Natasha Romanoff caught herself staring again, as the man beyond the glass wall ruffled his wavy dark hair in frustration over the research notes he was studying. His concentration was so intent that he seemed utterly unaware of her presence or anything else. Natasha knew that the impression was patently untrue. Bruce Banner was hyper-aware of all the people coming and going nearby him. He lived in fear of hurting them, and he viewed even his friends as potential victims of the Other Guy.
Natasha had been terrified of the Hulk, when they had first met. She'd pulled a gun on Bruce at the first hint that he could be about to lose his temper, and even after he'd backed off and apologized she had trouble bringing herself to lower the weapon.
Strangely enough, it was the experience of watching him turn green and chase her through the bowels of the helicarrier that had led to Natasha conquering her fear of the Big Guy. She'd thought she was about to die when the Hulk had cornered her against a stack of crates and raised his hand to deliver the finishing blow. Thor's timely intervention had stopped the scene, but she had been affected enough by the experience that she'd been unable to even move until Fury had announced that Clint was on the ship.
She thought about the event often, but the Hulk's rampage wasn't the part that haunted her. It was Bruce looking back at her helplessly in the last few moments before the Hulk took full control that still flashed in her mind whenever her mind grew too still. Bruce's naked soul had been laid before her in the terror and sadness of that one look, and Natasha had been surprised to discover later that her promise to protect him with her very life had become true rather than just so many words to soothe the panicked man as he vainly struggled to control his inner demons and rage.
Natasha understood what it meant to view oneself as a monster... for the world to view one as a monster. The Red Room had made her into a ruthless killer. It wasn't until someone looked into her eyes and saw something else that she'd had a chance to be more. In that moment, for the first time in her life, Natasha had found a true friend—someone who believed in her. Now, it was her chance to give that chance to someone else.
Finally, Bruce looked up at her from his research and furrowed his brows. He looked to both sides as if there could be someone else whom Natasha was looking for; then he pointed to himself with a comically questioning expression. "You could just come in if you wanted to talk," Bruce suggested.
"Maybe, I was just enjoying the floor show," Natasha replied, crossing the threshold and heading towards the table across from him where a prototype of a weapon he and Tony were developing to combat the Hulk in an emergency sat partially complete. "Afterall, that is a pretty sexy piece of tech," Natasha whistled.
Bruce snorted. "What really brings you here, Agent Romanoff?"
"Natasha," she corrected automatically. "And, in case you forgot, SHIELD is spectacularly no more. So I'm not any kind of an agent anymore." He lowered his head and spread his arms in a move that was half dramatic gesture and half shrug of acquiescence, before grinning back at her. Natasha took a breath to steel herself before leading into the subject she had really come here to discuss. "You're probably going to think this is crazy, but-"
"I'm already worried," Bruce interjected in a teasing tone, but he was still paying close attention.
"Fine, but just promise to hear me out," Natasha continued. "I've been thinking that having a way of containing the Big Guy if he gets out of control is a good idea," she said, gesturing to the project beside her, "but the Other Guy has been very helpful during all the chaos since SHIELD had to be dismantled. It seems like maybe we should also concentrate on ways to help with the transition back after the action is over... it might help you with control as a side benefit. Although, maybe you like waking up in strange places... in varying states of undress."
Bruce was staring at her with a smile. "Yeah, it's hoot wearing a stranger's pants, alright," he said remembering the security guard who had kindly found him in a pile of rubble after the fall from the helicarrier. "So what did you have in mind? It would take an obscene amount of tranquilizers for a start."
"Might not be the best team building approach," Natasha replied. "Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a... lullaby of sorts."
"You want to sing to him?" Bruce choked in disbelief.
"No. Well, do you think that would work? I'm just suggesting that we try creating a situation that helps you to relax and signals to the Other Guy that it is a safe time for him to take a nap until he's needed again." Natasha tread carefully as she could see Bruce's natural resistance to any suggestion that might raise his hopes for a more normal life. It was too devasting for him to have his hopes dashed for him to not guard those emotions closely.
"Well, I have an excellent singing voice," Tony Stark proclaimed dryly from the door. "I'm just putting it out there. No pressure."
Natasha rolled her eyes, and Bruce lowered his head again, hiding the lower half of his face with his hand. "Why are you boys so hung up on the word lullaby?" Natasha groaned.
"Well, I'm just having a bit of a problem picturing how one of us is gonna tuck the Big Guy in. Do you think he likes footie pajamas?" Stark quipped. Despite the glib tone, Natasha could see that his mind was actually in motion at the moment.
"I've been rewatching the old SHIELD footage from Harlem," Natasha continued.
Bruce shot her a hawkish look at the mention of the incident, and she could tell that if she pushed too hard he might simply leave the room.
"You, the Big Guy, you were responding to a trusted face before the helicopter came," Natasha elaborated.
"We are not-", Bruce began to protest.
"I'm not talking about involving anyone from your past," Natasha quickly clarified. "I'm suggesting that once the area is secure one of us may be able to calm the situation down in a similar way."
"When you described the idea as crazy that was an understatement," Bruce exclaimed, gruffly. "What if the Other Guy doesn't feel like going away? I don't need to wake up and hear-"
"Bruce, we work together with the Other Guy enough that he is starting to trust us. He... you... have probably saved each of us at least once. I've asked for help in the field, and he answered. He doesn't want to hurt us. If he can trust us, maybe it's okay for you to trust us a little too." Natasha responded hoping the revelation of his alter ego's actions might help Bruce to come around to the plan.
"What he wants can change in an instant, in case you haven't noticed. You know, you could have just tried it without telling me. At least I wouldn't be having to worry about what he might do if one of you tries this the next time I change," Bruce sounded worried and at least slightly angry, but he seemed to be resigning himself to the plan.
"Didn't want to go behind your back," Natasha told him. Bruce looked at her, but his expression was unreadable. "How do you propose to calm the Other Guy down?" he finally asked.
"He seemed to respond to a gentle voice... and touch. When he touched Betty Ross's face, he looked like he was on the verge of changing back," Natasha told Bruce levelly. He crossed his arms clearly uncomfortable. She'd noticed in the time since they'd first met, that Bruce seemed to avoid touching anyone. It was as if he consciously held himself apart from the rest of the world, afraid to connect to anyone for even a second. He'd never even shaken anyone's hand so far as she could remember, and she suspected this was going to be the most difficult point to getting his agreement on the plan. Natasha paused trying to decide the best tactic to motivate him, but Stark cut her off.
"Well, that leaves me out! As much as Dr. Banner is a very attractive man... I think... He is attractive, isn't he? Woman's opinion on this? Doesn't matter. Pepper and I are very exclusive. So, I hope I'm not breaking any hearts here," Tony said, his words coming rapid fire as he took Bruce by the chin and turned the other man's face as if trying to find Bruce's best angle, before giving up when Bruce started to laugh despite himself.
Tony shot Natasha a glance that silently said, "That's how it's done." Natasha smiled, and silently thanked Tony with a nod. He sat himself on one of the tables and began playing with a partially assembled frame for an oversized robotic fist.
"Just tell me that nobody is going to go up to the Other Guy and try to hug him," Bruce said with a rueful grin. "This really is crazy..." he muttered.
"I think the Big Guy needs to make the choice for himself," Natasha agreed. "I was thinking about just holding up my hand for a start and letting him make a move if he chose."
"And then?" Tony asked. Natasha and Bruce looked at him critically. "I think this has a shot of working, but I have to see it," Tony added. He cracked a mischievous grin at them.
"Fine," Natasha said. She raised her hand careful to keep it relaxed and made only the slightest reach towards Bruce. "Go ahead," she prompted him.
"Don't leave the lady hanging," Tony called out by way of encouragement, as Bruce automatically shoved his hands into the pockets of his rumpled lab coat.
"Not helping, Tony," Bruce responded pacing a couple of steps in either direction nervously before finally raising one of his hands to reach for Nat's. Natasha slowly moved her hand to make it easier for him, and Bruce ran his hand across her outstretched fingers. His skin felt warm and slightly rough to the touch, and she could feel the hairs on the back of his hand as he allowed his skin to brush over hers. Finally, he flipped his hand over, offering his palm to her. Natasha reached past his hand and slid her fingers down the inside of his arm and over his palm. "Hey, Big Guy. Sun's getting really low," she said softly as her fingers moved over his skin. A shudder visibly ran along Bruce's spine, and he quickly withdrew his hand.
"You should probably open with that," Tony suggested. He slid himself off the table and sauntered to the door. "I'll just leave you kids alone," he announced as he patted the doorframe and slipped out of the room. Natasha could hear him chortling to himself all the way down the hallway.
A mix of emotions poured over Bruce's features, and he seemed to be struggling to find something to say. "I-I... should get back to work," he stammered.
"You're okay with this then?" Natasha asked letting her voice go soft.
Bruce rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Honestly? I don't know, but I'm willing to try. Just... be careful." His dark eyes seemed to be imploring her as Bruce stared at her for a long moment.
"I promise," Natasha reassured him. She wanted to erase the lines of worry that creased his handsome face. "And if the Big Guy takes it badly, I'll just throw Stark at him," she joked. Bruce's lips curled up, though the worry was still plain to see.
Natasha jerked her head in an awkward farewell, and headed towards the door. In her mind she kept replaying the feeling of his touch against her hand and Bruce's response to it. She had a growing feeling that this was going to work. It might take time; but, somehow, she had faith in it.