A/N: I originally posted this fic on AO3 a few weeks ago, but I thought I'd post it here, too, since this site is sorely lacking in brucenat fic! This is set post-Avengers/pre-AOU (and spans CA:TWS), so contains references to all of those movies. This is the first part of a series. Part 2 is currently being written and should hopefully be posted in a few weeks. Trigger warning for graphic violence/PTSD flashbacks/non-graphic mentions of abuse. Bruce/Natasha, pre-AOU fill-in-the-blanks [excessively long] one-shot. Title is from Dust to Dust by The Civil Wars.
Like a Mirror, Reflecting Me
Natasha never jolts awake. No matter the dream, whether mild or horrible, she never jolts awake from sleep. She has mastered the art of waking in complete stillness, keeping her eyes closed and body relaxed so that no one can know if she is awake unless they are monitoring her heart rate and breathing patterns. It gives her an advantage, as a spy. The opportunity to take in information while no one thinks she is processing is incredibly useful and sometimes imperative to her survival, and it is something she has ingrained into herself habitually.
So when she wakes from nightmares this time, visions of red flashing behind her eyes and still faintly being able to feel the warm blood on her hands, she wakes quietly. But no outward acknowledgment means very little when it comes to nightmares. She feels like her room is closing in on her, and she has to get out. Ordinarily at these times, Natasha would go to the gym. Punching something tends to help these matters.
But right now, she is bone tired, and she sprained her wrist on her most recent S.H.I.E.L.D. mission. So she opts for the roof of Stark Tower, instead. The fresh air will do her good, and she likes the view. She's been up there on a few other occasions - a rooftop party Tony had once insisted on throwing that she'd been dragged to by Clint, and a couple times since on nights much like this.
She pushes her way through the doors to the rooftop, and she knows immediately that she is not alone. Bruce Banner is already there, leaning against a wall and staring out at the skyline with a contemplative look. He turns toward her at the noise of the door.
"Natasha," he says, sounding surprised.
"Hey," she greets him, and she tries not to appear unsettled at the fact that her voice comes out sounding a little raw.
There's a moment of slightly uncomfortable silence. The two are relatively friendly, and Natasha likes him well enough. She enjoys his company and finds his mild-mannered gentility pretty endearing, most of the time. But they're not people who have spent a whole lot of time alone together, and they don't particularly have a rapport. They have known each other for bordering on two years now, and other than another few painfully earnest apologies from Bruce over the incident on the helicarrier, the two haven't really spent more than a few moments alone in each other's presence. It doesn't help that she'd spent months away on assignments, and he'd spent months in Malibu with Tony and god knows where else. But they've both been semi-permanently staying at Stark Tower for a while now, and they still have yet to spend much in the way of real time together.
It's Bruce who breaks the silence.
"So, uh…come here often?"
Natasha knows that he is referring to her presence on the roof and that he doesn't mean it as a line, but all she can do is immediately burst into peels of laughter.
Then Bruce flushes red and rubs the back of his neck with his hand, embarrassed.
He flounders, "I meant, uh, god I should just stop talking."
She laughs again, then reigns herself in and saves him. "Relax. I knew what you meant. To answer your question - sometimes, yeah. If I want to get some air or can't sleep or whatever. More often I hit the gym, but," Natasha raises her hand, showing off her bandaged wrist. "Figured I better not. Plus, my feet are fucking killing me. You know, when I agreed to join S.H.I.E.L.D., I thought I would have to wear a lot fewer pairs of high heels."
"Clearly you should have included a footwear clause in your contract."
She nods, only the tiny upward quirk of her lips giving away her amusement. "Something I regret more and more every day." She waits a beat to see if he'll reply, but he just smiles and chuckles quietly, so she continues. "What about you? You come here often?"
Bruce nods, fiddling with his glasses distractedly. "Pretty often, yeah. Uh, similar reasons. Only hitting the gym isn't really encouraged for me, since I can only punch the bag so many times before the Other Guy bugs me to join in."
"I can see where going green could become a bit of an issue. Plus, I'd be pissed if you wrecked the gym. I love that gym." She adds as an afterthought, "Just don't let Stark know I told you that."
"Your secret is safe with me. Wouldn't want Tony to think you actually like this place," his voice is teasing, and it makes Natasha smile.
"Certainly not. I would hate to give him the satisfaction."
"And he speaks so highly of you, too."
Natasha snorts. "I'll bet. Let me guess…he's been spinning tales of my lies and deception?"
"Mostly he just says that you should never ever hire a P.A. that has a license to kill, no matter how hot she is." He hastens to add, "His words, not mine."
"It's more of a permit, really." She shrugs. "It's the job. Not my fault he was so gullible."
"Tony's never seemed particularly gullible to me."
Natasha smirks. "Yes, but you haven't worn very many tight dresses around him, now have you?"
"That's true. Maybe that's the difference."
"Must be. Let me know if you ever want to borrow one and find out. I'm sure you'd be a knock-out."
Bruce laughs, and Natasha notices the way his eyes light up when he's truly amused. She thinks that maybe she would like to see that light in his eyes again, sometime, but tries not to analyze the thought too much.
They chat for another twenty minutes or so. Mostly about nothing, a little about themselves - small things, movies they saw recently and stories about the other Avengers (like how she and Clint hustle at darts in seedy bars when they are particularly bored and how Bruce had wandered into the lab last week to find Tony serenading Jarvis). It's simple and mostly surface-level stuff, but she is enjoying his company, and he seems to be enjoying hers, as well.
Eventually, she dismisses herself, granting him a smile and a tiny wave before heading back down to her room, and Natasha decides that she would maybe like to start spending some more time in the presence of Bruce Banner.
Now there's a thought she's never expected to have.
The next time they are alone together, it's him that stumbles upon her. It's been a month since the roof.
It's late, just like the last time - half past two in the morning, and Natasha is sitting in the common kitchen with a bottle of vodka and her tablet, reading up on new developments in weaponized technologies.
He quirks a brow at her questioningly when he finds her, and she shrugs at him in response.
"One of those nights," is all she says, and he nods in easy understanding before snagging the bottle from her and pouring himself a shot.
"Me too," he responds simply, passing the bottle back in her direction.
They share a comfortable silence for a while, and Natasha wonders idly if his dreams are coated in as much blood as hers. She thinks that maybe they are. The thought isn't as reassuring as she had expected it might be.
The next time they're alone after that, Natasha is fresh off a mission. It is late, and she's just gotten back to Stark Tower - or as Tony has begun to insist they call it, Avengers Tower - and, much to her annoyance, she is bleeding through her shirt.
She'd been sliced with a knife in the field, narrowly missing the blade aimed for her heart. Now she has a laceration across her side - thankfully not the one that already housed a scar from whom she believes to be the Winter Soldier. It's not extremely deep, but she had to stitch herself up a few hours before. And just a few minutes ago, she pulled a few stitches. Thus the bloody t-shirt.
Natasha was not about to take the time out of her night - and it was already 1:30 A.M. - to go to the hospital or S.H.I.E.L.D. medical just to get stitched up when she could take care of things herself. She knew for a fact that Tony kept a large quantity of medical supplies and first aid in the lab; she'd seen him giving himself a couple stitches just last week after what was undoubtedly another idiotic lab experiment gone wrong.
She thought she'd be alone, but the lights are still on when she gets to the lab. She breathes a sigh of relief when she sees that it is in fact Bruce and not Tony keeping late hours in the workspace.
He visibly startles at the sound of the doors opening.
"Natasha," he says, brows raising. "You're back." He smiles genuinely.
"Hey," she says with a smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes. Because her side kind of stings, and she's bleeding through one of her favorite t-shirts, and she hasn't slept more than twenty minutes in the past two days.
"And you're bleeding," he says, smile dropping.
"You should go into espionage with those observational skills," she teases, but she knows her tone falls flat with her exhaustion. She heads towards the first aid kit. "It's fine," she assures him at his look of concern. "Caught a knife in the field and stitched myself up, but I just managed to pull a couple open. I'm here to fix myself back up, since I know Stark is constantly injuring himself in here."
She pulls the needle and suturing thread from the kit and sits herself in a chair across from him before lifting up her shirt to bare her midriff. Bruce flushes, looking flustered, and Natasha has to forcibly remind herself not to laugh at his obvious nervousness.
"I can do that for you," is the first thing he says after she starts flashing some skin, and this time she does laugh at his expression - he seems horrified at the way his statement has been delivered, offering to help fix her up the moment she lifts her shirt. She can tell right off that he really does only mean to help, and Bruce's propensity to put his foot in his mouth only seems to amuse Natasha more with time.
"I mean," he stutters, then sighs self-deprecatingly. "I just mean that maybe that wound doesn't look like the easiest place to reach by yourself, and I can stitch you up if you'd like a helping hand."
She quirks a smile. "Sure, doc."
He takes the needle from her and grabs the swab she's wiping away the blood with from her hands and finishes the job himself in soft, easy strokes. What started as a simple offering of help has suddenly become an intimate moment, and Natasha clears her throat to cut the tension.
"Knife, huh?" Bruce asks after a moment, then starts on the stitches.
She's glad for the segue.
"Yeah," Natasha answers. "Just grazed me."
"A graze requires seven stitches?"
"Well, he was aiming for my heart, so it still feels like a win."
He shakes his head. "You're absolutely nuts for doing this job, you know that, right?"
"I've been told." She pauses, then adds, "It's what I know."
She's not sure what makes her say it.
Bruce blinks at her and tilts his head for a moment, as if trying to puzzle her out. He doesn't say anything, just finishes stitching her up. He covers it over with a sterile bandage.
"Well," he says, "Helping patch people up is what I know."
"And here I thought you were a doctor of physics, not medicine."
"I suppose I'm a man of many talents. Just don't ask me to perform brain surgery."
"I'll keep that in mind." She stands up and pulls down her shirt. "Um, thanks. For, you know," she gestures vaguely to her side.
"Anytime," he says with a smile, and she can tell that he means it.
She starts to lose track of the times they are alone together, after that. They run into each other on the roof more than once - usually on late and sleepless nights, but not always. There's one day where it only takes an hour of consciousness for her to realize that running around the track for the next month will not be enough to outrun her demons on that particular day. She tries, anyway, and wears herself out so completely by late afternoon that pushing herself further isn't an option if she wants to be in fighting form for her next mission. She heads up to the roof instead, after lunch, and finds Bruce already there, staring over the city. On another occasion, she finds herself and Bruce fighting over the remote to the best TV in the tower for five minutes before they realize they're both there at one in the afternoon on a Wednesday to watch the same classic movie marathon. They wind up spending hours together, eating popcorn and soaking up the films with one another.
They don't spend a whole lot of their time together. Natasha is a busy person with an important job and a lot of duties that come with it. She's also a person that likes her time alone. Eventually, though, their meetings become much less incidental and much more coordinated. They have a meal together every few weeks, as long as she's not off on assignment, and they often bump into each other on late, sleepless nights (and occasionally seek each other out, though neither of them will speak of it) when they can't close their eyes for the guilt and the pain and the anger in them push their way in and threaten to take over.
They play poker for nickels, they watch the occasional movie, they have a beer together now and again. In short, they're friends. It's not something she ever expected or deliberately sought out, but she's found that she likes Bruce Banner quite a bit. They don't talk about anything very personal, but they like the same movies, and she likes his wry sense of humor and the way he doesn't really seem to have any particular expectations of her. They don't talk about their pasts, other than the occasional vague comment the other always carefully sidesteps, but it works for them. It's simple and easy, and she enjoys their interactions. She likes his company, and she likes to think that they're friends.
Natasha does not want to track Bruce down and inform him that she is heading to D.C. for the foreseeable future. She isn't sure that they are exactly in the place for tracking each other down to share personal information, so she is glad when she runs into him the morning after she gets the call from Fury when she pops into the kitchen for a late breakfast. Usually he would be long gone and in the lab by now, but Bruce is there, sipping on a cup of tea and glancing over the New York Times.
"Bruce," she says, a little surprised by the sight of him.
"Hey Natasha." He gestures to the kettle near him. "Cup of tea?"
She smirks and grabs the coffee pot, pouring herself a large cup and taking a sip without doctoring it.
"Hard pass," she says, eyeing the tea distastefully. "But thanks."
"I'm, uh, glad I caught you."
"Yeah." She pauses, then says simply, "I'm leaving."
"Fury has me and Steve heading out to D.C. for an assignment. I'll be working out of there for a while."
"Oh," he looks taken aback and a bit disappointed. "When do you leave?"
"About five hours, actually."
He raises his brows. "That's quick."
She nods. "Yeah, well, that's Fury for you. The job demands you when the job demands you."
He nods. "So I've noticed. Huh. Well, enjoy D.C. I hear the Captain America exhibit is very popular over at the Smithsonian. Make sure to call ahead for tickets."
Natasha grins. "I'll be sure to check it out."
He smiles warmly.
"So I'll see you when I get back," she says, and she finds herself reaching out and placing her hand on Bruce's shoulder for the briefest of moments. She thinks her limbs may be acting independently from her brain, and she worries at Bruce's look of surprise at the gesture. But then he's relaxing under her hand and smiling in a genuine way that makes his eyes crinkle, and she feels much better.
His voice is serious when he speaks again. "I'll see you around, Natasha. Don't get into too much trouble."
"But I'm so good at it." She smirks. "Try not to watch too much TCM without me."
His laughter echoes in her mind for minutes after she's left the room.
She kisses Steve on the job. They're surrounded by HYDRA agents, and she knows that it is absolutely the best way for them to not be identified. People automatically turn their gazes from public displays, and she and Steve look like two average people.
Natasha is used to doing things like this on the job. She and Clint have kissed a few times under similar circumstances, never meaning more than the mission but providing a convenient and necessary cover.
But this is different, for some reason.
Not because it's Steve, however. But because as Natasha presses her lips to the Captain's, she can't help the way her mind wonders for a brief moment what it would be like to kiss a different Avenger; chapped lips against hers and her hands tangling in dark graying curls. She pushes the thought away as soon as it arrives, but she cannot deny that the idea has occurred to her.
She actively decides not to consider why.
Steve's words resonate with her.
"You know it's kind of hard to trust someone when you don't know who that someone really is."
She knows it's true. That most of the people she knows would agree. Nick Fury knows - knew, she corrects herself with a stab of pain - her well, and she thinks he considered her a friend. But Fury never trusted anyone, let alone her. Not really. She thinks Clint may be the only person to ever really know her and trust her. He'd spared her life and given her a new one, and they'd seen too much together since then to not have each other's trust. She's told him more than she's ever told anyone, and she knows she has barely even scratched the surface with even him. She'd earned his trust over time, but everyone else's? The people she knows from S.H.I.E.L.D. or the other Avengers? She highly doubts it.
No one really knows her. Not even Clint, not completely. Steve's words sting, but she recognizes the truth of them. How is she going to be a trusted team member when no one really knows who she is?
She asks him later, "If it was the other way around, and it was down to me to save your life - and you be honest with me - would you trust me to do it?"
"I would now."
When it's all over and her secrets are all out - and god, what a terrifying thought that is, even if it does feel slightly liberating - she goes to the Barton's farm.
Cooper and Lila are playing outside when she arrives, and they spot her before Clint does. Lila runs and jumps into her arms before Natasha has a moment to think about it.
"Hey sweetie," she smiles, and it feels a little more natural than she thought she would be capable of at this point. "How's my girl?"
Cooper runs up to her, as well, and she pulls him into a hug as Lila rests heavily on her hip. Clint approaches in a slow stride, and Natasha takes a deep breath in preparation.
He smiles gently when he reaches her, and she knows without having to ask that he has been keeping up with the past day's news and knows everything. He only smiles at her like that when he's especially worried about her.
At least she won't have to be the one to tell him about S.H.I.E.L.D. and how the past several years of their lives have been one gigantic lie. That they've been fighting for absolutely nothing.
"So," she starts drily. "Mind if I stay here for a couple days?"
She's aware that Clint knows there is no way in hell that she would have come here if anyone had even the slightest inclination of where she is, no matter how many people and organizations are after her now.
"Of course." He's still smiling gently at her, and she can't help but sigh. His concern for her is tangible and frustrating.
"I've got the hearing soon. Just until then."
"Okay. You know you're always more than welcome."
She frowns. "Even now?"
Natasha knows that he has already known most of what the media has been covering about her for a long time. She was his target once, and Clint has always been thorough. Laura, on the other hand, she isn't entirely sure about. She knows Clint has told his wife about her and some of her history, but seeing it all laid out like that...she's not entirely certain how Laura is going to feel around her now.
Laura Barton is easily the kindest and most understanding person she has ever met in her life, and Natasha considers her one of her only true friends. But she's also the most normal person she knows, and this? What she is, what she's done? It's not normal in the least.
She doesn't want her friend to see her differently.
But when she wanders inside after chatting with the kids for a few moments, Laura embraces her, greeting her with a wide smile the moment she sees Natasha and pulling her into a hug.
"Nat! I'm so happy you're here."
Natasha has to blink back her surprise at the reaction.
Laura continues, pulling back but touching her arm comfortingly. "Sounds like you could probably use a little down time, huh?"
Natasha swallows hard. "Yeah. I could."
Laura smiles sympathetically at her, but she does not feel pitied.
"I'm glad you came here. I was hoping you would. It'll do you good to be with family for a little while."
Something deep inside her stirs at the words, and she tries to hide the way she is moved at the statement. She has never really had a family before, and while deep down she has always considered the Barton's hers, it has never really been verbalized until now, either. She blinks back what she thinks might be tears forming in the corners of her eyes, and she smiles.
Laura seems to understand what her statement has done to her. She squeezes her arm and offers her a drink, pulling a bottle of vodka out of the top cabinet in the kitchen.
Natasha shakes herself and smiles as she takes a glass. "You are a god send."
Laura grins. "High praise from someone who has worked with Thor."
Staying at the farm does wonders for her. Being with people she knows care for her and somehow, against all odds, don't seem to judge her and in fact even trust her, has a soothing effect on her; a balm for the past few hellish days. She feels more relaxed and comfortable than she thought possible for someone who had just leaked her macabre secrets to the world.
Natasha regrets having to leave for the hearing 48 hours later, but when she does, she feels much more ready to deal with the fallout.
Her first night back at the tower, Natasha deliberately gets in late, hoping to run into less people and not make a big ordeal out of her return. She knows there is a strong likelihood that people will be walking on eggshells around her - whether out of fear of her or concern for her, she can't quite be sure.
She heads to the roof. She knows there is a chance Bruce will be there, but there is also a good chance he won't. He could be in his room or the lab or any other number of places that are not the rooftop of Avengers Tower.
But of course he's there. She doesn't like the nervous feeling that has settled in her stomach at the sight of him, and it takes her a moment to realize that it is worry at his reaction to her. Everyone's read her files by now, she's sure. It has been more than enough time.
She swallows hard and clears her throat. "Hey."
"Natasha," he says at the sight of her. "Uh, hey."
There's an uncomfortable silence, and she wants to say something, but she's not entirely sure what. This feels important, somehow. She's never been one to care about what other people think of her, but things are different now. When Steve had talked to her about building friendships and trust, she'd found herself inexplicably thinking of Bruce on more than one occasion. She knows she's at a turning point in her life, now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone and all her covers are blown. She's never not been a spy before, enveloped in lies and breathing deception, and for some reason that she knows can't be logical, the air feels cleaner to her now, crisp and healing as she breathes it in from the top of the tower.
Natasha feels more. She is trying to be okay with it, the way her compartmentalization has begun to break it's way down and allow genuine emotion out. It's scary and brand new, and she wonders if this is what normal people feel like, most of the time. A sense of insecurity she's never really experienced before seems to linger now. But a sense of freedom seems to have come with it. It's exhilarating, and it's terrifying. Now all her secrets are out, and she thinks that maybe she can be something else. That she can be anything, maybe. She wants Bruce to still like her, now that all her secrets are public. She's trying to be okay with her wanting that, too.
"Just get in?" he hedges when she doesn't say anything.
"Oh," she clears her throat and shakes herself. "Yeah, about twenty minutes ago. Just…wanted some fresh air."
He nods like he understands.
She doesn't say anything else, and eventually he offers, "I can go inside, if you'd like some time alone."
Natasha turns to him, surprised. "No, don't. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to…" she sighs. "I think I'm just trying to figure out whether you think I'm horrible now or not," she says a bit ruefully, deciding to give up on pretense altogether.
Bruce starts shaking his head the moment the words leave her lips.
"No, no, I don't, I promise. But I, you should know, I haven't actually read anything. I haven't been able to avoid coverage completely because, well, that would be pretty impossible unless I were entirely off the grid. Tony's got about thirty TV's on my floor alone. But I've avoided everything that I could. I haven't read any of the files. I thought…" he looks a little embarrassed and rubs his hand over the back of his neck. "I thought you wouldn't want me to, so I didn't. Or thought that I should at least check with you first."
Natasha feels a bit floored. She's surprised, though she thinks now that perhaps she shouldn't be. He's always been nothing but kind and respectful, save their first couple of terrifying meetings.
"Oh," she says simply, and she knows that her surprise is probably clear to see. She actively does not try to hide it. "I…thank you for doing that. That, um," she clears her throat. "That actually means a lot to me."
Bruce gives her a gentle smile, and Natasha has to resist the urge to wrap her arms protectively around herself.
"Though," she says, sighing, "You can read them if you want. It was my decision to put it all out there at the end of the day. And I know you'll…hear things. I seem to be a bit of a hot button topic for discussion these days."
"Do you want me to read them?"
She looks at her feet. "Not really," she says, then forces herself to meet his gaze. "But only because it's all so…they have these lists of all these missions I've had and these lists of all these people I've killed. It's all so clinical; no context. Nothing but the monster," she breathes out the last words.
"Well, I think you know that I get that."
"Yeah," she agrees quietly, then suppresses a tremor as she speaks, "I don't want to be just a list of people I've killed. But no one's going to see that I am what other people have made me to be. That this is all I've known my entire life, since I was just a girl. They only see all the red in my ledger."
He looks almost as shocked as she feels at her candidness.
"I know the feeling," he says eventually, and he places his hand next to hers where it rests. "And I, uh, I hope you know I don't see you that way."
She swallows. "Thank you."
They're both quiet for several moments, but this time the silence is comfortable. Her hand grazes his lightly when she shifts, and it registers somewhere in the recesses of her mind that she enjoys the contact.
He clears his throat after a while and asks, "And how are you dealing with the…other thing?"
She shoots him a questioning look.
She blinks, then frowns. She doesn't have to fake the look of sadness she projects, despite his being alive. The feeling of losing Fury had been all too real before she saw him again, and the conversation she'd had with him later was sticking with her, as well. She'd hated thinking he was dead, that he'd kept the circle of trust so small, and then he told her that he knew she would've done the exact same thing. He was right. But she didn't like that. She didn't want to be about that, anymore. When she told him that's the problem she had meant it.
"I'm okay," she responds quietly. "Or…I will be. He was…a friend."
Bruce nods and looks sympathetic, and it feels like a step backwards, this further deception that she's just crafted. She's trying to become more honest, but this is not her secret to tell. The guilt she feels at the lie is foreign in her bones. Guilt, she knows intimately. Guilt at duplicity, though, had been bred out of her at an early age.
"I'm sorry," Bruce says, and he brushes his hand against hers in a way that seems accidental but Natasha is certain is not.
She nods her thanks.
"How's the tower been holding up without me and Cap?" she asks after a few moments, searching for a bit of levity. "Stark blow anything up?"
Bruce smiles. "A couple close calls, but all fires were put out easily enough. Literally and figuratively."
"I really don't know how Tony has managed to keep himself alive this long."
"I'm guessing a combination of billions of dollars and really, really advanced technology." He pauses, "And Jarvis."
Natasha laughs lightly. "Sounds about right."
"You know," Bruce hedges after a moment's pause, "This Thursday, there happens to be a Humphrey Bogart movie marathon on Turner Classic Movies…should that be the type of thing you would be interested in."
She smiles broadly, all genuine affection. "Incidentally, that does sound like the type of thing I would be interested in."
Natasha shows up Thursday afternoon, hands tucked into the pockets of her striped hoodie. Bruce is already there, sitting on the couch and swiping his finger across his tablet.
He glances up when she enters the room, smiling and putting the device down on the table beside him.
"Fancy meeting you here. Must be my lucky day."
Her lips split into a smile, and she almost laughs because Bruce Banner is flirting with her. She had picked up on the fact that he is attracted to her a long time ago, but flirting? Not just putting his foot in his mouth? That seems to be new.
"Well, there's this fella I know who seemed to think I might enjoy myself."
His brows shoot up at her response, and he flushes.
She suppresses a smirk sits down on the couch, leaving a seat between them and sinks into the cushions, leaning back.
Bruce already has the screen on the proper channel, and Natasha shrugs out of her hoodie, getting comfortable. She's left in her tank top and jeans, nothing she hasn't worn around him and the others before, but she can't help but notice the way he begins to stare at her. If she didn't know any better, she would think he is checking her out. But he's never been so overt before, even if she has always been able to pick up on it from time to time. Her brows furrow as she glances at him, and it's then that she notices exactly where he's staring.
Her recent bullet wound from where the Winter Soldier had shot her in the shoulder.
"That's new," Bruce says in a low voice.
She presses her lips together in a thin line. "Yeah," she answers. "Spoils of war."
"From when you were in D.C.?"
She nods. "It was no big deal. Got shot, got patched up. I've had much worse."
Bruce frowns deeply and he shakes his head disbelievingly. "You know, Natasha, you do this thing where you say something that you seem to think sounds reassuring, when in reality it is quite the opposite."
The corners of her mouth quirk upwards just slightly. "Sorry. Old habit. I mean, I have had worse, mind you, but still. It wasn't exactly the most pleasant of injuries. Kinda hurt like a bitch and took a while to get medical attention."
He sighs but nods. "I'm sorry. Though that at least sounds more honest." His tone is light and teasing but Natasha feels the sting all the same.
"Good," she says eventually.
He tilts his head questioningly. "Good?"
She shrugs, beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. "I'm kind of working on the whole honesty thing right now."
This seems to take him by surprise. "What spurred that?"
Natasha laughs softly, a bit self-deprecating. "A lot of things. My covers being blown, my files being released. And...Steve."
"Steve?" Now Bruce really sounds surprised. And maybe a hint jealous. She tries not to consider how she feels about that and mostly succeeds.
"He didn't trust me," she explains. "Which…I get. He said it's hard to trust someone you don't really know, and well, I'm rather obviously not the greatest at letting people get to know me. But I don't…" she starts talking quickly without editing, "I don't want to be that person anymore, you know? I don't want to be that person that people I like and care about can't trust and don't think they can rely on. And it's all because I'm so guarded. I was trained to be. I was raised to be. I was taught emotional compartmentalization at an early age and never had to learn how to be anythingbut that. And it made me an incredibly efficient spy. The best in the biz. But, as it turns out, I'm not really a spy anymore, and not even the people I spend all my time with seem to trust me or know the first thing about me. And that's on me. Steve didn't trust me back in D.C. Not at first, anyway. Finding out that S.H.I.E.L.D. was really just a front for HYDRA…after years of thinking I'd finally gone straight, that I was finally doing the right thing…" she shrugs. "Everything's different now. I don't want to be a person that leaves my friends wondering if I'm really on their side. Only...being a more open person doesn't exactly come naturally to me."
Bruce gazes at her with what what looks like wonder. "Natasha, I think you're doing a hell of a lot better than you think you are."
She hates the way her voice comes out a little choked when she replies. "Yeah?"
He nods. "Yeah. The past few conversations we've had, I've learned more about you than the rest of the time we've spent together combined."
"I think that's a compliment?" She keeps her tone light.
"It is," Bruce replies warmly.
She graces him with a small smile and glances to the TV.
"Shit," Natasha says. "The movie started ten minutes ago."
He laughs it off. "This is Stark tech. I wouldn't worry. I'm sure Tony included a rewind."
"You know, we could really use you out there in the field."
Bruce had casually asked her about the most recent HYDRA raid she had taken part in, and she'd replied without thinking.
He's angry when he responds. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"I think we both know that I do."
He clenches his fists and his jaw ticks. "There's no way in hell, Natasha."
She puts her hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Look, I'm not trying to push. I get why you don't want to go out into the action. I'm just saying that the extra muscle would really help. We've had a few close calls."
"You know that I would love to help," he says, voice tight. "But it's not possible. I'm a liability. I go out there and you can't control me or keep me contained? I can't allow that to happen."
"I know. I'm not trying to suggest you go out there without protocols in place. Not without a plan."
"I sincerely doubt we'll ever find a way for that to happen."
Natasha shrugs. "We'll just have to put our minds to it."
She comes by the lab one afternoon a few weeks later, under the pretense of needing a bandaid. Which she does, but there are probably twenty different places in the tower where she could get a bandage. Including the box in her bathroom medicine cabinet.
"What are you boys working on?" Natasha asks when she enters, heading for the first aid.
Tony ignores her question. "Don't you have somewhere else to be, Romanoff? Kicking puppies or terrifying small children? Infiltrating other tech industries, maybe?"
"Someone sure knows how to hold a grudge," she smirks, and she puts a bandaid on her forearm where she'd nicked it earlier.
Natasha doesn't think Stark genuinely hates her. Tony has been more proactive than anyone in terms of getting the Avengers together. Now that they're taking on HYDRA raids, they've been working together for a while. And he'd given her an open invitation to stay in the tower whenever she wanted years ago. But she certainly doesn't have a huge fan in him, either.
Bruce shakes his head at the pair of them and turns to face her. "We're working on some tech. Trying to figure out a way to stop the, uh, Other Guy should the need ever…arise."
Huh, she thinks. Maybe he has actually taken her words to heart.
"What else is there?" Bruce asks, sounding a little exasperated. "Sing him a lullaby?"
She gives him an amused look. "All the lullabies I know are in Russian. I think that may just serve to confuse the Big Guy, not relax him."
"No singing, then. Veronica it is."
"Veronica?" she laughs. "Doesn't sound like the most threatening weapon."
Tony smirks and speaks without looking up from his work. "Oh, Veronica may sound non-threatening, but she is without a doubt simply lethal."
Natasha purses her lips and looks to Bruce. "There's got to be a way to get you - him," she corrects herself at his look of protest, "to calm down without beating the shit out of him."
"He can't really be hurt," Bruce shrugs, speaking in a tone that belies a lack of self-regard. "What's it matter?"
"Well for starters, we want the Big Guy to trust us. That's going to be pretty tough if every time we bring him out, we hit him over the head when we're done with him."
This gets her a grim smile. "Well, you're not wrong there. But what other option have we got?"
Her current idea is that she should talk him down herself, but she knows he won't be receptive to it right now, and Stark is already looking at her curiously, as if seeing some new side of her he wants to figure out. She does't plan on giving him the chance.
"I don't know yet," she says instead of the truth. "But I'll come up with some ideas. We can talk about it later," she adds with a passing glance at Tony, who seems to know she's being less than forthright in his presence.
She turns to leave. "Have fun with the science, boys. Try not to cause another tower-wide blackout."
Natasha gives herself two days before she confronts Bruce with her idea. She finds him on the roof in the early evening, watching over the skyline meditatively as she approaches. It's magic hour, the last hour of light before darkness, and the entire city is bathed in a golden glow. She notices when he registers her presence, but he keeps his gaze outward and doesn't say anything.
"Sun's getting real low," she says gently.
"It's funny how peaceful it can be up here when you know everything down there is completely chaotic."
Again, he simply nods.
Natasha takes a step closer, bringing herself in line with him at the roof's end, resting her hand next to his on the ledge.
He sighs like he's tired - not just physically, but of everything. Of life itself.
She inches her hand towards his, gliding the tips of her fingers across the top of his hand where it rests on the ledge in front of them. It's not something she has done before, but it feels like the right thing to do.
"You okay?" she asks in a tone that's just above a whisper.
He swallows and finally shifts his gaze to her.
Bruce blinks several times in rapid succession and tilts his head to the side.
"You cut your hair," he says, and Natasha wants to laugh over the fact that these are the first words he has spoken since her arrival.
Her lips curl into a slight smile. "I did."
He flushes. "It, uh, it looks nice. Just wanted a change?"
"Ah, well. The weather's getting warm. I wanted my hair off my neck. And my hair may have caught slightly on fire yesterday."
Bruce's brows shoot up to his hairline. "During the raid? Are you okay?"
"Yeah," she waves him off in quick assurance. "No burns, just singed split ends."
"Thank god," he breathes. "Well, uh," he gestures vaguely to her hair, "It suits you."
"Thanks," she smiles. "It was getting too long, anyway."
Her hand is still covering his, and her fingers tingle at the points of contact between them for some reason she can't explain.
"How's Veronica?" she asks after a moment.
"Not bad. She's still a work in progress. Hopefully we never have to use her."
"I hope not, too."
"I thought you wanted me out in the middle of the action?"
"I do," she agrees quickly. "I'm just not keen on any bit of machinery that's built to beat up someone I care about."
Bruce takes a sharp breath at the comment, and Natasha feels a pang of guilt at the fact that the statement seems to take him by surprise. She's not sure if it's because of how guarded she can be or if it's from his complete lack of self-worth. She thinks, perhaps, it's a combination of the two.
"You care about the Hulk?" he asks, disbelief leaking into his tone.
"I care about you, Bruce." Her voice has gotten soft and sincere and a bit vulnerable, but she pushes through. "So yeah, I care about him too, by proxy. You may not be in control when you're him, but you're still in there somewhere, and I don't care for the idea of you getting hurt."
She breaks his gaze and looks out on the city because she's afraid he'll read something in her eyes that even she doesn't yet understand.
"He tried to kill you," Bruce says flatly.
Natasha swallows hard. "He did," she agrees evenly.
"What makes you want to fight with him, then? You should be terrified of him, of me. Not wanting to have him join in the fight."
"He didn't hurt any of us when we were fighting the Chitauri. You didn't trust me in the least when he attacked me on the helicarrier. I was the person that brought you into that mess, that cornered you across the globe and dragged you into a fight you wanted nothing to do with. Why wouldn't he want to kill me? But fighting down there," she gestures to the city below. "He fought with us. You trusted Tony first, and then the Big Guy saved his life. It could be different now, Bruce, if we had a way of calming him down."
"Yeah, and we both already know that you're not going to earn his trust by knocking him out every time his work is done."
"I know," she says quietly. She takes a breath. "That's why I want to talk him down."
He yanks his hand away from hers, and Bruce turns to her, brows knit in confusion and growing anger. "Talk him down?"
He laughs, but the sound is hollow and full of disdain.
Bruce shakes his head. "Good one, Agent Romanoff."
She forces herself to not visibly react to the sting. He hasn't called her that in what now amounts to years.
"It's not a joke, Dr. Banner." She knows her tone is growing cold, and she tries to reign herself in.
"Really?" he asks, sounding bitter. "It sure sounds like one. Reason and logic tend to go over the Other Guy's head."
She rolls her eyes. "I'm not planning on appealing to his higher sense of rationality."
"So what? You sing him a lullaby?" he asks snidely, mocking their earlier conversation from days prior.
She replies drily, "I was thinking more along the lines of working with you on calming techniques we both think would help him, but I'm not thinking you're in a particularly collaborative mood at the moment."
He breathes out harshly, and she watches as his knuckles turn white from the way he is clenching the ledge.
"It's a stupid idea, Natasha," he says after a long moment. "It's incredibly naive of you to think that you could ever tame the beast. It's ridiculous. It's not possible. He's sick and twisted. He's a killer. He's a monster."
This time she's the one to breathe out harshly. "And what am I, Bruce?" She doesn't fight the way her voice seems to thicken with anger. "You know I'm a killer. Between the two of us, I'm the monster. I've taken too many lives to count and plenty of them were innocent. I've been killing since I was just a girl. I have done horrible things. At least when you kill, you've got someone else to blame. There's only one of me. There's no Other Girl. So forgive me if that excuse doesn't really work on me."
Bruce looks at her, stricken, but doesn't say anything.
She just wants to go back inside and fix herself a drink. It takes everything in her not to turn on her heel and walk away from him.
They're both silent for several moments, and his tone is much softer when he finally speaks again.
"But you're in control of it, Nat. I'm not."
From Agent Romanoff to a close personal nickname in a span of five minutes. Natasha wonders idly if he's trying to fuck with her head on purpose or if it just comes naturally.
"I know that," she says, tone softening with his. "That's why we talk about it and work on techniques and test it in the safest environment we can possibly create. I'm not talking about just throwing you out into the field, Bruce. Just working towards the possibility. Together."
He lets out a sigh, and it sounds more resigned now than anything else. She knows she hasn't quite won the battle yet, that he'll take much more convincing than this, but she can tell by the way his posture begins to relax and the way his hold on the ledge he'd been clenching so tightly begins to loosen that he's finally considering her side of things.
"I'll think about it," he says quietly.
She nods, feeling suddenly tired. "That's all I ask."
He rubs the back of his neck with his hand. "Um, look. I'm sorry I…lost my temper. I didn't mean to hurt you. Uh, not that I'm sure I'm actually capable of that because you seem kind of immune to that kind of thing, but, uh, anyway I'm sorry. Very sorry. I was just, am just, scared. I can't stand the thought of losing control and hurting someone who doesn't deserve it."
She nods. "I get that. It's the only reason I didn't punch you," she adds, as an afterthought. "Well that and I didn't need the Big Guy making an early appearance."
"All the same, I'm sorry."
"Forgiven," she says simply, and it's like a weight has been lifted off her chest that she didn't notice had even been there the past several minutes. "I'm gonna..." she gestures towards the door that heads back inside and turns to leave. She stops in the doorway and turns to him again for a moment.
"For the record, you're actually plenty capable of hurting me. And I don't mean the Big Guy."
He looks at her in open surprise, and Natasha heads inside before he can respond.
Natasha isn't exactly sure when it is that she started developing feelings for Bruce Banner, but it's after their fight that she's forced to finally acknowledge them. She's never really done this sort of thing before. She's been with many men, slept with enemies and friends, and been on too many dates to count, even if they all did tend to be marks. She was taught to flirt and seduce at an age that is too young to bare admitting, but Natasha has never really done this. It's not that she's never had feelings for someone before because she has, but never for someone she could actually see herself being with.
And god, does realizing she can actually see herself with Bruce Banner come as a shock.
She has never had time for romance, before. And when she has, she's rarely been able to do much about it because of her job. It's always been too dangerous being with civilians, especially ones she would inevitably have to lie to. Being a spy and assassin for a living has not exactly left a lot of time for her to have romance in her life. Nor has she ever really craved it before.
It's a terrifying feeling, wanting something she's never really wanted before with someone who might not even want the same thing.
She knows that Bruce likes her. She has been trained well enough in observation to notice the way his heart rate accelerates when she gets close, to take in the way his gaze sometimes lingers on her when he thinks she is not looking. She's not sure exactly how deep Bruce's feelings for her go, however. He is undoubtedly attracted to her, but she's not certain if it's just a little crush on a co-worker or if he's honest to god falling for her.
The scariest fact of all is that part of her really hopes it's the latter.
Because it would seem that she is falling for Bruce Banner. Someone that used to terrify her (and the list of people and things that terrify her is quite short; there is very little that is capable of scaring Natasha Romanoff), who she now seems to trust implicitly (and the list of people she trusts is an even shorter list; until recently it was mostly just a post-it with Clint's name on it).
She's falling for him. She has to acknowledge it because it has become painfully obvious to her and probably Bruce, now. She told him he is capable of hurting her. That implies more than a little caring. She's become open with him. It feels dangerous, like the most dangerous thing she has perhaps ever done, but the feeling is also exhilarating. She feels more like the human being she's always felt like she was masquerading as. Feelings are developing organically within her, and it is everything that her training has taught her not to be. She had always thought that maybe the Red Room had taken this from her, too; her ability to feel human emotion, to feel real. Like an actual person and less like the manufactured weapon of a girl she had been brainwashed and trained and forced into being.
She's falling for Bruce Banner - The Incredible Fucking Hulk - and she has no idea what she wants to do about it. She doesn't know if it's something she should act on. Just because she cares for him - deeply - doesn't mean she should date him. She's new to this, and they work together and live in the same building, and Bruce doesn't exactly appear to be searching for a new girlfriend. He'll never let her get close enough for something like that, for fear of hurting her, and she's not particularly confident she would ever be able to let him close enough to know her, either.
Natasha has one of the worst nightmares of her life three days after their conversation on the roof. She is back in the Red Room, and it is full of bodies. Dead little girls covering the floor, lying in pools of blood so thick she feels like she may drown in it. She is the only one still standing. She's got a gun in one hand and a knife in the other, and her hands are coated in warm blood. It stains the walls, the floor, her clothing. These are her victims, and she is their killer.
The scene changes and somehow it is no longer just the dead girls in the Red Room with her, but the lifeless bodies of her friends, as well. Bruce lies at her feet, and the fear in his eyes seems to linger even in death. Clint is beside him, throat slashed from the dripping knife she is holding, and Laura and their kids are on the ground next to him. Steve lays across the room, suit full of bullet holes. Tony and Thor are there, too, laying in still, crumpled heaps, eyes wide and unseeing. Maria and Nick are there, as well, red gaping holes in their foreheads where she'd struck them with kill shots.
The scene changes again, but she remains in the Red Room. She's shooting at a target with deadly accuracy, then a dummy, and then the first person she ever killed. Now standing in their place is Bruce. Her handlers are gone; there is no one in the room forcing her to point the gun at him. It is only the two of them.
"I love you," he tells her in a whisper, and she can feel the gun tremble in her hands.
Natasha's voice is hard when she finally speaks. "Love is for children."
She shoots him in the head, twice to be safe, and watches the body fall in slow motion. She blinks and then the Hulk is standing before her, roaring with unrestrained fury and hurt, and suddenly there is a giant glowing gun in her hands, so heavy she can hardly lift it.
Aiming for his heart, she smirks and speaks, "Say goodnight, Big Guy."
She pulls the trigger in her dreams, and Natasha awakens in her bed in Avengers Tower.
She does not startle awake.
She never does.
She has trained herself not to.
But it only takes a few moments for her to press her face into her pillow and take great, heaving, terrified breaths. Her body is trembling so hard she feels like she is vibrating. She digs her fingers into her sheets so fiercely that she feels them tear in her hands, and Natasha is left clutching shreds of fabric.
She shakes her head and drops the shreds and forces herself to take deep, slow breaths. Natasha glances at the clock on her bedside table - 3:12 A.M. She has gotten maybe two hours of sleep at most, but there is no way in hell she will be getting back to sleep tonight. Possibly not even this week. She takes to the bathroom and splashes some cold water on her face, then decides the best solution to her problems at this hour is alcohol. Preferably vodka. She knows she has a bottle stashed in the kitchen in a cabinet above the refrigerator, so she pulls on a pair of sweatpants and heads out of her room.
She pours herself a tall glass of vodka and drops a couple ice cubes in for good measure, then sits down in a chair with her tablet and tries to focus on anything else. It doesn't work - she didn't really think it would - and in the end she winds up quietly sipping her drink, staring at nothing but seeing far too much.
Time passes, and Natasha does not register it. She knows that she is four drinks deep, but she has no idea how long she has been in the kitchen. She is looking at a blank space on a clean, white wall, and to her it appears covered with splattered blood.
Suddenly someone lays a hand on Natasha's shoulder, and she reacts on instinct. She grabs the assailant's arm and pins him to the nearest wall in a chokehold, blocking his windpipe with her forearm and squeezing the breath from him. His eyes are wide and flicker from brown to green, and it's not until then that Natasha recognizes exactly what it is that she is doing.
She flinches away from him, hands dropping to her sides, and she backs away with wide eyes. She thinks that maybe she's shaking again, but right now she is too busy worrying about the fact that she has just attacked Bruce Banner. He is bent over, coughing and taking labored breaths, and she can tell that he is struggling not to Hulk out on her.
Natasha feels tears gather in the corner of her eyes, and she thinks she may actually cry. This has never happened to her before. There had been a couple close calls with Clint, when she was fresh out of the Red Room, and they were sharing space on missions and couldn't help but trigger each other once in a while. But she has had herself under control for a long time, and she most certainly has not tried to choke the life out of him before.
Bruce lowers himself to the ground carefully, his back sliding against the wall behind him. His eyes are not green anymore, she thankfully notes, and he seems to be gaining control of himself. He is still taking deep, slow breaths to keep a lid on things, but she thinks that they are out of the danger zone.
She swallows hard and decides to take a page from his book. She sits down, about ten feet from him.
His eyes eventually search out hers, and Natasha lets out a choked noise.
"Bruce…" her voice is just above a whisper. "I'm so sorry." She shakes her head, "I didn't mean to…"
"It's okay," he says in a low, soft voice, and she can't work out why it is he isn't completely furious with her. She just attacked this man and almost caused him to have an incident that could've been irreparable.
"It's really not," she disagrees. "I'm so sorry. Are you okay? Did I…hurt you?"
He shakes his head. "No damage done. I'm fine, Natasha. Which is more than I can say for you, I think."
She chokes on a self-deprecating laugh and shakes her head again.
"I'm sorry," she repeats because it's all she knows how to say.
"Don't be," he says, and his soothing tone feels calculated. "It was my fault. I shouldn't have snuck up on you. I didn't think I was. I assumed you would've noticed me enter the room, like you always do. I didn't exactly think I was capable of sneaking up on you."
Natasha nods, and she thinks maybe she's still trembling. "I'm not usually so easy to sneak up on." She blinks in confusion. "What are you doing awake?"
He frowns. "It's almost 7 A.M."
"Been up a while, huh?"
"Yeah," she agrees in a tired voice. "I didn't realize how long I'd been out here. I shouldn't have…I'm sorry, Bruce."
"It's okay, Natasha."
She sighs, beginning to get frustrated with herself for managing to be so completely careless. "And if I had taken longer to realize it was you and made you Hulk out? Would it still be okay then?"
"Well, there would've been a lot of property damage and god knows what else. But you didn't, and I've got it under control, so I'm not going to hold a grudge. Besides, right now I'm a little too busy worrying about you. I haven't seen you this shaken in a long time."
She knows he's talking about Calcutta, or maybe the helicarrier. Possibly both.
He continues, "What's going on?"
Natasha shakes her head. "It's stupid. It was just a nightmare. I shouldn't be so rattled. I've always had nightmares. I don't know why this time was any different." She purses her lips. "I was just…somewhere else. I didn't hear you come in. I'm kind of off my game this morning."
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asks, voice soft and sympathetic. He seems like he wants nothing more than to help, and there's an intimacy in the way that he looks at her that she can't quite place. She thinks that maybe she craves it. It makes her want to talk to him about things she's never wanted to talk about.
She looks at the ground. Bruce never did read her files, and she thinks that maybe it's time to tell him a few things that she is very much not in the habit of discussing.
She tries her best to keep her tone neutral. "You've…heard about the Red Room?"
Bruce opens his mouth to say something, but Natasha snaps her head towards the door at the sound of approaching footsteps.
Tony and Steve come barreling into the room, already engaged in conversation. They stop in their tracks at the sight of her and Bruce. She thinks they must look a bit ridiculous, sitting on the hard tile floor across from each other at a distance.
Tony's eyebrows raise, and he speaks with a hint of amusement, "Well, this certainly looks interesting."
Natasha frowns at the interruption. She still feels unsettled and vulnerable and frustrated with herself, and she does not like that two more people are suddenly seeing it. It is already new and scary enough to be unguarded in front of Bruce. She doesn't want to add anyone else into the mix.
Bruce glances at Tony and Steve, then back at Natasha, and he seems to come to a decision. To her visible surprise, Bruce stands and holds out a hand to her.
She furrows her brows at him.
He gestures with his head towards the door and simply says, "'C'mon."
Natasha swallows and takes his hand, and he helps pull her to a stand. She doesn't really need the assistance, but she appreciates the gesture and the way he leads her away from the kitchen, all the same.
She can hear Tony's voice ring out before the door closes behind them, "What the hell was that about?"
Bruce chuckles under his breath beside her at Tony's words.
"Where are we going?" she asks as Bruce all but drags her to the elevator.
He gives her a look. "Where do you think?"
Natasha feels the corner of her mouth turn up by the slightest fraction, and she hits the button for the roof with her free hand. Natasha doesn't think he has noticed that their hands are still intertwined. She's proven wrong when she glances at him, feeling strangely nervous, and he squeezes her hand reassuringly.
They stay quiet until they reach the roof and approach the edge, leaning against the ledge and staring out at the city together. It's still quite early, and day is dawning.
"Sun's still real low," Bruce murmurs in a gentle voice, a remembrance of their conversation a few days before.
"Yeah," she whispers. "It's nice."
He nods and turns to face her. "So you want to talk?"
Natasha bites her lip and forces herself to meet his gaze.
She wraps her arms around herself and manages to ask, "What've you heard about the Red Room?"
"Just that it's a Soviet training facility that housed the Black Widow Program. That it's where you were trained from an early age."
"I was six." She tries to keep her voice detached. "At least, that's what my files say. I don't remember it. I don't remember anything from the years…before. But that's probably the brainwashing. There was a lot of that. I had memory implants for years…S.H.I.E.L.D. broke me of them for the most part when I joined up, but I never did get those early memories back," she says it with a shrug, trying to display how little it matters, but she knows she's not fooling him at his look of concern. "I was a sleeper agent for a while there, too. I'd wake up with blood on my hands and no memory of what I'd done." She frowns. "But you know what that's like."
"I do," he agrees quietly.
"I was just a kid, when I took my first life. And it was easy. Just like target practice. I didn't feel the guilt, not then. Not until much later. I thought I was so strong, so tough. Better than the rest of them. I thought it was a good thing, my talent," she says the word with disdain. "I didn't understand what I was turning into. I just wanted to be the best." She let out a humorless laugh. "And I was." She presses her lips together in a thin line. "Still am, really."
She doesn't say anything for a few moments, and Bruce fills the silence.
"I'm guessing your dream was about the Red Room?"
"I was back there, yes. The floor was littered with the bodies of people I'd killed - other girls from the Red Room. Not just them, though. You guys, too. All of you, the Avengers. I'd killed you all."
She doesn't tell him the rest, how she had shot him after he confessed that he loved her. It will not help anything.
"I dream of that, too," he says simply. "Losing control and killing you all and finding all your bodies lying at my feet."
She nods because she has suspected as much. He is just as bad a sleeper as she is and almost as much a monster. Almost. Because he may have a monster, but he is also a good man. She is not so sure about herself.
They're both quiet for a while, taking in the sun as it slowly rises, but Natasha eventually speaks up.
"It's scary, you know? Caring about people."
Bruce looks at her with an all too knowing expression. "It's terrifying," he agrees in a shaky voice, staring at her intently.
Natasha feels compelled to continue, "I've never really been a person that has friends. Clint is the first real friend I ever had. You learn not to make friends in the Red Room. In the end, they're all targets. They weed out the weak. Some of the girls I grew up with, I wound up killing before the age of sixteen." Visions of blood and ballerinas that never were dance in her mind. Ballet barres coated in crimson handprints. She shakes herself. "You learn not to get attached after that."
Bruce looks anguished but doesn't say anything in response, just stands there with her in silent solidarity.
She waits a minute, then asks, "So…you horrified?"
"Yes," he admits, but at her pained look he is quick to clarify, "But not by you, Natasha. For you."
"Oh," she replies quietly.
Bruce takes her hand in his again. "Sorry you had a bad night."
"Sorry I put you in a chokehold."
This earns a laugh from him, and Natasha realizes how much she appreciates his morbid sense of humor.
They really are two sides of the same coin in so many ways.
There is so much of her that he doesn't know, that he probably never will, but she thinks that maybe he really does somehow understand her anyway. Just like she understands him.
"Bygones," he says easily, and she finds she's smiling despite herself.
"You know Tony is going to be hounding you about what he and Steve walked in on, right?"
Bruce shrugs. "I'll tell him it's none of his business."
"You think that'll stop him?" she asks disbelievingly.
"No, not really. But I can handle Tony Stark. Besides, I have plenty of embarrassing dirt on him. I'm not above a little blackmail between friends."
Natasha laughs outright at that, her small smile becoming a full grin. "Looks like you may just be in the right line of work."
Bruce pauses, then asks, "You want to get some breakfast?"
"Probably a good idea," she admits. "I've had nothing but vodka in about twelve hours."
He winces. "I'll make you some eggs."
Natasha doesn't know how it is that Bruce manages to turn her mood around so quickly, but he does. She still feels strange and out of her own body and a touch vulnerable, but telling him all that she has and his immediate acceptance and understanding has put her in a place of comfort with him. He's got her smiling and laughing an hour later, entertaining her with stories of being on the run and the shitty and often humorous living conditions he's endured over the years.
She smiles at him over her plate of scrambled eggs and toast, and she thinks that maybe she feels a bit like a teenage girl. She's never really been a teenage girl before - her teen years were full of bloodshed and learning skills she wishes she'd never needed - but she thinks maybe this strangely giddy feeling she gets when he makes her smile is probably what it would have felt like.
And he's smiling back at her, eyes crinkling, shoveling his own eggs into his mouth and nibbling on toast.
They talk for a long time. She had thought he would leave to go to the lab at some point, but they're still chatting and exchanging stories three hours later. They talk about nothing and everything. Little things, like how listening to opera calms him more than anything else and how they both share a bit of a passion for Russian literature. The conversation shifts eventually to the more serious again, and this time it is Bruce who opens up. He tells her about what it was like when he first became the Hulk; the dawning sense of horror he'd had at the monster he had created within himself. What it had been like coming back after he had killed as the Hulk for the first time.
He talks a little of Betty - of how he'd loved her and why things had fallen apart; how he still gets an email from her once every six months or so to check in and that she has moved on and so has he. He speaks briefly of his father, of how his whole life he had been terrified of turning into a violent monster just like him. He tells her of how his father had killed his mother in a fit of rage with only him to bare witness - which Natasha has known for years, from his files before she ever met him - and the desperate fear Bruce felt at the idea that he could one day do something similar. He spoke of his overwhelming distress at being a monster just like his dad and how he had managed to create a monster within himself that became so much worse. She is quick to reassure him that he is nothing like Brian Banner and how she knows he would never deliberately hurt anyone, but she's not sure he takes the words to heart.
Bruce stumbles through his stories, and she can tell easily that these are not things he talks about, either. The haunted look in his eyes mirrors hers during their conversation, and this time she is the one to reach out and take his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. She's not sure what makes her do it, but she turns his large hand over in her small one and brings her free hand to his palm, gently stroking down from his pulse point to the end of his hand with the tips of her fingers. He lets out a shaky breath at this, and Natasha thinks that he is likely not used to being touched in general, let alone with this sort of gentle affection. But his body seems to relax at the motion, and he looks at her with absolute wonder in his eyes when she eventually laces their fingers together.
That's how Steve finds them a few hours later when he wanders in around lunch time. He looks at them both a bit curiously but only smiles in response to the displayed intimacy between her and Bruce, walking over to the fridge to make himself a sandwich. Bruce blushes and takes his hand back, using it to remove his glasses and pretend to clean them. Natasha just barely restrains a laugh, eyes twinkling with amusement at him.
When Steve finishes his food, he asks Natasha, "You want to get in some training?"
She agrees because she knows she should, and he hasn't asked her in a few days, and Natasha thinks that if she spends much more time in Bruce's company that she might feel the impulse to do something stupid, like tell him she's got feelings for him or pull him into a spur of the moment kiss.
Instead, she lays a hand on his shoulder for a moment and gives him a smile and starts off toward the door.
They go a few rounds in the gym, and Steve finally asks her about what he had walked in on when they break for water.
"So, you and Banner, huh?"
She narrows her eyes at him. "Leave it, Rodgers."
"C'mon, don't be like that, Natasha. We're friends, right?"
This earns him a small smile. "You trust me enough to call me your friend now?"
"Of course I do," he answers. "You've finally been letting me get to know you a little. I'm not blind. I know you've been trying."
She blinks, startled. "I have," she agrees in a neutral tone.
"So you like Banner, huh?"
"Ask out any blonde CIA agents lately?"
"I am not having this conversation with you."
Steve sighs exasperatedly. "You know I won't tell him anything, or anyone else for that matter. It's kind of sweet, actually. Though…Banner? I'm a little surprised. I thought it would've been Barton."
She shakes her head. "Clint's my best friend. For a very, very long time, he was my only friend and probably the first person I ever trusted. But it's not like that with us."
"But it's like that with Bruce?"
Natasha sighs. "I don't know. I - and this conversation never, ever leaves this room or I swear to god I will kill you in your sleep, national treasure or not - but, yes. For me, at least, it is. I like him. Only, I've never really liked anyone before. Not seriously, anyway, not for real. Before…" she says slowly, "Before, the whole…romance thing," she already feels stupid saying the words but pushes onward, "It never got to mean anything before. It's usually been about the job. But now all my covers are blown, and I'll never be a spy again, and this kind of thing can actually meansomething for once, if I want it to. It's actually…kind of nice."
"And you want it to mean something?"
"I might," she agrees quietly. "But…it's complicated. I mean, he's got big green problems, and I'm not even confident I'm really capable of that kind of relationship to begin with, so I'm not even sure what I want, let alone what he wants. I've got no expectations."
"But you like him anyway," Steve says with a knowing smile.
Natasha gives a resigned sigh. "But I like him anyway." She puts down her bottle of water. "And on that note, I need to go several more rounds and pretend we never talked about this."
The fact is, they don't get to test the lullaby beforehand and discuss potential plans.
Three weeks later, Natasha is walking down a hallway in Avengers Tower, heading towards the lab, when she hears a loud crash, followed by an explosion. She has no doubt that it is a lab accident. Bruce had been telling her just a few days ago that he and Tony are working some more on the Hulkbuster, trying to get Veronica field ready just in case.
She starts towards the doors of the lab, which is now starting to smoke, and hears a sudden thundering roar. She knows the sound. She has heard it before. She has been completely terrified by it in years past. Whatever the hell it was that happened in there has caused Bruce to Hulk out for the first time in a long time.
She considers for the briefest of moments if maybe she should turn around and run the fuck away, but then she's running head first into the lab, instead. Tony is trying to summon his Iron Man gear and simultaneously calm the Hulk down, but he does not seem to be having much success on either count. The Hulk grabs the nearest table and throws it across the room, breaking it to bits.
Natasha takes a shuddering breath and a step forward.
"Hey, Big Guy."
The Hulk turns toward her in confusion, then roars so loudly he blows her hair back. He sends a chair flying into the nearest wall. She feels absolutely terrified, but she stays stock still and holds her ground.
"Shh," she says quietly. "It's okay, Big Guy, it's just me."
He roars again and knocks some screens and electronics into a wall, setting off sparks.
Natasha glances toward the now broken window and outside at the sky, then back at him. "Sun's getting real low."
The Hulk looks at her with something akin to confused recognition and finally stops prowling.
She takes a step toward him tentatively. He lets out a low, rumbling growl of warning.
"Shh," she repeats. "You know I'm not a threat."
The Hulk doesn't make a sound.
She takes another tentative step towards him.
He lets out a huff.
Natasha risks a glance to her left and spots Tony suiting up. She shakes her head in earnest. The last thing they need right now is to attack the Hulk. He's finally begun to stop smashing and roaring. Tony is looking at her with mingled horror and admiration, and she pointedly ignores it.
She turns back to the Hulk, who is staring at her with knit brows. Natasha takes one more step towards him and then holds up her hand, palm facing out towards him.
He approaches, looking confused but intrigued by her gesture, and after a moment he holds out his own hand in the same manner.
Natasha would smile if she weren't so completely petrified. She nods instead and keeps her hand out as he approaches her, his hand extended in a giant mirror image of hers. Her palm touches his, and she breathes out slowly. His large hand is warm and rough against hers, and she slowly turns her palm upwards and guides his hand to rest on top of hers. She pauses like that for a moment, her eyes searching into his, trying to plead with him to remain calm without muttering a word.
She swallows hard and brings a hand on top of his, as she had in the kitchen a few weeks previously, and she sweeps the tips of her fingers slowly down from his pulse point to his giant green fingertips. She repeats this gesture a few times, trying to seem as soothing as possible. It seems to be working; or at least, he has stopped smashing things and no longer seems hell bent on violence and destruction. Now he is looking at her curiously in a way that Bruce has looked at her countless times in recent months. A mixture of amazement and bafflement.
After a few moments, the Hulk lets out a huff of air and stumbles back away from her. Natasha's eyes widen in concern, but then he is collapsing to the ground and taking in deep breaths on all fours. He starts the shrink, the green begins to fade, and after a few moments Bruce Banner is laying in a crumpled heap, shirtless and panting on the cold floor of the lab.
He blinks at her in terror and bewilderment. "Oh god," he whispers.
Natasha rushes to his side and helps him sit up.
Her lips curl up in a hint of a smile, and she can't help but say, "I guess the lullaby works."
Bruce blinks at her in disbelief.
Tony's voice rings out from across the room. "Holy fucking shit."
Bruce finds her in the living room a few hours later after the incident, full of apologies.
Natasha shakes her head. "No, don't worry about it. No need to apologize. Are you feeling okay?"
He looks exhausted and is moving very slowly, and it's startling to realize exactly how hard a toll his transformation takes on Bruce's body. It makes her feel terrible for ever suggesting he help with the raids in the first place, even if it really is a good idea.
"Been better," he shrugs. "But I'm fine. You…" he breathes out, looking at her with awe. "You talked me down."
"I did," she agrees, and she places her hand on his shoulder.
He shakes his head with an incredulous smile. "I really didn't think that was possible." He frowns. "You weren't in the lab when things went wrong, though…how did you…?"
"I was on my way there when it happened. Then I heard a pretty familiar sounding menacing growl, so…"
He winces. "So you came in to try and calm the Other Guy down?"
"You're certifiable, you know that, right?"
A small smirk plays on her lips, and she shrugs. "It worked, didn't it?"
He lets out a long breath and can't seem to help his small smile. "It did. Natasha…"
She thinks maybe for a moment he is going to reprimand her, tell her not to do something like it again, but then he reaches out and takes her hand in hers.
He gives it a gentle squeeze and says simply, "Thank you."
Impulsively, she wraps her arms around his waist and pulls him into a hug. "You're welcome."
His posture is stiff for only a moment before he relaxes into the embrace, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her closer and resting his cheek against hers. She breathes a quiet sigh against his neck and rubs tiny circles into the small of his back with her fingertips. It's the closest she has ever been to Bruce Banner, and it's almost startling to realize how comfortable she feels in the embrace. It's intensely intimate, and she notes the way their breathing seems to sync up, chests rising and falling together in time, and she doesn't want to break the spell they both seem to temporarily be under.
But eventually there is the sound of footsteps, and they begin to break apart. Bruce starts to fiddle with his glasses, pulling them from his pocket and cleaning them with the material of his button-up shirt. Natasha tucks a strand of hair behind her ear as Thor and Clint walk in, and she shifts her expression to something more neutral.
They both approach and ask about how Bruce is doing after the incident. Clint laughs and slaps Natasha on the back when he hears about her success in talking the Hulk down.
Natasha winds up excusing herself and heading towards the gym a few minutes later, catching Bruce's eye and smiling faintly at him before departing.
It takes another month to convince Bruce to join them in the field, even after the first successful lullaby. Natasha eventually wears him down enough to practice it in a controlled environment with Veronica at the ready in case things go sour, but it proves to be unnecessary. The lullaby gets easier every time that they practice it. She keeps it a variation of what worked the first time - mentioning the sun getting low and holding a tentative hand out to his.
Eventually, he starts coming with them on missions. The vast majority of the time, he stays in the quinjet and talks to the team on comms. But then one day, the battle is mounting and becomes too much for the group without him, and in a steady voice Steve calls a Code Green.
The Hulk is invaluable. He turns the tide of the battle moments after he joins them in the fight and thankfully does a decent job of actually listening to them. Well, to Steve and Natasha, at least, which is good enough. When the dust settles and the battle is done, Natasha approaches him cautiously.
"Hey, Big Guy."
He uproots a tree and throws it at nothing, breathing hard.
"Sun's getting real low."
The Hulk comes to a stop and turns to her, tilting his head slightly.
She's got the high ground, standing on a hill beside him, so she crouches down slowly to become more level with him, then extends her hand toward his.
He repeats the gesture, and she strokes his hand, wrist to fingertips, and it's only a few moments later that he's stumbling backward and turning back into Bruce.
"Is everyone okay?" he asks quickly when Natasha approaches.
She nods. "Everybody's fine. The Big Guy was a great help out there."
"I didn't hurt anyone?"
"No one you weren't supposed to."
He looks incredibly relieved. "Good."
She wraps an arm around his shoulders and helps him stand, taking some of his weight as he leans on her.
Despite his fragile gait as he walks, his eyes are alight when they arrive back at the quinjet, the rest of the group having already returned. Clint high-fives him upon arrival, and Thor commends him on his battle technique. Steve pats him gently on the back and thanks Bruce for the help.
He has to wave off a hug from Tony, who is enthusiastic at his friend's success, and Natasha laughs as she ushers Bruce over to his seat. Stark catches her eye and grins because despite not liking her very much, they've both got the same vested interest in Bruce Banner's well-being.
The group scatters as they take off, and Natasha takes a moment with Bruce.
"You okay?" she asks.
He nods. "I'm okay. Still a little rattled, but that always happens…after. I'll be fine."
She nods and reaches for something she'd stashed in a bag before they'd left the tower. She passes him a large pair of headphones.
Bruce takes them from her, turning them over in his hands, and he stares at her questioningly.
Natasha shrugs. "What? Don't tell me your phone isn't loaded to the brim with opera. You said it calms you down."
He gives her a surprised smile. "It does," he agrees. "Thank you, Natasha."
His words are thick with emotion, and she knows he's not just talking about the headphones. She understands what it must mean to him to be able to do this; to have someone he trusts enough to bring him back when he loses control. He hasn't really said it, but she knows he sees himself as much more of a hindrance than a help. Tired and rattled as he may be right now, he's also exuding a sense of accomplishment she hasn't seen from him since they were getting post-battle shawarma, and she knows he must feel good about finally feeling useful.
Natasha squeezes his shoulder. "You're welcome."
The Hulk saves her life during the next raid that requires a Code Green. Natasha is engaged in a fight against seven other assailants - it's nothing she has not dealt with before and come out the other end of unscratched, but it does distract her enough that she does not spot the shot aimed at her.
She hears a loud, echoing growl, and then she's being pulled into the air and out of the line of fire by a giant green hand. The Big Guy sets her down a good hundred feet away, nods at her, then runs off again.
She tells Bruce about it later in the quinjet, and he blushes and stutters. By the expression on his face, she thinks that he probably remembers that part of the day's events. After a moment, he simply tells her that he's glad she's okay. He seems embarrassed by the fact that he has saved her, for whatever reason, so she leaves him be with his music and headphones.
There is a small incident, once. It's not on purpose. They are in the middle of a raid and the battle is intense. Natasha is fighting about thirty feet from Clint, and the Hulk is a few hundred feet from them, smashing away. Someone starts firing at Clint, and he has to duck before he can load another arrow, but they keep firing. The Hulk spots the heavy fire and knocks Clint out of the way, straight into Natasha. She hits a tree and lands wrong on her wrist. She can feel the crack of fracturing bone beneath her and winces.
Clint climbs off of her with a quick apology, and she waves him off, so he rushes back into battle.
She has to use her opposite hand for the lullaby this time, and the Hulk actually looks slightly confused when it happens, but he still mirrors her and slackens beneath her gentle touch.
Back on the quinjet, Bruce asks, "What happened to your wrist?"
She hesitates just a touch too long and can see the way Bruce's face immediately crumples with horror.
"No," she says firmly. "No, Bruce, it wasn't like that."
"But it was him wasn't it?" His voice is dripping with self-loathing.
"Only by proxy. He was saving Clint's life."
He looks at her in clear disbelief. "By breaking your wrist, Natasha? I'm a liability out there. This was all a huge mistake. I'm so sorry…"
She puts her good hand on his shoulder and shakes her head. "Stop it. The Big Guy was getting Barton out of the line of fire, and I got caught in the middle. Clint ran into me, I fell wrong. That's all."
The self-loathing seems to fade just a little, but he still doesn't look like he truly believes her. "It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been out there."
"Maybe not, but my best friend might also be dead if you weren't out there. The Big Guy, he didn't do anything wrong. You didn't do anything wrong." At his frown, she continues, "Three years ago, I accidentally broke Clint's left arm while we were sparring. Sometimes shit like this just happens. What happened out there was a complete accident. Don't let yourself think it was anything else. This doesn't change anything."
He holds her gaze for several moments, then nods slowly. "I'm still sorry."
She squeezes his shoulder. "It's okay. I'll be fine. You did good work out there."
Bruce sighs. "Can I at least do something to make it up to you? Anything?"
Natasha smiles slowly, a glint in her eyes that she thinks must look at least a little evil. "Sure. You can make me breakfast after."
Bruce splutters, and her grin broadens.
At least she's got his mind off of self-hatred for the time being.
"After?" he chokes out, voice high, and she doesn't think she's ever seen him this red before.
She almost feels bad for teasing him. Almost.
Natasha raises her eyebrows. "After I get a good night's sleep and my wrist put in a cast." She looks at him as innocently as she can manage, which is to say, not very. "Why? What did you think I meant?"
He gapes at her, mouth wide open and eyes unblinking. She thinks he might actually be breaking a sweat, so she resists a loud laugh at his expression and leaves him to his own devices.
There is a moment, a month later, where they almost kiss.
Natasha is having another sleepless night and is watching Gone with the Wind on her favorite TV in the living room around 3:30 in the morning when Bruce stumbles in, rubbing his bleary eyes.
"Rough night?" she asks, patting the seat next to her.
He nods and collapses into the cushions. "You know how it goes."
"I do," she agrees. They watch the television for a few moments. "Gone with the Wind is on."
The corners of his mouth tug upward. "I can see that."
They don't talk, really. It doesn't seem particularly necessary on this night, and they both slump into the comfortable couch and watch in silence, until she is closing her eyes two hours into the film and drifting off to sleep despite herself. She wakes up forty minutes later, noticing before she even opens her eyes the way she has come to rest her head on Bruce's shoulder and how he's resting his cheek on top of her head. She is not sure which one of them made the first move in their sleep, but she's not entirely surprised that they gravitated towards each other in their unconscious states. What does surprise her is how incredibly comfortable she feels; how rooted. Natasha shifts against him, and Bruce blinks awake. There's very little space between them, faces mere inches apart.
His gaze falls to her lips, and without giving herself the chance to think about it, she presses her palm to the center of his chest. She lets it glide upward, leaving a trail against him, and she strokes her fingers up his neck. Her hand comes to rest against his cheek, and Bruce leans in just a hair.
Then there is a loud clap of thunder and both of their phones are vibrating with bad weather alerts. They break apart without making eye contact. They go their separate ways, moments later, citing similar excuses of needing to get some sleep, and they leave what has just happened unmentioned.
Natasha enters her room and crawls into bed around 6 A.M., regretting lost opportunities. She's still not sure what this thing she's got going on with Bruce is, exactly. But whatever it is, she thinks she really wants to run with it.
They raid the right HYDRA base not long after that; the one with Loki's scepter. It's a hell of a fight, with more HYDRA forces than they have fought against before. But they come out the other side on top, as they always do.
"We're locked down out here," she tells Steve over the comms.
"Then get to Banner. Time for a lullaby."
Natasha finds him flinging around pieces of scrap metal.
"Hey, Big Guy. Sun's getting real low."