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“Just to let you know, the coffee of the day is--oh, shit, it’s you!”

Natasha manages to catch the server’s wrist before a pitcher of ice water cascades into her lap.

“God, I’m sorry, I just--” The pitcher lands safely on the table, but the woman--20ish, awkward, not a professional and so most likely a student--is trembling anyway. “I know I’m being, like, a massive dork, but I just want to say thank you. For keeping us safe, for stopping the--”

“No problem,” Natasha says, staying still so as not to feed the woman’s nervous energy. She adjusts her sunglasses, a hint. The woman stares at her for a long moment and then nods, blunt-cut hair bobbing, acknowledging Natasha’s unspoken request. She fills her water glass without spilling and then turns away, steady enough to serve another customer.

Natasha is happy to find her own powers still reasonably intact.

She pulls out a two-day-old copy of the International Herald Tribune as a deterrent to further starstruck gratitude, even though she knows it’s too late, here and everywhere: she is that least useful of things, a famous spy. In a way, it was inevitable: her reputation had been in its late stages anyway, cannibalizing itself, creating expectations that to some extent could be manipulated. But now she’s on the cover of magazines, a guardian of the planet, recruited by fate onto the side of light, the wall between herself and her old life looking, in her mind, something like the three-story water wall in the atrium of Stark Tower.

She finishes her pastelito and heads out onto Seventh Avenue. It’s mid-morning and the air is already hot and thick, the last burst of cool air mixing the scent of coffee into rotting garbage.

She looks up and down the street. Indecision and lack of purpose are novel feelings. She hasn’t had a gig in a week; Fury’s mostly had her checking in with the larger crime syndicates, looking for alien fingerprints. Her day is her own. She could go to a museum, or shopping, or she could buy a book and read it cover to cover.

In the end, though, she recognizes those thoughts as deceptions. She’s going back to Stark Tower, because she can’t stay away.


The night of the battle, Tony takes them all back to his well-architected playpen, which has just enough undamaged floor space to offer them all a place to sleep. Tony is a man for whom no is an abstract concept, and as usual he gets his way, mixing cocktails among the ruins while Thor tries to teach them Asgardian drinking songs. They’re beyond exhaustion, full of the feverish joy of survival. Natasha can’t say she doesn’t feel it, but there’s something melancholy about it, too--knowledge that it’s the first time of many, that along the way some of the will fall or get turned, that Natasha can’t jump off the carousel now that there are people depending on her. Worse still, she’s responsible for them; for Clint in particular, since he has to live with the knowledge of what she saved him from. He sits on the outer edge of the boisterous group, always the watcher, but his eyes slide toward her whenever he thinks she isn’t looking, with a quiet hunger that’s never been there before.

It’s too much. She waits until they’re laughing and distracted, slips down to the lab level, and lets herself out onto the terrace. Below her, the air is still thick with dust and panic. The sirens are nonstop, cops with bullhorns ordering people off the street, but they’re New Yorkers and unlikely to let a little thing like alien invasion get in the way of their evening plans. Above her, the sky where the portal opened is clear, a calm interplanetary sea lit with a pale quarter moon.

After a few minutes, the door slides open and Bruce steps out, walks right to the edge without seeing her because he’s not a spy and his powers of observation are turned inward. He’s showered and shaved and wearing borrowed clothes and it’s brave that he tries so hard to go through the motions of life. Or maybe its defiant, how he reminds himself and everyone else that he’s human.

“Bruce?” She says softly, trying not to startle him.

He jumps a little anyway. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know you were out here.” He raises his hands, that ancient, disarming human gesture, and starts to back away.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’ve just had a little too much of the glory of warriors in Odin’s heavenly halls for one evening.” She waves him toward her, but he ducks his head and angles it away, a primate’s way of avoiding conflict. He’s smart enough to have studied animal behavior, but maybe desperate enough to have learned it instinctively, in whatever dark places he’s been.

“Come on,” she says. “I won’t bite.”

He gives a half-smile, not sure which one of them the joke is about, walks to the railing a few arms lengths away, and peers down into the night.

She wants not to mind. She wants not to be aware of the thing inside him, waiting like some kind of mutant Jack-in-the-Box to spring. But she can’t; just one crank of the handle and she’s gripping the handrail tightly enough to feel her nails pressing into her palms.

Bruce is either too polite or too distracted to notice. “Not one lost life--incredible,” he says. “I wonder how many billions it’ll cost to clean up. I only hope they don’t send me the bill, like last time.”

“You should charge them. You did an army’s worth of work.”

“Me? I didn’t--oh.” There’s a long pause before Bruce can force himself to look at her. “You know, that’s never what I think of first. That must sound ridiculous, but I don’t remember any of it, so it’s like it didn’t happen. But I know it did, just like I know--”

“Don’t,” she says, at the first hint of stress in his voice--maybe too sharply, because he flinches a little. “Don’t apologize, I mean. If that’s what you were going to do.”

“You don’t need to give me the it’s not your fault speech,” he says heavily. “I know it was. The truth is that I was out of practice. All that noise and light--aliens and helicarriers--it was too much. I should have known. I should have said no, back in Kolkata. Assuming I had an option.”

She sees an opening, something she can give him in exchange for his guilt, since he won’t accept her forgiveness. “I wasn’t honest with you, you know. Fury wanted your knowledge, yes, but he also knew it might come to this.” She points at the broken skyline.

“I could have killed you,” he says voice huskier than usual. “At the very least, I made you afraid for your life.”

She can’t help remembering, then: the drop in pressure, the rush of wind, the fear of falling, and then the look in Bruce’s eyes--the awful, naked loss of control. She’d felt terror but also compassion, and she tries to let Bruce see it now.

“You came through when it mattered,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, the final tally is the one that counts.”

“I hope I have a long life, then.” He makes that face like he’s made a joke only he can understand.

She just nods and pats the railing next to her, encouraging him to slide over. He moves, a little at a time, until he’s close enough to touch, even though it makes her skin prickle. It’s pointless to be rankled by the unfairness of it, but she’d give a lot to purge herself of this feeling, to be able to treat Bruce the way Tony--that ironclad asshole--does: as a human being.

Beyond the rubble it’s a beautiful spring night, and the wind has shifted, so that the air smells of something better than dust and diesel. The breeze stirs Bruce’s hair and the open collar of his shirt. She guesses it’s Tony’s; it looks expensive and a little snug on Bruce, but not unflatteringly so. He’s not a hero or a god but a handsome man on the cusp of middle age, wreathed in a humble, weary nobility that Natasha finds interesting, even attractive.

“What?” Bruce whispers, catching the smile on her lips and smiling in turn.

“I was just thinking,” she says, “that you look as old as I feel.”

He laughs, finally relaxing now that he thinks she’s making fun of him, and doesn’t resist when she rests her hand on his shoulder. She wonders whether he can feel it trembling.

The door opens and she pulls her hand away a little too quickly, not sure why until she realizes how relieved she is that it isn’t Clint.

“There you are,” Tony says from the open door. He’s enunciating carefully, the way drunk people do. “In case you were annoyed by how annoying we were being, I thought I’d let you know that the flaming shots are over and we’ve decided to watch Ghostbusters. I seriously doubt anyone’s going to be able to stay awake for more than 30 minutes, so if you want to join in the fun, you’d better come now.” He disappears for a second, then sticks his head out again. “Popcorn cart’s in the lobby.”

“You’d think they’d have seen enough weird things over Manhattan for one night,” Bruce says, shrugging. “I guess we better go in. Wouldn’t want to anyone to get ideas.” He gives one of those self-deprecating smiles, as if the very thought is ridiculous, and then offers her his arm, like they’re going to the Met Ball, not a drunken superhero sleepover.

Natasha’s ability to judge human behavior isn’t just an instinct; she considers it one of her senses. But as she steps through the glass door with her hand tight on Bruce’s forearm, she has to wonder where the thought has come from that it might be a very good idea to seduce Bruce Banner.


“Transtanium?” Natasha says, peering at the pale silver sample in the vacuum chamber. “So it’s got a name now?”

“Thanks to Dr. Chiang at NYU,” Bruce says. He’s perched on a lab stool, arms folded and legs crossed at the ankles, looking at ease for once. “Very convenient for the Physics Department that bits of the stuff rained down on their campus.”

“You sound envious. No, don’t pretend you’re not,” she teases, as Bruce turns his head away to hide his smile. “Earth’s scientists are doing a bad job pretending they’re not thrilled we got invaded by evil aliens. So what about you, Doctor? Is there a Nobel Prize in your future?”

“Me? Well.” Bruce pulls the tail of his shirt loose and uses it to wipe his glasses. “I’m a one-trick pony, I’m afraid. I have some theories about the effects of gamma rays on its nuclear structure, but unfortunately that thing in the kitchen is an espresso machine, not a reactor. I can do the mathematical models, but I’ve got no gamma ray source.” Natasha wonders how he manages never to sound bitter.

“You really think General Ross would track you down to the Physics Department at NYU? Would he even bother, now that you’re a planetary hero?”

Bruce laughs and pulls out a stool for her, but she hops up on the lab bench instead. The surface feels pleasantly cool under her thighs; she’s spent the morning in an under-air-conditioned truck running a wiretap.

“If I’m lucky, Ross still thinks I’m in India,” Bruce says. “If I’m really lucky, he thinks I’m dead. And thinking I’ve been successful at anything is just going to make him madder.”

“You’re going to have to explain to me, some time, why he hates you so much.”

“That wasn’t in the file?” Bruce raises an eyebrow; it’s an open secret between them that Natasha read everything that SHIELD had on him during the vetting process. “All right, then. Maybe. Some night over drinks. Preferably at the end of the world.”

There’s a slightly uncomfortable silence during which the smile fades from Bruce’s face and his thoughts turn inward. Natasha tries to get his attention back by dangling one of her beige pumps from her toe. The four-inch heels are impossible for real work but fine for a sit-down job, and the extra height helps when she’s working with cops.

Bruce’s gaze slides up her leg to her face, more with curiosity than admiration. “Not that I don’t enjoy your company, but...why are you here?”

A hundred plausible excuses spring to mind, but she’d rather not lie to Bruce, so she settles for an evasion. “Why do you think I’m here?”

“Pulling the tiger’s tail, maybe? Not like Tony. He’s--” A smile tugs at the corners of Bruce’s mouth. “He’s a speed freak. Tell him that something’s dangerous, that he can’t have it, and he just wants it more. But you...maybe it’s the way you deal with things that scare you. Not confrontation. Gradual exposure, until you unlearn being scared.”

It’s uncomfortably close to the truth, but she keeps her face placid, her shoulders relaxed. “I’m not scared of you.”

“You were.” Suddenly the edge is there, that little bit of Bruce that stays angry, like the flash of red on the sole of her shoe. Her heart beats a little faster, not entirely in fear. “I saw your face, back on the helicarrier. It’s the last thing I remember.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“It was less than a month.” He’s not angry, not now; he’s baffled, and trying to protect her.  She slides down from the lab bench, easy and balanced, even in platform pumps. He can’t see that she’s the tiger here.

“A month?” she says. “That’s an eternity.”

“Good,” he says. “Because that’s how much longer I’m planning to stay here. Before I head back on the road.”

“I’ll do my best to help you make the most of your time,” she says. She doesn’t mind; she’s always worked better under pressure.


“Oh, come have to at least try a bite.” The pastelito is pineapple, her favorite, crusted with sugar but not too sweet inside. Bruce tries to take it from her hand but instead she holds it for him. He nibbles off a corner, then looks with resignation at his bowl of fruit and mug of steamed milk.

“You’re like some kind of urban monk, the way you live,” she says. “I couldn’t give up coffee. I hate not having a cigarette in my hand right now.” She glances around the cafe, all corrugated steel and arty photos of decaying buildings, clearly run by exiles, but they make the coffee the right way, by putting the sugar right in with the grounds. “I used to spend whole afternoons in a place like this--well, not like this, exactly, but it smells right. Except if it were Havana, there would be cigar smoke.”

Bruce just nods and sips cautiously at his milk, licking the foam from his mouth. She’s glad she brought him here; if the lab is Bruce’s home turf, the cafe can pass for her own. With her sunglasses on, she can watch his lips without apology. Bruce is like a quiet landscape, easy to overlook at first, but full of beautiful details. His eyes alone say more than comes out of most people’s mouths. He’d make a terrible spy.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” he says after a minute.


“All right.” He gets one of those little preempting smiles. “You seem way too young to have had all the experiences you talk about. Are you a sleeper like Steve? Do you really remember when Castro’s beard was short?”

He’s not only smart, he’s observant; a watcher, like Clint. “Let’s just say I remember a time when I thought ordinary people, together, could do anything.” She pops the last bite of pastry in her mouth and licks the sugar from her finger. “How’s that for an answer?”

“It’s breathtakingly cynical,” Bruce says, but this time his eyes don’t drop to the table. “Enough to convince me that you’re as old as I think you are. In spirit, anyway.”

He holds her gaze for a moment and Natasha is sure there’s something there, a buzz that’s more than caffeine and sugar. Over Bruce’s shoulder, Natasha can see the server shooting curious looks their way, probably wondering if Bruce is Natasha’s professor, her older lover, or both.

“Good,” Natasha says, pushing her plate aside and leaning on the table. “Now it’s my turn. Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You already know my college GPA, my blood type, and probably what brand of boxers I wear, so why not?”

“Okay.” She bites her lower lip, to make him think she’s hesitating and also to get him to look at it. “Have you ever been in love?”

Knowing Bruce--at least a little--she’d guessed the answer would be yes. She isn’t prepared for the brief but unmistakable look of agony that passes over his face.

“Why would you--” He frowns, and winces, and draws his brows together, and finally forces his face into something like its usual affable calm. “No, no I haven’t. I’m exactly as boring as you think I am. No caffeine, no meat, no anger, no love. No sugar,” he says, and glances at her crumb-strewn plate. “Well, not very often.”

She’s sorry she caused him pain, but that’s often the price of information, and now she can be confident that he won’t fall in love with her. Love, it seems, is another fire that Bruce has learned not to touch.


Natasha swipes her finger over the lab’s biometric lock and lets herself in so quietly that Bruce doesn’t look up from his computer screen. She’s chosen her clothes carefully--black leggings, flats, a white blouse with open just far enough to show a pear-shaped diamond pendant. Bruce values neatness and dignity, whistling into the storm, but most of all he values honesty, and this is as comfortable as Natasha can feel without actually being in her work clothes.

“Hey,” she says, doing reserved more easily than usual, because she’s decided to go forward with this even though she’s not entirely certain what this is.

“Hi,” he says, glancing up over his glasses, attention still mostly on his work. She likes the way his hands move, the way their precision reflects the acuity of his mind. “I thought you were chasing that sub in the North Atlantic with Cap.”

“Nah. Not much chance for hand-to-hand; he took Clint instead.” She pushes her hands into her pockets and rocks back on her heels. “I haven’t seen Tony in here in a while. Where is he?”

“In the Mojave with Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes. They are, and I quote, ‘scaring rabbits and blowing tumbleweeds into the next county’.”

Natasha knows where Tony is, of course, but it’s a convenient way of reminding Bruce that they’re functionally alone in the penthouse. “And you didn’t want to go with them? Sounds like fun.”

Bruce, now fully distracted, finally takes his hands off the keyboard. “Air Force base just didn’t seem like the smartest place for me to be.”

“Even with Tony?” She takes a few steps toward him. “So he’s not their private-industry pinup boy any more?”

“No, I’d say he’s just switched departments--more DOE than DOD these days. But alternative energy is a volatile market, and something’s got to pay for all this.” He gestures around him, at the top-of-the-line equipment, at the lab that has more than a little self-conscious Dr. No high style.

“Is that why you’re leaving?” She folds her arms; it’s a bit confrontational, but it’s time to start forcing some points. “You don’t want to taint him by association?”

“That’s one reason.” He lets his eyes glide over her face, giving her a bit of hope that she’s another.

“But why stay at all? You could have left at the beginning, when Thor did.”

“You know why.”

“Because the Council wanted us around, in case the first invasion was just a test run,” she says. They also thought the public would feel safer, which is why Natasha’s been making cover-killing rounds of the local constabulary. “And?”

“Because Tony wanted me to work on some things for him, and it seemed like the least I could do.”

“And?” She’s been moving closer with every question, watching for the moment when he tenses up, but his hands hang lax, if somewhat protective, in his lap.

“Because I like it here. It’s cool, it’s quiet, it’s got everything I could need or want.” His smile is rueful, as if that’s a weakness. He glances down at her feet. “Not the only one enjoying the fruits of capitalism. I’m bad at these things, but that’s a Chanel logo, right?”

“There’s nothing wrong with taking your reward for a job well done,” she says, even though he’s right--maybe because of the frictionless luxury of Stark Tower, or maybe out of boredom, she’s been taking more pleasure than usual in bourgeois pursuits. The silk and diamonds are trappings, tools--they aren’t her, and she suddenly feels itchy to be rid of them. Skin is what she’s been craving all these weeks, and Bruce’s skin--pale from living indoors, darkened with stubble along his jawline--is improbably tempting. Under its spell, she reaches out and runs a finger across his cheek.

He flinches, just a little. “Please tell me that’s not what you’re giving me now,” he says, wary but sympathetic. “Please tell me you’ve never had to do that.”

“I’ve never had to do anything,” she says, a lie so big it’s almost the truth. “I do whatever it takes to succeed. The mission is what’s important. So anything I do to help it along is doing what I want, right?” She frowns, not sure how he put her on the defensive, which is the last place she wants to be right now.

“Just wish I knew what the mission was,” he says. He reaches out and frees a strand of hair caught in the chain of her necklace, and she manages not to flinch. “You’re too deep for me, Agent Romanoff. Been trying to figure it out for weeks--the lab visits, the coffee dates. What could SHIELD want that it hasn’t already got from me? I said ‘yes’ to the Avengers, ‘no’ to the microchip--but you didn’t expect otherwise, did you? So, have you been slipping something into my steamed milk? Softening me up for--what?”

With his excess of caution, Bruce can talk himself out of anything--maybe her, too, because he’s so fucking reasonable, and if she puts what she has in mind into words, it’s going to sound reckless and desperate. But time’s running out, and she doesn’t want to spend what’s left in cautious conversation. So Natasha answers him by dropping her hands onto his shoulders and kissing him, hard, on the lips. He doesn’t respond--she was ready for that--but he doesn’t stiffen and push her off, either.

When she draws back, he’s laughing.

“Oh, God,” he says, wiping her lipstick from his smiling mouth with the back of his hand. “I deserved that. Cold War stereotypes--Boris and Natasha--those four-inch heels. I’m an idiot. What do I have that you wouldn’t just ask for, if you wanted it? You’ve always been nice about asking.”

She picks up his left hand and holds it between her own, plan forgotten for the moment because he gets to her in a way she can’t explain.

“I want us to part as friends, Bruce,” she says. His hand feels warm and good, and she has a sudden desire to feel it on her body. “That’s all it is. I wouldn’t lie to you about that. Like you said, what would be the point? But there’s something between us that’s getting in the way.”

“What’s that?” he asks softly, lowering his head like he’s expecting a reproach.

“The helicarrier,” she says. “What you think you did to me. What you probably think you’re doing to me right now, even though I’ve never felt less afraid of anyone in my life.”

“You should be. You know that.” He tries to sound stern, but his hand tightens reflexively on her own. “Complacency isn’t smart. I told Tony what he was risking, how he was probably voiding his insurance policy just by having me here, but--”

“He’s not a good judge of risk, is he? Well, I am. I’ve dealt with bigger threats with you, and I’ve mitigated those risks. By observing, learning, taking countermeasures. And I’ve observed you, Dr. Banner. You’re so good at keeping people at arm’s length, nicely and politely, so they don’t have to feel guilty about rejecting you.” She pushes her hand back through his hair; it’s thick and soft, silver threads glinting under the halogen lights. “But that’s not going to work with me. I’m here, and we’re going to deal with this. We’re going to deal with each other. Yeah, like that,” she says, smiling in spite of herself at the look of incredulity on his face.

“You’re serious? That’s such a terrible idea, you don’t even know.” He squirms, tries to push himself out of her grasp, but she’s got a firm hand on the back of his neck. “It’s very--sweet, I guess, to try to solve our little interpersonal problem this way, but I don’t do this. Not with anybody. If you think caffeine is bad--” He grimaces, tries to pry her hand of his neck, but settles for running his own hand through his hair in bemused frustration.

His medical records were part of his file, so she knows that the gamma radiation protects him from disease but also rendered him sterile. Any other effects the Army probably hadn’t seen the need to mention, so she strokes the back of his neck a little and asks, “Are you still physically capable of it? If not, that’s fine. There are other things we could do.”

“No,” he says, masculine pride finally showing through. “I can do it, I just won’t. The idea of hurting anybody, of hurting you that way--”

“I know, I know.” She shushes him with a brush of fingers over his lips. “That’s good, because I’d prefer sex. And you’re going to let me handle the risk mitigation, okay? It doesn’t have to be--I don’t know, heaving chests and clawing at the walls. It can be slow and quiet, as slow as you want. No need to raise your heart rate.”

This time he looks at her more frankly, at her face and at the place where her open collar stops just above her cleavage. “With you involved, that’s pretty much impossible.”

“So you’re not a monk after all. Good.” She slides off his glasses, folds them, and lays them on top of his keyboard.

“I’m not saying yes,” he says, blinking at her, dark eyes unreadable.

“But you’re not saying no.” She takes a little step back, so he can really look at her; with Bruce still perched on his stool, they’re almost at eye level.

She remembers the first time she took the trapeze in her hands and jumped off the high platform into the darkness below. Not a leap of faith: she’d practiced, trained, so that she understood what gravity would do. Still, it wasn’t something you could do by increments; you had to decide, and then commit.

She commits now, to Bruce. She throws her arms around his neck and puts herself in his space, feels him tense and then force himself to relax, something that must come as naturally to him by now as breathing.

He hesitates just for a second, and then hooks his arm around her waist, resting it against the curve of her hip, and slides his hand up under her shirt to stroke her lower back. His hand feels as good as she hoped, careful, and there’s a latent confidence, as in rusty skills that might be coaxed back to life. She wants more of it, more of his hands on her skin, more of his attention on her and less on the thing inside him. She arches her back, just a little, in a way that’s frankly sexual, a challenge.

He answers by pulling her closer, into the space between his knees. This time, when she leans in to kiss him, his lips part and his mouth is warm and wet, lips careful, but she can feel the little hitch when the desire kicks in, like a gear falling into place. His hands frame her hips, tighten on her, not clutching but supportive.

Wisps of memories float around them as they kiss. He tastes a little smoky, like late nights, the coffee and wine that he doesn’t touch; remote, forgotten places that he’s drifted through. Natasha’s left her share of lovers in those kinds of places; most of them haven’t been as gentle as Bruce, who kisses her with more regretful fondness than passion as he keeps his tongue and hands mostly to himself.

She’s never seen more than a decorous glimpse of bare chest at his collar. She unbuttons his shirt to his waist and then pulls out the tails to hang loose, admiring the thick, dark hair over a lean build, well-formed bones. She traces a hand down his chest, lets her fingernails scratch lightly so that he bites his lip and squeezes his eyes shut. Natasha has always appreciated subtlety, and she knows a lot about nerves and the human body. She runs the backs of her fingers over his nipples and he shudders, goose flesh rising as she slips his shirt off his shoulders and lets it fall to the floor.

“I feel like the tin man,” he says, voice raspy. “Like I’ve been left to rust in the rain for a long time.” He takes a strand of her hair between his fingers. “You’re so beautiful. I know you know that; maybe you’re bored with hearing it. But it’s a long time since I’ve let myself want anything beautiful, anything soft.”

“I’m not soft,” she says, and he chuckles.

“I know. But when you’re me, the world looks like it’s made of glass.”

She answers him by unbuttoning her shirt; not a performance, because he doesn’t need that kind of seduction. She’s got an ordinary white bra on, the diamond hanging like a guide star between her breasts, but Bruce can only stare, dry-mouthed, hands twitching. She feels like she’s shedding her worries with her clothes. There’s nothing fraught about this; it’s easy, it’s human, and Bruce is only flesh and blood.

“Come on, Bruce,” Natasha says, feeling oddly wholesome about the whole thing, like she’s channeling Steve, or giving one of Tony’s pep talks. “There isn’t anyone else here. It’s just us.”

He nods, slowly, and then reaches around to unhook her bra; his scientist’s brain, used to envisioning abstract shapes, gets it on the first try. She helps him by shrugging it off, letting it slide down her shoulders. He fills his hands with her, feeling the weight of her breasts, brushing his thumbs over her nipples so lightly that she shivers. There’s nothing possessive about him; it’s as if he’s borrowing every touch, eyes searching her face a little anxiously to make sure he’s pleasing her, that he still has her permission.

“You’re more dangerous than I ever imagined,” he half whispers, watching his fingertips trace over her skin. “You could destroy cities.”

“You’re harder up than I thought. I don’t do mass destruction; I focus on one person at a time. But not you,” she says, as he starts to kiss her breasts. “I’m not planning anything bad for you.”

Natasha runs her fingers through the short, curling hair at the base of Bruce’s neck. It feels so soft, his mouth on her so good, that it takes her a couple of tries before she grips it tight and tugs his head back. His head jerks up, startled, shocked almost into retreat, but she kisses her reassurance, hard and quick.

“This is good,” she says, pressing against him so he won’t bolt. She can feel the excited thump of his heart against her chest, see in his eyes that he’s both exhilarated and scared. “It’s normal. Right? There are probably a hundred thousand people in the city doing this right now. Like ordering takeout or going to the movies. Hey, we should do that, before you go--see a really shitty movie together. I know lots of good ways to sneak in liquor.” She’s cupping his ass, aggressively, because he’s squirming, distracted enough to enjoy the attention and maybe the ticklish spot at the crease of his thigh.

“You want to go on a date?” he asks, flatly disbelieving, even though their groins are pressed together and she can feel his erection through the modest pleats of his no-name khakis.

“Sure, if you want to call it that. But that’s second on the list. First I want to fuck you, Bruce.” He flushes and blinks, but she doesn’t think it’s from shyness. “Yeah, I said it, and I mean it. Do you like that? Do you like dirty talk?” She brings her lips closer to his ear and strokes his erection through his pants. “I bet you do. You’re very verbal, but you calibrate the way you talk to your audience. All part of the protective coloration.” She starts unbuckling his belt, the leather supple and warm from his body. “This is Tony’s, isn’t it? You wouldn’t buy anything this nice, even with his money. But the rest--the boring shirts, the glasses, the Bruce Banner costume. Trying to get people to look away. But I’ve been looking at you for a long time, Dr. Banner, and liking what I see.” She slides down the zipper of his fly and slips her hand inside, and when she makes contact, even through the cotton of his boxers, he jerks like he’s been shocked.

This is the way she likes it best, when she doesn’t have to pretend--to be shy, to be sentimental, to be anything but someone who wants what she wants. What Bruce wants, she’s not sure; she would have bet on control and choices, but now she’s thinking that maybe he’s tired of responsibility and endless restraint.

“Oh, God,” he gasps, swelling into her touch. “Just--be careful, it’s been so long--” His breath hitches as she traces the outline of his cock with her thumb.

“You think you could come, just from this?” She keeps stroking, around the head. His cock is well proportioned, not large but nicely thick, from what she can feel. “Go right ahead. The pants wouldn’t be much of a loss.”

“No, but I--” He tries to finish the sentence, and can’t. She’s right where she wants to be, in between Bruce’s body and his brain.

“You want to come in me, instead?” She’s using a soft version of her normal voice, no need for the phone-sex rasp when it’s the words that are doing it for Bruce. “You want to feel how hot I am?”

That gets through to the animal part of Bruce’s brain--lizard or ape or Hulk, she’s not sure. He lunges forward, arms pulling her tight, but he doesn’t thrust against her or grab for her clothes--he kisses her, not hard, but with an intensity of longing that takes her breath. He’s pressed against her, hard as ever, and she wants badly to feel his naked flesh against her, to take him inside her so she can put an end to that terrible, self-contained loneliness for a little while.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, ragged, when he finally lets her mouth go.

“Don’t be,” she says, laying a hand against his cheek. “Everything’s fine. It’s beautiful.” She kicks off her shoes and unzips her pants, Bruce helping her keep her balance because he’s gallant, even if his hands are trembling.

When she’s gotten rid of everything but her underwear, she glances around, planning their next move. “Chair?” she asks. “Floor seems kind of hard, and I’ve never done it on a lab bench.”

“I can’t recommend it,” he says, and gives a shuddering laugh, surprised at his own joke. “There’s a sofa in the back. I crash there sometimes when I’m working late.” He looks at her, unapologetically naked except for a pair of dark red underwear, and holds out his hand. She lets him lead her to what appears to be last year’s model of white, haute-mod sofa, parked between the bathroom and the eye washing station.

She makes a grab for Bruce’s pants before the geometry can get awkward again. They hit the floor with a thunk of belt buckle; his resilient erection tents out the faded cotton of his boxers. He takes the hint and steps out of his shoes, Natasha wishing she’d let him keep his glasses on because it’s a sweet little performance right up to and including the moment he puts his thumbs in the waistband of his underwear and looks at her for permission.

“Go for it,” she says. “But slowly.” She stretches out, back arching against the sofa, arms over her head lifting up her breasts, knees apart, commanding.  His eyes roam over with a wistful kind of hunger.

“I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed,” he says. “I’m not a big man.”

She doesn’t let her mind go to the obvious place. “So you say.” She makes a bring it on gesture. “Let’s see.”

There’s nothing graceful about men stripping their bottoms off, but Bruce does his best, carefully pulling down his boxers, kicking them aside, and standing in front of her with his hands on his hips, not blushing but with an I-told-you-so look on his face and a lock of greying hair falling into his eyes. In point of fact, Natasha’s hands captured the situation pretty well: Bruce’s cock is robustly erect and well proportioned to a body that must have been beautiful in youth, and is now aging prematurely but with character, like a leather-bound book.

Bruce’s wandering eyes find the V of her underwear and she knows beyond a doubt that he’d go down on her if she let him, would be skilled and tender. She flushes a little at the thought and then pushes it away, because it’s too intimate and they’re heading into dangerous emotional territory anyway. Instead, she hooks her toes around his calf and pulls him nearer, then reaches out and runs a fingertip under the full length of his cock. Bruce shudders from head to foot and fails to stifle a whine.

She likes the sound, so she does it again.

“Fuck,” he whispers, biting his lip and scrunching his eyes closed, but staying put.

“Got you to curse,” she says, not stopping. “What do you want me to do? Tell me.”

“Aaaahh,” he says with a shiver, as she runs her fingertip around his cock head, giving him a little bit of nail. “Just--grab it or something because that’s--”

“Grab what, Bruce?” She’s only teasing because he likes it, because it’s making him quiver and smile and forget his self-consciousness.

He arches an eyebrow at her, professorial. “Grab my cock, please, Natasha. If you wouldn’t mind.”

She blows him a kiss and before he can laugh wraps her fingers around him and squeezes, not too tight, just enough to make him moan. His skin is hot and velvety; she strokes her other hand down the fine curve of his ass and daydreams a little about an afternoon that will never happen, in some European hotel--the Baltschug or the George V, somewhere with a view and a huge bed and room service and aimless hours to play. But they’re under fluorescent lights and they’re on the clock, and it always seems to be this way, Clint and Bruce being only the latest in her long run of prisoners of duty.

She plays with him for a while, seeing sunshine with her inner eyes, and wondering if Bruce is seeing it, too.

When she lets go and takes his hand instead, his eyes crack open like he’s coming back from a dream, brain awash in pleasant chemicals that make his skin warm and his body relaxed. Feeling chilly and envious, Natasha pulls him onto the sofa next to her.

“What do you want?” he asks, still holding her hand. “What can I do for you?” His voice is gentle, sincere; she has less doubt than ever about what she wants.

“You know what,” she says, wriggling closer, so that she’s half in his lap. “Go on, undress me.”

He smiles, and she’s close enough to see the crinkles around his eyes. It’s hard to believe that in his life, in that life, he’s found so much to smile about. He slips his thumbs into the thin waistband of her underwear and slips them down over her hips, turning it into a caress. His hands stroke over her, warm against cool skin, and she likes the way he still looks into her eyes even while he’s groping her elsewhere with good-natured enjoyment.

While Bruce’s hands are busy, she grips his shoulders and uses her leverage to nudge him back against the pillows. He’s a pushover, quite literally, an easy target even if he weren’t so willing to let her have her way. He’s handsome laid out beneath her, face relaxed and intent, gaze mostly on her face but dipping down to watch her breasts swinging gently as she positions herself over him, rubbing herself lightly across the smooth hardness of his cock. His eyes flutter half-closed at the touch and he strokes her shoulders, cups his hands around her breasts with care, falling into old patterns the way people do, the memory of old lovers ghosting across the skin of new ones. She wants to become one of Bruce’s memories, wants to close the distance between them, to seal their friendship with his cock inside of her, but when she tries to move into position, he stops her with a tight grip on her arm.

“You know, don’t you?” His voice isn’t sharp, but his eyes have gone a little hard. “That it’s safe?”

She remembers the file, and the truth of Bruce’s body, laid out in scans and blood test results.

“I’m sorry,” she says, meaning it. “I wasn’t looking for that specifically. I just needed to know as much as I could.” It’s not the whole truth, and Bruce knows it; when she ducks her head in apology he brushes her hair away from her face.

She’s not always brave, so sometimes she has to put herself in positions where courage is the only choice. She did it in Kolkata, when she told the men with the guns to stay outside, that she’d meet Dr. Banner alone and try to reason with him. She did it again when she came here on purpose to make herself vulnerable to Bruce, but stripping off her clothes is proving a lot easier than admitting the truth.

He waits, hands unmoving, cock still hard against her. In the shade of her body, his pupils are dilated, eyes brown without a hint of green.

“I looked because I was afraid,” she says finally. “The files on you--they’re like a thesaurus for everything you could have a nightmare about. Destructive, out of control, unstoppable--the more you beat them, the more they had to create this mythology about Bruce Banner, the fugitive mad scientist. I wasn’t think of you as a human being, Bruce; I was thinking of you as a target, and anything in there was fair game. So yes, I know that the gamma radiation kills contagious diseases, and I know--” She swallows, doing her best to hide compassion that she’s not sure he’ll accept. “I know you can’t have children. I’m sorry if that’s something you want. I talked to a little girl near the clinic--she knew who you were, because she said you were learning to read Bengali together, out of old newspapers. I’m sorry, Bruce. Sorry for lying and sorry for being afraid.”

Natasha isn’t crying, not exactly, but she’s half-collapsed on Bruce’s chest, shaking with some delayed reaction to the shadows on the wall of that dark shanty, to the pounding of footsteps on metal decking, to dragons in the sky over Manhattan. And Bruce, who has every reason to resent her detached professionalism when it’s wrapped in high-tech mesh just folds his arms around her naked body and pulls her close.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” he whispers, breath soft in her ear. “You were right. I couldn’t have hurt you. I didn’t want to, from the beginning. I could tell you’d been hurt so much already.”

She lets him hold her, stroke her hair, and she pets him back, at least the parts she can reach--the sides of his thighs, the curve of his waist--feeling him tremble underneath her. It’s a shock to know that he sees through her, that he has from the beginning, but she trusts him with the knowledge because it’s something that they have in common, like a ghost-child between them.

“It’s all right,” she says. “That was a long time ago. And we’re both okay now, and we’re here. That’s all that matters.”

She reaches between her legs for his erection, starting to flag at last, and grips it firmly. Her giddy fearlessness is gone; it’s Blitz spirit now, a determination to bring them both safely through to the end.

It only takes a few firm strokes to get him hard again; he whines through his nose, forehead creased and eyes closed tight, and she strokes his cheek with her free hand to get him to open them again. They’re a beautiful liability. They show everything: fear and loneliness and regret, and she has the power to wipe it all away, at least for a little while. She positions herself over him, steadying him with her hand, and then sinks down on him, enveloping him, taking him inside where it’s warm.

Bruce winces with the sweetness of it, seems to vanish into some inner space, hands stroking her arms vaguely. Natasha feels a tightness in her neck relax and realizes that she’d held back a little bit of fear for this moment, some old fairy tale superstition about purity and beasts, or maybe just Bruce’s mordant expectation of bad luck rubbing off on her. But right now, they’re just two human bodies, doing what bodies enjoy, and Natasha lets her spine curve into it as she tightens her internal muscles.

“Oh, God,” he whispers, lifting his knees a little to get more contact, filling his hands with her breasts and then turning his head away as if he’s ashamed of his greed. She bends down and catches his mouth in a kiss. She likes his kisses; they’re soft and discreet, not presuming too much, likes his hands that run down her back and sides, likes his cock, pressing but not thrusting.

When she comes it’s almost a surprise, a deep, sudden spasm that has her clenching tight. She cries out a little because there’s no one to hear and because she thinks Bruce will like it, and punctuates it by hitting him in the shoulder, lightly, with her balled-up fist.

He grips her hips and begins to push in earnest, with a little loss of control that doesn’t scare her--it’s almost an inoculation, and Natasha’s giddy post-coital brain imagines suggesting to Bruce that what he really needs to do to keep the beast at bay is get laid more often.

Bruce’s face is sweetly vulnerable when he comes; his lips part and his face stills, and she can see the pleasure on it, the relief. There aren’t many things in life that can give that: sex and forgiveness are two, and she’s only just starting to trust forgiveness. She lets herself collapse onto his chest, listens to the thud of his heartbeat, daydreams about his denatured come inside of her, and wonders what monsters they could breed if he were able.

After a little while, Bruce starts to stroke her hair, and she takes the hint and shifts off him, decoupling with some reluctance, especially when the sterile cold of the lab hits her again.

“Blanket,” he says, pointing to a storage cube, and she smirks at his limited verbal ability even as she turns her ass toward him and fetches it. She really ought to start gathering up her clothes; there are realities to consider, not least of them that there are security videos that need to be erased and DNA to be disposed of. She’s never been told officially to keep her hands off her fellow Avengers, but the group dynamic is delicate, and she wouldn’t put it past Tony to feel jealous or betrayed by one or both of them. And as for Clint--

But she ends up wedged warm and tight between the sofa back and Bruce, blanket spread across them both, head on Bruce’s chest, lulled by the rise and fall of his chest and the steady thud of his heart.

“So that’s your way of talking it out,” he says. “I like it. I like it very much, but I won’t presume anything because of it. I won’t even mention it when we’re alone, if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t mind at all. It wasn’t a mistake.” He presses his lips against her hair, but she’s troubled. “Do you feel like it was? Were you trying to stay faithful to--” Her, Natasha almost says, because she’s sure at this point it was a her. “To someone?”

“No,” he says, and she’s can almost hear the lump in his throat. “No,” more firmly. “I can’t afford to think that way. As if there’s some commitment, some way I could hold on to a bit of the past.” He pauses. “Something that might happen in the future.”

Natasha tries to imagine the woman Bruce could love, to speculate about whether she would have left Bruce, or if Bruce would have left her for her own safety, but then decides Bruce would feel the same way regardless. She thinks about the rigorous personal honor, the discipline required to live your life as if you’ve forgotten someone when that’s clearly impossible. Natasha herself is terrible at forgetting, at disengaging; she can assume new personnas, but she can’t rid herself of her multiplicity of lives. But she can also learn to make peace with them; maybe learn it from Bruce, who knows a few things about that kind of cohabitation. At least she can forgive the Natasha who was afraid of dying in the hold of the helicarrier, at the hands of a beast, the same hands that are combing through her hair, gently pulling out the tangles.

“Doors close, doors open,” she says, stretching as much as she can in the confined space. “Sorry, I’m not much of a philosopher, especially when I’m sleepy.”

“All I know is that door better not open,” Bruce says, nodding toward the locked entry to the lab. “You sure you want to fall asleep here? I know of at least one empty king-sized bed in this place.”

“Here is just great,” she says, shifting more of her weight onto Bruce and less onto his arm, which he’s probably too polite to admit is falling asleep. “It’s perfectly safe.” She turns her head enough to catch the corner of a smile. He knows all the levels on which she means it; probably even believes it on all of them, too.

It’s a good afternoon’s work. And after a nap--and maybe a cup of coffee--she’ll be ready for her next project, which will be convincing Bruce to stay in New York. Because if people are starting to need her, she might as well need them back.