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Soft Armours

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Natasha let the mirror drop on a silent surge of frustration, dropping her head back and squeezing her eyes shut. Not that her eyes were proving much use anyway, right now. She curled back into her seat, reaching up to dig one thumb into the bridge of her nose, hoping the stars behind her eyelids would somehow dispel the auras blurring her vision.

Encroaching migraine would not normally be a problem. Pain was survivable, she could function through worse pain than this. Had done, in far more serious situations. The aura might make precision shooting problematic, but Natasha had made shots blind when she had to. When the adrenalin was pumping, in the midst of a firefight or an incursion, she could do what needed to be done, and vision, pain and migraine be damned.

This wasn't a firefight, though. A mission, yes, and urgent, since there were no other agents with her qualifications in range, and if they missed the 'soiree' tonight, they would have precious few other opportunities to infiltrate this group. But it wasn't a firefight, wasn't something governed by adrenalin, and the aura was affecting her ability to prepare, badly.

Specifically, it was incredibly difficult to apply her makeup when the blurred patch in the center of her vision meant she couldn't see her face. Not with the level of detail and subtlety needed, anyway.

And the conspicuous silence from the other passengers on the jet was not helping matters.

Stark had loaned them the jet, and his 'patronage' to get them through the door, having taken to that aspect of intelligence work like a duck to water. Of course, he had been flying high in circles where industrial espionage was a concern for years. He had some idea how to play the game, and had weaseled his way onto the mission on the strength of that. Clint was her back-up, and extraction if necessary, more or less as usual. Steve ... to be perfectly honest, she wasn't really sure why Steve was here. She also wasn't sure she cared, right now.

They were, all three of them, doing their level best to look anywhere but at her. Clint had shot her a look of pained sympathy, yes, but since most of what Clint knew about make-up was in relation to the ring, he wasn't able to be much help, and knew it. Stark, as far as she could tell, hadn't actually noticed yet, having been focused on his tablet for the past half-hour, but knowing him that could easily be a blind.

And Steve was doing his level best to shrink into his seat, possibly in the hopes that he would actually turn invisible. At any other time, Natasha might have found it amusing, and perhaps a little charming. Right now, she mostly wanted to throw the three of them off the damn plane, and have done.

She grimaced, rocking her knuckles from the bridge of her nose up across her forehead, her fingers spreading out to try and knead pressure away from her eyes. Something, anything. They had two hours of flight left, then a half-an-hour drive to the event hotel. Somewhere in that time, she had to figure out a way to get into character, to throw on a passable imitation of a young, aggressive, up-and-coming businesswoman. Without being able to put on her fucking makeup.

Someone sank into the seat beside her, dropped cautiously onto the sofa barely inches away, and her eyes flared open as she swung towards them. And then snapped shut again, while she strangled the hitched gasp of pain. No. She was not doing this.

When she opened her eyes, more cautiously this time, it was to find Tony beside her, his shoulder practically propped against hers, his attention focused on her disguise kit as he rummaged through her foundations. The arc reactor was a distant glow, muffled through the layers of his business suit, and his expression, past the blurring, was speculative and unconcerned.

Natasha ... honestly couldn't think of an appropriate reaction. Something inside her simply stared blankly, unable to muster a response past the pain and vague bewilderment.

"Hmm." He looked up at her, his voice casual and unmocking. Maybe a little rueful, though she wasn't sure why. "What are we aiming for, here? Normal minus bruises, business casual? Photo shoot, night on the town?" He shook his head when she momentarily failed to answer, his grin spreading wide enough for her to catch it. Though his voice would have revealed it anyway. "What? I know how to do this, but I'm not the expert, Romanov. Help a guy out, hmm?"

She blinked at him, a little. Disconcerted, more than anything, and vaguely amused behind that.

"Business casual," she managed, blinking myopically, trying to make his face focus the way hers had refused to. "Edging up into predatory?"

He hummed, turning back to the kit, pulling out his choices the same way she thought he would pull out his tools in the lab. "So, aiming more for 'wow the shareholders' than 'business as usual', hmm? Million dollar smile?" He was ignoring, with utter aplomb, the way Clint and Steve's stares had migrated incredulously to him, rolling lipstick between his fingers, holding it up to judge the shade thoughtfully. "Add in a touch of 'hiding the bruises', to cover the migraine?"

She let her head drop back, let it rest on the back of the seat, and felt a smile drift softly over her features. "I thought you had people for that sort of thing, Mr Stark?" she murmured, and there was an edge in it, just a little one, but there was more too.

He chuckled, reaching out to tip her chin gently, centering her better under the lights. The touch was cool and professional, with just a tap of his thumb to make it more than that, to add an edge of friendship. "I didn't always," he explained absently, already focusing. "Not someone I could trust, anyway. Even at twenty one, I could get away with a lot based on the name and the tech, but Obie ..."

He paused, his hand falling still under her eye. For a bare second. Not even that. Then he'd shrugged it off, moved on. Natasha, letting her eyes drift closed against the lights, found a dark, rueful smile flickering through her. Ah. That ... explained a lot.

"You've got to sell it, Tony!" he came back, softer, rougher, but with a dark little glimmer of humour himself. "It's not enough to make them, you've got to sell them. You've got to look the part. For the cameras, for the board." He barked out a laugh, still low, still harsh. "And hey, whatever else he did, he had a point. And when you're me, and you're rushing straight up from the lab, and before you have a Pepper to bully you out early or make you presentable faster ... well, you pick up the basics, don't you?"

He switched hands for a minute, brushing soothingly at her temple while he switched from concealer to foundation, humming under his breath. From the other side of the cabin, Natasha could practically feel Steve's stare, his confused and vaguely worried consideration. Clint was a silent presence ranged above her, and she couldn't tell whether he was laughing silently, or just watching Tony. She wasn't sure how much it mattered.

"Funny, that," Tony murmured softly, over the slow sweep of the pad over her cheeks. "When you look at it. I think he taught me how to build every armour I have." He laughed. Something like a laugh, anyway, while her gut clenched softly. "Just a little ironic, don't you think?"

She thought for a moment. Thought around the pain, the tightness. And then ... she reached up. Stilled his hand, pulled it a little back from her face. Wouldn't do to ruin the work now, when she wasn't sure how much time they'd have to start again. So she pulled his hand back a little, and opened her eyes.

"I shot the woman who taught me," she said, softly. His hand, as she'd expected, jumped in hers, a single leap of shock. "She was our trainer, for infiltration work. She had arranged for some children, those she could get to in time, to be smuggled from the programme." She shook her head, her hand small and tight around his wrist, ready to steady him if he jerked back from her. He didn't. "When I was sixteen I was told to kill her, for damaging the programme. I did."

"Nat ..." Clint said, so softly. Close behind her, she could feel him. She didn't answer. Focused, instead, on the man in front of her, and the wrist that was only barely shaking in her grasp. That soft tremor ... told her everything her blurred vision couldn't.

At least, so she'd thought.

Tony was silent for a long second. And then ... then he huffed, a rolling motion through his chest and along his arm, and she watched the thatch of his hair shake from side to side. He carefully detached his hand from hers, and tilted her face back into the light, very, very gently.

"You win," he acknowledged, and the humour was real, she would swear on everything she had ever learned. Soft and ragged, and still real. "If 'winning' is what you call it, anyway."

Natasha blinked, a little, and felt tension she had thought was purely the migraine fade out of her shoulders and her brow. Felt something melt that she hadn't been aware was frozen. She let her head tip easier into his hand, and found a careful smile. "Not the right word," she agreed, with a vague curve of her mouth. "Though ... maybe closer than we think."

He laughed, one hand curling gently under her head to steady her, tangling a little in her hair. "Well, winning is surviving," he noted, brushing the pad one last time over her left cheek. Then leaned back, trying to distance himself some. "Though, I kinda have to say. That was a bit more ... That was a little personal, for you. What gives, Romanov?"

She smirked, let it crease her eyes, testing the quality of his work by feel. Well, that was a useful side benefit, anyway. A smile should always serve more than one purpose, she thought.

"The last time our positions were reversed," she said gently, "you asked me what to do with your last days." She shook her head, let her smile turn a touch more real, and a touch less bright. "Perhaps I thought this the right time to repay that debt."

And the aura was clearing somewhat, she thought, she hoped, because she knew exactly what his expression meant, in that moment. His expression, and his silence, and the strange, distant little smile on his features. She thought, in that moment, that she understood.

Then, from the other side of the cabin, she heard Steve murmur, soft and wistful. Something bizarre, something she thought made sense to none of them, clear vision or not.

Steve smiled at them, with an edge that sounded like grief, for all soft warmth of his expression. "You know, one of these days, I'm really gonna have to try fondue."