Chapter Fourteen: The Interview
The next day: Natalie, dressed in one of her more professional outfits, walked to Stark Tower with Loki, who was apparently going to be Tony's lab partner again. They reached the tower at 12:45, and went upstairs. They found the team in the living room, and Fury was there too. "Sorry if we're late," Natalie said. Loki was munching on a chocolate bar and just nodded.
"Actually, you're early," Fury said. "That's good, because I do need to speak with you, and I don't have all day to do so. I was unaware Loki was so interested in chocolate."
"Severe chocolate addiction; nothing to be done except keep buying it," Natalie sighed. "He's also informed me that he needs more calories than a human, so I decided to just let him eat chocolate. It's not like he's addicted to something hazardous to his health."
"I will leave that problem to you then," Fury said dryly. "Come with me. And leave the chocolate addict with Stark."
"See you later, Loki," Natalie said, and left with Fury, who led her to another room that looked like a second living room. Fury sat down in a chair, and Natalie did the same, waiting for him to speak. He was holding a file folder, and opened it, then glanced at it and said, "Natalie Allison McKenzie, twenty-two years old. Entered the undergraduate program for early admissions in psychology at only sixteen years old. Earned your Bachelor's degree at age eighteen. Recently earned a Doctor of Psychology degree at NYU- the youngest person to earn that degree in ten years. Focused mainly on becoming a therapist, but also took courses in psychoanalysis. According to your teachers and peers, you are a motivated student who put her education before anything else, and your advisor stated that your main reason for this dedication was a desire to help people. Passed your exams with the highest scores in your class. According to this you have an easy-going personality except when you feel someone you care about is threatened. You previously were in therapy for depression over a family member's untimely death, but you started taking martial arts and that seemed to get rid of your depression. Seemingly the only difficulty you have is a fear of alcohol and alcoholism."
He flipped a page and said, "More recently, you met the members of the Avengers Initiative when you took in Loki Laufeyson, and he was taken from your home by one Thor Odinson. You showed remarkable determination to help him, despite the fact you had never met him before the previous night. You traveled to Asgard to defend Loki's actions to his father and ruler, and managed to get him freed simply by infuriating Odin. Loki came to live with you, and you remained friends with Tony Stark after he let you stay at his tower."
Turning another page, Fury said, "According to the reports of doctors and emergency personnel at the local hospital, you found Tony Stark unconscious and it was your timely intervention that saved his life from alcohol poisoning. Your speech to him in the hospital was quoted on the evening news on CNN, and it had the effect you intended; Stark stopped drinking altogether. The next day he took you to his lab and spent three hours in there. After coming out, Steve Rogers reported that Stark's personality was far more socially acceptable, and suggested to me that as the members of the Avengers Initiative were unwilling to see any of MY medical personnel, that I should hire you to be a part of the Avengers Initiative as the team therapist. I took that under consideration, and decided after seeing Tony Stark's drastic change, that I would interview you if you were amenable to the idea. You're quite a talented young woman, Miss McKenzie, and your references are incredible for one so young with no formal experience. I have only one concern with you taking this job- your fear of alcohol. Aside from Steve Rogers and now Tony Stark, everyone on this team drinks at least once in a while. If you join the team, you will most likely come into contact with this fear of yours once in a while. I want an honest answer- will you be able to handle working with people who enjoy something you are terrified of?"
"What they do on their own time is none of my business," Natalie said. "I am well aware that many people enjoy drinking, and while I myself despise it, I don't actively discourage people unless I feel that they have an addiction. I can tell that none of the drinkers on this team have the problem Tony had, and if they want to drink, that's their business. I am more than capable of handling people drinking, and I do know what to do if someone is drunk or if they have alcohol poisoning. I don't let my personal fears affect my work, Director Fury. I realize I will come into contact with people who like to drink or have addictions to alcohol, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time learning to control my emotions in any given situation."
"And when Tony Stark was in the hospital?" Fury asked.
"What did you hear in my voice when I gave Tony that speech?" Natalie asked in return.
"You were passionate, but had your emotions under control for the most part," Fury said.
"Correct- if you were listening to my voice, or looking at my face," Natalie said. "Do you know how I was really feeling at the time?"
Fury scowled. "No," he admitted.
"Pure terror," Natalie replied bluntly. "Tony didn't notice, the doctors didn't notice, and no one who heard my speech noticed, but the entire time I was sitting there, I was terrified. And yet I kept my emotions under control, knowing that becoming hysterical or angry would only do more harm than good. So in answer to your earlier question- yes. I can certainly handle working with people who enjoy something I am terrified of."
"Very well," Fury said. "As long as you do not do a repeat of the incident where you threatened to use me as a dummy to practice castration on, you may have the job."
"I promise not to threaten you with castration again," Natalie said. "My father nearly had a heart attack when he found out who exactly I was threatening."
"How exactly does your father know who I am?" Fury asked.
"Beats me, but he's a lawyer," Natalie replied. "I don't know much about his job, and at the time I was threatening you, I had no idea who you were. All I knew was your last name. My father was the one who told me you were the director of SHIELD."
"Do you often randomly threaten strangers with castration?" Fury asked.
"Only when they're threatening people I care about," Natalie said, smiling sweetly.
"Hmph," Fury said. "Let's talk about the specifics of your new job."
"Alright," Natalie said.
"Due to the fact that I'm having the entire team live here for team-building exercises, I have asked Stark if he would let you live here as well, and he has agreed to give you and Mr. Laufeyson a room, since apparently you two prefer sharing," Fury said. "I understand that you currently live in an apartment building twenty minutes' walk from here?"
"Yes, and my lease runs out in two months," Natalie said.
"I suggest using those two months to move or sell anything in your current apartment, then, as Stark has said you can move in whenever you want," Fury said. "I will let you work out treatment plans with the Avengers, since they are your clients. You will get paid once a week, like the other therapists I employ. It's $600 a week starting pay, and I'll send you a pamphlet on benefits. You will have access to the Avengers' personality and background files, but I want to wait a bit before giving you access to more sensitive files, like mission reports. I assume you have a laptop, correct?"
"Yes," Natalie said.
"I would like you to give it to Stark so he can put the necessary programming on it to access SHIELD's files," Fury said. "You will be given a password, but you can choose your username. I'd prefer that it has nothing to do with your alleged anime addiction."
"Alright," Natalie said.
"A word of warning; Bruce getting too angry or stressed will cause the Hulk to come out, and Tony's the only one who the Hulk won't harm," Fury said.
"I had an idea about that anyways," Natalie said. "I think I'll talk to Bruce about it."
"Oh?" Fury asked.
"I don't know much about this, but has Bruce ever attempted to form a symbiotic relationship with the other guy?" Natalie asked. "I know he's good at suppressing the Hulk, but no one's ever mentioned if he's ever tried to work WITH the Hulk, rather than just trying to ensure he never comes out unless it's absolutely necessary."
Fury just stared at her, single eye wide. "I take it that's a no?" Natalie asked.
"I don't think anyone's ever suggested that," Fury said finally. "Rogers was right."
"About what?" Natalie asked.
"You're something else," Fury said. "Most would have crumpled under the pressure I was putting on you when we first met; you, on the other hand, started threatening me. And now you've come up with a solution to Banner's problem that NO ONE has even ever suggested before."
"I actually got the idea from an anime," Natalie said, suppressing a grin when Fury sighed.
"Do I want to know?" he asked.
"The main character had a similar problem, and I always thought it was a shame that Ichigo never attempted to form a more reasonable relationship with his inner self," Natalie said. "Instead he fought tooth and nail to keep his inner self from ever getting out. I always thought it would be better to find a way to work together with his inner self, and that's what came to mind when I first heard about Bruce's problems."
"I suppose I should expect a request for a Friday off for Comic Con?" Fury sighed.
"I promised I'd take my little brother and Loki, so yes," Natalie said. "Guess who Kevin is cosplaying as."
"Who?" Fury asked warily.
"Iron Man," Natalie said. "And I got conned into going as the Black Widow. Now I just need to find a bunch of black clothing."
"Or you could ask Agent Romanoff if you could borrow something from her," Fury said. "Exactly how is your brother recreating the suit, and should I be concerned?"
"Cardboard and metallic paint, along with battery-powered Christmas lights," Natalie said. "Tony apparently thinks it's cool. Kevin all but dragged him off during the party we had for me getting my doctorate."
"Your family knows, then?" Fury asked.
"Yes, and they are all well aware that they can't tell people, including members of my extended family," Natalie said. "I was careful."
"Good," Fury said. "That should be all; give Tony your laptop when you get a chance, and he can upload the software you'll need."
"Will do," Natalie said.
Before Fury could respond, they heard Tony shout, "STEVE! WHAT IS EVERGREEN DOING IN MY LAB!?"
"Evergreen?" Fury asked.
"Steve's kitten," Natalie said. "Steve has a kitten obsession. I like Evergreen, though, so I think I'll go find her."
"Rogers has a KITTEN OBSESSION?" Fury asked in disbelief.
"Yup," Natalie said. "Are we done?"
"Yes, we're done," Fury said. "Go help rescue the cat."
Natalie perked up and left. She ran into Steve on the way, and as they took the elevator to Tony's lab, Steve asked, "How'd it go?"
"I think he was impressed," Natalie said. "And according to him, Loki and I will be living here soon."
"Great," Steve said. "You two are good with Evergreen- unlike Tony."
"Should we convert him?" Natalie asked.
"I'll pass- he won't listen to me," Steve said.
They got out of the elevator and ran to Tony's lab, and Natalie called, "Tony, is Evergreen still in there?"
"Yes, and I want her OUT," Tony said grouchily. He let them in, and Natalie saw Evergreen attempting to climb Tony's suit. She went over and gently picked the kitten up, then cuddled her and said, "Come on Evergreen, let's go play with Steve. No more climbing, okay?"
Evergreen purred happily as Natalie handed her to Steve, who said, "Sorry Tony."
"How did she even get in here?" Tony asked. "The doors were closed."
"Cats are like that- but it's also a possibility she slipped in when you came down here, and just hid somewhere until you noticed her," Natalie said. "By the way, where's Loki?"
"He said something about needing more chocolate," Tony said. "I told him not to eat it in here, and he left."
"He had two bars of Lindt and a bag of M&M's already," Natalie said in disbelief. "How could he possibly need more?"
"That's a bit scary," Tony commented. "Maybe you should talk to him about this…."
"I think I will," Natalie said. "His addiction is getting out of control. Is there a way to contact Thor?"
"No… but he should be showing up soon, he usually only stays away for a month or so," Tony said. "Why?"
"I was going to ask if he or Frigga knew anything about the ingredients in chocolate; maybe there's something in it that's causing this addiction?" Natalie suggested.
"I didn't think of that," Tony said. "You could ask Loki, you know."
"True," Natalie said. "I think I'll do that. JARVIS, is Loki still in the kitchen?"
"Yes," JARVIS said.
"Thanks," Natalie replied, and headed out. Sure enough, she found Loki eating a chocolate bar, and asked, "Loki, how much chocolate have you had today?"
"I lost track," Loki said. "Why do you ask?"
"Your addiction is out of control, and I was wondering if you knew if there was anything in the chocolate that could be causing this," Natalie said.
Loki looked at the nutrition information on the wrapper, and then winced. "I take it there is something?" Natalie asked.
"No, I simply did not know it was that fatty," Loki said. "I cannot see anything that would cause this addiction; perhaps it is just my personal taste."
"Whatever it is, I'm cutting you off," Natalie said. "And according to Fury, we're moving in with these guys now that I'm the team therapist, so we should start packing up our apartment."
"No more chocolate?" Loki asked sadly.
"No more chocolate," Natalie said firmly.
Loki sighed, but before he could say anything, a woman Natalie hadn't seen before came into the room, and looked at her. "Are you Natalie?" she asked.
"Yes, are you Pepper?" Natalie asked.
"Yes, and I can't thank you enough for what you did for Tony," Pepper said.
"You're welcome," Natalie said. "I'm just glad what I did worked- though I could have done without the broadcast that night."
"I was in tears," Pepper admitted. "So what brings you here today?"
"Interview with Fury," Natalie said. "I'm now the official therapist for the Avengers."
"That's wonderful, congratulations," Pepper said.
"Thanks," Natalie said with a smile. "Did you come looking for Tony? He's in the lab."
"I'm not anymore," Tony said from the doorway. "Hi Pepper, what's up?"
"I have some things for you to look at, and I was telling Natalie how grateful I am to her," Pepper said.
"Do I have to look at the paperwork?" Tony whined.
"Yes," Pepper said dryly.
"I'll make an apple pie if you look at the paperwork, Tony," Natalie said.
"Make whipped cream too and you've got a deal," Tony said immediately.
"Done," Natalie said. "I'll go to the store; I think the only things I need are whipping cream, vanilla, and more apples."
"I can get those," Pepper said. "How did you do that, Natalie?"
"Get Tony to agree? Ever heard the saying, "The fastest way to a man's heart is through his stomach"?" Natalie asked.
"Yeah," Pepper said.
"That method works well for bribery too," Natalie explained. "Oh, if you ever need to bribe Clint to do something, promise him a chocolate cream pie and he'll do whatever it is while actually smiling."
"And you know this how?" Tony asked.
"After that fight he had with Loki, I talked with him and discovered that he's got a serious weakness for chocolate cream pie," Natalie said. "Loki decided to test it out for me, and it worked like a charm."
"Cool," Tony said. "Okay, where's the paperwork? I want to get the torture over with so I can eat pie."
Pepper handed over a large, thick folder, and said, "I'll go get the ingredients for you, Natalie. What kind of apples?"
"Granny Smith apples," Natalie said. "Thanks Pepper."
"Sure," Pepper said, and headed out. Tony went to the living room as Natalie started getting the ingredients for the crust out.
By the time she finished rolling out the crust, Pepper was back. Natalie thanked her and started slicing the apples. The pie was ready to go in the oven about half an hour later, and Natalie put it in, then set the timer for an hour. She started cleaning up, and by the time she was done, the pie was starting to smell good. She started the whipped cream next.
As Natalie was setting the pie out to cool, Tony came in with a bunch of paperwork, which he handed to Pepper. He looked at Loki, and snickered. "What is so funny?" Loki asked.
"You look like a puppy begging for table scraps right about now, Loki," Tony snickered.
Natalie looked, and said, "Tony, stop teasing Loki. He can't help being adorable."
"I am NOT adorable," Loki groused. "Adorable would refer to small animals. I am not a small animal. Evergreen is adorable, but I am not."
"Aw, don't sell yourself short, Reindeer Games," Tony said. "Girls love cute."
Loki just glared at him, then looked puzzled when he stumbled a bit. Natalie's eyes narrowed, and she asked, "Tony, when was the last time you slept in a bed, not in your lab?"
"'Bout three days ago, why?" Tony asked nonchalantly.
"Seems like it's a good thing Fury told me I have to live with you; you need a babysitter," Natalie said.
"I do NOT need a babysitter," Tony grumbled.
"You have dark circles and bags under your eyes, and it's clear to me that you're exhausted," Natalie said flatly. "After pie, I want you to go back to bed before you collapse."
"I'm not going to collapse," Tony protested. "And I have stuff to work on in the lab!"
Natalie gave him her mother's patented 'Mom Look', and Tony sighed. "Can I have pie first?" he asked.
"Yes," Natalie said. "Do you want whipped cream on your pie?"
"Yes please," Tony said.
Natalie looked at Pepper and Loki. "Do you two want pie too?" she asked.
"I would," Loki said.
"Same here, thanks," Pepper said.
Natalie smiled and cut four slices of pie, putting them on plates, and scooping some of her homemade whipped cream onto each. She set the slices in front of Tony, Loki, and Pepper, then sat down with her own. "This is great," Tony said happily.
"I agree," Loki said. "Natalie, can you make this more often?"
"Sure," Natalie said.
"This is really good," Pepper said. "Do you like cooking, Natalie?"
"Yep," Natalie said. "Do you?"
"Yes, I do," Pepper said. "I come over and cook for Tony and his friends sometimes, so they don't have take-out every night. I think Steve can cook, but they usually get take-out for dinner."
"Looks like I'll be doing a lot more cooking in the future," Natalie said. "Take-out every night, while it tastes great, is far from healthy."
"I've tried telling Tony that, but he doesn't listen to me," Pepper sighed. "Why does he listen to you? I thought I'd tried everything."
"I don't know," Natalie said thoughtfully. "Tony, why do you listen to me and not Pepper?"
Tony mumbled something, and the only word Natalie caught was 'trust'. "All I heard was 'trust'," Natalie said. An idea occurred to her, and she asked, "Is it that you trust me more than you trust Pepper?"
Tony sighed, then nodded.
"Why is that?" Natalie asked. "You've known her longer than you have me, and you seem pretty close."
"This is going to sound stupid and cliché," Tony said.
"If you don't want to tell me, you don't have to," Natalie said. "Or it could wait until we start doing actual therapy sessions."
"I like the second idea," Tony said, and then yawned.
"Bedtime," Natalie said. "And I mean in an actual bed."
"Fine…." Tony said sulkily. "Are you heading back to your apartment?"
"Yeah, it's getting late," Natalie said. "I'll bring my laptop in tomorrow morning, okay?"
"Sure," Tony said. Natalie and Loki headed out soon after that, and went home.