Chapter TextThe fluorescent lights of the kitchen bathe the room with a harsh brightness. On first thought, one might think the place is quiet. But unadulterated silence simply does not exist. It is impossible. Bruce's mind won't shut off and his heart ticks like a metronome and his breath is sharp in his ears. He stops and listens to the noises he had gotten so used to, the ones he tended to block out. The hum of the refrigerator, the clicking of the rusty ceiling fan- But now, there was a new noise that he hadn't registered in his mind as fluorescent lights of the kitchen bathe the room with a harsh brightness. On first thought, one might think the place is quiet. But unadulterated silence simply does not exist. It is impossible. Bruce's mind won't shut off and his heart ticks like a metronome and his breath is sharp in his ears. He stops and listens to the noises he had gotten so used to, the ones he tended to block out. The hum of the refrigerator, the clicking of the rusty ceiling fan- But now, there was a new noise that he hadn't registered in his mind as normal.
The fluorescent lights of the kitchen bathe the room with a harsh brightness. On first thought, one might think the place is quiet. But unadulterated silence simply does not exist. It is impossible. Bruce's mind won't shut off and his heart ticks like a metronome and his breath is sharp in his ears. He stops and listens to the noises he had gotten so used to, the ones he tended to block out. The hum of the refrigerator, the clicking of the rusty ceiling fan- But now, there was a new noise that he hadn't registered in his mind as normal.
The subtle scrape of a spoon against the inside of a porcelain coffee cup.
He closes his eyes and listens to the liquid slosh from the stirring motion and opens them to see who is causing it.
"Ms. Romanoff." His cautious voice breaks the silence and he almost regrets leaving the stupor of peaceful confusion.
"You know my actual surname is Romanova?" The stirring ceases, but she doesn't turn to face him yet. "Three million, twenty four thousand people and counting know that." Now she turns around and Bruce wishes she hadn't. There's a scar that runs down her right brow; the area swollen and tinted purple.
"Wh-what are you talking about?" It was four thirty-five in the morning, according to the microwave's digital reading that was two minutes too slow, and he slurred his words when he was tired and flustered. Natasha Romanoff- or Romanova as she had just informed him, has managed to make him feel both simultaneously.
"That's the number of people who have read my history on the Web." She comments nonchalantly, taking it all in stride, just as he would expect her to. She acted like a spy even off duty- acting two steps ahead when she was actually three behind. But no one had to know that but her. She wouldn't let anyone either. It was one of the few things that peeved Bruce about Natasha when they first met.
"Well, there's no internet in the rainforests of Cambodia-" Bruce's hands, which were clasped together, break apart to gesture to the nearby window at the thick leaves and underbrush outside. "But you've probably figured that out yourself when you broke into my place." He gives a quaint, knowing smile that makes Natasha's teeth grind together. His ability to anticipate her actions was one of the few things that peeved Natasha about Bruce when they first met.
"I'm not here to invade your privacy on behalf of SHIELD." She tries to repress the defensive growl in her voice as she takes a step forward.
"Oh," He takes a step forward to match her, feeling a little bit of unusual confidence. "And why should I believe-"
"There is no more SHIELD. That's why."
Bruce still doesn't have all the information to piece together in his groggy mind what possibly could've happened to cause SHIELD to fall- so he doesn't bother with it at the moment.
"So I'm going to skip the question as to how you found me and move onto why did you find me?" He takes another step forward and Natasha doesn't match him, instead standing glued to the dingy floor with her pupils dilating on their own accord. "Are there no more SHIELD safe houses?"
"More like, there's no place safe for me, period." Natasha replies simply, but hints of frustration line her words. Frustration he didn't know was geared to herself and not him.
"So you come to the middle of an unpopulated forest in a foreign country, potentially trapped with a monster who-" He stops himself from saying anymore, taking in a quick breath and tearing his eyes away. He retreats to his breathing exercises instead of succumbing to his mind conjuring images of the Hulk destroying her body past the point of recognition. Something- more of someone stirs inside him and his controlled breath catches in his throat.
"I'd rather whatever death the Hulk gives me than what others have to offer." Natasha eases out with a casual arch of her eyebrow and it makes Bruce ache. Her words are hollow him out. The utter flippancy in regards to the end of her life is what gets to him. Natasha doesn't brush with death, she rams shoulders with it. There is nothing delicate or careful about the way she speaks of it.
"So you're basically signing your own death warrant?" He huffs before slumping into a wooden chair that creaks from the action. When Bruce is met with silence, other than the hum of the refrigerator or the clicking fan and now the echoing caw of a distant bird- he persists. "Is this honestly what you're trying to tell me, Natasha?"
"I by no means welcome death," With the dry and calloused palms of his hands effectively covering his face, Bruce only hears the sound of Natasha's bare feet padding against the tile. He represses the tug of his lips that wish smirk at the thought that she took her shoes off at the door. "But that doesn't mean I'm not prepared for it to be an option. And I don't have many options."
"But I honestly don't know if it's in your best interest to stay here- my last incident was, uh-"
"Three months ago." Now it is Natasha's turn to give that quaint, knowing smile. "I know. But I don't have the luxury of staying in one place too long and I am willing to take that risk." The smile slowly turns cold like the cup of coffee she was in the process making before it all started- her full lips pouting and the corners twitching before curling downwards.
Bruce looks at her for a long moment, determining whether he should go through with this- before realizing it wasn't even his decision.
"Okay," He purses his lips and throws his hands up in defeat, leaning back into the chair so his spine molds uncomfortably with it. He chuckles dryly and shakes his head in disbelief. "I can't believe I'm saying this- but I really can't do anything but let you stay. The nearest town isn't for another four or so miles on foot." His lips finally give into that reluctant smirk, but it is misshaped from the muscles not used to being used for that purpose. He watches her with the slightest caution as she stands and crosses over to his side, bending down so she's at his level.
"You could just kick me out and save yourself the trouble." Her voice was low and smoky, filling his ears with a solution and his insides with an unexpected warmth. That unexpected warmth intensifying when she presses a careful kiss to his coarse cheek, her lips daring to drag against the stubble of his jaw for a moment before retreating into the darkness. He sits dumbfounded and relishes the sensation of intimate contact- of any human contact that didn't include destruction- in what felt like such a long time. Then he realizes he wasn't aware of her location anymore.
"Natasha?" Bruce stands so quickly he stumbles out of the chair. It almost clatters to the floor if not for him catching it at the last moment before following her. "Where are you go-"
His question falls short when he observes her in the vaguely dim lighting of the moon as she sheds her jeans off without fanfare before crawling into his bed.
"Now hold on-" Bruce hesitates before sitting on the other end of the bed, as far away from the woman folding the covers over her. His covers. "I think you've crossed over enough boundaries for one night." His eyes narrow as she meets his glare in the darkness.
"I've crossed over enough boundaries, alright." Natasha huffs before shifting on her side. She hisses in pain; forgetting about the swollen wound that brings back a numbing pain when her head presses against the pillow. "How do you think I got here?"
Bruce forgets about how complicated it is to get from America (or wherever she's been hiding at) and into Cambodia. He wonders how long it took for her to smuggle herself in as he shucks his shirt over his head and mess of curls. His spine pops as he contorts his back at an awkward angle to see if Natasha is watching him-
But he sees her bathed in something different than the stark kitchen lights; that of the moon. It beams in through the window and falls upon her like a natural spotlight. It smooths over her languid body instead of making it appear sharp and gaunt. Her weary limbs sprawl about, one hand weaving into her messy red locks of hair. The tint of blue washes over her painfully still frame as she waits for him to do something. But Bruce is too busy coming to a simple realization: Natasha doesn't glow, because she's not heavenly. She wears her sins on her sleeve. And that is one thing he truly admires about her.
He takes a deep breath and turns away from her curious eyes as he sheds his pants off and nudges then with his foot to join in the pile of his clothes on the floor. The bed is big enough that they don't have to touch and his heart quiets at the thought. His eyebrows, which he didn't know were scrunching together, loosen and his eyelids flutter shut-
"What're you doing?"
Natasha's warm body is suddenly pressed against his back, arms snaking around his middle in ways that made him uncomfortably relaxed.
"There's some things that I will need from you and you can't ask why." Her words fan against the skin of his neck where her head is buried. He tries not to fidget in her hold when her nose brushes against him. "This is one of them."