Dearer to me than a host of base truths is the illusion that exalts.
There are only four pallbearers at Natasha's funeral. Clint, Maria and Bruce are on one side; Steve takes the other.
It's a quiet service, small, no religious trappings but plenty of Stark's money to ensure some privacy. Still, there's a cross in the New Orleans alley where she'd been gunned down, and the remembrances left by mourners spill out into the street. It's not the display Captain America would have gotten, but all things considered, it's not half bad.
"There should be a slideshow," Clint says. "Pictures, nice music. Who's that composer you like?"
Natasha looks at him. "No slideshow."
"All right," he says, lifting one shoulder, one corner of his mouth. "Your funeral."
Her second is a month later. When the news breaks, it is immediately clear what happened: She'd faked her own death and gone underground, tried to get away from it all, but she'd been seen.
She was lying on a black-sand beach of Réunion, sun-drenched and glistening, an unread murder mystery by her side. She was at the market in Saint-Phillippe, a few handfuls of lychee in her basket and a fresh loaf of bread tucked under her arm. She was in the hot springs of Cilaos, relaxed and recognizable under the mask of mud. She was swimming in the ocean, clean smooth strokes knifing through the water, and she was almost to the motorboat when it exploded. She was killed instantly.
THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM, screams the New York Post, big white text over a photo of her dead body. She's slumped in a chair in a nondescript concrete room, a small bullet hole in the center of her forehead, no flag behind her. Very classy.
"Are you sure we can't have a slideshow?" Clint asks from somewhere on the other side of the world, his voice cut through with static. "That's not your good side."
"No slideshow," Natasha says, and ends the call.
Two months after that, she is poisoned in Marrakech. Maria isn't at that funeral, she notices, reading about it from a bus terminal in Padang. Neither is Steve.
"Listen," Stark says, in space for all she knows but no hint of distance in the connection. "We rented out the church the third Thursday of every month, so if you could time your funerals a little better, I'd appreciate it. I lose the deposit if we have to reschedule."
"Put it on my tab," she says, and, "Why are you having these at a church?"
"Attendance was down last time," he says, as if she hadn't spoken. "Maybe we should ramp it up, take out an ad. Full-page in the Times, invite the whole country. Black Widow's funeral, Thursdays at 4. BYOB. Cool?"
"Tell Barton no slideshow," she says. "Then we're cool."
Almost no one goes to the fifth funeral, not even Clint. Stark's there, ostentatiously tragic the way only he can be, the angle of his facial hair precisely trimmed to match that of the Avengers A. "Na zdorov'ya," he says at the gravesite, throwing back some Russian Standard as Bruce sets a shot glass on the fresh dirt of Natasha's empty grave and pours, puts a piece of black bread over the top.
The cemetery leaves the dates off the tombstone.
She'd thought Mongolia at first, a ger on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, an old Russian jeep, maybe a dog. Next on her list was Canada, someplace dark, so far north you could only get there two months of the year. A cabin, a snowmobile, maybe a dog. No, definitely a dog.
And then south -- a research base on Antarctica, maybe. She could have gotten a job tending bar and no one would have asked any questions, because anyone at a bar in Antarctica was running from something and had hit the end of the line. They'd all have been so busy having existential crises that it probably wouldn't have occurred to anyone to wonder about Natasha's.
Norway had been under serious consideration, one of those cities north of the Arctic Circle, someplace she'd have been so busy staying alive that she wouldn't have had time to think about anything else. But when she'd looked at a map, she'd seen that the northernmost city in Norway is called "Hammerfest." She hasn't seen Thor in ages, but if he were to show up anywhere, it'd be in Hammerfest.
Prague, then. A devil she knows.
The room costs 100 koruna a night -- five bucks, give or take. She takes.
It was a nice room, once, up six flights of wide worn marble to the attic apartment, a room with splintered hardwood floors and a low slanted ceiling split by a few small skylights. It's not as nice as it used to be, though, only a bare lightbulb to illuminate the cramped space, a dripping sink by the door, a pile of futons stacked in a corner, crushed thin with use.
It's also unbearably hot, the late-summer sun beating down through the skylights, the heat trapped and magnified by the room. There are no other windows, no air flow to speak of, certainly no air conditioning. Natasha can't breathe.
She eyes the skylights for a while before balling up a few sheets and easing herself up and out onto the red-tile roof. It's a tight fit, but she makes it work. Outside, it's pleasantly warm, and she sighs with relief as she spreads the sheets and stretches out on top of them. There isn't much of a slope to the roof. The buildings on either side go up another story. It's private, or close enough, and Natasha laces her fingers behind her head. The heat from the clay seeps through the sheets and into her skin, and she drifts off to sleep staring at a cloudless blue sky.
Mornings, she gets up before dawn, just as the sun starts to break into her room. She washes, dresses, shoves the futons into the corner, exits via the rooftop.
She feels faintly ridiculous -- or maybe she just feels like Clint, coming and going through the skylight -- but she's not at all interested in dealing with the students who congregate in the building's basement bar, chain-smoking and binge-drinking and tumbling in and out of one another's bunks.
Once on the ground, she chooses a direction at random and goes, her feet silent on the twisted cobblestone streets as the sun burns the early-morning fog from the river. She always ends up at a café, always a different one, always right after the morning rush. Each place is more than happy to sell her a small pot of black tea, which she sets on an inevitably rickety table just outside the door. Inside there are always newspapers, always in a handful of languages, and she always grabs whatever's on top. Outside, the tea steeps, and she sits down to construct her identity for the day.
Tuesday. Le Monde. Ann-Marie Renoux. Je suis née à Marseille, she thinks, trying it out, trying to remember. A port city, brawny and brawling, rough characters who've slipped ashore in the darkness, drug traffickers, arms dealers, thieves of all kinds. An alley, or maybe a narrow street, steep and winding, its corners unevenly lit by the spillover from the floodlights on the statue of the Virgin overlooking the city. Fishing boats, schooners, yachts, all mixed up. Two in the morning, three, the light glinting off a small hooked knife tucked into a fist. Blood seeping over the cobblestones, a dark growing stain. Natasha rubs at a scar on her hip.
Wednesday. Jurnalul National. Melita Covaci, she decides. Sunt de la Târgu Jiu, nord de București, though she doesn't think her Romanian is good enough to pass. It doesn't matter. It's only practice. A thought experiment. Or a memory. A river, the Carpathian foothills. A bridge. A good town for snipers -- wide boulevards without much cover, squat shabby buildings the perfect height. Mid-century Eastern European architecture, and she doesn't know the jargon but she knows the type, all rectangles and concrete, grinding into her hipbones as she waits and breathes and waits and breathes and squeezes the trigger and breathes and walks away.
Thursday she doesn't make it to the roof.
Thursday she checks her phone and sees it all over the place: WHO IS THE BLACK WIDOW? TWELVE REASONS YOU SHOULD CARE. Some explainer site has been digging through the leaked SHIELD intel, doing pieces on each of the Avengers, and she'd half-hoped her many deaths had muddied the waters enough that they wouldn't bother with her -- her fifth death had barely made the news at all.
But no, there she is, Natalia Alianova Romanova, aka the Black Widow. There's even a slideshow. Clint will be pleased.
She skims it once and fights down the nausea. She skims it again and hurls herself toward the sink, retching. Ballerina, it says, and she feels the bunch and pull of her calves, remembers the stretch of her skin as she yanks her hair tighter, sees the plush red chairs of the Bolshoi, considers printing out the article so she can ball it up and throw it across the room in disgust. Her head is pounding.
She puts her back to the wall and slides to the floor, trying to concentrate on the words through the pain warning her away from her past, real and imagined. The article doesn't mention the Red Room. It doesn't say anything about psychochemical conditioning. It mentions Odessa, but it says she assassinated the doctor, and she swallows a mouthful of bile and rubs at the scar that says otherwise. The article skips Budapest entirely. Singapore seems half-right -- an extraction, she thinks it was an extraction, not an info-grab -- and she's pretty sure she's never been to Ecuador. Johannesburg seems fine, but what the hell does she know?
She tosses the phone aside and when she stops trembling, she goes to work seeing if her friend in Kyiv can get her a few more files.
Of all the people they could have sent, they send Bruce Banner. In his defense, he seems to realize he has no chance of finding her.
Instead, she finds him. He's standing in the shadow of the Altneu Synagogue in a rumpled linen suit at least two sizes too big, squinting at street signs on the surrounding buildings, trying to fold a paper map. Natasha smiles in spite of herself and tails him for two weeks.
They haven't seen each other since the one-year anniversary service for the Battle of New York. There'd been speeches, a dedication ceremony, a reading of names, and then they'd all gone for shawarma. That doesn't really count.
Now, he's traveling on Stark money but not in Stark style -- a mid-range hotel, street food, the occasional cheap beer, a lot of walking. He exchanges friendly small talk with a wood carver on the Charles Bridge. He rides the funicular and tours the castle, stands in the nave of St. Vitus and stares at the ceiling for a full seven minutes.
It doesn't take him long to fall into a routine. He likes the Wallenstein Palace Gardens, an oddly secluded spot in the middle of the city, surrounded by walls and inexplicably teeming with peacocks. Bruce likes to go in the early morning, likes to take his coffee and his danish and get a newspaper, likes to stare at the faces in the sculpted dripstone wall of the grotto. He spends at least ten minutes there every morning before ambling past the long line of statues to get to his favorite bench in front of the fountain, the garden green sprawling in all directions.
As far as she can tell, he's not being watched. She checks out all the places that have line-of-sight on his hotel room, vets the staff, runs a background check on the guy who sells him danishes, makes sure no one else happens to be at the Gardens every time Bruce is there. It's a Wednesday when she sits down on the bench next to him.
"Dobrý den," Bruce says, looking at her with an easy smile and no surprise. His accent is atrocious. She winces, and he holds out his half-eaten danish. "Hungry?"
She looks at him over the rim of her sunglasses, takes his pastry and walks away. He doesn't follow.
It's two days before she's comfortable enough to approach him again. He's not exactly being inconspicuous, and anyway, the Hulk's secrets were SHIELD's secrets, and nothing's secret anymore.
So she gives it a little time, and on Friday morning she lets herself into his room after he's let himself out. It's nice, she supposes, if a bit bland, a bit of a trap. Eighth floor, near enough the stairs and only two floors from the roof, but no viable exit from the window. Other than that, it's easily nicer than where she's staying, with a real bathroom, even a small kitchenette. The double bed is comfortable, clean, freshly made. There's a wardrobe but Bruce isn't using it; his stuff's in piles on the floor. The television is also on the floor, probably because the only other place it could go is on a small table, which Bruce is using as a desk, home to his stack of paper maps. She searches the place from top to bottom, scans for bugs, and sprawls on the bed to wait.
It's after midnight when Bruce shows up, swaying like he's mildly drunk or massively tired, shrugging out of his jacket. Natasha flips on a frequency jammer and moves forward, her finger to her lips, and runs a scanner over his body. He's still and silent under her hands, no sign of protest as she rummages in his pockets for his phone, his keys, his wallet. The room was clean but his phone's a mess, riddled with spyware and monitoring programs that didn't come from Stark. Natasha pulls and snaps the SIM card, puts it back, yanks the battery, and throws what's left out the window.
"I'll get you a new one."
"I assume you didn't come here just to take my stuff," he says. "What do you want?"
"You came looking for me," she says, her back to the wall, arms crossed.
He sits on the edge of the bed with a huff. "Not exactly." He tugs at a shoe and tosses it to the corner, where it thuds against the wall. "I knew I wouldn't find you, so I made it easy for you to find me." The second shoe thuds against the first. "Which you did. So I ask again: What do you want?"
It's a good question, and she figures she owes it to the both of them to take a few minutes and think about it. He sits at the foot of the bed, not moving, and Natasha focuses on her breathing. When she'd thought about this part, she'd assumed it would be the other way around, that he would be the one who had to count to ten.
She walks to the desk and sits down, and Bruce is instantly on his feet and pacing. He opens the curtains enough to look outside. He moves through the room, peering into the wardrobe, opening all the drawers in the kitchenette, rummaging through his battered duffel bag, kicking at his piles of clothes.
When Natasha can't take anymore, she says, "The bug on your phone was the only one, and I have a frequency jammer running to deal with anything long-distance."
"Good." He turns to face her, rubbing compulsively at the backs of his hands. "So no one will be able to hear us not talking."
"Hold your horses," she says, but she reaches for her bag. "This isn't exactly easy for me, you know."
"I've been holding my horses for a month, Natasha. My feet hurt. My Czech is terrible. And this city is crawling with peacocks."
"It's not--" She stops rummaging and looks at him over the top of her bag. "You don't like peacocks?"
He rubs at the back of his neck. "They're really loud."
"Damn. I was hoping to show you my peacock impression."
He winces. "Please don't."
"Okay, but you're missing out." She pulls two KGB files from her bag and places them carefully on the desk. They look strange sitting there, battered blue and hardbound, the pages yellowed, like she pulled them out of a time machine instead of a messenger bag. She stares a few seconds too long but pulls herself out of it, flips on a white-noise generator for good measure. "Seriously, tell me why you're here. You're not just sightseeing."
He makes two more circuits of the room, his eyes darting to the files and snapping away, and then drops to the edge of the bed with a sigh. "I have my reasons."
"Yeah? Name one."
"You haven't had a funeral in a while," he says, his head down, his eyes averted. "I wanted to make sure you were all right."
"Uh-huh," she says. It's crap, but on the other hand, Bruce was the only person to show up at all her funerals -- not that she was keeping track. "Tell me another one."
He looks up, meets her eyes. "I need some help."
She sits back, surprised. "With what? I thought Stark sent you." She'd sent Stark a message in the form of a dead Hydra agent and a file, hoping he'd follow the trail: Hydra, the Winter Soldier, the KGB, the Red Room, the Black Widow. She could sit around reading her own file and making herself sick for years, but there were other angles to work. She hadn't expected Stark to send Bruce Banner, but he makes a pretty good angle.
"Well," Bruce says. "He mentioned you were in Prague. Something about a body and a coup in South America in the 70s? I guess he could have been trying to send me, but you know how he is. I couldn't really tell."
"Yeah," she says. She knows. Either way, if Bruce needs her help enough to show up in Prague, he'll likely help her in return. "So what do you need?"
He waves a hand in the air, dismissive. "You first."
She takes a deep breath and tosses him the two KGB files. They land next to him with a heavy thud. "I'd like your professional opinion, Doctor. If you could tell me what you think of those, I'd appreciate it."
"Global catastrophe?" He sounds almost hopeful.
"The first one is a chemical analysis of some kind of psychotropic compound that affects memory and cognition." She keeps her voice dry, clinical, steady. "Several compounds, really, maybe some genetic engineering procedures, I don't know. I'm wondering if there's a way to reverse the effects."
Bruce keeps his eyes on hers and speaks slowly. "Which are?"
"Some memories are erased or rendered inaccessible. New ones are implanted. Thinking too much about which ones are which leads to nausea, vomiting, migraine headaches, eventual unconsciousness."
He lets out a low whistle, the skin around his eyes going tight. She doesn't look away, but eventually she bends her mouth into a bitter smile. "Asking for a friend."
The first one isn't so bad; it's just science. Natasha sprawls on the bed while Bruce reads, scribbling notes in the margins and eventually on a notebook. He stops every few minutes to think and occasionally asks for clarification about the translation, a frown etched into his face, his eyes distant. The pencil twirls endlessly around his fingers.
The second one is her personal file -- part of it, anyway -- and there are large portions of it Natasha can't read without blacking out. She has no idea what's in it. It can't be good, though; Bruce reads for five seconds before closing it and pushing it away. His left hand clenches on his knee, and Natasha looks at the ceiling, listens to him breathe. He pulls the file back and tries again. He does this four times.
"Bruce?" She sits up.
He shakes his head. "It's fine." She can still hear him breathing, and when he turns his head to look at her, his eyes are shot through with green.
"That's what I was going to say to you," her voice as steady as the hand on her Glock.
He tilts his head and stares at her, the hand on his knee clenching spasmodically.
"I'm fine," she says, emphatic.
It takes a while, but they both relax, and he gives her a wry smile, the apology written in the lines of his face. "I thought this was for a friend."
"I thought you were a genius."
He snorts. "For all the good that's done me," he mutters, but he picks up the file and doesn't put it down again until he's finished reading.
She gives him the weekend, a few days to read and re-read, to go to the library at Charles University and become an expert in neurophysiology or psychochemistry or Fucked Up Soviet Science or whatever field he thinks is most appropriate. She takes the files with her but lets him keep his notes; he promises not to let them out of his sight, promises not to type anything into a search engine, and she promises not to throw anything else he owns out the window. She plans to use the time to figure out how and where they'll put his new expertise into practice. They could go back to New York, but Natasha is not interested in a resurrection just now, nor in Stark knowing this particular piece of her business. She's heard rumors of a Hydra lab in Prague, and if she can find it, she can make it work.
When she approaches him on Monday, he's standing outside the KGB Museum, a nondescript storefront with its window bricked up for show. He's in jeans and a faded purple t-shirt, his crumpled map in his hand and a speculative look on his face.
"No way," she says.
He turns his head, eyebrows raised. "You're not even a little curious?"
"You think curiosity only kills cats?"
"Fair enough." He looks at the museum, and then back at her. He shifts his weight to his other foot. He clears his throat.
"Spit it out, Banner."
His smile is slightly embarrassed. "I thought it might be a good idea. I was going to go first and see what's in there, but…" He shrugs. "I thought something might jog your memory."
Natasha moves closer and reaches for the guidebook he's stuffed in his back pocket, flips through it until she finds the entry for the KGB Museum. It's a few rooms, one guy's personal collection, a tour. Have your photo taken with a real Kalashnikov. Natasha's palm starts to itch, the wooden grip sweaty and unforgiving, the buttstock hard at her shoulder. She feels the ache at her temple start to build.
"I tend to vomit when my memory's jogged too hard," she says. "Maybe later."
"All right. So where to?"
They decide to play tourist, heading up the hill to the castle district, a winding path that heads down side streets and doubles back on itself, designed to expose anyone who might be following them. Natasha looks at faces, looks at shoes, looks at reflections in windows, looks at plate numbers, looks at people dressed for cooler weather. She keeps maybe a third of her attention on Bruce, who is pointing at landmarks and reading out loud from the guidebook like he just got off the plane. "We could go for golemtinis," he says, and "did you know they mixed egg into the concrete when they were building the Charles Bridge?" His Czech gets worse by the minute.
They eventually duck into a café near the castle itself, where Bruce orders the tea and snags a table. When Natasha finishes the security sweep, she sits down and slides her cup of tea over, swirls it in the mug.
"The thing is," he says, his hands twisting. "The thing is, no one really understands memory. I could work on this for years."
"I'm not asking for years of your time, Doctor."
He takes his glasses out of his pocket and tosses them on the table before they make it to his face. "You should be. This isn't something you mess around with, like learning to play the ukulele. One mistake and you could lose everything."
"I once killed a man with a ukulele," she says. "Nylon strings. Very nasty."
He's not impressed. "You know what else is nasty?"
She drops the bullshit and looks right at him, which isn't something she does particularly often. He notices, bites back whatever he'd been about to say. "You think I haven't thought about this?" she asks him. "You think I don't understand the consequences? You don't--"
"What, have gaping holes in my memory? Occasionally turn into someone I don't know anything about and can't remember? Wonder who's really pulling the strings or why I am the-- the thing I am? Yeah, gee, I can't imagine what that must be like."
"That's not what I meant." She sits back with a sigh and looks up at the ceiling. It's pretty nice, actually, a subtle decorative tile. "You did it to yourself. You didn't mean to, but at least you know what happened. I don't, not really. And if the only way to make my head my own again is to erase everything and start again, fine. At least it was my call."
There's silence from the other side of the table.
"I'm not talking about just wiping your memories," he says eventually. "You could die."
"Wouldn't be the first time."
He blows across the top of his tea and stares at her.
"All right," she says. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, okay? At least let me tell you the plan."
She happens to have located the Hydra lab on the western edge of town. They'll have to go at night, of course. They'll have to make it seem like they were never there, or maybe like they belong. Maybe Bruce can wait nearby and she'll let him in a window. She's still working on that part.
He manages to look dubious without moving his face. "You're still working on it? I'll tell you right now, I am not crawling through any air ducts."
She grins. "Come on, Banner, loosen up. I haven't even told you the best part."
He spreads his hands. "I'm all ears."
"We get to blow it up when we're done."
He goes from dubious to unimpressed, again without moving his face. "That's the best part?"
"No?" She drums her fingertips on the table, pretending to think. "Okay, we get to steal as much as we can carry, take out at least a dozen Hydra agents, and blow it up when we're done. That's the best part."
Bruce laughs. "If you say so."
"Oh, come on, what's better than that?"
There's a wistful smile on his face as he takes a sip of tea and looks around, the cathedral's spires rising behind him, sunlight sparking off the red tile roofs of the city below, the river glittering through it all. "This is pretty good," he says. He's right.
Natasha takes her time. She transfers money around and hires someone to hire someone to rent a furnished apartment for six months. Nothing fancy, something small, suitable for a security guard and his wife, who takes odd jobs as a cleaning lady. She walks the streets and alleys of her new neighborhood, identifying ambush sites and noting security cameras and designing surveillance detection routes and rigging roof access points and stashing weapons and figuring out where to buy fresh produce. She sets up a safehouse nearer downtown, another out in the countryside.
As for the lab, it's actually several labs of different types; it takes up two floors of a five-story building owned by Hydra -- well, by a subsidiary of a shell company of a convoluted mess, but same difference. In theory, they process blood and urine samples from local doctor's offices, but in practice they have far more neurological equipment than they need if that's what they're doing. Security is provided by rent-a-cops from an agency, and of the 200 people who work in the building, only a dozen are lab employees.
Natasha takes a good, long look. She learns their names and habits, the numbers of their license plates and the layouts of their homes. She gets to know one of the guys who works third-shift security, a middle-aged man named Petr who's in the middle of a divorce and drives an old VW. He spends his nights behind the front desk, reading bad translations of American pulp novels from the 40s. She learns security protocols and pays close attention to the janitorial staff. She gets blueprints and security codes, passcards and passwords, fake fingerprints and voice recordings.
She goes in a few times, gets set up. They'll need an incubator, somewhere to keep whatever it is Bruce will be working on where the actual lab techs won't find it or disturb it, somewhere to keep any lab animals they might need if it comes to that. There's an old supply closet on the fourth floor, not used that often, that develops a case of toxic mold and a broken lock. The lab's admin submits an order to have someone come look at it, but somehow, no one ever receives that order and a sign goes up on the door: Do Not Enter. No one ever receives the work order to fix the broken incubator, either, and it ends up in a pile of discarded equipment in that supply closet. Strangely enough, once it's there, it works just fine.
Her objectives are clear and the mission is her own, and her mind is sharp for the first time in what feels like months.
It's a cool Friday morning when she goes to get Bruce, the first edge of autumn in the air, and he's on his usual bench in the Gardens reading the paper. She's headed his way when she realizes there's something wrong. The man on the bench behind Bruce, maybe, paying too much attention, a businessman in the wrong shoes, sunglasses on a cloudy day. She keeps walking and doubles back around, stays out of sight.
She's right: The guy's a tail. She follows him as he follows Bruce to lunch, to the library, to his hotel. He goes for a run by the river. He has a bowl of goulash for dinner. When he turns in for the night, the tail goes to his own room, one floor down, and Natasha wonders how the hell Bruce hasn't made the guy.
When he leaves in the morning, right behind Bruce, Natasha lets herself into his room to have a look around. It's a low-tech op, no bugs or trackers, no contact, no interference, just a one-man tail and twice-weekly email reports. The encryption isn't difficult to break, and she reads through the log of Bruce's activities. The guy arrived three days after she'd thrown Bruce's phone out the window. An accident, the guy says. Bruce Banner is on vacation. He visits museums and parks, goes on long walks by the river. He doesn't meet anyone, doesn't speak to anyone, doesn't make any calls or do any scientific research. He goes to the university library, but is solely interested in depressing Russian literature. There's nothing of interest in his room. His laptop is clean. He hasn't replaced his phone.
Natasha rolls her eyes -- depressing Russian literature? -- and starts the trace, trying to figure out who the guy's reporting to. It takes a while, the security getting exponentially better as she gets closer to the source. "Shit," she mutters when she gets to the end of the line.
Ross, Thaddeus E.
"Shit," she says again. She knows who he is. She'd been in Harlem. She'd seen the thing Ross had unleashed, knew he wanted to put Bruce in a cage, break him into his component parts, weaponize him. SHIELD had been providing some measure of protection, some deal Fury and Ross had worked out between them, but that's all over now. Coulson has his hands full, and Nick will resurface when he's damn well good and ready.
She wonders if this is what Bruce needs help with. He hadn't brought it up again, and she hadn't thought to ask.
Natasha waits another day and then disappears Bruce from the middle of the Charles Bridge in broad daylight, because she can.
"Was that really necessary?"
"No," she says. "But it was fun."
"Speaking of fun." Bruce looks around at their new home, his shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep in his pockets. The place is tiny, a one-bedroom flat in a huge Soviet-era panelák with paper-thin walls and many, many neighbors with dogs. It's cramped but clean, decorated in classic Cold War chic. Everything is orange. "How long do we have to stay here?"
"What, you live with Stark for a while and now you're too fancy for this place?"
"Clearly." He starts opening all the drawers and cabinets in the living room. One wall is covered with built-in shelves, dark wood, solid construction. There's a lot to open.
"Looking for something?"
"Just looking." He goes to the window, pulls the curtains aside. The view's not bad -- they have a small balcony with some clotheslines already hung, a park visible behind the smaller building next door. "How long did you say we have to stay here?"
"You keep saying that," she says. "It's not a cage." She meets his eyes when he glances over. "Leave whenever you want."
He turns to face her fully and she tosses him a set of keys. He plucks them out of the air and stares at them, his thumb rubbing each one like he's making sure they're real, and then he shoves them into his pocket. "You won't try to talk me out of going?"
"Oh, I will definitely try to talk you out of going," she says, her mouth stretched into a smirk. "But that's all I will do." She holds up three fingers. "Scout's honor."
It takes him a few more seconds, but he nods curtly, goes back to his inspection. "You still haven't said how long," he throws over his shoulder.
"It's paid for six months, but it doesn't really matter." She doesn't know how long he's going to need to make the drug -- assuming that's even what he'll be doing -- whether it's going to work the first time or the fifth time or not at all. Hydra might make them. Ross might send someone more competent. "You take the couch for a month, then we'll switch. Tea?"
"Please," he says, dropping to the couch in question, a comfortable brown- and orange-patterned monstrosity. He pats the cushions a few times and then gets up, heads into the bedroom and starts opening everything in there. She can tell when he finds the clothes she bought to replace the ones she'd left in his hotel room, because he finally stops opening drawers. "If you're going to hang up my t-shirts," he calls out, "you could at least arrange them by color." There's a pause. "I guess I'm not surprised it all fits."
Natasha ignores him. In the kitchen, she's put the kettle on and is sitting at the two-person table, already spread with maps and blueprints and surveillance photos, a laptop propped on the windowsill. She needs to figure out what to do with the real security staff so she and Bruce can take their place.
"I guess the options are we pay them to disappear, we temporarily disappear them ourselves and maybe compensate them for the inconvenience, or we get rid of them. Preference?" She knows what the easiest option is.
"What? Who?" Bruce opens the bedroom door and turns in a circle, as if he's surprised to find himself in the kitchen. He glances into the living room, open to the kitchen, and then looks back over his shoulder into the bedroom before pulling the door shut and leaning against it. The room is tiny, a galley kitchen with the table shoved up against the wall, not enough space for the two of them just yet.
"Petr and Radek. Petr works the front desk at night, Radek's a rover."
She shakes her head. "Contractors."
"A or B, then." The kettle finishes, and Bruce hesitates and then moves to pour the water into the teapot. "Petr and Radek, huh? That's it, just two rent-a-cops?" He starts looking through the cupboards for some mugs.
"Most of the security on the lab is electronic or biometric. Fingerprints, passcards, voice identification, that kind of thing."
"What are they even working on in there?"
"Don't know yet." She figures she'll look into it once they get in. They can take the research with them when they go, or destroy it with the rest of the place when they're done. "Oh, but that reminds me." She digs through the papers on the table. "Here's the inventory. You should probably take a look and make sure it's got what you need, equipment-wise. Pretty sure it does."
Bruce takes the papers, squinting at the small lines of type. "I don't suppose you extracted my reading glasses?"
"They defected before I could get to them."
"Any hope of a prisoner exchange?"
"No dice." She shakes her head with exaggerated sadness. "We ran it last night, midnight on the Most Legií, but we got back an impostor."
"I-- " Bruce makes a face, his forehead creased. "I think I lost track of that metaphor. You... swapped out my lenses for plain glass?"
"No, I got you new glasses." She raises her eyebrows. "They're part of your disguise."
"Oh, goodie. I was really hoping I'd get to wear a disguise."
"Stick with me, Banner, you'll have all the disguises you want." She grins up at him. "Want to try one on?"
He gives her a pained look. "I think we can hold off on playing dress-up for a few more minutes," he says, setting the papers down on the counter and crossing his arms over his chest.
"Maybe a little." Their eyes catch and hold. Natasha feels the smile slide from her face. "Aren't you?" he asks.
She thinks about the helicarrier, the terrible look in his eyes, his fingers curled against the floor, the cords in his neck as he screamed. Her breathing. I'm always angry. "Maybe a little."
He nods and turns to pour the tea, letting her off the hook. "I haven't lived with anyone in a long time," he says, passing her one of the mugs. He's remembered she drinks it black, or at least that she did last time. "Since undergrad."
"You live with Stark."
He snorts. "I have an entire floor. It's not like we argue about whose turn it is to do the dishes."
"Right." Natasha looks up at the ceiling, and then over at Bruce. "Well, we're not going to argue about that, either. You're going to do the dishes."
His smile is faint. "Probably, but…" He trails off and makes a frustrated gesture, encompassing the tiny kitchen. "Living with other people--"
"Wait, wait." She puts up a hand to stop him. "You think I'll drink straight from the orange juice container and you'll Hulk out?"
"Well." He scratches the back of his neck. "Maybe."
Natasha stares incredulously for a full five seconds before saying, "Good thing I don't like orange juice, and you haven't had an incident--"
"Since I tried to kill you? Doesn't mean I won't." She sees him in the hotel room, his hand clenched hard, opening, closing, his eyes sliding toward green.
"You might," she agrees. "But not because I didn't take out the trash. You've got more control than that."
He gives her a long, level look and then takes two steps closer, gets right up into what was left of her personal space; the only ways out of the cramped kitchen now are through the window or through him. "What if I don't?"
Natasha's on her feet, her Glock in her hand and shoved up hard against his midsection.
"What good's that going to do?" he asks, his eyes on hers, a bottomless brown.
"Not much," she says easily. "Maybe knock you back a few feet. The transformation takes three seconds if you're not fighting it, ten times that if you are. Maybe you'll turn, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll fight it, maybe not. Either way I'll be gone."
He looks over her shoulder and she watches him take in the open kitchen window, the park nearby, the forest behind it. Somewhere behind that, mountains. Maybe the other guy's a monster, but he's not a monster; he'll follow her out the window and run for the hills, and they both know it. "You've thought this through," he says, but doesn't back up.
"You knew I would," she says, holstering her weapon and sitting down. She smiles up at him. "You just like it when I pull a gun on you."
Bruce clears his throat and steps away.
They bribe Petr and Radek to take extended vacations. Risky, but they both need the cash and it keeps Natasha from having to figure out what to do with them in the meantime. Another safehouse, guards, someone to keep an eye on everything, buy sandwiches. Not worth it.
Instead, the security agency will think Petr and Radek are still showing up at work. They're sending in their timesheets, after all, still collecting their paychecks. Natasha will have to keep an eye on their communications, make sure they don't talk, but that's trivial. Meanwhile, anyone who works at the building and happens to be there at night and bothers to pay attention to the help -- not very likely, but not impossible -- will just think the agency sent over some new people. No one asks questions about contractors.
Bruce, as usual, looks skeptical. "Is the fact that I don't speak Czech going to be a problem?"
"Nah," she says, waving a hand in the air. "Maybe. Probably." She pauses. "Let's try to avoid that bridge. And let me do the talking when... just let me do the talking."
He gives her a long look.
"Bruce. This is not my first time."
He keeps looking, but whatever his concerns are, he keeps them to himself.
They start Monday. That night, she and Bruce put on the rent-a-cop uniforms and actually do the job. Bruce falls asleep at the front desk four times.
Tuesday night, it begins.
She'd thought she might write things down. Not a diary, exactly, but she knows Bruce keeps a log that manages to be both obsessively detailed and utterly incomprehensible. He'd offered to walk her through it, but it's half science and half code and she'd given up once she was satisfied that no one would be able to lift his notebook and read what was left of her secrets. She'd thought it might be good to have something of her own, a record she could trust in case she lost everything.
But what actually happens -- after they re-route the cameras and phones to the lab, just in case; after Natasha strips down to a t-shirt so Bruce can draw blood; after he covers her head with electrodes and sets up the EEG to get some baseline brain scans -- what actually happens is she pushes through agonizing pain and makes herself sick, over and over again, trying to think about her parents or her first handlers or the ballet or the Red Room, trying to think about pliés and bore solvent. She doesn't push it hard enough to pass out, but unconsciousness becomes very appealing. Eventually she's a shaking mess on the floor of the lab, curled around a trash can, her shoulder sore from grinding against the cold ceramic tile. She's dimly aware of Bruce, staring at the monitors with his jaw clenched hard, his fist opening, closing. He won't look at her.
"I can't wait to do that again," she says, sitting up, her throat full of bile and gravel. She coughs, spits, winces, tries to breathe. Everything hurts. "Bring me my notebook."
After a few seconds he stands slowly and gathers the notebook, water, a fleece blanket. He doesn't bother with aspirin; they both know it won't work. He still hasn't looked at her, but if she sees anything like pity in his eyes when he finally does, Natasha's going to blacken both of them. She doesn't, though; the only thing she sees on his face is anger. That's probably not good, but she doesn't have the energy to deal with whatever's going on in his head when her own is trying to kill her.
"Thanks." She writes fuck on the first page and throws the thing across the room.
"We are not doing that again," Bruce says before they leave the apartment on Wednesday evening. It's his day to cook and the man makes a mean breakfast hash, but Natasha still feels like shit. They're both picking at dry toast.
"Heartbreaker," Natasha says, not even attempting to make it convincing.
"Bring a book." It turns out to be good advice, because he draws some more blood and then spends the entire night running tests. ELISAs, he says, when she asks. He's trying to come up with something she can take that will put a dent in the nausea, but her body neutralizes foreign substances quickly and without regard for how she may feel about those substances. Good for poison, bad for pain meds, and it turns out she's particularly resistant to anti-emetics. She doubts that's a coincidence.
It takes Bruce until the following Friday, which gives Natasha more than a week of what amounts to downtime. She works out, does the occasional perimeter check, signs for deliveries, checks in on Petr and Radek, finishes the book of crossword puzzles she stole from Bruce, and tries to read a stack of legal thrillers she found in the flat. They're all terrible. She needs to go to a bookstore or something -- anything -- but she hasn't had the chance, and so now she's re-reading Bruce's guidebook to Prague. She's halfway through the Golem legend for the fifth time when Bruce makes a noise that sounds suspiciously triumphant.
"Victory?" she asks.
He looks over, his hair standing on end, two days of growth on his face like he just tumbled out of bed. It's a good look on him, if overly Stark-influenced. "I think so. Ready to find out?" His eyes are wide and wild -- satisfaction, she thinks, and worry.
"Sure." She sets the book aside and stands up. "What do I need to do?"
He holds up a tray with a neat row of syringes on it, and Natasha feels herself tense. Bruce puts it down. "Sorry, I should have said--"
"No," she says, taking a deep breath. "No, it's fine." She pauses. Her throat's dry. "What is it?"
He points as he speaks. "An anti-emetic, a triptan, an anti-inflammatory and a mild opioid. They won't do anything to your memories, it's not permanent, it's just so you won't get sick when you try to remember."
"Sounds pretty good," she says, but she stays where she is. "Then what?"
"Monitors, memories, exactly the same thing we did last week, only less horrible. If it's still awful, we'll stop. But if you don't get sick, I should be able to confirm pretty quickly that there's no physiological difference between your real memories and the implanted ones."
He runs his hands through his hair, which doesn't help its cause. "I really don't think I'll be able to tell, but you might be able to, if you can think more clearly. They might feel different, or..." He trails off with a helpless shrug. "I don't know. They might feel different."
She nods, waits, lets the silence build. Bruce speaks first. "You want to do it yourself?"
Natasha looks at him for a long second, crosses the room to sit on the exam table, shoves up her sleeve without a word.
His hands are warm. The electrodes are cold. She tries not to think about it.
"All right," he says. He ties off her arm. "Make a fist."
They don't feel different.
The cocktail isn't entirely effective -- she feels a bit queasy, and after an hour of sustained focus, the pressure starts to build at her temples and she knows she doesn't have much time left. Still, it's a far cry from last week, when she couldn't finish a thought, when she felt like someone had embedded an icepick in her skull and then kicked her in the stomach for an hour. She'll take queasy. It lets her think, gives her a chance to read her file without throwing up or blacking out --
additional doses of apomorphine during interrogation to induce vomiting and eventual sedation
-- gives her a chance to truly understand what was done to her --
electric pulses of 10 microseconds each to increase cell membrane permeability and DNA uptake
-- gives her a chance to really focus on the fact that none of the early life she remembers ever happened.
hippocampus to induce neurogenesis and simulate forgetting
"Does this mean what I think it means?" She points.
"Let's see," he says, standing over her shoulder. "Do you think it means they ran enough electricity through your body to kill an elephant, injected you with DNA genetically engineered to change the way you form and access memory, and then brainwashed you to get violently ill to the point of unconsciousness any time you think too hard?" His voice is tight by the time he gets to the end of that sentence, laden with menace, the words ground out through clenched teeth. Natasha belatedly remembers his reaction the first time she'd given him the file, all those weeks ago in his hotel room, the green eyes, the white knuckles. She thought he would have adjusted by now, but apparently not. She goes still, her hand on the gun at her back.
Bruce cuts off whatever he'd been about to say next with a harsh, choked sound, takes a few deep breaths. He turns around and says to the floor, "If so, yes." It's a nice enough try, but his voice is not back to normal.
"I'm going for a walk," she says to his back. She'd much rather deal with her own rage than with his, and she manages to say "calm down" without sounding too resentful, manages to say "I'll see you at the apartment," manages to get out the door, and then it's the middle of nowhere at three in the morning, raining. Natasha sucks in a rattling breath, tries to relax around the sudden hole at her center, tries to settle into the steady trickle of water falling from the sky. There's a cold knife-edge to the wind, and Natasha wraps her trenchcoat tighter and starts walking.
She walks for a long time, paying no real attention to where she is. She's headed downtown; that's enough. On the way there's a nature park, sprawling, dense with trees that encroach on the path, too dark for shadows. There's an abandoned mansion, crumbling stone and rotting wood, ivy eating through the windows. Then there's the city itself, the buildings of Staré Město looming and leaning close, chimneys and spires jutting up at the sky like crooked teeth. The sun comes up at some point, but stays hidden behind storm clouds piled up like heavy rocks, and it never seems to get any brighter and the rain never seems to get any heavier. Traffic picks up -- pedestrians, cars, bicycles ridden by people with somewhere to be. She's dimly aware that she's wet, she's cold, she's not thinking. It's not good.
She tries to course-correct, makes her way back to the room she rented when she first arrived in town. She's still paying for it, just in case, and she lets herself in through the skylight so she won't be seen. Home sweet home. Her wet hands slide against the edges of the sink as she tries to brace against it, staring at her drowned-raccoon reflection in the mirror. She's looked worse.
Get it together, she says, maybe out loud, maybe not. It's not like this is new information.
But she feels jittery, like all that electricity they pumped through her body stayed gathered in her spine, and now it's crackling out in fits and starts. Her hands shake and her stomach roils and her heartbeat feels erratic. She stands there, breathing and staring and coming up with agonizing ways to slowly kill everyone named in her file until she feels steady enough to move again, and then she puts on dry clothes and wraps herself in a threadbare blanket. She eyes the futon and thinks about sleeping -- she was wrung out when she started walking, and that was eight hours ago -- but instead sits on the floor until she stops shivering.
Once she pushes herself to her feet and back out the window, she means to get on the Metro and head back to the flat. Instead, she grabs a coffee from a place around the corner and starts walking again. She ends up in the Wallenstein Palace Gardens.
She doesn't really expect Bruce to be there, but still, she can't help the twinge of disappointment when his usual bench is empty. She rubs at her eyes and sits, not caring that the seat is wet; the walk here was long enough that she's drenched again. It's just a short break to rest her aching feet, and then she really will get on the Metro and go home, and "I hope you haven't been lurking behind that plant all morning," she says to Bruce.
He steps around the hedge and sits next to her, looking massively conspicuous. He's got the collar of his coat turned up against the rain, a ball cap crammed low over his dripping hair, giant sunglasses he can't possibly see out of. When he produces a too-small umbrella from his coat pocket and opens it over the both of them, Natasha almost laughs.
Instead, she stretches her legs out in front of her, crosses them at the ankles. Bruce is silent, a statue in soaked denim.
"I knew I was made. But...." She starts, stops, starts again. "That park behind the National Museum is full of junkies in the middle of the night. Drug dealers, prostitutes. It's not usually dangerous, just seedy, but I kept thinking if I went there maybe someone would try to rob me and then I could--"
"Kill them," he says, like he knows. Of course he knows.
"Yeah," he says. "Or you go to a bar, maybe there's a game on, everyone's drunk. You stand a little too close to someone, don't look away quite fast enough. Someone else throws the first punch, what are you going to do?" He shrugs helplessly, and Natasha can picture it: the leveled building, broken bodies in the parking lot.
She looks at him out of the corner of her eye. "That's pretty nasty, coming from you."
He snorts. "And picking a fight with you is a recipe for perfect health and happiness? Anyway, that was before the accident. It's been a long time."
"But you still want to."
"No." She shakes her head. "No, that's different, that's random people. Innocent, or close enough. What I don't understand is why I shouldn't track down every person named in that file and make them pay."
"Because most of them are dead already?"
"What would you do?"
He leans back and crosses his own legs, mirroring her posture, his thigh against hers. "I'm... really not qualified to sit here and moralize. I would do what I always do. Try to make decisions I think I can live with."
"And if you turn out to be wrong?"
He lifts a shoulder. "Then I try harder next time."
He considers. "Well, that and a lot of wallowing. The occasional suicide attempt." His voice is bone-dry, but the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes have deepened, the barest hint of a smile. "But other than that, yeah, that's it. And I'm pretty well-adjusted, so you should take my advice."
"Clearly," she says. But she ducks her head, hides her smile. "Let's just go home." She stands, and they make their way to the Metro station, sharing the umbrella.
At their apartment, she immediately strips out of her soaked clothes and heads for the bathroom. There's a tub with a hose attachment, which is great for masturbation but not so much for showering, and Natasha stands under the sad trickle of water and wishes she'd thought to rent a place with a real shower, with enough water pressure to ease the aches from her muscles, batter the thoughts from her brain. Even so, she stands there longer than she means to, until the smell of cinnamon and cloves wafting through the flat snaps her out of it. Curious, she kills the water, pulls on a robe, follows her nose.
Bruce is standing over the stove, stirring something with a battered wooden spoon. He changed into dry clothes, jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, but his feet are bare and he hadn't thought to dry his hair. It curls into the slowly spreading damp of his collar, and Natasha briefly wonders how it'd feel between her fingers.
She takes a deep breath -- spices, honey, fruit -- and braces herself against the wall, not bothering to fight the wave of nostalgia that crashes over her. It smells like her childhood, her fake one but maybe her real one, too, like her breath hanging frozen in the air, like the crunch of snow under her boots, like wet wool in front of a fire.
"Where'd you learn to make sbiten?"
She opens her eyes in time to see Bruce point over his shoulder at the open laptop on the table. "Google."
"Resourceful," she says, impressed he'd even known to look.
"I thought--" He glances over his shoulder and does a double-take when he notices the robe, his mouth slamming shut. Natasha looks down. She supposes she didn't close it very well, but she hadn't given it much thought -- they live together, it's a small apartment, they're not always in six layers of clothes, so what? -- but Bruce coughs, blushes, looks at his bare feet, and there's suddenly something fragile between them, an unexpected tension Natasha isn't sure what to do with. She considers simply dropping the robe and having done with it, but that would be mean. Bruce is trying to be nice.
He clears his throat and starts over. "I thought something warm would be good," he says. He is extremely focused on stirring. Natasha's mouth curls into half the smile she feels, and she scoots behind him to open the freezer.
"Needs vodka," she says, pulling out the bottle. "I think my grandmother's was almost all vodka, actually."
"Added at the end, though, right?"
"Yeah, at the end." She sets the bottle down on the counter next to him and leans over the pot, breathing deeply. She loves the smell, whatever the associations.
He slides a careful sidelong glance her way. "Your grandmother?"
"Or someone's grandmother, I guess." Natasha can picture her, though, a bent woman with gnarled hands and a crooked smile, stretching to hang the wash on lines strung through the cramped kitchen in their kommunalka. She turns and leans back against the counter.
"The Platonic ideal of Soviet grandmothers?" His tone is light, but Natasha fears for the life of the wooden spoon in his hand.
She snorts. "Hardly. She was too religious for that. Icons everywhere."
"Where was this?"
He nods, distracted, his eyes darting in trepidation to the loosening belt of Natasha's robe. It's just the one glance, and then he forces his attention back to the sbiten and stirs with renewed determination. He lasts two seconds. "Wait, Stalingrad?" He frowns in confusion. "When was this?"
"I--" The pain is an instant hammer-blow to the head the second she starts wondering about being from Stalingrad instead of Volgograd; the city was renamed two decades before she was born. She closes her eyes, sees fire. "I don't know."
She can sense him move closer and then away again, practically fluttering with the desire to help. "No, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pushed. You okay?"
She presses her thumb against her temple, curves her lips into a weak smile. "Sure."
There's a long, brittle pause. She can hear Bruce's throat as he swallows, and then he asks, "Were you close to your grandmother?" His voice is just this shade of rough.
"Close?" Natasha thinks about it. There are a thousand things she could say, starting with why are we even discussing this. But instead she looks at her undamaged feet and her voice sounds distant when she says, "She never came to see me dance. There wasn't any money, but I always felt like I could have done something to help her with a train ticket. She would've hated Moscow -- god, she would have hated Moscow -- but I think she would've liked seeing me dance."
Another pause, not so brittle. "She hurt your feelings."
It takes her a while to nod. "Yeah, well. None of that actually happened, so it's cool." She turns, smiles brightly, and pours half the bottle of vodka into the pot of sbiten.
It's good. Not quite what she remembers -- cloves instead of cardamom, she thinks, and too much jam -- but she pulls the steaming mug close to the bare skin of her chest and inhales deeply. She lets the warmth spread, the smell of it lulling her into something like calm. Bruce has stopped asking her questions about her fake grandmother, which helps. Instead, he has produced his dogeared guide to Prague and is leaning against the wall, complaining about how he's been in the city for three months and still hasn't been to a puppet show. It also helps, his dry snippiness nearly as comforting as the sbiten burning its way down her throat.
She finishes her second drink and stands to put the leftovers in the fridge, half-listening to Bruce talk about a street puppeteer in Venezuela.
"Hey," she says, and he stops talking.
"You weren't listening to any of that, were you?"
"Thank you," she says, and steps forward very slowly, gives him time to move away if he wants to. He doesn't. She leans in to kiss his cheek. It's warm, rough with stubble, and he turns such an interesting color that she leans in to kiss the other one. That's her intention, anyway, but her intentions go to hell when he turns and tilts his head, not quite meeting her mouth with his own. She can smell the honey on his breath.
"We can't." He's so close she feels it more than she hears it, his breath warm on her lips. She sighs, takes one deep breath and then another, steps back. She doesn't agree but she's not going to argue, so she's about to say okay when he says, "I'd be taking advantage."
Natasha's eyebrow springs up of its own accord. "Would you." It'd be cute if it weren't condescending.
He looks away, an awkward set to his shoulders. "It was a really long day." His eyes stay fixed on the floor. "We're both tired and--" He pauses, glances up. "And I hurt you, in the lab. I hurt you, and I made it stop."
Natasha takes another step back, recoiling, sees herself that first night in the lab, sweaty and shaking on the tile floor, her head a mess and bile in her throat, Bruce solid and professional and next to her the whole time. She sees his hands -- clenched into fists, chopping garlic, soothing her skin after he's drawn blood. "You never treated me like a child before."
His face twists, his eyes snapping to hers. "And I'm not now."
"You think I can't make this decision? You think I want to sleep with you because I have, what, Stockholm Syndrome? That doesn't even make sense."
"Well, I can't rule it out, and until I can't, we--"
"Bruce." She reaches out and puts two fingers to his lips. "Just shut up." He does, and she moves closer. "Not everything has to be ugly." She likes sex. She likes Bruce. She's tired of thinking. It doesn't have to be a problem.
He stays still and silent for a long, long time, his eyes locked on hers, and Natasha's awareness telescopes down to the tips of her fingers against his lips, the warmth of his breath on her skin, the insistent throbbing between her legs. She waits as long as she can stand it, and then waits a little longer, and still neither one of them has moved. Bruce, she knows, will never in a million years make the first move, so she does it, pushes her fingers against his mouth, the slightest pressure she can manage. He blinks a few times, slow and languorous, and then he tilts his head and licks the pad of her finger.
It's enough. Natasha grabs him by the shirt and pulls, fitting her mouth to his as she turns and steers him through the open door into the bedroom. He goes easily, his lips warm and pliant against hers as she licks into his mouth, tastes honeyed vodka and cinnamon. He's got one hand in her wet hair and the other makes short work of the robe; by the time his back hits the wall, it's long gone and he really is taking advantage, his hands skimming her naked body, kneading her ass, palming her breasts, his thumb scraping against her nipples. She tries to push closer, wants to feel his warmth on every part of her, but his clothes are in the way, rough against her skin, and she can't be bothered to do anything about it.
She turns around and drops her head back to his shoulder and Bruce surrounds her instantly, his mouth brushing over her exposed throat, one hand on her aching breasts, her drawn-tight nipples, the other hand sliding down her stomach. She sucks in her breath as his fingers thread through her pubic hair and then down, testing, but she's dripping wet and he curls two fingers inside her with no preamble.
He keeps his fingers where they are and rubs the palm of his hand against her clit as she twists against him, trying to get the pressure right, the angle, and when she finally does she clenches hard on his fingers, grinds back into his erection. He groans against her neck, a muffled strangled noise, and she reaches up to wrap his still-damp hair around her fingers, tugs his head up so she can kiss him.
"Harder," she says, his bottom lip between her teeth, and he obliges, ups the pressure, ups the pace, and Natasha gives up on the guidance and gives herself over, one hand in his hair and the other digging into his jeans-clad thigh as he fucks her with his fingers.
It doesn't take much time. He's good with his hands and Natasha wants this, wants to close her eyes and let his hands and mouth obliterate her thoughts, wants to abandon herself to his teeth on her skin and his fingers inside her as the pressure builds and builds and breaks, washing over her, leaving her breathless and spent.
Bruce's arm tightens around her as she arches against him and comes down with a shudder, his fingers moving slowly inside her until she pulls his hand away and sucks his fingers into her mouth. She turns to kiss him, pushes the salt-sweet taste of herself into his mouth and licks it out again, and then drops to her knees. Another choked-off sound, and she looks up in time to see him close his eyes and let his head fall back against the wall, the long line of his throat exposed, his tendons tight.
It takes a long time. Bruce is not someone who just relaxes and lets himself go, and Natasha finds herself caught up in it, in the stroke and squeeze of her hand on the base of his dick as her tongue flicks at the tip, circles the head, presses up against the underside. She swallows and sucks and hums; she licks at his balls and fingers his ass. She sets a rhythm and changes it, teasing, twisting, taking him apart. Through it all, Bruce writhes and gasps and has no idea what to do with his hands. They flutter to her head and away again, like he wants to grab her hair but isn't sure if it's okay, and she'd tell him to just do it if she weren't enjoying his distress. She knows he's close when he gives up, fists one hand in her hair and thrusts, shudders, does it again, again, again. She opens her throat and lets him.
When he finally looks down, his eyes are heavy-lidded, and there's a drowsy half-smile on his face. He reaches to help her to her feet, pulls her in for a long slow sloppy kiss, his hands holding her head still as he licks whatever's left of himself out of her mouth.
"Get some sleep," he murmurs against her lips, and then he pulls away, sliding his jeans up and heading for the living room.
She lets him get as far as the doorway. "Bruce," she says, and he freezes, turns his head to listen. "You don't have to sleep on the couch. It's not..." She's not sure how to tell him it's not a thing, so she tries that. "It's not a thing."
He turns back slowly, reluctance in every line of his body. "Are you going to be offended?"
"If you sleep on the couch? No. I'm just saying you don't have to."
He shifts on his feet, scratches at the back of his head. "I appreciate that," he says, and she raises an eyebrow. "No, it's just -- I don't share very well. Blankets, I steal all the blankets, I kick, I snore. It's not pretty. So can we... not?"
"Wow," she says, drawing out that o. He doesn't snore, and she knows it. He must know she knows it. "Yeah, we can definitely not." She keeps her voice flat, this side of agreeable, that side of amused.
He closes his eyes tightly and drops his head back, inhaling sharply and then exhaling in the direction of the ceiling like he has a cigarette. "Natasha, I just--" He sounds desperate. "I need some time."
She holds up her hands. "Just say that, then. Sleep where you want."
Natasha can't sleep.
It's three in the afternoon, true, but they work the night shift, and this is prime sleeping time. Natasha long ago learned to sleep whenever and wherever possible, and she's getting increasingly annoyed that she can't do it now. She's tired from walking. She's relaxed from a few drinks, an orgasm she didn't give herself. She's in a comfortable bed, a place as safe as any, but she's staring at the ceiling and then she's strapped to a chair, a needle in her arm, her eyes held open. She can feel it, the cheap vinyl sweating against her skin, the pressure on her vein, her dry eyes burning. But she doesn't know if she remembers it or only remembers reading it, and the nausea hits as soon as it occurs to her to wonder. She rolls over and punches the pillow in frustration, buries her head underneath it.
She meditates. She masturbates. She does pushups until her muscles fail. She listens to music. She does pull-ups on the door frame. She throws back a few shots of vodka in rapid succession. But every time she tries to sleep, the same thing happens -- the memories, the ghosts, the sickness, the anger.
In the living room, Bruce is sprawled on the couch in his clothes, one knee cocked up and an arm thrown over his eyes. He's not having any trouble sleeping. He hadn't even bothered to pull the pillow and blankets from the closet -- on the off chance someone breaks into the apartment, their married-couple cover has to hold. There's no spare bed, they share a dresser, there's a photo of their wedding on the wall. She glares at his sleeping form. If she liked him even a little bit less, she'd jump him, try to fuck away her problems for the next few hours. But she does like him, and while plenty of men might be happy to be used, and Natasha has used a great number of them, she doesn't suppose Bruce would be appreciative.
She goes back to pull-ups on the doorframe, its unfinished wood rough and real against her fingertips.
"Okay," Bruce says, his voice gritty with sleep. She hadn't been trying to wake him, but she hadn't been trying not to, either. "Enough. You're bleeding."
Natasha drops to the floor and looks at her hands. So she is. "You're lucky I like you," she says, licking at the scrapes, a hint of copper on her tongue.
Bruce sits up and rubs his face. He looks either terribly attractive or just terrible, days of uneven salt-and-pepper stubble on his face, bags under his eyes, his hair a riotous mess of curls, flattened on one side from the couch. He tilts his head and does not look especially grateful. "Else you'd be plotting my death?"
"Not exactly what I had in mind," she says, sucking the tip of her ring finger into her mouth.
"Jesus," he says, a careful exhale. He tugs at his ear, runs an anxious hand through his hair. "Did you sleep at all?"
He laces his fingers together and starts twisting. "And this is the mood you're in. Great."
"Oh, please. Your virtue is safe."
He snorts. "If I had any virtue left, I-- never mind."
"No, keep going. That sounded promising."
He stands up, yawning. "You know what else sounds promising? Going grocery shopping before this"--he gestures at the space between them--"gets any weirder. Is there a list?"
Natasha stares at him for several long seconds. "Shit."
"Is that a no?"
She drops into the chair and pinches the bridge of her nose. "No, there's a list, it's on the fridge. I don't mean to chase you out of here, though. I'm not myself right now." She frowns. "Not that I have any idea who that is."
"Lucky I like you, then," he says, padding into the kitchen. "Whoever you are."
Given the abysmal state of Bruce's Czech, they usually do the shopping together, but Natasha stays home and tries again to sleep. After yet another failure, she digs out her KGB file. Bruce had told her there's no physical reason she gets sick when she tries to examine her memories; it was brute-force classical conditioning. They'd prompt her, they'd dose her, and here she is; it's the Red Room's version of giving someone food poisoning from bad fish so they can't ever walk into a seafood restaurant. The cure, Bruce says, lies in simply breaking the association, to examine her memories enough times without getting sick that her body no longer revolts at the suggestion. His plan is to give her the drugs that make up his special anti-emetic cocktail and a box of syringes and leave her to it, but Natasha figures she can do it without the drugs. Now that she knows there's no reason to get sick, she doesn't see why she should get sick.
She gets sick.
On the plus side, she makes herself so sick she passes out, which kind of counts as sleep. When she wakes up, she finds a glass of water and a piece of toast on the nightstand, along with a note in Bruce's messy scrawl. "WTF," it says, followed by a sadface, and a comment that he's going out to run more errands. There's a postscript in different ink, "please don't do this again."
When she wakes up after the third time she's tried it, Bruce is sitting in the bed, cross-legged and clothed, leaning against the headboard. He's reading Life and Fate, a Russian novel about Stalingrad. It's very depressing.
"Very subtle, Banner," she grinds out. "What do you want?"
Without looking up from his book, he hands her a bottle of water. The first sip is delicious, and applying the word delicious to water means she's in bad shape. Bruce, genius that he is, has brought several bottles with him, and he hands her a second one when she finishes the first.
"It was subtle," he says, a long time later, when Natasha is halfway through bottle number three. "You didn't so much as twitch when I sat on the bed."
"Maybe I trust you," she says, but he's right. Trust or no, that's not the sort of thing she sleeps through. Ever.
He snorts. "I doubt that," he says, and the casual and complete disbelief in his tone hits her like a slap in the face.
"Thank you for the water." She rolls over. "Now go away."
He doesn't go immediately, but when he does, he takes her file with him. He leaves the water.
Natasha sleeps, sort of. She drifts in and out of consciousness, at any rate. She half-listens to Bruce as he moves around the apartment, cleaning. He reads, maybe he sleeps. He leaves, comes back. He sets something down in front of the bedroom door. "I don't know if you're up or even can hear me through the door," he says quietly. "But there's tea. I'm going to run some errands. I'll be back in a few hours. I left a note."
She gives him a few minutes to get gone, and then pulls the door open. He left her a sandwich, too, which she doesn't think she wants but eats anyway, at which point she realizes it's Sunday, and she's been living on vodka and dry toast since Thursday. No wonder she feels like shit. She makes herself another sandwich, and by the time Bruce comes home from his errands a few hours later, she's feeling well enough to be curled on the couch with a mystery novel, watching a Croatian soap opera.
"All right," Bruce says, looking between her and the television. "That's it. Get dressed, we're going out."
She stares at his back as he disappears into the kitchen. "Why?"
"Because I said so," he calls out.
Natasha raises an eyebrow and waits. He eventually appears in the doorway, a wry half-smile on his face. "No?" Natasha raises her eyebrow a little higher. "Okay, how about: Because brooding for days on end is my job, not yours, and I know how it goes. Sitting here obsessing over the past is not going to lead to anything good."
"I'm not brooding. I'm watching TV."
"Really?" He looks at the television set. "What's the show called?"
"The Real Housewives of Zagreb."
"Really," he says again, not buying it. "These housewives have names?"
"Fuck you, Banner."
He laughs. "Come on, get dressed. It'll be fun."
"All right, all right." She stands up. "Where are we going?"
They go to dinner, they drink a little too much beer, they take the long way home through the park. They take turns telling stories, and Natasha thinks at least a third of hers might have actually happened. It could be a lot worse.
By the time Petr and Radek are scheduled for another shift at the lab, it's Monday evening, and Natasha has figured out what she wants to do. She announces this to Bruce as she rummages through the fridge, looking for the yogurt.
He looks up, a wary glint in his eyes, the butter knife halfway to his toast. "What?"
For a second, she considers saying something ludicrous like have a baby, or give up on this mission and watch Breaking Bad in its entirety, or invade Asgard, but she opts for the truth. "Erase them."
"The fake memories. All the crap they put in my head about the Bolshoi, my home, my grandmother. And what'd you do with the yogurt?"
"I bought the yogurt," he says, "and then you ate it all in a day and a half. Why do you think I'm having toast?" He brandishes the butter knife. "And yeah, your plan sounds great. Let's definitely erase your entire childhood." He takes a huge bite of toast.
Natasha shuts the refrigerator door and crosses her arms. "I'm not sensing a lot of enthusiasm for this plan."
"Well," he says, chewing thoughtfully. "That's because it's insane. I thought I could smile and nod, maybe you'd come around."
"Well." She mimics his tone. "You failed to do either one of those things."
He gives her an exaggerated nod and a huge crinkly-eyed smile that looks genuine. Then he throws in a little extra, gives her a thumbs-up. "There," he says, and his cheerfulness is gone as suddenly as it had appeared. "Did you come around?"
"Was your utter sincerity supposed to convince me, or your wry charm?"
He shoots her a sideways glance that's all eyebrow, that means careful, or maybe you found me plenty charming a few days ago, but he doesn't say anything. Natasha pours herself a cup of coffee. "It wasn't my childhood," she says, and sits down across from him with a sigh. "None of it, not one single thing was real. I'm not saying we just wipe it completely, but we have the records, there are memories we know for sure they implanted. Why can't you get rid of those?"
"This is Loki-level insane, okay? I can do it, but there's no way of knowing how it might impact other memories, real memories, related memories, maybe even your skills. What happens if I erase the memory where you learn math? Or... punching? Would you still know how to do it?"
"Punching? I'll be happy to hit you and find out." A thin smile, a fluttering of eyelashes.
"You are full of fantastic ideas today."
She puts her coffee down. "I'm serious about this, Bruce."
"So am I. Look, it's your call, but I know a little about poorly thought-out laboratory experiments borne of good intentions."
Fair point. "Okay, you have a better idea?"
"I thought we could ask Loki," he says, but he can't quite keep a straight face, and Natasha looks around for something to throw at him. "Okay, okay, yeah. Pretty sure I do."
His better idea comes in parts he explains using words like "electroporation" and "transfection." They're in the lab, initial security sweeps done, phones and cameras rewired, and Natasha lies on her back on the brown pleather couch in the adjacent office, staring at the ceiling while Bruce talks and paces in front of her like he's lecturing a bunch of freshmen. Natasha feels like one of the freshmen in question; she's not paying particularly close attention, because "electroporation" sounds like he's going to run electricity through her spine and she doesn't want to think about that right now. The two KGB files don't tell him everything, he says, but he has enough of the story to know her acetylcholine is --
"Wait." She sits up. "My what?" When she'd read through her file the first time, she'd skipped most of the science and focused largely on the results. When she'd done it over the weekend and made herself sick, well, she'd been too sick to process much.
"Acetylcholine," he repeats. Natasha blinks at him and then flops back down onto the sofa with a bitter laugh. Of course. "It's a neurotransmitter associated with memory and-- okay, what's funny?"
"Son of a bitch," she says. "You know what else it does?"
"I do." He leans into her field of vision. "But nothing on the list is hilarious, so go ahead. I could use a laugh."
She plasters a big smile on her face. "Hang onto your hat then, partner, because this one's a doozy. The venom of the black widow spider is a neurotoxin that triggers the release of...?" She raises her eyebrows, leaves the sentence hanging.
"Acetylcholine," he finishes. He drops his head all the way back and looks at the ceiling. "Son of a bitch."
"That's what I said." Bruce looks at her, pinching the bridge of his nose, and she continues. "The bite's not as lethal as people think, but when it does kill you, that's how. Floods the system. Convulsions, paralysis, vomiting, death."
He puffs his cheeks out and exhales loudly. "A sticky situation."
"Spider puns, really?" She sits up and fixes him with a flat stare.
"Don't worry, I have no intention of getting tangled up in a pun war."
"Fuck you, Banner."
His grin is slow, lopsided. "Sorry," he says, tugging on his ear but not sounding sorry in the least. "I guess I did need the laugh." The smile fades and his eyes take on that distant quality Natasha recognizes as part of his Thinking Face. She's fond of it, that vertical line down the middle of his forehead, his slightly pursed lips, the way his eyes narrow and etch the laugh lines into his skin like grooves into a piece of wood. "Stop staring," he says, not looking at her. "I'm thinking."
"I like watching people do things they're good at. And anyway, I'm waiting for the bad news."
His eyes come back into focus. "What makes you think there's bad news?"
She cocks an eyebrow. "See, now you're stalling. Why's it matter, anyway? It's just a coincidence."
"I don't think so." He drops down next to her on the couch. "It suggests a level of forethought I hadn't anticipated. Before you started laughing, I was going to say ACh is associated with memory and motor function." He rubs at the back of his wrist. "And I don't mean to be disparaging, but--"
"Oh, by all means." She pitches her voice low, throaty. "Disparage me."
A cough, a sidelong glance. "You came out of the Black Widow Program. I know you train hard, but your reflexes, your reaction times, all your physical abilities... your dexterity, let's call it. I suspect it's been enhanced by this engineered acetylcholine, which just happens to be how black widows kill people." He spreads his hands, shifts his shoulders. "Marrying someone who has the same birthday as you is a coincidence. This is something else."
Even so, he doesn't change his plan, which first involves running a bunch of tests to find out if he's right. Natasha assumes he is but knows that suggesting they skip that part wouldn't be well-received, so she tries to pay attention. She really does, but he gets as far as "receptor ligand" before she reaches out to touch his mouth. His words stop, his eyes darken, his shoulders stiffen. Natasha considers telling him to say receptor again, just to feel his lips press against her fingers, but she pulls her hand away and watches him relax.
"It's not that I don't appreciate the explanation," she starts.
"But you don't care," he says.
She raises an eyebrow. "About the shots you plan to inject into my spinal column? Yeah, I definitely don't give a shit about that." Bruce has the grace to look slightly abashed. "But if I could hold up my end of the conversation you were just having, I wouldn't need you for this. Broad strokes, okay?"
He has to think for a bit, but he manages to boil it down to creating an antibody to force her ACh receptors to ignore the modifications to the ACh itself. He thinks it'll take a few weeks. If that works, if he can get her receptors to respond only to the original, normal-person parts of her acetylcholine, she should be able regain access to her memories. When the antibody wears off and her receptors start responding to the enhancements again, they can start talking about something more permanent. For that, Bruce isn't sure if he'll have to force her brain to produce normal ACh, normal ACh receptors, or both, but regardless, he's careful to avoid words like "neuroengineering." Still, it's clear that's what they're talking about.
Months, he thinks, for that part. At minimum. It would go faster in New York, where he has his own lab and Jarvis for an assistant, where he can stay for more than six hours at a time without having to hide what he's been working on. It's tempting, but Natasha isn't ready to go back. Not enough has changed. Bruce agrees without protest, as if he's perfectly happy to remain in Prague for the foreseeable future, living in the panelák with her under a fake name and breaking into a Hydra lab every night to play mad scientist.
Natasha is about to ask him what he wants, why he'd agree to put his life on hold for this, when he says slowly, "Just so you know, there's a man, an Army general -- well, I'm sure you already know. General Ross. I think he and Fury had some kind of deal, but now that Fury's dead there's a chance Ross might come after me. Again."
Fury isn't dead, she thinks about saying, or Ross has already started. "Okay," is what she says. "Is this what you wanted help with, when you first got to Prague?"
His eyes shift away as he shakes his head. "No, I-- I, um. I was lying, I'm sorry. I just thought you'd be more likely to ask for my help if you thought I needed yours." He ducks his head and looks up through his eyelashes, his face pushed into a guilty smile. "And I thought you needed my help."
Natasha raises an eyebrow; he's lying about lying. Interesting. "I did. I still do. But if I need help, I ask for help." A twist of her lips. "Or I acquire it. The other way's a good way to get dead."
"Sorry," he says again, still sheepish, missing the fact that Natasha just called him an idiot.
"Lies happen." She shrugs. "Tell me more about Ross."
"There's not much to tell. If he comes after me again, I'll need to leave or go into hiding for a while." A brief hesitation, a shy glance. "We can agree on a rendezvous point and pick up the work later, or... or you could come. If you wanted."
"Why, Bruce Banner." She puts a little Texas twang in her voice, puts her hand over her heart. "Did you just ask me to run away with you?"
He sends an aggrieved look to the ceiling. "Something like that."
"You know, you're kind of cute when you're flustered."
He squeezes his eyes shut, the picture of a man in pain. "Please."
"All right, all right. If Ross shows up or sends someone, I'll deal with it, okay?" She waits for him to look at her, and when he does, she says, "He won't get near you again." She doesn't make any promises -- that didn't go very well for them the last time she'd done it -- but she looks him in the eye and means what she says.
She sees a flash of deep self-loathing that's gone so fast she thinks she made it up, and then he turns his head away. "And now that that's settled, can we agree on a plan before we both die of old age?"
"Old age?" She nearly laughs. "Never going to happen."
"Good, then you see the urgency."
"Okay, but what's left to agree on? You'll work on the antibody, I'll work on de-conditioning myself." His eyes narrow, and she holds up her hands. "Your way." His look shifts to skeptical, but he nods, looks down. His hands start twisting, and Natasha's stomach twists with them. "Right, the bad news. Just hit me with it."
He hesitates for a few seconds, but then he does just that. "I think you should prepare yourself to make a choice."
"A choice," she repeats, thinking through what she knows, what he's told her so far. "You mean my memory or my dexterity."
"It's far too early to be certain," he says, a rush of caveats, an attempt to be comforting. "I haven't run any tests. I don't know what I'm going to be able to do. There are so many more questions than answers that I feel irresponsible for even bringing it up. But it's you, and I--" He breaks off and looks at the ceiling, his fingers laced so tightly together they're turning colors. Natasha's still staring, not seeing much of anything. "I just think there's a good chance that if you stop responding to the enhanced ACh entirely, it will restore both your memory and your dexterity."
"And by 'restore,' you mean 'significantly degrade.'"
"Yes. But like I said, I don't know anything yet, and even if I'm right, I might be able to come up with a different solution. ACh has two receptors, maybe I can engineer something that only works on the memory part, I don't know. It is much, much too early to start worrying."
"I'm not worried," she says. She can see it play out in front of her like someone's slipped her the file: Bruce will try to restore her memories and leave the rest alone, he won't be able to do it, she'll have to make a decision, and Bruce will feel so guilty he does something stupid. It all sounds fantastic. She stands up, a thin smile on her face. "How do I give you an acetylcholine sample, anyway?"
Bruce grimaces, apologetic, anxious. "I need to do a spinal tap."
"My favorite." She yanks her shirt over her head, tosses it to him, and heads into the exam room.
The week passes, another, another. They don't fall into enough of a routine for Natasha to get uncomfortable, but it's enough of one to keep anyone from getting suspicious, and they work in the lab whenever Petr and Radek are scheduled for a security shift. Natasha de-conditions herself easily enough once she's not being stupid about it, and it's a relief to be able to think about whatever she wants to think about, whenever she wants to think about it. It's also infuriating, for freedom of thought to be new, and it's disconcerting, to see how thin the threads are that hold her life together. She has memories she's too young for, scars she can't explain and others that are missing, and now that she can think about her life before the Red Room, none of it makes any sense. She's not particularly interested in ignorance or bliss, but sometimes she could use a break.
She doesn't expect to find it in the lab, but progress is slow, and while Bruce is working, Natasha begins a sabotage campaign. Hydra is doing their own neurological research, although there's no end goal that she or Bruce can identify; they seem to be mostly interested in science for its own sake. As far as Natasha's concerned, though, Hydra knows quite enough already, and so she changes the labels on their vials, moves their stuff around, screws with the weights of their samples, deletes their emails, and changes the temperature of the incubators. Then she watches the daytime security footage like it's a soap opera. It's a pretty good one, she thinks, watching as they descend into paranoia and anger and leave passive-aggressive notes on the communal fridge. It makes it a lot easier for her and Bruce to hide their presence, and anyway, it's fun.
Bruce remains optimistic he'll be able to figure out the memory problem without slowing her down. He orders a bunch of mice and rabbits. Natasha, far less optimistic, orders a training dummy and tries to stay out of his way. She uses the time to keep up -- on Petr and Radek, to make sure they're still vacationing happily; on SHIELD, and how Coulson's doing in his new job; on Thunderbolt Ross, who's closing back in on Bruce despite her countermeasures; on Hydra agents active in central Europe.
The fact that she's still alive has never been the most closely guarded of secrets in the intelligence community, of course, but it's all closed-door whispers and coded messages, meaningful glances and resounding silences. It's easy to get sucked back in occasionally, the Hydra cell in Vienna just a quick day trip to clean up. She gets on the train in the morning and is back before dinner. No muss, no fuss, and at least it keeps her sharp. It's not like she's going to join a gym. She runs, of course, through the park, up and down the stairs of their apartment building. She does bodyweight exercises, she keeps some weights in the flat, she talks Bruce into doing yoga. Bruce spends his weekends at museums, on long hikes through the countryside, and she knows he's trying to learn Czech, although he hasn't said so and she hasn't asked.
When they're together, they bicker about which movies to watch but rarely get around to watching any. Instead, they discuss depressing Russian novels. Bruce had picked up some Tolstoy as a joke, he says, a cover; he assumed she'd be watching and wanted her to know he knew, but then he got sucked in and somehow Natasha got stuck with it, too. He'd come home one day with a whiteboard and some Gogol in the original Russian, and Natasha had listened in increasing bemusement as he complained about translations. She'd snatched the Russian copy away from him 15 minutes into his rant and his smile had been so wide and mischievous that she'd wanted to see it again. So now he brings books home and Natasha reads along for the first time or the second or the fifth, sifting through her memory for other Natashas and laughing at his whiteboard character charts.
They take turns cooking increasingly elaborate meals. Bruce is a much better cook than she is; Natasha is exactly good enough at cooking to pretend she knows how to cook, but she gets better. They go on day trips as a couple, their shoulders bumping as they walk through the grounds of every castle in Bohemia, his hand at the small of her back as they weave their way through restaurants to share a bottle of wine. At home, they mostly keep their hands to themselves, if not their eyes, and even though Natasha sleeps on the couch when it's her turn, Bruce leaves the bedroom door open.
And then they're walking home one Thursday morning and there's an unfamiliar van in the parking lot. There's nothing particularly suspicious about it, but that in and of itself is suspicious, and anyone sitting in that van has line-of-sight on their living room.
Bruce doesn't see it, but he doesn't ask any questions when she leads him in a side door and up the back stairs, her hand hovering close to her gun. They don't run into anyone and there's no sign of anyone having been there who doesn't belong, but she makes Bruce wait in the stairwell while she clears the apartment. She doesn't like leaving him there, but there aren't a lot of options, and if the shit really hits the fan, well. Bruce can take care of himself.
Inside, she puts a hand to her lips for silence and keeps Bruce in the entrance hall, the only place in the flat with no windows. She moves through the apartment, checking for bugs, for signs anyone else has been inside. There's nothing. She takes another pass, pulls on a hoodie, shoves her hair up under a hat, grabs a pair of sunglasses, her second gun, a few bracelets, an American ID. When she's ready, she pushes Bruce into the bathroom in front of her. There's barely room for one person to stand up in there, let alone two, so he sits on the side of the tub, his legs on either side of hers. Natasha hits the frequency jammer but doesn't bother with the white-noise generator, turns on the water instead.
"This may be nothing," she says, before he can ask her what's going on. She talks fast, changing her makeup as she does it. "I'm going to go find out. If I'm not back here in ten minutes, go downstairs, knock on the door of 3B and tell the old Russian woman who lives there that your name is Dmitri and that you're very sorry, you need to borrow 100 grams of sugar. She'll bring you a cup or something that'll have a key on the bottom. It opens the bank of mailboxes in the lobby. The damaged one, 7R, has a false back. You'll need to mess with it, but you can manage, maybe take a screwdriver with you. There's a compartment with a cell phone and another key. The code for the phone is 45410 and the key is for a car parked in the garage of the shopping center up the street. Level three, southwest corner, a blue Škoda that looks like it's been there since the Wall came down. With me so far?"
Bruce's eyebrows have been steadily climbing up his forehead. "Yeaaaaaah, but--"
"No time. Make sure you're not followed, get the car, turn on the phone, drive around for a while. Do not do anything stupid, do not get pulled over. If you don't hear from me in two hours, use the phone to trace my location, and come get me." She pauses, swallows. "If you have to come for me, bring your med kit."
"Why don't I just come with you?"
"No." She double-checks her first Glock, then her second.
"No." She grabs a handful of his hair and tugs, leans over to kiss him. He's surprised for a split-second and then he's standing, his body bending into hers, his hands and mouth frantic as he arches her back over the sink, the porcelain digging into her spine. She wraps a leg around his to hold him still, settles his hips between her legs even as she gets a hand on his throat and squeezes, pushes, pulls away.
He shudders, his eyes closed. "Na--"
She stops him by biting gently at his bottom lip, dragging her tongue across it. "Now I hope it's nothing."
He swallows, his throat working under her hand. "But it's not."
"No," she says, tracing her fingers down the line of his jaw, his neck. "But I'll see you soon enough." She untangles herself from his body, puts on the sunglasses, and is gone before he can say anything else.
She's right about the van.
It's a two-man surveillance team, a driver and one guy in the back.
She knocks on the back door, and when it opens, she smiles brightly and punches the guy in the face.
"What the fuck is this?" German male, probably from the south, mid-40s, maybe older. Deep voice, probably tall. She assumes he's the leader of this operation. He brings the count to three.
The guy carrying her dumps her body on the hardwood floor of what she thinks is a farmhouse, maybe a cabin. There hadn't been a lot of hills on the drive, so she's pretty sure they went north, 25 klicks, maybe 30. They drove long enough for the blood seeping from her head wound to have slowed to a trickle, but not long enough for much of it to have dried.
"Babysitter," her escort says. "We think. American ID, Angela Edwards."
"The babysitter, you think. Is she dead? Unconscious?" Silence, and then cautious footsteps. Boots. "That's a lot of blood." Two fingers on her neck, and then her hand is lifted, dropped. She lets it hit her in the face. "Okay. Someone explain."
Both men from the van start talking at the same time, but eventually the one she punched in the face takes over the story. She broke his nose; he's difficult to understand. "We couldn't just fucking kill her right there, could we? And nobody said nothing about a bodyguard, single boring guy he's supposed to be, easy mark once we find him. We can bury her out back if we have to but I thought we should check with the boss first, American ID and all."
An exasperated sigh. "The first day, and you get made by some bitch. He will not be happy." Resignation, impatience.
He tells the goons to shut up and let him think, and he paces the room, the sound of his footsteps giving Natasha a pretty good idea of its size. It's decently large, seven meters from end-to-end, maybe, not much furniture to get in his way. She had been nursing a vague hope that they'd sit around discussing the exact parameters of their mission while she pretended to be out cold, but that doesn't seem to be on the table. She groans, starts moving.
"Right, get something to tie her up."
She tries to open her eyes and push herself up to a sitting position, but she doesn't do a great job. Her left eye is crusty with blood, and her head really does hurt, a throbbing pain down the left side of her face. She swipes at her eyes with the back of her wrist, groggy, and then the two goons lift her up by her arms and drag her to a chair. She didn't put up much of a fight in the van, and her current struggles are half-hearted at best, and the goons do a thoroughly mediocre job of tying her to the chair once she slumps into it.
By the time she sits up and opens her eyes for real, she has a catalog of the room and its exits, anything in it that can be used for a weapon. Closest is a mug of coffee -- steaming liquid in the eyes, shattered ceramic to the temple, maybe the jagged edge of a broken handle. Farthest and least useful is a sniper rifle, still in its crate, a PSG1. German, semi-auto. If she had to guess, she'd guess it belongs to the man in front of her, too tall and stick-thin, maybe 80 kilos soaking wet. Not much of a fighter but he likes his guns; she counts three she's supposed to see and two more she's not. Just the one knife, rarely used. Clean shaven, recent buzz cut, obviously former military. He's not too happy to have his plans interrupted, but he's staying calm. He also doesn't recognize her -- the makeup, maybe, or the blood on her face. Whatever the reason, she'll take it.
"Who are you?" she asks in English, a tremor in her voice. "What are you going to do to me?" She cranes her neck, trying to see the two goons standing just behind her chair, one on either side. "Please, I-- I have money." Imploring.
The goon on the left -- the one whose nose she broke -- steps forward and hits her, a backhand across the face that snaps her head to the right in a jarring flash of pain. "Ow," she says, annoyed, her head down, her hair in her face. She's almost got her hands free.
She spits out a mouthful of blood. "It's just a job," she says, eyeing the leader. "I could-- hey, maybe I could help you. It hasn't been that long, has it, I could just go back and tell him everything's fine, it was nothing."
The guy stops pacing and looks at her. His face is blank but he's interested, a small twitch in the corner of his eye, a tightness near his mouth. She leans forward, pitches her voice low, flicks sideways glances at the goons before meeting his eyes again. "You don't need these guys. I can tell you his schedule, get him out in the open for you, no problem."
"Shut the fuck up." The guy on the right this time, the driver. He grabs a fistful of her hair and yanks, which is more irritating than anything else; at least it's not the side of her head that's still leaking blood. She cringes, but then the leader goes for his sidearm, points it at the goon's head. Not blindingly fast on the draw, but she supposes he doesn't have to be.
"Let her talk," he says. He looks at her, raises his eyebrows, gestures with the pistol.
"Yeah," she says, nodding. Eager. Almost desperate. "Yeah, please, it's no problem, I can get him out in the open, somewhere with good sightlines, not a lot of other people--"
The corners of his mouth go lax, and that's when she knows: The job isn't to kill Bruce, it's to bring out the Hulk where there are, in fact, a lot of other people. She guesses using him to kill a bunch of civilians to make some kind of point just isn't going out of style any time soon.
She shakes her head and sighs. "You know, actually, I think I'm going to have to rescind that offer. But thank you, gentlemen, you've been a great help."
"What?" He looks at her like she's grown a second head.
Natasha smiles, and stands up.
"Have a seat." Natasha uses the guy's sidearm to gesture at the dining table. He glares, a stubborn set to his jaw, but starts moving when she raises an eyebrow.
"It's just a job," he says, sullen. "Like you said."
Natasha stares him into the chair, nods at the laptop on the table. "Make the call."
There are a few seconds of hesitation, but he opens the computer and hits a few keys. Natasha steps behind him, around the bodies of the two goons, but stays out of the camera's field of vision. The laptop screen is black, the word RINGING scrolling across the window in red block letters. From the speakers, the tinny sound of a phone.
Natasha hears a car pull up outside, a door opening and closing, footsteps on gravel. The guy hears it, too, glances over his shoulder to the doorway with a desperate hope in his eyes that tells her he's not expecting anyone, which means it's probably Bruce. "Eyes front," she snaps, but she doesn't like it, either. Bruce wasn't supposed to come unless he didn't hear from her; if this isn't over when he walks in, there could be problems. There could be large, green problems.
The window on the screen is still scrolling -- RINGING -- RINGING -- and then there's a click, and General Ross' face resolves into focus as the camera comes online. "Schmidt. Is it done?" Ross barks, no preamble. "I don't see anything on the news."
The front door of the farmhouse opens.
"Not exactly, sir," the guy -- Schmidt -- says. Natasha hurries him along with the gun. "There's been a complication."
Three seconds of silence. "What kind of complication?"
"That would be me." Natasha moves into the camera's field of vision and leans down, gets cheek-to-cheek with Schmidt, her blood smearing all over his face. She presses the gun to the underside of his chin, and when he twists and strains away, she wraps her free arm around his shoulders, lays her hand across his sweaty forehead. "Ssshhh."
The door of the farmhouse closes.
Natasha looks at the laptop. She sees Ross in the main video feed, staring and stoic; sees herself in the other feed, fully half her face covered in blood. It streams from her hairline in thick rivulets, soaks into her hoodie, stains the collar of her shirt underneath. Next to her, Schmidt, scared and sweating. They make quite the picture.
"You know who I am?" she asks.
"I heard you were dead," he says. It's answer enough.
"You had a deal with Nick Fury."
"Heard he was dead, too, and given what you did to SHIELD, if you think you're authorized to make deals on their behalf--"
"I'm sorry, General." She interrupts him with a contrite smile. "I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding." There are footsteps in the entry, moving closer. "This has nothing to do with SHIELD. Your new deal is with me, and here it is: You come after Bruce Banner again, and I come after you."
She pulls the trigger.
"So," Bruce says, surveying the scene, rubbing hard at his wrist. "You seem to have this pretty well under control."
Natasha straightens and turns to face him. Behind her, whatever's left of Schmidt slides to the floor. She safeties his gun and puts it on the table, starts looking around for her own. The driver had them both, and she takes them off his body, puts them back where they belong. "I said to wait two hours to hear from me."
Bruce tears his eyes from the blood on her face, looks at the dead bodies, the closed laptop. "You want to tell me who that was?"
"You know who that was."
"Humor me," he says, and takes a step into the room. Natasha stills. Even from three meters away, she can see the rapid rise and fall of his chest, feels her own breath shift to match his.
"It was General Ross."
"Oh, so you do know how to tell the truth."
"And what," she says, "you think it's going to set us free? Don't be naïve."
"Naïve," he spits out. "Sophisticate me, then. How long have you known?" Another step. She can't see his eyes, but it's impossible to miss the tension in his shoulders, the snarl on his face. Her palms start itching, aching for her gun, but she keeps her hands where they are, keeps talking.
"Known that Ross was after you?" She tries to think back. "Years. I was in New York. I--"
"NO!" There's more than a little Hulk in his voice, a low bass vibration, and Natasha jerks back, gun in her hand before she can think about it. She tries to breathe, tries to point her weapon at the floor, but Bruce takes a few more steps into the room and the gun rises as he does it. She gets a good long look at his too-green eyes, but he reins it in, lurches back, attaches himself to the doorframe like a limpet. "No," he says again, his voice no longer a roar, but still not his own. "You had this all set up. The keys, the car. You knew this was going to happen, knew Ross would make a move. And you didn't see fit to share that information with me?"
"Planning for the future is not the same as predicting it," she says, gun back at low ready but irritation fraying the edges of her voice. She doesn't see why this concept is so difficult for people to grasp. "You told me he might come. I took precautions."
"A burglar alarm is a precaution, Natasha. Fake mailboxes and stolen cars constitute a plan."
She spreads her arms wide and stands in front of him, tries to will him into actually seeing her, dripping blood, bristling weapons, dead bodies behind her. "Who do you think I am?" she asks, carving the words out of ice. "Do you really think I can afford to distinguish between plans and precautions? Or paranoid fantasies?" It's not like it had been a particularly difficult day for her. The only thing noteworthy about it is standing in front of her, green-eyed and snarling.
"But okay," she says, holstering her gun, opening her hands. "Okay, let's call it a precautionary plan. I told you he wouldn't come near you again. He won't. What's the problem?"
He looks down, and Natasha can see his jaw grinding, his fingertips digging into the wall.
"Maybe you should go outside," she says, and to her surprise, he does.
Natasha lets out a long gust of breath and looks around, tries to assess the situation. She pulls up the hem of her shirt and wipes her face. Blood loss, moderate. Dead bodies to deal with, three. Bruce Banner, pissed off. Outstanding questions, several: How did Ross find us? Is he stupid enough to try again? Why is Bruce so angry?
She needs some water. There are almost certainly a few bottles around somewhere, but she doesn't move. She feels stuck, her breath shallow, her muscles tense and coiled and barely restrained as she waits for the Hulk's roar to rip through the countryside, waits for him to take the roof off the building. She considers looking for a root cellar, or maybe a bomb shelter, but instead she sucks in a ragged breath and goes outside to look for Bruce.
He's sitting on the steps of a stone slab, the ruins of a well behind him. He's pulled his knees to his chest and has his head down, his arms wrapped hard around his legs.
"Hey," she says, her voice not quite steady. Almost, though. His head lifts fractionally. She tries again. "Can I trouble you for a band-aid?"
She can see the sigh in the line of his back. "Come sit," he says. He shifts on the stairs and turns away, rummaging in his medical bag to keep her from seeing his face. She sits between his feet, one step down, and then he's snapping on a pair of gloves and running his hands over her scalp, gentle pressure, a quick assessment. He makes a noise, more Hulk than Bruce, but his voice is soft and steady when he asks, "Did you lose consciousness?"
"What hit you?"
"An HK USP."
"I assume that's a gun? Turn sideways," he says, and she does, drapes an arm over his leg, tilts her head to give him better access to the cut, a few centimeters above her ear. He brushes the matted hair out of her face. "You're lucky it wasn't an inch lower," he says, fingers soft against her temple. "Probably would have cracked the skull. And what if I had waited another hour?"
She wants to tell him it wasn't luck, wants to say she's more than capable of dressing her own wounds, especially minor ones, thanks very much, but he hits her with the iodine and all she can do is hiss in pain. "Sorry," he mutters, and she drops her forehead to his thigh with a groan as the burn of it washes over her, a searing, shivering thing. "It's a lot of blood, but only because it's your scalp. Do you want me to close it? You'd be fine with a bandage for a little while, until we get... where are we even going? I assume you have a secret hideout all ready and waiting?"
We, she hears him say, no hesitation over the word, no question that he'd be welcome in her secret hideout. He would be, she thinks, maybe. Probably. Circumstances permitting.
"No secret hideout," she says, and doesn't mention the safehouses, but when she says, "We can go back to the apartment," there's no hesitation from her, either. "I don't think Ross will try again. But go ahead and close me up." They're going to be here a while cleaning, and she just wants it done. "My arm, too." She lifts her right arm to show him the gash that splits it, courtesy of a knife someone had pulled after she'd untied herself. The driver, she thinks, but mostly she remembers the shock of the blow rattling up her arm.
"Staples okay? I have sutures if not."
"They're fine," she says. They're faster. They don't hurt as much. He won't have to shave part of her head. "The Frankenstein look is all the rage in Milan."
More rummaging through his bag, his hands on her head, her hair catching and pulling occasionally against the nitrile gloves as he sinks that first staple into her skin, a quick pinch and done. Two more go in before he speaks. "You said you were in New York."
"Fury sent me to Grayburn to pull you out before Ross got to you, but I didn't make it in time. I guess I thought I owed him one."
"So you murdered his guys?"
Natasha waits for the next staple. "If you want to call it that, okay, but I'm not making plans to cry about it. They knew the risks when they signed up. They were going to put a few bullets in your chest and bring the other guy out to play in the middle of a civilian population."
His hand twitches in her hair. "Why?"
"If he can prove you're a threat, he can get official authorization to contain you." She runs a finger along the groove under his kneecap. "Most people right now don't see you as any more dangerous than Stark."
"Most people are not very smart," he says. She can't argue with that. Another staple.
"So are you pissed because I killed them, or because you didn't get to?"
"Neither. I'm... I'm not a control freak, Natasha. Last one."
She slides a disbelieving look his way, but he's focused on the final staple, and then on smearing antiseptic over her scalp. "Your hair is disgusting," he says, his hands still in it, a few matted clumps stuck to his bloody gloves. "You're going to have to wash it before I can bandage this. Turn around, let's see the arm."
He jostles her with his legs and she shifts to face front, her arms propped up on his thighs, her hands loose over his knees. He slowly peels back her sleeve, makes one of those soft Hulk noises in his throat. Natasha holds still and waits, but he doesn't say anything. She thinks she can feel him breathing behind her. "Are you going to finish telling me about how you're not a control freak, even though you really, really are?"
"Not like you," he says. "You have to control everything around you. I just worry about myself." She doesn't have to be looking at him to see the wry slant of his lips, and she doesn't disagree with him, but she's not sure where he's going with this. She's saved from having to come up with a response when he mutters a warning under his breath and then pours on the iodine. She gasps with the pain of it, that bright clean burn, and she wants to hit him but she just pushes back into his chest and clenches her hand on his knee so hard he starts to squirm. All things being equal, Natasha would rather be shot.
"I know you're always going to have your secrets," he says, when she can breathe normally again, when she's leaning forward, when she's let go of his knee. "And that's fine. Trust me, don't trust me, it's--"
"Wait, you think I don't trust you?" It isn't often that people surprise her, but she has no idea what to do with that. She lapses into heavy sarcasm. "What gave you that impression, I wonder. Was it the many needles I've let you stick in my arm?" Bruce sighs, and lays the first staple into her skin. "Should we have gone with sutures? Would that have helped? I'm letting you experiment on my brain," she says, still incredulous. "Plus I sleep with you, and I am not talking about sex."
"Yeah, me and how many guns? Two, three?"
"You spit out bullets and think that's about you?" She tries to turn around so she can look at him. "Bruce--"
"Stop." Another two staples in quick succession and she stills, settles for glaring at him over her shoulder. He's too focused on what he's doing to notice, and another two staples are in her arm before he starts talking again. "I know you trust me -- in some ways. And in other ways you never will. That's fine, that's who you are, that's not the issue. I don't trust me, either."
Natasha would very much like him to tell her what the issue is, then, but if she keeps interrupting him it's never going to happen. So she watches him working on her arm instead, the slowing trickle of blood leaking from the wound, the click and pinch of the stapler, a precisely measured row of stainless steel bars appearing in her skin. She genuinely does prefer staples to stitches, but stitches have always seemed more human. Messy, ugly, time-consuming, hand-made, absorbed back into the body. Staples, on the other hand -- if she stares at them too much she starts feeling like one of Stark's robots, like a weapon built and nailed together, and she's destroyed her world several times over to get away from that particular feeling. She's pretty sure she's a few weeks away from doing it again.
She's in the middle of wondering what Bruce would say if she asked him to take the staples out and start over with stitches, when he says, "Ross is my problem. This is my life. And you didn't give me a choice about what to do. Maybe it would have been this, three bodies and a skin stapler, I don't know." He stops with a heavy sigh. A squeeze, a pinch, a click. His voice is quiet. "I haven't had a surfeit of choices in my life these past few years, Natasha. And I thought... you, of all people, you could understand what that's like."
Natasha's irritation drains away. She hadn't realized that's how he'd interpret it.
"Last one," he says, before she can say anything. He puts in the final staple and smears her arm with antiseptic, covers the whole thing with a bandage. "Look, I know how important this project is to you. I know you want to stay here and finish it, and they were in the way. I get it. But you need to let me make my own decisions about my own life or this is never going to work."
"This?" She turns to look at him.
"This," he says, and kisses her.
Friday, the middle of the night, or what passes for night in their inverted lives. So Saturday, probably 2 pm, not that she can tell though the heavy curtains. She considers checking the clock but doesn't bother; she'd much rather arch her naked body against Bruce's, slide a thigh between his until--
"Mmmm," she says, but she knows that tone. She props her chin on his chest and looks up. "So are you finally going to tell me what's on your mind?"
He shifts underneath her, his hand sweeping down her side, settling on the curve of her hip. "If only you were less distracting."
"I know," she says. "I feel pretty bad about that."
"No, you don't."
"No." She nips at the stubbled line of his jaw. "I don't."
He shifts again, still silent, and she moves to her forearms. "Just tell me," she says. "You've known for a week. It's time."
"How did you-- never mind, I don't need another terrifying assessment of my facial expressions."
She smiles, not that he can see her. "I was just trying to help. Don't tell me you're still mad about that."
"When you make me angry, Natasha, you'll know." The usual dry self-deprecation in his voice has been largely replaced by exhaustion. It's a short list of developments in the lab that are capable of putting that miserable look on his face, and he hasn't been sleeping. She'd been planning to give it another week and then force the issue, but if he's ready now, she'd just as soon get it over with.
"Oh, another hilarious Hulk joke," she says. "You know how I feel about those." She pulls away and sits up, facing him, but doesn't reach for the light. She prefers to see the person she's talking to because it gives her more to work with, but Bruce would rather to do his talking in the dark; some nights, he even approaches talkative.
"Remind me if you like them more or less than spider puns."
She groans. "Ugh, okay, now we're both stalling."
He sits up with a sigh, pulls the sheet up over his hips. "I finished the antibody," he says, after a few more long seconds of hand-wringing. It sounds like it should be good news, but his tone says otherwise, and Natasha waits for the rest. "So whenever you want, we can try it. It should prevent your system from responding to the ACh modifications."
"But I don't want you to stop responding to all the ACh modifications," he says, the petulance in his voice verging on real anger. "I want you to stop responding to the memory modifications and keep responding to the rest so you can still-- I just. I haven't been able to do it."
She expects to feel something, a punch to the stomach before she was ready, a queasiness, a shortness of breath. She doesn't. "It's fine," she says, her voice flat. It's fine. She knew this was coming. He'd warned her, weeks ago: Prepare yourself to make a choice. Even so, when Bruce reaches for her, she flinches from his touch. He pulls his hand back to his knee.
"I'm sorry," he says, his head bent, and it's the wave of guilt and self-hatred in his voice that she finally feels as it crashes over both of them. There it is, the twist through her guts, the stab to her kidneys.
She manages, barely, not to hurl herself out of bed. She thinks she even manages normal, standing up, turning the lights on, getting dressed. "I'm going for a run," she says.
Bruce nods, sitting cross-legged with the sheets pooled in his lap, staring at his hands. He won't look at her. She stops in the doorway, her back to the room, and tries to think of something to say to him. All she feels is empty.
When she comes back two hours later, he's gone.
The weekend passes, and she doesn't hear from Bruce. She could find him, she knows, and she seriously considers going after him, talking him into coming back, finishing the job. She's anxious to try life as a normal person, with functional memories and non-enhanced reflexes. It is, maybe, not the outcome she'd anticipated, but it's one she can accept. She wasn't trained for gods and monsters, she's sick to death of other people's bullshit, and she didn't think she'd been looking for an excuse, but maybe this is it. Bruce talks about her DNA, and all she wants to do is put her hands on it, sort through it all and pile up the pieces she knows to be her own, shape them into something she can live with.
Monday comes and goes, and Natasha starts to wonder. Petr and Radek have the day off, and so do Bruce and Natasha, but she doesn't know if Bruce knows that and is taking as much time as he can, or if this is his way of telling her he's finished. He didn't take anything with him when he left, but then again, Natasha wouldn't have taken anything with her, either.
He comes back Tuesday night, maybe half an hour before they usually leave for the lab. He looks haggard and broken-down, his skin a few shades off and stretched oddly over his bones, his clothes faded and too big, made for someone else's body.
"I don't want to talk about it," he says, hoarse, and Natasha watches him over the rim of her coffee mug and doesn't say a word. He strips down and showers without looking at her or saying anything else, but when he finishes he comes straight to her, buries his hands in her hair and kisses her, long and deep and so full of regret it drives the taste of coffee from her mouth.
Natasha refuses to answer. She's already answered this question at least five times, and she gets more sure every time he asks.
Bruce nods, his jaw tight. Natasha curls on her side, draws up her knees, exposes her spine. A betadine pad. A needle, another needle. A catheter into the back of her right hand.
"Count back from ten," he says, and she makes it all the way to five.
The first thing she sees when she wakes up is Bruce, sagged against a stool near the exam table, arms crossed tight, bloodshot eyes intent on the monitors. She moves her foot to let him know she's awake, and when he looks at her, his eyes are flooded with loathing, bottomless and terrible. He blinks and it's gone, his face carefully schooled into that look of personal concern and professional curiosity, but she knows what she saw. He hates this.
"You could have said no," she says, eventually.
A hint of bitterness hovers at the corner of his mouth. "You'd have persuaded me."
"I'd have tried," she says slowly, sitting up. "I'm not sure it's fair to hate me for that. You seemed to be enjoying yourself until--" She stops.
"Yeah." His voice is soft and grinding, like he can't bear the sound of it. "Until."
The silence thickens into a solid thing between them, and then she's had enough. "Until what? Just say it."
He makes a noise like she's pulled out his insides with an alligator hook. "Okay," he says, the words spilling out of him. "Okay, let's set aside the questionable science for a minute and, I mean, if by some miracle I don't kill you, what if this actually works? What are you going to do, go teach pilates?"
"I don't know," she says, not sure why he thinks un-enhanced humans don't do intelligence work. It's all so ludicrously hypothetical. She considers pilates. "I'd be pretty good at that job."
He throws up his hands. "You'd be terrible at that job! You'd hate it every second. You'd be bored and miserable and I would--" He slams his mouth shut and looks away, but not fast enough.
"Ohhh," she says, tilting her head. "And you would miss me."
"I--" He scrapes a thumbnail across his eyebrow. "I would."
She thinks about that. "You could come with me. Assistant pilates instructor. We'll rent a studio in a strip mall in Nebraska."
"One of those indoor rock-climbing places would be better," he says. "We could name it--"
The smile he gives her is too weighed down to be anything but melancholy. "I couldn't come with you," he says softly. He reaches out, runs his fingers along the shining pink skin of the scar on her arm, a reminder of the last time someone had come for him and she'd put herself in the way. "It's bad enough already."
Natasha folds her hands in her lap, because there's no point in arguing. He thinks he'll try to kill her one day, and he's probably right, and that's that. He risks it now only because she can protect them both. "You're a miserable bastard, you know that?"
"I've heard the rumor, yeah." His smile softens at the edges, and he changes the subject. "How do you feel? Your vitals look good."
Natasha runs through the list. She's already sitting up, so it can't be that bad. She has feeling in all of her limbs. She can move all her moveable parts. She doesn't itch or ache or hurt. She doesn't want to throw up. She's not bleeding. "Fine," she reports. "Exactly the same." Bruce watches the monitors for a while longer, and then unhooks her from the machines and takes her home.
Her memory doesn't come back all at once. It's not like Bruce depresses the plunger and suddenly she remembers everything, can watch the movie of her early life, coherent and linear and narratively satisfying. It's more like a match strike in the dark, a flare and gone, a fading afterimage.
Bruce has a clipboard, and he's leaning against the wall on the other side of the living room like he has to hold it up. He asks her questions, vague, simple, open-ended, more like word-association games than anything else. "Mud," he says, or "school."
Natasha sits on the couch and and presses her fingers to her temple, closes her eyes. She hadn't realized how accustomed she'd become to that particular emptiness in her head, the way she'd hurled questions at her subconscious and got nothing back until she'd stopped bothering to try.
Now, though. Now she gets back: Fire. Someone brushing her hair. A man, she thinks, rough hands and tobacco. Towels on a clothesline, billowing in the wind. Laughter, deep and full-throated. An orange cat. A snowman. A group of people, of men, digging in the mud. A long hallway, dark, wooden floors, somehow menacing. People watching, maybe, or listening. Eyes.
She has no idea what any of it means, how it connects with anything else. It doesn't help her make sense of anything already in her head. She loves it.
"This is..." She smiles, delighted. "How long will this last?"
Bruce presses his lips together and twitches. He is not delighted. "An hour?" He throws up his hands, helpless, anxious. "A week? A month? I don't know how quickly you'll clear the antibody or what the tipping point is, how your memory will be when your system is 50/50, or 70/30. I don't know--"
"Okay, breathe," she says, up and moving across the room, drawing the word out until her body's against his, her fingers on his mouth. "I'm okay," she whispers, her lips on his jawline. "This is what I wanted."
The air rattles around in his chest for the space of a few more seconds, and then his eyes fall shut, his forehead falls to hers, his hands fall to her hips. "I know," he manages to say, syncing his breath to hers, and eventually, "What about the other thing?"
She steps back. "The other thing?"
He levels a look at the training dummy in the corner.
"Right," she says, following his look. "The other thing. Yeah." She feels fine. Great, even. "Okay." She draws her knife and throws.
It takes at least a minute for either one of them to say anything. They both just stand there, staring at the knife buried in the wall a good five centimeters to the left of where she'd meant to put it.
"When's the last time you missed a throw like that?" Bruce asks, his voice faint. He sounds like he's going to pass out.
Natasha shakes her head. She's not sure she's ever missed a throw like that. Another minute goes by, and then it's like she comes out of a trance. "For fuck's sake," she mutters. Normal people make throws like that every day. She draws another knife, sinks it into the dummy's eye.
"I'm going to bed," she says, abruptly tired and disgusted with the pair of them. She wants to test out this new memory while she still has it, see if she can figure out who the man is with the hairbrush, maybe piece something together about where she grew up. How old she is. Anything.
She falls asleep dreaming of fire and mud, looking forward to the morning.
She wakes up some time later, freezing cold but drenched in sweat, her entire body wracked with cramps. At first she thinks she's hallucinating -- there were statues come to life and fighting in the streets, and she's not Steve Rogers but she doesn't get the flu, either. She doesn't know. She manages to force Bruce's name through her cracked lips, and it's when she hears him say oh my god that she knows this is actually happening.
"My bones hurt," she tells him, her voice hoarse. "I think they're on fire." She closes her eyes.
When she opens them again, she's laid out like a corpse on the exam table in the lab. She does a quick self-assessment: She's wearing socks and the cotton pants she sleeps in, no shirt, no bra, a thin sheet pulled over her. Her fingers and toes are all accounted for; there's a pulse monitor on her left ring finger. There are electrodes on her hips, her shoulders. A cuff on her arm, tubes in each hand, a new bruise on her spine. She aches, faintly, deeply, comprehensively, like she went ten rounds with Steve a few days back. She looks around for Bruce and finds him next to her, looking destroyed, gunshot wounds where his eyes should be.
She has some vague memories of getting there -- of Bruce wrapping her in every blanket they have, of her own sheer bloody-minded insistence that she could walk herself to the elevator. She did, and then she fell over, and after that she let Bruce help her to the car. Did she let him carry her? She can't imagine, and she has no idea where he got the car. Maybe she got the car. She only remembers the sweat, the gasping relief as it froze on her fevered skin.
She opens her mouth to ask him what happened, or maybe to make a smartass remark about new holes in her memory, break the tension, but her throat's too parched for sound. Bruce stares at her, bleary and bleak, but then he jerks into motion and helps her sit up, mindful of the the various tubes and wires attached to her skin. He starts to hand her a cup, but Natasha opens her mouth, lets him put an ice chip on her tongue.
"Tell me," she croaks, when she's able.
He wraps his arms around himself, a comfort, a barrier. "You went into withdrawal," he says, his voice hollowed out and thin. "But it looked like an immune response and I thought you were dying." He shoves his hands through his hair. "I mean, you were. Dying. I almost took you to the hospital, and it's not like we talked about it, because why would we ever do that? But I thought--" He breaks off, exhales through his nose. "I knew you would want me to be sure. And if I'd been wrong, or if I'd taken you and they'd been wrong, then it wouldn't really have mattered, and I'm just so fucking--"
She starts coughing to stop him talking, and he clutches himself tighter. "More ice," she says, and she means jesus fucking christ and she feels as hollow as he sounds. His hand shakes as he puts the ice on her tongue, and then he staggers off to get her a blanket. When he comes back, he wraps it around her shoulders and follows it with his arms, curls around her body like he's falling, buries his face in her hair. He stands there and trembles, and Natasha rests her head against his stomach and waits, breathing in the smell of laundry soap and the burnt-copper tang underlying everything. She wants to tell him she's okay, calm him down, but she doesn't think even she can sell that line.
His eyes are still a murky hazel when he kisses the top of her head and pulls away, and so Natasha reaches for normalcy, or something like it. Brisk, business-like. No-nonsense. "Withdrawal?" She picks up the cup of ice and pops a few chips into her mouth. "From what?"
"The modified acetylcholine. I guess they messed with your system enough that you can't be without it. " His voice stretches flat and taut, a string about to snap. "There was no way to tell. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she says, biting down on the ice. She believes him. If there had been a way to tell -- if he'd missed something -- it wouldn't just be his eyes that were green. She pulls the pulse monitor off her finger. "So what's next?"
He sinks onto the stool. "Nothing," he says, sounding as exhausted as he looks. "That's it. We're done. I'm going back to New York. Tony has a thing. You should blow this place up or-- or whatever, kill everyone and steal the research, I don't know, but this is over."
"Why? This was the first thing we tried." There must be options. He can give her the antibody and then clear it from her system before she goes into withdrawal; that would give her a few hours of poking at her memory. Or -- she'd basically gone cold turkey off the ACh; maybe there were ways to taper, something that wouldn't be such a shock to her system. "You can figure this out."
"No," he says.
Natasha waits for the rest, but that's it. No.
"No," he says again, the word a wall between them too smooth to scale.
Natasha feels her stomach twist but she keeps it off her face. She opens her mouth to ask him -- something, she's not really sure -- when he stands up and steps toward her, takes her face in his hands. The green in his eyes looks just as faded as the rest of him, but it's there, and she can't turn away from it.
"This will kill you," he says, each word clear and careful, and there's no turning away from that, either.
Natasha tries to picture the man with the hairbrush. She thinks he had a mustache, that maybe the hairbrush was blue, but when she tries to remember, there's nothing there.
She tears Bruce's hands from her face and throws him across the room.
"Ow," he says, conversationally.
It's later. How much later, Natasha isn't really sure. Her brain doesn't seem to be working very well. For example, she thinks she may have recently thrown Bruce Banner across the room. He's still on the floor, and he's still Bruce, although he extracted himself from the remnants of a whiteboard he crashed into and rolled onto his back. His hands are laced on his stomach. He is breathing very slowly, and he's doing it loudly enough that she can hear it from where she sits.
"Shit," she mutters, and disconnects herself from the tubes and wires that had survived her outburst, slides the blood pressure cuff from her arm. When she's free, she pads over to Bruce and sits down next to him, wraps herself in the blanket.
"You probably shouldn't do that again," Bruce says, voice mild, eyes a muddy green. "I don't know how many freebies you get."
"I shouldn't have done it at all," she says, reaching to push a stray curl off his forehead. She feels thrown herself, her stomach in a tight knot. "I'm sorry."
"Well," he says, twisting on the floor until his head is in her lap. "At least we know you can still do that kind of thing."
"Great," she mutters. She pulls a piece of whiteboard out of his hair, runs her fingers down the line of his jaw. "Are you okay?"
"In what sense?" he asks. "Are you okay?"
She sees his point and cocks an eyebrow. Bruce nods like that's an answer. She supposes it is, and she runs her fingers absently through his hair and wonders what the hell she's supposed to do now.
"Hey," he says, and sits up, turns to face her. "Hey," again, like he's gathering his courage. "I'm sorry this didn't work out the way you wanted. I am. I know how that can be..." He trails off, looking away, and then abruptly back again. "But why do you even care?"
"About finding the truth?"
"Yeah." He spreads his hands, waiting, like his point should be obvious. "The last time I had the temerity to say the word 'truth' in your presence, you spat the word 'naïve' at me like--"
"I did not spit--"
"Natasha." His flat look rivals anything she's ever come up with, though his voice is fond. "I was sure the next words out of your mouth were going to be 'capitalist scum.'"
"Well," she says, a piece of laughter scraped from her throat. "You do live with Stark."
"I live with you," he says simply, and something inside her twists. "Under a fake name, in somebody else's apartment, pretending to be a security guard, doing insane science in a Hydra lab. So I think, you know, 'truth' is not really a concept that holds a lot of meaning for you." He ducks his head, shoots her a cautious sideways smile. "I'm not trying to be a jerk, I'm saying we make our own truth. You more than the rest of us."
"Sure, but I need something to start with. You can't make something out of nothing."
"If anyone can, you can," he says. "If you wanted to."
"And you could figure this out if you wanted to."
He digs the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Please." The intensity of it startles her. "Please don't ask me for this."
He drops his hands and looks up, and Natasha, who has looked more monsters in the face than she can remember, looks away. "I'm not prepared to kill you."
She holds up her hands. "Hey, we're just talking," she says, but she's not sure how much more talking she can do. She sounds like she always does, but her mind feels blank and her body cracked, or maybe it's the other way around. "I just wanted to know who he was. To get that far."
"The guy with the hairbrush?" Bruce asks, and Natasha nods. He reaches out and runs his fingers through her hair, tucks it behind her ear. "Who do you want him to be?"
It knocks something loose in her chest and she jerks away from him, throws her head back to look at the ceiling on a hard exhale. She forgets, sometimes, that he knows her.
"Sorry," he says, not sounding very sincere. "But none of this matters. I'm just trying to point out the flaws in your argument."
"Don't let me stop you," she says, closing her eyes.
She can do this. She can let Bruce talk her into giving up on the lives she's led, the lives she might have taken. It's not like he doesn't have any experience with this, anything he'd like to remember, anything he'd like to forget.
"Well," he says. "Shit happens."
She lowers her head and stares at him. "Shit happens," she repeats. "Wow. Can I get that on a t-shirt?"
"Would you settle for a bumper sticker?"
"Shit happens, and nothing matters." Natasha rubs at her forehead. "Good talk, Banner. Thanks."
"Any time." He smiles. "Don't forget who you're talking to about shit happening."
Her answering smile is hollow. "It does matter."
"Don't," he says, leaning into her, suddenly fierce and frantic. "Don't. Because if this one thing defines you, then there's one thing that defines me and it's"--he wants to look away, she can tell, but he clenches his jaw and doesn't do it--"it's the accident, and the only thing I am is a monster. And I think that, sometimes, but you never have. And I can't-- I don't want--" He breaks off finally, turns his head, his chest heaving.
Natasha blinks, breathes, breathes again. "Not pulling any punches tonight, are you?"
Bruce puts his elbows on his knees, rubs at his eyes. "I spent it thinking you were dying and then that you were going to try to talk me into killing you," he says, "and you're very persuasive. I needed to come up with a compelling argument."
"You came up with 'shit happens,'" she points out, mostly to watch him smile.
"I never said I was any good at this," he says. "And I came up with the other thing, too."
"Right, an appeal to my sentimentality. How often do you think that's worked?"
"I think most men who try it probably end up dead, but you threw me across the room," he says. "I figured we're both entitled to one spectacularly stupid decision tonight." He pauses. "Did it? Work, I mean."
"I've never thought of you as just a monster," she tells him, ignoring the question.
"I know." He swallows. "That's my point."
Natasha takes a deep breath and stands up. "Okay," she says, extends her hand.
"Okay, what?" he asks, letting her pull him to his feet.
"Okay, yes, it worked. Shit happens. I need some time, I think, and I can't promise that I can let it go entirely." She puts her hands on his chest and leans in to kiss his cheek, his eyelids, his smile. "But I can let it go for now. So, okay. Back to New York, you said?"
He nods. "You coming?"
She looks around. "Help me set up the detonators?"
They get on a train in the morning, smoke from the explosion still wafting into the lightening sky.
Her sixth funeral is up in the Adirondacks, not far from Lake Placid. There's a forest, a clearing, a river, frozen over by now. The whole place reminds her of something. She's not sure what.
She clears some ground, kicking away snow and dead leaves, makes a spot for the old Soviet ammo can she brought, a square OD green box with a star on each side and Russian spray-painted on the top. It's dented, rusted in the corners, the handle frayed. She got it on eBay. Her KGB files are already inside, and Natasha douses them with alcohol from a mason jar and lights them up, moves a few feet away before putting the jar to her mouth and drinking deep. It's samogon, Russian moonshine she made herself just like her fake grandmother taught her, because if she's doing this she's doing it right. She loses a few layers of skin from her esophagus as it burns its way down.
When she hands Bruce the jar, he sniffs carefully before drinking, but all the caution in the world doesn't stop him from breaking out into an immediate coughing fit, clutching desperately at his throat while Natasha tries not to laugh at him. He does better on his second try, actually manages to swallow some, and after that they stand shoulder-to-shoulder and drink in silence, waiting.
By the time the fire's out, the sun has started to set and the wind has started to howl, and Natasha presses her lips to Bruce's shoulder, the stiff wool of his overcoat scratchy and cold against her skin. She squeezes his hand and then moves slowly toward the ammo can in a pleasant haze that's the closest to drunk she's been in years. After she and Bruce both toss some dirt into the can, she closes the lid and grabs the handle, makes her way through the barren trees to the side of the river, her breath hanging in the air behind her.
"You're not going to say anything?" Bruce asks.
Natasha shoots a withering look over her shoulder and takes another drink. This is already more sentimentality than she's comfortable with; she is not going to eulogize herself.
"You know," he says, "for a Russian, you are terrible at depressing melodramatic gestures."
She spreads her arms. "I bought the ammo can." She shakes it. "I made the moonshine." She shakes that. "We are in the woods in the middle of winter having a funeral. What the hell do you want from me?"
He produces a grin and a piece of paper, both crumpled. Natasha closes her eyes and kills off the first jar of samogon. This is not going to be good. She opens a second jar.
Bruce clears his throat and starts reading. "I've lived to bury my desires--"
"No," she cuts in. "No Pushkin." She drinks, and drinks again.
But he raises his voice and starts over. "I've lived to bury my desires, and see my dreams corrode with rust / Now all that's left are fruitless fires..." His voice fades to silence.
That burn my empty heart to dust, she thinks, and scatters her ashes on the wind.
"Fuck you, Banner. Let's go home."