"we patchwork beings" Genre: Drama, Friendship Rating: PG Time Frame: Post- Avengers, Part II of my Stiches!Verse Characters/Pairings: Bruce Banner/Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton, Tony Stark/Pepper Potts, Thor/Jane Foster, Clint Barton/Darcy Lewis, Steve Rogers, Nick Fury Summary: "This mark is new." They were not a whole unit, paired off like this, and for the first time she understands the significance of a team and an eye to your blind spots. She understands the illusive idea of home. Notes: So, these two have officially fascinated my muse. This is a direct follow-up to my one-shot, "then torn apart," and while you definitely don't have to have read that one in order to understand this, it does make a few stray things make more sense. This series will have one more fic to wrap it up, but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy my latest offerings to a truly awesome fandom. Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words. [hr][/hr] "we patchwork beings"by Mira_Jade The story starts this way. For him, it was yet another night full of tossing and turning. He had long since kicked the bedspread down by his feet, and the sweat on his back was making the sheets beneath him stick to his skin. His hair was dark and damp and hanging down in his eyes, and his heartbeat was hammering like a possessed thing in his chest, all thump-thump-thump and too fast for his peace of mind. Deeply, he breathed in and out and willed to himself control. His heartbeat slowed, the organ stubborn in his chest until it finally gave into a lazy tha-thump-tha-thump-ing rhythm that drummed in his ears. Slowly, the cadence forced the shadow of green, monster shaped, out from behind his eyes. When he finally gave up on sleep and sat upright in bed, he kept his hands busy by rubbing at his temples, trying to relieve the pressure that had build there. Slowly, he breathed in and out as he willed every muscle in his body to stillness, one at a time. It was a routine long used to by him, almost second nature, and he didn't give it too much thought as he tried to recall segments of his dreams back to mind from where they billowed as hazy and half remembered things. He could only dredge up snippets and flashes, nothing cohesive, nothing that he could spin a whole tale from. But enough remained to leave a sick twisting in his stomach. A good old number five this time, he finally decided. It was becoming an increasingly often thing as of late. Annoyed, he made a face at the taste the dream left in his mouth – bitter and metallic, like copper, and in the end it was that taste more than anything else that got him out of bed, heading for the bathroom sink and a chance to rinse it away. When he decided that sleep was a lost cause for the night, he made his way into the halls of the mansion. The feeling in his blood was all disquiet and unrest, the result of a ghost of a sixth sense left over from his days spent on the run. It was a sense that had served him well over the years, a crucible born voice that whispered that something was wrong; all was not right. It was an animal's premonition in his mind, and an animal's fear; feral and base until the shape of it was green against his senses, waiting. When he looked around, though, nothing was amiss. The mansion was quiet. Bruce could hear Thor's snores as he passed his room; as rumbling as the storms which he had been named for, and twice as amusing. He could hear the low thud of base booming from the basement, the sound announcing that Stark had yet to turn in for the night, his mind caught by whatever project he was working on. Above him, JARVIS was silent. The alarms were still. The light flooding in from the tall windows was serene, quiet and still. The night was cloudless, even the sky above was calm and slumbering. There was nothing pressing awaiting him, there was nothing worth getting his heart-rate in a twist for. But, when he finally reached the gym – all half lit and empty, the punching bag in the middle of the line-up was vacant. He stared at it as he move to the one all the way on the right, and started swinging without truly recognizing the movements of his body. His pulse still hammered, even as he reasoned that he was happy that she was finally sleeping at this hour. He'd rather sort through his nightmare's alone. A voice in the back of his mind laughed in response to his thoughts, the sound low and rumbling and rude – derisive to the last, and Bruce turned his ears from it. He did not need to listen. It didn't take long, though, for the silence to make the skin around his bones itch. His ribs felt sharp. His eyes felt too heavy in his head as he stared at the shape of the shadows around him, only able to think over what was missing. Finally, he sighed, the punching bag bouncing off of his fists as he gave up on the exercise for the night. He looked up at the ceiling. "At least one of us is sleeping," he mumbled aloud with a dark humor, squaring his jaw. He gave one last glance to the bag in the center of the line up, and for a moment he hesitated. But there was no one else joining him that night, and the space around him was suddenly empty and yawning, fit to swallow. When he turned to leave, he didn't make his way back to his room either, instead letting his feet carry him to the roof. And there, he waited for the sun to rise. Time carried on, and by the time he finally dragged himself away from the morning light and the sounds of Manhattan unfolding upon itself for the day, he was one of the last ones to show up for breakfast. Upon which, the uneasy feeling that he had been sporting the whole night through spiked into something not quite unlike worry in his mind. Because, if Natasha absent from the gym in the early hours of the morning was something odd, then Clint Barton vacant from the breakfast table was absolutely unheard of. It was Saturday, and Steve was making omelets. Steve was always making omelets on Saturdays, and as a result, that morning became an unofficial bonding time when all hands made their schedules coincide in order to gather together to gossip and gorge. Few appreciated Steve's cooking quite like Clint, who always ate enough to feed a football team - much to the wide eyes of the team, Natasha mumbling in Russian under her breath in bemusement, and Bruce (who was eating for two and thus could eat even Thor under the table) shaking his head in admiration. Both of them were gone, his mind pointed out calmly, rationally, trying to reason that out past the worry that was blooming thick and full in his mind. Instead of instantly demanding to know where they were, he sat down and took his plate, trying not to count out the minutes as they passed, sure that they would show up any moment, and - "Hey, where is Clint this morning?" Darcy Lewis (unofficial SHIELD agent, and all around PR handler for the team on account of her helping to rebuild an interstellar bridge) asked. "It's not like him to miss out on Steve's omelet day." "I have not yet seen the archer this morn," Thor answered dutifully from where he was sandwiched between Darcy and Jane, and positively hulking in comparison to the two small women. "I have seen neither he nor the Widow this day, now that I give thought to it." Tony, to Bruce's left, and Pepper's right, waved a hand. "Fury shipped them out late last night – well, early last night, really, depending on your sleep cycles." Tony shrugged at the end of his announcement, and instead of elaborating as Bruce wished for him to do, he reached over to scoop Clint's portion of breakfast over onto his own plate. Pepper raised a brow before reaching over to smack his hand. Tony looked at her, wounded before an 'ah'-like light lit his eyes, and he turned to the rest of the team. Politely, he asked, "Does anyone else want some of Legolas' eggs?" When Thor reached over to scoop over one of the omelets, Tony looked wounded at Pepper – as if the loss of the eggs was all her fault. "Hey big guy," he protested, putting his hands up, "we can at least do rock, paper, scissors for the honors." Thor raised a brow. "I beg your pardon, I thought them to be truly offered." Tony snorted. "I was being polite. I didn't really mean it." Thor's look of confusion was cut in by Steve poking his head in from the kitchen, waving his spatula in Tony's general direction. "I can make more," the Captain chastised, the apron he was wearing only serving to add to the maternal tone in his voice. "There's no reason to act like a spoiled child about it." Turning from Tony, Thor looked in confusion to Jane, who patiently went about explaining to the Aesir the time honed tradition of rock, paper, scissors. Next to Thor, and besides Clint's empty chair, Darcy rolled her eyes and pushed her glasses up on her face as she took over for Jane, muttering nerd under her breath as she went about showing Thor how the game was really played. When Steve disappeared back into the kitchen, Tony stuck out his tongue in a fit of childish pique. "How did he even witness that? It's like he has eyes in the back of his head," he muttered as if the world was out to get him. He glared at Pepper again. "This is all your fault," he sulked. "You two are conspiring against me." "You have no idea," Pepper said absently as she reached over and took the rest of the eggs from her boyfriend. "Hey!" Tony instantly protested. "Those were mine." "They were yours," she countered, her mouth curving wickedly. "I am simply taking my twelve percent." Tony's gaze darkened. "You vicious woman." Pepper's eyes danced delightedly as she shrugged. "Go say please, and Steve might make you more." When Tony looked to protest again, Bruce drummed his fingers against the table, his mouth set in a thin line as his patience waned. "You were saying about Natasha and Clint?" "Oh yeah," Stark looked up from where he was trying to stab his eggs back from Pepper's plate with his fork. Almost lazily, Pepper moved her plate back and forth, expertly avoiding the attempts. "There was something going down with SHIELD interests in Dublin. All very James Bond-ish. Very hush-hush, you know?" Distantly, Bruce remembered a long line of white, hidden by the straps of her workout clothes, almost concealed but not quite. Dublin she had said with a secret sort of smile, and now he wondered if this Dublin had anything to do with that Dublin, and - He breathed in deeply. When he breathed out, he could feel his chest stretch with the breath. His heart thump-thump-thumped, quick and staccato. The beats were too close together. When he looked up, Stark was watching him with that careful sort of look that he had come to accept after more than four months of working alongside the other scientist. It was a look that said he wanted to poke and pry and twist, but he was refraining, just barely. Pepper's look was softer, steeped in understanding, and at that one he looked away, the bonds of a team, of others, still a novel thing for him. An un-used-to thing for him. He forced himself to swallow. The eggs caught like sawdust in his throat. "They should be back soon, from what JARVIS was able to gather. I'd know more, but Fury has gotten clever with his encryption," Tony's voice turned sullen, but his eyes were bright – taking the Director up on his challenge and accepting the gauntlet as it was thrown. "I can find out more within a few hours, if you want." Again, Pepper reached over to smack Tony's arm, her eyes disapproving. Tony took that moment to reach over and reclaim a fork full of his eggs, his eyes triumphant. "Ha!" he exclaimed. Pepper sighed. Loudly. When Tony looked back to him, Bruce was carefully looking down at his food. He pushed the eggs back and forth on his plate to keep himself from fidgeting. His hand clenched, vice like about the metal. He could feel it bend to the strength of him. Tony raised an eyebrow at the bruised cutlery, and said, "I bet I can break the code in an hour. Two hours, tops." "That's okay," Bruce answered in a too level voice. A calm voice. All tha-thump-tha-thump and not thump-thump-thump, lost inside of his chest. "They can take care of themselves well enough. I'm not worried." Back and forth went the eggs again. Distantly, he remembered the shape of her scars under his fingertips. He remembered the raise of them; the tales they told. The memory burned. "Besides," Tony waved a hand, his smile turning playfully – as close as he would come to art of comforting. "Clint may have missed out on Omelet Saturdays, but he won't miss out on Steve's Super Sunday Supper, no matter what Fury has going on in ye ol' yonder Ireland. So, nothing to worry about. Right?" His smile stretched across his face. It pulled like a stitch. "Yeah. Nothing to worry about." Nothing at all. . . The story starts this way. She was currently being swallowed by some far off corner of the world. She was in the ribs of a tall building, all steel and and the taste of smoke around her. The mossy scent from the river beyond them was thick in her nose from where it was pulled in from outside by the huge industrial fans that cooled the building. The whirling sound of them was like a helicopter, loud in her ears. She could feel their vibrations deep within her bones. There was an air-duct involved, and a very tiny one at that. There always seemed to be an air-duct involved, she reflect wryly. It was the way these things went. The said air-duct was closing in around her like a fist, and very carefully she navigated rolling her shoulders enough so that she rested more comfortably on her elbows, the angle letting her more clearly see the charges she was wiring. Her skin itched with adrenaline as she worked, and her heartbeat was a quick thump-thump-thump against her ribcage, as pounding as something possessed. Further up the shaft than her, and having a harder time of it with his broader shoulders, was Clint, a scowl on his face as he wiped away the sweat that was beading on his brow. "I could be eating omelets right now," he moaned for the fifth time - the fifth time that hour. "But you're not," she saw fit to remind her partner, her voice terse. "And now you're making me hungry – so stop it." She snapped her fingers, and held her hand out for the last fuse. "Steve had better have saved some for me, that's all I'm saying," Clint saw fit to grumble under his breath, dutifully passing the last few bits of tech over. His arms made dull sounds as they struck against the metal walls, and he winced. She rolled her eyes at the childish yearning in his voice, and said, "I doubt there will be - not if Stark had anything to say about it, at any rate." "Jerk," Clint muttered under his breath, pouting. Natasha shook her head, but didn't say anything against what she didn't completely disagree with. With the motion, her hair dipped down into her face, made damp from her sweat, the moisture in the air having caused long strands to have slipped loose from her braid. The color of it was too dark, an earthen brown that was almost black before her crossed eyes. The disguise had been a part of the mission, and now the sweaty strands felt chalky when she reached up to push them back behind her ears. She could still smell the sharp scent of the dye, pungent in her nose. For a moment, a thought, as quick as a prayer, flickered through her, and she wondered what Bruce would think about the color on her. And - "You know, it's kinda weird," Barton said then, his voice thoughtful as it intruded upon her thoughts. When she glanced over, his fingers were thrumming absently against the bottom panel of the air-duct. Small poofs of dust floated up in his wake, disturbed from their rest. "You're going to have to be more specific," Natasha said, tying off the last wire. "Set," she announced in a clipped tone as she moved backwards in the duct, on to the other pressure point in the metal. Another explosive was handed to her, Clint's gaze still considering, even as he went about his job. "We have quite a few things that would quality as 'weird' in our lives." "Well, you know . . . The whole . . ." Clint's mouth opened. It closed. He had words in his eyes, but his mouth was slow to form them. She kept her silence, ever patient in the middle of her web, and waited. "The whole . . . team thing. I have been doing solo missions for longer than I can remember, and when I do work with others, its normally just one partner, and I've lost more of those than I like to think on at times . . ." His voice was thick with memory. It ached like a bruise. Her lips pulled ruefully. "Still here, Barton," she reminded him kindly, mumbling around the fuse that she held in her mouth. "For now, anyway." He waved a hand. "Well, you are you." His smile hooked, the look strangely boyish on the wide planes of his face. "It would take a creature with very big teeth to take you down – and even then, if they wanted to try, then they had better hope to god that they had a good health plan waiting for them." She snorted at the very generous assessment of her skills, and for a moment her memory went racing with the scent of smoke and burning metal, and so much green before her eyes as - - her fingers slipped. The wires she was holding sparked, and the sharp scent of burning electronics filled the air around them as they sparked against her skin. She hissed, and sucked her injured fingers into her mouth, muttering, "Blyat," as she glared sharply at the wires that had crossed. "Or a simple wiring accident will be the end of you," Clint retracted, his eyes glittering playfully. "Careful, Barton, or I'll see to it that you have a simple wiring accident," she popped her finger out of her mouth with a wet sound. Her voice had dipped with her ire, a bit of her motherland's accent tinging the sharp points of her voice; a combination pain and Clint's teasing normally brought out. He moved to put his hands up, and with the motion, he bumped his head on the top of the air-duct. He made a face at the ceiling as if it was to blame for his mistake. She couldn't quite keep a smile from her face at that. The skin on her fingers still smarted, but she was able to work with them well enough. High on her arm, underneath her sleeve, she could feel where the bandages Bruce had set earlier in the week caught against the material. The skin there ached, and she knew she would have to redress the wound soon. She wondered if she would be able to wait until they got back to New York for that. Clint's field medical skills left much to be desired, but he made up for his clumsy efficiency with the heart he put into his work. She shook her head, willing the feeling in her arm away and Clint made a face, thinking that the ire in her gaze was for him. She didn't bother to correct him, instead turning back to fixing the wires. Again, Clint's face softened. He continued, "It's just . . . different, you know? It's like I'm suddenly very used to having someone at my back. And now, without that, I feel like I have a million blind spots on me, and I'm not sure that I like it." His face scrunched up, as if he had tasted something particularly foul, and she paused in her task for a moment. She counted her heartbeats. "It's dangerous," Clint finally concluded. " . . . for people like us." For people like her. She exhaled. With a forceful twist, the last wire slipped into place. She breathed in again. "How about you, Nat?" Clint asked, his voice oddly vulnerable, his eyes oddly young. Younger than she ever remembered being. "Is it just me who feels this way?" She was very still as she thought about what she wished to say to him. On her arm, her bruised flesh ached. Her hair was too dark in front of her eyes, and the air around her was cramped and tight and - On her wrist, her watch beeped. Along the duct, tiny lights flared into life and her thoughts of time and place and belonging were pushed aside as she tersely announced, "Clear," and it was time to move again. . . It progresses this way. It took Tony the better part of two hours before he was able to break Fury's encryption, but break it he did, and in between bouts of full Stark preening, he let the story slip – of a black market dealer who was moving genetic material in Europe in a twisted bid at creating superhuman serums. The high bidders were all meeting in one place, at one time, and it was up to Natasha and Clint to shut down the proceedings and to repossess the genetic samples that were being sold. Fury had penciled it in as a twenty-four hour mission, to which Stark had whistled low and said that while they were good, they weren't . . . . . . but they had before, and they most certainly would do so again – in situations more deadlier and dangerous than this, if the stories and the files were anything to go by. And, until then, Bruce was left staring at his watch and waiting as JARVIS fed them updates from SHIELD as Fury received them. But contact between the agents and command was slim and few, silence kept for the most part as the Colossus' of the world let their shadows work in secrecy. In order to keep himself occupied, Bruce kept himself busy with Tony and Jane throughout the day – Jane had had some murmurings on the frequencies of the bifröst she was monitoring (for while opening the bridge was one thing, keeping it open was quite another, and while there was much magic and her might could do, they wished to know in tangible numbers what was going on in order to keep it on going), and she was quick to enlist the help of the other two scientists on the team. While Bruce's expertise laid elsewhere, he understood the physics of organic things, and that coupled with Jane's astrophysics brain, and Stark's overall genius, there was little left that they couldn't dissect and put back together again. Throughout the day, he made more tea than he himself could drink – out of habit as much as anything else. Half of the pot went cold with every batch he made, half of him expecting to look over to see Natasha sipping at a cup and trying to figure out which leaves he had used that time as he and Stark went on with whatever project they were working on, and - "Have I ever mentioned how breathtakingly hot your math is, Miss Foster?" Tony was currently gushing as he scrolled through Jane's calculations. "Seriously, this is the Jessica Rabbit of formulas right here, and I think I just may love you for it." "I'll be sure to tell Pepper," Jane rolled her eyes, her eyes fond in exasperation for Stark's simple flirting. She had her hair twisted into a messy bun, held in place by a pencil, and her reading glasses were slipping down her nose as she peered at the wires of the generator she had built to seal the connection with the other end of the bridge in Asgard. The part she was trying to reach was taller than her, so she was sitting on a dutiful Thor's shoulders, who was quite content to be her living ladder as she did her work. The Thunderer smiled grandly up at Jane, all ease and smiles, like a lion lazy in the noon sun. "Indeed, her beauty is only surpassed by the might of her mind. Even amongst the Aesir, she is considered to be a great sage, and they have had centuries to perfect their wisdoms." Jane reached down, and ruffled his hair fondly. "You flatterer," she beamed. "And yet, I speak forsooth," Thor still insisted, patting Jane's leg. Tony came closer to peer up at Jane in consideration. "So, if Pepper is up for sharing, you'd be interested?" Tony wagged his eyebrows, his grin oily upon his face. "You can bring the big guy here too. Aw hell, you can even come Banner." He looked over at Bruce, and waved a hand. Bruce snorted, used to Tony by that point. "I think I'll pass. You guys have fun, though." Tony smiled up at Jane, who may or may not have dropped one of her screwdrivers on his foot. He pouted up at her when she said, "I think I'll take that rain check too." "No fun at all," Stark muttered under his breath, but his eyes were bright. On the lab desk, Stark's phone went off, and Tony glanced at it before making a face. "Speaking of no fun, that would be the good Director there. I think he finally caught me hacking his system - again. It sure took him long enough." His smile was way too pleased as he hit ignore on the call, and placed the phone down. "I'm not ready for that lecture yet." Bruce shook his head, and put his stylus down in order to pick up his tea. It had gone cold. Before him the pot was still half full. "Has any progress been reported?" he asked, trying to be as casual as possible. Tony looked up. "You hear that JARVIS, anything new?" The AI's disembodied voice floated around them, "I'm afraid not, sir. Agent Romanov and Agent Barton last had radio contact at 0900 hours, and nothing since then." Tony popped his hands together, nodding as he listened. "Thank-you, JARVIS – let us know when you have an update for us." "I shall do so," the voice replied, and then paused. "And Director Fury is on the line. He is quite adamant about speaking with you." Tony looked at his phone again. "Well, would you look at that. Deleted." He ignored the call again. "I am afraid that he is insisting, sir." "Deleted," Tony pressed the button again. "Next time tell the good Director to share his intel and I won't have to stoop to these lows." "I assume that you speak in the rhetorical, sir," the AI's voice was wry. "Very," Tony answered. "That will be all, JARVIS." "Yes, sir," the AI's voice faded, and Bruce looked over in amusement to where Thor was staring at the ceiling in awe. Apparently, on Asgard, only mages could do such things as disembodied voices – and they were few and far between amongst the ranks of the Aesir, at that. All but for . . . . . . well, that never really bode well thinking about. "Well, we know they were alive and beating up the badguys as of two hours ago," Tony said. "So, all is well." . . . well enough, he gave. Even still, his skin itched as if something foreign was trying to share his body. It ached, and he couldn't quite will the feeling away. He was not worried for her - he was not, he tried to tell himself. He wasn't. Bruce breathed in deep, and looked down into his tea. Tony was watching him carefully, staring between the lines of equation in the screen before him. His gaze was sharp, weighing, and Bruce tried to look into it and will his thoughts away. "It's okay to miss her, you know," Tony finally said. And Bruce made a face. They were going to have this talk. "I don't know what you are talking about," Bruce defended, out of rote as much as anything else. "I'm sure you don't," Tony said breezily, moving his math work over screen to screen until he was standing right next to Bruce. Bruce took a step to the right, shooting him a look that said personal space loud and clear. Tony took a step closer, ignoring the look and glancing out of the corner of his gaze to study Bruce's eyes. He was waiting. So Bruce stared, and let him look unhindered. "Its not like I don't get it – because I do. Believe me, I do. She's graceful, seductive, with a hell of a right hook, and a gallows sense of humor that you seem to share," Tony continued. "Hey, if there was no Pepper -" " - but there is," Bruce saw fit to interject before he realized what he was saying. Tony grinned. The shape of it was fanged, wolf-like. "I'm just saying that there are worse choices you could have made." "I don't get to make choices like that," Bruce said, his voice low, dangerous. The self-deprecation wasn't bitter, it simply was. He had learned to accept it – as easy as breathing. At least, that was what he told himself. "I find that choices like that oftentimes make themselves for you. Then they just wait for you to grow the eyes to see," Tony said, his voice soft, thoughtful. And for a moment Bruce considered just how long Tony and Pepper had done their dance before they had both found worth in Tony and his changes to let their feelings out. Memory shaped Tony's eyes for a moment before it tucked away, something soft and serious that darkened the cast of his gaze. "In Afghanistan, it sure surprised me. She was my assistant – she picked my ties, she arranged my schedule and my life, but she was a look-and-do-not-touch sort of thing. I wanted to get home to her when I was trapped in those caves. I think that the choice started to make itself then. It just took me a little longer to accept the idea." "I don't think that this is quite the same," Bruce said, his voice stretched. Tony rarely talked about Afghanistan to anyone – Pepper included, and Bruce didn't know quite how to take the openness from the other man. For all a-mile-a-minute and too-fast-and-furious, Tony surprised him often with his shows of heart, and he didn't quite want to step on his offering as much as he was uncomfortable with the direction that the conversation was taking. Tony shrugged. "Think relatively, Doctor, that's all I'm asking. I'm just saying that I missed her when I was gone, and that sure as hell scared me - more than anything else that I faced when trapped over there." Bruce felt a pang, thick in his chest, and told himself that what he felt when he looked at his watch was not missing. With Betty there had been missing – as thick and fierce as something living in his mind. That missing had ebbed over time, like a wound that had closed over, and now it itched like a scar. It was only a remembered hurt. Last he had heard, Elisabeth Ross had married the year before, finally settling down with a kindly professor, and together they taught biology at university. She had a child on the way, a life to live, and Bruce knew he was nothing more than a wistful thought to her – a what could have been that fluttered by like the wind in her mind. He had had his share of what could have beens – more so than most, and that form of missing was sharp in his mind. "Banner worries for the Widow's safe return?" Thor had picked up on the trail ends of their conversation, and he finally chimed in, his voice booming. Bruce shook his head, and wondered when was it not? "Like a puppy waiting at the window," Stark tossed his answer over his shoulder, all heart and warmth gone as his insufferable humor returned. Bruce glared. Tony made an innocent face. Thor turned, holding a hand up to steady Jane as he faced his comrades. "Lady Romanov is a strong warrior, as fierce as any of Brünnhilde's Valkyrie sisters," he declared. "Few are those of mortal blood who can stand up to those of Asgard's ranks, and yet I would take she over any Einherjar my father could present upon the battle line. Fear not, she shall return safe from harm." She's not exactly human, Bruce wanted to say, but didn't. She was as human as he was; and her eyes were those of a hunting creature who wore flesh and bone rather than scales and claws. Like him, her skin was a cage, a facade, and the real danger they presented laid blood-deep, waiting and pulsing and living, something with eyes and teeth that tore and rendered asunder. They were children of the dark parts of science – twisting what never should have been twisted, and neither of them could ever properly claim the title of human again. Thor looked thoughtful, oblivious to Bruce's train of thoughts, and he continued, "The Lady Sif used to take her quests and assignments away from us in the name of the Allfather, and she always returned with tales of glory for my father's house. Even though she was a maiden, her honors to the way of war were as many and as great as those of any man." They had worshiped her as War, Bruce remembered his mythology vaguely. Tony, at the mentioning of Sif, rubbed the back of his neck in remembrance of the shield-maiden's iron hold around his neck. His off color remarks hadn't put he and the warrior woman on the best of terms – and she had trounced him solidly without the suit (while holding back), and made it a near draw with the suit (with Tony decidedly not holding back). She and Natasha had liked each other instantly, and if that wasn't the scariest thing this side of Armageddon to Tony, then Bruce wasn't sure what was. Tony elbowed the Aesir at his remarks, none the less. "I don't think that it is necessary Natasha being able to take care of herself that is the problem with dear Bruce here. As, I am sure, you did not walk the halls pacing when Xena took her quests alone. Now, if I may give a similar example, if Jane were to take those same journeys alone . . ." "She is ill equipped as to the ways of steel," Thor instantly said, his eyes turning fierce at the thought. "She need not ever learn to walk the paths we have taken. Not while I am able to protect her." "I have no plans to pick up arms," Jane reached down to pat Thor's shoulder warmly. "But, say that I was every bit the warrior you guys are, and I was still somewhere you couldn't help me . . . I think that that is what Tony is trying to say." "Have I mentioned that I love your brainwaves?" Tony clapped. Thor looked thoughtful. "I understand friend Banner's predicament," he finally said. "And I sympathize with your pain." His eyes were warm, and Bruce had the faint suspicion that the other man would have slapped him on the back of moving wouldn't have disrupted Jane. As it was, he stood perfectly still, and bowed his head as to an equal. Which was just silly, and this conversation was getting even sillier, and - Tony smiled as he did before he said something he knew was about to annoy to the extreme. "So, should I be giving Miss Romanova a talk as to her intentions? Because, I'd hate to see the best mind on this team stuck in some post-relationship angst when it all goes south." "I'll be fine," Bruce enunciated his syllables with clipped tones. "I don't need you to say anything." Tony looked at him as if he were the slow one. "I wasn't thinking about your well being. I was thinking about the Other Guy if he gets his heart broken." Bruce counted to ten. Twice. He felt a flare of green in his consciousness, nothing to be concerned over – just a vague understanding of what was going on around him, like a dragon scenting the air past his cave, not quite ready to awaken from his winter-slumber. After a moment, his second self snorted and turned away, not interested any more, and Bruce rolled his eyes mentally and gave a fat lot of good you are to the verdant presence in his mind. "You are being ridiculous," he protested, the words coming quick and easy on his tongue. Indignant, even. "And yet I speak true," Tony poked him in the side as he passed, and Bruce reminded himself to take a swing at the Iron Man the next time they suited up – the next time they both suited up. Thor looked between them, confused. "It would be a strong match," he finally said. "The Lady Widow is a match for your mind, and her strength is equal -" "No," Bruce finally said, his voice deadly serious. "No, it is not." Thor shook his head. "You give your lady too little credit." "On the contrary, I give her every credit," Bruce said, remembering bruised skin and blue grey eyes alight with adrenaline and bared teeth ready to bite back, all strength where there had been fear, even when that fear would have kept her alive in the times to come, would have kept her safe, and - "Why Bruce, is that a bit of green in your eyes? I must admit that I am honored," Tony said smoothly, all quick and oiled syllables as Bruce's eyes snapped up on him. He fought the urge to make a rude gesture. Instead he smiled, the shape of it dangerous. Daring. "Would you like to see more, Mr. Stark? Because I'm not sure how much you'd like me when I'm angry." Tony shrugged, holding his hands up. He took a step back – soothing and submissive. The shadow in Bruce's mind breathed in. It calmed. "I thought that you were always angry," still he mocked. "Angry," Bruce said calmly, "is all a relative state of mind." "Which I completely agree with," Tony nodded his head, looking down as his phone went off – again. He made a face. "And speaking of, that's Fury . . . again, and he is always angry. I may as well step up and take this like a grown man." "To those who are about to die," Bruce's smirk was thin, but it was still a semblance of a smile. He flipped over a lazy salute that Tony returned with gusto, bowing grandly as he moved towards the door. Tony was holding up his phone as a miniature 3D likeness of the Director was floating in the air before him. The door was still closing when Bruce could hear him greet, "By Odin's only eye, but has anyone ever told you how fetching you look in that light, Director? That's a new eye-patch, is it not?" Despite himself, he found a snort of laughter escape him. For all of his eccentricities, the other man had wormed his way quite stubbornly into Bruce's life, and he truly did hold Tony as a friend in his mind. The thought tossed back and forth in his thoughts for a minute, all a ship lost at sea, as he let that set in – really set in. Set in next to the huge shadow Thor threw, Jane still on his shoulders; and Clint's easy humor and Clint's appetite, and Natasha's razor wit and Natasha's bravery. It was a heavy shape, one that would sink in deep if he let it settle. He felt . . . rooted, he realized in a moment not quite unlike dawning. And rooted trees always could stand up better in a storm than those seeds that blew in the wind . . . Which he had been for so long that he had almost forgotten how not to be. And now . . . And now he listened to quick murmur of Tony beyond the doors and the soft whispers of Thor and Jane, and glanced down at his watch yet again – ready for his circle to close in once more. . . It progresses this way. It takes a boat propeller, a camera-phone, more duct tape than she cares to ever think about again, and a broken pair of stilettos before they walk away with their mission completed and not too terribly worse for the wear. Clint bore an aching shoulder from where he had dislocated his right arm (and worse than the pain was hearing him bemoan the way his aim would suffer for the next few days while he recovered), and she had a rather nasty looking cut at her throat from where a pigheaded goon thought that he could hold her at knife point against Clint . . . Natasha hadn't even wasted time with using the man's own blade on him - that's where the stilettos had gone. Which was a pity, because Natasha had actually liked those shoes. Pepper had picked them for her, and they supported her the arches of her feet, and accented the shape of her calves something divine, all while matching everything she owned. She had liked them to the point where she didn't even mind if they had cost the equivalent of more than two of her paychecks, Stark credit card or not. Clint had actually had the courage to laugh at her for mourning something so decidedly . . . feminine, and as someone so decidedly male, he hadn't bothered to pull his words, and Natasha had ruined the other shoe throwing it at his head. She hadn't missed, either. Now, they were in a small plane, flying back across the Atlantic. Out of her window, she could see the lights of Greenland far down below. She could see the flickering of the massive ships upon the water, mere specks upon the black as ink sea from this far above. It was night already, their mission having stretched on into the better part of the evening. In place of the sun, the night sky was cloudless, and the stars and moon tangled playfully as they reflected in the waters below. It was a late hour, but their target had been neutralized, and their cargo had been seized, so she would count that as a win in her ledger. From her seat, she carefully stretched and rolled her muscles, one at a time, the habit rote to her after so many years, so many missions. She cataloged sore spots and tired places, finding nothing truly pained minus the rather bothersome cut on her throat. But the line had already clotted over, and she had put an antiseptic on it. There was nothing left to do with that wound but wait. She swallowed, and she could feel it stretch. She breathed, and she could feel it burn. She looked back out of her window, and caught her reflection in the glass. Her hair was too dark for her skin complexion, the color washed her away; it emphasized the bags under her eyes, the line of red on her neck. When was the last time she had slept? She had to concentrate to remember, and her answer still came out cloudy. "It doesn't look too terrible on you," Clint said from the seat next to her at her perusal, his smile wide upon his face – no doubt wishing to make up for the earlier comments about her shoes. She made a face. "The dye itches. I'll have to wait to get back before I wash it out." When she spoke, her voice was the slightest bit cross. It bordered on sullen. Clint chuckled at the tone. "Maybe next time, I can be the one to dye my hair – you can dress me up prettily enough to schmooze the bad-guys, and then you can be the one to wait in the air-ducts." "Deal," she said immediately, her smile hunting shaped. "You get to wear the the heels too." Clint fist pumped the air. "Just what I always wanted." Natasha rolled her eyes. Under her breath she let a syllable or two go in her mother-tongue and Clint merely made a face at her – he was used to being called crazy in multiple different languages, from her lips and others. Instead of replying, he shrugged off the thick jacket that he had been wearing against the chill of late autumn Dublin on the water. He balled it up until it resembled a pillow-ish shape and placed it under his head, propping his feet up on the empty seat in front of him. She blinked and wondered how long he had been going without sleep, as well. Instead of asking, she bit her lip. She didn't yet lean back against her seat, but instead she stared out of the window, the moonlight bouncing off of the waves below teasing her eye, drawing her gaze. And Clint said, his voice already drowsy. "The hair isn't that bad on you," he teased her. "There's no need for such a long face over it." She snorted, glancing over at him. His eyes were closed, but he was smiling. He had his hands crossed over his chest, they rose and fell as he breathed. His voice was low and drawling, looking to stroke her ire, to draw her eyes away from the waves. In her chest, her heart thump-thump-thumped. It was still a rabbit like thing, caught behind her skin. She tapped her fingers, spelling out nonsense words on her armrest. "Actually," Clint continued, "and, I don't know if I have ever told you this – but I have always had a thing for brunettes. I kinda prefer you this way," At that, she finally let loose a low snort of laughter. "That, I think we all know, Barton," she said, her voice twisting like a knife as she returned the teasing. Right on cue, Clint's face flushed, and Natasha fought the urge to snort. His eyes opened, and he glared. She returned the glower with one of her own, all enemies on the opposite lines again, but he was calm with his throat bared to her bite, and she was trying to quiet her pulse rather than keep it racing. He rolled his eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about," he sat half up in his seat, wary, more hoping than expecting her to let the subject drop. "Mm hmm," Natasha drawled, her voice loose on her tongue. "Should I speak to Miss Lewis about her intentions? I won't have you left hurt and heart sick once she decides to move on in life. I must express upon her her need to play for keeps." "That really won't be necessary," Clint was quick to intervene – and yes, a whole day of the thugs of Ireland didn't draw a blink of an eye from the archer, but this had him near panic. She paused, and tilted her head, studying the way his eyes were flashing, and yes, that was panic she was seeing. How positively delightful. "I swore my allegiance to you and your side years ago, and I take my vows seriously," Natasha continued, her voice grave and every serious, and right there did the archer's claws come out, and - "Then you will respect my wishes when I say leave the girl alone. You do not need the excuse to scare any more people than you already do." She shrugged. "Fear is merely the body telling the mind what it should not cross. It's a healthy thing." Clint rolled his eyes. "However you want to say it." Her eyes sparkled. Still glaring – more sullen than anything truly offended, Clint stuffed his jacked back under his head again. A moment passed. She counted a dozen heartbeats. "Besides," Clint said carefully, his voice all drawing back a bandage to reveal the tender skin beneath, "I already got that speech from Thor." At that, Natasha could not help herself. She laughed. She laughed and laughed and laughed and her too dark hair fluttered before her eyes, and the cut on her throat ached with her humor – but if felt good to do so. As good as the plane pointed back to New York, and the thought of Steve's cooking in the morning, and the idea of Bruce's eyes when he would see her new hair, and - She felt the thoughts rise, high in her throat until it was hard to breathe. And she . . . She touched the bandage on her arm, and felt something not quite unlike peace settle over her. It was a foreign thing to her, hot underneath her skin. "He really did?" she finally asked when her laughter had subsided, and Clint nodded, his own laughter thick in his throat. "He really did – he threatened me with using Mjölnir in a couple of very creative ways, and then proceeded to vow to find my soul again once I pass on so that I will never know true peace throughout eternity." Natasha raised a brow, impressed. "Now that is a threat." Clint shrugged. "It's up there. Not the worst I've ever received, though." She looked thoughtful. "Top ten?" "Top five, at least," Clint gave. "Lets give the guy some credit." She nodded, her smile still stretching. It pulled, but no longer did it ache. "How'd you know, by the way?" Clint asked after a moment, his eyes already closing again. One peeked open to peer at her. "I haven't even asked her out yet – and Thor threatened me only the day before we left." Natasha shrugged. "I know people," she said simply, knowing that he knew and understood that better than most. "And I know you especially well. I am happy for you." His face was shadowed in the half light – were it daytime, she knew that she would have seen him honestly blushing. "Well, you may want to save the congratulations until after she says yes." Natasha's grin turned sharp, it was fanged. "I know people," she simply repeated. "And I am saying that I am happy for you." His smile stretched, it hooked as he closed his eyes completely. And closed they stayed. Natasha watched him as his breathing came deep and full within his chest, his guard down between their high perch in the sky, and her a silent vigil besides him. Beyond them, the sea below flashed. The colors drew her eye, teasing her. Again she caught her reflection in the glass. Her heart pounded, quick and jabbing in her chest. She blinked, and looked over to make sure that Clint's eyes were still closed before she twined her hair up on top of her head experimentally. She looked at herself critically, looking at how the shadow of her hair made her skin too pale, as if she were some ghost like thing, half wished away, and - "I'm sure that the good doctor would like you with every color," Clint said sleepily. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said carefully, echoing her words from earlier. "Sure you don't," Clint snorted, and didn't even bother calling her out on her words. Instead he stuffed his jacket into a more comfortable shape under his head, and turned away from the starlight that was pouring in from the window. "Just tell me when, and I'll be sure to talk to him about his intentions." Her smile ghosted. "I'll be sure to," she responded wryly. He nodded sharply. "Alright then," he said, and it was decided. "Just wake me when we get home, will you 'tasha?" Clint mumbled sleepily, his eyes already falling from the world. She sat up in her seat just that much straighter, her veins jumping with something not quite unlike adrenaline at his words. Her pulse leapt, all thump-thump-thump against her ribs, and she inhaled tightly. Wake me when we get home . . . Home. Such a small word. An innocent word thrown around so casually by so many . . . Home. Her heartbeat thundered; it ran and her ribs ached trying to keep up with it. Home. It was the illusive feeling which had been setting her skin on edge, and making her bones poke through the corners of her being. Home, with Tony's ridiculous mouth, and Steve's team building exercises, and Thor's booming laughter, and the punching bag that she had claimed as her own and even named, and Bruce with his dozens of combinations of tea leaves, always challenging her to decipher their origin and names . . . Home . . . To which they were now returning. And she exhaled. "Da . . . I'll wake you when we get there." . . It finishes this way. The hour was late, too late for him to even bother glancing at the clock any more. It just would have announced an time that shouldn't have been witnessed by any sane pair of wakeful eyes. He had halfheartedly tried laying down for just a little bit, around midnight, but he had just tossed and turned moodily before nearly coming to blows when his pillows wouldn't match up with his head just right, and so, staying awake it was. Tony had even tried staying up with him at first – playing pool in the rec room, and then watching a string of old black and white monster movies before finally turning in for the night – blaming it on the tea he had been drinking all day as Bruce had continuously made too much. For that, he felt something almost like fondness for the other man. Something more than simple appreciation. The gym was half lit and empty at that time of night, as it always was. This time, instead of setting up in front of his customary bag on the right, he took to swinging at the bag directly in the middle – Natasha's bag, worn at the level her fists would have been, and swinging lonesomely from the rafters above. He passed the time that way easily enough – swing, breathe, swing – and found that this calmed him as much as any form of meditation did, his heart-rate fast and clipped, but level and steady and controlled. Of course, it jumped when a voice came from the door, interrupting the haze he had fallen into. "Your footwork is off," the voice said, tired but amused, and so very familiar after a day of waiting, and - He jumped, he actually jumped. The bag he had been working flew back to strike against his fists, hitting him more than he hitting it, and he turned in order to stare at the shadow who stood by the entrance, the curve of her smile and the flash of her eyes familiar even through the half light. "You know, I am not the smartest person to sneak up on," Bruce called over to her, his voice bright, even past the dark humor that shaped his words. She shrugged, and the shadows around her shifted. "Maybe not," she gave. "But you aren't the first thing larger than myself whom I have poked with a stick, and I doubt you will be the last." "It only takes once," still he warned. "One time with things going wrong . . ." Her gaze turned sharp, it challenged with tooth and claw. "I look forward to it." He shook his head, knowing her to be serious, and then did she walk the small distance to him, her stride all whisper-soft and soundless against the scuffed floor. He could see the vein in her neck jump, could see the way that she bit at her tongue to hide her amusement at the way his eyes turned over her – taking in everything from the dark shade of her hair and the nasty looking cut at her throat and her suspicious lack of shoes . . . His gaze hooked on the line at her neck, and there it stayed as if anchored. "This one is new," he whispered when she was close enough to hear. She looked at him, her eyes large and unblinking. She tilted her head just so, letting him better see the new mark decorating her skin, the latest of many. In his mind, his verdant guest stirred, intrigued by the animalistic sense of her baring her throat to him. There was trust there, letting him see where she had been hurt. Letting him see where she had conquered over what had tried to press her down . . . Slowly, he reached out to touch the angry mark, the raised line of puckered flesh and the molted purple green of the bruise that was building around it. Her skin was cool, he could feel her blood pulse under his hand, as living as a heartbeat. His fingers barely touched, careful as he was to cause her no pain, but she leaned more firmly against him, as if seeking the sensation to ground herself by. Almost delicately, she had reached out one hand to the punching bag besides them, letting it hold her weight, and suddenly she looked so very tired before him . . . "It will heal quick enough," she said as to the scratch. "My shoes – they were not so lucky," her voice mourned the loss, and Bruce chuckled, the sound warm. She turned towards it. He lifted his hand from where it had been resting on her throat to brush through the ends of her hair. It had grown longer over the last few months, and now the ends of it just brushed her shoulders. The mass of tresses was now a rich shade of brown, nearly black in the scant light. "And this is new, as well," his voice questioned. "That too will go away," she made a face. "My hair takes a beating while on the job. First, I lose half of it thanks to what happened in Hong Kong earlier in the year, and now I am trying to see how many shades I can force on it until it fries." "I think it looks nice," he offered still, and his opinion was honest. "I do prefer the red on you though, I have to admit." The color was loud and announcing, the boast of a poisonous animal, warning any and all away . . . "Me too," she said, and even though her words were weary, her mouth smiled. He took a step back from her, and she leaned more fully against the punching bag, letting the weight of it keep her upright. Her eyes were half lidded and lazy, her entire body seemingly boneless as she stood before him. "When's the last time you slept?" he finally asked, concern flickering to life inside of him, like embers stoked to small flames. She shrugged, "Night before last." She paused, considering. "Well kinda. So . . . two nights ago?" Bruce rolled his eyes. "Next time, see if Fury can book something besides the red-eye to Ireland." "Who told you where we were?" she asked, and finally, her voice was turning with her exhaustion. It tucked at the edges. "It was supposed to be classified." "Stark," Bruce shrugged his answer. "He hacked the system." Her shoulders lifted in silent laughter. Her eyes glittered. "Oh, Fury won't be pleased. He was so proud of the latest batch of encryption." Bruce put his hands in his pockets, he looked down. "Yeah, well, Tony Stark on a mission is something not to be underestimated – not even by Nick Fury." "He's never one to pass up a challenge," she agreed. Bruce tilted his head, and looked considering for a moment. "I don't know . . . I think that you actually had him worried there." She raised a brow. "Stark? Really." "Well, you're the only person on the team with a decent set of hips," Bruce gave. "He'd miss that, at the very least." She laughed, her voice warm and low. "I don't know," she said in all seriousness. "Steve's spandex is rather flattering in the hip department. I think that Stark would survive on that." Bruce snorted. "You'd have to get him to admit it first." "Very true, very true," she finally gave. Her amusement was thinning about the edges. Her eyes were turning heavy. "So," he repeated again, "how long has it been without sleeping for you?" He shifted his weight back and forth, fighting the urge to step closer to her again. She waved a hand in dismissal. "This is nothing. I've gone much longer without sleep before." "Only when you had to," Bruce protested. "You don't have to right now." Her smile, when turned upon him, was tired. It was sad around the edges, even as amusement shone in her eyes like fondness. "I am letting you guys make me soft," she said, the syllables almost too faint to be heard. This tired, her voice was thick, an accent Bruce had yet to hear twisting the edges of her voice. "This isn't . . ." It wasn't ever like this before, he could hear the words as plain as day in his ears. It was never we, merely me, myself, and mine, only my shadows and sleeping with one eye open, and now- "You even spoiled me with a home coming," she said softly. "Why aren't you asleep, Doctor Banner? It's almost dawn." A heartbeat, and he almost told her it was nightmares – numbered one through ten, cataloged in her mind as well as his. Another heartbeat, and he said "I . . . I was waiting for you." The words were simple, honest even, ill at ease as he was with lying to her even about something as small as nightmares. He bit his tongue to keep from saying that he had been worried, that he had glanced at his watch so many times the last few hours that he was sure that the gadget was starting to develop a complex from the staring. He didn't want to imply that he did anything less than trust her and her strength . . . . . . his thoughts weighed; they chased each other like echoes as she smiled softly. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but was unsure of what to say. But her eyes spoke – they told a careful story, a soft story, a story full of unfamiliar syllables, and it was the same one he felt trapped behind his tongue as much as it was trapped behind hers. "Stark wanted to have a huge banner saying 'welcom home'," he said next, uncomfortable with the warmth in her eyes – speaking so that she didn't have to. It was an instinctive thing, the light in her eyes – as natural as an animal recognizing nest or den, and he felt acutely the possibility of becoming that strength for her . . . that weakness for her. "Balloons, confetti – the whole shot. Pepper just barely talked him out of it." "A pity," Natasha said, "Stark can throw a mean party." "So I've heard," he said - even in the far off places of the world, certain news feeds were impossible to escape. She pushed herself away from the punching bag, and he offered her his arm to rest her weight on. He half walked for himself, half walked for her, and a part of him wanted to pick her up and carry her back to her room. But she did not ask him, and he did not want to imply that this was something she could not do. Instead, he offered her his arm, his strength, and left it to her to take what she wanted of him. She leaned against his shoulder as they walked, and for the first time he found himself thinking of just how small he was – even without him shedding this skin for his other shell. She would fit just into the crook of his neck and chin if he were to hold her. Her bones were slight, even though the shape of them was strong; the whole of her was a curve that fit perfectly next to him. The feeling in his throat was heavy, it was hard to breathe around it. Her breath tickled his skin through his shirt. He could feel the shapes of her syllables when she whispered, "Maybe Steve can be persuaded to make omelets in the morning. Clint wouldn't stop talking about food the whole time, and now I have a craving." They walked. One step, then another. And she leaned in to him. "I'm sure if we say please, he can be persuaded." "Pazhalsta," she echoed him, the word in her mouth natural to her, and for a moment he wanted to hear more of it on her tongue. He wanted her always comfortable enough to lean her weight on him. For someone so adept at breaking things, he now wanted nothing more than to pick her up at the end of the day. His heart was slow and lazy in his chest, finally at rest, all tha-thump-tha-thump and mirroring hers. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, more for comfort as much as support, and she reached up to touch his hand for a moment, the touch whisper-soft before it fell away. "I'm glad to be home," she whispered, her voice sleep heavy, and he felt something warm in his chest turn tight and constricting. He squeezed briefly about her shoulders. The heaviness in his chest turned light. And he whispered, "Me too, Natasha . . . me too."