Who: Nat and Tony What/When: Monday @ 3 PM meeting Rating/Notes: green, backdated
Three o'clock on Monday seemed like some sort of status that meant time started to move slower the closer it got to número tres that afternoon. In his private personal lab on the forty-fourth floor - the top four floors were always Research & Development - Tony was surrounded by multiple holographic designs. He stood in the center of them, moving his hands to twist them around and made adjustments to the final drafts with an appraising eye. It was a way to keep his mind occupied as he waited for Natasha to arrive and Friday to open the door for her to come in.
The whole 'former teammate' thing always cranked up the awkward to eleven, even if they were tenuously working together whenever the universe decided to bork out on New York. Or the planet. Or the universe itself, since they fought off Thanos once already. He would bet one of his billion dollars that they'd be doing it a second time. Thanos didn't seem like the sort of guy that would quit.
Outfitting everyone to meet that sort of inevitability felt like the right thing to do. There were people to protect, a planet to save, a universe in the balance...
"...when did my life turn into some deep-voiced disaster narrative for a movie trailer," Tony grumbled under his breath, tapping out what materials to use on Clint's body armor.
Tony's invitation to swing by, visit with him, check out her gear hadn't been unwelcome. Hadn't even been strange, really, but it was a burst akin to deja vu; what it felt like, mostly, was a relic from another time. Something she would have done with Tony and thought nothing of it before the last two years had happened. Visits like this were from a version of her life that, all things considered, Natasha had very much enjoyed before there'd been no choice left but to go on the run. But We have what we have in the time when we have it had always been one of the rules she lived by, and it meant there was no sense in grieving over the tide when it turned. Life in the upstate compound, with the team she'd helped put together and train, with some sense of home base and stability - it had been a hard one to surrender, but she had surrendered other things and kept standing: SHIELD, and Clint, and lots more besides. Natasha knew how to adapt to circumstances. She knew how to handle loss and change. She knew how to handle loneliness.
She knew less about moving backwards.
And so when FRIDAY greeted her by name upon arrival, opened the doors and cleared paths for her as though there was nothing more natural, Natasha blinked, once, and very hard. Her throat felt surprisingly thick for just a moment. She cleared it quickly, shook it off and tucked her hands neatly into the pockets of her jeans, adopting casual body language that she didn't quite feel. Not yet.
The lab was just down the hall from the elevator, and for a moment, it was easier to watch Tony through the door. Aside from Sacha and his family, still comfortably running their chop shop out of Queens, this was the first familiar face she'd seen since her less-than-auspicious introduction to Strange in the park, but in its own way, that felt right. Less pressure, this way, fewer things building up in her throat that she’d have to bite back. Shoulders straight, Natalia, she told herself, because Red Room rhetoric was still what she fell back on when nothing else felt like it was touching her (and later, she would be angry about that, she was always angry about that afterwards, but she could save her anger for a time it was convenient) and walked into the room.
In time to hear Tony talking to himself, and that was familiar, too. "I'm probably not the person most qualified to answer that, you know, I'm new around here," she said wryly, the corner of her mouth pulling up just a little. "Hanging in there, Stark?"
If Natasha knew how to handle loneliness, Tony knew how to deal with change and loss. Technological advancements meant everything changed, constantly. Things could be improved. You had to think on your toes and barrel in to take advantage of a quickly evolving situation. People died. They died out of sight on a roadside, and sometimes they turned to dust right in front of you. Other people left and, a lot of the time, they didn't come back. Sad but true. A fact of life.
Although he knew about those things, it didn't mean that Tony dealt with losing people well, at all. It meant he was always keenly aware of it, but more often than not, he reverted to his favorite coping mechanisms: deflection, avoidance, and tinkering. Drunk or sober didn't factor into the equation, alternated with ease between the two states depending on mitigating circumstances. Currently, he was down to social drinking. But stone sober or raging blotto, Tony could still come up with more than fifty ways to make something as common as elevators even better in under sixty seconds, right before he yacked into a top of the line Neorest toilet.
Because if you're going to flush some vomit, you might as well do it with a 3D dual-mode tornado flush, with a UV light and electrolyzed water mist to clean it afterward. Everyone knows that the first yack attack might cause an afteryackattack.
Drinking aside, the number of people he could fully trust was whittled down to three. Three people in the entire world that he knew would always have his back, that would put up with his quirks and eccentricity. That would be Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy. Once, he would have included some of the ex-teammates in that list, but things changed. If anyone was going to try to rocket punch what was coming for the planet his wife and unborn kid were on, it was up to him to load as many things into his suit and do as much as he could to protect it. On his own.
Distantly, he overheard Friday greet Natasha as she entered, and he heard what Nat said. He stopped grumbling as a palpable awkwardness set in, working for a few token seconds before he tapped another component into place and glanced at her over a shoulder.
"You know me. I'm always all right," he replied with a smirk. At least this time, his left arm wasn't numb. "Friday, be a dear and run model H twenty-eight point three." He picked up a glass pad and walked over to some lab tables where all of Nat's stuff was laid out. "How're you holding up, Miss Universe? If you need a downtime activity, I'm sure we can find you a pie eating contest. You can faceroll your way to victory."
The last time Natasha had seen Tony, it had been deeply unpleasant. Not the sort of unpleasantness that would have been impossible to work through, but the immediate application of two years of radio silence hadn't done a whole lot to bridge that gap. And by the time two years of silence had passed, she was just as guilty for the breakdown. She had tried to stay a neutral party all the way through Leipzig and even into the aftermath, but in the end, she'd been backed into choosing a side, same as everyone else. No one knew better than Natasha that sometimes, the explanation of why you'd made a choice did little to ameliorate the consequences of the choice. Explanations didn't often make people feel better, because in the end, the facts were the facts.
It was easy to apologize for consequences, but it was harder to apologize for a choice that you both knew you would still make if you had the chance to do the whole thing over again. It was the equivalent of well, I'm sorry you felt bad, and everyone knew that was no kind of apology at all.
This Tony wasn't quite the Tony that Natasha had known. She knew that; it would be true even if they were still in the world she'd come from, because people could change over time. This wasn't the same Tony she'd profiled so neatly in 2009, textbook narcissist whose daddy issues have daddy issues, hadn't been someone she could reduce to a single-sentence diagnosis in longer than that. She'd missed him; she had, it had been funny to realize how much she'd missed him, that somewhere between Manhattan and Sokovia and everywhere else in between and after, she'd grown fond of the guy, and Natasha In 2009 never would have predicted Tony Stark was someone she would have given a shit about at all, not beyond a checkmark in the "Assignment: Completed" column.
All of this was so incredibly unsettling, all of this was why she had decided to puzzle a few things out on her own before she'd really consented to see anyone, and for all she had told herself that the way to play this was pithy and light and breezy - something about seeing Tony here, and healthy, in a world where he had a baby on the way and was tinkering around in his workshop like she'd jumped backwards in time....
All of that meant she skipped past putting on the front where she pretended this was okay. It meant she skipped past the banter and launched straight into the question that actually needed asking: "How do we get me back to where and when I came from?"
It wasn't ok, and Tony knew it too. He knew it because that other universe bitch slapped him when he slept. He knew he was on another planet. While he was on Titan, he lost Parker and Strange and Quill and Drax and bug lady...
He was lucky here, although he didn't feel he deserved it. He tried and failed over there. He didn't know what happened after half a universe went extinct at the snap of Grimace's fingers. But under all the quips and jokes, he was edgy about what might happen even with Thanos sent packing. He was one big anxiety attack and maybe drinking coffee didn't help much, but he sure as shit got a lot done.
So when Nat asked a question he asked himself a year ago, Tony dropped the pad down on the table. It landed with a clatter so jarring that it nearly sent him out of his own skin. A quick full bodied twitch moved through him, and he turned in place, folding his arms over himself in a defensive posture.
No, they didn't know each other like they used to, but there was familiarity still there. In whatever sense of a surrogate family it once was, it was now as functionally dysfunctional as he was, and he couldn't exactly be bitter or cruel. A million quips and dismissive jokes danced a jig on the tip of his tongue. He looked into her eyes and answered the only way he could. Bluntly realistic.
"You don't." Tony's words were the equivalent of bullets fired, coming in a barrage where people either dove for cover or risked getting hit. So once he started, it was a safe bet more were incoming. "None of us get to purge this shit out of our heads, or pop back where we came from. Strange can't even rewind time, without running the risk of collapsing this universe and killing everyone in it. So what I do is remember what Cap said. If we get killed, we walk it off. Ross or not, there's still a world to keep safe, and I'm going to do that. If you wanna retire? Hey, that's ok! We're not gonna get grudgy or judgey about it, because you've risked your ass just as much as the rest of us have. We all know it."
He opened his arms and shrugged. It was a sharp and exaggerated motion, as though he was waiting for Natasha to call him a dick for barreling right through that.
Because he was having a Captain Obvious moment, he blurted out, "You want some coffee or anything? I didn't want to give you a quick one way trip to Dicksville, but yeah...I kinda went there. Not exactly a newsflash. I'm a dick."
"I didn't ask to retire," Natasha said, and imbued the word with all the scorn and disdain she felt for it. It was nothing she had ever flexed on before this moment, the way she felt about the concept nothing she'd ever hurled at anyone who had chosen it - several among them had put it down and walked away, and she could understand that a person's life and their choices were their own, no matter what she felt about it. But retirement was not in the cards for Natasha Romanoff; she'd known how she would die since she was a small child. She had known it would be messy and bloody, or explosive and sudden, and it would find her well before her hair had a chance to grey out. She was not going to fade out quietly in a bed after decades well lived, surrounded by chubby adorable grandchildren.
When she died, she would meet it standing. She'd meet it with a weapon in her hand.
I want to be somewhere I'm useful. Look around at this place, look at where all your lives have ended up. If I walked out of Wakanda without a scratch, if I walked out of there with nothing but someone else's blood on me, if a normal person would be on their knees praising some deity that they landed somewhere the people they love all seem to be happy and productive and relatively safe, I am not a normal person. And I should be where I'm needed.
But that was more than she could have said to Tony Stark. It made her want to flip a table over, but she'd always had more control over herself than that. Internalizing all her emotions was probably going to give her some kind of fatal disease before she ever got the chance to die out in the field.
So. "Fine," she said, after a moment. "Coffee sounds good."
"Hey, great! You're in it to win it." He clapped his hands together before saying. "Friday, brew up a cup of the best stuff on a Turkish grind. You still remember the settings for each person. Make it how she likes it."
"Of course, Mister Stark."
Tony went to pick up the pad and tapped a finger on it before he lobbed an appraising look over at her. It was the 'should I trust you' look, because each time this happened, his guard and hackles went up, and he had to work hard to crank things back to what would be the new normal again.
Nat was the team mom. She might have that whole stoic Russian thing going on, but Tony knew better. He knew better because they were not normal people and they never would be. Babies on the way or not. It was a fact that was going to rub Pepper all the wrong ways, worrying about him. The chances that he was going to retire were looking slim to none. He'd probably die in a tin can. Better to go out with a bang than a whimper, but he'd like to see Captain Morgan Freeman Stark first.
Since the javabot only took thirty seconds, he strolled over to get the cup of coffee and came back to her, holding it out like a peace offering.
"Here." Dark eyes searched her face like he was looking for an inkling that she might be dishonest. "I know it's a bitchslap directly to the brain what's happened. Had to make sure where your head was at."
It had been a long time since Tony had looked at her like that. As though all he was seeing was the first version he'd met, when everything about her had never been anything but a lie. It would probably bother her more later, when she had time to stew over it back in her arrival apartment, but it wasn't entirely unexpected, and it shouldn't have been. There were wounds here that went deeper than hitting a reset on her friendship with Tony Stark. Colleagueship. Whatever he would have wanted to call it.
She accepted the coffee, curling one hand around the mug and lifting one eyebrow, just a little. "It may shock you to learn, Tony, that this is not exactly the first time in a long and storied career my brain has been bitchslapped," she told him. "In both a metaphorical sense and a literal one. I'll figure it out here. I always do. Don't take it personally that I'd rather be back in the apocalypse surrounded by dead people or anything."
He watched her for a long moment, but none of the searching for some signs not to trust her was there anymore. Another Natasha told him they were a family. Family fought, but they didn't stop caring about one another. He was learning to take each version of each person as their own separate entities. Each was compartmentalized, but there was nothing neat about it when his long-standing abandonment issues factored into it all. There was nothing neat and tidy about any of this.
Instead of continuing to study her with his usual unwavering stare, he looked away first. It seemed more comfortable all of a sudden to look around for wherever he left that pad.
"Face to face is way different." He let out a clipped laugh and rubbed at the back of his neck with one hand. A laughed aimed at his own self, a nervous tick he never got rid of. "Look. I'm running defense and you don't deserve that. I don't blame you for wanting to go back, either. There's stuff there you need to do. You want to help pick up the broken pieces. Strange tried to explain this hot mess to me, with his magical Gandalf whatsits and I lost my shit at him too. There's still a 'you' and a 'me' over there. It's this whole....divergent fuzzy physics copycat thing going on. The kind of thing that would make Schrödinger's cat beg to be put out of its misery."
He spied where he'd left the pad and walked over to pick it up, patting the glass against the palm of his other hand as he thought about....far too many things, really.
"My dad was here for like..." He scrunched up one eye, thinking about it. "...not long enough. And he was young, like Peggy's age. It was months ago, and I still don't know what to think about it. I try not to. It's easier if I don't."
Natasha laughed at that - a quick laugh, one that hinted more at vague amusement than anything else, but it wasn't an angry laugh, either. A sympathetic laugh, if that was a thing. "It's easier if I don't, yeah. If there was a Romanoff coat of arms, that'd be the motto at the base of the crest. Non Facile Ad." She knew something about that, too, how often it was easier to leave things alone than poke at them. And there were some people that would have called it a coward's strategy, but Natasha would have disagreed. If a problem didn't have a solution, what was the point in poking at it? What was the point in making someone else feel terrible over an issue that was your own to solve?
"And you don't have to apologize," she said, punctuating it with a sip of her coffee. "Not to me, at least. I don't really know where you stand with everyone else, but this is a group that can, on occasion, have a tendency to look for a scapegoat for problems we've all brought onto ourselves. When I told you I wasn't holding a grudge about what went down with you and I, I meant it."
It had hurt in the moment. Of course it had, double agent thing must be hard to shake, but with the distance of time and years, Natasha knew it had hurt because he had intended it to. Because he knew that it would. And beneath that the place where Natasha had lived most of her life; she knew how to unpeel the layers of a thing. Tony had chosen that particular sentence, aimed at her softest place, because he had known where it would land and how badly it would sting. And that was actually a good thing, because it meant Natasha had become who she told herself she had wanted to be, after the collapse of SHIELD: she had wanted to be someone who could let people in, who could allow them to know her. Whose trust she had earned and who she gave it back to in return.
A person could not hurt you that way unless they understood you. That was part of the package that came with allowing people into your life and your heart; it meant giving them the power to weaponize what they knew, but like anything, it was a cost benefit analysis. (And besides, she'd wounded him back in the same way. One well-placed sentence designed to puncture his softest spot, the area he was most vulnerable, are you really going to allow your ego to matter more than your friendships, and it had worked on him the same way it had worked on her.)
No. She wasn't angry with Tony. How could she be?
"Anyway. It's easier to be here," she said with a nod, indicating that she meant more Tony's workshop than this world in its entirety. "Out of everybody, you never seem to end up pressing me to be something I'm not."
Tony snerked softly at Nat and her Latin. He was pretty sure his coat of arms would be red and gold, with a big black bomb on it. Along the bottom it would say Futuit Sursum in pretty scroll lettering. And it would be accurate.
Tony's back felt like it was a steel beam, his shoulders so squared he could balance drinks on them like the top shelf in a high priced bar. He appeared to be comprised of pure tension that finally caved underneath all that pressure when he realized the same thing. He was lashing out where he knew it would hurt her, because he was hurt. The last comments on the network got too close in to what he was trying hard not to think about. If he could breeze past things with his billionaire asshole persona - him and his ego - he often let it ride. He never learned how to effectively apologize until he was fourty years old, and even then? Trying to was like anxiously setting sail on the U.S.S. Failboat, which was doomed to capsize and kill everyone on board.
His fault. Of course. He probably made the boat and some crazy industrialist out there wanted to kill him and steal his boat to backward shipwright to build a better aircraft carrier.
Finally, he turned to face Natasha, pad held in both hands and an unwavering stare on the face of someone he knew better than they were both comfortable admitting. Not due to having any physical relations - much to everyone's suprise, he imagined - but out of close proximity, time, and adversity. The three factors that formed a friendship.
Tony didn't have many of those. Rhodey, sure. Pepper, absolutely. It usually required a lot of bickering, because that was what he did. Bicker. Bicker and peck and goad and smile afterward. Which is precisely what he did right then. He smiled. It was crooked and it crinkled the outer corners of his eyes. It plainly said: Because I know you and right now, you're as broken as the rest of us are.
"Why bother? I gave you a head's up to run, because I knew I couldn't press you to stay. And you know I'm everyone's favorite shithook. Get over here, you. I got stuff to show you. Emergency stuff."
He jerked his head, nodding over to the table with Widow gear.
"Surprise! I'm apologizing anyway. I effed up, and I'm sorry," he admitted, the smile becoming an awkward twitch of a wince. "We're good. I'm not gonna press you into anything, Nat. I'll show this stuff to you. You can take it or leave it, whatever you're feeling up to."
There was an a pause where he appeared to be considering how to open up, to talk about what he would rather not think about. That he could bury away with sarcastic banter, spiked coffee he pretended no one noticed, endless projects and upgrades and days upon days of coding....
"I know I needed time to focus on how to tackle this whole new universe thing," he admitted. "You're gonna need that too. And if you want to talk about it, I'm here to blab at. Ok?"
**** "You may have noticed, Stark, that I'm not really much of a talker," she said, though her voice held a hint of fondness at his offer. She'd used to be able to talk to Clint, of course, but that was years ago. Steve, too, which still felt like the world she inhabited, but she was adult enough to understand it would be different here; she'd be shuffled to a lower place on his priority list, now that he'd ended up in a world where he and Peggy Carter could have their second chance, and she didn't begrudge him that. She couldn’t begrudge anyone that. "But I do appreciate the gesture. Don't think that it's unnoticed or unappreciated."
World spins madly on, or at least that was how the song went, and coming to rely on people besides herself seemed like it always shook out to be a futile thing, in the end. This time around, she would take what she was offered and wouldn't reach beyond it. As they'd just discussed - it was easier that way.
"So show me the toys, then," she said, shifting the subject into less choppy waters. "Everything I showed up with is still working fine, but I'm never averse to new toys."
"Great. I talk enough for the both of us," Tony replied with the greatest of ease.
He was ready and willing to let the world spin madly along, for Natasha to simply be Natasha, and him scrambling to prepare for 1001 things that might go wrong. When Nat wanted to talk about it, or deal with it, Tony knew that it would happen when the time was right. Trying to faceroll into fixing things wasn't going to work well for either of them. They possessed very different and profoundly individual ways of dealing with things.
"Collapsible stun batons," he explained. "Bludgeon or zap, you got a few million volts there. You can dent metal with these, and probably a few skulls. Upgraded suit. Average baddie takes a stab at you, they're going to have to put in special effort to gouge through. Same with bullets. They'll hurt and leave a bruise, but unless it's Hammertech experimental bullets, you'll be ok. The suit's still super pliant to move with you. Garrote. Usual amount of spy gadgets. Upgraded the Widow's Bite cuffs. Rest of it's knives, guns....cute boots to kick faces in with. Standard issue stuff."
Tony looked over at her and offered, "If you want any of that stuff fixed that you showed up with, I'm game. And...if you want to....sneak in sometime? If there's a bragging loudmouth complaining about working here, that's Star-lord and he gets my sandwiches."