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Relatives in Spacetime

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CH1 - Catch You on the Flip Side - 20th Century

“Back.” Odin sprawls on his throne with the smug delight of an old man watching Judge Judy. "Back to when you were a glimmer in your father's eye."

Tony has been respectful, diplomatic, he really has, but for fuck's sake. "Narrow it down some, dad was 85% glimmer before he met mom."

Odin laughs like the asshole he is and says, "Glimmer in your mom's, then."

“Hey--”

~*~

Maria is a practical woman.

She knew before she hit high school that the nuns were grooming her for their ranks, seeing a girl with brains to spare and little interest in hiding that fact. Sure she leaned hard toward mathematics and physics, but she knew her catechism and was a sweet kid, and her best bet for being able to use the gifts god gave her was not to be someone's wife running a household. This girl was savvy enough - and when you scratched the surface, bossy enough - to solve problems and run institutions.

Women generally got to run institutions by being nuns or being rich. Maria was the fifth child of a mill foreman, and she could do that math in second grade. Maria sidled up to the nuns and got a stellar Jesuit education, but she wasn't convinced she should become a bride of Jesus. She thought maybe spinsterhood would be okay, if she had interesting work.

That was the sacrifice she was willing to make.

That focus got her to Smith, then to IBM, then on a team building a language for computers, and that...that was worth all the times she'd been the fourth wheel on a double date, all the insinuations in letters from her mother. That was incredible. The answers you could find, once you figured out how to ask the questions, were theoretically limitless.

She'd met Howard in passing, zipping through the lab on a vapor trail of genius, technical patter, and cologne that smelled like citrus and solvents and fine leather. He’d cornered her in the afternoon, and they’d spent a couple hours hotly debating if and how one could ditch punchcards entirely. Talking to Howard Stark was like flying a kite in spring; soaring that threatened to break the string, disastrous plummets toward reality, then great swoops that burned your palm as you fought to keep the kite at least tenuously tied to the earth.

She didn't expect him to remember her. Honestly she would have sworn he didn’t catch her name.

~*~

Howard had wanted to offer Maria Carbonell a job the day he met her, but the consulting negotiations with IBM were delicate. He couldn’t headhunt while he was a guest at the labs, and she was part of a good team, so he filed her name away to keep tabs on her work, maybe bring her onto the Stark payroll if IBM pulled any shenanigans.

Big Blue treated her well, and that annoyed him.

“I’m going to woo her, Jarvis. I want that woman in my labs, programming my computers.”

“That’s...not where I thought you were going with that, sir.”

“Don’t be crass.” Howard’s brow softened as Jarvis straightened his bow tie. “She’s adorable, but I like that she’s unflappable. She’s brilliant but she’s also got common sense, and that’s--do you think if I offered her her own team?”

“Anything can happen, sir.”

~*~

Maria turns down the team, and the lab, and the budget, and the salary. Maria knows a line when she hears one, and she politely and firmly insists that no, she is flattered but not interested in changing employers.

She really is flattered, even though she knows it’s a tale spun by a debonair devil in a tux, a pumpkin carriage drawn by matched white mice that will disappear at midnight just like the fizzy punch and the businessmen and their wives at this charity gala. He tried to appeal to her mind, her talent, sweep her off her feet and into a lab. So what if it’s a thing made of wishes and not bricks?

She takes the compliment anyway.

~*~

He’s persistent, but she’s insistent.

He buys her dinner one evening by means of walking next to her when she exits the building and getting her talking about machine compilers as he steers her into a supper club.

She balks when he goes to take her coat, but allows him to make the point, “Can’t two people be hungry together?”

She gives him a sly smile, indulgent with his bullshit for the moment, the way she lets him spin out a theory before yanking him back to practicality. “Sure they can.”

“Of course they can,” he says lightly, “it’s the human condition.”

Her eyes narrow, and oh, she sees right through him but not in a bad way, more like he’s a tropical fish tank and she’s a cat. “So we’ve established that we’re both human, and both hungry.”

“So what should we do about it?”

“You’re the genius, Mr. Stark.”

“So are you, Miss Carbonell, don't think I haven't noticed. I'm very keen, when I pay attention.” Howard’s fingers itch. The wool at her collar is a bit worn where it touches her neck. It's odd because he knows she makes a good salary at Big Blue - he's offered to triple it - but she's squeezing another winter out of this coat anyway, mended at a shoulder seam. It's not the frugality, it's the care, her fingers putting in tiny uneven stitches. It hits him like any inspiration, like cold water tingling. “But I don’t want you to work for me.”

Maria shrugs the coat from his grip and turns, the swing of it lashing his legs.

“Hear me out--”

~*~

Howard has never been in a negotiation like the one Maria put him through over the summer. After winkling her into a supper club and withdrawing his spurned offers of employment, he convinces her out to dinner a few more times.

He choses places with slow luxurious service, places with shows because she likes music and he likes the chance to pull her onto the dance floor. He gets her talking, and sometimes they get to debating, and occasionally they get to arguing, and he loves all of it. She can hold her liquor and she definitely holds her own, and the second time he opens the car door and escorts her up the steps of the brownstone where she rents an apartment, she lingers with her key in hand and gives him a long look like she’s cancelling terms left and right and whittling him down to his basic equation.

“We should see more of each other,” she says.

It isn’t until Jarvis pulls away from the curb that he realizes he'd been so delighted by that development he hadn’t gone in for a kiss. “Son of a bitch.”

Howard’s familiar with the coy, and the naive, and the mercenary. It’s a game, or a dance, or a little vaudeville skit, or a shopping trip. Howard likes the flirtation and the chase. Hell, he loves the shopping trips to be frank, and maybe it’s because he always kind of wanted to play with dolls a little bit, but it’s satisfying to take a beautiful woman and set her off in pretty clothes like a jewel.

Jewelry stores on the other hand...there’s a reason he set up the Tiffany bracelet system years ago, and it’s because seeing precious metals wasted like that bores him to tears. Gold should be conducting electricity.

So maybe he should have realized something was going on when he took her out a third time and spent half of dinner thinking this woman should really have a set of pearls. But she declines his shopping trips with the same aplomb she’d refused his job offers with, and he thinks, well, just because she doesn’t go to mass as much as she tells her mother doesn't mean she doesn't have convictions. She's a good woman and he loves her company. Some women just want to laugh and dance.

~*~

Maria had decided long ago that she was not cut out for the nunnery, but it took her a bit longer to come around to the decision that, despite dismal marriage prospects and little interest in wiping noses and cooking roasts, she was not going to die a virgin, by god.

Once she made that decision, though? She followed through.

~*~

It turns out Maria is not one of those women who just wants to laugh and dance after all. But she doesn’t warm up or combust or even catch fire. Maria goes off like an A-bomb.

One moment she’s puttering in her little kitchenette brewing a pot of coffee, the next she’s snapped off the burner and landed astride his lap, cheeks bright red, eyes glassy, demanding with her smart mouth, “Am I right to assume you’re the kind of man who has rubbers handy?”

And okay, yes, of course he is, but the slow waltz he was moving through has now become a hundred yard dash and while everything he’s been itching for is now squirming in his lap with her hands in his shirt, he cups her delicate shoulders and can’t believe his own (usually smart) mouth when he says, “Yeah, but maybe we should just fool around a little first?”

He gets there, rest assured, but he takes his time. Does the job right. He’s a gentleman. It’s not because she’s got the better of him.

He suggests the trip to Havana a couple months after that. He likes her, he wants to rhumba with her somewhere warm and sultry before she bundles back up for a New York winter. And when he points out that she doesn’t have anything in her closet suitable for the trip, she finally lets him buy her a wardrobe. Put a gorgeous chassis around that hot rod motor.

~*~

Tony staggers toward the bar, a scotch-seeking missile in a suit and tie.

Bruce drops into a white wicker fan chair and holds his hand out in front of his face, assessing the shakes and regaining control of his breathing. He looks down at the slacks and white dress shirt he was not wearing a moment ago. He unbuttons the collar. There’s a handkerchief in his pocket, large and linen, so he wipes his brow.

Natasha is planted in the middle of the lobby, sun dress and string shoes, hair in soft waves that shift across her back as she sways in place like a buoy. He can’t tell if she’s doing recon or if she’s about to hit the floor, but she steadies and her hand comes to rest on the pocketbook hanging off her shoulder. When she moves, it’s with a gliding step he’s never seen her use, and she takes the seat next to him like a bird alighting.

There’s a small table between them, green glass ashtray and a small dish of matchbooks for the Golden Garden Club, which is apparently the hotel they’ve found themselves in. Bruce isn’t a smoker, but he almost wishes he were at times like this.

“I wonder, do we have reservations as well?” Natasha clicks open the pocketbook, cautious, then snaps it shut. She says, “Translation.”

Bruce thinks for a moment, catching that this is a delicate situation over and above the apparent shifts in space, time and wardrobe. He pulls his glasses off and finds they’re heavy black plastic, glass lenses, but the left hinge is looser than the right just like his real pair. “You’re armed still.”

Natasha hums. She’s wearing lipstick, which he’s never seen her do, or at least never such an obvious shade, but her eye makeup is softer. “Not the one I carried into the meeting, but close enough. Auto, different caliber...But for the time period,” she tilts her head, “similar stopping power to what I had.”

Bruce cleans his glasses and puts them back on. The shakes have subsided, leaving a chilly dread. “We should go find Tony.”

Tony is in a small booth in the corner of the lounge, cradling an untouched pour in a rocks glass and staring daggers at the back of the sole man at the bar, in a mirrored pose over his own empty glass.

Natasha slides next to him, and Bruce slips into the other side. Tony sets the glass in front of her with a small shake of his head, as if it had simply manifested like his cobalt silk tie, but he hadn't ordered it and he wasn't going to drink it.

Maybe it had.

“Havana. September, 1952. It rained almost constantly, she said. Hadn't occurred to me, until now, it's off season. Of course it was rainy. They weren't coming here for the beach. Or the casinos; Mom felt you should only gamble what you're willing to throw away.” Tony tries for upbeat and instead lands in derisive. “This is the Havana fling that ended my father’s long string of Havana flings. This is when he proposed to my mother.”

Bruce rubs his forehead, murmuring, “Thor is the only decent Asgardian. The rest can go hang.”

“I hear they have a big ash exactly for that purpose,” Natasha herself doesn't know if she's trying to soothe or make a joke, but Bruce offers a smile through his wince.

Tony reaches absently into the inner pocket of his suit jacket, the gesture so ingrained that when he pulls out a slim calfskin wallet instead of his Stark phone, they all gape equally.

“Translation,” Bruce drains the glass and exhales scotch fumes out of his nose.

Tony says “Jarvis,” like he’s being strangled.

Natasha says, “Tony, it’s okay,” as Bruce follows his gaze to the doorway, and Tony says, “No, really. Jarvis.”

~*~

The man is slim, serious, and he stops just inside the hotel lounge to straighten an already perfect jacket and tie. It’s really just a pause to assess the man at the bar.

Natasha sits up, blinking. Edwin Jarvis was a background figure in the SSR and early SHIELD files. A batman during the war, and while English, and a butler afterward, he was most definitely not an English-trained butler. He approaches Howard Stark, hands clasped behind his back in a pose that is deferential on the surface but loaded with gentleness.

Howard gestures for him to sit, and their conversation is sparse and inaudible.

What was it about Starks that they could only open up to people they paid to care? That those people did care, would often care without the money, that was one of the miraculous mysteries, yet they did. But the necessity of literally repaying the kindness, that seemed to be an essential layer of buffering for both Howard and Tony for a long time. Maybe that was all they felt they had to offer in return.

“He looks like somebody killed his puppy.” Bruce observes. “Poor bastard.”

Natasha tries to be delicate in counterpoint, “How confident are you that she said yes?”

Tony clenches his jaw. “Well this morning I’d’ve said a hundred percent.”

~*~

“Clara Vodaskaya and Boris Yumatov,” The desk clerk gestures them over and hands a heavy brass key to Natasha and another to Bruce, with apologies for the delay in check in due to housekeeping.

It turns out they do have reservations, or more correctly, the two people they've displaced had reservations. He watches her for cues, and sees the shift in her facial muscles as she plots out a character and a course from the moment the names drop like a decrypt key.

“Do you have a third room? We have another in our party,” Natasha asks, her Spanish softened with a Slavonic bluntness to the vowels that plays to Bruce as deliberate, and weirdly reminds him of a carioca accent.

“Our available rooms are all filled, apologies. Off-season renovations...” The clerk shakes his head. “Señorita Vodaskaya, your bags have already been taken up to your room.”

Señor Yumatov's bags had been missing on arrival, it turns out, news that makes Natasha pensive as they return to Tony.

“What do you mean, ‘the two of us have rooms'?” Tony says, “At the risk of sounding narcissistic, what about me?”

Bruce shrugs eloquently, “Given the situation at hand...you might not be...real enough to have to displace anyone.”

“There's a chance it doesn't play out the same way.” Natasha adds, “You're a tangible possibility, but by no means certain.”

“So, what, I'm supposed to sway her? Be dad’s wingman?” Tony shakes his head, unpersuaded. “I trust women. It's her choice.”

“We could find ourselves in a very different timeline.” Bruce speaks to his hands, fingers threaded together between his knees, his voice quiet and carefully neutral. Everyone is painfully aware of the pros and cons of Tony negating his own existence, why a person might take a while to weigh that decision in the best interest of their loved ones and humanity at large. “Cf. Unforeseen consequences, monkey's paws, etc.”

Natasha has never heard someone use a Latin citing phrase in extemporaneous speech before.

“Thank you for your input, Clarence.”

“You know the ending, but not their whole story. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I was a surprise, actually.” Tony shoves his hands in his pockets as he paces. “Dad was not a guy keen on inherited wealth, even before he had a shiftless son. He was not looking for an heir, despite the gossip writers’ theories. He ate heirs for breakfast on his way to the top. I think mom changed his mind about having a family, but for a long time it just wasn’t happening. So in the scheme of things, I slipped into this world just under the wire to begin with.”

~*~

Maria thinks that when Howard drifts away, she’d like to keep being friends with Angie and Peggy, and she’s made an effort to court them a little since she met them. It’s been difficult to find women she has much in common with, and to find a pair of them has been honestly worth going to hell for, if hell does in fact exist and cares how far apart her knees have gone.

Very far apart, as it turns out. Maybe that’s been worth it too.

Peggy is off somewhere with the Jarvises or Howard, so Maria is lounging in the afternoon sun with Angie on the verandah their room opens out onto, sharing a pitcher of icy lemonade.

The two women who came to give them pedicures have finished and left, possibly earlier than they would have if Angie hadn’t kept insisting they have some lemonade. Maria understands that service makes some people who work hard for a living uncomfortable; it’s one of the things she likes about Howard, for all that he’s got a butler and more money than he can count, he hasn't forgotten that, still sees the humanity in working people. Maria had slipped the salon ladies a fat tip at the door, subtle the way she’d learned from Howard, and they seemed relieved that they weren’t just going to be offered beverages they probably can’t accept.

“This place, Maria, it’s unreal.” Angie spreads her toes, bright polish the color of muskmelon shining in the sun. “Rain or no rain. It even smells good.”

“Certainly better than summer in New York.” The palm leaves are still dripping from the morning’s storm, but the air smells of flowers and greenery, the humidity like a balm instead of a suffocation. “Though I think our toes will take forever to dry.”

“Eh,” Angie shrugs.

“Exactly.” Maria sighs, trying to soak in everything of this interlude, this little escape from life. “I want to keep a piece of this place with me forever.”

Angie hums and then starts crooning a song from Brigadoon, “This can’t be love, because I feel so welllll...no sobs, no sorrows, no sighs…”

Maria slips her sunglasses from her hair to rest on her nose, not wanting to think about the upcoming winter when all of this will be a memory, when she'll wake up alone again instead of to Howard's endearingly grumpy sleeping face.

~*~

Natasha has gone up to explore the rooms, leaving Tony and Bruce in the bar.

“You know,” Bruce says, and the stretch of syllables suggests he knows what a bad idea he’s about to put forth. “You could simply ask him.”

Tony quirks an eyebrow. “What, like, ‘hey, did the love of your life just kick you to the curb’?”

He shrugs, thinking that in this case both men would be nursing the injury of spurned affection; one for a would-be fiance, the other for a cold father. Bruce also thinks that a part of him would jump at the chance to see his own father reeling from an emotional hurt. At least in Tony’s case it would be more than vengeful glee. “Stranger bonds than that have been formed over whiskey and heartbreak.”

“Have you never seen Back to the Future? Seriously.”

“What does it hurt to ask?” Bruce is frankly curious, but not enough to go around Tony and talk to Howard Stark himself.

Natasha returns with a sun hat in her hand, but her face is pale.

“There’s a double bed and a couch in Boris’ room, so at least you won’t be sleeping on the floor,” she says to Tony.

“Any other surprises?”

She pauses long enough for both men to turn to her quizzically. “These aren’t Russian tourists on holiday.”

Bruce’s mouth turns sour. “Of course they aren’t.”

She sighs, “The thing is, if there are spies here, odds are there’s a reason. Cuba was a hot spot in the 1950s, unrest and political infighting, and quite a few missions and counter-missions that never made it into the public record.”

Bruce catches on quickly, and attributes Tony’s blank look to his worry about potentially not existing by the end of the week.

“So it’s possible that whoever we replaced had a hand in some sort of...intelligence operation?”

She nods. “And we should find out what. I have a few...ideas.”

Tony is focused again on watching the tableau at the bar, Jarvis coaxing his father to a table in the corner.

Howard Stark waves to the bartender, who brings over a bottle of clear Havana Club rum and an ice bucket, five glasses and five glass bottles of Coca-Cola.

“The other thing is that the Soviets obviously weren’t the only players on the stage at that point.”

“Bingo,” Tony says slowly, as Howard and Jarvis are joined by three women, the tallest gesturing for them all to sit, a second moving to kiss Jarvis on the cheek.

“Now that’s just mean,” Natasha mutters and slinks a little behind a plant. Bruce looks blank, searching between her face and Tony’s for clarification.

“Margaret Carter,” she says, “Special Agent, Founder of SHIELD.”

“Peggy Carter,” Bruce says. “Well, fuck.”

“That we are,” Natasha agrees. “And that means we need to find out what the Americans and the Russians want here.”

~*~

“You don’t need tech to gather intel.”

Tony yelps, hands coming up to protect his head too late to stop her from yanking, “So what, you’re going to tape that to the door?”

“No,” Natasha snorts. “I just wanted to pull your pigtails. For this wood I need a lighter color than dyed black.”

“I’m ignoring your insinuation.” Tony watches her sort through the crown of Bruce’s head for a suitable white one to pluck. “You haven’t shared with the team how you came by the intel you already have; the number station to monitor, the contact to look for tonight.”

Bruce sits still as she selects and plucks. He's methodically wrapping magnetic wire around the tuning rod of the snazzy Emerson Bakelite radio that had pride of place on her bedside table.

Tony and Bruce's room features a small black and white television instead, but that can't be adjusted for shortwave reception.

She runs the hair along the tip of her tongue and lays it across the gap between the French doors to the balcony, pressing it down to stick. Bruce is watching her now, too.

There are topics they do not openly discuss, things that are not fair game for casual conversation. Tony's relationship with alcohol. Bruce's childhood. How Natasha came to be the Black Widow. The closest they've come is while reviewing footage of her fighting style to develop better equipment. Tony had paused the video and just stared at her, considering serums and timelines, while Bruce scrubbed the clip back and forth until coming to the conclusion, “Yeah, right there? Even with flawless form, a bog-standard human would have had their arm torn clean off.”

She straightens and leans back against the dresser. “I’ve run KGB ops. In Cuba.” She wets her lips, almost agitated, and that’s what makes the hair on Tony’s neck prickle. “Batista-era Cuba. I have...scraps of memories...a few drop locations, the shortwave station...that’s the extent of what I remember of Havana. The rest I’ve been piecing together.”

“You didn’t displace someone else, did you?” Bruce looks around the room, looks pointedly at the nondescript cream dress and low-heeled walking shoes she’d changed into that fit her perfectly. “This was your room reservation. Your mission.”

Natasha presses her lips back between her teeth, bloodless white flash as she releases them. “Mine and my backup, Bogdan, posing as brother and sister. My cover was a young widow recently out of mourning, and in need of cheering up. But I’d already killed Bogdan in Miami under separate orders.”

Bruce emits a small chuckle, as if occupying the wake of a dead man amuses him.

“I see,” Tony pulls out his wallet and thumbs through the bills and a wad of traveler’s checks. “I’m going to assume that you’ve got dancing shoes tucked away somewhere amongst the cyanide pills and one-time pads and little red books. Bruce, finish up, we need to go pretend our luggage got lost.”

~*~

After a chat with the concierge as a taxi is hailed, Tony takes him through a whirlwind of shopping in downtown Havana, starting with a series of shops and quick assessments by tailors, winding up through shirts and slacks, a lightweight suit, slim leather belt, swim trunks, thin cotton pyjamas. Everything is to be delivered to the hotel.

Bruce starts to feel like this has been a long time coming, like it’s an excuse to finally clothe him according to Tony’s sense of style, translated.

“I mean, you can’t really object, there’s still a lot of drape in fifties menswear, that’s close enough to baggy, right? You’ve still got room, maybe just for smuggling plums instead of shoplifting watermelons.”

“Are you ashamed to be seen with me?” Bruce asks, tongue in cheek.

Tony lays a hand on his shoulder and then just flicks his eyebrows with jerk of his head. “I would be if I gave a shit what people think.”

“Fine, if it makes you feel better. Though we may not be here for very long.”

Tony grins, “I’m gonna get you a hat.”

They wind up the afternoon at the downtown Havana Woolworth’s, Bruce trailing behind Tony as he hunts through the aisles with the honed purpose he usually exhibits when doing engine or robot maintenance, plucking hygiene products off the shelves like specific tools.

Bruce carries their booty; a pair of toothbrushes and safety razors, Pepsodent, mugs of Old Spice shaving soap, Lustre-Creme shampoo, and several types of pomade and hair dressing.

“And here I thought your look was effortless,” Bruce juggles the armful to accommodate the addition of Vitalis and Brylcreem to the Wildroot and Groom & Clean.

Tony narrows his eyes at Bruce’s unruly hair, “I just don’t know what will tame that. If anything.”

“I thought that’s what the hat was for?”

Tony pats his arm and tucks into the pile a couple black combs stamped on the spine, UNBREAKABLE.

~*~

“Batista is a tyrant,” Peggy says bluntly, “but the state department likes the allowances that the infighting gives them. I need real intelligence in order to make a case for or against intervention.”

Howard sprawls in the deck chair, his suit rumpling. She fights the urge to shoo him away. Instead she peers through the open French doors into the suite, where Angie is mixing a pitcher of martinis at the bar and humming a showtune.

“We’re celebrating,” Angie says, indicating the Jarvises, who are sitting companionably on the settee reading the paper, “one last hurrah before you settle down. Live a little.”

“The engagement story’s a cover,” Peg emphasizes, “an excuse why my friends might take me somewhere warm and fun. It’s not the real reason I’m here.”

“I actually am on vacation.” Angie grins, easing the sad knot of dread in Peggy’s heart, if only a little. Cover aside, they are at a crossroads, and that’s the real reason Angie is here with her. One last hurrah before things change.

Howard emits a forlorn groan. The Jarvises become even more absorbed in the New York Times they’ve parceled out between them, and Angie smirks. Howard moans again, deliberately melodramatic.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Peggy says, impatient. “Your world will not end if Maria turns you down.”

“I implicitly trust your judgement, you know that. But in this particular case, you’re wrong.”

“Do you think it’s possible that you can bemoan your love life and simultaneously help your country?”

“I don’t know, Peg. I can’t even get the conversation going, she thwarts me at every turn.”

Peggy’s tone is dry, “Must be terribly frustrating.”

“It’s like she knows what I’m going to say and she doesn’t even want to hear it.”

Ana peers over her paper with the expression of a mother watching her child wobble toward a tree on a bike. Edwin looks pained but keeps his eyes on the newsprint.

“Spring it on her.” Angie says, offering Howard one of the martinis. “No lead in, no song and dance, just lay it all out. What you want. Why.”

Howard straightens the line of his slacks. “And what if she says no?”

“Of course she’s going to say no. That’s why she’s avoiding the question in the first place.”

Howard’s eyes narrow at Angie, but she sips her martini, defiant.

“Right.” Peggy reaches for her own glass, driven to drink at three in the bloody afternoon, “moving on…”

~*~

The maid is in her teens. Natasha uses her most halting, accented Spanish to ask about a store for hairpins and setting lotion.

“The rain,” she says to the girl, “it’s so wet here, and my hair...I wasn’t prepared.” She pats the bottom of her set curls, and the girl smiles, continues to unpack Natasha’s dresses.

The things in the suitcase don’t feel like hers, but as she touches each one, there’s a sense memory of what it does, of a mission it was used for: an earpiece that futzed out when she crouched high in the ceiling ducts of an embassy party, a tiny camera pressing into the soft flesh of her breast as she hid under a desk, a length of wire threaded through handles as a quick garotte.

She’d killed a woman with this wire…or did she end up having to use the dagger instead? She wishes she could remember the whys and wherefores, if only to assuage her own curiosity.

Six months ago, she’d written off her utility as a spy when she’d effectively burned herself, blown her covers, and exposed Hydra.

Since then she’s been slowly regrouping, rebuilding, finding...connection, routine, friendship. Other things, like sitting across from Bruce Banner on a regular basis, close enough to touch, to trust, and applying her vast skill set of persuasion and manipulation to fortify his toolbox of control. She finds, more often than not, that when she looks into Bruce to gauge his emotional state, she’s also checking in on her own, soothing herself with that connection. She pushes that thought away, turns back to the maid and her clear adoration of a rayon dress printed with delicate butterflies.

“Estos vestidos son preciosos,” the girl says shyly.

Natasha nods. “Gracias,” and takes one out, holds it up to the girl.

It’s a youthful day dress for Natasha, but for a sixteen year old it’s bright and bold, yet still sweet.

“Would you like to wear it,” she asks, “to go out, dance with your boyfriend?”

The girls eyes go wide. The offer is extravagant, but the maid is young enough to be swayed by offers that are larger than life, instead of wary.

“A trade,” she says, “If you can tell me about the woman with the brown hair.” She holds up her hand, indicating Peggy’s height, her bright red lipstick, her confident walk.

“I like how she does her hair,” Natasha says, tilting her head in close like they’re conspiring.

The girl, Lur, doesn’t know where Peggy has gotten her pomade, but she does share the titillating news that Miss Carter has been seen coming and going at odd hours, and unaccompanied. That her brother claims to have seen her at one of the makeshift nightclubs in the sugar cane camps, but Luis, her brother, has been known to exaggerate and has been trying to finagle a ride in the roadster Mr. Stark has rented for his time here and so she doesn’t really trust his stories, but still, interesting, no?

Eventually, she tells Lur to come back at the dinner hour, when Natasha is out, so she can borrow the dress along with some of the underpinnings.

When the girl is gone, Natasha sits down on the bed, sifting through the remaining undergarments and nightclothes, contemplating changing out of the constrictive girdle and bra that help her sundress fit and flare, but the discomfort grounds her, reminds her of who and where she is. She unpacks stockings and garters, a nightgown that looks like hope and desire in robin's egg blue, and a swimsuit with hidden pockets in the bodice that she remembers going missing all those years ago.

She hangs up the robes and wrappers and the light jacket, places gloves and bags in a drawer and considers, briefly, how the suitcase had held so many things. Later tonight, a different maid will lay out nightclothes for her, and if she’s able to time it right, she can ask, subtly, about the other guests staying in the hotel, their mores and habits. She needs to pick up additional stockings, a pair of good heels, a hat to leave behind on the bed, other types of bribery to speak to the desires of older women, more seasoned or experienced than young Lur.

Natasha knows, without it being quite a memory, that these subtle personal manipulations were part of the skills that had set her apart from her peers--her ability to watch, to learn from those around her. That she’d been able to shed indoctrination in favor of improvisation and evolve from her experiences. She’d learnt to rely on the actions of service staff, of housekeepers, and gardeners, and all those who made the world function. The things laundresses knew, phew, dirty linen indeed.

The Soviets had been so focused on not believing in class divides that they’d been blind to how they drove behaviour around the world. Even in Moscow.

She gets up, freshens her makeup, adds a small bug to her purse along with a thick wad of cash and several packets of cigarettes. The bug is only useful if she can get the transmission to work and broadcast into her room, and she can get Stark on that if she decides it’s worth doing. She doesn’t necessarily want the Soviets to hear whatever it is Peggy Carter is up to, presuming she’s here on more than vacation.

But, opportunities often present themselves. She tries to channel the cocksure young woman that she knows she must have been, and slips out of the room to chat with the kitchen staff.

~*~

Bruce tries to find the best angle for the hat. It is a natty touch, and he likes it in spite of himself.

He’s trying to catch sight of his profile in the lobby mirror, adjusting the brim when he sees Tony’s retreating back.

He doffs the hat, following him into the garden.

Tony’s hand is out to Edwin Jarvis, who sits at a small table under the arbor in the garden, taking tea with his wife.

“Hate to interrupt,” he says, bold as brass, “but I saw you earlier with Howard Stark. Meant to introduce myself then, but I wasn’t sure it was really him.”

Jarvis draws himself up tight, wary, lips compressed.

“Sorry,” Tony says, “not trying to be a creep. I’m family. Distant family, but family nonetheless. Seen more of Howard in the paper than in person the past twenty years, though. But it is him, right?”

Jarvis exchanges a look with his wife, who seems more amused than anything else.

Tony looks back over his shoulder, gestures Bruce over.

“I’m Ed,” he says. “Eddie Stark, Bel Air King of Paramus. I own the dealership, franchised out.”

Jarvis finally gestures to the chairs opposite, and Tony slides in, all oily charm.

“Edwin Jarvis. My wife, Ana.”

Tony kisses her hand, of course he does, and waves Bruce into the remaining seat.

“Don’t want to interrupt you,” he says, “This is my doctor. Heart condition. He comes with me when I travel. Airline lost our luggage--who’d a thought, huh?”

Bruce is left wondering how to introduce himself. Is he Bruce? Is he Boris? Is he really fucking doing this?

“Pleasure,” he says to the couple, who still look a little stunned.

Jarvis stands to offer his hand to shake, “I’m very sorry, I didn’t catch your name, Dr.?”

“Call me Hank,” comes out of his mouth, and he shrugs at Tony’s pained smile, “I’m on vacation.”

Tony’s one leg is bouncing under the table, hidden from the Jarvises as Ana gestures to the waiter for two more cups.

“Ana and I were discussing the local music,” Edwin says. “Part of our interest in accompanying Mr. Stark here. Have you been out, seen any of the orchestras or bands?”

Tony shakes his head, says not yet, but Bruce interrupts, “I've got a feeling you’ve got a spring in your step, Mrs. Jarvis.”

She grins. “It is true. And I'm tired of sitting around, talking about the sights. I’m ready to have fun.”

Bruce says, “We’re fun.”

“That has not been my experience,” Tony says to Bruce in an undertone, as Edwin pours them tea.

“We can be fun,” he concedes, because he feels loose and ornery and wants to push at Tony. Talking to this couple gives him an itch, like looking at a distorted mirror. Seeing Tony’s actual life translated, digging into his roots, it’s being taken home to meet the family. Bruce reminds himself he doesn’t have a good track record in these types of situations. “And I heard Clara studied dance when she was a kid.”

Tony coughs, only millimeters from the sip of tea that would have come shooting out of his nose, and okay, maybe Bruce did time that, only thwarted by Tony being on guard in general.

“I know you’re on vacation, but Clara and I are actually working.” He explains to the Jarvises, “Making business contacts, import/export, we’re getting into auto accessories and this is an untapped market.”

Ana and Edwin don’t even look at each other, but somehow silently confer and agree. Ana tells them about the tables Howard has reserved that night at the Tropicana. “Perez Prado and His Orchestra, the early show at ten. Please come with us, bring Miss Clara, we’d love to meet anyone who can keep up with the Bel Air King of Paramus.”

“Love to.” Edwin adds, “There’s more to life than business, after all.”

~*~

“So my crack about the dancing shoes,” Tony begins, “is now an earnest question.”

Bruce doffs his hat onto the dresser and leans against the wall, hands loose in his pockets as Tony briefs her on how tea with the Jarvises escalated to evening plans.

Natasha’s pleasantly surprised at Tony’s cover; a plausible sketch that takes advantage of the reluctance to say you’ve forgotten a distant relative, but with a built-in reassurance that said relative is comfortable enough not to be sniffing for a handout. Having an in with the principal players is a boon, but she’s concerned about Tony’s ability to handle this in any professional way. “Getting this close to them, you’re playing with explosives.”

“Possibly literally in dad’s case.”

“I’m serious, this is a risk. You absolutely cannot break cover, no matter what baggage this dredges up.”

“It was just an introduction, maybe a chat. They were right there, alive, and...it got out of hand after we sat down. I know music is not a neutral topic for my mom, but I’d forgotten Ana shared her passion for it, and someone mentioned dancing.”

“Did he, now?”

“I was trying to be friendly, to make a good impression.” Bruce is examining the brim of his hat, but the rumple of a hidden smirk is still apparent. “You do that when you meet someone’s family. Ana likes me.”

“Ana is amused by us, and probably wants to show us to Peggy.” Tony sucks at his teeth. “She doesn’t buy that you can only dance box step, by the way. She thinks it’s an excuse to get Clara to teach you.”

“I was with you the whole time, she said no such thing.”

“I can read her. She’ll probably bring popcorn tonight.”

“Enough!” Natasha had killed the real Boris Yumatov in Florida back in mid-August 1952, under orders because he’d been mortally impolitic. Working the mission without a gopher had been inconvenient, but nothing like flying blind with two amateurs running amuck. “We’re going dancing with Peggy Carter, too? How did this seem like a good idea to you?”

“Well,” Tony flings a hand toward Bruce, “My Voice of Reason is apparently on vacation, and I’ve got ‘Hank’ instead.”

“Don’t pin this on me, you’re a big boy.”

Natasha reigns them in harder. “Peggy Carter isn’t down here to get away from it all,” she says. “While you two were shopping, I made some inquiries. She goes out alone at odd hours, slipping out the back through the restaurant, has her own transportation.”

“Well, you can do a soft interrogation tonight,” Tony says, his smirk flatter than normal.

She emphasizes, “While you concentrate on being Eddie from Paramus, New Jersey.”

“That’s no way to talk to your boss, Clara,” Tony says, “I am the Bel Air King.”

“I give you points for remembering at least part of my cover.” Natasha says. Then walking toward Bruce, “Hank? Really?”

He shrugs.

“You know, in the past, when given a single alias not more than a few letters removed from your very own name, you’ve had to be forcibly reminded that someone’s talking to you.” She gently pokes him in the chest for emphasis. “Now you’ve got three people to be.”

“Four,” Tony says, “potentially.”

“I’m as likely to fuck up three as one,” Bruce says, looking down at her finger jabbing him, “And I felt like a Hank in that moment.”

He wraps his hand around hers, and gently stops her from poking him again. His grip is warm, firm, his thumb brushing over hers, and it’s Stark’s curiously crinkled brow that causes her to withdraw from the touch and shake it off.