There were many things that Natasha Romanoff (formerly Romanova, but she'd Anglicized it when she'd left Russia and the Red Room behind her so long ago) was trained to handle. She could be the seductress who tempted men to spill their secrets for little more than a romp through the bedroom. She could be the sweet innocent who didn't understand why these men would want to harm her. She killed easily to matter which role she was playing, and she was generally able to come up with a new plan on the fly if something happened to blow her cover.
However, she had one flaw in that she trusted SHIELD to have all the up-to-date intel she may need for any given situation.
And while the agents charged with observing Bruce Banner had glommed onto the fact that he wasn't in Calcutta any longer, they'd neglected to pass along the information that he'd picked up a traveling companion for the trip to Paris.
Only Natasha's training kept her from making a startled sound when Dr. Banner followed the young girl she'd paid to lead him to the warehouse along with a boy who was likely only a year or two older than that same girl. The Black Widow's temporary ally slipped out through a fire door, and she felt her lips twitch when her target heaved a faint sigh.
"Well, that's good," he said, causing the boy to look up at him with a tiny moue of concern.
"I think we've just been invited to a meeting," Dr. Banner replied to the unasked question, looking closely at all the shadows.
When his gaze landed on her, Natasha stepped forward and offered a friendly smile. "You're an insightful man, Dr. Banner," she said warmly, letting her eyes take on the question she wasn't sure how to voice as she glanced at the boy.
Her estimate of his age was somewhere in the neighborhood of ten or eleven. The boy was fair skinned to the point that were he a girl, Natasha might be tempted to call him Snow White until she knew what his name might be. He even had the hair as black as coal that the fairy tale princess was supposed to possess, with bottle green eyes that looked back at her with a measure of distrust that most children his age wouldn't even think to direct at an adult.
But Natasha had been around the same age when she first entered the Red Room, and she was certain she herself had looked at adults with the same level of distrust if not more so.
"I do try to know who my enemies might be. Unless I miss my guess, you're the infamous Black Widow," Banner replied, dropping a protective hand to the child's shoulder. "You already know who I am, or you wouldn't be here. This is Loki." He paused for only a moment to add, "My son."
"We're all friends here, Dr. Banner. Please, it's Natasha," the Widow said, maintaining her warm smile even as she was mentally reeling. No one mentioned the boy, she thought, keeping her façade in place even while listening as her backup quickly recalculated their plans to include an adolescent. No one mentioned that Banner had all but adopted a child while he was being watched.
Banner smiled back, subtly moving to place himself between Natasha and the boy he called his son. "So you're just here for a friendly chat? I somehow doubt that."
"You're right," she replied, moving towards the table where she'd taped a gun earlier in case she needed it. "SHIELD needs your expertise."
"You want the other guy," Banner corrected, that same smile remaining on his face even as he maneuvered himself and his child to stand across from her; Loki kept a firm grasp on the man's arm and peered around at Natasha, not fighting against his father's protective stance. "You want the monster. Well, I'm sorry. He's not interested."
"Actually, we need both of you." She managed not to smile at the surprise and curiosity that overtook the doctor's face, instead setting her folder on the table and sliding it across to him. As Banner flipped it open (and Loki ducked under his arm to get a closer look of his own), she continued, "This is what we've been calling the Tesseract. It has enough potential energy to wipe out the planet."
Banner glanced up, looking distinctly bored. "What does SHIELD want me to do with it? Swallow it?"
"What Director Fury wants you to do is find it," Natasha corrected. "It emits a weak gamma signature that we're unable to track. There's no one on the planet who knows gamma radiation quite like you do."
"And this director of yours, he isn't interested in the other guy?"
Natasha knew that Fury would probably be more than okay to have the Hulk on the team, but she wasn't going to say as much. "Not that he's mentioned to me."
"Liar," came a small voice.
Natasha's gaze dropped to the boy, who was staring right at her with those brilliant green eyes. It almost felt like they were peering right into her soul, and it made her twitchy.
"And Fury tells you everything?" Banner pushed.
"You'll have to talk to Fury," she replied, hoping that the brush-off would work and that the doctor and his creepy son would let the topic drop. "He needs you on this."
Brown eyes narrowed slightly. "He needs me in a cage?"
"No one's planning to put you in a..." Natasha started to say, keeping her gaze averted from the boy who was still staring at her as if he was seeing every half-truth for what it was.
"Stop lying to me!" Banner snapped, slamming both hands down on the table as his eyes flashed green; at the same time, Loki slipped out from under his father's arms and moved around to his back. Natasha's immediate reaction was to pull the gun she'd placed earlier and aim it directly at the threat.
The doctor stood back up, flashing an apologetic smile as his eyes shifted back to normal. "I'm sorry," he said, sounding sincere, "that was mean. I wanted to see what you would do. So, why don't we do this the easy way, where you don't use that, and the other guy doesn't get upset that you pulled a gun in front of our boy? Okay?"
Natasha hesitated for a moment, still shaken by just how fast the shift from calm to angry had been. She was also a bit astonished by Loki's reaction; unless she missed her guess completely, Loki had been present for one of Banner's 'incidents' and trusted the monster just as much as he trusted the man.
"Please, Miss Natasha?" the boy asked, sipping back to his father's side and fixing her with another eerie stare. "I promise not to call you out on any more lies," he cajoled.
That was actually what served to set the Widow at ease. Dropping the gun to her side, she responded to the inquiries coming through her earpiece: "Stand down. Everything's under control in here."
Banner smirked at her, as if he'd known that this meeting was far from private. Loki snickered and leaned against his father.
Natasha honestly couldn't help but smile genuinely; they made a rather sweet if unconventional little family. "So, Dr. Banner," she said, "you'll be sharing your expertise with us at SHIELD?"
"On one condition," Banner replied. "As you've no doubt noticed by now, given the past fifteen minutes, I've become something of a single parent in the past year."
"I'd noticed," Natasha said evenly. It was difficult not to notice, and the child was definitely... different. She wouldn't say he was Red Room material, but the way he'd picked up on her half-truths so quickly was nothing short of astounding. Fury would probably give his remaining eye to have intel on the boy and twenty-four hour surveillance on him as well.
"Well, the fact of the matter is this, Natasha: I'm not willing to leave Loki in Paris while I go God only knows where on Fury's whim," the doctor continued. "So either my son comes with us, or I'm slipping that little team that's been keeping an eye on me and good luck to you all in tracking my family down again."
In the back of her mind, the Widow knew that she should check in with Fury or the very least Coulson and confirm that SHIELD would be willing to accept Banner's conditions. It was standard procedure where negotiations were concerned, and in the past Natasha had never failed to follow the protocol.
However, she had observed first-hand the relationship between Bruce Banner and his adopted son, and had come very close to observing the relationship between the Hulk and Loki Banner. There was absolutely no doubt in her mind whatsoever that should she give the wrong answer, it would be months before SHIELD tracked down the Banners again, and those were months that the world didn't really have to spare.
"I'm prepared to escort you to our command center tonight if you so desire," Natasha said without hesitation. "Will we need to stop and pick up any personal effects before the three of us leave Paris?"