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The Moscow Rules

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The private elevator in Stark Tower slid shut with a whoosh and lurched into action and Natasha's body tensed as she braced herself against the movement. Staring straight ahead she glimpsed her reflection in the mirrored surface of the door only to see a woman with pin straight red hair, a vintage black dress with a red belt, red stiletto heels, red clutch and a matching manicure and pedicure. She was not as ready for this impromptu meeting as she could have been and it made her feel more uncertain than she had in years. Perhaps it was because she had never felt so exposed. She mentally reviewed all of the ways she could kill a man with just her shoes, as an effort to get her mind back in the game, and came to a decisive conclusion. Natasha smirked. "Too many to count."

As the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open, Natasha's eyes immediately focused straight ahead on the mahogany colored sofa in the recessed seating area, where a man with extremely short hair, wearing what appeared to be a gray suit, sat with his back to her. His posture screamed military. He angled his body toward her in response to the noise the elevator made, to reveal a monocle covering the right eye of a relatively handsome and thin middle-aged face. He gave a polite smile, but she knew he wasn't used to smiling.

Natasha gave him a polite nod back and stepped out of the elevator, sliding her eyes to the left as she did. She heard noise from the bar area, and caught Pepper Potts' head of blonde hair from the corner of her eye. Natasha was slightly annoyed that she even felt the need to do this, to be here today, and it was worse that she apparently came at a time when Stark had other company; company she recognized. What was he doing here?

Pepper's voice greeted her warmly from the bar. "Natasha!" The blonde smiled at her, her tailored white blouse and black skirt giving her the smart CEO look she had become known for. "It's so good to see you. Can I get you anything?"

Natasha gave her a slight smile. "Whatever you're already serving is fine."

Pepper gave a little laugh. "Bourbon it is then. Make yourself comfortable." She rounded the bar carrying a tray with crystal tumblers and a bottle of bourbon. "I'd love to hire you back on, you know. We've really missed you around here."

Natasha genuinely liked Pepper and let it show in her expression. Anyone who could put up with Tony Stark was a real saint in her book. "Thanks. I'll keep it in mind."

Natasha followed Pepper over to the recessed seating area, and took a seat in a black leather armchair directly across from the mahogany sofa.

Pepper sat next to the man on the sofa, after placing the tray on a glass coffee table and handing them both drinks. "Mr. Strucker, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Natasha Romanoff. Natasha, I'd like you to meet Wilhelm Strucker. He has a business proposal for Stark Industries."

Strucker's direct stare was at odds with the friendly tone of his slightly German accented voice. "Ah! Miss Romanoff and I have met before. We have both worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the past, though my own dealings were not as extensive."

Natasha raised an eyebrow at that. She saw the direct threat inherent in Strucker's body language, and Pepper seemed to be oblivious. Yes, Strucker had worked with S.H.I.E.L.D., and that gave her every reason not to trust him. "It's good to meet you again, Mr. Strucker."

Strucker's little smile was more of a smirk. "Wilhelm, I insist! All of us were surprised to hear about HYDRA, and I know everyone in Washington has been putting you through the ringer, but I admire your bravery in releasing all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s information on the Internet, Miss Romanoff."

Natasha tilted her head back, her face expressionless. "Thank you."

Pepper looked at Natasha apologetically, and then held up her phone to show her calendar. "Well, I hate to leave you here like this, Natasha, but I was going to show Wilhelm some of our R and D floors. We're kind of on a tight schedule today. But Tony should be around soon."

Natasha spared Pepper a small smile. "Oh, it's no problem, Pepper." Natasha looked steadily at Strucker. "It was good meeting you again, Wilhelm."

Strucker stood from the sofa, bourbon in hand, and seemed to loom with his chin down, as he stared back. "The pleasure is mine."

She watched their exit through narrowed eyes. Strucker was up to something, and it likely wasn't good. She leaned back in the chair, swiveling it to face the windows, and willed herself to relax.

Natasha found herself craving something she could trust. She had told Steve Rogers the truth, amazingly enough. The idea that she thought she had gone over to the good side when she traded the KGB for S.H.I.E.L.D., only to discover that she had been duped into working for an organization that had been taken over by HYDRA, didn't sit well with her. In fact, it put her off balance more than a little bit. If she couldn't tell the difference between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA, then Natasha couldn't trust herself. The desire to be a better person obviously got lost in translation when it came to her years of conditioning in the Red Room.

With Fury officially off the grid in Europe, Natasha didn't know what to do with herself anymore. Sure, she could have gone with him. That offer had been genuine. Fury and Natasha both knew how to disappear and reinvent themselves if necessary. They had both done so before. Not that she knew any details about Nick, but one didn't become the Director of an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. without having a certain skill set. Yet, the idea of starting over just to help him salvage or reinvent S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't necessarily something Natasha wanted to do. Now it was going on two months since Fury's departure.

She had to figure out what to do next. She had toyed with the idea of maybe keeping the Avengers together full-time, and that was part of her reason for being here, to feel out Tony Stark to see if that would even be doable. However, that was sticking point number two. Natasha had also been completely honest with Steve when she told him she was a liar. While releasing all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s information on the Internet was more than a little inconvenient, especially where it concerned her, it wasn't too concerning. It didn't touch even the tip of the iceberg of the truth of her life. Still, she had doubts about effectively leading the Avengers if she was this out in the open.

She had called in favors to get information regarding Bucky Barnes to Steve because Steve deserved to know. Usually, she wouldn't have bothered, saving those favors for more dire personal situations, but she had felt that she owed Steve. She wanted them square, and she needed Steve to be predisposed to think well of her. She wanted him on her side if they continued with the Avengers.

Natasha heard Stark's entrance before she saw him. She was surprised he even used the elevator. It was more his style to fly in with his suit. However, she had heard that Stark had given up his suits along with his arc reactor after his latest debacle.

"How did you get into my tower?"

Whatever else she could say about Tony Stark, the view from his penthouse was magnificent and he had excellent taste in alcohol.

Natasha swiveled the armchair back around to face the sofa. "You gave Maria Hill a job," she stated calmly.

She brought the crystal tumbler of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve up to her lips and took a sip. She observed Tony Stark as she did. He was sporting the same facial hair and dark hair Natasha was used to. Even his long-sleeved AC/DC shirt and dark wash jeans was pure Stark, but he was no longer glowing. So, they were right. He no longer needed the arc reactor.

Tony gave her a slight frown. "And you're drinking my bourbon," he stated unnecessarily, ignoring her statement. "The expensive twenty-three-year-old bourbon that I happen to like better than the A.H. Hirsch bourbon."

"It's good," she said with a smirk.

Stark pouted. "Not even Pepper knows about that bourbon stash." He took a seat on the sofa and reverently picked up the bottle from his glass coffee table. "Saw the S.H.I.E.L.D. dump on the Internet," Tony continued nonchalantly, while still looking at the bottle. "And your moment in the media spotlight."

"Hmm," she responded noncommittally.

It was this that caused Stark to lock his eyes with her. He looked like he was trying to figure her out. "See, that lack of concern worries me, and that's a big concession from someone like me."

Natasha took another sip of bourbon.

"And where's our dear ole' one eye these days?"

Natasha's poker face was perfect. "Six feet under."

Stark shook his head. "Bullshit. Hill said the same thing, but we all know Fury is still out there."

Natasha gave a shrug that indicated she didn't care whether he believed her or not. "Steve, Maria, and I were there when he died, Stark. And if you can't trust what Maria says, then why give her a job?"

"Talent, beauty, discretion," Tony countered. At the last word, he gave Natasha a look. "You've only got two out of three these days. There's only enough room here at Stark Industries for one indiscrete person, and it's the guy with his name on the lease."

She wasn't here for a damn job, but she had to admit it sort of bothered her that Stark wouldn't want her back. She had only been an asset to his company before.

Natasha merely raised a supercilious eyebrow. "You're not glowing anymore."

Stark gave her a challenging stare. "Yeah, I've moved on," he said pointedly.

He was implying she wasn't? That was rich. That was all Natasha ever did was try to move on.

"You know I'm all for second chances, sweetheart, but I'm actually listening to Pepper now when it comes to what constitutes bad publicity."

If only Stark could really pull off sympathy convincingly. It was almost insulting.

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not here for a job, Stark. I'm here to tie up loose ends. I'm willing to give you some information that didn't make it on-line. Intel about your father—"

Stark held up a hand and cut her off, his lips pursed in annoyance. "Yeah. Stop right there, Red Sonja. I don't want to know anything else. Whatever hijinks you and Capsicle got up to that had to do with my old man can stay buried between you. I want nothing to do with it."

Natasha tilted her head to the side so as to seem uncertain. "Look. Tony—"

He shook his finger at her. "No, no, no. I know what you're trying to do here, and it's a nice sentiment—" Stark dearly looked like he wanted to take a sip straight from the bottle but managed to refrain. "But I want the past to stay there."

Natasha wasn't nearly so restrained. She took another sip from her tumbler.

The fact that he had been one of HYDRA's targets and the fact that she had helped save him from that fate had obviously not made Stark predisposed to any open lines of communication or favors between them. While she hadn't wanted a job from Stark, she had at least been hoping for an influential ally she could call in a favor from if the going got rough. This was the type of thing she had to do in her line of work. She needed to cultivate these types of relationships even more so now that she was cut loose. However, apparently, even contemplating keeping the Avengers together full-time had been a foolish notion. She put it from her mind. She should have known better than to assume anything.

Natasha gave Stark a look of indifference. "Alright. If that's what you want."

"It is," he said with a hint of steel.

Natasha wasn't going to push where she wasn't wanted. "Well, other than that, I just stopped in to say goodbye," she lied.

This piqued Stark's interest. He widened his eyes in surprise. "Yeah? Where you heading off to?"

Natasha shrugged. "Need to know, Stark." Truthfully, she had no idea.

"So, S.H.I.E.L.D.—" Tony trailed off.

"Doesn't exist anymore," Natasha responded firmly. Maria had already told him as much. The whole world knew that now.

Stark's usual droll sense of humor was non-existent today, but it was her last statement that got a reaction she had never expected to see from a fellow Avenger towards her.

His voice was practically a growl. "For your sake, I hope you're not going HYDRA on us."

Was he fingering the cuffs to his suit? Those suits weren't even supposed to exist anymore. Stark probably didn't even realize he was doing it, but Natasha took it as a threat anyway. If she wondered exactly where she stood on Stark's trust scale after what he'd read about her on the Internet, then it was clear that he didn't trust her much at all.

She gazed down to look non-threatening. "HYDRA doesn't exist anymore either."

Stark didn't look relieved at her statement. "Officially. You know, forget what I said. Pepper would take you back—"

He only said that because he wanted to keep an eye on her now.

She smirked. "I know. She told me when she let me in—" Natasha took a sip of bourbon. "And got me a drink." She set the empty tumbler on the table and stood up.

"Figures," he mumbled, slumping down on the sofa.

"If you need to get in touch with me—" she offered.

"I'll find you," Stark stated confidently.

Natasha scoffed. Not likely. "I'll let you if I want to be found," she retorted. She was at the elevator before she turned around to face the back of his head. "By the way, watch out for Strucker. "

Stark turned his head and raised an interested eyebrow. "Care to elaborate?"

She shook her head. "He's up to something." Suddenly, she gave him a mischievous grin. "Oh- and I saw that tabloid article accusing you and Lt. Rhodes of being an item."

Tony immediately scowled and held up his hands in a defensive gesture. "Just because I may have kissed him that one time- I was drunk! It was a friendly bromance kiss of gratitude. That's all. Everyone knows I'm with Pepper."

The elevator opened and Natasha stepped in and turned back to face Stark with her smirk still firmly on her face. "I'm not judging. There's a Russian saying. Odin raz ne pi'do'ras."

Stark glared at her. "In English, please?"

Natasha just kept smirking.

"JARVIS?" he asked.

The computerized voice responded in full English butler mode. "Sir, I believe in vernacular it translates to, 'One time doesn't make you gay.'"

Natasha was still smirking when the doors closed, cutting Stark off mid rude gesture. Well, this visit had turned out to be a completely pointless waste of time. She had had hopes too. Once the doors closed she immediately dropped the smirk and sought out her reflection, only to freeze in shock. Her hair was no longer straight. It was in spiral curls. The air felt heavy, almost electric. Natasha was no stranger to seeing things that weren't necessarily there, the Red Room had taught her that, but her first instinct was panic. She closed her eyes and let out a calming breath before opening them again. Her hair was still curly. She resisted the urge to touch it. She just had to ignore this. It was the alcohol. When the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened to the lobby, she looked back at her reflection one last time, only to see Loki standing directly behind her, his eyes meeting hers in the mirror. Her flinch was so slight as to be unnoticeable to most people.

But this was Loki, and he noticed. He gave her a dark smirk. He was wearing green, black and gold leather armor, his dark hair was longer and wilder than she recalled, but his eyes looked very green, and just as terrifyingly full of madness and malice as ever.

She quickly maneuvered her body so as to attack, however, he wasn't behind her. Her heart started racing and she was on edge. She turned around in the elevator. He was gone. She was alone. This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all. She growled his name. "Loki." Faint laughter was her response.