Crimson and Viridian:
Characters/Pairings: FrostIron (Loki/Tony), canongirl!Tony Stark(i.e. Natasha Stark), and the rest of the Avengers movie cast.
Warnings: For moar violence, and fresh romancin'. Also, movie spoilers, obviously, and in a major way. Spoilers for various events throughout the comic-verse, including Civil War, Dark Reign, and Siege.
Disclaimer: None of this is mine. Well, except Earth-199990, but that's pretty useless to me without all these great Marvel characters.
Notes: One year later ...
Waking Up To Ash and Dust
One Year Before Registration Act…
Natasha Stark follows the man's gaze to the distant horizon where sky meets ocean. There is a light dusting of clouds above them, but otherwise, the sky isa perfect blue—the sun bright and hot above them. Natasha doesn't have her suit to measure the weather's temperature, but it's warm enough that she'd opted out of a suit jacket and kept the top buttons of her collared shirt undone—her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, but this was mostly to keep them out of the way while she went about her inspections.
"Looks like it," Natasha says, smiling cordially at the man as Pepper takes the Stark Tablet their lawyer is offering to Natasha. The old man continues to squint at the distance for a minute longer so Natasha uses the time to sign off on the tablet when Pepper holds it out to her. "Well, Mr. McCall, everything looks good. You've done fine work here. The factory will be up and running according to schedule, and it's all thanks to you and your men."
The man blinks away from the sky and his thoughts and takes another moment to digest her words. His grin is belated when he turns it upon her, but no less sincere. "The pleasure was all mine, Ms. Stark! It's the least we could do after all that you and the Avengers did for our city!"
Natasha hides her grimace well. "Yes, yes. Terrible—tragic. All of it."
The old man nods solemnly, "All those people …"
Natasha's lawyer hums in sympathy—and it makes Natasha want to elbow him in the face just to shut him up before he says, "We should never forget how many lives were saved because of the Avengers. We've got Iron Woman—well, Ms. Stark—to thank for that."
Truly, Natasha has no words. Anger banishes all thought—until the man smiles again and says, "That's right. That's what I'm sayin'. You're a hero, Ms. Stark! A true hero!"
Her responding smile is more habit than anything else; behind her, Pepper is ushering the lawyer away before he can say anything else to piss her off. "Thank you. That's very sweet of you, Mr. McCall," Natasha says at last. "Now, if you'll excuse me—"
"Yes, yes! Of course! You're a busy woman!"
He shakes her hand with more excitement than she can muster in return and when she retreats to the car, her idiot lawyer is nowhere in sight. Pepper is waiting for her inside while Happy warms the engine and Natasha feels a smile, unbidden, as she listens to the couple discuss the day's agenda. There is something so charming and intimate about them, even with the way they interact while they work. Sometimes, Natasha wonders if the chemistry had always been there—because it was undeniable now.
"Sorry about that," Pepper says, aiming for nonchalance because she knows pity will only put Natasha on edge. Natasha sees right through the façade but appreciates it all the same.
"I'm used to it," Natasha says, her eyes falling to the small stack of magazines Happy keeps stocked by the refreshments. Any issues with her on the cover are thrown out immediately—but still. Suddenly, it appeared that every girl—from the supermodels to the A-Listers of Hollywood—had decided to chop off their hair and go for the 'messy-chic Stark-do'. It was ridiculous. And the reason she was growing out her hair again.
Neither Pepper nor Happy choose to respond to her her comment—and, instead, Pepper spends the next half hour listing off Natasha's itinerary while Natasha loses herself to her thoughts.
"—pick him up, first. We'll go straight to the office afterwards—"
"Hey, Pep. What do you think about going international?" Natasha says, her eyes listlessly scanning the passing scenery. She doesn't see any of this—she's looking towards the future of her company and all that she's ever wanted to accomplish. She doesn't remember many goals—remembers she'd been living day-to-day for much of youth, but that was when she was making weapons for the government. Since the Iron Woman had come into the picture, the only thing she'd accomplished that she considered of any worth was the arc-reactor-run Tower. She doesn't want to focus all her attention on the suits. She owes it to Pepper, at the very least, and Rhodey for sure, to do something noteworthy with her company. Something that can save lives without the Iron Woman's aggressive methods.
"Were you even listening to me?" Pepper sighs, exasperated.
"Airport. Office. I was listening," Natasha murmurs. "What do you think?"
Pepper sighs again and exchanges a look with Happy through the rearview mirror. Eventually, she says, "Stark International?"
Natasha smiles—almost dreamily. "Has a nice ring to it, yeah?"
"I guess I can see it." Pepper actually sounds intrigued, which was more than Natasha would have hoped for. She'd expected a bit of a fight from the other woman. "Yeah. Why not?"
Natasha glances to her, sitting up. "Great! I—"
Pepper's eyes narrow sharply and—there it is. "Wait. You're just going to stick me with all the work, again—aren't you?"
Natasha balks, feigning ignorance. "What? No. Pepper—would I do that?"
"Yes," Pepper says curtly, crossing her arms over her chest. "You did."
"And now you're CEO!"
Pepper rolls her eyes and returns to her tablet. "Mm-hm."
She doesn't sleep very much anymore. When she does, she dreams.
But they're not dreams.
"You haven't been sleeping, have you?" Bruce says over the sound of Happy slamming the trunk shut over his belongings.
Natasha can't muster a lie quickly enough because he's caught her pinching the bridge of her nose, eyes squeezed shut as her mouth stretches in a yawn. There are bags under her eyes concealed by heavier makeup than usual, but it's easy to spot them when he's been watching their progress over the past year. Bruce exchanges a knowing look with Pepper, then Happy; their worry is plain, but Natasha appears oblivious—and that's odd. She's normally so good at putting up fronts, the fact that she can't seem to be bothered to now seems to be only cause for concern.
Natasha shrugs helplessly as they slip into the back of the car and yawns again. "It's been a busy week—meeting deadlines and all. I'll be fine come Saturday, I'm taking the day off." She glances to Pepper. "Oh, by the way, Pep—I'm taking Saturday off."
Pepper smiles, rolling her eyes fondly. "I think we'll survive a day without you."
"Are you taking me to the office, first?" Bruce asks, watching as Natasha rests her head back against the seat and closes her eyes.
"If that's alright? Pep's punishing me for something. I haven't figured it out, yet."
Pepper sniffs indignantly in Natasha's direction then smiles at Bruce. "We're doing interviews today, but she doesn't want a new assistant—" Natasha groans sleepily her distaste of the idea. Pepper nudges her with an elbow and says, "—but she doesn't realize it's physically impossible for me to take on all the responsibilities of CEO in addition to playing personal assistant."
"Who's playing?" Natasha mutters. "It's a serious gig."
Bruce's eyes narrow. "You mean Loki hasn't been pulling his weight around Stark Industries?"
Natasha snorts, peering through her lashes at Bruce—truly, she looked seconds away from sleep. Bruce didn't know why she seemed so adamant to fight it. "He can't be involved with Stark anything if I want to maintain my government contracts. Plus, I don't want to deal with the maelström of Fury's righteous wrath if he thinks I'm allowing Loki more liberties than he's comfortable with."
Bruce chuckles, shaking his head. "Who knew housing a fugitive God could be so political?"
"I did." Natasha says, closing her eyes.
Bruce doesn't disturb her again for the duration of the ride, even when he wants to tell her about his research during the time he'd spent in Africa. She's never really interested in hearing about the people he helps during his travels, though she is always willing to listen. Sometimes he thinks it's because she doesn't want to contemplate how there is an entire world out there that is in need—and that there is nothing in her power to alleviate that much pain. She doesn't understand it's about the little things—that being able to make a difference, even if it's only a small difference, is still enough.
Pepper waits until she knows Natasha is too far gone to be easily awoken before she sits forward to reach out a hand to rest over his. She looks him deeply in the eyes and says, "I just want to thank you. I know it's not easy—jumping between New York and the rest of the world. The little time you can spare—I know it means everything to her."
Bruce nods, patting her hand and looking to Natasha. "How is she?"
Pepper sighs and sits back. "Some days are better than others. Little things set her off—put her in these moods where she won't talk to anyone. She just locks herself up in the workshop and works on that new suit of hers. I'm worried. I think even Loki's worried—"
"How are things with Loki? Has he been behaving?" Bruce asks seriously, looking to Pepper to read for any deception in her answer. Pepper is loyal foremost to Natasha, and for some reason Natasha has gotten it into her head that their enemy was someone to be trusted not to reign terror upon them anew.
Pepper shrugs—seems just as bemused by her own words, "He's—everything is pretty normal, actually. He and Natasha give each other a hard time, but they seem to genuinely get along. I have no idea how those two could have become friends, but—" There's something about the way that Pepper won't meet his eyes that leads Bruce to suspect there might be more to tell. Pepper shakes her head and lets out a nervous laugh, "It's actually a little like having two Natashas' in the house. When he's around, she doesn't hide herself in the workshop as often."
"'When he's around'?" Bruce zeroes in on this particular statement and sees Pepper grimace almost imperceptibly.
Pepper bites her lip and manages to hold eye contact for half a second. "He goes away now and then. Exploring his 'prison', he says."
"Uh-huh," Bruce grunts, sitting back in his seat and frowning at Natasha. "I really hope she knows what she's doing."
Somewhere in a not-so-distant part of his mind he thinks he hears the Hulk grunt. For once, they are in agreement.
Loki is not to be trusted.
Nathan Garrett drinks every night as if it is his last on Earth—and it might very well be.
Cancer, they'd said.
We won't know until we've run more tests …
… possibly only months to live.
So this was it. This was his life. An empty home and an unremarkable career as a biologist and research scientist. This was all he had to show for himself—all he had accomplished.
And it was nothing.
"Pity … is unbecoming," says the voice—a cold presence that seems to encompass the Garrett Castle. It echoes throughout each chamber and the cobblestone halls until it reaches him. "—of a descendant of my line."
Nathan sobs—he sobs out of futility and he sobs for himself—sobs because this is it! And how do you move forward from this? How do you find the will to move forward when your life is gone—marked. He was coming upon the end of his story and he felt alone and seized by a familiar shortness of breath that is fear.
"You should not wallow in your own misery. You must use what time you have left to make a difference. Go, now—and retrieve my Blade from my scabbard."
"Why won't you leave me alone?!" Nathan wails at the disembodied voice.
"Go. Find my tomb. Retrieve the Blade and you shall know power unlike any other."
Garrett's arm slews across his desk, scattering baubles and paperwork everywhere. The flames of the fireplace seem to jump with his anger—but he's been drinking. It's just his imagination.
"Go," says the voice.
With a roar of anger, Nathan rises, crashing through his office and tearing down the hall and through various corridors. The voice does not speak again, but the presence surrounds him all the same—ever watching. His grief forgotten, he feels only rage and the urge to inflict pain. As he reaches the underground tunnels, he laments having not encountered a manservant to demonstrate his rage upon. It doesn't matter to him that this is unlike his usual manner—that anger has never been something he's ever been prone to giving in to. He's blinded and his thoughts are scattered.
Finally, in the deepest, dankest, recesses of the dungeons, he finds it.
The tomb of Sir Percy of Scandia.
The memorial is a large replica of his ancestor's armor—all sleek black metal. Tentatively, Nathan approaches the tomb as his anger, too, dwindles to nothing—feels as if it has been twined in a thread, which his ancestor has grasped and now tugs free from his chest, undoing him completely. He feels himself unwinding—his muscles relax and his anxieties leave him in a breath.
"Take my Blade, Nathan. Your heritage," urges the voice of Sir Percy. "Take my legacy—and make it yours."
Swallowing, mouth numb from whiskey, Nathan reaches out and grasps the handle—and pulls.
When they reach Stark Industries, Bruce brings the leather attaché Natasha had bought him for his work and it makes her smile. Her expression quickly turns to one of displeasure when they reach her office level and she sees the impressive line of interviewees; they're packed together along the wall like prissy little sardines, disappearing down the hall to the corner where her office is located. She freezes in the elevator and doesn't dare step a foot forward, forcing Pepper to step between the doors to keep the elevator in place.
"Don't be a coward. It has to be done," Pepper says, indifferent to Natasha's dismay.
She turns pleading eyes to her friend but the woman is stone. Bruce offers no solace, chuckling and clapping a hand to her back as he steps around her to exit the elevator. Natasha follows them out reluctantly and watches Pepper head off towards her own office. There's another line leading up to Pepper's door, the candidates younger and the line shorter.
"Oh! Wait! What if we trade?" Natasha declares—possibly foolishly, since her mouth hadn't spared the time to consult her brain before speaking.
Pepper stops, casting the most incredulous look over her shoulder. "You want to interview the interns?"
Natasha can see Bruce's grin out of the corner of her eyes. It's only a flash of white teeth before he ducks his head and wipes his hand across his mouth—like a smile were something you could physically remove.
Inwardly, Natasha groans because—just her luck.
Well. All she can do now is commit, lest she look like an idiot in front of both Bruce and Pepper. That would be conceding victory—even though she had clearly lost this battle because one way or another, she was going to have some snot-nosed new brat to deal with. Schooling her features of consternation, Natasha nods with as much confidence as she can summon and smirks flippantly. "Yeah. You know better than I do the qualities necessary in an assistant. I'll just end up hiring the first hot guy that walks in. This way, you hire someone useful and I can instill some fear into the new Starklings."
Pepper's eyes narrow suspiciously—probably because Natasha had just volunteered to allow Pepper to hire another—God forbid—Pepper. She loves Pepper, but as an assistant? The nagging alone made up for any neglect she may have ever felt from her mother.
Meanwhile, Bruce is trying to bite back a smile and fails when he pauses long enough to mouth, 'Starklings?'.
Eventually, Pepper rolls her eyes and leaves then with a distrustful, "Fine, Natasha."
Natasha exchanges a grin with Bruce and they head off to Pepper's office like two self-satisfied children after a well-executed assignment of devious proportions. She stops by her receptionist to inform her of the change, mostly as an excuse to put off the interviews for as long as possible.
"That's fine, Ms. Stark. I'll let them know."
"Also, let's weed out some of the brats that'll only end up getting on my nerves," Natasha says, drumming her fingers against the counter in front of Mrs. Arbogast.
"And what are your criteria, Ms. Stark?" To her credit, Mrs. Arbogast is quite the multi-tasker, tapping away at her computer without looking up; she'd come to expect all manner of requests from Natasha and this was, by far, the tamest.
Bambina Arbogast had been working as Natasha's receptionist and occasional assistant for the past seven months. She'd proven her value when she'd appeared for her interview and had been promptly caught in the middle of a battle between Iron Woman and some punk mutant calling himself Whirlwind. With all the composure of Pepper Potts herself, Mrs. Arbogast had calmly managed any incoming calls from Natasha's office and helped salvage what she could in the midst of the chaos. Suitably impressed, once the mutant had been carted away by the police, Natasha had promptly hired Mrs. Arbogast without an interview. She is older than any receptionist Natasha has ever hired (did that make her shallow?), but she seemed a perfect fit for the new image Natasha was hoping to create for Stark Industries—soon to be Stark International.
(Mrs. Arbogast also reminded Natasha of M, which totally made her James Bond.)
"Well, for starters," Natasha pauses to think and glances to Bruce. He arches a brow and shakes his head so she nods. "Don't let anyone in if they look like too much of a douche."
Bruce rolls his eyes.
"How do I determine the level of one's …" Mrs. Arbogast crinkles her nose under her silver-framed glasses in disapproval.
"Douchiness?" Natasha smiles while Mrs. Arbogast merely looks up at her, elegant brow arched—completely unamused. "Well, if they're anything like me, don't send them in. I don't need another me."
Mrs. Arbogast nods resignedly and Bruce mumbles, "Right. You have Loki for that."
Natasha automatically stiffens, taking a slow breath. "Oh jeez—" Not this again. Sighing, she flashes a parting smile for her receptionist, "Okay. I'll be in Pepper's office, then. Give me five and then start sending them in." She leaves the desk and says to Bruce as they walk, "Don't start."
"You know how I feel about it," Bruce says as they step into the office. It's smells of Pepper's sweet perfume and feels homier than Natasha's.
"I do, which is why I'm telling you to drop it. You've made your point—points. It doesn't need to be discussed again."
"I don't trust him."
Natasha settles herself behind Pepper's desk and sits back against the chair heavily. She breathes in deeply, then says in an exhale of breath, "I know." She looks up to meet his eyes. "It's not like you're the only one with concerns. I've got Coulson and Pepper riding my ass every other day about it."
Conscious of the interviews that are about to take place, Bruce grabs a spare armchair and drags it next to Natasha so that they're both on the same side of the desk. He sits and begins fiddling with his glasses. "And what exactly does he do? A guy like him? He gets bored. Sooner or later, he's going to start causing trouble. He's the God of Chaos for God's sake."
She hums in agreement, tapping her fingers against the desktop. "Which is why I keep him busy."
Bruce snorts. "Doing what?"
"He's my eyes and ears whenever I can't be Iron Woman." She swivels her chair to level him with a deadpan stare. "You can't tell me you haven't noticed. There're kids running around calling themselves 'super heroes' and assholes who claim to be 'super villains'. It's like we stepped into the pages of some comic book and it's ridiculous. And—all our fault."
"That's not our problem. Loki is the problem—"
"He's not a problem, Bruce," Natasha sighs, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. "I'd tell you if he was."
"Come on, man. I tell you everything."
"More than most."
Banner frowns, but Mrs. Arbogast chooses that moment to alert them over the intercom that she was sending in the first interviewee.
"That's fine. I'm ready," Natasha replies, feeling grateful for the interruption.
Bruce frowns and Natasha can't help but feel the sort of relief one would after narrowly escaping the Hulk's grasp.
The sword doesn't budge from the scabbard. Nathan tries again—and with every failed attempt, his anger returns to him.
"What is this?" He rages. He appears alone in the dungeon, but he knows he's never alone. The essence of his long deceased ancestor forever haunts him. Drawing away from the sword, Nathan stumbles back, glowering darkly up at the armored visage of Sir Percy. "What is this?! You've deceived me, wretched spirit! Do you take me for a fool?"
But he is a fool, isn't he? Talking to spirits in the dark dungeons of his ancestor's home—what kind of life was this?
One that is soon to end, his miserable mind reminds him.
Sir Percy is silent for a time. Far too serenely, he says, "No trickery, Nathan."
Nathan snarls, turning his glare upon the blade, still nestled in the home of its scabbard. "Then why can I not draw the sword?"
"You are yet … unworthy."
"So this was all a waste?" What was he even doing down here? How long since Sir Percy's phantom began haunting the castle? Hadn't Nathan done well by ignoring the spirit altogether? He should never have come down here! He should never have—
"You must prove yourself, Nathan. You must prove that you are worthy of my legacy."
What had become of him, that he would resort to this madness? (A secret, dark part of him scoffed—for this was surely signs of his mind's deterioration. A sign that his end would come soon.)
Nathan sways on his feet as the rush of his adrenaline leaves him—abandoning him to the whims of the alcohol he'd consumed and his own rapidly declining strength.
He was unworthy.
Unworthy of a sword.
(Unworthy of life.)
Tears run fresh hot tracks down his cheeks.
" … What else have I to lose?"
Natasha quickly grows fed up with the applicants and Bruce has to step in every now and then to soothe things over before she can lose her patience. She's never been quick to anger, but she's always been quick to lose her patience in the face of stupidity. She liked to think that the one differed sufficiently from the other because she was tired of adding new faults to her personality. Eventually, the pages would run out and she'd be forced to scribble in the margins because if there was one thing that she knew, it was that she didn't know herself at all. She was always discovering knew facets to character; most of them were non-too-flattering and the ones she did not mind were hardly redeeming.
Like allowing a known criminal to reside in her home after he'd not only betrayed her, but also nearly set fire to the world.
She'd been looking forward to Bruce's visit all week, but she was not in the mood to sit through another lecture on why she was an idiot for allowing Loki to stay with her. She was glad that she'd never gotten around to telling anyone about how she'd subliminally manipulated Thor into thinking it was a good idea to exile his brother to Earth—Pepper knew that Loki was Olson (and dear Lord that had been another migraine and a half just to get through!) but Natasha hadn't thought it prudent to share this tidbit of information. People questioned her sanity enough as it was, they didn't need to know that she'd schemed to have Loki return. She was actually a little relieved that Loki spent most of his time doing … whatever it is that he did when she wasn't having him spy on the growing super hero/villain community. He was less likely to get on people's nerves when he wasn't around and that made her life a little easier because, at present, it was a mess. With three new projects ready to hit the market and another four in pre-production, plus two new factories and renovations on the old Stark Mansion—she didn't actually have the time to worry about anything other than her company.
This included interviewing for interns (which was only, as it turned out, marginally better than interviewing for assistants. Interns were still humble and a little desperate; assistants were either kiss-asses or arrogant douchebags or worse—both.).
They run through more than half of the kids by lunchtime, take a break, and start up again almost immediately after she's swallowed the last bite of her shawarma (Pepper was happy again, more or less, so her health be damned).
"Have you got any winners in mind?" Next to her, Bruce has requisitioned a corner of her desk to set his Stark Tablet. When she looks, she sees that he's looking over molecular structures from a series of different samples.
Natasha shrugs. "Not yet. I'll probably hire a few anyway—someone has to fetch the coffee—but I'm not comfortable with a bunch of kids handling the type of equipment I manufacture."
Bruce doesn't seem to have an opinion on the matter because he just huh's and returns to work. Mrs. Arbogast sends in the next kid and he looks as unremarkable as all the others to have come before him. Natasha was never a socially awkward kid—or shy—so she's always had a hard time connecting with those types. It's unfortunate for her that in her line of work, there can—apparently—only be two types of scientists: the shy geeky type, or total arrogant pricks. Natasha knew which category she fit into and she wasn't particularly bothered by the fact.
Only Natasha stands to shake hands with the boy (because Banner was the awkward nerdy type), who takes her hand with a shaky smile, then takes a seat hesitantly when she gestures to the chair across from her.
She smiles her charming Stark smile, hoping to ease some of his discomfort. "I'm sorry if you were expecting Ms. Potts. There's no need to be nervous. I'm just filling in for Ms. Potts while my office undergoes … ah—renovations."
The boy blinks. "Oh. I thought—I thought you guys had switched offices because you didn't want to interview all those people for the assistant position."
Startled—even Bruce looks up from his work to glance at the kid—Natasha's smile becomes a little strained. "Yes, well—let's begin then. Name?"
The boy looks at the tablet in front of Natasha. She follows his gaze and sees the list of applicants—realizes, belatedly, that his name is printed right next to his profile picture, in addition to a brief character summary (because Pepper is entirely thorough in everything that she does).
He smiles awkwardly and replies anyway, "Peter Parker."
"Parker?" She drawls, grabbing the tablet so that she can at least pretend she hasn't spent all afternoon bullshitting the applicants. Knowing Pepper, the woman had probably done extensive background checks on all her applicants and would have memorized them by name and face and accomplishments. Natasha had obviously done no such thing. She asks, idly, as the thought occurs, "Any relation to cross-genetics specialist, Richard Parker?"
Parker swallows uncomfortably and wets his lips. "Uh yeah—um. He was my dad."
"Very goo—" Wait. What? Natasha's head snaps up from the tablet to gawk at him because— "What? Seriously?"
Parker's lips twitch in a smile and he nods, watching her carefully. "Uh—yeah. I think—I'm pretty sure it says so in my file."
She curses herself, somehow feeling like an idiot for not having known who this kid fucking was. Bruce is also interested, but he pretends to work so as not to freak the kid out any more than he already has. Natasha taps Parker's face on the tablet and pulls up his file, flicking through the recommendations until she finds his resume—then stops. Richard Parker had been working for Osborn with Doctor Connors on some revolutionary regeneration formula before he'd disappeared. What was his son doing here?
She frowns up at him. "Wait. Hold on. No offense, but—I'm sure OsCorp would be jumping at the bit to have you, why ... ?"
"Yeah—well …" Parker shrugs and swallows nervously, squirming in the armchair. His entire behavior was off, but Natasha didn't know what to make of it.
Parker doesn't elaborate further so Natasha allows him his privacy and moves on. "I guess it doesn't matter. You're here now." Scanning his records and resume, Natasha has to wonder how Osborn could have let this kid slip through his fingers. Pulling up his academic files, she has to bite back a smile. "Kid, even if you weren't Richard's son—with these scores, you should be applying for a job not an internship."
Parker looks stunned, eyes darting between herself and Bruce. "I—uh—Well—it's—that's—thanks." Parker grimaces, running a hand through his neatly done hair and mussing it up completely—possibly unintentionally. He sighs, dropping his eyes to the desk. "It's just—I'm still a student. But I really need the money—my aunt—"
Shaking her head, Natasha holds out a palm to stop him. "No. Don't tell me. I don't really want to get into the personal aspects of your life. You're smart. That's all that matters to me."
Parker nods, wide-eyed. "So—do you think maybe you'll consider me for the internship program?"
Natasha exchanges a smile with Bruce to see that they're on the same page. To Parker, she says, "I'll do you one better. How about I make you my personal assistant? I'm down one since—well, life."
Parker's jaw literally drops. He sits forward abruptly, like he's barely restraining himself from standing up and jumping. "I—that would be great—" He deflates almost instantly back into his seat. "Oh. But school—"
She sets the tablet on the desk and folds her hands over it, meeting Parker's anxious expression with total seriousness. "Don't worry about school. You can still be a full-time student. Focus on your grades. Graduate at the top of your class—and I can promise you a full-ride scholarship at any Ivy League college of your choosing."
"Wh—what? You'd do that?"
Natasha smirks. "Sure. And as for being my assistant—just come by Stark Tower after school. I'll fill you in on what you need to do."
If it were possible, Parker seems to sink further into the chair from shock. "I—I don't know what to say …"
"Don't say anything yet. I'm not done," she continues and nods approvingly when Parker sits up into a more professional position. "I don't offer opportunities like this unless I think someone deserves it, but you have to be committed to the job. I'm going to ride you hard. No screwing around. You focus on school and you focus on work. No distractions. I want your absolute dedication. I'm talking long hours and hard work. You get me?"
Parker nods urgently. "Ye—yeah. Yeah. I understand. Completely. You give me this opportunity, and I—I swear I will work harder than anyone in this company. I won't let you down."
Natasha smiles, pleased—and thinks about how thrilled (and pissed) Pepper's going to be. (Thrilled because Natasha actually found the perfect assistant, and pissed because Natasha just found an assistant. Pepper was going to have to run secondary interviews for the interns because Natasha's judgment on them couldn't be trusted.)
"You better not," Natasha says, standing. When Parker follows, she holds out her hand and he takes it eagerly. "You start first thing Monday morning. Should give you enough time to get yourself a half-decent wardrobe. Talk to Ms. Potts on your way out. She'll give you a number to a good tailor."
"All expenses covered, Parker. You work for me now and I take care of my own."
Still in a state of shock, Parker almost forgets his bag as he stumbles out of the office. Natasha grins, leaning forward to press the line on the phone that would connect her to Mrs. Arbogast. "Tell Ms. Potts I've just found my new assistant."
"Weren't you interviewing for interns, Ms. Stark?"
"Well, I found an assistant, instead."
"Very well, Ms. Stark. I will let her know."
Pleased, Natasha turns to Bruce to see him looking up at her, brows raised high. "Norman is going to be pissed."
Bruce chuckles, "Osborn? Yeah, I don't think he'll take too kindly to you stealing his prodigy right from under his nose."
"Finder's keepers," Natasha shrugs.
Bruce levels her with a disapproving look that she doesn't buy for a moment. "He's a person, too, Natasha. Not Stark property."
Natasha just smiles serenely. "Not yet."
Pain flares along the right side of his face for the second the Other's hand grips it in his six-fingered hold. Loki does not stumble, nor does he allow any emotion but the faintest impression of irritation to grace his features. This is not, by far, the worst of what is to come. This is only a promise.
"That is enough, creature. I believe he understands the gravity of his actions," speaks a voice—a shrouded figure that's barely a silhouette against the backdrop of space. This is the Hand to the Avatar of Death, but Loki has only glimpsed him in the past. Their missions had never before coincided.
The Other sneers, turning upon the Hand with a look of hatred more passionate than the one he reserves for Loki. "He was meant to remain in Asgard! What use is he to us on Earth?"
Here, Loki takes the opportunity to step forward and speak to both. "You must not doubt my cunning. I shall grant us access to the Vault. I still hold many connections within and without Asgardian walls."
"See that you do, little Asgardian," says the Hand with warning and in the next moment—
Loki is standing within the now familiar chamber of Natasha's place of business. Natasha's office is strangely occupied. Pepper Potts sits behind Natasha's desk, pleasantly speaking with a young man. Distantly, Loki recalls hearing of Pepper's intentions to acquire a new assistant for Natasha and smirks, amused, before disappearing—once more unnoticed—just as Mrs. Arbogast peers into the office, and finds Pepper's office. Here, he discovers Natasha alone and working on Pepper's desktop with a remarkably focused expression.
She's not particularly impressed when he makes his form visible to her—merely darts her eyes in his direction before returning them to the monitor, tapping away at the keyboard.
"So, Bruce is in town," she says by way of greeting.
Loki reforms his projection so that it is hovering at her shoulder and looks out through the extravagant view behind her. The windows display nearly the entire city below, and directly across is Stark Tower.
He studies the letters with a small twist of a frown. "That's fine," he says nonchalantly. "I am sure I can manage to keep myself entertained well enough."
He hears her soft snort but the typing never falters. "You know, you don't have to abandon ship every time he comes over. You guys could probably benefit from some bro-time."
"I do not know what that is, but I will have to decline," Loki says darkly, remembering his first and last encounter with Banner following the New York invasion. "I'd rather not have a repeat performance of the last time, thank you."
Banner, like Ms. Potts (when she'd learned of his identity), had taken exception to his unprecedented return. Natasha's overestimation of Banner's capacity to 'let bygones be bygones' had resulted in Banner's impromptu transformation into the Hulk—reminding everyone involved of the Hulk's particular distaste for Asgardians.
"He's cool with it, you know?" Natasha says offhandedly—as if she actually believes this to be true. "He won't flip out on you again. Promise."
Loki looks over his shoulder to frown down at the back of her head. "I'm in no hurry to re-acquaint myself with the floor, Natasha. Repeatedly. In the most undignified manner imaginable."
He hears her smirk when she says, "I stand by my belief that the Hulk just has a little trouble expressing his affections and—"
Loki scoffs. "That beast is incapable of affection—"
Expectedly, Natasha reacts immediately by spinning in the chair and glowering at him. "Okay, maybe calling him a 'beast' is not the best way to make friends."
Loki rolls his eyes. "I have no need of courting friendship with that creature—"
Natasha mimics his expression and grumbles something unintelligible under her breath. Audibly, she says, "Oh-kay. You're obviously still mad about that. Fine."
She leans back heavily against the chair and he watches her expression dissolve into something neutral. It doesn't occur to him to inquire about her health or her present condition because he knows she will only attempt to divert his questions with her own. Instead, he follows her gaze and turns his eyes back to the Tower and the Stark name staring boldly back at him.
"Anything new for me?" Natasha asks after a moment—when the silence is too much for her.
Loki hums thoughtfully—prioritizes his list by what he presumes Natasha will find most intriguing. "There is one who refers to herself as The Wasp."
"She appears to be able to control the size of her body at will. She can also discharge certain bio-electric blasts. I do not know if these powers are her own, or the result of scientific experiment." Natasha merely nods along with him, frown already forming, and he goes on. "I've met with Hercules—"
"Yes. He is currently in Los Angels."
"… don't know why I'm even surprised anymore," Natasha mumbles.
"There is man in Chicago who's flesh is stronger than any steel; a strange man of Philadelphia whose powers I do not yet fully understand; a man who is not all man resides presently in Florida—"
"There are more, but they are largely irrelevant. These are the few who have not come out proclaiming to be heroes of any sort, but ones who truly seem to behold powers beyond that of a baseline human."
Natasha is openly scowling, stress worrying a furrow between her brow. She chews her lip in contemplation as she glares at her reflection on the glass. "I don't like this. Where are they coming from?" She looks to him and he can sense her distress by the very way she remains absolutely still. "You'd tell me, right? If—"
"Thanos has nothing to do with this, I am sure." Loki has considered it before, but Thanos has no need of mortals in his army as anything other than cannon fodder. "This may just be the natural way of things, Natasha. Have you ever considered that before?"
"Mutants—that's natural evolution. That lizard thing that attacked the school a few months ago? That was not." Natasha replies heatedly. "These were regular people, once. A year ago, Cap and I were the only 'super heroes' to speak of, and only Cap and Bruce are supernaturally enhanced. Either S.H.I.E.L.D. is up to something again, or we have a new player on the board. I don't trust any of it."
"You don't think you're being a little paranoid?" Loki arches a brow and keeps his expression carefully neutral so that she has nothing to take offence to when she glances up to read his face.
Natasha snorts. "Probably. But better safe than sorry. You taught me that."
Loki, wisely, chooses not to comment on that.
Natasha isn't wrong. In the last year the country has seen a distinct increase in both criminal and super human activity. A lot of it seems to be reserved to the coasts, but Natasha's homes are located on either ends of the country so to her, it seems like she's being surrounded by these new self-proclaimed super heroes. He is aware of her frustration, even if he doesn't fully understand its source.
Outside, a single black bird swoops past the window and it draws Loki's eyes until Natasha—never one to allow silences to linger long—asks, apropos to nothing, "Do you know the magpie rhyme, Loki?"
Loki blinks, glancing down. She's staring out the window with a thoughtful expression, unblinking. He says, "I don't believe I do."
Natasha hums tunelessly and says, "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl—and it goes on. I guess you're supposed to count the number of magpies—" A wry smirk twists her lips as she looks up at him. "And somehow you're supposed to be able to predict the future."
Loki snorts, returning her smirk. "I didn't take you for the superstitious kind."
She shrugs, "I'm not. It's something my mom—" She scrunches her nose in thought, "Or was it Jarvis?—it was probably—" She freezes and the word is swallowed like something vile. She doesn't have to say it out loud. Loki can hear it all the same, even without delving into her mind. Obi. "Never mind. Someone. I can't remember who—they used to count them out to me."
Loki frowns and looks out the window to search for the magpie that had flown by. It's long gone now, without a flock to accompany it. "The rhyme's logic is unsound. It's human perspective."
Natasha hums again, this time in agreement. "Magpies are solitary. They don't see themselves as a flock. It's only that occasionally they stand alone in company. There's really only ever one magpie."
Abruptly, another bird appears (or is it the same?), perching itself briefly on the ledge. For a second, Loki thinks it is peering back at them through the window—then realizes it is probably regarding its own reflection with the bewilderment one should expect of such a creature.
As it flies away, Loki murmurs, "One magpie—for sorrow, was it?"
Natasha watches the retreating bird for a quiet moment. Then—
"It's not a good sign, is it?"
End Notes: Titled after the Mighty Thor/JiM story arc due to similar running themes (not plot-wise). Like with the first part, you don't need to have read the comics to read this story (or even have watched the movie, really, by why wouldn't you?). Things ... escalate rather quickly on multiple fronts from here on out. As you noticed, this no longer reads from solely Natasha's POV because there is a lot going on in the background that she doesn't know about. Hope you don't mind. As always, this story is my unique blend of the movie-verse characters in a more comic-verse setting. I left a lot of clues as to where this is headed in the first story, so if you caught them or remember them later as we come to each event here, cookies for you! Every arc is connected. I try not to leave any loopholes. Each story references the story that came before and the story that is to come.
Also, the scene with Loki telling Pepper about who he is has been written. It IS a scene that will be posted, so don't think I'm cheating you guys on that front. However, it's not time yet for that scene. Patience, my dears! And comment! Let me know what you think!