Disclaimer: I do not own Iron Man 2, Thor, or the Avengers, along with the characters, the quotes, and everything else associated with Marvel.
Apologizing for any spelling/grammar mistakes beforehand.
The knife almost grazed her cheek. Nevertheless she caught it, flipped it to her other hand, and sent it thudding into target board, the motions faster and more fluid in an attempt to hide her slip.
"I saw that." On the other side of the training room, Clint stopped extracting the knives from the board for her. "You alright?"
"I guess." Natasha tossed her remaining blades. When her hands emptied she clapped them once in front her so he would resume their circuit.
"Tell me first. You got a personal grudge against Tony Stark or something?"
"No more than you do, which is a slight prejudice due to media brainwashing."
"Oh, that's not brainwashing. That's just Stark being Stark."
"Maybe that's what they want you to believe." Natasha beckoned with her hands. "I answered your question. C'mon."
Clint chucked a knife to her. She caught it—this time with practiced ease—and nailed another bullseye. Then another. And another. Before long Clint was complaining for his turn, but she made for the door instead of the seat beside the target that he had sat in for the last hour. He groaned and caught up to her, out of the room.
"Did Coulson even tell you why you're doing this personal assistant thing? This is Level Four work," Clint said.
"So?" Natasha shrugged. "You know what he's gonna say every time for everything. It's just another assignment." Over the years at S.H.I.E.L.D the routine briefing, insertion, extraction, debriefing cycle had worn out what curiosity she held for her missions, for needing more information than what concerned her success rates.
"I can't recall you ever getting vacation." Natasha nudged him playfully as they walked the corridors. "Shouldn't you be happy?"
"Shouldn't you be googling 'Avengers Initiative'?"
"I did. It's called 'reading my brief.'"
"Yeah? And you're telling me the idea of Fury collecting exotic soldiers like they're Pokémons doesn't intrigued you at all?"
It did. It did intrigue her. Even roused some suspicion in her passiveness of S.H.I.E.L.D. But if she thought too much she'd stumble on the track, the treadmill she had so steadily worked on for the past four years. That was exactly what happened.
The woman's sight had fixed on Natasha long before she rounded that last revealing bend of the road, sharper than the sudden light that penetrated the thick, though thinning treetops she had meandered her car under. Impressive. Potts was a human surveillance camera as well as Stark Industries' CEO. But then what difference existed between the two?
No lines on the ground to map out a parking lot. No garage in sight, either. The engine buzzed restless complaints that gnawed her patience the way Malibu's heat had nibbled its teeth into the skin on her arms. Natasha tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Potts, half-visible behind a sun-bathed glass wall, stood with arms crossed, still as the windless air. She could have at least pointed or waved a parking instruction to Natasha the same way being so close to a cliff overlooking the Pacific should have granted at least a drizzle of a breeze. But this was Pepper Potts. This was Stark Mansion.
Natasha swung the car in one clean curve in front of the stairs leading to the entrance. A twist of the keys; engine's off. She hoisted her handbag over a shoulder and climbed out the car. Her high heels clicked a staccato against the asphalt, then the stairs. Potts smiled. Natasha smiled back.
The doors slid apart and unleashed upon her a wave of air-conditioned breeze, like ice on a wound to her reddened skin. Potts' smile widened. Her perfectly symmetric stance wavered as she extracted a hand from their crossed position for a handshake. "Ms. Rushman, hi."Her hand was cool, her grip firm but fleeting; she had better things to do than to stand around shaking people's hands.
"Ms. Potts, my pleasure," Natasha said. "And just Natalie's fine."
"Oh, great. I'll give you a brief tour of the place, then we'll get to the paperwork."
Potts set a brisk pace. Ten-word descriptions of the rooms they flashed by resonated through the otherwise silent mansion. Guest room. Bar. Living room number one. Storage kitchen bathroom. Office closet labs. Living room number two. Natasha smiled and nodded dutifully when appropriate; Potts didn't know she had already memorized the building's layout down to its plumbing systems.
Their journey ended in a well-lit office room that faced the ocean and held the fading scent of coffee and air freshener. "This used to be mine a few days ago." Potts knocked the edge of a stack of papers against the desk to straighten them. "I cleared it out, but the business things are still all here. Would you like me to point them out for you?"
"I can manage, but thank you."
"Let's get the transfer issues over with first. I expect you'll be ok with the paperwork?"
"Splendid. I'll announce your arrival to Mr. Stark. We'll be in the gym, just bring the papers when you've filled them out. Other tasks for the day are in a file on the computer desktop." Potts smiled again and turned to leave. Halfway out the door she spun around. "Oh, if you need anything to eat or drink, kitchen's at your disposal."
Natasha settled into a swivel chair before the desk. The packet of papers to legalize Potts' as Stark's CEO sat waiting for her, ready for the black ink she penned on the cream-colored sheets, for the three-pronged binder she snapped them into when she had finished. She turned on the sound amplifier in her ear and headed for the room Potts had instructed her to go.
A trickle of swears and shouts broke the silence of the mansion, out of place and context. From the chaos of noise Potts' shrill voice rose. "The notary's here! Can you please come sign the transfer paperwork?" The seamlessly packaged professionalism in her tone had reduced to something tired and threadbare that scarce shrouded her underlying irritation.
"I'm on Happy's count," a male voice shot back. Stark. The thud of punches didn't pause for his reply. Seconds later a high-pitched grunt joined the brawl.
"Sorry," Stark said.
"What the hell was that?" Another male voice slashed out.
"It's called mixed martial arts," Stark defended. "It's been around for three... weeks-"
"It's called dirty boxing, there's nothing new about it!"
Natasha frowned. The quiescence around here had pampered her expectations for this assignment. She resumed her walk and rounded the last corner that brought her into view.
Various weights and other sports equipment scattered around the room. A small boxing ring claimed the center, on top of which bounced, in a snug black hoodie, the famous Tony Stark. Another man faced him, his stocky frame bloated by the protective padding on his chest. That must be Stark's bodyguard, Happy Hogan.
The bodyguard's glower on Stark slackened upon noticing Natasha. Stark caught on and turned. The confusion on his face provided more than enough evidence that he hadn't heard a word Potts said to him. Who knew, maybe he'd forgotten that he had a new personal assistant coming in at all. Natasha adjusted the binder balancing on her hip and walked to the other end of the room.
"I promise you, this is the only time I will ask you to sign over your company," Potts strained. Her stance reverted to business as she focused on Natasha.
"I need you to initial each box," Natasha said, offering her a pen and the binder. While Potts scribbled away she looked to the men. Stark had knocked Hogan into a corner of the ring and unleashed a round of punches to top it off. Then his stare snapped back to her.
"What's your name, lady?" He asked, pointing at her.
"Rushman, Natalie Rushman," Natasha replied. Did he even look over her employment papers?
"Front n' center, come into the church." He waved his outreached hand towards the ring.
Potts cut in. "No, you're seriously not gonna-"
"If it pleases the Court, which it does."
"It's no problem," Natasha said to Potts and walked to the ring. What couldn't she handle? These people didn't know her full potential, and though she couldn't break Natalie's character with anything suspicious and professional, self-defense would get her through Stark and Hogan without effort.
"I'm sorry, he's very... eccentric," Potts apologized.
Natasha stepped out of her heels and onto the ring. Stark parted the ropes for her, a water bottle dangling by the mouthpiece between his teeth. His eyes glued to the soft blue foam underfoot. When he did look up and meet her gaze he did so with a raise of the bottle to his lips so that it obscured half his face from her view. His jaw and throat didn't move the way they should have if he had indeed swallowed any of the green liquid. Natasha raised an eyebrow.
Stark took the bottle from his mouth. "What?" He asked.
The corners of her lips twitched up.
His eyes dropped in an instant, and he smiled like a shy schoolboy before stealing another glance at her. "Can you give her a lesson?" He told Hogan and clambered out of the ring to join Potts.
"No problem." Hogan lumbered to her, his weight shaking the entire boxing ring. A sour stink invaded her nose as he stationed himself in front of her; a damp triangle of sweat darkened the front of his gray shirt. He looked more than happy to oil his eyes over Natasha. More interested in Stark and Potts than the dirty attention that poked and prodded her body, Natasha kept Hogan busy with one syllable answers to his questions while she focused on eavesdropping on the conversation starting a few yards away.
"Who is she?" Stark asked.
"She is from legal," Potts explained. "And she is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that."
"I need an assistant boxer. I need an assistant." Stark defended.
"Yes, and I have three excellent potential candidates that are lined up and ready to beat you."
"I don't have time to meet them. I need someone now, I feel like it's her."
"No it's not."
Their conversation dropped at that, so Natasha started to pay attention to what Hogan was saying.
"So, what do you like to do?" He asked.
"Uh... martial arts, gymnastics, you know, like-"
"Cool." He interrupted. "You ever boxed before?"
"I have, yes." She smiled.
"What, like Tae Bo? Booty Boot Camp? Crunch? Something like that?" His face contorted into an arrogant smirk.
Natasha cleared her throat. "Booty Boot Camp is not a-"
"How do I spell your name, Natalie?" Stark asked from behind her.
"R-U-S-H-M-A-N." She spelled for him.
His fingers tapped and darted over the coffee table by his side, which turned out to double as a search screen.
"What, are you gonna google her now?" Potts grounded out.
"Hmm? I thought I was ogling her-Oh, wow." A hint of surprise carried in his voice. "Very, very impressive individual..."
"You're so predictable, you know that?" Potts muttered.
Stark ignored her. "She's fluent in French, Italian, Russian, Latin... Who speaks Latin?"
"No one speaks Latin, it's a dead language. You can read Latin or you can write Latin but you can't speak Latin so-" she was interrupted again as he breathed out a "dang." Natasha caught onto what he was staring at.
Who sneaked one of her old photo shoots into her alias' file?
Stark was going to say something stupid.
Wait for it.
"Did you model in Tokyo? Cause she modeled in Tokyo."
"No," came Potts' cold reply.
"I need her, she's got everything that I need." Stark continued to push the limits.
The air behind Natasha shifted. Instincts reacted before reason and she wrenched the fist Hogan flew her way. Using the limb as leverage she flipped off the ground and latched her legs around his neck. He slammed to the ground. The irritation and intolerance that the behavior in this room had built in her exploded, and it wasn't until Hogan's strangled grunts reached her ears that something clicked inside her, and she scrambled and kicked from the man she had charged on impulse. Too late. Her attack was in plain view for all to see.
"Oh my God!" Potts jumped off her seat. "Happy!"
Stark sped in front of her and pointed at Natasha. "That's what I'm talkin' about."
"Just a slip." Hogan stumbled up.
"You did? Looks like a TKO to me." Stark grinned.
Bad. This was bad. This couldn't be the kind of image she's building on her first day of work. Natasha fetched her binder and attempted to get back to business. "Just- um, I need your impression." She started.
"You have... Quiet reserve, I don't know, you've an- "
"I meant your fingerprint."
"Right." He cleared his throat and stuck his thumb on the ink pad clipped to the binder.
Potts stepped in. "So, how are we doing?" She gave Stark a pointed look.
"Great... Just half done." He pressed his thumb onto the documents and pointed at the fresh fingerprint. "Hey, you're the boss."
Natasha snapped the binder shut. "Would that be all, Mr. Stark?" She was ready to bolt.
"No" "Yes" They responded at the same time. "That would be all, Ms. Rushman, thank you very much," Potts finished. While the first smile she had given Natasha at the mansion's front doors invited her in, this smile invited her out. Maybe something grittier than an invitation. Either way, Natasha sped out of the room a fast as she could. Any more time in there with both Stark and Potts and another one of them would ignite and detonate, and this time the impact might be enough to blast her off this mission and back to New York.
"I want one," Stark said.
"No," came Potts' restraint.
She beelined for her office, closed the door and plopped onto her swivel chair. The afternoon sun had found her shelter and sent its rays through the large window behind her so that even though the air conditioning was on, her back began to burn. Natasha turned on the computer and skimmed the list of things she had to finish by day's end. Might as well do something right to shut Potts up. She booked them rooms for the annual Grand Prix in Monaco tomorrow as instructed, took care of the flights for the trip and answered a few phone calls. Bored and without anything else to do, she looked into the company's spendings and scrolled down the list with narrowed eyes:
The Food Bank, The Clean Water Project, The Plastic Plantation Tree Project, the World Wildlife Fund, the... Boy Scouts of America?
Stark was handing out money and contracts like Halloween candy to every organization imaginable.