Tony’s eyes flutter open and for a brief, confused moment he lays there, staring up. There’s a tingle in his arms and legs, something painful but dulled by drugs, a sensation he almost recognizes from those shaky days after his open heart surgery. He lets out a breath, almost a groan and tries to move, tries to sit up but he can’t. Sharp pain lances through him and he is forced to stay flat.
A flicker of movement, hazy and red, catches his eye. Tony finds it difficult to focus, but he could recognize Pepper’s face if he was half blind and addled with dementia. He still sees her face in his dreams, her eyes kind, her red hair framing her face, and the endless, soundless depths of space beyond her.
Tony squints and his eyes focus on her face. Pepper’s eyes are red-rimmed and Tony feels awful for making her cry. He’ll make it up to her. He’ll buy her all the shoes she could want. He’ll take care of everything. He’ll-
Her hand presses flat against something clear between them. Glass? Plastic? And that’s when Tony sees it.
He’s not just in a hospital bed. He’s in some sort of container. It’s almost familiar, too, like he knows the shape and size but he’s never seen it this way. It’s familiar like a car he’s never been inside but now he’s there and yes, this makes sense, this is how it should be.
Tony’s in the Cradle.
But Helen hasn’t made the Cradle yet, won’t make it for several more years and he hasn’t even met Helen and why would they bust out the cradle for a stab wound?
He tries, again, to lift his arm, to reach out and touch the glass where Pepper’s hand still rests. She’s trying to talk to him but he can’t hear the words. He can barely lift his arm. It doesn’t feel heavy but his muscles are taking forever to respond. He just wants to reach up and let Pepper know he’s all right, reach up and take her hand in his.
Frustrated, he looks down at his hand, to try and figure out why it isn’t responding to him.
Only to find his hand is- his hand is- his hand is-
Tony can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe.
He closes his eyes tightly.
No. No. This can’t be happening. This is a nightmare. A nightmare. A nightmare.
Tony breath comes out in a choked off sob.
Before he can gather himself back together from the broken remains, Tony is pulled under, fleeing from consciousness with the help of a flood of new drugs and a warm orange light.
Tony jolts awake. Gasping, half sitting up before the agony in his side flares up at the sudden motion and someone at his side reaches out to him. He grabs the arm that reaches, panting, sweating, heart pounding from a nightmare worse than he’s had in a while and he stops dead. He should be staring at the woman reaching for him, identify her, make sure she’s not a threat, but he can’t stop looking at his hand.
He lets go of her and holds out his hands in front of himself, turning them over and over. “Oh thank god,” he whispered. It was just a nightmare. A horrifying nightmare.
The hand of the woman presses on his shoulder. “Lay down, Mr. Stark,” she says and immediately Tony knows its Natasha. He does as she insists, sighing as he settles back on the pillows.
Only when he’s calm again does he remember that now she knows he knows she’s Natasha too. Tony groans and rubs his forehead. He had wanted to hold back on that little detail for as long as he could, but nooo.
Vanko had to go and stab him and make Tony cover for his ass.
“Does your head hurt too?” Natasha asks. Tony shakes it.
“Just thinking about my smartass mouth,” Tony muttered. He cracks open an eye and sees, with a little bit of relief, that she’s still in the gold and black dress. That’s good news. It means he’s probably only been out for a few hours. “So what happened?”
Natasha arches one delicate eyebrow. She crosses her legs as she leans on the arm of her chair and responds, “I should be the one asking that. You were the one who let the assailant go after he stabbed you.”
“I’m sure it was a misunderstanding,” Tony shrugged it off. “Next time, there shouldn’t be any stabbing.”
“Next time? Shouldn’t be?”
Ah damn. Tony laughs to cover up for his wince. He’s got something nice flowing through his veins in order to keep the pain at bay and it makes him loose enough to just talk to Natasha. Like she’s his Natasha. Like he can trust her.
Well, jokes on him, he couldn’t trust his Natasha either.
“People who are fond of stabbing usually live to stab again another day,” Tony said, “I mean, look at you. Very stabby. Very alive. I saw you with that knife. You were ready to stab as soon as it became a viable option.”
“And here I thought you did not like weapons or killing,” Natasha said.
“I could do without the killing, but I’m a fan of knives,” he said, “Or at least, fighting one on one with the asshole you’re upset with. Why bring everyone else into your trouble? Leave innocent people be and just get all stabby on the fucker who deserves it,” Tony said. Then he sighed and rubbed at his face, “What the hell did they give me?”
“Something potent,” Natasha said and even though her expression didn’t change, he could hear the amusement in her voice.
Obligingly, Tony chuckles.
An opening door and footsteps make the sound die off prematurely. Tony looks up around the privacy screen and grimaces at the sight that greets him. It isn’t Happy and it isn’t Pepper. It’s the one-eyed spy shadow organization director with a firm jaw and a black trench coat that Tony’s been actively avoiding for a couple of months now. Natasha straightens up when Fury walks in the room, but she doesn’t leap to attention and she could pass off her rigid posture as surprise if they didn’t both know who she was.
Tony struggles to push himself up again, muttering about pillows and back support, while Fury communicates silently with Natasha via his one good eye. And maybe the eyepatch, too. Tony won’t be one to underestimate Fury.
Slowly, she unfolds herself and rises. She gives Tony a polite nod, “I’ll be just outside the door if you need anything, Mr. Stark.”
“Where’s my phone?” Tony asks her before she gets too far.
Natasha blinks. Her eyes shift to the side. “Mr. Hogan has it.”
“That’s fine,” Tony said. He held out his hand to her, “I’ll borrow yours then.”
She stares at him.
Tony wiggles his fingers, “C’mon. Any Stark Employee with the level of clearance that you have is given a starkphone. I just need to borrow it for a while.”
She doesn’t look at Fury for confirmation, but hesitates like she thinks she should. Still, she reaches behind herself and then pulls out the slim, durable phone from wherever it was hiding. She places it in his hand with a little frown, probably thinking about how it’s locked with her thumbprint or a passcode or both. Tony smiles at her. “Thanks. I shouldn’t need anything else for now, but if Happy’s out there waiting, tell him I’m going to be needing a burger in a hot minute.”
Natasha gives him a short nod and then walks away from the bed and out the room.
The door shuts with a click. Fury, who hasn’t taken his eye off of Tony yet, stands at the foot of his bed, hands behind his back and continues to stare.
Tony stares back for a little bit before shrugging and turning his attention to Natasha’s phone. It doesn’t unlock the first time he presses his thumb to the scanner, but the passcode screen pops up and Tony puts in a six digit code and waits.
Just as NOBODY unlocks Natasha’s phone for him, Fury clears his throat.
Tony puts up a finger, “I don’t do consultations in the hospital.”
“I’m not here for your consult,” Fury said with a little edge to his voice.
“Well then, what do you want, Director?” Tony flicks his gaze up to Fury’s face, one eyebrow arched. Fury’s expression doesn’t show much of anything but his cheek flexes slightly where he grinds his teeth.
“You think you have this all figured out, don’t you, Stark?” Fury asked. “You do a little digging on an applicant and find a little thread and you pull on that thread because you just can’t help yourself, can you? You’ve got to be the one who knows what’s going on with everyone around you at all times.” Fury looked pityingly at him, shaking his head slightly, “That kind of paranoia will drive you out of your mind long before you realize what it’s doing to you.”
Tony bites his tongue, swallowing the words that want to come bursting out. He’s going to find out who gave him these drugs and he’s going to make sure his records indicate to never do that again. He’d rather be in pain than have loose lips around Fury.
“Is it still paranoia if it's justified?” Tony asked after struggling to hold back his knee-jerk reaction. “After all, I did come back from being kidnapped to find out the man I considered a father to me had sold me out. I think that justifies some thorough background checks on any new hires.” He holds the phone idly in his hand, more comfortable now that NOBODY has access to the audio of their conversation. He’s not sure if he’ll ever need it, but he’d rather not be alone with anyone he doesn’t trust, especially someone like Fury.
“You can do all the background checks you like, without hacking top secret information. The fact is that such records are way out of your reach as a civilian, especially now since you’ve turned your back on your military contracts,” Fury said. “Perhaps hacking into a government agency can be overlooked when you’re a teenager- we all do stupid things as teenagers- but this? You’re a grown man, Stark. You should know better.”
Tony cocked his head to the side, “Is that a threat that I hear in all that nonsense? Are you threatening me for doing what I had to do to protect those around me?”
“You still hired Rushman to your company. How does that protect those around you?”
Tony smiled. “If you can’t figure it out, I don’t know why I should bother telling you.”
Fury’s good eye narrowed at Tony’s words. He unclasped his hands from behind himself and rested one on the foot of Tony’s bed. For once, Tony was rather glad he was short, as it meant there were a few extra inches between him and the man.
He hadn’t really trusted his Fury, the man was secretive and dangerous and had his own goals that didn’t always align with Tony’s, but at least then Tony had been pretty sure Fury wouldn’t really do anything to fuck with him. Not when he was also Iron Man, not when he was also doing what Fury pretty much wanted him to do by working with the Avengers.
Here, though, here he had this Fury, who he had avoided and ignored and worked around as much as possible. This Fury who did not like him and probably saw only that he’d stopped making weapons, stopped being cooperative and was having a problem with it. This Fury wouldn’t know about Iron Man. This Fury wouldn’t see Tony as necessary for the Avengers Initiative.
And, from what Tony had been able to tell, this Fury was just as blind as the last one to the way that HYDRA was intertwined in and around all of SHIELD.
Tony grimaced. That was just one more project he had to turn his attention to, sooner rather than later, unfortunately.
He had a plan for it, but he didn’t much like it.
“Someone has to keep an eye on you, Stark,” Fury said, his voice low and cold, “You’re too dangerous to let run around willy-nilly the way you have been doing. You’ve opened a dozen factories and built several state of the art facilities for research and development beyond what Stark Industries does at its headquarters.”
“I’m giving people jobs and you’re mad,” Tony said with a little laugh, “What, are you upset that you get the government’s shitty excuse for health benefits while my employees have dental and eye care covered in theirs? We even do paid maternity leave which is basically unheard of in America.”
“People have noticed that your company is gearing up for something,” Fury said, “You can’t move that much material and that many people without someone noticing.” Silent was the demand for what Stark Industries was getting ready for.
Tony made a big show of rolling his eyes. “If you want to see what Stark Industries has in store, you’re going to have to wait for the Expo like everyone else. I wish I could see your face when you see what I have planned. I’ve always wondered what it looks like when someone realizes just how utterly moronic they were acting.”
Fury’s fingers tightened briefly on the foot of the bed but Tony ignored that. He held tightly to the phone in his lap, the screen both tilted away from Fury and dark so that Fury couldn’t see anything on it. He’d have to remember to tell NOBODY to record Fury’s reaction to the Expo and all the ‘mysterious projects’ that Tony was going to unveil. He’d be too busy at the time to watch it live, of course, but he wanted to see it anyway.
After some more silent staring, Fury let go of the end of the bed and gave Tony a short nod. Then, without another word, he turned and walked towards the door. Just as it swung open, Tony called out after him, “Send Natasha back in when you’re done, would you? We need to talk.”
Fury didn’t reply, but just before the door swung all the way shut it was stopped by Natasha’s slender hand. She slipped in, her heels somehow silent on the floor, and walked over to the side of his bed. There was a colder look in her face, now that some of the Natalie was gone.
She held out a phone to him, his phone. Tony grinned and held out hers for the exchange. She took it, unlocking it and frowning when she undoubtedly saw nothing. Tony tucked his phone to his side because anything that had waited so far could wait a little longer.
“Do you want to continue to be Natalie or should we just switch fully to Natasha?” Tony asked.
Her eyes settled on his face, her expression smooth and unreadable. “I do not think you could handle the full transition to Natasha.”
Tony idly pat his injured side, “No, probably not. I’m a little more banged up than usual. Plus you’ll just confuse everyone if you abruptly change your name. I’ve got a fun idea! You can be Natalie for the rest of the week and at the end, I’ll pretend to fire you and then the following Monday you can come back as Natasha. Anyone who notices will probably ask about it and then we can pretend not to know what they’re saying and pretend to not notice how similar you look to Natalie.”
One thin brow lifted up, “That’s a terrible idea.” She said, “Convoluted and unnecessary. Besides, I will not be here long.”
“Oh, really?” Tony asked, “Let me guess, Fury wants you to stick around until after the Expo and then take off?”
There was a long moment of silence before Natasha murmured, “He never introduced himself to you.”
Her eyes narrowed, hardening her expression into marble. She tensed, almost like she was about to attack or flee and Tony really hoped she had some third option. He didn’t much like the idea of being stabbed twice in one day and hunting down Natasha, while not impossible, was counterproductive to his goals.
“If you’re wondering how much I know and how you can get me to tell you how I know,” Tony said casually, “I’ll tell you now that there is a way to find out everything you want to know. It just won’t be easy.”
Natasha’s expression didn’t change. She would take whatever way got her the thing she wanted most, easy or hard or seemingly impossible, she would do it for her end goals. Tony knew that even without her having to say it out loud.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon enough,” Tony said, leaning back more heavily on his pillows. “Hopefully, you’ll figure it out before the Expo happens. Then you won’t be too distracted for the demonstration.
“By the way,” he said as he closed his eyes, “Have you contacted Pepper about the thing earlier?”
“Good.” Tony nodded slightly. He felt exhausted after his conversation with Fury and hoped it was mostly the drugs that made him feel this way. “Jarvis, you there buddy?”
At his side, his phone vibrated, “Yes, Sir.”
“Let Pepper know that she really doesn’t need to hop on a plane and get up here. I’ll head back home as soon as the doctors say I’m ready to go.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony opened one eye a crack and saw Natasha sit back down in the chair, crossing her legs and staring at the phone that lay at his hip. Tony smiled and sighed, sinking into his pillow. “Wake me up when Happy gets here with a burger for me.”
It’s late at night and the burger Tony bites down into is still hot and fresh, making all the mouth-watering hunger for the thing worth it as soon as he can actually taste it. Tony closes his eyes for a moment, savoring that first bite for more than the fact that it hit the spot as far as his physical hunger and taste buds were concerned. As long as he can have a burger like this, hot and fresh and with his own two hands, Tony is sure that he will make it through whatever the hell the world throws at him next.
Not that he’s sitting around so passively this time, but it’s the thought that counts and the fact still remained. Burgers were a comfort beyond words.
Natasha stands nearby, maybe three or four feet away, leaning against the trunk of the car with her phone in her hand but her attention on their surroundings. There’s a bag beside her on the trunk, the burger inside untouched, which is just a travesty but Tony’s not going to force a burger on the woman.
Happy stands next to him, close enough for Tony to feel the warmth of his shoulder, far enough away that he can eat his own burger in comfort. Tony insisted. Today was traumatic for everyone and everyone deserves a burger.
There’s a bag behind and between them, from where Tony picks out the occasional fry to accompany his burger.
Beside that bag is the third one, the top rolled closed, holding the heat of the last burger inside.
Happy’s parked the car at the southern end of some park, where the overhead street lamps cast them in harsh lights and do little to light up the park. With Happy on one side and Natasha on the other and with the car at his back, the only open, exposed side left of Tony is the front.
The park stretches out in front of him, the faint outlines of swings barely visible in the deep green of the field and the shadows cast by the trees. It’s so dark that Tony hears their guest before he sees him.
Vanko’s feet crunch through wood chips and Tony looks up, shoving the last of his burger into his mouth. He can see the shape of the man at first, shadows and broad shoulders, and then he steps to the edge of the lot where the ground turns to gravel and he’s at the edge of a street lamp’s pooling light. His eyes flick from Tony to Natasha and back.
Natasha straightens up out of the corner of Tony’s eye. He ignores her, half turns to the closed bag and picks it up. He meets Happy’s gaze when he does it and Happy doesn’t look, well, happy about this but Tony grins at him.
“A peace offering,” Tony declares as he walks towards Vanko. He reaches behind himself with his other hand and pulls out the knife that Vanko had so kindly left in his liver earlier. He holds it gingerly by the blade, hilt towards Vanko. When he’s about ten feet away from him, he holds up first the bag, then the knife, “We picked up a burger for you ‘cause I wasn’t sure about you having time to get a bite to eat. And you left this behind, last time we spoke.”
Vanko slowly closes the distance. He reaches out and takes the knife first. He grips it for a moment, considering the blade, and then drops it into a sheath behind his back, “You clean blood off. Very considerate.”
Tony just smiles and holds out the burger.
Vanko takes it and peers into the bag at the foil-wrapped sandwich and the handful or two of fries that have become dislodged from their container. He rolls the bag closed again and just holds onto it, standing there, staring at Tony. His face is difficult to decipher. Tony has no experience with it and whatever Vanko’s thinking is complex enough that Tony would rather wait than guess at his thoughts.
“You did not lie, earlier,” Vanko said, watching Tony’s face, watching Tony’s eyes. Tony’s foregone the shades tonight. Something tells him that Vanko will need more blunt words, more honesty, more vulnerability on his part than Bruce did. Bruce’s agony was mostly self-contained and self-driven; easy to steer if you knew what you were looking for. Vanko’s distrust and anger might sit inside of him, but the cause of it is rooted elsewhere, like inside of Tony. So Tony had to be the one at risk for this to work.
“That’s true,” Tony said.
“You list my father, credit him for his work,” Vanko shook his head slightly, “But not your own? Explain.”
“Howard was a drunk with a temper who had a self-righteous streak almost as wide as his pride was big. I built an engine at four years old and all I got was spittle as he shouted at me and fear that he would do something worse.” Tony’s hand fists at his side but he forces himself to take a deep breath, to let it out, to relax his arm. “It’s lucky that I wanted to create and to work on machines more than I feared him, or you would be having this conversation with someone else.” With Obadiah probably, Tony thought. Though he could imagine how that conversation would go- Vanko demanding his father’s legacy. Obadiah holding a stolen legacy of his own, desperate to maintain all power. Someone was liable to get stabbed for real.
“Eh, fathers, they drink,” Vanko said with a shrug, “And we, we drink too.”
“We can,” Tony said with a smile, “But I only drink with others now. Pointless to drink alone. It just wastes time.”
“And there is no time to waste,” Vanko said, lifting a brow. A question disguised as a statement.
Vanko made a thoughtful noise.
Tony thought he heard someone shifting behind himself. Vanko’s gaze went to his left and he figured it was Happy, but he didn’t hear the crunch of gravel so he thought Happy probably hadn’t taken a step, just settled his weight on his heels a little more evenly. “Have you thought about my offer?” he asked.
“The workshop.” Vanko looked back at him. “And space.”
Tony nodded. He did not think about the portal or space. “I need your help, Vanko.”
Vanko grinned, “Great Tony Stark, needs my help?” He lifted the bag with the hamburger and shook it, “Great Tony Stark, brings me offerings? And here one thought the Great Tony Stark, he ask for no one’s help.”
“I know where my strengths lie, Vanko,” Tony replied pleasantly, “And I know how to compensate for my weaknesses. You are strong where I am weak,” he pointed up to the sky, “You can do something about that. I cannot.”
Vanko snorted. “There is nothing there to do anything about.”
“Not yet,” Tony replied.
He wasn’t sure if it was the orange glow of his eyes or how quiet and serious he sounded when he said it, but the amusement in Vanko’s expression seeped out and was replaced with something dark and somber. “Explain.”
“I will,” Tony promised as his gaze flicked to the right without turning his head to indicate Natasha without saying so.
Vanko grunted. “And it comes with a workshop?”
“State of the art,” Tony replied, “All you could ask for, all you could need to get the job done, once you know what the job is.”
“Will need my bird,” Vanko said, “From Russia.”
Tony nodded, “Done.”
“My work is mine when I finish. Not yours. Not American. Not Stark Industries.”
“As long as I can manufacture, maintain and run your designs for the project I have in mind through Stark Industries, you can keep the rights and the credits,” Tony replied. “Your personal projects will remain yours.”
“I do not work for you, Stark.” Vanko gestured from Tony to himself, “We are equals.”
A flicker of a smile burned across Tony’s expression, “If you think you can keep up…”
“Equals,” Vanko stressed, taking a step forward. “Or enemies.”
“I’ve got plenty of those,” Tony said with a shrug of one shoulder, “It would be nice to have an equal. What else?”
“You promise you will put me in space?” Vanko asked, taking another step forward, then another, until he was close enough he could reach out and touch Tony. He did just that, tapping his fingers over the center of Tony’s chest, his heavy fingers thunk-thunk ing on the arc reactor. Tony managed not to flinch, but only barely, “Swear to me, Stark, that you will take me to space.”
“Not personally,” Tony quipped, “But yes. You’ll see our pretty blue planet from above, Vanko. I swear it.”
Vanko stared at him a little longer and then nodded. He clapped Tony on the shoulder and smiled, big and toothy, reminding Tony of a haggard wolf brought close to a village to feed. Vanko had a hunger in his eyes and Tony hoped it was for what he was going to get to do- go to space, be in space- and not any indication he was going to try and turn on Tony later.
“Show me my workshop,” Vanko said, his accent growing thicker with his pleasure. Tony grinned back at him and pulled out his phone. He didn’t have to do anything but turn the screen to Vanko, the pictures already up and ready for viewing, Vanko peered at his phone, idly working the bag open in his hands and pulling out some fries.
“You know what,” Tony said with a shake of his head while he was halfway through the pictures, “Why don’t I just take you? Have you got anything here you need to grab before we go?”
Vanko looked thoughtful for a second and then shook his head.
“Then let’s go,” Tony said and headed for the car. Happy sprung into action first, opening the back door for them both. He gave Vanko a wary look and Tony one that said he sure hoped Tony knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t going to argue in front of his boss.
Natasha, on the other hand, didn’t see a problem with showing where she stood on the subject. She intercepted the two of them, standing in the open doorway. Tony came to a stop, frowning. “It’s cute that you care so much,” he said lightly, “But I know what I’m doing, Natasha.”
“Do you really?” She asked mildly, “Do you even know who this man is?” Her gaze was settled on Vanko, who had decided to ignore her in favor of more fries.
“If I didn’t know him well,” Tony asked, “Do you think I would be able to convince him to come with me? Or do you think I just got lucky?”
Her gaze became stormy for a moment before she leeched it away. Tony wondered if she knew how doll-like she looked when she wiped her face clear of expression like that. She changed tactics, whispering, “He stabbed you.”
“It was a diversion,” Tony said, “A misunderstanding. An accident. It was all of that or something else and frankly, I don’t give a fuck. It happened. I lived. Now Vanko’s part of our Stark family,” Tony gave her a grin that made her stiffen, “You haven’t earned the privilege of knowing why I care more about him joining me than whether or not he stabbed me with the intent to kill. Step aside, please.”
She did, still moving stiffly, watching him with those intense eyes, trying to figure him out. Tony just stepped to the side and waved Vanko in. The man got in with only a brief look to Natasha. If he recognized her, or rather what she was, he didn’t show it. He only got settled in the back while Tony climbed in after him.
He held onto the door once he was in the back of the car. Smiling up to Natasha, he said, “Sit up front with Happy, would you? I need to talk to Vanko.”
Then he shut the door, preventing Natasha from having to make a choice at all.
Vanko looked at him with one brow raised as he peeled back the foil from his burger. “The playboy does not want to play, hm?”
Tony snorted, “The playboy has better things to do.”
Vanko bit into his burger and nodded. With a swallow, he said, “Tell me these things.”
Tony, idly drumming his fingers over the arc reactor in his chest, did so.
Vanko’s eyes went wide when Tony talked about the aliens, but he did one thing Bruce didn’t do.
He didn’t ask Tony if he was serious.