Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters: Tony, Natasha
Spoilers: Takes place after the movie. Follow-up to Time and Reason. #7 in Recruitment series.
Summary: Tony believes that secrets are lies that couldn't be told. Natasha believes that secrets are truths that shouldn't be told.
Notes: Quick thank you to my beta, Tripp, who I bounce ideas off of on a probably annoying-daily basis. This is another filler piece for Recruitment. I thought it was important. It actually is short. I am most definitely still working on this series, I just took some time off of writing for the holidays. I also wanted to say thank you all for the incredible reviews. I may not comment back on them (Ao3 makes it too easy not to - seriously, visit the site!) but I do read them, enjoy them, and try to heed them whenever possible. And I always, always appreciate them! Enough of that - enjoy!
It wasn't a party.
Thor had been insistent that, on Asgard, they did not celebrate the departure of friends. Feasts were for the return; they were meant for happier times. Leaving was a sad affair, even if it was only temporary. And, on that point he'd been clear, he would not be gone long. Thor's regard for this realm, and a certain doctor who lived in it, was too great to keep him away, but for a time it must be so. He hated goodbyes and was not in the mood for one of Tony's parties... which was why it wasn't a party.
It was an informal gathering of people that just happened to be catered and accompanied by music provided by a DJ.
Not a party.
Tony looked around the room and rolled his eyes, making a mental note that the next Avenger, whoever he or she might be, was going to have to pass some kind of personality assessment prior to approval. Thor was just plain sad. Bruce was hiding out in the corner. Clint hadn't left the bar. And Steve, well, Steve was actually doing okay; talking, smiling, laughing. Somehow that just made the rest of them seem more pathetic.
And then there was Natasha all by herself...
"I have to ask," Tony said as he slid into the seat next to hers, having been looking for a chance to talk to her all evening.
"No, you don't."
"Did the two of you actually set up physical distance agreement?" Tony asked anyway. "Like, some kind of super-spy restraining order where you can only be within fifty feet of one another? Because I think this is the closest I've seen the two of you since -"
"Listen," Natasha interrupted. "I didn't want to be here, but I am. Don't push it."
"I'm just curious."
"No, you're nosey," she corrected. "And it's not your business."
"It's a little bit my business."
"No, it's not."
"So, I get nothing? No information? Zilch?" When Natasha didn't answer, he pressed on, "Fine. Don't tell me. I just thought that after LA... maybe the two of you had worked things out."
"Because that's what you want," Natasha said sarcastically.
"I want whatever makes you happy."
She held his gaze for a few seconds, not certain if he was being sincere.
"Be serious, Tony."
"Whatever," she dismissed, but it wasn't easy to do, because part of her suspected he was.
"You don't have to believe me," he said, sitting back and kicking his feet up onto the coffee table. "I wouldn't in your case. And, you and I, we're a lot alike, Natasha."
"How are we alike?"
"To start with," Tony said, pointing towards the bar where Pepper was trying, in vain, to get Clint to mingle, "we both have people, good people, who love us. Maybe even if we don't always deserve it." When she didn't answer, hardly moved even, he continued, "Also, we're both kind of selfish."
"Yes," he answered with a nod. "I mean, I know Pepper's too good for me. Everyone knows that, but -"
"Fine, I get it," she interrupted. "She could do better but you won't cut her free. What's that have to do with me and... with me?"
"Actually, I was talking about before," Tony corrected in his faux-friendly way he had that drove her crazy. Like she was a child that had to have the details pointed out and explained in an excruciatingly slow manner. "All those years before I realized what a good thing I was missing, that I could have been with Pepper, but I wasn't. What I put her through. Selfish. That's how we're alike. You just haven't realized it yet."
"Don't tell me it's not the same," he said quickly.
"I said not to tell me that," he said, smiling.
"Are you done?"
"Not yet," he admitted. "One more thing and then..."
"Then you'd better be done."
"I will be," Tony promised with a grin. "Last thing. Swear it, but... not here. Come on," he said, getting to his feet and offering her a hand up. "Just take a minute, I promise."
Skeptical, but too curious to say no, Natasha followed Tony back to his office where he immediately sat down behind his desk.
"This came in the mail a few days ago," Tony finally said, taking a book out of a drawer and holding up a copy of Atlas Shrugged for her to see.
"Let me guess," Natasha said with a slight twist of her lips. "Phil?"
"Apparently he bequeathed it to me in his will."
To his surprise, she nearly laughed, as one corner of her mouth twitched up into a lopsided grin. Of course, he could have been mistaken. It might have been a cough. Or gas. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen her really smile about anything.
"Mine was Lolita," Natasha said fondly. "Phil had... an interesting sense of humor."
"Is that all it was?" Tony asked, eyebrow raised.
"You tell me."
Tony put the book down and considered what to say next. That's how it always was when talking to Natasha. You couldn't just talk to her or ask her things. You had to have a plan. He'd had one, Tony had wanted to be straightforward. He should have known that was never going to work. She was never going to believe he was simply speaking the truth. Not that it mattered. No matter what plan you made, she had a counter plan ready and probably in effect.
"Well, I asked around and it seems that he hadn't really left a lot behind. Some art he left to Pepper for one of her charities. I think Fury was made executor. He didn't have family and work was his life." He paused before finally just going for it. "Any idea what he left Barton?" Natasha stood there, completely still as she waited for him to answer his own question. "A copy of Ivanhoe," Tony finally said. "Now, call me crazy but Lolita... Ivanhoe... those sound like codenames. And, me being me..."
"You had to know what Phil was telling us that he wasn't telling you?"
"Close," Tony admitted. "I actually wondered just what he was trying to tell me." As he finished, he held out the book for emphasis.
"Have you read it?" she asked with an acidic edge.
"That's... that's funny," Tony said with a smirk. "Kind of mean, but still funny. And if you'd have left me this book, I'd get it. But Phil... Phil wasn't mean. Not like that. He's not the guy to take pot shots from beyond the grave. Or was he, Lolita?"
"You're not going to let this go and I'm probably going to regret telling you," Natasha said with a sigh, "but yes. The books Clint and I received were more than just books. They were safe houses. Phil left us both a safe house. And before you ask, no, I will not tell you where mine is. It was prearranged between us. We both knew what we'd be getting in case... We both knew."
Tony nodded and pressed his lips together in a concentrated effort not to speak.
"Clint already told you this," Natasha finally said, catching on.
"He may have said something..."
"Then why are you asking me? This is a waste of time."
"Yes, I went to Clint first. I knew there had to be something in the book, like, literally because I had it x-rayed, and I needed help because Phil, rest his soul, was a master fucking magician at hiding things. Once Clint showed me how to remove my own key well... what I found was..." Tony paused and took a new object out of the desk drawer.
A jump drive.
It made ridiculous amounts of sense to her. Clint and Natasha would need somewhere safe. Somewhere private. Something that belonged to them. Tony would need, want and crave what he always had: information.
"Not exactly a cabin in the woods, but still pretty high up on my wish list."
"Tony, if you're about to tell me that Agent Phil Coulson gave you SHIELD secrets, let me start by reminding you I still work for them and..." she trailed off as he began to vigorously shake his head.
"Nothing like that," he assured her. "A lot of what was here was my father's work. Nothing that anyone would want. Stuff only Phil would think anyone would need. You... you get the idea."
"Okay," she said, sliding back into skeptical.
"But there was one thing that... I'm just going to show you this and... and we'll see. How's that?"
Natasha nodded and Tony pulled up an array of information in the workspace above his desk.
Tony watched her face as she looked at it, read it, and more importantly as comprehension slowly began to dawn.
"I have two theories," Tony said quietly as he moved to stand beside her. "The first is that this was some research Phil was doing on his own. Something he was looking into that he wanted me to finish."
"And the second?" Natasha snapped.
"That he knew. That he'd always known and that he wanted me to share this interesting bit of history after..."
"You cannot tell Clint."
"I really don't know what to do with this," Tony admitted.
And it was true, he didn't.
On the drive had been a series of maps and notes that plotted Clint's pre-SHIELD career as a petty thief. It was his whole life marked out in vivid and careful detail. All the crimes he'd committed. All the places he'd been. It was all there and more because it wasn't the only line on the map. It wasn't just one life, but two.
For some time, the two lines ran parallel, just as Clint had said they had. Two people working together; a mentor and apprentice. And then they diverged. Clint began his own trajectory course while his mentor, Buck Chisholm, continued on his.
It was all very organized. Each crime, each location, had a date and time and file number attached to it. Clint's own crimes had been less vicious and more need based once he was on his own. Chisholm's had not. But none of that was what interested Tony. What had caught his attention was when they'd both stopped.
Buck Chisholm had mysteriously dropped off the radar three months prior to Clint's apprehension and subsequent indoctrination into SHIELD, which seemed to imply he'd been caught. However, there had been no arrest, which seemed to imply he hadn't been caught by the proper authorities.
That maybe some clandestine organization had gotten to him first.
"Tony," Natasha said, her voice pulled tight. "I know what you're thinking and what this looks like but... I don't believe it. I don't think..."
"It can only be two things," Tony interrupted. "Phil either discovered some kind of cover up or he was part of one. I mean, Clint has told you the story, right? How he was lured into SHIELD? That they were either going to make him join or let him go to jail for murders they knew he didn't commit," he finished, pointing to the map for emphasis. "They knew because they'd already caught the person responsible."
"This isn't proof that they knew anything then," Natasha argued. "And if Clint told you everything, he also said that they believed he didn't do it."
"But they were okay with him taking the rap if he didn't comply."
"You don't know they'd have done that."
"I think we both know they would have," Tony fired back at her. "And what the hell happened to Chisholm after this? He's just... he's gone. There's no trace of him after this point," he said, pointing to the last crime he'd committed on the map.
"If SHIELD was tracking him and he was honestly a threat, he was likely eliminated," Natasha answered truthfully.
"Then why this map? Why not just come clean and tell Clint? Hell, why give it to me?"
"Because you'd ask a million annoying questions," Natasha said, her tone going soft towards the end. "And whatever it was he was doing, he obviously wasn't done."
Tony nodded, having reached that same conclusion for himself.
"So..." she echoed. "You can't tell him. Not yet. Not until... I don't believe Phil would purposely hide information like this from Clint without a good reason, and protecting himself wouldn't be reason enough. Not for Phil. That's not who he was and you just don't understand... Phil and Clint worked together for years, Tony. Years. Clint would have done anything Phil asked him to do. They were... Clint can't even talk about him. Still. And after everything that's happened to him..." She stopped for a second, but he understood her. After everything she did. "Clint is going to take one look at this and assume the worst," Natasha continued. "He's had enough broken trust in his life. Right now, Phil's all he has left. That memory is it. And you can't take that from him. You can't take away his memories of Phil, Tony. That's not right. It's not fair."
"Is it fair to let him continue to believe a lie?"
"You don't know what this is yet," she said, waving her hand at the data between them. "You don't even know the truth yet yourself."
"But suppose this is a cover-up? Suppose -"
"You don't know."
"I will," Tony assured her. "I'll find out and then..."
"What? You tell Clint that the only person in the world he ever had complete faith in was a liar? That all those years of friendship were fake? That they were built on false pretenses? What do you gain from that? What does Clint gain from that?"
"Sometimes the truth isn't worth knowing."
"That's where you and I disagree," Tony said firmly.
"It is," Natasha agreed. "Because... Tony, once you tell him that... You can't take it back. You can't fix it. And Phil... Phil can't defend himself. He'll never be able to explain it or apologize or... or anything. You don't know why. Nothing you'll ever find will tell you exactly why."
"All right," Tony conceded, having never given it that much thought. "That's... I'll wait and see. How's that?"
"I'm not promising..."
"I don't want a promise."
"Okay then," he said, somewhat uncomfortable with the conversation, it having gone nothing like he expected it to. "Besides, this information, it's pretty new. The collection I mean. So, it's something he'd just started," he concluded. "It could just be something he was looking into."
"Yes, it could."
"And, correct me if I'm wrong, but lately I'm sensing there's a fracture in our favorite spy group." When Natasha didn't correct him, he continued. "What if Phil found something maybe he shouldn't have, same as Hill had. What if he stumbled onto a name..."
"It's possible that a different directorate in SHIELD was looking for assets and had tracked Chisholm."
"Which still doesn't answer the question of what happened next."
"No, it doesn't."
"Okay," Tony said with a brisk nod, having more than enough incentive to continue. "That's... that's what I wanted to know."
"So you won't tell him?"
"Not yet," Tony answered. "Not until I'm certain."
"And when you are?" Natasha asked.
"That's all I ask."
"Since we're bonding here," Tony said with a smirk, after a few moments of silence between them, "let me ask you one more thing."
"Okay, let me tell you something then," Tony said, unfazed by her denial. "And I swear, this is the last you'll hear from me about it but, so you know, whatever has or hasn't or will or won't between you two... we want you here. We want you as an Avenger. We all want you to be a part of this, Natasha. Steve, Bruce, myself... we all do."
"So Thor voted against me?" she asked, eyebrow raised.
"Actually, he abstained," Tony said with a smirk, relieved to see Natasha relax, even if it was only slightly. "His only concern was Clint having any issues."
"Clint's a big boy," Tony answered, a little surprised she admitted to not knowing the answer to that question. "And I'm sure you two have worked through worse. Or if not worse, at least situations with more bloodshed. In any case, he knows we want you onboard and he hasn't said that will be a problem for him so..."
"And me staying with SHIELD?"
"Okay then," she said, and Tony could have fainted because she nearly did smile this time.
"Will working with Clint be a problem for you?"
"That settles that," Tony said evenly, but when Natasha gave him a crisp nod and turned to go, he couldn't help himself. "He's not happy, you know."
Natasha stopped in her tracks and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Tony was never going to quit. Especially not when he thought he was right.
"I know," she admitted with her back still to him.
"Neither are you."
"I don't do happy," she returned as she faced him again.
This time it was Tony's turn to roll his eyes at her. "Fine," he dismissed, "but Barton... He's trying real hard to act like nothing's bothering him. I've known the guy half a year and I still don't feel like I've met him yet."
"Maybe that's because you haven't," Natasha answered. "Who he was before this... He's changed."
"So, he wasn't professing his love for you twice a week before New York happened?"
"No," she answered shortly, barely restraining herself from adding, 'because he knew better.'
"Or was he just doing a good job of keeping it in?" Tony persisted. "Life altering events tend to alter lives, you know."
"Does it matter?" she asked curtly, hoping to end this discussion.
"I guess it doesn't," he returned after few minutes spent trying to get a read on her.
Natasha gave him a brisk nod before leaving.
Tony watched and waited, and only once she'd gone did he return his gaze back to the map of information still hovering above his desk.
Not for the first time did he wish Phil had just left him a book, a real one. Just a book. No crazy map or encrypted information that made little sense. Whose outcome would make no one happy.
Or maybe some notes to go along with this mess. Or a user's manual. In the very least Phil could have left him some instructions on how to deal with Natasha and Clint.
He felt overwhelmed with responsibility.
Tony could really uses some hint as to what to do next, and not just with the map, but with all of it; especially with the Avengers. The whole thing may have had SHIELD's blessing and Fury approval, but Phil had been the visionary behind it all. He'd have known the next step and the one after that and so on and so on.
Tony thought he knew what happened next. What needed to happen. He hoped he did.
Working with Steve and Bruce, with Clint and Thor, with Natasha's help, Tony felt they'd stumble along somehow. They had to. The Avengers had become Phil's legacy.
But they'd be doing so much better if Phil was still here.
Ultimately, that was the biggest problem they faced.
Phil had done it so effortlessly, had managed them all so effortlessly, that Tony knew he was never going to live up his memory. No one was. That as hard as he tried, as hard as anyone tried, no one would never do the job as well as Phil would have and that was a problem.
They'd have to find someone to replace him. They'd have to find someone to be that glue to bind them and keep them if this was really going to work.
And it had to work.
There was no going back.