It starts with Banner’s eyes sweeping over her high-heeled ankle boots on a day when she's in a tailored pencil skirt. It makes her smirk; she suspects he's avoiding the obvious. But the looks continue no matter how she’s dressed or done-up. Watching him watch her becomes a small game, another exercise to keep her hand in. He always looks, arms half-crossed, worrying his lip between his finger and thumb, making notes in his head. It's humanizing. Weird, but human. Like the rest of them.
At first, she suspects a classic foot fetish. She's leveraged that a time or two with disposable fuck-me pumps and a strict interpretation of the term stiletto because the last thing she wants on a pair of Manolos is vitreous humor--that stuff just bonds to leather.
She’s learned to recognize the symptoms, though, and they don’t seem to jive with the looks Banner’s giving. It’s possible that something as mundane as an arch-inspired erection could be nirvana to a guy who spends so much time keeping himself in check, but control issues aside, fetish doesn't seem to be his bag.
She thinks about breaking out the good heels, but she’s not willing to simply entertain herself by teasing him without more recon.
She puts bare feet on the coffee table one night, though and he forgets to hide his interest.
Tony is in a heated devil’s advocate discussion with Steve over at the bar. Steve is refusing to watch known bad movies, Tony insists that this leaves gaps in his pop culture education. She’d tuned out after something about the ‘hero monster of Tromaville’.
Bruce’s focus is so sharp that she decides it's time to test her theory. She swings around and sets her bare foot between his legs. He's warmer than she expected, and he makes a noise that sounds wanting, but he's not hard. Instead, he wraps his hand over her instep, transferring some of his heat, and strokes his thumb over the first metatarsal. It's her turn to gasp, to realize how rare touch is between them when no one is bleeding.
"Your feet," he says. "They're perfect."
"Like 101 Dalmations perfect," she asks, voice lower than she expected, "Silence of the Lambs perfect? Story of O perfect?" Sue her, there's a lot of dwell time at the tower.
He's still holding her foot, and it's still very close to his cock, although he's moved it slightly away so it's not pressing directly against him. "Surprisingly perfect," he says. "I've been thinking about that."
It's clear that he has been thinking about it, as he lapses into silence without elaborating. He keeps her foot cradled between his hands, clearly taking her offer as permission, and assesses it like a mechanism. He skims the bony landmarks and gauges the flexibility of her toes. His touch is deft and detached despite the surprising heat of his fingers. It's less clear what exactly he's been thinking about it until he pushes his glasses back up to look her in the eye, "When did you go en pointe?"
She catches his thumb in the grip of her toes. "It's probably in my file somewhere." Natalia's growth petered out early, and while she wasn't lithe she was strong and up to resisting gravity. She's not exactly sure when real ballerinas are supposed to rise onto their toes, but she suspects it's later than any of the girls she'd shared a barre with. Real ballerinas also didn't train on the lifts and carries. "It's been a long time."
He eyes the turnout of her hip, the line of her leg stretched from her end of the couch to his. "Surely not that long, though you wouldn't know it to look at your feet."
He opens his hands, and she withdraws her foot back to the coffee table. There are a thousand questions he's not asking, about her training, the history she'd alluded to casually in a tin-roofed home half a world away, perhaps questions about his suspicions. He lets the first unanswered question lie fallow alone.
To be perfectly honest, she catches him watching because she always keeps a weather eye on him. Risk management, asset management, and not a little curiosity.
After SHIELD fell it had taken Maria less than a week to retrench, secure funding, and begin bringing in assets from the cold. Of the factions scrabbling out there in the mud of both internecine and guerrilla conflicts, Natasha chose her team out of loyalty. Regimes fall every day, she'd said, not realizing yet another of her homes was built on shifting sand, but she stood by the sentiment: loyalty to people over institutions.
It was a lesson hard-learned and driven into her bones. In the aftermath of congressional hearings and social media whiplash, she had gone with the few real connections she valued. Aligning with an emerging oligarchy also kept more options open than not.
Laura had winced at that point, but Clint had simply nodded. He'd married up into the middle class with her, and even after years it still gave off little culture shocks at the oddest moments.
She sat at the kitchen table with Clint and they made a list of pros and cons. The pros weighed heavier for Clint; his face hadn’t been splashed all over the media, and his own secrets had been buried far enough off the grid that they could happily remain in a farm on Parma, which was what he cared about.
“Where else are you gonna go, Nat?” he’d asked, serious even after their pros list had deteriorated to not having to pay her electric bill for a year. He wasn’t wrong. Plus, she functioned better when she had a clear purpose.
So she'd gone to the tower with Clint, and been surprised to find the rest of them pre-assembled. She'd been expecting Steve, hoping, considering it the best case scenario if the Winter Soldier didn't want to be found just yet, to kick that can down the road a little farther. Thor was passionate, but his investment varied. Stark was always going to be a broken toy, but he felt less brittle. That Banner was still in the tower actually surprised her. No. That he was still in the country surprised her; once the location narrowed down to US, it was a given he'd be in the tower.
Clint had peered out of windows the size of airplane hangar doors, scanning Manhattan laid out like a circuit board in the dusk, and said sotto voce, "Maybe Columbo just had a few more questions."
Stark was big on talking points while Steve offered strategy but it was Banner who summarized, "We came together to keep people safe. We don't need SHIELD to do that."
"Goals," she'd said, looking around the room and dismissing the agenda on her tablet. Fucking Stark and his agenda. She could picture him smirking to himself when he typed it up, assigning everyone codenames at the top: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Hammer, Arrow, Spy. With the period at the end, as if also abbreviating Spyder. "We need to focus on goals."
It took well into the night, less like brainstorming than a massive bitch session of all the ills that needed to be met head on by the world's greatest hardheads. She got a feel for how each of them thought and let herself have a moment of, not pleasure exactly, but security. Not because of the company so much as the process. She'd been floundering. This might be idiotic, but it was tangible.
"We destroy everything." Stark and Thor came at it from different angles, but arrived at the same conclusion.
"The Avengers can help with small stuff, security, safety, etc., but it's pointless without closing off the wormhole." Banner nodded acknowledgment at her as he said it, and his smile was just this edge of self-deprecating. Mostly, it was bright for her. She felt it wash over her, hadn't felt approval since Fury got shot the first time. She hated herself a little for liking it, but it was impossible not to bask in Banner's good graces for a moment. The alternative was Just. So. Fucking. Terrifying.
"We live here. We work. We train. We fight. We eat pizza. Everybody wins." Stark's endgame.
“New York pizza blows.” Clint called down from the upper level, where he’d been launching paper airplanes through Stark’s holoscreens. Some had been cryptic notes to Nat, others had been poorly folded just to annoy Tony. “I vote chicken and waffles.”
"We live here, we make decisions, we try to make things better." Steve agreed. It beat the reality show someone tried to pitch him while in line for a gyro the other day. “I also vote chicken and waffles.”
Stark shifted a bit more vertical in his chair and flung an arm out to activate more holoscreens than anyone could parse after so many hours. "Banner and I, we've been working on some ideas."
Now it was the Doc's turn to bask a little, and Natasha wanted to laugh at the twist of bitterness in the sunshine. Tony fucking Stark, taming the beast.
In the end she volunteered her skills, pledging along with the other five something like allegiance. In their own ways they all understood her loyalty, based in outrage at HYDRA’s manipulation of the safe haven she thought she’d found. She was amped despite the long night of hashing it all out; she’d tapped a deep well of slow burning anger that now had a channel. That connection felt so visceral that when they finally did give in to Stark's pestering for pizza, she sat beside Banner at the slate bar top not quite sure what to say, but weirdly comforted by his presence.
He passed her the red chilli flakes, she handed over the parmesan, and when he leaned over and murmured, "I know where Tony keeps the good booze," she didn't even tell him that this was the first thing she'd scoped out on the surveillance logs. Asset management, after all.
It’s all about the eyes; what they check, what they avoid, what they dilate to see more of. Know your enemy, know your team, prepare for them to be one and the same--except in this case, she has to pretend, live like she believes no one in this tower could turn into her enemy.
So when she notices Banner's attention she doesn’t discourage it, because he lives a similar lie. Pretend this is safe, pretend he’s containable, pretend that unchecked aggression doesn’t tend toward slaughter. If he wants to look, she'll let him look. She figures she owes him that much. She can give him that much, as easily as letting him turn her foot over gently in his warm hands, and build a hypothesis that she’d rather he left alone. It doesn’t hurt her to let him wonder, any more than it had hurt to let him touch. That, in fact, hadn’t hurt at all.
They start going out on small missions, intel recon really, leaning hard on the subtler Romanoff and Barton skillsets. Nothing pointy or explosive, nothing requiring her burn of rage, and certainly nothing requiring a two ton ball of ire. It’s easy to return Banner’s surveillance in those situations. He’s in the quinjet distracted by headphones, or tucked into his lab working on something with a focus so acute he makes Stark look like a fifth grader with ADHD. She keeps her gaze on him, working the offhand puzzle of pulling some kind of truth out of his tamped and tempered habitus.
Then they get wind of something out of Estonia.
In Manhattan they'd pointed the Hulk and pulled the trigger, but that situation had been obvious. Banner had chosen to push upstream through the evacuation and rolled up on a motorcyle already out of bubblegum. See Chitauri. Kill Chitauri and the space whale corpses they rode in on. Squelch the puny god who caused so much trouble in the first place.
Estonia is different. It’s a bigger target than their intel had indicated, but not what they had prepped for, and they’re neck deep before Steve can get them redeployed.
They still can’t always work around the myriad ways in which competing intelligence communities’ layers of lies and secrets sometimes hold some very ugly truths. Sometimes it’s about global conspiracies, but this time it’s about terrible people doing horrifying things while the authorities aren’t looking, and the neighborhood keeps their head down because a few years of independence aren’t enough to root out half a century of survival habits honed under tyranny.
They never figure out what makes Banner snap. He's been all over the world: witnessed people trafficked, used, left to die because those with resources felt it wasn't worth the cost to do better by them. Maybe something said over comms slips past his guard. Maybe an unlucky piece of shrapnel brings out the self-protection instinct. Fortunately it’s an intense burst that burns out quickly: he rips open most of the bunkers, yanks apart a 47 ton T-90 tank which audibly makes Stark choke up with some undefined emotion, then tears off across farmland into the sunset.
Thor follows like a tornado tracker and finds him roaring on the edge of a ditch between fields, a scrappy old farmer standing her ground with nowhere to run as a couple of teens huddle behind her for protection.
Without slowing, Thor gets in a lucky shot batting him away from the ditch. Or maybe the rage just has nowhere to go out there in the hills, and the Other Guy takes Mjolnir to the side of the head like a lightning strike, crumpling down into his muddy peachy self. They wrap him in a couple shock blankets to evac him because no one had thought to bring a change of clothes.
Natasha sits on the floor of the quinjet with him as he sleeps for hours, face bruised and drawn.
Her leg begins to burn, piercing through the numbness of exhaustion, and she takes off her boots. She has a gash down the side of her leg, a miscalculation while fighting across rubble, and she should probably at least get the bits of uniform out of the wound.
Banner's eyes open and he sucks in a wince as he watches her poke. "Don't," he says softly, like she’s probing at him. "You'll...it could get infected. It'll scar. It's not..." he trails off. She has a ridiculous urge to pull his head into her lap. She doesn’t. She’s just palmed a superfluous bone chip.
"I fucked up out there," he says.
"We got lucky," she shrugs.
He struggles to sit upright. "Been a long time.” He’s getting his voice back.
"Not sure how modest you are Doc," she warns, "but those pants were trashed. Thought you should know."
She's not concerned with seeing the lean stretch of his legs, the spare and human iteration that remains after the rage. There was something about the sight of his bowed back in that field, smooth when so much of him is hairy, the way he'd looked so damned cold and small out there. The bigness of his humanity seems to deaden her fear of the Other Guy.
She knows that probably isn't healthy. Fear keeps you alive.
He watches her peel away the tattered pant leg. Rip-resistant fabric hadn’t been a match for hitting a sprung end of rebar at speed, which had jammed down into her boot and jarred off her ankle bone. She has a shallower gouge where she’d wrenched the leg free at a different angle.
She thinks sometimes she can see him parse thoughts at a handful-per-second rate, his expressions interrupting each other on his brow. He shoos at her to sit up on a jumpseat and grabs a field kit from a pocket of webbing underneath it. He settles onto the floor cross-legged, draping the blanket around his hips to pool across his lap. He strips off her technical sock and cleans out the wound, which is still seeping blood but has already healed from an avulsion to a simpler gouge. Aside from the blanket and the leaves in his hair, he wears only nitrile gloves and a look of concentration.
“So I hear you may be getting a uniform.”
“Ah yes." He's distracted, probably considering the merits of stitches as he irrigates the furrow with saline, "The Britches to the Future project.”
“Oh God, Stark.”
Stark interjects from the cockpit. “Hey, that’s all Pepper. I call it Project Spankypants. Our t-shirts say, ‘PS, I love you’. I’ll get you one.”
Clint begins making a case for his own shirt while Bruce continues to treat her leg. He scowls when she declines the bandage, so she humors him. She picks the leaves out of his hair while he winds it around and wonders how he can seem so fucking vulnerable, and so determined at the same time.
“Maybe he’ll emblazon Hulk across the ass in gold,” she says as she sits back, only half joking, nudging against his rib with her uninjured heel. They’ve been watching a lot of WWE with Thor. She wouldn’t be surprised to see customized wrestling spankies appear with everyone’s name on them one day.
He swats her away offhandedly, but that just makes the desire to prod at him worse. What’s wrong with her, she thinks, poking a snake with a stick? But he’s not a snake, not a monster, and he’s not gonna do a lot more than what he does as her toes press again into the hard bone of his rib, the silk of his skin where the waist starts. He folds his other elbow down, pinning her as he pulls the bloody gloves off into an inverted little package, and she realizes that they’ve been playing a hell of a lot of footsie.
He finishes wrapping, one hand smoothing the bandage while he extricates her other foot. He brings her ankles together, and then curves his hands around the solid muscle of her calves. Interesting. They’re moving up from pedi-philia. He rises up on his knees, and she wonders, a little deliciously, a little deliriously, how far his hands will wander. His thighs press against her shins, trapping the blanket between them, and he leans into her space, forearms flanking her hips.
“Thank you,” she says, “for bandaging me up.”
“Be nice if you stopped getting hurt,” he says, close so she can hear the low hum of his voice over the engines. “But you heal pretty quick.” His curiosity is sharp, peaky and coppery, ripe as the scent of his post-Hulk body. She likes it as much as she likes the press of his wrist bones against her hips.
“Doc,” Clint calls from the pilot seat, amused, “Stark is calculating exactly how many letters will fit across your ass. He’s extrapolating what they’d say if they stretched.”
"That's ingenious." Steve pipes in sleepily from where he's been sprawled napping since takeoff.
"Don't flatter him, son." Clint uses his fifties dad voice. "He stole the idea from the Mad magazine fold-in."
Banner hangs his head and mutters, “Motherfucker.” She realizes how rarely he swears for a man half-made of rage. He pulls the blanket around his glutes, sits back down, and says, “Tony...” in a disapproving way that peters out as he rubs at his forehead.
Kicking out her frustration against the heavy bag first thing in the morning had calmed her, the tension seeping out with the sweat and leaving her hungry. She's still trying to figure out who she is in all this, restless and ill-defined.
Some days, she spends hours creating elaborate backgrounds that she doesn't have any use for. Sometimes she takes them out to play, applies for menial jobs in different parts of the city, the country. Fakes her ID and her background to work for a week at Duane Reade, or Yogalliptical, or Accountemps. It's boring, and probably dangerous, but there's not much else to do except endless research and training in the time between missions. The last time she risked a solo gig, it turned out that all that worry about her past's heavy grudges coming back at her was justified. She's got a scabby seam across the back of her ribs to prove it, a shallow stab she’s passed off as a scrape, itchy where it dips under the sport bra.
She doesn't know when Banner started running, but he's at the kitchen island, hair curly with sweat and a little punchy from endorphins. He’s trying to figure out Stark's newest blender, a workshop prototype, because it was affront to God and Man for Stark to just buy a VitaMix like everyone else.
Banner's wearing sweats so old he may be their third or fourth owner--they’re a muddy color that could have started out a bad shade of black, red or brown--a baby blue 2011 World Cup t-shirt with the arms cut-off, and a head band pushed oddly far up his forehead. It's absurd. It's incredibly endearing.
"Hey there Rocky, nice get-up."
He glances up, takes in her own sport bra and black leggings. Her scars and stripes are impressive, but only a few of them are permanent. She has a redhead’s irascible complexion, cream and strawberry-milk, and while she tends to heal injuries whole and smooth, a rosy mark remains for a time. She conceals for civilian clothing ops, but she’s also revealed them to simulate fresh bruising when she needed the appearance of damage or abuse. She didn't bother with a cover-up since didn't expect anyone else in the kitchen.
There's a flush of pink on his own cheeks from the exercise, some curiosity too, but he doesn't rise to the bait. Instead he asks, "Do you know how to make this thing not produce soup?"
"Didn't figure you for a runner," she says, slipping under his arm as he holds the blender lid on tight, and pressing puree.
"Conditioning helps," he says. "I monitor my pulse, heart rate, speed, some other stuff I added aftermarket." He shows her a modified Fitbit with the purely goofy grin of the data nerd. "I kind of hate it. I'm thinking of running a marathon."
So many things to say to that. Are you fucking crazy? Why are you punishing yourself? Do you want a training partner? Instead, she stops the blender. She doesn't move out from under his arm, though. He smells good, sweat and spice and strawberries and chlorophyll from the smoothie, and maybe her own endorphins are still singing.
"I already lost a toenail.” He jostles around to face her, reestablishing some space between them. “Wanna see?"
Sometimes, being surrounded by boys, by this haze of masculine energy, makes her feel like the perpetual big sister, their keeper. She hates that, wishes that they could keep their socks, and their toys, and their aggression, and their fears, and their dick swinging, and their dishes to themselves. Other times, it's a bit exhilarating to think of harnessing that.
They tend to pair off for pissing contests: Thor vs.Steve for strength, Steve vs. Tony for smart mouths, Tony vs. Clint as the middle-aged men among gods, Clint vs Steve for nostalgic childhood anecdotes to horrify Tony into silence. Natasha and Bruce aren’t so much sidelined as they’re cast as the arbiters. Banner is the unspoken winner on strength and childhood horror, while Romanoff reigns on cutting remarks, and even more unspoken, human frailty. She is female, and short at that, her youth obvious without any of the anachronistic confusion that comes with Steve’s baby face. And manipulation of weakness is her wheelhouse.
Banner doesn't play into most of the competition, not for lack of testosterone, but from years of leaving no trace of himself, his things, his needs. He spends a sizable portion of his bandwidth keeping something feral under wraps. His potential mess is so big that it overrules the day to day detritus of living in a palace full of men. You see the Other Guy swagger and it makes the quotidian chest-bumping less than pointless, it actively takes the fun out of it. So that leaves Stark, Steve, Thor, and also Clint, who just can't help himself sometimes because he thinks it's all so goddamned funny, gods and superheroes all trying to out-piss each other. It makes for easy reading.
With Bruce, she has to watch for small moments, glances, gestures, and intonations to flesh out her internal file. She takes whatever slips past the gates, panning for gold among his nervous tics and swift stream of befuddled microexpressions.
Plus, aside from encouraging him to share in general, she does kind of want to see.
He abandons the blender and bends over to peel off a sock and shoe. She makes a note to order him some decent, moisture wicking gear. If he runs a marathon, he's gonna regret not thinking about chaffing.
His foot is pale, marked from the sock and the shoelaces grooved into his instep in a pointillist pattern. He puts his foot up on a bar stool so she can admire his prowess. A nail is indeed missing, a small raw socket at the end of the second toe. But the body sheds damage to make way for growth.
"Three toenails," she says, indulging in her own dick swinging moment. "We weren't allowed padding in our pointe shoes."
He puts his foot down, balance a little unsteady. "No wonder you're tough," he says. She turns back to the blender, and she feels him touch her back, along her ribs, where the knife slipped in.
"It's healing well," he says, moving closer, his breath along her shoulder as he angles down to better examine the wound. He puts his other hand delicately on her hip to balance himself. She's pretty sure in his haze of curiosity he doesn't realize what he's doing, but she can feel the contact point all the way through her body. “You’re very lucky it bounced off the ribs.”
“Bruce, you look like the creepy older brother in an 80’s teen flick. Back away from the deadly spy and get some decent workout clothes for fuck’s sake.” Stark breezes into the kitchen in a wide arc around the island, shadowed by Clint.
“I dunno,” Clint leans across the island as Stark turns, looking like he’d just manifested from thin air in a flex of biceps, sending Stark into a defensive crouch with a squeak of sneakers and a crash of his plate. “He makes the two of us look hotter, don’t you think?”
“Jesusfucking--I’m getting rid of all the corners, no more goddamned corners, Barton.”
Clint spends less than a third of his downtime in the tower, but makes up for it by making his appearances random. You’ll turn to get a glass of the pride of the Catskills from the tap, turn back and Clint’s sitting on the bar placidly eating a banana at you.
It’s summer vacation, and Laura and the kids are staying with her sister’s family in Manhasset while the first trimester kicks her ass. Clint cooks for the whole house while Laura spends most of her conscious hours eyeballs deep in AutoCAD, hammering out rebuilding plans and banking productivity for the newborn year coming up.
It gives Natasha breathing space to crawl the SHIELD data dump for any indication that the farmhouse upstate is compromised. The kids think it’s hilarious that their aunt’s place doesn’t have a high tech bunker accessible from five points around the property. Kids these days, what are you gonna do?
Pepper was responsible for the pants.
It was before even Steve had moved into the tower. Bruce had been leaning into a couch corner watching the sky with a book open on his leg when the elevator arrived and Pepper came home. He held off on pleasantries when he saw that she had doffed her public face, and he thought about leaving her the room, but she waved him off as she headed straight for the bar.
“Would you mind terribly,” she ducked down and gathered items, “if I just talk shop at you for about half an hour? It might get ranty, but I just need you to hum in agreement every now and then.”
“Don’t feel obligated, I can also decompress in an empty room, I just really like the view from here.”
“No, that’s--feel free,” he eyed the hotel pan she carried against her hip, “Would you--can I help with anything?”
“You’re fine. I’ve got a system.” She shucked her jacket and sank down into a chair, pan poised between her hands at knee level. “I’m going to start; last chance to leave.”
He was frankly fascinated by this point. He nodded and hummed in agreement.
Pepper unpacked a pitcher and a bentwood box of supplies from the hotel pan, leaving a layer of ice at the bottom which she dumped water into. As she worked, she unleashed what started as a tirade about everything that had happened since 4am. She pulled off her heels, waxing vicious about international banking law, and peeled away an array of socklets, moleskin, and toe pads, revealing red wheals and at least two places that had blanched alarmingly ischemic. She slid her feet into the ice water and then collapsed back into the chair with her eyes closed. Her monologue shifted, gaining bullet points and counterarguments. Her toes stretched and flexed in the ice water as inflammation gave way to analysis.
Bruce had entirely forgotten to hum in agreement, but Pepper sailed on regardless.
She moved on to agendas, calling up JARVIS for secretarial as she dried and tended to the day’s insults to her feet; salve and moleskin and lotion and some frankly coldblooded work on the plantar fascia. She coasted to a stop with, “So now you know how the sausage is made. Sorry.”
He waved it off--he wasn’t a foot guy--but he did have to ask. “Is this normal for you?”
“This is not the pair I’d’ve chosen for today, had I known. But yeah, I do pay a price in flesh.”
“So all of that,” he indicated the discarded padding rolled up discreetly into the towel, “That’s standard?”
“Good equipment saves your skin.”
In retrospect, he’d just felt the need to reciprocate vulnerability. It was the first thing to come to mind, and he knew the moment it left his mouth that he’d run right off the road of socially acceptable, but it was nearly impossible to gauge that line in the Lagrange point between Potts and Stark. It’s just...no one had ever dared to ask. So he told her the secret of the Other Guy’s pants.
Which is how the Britches to the Future project was assigned to two select staff at Stark Industries Materials Research Group, Cleveland (a fiber chemist and an HR clerk who did costuming for local theatre).
When Clint tells Nat the secret to the Hulk not bobbling his tackle at every window he swings past--tighter pieces rip apart at the fiber level and incorporate into the skin “like a tree growing through a chain link fence”, which sheds off on the return trip leaving him covered in pulverized pants and skin dust--she treasures that information like a ward against intrusive sexual thoughts.
Which works, until it doesn’t.