March 5, 2017
“Oh, um,” Scott Lang cleared his throat and then smiled brightly over the video conference. “I was expecting Steve.”
Natasha raised an eyebrow. His smile wavered, but he managed to hold it.
“He is running late. Go ahead and start your report. I’ll bring him up to speed later.”
“Right, ah, right.” His eyes cut to the side and he mouthed ‘no, not now. Be professional’ to someone off camera. “Yes. My report.” He cleared he throat and became serious. “Over the last thirty days, there have been several incidents in the San Francisco and Oakland areas that had the local police concerned. My contacts reached out to me after a known gang member – recently released from juvenile detention – was found blind and nearly boiled to death in a public swimming pool. I set up a macro to catalog and sift through various crimes, released and acquitted known criminals, and potential incident areas based on the most recent MO. I’ve been selecting sites for stakeouts based on the probability of our potential vigilante’s interest. Hope has been busy with Pym Tech, so my associates accompanied me last night to-”
Natasha resolutely did not smile as Luis popped onto the screen next to Scott.
“-bring the justice and freedom and make Captain America proud so- oh, hey Ninja Lady.”
“Good morning, Luis.”
“So, we was chillin’ in the van, scoping out this totally sick dude. Like, he needs to see somebody about his habits – you know what I’m sayin’?
“I was actually getting to-” Scott began, but Luis, predictably, talked over him.
“I mean, we all have needs, right Senorita Ninja? I mean, I got needs, you got needs. We all-”
In the background, she could hear Kurt’s Russian muttering, “You have a death wish.”
“-got needs,” Luis continued. “But there is a limit, you know? A little silk rope, a blindfold, it’s understandable. But three days in a gimp suit is, like, overkill or something. It’s like my abuela used to say, you shouldn’t spend more time with your pepe than you do at your job. That’s not a healthy work-life balance. She was real zen, my grandma. And her roommate at the nursing home has a grandson who works the front door at the bondage club so…”
Fifteen minutes later, Steve and Tony entered the conference room, already arguing. Natasha muted Luis’s vivid description of the best milkshake shop in Oakland.
“-saying, we shouldn’t rush into a decision.” Steve was making that face. The one that he made when he was three to five seconds away from digging in his heels and starting an international incident.
Natasha could admit she had been a little bored in the last few weeks – but not that bored.
“Who’s ‘we’?” Tony snorted and flopped into a chair. “You got Lang stashed in your pocket? How very marsupial of you. Does Lewis know you are into that sort of thing?”
Steve grit his teeth. “’We’ as in you and I, Tony. If we can just sit down and talk this out-”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you had already decided. You know, when you completely ignored my idea and called me a narcissistic, selfish opportunist.”
“I didn’t call-”
“Boys,” Natasha interrupted before things could get further out of hand. She was not getting paid enough to deal with those two, but she also knew Darcy was in a meeting trying to delicately lift the ban Saudi Arabia had imposed on Natasha entering their country. Not that she hadn’t entered whenever she needed to regardless of the edict – but it would be less time consuming if she wasn’t on their list of most wanted criminals. Some princes didn’t take rejection well. Or the theft of their priceless alien artifacts. Or a well-placed blade to a kidney. He still had one. Some people are too sensitive.
“Let’s try to be adults about this.”
“You don’t even-” Tony began.
“Steve,” Natasha ignored Tony – it was so much quicker. “You are the very last person who gets to stand on moral high ground and refuse to let other people determine how and when they will help someone.” As a testament to his honest nature, Steve blushed. As a testament to how stubborn the pigheaded idiot could be, his jaw firmed up. “And you,” she turned her eyes on Tony, “have referred to yourself as narcissistic, selfish, and an opportunist. To the media. Live. Multiple times. This year.”
“Oh, fine. Just go ahead and bring facts into it. Thank you for being the wet blanket, Natalie.”
“I was twenty-five when I volunteered, Nat. I may have skirted some rules-”
Tony coughed, “Laws.”
“-but I was an adult. It was my right to risk my life if I wanted.”
Tony scowled. “And what about Wanda? If we had found her a year or two earlier, she wouldn’t have been an adult. Would you have told her she had to sit out the fight? What would have happened if she was out there on her own with her powers?”
The room grew quiet, and no one said what Natasha knew Tony was thinking. Pietro might be alive. Wanda might not have killed anyone. The Accords might never have happened.
“That wasn’t the same, Tony,” Steve said quietly. Sympathetically. “Pulling Wanda in sooner – even if we had known about her – and training her wouldn’t have changed anything. None of us could have anticipated what happened.”
Natasha broke the sharply uncomfortable silence before it could cut through still healing wounds. “You both make good points. We should explore this more – when Darcy can join us to discuss the ramifications and potential outcomes. Now, I believe this meeting is about to become fruitful.” She turned off the mute.
“-might have some corneal damage, but that’s cool. Like, I get it. It’s tough being a forthright young woman with mad skills in this crazy, male-dominated society with all these expectations of femininity and fourth wave and the new genderless movement. And she knows herself. She knows who she is – girl got for real personal introspection down. And ain’t nobody who should tell her or anybody who she is or who she loves or try to put that light under a bushel. That light gotta shine. Like my cousin Louisa’s first husband. She was always like, Earnest, you gotta get out there and put in the effort at the grind, earn some green to support your family like everyone else. And he was all, but Louisa, I don’t wanna rob banks, I’m an artist baby. But when you communicate about these things, really know yourself and sit down and just open up with your truest inner emotions and needs – like let the id and the ego out there for everyone to see – that’s when beautiful things happen, Ninja Lady. Love and Peace and Harmony.
“So Earnest has this real cool paper craft shop on Etsy – I sent you a Christmas card from his line, remember, and he uses this artisan pulp from all-organic materials and Louisa is doing five to seven at Chowchilla – but they are still totally in love and just letting their lights shine.
“Oh, man, looks like we got a customer. I got to go. Scotty – you think you can wrap up any questions here?” Scott was rubbing his forehead hard enough to break the skin. He waved one hand in acknowledgment. Luis clapped him on the back. “Cool. Cool. See you later.”
Steve blinked at the screen. Tony’s mouth was hanging open.
“Look. I’ll just,” Scott sighed. “Her name is Photon – that’s all she would give us. She seems interested in signing up – but that might just be that I promised her she’d be living on Tony’s dime. She’s been staying in a homeless shelter, but I got her sacked out in the back room at my office right now. Hank ran some tests on her abilities – which seem mostly centered around light energy. Oh, shit.” He glanced off screen, and indiscernible voices rose in irritation. “I have to handle this. Can I email you a rundown?”
“That would be fine. Plan on a pickup by ten o’clock tonight. I’ll text the confirmation.”
Scott signed off and Natasha closed the holographic projection.
“We have got to get him to stop attending meetings when his friends are around,” Steve said.
“You got a Christmas card?” Tony crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Natasha. “I didn’t get a Christmas card. And I sent out those cool ones with General-Flaccid-Dicks. What the hell?”