The truth about the Avengers is—well. Natasha prefers to keep her opinions close to the chest.
“Close to the chest” is a phrase which here means that she habitually obfuscates and misrepresents her thoughts, with a few exceptions for those she holds dear.
She is currently revising the list of who she holds dear.
The embarrassing thing is that it took three weeks before anyone noticed.
Natasha thought of claiming that she’d known since the second day and was waiting for Steve and Tony to catch on themselves, but decided she couldn’t pull off a lie like that.
The truth is that lies are everywhere, like snow in the Siberian tundra. Sometimes it’s the shape of the lies that tell us what we need to know, much like how the shape of footprints in fresh snow can tell us whether we’re being pursued by a musk deer, a Manchurian wapiti, an Amur tiger, or a brainwashed, biochemically enhanced sniper. Other times it’s the absence of certain lies that give us the most information—like a friend who chooses to say nothing at all instead of offering up a platitude like, “It’s going to be fine” when you embark on a high-risk project to destroy all traces of a clandestine fascist organization, or a team leader who, despite a great amount of pride in the matter, doesn’t bother denying that he hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in five days and should, therefore, be scrapped from an upcoming scheduled mission.
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
It is the same with lies: there is often only one way to tell the truth, but there are many different ways in which one can tell a lie.
The battle that begins this story was, at the time the Avengers completed it, considered a success.
“Success” was here thought to have been achieved because it was believed that—even though the Asgardian sorceress who had been turning stoplights into unicorns and pigeons into barrels of flour all morning near Houston St. disappeared before she could be apprehended or interrogated—no civilians and no members of the team had been grievously injured or killed.
"Civilian" here means a bystander who is not an active member of law enforcement or peacekeeping efforts, and therefore not involved in a conflict being handled by the Avengers.
However, by the above definition, the mission was not, in truth, a success. In point of fact, two team members had been injured and encountered unidentified magic: Iron Man had three bruised ribs, a black eye, a mild concussion, and a cut on his forehead that would require at least super-gluing shut if not a couple of stitches; Captain America had been shot through the shoulder by an overzealous civilian gun owner and been gored quite seriously by a disoriented unicorn; and both men had been hit by an unidentified blast of magic.
In this case, “civilian” refers to a bystander who is not an active member of law enforcement or peacekeeping efforts, and therefore shouldn’t be involved in a conflict being handled by the Avengers, but who has inserted himself nonetheless, increasing the danger to himself and others.
The magical blast was the color of plum blossoms, smelled strangely akin to carnival hot dogs, and was accompanied by a sound like a huge sheet of ice on a frozen lake cracking because you have taken a step too far and are about to plunge into icy water.
This is what Iron Man said when Captain America asked the team if there were any casualties: “Nothing to report, Cap. Did that wannabe Rambo hit you or what?”
This is how Captain America—a man who supposedly embodied Superman’s ethos of truth, justice, and the American way—replied to him: “I’m fine.”
People make the mistake of thinking that lying is special. Lying is not special. Everyone does it, in the same way that everyone relieves their bowels, embellishes on their resumes, hates getting stuck in DC rush hour traffic, and makes questionable romantic decisions at various times in their life.
What is special is certain lies from certain people. Sometimes the right lie, at the right time, can mean the world.
Other times, it leaves us wondering: which part, exactly, is the lie? What information does this lie give us about this person, their motivations, and their true intentions?
When someone says to you, "I'm not going to kill you," do they mean in this moment, or ever? When someone says something impossible, like, "I'll always love you," do you accept their intent or suspect that they are lying to keep you complacent? When someone says, "I'm not going to shoot you," do they mean that they will torture you instead, perhaps by coercing you into listening to their relationship problems? If your lover tells you that you're beautiful, that the scars don't matter, that the wounds you have healed from are over, that no matter what was done to you or you have done yourself you are not a monster, that you should wear a bikini anyway, if he says all of that and more, do you believe him? What if you feel the same way about him—that he is more than his history, more than a weapon, more than violence, that his survival is the most beautiful thing about him, that the best revenge is to live a happy peaceful life, that there's no need to wear long-sleeved shirts all the time, that really a speedo is the best look on him—then, do you believe him?
Or, imagine that the love of your life is a man you haven't been able to stop thinking about since you first met battling a trickster god, a man you admire, a man who you believe is too good for you, too honest, too old-fashioned to ever return your feelings. Imagine that he is under a spell forcing him to lie, and he says, "I like you." Or, imagine that the love of your life is a man you haven't been able to stop thinking about since you first met battling a trickster god, a man you admire, a man who you believe is too smart for you, too worldly, too dedicated to enacting a vision of a beautiful future to ever return your feelings. Imagine that he is under a spell forcing him to lie, and he says, "I hate you." What do you think he is trying to say?
What do you hope?
The lie Natasha Romanov found herself most often contemplating—and was at times her favorite—was this one: “I would now. And I'm always honest.”
Two days after the battle against the Asgardian sorceress, the Avengers held a team meeting.
By this time, Steve’s super-soldier serum had rendered any trace of his injuries undetectable. Tony had patched himself up to the best of his ability. “Patched up” is a phrase which here means “covered what was left of his black eye with makeup.” Tony characteristically had dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep, and, in order to maintain symmetry, covered the dark circles under the uninjured eye as well as the bruising on the injured one. It was expensive makeup, and expertly applied, but, several members of his team—who were various combinations of trained spies, good friends, and observant people—got a close enough look at him to note the absence of the dark circles and correctly surmised that he was trying to obscure an injury.
No one commented on this clear deception.
Instead, the meeting followed the planned agenda. After reviewing the events of the battle—again, neither Steve nor Tony mentioned their injuries—the topic turned to the contents of the Hydra files Steve and Natasha had leaked some months prior during the destruction of the Project Insight helicarriers.
“Any of the intel you’ve been digging through WikiLeaks-worthy, Rogers?” Tony asked.
“No, nothing new,” Steve said.
It is a generally acknowledged truth that certain things—like honesty, bouquets, and shared morals—are a good foundation for romantic relationships, while others—like lying, bickering, or one person shooting through the stomach of the other in order to assassinate an Iranian nuclear engineer behind her—are not.
“Generally acknowledged” is a phrase which here means “believed to be true by people who have never been, and never will be, Avengers.”
None of this is meant to imply that the Avengers didn’t spend time together, which would have meant few opportunities to observe the change in their teammates and a plausible excuse for failing to notice it. In fact, in addition to team meetings, there were weekly team movie nights, frequent impromptu hang-outs in common areas of the compound, sub-meetings regarding the team’s PR and news appearances, meetings with government liaisons, and regular training regimens in flight, hand-to-hand combat, agility, and marksmanship.
The truth was that there was not a change to observe.
One morning when Steve, Tony, Natasha, and Vision all ended up in the communal kitchen at the same time to make coffee and reheat boxes of takeout, Tony said to Steve, “I’m an impeccable judge of character.”
Another day, when Natasha and Steve were drilling Tony and Wanda in martial arts techniques, Steve rolled his eyes at a remark of Tony’s and said, “Some of us have better things to do than ogle your ass, Stark.”
After his monthly medical check-up, Steve asked where Dr. Suresh—his usual physician—had gone.
Tony—who knew exactly where Dr. Suresh had gone and why—said, “I don’t know, maybe she retired or something.”
At the next team meeting, Tony was glancing over everyone’s online schedules, trying to find the best day for them to visit a children’s hospital, and saw that Steve was planning to attend the guest lecture on artificial intelligence Tony was giving at Carnegie Mellon the following month. “You checking up on me, Rogers?”
Steve, who was attending out of a desire to get to know Tony better, said, “Just being a supportive teammate.”
And so on.
“Why’d you come back to the team?”
“Please, you need me.”
“I wouldn’t say—”
“The team needs me.”
“Did I ever tell you that you didn’t need to leave in the first place?”
“You didn’t need to. I figured it out.”
Fifteen minutes before that week’s movie night, Steve called Tony from Citi Field. “Sharon had an extra ticket to the game tonight, it was a last minute thing,” he said.
“No worries, Cap,” Tony said.
“What about ‘Aliens?’ Should we reschedule?”
Tony, who had been talking up the film for some weeks prior to his scheduled turn to pick the movie, did not correct Steve and tell him that they were starting with “Alien.” He didn’t say that he’d been looking forward to seeing Steve experience the film for the first time. He didn’t say that he was hesitant about showing Steve the sequel, since it opened with Sigourney Weaver’s character awakening from cryogenic freezing after several decades to find that everyone she knew was dead and gone.
Instead he said, “It’s not a big deal.”
Tony, on his way out the door for an SI meeting in Manhattan, ran into Steve, on his way into the compound after a visit to Peggy Carter. Tony asked him how it had gone.
“She’s doing great,” Steve said.
“She mention me?” Tony asked, his car doors unlocking with a click as he approached. “She must have some adorable stories about babysitting me back in the day.”
Steve, who had—much to Peggy's amusement and teasing—spoken almost exclusively of Tony, replied, “You didn’t come up."
For Wanda’s Purim party, Tony dressed as an astronaut, Steve as a cowboy. Wanda and Vision were both dressed in Hogwarts robes with Gryffindor colors, leading many on the team to speculate that they were Ginny Weasley and Harry Potter, respectively.
“You match too!” Wanda accused when Tony asked her to teach him a correct levitation charm.
“What?” Tony asked, preoccupied by a nearby platter of hamantaschen.
“You look like Buzz Lightyear and Woody,” she explained, gesturing at Tony and Steve, her tone suggesting it was obvious.
Tony waved the thought away. “I’ve had this in storage for nearly a decade. Pepper’s assistant found it and brought it out for the party.”
Steve—who was standing closer to Tony than was strictly necessary given the size of the lounge where the party was being held and the number of people attending it—shrugged. “Tony, I didn’t know what your costume was going to be.”
Later than evening, Tony turned to Steve—who had barely left Tony’s side throughout the whole party, not that he would admit it or Tony would realize the implication—and said, “Where’s the illustrious Agent 13? I was looking forward to seeing her here.”
Steve, who had not extended an invitation to Sharon, said, “She had a work thing. And Pepper?”
“Ah, she’s just busy running my multi-billion-dollar company, nothing out of the ordinary.”
A week after Purim, Tony and Rhodes stumbled into the kitchen at 1:00 in the afternoon, griping about the lights and bickering over who would make coffee. Wanda asked what the occasion had been.
Rhodes stretched. “Nah, nothing special, just staying up to do our nails and talk about boys.”
Natasha smirked and held out two mugs of coffee. “Anyone in particular got your eye?”
“Rhodey has a crush on the new liaison from the Air Force,” Tony said.
Rhodes scowled and flicked Tony on the arm. “Man, why do I still tell you stuff like that?”
“Whatever, everyone who’s seen you polish your armor before Carol’s visits already knew.”
Natasha gave Tony’s shoulder a playful shove. “That better not be a euphemism, Stark.”
“How about you, Tony?” Steve asked.
“You know me, Cap,” Tony said, taking a swig of his coffee. “There’s never just one.”
Ten days after the Avengers’ encounter with the Asgardian sorceress, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was dropped off at the edge of Avengers Compound’s security perimeter by a long-haul truck driver, who was never relieved of the misapprehension that his passenger had been an ordinary hitchhiker. This was considered, by team consensus, better than the truth.
James found the nearest security camera, stood square in front of its line of sight, and waved at it.
When he heard the approach of vehicles, he held his empty hands above his head.
When he was brought to a holding cell at the compound, Natasha asked him, “What do you remember?”
James looked her in the eye and lied, “Everything.”
Expectations are dangerous—much like knives. Like knives, expectations can be used to wound quite effectively when wielded by someone who knows what they’re doing. An expert in knives could kill you with surgical precision, perform actual surgery on you, turn a ream of paper into a pop-up book about Baroque architecture, or simply graze your skin in a clean scratch. A master manipulator can lead you toward feelings of disappointment, surprise, self-loathing, or gratitude.
There is an idiom in the English language that goes: “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” It means: “be prepared and bring the appropriate equipment and expectations to a given situation.” However, it is also worth mentioning that even during a knife fight, it’s important to bring not only a knife, but the right kind of knife. A butter knife or artistic reproduction of an antique hunting knife or a knife made of jell-o would be just as inadvisable in a knife fight as a knife in a gunfight.
Like knives, expectations can be used to wound quite effectively even when used by someone who has never even seen a knife before. A novice with knives can still drive one into the bowels of an unwitting opponent, spilling their intestines and bringing on a slow and painful death. An emotionally stunted person who claims to have no expectations of anyone but himself can still be brutally hurt and disappointed when he learns a friend has neglected to pass on information of particular personal importance to him.
Most people would expect that consistent honesty is important for a team. Would imagine that a team could not be a functioning one as long as it contains two members who lie to each other so often that it took three weeks and rather extraordinary circumstances before either of them noticed that they were under a spell requiring them to do so.
But sometimes—like a favorite handgun that was manufactured with just slight imperfections, such that its balance was unlike that of any other of its type and the weight threw off the aim of anyone else who tried to use it—being different than expected is exactly right.
A week after being cleared by the compound’s medical team and given federal permission to stay on the grounds for the time being, James joined the team to eat pizza and watch “West Side Story.”
An hour into the film, Sam excused himself to take a phone call. Vision went to make more popcorn. Wanda followed him, the two chatting about Sokovian street gangs. Rhodes was not in attendance; he was on a date with Captain Carol Danvers, the Avengers’ Air Force liaison.
James walked up to where Natasha sat and said, “I’m sorry I shot you.”
This was a lie, in the sense that it was not James, strictly speaking, who had shot her. Had James been himself, he wouldn’t have even been present to do so. It also suggested that James had only shot her once—while the truth was he had shot at her numerous times and the one time he had actually hit her, it had been to reach the target behind her.
Furthermore, it is often said that apologies are for small things, mistakes and errors in judgment you have learned from and will never repeat, like using a teammate's throwing knife to slice a cantaloupe or replacing a friend's quiver with a plastic toy designed to market the film "Brave." People who believe such things will tell you that there are no apologies for things like shooting someone with whom you have previously been romantically involved, using a teammate's curling iron to perform an experiment on gamma radiation, or stalking you through the Siberian taiga. These people will tell you that apologies are only meaningful if you will truly never perform the offending action again—actions like doing unspeakable things while brainwashed, when one doesn't exactly choose to be brainwashed in the first place.
Like so many things, this kind of belief is generally only espoused by people who have never been, and never will be, Avengers.
Steve and Tony, the only others left in the room, were bickering about the film, and didn’t notice James and Natasha’s conversation in the slightest. Tony, who secretly loved the earnestness and drama of musicals, claimed to hate it. Steve, who was secretly bored by the songs, underwhelmed by the set, and taking only the occasional interest when there was a particularly good dance routine, claimed that Tony was just being negative because it didn’t have any robots or explosions in it.
Natasha smiled at James. “I’m over it.”
This, also, was a lie.
There are different kinds of lies.
There are white lies, like, “I can’t see the scar at all, even when I look for it” or "That color looks great on you." There are lies to manipulate and control, like, “It’s for your own good,” or, “For the glory of the USSR!” There are lies we tell out of love, like, “It’s nothing to worry about.” There are truths omitted out of fear, twisted out of envy, inverted out of malice. There are lies we tell without words, lies made out of our bodies and clothes and the frightened expressions we wear on our faces even as we lift the gun out of our mark’s holster without him noticing us cut through the ropes tying us to a chair in an abandoned warehouse.
Getting to know the different types of lies and the motivations of liars is like getting to better know someone with whom you are already deeply, childishly in love: every time you think there is nothing more to learn, a new surprise sweeps you off your feet.
The third time Natasha had encountered James, she had been on a mission to the Forbidden Zone, later known to SHIELD as the Dead Zone. This radioactive area in Bashkortostan had been the site of Cold-War-era experiments in both nuclear physics and human genetics. Its use had been suspended after a fatal mistake in nuclear waste disposal destroyed the base. All history of the site had been publicly erased and disavowed.
Natasha’s journey to the Forbidden Zone had been a quick and direct one from Moscow. “Quick and direct” is a phrase which here means that Natasha had stolen only one vehicle more than the official mission plan, and strangled only three unanticipated men with her thighs.
James’, however, had been seriously waylaid in Kazakhstan. “Seriously waylaid” is a phrase which here means that he was suffering from three gunshot wounds, one in his thigh and two in his shoulder, had been shoplifting from markets to feed himself, had made over a week of his journey on foot, and had lost contact with his handlers two weeks prior.
As a result, by the time of their encounter, his mental programming had begun to deteriorate and glitch.
On seeing him, Natasha—careful not to lower her weapon or let her guard down—said, “James?” Her voice was a step louder than she’d intended.
James looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes, his eyes frightened and impossibly blue. Natasha wondered if those eyes were lying to her. “Is that me?” he asked.
Although a question cannot, exactly, be a truth or a lie, it can certainly suggest one or the other. Natasha was not ready to fully accept that the implication of James' question was entirely true, but the tone in which he uttered the words was so convincingly lost and broken that she assessed him as being either truthful or one of the most impressive liars she had ever encountered.
Of course, he could be both.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, hating the reassuring tone that crept like an uninvited guest into her voice. It wouldn’t do to reveal emotion.
James replied, “I don’t know.”
This struck her—both in the moment and in the years that followed—as the single most truthful statement she had heard in her life.
In the business of espionage, there is no admitting of anything, least of all lack of knowledge. Those who know pretend that they don’t, and those who don’t carry on as if they do. It is likewise considered a weakness in other circles she’s encountered, such as among CEOs, academics, internet forums, and battle strategists. For James to even say that he lacked knowledge of something, let alone such a fundamental question, was astonishing. It was so audacious that hearing it felt as if she had stumbled upon him nude, unarmed, and asleep in foot-deep snow. Without her permission, her heart rate spiked.
Natasha lowered her weapon.
Three days after “West Side Story,” the truth of the spell finally came to light.
Tony walked into the dining room with his jaw tense and shoulders set, a blank but determined expression on his face. Ignoring Natasha, Sam, and Vision, who were also seated at the table, Tony approached Steve and asked, “Did you know?”