Steve sat on one of the benches in the bleachers of Yankee stadium, half hidden in shadow.
The bleachers around and above the field now empty of spectators, its steep grid and empty seats loomed large. Baseball season was over, and on this evening, the ground slumbered. One of those modern Coliseums, he'd always thought, the air of judgement that hung around it, when the bleachers were filled the crowds bayed for sport in a big way, with jeers and taunts.
The stadium wasn't the best place for him to run and hide if worst came to worst; the strong glare of overhead lights obliterated most hiding places. Throwing everything into penumbras and antumbras; variations on light on light, skipping around shadows and yeah, for a parley, Natasha Stark had chosen well.
He stayed where he was, his heart giving a sharp knock against his chest as Natasha landed, the sleek red and gold lines of her Iron Maiden suit morphing and transforming into the sharp dark lines of her business suit, complete with an over-sized man's watch on her wrist. Steve had always wondered why a woman as elegant as Natasha would wear a man's watch. "It's expected," she told him once, and had left it at that.
Natasha ran a hand through her hair, in a movement that suggested absent grooming, but Steve had known her long enough, in all the ways that mattered. When she slipped her hands from her pockets and noted the time, he decided to make his presence known.
"Stark, what do you want?"
"Steve," she greeted, her voice was brisk as the wind that had just picked up around them.
"You wanted to talk. So, talk."
"Before we - before anything," she raised her hand to shoulder height, palm facing outwards towards Steve. He stopped, shield still at the ready to spring to the offensive or hang back on the defensive. His eyes were constantly scanning their surroundings, noting the exits, the corners to hide, potential weapons, just in case. Not for the first time, Steve wondered how they got here to this deep rot of distrust, so far, so ragged, so fast.
"I need to know, that you weren't responsible for what happened to Happy."
It always caught him off guard the ways how Natasha could make him feel. The anger a cold, knot in his chest. He knew Happy, how fond Natasha was of him, and in the earlier days, Steve might have been jealous. But that was a long time ago. "I didn't."
By the cold, hard light in her eyes, he knew that she didn't believe him, and he added that to the other hurts they'd accumulated against each other since they'd chosen sides.
"Steve, if you or anyone from your side-" she stopped, cleared her throat and started again. "Happy isn't a part of this argument and you-"
"And you think that my side would hurt innocents, right? Because I refuse to be party to the SHRA."
"Innocents getting hurt is a by-product of combat," she answered evenly. "I don't have to spell that out for you. You've been through a war, after all."
"You-" Steve broke off, his mouth forming a hard line. "You're a piece of work, you know that?"
"Trying to do right by meta humans and taking the correct stance re the SHRA isn't a piece of work, Steve." Natasha answered, her tones deliberate, sharp and cold, and Steve knew, that she was pissed off. Welcome to the club, sweetheart.
"Some one's got to be man enough to do it," she spat. "It might as well be me."
"Because might is right," Steve advanced, shield in his hand. "Because hey, working with the government has always been a Stark legacy, right? If it works for Natasha Stark, it works for everyone."
"Oh? As if you aren't taking advantage of the fact that everyone looks up to you, and you want them to do your thing, instead of the right thing."
"The right thing?" Steve half laughed. "How is asking people to unmask, to risk their families, to put a monetary value on the immeasurable good that they do as the right thing?"
"We've not having this conversation," Natasha did a cutting motion with her hand. "I needed to know about Happy. Now I do. I'm done here." She tugged at her coat, her suit now turning into the sinuous curves and sleek tech of the Iron Maiden suit, her face hidden by its face plate. Without a word, her thrusters shot out from her boots, and she blasted off into the night, on an arc of light.
"I'm sorry," Steve said in the space left behind. He pressed the palm of his gloved hand against his face, and wondered, as he always did since they'd chosen sides, if it was too late to turn back.
"Happy's in a coma," Pepper raised her eyes to Natasha's. They were brimming with tears, and the fact that Pepper didn't try to hide them, or wipe them away told Natasha everything about her distress.
"I'm sorry for everything."
"You have to make it stop," Pepper shook her head, tears running down her cheeks and along her chin, leaving streaks in her make up. "You have to stop before it gets any worse. Before you go down a road you can't come back from."
"Pepper-" Natasha leaned over the table to brush her fingers along Pepper's arm but Pepper pulled away. Both women were in the hospital canteen with stale hot coffee, ripped sugar sachets and neglected sandwiches on the table between them.
"I'm going to sit by him now," Pepper sniffled, holding the tattered tissue to her nose with trembling fingers.
"I'll come with you."
"No," Pepper wiped her teas with the back of her hand, her freckles standing out in sharp relief to the rest of her face. "You have enough on your plate. It's fine."
"No," she pushed her chair away from the table, grabbed her coat and her bag. "I think you've done enough. Please, don't do anymore."
Pepper left Natasha right there. Instead of the low hum of people around her, Natasha reached out with the extremis, heard the clink and beep of the machines monitoring Happy's condition. She wanted to go up and sit with Happy as well, but Pepper had spoken, and she blamed her for everything.
Never mind that Happy was her family too.
"Marriage?" Steve couldn't believe his ears.
"It might be a way for us to come to terms," Natasha put forward. She was using that all business voice he knew well. Calm, quietly confident.
Natasha Stark, in the world of co-operate America might have been the strangest CEO ever, Steve had always thought. She didn't have the school boy earnestness of a Bill Gates, nor the knowing grin of Steve Jobs, in black T-shirt and trousers. Nor was she brash as her few female contemporaries in the Forbes 500 companies. Natasha Stark had a way of coming across as - what was that phrase The New Yorker used? As if she were your most trusted advisor, with the air of a much loved and admired cousin. Distant enough for some mystery, but familiar enough to be liked, and enjoyable company, with cool eyes and a great laugh.
Although, judging by the lines around her eyes, and the resolute mask of her features, she hadn't been laughing lately. Hell, there was nothing to laugh about.
"The thing is, Steve. We're on a road of Mutually Assured Destruction. The US used it against the Soviets during the time of the cold war."
"Weapons of a civilized society."
"Indeed," she finished. "The way how things are going, we can't just stop at a truce. Emotions are too high, the groundswell too great. People won't be satisfied with a contract. If you're seen to have backed down, you look like a Milquetoast. If I back down, well- it's not as if my company is going great shakes right now-" Natasha smiled without humour. "But if I'm seen to back down, I'll lose a lot of face with potential business contacts. Natasha Stark will be a punchline to a lot of sexist jokes."
"And marriage is the way to go."
They were both at the ruins of the old Avenger's mansion. In the gardens, where cracked and overturned statues scattered across the grass, as if an ill tempered child had broken some dolls, and threw them helter skelter. Tall blades of grass bordered their edges. Nothing but a broken home.
"Kingdoms have been made on less. Besides, it would stop the haemorrhaging along the superhero community, as well as-"
"Just think about it. Everyone loves a good story, a wedding, and this would be the best," she barrelled on. "White dress, wedding colours, the symbolism. The media narrative could be the fairy tale and the idea of love overcoming all-" Natasha raised her palm, projecting holographs of mocked up headlines, that tracked across his vision. From blogs, to The New York Times and magazines along the lines of People and Hello The lace of her dress, the imagery. Everything.
Natasha was offering him the entire three ringed circus.
"We could do it here," she spread her arms, taking in the gardens, the ruins. "A complete circle. I can pull some strings and get it licenced for a one off wedding, get the magazines to sponsor everything. We could make it work. "
Steve shook his head. "No," he repeated and this time, Natasha heard, her going from animated back to the air of studied reserve she had since everything began.
"Why?" she asked finally. "This is the best way."
"Why?" Steve repeated. "All this time, before everything, we were seeing each other, and when the subject of marriage came up, you said-" he spoke carefully, before he snarled his anger. "You didn't trust it. It crushed your mother, you said. How we didn't need it to be us. But when it comes to saving face, or some sort of media branding, you reach for it, as if it were some god-damn ad campaign."
The colour drained from Natasha's face, only for her cheeks to flush red, and yes, she was angry. Good, that made two of them.
"I'm trying to prevent the superhuman community from going nova. We started it, we're the embodiment of the opposite sides of the act, and this is the best way."
"Offering us like some sort of gossip fodder for the masses? Instead of doing good, we just look good. That's what we are now?"
"Oh, no you don't." Natasha shook her head, jabbed her finger in the direction of his chest. "You designed your own uniform, Steve, wrapped yourself in stars and stripes and glory. You know about iconography in its best sense. What the symbols are, what they mean. What we could mean."
"I thought we meant us."
Natasha shut her mouth with a click of her teeth. She'd always been one for such composure; even now, she was cool and aloof, whereas Steve knew he looked as how he felt. Raw and stripped, his face flushed with the heat of the betrayed.
"I need to go." Natasha said finally.
Natasha listened to the slow pulse of Happy's life on the machine, as she monitored his signs with the extremis. Three o'clock in the morning. She still in bed, staring at the ceiling, her hands across her breasts, her legs crossed at the ankles. Heard the wail of the flat-line, felt the shock of the paddles as electricity arced through his heart, and knew before Pepper did that Happy was gone.
Heard the phone ring, five minutes later and picked it up.
"I'm sorry, Pepper."
Pepper hung up.
I felt a funeral in my brain/ And mourners to and fro, the lines flitted through her head as she sat in the pew of the small church used for the service. Not St Patrick's - Pepper didn't want it, so they were at St Ignatius instead.
Pepper didn't want anything. No assistance, no comfort.
Well, not from her, anyway. Pepper buried her head in Rhodey's shoulder, his arm drawing her close, his forehead touching hers. From Natasha's vantage point, in the pew behind them, they looked like a small knot. Their figures making hunched shadows against the light of the small rose window.
"He's g-gone," Pepper sobbed. "I just-"
"I know," Jim comforted, his lips against her temple. "Just - we'll get through it."
The service was short, no fuss. Happy would have been, well- happy. Pepper got up at the end of the service, walked outside, onward to the graveside. Natasha made to go after her until Jim stopped her.
"Hey, chief," he said, not caring if the term made Natasha squirm. They had been friends for far too long, and far too close for such formality, but he insisted on the honorific, and so, she let it go. "You have a minute?"
"Jim," she tried to smile, and it must have been pitiful, because he squeezed her hand. "It's good to see you."
It was. Shortly before the SHRA Jim told her that he was going wheels up. He never told her where, she'd never asked. Given the amount of time he saved her ass whether it was deserved or not, she figured that she owed him not to keep calling after him all the time.
"I heard about Happy, and I figured I'd pay my respects."
"Pepper'll appreciate it and you. Especially at the graveside."
"Yeah, about that." The look on Jim's face was pained, and Natasha knew what the request was going to be, although it didn't hurt any less.
"She doesn't want me there."
"No," she shook her head, as she fumbled for her shades in her purse and slipped them on her face. "It's fine. Happy died because of me, and with our history. I can see- it's fine. Really. I- I've sent on flowers, and used some contacts, so the press presence shouldn't be overwhelming."
"Thanks for understanding. She'll heal, it will just take some time."
Natasha stood there in the aisle of the church, as the small throng of people walked around her, the last steps echoed, leaving her and silence.
Later on in the evening, Natasha circled the grave half a mile up, in stealth mode until everyone had gone. Even Pepper, who lingered after the last person had left, her hair a scarlet banner down her back, against the velvet black of her coat, finally realised that she couldn't stay anymore. With her fingers pressed against the grave, she made her last goodbye, leaning into Jim's embrace and they walked to the sombre coloured sedan which waited by the gates.
Natasha gave the car a good fifteen minutes head start before she descended. As soon as her boots touched grass and earth, she thought about her clothing. A long black coat, black dress, hosiery, boots, and the thought became deed. If nothing else, having the extremis was a handy way of having a wardrobe without the bulk.
"Happy." Natasha dropped to her knees, not caring about her coat or hosiery against the damp, new earth. Splayed her fingers against the gravestone, feeling the roughness of it under her palm. "I'm sorry. That's all I've been saying to everyone. Variations of sorry. I'm sorry," she pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, her eyes dry, her heart full. She couldn't cry, not now, she was still too numb, with the imagery of Emily Dickinson stuck in her head.
"I just-" she knelt there, until the sun left the sky, and the temperature fell. Not caring how long she was there, until she felt the weight of a broad palm on her shoulder.
"Steve," she breathed, still looking ahead, the dates of Happy Hogan's birth and death set in sharp intaglio on the stone. "I can't fight with you, not now. Go away."
"I know how much he meant to you. I came to pay my respects."
Natasha rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "He was so good. Really sharp, you know? He made me feel like a moron at times. When it came to this stupid war, he helped me to see what I needed to do."
"I'm sorry about Happy."
"As am I. Pepper hates me, and I can't even fault her for feeling that way."
"Happy did what he had to do."
"Die for me?" Agitated now, Natasha shot to her feet, her toes bumped against Steve's, as she gave him a shove with all her might, and to her chagrin, he didn't move. "I didn't pay Happy to die for me. Screw that, and screw you for saying it."
"No." Steve stood in front of her, his beret in hand. With a jolt she realised, that he was in full dress, to pay his respects to Happy, under the cover of darkness, and her eyes prickled with tears, because the action meant so much to her, as it would have to Happy, as much as he didn't set great store by Capes.
"Happy did what he had to do, because he was your friend, as well your body guard. He fought for you, Tasha, long and hard. That's what friends do."
"If he hadn't, he'd have regretted it. But still, one death is a death too many. This war, this-"
"We're back to the SHRA. Too late to call a truce, right?"
"I didn't come here to fight with you, not today."
"What then? To quote Thoreau at me until I break? The law will never make men free; it is men who've got to make the law free?"
Steve grinned, with this awed look in his eyes as if humour had caught him by surprise. "I came to say that you were right, that we should come to a compromise. That the death of a good man is one death too many, and I don't want that."
"I don't want that either."
"And marriage might be the way to do it. Throw the public a bone, and it will give us time to come up with something that both sides can live with. That even Luke Cage can accept."
"What do you mean?"
"I hate for you to think that we're doing this just for the symbolism of the SHRA, and nothing else. Steve," Natasha reached for his hand, and linked her fingers through his. "I'd have never have proposed marriage if we weren't going to be a big part of it."
"And I'm asking because I'd rather argue with you, than be happy with anyone else. That we'll find a way through this mess of an act together."
Natasha nodded, as she blinked back tears. "I asked first, so I have dibs on first answer."
Steve laughed. "No dropping on one knee, huh?"
"Not in this suit."
"Yes, I'll marry you, and we'll get it written in the vows that we'll set the SHRA to rights."
"We don't have to go that far," she laughed through her tears. Heart full, she hugged Steve, right there by Happy's grave, the street lights along the road throwing the grave into a hazy sort of twilight. Death, life, love and all of it came together and beat so strongly around them.
A week later, they were married, with one photo released to the public. Iron Maiden locked in a cinch with Captain America, costumes and all. The hot red and gold of her costume a contrast with the romantic, old fashioned hazy white veil, with the rest of the heroes standing for them.
How To End A War the headlines proclaimed. Everything's Been Signed, But Not The SHRA!
And somewhere, in another universe, Reed Richards took the credit for this happily ever after.