"then torn apart"

Genre: Drama, Hurt/Comfort
Rating: PG
Time Frame: Post-Avengers
Characters: Natasha Romanov, Bruce Banner

Summary: "It's just a bruise." It was nothing that couldn't heal. Natasha/Bruce, Post-Avengers

Notes: Because, Natasha is now my multi-ship character of choice – and these two. THESE TWO. Need I say anything more? Thank-you, Mr. Joss, for giving us these delicious characters to play with. My muse is smitten, I say!

Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words.

"then torn apart"
by Mira_Jade

In the end, it took only three months before the world needed the mighty of their own once more, and in the aftermath of that second apocalypse averted, Fury's pet project was finally given clearance to take on a permanent root. The idea that was the Avengers anchored itself, setting up its heart in the tower that Stark had been (not so secretly) redesigning for just that purpose. Bruce, who had found himself helping Tony (and his life, but when had he ever thought that he would be on first name basis with the Stark billionaire?) with his projects when his wandering feet weren't taking him far and wide (Cairo, Delhi, Beijing, and a stint in Budapest for the sheer curiosity of what had been mentioned over pita bread and cheap wine), knew that better than most. He had run the calculations through, once then twice and then three times again, and when the numbers had lined up he had been one of the first of their misfit team to take up the offer of a permanent address.

In those early days, even more so than the saving the world part of their job description, it was the every day and the mundane that took some getting used to. It was different, learning to stand on solid ground once again – it was different, thinking in terms of we, rather than I, and putting on tea for a group rather than just himself (well, for him and her, at any rate, Natasha having made it a game to guess what specimen of his international collection of leaves was brewed, but that was besides the point). While the Stark Tower became their base of operations and an unofficial HQ, the old Stark mansion became where they took up their home and hearth. Tony had jokingly taken to calling it his foster home, chuckling over the fact that they were all lost souls coming together more than they were a team of superheroes carving out their niche in the world. (Well, the technical term was 'gifted beings', not 'superheroes' – but the term from the news reels had stuck, and Tony had insisted on its validity due to the simple fact that there were action figures bearing the team's likeness. Action figures. Fury had no hope of arguing logic past that point.)

At the very least, it was some consolation that he wasn't the only one who was struggling to find his feet underneath him. The Captain was still all awkward steps when he wasn't marching for a day and its saving, and Clint too was unused to the novelty of one spot, one port of call - and a team in general, at that. He was a long distance, seen from afar kind of guy, and there were still times when he watched rather than joined in on whatever was going on when not acting upon official orders. Natasha had many of the same habits as the Hawk, (the same, and yet different), with her careful eyes, and her crooked mouth, her humor dry and pointed as she interacted with her team as a cat playing with a ball of yarn – finding out just what made them all unravel until she herself was comfortable enough to fall apart at the edges. In the beginning, she had a way of staring that was unsettling to him. In Calcutta, her gaze had been like some hunting animal who knew it was poking something with bigger teeth, and it had intrigued him. Now, that same hunting shadow was there, but it was deeper – it searched without apologizing, without hiding the fact that she was waiting, that she was watching. She met him straight in the eye, as if looking for a flash of green in the corner of his gaze, hiding, monster shaped, where he himself could not see.

In all honesty, it was a gaze he couldn't really blame her for. He himself had a hard time remembering much from his time as the Other Guy, but he remembered enough – he remembered the flash of red hair, a leading line, teasing as it fled before him. He remembered the spark of flames, harmless against his skin; he remembered the scream of metal as it bent before him, and he remembered the scent of fear, so strong that he could taste it in his mouth like something living. He had seen enough of the security footage – watched like a true masochist, over and over again, all to learn and observe, every bit of him a man of science and all she chose to be – to know of the animalistic violence that was he in his other form. It was something he couldn't calculate, couldn't quantify, like the pattern of the tides or the shape of a storm, all inescapable and merciless.

In his darker moments, he didn't remember the violence, but rather the way the cameras had picked up on her breathing, slow and still and so very soft as she sat and made herself as small as possible, out of the way of the verdant monster and the Thunderer as they had traded their blows like titans. He had remembered her knees drawn up to her chest and her eyes closed as if she were a praying child, all nightmare-eyed and I cannot see him and he cannot see me, so long as I do not open my eyes . . .

He remembered, afterward, the torn parts of her uniform, how he had been able to recognize the shape of a Chitauri blade, here and there. Familiar too had been scrapes from debris; tender marks made from hard landings against the cement, and bruises from alien blows she hadn't been able to avoid.

But, even more familiar there had been purple blooming on her arm in a massive collection of bruised flesh, tender and ripe upon her skin like a stamp, a mark. Her torn sleeve had only shown so much, but she had cradled the whole limb as if it pained her, keeping it close to her side as the adrenaline and the battle-haze faded, her body having loudly informed her of her aches and pains once the fighting was done.

She did not say anything to its source (a hand of god batting her away as if she were an insect with tiny wings beating against the air), not even when Stark winced in sympathy and reached out to poke her skin like a child, asking her if it hurt. (The man's default settings wouldn't let him respond in any other way to the sight of her pain, apparently.)

"Not a bit," she had said in reply, lying easily as she smacked Tony's hand away with a raised brow that implied that he had the tact of a five year old child. And while she may not have said a word as to the shape of her hurt, it did not matter because Bruce knew.

. . . and he had seen enough bruised and broken things to last a lifetime.

(Even if something in the back of his mind, bitter and self-deprecating and so very weary, whispered that: she had too, it didn't help with the guilt. It rose up in his throat enough to choke him at times, the memory of twisted metal and rage and her so very small in the shadow he cast.)

It took another month after the official naming of the Avengers before the Other Guy was needed on the field again. They were facing an attack by HYDRA – a parasite with multiple heads that had been left festering since the time of Hitler. The battle had been a sober realization - a reminder that he wasn't the only one on the team with a history dark and deep, and, when all was said and done, that day had became more about watching Steve's back than it was about protecting the people they had fallen into serving. He had inhaled deep and told the verdant shadow in his mind to play nice before letting himself flare green and hulking and angry. He had focused on that anger as his bones popped and his skin stretched to fit a new shape. He tried to harness that anger – anger over the fact that somebody he cared for was hurt, and anger for knowing that the people he had under his protection were in danger – and it was indignation and white hot fury that consumed him when he seethed against those who had dared to strike against his own.

That righteous fury had helped to keep himself under control, a very little bit. He was still a grenade, aimed at the fray, but his threads of control were strong enough for him to even consider allowing his Mr. Hyde out to play.

Even still, with his consciousness just at the tip of the Hulk's mind, it did not mean it was a good idea for him to fight side by side with the others. Even the Thunder God fell under his blows when he strayed too close in the melee – and the Other Guy had taken a particular delight in taking out his battle adrenaline on the Aesir's superior frame during the lulls of battle. Thor had learned early on to keep a hammer's swing away from the Hulk's reach, and Clint had always had half of an arrow notched to help steer him back on course when his attention would stray. Tony, loud and flashy and brightly colored could draw the Hulk's gaze and keep it, acting as a buffer to keep him on course. But all maintained their distance and their respect.

Unlike her teammates, Natasha had fought by his side that day. Not only had she stayed by his side – but she seemed to happen upon the insane notion that his massive frame was her own personal spring board and jungle gym. She had danced over and about his huge limbs with an uncanny grace that proclaimed to all that her veins were steeped with just as unnatural an ichor as his own. Where he was a wrecking ball – the destruction he wrought graceless and yet effective, she was a scalpel, finely tuned and aimed – hitting pressure points and tangling nerves, her fingers precise and exact, and her aim unnerving. She used his massive body to swing up and around, and her tiny fingers felt like ants on his skin, crawling and insignificant and didn't she know that he could crush her without a glance if she kept that up?

She did, he had realized in a stupid moment, his brain slow and thick from where it had been shoved to the back of the Hulk's consciousness. She did realize . . . and she refused to hide in her own shadow from her monster under the bed. She refused to let him be that to her, not after all she had done to make her mind her own, her fears and fights hers and only hers.

He had read her file in those early days after the battle for Manhattan – thanks to Stark, again - and he had heard enough stories between Natasha and Clint over beer and pizza to know bits and pieces more. She was honed to be the best of her craft – her skills were a lifetime's work of science and the best possible training from those used to walking the black parts of the world. Even more than that, her very make-up had been torn out and put back in again until she knew perfectly well for how flesh to bruise and bones to break and bodies to shatter. And for all of that training – for all of her years and assignments and her Red Room deeds - he was something that did not answer to any of those preconceived notions.

And that, he thought, was why she looked at him with a hunt in her gaze. She would not have something unfellable so close to her. Instead, she would have her closest empty and under her bed clean – she needed that, for her own sanity and peace of mind.

It was that thought which made sleeping that night hard – hard and long and too populated with visions behind his eyes when he finally did succumb to slumber to make him want to commit to trying again.

And so, as he often did when sleep eluded him, he climbed out of bed, and made his way through the halls of the silent mansion. As they always did, his feet took him to the gym; and instead of sitting down on one of the mats for some much needed meditation, he took a turn towards the punching bags that stood ready and waiting on the far right wall. His body was a restless thing under his control, his limbs were still itching, his bones thrumming from their unnatural growth, and he wished for movement. He did not want to practice the art of sitting still.

It turned out he wasn't the only one with a restless night, it would seem. That in of itself wasn't unusual – half of their team seemed to suffer from some level of insomnia or soldier's sleep. It didn't even draw a second look from him when he walked into the half lit gym to see Natasha in spandex with her hair tied back, rhythmically punching and kicking her customary bag – the one she nicknamed Stark. He didn't stop to ask her if she had nightmares keeping her awake – not anymore. Instead, he only asked, "Which one?" as he passed her by on the way to the punching bag furthest to the right of her.

Her smile curved like a blade, more a smirk than anything else. "That would be a number three tonight," she said wryly, her humor self-deprecating enough to draw a snort from him.

"Sounds like fun," he replied, wrapping his knuckles so as to not bloody them – the Other Guy never did react well to the scent of his own blood, and it was best not to take chances.

The first night they had done this together, she hadn't said anything as to his choice of coping with his demons – she had only raised a brow, letting him read the, what, no yoga? that rested in her gaze. She had been silent for only a moment before reaching over to correct his stance – the way he stood, the way he swung his arm, even the way he made a fist. He had let her shape him, her fingers a weight on him where they were not in his other body, his other form. He let her touch rest on him, and found a strength in that as much as anything else.

"Something like that," she responded, her eyes glinting.

His smile widened, just slightly, as he took a few swings at the bag in front of him. He could feel his muscles relaxing, slowly but surely as he swung, left and right. While not as impressive as the Captain, or as showy as Stark, he could hold his own for the about four minutes he had in a friendly spar before the Other Guy decided to come out and show how a punch was really thrown.

Natasha was still watching him, as if waiting, and he did his best not to stare back. Instead he caught her from the corner of his gaze, following the way her body moved as if dancing, the way a stray strand of her hair rested at the curve of her neck and shoulder, all red against white. Sweat glinted in the hollow of her throat, catching the light like a mirror and holding it.

He punched the bag a little harder, and felt a pressure on the edge of his consciousness – a curiosity from his second self, nothing more, but it was enough for him to take a step back, considering.

She caught his change in stance, in rhythm. "How about you?" she asked then. "Which one?"

The one where she was drowning, and he couldn't see past the water in his eyes. The one were his limbs were too heavy to swim, and suddenly his hands before him were green and monstrous and he wasn't reaching for her so much as holding her under, and -

"A good old number five," he shrugged. "Nothing special."

"I see," she said. Her fists made a thump thump as they struck the bag. Like a heartbeat.

He shifted his weight from foot to foot, and watched.

She tilted her head, half of her gaze spared for him. Her voice hummed in the back of her throat, wordless as she struck, again and again. The half light painted shadows in patterns across her form, teasing and thick.

And revealing.

"You haven't gotten that taken care of, yet?" he asked, sounding surprised.

She turned fully to him, the bag hitting her fist more than she hitting it as she looked to where he was pointing – to the rather impressive looking bruise that decorated the high part of her arm. The skin had broken in the center, already dried and clotted over, but it looking painful. "That?" she shrugged. "It will heal without fussing."

"It will heal more quickly with fussing," he countered.

She raised a brow – the same look she gave to junior agents who stared for too long with fascination in their eyes and too many questions on their lips. "Is that your official diagnosis Doctor Banner?" she asked.

"Hey, it was a hard won doctorate," he countered. "And it's there for moments just like this."

"For armature diagnosis's in the middle of the night?" she questioned, bemused.

"After three months on a construction site with Stark, there is nothing armature about my diagnostic abilities."

She snorted. "Of course. My mistake."

He shook his head, but still moved towards the supply cabinets that were on the far side of the gym, and the mandatory first aid kit that would be there. "Do you want me to take care of it for you?"

She shrugged. "Suit yourself." But she stepped away from the punching bag. Her arms gleamed with sweat and her eyes were bright with the exercise. They watched him closely.

So he looked down, and counted her footsteps as she joined him on one of the benches. She sat besides him, a shadow falling over where he was getting out what he needed, setting aside antiseptic and bandages, a cold press for the bruised skin . . .

She held her arm out expectantly, sitting closer than she normally would in order to make it easier for him to tend to her. He ignored the long line of her thigh so close to his own, and the delicate knuckles her hands made when she fisted it against the sensation of him cleaning the wound. She bit her lip as if she had gone through this more times than she could have counted, and really, she had, which begged to question -

"Why didn't you get this looked at earlier?" he asked. She wasn't a child about medics and their place in the world, not like Stark and his dislike of people touching him – with gauze or needles, it didn't matter. "This isn't a pretty one."

She shrugged. "I liked the reminder."

He took the response in stride, filing it away in the part of his mind that was all her travels and her taste in tea leaves and how many types of nightmares she had. He did not blink.

"Some reminder," he said instead, and she snorted.

This close, he could see the older marks on her skin, long healed over from some half remembered wound. He stared, and reminded himself that she was more than she seemed – older, stronger, with her veins picked apart and filled in by science and ambition until she was a patchwork thing before him.

. . . but, stronger for it, he thought. And, for a moment, he knew envy at the calm way her eyes regarded him, watching him work.

He inhaled. He exhaled deep.

"What's the story behind that one?" he asked, wanting to distract himself; his thoughts and the thick cast of them. He touched a long and white scar that wound up around her elbow, straight and thin as if from a gash.

"Constantinople, knife wound," she responded, humor in her voice. "I personally blame Coulson for that one - which Clint will back me up on." There was an old hurt in her voice there, long buried, and his touch turned gentle at the sound of it. It was not quite a caress as he drew his hand away.

"And this one?" he asked, nodding to a smaller mark up on her shoulder, near her right shoulder blade, just visible through the crossing straps of her leotard.

"Dublin," her smile turned sharp with memory. "And very classified."

"Ah," he said, his fingers pausing from where they were dabbing an antiseptic onto her skin, where the cut of her wound was red and angry. His other hand touched at her wrist, and the small marks that lingered there, hard to see to one who was not looking closely.

"How about this one?" he asked, his voice muffled as he tore the gauze for her arm with his teeth.

"Hong Kong," she said, and he raised a brow.

"Really?" he asked. "I thought that that one was just a story new recruits whispered."

"Half of it," she shrugged. "The other half," when she smiled, she showed her teeth; her eyes challenging like a fanged animal's.

He chuckled. "Do I want to know which half is truth?"

"I'll let your imagination run wild," she responded vaguely.

He shook his head, amused. Other marks on her skin, he knew well enough – like the line by her neck from their fireworks mishap that had came the month before when they helped Steve celebrate his first Fourth of July since his defrosting, and the tender skin on her back had come from where she had taken a few stories fall the week prior from a run in with Doom and his bots. She had a still healing cut behind her ear from even more recently – a mission she had taken on her own for SHIELD that only Fury and Hill knew the parameters up. Bruce thought about those forty-eight hours – the countless times he had checked his watch, and Stark's needless teasing at his worrying, and found himself tying off the bandage about her arm with more care than was strictly needed. She had come back with shadows in her eyes, and Barton had taken her out that evening – they had both came back sore and tired with vodka on their breath, but at peace, whatever demon from the past that had been lurking there exorcised and disposed of.

"There," he said, "good as new."

His hand still rested on the bandage, it lingered with curiosity as he ran through the day's earlier events in his mind, trying to figure out just when and where she could have acquired such a wound. The shape of the hurt tugged at him, even as he said, "Just keep ice on it – it'll help the discoloration go away quicker." That, and whatever she had running in her veins thanks to those who had shaped her – she would bear the mark for only a few days more, he would wager.

"I'll do that, doc," her voice teased.

He smiled, but still he lingered. "Where exactly did you get that today?" he asked again, the question tugging at him in a way he didn't like.

Her eyes turned with . . . sympathy? He considered, and decided that yes. Her stare turned with understanding. It assured, and suddenly the sick feeling inside of him grew. "It's battle," she said, her voice gentle, her lie saving. "I forget when or where it happened."

But he suddenly recognized the mark that darkened her skin. He knew the shape of it, and his stomach gave a lurch as every doubt and misgiving this whole venture at large had given him return in a tidal wave, and -

Her other hand came up to rest over his, not letting him pull away from her – squeezing, more a command than comfort as she said, "It is just a bruise. It will heal."

She was stronger than him like this. Under her grasp, he was still tracing the edges of her bandages with a single finger, which was not strictly needed from a medical standpoint. But her skin was soft underneath, and warm and alive, and his stomach was still trying to rise into his throat, and why didn't she see that he could have taken her whole arm off if she hadn't been quick enough, or some vestige of control inside of him hadn't reacted in time, and -

"It's just a bruise," she repeated. "That is all."

"But it could be more next time," he whispered. "It could . . . I could . . ." Kill you. Hurt you worse than this, he wanted to say, but couldn't finish. He could become a permanent scar in her collection – more than Constantinople or Dublin or Hong Kong. It would be something he couldn't treat with a little ibuprofen and an ice pack.

"Bruce," his name was a sigh on her lips – it was sad . . . but it understood. He let himself hook onto the sound of it, the shape of it – whole and well and never small, never scared. Not anymore.

She leaned in close, close enough so that he could feel the heat from her skin; the tangible reality of it. She was a curve, fit to match his body, and she slipped in close so that her nose almost brushed his. Her eyes held level with his. Her pupils were dilated, adrenaline filled, but her breathing was even. Steady.

He imagined his own gaze, dark and warm, and wondered if she could see the monster shadowed behind them. If she could see -

- his heart skipped. It faltered, but her fingers held tight over his own. He let her anchor him. He let her weigh on him.

"Are you scared?" he finally asked. He counted his heartbeats, keeping his calm, his center.

"Not a bit." Another heartbeat. A flicker in her eyes. "You?" she returned.

An exhale. The truth. "Terrified," he admitted. Of this and so many things, and -

"Don't be," she whispered, leaning over to kiss his cheek. Her lips were soft and warm, and her breath was like a benediction against him. "I'm not."

She rose then, slow and easy like smoke unfurling, and his hand brushed her bandaged arm as she stood. A last look over her shoulder – her gaze still hunting, but satisfied – and then she turned, and walked away.

Bruce held a hand to his cheek, and let it rest there for a long, long time.