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.
Were she sleeping with anyone but Bruce, Natasha would not knock on the door at 4AM. It would be only a few moments' work to get around the lock, and she could just slip into bed beside him.
That isn't wise, with Bruce.
He's the only person she's ever met who's likely to react with deadly force to an unexpected body in his bed, and yet wouldn't hear her picking his lock even if she wanted him to. Bruce sleeps like the dead, when he does sleep, which is sporadically and in long stretches meant to make up for whole weeks worth of deprivation. His body has never learned to adapt to the workings of his mind, at least not efficiently.
Natasha knows with professional certainty that this – a subtle variation of this – is what lead to his predicament in the first place. Human trials are tedious things, when conducted legally. Bruce has neither patience nor caution for himself. He's careless in a way he'd never be with others.
Natasha knocks. Four separate times, before she hears his shuffling footsteps and bleary grumbling.
“Oh,” he says, when he opens the door. “I thought you were Tony.”
He is in plaid boxes nearly so worn as to be pointless and nothing else, dark hair all askew. His bare feet are big-boned and knobby and they look all wrong against the plush synthetic carpet.
Natasha raises a brow. “Does Stark try to sleep with you often?”
“No, but he does get me up at obscene hours because he needs help,” Bruce says, and turns to walk back into his suite, leaving the door open for her to follow. He yawns, then says, “ . . you could take that two ways, couldn't you? I mean both.”
“Well, it's Stark,” Natasha allows. “The other meaning goes without saying.”
“Once it was threading a wire; it was too delicate for Dummy and Tony was too wired on caffeine to do it, his hands were shaking. So he pounds on my door for twenty minutes until I wake up, stumble down to the workshop, thread this one wire, and then he's like, 'okay, that's it, thanks, don't need you now.'”
“Sounds about right,” Natasha says, following his trollish feet and a continuing chorus of yawns into the bedroom. She starts shedding clothing as she goes; she's still dressed from the mission, though she dispensed with the wig two airports back. Losing the wig always feels amazing, but peeling away pants and shirt and bra and panties and socks chosen for someone else is still soothing.
Ends and beginnings of missions feel oddly the same to her; slipping into someone else's skin is a release, in a way. There's a blankness to it, like anesthesia, a sort of focused hum behind her eyelids as if there are dashboards lighting up in her brain. Missions are instinct and reason without thought, without choice – as exhilarating as a perfectly executed leap – the sort of leap she never actually learned to perform at the ballet academy she never attended.
That is where endings become a release, too.
“You know, five years ago, that guy would have been paste,” Bruce is saying, as he crawls back into bed.
“You sound very ambivalent about that,” Natasha observes, amused, as she slides naked beneath the sheets and curls onto her side. Bruce flops over onto his stomach and flings an arm across hers.
“Yeah, well, that's Stark,” he mutters into the pillow.
Natasha's fingers stray into his hair; it's thick with grease, and he doesn't smell especially recently-bathed, either. He's worked himself into collapse, while she's been away.
That's his release of choice; she doesn't begrudge him, and the sensory realities of bodies don't bother her.
She wants, very badly, to see this man come apart beneath her; to see this body shake, to make his eyes go glassy and and lost. To give him that moment of oblivion.
Eventually, she tells herself. In time.
Bruce opens one eye to look at her (his other is smushed into the pillow). “You okay?” he asks.
“Fine,” Natasha says.
He tugs her closer, because he knows how to translate 'fine'.
“Collateral?” he mutters.
“About as expected,” she says. She is not mourning a failure; the mission was a success, well within parameters.
He grunts. “I'll throw Fury around a bit.”
Natasha smiles – a few months ago, he wouldn't have made that joke. Then she shimmies so that she ends up laying half-sideways on the bed, legs tucked up to fetal position and her head pillowed on the back of his neck, over the most breakable portion of his spine. She can feel his breath under her chin.
The bones of his neck dig into her ear and there is no possible way this is comfortable for him, no matter how expensive the pillows. He likes it, though, as much as she does. Maybe this is just what happens when people don't have sex; they form their own bizarre little rituals of physical congress. She wouldn't know; she's never done this before, has no memory, real or otherwise, of anything like this.
That's a rare and precious thing in and of itself.
“Lady Natasha!” Thor booms, the moment she enters the kitchen. He is ridiculously relieved to see her, and stressed all out of proportion to the mundane setting; generally, Thor does well enough with domesticity. He's a simple man at heart – not stupid, but not complex. “You are returned! We must spar, and you will tell me of your victories!”
“No,” says Jane, flatly, from where she's seated at the table – there is a huge catalog open in front of her. She is even more tense than Thor, but that's not so unusual – Jane, Natasha thinks, harbors the secret fear that the cosmos is going to go out of print before she gets to finish reading it.
Thor's mouth opens, while he gives Natasha a desperately pleading look.
“No!” Jane repeats, not looking up; Natasha smirks at Thor. “If I have to go through this nightmare, so do you!”
The catalog in front of Jane is full of dresses.
Oh hell, Natasha realizes – she's going to end up in one of those dresses. It's simple math; Thor has half a realm worth of male friends, only about two female ones, and Jane tends to forget the rest of the species exists, outside of Darcy, and thus, unless Bruce perfects human cloning, Natasha is going to end up a bridesmaid.
She glares at Thor; now he's smirking at her. She gives him her best look of you will pay for this in pain and blood. The bastard smiles.
“Are you sure I can't make your mother do this?” Jane asks the room at large.
Natasha takes pity on them both. “No,” she says, sliding into the chair beside Jane. Coffee, now, she mouths at Thor, who complies with great alacrity. Jane looks up at her in annoyed confusion, probably because she hasn't actually asked for Natasha's input yet, even though she inevitably will. “The person you want is Pepper.”
“She's going to end up a bridesmaid,” Natasha says flatly; Jane is more likely to appreciate honesty than delicacy. “You get along with her, she has clearance to actually go to Asgard on this end, there is no living being in any galaxy that she can't bend to her will by way of organizational skills and smiling and thus Odin will let her in on that end, she would be absolutely orgasmic at getting to plan a wedding, and you have no friends who aren't sixty-year-old men.”
Thor turns from the coffeemaker and gives Natasha an incensed look, but Natasha just waves him away negligently – Jane herself is looking keenly considering and not at all offended.
“So make her your maid of honor and “let” her pick dresses,” Natasha concludes, pauses, and adds, “I can do flowers.” She likes flowers. Also it will make Stark have an aneurism to see her arranging bouquets.
“That is a really good idea,” Jane finally says, a bit wonderingly. She looks back at the catalog, sighs in obvious relief, and slams it shut. Then she bounces up out of her chair, looking about twelve, and all but skips over to Thor. She grabs the front of his shirt none to gently, kisses him, says, “Ooh, coffee!” about the same time Thor gives up on not letting it slosh while he's being manhandled by a ninety-pound tornado, takes said coffee, and heads purposefully toward the door. “I'll be in the lab, love you, bye!”
A few seconds later, a faint, “Thanks, Natasha!” echoes in from the hallway.
Thor is dripping coffee from one sleeve and looks a little hit in the head. “We will spar now?”
“No,” Natasha says, sighing – really, sometimes the obliviousness of other people gets frustrating. “I will go track down Pepper and a florist. You will go change your shirt and then get Jane lunch, she hasn't eaten in probably a day and a half.”
“You have been away, how -”
“Her hair is wet, which means she washed it this morning, which she doesn't typically do until she decides it's completely disgusting. That means she's been working at least three days straight. She can't go three days without food, her metabolism is too fast – you can see that just looking at her – she'd get light-headed and make mistakes, and she would never tolerate mistakes from herself. So she will have been inhaling sugary protein bars sometime around mid-day on day two, not to mention coffee, lots of coffee, which will have had her buzzed for the latter part of that day and resulted in her crashing sometime that night, probably in the lab, probably sitting upright.”
“She woke up groggy and in a caffeine and sugar slump, probably with a raging headache, swallowed more Advil than she should have, tried to work more. The Advil didn't work because the headache was too well-entrenched but now her stomach hurt and she was queasy so of course she didn't eat. She did, however, decide she was in no state to work. That was when she noticed her hair, and thought a shower might make her feel better. It did, a little, but not quite enough, so she came here and pulled out a bridal catalog because Jane cannot abide wasted time.”
“At some point in there you wandered in – you didn't come in with her, this wasn't a planned meeting, because if it were you would have been eating everything in sight. You eat for comfort, and nothing makes you uncomfortable like things you don't understand combined with the possibility of disappointing your mother, Jane, or both. Given the time of day and the fact that I know where Tony is, probably you were sparring with Steve, were battle-high and horny after, couldn't find Jane in the lab, asked JARVIS where she was, and ended up here – where you were ambushed by bridesmaids' dresses.”
Natasha exhales. “So go make Jane eat. You need to learn to take care of these things without prompting, you're marrying her.”
Thor stares. “How -”
“Bruce thought I was Tony when I knocked on the door last night, which means he knows Tony is in the middle of a project. He hasn't finished the project between then and now because if he had, he would have wandered up into the main lab to show off, seen Jane passed out, and dragged her somewhere ridiculous for breakfast. Jane was here, ergo Tony is in his workshop.”
Thor stares more.
“Rice and kimchee would be a good call,” Natasha suggests. “I've seen her eat it happily before, and it's easily digestible but strong-smelling enough to kick-start her appetite despite the coffee infusion that is probably making her feel like she could go on for days. In reality, I'd estimate she's about half an hour from outright hypoglycemic collapse. She really needs to replace Darcy.” Natasha pauses. “Actually, she may have a couple hours – did you put sugar in the coffee?”
“Yes,” Thor says, sounding a bit shell-shocked. “You always drink it sweet.”
Natasha smiles tightly. “Very good. Keep practicing.”
Three hours and two phone calls later (well, two phone calls on Natasha's part), Jane and Thor's wedding is largely in hand. The parts that can be prepared from Earth, anyway, and Natasha figures Pepper should have figured out how to manipulate a few thousand years of Asgardian custom to match her fashion sense by noon tomorrow.
For that afternoon, though, Natasha finds herself standing beside Pepper in a gallery downtown, head tilted at an abstract acrylic full of sharp colors and austere geometry.
“You think?” Pepper asks.
“You know I'm more an Old Masters sort of girl, myself,” Natasha says. “But it has a nice rage to it.”
“It does, doesn't it?” Pepper replies. “Controlled, but furiously. Oh, did you get my text yesterday?”
“Yes,” Pepper says. “Dutch, too, which is your taste, if I'm remembering correctly.”
As if Pepper ever remembers incorrectly. “I'm not sure I should,” Natasha says.
“Oh, spoil yourself,” Pepper scolds.
“It's not good PR to throw money around,” Natasha reminds her.
Pepper snorts. “I think we're a bit beyond that, don't you?”
“You are, maybe, but not necessarily the rest of us.”
“Really, I think that ship has sailed.” She sighs at the painting. “Long, long since sailed. I think I want it.”
“So take your own advice and get it,” Natasha suggests.
Pepper nods decisively and goes off, heels clicking, to find the gallery owner – who had been hovering, until she got sick of Natasha giving her looks that threatened gory death.
Natasha gives the painting another look – it makes her think of the precision of knives. Scalpels. She hates it with a fiery passion, really. Not because it's bad, though. It is, she can acknowledge, really very, very good.
“So when are you going to let me put on a show of yours?” Pepper asks, coming up behind her.
When Natasha paints – which she's been doing more, now – there is nothing controlled about it. In the works of others she appreciates glowingly realistic skin and golden light; she has a tendency to shred canvasses. Pepper says they're brilliant. Natasha hates looking at them once they're done. Bruce has one in his closet, covered in a sheet, that he's promised her he'll never hang.
“Never,” Natasha says, but she's speaking to Pepper, who is both Pepper and one of the few true friends she has. Never probably means eventually. It usually does.
The next mission is easier – not requiring of less skill or finesse, but infinitely more morally satisfying. There are times Natasha misses the blunt finality of an actual kill – her regrets are many and varied, but not comprehensive, and she can't see the point of hamstringing herself with them. This is not one of those times, regardless. She collects the evidence she needs and sets in motion a chain of events that will thoroughly ruin a very evil man - one who she doubts has ever seen one drop of the blood he's spilled. A financier only, but no less a killer of children for it, to Natasha's mind. For a man like that, loss of power and privilege is everything, and he doesn't deserve to go quickly.
She doubts his enemies – or his erstwhile friends – will let him suffer too long, and they're likely to be far more creative than she feels comfortable being anymore.
That worries her; not that she's gone soft, but what that softness implies about her view of herself. She's begun to see herself as righteous.
In her experience, that is how the truest evil always sees itself.
She goes to Bruce in his lab. He is bent over his microscope, as usual; she sticks her hands in his greasy hair and leans her nose into it, inhaling the scent of him.
“Don't move,” he tells her, voice very, very level.
Natasha doesn't. She doesn't even breathe.
He does something out of her sight – her sight is full of him – that involves the faintest, glassy plink. He exhales. “Okay.”
“Sorry,” she says, backing up.
“Don't be,” he says, and spins his chair. “Long day at the office?”
“Good day,” she corrects.
“You're thinking too much, then,” he guesses.
Bruce does not see into people the way she does. To know her well is not effortless for him – it's not effortless for her, even when she tries to make it easy.
“Wanna go get lost?” he asks. “In . . ” He glances back at his work. “ . . twenty minutes, maybe?”
Natasha pulls up a free stool and sits behind him. “No, I'm good.”
He eyes her a moment longer, but finally says, “Okay,” and turns back to his chemical reactions. If they're chemical reactions. Natasha is good with technology, but pare it down finer than that, and the working parts of the universe baffle her. Minds and bodies are what make sense.
Natasha watches his hunched shoulders, broad and muscled and just a little padded. The fine hair at the back of his neck, curling around the sweat-stained collar of his shirt. The easy precision of his movements, tuned to his breathing in a way he probably doesn't even notice anymore. She knows his back won't ache until much later, his eyes won't feel their straining, he won't notice the emptiness of his stomach.
She loves him. It's not a new thought, but it still sneaks up on her. So few things can; she enjoys it.
Bruce turns, giving her a quizzical look, as if he can feel the weight of her eyes on him.
“I just spent the last four weeks with a painted-on tan,” Natasha tells him.
He makes a faintly horrified face, eyes scanning over what he can see of her skin as if to make absolutely sure it's gone. Oh, it's gone – the top layer of her skin may be too, but it's gone. Pepper got her something very nice and stupidly expensive for that exact purpose, or else she'd definitely be exfoliated to the point of pain.
“Exactly,” she agrees, and begins to describe – in strictly irrelevant detail – the role she had played.
He's distracted but appreciative at the major points, and when her hands slide forward to begin massaging the knots he doesn't feel in his neck – this time making sure that his hands aren't occupied with anything delicate, first – he hums in appreciation. They're not alone, but Jane is oblivious.
He's flawed and real and there under her fingers, and Natasha thinks, this is a good man. A good human being.
It's the first time she can remember that she's ever let herself start thinking of anything as home.
WARNINGS FOR THIS CHAPTER: There is reference to attempted rape and actual severe violence (non-sexual) here. Also, bad guys of a fairly real-world sort, specifically drug cartels. All of the above is off-screen and only referenced in past tense. There is, however, lots of discussion of traumatic injury.
“So I was thinking,” Bruce says, leaning back into a booth in the very nice wine bar Pepper found last week, “that we should go camping.”
Natasha pauses mid-sip (a darkly wonderful pinot noir; Bruce likes cabs, but she forgives him) and just watches him, very, very closely.
Both of them could survive nicely if dropped naked into the wilderness on the coldest day in winter. Both of them have. Neither really views it as a recreational activity.
Then there's his very deliberately relaxed posture. They're in public. There are civilians filling the tables around him. Bruce does not relax surrounded by oblivious, slow, helpless people. It took months for him to relax around her. But he wants to seem relaxed – would prefer she didn't see his nerves, though he must realize she will regardless.
So, camping. The two of them, alone, far, far away from any innocent bystanders or fragile structures.
Bruce wants to have sex.
“I leave on a mission in two days,” Natasha tells him, and sips her wine, not letting her face give anything away. She wants to let him have this on his terms, to actually say the words when he feels ready. She doesn't want to spook him. “But when I get back, sure.”
She makes sure to kiss him goodbye in private, and it's hot and slow and for once he's pulling her tight against him, hands greedy on her. He doesn't get hard, but that doesn't surprise her; nearly a decade of celibacy will do that.
“Have fun,” he says, a bit breathlessly, when they pull apart.
“Fun?” She quirks a brow.
“Oh, you know you have fun,” Bruce says.
“Sometimes,” Natasha allows. “I'll try.” She kisses his forehead, and he gives her a goofy grin, hands shoved into his pockets.
She goes, and tries to completely forget the half-spoken promise of what's to come when she gets back. She can't afford to be off her game.
Natasha gets to the extraction point with a clock ticking in her head. She's well past the point where she can afford to pay any attention to her own pain, which would be overwhelming if she let it. A normal human would be dead. She's bleeding internally, her belly swelling and her fingernails going blue.
She knows how long she has before she's non-functional, and it's a close thing.
Coulson is there, in a back room in a hotel most often frequented by exactly the sort of woman the men who beat her had called her, among other names.
He's at the door to catch her – of course he is, he will have heard her every bruise in her footsteps coming up the stairs – saying, “Tasha. Tasha, look at me! You made it.”
“I made it,” she repeats back.
He carries her to the couch, and she passes out to the sound of his voice speaking rapid-fire Spanish into a sleek black phone.
There is a micro SD card inserted just beneath the skin where her left breast meets her torso. It was insulated from the blows there – men, most men, don't think of female bodies in practical ways. Outside of the obvious, anyway. The disk is hermetically sealed inside a very specialized, Stark-tech-material pouch. She stitched the subcutaneous layer of her skin with dental floss, beneath the surface, pulled tight and then severed. The stitch doesn't show and the cut itself blends into the crease in her skin. They didn't find it.
Her contact had stopped responding and she was left alone far too much. She knew the mission was going bad soon enough to salvage something from it, if not quite soon enough to escape without paying for it.
So Natasha didn't shut down a drug cartel, but there's enough on that card to make transport a little more challenging for them. It's something. She knows she made no mistakes; this didn't fall apart on her end. Sometimes these things just happen.
Natasha tells herself this as she stares up at the dull metal curve of the chopper's ceiling over her head. She's strapped to a shock-insulated gurney. Coulson is standing beside her, over her, at parade rest and merely swaying with the turbulence. He looks immoveable, stronger than the machine that carries them, like the wrath of gods could not get through him.
Natasha's contact was a forty-seven-year-old grandmother, a widow, a mother of six who'd buried four. They'll probably find her laid out on a highway, butchered and faceless. Only Natasha will know what she died for, and she can't decide if her own survival goes into her ledger in red or black.
Steve pointed out to her once – she can't, at the moment, remember why - that in a black and white photograph, red comes out as black anyway. Pare it down to just light and dark, and there's no way to tell the difference.
Bruce is sitting at her bedside when she wakes in SHIELD's private hospital.
“You're not in the river,” she slurs, still anesthetically blurry.
“Hey,” he says, and takes her hand. “Well, you're not missing any . . appendages.”
She frowns and quirks a brow. “Teeth are appendages?”
“How are you?”
“Frustrated.” She lets her head fall back to the pillow. “I'll live. When can I get out of here?”
“When you can stand.” He kisses her knuckles.
She snorts. “They never let me out that quick.”
“So we won't ask them.” She lets her head loll to the side and smiles at him.
He's not smiling. “They wouldn't tell me what exactly happened to you.”
“Not what you're thinking,” Natasha reassures him, and when he looks doubtful, adds, “I'm not saying they didn't try, Bruce – I'm female, I'm pretty, and I look young. To men like that, that's practically an instruction manual in how to break me. But nobody's in their best fighting form with their cock hanging out.”
Bruce sighs and leans back in the chair, pulling her hand with him, so that it lands on his knee. “Yeah, okay, maybe I should be in the river.” He closes his eyes, and she squeezes his fingers while he does some of the breathing exercises he claims he doesn't do because they don't help.
“I made it out. Not all of them did. At least one of them is never reproducing again.”
“Okay.” His eyes are still closed, his head tipped up, so she can see the strong column of his throat, working. “Okay.”
“This is what I do,” she reminds him.
“I know,” he says, and opens his eyes to give her a rueful smile. “I know, Nat, I know.” He turns her hand over and begins mapping the bruises.. Bruce's fingers are faintly callused and big-knuckled and they should be clumsy, but they're the opposite – precise, and gentle. Natasha adores Bruce's hands. He drops a kiss into her palm. “It's not what you do, it's what you are, and I wouldn't want you to be something else. Don't think I'm not proud as hell of you.”
“I know,” Natasha says, smiling sleepily. “You love me. I love you. When do we go camping?”
He gives her a look. “You figured that out, huh? About the camping.”
“Bruce, I figured that out the minute you said it. You're not subtle.”
“No, subtlety's not really my thing,” he admits. “I think I'm going to want you able to do a little more than stand, before that. Maybe when you don't look so much like you might vomit up your gall bladder at any moment.”
“Lovely.” Natasha grimaces.
“Always,” he responds, and leans over to kiss her forehead.
Clint swings the chair around so that he sits straddling the back of it, watching her – she'd been asleep until he'd come in, and she hasn't bothered moving or opening her eyes. He knows she's awake, anyway. Also, he's fiddling with his bow.
“No,” says Natasha.
She can feel the incredulity of his stare, and opens her eyes.
“No,” she repeats. He scowls. She glares. He sighs.
When next Natasha wakes, it's Pepper in the chair and the room has been . . . changed. There is music playing softly, something orchestral that's skating the line between blues and modern classical. There are actual sheets covering her, in royal blue, and she's surrounded by a virtual mountain of pillows. The overhead fluorescents are off and there's a lamp on her bedside table giving off a soft natural light through milky, translucent glass.
“I hate hospitals,” Pepper says by way of greeting, mouth tight. “Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” Natasha answers.
Pepper produces a tray-table – antique mahogany, from the look of it – from somewhere behind her, then a gleaming metal tray with two covered dishes, upside-down wine glasses, and real silverware on it. She scoots her chair up next to the bed, turns one place setting to face her, and pulls off the covers.
Pepper has sashimi, some manner of glazed sprout salad, and paper-thin slivers of mango curled into flowers. Natasha's is filet mignon, pepper-crusted and rare, with roasted mixed vegetables. Pepper drinks sauvignon blanc; Natasha, freshly pressed pomegranate juice, in deference to her largely-unnecessary antibiotics.
“So what have the boys broken while I was gone?” Natasha asks, chewing carefully and swallowing in small bites.
“My will to live, at least three times,” Pepper responds dryly.
“Oh, I doubt that,” Natasha says, and Pepper shoots her a wicked smile.
“A few politicians and one of the labs, then.”
“If you don't stop holding back -”
“What, you'll stop holding back?” Clint smirks at her. “C'mon, Tasha, you're not even trying.”
She drops her arms to her sides and takes two steps back from him, her bare feet making no sound on the practice mat. “I'm pissed off,” she warns him. “I am pissed off, I am frustrated as hell, and my ribs still hurt.”
“Is there a point coming sometime soon?”
Natasha spits curses at him in Russian and goes for it – the hell with it, it's Clint, he's a big boy, he can handle it.
“That's what I'm – umph!” he cuts off, as she lands a solid knee to his left kidney. “Hell yeah,” he wheezes, and manages to swing around under her, throwing her down hard enough to knock the breath from her. It sends jagged ripples of pain through her, and Natasha feels them like electricity, things in her head that had gone dark flickering back to life as she rolls to her feet and strikes out without thought.
It only lasts about twenty minutes; they're close to evenly matched, the only difference being that Natasha, on another day, would never get winded. Clint is just human, though, and right now there are splinters of bone working their way out of her lungs.
They both end up flat on their backs on the mat.
“Feel better?” he asks.
“Fuck you,” she mutters, in English this time, and he laughs.
“So you and Banner. Cabin in the woods. Boom-chicka-wow-wow.”
“I hate living with spies,” Natasha sighs.
“You are a spy.”
“What's your point?”
Three weeks later she's in the passenger seat of a rented SUV, watching the landscape go by as she and Bruce head for the remotest patch of upstate New York he could find.
Sometimes she forgets, though she makes a point of reminding herself – it's too easy to start to see the entire world around her as something to be survived and outmatched. But mostly, it's going on without her, utterly unconcerned with her existence. The mountainous forest she can see from the highway is ancient and untouched; it's been there since before the first European settlers, definitely, maybe since before the first people of any kind. The enormity of the wild is awe-inspiring; it's a thing she can't save, can't fix, can't break, can't fail. It's just there, waiting.
Maybe, in a certain light, it looks welcoming. Bruce smiles, a bit nervous and a bit eager, when she turns and catches his eyes.
This far out, radio reception is spotty; she turns it off, and rolls down her window. The wind roars in her ears.
Bruce bought the cabin sight unseen; he was told there was a bed and linens, a wood stove and fuel for it, a copper tub and an outhouse. No electricity, no other amenities. It came with a dock leading to a greenish body of water that couldn't seem to decide if it was contented as a pond, or really wanted to try for lake-hood. At the end of what had been a rainy summer, the water washes up into the reeds and laps at the boards.
Natasha is sitting at the end of the short causeway, knees bent up to her chest, looking out over the water. It's late afternoon and her hair is on fire in the fading light. All of her things – a single bag – are already inside. Bruce is hauling in the rest; food, pots and pans, blankets and towels, a water bucket, a case of beer, sleeping bags and a tent just in case. He doesn't mind the unequal share of the work; it calms him, and besides, he suspects that left to her own devices Natasha would have slept in a tree and hunted squirrels for dinner.
The cabin smells equally like mold and the surrounding greenery, and its two windows – thick, old glass with warps and bubbles in it, Bruce is going to feel bad if he breaks those, damn it – are small, letting in the light in perfect little squares that slant and stretch across the floor. The narrow bed is in the corner farthest from the stove with a tupperware chest (presumably containing the promised linens) at the end of it, and – an unexpected bonus – there is a roughly hewn table and two chairs beside it. The entire thing is a single room with a single door, maybe fifteen feet long, no more than ten deep. The floor is uneven and stained; he was told this was a hunting lodge, but the past two generations of the family who owned it didn't turn out to be hunters, or even campers, and they were sick of paying taxes on a place they never used.
Bruce paid them more than they'd asked for it anyway; a sentimental gesture of deference in equal measure for the fact that he might well destroy something so venerable or that, if he didn't, this neglected place might well give him a piece of his life back. Give him the nerve to take it back. He wanted all parts of the venture to feel . . honorably attained.
Outside there is a splash. Bruce looks out the door; Natasha's clothes are folded neatly on the dock. Her head pops out of the water dripping algae a few feet from the end of it.
“It's warm!” she calls.
“That,” Bruce shouts back, “is all yours.”
“Your loss,” she retorts, smirks, and dives.
Bruce organizes their supplies in one corner, brings some wood inside, makes the bed.
Natasha swims, and begins piling what Bruce first thinks are rocks on the end of the dock – they're actually fresh-water mussels. He brings her the bucket when he realizes, which gets him a smile before she disappears below the surface.
There's a rudimentary well, from which Bruce hauls metallic-smelling water and begins to fill the tub, figuring she's going to want a bath.
Instead she climbs out of the water when the bucket is full of mussels and walks, unconcernedly nude, off into the nearby woods. Bruce has seen her without clothing plenty of times, near daily, has slept with her naked body half draped across his; this is inescapably different. He's not sure whether she's trying to desensitize him or drive him insane.
She returns with her hands smeared in dirt up to the wrists, clutching handfuls of wild onion and grinning.
Natasha bathes while Bruce gets a fire going outside; she comes back out of the cabin wearing one of his shirts and nothing else. It covers her hips only if she is very still. She still smells of the lake and of her own sweat. They boil the mussels, then shuck them, and fry them in a pan with the onions and a little oil. They eat with their fingers and drink warm beer while the sun goes down and the sound of the insects in the trees all around them becomes deafening. It is, Bruce thinks, the best meal he has ever had in his life.
It is full dark by the time they put out the fire and make their way inside. Natasha lights a single candle on the table. A chill seeps in even with the door closed.
“You think we should light the stove?” Bruce asks.
“I'm fine if you are,” she responds, and pulls his shirt off over her head. The gesture is deliberately casual; he can't take his eyes off her as she hangs it on one of the chairs and then stalks over to him, looking positively surreal in the half-light.
He'd been a bit worried initially about whether he'd still be able to do this, after so long without. He may not be aging quite like he used to, but he wasn't exactly a teenager at the start of this, and well, use it or lose it, wasn't that the theory? But apparently, a few weeks worth of mental build-up later, that's really, really not going to be an issue.
“Tell me what you need,” Natasha says, laying her hand on his chest.
“You know this is about you too,” he responds.
“I know.” She smiles, that soft, tilted half of a smirk that makes him feel already naked before her. “And I promise -” She pops the top button of his shirt. “ - to have a very - ” Pop. “- good -” Pop. “- time.” Pop, pop, pop, and his shirt is hanging open. She pushes it off his shoulders, and her hand is back on his chest, over his hammering heart.
His heart rate is too high already. He doesn't know how the hell he's going to do this, but he's already in such a state that it's going to be a bit unpleasant if he can't, and then there's the way she's watching him, expectant -
- and knowing. She lowers her hand and takes two steps back, giving him space.
He loves her so overwhelmingly much, in that moment.
“Why don't you go take your pants off, and lay down,” she suggests, nodding at the bed.
Bruce swallows. Inhales. Exhales. “Okay.”
He does; he can feel her behind him, the heat and motion of her, can see the long shadow of her on the wall, blending into his own. Bruce's fingers are clumsy on the button of his fly. He sheds slacks and boxers in one go, and crawls beneath the sheets – laying stomach down, but not flat, one knee a little crooked. Too much contact, the potential of friction, seems like a really bad idea.
Natasha sits on the end of the bed; for a moment, she just watches him, and he watches her, and Bruce wonders if she's thinking of backing off entirely.
He will not blame her. Part of him, he thinks, would be relieved.
Then she leans down to kiss him; his hand finds her hair, cups the back of her neck, and hers begins to run up and down his spine, slow and warm and soothing.
“Just breathe,” she says, when she pulls away, and the hand at his back slides up to his raised shoulder and pushes. “Just feel.” He lets himself sink flat to the mattress, nose buried in a pillow that smells of dust and pine. The bed creaks, and then he feels her knees to either side of his hips, both of her hands digging into his shoulders.
Bruce can't help a nervous chuckle; a massage. Okay. He can do this. They've done this before. He's felt a twitch or two when they did this before, which isn't quite like being hard as a rock and pressed between his stomach and the mattress, but maybe he can do this.
She kisses the back of his neck.
“Nat -” He gasps.
“Shh,” she murmurs, and her thumbs dig in to the base of his spine in a way that has his hips rocking in spite of himself. “You're fine.”
“I feel like a fucking virgin on prom night,” Bruce grumbles to the pillow.
“Hrmm,” Natasha says; he can hear the laughter in her voice. “Well, I can't say I have much experience of proms. Or virgins. But you look -” she stops herself. “Okay. I'll behave.”
“Thank you,” he says fervently.
She just gives another wordless hum and works her way back up his sides, digging into the bundles of nerves just beneath his shoulder blades that always get tetchy when he's been sitting at a desk too long. She's completely amazing at this.
He's not getting any less aroused, but maybe it's a bit less frantic.
“Just feel it,” Natasha says again, voice low and thick as honey. “Just feel.”
There's a trance-like quality to the whole experience, as the minutes slip past and he begins to get lost in her hands and the smell of her and the sound of the insects and the lake, the flickering of the candle, the cold of the shifting air, not quite still in their poorly-sealed shelter. He wants her, and he has her, and the having and the wanting pool together with her voice, and Bruce feels a bit like he's drowning. No, floating.
“Roll over,” she murmurs, and he does. Her hands are hot on his chest; beneath them his heart thumps, quick but not racing. Safe, for now.
Her hands slide down his stomach, her nails dragging gently through the hair. “Do you want me to stop?” she asks.
“No,” Bruce says; he wants to watch her face, but he can't quite, he has to look to her hand as it closes around him. The heat of her palm us unbearable, wonderful, overwhelming. He gasps for air, and her other hand catches his, fingers twining together.
“I want you inside me,” Natasha says, and his eyes snap back up to her face. His heart is picking up speed. “But I think this is better, first. So that we both know that it can work. So you're not – so neither one of us afraid,” she admits.
Bruce thinks that sounds wise, as much as he can think at all. Her hand is moving, and she isn't rough – she could be much rougher – but she is very, very thorough. He wants to tell her that he doesn't need finesse, that he appreciates the care, oh dear God he appreciates it, but really anything – anything would -
“Nat – I'm too – too -” His heart is too fast. His skin feels too tight. He can feel the beast, the Other, stirring, wanting too, and no – no, he can't, can't let it, it can't have her – but it feels too good, too much, and he is so afraid -
“Bruce.” She squeezes his hand to the point of pain, her nails digging into his knuckles. “It's okay. You're safe. I'm safe. There's no one here but you and me.”
He comes, and for a moment his vision is nothing but the red of rushing blood, and her hair.
Bruce's heart feels hollow in his chest, slowing. Her weight is gone from the bed. A moment later she reappears with a damp washcloth and a triumphant smile.
He lets her clean him up, allows himself that moment to re-orient; then he catches her arm. He knows damn well she lets him tumbled her down onto the bed, that there's no way Bruce, human Bruce, could pin the Black Widow. She's all damp hair and splayed limbs and that happy, relieved look, under him.
He kisses her lips, her neck, her breasts; she's quiet, full of soft little hums and breaths as he works his way down her body. She parts her legs eagerly, no pretense of modesty in her, and something about that makes his chest tighten. Maybe it shouldn't, maybe it's just her comfort in her own skin and has nothing to do with him - but it feels like trust and acceptance and welcome.
She tastes like the ocean. He knows this doesn't mean to her what it did to him – that she can get herself off in the shower whenever she wants, and the experience, however good he makes it, is not going to be a cataclysm. He still wants it to be, as much as it can; he cradles her hips in his hands and dear God, is she really so tiny?
She sighs, soft and high and slow, when she falls apart – a contended sound, like all is right with her world. That's enough. That's more than enough.
The next day she talks him into the lake – Bruce suspects, at this juncture, that she could talk him off a cliff. It is warm and pleasant enough but he is not a particularly strong swimmer, and thus eventually he ends up sitting on the end of the dock just watching her enjoy herself. After a while he gets a book; a conspiracy-themed thriller. Oddly enough, he's never stopped enjoying them.
Natasha pulls herself up to her elbows on the end of the dock, between his knees. There is some manner of tiny aquatic plant all in her hair; it looks a bit like miniature four-leaf clovers, and she is liberally coated in algae. Wet, her hair is the color of old blood, and she looks like some kind of evil fairy, come to drown him.
She dries her hand on the leg of his shorts before she plucks his book from his fingers, sets it carefully aside, and unzips his fly.
Her lips are cold with the water and her tongue is hot and Bruce has to tell her to stop twice. He knows when his eyes flash green by the wary widening of hers, and then the determination in her face, the way her fingers dig into the wood of the dock on either side of his thighs, waiting.
He lasts maybe a few seconds longer, this time, and is sensible enough afterward to be embarrassed. At which she pulls him into the water, clothes and all. He pulls her against him and works his fingers between her legs and it feels like they kiss for hours, feet slipping on the muddy bottom. She shudders against him, and he just keeps on. He doesn't let her go until she looks as blissed out and delirious as he feels.
They give up on the bath as way too much work, just pouring buckets of water over each other until they're marginally less sticky, and she talks him down to a pair of boxers and flip-flops as they go exploring the woods. He tells her she's going to get a sunburn.
“Genetically enhanced spies don't get sunburns,” Natasha retorts, her hips swaying down a deer trail in front of him.
“Silly me,” Bruce tells her, getting stuck in brambles that he'd swear must get out of her way. He can't stop smiling.
Then there's the night and the bed and he thinks he's ready to try - but then he's not. It's too good as it is, too perfect, and he can't stop seeing her in his mind, torn apart, eyes filming over, because of him. He's too terrified and too recently sated besides and he can't even get it up.
“It's okay,” she says.
“It's not,” he snaps.
“Go to sleep,” she orders, and rolls over – it doesn't take her very far, the bed isn't very big.
Bruce stares up at the ceiling and listens to the singing insects, thinking how every last bit of that racket is a bunch of bugs calling out for a mate, ready and willing to do what he can't, because he is a freak and a failure in the most basic of ways, a Darwinian reject, and eventually he gets up and goes for a walk.
Of course he gets lost; when doesn't he? He's angry and frustrated and grateful as hell that she hasn't followed him. Or if she has, he can't spot her.
Bruce sits in the forest and curses at himself and punches a tree. Trees make shitty punching bags; he tears the skin of his knuckles. He can feel the Other squirming in his chest, hot behind his eyes, but he keeps it in. This, frustration and anger and self-loathing, is familiar and manageable. He tries to find his way back but eventually realizes the fundamental stupidity of wandering around in the dark in a place he doesn't know hoping something he can't even see clearly will eventually look familiar.
So Bruce sits down, propped against a tree wider than he is, and decides to just wait for daylight.
A cougar finds him before the sun does. Probably it's his bleeding knuckles that draw it. There's something breathtaking about how it moves, sinuous between the shadows, as if it walks through things Bruce can't see.
He knows the Other Guy could take it without breaking a sweat, but so far it's not trying to hurt him, and he doesn't want to hurt it. Bruce just wants to sit by his tree and be exhausted and pissed off at himself.
“Go away,” he says to it, voice wearily level. “Trust me, I am not your dinner.”
It watches him with its wide yellow eyes. It occurs to Bruce that it isn't any more afraid of him than he is of it – that neither of them knows what the hell to do with the other - and they stay that way for he doesn't know how long, measuring each other.
One top predator to another. Bruce supposes he's probably at the edge of its territory; probably it stays away from the cabin, with all its strange and human smells.
“I don't want what's yours, you don't want what's mine, let's all just walk away from this,” Bruce says.
He could swear, on some level, it understands. It leaves him alone.
And Bruce falls asleep.
In the morning, he can actually see the cabin from where he's sitting, which just makes him feel even more moronic.
Natasha is sitting on the end of the dock again, reading his book. She's wearing a bra and panties and a wide-brimmed hat that he's not sure how she fit into her bag. Bruce comes up and sits behind her, one leg to either side of her hips. She leans back against his chest, letting the hat fall off. He catches it before it hits the water.
“I'm happy. I'm honestly happy, with you, with this. You know that, right?” she says.
“Keep reminding me,” he asks.
She elbows him in the ribs.
“So. Cigars? Condolences? Cigars and condolences? Is there a need for a clean-up crew and/or lawyers used to handling the EPA?”
“We had a very nice time, Tony, thank you,” Bruce says, and rolls his shoulders as he sits back down to his usual lab station. It is exactly as he left it, nothing moved by a millimeter. When it comes to work space, Tony Stark is actually capable of being considerate – which is probably less a function of normal human empathy and more that understanding the need for total control there is well within his own experiential set. Still, it's nice.
“Huh,” says Tony, and squints at him. “You look . . . relaxed.”
“We had a very nice time,” Bruce repeats firmly.
“Right.” There's a pause. “So, nanites. I want nanites, SHIELD wants nanites, we have all the synergy about the nanotechnology except that it has to not kill people. Which. More your area.”
“Send me specs,” Bruce says, as he begins flipping switches, booting equipment. There is, he realizes, a conspicuous lack of Jane. “Did you dissect Jane's equipment without asking her again?”
“No!” Tony says, way too quickly. “She's being fitted. For dresses. Wedding dresses. Does that give anybody else the heebie-jeebies? I worry about contagion.”
“So you were going to fiddle with her equipment while she's out being fitted,” Bruce surmises.
Tony says nothing to that, but shoves a set of needle-nosed pliers and a hemostat into a drawer. “So Pepper's on my case for a bunch of us to go to some . . concert thing. With violins. Not my sort of concert. Not really her sort of concert, either, so I think it's about Phil. Show him there are other stringed instruments in the sea or something.”
“That sounds nice.” His computers are whirring to life; Bruce is in a frame of mind to look at the Tesseract data again. It's not the thing itself that interests him so much as the means of containment.
“If you say 'nice' again I'm going to throw something. At your head.” And then Tony lobs an touchscreen stylus at Bruce's head.
It bounces and rolls off under a centrifuge.
“Want to go see 'Battleship'? Pepper won't see movies about alien invasions, which I suppose is understandable, but it puts a serious crimp in my ability to watch things explode that I don't have to pay for. Or explain to the military. Rhodey's somewhere he won't talk about which means Afghanistan, or I'd invite him too, and it could be a guys' night. Like, the anti-dress-fitting. Steve gets annoyed if I talk during movies.”
“Thor and Clint might enjoy it.”
“Thor's not around. Clint.” Tony pauses. “Don't really get that guy.”
“Don't think anybody does,” Bruce allows.
“Your girlfriend does,” Tony accuses.
“She'd probably like it too.”
“Um. Right, so, will ask Clint and Steve. Steve can just put up with my scathing review of the tech, I mean, what's the fun in not doing that? You're in, right?”
“I'm in,” Bruce affirms. “The concert thing, too. But only . . . ” He lets his eyes scroll down the data that is beginning to pop up on his screen. He's seen these figures a thousand times before, but there's still something that – he misses Darcy's eye for patterns. There's something. “ . . . if you shut up now.”
“I don't like you anymore,” Tony pouts. Bruce feels around for the stylus with his eyes still on the screen, finds it, and chucks it back at Tony.
There is no mission waiting for Natasha on the day they get back – Coulson is apparently waiting on reports, feeling out a few different situations before he makes a recommendation to Fury as to where she can best be utilized. And no one's trying to invade the planet, for the moment, so she's free to have dinner with Pepper (who is done supervising dress fittings by then). They haven't touched base in a few weeks.
Pepper, Natasha realizes almost the minute she enters the restaurant (upscale Italian, a change from their usual Japanese), is . . . different somehow.
They exchange pleasantries and are seated at a nicely private booth in a back corner from whence Natasha can see two exits – but it's Pepper that Natasha observes. Has she gained weight? Maybe a pound or two, but it's not entirely that, it's something about her face. And a very slight change in her gait.
And she's not eating raw fish.
Pepper watches Natasha watching her, and sighs as the waiter leaves with their drink orders. “Do I even get to tell you?”
Natasha schools her face to perfect, blank curiosity. “Tell me what?” She eats an olive from the bowl in the middle of the table, nibbling the tangy, bitter flesh off of the pit while Pepper scowls at her.
“I haven't even told Tony,” Pepper complains. “I only knew for sure as of yesterday. I know I'm not showing yet. How do you do that?”
Natasha spits the pit daintily into her napkin and then sets it aside on her bread plate. “I haven't done, or said, anything.”
“Alright, fine, I suppose you can't help it,” Pepper concedes, aggrieved. She bites her lip, fighting a nervous smile. “I really should tell Tony first.”
“Then do,” Natasha suggests. “The cabin was lovely, by the way, and I know you're the one who found it. Thank you for your subtlety, Bruce is very proud of it.”
“You're welcome. I'm pregnant,” says Pepper.
Natasha lets her grin break through. “Congratulations. Can I be there when you tell Tony?”
“No,” Pepper scolds.
“It is Tony's?”
“I don't even want to know how you know that anything else is a possibility,” Pepper says, “but that's . . . friendly and intermittent, and yes, I am completely sure it's Tony's.”
“How far along?”
“Just about six weeks,” Pepper says, leaning her chin onto her hand. “Completely unplanned. How can I be doing this, unplanned? I've been planning the entire trajectory of my life since I was six, and Tony's since I was twenty-four. Okay, there were a few blips, not everything happened exactly on schedule, okay some very large blips, and I know neither of us is getting any younger so if we want this, now is the time, but . . . how did this happen to me? To me?”
“Do I really need to explain that?” Natasha teases.
Pepper just sighs. “I don't know if I can do Jane's wedding. Is Bifrost travel safe during pregnancy? Is the arc reactor I sleep next to almost daily safe during pregnancy?”
“I am not the person to ask those questions,” Natasha says, but grabs her friend's hand and squeezes. “It'll be okay, though. You know Tony would move heaven and earth to make it okay, and loath though I am to admit it, he's pretty good at that.”
“He is,” Pepper says, a little wistfully.
“And considering your offspring is going to be . . the offspring of you and Tony, you should probably involve Thor.”
When Pepper gives her a blank look, Natasha clarifies, “He's familiar with a royal education and upbringing, and your baby is going to rule the world by age 10, after all.”
Pepper cracks up at that – laughs until she's crying, wiping at her eyes with her red linen napkin as the waiter brings their (non-alcoholic, for Pepper) drinks and very carefully does not notice or comment on the hysteria. “Oh God, I am giving birth to a supervillain. I completely am,” Pepper says, when the waiter is gone again.
Then she sobers. “Alright, that's enough about me. Tell me about the cabin. Is it still standing?”
“It is,” Natasha says, and doesn't try to keep the smug contentment off her face. Pepper bites her lip again, this time with a wickedly curious gleam in her eye. “Things went . . well,” Natasha says carefully. “Progressed. That's a good way to say it. Things have progressed.”
“But not to complete fruition?” Pepper guesses, going sympathetic.
“I'm entirely pleased with the process,” Natasha reassures her, at which Pepper snorts and grins. “That cabin's not going anywhere, and neither am I.”
“Except to Asgard, in six weeks,” Pepper corrects; it's really not in Pepper's nature to allow for organization imprecision.
“Have we scrounged up another bridesmaid?”
“There are going to be some men on Jane's side of the aisle – and apparently that's perfectly culturally appropriate, so – I'm more worried about scrounging up a suitable sword.”
“And now, on that, you are absolutely talking to the right person,” Natasha says, and sips her wine. “Are we looking for something actually relevant to Jane's ancestry? Because I haven't done a museum heist in forever.”
“Requisition,” Pepper corrects. “The requisition of a necessary artifact for diplomatic relations.”
Natasha just smiles over the rim of her glass.
“Jane asked me and Tony to be bridesmaids,” Bruce tells her, as they climb into their bed – what used to be his bed, but at some point his suite turned into their actual living space and hers into a combination storage, work-out, and studio area. They keep both sets of rooms, but they sleep here.
“Did she tell Tony he couldn't wear a dress?”
Bruce chuckles, and they curl up and sleep – like nothing has changed, and everything has, their legs thoughtlessly entangled.
“My deepest apologies, Doctor, Agent,” Jarvis's voice wakes them at approximately 3am, “but Mr. Stark is requesting everyone's presence in the formal dining room.”
Natasha groans into Bruce's neck. “She told him now?”
“Told him what?” Bruce mutters, not budging.
“C'mon,” she says, giving his shoulder a sympathetic pat. “You'll see in a minute. This is actually worth getting up for, trust me.”
“We're having a baby. Me and Pepper. I'm having a baby!” Tony is announcing – over and over, as each of the Avengers and assorted scientists stumbles into the room in a bleary assortment of pajamas and robes. (Except Jane, who is fully clothed and wide awake, if vaguely distracted-looking.)
Also, given that Tony didn't bother to tell anyone the non-emergency nature of their sudden summoning, there are probably more weapons in the room than people. For once, that's not Natasha's fault.
“There's a tiny, tiny prototype of a person in there!” Tony says, pointing at Pepper's midsection. “Do you believe that?”
Pepper, for her part, stands at his side smiling in demure tolerance and tries not to flinch too much when Tony pops a cork and champagne froths out all over the silken rug. She is sipping something bubbly and golden and there's a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling cider on the table. It's a little too conspicuous, not at all the sort of thing they'd ordinarily have in the house; this is why Tony and Pepper work, Natasha thinks, because she likes harnessing chaos as much as he likes creating it.
Pepper is in a neat but casual dress; Tony looks like he just woke up after a three-day bender and a Nine Inch Nails concert. In short, they look at home and happy.
Natasha shakes Tony's hand and smirks at his shell-shocked expression, hugs Pepper, and then perches on the edge of the monstrous antique dining table, watching everyone else going through the same routine. Tony pulls Bruce aside, their heads together, and she strongly suspects they're discussing safety measures to assure there will be no teratogenic affects from arc reactor exposure.
Natasha cannot have children – part and parcel of how she's been altered, made more and less than human. It doesn't bother her; she doesn't really even think about it anymore.
But seeing this, nearly all of them gathered, Coulson chatting amiably with Pepper (probably relating his childrearing wisdom as gained via 'Supernanny', God help them all), Bruce and Tony having drawn Jane into their conversation, Steve and Clint shaking their heads at the opulence of the room and swapping stories of their own childhoods -
- it doesn't make Natasha want a child of her own; Pepper and Tony are exactly who should be having this baby. That doesn't make it any less hers, in a way; hers to protect. Her family. Probably there will be more, Jane and Thor's. Children and domesticity, that's not her life – but, somehow, it is now.
No white picket fences for any of them, but maybe this world they keep saving has a place for them in it after all.
Asgard is strange for how strange it isn't. The fashions are different (but not so different as some places Natasha has been). The open way that nearly everyone carries some manner of weaponry is frankly, in her opinion, a bit refreshing. The food is simple but rich; bland compared to the cuisine she tends to prefer, but palatable enough, and the Asgardian idea of table manners seems more focused on fervor than finesse. The people are friendly and open but not quite so effusively so as Thor tends to be; unsurprising, really, that he'd be a great deal less reserved than the common man of his people. The Asgardian idea of royal privilege seems to put all but the wealthiest of Arabic kings to shame – and Natasha has spent some time in the company of Middle Eastern royalty. All the opulence of those palaces can be found here, but little of the rigidity of manners.
There are the usual intrigues – Natasha has most of the key players noted, categorized as to level of threat, and largely dismissed within the first day. No one here has any real hope of usurping the throne, and they know it – nor are they so poorly ruled as for that to rankle. As such, most of the plotting has to do with minor positions and matters more of prestige than real power; Odin's dictatorship is benign so far as such things can be, but absolute, and it seems secure. Thor will be inheriting a civilization in its stable prime – but Natasha still makes a mental note to relate her observations on his court, at some later, private time. Thor could inspire trust and loyalty in an earthworm, but is approximately as observant as one, and is going to need all the help he can get when it comes to internal politics.
There is no empty plate at the table, no vacant chair, but the place where Loki was meant to stand is none the less painfully visible everywhere she looks – a badly-healed wound that no one wants to mention, but of which everyone takes care.
“Why does Thor spend so much time slumming it on Earth, again?” Bruce asks, their first night there, looking out the window over the sunset-gilded city.
“Because Earth is where his brother isn't, and he doesn't expect him to be,” Natasha answers; Bruce turns to give her a considering look. “On Earth, the lack of him isn't around every corner.”
“I forget that sometimes,” Bruce admits, to which Natasha raises a doubtful brow, and he shrugs. “Not Loki, I don't forget Loki, but I forget they were that close. It's a little hard to picture.”
It isn't, so much, for Natasha, but she doesn't say so.
The guest room they have been given is larger than an entire floor of the tower. The ceilings are covered in intricate patterns of bronze and gold and burnished wood, and the smooth, cool stone of the floor is carpeted in pelts – skins of creatures whose living shapes she can only guess, some bearing bright scales as well as fur, one of them nearly the length of the room and an oily, midnight black that shines cobalt blue and emerald green where the light hits it.
“Are you going to find where he's being held?” Bruce asks. “Make sure it's secure?”
She exhales, long and slow. “That wouldn't be wise; if it were discovered that I'd done that, Odin could take it as a serious insult – and they take insults very seriously here.”
Bruce still just watches her. She hasn't actually answered, of course, and he's spent enough time around her to pick up on something like that.
“I don't know,” she admits. “I haven't decided. I need to talk to Clint.”
“Well, Thor keeps telling me that his friend Sif wants to spar with the Other Guy, so just let me know if you need a distraction,” Bruce offers jokingly, half-smiling – not looking exactly happy about the idea, but not trying to talk her out of it. “He makes a hell of a distraction.”
“Honestly, I'm trying to forget I'm on the same planet as the guy,” Clint says.
Natasha watches his face, her own as blank and without judgment as she can make it. They're in a quiet corner of the stables; Clint likes animals, finds the musky, sawdust smell soothing. Something left over from his circus days, she knows. The horses make just enough noise to obscure a few soft voices, and the grooms are not exactly stealthy, giving plenty of warning of their approach with the jangling of buckets or tack or in fond conversations held with the horses.
“Thor keeps trying to tell me how Loki was brainwashed too,” Clint is saying, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Which – yeah, really, I don't care.”
“I don't blame you,” Natasha says.
He snorts. “Yeah, well, you don't blame me for much, these days.”
“No, let me,” he says. “I'm here for Thor, but it's not exactly my favorite place in the galaxy, and as long as Loki's here, it's never gonna be. And Thor knows that. He offered to show me Loki's prison.”
Natasha blinks at that.
“I know, right?” Clint says, smirking. “Thanks for the thought, but yeah, been there and done that, all legit and everything.”
Natasha scowls – this is the problem with having someone know you so well – but says, “So you've seen where he's held?”
“And it seems . . . sufficient?”
“How the hell would I know?” Clint shrugs. “Guy could probably turn himself into a bacterium and escape down the toilet. It's more comfortable than I'd make it, but yeah, it looks like they're taking it seriously.” He pauses. “Thor says their mom spends hours in there every day, just trying to talk to him, convince him it wasn't his fault.”
“Is he bothered by the idea that it was?” Natasha asks doubtfully.
“And again, how the fuck should I know? Thor thinks so,” Clint says.
“Thor isn't exactly objective,” Natasha points out.
“No shit,” Clint agrees.
They both go quiet; a horse snuffles a few stalls down. Something that doesn't sound very horse-like makes a sort of chuckling, snorting sound.
“It wasn't your fault,” Natasha says.
“You know, you can stop saying that any year now,” Clint snaps.
“No, I really can't,” Natasha retorts, just as quickly.
“You know I sometimes think, if you'd been there instead of me, that it would have gone down a hell of a lot differently. At least if Thor's telling the truth, about how fucked in the head Loki was by that point. Because you can twist people and untwist them and tie them in fucking knots within about two seconds of meeting them, and I think – maybe there was a window there. Two seconds. Before anything had really gone down, when maybe – if Thor's right, and Loki didn't really want to do any of it.”
Natasha has less than nothing to say to that.
“Me, I can mostly shoot things.”
“And hide in spaces a cat shouldn't be able to fit,” Natasha responds.
Clint gives a little snort of a laugh. “Okay, yeah, that too.”
“You can bench press more than me,” she goes on.
“I could bench-press you,” Clint retorts.
“You could try,” she corrects.
“I could,” he says, wickedly speculative.
“There's a practice yard not too far from here,” she points out.
“My friends!” Thor booms, as Clint and Natasha circle one another; it was a damp morning, and they both look like they've bathed in mud by now. Clint is breathing a little hard, his face a little red. “You should have told me you were planning to spar, we would have joined you!”
Natasha recognizes Sif and the Warriors Three from Coulson's reports of them – and is not at all surprised to notice that Sif is beautiful, in an austere and deadly sort of way. She thought Coulson had sounded a little bit overly impressed.
“Join us now!” she calls out, and darts in to strike low; Clint weaves and rolls and manages to catch her leg, sending her down in the mud again. She rolls too, springing backwards, and then they're back where they started, on their feet, circling. She can tell Clint is starting to run down, though – he looks tired, but a good tired, the angst and the adrenaline beaten out of him and maybe, he'll get some sleep after this.
“You are not, ah -” Volstagg begins uncertain.
“He means to ask if you are weary, being mortal,” Thor translates, though Volstagg, who clearly meant to be more polite, gives him an aggrieved look. “But my friend, have I not told you -”
Their conversation has distracted Clint – something that would never happen were he not thoroughly off his game and exhausted – and Natasha kicks, sweeps his legs, falls back to swing her other leg high cross his chest, knocking him flat to the ground on his back. From there it's nothing to roll up with one knee on his sternum, blade at his throat.
“Give, Jesus, woman, give,” Clint coughs. Natasha grins and puts the knife away.
“ - the Lady Natasha is no mortal,” Thor concludes, laughing.
“Oh?” asks Fandral.
“Taken, and trust me, don't go there,” Clint responds to Fandral's inquisitive tone, as Natasha offers him a hand up. He springs to his feet without it, but then takes it anyway, pulling her into a hug. They slap together wetly, stinking of mud and sweat. “Thanks,” he mutters, mouth next to her ear.
“Any time,” she responds, as quietly, then shoves him away.
He takes a halfhearted swing of one foot at her shins; she feints at his ribs, and instead catches him upside the head.
“Jesus Christ,” he mutters, but he's grinning. “I'm outta this game, while I've still got my teeth!” Natasha watches him go, feeling a sense of warm accomplishment not dissimilar to the satisfaction of a mission successfully completed.
“Perhaps -” Fandral begins again; apparently not one to heed a warning.
“Lady Sif!” Natasha calls out, turning toward the group. “Thor speaks much and well of you.” Picking up the local patterns of speech is something Natasha does without thinking, even in this case, when it makes her want to roll her eyes at herself.
“Does he? And what has he said?” Sif asks.
“That you are a formidable opponent,” Natasha replies, nodding her head in respect. “I would be honored to test my own strength and skill against yours.”
“The honor would be mine, for Thor speaks often of the strength and courage of his companions upon Midgard, as well,” Sif answers, stepping into the ring.
She's armored, where Natasha is not. The blade she carries is, when extended, twice the length of Natasha's body, whereas Natasha has only her knives. She is fresh, where Natasha has been fighting hours already, and here, Natasha's biological enhancements put her only, maybe, on a level field with her opponent.
Thor looks amused – as does Hogun, though Natasha doubts many would notice it - Volstagg still looks worried, and Fandral looks vaguely like they've just offered to act out his favorite wet dream. Well, it wouldn't be the first time Natasha's been the recipient of such looks.
Sif seems to realize what Natasha is seeing, catches her gaze, and rolls her eyes companionably.
Oh, Natasha thinks, this should be fun.
They gather an impressive audience, impressively quickly.
Sif is stronger but slower – not, Natasha thinks, out of poorer reflexes, but out of habit. Sif is used to fighting larger, more unwieldy opponents. Natasha is small and slight and a unique challenge, which Sif seems to be appreciating completely.
They can both take the other down, but not keep her there. At first Natasha thinks they may be even better matched than she and Clint are, if very differently so – but the longer the match goes on, the more Natasha wears and Sif does not. Her blows are weakening, and the speed that is her advantage is starting to slip away from her. In true combat, which would never last so long, who would strike a fatal blow first would be more luck than anything else – but in this, where stamina matters, Asgardian genetics seem to trump Russian science.
Sif calls out, “A truce?” at about the same time Natasha has accepted her eventual defeat as inevitable.
“Accepted!” Natasha calls back, breathless, sheaths her knives, and holds out her hand. Rather than taking the hand, Sif clasps her forearm, so Natasha returns the gesture.
Their audience erupts into raucous applause. Sif looks annoyed, but Natasha just turns, arms still clasped, and bows. Sif hesitates only a moment before following suit; the cheering gets impossibly louder, but Natasha can hear Thor's booming laughter over it all.
She looks up and there is Bruce, standing beside Thor and clapping politely. Jane apparently came out to join them at some point too, and is tucked against Thor's side, grinning and content.
Natasha walks up to them, kisses Bruce's cheek, and takes his hand. “Enjoyed the show?”
“It was quite the show,” he says.
“I try,” Natasha responds, smiling tiredly. It has been, all told, a very good day. Though perhaps she could do with food and water sometime soon.
She can only blame her exhaustion for the fact that she doesn't notice that Sif has followed her, or think on why that isn't a good thing.
“You are the one called Lord . . Doctor .. Bruce?” Sif asks, the unfamiliar title awkward on her tongue, but her face all open friendliness.
And Natasha's remembers Bruce's earlier words – Sif wants to spar with the Hulk. Bruce's fingers tighten almost painfully around hers before he lets go and steps a little around her to offer Sif his hand.
“Just Bruce, please,” he says, sounding entirely at ease, though Natasha can see in the set of his shoulders and the working of this throat and the rigidity of his spine that he is anything but. “And you must be the Lady Sif.”
“Indeed I am, and pleased that my reputation so precedes me,” she says, smiling and clasping arms with Bruce as she had with Natasha, careless of her muddy state – a warrior's greeting. Damn, damn, damn. “Thor is most impressed with your strength, in your other shape; he claims, though as a loyal subject I am obligated to doubt him -” she doesn't sound doubtful at all “- that your strength even exceeds his own.”
“Yes. Well,” Bruce says awkwardly; Sif looks confused at his stuttering.
“Bruce is a devotee of the arcane,” Natasha interjects, “Like Thor's Lady Jane, and takes more pride in that.”
“Oh,” Sif says. She looks even further confused, and a little disappointed. “But surely you should be proud to be accomplished in both disciplines? Here, those who are both sages and warriors are . . . are few indeed.”
And Loki's absence is once again as large as the yet-unsummoned specter of the Hulk.
“You want to fight him,” Bruce finally sighs. “Thor told me.”
“That . . does not please you,” Sif realizes aloud. She seems completely bewildered at the idea. “Have I tread upon some custom of Midgard, in approaching you as a warrior first? I meant you no offense.”
“No,” Bruce says. “No, it's nothing like that, I just . . he did tell you that I'm not exactly in control when I'm like that, didn't he?”
“He said you had a formidable temper, and little use of words,” Sif offers.
“That's being really generous about it,” Bruce tells her.
She frowns, and glances at Natasha for guidance. Natasha gives an infinitessimal shake of her head.
“Well, the light is nearly gone,” Sif says. “Perhaps another day?”
Not exactly the most subtle of retreats, but Natasha is thankful for it anyway.
“We'll see.” Bruce smiles awkwardly.
“Come,” Sif says, turning to Natasha and taking her hand. “I will show you where we may bathe, out of sight of the men, without having to tromp mud all through the halls.” Natasha lets herself be lead away.
“I meant no offense,” Sif repeats, though she waits until they are far, far out of earshot of the crowd; far out of human earshot, anyway. Perhaps Natasha needs to be more cognizant of the sensory faculties of the Aesir. “Is he like the Allfather, that he scorns violence for its own sake?”
Natasha thinks a moment before responding; that's not far from the truth, is in fact entirely true, if not especially relevant. But she says, “No. He isn't exaggerating when he says he's not in control, when he shifts forms. In his other shape, he likes violence for its own sake a little too much.”
“Oh,” Sif says, with a depth of understanding that surprises Natasha. “Yes, I understand; it is good that he knows himself so well, then.” She pauses. “Thor never made him sound so; but then Thor can be loyal to a fault.”
“He can,” Natasha agrees.
Sif sighs; Natasha glances to her side, and sees the other woman's eyes are far away.
“You can talk about him, you know,” Natasha says. “Around me, at least. I wouldn't suggest it around some of the others, but I don't mind.”
“Him - ?”
And Sif seems to deflate where she stands, her proud shoulders sagging. “You would have every right to mind. You would have every right to hate all of us, for what he did to your world.”
“You aren't responsible for his actions,” Natasha says – she wonders, some times, if speaking those words is her purpose in existence. She seems surrounded by an improbable number of people who need to hear them.
“But that's it,” Sif sighs; they've come to a high stone wall; a mineral-scented gust of humidity billows out as Sif opens the gate. Hot springs, Natasha gathers. “His actions were his own choosing, and rest on his shoulders, but I think . . .” She pauses in the entry, back to Natasha. “I think we never noticed how much we allowed to rest on his shoulders, until he threw us all off. I think he saved our lives more times than I can count, and we laughed at him for it, when we weren't calling him liar and betrayer. He was those things, and worse, but rarely . . rarely for his own sake. He would have made – he did make, a poor king. But not a poor friend. Not that. And what, then, does that say of us?”
And she pushes ahead through the gate without looking back.
Bathing involves steeping in as much awkward silence as hot mineral water; Natasha likes Sif, but still just met her, and is suddenly in possession of far too much insight into the woman's deepest self-doubts. It's not exactly an unusual thing for her, but it's unusual and unpleasant for the other party to be fully cognizant of how much she knows. She bathes as quickly as she can without rudeness.
It's dark and the halls are beginning to fill with the smell of roasting meat by the time Natasha makes her way back to her and Bruce's room, clad in a simple, borrowed robe, to change for the evening meal.
“Sorry for the awkward end to your day,” Bruce says; she blinks a moment, surprised at his insight, and then realizes he's referring to his own unpleasant conversation with Sif, and not hers.
“That was even less your fault that you realize,” Natasha responds dryly. “I'm going to have a talk with Thor.”
“Don't now,” Bruce says. “After the wedding, next time he's on Earth.”
She shrugs her acquiescence.
And they dress, and it's quiet, but this is a comfortable sort of silence – all soft rustles of clothing shed and donned, buttons done up for one another and hair pushed into place by fond fingers. Bruce is uncomfortable with the knife at his hip – no man goes without one, here – but looks, otherwise, very, very nice in Asgardian finery.
Natasha pulls him into a loose embrace just as they're both about to go out the door.
“Nat?” he asks, surprised. “Everything okay?”
“When we get back, we're going to the cabin,” she says. “And yes, everything is fine.” She sighs. “Better than it was this morning, even. Just complicated, and not fixable. So pretty much situation normal, all fucked up.”
“Okay,” he agrees, rubbing circles at the small of her back. He pauses a bit too long before he says, “We'll go to the cabin.”
Natasha draws back. “What?”
“Nothing,” he says, smiling ruefully. “Are you still sure you can't read my mind?”
“If I could read your mind, I wouldn't be asking,” she retorts.
“Nothing,” he repeats. “Just a thought. That will keep.”
She eyes him warily for a moment.
“Let's go eat our body weight in strange gourds and animals we've never heard of?” Bruce smiles a bit sheepishly.
“Okay,” Natasha says. “Okay.” She doesn't say I trust you - and after the long, long day she's had, it settles soft and soothing over her that really, it doesn't need to be said.
Natasha is far from sentimental about weddings. She's attended a lot of them – mostly because they're the sort of events where someone otherwise too smart to come out of hiding will try to show up in disguise. If not that, then she'd been there to prevent someone else from taking advantage of the same.
Jane and Thor's wedding is a sort of heavily weighted balance of customs – mostly Jane's retinue's attire is a nod to Midgard, with everything else firmly Asgardian. Tony is in his Iron Man suit, visor up, and Steve in his costume with his shield, because formal armor is apparently the appropriate dress for a warrior at a wedding, here. Thor tried to offer to have armor made for Bruce and Erik as well as Clint, but Pepper managed to intervene on that one, and thus both Erik and Bruce are in tuxedos. Clint, on the other hand, is enjoying the hell out of tromping around looking like Beowulf. Sif stands armored at Thor's side, but Natasha stands two down from Jane, beside Pepper and then Darcy, in folds of flowing red silk – the dress is more adaptable to her style of fighting than armor would be anyway, and she has a feeling Pepper was entirely cognizant of that in choosing the cut.
Jane is beautiful, and grinning like a happy child through the offering of rings on sword-hilts, the not-too-unfamiliar vows and the exchanging of the swords themselves (Tony designed the belt and sheath with which Jane carries hers, so that she can actually do so without falling over.)
Then comes a part of the ceremony unique to this one wedding, having no precedent on either Earth or Asgard.
From behind the dais doors open, and sages in dark robes flow out like the ghosts of ravens, dark and solemn against the brightness of the day. Thor's face goes sober, and Jane doesn't grin anymore – looks nervous, for the first time since all the women began to prepare her yesterday – as a girl makes her way between the sages, simply dressed in a golden smock, bearing a platter. Her body is that of someone just shy of adulthood, but her face is ageless, and her eyes, ancient. Her feet are bare and her steps, soundless.
The crowd is hushed; even Odin and Frigga, seated above the bridal party, look on this girl with respect. She does not bow to them.
“Jane Foster of Midgard, she who has mapped Yggdrasil's branches and remade the path between worlds. She who would be bride of Thor the Thunderer, and Queen over the Aesir.” The girl's voice rings out, high and clear and not even remotely human. “This day I offer you the gift of eternal youth, and a life unmeasured. Few are so honored; few of those are deserving. Will you honor this gift, Jane Foster, with the use you make of it?”
“I – I will,” Jane whispers. “I swear it.” Natasha has no doubt that her voice can be heard to the farthest corner of the hall none the less, so complete is the silence.
The girl hands the golden platter to Thor, who takes it and kneels before Jane, offering it up.
Jane's hands shake as she takes the single sliver of gold apple and brings it to her lips. The cut of her teeth into the crisp flesh is loud, unnaturally so, like the ringing of a bell. The platter makes a faint rattling where it rests still on Thor's hands, against his armored wrists. His eyes are on Jane, and hers on him, as she eats the small piece of fruit in slow, deliberate bites, as if the entire rest of the universe and all its realms has vanished, and there is only they two.
Natasha is still, as still as everyone else in the hall.
Natasha does age, but not like she should, and for an eternal second it feels like all the air has been sucked from her lungs and her belly carved hollow with some blunt thing – because more than half of those who stand around her, every one of them someone she'd trade her unnatural life for without blinking, will. Not Thor, or Steve, and now, not Jane, but Clint. Pepper. Coulson, somewhere out in the crowd, probably trying not to tear up – he's a sap at weddings. Fury. Darcy. Tony. She's going to attend all of their funerals.
Natasha can't breathe, and she wants to see Bruce, to reassure herself that he, like she, has cheated time. That for all that his research was a failure in its primary goal, it achieved that much. She won't bury him, not until she's inches from a grave herself. Not unless one of them gets sloppy. When she has to put Clint in the ground – oh God, there's no air – he will be standing with her.
She is still, so very still, and if she can't breathe she won't, because this is not her day. This is Thor's day, and Jane's, and she will not be weak now, of all times.
And then Jane is licking the last of the juice from her fingers, and the girl smiles.
“Aesir, welcome your sister, Jane,” she calls out.
The crowd roars, the sound of it breaking over Natasha and shattering the silence, and warmth and air and feeling rush back into her. Thor puts the platter at the girl's feet with hands that shake openly, stands, pulls Jane into a tight embrace – not even a kiss, now, but just holding her as tightly as he can. It's just a wedding, again, just her friends' day of celebration, and she smiles so wide it aches as Jane reaches up and tugs Thor's mouth down to hers. Odin and Frigga are standing and clapping.
“Let us feast and rejoice!” Odin calls out, banging his scepter on the metal floor so that the echo of it reverberates up through the soles of all of their feet, and Sif raises a cheer that is quickly take up by the Warriors Three, and then all the hall.
The procession out is nowhere near as orderly as it would be on Earth; rather it seems to fall into instant chaos the moment Thor and Jane, Frigga and Odin, have descended the dais. Everyone rushes to greet them, and they make their way very, very slowly into the next hall, already set for feasting.
There is dancing and drinking and Jane and Thor feeding one another mead; Natasha dances with Thor, and with Clint, and with Fandral, who is actually a bit fun, when he's drunk – at least, he's a very quick on his feet, and manages to guide her through a few of the more intricate Asgardian dances. Then again, it's also possible that she's had a little more than she should have herself, and is easily amused. She even gets Bruce out on the floor a few times – Bruce is not a good dancer, but he doesn't care if she leads.
It is apparently necessary that Thor and Jane be put to bed, with witnesses, before the sun goes down – so the bridal party all go and witness Jane turning redder than Thor's cape and Thor sticking the sword Natasha requisitioned for Jane to give him into the roof of their chamber.
Then there has to be more feasting and celebration.
Natasha joins Bruce in a quiet corner sometime after midnight; she's sipping some sort of mead-based, spicy sangria-ish thing with a mellow, contented languor. He's staring out at the increasingly debauched crowd in fond exhaustion. For several minutes they just prop up the wall together, shoulders touching.
“We should buy a house,” Bruce says.
Natasha turns and blinks at him. He takes her hand, the one not holding the drink – she puts the drink down on the floor so she can wrap her other hand around his.
“In New York,” Bruce elaborates.
“Oh, I see,” Natasha tries to joke, while she tries to wrap her brain around the fact that Bruce is actually saying this – this must be the idea he had, but didn't want to share before. The idea that would keep. “You think we have too much money.”
“Well, yes,” he says, with a rueful little smile that makes Natasha think she'd burn the world down to see this man talking about the future and smiling all the way. “It's a little ridiculous, but not really the point. We should get something close to the Tower - should still keep rooms there, it's not like I don't realize I'm going to end up passing out there probably more often than not, but . . we should have a house.”
And he pushes away from the wall and pries her spare hand away so he can hold one of her hands in each of his. “Because I think . . I think I'm done running. And I want to be done running with you. I want a life, and I want it with you, and I'd fight anything and anyone for that, including myself. I'm not saying I'm not still scared, petrified, actually, but the hell with it. So.” He stops and swallows. “Just tell me if you're in.”
“I'm in,” Natasha whispers, then steps up close to him, their hands still entwined, so they're pressed front to front along every inch she can find. She lays her head down on his shoulder, her mouth toward his ear, and for a moment just breaths and feels both of their hearts beating, louder than the revelry around them. “You know that. I'll always be in.”
The house echoes as Bruce closes the door, finally having shuffled Tony out.
Their sheets are on one of the beds upstairs, their soap in the third floor bathroom, the kitchen at what both of them would consider bare-bones capacity but still containing their food. Natasha's small but impressive art collection has been carefully hung and Bruce's notebooks take up one corner of the library. There are an assortment of chairs, and two kitchen tables (one re-purposed as a work bench, and Tony has promised equipment, and a security system, and to turn one of the bedrooms into a laboratory with controlled humidity and temperature and lots of other things that Natasha is sure are very important, mostly in that they'll give Tony an excuse to be in their space without having to say he misses having Bruce at the Tower).
The service Pepper hired for them has made the floor gleam. It smells faintly of almond oil.
“So,” Bruce says, and Natasha can picture his hands stuffed into his pockets and his chin tilted up, toward the staircase, his eyes roaming, without even turning around. “We're home.”
“We're home,” she repeats. There is a feeling of panic that she's trying to shove down. She's slept in alleys before; this lovely house in a lovely neighborhood should not be making her feel twitchy.
But she owed nothing to those alleys. All she had that was worth defending was on her person, and often completely intangible. Intel, codes, names. She cannot remember a time when she didn't realize her own mind was very much a thing that could be broken in to, or stolen, or burned; it isn't that she has any great feeling of security within the confines of her own person. But she'd had years, decades, to perfect the defense of it. To regain control of it.
Bruce's arms come around her from behind, loose around her waist, his chin on her shoulder. “You okay?”
She exhales shakily. “I'm fine.”
“Oh good,” he says, “Because I'm freaking the hell out, here.”
She snorts, and chuckles, and grabs his hands. “Who knew houses were so intimidating?”
“Kinda the point, wasn't it?”
“We're masochists,” she says, with flat finality. “Only explanation.”
“How many knives do you think you can fit under your pillow?”
“All of them.”
They buy furniture, and paint the walls in peacock blues and soothing greens, and fight Tony tooth and nail to keep the installation of a security system from turning into the installation of JARVIS. Natasha likes JARVIS well enough; she does not want him for a roommate. Though nothing is said outright, she can gather from the tone of their next conversation at the Tower that JARVIS feels much the same way.
Somewhere between vaguely Mediterranean tapestry curtains and soundproofing and secure phone lines, Natasha realizes there is something she needs to do – perhaps has needed to do for quite some time – before she can be content to live here, or anywhere, really, as no one other than herself and to no purpose but the living of her own life. Even if it is only between missions, and she's away more than she's not.
Her own unfinished matters will remain unfinished – she's known that for a long time. There are things she is not going to remember, and maybe it's better that way. There are things, many, many things, that can't be put to rights by any amount of closure. She's accepted. She continues forward. It's what she's always done. It hasn't failed her yet.
She is nowhere near so sanguine about what Bruce has lost – or what he could still lose.
Which is why General Ross comes home to find her sitting at his kitchen table one evening in early May.
She'll give him this much; he barely flinches, and says only, “What does Nick Fury want?”
“I'm not here for Fury,” Natasha says.
“Drink?” Ross asks, and goes from cabinet to cabinet, collecting two tumblers and a bottle of scotch. She doesn't reply, lets him pour for them both, and doesn't touch the glass. He sips.
“So. This is about Banner?” Ross asks.
“This is about Banner,” Natasha affirms.
“I turned that entire project over to SHIELD five years ago,” Ross tells her.
“I'm not here about the project,” Natasha clarifies. “I'm here about Dr. Banner. You're going to leave him alone.”
“I have left -”
“No,” Natasha interrupts sharply. “You're going to return his research data. You're going to stop your surveillance on his former colleagues. You will stop trying to gain access to his medical records and his current work at SHIELD. In summary, you are going to forget that you ever met a man named Bruce Banner.”
He stares at her, long and hard, and then drains his glass. “Or?”
Natasha just smiles.
“You're not the only one with connections, you know,” Ross tries.
Natasha just keeps smiling. “This isn't a request. And I don't need connections.”
“You're threatening me,” Ross says, sounding faintly stunned. “Fury -”
“Not Fury,” Natasha reminds him.
“I should report you to Fury,” Ross snaps.
“Go ahead,” Natasha says calmly.
“I could turn you back into a fugitive with one phone call.”
“You could,” she agrees. Her smile never slips.
“There are other agencies involved, here,” Ross finally says, and that's when Natasha knows she's won.
“And you're going to tell me all about them.”
“It's me,” Natasha says as she slips into bed, loud enough for Bruce to wake and hear her – letting him wake to an unexpected body beside him is still bad idea.
“Umph,” Bruce replies, and flings an arm in her general direction.
“Just so you know,” she continues, “if anyone comes after you again? It won't be the US Military.”
That has him rolling over to face her, wide awake. There's a hint of green in his eyes. “What did you do?”
“What I do,” she answers, smirking. “Don't worry, there were no bodies.”
He considers that a moment. “No bodies?”
“No bodies,” she repeats.
“I love you,” he says, and draws her in close. “You're fucking amazing, and going to kill me, and I love you.”
Natasha lays awake the rest of the night, learning the sounds their home makes as it settles.
Bruce has supervised innumerable births, in his dubious second career as a third-world doctor. The sharp cleanliness of a modern hospital is a jarring contrast to what he's used to and seems, on some level, wrong – inappropriate to an event so primal. But much, much safer – improbably, perfectly, unnaturally safe, as he keeps reassuring Tony, when Pepper and the doctors kick him out into the waiting area.
That never lasts long; ten minutes after she's thrown him from the room shrieking, Pepper's sobbing for him to come back. Bruce wonders if you can get blacklisted from admittance to a hospital.
Natasha seems a little shell-shocked about the whole thing – mostly, Bruce thinks, by Pepper's shameless abandonment of anything resembling sophistication or self-control. Having seen this before, Bruce isn't exactly surprised – birth does that to people – but maybe Natasha's seen fewer births.
Of course Natasha's seen fewer births.
Given her line of work, Bruce really hopes Natasha's seen damned few births. Like, say, none. None would be a good number.
Pepper screams, and Natasha jumps. Tony's out of the room – rather, in the room with Pepper – at that point, so Bruce is free to take her hand. “You know she's going to be fine, right?”
Natasha gives him a withering look. “Of course.”
“Right,” he agrees, and smiles what he hopes is not a condescending smile – from the flat glare it earns him, probably he wasn't so successful.
But then she leans her head onto his shoulder and sighs. He rubs her back.
About forty minutes later, there is the distinctive cry of a very, very new baby. Natasha goes absolutely still beside him, eyes glued to the door as if, by staring hard enough, she can make it open.
It's a while before it does open, but eventually Tony comes out holding a small, swaddled bundle in a pink cap.
“Everyone,” he says, his voice strained and wobbly, “I'd like to introduce you to Margaret Virgina Stark.”
Bruce doesn't think Natasha is even breathing.
The baby is tiny and perfect, all wide dark eyes that, though they can't quite focus, still dart around curiously. Steve looks like he's trying not to tear up at the name Margaret, smiling so wide his face seems in danger of splitting in half. Thor proclaims her “a fine, strong child,” and Clint greets her with a smirk and says, “Hey, mini-Stark. Welcome to the party.”
Tony hands Margaret off to James Rhodes, who is appreciative of the honor for a few minutes, and then hands her to Natasha.
Natasha moves with a sort of vacant grace, as she takes the baby – cradles her head and supports her spine as if she's done this a thousand times. The baby's eyes latch onto her face. They just watch each other, and Bruce watches them, and he isn't entirely sure what he's seeing, but it makes his chest tight.
Eventually Tony takes the baby back in to Pepper. Natasha sits back down.
“Hey.” Bruce sits beside her.
“Have you ever -” She stops. Her face is a careful blank for a moment, before she turns to him. “They weren't trying – weren't planning a baby,” she says quietly, so only he will hear. The others are absorbed in their own conversations anyway.
“Okay,” Bruce replies.
“Think of how many things had to happen just the way they did, for her to exist.”
“True for pretty much everybody here,” Bruce offers, smiling wryly – births make Natasha philosophical. He never, ever would have guessed. Not in a million years. “I mean, everybody here – on the planet. Heck, in all the realms or whatever.”
“I don't care about everyone on the planet,” Natasha says, as if that should be obvious.
“Well, yeah -”
“Right now? I don't regret anything,” Natasha says. “Nothing at all.”
And Bruce is dumbstruck, because he's seen a hundred births, at least, and he's never – but maybe that's the problem. Maybe he stopped seeing, somewhere along the line.
Maybe she did too – but she chose to start again. And, he realizes, she started with him.
He sees her, really sees her, and the way she's looking at him, and - “Me either. Me too.”
Thank you all for coming along for the ride! I've gotten some of the best comments ever on this fic.