Chapter 1: Australia
Dr. Bruce Banner continued walking to the horizon. It was a nice goal, reasonably safe and intellectually known to be unattainable.
He knew that SHIELD was no doubt keeping an eye on him, even here in the warm center of Australia. 'You're in the wind' had been Fury's promise, but Bruce knew it wouldn't be the first time they were letting him roam on a long leash. A leash both of him had been unawares of until Calcutta - and the Other Guy tends to be good at spotting tails, and nooses.
His cell phone rang, vibrating his pocket. Let Stark have the hands-free models, Bruce was more than content to let his hands be occupied. Holding the phone up, he saw that it said WORSE?, which answered one question and, answering it, he said into the phone, "I'm not even going to ask how you reprogrammed my phone. But I take it this call is another call to arms for SHIELD?"
"On the contrary," said Natasha Romanov on the other end of the line. "Clint and I were out jogging, and we thought you would like to join us."
Bruce stopped walking, the Other Guy making the hairs stand on end all down his back. "Jogging?" he repeated.
"Jogging," said the woman whom some called the Black Widow.
"It may have escaped you that I don't sweat."
"Everyone who doesn't turn into a...what was it Stark called him? A giant green rage monster."
After a quiet something-of-other in Russian or a related Slavic language, she asked him, "If you don't sweat, why are you in a desert?"
"The other option was hiking in Antarctica. We feel the need for open air right now."
"And Australia won because...?"
"He's less likely to come out to play in the heat."
"There's nothing I can say to change your mind?"
"An answer might help," Bruce said.
"Depends on the question."
"Not sure if this is an easy one for you, though. Why do the two of you want to go jogging with the two of me?"
"That doesn't change."
"You handle your anger. We handle ours."
Bruce shook his head. "You're saying we should exercise together...because the three of us self-medicate when it comes to therapy?"
"Am I wrong?"
"Never said that."
"So what do you say?" Natasha asked.
"No sweating," Natasha promised.
"Where should I meet you guys?" Banner asked.
"We'll land beside you."
"Uh, just so you know, appearing out of nowhere won't win any points."
"Startled gets him out?" she asked.
"It makes it easier, yes," he said.
"Going visible, and overhead," Natasha said, and the sound of SHIELD engines - the little jet-sized transports - and the visage of said transport came into view above Banner.
He could feel the Other Guy chuckling, and Bruce got out of the way as it landed. "Welcome to Australia," Bruce said once the transport had landed and Natasha and Clint were walking over. And saw the two of them were wearing sweatpants and sweatshirts. "Baggy clothes. Nice."
"Sweats," Clint said. "Good range of motion, lets the skin breathe, provides insulation where needed. And comfortable."
"And it means I won a bet," Bruce said.
Having a feeling the bet was with the large green version of Banner's self, "Yeah?"
"Yeah, you two have more than just skin-tight outfits."
"Calcutta," Natasha said.
"Somewhere between a big clue and a dead giveaway." Bruce started chuckling with the Other Guy.
"Something like that," Bruce said. "Had a thought about what Stark would say if he had an inkling the three of us were here."
"Probably regret that I'm out under the hot sun, and not in a bikini," Natasha said.
"And chiding that two red-blooded men aren't helping you into or out of one," Clint said.
"It's called self-control," Bruce said.
The three of them smiled and nodded. "We have it," they said together.
Natasha asked, "So, where are we heading?"
"The horizon," Bruce said.
"Budapest," Natasha said in a stage whisper.
"Not everything is like Budapest," Clint said. Most people would be exasperated at Budapest always being brought up; he knew her too well for that.
"More and more," she said.
"I'm just asking..." Bruce said, "Was Budapest trouble?"
"More for some than for others," Clint said.
"They hadn't learned it was a bad idea to make either of you angry, I take it."
"Did we get angry in Budapest?" Clint asked Natasha.
"We didn't - that was Tblisi," she said. "You got angry in Budapest, I didn't."
"I wasn't angry."
Rather than concede by replying to that, Natasha said, "Come on, boys, let's run."
After a few minutes of companionable jogging, "Don't say it," Clint said.
"Say what?" Natasha asked.
"You know very well."
"That there's only one thing to say?"
"Please don't let it be no pain, no gain," Banner said.
Chapter 2: Hungary
"I have to say, I'm surprised to see you here, Doctor Banner."
Not looking up from his non-alcoholic non-caffinated drink, he answered Natasha by saying, "With what you and Clint have said about this city, I felt I should give it a try."
"We hardly said anything."
"True. But you worded it well."
"This isn't the safest of places for you, doctor."
Giving in to a bit of a smile, Bruce asked, "Compared to Calcutta or to Manhattan?"
"Not the best of comparisons, but Manhattan. When you nearly destroyed a Boroughs."
Oh. That visit. "In that case, I agree, I should go. Any suggestions on where I might head?"
"I have it on good authority that Calcutta is nice this time of year," Natasha said. "Failing that, the Empty Quarter would be a good site to unwind."
"Okay," and was about to head to the nearest terminal, when -
"Bruce Banner, being in Budapest, be -"
"Funny," Bruce interupted, more a mix of relieved and annoyed that the Other Guy was more amused at the tongue twister than ready to jump into skin. "Can I assume your statement ends with 'break' or 'broken' and save us all some time there?"
Clint shrugged, but shook Banner's hand. "I may not be as inventive as Stark, but -"
"We kind of do need your help, Dr. Banner," Clint said.
"My help?" Bruce asked.
"Not the other guy's help," Clint clarified.
"I...I don't know what to say. This isn't for SHIELD, is it?"
"We're on the clock, but not SHIELD's right now."
"I suppose I can give it a try. What do you need?"
"Someone to sit through an opera," Natasha said.
"Pretty sure that would put both of me to sleep," Bruce said.
With as straight a face as he could muster, which was considerable, Clint said, "We may have neglected to mention you would be escorting Natasha to the opera."
"Would I be right in assuming there's a reason why you aren't getting that honor?" Bruce asked Clint.
"Someone has to kill the guy."
"As reasons go, that works, very well. Though it begs the question of if we're - Natasha and I are - decoys? Lures? Here to flush the guy you're going to kill?"
The Other Guy dropped a picture for Bruce to look at in the mind's eye, and Bruce nodded agreement, that it was apt. "Assuming nobody in the operahouse tramples me, would we be regrouping at a later point?"
"Yup," Clint said.
Told you so, the Other Guy thought to Bruce, repeating the mental image of Clint and Natasha alone in some clock tower, the shadows their only blanket.
Natasha held out her arm with a practiced confidence that reminded Bruce of bygone years. "Problem, Banner?" she asked when he didn't wrap his arm around hers.
"Sorry, memories of high school and college," Bruce said.
"If it helps, I wasn't a football captain any more than you were," Clint told him.
"Don't even say 'cheerleader'," Natasha warned.
"Wasn't about to. Besides, weren't you one in Belgrade?"
"I was a nun."
"Either way, by this point, I think it's safe to assume Stark would be a puddle of happy fantasies."
Bruce and Natasha nodded.
"Ready?" she asked them.
Clint and Bruce nodded, and took their positions.
Chapter 3: Amazon
“Why’re you doing this?” Clint asked him one day in Manaus.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
I have to credit these guys with at least doing their homework, Bruce thought. His captors had speakers and sub-woofers pumping out low- and high-frequency music designed to relax the hindbrain and muscle control centers into being one step away from hibernation. And nobody was handling a firearm anywhere in the room; nor was anyone raising their voices.
"Do you understand these terms, Black Widow?" one of the head captors asked the woman on the other end of the laptop video conference call.
"You'll kill doctor Banner if I don't assassinate your political enemies," she said. "I understand fine."
"We wouldn't want you burying your lover - far better if you do what we say."
Bruce thought, You may have piggybacked on SHIELD's spying, but you are woefully misinterpretting. But Banner was fine with that -- it meant they didn't have the truth. Much less the whole story. If they did, Clint would be here, and they'd be avenging their dead relatives that way. "You guys mind if I say bye?" Bruce asked.
Two hench-captors held up the laptop so he wouldn't have to move. "Of course," said another head captor. "Motivation is always desirable."
"This isn't goodbye," Natasha said before Bruce could tell her anything. Her voice was as toneless as it normally was while working, but there was a certain insistance - likely for the captors' benefit.
"I have to admit, I'm a little curious if their contraption could if they tried," Bruce said. "But yeah, I'd rather avoid finding out, as that always gets understandably messy.” But when they take aim at me, they don’t look to either side.
An arrow sliced through the window blinds, electrocuting the speakers into unuseability and silence. A second arrow followed on its heels, and this arrow had little speakers which said, “And with that, I’ll hand control over to a good personal friend.”
Bruce and the Other Guy smiled, and underwent the transformation.
“Why’re you doing this?” Clint asked him one day in Manaus.
“I’m sure I don’t -”
“Don’t,” Clint said, and Bruce stopped and nodded.
“Not for any deep psychological reason - displacement or proxies or whatnot. I’m very simple.”
“I doubt that, Bruce.”
“You’re familiar with the old saying ‘who watches the watchmen?’”
“And many variations thereof,” Clint said.
“Who safeguards the heroes?” Bruce asked. “I would prefer to be a decoy, than for our mutual friend to be blackmailed into doing a thing which would add to her ledger.”
“And we both appreciate that. But you do realize there’s nothing between Natasha and I?”
We’ll wait for you to realize it yourself, the Other Guy thought. Bruce said, “Of course. Still, I don’t mind helping out.”
“As a decoy?”
“As whatever the situation calls for.”
“What happened to the man who wanted to avoid risky situations?” Clint asked.
“There’s the sorts of risk I don’t mind, and the sorts I do. Care to guess which list the potential world-ending catastrophes are in?”
The Hulk appeared sporadically on the radar of everyday people, and Hawkeye and Black Widow even less. The public was far more interested in what was going on with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.
But it was the eyes of others - government agencies, militia groups, super powered activists, and the list went on - which Banner was working against: all their intel, all their reports and spies, told them that if you wanted to leave Black Widow with no other option but to do as you said, you needed Banner on your side or (which most prefer) in your cage.
Even SHIELD itself was under the same impression those (late) captors had labored under: that Natasha and Bruce were lovers. If SHIELD knew otherwise, they were doing a great job of acting otherwise. For no-one else would I sit through all those Public Health And Safety lectures about the dangers of accidental irradiation when I get excited. Just you two.
Banner was happy to be the horizon -- as long as people were firing at him, nobody would ever get Clint or Natasha.
(yeah, my Banner muse is a shipper)