She came to take him away from a life not comfortable but familiar. Manageable. Bruce had worked very hard to achieve manageable. A nomad existence that felt anchored. She came to disturb that fragile deal. She drew him into a shabby shack at the edge of town and undid the thread of patience and normalcy it had taken Bruce years to weave. It was a fake world but it was his. He had constructed it out of ancient capitals and broken languages and the rust on the side of fishing boats (he does not trust planes) and coins with unfamiliar faces on them and the currency of favors and coats with more tears than common sense and scorching-hot food in market stalls and peeling wallpaper and wrecked umbrellas and oblivion.
Like a natural catastrophe, with ignorance and carelessness, Natasha Romanoff, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had come and shipwrecked him and pretended the shore was within reach. Pretended the shore was a safe port.
Bruce resented her for that.
She had forced him to be in the world.
When they were all arguing in the lab he had wanted to show her what she had done. He had wanted to show her – not Fury, not the abstract concept of S.H.I.E.L.D., no, he had wanted direct responsibility, a face, he had wanted Natasha, wanted Agent Romanoff, to know what it was like. To know the anger and the fear, so he directed both at her. Even if he knew it was unfair, even if he knew it was wrong, even though he understood words like “duty” and “mission” and “orders” – he still wanted to punish her and her alone.
You have done this. You have done this – to me.
A part of him wanted to resent her forever, or a little while longer, because it was the easier truth, because without the anger and the fear all he has is the wanting her to see and understand. The yearning for punishment (against her, against himself) – if you take away the punishment you are stuck with the yearning.
They are walking from the restaurant –if you could call that a restaurant– and into the dust and destruction that is Park Avenue right now. The first, fragile attempts at reconstruction works have stopped for the night and the streets around Stark Tower are curiously dim, emergency lights a faint blue and yellow around the edges of disaster zones, buildings wounded and collapsed. The rubble has been pushed to the sides of the roads, and that's enough for now.
There's almost joy in the sense of companionship of walking the city alone at night, like they are the last people on Earth.
Now Bruce tries to lead her a bit away from the others – Steve so tired he can barely walk straight and Thor and Tony simultaneously teasing him about it and helping him up. Clint seems oddly engrossed in his own thoughts. Natasha senses Bruce would like a word so she lets herself be held up, her steps falling into the same rhythm as his, trailing behind the rest of the team.
But for a while he says nothing.
Natasha can wait it out; Bruce is awkward, there's something he wants to say, she has enough patience to let him find his way there. She looks at him; again he is wearing clothes that don't fit him, Tony's this time. They give him the semblance of a frost-covered, seemingly-tame animal, no one would guess at the energy it hides.
It reaches the point where she grows accustomed to the silence, it feels comfortable to walk side by side like this.
Then he speaks.
`I feel I should thank you, Agent Romanoff.´ She looks up at him. `For coming to get me in Calcutta.´
She is as bad with gratefulness as she is with apologies. They bother her.
`You shouldn't be thanking me. I was just following orders. If it hadn't been me, it'd have been any other agent.´
The kind of professional, automatic reply that's been ingrained in her. She means it but that doesn't make it the truth.
The others have gone on while Bruce and Natasha wait at a traffic light (one of the few still standing around so there's something absurdly reverential in the way they wait, even though no car is likely to pass through). She fears that standing still the fatigue of the day will catch up with them.
Bruce covers his elbows with his hands, a gesture that seems to her so typically and inherently Bruce that it surprises Natasha with the intensity of her own fondness for it.
`Yeah but... I don't think it would have meant the same if anyone else had come,´ he explains.
It's almost bold. Or what might pass as boldness between them, if there was a history here. There isn't, and Natasha doesn't want to make one up. She doesn't want to conjure a meaning behind his words, if there is one. She is going to act as if there isn't.
She is going to act as if there isn't something she might want to tell him in exchange: that she feels the same, that coming to intrude in his sandcastle life in Calcutta has changed not just him but her as well. That night she started making promises, thinking they were not truly meant, finding out later she'd have to pay the debt anyway.
She can feel Bruce's gaze, reticent but expectant, on her.
This is the moment when she should say something.
The traffic light turns green and they cross the street and they catch up with the rest of the team (team a precocious precarious word, but it's late and Natasha feels she is allowed to indulge herself), Thor's laughter fills the night in its entirety, and Natasha lets it distract her thoughts as well, they are not practical thoughts, and she is a practical woman. She hurries to Clint's side and inquires about his frown of concentration. Bruce doesn't bother speeding up his pace – he looks tiny and mismatched in those wrong-sized clothes. He lets her go.
Natasha looks back at him and his expression is not of disappointment or confusion, nothing there betrays whether he believes their conversation incomplete. He looks sober and more energetic than any of them (even Thor) and Natasha wonders about Hulk's stamina and how it transfers once he turns back into Bruce. It makes her sick to think like that: Hulk and Bruce, separate entities, the word transformation. It makes her sick to think like that so she looks away.
There are alarms still going off everywhere around them, the perimeter closed by the scars of the battle, signs of Danger placed around ditches in the road. Natasha is glad it's so late and they can't see the aftermath clearly. For now she would want to keep their victory intact – tomorrow they will calculate the cost.
And Natasha is normally the one always thinking about the numbers, the clean-up, collateral. That's how she's been taught. She doesn't want to be that Agent Romanoff tonight, if only she knew what else she could be.
She hands him the bag with the few possessions Bruce had taken with him to the Helicarrier.
`Stark giving you a ride to the station?´ she asks.
Bruce nods. `Yeah. He invited me to stay longer but I think we all need a bit of distance to process things.´
In the light of day Bruce seems shyer, somewhat unsure of how to act around her, around anyone. His natural wariness has come back. Natasha, on the other hand, feels more clear-eyed. Perhaps it is the rest, the adrenaline bleeding out of her body, though this morning she feels like every bone and joint, every skin cell in her body hurts.
Perhaps it's because this is kind of a farewell.
`I agree. Do you know where you are going?´ she asks.
`No idea. I'll pick a destination at random. Somewhere that sounds nice.´
She doesn't tell him to be careful; she'll make sure he's safe. Perhaps she should have told him last night: how she promised she would help him, she would get him out of here alive, and even though she was terrified when she made that promise the contract is all the more valid for that. This was Natasha, fighting for her life. It wasn't a one time offer. Now he is her responsibility – like Clint who once saved her, like the memory of Coulson who vouched for her, like Stark who was once tricked by her, to these she is bound for the rest of her life. And now there's Bruce.
She doesn't mind the extra weight, she has been traveling light for far too long. She and Bruce have that in common.
`Well, don't get too off the radar,´ she tells him. `We might need you again soon.´
`If that happens – when that happens, you'll know how to find me.´
Bruce seems uncertain of meeting her eye but Natasha looks at him, closely, instinctively memorizing him: she has no idea how long it'll be until she sees his face again.
She nods. `And I'll make sure to be the one who comes pick you up, no one else.´
She gives him a small smile – one that it's her own and not years of training and pretending. Natasha thinks about the team: among these people I need to learn how to become myself. It's a lot of effort, years of conditioning have erased her natural instinct, that first impulse at a real gesture. It will take a lot of rewiring.
She can start with the smallest things, right now, with Bruce: saying farewell like she is going to miss him, because she is going to miss him.
He doesn't want to be removed anymore.
There are things he wants to say – things he has left unsaid when he left the city, cowardly, but with hope. Things he needs to learn how to say. He had imagined he'd never need that particular skill ever again.
He sits back on the train, picking the longest journey available, wanting breath and space to think, wanting an expanse of landscape across his window. It doesn't matter if the train is going North or South. Sitting besides him there's a woman reading a German novel, and across the aisle a man who needs help with his suitcase and the girl who's helping him. The usual terror of being around many people rests inside Bruce but he decides to ignore it. He decides to trust his own capacity for control.
That is new.
The one thing he won't do is go back to his old life, the beloved routine of leaving no print or trace.
He will make this time count so that life is not just a matter of surviving, of “do no harm” wherever he goes, of passing through and disappearing in the same heartbeat. Life no longer a form of penance.
Tony said the Hulk had saved his life, Bruce had quietly mocked him then, except now he understands which life was saved, not the one he lived for many years but the one starting now: the rush of purpose, the strangeness of trust.
And when the call comes again he'll be ready.
And when she comes to pick him up –when she comes to unravel the carefully constructed lie of his life again– he'll be glad they are both alive, that they survived the perils and each other. Both their lives were saved for this. He knows that the first time she came to him was by pure chance or calculated assignment from her superiors, either way it was out of her hands.
The implicit agreement between them: next time she comes for him Bruce will know it's a choice.
He has already made his, he is prepared to be thrown into the sea and towards unfamiliar shores: Bruce wants to be in the world.