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The Way Home

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Bruce Banner had really ought to be used to waking up on a bed of rubble, covered in a thin layer of dust, considering it happened far more often than he’d like these days. Despite that, when Bruce woke up to chunks of concrete digging into his back with nothing but the purple spandex pants on, that Tony had thankfully finished earlier that week, it was still somehow a complete shock. He laid miserably among the rubble, bones aching and muscles sore, for as long as his back could tolerate before, reluctantly, he began climbing out of the debris. It wasn’t often he woke up after a stint as the Other Guy alone, not since the Other Guy had been recruited by the Avengers. Whenever the Other Guy deemed it unnecessary to continue rampaging, Bruce would wake up, pantless, to Thor or Tony or sometimes Agent Barton grinning down at him and offering a hand to help half walk, half drag him into the waiting quinjet. But today he was alone. And he’d be lying if he said it didn’t give him an uneasy feeling deep in his gut.

Sunlight poured in from the giant hulk-sized hole in the wall of whatever building the Other Guy dragged him into before letting Bruce have the reigns again. Bruce strained himself, listening for...something but he couldn’t hear a thing. No shouting, no distant explosions, no SHIELD agents discussing the damage the Other Guy had caused...just silence. For the first time since he joined the Avengers, he wondered if his standard “did we win?” would have a different answer. The thought made him feel kind of sick.

Bruce stumbled toward the hole in the wall and then outside. The sun was setting overhead and it was blatantly clear that he was nowhere near where the fight had initially taken place. His memory of the actual battle may be vague at best, but he knew for sure that the initial drop point had been in a very crowded, metropolitan area of Chicago. Definitely not in a seemingly endless field with an abandoned warehouse being the only building for miles. This was... weird . The Other Guy didn’t run from a battle, not when ‘SMASH’ was still an option and he definitely had never run hundreds of miles away after a fight. There undoubtedly had been plenty of rubble for the Other Guy to leave Bruce in. No need to run hundreds of miles away.

Bruce shook the dust from his hair and took in his surroundings. A single winding, gravel road led to the warehouse. A quick survey of the area revealed no telephone lines ruling out that possibility the warehouse had a landline hookup. And without a cell phone, Bruce had no choice but to start walking down the gravel road. If he could find a gas station or a diner, maybe they would let him borrow the phone to call Tony.

In the decade Bruce had spent on the run, he had grown meticulous in checking for signs that he had been bugged or was being tracked. And he was proud that before Natasha had tracked him down on behalf of SHIELD, he had successfully kept the United States Army and several other nefarious parties off his back. And even as a member of the Avengers, he resisted having any form of tracking device embedded in his clothing or elsewhere on his person. It took too much of his autonomy away. He needed the reassurance that if something were ever to go south, he could get himself out. But now, shambling down a gravel road in god-knows-where, he almost wished Tony could hit a button, locate his coordinates, and be there within the hours.  

 

Bruce was unsure how long he walked before finally stumbling upon a tiny drive-through town a while after dawn. All post-hulk-outs considered, walking even eight hours wasn’t so bad compared to the time he had to stumble through the woods for three days before finding civilization again. Even if the journey was shorter, however, it didn’t make the bone-deep aches and overwhelming exhaustion that followed his time as the Other Guy any more tolerable. At this point, he was pretty sure he could curl up and pass out almost anywhere.

Bruce passed by a 24-hour diner first, but the waitress quickly shooed him away. With most of the other stores in town still closed for the morning, relief flooded his chest when Bruce spotted the payphone attached to the wall outside the corner store. He practically whooped with joy when he lifted the receiver and heard an honest-to-god dial tone. Bruce inserted the quarters he’d swiped from the tip jar at the diner before he’d been kicked out. No shoes. No shirt. No service. Bruce felt more than a little guilty for swiping the $2.11 even if he was sure Tony would wire the waitress more than enough money to cover her first year of college by later that afternoon. Bruce felt a wave of sheer relief when it took only one shrill ring before Tony was on the line.

“Bruce?” The raw worry Tony packed into one word was enough to leave Bruce nearly dumbfounded. There was never any reason to worry about the Other Guy. He was far from the most vulnerable member of the team.

He must have taken too long to respond because then Tony was speaking again and tone of concern had grown even greater.  “Bruce? I’m tracing this call. We’re on our way. Stay where you are,” Tony said in a haste.

Bruce snapped himself out of his state of bewilderment. “Tony,” he said. His voice was raw and his throat hurt like he had spent the day before screaming himself hoarse. He paused for a moment and in the silence, he nearly thought he heard Tony mutter a relieved “thank god” but decided the lack of sleep was probably just catching up with him.

“Listen, Bruce, we’ve got a jet on the way. Barton should be there within the hour and then he’ll bring you right home.” Home?

“Okay,” Bruce said, unsure of what else to say.

He had been living in Stark Tower, now the Avenger’s Tower, since Loki’s invasion in New York almost a year earlier. As the construction crew cleared out nearly a month later and the much-needed repairs were completed on the building, Tony announced that their official suites were complete now and they were all welcome to move in at their discretion and leisure. Tony shepherded him from the guest bedroom Bruce had occupied in the weeks before and into the elevator, taking them down three floors. Bruce expected to be shown a room or maybe a private apartment. What he absolutely had not expected was for Tony to throw his hands out wide and announce “Here we are! Apartment faces the south, lab the north. Whole floor is yours buddy” and then clap him loudly on the back.

Bruce had been living and sleeping in the Avenger’s Tower longer than he’d lived anywhere else in the ten years that preceded it but never once had he dared to call anything more than just that; a place to sleep and a lab to work in. If he pressed, he would admit that a lot more went on in the tower than working and sleeping: team dinners Steve insisted on with everyone not currently on a mission or off earth in attendance, the occasional evening movie or ‘cinematic cultural appreciation night’ as Tony called them to catch Cap up and teach Thor a thing or two about Midgard, not to mention the nearly unending cascade of practical jokes Agent Barton, Tony, and Natasha took part in. But all of those were things he was a passive participant in. Bruce was there because they needed the Other Guy sometimes.

The Avengers Tower was definitely a home. It just wasn’t Bruce’s.

“Bruce, you still with me buddy?” Tony asked.

“Yeah. Sorry. Tony, I uh, I think I only have a minute more on this phone and I already ran out of change,” Bruce said while patting the spot on his hips where a pocket would be if he was wearing anything else other than the purple spandex pants that left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

“Damn how did you even manage to find what must be the last operating payphone in the country?” Bruce couldn’t tell if Tony was more amused or exasperated by his achievement.

“Just lucky I guess.”

There was a pause on Tony’s end of the line and Bruce thought the call had been cut off but then Tony was speaking again, softer than before. “We’ll see you real soon Bruce.”

 

With Agent Barton on the way and no other way to pass the time, Bruce ducked into the alley between the gas station and the building next door. He eased himself to the ground and laid back against the cold brick wall. The November chill was starting to get to him but between the ache in his bones and the dull pounding in his head, the cold wasn’t all that bad. He pulled his knees into his chest, setting his chin into the groove between them. Against his better judgement, Bruce let the exhaustion take over as his eyes slipped shut.

Spending several years running from the most dangerous military in the world had led to the development of some useful, albeit unfortunate habits. It was useful to be able to pick up and go at a moment’s notice and without a second thought. It made the spontaneity of world saving missions easy to deal with it. Years ago such spontaneity would have sent him through a panic. If he didn’t have the Other Guy, he supposed it would have been useful to have the quick reflexes and agility that came from one-too-many close calls with Ross’s lackeys. But as plain-old Bruce Banner, it only showed as paranoia.
In hindsight, Bruce was certain that Agent Barton had done whatever he could to wake him without startling him awake, but it all came down to that never being possible in the first place. Bruce jolted awake as something clutched his shoulder. His eyes snapped open and instantaneously, he grabbed the assailants arm. Alarm bells were ringing in his head even as Agent Barton came into focus and Bruce was momentarily immobilized as he tried to sort through whether or not he needed to knock him out and run.

Agent Barton held himself impossibly still as Bruce locked eyes with him. Bruce sagged a bit. Safe. Safe. He was safe.

“Agent Barton,” Bruce said.

Agent Barton nodded. “Banner.”

Dully, Bruce registered that he was still violently holding onto something. He looked between himself and Agent Barton and realized that ‘thing’ he was crushing was actually Barton’s wrist and he dropped the offending appendage like he had been burned.

“S..sorry I’m.. I’m so sorry.”

“Nah.”

Bruce’s face flooded with shame and he forced himself to look at Barton. “It’s not fine.”

“It is man. It’s fine.”  Agent Barton crouched down to face him.

“I made you come all the way out here to find me and then I nearly crushed your hand,” Bruce said quickly.

“No, harm done,” he replied just as fast.

Agent Barton unwaveringly maintained eye contact and Bruce was suddenly struck with the incredulity of the situation. They were in the middle of... he didn’t even know where, Bruce was practically naked in the November chill, and an Avenger, one of the people who now routinely saved the world or whatever, was trying to comfort him, Bruce Banner, also an Avenger. He silently hoped any passers-by would be confused enough by the former and look away before noticing the latter. The last thing Bruce wanted to see when he returned to the tower was his name trending on twitter again.

“Really, it’s fine,” Agent Barton continued. “Besides I’ve always wanted to check out rural Ohio. Have to say it doesn’t quite beat rural Iowa.”

The nagging voice in the back of his head wanted to keep arguing, (No. No. No. Inconvenience. Pain. Bother. He had hurt Agent Barton. He had run away from a fight. His fault. His fault. His fault.), but all the energy had gone out of him.

Agent Barton slung the backpack from his shoulders and sat it on the ground between the two of them. He pulled a bundle of clothes out and carefully handed them to Bruce.

“Slip these on and let’s get you out of here.”

He dressed quickly in the sweats and tee shirt he recognized as his own from back at the tower while Agent Barton rummaged further in the backpack. With what looked like an energy bar and emergency blanket in hand, he zipped back up the pack and slung it back around his back. Before Bruce had a chance to stand on his own, Agent Barton had a hand wrapped around his forearm to help him up. Barton kept an arm firmly around Bruce’s back as they made the slow trek back to the waiting jet.

“Come on man, let’s get you home.”

Bruce tensed but allowed himself to be guided nonetheless.