It was getting hard to remember they’d fought the bionic soldiers just that morning, that the call had come at five a.m. and Bruce had really been okay with taking it—with going over to Stark Tower and taking the helicopter with Steve over to the harbor so they could take the helicarrier. Bruce had still been sleepy, and Natasha had given him this look which, just like all her looks, was impossible to interpret.
Meanwhile Tony gave him this look which indicated unflagging approval, because naturally Tony approved of people who used their bodies as weapons that could kill everyone if something happened to go wrong, because for some reason Tony thought nothing could go wrong around him. The puzzling thing was that apparently Bruce approved too, or else he wouldn’t be here.
It would have been much better if he’d been uncertain about it. Maybe that was why Natasha looked inscrutable. Natasha, Bruce thought, didn’t know whether she approved of him accidentally killing everyone if something happened to go wrong. Bruce approved of that.
Then there’d been the bionic soldiers, and Bruce had still been groggy and wishing he had coffee when he said, “There’s nothing like free fall for a wakeup call,” and walked off the edge of the helicarrier.
(“It riles Cap up when you do things like that,” Tony said. “Keep doing it, okay?”)
Sometimes (especially this early in the morning) things like bionic soldiers just seemed like such a non-emergency, and so did falling thirty thousand feet, that Bruce didn’t even hulk out until after he hit the ground. He never told anyone that there was something vaguely comforting about the slam of contact and the moments of darkness before the green. Steve wasn’t the only one who’d get riled up, hearing that.
Fighting the bionic soldiers was sort of a blur. Clint described it as “zombie apocalypse,” and Steve said, “Just what is the deal with zombies these days?” and Natasha said, “Only the implants were keeping them alive.”
“I think we noticed,” said Tony, who was picking apart all the footage the suit had taken during the fight.
What Tony hadn’t noticed, or else forgot to notice, was that Bruce hadn’t actually been in much of a state to notice such a thing during the fight. Generally at times like that Bruce didn’t take much stock of whether people were alive or dead.
Natasha, of course, knew this, and her comment had been for his benefit.
She didn’t even look at him, just turned from Tony and said, “Cap?”
“Right,” said Steve. “Let’s source those implants.”
“Bruce is mine,” said Tony, without looking up from his screen.
Clint snorted. “Of course he is. He’s your boyfriend.”
Tony poked at his keyboard. “Jealous?”
“Right, because this is the alternate universe where I want to get sent to the corner with the nerds.” Clint grabbed his bow. “Come on, Nat. Let’s leave the women behind.”
Natasha looked down at Bruce. “You need to eat.”
Tony had slid some of the schematics he was drafting over to Bruce, who didn’t look up. “I’m fine,” he said.
Natasha looked disapproving, so Bruce started poking things on his screen to show her he was busy.
The silence stretched for a moment, until Steve said quietly to Clint, “I don’t think Tony’s his boyfriend.”
“Run along, Miss Romanoff,” said Tony, without turning around. “We have knitting and sewing to keep us busy, after we’re done being brilliant and saving the world.”
“Good.” Grabbing a few clips for her gun, Natasha finally walked over to Clint and Steve. “I need my stockings darned. And while you’re at it, have my suit dry cleaned.”
“Is that a suit? I thought it was body paint.” Tony pushed another file Bruce’s way. “If you want your body paint pressed, though, I’d be happy to. It would be difficult to get out stains, but I could—”
“Also, I think Tony has a girlfriend,” Steve told Clint.
“Does that stop him?” Clint sounded really curious.
“If you guys are done accessorizing,” said Natasha, because Steve was grabbing his shield and Clint his arrows, “I’m ready to kick some ass.”
“Be careful,” Bruce said, opening the file and immediately beginning edits on Tony’s brief sketch.
“We always are,” Steve said.
That had been about eleven hours ago. Three hours ago, Steve, Clint and Natasha had come back, having infiltrated the lab where the bionic zombies (they were bionic zombies now) were constructed. The team came bearing schematics, a zombie prototype, a vial full of fluid containing nanotechnology, lots of Starbucks, eight boxes of pizza and three milkshakes.
“Drink up,” said Natasha, practically slamming the milkshakes in front of him. Then she walked away.
“I think she may seriously kill you if you don’t drink those,” said Clint. He had his feet up all over their research and his lips locked around a straw. “And trust me, you do not want Natasha to kill you. It’s worse than other people killing you.”
“Pretty sure that’s not going to happen,” said Bruce, touching a couple spots on the screen. But he did start in on one of the milkshakes. It was chocolate. He liked chocolate a lot.
“Thank you,” said Tony, pizza in one hand and other hand on the screen. “This is brilliant.”
“He’s not talking to us, is he,” said Steve.
“Even though we specifically got him mushrooms,” Natasha said. Her feet were up too, but they were noticeably not all over the research, and her lips were noticeably not locked around a straw. It was noticeable because Bruce pretty much always noticed what her lips were doing—sort of like how he always knew what Tony was thinking and could read worlds of emotions in the slant of Steve’s shoulders, but also not like that at all.
“Seriously,” Tony went on, munching and punching, “this is exactly what I needed. My gratitude is unlimited.”
“Nope,” said Clint, picking off his mushrooms and putting them on Natasha’s slice. “Not talking to us.”
“This is practically a masterpiece, Bruce,” said Tony. “Let’s invent the Vulcan mind-meld. You and me.”
“Okay,” said Steve, “so maybe they’re boyfriends.”
“How dare you say that,” said Tony. “I have a girlfriend.”
Natasha was putting her peppers onto Clint’s slice. There was a pizza with peppers and pepperoni, and a mushroom pizza with onions. They could have just taken slices from the pizzas they actually wanted, except they hadn’t. “Where are my stockings, Stark?” Natasha said, instead of explaining this mystery.
“Steve’s probably wearing them,” said Tony.
“Only on Tuesdays,” said Steve. “Wednesdays are Clint’s day.”
“Today’s Wednesday?” Bruce said. He was on the second milkshake by now, still poking at the data. “Huh.”
“Stay with me, baby,” said Tony. “Have you figured out how that extra cellular matrix slows down the necrosis yet?”
“Almost, honey,” said Bruce. “But remember how we agreed not to talk dirty in front of the children.”
“So,” said Clint, pulling another mushroom slice and giving it to Natasha, “they’re not actually zombies.”
“You’re right,” Tony said to Bruce. “We must preserve their innocent minds, or soon they’ll be getting ideas . . . thinking . . .” He shook his head. Of Clint, he did not approve.
“One slice isn’t going to cut it,” Steve told Tony. He nudged the box of pizza closer to Tony with his foot. They were all fairly well aware of Tony’s habits when he got obsessed with something. Usually Bruce didn’t have to be reminded to eat, but it was true that sometimes he didn’t keep track of just how much he should be refueling after hulking out. “Eat up,” said Steve. “Bruce, you too.”
Figured Steve would keep track.
“But Mommy,” said Tony. “I’m not finished playing with my toys. Bruce, check this one out.” He slid another graph over.
“I am so confused about the gender of everyone here,” said Natasha. She sucked on the straw some more, and then, apparently finished, grabbed Clint’s soda and kept on sucking.
“Don’t worry, Nat,” said Clint. “You’ll always be my daddy.”
The side of Natasha’s mouth pushed in, half of a smirk. “Going back to the bionic zombies,” was all she said.
“Right,” said Steve. “We know XIO Tech is building soldiers out of coma patients. The question is whether they’re developing something bigger, and what they’re doing with their zombie army.”
“Bruce?” said Tony. “You want to take this one? I’m just so bad at explaining things to peons.”
“Sure, I can explain this,” said Bruce. “Tony was raised by wild dogs, so he has no manners. I’ve found that if you pat him on the head and give him praise, however, he’ll do anything you ask.”
Steve looked thoughtfully from Bruce to Tony. “Tony, sometimes you’re not half bad.”
“I solved global warming,” said Tony. “Get back to me when you can grow a beard.”
Steve turned back to Bruce. “It didn’t work.”
“You’ve got to speak his language,” said Bruce. “Tony, your projections for the effect of that electricomagnetic stimulant on neural synapses perfectly explains the reduced action of the adrenal gland."
"You think so?" Tony smiled brilliantly. "Did you calculate the compensation of the neural capacity in the cortex?"
"Yep," said Bruce.
"You genius, you."
Bruce smirked at Steve. “See?” he said.
"This is like watching porn," Clint said.
"Your porn is boring," said Natasha.
"Hit that back to me, will you?" Tony told Bruce.
Natasha was just eating her pizza, lounging in a way that was somehow elegant and yet resolute, as though languor were merely a side effect of confidence. She didn’t look like she was thinking about porn at all.
Bruce was definitely thinking about porn.
"What?" he said, tearing his attention away from Natasha.
Tony smiled crookedly, as though he knew something Bruce didn't. "Hit it back to me," he repeated. "I want to see that beautiful brain work magic."
"It's not magic," Bruce said, managing to not look at Natasha. "It's a biochemical catalyst." He hit the data back to Tony.
"Hello, precious," Tony said, pulling up the equations. "Daddy loves you."
"Just gag me already," said Clint.
"Sounds like you want a boyfriend, too," said Tony, and the room went quiet.
Bruce hadn't known Coulson all that well, and the only thing he knew about Clint and Coulson was something Tony told him, and Tony couldn't be trusted. Steve didn't know anything about it, which Tony said was because Steve had a homosexual-shaped blind spot, but Bruce thought it was rather because Steve didn't get into other people's business. Natasha had never mentioned anything about Clint and Coulson, but Natasha didn’t talk about anyone at all. Especially not about Clint.
Tony hadn’t been lying, though, judging by the look on his face. He'd actually stopped looking at his screen (was that the first time in six hours?) to look at Clint. Tony didn't do remorse very well; he just had this dead-eye stare that usually meant, dare you to talk about it, but in this case probably meant he was daring himself. Bruce coughed.
"Eat some pizza," Natasha said.
"Okay," said Bruce, and made a big deal shuffling through the boxes, because Tony was still looking at Clint that way and Clint wasn't looking at anyone.
"The bottom four are olive," said Steve, who sounded gentler than the comment warranted. "Natasha says you like olive."
"I don't need four," said Bruce.
"The other one's for Nick," said Natasha.
"Fury eats?" Bruce said, because Tony wasn't saying it. At least he was looking at his screen again. "I thought he was a robot."
"Robots are people too," said Steve, his voice still kind. When Bruce glanced up at him, Steve hitched a shoulder, saying, "The twenty first century has taught me a lot."
"Okay, but I don't need three pizzas, either," said Bruce.
"Nat said you did," Clint said. He was eating his pizza again, but he still wasn't looking at anyone. "So you must."
"You better do what she says," Steve added. "She might really kill you. Clint, you look like you need to hit the sack."
Clint went on eating his pizza, only saying, "But I want to watch Natasha kill Banner."
Bruce wanted to say that she could try to kill him all she liked, and it wouldn't make him angry, but it wouldn't be true. It was automatic, like a switch; for some reason dying made him fight. At times Bruce found it ineffable, this will to live, but at other times—like now—it was completely comprehensible. He glanced at Clint over his glasses. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to miss it.”
“She only gets him angry in private,” said Tony, and slid the equation back to Bruce. “It’s her thing.”
Clint tossed his crust in an empty pizza box. “You know what, Stark? You can shut the fuck up.”
“What?” Frowning, Tony ran his fingers over the screen, not looking up. “Is that taboo, too?”
“Clint,” Natasha said. Uncrossing her legs from their lounging position, she put her foot in Clint’s lap. Then she finished eating her pizza.
Clint’s hand landed firmly around her ankle, and then it just stayed there, clenched. Slowly, he relaxed. “Fucking asshole,” he said, but it lacked heat.
“Sorry,” said Tony. “I had no idea Romanoff’s kink was a secret.”
“Tony.” Bruce’s voice was rather quiet. He slid Tony another file. “I didn’t mean actual, literal wild dogs.”
Pecking at the screen, Tony started closing all the files. “I’m gonna go down to the lab, run a beta on those implant designs.” He wasn’t looking at any of them, but he stopped when he was almost at the door, and turned to look at Bruce. “You wanna necropsy with me?”
“I’ve got a simulation right here.”
Tony snorted softly. His hands were in his pockets. “You’re such a scientist, never get your hands dirty.”
“Engineering lacks imagination.”
Tony rose up on the balls of his feet and bounced a little, subtly. “Ironman,” he tossed out.
“The theory is brilliant,” said Bruce. “The metal is limiting.”
“We’re talking practical application,” said Tony.
“You are,” Bruce pointed out.
“People like you are the reason we’re never going to Mars.” Tony wheeled on his heel and left.
“Here’s a first,” said Steve. “I actually agree with Tony.” Bruce looked at him. “I just mean I’m disappointed about the Shuttle program,” Steve said. “Not that you have anything to do with it.”
Natasha nodded at the door where Tony had exited. Her short hair covered most of her face from Bruce’s angle, but he could imagine her expression: there was none. “He’s upset because he thinks Ironman influenced XIO Tech.” She turned to Bruce. “Isn’t he.”
Bruce raised his brows. “Yes.”
Steve looked out after Tony, frowning. “Not much of an influence.” When he turned back, Bruce and Natasha were looking at him inquiringly. “Or not the main influence, anyway,” Steve said. “The fluid we brought back looked like another attempt at the super solider serum. You’d think people would—” His eyes fell on Bruce, and he stopped.
“You’d think,” said Bruce, and turned back to his screen.
Natasha stood abruptly. “I’m gonna turn in.”
“Good idea,” said Steve, standing also. “Doctor Banner—”
“I’ve got to monitor this simulation.” Bruce started tapping at the keyboard. “Don’t worry, I’ll get my z’s.”
Clint cracked open an eye. “What, you guys are still awake?”
“Lazy bones,” said Natasha, and Bruce liked it when she talked to Clint.
It was the only time he ever really heard her sound affectionate, and he could hear the smile creep up into her voice. He thought that perhaps she was not aware of it. He couldn’t tell, because her back was to him, just sleek black leather and red, red hair, and he looked away. He didn’t want to see if she and Clint were headed in the same direction. He’d never solved that particular mystery about those two, either.
A couple hours later it was almost midnight. Bruce’s eyes ached and he had a crick in his neck, plus this habit of clenching his jaw when he got sleepy sort of made his ears ring. He could feel that heavy-syrup saturation of exhaustion poured across his shoulders, stale, hours and hours old.
Usually after hulking out he slept for eighteen hours and ate fried eggs and fried bread and then more eggs, and drank lots of milk, but sometimes he didn’t. This time he couldn’t, because Steve was right. You’d think people would have stopped trying to replicate the super soldier serum, considering the examples arrayed before them. Bruce wasn’t consoled by the fact that at least he wasn’t a zombie.
“You’re gonna be one of those undead carcasses I came across this morning,” Natasha said, as though reading his thoughts. She was leaned up against the doorway, arms crossed against a fatigue green tank top. Below that she was wearing yoga pants and her feet were bare. Bruce had to tear his eyes away from her toes and back up to her face when she said, “And then I’d have to rip off another head and three was enough for me, thanks.”
“You have to rip off their heads, really?”
“Stark didn’t cover that in your research party?”
Bruce looked away. “Maybe he assumed I knew.”
Her voice was a little gentler when she said, “You should tell him.”
“I get to see the footage, Natasha. Besides, I remember well enough.”
“Yeah.” She took her foot off the door frame. “You’re a real camera whore.”
“It’s kind of hard to miss me.” Bruce started punching keys again.
Bruce looked up, took his glasses off so he could see her better, but of course it didn’t clarify anything. She came in closer, until she was right beside his chair, and he had to look up at her. Her lips were pressed together; she looked disapproving. “You don’t get to blame yourself for everything,” she said. “After a while, it gets old.”
Bruce started fiddling with his glasses. “You’re confusing me with Tony.”
“No, I’m not. I know you’ve looked at my files, but you have no idea. The terrible things I’ve done. They’re things too terrible for files, Bruce.” He kept fiddling, and she put a hand on his shoulder. “Look at me.”
He looked. “Whenever you tell me anything about yourself,” he said, “I wonder what you want from me.”
She swallowed hard. “Just pretend, for one bare moment, that I am not playing a game, when it comes to you.”
“Alright.” Bruce put the glasses in his pocket. “I’m pretending.”
“Good.” She came around behind him, her head leaning down near his. “Now go to bed.”
He tried to turn around and look at her, but the angle made his neck hurt, and it seemed like too much effort.
“You’re dead on your feet,” she said.
“I’m not on my feet.”
“Get on your feet, and come to bed.”
“I think . . .” Bruce scrubbed his face. “I think I just misheard you.”
“What Stark said—”
“Isn’t an issue.”
“—wasn’t wrong,” said Natasha, and looked away. Her hair fell across her face a little, disguising the line of her jaw, but Bruce could still see her mouth.
He would be seeing her mouth in his dreams.
If she got off on being terrified of him, then she was pretty much shit out of luck.
“But as sick and twisted as I may be inside,” Natasha said, “I can want other things as well.”
She still wasn’t looking at him, her head tilted in such a way that it didn’t look like she was avoiding his eyes, even though she was. “Are we still pretending?” Bruce asked her.
“Only if you want to.”
“You’re not sick.”
She did look at him, then. “You’re not going to believe that until you believe it of yourself.”
“Okay.” Bruce stood up. He wanted to reach out—touch her hair, cup her jaw, but he didn’t. Sometimes he thought of Natasha as loaded, but he was never certain, when he thought of touching her, whether he was afraid that she would go off, or him. “Do you snore?” he asked instead.
She looked up, shaking back her hair. The corner of her mouth pushed in. “No.”
They moved a little closer, a little toward the door, and Bruce stopped. “Does Clint snore?”
Her smiles were never large, but her cheeks got rounder. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“I was just wondering whether I would find out.”
Her hand slipped into his, and she pulled him toward the door. “Want to know another kink I have?” she said.
She smirked. “Stark would twist this into something really dirty.”
“Now I’m really interested,” Bruce said.
She squeezed his hand. “Family,” she said, and they walked out the door.