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Sleeping Beauty

Nearly two months Natasha's been unconscious when Bruce turns up at the hospital looking ruffled and unsure.

(The reception goes as well as can be expected, which includes Thor's loud welcome, Clint's intense stare, Steve's relief, and Tony's grumblings about the doctor hanging up on him three weeks ago.)

Every day he visits her, remaining out in the hall, searching for any signs of change in the woman, resting his fingertips against the glass pane for many minutes. When one of the Avengers is sitting beside her bed, the man does not linger, cold numbness settling in his stomach.

So many times it was he caught up in his uncontrollable rage, eventually calmed down by Natasha. Now seeing her like this, so far away that she is unaware of her hand being held, spoken to as they all wait, hope, pray for her to awake… She's not come back yet. And the world seems like it is tilting on its side, leaving Banner feeling out of place.

The thirteenth time he visits Natasha's room Clint is there. Before the doctor can turn on his heel, however, the archer has seen him, is rising from his seat and crossing the room to open the door. For a moment to two men stare at each other. Then Clint is nudging Bruce inside, ignoring the doctor's incoherent protests, and firmly closes the door behind him.

Hesitantly, Banner sits in the chair, pushing it back from Natasha's bed. Tension pulses through him, his fingers twitching, and eyes flickering over the redhead. Up close she looks even paler, vulnerable. He strains to see the faint rising and falling of her chest. Guilt, worry, and something else he can't name squeezes his heart.

By the time four more days pass his posture is relaxed in the chair, though he's no less confused and lost.

And after another five days, he – finally – cautiously reaches out to touch her hand, cool and fragile against his.

Bruce never speaks to her, unable to put his tangled emotions into words. Please, Nat… But something he does do – and he can't recall when it starts – while watching her is hum the lullabies Nat used to sing when he was the other guy to bring him back. (In the beginning, when she was first dubbed his handler, Stark gleefully researched and shared with Banner the various lullabies Natasha sung, disregarding the doctor's exasperation.) Humming the melodies here in the quiet hospital room brings a sense of comfort and familiarity to the man amongst everything, and he clings to it like a lifeline.

On the fortieth day that comfort cannot be found as he hums, throat burning and eyes misty. Looking away from Natasha, away from their linked hands, he covers his face with his free hand. Breathing shakily, he attempts to sing, the foreign words becoming jumbled on his tongue. He breaks off abruptly. Was his hand just squeezed?

Rising his head, Bruce stares at his hand holding Natasha's. Then his gaze drifts up to her face, and his heart stutters as he discovers green eyes looking at him through half-opened eyelids. He doesn't look away as he hoarsely whispers her name, fumbles for the buzzer to call the nurse, afraid this is a wonderful, terrible dream.

It isn't.

Later all the Avengers are squeezed into the small room, Bruce hanging in the back, subdued compared to the others' joy and relief. Now would probably be a good time to make his escape before things become strained or awkward.

"Your Russian is horrible," she comments dryly, voice rough from disuse.

Bruce pales, and he struggles to meet her eyes. He doesn't know what to say. Yes, now would be excellent time disappear again.

Tony snorts. "Yet he was the only one you listened to, despite numerous pleas and threats."

A fierce blush fills Banner's cheeks and he inhales sharply. He glares at Stark before glancing nervously back at Natasha. The neutral expression on her face cracks, and then softens. The corners of her mouth tilt upwards.

And the cold knot in the pit of Bruce's stomach uncoils, fear and uncertainty fading, replaced with growing hope. Slowly he smiles back.

Maybe they will be okay.

THE END