“Romanov,” Natasha corrected automatically. “I don’t use traditional Russian nomenclature. And it’s Ms, not Miss. But thank you for your attention to detail, Mr. Rawhide. What can I do for you?”
The tall man had whipped his cowboy hat off as he entered the lounge area, a somewhat showy action which Natasha would have found annoyingly pretentious in most people. She supposed she should have despised his old-fashioned attitude, but she found in it no hint of flattery or condescension. Rawhide radiated an aura that she could only think of as guileless. That alone told her he came from somewhere far, far from her own world.
“We need some help with the oscillation overthruster.”
“Sorry, ma’am; I think you folks refer to it as the interdimensional accelerator.”
The words were out of her mouth before she could rein in her normal sarcasm out of respect for their strange visitors. “Perhaps you’ve mistaken me for Stark? I don’t do dimensions.”
He shook his head, and smiled just a bit. “With all due respect, ma’am, I think Buckaroo and Mr. Stark parted ways on this problem an hour or so ago, and my knowledge of quantum physics is only a shade past rudimentary at best. That’s why I’m actually looking for Dr. Banner. Mr. Stark seemed to think he could find a way out of our difficulties.”
Bruce could do that. He may even be able to keep Tony from aggravating Rawhide’s senpai to the point of actually swearing she thought. “Ah. My apologies for the sarcasm. Dr. Banner’s in Lab 3A.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Could you direct me to that particular laboratory?”
Natasha did, but refrained from taking Rawhide there herself. Right now she wanted to avoid Bruce, and any embarrassment she might cause him.
Fifteen minutes later, Bruce and Rawhide rendered that impossible, when they walked back through the lounge area.
“I’ll let Buckaroo and Mr. Stark know you’re coming, Dr. Banner,” Rawhide said, nodding again to Natasha.
“Bruce. Just call me Bruce. And I’ll be right in. Just got to … get a coffee. Right in after that. Just … need the coffee.”
Rawhide’s glance took in the obviously flustered scientist and the — she hoped — much less flustered former Russian assassin. “Sure thing. Dr. — Bruce … Ms Natasha.”
After he loped down another hallway to where Banzai was presumably being much more polite than Tony Stark, Bruce went over to the pot of coffee slowly cooking in the lounge kitchenette, and poured some of the thick dregs into his cup.
“OK if I sit here for a minute?”
“Of course, Dr. Banner.”
She grinned at him, but he looked hurt, and Natasha couldn’t bear to see those brown eyes look at her that way. “Joke, Bruce. It’s hard not to copy our interdimensional visitors. They’re both so—”
“ — Weird? Not quite human as we view humans? Like, I don’t know, more polite?” Now he was smiling. He was willing to accept the joke, then, and even lob one back at her. She liked that; she snorted at herself for liking it, and Bruce gave her one of his patented librarian-looking-over-his-glasses look, while his smile broadened.
“Let’s just go with weird for now,” she said, as something inside her relaxed. “Is the coffee drinkable?”
He looked at his cup. “No. Not in a million years.”
“I’ll make more.”
“Nah, don’t bother. I’ve got to go to the lab and nurse Tony through the manpain of being the second smartest guy in the room.” He looked down the hall, from which Rawhide (what on Earth was his real name, Natasha wondered fleetingly) had already disappeared. “Or possibly the third.”
Natasha raised one eyebrow.
Bruce got up and walked back to the kitchenette, putting his cup down with a grimace of distaste. “Rawhide. The man may look, walk, and sound like an extra from The Searchers, but after talking to him last night, I can tell you he’s got an absolutely brilliant mind. Astrophysics, higher mathematics, cosmology, philosophy, a couple of other fields — although he insists someone called, and I kid you not, ‘Perfect Tommy,’ who he says is a ‘deucedly smart man,’ has a better head for math. I’d love to spend more time with him, but he insists I need to work with Dr. Banzai.”
“Buckaroo Banzai.” Natasha said, keeping her voice absolutely neutral.
“Yeah. Buckaroo.” Bruce matched her tone before tipping an imaginary hat at her. “Oh well. Can’t put it off any longer. Guess I’ll mosey on down to the lab now, Miss Natasha.”
“You are an ass, you know that?”
“Well then, mosey. Or there’ll be the deuce to pay.”
Once he left, deliberately doing what was obviously meant to be a mosey, Natasha contemplated heading back to her quarters. She had at least one report to complete, she owed a call to May, and she was in the middle of a particularly amusing history of the Soviet Union.
After a further moment’s consideration, she returned to the couch, lying down and throwing her legs over one arm. She waited.
Fifteen minutes later, she was rewarded.
“I swear, if I have to spend another minute — one more second, one more nano second — with that man, I’ll send him home through solid matter my way.”
Tony stalked into the lounge, headed for the coffee pot, tried to pour something from it into the mug he had clenched in one hand, then hissed in frustration when he realized the pot was empty. He was, Natasha noted, wearing a tee-shirt declaring “I’m With Stupid.”
“Hi there, Tony. Day going well?”
He turned and glared at her. “You’re an asshole, you know that?”
“Absolutely. Let me guess. Dr. B. Banzai, of the Banzai Institute, from a galaxy — excuse me, a dimension — far, far away.”
Tony groaned. “Between him and your sweetie —”
“Bruce is not my —”
“I repeat, your sweetie, and the Marlborough Man —”
“I don’t believe Rawhide smokes.”
“Oh, for fuck sake —”
“Language,” she said primly.
“Oh now, don’t you fucking start.” He actually growled like a dog, and Natasha lost it completely.
Tony looked at her for a long time, then up at the ceiling, before speaking again. “If you’re quite done kicking your feet in the air like some sort of spandex clad infant … here, budge over; the couch is big enough for two.”
He’d discarded the coffee cup while she was laughing herself almost sick, replacing it with a surprisingly short shot of Suntory Hibiki on the rocks, but he didn’t even sniff at it. Instead, he turned to her.
“I’m … what did I tell Cap? A billionaire philanthropist playboy genius?” Only Tony could look like he was asking the beadle for more porridge after that comment.
“Something like that.”
“Then why do I feel like a kindergartner with a bad attitude when I’m trying to talk to a man whose first name comes straight out of goddamned Romper Room?”
Natasha pulled herself completely upright, and gave it some serious thought. “Because you are a kindergartner with a bad attitude.”
Tony growled again, and Natasha finally took pity on him. “Look, Tony. You’re brilliant. Your brain has saved the Earth I don’t know how many times. You’ve got amazing people skills when you choose to employ them. In a firefight, you’re a great on-the-ground leader … especially when you let Cap take the strategic lead, and the two of you aren’t at loggerheads.
Then she grinned. “Plus, you’re fucking Iron Man, and he isn’t.”
Tony’s responding grin was very sharklike. “I am, aren’t I? Do continue.”
Natasha continued. “So relax. Enjoy the fact that someone besides Bruce can hold their own with you in a scientific discussion. Dare I say learn from him? Kick your people skills into high gear — by which I mean, learn to shut up and listen.”
She tilted her head in thought and then said, apologetically, “And — and I acknowledge that this shouldn’t be a thing, but it is, so pay attention and do what I say — keep it clean. This guy … these guys … come from a different culture, which is, in some ways and for our purposes, actually more important than coming from a different dimension.”
“Keep talking,” he said, and she saw he was, finally, truly listening.
“Think about it. Their America isn’t ours. Their world isn’t ours. As far as I can tell, they actually think like movies pretended Americans did in the 1940s.”
“What would you know about American movies in the … no, forget I said that. Of course you would.”
She resisted the urge to turn his growl back on him. “So, consider this. It’s easier for us to approach them on their level than to ask them to be at ease with what they find here. They could do it, but why? You’re all trying to find a way to get them back home, right?”
Tony nodded, finally taking a sip of his whisky.
“They’re going to be here, with any luck, only another day or so, and then it’s goodbye for good,” Natasha said. Unless you’re truly unwise and decide you want to do some interdimensional exploring. She kept the thought to herself and plowed on. “It’s logical and easier for us to dial back our language than it is for them to relax when they hear us swearing. That’s just a tiny part of the puzzle, but it’s an important one.”
“You ever think of making a living as a life coach?” Tony asked, putting his largely undrunk drink down. The question wasn’t quite facetious.
“I’ve impersonated one on a number of occasions. Now, go back there and solve the problem.” She adopted Bruce’s librarian look. “You don’t want Dr. Banner deciding he likes Dr. Banzai better than you, do you?”
“Oh God, no. Or, depending on my audience, oh heavens no.” Tony sprang from the couch as if reenergized. “But first I’ve got to get some notes I jotted down last night before Pepper got home. Forgot them this morning. Won’t take a minute and then it’s back to being a good boy in the lab.”
“Bruce will approve,” she called after him, as the elevator doors closed.
Moments after Tony disappeared, Natasha was too well-trained a spy, and too prepared for hearing it, to start when a quiet voice behind her asked, “May I come in?”
“Of course,” she said. She waited until Banzai came around the couch and settled in a nearby chair before saying, “How long have you been listening?”
Banzai’s raised eyebrow rivaled her own for eloquence.
She shrugged. “I felt someone watching us. I just didn’t know whether it was Bruce — Dr. Banner — or one of our visitors.”
Banzai made his odd little bow graceful, despite doing it from a seated position. “I apologize for my rudeness. I was silent because I was reconnoitering.”
“That’s perfectly understandable,” Natasha replied. “I only hope that doesn’t mean you consider us hostile. We aren’t your enemies.”
“Mr. Stark has made it difficult for me to consider you our friends,” Banzai said, his eyes measuring.
“Mr. Stark is rightfully proud of his mind. He is, unfortunately, often a little bit thin-skinned around people whose minds rival his,” she said carefully. “But he can be made to listen to reason.”
Banzai actually laughed, very softly. “I imagine that’s much more easily done by a beautiful woman than by someone such as myself.” When he saw Natasha’s reaction, he raised those eyebrows of his again. “There’s no shame in being beautiful, is there? It’s quite obvious. So is your intelligence.”
That the man could say something like that and make it clear that he wasn’t attempting flattery or patronizing flimflammery impressed Natasha. “Oh, Bruce has been able to do it now and then, and he’s most definitely not a beautiful woman.”
“No he isn’t, is he?” Banzai said thoughtfully. “He’s an excellent physicist, and his acumen in other fields is also noteworthy. I believe he and I will be able to work on rebuilding our overthruster, and, I dare say, improving on it.”
Natasha stood up. “I’m making a fresh pot of coffee. Would you care for some?”
He shook his head. “I find that I’m not at my best with stimulants. They scatter my focus. Rawhide might appreciate some, though. We have some tough work ahead of us.”
“Well, I’m glad to oblige him. Caffeine is the one stimulant I allow myself. And Tony runs on it,” she said. She paid attention to the coffee grinder, not wanting to get the grind too fine. “Perhaps after the four of you solve your challenges in the lab, and before you and Mr. Rawhide head off to the Eighth Dimension and home, we can enjoy a meal together.”
Banzai smiled. “It’s a distinct possibility.” Then he sobered. “But the problems we have to solve before then are considerable. We either traverse the Eighth Dimension without attracting Red Lectroid attention, which may be impossible, and a route I devoutly wish to avoid, or we find another interdimensional path, one that doesn’t require a journey through solid consciousness. It’s a deucedly evil conundrum.”
She couldn’t help it; she smiled at his comment. He looked slightly disappointed at her reaction, and she schooled her face to stillness and set the coffee maker up, enjoying the dark smell of the grounds as the water started to drip through them. You don’t know me, Banzai. I am not bothered by your disappointment. You’re not of my world. She waited for the coffee maker to deliver enough liquid to pour into her mug.
Banzai got up and walked to the windows that looked out over New York. After a moment of silence, the man spoke. “You told Mr. Stark that we come from a culture that is distinctly different from yours. It’s been roughly 36 hours since our arrival, which isn’t much to build an assessment on, but I think I agree. I hope you’ll pardon me for saying that I’m not sure I would like staying here very long.”
“You wouldn’t,” Natasha agreed, coming back to the couch, mug in hand. “You’d do just fine here, but you wouldn’t like it. Then again, I believe that I would be equally … uncomfortable … in your world.”
He turned around, and there was that smile again. “I think you might find a home at the Banzai Institute. We do have more than our fair share of adventuring. At the very least I could guarantee that you wouldn’t be bored.”
Natasha grinned. “But I’m not a very good musician, unless the Cavaliers need someone who can manage a decent second violin. I doubt you do much symphonic music. What was it that you called the popular music in your world — syncopated? That sounds like what we call rock and roll here.”
“I’d like to listen to some of that,” Banzai said, his curiosity apparent.
“Just ask Tony to fire up Friday’s Spotify list.” When he looked baffled, she added. “It’s an internet music streaming service … music that comes over the internet. Tony’s computerized assistant is Friday, and she handles music lists for him.”
Then she stopped. “You talk about a fair share of adventuring. Was that what you and Rawhide were doing when you set off from the Texas flats in your Jet Car?”
He looked rueful. “I’m ashamed to say that we were looking for adventure, despite Dr. Hikita’s warning. I told him this was a scientific venture, but in truth, I was restless, and was looking to explore. I was convinced that my latest efforts had rendered the overthruster capable of distance traveling that avoided the Eighth Dimension.
He sighed. “Instead, it not only sent us through that monstrous place, but several dimensions away from our own — hence our battered appearance, after fending off Red Lectroids not once, but twice.”
Well, that was unexpected, Natasha thought. “Several dimensions?”
He nodded, and returned to his seat, obviously eager to explain. She detected the storyteller’s joy in him. “Yes. We’d definitely improved the range of the overthruster; we forgot to fine-tune its accuracy. The first trip through the Eighth Dimension sent us somewhere that we initially thought was our own, until we discovered that the Banzai Institute didn’t exist there, and was, indeed, simply the subject of an obscure cult movie that killed off its Rawhide character.” He appeared vaguely discomfited as he said it. “We stayed there only long enough to try to repair some noticeably damaged overthruster parts, and took off again, always keeping in mind that no matter where we went, there we’d be.”
Natasha blinked at that, but said nothing, and Banzai continued.
“Our repairs, such as they were, simply routed us to another dimension, and into what we know as the city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In that dimension, however, European depredations against the African continent never took place. We had reached the Amharic empire, or what they called Āgerachini.
“How did they react to you?” Natasha was interested despite herself.
“We were so obviously not of their world, since Europeans are still very much pre-Industrial Age in that dimension, that they believed us fairly quickly. Their physicists, mathematicians, systems theorists and others put their heads together and recommended some additions to the overthruster. Those additions worked, as far as they went. They made our third trip through the Eighth Dimension blessedly brief, for example, and we were able to route our way back to North America.
“But we landed in your North America,” Banzai said. He looked momentarily melancholic, then brightened. “If we had to land somewhere that isn’t home, I can’t think of a better dimension. We are able to avail ourselves of the garden of genius that is the Avengers’ brain trust.”
Natasha winced. “Where you’ve had to put up with Tony Stark and his snowflake ego.”
Banzai shrugged. “Mr. Stark did make rather light of what we told him about the Eighth Dimension, but I believe that Rawhide and I have finally impressed upon both him and Dr. Banner the truth of the matter. Your … what did you call him, Iron Man? is … difficult, yes, but he ultimately adheres to the scientific principal, as Dr. Banner most certainly does.
“The research we brought with us from Āgerachini, the readings the two of them got from us and the Eighth Dimensional matter coating sections of the Jet Car, all helped.”
Abruptly he stood up. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, Ms Romanov, the lab is calling me.”
As he said that, the elevator doors opened, and Tony bounced out. “Let’s not keep the lab, or Bruce, waiting, then. Banzai — I’d love to call you Buckaroo, but I’d snicker, and that’d be really rude of me — I apologize for being a, a …” he trailed off.
“An entitled ass?” Banzai’s snicker was almost Stark-like. It clearly gratified a slightly surprised Tony, who was even more happy when Banzai continued. “Let me apologize in turn for anything I’ve done that might seem patronizing or stilted. We are from very different worlds, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together as a team. Let’s learn from each other, and get Rawhide and me home. I’m frankly longing for a familiar futon.”
Tony nodded, delighted. “Yeah, let’s do.”
He waved a sheaf of papers, not quite in Banzai’s face, and said, “I dashed off some of these at three in the morning, after a shot or four of booze. I’d appreciate someone with a clearer mind than mine looking them over. If they’re useful, perhaps we can —”
“— Perhaps we can, you know, not leave Rawhide and me in the lab twiddling our thumbs.” Bruce was wearing the librarian look again. Rawhide, standing behind him, nodded agreement.
Tony threw his arm across Banzai’s shoulder. “Shall we go and make interdimensional scientific history, then?”
Banzai responded in kind, saying, “I believe we’ll do just that.”
After all four men had disappeared from sight, Natasha took a last gulp of coffee, made sure to turn the coffee maker off so the coffee wouldn’t cook, then headed to her own quarters to pick up the book on USSR history.
She knew she shouldn’t be so self-satisfied, but she couldn’t help how pleased she was with how everything had turned out. She decided to be on hand to say goodbye to their guests when Tony and Bruce were able to see them off into the interdimensional ether.
*** *** ***
Elsewhere in the multiverse, a pair of Adders from Planet 10 in Buckaroo Banzai’s far-off dimension turned away from their multidimensional-viewing equipment, set up at least in part to keep an eye on Banzai himself, and looked at each other in relieved satisfaction of their own. The brilliantly quirky human genius had made it back to his home; other dimensions had not been damaged in his journey. Perhaps most importantly, he had not lured Tony Stark into interdimensional exploration, which would have been disastrous in several different ways.
All was well. The Adders nodded to each other, before giving the traditional benediction of their kind.
“So what … big deal ….”