She wasn’t used to being afraid.
The Red Room beat that response out of her before her first mission. Her instructors had no tolerance for weakness, and fear was weakness of the worst sort. What little they missed was weeded out by over half a century of espionage. She had faced firing squads, dictators, and murderers. She had been tortured, beaten, burned and frozen, and never felt more than temporary pain and anger at being inconvenienced. Fear, the kind that locked muscles or turned them to jelly, the kind that left others twisted up in sweaty sheets had no place in her.
Or so she thought.
Natasha did her homework long before Coulson’s phone call. Before her sojourn as Natalie Rushman she was chosen to bring Bruce Banner in. She’d read the security briefs and psychological evaluations; the latter leading her to write her own report stating exactly why using someone with such a long list of documented mental health issues would be disastrous for SHIELD. She watched the footage; trying to get a bead on the man SHIELD classified an Alpha One Priority threat. After two weeks she was confident she could deal with Banner. He was generally mild-mannered to the point of pain. Severe childhood trauma notwithstanding the only thing that got him excited before the accident other than Elizabeth Ross was his research. Her plan, in the end, was simple.
Just talk to him.
The Bruce Banner she met wasn’t the man from the briefs. The milquetoast was gone, replaced by a man with soft edges sharp enough to cut. She didn’t like the constant wringing of his hands or the careful distance he kept between them. Halfway through that first meeting she realized something that made her approach the small table that concealed her gun. He wasn’t afraid of her, or the team he was sure waited outside to put him in a cage. He was more… amused. It was that realization, that he didn’t view her, her team, or SHIELD as a threat that made an emotion she thought long since purged spark strange and stunted in her chest.
The trip to SHIELD mobile headquarters was quiet. Banner ignored her for the most part, focused on the file she gave him outlining Selvig’s work with the tesseract and what they knew of Thor and Loki. She spent her time studying him: integrating new data so as to better control her asset.
“I don’t plan on jumping out the window, Agent Romanov.”
“Excuse me?” She looked up from the brief she was pretending to read.
“You’ve been watching me for over an hour.” He set his pad in his lap and peered at her through thick glasses.
She gave him her best self-deprecating smile. “And here I thought I was being subtle.”
“I’m not the one who noticed.”
Her smile tried to stiffen. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, Dr. Banner.” She thought about the button beneath her seat, the one that would flood the cargo bay with enough anesthetic to put down a bull elephant in two seconds.
Finally, he smiled in return. “It happens.”
The Hulk was nothing like she expected.
Watching Bruce change into his ‘other’ made that small flutter of unease that teased her in India blossom into full fledged panic. He was afraid, she could smell it pour off of him before the sharp scent was buried under rage, afraid, no doubt confused and in pain from the initial explosion and the fall. He fought it, tried to keep the Hulk locked away, but she knew it was futile and that knowledge threatened to steal what strength she was able to muster. The fragment of herself that managed to take in details even when under extreme duress catalogued the way he fought the change, taking snapshots for later dissection. The transformation itself was as captivating as it was terrifying, watching his muscles expand without ripping as green flushed over his skin.
‘Get away,’ had been the predominant thought of the rest of her.
By the time she was able to free herself the transformation was complete and she was faced with a situation she prepared for but never imagined actually entering. The Hulk only appeared to go after those who were actively fighting him so she had banked on being able to sneak away before he could notice her. Their intelligence pointed to a window of about ten seconds in which the Hulk seemed confused and disoriented. Without a ready enemy to fuel his rage it was possible he might slip back into Bruce Banner as they saw in Alberta. When he turned to her, in the instant their eyes met she knew she was going to die.
Later, after an alien invasion, victory, and shwarma she was in the New York office dictating her report on a borrowed computer and nursing three fractured ribs, a sprained wrist, strained shoulder, two broken fingers, six broken toes, and far too many bruises. She used the code developed decades ago in the bare barracks of the Red Room; a mix of languages and nonsensical sounds that only two other people still living knew. When she was able to return to quarters and the safety of her personal computer she would translate it back into English and hand it off to whoever was replacing Phil.
The incident on the Helicarrier can be directly attributed to mental manipulation from the Asgardian Loki compounded by the explosion which served to injure Dr. Banner. The subject has a predisposition to respond to any attack whether direct or peripheral with extreme force, as characterized by the preexisting diagnosis of intermittent explosive disorder. As Agent Romanov was the SHIELD agent with which Banner had the most contact, as well as being the agent tasked with bringing him in, it is no surprise that during the incident the Hulk focused his aggression on her. It is the recommendation of the Agent that-
She stopped speaking. Bruce was standing at the door, hands washing each other restlessly. Tony was the infirmary with minor decompression injuries. Clint was back in the holding cell under observation of his own choosing, not knowing what potential time-bombs Loki might have implanted with everything else. Steve was being poked and prodded to make sure his wounds were healing as close to properly as the doctors could manage, considering. Even Thor had his share of cuts and bruises from the battle. Bruce looked like he just walked out of a lab if you ignored the extreme tiredness bruising his eyes.
“Dr. Banner.” She closed the laptop. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” the word was a sigh. He took a tentative step forwards. “We’re both sorry.”
He glanced at the floor. “Yeah. Me and… and Hulk.” His mouth twisted at the name but he met her eyes levelly. “About what happened on the carrier.” About hunting you, running you down, and nearly crushing you to death, the words were loud, even unspoken.
“You’re not the first ally that’s tried to kill me, Dr. Banner.” She made the words as even and non-judgmental as she could. “You’re not even the one that tried the hardest. But thank you. Apology accepted.”
Banner nodded at her words, gave her another short glance, and wandered off. Natasha spread her trembling hands on the desk, felt them slip in a thin film of sweat. Bruce Banner wasn’t the first friendly who’d tried to kill her over the years, but he’d certainly come the closest.