It wasn’t easy to tear himself away from Tony, but it was the right thing to do. The right thing. Bruce ran his hand over his face. No, it wasn't. He hadn’t removed himself from the situation; he’d essentially given Tony an ultimatum of sorts. What the hell was wrong with him?! Sure, Tony was smart and incredibly handsome, but he was also very much in a loving relationship. No matter how open or what rules there were; this was the kind of thing Bruce tried to stay away from. Actively.
So, instead of waiting for Tony to make a decision, he made one for both of them and grabbed his jacket and a new shirt before heading down the stairs. Jarvis monitored the entire building, but they had an agreement: Bruce left via the stairs, Jarvis asked no questions. Usually, they were useful questions (Would you like a car? Shall I alert Director Fury you will be late? It is raining outside, would you perhaps like an umbrella?), but they weren’t helpful. So they came to an agreement.
Bruce knows Tony will give him just under ten minutes before making a decision. If he decides to leave it as a one-off, he’ll just go back to work and not ask any questions. However, if he were to decide to join Bruce, he’d take two minutes to walk from the lab to take the elevator to Bruce’s apartment, and another minute to his bathroom. Bruce estimated Tony would open the bathroom door the moment Bruce steps out onto the street and heads to the nearest subway stop without looking back. He would find Bruce gone, and it would be very typically Tony to go looking for him... in the suit if he had to. The suit sucked underground and Bruce needed time, needed away, needed to be on his own without the world.
He’d never realized how much he’d gotten used to simple life without all the bells and whistles, Gucci suits, 200-dollar after shave, and all the ridiculousness money could buy. He was ashamed how used he’d gotten to wearing fancy clothes, driving fancy cars, and living in a fancy apartment all courtesy of Tony Stark. In India, he’d barely had enough money to survive, but he’d been content, content to help people. Now all he did was destroy, and in the moment contribute to some form of greater good that still remained to prove itself as beneficial.
He switched to the train out of the city, north, with some cash he had still left in his pocket. He didn’t want to use the pass in his wallet or the credit cards. Didn’t know yet how long he wanted to be gone for yet, so it was best to stay off the grid. At one point he’d send Tony his thanks for everything he’d done for him, tell him not to worry, and that he’d be back soon… probably. For now, he needed to get out of the city, away from the constant light and noise. Calcutta was noisy and bright and hot and crowded, but there was something so inherently fake about New York that Bruce felt like he was suffocating.
He didn’t notice the sweat on his brow until it dripped down his face and he tasted salt on his lips. He was hot, very hot. The air was thick on the train. He'd given up his seat to a pregnant woman six stops ago. Something was in the air, a tension that felt all too familiar. Pregnant woman, he thought, repeated in his mind, pregnant woman. Baby. He needed to wait until he reached his destination, couldn’t let the other guy out before they were past Boston. Boston was nice. He liked Boston. Boston didn’t need to be leveled. Pregnant woman. Baby.
He should have a better lid on things these days. He was in control of the other guy. He was in control. He was always in control. He made responsible choices. Leaving Avengers Tower was a responsible choice. Leaving Tony was a responsible choice. Fury would find him if and when the world would find itself in danger again. He was fine. He wasn't sweating through his shirt. He would not derail a train and level whatever hamlet they were about to stop in. There was a buzzing in his ears. That was how it started.
“This is our stop.” A firm hand grabbed his and dragged him onto the station platform. It happened so suddenly that Bruce was too surprised, too disoriented to do anything but follow as he was dragged through the people, off the platform, and into the forest by a head of bright red curls.
“Natasha?” She kept pulling on his hand and he stumbled behind her. “Where are we- were you following me?”
“No,” she said when she finally stopped, “I was buying laundry detergent.” She held up a cloth bag, no brand powdered laundry detergent inside. Bruce wasn't sure what to say to that. “I was on my way home when I saw you on the train.”
“And then you followed me.”
“You looked unwell.” She threw the bag over the fence which was covered in ‘Keep Out’ and ‘Military Training Ground’ signs.
“You were worried about me? That’s touching, but I’m fine.”
“Your skin is beginning to turn green.” She noted; there was no judgment in her voice. Bruce looked down at his hands which had a sickly green tint, veins bulging beneath the skin; and he realized she wasn’t worried about him.
“You were worried about the people on the train.”
“Yes.” She began to climb over the fence. She was wearing yoga pants and a grey zip-up hoodie. She looked so much like a regular young woman this way, just the way he looked like a regular guy, someone’s bumbling math professor.
“What are you doing?”
“Trust me, Bruce.”
Bruce. He remembered the first time she called him that. It had been just before he’d let go for the first time in a very, very long time. The rage hadn’t even been particularly strong. It hadn’t been pain induced. It was all about the anger he felt at the lies, the deceptions on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D; the fact that Loki had been right all along; how Fury had treated him like a person only on the surface, always a back-up plan to contain the beast, the animal. The only reason he had let go was because he knew they needed to see what he was capable of, needed to realize the power he possessed. He’d pulled his punch when he swiped Natasha out of the way. If he had used all his strength, he would have snapped her spine and somehow she’d known.
He felt the power surge and ripple through his body. Maybe he should have taken his clothes off first, but that quickly become a faint, distant memory. He cleared the fence in a single leap and looked at Natasha, expected her to look frightened, expected regret and fear, but she was smiling at him, crouching on the trunk of a fallen tree.
“Race ya, big guy.” She said, cocked her head in the general direction of 'over there' and started across the meadow. And Bruce, the other guy, the Hulk, he followed with a roar.
Time passed, Bruce knew it did, but how much he wasn’t sure. He felt the Earth shake beneath his bare feet when he roared. It became a blur of running and tearing and fighting until the other guy was holding a tree he’d ripped out of the ground, Natasha crouching between the branches holding on tightly. She watched him closely, hung on tighter when he tried to shake her off. When he moved to throw the tree, she shouts.
“Bruce, no!” He paused and looked at her, head tilted. “Hulk,” she corrected herself, “no. Put me down. Now.”
She could have jumped off if he’d thrown the tree, rolled off to the side to safety, but that wasn’t what this was about. She wanted him to put her down, not because she was scared but because she wanted him to show her there was some control. His roar was deafening, but he didn’t toss her or the tree. When she roared back at him he looked startled, confused, and stumbled backward, dropping the tree. She rolled off to the side and the world shrank, returned to the encapsulated tunnel with which Bruce normally saw the world. Natasha caught him when he fell forward, her hands steady where his shook.
“Feeling better now?” She smiled and Bruce didn’t remember ever seeing her smile before. Smirk yes, scoff, every time Loki had uttered a word after they’d captured him, but never smile, never genuinely smile. It took Bruce some time to catch his breath. Natasha was still smiling at him, hair a fluffy mess tangled with twigs and leaves and dust. He brushed some of it from her face, the air strangely familiar between them.
“Thank you.” It was not just for steering him away from the train and saving all those people. It was for letting him go, letting him be free. She picked some greenery from his hair in response.
“There's nothing wrong with you, Bruce. You are who you are and the Hulk is part of that, part of you.” She put her hand on his chest. “He is you. That's nothing to be ashamed of.”
The flood of warmth nearly choked Bruce. Since his accident, he'd never felt true acceptance, not like he felt right now. Never like he'd come home. How they ended up kissing, Bruce wasn't sure. All he knew was that she was close and somehow, their lips met. The kiss was slow and Bruce was later surprised that she didn't deck him right there. Instead, she returned the kiss until he pulled away, or did she pull away first? He wasn't sure, but the moment they separated, the familiarity became muddled, awkward. He'd robbed himself of the sense of balance he felt just moments ago.
“Fuck,” he ran his hand through his hair, only glancing at Natasha, “I'm sorry, that was inappropriate.”
Natasha didn't smile, but she didn't look pissed off either; and he was still upright which he took as a good sign. She just looked at him, neutral; he couldn't read her, not that he'd ever been good at reading people. That was her forte. She brushed some of the dirt off her pants.
“So what is their name?”
“The person who is making you feel so conflicted, what's their name?”
How could she- no, she was Natasha Romanoff, Superspy, of course she knew.
“His name.” Bruce sighed.
“I didn't want to presume.”
“It's fine, I just-” he paused, “it's complicated.”
“If it wasn't, you wouldn't be here.”
Bruce really wanted to open up, tell her everything that had happened. He'd been conflicted and it felt like it was eating up his insides. He wanted to tell her about his feelings for Tony, but he wasn't even sure how exactly he felt about Tony to begin with. Besides all that, Tony was still in a committed relationship. A loving, perfect relationship with Pepper, an amazing woman who took him in as a friend just as Tony did. And whatever conflict Bruce was feeling, what happened was and should remain a one-off.
He ran his hand over his face. He'd be better off far away from them, somewhere where he didn't have to deal with all these emotions and complicated interpersonal relationships. He really missed India right now.
“Hey,” Natasha nudged him, “don't let this poison you from the inside.”
“I-” Bruce looked at her, looked at her and realized the truth, his truth. “I don't know how to be a normal person.”
“We're not regular people.” She extended her hand to help him up. “Of course we don't know how to be regular. I don't. We're different. That's our strength.”
“You sure you're not secretly some kind of motivational speaker?” He took her hand and got up, only now just realizing that he was indeed still naked. “Oh... uhm.”
“Nothing I haven't seen before.” She looked him in the eyes and pulled him up. “Let's go.”
Bruce looked around as they walked and while he had some vague recollection, he didn't quite remember how they had ended up here. They walked for a long time until they came upon Bruce's pants hanging from the fence, and the fence he did remember. They were stretched and torn but overall intact. His shirt hadn't fared as well, they only found a sleeve and some scattered bits.
“Where are we?” He touched the 'No Trespassing' sign on the fence.
“Best if you don't know.”
“Ah great,” he pulled the trousers from the fence, “naked and trespassing. Can't say that's a first.”
It was harder to climb the fence without the energy of the Hulk, but he managed. He'd gotten himself out of worse before, on his own. He appreciated that Natasha didn't attempt to help him. They made it to a road and walked alongside it instead of heading back into the underbrush. Bruce was exhausted; emotionally, mentally, physically. If Natasha would let him, he'd just curl up on the ground and sleep for a week.
The closer they got to the train station, the harder it was to walk. Bruce didn't want to go back yet, didn't want to be around Tony when he wasn't sure... about anything.
“My place is closer.” Natasha stated. “I have a couch.” It was an invitation, but for what? She looked at him. “You look like you could use a friend.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, “you're right. Thank you, Natasha.”
Bruce startled when the phone rang in his pocket. Not only had he forgotten it was there, if he remembered he would have thought it lost in the forest. He knew it was Tony before he even looked at the phone. Bruce habitually kept his phone on silent. It was just one more set of noises he didn't have to contend with. Tony was the only person he knew who would use an incredibly sophisticated A.I. to reach him.
“You need to take this?” Natasha looked at Bruce, watched him. He took a deep breath and looked at the phone. If he didn't answer, Tony would try to come and find him. He closed his eyes and answered.
“Hey big guy, what's going on?” Bruce could tell he was trying to sound casual, but Tony couldn't quite work the worry out of his voice.
“Oh you know, just going for a stroll.” He and Natasha made it to the train station just as it began to rain.
“Are you okay?” Tony was trying to reach out, but Bruce couldn't. Not yet.
“Yeah, I'm fine. Met Natasha while I was out. We're just hanging out.”
“Oh.” There was a moment of silence. “Well that's great, getting out there, not cooped up inside the tower all day.” The 'are you coming home?' was silent.
“Yeah, it's been...good to get out.” The train whistled into the station at that moment. “Look, I have to go, the train is here, but I'll see you around soon.”
“Sounds good. Peace out.” Tony hung up before anything else could be said. Bruce looked at his phone and sighed as he sat down beside Natasha on the train. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could the sound of tearing metal ripped through the air as the train derailed.