The space between Natasha and Bruce is a neutral zone armed with mistrust and cynicism

by Liss Webster

I – The Best Safety Lies in Fear

Somehow, despite the lack of alien attacks – or, really, much in the way of attacks at all – Fury manages to come up with an ever-changing variety of reasons to keep Natasha and Clint in and out of Stark Tower. It's not too bad, really. Tony Stark is an irritating man-child, but he is a genius irritating man-child, and Natasha appreciates Pepper Potts' qualities. She could do without Happy's consistent attempts to come on to her, but into every life some rain must fall. Natasha is philosophical about these things. She is (was) Russian.

But Stark Tower also means Bruce Banner. Stark and Banner are apparently living in perfect harmony, saving the world with science, which is admirable (and would be more so if Stark would ever shut up about it), but it means that Banner is always there, looking at her.

(After they'd all gone out for shawarma that one time, Banner had caught her arm on the way out, and said, "Hey, Agent Romanov – they told me about what the other guy did on the helicarrier. I'm sorry if I hurt you," and she had pulled free said, "Don't worry about it; not a problem," which was a lie. It was a problem.)

And the thing Natasha doesn't get, is how everyone else is absolutely fine with the fact that Banner turns into a monster so powerful none of them would be able to stop him, and so unthinking that he can't tell friend from foe half the time. Stark seems to actually think this is a good thing, like it's perfectly manageable. Clint is annoyingly superficial on the subject – Banner's a great guy, and the other guy is useful, and they'll deal with the fall-out if it happens, end of. Fury thinks he's an acceptable risk.

Natasha thinks they're all insane.

She tries to palm off the endless trips to New York on other agents, but Fury is vexingly obdurate on the subject, and she keeps going, up and down Stark Tower's elevator, in and out of Tony Stark's offices and labs and apartment, and Bruce Banner is always there.

"I don't blame you for not trusting me," he says once, self-deprecatingly. "I wouldn't trust me either."

"I'm not afraid of you," she says, and it's not what she means to say. She always says exactly what she means to say; it's part of who she is. Nothing is unplanned. This is what he does to her.

"That's not really true, is it?" says Banner. "It's OK. I'll pretend if you will." He looks – sad – and Natasha's read his file from before, and she wishes this had never had to happen to him. The sentimentality of this thought annoys her.

"I'm not afraid of you," she says again, more assured this time, and he nods and turns away, and they both pretend that it's true.