Natasha stepped into the airlock--escape trunk--and did not glance back as the heavy door slammed shut beside her, sealing her into the small, damp space. She had a job to do, and doubting her backup was one of many things she didn't have time to think about.
She reviewed what she knew.
Sometime during the eight months he slipped SHIELD surveillance in 2009, Banner had become startlingly adept at avoiding their monitoring. When they did catch up to him two years ago, it was because he had stopped running--and in large part, stopped hiding.
Water started to flood into the airlock, rising steadily up from her ankles to her calves to her knees.
Banner had settled down in a house on the east coast of Greenland, now surrounded by enough outbuildings to be considered a farm (as Clint had informed her, only to be stymied when she asked him exactly where that distinction lay, but she could not think about Clint right now). The farm was north of Tasiilaq, separate from all other settlement.
The cold water climbed up her thighs. She kept her hands at her sides and let the water cover them, unflinching.
Banner's location had been revealed to them by a chance satellite sighting of the Hulk--a chance repeated eleven months later. Banner had remained in place after the incident, shattering his previous pattern.
The way surveillance drones dropped out of the sky when they came within a half-kilometer of the farm was also an intriguing break in pattern. She didn't think Banner had obtained that sort of expertise on his own, on the run, in eight months. Someone was there with him. Making that house--farm--a home.
Water lapped up her sides, pressing in against her belly and ribs.
The partner was an unknown quantity. Possible leverage, possibly a threat greater than Banner's alter ego. Banner himself was an even greater unknown, all his old patterns definitively broken. He seemed never to leave the premises of his new home. Attempts to gather intel from locals had never succeeded; people were oddly reticent about the American stranger. Strangers. If the unknown partner actually was American; Banner hadn't re-entered the United States, as far as SHIELD was aware, since departing after his accident.
The water climbed up her throat, over her closed mouth. She took in a last deep breath and held it, and closed her eyes as the rising water covered them.
There were too many unknown elements, and no way to make a subtle approach or draw Banner out to a more advantageous location. If she was attacked by the Hulk, the odds of collateral damage were very low. Her own odds of survival were... as yet incalculable.
But they had to find the Tesseract, and for that Fury wanted Banner.
The water covered the top of her head. She opened her eyes just as the escape trunk's red light turned to green, and the opening to the sea slid back for her, dropping her in. She began to swim, stroking strongly away from the sub as she angled gently up toward the light.
When her head broke the surface she was still fifty yards out, and there was a bearded man standing at the water's edge, a bright purple hat covering his hair. Two large black dogs were romping around at the water's edge to his right, and to his left a reindeer in a lurid green sweater was lipping at seaweed.
The man was staring directly at Natasha. After a second, he raised his arm and waved.
She didn't bother to go back under the surface, keeping her eyes open to watch him as she swam the rest of the way in. She had been spotted. She wasn't actually trying to infiltrate, only to get a moment to speak with Banner and make a perfectly reasonable offer of temporary employment.
The man waiting wasn't Banner--too tall, shoulders too broad, and his beard was a brown so light it was almost blond. Nothing in his body language resembled footage she'd seen of Banner. He stood with a military straightness, coming out to openly meet someone making a stealthy approach to his home.
When she had covered half the distance to shore, the dogs quit their playing and ran to the man's side. She had seen no signal, but they stood attentively, watching with the man as she swam the rest of the way in. They both came up to his hip, revealing their massive scale.
The reindeer, at least, seemed unaware of her approach. She might yet have the satisfaction of surprising someone today.
When she was only ten yards away, approaching the point where she would have to stand up and wade, the man turned his back to her, crouching down to some sort of shallow container he'd left on the sand. Natasha swam faster, and the dogs bounded out toward her, barking happily in welcome.
Natasha reached the point where she could stand waist deep and got up, stopping her approach as she watched the dogs.
"Hey! Nana, Tiny, come back here!" The man sounded both profoundly American and nigglingly familiar. The dogs stopped where they were, belly deep, and looked toward the man. One of them whined. "Sorry, ma'am, you can come on up, they just want to make sure you get ashore safe."
He had turned to face her again. He had a couple of folded beach towels on his arm, a thermos in his hand.
She started forward again, only to stop when the water was at her knees.
The man standing on the shore was Captain America.
Rogers had crashed the Valkyrie in the North Atlantic; Greenland would have made an excellent base of operations from which to search for him. Banner had been in search of a better understanding of his own condition, which was the result of an experimental attempt to replicate the supersoldier serum. Finding Rogers, the one true success, would have granted him a new avenue of research. Depending on what Rogers knew about Banner's purposes for finding him and keeping him here, she might be able to use him--did he even know this was 2011, and not 1945? How long ago had Banner found him? The beard growth suggested months, at least.
The assessment flashed through her mind in the space of a startled eye-blink, and then she put on a wholesome, friendly smile and kept moving. "Hello, Captain. My name is Natasha Romanoff, and I was hoping to have a chat with Dr. Banner."
Rogers raised his eyebrows slightly, but offered her a towel, pale pink with darker pink polka dots. The beach underfoot was rocky, and sunbathing in Greenland was a dicey proposition even where there was sand underfoot.
She squeezed salt water from her hair and then took the towel, though her wetsuit made it largely redundant.
"You bring stealth submarines and a pistol to all your friendly chats?"
Natasha kept smiling. "Well, Dr. Banner isn't an easy man to get ahold of."
"Could be he likes it that way," Rogers said easily. "But since you went to all this trouble, you might as well come and say hello to him. You've got a strong stomach, don't you? Not bothered by blood?”
Natasha did not allow her hands to tighten on the towel. It didn't matter, she told herself. Whatever Banner was doing in his private lab on this remote coast, out of sight of everyone, whatever he had suborned Captain America into helping with, it didn't matter if he could find them the Tesseract and give them a chance to stop Loki. "I can handle most things."
Rogers looked her up and down and tossed the rainbow-striped towel he still held over his shoulder, offering the thermos. "Hot chocolate? It's made with almond milk."
Natasha took it from his hand, recalculating everything while Rogers looked past her, gesturing to the dogs. "Come on, you're gonna get filthy anyway, no towels yet. Come on."
The dogs splashed back up onto the shore and trotted further up the rocky shoreline, angling away from the bright blue house perched at the edge of the level ground.
"It's a bit of a walk--you're not tired from that swim, are you?" Rogers bent again to pick up the metal object he'd had the towels and thermos in: his famous shield. A few specks of red paint lingered near the edge, but it was otherwise a dull, scuffed silver color. It still held a toolbox with a duct tape red cross on it suggesting a hefty first aid kit, a 9mm pistol, and three purple carrots. He propped it against his left hip like a gathering basket, gesturing for her to come with him as he turned to walk uphill after the dogs.
"What would I have had to do to get shot instead of offered a towel?" Natasha asked as she walked with a clear meter between them. She unscrewed the top of the thermos and sniffed; the chocolate smelled rich and sweet, enough to cover virtually anything that might have been added.
"Oh, well, shooting's still an option," Rogers said cheerfully. They were angling past the house, staying on the near side of a plastic-covered hoop house that seemed to be full of thriving greenery. "But it doesn't hurt to start out positive, right? Since this is all just about having a friendly chat."
"By all means, let's start positive," Natasha agreed dryly, and thought better of trying to pry anything else out of Rogers as they walked. He hadn't only been the square-jawed American face of all those propaganda films she'd been shown during her early training, learning a suitably American accent and the weaknesses of American minds. He had been a commando fighter, a noted tactician. She could not underestimate him.
She glanced at the carrots again, and back toward the shore. She could just see, through her narrowing view of the place where she'd come ashore, a third dog trotting up to the reindeer. This one was nearly the height of the reindeer's shoulder, and of a similar light brown coloration--an Ovcharka, here, herding a single sweater-wearing reindeer.
She took a sip of the hot, rich chocolate before she spoke again. "Does the reindeer have a name?"
Rogers smiled as they came out past the hoop houses and into view of the rest of the little river valley between two high ridges. "Yeah, that's Dasher."
Whatever Banner was doing, he wasn't doing it in a lab, or alone. Two men were kneeling over something near the river, which was rushing with ice-melt. The black dogs were running up its edge. There were goats spread out around the valley, including a few kids wearing brightly-colored sweaters. Another Ovcharka was halfway up the northern slope, harrying a few of them lower.
Both of the men by the river were wearing heavy work clothes and brightly-colored hats, one orange, one yellow with a multi-colored pom on top. She heard a sudden high scream and darted forward instinctively. Rogers kept pace with her, and was still at her side as she ran around to the left flank of the men and saw what they were doing.
The one nearer to her was Banner, and he was wrist-deep in a laboring goat, blood smeared dark on his thighs and chest and arms. Beyond him another man, face shadowed with heavy stubble, was holding a small, wet goat kid on his lap. He was bracing it with his left hand, which was articulated silver metal, harder and lighter than steel.
Banner looked over at her with a mild expression from underneath his ludicrous orange hat, but the Winter Soldier--
No. Another niggling familiarity finally snapped into place, as she stood there with Steve Rogers at her side.
Bucky Barnes did not look up from ministering to the tiny goat in his lap. As she watched it kicked its hind legs and started nuzzling at his belly, and he set it on its tiny, wobbly feet.
"Oh, here we go," Banner said, returning his attention to the goat, pressing down on her side with his left hand and pulling with his right. A second later he had a lapful of caul-covered kid. The mama goat bounced up to her feet to nose at the one Barnes--the Soldier, a ghost, the man who taught her to throw a knife and field strip a rifle--had just been tending.
There was a moment where Banner and Barnes leaned close to each other to get the second kid sorted, the mother goat nosing in between them to try to do it herself, and then both kids were up and nursing. Rogers stepped past her, dropping the clean towel over the other men's hands.
"Fellas, this young lady says her name is Natasha Romanoff--"
Barnes' head whipped around, his eyes going wide. He was abruptly on his feet. Rogers and Banner flanked him, instantly and automatically taking up his alarm and sharing it like birds on a wire. Rogers had the gun in his right hand, the shield on his left arm. Banner was still holding the brightly colored bloodstained towel--but Banner, of course, didn't need a weapon.
All three of them arrayed themselves between her and the goats. She strained for the sounds of dogs approaching, but couldn't hear them over the nearby rushing of the river. She could only spread her hands to her sides.
She met Barnes' eyes--definitely Barnes, and not the soldier. There was none of that absence she had seen sometimes in her teacher, and he obviously recognized her as she would swear he hadn't a couple of years ago (as Coulson said Clint hadn't--no, she was not thinking of Clint, not now).
Barnes clearly retained all the Winter Soldier's skills. He must be responsible for the excellent counter-surveillance, and he would have had personal reasons to want to retrieve Rogers once he knew himself again. Was he master here, not Banner?
"It's been a long time, Natalia," he said, sounding stunningly American in English.
Natasha nodded shallowly. "I work for SHIELD now, if that makes any difference to you."
He snorted. "Not as much as you might think. What do you want with me?"
She shook her head, assimilating the gentleness of his hands on the animals, the ridiculous hat, his priorities for protection. "I had no idea you were here. I have no intention of trying to bring you out of retirement. I was sent to speak to Dr. Banner--" she couldn't help flicking a look at Rogers--"about the Tesseract."
Rogers' expression hardened, and he neither raised nor lowered the gun and shield. None of them appeared to need any further explanation of what she was talking about.
"Never saw a sign of it," Banner said flatly. "Don't want it."
She shook her head. "Howard Stark found it in 1945. It was stolen yesterday, and we need to track it down. It emits a gamma signature that's too weak for us to trace. There's no one that knows gamma radiation like you do. If there was, that's where I'd be."
Banner glanced over at the other two men, then back to her. "All this time, all three of us here, and you show up looking for my scientific expertise."
Natasha smiled slightly and spread her hands wider. "That's what Nick Fury told me. Talk to him, he needs you on this."
Banner nodded slowly. "Yeah, okay. I'll give him a call from the house. I'm sure he'll have no problem with me working on this remotely?"
Natasha briefly regretted the fact that making a you're gonna need a bigger boat joke wouldn't make sense until after he'd seen the Helicarrier. "I believe he wants you to collaborate with Tony Stark, and Stark insisted upon slightly more modern facilities."
"Oh, we're pretty modern here," Rogers said in a voice she had definitely heard in a propaganda film. "We've got color TV and organic kale and legal sodomy."
Banner's mouth twitched up into an unwilling smirk; Barnes let out a cough that was definitely a suppressed laugh. Natasha parsed and re-parsed body language and half-century-old speculation even as she felt something like success in her grasp, however sideways and unrecognizable.
"Fury's set up something even more modern than that," Natasha said, straight-faced.
"Well, if you're going post-modern," Banner said, easing away from the other two and gesturing back toward the house. "You won't mind if I bring both of my partners? Our serum-telepathy gets spotty outside of a hundred meters, and that makes the other guy anxious."
Natasha let her eyes narrow slightly, calculating--what did it mean, anyway, that Banner had this calm and quiet life on a goat farm with his partners Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers, and yet had had at least two incidents in the last two years? And still all three of them stayed?
Rogers let out a noise that could only be classified as a giggle, and Barnes's face flashed into a dazzlingly happy grin while Banner essayed a smaller smile. "Not really the telepathy thing. But the other guy is a lot happier with these two around. As am I."
"Well," Natasha said, watching Rogers holster his gun and pick up the first aid kit. The carrots had already vanished, except for a few suspiciously purple smears on the pale coats of the dozen goats who'd congregated behind them in the last few minutes. Barnes eased back a step, snapping the fingers of his right hand, and an Ovcharka came bounding up to lean against his legs. "Who wouldn't be?"
Banner smiled again, nodding, and turned his back on her with every sign of genuine unconcern. He headed down toward the bright blue house with Rogers at his side. Barnes stayed exactly where he was, the massive dog leaning heavily against him.
"What do you remember about me?" Natasha asked, not allowing herself to fidget with the pink towel slung over her shoulders, but aware of that rare temptation.
Barnes tilted his head. "Training you. And the time I shot you."
Natasha touched her hand to her hip. Banner had already been off SHIELD's radar then, still months away from coming here. The Winter Soldier, she would swear, had been under his masters' control, though there was no knowing who his masters had been by then.
Natasha looked around again at the green river valley running down to the sea, the safe place built by these three men who had much less, and much more, to fear than most. When she returned her gaze to him he was looking downhill, watching Banner and Rogers, idly scratching behind the dog's ears with his metal hand. He looked... happy, in a quiet and goat-grimed way.
"How did you ever get here?"
He glanced toward her again and smiled, shaking his head as he turned to walk toward the house, toward the men he shared it with. Natasha fell into step with him.
"It's a long story, Natalia. If the Tesseract's in the wind, we don't have that kind of time."
She let herself think for a second of everything that depended on this, and nodded agreement. "After, though."
"Sure," Barnes agreed. "After, I'll tell you the whole story." He looked her up and down, raising a sunnily insinuating eyebrow under his absurd yellow hat as he added, "I guess you're old enough to hear about that kind of stuff by now.”