From Bad to Worse
Stark Tower was largely empty.
Members of the janitorial staff were vacuuming a nearby office, and a few of Stark’s employees still lingered at their desks, lit by the glow of computer screens, but it was late enough in the evening that, for the most part, the building was quiet.
Natasha was dressed to blend in with the few remaining workers, wearing high heels, a fitted blue blazer, and a matching skirt. At her side, she carried a sleek, black electronic file that resembled a laptop, and a comm unit was tucked over her left ear, hidden behind her hair. It was silent for the moment, but if she turned it on, she knew it would be filled with chatter from the three-member surveillance team stationed outside the building, keeping tabs on Stark’s whereabouts.
A S.H.I.E.L.D. tech walked beside her, dressed in charcoal gray pants and a white dress shirt rolled up at the elbow. He had short brown hair and glasses, and carried a briefcase that hid the computer equipment he’d brought with him.
Together, they turned down a long corridor, footsteps echoing on the hard floor. They paused when they came to a single door located at the end of the hallway. A keypad was mounted beside it, a security light glowing a faint red. The tech set down his briefcase and opened it with a flick of his thumbs, withdrawing a small device no bigger than a flash drive. He pressed it to the side of the keypad, and an instant later the security light turned green, the door unlocking with a faint click.
The tech pocketed the device and closed the briefcase.
He opened the door and they both stepped through it; behind it was a second corridor, this one much shorter, and the doors to Stark’s private elevator were located at the end.
It was tempting to simply head straight for Stark’s penthouse, but Natasha knew that might very well cost her what little goodwill she could expect. So, instead, she reached for the phone in her pocket and quickly dialed Stark’s number.
The phone rang three times before it was picked up.
“You’ve reached Tony Stark’s personal line,” a cultured, British voice answered. It had to be the AI. Stark probably had him screening his calls. “How may I help you?”
“This is Agent Natasha Romanoff with S.H.I.E.L.D. I need to speak with Mr. Stark immediately.”
There was a pause. Then, an instant later: “Agent Romanoff, I’m afraid that Mr. Stark isn’t in at the moment. If you would like to leave a message, Mr. Stark will contact you as soon as possible.”
Natasha muted the phone and touched the radio on her opposite ear. “The AI claims Stark’s not there.”
“Negative,” a member of the surveillance team answered. “Stark just landed on the building’s southeast side.”
She raised the phone once again. “I need to speak with Stark. Now.”
There was another pause and then the line went dead.
That wasn’t really unexpected - Stark’s file described him as uncooperative, among other things - but Natasha felt a pang of irritation nonetheless. She snapped the phone shut and glanced over at the tech, nodding to give him the go-ahead. He knelt down, this time removing a miniaturized laptop from the briefcase. Then, he reached for the panel beside the elevator and used a small screwdriver to detach the case, exposing a series of wires. After connecting the panel to his laptop with a small cable, he sat down on the floor, settled the computer in his lap, and began to type.
Within a minute, the doors to Stark’s private elevator opened and Natasha stepped inside, holding up her phone. “I’ll call him again,” she told the tech. “The call needs to go through.”
The tech nodded, his fingers moving rapidly over the keys once more.
The doors closed, and the elevator rose, taking her swiftly to Stark’s floor. When she was certain that she had waited long enough, she redialed Stark’s number.
This time, he answered it unhappily. “You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark, please leave a message.”
Natasha didn’t even bother responding to that. She shut the phone and waited while the doors of the elevator opened to reveal Stark’s penthouse.
She recognized Stark immediately, both from his S.H.I.E.L.D. file and from various shots she had seen of him in the press. He had short dark hair and dark eyes, accented with a carefully sculpted goatee, and he wore black pants and a black long sleeve shirt, the blue glow of his arc reactor visible through the fabric on his chest. He was kneeling in front of a couch, facing a seated woman who Natasha knew to be Virginia “Pepper” Potts. Potts had strawberry blonde hair that fell a little past her shoulders, curling at the ends to frame her face. Her eyes were blue, and she had a light dusting of freckles over her nose which her make-up failed to hide completely. She was dressed casually, with a white cotton shirt that buttoned in the front and a pair of denim shorts.
Both Stark and Potts were holding champagne. Well, Natasha supposed, that at least explained Stark’s reluctance to see her. Not that Stark actually needed a reason to be difficult.
“We don’t have time for this, Mr. Stark,” Natasha told him simply.
Stark rolled his eyes.
It was Potts who looked uncertain. “Oh,” Potts began. “Please, come in, Agent…?” she trailed off, the question clear.
“Romanoff,” Natasha supplied, stepping into the penthouse.
Stark and Potts both stood and walked over to meet her, but Stark was still frowning. “Where’s Agent Coulson?” he demanded.
“He’s on another assignment. Director Fury sent me in his place.”
Stark’s dark look faded as he studied her, his eyes traveling over her appreciatively. “Hm. Remind me to thank him.”
“Tony!” Potts protested.
“Sorry, Pep. Reflex.” Stark cleared his throat. “I meant to say, Agent Romanoff, that I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m off the clock. If it’s really that important, official consulting hours are between eight and five every other Thursday.”
“This isn’t a consultation.”
“Is this about the Avengers Initiative?” Potts asked curiously.
Natasha glanced at her sharply.
“Which I...I know nothing about,” Potts amended too late, blushing a little.
Stark scoffed. “The Avengers Initiative was scrapped, I thought. And I didn’t even qualify.”
“Neither did I,” Natasha answered.
Stark’s eyebrows rose at that. “They were considering you for the program? What exactly would your superpower be?” He paused, pursing his lips, letting his eyes wander over her figure once more. “Oh, no, wait, I bet I can guess…”
Potts rolled her eyes and gave Stark an exasperated look.
Stark grimaced. “Yeah. Sorry again. Forget that last bit.” He cleared his throat uneasily, then glanced back at Natasha. “So, what did they say about you? Volatile, self-obsessed, doesn’t play well with others…? ’Cause that sounds familiar.”
Natasha gave him a bland smile. “I’m too great of a security risk.”
Starks eyebrows rose. “Huh. Well, that’s impressive, I guess, though I’m particularly fond of ‘volatile’ myself. So, let me get this straight - right now, S.H.I.E.L.D. is desperate enough to want help from dangerous, unstable people like us? That doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s not.” She held the electronic file out to Stark. “You’ll find everything you need to know in here.”
Stark frowned at the file for a moment, then turned comically pleading eyes to Potts who huffed and set her champagne down on a nearby table, stepping forward to take the file herself before passing it to Stark.
“Don’t mind him,” Potts offered. “He has issues.”
Stark scowled at that, but he set down his own champagne and accepted the file nonetheless. He opened it, then walked over to a work station on the other side of the room. “Miss Potts,” he called, motioning for her to join him, “got a minute?”
Potts offered Natasha an apologetic smile. “Excuse me.”
She hurried over to Stark.
They lowered their voices as they spoke, but not quiet enough.
“I thought we were having a moment,” Stark began, frowning again as he started scrolling through the contents of the file.
“The moment ended several moments ago,” Potts retorted wryly.
“Was it the twelve percent comment or the flirting?”
“Both. Besides, this seems serious.” Potts leaned down to examine the file for herself. “What is all of this?”
“This is, uh…This.” With a flick of his hands, Stark sent the files up onto the electronic screens in front of him.
Their voices dropped again after that, and Natasha couldn’t make out the rest of their conversation, but whatever was said, it ended in a kiss - apparently, Stark was forgiven.
Potts left Stark’s side and started for the elevator, offering a polite smile as she went. “It was nice to meet you, Agent Romanoff. Please give my best to Phil the next time you see him.”
Stark turned around. “Phil?” he repeated, sounding incredulous.
Potts’s smile took on a mischievous edge, but she didn’t answer as she reached for the elevator controls, closing the doors before Stark had time to question her further.
Stark scowled for a moment, then turned back around to continue searching through the file Natasha had given him.
“We’ll need you to join us as soon as possible, Mr. Stark,” Natasha pressed.
He waved a hand without looking back at her, which she assumed was his version of a response.
“In fact, Mr. Stark, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me now.”
That finally got Stark’s attention. His head shot up in a mixture of annoyance and disbelief.
When she’d spoken to Coulson before he’d left for Calcutta, he’d suggested that she not push Stark too much, that he was more likely to cooperate if he was allowed to do so on his own time.
But, as she’d told Stark, they didn’t have time. Clint didn’t have time. And if Stark’s casual attitude was anything to go by, it could be hours, even days before Stark finally felt like gracing S.H.I.E.L.D. with his presence.
Stark snorted. “Am I under arrest, Agent Romanoff?”
“Then, no, I’m not coming with you. Door’s that way.” He pointed at the elevator.
“I’m afraid I have to insist.”
Stark raised an eyebrow at that. “Well, excuse me for channeling my inner nine-year-old here, but - you can’t make me.”
He was probably right, galling as it was to admit. In an even physical match, Natasha could easily best him, but if he managed to stall her long enough to put on the suit, she wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Moreover, getting in a fight with Stark would not help her gain the World Security Council’s trust.
But, oddly enough, she didn’t particularly care about any of that right now.
They needed Stark if they were going to get Clint back.
“I can try,” she said simply.
At that, Stark finally turned around to face her fully, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why is this so important to you?” he demanded. “You don’t strike me as the type to suck up to your bosses, so that’s not it. And I doubt you’re just that dedicated to your job, so what is it?”
Natasha grit her teeth. “Someone I know is involved.”
“It’s Barton, isn’t it?”
Natasha wasn’t quite able to conceal her surprise.
Stark smirked faintly. “I read fast.”
Clint was, of course, a part of the report Fury had arranged for Stark’s perusal, though it included only the most basic information about his past and his…usurpation by Loki. Still, apparently that had been enough for Stark to connect the dots.
“So?” Stark asked again. “Am I right?”
Natasha gave a curt nod.
Stark smiled briefly in satisfaction, but the expression faded as he cocked his head and studied her for a long moment.
She stared back evenly.
“Okay, fine,” Stark said at last. “I’ll go with you now. But you get to help me pack.”
Natasha almost regretted insisting that Stark come with them. Almost.
He had, in fact, demanded that she help him pack, tossing clothes at her impatiently only to snatch them back so that he could shove them into a duffle bag. He’d kept up a steady stream of mindless chatter all the while - jumping from one topic to the next like a hyper-active child.
When he was finally satisfied that he had what he needed, they’d left the tower, and she’d led him to the nearby high-rise that was serving as a temporary landing platform for their quinjet. Once aboard, Stark had finally settled down enough to continue studying the files Fury had sent. She was seated across from him in the aft compartment, and from this angle, she could see the corner of his screen. It contained a copy of Dr. Selvig’s notes on the Tesseract, and another, smaller window was dedicated to thermonuclear astrophysics. Stark seemed to be reading both at once.
A sleek red and gold case sat beside him on the floor, propped up against his leg. A travel-sized version of the suit, he’d explained. She knew from reading Stark’s file that he had possessed something similar when he’d been suffering from palladium poisoning. She assumed that this was the new, improved version, but the Agent then-playing Stark’s personal assistant hadn’t been detailed enough in her descriptions for Natasha to be sure.
Natasha knew it was a role she herself might have been given - the sultry assistant, charged with observing Stark and influencing him when needed. But, to be honest, she was glad that she hadn’t been with S.H.I.E.L.D. long enough to have been assigned the mission. Judging by Stark’s reaction to her in the penthouse, it wouldn’t have been difficult to spark his interest, but it would not have been an assignment she would have relished. Stark’s personality was simply too grating.
Fury undoubtedly knew that, which was most likely why he’d assigned her to Stark now. It was preferable to a black mark on her record, she supposed, but only by a very bare margin.
Snorting softly at the thought, she turned away from Stark, letting her gaze wander across the sky visible through the jet’s windshield.
Clint would have appreciated the view.
He always did.
He spent most of their mission-related flights staring out the window at the sky. Something in him seemed to uncoil in those moments, his expression a little less blank, his posture a little more relaxed. Such a sight was still relatively rare, despite the small improvements she’d seen in him over the last year, and she had learned to appreciate it.
There were many things she had learned to appreciate.
It had been obvious from the beginning that they would be assigned to work as partners. Clint’s condition meant that S.H.I.E.L.D. did not trust him to work independently, and logistically, it made sense to pair them together, since S.H.I.E.L.D. would need to expend fewer resources to monitor them. Thankfully, their skills complimented each other quite well, so they had fallen quickly into a routine.
Missions, she had found, tended to render Clint even more silent than usual. But, though he didn’t speak as often, he gained an intensity that he lacked otherwise - a sharpness visible in his movements, a light evident in his eyes. More often than not, he served as her backup while she took point, assuming whatever role was needed to ingratiate herself with their targets. Occasionally, he joined her on the ground, usually to play the hired muscle (stoic and looming came to him naturally).
But, it wasn’t the missions themselves that stood out to her now. It was the moments in between.
She’d asked him to show her how to fire a bow once. She’d learned the basics in the Red Room, since they had wished for her to be proficient with a wide variety of weapons, but Clint’s technique differed and she was curious. He’d spoken more in the following hour than he ever had before, at least in the time that she could remember. He’d deftly adjusted her grip and her stance, and shown her how to aim, helping her get a feel for the tension in the string. When she’d made a bull’s-eye, Clint had given her the same almost-smile she’d first seen from him in New Mexico, after the Thor mission.
Then, a few months later, in Munich, they’d had the chance to visit the circus.
Bright, colorful, and loud, the atmosphere had felt somehow foreign and familiar to her all at once. Clint had watched it all with a sort of avid curiosity she had never seen from him before, his gaze darting from one act to the next, the lights from the stage casting his features in stark relief, somehow making him look younger.
She had bought a poster for him, before they’d left. It had wound up in his quarters, hanging next to the circus poster he already owned.
Shortly after that, in Zurich, their safe house had been next door to a confectioner’s chocolate shop. Natasha had made a point to try as many of the chocolates as she could. Her favorite had been the small chocolate squares filled with almonds and caramel, though she had never learned their formal name. She hadn’t even realized that Clint had been watching her, but the night before the mission had ended, she’d found a small package of them sitting on her bed.
He was her partner in every sense of the word, and she owed him still.
For her freedom. For her life as it was now.
And she would do whatever was necessary to get him back.
Hours later, they had reached the Helicarrier, and the sound of voices greeted them as she and Stark neared the conference room adjoining the bridge.
Natasha heard Coulson say something about “slight foxing around the edges,” and smirked faintly in amusement. He’d wanted to get his Captain America trading cards signed since Rogers had been found in the ice, and she’d wondered how long it would take him to mention it to his boyhood hero.
The talk stopped as soon as they entered, however.
Coulson and two other men were seated at the conference table.
It was the tall, blond man who stood and walked over to meet her, an old fashioned gesture emphasized by the vintage style of his clothing. He wore a green plaid shirt that was buttoned up neatly to the collar, and a brown, leather aviator’s jacket. His trousers looked to be military issue as well. He was clean shaven and his hair was neatly trimmed, parted on one side, combed and slicked back.
“Ma’am,” he began, nodding politely.
She held out a hand. “Agent Natasha Romanoff.”
“Steve Rogers.” He took the offered hand, shaking it firmly, then turned to face the billionaire beside her. “Mr. Stark,” he added.
“Captain,” Stark returned simply.
Rogers gave a somewhat strained smile in response, and Stark’s gaze drifted to the conference table.
“Coulson! Pepper says hi.”
Coulson nodded. “Tell her I say the same.”
“I will,” Stark assured, his gaze moving to the other man who was still seated.
He was dressed in a rumpled purple shirt with a tan suit jacket and tan pants. His brown, curly hair was sprinkled with small flecks of gray, and there was a tired look in his brown eyes. He grasped a pair of glasses loosely in one hand, but it was the tense set of his shoulders that made Natasha wary. According to the reports she’d read, he’d gone more than a year without an incident, but he clearly didn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D., and the resulting stress might make him unstable. He would bear watching.
Stark, however, didn’t have the same reservations.
He walked over purposefully and reached out to shake his hand. “It’s good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”
Banner winced faintly and looked down. “Uh…thanks.”
“Dr. Banner is only here to track the cube.”
They all turned at that, watching as Fury strode into the room.
“I was hoping you might join him, Stark,” he continued, taking a seat at the head of the table.
Following his example, Natasha claimed a seat of her own beside Coulson, and Rogers returned to the seat he had occupied earlier. Stark, however, remained standing, choosing to wander around the room, stopping to study anything he deemed to be of interest.
But, clearly, he was still listening.
“Well, you know me,” Stark said, “‘helpful,’ is my middle name.”
Fury snorted at that. “Sure it is.”
Clasping both hands in front of him, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table.
“As you all know,” he began formally, “yesterday, at 0200, our New Mexico research installation was attacked by an alien hostile known as Loki. He persuaded three of our personnel to assist him in obtaining the Tesseract, using some sort of…spell. Dr. Eric Selvig and Agent Clint Barton are believed to still be with him now. The third man, Agent Marcus Powell, was killed as they fled. His remains were discovered in the tunnels beneath the base.”
“What about Loki’s brother?” Rogers wondered. “Thor, wasn’t it? The one you had contact with last year? Can’t he do anything to help?”
Fury sighed. “Thor might be willing to help us, but he’s worlds away, and we have no way to contact him.”
“You’ve said you want me to track down the cube,” Banner interjected, leaning back in his seat. “Any idea what they’re planning to do with it?”
“At this point, we can’t say, though our guess is ‘nothing good.’”
“Do you think they want to weaponize it?” Rogers asked. “The footage you showed me of Loki’s attack…that staff he had. It may be magical, but it works an awful lot like a HYDRA weapon.”
Banner looked thoughtful. “I don’t know about weaponizing the cube, but if they want to create another portal, it won’t be easy. Dr. Selvig would need heat the cube to a hundred and twenty million Kelvin just to break through the Coulomb barrier.”
“Unless Selvig has figured out how to stabilize the quantum tunneling effect,” Stark cut in, frowning. He stopped by a set of monitors, prodding at them for a moment, then turned around, shrugging. “They’d need a stabilizing agent for that. Probably iridium, though it would have to be a pure, sizeable sample. The only other major component they’d need is a power source. A high energy density, something to kick start the cube.”
Fury nodded. “We’ll begin exploring possible sources for both. In the meantime, we’re continuing our search for Loki and the others.”
“We’re sweeping every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet,” Coulson added. “Cell phones, laptops. If it’s connected to a satellite, it’s eyes and ears for us.”
“That won’t find them in time,” Natasha pointed out.
The Red Room had trained them to avoid even that kind of detection, and Clint already knew S.H.I.E.L.D.’s modus operandi - he could easily guarantee that Loki and the others stayed out of sight as well.
“Unfortunately, right now, it’s the best we’ve got,” Fury said. “Unless, one of you has something to add...?”
Banner frowned. “You have to narrow the field. How many spectrometers do you have access to?”
Fury shrugged. “How many are there?”
“Call every lab you know, tell them to put the spectrometers on the roof and calibrate them for gamma rays. I’ll rough out a tracking algorithm based on cluster recognition. At least we could rule out a few places.”
Fury nodded again. “Do it.” He turned to look at Stark and frowned.
Natasha followed his gaze to find that Stark was staring at conference table, a preoccupied look on his face, his mouth twisted in obvious thought.
“Stark?” Fury pressed. “Something you wanna share?”
“It’s just…why Barton?”
Fury blinked. “What?”
“Think about it. Loki had his pick of Agents, right? He could have taken anybody in that room. He could have taken you. So why choose a guy whose lights aren’t all on upstairs?”
“Stark,” Rogers objected, scowling at the flippancy.
Natasha might have been grateful for that except for the feeling of sudden, cold realization settling in even as Stark spoke.
“No, I’m serious,” Stark continued. “Loki wiped the floor with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best and brightest. Obviously, he doesn’t need muscle. So what does Barton actually have to offer Loki? Money? Intel?”
Every head turned in her direction as the word slipped past her lips.
It made sense. Too much sense. She should have seen it before.
Outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., it was all Clint knew. And what better place to take a man bent on destroying them?
“The Red Room,” Natasha said, her throat tight. “Clint took Loki to the Red Room.”