"I'll take Hulk," Natasha says, speaking to Fury, not making eye contact with Bruce. Across the table Bruce sees Tony quirk an eyebrow, as if surprised by this choice, and Steve and Thor exchange a puzzled look, but Fury and Clint, who know Natasha best, just nod as if it makes perfect sense.
Bruce doesn't demur – not that they ask him his opinion – and so with all the teams assigned the SHIELD briefing breaks up and they head out to fight. In the streets of New York – Brooklyn, this time – Bruce toes off his shoes and Natasha pulls out her gun, and they both watch the hordes of slavering demons as they approach their position.
"You sure about this?" Bruce asks, unbuttoning his shirt. It feels weird, transforming in front of her, after she tried to talk him out of it that one time.
"Yup," Natasha says.
Bruce doesn't remember the mission very well – he gets more from the other guy than he used to, but everything is still fuzzy, tinged green with rage and joy – but he remembers what it feels like to bear Natasha on his back, the sense-memory of her feet planted firmly on either side of his huge, thick neck, her weight just barely noticeable as he smashes the weird Asgardian creatures.
Natasha requests to be paired with the other guy often, after that, and from what Bruce can tell they work well together, with Natasha handling the subtle, human-sized stuff and Bruce acting as backup and a means of conveyance.
But when Bruce isn't the other guy, and outside of SHIELD briefings, she doesn't really speak to him, and they aren't really friends.
Natasha is thoughtful enough to make noise as she approaches him in the kitchen, giving him time to not be surprised by the sudden appearance of company in the communal living space at seven in the morning.
Bruce turns his head to glance at her, then turns back to his coffee cup. "So you're moving in too, huh?"
He's wearing only his boxers and a thin t-shirt, but Natasha, along with most of New York at this point, has seen him in less. He finishes pouring his coffee and then, as an afterthought, turns his head again to offer her a smile. She smiles back, close-lipped: an exchange, a way for them to reassure each other that they mean no harm.
"More or less," she agrees. "It's nice to have another base of operations." Natasha is fully dressed in casual clothes, jeans and a blue button-down, which still looks incongruous; he's gotten accustomed to seeing her in her uniform, used to nodding at her tersely before he shifts into the other guy.
Bruce accepted Tony's offer to stay in Stark Tower after the Chitauri attack, and gradually the others had followed: Steve, after he got back from his motorcycle tour of America, seemed a lot more at peace, and wanted out of SHIELD's creepy 40s-nostalgia quarters; Thor was back and forth to Midgard all the time now that they had the power of the tesseract to make the trip, and tended to crash – literally – at Stark Tower more often than not; and Clint and Natasha . . .
Clint and Natasha just started sticking around sometimes after missions, as far as Bruce could tell. As more and more threats emerged for them to fight – Doombots, MODOK, that weird HYDRA thing with the horns (Bruce never got its name) – they'd both started hanging out at the tower, and lately, Bruce suspected, had been sleeping here too.
Nonetheless, this might be the first time he's been alone in the same room with Natasha since their first meeting in Kolkata. He doesn't think that's a coincidence, and it's probably not a coincidence that she's here now.
Her eyes on him are unnerving, her gaze steady and so neutral that it could mean anything at all.
Bruce grasps for something to say, a way to keep their conversation moving, but after a long moment of thought he's still standing there with his mouth slightly open.
She takes pity on him, maybe. "That coffee?"
"I – yeah," Bruce says. "You want some?"
"Thanks," Natasha agrees smoothly. It occurs to Bruce that there are multiple kitchens throughout the various living quarters, all armed with coffee makers, and that Natasha chose to enter the one that he's in. He takes a couple of deep breaths as he pours more coffee.
"I figured you for a tea drinker, doc," Natasha says lightly as he hands her the cup.
Bruce offers her half of a wry smile. "Oh, no. I'm always caffeinated."
"So that's your secret," Natasha laughs. It seems genuine; but then, everything Natasha does always seems genuine. Bruce is starting to suspect that, despite her job description and reputation, she rarely lies. The truth is always a sharper weapon, anyway.
"Well, thanks for the coffee," she says, lifting the cup to offer him a brief salute. "See you later."
"See you later," Bruce echoes, as she leaves.
Bruce keeps his distance. Natasha is polite to him whenever they see each other in the Tower, but he doesn't want to make her uncomfortable. And – he can admit it, at least to himself – he doesn't like the reminder that she's the one person among his teammates he's come very close to killing. That he would've killed her, if he could've, if she hadn't been fast and smart and if Thor hadn't intervened.
But Natasha does not allow him to keep to himself. Once she moves into the Tower properly, she starts showing up in his labs or knocking on the door of his suite:
"Hey, doc, come watch this movie with us. Clint and I are going to make fun of the martial arts, but we need someone to make fun of the science," and
"Bruce. Step away from the microscope and get downstairs. Steve is trying to teach Thor to play ping-pong," and
"I know you're a – physicist? Right? But if you know anything about chemistry, I could use your help getting Tony to stop, uh. Doing things. To our food. He marathoned ten episodes of Heston Blumenthal and now he thinks he's a molecular gastronomist."
People tend to have complicated feelings about Bruce, and he figures these buddy-buddy attempts at inclusion are overcompensation: Natasha has noticed him keeping away from her, feels guilty, wants to make him feel like part of the team. He doesn't see Natasha as the adopt-the-lost-puppy type, but she is, very obviously, the type to pay people when she thinks she owes them something, and it may be that she assumes she owes Bruce this camaraderie in exchange for the protection the other guy grants her on their shared missions. Bruce goes along with it, watches The One with Clint and Natasha (the science is kind of interesting, actually), stands with her and laughs as Steve patiently takes his sixth consecutive ping-pong ball to the forehead, helps her safely dispose of the frightening liquid nitrogren-soaked monstrosity that Tony created, but doesn't allow himself to get too invested.
Everything he thinks he knows about Natasha gets turned on its head, however, via – of course, what else – a high-stakes no-holds-barred superpowered water balloon fight.
It's for charity, held in Central Park; Pepper and Hill arranged it as a publicity event for the Avengers, and proceeds from the donations go to the Stark Industries Rebuild New York fund. Tony's designed some little flying camera-bots to swoop around the park and record them, which only creeps everyone out a little, and everyone is armed with water balloons and ready to go. They're all just hoping that Thor will respect the rules of this game a little better than those of ping-pong.
Bruce figures he'll be the first one to tap out – without changing into a monster, in which shape he'd be ill-equipped to handle a water balloon at all, he's at a definite disadvantage compared to the rest of the team: no superpowers, no special training. But he actually finds that he does okay for a while, mostly because everyone else, despite all the trash talk, seems to be hesitant about pelting him with projectiles. Well, that's not fair; Tony would probably not hesitate to pelt him with projectiles, but Tony's busy right now.
"Take that, Iron Man!" Clint yells, hitting Tony with three or four balloons from where he's crouched up in a tree. "Rust out, motherf – uh. Buddy." Clint is really bad at G-rated trash talk.
"This suit functions as a submarine, Barton!" Tony yells, exasperated, firing his repulsor boots and flying up to claim equal ground with Clint. "And did you forget that I can fly?" He lobs two balloons right at Clint's face, and Clint, sputtering, drops from the tree and takes to his feet.
"You better run!" Tony yells.
Bruce is so caught up in laughing at them, and by now is kind of used to being the only dry Avenger, that he's taken completely by surprise when a big green balloon bursts against his chest and soaks him with water. He looks up and sees Natasha standing in front of him, head cocked, waiting to see what he'll do.
Bruce grins despite himself. "Oh yeah?"
"Yup." Natasha says, grinning back, tossing a water balloon in the air and catching it a few times, like a dare.
He chases her, throwing the balloons from his bag and then grabbing more at one of the ammunition stations they have set up. He misses every time – she's way too fast for him – and gets hit about six times as she turns, throws, and strikes her target with scary accuracy. By the time she lets him catch up to her, he's panting and exhausted and wet from head to toe.
She's got her arms crossed and is watching him again. "Heart rate?" she asks.
"Dunno," Bruce gasps. "Up past one eighty, for sure."
"Don't look green."
"Don't feel green," he agrees. Walking up to stand beside her, he brings a hand down on her head, breaking a purple balloon and soaking her hair. "Thanks."
"Anytime." She brushes away the balloon fragments and wrings out her hair, wipes her face. They're under a tree, on the edge of the action; Bruce can see Thor in the distance, swooping through the air and dive-bombing someone – Steve, maybe.
"You don't have to keep doing this, you know," he says, after a few seconds, and Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. "I mean, you've been very nice, trying to include me – "
"You think I'm being nice?" Natasha asks. Bruce furrows his brow.
Natasha turns to face him, rests her hand lightly on his shoulder. "Bruce," she says, calm and direct, "I'm afraid of you."
No one's ever said it to him quite that way. It's usually in the eyes, in the way people who know what he is move to keep him at arm's reach – as if that would ever make a difference if he changed. It's usually tense smiles and too-enthusiastic nods and the refusal to hit him with water balloons.
"It's not rational," she continues, and Bruce lets out a little laugh at that, because it's the most rational thing he's ever heard of.
"No, it's fine," he says, shaking his head, stepping back to break the contact between them. "So, what, you're afraid of me, so you throw things at me and get my heart rate up and try to get me to – "
"I don't want you to change involuntarily," Natasha breaks in. It's true enough that his voluntary changes have all been successful. When he goes into it with purpose the other guy can stay on task. It's losing control that's the problem.
She watches him for a moment, then sits down on the grass in the shade. "I'd like to know what provokes the change, and how to prevent it. And anyway," she adds, eyes locked with his, "to deprive something of power over you, you learn about it, and face it."
Bruce is pretty sure that the usual strategy that Natasha has for depriving something of power over her is killing it, so he figures he should be grateful that she's skipped right to option two. He sighs and sits next to her. "You know the list. Pain, fear, rage."
She shrugs. "But you don't change when you stub your toe, or when Tony electrocutes you."
"I wish he'd stop doing that."
"His impulse is similar to mine, I'd say. The difference is, Tony doesn't have enough fear."
Bruce nods his agreement. "You know," he says slowly. "I had this guy in Brazil. Used to pay him to slap me."
Natasha smiles. "I'm familiar with that line of work," she says, nudging him with her shoulder.
"For non-sexual purposes, I assure you. He was teaching me emotional control, biofeedback, all that stuff. Of course, he never knew why. He thought it was anger management."
"Hmm." Natasha stands up, checks her ammunition bag. Then, slowly, she turns and smacks a water balloon against the top of Bruce's head. He blinks, then spits water out of his mouth ruefully.
"Come to the gym with me tomorrow," Natasha says. "I'm happy to slap the hell out of you, and my rates are very reasonable."
Bruce throws a water balloon after her, but his aim is terrible and she ducks easily, laughing.
Their first time is awkward.
When Bruce comes into the gym, Natasha is already there, sitting crosslegged on the mat in loose workout clothes, motionless and a little creepy; Bruce puts down his stuff and sits next to her. Her eyes on him make him feel strange, and for a moment he can't place the feeling. Then he realizes that it's the feeling of being the weak one, the prey, the one who is at the mercy of someone else's power; he hasn't felt this in a long time.
"Over here, face me," Natasha says, and Bruce shuffles around until they're face to face and he's mirroring her crosslegged pose, albeit with less grace.
Natasha reaches out expectantly, and Bruce surrenders his hands to hers, almost without thinking. She immediately pinches his palm, not viciously but enough to sting, and in shock and surprise he pulls his hand back.
"You – no, you need to warn me," he mutters, upset. More upset than he should be for such a small infraction.
"Okay," Natasha agrees, obviously thinking about the way Tony electrocutes him all the time without any warning whatsoever. She keeps her hands held out, palms up, and Bruce licks his lips before giving her his wrists a second time.
"I'm going to pinch you here," Natasha says slowly, using a single index finger to caress the thick soft flesh of his palm, just below the base of his thumb.
"Okay," he says, and before he finishes getting the word out she's twisting the skin, definitely viciously this time.
"Ow," he says, and offers her a smile.
"You used to turn into the Hulk when you got angry. Now you stay angry to avoid turning into the Hulk," Natasha says. "So what changed?" She pauses, then adds, "I'm going to keep pinching you."
She pinches, hard, a couple more times. It's nothing like enough pain to trigger a transformation on its own, but the fact that someone else is doing it to him, and that he's not acting to stop it, ratchets up the green feeling inside of him one or two notches.
"I changed. I – stopped running away from it. From myself."
More pinches, none of them light, none of them serious or damaging. Natasha signals each one clearly by the position of her hands and the look in her eyes, but Bruce finds himself getting more and more annoyed by it. He wants to pull his hand back from her grip. He forces himself not to move.
"Pain, fear, rage," she murmurs. His list of triggers. "Pain and fear are generated by external stimuli, often at random. Rage is self-generated, and so the easiest to master."
"You think?" He can hear the rising anger in his own voice. She's still pinching him, all over his hands and fingers, up his arms, her fingernails digging into his skin as she pushes and pulls against his body.
"I do," she replies. Natasha's eyes are locked on his. Bruce's breathing picks up.
"Pain can be self-generated," he notes dryly, and tries to sink into the anger, let it wash through him: let himself be furious at her for subjecting him to this petty painful bullshit.
A particularly cruel pinch, her strong fingers twisting him into small points of pain, and she gives him an infuriating smile. "I admit that I'd be interested in watching you generate your own pain," she says, and then watches him carefully. Bruce feels the urge to blush, to duck his head, suddenly embarrassed; he holds her gaze.
"Have you done that, Bruce?"
He licks his lips. "Sure."
"Trying to find your limits, control the monster."
Pinches and scratches, each touch briefly, soaringly painful, the sensation expanding quickly to bloom through his consciousness and then receding just as fast.
"But you don't enjoy the feeling for itself." Her fingers on his skin are cruel, unforgiving. He hisses as she places three pinches all in the same soft spot on his palm, making it throb with the repeated abuse.
"Not particularly, no," he manages.
He starts anticipating the pain, holding his breath before each touch, and then riding through it, like surfing a tiny wave of feeling within his own body.
"Is it different when it's somebody else? As opposed to when you do it yourself, I mean." Twist, pinch, scratch.
"I – yes." He takes a deep breath. "Stop."
Natasha does, letting go of his hands completely. She doesn't stand or move away from him, though she is watching him warily.
"Take a breath," Natasha instructs, "and when you're ready, tell me what happened."
Her calm, respectful tone engenders further rage in him, but gratefulness too, in absolutely equal measure, so that it takes him a moment to sort through his feelings and take the ordered deep breath.
"It wasn't just the pain," he says, a moment later. "It was the powerlessness."
She nods. "Did you feel powerless when your friend in Brazil used to slap you?"
"I – no. Not really."
"What makes me different?" Her hands are held out again, palm-up, inviting Bruce's touch but not demanding it.
"I suppose it's that I trust you," he chuckles. She smiles at him, small and genuine.
He puts her hands in hers again.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she says. But she holds his wrists securely in her small hands.
He breathes shakily, and now he does duck his head, feeling exposed by the strangely intimate, non-sexual touch.
"Pain, fear, rage," Natasha says. "Betrayal." He jerks his head up and meets her eyes. "Shame," she adds, softly.
"I – Natasha, I can't," he says, drawing his hands back. "I can't today. I'm sorry." He gets to his feet, backs up a few steps, exactly the way she hadn't when he'd started to feel the other guy wanting to burst through his skin.
"Bruce," she calls, as he starts to leave. He turns, squaring his shoulders.
"It's okay. You don't have to apologize." Natasha pauses deliberately. "Will you come back tomorrow?"
Bruce breathes again, thinking of the little flares of pain all up and down his hands and arms, all the soft places where Natasha has subjected him to the thing he fears most.
"Yeah," he says. "I will."
"Here's what we didn't do yesterday," Natasha says as Bruce walks into the gym the next day. She's working the speed bag, almost meditatively, its solid rhythmic rutta-rutta-rutta sound layering under her words. She stops, stills the bag with her hands, and turns to Bruce. "We didn't define our terms."
"Or set boundaries," Bruce agrees. He's been thinking about this since yesterday, about the little red marks on his hands, about his need to run the moment Natasha had exposed a truth about him.
"So," she nods, checking the tape that runs over her knuckles. Her hands are small-boned, almost delicate, red from hitting the bag. "No hurting you without warning."
"Yes," Bruce says, and Natasha frowns.
"Though our eventual goal could be for you to experience significant and unanticipated pain without changing."
"But for now, no hurting you without warning." She eyes him carefully. "What about the emotional component?"
It's the kindest way she could possibly ask about his freakout the day before, so he repays her with the one currency he knows she values, the truth: "It's important. I want you to do it. But I don't always know all my triggers."
She nods. "Then we'll feel our way through as best we can. It's good that you stopped me yesterday." Bruce lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding; he had thought she would be angry with him for cutting it short. "Other boundaries for me?" she asks.
"You already know that my blood is toxic." Natasha nods once. "Then that's it."
At this, she raises her eyebrows, but doesn't speak for a moment, gesturing Bruce to come stand next to her on the mat. When he doesn't stand in quite the way she wants, she puts her hands on his upper arms and shifts him. Her palms are warm, strangely soft for someone who uses her guns and her fists in the routine way that Natasha does. He wonders if she files down her calluses.
"I'm going to punch you in the shoulder," she says, and waits for him to nod before she does, hard enough to rock him backwards, probably hard enough to bruise.
Bruce gasps at the pain, and at the anger that immediately begins to swarm and multiply inside him at this more aggressive approach.
"You can always stop me, Bruce," Natasha says, as she waits for him to signal that he's all right. "I'll always stop if you tell me to."
"Good," he says, and it does feel good, knowing that.
He nods at her, and she returns it before moving toward him again. "Shoulder again," she says, and hits him in the same place, harder this time, her knuckles landing against his body with a dull thud.
"You have other boundaries," Natasha says calmly, when Bruce holds up his hand for her to stop. "Things you don't let yourself do. You claim that staying calm isn't the key, but you do try to stay calm, sometimes."
Bruce straightens up, nods at her to continue. "A certain amount of self-denial is healthy for anyone." Natasha quirks her lips, and he can tell what she's thinking, so he smiles and adds, "except maybe Tony."
"I'm going to punch you in the thigh," Natasha says, and then does. Even though he can tell that she's pulling it, it hurts like hell, enough to make his leg feel unsteady beneath him. Natasha shifts from her fighting stance to come up next to him and hold his arm, steadying him.
"I'm good," he says.
"Tony does better when other people deny him things," Natasha murmurs, returning to their earlier conversation, and Bruce wonders once again about Pepper's relationship with Tony, about Natasha's. About outside forces that can pin you down, make you stop when you need someone to make you stop. About being able to rely on others to do that.
"Well, I'm usually able to deny myself things without any help," Bruce says. Natasha nods.
"I've noticed that. You don't get drunk, you don't fuck, and while you'll put yourself in tumultuous situations, you won't put yourself in volatile ones, unless you're planning on turning into the Hulk." Bruce can't help wincing at her continued use of the name, even though all the other Avengers use it all the time. "Other leg," she adds, and lands the blow hard.
The punches are the opposite of the pinches from the day before; instead of a feeling that blooms up immediately and fades away, this pain thuds in harmlessly for a moment, then gradually builds to a rough ache. He can feel the spots on both legs where Natasha's fists have been, the throb of blood under the skin. He concentrates on the feeling, trying to map it out within his body, find its edges.
"I don't fuck?" He keeps his voice calm and controlled on the last word, wry like it's a joke, although it takes some effort.
Natasha probably sees right through it. "Shoulders, three punches." Her delivery is fast, boom-boom-boom, all on the left shoulder, each strike building on the ache of the ones before. It's much more intense than the pain in his thigh, brighter and sharper where her fists strike his collarbone.
"I have not observed you to fuck anyone in the eight months we've been on the same team," she says, and seems to take it for granted that her observation reflects reality. It does, but it still rankles. Bruce should probably be grateful that she doesn't mention SHIELD's surveillance reports on this matter. He's seen them; they're depressing.
He grimaces, rubbing his shoulder, then moves back into the receptive stance Natasha had put him in originally, feet planted shoulder-width apart, arms at his sides. He takes a breath, lets himself feel furious towards her, and speaks calmly. "You're right, I don't fuck. It seems – even though my heart rate and adrenaline by themselves can't trigger the change, it could always – you know, someone's hair gets pulled, someone falls off the bed, gets kneed in the balls – "
"Well, okay, it certainly sounds like you would have to have better sex than you've had for it to go smoothly," Natasha agrees. Bruce chuckles, self-conscious. "But I know what you mean," she adds gently. "What else do you deny yourself? Upper torso, five strikes."
She lands them against his pecs, carefully avoiding his sternum, and the blows seem lighter, go less deep; probably, Bruce thinks as he breathes and breathes and thinks angry thoughts and breathes and closes his eyes hard against the pain, probably she's carefully avoiding any potential damage to his ribs.
Her hands are on him again, soft again, and when she says sit he does, flopping down onto the mat. There are aches all over his body now, places that he knows will bruise, and he feels strangely proud of himself, that he was able to take the beating and not fight back.
Bruce keeps his eyes closed, still feeling his way through the pain, and thinks about her question. "I try not to go places with dense, energetic crowds – festivals, baseball games, stuff like that. I don't drive a car if I can avoid it, and certainly not in New York. I don't talk to my uncles. I don't read the comments."
Natasha sits down next to him; when he opens his eyes and looks at her, he sees her raise an eyebrow. "The comments?"
He shrugs. "You know, on Youtube or the Huffington Post or whatever? A lot of people say 'don't read the comments,' but I really, really don't. Ever."
Natasha laughs. "If only we all had that self-discipline. Maybe I should make you read the comments as a way of testing your control."
"We'd have to start in short bursts. Thirty seconds at a time."
"Thirty seconds maximum," Natasha agrees.
They're sitting side by side, not facing each other like yesterday, so Bruce only has to move his arm slightly to the left to place it in Natasha's hands, to offer himself to her grip. It's almost easy.
"Will you pinch me again," he mutters. He doesn't make eye contact, but he sees Natasha nod in his peripheral vision.
"Yes," she says, and then she does, and they both watch as she forces more pain into his body, as the little red pinch-marks accrue on the surface of his skin.
By the end of their session, his whole body is sore and marked, but whole too, consistent and solid and not going anywhere.
He aches even worse the next morning when he wakes up, and ruefully reminds himself that, superhuman alter-ego aside, he's still forty and doesn't heal the way he used to. In the mirror, his body is a map of Natasha's handiwork, an index to her willingness to cause him pain. The bruises range over his chest, along his arms, down his legs; they fan out to avoid his belly and genitals and then reform over his thighs. Even a few of the pinch marks have bruised, but they're harder to see, secret marks along his hands.
Curious, he pushes his fingers into a few of them, testing them for soreness. Some only ache a little, and some make him wince with the slightest pressure. It's fascinating to see Natasha's deft touch in the marks she's left behind, the way she eases up on more fragile parts of him, the way she layers bruises neatly on top of one another without even being able to see them. He wonders if Natasha can keep him always in pain.
It feels good to dig his thumb into those marks, knowing what they mean.
After a few minutes of standing in front of the mirror and poking himself, Bruce shakes his head and makes himself go shower. Once he's clean, he contemplates his wardrobe; Bruce remembers well enough how to dress to conceal bruises, though he doesn't like the idea of having to do it. Still, he's not quite ready to explain the livid black and purple to his superhero friends; they'd probably misunderstand, in one direction or another. So he pulls on a long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants – his usual clothes, actually, just buttoned a little more carefully at the neck and the cuffs – and heads out to the kitchen to find food.
What he finds is Steve and Natasha, already up and drinking coffee, with Natasha sitting on the center kitchen island and Steve standing at the stove, pushing some eggs around in a skillet.
They both notice him at the same time – super-hearing and spy-hearing, respectively, Bruce figures – and Natasha smiles warmly while Steve lights up in a welcoming grin.
"Bruce!" Steve exclaims happily. He's obviously just back from his run and still high on endorphins; his hair is damp from his shower and his skin is glowing. He's wearing a pair of loose sweatpants and a t-shirt; Natasha, meanwhile, is in soft-looking pajamas with a print of rubber ducks all over them, and she looks sleep-rumpled and fresh out of bed. He's never seen her so relaxed and casual before, and realizes that it was by design.
"How are you doing?" Natasha asks the question lightly, blowing on the hot cup of coffee she has cradled between her hands, but Bruce can hear more in it, can see a larger question in her steady gaze.
"I'm good," he answers, nodding at her. "Really good. I feel great." He cuts himself off before he starts babbling, but Natasha gives him a little knowing smile anyway. He's surprised to find that it's true, that he does feel great. Something was shaken loose, in their session yesterday, and he finds himself looking forward to a time when they can do it again.
"You want some eggs?" Steve asks, pointing at the pan. "I'm cooking up plenty."
Bruce settles in on a stool at the island, so that he's next to Natasha's dangling legs. Briefly, casually, Natasha lets one hand drop from her coffee mug and pat briefly at Bruce's shoulder; it's the lightest of touches, but it coincides with one of the deepest bruises on his body, and the glancing pressure of her fingers against his shirt against the bruise makes him shiver slightly.
He looks up at her, and she nods at him slowly. He nods back.
"I'd love some eggs," he says, a few seconds late. "Though I'm surprised, since the word was that you can usually put away a dozen by yourself."
Steve laughs, which is a beautiful sight to see, his wet blond hair falling into his eyes and his teeth glinting white with his smile.
"Oh, Bruce, I'm on my third helping. It's only at this stage that I'm willing to share."
"Though you'll have to fight me for them," Natasha puts in. "I've been waiting."
"Hush, children, there's plenty for everyone," Steve chides them, and starts doling eggs out onto plates.
Bruce shovels a few forkfuls into his mouth, suddenly aware of his hunger, before he remembers his manners. Swallowing, he says, "This is great, Steve, thanks," and Steve rewards him with a smile.
"Coffee?" he offers, and Bruce nods.
"You're going to make someone a fine wife one day, Cap," Natasha drawls, as Steve pours Bruce a fresh cup of coffee and freshens Natasha's.
To Bruce's surprise and delight, Steve flushes bright red.
"I, uh. I'm not much of a cook, really," he stutters. "Took me a week to get the hang of all the buttons on the stove."
Bruce blinks. "You like cooking, though?"
Steve shrugs. "Used to. When I could. It's a nice way to look after people. I'm not really up to date on the contemporary stuff, though. There's so much more available than there used to be."
"Hmmm," Bruce nods, eating another forkful of eggs.
Natasha chews thoughtfully for a moment, then says, "Maybe someone around here ought to teach you, Steve."
Steve raises his eyebrows at Bruce. Bruce pauses mid-chew.
"You're the only Avenger who can make anything more complicated than a call to the pizza place," Natasha points out, far too reasonably. And innocently.
"Whaddya say, Doctor Banner?" Steve asks. In that moment, Bruce knows he's in trouble, since he can never say no to Captain America when he's being mock-formal and asking for things politely. "Wanna be my cooking coach?"
Bruce smiles in spite of himself. "Sure, Steve, yeah. We can make some big superhero dinners or something."
"That's the spirit," Steve says warmly, making it sound like a personal compliment and not a cliché. He brings his hand down on Bruce's shoulder and squeezes in a friendly way – Steve's always careful to touch other people gently – but he doesn't know about the huge bruise under Bruce's shirt, and Bruce winces and flinches away.
"Sorry, did I hurt you?" Steve asks, obviously devastated by the possibility.
"No, no. I – it's, Natasha hit me there a bit hard during our, uh – workout," Bruce explains hesitantly. It feels like a lie even though it's the truth.
"Oh," Steve says, glancing back and forth between them. "Right."
And he blushes again, to the roots of his hair, and this time Bruce doesn't like it quite so much.
Natasha meets him in the gym every few days, from then on, though Bruce wishes she'd do it more. He wishes she would do it every night. He stands in front of the mirror every morning and pushes his fingers into his sore spots, making himself feel constant pain the way he's worked on allowing himself to feel constant anger.
After the incident with Steve, though, Natasha insists on checking him for damage at the end of each session and before the next one begins. Bruce is an old friend to nakedness, but still finds it strange to pull off his shirt for her, to let her see the remnants of her own efforts all over his body. It's foolish, because of course she knows the bruises are there, but some childish deep-down part of him worries that she'll be able to tell, by looking, how much he likes the marks, how much he enjoys bearing them day to day.
Her hands are cool and businesslike, though, as they follow the lines of his bones and check to make sure his contusions are healing properly. She's thorough and professional without being rough, and as hard as it is to let her see what she does to him, Bruce comes to like the attention, the warm press of her fingertips to his sensitized dark-mottled skin.
"Wait, wait, no – " Steve yells, but even his super soldier reflexes aren't fast enough to save the day, and when Bruce shoves the cutting board onto the already-full counter, the pot of sticky rice at the other end tumbles, slowly and majestically, onto the floor.
"Augh!" Bruce pulls the board back way too late, all delayed reaction. Steve's already righting the pot and trying to see how much rice they can save.
"Well, I'm not gonna lie to you, Bruce. It doesn't look good," he says, mournfully. Bruce buries his face in his hands and laughs. Basic sushi was supposed to be an easy, fun, low-stress food to teach Steve to make, but between the broken jar of pickled ginger, the burnt unagi, and now the rice, it's not exactly going to plan.
"Are we making more rice, then?"
Steve sighs. "You know, in my day, you didn't waste spilled food."
"Not in my experience, either. Unfortunately I don't think Natasha and Thor would appreciate us serving them food that's been on the floor." Bruce considers. "And, you know, Tony's robots clean this floor."
Steve blanches and goes to get the dustpan. Bruce tries to corral all the remaining items on the counter so that they fit and there's room to do the actual rolling and cutting part.
"This was supposed to be fun, you know. Combining all our ingredients inside the rolls, playing around with different flavor combinations."
"We'll get there," Steve promises, nudging him softly with his shoulder. Steve is careful around everyone, but lately he seems especially restrained with Bruce, avoiding the slaps on the back and the arms-around-the-shoulder that he indulges in with everyone else. Bruce can't say he's not grateful, given the state of his body lately, but he also wonders at the reason for the change, whether Steve's decided he's fragile, or if he's maybe worried about Bruce's control over the other guy.
Or if Steve just doesn't want to touch him.
While Bruce is setting up the rice cooker again, Steve goes to the kitchen door and sticks his head out.
"Dinner's gonna be late!" he calls.
"We're shocked," comes Natasha's reply, and Bruce hears Thor's rumbling laugh following after it.
"They don't have any faith in us at all," Steve sighs.
"We'll show them," Bruce promises. They work with what rice they have left, and it ends up not being too much of a delay after all, since by the time they run out of rice the next batch is almost ready. Steve's made a few – in Bruce's opinion – questionable flavor combinations, but Bruce figures they're in it for the experimentation, and there's probably nothing Steve's done that some enterprising fusion restaurant in New York doesn't have on its menu. They get into a little rhythm, putting the layers together, rolling them up, slicing them, and plating them as attractively as possible.
"You do the arranging stuff, you're the artist," Bruce says. "I'm the scientist, I'll manage any technical equipment. Aesthetics are your job."
"Technical equipment?" Steve laughs. "Like what, the stove?"
Bruce shrugs. "We could get fancy cooking things in here. I don't know, a deep fryer or a cuisinart or something." He admittedly can't think of any complicated cooking machines, though he's sure there are some. He's really the worst cooking coach ever. "The important thing is that you trust me when I teach you about machines."
"Is this going to be the Things We Never Ever Microwave speech again?" Steve asks, slicing up another roll. "Because I promise I'm clear on that now."
Bruce gives him a mock-disbelieving look. "I'll believe it when the accident board in the common room says 30 days without a microwave explosion."
"You know very well that most of those are Tony."
When they finally get the food served, the looks on Natasha and Thor's faces are worth all the effort. Thor says it's customary on Asgard to applaud the serving of a lovingly-prepared meal, so he and Natasha clap loudly while calling out compliments to Bruce and Steve on the food.
"This looks gorgeous," Natasha says, when they've finally shut up and started piling sushi from the large platters onto their individual plates.
"Yes, very attractively arranged," Thor agrees, and Bruce tries to nudge Steve, but Steve is already nudging him, so they bump elbows awkwardly.
"Mmmm," Natasha says, chewing slowly. Her face is all pleasure; she closes her eyes to better savor the tastes. Bruce feels an odd swelling of pride, that his hands went into making something that could make her feel good, after all she does for him.
"Truly delicious," Thor agrees, trying one of Steve's strange experimental rolls, and Steve beams.
"Thank you for making all this, guys," Natasha says. It's been so long since Bruce has made food for other people that he's forgotten how it feels, but on the other hand maybe it never felt this way before, the way Steve described it: as a way to care for people, to nourish them, give them what they need.
"It's our pleasure," Steve says.
The next time they're in the field Bruce is with Tony, trying to take down an AIM installation from the inside. The other guy wasn't called for, for this mission; it was supposed to be about stealth and brains. But when AIM flunkies show up with very large and awful looking weapons, things that probably have names ending in –ray and –beam, Tony puts down his faceplate and Bruce takes off his shirt.
The fight doesn't take long, and when Bruce comes back to himself Tony's working on the computers again, glancing between Bruce and the computer screen. Bruce doesn't see any dead bodies lying around, though there is some blood and there are a couple guys zip-tied neatly in the corner, so he assumes that most of the AIM guys ran away when they found their targets impervious to their weapons. It's a nice relief to have probably-not killed anyone today.
"Morning, sunshine," Tony says. "Want to help me finish the mission, or would you like another nap?"
Bruce grumbles and gets to his feet, holding up his shredded pants with one hand and using the other to start keying commands into the AIM computer.
"Nice bruises," Tony says, not taking his eyes from the screen. Bruce glances down at himself, but his skin is unmarred, just like always after a transformation.
"They're gone now," Tony adds. "But before you changed, very pretty. Lots of layers, all yellow and purple and blue."
"I – it's just – it's from – " Bruce remembers this feeling from his childhood, this need to explain away bruises and cuts, to call himself clumsy, to say he walked into a door or fell down some stairs. The memory of that feeling and his conditioned response to it makes him angrier than anything else has in a long time.
He's interrupted by Tony's hand on his naked shoulder, and feels the green haze fade from his vision. He twists his shoulder back, away from Tony's touch, and Tony raises his hands in surrender.
"Hey. Buddy. It's okay." He offers Bruce half a smile, knowing and almost gentle, which is an odd look on Tony. "I'm – familiar with methods of acquiring bruises that, uh, carefully avoid the lower back, stomach, head, and spinal cord," he says awkwardly. Bruce takes a breath, licks his lips. Tony continues doggedly: "I mean, it's been a while since I've bruised more than my knees, or my neck where Pep tugs on the collar, but . . . "
Bruce holds up a hand to stop him, smiling. There's a thing that Tony does, sometimes, where he makes things light and easy by making them real, and Bruce doesn't know how but he loves Tony for it.
"Natasha?" Tony hazards.
"Yeah, uh." Bruce says. "It's – non-sexual."
Tony raises an eyebrow. "Interesting. And, yeah, I'd hope so, since Natasha's supposed to tell Pep and me about any new genitalia friends." He picks up Bruce's shirt from the computer console where he left it and tosses it at him. "Cover your nakedness and do some science with me, will you? I don't want to be here when the next wave of flunkies shows up."
Bruce pulls on his shirt and buttons it quickly, thinking about Tony in a collar, about what might make him want that. They finish the mission pretty quickly and make it to the rendezvous with the rest of the team without another incident, unless you count Clint and Rhodey wolf-whistling from their seats in the back of the quinjet when they see Bruce's shredded pants.
"We encountered minor resistance," Bruce explains, rolling his eyes.
"I don't know why you even wear pants on missions in the first place," Rhodey points out reasonably, and Bruce shrugs.
"I guess I still have hope," he replies. Clint pats him fondly on the knee.
"Takeoff in ten seconds," Natasha calls from the cockpit. "And if you're not belted in no one's diving out of the helicopter to save you, Clint."
"Yes ma'am," Clint agrees, double-checking his restraint.
Tony catches Bruce's eye and winks. "Wow, she's so stern," he grins, like it's a joke shared between them, but it makes Bruce uncomfortable, too tight in his skin, and he doesn't reply. Eventually Tony's grin slips to a half-frown, and a minute later he pulls his aviator shades out from . . . somewhere . . . and slips them on.
Bruce spends the rest of the ride home listening to Rhodey talk about their half of the mission, which had a dinosaur in it.
When they land at the Tower, Tony disembarks behind him, and as they step off onto the concrete landing pad his hand comes down on Bruce's shoulder and squeezes gently.
"Hey, I'm sorry," he says awkwardly. "For whatever." He's taken his shades off again, which is a pretty big concession for Tony, so Bruce smiles at him and forgives him even though Tony doesn't know what he's apologizing for, and Bruce isn't sure what he's mad about.
"It's fine," he says. He gropes for an olive branch of his own to offer, and eventually comes up with, "You wanna come see the new plans for radiation shielding for the Iron Man suits?"
"Yeah," Tony agrees, the tension bleeding out of him. "I totally do."
Tony doesn't mention it again, but Bruce can feel him noticing when there are marks peeking out beneath his sleeves or when Natasha's hand has left his cheek stinging and red. It makes him feel exposed, like Tony knows something about him that Bruce wouldn't want him to know, and misunderstood, like Tony's making assumptions that aren't quite right, and most of all it makes him feel tender, absurdly sensitive to touch and to air, Tony's gaze on his body like Natasha's fingertips over his bruises.
For most missions, though, it's him and Natasha, or sometimes him and Natasha and Clint, the most and least human fighters deployed together to watch each other's backs. Bruce worried, at first, that the other guy would start to see Natasha as a threat, recognize her as the person who beats him up a couple times a week, but if anything his trippy green memories seem to show him and Natasha working even better together. The other guy listens to her now, the way he's listened to Steve since that first battle together, and it makes him feel safer, knowing that Natasha can steer the other guy sometimes, point him in the right direction, look out for him.
In the past he's transformed in front of his teammates, in front of civilians, in front of SHIELD, and hasn't really thought much about it, but as time goes by he finds it harder to change in front of Natasha, finds himself fiddling through the disrobing process, trying to postpone the moment when she has to see him shift.
After a mission where he actually ducks around a corner to do it, Natasha clearly loses patience with him.
"You know, you're not the first man I've met who loses control and lashes out in anger," she says, after the mission debriefing, when they're alone in the SHIELD infirmary together. Natasha had a nasty-looking gash on her right arm that's now neatly stitched up. Bruce, as always, was perfectly fine except for his pants.
Her tone is annoyed, impatient, but Bruce chuckles and tries to play it off. "I'm sure that's true. But I doubt any of the others had quite the same kind of plausible deniability that I do."
Natasha holds his gaze. "Is that what you think you have? Plausible deniability?"
There's a long pause. Bruce doesn't speak, doesn't look away. The fluorescent lights of the infirmary are harsh and unforgiving.
"Do you think you aren't responsible for the lives you took?"
When he speaks, Bruce's voice is suddenly hoarse. "No. I'm responsible."
Natasha's gaze continues to bore into him for a long moment. "Good." When he ducks his head, she adds, "I've seen you, Bruce. I've seen all of it. I know all of it. Our sessions are about a lot of things, but I want you disabused of the notion that they're about you fooling me into thinking you're tame."
As Bruce looks for a way to respond to that, the SHIELD nurse comes back in with some antibiotic cream for Natasha, which she accepts without taking her eyes off of Bruce.
They get up to leave, and Bruce still can't find the words but he takes Natasha's hand, holds it tight, too tight maybe, but she doesn't say a word about it.
He changes in front of her after that, every time, letting her see the monster that rips through his skin, and every time it's hard and it's painful and she never, for a second, takes her eyes off of him. The calm wariness in her expression grounds him and helps him through it, helps him live with the recognition.
And when he wakes up, naked in a crater or in a pile of rubble, it's always Natasha who's there waiting for him, ready to help him to his feet and take him home.
"Blank canvas," she notes one time, her gaze flicking over his bare, unmarked chest as she pulls him up out of some broken masonry.
"Yeah," he agrees, and can't wait to watch her put the first bruise back on him and bring him back to where he needs to be.
"I'm going to hit you," Natasha says. "A lot."
Bruce does his best to evade her strikes, but she's too fast for him; she gets in with a simple twist and elbow strike to the shoulder, then follows it with rough jabs to his chest and upper arms. He grunts in pain, staggering with the force of it, sharp jagged pain that radiates outward from the points where her body connects with his. While he's trying to get back on balance she jabs four fingers into his arm, just above his elbow, and it's like having his funny bone bumped but ten times worse. It's as if the power to his arm has been cut, and all the nerve signals are firing at random.
Her next strike, to the tendon running between his neck and left shoulder, is enough to drive him to his knees with the white-hot pain of it; once he's down there, Natasha's foot lands squarely in the middle of his back, knocking him forward onto his face.
"Stop, stop," he pants, holding his arms up from the mat.
Natasha pulls back calmly. Bruce rolls over and rubs at the sore spot on his arm, tries to shake out his arms and legs. He still feels weird and weak, like he's a puppet with half his strings cut.
"Close?" she asks. He shakes his head.
"Not as much as last time. I – went into it more. The pain."
"Your eyes were a little green, there at the end." Natasha offers him her hand. He takes it, and she braces backwards so that she can pull him up.
"That's probably enough for today, though," she says.
"Thank you," Bruce says, holding her hand for a moment longer than he needs to after he stands up. Her skin is warm but dry.
"You did good, Doc." She squeezes his bicep gently, briefly.
Bruce smiles; he aches all over but the Hulk is nowhere near the surface.
Between SHIELD missions and lab work and SI responsibilities and whatever it is that Thor does when he's not around, it's not that often that they're all gathered together. So when it turns out that all the Avengers are going to be in one place for a week, Steve and Bruce decide to put their cooking teamwork to good use and feed everyone. The team, in their turn, decides to eat what they make, which is pretty kind of them all things considered.
"I'm just saying, a little liquid nitrogen, a couple vacuum bags – " Tony is saying, while everyone else rolls their eyes.
"I had to go to the doctor after the last meal you made, Tony," Rhodey puts in. "The doctor!"
Tony waves this away as if Rhodey has never been given vicodin for tongue pain. "That was just you overreacting to every little injury, like you always do."
"Well, Bruce and I stand by our meal and guarantee that it will send no one to the hospital," Steve claims grandly. Bruce nods his support of this statement.
Pepper eyes the duck. "Are you sure you cooked the stuffing well enough? Undercooked poultry could give us all salmonella."
Steve gives Bruce the side-eye. "Um," he says.
"I checked the temperature while it was cooking," Bruce promises them all. "It's fine."
"There, see, we're not going to poison you at all," Steve agrees, laughing and nudging Bruce gently with his elbow. Bruce lets himself be moved by the gentle jostling.
Everyone digs in again; Pepper winks at him. Bruce can't help but smile back.
Once they've all had their fill – even Thor, who leans back in satisfaction and proclaims the feast "most delightful!" – Bruce and Steve retreat to the kitchen again to make dessert.
"I've never made any of this fancy French stuff before," Steve says, excited, "but I'm intrigued by any food that comes with a blowtorch."
Bruce can't help but catch his enthusiasm, grinning as he turns back to the crème brûlée. Although at the moment it's still only crème, since he hasn't applied heat to it yet.
"Surely you must've had French food during the war," Bruce objects. He turns on the blowtorch and applies heat carefully to the top of each of the desserts, until the crusts are a rich golden caramel.
"I don't know what they're teaching in schools these days, but we actually didn't get to a lot of Paris cafés while liberating POW camps," Steve remarks dryly. Bruce turns off the blowtorch for a second to move some of the ramekins around, then starts it up again.
"I refuse to believe – ow, ow, fuck, stupid – "
Steve is at his side in a flash, ready to help, but the damage is already done; Bruce unthinkingly put his hand on the hot part of the torch, and he's burned himself fairly badly, an angry red stripe across the inside pads of his four fingers, between the second and third knuckles.
Steve hisses in sympathy as he takes the torch away from him. "That's gotta sting," he says, and it does, a lot; in the old days, the roiling, searing heat of a burn like this would've been enough.
Natasha pokes her head in the kitchen door. "You guys okay? Bruce, is Steve beating you up or something?"
"No, we leave that to you," Steve jokes offhandedly. Bruce's head snaps up, and Steve's expression is all foot-in-mouth horror. "Oh, uh, sorry – I – oh, damn. I didn't mean to say that, I'm sorry, Bruce. Uh. Let me get you some ice."
While Steve dashes to the freezer, Bruce looks over at Natasha and tries to reassure her with a smile that he's fine, but she's already laughing a little.
"You couldn't expect that they'd all fail to notice the bruises forever," she says, softly enough that Bruce can pretend that Steve doesn't hear her. Bruce shrugs, blushing, though he isn't sure why.
"All right?" Natasha asks.
"Yeah, I'm okay." He meets her gaze and takes another deep breath; it's easier to bear the pain, somehow, when she's there to help him with it.
"Here you go," Steve says, returning with some crushed ice wrapped in a ziploc bag and a cold cloth. They didn't have crushed ice before, which means that Steve probably crushed it himself, and indeed when Bruce looks he can see flecks of it still sticking to Steve's palms.
"Thanks, Steve," he says, absurdly fond of him. In his peripheral vision, Natasha turns to head back in to the dining room.
"I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to intrude on your private business."
"It's okay, really," Bruce assures him.
"I asked Natasha when I saw you coming out of the gym with her, all bruised up, and she explained it to me."
Bruce tries to imagine that conversation – does that mean Steve was defending his honor, yelling at Natasha for going too hard on him? How could Natasha possibly have explained it, and to Steve of all people? Whatever she said seemed to have stuck, though.
"It's fine," he sighs.
"So, uh." Steve looks unsure, and Bruce raises an eyebrow at him. "Does that mean you and Natasha – like Tony and Pepper – "
"No, no," Bruce says quickly and a little too loud, though he has no idea why he's so eager to deny that he's having sex with a beautiful amazing superhero. "It's – " Bruce licks his lips. "It's non-sexual. I just – it's a thing."
Steve nods, his cheeks a little pink, and drops the subject. When Bruce winces and readjusts the ice pack, Steve puts his hand on Bruce's back, kind and friendly. His touch is light this time, Bruce notices, as if he's being mindful of the bruises he knows must exist under Bruce's clothes.
"I'll be okay," Bruce says, awkwardly.
"Well, yeah, if you stop trying to manage the technical devices and stick to aesthetics," Steve jokes.
"Yeah, I deserved that," Bruce agrees, hissing through his teeth at the continuing waves of hot raw pain. "Ouch ouch ouch."
Steve keeps his hand where it is, big and warm between Bruce's shoulder blades, and rubs his back gently while he ices his fingers. It occurs to Bruce, suddenly, that Steve is worried about Bruce's feelings, not about his control. He remembers Steve classifying him as a safety risk, back when they first met, and wonders at the change.
"How's it look?" Steve asks. His hand feels good where it touches Bruce's back, and when Bruce looks up at him – he's so tall, so broad, so solid – his lower lip is thick and red.
Bruce forces himself to stop staring and peeks under the cloth. "Not too bad," he decides. "Let's get dessert out, huh?"
"Sure," Steve agrees, and Bruce is probably imagining that Steve's hand lingers a couple seconds longer than necessary, that Steve trails his fingers over Bruce's shoulder as he pulls away.
"What happened?" Clint asks, when they finally emerge into the dining room, Steve bearing a tray of crème brûlée and Bruce bearing his makeshift icepack. In the back of his mind somewhere Bruce is shocked to see them all still sitting, leaning back to accommodate full bellies, sipping wine and not even aware that Bruce had hurt himself in the other room; in the back of his mind somewhere, Bruce had expected them to be evacuated, or armed, or hiding behind the flipped-over table, maybe.
"Doctor 'I'm better with scientific equipment, Steve, let me use the blowtorch' Banner went ahead and burned himself," Steve returns promptly, and everyone laughs.
"Hey, this is serious," Bruce objects. "I have a blister."
"There are proper first aid kits in every room of the house," Pepper offers. Bruce actually knew this, but didn't think of it; he never anticipated having to use them on himself.
"Or we could take you to the hospital," Clint says.
Rhodey grins ruefully. "In the great tradition of Avengers mealtimes."
"And break Captain America's promise to us all? I wouldn't dream of it," Bruce jokes.
Everyone nods at this, and both Clint and Tony look openly relieved that they won't have to postpone their dessert; they each immediately grab a ramekin and a spoon and set about poking at the crème brûlée.
"Want me to get you a proper icepack?" Natasha asks, calm and serious, and it's like it is during their sessions, Natasha checking in with him to make sure he's cared for.
"Nah, Steve made me this one special," Bruce says, and gives her a slight nod. I'm okay. And she nods back with a half a smile: I knew you would be.
"Want me to kiss it better?" Tony offers with a leer, and everyone laughs. Then Thor has to have this Midgardian tradition explained to him, of course, which gets him laughing even harder, because he finds something about the concept hilarious. Thor's sitting next to Bruce, and the force of his body as he shakes makes Bruce's chair rock a little.
"But suppose you had injured yourself somewhere more . . . intimate, Bruce! Would this kissing still be appropriate?" he asks. It took Bruce a while to notice this about Thor, but his over-the-top winking leer is nearly as good as Tony's.
"Probably not," Bruce agrees. "But I try not to splash hot oil on my dick."
"Disappointing," Natasha drawls, to renewed laughter, and Bruce feels himself coloring again, a little, thinking about what Tony knows, what Steve knows, what they all might know about him: that he likes getting hit, likes feeling pain; that he even needs it, sometimes. When Tony first mentioned his bruises Bruce wanted desperately to explain, to quantify his relationship with Natasha, to quantify his own behavior: it's a Hulk thing, not a masochism thing. But now he's starting to think that it might not matter so much. That it might not need an explanation.
"In any case," Thor grins, "I feel that kissing an injury such as this one might cause more pain than relief. So here, doctor – " Thor leans into his space and kisses him on the cheek instead, beard scratchy and lips wet, making a loud happy smacking sound as he does it. " – I hope that will serve just as well."
Sitting on his other side, Natasha leans in and kisses him too, on his other cheek, a little less forcefully than Thor, but equally sweet and loud and silly.
"How's it feel?" she asks, and Bruce shrugs.
"Stings like hell. Throbs."
"Nothing like a burn," she comments quietly, and something in Bruce thrills at the idea.
"If we're all done making out with Banner," Tony interjects loudly, "can we eat already?"
They all follow the example that Clint and Tony have set and crack into their crème brûlée. The conversation moves on to other strange Midgardian kissing traditions (mistletoe, New Year's Eve, kissing gates, the double-kiss greeting versus the triple-kiss greeting), and Clint and Rhodey make a trebuchet out of silverware, and Natasha shows Steve how to fold the cloth napkins into ducks, and Pepper puts on an Iron Man gauntlet and challenges Thor to an arm-wrestling competition, and no one worries at all that Bruce is going to turn into the Hulk, not even Bruce.
The burn is still with him, still tender on the pads of the fingers on his left hand, when someone blows up SHIELD's Manhattan headquarters and Bruce is trapped in the rubble along with Tony, Steve, Hill, and over fifty agents whose names he mostly doesn't know.
Steve would know, Bruce thinks, as he blinks into the sudden darkness; Steve probably knows the names of all the agents, makes a point of it. Bruce should be more like that, friendly like that, but he's never known how, never been good at it, and now his legs are crushed under steel girders and he's probably going to kill all those people whose names he never bothered to learn.
The Hulk-feeling inside is overwhelming, inescapable: he can't breathe or reason or meditate his way past it, there's no biofeedback in the world that can stop it; a green haze starts to layer over his vision and he can feel his breathing come faster and faster –
"Don't – don't move – "
It's Steve's voice, and it's coming from right above him; Bruce's reaction, of course, is to try to move upwards before he can even process the meaning of the words, and as he does he hears more of the rubble moving, grumbling, threatening to collapse. He's trapped in a pocket of air underneath something, and maybe Steve's in the same situation, and who knows how many others.
"We have to wait, everyone, we have to wait for rescue, don't move – " Steve is saying, an edge of panic to his voice.
He feels the pain then, suddenly; he thought he was feeling it before but now it hits his consciousness in a sickening wave, radiating out from his legs like a slow constant explosion. He gasps and screams with it involuntarily, his fingers digging themselves bloody against broken bricks.
"Banner," comes Hill's voice, from somewhere nearby. "Banner. Are you hurt."
Still scrabbling at the rubble beneath his hands, Bruce starts to make a sound like a laugh but it comes out as a growl, too deep for his own voice, and then he yells: "What do you think?"
"Bruce," comes Steve's voice again, "Bruce, just stay with us, okay? Rescue teams will be here soon, but if you Hulk out now, you're going to bring this whole thing down on everyone."
Bruce wants to snarl at Steve that he knows, that he's not stupid, that he's figured it out on his own and he's obviously going to do his – his best – not to . . . kill anyone . . .
He almost blacks out then, and as he bites his tongue and forces the grey to recede from the edges of his vision he wishes, desperately, that he could black out. But it's possible that if he did the Hulk would take over, so he screams and stays conscious, stays with the pain.
"What would Natasha tell you to do," Steve is asking, slowly, above him. "What would Natasha say."
Thinking of Natasha makes it better, makes the pain more manageable; he imagines, briefly, that she did this to him, crushed his legs to see how he'd react, and that thought helps him claw slightly closer to himself.
"What would Natasha say, Bruce," Steve's question comes again, more insistently.
"She'd say – to stay with it – Steve, my legs are crushed, you gotta get everyone out, gotta get them out Steve – "
"Tony's free already and he's using the suit to dig people out," Steve says. Bruce tries to imagine it, the image of Tony hovering just above the field of debris, scanning the structure of it and pulling out each piece of rubble carefully, meticulously.
"Not gonna be fast enough," Bruce says, and he wants it to be a warning but it comes out half-singsong, a taunt. His breathing is fast, so fast, and his whole body is on fire with the pain. There's a tug in his gut and he realizes that he's probably got some broken ribs, too, and his right arm doesn't feel so good either, cut or burned maybe –
"Goddammit, hold on, will you? Ten minutes, Bruce, give us ten minutes." He's never heard Steve so angry; it wells up an answering anger in Bruce.
He can't imagine living with this pain for ten minutes, can't imagine it for another ten seconds: it's everything he is now, filling up his body and his head with its roar, tearing him up inside. He screams again, trying to haul himself backwards with his arms, even though he knows it's useless, even though he knows he's pinned.
Even though he knows there's an easy way out.
His legs start to feel cold.
"Losing a lot of blood, Cap," he grits out. "Make sure – make sure no one touches it. Steve. Do you hear me? Anything with my blood on it, you pack it up tight and you don't touch it."
"I promise," Steve says fervently. There are noises around him, though the muffling effect of the rubble means that he can't quite place where they're coming from or what they are. Part of the structure collapsing, or Tony digging his way down, or people being rescued from the wreckage, Bruce doesn't know.
The change is always worse when it's involuntary.
He thinks about Natasha again, fantasizes: Natasha closing his legs in a giant vice, squeezing them slowly until blood starts to pour, ripping through his skin and flesh and crunching his bones. No, better: Natasha using her bare hands to do it, to break each ankle with a vicious twist, to work through all the bones in his feet, in his toes. Bruce imagines himself holding still and letting her break them, each and every one.
He's got it under control, he thinks; this time he's got it, they're going to get him out and it's going to be fine and he'll go somewhere secluded and turn into the Hulk and fix his legs.
"We've got almost everyone out, Bruce, Tony's coming for you now, you have to hold on, just another couple minutes," Steve says, but even as he speaks it's suddenly too late; Bruce's last sensation is of the absence of pain – the overwhelming, incredible relief of the absence of pain – before his vision goes green and he doesn't remember any more.
He wakes up in a SHIELD infirmary, which is a joke, since he's always fine.
Natasha is sitting by his bedside, reading a book.
He glances down at his legs, and they're under the covers but fine, intact, the right shapes. He can move them, wiggle his toes.
The tight, itchy tenderness of the healing burns on his fingers is gone entirely. Blank canvas.
"You're awake," Natasha says, putting in her bookmark carefully and closing her book.
"Yup." He doesn't raise his head off the pillow.
She's silent for a long time, staring at him with the book sitting in her lap, so he has to speak first.
"Did I hurt anyone?"
She nods. "Twenty SHIELD agents are dead, seventeen of them before you transformed. There's no way of knowing if the remaining three would've survived if you hadn't hulked out. They were trapped in the rubble near you. Almost everyone else got out in time." She licks her lips. "Steve has some injuries, but the doctors say he'll be fine."
When she says Steve's name Bruce gets hit with the edges of the memory: Steve approaching the other guy, who was smashing the rubble with his fists; Steve reaching out with one gauntleted hand. Bruce remembers raising his green fist and knocking him aside, annoyed, angry, and remembers the thud as Captain America crashed into a wall.
"So, no big deal, then," he croaks. "Just killed three people and put Captain America in the hospital."
"Yes," Natasha answers. Her tone and face are neutral, giving him nothing at all.
"Fuck." He draws his knees up to his chest and presses the heels of his hands against his closed eyelids. He wants to cry, but it would be gauche bullshit if he did. So he pushes against his eyelids till he sees colors behind them and breathes noisily through his mouth and doesn't.
A few minutes later, he hears Natasha stand up and come to his bedside.
"Move over," she says, and he does, looking up at her. She flops down on her half of the hospital mattress.
"I thought I had it under control," Bruce says, and it sounds whiny even to his own ears.
"Yeah, well. Everyone has limits." She opens her book again and begins to read.
Bruce sits next to her in the bed, perfectly healed, and breathes as slowly as he can. Natasha's thigh is warm against his, comforting. He tries to match her breathing, deep and calm, and once he's done it he lets the anger wash through him.
He thought he had it under control.
He'll never really have it under control.
Natasha gets through about twenty pages, to the end of the chapter, then replaces her bookmark and looks up at him again.
"You know you don't have any right to feel sorry for yourself, don't you?" she asks.
"Yeah," Bruce says, after a long pause. "I know."
"Then I'll see you in the gym tomorrow."
The way she says it, it sounds like she's about to get up and leave, but she doesn't. Instead she sits with him for another hour or so, reading her book, until he's ready to go with her.
He avoids Steve. It's easy at first, because Steve's in the hospital with real injuries, and despite his super-healing he's there for a good week, which tells Bruce all he needs to know about how badly the other guy hurt him.
Once Steve is back in the Tower, it takes a little more work, but Bruce has always been something of a recluse, the genius scientist locked away in his lab, and he manages it.
He keeps meeting Natasha in the gym every couple of days, though, because as much as he can't bear the thought of running into Steve, the thought of living without the constant ache and pull of his bruises is worse. He's selfish, probably, or else he's selflessly trying to get back on the horse and make himself safer. One of those two things. But he doesn't pretend it's a game anymore, doesn't try to dodge her blows or make her take him down; instead, he stands still and receives her fists against his body.
Natasha prowls around him, looking him over, determining what will hurt the most and do the least damage; she warns him before she strikes, but even with warning it's excruciating: solid punches delivered to already-sore spots; prolonged scratching pinches that aren't enough to draw blood, but that hurt like hell; the solid slap of Natasha's open palm against his legs, his arms, his face, the safe places on his torso.
He holds still.
"You're not going to hit me back, huh," she says, as she lays into him, as he breathes, as he feels the pain shooting along his nerves: "You're going to stand there, and not move, and not hit me back." She sounds upset, for the first time, out of control, and he doesn't know if it's real or by design but her body is hot, giving off heat in waves as she strides fast and angry around him.
"No," he says, but he wants to; wants to do more than take the beating.
She warns him of her next blow, and her next, and as they come the pain and the anger combine in him and begin to boil. Now is when he should stop her, back out and calm down, but somehow that makes him angrier, that he could stop her whenever he wants, as if it really is no more than a game. So he says nothing, just listens as she announces a slap and slaps his face, as she announces a punch and flares pain up through his shoulder.
"Hit back," she snarls. Punch. "Run away." Slap. He bends and moves with her blows but doesn't do what she says.
She goes faster then, her fists raining down on him, her body solid and implacable and delivering pain into his body with every movement. He wants to move, wants to move, wants to run –
When he finally raises a hand to stop her, it goes around her throat; she's a better fighter than he is but his hand is so big and her throat is so small. He remembers his father with his hand around his mother's throat, remembers it as viscerally as if it had been his hand, his throat, and he wants very badly to squeeze.
He meets Natasha's eyes then, and the expression on her face is pure terror. He's seen her look like this once before, but it takes him a moment to understand that he was the Hulk at the time, that he was the Hulk and she was terrified of him.
The realization trickles through him slowly, then, cool green water to drench the heat of his rage: she is making him a gift of her fear. Her trust is inherent in her allowing him to see it, to feel it. She doesn't struggle, but does put her hand on his arm, in case she needs to break bones and escape while he hulks out.
Bruce stops then. Pulls his hand back. He's shaking, so he sits down.
Natasha sits next to him, and she's not shaking at all, but he knows that she would be if her body weren't so tightly under her control, her every motion and reaction careful and considered.
"You did that on purpose," he says, taking the water bottle that she offers and drinking deeply. "You did that to us on purpose."
"Yes," Natasha agrees. Her breath is coming fast, like his, which is a small mercy on her part, to let him see her hyperventilate, to breathe with him.
"This whole time," Bruce says slowly, "this whole time I thought you were afraid of the Hulk."
Natasha takes his hand and laces their fingers together firmly. "You are the Hulk," she says, softly, easily. Her breath is still coming fast but they're both evening out, calming down together.
Bruce holds on to her and doesn't say anything for a long time; then he says, "I know."
Of course he can't avoid Steve forever.
Bruce is worn out after a day buried in the tedious kind of lab work, tracking down obscure errors that keep skewing his data and trying to calibrate equipment that doesn't want to be calibrated. It's late, and he's hungry, and he decides to cut through the common area on the way to his rooms and steal some of Thor's pop tarts.
But the problem with avoiding Steve all week – with avoiding most of the team, in fact – is that he doesn't know they're all curled up in the tv area next to the kitchen, watching some old movie together and laughing. There's an awful lot of popcorn on the floor, which probably means that Tony and Clint are throwing food at each other again; Natasha and Pepper are playing some kind of drinking game, given the way they laugh suddenly at a line of dialogue in the film and yell "double!" before taking two shots each of something deadly-looking; Rhodey and Thor are playing what looks like a giant complicated game of tic-tac-toe; and Steve is sitting on the back of the couch, glancing fondly at everyone and actually watching the movie.
"Bruce! Baby! You came!" Tony throws his arms open happily when he sees Bruce hesitating in the doorway. "Come on in, the movie doesn't make any sense anyway, you haven't missed anything."
With Tony's exclamation everyone turns to face him, glancing up at him expectantly, and Bruce has about a tenth of a second to feel excluded for not being invited before he remembers the email Pepper sent out about movie night.
"I, uh, no, I was just looking for pop tarts," he mutters, rubbing at the back of his head.
Tony makes a sad noise, but they mostly all go back to what they were doing; Steve holds his gaze, though, and Bruce shifts uncomfortably.
"I'll help you get them," Steve says, after a minute. He slides smoothly off the couch and strides toward the kitchen, leaving Bruce to trail behind him.
He's still got a slight limp, Bruce notices. Steve's body heals from trauma in less than a tenth of the time an average person would take, but Bruce knows about his leg, the way it had been twisted and mangled.
"I can get them myself," Bruce says, rubbing his hands on his jeans.
"They're on a high shelf," Steve says, "and Tony did something to the footstool. It talks to us now."
"Oh." He watches as Steve gets the pop tarts from the weird cupboard above the fridge. They're at the back, and it's probably true that no one other than Steve and Thor can reach them unless they climb up on the counter or dangle from the ceiling.
"Strawberry or chocolate?" Steve asks.
"Strawberry. Uh, thanks."
Steve passes him the box and lets his fingers linger against Bruce's. Bruce pulls back.
"Thanks," he says again, and turns to go.
"Bruce," Steve calls, stopping him, and Bruce debates the merits of simply running for it. Steve could catch him, even running on an injury, but he might not risk making a scene in front of everyone in the other room.
On the other hand, Bruce really doesn't want to make a scene in front of everyone in the other room.
"Yes?" he returns politely, turning to face Steve again.
"I – I thought we should start our cooking lessons again. Now that I'm back on my feet."
"I don't," Bruce begins, the words slipping from his mouth like a reflex. He tries to think of a way to finish that sentence. "I don't want to," he says eventually. "And, you know, you're fine on your own now. I'm sure you won't blow anything up."
He turns around again, trying hard not to see the disappointment on Steve's face. He does run then, or at least walks quickly, trying to wave cheerfully at the assembled Avengers in the tv room as he goes past, and Steve doesn't chase after him.
"What do you want me to do, Bruce?" Natasha asks softly, after another week. He's still avoiding Steve, and Natasha knows it, knows the reason for it. He's terrified to realize that she might know everything about him, now. "Break your bones? I could do that. Shoot you, stab you?" She pauses. "Tear out your heart?"
"Don't be maudlin," Bruce objects, and Natasha laughs.
"Okay," she says thoughtfully. "I'll be literal. Sit down and give me your hand."
He offers her his right, but she shakes her head. "You're right-handed, aren't you?"
Bruce swallows, and fear ratchets up in him as he imagines what she might do. "Yes," he manages.
She takes his left hand instead. Slowly, she caresses each finger, drawing the lines of the bones, and then settles on his pinkie.
"I'm going to break your finger," she says, and then waits. Slowly, Bruce nods. The fear gets stronger inside of him, roils along his skin in goosebumps, shivers through his gut and breaks out in sweat on his neck. It's worse now that he knows what's coming, now that she's really going to do it.
Her fingers and thumbs line up against his pinkie. It's the same way you would brace your fingers to break a pencil in half, or to snap off part of a candy cane. Bruce knows the forces involved, how easy it is to dislocate that joint, and he's sure Natasha does too. Panic starts to crawl up his spine and his breathing gets out of control fast: before he knows what's happening he's hyperventilating, watching the place where her fingers touch his, waiting for the snap to come, and god he feels dizzy, his heart is pounding –
"Bruce," Natasha says softly. "I won't do it until you can slow down your breathing."
He tries, but it's gone, it's escaped him, and he yanks his hand back out of her grip. She relents and lets him go. "I can't," he gasps. "I'm afraid. I can't."
Natasha's hands are on his face, then, soft and cool, and when he looks forward into her eyes he feels the panic start to recede. She's breathing deeply, demonstrating for him, encouraging him to match her. He struggles for a breath, gets one, then another, then another.
"I'm afraid too," Natasha says simply, after a minute or two.
Natasha lays him down on the mat, and he lets her. She's gone for a moment, and when she comes back it's with a bottle of water.
"You're fine," she says slowly. "Breathe."
"Thanks," he replies, once he can. He sits up and takes slow sips of the water. He's trembling slightly, he notices. Adrenaline is one of the physical triggers for the other guy, along with pain and an increased heart rate.
Natasha folds herself into a cross-legged pose and watches him. "You ever read Frankenstein?" she asks. Bruce nods cautiously, not sure where she's going to go with this.
"I loved it," Natasha continues. "I still do. Started rereading it recently."
"What, like, for tips?"
"Maybe," she allows. "Anyway, a lot of people don't read the original book, so they don't know that it's really the monster who's the civilized one. The good one. That the monster finds his own ethics and his own path."
"You're talking about yourself now."
"Of course. Everyone always is." An interrogator's perspective.
"Frankenstein deserves what he gets," Bruce murmurs.
"Yes, he does," Natasha agrees.
"You think all the Hulk needs is a good liberal education and to be able to quote some Romantic poetry? A kindly old blind man to teach him to read?"
Natasha shrugs. "I think that the absence of self-knowledge is the root of uncontrolled violence." She meets his eyes again. "It may be that the best you'll ever be able to do is manage your condition, Bruce. And if that's the case, then that's knowledge that you need to take with you and keep close, because forgetting that is deadly."
Bruce nods slowly. "Frankenstein and the monster try to kill each other a lot in that book," he says.
"Well." Natasha spreads her hands. "Imagine how boring the book would be if they got along."
Bruce snorts a laugh, then sobers. "Natasha," he asks, slowly, forcing out the words, "would you really break my fingers for me? If I wanted you to. If I could handle it."
She doesn't even hesitate.
The one word has the absolute finality of a promise, an oath. Bruce takes comfort in that, in the reassurance that one day someone who's afraid of him will willingly break him into pieces to see what happens.
The next time Bruce wakes up naked in a crater, it's Steve, and not Natasha, who's sitting on a piece of broken earth and waiting for him to wake up.
"Hey, buddy," Steve says, when he notices that Bruce is sitting up. "Natasha said I could take this one."
"Hi." Bruce is nonplussed by the switch, but still a little knocked out from the change, so he doesn't think to object right away.
"You want some pants?"
Bruce nods, and almost immediately gets hit in the face with a pair of jeans.
Once he's decently clothed he doesn't have an excuse to avoid looking at Steve anymore. When he glances up, he finds that Steve is watching him, stony-faced, clearly waiting for something.
"I'm – uh." Bruce says. "I'm sorry I've been avoiding you lately, Steve," he says, which is true enough; Bruce has missed cooking with Steve.
"You're damn right you are," Steve replies, and Bruce is suddenly conscious that he's in the Captain America uniform, and even with the cowl pulled back to expose his messy, sweat-damp hair he's still draped in the flag and standing above him, while Bruce is half-dressed inside a dusty hole.
"Come down here, willya?" Bruce asks. Steve does, immediately, and Bruce takes a deep breath.
"I'm really sorry," he repeats, once Steve is within touching range, his friend again and not a legend. "And I'm sorry for hurting you, I should've apologized before – "
Steve holds up a hand. "No, don't. Bruce, I – listen." He falls silent for a moment. Bruce waits, fidgeting. "I'm not mad at you for hulking out, God knows you held out longer than anyone else could've in your situation. But cutting me out is, is cold." He grimaces, as if he's dissatisfied by the words he's using. "I just wish you'd talked to me."
"Yeah," Bruce sighs, rubs the back of his neck with his hand. "Yeah, it's a bad habit of mine. Retreat."
Steve cracks half a smile at that, and something tight in Bruce's chest, like a long-held breath, loosens at the sight.
"Retreat is a perfectly sound tactical option," he says, putting on his Captain America voice a little, like a joke. Bruce smiles at him, helpless. "The thing is, you have to let your allies know you're doing it so they can cover your back."
Bruce nods slowly. "That's fair. I just – I thought you'd be upset, and I couldn't – " Completely without warning, he finds that his voice is breaking, that he can't get it under control. He shuts up.
"You couldn't face me injured," Steve fills in.
"I'm better now," he points out.
"Yeah, well, I got used to doing it," Bruce tries to joke. Steve, because he's generous and kind, gives him a soft chuckle.
Unlike Bruce, Steve doesn't stay angry. For that, Bruce feels like he owes him more than he's given.
"I – didn't want to face it, that I'd hurt you," he says. "It's – I don't have a lot of friends, Steve, and I wanted you to – " he sighs, lost, not sure what he's trying to say. "I lost control in front of you," he finishes, finally.
"What you did at SHIELD headquarters . . . " Steve pauses, and Bruce braces himself for the blow. "What you did was amazing. I don't think anyone else could control the power you're sitting on the way you do, Bruce. We're lucky it was you. You get that? I'm – we're – lucky to, to have you."
Steve's hand comes up to rest on Bruce's shoulder, so gentle, so controlled. Bruce closes his eyes for a second against the feeling of the touch, both impersonal and completely intimate.
And then the hand is gone from his shoulder, and is smacking him on the back of the head instead. Bruce's eyes snap open.
"But you're a dumbass for not talking to me," Steve says, and Bruce laughs; it has a choked-off sound to it.
"Got it," Bruce agrees, and rubs the back of his head, which doesn't hurt at all. The smack was all sound and no force.
Steve clears his throat. His hands aren't touching Bruce at all anymore. "So, Natasha said you preferred some warning before people touched you."
"Uh, mostly just the painful kind of touch," Bruce says slowly. "And you already hit me, Steve."
"Yeah, but, uh, I wanted to – " Steve's gaze drops down to Bruce's mouth, and he clears his throat again. "Kiss you. If that's okay. It's fine if it's not." The last part is spoken so quickly that it takes Bruce a full three seconds to parse the words.
Once he does, he blinks slowly. "Sure?" he says, at last, because he can't think of any reason he would possibly say no, and because it frankly doesn't seem very likely that Captain America is going to kiss him in the middle of a crater on some abandoned industrial property while he's covered in brick dust and not even wearing a shirt.
When Steve bends down and puts his mouth on Bruce's, though, it feels real, as real as Natasha's fists against his body. Steve's mouth is soft, and wet, and a little dusty at the edges, probably because he's been sitting at the edge of a dirt hole waiting for Bruce to wake up for god knows how long.
It's gentle and over fast, with Steve's leather-clad fingertips coming up to ghost along the line of Bruce's shoulder as the kiss ends. Bruce cocks his head as Steve pulls back.
"You know, I don't have any bruises right now, you don't have to be quite so gentle."
"Oh, uh," Steve says, and adjusts his grip so that his hand covers Bruce's shoulder. He's so big, so powerful, but has all of it under rein; it makes Bruce want to shiver inside. "Do you – is it like with Natasha? Do you want me to be, uh, rough?"
Bruce almost laughs at the image of Steve trying to throw him around, probably while apologizing the whole time, but he holds himself back. He doesn't want Steve to think he's making fun of him, or doesn't appreciate the offer.
"No, no," he says. "I'm – that's not the same kind of thing, I don't think." At Steve's confused look, Bruce thinks of Tony and Pepper and Natasha, and adds, "Not for me, anyway."
"Okay," Steve says, and his eyes drop to Bruce's mouth again, like he's been coveting this, thinking about kissing him. Bruce can't imagine why. "Gonna kiss you again," he warns, all breathless, like a kid. Bruce leans upwards to meet him halfway.
"Don't have to keep warning me," he laughs, into Steve's mouth. "M'not gonna break."
Steve bends his head to press a soft kiss to the underside of Bruce's jaw, and Bruce tilts his head back to let him. "I know," Steve breathes. "I know that."
They share approximately six brief kisses in a dusty crater before meeting up with the other Avengers for quinjet pickup, so the ride home just feels weird and awkward, sitting across from Steve and thinking way too much about his mouth while trying not to look at him. Even though he knows it happened, it's hard to believe that Steve wanted to make out with him, and plus they'd stopped pretty abruptly when Natasha had signaled the quinjet's approach, so he didn't even know if it was something that was supposed to happen again.
But when everyone else has gone their separate ways and he and Steve are alone in the Tower common room, Steve leans down, cradles Bruce's cheek gently, and kisses him again.
Bruce lifts himself up on his toes to meet him, reveling in the sensation of Steve's mouth against his for as long as he can have it.
A long moment later Steve pulls back just enough to break the kiss, his lips almost brushing against Bruce's again as he speaks. "What do you want, Bruce?"
A long list of things he'd like to do to Steve unfurls in his mind: fuck him, suck him off, roll him over and rim the hell out of him, kiss him till their lips are sore, teach him to waterski, mess up his hair, feed him oranges, take him to Sao Paulo, convince him that he can do way better for romantic partners than Bruce Banner.
"I don't – I don't know," Bruce replies. Steve kisses him again, briefly, and his hands on Bruce's back are broad and warm, and his tongue presses soft and sure into Bruce's mouth.
"We can take it slow," he offers, after they pull apart again. Bruce tries not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Steve squeezes his hand and starts to turn away, and Bruce realizes that he's saying goodnight, going to bed alone. Bruce churns through mingled relief and disappointment at the idea, and before Steve can get away he tugs on his hand, pulls him back to Bruce's side.
"I want to say goodnight," he murmurs, and kisses Steve one more time, indulging in the luxury of his mouth, the roughness of his cheek, the smell of him, warm and sweet with sweat.
"Goodnight," Steve says, smiling, and then he does go, and Bruce figures it's a pretty good idea, anyway, to take some time to get used to the idea.
Steve spends the whole next week kissing him: in the elevator, in the kitchen, in the tv room after everyone else is asleep, and although he's a complete gentleman about it, keeping his hands firmly above the waist, there's a hunger in him, in his hard, seeking kisses, that Bruce wants desperately to satiate. He gets dizzy with it, Steve taking him by the hand and reeling him in, Steve lifting him easily, up against the wall of the elevator, to make up for the height difference, Steve making all kinds of soft melting noises against Bruce's kisses, against Bruce's mouth where he can swallow them down.
But Bruce is pretty sure that the majority of Steve's sexual experience amounts to grabbing willing people up and kissing them in semi-secluded places, since that's about all they do. When you come right down to it, his own experience isn't that much broader; his moments of sexual awakening were all similarly furtive, in dark science labs after hours, snatched in the moments when coffee and sugar could no longer hold them up. Even his relationship with Betty, for all that they were together for so long, was often about that same socially-awkward science nerd encounter, and they fucked in their lab, exhausted and smelly, way more often than they fucked in their bed.
Which is to say, Bruce isn't really sure how to proceed, or what the next step should be, especially since he and Steve are both what you might call unique cases, psychologically and physiologically. Outside intervention may be required.
"I think I need you to prepare me for sex," Bruce announces, walking into the gym where Natasha's waiting for him.
She wrinkles her nose comedically and pretends to misunderstand. "I'm not sure that falls within the boundaries of our relationship, Bruce. What kinds of preparations do you require, exactly?"
Bruce rolls his eyes and smiles, conceding the joke. "Uh, well, you know. I don't fuck."
"You don't fuck," she agrees. "But you'd like to." She cocks her head at him for a moment, then obviously decides to put him out of his misery. "What was that list? Someone's hair gets pulled, someone falls off the bed, someone gets kneed in the balls?"
He swallows, mouth dry. "Yeah."
"I can handle that," she agrees, and her gaze dips down below his waist and holds there briefly. He feels a thrill at that, something that he can't quite place, halfway between what he does with Natasha and what he wants to do with Steve.
He walks toward her.
"I've been thinking," she murmurs, "that I shouldn't warn you anymore. What do you think?"
He licks his lips, considering. "Yes," he says, after a moment. "I think that's good."
She nods. "From now on, I'm just going to hit you when I feel like it."
"But only in here," he adds quickly.
She smiles. "Agreed. Though I think our eventual goal should be that I get to leap at you out of dark corners in the Tower and tackle you to the floor."
He huffs out a laugh. "Okay."
Then she raises her hand slowly – telegraphing the movement for him, just this once – and grabs him by the hair. She's not gentle, hauling him around, forcing him down to his knees, and by the time she lets go he's aching with it. To his surprise she falls down on top of him, pinning his shoulders to the floor, her knees and elbows striking at his soft places in a stunningly convincing parody of clumsiness.
She grins down at him. "So, let's see: you be the sweet recluse scientist with the monster in his brain, and I'll be the over-eager super soldier, forgetting to be gentle with my lover in my newfound passion – "
Bruce laughs, then frowns.
"Hey, Steve wouldn't like you saying that." He frowns again, deeper. "And I never said it was Steve."
Natasha throws her head back and laughs, full-throated, then grapples him fast and rolls them over, over, over, until Bruce is motion-sick and has to clamp his eyes shut.
"We don't have a bed for you to fall off of," Natasha pants, a little out of breath from the exertion. "So this'll have to do."
"You're fine," Bruce manages, cracking one eye open as soon as they've come to a stop.
Natasha clambers over him, kneeling on his thigh, pulling his hair again, elbowing him in the solar plexus, until Bruce finally bats her away, pushing her up off of him and holding her at arm's length.
"You're the world's worst sex partner," he wheezes, half-laughing and half trying to find his breath.
"I'm the world's best undercover operative," she corrects, and proceeds to batter him around a little more, body to body, the heat and power of her pressed up against him from neck to knee. Despite the pain, he finds himself getting hard against her; her breasts are pressed to his chest and her legs are entwined with his and when she's not knocking the wind out of him or poking him in the eye she's gorgeous, deadly and hard and exactly what he needs.
Strangely, he doesn't feel embarrassed, or that he needs to apologize for it; Natasha has seen so much more of him than this that an erection feels like a footnote, a completely unremarkable event in an otherwise remarkable relationship. And she doesn't say anything, though she does shimmy against him once or twice in a way that makes him wonder if she's not having her own reaction to the proceedings.
"C'mon, Tasha, do it already," he gasps. "Now's as good a time as any."
"Yeah?" she grins down at him. "You want it?"
He laughs. "You know I do."
So she knees him in the balls, hard, and before he can even curl up around the hot overwhelming explosion of pain she does it again, even harder, and drives him almost out of his mind. She's still on top of him, breathing hot and fast against his neck, her warm body stretched out over him, and as he starts to recover she does it a third time, making him press his face against the mat and scream with the whole-body wave of pain and nausea that sweeps through him.
He holds up his hand so that she knows to stop, and when he's able to open his eyes again she's grinning down at him.
"Was that good for you?" she asks, because Natasha can really be a dick sometimes.
"Stellar," he croaks. "I came six times."
"Impressive." She looks him up and down. "Maybe we'll cut the rest of our session short for the day, hm?" She flows easily to her feet and gives him a hand up; he winces and stoops a little as he stands, still out of breath and throbbing in pain. "Since you're all ready for your date now."
He puts his face in his hands and laughs, wondering how long it'll be before he'll be able to get hard again. At the moment, he's estimating ten to twenty years. "Thanks," he says, scrubbing his hands down his face.
"No problem," Natasha says easily, and smacks him on the ass. "Go get 'im, tiger."
Bruce does find Steve later that day, but it's in the kitchen, frowning in concentration at the pages of a cookbook and painstakingly grinding something with a mortar and pestle. Bruce comes up behind him, being careful to make some noise, and takes Steve's hand.
Steve looks up at him, pleased, a faint pink on his cheeks, and Bruce lifts their linked hands to his mouth and kisses Steve's knuckles just to see the color spread a little.
"Hi," Steve says slowly. He's wearing an apron, strings neatly tied in a bow behind his back, a sight Bruce has seen before but will never get tired of seeing.
"Hey. Whatcha makin'?"
"Curry," Steve replies firmly. "I thought I'd feed you and Natasha, if you're both going to be around tonight."
"I'll be around," Bruce agrees. The idea of Steve cooking for him is odd, something he's never considered before. He finds that he likes it, though, that the thought of Steve bringing him food stirs something deep down inside. "You don't want any help? What kind of curry? Do you know what you're doing?"
"I'll be fine," Steve reassures him, and then goes back to frowning at the cookbook, which isn't all that reassuring.
Bruce holds his hand for a while, watching him work, until Steve brushes a kiss to his cheek and says he needs both his hands for cooking, and shoos Bruce out of the kitchen.
The curry turns out pretty good, a little less spicy than Bruce would like but aromatic and rich. Steve comes into the dining room with the food already plated, green sprigs of cilantro on top of the curry to set off the vibrant yellow of the sauce, some kind of coconut sweet potato side dish balancing the other colors on the plate.
"Nice presentation," Bruce says, and Steve tugs on Bruce's earlobe playfully before walking back into the kitchen for the rest. Unthinkingly, Bruce reaches up to touch his ear where Steve tugged it; when he looks up, though, he sees that Natasha's caught him at it and is smiling at him smugly.
"Shut up, he's just an affectionate guy," Bruce mutters, nettled. Actually, Steve has gotten really physical over the last few days, touching Bruce gently and easily; Bruce doesn't think it has so much to do with their . . . relationship, thing, as with Steve feeling like he has permission to touch. Bruce gets the sense that maybe men used to touch each other more, or everyone touched each other more, or Steve just had touchy-feely soldier friends, and that Steve's had some trouble adjusting.
Indeed, when he comes back with wine and water, Steve drops one hand to Natasha's shoulder, cupping it gently as he pours for her. Bruce watches Natasha's expression gentle at the touch, and returns her smug smile back to her.
"You are going to eat with us, though, right, Steve?" Natasha asks. "You're not going to sit in the kitchen and gnaw on dry bread or anything."
"Of course I'm going to eat with you," Steve says, sitting down. He lifts his wine glass, and for a second he looks awkward, like he's not sure what to say. Bruce can't imagine what toast you could make to encompass the three of them together. "Cheers," he says, eventually, and Bruce and Natasha repeat the word and clink glasses with him.
It's better than most Avengers mealtimes in that no one has to go to the hospital, no one is asked if they need to go to the hospital, and the call to assemble against evil villainy doesn't come until they're all almost done eating anyway.
"Guess dessert will have to wait," Steve grimaces, once he gets off the phone with Hill. "It's AIM again. Some kind of giant slime monster in Yonkers."
Bruce rolls his eyes. Those guys love slime.
"Well, that's appetizing," Natasha sighs, as she puts down her fork. "I'll go get my stuff."
"You coming, Bruce?" Steve asks, tossing back the rest of his water.
"Anything with 'giant' and 'monster' in the description is usually a good mission for me, so, yeah." He grimaces. "Though the Hulk doesn't like slime."
"The Hulk will get over it," Steve says. "C'mon."
It doesn't take long, with Natasha piloting the jet, for them to get to Yonkers, which is definitely being menaced by a giant slime monster, if not very successfully. Bruce is kind of embarrassed for the AIM guys sometimes. Steve slips his arm through the straps on his shield, Natasha holsters a few different SHIELD-tech weapons that she's hopeful will work, and Bruce unties his shoes.
"Hold my shirt, Cap," Bruce says, handing it to him, and as Steve takes it his gaze drops down to Bruce's hairy chest, his arms, the dip of his belly. Bruce feels a hot flush creep up his neck.
"Too bad we have to go fight a slime monster," Steve says softly, smiling and arching an eyebrow.
"Not exactly the way you wanted to see me naked, huh?" Bruce jokes, a little embarrassed, a little turned on. He undoes his pants while holding Steve's gaze and skins them off quickly, till he's down to the new stretchy shorts Tony made him. They have ridiculous green racing stripes down the sides, but Bruce figures you can't have everything in life.
Steve huffs out a laugh. "Let's just hope that next time you take off your clothes for me, it's not a city-wide disaster."
"Amen," Bruce mutters.
They walk down out of the jet and into the path of the monster. Natasha pulls out some big complicated weapon with blue electricity arcing across its front end. "All right, doc, let's go," Natasha murmurs, and Bruce nods, reaching out and squeezing her hand once. She squeezes back.
He takes a step away from the two of them, just enough distance that he won't hurt them when he transforms. Steve and Natasha both watch him carefully as he takes a breath, finds the rising tide of anger and violence within him, and gives in to it, rippling into his other form.
Neither of them turn away.
When he and Steve do eventually have sex, it turns out not to be a disaster at all; just easy kisses, warm bodies, a relaxed, unanxious fucking that drives them wild and slows them both right down, until every touch makes them arch together, groan together, cry out in slow motion as waves of pleasure roll between them.
They fuck on their sides for a long time, Bruce pressed against Steve's back, slow shifts of their hips and slow caresses of their hands on one another's bodies, soft and gentle. After a while Steve reaches his arm back to caress the side of Bruce's face, then turns his head to look at him. Bruce leans up as far as he can and manages to kiss Steve's neck, softly, just below his ear. Then, shuddering, Steve comes between one breath and the next, his cry like the one Bruce already knows, the one he makes in pain.
Bruce presses his forehead to the soft space between Steve's shoulder blades and takes a long breath. "You want me to stop?" he asks, but as he speaks Steve's hand drifts down Bruce's body to find his hip. Steve's fingertips grip him hard, urging him forward.
"No, come on, I want to feel it," Steve pants. His body is slick with sweat and semen, his hair sticking to his forehead, and Bruce wants nothing more than to fuck him forever, to stay in this moment as long as he can.
"Let go, c'mon," Steve says, voice almost a whisper. "Give up."
That snaps Bruce to attention in a second; without thinking about it he pulls back and then shoves forward again, fast, fucking Steve hard. Steve arches his neck and emits a low groan, and Bruce does it again, speeding up, fucking him fast, trying not to worry about bruising Steve's hips with his fingers or accidentally turning into a monster in the middle of it.
"Yeah," Steve breathes, "yeah, Bruce, that's it. That's beautiful, just like that, God." Steve keeps up the low encouragement, his voice rough and broken; then he shoves himself backward to meet Bruce's thrusts and Bruce is gone, surprised by his orgasm, whiting out and losing himself completely for a few precious seconds.
Once he's back Steve shimmies forward, letting Bruce slip out of him, and turns around to face him.
"You liked that?" he asks. Bruce, still panting, lets his head drop to rest on Steve's shoulder. "I'll take that as a maybe," Steve grins.
When Bruce has his breath back he tilts his face up again, finds Steve's mouth, kisses him slow and sweet for a while. Steve's mouth is gorgeous, full and soft, and Bruce gets distracted kissing him, overwhelmed by the simple sensation.
None of this was in Natasha's practice session. He'll have to tell her how unprepared he was; he knows she'll laugh.
Steve's hands come up to rub along his shoulders, trace up and down his neck, follow the lines of his muscles down to his wrists and back. Doing so, he skates over bruises, mostly new ones since it hasn't been too long since Bruce hulked out, and Bruce finds himself gasping at the sensation.
"She works you over," Steve says, and it sounds half-appreciative and half . . . something else.
"I need her to," he answers, feeling defensive. Steve nods.
"I don't think I could," Steve says, all in a rush. "I know I offered, but I don't think – "
Bruce smiles, puts his hand over Steve's mouth. Steve gives him an unimpressed eyebrow.
"It's fine," Bruce says. "I wouldn't want you to, anyway. This is something else. We'll make it our own."
Steve licks his palm, and Bruce pulls his hand away, laughing and wiping the spit on Steve's bare arm.
Steve sighs. "Good." He kisses Bruce again, all soft lips and wet tongue and gentle exploration, as if Bruce is something precious to be gently understood.
"Mmmm," Steve says, when the kiss ends. He stretches his arms up and his legs out, briefly too long for Bruce's bed. Bruce manfully resists the urge to tickle his ribs.
"You seeing Natasha later? Mondays and Thursdays are usually your days, barring a crisis."
"You know the schedule?" Bruce asks, a little alarmed.
"Hey, it's okay," Steve says quickly. "It's only – I only know because of how you are on Tuesdays and Fridays." He smiles tentatively while Bruce gives him a puzzled look.
"What?" he asks.
"You know, Tuesdays and Fridays. You're always singing in the kitchen at breakfast, dancing around. It's adorable." Steve pokes him in the belly. "Seriously, you realized that, right?"
Bruce is at a loss. "I – I didn't, actually," he says.
Steve raises his eyebrows in surprise. "Well, it's true. When you and Natasha have had your time together it makes you . . . looser. Easier in your body." He bends and kisses Bruce's shoulder, scrapes his teeth tentatively along one of the bruises. "Perhaps easier for unscrupulous super soldiers to take advantage of you."
Bruce buries his face in Steve's chest and laughs for a while. Steve pets his hair while he gets it out of his system.
"So," he asks, when Bruce is done. "Are you seeing Natasha tonight?"
"Yeah," Bruce answers. "I am."
Steve snuggles in next to him, pressing another kiss to his shoulder. "Good," he says, sleepily. "I'll make you dinner for afterwards. You'll be tired out."
When Bruce walks into the gym that evening, Natasha doesn't warn him, just appears out of the shadows and backhands him, hard, against the cheek.
He reels away from her, moved by the bright burst of pain as much as by the force of the blow, and as he reacts she steps forward, takes advantage of the time he's given her: she punches him, in the solar plexus this time, perhaps not as hard as she could but hard enough to bend him double and leave him gasping, almost panicking.
He looks up at her and lets himself panic, lets himself gasp. As soon as he can move again, he does the first thing that comes to his mind, running at her, angry and panting, trying to tackle her. She sidesteps his charge neatly.
"You can't take me," she says, kicking him in the ass as he goes by, not very hard, so that it enrages him rather than hurting him. He turns again, panting, but before he can get his guard up she's moving, too fast for him to track, and she's on him, punching him hard in the torso, twisting his arm up behind him and forcing him to his knees. The pain is excruciating; he can feel the bones in his arm on the verge of snapping, and he wonders for a wild moment if Natasha will do it, waits to hear the sharp crack of his ulna breaking or his elbow dislocating.
But then suddenly she shoves him away, sending him sprawling face first onto the mat. While he tries to get his bearings she prowls around him, all easy confident power, her bare feet making no noise.
"Come at me," she says, diffidently. Her voice is even, and she's not out of breath; beating him like this doesn't even make her break a sweat.
He tries, lunging for her, trying to close and grapple, but even with his weight against her he can't make her fall. Instead he finds himself rebuffed by an open-handed strike to his shoulder, a solid punch to his side, and then, while he's still caught in the cascades of pain from those blows, another sharp hot slap across the face, just to rub it in.
He cries out at the force of it. His whole body is throbbing, the pain everywhere inside him like his blood, running in his veins like life. For the briefest moment he closes his eyes on that sensation, letting it roar through him with the beat of his heart.
When he opens his eyes again Natasha is grinning, and he grins back, letting his teeth show. He gets to his feet and takes a swing at her, aims a kick, then again faster and faster until she stops simply blocking and gives him what he wants, what he needs. He sees her coming, tries desperately to dodge, but Natasha laughs at the attempt and puts him on the ground.
He doesn't remember falling, just blinks and is looking up at the ceiling, pinned by Natasha's weight on top of him. She's got her solid muscular forearm across his throat and is bearing down gradually. Controlled. Always controlled. Bruce wants to move and can't, wants to breathe and can only get thin sips of air, can't seem to throw her off even though he outweighs her. She digs the fingers of her free hand into a spot a couple inches above his armpit, what must be a pressure point because the sensation – pain and numbness and trembling weakness – spreads outward like a cacophony of white noise through his body. He would scream if he could breathe, but he can't, he can't; his legs kick ineffectually and his whole body shudders up against her. For a long moment, he gives in to it, lost in the helplessness, unable to think, his mind slipping from him.
And then he taps his index finger against her arm three times, surrendering.
I can say that I've lived here
In honor and danger
But I'm just an animal
And cannot explain a life
Down this chain of days I wish to stay among my people
Relation now means nothing
Having chosen, so defined
And if death should smell my breathing
As it pass beneath my window
Let it lead me trembling, trembling
I own every bell that tolls me
-Neko Case, "At Last"