Chapter 1: Fancy Meeting You Here
Natasha fell out of dreaming and into waking with a wide-eyed start. She was laying on her right side in a "small spoon" position with Bruce's arm draped over her middle and his warm presence against her back. No restraints. No music. No crack of the rod. She had to remind herself to breathe. Her heart was now pounding, and she willed it and her lungs to match her partner's even rhythm. Yes, Bruce was still sleeping. Good. She lifted her head to focus on the bedside clock. It glowed 4:23am. Not so good. Too early for padding down to the gym. Meh, 4:24 shone mockingly back at her. Now she was too awake to slide back into sleep. Then it clicked in her brain, Bruce was leaving later this morning with Tony for a science and technology conference, so, no, she wasn't going to the gym until later. In fact, this was going to be the first time they'd been apart from each other for more than 24 hours in almost six months. Add in the time it had taken for the world to settle back down, finding Bruce, and working out the details in restitution for the collateral damage… yes, it had been nine months. After the initial period in hiding, he hadn't been completely off the radar; at that point, she knew he'd wanted to be found.
"Dr. Banner, I presume," she'd said as she walked into the yard and he'd appeared in the doorway of the small limestone cottage. He'd smiled at her in that shy lopsided way of his, almost like he'd been expecting her.
"Ms. Romanoff, fancy meeting you here." He had a dishtowel in his hands, and he quit wiping his fingers and shook the cloth out to fold. They stood there for more than a few seconds looking at each other, smiling, not saying anything, as some chickens (yes, chickens!) pecked in the black dirt along the gravel path for grit and insects and a few bees on the sunny side of the yard started to make forays into the warming morning air.
She'd been ready to say something wry and sarcastic about bucolic domesticity agreeing with him or maybe about his beard, which was almost as salt-and-pepper gray as his thick curly hair. That, she noted, was long enough he'd tied it back at the nape of his neck: definitely a different look on him. Again, she checked his hands refolding the towel—they were the most consistent of his tells. His eyes had darted up and down taking in her figure and the bright floral-patterned blouse, neutral utilitarian pants, and walking sandals. No weapons visible. Just a medium travel bag over the shoulder. He understood the rhetoric of her clothing: no kickass leather, no overly feminine whiles or distractingly blatant cleavage (well, maybe a little), and shoes made for moving fast, just in case.
Well, here goes…
They both took in a breath and started to say something at the same time. It took another stuttering jumble of words before she impatiently stepped forward to close the distance between them and laid two fingers on his lips, "Shut up for two seconds, Bruce. I need to get this out." She took another breath and composed herself, "I am so sorry for pushing you. I did not want to use you or the Other Guy like that. It's… I knew they were going to need us both, and they did, and there was no way to get everyone out unless…"
Bruce gently wrapped his fingers around her still extended hand, gripped it in his, and kissed her wrist before turning his head and holding her hand against his cheek. "I'm just, so sorry," she trailed off and stopped talking, finally staring up into his face. His beard was softer than she'd thought. When he opened his eyes to look at her, it took all of her training to not inhale sharply or swallow hard or look alarmed. His pupils had gone from their normal deep brown to an unnatural bright green; however, as startling as they had been for a moment, the color was quickly fading into the familiar range of earth tones.
"Let me guess," he said, lowering her hand with his and letting it go, "the other guy says, 'Hello,' too?"
"Um, yah. I think so." Now, she swallowed hard.
"Well, we've both missed you." He paused to take a deep breath, "So, while I have your attention and you've had your turn, please let me say I'm sorry, too. I knew leaving was going to hurt you, but I had to go. I needed to get to a better internal place after what happened, and I had to find a way to work things out with the Other Guy. I needed specialized help with him. Trying to destroy him hasn't worked and neither has fearing and blaming each other; the consequences of us not working together have been pretty horrible. Natasha, I know you wanted us to be together and to help me, but I had to get some of the mess in my, our heads (it's a little confusing) his and my heads figured out. Well, I'm asking you to please forgive me. I, he and I, we are in a better place now. I'm here. You're here. Please, the last thing I remember is you saying, 'I adore you.' Could we get back to that? Tell me that's still possible."
It had been just that simple. She'd dropped the bag off her shoulder, and he'd finally discarded the stupid dishtowel he'd been worrying to death and grasped her upper arms, pulling her to him, and pressing her to his chest. "It's you, it's really you," he sighed into her hair. Her arms had wrapped around his waist. He seemed to be all in one piece, he smelled good, and he felt like...
"If I bring you back with me, are you going to stay?"
"Yes," he said, tilting his head to get a look at her eyes, "I plan to be with you as long as you'll have me."
She stood there letting that sink in, watching the possibilities play out in her imagination, but she had to pull herself back. First, there was work that had to be done. "Good," she said and whispered in his ear, "we're being watched and recorded, so get ready to play along. Trust me."
He nodded in understanding, keeping his eyes on her. Then ever so slightly the green shown in their depths, "Let's do this."