Her memory was mapped in bodies. Sense memory, vivid and instinctive. The sight and sound and feel. A world written in flesh, and the minds that moved it.
She remembered the hands of her first trainer, moulding her body into the shapes it needed. No more than that. That was all he'd been. She remembered the first man she'd killed, his chest heaving under her thighs, the flesh of his throat soft, too soft, under her hard little fingers, the blood itching under her nails afterwards. She remembered the first man she'd lain with, a strange passage of hands across her, strange and gentle and intent, as though he'd been mapping her. So intent, he'd missed the coldness in her heart, and the soft murder behind her eyes.
She remembered Clint. No more than a presence, at first, invisible eyes on her back. A shoulder, later, a warmth at her side, steady and sure. Then the heat of him under her hands, hard and violent and distant, as she broke him to save him. The pulse calm beneath her fingers, his eyes watching her steadily, when he came back to her afterwards.
And this man. Tony Stark. She remembered him too. A sense mapped into her memory, the feel of him beneath her hand.
This memory, though, was more akin to those distant, anonymous men, than to the soundless words Clint had written inside her.
He'd landed badly. Some twenty yards in front of her, at the far end of a trail of torn earth and small scraps of stray metal. Alone. The others were two clicks out, as grounded as her and Tony. Hopefully, not in as much immediate trouble.
"Shit, shit, shit, shit," Tony chanted, almost sang, as his hands scrabbled at armour, pulling plates away. Tearing nails in the process, but she doubted he noticed. Scrambling to get through the chest plating, down to the vital component beneath it. As soon as she realised his target, she felt her heart jump, once, in alarm.
"Stark," she said, quietly, landing beside him and crouching down to help. "What is it?"
She'd reached out a hand, instinctive, to touch his chest, to rest at the edge of bent plating, just over bared flesh. Instinctive, reflexive, without thought. She regretted it, immediately, when his torn hand snapped shut around her wrist, above the fitful flickering of the reactor, and his eyes shot to hers in fear, in warning. The action carrying no more thought than hers, the sense memory as instinctive, as complete. The utter terror, and the complete lack of trust.
She did not flinch. Could not, dared not, would not. This was the way she lived, the things she understood. She knew the world mapped behind Stark's eyes as well as she knew her own, and knew he had cause to distrust her.
As she had said. She remembered him. This man. She remembered the feel of veins hardened to metal under her fingertips, the press of the syringe, the jump of panicked pulse in the throat beneath her hand. She remembered the eyes, wide-eyed betrayal, and the echo of older fears brought back to vivid life. She remembered the voice, tripping over pained resignation, that asked her not to do anything horrifying for a minute.
She remembered Tony. And that memory rested ... so much closer to those other, older memories. Throats beneath her hands, and chests falling still under her thighs.
He had no cause to trust.
"Can I help?" she asked, evenly, keeping her wrist carefully still in the rough, bleeding prison of his fingers. Meeting his eyes with nothing but calm, nothing but truth. Ribbons of lies between them, but there was truth, in memory. Truth in the sense of things between them.
He blinked at her, breathing harsh and savage, his chest heaving in front of her. That burning light in the center of it, rising and falling with the flex of his ribs, flickering, a strangely rhythmical failing, before settling, after a long, wrenching moment, into the harsh, steady light she was used to. As it did, the moment it did, his fingers fell lax around her wrist, and his eyes dropped in shame.
"A-Apparently not," he managed, and there was humour in his voice, a lie as smooth as any she had ever seen. And she had seen many. "Sorry. Sorry. Mild panic attack." A grin, flashing up, so bright it was painful, burning like the thing in his chest. "Happens, when it starts failing on me."
She looked at him. Feeling the phantom pressure of his pained, terrified fingers on her wrist. Listening to the truth flashed out so cavalierly it sounded like a lie, and was not.
"Yes," she said, quietly. "I remember."
He looked away. Head darting down, eyes catching on the reactor, a flicker for reassurance, in the midst of shame and old fear. He could lie with his body, Tony Stark. He could, better than many she'd seen, better than some professionals she'd known. He could lie, in the sense of himself. But not to her. Not when she remembered.
She paused, for a moment. Let him duck, let him hide, gave him that much. While she scanned the surroundings, evaluated the situation now that his immediate need had ebbed. The assault had been remote. Directed, she thought, directly at Tony. EMP, to bring down the Iron Man.
The others were close. Steve, Clint. On the far side of the base, though. Without Thor to give them aerial support, with the Iron Man very definitely grounded, it would be some time before they could expect them. The comms had been fried in the burst, too.
All told, not good. She looked back at Tony, evaluating him in his turn. The armour was partially disassembled, mostly around the head and chest, where he'd removed it to spare the reactor. Some torn off in the landing, too, but those seemed mostly small pieces, the edges of external plating, those stabilising panels from the back of the suit. Nothing essential, she thought.
He might get it back up and running. With the reactor stabilised, he might have a chance. However ...
He looked up, sensing her scrutiny. His face still grey, though gradually regaining colour. His breathing still ragged, pain visible in every staggered inhalation. The reactor burning paler than usual. His hands, under the blood of torn nails, were shaking faintly.
"Give me, like, five minutes," he said, reading her conclusions without ever a word, a sense memory of his own. "I can fix it. Just give me five."
There was an edge, hard and desperate, a tone close to pleading, and she blinked. Understood something, suddenly, another memory shifting to line with his.
"We need to get cover first," she said briskly, ignoring it for the moment. Not for long. They would deal with this now, she thought. But practicalities first. The EMP might have been remote, but now that it had been apparently successful, there was nothing to say that they hadn't sent out ground troops to deal with the remains.
He swallowed reflexively, nodding shakily, and she wasn't at all sure that five minutes would do. She'd seen him stand back up from death before, seen him fight despite it. But bodies remembered. Bodies understood pain. And adrenalin could only do so much.
"How much of this should I bring with us?" she asked, looking around the crash site, letting none of that doubt colour her tone. Brisk, pragmatic. Nothing to sow seeds of doubt. He didn't need that.
"Ah," he blinked, lifting his head to scan himself. "Gauntlets, I've got them." Patting the red metal on the ground absently with torn hands. "Hmm. Chest piece, there. It locks in, should do. Lock might be busted, I tore it off fast, but so long as I don't get pounded in the chest it shouldn't matter. Um." He blinked, looked around. "That should be it?"
Shoulds, and maybes. And a question at the end, unwilling lilt. Yes. They should speak.
"I have it," she said, softly. "You can walk?"
He grunted in response, bracing his hands under him and heaving himself to his feet. Staggering, as he gained them, steps heavy and false under the weight of the armour. Dead circuitry, without the direct connection to the reactor, making it little more than dead weight around his legs, torso, back. His face flushed with the exertion, eyes going dazed and panicked for a second, and then he had it. Then he found the rhythm, the memory, basic mechanical systems inside the armour, hydraulics and kinetic motors, stepping in.
The first suit had been like this, she remembered vaguely. Unsophisticated, raw, weighty. His face, grey again, showed nothing but determination. She wondered what it had shown then, under that same blunt metal.
There was a cluster of broken walls about a click west of them. Remains of an outhouse, maybe, when the bulk of the base had shifted to the south. She pointed Tony to it, keeping the sound of him with her as she moved ahead to scout it. It wasn't rigged, though. With the automated defenses along the outer line of the base, she suspected they hadn't thought they'd need to.
Tony only barely made it. The armour was too heavy, the distance too far, too soon after another trauma to his chest. He'd spent a lot of his life, since Afghanistan, hovering on the verge of death. Fighting through it regardless. It ... twisted things, inside her. It had since he'd looked up at her, Natalie Rushman, and asked her what she'd do if she knew it was her last day.
That was part of it. What she felt they needed to talk about. And here ... well. They had time, until the armour was banged back into order, and Tony capable of using it. Time, and opportunity.
She waited until he'd settled. Until he had some colour back, and steadier breathing. Until his fingers had started picking curiously at the bent edges of his chest armour, his mind already ticking over, starting to come back. She gave him that much.
Otherwise, it would have been taking too much advantage.
"You don't trust me," she said, quietly. Watching him, watching the ragged fingers stutter, eloquent expression trailing to blank confusion. Maybe fear. Absently, she appreciated him, for a moment. In a world mapped in bodies, she admired the eloquence of his, the way even its lies were writ so ... expressively.
"I'm trying," he said, equally soft. His dark eyes trained on metal, avoiding hers. But not lying. He didn't deny it. "It's ... It's hard, sometimes."
"Yes," she agreed, perching herself in the remains of one of the windows above him, watching their backs, watching the skies. Watching over him, as he sat on mouldering stone, and tried to wring metal into freedom. Her voice soft, with old knowledge. "It always is."
He shifted uncomfortably, hunched shoulders uneasily beneath their metal shield. So bare. Always bare. Strange, maybe, in so shielded a man. But once he was known to you, once he was understood, he had no shields at all.
It was why, she knew, he took betrayal so hard. Took the blows so deep, all the way to the heart.
"You think I don't trust you," she said, a knife to that bared chest, slipped beneath the reactor. She knew. Even as she said it. She knew the blow it was. The sense memory of him, the trembling throat beneath her fingertips. Now, she understood, that little bit clearer.
He laughed. Stung from him, black bubble thrown up in desperate defense. She let the forest take her attention, let him have some small shield. The knife was deep enough already. It had to be, to lance the wound.
"Iron Man, yes," he answered, black and thick, and oddly without condemnation. "Tony Stark. Not recommended."
She took the blow on her own chest. Took it, accepted it. Hers was a world without trust. She had learned these wounds long ago. And ached, that he had too.
There was silence, for a second. Save the stutter of his fingers over metal, the worrying of torn hands in wires and bent edges. She let it hang, for a moment. Let it sit, let it rest, the part of her that watched for the enemy settled easily into action. The rest of her, turning the answers over. Seeking the one that would pull this knife-wound closed.
"I watched you dying," she said, at last. Her voice calm and easy, her own shields, her own soft form of lying. She heard his hands stagger once more. Ignored them, for the moment. "I put my hand to your throat, while we held you among what you thought were enemies. I felt you get ready to be hurt. I watched you think yourself betrayed."
He swallowed behind her. Anger, she thought. Pain. "You stabbed me," he said, rough and angry. "In the neck. And yes, fine, it was to save me, I get it. But. You lied to me. And you stabbed me. What was I meant to do?"
She shifted. Turned, in her crouch, to look at him. Down over him, while her heart thudded in her chest. While old aches spread silvered through her.
"You were dying," she said again. Not an answer. All the answer she had. "You were betrayed. You had nothing left. You didn't know what to do. Nobody trained you. Nobody taught you. You had nothing left, and this wasn't the world you knew. And ..." She swallowed, hard and tight. "And you fought anyway. You won, anyway."
He turned to her. Looked up at her, brow creased in angry confusion, those dark eyes so deep and pained. One of the most eloquent bodies she'd ever seen. A sense memory so deep within her. But not, she knew now, for the reasons she'd thought.
"The Iron Man is a weapon," she said, into that fierce, desperate confusion. "The Iron Man can be used, again and again. It can be rebuilt whenever it needs to be." She nodded, tipped her chin to the partial reconstruction already resting beneath his hands. Then, back to his face. To those eyes. "Tony Stark ... can't be."
He blinked, at that. Not even anger, she thought. Just blank confusion. Like he didn't know what the hell difference that made.
"Nobody can," he said, cautiously. Watching her carefully. "If it's about the dying thing ..." He winced, reaching up to rub his hand over the reactor, which had almost failed, again, not half an hour ago. "Okay. Yeah. So maybe that's an issue. But! It's not like I'm not useful in the interim, you know? And you can always scavenge the parts afterwards. I gave Rhodey the armour for a reas ..."
"I do not wish to watch you die again," she interrupted, cutting that sentance off with a flare of anger of her own. With a surge of pain, the old, trembling thing in her gut, that remembered. The sense memory, the whisper, expendable. The knowledge, old and shaking.
Yes. She remembered him, alright. Not for the reasons she'd thought. She remembered him.
"I watched you dying," she said, as he stared at her, stunned, confused. "I watched you be betrayed, saw what it did to you. I felt you flinch in fear beneath me."
She shook her head, forcing the pain from her voice. Too honest, not enough a lie. She forced it away. Remembering the blind, drunken pain of him, asking her what to do with his last days. Remembering the laughing gratitude of him, when she saved Rhodey for him.
"This life will kill you," she told him, and it had all the knowledge in the world in it. She knew that, knew it as the certainty it was. Tony Stark had no shields against betrayal, had no defense against death, in a life that had no shortage of either. He had nothing. Only blind courage, and the stubborn, desperate willingness to try. "It wasn't because I didn't trust you. That I wanted the Iron Man, and not you. It was because ..."
She stopped, wilted. Didn't curl into herself, but only because they were still in the field, and she would not, for a moment, forget it. She stopped, and when she spoke again, she couldn't quite keep the hint of shame from it.
"I didn't want to watch that," she told him softly. Self-preservation, the mirror she hadn't wanted to see, the failing chest she hadn't wanted to feel fall still beneath her. She hadn't wanted to watch.
She wondered, distantly, if maybe she shouldn't have simply left the wound fester, and the knife in it, instead.
She had chosen this life. As much from necessity as anything else, running from the things forced on her, and the monster she had found within herself in response. Seeking, desperately, a way to balance out the blood left on that monster's claws, the sense memory of those chests falling still, of her fingers dug into too-soft throats. She had chosen this life, for all that it carved beneath her skin, for all that it shredded her, slowly, every day. She had chosen.
She had hoped, remembering the stuttering of his pulse beneath her fingertips, recognising him in that distant, animal part of her, that maybe ... he would not have to. She had not realised it, hadn't admitted it to herself. But she had hoped. And hoping, had written. Those words, lies in black and white, static and wrong in a way bodies never were.
Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended.
"I trust you," she whispered, into the silence of his still fingers. Looking up, meeting his eyes, truth and trust in the memory of them. She did. She trusted him to stand, even when he couldn't. To use himself, even when he didn't have to. To fight, even when he had nothing left. She knew, to the bone, what rested beneath his armour. She trusted it implicitly, and had, since that moment with his throat beneath her hand, watching the courage in flinching eyes. She trusted him. "I just ... didn't want to have to."
He stared at her. Completely nonplussed, startled stupid. Not even fretting. Utterly still. He stared at her in shock.
And then, slowly, startlingly shyly, he smiled at her. A punch to the gut, a harrowing blow against her. She barely flinched.
"Yeah?" he asked, and it was smug, there was a smugness in it, but she let that go. He did that, when he didn't know what else to do. When all else failed, Tony Stark fell back on the illusion of pride. "That's ... Yeah?"
She curled her lip at him, part smile, part contemptuous baring of teeth, looking away with a huff. He grinned, rolled with it. The kind of blow he knew how to roll with.
"Don't let it go to your head," she told him. A lie, a little lie. That he always would, that he never did. That the pride was an illusion, and the soft whisper of expendable written beneath it. But he didn't need to know she knew.
"Never," he answered, cheerfully, casually, his lie falling silently into hers, folding neatly between them. "And, Natasha?"
He stopped, hesitated, and she looked back at him. Looked down at him, her eyes cool and calm, curious. He shook his head, looking down. Useless, empty shield.
"I'm trying, you know?" he said, very quietly. "Trusting you. I don't ..." He shrugged, vicious, frustrated. "I don't know how. So I'm just ..." He looked silently at her, his hands gesturing mutely, touching to his chest, to the blazing wound there, and flicking outward to her. Explanation, offer. Mutely eloquent.
She smiled faintly. Knowingly. And nodded. Her body as eloquent as his, sense memory mutely mapped between them.
"I know," she said, softly, and smiled at him, as behind her, finally, she sensed familiar eyes on her back, and a presence she knew as her own. "I know," she said to Tony, as Clint and Steve finally crashed through behind them.
He grinned for her. Blind courage, and armour built by torn hands, as he moved to stand beside her, and greet the others. "Showtime, huh?" he asked, lightly, and jammed the chest piece back over his bared chest. "What the hell took you guys?"
"Clint doesn't do 'on time'," she told him, meeting her partner's eyes as she said it, trading silent reassurance even as she mocked him gently. Nodding, lightly, as he looked questioningly towards Tony.
"Yup," Clint agreed, always in stride. "Fashionably late, that's my style. What the hell happened to you, Stark?"
"Meh," Tony shrugged. "EMP, had some problems with the reactor. No biggie." That blinding, dazzling grin, so terribly fake, and she knew that if Clint hadn't seen her nod, he'd have sat Tony the hell down until he knew how bad it was. But Clint knew her. He knew, that if she said Tony was good to go, he could trust that. And she, she could trust him to trust it.
She blinked, fighting a sudden smile, a sudden bubble of something almost like hope. Looking sidelong at Tony, at the silent speeches in the twisting of his fingers as he argued with Steve, the lies and the truths writ so loudly in his body.
He was trying to trust her. He did not lie, about that. And, looking at Clint, remembering him, as she had learned him once, she thought ... she thought there might be hope, for that.
She had learned trust, once. From the man beside her, his warmth and his presence as familiar to her as her own. She had learned, having never known it before.
And Tony, stubborn, blind, and knowing no limits, refusing all of them ... could learn it too.
This life would kill them. She knew that. Always had. But maybe ... maybe, in the interim, they could know some softer things first. Memories that were not tied to blood. Mirrors, that did not pain to be looked at.
She caught his eyes, Tony's, the desperation, the determination there. And smiled.
Hope, like trust, was a memory she had found did not fade.