She sees the news about Stark’s potential demise on Al-Jazeera, sitting in the tiny Warsaw hotel’s equally tiny lobby. It certainly looked like he’d been blown to bits, but then Stark was surprisingly resourceful. She decides to mourn him anyway. Or mourn something.
He’d called her one day, out of the blue. “Do you sleep, Agent Romanoff?” No preamble and she didn’t bother to ask how he got her number.
Fury seemed to think she should take phone calls from mad scientists.
“No, Stark,” she said, “But then, I’m not really human. You know that.”
“Wanna come back and work for me?” he’d asked.
“I have a job,” she said. Paused. “Tony, if you need to talk…” She didn’t actually want to talk to him.
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll talk to Pepper. Or maybe I won’t. Banner left a week ago. But it’s fine.”
Ah, the real reason Fury gave him her number.
“Take care of yourself, Stark,” she said and hung up and ditched her phone. That had been a month ago.
There’s a small bar next door to her hotel, a local place, serving equal parts coffee and Sliwowitz and tiny plates of pickles. She leaves her weapons behind, aside from the gun in her bag, goes there, camps out in the corner and refuses equal parts dark looks and proffered drinks from men in shabby Soviet-era suits, until one of them sits down with her.
“Fancy meeting you here.” Banner’s voice is low, but amused like he’s cracked himself up. Or he’s nervous and trying to hide it. Frankly, with him, it could be either. He sets a bottle of Polish potato vodka on the small table between them.
She uncaps it, pours for them both. “Na zdrowie.”
She downs the vodka, puts the glass on the table, and tilts her head. He looks pretty good, bad suit coat aside. Like he’s been sleeping a little, doing something productive with his time. She thinks maybe his glasses are new. She’s been keeping lazy tabs on him. Nothing invasive, just enough to make sure he was...safe. Secured. Secure. But she’d been busy lately. Information was still a hotter commodity than aliens.
“Seriously,” she says, “Were you really in the neighborhood, because that seems unlikely?”
Not really so unlikely. She’d known he was in Europe.
He shrugs. “Does Romania count?”
She lifts an eyebrow. It’s hardly a jaunt.
“Viral outbreak, and viruses don’t do much to me, so…”
“You’re a one man U.N.” She motions to him to pour again.
Banner doesn’t make her nervous. Terrified, maybe, but not nervous. But then, there were so many bigger things to fear. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t wake up some nights, breathless, ashamed, seeing that look on his face in the carrier, the moment before he turned. The pain there, and his own horror at being seen. That scares her more than his rage, and she owns her role in it.
“Part of a small team, and unsanctioned,” he clarifies because he can’t help himself. Precision is very important to him. She twists her mouth like she knows he thinks it’s funny, but it’s really not.
“I thought you and Physics,” she said, “That you went to play with Stark so you could get gooey over string theory or subatomic particles or something, not play around with viruses.”
“They’re not dissimilar,” he says. “Tiny things that spin universes.”
“Poetic, doc,” she says, “but why are you here?”
She can see a hundred different explanations run across his face, and she knows he won’t be able to lie to her, but she’s still glad when he doesn’t try.
“I checked in,” he says, finally. “The other day, when I saw Tony running his mouth on international TV. I got worried, and I checked in, and somehow that ended up with Fury telling me you were somewhere in Poland if I wanted to say hi. Have a chat. Catch up.” His mouth twists with self-deprecation, a little disgust, a little dark humor. It makes her like him more, every time. The bright, bitterness of his wit. She likes gallows humor. It makes Barton make so much more sense.
She sips from her glass this time instead of shooting it back. She’d also called Fury, and a brisk, frigid exchange left her angry and frustrated and stuck in Warsaw, no way to offer assistance to a teammate. No way to process the idea of having teammates out here in the cold. A partner was different, an organization, but...she shrugs.
“Nick’s idea of deep cover and classified is kind of fucked these days,” she says finally.
Bruce clearly doesn’t know what to do with that. He swallows. “I didn’t want to bother you,” he says, “didn’t know if you’d want...” He lifts a shoulder. “Too late now.”
She lets the discomfort settle in a little, and he starts to squirm and she feels a little guilty, but not enough to stop, and then finally caves.
“Bruce,” she says, and decides to play fair, gives him a truth that surprises her too. “I’m glad you’re here.”
He gives her a little nod like he’s not quite sure he believes her, but what are you gonna do?
All day, watching the footage, the anger and regret and helplessness stirring in her, churning and roiling, and there’s something strangely soothing about Banner and his own brand of assurance and doubt, his own fierce certainties. His hair is curling around his ears, and she wonders, briefly, what it would feel like, to scrape her nails along his scalp, to try and set him to rights, to mess him up more.
“Are you actually undercover?” he asks, suddenly, leaning forward, like it’s kind of intriguing. Like he’s got a spy fantasy hanging out somewhere deep under those dusky layers of self-protection and warm, dark eyes. Sex and death, she thinks, guilt and absolution. She can feel it pulling between them both. She thinks maybe they both failed Stark, maybe they both need to figure out a way around that pain.
Her mouth twitches, and she leans towards him because playing out a weakness is always her first choice. “Maybe.”
“Hmm,” he looks at her mouth, and she feels a little flush start, allows him to see because it looks like he has a specific spy fantasy.
She can see it herself, like she’s watching outside of her body, pushing him into a closet in a fancy house, hiding from view while people search for them, his leg pressed up between hers, his hands spanning her back, her arms around his neck, breathless and in sync, struggling for silence, lips so close to hers that she can practically taste him, a quiver of fear and longing surging back and forth, the risk and danger making him shake, her mouth against his ear, misdirection, turning the stress into desire…
It’s truly a fantasy, and one she could spin, for him, but spies don’t work like that -- in breathless, charged teams. They need steady hands, even heart rates. And if she were somewhere she thought she’d get caught she’d just leave, or lie. Eliminate the threat one way or another.
“No,” she sits back, crosses her arms. “I’m not undercover.”
But he’s looking at her like some of what just slid through her mind has been ricocheting along his own, pupils contracted. He takes off his glasses, and puts them in his pocket. He looks unsettled, and she wonders what he’d look like properly fucked.
She shakes her head again, trying to clear it. She’s all over the place tonight. “Bruce, I wouldn’t tell you if I were; but anyway, I’m benched until this mess gets settled because Fury thinks I’m gonna go do something stupid.”
His gaze hardens like resolve, pupils narrowing like that sex fantasy just retracted into a different type of visualization. “Are you?”
“No.” She makes a fist, digs her nails into her palm, finds that center of calm that she has relied on for a long time, looks at him, sees a similar process in the dark irises.
It’s not like she didn’t know that mirror existed, but it’s different, when she doesn’t need anything from him, and has the luxury of watching. So she keeps watching.
She sees a blush creep along his cheekbones, and he sits back, fiddles with his glass.
“Would you. If you could?”
She'd actually like to know his answer to that. Would you let go? Would you let that rage and destruction unleash if you had a target? How much control do you have and is that why you're sitting here, looking at me? Because I've seen what you can do and you want to be accountable? Or do you just need violence that meets your own?
Instead, she asks, “Why did you leave Stark’s bountiful playground?”
It’s his turn to shrug, withdrawing a little. “Tony...is a lot. Full time. I’m not used to that much…attention... " he trails off, and she thinks, “It got too comfortable, and you couldn’t keep hating yourself, so you ran.”
“It felt self-indulgent,” he says, dark and sharp. “And now I think I was just being selfish."
She barks out a laugh. “You think you could have stopped Stark from taunting anyone, from running his mouth?”
“Maybe,” he shakes his head. “Maybe not.”
She’s caught, for a moment, with wanting to reach out, grip his hand tight enough to let him know that she understands, and that he’s still being a fucking idiot. Nothing could stop Tony with a bone in his teeth. Not even the Hulk. He'd die and still keep talking, taunting fate. He has, in fact.
She wants to say this to Banner, but he looks so bruised already that she tries for kind. “I don’t think anyone could have done anything,” she says. “To keep him safe. Or else I think they’d have let me go. Someone, at least. This,” she curls her lip, “If that were really the kind of thing they’re selling on the news, one of us would have been sent in. It’s smoke and mirrors, but whatever is behind it is something bigger, and uglier and worse.”
He quirks his mouth like that's not really comforting. Well, it's never been her strength.
“What I mean is that you couldn’t have done anything. For Stark.”
“I wanted to be left alone, to stop trying so fucking hard to be normal,” he rubs his mouth with his thumb, harsh and honest. Weary. "But my normal wasn't ever going to look like that and Tony's version of normal is so goddamned pushy."
His face has lost some of the warmth and animation, hardening, and she realizes he’s been struggling to hold on to his own mask so tightly, to show her someone contained and healthy, and just can’t anymore. It’s a kind of a relief, to be honest.
“I got tired. Of being pushed, and now…” he darts his eyes up at the TV which keeps running footage of the destruction with different languages scrolling across, but all announcing Stark’s death.
He shakes his head, fills up the glass again.
“To Tony,” he says softly, and she clinks against his glass.
“It’s okay,” she says, and it’s slow, hard for her to say. She’s not quite sure what sort of meaning she’s trying to layer under it. But she finally gives in, finding the urge unsettling, and reaches out, touching his wrist. His skin is warm. “To not want to be alone.”
He looks at her hand, like he wants to touch her back. He doesn’t do anything, and she starts to withdraw and then he catches her fingers, sliding his thumb across her knuckles.
“Selfish,” he says, “In this particular case, though. Maybe always.”
She shakes her head, not because he’s wrong, but because she kind of agrees. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. She often does her best work alone. Her own brand of selfish is that she likes it. He’s still holding her hand.
“No,” she says, and makes up her mind, grips back. It’s a little awkward, but she finds she doesn’t want to let go. “Human. You still get to be human, Bruce.”
He meets her gaze, intensity flashing there, something deeper and she holds on as they both ride it out, a little breathless. Her words had been anything but casual. Whatever his monster is, the roots are twined into those most human of things--rage and fear and survival. She understands that so deeply she can feel it ricochet between them.
She takes her hand from his, pours them both another drink, but honestly, she’s had enough.
"Let's get out of here," she says, making a decision. She puts coins on the table, takes her bag and he follows her.
The night is crisp, tasting of spring, and they walk companionably, circling through the square, circling around the obvious. She tells him an abbreviated version of her first mission in the city when she had come to SHIELD and immediately been sent back to Eastern Europe in the the winter. How breathlessly cold it had been, how she'd been sure that someone was going to take her down and she'd die here amongst pretty buildings and narrow streets. She's hated Warsaw ever since.
He talks about the viral outbreak, how it should have been better contained, the edgy suspicion he has about its origins. About the food in the small camp outside the city, and small pieces of technology that can make a difference in places that should frankly have better options and don't.
They don't talk about heroes or monsters, or the temptation to unleash either. As it gets later, he puts a hand on her back, steadying, to steer her around a couple leaning against each other, breathless in each other and taking up all of the alley. Heat flushes through her at the touch, noticeable in its absence as they step around the couple and he withdraws.
There’s a small orchestra playing in the square, and they sit down on a bench and listen. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands, lets them drop between his knees.
“He called me,” she says, suddenly, looking at the musicians. “A few weeks ago. He was upset that you left. I think. No, that’s true. He was. Asked if I slept. I didn’t do anything about it.”
She turns to look at him, and he’s nodding, looking at his hands. “He kept sending me these stupid emails. Memes of supernovas and the arc reactors powering life-sized robot cats.”
He looks up at her, and there’s something beautiful and terrible about him stripped of everything but pain.
"He kept pushing me to let go, to embrace the monster. So I left. And if I'd stayed, I could have helped."
It's a false construct and they both know it; it's not so different from her own false construct. My violence is bigger. I'm worse. I should have been there to be worse on his behalf.
She doesn’t touch people unbidden, that moment in the cafe an anomaly, but she wants, somehow, to smooth that pain from his face. She’s not sure she’s even going to reach out until her fingers are on his cheekbone, sliding along his jaw. The grain of his skin, the slight texture of the stubble scratchy along her fingertips is hypnotic, hyper-realized. She likes it so much more than she should.
His breath hitches, eyes narrowing, and his gaze shifts into something else, something familiar, startling and covetous, far more real than any of her earlier amused fantasy, her wry speculation. He covers her hand, turns it slightly, slides his mouth along her wrist, pressing a kiss to the pulse as it beats there. He runs his thumb over that pulse, like he’s feeling her heartbeat.
The flush spreads all over her body, and he doesn’t let go of her hand.
"Do you even have a place to stay?" she asks, sounds so throaty that it’s an invitation in of itself.
He shakes his head, "Mostly I thought I'd turn right around, go back, not see you. Or get a hotel, see the city."
It’s a long way to go to end the night alone, but that has nothing to do with what’s stretching between them.
He’s not asking, or hinting, and that heat flickering along her skin is making her stupid. Sex and death, she thinks again and she wants to see his pupils blown out with want, hair mussed, body loose in her bed, mouth open as he comes. She wants something bigger than her control, her own hands on her body to help her forget. Something that scares her.
"I'm close," she says, "Come with me."
"That sounds like a terrible idea," he says slowly, voice pitched deep, and in his mouth, the phrase sounds like a promise. He’s still holding her hand, thumb rubbing circles on her skin.
"Probably," she murmurs, “but maybe not the worst idea I’ve had.”
He rolls his bottom lip against his teeth.
“I think,” she continues, “that we could both use something selfish tonight.”
She waits, and finally he nods, like it hurts to agree and he can't help himself. He stands, pulls her up from the bench.
It isn’t, she thinks later, so terribly selfish. Anticipation curls through her as he follows her up the narrow, winding staircase. The light is out on her floor and below, has been all week, the only illumination trickling up in an anemic glow from the lobby. She starts to turn as she reaches the landing in front of her room, and he catches at her hands, holds her wrists loosely behind her back.
He moves further into her space. “Tell me you want this,” he says, low against her ear. “No hints, no metaphors. I can’t...I need to hear it.”
The feeling of his hands, the question in his voice, the tremor of want licks at her.
“I don’t always get what I want,” he’d said the first time they met, and that felt like a different universe. He’d surprised her then, showing up when she’d written him off, and he’s surprising her now. It scares her, thrills her, and she tilts up her face, makes sure he can see where she stands.
“Yes,” she says. “I want this. Do you?”
He moves towards her in the near dark, balancing precariously on the stair below her so their mouths are level, but the control is clearly hers. His forearms press gently against her waist as his fingers band her wrists, but she could shake loose at any time, push away, do damage. There are small, slight tremors running through his arms. Control, she thinks, and it ramps up her desire, that small struggle.
“Why,” he asks, mouth against her ear, “Aren’t you afraid of me? Of anyone…”
“You’re not going to hurt me,” she says. “You wouldn’t be here if you thought it was a risk.”
She means here on this landing. Here in Warsaw. Here in Europe.
“Do you want me to be afraid?” she asks.
He starts to shake his head, but she sees the truth in his eyes. He’s so close she can feel his breath, smell the scent of his skin, the place by his mouth, the vodka, the coolness of the night air.
"Yes," she breathes out softly, his mouth so enticingly close. "I’m afraid. That doesn’t change anything."
It’s not a lie, it’s just not the truth that he thinks it is.
He moves finally, with agonizing slowness, like hearing the admission allows him this, like it’s a relief but still not a guarantee. He brushes against her lips, holds his breath.
“Tell me,” she whispers against his mouth. “That you want this. I think I’d like to give you something that you want.”
She tenses her wrists, and he gives in, kisses her like the answer to a question.
“Yes,” he murmurs.
His mouth is so warm, lips soft if a little dry, and he tastes like liquor and something else underneath, rich and alive. Electric. He slides his tongue against her teeth, teasing, and presses harder on her wrists. She bites at his lip, wanting to touch, liking the boundary. She sees them both, layered under his kiss, the man and the monster, both trembling with the effort of keeping control. She can acknowledge to herself that the duality is part of the appeal, that it helped spark the interest. Something else is sparking here, though, hot and desperate between them and she leans into him.
Now he steps up onto the landing, letting go of her wrists, and buries his hands in her hair. She kisses him this time, hands digging into his sides, nipping, biting, bruising. His mouth opens, tongue sliding along hers, tasting her, and she pulls his hips hard against her. He moves to her neck, teeth sharp, breathing her in, and she whimpers. She thought, perhaps, he’d be hesitant. Tentative. She shouldn’t have worried.
She pulls him into her room.
They don’t have a pattern or precedence for this. She doesn’t sleep with people she works with. She doesn’t know who he fucks, although she did. She knew everything about him - a balance of power between them so deeply unfair, unless it was knowledge vs force. And that alone suggests that this is a bad idea. But right now, it doesn’t seem like a sufficient deterrent. Ambient light spilling in from the windows casts them in shadow, starlight and streetlights and the neighbors arguing across the way.
He puts his fingers against her mouth, thumb brushing against her lower lip, fingers curling on her cheek, and her belly tightens. She scrapes her teeth against the pad of his thumb, curling her hand around his knuckles.
He’s got this look in his eyes like he’s making a choice, and she waits, willing him to decide. It is far from the hardest thing she’s ever waited for.
Call it a memorial, call it remembering they’re alive, call it punishment or payment or just a desolate kind of loneliness. She doesn’t care what either of them calls it. She wants to strip him down. She wants his hands on her. She wants the luxury of forgetting for a few hours. She’d like to give him that same gift.
Reciprocity. Payback. Or maybe just a good, honest, breathless fuck with someone who’s giving her every impression of being able to deliver such a thing. Someone she doesn’t have to be anonymous with, can let her pain show a little, and be seared by his.
She doesn’t often allow herself to want, and she can bury it in stillness, if that’s what it takes.
Finally, he says her name, curling it around in his mouth, reaching out with his other hand to slide his fingers along her collarbone, to rest on her sternum, curving around her neck. Deliberation, decision made. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and she lets herself unfurl, just a bit.
He reaches down, ruching up the side of her dress slowly until her thigh is bare, nails scraping against her skin. He spans his hand over the back of her thigh, sliding up to cup the cheek of her ass. His hand is so warm she can feel the whorl of his palm through the delicate silk of her underwear.
She bites her lip, the heat spreading through every bit of her. She wants that warm palm just a little closer, cupping her, stroking. The room is sparsely furnished, but it’s full of walls and he leans in to kiss her, licks into her mouth as he shuffles her back to the closest wall facing out to the street. He presses into her hips, presses her against the wall, and she can feel how hard he is.
She puts her hands on his waist, under the shirt and coat, feeling the satiny stretch of skin and muscle, trying to tug him closer, grinding against him. He groans and then moves back a little but keeps his hands on her.
He slips his fingers along the seam of her thigh and ass, following it back to stroke between her legs. She gasps, relief mixing with desire at his nimble touch. He’s either thought this through, or he’s a hell of an improviser. He kisses her neck, slides his hand along the front of her to brush her cunt with the back of his fingers. She’s hot, and wet, even through silk. She cants up her hips, eager for more, reaches out towards him, brushing against his cock.
“Natasha,” he mumbles, teeth against her ear, “Put your hands behind your head. I need...” he trails off. “Let me…”
She does what he asks, clenching against her own need to touch, but is willing to play along, turned on at the turn of events. Her dress is simple, well-tailored and expensive, clothes for a woman who spends a little more money than she should. She hasn’t completely let go of the persona she came here with. He undoes the tie at her waist, unthreads and unwraps and opens her to his gaze. Her bra and underwear are indulgent and delicate, the black silk stark against her skin. She can see on his face that he likes it, the way he worries his lip, shifts his stance, but doesn’t touch himself, trying to adjust his erection without adding pressure.
She expects endearments from him, something warm and crooning, reflecting his own infinite warmth, but she’s oddly pleased when he stays quiet, rubs a thumb against her nipple, rough palm cupping her breast, dragging the fabric down to expose her fully, followed by the heat of his mouth. It’s a tease though, and he moves on, pressure and longing as his fingers skitter along her ribs, brush her belly, slide along hips, and thighs, and then he gently hooks his fingers in the slim bands of her underwear and slips them down to her feet, leaving her bare.
She steps out of them, navigating balance in her heels, kicks them to the side without being asked. There’s a small, delicious ache in her biceps. The need to move is growing more desperate--to open his shirt, scratch her nails down along his chest, catch his mouth again, fist her hand around his cock. Instead, she keeps her arms behind her head, and lets him take her in.
Control, she thinks. There are illusions that he needs, particularly from her. He needs to trust that she can listen, that she can wait. She can practically read that vibrating off him. He’s breathing heavily now, watching her, waiting as she stays where he put her. It isn’t about dominance, but about controlling himself, seeing how much he can stand. Knowing that he’s earned that chance to touch. She thinks its probably always been like that, even before he thought he had to justify touch.
That thought stutters along her skin and a wave rolls through her. She tightens her inner muscles, and he can see her ride out that tremor and his fingers flex.
“Do you need,” she asks, so softly, not wanting to spook him, "me to beg?”
He shakes his head. She doesn’t quite believe him.
“I could,” she says.
He steps in closer, hands on her hips, and she wants so much more.
She tilts her hips. He leans in, kisses the flutter of her pulse, licks behind her ear, mouth against her jaw.
“If you begged,” he says, gravel-voiced and thready, “You wouldn’t really mean it.”
She might, she thinks, she really fucking might. But he's not wrong.
“Please,” she says, but it’s not a request any more than his order had been. “I want…”
He shakes his head, and she knows. Certain.
“Fuck me,” she says instead, finds the on switch.
Then his teeth scrape along her neck, her breast, fingers sliding through her lips to stroke her clit, and she hiccups her relief as she fists her hands in his hair, and they fumble his fly open, hitching up her leg around his hip, and his cock is finally in her hand, hot and hard and silky. She grasps, strokes, and he hikes her up further, thighs around his waist, and he slides inside. She bangs her head back against the wall, and he thrusts hard, gasping, his cock sweet and thick and perfect as she bucks down against him.
She can’t come like this but if feels too fucking good to stop, the pressure, and the fullness and the wall against her back. She tightens around him, nails seeking purchase against his shirt, his fingers biting into the flesh of her hips, and when he speeds up, slamming into her, she digs her fingers into his hair and shoulders as he comes.
Her legs are shaking, mirrored tremors that she can feel in his arms, and she pushes at him to stand on her own. He lets her go, and she turns to the wall, trying to find whatever cool she might have left. Her hair is plastered to her face. She’s wet and sloppy. He catches at her dress, slips it off her shoulders, dropping it to the floor. He unhooks her bra, and she’s naked, pressed back against him. He’s so warm, and the wall is cool, and her knees shake a little.
She puts her hands on the wall, and he kisses her neck, teeth against her shoulder. She arches into his touch, pushes against him, needing more. He reaches around, thumb against her clit, fingers sliding inside of her, and fucks her with his fingers, pinching and circling, and she comes with a harsh cry and his palm holding her cunt like a present, other arm banded across her, between her breasts, keeping her steady. He breathes roughly against her, and she turns her head, kisses him.
“Jesus, Banner,” she says, low and unsteady, gripping his arm. “You’re still wearing that hideous jacket.” His laughter rolls through her, and she can feel the kiss he places on the back of her neck like an after-shock.
Eventually, she does strip him down, takes him to her small bed to sleep, to wake up, a little hung over, rolling him onto his back, and sinking down on top of him as early morning starts to beckon, gripping his hands while she takes her own pleasure, collapsing on top of him, rolling away. He sleeps like the dead, after, even if he does reach for her, hand curled on to her hip. She lets it stay.
She leaves him in the hotel room alone. When he wakes, He finds his phone next to him on the nightstand, along with a postcard of Krakow and a row of numbers.
I took the SHIELD tracker out. Call me if you want to be found. - N.