Two years ago, Nat met a woman named Ginny.
Nat hadn’t known who she was then. She’d had no reason to.
Tony Stark did an excellent job of keeping his employees’ pictures off international databases. Nat knew. She’d run Ginny’s photo before sitting down with her at the bar. But then, that had been before Iron Man. Stark had been perceived as less of a threat. After all, he was only the CEO of the largest arms dealing corporation in the world.
Funny how S.H.I.E.L.D measured threats.
It looked like Fury had decorated it. Come to think of it, he probably had.
“I assume you’re pulling me out of China for a really good reason,” Nat said, staring at the reproduction of Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge, hands folded behind her back.
“It’s an undercover operation,” Coulson said, stapling something at his desk.
“Mm,” Nat murmured, waiting for more details. She walked over to the floor-to-ceiling window and pretended to admire the ocean view while surreptitiously watching for any threats. She couldn’t believe that Coulson insisted on an ocean view—so open, so exposed. It practically screamed, bring it. Coulson’s office gave Clint massive amounts of anxiety, no matter how thick and purportedly bulletproof the glass was. But is it bazooka proof? was Clint’s opinion, expletives deleted.
She texted Clint: All clear.
Ten seconds later: thx.
“Does Clint feel better knowing you’ve surveyed the perimeter?” Coulson asked.
She cleared her throat.
“Take a seat, Natasha,” Coulson said.
She turned around and arched an eyebrow.
“If you could pretend to defer to my authority, I would appreciate it. And I will tase you the next time you crash on my couch if you don’t,” Coulson said, smiling.
Nat sat down.
“What’s the mission?” she asked.
“We’re assigning you to Tony Stark.”
“You must be joking.”
Coulson just stared.
“You’re not joking.” Nat folded her arms across her chest and kicked her boots up on Coulson’s desk. “What the—I—” She looked down at her chest and took a deep breath. “You pulled me—me—out of China to babysit that child—”
“It’s already been decided,” Coulson said, sliding a folder across the desk.
Nat sat upright, her feet hitting the floor with a thud, and she put her elbows on the desk and looked Coulson straight in the eye. “What did I do to piss off S.H.I.E.L.D? Honestly. Does Fury need to get off? I have a few friends who’d be happy to oblige—they have a thing for eye patches and billowing coats. Of course, they might kill him when they’re done.”
Coulson said nothing. Wise man, Coulson.
Nat picked up the file and flipped it open with enough force to give herself one hell of a paper cut.
Coulson sighed. “We’ve uploaded a more extensive file to your account, of course, but I wanted to give you this abbreviated version in person.”
Nat started flipping through photos of Stark, of the driver, Happy—what the fuck kind of a name was Happy?—of the PA, Pepper… Pepper Potts…
She didn’t move a muscle.
“Will that be all, Natasha?” Coulson asked, his voice quiet. Too quiet.
“You are really lucky that a certain someone loves you,” Nat said, licking her lips as she got up. God, her mouth was cotton dry.
“So, you’ll still come over for dinner tonight?” Coulson asked.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve said all day.”
Nat walked out of the office, clutching the folder.
And it was that smirk, that slightly curled thin lip, that did Nat in. She sat down across from Ginny once they started the next round, and they went hand for hand for the next hour, barely breaking eye contact the entire time.
Nat couldn’t recall the last time she’d had the pleasure of playing such a beautiful woman with such an inscrutable face. About the third time Nat licked her lips in the hour, she realized that she might be feeling attraction. Legitimate attraction. That didn’t happen very often.
There was only one option: annihilate the threat.
After Nat had put a five-digit dent in Ginny’s winnings, Ginny had stood and walked over to shake her hand. “Well played, Miss—”
Nat shook her hand, lingering perhaps a moment longer than was comfortable.
Ginny smirked, but Nat was thinking that maybe this one was an actual smile. “Ginny.”
“Can I buy you a drink?” Nat asked. So much for annihilation.
“Sure,” Ginny said, turning to another player who’d walked up to talk with her, and Nat surreptitiously snapped a picture to check her databases, just to make sure this woman wasn’t a plant, though no agent she knew would be caught dead in an outfit like that, particularly the pink polo shirt. Well, maybe Clint, but only if he lost a bet.
Clint was slicing tomatoes and cucumbers for the salad with frightening alacrity while Coulson took the bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breasts out of the oven. Natasha wanted to groan at how fucking cute they were. Of course, the knives were from Clint’s personal collection and Coulson’s oven was outfitted with several panic buttons and who knew how many assault guns, sniper rifles, K-bars, and machetes. Plus, Nat had the sneaking suspicion the customized Kitchen Aid mixer Coulson liked to brag about was in fact AI and probably had handguns and all kinds of other shit hidden inside.
Then the chorus of “Alone,” possibly the most overwrought of all Heart songs, blasted from Clint’s iPod, and she wanted to wrest the knife from Clint’s hand and launch it at something. Fucking Coulson, fucking S.H.I.E.L.D, fucking Ginny. Coulson—S.H.I.E.L.D—Fury—they were all making her notice the one person in the world who’d practically left her life before even entering it.
Notice a small thing that looked like hope, and hope was dangerous.
Natasha took out her utility knife and began drawing circles in the marble countertop, and it was a solid thirty seconds before Coulson saw what she was doing.
That’s what he and Clint got for being cute in the kitchen.
“And is it your longest running relationship?” Ginny asked, looking up at Nat with big grey eyes, and the way the light caught them, softening the steel, Nat could forgive the lack of subtlety.
“Well, we don’t have an anniversary or anything, but he’s outlasted everyone else.” And hey, tit for tat. “What about you?”
“Easy question,” Ginny said with a chuckle. “My boss.”
“That bad?” Nat asked.
“Let me put it this way—this is my Christmas gift to myself,” Ginny said.
Ginny nodded. “If I don’t give it to myself for Christmas or my birthday, I won’t get one. Took me five years to figure that out.”
“So what kinds of gifts have you given yourself?” Nat asked, leaning in toward Ginny, knees touching under the bar.
“Paris, Macau, London, Malta,” Ginny said, watching Nat with careful interest.
Nat arched an eyebrow. “Does your boss know you play?”
Ginny leaned her head into her hand on the bar. “No.”
Nat gestured to the collar of Ginny’s shirt. “That is quite the costume for someone who gets around like you… and who plays like you, for that matter.”
Ginny laughed. “Nice of you to distinguish between the two.”
“I think that people who travel like they’re serious players and who actually are serious players are not necessarily in the same camp,” Nat said.
Ginny smiled and played with her pearl necklace. “I’m me. I have my face on, but I dress like me. No one ever expects that,” she said.
Nat watched Ginny’s slender fingers dance around her chest. “Vulnerability can be its own defense,” she said.
“Something like that.” Ginny sipped her drink. “I try to leave my face at the table. I use it at work often enough that… well.” She smiled at Nat, a real smile that wrinkled up the corners of her eyes. “I don’t get to be me very often.”
“Must be nice,” Nat said, realizing she was gripping the edge of the bar so hard her knuckles were white. She threw back the rest of her scotch and ordered another, crossing her legs and letting her foot rest against Ginny’s leg. “I’m having one of those me moments tomorrow, if you’re interested in coming along.”
“Oh yeah?” Ginny asked. “What are you doing?”
“A lingerie shoot,” Nat said.
Ginny choked on her drink.
Nat grinned. No guile on this one.
“You know, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one in person,” Ginny said, cocking her head to one side.
“Well, I’d be happy to show you the ropes.”
Did S.H.I.E.L.D know? She knew she could do the job, be normal, whatever the hell that looked like. And Ginny—Pepper—Miss Potts had one hell of a poker face. But did S.H.I.E.L.D know? If they didn’t, what they didn’t know wouldn’t kill them—unless it all blew up in their faces—and if they did, well, obviously they didn’t think a preexisting whatever was an issue.
So she did the only reasonable thing she could do.
She crashed at Clint’s place, promised him a Star Wars marathon, and then proceeded to sideswipe him while he was cooing over Ewoks.
“I need to tell you something. You can’t tell Coulson.”
“Nat, nothing you tell me ever gets back to him,” Clint said, clearly only half-listening.
“You told him I watched an episode of Supernanny. One episode. Now he wants to have a marathon.”
“Okay. I don’t tell him the important shit.”
Nat took a breath and reminded herself that she’d been interrogating CIA agents three hours ago. Telling Clint this kind of thing was nothing. Really.
“I had a fling with Pepper Potts in Tokyo two years ago.”
Popcorn fell out of Clint’s open mouth. “Are you serious?”
She looked him straight in the eye. “Yes.”
“Shit.” He paused the movie, and Nat knew she had his attention. “How could S.H.I.E.L.D put you on this?”
“You tell me,” she muttered.
“There’s no way they don’t know. They don’t lose people.”
“But this is a huge conflict of interest. Why give you an assignment you wouldn’t pass the background clearance for?”
“There has to be a reason they want me on this that outweighs the risks of me having known… her. And I’m too good to be taken out of the field to be Tony Stark’s babysitter. You could do that.”
Clint kicked her. She kicked back.
“So they’re ignoring that you had a thing with Pepper. Wow. Wow.” Clint leaned back in his seat. “Man. They don’t do that kind of thing unless there’s a big fuckin’ reason. Why are you on Stark Watch again?”
Natasha stared at him. “Nice try.”
“No it wasn’t. I haven’t even primed you with scotch yet.” He smirked.
“I’m going to figure out why they’ve got me on this. Why they’re putting us through this,” Nat said, looking out the window.
Clint tilted his head. “It was just a fling, Nat. And you’re Heathcliff, not Byron.”
“That’s right, you’re Russian. Let me explain English literature to you,” Clint said, kicking his legs up on the coffee table. “Under the Byronic anti-hero’s gruff exterior lies a heart of gold for the right person to discover and keep forever. I’m a Byronic hero,” he said, putting a hand on his chest.
Nat rolled her eyes. “Which makes Coulson your keeper.”
Clint opened his mouth as if to respond and then said, “Fair enough. Now, Heathcliff, hero of Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights—”
“You know that’s my favorite book, asshole. It’s the most Russian novel I’ve ever read.”
“People get hurt by assuming Heathcliff is a Byronic hero when he’s just plain dark and evil. You’re a less evil kind of Heathcliff. Don’t turn Byronic on me. It would derail all the hours I’ve invested in therapy figuring out our relationship.”
“How am I turning into a Byronic hero?” Nat asked, arching an eyebrow.
“By making it seem like you care what effect this has on Pepper when you have never, ever demonstrated that kind of care for any person in your life, with maybe the exception of me and that nasty ex who shall not be named. If it was just a fling, and you approached it like you do all of your flings, why care?”
Nat stared at the floor.
“It was two years ago, Natasha.”
“Do you know what’s happened in the last two years, Clint?” Natasha asked slowly.
“You spent a lot of time in isolation, so fewer flings than normal, plus a lot of time killing people. Oh, and you were in a Serbian prison cell for two months before I got you out. I still don’t consider a box of chocolates to be a sufficient thank you, by the way.”
“Irony is lost on you.”
“So Phil tells me,” Clint said, shooting puppy dog eyes at her that would have made Coulson weep. Good thing she was tougher than Coulson… when it came to Clint, at least.
“Do you know what I did for those two months, especially toward the end, when I started running out of escape options and thought that S.H.I.E.L.D wasn’t going to pull me out?”
“I still can’t believe you thought I wouldn’t get you,” Clint said, knocking a beer back.
“Coulson’s got you—”
“Don’t finish that sentence.”
Nat paused, and then she nodded.
“What did you do for those two months, especially towards the end?” Clint asked.
“I thought about my two days with her. I had it broken down moment by moment. I dreamed it, I lived it, and God—whatever—help me, I let myself plot different endings, anything that let me be with her, in my head. At first, I treated memories like they were food rations, and in the end I just gorged, ‘cause I didn’t think I would make it out.”
Clint looked like he didn’t know if he wanted to hug her or kick her. “You know what I could say to you right now.”
“Love is for children.”
“It’s what you said to me, when—”
“Don’t remind me of what I said,” Nat said, and she clenched the glass she was holding so hard it broke and her fingers started bleeding.
Clint took her hand in his so soft she could barely feel his touch and reached into the drawer next to him.
“You keep a first aid kit handy?”
“They’re all over the apartment. Phil insists.”
“What if—” Natasha started but stopped herself.
“What if what?”
“What if it’s all in my head?” she asked quietly.
“It has to be. You have a job to do.” He didn’t have to look her in the eye to make his point, and cleansing her cuts was damn near as effective as sustained eye contact. “No one could be happier than me that you possibly—possibly—have someone in your life you could maybe feel something about. It would be great to have someone to bounce birthday gift ideas for you off of. But you can’t have her right now. And it is absolutely essential that she not want you.”
Nat took a breath and blinked a few times. “Okay.”
Clint looked up, his eyes hard. “Don’t do that, when you just snap into something else. I don’t like it. I’ve told you I don’t like it.”
“So I have to break her, assuming she even remembers me.”
“Oh, I’m sure she remembers you,” he said with a chuckle. “No, you don’t have to break her. You just have to be the professional. You can still be together at the end of this, if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Nat muttered, and Clint took her bandaged hand in his, leaned back on the couch, and closed his eyes.
“That’s one you’ve got to figure out on your own, kid.”
What she hadn’t expected was to have Ginny visit her in the dressing room. Or to have Ginny push her up against the wall and grip her hips hard and tug at what little clothing she was wearing until it came off. Or to end up on the floor with Ginny’s mouth in places a woman’s mouth hadn’t been in far too long.
No, Nat hadn’t been expecting that at all.
“You’re clear on the backstory?” he asked for what seemed like the millionth time.
“Crystal,” she said. She felt about backstory the same way she felt about the United Nations: the most ineffectual safety net imaginable. She hadn't read the latest update. “You uploaded those pictures to Google?”
“If Clint ever finds them I’m a dead man, but yes.” Coulson looked at her as he pulled up to the drive. “You ready for this?”
“Now that you’ve done my makeup, I feel like I can take on the world.”
“I didn’t do your makeup. I recommended a lip gloss.”
“Same thing in my book.”
“Go get ‘em, Natasha.”
“Get a dog, Coulson,” Nat said, slamming the car door behind her.
Well, they weren't going to waste any time about this, were they?
“I hope you haven't been waiting long, Miss… Nat?”
Nat looked up to see Ginny—Pepper—Miss Potts descending the stairs in a sleek grey suit and Louboutin heels, hair down, not up. “Hello,” she said, the barest hint of a smile crossing her face. She tried to read Ginny's face, but all she could see were steely grey eyes and a perfectly set smile.
“You work for us?” Ginny asked, and she bit her lip, barely, for maybe a second. She was nervous. It was something, at least.
“I started a few weeks ago,” Nat said, fixing her gaze at the Kandinsky on the wall over Ginny’s shoulder. Tasteful.
“Well, welcome to Stark Industries,” Ginny said, her face going blank again, her smile coolly professional. “I'll go let Tony know you're here. It's not every day he signs over the company.”
Nat felt her stomach drop, and she realized that she might have wanted to read the backstory Coulson wanted to update her on. As she watched Ginny walk out of the room slowly—too slowly, she was measuring her pace too carefully—she checked her phone.
The document she was here to serve as notary for? It made Pepper Potts CEO.
She heard Ginny call, “The notary’s here. Can you please come sign the transfer paperwork?” and she blinked. Time to focus. She took a few deep breaths and followed Ginny up the staircase.
She heard the telltale sound of sneakers on a mat—so they were heading to a gym, and Jesus, whoever was in the ring with Stark had shitty footwork. So, it would be her, Ginny, Stark, and whatever guy he was boxing with. Probably the driver. She rounded the corner and had a clear view of Stark and the driver—called it—which meant they had a clear view of her, and stopped briefly, stared.
God, these guys were easy marks. At least Ginny had enough of a poker face to keep things interesting.
Nat walked over to Ginny to start the paperwork and thought she caught the barest hint of a genuine smile—wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Nat handed her a pen, didn't stand too close, just took it all in. Stark was interested in her, the driver was completely incidental, and in the moment, in this moment, she got to stand next to a woman who—well, who was really the woman.
“I promise you this is the only time I will ask you to sign over your company,” Ginny called to Tony.
“I need you to initial…” Nat started, speaking in a hushed tone, one undeniably professional but that she knew Ginny liked, and then she heard Stark's voice and knew that he had officially disrupted whatever moment she was trying to have.
Best to not try to have moments.
“What’s your name, lady?”
“Rushman. Natalie Rushman.” She felt Ginny stiffen next to her. It was the first time Ginny had ever heard her full name. Too bad it was fake.
“Front and center. Come into the church,” Stark said.
“No, you’re seriously not going to ask her—” Ginny said.
“If it pleases the court. Which it does.”
“It’s no problem,” Nat said.
“I’m sorry. He’s very eccentric—” Nat heard Ginny say as she walked toward the ring. Eccentric? Try dickish. But she put a little extra swing into her walk, and if Stark misinterpreted sass for interest, well then, all the better. Subtlety wasn't this guy's thing, so why go for it?
He lifted the rope for her and she made her way in slowly, felt every muscle in her core contracting to keep her position just so. She didn't dare look back at Ginny. Women hated that move. Nat hated that move. Mostly, she hated how well it worked.
So Nat did the only thing she could do. She maintained eye contact with Stark all the while hating this job, swearing to God she was going to figure out why S.H.I.E.L.D had her babysitting him instead of out in the field, trying to figure out what dog breed both Clint and Coulson would like, and all the while trying, with all of her might, to get the words I'm sorry into Ginny's head.
“What?” Tony asked, and she reconsidered the telepathy experiment.
“Can you, ah, give her a lesson?” Tony asked the driver, and he got out of the ring, taking that body odor with him, but leaving her with the driver and the uncomfortable prospect of Tony sitting alone with Ginny talking about her.
Uncomfortable. Why was that uncomfortable?
“What’s your name?” the driver asked, grinning.
“Good for you,” she said, arms crossed.
“You ever box before?” Happy asked, completely unfazed.
"I have, yes," Nat said with a smile. The smile was a warning. Why did men never heed the warning?
“Tae Bo? Booty boot camp? Crunch, somethin’ like that?” Happy asked, and Nat resisted an urge to lay him out on the floor and eat him for lunch.
“How do you spell your name, Natalie?” Tony asked.
“R-U-S-H-M-A-N.” That meant he was Googling her. Coulson owed her ten bucks.
Happy was explaining some inane bullshit boxing technique that Nat was actively tuning out while debating the benefits of a boxer or a Doberman (or alternately, a Jack Russell terrier—Clint was such a terrier when it came down to it) when she heard Tony raise his voice and ask, “Did you model in Tokyo? Cause she modeled in Tokyo.”
Nat looked over her shoulder. He was looking down—he'd found the pictures. And the look on Ginny's face. God, the look on her face.
He’d found the pictures. Her work was done.
“Rule number one: never take your eye off your oppo—“
And Nat took the driver down.
“Oh my God!” she heard Ginny exclaim, and she ignored how Ginny's voice kickstarted the adrenaline she had done such a good job of learning to tamp down. Another notch or two higher and Ginny's voice would have been reaching a certain kind of peak. Not that Nat would know anything about those kinds of peaks, or what it would take to make Ginny reach them. No, she wouldn't know anything about that at all.
“That's what I'm talkin' about,” Tony said, and Nat realized his voice was antithetical to sexual arousal. Curiously, she was grateful.
Nat climbed out of the ring, ignoring how Ginny’s hands twitched when Tony rang the bell, knowing Ginny wasn’t twitching because of the damn bell which she’d no doubt heard a hundred times before. Ginny was on edge like she was on edge—though Nat imagined they were on edge in different ways.
“I need your impression," Nat said to Tony with a slight smile.
“You have quiet reserve, I don’t know, you have an old soul?”
Jesus. “I meant your fingerprint.”
“Right,” he said.
Ginny walked over to them. “So, how we doing?” she asked. Honestly, razors had a softer edge than Ginny on a mission. Or at the tables.
“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?” Nat asked, looking Tony straight in the eye, just to seal the deal, and Ginny shifted her stance to stand next to Tony and said, “That'll be all, Miss Rushman. Thank you very much.”
Her smile was all teeth.
Nat walked away knowing that Tony was hooked and Ginny was going to kill her. Professionally, this should have been satisfying. But all she felt like doing was going a few rounds with the punching bag and boozing herself to sleep.
Instead, she went back to S.H.I.E.L.D to debrief and wasn’t home until midnight.
When Nat finally got back to her apartment, she kicked off her shoes so vehemently they flew twenty feet and landed on the couch. She stalked over to her kitchen and wrenched open the liquor cabinet.
“Hello, boyfriend,” Nat murmured, pouring herself a glass of Johnnie Walker, neat. She put her hands on the granite countertop and stretched her back, curling like a cat and then arching out. She could do this.
“Oh, you’re talking to the scotch.”
She threw back her drink. “What have I told you about breaking into my apartment?” She turned to glare at Clint’s head, peeking out from around the hallway corner, a Cheshire cat grin on his face.
“To ask first,” he replied, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall.
She poured herself another glass.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?” he asked.
“I don’t offer my favorite alcohol to intruders.”
“Sometimes the guy has to do all the work,” Clint muttered, walking over to the fridge, where he pulled out a Guinness.
“You even stocked my fridge,” she said.
“What are friends for?” he asked, leaning against the counter next to her.
She rested her forehead on his shoulder. “Today sucked.”
“I know,” he said, leaning his head against hers. “I know.”
By the time Nat arrived at the restaurant where she was meeting Stark and Pepper, she was perfectly dressed, coiffed, and made up. She almost didn’t recognize herself. Fuck you, Coulson, she thought as she got out of the taxi, jealously admiring the mopeds and motorcycles speeding by, the men in leather and women in skinny jeans and knee-high leather boots riding on them. And fuck Clint for getting her into this mess of a gig, too.
She was there barely five minutes before Stark and his entourage arrived, and Stark’s voice was so loud she heard him as he walked through the restaurant doors.
“Whatever happens in the next twenty minutes, just go with it.”
So he hadn’t told Ginny—Pepper—Miss Potts that she’d been hired to be his new PA. Well, this was excellent.
“Mr. Stark,” she said, smiling as she walked towards them.
“Hey!” he said, and Nat actively looked at him and not at Pepper, who was clearly in shock and probably about five seconds away from shooting daggers at Nat—she really didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Pepper’s death glare.
“Hello, how was your flight?” Nat asked Tony, keeping her voice as saccharine as possible.
“Boy, it’s nice to see you,” Tony said, and Nat did her best not to roll her eyes or stick him with a shrimp fork.
“We have one photographer from the ACL if you don’t mind,” Nat said, taking drinks out of Tony and Pepper’s hands. God only knows how drinks had got into their hands so quickly.
“Sure,” Tony said.
“When did this happen?” Pepper asked, finally regaining her voice or will to speak or composure, Nat wasn’t sure which. Maybe all three. She looked fabulous—the color of her dress was too dark, but her hair was pulled back and her lipstick was all red and lush and—
“You made me do it,” Tony said. The man seemed allergic to responsibility.
Pepper looked just as surprised as Nat, and she blinked rapidly and opened her hands and generally looked like she wanted to throttle him.
“Smile. Stop acting constipated. Don’t flare your nostrils,” Tony said as the pictures snapped.
“You are so predictable,” Pepper said while smiling for the cameras.
“Right this way,” Nat said, intervening, and then guided them back to their table.
“You look fantastic,” Tony said, hurrying to walk with her, leaving Pepper to walk behind them. Jesus, did he not realize that him walking next to his PA while his CEO walked behind them, staring into her drink was just not the way things should be done? Of course he didn’t.
But Nat wasn’t supposed to be realizing any of that, she was supposed to be focusing on him and how sick he was and figuring out how to mitigate his self-destructive tendencies in order to determine whether it would be worth it to recruit Iron Man to S.H.I.E.L.D. So she folded her hands demurely and said, “Why, thank you very much.”
“But that’s unprofessional. What’s on the docket?” Tony asked.
“You have a 9:30 dinner.”
“Perfect, I’ll be there at 11. Is this us?” he asked, looking at the corner table.
“It can be,” Nat said, folding her hands behind her back.
“Great. Make it us.”
“Okay,” Nat said, quickly getting the host’s attention, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Pepper walk and stand near her, talking with Mr. Musk, and just the sound of Pepper’s voice was enough to help calm her heart rate, and then Tony asked Pepper if she wanted a massage, and Pepper declined, of course, because Pepper had this thing about massages and chiropractic care and general alternative medicine that Tony would know if he took the time to play that basic “What are five weird things about you?” game, and then she heard Tony say that he’d have her make an appointment for Pepper anyway, and Pepper said, “I don’t want Natalie to do anything for me,” and she knew that this was how it was supposed to be, harsh and hard and cutting, and she wasn’t supposed to care, but when she looked at Pepper all she saw was the woman who had given her the two best days of her life.
She really had to figure out why S.H.I.E.L.D had her babysitting the world’s most immature billionaire.
“Do you make a habit out of jumping strange women in dressing rooms?” Nat asked.
“Seriously? You’re blushing?” Nat laughed.
“Do you want a real answer or an, ‘I’ll never see you after tomorrow’ answer?” Ginny asked. “I won’t be offended.”
Nat’s breath hitched a little. “Real. And I’m kind of surprising myself by saying that.”
“I kind of surprised myself by asking.” Ginny took a breath. “Look, I don’t have a lot of time away from my job.”
“So I have to make each moment count. And when I find someone who… well. Make it count.” She brushed Nat’s hair behind her ear. “You’re beautiful. And I just…” She licked her lips. “You’re different. And I’m officially creepy for saying that.”
Nat paid for her coffee and took Ginny’s hand in hers, fingers intertwined. “Stay with me today? Let’s just have a day. And a night. For the next twenty-four hours, fuck the rest of the world. Fuck your boss, fuck my boss, fuck everyone. Okay?”
Ginny grinned. “I like that.”
They walked out of the coffeeshop, fingers still interlaced.
Nat pressed Ginny’s hips down against the mattress. “Don’t fight me,” she said, trying not to grit her teeth, wrapping her arms around Ginny’s thighs. Trying to keep the woman in one general place on the bed was proving a task even she was finding remarkably difficult.
“Don’t—know—how—not to—” Ginny whimpered as Nat licked up her slit and sucked. Her hips arched off the bed and her hands pushed hard against Nat’s head hard—not that Nat didn’t appreciate the encouragement such pressure probably signified, but she’d rather get her hair pulled. Really.
Nat kept going, and Ginny’s hips kept bucking, and thirty seconds later Ginny scooted about two feet across the bed like a semi jackknifing on a highway, jerking Nat’s neck in a relatively painful direction. Considering Nat’s line of work, that was saying something.
Time to reassess the situation.
“So,” Nat said, looking up at Ginny with what she hoped was desire and a fair bit of patience, cause that’s what she felt but tended to be really bad about communicating it, “you’re fucking gorgeous and I’m going to keep at this as long as it takes, but how does anyone go down on you?” She traced circles on Ginny’s thigh, moving her fingers across her cunt, up and down, teasing, trying to ameliorate the awkward question.
Ginny’s sharp intake of breath seemed to indicate that the distraction was working. “Umm… they don’t?”
Nat stifled a sigh. No shit. This could backfire on her terribly, but—nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And Ginny was a high roller on the underground poker scene. The woman was not averse to risk.
Nat nipped Ginny’s thigh, ignoring how her own chin quivered. “This is both extremely premature and terribly late to ask, but how do you feel about light bondage?”
Ginny arched an eyebrow. “Open to suggestions.”
Nat decided that sitting up and getting her fingers and mouth away from the murky ethical area of coercion was probably the best course of action. “I’d like to tie your hands to the headboard if it’d be all right with you. I will have a better chance of giving you a better time if you are more securely in one place,” she said as matter-of-factly as possible, doing her best to stare at Ginny’s face, brutally aware of just how not-hot it was to interrupt really lovely things to have a business discussion and trying to prepare herself for the likelihood that Ginny was going to boot-kick her out of bed.
Ginny bit her lip and scooted closer, hitching a knee up to wrap her leg around Nat’s waist. “I have scarves.”
“Yes, you do,” Nat said, exhaling a breath she didn’t even realize she was holding as she practically leapt off the bed to get the scarves. At this point, if she believed in God she would have thanked him, because she was tying Ginny’s hands to the headboard inside of sixty seconds, and fuck if Ginny’s wrists did not look lovely with silk wrapped around them. “Do you want me to explain the knots or is it enough to see what I’m doing?”
Ginny laughed. “Honestly, I’m a bit too distracted to give a damn about the particulars.”
Nat’s hands were steady but she could not have been more turned on if she tried. Well, she could be. Had been on the dressing room floor. Was about to be, if things went her way. “If you want them off at any point, just tell me,” she said, straddling Ginny’s waist. “Oh, no you don’t,” she said, reaching for Ginny’s hand, which seemed a little too eager to reciprocate favors this early in the evening.
Ginny looked up at her, pouting. “So is this a safe word kind of thing?” she asked, as Nat leaned over to secure the other knot.
Nat grinned. “This isn’t a full-on scene. It’s just kinky. That said, if you want to have a safe word…” She leaned down and kissed Ginny. “What would it be?” she asked, lips still brushing against Ginny’s as she spoke.
“Meeting.” Ginny grinned.
Nat laughed and brushed a hair out of Ginny’s face. “You got it,” she said, nipping Ginny’s neck. “Now stop fighting and let me have you.”
“Just one question,” Ginny asked as Nat slid down her body, Nat’s hands tracing breasts, waist, hips.
“Ask,” Nat murmured, lips trailing over Ginny’s thigh.
“Why is this so important to you? Is it like a ‘I can’t be in your debt’ thing?”
Nat nipped Ginny’s thigh and thought for a moment. “Surprisingly, no. More like a ‘I just have to do this because this is the one place in the world I have to be right now, and nothing—not even all your fucking control issues—is going to get in my way.’ Now,” she said, meeting Ginny’s eyes, a flash of heat going through her at the sight of Ginny’s hands all tied up in red silk, “no more questions.”
It didn’t scare Nat, but it did surprise her—the way Pepper could compartmentalize. She never looked Nat straight in the eye anymore, hadn’t since she called Nat over to the table and said, “This can’t happen.” It was always “Natalie,” and it was always business. Pepper avoided being alone with Nat, it seemed—Happy was always there, even if there was no reason for him to be—but nights like tonight when everyone was in and out of Stark Mansion, where Happy was out running errands and Tony was burrowing in the basement… well, mostly they just stayed glued to their technology, kept as much equipment between them as possible, avoided unnecessary communication, acted like they were so plugged in they didn’t notice each other.
Honestly, it was starting to get to Nat. She was a professional, damn it. She could do this. Pepper’s refusal to look her in the eye at all was getting awkward and frustrating. How were they going to get past it if she wouldn’t even look at her?
So when Rhodey walked in, Nat saw her shot.
“Where is he?” Rhodey asked.
“He doesn’t want to be disturbed,” Nat said, and she could practically feel Pepper clench beside her.
“He’s downstairs,” Pepper said, meeting Nat’s eyes for the first time in seventy-two hours.
Pepper had her poker face on, and Nat sat absolutely still. Nat supposed she might call it her assassin’s face, if she were feeling testy.
Mostly, she was centered. Focused. For the first time in days.
Pepper cracked first, but then, it wasn’t really cracking if you were the boss with all the answers. “It’s Rhodey. He always gets the truth,” Pepper said, and Nat couldn’t resist.
Pepper looked up, slightly taken aback. Then her phone rang and they both went back to their business, but Nat noticed how Pepper’s feet had scooted a few inches closer to her own. They’d probably developed a mind of their own, but Nat was going to take that as a win.
Babysitting Tony Stark was child’s play, and getting Pepper Potts to look at her was a fool’s game.
Apparently, S.H.I.E.L.D had known that Anton Vanko had been released from prison several months before the Expo and, specifically, that his father had died mere days after his release. At least, those were the details she got out of Coulson after she stormed into Fury’s office like a motherfucker.
“Vanko. I’m here because of Vanko,” she said to Fury, no bombast, no inflection, just straight.
Fury just stared. “Just caught onto that, huh.”
She told herself to breathe and that killing her boss was a really, really bad idea. “You know I have no personal connection to Vanko, and our professional connections could not be looser if we were playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
“But you know who he is.”
“Of course I know who he is.”
“And he knows who you are.”
“Not by sight.”
“I need you to get in touch with some of your people.”
“They’re not my people, any more than you’re my people,” Nat said, hands on her hips, and Fury folded his arms across his chest.
“I’m going to ignore that insult and also ignore the fact that you just ignored an order. Get in touch with people, then, whoever’s they may be. See if anyone knows where Vanko is. ‘Cause he sure as hell ain’t dead.”
“Finally, something we can agree on,” Fury said. “We’re done here.”
Nat turned her back to walk out of the office, then stopped. “Let me get this straight. You knew Vanko was out. You knew he probably had the technology, and you sure as hell knew he was capable of building it. And you did nothing to stop him from coming after Stark?”
“Believe me, Natasha, if we’d have known, we’d have done something.”
She turned on her heel and walked out. For some reason, she found that difficult to believe.
She had no options. Well, she had a few options. Put on her battle armor. Try to protect Tony or Pepper or Tony from Pepper or—more likely—Pepper from whatever havoc Tony was bound to wreak tonight. She didn’t know.
Fury had put her on this because he thought she had connections to Vanko.
Sometimes she forgot that Fury preferred she have red in her ledger. That he’d never consider it wiped out—
That red was a far, far more useful color than black.
“Nat?” Ginny murmured, nuzzling her. “You really can’t say what you do for a living, can you?”
Nat’s breathing didn’t miss a beat. “Not really.”
“Are there lots of people who do what you do?”
“No.” Though she supposed it depended on how what she did was quantified.
“You’re really smart, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” Again, what variables were being considered?
“’S it dangerous, what you do?”
“Sometimes.” All the time.
“Don’t get hurt, please. I wouldn’t like it,” Ginny said, curling an arm around Nat’s waist, and Nat swallowed hard. She stroked Ginny’s hair, and a moment later, Ginny was snoring. She doubted Ginny would remember the conversation the next morning, but…
Nat looked out the window. The shades were drawn, but the curtains weren’t opaque, and she could see the bright lights of Tokyo still glimmering, the city that just would not rest. New York had nothing on Tokyo. She didn’t know any city that did when it came to density and efficiency and general brightness.
She leaned against the headboard and decided that the tightness in her chest was just the stress of being around a new person for so long.
“There’s bubble bath,” Ginny said with a goofy grin, sinking into the tub until only her head was above the water, the messy bun on the top of her head flopping to one side.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a bubble bath,” Nat said, stepping into the tub, deliberately not commenting on the candlelight. Ginny’s hands were fast on her hips, guiding her through the bath until she stood between Ginny’s legs as Ginny sat on a submerged bench. Ginny blew bubbles, and Nat laughed at the cool air on her belly and the bubbles that flew, alternately clinging to and dissipating against her skin.
Nat sank into the tub, sitting on the bench and leaning back, spreading out her hair on the edge so that it wouldn’t get wet, closing her eyes appreciatively at the warmth.
“Do you want wine?” Ginny asked, and Nat couldn’t suppress her laughter, sharper this time. She opened her eyes and saw that Ginny looked a bit shrunken.
“That came off badly,” Nat said flatly, opting for bluntness in the interest of time.
“It’s just… candlelight, wine… I’m not a girl who stands on ceremony,” Nat said, deliberately not saying the dreaded r-word, thinking that Clint would absolutely die if he could see her. “You’re quite enough for one evening,” she said, kicking herself for the obvious effort being put into that line.
Ginny tilted her head to one side and looked like she was going to read Nat the riot act. “It so happens that I like wine and candles and bubble bath. Do I need to remind you that this is my vacation? My Christmas gift to myself. I’m giving up a night at the tables to be with you, so I’m making it count.”
Nat bit her lip. Riot act indeed. “Well, when you put it that way…” she said, and she took Ginny’s head in her hands and kissed her hard.
“Do you know which watch you’d like to wear tonight, Mr. Stark?” she asked, walking into the room, swinging her hips a little. Clint would kill her for this, try to tell her she was a better woman, a stronger woman, a more feminist woman, whatever that meant, ignoring the fact that sometimes making a man feel good about himself was just downright entertaining.
He stood with his back to the window, hands stuffed in his pockets. “I should cancel the party, huh?”
“Probably,” she said, continuing to walk towards him.
“Yeah, cause it’s—”
“Ill-timed.” Maintain eye contact.
“Right, sends wrong message.”
God, he was so easy. He practically gulped the martini, looking at her like she was a machine he’d really like to take apart and put together, more because she confused the hell out of him than anything else. Well, it never hurt to give a man a little hope.
“Is that dirty enough for you?” she asked.
His eyes almost bugged out, and she remembered that Tony Stark wasn’t most men. Or people, for that matter. He didn’t know anything about her, he couldn’t get a read on her, and sudden flirtation on her part was throwing him for a complete loop. She should have known. Ah, well. At least she was entertained.
“Ah, gold face, brown band, the Jaeger. I’ll give that a look. Bring ‘em over here,” he said, and she stifled a smirk at how flustered he was.
“I’ll take that. Why don’t you—” His words came to an abrupt stop when she sat on the armrest and started applying makeup to his cheekbones. What the hell had he done to his face, honestly? “I gotta say it—it’s hard to get a read on you. Where are you from?”
Why was he still talking? She was trying to do something nice for him.
“Can I ask you a question, hypothetically? Bit odd. If this was your last birthday party you were ever gonna have, how would you celebrate it?” he asked, and that—well, that surprised her.
Images of Ginny came to her, unbidden: Ginny at the bar, spread out before her on the bed, covered with bubbles in the bathtub—
“I’d do whatever I wanted to do. With whatever I wanted to do it with.”
She was out the door before even realizing she’d left.
The party was mildly horrifying, but she’d seen worse.
She sat on the edge of the ring, her feet dangling over the edge, the rope tucked under her armpits, her glass resting on her knee. She probably looked drunk off her ass and miserable, but really, she was just figuring out her next few moves. Which had to be, first, stop moping around about Pepper. Get in touch with people in Russia, just to satisfy Fury if nothing else. And then pretty much stick to Stark like white on rice until Vanko made his move, because she was relatively certain she wasn’t going to get anything out of the few people who were still speaking to her.
Things started to go to hell at the party, but it would have to reach fifth-circle levels before she got involved. In the interest of being prepared to sprint to someone’s defense, she got out of the ring and walked to the middle of the room, stood, and waited.
About the time she saw Rhodey put on the War Machine suit, she ran.
She strode towards Pepper with equal force. “Miss Potts?”
“Oh, don’t you ‘Miss Potts’ me. I’m onto you,” Pepper said, shaking her finger at Nat, a fierce look in her eye. “You know what, ever since you came here—”
And then Tony and Rhodey both crashed through the ceiling, and Nat couldn’t help but move into a defensive posture, which she quickly dropped as Happy hurried Pepper out of the room. Nat threw a furtive glance over her shoulder as she ran through the shadows along the wall. She was getting the fuck out of there. Time to report to Coulson that all hell was breaking loose.
As she made her way out of the house, down the street, and into her car, she replayed Pepper’s words in her head. I’m on to you. You know what, ever since you came here—
Nat knew Pepper wasn’t happy about how she flirted with Tony, seemingly encouraging his bad-boy behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. And certainly, Tony’s behavior had worsened since Nat’s arrival, though not because of her, that was for sure. Tony’s health was worsening, she knew. Fury had just got his hands on a serum that would help temper the palladium’s effects.
What else could she mean? Pepper couldn’t suspect that Nat was a plant—it wasn’t possible.
But she’d done that takedown on Happy in the boxing ring.
And she’d moved into a defensive posture the minute Tony and Rhodey came through the roof.
And Tony had been getting worse ever since her arrival.
And there was that conversation.
You really can’t say what you do for a living, can you?
Is it dangerous, what you do?
Nat clenched her fists. Rule number one: never blow your cover. Especially in bed with a beautiful woman who has a memory like a steel trap.
Fuck S.H.I.E.L.D. Fuck them to hell and back.
She figured Coulson had probably called Clint and told him she was having a rough night, because Clint actually bothered to call and ask if he could break into her place.
When she got home, Clint had a glass of Johnnie waiting for her, and they sat on her couch to debrief.
“You know there’s another way of looking at this situation,” Clint said after she’d told him everything Pepper said, and everything she’d said in Tokyo, in bed no less.
She cleared her throat to give him time to take it back or alternately to berate her for basically blowing her cover to a woman in bed, which she was pretty sure even he hadn’t done, pre-Coulson. “What?”
“There’s another way of reading this, aside from her seeing you as a bad influence on Tony or seeing through your cover.”
“And what would that be?” Nat asked, putting her feet up on Clint’s lap and crossing her arms.
“Well, I don’t know if you’re going to like this version, since it’s sort of similar to the you being a bad influence on Tony version, which is the Nat as seductress scenario, which is just infinitely amusing, even though you’re very good at it—”
“She might think you’re trying to get her attention. ‘I’m on to you. You know what, ever since you came here—’ can also kind of read as, ‘I’m onto your game, ever since you came here x, y, or z has been happening between us,’ or—I don’t know what goes through women’s minds, seriously, not a mind reader here, just proposing a possibility,” Clint said, crinkling his brow in that cute way he did when Nat was making him legitimately nervous.
Nat’s face must have displayed a really intimidating look of incredulity, because then he threw his hands up and reiterated that it was just a hypothesis.
“So you’re saying you think Pepper might just think I’m coming on to her,” Nat said.
“Well, you know—”
She downed the rest of her scotch in one gulp.
Coulson had insisted on doing her hair for the whole thing, too.
“You’ll be working for me full-time from now on,” Pepper said, taking a seat across from Nat, meeting her gaze straight on.
And that information could have been handled via phone or via Happy. Basically via anyone but Pepper, CEO of Stark Industries.
“Can I ask why?” Nat asked, though she could guess. You’re… fired. It would be in character for Tony to outsource the discussion to Pepper, and in character for Pepper to enable Tony.
“Are we going to have a problem working together, Miss Rushman?” Pepper asked, arching a brow, and Nat shut down all mental processes except the one that allowed her to answer,
“Good.” Pepper smiled. “I’ll see you at the office tomorrow morning.” She rose to leave, and as she walked down the stairs, she called back, “If you want to start off on the right foot, I like iced caramel macchiatos.”
Nat decided that I remember was probably not the right response.
Tony was there to apologize. Tony had brought strawberries to apologize. Somewhere in his brain, he had scrambled information to the point where he knew there was a relationship between Pepper and strawberries but had forgotten that the relationship was not a positive one. But he’d brought strawberries for Pepper. Because he was apologizing.
Because he was trying to show he cared.
Another realization: he loved Pepper. In his own twisted way, he really loved her.
Finally, the information that was actually relevant to her job popped in bright Vegas lights: he seemed massively surprised to see Nat there.
“Are you blending in well here, Natalie?” he asked. Nat looked at him sharply, trying to do that telepathic thing that had seemed to work so well the first day they met, but his synapses were apparently not working today. “Here at Stark Enterprises. Your name is Natalie, isn’t it? I thought you two didn’t get along.”
Jesus. The man was going to single handedly blow her cover.
“No, that’s not so,” Pepper said, her voice high, far too high, but Nat couldn’t focus on that right now because Stark was sixty seconds away from ruining everything.
“It’s just me you don’t care for. No? Nothing?” Tony asked, hands in the air, and suddenly, it dawned on Nat that her assumption about her new assignment had been wrong, totally wrong.
Tony hadn’t reassigned her. Pepper had gone behind Tony’s back to get Nat as her PA. She didn’t know whether she should be proud of Pepper or shocked that Pepper had done that, since technically her assignment was to Stark, or—
“Actually maybe while you’re here you two could discuss the matter of personal belongings,” Pepper said, grabbing her bag.
“Absolutely,” Nat said, licking her lips.
Pepper walked out the door with Happy, finally, and Tony swiveled in his seat toward her, and the dam burst.
“I’m surprised you can keep your mouth shut,” Nat said, gathering papers off the desk, eager to get the fuck out of the office and away from Stark before she did something she’d regret.
Tony leaned into the desk, awestruck and completely oblivious to all the ways in which she could kill him right here and make it look like an accident. “Boy, you’re good. You are mind-blowingly duplicitous. How do you do it? You’re a triple imposter. I’ve never seen anything like it. Is there anything real about you? Do you even speak Latin?”
She spouted off the first thing that came to mind. The man was on her last nerve. Screw the fact that she was assigned to Stark. She’d given him a shot of lithium dioxide; he could survive a few days without her.
“Which means? Wait, what? What’d you just say?” Tony asked.
“It means you can drive yourself home, or I can have you collected,” Nat said, walking out the door. Let him look it up later if he was so keen.
Nat set the box down on the countertop and sat down next to Pepper on the floor, about six inches of space between them. She didn’t say a word.
“He came to apologize—why would he do that?” Pepper asked after a moment, staring at the floor. “I’ve put up with him for years and years, and I’ve never got an apology. I am so done. I can’t do anything right with this company if he insists on messing everything up. I could go anywhere, do anything, and not have to deal with him. Any other company would kill to have me.”
“Yes. Yes, they would.”
Pepper closed the gap between them and leaned her head on Nat’s shoulder, took Nat’s hand in hers and interlaced their fingers. Nat swallowed hard and said nothing. Pepper and Tony were best friends. Pepper was her boss—sort of. Tony was definitely her assignment.
And Coulson had put her on this knowing full well that she and Pepper had… well.
Pepper sniffled. “I can’t do this anymore—I can’t be with him. I am sick of waiting for him.”
Nat’s thumb brushed against Pepper’s, ever so slightly, practically involuntarily. Pepper choked back what sounded like a sob, and then she said, “Could you just sit with me? Just for the next two minutes. I… I need you, right now. I just—”
Nat shut her eyes, and she tightened her hand around Pepper’s and forced her mind to a black, blank slate. And they sat.
And sat some more.
The minutes ticked by, and Pepper scooted in closer to her. Brushed her thumb against Nat’s hand. Swallowed hard enough that Nat could hear her.
Nat just sat there, the words playing over in her mind until they ran together like water, washing over her in an uncontrollable flood.
Nat didn’t know how long they sat on the floor like that, leaning into each other. At long last, Pepper lifted her head off of Nat’s shoulder and she leaned in so that their foreheads touched. Nat knew her lips were so close that if she breached the distance, Pepper would come willingly, bend for her, break underneath her like waves on the sand. Her chin almost quivered at the thought. Almost.
She pulled away slowly, squeezed Pepper’s hand, and let it go. “You can do this. Poker face,” she whispered.
Pepper nodded, eyes downcast.
“I’ll see you at the expo tomorrow.”
And Nat left as quietly and quickly as she’d come.
“Okay,” Clint said, shutting the door. “What’s put a bee in your bonnet?”
She was going to go after Clint—like, for real go after Clint—or burst into tears, and she didn’t know which possibility scared her more. “Pepper talked to me tonight.”
“I don’t understand. You work for her? People who work together usually talk?” Clint asked, following Nat into the kitchen. “Catch me up to speed here.”
“Pepper—talked to me tonight,” Nat said, opening his liquor cabinet and reaching for the scotch. She was not going to cry. Not here. Not now.
“Oh. Oh,” Clint said. “Also, don’t you think you’ve been doing a lot of that lately?”
“A lot of what?” Nat asked, pouring herself a glass.
“I don’t know. Drinking?” Clint asked, leaning against the fridge.
Nat threw it all back in one gulp and poured another glass.
“O-kay. Forget I said anything.”
“Pepper had a meltdown about Tony’s meltdowns. I held her and she cried. And she—touched me, like, really touched me.” Nat slunk down against cabinetry, sitting on the kitchen floor, one hand holding the scotch, other hand running through her hair. “Said she needed me. But that’s just… I mean, that’s bullshit. She was just really, really emotional.”
Clint sat next to her, putting two water bottles in between them. Not exactly subtle, her friend.
“It’s been a hell of a week. She was in a high emotional state,” Clint said.
“Yes. Exactly.” And apparently, she was, too. Not that they needed to get into that.
“But people can have remarkable levels of clarity in high emotional states,” he said. “Do you how Phil finally asked me out?”
Nat thought a moment. “You’ve actually never told me this story. I just came over one day and Phil was here and you were holding hands and, um, that was that.”
Clint grinned like a teenage boy. “Yeah, that was awesome.”
She glared at him. “Get to the point.”
“It was after his mother died,” Clint said, looking her straight in the eye. “Unexpected. Rocked their family. Here, let me get something.”
He was gone and back in fifteen seconds. “I had this waiting for me on the kitchen counter the day he got back. He wrote it right after the funeral.” He handed Nat a note, and she read it.
I’d like to take you for a drive
Park in a fresh-cut field, drop the tailgate of my truck
Sit you on it, stand between your legs, and kiss you hard
Fist my hand in your hair, drag my lips across your collarbone, sink my teeth into your shoulder
And tell you, without shame or expectation, that I love you
“Phil’s family is from New Hampshire. Live free or die,” Clint said.
“Because obviously the truck is what needs explaining,” Nat said, though she could totally see Coulson driving a pickup. “I—this is really personal.” She cleared her throat and tried to forget the feel of Pepper’s hands on her skin even as her own hands traced where Pepper’s fingers had been…
“I’m rather proud of it. Dirtiest thing he’s ever written. And on a company notepad,” Clint said, carefully refolding the note, tracing his thumb across the note before setting it down next to him. “Point is, sometimes in those high emotional moments, you take a leap. Like Phil, telling me he wanted to confess his love for me in some godforsaken cornfield, or whatever the hell kind of crop they grow in New Hampshire. But it worked,” he said pointedly, glaring right back at Natasha. “Just because you’re a little off-kilter emotionally doesn’t mean it’s not real. Kind of like when you’re drunk. Doesn’t mean what you’re saying isn’t true.”
“Bad analogy,” Nat said.
“So what you’re trying to tell me is—” Nat said, leaning her head back against the cabinets with a thunk.
“She told you she needed you. Context-wise, it has a specific application. But the word choice says a lot about how she’s feeling. Be there for her, Nat. Stick with this one like fucking white on rice. Those are big words for a woman like Pepper to use.”
Nat nodded. “Okay.”
“You can do this,” Clint said.
Nat gave a weak smile. “Be there for someone like this? I don’t know how to be that kind of support.”
“Just be present,” Clint said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes. Also, it’s something that Tony Stark isn’t particularly good at.”
Clint patted her knee. “You’ve got this.”
She was silent for a few moments. “I’m never going to be able to look at Coulson again.”
“Yes you will. You tell him I showed that to you, I will bust both of your kneecaps.”
Nat quirkled a smile at that.
Bit her lip.
Took it all in.
The hair sprawled out on the pillow, every brown eyelash, how her pinkie finger looked—the one finger that wasn’t neatly tucked into prayer position under her face. Her breasts, beautifully pressed together by her arms, a nipple half peeking out. The curve of her belly and hint of hair, just where the blanket draped—
Ginny’s eyelids fluttered open and she yawned, hitting Nat with the most rancid morning breath she’d ever encountered. Nat burst out laughing.
“Why are you laughing at me?” Ginny asked through a yawn, stretching her arms out above her head, distracting Nat for just a second.
“You look so beautiful, there had to be something,” Nat said, tracing her hand along Ginny’s waist.
“Oh yeah, I need to brush my teeth,” Ginny said, turning to get out of bed.
“No,” Nat said before she realized what she was saying, wrapping an arm around Ginny’s waist to pull her closer, hooking her leg around Ginny’s.
“I thought you didn’t snuggle,” Ginny said, chuckling, looking up at Nat with a grin. “You practically told me you’d kick me out of bed in the morning, with the caveat that you might not even make it through the night.”
Nat pressed her forehead to Ginny’s, practically clutching Ginny’s forearms, ignoring the ache in her chest.
“Hey now,” Ginny murmured, reaching a hand up to stroke the nape of Nat’s neck, pulling her in for a kiss.
“Oh God, go brush your teeth. Then get back here,” Nat said, chuckling. Ginny got out of bed and walked to the bathroom, not bothering to grab her robe. Nat rolled on her side to admire the view, smirking when Ginny threw a wicked glance over her shoulder.
She still had two hours. She was going to milk them for all they were worth.
By the time Pepper got in the car, she was on her game.
“You ready?” Nat asked, keeping her eyes on Pepper’s face and off the way Pepper’s legs looked in that sleek black dress.
Pepper smiled and put a hand on top of Nat’s. “Let’s go.”
Hell. Just hell.
So they sat in the crowd.
Justin Hammer took the stage like the complete and utter asshat he was, but this surprised no one. “Oh God,” Pepper muttered under her breath, and Nat quirked an eyebrow in response.
His opening remarks were boring and predictable, and then inspirational music started to play in the background. Whatever Hammer was gearing up for, it was going to be classic nationalistic propaganda. “Ladies and gentlemen, today I present to you the new face of the United States military—the Hammerdrone!”
Video played on the widescreen in the backdrop, and Nat’s curiosity was piqued. So Hammer had somehow got his hands on the technology. But what kind of drone—
“Army!” Hammer announced as the drones rose through the floor, and her question was answered. Iron Man replicas, but drones, not suits designed for human response. She and Pepper looked at each other, poker faces set in stone.
Pepper’s phone started buzzing. Pepper just brushed a finger against Nat’s skirt.
“But as revolutionary as this technology is, there will always be a need for man to be present in the theater of war,” Hammer was saying.
No shit, Sherlock.
“I am proud to present to you the very first prototype in the Variable Threat Response Battlesuit and its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes!”
Nat felt Pepper’s body react as if hit.
“What?” Pepper asked, shocked and hurt, and since even Nat was surprised, she couldn’t imagine how Nat was feeling. Rhodey was one of Tony’s best friends—well, his only friend aside from Pepper, really. Nat stifled the urge to take Pepper’s hand then and there.
The next few moments were a blur as Hammer’s propaganda degenerated into a potential cockfight—Iron Man showing up—and then total, full on chaos—drones firing on Tony and taking off after him into the sky.
Nat zeroed in on one task: get Pepper out of the crowd and, preferably, backstage to where the action was happening.
Luckily, Pepper was a woman of action who seemed to be of the same mind. They were both on their feet in an instant, covering their heads as soon as the glass ceiling shattered. The crowd was moving frantically towards the doors, but they were moving silently towards the back of the expo, lockstep, hand in hand.
“I’m going to eviscerate Hammer,” Pepper said, her heels clicking with purpose as they strode towards the desk where Hammer was working with whatever tech guys he had on his payroll.
“What can I do?” Nat asked.
“Back me up,” Pepper said.
They looked at each other one last time before they were in earshot of the men at the desk.
“He’s locked us out of the mainframe,” one of the techies said.
“Who’s locked you out of the main frame?” Pepper demanded.
Hammer held up his hands. “Please, please, go away. I’ve got this handled.”
“Have you now?” Pepper asked. Nat stood close behind Pepper, staring at Hammer. If he came any closer to Pepper or tried to intimidate her, Nat was seriously going to have trouble controlling her anger issues.
“Yes, I do. In fact, if your guy hadn’t showed up, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Nat and Pepper glanced at each other. Rationally, Nat knew they weren’t telepathic, but right now it was like they had “Jesus” and “Asshole” just lingering in cartoon bubbles out of their mouths.
“Please now, go away. Thank you.” Hammer turned back to the desk and mumbled, “Listen we’ve gotta get these bitches out of here.”
And that was about all she could take. Nat dropped her purse on the floor, went up behind Hammer, twisted his arm around his back, and took him down against the desk, hard and fast.
In the background, Nat heard Pepper scream, but that was the furthest thing from her mind right now. That could register later—everything it meant, everything it didn’t mean, everything it was shutting down, or preventing, or destroying—
This was her job. This was what she did. What she had to do.
“Now, you tell me who’s behind this. Who’s behind this?” She pushed down, felt the bones in his shoulder grinding against the ligaments, was pretty sure she didn’t give a damn.
“Ivan-Ivan-Ivan Vanko,” Hammer said. That was the information Pepper needed out of him.
“Where is he?” Nat asked.
“He’s at my facility.” And that was the information she needed.
She let him go and strode out. She tried to look at Pepper, but Pepper stared at the floor.
Pepper wouldn’t—couldn’t—look her in the eye.
So Nat did all she could do. She balled her hand into a fist, pressed her nails into her skin, sharp enough to almost draw blood, to make her focus, to force her emotions to fade to black.
She saw her first target and forced Pepper from her mind, a blank, black spot along with everything else not an armed guard racing toward her through the sterile, fluorescent halls.
Not that she couldn’t do this particular job with her hands tied behind her back, but still, there was no place for Pepper here.
She kicked open the door to where Vanko had probably been working, guns blazing, Happy fast on her heels.
“He’s gone,” she said, moving towards the computer. Vanko might have been gone—probably after Stark, but let Stark figure that out—but there was still plenty she could do here.
“What are you doing?” Happy asked.
“I’m rebooting Rhodey’s suit,” she said, typing as fast as she could. Moments later, success.
“Reboot complete,” she said, seeing that the coms were up and running on the suits. “You got your best friend back.”
“Thank you very much, Agent Romanoff,” Stark said, his face coming up on the screen to accompany the audio from his suit.
“Well done with the new chest piece. I am reading significantly higher output and your vitals all look promising.” Nat couldn’t help but smile—she was facing the screen so it wasn’t like Happy could see her, and she couldn’t help but be a little pleased. Who wouldn’t be pleased that a man wasn’t dying, even if it was Tony Stark?
“Yes, for the moment I’m not dying, thank you,” Stark said, deadpan.
“What do you mean you’re not dying? Did you just say you’re dying?” Pepper asked, her face suddenly popping up on the screen, and Nat’s eyebrow crinkled before realizing that with rebooting Rhodey’s suit and reopening coms, she’d let the people backstage at the expo into the system.
“That you? No, I’m not, not anymore,” Stark said.
Pepper’s face was horrified and sad and concerned and all kinds of emotions that Nat technically knew how to read but—damn it, she was having trouble getting a clear read right now. She’d let herself get too deep, too involved, and she was—Tony was alive and better and improving, and she shouldn’t be hurt or upset that Pepper was upset that Tony hadn’t told her he was dying, because Pepper was his best friend so of course she would be upset that he hadn’t told her…
“What’s—what’s going on?” Pepper asked, demanding.
“I was going to tell you, I didn’t want—” Tony said.
“You were gonna tell me? You really were dying?” Pepper’s voice was reaching a higher and higher pitch.
“You didn’t let me—“
“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Pepper asked, almost crying, and Nat wanted to punch something, like the screen, only she couldn’t, so she clenched her fists instead.
“I was gonna make you an omelet and tell you,” Tony said.
Nat swallowed hard.
Finally, something showed up on the screen. “Hey, hey, save it for the honeymoon,” Nat said, trying to keep sarcasm out of her voice. “You got incoming, Tony. Looks like the fight’s coming to you.”
“Pepper—” Tony said.
“Are you okay now?” Pepper asked. She cared about him so much. Too much. Could she care about her best friend too much? What if it was Clint? What would Nat do?
Why the fuck was she trying for empathy? She was in the middle of a job.
“I’m fine. Don’t be mad. I will formally apologize—”
“I am mad—” Pepper said, her voice so earnest.
“—when I am not fending off a Hammeroid attack.”
“Fine,” Pepper said in a tone that—Nat almost cringed, they sounded so much like a couple.
“You could have been in Venice,” Tony said.
“Oh please,” Pepper retorted, and Nat kicked a chair across the room, missing Happy by mere inches. Oops.
Nat went back to her apartment that night. Stripped her clothes off, got in sweats, tied her hair up on the top of her head in a messy knot. Poured herself an excessively tall glass of Johnnie Walker. She opened the small Moleskine planner she carried in her purse, the one with Natalie Rushman’s personal information. Turned to the back, where there were a few blank pages for note-taking, and looked at what she’d written, the note she’d planned on leaving at Pepper’s place—so lame, taking notes from Coulson’s playbook, but she sucked at this kind of thing and if it worked on Clint, why not Pepper, right? But it was a good thing she hadn’t left the note at Pepper’s apartment. A damn good thing, seeing as how the security feed from Stark mansion she kept running in her place told her that Stark and Pepper were currently in Stark’s bedroom.
Which was, of course, a perfect end to her evening.
She drank the scotch in gulps so fast her throat burned, and she read the note again.
It really was a terrible poem. It wouldn’t have worked.
Nat tore the page out of her planner, took out a lighter, and, drawing a deep breath, set it on fire right there, watched the words turn to ash in the dark of her kitchen. Then she took a look at the Baccara roses she’d bought to put in Pepper’s office and, not thinking twice, put her lighter to the petals.
Nat felt a pressure bearing down on her unlike any she’d ever felt. Like she wasn’t going to be able to breathe. This… this woman… was about to walk out of her life. And she was going to let it happen. Like it was nothing. Like it had meant nothing. No, not nothing. It was everything, and it was nothing, and it was forty-eight hours of bliss, and that was what she got—a select amount of shore leave. This was what she had to store up for herself. This would have to sustain her.
She felt time stretch before her in a way she’d never felt, and it scratched like sandpaper.
“Can I say the thing you’re not supposed to say?” Ginny asked, and Nat licked her lips, her mouth going dry at the sound of Ginny’s voice.
“Sure,” Nat said, looking at the floor.
“I don’t want to say goodbye.”
Nat looked up and saw tears in Ginny’s eyes, goddamn tears, and she couldn’t take it, she couldn’t take this, she didn’t know how to do this kind of thing, didn’t have the words to say. So she did all she knew how to do—she took Ginny in her arms and kissed her hard, walked her backwards ‘til Ginny fell back onto the bed.
Said goodbye and thank you and so many other things she didn’t understand and couldn’t say and would never say in the only way she knew how—again—and hoped that some way, somehow, Ginny would understand.
Around her, tree branches swished in the breeze, robins chirped, and a cluster of Catholic schoolgirls ran, plaid skirts floating in the breeze, pink Hello Kitty backpacks rustling against their raincoats.
She bit her lip so hard it bled, kicked the cup across the path, and got up to walk. She heard the cup trail across the rocks, spilling. She didn’t care.
Pepper had marked her days, and now there was no Pepper, but her days hadn’t seemed to notice that yet.
And—her mouth went dry.
She didn’t know if there was still a Ginny.
Nat shoved her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket. This would pass. She knew it would. She’d been alone for years. She liked her solitude. Her own schedule; her own time. Her own life. It had been a job. She’d worked for Tony, for Pepper. It wasn’t real. It hadn’t really been time with Pepper. That wasn’t Ginny. That wasn’t Tokyo. Tokyo was sacred. Tokyo was different.
It had all got messed up, mixed up.
She looked up from whatever trail she’d gone down and saw Clint standing there, somehow, like he’d just fallen out of the sky. Probably had, come to that. She turned around and walked in the other direction. Maybe he’d disappear.
“Nat.” She heard him run to catch up with her, felt him fall into step beside her.
“No,” she said.
“You need to talk to someone.”
“We’re not doing this.”
“She saw what you were, and she went back to him.”
“Don’t.” The word felt like someone was choking it out of her.
“Is that how you see it?” he asked.
He grabbed her arm and swung her hard so that her body smacked in against his. He held her tight. To passersby, it looked romantic, she was sure. God, the humor in that.
“Nat,” he said quietly, his nose barely touching hers. “You have to let her do this.”
She couldn’t tell if her chin was shaking because the rage was so deep or because she was going to cry. “What do you think I’m doing? I’m in New York and she’s in California. With him,” she said.
“Pepper has been with Stark for years. She’s loyal. She doesn’t give up on people easy. You love that about her.”
“I don’t know her well enough to love her.”
“Bullshit,” Clint said.
“He says he’s going to work on things, but you and I both know Stark is as capable of self-reflection as his fucking AI—”
“In his own twisted way, he cares deeply for Pepper—”
“And she loves him, so I repeat, what the fuck do you think I’m doing here, Clint? I’m backing the fuck off.”
“I actually think you’re running.”
“She saw what you could do. What you are. You don’t want to have to face her.”
She wanted to kick Clint or bite him or pull a knife on him, but instead she opened her mouth and the fucking dam broke. “She kissed him on a rooftop, then she went back to his place and fucked him. I’d say that’s a pretty clear choice. It has nothing to do with facing her and everything to do with knowing when my race is run. I know when to get out of a situation. It’s what makes me good at my job.”
“And now you’re wandering around Central Park like a lovesick puppy.”
She struggled against Clint’s grip. “I’m not lovesick, and I’m not a puppy, I’m a fucking Doberman. Let me go.”
“I’m shocked you let me hold you this long. Also, you are totally in love with her,” Clint said, and he let go of her and started walking the other direction.
“Bastard,” Nat called.
“Byron,” Clint said, not turning around, holding up a hand to wave goodbye.
Fantasy was perfect.
Reality was a bitch.
Nat didn’t own a television, but the media coverage of Tony and Pepper was downright unbearable. She couldn’t get groceries or run to the corner store for liquor without seeing a picture of Iron Man splashed across a headline, without seeing pictures of them all over the tabloids, speculating about their engagement or Pepper’s latest “baby bump.”
Nat fucked other women—ones who looked like Ginny, ones who didn’t. It didn’t help.
Mostly, she took scalding hot showers and imagined Ginny’s teeth on her neck and fingers in her cunt and tried to make it go away.
She really needed a mission, preferably one that involved leaving the country and killing people.
“I know, Philip.”
“But you want out.”
“You owe me.”
“Clint’s birthday party is in Fiji this year.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Okay, then. You’re officially off active duty.”
“I’m my own gun again.”
“For as long as you like.”
“Or until you need me.”
“Natasha. Barton’s been compromised.”
“Let me put you on hold.”