Natasha wasn't entirely certain what to think of Tony Stark. Of course, she had been trained to observe, to analyze-to know at a mere glance-the innermost workings of her targets, and to that end, she had yet to fail. Her ability-which had, she supposed, been plain to the KGB from the moment its members had laid greedy eyes on her-went well past her ability to manipulate the lust of others with her body, and into another field entirely; people were transparent under her careful scrutinization-their hopes, their aspirations, their failings, all as plain as could be. And so it was strange, undoubtedly, that Tony Stark might accurately have counted himself amongst one of the very few who gave her-trouble.

When the two had first met, Natasha had pegged him unhesitatingly. He was impulsive, careless, full of greed, a capable liar, overly fond of attention, a playboy with a penchant for stepping on those who cared for him most-evident, she had noted, in his secretary, who didn't seem to trust Natasha as far as she could throw her (likely out of a sense of ownership and even passion where Tony was concerned, but then, her mission was not to concern herself with Ms. Potts). He was, as she had written on his recommendation form in neat, slanting script, every bit the part of a textbook narcissist.

If there was one person Natasha simply could not understand, it was herself-though in honesty, that was more due in part to the fact that often she felt she didn't want to know herself than anything else. Still, she could not deny that for all that Anthony Stark was a poor choice for the initiative for several reasons-none of them justified her having denied him the rights to join the group, whether or not he would have wanted to. The fact of the matter simply was…he irked her.

Natasha was accustomed to people following her with hungry eyes; it was part of the very reason she had been recruited in the first place, after all, and had certainly served her well over the years since then. Nevertheless, the utterly proprietary manner in which Stark had raked her body with his gaze when first they met had been infuriating enough to make her want to blow her cover just long enough to give him the punch in the face he deserved; poor Happy Hogan received the blunt of it, for all that he was only standing in the way of of her annoyance, though she would come to regret that later. Luckily, no one was as capable with containing emotions than Natasha, and she had charmed him easily enough-or so she liked to think, in any case.

Now, though, when all was said and done-she could not help but feel as though she needed to speak with him-to clear the air, per se, though if that were really the case, Natasha's past was definitely riddled with smog. After all, she had done her best since Clint had inexplicably spared her life (a debt that still left her rather cold, resentful of her own gratitude and unsure of just how to respond) to succeed not passably, but with the highest degree of perfection, at every mission Fury assigned her-as though, somehow, that would change her past…would erase all of the atrocities she had committed, the people who had suffered at her hand.

Something about the case with Tony felt unfinished. And besides-stubborn as she was, she could not bring herself to believe that Stark would be the downfall of her otherwise spotless record at S.H.I.E.L.D.; they had met amicably (or, if Tony's ogling had been any accurate indication, more than amicably) and she intended that they should leave one another in the same way. Most importantly of all-much as she irritably denied the very idea-a part of her felt that this goodbye would not be their last-that at some point in the future, their paths would cross again.

And so it was for this reason that she found herself outside the door to his work space, biting back a smile and nodding a polite thank you to Pepper Potts, who had let her in-seemingly against her better judgment.

Without bothering to knock, she pressed open the door-which was, surprisingly, unlocked-and stepped inside. Just as she had imagined, the place was a mess-covered from floor to ceiling not only with gadgets, but with Tony's favorite luxuries-tumblers holding fine wine, an array of emptied chip bags in a wide variety of brands, a coffee mug toppled over on the counter, the contents of which had rendered an important looking pile of papers a soggy, brown mess.

"люди" she murmured scathingly to herself in Russian, delicately extricating herself from a pile of-well, something-and turning to face him. Though she could see easily from the way he held himself that he knew he was not alone, he puttered about with his gadgets for a protracted moment before glancing leisurely up at her.

"Ah, my dear Ms. Romanoff." Stark greeted, spreading his hands wide in a gesture of mocking welcome that was not lost on her-and was definitely not meant to be. "That-is your name, right?" he added, as though genuinely concerned that he had made some kind of dreadful error.

"For all intents and purposes, Mr. Stark." she said wryly, unable to resist an amused smile at his indignation. "Though, if you would feel more comfortable-"

Looking thoroughly disgruntled, he replied, "Please-don't confuse me even more. Now-what is it you came to talk to me about? Because as you can see, Ms.-ah, Romanoff-I'm a busy, busy man."

"Yeah, I can see that." Brushing a red curl from her forehead, she crossed to the other side of the room, her black heels clicking briskly against the floor. Pausing at his back, she leaned gracefully over his shoulder at his computer screen, which was blank, and at the scrap of paper before him, which was covered with doodles-mediocre ones, at that. Raising an eyebrow, she added, "Very busy."

"Okay, you caught me." he returned, unimpressed; she could see that he was faintly amused by the beginnings of a smile tugging at his lips. "Are you going to drag me over to the Strategic Homethingy-"

"S.H.I.E.L.D." Natasha corrected him smoothly, "And no, Mr. Stark. Actually, I'm here to-" She paused delicately, uncertain, but careful enough not to display the fact in her expression. A voice in her head taunted of a ledger-a familiar metaphor, and one that had haunted her for years-but instead she finished, "just to make sure that there aren't any-hard feelings." The beginnings of a laugh touched her last words; where Natasha was involved, there were always hard feelings. If her choice of words hadn't been exactly Shakespearean, however, Stark, to his credit, did not seem at all phased.

"Oh, no, none." he said airily, "I'm used to beautiful women going to any lengths to be close to me; it comes with the territory, dear."

Natasha smiled, a genuine smile now. Perching gently on his tabletop, she asked silkily, "You think I'm beautiful, Mr. Stark?"

"Not bad, Romanoff-though, you cut your hair; I like a woman with-" Stark didn't bumble as other men did when faced with the same question. While it was plain he thought her beautiful, it was just as clear that he didn't take the fact very seriously-that whatever strange sort of relationship existed between himself and Ms. Potts, it was palpable even now. The fact comforted her vaguely-that the two of them should be here, unconnected, bantering. There was no mission, no obligation, no death threats or manipulation or hatred. It was almost like a friendship-but not quite; Natasha didn't like him enough for that, after all, though in all honesty she doubted she liked anyone enough to call them a 'friend'-or ever had, for that matter, unless one thought to count Clint…who was an enigma to her still, if it came to that.

"Iong hair." she finished easily. "I know; I do my research, Mr. Stark."

"I can see that. And while it's nice to see you again-seriously, a blast, I really missed my secretary turned stalker spy-I don't get what you want with me. Your super secret boy band already turned me down, am I right?" he said flippantly.

"I resent that-I'm a woman." At his droll gaze, she admitted, "Yes, they did: at my recommendation." Tony raised an eyebrow, suspended between amusement and irritation.

"That's rich-you have eight different names and you're the one pegging my textbook psychological failings." He sounded as though he were musing, not at all a man whose anger had been aroused.

"Oh-more than that." she returned breezily.

Abruptly, he interrupted, "Shouldn't you be on your way? Hearts to break, establishments to infiltrate-and all that jazz."

Natasha's lips quirked. "I suppose. But-Mr. Stark?"

"Yes, Ms. Romanoff?"

Already at the door, she turned, one hand resting lightly on its wooden frame. "I wouldn't be surprised if you happen to hear from us-earlier than you expected: keep that in mind, won't you?"

"I'll try to contain my excitement." he replied dryly, but she could swear she saw him smile before she slipped out of sight.