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Cellophane Man

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The first time Bruce ran, he went south, and he learned meditation techniques and breathing exercises to stay calm. In India, he’d practiced yoga and meditation, trying to clear his mind.

 

After Johannesburg, after Sokovia, he runs again—or the Other Guy does. Bruce isn’t sure when the Other Guy became the brains of the operation, but he’s pretty sure he isn’t going to live that down any time soon.

 

Bruce had been an idiot, thinking he could have nice things, that he could have a home, and a makeshift family, and work that makes a difference.

 

This is what happens when you forget what you are, he thinks viciously. This is what happens when you forget what we are.

 

He knows full well that as long as he’s vulnerable to mind control or outside influence by someone like Wanda Maximoff, he has to limit the amount of damage he can do. That means staying away from large groups of people, and people with superpowers, and people who can sweet talk or manipulate him into forgetting that he doesn’t deserve any of the things they tried to convince him he could have.

 

Bruce changes back somewhere near the Chinese border, and while he’s no pilot, he at least has a slightly better idea of how to land it than the Other Guy does.

 

But only slightly better, because it’s still a rough landing, and he’s pretty sure it’s not going to fly again without extensive repairs.

 

Thankfully, at least for his ability to disappear, the stealth function still works, and he rummages around to see if he can at least find something to wear that doesn’t say “I’m an Avenger, ask me how!”

 

The supplies are meager, but he finds a t-shirt and someone’s hoodie—he thinks it might belong to Clint—and pulls on the pair of boots that are mostly the right size—also Clint’s. There are a couple of power bars someone squirrelled away, and he tears through one and stashes the other in a pocket.

 

No water, though, which will be a problem sooner than lack of food would be.

 

Bruce knows he’s in the mountains, although he has only a vague idea of his location beyond that, and he has no idea where he’s going. Staying in Tibet is probably a bad idea, because he would really hate to have to fight the entire Chinese military, and he doesn’t have any papers.

 

Not that he could use his identification. He’s pretty sure that no one is going to welcome Bruce Banner anywhere these days.

 

One thing is for sure, he can’t just sit by the Quinjet. Someone will eventually find it, and Bruce knows he’d better be far away by then. He thought he saw a road to the south in the few panicked moments he had before the jet crashed, and he heads in that direction.

 

There’s a dusting of snow on the ground, and the wind cuts through his hoodie easily. The serum may have increased Bruce’s resistance to the cold, but he still feels temperature extremes, and he’s still affected by them.

 

By the time the sun starts to set, Bruce hasn’t seen another living soul, he’s stopped shivering, and he knows he’s hypothermic.

 

Maybe he’ll freeze, and someone will find his body and thaw him out decades from now, and Bruce will be right back at square one.

 

He’s nearly delirious with exhaustion and cold when he hears voices in a language that’s unfamiliar to him, and then Bruce passes out.

 

Normally, Bruce tries to make a better first impression.

 

~~~~~

 

He wakes up on a straw sleeping mat, although there’s a thin blanket cushioning him, and another tucked around him. Weak sunlight filters through a narrow window, lighting the small, bare room.

 

Bruce isn’t restrained, though, and he’s relatively comfortable. He doesn’t feel threatened, and he’s certainly woken up in worse places and worse situations.

 

A man in the red robes of a Buddhist monk enters the room carrying a tray with a steaming bowl, a teapot, and a cup. He gestures to the soup and the teapot as he sets it down next to Bruce.

 

“Thank you,” Bruce says, sitting up slowly, dislodging the blankets, and inclines his head.

 

The man bows out of the room, leaving Bruce to his soup, which is little more than broth and rice. He drinks the tea and wonders what comes next.

 

Another man enters the room when Bruce has finished his tea, and says, “Dr. Banner.”

 

Bruce’s heart is in his throat, staring at the man. “You know me.”

 

“I recognized you when the others brought you in.” He is perhaps a little younger than Bruce, with olive-toned skin and a shaved head, wearing the robes of a monk. He’s Asian, with a faint British accent, and his dark eyes are knowing. “You’ve grown quite famous.”

 

“I’d rather not be,” Bruce says frankly.

 

“I am Yeshi,” he says. “You are very lucky, Dr. Banner. Not many places in this area have someone who was educated in an English-speaking country. I am one of the few.”

 

Bruce eyes him warily. “What do you want from me?”

 

“I want nothing from you,” Yeshi replies easily. “We have offered you shelter and sustenance out of a duty to all life. I would prefer to ask what we might do for you.”

 

Bruce shakes his head. “Nothing. I just want to find someplace quiet, where I can disappear.”

 

“Tibet is perhaps not the best place for you,” Yeshi replies. “You cannot run from yourself, Dr. Banner.”

 

Anger spikes. “I’m not running! I’m—I’m protecting everyone else.”

 

Yeshi’s eyes are sympathetic. “You wish to find a means to control that which lives within you.”

 

“No, I want to be sure that no one uses me,” Bruce replies. “And maybe to do that, I should disappear.”

 

Yeshi is quiet for a moment. “If you were not quite so famous, we might have been able to offer you respite, but we cannot. We are in a precarious position ourselves.”

 

“I understand,” Bruce says. “I don’t want to put anyone at risk.”

 

“We can help you get into India,” Yeshi offers. “You will be safer there.”

 

Bruce knows better than to refuse an offer of help when on the run. “I would appreciate your help.”

 

India might not be the best long-term plan, since that’s where SHIELD had found him the first time, but it’s a big country, and he at least knows a little Hindi, and enough Bengali to get by.

 

Besides, from India, he could go quite a few places where he could be alone.

 

Yeshi nods. “Rest. We leave when the sun goes down.”

 

There’s a truck that comes to the monastery that night, and Bruce climbs into the back.

 

“Take care, Dr. Banner,” Yeshi says softly. “I hope you find peace.”

 

“I think that’s unlikely,” Bruce replies.

 

His driver speaks English, although he doesn’t offer his name. “I can get you across the border; I know the guards, and they can be bribed. Do not speak when they see you, and all will be well.”

 

“Why are you doing this?” Bruce asks, curious.

 

“Because Yeshi once did me a very great favor,” he replies, which tells Bruce precisely nothing.

 

The ride is bumpy, and the driver disinclined to talk. Bruce sits in the back and grips the rickety bench to anchor himself. He’s rested up, although still hungry, but he knows his days of a comfortable lab, plentiful food, and clothing that fits are long behind him.

 

It turns out they’re a few hours away from the Indian border, and his driver slows as he approaches the checkpoint.

 

In spite of the earlier reassurances, Bruce doesn’t know that he trusts it’s going to be that easy. And if things get dicey, he’ll transform, and he doesn’t want to put more people at risk of harm.

 

He has so much blood on his hands already.

 

Bruce hunches his shoulders and thinks desperately, Please don’t see me, please don’t see me, please don’t see me.

 

The driver keeps his hands on the wheel as a guard in a Chinese military uniform approaches, barking something in a language Bruce doesn’t understand, although it’s probably either Mandarin or Cantonese.

 

The driver looks over his shoulder, and the guard comes around to the back of the truck. Bruce keeps silently chanting, please don’t see me,and the guard snorts.

 

There’s a brief exchange that sounds like a lot of harsh words, and Bruce holds his breath. Another quick exchange, and Bruce thinks he sees the driver pass something to the guard, and then they’re through the checkpoint.

 

“What did you do?” the driver demands in a whisper.

 

“I don’t know! What do you mean?” Bruce asks.

 

“We couldn’t see you,” the driver replies. “I still cannot see you. Can you keep this up?”

 

Bruce has no idea what happened, or why he’s suddenly invisible, but it seems about perfect right now. “I think so.”

 

“Do that, and I will give you half of what I saved on bribes when we get through,” the man replies.

 

The checkpoint on the Indian side of the border goes much the same way, except that the border guard gives the back of the truck a cursory look and waves them through without a bribe exchanging hands.

 

“If you can continue to hide yourself so well, then you may yet survive,” the driver says. “I will take you to Badrinath, but that’s as far as I go.”

 

“I’ll make it work,” Bruce replies.

 

When the driver lets him out, it’s nearing dawn, and he hands Bruce a small wad of cash and a bundle. “Good luck.”

 

“Thanks,” Bruce replies. “Thank you very much.”

 

The driver inclines his head, and then turns around on the nearly deserted road and leaves Bruce standing there in the early morning light.

 

Bruce glances down and sees that he’s apparently visible again, at least to himself, and he wonders if that part of it had just been a dream.

 

~~~~~

 

It turns out that being on the run is a little like riding a bike—Bruce falls into the same cautious habits he’d had in the past. He uses the money the driver had given him to buy medical supplies—not much, but even that is better than nothing, especially in the areas Bruce plans to go.

 

At first, things go relatively smoothly—at least Bruce manages to avoid the authorities, mostly keep himself fed, and pull together enough money to afford a bus ticket south.

 

But when the bus is stopped by soldiers, and Bruce realizes he doesn’t have papers to show or enough money for a bribe, he tries that trick again.

 

Wishing desperately not to be seen actually works, laws of physics be damned, because the soldiers’ eyes slide right past Bruce. And yet, when Bruce looks down, he can see himself clearly.

 

When the soldiers are gone, and the bus starts moving again, Bruce realizes that no one else seems to see him there, or even to remember he’d been on the bus at all. Bruce deliberately nudges his neighbor, and the man glances around with a surprised expression, but that’s it. There’s no recognition of Bruce’s presence.

 

He’s not really sure what to think about that, or whether he should be grateful for this newfound party trick.

 

A few weeks ago, he would have called Tony, and they’d have spent hours in the lab figuring it out.

 

Today, he’s just left to wonder.

 

~~~~~

 

The thing is, being invisible is great when he’s trying to prevent getting stopped by authorities, but not so great for pretty much anything else—and since he doesn’t know why it’s happening, he doesn’t have much control over it.

 

Every time Bruce wishes to not be seen, the effects last longer. Six months into his time on the run, Bruce winds up in Mumbai, but there’s a larger police presence, and Bruce spots his name and picture on the news one night.

 

It’s not quite an international manhunt, but it’s close. The Sokovia Accords have come down, and the whole world is talking about making those responsible for the destruction pay, naming him and Steve’s old friend, Barnes, in particular.

 

And Bruce is torn between turning himself in and hiding, because while he’s willing to pay for what he’s done, he’s not willing to give them power over the Hulk.

 

That’s why he’d run the first time, and he knows he needs to keep running now.

 

And when he starts seeing Ross’ name pop up, he realizes how important it is to disappear.

 

And so he does.

 

~~~~~

 

Being invisible is a double-edged sword, as are so many other things in Bruce’s life. He’s protected from the authorities, or from those who might attack him as a foreigner, or to steal from him. If he’s careful, he can ride in buses or trains without papers or identification, as long he’s not trying to take someone’s seat.

 

Every time he passes a knot of soldiers, or other official-looking types, Bruce is reminded of all the times in the past that he’s wished to be invisible, to be safe, and now he is.

 

But as the months wear on, Bruce also remembers all of those times when he’d wished to be seen, to be understood.

 

Bruce is used to anger and privation and loneliness, and he’s used to mourning his losses, but things are different now.

 

Things have been different since he stood on the bridge of the helicarrier, shook Tony Stark’s hand, and been known, in one swift, assessing glance.

 

He misses his home, and his team, more than he thought possible. He misses Steve’s awkward pep talks and goofy grin, Clint’s smartass commentary, Thor’s rough kindness, and even Natasha’s flirting, which had been flattering even if he hadn’t known quite what to do with it.

 

And Tony—he misses Tony with the ferocious ache of a missing limb. Bruce had girlfriends and other friends in the past, but he’d never before had what Tony offered—a best friend, a constant challenge, someone who spoke his language effortlessly.

 

Maybe if Bruce had been able to lose himself in his work, he might have been able to push through the sadness, and the loneliness, but the very invisibility that keeps him safe from the authorities has also made him into a ghost.

 

He can’t barter his services. He can’t even hold a conversation with someone. Speaking out loud, unless he’s very sure he’s alone, would only cause those around him to doubt their sanity.

 

Bruce has no choice but to steal enough food to keep body and soul together, and occasionally clothing when his own things become too ragged, although he tries not to steal from the poor. He wonders if these crimes will count against him when he’s finally caught.

 

And then he tries not to think about being caught—or the equally horrifying possibility that he won’t be, that this will be his fate.

 

There’s a part of Bruce that thinks this might be a fitting punishment for his crimes, and that’s the part that knows he just doesn’t want to become visible badly enough.

 

He’s pretty sure it would be better if he could disappear entirely, but that’s obviously not going to happen; this is the next best thing.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce could have gone somewhere else other than India, but it seems a country ideally suited to his purpose. The extensive railways and buses means he can hop a train or a bus to another city, and there are enough large cities to get lost in.

 

He knows that he needs the safety of larger cities, where things go missing all the time, and a little judicious pilfering might even go unnoticed if he’s careful. His nomadic existence reinforces the sense that he has become a ghost, completely unmoored from his old life.

 

From Mumbai to Panaji, from Panaji to Bangaluru, then to Chennai, he rides the railways past verdant green and dusty brown landscapes, through mountains and scrub forests, and over rivers. Around him, Bruce hears people speaking Hindi, Bengali, and Telugu, and understands only snatches.

 

He rarely hears English in the areas he stays, although he might find someone who would be willing to speak to him had they known he was present.

 

Occasionally, Bruce will find an abandoned newspaper written in English, and will find a place to read it, which is how he knows that there are others with superpowers popping up, and that the world is not entirely sanguine about it.

 

The news is sparse, however, and probably will be until there’s another alien invasion or murderous robot bent on world domination. For now, it’s full of natural disasters, political and religiously-motivated unrest, and rumors of war that have nothing to do with the Avengers.

 

Bruce plans to stay in Chennai until the rainy season begins, mostly because there are enough people who speak English that he can pick up other bits and pieces of information that aren’t in the papers.

 

Granted, he’s picked up a few words in Tamil, but not enough to follow a conversation between native speakers. He does better when listening to a foreigner stumble around as they try to ask where the bathroom is, or where to find a certain restaurant or museum. It’s one of the few amusements he allows himself.

 

Bruce is living on the edge of the city, and mostly staying in out of the way streets and alleyways where no one is likely to trip over him. He does occasionally see a foreigner here—a hopelessly lost tourist, or more likely one who has decided they need to see the “real India,” having watched Slumdog Millionaire a few too many times. Sometimes there’s a missionary or a representative from a NGO offering food, medicine, or contraceptives.

 

So, when he hears voices murmuring in English somewhere nearby after the sun has gone down, and he’s curled up in his nest of blankets for the night, he doesn’t think much of it.

 

Two men, he thinks idly. Americans, by the accent. Whispering, so probably lost and know they’re not supposed to be here.

 

In another life, Bruce would have led them out, back to the areas of the city designed for tourists, but since they can’t see him, he’ll just have to let them wander and hope they don’t come to harm.

 

And then, he hears one of them say, “We’re getting closer,” and Bruce recognizes that voice.

 

They can’t see him, there’s no way they can see him, so if he stays very quiet, and very still, they won’t even know he’s there.

 

Tony may have been his friend, but Bruce has no idea if Tony would turn him over to the U.N. By all rights, he should, and Bruce can’t risk it.

 

“How do you know?” That’s Steve’s voice, and Bruce’s eyes widen. He wonders if the news of a rift between them had been exaggerated.

 

“Because I can see him, Captain.” That last word holds whole worlds of sarcasm as Tony rounds the corner and looks straight at Bruce.

 

He’s wearing some kind of contraption over his face, and Bruce thinks it might be night vision goggles, or something similar.

 

Of course, he thinks with an edge of hysteria. I still have body heat.

 

“Radiation, actually,” Tony says conversationally.

 

Bruce knows he hadn’t said that out loud; he’s had too much practice staying silent.

 

“Dr. Banner,” Steve begins, and he’s wearing the same goggles, “Bruce—”

 

And Bruce bolts, because he is definitely not sticking around to find out whether they’re here to capture him, and because he suddenly can’t handle it.

 

He’s not quick enough, though, or strong enough to fight off Captain fucking America, not in this form, and he can’t Hulk out because there are people, and—

 

“Shit, I knew this was going to happen,” Tony mutters, and Bruce feels the sharp sting of a needle, and he opens his mouth to tell Tony that would definitely not work, and then he’s out.

 

Bruce honestly doesn’t know if it feels like a betrayal or not.

 

~~~~~

 

He comes up swinging as soon as he’s awake, finding himself in a small, white room with small windows, and it’s pretty much his worst nightmare. He throws himself against the door—or what looks like a door—just as it slides open, landing on top of Tony, who grabs his upper arms.

 

“Hey, easy,” Tony says. “Bruce, it’s okay. You’re safe, I swear. The room was a precaution, and we were monitoring your vital signs and knew you were waking up. I was coming to get you!”

 

And Bruce scrambles back into the room, because he’s not sure what’s better right now—feeling Tony’s hands on him, or getting as far away as possible.

 

Tony falls silent, kneeling in the doorway, and not quite looking at Bruce, so he’s apparently still invisible. “Okay, wow, this went way better in my head.”

 

Bruce stares at him, at Tony’s t-shirt and jeans, and unshaven face, and disheveled hair. He has dark circles under his eyes, and he looks older and more worn down.

 

“Talk to me, Bruce,” Tony says softly. “Just—say something. Tell me who did this to you, and I promise I’ll help you fix it.”

 

Bruce can’t help the semi-hysterical laughter that erupts. “Who did this to me?” he finally manages, voice rusty with disuse. “I did, Stark. I needed to not be seen, so I wasn’t.”

 

Tony runs a hand over his face. “Okay, what process did you use? Because I’m assuming that you can’t reverse it, or—”

 

“I wished real hard not to be seen,” Bruce snarls sarcastically. “And I’d planned on staying gone.”

 

“For how long?” Tony asks, sounding absolutely bewildered. “Forever? I thought we were friends at least!”

 

“There was a fucking manhunt on!” Bruce says, although less vehemently than he’d like. He’s just so tired, and in this sterile, white room he can tell just how bad he smells, and he suddenly can’t remember the last time he’d been clean, or had eaten.

 

Tony sits in the doorway, and Bruce wonders if he’s purposefully blocking Bruce’s exit. “Okay, yes,” Tony admits at last. “There are a lot of people looking for you, including Steve and me, and we were hoping to find you first. I didn’t help them, but they have some smart guys on their side, and they were honing in on your gamma signature. It was only a matter of time, and they didn’t have a secret weapon, and I did.”

 

“You drugged me,” Bruce accuses, but without heat.

 

“And they would have shot you,” Tony counters. “And you would have racked up more bodies, and they would have used that against you, even if it was their own fault, the bastards.”

 

Bruce makes a soft sound of protest, but can’t come up with an argument. If he’s going to be kept in a prison, he’d rather be among friends—and he certainly hadn’t wanted more blood on his hands.

 

“Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” Tony says. “You’re going to get cleaned up, and get something to eat, and then we’re going to work on a way for you to at least be in control of whether or not you’re visible.”

 

Bruce frowns. “Why?”

 

“Why what?” Tony asks irritably.

 

“Why are you doing this?”

 

“Because you’re my friend!” Tony shouts. “Because even if I don’t always listen, you’re usually the only voice of reason I do listen to! Because maybe if you’d been here, I would have…” He stops. “And I just wanted to see you again and make sure you’re okay, which you are clearly fucking not.”

 

Bruce blinks, suddenly understanding the significance of that drug Tony had given him. “You made a better Veronica.”

 

“Well, yeah,” Tony replies. “I thought I might be able to convince you not to run again if I was the one who could make you safe.”

 

And suddenly, Bruce wants to be seen with the same desperation he’d felt when he’d wanted to be invisible, and he can see it when his appearance registers.

 

Tony makes a wounded sound, but all he says is, “You really need a haircut, Big Guy.”

 

Bruce laughs and runs a hand over his beard. “I need more than that.”

 

“Whatever you want,” Tony promises recklessly. “I’ll give you whatever you want.”

 

But Bruce wants too much to ask for anything other than the mundane. “Shower?”

 

“Yeah, sure, this way,” Tony says. “I, um, cleared everybody out. I figured it would be safer just in case, and—I wasn’t sure.”

 

They’re in a cavernous space, maybe underground, and Bruce can see a couple of Quinjets. “I thought SHIELD had packed it in.”

 

“They just went underground,” Tony replies, leading him through what looks like a locker room to a set of private showers. “Look, there are sweats, toiletries, whatever. I’m going to get something for you to eat.”

 

Bruce hasn’t looked in the mirror in—months? Maybe it’s been over a year at this point, and his reflection shows it. His hair is long and unruly, beard streaked liberally with gray, and he’s brown and thin from long hours in the sun and not enough food.

 

As promised, there’s a shower, and the hot water feels incredible. He scrubs down a couple of times until he feels clean again.

 

When he gets out, he finds clippers and a razor, but—

 

He glances at his reflection again, and knows that he’s almost unrecognizable, and maybe that’s for the best.

 

Bruce emerges from the steamy bathroom and finds Tony leaning against the wall. “Hey.”

 

“Going for the mountain man look, huh?” Tony asks, his smile a little stiff.

 

Bruce shrugs. “It works as a disguise.”

 

“Yeah, you could say that,” Tony mutters. “You hungry?”

 

Bruce nods, his words drying up.

 

Tony gives him a searching look, and then puts a tentative hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “You okay?”

 

The touch threatens to shatter his self-control. “Tony—”

 

Tony, who has always seen Bruce, hauls him in for a hug. “It’s okay,” he promises. “I’ve got you. We’ll figure it out. We will.”

 

And in spite of everything, in spite of not knowing what’s going on, or what’s really happened with Steve and Tony, or what this new trick of his will entail in the long run, in spite of being wanted on seven continents—Bruce believes him.

 

Maybe, just maybe, Bruce can get back a little of what he’s lost.