Proof I Can Feel
“You know I’m not that kind of doctor,” Bruce points out in his usual mellow tone.
Natasha pops up on the bed anyway and tilts her head playfully. “Am I that bad a patient?” She leans forward ever so slightly, flirtatious cant of her lips, lets him chew on that as he decides whether or not she actually means it.
Of course, she doesn’t. It comes smooth and easy and the moment she explains why she’s really here, he’s going to know exactly what’s wrong with her and why she doesn’t mean this flirting at all.
Bruce settles for an easy sigh and wiping his hands on a cloth. He’d been working on eating his lunch when she poked her head in and playfully called him doctor, and now he’s giving her that same slightly betrayed look he gives Tony Stark when he tries to use him as a free therapist.
“I’m not here for therapy,” Natasha says, suddenly serious. “You…” Words fail her for the briefest of instances. She flashes another smile, chokes it down over the tickle in her throat and the swelling in her chest, digging its roots in. The Red Room was supposed to have made her immune to this. “I have hanahaki,” she says at last.
“What?” He stares at her like she just dropped a prank on his head or a joke on her tongue, except there’s that faint horror in his eyes because he’s been enough places to recognize a foreign name for the condition.
She plows forward, not letting him breathe long enough to jump to the wrong conclusions. “You figured out how to deal with your… temper.”
He furrows his brows, a halfway frown.
“I can’t get an operation,” she tells him. “They’re not supposed to grow back, but—”
“Yours do,” Bruce answered.
“Mine do,” she confirmed. And then it’s rising up, thorns and roses tearing through her throat and only her training keeps her from coughing up the blood and petals, proving she’s in love with a man that can never be hers.
Bruce sits down beside her, puts a steadying hand on her back, gentle and platonic and firm as she shudders and breathes without losing her composure completely.
“He does love you, you know,” he says.
It’s obvious who Bruce thinks it is. He’s not even wrong.
Natasha swallows, clears her throat, fluttery soft, paper-thin debris sticking on the way down. She nods once. “I know.”
It’s not enough, but they both know that. Bruce doesn’t pretend to misunderstand.
Finding love in the middle of a war, in the middle of defection and rewriting your own identity down to your bones, it’s the fairy tale story neither of them can find it in themselves to believe.
One ends in lost love and walking away, and he still thinks of her sometimes with fondness. The other doesn’t end.
He thinks about it in battle as he comes back to himself, soft music in the back of her throat, staring at him like he understands how to be the monster without losing himself. He doesn’t. He doesn’t know how to stop losing himself.
He’s back and staring at her and she smiles briefly despite how awful she looks to anyone innocent.
She’s a creature of blood, he thinks. Red suits her. When he sees her brush off a blood-soaked red petal from a uniform drenched in the blood of her enemies and rub the streak from near her mouth with a shrug, he thinks it’s a strange sort of poetry. Somehow it’s beautiful.
“I lied.” It’s cold, it’s night, and she’s sitting at the edge of the balcony because she claims it’s a spectacular view. He’s not sure why he came out with her.
“Really?” he asks, not at all surprised.
She smiles, dimpled cheeks, and it feels like another lie, taking root in his chest. But he knows it isn’t really. He won’t go away later, coughing up petals. This isn’t what anyone might assume it is. He’s not in love with her and she’s in love with someone else.
“Do you know why I left Russia?” she asks lightly, swinging her feet like a girl.
Bruce looks at her then, realizes she’s offering something behind that false smile that promises she can pretend he didn’t reject her if he doesn’t reach out and take it.
It’s the only reason he does. “Tell me,” he says quietly, like this isn’t important because they both need it not to be.
Natasha’s smile becomes more shallow and fleeting, and that’s real. She’s not so smooth when she’s being real. “This.” She puts her hand against her beating heart, and he knows exactly what she’s referring to. “It was proof I could still feel.” She drops her hand and shakes her head ruefully. “It’s why I never had them take it out.”
She lied. Her hanahaki roots don’t grow back after surgery.
“How are you still alive?” he asks suddenly.
She shrugs. “He loves me back a little.” Even if he won’t act on it. Even if not completely. She clears her throat, and Bruce can almost see the violent rose red at the back of her mouth. “I take medication.”
Natasha’s all made up of lies in a way, but the more he’s come to know her, the more he knows that’s a lie in itself. She’s made up of truth sharpened and honed into the lies she tells, which is why he asks her something he would have thought pointless just months ago.
“Why did you lie then?” he asks.
But she shakes her head in a way that isn’t quite a negation. “Everyone’s first answer is always surgery.” She tilts her head up prettily so she can look at him out of the corner of her eyes.
He thinks for a moment, gives that the weight she seems to be asking for, enough to actually think about it and apply it to his own situation. He’s been doing this Avengering business long enough to know the value in what he’s become, as much as he hates it, fears it, loathes it from the bottom of the anger he can never be rid of. “I would, if I could. If I had a way out, I’d take it.” There’s some bitterness mixed in there too.
The moment stretches. He’s almost surprised when she finally breaks it, mouth full of as much bitterness as his.
“People have taken things,” Natasha says slowly, spaces big enough between the words to hold all she isn’t telling, “out of my body, to make me a better weapon. They’ve taken out parts of me they didn’t think I’d need. I’m tired,” she says, an ache behind the words and in her eyes, “of people taking things that are mine.”
She smiles at him again. “Do you still think you’re the only monster?”
He doesn’t answer that, can’t, not staring into her eyes in the dark, imagining red like blood upon her tongue.
“You know, I’m not after serenity,” she informs him bluntly.
“Good,” he answers noncommittally. “Serenity’s overrated.”
Natasha stares at him for a long moment. “I know.”
And maybe she lied again, because Natasha didn’t tell him the truth about why she still lingers near him, even knowing he doesn’t know how to help her master love the way he’s mastered anger. She will, eventually, with the way things are going, with the way her body keeps changing, the way she feels herself craving more of his steady presence. It’s another thing that’s hers, and she’ll share it with him when she’s ready, she thinks, and not before.
He’s not in love with her. He can’t possibly be in love with her.
He dreams feverishly of Natasha, of her sharp smiles and her soft ones, of the lullaby she wraps around him like she’s taming her fear of the other guy the same way she’s trying to tame the unrequited love that’s trying to kill her.
He dreams of her in ways he shouldn’t, ways that wake him up to arousal strong enough to worry him. But he’s not in love with her.
Bruce has had three hanahaki screenings since he met Natasha. There are no petals gathering in his lungs. There are no roots digging into his heart.
It’s months later, at a party in the Avengers Tower before Ultron breaks it up, that Bruce suddenly realizes, he can’t remember the last time he heard Natasha delicately clearing her throat in a meeting or saw rose red petals and blood near her mouth after a battle. She’s flirting with him, badly, as though she’s trying sincerity on for size, and he thinks he just might possibly be in love.0