A horrible pressure pounding the inside of his skull.
A deep, arthritic ache in his joints.
The world stayed dark for a moment. But the brightness filtered through his eyelids and he knew he was awake.
Forcing open one eye, Bruce groaned. His throat felt dry and raspy as he mumbled, "What happened?"
He assessed his memories. There was a huge black dog and a set of dark eyes and Thor's eyepatch and the bifrost. Suddenly, like a blurry photo coming into focus, Bruce pieced together these scattered images. He remembered fighting Hela on Asgard and causing Ragnarok. He had fought her wolf-monster to save the people of Asgard. And then- nothing. The Hulk never shared his memories with Bruce.
Bruce spotted two men standing above him. They wore outlandish robes. He was laying in rubble, and the sun was all too bright in the sky.
"What happened? Are we still in Asgard?" Bruce asked.
One of the men answered. "The hulk came barreling down from the sky. You crashed into our headquarters. I used a spell to reveal your alternate form. Then you woke up."
"He's with the other Asgardians in Norway. You jumped out of the ship earlier and landed here."
Bruce had certainly come to himself in stranger circumstances. As he felt his strength return, he stood up, holding his hopelessly large pants around him like an oversized towel. "Well, thanks for helping me through my- uh- identity crisis. I need to find Nat now. And who are you?"
The man who had spoken to him waved his wand and well-tailored clothes appeared on his frame. "I'm Doctor Strange. I'm a neurosurgeon-turned-sorcerer. And this is my assistant Wong."
"Thanks! Do you happen to know where Nat is?"
"Natasha Romanoff? She is in Wakanda." The Doctor conjured a portal with a flick of the wrist. "Come walk through this portal. It will take you where you wish to go."
Bruce reluctantly stepped into it. "Thanks, Doctor."
He was not prepared for what happened next. His entire body was jerked forward at what felt like the speed of light. The next moment, he felt himself materialize on another city block. He wondered if he was still in NYC. There was a building up ahead with the Avengers logo. As he walked in, a voice said, "Welcome back, Doctor Banner. Mr. Stark requests your presence on the seventh floor lobby."
Bruce got on the elevator and rode it up to the seventh floor. The building felt intimately familiar, but oppressively new at the same time. It had an uncanny resemblance to the NYC HQ, but was just different enough in furnishing and color scheme that he felt distinctly out-of-place there.
On the seventh floor, Bruce got out and saw a large conference room-style table at the center of the room. Tony was sitting there. "Hi, Banner. I'm glad you joined the party. Did Doctor Strange sort you out?"
"He somehow forced the Hulk into submission. I don't understand what happened. To be honest, I don't trust anyone who claims to use magic. But whatever he did worked. And here I am." He cracked a small smile to try to hide his confusion. "Where's Nat?"
Jarvis piped in. "Natasha Romanoff is currently using the firing range on the eleventh floor."
"We have a lot of catching up to do. We added a couple new Avengers," Tony said. "Meet King T'Challa, protector of Wakanda." At Tony's side was seated a black man in ornate African clothing.
Bruce raised his eyebrows in confusion, then bowed deeply. "Uh- it's an honor to meet you, King. Wakanda? Is that the source of the vibranium that made Cap's shield?"
"Yes, you're right. Thank you, Doctor Banner. Tony tells me you are very well-respected in the American scientific community."
"Thank you very much. I'd like to stay and chat, but I need to get some closure first. Please excuse me while I go visit Natasha." Bruce left the room internally cursing his awkwardness.
Bruce walked into the weapons room, then entered the firing range. He felt his pulse quicken as he saw someone very familiar. "Blonde looks good on you," he called out to Nat.
"I didn't know you were capable of wearing clothes that aren't a lab coat, Doctor," Nat replied coyly. She put her gun in her holster and put her arms around Bruce's shoulders.
Bruce hesitated. He felt a flash of betrayal as he remembered their last encounter. Two and a half years ago.
"What's wrong, Bruce? Did isolation not suit you?"
He realized that she had no idea what had happened to him since he had left on the quinjet. "I was the Other Guy for two years on an alien planet, I was enslaved and forced to kill other slaves. Then I helped Thor destroy his homeland to save his people from his evil sister. I wasn't myself for most of it, though."
Nat smiled sadly. "Tony tried to convince everyone to sign a political document making us accountable to the UN after Ultron ruined Sokovia, but Steve didn't want to and turned half the team against us. We're hopelessly weakened."
Bruce moved her arms and turned to face the assassin. "Nat, I need you to apologize. I can't be with someone who has this much power over me. You're too dangerous."
"Bruce, you know that I adore you. What I did in Sokovia was messed up. I'm sorry. And I don't deserve you because of it." Natasha looked down. "But you're the only person I've ever felt this way about. I was afraid, and I knew that we had a duty to help the team. I could never have just run off."
"Oh, Nat, I understand. That's not who you are. You're a fighter. Hiding's always been my forte, not yours." Bruce sighed. "But I accept your apology. You're the best thing I have right now. I'm not going to throw it away because you made a hard choice in an impossible situation. Are we okay?"
"Better than ever," the Black Widow murmured. "Oh, I've missed you." She gazed hungrily into his dark, pained eyes and kissed him. He embraced her with utter abandon. This felt so, so right.
"Nat, we have to leave. When will it ever be a better time? You've done enough. There are plenty of new recruits. Goodness knows the Avengers will be stronger now that we have T'Challa, Wanda, and the others."
"But you can do so much to help! We need you. No one else knows biochemistry and gamma radiation like you."
"Believe me, I wish that I was necessary. With all due respect to both of them, I've contributed just as much to science as Tony or Stephen. But when all is said and done, I wouldn't be surprised if my tombstone just says "HULK SMASH." There's no reason to stay and fight when the cost is so high. Nat, you know how it feels to be only seen as a weapon. A tool of mass destruction."
Natasha's elegant white fingers traced the outline of Bruce's rough, broad hand. "Maybe the cost is too high," she mused. "You know better than anyone that I wish I could have a normal life. They took all of that away from me, though."
"Tasha, don't you get it? This is our chance. You can be normal. Let's go find somewhere and settle down. We deserve our shot at happiness."
Natasha's expression quickly returned to its usual carefully maintained guardedness. "There's red on my ledger."
"Yes. Don't you understand, Natasha? Fury and all the others just want you to fight for them more. You may agree with their agenda, but they're using you as a weapon just as much as the Red Room did. Wouldn't you like to try waking up in a house instead of a barrack for once?"
Natasha drew a breath in sharply as soon as Bruce mentioned the Red Room. He could see the vulnerability in her eyes. Bruce knew that Natasha could cut through his emotional barriers, but it was a two-way street. He could disarm her just as much as she could manipulate him.
"Doctor Banner, you're right. Let's escape this while we can. There's a quinjet outside."
Bruce grinned wickedly at her. "I know exactly where we can go."
They brought only a few supplies. Nat wore an olive bomber jacket and black jeans. Bruce was still in his dapper ensemble from Dr. Strange. Both were used to life on the run, and lived quite minimally. The quinjet was in a vast warehouse alongside many flashy Stark Industries products, including the Hulkbuster. "Let's hope no one ever has to use that awful contraption again," Bruce cursed. "I sometimes have nightmares of being pummeled by it."
"I thought you didn't see the Hulk's memories," Natasha mused.
"I only get flashes. It's like someone poured a liter of acid into my brain. Just fragments. Images. There's too much noise. I can never derive anything out of it."
"Let's get out of here."
"We need to leave Earth eventually. But Asgard was just destroyed, and there's still a bounty on my head in Sakaar. Maybe we could start in St. Petersburg? It's far away, and you know Russian."
"Good thinking, Doc," Natasha agreed.
Natasha put her hand on the handprint scanner to activate the Quinjet.
The machine came to life. "Activation required," a female voice said.
"Natasha Romanoff," Nat said.
"Welcome, Black Widow."
She skillfully navigated the aircraft out of the warehouse and into the sunny Wakandan sky. As soon as they reached critical altitude, Natasha put the quinjet on autopilot and embraced Bruce. "This is the first time I've felt this hopeful in years," she admitted. "A new life- can you imagine?"
Bruce sighed. "I never thought I could have any of this. I can't believe it's really happening. Hey- do you want to get a dog, once we're all settled in?"
"I'm actually more of a cat person, myself," the blonde femme fatale confessed.
"Sounds good to me. I had a dog once, back in Rio de Janeiro, but I had to leave it behind once Ross found me."
"If that man ever tries to capture you again, he'll have to go through both of us," Natasha said darkly. "Hey, what's that?"
Another approaching aircraft appeared on the quinjet's radar. It looked to be about three kilometers away on there, but it wasn't visible in the hazy Wakandan sunshine.
"I thought Wakanda didn't have an airport. Why would there be an airplane?" Romanoff murmured.
All too quickly, a massive vortex sucked the quinjet into a larger, looming vehicle.
"YOU'VE ARRIVED IN THE THANOSCOPTER. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION," a massive voice boomed.
Bruce and Natasha quickly drew together, their backs touching.
A purple titan punched open the quinjet door and came in.
"Sounds like you two were going to St. Petersburg. Escapism. I like it. Very clever of you to recognize that the Avengers don't deserve your help. Well, rest assured that we are still going to Siberia. Instead of traveling in this pile of scrap metal, you'll be passengers on the Thanoscopter."
Both of the avengers stayed silent, assessing the situation.
"It seems like you've decided to do this the easy way. I'd like to thank you for your cooperation. Oh. Looks like we've arrived. And by the way, I forgot to introduce myself. How rude. I am Thanos, son of A'Lars."
The huge alien spaceship landed on the ground surprisingly loudly, making a reverberating "thud" noise.
Thanos snapped his fingers, and Bruce and Natasha and the titan were suddenly inside a cold, grey building. With a flick of his wrist, Thanos bound Natasha with cords and levitated her body into a prison cell in the corner of the cavernous room. "Miss Romanoff, you're useful. I could use your help as an informant. On the other hand, your friend has outlived his usefulness to me. Say goodbye, sir."
Thanos fired a machine gun at Bruce.
Bruce couldn't hold back the beast anymore. He finally gave in and let the Hulk take over.
The green monster roared at Thanos. The bullets simply bounced off his hide. Thanos cocked an eyebrow. "I was aware of the Hulk. But I never knew that the monster had an alter-ego. Miss Romanoff, I had assumed your friend was some sort of SHIELD employee- maybe a technician or IT specialist. I guess not."
Thanos flicked his wrist again, and a huge cage landed around the Hulk. The monster snarled, and tore through the bars of the cage like they were tissue paper.
"Oh dear. That was adamantium steel. How disappointing. Well, I suppose it would be too costly to restrain him as well."
The Hulk had already burst through the doors of the building, and was bounding away through the Russian winter outside.
"Don't worry, you'll pay for your actions someday, just like this little vixen will. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," Thanos promised vengefully to the retreating figure. He turned back to the blonde figure in the prison cell.
"I don't have any use for you right now. I'll wake you back up when more pieces of my plan are in place." Thanos snapped his fingers, and Natasha was instantly knocked into a deep sleep.
Running. Running. Running. Tasha not safe. Hulk not safe. Get away. Far away. Big monster. Purple. Find Thor. Fight Purple. Win Tasha. Running. Running. Running. Hulk tired. Too cold. Too far. Lights. People. Sleepy. Dark. Cold.
After a long day of running, the Hulk found a quiet stand of trees and climbed inside to sleep. He didn't notice the ancient magic that had settled upon his cells.
Bruce opened his eyes wearily. It was dark and bitterly cold. He couldn't tell if it was just part of the effects of the cold, but he felt extremely numb. It was almost as if he was finally feeling calm for the first time in ten years. He brushed it off- he knew that cold could do strange things to a person.
He shivered, and stood up. He was standing in a snowy forest. As he walked forward, he saw a clearing in front of him. He stepped into the clearing, and saw a village. The first order of business would be acquiring clothes. It was terribly cold, and he could tell that his feet were already numb. In the village, he begged for coins. He got some fairly quickly, and was able to buy clothes. He could tell that the currency was not American. The language the people spoke sounded Eastern European. All at once, the memories of the previous day came rushing back. Siberia. A machine gun. The purple guy named Thanos. His heart sank as he remembered that Natasha had been captured. He surmised that the Hulk must have somehow escaped that huge building in Siberia. "Hulk, you're really an idiot," he grumbled to himself. "You really couldn't have brought Natasha with you?"
Now wearing a cheaply made felt shirt, belted trousers, and sturdy boots, Bruce used the last of his coins to make a call on a pay phone. "Stark Industries speaking. State your message," Pepper's voice said. "Hey Pepper. It's me. Bruce Banner. Tony's friend. Could I talk to Tony?"
"Sure thing," Pepper chirped. There were some muffled voices on the other side of the phone, and then Tony's voice came on.
"Bruce? Nice of you to call. What's up?"
"It's Nat. She's been captured by this purple alien guy who calls himself Thanos. The dude is super powerful. As far as I can tell, I'm in a remote village in Russia, and I need you to send someone to take me back to Stark Towers so that we can rescue Nat."
"Try to figure out where exactly you are so that I can come."
"The village's name is Kezhma. I think it's somewhere near Siberia, but I really don't know how far. The Hulk sometimes runs really, really far. The village is small- you'll find me easily when you get here."
"I'm on my way." Tony wasn't lying. He was already taking to the skies in a quinjet, with his newest suit in tow.
"Tony, you're a great friend. Thanks." Bruce knew he'd have to tell Tony about his escape plan someday. But thankfully, that moment had not arrived just yet. First, they were gonna save Nat.
Less than half a day later, Tony arrived. Stark and Banner flew to Siberia in the quinjet. The wilderness was so remote that it was easy to find Thanos's lair, based on the heat signatures on the landscape.
Bruce finished up his story. "So this Thanos guy just moved his hand, and then Nat was all tied up and locked up in a cell. And then he tried to kill me. But I don't remember what happened after that, except waking up in that village in Russia. All I know is that for some reason, the Hulk didn't try to save Nat. None of it makes sense. This guy was obviously powerful. But why didn't he capture me as well? I mean, he must have known that I'd come back for her…"
"I don't get it either. But we'll find out soon enough," Tony replied grimly.
The quinjet landed a mile away from the facilities. Tony used his infrared radar to get a general idea of the lay of the land. The two geniuses formulated a plan.
"I'll suit up and try to distract Thanos and get him out of the area," Tony suggested.
"Perfect. Then I'll sneak in the back door and get Nat out of there."
The first part of the plan worked relatively well.
Tony's suit was a thing of beauty. It was the Mark 46. It slid onto his frame effortlessly. Sleek and powerful, Tony had perfect command of it.
He flew over to the building. Thanos was sitting in the corner when he arrived.
"Weird. Are you Thanos?"
"Yes," the titan snapped. "Ah. Iron Man, I suppose? Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist?" Thanos snorted. "Weak humans, always desperately trying to make your existence meaningful. Don't you know that you'll be dead soon? Earth is meaningless. Your silly accomplishments are nothing."
"Proud words from someone who flies around in a helicopter," Tony retorted. "Is that really the best technology you have on whatever planet you're from?"
"This is your last warning. Leave me in peace, or else you will stop existing." Thanos said.
"No can do, Broseph. You see, I was just about to lay waste to your precious helicopter. Didn't anyone tell you about the power of Stark Industries tech?" As Stark spoke, he fired a missile from his hand at the helicopter, busting the main rotor. It fell apart.
"Fool!" Thanos muttered. He rushed over to the aircraft to check the damage.
Meanwhile, Bruce had infiltrated the lair. He rushed to the cell where Natasha lay motionless. "What has that monster done to you?" he said in frustration. "Thanos will pay for this."
He was holding a weapon- the same one he had used the last time Natasha was captured by an enemy. The cell's metal broke apart and he came in to evaluate her condition. Natasha's heartbeat was steady. She was simply unconscious.
Using a knife, he cut away all the rope. Then he laid her on her back. Natasha's eyes opened. "Bruce? Let's get out of here." Her gaze turned steely as she remembered her situation.
"Tony's here," Bruce said breathlessly. "We're gonna get away. Remember our plan?" He kissed her, relieved beyond belief to see her doll-like features regain consciousness.
"Look who's here. How perfect," a voice simpered behind them. Bruce and Natasha turned around to see the purple demon. He held Tony under his arm. "This fool- he calls himself a hero- was stupid enough to meddle with my helicopter. So now I will satisfy the demands of justice."
Bruce had just gotten Natasha back, and now the menace was trying to take Tony away as well. Natasha whispered in his ear, "This is definitely a code green."
Bruce wasn't going to make the same mistake again. The last time he had avoided transforming when the situation called for it, Natasha had been hurt by Thanos. He would not let Thanos hurt his friends again.
"You call yourself heroes. How pathetic. A murderer, the merchant of death, and the green monster, feared by all. It's almost poetic that I should be the one to deliver a chance at atonement."
Bruce's blood boiled. But he didn't feel like he was in danger of losing control. Rather, he felt clear-headed. Calm. Human, almost. Suddenly, everything clicked. He realized what had to happen.
Bruce stepped forward. "Everything's gonna be okay. Thanos, let's balance the scales of justice, just like you always wanted. Take me, and release my friends. I will go willingly."
Thanos smirked. "What a nice gift. You will be a nice asset to my quest to fulfill destiny. Now leave," he said, forcing Tony and Natasha out with a wave of his hand.
Thanos put Bruce into Natasha's former cell, repairing it once again. "You are limited by your simple, human mind. But the Hulk will bend to my will. He understands justice much better than you ever will. Now transform. I'd much rather do this the easy way."
Bruce laughed. "The Hulk would never have fought for you."
Thanos pointed his gun at Bruce, and fired.
Thanos moaned as he realized that his precious monster was gone. "When I fired that machine gun, its bullets must have stayed in him and removed the gamma poisoning! I didn't realize the vibranium alloy was so powerful!"
The titan realized that the universe was finally balanced, now that Banner was dead. All those hundreds of deaths on Banner's head, including the Hulk's collateral damage on Earth and vanquished contenders on Sakaar were now paid for. Satisfied, he climbed back onto the Thanoscopter and returned to his home planet.
As he flew into space, Thanos left a message burned into the Siberian wasteland: EARTH IS BALANCED. JUSTICE IS DONE.
Tony and Natasha rushed to Bruce's lifeless body. The scientist was really gone.
Natasha's eyes filled with tears. "He's gone. I thought that he couldn't die."
Tony wrapped an arm around her, already struggling to speak through sobs. "Me too. I guess the Hulk was gone before he died, like Thanos said."
"He died saving the earth, though," Natasha murmured. "He died as a human, as a hero,"
She noticed something crumpled in the body's hand. I chose this, the note said. It was scrawled hastily in Bruce's precise handwriting.
"Bruce, you didn't have to die. We could have defeated Thanos together!" Tony roared through his tears.
"And yet, he did. Always taking one for the team," Natasha mused. Even through her pain, she could recognize the arithmetic in the events.
Steve had been out of the ice for 65 years now. He and Natasha had adopted four foster children. They were husband and wife, but they weren't really in love. He could see it in her eyes every time they embraced. There was always a wistfulness hidden in their depths. They were just two broken old soldiers, trying to do as much good as possible in their golden years. But he could see Natasha light up as she played with her grandchildren. Each foster child they adopted had gone on to live happy, successful lives, even getting married and having babies of their own. They had never known war like Steve had.
Steve and Nat went for long walks with Tony and Pepper sometimes. The two couples lived in the same neighborhood in upstate New York, away from all the city life. They would talk about how Rhodey, Sam, Wanda, Peter, and the others were doing. Thor was wisely ruling New Asgard in Norway. They would talk about how funny it was that there were no more new heroes rising up. Earth was safe at last. They had paid a high price for it. But they could sleep easy at night knowing that the next generation would never have to know how it felt to battle aliens and Nazis and gods.
Natasha had to be content with only seeing Bruce at night now. Only with the wisdom of many years had she realized that he really had chosen to die on his own terms. She wouldn't have chosen it for him, but she realized that gaining control over his life and saving Earth in the process was exactly what he wanted. She had tried to take the red away from her ledger by saving the world and by raising children as her own. She never would be certain that all the red was gone.
So, one day, when her skin was wrinkly and her hair's flaming red given way to steely grey, she passed on, and crossed the veil so stealthily that no one knew until morning. She died the way that she had lived. Steve had been her husband, but Bruce was her soulmate. He was there to greet her at the pearly gates, all the worry lines absent from his face and his hair dark and thicker than she'd ever seen it. "I adore you," Nat whispered.
"Let's run with it."