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Observer Effect

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After they build and use the particle accelerator, Stark gets down to tinkering with his more typical less-likely-to-explode projects and Bruce and Betty return to their own lab. The days pass as they always do for Bruce, a steady routine of morning meditation, meals and working during the day with the evenings spent relaxing with Betty either in the garden or one of the lounges available. Even with Stark there, they don’t see much of him unless they cross paths in the kitchen or choose to visit. Bruce doesn’t mind the distance and appreciates that Stark’s idea of checking in on them doesn’t mean sticking his nose into their work.

It’s not that he doesn’t think Stark can’t help or that he’s irritating, it’s just that the man has lodged himself under Bruce’s skin and whenever he’s there, Bruce can’t fully focus on what he’s doing.

Before he knows it, the weekend is here. There’s no reason to stop working in the lab- it’s not like there are any restrictions to how often they can go down there, and they’re the only two who live there, despite the handful of extra rooms available. But Betty insists on taking more extended breaks and has planned for them to go hiking.

As they get ready to head out into the woods behind the facility, packing lunches in the kitchen, Bruce looks up at the sound of footsteps.

Stark waltzes through the room, headed out from the sleeping areas and towards the front of the facility. He’s wearing a perfectly tailored suit, black pants and deep red jacket with metallic gold for the lapels. He’s foregone a tie in favor of leaving the top few buttons of his shirt open. Stark slows to a stop as he notices them and plucks his shades out of his jacket pocket. “I’m headed out,” he said, “You two keep safe and have fun! I’ll be back next month sometime to check in on you.”

Betty smiles at him, “Enjoy your weekend, Mr. Stark.”

“Oh but I always do,” he winks and slips on the shades. They’re a reflective red with gold accents. Bruce rolls his eyes at how flashy the man is, how flashy he always is, but waves at him in goodbye.

Stark walks away and they hear the front door open and shut for him.

“Ah, the charmed life of a billionaire,” Betty said with a grin, “Do you suppose he’s off to a fancy party?”

“I’m sure if he doesn’t find something, he’ll make something. An outfit like that can’t go unremarked on,” Bruce replied dryly.

Betty laughed and shook her head, “Come on, we’re wasting daylight dawdling in here.” She leaned over and Bruce automatically closed half the distance by leaning forward to meet her lips with his own.

He didn’t care what Stark wore or where he went, but all the same, he hoped the man had a good weekend.

 

 


 

 

Lights flash as they always do when the Happy opens the door and Tony Stark steps out into the public.

He lingers by the door of the car and that is enough for the paparazzi to peer around him, anxious to see who he brought with him to Monaco. He’s sure that they’re expecting Pepper- they always expect Pepper- but the redhead that slips out of the vehicle behind him is a surprise that creates a momentary pause in the lights as people stop to stare.

 

 

 

“Tony, I can’t make it there and cover the Expo foundation meeting at the same time. You’re going to have to go without me.” Pepper’s words over the phone had made Tony feel a mixture of things, glad but also sad. It was Monaco, after all, and he was sure something exciting would happen.

“But Pep-”

“Don’t but me, and don’t try to change my mind. I’m sending one of my assistants with you to keep you out of trouble. Hammer already is fuming that we’re stalling his application into the Expo and he’s sure to be there to harass you about it.” Pepper rode right over his words but Tony didn’t mind. She sounded a bit like the old Pepper, the one who had become his CEO and the queen of all tech. He liked that Pepper better than the one that had hidden her business acumen behind the faux assignment of his assistant and he knew that this Pepper could easily grow into that strength.

“Well at least make sure she’s pretty,” he whined, “And I’ll be nice when turning down Hammer.”

“Good.”

Tony turned and offered his arm to Natasha- well, Natalie as she was known currently. Natalie wore black and gold in contrast to his red and gold, but she wore it well in a dress that showed just the barest hint of breast and a whole hell of a lot of collarbone and throat. A tiny thread of a golden necklace decorated her slender neck, the end of which was a single black opal that drew the eye right back down to her breasts. It was a seducer’s outfit, one made to attract the eye to the body and keep it off the face.

Not that Natalie was unpleasant to look at, but her expression was a mask and masks took an effort to maintain. Not only that but there was only so much emotion one could feign before something they didn’t want to show appeared in their eyes. It was easier to just keep people from looking at all.

Natalie gave him an amused smile and slid her arm around his. Her hand tucked easily into his elbow, a movement so natural it was as though they’d done it hundreds of times, “You know,” she said gently, “I do not think this is what Ms. Potts had in mind when she said to keep you out of trouble, Mr. Stark.”

Tony smiled his winning smile as they walked up the path and into the party beyond. “I thought she was very clear. You are at my side and I am not in trouble. So far, so good.” He kept her close, could feel the warmth of her body against his side.

She kept a smile on her face but her eyes glanced at him and they were not amused. “How will I explain the photographs to Ms. Potts? You are putting me in a precarious situation, Mr. Stark.”

Tony led her up the steps, stopping just outside the door, just behind Happy, who was presenting their invitations for entry. “You applied for the job of my assistant before you applied for Pepper’s. Don’t tell me you didn’t think you’d ever end up with your face plastered on tabloids next to mine as my latest love affair even if you never touch my sheets.”

Before she could reply, he leaned in and murmured, “If you tell Pepper the truth, she’ll believe you. Funny how that kind of thing works when you trust people.”

Happy waved them forward and Tony brought Natalie along. Natalie kept her mouth shut but still smiled one last time as Tony bid the photographers goodbye.

Inside the venue, the noise volume dropped dramatically. Tony eased up on how close he held Natalie and she took the opportunity to slip free of his arm. She produced a dark leather clad binder almost out of nowhere and held it tight in her left arm, almost clinging to the persona of an assistant. Tony ignored her for the most part and drifted through the crowd, aimless but moving through with ease and confidence.

It didn’t look much different than he remembered, though his sense of urgency at the time had colored things a little harsher and sharper than they really were. He still found the table with the view that he liked and waved over one of the party’s attendants, demanding the use of the table. This time, though, he’s actually going to enjoy the meal there instead of running out to the track.

His feet find their way to the bar even without his help and he slides up to it with Natalie a half step behind him. She’s not quite a shadow, not quite a date and he orders for the both of them. Something light for him, something appropriately girly for her. The bartender gets on mixing the drinks when Tony sees Justin Hammer and, of course, Christine Everhart out of the corner of his eye.

In this time, he’s seen less of them both. There’s no suit for him to cavort around in, declaring himself Iron Man and the end of all big bad guys so he hasn’t ended up on national television sticking it to the Senate and embarrassing Hammer. He also got rid of Obadiah before the bastard could keep selling weapons under the table, preventing Christine from sharing those photos with him at the fundraiser he can barely remember anyway. Christine still looks at him with that hungry reporter’s gaze though, as if she’s aware that he’s ripe for some sort of scoop.

Justin himself has a different sort of hungry look to him. He’s not quite searching for validation, but he wants something from Tony. His genius or his gifts or his supposed brilliant upbringing or maybe he wants Natalie who neatly transitioned back into the role of Tony’s plus one, not his chaperone or assistant, and takes the drink he gives her with the tips of her fingers and a sultry smile.

Tony didn’t pull on the thread that Natalie presented the first time around, at least not seriously, but he’s still unwinding the problem that is her loyalties in his head and it’s one option he’s still considering. Still, he knows how to smile down at her like he wants her and he’s been taken in by the tight black of her skirt and delicate gold chain on her collarbones. The red curls that frame her eyes are just as pretty as he remembers them to be.

Justin leans too stiffly against the bar, unconsciously or consciously mimicking Tony’s posture, and orders something Tony doesn’t bother listening to. He’s busy sipping his own drink, something bright and refreshing like a mojito but with a twist that makes it almost sour. He smiles at Christine, engaging with her first just to spite Justin.

“Christine, a pleasure to see you, as always,” Tony said, then looked down to Natalie and gestured to the blonde woman, “Natalie, this is that reporter I was telling you about earlier. The one who keeps me on the edge of my seat with every article. I can’t tell if she hates me or loves me from her work, but I’m sure I’ll glean the truth from her one of these days.”

Natalie, brilliant as she is, giggles and greets Christine with a smile and an outstretched hand. “It is so nice to put a face to the name! I’m Natalie. Natalie Rushman.”

Christine smiles back, hungry reporter’s eyes sliding to Natalie now. “And how long have you been with Mr. Stark?”

The way she says with makes it almost sound like a swear word. Tony sips his drink and lets Natalie find the answer.

Natalie looks thoughtful, tilting her head just enough that the ends of her curls brush Tony’s shoulder. “How long has it been since the jet touched down, forty-five minutes?”

“About,” Tony said, sipping his drink and watching the interesting shift in Christine’s expression. “An hour at most.”

“Ah,” Christine said, “One of Tony’s infamous stewardesses .”

“Actually,” Natalie said with a cheery, helpful tone, “I’m a pilot. Tony just invited me to join him last minute.” She smiled at him, “I was just going to have to wait around for him to be ready to head back home anyway, so why not have a little fun?”

“Yes, yes,” Justin finally jumps into the conversation, passing a drink to Christine, who takes it gingerly in one hand while he clings to his, knuckles nearly white, “It is all about having fun and all that. But tell me, Tony, you know how much of a party your Expo is going to be. I’ve heard there will be fireworks and concerts and food and all sorts of swag to bring back, so I have to ask you, buddy, why are you so intent on keeping me out of all the fun and games?”

“Every vendor for the Expo goes through the same vetting process,” Tony replied, “Your application is considered just the same as everyone else; quickly and with as little bias as possible.”

“Sure, absolutely, only the Expo is coming up pretty quick now and I’d love to make an announcement that I’ll be attending and presenting some quality items. Only I still haven’t heard back from your unbiased panel of judges.” Justin said, expression polite but his tone stiff.

“You haven’t heard from them?” Tony said with feigned surprise, “Why, I was sure they would have responded promptly.” He shifted and Natalie, reading his body language clearly, stepped with him as he steered their location back to his little table.

Without any hesitation, Justin followed, with Christine just behind him and openly curious. “But they haven’t, which really has me worried, Tony, very worried. I’m sure you know how much work it takes to get a product ready for display at an Expo- after all, you’re hosting the thing- but I need to be able to talk to my engineers and get them to expedite things if we’re to be ready in time!”

Tony nonchalantly put down his drink and pulled out Natalie’s chair. She slid onto it with an amused smile as he pushed her in. Justin was too focused on his discussion with Tony to do the same for Christine, who rolled her eyes and continued to listen in to the conversation between the two men.

“Oh I completely understand,” Tony said soothingly. He sat down next to Natalie, nearer to the windows and with a better view outside. Picking up his drink again, he said, “Now, I haven’t seen what you were submitting for approval to display at the Expo. Can you tell me a little bit about it?”

Justin fidgeted nervously in his chair for a moment before leaning forward and lowering his voice, though it's not like the women at the table wouldn’t hear, “Well, truth be told, Tony, there were a lot of people who were surprised and inspired by you earlier this year. That photo you showed of that armor you built? People are wondering if something like that is really feasible, you know? They want to see if it can be built again, but better. You know, not inside of some desert cave.”

Behind his sunglasses, Tony closed his eyes. He could feel the heat of the sun on his skin, the grit of sand under his fingers, the burn of hot metal against his skin, sweat and gunsmoke and oil and battery acid-- He took in a steady breath and opened his eyes when it came in colder than he anticipated. Afghanistan and Siberia merged inside of his head as some frigid wasteland and desert hell and in the middle of it all were two broken suits- one that served as his frozen coffin and one that had jettisoned him out of the dark and into the sun and sand.

“A modern suit of armor,” Tony murmured. “I suppose that is something inspiring, isn’t it?”

“Yes!  You see it exactly,” Justin set down his glass and nodded emphatically. “I have this vision, I’m sure you can relate, Tony, I’m sure you can. I can envision these suits of armor, one for each branch of the military, impenetrable and unstoppable, defending America against all those who would attack her.”

“Ah,” Tony said. He hated the way Justin kept saying his name like he really thought they were friends or thought he could convince Tony to like him if he kept saying his name often enough. “I see why your submission has been in limbo for so long.”

“You do?” Justin brightened, “Well of course you do! I knew that the quickest way to clear things up would be to come to you directly-”

“You’re making weapons,” Tony said no longer smiling, no longer so friendly, “Stark Industries does not deal in weapons. We are building the future, not a graveyard. I also happen to know that your application wasn’t suspended. It was denied. Because you are trying to demonstrate weapons.”

To his credit, Justin didn’t immediately lose his cool. He laughed weakly as if he could convince them, convince himself, that Tony was joking. He put up his hand, waving away the words and shaking his head, “No, no, no, these aren’t weapons like you think. They wouldn’t be sold to other countries, they’d strictly be in the hands of America. And they’re for defense, mostly! They’re suits of armor, Tony! Not weapons!”

“A tank is just an armored vehicle with a gun on it,” Tony said with a shrug. “Your toy soldiers are the same. They’re tools for death and warfare. I refuse to peddle war anymore and Stark Industries will not promote it, especially not in our World’s Fair for a Better Future.”

“You can’t be serious,” Justin’s smile finally fell. “You really mean all that bullshit? You won’t even display this armor for America?”

“It’s a weapon. I’ll have nothing to do with it.”

“But I got the idea from you!” Justin leaned forward, accusingly tapping the table with his finger, “This was all your idea! You built the first suit! You flew, Tony, and then you showed the world that photo and we realized if you could do it, we could do it! And now you won’t touch it because maybe it has the potential to be a weapon?”

Maybe? ” Tony mocked, “ Potential? I don’t care where you got the idea from. I did what I had to do to get out of that cave and nothing more or less than that. Don’t drag me into this idea of yours. I will have no part in it.”

“Is it true?” Christine asked Justin suddenly, also leaning in, “Are you developing weaponized metal armor suits for the American government?”

Justin floundered, caught between Tony’s inflexibility and Christine’s curiosity. “Well it's really quite hush-hush, not necessarily a secret contract but we’re trying to keep the technology under wraps-”

“Because you haven’t perfected it and have no idea how to,” Tony said, sitting back. Dealing with Justin exhausted him more this time around than before, “You don’t even know how I got my suit powered and there’s no way in hell I’ll help you make something like that. That kind of thing is dangerous and not to be made en masse and shouldn’t be given over to something as biased and untrustworthy as a single government’s military.”

Justin shook his head, “You would deprive our proud American military the equipment it needs to-”

“Murder innocents? Invade countries? Destroy towns?” Tony interrupted.

Protect its citizens and interests worldwide,” Justin continued, glaring at him. “You’d put so many lives in danger because you don’t like being the Merchant of Death anymore? You’re just going to get more people killed.”

“You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what I am trying to do,” Tony said. “Not that I can really blame you. You remind me of myself before I spent three months in that cave. You don’t really see the bodies you create. You don’t have any idea how much blood is on your hands.” Tony gave Justin a smile that was all Siberian ice, “You don’t blame yourself for their deaths because without you, surely they would have found some other way to kill each other, wouldn’t they? That’s just what they do. That’s just how people are.”

“Wars don’t stop because you take away the guns on one side,” Justin said as if he had some grand insight, “You’re just weakening our guys out there!”

“Don’t pretend to not know that the weapons Stark Industries produced, the weapons I made, ended up in the hands of anyone who could afford to purchase them,” Tony said with disgust, “Because if you’re really that ignorant of the business of weapons dealing then you should know you can only control the weapons you have in your own hands. Once they’re sold, they’re no longer under your control, but you still are responsible for the people they kill. Maybe not as responsible as those who pulled the trigger, but responsible nonetheless.”

“Mr. Hammer has a point though,” Christine said suddenly, “Keeping your weapons out of the American military has only weakened them. Your tech was a huge advantage that did save many American lives.”

“American lives are not the only lives of value,” Tony said. Justin blinked at him, opening his mouth as if to argue and then thought better of it. “And I want to be clear, I’m not just removing my weapons from American hands. I’m taking them from everyone. Apparently, I wasn’t clear enough about it the first time,” Tony reached up and removed his sunglasses. He met Christine’s gaze, watched her eyes grow wide and her face become pale. “I am not just taking away my weapons. I’m going to take away the need for weapons. I don’t think anyone should have weapons like the ones we’ve been making for war. No missiles. No tanks. No bombs. If you want to kill someone, you should have to do it the old-fashioned way, with your bare hands and a knife.”

Christine said nothing, just stared at his eyes, for once speechless. He wanted her to understand. He wanted her to believe him. He wanted her help in getting the word out, in changing the future, in educating and informing others. He wanted her to believe him. Christine suddenly shuddered and dropped her gaze, bringing her drink to her lips with a shaking hand.

Justin was the one who spoke the question he knew burned in them all, burned inside of everyone, once they saw his glowing eyes.

“Shit, man,” he whispered, “The hell did they do to you in Afghanistan?”

Tony slid his glasses back into place on his face and shrugged, “When you spend three months in a cave, one shorted-out battery away from death, you gain a little perspective.”

“I-” Christine set down her glass too loudly. She stood up suddenly, looked at Justin, looked at Natalie, her eyes skirting past Tony but unable to settle on him. “I- Sorry. Excuse me.” Then she turned and walked away, too fast for it to be casual, to slow for it to be called fleeing.

Justin looked torn looking after her, after all, he’d brought her over with him. There was an interview, or at least that’s what Tony remembered from before. Their conversation had derailed that somewhat. But Justin looked back at Tony, saw his expression and said a hurried goodbye as well before he went after Christine.

That left Tony with Natalie at his side.

He sighed and leaned back in his chair, slumping slightly, “Oh god, she’s going to put all of that in her next article for sure.”

“If you did not want her to hear it and write it, why did you say it in front of her?” Natalie asked. “She is a reporter. You know that.”

“Yes, but Pepper hates it when I just talk to people like that without a heads up.” Tony muttered, “Plus I went and showed them my eyes and that’s going to be a whole damn thing all on its own.”

“If I may ask…” Natalie let the words drift off to silence.

“You can ask, but I can’t promise you’ll like the answer,” Tony replied.

She gave a little nod, “What happened to your eyes? Why do they… glow like that?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” Tony said, “Woke up in the desert, eyes hurting like hell and didn’t even notice until they’d dragged me into medical and someone showed me in a mirror.”

She frowned slightly.

“Told you that you wouldn’t like it. They don’t do anything special, either. Just glow ominously.”

She nodded. After a moment, she drew out a phone and unlocked it with her thumbprint. “I can inform Ms. Potts of the gist of your conversation so at least she can be aware before it hits the news cycle. Shall I include that you formally rejected Mr. Hammer’s application to display his works in the Expo?”

“Oh definitely. That bastard can go eat a bag of rocks if he thinks I’m going to let him fuck up my Expo with his war toys,” Tony said with pleasure. As he set down his now empty drink and considered getting up to get another- the alcoholic content in that one had been so low he could barely feel it- his phone buzzed in his pocket.

Unobtrusively, he pulled it out and unlocked it with his fingerprint and a code. There was NOBODY’s typical black screen and white text, interspersed with the occasional emoji from him.

FATHER, SECURITY CAMERAS HAVE VISUAL ON I.V. ENTERING THROUGH A BASEMENT ACCESS TUNNEL.

HE IS DRESSED AS A SERVER AND IS CURRENTLY INFILTRATING THE BUILDING.

Tony texted back the single eyeball emoji and NOBODY complied with the wordless request. She sent several stills from the cameras, each a progression from the last, showing Vanko arriving on the scene and walking right in. He’d cleaned up, pulled his hair back and looked almost like he belonged, if not for his intense expression.

He sent another emoji, a thumbs up, and then turned off his phone’s screen and slid it into his pocket. “Ms. Rushman,” he murmured to her as he pushed his seat back, “I’m going to get a refill from the bar, would you like something?”

She glanced up from the phone where she was composing a message to Pepper, almost certainly one that had more detail in it than Tony would ever give to Pepper, and tapped the side of the glass he’d gotten for her before. “Another one of these, thank you. And keep out of trouble. If you are gone for more than ten minutes, I will come after you.”

“Out of trouble, back in ten, got it,” Tony said with a grin. He left the table, weaving his way through the crowd that was only growing more substantial as they got closer and closer to the beginning of the race. Tony felt his heart rate rise as he worked his way through the crowd, pass the bar and towards a somewhat darkened hallway. The restrooms were that way, if he remembered rightly, and just out of sight of the main room so to allow those using them the utmost privacy.

Every time he’d met Vanko in the past it had started with violence and ended with incapacitation. The first time Vanko had been arrested. The second time he had died. Tony had only been able to look up information about the man after the fact, after it was too late to save him or stop him. Even though it had been years ago, the important parts were still there. Vanko’s relationship with his father and his reaction to his father’s death. Vanko’s intelligence and skill and adaptability all speaking to a strong core. If Tony could simply dissuade him from his course, to change his fury and negate it somehow, Vanko would be an incredible help in Tony’s plans.

He wanted to save the man, wanted to give him the life and second chance he deserved. Vanko was his equal in many ways, but in one specific way, Vanko could do what Tony could not.

Both engineers, both skilled in math and physics and a broad spectrum of scientific topics, both mechanical geniuses and determined once they were set on their path- the thing that Tony needed most from Vanko relied more on the man’s desires of the heart than his mind. Vanko had tried to get into space- had sought the training and had been denied because of his father, just one more thing Howard had stopped from happening.

But still he had trained and he had applied and he had wanted it. When Vanko could not get into the space program as an astronaut, he applied to be an engineer, a technician, anything, just so he could be involved with the program. When Vanko looked to his future, he looked to the stars.

Tony needed someone who could do that, who could devote their attention to what lay beyond the atmosphere of Earth because he could not.

The stars made it hard for Tony to breathe. The stars made it hard for Tony to think.

So he needed help.

And Vanko needed to be saved.

Which is how he ended up waiting by the temporarily empty service access down the hall and around the corner from the main room, near the bathrooms. This hallway was narrower and fed into the main hallway from the basement access below. There was a service door at the end of it, which swung open nearly silently as Tony stood there, watching it, waiting.

Vanko took one step outside of the door and stopped, immediately seeing Tony waiting at the other end of the hall, thirty feet away. Tony saw the tight rage on the man’s face and his heart jumped in his chest. He flexed his hands, really wishing for his suit for the first time since he woke up. He felt vulnerable wearing only his slick outfit and a plain watch, standing alone from a man who wanted nothing more than to kill him.

The good news was Vanko hadn’t done what he’d done before. There was no metal contraption around his chest or whips powered by a reactor on his own chest. Vanko hadn’t had to compensate for Iron Man’s suit because there was no suit. There was no Iron Man.

There was just Tony Stark.

Vanko watched him. He reached for his side and drew out a knife. It was longer than Tony would’ve liked to see and he had no doubt it was sharp.

Tony let out a slow breath, trapped somewhere at the back of his lungs. Tongue-tied, he worried his bottom lip, searching for the right words. He hadn’t really thought through what it must look like, to have him just standing there, waiting for Vanko.

He wasn’t even supposed to know who Vanko was.

“A pity,” Vanko suddenly said, his accent thick. He took one slow step forward and then another, moving with both suspicion and measured control.

“What is?” Tony asked, standing there and waiting.

“This,” he gestured between them both with the knife. The blade was dark and looked serrated on the back. A hunting knife then? “I hoped to kill you among the eyes and the lights. To show that Tony Stark bleeds like every man when you put a blade to his belly.”

“Ah,” Tony’s head bobbed in acknowledgment. “I see. Sorry about that, but it’s a bit hard to talk freely when everyone’s staring.” He gave a little smile, “No one appreciates it when you chat with your would-be assassin instead of, you know, trying to get away or something.”

“Your apology means nothing to me,” Vanko said softly, “You have done too much to be forgiven.”

“I know,” Tony said with a sad smile, “But if I didn’t try to fix it, I wouldn’t be me.” He shrugged his shoulders, eyes not watching the blade as Vanko walked closer, eyes on the man’s face. He tried to keep in mind how long they were there, to keep it under ten minutes. Natalie would attack first and ask questions after- if she asked them at all- and Tony couldn’t risk spooking Vanko with a Widow just yet.

“I’ve got a lot to make up for, it’s true,” Tony continued, “Unless you mean to your father, in which case I’ve done all that I can for him. After all, by the time I figured it out he was already dying, no? And it’s not like I can go back in time and stop Howard from doing what he did, can I?”

Vanko stopped. His eyes narrowed. “What is this that you say of my father? What have you done to him?”

For him, not to him,” Tony clarified. “And his name is on the patent. For the arc reactor.” His hand instinctively rose halfway to his chest before he forced himself to drop it. New core or not, it was still a vulnerable spot for him. Maybe Vanko would change his mind about the stabbing and be more inclined to pull an Obie and just take his heart out via removal of the reactor.

Vanko closed the distance quickly. His hand gripped the front of Tony’s jacket, curling in his lapel and stretching the cloth forward as his knife came up. Tony instinctively put his arm up to deflect the knife from his throat and ended up with it pressed to his collarbone. He felt the hard edge of the blade bite through the cloth but not with enough pressure to break the skin below, yet. Vanko turned and shoved him against the wall.

Despite the disparity in their upbringings, Vanko was taller and stronger than Tony, his muscles hard and wiry. It wasn’t as though Tony was weak, either. They were similar in this way too- muscle built by the hauling of machines and workshop labor, muscle toned with weights and physical training. Vanko had half a head on Tony in height, but he was still just human. Tony could have done more, fought more.

But that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t Iron Man anymore. He didn’t have to solve his problems with a repulsor to the face.

“Explain yourself,” Vanko said, leaning his weight on his knife arm. Tony grunted. The pain of the blade was equally as uncomfortable as the way his arm was pressed to his chest, but he did what he was asked to do. He explained.

“I don’t know all of the details of what happened between your father and mine. The official record states that Howard found your father selling secrets to the Soviets back in the day and that because of that, Howard got him deported. Whether or not he was telling the truth, I have no idea and frankly, I don’t care much. Howard did a lot of shit to get things done and I wouldn’t put it past him to kick out a fellow scientist over false espionage charges if the other guy was getting in Howard’s way. He used to chuck stuff at my head whenever I got in his way and I was his damn kid, so maybe I’m biased, but whatever.”

Tony took in a shaking breath. Vanko’s expression hadn’t changed at all. The knife still dug into his collarbone. The blade so close to his skin he could almost feel it.

“But what I do know is true is that your father helped design the arc reactor. He did at least half of the work, maybe more, but I never pieced that together before I got stuck in Afghanistan. It didn’t really matter to me before then because it was just some stupid thing Howard could never get to work. Except then I was in a cave with this other guy, Yinsen, and a hole in my chest with a battery strapped to it. I built a reactor out of scrap parts in a cave lit by one dingy light and stuck it in my chest. I should’ve died. If not from the actual fucking shrapnel than from infection or something. It was a mess. A fucking mess.”

Vanko’s eyes narrowed. He pressed harder with the knife. Tony talked faster.

“So when I got back to the states I had to make a patent on the reactor. I do it for everything I invent. I got dozens of ‘em and by now my lawyers are really good at putting them together and putting the paperwork through. Except when they went to put in the arc reactor patent, I got one of them sending me a message. He wanted to know why my name wasn’t first on the patent. He wanted to know, who is this Anton Vanko guy. Why had no one heard of him? Was he in the cave with me?”

Tony let out a breathless laugh. Vanko’s stare was boring into his eyes. He wondered if the orange bothered the Russian. It bothered everyone else, but maybe it wouldn’t bother Vanko as much because, if Tony was right, the orange light had come from Siberia. Maybe he could feel the Russian in it. It was such a wild and useless thought that Tony shoved it back and away.

He had to get back to the story.

“This was the first patent in a while they had questions about. Three names on the patent and mine was only second. There was a lot of confusion about the rights, too, because normally it just goes to Stark Industries, but not this time, not all the way. I only gave them the rights to use the tech while I’m alive. Once I die, it defaults to the last name on the patent.” Tony cocked his head to the side and grinned, “To one Ivan Vanko.”

The pressure of the knife eased. Vanko leaned back, staring down at Tony as though he had transformed into something right in front of him and Vanko was stuck figuring it out. Tony could see him working through it logically. Driven by vengeance to get here, Vanko had given up a lot to do it and had done it in a methodical way. He wasn’t lost to his rage the way Tony had been afraid he might be.

“Your American patent means nothing to me. I build reactor if I please. I have the plans for it and do not need your permission.”

“Yeah, true,” Tony replied, “But American government and American businesses listen to American paperwork and that means they can’t build reactors when I’m gone. Unless we both die, I guess, then the default is probably back to Stark Industries or the patent is released or something.”

“So best choice is to kill you right now, just as planned, and American company no longer has arc reactor,” Vanko said with a little nod. He drew back the knife from Tony’s collarbone. Tony reached down and grabbed his wrist, just barely holding Vanko back from plunging the blade into his side.

“Actually, actually, wait a minute, your best choice is something else, Vanko, listen,” Tony spoke quickly. Vanko grunted as he pressed harder. Tony felt the blade cut through his jacket, again, and to his shirt and undershirt, “Buddy, listen, I have a way better alternative than killing me, trust me, you’re going to want to hear it.” His breath hitched as he felt the sting of metal on his skin.

“I do not trust you, Tony Stark,” Vanko said with a grin. He leaned into his grip on Tony. The blade drew blood. Tony could feel it begin to spread on his side. “Nothing you say can change that.”

“I want to give you a workshop,” Tony said, talking quickly like he had before. “A workshop so you can help me with this project. I need your help, Vanko, because you’re the only one who will get it. Who can help me build the reactors and who is allowed to build the reactors and help me build the shield? We have to get something into our atmosphere as soon as possible because shit is going to go down, listen to me Vanko. There’s an army coming and I’m not going to be able to drive a warhead through a portal again to stop them. We need to get the Earth defended as quickly as possible and I need someone in charge of that and I want that person to be you. Vanko, Ivan, come on, I know you want to get into space, I read all about how they refused you on bullshit grounds. Well, I can get you up there. I can do a whole lot more than that, in fact, but you have to not kill me and you gotta work with me on this one, please.”

The pressure of the blade eased, “You babble nonsense,” Vanko said, “Explain.”

“It’s probably going to take longer than the time we have right now to explain,” Tony said. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket with his free hand and pulled out a slim business card. “I don’t have much more time before my guard gets here and I really, really don’t want to have to bust you out of jail, okay? So take this,” Tony flourished the card and then slid it into Vanko’s pocket. The man narrowed his eyes at him but didn’t stop him, “And call me when you’re somewhere safe. We’ll meet up again and talk.”

Vanko’s expression showed nothing as he thought about Tony’s words. Tony hoped he’d said enough to interest him, truly, and not just to lure Tony away somewhere to stab him and leave him for dead there instead of here.

Tony never got his reply because there was the soft sound of footsteps and he glanced over to the entrance of the hallway. His eyes widened as he saw Natalie striding towards them, her eyes focused on Vanko and a knife in her own hand.

Vanko’s gaze followed Tony’s. He spat out what had to be a Russian curse and shoved with his arm.

Tony let out a breathless gasp as the length of the blade in Vanko’s sank into him. There was a brief moment where he was glad it was his right side, not his left because it was too high for his intestines and too low for his ribs. His liver, the poor, abused organ, was the target of Vanko’s stab. Vanko pulled away and Tony let go of him so he could.

Natalie picked up her pace but as she grew closer, Tony lurched for her and grabbed her arm. She hissed at him, “Stay down and let me-”

“Let him go,” Tony gasped out as Vanko fled back down the hall to the service door. “Let him go, Natasha.”

Her eyes widened and he realized too late what he’d said, but there was no turning back the moment. Blood seeped down around the blade that Vanko had left inside of him. His head swam with the pain, but not so badly that he missed the way Natalie-Natasha looked down the hall at Vanko and then back to Tony and, grim-faced, made her choice.

“Stay with me, Mr. Stark,” her voice was soft as she stepped closer. Her knife disappeared back to wherever it had appeared from. “We’ll get you out of here and to a hospital.”

“Jarvis,” Tony said, patting for his phone at his side. Natasha had one of his arms over her shoulders and she supported him down to the end of the hallway. He could walk, it wasn’t that bad yet, but only because the blade was still in him, holding the wound intact. “Get Happy.”

From his pocket came JARVIS’s muffled reply, “Already done, Sir.”

Tony closed his eyes and nodded.

“You should not have let me let him go,” Natasha whispered as they shuffled together down the hallway. He could just hear her under the sound of the crowd. “Two minutes is all I would’ve needed.”

Tony laughed, “Two minutes? Have you lost your touch?”

Natasha gave him a narrowed eye look, all calculation and suspicion and Tony grinned at her. “If you think I don’t vet the people who get close to Pepper,” he whispered at her, “You’re a damn fool.”

Natasha’s lips pressed into a thin line. She didn’t respond, though, just brought Tony forward.

They met Happy right at the edge of the crowd. His eyes grew large and then he glared, at Natasha, “What happened?” He demanded as he went to Tony’s side.

“Well I offered him a partnership but he said he had to think about it,” Tony said. People were noticing now. They turned and gasped and pointed and stared and one even let out a shrill shout. He ignored them. Natasha let Happy support Tony as she cleared the way for them, her icy glare and fierce expression enough to make everyone pull back.

“Tony,” Happy said through gritted teeth, clearly not appreciating the joke. “Be serious for once!”

“I am,” Tony laughed. Then he groaned as the blade jolted with his laughter. “Fuck. This hurts. Happy, c’mon, let’s get out of here. I’m bored with this party.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I am,” Tony repeated. “That’s what they always say. The impossible Tony Stark.”

He lost track of his steps and surroundings somewhere between the crowd indoors and the one outside that was gathering. Knowing how social media worked, how hungry the world was for exciting, dangerous news, Tony was sure his injury would hit Twitter before anywhere else. He grimaced at the thought, knowing that Pepper was going to lose her shit and the board of directors was going to flip their shit.

He just tried to keep his game face on while Happy and Natasha got him into the back of the car. Natasha sat with him while Happy sped off to the nearest hospital.

Tony sat with his head back, breathing shallowly, his hands opening and closing as fists on his lap. Natasha was one seat away and he could feel her eyes on the side of his head. He ignored her.

Instead, he managed to fish out his phone from his jacket so he and JARVIS could talk more easily together. “J,” he said, keeping his breathing measured, his tone even, “Tell baby sis to do Bathroom Protocol on the place.”

“Of course, Sir,” JARVIS replied.

“What are you doing?” Natasha whispered. Her voice was cold and her expression closed off, unreadable. Tony glanced at her, wondering at her thoughts. Had she gone into this thinking he was all that was in the tabloids and nothing else? Had she finally realized there was more going on, somewhere between the bar and the hallway?

“Protecting my investments,” Tony replied, “Preparing the future. Trying not to bleed out. You know, the usual. What are you doing?”

She just stared at him, her face showing nothing but wariness and even after a few seconds that vanished too. He smiled at her. He had missed her, along with the others- well some of the others. In fact, Tony thought he probably missed the most of all the Avengers. She’d been on his side right up until the end, but he didn’t blame her for Siberia. That was just Natasha doing what she thought she needed to do.

He reached out and put his hand on her arm, patting it gently. She looked down at his hand for a second before meeting his eyes.

“It’s good to see you,” he murmured, "You’re looking well.”

Natasha held very still. Tony pulled his hand back and leaned his head back against the seat. He focused on his breathing. He really didn’t want to bleed out and die. He had so much work to do still.

Natasha said nothing, but Tony heard her pull out her phone and begin to tap on it.

As he let his mind drift in order to escape the pain, Tony wondered who she was telling first: Pepper or Fury.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Ms. Potts,

I am not aware of whether or not you have seen the news regarding the incident with Mr. Stark in Monaco. I was busy helping Mr. Hogan with extracting Mr. Stark from the area and was not able to prevent any pictures or video from being taken or uploaded to social media.

Currently Mr. Stark is en route to a hospital here. Mr. Hogan is driving and I am accompanying Mr. Stark, monitoring his vitals as best as I can. There seems to be only one injury, a stab wound to his right side, and fortunately, the wound has not bled much. I will update you with his condition as soon as I am able and will stay at his side until otherwise instructed.

I apologize for letting this happen, but it appears Mr. Stark not only knew his assailant but used the excuse of getting up to get a drink in order to meet with them. I will not let this happen again.

Regards,

N. Rushman.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Director-

My cover has been compromised by the target.

Unless otherwise instructed, I will remain with the target to monitor and discover how much, exactly, is compromised.

-BW