The Ring: #sorrynotsorrybutreallysosorry
November 21, 2016
Natasha locked eyes with Darcy Lewis and willed her to understand the situation.
She had barely arrived at the Prime Minister’s Office in time to keep Steve from parading Barnes in front of Tony. Natasha had been debating the merits of her own attendance, knowing that on his bad days Tony considered her to be just a step above a double agent, but Darcy’s pleas had swayed her. Clint often said it was better to be lucky than good, and this was one instance in which she agreed.
Steve was a good man; ‘the best of us’ Tony often mocked. He was willing to take responsibility where he had none and never shied away from acknowledging injustice. He was the unwavering moral compass that Natasha had never before imagined existed and wouldn’t admit she was a little frightened of. He also did not understand the meaning of incremental change. Or subtlety. Or easing into something. Steve was all or nothing. Black or white. Full frontal assault. Some trainers in the Red Room had called Yasha the Fist – but that was only because Steve Rogers had been on ice at the time. In comparison to Captain America, the Winter Solider was a precision scalpel. Steve was all squared shoulders and frank honesty. A well-intentioned bull in an emotional china shop. Based on his ability to keep physically delicate and wisdom-stunted Steve Rogers alive long enough to join Project Rebirth, Natasha privately thought James Barnes must have had nearly preternatural skills even before he became the Winter Soldier.
The first face-to-face between Steve and Tony since Siberia was not the time for frank honesty. Certainly not as it pertained to James Barnes.
Where Steve was direct and completely lacking in guile, Tony was diversion and misrepresentation. In another life, with far less ego, Tony Stark would have made an excellent spy. As it was he approached resolving interpersonal problems like a Vegas magician: nothing to see over here – but look under your seats! Rabbits for everyone!
That Darcy Lewis had managed to get Tony to Ottawa, had wrangled him into discussions to end the Accords, had made him personally call Steve – and Natasha still was not entirely certain how that had been accomplished, blackmail? Physical violence? Chemical assistance? Sexual inducement? – was a testament to the young woman’s skills, certainly. It was also lucky. Natasha needed a bit more of that luck. She needed Darcy to look into her eyes, see Barnes standing just over her shoulder, assess the situation and come to the correct conclusion: Tony could not handle Barnes right now. Then she needed an untrained civilian with all the physical strength of an al dente noodle to get the only man Natasha had ever been afraid of far away from Tony. Whether Yasha wanted to go or not.
Steve was shifting awkwardly next to Natasha. She could practically hear his mind grinding away on the speech he no doubt had prepared. He was nervous as well, the swipe of his palm against his thigh gave him away. She wondered if it was for the confrontation with Tony or the presence of Darcy. Or both. Natasha was aware that although most men seemed incapable of dealing with more than one thing at a time, it did not mean they could not comprehend the layers of a situation. Not the way she could, of course. Neither Tony nor Steve had ever had bones broken for missing subtext in a conversation or needles pressed under their skin for not noticing an inconsequential detail. That particular teaching method had left a lasting impression.
Natasha disliked going into operations with so little pre-planning and so few resources. If the worst happened, she knew she could take out either Steve and Tony, or slow down Barnes, but it would not be possible to contain all three men. Not before they could do serious damage to each other and irreparable damage to the fragile negotiations. She hadn’t even had time to properly accessorize for the meetings. She had only two ceramic knives on her and the briefcase was merely a prop stolen from an unsuspecting businesswoman in the parking lot. It had heft to it, despite it’s slim design. Perhaps it would make a good distraction, if thrown. Perhaps the woman it belonged to was a safety-conscious person. Pepper-spray would shave twelve seconds off the time necessary to disable Tony.
Darcy had gone heavy on the mascara, so the widening of her eyes when she caught sight of Barnes was obvious. Ballon. Tony’s back was turned while he delayed the inevitable, so when Darcy rushed out and Natasha closed the door behind her it left no opportunity for the grieving, angry, hurt billionaire to see the person that had killed his parents.
Even through the solid wood door Natasha could make out Darcy, talking as if her lips would glue shut if they were together for longer than a moment. Her voice faded along with the sharp click of her flats and the barely heard light step of Barnes’ shoes.
Tony turned, and Natasha prepared for the next scene in this little ballet.
“Tony. Thank you for calling me. I-” Steve was cut off before he even finished the introductory part of his speech. Natasha moved to the refreshment table. It placed her near enough to Tony that she could easily dislocate his elbow and drive a sharp kick to his weak knee – cartilage there had been damaged during the fight with Ultron – and send him to the floor. And yet she was not in a direct line between him and Steve, so any initial charge would miss her.
Tony, as ever, threw the conversation off course with insults. “Natalie, did you come to work, or am I dying again?”
Natasha flicked one eyebrow up and sipped a chai tea. The childish dig rolled off her like it meant nothing, and it didn’t. Natasha was very aware of Tony’s coping mechanisms. She had written the initial report for SHIELD, after all. As usual, Tony continued as if no one else was necessary for conversation. To him, they really, really weren’t.
“No, can’t be dying. Just had a checkup – full works. Have you done that yet, Cap? The works? At your age it is imperative. Prostate health is no laughing matter. Although the exam can be a bit abrasive. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, which, who isn’t, am I right? But I’m perfectly healthy. So healthy. New doc I hired says I have fewer swimmers than the Chernobyl cooling ponds and the cardiac damage of an Aztec sacrificial victim, but all the good cholesterol, so that’s amazing. And no long term issues from having my suit treated like a vexing can of sardines or getting my chest crushed by vibranium disk. How about you? Things been good? Feeling good? You look good. Very crisp and classically patriotic. Like a new Benjamin.”
Steve took three steps into the center of the room and began again, his mouth twisting with guilt and stubbornness. “Tony, I-”
“New suit? Should be new. I told Lewis you’d need new. Natalie has access to an SI card – for her employment – you understand. What is that? Brioni? No, Tom Ford. I recognize the cut now. I have an O’Connor herringbone in teal – but it looks better on you. Good length. I’m more of a Buckley cut, myself.” He was straightening his tie as he spoke, as if the custom silk wasn’t already lying perfectly centered. This was both a nervous tick of Tony’s, and a calculated affectation. He was aware he tended to fiddle with things when he was avoiding a topic, so he used the mannerism to show others how disinterested he was while reinforcing his wealth and status. Natasha had seen it work countless times on businessmen, celebrities, and reporters. Even a few politicians. Steve Rogers was none of those things and not easily swayed from his course.
“I know it isn’t enough or close to what you deserve, but I need to-”
“Deserve?” Tony’s facade cracked and Natasha pressed her weight evenly between the balls of her feet. En avonte. Her cup was nearly empty, and she adjusted her grip to throw it if necessary. “What do I deserve, Steve? I didn’t deserve to be orphaned. I was a fuck-up, sure, but I don’t think I deserved to be murdered – certainly not by Obie. I didn’t deserve to be manipulated and betrayed by SHIELD. I didn’t deserve to have my teammate – my frie- you, lie to me.” He never raised his voice, but he was breathing hard and the veins in his neck stood out sharply. Tony had lost weight after what happened in Siberia, and he still hadn’t gained it back. It gave him an air of vulnerability that mirrored what Natasha suspected he was feeling.
Natasha subtlety shifted her weight again, not to disable an opponent but to catch Tony if he fainted. He had hidden his panic attacks well up until the last few months, but she was familiar with how often they could result in loss of consciousness due to lack of oxygen.
“Now Mandarin? That one was on me. Definitely I deserved that. Pepper, not so much, but me? Yeah. So, scone?” He blindly reached for a tray of pastries off the table and offered it to Steve.
“Tony, I-” Steve took another step forward, the lines bracketing his mouth deep with the remorse he felt. The corners of his eyes were tight with a painful determination to see things through.
“Fucking shut up, Steve!” That stopped the Captain dead in his tracks, and Natasha eased closer to Tony, just in case she need to take him out before he could summon a suit. His breath was harsh and his skin gray at the edge of his collar. It was a sharp contrast to the red flush along Steve’s jaw. Adagio.
Tony continued, his voice so quiet and dull that neither she nor Steve would have been able to hear him if not for the serum. “I shouldn’t have…I shouldn’t have signed. I should have listened to you. The Accords…they’re wrong, so godawfully wrong and just, just a nightmare. And Ross, that was…I should have known better. I did know better but I didn’t want to…he’s such a fucking dick. We needed to talk about it, but I wouldn’t listen. And now…I need to listen now. I am listening now. But you, you were wrong too. I can’t, you should have, this isn’t…fucking Barnes! They were my parents, Steve. And Howard was an asshole and Maria was – but they were mine, and I deserved to know. I deserved to make that choice, that call, myself. Not you. I get to hate him. I get to say that I will never forgive him that I never want to see his goddamn face or hear his voice or even his name. I have that right – and you should never have tried to take it from me.”
Natasha breathed slowly, evenly. Her lungs obeyed her perfectly, making no sound as they flooded her muscles with the oxygen she would need for action. Tombe. Tony’s eyes were dark and wild, wet with pain that was more than just the grief for his parents or the loss of a team. Natasha knew that pain, knew the soul-rending cut of the treason of one that had been labeled friend. Had been on both sides. She didn’t dwell on it, didn’t allow herself to console or commiserate or empathize. She wasn’t there for that. It wasn’t her purpose.
Steve’s hand shook a little as he ran it through his hair, messing up the neat strands. “You’re right. And I am sorry. I’m not asking you to forgive me, Tony. I don’t know if you should. If it had been me, in your place…” He sighed, and Natasha watched as he discarded his carefully rehearsed speech. “Few months ago, we were in Indonesia – that tsunami? And Sam almost crashed into a building ‘cause this pretty gal kissed him for savin’ her. Don’t get me wrong, she was a looker – understandable, you know? But all I was thinkin’ ‘bout was how you woulda never let him live it down.” He looked up at the ceiling, his blue eyes a little damp. “It isn’t the toys or the tech or the information, or even, hell, the not being a fugitive that I missed. I screwed up, Tony. And you suffered for it, everyone did. I’m supposed to be the leader, the commander. I’m supposed to be an example and show everyone how to move forward. But I just wanted my team back.”
Tony leaned to the side, gripping the back of a utilitarian club chair so hard his knuckles turned white. Steve kept going.
“I only ever wanted to make a difference. To do something good in the world. After I crashed, when I woke up, I thought that was all I’d ever have again. And I wanted that to be enough. But it wasn’t. And then you showed up. A real asshole in a flashy suit.” Steve’s lips quirked up and Tony huffed out a sound somewhere between a laugh and indignation. “You saw what really needed to be done. You saw behind the cue cards and the stage marks that SHIELD kept giving me and you made us a team aside from all of that. A team that was above that kind of garbage. It was you who made it so I could do good. So that I had a team again.”
“I told myself, when I found out about your folks, that I was doing it to protect you, and to protect Bucky.” Tony tensed at the name, and Steve saw it, but didn’t pause. “But that wasn’t all. I was afraid that if you knew, it would all be over, and then I’d just be that useless kid again without anyone or anything.”
“And then it was over anyhow.”
“Yeah,” Steve nodded in sad agreement with Tony. “Bullets and bombs I got no problem dealing with. People aren’t in my skill set.”
This time Tony did let out a harsh chuckle. “And communication’s not in mine. So says my therapist. And Pepper. Pretty much everyone who has ever met me. So make sure you hear this, because it’ll probably take another world-ending thing to get me to this conversation again, but I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“Me too. I mean, I screwed up. I’m sorry too.”
They both just stood there, staring at each other for a few minutes. When Natasha was certain there wouldn’t be any bloodshed, she spoke up.
“You want to hug it out? I can give you some privacy.”
“Shut up, Natasha,” Steve muttered, his cheeks flushing but a smile tugging at his mouth. His posture was easier, lighter than it had been.
Tony shoved the pastry tray at her and she took it before he could drop it. “Have a danish or something. Maybe you’ll be less annoying after sugar.” He grabbed his insulated mug from the table and flopped into the same chair that had been holding him up, and Steve slid into one across from him, snagging himself a chocolate filled croissant on his way.
Resolution. Natasha allowed herself a deep breath as she set down the tray and refilled her chai. With one hand she pulled out her phone and sent a text:
All quiet on the western front.
A response came through while the men behind her ate and drank kale smoothies, respectively.
FarmerBrown: ? Maybe that book was different on your side of the curtain.
She tried again.
Detante reached. You asshole.
FarmerBrown: Nice. Now don’t text again unless we’re at war with the Friendly North.
She understood. Since Canada had offered the fugitive Avengers sanctuary during the negotiations, Clint, Sam, and Wanda were enjoying a vacation from constantly hiding. Tony had, in his usual underhanded and strenuously denied fashion, apologized to the rest of the team by buying – not renting because that wasn’t his style, but buying a six bedroom home with indoor pool, wine cellar, and gated drive was completely his style – and adding his own security before making it available to Steve’s group. He had also flown Laura and the kids up. Clint deserved to be a little grouchy about having his family time interrupted. Behind her, Steve had finished his food and so she handed him a bottle of water. Tony was tapping away at his phone and slurping at his nearly empty drink.
“Ross really is a dick,” Steve murmured. Tony laughed, loud and long and accompanied by the rhythmic slap of his phone against his knee.
“He really, really is.”
* Ballon: a jump where the ballerina appears to hang effortlessly in the air.
En avonte: a movement toward the front.
Adagio: slow, controlled movements done with fluidity and grace.
Trombe: the action of falling, often leading into a traveling step.
Resolution: final movement.