There's sand in his mouth when he comes to. Sand in his mouth and smoke in his lungs, fire behind his eyes. Bruce wonders if Ultron's plan had worked, if there was an extinction event and this is what's left: fire, dust, his bones in shredded skin. Might be nice while it lasted.
It doesn't. The fire behind his eyelids fades into sunlight as the roaring in his ears gives way to the soft rhythm of waves lapping at his bare feet.
When he opens his eyes he's still blind but he knows it's only the sun, whiting out the world. He waits for it to resolve, and when it does, the first thing he sees is Natasha. He sees her outline, anyway, a dark silhouette haloed by sunlight. She's standing a few feet away, every line of her body familiar from the curve of her calf to the slope of her shoulder. He wonders again if Ultron's plan had worked, if he didn't survive after all. He's had dreams like this: an empty sky, an empty beach, the two of them.
And then she turns and meets his eyes, and he remembers.
They stare at each other so long it's like falling all over again, Bruce mostly just trying to breathe around the bitterness coiled in his stomach. Like a snake, he'd think, choking on it, but he's not the serpent here.
"Okay," he tries to say, but his throat is too shredded for it to come out sounding like an actual word. He sits up, spits sand out of his mouth and tries again. "How did we get here?" It sounds like his vocal cords have frayed, but he's intelligible enough. "And no editorializing, if you don't mind."
"Well," she says, her face impassive. "The world didn't end. We evacuated the population."
"Evacuated them to where?"
"Fury showed up with a helicarrier."
Bruce nods, runs his thumb over his fingertips. "And the rest?"
"Without editorializing, I'm not sure I can--"
"Oh, I'm sure you can."
Her smile is faint, one-sided, shadowed. "I appreciate the vote of confidence."
"Confidence," he growls, letting go of his voice, letting it fill up his lungs and roll out of his throat. Natasha pales. "Let's be clear," he says. "It's going to be a long time before I believe anything you have to say."
She looks at him, one cheek hollowed as she bites the inside. "I came to find you so we could get on the helicarrier and evac with everyone else. You were coming in for a lullaby when Ultron strafed our location with a quinjet. You covered me and picked me up, and jumped to the quinjet. You didn't... throw me in, exactly, but you did have to let go of me so you could get inside. I landed hard, hit my head. I assume Ultron was defeated. I assume the rock was blown up. When I came to you were in the pilot's seat and you wouldn't talk to me or let me anywhere near the comms, you weren't interested in a lullaby, and I spent the next thirteen hours staring at your shoulders and doing the math." She looks away, and Bruce catalogs the signs of her distress: clenched jaw, flared nostrils, eyes averted. Bruce suddenly hates her as much as he hates himself. "When we ran out of fuel, you picked me up and jumped, and here we are."
Bruce embraces the loathing and asks, "Math?" Go on, he thinks, tell me how hard this was for you.
Her lip curls. She knows exactly why he asked, and answers him anyway. "Fuel gauge, flight path, altitude. Where is the plane going down, and will my body be able to withstand the impact."
"And the math said?"
"And yet here you are."
"Did I save you?"
"Hmm." He stands up, slowly closes the distance and then some. She watches, unmoving, her eyes shuttered. Her tac suit survived the impact with the water, but only barely; her belts and gloves and boots are long gone, pockets blown out, zippers shredded. She may as well be naked, and Bruce lets himself look at her.
He never gets tired of it. It's no different this time, even though he knows her body better than he knows his own, has memorized the valleys of her bones and the ridges of her scars, the sequence of her DNA and the shape of her leukocytes, the texture of her tongue, the taste of her cunt. But of course he doesn't know a goddamned thing about her, and there are new things, now, new battle scars to learn: small scratches and scrapes, shallow cuts across her arms, a deeper one across her thigh, crusty with blood.
"Open your mouth," he says, and she does.
He reaches out and slides a hand up the sweep of her neck and the curve of her jaw, runs his thumb along her lower lip and then into her mouth. He can feel her eyes on him but he doesn't look up, just stares at his own hand and slowly presses the pad of his thumb into her teeth. He starts with the molars, pushing down, back. None of them move, none of them feel any different than the others, but they're all sharper than he'd expected. He wonders if they're sharper than a normal person's teeth, if they'd always been like this and he'd just never noticed because he'd liked them too much, enjoyed the way they felt against his skin.
When he looks up, there's an amused glint in her eyes. He pulls his hand away, annoyed. "You could have just asked me," she says.
"Natasha," he says, in his nicest voice, "do you have a tracking beacon in your teeth? Maybe a cyanide capsule?"
"Strangely enough, I don't believe you."
"Okay?" he growls, letting his voice go more than he'd meant to. She doesn't pale this time, doesn't react at all. Her nostrils don't flare, her pupils don't dilate. Her breath doesn't catch.
She lifts a shoulder. "The only way to convince you I don't have a tracker on my body is to do nothing until you decide to get us out of here. So, yes. Okay." It's her spy voice, he thinks. Flat, uninflected, no emotion to be found for miles. He hasn't heard it directed his way in a long, long time. He hates it.
"On your body, you said. Show me. Take off the suit."
There's another glint in her eyes, but it's not amusement, and it's gone before he can decide what it is. "You do it." She spreads her arms. "I've got nothing to hide."
"That seems unlikely," he mutters, but he does it, reaches out and slowly peels pieces of the suit away until it hangs from her hips in shreds. His eyes catch on the bullet scar on her left shoulder, and he presses his thumb into it before circling behind her to prod at the exit wound. He knows what that one's from. It's not as if he hasn't done this before, hasn't mapped her scars and tasted them, couldn't draw her constellations with his eyes closed, but -- she's never been this still for him before, she's never been this quiet, and he fits a hand to her ribcage, his fingers resting in the notches of her bones. He pushes, gently at first and then harder, feels the slight give of her ribs. His thumb finds a jagged silver slash across her back. "What's this from?" He's never asked before. He'd assumed she wouldn't tell him.
"Stabbed in the back," he says, staring. His voice sounds far away. He presses, waits for the shift of her skeleton, the hiss of her breath. "Fitting."
"Bruce," she says.
"Just curious." His voice is closer now, mild. He presses at the scar some more, feels his way along its edges, wondering if he'd feel a chip under her skin. Probably not. He steps closer, close enough to feel the warmth of her body on his chest, slides his hands around and down, and he prods at the old bullet wound over her hipbone. It feels like a scar. It feels the way it always has.
"Usually a guy makes me dinner first," she says, awkward, too much air in her voice, not enough in her lungs. He wonders what he's supposed to think about that. He doesn't think anything at all.
"I've made you lots of dinners," he says. He sweeps his hands up, takes the weight of her breasts in his hands, runs his thumbs over her nipples. They're hard already and they draw even tighter under his touch, and he wonders if they're hard because she wants them to be, because she said so, because she controls them like she controls everything else. "I'm just not sure what you've made me."
He stares at her neck, at the flutter of her pulse and the movement of her windpipe as she swallows, and he wants to feel it, so he does, he wraps a loose hand around her throat and waits for her to do it again. She does, she's obliging, she's giving him exactly what she knows he wants, and he feels his body start to respond to hers the way it always has. He wants her, even now, despite everything -- maybe because of everything -- but he can't be sure if it's him or if it's just one more thing she controls, one more thing she can use.
It doesn't matter. He could never fight it before and he doesn't try now, just steps closer and nestles his slowly growing erection against the curve of her hip. He can feel her now, the barest tremble of her body, another flutter underneath his hand, and he wonders if she's wet for him, and he -- he hates it, he hates it so suddenly and completely that it shakes him apart, the way she's just standing there still and letting him touch her like this, touch her however he wants, like he has the right, like she'll let him put his dirty hands inside her just because he's angry, because she's afraid, because he--
"Bruce," she says, her voice clear and very, very flat. "You're scaring me."
"I--" he says, I know and good but she's lying, he knows she's lying, she's always lying. "You're not afraid of the Hulk."
She turns her head, meets his eyes. "Who said anything about the Hulk?"
It takes a minute. It takes several minutes. For that to sink in, for him to hear her, for him to understand that she's-- she's--
"Jesus," he says, and leaves her where she stands and throws himself away. He stumbles, falls, curls on his side. "Sorry," he says, trying to breathe. "I'm sorry," he mutters, but it's not enough, it's never going to be enough. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm--"
"Yeah, that's not a whole lot better," she says under her breath, and Bruce at least has the presence of mind to cut off his incoherent string of apologies. "You have five minutes," she tells him, and walks away. And then what, he wonders, and how do you tell time, but he listens to her feet splash through the water and it has to be enough.
"Hey, big guy," she says, presumably five minutes later but it feels like five hours to Bruce. He's still curled on his side in the sand, his eyes screwed shut, his mind a blissful blank. Her voice pulls him out of it, and his bark of laughter is bitter, unwilling. "Sun's gettin' real low."
She's right. Of course she's right. Bruce can feel it getting colder and he knows it's getting darker and there's nothing fucking for it. He pushes himself up to a sitting position and covers his face with his hands, his fingertips pressing hard on his closed eyelids. He focuses on his breathing. He tenses the muscles of his left arm, relaxes them. His right arm, relaxes them. Left calf, right calf, left thigh. He gets to his toes and starts the sequence over again, and by the time he's finished, he thinks he can do this. He thinks he can look at her again. He thinks he can be looked at, thinks he can bear her eyes on him. Still, he keeps his own eyes firmly shut as he holds out his right arm, and he can't stop the shiver as she drags two fingers down his forearm. She stops, clasps his wrist, pulls him to his feet.
"Okay?" she asks.
He opens his eyes and stares.
"Yeah, okay," she says, dropping his hand, a wry grin hovering on her lips. "Come on."
"Do you have a safehouse on this island or something?"
"Or something," she says, and it's the least surprising thing Bruce has ever heard in his life. He follows her anyway.
It's not a safehouse; it's a wrecked helicopter half-buried in the sand. Its propellers are smashed and the skids are twisted beyond recognition, but the fuselage itself looks to be intact enough for shelter.
Bruce looks up. Not a cloud in the sky, but when the sun goes, it's going to take the warmth with it. It's going to leave him in the dark with Natasha, naked and alone. He can feel the chill already.
He tries to ignore it and concentrate on his feet. It's a careful balancing act, picking his way barefoot over the rocks and down to where the chopper's tucked into a small cove. "How'd you know this was here?" he asks.
"What?" She whirls. There's finally something in her voice, and it's anger. Bruce freezes, balanced precariously mid-stride, legs spread across two of the larger rocks. "What do you want me to say, Bruce, that I mind-controlled the Hulk to put us down close to my favorite vacation spot?" Her arm sweeps toward the wreckage. "Or, I don't know, the chopper's hiding the access point to some secret underground prison I'm going to put you in?"
Bruce pulls his front leg back and gets both feet underneath him. He watches her for a while, not saying anything as the breeze wafts through the soft curls of her damp hair. She's beautiful. "I don't think you get to be angry with me right now."
She huffs, a quick burst of air through her nose. "We're alive. And a lot of other people are, too." Her voice is tight. "So I don't think you get to be angry with me, either."
Inside the rusting fuselage are some half-rotten blankets and old MREs, lined up nice and neat like she's been here already. He wonders, not for the first time, how long he'd been unconscious after they landed. He wonders what she'd been doing.
Now, he shakes out one of the blankets and wraps it around his hips, relieved to have cover. Natasha, on the other hand, got rid of the remains of her suit ages ago and doesn't seem bothered by her own nudity. She's crouched down and is systematically sorting through the MREs, ripping the packages open with her teeth and tossing the contents into piles according to some criteria she hasn't seen fit to share.
He might have something to say about that, but watching her, he's suddenly consumed by hunger, the possibility of food -- even years-old MREs -- making him aware of the gnawing emptiness inside. The other guy uses up a few more calories than Bruce does, and now he thinks about it, he's surprised he's lasted this long without passing out. But there it is: now he's light-headed. He drops to one of the benches, his legs gone weak. He wraps another scratchy blanket around his shoulders and reaches for the box of food closest to him.
"No," she says, not looking up.
He takes it anyway.
"You don't want the cheese and veggie omelet, trust me."
At that, she looks up, and there's nothing on her face as she stares at him. He stares back, his face just as blank, and it's a long time before she goes back to sorting. "Suit yourself." She jerks her chin at a different pile. "But the chili mac is actually, you know. Food."
"You're not the only one who-- I've lived on MREs before." He sounds angry. He is angry, but not because he gives a damn about MREs.
She shrugs. "Then you should know better. Do what you want."
He doesn't want, but he eats the omelet anyway, not bothering to heat it up. It tastes like a cold rubber sponge, lightly sprinkled with moldy onion powder. It's disgusting.
While he chokes that down, Natasha folds one of the MRE pouches into a bowl, spits into a heater pack to activate it, and eventually produces a steaming bowl of chicken fajitas with rice and cheese and tabasco, some bits of tortilla. She's all but useless in a kitchen, but give her a case of MREs and she's a fucking gourmet. It figures.
"How many are there?" he asks, eyeing the piles of brown packages. One MRE has enough calories to last one person for one day, assuming they eat it all. Bruce hadn't; he needs more food. He'd need more anyway. He reaches for some crackers, which he already knows are going to taste like chalk. Natasha had crumbled her own crackers into her fajita bowl.
"Two cases," she says. "Twenty-four. But have something else, I know you're hungry."
He bites into a cracker. He was right; it immediately goes to dust in his mouth. "That's less than two weeks of food," he says, when he's managed to produce enough saliva to swallow. "Three, if we stretch it."
"You said we'd be here until I was willing to change and get us out." He may never be willing to do that -- not that he's sold on the alternative.
"You believed me?"
He looks up sharply to see a guileless half-smile on her face. Her voice is all innocence when she asks, "Too soon?"
"Go to hell."
"Seriously," she says, sighing, her voice soft this time. "Eat. If we run out of food before we get out of here, we'll fashion some spears out of sticks and start fishing."
"You're a survivalist now? I'm fine. I don't need you to-- fuck." He shoves his hands through his hair and tries to beat back the rising anger. "I don't need you to take care of me, Natasha. I was fine before you dragged me into this mess, I was fine, I was good, I was--"
"Yeah," she says, "well, get over it."
Bruce is on his feet and looming over her without being entirely aware of moving. "Get over it?" he asks, on the verge of real anger, quiet menace in his voice.
"Yeah," she says again, apparently not giving a damn one way or the other that he's angry. It's refreshing. It's infuriating. His heart pounds. She looks up at him through her lashes. "It was five years ago that I dragged you into this mess, as you put it. You stayed. You're not some civilian we conscripted. So yeah, get over it."
"Five years ago," he says. His voice sounds like it could be coming from that far away. His teeth feel too big for his mouth. "And how long ago was Johannesburg, two days? Three?" It hasn't even been a week, that's for damn sure.
That does it; she looks away. He snatches a handful of MRE pieces up at random and stalks outside, where he won't have to look at her.
"You know," he says, some time later, watching as Natasha slips out of the fuselage and onto the beach, making noise on purpose. The sun's long gone but the moon is waning gibbous, and he can see her just fine. She's wearing one of the blankets like a toga and looks like a shabby army surplus goddess. Her skin shimmers pale in the moonlight. He'd have to be dead not to notice the curves of her body, but dead -- unfortunately -- is the one thing he will never be.
He's eaten. He'd ended up with the chili macaroni, and she'd been right: when he'd added Accessory Packet A, it almost tasted like real food. He had some Skittles. He had a cinnamon toaster pastry. His stomach isn't angry anymore, but the rest of him more than makes up for it, and staring at Natasha only makes it worse.
"It was really just the one thing," he says, turning away and looking at his feet. He curls his toes into the cold sand. "Anything you wanted, you could have asked me for. Anything but this, and so you just fucking took it."
"What," he spits, bitter, "not going to tell me to get over it?"
But when he looks over his shoulder, she's gone.
"What about a flare?" he asks, sticking his head inside the chopper. It's dark, but he knows she's in there somewhere. "Or I can probably figure out something with the MRE heaters. Those things are full of magnesium."
It would burn fast, but someone might notice it and investigate. If someone came, Natasha could go wherever it is she wants to go. He wishes he knew what the other guy had been thinking when he'd decided to bring her along; Bruce doesn't want her here.
"Or"--he glances toward the cockpit--"have you messed with the comms at all?" If she could build a radio out of spare parts in Ultron's secret lair, she should be able to do something with actual communications equipment.
"No," she says.
"No?" He moves toward her voice. "No what, no you haven't tried the comms, or no you won't give me the heaters?"
"Both," she says, standing up and turning on him. "You ran, and now you want to signal SHIELD and tell them exactly where we are? You ready for that?"
"Oh, please." He rolls his eyes and drops to one of the benches. "You expect me to believe you're worried about me? That you care so much--"
"I am. I do."
"Look, I know you think I pushed you because--"
"Shut up," he says, and she does. There are some things he's not ready to talk about.
"Come here," he says, and she does that, too. Her shadow moves closer. He can feel her eyes on him and can't stand it; he closes his own. It doesn't help. He can hear the rustle of the blanket as she moves, the whisper of wool as she lets it fall.
He can't see her, but he knows: She's naked in front of him, everything he wants and not one piece of her he can have.
"Why don't you just leave?" he asks, his voice bleak.
"You want me to?" Her voice is low. It thrums in the air between them.
"Yeah," he says, and leans against the wall, legs spread.
"Okay," she says, moving again. "What else do you want?"
"Why?" He almost laughs. "You expect me to believe you're just going to do it?"
Her own almost-laugh echoes his. "You think you can make me do something I don't want to?"
"Yeah," he says, tightening his hands on the edge of the bench. God, he's tired. "Actually, I do."
She takes another step forward, bare knees sliding between his own. "Why don't you tell me and find out."
He opens his eyes and squints up at her, but all he can make out is the edge of her body, a shard of moonlight on her bare shoulder. But then she shifts, slides back into total darkness. He shuts his eyes again.
He could tell her to go sleep outside, to get the hell away from him, that he wants to be left alone.
Or he could tell her he wants his life back. Which one, she would say, and he wouldn't have an answer. It's not like he was ever that great a guy, but he'd tried. He'd spent so long faking it that he'd fooled himself into thinking one day he might make it, but no. No, all that got him was this, her, here. She'd done this to him, and now he wants what he wants, and he can't think of any reason he shouldn't get to have it.
He tells her to kneel.
She does it.
It only takes a few strokes of her hand and a few swipes of her tongue before he lets go, relaxes into the blowjob. He usually doesn't, not like this, and never so quickly. But tonight -- tonight he keeps his hands on her head, tangled in her hair, keeps her right where he wants her as he thrusts up into the wet heat of her open mouth.
When he comes, she swallows easily and stands in one graceful motion. She wipes her mouth with the back of her wrist.
Bruce isn't sure which of them he hates more.
In the morning, he wakes up spooning her, her head pillowed on the dead weight of his arm. They're buried under a pile of blankets, which must be her doing: they'd gone to bed in tense, prickly silence, almost in separate rooms, the bench seats in the middle of the chopper dividing the fuselage in two.
They're both on his side, now. His hand is on her breast. Her hair is in his mouth. His erection is nestled against the curve of her ass. There's an edge of morning chill in the air, but under the blankets, their bodies are a furnace.
"Natasha," he says softly.
There's a sleepy mumble as she moves against him, a slow slide of her hips, an arch of her back that presses her ass against his cock, her breast into his hand.
"You awake?" he asks, nuzzling her neck, her nipple hardening as he rolls it between his fingers.
"Mmmmm," she says, which may or may not be an answer. She doesn't open her eyes. Instead she opens her legs and twists, gets his cock between her thighs. It's not where he wants it but it's hot, and tight even before she clenches her thighs around him.
When she does, the pressure of it is incredible. Pleasure rips through his body so intensely that for a second, he's afraid he might change, but no, no. He refuses. Not like this. He sucks in a ragged breath and manages to force the desire back into his body before it can take him apart.
But Natasha -- she clenches again like she wants him to lose it, and he nearly does, his hips jerking forward helplessly, hopelessly. He can't fuck her thighs without lube, can barely move at all with the grip she has on him. He swears under his breath and hooks his bottom arm around her neck. Maybe it's a threat and maybe it isn't, but she takes it like one and lets up his dick as he slides his hand down, down over the trembling muscles of her abdomen and lower still.
Then he rolls, gets her halfway under him, fingers on her clit and his cock buried inside her. She's ready and wanting, tight at this angle but dripping wet, and he sinks into her with one long stroke that leaves them both shaking.
He hadn't been expecting a fight, exactly, but he hadn't been expecting this, either, this gasping surrender, but if this is what she wants to give him, he'll take all of it and more. He tightens the chokehold and starts to move.
If she wanted to, he knows she could get free. She could break his arm in thirteen places before he managed another thrust, could get well clear before the Hulk came out to play. But instead, her hands claw at his forearm across her throat, holding it in place, and her hips slam against his with a relentless rhythm. She's never been so wet. He squeezes harder, presses harder, fucks her harder, and only eases up on her neck every time she starts to go limp. It surprises him when she comes -- he was long ago lost in the rhythm of her body, but he lets go and her body heaves, clenches, tightens--
And then he's flat on his back, her hand splayed against the center of his chest. "What was that?"
Bruce tries to catch his breath. He'd been close, so close, and this is really not the time to get angry. He studies her instead. Under the fading flush of her orgasm, she's pale, shaken. Or she isn't. Maybe she thinks he wants her to be shaken, and so that's what she is. He has no idea which option is worse.
"You tell me," he says, because he isn't really sure. He laces his hands behind his head. "Were you afraid? Because you seemed pretty into it." It's true -- the noises he'd wrung out of her will echo a long time -- but there's always the possibility she was faking, the way she fakes everything else.
"What the hell is your problem?"
His eyebrows climb so high they pull his eyes open. He stares at her, incredulous. "What's my problem? Gee, let me think."
"And what?" Her fingers curl against his chest. "You're punishing me? You think I'm going to let you--"
"You did last night."
"Fuck you." She springs away from him and fumbles for a blanket, wrapping it around her body.
Bruce wonders, distantly, if he's supposed to feel bad. He does, but doesn't he always? None of this matters.
"This all turned out well," he says. They both should have known better. They had known better -- we can't, he'd said, but then he'd let himself be lulled, soothed, tricked. And now here they are.
"Yeah," she says, sighing. She sits and starts combing through her hair with her fingers.
"So now what?" he asks. "Are you really going to try living in this chopper with me for the foreseeable future?" If he thought for a long time, he might be able to come up with a worse idea.
She looks away, her jaw clenched. "No. I'm leaving."
"Good." He starts to ask her where exactly she plans on going, but he doesn't care. He just wants to be left alone.
She moves to where he's still sprawled on the floor and crouches next to him. "Bruce," she says, and he sits up. He wonders if she's actually going to apologize, but he should have known better. She says, "I'm sorry things got so screwed up."
"That's one way of putting it," he says, but he pulls his knees to his chest and sits still as she kisses his forehead.
They hear it at the same time: the low thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopter blades churning the air. They've come. He feels his shoulders start climbing toward his ears. His fingertips dig hard into his knees.
"Relax," she says, standing. "They're not here for you."
"The signal I wanted--"
"They think it's just me, and I didn't want to mess that up. You'll need the MRE heaters."
"You lied about the tracking device."
"Not exactly." She rubs at a jagged cut on her thigh. "I'd removed it by the time you asked."
"And you wonder why I don't trust you."
"No," she says. She sounds sad, but she's already walking away. "I don't."