns to her life as Natasha Stark—attends social gatherings and finds eager men to take to bed. She dodges Pepper's attempts to find her a new assistant—proves she doesn't need one by taking an acting interest in her company once more. The Mark VII is rebuilt and refurbished—then set aside to join the other suits in collecting dust while she focuses on her company and reminds the world exactly why Stark Industries was uncontested.

Her life is nearly perfect again.

Normal.

Some days it's everything she can do just to breathe—like she's spent so long submerged under chaotic waters that now that she's free she doesn't know what she's supposed to do with oxygen. Inhale. Exhale. It's a process she'd never thought she'd have to practice to remember.

It doesn't happen too often—only when she has time to sleep, but she usually finds she's too busy for even that.

Some days—though—some days Natasha is just waiting for the next tidal wave to crash into her life.


Six Months After Chitauri Incident

She wakes before the nightmares can take too firm a hold on her.

It's with a feeling of incredible relief that she slips out of bed and wanders through the darkness to her wardrobe to find something quick and comfortable to slip into. She finds a shirt and some sweats and is careful not to make a sound as she leaves her bedroom and its guest to make her way to the kitchen. There is a box of donuts on the counter and a fresh pot of coffee and Natasha grimaces. The only reason Pepper wasn't commenting on the number of 'dates' Natasha had been taking lately was because this was the most Natasha has ever spent participating in the affairs of her company in nearly three years. Work was good and Natasha—for the most part—was exhibiting exemplary behavior in the workplace—but Pepper's silence on the way Natasha had been choosing to conduct her personal life did not signify her approval.

With a sigh, she pours herself a mug of black coffee and plucks the donut with the most frosting from the box. She takes both to the couch, sets her mug on the coffee table to snatch the tablet and pull up a page listing the various stocks Stark Industries was invested in. When she's finished with the donut, she wipes her hand on her pants leg and slips the stylus from the tablet to resume her work on the new Iron Woman blueprints. The Mark VII had proven to be incompatible with the nano-tech beta—but after taking it out for a test run against the Chitauri, Natasha had already come to the decision to make a new suit altogether. After all, art is never finished. Only abandoned. Her ideas for improvement were limitless—it would be pointless to resume her work with the Mark VII when she could build a new one altogether.

Nearly an hour passes in this fashion. She's surprised when she looks up and finds the sky is lighter—hadn't realized how fixed upon her work she must have been. It's then that she notices the television is on—volume tuned low but audible enough to dash away the silence of the penthouse. She blinks at it—wonders if Pepper had set it on a timer, presuming Natasha would have still been asleep by this hour and had meant for it to be on by the time she'd awoken. She's certain she hadn't turned it on herself but dismisses the thought, reaching for her (probably cold) coffee and—

Sees the bottle of Krug Champagne sitting, unblemished, at the center of the coffee table.

Shaky fingers curl around her mug and—without looking away from the champagne—she brings the mug to her lips and sips.

(Her heart stutters in her chest)

It tastes of …

"Good morning, Ms. Stark."

Natasha inhales sharply in fright—and the breath catches in her throat. The mug slips from her hands and—

Freezes mid-spill, suspended in the air by an unseen force.

Natasha looks from the mug—then looks up to see Loki—Loki! Dressed in probably the only pair of clothing he actually owns and didn't have to conjure; jeans and a thin t-shirt—and he's standing there, hands in his pockets and looking impossibly at ease. He nudges his chin at the coffee table and she sees two crystal flutes materialize out of nothing. Loki casually slips a hand from his pocket—makes a twisting motion—then the coffee mug is righting itself and settling itself back into her hands without a drop of it spilt.

"If it's all the same to you, I believe I'll have that drink now."

Natasha gapes unattractively—and then her mind kicks back to life and her eyes narrow with a thought. "Thor."

Loki smiles. "My brother is incapable of discretion." He considers her for a second, smile twitching wider. "But you knew that, didn't you?"

Natasha scowls, reclining back against the couch. "It's been six months. I'd kinda given up hope."

Loki chuckles. "It was rather conniving of you—relying on my brother's unfailing loyalty and unbearable sentimentality. He knew it would be dangerous to permit me to remain in Asgard—but he could not simply allow me to be banished without making certain that I would be guarded."

Natasha's eyes narrow further. "And your punishment?"

Opening his arms, he smirks. "I was exiled, as you may have surmised. Banished. I am, once more, without a home."

Natasha snorts, arching a brow. "You don't seem that upset."

Loki shrugs, stepping around the coffee table to take a seat on the couch beside her. He reaches out for the champagne bottle and grabs both flutes with his other hand. He explains, "The punishment could have been more severe—there were talks of sewing my mouth shut and banishing me to the Isle of Silence."

Natasha balks, accepting the crystal flute. "The what?"

The cap of the bottle is dissolved with magic and Loki reaches to fill her glass first. "Fortunately, my brother's crimes far outweigh my own. You could say I got off without a punishment at all."

"Wait—Thor? What did he do?"

Loki's smirk reveals boyish glee as he fills his flute and says, "He reignited war between Asgard and Jotunheim. Quite frankly, I am theleast of my father's concern."

"Are you?" Natasha asks, skeptically.

Loki reaches to clink their glasses together. "There is no need for concern. None, save myself, have ever slipped beneath the notice of Heimdall."

Natasha sips carefully, watching him with open suspicion. Eventually, she admits, "I know there's more I still haven't figured out."

Loki chuckles quietly—watches her mouth as she takes another sip. "Even if I do, it would be only a matter of time before you worked it out."

She hums in agreement—can't help the self-satisfied smirk that flits into place. "That was a pretty impressive plan. By the time I figured it out—it was already over. I can't even be upset about it—it was that brilliant."

"The key to strategy is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory." He sits forward so his elbows rest on his knees, champagne flute dangling between long fingers. He's smiling and still watching her as he says, "But even you. Your genius never fails to impress me. You managed to use my victory to create a success for yourself. Now—I am stranded on Earth with no army and no way to return to Asgard."

Natasha flashes him a sharp grin, pulling up her legs so she's sitting cross-legged on the couch and shifting so she's facing him. "I'm a sore loser," she shrugs. "Also—I don't trust you, and I can't rely on anyone but myself to keep an eye on you."

Loki seems amused. He arches a brow and offers a nod. "Of course."

As he raises his flute to take a sip his eyes are drawn to something behind her. Turning, she sees the gorgeous blond she'd hooked up with the night before standing awkwardly in the hallway. He looks between her and Loki, brow furrowing in consternation.

Natasha blinks—then smiles sweetly, "You're still here?"

"I—"

She nods her head in the direction of the elevator. "You can let yourself out."

Flushing furiously, the man scrambles out of the penthouse without another word.

"Really, Natasha? That was a little rude," Loki chastising her with a frown that is belayed by his smirk.

Natasha slumps her side against the couch and returns his smirk. "He was only interested in getting a scoop on the Avengers and Iron Woman and—you, actually."

Loki snorts, expression contorting with disgust. It lasts for only a moment because the elevator dings and they both turn to see Pepper stepping into the penthouse with an armful of paperwork.

"Natasha, did I just see—" Pepper freezes the moment she sees that Natasha is not alone—it takes her a full minute to recognize the man beside her. When she does, she all but squeals in glee. "Lucas! Sweetie! Oh, I'm glad you're back!"

Loki stands, maneuvering around the couch to greet Pepper. He extends a hand to her; murmurs, "Ms. Potts."

Pepper drops the documents on the nearest surface and rushes forward to envelope the unsuspecting Trickster in a hug. Natasha smirks and Pepper pulls away just as quickly, smiling sheepishly. "Oh—I'm sorry. That was unprofessional—I'm just so glad to have you back!" She falters—glances past him to check with Natasha then looks back to Loki, hesitant. "You are back, aren't you? I mean—I'msorry. I don't mean to presume, I just—"

"No, it's quite alright, Ms. Potts," Loki says smoothly. "I'd like to return—if you'll have me."

Both former assistants glance over to Natasha and she shrugs, feigning nonchalance.

"I like your coffee."

Pepper huffs, rolling her eyes. "Oh, don't listen to her! She's just as excited to have you back. She hasn't been the same since you've been gone!"

Natasha groans. "Seriously, Pep?"

Pepper ignores her. "And then all that terrible business with the Chitauri and that Loki fellow—"

At that, Loki glances to her again, brow arched and smirk twisted in an accusatory yet amused smirk.

You have not told her? She hears his voice in her head.

Natasha rolls her eyes and thinks, Yeah—she hates me enough. Thanks. You can do the honors, if you're brave. She's not sure if he hears her, but there's a brief look of agitation to cross his eyes when he turns his attention back to Pepper.

Pepper is beaming, leading him by the arm back to couch and forcing him to return to his seat next to Natasha. She takes the seat opposite them and says, "This is wonderful! Lucas—you don't know how amazing this is!"

"Would you like to join us for champagne?" Loki says, gesturing to the third glass that has appeared on the coffee table. "I understand the Tower's remodeling has just been completed."

Pepper blinks at the empty flute, startled. "Oh! I didn't notice—Wait. Where did you get those? I didn't buy—"

Natasha smiles. "Pep. Focus."

Pepper startles. "Oh! Yes!" She jumps to her feet suddenly. "Wait—let me get Happy! I'll be right back!"

She leaves and Loki waves his hand, summoning a fourth crystal flute next to the third. He waits until they hear the elevator doors shut behind Pepper before he looks to Natasha. "She'll need to know. Your Avenger friends are sure to recognize me. She'll find out and when she does—"

Natasha sighs. "Yeah, I know." A thought occurs to her—absurd, but far more preferable to facing another month of Pepper's silence. "Or! Or—Lucas Olson can be your secret identity! I have a secret identity!"

Loki snorts. "I'm not sure you know the meaning of the word."

"Fair enough." She agrees easily enough because—well, for obvious reasons. "Well, you can tell whoever you'd like. I don't really care."

Loki frowns, curious more than concerned. "You're not worried it will affect your relationship with the other Avengers?"

Natasha grimaces. "Uh—yeah. About that. The Avengers have been—disassembled, I guess you could sayBruce is the only one I keep in contact with, really, and I'm pretty much done with S.H.I.E.L.D."

Fury had called her selfish, Hill couldn't have cared less, Coulson thought she needed time and Barton and Romanoff were off moving on with their lives by resuming their work with S.H.I.E.L.D. as if nothing had happened. It's been a headache cutting ties with S.H.I.E.L.D. and a part of her thinks she might perhaps be acting out of petty anger. Her feelings for Fury should not affect her duty but there was also the matter of her disagreeing with about 85% of the way S.H.I.E.L.D. handled things. That wasn't going to change—not under Fury's directorship—and she's already reached her limit with people betraying and lying to her. She was tired of feeling used and tired of feeling like a fool. She has never felt as much of an idiot as she had since New York. It was a dirty—disgusting—feeling.

Apropos to nothing, she says, "I am, though."

"Pardon?"

She looks out to the shifting ocean her penthouse overlooks. "I'm glad you're back."

"I figured I caused you the most harm," Loki says. "Why would you want to strand me here? With you."

Natasha drops her eyes to her lap—can't organize her thoughts because she hasn't needed to; had put it off in favor of pretending everything was fine. "I thought—I thought I wanted a normal life."

Loki waits, but she has no more to share. After a moment, he says, "Everything is different now. You can't erase everything you've experienced now that it's all over."

Nothing would be the same ever again, but she no longer remembered what normal was and it was hard—hard to be with Pepper and Happy and Rhodey and know things. She'd seen things that not even Bruce could understand and even if he tried, he was neveraround anyway and—

"I need you here," she admits—and it's painful as well as refreshing to admit it out loud when it has only ever been a thought before. "I don't think I know how to move on by myself. I'm worried—I'm worried that I'll let this get the better of me and I can't help but feel I need to be prepared ..."

Loki doesn't say anything. She feels the heat of his gaze burning into the side of her face.

She licks her lips nervously and brings a hand to her chest—touches her fingers briefly along the hard edge of the reactor—then exhales.

"There's something coming." She can feel it in her bones. "And you're the only one—The only one."

The only one I can trust.

And I don't even trust you at all.


In the darkest depths of space—where not even Heimdall the Faithful may turn his All-Seeing gaze—a shrouded Figure sits upon His thrown and gazes out upon what would be His. "I gaze upon the cold Vastness of Space and muse upon my Life," speaks the Last Son of Titan. The low rumble of His voice resonates in the silence. "Both, I find, are empty."

The Other kneels—looks upon the Titan in thrall. "My Lord! The humans—they are not the cowering wretches we were promised. Theystand. They are unruly and therefore cannot be ruled."

The Titan rises from His throne, massive countenance evidence of The Eternals' blessing—and with a Thought, the Other quivers in adulation—with a Thought, he quivers in pain as his body crumples against his will and he lowers himself against the blessedly cold stone.

He swallows his pain—doesn't allow himself a moment of breath and gasps, "To court them—is to court Death."

The Last Son looks upon The Other and smiles—and it is glorious and terrifying.

From behind The Other, speaks The Hand—the wretch, thinks The Other—and he says, "They are merely mortals, My Lord. They can be defeated."

The Other hisses, drawing away from The Hand as he dares step forward. "How do you expect to succeed where the Asgardian has failed?"

"I do not rely on trickery and mischief to accomplish my means. The Cube will be ours."

"All who oppose Me must die—and the first of these are the Earthian Heroes. I would have them destroyed for their defiance," rumbles the Titan. "Speak, Hand."

"Vengeance you shall have, My Lord—but you must first acquire that which the Asgardians have kept from you for so long. You must reclaim your Weapon—and then—then all of creation will bow down to you at last."

"And how will you do this, Hand? You are only one," sneers The Other.

"I will acquire us an army with which to challenge our Earthian foes. Earth, Asgard—and all the Nine Realms and more—it shall all be yours, My Lord."

The Titans smiles once more in pleasure—speaks out into the space as His eyes search the vastness:

"Death is coming."