“You look tired.”
Bruce glanced up from the pile of test results he had been studying intently enough that the unexpected voice had startled him. He peered over his glasses toward Phil Coulson, who was lying in the bed beside his chair. Phil had been sound asleep only a few moments ago. Was it minutes? Hours? Had he lost track of time?
“You’re the patient, remember?” he responded. “I should be saying that to you.”
“No need. Know how I look.”
“You look pretty damn good.” For a guy who had been skewered by Loki’s scepter less than a month ago, and had survived three surgical procedures using SHIELD’s most advanced technology, Phil Coulson looked amazing.
The alive part was the miracle. Bruce had been combing through every test result and treatment plan since the Avengers had crashed Fury’s secret hospital base ten days ago, and every scrap of data indicated Coulson was, indeed, recovering.
“Look . . . better when out of . . . bed.” Talking still taxed Phil’s limited reserves, but the determination in his eyes assured Bruce that the resilient agent would settle for nothing less than leaving this medical facility under his own steam.
Bruce set the paperwork down in his chair as he stood to check the readings on the bedside monitors. “Afraid the only way to make that happen is to rest . . . right here in this bed. Catch-22.”
“True. But you . . . off duty.”
Glancing up at the large clock on the wall, Bruce shook his head, marveling. “You keep better track of time laid up in this bed than I do on my best day.” No exaggeration. He was generally too caught up in his head to keep track of details like time . . . or eating . . . or sleeping.
“Cap’n’s orders.” Phil’s grin was weak, but wily. Bruce hadn’t known him for very long, but long enough to know he had met an extraordinary man. He hadn’t known a lot of those through the years. Probably what made it easier to recognize one when he met one. Would have been a total waste to lose Coulson to Loki’s villainy.
“The Captain left this morning along with Tony and Thor,” Bruce replied, aware his argument was meritless. Captain Rogers had meticulously scheduled all of them through the end of next week, the same way he had been doing since their arrival in Staten Island. Steve was a soldier. Orders, plans, timetables, strategies; made them tick. Bruce had a gut deep distrust of soldiers, but Steve was all right. For whatever reason, the Other Guy took orders from Captain America. He hadn’t figured out what to make of that yet, but it bumped Steve Rogers up a few notches in his estimation. Well, that and the fact that the guy was a real, live, bona fide hero. Who would have thought such a thing existed in the world? Not Bruce Banner. Yet lately he found himself surrounded by them, including the man in the bed, whose weary, astute eyes narrowed, reminding him he’d evaded the point. “Yeah, I know,” Bruce conceded.
As if on cue, like they shared a psychic link—which, maybe they did—in walked Clint Barton to back Coulson’s play. “Hey, Doc. Shift change time.” Clint spared Bruce a quick smile before all his attention was consumed by his lover. He slid with ease into his usual spot on the right side of Phil’s bed, fingers immediately fanning out over Phil’s cheek. “Hey, handsome. I missed you.” Clint leaned to press a tender kiss upon Phil’s dry lips.
Barton was actually the worst when it came to sticking to the shift schedule, and that was with Rogers here to ride his ass—or haul it away when the situation warranted. Bruce wondered how they were going to convince Clint to ever leave this room now that Steve was back in Manhattan, but then he remembered Natasha. He looked over his shoulder towards the glass partition between this room and the one Clint slept in, not surprised to see the Black Widow watching them with her intense gaze. She had probably just released Clint from his leash at the exact moment of shift change, not a second sooner. What was it with these people and their anal punctuality?
“How is he doing?” Clint asked, though his eyes were still riveted to Phil’s face. Coulson’s demeanor had changed since Barton’s arrival, less on guard, more relaxed.
“His progress continues to be impressive.”
“That’s my guy. He’ll be out of here quicker than any of you expect.”
“Count on it,” Phil agreed, though he looked on the precipice of falling back to sleep.
“Okay, you two, keep it to a dull roar,” Bruce chided as he picked up the handful of reports and slid them into the folder, tucking the folder under his arm. “No parties.”
“Doc-tor . . . Baann—” Phil slurred, causing Bruce to turn back. Coulson nodded toward the folder. “Prob’em?”
Bruce had been in this room with Coulson long enough to understand. “Nah. I just haven’t finished triple checking, and since I’ve been reminded my shift is over, thought I’d bring them with me.” He didn’t scoff at Coulson’s paranoia. Shared it, in truth. Fury’s bull aside, this medical facility wasn’t a run of the mill hospital. Whatever they planned to do to Steve Rogers here if they hadn’t succeeded in defrosting him—or had chosen not to—was the kind of top secret “R&D” Banner was too familiar with. Didn’t happen on Fury’s watch, so maybe that said something about the man. Maybe not. More likely, Coulson tipped the scales for the good guys on that one, keeping watch over Captain America.
“Nat’s been through a lot of files since she got here,” Clint reminded, not for the first time.
“And Stark has nosed his way into more than a few encrypted records,” Bruce added. But not all files were electronic, and maybe there were some things that could be hidden well enough to keep even Black Widow off the scent. Still, all the medical test results he’d scrutinized appeared in order. For now, that was the best they could do. He wasn’t sure that brought the seasoned agent any comfort, but then Clint seemed to provide the lion’s share of that.
“Time to rest,” Clint said softly, adjusting Phil’s blanket, trailing his fingers down his cheek in a soothing fashion. “We still got this. Cap wouldn’t have left if that wasn’t the case. No worries.”
Clint’s eyes drew up, meeting Bruce’s. They would all rest a lot easier when Coulson was strong enough to be transferred off Staten Island. “Clint’s right. Rest is your best medicine.”
“Thank you,” Phil whispered sincerely, as he did every day since he regained the ability to speak.
Bruce adjusted his glasses, letting his finger linger on the tip of his nose, which he scratched. “Sure. See you in the morning.”
Clint scooted closer, talking in softer tones meant only for Phil’s ears. Whatever he said brought a worn-out smile to Phil’s lips, the fingers of his right hand finding Clint’s thigh. Bruce felt like an intruder and hustled towards the door. What they shared was special. Private. Natasha’s absence from the window made him think she believed they deserved privacy, too.
But then he found her on the other side of the door as he entered the corridor and was taken aback. On this base, Barton and Coulson usually drew her scrutiny. “Are you shadowing me, Agent Romanoff?” He’d meant it as banter, but he wasn’t good with banter. Sounded creepy, actually, which, given their history, was not what he was going for.
If she was bothered, she didn’t show it. Big surprise. “You haven’t eaten today.”
“Ah, you are spying on me.” He managed to smile this time, so maybe a little less creepy. Maybe.
“It’s what I do.” There was a flicker in her eyes that made him believe she may have been going for banter as well. Apparently, neither of them was good at it. Best to cut this short.
“I have not eaten, you’re right. Would you like to hit the cafeteria with me?” There. That sounded more normal. They’d shared a number of late night meals in the kitchen on the common floor at the tower. And a few here, too. He’d found the experiences pleasant. Quite pleasant.
“Yes, I would.”
Contrary to what you would expect, if only deducing from her petite frame, Natasha could pack on the calories. As Avengers went, nobody could out-eat Thor, except maybe the Other Guy, though when he made an appearance, sitting down for a meal wasn’t usually at the top of his agenda, so Bruce had limited data. His data on Barton was inconclusive, as well, due to the extreme emotional toll of his current situation. Coulson data was non-existent at this time. Stark had an appetite that fell within normal parameters—albeit eccentric parameters—but what about Stark didn’t? Rogers was an interesting case. At times, he consumed large portions, but there were other times his appetite appeared moderate. For sure, he ingested the smallest portion of food during their victory shawarma dinner, contraindicative to his output of energy during their battle.
“Your science rat wheels are turning,” Natasha pointed out from across the table, glaring at him as she polished off her third plate of food. “Something in Coulson’s latest reports have you concerned?”
“What? Oh, no. Sorry. I was thinking about . . . .” He stopped himself, realizing he would sound like an over-analytical asshole, dissecting eating habits rather than enjoying the company of his companion. Instead, he focused on the topic Natasha was truly interested in. “I haven’t found anything in Coulson’s reports of a suspicious nature.”
Natasha nodded. Her eyes said she believed him, just didn’t trust SHIELD. Couldn’t fault her there. “I need his recovery to be real.” The unexpressed emotion beneath the words was thick. “But I don’t want you pulling punches with me. We can be straight with each other now, right?”
He knew she was referring to the game of cat and mouse they had played during their first meeting in New Delhi. They had talked a lot since then, but had never actually faced their history head-on. “I guess we’ve come a long way from spy and potential asset,” he agreed.
Natasha’s genuine smiles were rare—and beautiful. “I’d like to think so.” She reached across the table, setting her hand on his wrist, the kind of small touches she’d been bestowing of late. The sensation traveled through his insides like a caress. Her touches were the ones that mollified his anger when they had discovered this secret base and Fury’s subterfuge. Good thing, considering how far underground they were. An incident would have been bad news for the residents of Staten Island. “You’ve been essential to Coulson’s recovery.”
“He’s got a team of doctors here far more medically qualified—”
“He trusts you.” She lifted her hand, but her warmth on his flesh remained. “We all do.”
Bruce could see logic there. He was the last person willing to participate in a SHIELD cover-up, especially regarding biological manipulation. He’d also had extensive medical field experience during his years off the radar. The kind of places he hid out in were rife with outbreaks of dysentery, malaria, TB, AIDS, Ebola. Who better to help treat the sick than the one man incapable of contracting any of it? There was satisfaction in being able to administer to those in need; a temporary purpose until he needed to move on again. Kept him out of his own head, away from self-pity. Least he could do good somewhere.
“Ninety percent of your dialog takes place in your head, doesn’t it?” Natasha asked, snapping his attention back to the here and now.
“Sorry.” He shifted in his chair, pushing away his half-finished salad and vegetable plate. It was difficult motivating his appetite at times, except after an incident. He was generally ravenous then, and quite the carnivore despite that not being Dr. Bruce Banner’s proclivity. But the Other Guy’s input could vastly affect his palate. “Occupational habit, I think. Stereotypical science guy.”
“Unless you’re Stark and your mouth explodes in a constant stream of chatter.”
Bruce grinned and nodded. “I think that comparison holds more of an extrovert-introvert dynamic, rather than a science connection.”
“So do you talk the same amount as him, only in your head? Because you sure as hell don’t have a lot to say verbally.”
“You’re not exactly a blabbermouth,” he pointed out, which, for some reason, seemed to amuse her. She pushed her tray to the side and leaned across the table, folding her hands. “I speak when I have something to say.”
“Do you have something to say right now?” He felt an unusual flutter in his stomach that had nothing to do with the high fiber meal he had consumed.
“I might have a lot to say. But first I need a question answered.”
“About Coulson?” Maybe he was wrong. Maybe she didn’t believe he was being straight with her about his condition.
“Stark? Wh-what . . . what do you mean?” Bruce stammered, fidgeting with his glasses.
“I was in the limo with both of you that night after the Battle. Saw you in his car the next day after we shipped Loki back to Asgard. I’m not unaware of the amount of times you have visited each other’s labs at night in the short period since we both moved into the tower.”
Bruce slumped in his seat, not sure where this was leading. She was spy. What else did she know? What was she getting at? She wasn’t at the tower the night of the Battle. How could she know? Then again, she was Black Widow. She could know anything. Great. Tony was actually upbeat when he left this morning. He was starting to think he had a shot with Steve. I can’t fuck this up for him. “Tony and I are friends. What’s that to you?”
“Nothing. You look like a guy who could use a good friend, actually. If that’s what it is. Because I don’t mind competition, especially since I tend to annihilate it, but a situation like that could get messy in light of this team dynamic we’re forging. I don’t like mess.”
Bruce heard himself sputtering, but no legible words were forming. He sounded like an ass. Most likely looked like one, too. Natasha, on the other hand, appeared calm and collected—maybe even a little self-satisfied, as if she enjoyed making him squirm. She couldn’t have been unaware that was her effect on men. But what was her endgame,here? “What would get messy?” he finally managed to ask, uncertain he wanted the answer.
“You know, that shy thing you’ve got going is hot,” she purred, her fingers returning to his wrist, but this time tracing over it lightly, getting his skin to bead beneath her touch. “Refreshing.”
Was she making a pass at him? No. That couldn’t be the case. He’d been out of the game too long, mixing up signals—the not signals. They’d been alone a number of times, and she never acted like this before. Or had she, and he was too obtuse to realize? Reflexively, he looked to flee the uncomfortable situation. He got awkwardly to his feet, knocking the chair over in the process. The clang of metal chair meeting tile floor resulted in a resounding reverberation through the cafeteria. The handful of SHIELD personnel in their vicinity barely took note. “I . . . I, um, should go. I still need to read these files once more, and I have an experiment I am working on in my lab, ‘er, room.” He picked up the folder too quickly, the papers squirting up, the effect not unlike a shaken snow-globe as they whorled then fluttered to the floor.
“I didn’t mean to make you nervous,” Natasha said softly, taking to her knees along with him to help gather the documents. They were both on the floor now, practically on all fours, their foreheads nearly touching. “I know you like girls, too, Bruce. What’s the problem?”
“Just how much spying on me have you done?” he snapped, truly uncomfortable now.
“Enough to know Elizabeth Ross married Samson Adams several years ago and has a daughter, so that chapter is truly closed, though you’re the one who actually ended it years before that.”
Son-of-a-bitch! Fucking SHIELD probably had notes on what time he defecated each morning, too. “That’s none of your business,” he protested, shoving the papers back into the folder and getting to his feet.
“Easy,” she murmured, bouncing to her feet with catlike grace. “I thought we were friends.”
“I thought so, too. I don’t like friends who spy on me.”
“Oh, really?” She folded her arms like she was dealing with a tantruming child. “You believe Stark hasn’t dug up every piece of data ever written about you? You don’t think Coulson gave Cap every file SHIELD ever amassed on Dr. Bruce Banner before the Battle of New York even commenced? And what about you? Haven’t done any reading on any of us, right? Not even me?”
He had to concede her argument was sound. “Okay, fine. Just leave Betty out of this. Out of everything.” That was a wound he’d never fully recovered from, and having it poked was only going to lead to trouble.
“Done.” She snatched the folder from his hand just as it was about to slid to the floor again. “Can I walk with you to your room?”
The rooms set up for the Avengers were all in the East Corridor of the level Coulson was on. Bruce had filled his with equipment, which had flowed over into the room beside it as well. He had needed a way to stay occupied when he wasn’t dealing with Coulson’s care. He was always better when he stayed occupied. “Sure. Not like we don’t have to go the same way.”
“You’re a tough nut, Banner.”
They had ridden the elevator and walked the halls in silence, so Bruce was surprised Natasha wasn’t anxious to split the moment they got to the front of his door. He reached for his folder, but she didn’t hand it over.
“Am I still making you uncomfortable?” she asked.
He almost said yes, but took a moment to rethink his response. Throwing Betty in his face was a low blow, but otherwise he generally enjoyed Natasha’s company. Why did tonight feel different? And why had she ever enjoyed his company, considering what had gone down between them? “Probably should be the other way around. The question I mean.”
“You don’t make me uncomfortable,” she stated confidently, no trace of the underlying unease he’d provoked in India.
“How’s that?” he asked, leaning on the door awkwardly, not sure what to do with his hands, one still outstretched for the folder. Rather than leaving it hang between them, he shoved his fists into his jacket pockets.
“Do you really want to have this conversation in the corridor?” she asked, looking left, then right. “For a guy who doesn’t like being spied on, you should be more conscious of your surroundings.”
“Oh, and you think SHIELD doesn’t have the rooms monitored?”
“Not mine,” she said smugly, eyebrow arched. “Not anymore.”
“You want me in your room?” He still hadn’t deduced if she was truly making a pass at him in the cafeteria, and now she was inviting him into her room. For the briefest moment, he allowed himself to believe she meant that in the traditional man-woman way . . . and he found himself intrigued by the idea.
In fact, his breath caught in his throat as she leaned closer and turned his question into a summons. “I want you in my room.”
Her breath still lingered upon his cheek when she pulled back and walked away. She stopped three doors down from where he still stood, not even glancing at him when she let herself in. But she left the door ajar. The next move was his. A good forty percent of him was desperate to open his own door and retreat. Maybe even fifty percent. The other half clenched, bracing against the mental reminder of his isolated life. It had eased some, the last few weeks, being part of a team, actually living somewhere. He liked having other people in his living space: Talking science with Tony late at night, Thor’s boisterous laughter at Midgardian television shows, Natasha brewing herbal tea at all hours—tea she always shared, the soothing voice of JARVIS explaining where he could find things. Even here on the base, he had other faces to look at across the table in the cafeteria, usually Thor’s, who rarely missed a meal. He felt almost human, which he no longer was. Or was he? The last few weeks, among the Avengers, he was less of a freak, an oddity. There wasn’t anything to explain. He protested about the spying, but in reality it was a shortcut. Nothing to explain. Nothing they didn’t know. And for whatever reason, they still wanted him around. Curious.
He generally calculated every aspect of an equation before making a move, but this time he found himself stepping forward with no course of action. When his feet faltered halfway to her door, he told himself he needed to retrieve his folder. Having a purpose bolstered him. He closed the door softly once inside. His folder was right there on the desk. He could have easily taken it and left.
Only he didn’t.
Natasha’s room was similar to his—minus the equipment: Twelve by twelve gray concrete box, Spartan bunk, small desk with wheeled chair, three-drawer bureau surmounted by a shatterproof metal mirror screwed into the wall, beige, four-legged piece of furniture not big enough to be a couch, too small for a chair, with the comfort of neither. The base couldn’t match the lavish accommodations of Stark Tower, but Bruce had stayed in worse—way worse, most of the time. He suspected Natasha had inhabited her share of hovels, too. Yet the small touches in this room demonstrated her ability to make any space hers, using only items that had to have fit in the go-bag he saw her carrying in the SUV. None of them had packed for a long trip when they left the tower in search of Barton. Since arriving here, SHIELD had provided them with changes of clothing and toiletries, and Tony had managed to acquire a great deal of electronics and lab equipment from who-knew-where—another thing Fury was pissed about besides the prank pizza deliveries he’d set up. Bruce had to smile at the thought. It was going to be a lot quieter on the “ultra-secret base” until Tony returned for a shift.
Unlike with Stark, Bruce felt certain the gear in Natasha’s room was stuff she had arrived with ten days ago. The totally non-descript black gym bag with an adjustable nylon strap sat upon the desk beside his folder. The zipper was unlatched, but he didn’t nose into it, despite his curiosity. Bag could have been booby-trapped for all he knew. He suspected compact weaponry amongst the contents, doubting the Black Widow travelled anywhere without those. No, it was safer to avert his attention from the bag, since, apparently, he had time to kill. Natasha was nowhere in sight.
Base quarters came with a tiny bathroom no bigger than an old-fashioned phone booth. Shower rooms were provided on each level. The en suite bath was more of a pee-hole, really (again, he’d seen way worse): Toilet, tiny sink jutting from the wall, a piece of polished metal serving the function of a mirror but with no frame or trimming. Bruce was a small man and he had difficulty fitting in there. When he shaved, half his body was in the doorframe. He wondered how Thor and Steve had gotten along in their rooms. Natasha must have fit in there well enough, since the door was closed and she had to be inside. Where else could she have gone in this windowless room? He gave a thought to leaving. Maybe she had changed her mind about wanting his company in the span of time it took him to shuffle from his door to here? As if sensing his thought, she called, “Be right out.”
Fleeing still felt like the safest option. Instead, he went back to inspecting the small space. A feminine scarf with delicate fringe-work draped the single bedside lamp. This was the first Bruce realized these rooms even had a lamps, having only utilized the fluorescent ceiling lighting himself. The scarf gave Natasha’s room a warm, cranberry glow. The tablet on the desk beside the go-bag displayed a loop of nature pictures that looked to be personal photographs of places she had been versus generic, pre-loaded images. The music playing from it was Mozart, for sure, from The Magic Flute. They had actually spoken about their shared love for opera one late evening in the tower kitchen.
The last item on the desk was a compact. Weathered silver, thin with polishing. A family heirloom? If the compact knew the answer, it didn’t say. He imagined it would have quite a few tales to tell if it could speak, though. His eyes traveled on.
The room was impeccably tidy, starkly contrasting his own frenzy of clutter: rumpled clothes heaped in a corner, every surface covered in paper printouts and laptops, formula-filled whiteboard masking an entire wall, dried out markers littering the floor beneath it. Here, nothing appeared out of place. Resting atop the pillow of Natasha’s neatly made bunk was a small, worn, brown leather book. The gold-stamped Cyrillic letters on the cover were faded with time and much handling. Drawn toward it, Bruce moved the few steps it took to come beside the bed. His Russian was fluent, enabling him to quickly translate: The Inexperienced Muse by Anna Petrovna Bunina.
“The Russian Sappho,” Bruce murmured as he pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose to keep them from sliding when he looked downward.
“People have long speculated that Bunina was a lesbian,” Natasha stated as she exited the bathroom. She was no longer dressed in the dark pants and jacket from earlier, instead wearing a short, white, lace dress that was simple yet intricate, clinging in all the right places—not that Natasha had any wrong places. The dress appeared too detailed to be a nightgown, yet her feet and legs were bare.
“No-n-no,” he sputtered, finding himself unnerved by her appearance. She looked gorgeous, yet effortless, leaving him to wonder if this dress was meant to entice or merely a comfortable change of clothes. “I meant she was a woman poet. That she earned her livelihood writing.”
“A poetry man, Doctor Banner?” she asked with approval, eyebrow arched. “I like that.” She glided toward the couch-chair, seating herself, pulling her knees to her chest, her calves just wide enough to conceal the secrets that lay beneath.
“Yeah . . . yeah.” He looked back down toward the bed, needing a distraction. “May I?”
He carefully lifted the book into his hand, noting the piece of smooth leather that acted as a bookmark, the pages falling open easily to what must have been the favored passage. He looked down at the poem and skimmed the stanzas, recognizing the work. “I know ‘Conversation between Me and the Women.’ Good stuff. Why do you like it?”
“Why do you think I like it?”
Okay, this was a test. He excelled at tests. “Russia’s first recognized woman poet. She understood the politics of power, yet she refused to write womanly confessorial verse.”
He read the passage aloud in Russian, Natasha quickly echoing in English, reciting by memory, her voice low and intense. “‘With men, not you, the courts of taste are manned / Where authors must all stand / and an author’s fame is in their hands.’” She hummed contentedly and he found his eyes going back to her, despite his efforts to keep them on the page. “She always kept something of herself back,” Natasha concluded. “Secret.”
“And you know all about secrets.”
“As do you.”
“True.” Bruce set the book down where he had found it, walking back to the desk. “It’s late. I should go.”
He shot around, body tensing. “What are we doing here? Is this a game of some kind?”
“You act as if we haven’t talked before.”
“Not like this.”
“Like—” A multitude of words and languages at his disposal and he could manage to come up with only one. He gestured towards her, the room, the lamp, the music. “This.”
“I like you, Bruce.” Natasha unfurled her legs, letting her feet touch the floor as she smoothed her skirt. “Does that have to be a secret?”
“I frighten the hell out of you,” he admitted shamefully because somebody needed to say it before he started believing this madness.
“You have, yes,” she nodded. “Not anymore. Don’t you know that?”
“How would I know that?” He turned his back to her, reaching for the folder on the desk. He was no good at things like this. He didn’t belong here.
“Because we’re friends. We talk. We laugh. We drink tea. Because you put your hand on my back when I’m about to lose my mind with worry over Coulson or Barton, and suddenly I can find me again. Because my touch on your arm keeps you from ripping Fury’s head off despite secret bases and the taste of covert experimental medical practices in the air.”
He bristled as she verbalized things he was aware of, but hadn’t let himself give credence to. None of that mattered. It couldn’t. “And what about the small detail of me trying to kill you?” he asked, fingering the edges of the folder, wishing the tender incidents she pointed out didn’t crumble to ash in the face of that, wishing in a way he hadn’t in a long time.
“Loki twisted us all aboard the Helicarrier. That damn scepter had everyone at each other’s throats. The fear and paranoia ran rampant. Everyone was the enemy. You saw Stark and Rogers going at it like they were in a prison yard. And then we were attacked. The ship exploded. Of course the Other Guy came out swinging.”
“Came out swinging?” he derided. “You could have died.”
“But I didn’t. And I didn’t die when Barton tried to rip my head off. And now we’re all here, not dead, including Coulson. You have to learn to put the missions in the past, where they belong or you’ll drive yourself insane dwelling.”
“Insane?” There were days he wasn’t sure he had ever been sane. He shook his head, startling when he felt her hand on his shoulder. She moved without sound.
“You know all this, Bruce. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be living at the tower with us. You wouldn’t have stuck around and become part of this team. You sure wouldn’t be here in this underground base. So why are we having this conversation?”
He didn’t dare turn to face her. She was sharp and her arguments were too logical. But it didn’t matter. Couldn’t matter. “You’re right. Choosing to transform, like I did during the Battle, or during the Rebuild efforts, and what happened on the Helicarrier are two different situations. Doesn’t negate what I did to you.”
“You apologized.” There was mirth in her voice and suddenly he thought he could laugh. “What else do you need to do? Send a Hallmark card?”
“Sure, from their ‘Sorry I Tried to Kill You’ line.”
“Pick one up for Barton, too. I like cards and he owes me. Guess that means I would have to get him one, though, since I nearly decapitated him.”
“Tasha,” the word slipped from his lips, as if he uttered it every day, when—in truth—he had never called her that. He practically choked trying to swallow it back inside, which was foolish, but not as foolish as he felt.
“Can you at least look at me while you blow me off?” she demanded in the uncomfortable silence that followed.
Shoring up his nerve, he turned. He needed to make this go away. He didn’t belong here. Again, words failed. Her eyes were wide, and soft, and beautiful, but, even more intriguing, something akin to desire burned there. “I . . . I wasn’t blowing you . . . I mean, I wasn’t,” he sputtered. He had never been very good at this, and he was long out of practice. “Ohh, boy.”
“Is this part of your whole intellectual thing? I mean, is that why you’re complicating something so simple? Is that what you brainiac types do?” Thankfully, she took a step back, enabling him to get a breath while she continued. She drew her fingers threw her hair, keeping him pinned with the intensity of her gaze. “I feel good tonight, Bruce. Coulson’s improving. Barton’s okay. Looks like we dodged a major bullet. I want to enjoy that feeling. I like you. You like me. We’re here. So decide. You either want me or not.”
“Want you?” He laughed, but not in amusement. He curled his hands into fists to hide the fact they were shaking. “How would I not want you?”
Her index finger remained in her hair, wrapping around a strand close to her face, which she toyed with coyly. He wondered briefly how many men she had brought to their knees with just that gesture. “Really?” she asked, turning on the flirt full-force, and suddenly she transformed. This was no longer the Tasha he had sat up and talked to about opera late at night. And she sure wasn’t the person who confided in him how Barton and Coulson were the closest thing to family she’d ever experienced. This person was practiced, calculated. There was a power to her, a well-honed sensuality that he sensed could entangle him in her web until she had drained his life essence. And she would have made him enjoy it, too. So why was he still talking?
“Is this really what you want? Because this you could have with anyone here. Why do you need me?”
She huffed, exasperated, throwing her hands in the air. She was pissed now, the come-hither demeanor switching off as fast as it had slid into place. “Are you serious right now? What the hell do you want? Need me to read you poetry? Pull out my Victoria’s Secret panties? Seduce you? Whatever it is, tell me, because I’m not used to working this hard.”
“It’s been a long drought for me, but if I remember correctly, it’s not supposed to be work.”
Where the hell had that come from? The long-debated questions about his sanity rose to the forefront. What was wrong with him? Natasha was gorgeous, smart, intriguing, strong, exciting, and most of all, he liked her. Liked talking to her. Being around her. Listening to her. Picking up on the little clues about herself that she occasionally dropped like breadcrumbs when he paid careful attention. He wasn’t exactly rich with options, either. Yeah, years ago he had ditched the pulse monitor, realizing his pulse alone wasn’t his trigger. If it was, the Other Guy would make an appearance every time he ran, or worked-out, or watched a scary movie. His emotions were the key, and avoiding sex had brought him nothing but frustration and inner unrest. Nevertheless, he could still count on one hand the amount of sex he had engaged in over the years, despite that knowledge. Despite his crushing loneliness. Why?
A couple of weeks ago he was more than willing to be Tony Stark’s After-Battle-Booty-Call, only pulling back when he realized he was again playing second-rate knockoff to Captain Steve Rogers, the serum golden boy rather than the freak mutation. Why? What did it matter? He and Tony were both lonely and needy and horny as hell, and they would have had a great time. Not to mention the odds of Tony pulling his shit together enough to have a real shot at Captain Perfect Pants were slim. He told himself he pulled back for Tony’s sake. Told Stark that, too. Protecting one of the only real friends he had ever had from make a fucking huge mistake he would live to regret. Which was true and that was why he did it. Well, mostly why,right?
And the rest?
Was he seriously in a position to have a fucking moral code? Yeah, maybe, with normal people, but the Avengers—himself included—were anything but normal people. It was why they fit. Why Bruce felt comfortable for the first time in forever. With Tony or Tasha or any of them, he wasn’t subjecting some decent human being to life in a Freak Show, himself the star attraction. They were all part of the show, and nobody needed to be protected because they were all on display with him.
So what the hell was his problem?
“What the hell is your problem?” Natasha echoed, but he didn’t have any better answer for her than he did for himself.
“I don’t know. He turned and picked up his folder from the desk, hands still shaking. “I should go.”
“You do that. Get out.” She stalked into the small bathroom and slammed the door behind her.
“Great going, Banner,” he muttered, feeling like a total shit. “I’m sorry,” he called, not sure if she even heard him. He never meant to be hurtful. She didn’t deserve that.
He was moving slow, as if his feet were dragging weights. By the time he had made it to the front door of her quarters, the bathroom door reopened.
“You’re really going to leave?”
He turned, finding her leaning on the door frame. Her arms were folded defensively, but one bare foot slid up and down a smooth calf, almost awkwardly, nervously. But Natasha didn’t do nervous. Did she?
“You told me to.”
She didn’t respond right away, her mouth twisting, like she was struggling with which words she was going to allow to be heard. Finally, her eyes looked straight into his and she asked, “And if I told you to stay?”
Her voice was different. The glimpse he’d gotten of the Black Widow in action was gone. This was Tasha. This was the woman who had revealed to him, “I can’t endure losing him a second time,” the first night on this base after seeing Coulson alive but critical.
“Then I’d stay,” he stated without hesitation. She was his friend. One of his only friends. And he liked her. A lot. More than a lot. And everything felt different now.
“Then put that fucking folder down before I feed it to you.” Her grin was wicked and sexy.
He had to smile. “Sure.” He moved back towards the desk.
“Not there. On the bureau. Move the tablet and the bag, too, while you’re at it.”
He did as she asked, only hesitating when he touched her go-bag. “Sure I’m not going to explode if I touch this?”
“Would serve you right.”
“Probably would. But I don’t think either of us want the Other Guy here right now.”
“I don’t know. He’s kind of cute . . . when he’s not trying to kill me.”
Her making light of something that, by rights, she could have held against him forever put him at ease in a way he hadn’t expected. She really did trust him. When he turned to smile at her after settling the items on the bureau, she was right there, in his space, taking his jacket by the lapels and yanking him closer.
“Okay, Banner. Don’t think you’re going to get a ring and dozen roses. I don’t operate that way. But I can tell you I asked you in here tonight. Just you. I don’t have a back-up plan. Not interested in one. Good enough?”
Actually, it was. In fact, for Natasha Romanoff, Agent of SHIELD, Black Widow, woman of a thousand masks, it was downright personal. “Yes,” he nodded feeling a rush of heat through his body.
“You always play so hard to get?” She stepped backwards, tugging his jacket, him following her like an eager-to-please dog at the end of a leash.
“I . . . um . . . don’t really have much experience in being got . . . or anyone wanting to get . . . um, no. That’s my answer. No.”
“You’re killing me, with the shy-dorky shit.” She stopped at the desk, seating herself upon it. “Why do I find that so damn hot?” She guided him to stand between her spread legs. When he did, she locked her bare heels behind his knees. If her plan was to keep him from retreating, she was wasting her energy. He could finally admit—at least internally—how much he wanted to be here. She released his jacket and pressed her fingers to his glasses, easing them off his face before folding them neatly and tucking them into his front pocket.
“I don’t know,” he responded. He let his arms go limp when she began to slide his jacket down them. “Maybe because I’m lucky?”
When the sleeves reached his wrists, she yanked his arms behind his back, using his jacket to pin them there for several seconds. He was mortified by how quickly the gesture stoked his erection. “Oh, you’re about to get extremely lucky, Doctor Banner,” she purred, but the flirting didn’t feel rehearsed this time. Or if it was, he was too caught up in her allure to notice anymore. Finally releasing him, she finished stripping the jacket and laid it over the chair near the desk before going to work on his shirt buttons. His freed hands hovered awkwardly. He was uncertain where to set them. “You’re allowed to touch me,” she invited, her mouth curving into an inviting smile. “More fun that way.”
“Right.” He took a deep breath, setting both hands on either side of her neck, slowly gliding up until his fingers were luxuriating in the rich, thick mane of red hair that had beguiled him the moment he met her. Her fingers were carding through the exposed pelt on this chest, his shirt now only clinging to his body at the elbows. Just that level of contact, of human touch, sent his brain off-line for a few seconds. When it booted back up, her hair was in his fists and he was drawing her face to his, realizing how many times he had awoken from a dream with the thought of kissing her burning his lips.
The reality was much better. Her lips were even softer than they looked, which should have been impossible, only it wasn’t. Her lush mouth welcomed, and then, after a few heated moments, hungered. He was suddenly starved himself. He leaned closer, tasted deeper. His long-repressed urges burst forth and he nearly swallowed her, but she matched him with ease, silencing his usual worries about being clumsy and over-eager. How Natasha managed to kiss like that while still adeptly unfastening his pants and tugging down his boxers was incomprehensible. He was grateful for her skill because his cock had been strangling within the confines. He let out a gasp when she finally set him free.
“You’re a helluva kisser, Doctor,” she stated with breathless approval as she drew back from his mouth.
“Really?” he muttered, head swimming. “Pretty out of practice.”
“Leave that to me.” She bent to the side, yanking open the desk drawer. Upon straightening, she slipped a packet into his hand. “You take care of this.”
He was stunned at how quickly things were moving, but he couldn’t deny feeling an equal sense of urgency. When had that started? When she touched him? The minute he walked in here? Or was it earlier? India, maybe? Had a part of him felt this coming since then? Even if it had, he would have denied it; buried it. Moments like this weren’t part of his world. At least they didn’t used to be. Could they be again?
“Tasha,” he whispered, feeling he owed her some kind of words as he fumbled with the foil wrap, but she didn’t seem interested in talking. Her mouth covered his and the kiss this time nearly caused him to cream into his own scrabbling hands. Somehow, he managed to get the condom on before she took hold of his shoulders and climbed up his body, her mouth still latched on to his. He realized there was nothing beneath the lacy dress but her, his fingers coming in contact with hips and thighs that were as soft and supple as they were firm and powerful.
He made an attempt to assist her, but she didn’t need help. Before he knew it, her legs were wrapped around his waist and she was off the desk completely, lowering herself onto him, pulling him into the scalding heat of her luscious body. His eyes began to water as pleasure ripped through him. The fingers of one of Tasha’s hands moved back to his chest fur, the other hand locking behind his head, fisting his hair as she tightened around him. He found her mouth again, kissed her with all he had until both of them became too breathless, their lips slipping from each other, replaced with heated gasps. His thighs crashed into the desk a few times, but the pain was irrelevant. And then he was shaking . . . hard. He was going to come.
Natasha’s grip on his hair became rougher and she yanked his head back. He could see the avidity in her eyes. “Don’t you dare,” she warned, shifting her weight infinitesimally, her inner walls growing impossibly tighter around him. He had no idea how to stave off the onrush, but for whatever reason, his body didn’t dare betray her. Not until she’d had time to buck several more times, changing angles, finally letting out a satisfied moan. Her neck arched back, eyes going to the ceiling. Her convulsions around him set his cock on fire and he came hard, doing his best to keep his legs from collapsing and landing them both on the floor.
When the spasms eased, he managed to lean into the desk for balance, his left hand flattening atop the surface. Tasha’s face curled into his shoulder, nipping his collar bone, which rocked him again, harder. When his body finally started to calm, her fingers stroked his cheek while she slid her rear back upon the desk, though he was still half buried within her. “Brushkah,” she whispered, and he smiled, familiar with the masculine diminutive suffixes used to form nicknames—or endearments—in Russian. He decided he had never enjoyed his name more.
“Natalia,” he responded, before second-guessing the choice—but if she minded, she gave no indication. Instead, she lifted her head, smiling secretively, her knuckles caressing his face from cheekbone to collar bone, and back again. He found himself leaning into the tender touch, feeling the comfort of it deep in his lonely soul. She looked as if she knew that; knew the effect her touch had on him.
“That was pleasant.”
“Oh, yeah,” he agreed. “Thank you.”
Her green eyes danced and her smile was wide. “Thank you? You don’t need to thank me. I didn’t do you a favor.”
“You kind of did.” He was grinning too, feeling completely awkward and yet more content then he could remember feeling in a long time. “How do you want to . . . ?” He looked downward between them, not seeing a graceful way to do this.
“Middle drawer. Tissues. Grab some. You can clean up in the bathroom.”
“Kind of small in there,” he reminded as he got hold of the tissue box, trying to picture a way to wash himself off in the confines of a space he could barely shave in.
“Stop being a diva,” she teased. “You’ve lived in paper shacks. You’ll manage. Unless you’d rather go down the hall to the showers with that in your hand?”
He glanced at the fistful of Kleenex he was now clutching, picturing how much more telling it was about to look when he pulled out completely. No, traveling through the populated hallway of a camera-monitored base was not appealing. “See your point.”
“Thought you would. Figure out a way to clean up and then I’ll take my turn.”
“Am I . . . um . . . leaving after that?” Sounded stupid asking, but he really wasn’t sure. This was not the kind of situation he generally found himself in, not even before his life blew up in a big, green explosion. His romantic encounters used to be more, well, romantic. Then again, this had been nice. Really nice. Amazing, actually. He just hoped it wasn’t over.
“Did I say you were leaving?”
“Well, no, but—”
“When I want you to leave, I’ll tell you to go.” She tugged the back of his hair and smiled again. She’d smiled more tonight than in all the time he’d known her. That had to be a good sign. “Get cleaned up. And no towels on the floor or water on the mirror.”
“You’re awfully bossy,” he teased.
She tightened inside enough for even his mostly flaccid cock to feel the pressure while pinching his chin between her thumb and forefinger. “You like it.” It was a statement, not a question, one she punctuated with a hard, demanding kiss. The kiss started to revive loins that should have been spent. “Ah, no, big boy,” she chided. “Not yet. Clean up first. Then meet me at the bed. I plan to teach you a few things I like. And make sure to pay attention, because I’m very particular.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a smile.
It wasn’t easy, making it from the desk to the pee-hole with his pants and boxers hovering around his thighs, his shirt hanging from his forearms, and his fist full of waded tissues, spilled condom, and sticky dick. He was grateful Natasha took pity and looked away, letting him save a little face.
“Hey, Bruce?” she called before he managed to get the door to the paltry excuse for a bathroom closed. He poked his head around it, finding her standing beside the desk, brushing down her dress with both hands. “Glad you decided to stay.”
“You were right, you know.”
“Before. Most people settle for the veneer. Tidier that way for me. But you held out for the real deal. Forced my hand.”
So he hadn’t imagined it. Her shift in gears towards a more practiced persona. “Are you sorry?” he asked, knowing how risky it was to be exposed.
“What do you think?” She winked at him, then smiled. “You’ve got balls, Banner. “Now hurry up and wash them. I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
Bruce nearly dropped his fisted mess onto the floor as he hustled to wedge himself into the cramped room and shut the door. He turned on the sink’s tiny spigot and stared at the unrecognizable the man in the mirror. Scientist. Monster. Fugitive. These he understood.
Lover? he thought, sounding this unexpected postulate in in head.
“Don’t take all night, poetry man,” Nat called through the door.
Bruce redoubled his cleaning efforts.
Yes. Bruce Banner: Capable Lover.
That was a hypothesis to test for sure.