Agent Coulson: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Mr. Stane. My name is Agent Coulson. I work for an agency within the United States Government that focuses on the protection of the people against extraordinary circumstances.
Obadiah Stane: I know who you work for. Remember, I used to work with Howard back in the day.
Agent Coulson: [Silence. A slight nod.]
Obadiah Stane: In any case, I have plenty of time to spare these days. What did you want to talk about?
Agent Coulson: I take it one of those things you spend your time on is following the news? Especially the news of your former employer?
Obadiah Stane: [An angry snort.] I thought this would be about him. What is it?
Agent Coulson: Did you have any indication that Tony Stark was going to shut down all weapons manufacturing before you were removed from your position?
Obadiah Stane: No. Of course not.
Agent Coulson: Did you have any indication that Tony Stark wouldn’t just shut down weapons manufacturing for Stark Industries but work to remove all weapons manufacturing, including but not limited to the buy back of weapons of other manufacturers?
Obadiah Stane: [Short laugh.] You’re kidding me. He’s a child if he thinks he can make people stop fighting if he just takes away all the guns.
Tony woke in the middle of the night, gasping for breath, fingernails digging into the front of his shirt. The lights to his room rose slowly until the shadows were banished back to the corners. Kletka recounted the time, his location, the temperature inside and outside and where everyone else in the building was with an even tone and Tony broke out of his nightmare wondering if JARVIS had taught her that. It sounded like he did.
Tony reached for his phone and turned it over in his hands so he could see the screen. He didn’t even have to touch the thumbpad to unlock it, NOBODY did that for him. Looking down, he saw the image of a man he’d once thought of his father curled asleep in his cell.
He’d read the transcript. Watched the parts of the video he could manage.
He was going to have to do something about Obadiah. Something that would get him to stop. Permanently.
Without killing him, of course.
Agent Coulson: A lot of domestic parties relied on the items designed by Stark Industries. A lot of contracts were negated with Mr. Stark’s actions.
Obadiah Stane: Let me guess, he made a lot of people angry with his reckless behavior and hasn’t even thought to apologize for it. He just thinks he’s doing the right thing and we’ll all come around to his charm sooner or later.
Agent Coulson: [Silence. A small smile. A slight nod.]
Obadiah Stane: The agency you work for, SI had contracts with you?
Agent Coulson: A few.
Obadiah Stane: And you want them back.
Agent Coulson: Stark tech is an invaluable asset, but the current management refuses to even sell weapons domestically.
Obadiah Stane: Of course they do. You’ll never convince Tony to change his mind, especially if you’re some government agency. He flouts authority like a child. And anything Tony refuses entirely, not even his bitch Potts will make him do or do without his permission.
Agent Coulson: So you see our predicament.
When Ivan went down into the workshop, sipping his fresh cup of coffee and idly stroking Nona’s feathers, he wasn’t surprised to see Stark down there already. Stark pretty much lived in the workshop, as far as Ivan could tell. There was something deeply unsettling about the way Stark sank so fully into his work that he forgot time and all bodily needs. He barely seemed to sleep, drawn down to the workshop in the middle of the night like a child to the jar of sweets tucked into the back of a cupboard.
Worse still, Ivan could tell that Stark knew it was unhealthy. He gave guilty little looks when Ivan walked in after breakfast and it was clear he’d been there since two or four in the morning. Ivan’s initial instinct was to try and shoo him out, force him to leave, to eat, but that was ultimately not his job and also incredibly exhausting.
Ivan had Nona to tend to, had her to bite his ear when he’d gone sitting and working for too long in one position. Had Nona to shriek when she was hungry and he should feed her and feed him while he was at it. Had her to pluck at his hair for attention so he wasn’t so absorbed in his work he forgot the time. Nona was important.
But Ivan had a feeling that Stark would not do well with a Nona of his own. He barely could feed himself. Ivan would end up taking care of any bird that was gifted to Stark in an attempt to stave off his inevitable self-destruction.
Ivan sometimes found it hard to believe that this was the man that he’d wanted to kill not so long ago. Stark seemed perfectly capable of doing that himself, but, somehow, he managed not to quite reach a dead stop.
Which is why, when Ivan came into the shop after having breakfast, he dropped off a coffee cup and a bowl of scrambled eggs next to Stark on his way to his own work table.
Their relationship might be a tangle of mutual science projects and debts, but Ivan was still grateful for what Stark had done. Making sure the man ate something once in a while was the least he could do to show it.
Obadiah Stane: It’s mostly all digital evidence anyway, which is frankly the easiest to manipulate. Or to make it look like it’s been manipulated.
Agent Coulson: There is also the money trail. Some on paper. Some digital. Rather incriminating stuff, as well. Hence why all your assets got frozen.
Obadiah Stane: I know that a good set of lawyers can run this bullshit around in circles long enough to make it not worth it for anyone and with my assets back I’ll be able to bail myself out of this hole. If you can just manage that, I can get myself the hell out of here.
Agent Coulson: I see.
Obadiah Stane: The board never liked the kid much, he was always impatient and impertinent and disorderly and late. He doesn’t have the head for business his father did, never has, never will. Long-term planning was never his strong suit.
Agent Coulson: And with the board’s help you’ll be reinstated as CEO?
Obadiah Stane: No one is loyal to the golden goose. They’re loyal to the man who owns him.
Natasha is not allowed in the workshop.
At first, this does not bother her. It makes sense, after all. The workshop is where all the science is happening. She didn’t understand the specifics of what they worked on anyway, but she was intelligent enough to remember what she saw and pass along the information.
The problem was that Stark knew she was likely to pass along that information.
And so he kept her locked out.
The other problem was that Stark spent nearly every moment of his waking hours in there, doing science with Vanko. She so rarely saw him that she took to loitering in the hallways between the workshop and his bedroom just to get a glimpse of him.
The not seeing him wouldn’t be so bad if there were any terminals anywhere else in the building for her to poke around in. Or if Pepper Potts wasn’t messaging her every day, like clockwork, on an update from Tony. Apparently, whatever he was working on was some sort of big hush-hush secret that even Potts didn’t know all the details about. Not that she was trying to get Natasha to spy on him for that- she wanted Natasha to make sure he was taking care of himself.
Eating. Sleeping. Showering. Not exploding things. That sort of nonsense.
Which is why Natasha has to wait for Stark in the hallway outside his bedroom like some sort of half-assed babysitting stalker. It’s insane.
It’s driving her literally insane.
The only salvation she has found is Kletka. The AI sounds like a little girl, but she’s learning a lot more every day. Natasha would be more worried if not for the fact that the smarter Kletka got, the less bored out of her skull she became.
Natasha doesn’t know exactly who gave Kletka her information, but someone did. That’s the only reason she can fathom why Kletka would talk to her in Russian, when Natasha mostly heard her speak English to the two men or to those who came to clean the facility periodically. And it's not just the Russian that Kletka uses that makes Natasha think that the AI knows about her.
It’s the training dummies that mysteriously appear in the gym after Natasha tries to substitute a punching bag and it doesn’t go well. It’s the whetstone she finds in a delivery box outside her door for when it turns out Natasha has left hers in California. It’s the appearance of her favorite foods in the kitchen, the mixes she likes to have after a hard workout, the ice cream she has that reminds her of Clint, even a different brand of coffee from the other two that’s her favorite.
The AI knows her in ways that Natasha knows about other people. Through observation and digging. Digital, metaphorical digging.
On the one hand, it is incredibly frightening. Natasha doesn’t eat the ice cream after it appears. She holds out resolve for two weeks, only giving in after she hears Kletka scold Stark for taking out the ice cream because that is Natasha’s ice cream and he was not to be having any of it, Sir.
Kletka’s cameras are everywhere. Natasha knows that she knows that she was around the corner, listening, watching.
On the other hand, Natasha doesn’t have to… pretend.
In her rooms, or the gym alone (and she is usually there alone), Natasha does not have to wear a mask if she so chooses. She can sharpen her knives and play target practice in her room with the new cork board that Kletka got. She can eat ice cream and coffee and watch dumb tv shows while she waits for Stark to come staggering out of the workshop.
She can talk to Kletka, get the news, pass messages to Potts or Fury or even Stark.
She still does pretend, sometimes. Because she has to, still, even if it doesn’t feel like it, but she chooses to do that.
She also chooses to have Kletka read books to her in Russian sometimes and other languages, when she wants to keep her skills sharp.
And Natasha wonders about Kletka.
Wonders if she thinks about the meaning of her name. Wonders if she’s at all bothered by being an AI in a building with just three people.
Wonders if she’s just as bored as Natasha is, living with two men who care more about science and a bird, respectively of course, than they do anything else.
And sometimes, Natasha wonders if Stark made Kletka, not just for the Ivan Vanko, the Russian who definitely stabbed him, but for Natasha Romanoff, the Russian who wished she’d stabbed him at least once, before she got used to him.
Ah. Well. There was always friendly stabbing later. If she got the chance.
Obadiah Stane: I have to admit, I didn’t think the little agency that Howard made would ever work against his son this way.
Agent Coulson: Howard was Howard. Tony is Tony. The son might be like the father, but he is not him. Howard understood his responsibilities.
Obadiah Stane: And Tony doesn’t even know about you, let alone want to help you. It’s a shame, really. If he had ever found out, he would have been a valuable asset. He always worked extra hard to be like daddy. [Laughter, longer this time.]
Agent Coulson: It is unfortunate. [He stands, smoothing his hands over his jacket.] Now, we are in agreement on the next course of action, are we not, Mr. Stane?
Obadiah Stane: We are. Just let me know when the accounts are unfrozen. I can begin the rest of the process.
[Agent Coulson nods. He exits the room without another word.]
“Ms. Romanoff,” Kletka’s voice rouses Natasha from her meditation. She slowly opens one eye, looking up to the ceiling and a bit to the side, towards one of Kletka’s cameras.
“Sir would like to meet with you as soon as you are available.”
“He’s not in the workshop?” Natasha said, lifting her arms above her head and stretching them and her back. She moved smoothly, stretching out her body as she rose to her feet, silent as she was ever trained to be. “Where does he want to meet?”
“Sir is in the common room,” Kletka said, “Boss is still in the workshop.”
Natasha nodded. She pulled a sweater on over her sleeveless shirt and ran her fingers through her hair. She’d become more relaxed in her weeks at the facility that she was more comfortable in the casual clothing than in either of her more typical working attire. She still put on shoes before she left her rooms, padding silently down the hallway and towards the common room.
She found Tony Stark standing at the edge of the common area, where the windows looked out to the factory a few yards away. It was during a shift change, sometime in the afternoon, and Natasha tucked a thought in her mind to go wander around the factory, to see what kind of access she had there. It looked like training might be done soon and that it was nearly time for whatever Stark and Vanko had been making to become manufactured.
Stark was wearing nicer clothing than he had been for the last few weeks, a soft grey button down shirt with the collar left open and jet black slacks. He had to be wearing a cover for the reactor Natasha knew he had in his chest because she couldn’t see even the faintest glow of it through his shirt. He had shades on as well, but they rested on top of his head, letting her have a clear view of the orange in his eyes. Even that she’d gotten used to. She didn’t think he could read minds or had laser vision or any of that nonsense that she’d read online since Everhart’s article about the intense orange glow, but they weren’t as strange to her now. Mostly, they were distracting. And they were absolutely intense when he had his focus on you.
“Kletka mentioned you wanted to speak to me?” Natasha asked.
Something in her tone made Stark smile with a measured fondness. “You two are getting along well?”
Natasha nodded. How well they got along was not something she was willing to share, if he did not already know.
“I’m glad. You’re good for her.” Stark looked back towards the windows while Natasha gave his back a puzzled expression.
“Surely there is something else you wanted to talk about?” Natasha prompted after a few silent seconds. It might not be, after all, Stark’s devotion to his AI was like a father to his children. Even JARVIS had his attention in a way that no human did.
“The Stark Expo begins next week,” Stark said, not turning around again, “But there’s something I need to take care of before that happens. It’s been… building for a while but it seems to have reached a point where it needs my personal touch. I intend to go today and spend the next few days dealing with the issue, though hopefully, it won’t take that long.” He reached out one hand and rested it on the glass. Natasha turned her head slightly and she could see his reflection in the glass, see the frown and the way he stared downwards, unusually somber for Stark.
She waited another moment and then gave a sharp nod, “I will prepare my things so that I can leave at once.” There was no question whether or not she would go. She certainly wasn’t going to stay. Vanko wasn’t exactly interesting company. Nor was he the one she was in charge of keeping track of.
He turned around and looked at her and Natasha fought the urge to straighten her shoulders and lift her chin. She had tried defiance and she had tried the steel spine and she had tried derisive opposition to him and it had only made him harder to reach, not easier. She couldn’t forget that he knew of her- knew what she was if not all the details of how she got that way- and that was an advantage that he had over her typical mark.
“You can only accompany me if you will not contact Shield at all until we’ve done what needs to be done,” Stark said. “If I can’t trust you to keep this to yourself, to keep it between us, you’ll have to stay here and join Vanko when he comes out to see the Expo. And I’ll manage this problem on my own.”
Natasha pressed her lips together in a thin line. She could tell clearly enough that Stark was planning to move against Shield. Surely, if she were to report that, they would have a clear idea about what. They could only have so many projects relating to Stark, after all. It would likely be something obvious if he had already noticed it.
“And If I refrain from reporting it until we are done?” she asked.
“I think we may understand each other a little better, maybe even trust each other a little more,” Stark said. Then he shrugged one shoulder, “Or perhaps you will be removed from watching me a little faster. I doubt you’ve been able to pass on valuable information, but even knowing where I am and who I am working with must be important because you are still here.”
She nodded slightly. Knowing where Stark was in the world was valuable. Sometimes he just disappeared off the grid and it wasn’t because he had been kidnapped. Fury wanted tabs on him and, after finding that impossible to do with hacked security systems, they’d put her on babysitting duty.
“I’m sure you enjoy your time working with Vanko a lot, Mr. Stark, but I don’t gain much from interacting with him,” she said, “If you can’t tell me exactly what you have planned, perhaps you could use more general terms?”
“Shield wants Stark Industries to make and provide them with weapons, again,” Stark said, watching her with an expression that was more expectant than angry. She knew he didn’t care much for Shield though she hadn’t pinpointed exactly why just yet. “And I will do what I can to prevent that from happening. Unfortunately, my hand has been forced and I have to take drastic action or else all that I’ve done will be in jeopardy.”
Natasha considered this.
Part of Stark’s self-imposed duty to remove large scale weapons resonated with her. She understood what it was like to look at your past feats and see only the blood you have spilled on the ground. She didn’t know what his time in Afghanistan was like, no one knew since he refused to talk about it very much, if at all, but she knew he had changed and changed drastically. The man he was before Afghanistan wouldn’t be recognizable next to the one who stood in front of her now, even though they both wore the same face.
She wondered if she’d at all appreciate the other Tony Stark and thought, probably not. He would be charming, sure, and entertaining to be around but she would never be able to trust him. Not really. He had been so carefree and careless, letting himself be pulled along with the tide of vice and pleasure and whatever his surrogate father had needed from him.
He had made bombs and he had made them well.
And now he would work against larger organizations just to stop the weapons from falling into their hands, into anyone’s hands, ever again.
She thought of the different avenues that Shield would take to get what they wanted and, when she plucked on the thought of Obadiah Stane, still alive in a cell somewhere, she grimaced slightly. If they were working on something with him, it almost certainly was going to require Stark to deal with in person.
“Is it about Obadiah?” She hazarded to ask.
Stark blinked, surprised, but then looked pleased that she’d figured it out. He nodded. “He’s been thrashing in his cage recently. He thinks if he has access to his money, he’ll be able to get out and get rid of me.” There was a look that crossed his face very briefly, one that was all ice and determination and made Natasha’s hair rise on her arms. Dangerous; He’s dangerous.
She almost snorted at herself. She knew that, of course. Tony Stark was incredibly dangerous, what with his money and his intelligence and the connections he was forging. She might be able to take him in a fight, but there were plenty of other battlefields in which he could cut her down to the bone and leave her to bleed.
In this case, it was Stane that had brought out that vicious side of Stark. Stane had done the one unforgivable thing to Stark. He had betrayed him.
Stark’s history was pock-marked with betrayals and his increasingly stronger and stronger reactions to those betrayals. Stane was a father figure who had turned on him, so of course Stark would bring him down.
Natasha could only hope she never saw someone Stark consider his best friend to betray him. Potts seemed unlikely to but Rhodes had become more distanced, their relationship strained with the cancellation of the weapon agreements. If either one of them turned on Stark, or someone else close to him, like Vanko or someone like him… Natasha shivered.
“You should not go deal with someone like him alone,” She said, “You could get carried away. And, if there is something obvious that happens to him, you would be the first one to blame. Your best choice would be to allow me to be the personal touch, though I understand if you are reluctant to trust me.” She shrugged a shoulder, “After all, you do not allow me into your workshop. You do not trust me with your science secrets. I would understand.”
Stark blinked a little, as if caught off guard, “That must be Vanko,” he said suddenly, “I thought I’d given you permissions and I probably had, at least to let you in when one of us was there, but Vanko has the authority to change all the permissions. He can revoke access for everyone but me. And he is...not the most trusting of people.”
“You would let me in your workshop?”
“While I was there,” he said.
“Ah,” she said. She felt a little bad for blaming him. She had just assumed… “You have given Vanko a lot of trust. First, you let him stab you, then you bring him here. You even bring his bird to him.”
“Nona, yes,” Stark let out a slight smile, not commenting on the stabbing. He dragged his hand through his air and Natasha saw a red mark on his earlobe, probably from the bird. She was fond of biting ears for attention. “Well, shows of trust are important, you know. And he and I are partners. In this thing together for the long run, so I did what had to be done.”
“Then trust me with this thing for Stane,” Natasha said. She hadn’t meant to press him to send her, had only wanted to present it as an option and force him to choose but- A show of trust. “Trust me to act in your place and I will trust you to keep Shield from knowing that I ever acted as your hand at all. You can do that, can you not?”
Stark gave her a smile that spoke of secrets and Natasha could’ve sworn his eyes flashed as they crinkled slightly. “I can do that.”
Natasha nodded sharply. She would trust him to and he would trust her. It was a tenuous thing, now, but her instincts told her it was her best option.
Tony Stark was too dangerous to have ever put a knife toward her back. She needed him to trust her if only so he would never turn on her.
“I will go pack my things and be ready to go soon.”
“There’s almost certainly going to be some event we’ll have to attend,” Stark added, “So don’t forget to add something pretty to your bags.” He waved his hand at her, “Half an hour.”
Natasha turned and left.
Vanko emerged from the workshop to say goodbye. Nona was on his shoulder and the sleeves of his sweater were rolled up to his elbow. He wore a faded green sweater with the words I BELIEVE stamped out on them, spaced above and below a stereotypical UFO. Natasha eyed the thing with her eyes glittering in amusement but said nothing as she waited with her bag in hand.
Tony clasped hands with Vanko, grinning. “Take good care of things for me,” he said, “And take a look at those personnel files from Kletka. I won’t be able to be here all the time and the place is too big for just one person.”
Vanko grunted, “Do not kid me, I know you have special plan for that other floor.” He grinned though, and gripped Tony’s hand tight, “We see you soon. One week, at Expo.”
“One week,” Tony replied, absolutely thrilled, “I can’t wait for you to meet Bruce and Betty. And all my little tech ducklings from headquarters! It’s going to be such a blast.”
Vanko nodded. He thumped Tony on the shoulder, letting go of his hand, “Safe travels. Do not get stabbed.”
“I only let my favorites get away with that,” Tony laughed and pulled his glasses down off the top of his head. “Goodbye Vanko. Goodbye Nona,” he said to the bird, who turned one dark eye on him and bobbed her head up and down. Turning at last, he called out, “Goodbye Kletka. Be good and keep an eye on things for me here, would you?”
“Of course, Sir. Travel safely,” Kletka said from above. Tony saw the flicker of a smile that Natasha gave, looking upwards and his heart warmed. He wasn’t sure if his Natasha had ever warmed up to JARVIS fully, but she seemed attached to Kletka.
“Watch his back, Red,” Vanko said suddenly, as Tony neared the door. He glanced back to see Natasha regarding Vanko. He had his fingers stroking the feathers of Nona’s chest.
She gave him a sharp smile and inclined her head slightly, but she didn’t say a word. Still, Vanko nodded and then turned to go back to the workshop by himself. Tony held the door open for Natasha, who stepped lightly past him, head up and shoulders straight.
The air was clear and cool and Tony took in a deep breath, pleased with events, despite the underhanded actions of Stane and Shield. Things were progressing smoothly. Which was good, since a certain otherworldly guest was going to come crashing down soon enough.
And then things were going to start getting really interesting.