Author's note: I've been a huge Bruce/ Natasha shipper since The Avengers in 2012, and since the release of AoU I've been on Cloud Nine with all the Brutasha feels. Here's my first major fic for these two, set post AoU.
Major thanks and a big dedication to catelyn-starks on tumblr who loves these two as much as I do, and who didn't really complain about having her emotions smushed when reading through this a couple of times for me; thank you my dear!
I hope you enjoy :)
She receives the first card two months after the end of the Ultron fiasco.
The rectangular piece of card sits innocuously on her desk, almost casually discarded by whoever has been assigned postal duties that week. Natasha reaches over, eyes flitting around to see if anyone else is in the vicinity, and, realizing that she's alone she picks up the postcard, lifting it carefully between her fingers as if it is made of precious metal.
She studies it carefully, scanning the front design with focused intent. The Fraumünster Cathedral in Zurich stares back at her, looking magnificent and grandiose as it stands against a bright blue sky, the suns reflection vividly through its infamous stain glass windows. Nat considers that this means he more than likely landed somewhere in the Swiss countryside, but she doesn't want to speculate too much.
SHIELD's attempts to track the Quinjet have proved unsuccessful in the months following the incident in Sokovia; the Banda Sea lead had resulted in nothing more than the discovery of an old HYDRA buoy. While that had given the new team an opportunity to track down another few missing relics, it hadn't led them to what Natasha had really wanted: Bruce…
She had known, deep down, that this was what Bruce had been planning from the beginning; solitude, a way to find peace. Still, it hits her harder on some days, the way that he'd just disappeared after the battle. The fact that it was the Hulk who'd made the final decision played through her mind constantly. She knew it was bad when the Other Guy felt the need to have peace and quiet rather than confronting the issue with his usual destructive methods.
Natasha traces the familiar writing on the back, analyses each carefully formed letter in the slightly scruffy hand. She's used to seeing the scrawl across official reports and takeaway boxes in the fridge, but seeing it across the back of a postcard, with her name and the address of the facility on the left, well, it just sends a little stab of pain right through Natasha's chest.
The note is short: four single-syllable words enough to make her heart beat frantically in her chest and her breath stop short in her throat. The sight of them is enough to draw her attention away from Steve as he chats about Wilson's latest antics from somewhere to her right. The leader of the Avengers has followed her into her office, intent on discussing that day's training operations, but Natasha is unable to focus on anything apart from the piece of card she holds in her hands, and the four words her eyes keep reading over and over again…
Wish you were here…
She laughs at the irony, the echo of herself saying those same words to Fury months ago playing in her head. Nat scowls and then smiles at the painful jab in her heart. She traces the words again, hears his quiet, soothing voice in her head…
Wish you were here…
'Me too Bruce,' she thinks, dragging her eyes back to Cap, ignoring the man's confused look when he realizes she's ignoring him, 'me too.'
It's three weeks later when the next arrives; Prague this time. (There's a snapshot of the castle looking beautiful, elegant… lonely. Nat wonders just how he'd got there, how long it had taken him to make it across the country borders.)
She wants to try and figure out where he's heading next but even with her training and the resources she has at her disposal she doesn't bother to track him. It's clear he wants to be left alone and Nat has been in that position enough to know that he wants, no, needs, this time to process. She tacks the card up next to the previous one and tries not to look at them too often.
Weeks pass and the postcards soon cover a small corner section of her office wall, the area looking colorful and bright compared to the rest of Natasha's sparsely decorated room. No one else on the team asks about them; there's no point, they all know who they're from. Stark, during one of his infrequent consultation visits to the facility, offers to locate Bruce, but every time he suggests it she simply shakes her head and refuses. If Bruce wants to be found, he'll let them know.
Nat's just thankful that he's taking the time to let her know that he's okay, that he's giving her the ability to track him across Europe, the cards a picturesque time line of his solitary adventures. She walks into her office every day, holds her breath in anticipation as she steps over the boundary, eyes automatically seeking the space in the middle of her sparse yet neatly organised desk. On the days where she receives a card Nat often smiles and spends the first few minutes of her working day scanning the photograph and words presented to her (wish you were here, wish you were here, wish you were here…)
On the days when her desk remains empty Nat feels herself deflate slightly in understanding; there will be no card, no reassurance that day. Instead she will have to speculate just where Bruce is, what he's doing, where he's heading to next.
And so the pattern continues. Bruce sends cards, travels, writes. Nat trains, teaches, waits.
She analyses their first kiss and last conversation until both are ingrained on her brain so much that she sees both scenarios vividly when she closes her eyes; it helps on the days she hears from him, and stabs at her heart on the days she doesn't.
She begins to take more notice of the writing on the back of each card. The words always remain the same (wish you were here, wish you were here, wish you were here…) but Nat looks closer, to the story behind each press of Bruce's pen to paper.
Sometimes his handwriting is more scruffy than usual, the scrawl barely recognizable; Nat figures on these occasions that he's in a desperate rush, maybe fearing his discovery by someone he deems a threat to his efforts at peace and solitude. It's after the receipt of those types of postcards that Natasha spends hours, days, weeks waiting on bated breath to hear of a Hulk attack in some far off city, to see evidence that someone has found Bruce and is trying to manipulate him into doing something dangerous against his will. It never happens, and Nat always breathes a weary sigh of relief when she receives her next card.
Other times (the better, less terrifying times) Nat is able to trace each carefully formed letter (there are always 15 letters. Always. 15 letters, 4 syllables, 4 heart-wrenching words…) It's times like those that Nat can imagine Bruce sitting quietly in some old dilapidated hotel, with paint peeling off the walls, carefully writing out the words as if he is a calligrapher. She knows, instinctively, that these precisely formed letters are a result of Bruce being at peace, from him being able to relax and take the time to just… write.
Those times always manage to bring a soft smile to her face.
Nat becomes a confidant for Wanda, helps her work through her pain and anger at losing Pietro, helps her fight the guilt she feels for her actions before she and her brother had changed sides (it takes Natasha 3 weeks before she'll speak properly to Wanda; she places some of the blame for Bruce's disappearance on the younger woman's actions in Africa, as well as the constant recurrence of her Red Room nightmares…) It takes a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of patience, but the two women eventually form an tentative partnership, and Natasha soon slips into the role of mentor, taking over Wanda's personal training regime in a bid to help the enhanced woman learn some precious control.
Sometimes, helping the younger woman helps Nat to process her own loss, helps her compartmentalize the different feelings for Bruce until she's home alone in her makeshift apartment. When, during one intense training session, Natasha spots Wanda's eyes drift all too frequently over to Vision, she realizes that maybe the younger woman needs a confidant in more ways than one.
"Don't be afraid to make friends," Natasha says softly while dodging a carefully thrown pulse of red energy.
"I don't know what you mean," Wanda utters as she spins and sends another wave in her mentor's direction. Nat smiles, remembering how stubbornly she used to act in the same situation.
"He's feeling the same as you," she replies, gesturing towards the tall figure that lingers on the upper balcony, "alone, confused, in pain…"
Wanda scoffs, throws another pulse at Natasha in anger.
"Pain? He knows nothing of pain… I lost my brother…"
"And he was created to destroy mankind, his brain was filled with the hatred and fanaticism that Ultron was attempting to instill; how do you think he's coping with the knowledge that he could have been responsible for the annihilation of the human race? That when it comes down to it he was programmed to destroy when all he wants to do is watch over us instead…"
There's a vague hint behind Natasha's words, and she smiles as a small brush breaks out across Wanda's cheeks, a blush that has nothing to do with the intensity of their training.
Natasha says nothing else, and it isn't long until the training session is complete and the younger woman darts off in the direction of Vision's last observation spot.
She talks to Vision as well; discusses Ultron, discusses the world, simply talks to it… them… him, about everything and nothing.
"You continue to worry for him?" The android asks one day, watching Nat carefully as leans back in her chair. The smell of coffee drifts from their mugs that rest on her desk; his a standard issue SHIELD mug, hers a colorfully decorated birthday present from Clint and the kids. Vision doesn't even need to eat or drink, but he maintains the illusion of human necessity in order to not appear too aloof when he's around other people.
Natasha wonders briefly if this is the team's (Wanda's) influence or a remnant of Jarvis' programming. Either way, the android in front of her seems to know her too well, despite the fact their interactions outside of missions have been less frequent in the last couple of months.
Natasha realizes that she's still not answered his question, and she looks up at him. He's facing her, standing to the left of her desk. He's forgone the cape for the day, but his bright blue eyes show concern as his head tilts slightly to the side. Natasha sighs and nods.
"I do," she finally says, looking up at his questioning face. "I mean, I know he's safe and in hiding, but I just can't shake the feeling that I should be there with him…"
"You are aware that we have the capabilities to track him?"
Again, she nods and considers her answer.
"I know. Believe me, I've been tempted over the last couple of months. But Bruce needs this time alone and I'm not going to betray his trust by chasing him around the world in a bid to get rid of my own insecurity and loneliness."
Her frank honesty seems to please Vision. He smiles at her, the barest shift of his lips telling her that he understands. He's not smug about it, but Natasha gets the feeling that he appreciates her understanding.
"I'm sure Dr. Banner will let you know when he's ready to come home. And in the meantime, these can provide the reassurance that he is maintaining the necessary cover and caution."
Vision gestures towards the wall of her office that is adorned with the huge variety of postcards. Each has been carefully pinned to the cork board beneath, running in chronological order; a trail of Bruce's adventures since he effectively dropped off the radar.
Clint had thoughtfully pinned a small blank map on the wall next to the postcards a few weeks back. Every time she receives a card from a new country she takes a few minutes to color in the section of the map in question.
She figures that when he comes back Bruce would appreciate a reminder of his travels, that he might understand that his absence has been as important for her as it had been for him.
Natasha just hopes she'll be able to give him the gift soon.
"Are you okay Romanoff?"
Natasha glances up at Steve, trailing her eyes across his puzzled look. She's surprised she can hear him over the noise behind them. Calling it music is a stretch too far; the pounding bass giving her nothing but a headache that throbs and pounds in time with the beat.
God knows why he's felt the need to drag her out to the local bar, but she thinks it's part of how he winds down after the missions; the music and crowds serving to distract him from the fighting and the chaos that ensues every time they're all out in the field. He's been different since Sokovia. Not by much, but he's harder somehow. The Avengers are still appreciated across much of the globe, but in some vocal parts of the media their team is still being blamed for the thousands of deaths that have resulted since the groups inception. Natasha thinks that every single one of those deaths weighs on Steve's shoulders, and she's not sure how to relieve his burden…
Sam and Rhodey are sitting at the table the four of them had commandeered earlier in the evening, but she can see that the two of them have been joined by two women in the short time she and Steve have been at the bar getting the next round of drinks.
Wanda and Vision are notably absent from their party; the former recovering in medical after a tough and brutal mission and the latter had claimed that he wouldn't fit in at what he called 'a normal human drinking establishment.' (she suspects he's actually loitering by Wanda's side, but she's got her own relationship problems to deal with; there's no need for her to go snooping into anyone else's at that minute.)
Natasha takes a careful sip of her beer, using the time to mull over her answer.
"I'm fine," she finally replies, gracing him with a smile that probably doesn't completely reach her eyes.
"Yeah, you sure look it…" Steve eyes her warily, raising an eyebrow at her in a way that reinforces to her that apparently more than one person on the team can read her far too easily. Natasha wonders when she became so transparent, and decides it was probably the moment she stopped being an assassin and became an Avenger.
There's a slightly awkward pause as Steve waits for her usual sarcastic retort to his gentle probing into her welfare. She tries to find the right words, but Nat decides that actually tonight, she isn't okay and Steve's probably the only one on the team who would understand.
"It's been six months," she finally says, waving her bottle around slightly as if it somehow indicates the length of the mentioned time period. She glances at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, noting the stitches in her forehead and the start of a nasty bruise on her temple.
"Six months?" Steve repeats, and Natasha isn't fooled by his faux ignorance at the significance of the date.
"Since Sokovia. Since…"Nat sighs and takes another hearty drink, pulling the liquid down her throat in avoidance.
"Since Dr. Banner left," he finishes succinctly. If there was one thing Steve could be relied on for, it was bluntness.
"When did you last hear from him?"
"A couple of weeks back; he sent me a picture of a museum in Kiev."
"So he's still moving East?"
"Yeah. Although the time before he sent me a card from Paris, so I'm not sure if he's going anywhere in particular or if he's just jumping on the nearest available mode of transportation and hoping for the best."
The image of Bruce scampering along train platforms looking confused or just holding a map in front of him and putting his finger down with his eyes closed is enough to bring about a chuckle.
Steve looks at her, unaware of the amusing images, but Natasha just shrugs and finishes off her drink. The man beside her does the same.
"Do you want to dance?" Steve asks then, seemingly out of the blue, but really he asks her every single time they go on these post mission excursions.
Her reply is the same as always, and she playfully nudges his shoulder as she speaks.
"Sure, if you promise not to stand on my toes this time."
Steve grins at her, knowing full well that while this is becoming a frequent occurrence between them, he is still completely unable to get through a single song without his heel landed painfully on the top of her foot. Natasha smiles as he holds out the crook of his elbow and she takes it, laughing at the fact that 75 years on one of the greatest soldiers who's every existed is still very much the 1940's gentlemen she's heard about from her infrequent conversations with Peggy Carter.
The next few minutes are taken up with laughing and joking, Steve's presence serving to take her mind off Bruce and where he currently is in the world. Nat wonders what he'd think if he saw her, if maybe he'd interrupt her dances with Steve to take over, or possibly just stand on the edge of the dance floor and just observe, watching her every move as if she is the most important thing in the world to him.
With the next step on her toes, Natasha forgets Bruce, forgets that she doesn't know where he is and instead remembers that she's with friends, that she's happy. She smiles up at Steve again and enjoys the rest of her evening.
Nathaniel rests his head against Nat's shoulder and snuffles quietly as he drifts off to sleep, his tiny hands latching onto the thin fabric of her shirt. Clint smiles up at her from his position on the couch while Laura, leaning against the kitchen counter, simply looks relieved that Auntie Nat has managed to get the latest member of the Barton family off to sleep when both his parents had been unsuccessful.
Since Sokovia and Clint's 'unofficial' retirement from the Avengers Nat visits often and dotes on Nathaniel (even though he's still a traitor.) There's a sense of family here, she thinks, in this farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. A sense of family and belonging that she's both been craving and dreading since the day of her graduation.
Nathaniel wiggles in his sleep, snores softly against her shoulder and Nat smiles down at the tiny little figure in her arms.
There's something about holding Nate that tugs at her, persists in jabbing at her heart, reminding her that she'll never experience this with her own children.
A reminder of a long ago conversation flutters through from her memory ("I've got red on my ledger…") and she wonders if holding the small innocent child wipes some of her slate clean. Nat doesn't dwell on the fact that she's unable to have a child of her own, doesn't allow her subconscious to linger on the fact that directly above her is the bedroom when she had a complete different conversation and tries her hardest not to think about what Bruce would think of the image of her holding a small dark haired child in her arms.
("Are you out of your mind… I can't have children"… "neither can I"…)
Ten minutes later she settles Nate down into his bed and Natasha takes a deep breath as she runs the back of her finger over his cheek. The baby doesn't awaken, just wriggles a little to find the most comfortable sleeping position that a 4 month old baby can manage.
Clint is waiting at the bottom of the stairs for her, a crate of some kind of cheap imported beer in his hand and a soft smile on his face. Nat knows she's been unusually quiet that evening, her thoughts drawn to Bruce and his latest postcard. It had been from Russia, her homeland, the picture of the Kremlin staring back at her as the card took its place on the board. The writing on the back was nothing more than a quick scrawl and Nat's heart beats faster as she wonders if he'd been close to capture or if merely being in the country of her birth had unnerved him.
It's another quiet night at the farmhouse. Laura and Cooper are busy cleaning up after dinner, while Lila is drawing quietly at the workbench. Nathanial is still sleeping peacefully upstairs, and the resting infant allows Clint and Natasha to leave the house and sit on the porch. Crickets echo in the near distance and Natasha thinks it's entirely cliche to be sat out here, in the middle of nowhere, mulling over the course her life has taken.
She sees Clint snap the lid off the beer bottle and Nat laughs as foam leaks over the top and into his lap. Clint grins, a broad and daft smile, before he hands her the freshly opened bottle.
Nat takes a deep pull of the beer, savoring the almost sweet taste as she swallows.
"So," Clint starts, leaning against the top step, long legs out in front of him and eyes watching her warily, "how you doing?"
"I'm fine," Nat responds automatically, knowing full well that the same two words are repeated in exactly the same manner whenever the question is sent her way.
Clint doesn't reply, just nudges her leg with his foot and raises an eyebrow in her direction.
Natasha sighs and looks at him for a few seconds before she moves. Clint doesn't protest as Nat leans her head on her best friend's shoulder and just stares up at the sky in silence.
"It's hard," she eventually confides, staring up at the twinkling stars above. She can see a flashing light far in the distance, a passenger plane heading to some unknown destination. Nat tracks it's movements across the night sky for a few minutes before she elaborates. Clint remains quiet as he waits for her to speak. "The new team's coming together nicely. Rhodey and Sam have a good partnership going on, Wanda and Vision are bringing more and more to the group and Steve… well Steve's Steve, you've seen what he's like."
"Yeah," Clint says, and Nat feels him nod slightly, her head shifting slightly on his shoulder as he does so. "So what's wrong? Sounds like everything's finally looking up after Sokovia…"
Nat smiles wearily, even though she knows he can't see her face. Clint has always been able to get her secrets from her, often without even trying.
"It's ridiculous really," she starts, her hands out in front of her and gesturing slightly, "it's just… I miss the rest of you guys. Out in the field. How we were a good unit, worked well together. You, Thor, Steve. Hell, I even miss Stark on the odd occasion."
Nat feels the tight smile spreading across her face at the mention of Bruce's name.
"And Bruce, yeah," she says eventually, her focus still on the night sky.
"Laura said there was something going on between you two. Y'know, when we came here after Africa…" He lets the statement hang, giving her the opportunity to answer it if she wishes.
"There wasn't. Not then. Not after. But we were…" Nat pauses, rings her hands together, tries to find the words to describe just what it was that she and Bruce actually had. Had there ever been any hope of a relationship between them? Or had it just been a childish fantasy for them both, a dream of escaping the responsibilities and horrors that they faced together ever day? Had Bruce's disappearance been his way of telling her that it was all a fallacy, an illusion or worse… a mistake?
Nat slips into silence again, contemplates just what she wants to say.
"I don't know what we were," she says in the end, minutes later, with the crickets still chirping in the background and the trees swaying gently in the distance. She says nothing else.
She's sure that Clint will probably over analyse her words, will probably chat with Laura about it. She doesn't mind; the Barton's are her family, she doesn't mind the concern and support.
"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Clint says by way of reply, and Natasha has to shift again as he takes another drink of his beer.
She uses the ensuing quiet to think about where Bruce is now, if he's looking up at the same stars, the same plane flying across the sky, the same loneliness of space…
Nat wonders if she's going mad, worrying about Bruce like this, wonders if he's even giving her the same consideration.
Clint finishes his beer and places it down by his side, the sound of the glass hitting the wooden step breaking the silence that has fallen over them. A couple of seconds later Natasha feels his arm slip round her shoulder, a comfort, a warmth that she's missed in the last couple of months.
Bruce might have left her (abandoned her, her mind cruelly supplies) but Clint is, and will always remain, her best friend. And right now, when her mind's in turmoil, that's all she really needs…
Sometimes she gets overwhelmed. Angry. Frustrated.
It's been 8 months since his disappearance but sometimes that's all she can think about. Sometimes Nat can't focus on anything apart from the simple fact that Bruce left and is gone and hasn't returned.
She doesn't get like this often. Her role as Steve's second in command means that Nat's busy more often than not, and she's grown up enough to know that she doesn't need to dwell on her feelings for Bruce like some besotted schoolgirl.
Still, there are times when his apparent abandonment of her rankles, especially after a tough mission and especially when she is confronted by the blossoming relationship between certain other members of the team.
Natasha takes her frustration out on the range, shooting round after round into the unsuspecting humanoid targets. She doesn't pretend it's Bruce, nor anyone in particular. The target, on occasion, represents her hopes and dreams of a normal life, and every bullet that hits its mark is another reminder that that dream is and always has been destined to shatter and break apart.
Fury comes down one evening and leans against the wall behind her, watching as bullet after bullet after bullet hits its intended mark. Natasha stops after a few silent minutes and finally looks round, turning her head slightly to look back over her shoulder. He eyes her carefully, as if half expecting her to turn the gun on him instead for interrupting.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you," he says simply, as she refocuses her attention briefly back on the range. Fury's voice is calm but she's known him long enough to hear the trace of worry in his tone.
"It's fine," Natasha replies brusquely, flipping the safety of the .45 on casually and tossing the weapon onto the nearby shelf. "I was just finishing up."
He chuckles then, which annoys her, and Nat wonders if she should shoot him in the leg just to spite him. She doesn't appreciate being the cause of someone's humor.
"You need to take it easy Romanoff," Fury warns, crossing his arms across his chest. "Cap tells me you've been down here every night for the last week."
"Just keeping my eye in."
"That's bullshit and you know it," comes the exasperated reply, and Natasha sighs and moves to barge past Fury; she's in no mood for his prying, she's had enough of it over the many years of their acquaintance. He takes a slight step to his right, effectively blocking her path out of the situation. Natasha takes a step back and glares at him, the anger and frustration she feels towards Bruce bubbling dangerously under the surface. She's the perfect image of a swan; beautiful and calm on the outside but paddling furiously under the surface in an almost futile bid to keep everything under control.
"Yeah, well, it's my bullshit so I'll deal with it how I want…" Nat finally replies, still glaring at the man who'd interrupted her. There's a subtle threat in her tone and in the way she moves to stand in front of him, one that causes Fury to raise his hands in surrender, a roll of his good eye enough to tell her that he understands.
"Okay okay, I get it Natasha. Just don't let this eat at you; Banner will come back, you and I both know that. He's taken a leave of absence, that's all."
She wants to argue, but she knows it's the truth. Still, the fact of the matter is that Bruce left in the first place and that's what's eating at her. For all his talk about running away together he'd still, in the end, essentially abandoned her to rummage through the scattered remains of the team and her feelings for him alone. The post cards are nice (wonderful, romantic) but they're a poor substitute for the man himself.
"Fine," Nat mutters stubbornly, staring at a random point past Fury's left ear, refusing to meet his eyes. "I'll try and get out more; wouldn't want you and Cap to worry…"
Sarcasm laces her tone and Fury's eye rolls once more, fully aware that she doesn't really mean it. She's angry and when she's angry she lashes out against those closest to her; he's witnessed it enough times to know that it's only a phase that she needs to work through.
He leaves without saying another word and Natasha doesn't move until she's completely convinced he's left the area. She sighs once more and turns back to the target, picks up the gun, continues firing…
The next day, after a long night of shooting targets and taking out her frustration, there's a picture of a small but beautiful village looking out at her from her desk. Nat stares at it for what seems like hours, fingers tracing over the rooftops and the tiny church steeple she can see in the background. The scene reminds her of Sokovia before the battle, before everything went to hell and she considers whether this is why Bruce has sent her this particular card; to demonstrate that he wants her to remember the times before, the times when everything was reasonably quiet and they could just be themselves.
She hates it.
Natasha suddenly glares at the idyllic scene, moves it around in her fingers so that a quick flick of her wrists will rip the card in two, severing the connection between herself and the man that is thousands of miles away, though his decision, through his choice. Her fingers hold onto the card and Natasha is angry and confused and just so Goddamn tired of not knowing where Bruce is and just when he's coming home.
She looks at the board to her right, takes in all the scenes and beauty and contemplates just tearing them all down, destroying his communications and erasing him from her wall, her mind… her heart.
Nat wants to rip them from the wall and set them alight or crush them with her bare hands or tear them into tiny insignificant pieces, just wants to do something that will relieve this anger at the whole fucking situation.
Minutes later, after realizing that letting him go is not that easy, Nat walks quietly yet determinedly towards the wall.
"Damn you Bruce," she mutters, as the card takes its place next to all the others…
She manages to move on. Not completely, but enough to keep going. She still feels strongly for Bruce (she doubts that will ever change) but Nat finds she's not as distracted by her emotions as she has been recently. Nat still spends some time most days just staring at the wall of postcards, but the sight of them doesn't hurt like it has done. Instead they serve as a reminder that Bruce is alive.
She focuses instead on the work, on training and mentoring and everything else that being an Avenger entails. The team continues to work together, continues to improve, becomes slicker in the way they interact and fight together.
Until a mission goes horribly horribly wrong. It was supposed to be a simple job, in and out in next to no time, but HYDRA have more reinforcements on site than they anticipate and Nat is caught in the crossfire of the ensuing firefight.
The newest team are caught up in a small rural town, but it isn't long until the locals start filming the battle and suddenly that one, excruciating moment when Natasha's side is split by a piece of flying shrapnel is recorded and posted on YouTube while Natasha herself almost bleeds out on the mud covered road.
Fortunately, Dr. Cho is able to patch her up in the regeneration cradle after Sam drags her back onto the Quinjet but Nat's unconscious for 2 days as her body heals.
She wakes up, dazed and confused with Steve, Rhodey and Sam all staring at her. Clint is eating grapes in the corner of the room, leg hanging casually over the arm rest of the only semi-comfortable chair in the room. Fury is pacing just outside; she catches his eye with a little wave of her still half-numb fingers and the older man nods and visibly breathes a sigh of relief from the other side of the glass.
It isn't until they've all wished her well and left her alone that Nat realises her phone is sitting on her bedside table.
She reaches out and grabs it, wincing as she pulls at her still healing side.
There are a few texts from the others; a couple from Pepper and Sam and another from Hill. The notifications tell her that she's got a couple of voicemails too so Nat reaches out and wearily presses the call button before holding the cell to her ear.
The first message is from Stark, complimenting her on her dramatic and highly viewed exit strategy from the battlefield (he rambles on a bit before wishing her a rushed 'get well soon,' probably at the behest of Pepper…)
Nat rolls her eyes at Stark's ineptitude when it comes to empathy. She keeps the phone pressed to her ear, eager to get through the rest of the messages so that she can go back to sleep and carry on her recovery.
Her breath hitches when she hears the second voice. It's familiar (how could it not be?) but it's been 8 months since she heard it and Nat suddenly feels overwhelmed. She presses the handset closer to her ear, as if the motion will cause her to be closer to him.
"Uh, hi… hello. God, I hate talking to these things."
There's a pause, a self deprecating laugh, then he continues.
"I… uh… I hope you're okay Nat. I saw you get hurt, in the video. I found it on the internet when I was checking the news reports. I like to keep tabs on you guys, just in case you're ever in my… in my neck of the woods. I heard through the grapevine that you're in recovery, that Dr. Cho managed to patch you up in time. Thank God."
Even over the phone he's the same slightly bumbling man she'd grown to love and Nat's heart breaks as she continues to listen. There's a lengthy pause, and she has to check to make sure that the message hasn't ended.
"I miss you Natasha, I really do. And the others too, don't get me wrong. You guys are like family to me. But I miss you most of all and I feel… well… I feel terrible for leaving like I did; so does he. But I knew you'd understand, knew that you'd give me the time I needed."
Another pause. Another sigh. Another held breath.
"I'm not ready to come back. Not yet. But I'll let you know, I promise. I hope you've been keeping the postcards. I try and pick the ones that remind me most of you; the most beautiful scenes and artwork…"
A wry chuckle. Natasha can almost picture Bruce running his hand over the back of his neck nervously and rolling his eyes at himself. She wishes she could see his face. She wouldn't hesitate to kiss him and call him an idiot…
"Recover quickly alright? We both know the others need you out there, that the world needs you out there. Just… just be careful okay? And…uh… before I forget… I adore you too…"
There's another brief pause before Bruce had clearly finally decided to hang up. Natasha clutches the phone close to her chest, closes her eyes, smiles.
She listens to the message 3 more times before she drifts off to sleep with his voice in her ear.
She doesn't hear from him directly again. Instead, the postcards continue to arrive on a regular basis, and Natasha wonders if Bruce is trying to visit every country on the planet, such is it the variety of locations that now don her wall.
The pattern continues until, one quiet March morning, almost a year to the day since Sokovia, since she pleaded for him to return in the Quinjet, since he left her alone, there is another postcard sitting on her desk. Natasha reaches out, runs her fingers over the picture on the front, trying to get a feel, a resonance of Bruce's fingers on the same piece of card. After a few moments of quiet contemplation, she flips over the photo that shows her the beautiful architecture of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta.
There are four different words staring up at her, written in his familiar scrawl. Natasha traces over the words, unbelieving but with the biggest grin on her face that she's had for weeks.
Come and find me…