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A Fine Spur

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*

Fear is a fine spur; so is rage. ~Irish proverb

*

Three weeks after Bruce left New York, Black Widow found him in Honduras.

Bruce had thought that when someone came after him, it would be Tony. He should have known that Tony wouldn’t seek him out, after the way they’d parted, and of course S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t going to leave him alone. He just didn’t really expect it to be Natasha.

She was wearing a long dark skirt and a white blouse and sitting at his table—his only table—when Bruce came in from a house call.

He sort of started when he saw her sitting there. Then he figured it was going to happen anyway, and he preferred someone he knew to yet another stranger. “Last time, the world was in danger,” he said, putting down his bag. He didn’t even really look at her. “Can the solar system at least be threatened this time? Got to up the stakes for the sequel.”

“Hello, Doctor Banner,” she said.

“Hello, Natasha.” Bruce took the things out of his bag that needed to be sterilized, and pulled out the clean towels in their plastic bags. “Make yourself at home.”

Natasha, already looking quite comfortable, didn’t bother to look around. It was a small bungalow, running water, no electricity. “It’s going to be murder in the summer,” she murmured.

“It’s already murder.” He lit the stove and put the water on to boil. There were plenty of areas in the country better off than this, but the nearest hospital wasn’t for miles.

Bruce did what he could. He’d taken medical courses in Bangkok, worked with a renowned physician in Alexandria, studied with a team of doctors in Zagreb. He still didn’t have a medical degree, though. “Well,” he said, finally turning around. “I’m waiting.”

“Watched pot never boils.”

Bruce just looked at her. The corner of her mouth didn’t turn up when she was only smiling a little. It pushed in, almost making a dimple. “What does Fury want?” he asked, turning back to the stove.

“He wants you to come back.”

Bruce nodded. “What for?”

“He wants you to train.”

“Train.” Bruce turned back to the water and equipment.

“He thinks you can control it,” said Natasha.

“Sounds very optimistic.” Bruce started putting the needles in the water, one at a time. “Does he think that’s going to get me to come to—where? New York?”

“New York,” she said.

Bruce nodded again. “And what do you think?”

She didn’t even pause. “You’re too stubborn to come to New York.”

“Stubborn.” Bruce laughed a little. “So why are you here?”

This time there was a pause, and Bruce got interested enough to turn around. She was just looking at him, her hair a little longer than it had been in New York. He was surprised to see it was just plain brown at the roots, a little sandy, and then he wondered why he was surprised. “I thought the weather might be nice.”

“That’s optimistic, too.” He looked at her a little too long, and she held his gaze. Turning back to the water, he took the needles out, laying them on the towels.

She was quiet, presumably watching as he put the tweezers in the water for a minute and fished them out again, and finally did the clamps a second time. Then he took those out too and wiped everything down with the clean towels, wrapping everything up and sealing it in plastic.

At last he turned to look at her again. She lifted her eyes from his hands to his face and said, “I have my own reasons.”

He dried his hands. “You want some coffee?”

“It’s hot.”

He rubbed his thumb over his fingers. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” she said, so he started making coffee, another pot on to boil.

“You got a team waiting outside?” He dumped some beans on the mortar and got to grinding. He didn’t actually like doing things with his hands all that much. Cooking was a little like lab work, but it bored him; even suturing wounds bored him, but he had to concentrate on them, and that was good. Gave him something to do, other than go crazy.

“You know I don’t.”

Bruce glanced up. “Do I?”

She pursed her lips. She had full, pink lips. Bruce sort of wish he hadn’t noticed them, and she said, “Check.”

“I will,” he said, “after coffee.” He turned back to the pestle. “Coffee beans are best within five months of picking. Five days of roasting. Five minutes of grinding. Five seconds of filtering. A woman in Guatemala told me.”

“We’re in Honduras.”

He could hear a little trace of smile in her voice, which was just odd. He remembered how she sounded, right when he was trying to kill her, all the little catches of her breath inside her chest, the high, tight sound of her fear. He wished he hadn’t noticed that, either, but he had. He always did. “I move around,” was all he said.

“Do you bring all that with you?”

He knew what she was referring to without turning around. ‘All that’ was a sealed room with a generator and lab equipment. That room was air conditioned. Where he slept wasn’t. “Usually I don’t,” he said.

“Still looking for a cure?”

“That’s really none of your business.” The coffee pot was clay and shaped a little like a gourd. You just put the cloth on the top and the grounds on top of that, and poured the water, a little bit at a time.

“There’s something I’ve been wondering,” Natasha said. “After you crashed. Why did you come to Manhattan? You could have left that fight. Walked away.”

He smiled at the coffee pot. “Are you here to appeal to my better nature?” He poured a little more water in. “Hate to break it to you, mean as the other guy is, this guy isn’t so nice, either.”

“You know, that’s what I thought,” she said. “Then you came back.”

“Tony wants me to be a superhero.” He kept pouring the water. “Tony Stark, of all people.”

“You’re not a superhero.”

“I’m not? Then what does Fury want?”

“You’re getting frustrated.”

He glanced back at her. She wasn’t even looking at him; she was looking out the window. Quintessential spy, gave nothing away, and yeah, that frustrated him a little, especially when he knew he could make her afraid. A part of him wanted to make her afraid. He told himself it was just so that she would go away, but that wasn’t the whole truth. “Does that frighten you?” he asked.

Slowly, she turned back to him. “You could scare any rational person, if you really wanted.”

Finished pouring the water, he took off the cloth, then got out the cups. Rinsed them out with the not-quite-clear water from the sink, then poured the coffee. “I don’t think it’s ever been about what I want.”

She was quiet, then, and he brought the coffee over to her. She took it, and he sat down across from her. Looking down at the coffee, she said, “All my life, people have used me. Made me into things that I don’t want to be. Made me do things that I don’t want to do.”

His eyes searched her face, looking for the trick in that, the lie. He wasn’t sure it mattered that there must be an ulterior motive to explain why Natasha Romanoff was in his living room (kitchen? It was kind of only one room) finally revealing personal information about herself. The thing was, it was probably true. “I’m sorry,” he said, rather carefully.

She looked at him, her face blank again. “Don’t be. No one controls me now.”

His voice was still very careful when he said, “What about Fury?”

“I don’t do whatever Fury tells me to.” She took a small sip of the coffee. “It’s good.”

Bruce’s mouth twisted. “It’s too hot to taste.”

Giving a little shrug, she said, “I like it.”

“Yeah.” He looked out the window. Outside there was a dirt road, a lean-to shack constructed mostly out of corrugated metal, a dusty pick-up, and some birds. It was unclear where S.H.I.E.L.D. would be hiding, if they were here, though no doubt that was part and parcel to their many talents. If they didn’t want to be seen, they wouldn’t be.

Still, last time Romanoff had led him to a location of her choosing precisely so that she could have the upper hand; he had chosen this particular living quarters because there was a lot of open space. It couldn’t easily be ambushed, and there wasn’t much in the near vicinity to destroy. He turned back to Natasha, who was just sitting there drinking her coffee. “Why are you here?” he asked her again.

“Tourism,” she said.

“I’m asking nicely.”

“I can tell.” She took another sip of her coffee.

He knocked the coffee out of her hand, standing up, slamming her hand down on the table. “Not so nice, now.”

She was stiff under his hand, leaning back at an awkward angle to look at him, but she didn’t otherwise react. He knew that she could have; he was only using one hand, and he had seen her flip people—aliens—twice her weight with less leverage. Last time she had pulled a gun.

She didn’t say anything, her eyes as steady and defiant as always, and yet, there were other ways to show fear—the flare of her nostrils, the sweat at the side of her neck, the quickness of her breath. No one controls me, she had said.

“Congratulations,” he said, letting her go very carefully. “You’re a rational person.”

Her breathing gradually slowed as the stiffness melted away. Bruce went to go get a towel to clean up the coffee, then put his cup in front of her. “If you really like it, you can have mine. I haven’t touched it.”

She looked up at him. “It doesn’t feel rational.”

He shook his head. “Fear is good. It’s useful.”

Moving the coffee a precise distance away, she stood up. “Not if you don’t want to spend your life running.”

“I’m sorry I grabbed you.” He realized he was twisting the towel in his hands, and made himself stop. “You can keep whatever secrets you want.”

“This isn’t a secret, Bruce. If you’re so afraid of something that you can’t face it, it will be the thing that kills you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Bruce.

*

Natasha stayed in Honduras for three weeks. For the first week, Bruce wasn’t sure sure where she was living; he just heard that she was around—gringa, pelliroja. He wasn’t sure what she was doing there; she was just there, apparently moving about the little village, asking questions. Making her presence known.

Natasha Romanoff wasn’t exactly the easiest person to figure out, but she wasn’t really hiding her motives, either.

It made sense that she was afraid of him. Every other opponent she had ever faced she could either knock out or outwit. The Chitauri were physically much stronger, but she had still been able to find their weak points, still been able to best them in a battle because she was quicker, smarter, more agile. And Loki may have been crazy, but at least he still had a mind; he listened when you talked to him, even when he thought he wasn’t, and in the end Natasha had still been able to squeeze him.

The common thugs she must have faced every day were nothing to her, and Bruce was not unconscious of the fact that it was Natasha who had stopped the Tesseract. Even Tony had failed to figure it out, and even though Natasha hadn’t been the one to light upon the failsafe, it had been she who had gone back up there—the greatest power this world had ever seen taken down by some simple cleverness—the refusal to accept that anything was unstoppable.

All of Natasha Romanoff’s brains and brawn weren’t anything, though, against the Hulk. The Hulk didn’t have weak spots, and she couldn’t reason with him. He was unbeatable, even though for her, nothing was, and that terrified her. He was the only thing that could make her afraid, and what Bruce had gathered was, she didn’t like it.

Natasha Romanoff was a person who had spent almost her entire life under someone else’s thumb. She’d been manipulated, twisted by lies and by kind words—but always in the end by fear, Bruce had no doubt. Deceit could only mold a person so far. The second strongest thing on Earth was fear, and it could make a person just as easily as break them.

The strongest thing on Earth was rage, and that was what made Natasha Romanoff who she was right now—someone who was going to fight anyone and anything who made her feel like she once had, when she wasn’t in control.

Bruce didn’t like it, but he didn’t know how to make her see. Deep down, he just wished that she would go away. It hadn’t been so bad here, and he hated running. He thought about Tony’s words, and Natasha’s—coward, they would call him, but it wasn’t that he wished he had the courage she did.

He was just tired. He was really, really tired.

He just wanted to be left alone.

*

One week later, Bruce’s phone rang. He wasn’t expecting it, not in the least because he didn’t have a phone, and there wasn’t a single cell tower in the area.

When Natasha had left, he had checked the place for bugs, not because he really thought that they wouldn’t follow him wherever he decided to move, but because making it harder on them pleased him. Somehow he’d missed the half-pound brick that Natasha had left at the back of a cabinet. Funny, because he’d checked there.

“I think you left something at my house,” Bruce said, when he answered the phone.

“Doctor Banner,” Fury said. He didn’t sound real pleased.

“Think you’ve got the wrong number.” Bruce should have hung up right then, but he didn’t. He had this problem; he wanted to know what was going on. It got him into trouble. Running his thumb over his fingers, he listened.

“Where is Agent Romanoff?” said Fury.

“Maybe you shouldn’t leave your things lying around,” said Bruce. “Then they wouldn’t get lost.”

“I could care less about your trauma for once, Banner. Hold your dick and cry about it, run off with your tail between your legs; I don’t care, just where is Agent Romanoff?

“Hold my dick and cry about it?” Bruce asked, because this had to be a trick. He just hadn’t figured out what kind, yet. He waited, but Fury didn’t say anything, and yeah, Bruce had a problem. “Right,” he said, “maybe if I had some context for your courtesy call . . .”

“She was sent to haul your ass up.” Bruce could hear Fury’s frown. “Six days ago, she reported you’re a stubborn bastard—”

“She said that? But we had such a nice conversation.”

Fury didn’t even dignify that with a response. Gosh, he must be really upset. “Said she had business in the area. Haven’t heard from her since.”

“Um,” said Bruce. “Maybe she’s gone shopping.”

“Cut the bullshit, Banner.”

Bruce hated that some people could make him feel so guilty for being impolite. Especially when they were people like Fury. “Look, I’ve heard that she’s been around. If she hasn’t checked in, maybe she just . . .” He rubbed his thumb over his fingers. “Wanted some time off from your leash. Plenty of people have seen her around, if you’d bothered to check.”

“We’ve been monitoring her,” Fury said, still irritated. “She appeared to be casing the area. I thought she was looking for a way to convince you to come back—she’s dedicated that way,” unlike some people, went unspoken. “Twelve hours ago, she just—disappeared.”

“Sorry she slipped your radar,” Bruce said, but he was starting to get a bad feeling about this.

“So I followed up,” said Fury, going on as though Bruce hadn’t interrupted. “Turns out her little sabbatical was nothing to do with you. It’s the Hand.”

Bruce glanced out the window. It was twilight, finally cooling down. “Right or left?”

“One of the organizations that tried to brainwash her.”

One of the must mean there had been more than one. Bruce just kept looking at the window, the purple light, the heavy, wet air, but the hand not holding the phone was tightening into a fist. “There are brainwashing ninjas in Honduras?” he asked, because lots of time he feigned ignorance, but he knew what the Hand was.

“You could knock me over too,” said Fury.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Find her,” said Fury.

“Sorry, I left my GPS at home.” Bruce turned away from the window. “Why don’t you send some of your little men?”

“You think I’d be talking to you if they’d found something?”

“Um.” Bruce scratched the back of his neck, but mostly he was thinking about Natasha’s breathing. He’d thought about it a little too much in the past week, the way she sounded when she was afraid, the way she didn’t want to be afraid, the way he didn’t want her to fear him, and yet he really, really did. The way another part of him liked that she feared him. “Yeah? You have to admit this does sound like some sort of perfect set-up to make Banner a team-player.”

“Fuck you.” Fury could be so succinct. “Black Widow is ten times the asset you are.”

“I don’t think Natasha would particularly like being called an asset,” Bruce pointed out.

“This isn’t about you,” Fury said.

“When it comes to me,” said Bruce, “it’s always about me.”

He thought about taking the phone apart. What he really wanted to do was smash it to bits, so he didn’t do anything with it, just pressed “OFF” and put it carefully on the table. He went to go stand by the window, where the light was no longer purple, just this steel gray edging into black.

One hand was still a fist and the other hand was sort of rubbing over it, again and again. He wasn’t sure he could stop it. He needed to go to bed. He needed to sleep; he needed to do anything except stare out this window and think about Natasha Romanoff.

Sometimes she seemed very young, when she smiled, when she pressed her lips together, when her brow furrowed and she looked troubled, which wasn’t very often. What must it be like to be brainwashed, to have something controlling you that wasn’t you, to know what you were doing, but be unable to stop it—Bruce asked himself the question, but he already knew the answer.

Bruce left the window, sat down, took off his shoes. Left them by the door, grabbed his key, went outside into the black. He only had the one pair of shoes. It’d be a shame to bust them; it was best to be prepared. Bruce got in the pick-up and revved the engine.

Nick Fury was a goddamn bastard.

*

It wasn’t easy to find her. Bruce had thought maybe it would be, because this was obviously a set-up, which meant S.H.I.E.L.D. either just wasn’t looking that hard, or hadn’t even lost her in the first place. The problem was that Fury was just the sort of person not to let Natasha in on this little charade, and it was unclear whether Fury was just enough an asshole to really pit her against what could very well be her worst nightmare.

Sure, Natasha could probably handle herself. That didn’t stop Bruce from worrying about her, and it certainly didn’t stop him from thinking all these thoughts about being used, about being a tool, a weapon. He kept thinking about how Natasha wanted to be in control, about how she didn’t want to be afraid, and here was Fury using her just like any finely tuned, well-oiled instrument that would go off the second he said, “Pow.”

Bruce gripped the steering wheel tighter and told himself, “Not yet, Banner.”

Not yet.

He had one advantage over S.H.I.E.L.D.’s many eyes and secret cameras, and that was that he knew the village and the people in it, and they trusted him. And so, even though it took longer than expected, he eventually picked up a lead—and old man who had seen the pelliroja talking to a stranger. They had gone in the direction of Juticalpa, the nearest city, and from there Bruce just had to make stops along the way to follow similar leads.

He finally stopped at a dairy farm some time near dawn, somewhere between La Concepción and the city. He stopped the truck, got out. Still barefoot, he walked about a mile through the fields to a worn-down looking barn.

There were some men, a couple ladies, amounting to about a dozen. They were dressed rather differently than most the natives, and they were speaking Russian. The light in here was electric, and nothing at all like what you would expect to find in a barn off in the country.

Bruce looked up. Natasha was in the rafters. She met his eyes and held them.

The men and women on the floor were talking about nuclear weapons, how they were going to get them, what they were going to do once they got them. No big deal. They hadn’t seen Natasha yet, and they probably wouldn’t, unless she chose to be seen, and that was her call. She wouldn’t be here if she couldn’t take them. He could just walk away.

He turned around to do so.

A beam creaked behind him. Staying where he was, Bruce turned to look. Natasha had taken a step in the rafters, the guilty beam underfoot. She stood there, frozen, and all the people on the ground were looking up at her.

Then she burst into action, swinging down from the rafters even as they shot at her—not guns, something else; she took down someone in her landing and someone else directly after with a leg thrown out. Then she was up, and Bruce thought that he could still walk away.

Natasha had the situation under control. Sure, that creaky board was a big mistake and maybe things were a little harder now, but it would really be a shame to give her too little credit. It would probably be just the sort of reaction she always got—someone rushing in to save her, thinking she was vulnerable, she couldn’t handle it—but she was a big girl.

Give her a little space. A little independence. No one else did, not even Fury; you can do it just walk away, Bruce told himself, and saw that he was holding the edge of the barn door very, very tightly.

No one saw him there; they were concentrating on her. She seemed to be everywhere at once, and then there was some kind of gas. Bruce couldn’t tell whether she’d released it or whether they had, whether she was hurt, whether she could breathe—the way that she breathed when she was afraid, the short sharp gasps of her inhalation—he didn’t know whether she was okay, and she was here because of him, because she had come to find him, because S.H.I.E.L.D. sent her and it wasn’t fair—

But he wasn’t angry.

The gas was thick and he couldn’t see. It didn’t smell at all. When it began to thin, he saw her and the three guys holding her down, and okay, that made him kind of mad.

“Where are the others?” one of the men said. He was holding her, but he was also holding a knife.

“Wait,” Natasha said, “so you’re implying it would take more than me to kick your ass?”

“Who are you with?” said the man. He brought the knife closer.

“No one.” Natasha’s eyes were angry and defiant, but Bruce knew the cadence of her breath.

He knew it very well. There were other ways to reveal fear; her nostrils flared.

“Now everybody just calm down,” Natasha said, because they must have hit her while Bruce had tried to loosen his grip on the beam, and couldn’t seem to. He wasn’t even sure when he had come far enough inside the barn to be clutching a beam. The barn was shuddering; no one seemed to notice him. Except Natasha, who looked at her captors and said, “Take a deep breath. Don’t get angry.”

She was terrified.

He took a deep breath.

“Now turn around,” she said, “and walk away.”

“That’s not going to happen,” said the man holding Natasha. “We remember you, Romanoff.”

Natasha’s breath caught.

Bruce,” she said.

Several men turned toward him. Natasha burst out of the grip of the men holding her, and a knife slashed through her shoulder. The barn seemed to be collapsing, Bruce noticed distantly.

Nothing else about it was distant; it wasn’t the case that he didn’t know what he was doing when he was the Hulk.

He knew that he was picking men up and throwing them around. He knew that he wanted to break their necks; he knew that he shouldn’t want to and that he didn’t care. He knew that he wanted them to go away, and if he could just throw them far enough or bash them hard enough they would stop moving around; they would stop panicking like little insects, waving their arms. And if he tore down the building maybe they would not only stop, but maybe everything would stop. Maybe he would stop, and it would be all over, and he wouldn’t be angry any more, just tired.

He hated them for doing that to him, for making him into this; he hated her, but he still knew what he was doing, so when he saw a woman aiming at Natasha while she was fighting three other guys at once, the Hulk slapped the woman down. Hulk also brushed aside the other three, coming toward Natasha, and she scrambled back. He knew he’d seen her do that once before.

“Bruce,” she whispered.

Her breath came hard and her nostrils flared, her eyes afraid.

He turned around, left her there, went to go obliterate the other guys, because he knew what he was doing. He also knew he couldn’t stop.

*

When Bruce woke up, he was in a field.

He was pretty far from the barn, but sort of near his truck, which was burning. He must have thrown it. The Hulk didn’t much like cars. Bruce had a theory that they frustrated him because he didn’t fit into them. The Hulk really wasn’t very bright.

Bruce walked toward it, trying to assess the damage. He usually kept a spare set of clothes in there, which wasn’t very helpful, considering.

“Bruce.”

It was pretty much the last person he wanted to see. Even Fury would have been better.

“Hey,” Natasha said. Then she threw a rock.

It didn’t hit him, but she still threw it. He stopped, didn’t turn around. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said.

She kept on walking toward him; he could hear it. He wanted to keep on walking too, get away from her, but somehow he couldn’t make himself.

“I brought you some clothes,” she said, and her hand appeared, then her arm. Then she was beside him, holding out the clothes.

He took them, finding the pants in the pile, pulling those on first. They were clothes the guys in the barn had been wearing, mostly black and gray. She’d found some without any blood on them; he wasn’t sure how she’d managed to do that. He would have thought they’d all have blood on them. As he was picking up the shirt, turning it, trying to find the head hole, he looked up. “You’re hurt.”

She glanced at her shoulder. “It’s a scratch.”

“Big scratch.”

She frowned. “How did you find me?”

“Um,” he said. “I looked.” He put on the shirt. “Fury told me you’d gone off the radar.”

She bowed her head. “He should not have done that.”

For some reason, her brown roots broke his heart, and he hated everything about himself. Every. Single. Goddamn Thing. “I’ve decided Fury is a dick,” he offered. “If it’s any consolation. I’m sorry. I bet you wanted me to stay away.”

“No.” She shook her head, still bowed. “Fury was just looking out for me.” She looked up, shaking her hair back. There was a swipe of blood across her cheek. “I’m not upset that you came.”

He shook his head as well. “It was your fight. I just—”

She snorted. “You think I care who’s fight it was? Those guys, they hurt people. They needed to be taken down. I don’t care how.”

“You should,” he said.

“I don’t,” she said.

He looked at her a little while. It was sunny, approaching noon. She looked worn and hot and sticky, tendrils of hair clinging to her neck, blood streaked across her front, a frown puckering her lips, and it occurred to him that she was very, very pretty.

He hadn’t thought a girl was pretty in quite some time; it didn’t mean that he didn’t think about sex, because he thought about sex fairly frequently. He’d thought about sex pretty much the moment he saw her. He imagined she got that reaction a lot and he wasn’t exactly proud of it, but it was a natural, deep-seated response that he didn’t think he could really control, no matter how much he wanted to. He could, however, stop himself from doing anything about it, and even though it was hard to stop thinking about sex, it was really easy to keep himself from thinking about things like pretty girls and kissing, and secrets shared in sunlight.

“The shoes aren’t your size,” she said.

“Yeah.” Bruce sat down and put them on. “I broke my truck.”

“I’m sure you can get a new one. Come on. We’ll take the car.”

He didn’t ask what car; he just followed her.

She didn’t say anything. It was sort of nice, walking quietly with someone, not having to say anything. Even so, it was hot and he was tired, and bugs were bad, this part of the country, especially when you were kind of soaked in blood. He could have killed her, and even though he hadn’t, he didn’t know how many people he had killed. He was probably walking in a dead man’s shoes, for Christ’s sake, and even if Fury hadn’t planned this he was probably satisfied that it had happened. Whatever it took to get Bruce Banner out and Hulk in, that was S.H.I.E.L.D.

“You think too loud.” Natasha didn’t even look over at him.

“Who were those people?”

“Fury didn’t tell you?”

“The Hand?”

She shook her head. “They’re not the Hand. They’re wannabes.”

“That’s . . . great.” Not that having wholesale slaughtered a bunch of mindwashing ninjas would have been okay, but it was even less okay that he’d only managed to stomp on a bunch of wannabe mindwashing ninjas, who had maybe never once washed any minds, who had maybe never hurt anyone at all, who—

“I said you think too loud. They were bad.”

“Um.” Bruce scratched the back of his neck. “Well, I’ve known some bad guys. A bad . . . guy. I’m sorry, could you define ‘bad’?”

Natasha then proceeded to define bad. It included the usual child prostitution and drugs, with a side of nuclear terrorism and secret coups and not so secret genocide.

Bruce waved his hand. “I . . . this actually isn’t really helping any.”

“You wanted to know.”

“Yeah.” Hunching his shoulders, he asked, “How did you know they were here?”

She shrugged. “Caught a whiff.”

Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers. “More to the point: why are they here?”

“That’s what I was trying to find out,” Natasha said.

“Maybe they’re after a weapon of mass destruction.”

“We’re in Honduras.”

“No.” Bruce walked past her. “I’m in Honduras.”

She called after him. “Not everything is about you, Doctor Banner.”

Fury had said the same thing.

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

*

They went back to his bungalow. Natasha needed stitches.

She took off her shirt as she walked in. Trying not to stare, Bruce put the water on to boil again. When he turned around, Natasha was slipping her arm out of the strap of her flesh-colored bra, and Bruce wished he didn’t know exactly where to look.

He took a clean towel out of its sanitized bag and dipped it in the boiling water. Waiting a moment for it to cool, he folded it and squeezed it, then brought it over to her.

“Thanks,” she said, and put it on the injured shoulder. It was an awkward angle for her. Bruce went back over to the water.

He laid another clean towel out and put the tweezers on it, the thread and needle.

“You better come over here,” she said. “The light’s better.”

He brought the equipment over to her. She was sitting on the table, back to him, dabbing at her wound.

There were other scratches, none of them as bloody. Some bruises were starting to form. There were about as many scars, all of them faded. “I was going to ask whether you’ve done this,” he said.

She glared at him over her shoulder.

“I bet S.H.I.E.L.D. has doctors. Why don’t you call Fury?” he asked. He wanted to change out of his dead man’s clothes, but it felt sort of rude to leave Natasha bleeding on his table. “I seem to remember I have a phone lying around here.”

“Just because I’m not upset you came doesn’t mean I always want Nick in my business.”

Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers to keep himself from playing with the gauze. “Nick,” he said, because no one ever called him that.

She frowned down at her wound again. “Let’s go.”

“I bet S.H.I.E.L.D.’s doctors are . . . medical.”

“What?” she snapped. She sounded annoyed, and then she looked at his face. Slowly, her lips parted, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. “Hey,” she said, much more gently.

“Pretty corrupt, actually,” he said, thumb kind of going crazy over his fingers. “Practicing without a license. Irresponsible science. You’d think I’d learn.”

“Hey,” she said again. Swinging her legs up, she turned on the table, putting herself at an angle so that her hand could cover his own. “Stop it. I need stitches now.”

“Yeah.” Not really looking at her, he took his hand away. He didn’t want to touch her; that was sort of the point. “Okay.”

Going around to the other side of the table, it was easier to look at her—just a woman’s back, mostly bare, that was all. He pulled her hair away from her neck, and felt like a complete bastard for noticing all over again the smoothness of her skin where it wasn’t scarred, creamy colored, dotted with moles. She looked soft and supple, and he thought that maybe the reason that she got to him the way that plenty of other pretty patients didn’t was because she knew exactly what he was, and yet was holding perfectly still under his dark hands.

He put his glasses on, then cleaned her shoulder again, this time with alcohol. When he finally threaded the needle, his hands were steady. Then he pulled the flesh together, put the needle in. She made a little noise, her sound of pain so like her sounds of terror, and it made him wonder what she would sound like in another situation all together.

Jesus Christ, but he was a sick fuck.

“You didn’t hurt me,” she said, as though reading his thoughts.

He tied off the thread, then pierced her flesh again. “I could have,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“I’m not,” she said.

He tied off the thread. “You should be.” Cleaning the wound again with alcohol, her pressed a little harder than perhaps he should have.

“I noticed some things.” She sounded like she wasn’t even wincing.

He gave her back a rather skeptic expression he knew she couldn’t see. He adjusted the thread in the needle. “I’m sure you notice many things, Natasha.”

“He didn’t come for me,” she said. “He didn’t even try attacking me. In fact, I saw him look at me. Then he turned and went the other way.”

“You think he cares about you?” Bruce said. He pushed the needle in again, not as careful to be gentle now, but she wasn’t even reacting to it. He tied it off, then prepared for another stitch. Three more, he thought. “You’re wrong. He doesn’t care about anyone.”

“How do you know?”

He tied the next one off, then looked down to thread another thread. He couldn’t really help a smile; it was not a nice one. “Because what rage feels like”—he pushed the needle in again—“is not caring. You can’t even think about anything else, or if you do, it just makes you that much angrier, and you hate it. You hate it all, and most of all you hate anyone or anything that makes you want to stop.”

“He didn’t hurt me.” Frowning, she shifted to look down at the wound. “He didn’t even come out until I got this.”

“It’s not because he’s a cuddle bear.” Tying up the last stitch, he snipped the thread, and put the needle down.

“You could learn to control it.” She put her hand on his again.

He wanted to close his eyes. A part of him told himself that she knew exactly what she was doing; she had done this a thousand times before. A part of him didn’t care. His voice was harsher than he meant it to be when he said, “What are you doing?”

“Where did you learn your bedside manner?”

Swallowing, he looked down at her hand, her slender fingers resting on his blunt, darker ones. He took his hand away. “Why did you come here in the first place?”

She reached around for the antibiotic. “Needed stitches.” Uncapping the bottle, she squeezed cream on her fingers, and started reaching for the wound.

“Don’t,” he said, grabbing her wrist.

She looked up at him, mouth tight.

“Your fingers are dirty.” He squeezed some of the cream on his own, then began smoothing it over her stitches.

She turned her head toward her shoulder, not looking at him anymore. “Will you like it better if I say I came to learn your weaknesses?”

He smiled, not particularly mirthfully. “I’d be more likely to believe you.” He picked up the gauze, placed it over the wound. “Is this how S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to control me in the future?”

“You know that that’s not true.”

He soothed the gauze over her cut, reaching for the tape. “Is this how you’re going to control me?”

She faced forward. “I don’t control anyone.”

Her voice was not quite steady. Frowning at her back, he put the tape on quickly. He hadn’t meant to sound annoyed. He didn’t want to threaten her. He knew that part of him wanted to scare her; part of him always wanted to scare people and the fact that she was beautiful and half-dressed and sitting on his table didn’t really help anything. And yet, he didn’t want her to be afraid of him just now, when he was patching her up and she had trusted him, vulnerable under his hands—as vulnerable as Natasha Romanoff could be, anyway. He knew her tells: her breathing was too quick.

He finished the tape, started to say, I’m sorry, but she cut him off.

“You said that fear is useful. I know that it can be. What I want is to know that I can take you down, if I had to.” She bowed her head. “It would help me sleep at night.”

If you’re so afraid of something that you can’t face it, it will be the thing that kills you.

He looked at her a while, the naked curve of her back, the band of her bra cutting into it, her tumbled red and brown hair. She sat very straight, practically unmoving, and his only clue was still her breath, too fast. “You’re saying it’s not always about me,” he said.

“Well, it’s sort of about you. Check the rest of those cuts,” she said. “I don’t want to get an infection.”

He had been wrong, of course. Natasha Romanoff wasn’t vulnerable at all. “It’s not a phobia,” he said eventually, wiping another cut with alcohol. “Gradual and continued exposure aren’t going to bring you down to a rational level of fear. You said it yourself: fear is rational, when it comes to him.”

She arched her back. “The one on the lower left itches.”

He poured more alcohol on the cloth and dabbed at the cut on the lower left. Pressing in harder than he really should have, he said, “What do I have to do to convince you?”

Slowly, her head turned, not all the way, just giving him her profile. Her hair fell in red curves across the side of her face. “You could do it right now,” she said softly. “My guess is you won’t.”

Bruce set the cloth down, took off his glasses. His fingers brushed against the bruise forming just above her hip; then he stepped away. “Don’t do any heavy lifting.”

“See?” she said.

Going over to the sink, he washed his hands. “You can put your shirt back on. Carefully.”

When he turned back to the table, her back was to him, and she was taking off her bra. He turned rather hastily back to the sink, deciding to dry his hands as well.

“It’s okay,” she said.

Reluctantly, he turned back around, finding that she had thankfully put her shirt back on. He tried not to notice the looseness of her breasts, because God, he’d seen lots of pairs of tits due to medical work, but it was less likely to affect him in a clinical situation. This should have been a clinical situation, but somehow it had gone a little off course, not in the least because she was not only healthy, but tough as nails. He wondered if there was some kind of failsafe in him that was attracted to that kind of strength, some unconscious need to protect a potential partner from all the ways that he would hurt them.

“You don’t look too hot, doc.”

Mostly he was nauseous from thinking the words potential partner, because he didn’t want to think about her that way. He didn’t want to think about anyone that way, but especially not someone who was sitting on his table because he terrified her. “I need to eat,” he said.

“Saps your strength,” she guessed.

“Yeah.” He swallowed. “Something like that.”

She got off the table. “I think I saw some flour when I was planting that phone.”

She made tortillas, and smeared them with lard. “There’s your fat. You need sugar.”

“Protein,” he said.

“What am I, your kitchen wench?”

Bruce was asleep by the time he thought up a clever answer.

*

“Wake up.”

It felt like it had been only minutes, or maybe hours. Then Natasha was pushing food at him and it was hot and greasy and better than any of the things he’d bought at the market, ever, and he said:

“Oh, God,” and she said:

“Hits the spot?”

“Christ,” he said. “There’s an ax inside my brain. Chopping it to itty bitty bits.”

“I’ve never heard you swear,” she said. “Let’s get you out of those clothes.” He must have made a sound, because she said, “I’ve already seen you naked, Doctor Banner.” He must have made another sound, because she stopped tugging at his shirt and said, “Is it always like this? After?”

“There you go,” he said. “Another weakness.”

“Let me help you,” she said, and did.

*

Natasha didn’t stay at Bruce’s bungalow. He thought that that would have been a bad idea. Maybe she did too, or maybe she had other reasons, but this time, he knew where she was staying. It was in the village above a pulparía. She had made friends with a cook. They probably thought Natasha was such a nice young girl.

She was trying to gather further intel on the group from the barn, and Bruce had said he wasn’t going to help her. He couldn’t tell whether Natasha believed him, which he supposed was only fair, since he didn’t really believe himself. If he had, he would have left by now, and instead he had S.H.I.E.L.D.’s phone and was silently resisting researching the Black Widow.

Bruce should have found a way to make her leave. He should have left here long ago, when she first arrived. He should not be waiting for the moment when all of this would finally come to a head, and she would either run from him or he’d kill her.

He certainly shouldn’t be waiting for another alternative, in which she learned to control her one last fear, and in doing so, taught him how to control his. He should not be waiting just to see her again. He should get some friends, Tony had said.

“Right,” Bruce had said. Friends who were more interested in his condition than in him. “Like you?”

“You know what?” Tony had said. “Fuck you.”

*

When things did come to a head it didn’t really happen any way that Bruce could have expected, seeing as how he didn’t have all the facts.

It began when he was in the lab, thinking about Betty.

There hadn’t really been any girls since Betty. Bruce didn’t really see how there could be, because part of the whole problem was about caring for someone as much as he had cared for her. Still cared for her, if he really thought about it, which he didn’t.

It wasn’t really about sex. He’d had sex a few times since the change, and he hadn’t hulked out or split anyone apart or any of the morbid speculations he’d heard circulated about his . . . condition. Still, the problem with sex was that it was volatile, so he’d stopped liking it as much—or he liked it a little too much, so he wasn’t really all that into it these days.

The thing about Betty was she hadn’t been afraid, not of him and not of the Hulk, which didn’t make sense when you thought about it, because she didn’t have an iron suit. She wasn’t a god and she hadn’t been trained as an assassin; she was just Betty, black-haired beautiful Betty, and nothing explained how she seemed to think he was still a man after all that he had done, all that he became.

If Natasha thought that there was something still worth salvaging in him, then it was at least a little less surprising. She was someone who had been made into another thing, a weapon, a killing machine; she knew what it felt like even though she hadn’t done it to herself. If there was any woman who might learn not to fear him, it should have been her.

So Bruce was thinking about that and about Natasha as he worked in the lab, about how she had gone up to stop the Tesseract, about how she had come down to fight that battle. She had gone to face Loki in his cage, and what Bruce started wondering was—had she been afraid? There was something—a god—who could have so easily made her into the slave that she so feared, and she had gone down to face him first. Alone. She’d come back with more information than anyone else had been able to get out of him, and she hadn’t even had to lift a finger.

When Bruce finally did call up the files on Black Widow he had on the computer in his lab, there were a lot. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been keeping track of S.H.I.E.L.D., and after Tony had hacked their system, but before Bruce had left, he had given Bruce plenty to go on.

He wasn’t exactly proud about picking into her life, but Bruce had this fatal flaw called curiosity. He learned what she had to be afraid of, what she had been able to face. He read about her marks and her methods. He knew how she excelled.

He found out how her targets were chosen.

When he went to go see her that day, he told himself he just wanted to learn the truth. When he found her apartment above the pulparía empty, he told himself he tracked her down just to make sure she was safe. When he drove into Juticalpa, he kept his shoes on, and thought that meant that he could keep things under control.

She was in the backroom of a cantina on the outskirts of town, dressed like an American tourist who was bound, hands behind her back, kneeling on the ground. There were two men beside her, holding guns, another one in front of her, looking down at her. One of the men beside her had a broken leg, and Bruce thought that he recognized him.

So he hadn’t killed all the guys at the barn. The guy must’ve seen a doctor. A medical doctor, because his leg was splinted fairly well.

Meanwhile, Natasha’s eyes were angry and defiant, as they often were, her lips tight. Her chest heaved with her breath, and her nostrils were flared wide. Sweat was on her neck. She looked, for all intents and purposes, cornered and afraid—but handling it fairly well. Bravery against all odds.

That was the thing about her acting, Bruce guessed. If she had acted like a wilting flower, no one would have believed it. If instead she played defiant, they assumed the odds were in their favor, when really she was so much in control of the situation, there was nothing to be brave about.

“Then you aren’t working with the Hand,” she said.

“What do you know about the Hand?” the man in front of her said.

“Just what you know,” Natasha said.

“And what is that?” The man’s voice was icy.

Natasha’s mouth tightened. “They’re searching for the chalice.”

“What chalice?” he said.

Natasha didn’t answer. One of the guards standing by slammed the butt of his rifle into her belly, and Bruce stepped into the room.

“What chalice?” said the man.

Natasha brought her head up, tossing her hair back, and said, blood at the corner of her mouth, “Wouldn’t you like to—Bruce?”

“Hey, Natasha,” said Bruce.

Three things happened then. Natasha stood up, her hands very obviously unbound. The man who had been interrogating her grabbed Bruce, his arm coming up under his Bruce’s throat, and Natasha somehow had two handguns and was pointing one to the right and one to the left, at each of her guards. They looked at her in shock. She was breathing quite regularly, without a trace of fear.

“What are you doing here?” said Natasha.

The man holding Bruce turned so that they were both facing Natasha. Bruce felt the barrel of a gun against his temple.

He guessed that was okay. He'd had a gun in his face before, and he'd been the one holding it. Without struggling, he said to Natasha, “I was going to ask you that."

“I will kill him,” said the man.

“I was conducting an investigation,” Natasha said. The guards under her guns were looking with confusion from their leader back to her.

“I can see that.” Bruce tried to adjust a little bit in the other man’s grip. “Um, hi there?” Leaning back, he tried to look at the man’s face, though it really just meant looking down the barrel of a gun. That didn't scare him either. “I don’t really like being grabbed," he said, then turned back to Natasha. "What’s his name?”

“Colonel Fritz,” said Natasha.

Bruce frowned. “That’s not Russian,” he said, at the same time as Colonel Fritz said, “I never told—who are you?”

“Who me?” Bruce said, craning his neck again. “That’s Natasha.” He turned back to look at her. “You looked like you needed help.”

“I didn’t,” said Natasha.

“I know you didn't. I just meant you're very good at looking that way,” said Bruce. “Hey, buddy, want to let me go now?”

“I am moving toward the door,” said Colonel Fritz. “You move, I blow him away.”

“Good luck with that,” said Natasha.

“I’m also getting the impression that you weren’t exactly in any trouble in that barn,” Bruce said. “Colonel Fritz? I’m talking to Natasha here.”

It would really be a shame to give her too little credit, he had thought. It would probably be just the sort of reaction she always got—someone rushing in to save her, thinking she was vulnerable. It was, of course, the reaction she had wanted, and in the barn, she had wanted that reaction out of him.

“You’re coming with me,” said Colonel Fritz.

Raising his brows, Bruce looked at Natasha. “A little help?”

Bruce didn’t even really have to do anything; Natasha just moved too fast. The bullet pierced the Colonel’s shoulder, and in shocked surprise, he fell back. He let go of Bruce, who stepped neatly aside, while Natasha dealt with the two guards. Colonel Fritz was shouting.

Two seconds later, three more men burst into the back of the cantina, the gunshot having obviously alarmed them. They grabbed Bruce, who didn’t offer any resistance, and Natasha stood up. The guard with the broken leg was moaning on the floor; the other appeared to be unconscious. The Colonel was struggling to stand, and Natasha faced the three men holding Bruce with a gun.

This was just like the barn, except everything was fine. Bruce could handle getting roughed up some, didn’t really matter. Natasha was there, had the situation under of control, and Bruce kind of wanted to throw the guys holding him across the room, but he could take it. They were just run-of-the-mill thugs, just human, wasn’t like they were crazy aliens from another planet intent on destroying the human race or anything; they were just brainwashing ninjas; it was all good.

What wasn't good was the not-so-slowly dawning realization that he had thought that he could read Natasha Romanoff, and that that was her biggest and best weapon. She was not an automaton; she showed plenty of emotion. Just, a lot of it was subtle acting, and she let you see exactly what she wanted you to. The people who thought that they could use her thought that they could do so because they thought they knew her. The people who thought that they could trust her thought that they could do so because she wanted them to.

“Who are you?” the Colonel demanded.

“I said I don’t like to be grabbed,” Bruce said; then someone punched him in the gut.

There was more shouting, and someone shook him while Bruce caught his breath; another voice said, “He asked you a question,” and Bruce said, “I don’t like to be punched, either.” He kept trying to catch his breath.

“Who are you?” the Colonel said, and Bruce, kind of doubled over, squinted up at him.

“I’m a doctor,” Bruce said finally. “My guess is, you’re going to need it.”

He was just kind of giving them a hard time; everything was totally cool. Their skulls would pop like eggshells under his hands, but he was totally zen; he was practically the only guy he knew who liked the Uranus portion of The Planets way better than Mars, their brains yolks smeared all over the floor, but he didn’t even like eggs for breakfast, really; he liked muffins. There it was, you couldn’t be horribly upset if you were thinking about muffins; you just couldn’t.

“Bruce,” said Natasha, “calm down.”

“What?” said Bruce. “I’m calm.”

“It’s going to be alright,” Natasha said.

“See,” said Bruce. “That’s what you said in the barn, except you were acting afraid.”

“I wasn’t acting.” Natasha’s mouth was tight, something much like hurt filling up her eyes. “I’ve never lied to you, Bruce. I promise you, I’ve never lied to you.”

“Uh-huh. But did you make that beam creak? That’s the operative question.”

“That’s not the operative question,” Natasha said, lowering her gun.

“What are you doing?” screeched the Colonel. “Take her!”

Two of the men near Bruce look at each other, then looked at the unconscious man, the moaning man, and the bleeding Colonel. Then they looked at Natasha and went for her. She only had enough time to put the gun in the waistband of her jeans before she was fighting them.

“So . . .” Bruce said to the guy left holding him. “This must be a fun job.”

The guy looked at him, startled, while the bleeding Colonel slunk over to the unconscious guard and picked up his rifle. Meanwhile, Natasha had kicked another guy unconscious while the last man she was fighting backed up into a corner, holding up his hands. The Colonel lifted the rifle.

“No,” said Bruce, just as if he had been carrying on a conversation. “The operative question is, are these S.H.I.E.L.D.’s guys?”

“Bruce.” Natasha was breathing hard, not even looking at the rifle pointed at her head.

“Don’t pretend to be afraid, Natasha. It’s really . . .” Bruce grimaced. He couldn’t even think of what it was at this point. Turning to his guard again, he said, “Let’s be honest, now. Do you know Nick Fury?”

“Kill him,” the Colonel shouted wildly.

“You can tell me,” Bruce said, in his nicest voice.

Mutely, the man shook his head.

“You’d know him if you saw him,” Bruce encouraged. “Eye-patch. Very angry. Flat intonation, always willing to make sacrifices. This not ringing any bells?”

The man shook his head again.

“At least that’s something,” Bruce said, turning back to Natasha. It didn't matter. For some reason, he'd begun to think of her as something of a friend, and she had been using him all along. Just like everyone else.

“Don’t do this,” said Natasha.

“What?” Bruce convulsed.

“That,” said Natasha.

Looking at Bruce’s rippling skin in shock, the Colonel lowered the rifle a fraction; then Natasha was on him, kicking it out of his hand. A moment later she was across the floor, beside Bruce, on her knees as he struggled, groaning, hands spread out on the stone floor. The man who had been holding him backed away in shock.

“Don’t do this, Bruce.” Natasha’s hand was on the side of his face, her fingers warm and oh so human. “I never lied to you. You knew that I was here on Fury’s mission; I told you that from the beginning.”

“The barn was a set up,” he groaned. God, every particle of him ached to make her scream.

“It wasn’t what you think.” Her hand was in his hair now. “It wasn’t about getting you for Fury.”

He felt too small; all of him felt too small, his skin, his face, his heart; her hand in his hair was an anchor, pulling him farther and farther—deeper and deeper— “Getting me in a lab.” His voice was horrible to hear.

“No. Is that what you think? Bruce, no. I told you what it is was about. It was about me. I needed to—I needed to face him, Bruce, and the only way I can is through you.”

“Oh, God.”

“It was for you, too. You need to face him too. Bruce, look at me.”

He tried to look at her, and all he could see was green.

“You can control this,” she said.

“You were never afraid,” he said, because that was his one comfort: fear. Bruce Banner wanted her to be afraid because it would protect her. The Hulk wanted her to be afraid because he loved the smell of it; he wanted to bathe himself in blood to make her pay; he wanted them all to pay. Then they would see that they could never use him; that this wasn't worth it; this wasn't what they wanted. “You were never afraid,” he said again.

“I was,” she said. “Listen to me, I am. Do you want to know my secret, Doctor Banner?” Her lips were at his ear and she seemed to be touching him all over, too much, hands on either side of his face and her chest so close, he could feel the beat of her heart. “I’m always afraid.”

Bruce thought of her bare back, the soft, strong lines of it, the angry cuts across it. He thought of her mouth, the plump curve of it, the way it pushed in at the corner. He thought of the quick, trapped sound of her fear, and wanted it.

“Get out,” he told her.

“Let me at least get you somewhere safe,” she said.

“Nowhere is safe,” Bruce said, but then he wasn’t Bruce any longer.

*

When Bruce woke up, he was in a bed. It wasn’t his own nor any bed he recognized. There was a woman there, not Natasha, dark skin, black hair. “I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “Could you . . . ?”

“No hablo inglés,” the woman said, and hurried out of the room. A few minutes later a man came into the room, balding slightly, little and inconsequential looking.

“Excuse me for asking,” Bruce said, “But where am I?”

“León,” said the man.

“Nicaragua,” said Bruce. The man looked at him in surprise. Bruce said, “Do you know who brought me here?”

“It was a woman,” said the man. “Pelliroja. She said that she would keep you safe.”

Bruce shut his eyes.

Across the room, the man made rustling noises, then came closer. When Bruce opened his eyes, the man was holding out a box. “She asked me to give you this,” he said. Bruce took the box, and the man turned away.

Inside the box was a pair of shoes, and a piece of paper.

For running, she had written.