A needle-sharp shard of shell wedged itself under the ruins of Natasha's fingernail. She paused, tugged it free with her teeth, and continued filling in the grave. The day faded into twilight in that sudden way it did near the equator, before she piled the last of the sand on the armour. The mound that remained stood about a foot high and six feet long, sides indented with hand prints from tamping it down.
She considered a cross then dismissed the idea. Not unless she wrote I am Iron Man and you're not on it, possibly in blood. Whatever lay beyond the total systems failure for artificial intelligences, no God of hers would look after that murdering son of a bitch.
Son of a bitch, she thought, and made a dry, croaking sound that could have been a laugh if her throat was in any kind of shape. And I'm its 'mother,' too. Fuuuuuck. What a week..
The sand curved gently away from the beach, not rising more than fifty feet on the whole atoll. She trudged between the dunes, zigzagging upwards, until she reached a crest overlooking the grave. The bark of the palm tore at her back as she slid slowly down against it, abrading the welts and burns. She let her head fall against the trunk and tried to ignore the way the pain was creeping, inch by inch, across her body. It had taken too much over the past week, and now that she had nothing left to fight, she finally had a chance to register what she'd done to it. Or rather, what had been done to her at her own creation's hands. The numb flesh between her breasts provided the only relief, and that was only when she didn't think about what lay at the centre of it.
Natasha had examined the thing surrounding -- replacing? -- her heart just long enough to determine that it probably wasn't going to turn her into a Borg. Then she had filed it under things she didn't have the energy to deal with right now. It was currently keeping both her and her emergency transponder alive, and that was all that mattered.
She didn't remember the point when fatigue overwhelmed even the pain, but she remembered waking up to the clearest stars she'd ever seen from inside the earth's atmosphere. The water inside the circle of atolls had grown so still that the sea provided a perfect mirror of the sky above, each distant sun doubling in its surface.
A single bright light shot across them from the north and east, separating into a series of running lights, then flaring its landing lights over the next dune. The hum of the engines vibrated through Natasha's bones, reminding her of the happier days when she'd thrown months into their design and construction.
Her muscles had stiffened in her sleep, and she had to claw up the palm to stand; walking to meet her team wasn't going to happen. Still, even this would be better than letting the others find her huddling on the ground. It was only when the coarse bark scratched the side of her breast that she remembered that her shirt hadn't survived the battle. Damn. She'd been hoping to put off explaining about the thing with her heart until she'd had a chance to look it over herself. Now they would fret all the way back to New York, if they didn't stop in Honolulu first.
Natasha was certain she couldn't handle fretting right now.
Cap leaped out of the hatch before the quinjet completely settled onto the sand, shield arm raised, free hand curled into a loose fist at his side. He had one of his oddball teams with him: Carol's blonde hair visible in the pilot's seat, and three newbies backing him up. They piled out after him, spreading into one of those defensive formations Cap had made the original team practice until Natasha could do them in her sleep. Cap outpaced them all, even Silverclaw in her tiger form, as he cut across the dunes towards Natasha.
"Tasha! We've..." He started, but stopped mid-word, eyes dropping to her chest. With his back to the quinjet's lights and no moon, his face was in shadow, but Natasha could still see his lips tighten, corners pulling down. He drew his shield closer to his body, running a finger over the rim, then asked in a voice that sounded far too calm, "How badly are you hurt?"
"Nothing that won't keep until New York."
"We'll see. Warbird."
Natasha hadn't even seen Carol leave the quinjet, but now smooth arms encircled her, and her feet left the ground. She let Carol lay her down on the slick surface of the quinjet's fold-out bunk and start to check her over. The answers to all the medical nonsense came to Natasha's lips automatically. The filtered cabin air smelled a little bit like home, and Carol's hands felt warm and gentle even when she hit a tender spot. Natasha she let her eyes slide closed. She didn't want to look at her friend; she'd see too much wide-eyed empathy leaking through Carol's field medic façade.
Only when she had finished, seeming to conclude that shock was the worst immediate threat and producing a stack of bedding, did Carol ask, "What happened?"
Arranging the microfibre blankets around her gave Natasha an excuse to stall until Cap returned from his survey of the island. No sense in having to tell the same story twice right off the bat. The others came with him, but that couldn't be helped. They'd find out eventually anyway; nothing stopped the Avengers rumour mill. "The usual," she said, letting her voice slide into the same friendly, confident tone she used with the press. "Crossed the wrong wire and my armour got something of a mind of its own. When I wouldn't let it go around murdering people, it dragged me out here, tied me to a tree and tried to talk me into loving it." Talk didn't quite describe it, but Carol had already seen the damage.
"The usual? This team..." An elbow to the ribs from Triathlon made Silverclaw brake off mid question, muttering, "Sorry," instead.
"And that machine on your chest?" Carol rested a hand on the edge of the bed, not quite touching Natasha's fingers. Behind her, Cap wavered between leaning in and squaring his shoulders to provide a barrier between the alcove and the rest of the team. So far, he was letting Carol do the talking..
Moving deliberately, Natasha put her hand on Carol's wrist. She planned to do her best to stave off six rounds of "Does This Avenger Have PTSD?"
"Oh, that, well. I was in the middle of trying to smash the thing's skull in with a rock, when my old ticker finally packed it in. It..." The next words caught in her throat, not coming out at all like she'd hoped. "It killed itself: ripped out its power source, and the nanotech bonded with the old arc reactor connections. That's what's keeping me running right now." Lifting up the edge of the blanket, she peered down at the irregular ball of circuitry embedded between her breasts. "I think. I need to get to my lab to get a proper look at it."
A pause followed that, and Carol twisted to exchange a look with Cap. Carol's hair obscured enough of her face that Natasha could only see Cap's side of whatever communication passed between them. From the pinched lines around his eyes and the twitch at the corner of his jaw, visible even under the leather cowl, Natasha figured he wanted to hit something. Badly.
"What happened to the armour?" His voice sounded rough, as if he too had something in his throat.
"Dead and buried." Natasha let go of Carol and retreated under the blankets. "Four hundred yards west of here, by the water."
Nodding to the Avengers behind him, Cap ordered, "Dig it up and bring it here. Iron Man will need it for her lab."
He didn't ask why she'd buried it, and she didn't tell him, not wanting to sound completely irrational. She knew that if it had somehow regained power, loose sand wouldn't have stopped it, or even slowed it down. It had still felt safer.
"I'm going to give you something for the pain now, Tasha; just try to rest for a bit." Carol probably didn't mean to sound completely patronising, and Natasha didn't have the energy to resent her anyway. Instead, she let herself sink into the mattress and closed her eyes again as the needle pierced her skin.
"Can I sleep with you?"
Steve rolled onto his back, blinking slowly. The light from the hall sharpened the angles of his face and hid the lines. With his short hair pressed flat against the side of his skull, he looked younger, like the day Natasha had found him in that iceberg. Sometimes, she couldn't believe that had been more than ten years ago.
He blinked one more time, then answered, "Sure, I guess."
"Thanks." The door clicked softly as she nudged it closed. Now only a hint of city light crept around the edges of the heavy drapes, and Natasha found her way to the bed by feel and memory. She even managed not to stub her toe on Steve's shield, this time. Steve hadn't moved, so she lifted the covers herself and wriggled across the mattress until her head rested on the edge of the pillow next to his, not quite touching him.
"I thought Jocasta was keeping you in the lab overnight," Steve said, voice directed at the ceiling. "She told me she wanted to do more tests."
"She always wants to run more tests." Yawning, Natasha pulled her knees up, curling on her side, then winced. Anything she did with her arms only pressed something soft against the unyielding metal heart; she considered wrapping herself in the duvet as though she were a caterpillar entering metamorphosis, but that would leave Steve with no covers. "But I've been told I look pretty dire, and I don't sleep wired up to things that chirp at me every time my heart cycles. Jo released me from her dungeon, with strict instructions to return in the morning."
"Okay." They lay together for a moment, Natasha listening to the sheets rustle as they shifted with the rise and fall of Steve's chest. She tried to match her own breathing to his, but couldn't seem to slow down enough.
"So..." Steve started, clearly trying to sound as if he hadn't been thinking about this since she'd asked to stay. "Is Rumiko in Japan?"
"No, she's still in town." Natasha had expected that, and had an answer all ready. It rolled off her tongue like it didn't matter. "We're not together anymore." That was the deal, after all: she and Steve could blow off steam or find comfort or whatever else they needed, the kind of things friends did for each other, so long as they were both single. She'd tried to explain to Steve about polyamoury at one point, but he'd said it sounded too complicated. Because this was somehow simple.
"You were together last week." That didn't sound the least bit casual.
"Had a 'Dear Natasha' letter in my inbox when I got back." It had been on lilac-scented paper, tied to a bottle of artisan non-alcoholic sparkling cider that cost more than most real Champagne.
The sound that came out of Steve's throat seemed more like a grunt than a growl, but, either way, Natasha knew Steve disapproved.
"It's been coming for a while," she said carefully, hoping that that sounded neutral. She really didn't want to get into how badly she'd treated Ru before her disappearance, or how she hadn't tried to explain about the evil robot kidnapping her, or how terrified she'd felt when that evil robot had threatened her girl. Ru would be safer away from this life.
"Okay." Steve said again, and unclasped his hands, stretching an arm over his head: an invitation, if she wanted it to be. Natasha took it, edging forwards until she could lay her head on his shoulder. He folded the arm around her, resting his broad hand on her biceps. She had to suppress her desire to hook a knee over his and sprawl across him. If she pressed against him like that, he would have to feel her heart digging into his side, even through her sports bra and heavy cotton t-shirt.
The steady thud of Steve's heart and the scrape of his fingers up and down her arm had almost lulled Natasha to sleep when he asked, "Did you mean you wanted to sleep here, or...?"
She hadn't really been thinking of that. Now, though, the intensity of the emotion that gripped her chest took her unawares, shaking the haze of sleep from her mind. Her hand clenched on Steve's chest, then pressed down, pushing herself up against him. A twist of her legs, and Natasha was sitting astride him, the duvet pooled around her hips. From the feel of the bulge in his pyjama bottoms, Steve didn't need much encouragement. "Shirt stays on."
Steve didn't say anything, just leaned up and kissed her, resting his hand on the back of her neck to guide her mouth to his. He wasn't usually this careful; Natasha had made it very clear early on that she was not and never had been fragile. "You're so beautiful," he whispered when he pulled away, and the sincerity almost made her forgive him for treating her as though she were something cracked to the point of shattering.
Except that she couldn't think of anything more eloquent than "So are you." She placed a hand on each of his shoulders and pressed him into the bed with more kisses. All the smooth words that usually flowed across her lips seemed to have gotten lost on the tiny atoll in the Pacific.
"How do we fix this, Jo?" Sliding off the medical bench in her lab at Stark Solutions, Natasha waved the digital interface panes towards her. Jocasta's face appeared in the middle of them, her avatar's lips downturned in concern.
"I have made no notable progress since you asked me that yesterday," Jo told her. She sounded honestly regretful. "Your heart is gone, Natasha. The cybernetic structure spread past its initial connections with the arc reactor ports, and started replacing damaged tissue. By the time it ran out of volume, it had taken over eighty-seven percent of the centre of your circulatory system, bonding directly to your arteries. At this stage, it would be inadvisable to attempt to replace it."
The relevant sections of the scans glowed brighter according to her narration. Natasha studied the connection between red tissue and grey cybernetics, trailing her fingers through the diagram to expand the view. There were a few lines of red inside the machine growing where her heart should have been, but not many. Looking down at her real chest, she traced a finger over the irregular surface of the implant. She hadn't gotten used to how it held her body heat; it looked as though it should feel cold, apart from her.
"And my system seems to been accepting this?" The skin around it didn't show any discolouration or swelling, though that would have been difficult to spot under the layers of plastic surgery masking old scars.
"Though I will continue to monitor, I see no signs of an immune response." The displays flipped to a table of blood levels that Natasha didn't really understand, and Natasha waved them away.
"Right. The heart stays, for now anyway. I'll just have to deal with it." Her sports bra didn't quite cover the extent of the metal: one spidery arm curling over her left breast and another just spiking into view. "E-mail Amadeo and tell him that I'll need to drop by Milan for a new wardrobe, some time next week, I think." High bodices were going to be in fashion this winter, whether America liked it or not.
Jocasta blinked, and a power curve appeared in front of Natasha at eye level. The dot indicating current levels had slid below the yellow boundary marked danger. "There is one other matter."
"Right. New armour." Which hadn't been what Jo meant, but if Natasha had used her heart to power the original Iron Man, then surely she could use her armour to power her heart now. She already had a few design ideas. "Pull up the specs of the generation before the one that went creepy stalker on me. I should be able to adapt from there." She'd preferred the slimmer lines anyway. The latest armour had gotten too big, sacrificing manoeuvrability for brute force. Time to take a step back. "Actually, never mind, give me space to draw. I've got a better idea." First drafts always seemed to come out better when she did them in hard copy, something about the feel of it.
"Natasha?" Jocasta asked tentatively.
"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing this time, no more trying to out-program my own reflexes." She'd done that too damn well, in the end.
"I have every confidence in you, Natasha." Natasha couldn't tell if Jocasta's words held a slight undertone of sarcasm. "I merely wanted to enquire if you wanted me to continue blocking your calls."
Focusing on transferring the lines in her head to the graph paper in front of her, Natasha nodded. "Yeah, sure. Nothing short of an Avengers priority alert comes through. Everyone else can leave a message."
Natasha had used the drive over from the Mansion to reassess her priorities. Returning to the Avengers made first on the list, and to do that she needed armour and a working heart.
"Ow, dammit!" The circuit shorted, firing a shower of sparks onto the skin on the inside of her elbow. Worse yet, it was starting to look like she'd have to pull the skeletal rerebrace and the gauntlet apart and rewire the whole thing. So far, it had responded okay to slow movements, but as soon as she started doing anything at combat speed, something between the laptop running the prototype circuit and the servomotors didn't connect as it should. Or the whole thing is completely borked. One of those.
"I'm sorry, Natasha, but we are working through radical changes in the armour's code, while simultaneously testing a new generation of hardware." Jocasta's voice echoed down from the ceiling speakers. She had shut down all superfluous displays, her own avatar included, and routed every bit of the lab's processing power into Natasha's tests. "Perhaps if we initially ran your prototype on the old code..."
Stripping out of the sheet metal framework she'd built around her chest and arm, Natasha flexed muscles stiff from too many hours of immobility and sucked on her burnt arm. "No can do. I made you purge the last two generations for a reason," The same reason she'd reduced the armour from the island to component parts, and then destroyed the components. "Anything older won't jive with the new tech." She waved magnifying pane into place between her and the malfunctioning gauntlet, then pulled a set of micro screwdrivers out of the drawer by her hip and started taking the thing apart again. "We're just going to have to keep at it until it clicks."
"As you say, Natasha." After two days of keeping at it, Jo seemed to have given up arguing.
She had to pick through the connections twice more, and the code three times before it she could strap back in with any hope of the gauntlet working at all. And even so, Natasha still felt that slight hesitation before the servos moved their correct mechanical counterpart. The lag only made up about a tenth of a second, but that could turn out to be more than enough in a fight. "I'm still not getting the response I need."
Jocasta hummed thoughtfully. "With respect, after stripping out so many of the algorithms intended to anticipate the pilot's commands, you may have to become accustomed to increased reaction times."
"What if..." Natasha sucked in the inside of her lip and worried at it with her teeth. She could feel what she wanted to build, but not quite see the code yet. "Let's take a break. I need to think." And eat and shower. She rolled her shoulders; the joints popped and creaked, but didn't release any real tension. "Call Marissa and get her to put me down for one of those hot stone massages." If only she could go flying, something to blow the knots and twists out of her mind.
As she stepped around the steel workbench, her thigh caught on the corner. Another scrape for the collection. She bent to dab at the beads of blood then looked up and saw...
"How long has Steve been sitting out there?"
"Two hours, thirty seven minutes and sixteen seconds."
"Huh." The way he hunched forward, elbows on his knees, pulled the mail tight across his shoulders and deepened the curves of his lower back. "So I'm guessing he's called a few times too."
"You have thirty seven missed messages from Steve." Jocasta's avatar popped up in front of her, looking regretful. "You did say..."
"Hold all calls, yeah." Now that she thought about it, Steve had said something about making them breakfast when he got up yesterday, but she'd already been thinking about armour. "Shit." He'd probably also taken the wrong way when she'd climbed out the window and down the drainpipe before he got back. No matter that she'd been doing it since age ten, and it was the best short cut to the garage. "I guess we'd better let him in then."
Natasha was restricting herself to loose, concealing clothes until the worst of the marks faded. Even so, her softest, care-worn sweat pants and t-shirt caught uncomfortably on her healing bruises as she pulled them on. In the ten years they'd known each other, Steve had seen her completely naked better than two hundred times, but he still turned away when she was changing. Or when she was wandering about her lab in nothing but a bra and panties. He'd seen her close to beaten to death, too, but she still grimaced at her reflection in the simulated mirror. Her hair hung lank around her face, ends sticking to her neck. Maybe I should crop it short like the Black Widow. No point even trying to do anything with it now though. She rubbed at the grease on her face, but it mostly smudged instead of coming off.
Ready as she was going to get, she circled over to the sound-proofed glass door and keyed the lock.
Steve glanced back into the lab as the mechanism chirped and the door clicked open, and his brows drew together for a moment. The expression faded too quickly to decipher; it could have been disapproval, concern or a combination of the two.
Leather creaking, he unfolded smoothly, turning and tugging the door open enough to slide inside. He had his shield in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. "I figured you'd be tired of energy bars and green slime by now, so I picked up something at Ben's." The top edge of the bag looked worn, paper soft from being rolled and unrolled too many times. "It's probably cold by now, and I ate the pickle. Sorry."
"That's what I get for ignoring you for hours." More like two days, really. "I'm working on new armour," she explained, hopping up to sit on the edge of the work bench. The sandwich wasn't even warm anymore, and the rye had turned a little soggy, but the meat was extra lean, slathered in too much hot mustard, and just perfect. "You're my hero, you know that, right, Cap?" She said it playfully, in a hope to make an end run around the concern.
"How are you?" Steve asked, sinking that one.
Natasha started to lick the mustard off her fingers, then realised it could look like a come on, and dug a napkin out of the bottom of the bag. She wanted to divert his attention to the point where he'd go away on his own, but not so far that he caught on. If he figured out she was trying to get rid of him, he'd never leave. Steve had figured out the blatantly sexual approach years ago. "Working out my frustrations on micro circuits and gold-titanium alloy," she said, stuffing the napkin and the bag in the disposal bin. "But I'm due for a break. Want to come along? I haven't taken you out in the Reventón roadster yet, have I?"
That should have hit the balance, but Steve didn't seem to be playing to script at all that day. He was circling her work area, not touching, but scrutinising every part of her project. While his attention was fixed on the opposite bench, Natasha leaned over and snagged her concept sketches. She had only just folded them and slid them under her butt before he turned back.
"I have an Avengers meeting in an hour. You can drive me over, if you want." His gloved finger brushed the edge of the gauntlet. "This is a different design."
The urge to smack his hands away made Natasha's palms itch. "Yeah. I'm trying something new."
Steve dropped his hand, and she sighed, letting her fists open. Then he turned to her, and it was definitely concern lining his forehead now. She felt her teeth start to grind. "It's good to see you working on new armour. I thought maybe..."
Maybe what? she wanted to demand. Maybe that fucker had screwed me up too badly to do my job? Maybe I needed to hide from my own machines like a kid with nightmares? "I've been through worse than this, Steve." She kept her voice perfectly level, even though he must have read the anger in her expression.
"I know. We all have." He smiled, warm lines crinkling the corners of his eyes, and she felt her heart melt a little. "I just need a few days to mother hen, okay? Carol was right, going missing like that had us pretty worried."
Natasha nodded. That wasn't the worst concerned lecture she'd had from Cap, not by far. He hadn't even had to start a fight to get to talk to her. "Crowd me, and I'm moving my labs to Kyoto. Got it?"
"You bet." Tucking his thumbs in he belt, he leaned against the bench. "So, how about that ride?"
"I need to grab a shower and close a few things down," Natasha told him. "Meet you in the garage in twenty minutes?"
She waited until he was well out of sight before she unfolded the armour plans and stuffed them deep in a drawer under a box of sockets she never used anymore. He wouldn't be able to hold back a comment if he saw them, and Natasha hadn't yet worked out the words to explain it.
The Avengers' priority emergency alert cheeped three times before Natasha felt her way to deactivating it. Rolling to the side of the bed, she give herself twenty seconds to stretch and wiggle her toes into the plush carpet. "What's going on, Jocasta?"
At a snap of her fingers, the lights came up enough to see by. The projectors kicked on as well, and the floor to ceiling window phased from blacked out to a translucent display screen. An Avengers communications log scrolled down the left side, while a map of New York City made up the other half. A blinking red dot hovered over Liberty Island. "Agents of an unknown origin seem to be... launching -- let me confirm, yes, 'launching' is correct -- the Statue of Liberty off its pedestal. Warbird is already on scene with Captain America, Silverclaw, Triathlon and She-Hulk are ninety seconds out via quinjet."
"Could be anything then." Visual data from the quinjet replaced the map, flicking between spectra before settling on visible light enhanced by infra-red. Looked like the statue was already about fifty feet off the pedestal, and climbing fast. "Remember that test run we were talking about doing?"
Jocasta's avatar overlaid the window, communication log scrolling over her frowning face. "Yes, and I would strongly advise against running it in a combat situation."
Natasha already had her nightgown off and sports bra and shorts on. "Historically, trials by fire have worked well for me. 'Captain America.'" Recognising her voice pattern and the code words, the wall of her room folded open, revealing the armoury behind. She'd laid the new armour out, ready to go for the morning's shake down. "It worked in the lab, didn't it?"
"It always works, right up until it does not."
She couldn't help but grin at that. Someday, it wasn't going to work. But until then, she thought, snapping the chestplate in place and shivering as the power cells connected to her heart, until then, it's gonna be a hell of a ride. "Open the window, and let's roll."
The glass started to retract into the floor, but Natasha flared her repulsors, and left scuff marks on the ceiling as she slid though the gap. She left her face plate open for a moment. This was real flying, better than all the fighter jets, helicopters and million-dollar sports cars in the world. She let out a whoop and snuck in a double roll before sealing the helmet. The displays snapped on instantly, and she could hear the Avengers' comms in her ear now.
"This is Iron Man: I'm in the air. ETA two minutes, thirty seconds." She picked up a little altitude and went to full power. "Where do you want me?"
"Try to interfere with the propulsion system." Cap's voice crackled a bit, but she could still make it out. "Set her down easy, if you can."
"Copy that, Cap." Natasha could see the statue without magnification, a bright trail of fire high above the outer harbour and headed east.
"And, Shellhead, it's good to hear you b..." This time, the static overtook the comms, and she lost the last few words. There was no concealing the tone though; he did sound genuinely delighted.
Setting aside the glow of pride that she still felt every time Cap complimented her, Natasha angled up, matching the statue's trajectory. Four rockets were stuck around Lady Liberty's robes, each resembling a half-scale version of the space shuttle's solid-fuel boosters. The helmet's screens filtered out the worst of the red glare, and Natasha could see the broken trail of the stairway and snapped elevator cables dangling from the copper base.
"How heavy is this thing?" she asked Jocasta, but she must have come within range of whatever had interfered with Cap earlier. "Pretty damn heavy, anyway."
A row of heat tolerance warnings flashed along the side of the screen. She kicked out a little more, away from the trails of exhaust, and the alarms dropped slightly but didn't vanish. Seeing the rockets up close only confirmed Natasha's theory: this trip was one way only, with no "Set her down easy" option. Based on its course, speed and estimated fuel, she figured it would make the mesosphere, then free fall back somewhere in Western Europe.
Static filled the helmet again, then resolved into Cap's voice. "...steady. Warbird, status?"
"I've got a bunch of Hydra goons tied up and ready to go. They were all set up for high-altitude jumps, and Cap, there's a hell of a lot of explosives in here. I think they're rigged to go on impact."
Only Hydra would turn a national monument into an ICBM, Natasha thought and activated the magnetic grips built into her soles, attaching herself to the nearest rocket. Cutting through to the controls confirmed theory number two. "Break, break. Cap this is Iron Man."
"Cap here, go ahead, Iron Man,"
"Hydra must be doing budget cutbacks. These are cheap pieces of crap." Wishing she'd thought to bring plastic explosives, Natasha twisted around the rocket and fired a careful blast at the weld points. "There's no way I can land this thing, slow it down, or even turn it off. I'm trying to force separation."
She made finger dents in the copper crossing to the next rocket. "Five minutes, plus or minus." Probably. If she didn't blow herself up.
"Copy: five minutes. Warbird, we're going to need you out here."
Hydra had put a better welder on the third rocket, and Natasha had to loosen it from both sides before moving on. "You ready up there?" she asked. Her boots had enough juice in them to stick to the steel frame under the copper, and from here she could see the edge of two of the rockets.
"As we're going to be."
"Okay then. Everybody hang on." She took two deep breaths, then spread her arms out along the waves of cooper sheeting that made up Lady Liberty's robes. "Partial separation in three, two, one..." Bracing as best she could, she released a blast from each glove. No longer dialed down, they had more than adequate force to sheer the rockets off the sides of the statue. They spun away into the night, trailing red exhaust behind them.
Suddenly lopsided, the statue pitched violently, then caught itself into a tight spiral. Natasha slammed her hands into the statue and activated the gauntlets' mag-grips as well, but the radical changes in speed and direction threatened to pry her loose. Clenching her jaw against the motion sickness, she willed the suit to hold together long enough for this to work.
Her helmet was trying to compensate for the spin and provide readable data, but the numbers jittered and shook. Natasha could see her available power dropping along with the altitude. With each rotation, the bottom arc of the spin got nearer and nearer to sea level. If the other rockets don't...
The statue lurched again, elevator cables whipping into the metal beside her, then went into free fall. Natasha had only seconds to release her boots, push herself under the base of the statue, and throw every last bit of power into slowing their descent. Behind the rows of alarms flashing across the helmet's displays, she saw that the two remaining rockets had finally broken loose and fired themselves into the Atlantic.
"And we're on. Go!" Warbird called, and they took up some of the slack. A moment later, Carol swung down across from Natasha and braced herself against the base, arms spread wide to straddle a chunk of concrete. That was enough to tip their fall into an almost manageable speed. "Love the new armour," she commented cheerfully, comm picking up her words before the wind tore them away.
"Thanks." Natasha looked up at the metal and concrete above her, and wished she had installed x-ray vision along with the rest of the upgrades. "How's it going up top, Cap?"
"This is putting a strain on the engines, but we should hold until we get back to Liberty Island."
"Okay, go slow. The qunjet's not rated for towing half a million pounds of metal."
"Four hundred and fifty thousand." Of course Cap knew that. "Plus Hydra agents and explosives."
"Whatever." Natasha grinned at Carol, who somehow picked up on it, despite the helmet, and grinned back. "Hey, Cap, try to set her down easy."
Fury had parked the helicarrier right over them, chasing off the news helicopters, but that hadn't slowed the flow traffic eddying over Liberty Island. A steady stream of rotors pounded above their heads, bringing officials, inspectors and more security on site. The prop wash cut up the water's surface, scattering a multitude of lights out across the harbour.
One of the spot lights caught a flash of red, white and blue in the centre of the swarm, clearly making the man Natasha had been looking for. He always stood out in a crowd, but a lot of capes had arrived by now.
Natasha descended the the steps towards Cap, grousing, "I'd hate to see what you think letting her down hard looks like."
"Hey, nothing exploded," Steve started, turning away the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. he'd been debriefing. "I don't think you..." Breaking off, he looked her up and down, taking in the sleek lines of the new armour. His eyes caught on the curves at the waist and hip, and then worked up to the pointed chin and finer lines of the face plate's eyes and mouth. "Well. That's a change."
Natasha raised the armour's projected voice by an octave, and gave it a bit more timbre, turning it into a mid-alto with a bit of smoke in it. "I can't decide if I'm going to go with Iron Woman or Iron Maiden. What do you think?"
A line of soot ran across Steve's jaw and up the side of his mask. It made his slight smile look like a lopsided frown. "Definitely Iron Woman." He lifted his arm, froze for a second, then put his hand on her shoulder and slid it down her arm. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
And here we go, Natasha thought, but she said, "Sure thing. Quinjet?"
Carol lay slumped in the co-pilot's seat, feet stretched between the peddles, apparently sound asleep. Trying not to disturb her, Natasha dropped the bulkhead sectioning off the cockpit, then closed the main hatch and blacked out the windows. Safe from prying eyes, she pulled off her helmet and raked her fingers though her sweat-soaked hair. "Okay, what's up?"
She'd expected Steve to mumble or beat around the bush until she got so frustrated that she'd admit to anything, so long as he got to the point. Instead, he pushed back his cowl, rolled his shoulders to adjust his shield, looked her right in the eye, and asked, "Did you leave something out of your report of what happened on the atoll?"
"Several things," she admitted, "But for all that thing's stalking, threatening my girlfriend and wanting to 'be one' with me, it wasn't a sex thing." She cocked an eyebrow, not breaking his gaze for a millisecond. "I assume that's what you're asking."
Steve nodded. "Good. I wanted to make sure you got the right kind help, counselling, if you needed it. Hell, Tasha," He folded his arms across his chest, muscles quivering with tension. "It had you for more than a week, does it even..." His "Captain America Face" fell apart then, the line of his jaw softening and the creases in his brow smoothing out. "I'm just so thankful you were strong enough to make it though at all, and now you're okay and back on the team, and... here." Opening his arms, he held them wide, waiting.
Hugging in full armour didn't provide much physical sensation, so Natasha pressed her face into Steve's neck. He smelled like sweaty leather and jet exhaust. She inhaled more deeply before saying, "I made it through because I'm an Avenger." Because of you. "Of course I want to be a part of of the team. The armour thing is just... trying something new."
"Speaking of that." She felt his chest rise and fall as he pulled in a deep breath, then slowly let it out. "My timing probably stinks, but I've been waiting to ask you for so long, years really, but couldn't screw up the nerve, and when you were missing, I thought, well... I thought a lot about what I'd do if I didn't find you, and I didn't know if I could live with never having said it, but then when we did find you, it seemed like you needed me, and I didn't want to take advantage of that, but you seem better now, or I think you are, and..."
His arms tightened around her. "Oh, good." Stepping back, he smiled at her as though her drawn, sweat-stained features were the most amazing thing he'd ever seen. "I'm so happy." Then he kissed her, lips just brushing against hers.
"What did I just agree to?" Natasha asked, a little breathless, still holding onto his shoulders.
Not seeming at all bothered, Steve explained, "Actually dating me, doing it properly, I mean."
"Excellent." Natasha grinned back up at him. "I can do that."
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