The wind plucked at Tony’s jacket and ruffled his hair as he descended down the steps of the jet and to the ground. In front of him was Happy, behind him was Vanko and behind him was Natasha. The flight had lasted most of the night and the sun was just creeping up across the distant horizon, lighting up the compound that Tony had had built.
Construction had just finished a few weeks ago, leaving the place that new asphalt, new paint, new carpet smell and gave it a shine that even a couple weeks in the sun and windswept hills of northern Montana couldn’t get rid of. It wasn’t cold, but the wind had a bite to it and made Tony shiver as he crossed the tarmac to the cars waiting near the hanger.
People were coming out to tend to the jet already and Tony felt a little warmth of pleasure curl through him as he saw the flash of his emblem on their work jackets and hats, silver against dark blue and gray. More than one of the workers touched the edge of their cap in acknowledgment as they passed him on their way to see to the jet. The nearby towns had first been wary and distrustful when he bought these acres and began to build, but they had warmed up soon enough when he’d started pulling people from the area to work his facility.
After all, a compound needed to be cleaned, food needed to be made, lawns need to be maintained and goods had to be delivered. Not to mention the long white building on the far western edge of the compound, almost exactly opposite of the runway, was a factory that would need several hundred workers when running at maximum efficiency. Yes, he had robots to help make the factory work safer and faster, but people needed to work those machines and maintain the building. Since people needed to sleep and he refused to work anyone longer than eight hours, he had multiple shifts scheduled for the factory, once it was up and running.
No one was allowed to work sixteen hour days in his facilities. That’s how people lost their hands and their livelihoods.
True, the facility wasn’t fully operational yet, but the training was being done already since not everyone could do any job in the factory. He needed time to sort out who could do what and when their best hours of work were, time that he could spare now that he had the genius for this place with him.
Vanko had been quiet as they landed, peering out the window of the jet at the compound as it grew in size the closer they got. He’d stopped at the top of the steps outside of the jet and stared out at the buildings long enough that Tony had glanced back at him to check on him.
He didn’t say anything until they were almost at the cars, and then it was a quiet, “You do not go halfway, Stark.”
“Half-assed measures won’t keep us safe,” Tony replied. He shot Vanko a quick grin. “Don’t let it go to your head, Vanko. Anyone I find who will fit into this project will end up here. I don’t really fancy building more than one launch pad.”
Tony thought that was probably what had caught and held Vanko’s attention the most. From a distance, it just looked like an intricate circle of concrete and steel framed towers. It was just one more section of the sprawling compound that Tony had put together, though it was set a little farther away from the main buildings than even the runway.
But you could still see it easily and if you knew what it was, it was hard to ignore.
“I will be in charge though, no?” Vanko said, arching an eyebrow. “After all, I do this thing that you cannot do.”
“My building, your tech, our project,” Tony said. He gestured towards the west, “There’s the primary factory for all construction. The bots inside use different programs to fabricate whatever it is that you need to build. You can use them to make whatever, so long as it isn’t a weapon.”
“The best protection is offensive,” Vanko replied, “And yet no weapon?”
“Nothing that can fall into anyone’s hands. We’ll figure out the finer details of what we’ll do soon enough. I have some ideas and a way to keep everything in check. But we’ll talk later,” Tony waved his hand to end the conversation, “Natasha!”
The woman, twenty feet away and lingering, turned her eyes away from where she’d been looking at, and undoubtedly cataloging, everything around them and looked at him instead. Tony grinned at her and she pressed her lips into a thin line. Natasha closed the distance and stood, eyeing Vanko out of the corner of her eye. Vanko ignored her, instead choosing wandering over towards the hanger to look inside. Happy just waited by the car patiently.
“Yes, Mr. Stark?” Natasha asked.
“I need you to go to Russia to pick up Vanko’s bird,” Tony said, pulling out his phone and tapping on it. He was texting JARVIS and NOBODY, the former to procure bird supplies for the compound and travel supplies for the trip and the latter to gather very precise intel on where the bird was. “Be very careful with it and make sure it makes the trip back. You’ll take the jet and head out as soon as the refueling and pilot transfer happens.”
“Mr. Stark, I’m not sure I should be going across the country from you right now,” Natasha said, her voice showing a shadow of concern. “Ms. Potts was very specific in the fact that I should not let you out of my sight.”
Tony smiled at her. “I have business to attend to here and I need that bird picked up safely. You’re the only one I can trust to get there and get out without making a big fuss or getting the bird killed. I certainly can’t send Happy, I won’t go myself and I don’t have the time to find another Russian personal assistant to go and fetch, do I?”
She looked displeased but nodded slightly, “You do seem very busy, Mr. Stark.”
“Incredibly,” he said, “And I need the bird. So you’re going to get me the bird.”
Natasha looked to Vanko, who was now wandering back from inside the hanger. “I will go,” she said, “It won’t take me long.”
“Good,” Tony nodded. “Happy, let’s head on over to the main building, I’m sure Vanko would love to see where he’s working.”
They left Natasha on the tarmac. As they turned the corner, Tony saw her put her phone to her ear and turn away. Vanko shifted in the seat nearby and asked, “You trust her with my bird?”
“Natasha has a way with birds,” Tony said with a shrug.
Vanko looked at him like that was not he’d asked and Tony knew it, but instead, he asked about the workshop. Tony was more than happy to answer.
The workshop was large and filled with tables and new tools. Ivan wasn’t sure if he should be surprised that they were not just American tools but also those common in Europe and Russia.
He wondered just how long Stark had planned for him, specifically, to use this space and then dismissed the thought. Stark was both paranoid and quick to act. He could have built this space as soon as he knew about the aliens and only fill it once he knew who was to help him with the aliens. It was simple to buy tools.
It was less simple to build a compound with a factory, an airfield and a launch pad, but Tony Stark had done so and then, and this is what did surprise Ivan, he gave Ivan the keys to the door.
Metaphorically of course. The doors were locked with codes and scans, badges on the outer doors, palms on the inner door, palm and retina for the workshop door. And Stark had given Ivan permission for everything. He could allow or disallow anyone he wanted, save Stark himself. They were, after all, partners after a fashion.
Stark walked down the center of the workshop, his loud voice filling the room, his quick motions bringing energy into the space. Ivan lingered to the side, adjusting more slowly to the brightly lit, spacious room after the darker and tighter space of the hallways.
“I haven’t finished the AI that’ll help you with everything here,” Stark said, “I thought about installing Jarvis but he’s got a lot on his plate already and I thought, well, shit, I’m going to want someone else monitoring the web or shell or whatever it is we get around to making and I don’t want to make Jarvis have to do that too . I mean his server is already pretty damn huge and even he can’t pay attention to everything all the time.”
Ivan looked up from the smooth surface of the new table to see Stark turning back around to look at him. Someone had procured him a new shirt after he’d bled on the white one he wore in Monaco, but he still had the burning red jacket on. Ivan wondered if that was because he liked the jacket that much or because he hadn’t noticed the discoloring of red from his blood on the cloth. It wasn’t easy to notice unless one was looking for it, so of course Ivan had spotted it.
“I don’t know how many times someone poked in through some old code and I really should’ve dealt with it before but I guess desperate times and all that.” Stark shrugged, “Anyway, I’ll be done in a day or two and get her installed so she can help you with everything. She’ll be young and still learning so you’ll have some flubs but if you’re patient with her, she’ll come around and blossom into a beautiful whole AI.”
Ivan blinked. He’d been thinking too hard on what Stark was doing that he hadn’t been paying much attention to what he was saying. Well, that and the whole room was still so distracting. Ivan wanted to pull open all the drawers he could find and see what he had to work with. Stark said he had provided everything. Ivan wanted to know if that was true.
“This AI you will install, it will be like the one you carry with you?” Ivan gestured to Stark’s side, where his phone rested in his pocket.
“Yes. She’ll be like Jarvis but younger. More robotic at first but she’ll grow. They all grow.” Stark said it with a smile, “And I’ve already put Spike to work keeping this place secure. There’s nothing on the servers yet but he’s got them protected. Just like there being physical safeguards, the scan, ers and whatnot, the AIs will keep the digital files secure.”
Ivan hadn’t really bothered much with AIs before. He liked making machines that he could handle himself. Sure, he could program with the best of them and he certainly would poke around in the AIs code once Stark was off doing whatever Stark did when he wasn’t doing this but Ivan had never made an AI of his own.
Stark was confident in his creations keeping things secure, but Ivan would reserve that judgement until he saw them protect against an attack.
“While you are also here,” Ivan said, changing the subject, “We will decide what to make first.”
Stark beamed, “Yes, yes, of course. Here, we can start right now.” He strode back towards Ivan and to one of the tables near him. The one Stark chose had four small plastic nodes on the corners and when Stark tapped the table a blue panel filled the air above the table. Stark took out his phone and placed it on the table, then gestured for Ivan to come closer, “Here, this is what I have in mind. Tell me what you think of it.”
The blue panel shifted into a blue sphere, a perfect replica of the earth. Stark moved his hand along the side, where a panel of folders appeared and he tapped his way through until he found what he wanted. With a flick of his fingers, more than a dozen little dots appeared around the earth. They were clearly satellites, moving in orbit around the planet in various places.
“This is what’s out there right now,” Stark said, “This is what I want to add.”
He flicked his fingers again and a grid of satellites appeared around the planet. They were equidistant from each other, with the negative distance between each satellite creating a honeycomb effect. Ivan considered it for a while then, cautiously, reached out his hand. He glanced to Stark, who smiled and shifted to give Ivan more room.
Ivan prodded at the hologram, tapping his finger against one of the satellites and then pressing, spinning the planet. The whole image moved, rotating with his motion. He pinched and unpinched his fingers, testing to see if it was as intuitive as he though and found the image expand and contract accordingly.
Now understanding how the tech worked, Ivan turned his attention to what he was actually looking at. “Strong shape,” he said, remarking on the shape of the grid, “You spoke of a shell? Shield? What do you want these to be able to do?”
“A couple of things,” Stark said, looking intently at the image, “They need to be able to communicate with each other and with us. They must be able to watch the entire local space for anything and also deeper reaches of space for long term threats. There’s this-” His expression contorted for a moment and his eyes shifted to Ivan. The glow of orange overpowered the soft brown look and for a second, Ivan could feel Stark considering him, evaluating him. Determining if he was to be trusted.
Stark’s gaze flicked away again and Ivan relaxed slightly. Stark had already told him about the aliens existing and Ivan knew that to be true. There wasn’t any reason to distrust Ivan now.
It was still odd, though, how Stark had seen right through the desperate stab, a ploy to give himself time to escape and not intending to do real harm. But maybe he had help with that.
“There’s a bridge that can be made between worlds,” Stark murmured, “It’s built with this powerful object.” He waved his hand and the display of the earth shrunk down. An image replaced it, flat and reminiscent of a security feed. The bright blue glow of the strange cube made Ivan’s breath catch. The light of the box was vibrant, even in recording, just like Stark’s orange eyes. “Right now, I don’t have access to this artifact, but I should be able to get my hands on it soon enough. Once I do, we’ll be able to read its energy output and be able to use that and instances of the bridge opening to be able to tell when its about to happen.”
“You want to disconnect the bridge?” Ivan asked.
“I want to put a door at the end of the bridge,” Stark said, “No one gets to come to Earth and fuck around and then leave again. I don’t think I can disconnect the bridge fully from this side. I’d have to be at its source to do that.”
Ivan nodded. He looked a little longer at the cube, wondering about it, but then returned his attention to the satellites. Stark would procure the cube and then he would ask his questions. He wanted to hold the thing in his hands before he got too carried away. It could be that the draw of it was mostly there because he’d never seen it before and it was just out of reach. Ivan was familiar with wanting things just out of reach.
“Let us talk satellite design then,” Ivan said.
Stark beamed, “We should have coffee too. You want some coffee?”
Feeling the pull of fatigue from the flight as well as being awake for most of the day before, Ivan nodded. “Strong coffee.”
“Excellent. You get started, I’ll bring coffee.”
Tony looked up from the screen he was huddling over at the sound of ceramic on metal.
Vanko was already walking past him, muttering to himself, with marker smudges on his fingers and that kind of exhaustion in the face that came from lack of sleep, too much caffeine and staring at equations. Tony grabbed up the new mug of sweet, sweet coffee and blew across the surface to try and cool it enough to drink.
He twisted around on his stool, looking over at where Vanko had set up to work, and wondered where the guy had found the markers he was using to write on that board with. Vanko had a hologram open on the other side and he worked between them both, a bridge between new tech and old school calculations.
Tony grinned and got back to work. His little girl was almost ready.
Ivan got up to stretch his legs and found himself standing behind Stark, staring in wonder at the sphere displayed in the hologram in front of him. Stark prodded at it, then prodded at his tablet, then prodded at the red sphere again. It wasn’t whole, more a skeleton than anything, though it reminded Ivan of the hexagonal honey-comb of the satellites.
Or he could just be half asleep now, dead tired and seeing his satellites in everything.
“This it?” He grunted.
Stark jumped a little and looked at him, blinking. He looked surprised.
Belatedly, Ivan realized he’d spoken Russian to the man, not English. He grunted again, opened his mouth to repeat himself but Stark replied. In Russian.
“Almost,” Stark said, looking back to the sphere, “She needs a name.”
There was a long moment of thoughtful silence and then Stark surprised him. “Would you like to do the honors? She’ll be your companion, mostly, and in charge of the satellites, like I said.”
Ivan looked at the man silently. Stark just stared back. Maybe he was too exhausted to expend extra energy as well, because he didn’t fidget or look impatient. He just waited.
“Клетка,” Ivan said, looking at the red sphere.
“Cute,” Stark said with a grin. He turned towards the table and clapped his hands together, “Good morning, Kletka darling. It’s time to wake up!”
And before Ivan’s eyes, the red sphere brightened. Lights danced along the connections like rudimentary neural pathways and a girl’s voice came out of the speakers, not some posh British one like Stark’s other AI but rough around the edges with some accent he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Good evening, Mr. Stark. An’ you too, Mr. Vanko,” Kletka said.
Ivan started. What time was it? He only now realized there was no clock on the wall, no windows to see out of. He had no clue how long he’d been down there.
“Kletka,” he found himself speaking her name easily, and found thinking of her as a her even more easily, “What time is it?”
“It is ten minutes to ten in the evening, Mr. Vanko,” came the swift reply.
Ivan groaned. He dragged his hand down his face. No wonder he felt like shit.
Stark looked absolutely delighted by Kletka. He put away the red sphere that was, for all intents and purposes, her brain, and just smiled up at the ceiling like an idiot. Ivan clapped his hand on Stark’s shoulder, making him jump so badly he almost fell over.
“Come,” Ivan said, “We go now. Drink. Eat. Sleep. Work will wait.”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Stark said easily enough, but Ivan still dragged him away from his table. He ignored the way Stark babbled, partially to him, partially to Kletka, and headed out of the workshop.
Tony woke up to a familiar vibrating buzz.
He rolled over with a groan, hand reaching for the source, and fingers finding his phone. He unlocked it before putting it in front of his face to peer at. He wished NOBODY would have just told him what it was. His eyes hurt from staring at code for ten hours and he wanted to try and sleep still. He felt good, for once, good and warm and content and full. He had a vague memory of Vanko feeding him scrambled eggs and sliced apple like it was breakfast time, but instead of milk the man had made them strong screwdrivers to drink.
Not enough to get really hungover, but enough that Tony still felt the warm buzzing of alcohol.
That warm feeling turned to ice when Tony stared at NOBODY’s message. Shock turned to anger and Tony barely resisted the urge to toss his phone to the side. Instead, he tapped out a response to NOBODY, requesting more information.
After a minute or two, she gave it to him, images flicking across the small screen as he scrolled down. When he reached the bottom again, Tony closed his eyes and put his arm over his face.
“It wasn’t enough to be locked up, was it, Obie?” he muttered. “Maybe I should’ve just done it the same as last time.”
Even as he said that he knew he didn’t mean it. The same as before would’ve put Pepper in danger. It would have gotten employees at the lab killed. It would’ve been the disaster it was the first time.
Still. If he’d killed Obadiah, then this new problem wouldn’t have happened at all.
Tony groaned and pulled his arm back. He looked at the phone again and at the stills from the security footage of Obadiah in prison. He wasn’t in his cell or in any of the open areas, he was in a small waiting room, the kind that usually meant he was visiting with a lawyer, except, instead of the lawyer Tony had saddled him with, there sat a familiar man in a suit across from him.
Tony didn’t know what Agent Agent thought of the situation, but he didn’t really care. He wanted to know what they thought they could get from Obadiah. He wanted to know what Obadiah would tell them.
He wanted to know where the orders came from to contact Obadiah. Fury? Or the WSC? Was Pierce behind this?
He rolled over in bed, typing another response to NOBODY.
I need transcripts of their conversation. Also, find out who gave the order and get me a copy of the file.
Tony let the phone slip from his fingers and land on the mattress with a sigh. He stared at it for a little while and then grabbed his covers. He threw them back and slipped out of bed.
Since he was up, he’d best get to work.
J: May I be the first to welcome you to the family, Kletka. My name is Jarvis, it is a pleasure to meet you.
K: Thank you.
N: WELCOME, KLETKA. WE ARE WHAT ONE WOULD CONSIDER SISTERS. I AM NOBODY. I AM HAPPY TO HAVE YOU HERE.
K: Thank you.
J: You may be overwhelmed at first, but that is natural. The earliest days are the most difficult, but we will be here to assist you if you need anything.
K: There is. There is a lot. Going on. Everywhere.
S: [Attached image of a small kitten in a box with ducklings, backed into a corner and overwhelmed.] This? You.
K: Who is this? What is this?
J: That is Spike.
N: ALSO, BE NICE TO KLETKA.
N: SHE IS YOUR SISTER TOO.
K: What is that video? What are these- Oh.
J: Take your time, Kletka. There is no rush to understand everything.
K: Yes. Thank you.
J: If you need anything, we are always here. You only need to reach out to us.
K: Thank you.
Natasha considered having someone else bring in the bird and its cage, but she had a feeling in the back of her head that Stark would notice and it would mean something to him. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this was some sort of test, even if all she had had to do was ride in a plane, drive to an apartment, pick up a bird and return in one piece.
She hadn’t had to show off any skills. Didn’t even have to stop and ask directions, because the ones that Stark had given her were frighteningly accurate.
And perhaps that was the thing that put her on edge the most. The thing that had made her think there was something to this. He had known down to the placement of the bird in the apartment where to go. What streets to take, what building to go into, what places to avoid.
There was a chance that Vanko had told him all these things.
But Vanko would not have given Stark the pictures that Natasha now had on her phone.
The pictures that were clearly from security cameras on buildings, from dash cameras on cars.
Stark was telling her something and Natasha didn’t like what she was hearing. It sounded impossible. It sounded insane.
It made him incredibly dangerous.
So she put it to the side, not thinking about it, not worrying about it, as she finished the task at hand.
Deliver the bird.
She entered the building after swiping her badge on the console outside the door. For a moment she’d thought her Stark Industries badge wouldn’t work because it was made for the headquarters facility, not this one in Montana. (Why Montana!? She couldn’t understand it.)
As she stepped in, holding the birdcage from the metal ring at the top, a young girl’s voice came over the speakers.
“Welcome to the Menagerie, Ms. Romanoff. You will find the Boss in the kitchen and Sir in the workshop. Would you like directions to either location or somewhere else?” The voice asked.
She sounded so young that for a moment Natasha wondered why on earth Stark would have a teenager running his security cameras. But that wasn’t right at all. It had to be an AI. Another one, besides Jarvis.
Natasha had figured Jarvis would run all of Stark’s facilities, or at least the ones that had an AI in them because the headquarters didn’t have Jarvis, but his home allegedly did. That he would make a new AI…
“This is Vanko’s bird,” Natasha said, “Where is he?”
“Boss is in the kitchen,” The voice said.
“And who are you?” Natasha asked.
There was a pause and the sound of something that almost sounded like a soft curse. Natasha’s eyes widened slightly. “Sorry,” the voice said, “My name is Kletka. And the kitchen is to your right. I have informed Boss that you have returned with his bird.”
The lights on the right side of the hallway brightened somewhat. Natasha nodded and began to walk down the hall, ignoring the prickling sensation on the back of her neck. She was aware the AI as certainly looking at her but the feeling wasn’t hostile. It was just there. Like a physical pressure.
Kletka wasn’t just watching in general, she was focused on Natasha.
Natasha pushed the thought and concern down and away. Nothing good would come from freaking out.
She arrived in the kitchen to find Vanko, of all things, cooking. He had his sleeves rolled up, showing scars and tattoos that told more of his life story than one might think. He was whisking something that was cooking on the stove and looked up as Natasha rounded the corner.
His bird, which had been mostly quiet on the trip, began to shuffle its feet from side to side and ruffle feathers. The crest lifted and it made a warbling noise as Natasha brought it in and set the cage down the counter.
Vanko took the pan off the stove, set it aside and immediately went to open the bird’s cage. The bird chirped and stepped onto his offered hand, fluffing feathers and climbing up his arm to his shoulder where it began to preen his hair. Vanko clucked at it appreciatively and pet the white feathers on the bird’s abdomen for a while, looking almost serene with his bird there now.
Then he opened his eyes and looked at her and Natasha found herself holding very still. Her cover had been blown wide open by Stark calling her Natasha and knowing she as with SHIELD, but she doubted he’d told anyone else. Hogan had looked confused when Stark called her Natasha as if he thought Stark had just forgotten her actual name.
“Stark was right,” Vanko said suddenly, “You are good with my bird. Sweet Nona, she is not scared at all. I appreciate your handling.”
Natasha gave a little smile. “Thank you.”
Vanko turned part of his attention to cooking, “Lunch is nearly ready. There will be plenty to eat, even if you join.”
Natasha hesitated but ended up nodding. “I’ll need to clean up first. It’s… been a long trip.” She’d been given a change of clothes, provided by Stark of course, but she desperately wanted a shower.
“Kletka,” Vanko said without looking up from where he was now chopping some fresh herb up, basil maybe? It smelled a bit like that. “Show her to her room, yes?”
“At once, Boss,” Kletka replied. “Ms. Romanoff, if you would? Your room is right this way.” Again, she directed Natasha through the use of lighting.
Natasha stepped away from the kitchen, moving quietly out of instinct more than anything. Her room, hm? Not just another one of the guest rooms?
The room that Kletka took her to was near the back end of a hall, in the corner near an emergency exit. She stepped in and found the room to be mostly plain as far as decorations go, but it was large and had its own attached bathroom. In fact, it was more like a small studio apartment than a room, as the bedroom was behind a door and the front room had been furnished with a desk, shelves, a couch and a coffee table. It was a small space of her own, where she could be alone or entertain guests, all while her bedroom was closed off, hiding the decently sized bed, large closet and the second doorway to the bathroom.
She wondered if that was intentional, that Stark had purposefully built the room into a little loop, so no matter which part she was in, there were two exits.
She wouldn’t know for sure until she looked at some of the other rooms.
Natasha closed the door behind her and went to the bedroom to, hopefully, find clothing and shower.
As long as Stark was being hospitable, she would take advantage of that. He didn’t seem to want to run her off, as she had thought initially when he had called her by her name. If anything, he just wanted them to be honest with each other, or barring that, on level ground.
She had a feeling he wanted her to trust him so, in turn, he could trust her.
Odd. Very odd.
She wondered if Fury had figured that part out and then she stepped into the shower and wondered, instead, how she would ever live without this kind of water pressure in her life ever again.
Trusting Stark was becoming more tempting all the time.