Deja-vous was so strong, it was funny. Would have been funny, if not for the lives of civilians on the line. At least those civilians were in the next room, and their panicked cries were muffled somewhat. Right here, in this tiny office, there were just the two of them, like the last time. At least now Natasha wasn’t trapped, just sitting by the wall cradling injured arm, but Bruce was lying on the floor, face down and fists clenched. Only the shirt was green, not purple, and unless she’d do something, in 30 seconds there would be a lot more green here. And she’d done oh so well the last time… Of course, now she had some (hopefully) better ideas, but… She didn’t really have a choice, did she? Natasha swallowed once, twice, and opened her mouth.
It was standard post-mission protocol – review all the reports and available tapes, go through all the fails, decide what were inevitable ‘unforeseen circumstances’ and what were human mistakes, and make sure those mistakes weren’t repeated. And the ‘Tesseract incident’ had been a series of fails, right until the final battle. And while some things had been indeed inevitable and/or impossible to stand up to – Loki’s scepter, first portal self-destructing, World Council being their usual charming selves – some had truly been mistakes. Mistakes that had felt personal – and Hulk’s appearance on the carrier was among them. She’d brought Banner in, he’d been her responsibility – and she still had let Loki get what he wanted.
Of course, the attack on the boat was the main reason. Sitwell, who’d been the senior agent on Banner’s detail for years, cited that, while revealing of Phase Two and subsequent tensions in the lab played their part, the ‘unexpected attack with direct physical impact’ was pretty much a guarantee of ‘an incident’. Once they had been blown out of the lab, she could do nothing to stop the transformation. Natasha signed the report, but didn’t actually agree with it. When she had time to think and remember, she knew – what she had said to Bruce in that corridor somehow had made things worse. And she needed to figure out why, and what she could have said to make them better. She was sure there was something… This thought, of course, wanted to go further in ‘what if’ department – if she had managed to stop the transformation, then the fight would have gone differently, and then Phil might… But she stopped it right there. Clint was carrying enough guilt for all of them, as well as Thor, and she wouldn’t give Loki the satisfaction. But for the sake of the future of the team that was Phil’s dream, she needed to find her answers. So she read the reports, and watched the tapes, and thought. And when they all somehow found themselves living in the same place, she watched again.
She watched Bruce working in the lab, quiet and determined. Watched him talking science with Tony, and it was a fascinating sight – like a really good movie in a foreign language. Watched him being awkward around Pepper and looking at Tony-and-Pepper with the same lost expression Rogers sometimes did; the expression that made her want to punch the Universe on their behalf. Watched Steve coming to Bruce with lots of questions about the 21st century, and Bruce patiently explaining obvious things everyone took for granted. Watched Bruce and Clint discussing books and circus, an unspoken understanding between them.
Watched Dr. Banner reclaiming his place in science community – merely a couple of months after the Chitauri battle there was a paper published, then more, then invitations to conferences and seminars started arriving. And then Bruce started to accept some of them, silently acknowledging that a background check from both Stark and SHIELD was a necessity. Banner’s connection to the Hulk was still classified, and they had a cover story in place, explaining both Banner’s disappearance years ago and his reappearance on SI payroll, but even that story was enough to attract attention from some unpleasant groups. Not to mention that Ross was still out there, as well as other players, who suspected and were willing to risk lives to confirm their suspicions. So they provided a security detail, covert or not, and sometimes Natasha went herself, since Natalie Rushman was now officially in the patent division of Stark Industries legal.
The last invitation Bruce accepted was from Princeton – their leading physicist, Dr. Coldwell, offered him to take part in test runs on a new installation. There wasn’t anything suspicious about it, but Natasha still wanted to go with Bruce – mostly because she had nothing better to do at the moment, and the Tower was virtually empty. (Barton and the Captain on a mission, Tony and Pepper in Geneva on SI business, Thor and Jane in Norway). Bruce didn’t have anything against her company, and so they were making introductions in Coldwell’s lab when it turned out the background check was incomplete. They knew Dr. Coldwell had a rival, both personal and professional, but they didn’t know that rival was crazy enough to plant a bomb in the lab.
And now Natasha had a chance to field-test all her thoughts about ‘what I should have said on the Hellicarrier’. Be careful what you wish, especially if you don’t really wish it.
“Bruce,” she said in a casual voice. “Can you help me, I need to stop the bleeding.”
Nothing, same groans and clenched fists.
“Bruce.” More serious tone, though not desperate yet. “I can’t do it alone, I need your help. Please.”
It worked. By all the Gods, Norse and others, it worked! It took Bruce two minutes and one of her knives to make a bandage of someone’s lab coat, and then they managed to get through the debris to the main lab.
Precisely ten minutes after the explosion there was Cap’s brisk voice in her ear. “Widow, report.”
So they made it back, good. Natasha stayed near remains of the door and whispered as low as she could, confident in sensitivity of both Stark comm tech and Cap’s ears.
“Explosion was aimed at Dr. Colwell, personal reasons. We are trapped at the lab D315, no casualties. Injuries,” she looked around the room “from minor to moderate. Banner and Coldwell are securing the equipment. Where are you?”
“In the air, ETA 5 minutes. Chances of further attack?”
“Good.” A pause followed, then Steve continued: “Looks like the locals are handling it. We’ll land somewhere nearby and get you out of there as soon as you’re in the clear.”
She understood Steve’s reasoning and agreed with it – the situation was local, and an Avenger showing openly would only attract unnecessary attention. But the quick ride home was a good idea.
It took them about an hour to get outside and into nondescript car with an agent behind the wheel.
“Is the chopper really necessary?” Bruce asked, interlining his fingers back and forth in front of him.
Natasha shrugged. “They are already here anyway. And the traffic back to city will be a pain.”
“You have a point.”
As soon as they entered the chopper, Steve gave them both a thorough look over, his gaze lingering on the bandage on her arm and tears in Bruce’s suit. Though to be fair, his own uniform didn’t look much better – they must be straight from the field.
“Yes,” she answered. “Just a scratch.”
“Sorry about your experiment, Dr. Banner.”
Bruce smiled. “Nothing irremediable happened, Captain. If I know Coldwell, we’ll try again less than in a month. How was your trip?”
He still didn’t like the word “mission”.
“Fine,” that was Clint’s voice from the cockpit. “Fasten your seatbelts, kids, we are taking off.”
Clint and Cap dropped them off in the Tower, and headed off to SHIELD HQ for their own debriefing; Natasha had even managed to get to her floor before JARVIS announced a phone call from Pepper on emergency line.
Of course, Tony was shouting in the background. “I’m not jealous, but tell Bruce he is not allowed to blow things up with other scientists!”
Not bothering to keep amusement of her voice (one thing Tony was always good for, even from a distance), Natasha reassured Pepper that no, Bruce (or she) wasn’t a target, just classic ‘wrong place, wrong time’ thing and they both were okay. After that she finally made it to shower, then changed the bandage and, dressed in a sweat pants and a T-shirt, went to kitchen to eat something.
Nothing in a fully stocked fridge seemed appealing yet, so she grabbed an apple and went to the giant living room balcony. She was talking herself out of throwing a core all 80 floors down, when there were footsteps behind.
“Natasha?” Bruce asked tentatively.
She turned and smiled, inviting him to join her. He’d showered and changed, too, though his domestic shirts didn’t differ much from his street shirts, which had already inspired at least a dozen theories, made mostly by Tony and Clint. Bruce came close, and leaned on the railing next to her, facing the enormous window.
“Natasha… Thank you.”
She nodded. This talk was inevitable, and there was no need to pretend she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“What did you do?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Not really. I remember the phone call, then you dragged me from the lab, then there was an explosion and he was really close… and then he backed off somehow, and we were trying to get back to the others. What did you do?” He turned to meet her eyes.
If she told him, it might not work next time. On the other hand, it might not work anyway, and certainly nothing would work if she gave Bruce fresh valid reason to distrust her.
“Asked you to help with this,” she pointed ah the bandage with her eyes.
“And that’s it?”
She shrugged. “I had to ask twice. Then you came, and made a mean bandage out of someone’s lab coat.”
“Help…” He looked away. “Makes sense. But it was still a crazy idea.”
“You knew what you were doing.” It wasn’t a question, but it wasn’t an accusation, either.
“Sort of. I thought on the subject, yes, and that seemed like the best idea. Not that I planned to field-test it today. But… do you think it will work next time?”
“I’d rather there weren’t a ‘next time’.”
“Me too, but we both know there are no guarantees. And Bruce,” she touched his shoulder, making him look at her again. “Cage is not an option.” And she meant it. Thing might change in the future, sure, but for now, she meant it with all she had. “So, do you think it’ll work?”
“Natasha, I… I just don’t know. It might, but… I’m not sure I want it in a… manual somewhere.”
“Nothing's going into any manual, Bruce,” she said firmly. “And nothing's going into any reports either, unless you want it.”
There was a question in his eyes, and she answered with a shrug. “Nobody saw anything. Officially, we weren’t hit and we knew we weren’t the target – all in all, not that much different from what you had to deal with in India.”
He chuckled. “And here I thought you were our SHIELD liaison. Officially.”
“I am. I’m not hiding any information from myself, you know.” And she didn’t trust SHIELD databases. Especially with any personal information on the Avengers. “But maybe we should tell the others.”
“I… I’ll think about it.”
They were silent for a while, a silence without tension if not companionable yet; but, somewhat to her own surprise, Natasha heard herself saying: “I’m sorry.”
“It was still a manipulation.”
He shook his head. “It’s different.”
“I know you care.”
And, God help her, she did. It would certainly get her killed one day, but damn, it was worth it.