Exercise in Trust

"Hey there, big guy," said Natasha when Bruce Banner flicked on the light of his room. She saw him start and fumble in the doorway eyes darting to where she sat, cross-legged atop his bed.

"Natasha, dammit," Banner said, putting a hand to his chest. She watched carefully for any glint of green in his eyes but relaxed when they remained a muted brown. "Don't do that!"

Natasha grinned and untangled her legs, swinging them over the side of his bed so her feet hit the plush carpet, but didn't stand.

"I have complete confidence in you, Bruce."

"Tell that to the Other Guy," said Bruce, but his face had relaxed. He stood in the open door as though reluctant to come in.

"I don't know. Maybe he could use a vote of confidence," Natasha answered.

Bruce smiled, leaned against the doorframe, and folded his arms across his chest. "How did you get in anyway? The door was still locked."

"I noticed that," said Natasha. "Not fond of visitors?"

"Not if they aren't going to knock," said Bruce evenly.

Natasha smiled, brushed a strand of hair off her forehead before she folded her fingers in her lap. "Took a page out of Clint's book – came through the air ducts."

Bruce nodded in a vaguely impressed way and looked upward to the ceiling, eyes finding the metal grate in the corner of the room, painted a mellow beige to blend in with the walls. He finally took a step into the room and swung the door shut with the heel of his hand. Natasha noticed the latch didn't catch, the door hanging on its hinges slightly ajar. Natasha wasn't sure if Bruce had done so intentionally. Giving himself – or perhaps her – an emergency escape route.

"Where has our archer been lately, anyway?" Bruce's eyes flickered over Natasha's face rather shrewdly. His voice was carefully level. "Both of you, in fact. It's been months since you've been around. Not since that business with Hydra – those interviews."

"We've both been keeping on the down-low," said Natasha. "Recalibrating." Natasha watched him carefully, his fingers entwined together, hanging in front of his waist, arms loose, fingernails well-groomed. She wondered if he was going to ask Together? But when he didn't she wasn't surprised. Dr. Banner, like Captain America, was much too discreet.

"What about you?" Natasha continued. "What have you been up to? I've noticed Harlem is so far still intact, so…."

Bruce shrugged and walked over to the small mini bar in the corner of his room, all glistening wooden cabinets holding booze and crystal glasses. Stark certainly treated his guests well. Natasha had her own room in "Avengers Tower" as Stark was fond of calling it. She hadn't spent much time there – cool greens and silk curtains, sleek and seductive, inviting as it all was. Pepper must have done the decorating. Banner's sweet was done in earthy neutrals, simple and serene. The bed was soft. Pillows plush and warm.

"Wanna drink?"

"Thanks," said Natasha.

"Scotch and soda?"

"Thanks," said Natasha again, watching Bruce pull out the bottle and glasses, sprits the soda after pouring the liquor.

"I know what you're thinking," said Bruce, looking up and catching her eye. "Is it really wise for this guy to be drinking?"

The corner of Natasha lip dug into her cheek. "Wasn't thinking it, but now that you mention it. Have you ever Hulked-out while intoxicated?"

"Never been foolish enough to tempt fate," said Bruce, grinning. He brought her glass over and she accepted it with thanks. He walked back across the room and took a seat at the bar, looking at her levelly – almost unblinkingly – across the distance. Natasha had the impression she was being x-rayed, every movement carefully scrutinized for cracks in her shell.

"Clint doesn't drink to excess either," said Natasha. Immediately she wondered why she said it. She took a sip of her own drink, cool and tingly on her tongue. Good scotch. Another mark in Stark's favor. She knew Clint avoided getting drunk because of his father. She had no intentions of telling Bruce that.

Bruce looked over the lips of his glass at her. "Nor Steve," he said. "Granted, though, he couldn't even if he tried."

"So that leaves Stark," Natasha said, grinning.

"Tony does enough drinking for the lot of us," said Bruce. "Though I suppose we're forgetting Thor."

"Can gods get drunk?" said Natasha.

"I doubt any of our petty mortal liquor would be strong enough," said Bruce, "not for lack of trying, I'm sure, but it takes the stronger stuff of nectar milked from the clouds to wear down our Thor's constitution."

"True," said Natasha, and raised her glass. "To nectar and ambrosia. May all of life's vices be so sweet."

"Cheers," Bruce acknowledge her. "To the chief of sinner and the chief of sufferers and to those who live in-between."

Natasha let her eyebrows furrow in curiosity and waited for Bruce to take a drink before he answered her unasked question, "Robert Louis Stevenson. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Natasha nodded. "Cheers." She took another sip of her drink, holding it in her mouth for a moment, tasting the smoky sweetness on her tongue. She swallowed, looking at her glass in her hand instead of at Banner across the room. She could fee his eyes on her.

"Your door is twice as thick as the rest of the doors in this place," she said at last. "Was that Stark or you?"

Bruce put his glass down on the counter with a faint snap. "I told Tony I wouldn't move in unless he put up the proper precautions." He pointed to the top cabinet behind him. "Behind there – a tranquilizer gun loaded with enough drugs to take out a bull elephant in the height of musth. They're placed throughout the tower. Jarvis is instructed to bring them out, no questions asked, if there's ever the faintest hint of an incident."

"And you still don't think that's enough?" said Natasha, raising her eyebrows at the apparent lack of conviction in his voice.

"Frankly, no," said Bruce frowning, grabbing his drink again, taking a sip. "But we must have our Mr. Seek, however inadequate he may be." He tacked on as an afterthought. "Tony is working on a special suit. Started calling it the Hulkbuster until I asked him to name it something else. Calls it Veronica now."

Natasha smiled faintly. "Your idea again?"

"All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil," Bruce quoted at her and changed subjects rapidly, "He's my namesake, you know. Robert Louis Stevenson."

"Ah, yes, I always wondered where the Robert came from. And where it went," said Natasha, blinking over her drink.

Bruce smiled wryly, "My father's name was Robert." He sipped his drink. "Bruce is my middle name. Easier to tell us apart that way."

"Well, well," said Natasha, "you're a man of many secrets."

"Something you sympathize with, I'm sure," said Bruce. "It's not easy being green."

"I heard Selvig was here the other day," said Natasha, "any particular extraterrestrial business I should know about?"

"You asking for Fury?" said Bruce, peering at her over his drink. "Or just making conversation."

That one did manage to catch her a bit off guard. She lowered her drink. "You aren't supposed to know about Fury, yet."

"Yes, well," said Bruce, "If the man can manage to keep Coulson alive I figured he'd be able to do the same for himself."

Sometimes Natasha forgot that Bruce was a genius level of scientist. Rationality was part of his repertoire. She accepted his explanation with a smile, easy and reassuring, and answered his earlier question, "Not to worry. Just making conversation."

"We were just catching up," Bruce replied. "It's been years since I've seen Erik. We worked together at Culver, you know."

"I did, actually," said Natasha. "Remember, I've read your file. Both of your files actually."

Bruce rose his eyebrows in something near resignation but didn't appear to be upset by this breach of privacy. Natasha wondered if he had read hers.

Bruce continued as though he hadn't been interrupted. "We were talking about the Convergence. Why London? Whether or not there was more to the placing of prime meridian than just the location of the scientists. I've been communicating with Erik and Dr. Foster about it. Thinking about heading over there but…I don't know," Bruce shrugged, "too many cooks in the kitchen."

"Not flirting with Jane, I hope."

"I have no intensions of inciting the wrath of a hammer-wielding god," said Bruce. "Extra green muscle mass, besides."

Natasha laughed before saying, "You seem to be pretty busy with Stark lately, anyway."

Bruce shrugged again, "Nothing much, experimenting with some artificial intelligence models Tony's cooked up. Just a hobby really. It's best to keep him occupied. A bored Tony Stark is a dangerous thing."

"I thought we already had a very own artificial intelligence?" said Natasha, gesturing to nothing in particular, the walls and air that hid Jarvis' all-seeing eyes and all-hearing ears.

"Erm – yes," said Bruce, rubbing the back of his neck. "I don't think Jarvis is quite speaking with me right now."

Natasha smiled, "Jealousy, really? Why, Jarvis, I didn't know you had it in you."

True to Bruce's word, the computer automated butler remained silent.

"We're trying to develop a more advanced prototype. Jarvis' big brother if you will. Well – not like Orwell's Big Brother."

"I wondered earlier why he didn't inform you of my presence in your room," said Natasha.

"Dr. Banner did not ask, Ms. Romanoff," said Jarvis from somewhere above them, faintly mechanical voice seemingly atypically stiff.

Natasha smiled and Bruce chuckled appreciatively. The both sipped their drinks.

"You been reconnecting with anyone else?" said Natasha. "You mentioned catching up with Selvig – any other collogues from, you know –" she tapped the bottom of her glass on her knee. "Before."

Bruce looked at her, eyes slightly narrowed. Natasha didn't look away, eyes widened innocently. Natasha could do innocent with the flick of a mental switch. One of her most convincing plays.

"No one else, no," said Bruce finally.

"What about that girl – General Ross' daughter?"

Bruce shook his head, chuckling. Natasha watched him for any sign of animosity or distress at the reminder of Elizabeth Ross, but noticed nothing. Then again, Natasha recalled, Banner was almost as good at hiding things as she was. "SHIELD really doesn't miss a thing, do they?"

Natasha met his smile. "Nope."

"So why are you even asking?" Bruce said. "Don't you already know about that, too, after reading my file?"

"We lost track of her after she stopped being a potential asset."

"After she stopped communicating with me, you mean."

Natasha inclined her head in affirmation.

Bruce looked across the room, to an abstract modern-art piece that Pepper must have picked out – a white canvass with a red square in the middle. Natasha had noticed Banner's room was rather empty of accessories and breakable knick-knacks. The only lamps in the room were fixed into the ceiling. Another precaution, Natasha wondered, or purely for aesthetic motives? She wondered why Bruce still had the painting up, whether he saw something he liked in its pale minimalism. She noticed that it did give the room an almost meditative, calming effect.

"She was engaged to a writer last time I heard." Bruce shrugged, "Don't know if she ever married the guy. Haven't seen her in years."

"One of those melancholic avant-garde types, probably," said Natasha and Bruce laughed. "Not nearly as stimulating as a nuclear physicist with a split personality."

Bruce shook his head but he was smiling. He had a shy, half-formed smile, like he wasn't entirely sure he had permission to be happy.

"Probably makes things pretty interesting in bed," Natasha continued, smiling teasingly.

"You know, I would have expected to hear a quip like that from Tony."

"I do believe you're blushing, Doctor."

Bruce raised his glass to his lips, noticed it was empty and stood from his chair to pour himself another one. He asked if Natasha would like more but she declined with a shake of her head.

She stared at his back, the blue button-down he had tucked into the belt of his pants. "Clint and I – we're not, well, we're not the way everyone seems to think we are." She fiddled with her necklace, unsure of the compulsion she had to tell him this.

He turned to face her, second drink in hand, eyebrows raised. "Well," he said at last. "You fooled me."

Natasha smiled, conscious of how stiff her lips felt, hoping that wouldn't translate into her mask of aloof irrelevance. She didn't say anything. She wished she had taken up Bruce's offer for a refill.

"Clint asked me if I'd wear it." She gave her necklace a slight tug, metal charm slightly moist from sweat against the beds of her fingers. "It makes it look like we belong to each other beyond what that means in the field. It makes things…less complicated."

"But you do love him."

Natasha didn't know if it was a question or statement. She didn't know which one would be worse. For a moment she wondered if she'd actually tell him the truth. "Love is…too simple for what I have with Clint. Our partnership requires a level of intimacy that bypasses physical or even emotional love. We have to know each other in a way that…it's like we exist as the same person, breathe, sleep, think as one. To say I love him is to say I love myself. I trust him like I trust myself."

Bruce rose one of his eyebrows. "You've given this a lot of thought."

"I figured someday someone would ask. I needed an explanation."

"An explanation of necessity, then? Or one of sincerity?"

"Can't they be the same thing?"

"Maybe," said Bruce. "But I've found they rarely are."

Natasha acknowledged him with a slight dip of her head. "Ever thought of calling her?" She asked. "Going out for drinks. Tell lies about the good old days?"

For a moment it looked like Bruce was going to answer but then a curiously guarded expression descended over his face. He put his lips against the lip of his glass but pulled it away without taking a drink.

"I give up," he said at last. "So what is this, Natasha?" Bruce spread his arms, palms facing upward in defeat, one hand still holding his glass, filled with scotch so that some of the ochre liquid sloshed against the sides and almost escaped. "Some sort of interrogation?"

Natasha cocked an eyebrow. She switched her glass to her other hand, cuffed her palm against her pants. "Maybe I just want to be friends."

"You always grill perspective friends?" Bruce answered, matching her raised eyebrow with his own. "Some kind of test, or something? Tell me, am I passing or failing?" She wasn't sure if she detected a slight hint of accusation in his voice.

She backpedaled. "Call it an exercise in trust, if you will."

"I know it's your specialty, Natasha, skirting the truth in artistic ways" said Bruce, "but, please, dignify me with a straight answer."

The game was up now. Natasha felt a sigh well in her throat but she didn't let her disappointment show in her face. It had been almost nice while it lasted, this caricature of casual friendship. But – like everything the Black Widow did – no means was ever without an end.

"I really did want to get to know you, Bruce," she answered him, keeping her eyes on his, keeping her face open, honest, confidant. "In-between saving the world, personal relationships can be lost in translation. But, yes, I admit it. I had another motive for coming in tonight."

Bruce didn't say anything. Natasha continued, "We've been talking – I'm sure you'll agree with us, too, Bruce – about your particular…assets for the team."

She watched his fingers stiffen imperceptibly around the stem of his glass. When he shattered it – that was when she knew she'd run for the door, still hanging slightly ajar, line of light from the hallway spilling across the carpeted floor.

Again he didn't say anything, just watched her.

"About ways you can get more of a handle on it," she said finally, almost wincing at how blunt she sounded, the ineloquence of her words.

"So you can hone me into a more effective weapon?" said Bruce. There was no anger in his voice, only faint resignation.

Natasha shrugged, "Weapon? No. So you can better protect the world, better do your job? Yes."

"When you first recruited me for this gig you told me it'd be for the science," said Bruce. Finally taking a drink of his scotch, sitting back down on his stool, all the way across the room from Natasha. His eyes were dark pinpricks of light in the distance.

"Bruce, you can do a lot of good – fight a lot of evil if you learn to harness your power."

"Power," Bruce shook his head, smiling, laughing almost, eyes not leaving Natasha's face. It was clear from his expression that he was nowhere near genuine amusement. "Is that what you call it? Power – like Thor's hammer, Steve's strength?"

"Power is given only to him who dares to stoop and take it," Natasha said, not blinking. "One must have the courage to dare. Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment."

Bruce nodded tersely, almost as if Natasha had said something crass. She could tell he was familiar with the quote. He downed the rest of his drink, snapped the glass on the counter.

"What did you have in mind?" he said. Interest. Interest was good. It meant he wasn't completely shutting her out.

"It's called the lullaby," Natasha launched into the explanation, grabbing what opportunity he presented her with. "Controlled hypnosis. Brainwashing only in the most rudimentary sense. Involves a trigger word, a verbal tranquilizer of sorts. Method they used in the Red Room sometimes when some of the girls went a little haywire, couldn't shut off again."

Bruce's eyes were heavy on her face. "And how exactly do we practice that?" It was subtle but it was there, a brief flash of anger in his pupils – she realized it was directed at her, at the mere suggestion she put herself in danger for him.

"In a controlled facility. You'll transform. First I'll stand somewhere you can see me but can't touch. Maybe behind bullet proof glass –"

"He isn't some kind of circus performer, Natasha," said Bruce, voice stiff. "He can't be trained. Believe me, I've tried everything. Nothing works."

"You haven't tried this."

"Why are you so certain?" he asked her, shaking his head – at her ignorance Natasha knew, her blind optimism apparently.

"Because it involves two people – it requires the reliance of a partner. Something yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises don't."

Bruce didn't say anything. He ran his fingers through his hair. He looked at the painting again. Natasha looked, too, noticed it was a red rectangle, not a perfect square.

"All I'm asking is you give it a chance, Bruce. If it doesn't work – if you don't feel like it's worth the risk, one word from you and I'll stop."

"Alright then." He breathed slowly through his nose, looked away from the wall swiftly and caught her eye. There was something disarming about Banner's gaze, an openness to it that Natasha was unaccustomed to seeing – having worked and lived so near people who were trained liars all her life. "Where do we start?"

Natasha let herself half smile. She had to admit, Bruce was a reasonable good-looking man, attractive in the endearingly bumbling, absentminded professor-like quality that hung off his messy curls and ill-fitting, rumpled clothes. She patted the bed beside her, quilt soft and cool beneath her palm. "First you learn to trust me."


Banner's toast is inspired by the quote "If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also" Indeed from Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.