She finds him eventually.
After months of checking what were ever going to be the thinnest of leads: a drunk American tourist in a bar in Fiji, a white doctor listed in reports of fighting in PNG, a John Doe checking himself out of a hospital in Honolulu.
On her own, because Clint has Laura and the kids—three kids, now. It makes something twist insider her, but she isn’t quite sure what. Clint sends videos of baby Nat and updates on the sunroom project and Natasha thinks of the haunted look in Bruce’s eyes.
Did he want that sort of life? Had he wanted it before? He'd been a career scientist, but she knows he’d had a girlfriend. Her life is more than she had been allowed to dream of, but his is less than he had been expected to want, less than he had been taught was his due.
Did he think running away meant a house in the woods and not tiny flats in the grimy parts of major European cities? What does it mean when he doesn’t want her to follow?
At night, before she falls asleep, she remembers him rocking the cradle in the house in Kolkata the first time he saw her and knows that she has always wanted to give him what he wants. Even when it’s not what he wants.
She tracks him on her own because she’s not willing to trust whatever this is to Tony yet. Not willing to trust herself to defend it. Steve leaves when Sam calls with a lead on Bucky and maybe Natasha would have gone with them if her threads hadn’t come together at once and she finds herself on a plane to Wellington.
Bruce has a studio apartment in a modern block overlooking a park a little way out of the centre of the city. It is so totally ordinary that Natasha feels she’s crossed from a parallel universe, brought the monstrous real world into a mundane fantasy. There is no clue in the city as to what attracted Bruce, no reason she’s aware of that he can feel he is safe here, when he was so desperate to be away from anywhere.
She doesn’t mean to stake him out, but she watches his place for a day unsure of how to make an approach. She doesn’t know what her justification is for being here, either.
She sees him on the second morning when he leaves. He looks thin, but healthier. There’s more colour his face. Less colour in his hair. He looks exactly like himself in jeans and a button down shirt.
She follows him into the café on the corner. He doesn’t register her presence until she sits next to him at the counter.
His breath comes fast and shallow for a beat before he visibly gathers himself. She sees him decide not to leave.
The waiter sets a bottle of water between them and addresses Bruce with a familiar smile.
“And a whatever today’s…” he turns his wrist, gesturing, you know what I mean. So he’s been here a while. Maybe as long as it’s been since he washed up somewhere.
Natasha hasn’t stopped looking at the side of Bruce’s face. This is New Zealand; she doesn’t quite know how things are done here. She’s not prepared for any of this. That in itself is not surprising, but she’s surprised she’s only just realised. When she’s feeling generous, she tells herself it’s refreshing how little she knows what she’s doing when it comes to Bruce.
“I’ll have the same,” she tells the waiter.
“Do I want to know how you found me?” Bruce asks.
Natasha shrugs. “It wasn’t easy.”
“And you decided to do this in public.” His voice is rough. Threaded with resignation and ironic humour.
“People do this everyday.”
“Normal people.” He turns to her. “You and I….” He trails off into gesture again.
The phrase warms her. She smiles as he blushes. She wants to take his hand, but it feels too much like a calculated move.
“So, do you come here often?
He huffs a laugh. Almost imperceptibly, he relaxes.
Their food arrives on little saucers with folded napkins.
Bruce doesn’t run with the line. “I want things that I don’t deserve.”
“Nobody deserves me,” Natasha says. She means that no one deserves so little, but she sees the other angle in Bruce’s eyes. He shifts subtly on his stool, turning his body toward her. She notices his eyes rest on her mouth, cheek bone, shoulder, hip, the curve of her breast.
“Didn’t we have this conversation already?” he asks.
“We had the one about how you can’t give me the life you think I want.”
Bruce’s expression shuts down. Natasha does reach out to put her hand on Bruce’s wrist.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Do you have to say that a lot?”
“About as often as I expect to.”
He acknowledges that with slight tilt of his head.
Their coffees come without comment from the waiter.
“I shouldn’t have assumed…. I, I really don’t know what we’re trying to do.”
She’ll decide later whether that is an adequate apology, whether she even needs one from him. Her instinct is to ask ‘does anyone?’ but that wouldn’t be fair to the question he’s asking.
“We missed the window on running with it?” She told herself she came because she wanted resolution and, even more than that, wanted to see that he was alive. Now she’s aware of how much she wants to be what he wants.
“I thought you’d show up sooner.”
“You were hard to track down, and I wasn’t sure you wanted me to follow.”
That takes him aback. Natasha can see the question in Bruce’s eyes before he voices it.
“What do you remember?” she asks.
There’s distance between them Natasha doesn’t know how to bridge. She knows what she could turn herself into to win him over. Contrition, cajoling and a nod to bashful. Even if he didn’t believe her, he’d let himself be convinced. For now. She can’t lie to him, though, so she’s doesn’t know what to say.
“When I came to, I remembered falling and I remembered wanting to be away.”
She’s not sure if he’s talking about his impression of his thoughts while green, or before. She’s not sure it matters; it is what drove him this far and no farther.
“The other guy saved my life.”
“I know you think that about how things go down—”
“No!” she grips Bruce’s hand when he tries to pull away. “They fired on us, you grabbed me and leapt from the city to the Helicarrier to get me to safety.”
Bruce is frowning, mouth twisted. She doesn’t dare touch his face.
The distinction doesn’t make sense to her, because she sees the other guy and trusts him. To some useful extent she understands him and, unlike Bruce, she can use him. But Bruce, of course, has never met the other guy. All Bruce knows is waking up to fear and censure, his own as well as other people’s.
“I pushed you away.”
Bruce stirs a teaspoon of sugar into his cooling coffee. “I remember that.”
“I know what decisions I’ve made. I would do it differently, if I had to do it again. I wish I hadn’t done it.” It’s a selfish wish, because it’s about her.
“This is the problem,” he says, “I don’t. I trust you to put the needs of the mission first. I just—”
“I trust the other guy,” Natasha says. “If you’re yielding to my judgement on strategy, include that.” She holds his hand between both of hers and tells the truth. “You don’t have to accept the other guy, but if you want what we could have, you have to accept that he is my teammate and I trust him with my life.”
He brings his other hand to cover hers. It’s the most he’s reached for her. Her breath catches and she finds herself mirroring the slight curve of his smile. There is hope there, a vision of a future she wants and wants to share with him.
“So what happens next, then?” he asks. It is ‘yes’ and ‘I will’ and a promise more profound than a marriage vow.
Natasha’s smile breaks across her face without her control.
She gabs Bruce’s face between her hands. At a loss of what to say she settles for pressing her cheek to Bruce’s. His breath is controlled, slow and deep under tense shoulders and bad posture.
“Take me home.”