Natasha made the call when she got tired of running.
It was nice for a while, in all honesty, to fade into the background, change her hair periodically, and figure out her options for a few months.
The furor eventually died down, too. The U.S. media could only spend so much time recycling the same information about secret agents with shady pasts, and eventually there were just too many supposed, and debunked, "sightings" of her, and other, former SHIELD agents to be taken seriously. Other scandals awaited. The international intelligence community had to be exploding, too, every other government trying to simultaneously take advantage of the situation and frantically figure out whether HYDRA had infiltrated them as well.
But for the first time, Natasha made like a real tourist instead of pretending to be one. She didn't get in touch with any of her contacts, didn't ask for any favors. She deserved a vacation, after all that shit, and she had a collection of personal safe houses and fake identities that allowed her to do just that.
(There had always been a backup plan.)
And vacation she did--she ate tiramisu overlooking the Giudecca Canal, sipped barack pálinka in a tulip glass in Kecskemét, and visited the Marrakech Bienniale in Morocco. No handler, no mission objectives; Natasha couldn't remember another time in her life when that had been the case so completely.
As for figuring out her options, well--there weren't so many of those.
Before she left, the last time she had seen Nick, he had pressed a string of numbers into her hand. "Call it when you're ready," he'd said softly. Maybe he'd known she needed some time. "They'll take you in."
Dutifully she'd memorized the phone number, which she suspected led to whatever plan Nick had for resurrecting SHIELD in some form or another, and destroyed the paper.
That was one option. Natasha kept it in reserve.
Her other option, as far as she could see ...
The Avengers Initiative hadn't developed much further since the battle of New York. Everyone had disbanded after a couple of days of crashing at Stark's tower post-adrenaline high. She thought it was inevitable, to Tony's disappointment: since it wasn't like every threat needed to be addressed by the whole group, they had departed with some mumbled, awkward comments about keeping in touch, their only promise of a future. Each of them had their own business to take care of, and at the time Natasha herself had had a job.
Since the events in D.C., she had only gotten in touch with Clint once, called him from a burner phone bought for just that purpose.
He was safe, she learned with relief. He had been in Beirut at the time, and returned to the States under intense scrutiny and panicked media fanfare, which she'd been aware of even from Greece. They'd barely let him back in, he'd said with a snort, and only then so that they could keep an eye on him. But once it had come out that one of the Avengers was being held indefinitely by his own government, well--Tony Stark's lawyers had descended, the suit made a public appearance, and that was the end of that. She found herself smiling at the story.
"Stark's letting me stay with him for a while," he'd said toward the end. "A lot of people want my head, as you might guess, and the security here is insane. You know ..." He hesitated, and Natasha knew what he was going to say and steeled herself for it. "When you come back, he might let you stay too."
"Me? Live with Stark?"
She'd heard Clint snort. "Yeah, okay, it would be weird. But it would be safe."
"Safe," she'd echoed.
"Safer," he self-corrected immediately. "There's gotta be plenty of people after you, too, Nat."
That she would think about it was the only promise she'd made.
She was still thinking about it when she showed up on Stark’s doorstep five weeks later.
"I'm here to see Clint Barton," she said into the intercom. "This is Natasha Romanoff."
"Of course, Miss Romanoff," said Tony's electronic butler. "However, Mr. Barton is not here at the moment. Would you like to come back, or wait for him upstairs? I would be happy to call Mr. Barton on your behalf, but it may be some time before he returns."
Natasha was silent for a few moments. "I'll wait," she said finally. "Let me just get my bag from the cab."
"Of course, Miss Romanoff."
Upstairs, she was directed to a plush, well-appointed lounge stocked with a substantial liquor shelf (more like a liquor wall, she thought with a total lack of surprise), a kitchenette, several armchairs, and plenty of reading material. JARVIS offered her an assortment of beverages, which she declined in favor of pouring herself a glass of water.
"JARVIS, is Pepper or Tony here?" Silly, but she couldn't help the automatic instinct to look up every time she spoke or listened to the AI program.
"They are out for the evening, I'm afraid. Do you have an urgent matter to discuss with them?"
"No, nothing like that." Natasha wasn't even sure if Pepper would would want to see her; they had been friendly before, but Natasha guessed that the all-too-public revelations about her past and professional life might chill the relationship.
"Mr. Barton did not answer, but I've left him a message for you. Would you like some company in the meantime?"
"Thank you. Who else is here?" The only person that came to mind was Colonel Rhodes, but she couldn't think of what he would be doing here by himself.
"I believe you know Dr. Bruce Banner?"
Clint hadn't mentioned anything about Bruce being here. Natasha's heart picked up pace. Whether she was more nervous about seeing Bruce or the Hulk again, she wasn't quite sure. "We've met," she said. That was a wholly inadequate description of their encounters, but it would have to do.
"If you would like, I can let him know you are here."
She considered it. She had a book to read if Clint didn't show soon, but--she was going to see him anyway, wasn't she? "That would be fine, JARVIS, thank you."
She hadn't seen Bruce since the Battle of New York. When they had met, she had been impressed by his control, his reserve and carefulness. And then surprised by dry, and sometimes sardonic, sense of humor. In another set of circumstances, she'd thought--but that was awhile ago. He'd been working on the controlled transformation; she wondered if he would be much different now.
It was another thirty minutes before he showed up, though, running his hand through his damp hair, which was starting to curl again. He was wearing jeans and a rumpled purple button-down. Fresh from the shower, she thought with a flicker of amusement.
"Dr. Banner," she greeted, taking a sip of water and watching him.
"Miss Romanoff," he returned, grabbing a nearby bowl of mixed nuts and seating himself in the armchair next to her, and told her--with apparent sincerity--"It's nice to see you again. JARVIS told me you might want some company?"
Natasha marked her place in her book--Wanderlust: A History of Walking--with a finger. "He wasn't wrong."
Bruce hmmed. "So," he said, and Natasha knew he was watching her as closely as the other way around, "how are you?"
She wasn't sure exactly what he was looking for, but that was a bland question that deserved a bland answer. "I'm well. I hope I'm not taking you away from anything," she added politely.
He waved a hand, then fished out a honey-roasted peanut and popped it in his mouth. Sweet tooth: Natasha filed that bit of information away. "Reading, mostly. Trying to catch up with current research."
Natasha preferred walnuts, but couldn't find any in the bowl that weren't candied. "Going back into gamma radiation, doc?"
He took his time answering, chewing slowly and considering. He looked well, Natasha thought suddenly, and was glad for him. Being on the run and hiding out hadn't done him any good. He seemed--settled. Rested. It was a good look on him.
"Not likely," he said finally, "although if something came up . . . Tony's gone insane about clean energy, though, it's the company's top priority."
"Not your field?"
Bruce grimaced. "It might be, before long. I'm not excited about feeling like a grad student all over again, though." Setting the bowl down, he leaned against the armrest and regarded her seriously, chin in hand. "What are you doing here, though?" he asked, his curiosity open.
"I'm here to see Clint."
"You two are close." He said it like a statement of fact, but Natasha could hear the question underlying it.
"Yes, we're friends," she said, not wanting him to get the wrong idea. "He told me he's staying here, and about his troubles with the Department of Defense. I'm glad he has some people looking out for him."
Bruce chuckled. "I'm glad Tony handled it. I'm not sure the Other Guy would have been as circumspect."
"Tony, circumspect?" she asked with a raised eyebrow, and he laughed again. It was a nice laugh.
"I know, you'd never think it, but he goes more for fanfare and flourish. Very calculated display, in other words. The Other Guy would have just ripped up the building at the foundations, with no regard for who was inside." He was smiling a little, but she could hear the note of self-deprecation just underneath.
She was saved from replying by JARVIS's interruption. "Miss Romanoff, Mr. Barton has a message for you."
"He says he has brought back Thai food and the new Mortal Kombat, and that you had better bring your 'A-game.' He would like for me to tell you that he has just entered the elevator, so you should be prepared." She and Bruce shared a look of repressed amusement over JARVIS's prim tone.
"Thank you, JARVIS."
Bruce cleared his throat, his hand going to the collar of his shirt and smoothing it down. "Well, I had better--get back to the lab. Those articles aren't going to read themselves."
As he stood up, Natasha reached out to catch his arm, circling his wrist with her fingers. "It's good to see you, doc. I'm glad you're doing well. Maybe I'll see you around."
He looked surprised, but flattered. "I--sure--it was good to see you too. Oh, hey, do me a favor."
Natasha laughed, and was suddenly glad she'd come.
It was a temporary arrangement, she told herself--and everybody else, though no one seemed to believe her. She would find her own place to stay soon, she assured Tony (and his smirk). Despite Tony's complaining about all these people shacking up with him, she could tell he was pleased.
In the meantime, she acquainted herself with his interior developments, which included an enormous gym, with all the regular equipment but also things that were more . . . idiosyncratic. Clint had gotten him to include some acrobatic equipment, which saw plenty of use from himself, as well as install an archery range on the floor below.
"It's amazing," Clint enthused as he was showing her around, and then saw that her level of enthusiasm didn't match his. "Aw, c'mon, Nat, don't tell me you don't like this setup."
"It's a sweet setup," she said, perfectly deadpan, and Clint shook his head.
"If there's anything you want here, you know he can get it for you," he pointed out, making his way to the other side of the boxing ring.
Natasha pulled on some gloves and examined them. No tears: they'd do. "You know this isn't my style. I just need the basics. And it's not like I'm going to be here for long. Five hits?"
He grabbed some gloves and ducked into the ring under the ropes. "Loser buys lunch," he added, then frowned. "Not that you actually have to pay, I think Tony has an account everywhere within a ten-block radius. Menus are in the kitchen, by the way."
Natasha began stretching. "Not much of a punishment."
"Mmm, you're right. Winner picks where we get lunch from?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Natasha won, but just barely by two points, and she was out of breath by the end of the fight. "It's been a few months," she muttered by way of explanation.
Clint just snorted. "Pathetic, Romanoff. Time was when you could win five-oh with one hand tied behind your back, blindfolded."
"Those were the good old days. Kept you in your place," she said, jumping out of the ring and only half-paying attention.
The analytical part of her mind was running over the fight in her memory, cataloging what she could have done better: she'd fallen for a feint, hadn't warmed up properly, been a little slow to really get started. It was energizing; she'd spent so much time lately deliberately avoiding anything that looked like her work that she'd forgotten how much she enjoyed parts of it. A little bit of adrenaline pulsing through her veins, the hum of a good fight warming her blood.
"What are you thinking for lunch?" Clint called over his shoulder, as he was wiping down the equipment.
She cracked her neck. "One of those menus for a Greek place?"
There was. She didn't bother asking Clint what he wanted, ordering for him, and at the last second spotted the baklava in the desserts section. Remembering that Bruce had liked sweet things, she added an order to their lunch on impulse. When it came, she tucked it into the fridge and made a note to herself to save it for him. For later.
She had nearly settled into a routine when Steve and Sam arrived.
"Captain America, looking especially . . . grungy, I see," was Tony's greeting, as he eyed Steve up and down. "And you brought a friend! You guys are really lighting up my life, let me tell you." He turned to Clint and Natasha, who were seated on the common room couch. "Is that the idea here? The more the merrier?"
Steve, for his part, ignored most of this. A wise move, Natasha thought. "Nice to see you too, Tony. Tony, this is Sam Wilson. Sam, Tony Stark."
"He doesn't like to touch people," explained Natasha when Tony looked askance at Sam's proffered hand. She and Clint both got up from the couch to come over, and everyone else did shake hands. "Good to see you guys again."
"Did you just get Natasha to smile?" Tony asked. "I'm so impressed. She never does that. I didn't think it was in her programming."
"I can smile. I smile all the time," Natasha said, deadpan.
"I've never seen it. I don't know if I believe you."
"I guess that's because I just don't smile at you." She did offer him a bland one to go with that.
"That's--ouch. Okay. So. What are you guys doing here? Wanted to see the view? Decided to avail yourself of some privatized world peace?"
"Hoping we could get some help with something, actually."
Tony lit up, then, like a kid who had been told they were going to the candy store. "You came to the right place," he said, and actually clapped. "Follow me, you guys. I think you're gonna like this."
He called Bruce, too, so that there were six of them altogether when they sat down fifteen minutes later (delayed by Tony's narration of where everything was and butting into Steve and Sam's business) in what Tony had apparently designated the official Avengers conference room.
It was roomy, she had to give it that, but there were only a few empty seats, not so many that the room felt cavernous. Bruce took one of the seats across from her. Tony pointed out all the technological goodies, including one of his three-dimensional displays in the centerpiece of the table, which, he said, "will sadly go unused because I wasn't notified in advance and couldn't prepare anything," followed by what was clearly supposed to be a reproving look.
"Since when do you keep appointments with people who notify you in advance?" Steve asked with a straight face. Next to her, Clint smirked.
"That is . . . a good point, actually." Tony pointed at Steve. "So, lay it on us. What do you so desperately need our help with, o Capsicle my Capsicle?"
Steve ground his teeth a little at that, but explained that they had been given good intel that there was an important leftover HYDRA base in upstate New York. One that would have records and information about a mission they were on. The information they had, which wasn't much, said that there were too many men for two people to take it on alone.
"How do you know this intel is good?" was Tony's first question.
"It's a source we've worked with before," Sam explained. "Everything they've told us so far has been solid."
"And you guys need--what? Firepower? I got firepower, let me tell you about--" Tony was shifting into high gear.
"Actually . . ." Steve turned to Natasha and Clint with a small smile. "We were hoping for couple of spies to help us. Stealth is more important than sheer firepower here. If they catch on to us being there and wreaking havoc, they have a nasty habit of burning everything down." He traded a look with Sam, and Natasha wondered what they'd been up to this whole time.
"Are you saying I don't have stealth?" sputtered Tony. "I have stealth. I am stealth, or will be, in the very near future! I'm developing a stealth mode for the suit, which is in beta, a very promising beta I might add--"
"When people think of circumspection, they don't think of Tony Stark first," Natasha said lightly. Across the table she traded a look with Bruce; he pressed his lips together and looked like he was struggling not to laugh. One side of her mouth quirked up.
"I am perfectly capable of circumspection, thank you, Agent Romanoff," and in the middle of his sentence his tone shifted from righteous indignation to wheedling, "just let me show you what it can do, c'mon--"
"No," Steve said firmly, but not ungently. "Romanoff? Barton? You in?" He said their names like a commanding officer would.
Natasha didn't even have to look at Clint to know the answer. Next to her he was practically vibrating with excitement. "We're in."
"There was a meeting! With all of us!" lamented Tony, like he hadn't gotten the present he wanted for Christmas.
"You called the meeting, Tony. Prematurely," Natasha reminded him.
Give the man credit: He could recover quickly. "Well, if you don't want my help," Tony said, faux-graciously, "maybe you want the super-secret spy technology I've been developing."
Clint's head shot up. "I could be interested in that." At the front of the room, Steve and Sam traded looks; Sam, she thought, looked more open to the idea.
"Try not to salivate, Barton," she murmured, leaning over.
Smiling with satisfaction, Tony began leading everyone out of the room, his glee evident. "If you'll just follow me . . ."
Halfway to the door, Natasha slowed and turned back to look at Bruce, who hadn't moved. He caught her eye and gave her a quick, tight smile, one that didn't look very sincere. "Bruce?"
Rising, he waved her away and ran a hand through his hair. "You better catch up with them," he said with a nod, and that was all he said.
It seemed like HYDRA enjoyed cutting off their own heads from time to time, Natasha thought with dark humor. Steve had been right about how they seemed to have a tendency to blow everything up when things went south for them.
Stark's improved Widow's Bites, while stronger and with multiple charges, had been louder than the previous versions, alerting nearby agents to their infiltration. Fortunately, they each managed to escape in one piece, with only minor injuries, and as an added bonus, Sam had managed to download several files on what Natasha assumed was the Winter Soldier while she covered him. All in all, a success.
They drove back to Manhattan mostly in exhausted silence. She could hear Clint snoring in the backseat, and Steve was turning over the flash drive in his hand, again and again.
Stark would just have to put up with a beat-up pickup being parked in his garage, she thought as she drove. Maybe she would imply that she picked it out just for its ugliness. Yeah, that would be fun.
Tired as he was, Sam must have caught her smile. How did they miss recruiting him for SHIELD, she wondered. But then, it was probably for the best. "Your shoulder doing okay?" he asked from the passenger's seat with a nod.
"Oh." Natasha had forgotten about the knife wound, actually, just wrapped it up while they were down there. Now that she was thinking about it, of course, it started throbbing again. She was pretty sure it would need stitches, and thought of Bruce. "It'll be fine. It can be taken care of at the Tower."
Sam chuckled. "Seems like you guys have everything there."
"That's Tony Stark for you," she agreed. "Anytime you guys want help with something like this, feel free to come to them. Always happy to help."
He raised an eyebrow at that. "Them? You make it sound like you're not one of 'them.'"
She frowned at the road ahead. "It's just--a temporary thing."
Sam mmm'd in acknowledgement, which was so clearly a counseling thing intended to get her to open up that she almost called him out for it. But then, she thought, silence would be the best punishment. To his credit, he didn't push it.
By the time they were back at the Tower, it was evening, and the guys agreed to stay for a bit.
"Get some drinks. Sleep it off. Take a shower," coaxed Tony. "You look like you need one, frankly."
There were beers in the common room for everyone--Tony had apparently prepared for their return, and brought Pepper and Rhodey out for the celebration of the Avengers' second successful mission, but Natasha ducked out and headed for Bruce's lab as soon as she could.
"JARVIS, would you tell Bruce I could use his medical expertise?" she asked.
The Tower didn't have a first-aid center, at least as far as Natasha knew; she made a mental note to tell Tony. Instead, Bruce met her in one of his labs.
"Have fun?" he said in greeting, sounding dry.
"All kinds." Sitting on one of the stools, Natasha unzipped her top and folded it down, then untied the scrap of fabric she'd used to dress the wound in the field. Her movements broke through the crust of blood that had begun to form and sent a fresh drop running down her back.
"Ah," she heard Bruce say behind her, very faintly. She wasn't sure it was the blood or the bare skin, but either way it didn't matter; he needed to focus.
"Not too bad, is it, doc?" she asked, halfway looking over her shoulder. "I think it only needs a few stitches."
Giving him a specific task did the trick; she listened as he rummaged around in the first-aid kit.
"Why didn't you go to the hospital? You know, someone qualified? Perhaps with a medical degree?" He sounded distracted and irritated.
Her breath hissed as he wiped down her shoulder and applied disinfectant. "I don't like hospitals," she said after a moment.
She heard him sigh, and imagined him rolling his eyes.
"Besides," she added, "I trust you to stitch me up."
He grunted disapprovingly. "No stitches here, by the way. Only medical cyanoacrylate." There was a plastic snap from behind her--he must have been putting on a glove.
"Is that a fancy word for superglue?" she teased.
"You know us academic types. Never use one word--"
"Where three will do," she finished, and they both laughed.
"Arm forward." He nudged her elbow. "It's more hygienic than regular stitches, if you didn't know. Should take a tube with you, never know when you'll need good field medicine. Here we go." A cool substance slid against her skin.
"I don't like needles. I'll have to keep that in mind."
Gently, Bruce blew on the superglue to help it dry. The warm sensation drew goosebumps out of her skin, prickling all over, and she shivered slightly. Suddenly she was aware of his palm pressed to her back, too, and his close proximity. He shifted, and Natasha thought of his fingers stroking down her spine, in a different context entirely--
Maybe he had sensed the shifting mood, too, because he cleared his throat and backed up a step, jolting her out of her daydream. "You're all fixed up. Too bad I'm not a real doctor, or I could prescribe you the good stuff."
She imagined him averting his eyes as she pulled her top over her shoulders and zipped up. "I'll be fine. Have to remember not to let myself get stabbed in the shoulder in the future," she said, turning around and leaning against a table.
Shrugging one shoulder, he shifted, as if uncomfortable. "Not exactly a job for the Other Guy, I gathered."
Ah, Natasha thought. That was it. There was a tinge of bitterness in his voice. "Everyone has their strengths."
Bruce wrinkled his nose and crossed his arms. "Strength is pretty much his only strength. I know. Trust me."
"Not just him. You. Thank you." She wagged her arm for emphasis.
"It was nothing. Don't move your arm around too much, by the way, you'll open it back up underneath."
"It wasn't nothing," she said. He had a way, a very irritating way, of deflecting compliments and appreciation that she was determined not to indulge. "By the way, you have an excellent bedside manner. I felt very safe."
His reaction was a mix of bewilderment and a visible struggle not to smile. "I think you're the first person to ever tell me that." At her doubtful look, he did smile. "Oh yeah. There was this one time, I was trying to treat this kid out in the middle of nowhere, and he wouldn't stop squirming. The pain, you know. I ended up shouting at him. Something about how he was going to die unless he got it together. Scared him still. Not exactly doctor of the year material."
"Did you save him?"
"Well, he lived, at least from that, but--"
"Sounds like a good doctor to me," she interrupted. Before he could argue, she continued. "Some people are upstairs having drinks--come with?"
"I think you're gonna want to clean up first." Bruce pointed at the bloodstains on her uniform.
"Oh, right." She grinned at him, and he smiled back, easing. "Common room--meet me up there."
Private parties eventually became a way of life at the Tower. Not like the infamous birthday--just a few people milling around with alcohol making small talk. Astonishingly mature, for Tony. Actually, she was pretty sure he was using them to romance scientists and other sundry personalities he wanted to recruit, or at least network with. Work for me, and oh by the way here are some Avengers. Despite the pleasantries, though, ultimately she found these kinds of things tiresome.
Natasha let the opening of the door announce her presence. Bruce was sitting on a chair on the balcony, his feet propped up with a beer tucked between his knees. The door snicked shut behind her. He turned when he heard the sound and, when he saw it was her, smiled.
"Hiding away from the rest of the world?" She took a sip of her pinot grigio, sliding into a chair next to him.
"Hiding away from one of Tony's parties," he corrected, with a little smile. "And before you ask, no, it's not a Hulk thing. It's just an unsocial person thing."
She hadn't doubted that it wasn't about the Hulk, but she didn't tell him. Like as not he wouldn't believe her. "That makes two of us," said Natasha with feeling. She had gotten her fill, and then some, of fancy parties full of important people in her former job. Despite the circumstances that had led her here, being a full-time Avenger was, in many ways, an improvement in her quality of life.
"Also a forty-four year old thing," he admitted with a grimace, shifting slightly. "Do yourself a favor and don't get old, Natasha."
"That one's just you," she assured him, warming at his huff of laughter, and decided to take mercy on him. "How's your project on clean energy going?"
Bruce just hmmed in response. "Still feeling my way around the arc reactor's all-new branch of physics--though don't tell Tony I said that," he admitted, taking a long swallow of his beer and wiping his mouth. "Gamma radiation and super-soldier serums aren't all that helpful in this research context."
Natasha leaned forward so that her elbows rested on her knees, a little closer to him, and looked out over the balcony's rail. "You'll figure it out."
Bruce shrugged one shoulder, an implicit assent. She liked that about him: he wasn't modest about his intelligence, at least. "In the meantime, I'm just leeching off Tony's billions, not contributing much of anything."
She smiled. "He can afford it."
They were both silent for a few minutes, the only sounds the rustle of fabric, the clink of teeth on glass, the sound of swallowing. The city was laid out below them, an array of bright lights in every direction. It made her feel dizzy, and slightly uneasy.
"Enjoying the view?" asked Bruce finally. His beer now empty, he pulled his feet down and sat the bottle on the ground between them, and didn't lean back.
"Many people would think it's gorgeous," she murmured into her glass.
"You're not many people," he observed.
After a pause, she offered, "It's not my view. I never wanted--a view like this." Clear as mud, she thought with a little frustration. It was a hard idea to put into words. Something about the height, the grandiosity, the panoramic view--
"You'd rather be a spider on the wall," he guessed. A little surprised, Natasha looked up at him. He was still close to her, his knee only a few inches from hers, and because it was a clear, still night, she could feel his words in a puff of warm air across her cheek.
A rush of appreciation swept through her, and she wanted to kiss him, for seeing, for understanding, so--she did.
She felt him suck in a breath of surprise, but he didn't move away. Stubble scratched at her chin, rough and ... nice, she thought, it was very nice. She was pleasantly surprised by how much she liked nice. Reaching out, she touched his jaw with the pads of her fingers, near his throat where he swallowed, and felt his fingers close around her wrist. He didn't pull away, though; instead, she felt his thumb press into the heel of her hand.
It went on for a few moments, until she shifted her foot and knocked over the bottle he'd put down. The sudden, sharp crack startled both of them, Bruce drawing back with his eyes wide, blinking owlishly for a moment. As if he found himself surprised to be there.
Bruce let her hand drop and pushed his glasses further up his nose. "I--ah--what was that for?"
"What do you think it was for?" she asked, amusement shading her voice. Their heads were still close together; she could kiss him again if she wanted to, easily. "Do you think I go around kissing men randomly?" Before he could answer that, she added, "I wanted to."
Startled again, Bruce licked his lips and ducked his head for a second, then looked up at her over his glasses. "That's--you have no idea how flattering that is, really, but I think you know--are in fact intimately familiar with--all the ways this is a bad idea?"
"Careful, Bruce," she said mildly. "I'll start to think you think I'm stupid."
The corners of his mouth tightened, his mouth pressing into a thin line. "I don't think this is a good idea," he said after a pause, and Natasha recognized being let down gently.
It wasn't like she hadn't seen it coming. She knew he was attracted to her, but his issues with other people were nearly visible from space. Still, she found herself disappointed.
She'd like to escape with her dignity, though, so she half-rose from her chair and brushed his temple with a kiss, where gray was beginning to thread through the black. "Let me know if you change your mind," she said lightly, and he murmured in response.
When she opened the door and looked back over her shoulder, he was hunched over as if deep in thought, one finger unconsciously rubbing his lip. He hadn't picked up the overturned bottle, and didn't look at her when she closed the door behind her and rejoined the party.
Natasha rose early every morning, a habit engrained by her years of training. She was a light sleeper, too, waking at the smallest of sounds. And once she was awake, there was no going back to sleep. Which is why, as she rolled over to look at the alarm clock, she was not surprised to see it read 4:33 a.m. Could be worse, she told herself, and stretched, hearing her neck pop.
No one else was up at this time, of course, except possibly Tony pulling an over-caffeinated all-nighter. Despite having the run of the Tower, there was nothing interesting she could do, besides be alone, which was unusual.
Until she remembered that Clint said something about Bruce meditating on the roof some mornings.
Maybe he'd be up there, maybe not. But if he went up there to meditate, it must have been nice in some way. Maybe he saw something in the view that she didn't. Natasha grabbed her yoga mat and headed up through the bar to the balcony.
The comfort of mindless routine settled over her: She did some cardio to get her blood pumping, stretched out her stiff joints and muscles, then began one of her longer routines.
The city was never quiet, per se, but she was almost a hundred stories up and she'd probably caught it at its quietest moments; stores were closed, not a lot of cars were on the streets, and most people were sleeping. The dawn crept up on her, the sky gradually lightening until she looked up and realized she could see the streets below. They extended out beneath her, crisscrossing like the silver strands in a spider's web.
It was a better view when she thought of it as under her protection, and not just a great view from the window, she decided.
Not long after, she heard footsteps behind her.
"What are you doing?" asked Bruce's voice, sleep-muffled.
"Downward dog," she said to her ankles. She transitioned to a plank and looked out to the horizon. It must have been about five-thirty.
"Ha, ha." Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Bruce took one of the chairs. He had a cup in his hands.
"Are you going to watch, or are you going to get down here and join me?"
He made a doubtful noise.
"You searched the world for calming exercises and meditation techniques. I know you know how to do yoga."
"I'm not as flexible as I used to be. And I never was very flexible to begin with. I think I'll stick to my strengths."
She angled her head away from the mat to talk better. "And those are?"
Bruce gestured toward her with the cup. "For example, I make excellent tea."
Leaning forward on her forearms, Natasha slowly drew the rest of her body up over her head, then unfolded herself so she was in a handstand. Every movement precise and methodical; every muscle controlled and calculated. "Is that so."
"See, I could never do that."
Maybe it was the blood rushing to her head that made her speak impulsively. "I think there's a lot you can do, doc, you just don't let yourself."
"Acrobatically? No, I don't think so," he said lightly.
"You know that's not what I'm talking about." She let her lower body and hips drop to the mat, smoothly pushing herself into a cobra pose.
He didn't say anything for a minute or two. "I can't take risks like that."
"There are things you could do to control for the risks. Work out more to get your average heart rate down. Experiment with what's possible. Or you could make compromises. People do that in relationships. It wouldn't have to be any more dangerous than living under the same roof with someone you're not together with. Which you are doing, despite the risks."
"You don't understand," he said in a low voice, sounding genuinely angry. "He's not just some random monster that got attached to me by accident. I can't expose someone to--"
She hadn't come out this morning expecting to get pissed, but she had heard enough. "I do understand, Bruce. I'm the only one who does. That seething mass of hatred and anger and hurt that never goes away, just under your skin. All the things you are, exposed for everyone to see. At least you have the excuse of not being in your right mind. People like you and me, we have to take good things when they come to us."
She listened to him take several quick breaths, a calming technique she recognized. When he spoke, she heard how carefully he was keeping his voice level. "I don't know what all is in your past, Natasha--"
"You know as much as everyone else in the world. All of it's true, and then some." There had been plenty in SHIELD's databases about her upbringing, the training methods, the Red Room, her missions, all part of her initial debriefing when she defected to SHIELD. Even everything she'd done since SHIELD, intended as it was to scrub out the red in her ledger, was not exactly the stuff of bedtime stories.
"What?" He looked at her with confusion, until he understood. "No, actually, I don't."
"I didn't . . ." He shifted uncomfortably. "I tried not to--to let you have some privacy. So to speak."
She looked at him from between her ankles, palms flat on the mat. "Really?" She tried not to let her surprise color her voice. She shouldn't let herself get distracted from her earlier point, but she couldn't help it. The whole world had gone nuts dissecting every piece of information about her background they could get their hands on, spinning theories and armchair psychologizing, and he had just--not?
"I know a little about media circuses, give me that. Well," amended Bruce, "I did watch the special about where you might be now. I let my curiosity get the better of my . . . better nature."
She laughed silently, hidden by the angle. "As I recall, they had me in Cairo, Beijing, or Vancouver."
"For some reason, I can't see you as a Canadian." He took a sip of his tea, but she could see the corners of his mouth curling up regardless. "Not earnest enough, maybe."
Pushing herself up to her feet, she protested. "I'm earnest about some things."
She folded herself into the chair next to him, giving him a serious look and eyeing his mug. "Tea."
He spread his hands. "I'll have to make you some, then."
It wasn't until Natasha found herself on the battlefield with the Hulk for the second time that she realized there was a problem. A different problem.
Two weeks before she had listened, amused, as Clint had told her - laughter breaking up his story infectiously, until she was grinning too - how the Hulk had picked him up, holding him in his palm to let him aim at some HYDRA foot soldiers as they were burning out a leftover nest. Must have been a good vantage point, Natasha had said with amusement. All it had taken was some miming - Natasha should try it sometime, he'd said enthusiastically. Maybe, she'd allowed, imagining the scenario - and Bruce's confusion-cum-horror when she suggested it to him - with a smile.
Foolish, she cursed herself. The situation she was in now was no one's fault but her own. Her mistake had been thinking that Hulk would see her the same way it - he - saw Clint. Of course he wouldn't. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She hadn't even tried to team up with him, which made it that much more frustrating. He’d gotten a call from Steve while she and Bruce had gone to pick up takeout, telling him about a giant mutant who had taken up residence in Manhattan.
At the time, she'd thought it fortuitous that she happened to be with Bruce. Instead it turned out to be a disaster.
As soon as he'd transformed, the Hulk had seen her first. At the first narrowing of his eyes and the beginning of a growl sounding in his throat, she knew something was wrong. And when he reached for her - most definitely not to exemplify the power of teamwork as in a buddy cop comedy - she'd fled.
Fortunately for her, the giant man had been nearby robbing a bank, and the Hulk was easily distracted. She ducked into a nearby alley the first chance she got, avoiding his line of sight, and told Steve over the earpiece, in a voice that was most certainly not shaking, that she was out for the count.
When Steve had asked why, she said something inconsequential, turned off her communicator against protocol, and sank down against the wall.
Now here she was, doing breathing drills and trying to empty her mind - five, four, three, come on, Natasha, she thought a little wildly. She couldn't squeeze her eyes shut like she wanted, but tried to fill her lungs as much as she could on each breath. It wasn't enough, her body was sinking into the ground through her feet, there was too much pressure constricting her chest, like a hand squeezing - she imagined that huge green hand squeezing until there was no air left, until nothing of her was left, and -
The goal of the exercise was to count down to zero and then get up. Even if she couldn't be in the main fight, Natasha had to make sure the civilians were all clear.
She knew it wasn't going to happen.
She forced herself to turn her earpiece back on. "Captain," she said, as firmly as she could manage, not waiting for his affirmation before continuing, "you need to make sure the civilians are clear of the scene. I can't do it. Repeat, clear the block."
When he got back to her, he sounded winded but uninjured. "Done, all civilians clear. Looks like Hulk took care of it; guess being huge isn't a guarantee of strength. Black Widow, location?"
Under his professionalism was concern. He was going to come get her, she thought with a sick twist in her stomach. He thought she was injured or incapacitated. The idea of him finding her there, seeing her hide -
Natasha swallowed. "No need, Captain. Rendezvous at the corner of 82nd and Avenue, two minutes." She didn't listen for a response before she cut the feed again.
An image of the Hulk's face swam in front of her vision - his suspicion instinctive and aggressive. Bruce’s suspicion. It shouldn't have come as a surprise, Natasha told herself. She still found herself gritting her teeth against the burn in her eyes anyway.
She slammed her fist against the brick and made herself to get up and start walking, one muscle at a time. By the time she reached the meeting place, the blue outline of Cap’s outfit waiting for her, she was almost fine.
Ignoring his specific questions, she gave him a brief, flat rundown of what had happened in the field when the Hulk had come out. Natasha could feel Steve’s eyes on her as she spoke and did her best to ignore it.
“It’ll be awhile yet before he transforms back.” Clearly Steve wanted to say more, but couldn’t figure out a way to without getting his head bitten off. She was fine with that.
He’s getting the time down, Natasha didn’t say in instinctual defense, even if it was true. “Take him somewhere he can let off steam in the meantime. He likes you.” She left the negative corollary implied. “There’s a park just south of here.”
“I’m going to talk to the police about coordinating the cleanup and go home,” she interrupted. “Unless there’s something else you need from me?”
“No.” Thankfully seeming to decide this fight wasn’t worth it, Steve squeezed her arm and turned away.
Hailing a cab, she tried not to think of what she would, or could, say to Bruce when they were both back at the Tower. For once, nothing was coming to mind.
There was no confrontation, at least not immediately. When faced with conflict, Bruce did what he always did, which was avoid, and so she found herself spending more hours than strictly necessary in the gym. The punching bag was the primary recipient of her abuse. She felt irritated, and angry with herself for being irritated, and disappointed, and angry with herself for being disappointed. Especially disappointed when when Bruce didn’t seek her out. He’d just come back from the bank and--disappeared. As if he didn’t exist at all.
No one but Clint noticed that she was punching a little harder than usual, of course. Holding the bag, he risked a question: “You okay, Tasha?”
“I’m fine.” Her voice came out perfectly level. Almost flat.
“Mmhmm,” said Clint, shifting to brace himself better. He clearly didn’t believe her. “What’s this about?”
“Nothing.” She struck, one-two in quick succession.
“You haven’t been to see Banner in a few days,” he observed, because he never learned what was good for him.
“Amazing powers of observation, Barton,” she panted. “They teach you that in spy school?”
Abruptly he let go of the bag and stepped to the side. Natasha grabbed the bag to still it and turned to glare at him.
“This about what happened the other day?” he demanded. She gave him a look. “Yeah, Steve told me about it. Look, it's my fault, too, I was the one who encouraged you to--”
"It's not your fault," she interrupted.
"It's not his fault, either, not really."
"I know that. That's not it, either." She didn't know, though, how she could convince him that was the case, even though it was true. When he latched on to something, he was like a dog with a bone. She gestured toward the bag in a question.
"All right, all right. I think you've had your fun beating me up. I'm gonna bow out."
"Wimp!" she called after him as he started walking away.
Clint waved it off. "You should work it out with him, whatever it is," he said over the towel on his shoulder.
Once she was alone, Natasha narrowed her eyes at the bag and resumed. It was--complicated. More complicated than Clint apparently thought, anyway. The Hulk was, for all Bruce said he was a monster, more of a child. A very overgrown, green child with enormous muscles, but with all the instincts of a child. And his, or its, child's instincts had known on some fundamental level that he couldn't--that she couldn't--
She exhausted herself on the bag, until she was dripping with sweat and her arms were burning. Finally, when she turned around--speak of the devil. There was Bruce, leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed. He raised his hand.
Pushing back the hair that was stuck to her forehead, Natasha frowned. "Clint." It wasn't a question.
Sighing, Natasha began removing the wrappings around her hands. "Why can't he mind his own business," she said flatly. "He's been divorced twice; he shouldn't be giving out relationship advice."
"I was going to come speak to you eventually. Steve told me what happened."" He was watching her closely.
She did not want to hear this speech over again. "If you're just going to talk about how this is some more evidence that it won't work out , you can spare me."
"That's not what I was going to say," he said instead. Her head jerked up, and she watched him come over to sit on the corner of the boxing ring. "Actually, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say. For the first twenty-four hours, it was something like I'm sorry repeated in a constant loop, of course. And I am sorry. I thought about leaving, too. But it also got me thinking. You were right, you know, about all that stuff just being an excuse. It's the same either way, really. I started thinking about what I could lose. What I didn't want to lose. About--" He paused to press his lips together, hesitant. "About the things that I want. Who I want."
She let one wrap fall to the floor. "You want me. But you don't trust me."
Still frowning, he studied her. "Are you talking about the Other Guy? Natasha, you can't think that just because . . ."
"You said it yourself, doc. He's not just a random monster."
"That's really not what I wanted you to take away from that," he muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Regardless. You said it, it's true." Natasha stepped closer to him, looping one arm through the ropes and trying to smile. "It's okay, really. I was just--surprised. I don't like being surprised. Honestly, if you did think I was totally trustworthy, I'd think you were an idiot."
"Wouldn't want that." They sat in silence for a few minutes, until he asked, "So what now? What do you want?"
She leaned back against the ropes. "I'm still willing to give it a shot. We can make it up as we go along. There's not a scientific method for everything, Bruce."
"And if it ends badly?"
She shrugged one shoulder, sliding nearer, so that they were only a few inches apart. "Then it ends badly. We're grownups, we can handle it."
"With you on the verge of leaving all the time?" he asked softly. "How's that gonna work?"
She smiled down at him. "Who told you that? I'm not going anywhere."