Early in the afternoon— just after lunch, in fact— he turns around and there she is, standing not four feet from him, arms relaxed at her sides. He freezes for a moment, listens to his heart pound so hard he can taste it.
“Sorry,” she says, not meaning it at all. “Did I startle you?”
“That’s what you were aiming for, right?” He turns away from her, but she follows him, and together they walk to the table that holds three transparent screens on which drama is unfolding on a molecular level. “You could just say hi. Like a normal person.”
“Boring,” she says, and she almost smiles at him when he shoots her a glance. “Hi, Bruce.”
He looks away, and smiles at the monitors. “Hi, Natasha.”
He’s earned the right to call her Natasha. Not Nat— not like Barton. He hasn’t earned that yet. He both does and doesn’t want to know what someone has to do, to earn that.
“You came during visiting hours. That’s surprising.”
“I find that Stark is more alert when he’s actually awake. Can’t interfere with his beauty sleep.”
He makes a hmph noise. “Tony, huh? What are you here for?”
Her mouth is suddenly serious, and every word is deliberated before being set free. “A discussion.”
Bruce blinks a little, can feel the familiar twitch at the corner of his mouth. “On what?”
“Yeah?” As an interrogative it lacks bite. It slides out of his mouth almost apologetically. She’s watching him like a hawk— maybe she’s been training with him, who knows— but there’s an earnestness to it, too. She wants to see what he’ll do, as long as what he does doesn’t involve morphing into the other guy. Speaking of which. Bruce looks down, splays the fingers of his left hand out on the table. “There’s a future, huh?”
“For each of us.”
“But not all of us together.”
“You seem pretty happy here.” She launches off in a different direction, apparently at random, comes around to the same side of the table and leans against it, arms folded. “Stark’s taking good care of you.”
“The other night I wanted a shrimp sandwich,” he tells the table, “and as soon as I walked into the kitchen, there it was, already made.”
“Pre-made shrimp sandwiches seem a little iffy, to me.”
“It was still cold. He was banking on my having a craving. Or, someone was, anyway.”
She haves a hand. “Magic,” she says, and it seems to be a suggestion. Bruce half-smiles.
“I didn’t realize it till later. My screen saver was set on this underwater ocean scene. When I went back into the coding I found a picture of the sandwich, less than a nanosecond long, shown at random intervals. The exact sandwich.”
“He’s indoctrinating you into craving seafood?” she asks. Her tone is so impossibly dry that it chafes him, and he winces.
“He’s experimenting on me,” he says. “I mean, it’s okay. That way, we both get something out of this.”
“That’s very,” and she pauses to swallow, while her eyes seek his. “That’s very patient of you.”
He gives a one-shouldered shrug. “Yeah. Except I hate shrimp.”
“I don’t know what our future is, together,” she says quietly. “That’s what we’re here to discuss.”
Her tone is surprisingly hopeful. It takes him aback, a little, and he turns toward her, leaning one hip into the table. So they face each other, and she waits an impossibly long moment before she smiles. It’s not at all what he was expecting— she seems to want to do things to surprise him, but cautiously, like when he unzipped the duffel she’d handed him and found that she’d outfitted him entirely in purple shirts.
“What about the other guy?”
She blinks. “The government, insofar as they recommend anything other than locking all of us up, are advocating specialized stress management therapy.”
“Specialized stress management therapy,” he repeats. “That may actually be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Then why aren’t you laughing?” she says evenly.
He takes off his glasses, and folds them into the palm of his hand. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Agent Romanov, but I’m not really a laugh-out-loud kind of guy.”
He folds his arms, and they’re standing close enough that he brushes against her in the process. He holds himself still, after that, and waits for her to back away. She’s controlling her breathing— he can tell, he’s got a lot of experience in what controlled breathing looks like— but she’s standing her ground. It’s impressive, and he wants to tell her so. He wants to tell her that he’s awe-struck and stricken, but that’s a different matter entirely and has almost nothing to do with how close they’re standing. He can’t put a label to it.
He likes the idea of calling things what they are. He likes the idea of it better than the actuality, and so he calls himself Bruce or the other guy when what he means is always me.
“So tell me. Do you always enter into business relationships by trying to prove you’re not afraid of anything?”
Her mouth moves for a moment, and her head tilts; she’s thinking.
“Not sure what you want from me, with that,” she says at last. “It’s like you’re trying to get a rise, like you’re tired of me and you want me to go away, but it clearly isn’t that.” Clearly. He bites his tongue. “So what do you want me to do? Define our relationship? Acknowledge that you’re different? Back off and let you feel like you’ve won?”
“It was a yes-or-no question,” says Bruce, mildly. “I was curious.”
Her eyes are lit, but it seems to be more frustration than anger. “Read the dossier,” she says. “What they’ll let you see of it.”
“You’ve got a dossier? They just gave me a plain old file.”
“Read it,” she says again. “Read it, and let me alone. Just because I don’t talk about the past doesn’t mean I don’t have one.”
This works perfectly as an excuse for both of them, and after a moment of analysis he reaches the conclusion that she’s intended it that way.
“I believe you,” he tells her softly. “I’m sorry. I don’t need to know. I don’t really want to know.”
She shrugs at him. “I’m just here to see Stark.”
Tony isn’t in Bruce’s lab, but he doesn’t point that out. She knows it already. So he focuses on something else.
“This discussion. About the future. I’m not invited?”
“It’s preliminaries. We’re laying ground work. We’ll let you know when you’re needed.”
Well, that just seems calculated to offend. He opens his mouth, to say so in no uncertain terms, in one simple word really, but she stops him by laying a hand high up on his shoulder, her thumb hovering over his collarbone.
“Bruce,” she says, her voice soft, “I mean it. All things being equal, I will call you. This part is for Stark.”
All things are not equal; some things are just things, and some things are more than that. The words slide around in his brain, but none of them make it to his mouth. His eyes have darkened, and he waits for the fear— he remembers it clearly— to show on her face.
But she stands stoic, stalwart, and looks him in the eyes.
“Wait,” she says. “You’re so good. You’re so patient. Wait a little while.”
The anger always hurts until it starts to expand, and then it feels fantastic. Right now, it’s small, small and biting at his nerve-ends, so he drops his head and focuses his gaze on the hollow of her throat, and stamps the other guy down till he quiets with no more than a rumble.
“Wait,” says Natasha again, something broken in the word. She leans forward, and he turns his head away. Things are very slow, or possibly too fast, and he thinks about subliminal messaging and irrational cravings as her lips press to the underside of his jaw, seeking out the fluttering indefinite pulse there, the single heart-beat that drives two men on.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I’m not,” says Natasha. “You were angry, and you still didn’t smash me. I’m euphoric.” She sounds giddy. This is a triumph for her, he realizes: she heard the rumble of distant thunder, and she didn’t run away. “Let’s call it faith. Let’s call it a team-building exercise.”
“We’re not a team,” he says, not for the first time.
“But we’re something,” says Natasha, and Bruce looks at her for a long moment before he nods.
“We’re definitely something.”
He wracks his brain, but can’t think of what to call it, what he wants to call it or what he should by rights call it, and he tells her that. Tells her maybe there is no word for this, whatever this is.
She purses her lips, and shrugs. “Maybe. But that’s kind of what I like about it.”
No words for this. No word for this. They stand up to each other for a long moment before she backs away, still with that tuck-edged smile on her lips, knowing something only she knows. She leaves him to think, and to reach up to press his fingers against his pulse, and feel the hitch in the beat, the double-time drum. All things being unequal. Things being things; things just being.