Bruce wakes in his own bed. His skin is clammy, covered in a long-cooled sweat, and frankly, he smells. The covers have been drawn up as far as his waist, but a bit of shifting reveals that it wasn't to preserve his modesty; his plants split down the outside seams almost to the hip, but the waistband and the inseam held. Always a good day when that happens.
At least, so long as he didn't hurt anyone.
“You didn't,” says Natasha's voice, coming out of his kitchenette (there's a kitchen to make four-star chefs weep just two floors down, but Bruce likes his privacy and Tony likes giving people presents).
“Hurt anyone,” she elaborates. “No, I can't read your mind, just your face.” She smiles, sits on the side of the bed, and holds out a steaming cup. “Here.”
Bruce takes it; the blend is something unfamiliar, though he can pick out the constituent parts – dandelion root, anise – honey bush? It's rich and warm, not as astringently soothing as he usually prefers, but comforting.
“I checked out your tea store. I got creative.” Her lips quirk sideways.
“I don't actually need to speak to have a conversation with you, do I?” Bruce asks, then says, “It's good,” and takes another deep drink. The heat of it spreads through his belly, which contracts and grumbles. Bits of memory start to filter into his conscious mind – he remembers her. The Other Guy remembers her.
Natasha hasn't said anything in response – she's just continuing to give him that warm, soft smile that few would believe could be hers. But it is; this is the heart of her and the double-edged sword of what she does so well. Natasha reads people like books, not because she needs to, but just because she does. It's not all about violence and calculation; sometimes she just appreciates what she reads. It's not as rare as anyone thinks for her to genuinely like someone – the rarity is her expressing it. It's a privilege of which he is completely cognizant and by which, considering the nature of their meeting and the days immediately following, he feels vaguely shamed.
“You need to never do that again,” Bruce tells her.
“No,” Natasha says simply, still smiling, but it's harder now. “No, I don't think so.”
“I was afraid of you. That wasn't acceptable.”
“You should be afraid of me,” Bruce argues.
“Not how it went down today,” she returns – and she's right.
Bruce takes a moment to digest that.
“He respects you,” he finally concludes. “That doesn't mean he won't challenge you, some other time. His priorities, his loyalties, they aren't human.”
“Neither are mine,” Natasha says simply, shrugging, as if that solves everything.
She may not be as fragile as Betty, but even if she's twice, thrice, a dozen times as strong and agile and quick to heal, it's still just stacking up pebbles next to a mountain. He could still break her without even trying, maybe especially if the Other Guy sees her as an equal – because she's not. He wishes badly that she were, but she's not.
She takes the mug out of his hands and sets it on the bedside table. “Bruce. You will not scare me off. If you could – if I can be scared off, of anything, you might as well kill me. You saw that. I can't function afraid.”
“I used to think that way,” he says – in absolutes.
“You still do,” she counters. “Stop.”
It isn't right to endanger her. It isn't right to choose for her. It isn't right to give up on Betty and it's even more wrong not to. He likes who he is with Natasha, and who she is with him, the easy conversations that start and stop without seeming relation to anything around them – because he lives in his head and she sees everything that no one else does. The disparity of reference doesn't seem to matter; they mesh well. She makes him feel comfortable, safe in his own treacherous mind – she makes him want, which is the least safe thing of all.
“I can't promise you that you won't try to hurt me,” Natasha says, low and serious now. “But I promise you that I will not let you.”
He holds her eyes. She believes her words.
Bruce kisses her; lurches forward, crashes into her, and of course she's there to meet him halfway.
“I'm going to be gone a couple weeks. Maybe three,” Natasha says, appearing over his shoulder in the lab.
Bruce looks up from his microscope. “Oh?”
She doesn't elaborate, just says, “C'mon, let's get out of here for a bit.”
He's not at an especially good stopping point, but . . . there are no especially good stopping points. He stands, rolls his shoulders, asks, “Should I change?”
She gives him a wry up-and-down look. “Do you actually own things that would be an improvement?”
“No, not really.” He smiles.
She rolls her eyes and walks away; he follows her, all the way down into the street, into a cab and out again, speaking no more than really necessary. His hand finds hers intermittently as they walk, thumb tracing the veins in her wrist, and she hums a little, pleased.
The neighborhood she's taken them to is run-down but clean, overflowing with raucous children and peddlers; she buys them both spicy lamb kabobs from one of them, hot enough to make his lips go numb and wonderful in the way the grease drips down her chin. Their fingers slide together and apart carelessly, well-oiled. He bumps her shoulder deliberately; she gives him a very unimpressed look, but slides her arm around his waist, and he does the same.
“Are we going anywhere in particular?” he asks.
“Hrmm,” she says, eyes still scanning the street, relaxed and playful but never the less taking in every detail.
“Fair enough,” Bruce replies, and they walk along like that as the sun starts to go down and the air gets that faint, damp chill to it that means a cold night is coming. Neither one of them thought to bring a jacket, but then, neither one of them is really bothered by physical discomfort – not when it is so slight and mundane.
The babbling children start disappearing off the streets, as Natasha winds them through alleys and stops to stick her face into pots full of herbs grown on windowsills and steps, runs her fingers carelessly along the bright colors of other people's laundry. Her hair is incandescent in the half-light.
Then she seems to hear something, and she picks up her step, arm sliding from around him and catching his hand again, pulling him along. The small of his back is cold where her arm had been. Bruce hears it a moment later – a faint sound of music.
Closer, he can begin to decipher something like rhythm and melody – some uniquely urban and American blend of jazz and reggae and something tribal. The musicians are a bunch of teenagers, mostly boys, and one old man on a trombone. A set of trash cans and lids have been turned into percussion instruments, and a pregnant young woman is playing them.
Here the children haven't dissipated, though only about half are still chasing each other, the rest sitting on the curb – Bruce spots a few brave fireflies darting about, and guesses there must be a park somewhere nearby. Unless they're able to subsist from the assorted potted plants? It's a hopeful sort of idea, as he watches the residents of the neighborhood coming out, beers and babies in hand, to sit on their steps and listen.
He and Natasha must stick out like sore thumbs, but nobody seems to mind – nobody really talks to them, though a few of the kids slow as they go by, big-eyed, but nobody seems upset that they're there.
Bruce finds a corner of wall that's far enough from anyone's doorstep not to be intrusive, and leans. Natasha gives him a victorious little smile; apparently they've been treasure-hunting.
“You like live music,” he observes. And of course this would be her idea of a live concert – not something in a coffee shop or a concert hall. This is more real.
“I do,” she answers.
“Hrmm,” he echoes her earlier sentiment, and draws her back against him, her spine against his chest. She pulls his arms around her middle. “Good choice. I know a place we should get drinks, after this.”
“Mm,” she agrees.
After is very late; the band thins, and when the final performers are beginning to pack up, Natasha kisses Bruce's cheek and then pushes away to stride across the street and stick a rolled up-bill into the old man's instrument case.
She draws him away rather quickly, after that, disappearing into now dark and silent alleys that are not the way they came.
“How much did you give him?” Bruce asks.
“What two tickets to a good three-hour concert are worth,” Natasha replies. “You mentioned drinks?”
“You'll have to tell me where we are, first,” Bruce admits. He can barely see her in the dark; mostly he's watching the reflection of her eyes. He retains some sense of her, though, a feel of her body moving beside his in the black – he doesn't know if that's a side effect, part of the Other Guy's animal nature, or if it's something they always might have had.
For the moment, Bruce makes the very deliberate decision not to question it too much. It's nice.
“Just tell me where we're going, it'll be easier,” she says, with bemused tolerance. Bruce is good at getting lost; Natasha never is.
He tells her, and they walk, and then catch a cab, and then walk some more until Bruce begins to recognize a part of town he's explored before, when he found the place he's taking her. They finish the night drinking hot sake, well past what ought to be last call, but Bruce really doubts this place has a liquor license to worry about.
They walk all the way back to the Tower, hands swinging easily between them as the sky goes from dark to brilliant cobalt, the sort of burning blue that comes before the morning haze. The city smells of sweat and gasoline and old stone.
“Come on,” Natasha says, when they're finally inside, at her door. Bruce's skin is damp with dew and cold and the filtered air of the tower feels wrong.
“Nat, I can't -”
“You can come in,” she argues. He does; her bags are already by the door, and he deliberately doesn't look at the name on the tags.
Natasha walks to the bedroom, and he follows, increasingly uneasy. She toes off her shoes and socks, that's all, then slides into the bed. Her bedspread is a satin mosaic in blues and purples that clash with her hair, but he can see how it's exactly, perfectly her – the bright color, the texture of it, silky fabric and stitches that would be rough under the fingers.
She keeps her eyes locked with his as she shimmies out of her jeans and her bra under the covers, letting them drop to the floor. She's tucked neatly to one side, half the bed empty; she pats that empty half. “It's alright,” she says.
Bruce isn't sure it is, in fact he's pretty sure it isn't, not least because part of him is annoyed that she's ending the night this way when she must know what it's doing to him.
“I promise,” she says. “I can put my jeans back on, if you want.”
“No, that's – it's fine,” Bruce says, and starts stripping with almost violent haste. He goes all the way down to boxers, because fuck it, he might as well be comfortable.
She curls immediately into his side, when he gets in the bed, but only the upper half of her – she keeps her legs to herself. Her hand settles over his chest, over the too-rapid thump of his heart, the deliberate steadiness of his inhalations and exhalations that he hadn't had to think about all night. She didn't pull the curtains, and despite the lights being off, the room is full of misty, pink morning. Her hair looks like blood against the pillows.
She just lays there, her breath soft against his neck and her hair tickling his ear, until eventually his irritation fades and he relaxes, not completely, but almost. He can't quite lose the lingering feeling that this isn't a thing he's allowed to have.
“Thank you,” Natasha mumbles sleepily to his collar bone, which only makes him feel like an ass.
“Stop it,” she grumbles, and smacks his chest lightly, as if she'd heard the thought, though she still claims she can't do that.
“You're good for me,” Bruce tells her softly.
“I know,” Natasha says, without a trace of modesty. He rolls and wraps his arms around her and buries his smile in her hair, which still smells like all the places they had been.
Bruce falls asleep more quickly and easily than he thought he could. When he wakes he's alone in the bed.
He gets a postcard four days later that says only, My mark is so stupid I can get away with this. I am so bored.
It's from North Carolina, of all places. It has a picture of herons on it.
“So,” Tony says, completely out of the blue.
They're alone in the lab – Jane and Darcy are both in Asgard, and Tony has long since banned all other SHIELD personnel from his personal space.
Actually, he'd put a sign on the lab door declaring it a “No Stupid People Zone”, which really hadn't amused Coulson much at all, especially when Darcy responded to his objections by drawing a smiley face after the text. Then both Pepper and Fury had taken Tony aside, separately, and from what Bruce gathered after the fact, discussed:
a.) that he is never, ever allowed to fire anyone, ever again, and
b.) that he can't fire people who don't work for him anyway, which would be anyone who works for SHIELD.
They are still in the lab by themselves, which in Bruce's opinion says all that really needs to be said about who can and can't do what.
“So?” Bruce inquires, because the silence has dragged.
“Romanov,” Tony says (and Bruce sighs). “And you. You and Romanov. How does that work, exactly?”
“Well, and privately,” Bruce responds.
“No,” Tony says. “No, no, things that may result in the destruction of my property are not private, and I could have JARVIS spy on you any time I wanted, so no.”
“He could not, unless his life or yours were demonstrably in danger, Dr. Banner,” JARVIS informs him. “Ms. Potts insisted on certain parameters in my coding when I was installed in this building.”
“Screw you,” Tony tells the ceiling, then points a finger at Bruce. “My Tower, my rules, spill.”
“We're not . . . risking your Tower,” Bruce says, and is sort of amazed at how homicidal this conversation isn't making him. Apparently Tony Stark is the best sort of exposure therapy in the world, when it comes to anger management. Prisons should pay for his services.
Tony lowers his pointing finger, giving him a scrunched-up face full of scrutiny. “Huh. So . . . how's that work?”
“Well. And privately,” Bruce repeats.
“I mean . . Romanov. Is.” He seems bereft of words, but not of very descriptive hand gestures.
“Very,” Bruce agrees.
“And the fakest fake person I have ever met,” Tony concludes, letting his hands drop to his sides. “Seriously, she beats the Kardashians and the Hiltons and that guy from the Humane Society that said Michael Vick was reformed. I think she might be an android.”
“No, you don't.”
“Okay no, I don't, she'd be way more predictable and less terrifying if she were an android. I like androids. I've yet to have one literally rip my heart out. Can't say that for humans.”
“I'm a big boy, Tony,” Bruce says.
“A very big boy,” Tony agrees.
“Cute,” Bruce snaps.
“Just . . watch your back, huh?” Tony offers, waving at him. “Okay, that's enough of that. That was . . mushy. I need to go drink scotch and watch . . . monster . . trucks? Is that manly? Would football be better? Those guys smack each other on the ass in public, though, what is that about?”
“I appreciate your concern,” Bruce says. “But really, we're happy.”
Tony shudders theatrically.
They're on his couch with the travel channel on; it's something of a joke between them. Sometimes it leads to swapped stories, sometimes to scathingly amused commentary on the cultural ineptitude of the guide and what's really going on in the background of the situation he-or-she is narrating. Sometimes they both just go wistful, like now.
“I miss living somewhere that smells like spices,” Natasha says, her head on his shoulder. “I've always liked that. And heat. Hot weather and that smokey cooking smell with rainforest in the background.” She turns and looks up at him, half-smiling and half scowling at herself. “Not very Russian of me.”
“I liked India,” Bruce says, stroking her hair.
And thus, three hours and several dozen tiny shops from which they'd emerged with huge bags later, they're in Bruce's kitchenette cooking enough Indian food to feed a small army – which is to say, they can invite both Steve and Thor up, and everyone else will still get to eat.
Bruce is chopping spinach and Natasha is grinding herbs; the stone mortar and pestal she's using isn't a new acquisition, but rather something she retrieved from her own suite – though she has no kitchenette. The practiced motions of her wrist, the way the muscles of her arms work smoothly but the rest of her is utterly relaxed, tells Bruce Natasha ought to have a kitchenette. She won't ask for one, though, because that'd be admitting to having a personality, which is something she doesn't do in front of Tony.
Part of him likes that only he gets to see this; the Other Guy definitely approves. Natasha is theirs.
The thought sends a thread of uneasy regret through him.
In another life – with another woman, who couldn't cook her way out of a paper bag, but who cut his hair for him – the sight of her so loose-limbed and competent and happy would have pulled at him, settled in him hot and low, and it still does. Only he can't let it. Can't go over and put his hands on her hips. Can't brush the hair away from the based of her neck and kiss her spine and slip his hand under the waistband of her shorts and feel the pulse jumping at the soft inner crease of her thigh -
- because his own pulse is getting too quick already, just thinking about it. They've kissed, that's all, and infrequently at that, though they share a bed almost nightly when she's here.
It's been close to two months now, since that first kiss.
She looks so very right here, like this. Like she belongs. Like they belong, like this is a thing that could go on. She is the one who pursued him, who convinced him this could work, and it seems like it's working. Improbably so. Too much so.
Bruce stops chopping. Puts down the knife. “Okay, look, I have to ask. You don't miss the sex?”
Natasha pauses, her hands still on the mortar and pestal. She gives him that long, assessing look that Bruce knows means they're about to have a conversation that isn't remotely the conversation he intended them to have – except it probably somehow will be, too. God, he loves how her brain works, and God, it frustrates the hell of out him, sometimes.
“Can you even masturbate?” she asks; she's just calm and curious – thankfully, he can't detect even a trace of pity in her face or her voice.
“No,” he says. It's embarrassing – but she just nods, as if she suspected that, and it's difficult to be embarrassed with her being so very not.
Natasha abandons her herbs, wipes her hands on her shorts, and comes over to stand in front of him. She leans one hip against the counter, one elbow up, head tilted, other arm loose at her side. Her eyes don't break from his at any point.
“I've slept with men I knew I was going to kill,” she tells him.
“I know,” Bruce replies.
“You don't,” she argues. “I don't regret it; they weren't good men. I'd do it again.”
He still wants to say I know, but he can tell that's not the point she's trying to make, so he just waits.
“Would that bother you?”
“I -” Bruce stops. Would it bother him if she took on that kind of mission now? Yes, yes it would, but that seems unfair. He can feel his pulse rising, and takes a few deep, clean breathes, full of the scent of crushed ginger and cardamom and green things, and her, Natasha. The faint sweat she worked up, creating those other scents, her lithe body bent over a stone bowl in their very modern kitchen.
“Do you still take missions like that?” he asks, though he knows he really, really shouldn't.
“I don't,” she answers. “I haven't since I joined SHIELD.”
“Oh,” Bruce replies; maybe she has a point, and he doesn't really follow.
“You know I had a relationship with Barton,” she tells him.
“I'd heard the rumor.”
“It's true.” She's watching him unnervingly closely. “But that was a long time ago. We're better together without it.”
“Okay.” Bruce is willing to admit he's completely lost now.
“I haven't slept with anyone since,” Natasha concludes. “It's kind of novel, having the option for it to mean something. Having a choice.”
Bruce blinks, and can't help but wonder -
“Seven years,” she supplies, as if he'd asked.
It's pretty close to how long it's been for him.
“I don't miss physical release because I can take care of that myself,” Natasha finally answers his initial question. “I don't miss intimacy because that's never had anything to do with sex. I don't miss feeling wanted because I know you do want me, and I don't miss being able to make someone else feel wanted because that's always been a game – I do want you, but the last thing I want to do is seduce you. I'm willing to try whenever you're ready, and I'm willing to practice, to take it as slow as you need and stop whenever you have to. You know that.”
“I'm not sure that's ever going to happen,” Bruce tells her. If I hurt you that way – if it went bad in the middle, and I tore you apart, I couldn't live with it. And I wouldn't have any option but to live with it. That's not a risk I can take. I wake up at night panting and terrified from nightmares that I was weak, and I took the chance.
“I know,” Natasha says, and Bruce hears it as the answer to everything he didn't say as much as what he did. She puts a faintly sticky hand on the side of his face; the smell of crushed herbs is pungent and close. She leans in to place a soft, chaste kiss on the corner of his mouth. “I am. And I'm good at being patient.”
Then she turns her back to him and returns to her herbs. Bruce stares at the sway of her steps, the impossible, deadly beauty of her, and feels the ever-present war in his chest step up into pitched battle. She's so easy to trust; a lot of people have died on account of it. He just doesn't want her to be one of them.
Natasha turns and smiles, half reassurance and half challenge, as if she knows exactly what's in his head, and she damned well can't have read it on his face, she wasn't facing him.
“But I know you,” she says.