It wasn't the Hulk that did it.
Everyone assumes it was. Most of them have nodded in understanding, patted Bruce on the shoulder, given him sympathetic smiles, because of course, that's Bruce's epic struggle – the contrast between man and monster, never quite sure where the edges of one bleed into the other.
Because, of course, everyone only has the one battle to fight.
He lets them think it was, doesn't argue, because to argue would be to give up a portion of himself he still possesses entirely, and there are few enough of those that he can't afford to share them indiscriminately.
I. Tony Stark
Tony is the first to learn otherwise, because he is the first to push the limits. This is not because everyone else is scared of the monster; it's because everyone else is scared of the monster or currently in the thrall of a mind-controlling lower god.
Be that as it may, Tony is the first to challenge Bruce's dark passenger, the first to doubt the status quo, the first to make the choice not to fear the demon without question. He is the first to pick up a static discharger and poke Bruce with it as if it were a cattle prod, grin on his face like he's trying to call out the monster, though he and Bruce both know it isn't going to happen.
They're in Stark Tower, working in one of Tony's many laboratories, when he asks, "So why'd you do it?"
Bruce, fully preoccupied, has not the faintest idea what Tony is talking about. "Sorry?"
"Why'd you do it? You know, the, the thing, with the gun, and the… you know." Tony trails off, but helpfully clarifies with two fingers cocked and fired inside his mouth, accompanying exploding-head gesture and all.
He's up-front. Bruce appreciates that. He's spent far too long with people who dance around their questions, pretending it's him they're interested in when really, they're just counting down the minutes until the Other Guy takes over and they can take what they want without asking. Tony doesn't care. Tony isn't looking for the Hulk; he's not a soldier or a scientist or a self-serving egomaniac (okay, he might be the last one, but he's not just that, not when someone else is at stake). Tony is brilliant and unchallenged and lonely, and he's dealing with Bruce the way he deals with machines – pure and uncensored bluntness.
Bruce is almost honoured. Few human beings rate the level of treatment Tony gives his machines.
He shrugs. "What did I have to live for?" he asks, not expecting a response, but unable to articulate all of the reasons why (and most of those reasons are for him alone; he isn't here to pour his unwanted life story out at Tony's feet).
"Well, you hadn't met me yet," Tony replies matter-of-factly through a mouthful of #6 screws.
Bruce can't help but laugh at that. He supposes Tony has a weird, twisted kind of point.
"I didn't know I was going to."
"You should always plan for Tony Stark."
"So Pepper tells me."
Tony sits up, screws now in his hand, and narrows his eyes at Bruce. "Has Pepper been warning you about me behind my back? Did she tell you about the thing with the machine oil, because I swear, that was a one-time thing, Happy was fine, everyone was fine, nothing happened, at least nothing I couldn't – "
"Pepper didn't say anything about machine oil," Bruce says, seizing on the one thing he thinks he might have heard properly (machine oil? really?), "but now I really want to know."
"We are not talking about the machine oil, Banner."
Bruce shrugs, Tony goes back to whatever he's doing with the screws, and there's silence for a while before Tony remarks, "You know, you didn't actually say why."
More silence. Bruce lets it linger for a while, unsure of what he can say that will make Tony drop the subject without getting the impression Bruce is even crazier than he already thinks. In the end, the break in the conversation is too long, Bruce is too tired, Tony is too ready to challenge any evasion Bruce might devise, and after all, Tony hasn't been scared yet. Bruce can consider it a goal.
"You think the Other Guy is new?" he asks Tony. "You think he just showed up because of some gamma experiment?"
Tony grins at him, but it's kind of a funny shape and Bruce can tell it isn't quite reaching his eyes. "You were an enormous green monster before the gamma bomb?"
"Sure," Bruce answers, "that's what I meant."
He thinks that means the conversation's over, thinks Tony hasn't understood what he's saying, thinks that's the end of it and he can go back to science in obscurity. He thinks he can count on Tony to go on being happily oblivious, trying to irritate the Hulk in ways that will never work while Bruce smiles and feigns irritation just to see how far Tony will push.
"You know," says Tony after a while, "I used to get angry, too."
Excellent, Bruce thinks. Self-help advice from Tony Stark. Just what he needs.
Still, he rises to the bait. "What did you do?"
Tony shrugs. "Nothing. When you're rich, people are scared to call you out on stuff like that."
"So your advice is to get rich?"
He shrugs again. "Worked for me."
They stare at each other for a second, and it's Tony who breaks first, the tiniest quirk around the corners of his eyes betraying him, and then a full-on laugh until he's draped over the workbench and one of his robots is anxiously poking him with a screwdriver assembly. Bruce joins him, leaning against the workbench and chuckling, and it's a while before they resume working.
Tony doesn't ask any more questions. Bruce isn't sure he entirely got the point, but he is glad to let the subject drop.
Bruce has always been safer guarding his own secrets.
II. Thor Odinson
Thor finds out second, because Thor is not human and, unlike the rest of them, doesn't spend every moment of his free time trying to convince himself he is.
Thor isn't human and he didn't grow up on Midgard and he doesn't have the slightest inkling of propriety, and so in the end, it's surprising he's lasted as long as he has before asking Bruce, "Why do you fear your other half?"
Bruce tilts his head at Thor, because he has a lot of thoughts about the Hulk, but fear hasn't been at the forefront of them in a long time. Thor doesn't really do subtlety, though, so Bruce shakes away his slightly confused expression and says, "I don't."
He doesn't know exactly what he's expecting (with Thor, it's wisest simply not to expect anything), but it isn't for Thor to grin like they're sharing some kind of secret. "Not your companion, my friend," he says, "not your Hulk. Your other half," and Bruce goes cold and hot and cold again and wonders what Thor knows that he hasn't been saying.
He thinks for a minute about denying that he understands, but Bruce has lied and been lied to and he's learnt that it's safer to tell a few truths than many lies.
"I am not a nice man," he says simply.
Thor nods, and it's a few moments before he says anything. This is in part because he is eating Pop-Tarts two at a time and in part because he seems to be contemplating his next words (and Bruce has to admire him; it takes a Norse god to be able to look contemplative while wolfing down toaster pastries and getting crumbs stuck in his beard).
"My brother was much the same," he tells Bruce, and to be honest, Bruce isn't sure he's okay with that comparison. He can't say as much to Thor – it's hard enough for Thor to balance loving the person his brother was and should be with hating the things he's done – but being told he is like Loki…
… is better than the truth.
But, My brother was much the same, Thor said, and Bruce is still waiting for the punchline.
"He was at odds with his own anger," says Thor. "He believed no one could help him."
"Could you have?"
"I do not know," is the reply, and it's so uncharacteristically blunt, so serious, that Bruce sits forward and listens to what Thor has to say next. "Unlike you, he was beyond seeing the error of his own ways."
Bruce laughs, and at best it's bitter; at worst, it's the sound of lost hope, something both of them are more familiar with than they would like to admit. "So what's the error of my ways?"
"You believed you were lost," says Thor, and Bruce has no reply to that. What Thor fails to understand, Loki notwithstanding, is that there are worse things than the massacre of strangers, worse things than the manipulation of loved ones, and Bruce has done those worse things. He's done all of those things. He may have a team now, and a chance to begin making amends, but he is not a good man; he can't be redeemed. Bruce was lost. He still is.
Thor shakes his head at him. "Even on Asgard, one man cannot be his own judge, jury and jailor," he says. "I do not know what you have done, Bruce Banner, but know this: I have lost one brother to anger and defeat. I do not intend to lose another."
If Thor knew anything of Bruce's past, he doubts they would be having this conversation right now. It's a pleasant delusion, though, to pretend he can let himself believe the words or the conviction behind them. It's possible, too, that Thor needs to believe them as much as Bruce does, to tell himself that Loki is not the only one to have fallen so far and been so destroyed.
Bruce nods; cold comfort is better than none at all.
III. Clint Barton
Clint finds out without being told.
It starts with recognition; after Loki, Clint spent long hours at the archery range, drawing and releasing until his fingers bled onto his bowstring, muttering and cursing and trying to remember and forget. Bruce knows the feeling well. After all, he's lived with it since he was a child and stood in oak-panelled courtrooms telling them he never hurt me.
He never touched me, and that was all he had to say to become a killer.
Clint never needed to say anything; he stood and faced Loki with courage they had no right to ask of him (and his was not born of anger, not like Bruce's) and Loki needed nothing more to steal him, body and mind, and turn him into something he was never meant to be. Clint was – is – brave and self-sacrificing and loyal and broken (they are all broken, but something inside Clint has never fit right, sharp edges tearing at him even as he tries to prove to them he's whole), and of them all, he deserved this the least.
Which is, of course, why Loki chose him.
It's also why Clint stays at the archery range until the bowstring is slippery-sticky under his grip and his hands shake when he tries to draw; it's why, when he can no longer shoot, he wanders the hallways at midnight without really knowing where he's going; it's why, in the dim adaptive lighting on the heli-carrier Bruce can't leave and Clint has never wanted to until now, Clint is silhouetted in the doorway of Bruce's lab as he passes like the after-image of a ghost.
Bruce has enough ghosts that one more isn't a burden, and he invites Clint in.
This is how it goes, night after night, Bruce staying up late and Clint unable to sleep, the two of them gathered around strange machinery and half-illegible notebooks. Bruce can't offer reassurance, but he can offer company and distraction and science anecdotes, so he does that instead and forgoes sleep because some things are more important.
Eventually, Clint asks him, "Do you remember it?"
"It?" Bruce asks, even though there's a terrible sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that knows exactly what Clint's asking and isn't ready to talk about it. Not with Clint; not with someone whose will was stolen and turned; not when the Hulk is nothing more than Bruce's mistakes manifest and no equal to what Clint is living with.
"Yeah, do you…" and he looks ashamed, digs the toe of one worn boot into the linoleum flooring of the lab, avoids Bruce's eyes. "I, I forgot most of it afterward. You know. I don't think – I mean, I remember that it happened, but it's all weird in my head."
Bruce is a little startled. "You want to remember?" He always wishes he remembered what the Hulk experienced, but that's different. That's for science, for understanding, and Bruce knows that he isn't the Hulk. Clint doesn't have that division, at least not yet; he isn't sleeping, isn't eating, and Bruce knows he still thinks about what happened and tells himself, I did this. Bruce has been there.
Clint's still not looking at him when he says, "No. I don't want to remember, I don't ever want to remember. But," and he's trying to sound casual when he continues, but it isn't quite working, "sometimes I need to know why I'm so fucked up, you know? I just…"
That's where Bruce realizes they aren't talking about Loki.
"You're not fucked up," he says, because that's the part of what Clint said that his brain is stuck on, "you're not, there's nothing wrong with you." There isn't; there can't be; Bruce needs there to be nothing wrong with Clint, because if Clint is fucked up after the start his father gave him in life, then what kind of a lost cause is Bruce?
Clint makes a face. "Look around you, Bruce. We're all fucked up. Stark's nickname is 'the merchant of death.' Tasha and I keep a running tally of our death tolls to decide who's buying drinks. Steve killed a million Nazis or something, and Thor's brother tried to take over the universe. I'm not looking for reassurance or anything here, I just want to know why."
"Uh-huh," and Bruce isn't even trying to hide his scepticism. "Why do you want to know?"
There might be a glib, easy answer to that, but if there is, Clint doesn't have it on hand.
"You want to know it's not your fault," says Bruce, because that's all he ever wanted to know, back when it mattered. "You can make as many excuses as you want, but in the end, that's what it comes down to. What you are today – is it your fault?"
He pauses for a second (Clint's breathing is harsh against the quiet background hum of the lab; Bruce is using every self-calming technique he knows).
"Don't say it isn't."
"Don't," and finally, Clint's meeting his gaze, "say it isn't. There's no way for you to know. You know the one thing we all have in common, Bruce? We were all fucked up long before we got here. That's how Fury got us. We're fucked up, and he knew how to play on it."
Bruce blinks, wants to argue, but all he can think of is a red-headed danger sign in a shack in Kolkata, a promise and a lie, just you and me, and then an edge of something more (they start that young? I did).
"I couldn't fight back," Clint says, and Bruce has no idea now whether they're talking about Clint's father, Loki, Fury, or all three. "I couldn't fight back, and I don't know why. Selvig did, everyone did, and I, I didn't want to."
"You ever feel like you're somebody else?" Clint asks.
"Every day," says Bruce numbly. He never expected to say it aloud.
"Don't – I don't mean the Hulk," Clint explains quickly, "I mean – when Loki asked me to do things, it was like I was watching some other guy take the wheel."
"Every single day," Bruce repeats. The Hulk has nothing to do with this side of him.
Clint nods, cautious, as if he's still not sure Bruce understands what he means. Bruce has noticed some things and heard others, and he knows Clint has spent his whole life in forced servitude, first to a father who dealt in blows and broken bones like they were nothing, then to a parade of painful circumstances that left him no other options, then to Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. and his own dogged loyalty, and then to Loki (courtesy of not his weakness, but his strength, and Bruce knows that to try to say that to him would be worse than useless).
"It's not your fault," Bruce says, because even though Clint won't believe him, there's nothing else he can say that will help.
"It's not your fault, either," is Clint's reply.
Bruce thinks of secrets no one knows and things he can't quite remember past the blurred edges of his own terror, and nods just like Clint did.
If neither of them believes it, at least they doubt themselves together.
IV. Natasha Romanoff
What Clint knows (what anyone knows), Natasha knows.
She slips into Bruce's lab a few days later, stands warily by the door. For the most part, he hopes that she knows he would never hurt her (and, in this form at least, certainly can't), but some small part of him would be gratified if she considered him a threat. It's not ego; it's just that he considers her, by and large, the most competent of them all. He would feel a lot more confident in their chances of keeping the world safe if she, at least, recognized that the danger wasn't limited to the Hulk.
"Thank you," she says.
He wonders if she's telepathic. "I'm sorry?"
"Most people say, 'you're welcome.'"
"For what you said to Hawkeye."
Bruce bites his lip, faint flush of irritation and anxiety combined. He wasn't counting on Clint's telling anyone else about their conversation. Or does Natasha do that thing with the air vents, too? She seems too classy for crawling around in the ceiling, but maybe that's part of the illusion.
If Natasha is good at anything, though, it's enigmatic, and so Bruce is already resigned to never finding out how she knows.
"I'd appreciate it if this didn't go any further," he says, because if Natasha is as good at anything as she is at enigmatic, it's discreet.
"I don't know what you discussed, Doctor Banner," she says, words velvet-smooth as if he didn't know the hidden danger (and even as she talks, he's looking for the real reason she's here; does she want him to tell her? does it bother her not to know? has he encroached on someone else's territory, trying to convince Clint he's not a lost cause?). "I only know it had an effect."
He hopes for all three of their sakes that it was a good effect. Then again, she hasn't incapacitated him yet, and she did thank him, so it's fairly safe to assume that he hasn't created a disaster.
One thing she may have overlooked, though, is that Bruce is not an idiot. Interpersonally. Obviously, she knows about his work; after all, that's why she was sent to… procure him. But having scientific acumen doesn't make him an idiot about human beings, like everyone seems to think, and right now something isn't matching up quite right.
"That's not why you're here."
She inclines her head to him, leaving it up to him to decide whether she's enquiring or acknowledging his perceptions. She's no idiot either, though, so Bruce operates from the assumption of the latter.
"Is there something I can help you with, Miss Romanoff?"
They're on a first-name basis, technically, but sometimes Bruce finds it's wiser to opt out of certain privileges.
She studies him, keen gaze sizing him up (for what? he wonders, and doesn't ask), then says, "Thank you, but no. My debts are my own to carry."
"I thought that was the point of a team, Natasha. No one carries anything on their own."
It earns him a long, calculated look. "Exactly," she says pointedly, and lets the door to his laboratory fall shut behind her.
Bruce wonders when it was that she shortlisted him as a friend.
V. Steve Rogers
Steve finds his way to Bruce's lab long after he should have been asleep, but then, seventy years' sleep is enough for anyone, and Steve prefers to avoid nightmares of blue-green light and deafening silence and limbs locked into helplessness. So it's well past midnight when he shows up, settles onto a stool at Bruce's nod of greeting, and buries his head in his hands.
"Doesn't anyone stay dead around here?" he mumbles into his wrists.
It's not quite what Bruce was expecting, but he has gotten pretty good at rolling with the punches. "Sorry," he says apologetically, because after all, the Hulk spit out a bullet long before he got here and he's pretty sure that makes him the first of the offenders.
He doesn't make the mistake of saying, I thought you'd be happy.
"Bucky's in quarantine," Steve continues without acknowledging Bruce's response. "They say they don't know when he can come out. I guess it depends on what they find inside his head."
Bruce lays aside the multimeter he's been working with, measuring the action potential of an artificial neuron, and turns to face Steve properly (not that it will matter; Steve still hasn't looked up). "What are you afraid they'll find?"
"I don't know," Steve says. "I guess I just… what is it like? Waking up? Coming back?"
"You'd know better than I would," Bruce tells him. There are others who would know better than either of them, but he holds his peace and doesn't mention it, because no man's secrets are another's to share.
"Not like that," and there's a hesitation, like Steve is gauging the wisdom of saying what he really means. "The Hulk, he's responsible for himself. I understand that. But you, I mean."
Bruce wonders why, after everyone who's spoken to him, everyone who knows, it's Steve Rogers' quiet words that fall like heavy footsteps in the back of his mind, make him feel nine years old again and terrified and cowering, knowing that his father was right – he is a monster. Maybe it's because Steve is different. He sees the best parts of them all, and if what Steve sees when he looks at Bruce is the monster that predates even the Hulk, then what hope is there for whatever is left of the man?
If he were any other man, he might hesitate or sigh or decline to answer at all. He's grown used to the theft of his secrets, though, and so having the option to give this one away before it's taken is a novelty; he's almost grateful for the chance.
"Terrifying," he says honestly, because this will help Bucky and it will help Steve. "It's terrifying, because I don't know – what happened, what I did. The Hulk, everybody watches. But when he's not around, there's no one looking. No one cares what Bruce Banner is capable of doing."
"Bucky hasn't done anything," Steve says fiercely. "Whatever it – whatever they made him do, it wasn't him."
"He's in a high-security government facility, held and examined against his will. He's being treated like a dangerous weapon and ignored when they don't need him to answer their questions. He's strapped to a bed with nothing to do but think about seventy years of killing. You want him to believe it wasn't him, this isn't the way."
What Bruce doesn't say is that there is no way. If Bucky wakes up at all, he'll live to the end of his days with the knowledge of what he's done, and Steve can tell him it wasn't his fault every minute of every hour, and it won't matter. It won't matter at all.
Steve asks, determined and vulnerable, "How do I help him?" and it's not Captain America that Bruce hears in his voice; it's the boy from Brooklyn who never once admitted defeat, and Bruce looks him in the eye and gives him useless words because Steve still has hope, and maybe that's what makes the difference.
It's one more tally mark in his favour, and maybe one day Bruce will have enough to earn hope, too.
VI. Phil Coulson
Phil Coulson comes to him to apologize for dying, and then for not dying, and then for having used his apologies as a diversionary tactic, because the big brass from the World Security Council are here, and they have questions. As they walk to the conference room (a forced march and both of them know it, but Bruce has long since ceased to protest that kind of treatment), he can sense that Phil is about to apologize again, so he just shakes his head.
"It's out of my hands," Phil says instead. From any other man it would be an excuse; from Phil, it's resignation, a way of apologizing without saying the words Bruce has rejected.
Director Fury is standing outside the conference room, arms folded, looking supremely pissed off. "Agent Coulson," he says, "Doctor Banner." He doesn't say, It's out of my hands, because Fury apologizes to no one, but it's true nonetheless.
The World Security Council are masters of the third degree, but Bruce is a master of keeping himself contained, and they get nothing from him that he doesn't want to give. They don't realize it, but Phil does, and somewhere outside the room on a closed security feed, Fury does.
In the end, it all comes down to one question.
"Was the Hulk created?" they ask. "Or was he unleashed?"
Bruce gives them a small, wry smile, and all he says is, quietly, "I've always been angry."
Because what they're asking, really, is – are you Doctor Frankenstein, or Doctor Jekyll? Did you create your own nightmare, or is it an inescapable part of you? Can you ever be free?
The last question is the only one that matters, and the answer is no.
Even that question doesn't really matter, because the Hulk is just one small part of what makes him the way he is, just one small shard on the shattered heap that makes up what was once Bruce and is now whatever lives in his head instead.
He suspects it is neither Frankenstein nor Jekyll.
He suspects he has been Hyde all along.
VII. Jasper Sitwell
Jasper Sitwell is not the last to know.
Bruce thinks he is when he knocks softly on the lab door, early one morning after Bruce has had no sleep. He's holding a S.H.I.E.L.D.-emblazoned travel mug and it makes Bruce grin; he'd suspect they put something in the coffee here to keep the agents addicted, except that he's seen what people like Sitwell have to deal with on a daily basis and he thinks coffee is the least that they deserve.
Sitwell puts the mug down on Bruce's lab bench, though (it's against safety regulations, but no one wants to reprimand the Hulk), and says, "You don't put anything in it, right?"
"I don't drink coffee."
Bruce isn't quite sure what to say to that. He's grown accustomed to having people show up in his lab at all hours (and the irony of his being the team's confessional hasn't escaped him), but he's not accustomed to having them bring him tea; he's not accustomed to their offering instead of asking.
For lack of anything else to do, he reaches for the mug, curls his hands around it.
"What do you tell them?" Sitwell asks, and Bruce cocks an eyebrow at him; if he hangs himself today, it will at least be with Jasper Sitwell's rope. "Your parade of lost souls."
Bruce shrugs. "I don't tell them anything. We talk." It's not avoidance, it's the truth. There are no magic words, not for this rag-tag band of misfit brothers thrust together by nothing more than the world's tendency to require repeated saving. He doesn't fix anything for them; mostly, he just listens.
"Well, it works."
"I doubt I have much to do with that."
"You have some kind of complex? You underestimate yourself, Doctor Banner."
Bruce manages to summon a grin. "I work with gods and heroes, Agent Sitwell. I estimate just fine."
He can see the moment Sitwell decides not to press the issue; the look on his face shifts from easy to thoughtful and he asks, instead, "Do you know how long S.H.I.E.L.D. was watching you before Agent Romanoff brought you in?"
"Am I going to want to hear the answer to that question?" Bruce keeps his tone light, half as a reminder to himself, half as a reassurance to Sitwell, who doesn't actually look like he needs reassuring.
"Do you know who was assigned to monitor you?"
He is definitely not afraid. Bruce isn't sure if it's refreshing or unwise.
"I've seen you, Doctor Banner. I know what you're capable of. I've seen the Hulk at his worst – "
"Are you sure of that?"
Sitwell doesn't even stop to answer. " – and I've seen Bruce Banner at his best, and maybe you can convince all of them – " an expansive gesture at nothing in particular – "that you're nothing special when you're not nine feet tall and green, but you can't convince me." He pauses for breath and Bruce is poised, waiting for a blink, a hesitation, where did that come from?, but there's nothing.
"I thought I was the unpredictable one."
"Not after a year and a half," says Sitwell, and this time there is definitely something there, a sharp angle that hints at a grin, a glint of defiance behind his glasses that almost reassures Bruce he's joking, but not quite.
Is that a challenge? Bruce almost asks, but he's forestalled by Sitwell's reaching out to run a finger along the delicate cybernetics on his bench.
"What are you working on?"
Bruce is a researcher, not a teacher, but when he uses far too many technical terms to explain the function of the artificial neuron, Sitwell nods with full comprehension; when he delves into the physics behind his signalling method, Sitwell narrows his eyes in concentration; when he explains the issue he's having with transmission speed, Sitwell bites the inside of his cheek for a moment and then makes a suggestion.
It's a good suggestion. It's already on Bruce's shortlist, so when he studies Sitwell this time, it's not judgment or evaluation, it's honest appreciation. "You know cybernetics."
Sitwell shrugs. "I majored in progressive engineering."
"This isn't exactly undergraduate material."
"I was a good student."
"I bet you were." He's aiming for exaggerated innuendo, but the effect is pretty much ruined when he can't stifle the yawn that overtakes him at the end of his sentence. He's used to running on empty, but he's been doing it for a while now and his endurance, along with the rest of him, has taken a beating lately.
"Hey," Sitwell says. "You should get some rest. Your big green buddy is the last thing I need to be dealing with right now."
"A year and a half of watching me run and you're still afraid he's going to show up when I'm tired?" Bruce reaches for a nanofluidic transistor, but Sitwell uses one finger to slide it out of his reach and raises an eyebrow at him.
"A year and a half of watching you run and I know what happens when you're tired."
It's neither innuendo nor barely-concealed verbal martial arts; the words are spoken softly, Sitwell quiet and serious as he repeats, "you need to get some rest," and Bruce doesn't know what to do with that.
"My control is fine," he says, reassurance, deflection.
"It's a damn sight better than mine," Sitwell replies. "I'd have murdered half the team in their beds by now. I wasn't questioning your control."
"I'm sorry, I'm not used to agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. coming in here because they're worried for my well-being," says Bruce – and is taken aback at the sudden, chastened look on Sitwell's face.
"In that case, I'll get out of your way," Sitwell says, flat and subdued, and Bruce has made a mistake somewhere, he didn't mean to chase Sitwell away. He's not used to people who aren't afraid of him in any of his incarnations, people who know the Hulk is by far not the worst of Bruce Banner and yet don't run from him in horror. And Sitwell is no superhero, no Avenger hand-picked to save the world; he's just a man, and even after everything he's seen and everything he knows, he still believes that Bruce is, too.
And he's walking out of Bruce's lab (back turned, no fear) and Bruce (he's worried about Bruce, you should get some rest) is letting him.
"Hey," he calls out, needing to say something and having no idea what.
Sitwell stops, turns.
"Thanks for the tea."
Banner, you idiot.
There's a moment where Sitwell is frozen in his tracks, expression blank, and Bruce is cursing everything he can think of, and then the grin comes back, this time without the bite of sarcasm it's had all along.
"We'll have to do this again, Doctor Banner."
"Bruce," he says. "It's Bruce."
It wasn't the Hulk that did it.
Not that anyone assumes it was, but for Bruce, this is a victory. It may be the Hulk who goes out to fight with the Avengers, but it's Bruce who is waiting in his laboratory when they get home, when Clint needs someone to absolve him of blame for his latest kill, when Natasha needs to pretend she wasn't worried about her teammates, when Thor wants to relive the glorious battle. It may be the Hulk whose face is plastered on newspapers and television screens across the country, but it's Bruce who makes the sacrifices that get him there in the first place. It may be the Hulk who caught the eye of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it's Bruce that Sitwell watched for eighteen months, Bruce whose private struggles Sitwell "accidentally" failed to document for his superiors, Bruce who never needs to explain himself to Sitwell because Sitwell already knows and isn't afraid and isn't hesitating and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Once, Bruce was afraid not to be alone, afraid and uncertain and not deserving of anything more.
Now, he thinks perhaps his penance has been served.