This is a story in the first person.
I was born.
I was remade.
And nothing the world has thrown at me yet has managed to kill me.
It's really not that complicated.
* * *
(Everyone has weaknesses, faults, flaws, fractures.
The things they're not quite rational about.
The things that inform their every action.
The things that can be used against them.
Every role Natasha assumes has at least one. It's part of what makes them human - in some ways more human than she is. And it gives her enemies something to focus on, something they can exploit to get the upper hand.
And the moment when they think that they've got her?
That's when she has them.)
Natalie looks up to see Gwen's slightly disapproving face. "Yes, Ms Gliman?" she asks politely, using a surname because Natalie is still new here, and far beneath Gwen in the food chain.
For the moment, anyway.
Natalie has *plans* in that direction.
(Not that they'll come to anything, Natasha thinks. Natalie's likely not to exist for that long.)
(But Natalie is an intricate creation, and these things *matter*.)
"Ed wants to see you in his office now," Gwen says, and the displeasure is even clearer in her voice. Though whether it's the head of Legal calling on someone so junior personally, her being forced to carry the message or even what Ed is likely to ask of Natalie isn't quite as obvious.
It doesn't matter. Natalie allows herself a small smile of satisfaction before saying, "Thanks."
Gwen hesitates for a few seconds longer, looking like she wants to say something else, before just pursing her lips, nodding and heading off to her office.
(In another life, another role, Natasha might have almost liked Gwen, as much as she is capable of liking anyone. Gwen is quiet, competent and acts as a good counterpoint to Ed's far more expansive presence.)
(But that life is not this one, and here Gwen is just a potential barrier in Natalie's path.)
"Natalie! How are you doing?" Ed says, rising to his feet, as she comes in.
Natalie adds a little sway to her step as she approaches his desk, and takes his hand.
After all, putting the boss in a good mood never hurt anyone's career.
(Natasha smiles as she notes Ed's eyes flick downwards. It's not that she's necessarily planning on using it as ammunition, but having sexual harassment as a backup weapon never hurts.)
(And there'll be just enough truth to the claim to really throw Ed off his game if she ever feels the need to.)
"Very well, sir," she says.
"Good, good." He glances down at a sheaf of papers of his desk, then back to her. "We need Mr Stark to sign these papers."
He doesn't add 'And Mr Stark's been a bit recalcitrant' but he doesn't need to. Scuttlebutt about how Mr Stark has been ducking any and all people trying to pin him down even more than usual together with Ed's tone of frustration tell a story all of their own.
"Are you up to the task?" he asks, faux jovially.
Natalie flushes slightly, looking down. She doesn't need to be reminded that Ed caught her yesterday telling Mark that she was sure that *she* could catch up with Mr Stark, giving an exaggerated flick of her hair for emphasis.
(Natasha, on the other hand, is rather pleased that her staged show has managed to yield fruit so quickly.)
Apparently the idea has marinaded in Ed's mind overnight, and, at this point, he's willing to give it a try.
(And, if this *does* go badly wrong, Natasha will be able to tell Mr Stark about how big, bad Ed pressured her into doing this.)
(And, again, there's just enough truth in this to make him look *really* guilty.)
(Ed's not a bad guy, but, on occasion, she hurts a lot of not-bad guys in her line of work.)
(Though a lot less than she used to.)
Natalie looks back up at him after a moment, composed again. "Yes, sir," she says adding an edge of determination to her voice.
He hands her the sheaf of paper. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you how confidential this is. I'd suggest Ms Potts as your first port of call."
She takes the document, holding it carefully, close, and nods sharply.
"Good luck," Ed says in dismissal, then immediately turns his attention to his computer screen.
Natalie leaves quietly, efficiently, a woman on a mission.
"Hello?" The voice emanating from the phone is warm, if a little cautious.
"I'm Natalie Rushman. From Legal."
A quiet sigh greets her. "Let me guess, you've got something Ed wants Tony to sign."
"Is that a problem?"
"It really shouldn't be," comes the resigned reply. "Hold on a second."
Natalie is treated to about thirty seconds of holding music before the voice returns. "Mr Stark, last seen, was at his home. Do you have the address?"
Natalie types a few commands into the computer in front of her. "Yes."
(It's just for show. Natasha has already memorised such a basic pertinent fact.)
"I'll meet you there to let you in." The note of exasperation rings strongly here. Natalie wonders how many other messengers have been foiled at that first hurdle. "Shortly before two?"
"I can be there for then. And thank you."
"Don't mention it," the voice tells her. "Really, don't mention it," it adds a little ruefully.
Despite Natalie's preference for a cool demeanour, it's hard not to inject a little humour into her response. "I take it Mr Stark is not a fan of paperwork."
"You have *no* idea."
There's a white Accord, a few years old but well maintained, waiting for her outside the gates of the Stark estate. The door nearest the cliff running alongside the road is open, and a pair of pants-clad legs ending in high heels is sticking out. Glare from the sun hides many of the details of the car's occupant, but Natalie assumes that this is the mysterious Ms Potts.
(Natasha, of course, already knows it is.)
The legs withdraw inside the car as Natalie's vehicle approaches, only for the person within to emerge as Natalie brings her car to a stop.
(Not that it matters, but SHIELD's pictures of Potts don't do her justice, Natasha reflects.)
(But she's not the target here. At best, she's a stepping stone.)
Natalie, of course, just narrows her eyes slightly before assuming a professional smile. Ms Potts may be attractive, but she's been working for Mr Stark for years, and hasn't slowed the ebb and flow of women from Mr Stark's bed in the slightest.
She's not a threat, Natalie decides, and gets out of the car.
Ms Potts gives her a brief glance up and down, an evaluation of her own. Her lips tighten a little before she extends a hand to Natalie.
"Thank you for meeting me out here," Natalie says.
"I don't believe I've seen you before," Ms Potts says by way of reply.
"I'm a new hire, Ed sent me to see if I could get Mr Stark to sign the transfer documents."
(Natasha, of course, photographed them all and sent them off to SHIELD once safely away from the corporate headquarters. Just in case.)
Ms Potts lips thin a little more. "I'll just bet he did," she murmurs to herself, before offering Natalie a bright smile. "Let's make sure that Mr Stark is available to see you. Follow me in your car," she says, then turns and climbs back inside her own vehicle.
Natalie can't help looking around at the Stark estate as she drives through it. It's a testament to wealth, ambition and half-completed projects. Stark has a reputation for eccentricity, but it's one thing hearing about it and another actually seeing it.
(Natasha views it through a professional lens. What places she could use to infiltrate and exfiltrate the property. What the security devices are, where they cover, and where they don't.)
(For all its cobbled together appearance, the security net has a surprisingly good coverage.)
(Not perfect, though. Nothing ever is.)
Natalie arrives at the house and gets out to meet Ms Potts, who is looking up at a camera mounted just above the door.
"Good afternoon, JARVIS," she says.
"Good afternoon, Ms Potts. What can I do for you and your companion today?" asks a cultured British male voice.
"Is Tony still here?"
"I believe he is down in the training room, with Mr Hogan."
Ms Potts turns to look at Natalie. "Uh, I'll go first. Just to make sure..." She waves her hand a little.
"That Mr Stark is decent?"
Ms Potts cracks a smile. "Oh, he's never that. But mostly dressed would be a bonus. Just wait about ten seconds, and if I haven't screamed something about clothes, follow me in."
She visibly braces herself, then heads down one of the sets of stairs.
Natalie turns to look at the same camera Ms Potts was looking at. "So... JARVIS?"
"Considerably more than just a refined voice?" it asks drily. "Absolutely."
"Anything else you can tell me?"
"I'm sorry, madam, but I don't think we've been introduced."
"Natalie Rushman, from Legal."
"Delighted to meet you, and I do believe it's been ten seconds."
Natalie automatically glances at her wrist. "Thanks," she says, then strides quickly off after Ms Potts.
(So. Stark has at the very least a complex expert system running his house. Even from that small chat, though, Natasha is convinced that JARVIS is a fully Turing-compliant AI.)
(It certainly has more social awareness than many humans she's encountered.)
Natalie follows Ms Potts down the steps. Maybe a little quickly. Maybe a little eager to meet the infamous Tony Stark.
(Everyone has flaws, and one of Natalie's is ambition.)
Natalie is greeted by the sight of two men in a boxing ring, and she doesn't need to be told who Tony is. Clever brown eyes look her up and down.
She doesn't recognise the other man and, really, next to Tony stark he doesn't matter at all.
(Natasha, on the other hand, recognises Hogan. Stark's driver, bodyguard and, apparently, sparring partner. She doesn't think he's a threat, but it never does to underestimate a potential opponent.)
Natalie resists the urge to be anything other than professional, though, turning her attention to Ms Potts.
(Stark is known for his... consumption of attractive women. It wouldn't do to let him have *anything* this easily.)
Ms Potts is still looking at the boxing ring, a look of gently amused exasperation on her face. "I promise this is the *only* time I will ask you to sign over your company," she tells him.
Natalie, almost despite herself, can't help sharing an amused smile with Ms Potts.
(Not quite on plan, Natasha thinks, but she can work with this.)
"I'll need you to initial this box," she tells Ms Potts, indicating the required part of the form.
"What's your name, lady?" Tony asks.
(Good. He's indicating interest.)
Natalie looks up him. "Rushman. Natalie Rushman."
(Bond. James Bond.)
"Front and centre," he says, clapping his gloved hands together. "Come into the church."
"No, you're seriously not going to... ask her..." Ms Potts protests.
"If it pleases the court," Mr Stark says, grinning at Ms Potts, before adding, "Which it does."
Natalie considers. "No problem," she tells Ms Potts. Getting noticed by Mr Stark can only help her career.
"I'm sorry," Ms Potts apologises. "He's very... eccentric."
(Natasha hadn't noticed.)
Ms Potts looks disapprovingly. Mostly aimed at Mr Stark, but a little in Natalie's direction too.
Natalie doesn't pay it much attention. She may be the new boss, but everyone knows where the real power in the company comes from.
(Natalie does have her little blind spots on occasion. Useful ones, though.)
Mr Stark watches her approach, taking occasional sips from a water bottle filled with some kind of green liquid.
(Natasha doesn't recognise the drink. It could just be a health drink. Or it could be something important. If she gets a chance, she'll take a sample, find out more.)
"What?" Natalie asks, as she climbs into the ring, looking directly into Mr Stark's eyes.
(Careful... she doesn't want to overdo it.)
Mr Stark looks back at her for a moment, before turning to look at the other man. "Can you give her a lesson?"
The other man, big, muscled, nods. "No problem."
The man (Hogan) starts talking to her, but Natalie only spares him half her attention. Mr Stark is bringing up her file, and this could be her big break.
(Natasha, of course, isn't nearly so worried about what he'll find. But she thinks adding an unpolished note, a flaw in her facade, can only help at this stage.)
(And the fact that this gives her a better idea of how he is approaching the baited hook SHIELD has prepared for him is an additional plus.)
(Stark is looking... interested. Interested in the way that he might be interested in any pretty woman who wanders past him.)
(Interested is a possible. Interested is a maybe.)
(But not intrigued. And intrigued, Natasha guesses, more by instinct than anything else, is what will get him hooked.)
"Rule number one, never take your eye off your opponent," the man in front of her says, with a friendly, if patronising tone in his voice.
(Intrigued, Natasha repeats to herself.)
(And, consciously, doesn't rein in her instinctive response to someone aiming a blow at her.)
Grip, twist, flip.
And the man is lying on the floor of the ring, looking a little stunned.
(And *that* is Stark looking intrigued.)
Mr Stark leaps up and comes over to the ring.
"That's what I'm talking about. Looks like a TKO to me," he says, ringing the bell.
(And now to play it a little cool. Keep him off balance.)
"I just need your impression," she says, exiting through the ropes.
Stark frowns thoughtfully. "You have quiet resolve. I don't know, a very old soul."
"I meant your thumbprint," Natalie clarifies, retrieving the papers from where she put them down.
"Right," he says, then clears his throat, looking a little discombobulated, finally pressing his thumb to the correct area.
Ms Potts, approaches, eyes fixed firmly on Mr Stark. "So, how're we doing?" she asks cheerily, with only a slight edge to her voice.
"Great," he says, looking up at her with a slight smirk. "Just... hey. You're the boss."
A smile lights up her face, transforming it.
(And it's entirely irrelevant, being as how Natasha is here to evaluate Stark.)
"Will that be all, Mr Stark?" Natalie asks, smiling at him.
"Yes, that'll be all, Miss Rushman, yes. Thank you very much," Pepper answers for him, dismissing her with a smile.
But as she walks away, she can feel Mr Stark's eyes on her.
(And Natasha smiles.)
"You're working late."
Natalie jumps a little, almost imperceptibly, looking up to see Ms Potts standing in front of the entrance to her cubicle.
(Natasha, of course, had been well aware of Potts' approach.)
"Please, call me Pepper," she says, smiling a little.
"Pepper," Natalie says, trying the name on for size. *Pepper* may not be quite the prize that Tony is, but she's still the CEO of Stark Industries, and Natalie is nothing is not opportunistic. "What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, really. I was just on the way to see Ed - also burning the midnight oil, given the changes going on - and I spotted you. I just wanted to let you know that Tony didn't mean any harm earlier."
"It's really not a problem."
"Good - just - let me know if he bothers you again. I don't think that it's likely, but he can be like a dog with a bone on occasion."
"And I'm the tasty new treat?"
Pepper rolls her eyes a little. "Something like that. It's just, if he does call, don't mistake his interest for something that it isn't."
"I won't," Natalie promises.
"And call me if he contacts you again."
"Yes, ma'am," Natalie says (lies).
"Pepper," she corrects, smiling.
"Pepper," Natalie repeats, before smiling slightly in return. "Ma'am."
"You're incorrigible," Pepper tells her, mock seriously.
"I try my best," Natalie says, blandly.
"You've impressed the boss with your dedication. Now, go home. Shoo," Pepper says, making a waving motion.
"You're sure that there's nothing I can help you with?"
Pepper hesitates for a moment. "I'll... let you know," she says, then walks away towards Ed's office, twisting around just before she enters to make another shooing motion at Natalie.
(Making in-roads with Potts isn't a bad thing, Natasha finally decides. It could certainly provide valuable intelligence.)
(She hadn't *intended* to make Natalie so... flirtatious with Potts. But a good role always does take on something of a life of its own.)
(And it couldn't hurt.)
(Potts is just another mark.)
An email from Pepper arrives the next day, a minor legal matter she wants researched.
A quick essay later (and an even quicker consult with a SHIELD lawyer for confirmation) and she responds, trying to think nothing more of it.
(Natasha is... a little ambivalent. This is a sign of interest... and a test.)
(It's a risk, and Potts isn't her target.)
(On the other hand, she could be helpful, and this *is* what Natalie would do.)
A little later, she gets a polite 'thank you' and a little while after that, another request.
And so it goes. The tasks get more and more complicated, and more and more involved.
(And Natasha congratulates herself on managing to nudge Potts into using her in a more investigatory role, where she doesn't need to rely on a lawyer backing her up.)
(And it's not that Natasha isn't perfectly capable of doing mind-numbingly boring tasks for days, weeks, at a time if need be.)
(And it's not as though looking into these matters of minor corporate... laziness is exactly challenging.)
(But it's... almost fun doing so.)
(And it gives her a reason, a new angle to consider, when digging through the Stark International network.)
(Besides, it would be almost a shame to let the network administrator passwords that she finessed go unused.)
Between the requests, and her own prying, Natalie builds up a picture of what is happening in the corporation over the next week or so. Things are moving within the corporation, after Ms Potts was made CEO. Division heads are trying to flex their wings, test their limits now that Stark and Stane are out of the picture.
And, even though nothing has really changed about the day to day running of Stark Industries, between all the jostling for advantage and, so rumour (and some bugs Natasha may have planted) tells her, the doubts that the board has in the new CEO, cracks are starting to show.
It's a test.
(Albeit one that Natasha thinks Potts can survive.)
(If she keeps her nerve.)
The call from Mr Stark, when it happens, comes about a week later, when Natalie is at home.
The entrance alarm buzzes.
Curious, Natalie thinks. She isn't expecting anyone.
(Natasha is just wary as she approaches the door to her apartment.)
Activating the camera, she could see Mr Stark smirking up at her, the boxer and another man standing in the background.
(At last, thinks Natasha.)
"Mr Stark?" Natalie says into the intercom.
"Ms Rushman?" Tony says, then makes a face. "Natalie? Can I call you Natalie? Could I come upstairs? I'd like to make you an offer you won't want to refuse."
Really, there's nothing that Natalie can do other than let him in.
"Have you had dinner yet?" Mr Stark asks as soon as she opens the door of her apartment.
(Natasha notices that, behind him, Hogan and the other man are standing, boxes in their hands, bags hanging off their arms.)
"Never mind," Mr Stark says, advancing past her into the apartment. "Trust me, you're going to have to space for this."
"'This', Mr Stark?" she asks, following him into the living room.
"Tony, please. If I can call you Natalie, you can certainly call me Tony."
Natalie forbears to comment that she never said that he could call her Natalie.
She doesn't think it would make any difference, anyway.
"And this," he says, gesturing at the man she hadn't seen before who is currently setting up stands at the edge of her living room. "Is french cuisine cooked by one of the best chefs in L.A."
"What is this offer you want to make me?"
"Hush. No talking about that until after food. Do you have anything in particular you'd like?"
"Didn't you manage to discover my favourite food when you were poking around my file?"
"It wasn't in there. Honestly, I'm really disappointed in HR. If I was still CEO, I'd be having words with them, let me tell you."
(Reel him in a little, Natasha thinks. But just a little. Not too much.)
Natalie smiles slowly at him. "Surprise me."
Tony chuckles. "A woman after my own heart."
Tony finishes pushing what remains of his meal around his plate, before handing it off to the chef. "So, what did you think?"
"Consider me impressed." Natalie takes a small sip of the wine in front of her, waiting for Tony to make the next move.
"I'm glad you like the cuisine, because that's going to be part of the job."
"Making a tour of the French restaurants? Tempting, but I certainly couldn't eat like this every night."
"I need a new personal assistant. And I think you've got what it takes. Pizazz, brains and the ability to drop a man in under a second." Tony takes a sip of his own drink, which, despite being in a wineglass, is a dark green colour. "I think you'll find that last trait exceedingly useful."
"There's got to be a better way of getting reservations."
"If you're interested, you can find that out for yourself. I'm going to Monaco for the Grand Prix. And back to LA for a party. It's a birthday thing."
(The date of the Grand Prix, Natasha considers, cannot be a coincidence.)
(She wonders how much money Stark spent on arranging that.)
(How much money he spent stroking his ego.)
"And you want me to organise it," is all Natalie says.
"Think of it as a trial by fire." He thinks for a second. "But not literal fire. I think I'm over fireworks for this party."
(Time to pull away a little. Leave him wanting more.)
Natalie looks down at the table. "I've already got a job, I can't just..."
Tony waves a hand in dismissal. "Don't worry about it. I've already talked to Ed about this. He said that he'll sort out the details."
Natalie studies him, with a hint of a smile around her lips. "You really want me to take this job, don't you?"
"What gave it away? I thought I was being so subtle with the night time visit and the chef and so on."
Natalie considers for a moment longer. "Then, yes, I'll take the job."
"Excellent! This calls for a new bottle of wine." Even though she's fairly sure that she hasn't finished the first one. He gets up anyway, retrieves a bottle from a cooler, and opens it with a flourish. "Your glass, Natalie?"
Natalie rises smoothly to her feet, sways over to where he's standing and offers him her glass. He smiles broadly as he fills it.
"To the beginning of a beautiful friendship," he says, clinking their glasses together.
Being Tony's personal assistant is both difficult and frustrating. Pinning him down to anything is almost impossible - if she ever does manage to get a decision out of him, he's like as not to change they next time they talk.
And talk is the operative word. After her somewhat overblown recruitment, she hardly sees him in person over the next couple of weeks. She does have access to his house, though with the ever watchful gaze of JARVIS, she doesn't push her boundaries. Yet.
(Natasha is learning his shape, even by his absences.)
(She knows lust and she knows desire, but for all his obvious appreciation when others are around, when they are alone he is... distracted.)
(As much as it was the plan going in, Stark doesn't appear to want her for her own qualities.)
(It's not a problem - what there is of her ego is hardly offended - but it does suggest that the intelligence she had was wrong.)
(Or something has changed, recently.)
(Like several near death experiences, granted.)
(Which begs the question - why *did* he hire her?)
(Maybe he wants to use her as cover - certainly from the jokes they tell when they think she can't hear, Hogan and the others that work for him think that she and Tony are business as usual.)
(Maybe it's something even simpler, more juvenile. Maybe he just likes having a pretty face around, and has chosen her now that Potts isn't around so much.)
(Whatever the reason is, it does confirm his self absorption, his narcissism, his arrogance.)
(He honestly hasn't even seemed to consider that she might have had a career outside his whims.)
(And he certainly doesn't appear to be used to working as part of a team. He doesn't work with her, with *anyone* as far as she can see. He has no equals, no colleagues.)
(He just acts, and expects everyone to follow in his wake.)
(Which isn't helped by the fact that he's generally charismatic enough to pull it off.)
In Natalie's few spare moments, she still checks in on her work account.
There's the usual trivia - meetings, alerts and celebrations.
(The chaff of corporate life.)
Emails from Ed are, unsurprisingly, noticeable by their absence.
Ones from Ms Potts, Pepper, however continue.
Always prefaced with 'If you have time...'
They haven't changed at all.
(Natasha wonders, sometimes, if Potts knows of her change of jobs.)
(There isn't any indication if so.)
(But she doesn't ask. Her objective here is clear, and doesn't include getting between Potts and Stark.)
(It's not even a consideration.)
Almost unwillingly, the messages brighten Natalie's day a little each time she sees them.
(And, really, Natasha shouldn't find them as interesting as she does.)
And, as and when she has time, in between calls to this hotel or that restaurant, rearranging timetables with Tony's latest whim, she tries to complete as many as she can.
(Now that she isn't spending time in the building, Natasha has to rely on other skills. Using faked authority, flattery and veiled threats, she gets other people to do the work for her.)
(It's not quite as satisfying as getting the work done herself, but it brings some satisfaction.)
(And, besides, for all that Stark has relinquished apparent control of the company, it's becoming clear that he is still intimately tied to it.)
(His presence looms large, in both what people talk about, and what people don't.)
The big day is here.
Natalie is already in Monaco, having flown out a few days before to organise the final touches and navigate the last minute curveballs that she's already sure that Tony is going to throw her way.
She's in the bar, in the kind of highly impractical dress that Tony indicated he'd love to see her in, keeping half an eye on the entrance and half an eye on her phone, just in case there is yet another last minute rearrangement, when the furore starts.
She can't see what's causing it, but she already knows.
No one creates a fuss quite like Tony.
Tony is chatting with Pepper as he enters.
He greets her with a wave and a smile.
((But there's the moment Pepper notices.))
((There's the look of almost betrayal that is gone as soon as it appears.))
(Apparently the details that Ed cleared up didn't include informing Potts.)
(It doesn't matter, not really.)
(But it does illustrate that Stark is not above undercutting even his friends.)
(Though she bets that he doesn't think of it that way.)
Natalie, as ever, is utterly professional.
"Hello, how was your flight?."
"Excellent," he says and then his attention is back on Pepper.
(Looking at him, looking at them, she realises.)
(It wasn't Natalie.)
(It was never about Natalie.)
(It was always about Potts.)
(He's trying to make her jealous.)
(It's not entirely surprising.)
(And, from the look of things, he's certainly succeeding in getting under her skin.)
(At least a little.)
Natalie fades into the background, making changes, keeping up with the constant flux that is Tony Stark.
She isn't needed at the moment anyway, and drawing fire won't do her any good.
Tony and Pepper go to the bar, then Tony disappears off in the direction of the toilet, wearing an odd expression, and Pepper returns to the table with a look of frustration on her face.
She doesn't look at Natalie once.
(All in all, that's not a bad thing, Natasha thinks.)
Then there's a murmuring amongst the people in the bar.
Something's happening on the television screen at the back of the room.
Tony's going to be driving the Stark International racecar?
(Natasha swears internally.)
(She's been studying him, as much as she's been able.)
(She should've been able to predict this.)
(His file says that he's always been somewhat reckless, but this?)
(He's not been trained to drive in a Grand Prix. And he should have known this.)
(What the *hell* is he thinking?)
(She's been tasked with evaluating him with an eye to recruitment.)
(And she can't complete her mission if he kills himself first.)
Pepper gestures for her, and Natalie is rushing over even before she thinks about it.
"Did you know about this?" Pepper asks tersely.
(And Natasha can hear what she isn't saying. Does he trust you more than me?)
"No," she says. And Natasha is unable to stop some of her own frustration leaking through.) "This is the first I heard about it."
"This cannot happen."
"I understand." (Natalie wouldn't be running through contingencies in her head. She's good, but she's just been blindsided. She'd look for direction.) "What can I do? How can I help you?"
Pepper thinks for a second. "Get Happy."
Natalie nods, and rushes off.
(The limits of the dress quickly become evident. Natasha resists the urge to push them, ripping the material in the process.)
(It'd be a minor risk to her cover, and the extra seconds probably wouldn't matter anyway.)
She finds Happy propping up the bar, a beer in one hand, silver and scarlet metallic briefcase chained to the other.
"Pepper needs you," she says, indicating the direction. "Tony," she says in answer to his unspoken question.
Happy nods and races off, drink forgotten on the bar.
Natalie follows at a slightly more sedate pace.
She's almost back there when the next thing happens.
A man with powered whips is on the track, As she watches, he slices a car in two.
(This *would* happen with Stark on the racetrack.)
(Of course it would.)
(The rules of engagement are clear.)
(On this mission, Natasha is an observer, an infiltrator. But not an active agent.)
(Not an assassin.)
She finds the washroom. It's deserted - everyone is focussed on the drama on the track.
Natalie disappears, and Natasha emerges.
She phones a memorised number. "Stark's in trouble. There's an attempt on his life. Should I attempt an intervention?"
Silence on the other end.
"Observe only," comes the final, dry, response.
Natasha nods. "Understood," she says and ends the call.
She looks at the phone for a moment, then erases all trace of the call.
A breath, and Natasha hides again, letting Natalie enfold her again like a set of clothing.
Natalie washes her hands, then races back into the main room, to watch the television and see how the unfolding drama plays out.
(And, maybe, to hope.)
When the intruder pursues Tony, there are gasps.
When he's hit by the car, there are cheers.
When, finally, Tony rips the power unit off the front of his assailant, the sense of relief in the room feels almost like everyone has just been watching an action movie.
And when the police and the medics arrive, and carry everyone away, it's like the end of the story.
And Natalie can breathe again. Even apart from her job, she likes Tony.
(And the mission, the mission is not yet over. Not yet a failure.)
When she gets to the hospital that serves the track, she finds Pepper pacing in the waiting area, Happy looming in the background.
Pepper looks up as she enters the room, expectantly, resuming the pacing when she sees who it actually is.
"Ms Potts," Natalie says, tentatively.
"Ms Rushman," is Pepper's only response.
Very well. Ms Potts it is.
"How is he?" she asks.
Ms Potts stops, and looks at her again. "Tony? Tony is 'completely fine'. But, apparently, when the doctor needs to do a simple checkup, all of a sudden he needs his privacy, and I'm ushered out of the room."
"And you," Ms Potts says, pointing a finger at Natalie. "How long have *you* been working for him? Didn't it ever occur to you to let me know that little fact?" she asks. "I thought..." she starts to add, with a look of disappointment on her face, when her phone rings. Looking as if she'd like to curse, she answers it, and immediately starts placating whoever is on the other side.
Natalie, about to explain her actions to Ms Potts, somehow, breathes out at the sudden reprieve.
(It doesn't mean anything, of course. Natalie just better than to want to be on the wrong side of a CEO.)
Natalie is almost surprised that she's been spared calls of her own so far, redirected from Tony's phone. And, as if thinking about it causes it to happen, her phone starts ringing.
It's a reporter wanting a quote about today's attack. And it's only the first call of many.
(Natasha notices Stark quietly appear in the doorway.)
(He looks like he's in remarkably good health considering he was in a car crash less than an hour ago.)
(There's the fact that he's dressed in a suit that covers everything apart from his head, neck and hands.)
(And he's not moving stiffly, but there is a slight discolouration on one side of his neck.)
(He just stands there for a few minutes, eyes fixed softly on Potts as she starts dealing with the hundred brushfires that his stunt and the ensuing attack caused.)
Ms Potts eyes widen as she spots Tony. In between assuring someone that, yes, she is treating them with all due respect, and that she will get back to them as soon as she knows anything, to mouth 'Are you alright?' to Tony.
He gives her his usual grin, then makes a plane motion with one hand, mouthing 'One hour' back.
'Really?' is the silent and sceptical response.
He just shrugs. 'Be there or be...'
She throws up her hand, and rolls her eyes at him, before focussing on her phone again.
Natalie finishes with her current call, looking over at Tony "Apart from damage control, is there anything else you want me to do?"
"I want to fly back a little early - wheels up in an hour."
She nods and phones the private airfield. It takes throwing around the Stark name, cajoling, threats and a few bribes, but she manages to get the flight rearranged and all the luggage transported from the hospital. After that, she phones Legal and gets a standard nondisclosure form faxed to the hospital and goes in search of the doctor who treated Tony.
(Tony didn't ask her to do this, of course. But talking to the doctor might reveal something useful.)
(And Natalie... Natalie can probably defend this as 'initiative'.)
It takes getting in contact with the hospital administrator and more veiled threats and bribes, but she manages to get the doctor to sign the form and also acquires the hardcopy notes from the examination.
(Natasha glances at them.)
(Black lines from his implant.)
(It doesn't sound like anything she's heard of before, but she isn't exactly a doctor.)
(She emerges for a moment to photograph them and email them to SHIELD. With this information, together with Tony's chlorophyll drinks, maybe one of the on-staff doctors will have an idea of what's wrong.)
And then it's off to the airport. Ms Potts is in the main cabin, with Tony pottering around in the galley, cooking of all things. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, Natalie contacts the various caterers and suppliers, just in case Tony has any last minute changes he wants to make, and settles into the sleeping cabin.
It seems a fairly safe place to hole up. Given Tony's lack of interest in her, and the general sense of annoyance emanating from Ms Potts, she's fairly certain that Tony won't be getting any further punches in his mile high card this trip at least.
The party... the party goes interestingly.
In the few spare moments Natalie has before the party, in between fielding yet more calls and trying to do yet more damage control, she manages to catch Tony alone.
She continues the dance - flirting just enough that it should engage his interest, whilst maintaining enough distance, enough mystery, that it doesn't make it too easy for him.
It should work.
She can see the flicker of interest, even gives him alcohol, another of Tony's vices, to lower any inhibitions he might have about expressing it.
(For a moment, Natasha thinks she has him - he asks about her history, where she's from.)
(The first step in unravelling Natalie's mysteries, designed to tell her more about Stark then they will ever reveal about her.)
But it's only for just a moment, a single question.
And then they're back to his favourite subject - himself, albeit in a more maudlin note than usual.
(Which is information of a different kind.)
(And it's fairly clear that, no matter what the problem is, Stark believes that it's terminal.)
The party itself is, in many ways, what all the newspapers say that a Stark party should be - loud, spectacular, and completely focussed around Tony.
The main difference is that halfway through, he decides that it would be a good idea to get into an Ironman suit.
(Natasha *knows* that this is a bad idea.)
(But, no matter how much she contorts Natalie's character, it's difficult at best finding a version that would stand up to Stark about this.)
(And, besides, she's just here to observe and evaluate Stark.
(Not save him from his own disintegration.)
(There's movement, something that attracts Natasha's attention, over by the entrance.)
((Somehow, at some point, she's become someone to watch.))
(She enters the party room tentatively, almost resignedly.)
(And *crumples* when she sees the state Stark is in.)
((There's an unfamiliar sense of anger, buried deep within.))
(This drama, this push and pull between Potts and Stark, it shouldn't matter.)
((It does, anyway.))
(Potts retreats outside, only to come back in with a man, Stark's military pal. Rhodes.)
(Potts is obviously trying to placate him, and heads towards the stage.)
Ms Potts does her best to disperse the crowd, but Tony, with an uncharitable similarity to a sulky child, refuses to let the party end.
And then the explosions start.
At first, it's just Tony playing around, managing to avoid injuring partygoers mostly by accident.
And then Rhodes comes onto the scene, somehow clad in another Ironman suit, and, faced with an angry man in a suit of powered armour, suddenly *everyone* is happy to leave.
Tony, naturally, doesn't take this too well.
Everyone apparently doesn't include Ms Potts, who is staying around for who-knows-what reasons.
(Natasha suspects that it's to try and somehow defuse the situation.)
(Because neither Stark nor Rhodes seem to want to.)
(She's a civilian, and she needs to get out of here. One miscalculation by a drunken genius or a soldier who has just tried on the suit for the first time, and all the good intentions in the world won't save Potts.)
"Ms Potts," Natalie says, running over to her as the last of the guests and staff are ushered out.
But Ms Potts seems fired up, angry, heedless of her own safety. "Don't you 'Miss Potts' me."
((And there's an unexpected ache, at the reminder that she used to be just Pepper.))
"You know," Ms Potts continues, "Ever since you arrived..."
(There's something there, but Natasha files it for later, because there's still an active situation on the grounds.)
(The sting of stony shrapnel.)
(Something the size of a baseball blurs past her head.)
(Potts is seemingly fine, but now the situation is *here* - two metal juggernauts in the room, slugging it out.)
(A quick scan shows no one down, but it's only a matter of time.)
Natalie wavers and disappears - there's no room for doubleguessing, or thinking what a civilian would do.
Natasha judders towards Potts, the instinct to just *get her out of the way* taking precedence over everything else, but Hogan's already moving towards Potts, and Natasha-
Natasha isn't necessary here.
Without some serious hardware, there's nothing she can do to either of the powered suits, and Potts is being dragged from the building.
The only thing she can do is keep her head down and try and find out *more* about what is happening and why.
Luckily, there's someone who might have the answers.
She stands outside of Stark's fortress of technology, looking in through a clear wall.
She could probably break in, but not without leaving traces.
And there's no need - for all the technological wealth the other side of the door, that's *not* her mission.
She's an expert hacker, but with the level of technology Stark has at his fingertips, her skills in that area are probably of minimal use.
Luckily, she has talents in other areas that might be of more use.
It's time for Natalie to come out again.
(There's no immediate threat, Natasha thinks.)
(Probably, she revises, as another concussion thrums through the structure.)
"JARVIS?" Natalie asks.
"How can I help you, Ms Rushman?"
"Am I safe here?"
(It's not what Natasha wants to know, but it's the first thing Natalie would ask.)
There's a slight pause. "The structure down here is reinforced, madam. At the current levels of conflict, the chance of damage are..."
There is another concussion, the loudest yet, and the walls shake a little.
"Minimal," JARVIS continues smoothly.
Natalie sags against a wall.
(In the circumstances, Natasha thinks, even the most efficient civilian would be allowed a lapse. And JARVIS is human-like enough that it might fall for weakness, just like a man.)
"If it helps, Ms Rushman, I believe the hostilities are over for the evening."
"There's something wrong with Tony, isn't there?"
"I can neither confirm nor deny that."
"I'm his PA. I need to know if..." (Natasha crafts an elegant break in Natalie's normally flawless speech patterns.) "He can't do this by himself. He needs support, help."
There's a long pause. "Mr Stark has forbidden me to talk about the matter," JARVIS finally says.
"Has he forbidden you not to talk about the matter?"
"Not as such, no." A note of almost amusement enters the AI's voice.
"So you can tell me if I get something wrong, just not if I'm correct."
"That would be within the letter of Mr Stark's commands, if not quite the spirit."
Together with the continued cessation of noise from upstairs, the conversation relaxes Natalie a little.
"But this is for his own good. He can't continue like this."
"I do not recall agreeing to any such conclusion."
"I didn't hear you disagreeing, either."
"Indeed." The amusement is somewhat pronounced by this point.
"He said that this is his last birthday. Does he has health problems of a physical nature?"
"Is it cancer?"
(Natasha knows it is not, but it would be best not to jump to the correct answer too quickly.)
"Not as such, no."
"Not as such... Is it to do with what happened in Afganistan?"
"Mr Stark has a heart implant, doesn't he?"
"I believe such is common knowledge, yes?"
"Is he suffering from complications from the implant?"
"On a completely separate matter, can you list what health problems might be caused by an implant of the type Mr Stark has? Theoretically speaking."
"I can of course answer such questions of purely theoretical nature. As long as you understand that the answers would, of course, have no connection to any actual cases." Natalie's phone beeps. "I believe you will find a file relevant to your interests downloaded to your mobile device."
"Thank you, JARVIS. I'll try to help him the best I can."
"I believe you will, Ms Rushman. I believe you will."
"I need to talk to Fury," Natasha says into the comm.
There is silence for a moment, and Natasha idly wonders if she's earned enough credit within SHIELD to have her judgment trusted this much yet.
"State your reasons," replies the dry voice.
"Stark is disintegrating. He's dying - poisoning from the implant - and he's not handling it well. I'm sure you've heard about the situation tonight. I need a decision about whether to continue this mission, and now, before it becomes irrelevant."
"Understood. I'll pass your request into Director Fury."
No doubt making sure to emphasise to Fury that this was only happening because of the unreasonable ex-Russian agent.
Still, he is far from the worst handler she'd had.
Minutes pass while she waits in the memento-strewn bedroom of Natalie's apartment. Finally, Fury's voice crackles over the comm.
"Why the hell did you feel the need to disturb my evening, Agent Romanoff?"
"The Stark situation is going critical, sir."
"I heard about that. On the goddamn evening news! What the hell is going on?"
"The implant. It's killing him, and he's going off the rails. From the information I gathered, it doesn't look like he has long left. I need to know if we're going to continue the mission."
There's silence for a moment. "What's your evaluation, Agent?"
"He's not an agent, but he's still a potential asset. He's brilliant, but he needs direction. He's not getting that and, in all frankness, I'm not suited to give it to him."
Natasha has given Potts' words earlier in the evening some thought.
Stark's decline isn't her fault, but she is an enabler.
It's how she works.
And it's absolutely the last thing that stark needs at the moment.
"Coulson has worked with him beforehand, and... motivating him properly is within his skillset. More than that, he needs time and hope."
"I've forwarded your notes to the medical division. Hopefully they can come up with something for the former. As for the latter... I have some ideas."
"Suggestion: Stark suffers from an acute case of 'I'm the smartest man in the room'. It might help if he's shaken up a little."
"What do you have in mind, Agent?"
"A simple reminder that he doesn't know everything might help open his mind a little."
Fury's meeting with Stark the next day goes pretty much as predicted. Her appearance manages to throw Stark off balance, helping Fury deliver his message that all hope is not lost, and that Stark needs to perform a reverse cranial-anal insertion manoeuvre.
It seems to work, and Coulson takes over to make sure that it *continues* to work.
Her cover is blown, with Stark at least, but that's not a problem.
Her assignment there has been pretty much concluded in any case.
Which is not to say that her dealings with Stark International have come to an end. With Stark's recent departure as CEO and chairman, not to mention his possible imminent death, the situation there is in enough flux that she successfully argues that it's enough of a loose end that a monitoring presence there would be useful. There are an awful lot of advanced designs and equipment that could do a lot of damage if they ended up in the wrong hands.
She still, technically, has a job with Legal, but that doesn't stop her aiming a little higher.
"Ms Rushman?" comes the carefully measured voice over the phone.
"I was just calling to make sure that you were alright after last night."
"I'm fine, thank you. How are you? We missed you in evacuation after the... incident."
"I..." (Natasha allows Natalie a moment of weakness.) "I'm untouched physically."
Ms Potts' voice immediately becomes more sympathetic. "I can set up an appointment with an excellent therapist, if you would like."
"Thanks. I might take you up on that." Natalie pauses again. "There is something else, but I'd prefer to discuss it in person. I assume that the incident last night is keeping you busy."
"Just a little." The sardonic note in Ms Potts' voice is unmistakeable.
"I imagine that you haven't had time for lunch. Would it be alright if I arranged something, and we talk whilst you have something to eat?"
"I probably shouldn't spare the time..." Ms Potts says, sounding tempted.
For a moment, it's like they were before, so Natalie adds, "As CEO, you do need to keep your strength up. Especially if you're dealing with multiple crises from Mr Stark."
"Very well," Ms Potts says drily. "If you're like this with Tony, maybe you are the right person to be his PA."
And suddenly the moment is lost.
((Because, in that, Pepper is really, really wrong.))
"That's part of what I want to talk to you about," Natalie says more formally.
"Oh," Ms Potts says. "I'll see you in an hour or two, shall I?"
(Natasha dips into Potts' bank record history to check out her favourite cuisines. Chinese food appears on there not infrequently, which seems as good an option as any.)
Natalie finds a good local Chinese restaurant, and orders a decent spread of Dim Sum. She might not know Ms Potts' preferences, but there should hopefully be something she likes amongst the selection.
And there are always people in the local office she can bribe with any leftovers. It's called networking.
Ms Potts is on the phone when she pokes her head around the corner. Never once pausing in the conversation, Ms Potts waves her towards her table.
Natalie places the containers in neat rows, then sits down and waits. Ms Potts gestures at her to eat up, but she just gives a polite smile and shakes her head.
Finally Ms Potts is done with that phone call and puts the rest on hold.
"This smells delicious, Ms Rushman. Thank you."
"It's really the least I can do."
There's a few minutes of companionable silence as they open the containers and start to eat before Ms Potts speaks again.
"You wanted to talk to me about something?"
Natalie looks down briefly, taking an audible, visible breath before speaking. "I wanted to apologise. For not talking to you about becoming Mr Stark's PA."
A look akin to almost hurt flashes across Ms Potts' face. "I know we haven't known even other long, but..."
"Mr Stark approached me about a week after we first met. He made me a job offer, and said that he had already spoken to Ed about it, and arranged everything."
Ms Potts closes her eyes. "Tony..." she murmurs, before opening her eyes again.
Natalie continues, remorselessly. "With Mr Stark's reputation, I knew what scuttlebutt would say if I went back to work in Legal. And if I ever got a promotion, then everyone would think one thing. And if I didn't... they'd think something else." She looks Ms Potts steadily in the eyes. "I don't apologise for the choice I made. If I managed to make a success of being Mr Stark's PA, even if only for a few months - and I'm confident in my own abilities - then I'd have headhunters looking me up. And I'd certainly be looking at a better class of job than if I turned him down and went back to Legal."
(It's all true, and if Natasha hadn't been angling for more or less exactly what she got, the platonic ideal of Natalie would probably have agreed with them.)
"I'm well aware of those kind of rumours, Ms Rushman," Ms Potts says, and, of course, she would be. "I would like to apologise for Tony's actions, and if there's anything I can do to make up for them, please let me know."
Natalie laughs quietly. "I'm familiar with that sentiment already, and I was only officially his PA for a day or so."
If she doesn't count the couple of weeks running around she did to organise the Monte Carlo event and his subsequent birthday party.
Ms Potts relaxes a little at that. "Apologising for Tony sometimes seems like a full time job by itself," she says, smiling a little.
"I hope you see why I didn't tell you about the job offer."
"You didn't want to get between me and Tony?" Ms Potts asks rhetorically. Natalie nods. "But you were still doing projects for me, and I *know* how much of a full time job organising Tony can be."
(Now, hopefully, to reel her in, Natasha thinks.)
((With only a slight twist of the stomach.))
Natalie looks down, as if a little embarrassed. "I enjoyed doing them, so I worked on them out of hours."
Ms Potts flashes a smile. "Well, I appreciate it. Having you be my go-to girl in Legal certainly made my life easier."
"Well, if you could give me a good reference, I'd greatly appreciate it." Natalie takes a breath, with a trace of a shake to it. "After last night - after realising how easily I could have been killed - I don't think I can continue working for Mr Stark." She offers Ms Potts a hopeful smile. "I was hoping that you could pass my resignation onto him."
"I... certainly can't blame you for your decision, Ms Rushman," Ms Potts says, her cheeks paling a little, whether in recollection or anger, it's hard to tell. "But you don't have to leave the company."
"I'm not sure that I can go back to Legal after all of this. I'm sure you understand why."
Ms Potts bites her lips for a moment. "As you know, the company is still in flux after Tony stepped down. I could really use someone doing the kind of jobs you did for me, on a more full time basis. It won't pay as much as being Tony's PA, but you should spend a lot less time on the telephone, making excuses."
(Jackpot, thinks Natasha.)
"That sounds perfect, Ms Potts," Natalie says.
Ms Potts quirks her lips at Natasha. "Call me Pepper, please."
Natalie is quickly installed in Pepper's old office - 'At some point, I might have time to find a proper PA, but that's not likely to happen soon,' Pepper sighs - and starts working almost immediately.
It's quickly evident that the jostling for position has not subsided. Indeed, with the latest Stark disasters, it's only gotten worse.
The incident at the racetrack reminded everyone how mortal the primary source of the company's wealth is.
And the party illustrated how volatile he can be.
Faced with the possibility of a post-Tony world, there is a scrabbling for assets, for a source of power and prestige that doesn't derive from a single genius.
All in all, diversifying isn't a bad idea, but not at the cost of Pepper being even more bypassed in the ensuing struggle.
The first thing that Natalie decides that she needs is allies.
She may not be bad at bribery and blackmailing, but those tools only go so far, and they're not long term solutions in any case.
She reaches out to Gwen in Legal who, with a bit of flattery and appealing to the greater good, not only gives a better idea of what's happening in Legal than Ed provides, but also tells Natalie some names of people in other departments. Not the heads of the departments, with the extremely alpha personalities that Stark International seems to attract, but the people she can work with when she needs to reach out to other departments without going through the chest beating.
And from those people, she gets more names, until she has managed to assemble a network.
It's still not enough.
Though Pepper never says anything, the fallout from Mr Stark's disasters and having to ride herd on a bunch of fractious executives is clearly exacting a cost from her. She hasn't been home ever since Tony's birthday, and is seemingly constantly trying to do five things at once. Bags start to form under her eyes, imperfectly concealed by makeup. And, if it wasn't for the food that Natalie makes sure to order for her, Natalie's not sure whether or not Pepper would be eating.
There's always something else to do.
((And something must be done.))
(She's there to act as an observer, true. But there's nothing stopping her being *damn* good at her cover job.)
Blackmail and threats might not be a good long term solution, Natalie decides, but they should hopefully work well at trimming out of control corporate egos.
And whilst she might not be able to encourage cooperation by more positive methods, she can certainly do her best to instil the fear of Pepper in them.
"What are your thoughts on the state of the company?" Pepper asks, poking at the noodles on the plate in front of her thoughtfully.
Natalie providing meals for Pepper has become almost a habit in the few days since she started working for her. After all, making sure her boss doesn't keel over from low blood sugar is one way of making herself indispensable.
(And also, Natasha thinks, Natalie seems like the kind of woman who likes to keep other people off balance. And whenever she comes into Pepper's office bearing food, Pepper always has a slightly confused look pass over her face, as if there is something deeply wrong with the universe when she is the one being looked after, opposed to doing the looking after.)
Natalie pauses for a moment, marshalling her thoughts. "Marketing and Sales are both still morasses of infighting."
The heads of both departments had grieviously underestimated Pepper and attempted a boardroom coup shortly after she became CEO. She'd faced them down and fired them both in front of the other heads, of course.
But they'd both been fond of the strategy of playing subordinates off against each other. Which has meant that even the best successors available internally have been facing a lot of opposition from their previous peers.
(There have been too many actors for Natasha to work out a web of influence just yet, and just firing all the principals involved would leave massive holes in the departments.)
(It's currently her primary project, and she's going as fast as she can. But it's going to be a week, maybe two before she'll feel confident in coming up with a plan of action.)
"There's a certain amount of panic in Engineering and R&D about whether they're going to have account for the Stark factor in estimates and production capacity." Which is whether or not Stark is likely to invent something to speed up design and prototyping, or make something new which has to mass produced right now. "Also, Daniel Haas is empire building in non-Stark related projects." This isn't necessarily a bad thing - Natalie doesn't have anything against Daniel - but at the moment it's happening without Pepper's approval, which most definitely is. Pepper has to be seen to make a decision, one way or another.
"Since Legal still covers Tony, we're currently dealing with the plaintiffs from the party. Ed wants to get hold of footage from Tony's house, to try and get better terms. As per your instructions, we're also gearing up for a major lawsuit regarding the appropriation of the Ironman suit. There have been inquiries about whether or not there might be any patent issues involved."
Natalie sees Pepper wince a little at that. Tony was well known to believe that secrecy is the best protection for the suit, and the patent process requires far too much disclosure for his comfort.
"There's been a certain amount of activity from some of our larger suppliers and customers regarding contracts - they're looking to see if they can renegotiate." For some reason, the general opinion she's getting is that the other companies think that they can get a better deal from Pepper.
(They're wrong, in Natasha's opinion. But she intends to let them find that out for themselves.)
She refocuses on Pepper. "So, how did I do?"
There's a slightly tight look around Pepper's eyes, but she smiles, a little tiredly. "You seem to have covered the salient points, Ms Rushman. With so much to do, I better get back to work."
The dismissal clear, Natalie nods and clears up the remains of lunch before she heads back to her office.
(There may be a lot to do, but she's confident that Pepper can deal with it.)
(With maybe a little help from Natasha.)
Justin Hammer's exhibit at the Stark Expo occurs, with Lt. Colonel Rhodes in the stolen power armour playing centre stage with a supporting chorus of humanoid drones.
(It all goes to hell once Stark arrives on the scene, naturally.)
Pepper leads the charge towards Hammer, with Natalie at her side.
(Natasha's caught in a state of flux.)
(She's with Potts, so she's Natalie.)
(But danger threatens, so Natasha lies barely skin deep beneath the surface.)
Pepper takes control, demands answers.
(Natasha obeys, applies pressure.)
((And it feels so *right*. Almost glorious.))
(If she ever feels the need, Natasha observes silently, Potts would have a fine career as a handler.)
There's a glance towards Pepper.
Should Natalie (Natasha) follow up on the information, find Vanko?
((Even though it leaves Pepper in danger.))
There's a slight nod of assent.
(And the hunt is on.)
Natasha emerges fully.
She's halfway to Hammer Industries before she remembers that her mission is to observe, not intervene.
She shrugs, internally. She figures that she'll be able to justify it later.
The rest of the night passes more or less uneventfully.
Hammer's physical security is nothing to write home about.
It's just as good quality as the security on his computers.
She might not be able to do anything about the drones - the custom code is unfamiliar, with no handy guides - but she's been studying the way Stark's systems work for months now, and the bridge to Rhodes' suit is by necessity patchwork.
*That* she can do something about.
And she does.
By the time Vanko is defeated, her cover is pretty much blown to Potts as well as Stark.
Stark is no longer in danger of dying, and, with the announcement that he is back in charge, his corporation is no longer a liability.
((The news that Pepper has stepped down causes a twinge, almost of disappointment, almost of failure.))
The mission is over, the report complete.
SHIELD will hire Stark as a contractor, a consultant, nothing more.
He's far too much of a loose cannon to employ in any other way.
Natalie dies, no longer needed.
Some people have memory palaces.
Natasha has a memory graveyard, full of old cover identities she no longer uses.
But keeps around, just in case they might ever come in useful.
Natalie's gravestone she very consciously paints in bright red and yellow, ignoring other colours that come to mind.
Still, in the inscription, something moves her to mention Potts as well as Stark.
It's not sentiment ((it is)) but merely practicality.
In the end, Natalie lived more of her life with Potts than Stark, so it's only fair that Potts is mentioned in Natalie's eulogy as well.
And that is that.
A mission done.
And Natasha moves on, leaving that life behind.
Or that's how it should have happened, anyway.
It starts as an itch.
It's nothing important, nothing actually to do with her.
It's just that Stark's name starts cropping up, both in the news and general scuttlebutt around SHIELD, with monotonous regularity.
It probably always did, but before now it was just a word, just a name. It didn't actually *mean* anything.
Natasha is aware that Stark and SHIELD are, tentatively at least, working together.
And the thought niggles -
Surely it wouldn't hurt anything to keep one more tab on him, however indirectly.
Natasha has never been a handler, has never actually run intelligence assets herself, not over the long term.
But this, if it works, she can do.
And if it doesn't?
There really shouldn't be any harm done.
"Hello?" comes Potts' voice over the phone.
"Hello. I'm Agent Romanoff." (A beat, in which Natasha injects humour into her voice.) "Though you knew me better as Natalie Rushman."
"Oh. You." Potts' voice is positively arctic.
"I just wanted to apologise for the deception."
"Oh." This time, the syllable is less harsh.
"Maybe over a drink at a bar?"
"Where do you want to meet up?"
"I'm not really familiar with this city." (A partial lie, but, more importantly, an acknowledgement of weakness.) "I was hoping that you might suggest one." (Hopefully the home ground advantage would make Potts more comfortable.)
A pause, then Potts reels off a location. "I can't meet you there tonight, but maybe tomorrow?"
"That's fine. I should be in town for another few days."
"Okay." Potts manages to infuse the word with a mixture of confusion, suspicion and a little bemusement. "I guess I'll see you then."
Agent Romanoff is the personality who most of SHIELD thinks of as Natasha.
Polite and professional when on a job, with just enough carefully unpolished charm when off duty to make her seem human, comfortably imperfect.
No one believes in perfection. It just makes them search for the flaws that much harder.
It's not who she is, of course, but since when has that mattered?
More to the point, Romanoff is a familiar enough persona and fits the superspy archetype well enough that she should be entirely believable to Potts.
And, hopefully, likeable enough to make a connection outside of a mission.
Romanoff arrives at the bar more or less on time. Pepper is already there, twisting a drink in her hands. Romanoff approaches, using just enough wide body movements to attract Pepper's attention from the corner of her eye, ensuring she doesn't seemingly appear at Pepper's side.
"Hello," she says as she gets close.
Pepper nods in response. "So, what can I do for you, Agent Romanoff?"
"Natasha, please," Romanoff says, before ordering a drink of her own. "And I just wanted to clear the air between us, if possible. The deception was never aimed at you."
"Tony, of course," Pepper murmurs, half in frustration, half fondly, then takes a sip of her drink. "If you want to see him, he's out of town at the moment."
(Natasha had, of course, strongly suspected this, and chosen the timing accordingly.)
(Stark is enough of a wild card that she prefers not to add him when she doesn't have to.)
"Tony is... not my problem at the moment. More to the point, I'm not here in any kind of capacity as a SHIELD agent." Slight amounts of rueful bemusement crosses her face. "If I have a purpose here, it's that I can salvage something from my time at Stark International."
Pepper eyes her narrowly over her drink. "Why?"
Romanoff shrugs. "I was increasingly impressed by you after working with you. That's rare." She takes a sip of the drink in front of her. "I enjoy the company of competent people."
Pepper flushes, occupies herself with her drink for a moment. "You do realise that I'm not CEO any more?" she asks.
(Natasha almost has Romanoff inquire further, but there's a hint of defensiveness in Potts' voice.)
(It's apparently a sensitive topic, and probably not one for this meeting.)
"I'd heard. Pity."
Pepper shoots her a look, opens her mouth to say something, then obviously reconsiders. "So this is who you actually are, then?"
"A common or garden spy, that's me."
Pepper looks at her sceptically. "Really?"
Romanoff laughs a little. "No, not really. I'm an *exceptional* spy."
Pepper grins at her a little. "That's good. I'd hate to be wasting my time with an *ordinary* agent."
"Enough about work. What's it like to have time to yourself again?"
There's a defensive look in her eyes again, but Pepper just smiles. "Well, my social life is just bouncing along. I thought you'd be able to tell by how hard it was to fit you in."
"Whereas in my line of work, there's hardly a spare moment between all the parties we throw. After all, I had just as many problems making time for you."
"You make it sound so glamourous," Pepper says, teasing a little bit.
"You have no idea," Romanoff says drily, and proceeds to regale Pepper with tales of the intelligence business.
They're all lies, of course, but pretty ones.
Romanoff soon has Pepper relaxed, laughing, telling stories about her own experiences in the corporate world, about the situations Stark has gotten himself into. "Of course, I'm hoping to cut down on the amount of new stories that I get to tell about Tony."
Pepper gives her a pleased, almost shy smile. "Now that we're going out, there better not be any more tales that include the words 'and then I woke up and there was a woman in my bed.'"
(So Stark did get the girl, after all.)
(It ((hurts)) doesn't matter, especially because the chances of her trying to seduce Stark are minimal, but...)
(It's a datapoint.)
(It does make Potts a more useful contact for finding out what Stark is doing, though, and that *is* the point of this meeting.)
"Congratulations," Romanoff says with a smile. "Been a time coming, hasn't it?"
Pepper partially covers her face with her hands. "Was it that obvious?" she asks, blushing again.
(That Stark was stuck on her, yes. The other way around, not quite so much.)
(Not that it matters.)
"A little, maybe."
"I guess we'll see if I can keep his attention," Pepper says, and there's a tight expression on her face like she can't let herself believe just yet, that makes Romanoff want to...
(That almost makes Natasha want to...)
((Want to help.))
"I don't know if it's comforting," Romanoff says, "But he didn't make a serious pass at me once while I was working for him."
"As far as I could tell, he was just trying to make you jealous. Did it succeed?"
"I'd like to plead the fifth," Pepper says a little sourly, but she's looking more relaxed. "So, when you claimed Tony pressured you into being his PA, was that just a line, or do I need to try and explain abuses of power to him again?"
"Trust me, my complaints were all in character. But if you can get that concept through to him, I'll be even more impressed with you than I already am."
Pepper looks down into her drink. "I'd like to be able to say that I can, but apparently it didn't take after he did it to me."
Romanoff leans back, gives her a crooked smile, and says, "Let's compare notes. Maybe we can come up with something together."
Pepper smiles back, raises her drink and clinks it against Romanoff's. "That sounds like a truly *excellent* idea, Agent Romanoff."
"I live to serve the people of the world."
The banter continues until the bar is closing, and Pepper's looking at her watch with a mix of horror and chagrin.
"I'm going to regret this tomorrow morning, I can tell already. But it's been nice, thanks." There's an element of hope in her expression. "Would you like to do this again, sometime? When we're both free?"
"Sure," Romanoff says easily, and gives Pepper her contact details.
(And it's not until later that Natasha realises that she managed to complete her objective somewhere along the way.)
It does happen again, and again, becoming a thing that happens when they're both in the same city, and free for an evening.
It's easy, surprisingly so. Normally, Natasha finds activating Romanoff... not exactly a strain, but a use of time and energy that could be better spent recovering from a mission or preparing for the next one.
It doesn't feel like that with Potts. It's actually almost restful in its own way.
Their... friendship, for want of a better word, still has boundaries.
There are things they don't talk about.
Potts doesn't inquire too much about the time Natasha spent at Stark International.
Natasha doesn't ask about Tony, not directly, not yet, and doesn't ask about why Potts is no longer CEO.
But there are other things to talk about.
There are always other things.
There comes a tapping, a staccato rap-rap-rapping, at her apartment door.
There's only one person it could really be, but she softly walks over to the wall monitor - not located in front of the door - just to make sure.
She's known too many people who died because they thought they knew who was at the door.
She killed more than a few of them, after all.
The camera hidden in the wall opposite her door shows her what she expects. She flicks through the others placed in the corridor, but there's nothing unusual there either.
"Clint," she says in an unimpressed tone as she opens the door.
"Natasha," he replies in a similar tone.
"I thought you were out of town," she says, her voice suggesting that she would have preferred it if he had stayed that way.
She steps back into the apartment, though, letting him enter.
It's all part of the game.
"Thought I'd give you the bad news personally - I survived." Not quite as good at keeping stony faced, he can't quite help his mouth twitching a little.
"Unfortunately," she observes. "You do have a habit of doing that." She sways into the kitchen, retrieving a beer from the fridge and throwing it to him smoothly.
He plucks it out of the air, and sits down heavily on a soft chair with a sigh. "You'll never guess what happened on the last job. Honey," throwing the last out wryly.
She raises an eyebrow, in a way that indicates 'You do realise that I'm still in the kitchen, and I *do* have access to knives.'
He doesn't look nearly intimidated enough for her liking. It's clearly a sign that she's been letting him get away with entirely too much.
"Do tell," is all she says. For now.
He weaves a tale of alien space gods out of Norse mythology, animated suits of armour and magical hammers. She's fairly sure that he wasn't actually there for much of it, but he doesn't let that slow him down.
Natasha wonders if it's a bad sign that a few years ago, she would have found this story hard to believe, but these days the world seems to be becoming a deeply weirder place.
"So I thought that I'd come around here and annoy my favourite assassin," he says, finishing his story.
It's not an unusual state of affairs, whenever both of them are not on a mission in the same city. One will usually find the other.
Clint is... the person she feels most comfortable around at SHIELD. The person who she can just be Natasha around, without feeling judged.
And if there are benefits involved, on occasion, well, it's not a bad way to de-stress.
And, though all his weakpoints are well known and mapped, but, as one of the few people to ever beat her one-on-one, it's an almost comfortable pattern to trace over them again.
Tonight though... "Maybe later," she says. "I'm off out shortly."
He lets his eyes flick over her again. "I did wonder," he admits. "You were being a little politer than usual."
"Just a little."
"I didn't think you had a mission. Coulson certainly didn't think so, when I asked him on the trip back."
She shrugs. "It's not a mission." She doesn't bother lying, because he can find out the truth easily enough. And him asking questions might draw attention from those above them both.
Her little factfinding expedition hasn't been officially approved, after all, and there's a big difference between some out of hours socialisation with someone, and meeting up after she's been ordered not to.
"*Really*?" he says, and she can see that now he's interested.
No more and no less than she expected.
"Just a friendly meetup."
"Mind if I tag along?"
She does, a little. But she's fairly sure that he'll follow her, no matter what she says, and she'd prefer to have him in front of her - where she can deal with him if necessary - than off observing from a distance, where it'd be more challenging.
He finishes off the beer, then rolls to his feet.
"Let's get gone, then."
Pepper looks quizzical when Romanoff walks towards her accompanied by Clint.
"This one turned up just as I was preparing to leave my apartment," Romanoff says, smiling a little ruefully. "I hope you don't mind. Pepper, this is Clint, a colleague from work."
She sees Pepper put those words together and come up with the right answer.
(And, though she isn't looking at him, Natasha can almost feel Clint realise that Potts knows enough to be able to do that.)
(Which means that Natasha has told her that much.)
(And she knows that will only make his curiosity grow.)
Clint shakes Pepper's hand. "Natasha never did say how you met."
Pepper's eyes slide towards Romanoff. "She was, uh..."
"Contracting," Romanoff says smoothly. And then, because she can't quite resist it, she adds, "You know how I do like to make friends through work, Clint."
Pepper looks at her a little blankly for a few seconds before her eyes widen, and she blushes.
Clint, recovering, murmurs, "But you don't usually take them home with you."
(Natasha almost feels the urge to blush for a moment, before she squelches it firmly.)
"It's nothing like..." Pepper stammers. "We've never... We're just friends."
(It's just a word, Natasha thinks. It doesn't *mean* anything.)
"I'm going out with someone!" Pepper continues. "Else!" she adds.
"Sorry," Romanoff says to Pepper, somewhat of an innocent in all this. "I was just teasing Clint. I wasn't intending to impugn your virtue."
Pepper, still blushing a little, says, "That's alright."
"Or your good taste," Clint adds.
Romanoff looks at him levelly, threateningly. To no noticeable effect, sadly.
Pepper, on the other hand, *glares* at him.
Clint gets to his feet. "So," he says, clearing his throat. "What drinks would you like?"
As he wanders off in search of a bartender, Pepper looks at her curiously. "So, are you two...?"
Romanoff pauses for a moment, as if considering.
(It's a good question, Natasha thinks.)
(And, really, there is no good answer.)
"We're just friends," she settles for.
(Which is true enough, as far as it goes.)
(Even if Clint is the only person she'd actually consider a friend.)
(And maybe Potts as well. Now.)
And then Clint is back with drinks, and they settle into a routine. Pepper and Romanoff do much of the talking, with Clint mainly just commenting, though Pepper does keep trying to engage him.
(And then Natasha notices Coulson enter the establishment.)
(His eyes scan around until they focus upon their little group.)
(And she can see him *twitch*, just briefly, and then his facade of amiability is back in place.)
(Looking over at Clint, he's also noticed the newcomer. And his lack of surprise confirms that he was the one to call Coulson.)
"Ms Potts," Coulson says, walking up to their table. "How pleasant to see you again."
"Agent Coulson, likewise," Pepper says with a smile.
Coulson looks over the other two people seated at the table for a moment. "Clint. Natasha." There's a slight emphasis on the second name, an unspoken 'we will be discussing this later'.
"Please. join us," Pepper offers. "Since we seem to be having something of a SHIELD night here."
Coulson smiles at her and sits down. "Thank you. It's rare that I have a night to relax with such pleasant people," he says, somehow managing not to sound sarcastic in the slightest.
(Natasha is aware that it's there, anyway.)
With the addition of Coulson, the dynamics change again. Coulson - blandly pleasant as ever - and Pepper do the majority of the talking, with Romanoff and Clint more quietly picking up any slack.
(Coulson does do his bit to try and get Romanoff to talk more, probably in an attempt to get a better idea of what she's doing here, but Natasha evades as much as possible, adroitly handing the conversational baton on as quickly as she can.)
By the end of the night, Coulson has become Phil to Pepper at least, and they've seemingly become good friends. Coulson says that they'll have to meet up again, sometime, when they both have time.
(Coulson's a good enough handler that it's impossible to tell if he's being sincere or not.)
(Knowing Natasha's luck, he's going to become a regular feature in Pepper's life.)
"So why, exactly, did Coulson come visiting?" Natasha asks later, back at her apartment.
It's dark, so she can't see his expression, but his body tenses slightly under her fingertips.
"Apart from the oddity of seeing you socialise with someone unforced and outside of a mission?" he asks, a little cautiously.
She presses harder anyway. He doesn't exactly flinch, but she's fairly certain he feels it.
It's entirely possible that she may have already gone some way to letting him know exactly what she thought of the uninvited guest.
She doesn't ask if there was anything else, because he's a good enough agent that there are always double and triple meanings behind everything he does.
And, here, now, she doesn't exactly need to hear about the limits of his trust in her.
So, instead, she says, "Have I ever mentioned that I don't approve of some of your friends?"
He chuckles. "Did I ever mention that they say the same thing about you?"
"Are they afraid that I might lead you down the wrong path?"
"Hardly." He pauses for a moment. "It was kind of nice seeing you almost relaxed with someone else. Before Coulson turned up."
It's as near to an apology as she's probably going to get, so she merely responds with a sceptical, "Really?"
"I mean, it was almost like you had an actual friend. A civilian at that. For a while I thought you might have been replaced by a poorly acted double. But luckily Coulson arrived, and everything was normal again."
She appreciates that he doesn't ask why she was really there. What she was setting up.
Because Natasha Romanoff never does anything without ulterior motives.
And because she's not really sure herself anymore.
If Clint is inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, Coulson shows no such tendencies.
"Agent Romanoff," he says when he 'happens' to run into her the next day.
"Agent Coulson," she says, matching formality with formality.
"It's a pleasure to see that you're finally taking Psych's recommendations to broaden your social sphere."
(For instance - make some more friends.)
(For instance - make some friends.)
"I'm sure that they'll be glad to hear that I'm following their advice."
"What are your objectives regarding Ms Potts?" he asks crisply.
She raises an eyebrow. "Relaxing with a friend isn't enough?"
He studies her for a moment, consideringly.
(There's nothing actually wrong with her meeting up with Pepper. Although she's a civilian, she does have a more than adequate security clearance, courtesy of her work with Stark International.)
(He could order her to leave Pepper alone, but Coulson has never been a fan of such heavy handed tactics with agents.)
(She hopes that he isn't going to start now.)
"You do realise that if anything goes wrong with Ms Potts, if she ever feels like she's been taken advantage of, there could be serious blowback for the agency?"
She doesn't bother denying it. "Yes."
He narrows his eyes a little, dropping his friendly air. "And, on a personal note, Pepper is a good woman and doesn't deserve this. If your mind games cause her *any* distress, I *will* make you regret it."
She nods. "Understood," she says and turns around.
(Coulson is one of the better men in SHIELD, but he's a handler. It's his job to get inside the minds of agents and make sure that they're sufficiently motivated, that they aren't going to fall apart or go off the reservation.)
(In short, he's one of the enemy, and there's no way that she can talk to him about this.)
(That she doesn't want to just use Pepper. Not anymore, and maybe she never did.)
(That maybe she actually has made a friend, and she's not sure if she'd be able to give her up, at this point.)
(It's just safer, in so many ways, to let him think that he's got her figured out, that this is just another information gathering mission.)
(That she's just being the Natasha he's gotten used to.)
(Everyone has their flaws, their fractures and, just at the moment, Pepper is feeling all too much like one of hers.)
"Why did Tony tell you he was dying?"
(The 'and not me' is unstated, but Natasha can hear it clearly anyway.)
Pepper may have had a little more to drink this evening than usual, but the question has a feeling of dull inevitability about it, like they've been circling the subject of her time at SI for months.
This answer, at least, isn't too bad.
"He didn't. I managed to find out about that while I was investigating him."
"Why were you looking into him?"
She hesitates for a moment.
(The answer to this is technically classified, but she's fairly sure that Pepper has the clearance necessary.)
"Believe it or not, SHIELD was looking into recruiting him," she answers anyway.
"That didn't happen, though. Did it?" and there is probably more of a question there than Pepper intends.
"No." Romanoff smiles a little and adds, "The evaluation stated that he wasn't enough of a team player."
Pepper snorts. "That's not a surprise. In the slightest."
(Natasha could just leave it there, but she can't help prying. Just a little.)
"Wouldn't you have known if he'd joined up with SHIELD?"
(Wouldn't he have told you?)
Pepper looks down at her drink for a moment. (And Natasha almost regrets having asked her.) "I'd like to say yes, he would have told me, but..." she shrugs. "After facing the fact that he quite possibly would have died before telling me anything was wrong, it's a little hard to know."
"I thought that everything was fine between you two?"
"It is, most of the time. When I'm with him, everything's wonderful," she says, and her face lights up just in recollection. But then her smile dims again. "It's just, sometimes..." She waves her hand in frustration. "You know what? Just forget it."
(She probably *should*.)
(But after all these months of getting to know Pepper - and she's not even sure when she *became* Pepper, even internally - there's one question that she doesn't have a good answer to.)
(And if there's ever going to be a night to ask it, it's this one, with its air already heavy with questions never spoken.)
"Why did you step down as CEO of Stark International?" Romanoff asks softly.
Pepper looks like she's been punched, just for a second. Then the shock fades, and she just looks quietly miserable.
Romanoff (Natasha) can't help reaching across the table to lay her hand over Pepper's.
(It isn't much, but she doesn't know what else to do.)
"The company was falling apart. I tried my best to hold it together, but..." she shrugs. "It needed Tony." She looks up at Romanoff. "You should know. You were there. You told me," she smiles a little bitterly. "What the situation was."
(Natasha feels an unfamiliar sickness in her stomach. She tries searching back in her memory, but all she can remember is having faith in Pepper.)
"I always thought you could do it," is all she can say, quietly, fiercely.
Pepper looks stunned. "But when I asked how you thought I was running the company, you only came up with problems."
(The sensation of feeling ill only gets stronger. She hadn't meant to...)
"I never thought you couldn't solve them," she says, throat dry. "You'd already cleared many of the bigger ones. I was just identifying the ones that remained."
Pepper is looking at her with a pale face, eyes shining. "I thought you didn't think I could do it. I thought that was why you were going behind my back, strongarming people."
"I was just doing what I could to help," she says. "I can't motivate people positively, but I can spot problems, apply pressure."
"Oh," Pepper says. "Oh."
"For what it's worth, you'd make a much better CEO than he does, once you were past the initial problems."
"Thanks. I'm not sure anyone else would agree with you, but it's nice to know that someone believes in me as a leader."
Romanoff shrugs. "If you'd not be happy in that position, that's one thing. But you're certainly not unable."
There's a pause while Pepper can't quite meet Romanoff's eyes as she struggles to regain her composure, and Romanoff looks away, letting her, mind whirling inwards.
(Why hadn't she known Pepper felt like this? Natasha asks herself. How had she missed this?)
(It's what she does - find weaknesses in people.)
(But she'd missed this, had it pass her by completely.)
(What had happened?)
(It takes her a few minutes to analyse the problem, find the solution.)
(She hadn't been looking.)
(She hadn't been treating Pepper as someone to exploit, manipulate.)
(And she really should have been - Pepper had been, after all, a secondary target.)
(But all along, somehow, somewhere in the back of Natasha's mind, she'd been treating her as an unsettling amalgam of fellow operative and handler, with the negative aspects of neither.)
(Maybe this is what having a friend feels like.)
(If so, it feels distinctly odd.)
(For a start, it feels.)
Pepper clears her throat, and Romanoff turns her attention back towards her. "Well, if the opportunity comes up again, I'll certainly bear that in mind," she says, smiling a little weakly.
(Natasha is suddenly aware that she is still covering Pepper's hand with her own, and reclaims it.)
"You need to stretch yourself," she says.
Pepper looks amused. "You don't think that keeping Stark International running doesn't take all of my talent? Even with Tony's help?"
(Or despite it, Natasha can't help thinking.)
"Maybe, but I think you're capable of more. And that you've stayed in Stark's shadow too long."
"I'll think on it. But no promises."
(Good. If nothing else, Stark could use a wakeup call that he can't just keep taking Pepper for granted.)
"I'm sorry," Pepper says over the phone. "I'm just really not feeling up to going out tonight."
"No problem." Natasha is a little disappointed - she'll be leaving the country for an operation in a few days, and there probably won't be another chance to meet up before then - but only a little. There will always be other opportunities.
"I wouldn't be averse to you coming over to my apartment for the evening, though. If you wanted to."
"Sure. Do you want me to bring anything?"
"Dinner would be *divine* if you could manage it."
"I think I've managed to conduct a thorough enough investigation of the local take out places to find *something*," she says drily.
"Oh good. Just like old times," and Natasha can tell that she's smiling, even over the phone. "I'll leave my culinary delight in your capable hands then."
Pepper is dressed down when she answers the door. Gone is her usual suit. Instead, she's wearing a t-shirt and jeans, makeup slightly mussed and looking relaxed, like she's had a glass or two of wine already.
"Hey. Smells good."
"Even though I haven't had to order you food for several months, I've apparently managed to not completely forget what kinds of things you like."
Pepper swats at her arm. "Oh hush. Tony's only done that once recently."
"Have you forgiven him yet?"
"Forgiveness is an essential part of any relationship," Pepper says piously.
"When are you planning on letting him live it down?"
She grins. "Pretty much never. Though, whenever the subject comes up, he does very woundedly point out that at least he remembered our six month anniversary. Even if he managed to surprise me with completely the wrong food."
"If only he'd asked JARVIS to remember that as well as the date."
"You are *so* cynical."
Leading her through the apartment, Pepper gestures at the living room. "Sit down there while I put everything on plates."
"We're not using the dining table?"
"Today has been a long, long day, and I'm feeling *decadent.*"
"What *would* your parents say?" Romanoff asks, as Pepper disappears off into the kitchen.
"I'm sure they'd be horrified, but they're not here, and my bottle of wine is," drifts her voice from the other room.
"How much of it do you still have left?"
"Entirely too much," Pepper says, coming back into the room bearing plates. "Care to help me remedy that?"
Romanoff shrugs. "Sure."
Pepper places the food in front of her, then curls up on the sofa next to her, plate balanced on her lap, glass of wine on a sidetable.
"So what were you doing today that left you so tired?"
"I was *supposed* to be helping Phil with some SHIELD related projects, but partway through the day," she says, rolling her eyes a little, "I had to get out to a Stark facility to put out some fires that apparently couldn't wait until tomorrow."
"I'm guessing this meant that you didn't have time to finish what you wanted to do before you left."
Pepper takes a healthy sip of wine, and nods. "Exactly. So after I'd dealt with the corporate matter, I had to get back to SHIELD and finish that too."
(When Natasha had suggested that Pepper stretch herself a little, she hadn't exactly expected a part time recruitment by SHIELD.)
(She doesn't know what Pepper does and she doesn't ask - professional courtesy - but she does have to admit that it makes her feel... maybe slightly more relaxed that Pepper is involved in the organisation she works for.)
"And hence the evening in and the relaxing."
Pepper replaces the glass on the table, secures the plate on her lap, and leans her head briefly against Romanoff's shoulder. "I'm glad you understand," she murmurs, then sits up again.
The meal and then the evening passes easily. Romanoff only has a minimal amount of wine, but Pepper progressively gets happier and more relaxed, more affectionate.
And there's a moment, a moment when Pepper is leaning against her, Pepper's right arm curled around Romanoff's left, when Pepper looks up at her, smiles and murmurs, "I'm so glad that I have you in my life."
((I want this.))
((I want her, and not just as a friend.))
(Natasha immediately goes into overdrive, as her chest feels tight.)
(This is stupid, she thinks.)
(It's a vulnerability.)
(It's something that can hurt her.)
(It's something that *will* hurt her.)
(And it's *pointless*. So very pointless.)
(Pepper always talks about Stark, fondly, even when it's fond exasperation.)
(And she can't do this.)
(She just can't.)
(It's just a stupid, flawed part of herself.)
(And she can bury it, like she's done to every other weakness within her.)
(She's Natasha Romanoff, and she's *perfect*.)
(But she can't do it here.)
(Not here and not now.)
(She has to leave.)
(She has to leave *now*.)
"Sorry," Natasha says, unable to maintain Romanoff, sliding out from underneath Pepper. "I have to leave now."
"Oh," Pepper looks disappointedly up at her from the sofa cushion.
((It hurts, to do that to her.))
(The tight feeling returns, intensifies.)
"Do you want me to see you out?" Pepper asks.
"That's alright," Natasha says, already heading for the doorway without trying to look as though she's moving too quickly.
That's quite alright.
"I'll see you around," she says as she disappears through the door.
She's most of the way home before she changes direction.
Maybe, Natasha thinks, being alone at the moment isn't the best idea.
And Clint *is* in town.
And her relationship with *him* is sane - clean, simple, uncomplicated.
He's a colleague, and they understand each other.
Basically, he's just what she needs.
"Natasha," he says, leaning against one wall as he opens the door.
She sways past him into the apartment, then turns around and trails her fingers down the back of the arm he's leaning on, the hand that's holding a concealed pistol.
"Don't you trust me?" she whispers into his year.
He turns around and grins at her, lopsided. "Now where would the fun in that be?" he asks. "I thought you were busy tonight?"
"I freed up some time in my schedule," she says huskily, then leans to kiss him.
Clean. Cool. Free of any inconvenient emotion.
"Let's not waste it talking," she murmurs, and leans in again.
The sex is... different.
It's not a release.
It feels... wrong.
It's like the taste of ashes.
In the end, she has to resurrect someone from the graveyard to make it all the way through.
Afterwards, laying side by side, Clint props himself up on one arm, studying her.
"Is everything alright?"
She can't help reacting, rising to a semi-sitting position. "No," she says. "Why?"
He shrugs. "You just seemed a little intense."
That's one way of putting it.
But she has no context, no language for saying 'Maybe I didn't actually want to do this.'
And absolutely no way to even start to tell Clint this.
He's one of the two people she trusts most in the world, but at the end of the day...
This is a weakness, a flaw, a fracture, and she *can't* reveal it to anyone else.
Not even him.
So she does the only thing she can think to do in this situation.
"Maybe I'm just in the mood for another round before we ship out," she says, rolling over, pinning him underneath her.
Maybe the sex will be better this time.
Maybe this time everything will be alright.
She flies to Russia.
Then the world goes mad.
More space gods turn up, Clint is suborned and the ultimate energy source is taken,
And the only way to stop things spiralling even further out of control seems to be to concentrate as much insanity in one place as possible.
The Avenger Protocol.
Loki is captured, but not really.
The Helicarrier is attacked.
And by the time Natasha has a chance to catch her breath after *any* of this, she's managed to retrieve Clint and lose Coulson.
And the thing is, the *bitterly ironic* thing is that she's fairly sure the only reason she managed to fool Loki is because the last time she was with Clint, she really wasn't feeling it.
Which he apparently took to mean that she really was, because that must be what he told Loki.
Whoever knew he was that much of a romantic?
And now she's faced with a situation that she has in no way been trained for.
She's not a supersoldier.
She hasn't got a suit of power armour.
She's not a god.
In all honesty, she's probably going to die.
And, in some ways, that might almost be a relief.
But she's Natasha Romanoff, and she's not going to meet her end easily.
If she's going to go down fighting, she's going to sell her life as dearly as possible.
She's faced death before, if not quite these odds, but this time there's something different.
This time, there's someone she needs to call.
She takes out her phone and dials Pepper's number.
"Hello?" Pepper says, in her work voice.
"Pepper, where are you?"
"Currently? Flying to D.C."
There's something like relief that unknots itself from around her.
She's not in New York.
"I just wanted to say that things are getting dangerous, and there's a chance that I might not make it."
There's a gasp from the phone. "What's going on?"
"I can't say. But," after her complaints about Stark, "I just thought that you'd want to know."
And she trusts that Pepper can handle it.
Pepper takes a deep breath, let's it out slowly. "Thanks. I do. And... good luck."
"Thanks. And see you again."
"See you again," Pepper repeats softly, and Natasha can almost see her smile.
It's hard to believe, but it's over.
She's still alive.
And she helped make them pay.
She's tired, bone tired, but before anything else, before even the schwarma that Stark promised, there's something else she has to do.
She gets out her phone and texts Pepper.
'It's over. And I'm fine.'
There's a phone ringing.
It's in her hand and she's answering it before she's even really awake.
She doesn't say anything, though, just waits.
It's instinct to let the other person make the first mistake.
"Natasha?" asks a voice so familiar it cuts through the haze.
"Pepper?" she confirms, unable to keep a smile from her face.
She's still sleepy.
She's still alive.
It doesn't mean anything.
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I? Because I can phone back another time if you're busy."
Her body aches.
She hasn't had nearly enough sleep to recover, physically, mentally, emotionally.
But she is still alive.
And she's been given the next few days off, courtesy of Fury.
"I'm not busy."
"It's just..." and Pepper gives a growl of frustration. "Can we meet up to talk? I really need to talk to someone right now."
There's a problem with this. But she can't remember what it is right now.
"Sure. The coffee shop?"
"Okay." There's a slight pause. "On the other hand, I may have to be loud. In fact, I'm definitely feeling the need to be loud."
"So, not the coffee shop?"
"Not the coffee shop. Could you come over?"
"I'll see you in a few minutes."
Pepper meets her at the door and words immediately start escaping from her, as though she can't keep them contained any longer.
"I can't believe him! Not only does he not tell me that he's in imminent peril - again! - but even when he does phone me, he doesn't say a thing! And I'd have probably never known any of this if it hadn't been on the news!" she says, angry and glorious in the doorway.
Pepper takes a breath, and looks at Natasha. "I'm not being unreasonable, am I? Tell me I'm not being unreasonable, wanting to know when my boyfriend is putting himself in harm's way. It's not like I'm some wilting flower! I'm not going to stop him!"
"But I do want to know. I don't want to be the woman who has to be protected even from that much."
"Gah!" she yells to the ceiling, panting for a second or two.
"I'm not going to be that woman," she says decisively. "And, really, he should know me better by now. He really, really should. After all, you know me better after far less time and I'm not even going out with you!"
Pepper shuts her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before opening them again.
"And here ends my Tony Stark related rant for the moment, though transmission may be resumed later. How are you, Natasha? It's nice to see you," she says, stepping forward and hugging Natasha around the middle.
Natasha can't help stiffening slightly under the contact, forcibly reminded of some of the contusions and abrasions she'd taken over the last few days. She doesn't move much, but apparently it's enough for Pepper to pull back and look her in the face.
"You are alright, aren't you?" she asks, concern lacing her voice.
Natasha gives her a slight smile. "A few bruises and scrapes. Nothing much."
Pepper's face crumples a little, and she buries it in the area between Natasha's shoulder and neck. "Good," she says, her voice a little muffled. "I'm so glad. When I saw the reports, I couldn't help thinking that you were involved, and I was so worried."
Pepper pulls away again, sniffling a little, eyes shiny. "I'm sorry. I'm really not that woman. But between worrying about both of you, and the anger..." She sniffles again.
Natasha is tired and worn through and Pepper is so beautiful and open in a way that she can't even imagine being, that...
((I lean forward and kiss her.))
((She stands there, frozen, and I can't help but continue, because it's consuming and dizzying and pulls me deeper and deeper.))
((So deep that she makes me forget.))
((For a moment.))
((And then I realise, then it comes to me.))
((This is *me* kissing her.))
((Not any of the other personalities I construct and live my life through.))
((And me, actually doing something, is the one thing I can't, shouldn't, ever do.))
((And so I go, run, disappear, leaving Pepper there in my wake.))
((It's all I can do.))
This is what I've tried to forget.
This is the thing that I can't let myself remember.
That I exist, not just Natasha.
Because that was the first lesson I was taught.
*I* can be hurt, the things that *I* do, the thoughts that *I* have are weaknesses, flaws, fractures.
Only Natasha is perfect.
Only in Natasha am I safe.
Now I have left myself exposed, naked, vulnerable.
And I can't stop until I'm safe.
Before I know it, I'm in *her* apartment, surrounded by *her* things.
And I begin to see the problem.
Natasha has nothing.
Natasha *needs* nothing.
And, now, I can't help seeing the threads of my personality, my weaknesses, running through the objects around me.
And, really, Natasha only has one response to weaknesses.
I take a breath, try to calm myself as much as I can, and do my best to disappear.
And Natasha picks up a chair, with hands that are shaking only slightly, and efficiently dismantles it against the wall.
Her apartment has been almost completely reduced when there's a knocking at the door.
It's rhythmic - not Clint, then.
Luckily, she hasn't touched the wall monitor - that is strictly a tool. after all.
She draws a pistol and turns the monitor on.
It's Pepper - no, Potts - standing in front of her door.
And suddenly Natasha can feel something rising inside herself like a scream.
She ((I)) can't go out there, face Potts.
Luckily, she always has other exits.
She attaches a line to a hook on the wall, opens a window - not on the same side as the fire escape - and slips out and rappels down the side of the building.
"I didn't actually think that you'd come out a window rather than speak to Pepper," comes Clint's - no, Barton's - voice from out of the darkness, pitched to carry. "I guess I was wrong."
Natasha looks up, manages to locate a slightly oddly shaped patch of darkness.
"I did wonder how she found my apartment," Natasha says as she walks away slowly, trying to minimise her exposure to Barton. "Not to mention how she got past the front door without buzzing me."
Barton slips down the side of the building he's perched on using a line of his own and walks towards her. "What's wrong, Natasha?" he asks, sounding like he's concerned.
Sounding like he's trying to prey on her weakness.
Her hand slips to her pistol. "Is this a job, Barton?" she asks coldly. "Are you my handler now?"
Barton freezes, doesn't approach any closer. "I'm just being your friend."
"I don't have any friends," she tells him. "Don't follow me again. Unless it's official."
She walks off into the darkness.
Barton doesn't try and follow her.
SHIELD has various places to stay in most cities for travelling agents. They're not particularly comfortable, but they are secure. And it would be... inefficient for Natasha to go somewhere else, at least for tonight.
Barton should have got the message and, even if he didn't, it wouldn't be easy for him to find exactly which place she was staying before she leaves in the morning.
She spends an hour repairing the walls inside herself, sealing any weaknesses as far beneath the surface as she can.
She can do this.
It was only bad habits, sloppy living, engendered by working at SHIELD which allowed her flaws to surface in the first place.
She's not going to let it happen again.
Still, she needs rest. The past few days have been wearying, and exhaustion leads to error.
She closes her eyes, and goes to sleep. Lightly.
Which is why movement in the corridor outside wakes her.
It's not Barton - he'd be quieter, even if he wasn't trying to be.
Just one person.
The footsteps stop outside her doorway, clearly silhouetted by the lights in the hallway.
There's a gentle knocking at the door.
It can't be a professional - if they were good enough to get in here, they wouldn't have woken her.
In which case, it has to be someone from SHIELD. They're the only people with the codes to this place.
Her duty is clear.
Moving up to the doorway, hiding a pistol around the corner of the frame, just in case, she opens the door.
Natasha has just enough time to realise that it's entirely possible Pepper has been just a little bit *too* efficient in her organisation of SHIELD affairs...
Before, with a feeling like that of collapsing masonry...
I realise I can't do this any more.
"What do you want?" I whisper.
She's looking tired herself, pale, shaky. "I was hoping that we could talk about that kiss earlier," she says, giving an imitation of a smile.
There's a clattering noise, and I realise that I've dropped my pistol.
I really am weak.
But, at the moment, I can't bring myself to care.
Pepper jumps at the sound, looks down, tilts her head, then goes a little paler.
"Sorry," I say. "I'm in the habit of being careful."
I don't add, apart from around you, it seems.
"Want to come in?" I ask, and she nods and follows me into the room.
"What was wrong earlier?" she asks once we're seated.
I close my eyes.
In the darkness, I can pretend that I'm alone, that I'm not revealing anything that can be used against me.
That this is just inside my head.
And I slowly try to explain to Pepper what I was taught.
That thinking of myself as anything other than an asset was unacceptable.
That feeling anything, *anything* was a weakness.
I open my eyes to see Pepper, wet trails running down her face.
"And you make me feel," I finish, my throat feeling rough, painful. "I'm sorry for kissing you. It was... it was really *stupid*. Not to mention disrespectful."
"I have had better declarations of interest," she says, then gives a half laugh. "Though possibly not recently."
I couldn't bring myself to laugh with her, but I could give her a smile.
Pepper's face regains some colour. "It *was* a very good kiss, though."
I raise my eyebrows at her. "Thank you?"
She looks down. "There were some things I realised as I was going out of my mind trying to find you. That I like Tony. I even love him. But I don't think that I can be in a relationship with him anymore. And when I asked myself who I would choose between the two of you, I kept on coming back to you."
It's my turn to look down. "I... don't know what to say." It's more than I ever thought. More than I ever believed could happen. "I'm not going to be simple. I'm not going to be easy." I laugh a little. "And if you want someone who is going to be honest and open with you all the time, you're really looking at the wrong person."
She looks up, smiles and reaches toward me with one hand. I manage not to flinch. I even manage to meet her fingers with my own.
"I do know this. God, after listening to you this evening, I *really* know this. But, even if you don't want to do this, I hope you realise that I'm going to be here to help you, support you, in any way I can. And the thing I *do* know about you, the thing I've come to discover over the course of our friendship, is that you do try."
Tomorrow, Natasha reminds me, tomorrow I'm somehow going to have to smooth things over with Clint, preferably without revealing too much.
And, no matter what happens between Pepper and I, Stark is undoubtedly not going to react well.
I grip on to her hand tight, refusing to let go. "Yes," I say, and it's my turn to smile, looking her deep in the eyes. "I will definitely try."