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Tea for Three

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Bruce was humming to himself. He caught himself doing that a lot these days, and was starting to suspect that it might have something to do with how happy he was. It was the dominant emotion in his life now, happiness and excitement. There were still times when he was upset or frustrated or stressed, but... the knowledge that he would be a father, that a door he had thought so firmly closed that no force on this earth could have opened it was open for him now... it was a fundamental change in his life. He was glad, so glad, that Pepper had decided to wait to tell him until it had stuck. It wasn't guaranteed, even now, he knew that better than most but still. They were out of the first danger zone.

They hadn't yet shared the news with the rest of the team, but the time would come. Until then he was still occupying his time mostly with research, though it was about equally divided with making lists and plans for the birth and afterwards, how he could take care of Pepper and their child.

The year had started well enough, and actually it had been quiet thus far. There had been the odd incident but most of those hadn't required the attention of the whole team. For the most part he had been truly able to focus on his scientific research and that was so refreshing. Sometimes he had to answer a callout, particularly since Clint and Natasha were called away on missions. It was understandable with SHIELD still fighting the remains of Hydra and trying not to collapse from the inside out, but from what Phil and the others said, it was a battle they were winning. Bruce was gladder than most at that. Of course, nobody wanted Hydra to win, but most of them would at least have the solace of an eventual death whereas unless Thor found some way to offer him sanctuary in Asgard, Bruce was facing an eternity of slavery and torture. However well meaning and stable Hulk was at the moment it wouldn't last under those conditions and it would be like going mad twice. He couldn't face that. For the most part he tried not to think about it, but sometimes... well, it paid to be practical.

There was a soft knock at the door and he glanced up.

"Come in?"

It was nice, most people did wait for a response, but not all of them. He was pleased to see Natasha slip in, as silent as ever. She offered him the slightest quirk of her lips in greeting as he beamed and reached for the kettle. She moved smoothly, but he could tell she was exhausted.

"Long flight?"

"Long mission. Long flight. All done now but I am glad it's over."

"I'm flattered that you chose to come and see me then."

"In truth I needed a chance to wind down from it. We know how to avoid and minimise jet lag but this is more complicated. I can work at full stretch for long periods but I need a chance to cool down before I can rest and recharge. If I go to bed now, I won't sleep, but after the last two weeks I can't face a needless visit to the gym. Besides, I quite enjoy your company though I'll deny it if you tell anyone I said that."

She smiled again and Bruce chuckled. He didn't take it personally, Natasha showed affection best by teasing.

"Well, what do you think would best soothe you?"

"Ginger tea, honestly. I know it's not the most traditional of teas. In fact it's not proper tea it's herbal tea but I... it has many benefits, and I feel I could use most of them."

"In that case, I would be more than happy to oblige. Besides, I quite like it. It's that odd combination of energising and soothing."

"It tastes like fire and trickles down to warm you from the inside out leaving a feeling of peace in its wake." Natasha agreed, making herself comfortable on the couch. After a moment she slumped into it a little more, betraying how tired she was to an extent that Bruce was truly honoured to see.

"We agree on so many things, you and I. It's one of the reasons I'm so glad to have you as a team mate."

"Oh? And what are the others?"

"You are an amazingly talented woman? You're a great tactician for teams and individuals, you're patient, you're generous, you're an incredible fighter, a skilled linguist... and, quite frankly, I hesitate to resort to such crudeness but I would much rather have you inside the tent, pissing out, than the other way around. Quite apart from the many practical considerations, I actually quite like you."

Her smile was bright, and human. Bruce had seen (though fortunately not directed at him), the smile he thought of as shark-like. It was remarkable how someone who could look so soft and friendly could suddenly have far too many teeth.

"I quite like you, I have to say. It's hard to adjust after decades of distrust and running, but you know that better than most. I feel like I have rather fallen on my feet, and I am, though I'm surprised to admit it, proud to be an Avenger. It's the opposite of what I was created to be in so many ways, and it's even different from what I do with SHIELD. I thought that was the opposite, that was rebellion, but this is a whole other level of different. This is the international stage, this is going public and having nothing to hide behind and fighting threats that my usual tactics don't work on. But it's having Clint at my back, and you and Tony on either side with Steve in front and Thor above. It's team breakfasts and team dinners and a private apartment that I know isn't monitored for signs of sedition. I am very lucky, far more than my wildest dreams. And in amongst all of that, with friendships and camaraderie and a real team, I've somehow found a partner who understands all of those things."

Her eyes flicked to him under lowered lashes as he handed her a red glass of steaming tea. She took a deep breath of it, letting it wash over her, fill her, calm her.

"I... know a little of how that goes," Bruce offered with a shrug, "With Pepper... I had given up hope, so long ago, of being able to have a love like that, and now-"

"Now you have even more."

Her eyes were keen, and he blinked for a moment, then smiled.

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you know."

"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't know. I deal in information."

"Is that valuable information?"

"Not to anyone I'd be willing to sell it to. Don't worry, I promise I'll look suitably surprised when the announcement is made, and I won't tell anyone ahead of time. I am glad for you. It's a door that's... always been closed for me, and unlike this for you, it is not one that will ever reopen for a number of reasons. But I have made my peace with that, as with so many things." She sighed softly.

Bruce watched for a long moment, then reached out to squeeze her hand. She offered him a tired smile in silent thanks, and they both took a moment to concentrate on their tea.

"But Darcy... I've had flings over the years. Friends with benefits, one night stands that I have chosen or at least believed that I have chosen. I have always found... women to be more fulfilling than men. I was never expected to work with women, but I don't know how much influence that has on the choices I make today. I see beauty in everyone, regardlesss of anything else. But I wouldn't have looked twice at her if she hadn't made the first move. She is young, she is innocent and naive, but beneath that there is a wicked sense of humour, a good heart, and a keen intellect. I wonder if maybe she is who I could have been if things had been different but I think there was always a little darkness in me. You could not survive in the USSR without a little darkness. Idealism is something that is easily crushed in the dark and the cold and the shadow of fear. But Darcy is wise beyond her years. She is patient, she is strong, and she shows care for the little things rather than getting caught up in the big things. She can control, at least for a time, her litte portion of the world and for her that is enough. And she does not get impatient or jealous when I have to work. She is independent. She pursues her own purposes and her own dreams... I am grateful for that. I could not be with someone who was dependent on me. I would be too aware constantly of letting them down but Darcy... we choose, all the time we choose to be together. And I feel that if one day one of chose a different path, we would part with no hard feelings. But for now, for every day, I count myself lucky."

Bruce smiled, soft as he watched her, listening. It was always a privilege to hear Natasha speak so freely, and he was gladder still that both of them seemed to benefiting from that relationship. He had a soft spot for Darcy. She reminded him of Tony in some ways, and he liked his lab partner a great deal, but she stood on her own two feet and had done so in the face of great unknowns and terrifying threats. There were those unkind souls who would say there was probably no greater threat than dating the Black Widow, but they were the ones who refused to see Natasha as human.

"It seems, then, that not all those who wander are lost, but even for those who are lost it is possible to find a way home in the end?"

The smile she gifted him was enough reward in itself,warmer even than the heat of the ginger.

"It seems so, Doctor. Congratulations, again. Please let Pepper know that I am happy to help with anything she needs. But she is more likely to get actual assistance from Darcy."

"I will let her know, thank you," Bruce smiled as Natasha drained her glass and set it down on the table, moving fluidly to her feet once more.

"It was lovely to see you. I believe I will take a nap before dinner, but I hope to see you there?"

"You will. It should be good tonight. Thor's cooking."

"Ah. That means barbeque. I shall check that I have ingredients for a salad in my quarters."

Bruce chuckled as he ushered her to the door.

"If not, you're welcome to come back here. I'm sure I can come up with something," his eyes sparkled, "Take care, Natasha."

She returned the smile for a brief moment, with a nod.

"I will, Doctor... and you?"

He nodded, and watched as she disappeared from sight. She had always had a way of fading into the foreground. It was an invaluable skill, and one that he had mastered to a lesser extent, but he preferred not to dwell on it where possible. After all, neither of them had anything to hide anymore.