SUMMARY: Natasha goes on a lunch date, Clint gets a new costume, and Bruce has a visitor.
RATING: PG-13 (for swears)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I'm sorry the updates haven't been coming as quickly as they were. I've got a house guest in town all this week and I'm hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people on Thursday, so it might be a week before the next chapter goes up. Hang in there.
“Even a very small shearing force will deform a fluid body, but the velocity of the deformation will be correspondingly small. This property serves as the definition of a fluid; the shearing forces necessary to deform a fluid body go to zero as the velocity of deformation tends to zero.”
Natasha was a little surprised when Maria Hill called to invite her to lunch. Their working relationship had always been amicable, but wasn’t as if they were girlfriends who did things like go out to lunch. Natasha didn’t have girlfriends. She had associates. And whatever Clint was.
She accepted the invitation with only a reasonable degree of suspicion. It was possible Maria was only trying to keep in touch with a former coworker, after all. It seemed unlikely, but Natasha was willing to at least entertain the possibility that not everyone was entirely duplicitous all the time.
They met at a cozy sandwich shop in Tribeca. Maria was dressed in sandals and a summery skirt that blended right in with all the young, wealthy housewives dining around them. After they’d ordered a pair of salads and the fruit-flavored ice tea of the day they retired to a table in the far back corner of the restaurant.
They chatted idly about a variety of neutral topics: the weather (both agreed it was unseasonably hot), the cleanup of New York (going much more slowly than they’d hoped), and the upcoming presidential election (pretty much a foregone conclusion). Maria even volunteered some benign gossip about some of Natasha’s former SHIELD coworkers: who was sleeping with who, who was rumored to be an alcoholic, that sort of thing. None of it was exactly breaking news to Natasha, but it was pleasant to talk about her old life for a while.
“So, how’s the new job?” Maria finally asked, smirking. “Is it fun being an Avenger?”
Natasha scowled. “God, I hate the name so much.”
“Heard you guys got off to kind of a rocky start.”
“Did you?” Natasha said neutrally.
“All those narcissistic personalities on one team? They must be fighting constantly. I told the director it was a bad idea.”
“Have you seen much of Banner? He’s living in the Tower too, right? Has he officially joined the team yet?”
Natasha set down her fork and stared at Maria. “You’re here on Fury’s orders, aren’t you?”
Maria sighed and shook her head slightly. “If it means anything, I objected to this assignment. Strenuously.”
“It does, thank you.” Natasha stood up and retrieved her purse. “When you make your report, please communicate to Director Fury my desire that he go fuck himself with a razor blade.”
She didn’t tell anyone about her lunch with Maria, not even Clint. Especially not Clint.
“How’s your upper body mobility?” Tony asked, frowning.
Clint swung his arms up and down and side to side. “Little limited, honestly.”
“Give him some more room across the shoulders,” Tony told the Stark lab minion who was madly typing notes into his tablet. “But the legs need to be tighter. And what is going on with the belt? Is he trying out for Earth, Wind & Fire? No. That’s way too high, bring that down.”
“What’s this thing made out of?” Clint asked, squirming uncomfortably. “It makes my balls itch.”
“Proprietary Stark tech. Strong as kevlar yet pliable as cloth. But hey, I’m happy to get rid of it if you don’t want your jewels protected from bullets, blades, shrapnel, and fire damage.”
“No, it’s cool,” Clint said quickly. “I’ll just wear an extra pair of underwear or something.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Stark?” A young woman in a lab coat appeared in the doorway. Clint stared at her, trying to figure out why she looked familiar. And then it hit him: New Mexico. Her face had been all over SHIELD’s file on Thor and the Destroyer incident.
“What?” Tony said irritably. He turned around and stared at her blankly for a fraction of a second before he snapped his fingers. “Darcy, right?”
“Yep,” she said. “Just thought you might wanna know that Thor’s threatening to toss one of your lab nerds off the top of the tower for hitting on Dr. Foster.”
“Well, that’s fantastic,” Tony said. He pointed at the minion taking notes. “I’m not liking the way that zipper’s working. Take a closer look at it while I go pacify the Norse god.” He headed for the door, waving his hand behind him. “Back in a jiff.”
Darcy watched him go and then turned back to stare at Clint, who was standing there like an idiot scarecrow while Stark’s minion poked him and prodded him and measured various parts of his anatomy with a cloth tape measure.
“Uh, hey,” Clint said awkwardly.
She gave him a thumbs up. “Bitchin’ unitard.”
“It’s a tac suit,” he said pathetically.
“You just keep telling yourself that. Hey, you’re one of the Avengers, right? The Legolas dude.”
“Uh huh,” she said. “So, like… do you know Captain America?”
Bruce probably shouldn’t have been surprised when Natasha walked into his lab, but he was. The smile she flashed was carefully calculated to be disarming and non-threatening, but coming from her, it had more or less the opposite effect.
“I take it Tony’s just offering up the access code for my lab to everyone he meets in the hallway now?” he asked, scowling.
The corner of her mouth dimpled in a faint smirk. “You really think I needed Stark to give me the access code?” Her hair was red again; apparently she’d given up on trying to be incognito.
Bruce sighed. “I guess not. It might have been nice if you’d asked instead of just barging in, though.”
“I didn’t realize I needed to make an appointment for a friendly visit.”
“Is that what this is? A friendly visit?”
“That was the intention, yes.”
He searched her face, looking for evidence of the lie, but there wasn’t any.
“Okay,” he said, shrugging. Maybe she was telling the truth. He still wasn’t going to invite her to sit down or offer to make her any tea. It was too much like giving in, like agreeing that she was welcome to drop in on him.
If she was bothered by his inhospitality she didn’t show it. “It’s raining today,” she said. “Did you even know?”
He did know, in fact. There was a little-used conference room on the fortieth floor where he liked to watch the sun rise while enjoying his first and only coffee of the day. He didn’t say anything, though. It pleased him to think he’d managed to keep his routine a secret.
She wandered around the lab, feigning interest in various items sitting out. “So is this what you wanted?” she asked, stooping to peer into a Petri dish. “To be hermetically sealed underground in complete isolation?” She straightened, gazing around at the windowless, double-reinforced walls. “Feels a little like a prison to me. Roomier than SHIELD’s cell, and with more amenities, but a prison all the same.”
His mouth twisted. “Maybe a prison’s the best place for me.”
She looked at him appraisingly. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
“Freedom has consequences,” he said.
She hopped gracefully onto one of the lab stools—the same one Steve Rogers had awkwardly perched on—making herself comfortable. “That’s true for everyone, though, isn’t it? It’s in the very nature of civilization.”
He shook his head. He really wasn’t in the mood for a philosophical debate. “In my case the consequences are little more… catastrophic.”
“It’s funny,” she said. “Most of my life I’ve been used and controlled by other people. I was molded into a weapon, to be pointed wherever someone else chose. I never really knew what freedom felt like, until recently.”
“And how does it feel?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Honestly?” She smiled ruefully. “A little dull.”
Bruce laughed softly. “Is that why you agreed to join Tony’s little project? So you could go back to being a weapon?”
Her face hardened. “I’ll always be a weapon, there’s no getting away from that. At least now I’ve got a say in where I’m pointed.”
He kept his voice carefully neutral. “Do you?”
For an instant something dark flashed across her face. “Yes,” she said, her eyes steady and defiant. “I do.”
He gave a little shrug and stared down at his notes without really seeing them. He wished now he’d offered her tea just so he’d something to do with his hands, an excuse to do anything but look at her.
“I’ve been doing some thinking,” she said. “About you.”
Under the desk he clenched his hands into fists and then released, stretching the fingers out straight. Clench. Release. Clench. Release. “This should be good,” he said, without looking up. Clench. Release.
“I was wondering... can the other guy swim?”
He looked up, taken off guard. “What?”
“How do you feel after a change?” she asked. “Is it easier to maintain your equilibrium the longer you hold it back, or is there some sort of pressure relief in letting yourself go?”
“Where is this leading?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice even.
“You know how Rogers has organized these training sessions? They’re not so bad, really, but sparring isn’t the same as fighting. What we really need is a field test, with an opponent who won’t hold back. I was thinking we could fly you somewhere isolated. An island, maybe, or the middle of the desert. Or Antarctica. How does the Hulk feel about penguins?”
He stared at her. “You’re insane.”
“It’s my understanding the Hulk’s indestructible, so you don’t have to worry about getting hurt.”
“That’s … really … not what I was worried about.”
“I think it would be a valuable exercise for all of us. We’d get a chance to test our tactical coordination under high stress conditions, and you might learn to develop some control.”
“High stress conditions,” he repeated wryly. “You don’t get it. None of you do. There’s no controlling the other guy.”
“Stark seems to think otherwise.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But if nothing else it would help us develop some better strategies for dealing with the Hulk next time he goes on a rampage.”
“Or maybe you’d be teaching him that Avengers are for smashing,” Bruce said darkly.
She smiled faintly. “I’m not worried about that.”
“Maybe you should be. Or have you forgotten how I nearly killed you?”
The smile slid from her face. “I haven’t forgotten.”
His memories from when he was changed were always a bit of a blur, a jumble of hazy sensory data. The thing that always seemed to stick with him the most was the other guy’s emotions. Want. Need. Hate. Fear. They burned so strongly they left scar tissue behind. Even now, Bruce could remember what Natasha’s fear had smelled like. He remembered how the other guy had reveled in it. What it felt like to want to crush the life out of her.
“You talk to Steve about any of this?” he asked.
“I thought I should talk to you first,” she said. “If you’re not comfortable—”
“I’m not comfortable.”
“Then I’ll drop it,” she said.
She wasn’t going to drop it, though. He knew that as certainly as he knew that the earth traveled around the sun.
She stood up. “Maybe just think about it. If you change your mind—”
She arched her brow like she didn’t believe him. “You know, Tony Stark is a lot of things, but wrong is almost never one of them.”