"That one might work for you," Natasha Romanoff commented, pointing to one of the images in the Gustave Perrault stock catalogue. "On the left, number 225 – La Déesse du Mer."
Wanda Maximoff studied it critically, and then shook her head. "No, I don't think so," she said. "It's pretty, but I don't think it's my color."
Natasha gave her a wry look. "So you're still holding out for something in red?"
"What's wrong with that?" Wanda demanded. "I'm entitled to have a favorite color, just like everyone else. There's nothing wrong with red, is there, Captain?" she said, turning to shoot an appealing glance at the bench behind her.
Steve Rogers glanced up from Paul Johnson's Modern Times, and blinked vacantly for a moment before processing the question. "Um… no," he said. "No, there's nothing wrong with red. Not as a color, anyway; if we're talking the other kind of Red, then maybe…"
"I am not a Communist," said Wanda stiffly.
"I'm not even an Înaintată."
This was a new one on Steve. "A what?"
"It's the main Sokovian left-wing party," Natasha said. "Mild by the standards of most EU states, but still regarded with suspicion by the country's traditionalists."
"They want to destroy the heritage of Europe for the sake of peace and quiet," said Wanda, her nose now back in the stock catalogue.
Natasha gestured expressively. "You see what I mean."
"Mm," said Steve. "Well, I wouldn't know about that. My folks were FDR Democrats; as near as I can tell, that basically means I don't have a political party anymore."
Natasha cocked her head. "Oh?" she said. "Then what are you doing reading neoconservative agitprop like Paul Johnson?"
Steve shrugged. "Sam recommended it," he said. "Said it would give me a better idea of what happened in the '60s than anything I was likely to hear on NPR. And his taste is generally pretty good, so I thought I might as well give it a shot." He tactfully didn't mention the other and decisive factor in his bringing it along, which was its 880-page length in the revised edition – just right, he had thought, for accompanying two women to a Paris boutique.
It was a strange situation all around. He and Rhodey had been engaged in a delicate waltz of breakfast preparation the preceding morning when Natasha had walked in, and, apropos of nothing, had announced that, now that Wanda was out of mourning, she was taking her dress-shopping for her (Wanda's) psychological health. In response to the two men's quizzical glances, she had pointed out that Wanda had been experimented on by a mad scientist and manipulated by a genocidal robot, the latter of whom had killed her twin brother and tried to use her home city as a WMD, and that she was now living as a foreign refugee under the protection of the man who had built said robot (and the weapons that had killed her parents); if Steve and Rhodey didn't think she needed a little confidence boost after all that, Natasha put it to them that they hadn't been paying attention. And there was, she maintained, no better way for a young woman to recover a sense of her unique personal worth than by spending a few hours trying on pretty clothes. She spoke, she said, from personal experience: after escaping from the Red Room, almost her first act had been to find a Moscow couturier and buy herself a dark-blue dress with fish-netting across the shoulders. ("I still have it around somewhere," she added, causing Rhodey to perk up with sudden interest.) So, if anyone wanted to know where the two of them were, Steve and Rhodey were to say that they'd taken the quinjet to Paris for an afternoon's pleasant stimulation of the French economy. And, with that, she had cheerfully swept past them and started cutting herself a grapefruit.
Before the two Eastern belles had managed to get out the door, though, Tony had somehow gotten wind of their plans, and had come down to announce in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't be cruising the Triangle d'Or on his dime. If Wanda needed pampering, Natasha could buy her an ice-cream cone; he'd had enough of haute-couture shopping sprees when Pepper had used her appointment as Stark Enterprises CEO as an excuse to buy some $600 worth of shoes – none of which, he wished to note, he had ever subsequently observed her wearing. It might have been one thing if the soldes had been going on, but that was still a month away…
What erupted at about that point was perhaps the closest thing to a civil war that the Avengers had yet seen. Steve hadn't even known that there were that many different ways to condemn the arrogant insensitivity of men in general and Tony Stark in particular, let alone that Natasha could say them all without pausing for breath. And Tony (never one to let himself be bested in a war of words) had waited calmly for her to finish, and then started systematically turning each epithet inside out as only he could – his general thesis apparently being that arrogant male insensitivity was what had made America great, and that Wanda was darn lucky he wasn't making her go naked, the way Andrew Carnegie would have done. (Or something like that. The historical details of the argument were a little vague, here and there.)
To Steve, all this sounded like little more than the eternal struggle between vanity and stinginess, and he probably wouldn't have bothered to get involved – except that he happened, as Tony and Natasha squabbled, to glance in Wanda's direction as she sat awaiting the final verdict, and the expression on her face cut him to the quick. She didn't seem upset, or angry, or even sad in the usual sense; it was more a look of wistful resignation, as though she were saying to herself, Well, it was pleasant to imagine that this nice thing might happen to me, but of course I shouldn't really have gotten my hopes up. It was the look of someone who had yielded herself as a punching bag to destiny – and all the Captain America in Steve Rogers rose up in determination to erase it.
So he had interrupted Tony in mid-sophistry, and volunteered to go with Natasha and Wanda himself and make sure that they didn't spend more than was reasonable. And so, three hours later (or nine, if you took the time difference into account), here he was, in the most exclusive and avant-garde clothier's outlet on the Avenue Montaigne, surrounded by ornate headpieces and form-fitting bodysuits in every color of the rainbow, and consoling himself with the thought that, after all, the cutting edge of fashion in his own day would probably have looked just as absurd to someone from 1870. And, anyway, it was Wanda's pursuit of happiness that he was upholding, not his own.
Then, as he was returning his attention to Modern Times, he heard a polite cough behind him, and glanced up to see M. Perrault himself standing at his shoulder. "Your pardon, Monsieur le Capitaine," the costumier said with a little bow, "but it is not always that so great a champion of liberty finds himself at my humble establishment. My son is an admirer of the most tremendous kind of les héros avengeurs, and I should surely suffer in his estimation should I fail to… ah… well, in a word, Monsieur, if it should please you to create for him a small souvenir of this occasion?" And he withdrew a pen and a slip of paper from his pocket, and held it out with a significant gesture.
Steve grinned. "Sure, I'd be glad to, Mr. Perrault," he said. "What's your son's name?"
Perrault told him, and Steve took the paper and pen and wrote, carefully, "Du Capitaine Amérique, à son ami Théodore." As he did so, he remembered with amusement a remark Tony had made a few hours before, about how Captain America going to France was like Oilman among the Water Babies. Steve, thinking of Lafayette and the Statue of Liberty, had thought it a strange comment even at the time, but it had nonetheless caused him to enter the City of Lights a little more nervously than he might otherwise have done, just in case something really had happened since 1943 to justify the assessment. It was a relief to find that it was, after all, just Tony being Tony.
"The ladies are Avengers, too, you know," he added as he handed back the pen and paper, gesturing to the bench where Wanda was still flipping through catalogue images, Natasha standing loyally at her side. "You'll probably want to throw in their autographs, just to be on the safe side."
Perrault frowned, and squinted at the two superheroines. "Ah," he said. "Well, of course I recognize La Veuve Noire, but who is the young brunette? I was unaware of any second woman in your phalanx."
"She's new," said Steve. "She joined us during that little mess in Sokovia last month, and she's still kind of finding her feet. That's why we're here, actually."
Perrault nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I see," he said. "Well, perhaps shortly, then. You comprehend, it never pleases one to interrupt the customers while they are…"
At this moment, Wanda's head jerked upward, and a dazzled gleam came into her eyes. "Ooh, now this is nice," she said.
In an instant, Perrault was at her side, his gaze following her pointing finger. "Ah, yes, Mademoiselle," he said approvingly. "L'Enchanteuse Écarlate – a brand-new line, less than a month old, the work of one of our most promising young designers. A most suitable choice, if I may say."
"Expensive, too, I'll bet," said Natasha wryly.
Perrault waved his hand dismissively. "Un peu," he conceded. "But for so lovely a young lady, surely no expense is to be spared."
"Do you have it in a 38?" said Wanda eagerly.
"But of course," said Perrault with a smile, and whistled to a passing saleswoman. "Yvonne! Vas chercher une Enchanteuse Écarlate, à la taille trente-huit, et escortes cette demoiselle aux salles d'essayage."
"Oui, M'sieu Perrault," Yvonne replied. "Venez, Mam'selle."
After Wanda had left for the fitting room, Perrault, naturally enough, turned his attentions to Natasha, and it wasn't long before her good wishes to Théodore were resting, in her rather crabbed copperplate, just below Steve's. This done, the proprietor bowed and withdrew, and Natasha pulled up what was probably meant to be a chair and seated herself familiarly next to Steve. "What do you want to bet he doesn't have a son at all?" she whispered conspiratorially.
Steve, who had successfully re-immersed himself in Modern Times, was a little nonplussed at this sudden recall to the present. "Who?" he said.
"The manager," said Natasha. "Five will get you ten he just made up little Théodore to save face, and he really wanted our autographs for himself."
Steve considered this for a moment, and then shook his head. "No, I don't think so," he said. "If he had, he'd have found some way of keeping me from making the note out to him. I mean, that'd be pretty hard to explain when he showed it off, wouldn't it?"
"He probably doesn't intend to show it off," Natasha retorted. "He'll just keep it in a filing cabinet in his villa in the Trocadéro, and take it out late at night to gloat over when no-one's around. You've got to think like one of these autograph hounds, Steve."
"Well, maybe," said Steve vaguely. He still wasn't quite persuaded, but his mind was on other things; the image of an avant-garde Parisian fashion designer gloating over Captain America's autograph had brought Tony's Oilman comment back to his mind with peculiar force, and he thought that now was as good a time as any to get it decoded.
"Say, Nat," he said. "What did Tony mean, back at the Facility, when he said that thing about America and France? Did something happen while I was in the ice to get us on the bad side of the people here?"
Natasha arched an eyebrow. "You mean Paul Johnson hasn't told you about the Suez Crisis?" she said. "So much for that 'hits all the highlights' blurb on the back."
"I haven't gotten that far yet," said Steve impatiently. "I'm still in chapter 2; Lenin hasn't even consolidated his power in Russia yet. I was taught not to skip ahead in books, and I don't."
"Mm," said Natasha. "Well, then, lend an ear, Rip Van Winkle, and hear the chronicles of days gone by. You know about the Suez Canal, I assume?"
"Sure," said Steve. "It's what ships in the Mediterranean sail through when they want to get to the Indian Ocean."
"Or the Persian Gulf," Natasha added. "Right. Well, in 1956 the president of Egypt unilaterally seized control of the Canal from the treaty corporation that was legally responsible for it. That made the French and the British very unhappy, and they teamed up with the Israelis to take it back. And they would have succeeded, except that the U.S., after the initial Israeli attack, denounced them to the United Nations and threatened to destroy the value of the British pound if they didn't lay off."
Steve winced. "Ouch," he said. "Stabbed in the back by one of their own."
"And humiliated by her in front of the whole world," Natasha added. "France has never forgotten it, and her response to every U.S. initiative since, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, has been colored by that bitterness."
"Hard to blame her," Steve admitted. "But, if it was the pound we targeted, why isn't England bitter toward us the same way?"
"She was, for a while," said Natasha. "But the French have always been more sensitive about their honor than the British – and, besides, the Suez failure hit France at a moment when she was especially vulnerable. Britain had already lost the core of her empire by '56, and her days as a great power were obviously numbered; Suez was more a last hurrah for her than anything else. But France was still struggling to retain a number of her major colonies – particularly, as it happened, on that very shore of the…"
But then her eyes were drawn to something over Steve's right-hand shoulder; she let her voice trail off and her mouth hang open for a moment, and, when she spoke again, it was in a tone a thousand miles removed from historical analysis. "Well, well," she murmured. "Looks like there really was a Sokovian mountain rose inside our little refugee."
Steve craned his neck to follow her gaze, and then rose automatically to his feet. It was a habit he'd gotten a bit of flack for, over the years, but he steadfastly maintained that it was the appropriate way to respond to the arrival of a lady – and the vision in crimson who was currently approaching, flanked by a broadly smiling Yvonne, certainly fell into that category. He knew, intellectually, that it was Wanda, but the transfiguration that had been effected in those few minutes was so total that he had difficulty bringing that knowledge home to his senses.
For some odd reason, the first detail that caught his attention was the gloves. Maybe it was just nostalgia; long gloves had been a standard part of women's evening regalia during his formative years, and it had always disappointed him a little that that fashion hadn't survived into the 21st Century. Anyway, Gustave Perrault – or his "promising young designer" – seemed to be making a manful effort to bring it back; from fingertip almost to shoulder, Wanda's arms were sheathed in a lustrous red material that gleamed with soft resplendence in the shop's full-spectrum lighting. The same material swathed her torso and midriff, in a form that Steve couldn't decide whether to classify as the ultimate in mini-dresses or an unusually formal leotard; below and above this, apart from the spaghetti straps that held it in place, her flesh was covered only by some sort of fine pink gauze – or maybe it was bare, and the faint carnation tinge was merely a trick of the reflected light. A curiously shaped headdress, almost like a pair of crimson cat's ears or alate flower petals, framed her face, while her feet (perhaps in a half-hearted nod to practicality) were enclosed in a pair of short, flat-heeled boots. And draped behind her, crowning the whole effect, was a gossamer cape of pale magenta, which would have reached all the way to her calves if the end of it hadn't danced and billowed gently with each step she took. The whole thing, in short, was about as far removed from the leather jacket and generic little black dress that she had arrived in as could readily be imagined.
But the real transfiguration wasn't a matter of Wanda's clothes, but of her whole spirit. For as long as Steve had known her (which, admittedly, hadn't been long), Wanda Maximoff had projected an unmistakable air of little-girl-lost; despite the formidability of her power, she had reminded him of some frail leaf blown helter-skelter on the wind, tossed haphazardly from evil to good without ever truly finding an identity and a place to stand. But now, somehow, it was as though she had caught a glimpse of the woman she was meant to be – as though the mere fact of having donned a scarlet cape and headdress had made her truly believe in the Avenger that Clint had told her she was. Before, it had been as though his word was all she was going on; now, anyone who passed her on the street could have seen that she, herself, thought she was a superheroine. (Steve wondered if that was how ordinary soldiers felt, when they first got into their uniforms. He hadn't, himself, but those circumstances had been somewhat exceptional.) Somewhere in the back of his mind, an old Sunday-school memory stirred: He was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood… in righteousness he doth judge and make war.
Score one for Natasha, he thought. She wanted to boost Wanda's confidence, and, by golly, she did. For our enemies' sakes, I hope they're prepared; there's a new Avenger on the block, and she's ready for action.
And on the heels of that thought came another: Better secure our friendship while I can. If the Avengers ever turn on each other, I want this kid on my side.
Wanda, seeming to feel the admiring gazes of her friends, turned to them and beamed with radiant delight. "Well, what do you think?" she said, wriggling her shoulders as she spoke to swirl her cape about a little extra.
"I think you clean up very nicely, Wanda," said Natasha with a smile.
Steve nodded. "Yeah, that's a good look, all right," he said. "A little on the revealing side, maybe, but…"
Yvonne giggled. "M'sieu, you did not see the first sketches," she said. "I vow to you, this is nothing."
Steve had a brief flash of curiosity, and then decided it was better that he didn't know. "I'll take your word for it," he said. "So you're ready to check out, Wanda?"
The look in her eyes was all the answer he needed. "Okay, then," he said. "What did you folks call this thing? 'Scarlet Witch'?"
"L'Enchanteuse Écarlate," said Yvonne primly.
"Right," said Steve. "We'll take one of those. Don't bother wrapping it up; I think Miss Maximoff will prefer to wear it on her way out."
"Definitely," Wanda grinned.
"Wait a minute," said Natasha suddenly. "What are the cleaning requirements for this? If she's wearing it when an alien's head explodes next to her, can she just toss it in the washing machine to get the stain out?"
Yvonne pursed her lips. "Oh, no, Madame," she said. "This is a fabric of the most delicate; at no time must it be treated so. A dry clean, it is the only way."
Natasha frowned. "Well, that could be a problem," she said. "If there's one thing I've learned with the Avengers, it's that crises don't thoughtfully space themselves out between laundromat trips."
Wanda shot her a look of sudden alarm, as of one told that her miraculous healing was invalid under subsection C. "Well… there are ways around that, aren't there?" she said. "We could… have it treated somehow, or install a unit in the Facility, or… or…"
"Or we could buy several costumes instead of just one," Steve remarked, "so that you always had a replacement on your laundry day."
The three women all turned to him in surprise. "Could we?" said Wanda, her eyes glowing with unmixed delight. (Yvonne's expression was similar; either she was deeply devoted to her employer's interests, or she was working on commission.)
"Sure," said Steve. "Why not?"
Natasha gave him a thoughtful look. "Steve, you old rascal," she said. "And here I thought you were supposed to be our fiscal conscience."
"I said I'd make sure you didn't spend more than was reasonable," said Steve. "It's always reasonable to get backups of the things you really need."
A slow smile spread over Natasha's face. "Steve Rogers, you are a man in a thousand," she said. "All right, Yvonne. I'm sure your employer knows the address of our Facility – or at least his son does," she added in a conspicuously bland tone. "Tell him to wrap up six more of these Enchanteuses, to send them to us by the quickest and most secure international shipping available, and to charge the whole bill to Mr. Tony Stark."
"Oui, Madame," said Yvonne, grinning.
And so the thing was done. Its consequences, though, were just beginning – for none of our heroes, as they exited the Perrault boutique that late-spring morning, perceived the fateful events that nearly awaited them, or how these would be diverted and reshaped by their actions of that day. Which reshapings will be narrated, for those who choose to hear, in the second part of Yes to the Dress.
Disclaimer: The story elements are by Marvel Studios out of Marvel Comics; the cover image is by Looper out of Photoshop. (Indeed, the story largely owes its existence to that one picture - albeit, as a founding member of Disgusted with 21st-Century Comics Amalgamated, I designed the actual Enchanteuse Écarlate on rather more classic lines.) Modern Times is a product of HarperCollins Publishers; a new hardcover copy sells for $28.83 on Amazon, while used copies start at $12. (I log-roll out of gratitude; at least three of my other stories are derived from HarperCollins material.)