Waking up beside her felt like one of the sweetest dreams of his life. Bruce wasn't even sure if the sight of her red hair, sprawled in a disarray across his pillow, was even real. He longed to touch her, just an innocent tap to the shoulder, but he feared that he would wake her. There was a pureness to the assassin's sleeping face that made him feel guilty for even watching her in such a vulnerable state. He carefully rolled over to reach for his phone. 5:56. Bruce assumed she would've been awake-he knew she took pride in her early morning gym trips. Unless he wore her out… He found himself watching her once again, his mind replaying her hoarse cries of his name as her body convulsed beneath his. Bruce rubbed his eyes with a tired groan when he suddenly felt a shift in the bed's weight.
"What time is it?" Natasha straightened her back before giving her arms a good stretch.
"Six am," Bruce confirmed.
"You're up early," she replied with a grin.
Bruce's eyes shifted to the bit of cleavage poking out from the shirt she had borrowed from him.
Natasha glanced down, noting that she didn't have each and every button of the doctor's shirt fastened. She hadn't taken much care in putting it on, especially when Bruce was already familiar with her body.
His eyes quickly shifted to the floor. "I can make us breakfast."
"I think I'll head down to the gym first, if you don't mind."
"Are you sure?"
"I don't mind wearing yesterday's clothes again." She smirked. "Definitely can't go dressed like you."
Bruce's face flushed. "No. No you can't…"
"Rogers might be the only one I run into," Natasha added. "He doesn't ask any personal questions."
"Tony is the one to worry about. He'll interrogate us both…"
"Better not crack under pressure, Banner, unless you want him to know."
There was a pause. "And if he knew? Would you be upset?"
Natasha shrugged as she unbuttoned the purple shirt that was two sizes too big for her. "As long as he doesn't get annoying about it, but I'd rather he didn't know. Trust me, we'll be the butt of a private joke until the rest of the team finds out.
Bruce chuckled. "I'll work on breakfast while you're out."
"I'd like that," she smiled.
"I think I'll give Fury a call…I might pay Ross a visit later."
Natasha leaned in to give him a peck on the cheek. "Whatever feels right to you. I'll see you in an hour, give or take."
Bruce nodded and watched as she carried a pile of her clothes into the bathroom. After she left, he helped himself to some cereal before giving Director Fury a call. Nick was quick to answer, leaving Bruce at a brief loss for words. He suddenly wasn't sure if visiting the General was a wise idea. What if the red Hulk appeared? Or what if Bruce couldn't keep his cool?
"Yes," he quickly stated. "Sorry, Sir, I hope I'm not bothering you…" He felt like a child being forced to speak to his teacher.
Bruce paused. "I was wondering if you could give me an update on General Ross." He opened up his fridge to grab a carton of eggs. French toast sounded like a treat Natasha would enjoy.
"He's in recovery," Fury began. "Vitals are stable, and his leg's healing surprisingly fast. You have no need to worry yourself, Doctor," Nick promised.
Bruce was relieved to hear about the General's healing process. "You don't suppose he'll be in the mood to welcome visitors, do you?" he assumed with a chuckle.
"He's restricted to his bed," Nick began, "and even the slightest spike in his heart rate will send a nurse running in."
"That's a no to me visiting, then," Bruce decided.
"Do what feels right, Dr. Banner," Nick clarified. "We have the tranquilizers ready if he gets too antsy."
Bruce contemplated declining, but the smallest part of him the wished to confront Ross spoke up. "Which hospital and room?"
The nice breakfast he planned for Natasha was put on hold as Bruce found himself leaving his apartment. He was acting on the heat of the moment, with a now or never attitude that landed Bruce at the local hospital's reception desk. He was granted permission to visit, but before doing so, he sent Natasha a text mentioning that he was out. She never responded back to him during the elevator trip up to Ross' floor. He contemplated turning back and resuming making a nice breakfast… but then he heard the General's voice calling him a "coward," and Bruce forced himself to move forward.
"You have a visitor, Mr. Ross," a nurse sweetly stated as she beckoned for Bruce to step into the room.
"Who is it?"
The voice was gruff, but as healthy sounding as Bruce could remember.
"Dr. Banner," the nurse stated.
Bruce swore the room's silence was going to kill him. He stepped forward, allowing himself to be in Ross' line of sight. "Sir." He noticed that the nurse was hesitant to leave as a series of beeps from a bedside heart rate monitor quickened.
"You're the reason I'm here-you know that?" Ross' heart rate slowed after a pause and the nurse was grateful to escape the tension.
"Things could've ended far worse with your monster loose," Bruce warned, keeping a fair distance from Ross' bed.
The General snorted derisively. "My monster… How the tables turned…"
"It puts things into perspective, doesn't it?" Bruce's comment earned him a dirty look.
"I won't pity you, Banner."
"I'm not asking you to, Sir," Bruce politely answered. "But I hope that what you are now will force you to leave me alone. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s revealed the red Hulk's identity to the public. You're feared now, just like I am," he divulged.
Ross' stare hardened. "We're different, you and I…"
Bruce's jaw tensed. The man was a broken record. Nothing Bruce did would ever redeem himself in the General's eyes. Even when he wasn't the monster, he was the man who once had Ross' daughter's heart.
"Your beast isn't feared," Ross admitted. "Not completely," he quickly added.
Bruce found himself replaying the General's words in his mind. He was almost certain that he misheard him.
"You've got kids out there wanting to be a big green buffoon," Ross continued, his expression sour. "Maybe some adults-none with enough common sense to make it in life, though."
"I…" Bruce hesitated. "I would hardly say that…" But Bruce knew it was the truth. He knew that as wild as it sounded, kids favoured the other guy, and maybe some parents did, too. Maybe the officers who witnessed the Hulk's fighting against the Chitauri liked him, too.
Ross was quiet. He refused to pay the good doctor any further compliments.
Bruce lifted his head and gave Thaddeus what he knew must've been the only smile he had ever seen from him. "Thank you, Sir. Really, thank you."
Ross' eyes moved from the cast over his right leg to the doctor's face. "Final exchanges, then."
Bruce lowered his head with a shy smile. "I appreciate this talk."
"Can't say for sure if the government will be tailing your ass for the rest of your life… S.H.I.E.L.D. won't release me. Consider yourself free of me."
"You brought this on yourself," Bruce cautioned. "And you've proved yourself a threat to the public. That isn't something I can defend."
They shared a brief pause. "What advice do you have for a man more damned than yourself?" Ross wondered.
Bruce took in one last look of Ross' tired face. "Keep breathing…Yoga helps, too, but breathing exercises have also helped me." He couldn't say support was his biggest help…Ross had no one looking out for him. He was alone, and Bruce would be a liar if he said he didn't feel guilty for him. "Thank you again," Bruce added. "Don't hesitate to call me i-…"
"I don't need you," Ross muttered.
Bruce nodded and briskly left the room. A weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He was free of running from the General. For now, but most likely, forever. Bruce withdrew his phone and found a recent message from Natasha.
Just got home. Had to feed Liho. Call if you need me. Xox.
He chose to give her a call once he was out of the hospital. She was quick to answer, making Bruce wonder if she was anticipating his call.
Or he was over thinking things… "Hello, Natasha."
"You sound like you're in a good mood," she noticed.
"It went better than expected, believe it or not."
"Oh, yeah?" she asked with interest. "You should come over and tell me all about it."
He chuckled. "I'd like that."
"Are celebratory pancakes in order?" she added.
"That sounds wonderful," he agreed. "I'm on my way over now."
Natasha hummed in approval before ending the call. He sounded happy, relieved, even, and that told her that all was well in the world of Bruce Banner.
"He forgave me," Bruce said as he cut up his pancakes. "In his own way, he forgave me."
Natasha arched a brow in surprise. "Looks like his other guy changed him."
"He actually admitted that he was the monster. Not me, him," Bruce breathed, still in disbelief over the confrontation. "I'm the hero. Well, those weren't his exact words…"
"I've been trying to get that into your head, Doc," Natasha playfully warned. "The big guy's an Avenger, and the Avengers are all heroes."
Bruce chuckled. "I know… It's just been difficult to think like that when you have the government keen on tracking your every move."
"So no more running?"
"For now," he mused. "I can't help but think that someone new might come along."
"We can focus on helping the big guy keep his cool," Natasha replied. "He must feel a hell of a lot better knowing he's Ross-free."
Bruce couldn't hide his smile. "It really does take a weight off my chest."
Natasha stabbed a piece of pancake with her fork. "So what's next for you?"
He watched her curiously. "Staying at the tower, helping Tony…" He paused to wonder if Natasha was possibly hinting at their most recent unions. "Maintain the other guy. And if possible, settle down..."
Natasha flashed him a knowing stare. "The Avengers haven't stopped avenging, Bruce. There's always going to be something new."
Bruce maintained a small smile. "So that's a no to settling down?"
"For the time being," Natasha assumed. "But that doesn't mean you can't make time for trying to live a life as a non-hero. You should try giving it a shot."
He set his fork aside to watch her thoughtfully. "Will you consider giving it a try, too?"
The corner of Natasha's lip slightly raised. "I leave for a mission in two days." She watched Bruce's smile fall. "You made the offer a little too soon there," she softly laughed. "But maybe after. And I'm sure we can find a little time today and tomorrow," she winked.
Bruce's spirits instantly lifted. "I hope we can, too… I really do, Natasha."
"I can't guarantee how well this will work out."
He smiled. "Don't make me pressure you into this."
"You're not," she answered with a sly grin. "Believe me, you're not." She carefully rested her fork on the edge of her plate. "I really want us to work out, Bruce." She pursed her lips. "I feel like I can trust you."
"I trust you, too."
She carefully raised her brow. "I don't think you'd say that if you knew the things I've done."
"Your past doesn't define who you are now," Bruce gently told her. "You're an Avenger now."
She bowed her head and spoke in a low growl. "I was a monster."
Bruce's brows knitted together. "So was I."
Natasha sank back in her chair and turned her head to the side. "I killed innocent people, Bruce. Intentionally."
He held his breath.
"Women. Kids…" Her fingers curled into fists.
His stomach churned in a way that brought him back to spitting up Ross' ear.
"I could've made the call to save them, but I didn't," Natasha continued. "I chose to obey orders over following a moral code.
Bruce reached past his plate to rest his hand over hers. A simple "that's all in the past" wasn't going to make things right. He would be lying to her if he said he didn't feel the least bit terrified, but he knew his wary eyes were already giving himself away. "This is why you're an Avenger. To atone for all of it…"
Natasha relaxed her fingers beneath his touch. "I'm not who I used to be, Bruce," she quietly stated. "Hell, the me of last month isn't even who I am now. I've changed. A lot. And gods and aliens aren't the only reason for that." Her eyes rested on Bruce's face. She was surprised to find him watching her. "I'm still changing, and I feel like I'm never gonna stop."
Bruce gave her a thoughtful smile. "Promise me you'll try to not change too much. I really like the Natasha I've gotten to know."
She returned his smile with a knowing grin. "You're not too bad yourself, Dr. Banner."
He chuckled as he scooted his chair back and approached a curious Natasha. She rose from her chair in time for Bruce to slip an arm around her waist and pull her in for an innocent kiss. "I've actually really come to adore the Natasha who has helped me through these recent messes."
She cocked a brow and snorted. "Does anyone even say 'adore' anymore?"
"I do," Bruce matter-of-factly stated with a meek smile.
Natasha rolled her eyes before giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I kind of adore you, too, big guy."
His grin brightened. "Kind of?" he teased.
"You're pressing your luck," Natasha hummed before kissing his lips.
A/N: I would love to come back to this story in the future since I have more planned, but due to work and personal projects, I feel like this is a good place to end things. Thank you so, so much to everyone who's been reading, and to everyone who follows, faves, and leaves lovely reviews! Until next time! ~