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Just What They'd Expect

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     "I would do whatever I wanted to do, with whomever I wanted to do it with.” 

     It’s both a complete lie and the absolute truth. Natasha Romanoff hasn’t done ‘whatever she wanted’… perhaps ever in her life. And yet there is really nobody who could force her to do anything against her will either. It’s probably for the best, then, that those words fall from her lips as Natalie Rushman, rather than her own self. She’s also well aware that she’s very nearly in his lap, given the way that the arm of the chair curves, and that’s reason enough for her to rise to her feet, turn her back on him, and start to walk away.

     “Wait.” He murmurs the word under his breath, quietly enough that she’s not even sure that he meant to say it. She’s even less sure if she was meant to hear it. She pauses in the doorway anyway.

     “Will that be all, Mister Stark?”

     He has every excuse to tell her to go, to cancel the party, to be respectable, to be whatever it is that he’s supposed to be in the eyes of his company, but he’s dying, dammit, and he can’t bring himself to care. He wants to go out with a bang, not a whimper. He wants to feel alive. He wants to be remembered. He wants… he wants… 

     (He wants so much, but most of all, he just wants to be allowed to be human. He hasn’t been allowed that in a long time.)

     The party goes on, Natalie smiles at him in such a neutral way that he can’t tell if he’s being praised or reprimanded for his choice, and the look on Pepper’s face is enough to make his bitter and poisoned heart steal away. He seeks out the refuge of the balcony, away from all the invasive chatter and boozy laughter, and sighs as the night threatens to swallow him whole. He’s gone no more than five minutes when footsteps approach his hiding place.

     “Perhaps it’s not my place to say this,” Natalie begins in the most gentle tone he’s ever heard from her, “but is this really what you wanted?”

     She doesn’t need an answer to know, and he doesn’t offer one. 

     (It’s only what is expected. He’s the impulsive, childish, idiotic genius with daddy issues and an alcohol problem. He’s the sweet-talking womanizer who ditches formal events to dance with strippers. He’s the head of a multi-million-dollar corporation that takes off to a new place every other week on whim. It’s what he’s supposed to do, and so he does, plays up the stereotypes, even though they bring him no pleasure at all. At least he won’t be forgotten. At least he’ll put on a show worth telling people about.)

     He’s hesitant to have anyone see him like this, which is only a little ridiculous, given that she’d been touching up the makeup over his bruised face just before the party. Still, only people like Pepper and Happy are supposed to know him well enough to hear his nonverbal cry for help, to see when he needs an out. That an employee who has been working for him for only a few months can already read him so easily is alarming to him, and perhaps even more so because she’s so hard to figure out in return. Still, when she extends a hand, he doesn’t feel strong enough to refuse her.

     “I can arrange your departure and fill in some rumors about a pretty thing catching your eye. You can leave a suit behind if you’re more comfortable interacting at a distance for a little bit. It’ll be just the kind of thing they’d expect from you, really, and I’m sure if you could make the ice sculpture explode or some other dramatics, that would give your guest list plenty to gossip about on social media and keep your presence tangible without much effort.”

     She’s got it all figured out. For one hysterical moment, he rather wants to profess his love to her. Instead, he straightens his suit. “Another half hour, I think. I probably shouldn’t drink more than I can manage during that period anyway.”

     “Maturity’s a bitch, huh,” she mutters, just loud enough for him to hear and snort in amusement. She follows him dutifully inside and orchestrates him offering her a chance to play with the Iron Man glove (which is still connected to the reactor in his chest), and she smiles as she slips a little closer to him. She’ll get what she wants, he’ll get what he needs, and at the end of the day, nobody else will be the wiser. It turns out that working at Stark Industries has its perks after all.