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[far from here we are all right]

Chapter Text

Fury doesn't call. Sometime during the morning Hill texts debrief tomorrow, which, after staring at his phone's screen for a full two minutes, Clint decides he can handle. Probably.

He's awake because there's sun in his eyes; Tasha's already up, as evidenced by the lack of her in the bed. That's one of the nice things about Tasha's bolt-holes: she's even more paranoid than he is, which is both pathological and reassuring, although the SHIELD psych is never pleased with the answer anything that can get past Natasha's guard would get past mine and I'd be dead anyway, saying that it isn't healthy. Clint thinks it's more healthy than being so paranoid that Natasha's paranoia is insufficient. He doesn't think a human being could actually function at that level. But the comfort of Tasha's paranoia means that he can sleep through her moving around.

The smell of coffee makes itself very definitely known, reminding him he hasn't had any for - well, since the fucking Tesseract started acting up. Clint contemplates the cost-benefit ratio of pain versus fresh coffee he doesn't have to make, and comes down on the side of needing to get up anyway, so it might as well be now. It's a slow process - well, for him it is - but eventually he's up, through the bathroom and wincing his way down the stairs.

Nat's parked in front of her computer screens, mug in hand and frown-line between eyebrows, watching some kind of recording on one of the monitors while the others run the surveillance cameras. Clint pours himself coffee and looks through drawers until he remembers where the Cliff bars are so as to make some vague gestures towards nutrition, and then goes to look over her shoulder.

The big green guy rampages his way across the screen again, but it's old footage, not new: it's Virginia and Harlem, which to be fair are no less impressive even after having seen the Hulk swat Chitauri out of the air and stop evil demon space-whales from hell with one hand. Tasha's got different windows open for different angles and is playing them all at once; Clint watches the video for a while, mug in hand. Then he thoughtfully takes in the tension in Tasha's shoulders and the frown-line itself and her absolutely intent expression and makes an assumption that is anything but a shot in the dark.

"That why you were favouring your leg when you kicked my ass?" he asks, keeping his tone light. After all, it is kind of funny that of all the last few days, he remembers that most clearly.

"Yes," Tasha replies, in the voice that says not now, Barton. The line between her eyebrows gets deeper and she starts selecting specific areas of each window, zooming in on them and cutting out the rest of the view. Some of them pixelate, some don't, depending on the quality of the footage; she closes a couple of the windows and then pulls three of the better ones into the center. "Look at this," she says, before he can ask. "Tell me if you're seeing what I see."

He decides they're both too edgy for him to point out that this would be easier if she told him what she sees first, and as the videos loop he turns his attention on each one in turn.

And he does see what she sees by the second video, and sees the point. "Is that Dr Ross?" he asks, gesturing to the dark-haired woman on screen who seems to either have a death-wish or a seriously inflated sense of invulnerability.

"I didn't know you read the file," Tasha says absently, opening another document that spreads itself across one of the other monitors.

"Of course I read the file," Clint says, slightly affronted. "Since when have I not read files? And if you say Kabul I'm not talking to you for the rest of the day."

The corner of Tasha's mouth twitches, but she finally leans back and stops acting like she's trying to stare through the plasma screens. "Yes," she says. "It's Dr Ross."

"And now you want to go find her and recruit her," Clint says, just to get it out in the air. You have to admire Natasha, really. No matter what or who she runs into, she will obsessively hunt until she finds a way to neutralize them. And she's good at thinking outside the box and knowing that "neutralize" doesn't necessarily mean "kill, concuss or capture."

"Of course I do," she replies, looking around for her coffee. It's slightly out of arm's reach - she must have been working over on one of the other monitors earlier - so Clint snags it and pulls it over so she doesn't have to stretch her bad shoulder.

"Think Fury'll go for it?" he asks, because life's no fun when you're not pushing boundaries.

"Does the Pope shit in the woods?" Natasha replies. She sighs, a little more tension going out of her body, and starts rubbing her own shoulder; she doesn't jump at all when Clint brushes her hand away and digs his fingers into the muscle-knot, which is a good sign.

"We have to debrief tomorrow anyway," he points out.

****

They take it easy the rest of the day. Miraculously, neither of them actually broke anything, although Natalia makes Clint let her check his ribs. "Nice jump off the building, by the way," she says.

"Thanks," he says, the S hissing out a bit as she prods at his side experimentally. "I'm glad you liked it. Next time we fight an alien army, remind me to pack several more ammunition."

Natalia awards him a small smile for that. Then, having determined that his ribs are just badly bruised, and also having determined that her head is starting to hurt from all the wrenched neck and shoulder-muscles making themselves known, she decides fuck it and lets herself fall back on the couch, leaning against his good side. He leans his head against the top of hers and they both stare into space like that for a while.

She knows the question is coming. She figures he's trying to sort out how to word it, to keep it from hurting either him or her. He'll figure out that's impossible pretty quick, but she doesn't really have anything better to do than sit here and stare and try to unfuck her own head so she's willing to wait.

It's anger, mostly, for her. Injury and insult and just because she knows that for a hundred reasons, the best solution was letting Thor take the pissant little piece of shit back to Asgard, that it's for the best both diplomatically and pragmatically, doesn't stop her from wanting to have taken his guts out first. The would-be-god thought he could frighten her, and that's insulting; but he could make her angry, did make her angry, and she hates him having even that much power. The mission is over, the problem is solved, she solved a satisfyingly large part of it, but instead of the satisfaction she should have, she's still angry as hell.

Natalia hates being compromised like this.

"If I ask you how long it takes before I stop wondering if it's really me in here," Clint says, finally, carefully, like the words are a dangerous wild animal he's holding at arms' length, "you're going to tell me you don't know, right?"

And there's the question. "I'm going on - well," she sighs, "you know how many years." She doesn't like to think about how many years. It's another thing to trip the inconvenient, uncomfortable anger that she doesn't really have time for.

"Fuck," he says, with his own sigh. "I was hoping I was wrong."

"When was the last time you were wrong about me?" she asks, momentarily amused.

"Uh," Clint replies, like he's having to think. "I brought you the wrong kind of latte last September?"

"I can't believe you remember that," she says, shaking her head. Granted, he had, but he'd also been on enough morphine that he shouldn't've been going anywhere to get anything. "So when was the last time I've been wrong about you?"

A pause, silence, and she knows he knows the gambit here, the pattern of thought she's backing him into. But she'll do it anyway. Knowing and doing are two different things. "I can't remember," he admits, guardedly.

"I know it's really you in there," she says. Then she adds what she doesn't think he'll see coming and adds, "I know you were never completely gone."

Clint goes still; she waits a couple heartbeats, until he says, "Explain," in one of his flatter voices. She pushes herself up to give him a level look.

"Tell me," she says, "that you couldn't've put a bullet between Fury's eyes down there when you shot him. Tell me you don't know damn well he always wears fucking body-armour."

Clint blinks at her like she grew wings or turned neon blue. Then he frowns like he's trying to slot that into place, and she folds her arms and leans her shoulder against the back of the couch. "Selvig put a failsafe in the machine. You shot Fury in the least useful place possible." She knows this smile is humourless and doesn't get to her eyes, but she smiles it anyway. "I'm here. There's always," she tells him, "something left. If you're alive there's always something still there. That means there's always a way back."

He's chewing on the inside of his cheek, like he can't really swallow that yet. Which is to be expected. There's no way to make this time easier. She knows that, and so does he, but she knows it from the inside where before now, he only watched.

"How can you be so sure you know what's me?" he says, and she snorts.

"Because I'm good at what I do, you idiot," she retorts. Doesn't say, because when I start doubting myself like that, I'll finish going crazy and someone'll have to put me down.

There's always the limit you can't go beyond.

The silence stays longer this time, and when Clint speaks again he's putting that subject firmly aside, because he asks, "You really think Ross can work as Banner's failsafe?"

"I think it's worth trying."

They lapse into silence for the last time before both of them manage to fall asleep, in probably the worst possible positions for not aggravating strained and abused muscles. But that always happens.

****

Fury does go for it, eventually, after bringing up a few token objections. He finishes by pointing out that General Ross probably won't like it, and is definitely hiding a smile when Natasha in turn points out that General Ross is an idiot who made a mess into a catastrophe because he was too much of a mewling coward to take his hits and decided saving his career and prestige was more important than dealing with unwanted consequences, so General Ross can stick his head up his ass for all she cares.

This is slightly less professional than Tasha usually is, Clint thinks, but then again, they've all been under stress.

Fury just says, "As far as I'm aware, Dr Ross feels the same way." He leans back in his chair. "Good luck."

Chapter Text

One of the things she most admires about Leonard, both when they were dating and now in their comfortable friendship, is his ability to read people. Betty tried and still tries to watch him and figure out how he does it, what he's looking for, how it tells him everything. She's pretty good at it (if not as good as he is yet) and that's why, two weeks after the office hired the new intern and Elizabeth Ross walks in to find that intern sitting in the lab, everything about the woman's posture and face and everything else except her clothes (which are still the same kind she's been wearing all those two weeks, projecting the image of a tidy, reserved grad student) screams that this woman has spent two weeks lying really, really well.

Betty stays still in the doorway for two breaths before she closes the file she'd been reading as she walked through the halls and says, very calmly, "If you have anything to do with my father I'm going to scream, right now, and to hell with the consequences."

The red-haired woman she's known as Talia Richter smiles a rapid, thin smile and says, "No, Dr Ross, I have absolutely nothing to do with the general besides annoying him whenever I get the chance."

A little light-headedly, Betty thinks that sounds promising - but she doesn't relax, not yet. "Who are you from?" she demands, her mind running over who exactly is in hearing distance if she screams and their likely usefulness against whoever the hell this woman actually is, and not coming up with reassuring answers. "And who are you?" she adds, reaching out to put the file down on the nearest small table, on the basis that there were more useful things to throw if she needed to and it'll be easier to do that if she has empty hands.

"You can call me Natasha Romanoff," the fake intern says, all composure. "I'm an agent with Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division."

Acronyms aren't hard for someone who grew up with a military father and then went into her line of work; Betty says, "SHIELD," almost before Romanoff finishes the word division. That's not actually reassuring, or shouldn't be, but a second thought jolts through Betty's brain like a lightning strike in a bad monster movie, so that she steps the rest of the way inside, closes the door and locks it. "You know where Bruce is."

She thinks she managed to surprise the SHIELD agent, thinks that Romanoff blinks once more than she needs to before saying, without a trace of that in her voice, "And have done since the incident in Harlem."

"Is that a technical term?" Betty asks before reminding herself that she probably won't gain anything by being antagonistic, no matter how much her whole head is buzzing. "'Incident'?" Then she forces herself to take a breath, to count to ten, to do all the stupid things you're supposed to do in order to calm down.

Another thin smile and Romanoff says, "Yes, actually. Along with a classification scale. That one ranked fairly high."

"No shit," is all Betty can think to say; when she blinks there's fire behind her eyes, and she remembers - she remembers a lot of things, most of them terrifying. She gives up and crosses the room, sits down in the chair across from Romanoff and says, "Where is he?"

"You've seen footage of the attack in New York?" Romanoff deflects slightly and Betty's momentarily distracted by grim amusement, her mind bouncing around like a tiny caffeinated child, like it always does in moments of discovery.

"That one's not an 'incident'?" she asks, but the edge misses Romanoff entirely - or else she just doesn't feel it.

"No," she replies. "But we had several incidents leading up to it. Dr Banner is currently resident in Stark Tower," the agent goes on before Betty can ask again. "I believe he eventually intends to wander off the grid again, but Mr Stark keeps distracting him with new toys."

"I bet," Betty says, suddenly wistful for the idea of what she could do with the kind of resources Stark Tower would offer, assuming its owner liked her. Working at a smaller institution meant she could disappear off the world's radar a bit, but it did make for a certain amount of wrangling over the budget. The thought fights for space, and then evaporates in the face of wariness and worry. "Why are you here?" Betty asks, the question born of both emotions.

She's hoping to hear words she doesn't at all expect to, with the kind of secret hope you know will never come true, and so she has to ask Agent Romanoff to repeat herself when it does; the second time, though, the agent only gets most of the way through the sentence, "We'd like to bring you in," before Betty's already saying "Yes."

The agent says, "You should be aware of the risks - " but Betty cuts her off. She's been thinking about this, some of this, since standing in a silent cafe, its only TV turned up as loud as it could be, staring at the green shape tearing invaders apart and knowing exactly who it was.

Knowing that somebody found him.

"How do they stack up against the risks of being collateral damage in an alien invasion or a state of advanced technological warfare?" she asks, bluntly. "Especially as the only one who has a hope in hell of recreating the . . . process . . .that made Bruce . . . the way he is?" She ignores her own little stuttering pauses. She hates that they're there, so she's not going to dignify them by paying attention.

When Romanoff asks, "You could do that?" Betty doesn't hear the interest she expects, hears faint notes of alarm instead. She considers the other woman for a long time, long enough for it to be uncomfortable, weighing her options and trying to decide what she wants to say. To commit to. How dangerous that could be.

"Yes," she says. And it's true. It would take a lot of work and need a partner as good with his end of it as Bruce, but she's not going to pretend that kind of person couldn't exist. "But I won't."

"Good." The force behind that word is, Betty thinks, the result of genuine relief. "You also have a point. The risks are probably balanced by the benefits, given the general situation. But you should be aware that they exist."

"Riskier than walking out onto a field in the line of fire of a missile?" Betty asks, wryly. The twitch of Agent Romanoff's mouth tells her the agent saw that footage.

"No," she acknowledges.

"Then I think I'm fine. Do we leave now?"

Betty sees respect in the agent's eyes for that, but Romanoff stands up and says, "We have enough time for you to pack and send your resignation letter."

 

The walk to the waiting car gives Betty some time to reflect that this is a stupid thing to do. Not that it ranks even close to the top of her stupidest thing I've ever done list, which starts with letting Bruce convince her to skip animal trials in the first place and does, in fact, cap out somewhere around "walking up to a giant green monster on a battlefield", but it's still a stupid thing to do. "The General used to bitch about SHIELD and about being dependent on them" is not a good reason to feel comfortable around a shadowy government agency good enough to locate and follow someone dedicated to getting off the grid, and being bored and frustrated with pedestrian research in a dead-end professorship is not a good reason to leap at, well, this. And "aliens attacked Earth, nobody's really safe" as an argument is pretty much on the level of "well car-crashes are inevitable, why bother wearing a seat-belt?"

Knowing that isn't making any difference to her resolve whatsoever. But she does know it.

Romanoff reverts to her Talia Richter persona as they leave the building, Betty notes. Nobody would think anything of Betty and Talia going for coffee, other than that Talia's been reserved up till now. But it's the two week mark, it's enough time to have settled in. The car they walk up to even looks relatively normal; Romanoff gestures for Betty to take the front seat and heads towards the back just about the time Betty notices there's someone else driving.

As she gets in, Betty says, "Hi," to the man behind the wheel, about her age and wearing a beat-up leather jacket over a grey hooded sweatshirt, with sunglasses against the day's glare. He raises his fingers off the wheel and gives a brief nod of acknowledgement before turning to shoot Romanoff a querying look.

"Dr Ross' apartment," Romanoff says, doing up her seatbelt. Betty notices the SHIELD agent slides the shoulder-strap behind her, wonders why - and then it occurs to her that it would be easier to dive out of just a lap-band, if you needed to move quickly. She checks: the driver's the same. "Dr Ross," Romanoff goes on, "this is Agent Barton, Barton, Dr Ross. Dr Ross will be joining us on the plane to New York."

This gets a small smile from Agent Barton. "Welcome to the nuthouse," he says. To Romanoff he adds, "Does Stark know we're coming?"

"I plan on informing Ms Potts when we land," she replies, and Agent Barton looks amused. But Romanoff just goes on, "This is your resignation letter," handing Betty a clip-board with a few sheets of paper on it, "and you can use this tablet," and she hands Betty that, too, "to email Dr Samson."

"What," Betty says, bemused, "you didn't just have an email ready to go?"

"SHIELD respects Dr Samson's skills," Agent Romanoff replies blandly. "While resignation letters follow a certain format that allows for easy mimicry, personal emails present a much higher risk of generating suspicion if the forgery isn't perfect."

"So we figured we'd save ourselves the effort," Agent Barton finishes, pulling out of the parking lot.

That's mildly reassuring, Betty decides. It's a small indication that they would have let her stay here, if she'd said no.

Signing the letter is easy, although Betty does read it through to make sure there aren't any surprises. Emailing Leonard is something else: he really is good at telling when people are lying, even by text, so in the end she gives up and says, Something's come up and I'm out of town indefinitely. I'm fine; I'll catch up with you as soon as I can.

Then, in one of those moments that seems to always happen when you're in the middle of unexpected about-faces in your life, Betty's brain kicks in and she blurts, "Ringo. My cat."

"He's a registered passenger," Agent Romanoff replies immediately. She smiles her thin smile again. "We're very good at this, Dr Ross."

"Creepily good," Agent Barton adds cheerfully.

Betty works hard to swallow the giggles. She's pretty sure they'll get hysterical if she doesn't.  

Chapter Text

Apparently Dr Ross's idea of "packing" is "grab a suitcase and throw stuff at it until it's full." Clothes go in by the armful, as well as one pair of runners and one pair of heels: she's wearing black flats. She stares at her bathroom for a minute before grabbing her toothbrush, some bottles of perfume and a thing of face-cream seemingly at random and declaring the rest she can buy later; a suede jewelry roll gets thrown on top along with an antique looking vanity set of brush, hand-mirror, comb and emery-board. Heirlooms, Clint's assuming.

Her cat twines around her feet, informing her that he doesn't like any of this, and Clint goes in search of coffee on the basis that with the mess she's making, she won't care if he messes up the kitchen enough to caffeinate himself. When he comes back with a mug full of black and bitter for him and a second mug full of milky-sugary-slop for Tasha (whose taste in coffee he will never understand), Tasha's watching with an almost respectful interest as Dr Ross goes through . . . .music boxes, and art-objects that don't actually look like they're hollow, and several old copies of books. She pulls flash-drives out of all of them.

When she glances up, Dr Ross shrugs. "Sterns' lab was safely destroyed, he'd only barely reverse engineered about half of what we did, and I wiped all our data off everything I could get my hands on," she says. "I kept it. I made copies, and the safest place to hide them was with me. It's amazing how much people underestimate you when you're the sweet lady scientist," she adds, and Clint chooses to take that as a warning.

The flash-drives don't go in the suitcase; they go in a cloth drawstring bag that Dr Ross tucks into her jeans. Her hand goes to her throat and the heart-pendant she's wearing, like she's reassuring herself it's there; she does the same thing with her gold watch and a ring, grabs an elastic and ties back her hair into a pony-tail that makes her look about five years younger and starts to try to force the suitcase closed.

Clint lends a hand on the basis that he's not a jerk. Dr Ross flashes him a grateful smile and hauls it off the bed to rest its wheels on the floor. She looks around again, shrugs and picks up her cat. "Everything else that matters is in storage," she says. "This place is a lot smaller than my old house, and I never really meant to be here long." Her tone goes wistful for a moment, and then she tucks her protesting cat under her arm and hauls the suitcase to the front door, where they find the cat-carrier in the closet.

 

They're taking a commercial flight, but they skip past security anyway. Clint hates airport security, hates security theatre and, somewhat to Fury's annoyance, has been a signatory to every petition and action yelling at the government to rein in the TSA and use their brains since 9/11 happened in the first place. Somewhere around 2005, Fury and Coulson both got tired of hearing Clint list all the deadly weapons he'd managed to get past the security screening and the utterly stupid waste-of-time searches they had managed to do, and had made sure that every time Clint flew, he skipped that line.

He notices that when Dr Ross notices that, she switches the flash-drive bag from her jeans to tucked in the left side of her bra. He kind of likes this woman.

They're flying first-class because he and Nat are both still battered enough that economy seats make for unhappy, well, everything and Dr Ross settles her complaining cat - her only carry-on except her purse - into the available space with a lot of space to spare. Then she unzips the soft carrier and pets the thing until it shuts up and decides to have a nap.

As they settle in, Tasha hands Dr Ross the tablet she'd used to email earlier and says, "That should bring you up to speed on everything. Video footage will be available when we get to Stark Tower," and, Clint fills in cheerfully and silently to himself, there's absolutely no chance of anyone looking over your shoulder and seeing what they shouldn't. It's hard to read over someone's shoulder, in first-class seats: it's easier to see three seconds of video.

Planes are not Clint's favourite places in the world, but as the flight attendants start going through their song and dance, he does his best to settle down into some kind of comfortable position and rest, on the basis that the plane is really unlikely to come under attack. Tasha's been driven on this for two weeks running, and while Clint's not complaining about the opportunity to keep busy and not think, it's not really restful.

"If I didn't know you both have the answer parameters memorized," Hill had said the last time they'd seen each other, the day after the attempted alien invasion, just after convincing Fury to let them do this in the first place, "I'd force you both through psych evals."

"See," Clint had parried, "I knew that deep down, you cared."

Hill gave him a Look. He noticed that while she'd give him a Look, she'd just exchange long ones with Tasha, Tasha wearing her best Bland and Professional expression; then Hill had sighed and just said, "I'd really rather not to have to clean up after either of you having your hair-triggers tripped. Please keep that in mind."

Clint's already made the tentative decision that once Dr Ross is dropped off, they're going to hang around Stark Tower for a while: Stark may be one of the most irritating men on the planet when he tries, but the one thing he does seem to understand is hair-trigger reflexes, and the security systems at the Tower are reliably run by an AI that can hack SHIELD, and finally he's likely to have better food than any of the available SHIELD hide-aways.

When he'd noted this to Tasha, she'd added, dryly, "Plus it's really, really tall," which if nothing else isn't an outright nix on the idea. He lets her think about it and come to her own conclusion about how much extra time that'll give her to observe whether she's right about Ross's effect on Banner. She can even blame it on Clint.

About a half-hour after take-off, he glances over to see Dr Ross smiling as she reads; seeing as alien-caused carnage isn't usually a huge upper, he asks, "What?"

She glances up, startled, and then smiles again. "I told him he could direct it."

That piques Clint's curiousity. "He didn't think he could?" Dr Ross shrugs.

"He wasn't exactly in a great headspace at the time. We were kind of being hunted across the country by the General with no money, and I think each . . . " she waves the hand that isn't holding the tablet, "transformation was giving him flashbacks that were hard to process. He didn't want to talk about it. But I was pretty sure he could."

You have to know Tasha to know she's listening, intent as hell, and while Ross doesn't, Clint does. He leaves it alone, though, as Ross goes back to her reading.

He also reflects that after a long separation, starting with I told you so might not be the smartest thing in the world, but then he figures: they were together for years, she probably knows best.  

*****

They're more or less alone in their corner of the first-class cabin. It's a six hour flight and by hour four Clint's managed something that remotely resembles sleep. It wouldn't be accurate to say that Natalia is worried about Clint; worry is one of those emotions, one of those modes that she might have been able to access once upon a time but nowadays is skipped over from neutral to concerned. And she's not concerned. Not yet.

But she is monitoring his sleeping, eating and startle-response patterns, so that she'll have adequate data if she does eventually need to be concerned. And right now, sleep is the metaphorical column with the most metaphorical notes.

Her own sleep is within acceptable parameters, her dreams predictable if not exactly restful. Pigs will not only fly but perform aerial ballet before she can sleep in public, though, and she knows well enough that Barton can because she isn't. So instead Natalia catches up on work, including a report on her interrupted interrogation and her educated opinions as to where things went after she left behind the mess. In the list of reasons her dreams are full of visions of thwarted and frustrated attempts to carve Loki into small, screaming pieces, fucking up her operation there ranks near the bottom, but it still makes the list.

By the time the flight-attendant comes around, Natalia opts for a gin and tonic to take a bit of the edge off. Maria's comments about hair-triggers had been unnecessary, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.

She glances over when the sound of Dr Ross shifting and sighing implies she's finished with all the text files and emerging from her pose of deep concentration. Her remark about herself earlier is accurate, Natalia notes: Dr Ross does project an air of doe-eyed harmlessness, almost shyness, one that it takes a certain way of looking at the world to see is a lie.

Dr Ross waves the attendant over and asks for a glass of white wine before handing Natalia back the tablet and rubbing her eyes with the fingertips of both hands. "I watched the news," she says, keeping her voice to low conversational pitch. "And the follow-up afterwards. I knew that," she sighs, "would be full of whatever the people in charge decided it was okay to release, and the real-time footage was distant to say the least . . . it's still scary to know how close we came to being wiped out, as a species."

Natalia can only acknowledge that with a crooked smile, and says, "We're endeavouring to widen the gap."

"I hope so," Dr Ross replies, gesturing to the tablet. "The second scariest part of that is reading how many other - " she seems to be groping for the word, so Natalia supplies two.

"Potential aggressors?" she suggests, and Dr Ross sighs again.

"That works," she says. "How many there are. That must give you all nightmares."

Natalia shrugs. "It is what it is."

The attendant comes back with Dr Ross's wine. When the attendant leaves again, Dr Ross asks, "They actually wanted you to get Blonsky?" keeping her voice even lower than before.

Natalia just rolls her eyes. She still has no words for that idiocy, but life at SHIELD always involved manoeuvring around the Council that presumed to rule it. She's been avoiding thinking about how much harder that will be in future without Coulson, and she avoids it now, too. But she notes, "Stark will probably say something snide about the general," because it's only fair that the doctor go in warned.

Dr Ross's answering smile has a certain resigned quality. "I've seen him on TV," she says. "I went to school with enough guys like him, he won't come as a shock."

Natalia quirks an eyebrow. "Really?" she asks, and Dr Ross laughs softly.

"'Flamboyant, egocentric asshole' should show up in more stereotypes of scientists than it does," she says. "Most of them just have to learn some social skills in order to get their grants. I don't think Tony Stark ever had that problem."

Then, after taking a moment to drink some of her wine, Dr Ross clears her throat and says, in a slightly sadder voice, "He doesn't know I'm coming, does he." She means Banner and it isn't a question; she doesn't wait for an answer, just looks at the wine-glass in her hand and says, "Probably for the best. He can be a complete idiot about noble self-sacrifice, you know?"

Natalia thinks of a small girl paid money to bring a doctor to an imaginary sick-bed, and of a man arriving at a city-turned-battlefield on a borrowed bike, and says, "I know."

  She half-expects Dr Ross to ask the question that's been in the air, unspoken, since the lab; she's not sure if her answer would be the truth or a lie. But instead, Dr Ross stares out the window for a while, slowly finishing her wine.

Chapter Text

When the text comes from Natasha, Pepper tries to ignore the stab of grief at the screen reading Romanova instead of Coulson, because it's irrational as well as painful: Natasha texted her when Phil was alive, so why should she stop now?

The text is Natasha all over, a straight-forward emotionless, arriving at the Tower in forty minutes; presumably someone at SHIELD confirmed that Pepper and Tony were in residence at the Tower, but then again, Pepper isn't leaving here until her baby looks less like - well, like an alien invasion and quarrelling might-be-gods hit it. Both because it's her baby, and also because she and Tony (for the five minutes he allows himself to be serious per day) agree that they need to lead the reconstruction. Need to be seen leading the reconstruction, as well as agreeing to lend money to the city to help with the rest of it.

It's mostly because of Steve Rogers that a lot of that money comes with the caveat of "build some decent low-cost housing for God's sake", but as usual, Tony is utterly awful at verbally apologizing, and shows his feelings by throwing money at the pet projects of whoever he's wronged. She hasn't managed to wrinkle out of him what he's failing to apologize for, but she knows Tony well enough to be able to guess.

"Jarvis," Pepper says aloud, "tell Tony we have guests arriving in forty minutes."

"Yes, Ms Potts," Jarvis replies. "Shall I tell him whom to expect?"

"Yes, Jarvis, thank you," Pepper agrees, reflecting that Jarvis gets a better grasp of complex human dynamics all the time. She'd almost been worried that the AI would be jealous since Bruce Banner sort of half-moved-in and only made token efforts to leave, but Dr Banner didn't seem to have any problem including a disembodied voice in the long and occasionally very loud conversations he and Tony have of which Pepper understands one word out of six, so they were saved finding out if Jarvis had the personal emotional complexity of the average seven year old.

Pepper takes the elevator down to the R&D section, which is almost restored already, having taken a lot less damage from aliens and aliens-who-used-to-be-gods, and reaches the lab Tony and Bruce are currently in about the time Tony's managed to scoot one of the rolling chairs to the door so he can lean out and call, "What, someone's trying to invade again already?"

Pepper shivers slightly. "That's not even funny, Tony," she says, and flicks his ear as she moves around him to get in the door, and adds, "Hi Bruce," and then goes on, to Tony, "No, I don't know why they're coming, Natasha didn't say."

"If SHIELD wants something, the answer is no," Tony says, in a voice that someone who wasn't Pepper Potts might think is joking. "Unless they want to give me a medal, in which case they have to put in a formal request for my time with what's-her-face, the girl who isn't you."

Pepper shoots him a Look. Due to threats of metaphorically being made to sleep on the couch for the rest of his life, Tony calls his new and very efficient and reliable PA by her name - Janine - and is extremely polite to her, but trying to get him to let go of the joke in private is like trying to keep a toddler out of mud. He sees her Look and raises her Injured Innocence, which she ignores and merely points out, "If it had anything formal to do with SHIELD, we'd be hearing from Agent Hill."

Bruce is, probably wisely, mostly ignoring them and keeping most of his attention on the screen in front of him. Pepper has no idea what they're doing down here: she'll hear about it when they're done, because Tony prefers to present her with faits accomplis rather than projects in progress. And since Bruce appears to have slightly more common sense than Tony Stark could ever find let alone possess, Pepper's not too worried about the potential catastrophe.

"Since it's almost six o'clock," she adds, "I'm adding her to dinner and having a room made up on the guest floor, because there still isn't a structurally sound hotel nearby."

"You might want to make dinner and room for two," Bruce says absently, still moving things around on his screen. "Unless Natasha's stopped acting like she thinks if Agent Barton gets out of her sight he'll disappear."

Pepper has a hard time deciding whether or not Bruce likes Natasha, or what it is between them that causes a weird kind of tension, but she takes his point. "Thank you," she says, and alters the appropriate bookings in her custom-made application. It'll duplicate itself on Janine's proprietary Stark super-phone and then Pepper won't have to worry about it again.

Sometimes she can't believe it took her this long to get a PA, even if "personal assistant to a personal assistant" would have been a stupid-sounding job-title to give someone. She leans down to give Tony a kiss on the cheek and says, "Don't lose track of time," before she goes back to her own office to stare at two sets of plans and try to decide what she does want done with the top six floors of the Tower.

 

Tony does lose track of time, but Jarvis doesn't, so Tony and Bruce do manage to make it up to the penthouse before their visitor or possibly visitors manage to park downstairs. Natasha's even polite enough to get buzzed up instead of hacking through the security and making the elevator run without it.

Some days, Pepper misses working with Natasha. Granted, it was a hellish string of days that she did it, and granted Janine is very good at what she does, but there's something about Natasha's breathtaking efficiency and attention to detail that Pepper misses, even if they do come wrapped up in a package that culminates in one of the deadliest assassins known to humankind. She still feels slightly embarrassed about her initial behaviour to the agent, but in her defense, Natasha had been doing everything she could to get past Tony's guard, and that inevitably turns people - women, yes, but also men - into the kind of people Pepper wants to kick through six glass doors and then satisfy her annoyance at promoting his bad habits by grinding her shoe-heel into their hands.

That, and she'd been under a lot of other stress. Natasha had accepted the apology, with her own apology for the covert infiltration of Stark Industries in general. After some discussion, they'd both agreed it was all Tony's fault anyway.

"Agent Barton is accompanying Agent Romanova," Jarvis tells them all, as Tony pours four drinks. "There is also another woman, identity unknown."

Tony shrugs and reaches for another glass; Bruce looks slightly uncomfortable, the way he always does at the spectre of meeting someone new, and Pepper feels her eyebrows go up. She can't think of anyone that Natasha would be bringing to Stark Tower.  

Pepper's still not used to Natasha's short hair, and the first thing that goes through her head when their guests step out of the elevator is a brief and shallow mourning for the continued lack of long red curls. The second thought is that Clint Barton looks a little bit less like a nervous cat than the last time she saw him.

The third is that she's seen the unknown woman before, on something: she has long black hair back in a pony-tail that has the fuzz of several hours wear, a long loose cardigan on over jeans and a v-necked T, and rectangular glasses that she's pushing back into place. She also looks nervous.

That's about all Pepper has time to see because Bruce is on his feet, the sudden movement making him the centre of everyone's attention. And he says, "Betty," and then looks like he's forgotten how words work.

"Hi, Bruce," the woman says, both hands wrapped around the strap of the purse on her shoulder. "You look a little bit less tired than the last time I saw you."

Natasha and Barton have stepped back out of the way, Natasha wearing her Calm and Professional Agent face, Barton just looking blank. Pepper finds herself hoping that this is a good surprise, because she just got the penthouse knocked into decent enough shape that she wants to live in it instead of the guest floor. Then she feels guilty for thinking that.

There's one of those stretching, awkward moments that happen when two people are trying really hard not to trap the other one in any kind of physical greeting, and then Bruce and the woman both take slightly unsteady steps forward and have their arms around each other, hugging tight enough that the woman's glasses push askew on Bruce's shoulder.

Pepper looks back at Tony, at a little bit of a loss; Tony matches her expression and just shrugs. Then he finishes pouring the extra drink, picks up two of them and wanders out from around the bar to hold the two glasses out to the two people still trying to crack each other's ribs.

"I'm going to go out on a limb," he says, casually, "and guess that this is Betty."

For just a second, Pepper thinks she sees a flash of annoyance on Natasha's face, probably at Tony pulling her introduction out from under her. But if it's there, it's gone again instantly and besides, Pepper might be projecting her own annoyance at his completely unenlightening comment, and the fact that it's unenlightening.

"Dr Elizabeth Ross," Natasha confirms and corrects, taking one of the glasses from Tony, since neither Bruce nor the woman in question seem inclined to take anything for the moment..

"Oh," Pepper says aloud as the name clicks and she remembers the background she read on the plane, waiting to see if the world was going to end.

Again.

*****

She'd meant to be more dignified, and she'd meant not to push it, for any available definition of it, but somehow that goes out the window the moment she sees Bruce's arm move like he might want to hold her, and then Betty's body has a mind of its own and wants to be where she's always felt she actually belongs.

Which is the stupidest, sappiest thing in the world, she thinks as her skin registers all the pressures and discomforts of a too-tight hug, but that doesn't stop it from being true. That's the problem. That's always been the problem. She dated before Bruce and she dated "after" Bruce, and it's never been true anywhere else. And it is here.

And for a heartbeat that thought makes her so unbelievably angry that she tightens her arms enough that she knows it has to hurt.

Bruce's hand presses against the back of her neck and she's got to be making it hard for him to breathe, and there are four people staring at them, two of whom she doesn't know at all and two that are hardly any better, but all that gets overridden by the part of her that remembers months of wondering if someone had managed to kill or catch him yet and comes with its own hissing internal soundtrack of do you have any idea how much I've worried you goddamn asshole . . . .

Betty hears her name over the rush in her ears, and by degrees she and Bruce let each other go, as by the same degrees awareness of their audience pushes itself to the front. She steps back but keeps a hold of Bruce's hand, and he doesn't pull it away.

"Uh," he says, running one hand through his hair, "yes. This is Dr Ross."

"Betty," Betty says, and then takes the glass of something alcoholic that's held out to her by - well, by Tony Stark, but she would rather have died than act like this matters at all and she's anything but graciously sanguine. And if that's Tony Stark then the woman she doesn't know has to be - oh, God, Betty thinks, I can't call a woman I haven't even met yet "Pepper", she has to have a real name - well, Ms Potts.

She sits on the desire to snap at either Agent Romanoff or Agent Barton that they could have tried to arrange it so she could see Bruce alone, but then she has to wonder if he would have tried to do again what he tried to do out the back of Stan's, to run away and disappear again, make her live with the choice.

"The author of the primer against gamma poisoning," Tony Stark says cheerfully, "among other things - I'd really like to talk to you about that, did you - "

"Tony!" Potts says, giving him a repressive look, and then to Betty she adds, "I'm sorry, ignore him. Pepper Potts," and she holds out one hand, "it's wonderful to meet you." Betty shakes hands, a little mechanically, as Stark protests.

"What?" he demands, gesturing with his own glass. "I respect and am fascinated by her work as a scientist, and I - "

Bruce gives Tony a very old look and says, "Quit while you're ahead." Stark hides a smirk behind his drink.

Agent Romanoff takes hold of the moment, cutting through at least most of the hesitation that's caught everyone by saying, "Dr Banner, SHIELD has asked Dr Ross to put her skills at our disposal; we think they'll be relevant."

"You didn't tell me," Bruce says in his calm-and-level voice, and Betty has to stamp down on the desire to snap, If you don't want me here - because that's a petty, emotional and simplistic response to a complicated knot of the things life throws at people.

Because it's Bruce and he can still read her body if not her mind, he glances at her and squeezes her hand like he's offering an apology.

"I suspected the knowledge might cause you to take precipitous action," Agent Romanoff says, calmly. "Of the kind you might on reflection regret." And Betty doesn't understand the look Bruce gives the woman at all this time.

After a pause he just murmurs, "Duly noted, Agent Romanoff," and for some reason that makes Agent Barton shift his weight, just a little bit.

"In the interests of totally demolishing this awkward moment," Stark announces brightly, "you're all invited to dinner, although since Agent Romanoff wasn't polite enough to RSVP we'll have to stall for a few minutes to let the kitchen scrape together a final plate, but we can do that more comfortably over cocktails and in my dining-room rather than my living-room. Which is that way," he finishes, gesturing with his clasped hands over Betty's head towards a doorway she hadn't really noticed.

Not that she'd noticed much besides the human occupants of the room anyway.

As everyone starts to move, Bruce squeezes her hand again and she pauses to look at him, and sees every familiar bit of sincerity when he says, "You look wonderful."

She manages a smile, which gets easier once she gets started. "I missed you," she replies and keeps hold of his hand until they actually sit down to dinner.

Chapter Text

Tony Stark turns out to be a lot less obnoxious than Betty thought he might be, and by the time the meal is over and Tony's making espresso, she thinks she genuinely likes Pepper, who handles being totally at sea in a technical conversation really well. Agent Barton disappears almost immediately after dinner, but Agent Romanoff stays for a while and eventually tells Betty to call her "Natasha", which means that Betty nixes "Dr Ross" in favour of "Betty".

Tony Stark also turns out to be extremely good at talking people into things, and before coffee's finished Betty's had to catch herself twice to keep from agreeing to stay on retainer and develop . . . she's not even sure what, quite, but something to do with clean energy generation. She manages to keep her commitment to the level of "I'll think about it." Pepper gives her a lot of knowing looks.

Natasha slips off at some point, and then Pepper's calling a halt, reminding Tony that he's got an early meeting with someone who sounds extremely important and offering to show Betty to her guest-room.

Bruce says he knows where it is, and he'll take her. He lets the elevator doors slide closed before he says, "So how hard are you working to keep from yelling at me for disappearing and not contacting you or telling you where I was?"

She dated before Bruce Banner and in a way she dated after him, and it's not that he's perfect, and it's not even that she isn't angry with him now, with months of stored fear and worry and loss behind all of the anger like jet fuel, but -

But.

"I'm trying not to wreck the moment," she says.

There's a humility to Bruce, as natural and intrinsic to him as Tony Stark's boundless self-confidence seems to be to him, humility that isn't about self-loathing or even self-deprecation, that's just about getting himself out of the way of the world. Brilliance that doesn't resent other brilliance, and then there's just Bruce, and she's missed him very, very badly.

"But I could yell if you want," she adds, as the elevator slows and stops, and the doors slide open.

Bruce gestures to the right, and just says, "I'm sorry." Which maybe isn't enough, but she thinks it might be sincere, and besides, what else is there?

"Where were you?" Betty asks, as they find the right door, get it open and she finds the light-switch. The guest "room" is less a room and more a small-ish apartment, and for just a second Betty is distracted by wondering what the hell you did with that much money.

Build giant towers in New York, she supposes.

Someone's already brought her stuff up, and provided a litter-box for Ringo in the corner, and let Ringo out: she can see reflective cat-eyes from under the bed, where he'll undoubtedly sulk for most of the night.

"Canada," Bruce says. He sits down on the table facing one of the arm-chairs, a quintessentially Bruce thing to do, so much so that it makes her chest hurt a little. She sits down in the arm-chair. "Went back to Brazil for a while. India."

"We always said we'd go to India," Betty says, and Bruce winces.

"It wasn't really a good time," he says quietly. "I wasn't . . . my head wasn't really on well for a while."

Betty can't think of anything useful to say; she falls back on, "Thank you for getting my necklace back." And then, "You could have found a way to let me know you were okay."

Bruce looks down at his hands. "I know."

She folds her arms, more for some kind of comfort than because she's managing to maintain any kind of real aggravation, and says, "You're not going to tell me you did it for my own good?"

Bruce winces. "Well," he says, "that is what I was thinking at the time, but I can't see it being anything but really, really stupid to say now."

That's enough to make her eyes blur a little, but she manages to keep her voice clear enough to say, "It was stupid then."

"Granted," Bruce replies, "but it would be stupider now, right?"

Betty blinks her eyes quickly, trying to get rid of the wet, and her voice is a little less steady when she says, "I missed you. And I really, really worried about you."

Bruce looks down again and looks guilty and looks like he's trying to find something to answer her with, and eventually he says, "If it helps, I think by this point we've firmly established that I'm next to invulnerable."

A laugh sort of chokes its way up through the control, and then Betty manages, "Jerk," and he catches her hand.

"I was really, really happy to see you," he says, and she laughs again, less choking this time.

"Liar," she says, and he smiles, even if it's a bit twisted.

"Okay," he admits, "I was happy after the few seconds of total abject panic and the momentary desire to chuck Natasha out the window."

"I heard you beat up a god," Betty says.

"That, I really wish I could remember clearly," Bruce replies. Her hand is still between his and she leans forward to kiss him on the cheek. He rests one hand against her hair.

"I'm not afraid of you," she says, resting her forehead against his, and Bruce sighs.

"I know," he tells her. "And that scares the shit out of me."  

Betty sits up, remembering, and reaches into her bra to pull out the drawstring bag full of flashdrives. Bruce opens the bag and gives a surprised laugh.

"How many copies did you keep?"

"There's only pieces on each one," Betty says, "and it's hiding in, well - " she coughs. "Porn."

When Bruce manages to stop laughing, she goes on, "As far as I can see, we have anything we want to ask for from Stark Industries. Maybe this time we could do something with it." She shrugs. "Whatever . . . something we decide we want to do."

Bruce puts the bag aside, and Betty says, "The world almost got conquered by aliens. I figure anything has to be possible."

When Bruce looks up at her, his mouth isn't smiling, but his eyes are. "I missed you," he says.  

*****

About halfway through eating, five other people, the noise they make, the idea of food and a memory he can't quite grasp twist together to hit Too Much, so Clint politely (well, for him) makes his escape as soon as desert's cleared away.

The advantage of Stark Tower is that there's a lot of Up, and while it's not necessarily a great thing that enough of nearby New York is still in enough rubble to give him a really good view of the surround, it's at least a calming sight. For him. He doesn't have his bow but that's probably all to the good, really: less temptation to let paranoia turn into action when his only weapon is his last-resort gun. Tasha's right, in that he's more than good enough with it to have pasted Fury's brains all over the wall with his P30 if he'd decided to, but that doesn't mean he likes the gun much.

Clint rests his arms on his bent knees and, after trying to think about something else for almost ten minutes straight, gives up and starts niggling at the memory just out of his reach.

Tasha finds him about an hour later, and he takes a moment to admire how she casually makes her way across surfaces and at heights that would have any sane person sweating and clinging to whatever stayed under their feet, or possibly more relevantly would keep any sane person from trying to come out here at all.

He bites back saying have I mentioned that not killing you is the best call I ever made in my life? on the basis that if he says that out loud, she might put him under psych observation for the next month. It's just possible she should anyway, but it doesn't sound like his idea of fun, so he'll avoid it if he can. Instead, he calls out, "So, what are your personal odds on getting a chance to test your theory about Ross by the end of tonight?" which, seeing as it's a direct prod to the thing that's eating at her, is probably not a much better idea.

"You noticed too, then," Tasha replies, sitting down beside him on the ledge and looking out over broken buildings and construction cranes. She means the moment Ross's posture and tells went from anxious and relieved to sitting on anger. "I wondered what that effect would be."

"Yeah, well, what would you do if I disappeared on you 'for your own good'?" Clint asks and Tasha laughs softly.

"Well," she says, "I'd probably start with breaking every bow you own into two inch pieces - "

"Right," he says. After a pause he adds, "So don't you ever do it either," and earns himself the Barton, get your head examined expression. It makes him look away, pretending to take in the view; he asks, "What does it remind you of?" to fill up the silence and maybe deflect a question or two. Or an appraising look.

"Sarajevo," she says. Her voice is distant and Clint doesn't say anything; Sarajevo is another one of those times where he knows what it's left her with, but he doesn't know exactly what happened. And that brings him back to the memory in the murk and words that stick.

Tasha lets him get away with that for about five minutes before she says, "Well?" and she's waiting, and he still can't be sure of everything that sits under I've been compromised, but he thinks he knows part of it.

So he says, "I told him everything about you, didn't I."

He can't actually remember, and he wonders if it's something like cowardice that he's kind of glad - but he has something like the memory of a memory, the knowledge that once he knew this and what he knew.

Tasha says, her voice totally even and calm, "Probably. He made you tell him a lot, anyway."

"Fuck," Clint says, simply, and "I'm sorry."

"You didn't have a choice," Tasha replies, absolution so easy it bothers him, except he can't think of what else she could say. "I'm not really worried about it." Her voice is still calm and he looks at her hard, but he can't see anything else in her face or her body, either. Can't see any tells, any indication it's a lie.

But she's had a long time to learn how to lie to him. "Why not?" he asks, flat, and she gives him what he'll always think of as her black-widow smile, no matter how ridiculous that sounds. It's the first smile he ever got out of her.

"We're talking about someone who thought killing his brother and committing genocide would make his adopted father love him more," she says. "Someone who's completely hung up on ruling a world that'd have him neck deep in a revolt three minutes after he managed to take the throne, assuming he ever did." The smile comes back, sharper this time and she meets Clint's eyes when she says, "We're talking about someone who thought he could scare me and hurt me, and that scaring me and hurting me would make one God-damn bit of difference. I'm not really worried what he knows about me, Barton. I'm more than a bit beyond him."

She's talking about the guy who emptied Clint out of his own head and poured himself in, who scares Clint enough that he has to hate the guy just to have a wall to put up, and Clint still believes her. "I love you," he says, because he's always been an idiot, and also because the other words he could come up with right now are lies. And he's too tired to lie.

This smile doesn't have any edges except the one Natalia Romanova couldn't be herself without, and she runs fingers once through his hair.

"I know," she says. And adds, "There's some footage off the carrier I want you to watch, assuming it survived. I think it might help."

"It's amazing," Clint says, striving for something like a normal tone, "how you can get used to being recorded all the time."

"It has its uses," Tasha replies. "We confiscated a camera off a reporter that has a really good shot of your arrow blowing Loki into the tower."

"I think I want a copy of that," he says. "What all did we confiscate, anyway?"

"Anything that got a clear picture of faces - yours, mine, Rogers', Banner's."

"What did Fury do about the staff at the shawarma place?"

"I think he hired one of them and bought off the others," Tasha replies. Then she says, "Come down and go to bed. It's getting cold up here."

*****

Paranoia is defined by irrational or unwarranted beliefs, and as such it isn't paranoia that keeps Natalia awake about an hour after Clint falls asleep, it's reasonable concern.

By about an hour later, though, the balance of probability is that if there were going to be an explosion, it would have happened by now. So Natalia relaxes and lets herself drift into the kind of sleep that would evaporate at the least excuse.

She'll finish making friends with Elizabeth Ross in the morning.