Chapter 1: Finding Banner
Bruce Banner has been missing for months when Peter Parker unknowingly finds him on the streets of Queens.
I was almost ready to turn home from patrol, suit already packed up in my backpack, when I stumbled across the man huddled in the alley, mugger standing over him, drawing back for another punch. Even though I wasn’t suited up, my reflexes kicked in and caught the descending blow, twisting and flipping the attacker around. One agile kick sent the assailant stumbling backwards, where he turned and fled. I let him go. I didn’t have his web shooters out, and I was more concerned about the state of the victim.
Dark curls barely showed above the tattered button-up. His arms were wrapped around his body, shaking, and it seemed like he was unaware of the city around. I had helped a fair amount of homeless people in the neighborhood, but something about this situation seemed different.
“Excuse me, mister,” I asked gently. When there was no response, I laid a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder. The man shuddered at the touch but looked up, eyes glassy but just barely aware of another presence. His face was heavily bruised with layers of purple, green, and yellow. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?”
The man shook his head, still with that distant and hollow look in his eyes. “No, you shouldn’t be out here. It’s not safe.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Norway?” he frowned. No, that wasn’t right… There was a sudden hitch in breath. “No, I—I don’t know.”
“Norway is that last place you remember? Right here, this place you’re in, it’s Queens. In the US of A.”
“I don’t know,” the man repeated again. He hugged the battered fabric tighter around his body.
“Do you know your name? Is there anyone I can contact for you?” I was growing more and more concerned.
The man stared out into space for a moment, unseeing. I had almost given up on hearing a response before he spoke again. “M-Bruce. My name is Bruce.”
I let out a breath of relief I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Okay, okay, that’s good. That’s a starting point. Are you hurt? Do you need a hospital?”
“No!” The answer was much more sudden and vehement than I had expected. “No, please, I can’t. They’ll find me.”
“Who? Nobody finds out if you go to the hospital, there’s privacy laws and stuff.”
Bruce shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand, kid. I’m a monster. A mutant. I can’t.”
I was startled. “Actually,” I said slowly, searching for the right words, “you’d be surprised. I’m enhanced... I've got some pretty freaky issues of my own, so please believe me when I say that stuff doesn’t weird me out.”
Bruce squinted at me, though his eyes were still somewhat unfocused.
“Tell you what,” I offered, a spontaneous and perhaps risky thought coming to mind. “My aunt isn’t home tonight; why don’t you come have some dinner and get cleaned up and we’ll see if we can figure out something for you.” I helped the ragged man to his feet.
“Are you sure?” Bruce asked quietly, still incredibly physically withdrawn.
“Of course. C’mon.”
Within moments of scarfing down the mac’n’cheese I had whipped up, Bruce had passed out on the couch, still holding the bag of frozen peas against his swelling eye. The man looked incredibly small and vulnerable as his chest rose and fell with the occasional hitch of restless dreaming. Aunt May wouldn’t approve, I knew, but I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with the frightened man from the alley. Draping a blanket over the makeshift bed, I left Bruce a note, and went to bed.
When I woke up, Bruce was sitting up on the couch, hugging himself subconsciously and gazing at one of my textbooks, left open on the coffee table. “The second equation isn’t right,” he said, almost to himself.
Intrigued, I scooted over next to him. “Where?” I asked genuinely. A few minutes of halting tutelage later, Bruce shook himself.
“Sorry kid. I should get going. I really appreciate the meal and a place to sleep last night.”
“No need to rush out,” I said quickly, still worried about the guy and needing time to figure out what to do. “I’ve got some extra clothes you can have if you wanna get cleaned up.”
Bruce considered the offer for a moment before conceding. “Thank you. Where—where are we, exactly?”
“Queens. New York.” I handed him a neat stack of clothing, noting the barely hidden, visceral flinch at the words New York. “So…you said something last night about having a mutation. Is that like a superhero type thing? Do you need anything to help with that? I know for me I’ve got a really high metabolism so I have to eat for like three people…” I realized I was rambling. “Sorry.”
Bruce was looking out into space again with those dark, haunted eyes. “Not a superhero type thing. Experiment gone wrong. Everyone would be better off without mine.” He finally looked at me. “Thanks for the thought. But I can survive on very little. The monster takes care of that for me.”
For a moment, I stood there awkwardly, not sure what to say to that. “Do you want a shower before you go? Maybe a water bottle and some food to take with you?”
“Sure. Sure, yeah, that would be great.” He glanced at the folded pile in his hands. “I don’t want to take your clothes, though—“
“Well…” I shrugged uncomfortably. “Nobody’s using them, not since Uncle Ben… he’s not around anymore, and they’re still too big on me.”
Bruce nodded, and for a moment I felt like I saw a deep wave of understanding in the man’s face. “Thank you.” He padded down the hall to the shower and I slumped down on the couch, flicking on the TV to obscure the conversation from any nosy neighbors, and pulling out my cellphone.
“Hey, Mr. Stark?” I was glad that he'd finally let me start calling him directly after the whole Coney Island fiasco.
“What is it, kid? Isn’t it early for a kid your age to be up and about on the weekends?”
“Sorry, Mr. Stark,” I flushed. “It’s just that something came up while patrolling, and I met this guy who seems super lost, and I think he’s got powers, you know? He’s mentioned a mutation a couple of times, didn’t want to go to anywhere public because of that, but I thought maybe you’d know somebody who could help him out…”
“Sure, I’ve got contacts. Where is this guy now?”
I was quiet for a moment on the other end. “Well, that’s the part…he’s at my apartment.” I let the words out in a rush.
“Kid, you really shouldn’t just bring strangers home. What’d you tell your aunt?”
“She won’t be home until Monday. Please Mr. Stark, he seemed so alone and lost. I couldn’t just leave him out there.”
“Of course not. Next time though, maybe call me or Happy first, and let us take care of it, ya know? Jeeze, we’ve been over this—you don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems by yourself.”
“I know, Mr. Stark, I’m sorry—” I jumped at the sound of shattering glass. Bruce was standing at the end of the hall, staring at the TV screen, eyes lost and unfocused again. I tried to think what had been on, but it had switched to commercials seconds after Bruce’s reaction. “Are you okay?”
“Everything okay there, kiddo?”
“Yeah, just a glass. ” Having crossed the room quickly, shutting off the TV on the way as I talked, I approached Bruce carefully. “Hey, are you okay?” Switching back to the phone, “Umm, I think he might be having a panic attack.” I reached out and gently touched the man’s shoulder, but Bruce flinched back violently, shaking.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay! It’s fine. Just try to breathe. You’re here with me, Peter, in my apartment. You’re safe.”
As I continued the litany of soothing words, Tony spoke in my ear, “Hey, you know what, there’s not much going on here at the minute. What d’you say I come over right now. Be careful and don’t make any stupid choices kid. If he’s enhanced like you suspect, he might react poorly while in panic mode. Just… be safe.” The line went silent.
When Tony arrived at the apartment, I had managed to get Bruce over to the couch and was picking out glass shards and wrapping the man’s hands in gauze. At the knock, I set the tweezers down and sprang for the door. “Be right back!” The man had calmed down considerably. Aside from a few more sheepishly murmured apologies, he hadn’t spoken since the attack.
Checking the peephole and sliding the bolt, I let Tony into the room. “Sorry for the mess,” I said awkwardly, unconsciously mirroring Bruce’s mumbled attempts from moments before.
But Tony had stopped cold in the doorway, looking like he had seen a ghost. “Bruce? How on God’s green earth…” he fumbled with words for a second before blurting out, “what the hell?”
“Tony?” Bruce’s eyes had gone wide, and still somewhat afraid, as if he were steeling himself for something. “Tony—good gracious there’s a kid here, watch your mouth.”
Tony cut him off, with something akin to anger in his face. “Where have you been? Two years, Banner, two freaking years you cut all contact with the team, we don’t know if you’re dead or alive, and then when you come home with Thor you pull the same freaking stunt and disappear! Only to show up here? In Queens?”
Bruce ducked his head and didn’t say anything, but I could tell by his body posture that he was incredibly uncomfortable, retreating within himself as far away as he could. The pieces were slowly assembling in my head… Banner…Bruce… Thor…
“You’re Dr. Banner?!?” I blurted out, unable to contain myself. “THE Dr. Banner? I—I’ve read some of your work, it’s incredible! You’re like my hero! How—”
Both Bruce and Tony stared at me as if just remembering I was there. In hindsight, it wasn’t the greatest timing for an excited outburst.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Right, then,” Tony was the first to stir himself. “Underoos, meet Dr. Bruce Banner, scientist turned recluse and sometimes jolly green giant with a propensity for letting his team think he’s lost or dead for years at a time; Bruce, meet my intern, Peter Parker. Now kid, if you’d step out for a moment I need to have some strong words with my prodigal colleague here.”
“I’m sorry, Tony, I didn’t know I’d go green for that long, or what was going to happen with Sokovia and Steve—” Bruce seemed like he was pleading, almost like he was still scared, but Tony cut him off with an angry gesture at the name of his former friend.
At the accompanying flinch of fear, I hesitated, worried that Tony's anger might cause another panic attack. “Mr. Stark, I—”
Tony pivoted abruptly but stopped as if finally seeing the trembling man before him. His demeanor suddenly softened. “Bruce, what’s happened to you these past couple years, man? You seem…” Broken? Scared? Defeated? Stark let the words trail away, unsaid. “You could have come home. After Sokovia, you didn’t have to leave. We would have helped you. When you landed in Norway, you could have called, I’d have been there in a heartbeat.”
Bruce folded his arms around himself again, looking away. “Come home to where, Tony? You know I can’t be around people. I’m a threat. And when we got back to Norway—I saw the TV, the accords, all of it. What do you think those people would do to me if I signed? Lock me up? Examine me? Try to kill me, only to have the other guy spit the bullet back in their faces? I know damn well how that would work out for everyone involved.” In contrast to earlier, he seemed stronger, more resolved.
“And you think I’d let them do that?” The hint of anger had returned, but it seemed directed elsewhere now. “You don’t always have to solve everything by running away, you big, self-sacrificial idiot!” His voice cracked.
Bruce looked down at his hands, wringing together despite the gauzed-over wounds. “I’m sorry,” he whispered again.
Realizing perhaps the scientist had had enough, Tony rounded on me. “And you,” he continued, “What were you thinking??? Why didn’t you call me, right away, wherever you found this guy? You brought a potential enhanced that you didn’t know to your apartment?” He gestured broadly at the room. “How do I end up working with some of the stupidest geniuses in the cosmos? Would it be so hard to have just a little bit of a sense of self-preservation?” I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t say anything. Tony sighed, and finally let his arms drop. “Happy’s got the car outside. You two, pack up whatever it is you need. I’m going to call Thor. Or try to. Why he can’t figure out a basic flip-phone after working with actual magical items is beyond me.”
All three of us climbed into the back of Tony’s car, settling into the facing sets of seats. I chose the backward facing seat alone, and the others seemed to sense I wasn’t ready for too much proximity yet. The first ten minutes of the trip passed in total silence.
Finally, Tony spoke. “Hey, so I know you’re not keen on talking right now, big guy, but where have you been since the whole Asgardian refugee thing? Thor filled us in on most of what happened before that. Did something happen? Did Loki have anything to do with you running off again?”
I started. “Loki? Oh, no, no, I just…” my voice trailed off. “Didn’t want to mess up the resettlement efforts.” It remained unspoken, but the weight of what Tony had called my lack of self-preservation hung in the air.
“You haven’t seen him, then?”
“No, why would I?” Exhausted strain crept back into my tone. “Why would I have seen anyone?”
Tony leaned back against the leather cushions. “Huh. Well, we’ve lost tabs on a magical and probably homicidal extraterrestrial, but no news is good news, I suppose.”
That got my attention. My head shot up. “Loki isn’t still in Norway?”
“Nope. Gone without a trace, shortly after your disappearance. Certainly made us wonder.”
I frowned. “Loki and I have come to an understanding,” I murmured, almost to myself. “After Sakaar and Asgard…well, Sakaar and all changed things.”
I recalled waking again, heaving and trembling, naked under the foreign material of an Asgardian cloak. Loki was watching me, imperviously. “What happened?” I gasped out. “Where are we?”
“Surtur and Hela are locked in mortal combat for eternity, you punched a helwolf off the edge of the world, Asgard has been destroyed, and we are on route to Midgard—Earth, if you will.”
I blinked slowly, trying to process the new information and my surroundings. “Is that good?”
Loki chuckled humorlessly. “That is the question, is it not. We are yet alive.” He paused as I struggled to get up, bunching the cloak around me like a towel. “I take it you prefer this form.”
I nodded and startled as the cloak shifted around me into dark sweatpants, and purple flannel, and a tattered jacket I hadn’t seen since before my last code green on Earth. “Thanks.” He hadn’t said anything to that end, but I was beginning to suspect he had something to do with the other guy relinquishing his hold since no one else was to be seen, a task which must have been anything but pleasant. I was surprised he would have bothered.
Loki turned to leave, but paused in the doorway. “We all have a form we would prefer to forget, Banner,” he said softly, still turned away. “Dinner is in half an hour.”
“So,” Tony said, breaking the pregnant pause. “I don’t get it. You left Norway to come starve on the streets of New York? Not your MO big guy—thought you’d be hiding out in Tibet or something, not wandering around the city that never sleeps.”
Unconsciously, I drew my arms closer to myself. “Not sure how I got here,” I admitted. “After I left… ended up caught and taken to a lab somewhere for a while. Tests, experiments.” Torture, my mind supplied but my lips withheld. Anticipating the question, I haltingly spilled forth, “Don’t know who or why, just... next thing I know I’m on the streets completely lost.”
“A lab?” Peter queried, breaking his silence for the first time since they had left the apartment. “They experimented on you?” He looked horrified, and with good reason, given his own enhancement.
I shrugged, and deigned to elaborate further, choosing instead to turn my gaze to the foggy gray sky outside the car window.
“The new compound’s a pretty sweet set-up if I do say so myself,” Tony interjected with characteristic aplomb. “And after everything that happened in—well, after the Accords fallout… they still try to keep a tight rein but only from a distance. The paperwork requirements are excessive but nobody pokes their noses into anything that goes on in my space. I guess what I’m saying is, nobody is gonna know that you’re here, Bruce. I can keep the government off your back while we figure out what to do to keep you safe.”
I gave a short puff of a laugh that didn’t reach my eyes. Was anywhere really safe?
“Speaking of safety, are you hurt?”
“I’ll be fine.”
Tony took off his sunglasses with a frown. “Taken to a lab somewhere and experimented on doesn’t sound fine to me.”
“The other guy usually makes sure there isn’t any lasting damage.”
Tony grimaced. “That’s what I thought. Look, you don’t have to be tough for me. We can get some medical staff on the payroll, carefully background checked and sworn to secrecy—”
I laughed hollowly. “It’s not a question of being tough for you. I’m a biologist, Tony. I know. I just—I don’t need another person jabbing me and treating me like a specimen.”
I noticed that Tony dropped the subject after that, but I couldn’t help but worry that Bruce—Dr. Banner—was still hurt. My overactive senses were telling me that the man sitting across from me in Uncle Ben’s old clothes was still suffering profoundly, but there was nothing I could do.
Long moments later— “So… an intern, huh? Never struck me as the type to bring high schoolers into your lab.” Dr. Banner was watching Tony pretty closely, and I got the distinct impression that he knew something was up.
The frown that had been etched into Tony’s face pretty much since he had arrived at the apartment eased up slightly. “That’s your call, Petey boy.”
“Oh, um, actually,” I floundered, “Mr. Stark figured me out online and then we went to Germany and he upgraded my suit, and I almost joined you guys at one point, but the whole big disasters thing isn’t really my thing, I’m more of a friendly neighborhood helper, you know?”
“Underoos, you’re rambling.”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, uh, hi, I’m Spider-Man, nice to meet you.” To his surprise, Bruce actually took the proffered hand gingerly in his own and shook it. A rare smile touched his lips.
“Nice to meet you too, Spiderman. Figured something was up in hindsight considering how you flipped those guys in the alley. Reminded me of…” his voice trailed off. It didn’t take a genius to realize he was thinking of Natasha, though both of his fellow occupants of the car fit the bill.
“I did kinda tell you,” I admitted, “but you were pretty out of it at the time. But yeah, I guess most people don’t flip muggers over their head on their average day out on the town.”
Tony’s frown came back. “You got mugged? Kid, you are the worst, the actual worst, at passing along important details. Seriously.”
Bruce shrugged. “Can you really call it a mugging if I didn’t have anything for them to take?”
“So a couple guys were beating you up in an alley? So much better.” A sudden thought occurred to Tony. “How’d the other guy feel about that?”
Bruce looked at Tony strangely. “I-I don’t know. Hulk’s been… well, how much did Thor mention about Sakaar? He was out for two years—TWO YEARS—I don’t remember any of it. Forced him out again to help with the battle on Asgard, and didn’t come back down again until we were almost to Mid—to Earth. Not sure how I got back, actually, but Loki dropped some comments about having needed more refined company, so I’m guessing he did something. He’s not a big fan of the Hulk, as you may imagine.” I felt like Bruce was hiding something, but I didn't know what.
Tony cracked a smile. “The dent in my floor would second that, yes.”
“Sorry about that,” Bruce mumbled automatically.
“Sorry? You were the only one of us who could even get close to incapacitating that guy, let alone actually succeeding. Totally worth the repairs.”
““Everything since I left Norway is pretty hazy,” Bruce admitted. “Except…well, it all blurs together. There are some gaps.”
“But no mentions of a rogue green rage machine on the news. Trust me, my AIs have been combing the web trying to find any sign of where you might have gone.”
“Sorry about that,” Bruce repeated abashedly. “I didn’t think—well, it seemed for the best—the crew had no need of me anymore—”
Tony sighed deeply. “Then why not come home, Bruce? We were so relieved, finding out that you were with Thor, and the you were just gone again, before any of us could talk to you or even see you.”
“I—I didn’t think of it that way,” Bruce mumbled. “Just trying to protect people—the world, really—from this.” He jabbed a finger against his chest. “I’m not like the kid here. There’s nothing friendly or neighborhood about this guy except when he’s being exploited by aliens to kill fellow prisoners over and over as a twisted form of public entertainment. The worst part is, he LIKED it. He craved the roar of the crowds, and the constant SMASHING, and do you have any idea what it’s like to live with that inside you? What kind of person would I have to be to want to bring that back to people I care about? I couldn’t live with that.”
Fortunately, Tony seemed to have exhausted his supply of yelling for the day. “So…the Avengers Compound should be a pretty safe place for you. I built in spaces to safely contain Hulk-outs if necessary. And as for nearby people…” he gave an empty chuckle. “Most of the nearby people cleared out after the Accords. Nowadays it’s mostly just Rhodey and Vision, and Vision, well—he’s Vision. Floats through walls, comes and goes as he pleases, always has some self-righteous commentary. Rhodey’s already been through hell and it was because of our erstwhile teammates, not you; and I’m pretty sure Vision is as Smash-proof as it gets.”
“So everyone else really did leave,” I realized softly. “No contact with them?”
Tony shook his head, uncharacteristically subdued. “We… didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. They made some stupid choices—hell, I made some stupid choices too. There was a lot of collateral damage. Not all of it was the kind that can be repaired.” His hand went unconsciously to his left wrist. My heart twinged at the thought of some of the damage I had left behind myself, not all reparable itself.
“I’m sorry,” I said, reaching out of my self-imposed isolation for the first time to grasp Tony’s forearm. Voluntary contact with another person felt so strange and foreign to me after so long, but I fought the instinct to recoil because it seemed that the gesture was important to Tony.
“I’ve made reparations and provisions with the U.N. for them in case they ever change their minds, but doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen.” He snorted. “Strictly off the record, I may have broken them out of jail a while back, but I don’t think even they know that. Barton and Lang both worked out a deal to move back with their families under careful surveillance, and fortunately neither has been dumb enough to blow that deal.”
“Lang?” I asked, frowning at the unfamiliar name.
“Ant-Man. Long story,” Tony said dismissively. “Some criminal that Hank Pym thought it wise to give a super suit to. And that man has the balls to criticize MY business practices.”
“There’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?”*
Part of me wanted to ask after Natasha, craved it even, but I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the could-have-beens, or to pain Tony further by recollecting the events. I laughed instead, although it felt empty and hollow, almost as hollow as I did. After all of that hazy, lost time, I wasn’t sure if I could ever get myself back.
Tony fingering the gauze on my hand startled me into withdrawing it. “Hey, so what happened right before I got there?”
“Broke a glass.” I hunched around my arms again, not wanting to get back into it.
“Want Vision to take a look at it when we get back? He’s picked up a bunch of medical functions as a hobby recently. Think he feels guilty over what happened with Rhodes. Can’t say I mind, though, guy needs a hobby besides walking through walls.”
I shook my head quickly. “Nah, the kid’s good with first aid. I’ll be okay.” Peter practically beamed. The real reason remained unspoken. I didn’t want anyone getting a look at the older injuries, the lingering scabs and bruises that freaked me out and brought horrifying wave of emotions and images and sensations back to my mind at a rate where I felt like the flood would drown me in its weight. There were stories I wasn’t ready to tell. Words, shouted at me. Angry fists, but they weren’t mine. The relentless, ominous crack of electricity coursing through my body. Searing pain that overrode every other sensation. Raw, guttural screaming—I couldn’t tell if it was coming from me, or the Hulk, I’d never heard that sound before, but it was tearing out of my own throat. When would it end, oh God, make it stop, make it stop—
“Bruce, BRUCE. Banner, are you with me?” I jolted back into my surroundings to Tony’s hands on my shoulders, almost shaking me. “Breathe, dammit!”
The words registered, but with half a moment’s delay, and I sucked in the sweet air, gasping for breath.
“You’re gonna be okay, we’re in my car, Peter’s here, remember him? He found you on the street yesterday. We’re going upstate to the compound for a little while. Are you with me?”
Still struggling to control my trembling hands and ragged breathing, I forced out a nod.
“Flashback?” Tony queried. A wave of realization—Tony’s had those, he gets it—helped relax the remaining tension in my body.
“I-I guess,” I stammered. “It’s over now, though.” The words were as much a reassurance to myself as to anyone else in the car.
Tony nodded. I could tell he was making a conscious effort not to push on the subject, and for that I was grateful. As long as I didn’t have to admit it out loud, I could pretend what I had been through wasn’t real.
“Sorry about that.” I picked at the ragged sleeves of the jacket I had put back on over the clothes Peter had given me. Although the other garments had been completely trashed, I had clung to the worn outer garment as a comfort blanket of sorts.
“It’s okay, Dr. Banner,” Peter piped in. I’d almost forgotten he was there—had he fallen asleep for part of the journey? Had I woken him up? “Everyone gets those sometimes. Well, not everyone, but—I guess what I’m trying to say is that it could happen to anyone, especially in response to trauma, so you don’t need to apologize. I’ve had a couple after accidentally destroying Coney Island and Ned’s had to help me breathe and remember where I am, too.”
Tony frowned. “Kid, we need to have a serious talk about things you should probably tell me right away instead of randomly mentioning them after.”
“It doesn’t work itself into normal conversation all that easily!” Peter protested. “Besides, whenever I see you I’m always distracted by being excited about projects in the lab and stuff.”
“I don’t need our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man winding up with PTSD!” Noticing my flinch at the level of his voice, Tony softened his tone. “We’ll talk later about finding you a therapist who can keep their mouth shut. There’s no shame in needing help.”
“The counselor I see through school has been great about that, actually,” Peter piped up. “I’ve been seeing one off and on since my parents died. Since she’s already been bound to confidentiality through her job, she’s been a great place to talk this stuff out.”
“My generation is a lot more accepting and aware of mental health than yours is. No offense.”
Tony probably would have had something to say about that, but we were pulling up to the compound. Gates opened automatically on recognition of the car and Happy at the wheel.
“Wow,” I breathed. “This is quite the place.”
“Yep,” Tony said happily. “We’ll get you set up in your own space ASAP. Hell, you can have multiple apartments if you want. It’s been pretty empty as of late. Pete, your official story is pretty much exactly what happened—you picked up Banner on the street and gave me a ring—minus any mention of Spidey. Sound good?”
I blinked, trying to catch up. “Wait, do the other guys not know about…”
“I’m trying to keep my identity secret,” Peter explained apologetically, grabbing his blue, surprisingly new-looking backpack he had packed up for the weekend. “What with school, and trying not to have anyone target Aunt May or my friends. So no, I haven’t told the rest of the team, although they probably have some idea. Mr. Stark isn’t really the type to let teenagers in his lab out of the blue.”
I nodded. Keeping one's identity a secret seemed like a reasonable idea to me.
The first person we met on the way up the steps was Vision, phasing through one of the large columns. Peter and I jumped; Tony seemed unfazed. “Hey Vis. Didja miss me?” he asked.
“Dr. Banner. It is an honor to see you again.” The red AI inclined his head in greeting and floated down to the floor. Even though Vision had been partially the result of my own work alongside Tony, the greeting was still unnerving.
“Thank you, it’s good to see you too.”
“You are unwell,” a voice murmured, as if in my ear. I jumped, and looked around, but it seemed only Vision noticed and was watching me intently, whether for reply or acknowledgement I couldn’t tell.
“Don’t do that,” I muttered perturbedly. Tony gave me an odd look, but chose not to question it.
“Shall I inform the others of your arrival, Mr. Stark?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Tell them team dinner at 6; I’ll fill them in then.”
“Others?” Peter asked. “I thought it was just Colonel Rhodes.”
“Erik Selvig’s been camping out here on and off for a while,” Tony supplied as Vision swept away through the wall. “Helen Cho has open access to a lab as well, but she’s usually away. Recently she’s been camping out near New Asgard helping out with xenobiology and getting Thor’s crew up-to-date on Earth diseases and so forth. Pepper’s in Norway at the moment as well, helping with the resettlement negotiations. So my money’s on Erik. Hey Petey boy, show Bruce to the suite down the hall from your room. I should go check in with him.”
“Sure,” Peter replied with enthusiasm. “Right this way, Dr. Banner. Uh, do you mind if I ask you some questions about your research later?”
The kid’s joie de vivre was contagious and I couldn’t help agreeing. “Okay, sure.”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but the suite certainly outdid it. Gentle light from the window spilled in across deep blue and purple wallpaper and wooden floors. Carved wooden figurines I vaguely remembered making before Ultron sat against a carefully bookended line of my old papers and folders on the otherwise empty desk. A piano occupied the corner opposite my bed. In keeping with my dislike of confined spaces, the suite spilled openly from one living space to another, lacking barriers aside from the bathroom door.
“Wow,” I breathed.
“Glad you like it.” I jumped, turning to find Tony leaning against the doorframe. “Sorry about that, big guy—I forget not everybody senses me coming like Peter. Anyway, let me know what changes you want, or if you’d like more space.”
“No, no, this is…” my voice trailed off, choked up and at loss for words. “This is great. Are you sure—are you sure about having me here?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? This apartment has been in the works for you since I moved out of the tower. By the way,” he gestured at the far wall and enunciated, “Code: green.”
A reinforced panel concealed under the soothing wallpaper slid open, revealing a very different room. My eyes skimmed over it, noting the beams and materials still clearly visible on the bare walls. “Hulk proof?”
Tony shrugged. “Theoretically. I based it on some of the stuff we had drawn up back before Ultron. Obviously, it hasn’t been tested, but should the need arise it ought to at least minimize the impact. I know that’s a concern for you.”
I nodded. “Thank you. Tony, I—I don’t know what to say.”
Tony brushed it off casually. “Don’t say anything then. I like having you around, and I like making my friends as comfortable as possible. Now go settle in, rearrange the furniture, jump on the bed, whatever. Oh, and Banner?” he paused on the way back out the door.
*quote from Avengers: Infinity War
My first posted fanfic! I mostly wrote this for myself, so I jump perspectives and take liberties with the characters whenever I feel like it. If that doesn't bother you, welcome aboard for the ride. No idea how long this will be or how consistent I'll be about posting, but I'm hoping to crank out ten chapters by the time Endgame hits theaters. We'll see! Thanks for reading.
Chapter 2: Stark Contrasts
Tony and Bruce contemplate the way things used to be and the events that led them to this point. Peter's spider senses alert him that they are no longer alone at the compound.
“What I wouldn’t give for a drink right now,” I mused, giving my chair a restless spin. But Rhodey and Pepper had been strictly monitoring my alcohol intake since the Accords fiasco, and I was pretty sure FRIDAY was on their side. They probably had a point—I could feel the alluring pull of alcoholism in the days after coming back from Siberia, why wouldn’t they just let me drown everything out, dammit—but that didn’t make me any less annoyed by it.
A rush of unwelcome feelings had thrust their way to the surface after settling Bruce into his quarters and filling in Rhodes and Selvig over dinner. This was the way it was supposed to be. I kept expecting to see other familiar faces in the gym and open areas. Natasha, punching the living daylights out of a sandbag, tossing out a curt greeting in between blows without so much as losing her rhythm. Clint, making fluffer-nutters in the kitchen and trying to convince Sam that no, it wasn’t weird to put peanut butter and marshmallow fluff together, really, you have to try it. Thor being scolded by Pepper when he left Mjolnir someplace particularly inconvenient. He always chalked it up to forgetfulness, but there was no way setting the hammer on top of a freshly baked canister of chocolate chip cookies was anything but intentional. Steve, flicking through options on Netflix with an air of serious contemplation as he continually tried to catch up on a culture that had left him behind decades ago. Rhodey…before the accident.
My chest tightened. You’re in a safe place, everything’s fine, I repeated to myself silently as I took deliberate, focused steps to slow my breathing. But it wasn’t fine, dammit. The world’s mightiest heroes, torn apart not by some unbeatable foe, but by themselves. Zemo had gotten what he wanted.
Even Bruce, wherever he’d been, seemed destroyed by the past few years. The dry humor, easy camaraderie, all had disappeared into a broken shell. He picked at his food throughout dinner, shrunk into himself when we filled the others in on the situation, and disappeared back to his rooms as quickly as he could after the meal.
I took an angry swig of the bitter black coffee that was the strongest thing I’d been allowed to drink unsupervised in months. Part of me wanted to be angry at Thor—he knew about Banner’s disappearing tendencies, and still let him run off and get himself kidnapped by who knows who—but that wasn’t fair.
Speaking of Thor… I pulled out my phone again, noting only briefly the series of unreturned messages before ringing up someone more reliable. “Hey, Pep.”
“Tony? Is everything okay there?” A warmth I didn’t realize I’d been missing returned to my chest.
“Hey,” I protested, “sometimes I just call to hear your voice, y’know. A man’s allowed to call his fiancee.”
Pepper laughed. “Okay, but you know I’m working, so I know something’s up. Spill, or I’ll call Colonel Rhodes and tell him to check on you.”
“Okay, okay. Our favorite jolly green giant is back and Thor won’t answer his phone. Also he’s not green or jolly at the moment.”
A touch of worry entered Pepper’s voice. “Bruce? Where has he been? Is he okay?”
“Still trying to figure that out, honey. He’s been pretty tight-lipped about whatever it was happened to him.” I filled her in briefly on what I knew, then added, “Can you let Thor know what’s going on? I know he’s pretty busy right now, but it might help to have him drop by and see Banner considering he’s the only one of us who’s had any contact in the past two years.”
“I’ll see what we can do. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if Loki were still here this would easier. He had the Asgardians off to a pretty good start on rebuilding before he took off. Right now, the defacto second in command is literally a talking pile of rocks. I’ll talk to Darcy and see if we can spare Thor for a couple of days.”
A knock at the door interrupted the conversation. “Thanks honey. Gotta go. Love ya!”
Vision glided through the wall. “Sir, you have unexpected visitors. No alarms have been triggered, but I question their intentions.”
“What? Who? Where?” Instinctively, I stuck a hand out for my suit, only to remember I had taken it off to shower. “Dammit.” Language, a painfully familiar voice echoed in my head, no matter how hard I tried to forget.
Eating seemed so normal. That in itself seemed so uncomfortable, so out of place against the jarring background of everything that had happened. The cognitive dissonance of comfort food, and friends, and casual conversation against the tension of my mind continually preparing itself for something awful to happen, akin to the way my body had braced against pain, kept me from fully focusing on anything at the dinner table. It was all too overwhelming.
The only thing that did seem normal was the sting of cuts in my palm from the glass I had shattered earlier that day. I clung to that fresh pain as a grounding force. As soon as it was possible to escape, I fled the common area to the peaceful blue room and locked the door behind me.
The anxiety was still there.
I paced the room, fingers knotted in my hair, trying to stave it off, until the scabs on my feet had broken open again from the friction and burned in protest. Images and sensations that I couldn't quite piece together, but were still etched into my mind rushed over me—cold shackles of an unknown metal tight around my ankles, digging into my flesh as I fought against the restraints, anything to escape the interminable bastinado.
I choked out a sob for the first time in ages as my surroundings jolted back into focus, and I found myself on the floor. One hand was clenched deep into a small area rug; the other slowly relinquished its grip on my wrist where scarlet crescents of blood slipped up to fill the space left by my fingernails. I needed to take care of myself, to get the aftermath under control.
I padded gingerly into the attached bathroom and slipped off the ratty old slippers I had had the presence of mind to dig out of the trash somewhere along the way, and the bound-up, blood-stained rags under that. I winced as the fabric pulled away from the reopened wounds.
“Yes, Dr. Banner? How may I assist you?”
“Is there a first aid kit anywhere in this room?”
“There are basic medical supplies in the cupboard above the sink. Do you require medical assistance?”
“No, no,” I said hastily. “I’m—I am medical assistance. Don’t mention this to anyone, please.”
“Very well.” The voice in the ceiling went quiet.
Halfway through washing and re-bandaging the lesions, I was already perspiring. My cheek was raw from biting back the pain. I rested my head on my arms, one foot in and one out of the bathtub, trying to gather the strength to finish. If you don’t finish, you leave yourself vulnerable to infection, I reasoned with myself. Just do it, it’ll be over soon.
This time, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. The torture wasn’t over. With every twinge of the battered nerves of my feet, I was back in that awful room, and I couldn’t stop it. I had broken past the point of trying to hold onto myself in that torture chamber of a lab and pleaded for his relief, but the Hulk wouldn’t—or couldn’t—save me. Nausea surged up inside me and I vomited into the toilet bowl, the violent hacking motion only exacerbating the pain in my lower back.
“Are you certain you do not require assistance?” FRIDAY queried.
“I’m fine,” I choked out. “Please, just leave me alone.”
Tears blurring my sight, I wrapped the gauze clumsily around the other foot and taped it into place. A sloppy and amateurish job, but finally I could escape that bathroom.
Exhausted both physically and mentally, I stumbled back into my bedroom and collapsed. The mattress was luxuriously soft, swallowing me into its comfort. I pulled the thick quilt at the foot around myself like a cocoon, allowing its weight to gradually slow my trembling. Thoroughly worn, I drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Next thing I knew, something had roused me from my slumber. The lights were still low, and I blinked, trying to figure out what brought me out of the haze of almost-dreams, when I saw it. A dark silhouette standing by the bed.
The tingle of spider senses was my first clue that something was up. Closing my chemistry book carefully, I tiptoed to the door of my room and peered out the peephole. No sign of anyone, but I knew I had felt someone pass down that hallway.
“Hey Friday,” I whispered, “is Vision around?” Seconds later, the scarlet android melted through my bureau into the room.
“Peter, you asked after me?”
“I think somebody’s in the building.” I strapped on my web-shooters as I spoke. “Got anything?”
Vision frowned. “None of the alarms have gone off, nor have I seen anything. I shall contact Tony.” He was gone as quickly as he had come, and before I had the chance to ask any further questions.
“Okay, thanks,” I said to the blank wall. “Guess I’ll check it out myself then.”
I eased into the hallway and flipped up onto the ceiling, crawling along stealthily in the direction that the sensation had indicated.
I won't always be able to update this quickly, but here's chapter two! Who do you think the mysterious visitor is? Tune in next time to find out!
Chapter 3: Masters of Illusion
Despite Tony's hefty security measures, the Avengers Compound receives an unexpected breach.
“The men who held you are languishing in Helheim.”
I blinked, still trying to process the familiar but completely unexpected figure. “Loki? How—What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Loki said nonchalantly. “Not the easiest task in such a base society. Really, I don’t know what you and Thor see in it.” He inspected his fingernails with a contemplative air.
“Did Tony let you in?” The situation was still incredibly disorienting.
“The man of Iron?” Loki scoffed.
That wasn’t an answer, but at the same time, it was. “How’d you bypass the security system?”
“They don’t call me the god of mischief for nothing, Banner.”
As if on cue, sounds of a scuffle broke out behind the—still locked—door. “What’s going on?” I demanded, panic rising as I flung myself out of bed. As my feet touched the floor, however, my legs crumpled beneath me with a hiss of pain.
“Norns, we’ve got company,” Loki swore, catching me partway down and helping me to the ground. He braced himself facing the door, which splintered off its hinges as he spoke, bringing two tussling figures with it.
I flinched at the snap, and threw my arms up instinctively to protect myself.
“No one is here to hurt you, Banner,” Loki hissed. Then to the fighting duo, “Both of you, stand down! We are not here to do battle.”
“You won’t get away with this. Just surrender now and make it easier for yourselves.” Peter’s bravado was unwavering even in a fight. Loki sighed, whether exasperated or disappointed, I couldn’t tell, and raised a hand toward the action.
“Don’t hurt him!” I blurted out.
Then a painfully familiar voice cut through the scuffle, unwinded by grappling with the younger combatant. “We’re here to HELP, Spiderkid. Okay? Please, just give us a chance to explain.”
Whether Peter prepared to let them or not was unclear, because a few seconds later the sounds of struggle eased off and he uttered only one syllable. “Shoot.”
The light flicked on, and suddenly Natasha was right there next to me, her lips twisting into a crooked smile. “Hey, Bruce.”
“I’ve missed you, you big idiot.”
“The big idiot’s taking a break right now,” I mumbled. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her, to admit she was here and real. “Not sure when he’ll be back, so if you were hoping to see him—”
“Actually, I was hoping to see you.”
At the words, something broke inside of me and the tears began to flood out. The weight of the years of fear and loss since I had fled the battle of Sokovia, finally too heavy to bear, crumbled down over me, and I wept.
That’s how Tony found us—Peter, sheepishly webbed to the wall from a slick misdirection of his own web-shooters, Natasha kneeling beside me on the rug whispering something soft in Russian, Loki standing to the side looking out of place, wary and tensed for a fight, should it come to that.
“What the hell?” I demanded for the second time that weekend. Peter, at least, looked suitably chastened. Loki stared back defiantly, one hand raised, mirroring my own.
“Shoot and I’ll deflect it right back in your face, Stark,” he hissed. “We are here peaceably.”
“Peaceably? Is that what you call it when you break in in the middle of the night and skulk around chasing my friends? Is that why the kid has been restrained and Bruce is sobbing? I swear if you have hurt a hair on the head of either of them—”
“All hairs are accounted for.” Loki raised both hands in a less threatening gesture. “I realize we have not had the best of histories, but please believe that our intention is only to help.”
“We bring a peace offering,” Natasha interrupted, cautiously setting something down on the floor between us and sliding it over.
I picked it up, careful not to take my eye off either of them. The object was a singed ID card with peeling text: Campe Labs. “What is it?” I demanded.
“The men that Dr. Banner fled last week,” Loki said coolly. “Or what’s left.”
“I recognize that name. Went off the deep end and got himself fired from SHIELD a while back for his unethical treatment of prisoners. Impressive, considering SHIELD was basically Hydra at the time.”
Loki gave a tight laugh. “Which was ever so effective in preventing him from carrying out said ethics in his private research. As different as we may be, Stark, had you been there you would have let the place burn as well.”
“Very well, we can talk,” I allowed warily. “But be warned that I’m not happy about either of you being here. Try anything, and I will blast both of your double-crossing asses from here to Asgard and back.”
Loki gestured in Peter’s direction and the webbing came loose, releasing the kid from his own silken trap.
I sighed. “FRIDAY, tell Vision and Colonel Rhodes to stand down.”
We reassembled in the common area’s TV room. The tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. Peter was hanging from the ceiling, arms crossed, trying to look tough after his ignominious defeat to Natasha. After being found in that compromising position, he seemed to have given up on hiding the whole spider thing from the rest of the team, none of whom seemed particularly surprised. The assassin in question was perched on the back of the coach next to Bruce, who was looking detached and shell-shocked again. Vision hovered behind both of them. Loki and Rhodey were facing off from across the coffee table in individual seats.
“You better have a good story as to why you’re here,” Rhodey growled.
“It’s a much better story than why you are all here,” Loki observed coolly, giving a pointed look at the braces on Rhodey’s legs.
“Loki,” Natasha warned.
“Considering I actually bother to find my friends when they go missing, I find the hostility in this room rather insulting.”
I was tempted, oh so tempted, to blast Loki then and there. “What do you think I did?”
Natasha was beginning to look irritated. “Will you two please not turn this into a pissing contest?”
“And you,” I rounded on her, “first you double-cross us in Germany, and then you show up in my house uninvited with the galactic champion of double-crossing and expect a warm welcome?” It was meant as an insult, but going by the twitch of a smile at Loki’s lips, he had taken it as a compliment. Could the guy be any more infuriating?
“Actually,” Natasha returned coolly, “this reception is about what I expected. Why do think I never come back to visit?”
“Besides being a wanted criminal? Yeah, I’m sure it’s the hospitality that’s lacking.”
“Hey, uh, why are you guys here?” Peter’s voice broke in curiously. “Cuz if you’re just gonna keep bantering back and forth all night, I’ve got homework to finish.”
If looks could kill, Natasha’s would have slit my throat with its razor sharp fury. “You brought a kid to Germany?”
“He’s 15,” I protested, at the same time that Peter insisted, “I’m not a kid!” But even as I said it I knew it wasn’t a particularly compelling response.
“Not your best choice,” Rhodey mouthed at me.
“Whose side are you on?”
Loki inclined his head slightly in Peter’s direction. “In the eyes of Asgard, you have proven yourself a warrior. Studious, yet capable of wielding power when the situation calls for it. I like this one.” He glanced at me. “Where shall I begin?”
I sighed. “Why did you leave Norway? Why are you and Romanoff working together? Are you working together, or did you both just happen to break in independently by some stroke of incredible bad luck on my part?”
“I thought that was obvious. Banner disappeared. As for Romanoff—I am not particularly familiar with Midgardian customs and found myself desirous of an ally with a skill set that would closely match my style.”
“Stealthy and back-stabbing?”
“I’d been doing my own investigations into Dr. Banner’s whereabouts since Sokovia,” Natasha continued without rising to the bait. “When Loki approached me with new information, using the available resources was the natural choice. We followed a couple of dead ends before tracking him to the lab, and from there to Queens, where we lost his trail briefly, presumably thanks to your bringing him here.”
“Good, my anti-stalker protocol is working.” Though the two invaders were seeming like less of a threat, my snarky resentment toward them was rising.
“How’d you find us here, then?” Peter queried.
Loki chuckled again, and tossed the upside down teenager a cellphone. Peter snagged it from midair without missing a beat, and flipped it open, scanning the messages.
“Huh. That would do it.” Reading out loud, “Hey, Thor, we found him. Stop by the compound when you get a chance. Your Iron Pal.”
“You have Thor’s cellphone?” I demanded. “No wonder he never answers me. You really are the worst.”
Loki smirked. “You say that like it’s an insult. Besides, can you really imagine my brother using a cellphone?”
“I’m glad we let Banner smash you into the floor a couple dozen times,” I muttered rebelliously, still not quite ready to accept the newcomers.
I dragged myself to my feet as the uneasy truce decided to reconvene in the common area instead of my now-partially-destroyed room. At Tony’s pointed glare, Natasha let go of my arm and stepped away, though I could tell she wasn’t happy about it. My feet throbbed and I silently willed myself not to go into another flashback, not while my friends were at each other’s throats. I limped towards the door, following the others out.
Loki brushed past me, casually, but I caught the slight flick of his wrist. “Keep moving, Banner,” he instructed quietly without so much as making eye contact. The pressure on my soles eased suddenly. Surreptitiously, I glanced down while following his directions. Almost imperceptible, a thin cushion of air separated my slippers from the floor. Ahh. That’s why he needed me to keep moving. It would be pretty obvious he was assisting me if I stopped abruptly.
Finally settled on the couch, I rested my head tiredly on one fist. The conversation faded in and out around me. Insults, tossed back and forth by all parties… except Peter, good kid. I was so tired of all of it.
“I’m glad we let Banner smash you into the floor a couple dozen times,” Tony said irritably.
“Banner doesn’t smash,” I mumbled.
For the first time since we had left my room, the motley group of superheroes seemed to notice I was there.
“What?” Tony asked.
“Banner doesn’t smash,” I repeated. “Hulk smashes.” I shook my head, trying to clear it. “Just… stop. All the fighting, the jabs at each other… I’m tired. Please. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. I didn’t mean to cause all of this.”
The anger faded from Tony’s posture. “He’s right. We aren’t getting anywhere like this.” He gestured at Natasha and Loki. “Pick an empty room, we can talk more in the morning. No funny business, or I will personally ship you back to that apocalyptic fire monster thing your brother described.”
I didn’t bother pointing out that Surtur was probably on pretty good terms with Loki since he had resurrected him from the eternal flame. Loki, to his credit, deigned not to mention this as well.
“Deal.” The trickster god extended his hand to Tony, who took it with a grimace.
“I can’t believe I’m letting you stay in my house,” he muttered.
A characteristically mischievous grin quirked up Loki’s lips. “Would it be too much to take you up on that offer of a drink from last time?”
Tony snorted. “Take it up with Rhodes. He’s got all the alcohol under lock and key.”
“It’s about time,” Natasha observed, springing off of her perch with cat-like grace. “I still think your suits should have had a breathalyzer function to keep you from flying drunk. My room still in the same spot?”
With a pang, I realized there had been a time where they had all been here, and I had missed it by fleeing and falling through that portal to Sakaar. Maybe if I had been here, I could have helped mediate the tensions that had sprung up around the Accords, kept it all from falling apart. Guilt clenched at my heart. I had fled to protect them, to protect Nat, but in hindsight it seemed so selfish. I should have worked harder to get the big guy under control; it wasn’t fair to abandon the team like that. Even as I thought it, though, I knew what I imagined was only desperate threads of an illusory impossibility. Moving forward from that moment, Hulk had taken over for two years. I couldn’t have let that happen here. It was a lose-lose situation.
“I guess you can stay in Thor’s quarters if you want,” Rhodes was saying to Loki. “They’re at least calibrated for Asgardian occupants.”
Loki shrugged. “Very well.” But he made no move to depart.
“Dr. Banner, do you require assistance back to your rooms?” Vision queried.
I shook my head quickly, perhaps too quickly. “No! No—I’ll be fine. Thank you, Vision. I’m gonna go back to bed now. Goodnight guys, sorry about all of this.” I struggled to my feet and limped back down the hall as quickly as my aching body would allow. Once I was out of sight, I slumped against the cool wall and used it as a crutch the rest of the way.
“Have you let anyone help you since escaping the lab?” At the quiet voice, I looked up to see Nat waiting for me outside of my no-longer-functional door.
“Spider-man found me in an alley, if that’s what you mean.” I tried to laugh, but it didn’t reach my mouth. “Pretty standard fare for me, actually.”
Nat crossed her arms and leaned against the remnants of the frame. “Look, I know what happened at that lab wouldn’t go away overnight, not even for you. Have you had any sort of medical attention since then?”
“I am medical attention,” I echoed, hugging myself unconsciously. “I’ll be fine.”
An involuntary shudder shook my frame, and I tried to keep a surge of wild memories under control. “I can’t. Please.” As much as I desperately wished I could let someone else in, the very thought of letting anyone else poke and prod even with good intentions caused a rising panic. “I can handle it myself.”
“Why is it so hard for you to believe people care about you?” Nat asked softly.
I ducked my head, but she only rested her hand on my upper arm and drew me closer.
“Do you remember Sokovia?”
“A little,” I admitted. In truth, every moment of those last few days was etched into my memory.
“You crept deep into the heart of Ultron’s territory to find me and get me out.” Her fingers traced the seam of my jacket sleeve. “That wasn’t the Hulk. It was you. The scientist. The friend. The man who would do anything to protect his teammates.”
Nat paused and looked up. Normally guarded eyes met mine with a depth and candor that was almost out of place. “Thing is, Bruce… you don’t always have to protect us. Every once in a while, let us protect you for a change, okay?”
“Okay,” I conceded, letting my head drop onto her shoulder. For the first time in ages, having someone close to me didn’t feel wrong, and I allowed her to pull me into a warm embrace far too long in coming. A thought brought a smile to my lips.
“It’s really disorienting to kiss a beautiful woman in Sokovia and next thing I know, wake up naked next to Thor halfway across the universe.”
Nat laughed. “I can only imagine.” A moment later, “He doesn’t have the best bedside manner, does he.”
“Nah, he and the other guy really seemed to hit it off though. All that smashing stuff…they really bonded.”
“Why did you leave Norway?” Nat asked. Her head still rested against me. I could feel the warmth of her breath on my neck as she spoke. “The Asgardians—they aren’t scared of the other guy, and they seem fond of you as well. You’re one of their heroes.”
“I thought it would be for the best,” I said honestly. “They aren’t scared, but they should be. Thor would have me believe otherwise, but I’ve learned from Loki and Korg that when we fought in the arena, the attendants thought he was dead at first—maybe he would have been, if the fight hadn’t been called when it was. If the other guy can do that to Thor, what might he do to the rest of them? I can’t live with that. What if someday the other guy snaps and kills more innocent people, my friends, or someone I love?”
Nat didn’t reply right away, but the steady rise and fall of her chest against mine was soothing, grounding even. “Let us help you.”
I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I had needed to be held.
Chapter 4: Night Changes
Tony and Loki confer about what took place in the lab. Natasha reflects on the past and what might have been.
Loki hung back as the others departed for their quarters. “Stark, if I could have a word.”
“I don’t suppose I can stop you.” I ran a hand through my hair wearily. “Civilized company knocks, you know.”
“If we can put the past behind us for a moment?” Loki took a step closer and lowered his tone. “Romanoff and I have reason to believe that Theodore Ross was connected with Banner’s disappearance. We didn’t feel that it would be helpful for Banner to know in his current condition.”
I frowned. “Ross hasn’t been interested in Banner for years. Why now? Especially in light of the Sokovia Accords…” This wasn’t good. If Ross was meddling behind my back and I didn’t know it, that threatened the stability of all I’d been trying to achieve. Not to mention, the safety of my teammates was once more on the line. This is what I'd been trying to avoid with the Sokovia Accords, dammit.
Loki shrugged noncommittally. “Hard to say. You would know the man better than I do.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Enough not to trust him.”
“Fair enough.” I scratched my head. “Was there any contact between Ross and Banner before he disappeared?”
“Briefly. Banner helped with our initial resettlement conferences, where Ross made his presence felt rather strongly. They seemed cordial enough at the time.”
“Anything that might have rekindled his interest in Banner? Any idea why he was taken in the first place?”
“All the records deleted themselves when Romanoff and I breached the computer system,” Loki admitted. “We saw only a short sample of video footage before losing access entirely. But based on the room he was held in…” he shook his head, appearing disgusted. “If that was all for science, your people are more primitive than I thought.”
“You have a different theory?” I was surprised and a bit uncomfortable to note that Loki seemed genuinely concerned about Bruce.
“I think they wanted the Hulk. Not to recreate him. As a weapon, a means to an end.”
Loki chuckled. “Really Stark—what would a man like Ross stand to gain from forcing the Hulk into gladiator mode in a city of 8.6 million?”
I winced. “Consolidation of his power, grounds for tightening the leash on the Avengers or possibly bringing us under his control entirely, plus the bonus of saving the city from the threat. Yeah, I see where he might stand to gain. And I can also see why you wouldn’t want Banner to know. He’s carrying enough guilt around already.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“Did they get him? The Hulk, that is?”
Loki’s face twitched. “I don’t believe so. The lab did not reflect that level of damage. But I find it hard to believe that the Hulk would keep quiet through what they did to him.”
“That bad, huh?” My heart twisted at the thought. I wished again that Bruce wouldn’t be so stubborn about letting us help. A thought occurred to me. “Here’s the even stranger thing… if the Hulk remained dormant, why did they let him go? That just doesn’t make sense.” I shook my head. “He must have Hulked out at some point and escaped with minimal collateral damage.”
As I returned to my own room to sleep at Bruce’s urging, I reflected back to the days when we were first trying to work out the lullaby.
“What causes the change for you?” I asked. “Back from the other guy.”
Bruce shrugged. “It’s hard to say. Coming back is always so… disorienting. Like I’ve woken up from an intense dream that I can’t remember, while simultaneously being crushed by a mountain. I’m suddenly aware of everything really strongly to the point that I can’t process any of it. As far as aiming him…I’ve been told that he can sometimes be redirected by people that I have a strong emotional connection with.”
“Waking up,” I mused. “We might be able to work with that.” And we did.
As the van drove us out to the remote spot Tony had acquired a few weeks later, Bruce was understandably fidgety in the seat beside me.
I finally broke the silence. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” he mumbled.
“After fighting alongside you—him—I don’t think Hulk will try to hurt me. And Tony has that prototype you’ve been working on together on standby just in case.”
“Okay. Yeah, I know.” Bruce ran his hands through his tousled dark hair for the umpteenth time.
“You’re okay with this, though?”
He was silent for a moment. “Better to go through this and have a plan in place than to continue futilely hoping to keep him in forever. But if you aren’t comfortable with this…”
“No, it’s not that,” I said quickly. “I just—I don’t want you to feel that you are being used, or programmed, or forced to become a weapon…”
Bruce looked up at me for the first time since leaving the city. “I know you wouldn’t do that to me, Natasha,” he offered gently. “That’s what happened to you, isn’t it?”
Despite being dressed warmly for our destination in northern Vermont, I felt suddenly naked, my emotional pretenses stripped away. “Yes,” I admitted finally. “I was chosen as a young girl for a special school. I dreamed of being a dancer. That’s what they told me I would learn, ballet, to make Russia proud. Instead I became their perfect weapon. Trained to kill, callously, without mercy. Does that bother you, working alongside a killer?”
I stared fiercely ahead, not daring make eye contact, but I could see in my peripheral vision that Bruce was shaking his head.
“No.” A long, uncomfortable silence stretched through the car. The only sound for a while was the rumbling of tires as the pavement traded out for wash-boarded gravel, only recently scraped clean by a snowplow. Then— “Do you ever still dance?”
I laughed bitterly. “Killers don’t dance.”
“You may have been trained as a killer, but that’s not who you are.”
“Then you don’t know me.”
“Maybe not. But the Natasha who I’ve been working with these past few months is more than a fighter. She’s forgiving, when a freak-out on my part almost crushed her and nearly took down the helicarrier. She cares enough to put herself in danger to find me and make sure I get back to the team after every code green. She stands between danger and innocent people with nothing but her training and a desire to protect lives. Steve has his serum, Tony has his suits, but you? A killer doesn’t save lives at risk of her own.”
I shook my head. “You’re too trusting, Doctor.”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Am I? I have to trust you if this is going to work.”
As our transport wound down increasingly remote dirt roads, I had to admit that he was right.
The first attempt took over an hour to talk the Hulk down. By the fourth time, we had discovered that touch, gentle touch, the opposite of what the Hulk was accustomed to, helped pull Bruce back out. By the sixth, Bruce looked positively ill.
“I need a minute before we try again,” he gasped out, turning away to vomit into a snowbank. He wiped his mouth, chest still heaving. “That time was different.”
“In what way?”
Bruce hesitated. A shiver traveled across his sweat-soaked body, and I thought that it was a good thing Tony had put together a mostly-Hulk-proof get-up of giant, stretchy sweatpants and a sweatshirt that hung cartoonishly about Bruce’s frame to shield him from the cold. As it was, he was curled up and hugging himself, rocking back and forth.
“I saw my mother. I couldn’t sleep—my father had been so angry that evening, storming about, breaking things—I was scared to close my eyes even after he had slammed the door and driven off. She sat beside me, and stroked my hand, and described the world falling asleep around us, beginning with the sunset. The sun’s getting real low.” With the compounding exhaustion of transforming in and out of the Hulk, any chance of holding back the flood of tears was gone, and Bruce dropped his head into his hands and wept. He hadn’t included many details, but the story told me enough.
“Let’s find the cabin,” I decided, helping Bruce to his feet and half-carrying him as he stumbled weakly along. “I don’t think your body is up for another transformation. I really should have made you stop several times ago. You need sleep, and calories.”
That night, I lay beside a snoring Banner and wondered about the monsters in each of us, and how perhaps they weren’t always what one might expect. And most of all, that perhaps these monsters had some good to offer the world. Maybe I understood the Hulk better than Bruce thought I did.
Back in my own room at the compound, I dropped onto the bed wearily and sent a quick text message to Loki. Banner unwilling to accept medical help. Next move?
I flopped my head back on the pillow, tracing the familiar lines of the ceiling with my eyes in the semi-darkness. Once, this had been home. These people had been home. But everything had changed since then. The Hulk had fled, the team had fought. The assassin had gone back on the run.
For the first time in many years, I let tears fall for the things that had been, and the things that might have been.
Chapter 5: Thunder
Peter teaches Vision the fine art of making pancakes.
“FRIEND BANNER!” a voice boomed down the hallway.
I groaned and pulled my pillow over my head. Thor was great, he really was. But he had no sense of boundaries. How early was it?
The god in question stepped over the broken pieces of door into my room. “Stark has told me of your battles since we last met,” he announced. “Asgard celebrates your safe return.”
Giving up on sleep—clearly, Thor was unaffected by the pretense anyway—I rubbed my eyes and sat up blearily. “Hi Thor. How’s New Asgard?” To be fair, I had stayed up later than I should have talking with Nat in the hallway.
“We shall rebuild a nation even more glorious than before!” He tossed his half-eaten apple—breakfast?—in the air and caught it before taking another enthusiastic chomp.
“Great, that’s…great.” Being woken up early did not do wonders for my vocabulary.
“Good to see you too, brother.” I wondered how long Loki had been leaning casually against the doorframe before speaking.
“You could have told me you were in pursuit of our friend’s captors,” Thor admonished. “I would have joined you.”
“You had a country to rule, you big oaf.” Thor tossed the apple core at Loki, who caught it reflexively. “Thanks for that.” He dumped the core in the compost bin and wiped his hands on his black suit in distaste. “Besides, no offense, but this was a stealth mission. You’ve never been one for subtlety.”
“Look, guys,” I interjected before Thor could take offense. “I never meant to reemerge or have anybody spend time looking for me. I’m sorr—”
Thor looked indignant. “After the battles we have fought together, you thought the Revengers would be unconcerned by the loss of one of their own?”
“Nobody calls us that. But I agree with the spirit of what Thor is saying,” Loki added hastily when Thor turned towards him angrily. “Just… not a huge fan of the name.”
I sighed heavily, deflated by the weight of all the worry and searching I had inadvertently caused. “Look, I am so, so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen.”
“The important thing is that you are alive and safe,” Thor pronounced, clapping me on the shoulders so hard I nearly fell off the edge of the bed. He missed the flinch of pain and following tension as I tried to keep the memories under control, but Loki was watching me intently from the door, face betraying nothing.
“Really, brother, must you always be so violent?” Loki murmured admonishingly.
“Sorry, friend Banner. I forget you are not as rugged as your counterpart.”
“S’fine,” I said through gritted teeth. “Glad to see you doing so well too, pal.” Thor was astonishingly chipper for a man who had lost his father, murderous secret sister, eye, home planet, and beloved hammer.
“Join us in the great hall for feasting and revelry!” Thor proclaimed.
“It seems Vision is making pancakes,” Loki noted with a hint of distaste. “I do believe the creature is fond of you, brother.”
Thor grinned. “My lightning flows through his veins as surely as the lifeblood of a man.”
“That sounds wrong,” I muttered, and quickly changed the subject. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Last I checked, Rhodes is trying to find where I’ve wandered off to, Stark is in his lab updating the security systems, Selvig is in his own lab as well, hopefully oblivious to our proceedings entirely, the Spider is asleep in his room, and I haven’t seen Romanoff since last night’s parley,” Loki recited without missing a beat. “I half-expected to find her in here with you.”
I blushed furiously. “No, nothing of the sort. Nat and I, we’re—we just—we’re not—”
Thor laughed. “Save it Banner, we all know you two have been pining after each other since before the Vision was birthed from my hammer.”
“That sounds so wrong,” I protested as I let myself be guided towards the gaping hole of a doorway. “Do you not hear how wrong that sounds?”
“Describe me as pining one more time and I’ll remove the other eye from your skull.”
A ghost of a smile touched Loki’s face as he nodded welcome to the assassin. “Good morning, Romanoff.”
Nat barely paused as she continued down the hallway. “I heard there were pancakes. If you want any, you have five minutes to get there before Spider-kid and I finish them.”
“Isn’t Peter still asleep?” I asked. There had been no sound from the near-adjacent room…but then again, the kid could climb on walls and spin webs.
Nat flashed a grin at me. “He was, until Thunder here woke the whole compound. Probably a good thing, though—Vision’s pancakes needed a human touch.”
“If by human touch, you mean chocolate chips, I’m all over that,” I said, falling into step with her. Nat’s hand found the curve of my elbow, and I relaxed into the reassuring warmth.
“I’m sure that could be arranged.”
Behind us, I heard Thor start to say something, only to have Loki cut him off by punching him in the arm. “Just let it happen, brother,” Loki murmured.
“I know that’s what the recipe says, but this is the right way to do it,” I insisted. “Butter first, then batter, then a handful of the chips—no, a bigger handful, and sprinkle them evenly—then wait to flip until you see the little air bubbles. When both sides are done there should be a brown crispy ridge around the edge.”
“Butter increases the fat content of the meal without adding much else in nutritional value. Why apply it between every set of pancakes?”
“Here’s the thing about fat, Vis. It’s delicious. Also, pancakes are pancakes. They aren’t supposed to be the world’s most nutritional food.” I reached around a maroon arm and flipped two pancakes at once. Enhanced agility had its perks in the kitchen, especially when trying to cook around an unusually sentient android.
A fire alarm started beeping overhead and Vision looked mildly concerned, which, as far as I could tell, was the most distress his features were capable of displaying.
“Don’t worry about that!” I said quickly. “It’s just the chocolate stuck to the pan. Here, fan the fire alarm.” I thrust a towel into his hands and he floated up to the ceiling and waved the rag awkwardly beneath the sensor.
“Can’t leave you alone for fifteen minutes before you try to burn the house down,” Mr. Stark joked, wandering in and snagging a pancake off the stack.
“Sorry Mr. Stark! Nothing is actually on fire, it’s just the—”
“Mmm, chocolate chips. You’re forgiven.” Mr. Stark swallowed the experimental bite and reached for the butter.
“The pancakes have already been cooked in large quantities of butter,” Vision informed him.
Mr. Stark rolled his eyes and continued slathering the pancake. “That’s how food works. Cook it in butter and add more butter after.”
“I told you so,” I mouthed in Vision’s direction, tossing a handful of chocolate in my mouth. That’s how we were when Thor, Black Widow, Dr. Banner, and Loki made their way to the kitchen—Mr. Stark with his mouth full, Vis still hovering in confusion by the fire alarm, me flipping pancakes while eating almost as many chips as I added. Thor’s face lit up and he reached for the plate where I had been piling all the finished pancakes, but Mr. Stark smacked his hand away.
“Hey now, share some with the rest of us.”
“You have chocolate on your face,” Thor pointed out.
Mr. Stark shrugged unapologetically. “He’s my intern. I get first crack at his experiments.” While the two were exchanging friendly banter, Dr. Banner slipped away from Black Widow and started poking around for plates and silverware. Loki hung back, seeming to be aware that he was not the most welcome figure in the Avengers’ kitchen.
“Hey FRIDAY, tell Rhodey to get his butt over here if he wants pancakes,” Mr. Stark added. “Oh, and give me a head’s up if Erik happens to come over this way. He might not be all that keen on running into Sneaky here.”
Tensions seemed to relax somewhat over breakfast. Holding on to anger and wariness is difficult when enjoying delicious food together. I had learned as much from my stints in various out-of-the-way towns around the world. Breaking bread or drinking tea together fostered trust and had often been a first step in settling in and aiding the locals with whatever ailed them. The pancakes that Vision and Peter had made looked delicious, but they didn’t sit well in my stomach regardless. Maybe it was the tinge of a headache, or the dull throb of my body still trying to leave the lab behind, or maybe that I hadn’t had consistent, normal, “Midgardian” food in who knows how long.
“You’ve got chocolate on your face,” Nat teased, reaching to wipe it way with her thumb. The digit paused on my cheek and she frowned.
“You’re warm.” She flipped her hand over and pressed it against my forehead. “Are you feeling sick?”
“What? No, that’s ridiculous. I don’t get sick.”
“Vision? What is Dr. Banner’s body temperature?” Tony interjected.
“102.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 39 degrees Celsius.”
“I’m not sick,” I insisted. “I don’t get sick.”
“It would be wise for you to report to the medical wing for further examination and tests,” Vision advised.
Something inside me flipped at the suggestion. “No!” I pleaded, standing up unconsciously and backing away from the table, almost knocking over my chair in panic. “No, please, no more tests—” I felt a sharp sting by my neck, and then everything faded away.
“Huh,” I mused, breaking the awkward silence as I examined the neck of the unconscious man in Thor’s arms. “How long do you reckon that’ll hold?”
“Long enough,” Loki responded smoothly. “It’s enough to knock out Thor for two hours, so it should hold Banner for one.”
Thor looked indignant, but I didn’t give him a chance to respond. “This is your wizardry? Is that safe?” The second part was addressed to Thor.
“Perfectly safe!” Thor assured me. “I would not have administered anything of Loki’s to a friend without having the utmost confidence that it would not hurt them.” Loki shrugged, as if to say fair enough. “I have experienced it myself on several occasions with no ill effects.” There was a story I needed to hear sometime.
“It had become clear to me that Banner was in need of medical attention and would resist unless taken by surprise. I merely supplied my brother with the means, as I anticipated correctly that you would be wary of any action on my part.”
“Well then,” I said, somewhat uncomfortable that the trickster seemed so sincerely invested in my friend’s welfare. “Let’s get him to medical and taken care of before the other guy wakes up to stop us.”
Chapter 6: The Calm Before the Storm
I woke up to a faint beeping and something in my arm. I tried to sit up, but there was something stiff wrapped around my torso like a vise. I was trapped again—or was it still? Panic rose in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I yanked out the IV from my arm, setting off a series of alarms.
“Breathe, Banner, breathe.” Strong hands pinned me back down. “The sun’s going down, the sun’s getting real low, the sun’s going down—”
“What the hell, Thor?” I demanded weakly, struggling against the restraint as the nascent panic attack subsided and turned to anger.
“Disembodied voice, tell Stark that Banner is awake!” the god boomed out.
“As you wish,” FRIDAY responded, seemingly unfazed by the nonstandard form of address.
“If I let go, will you hold still?”
I wanted to make some kind of biting retort, but words failed me. “Fine.” I spat out.
Thor backed off carefully, and sat down at the bedside. I took stock of my surroundings. The soft blue ceiling above told me I was back in my own bed at the compound, not in the bleached white lab space I had anticipated.
“I expect you are rightfully angry with me for knocking you out without your consent,” he noted. “I apologize for the trickery, but as you would not let anyone address your injuries we deemed it necessary to intervene.”
Hot tears burned at the corners of my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. “Why can’t you all just leave me alone?” I tore at my chest, trying to find a release for whatever was wrapped around me, heedless of my fingers scraping futilely at the rough plaster until they bled. “Let me out!” Didn't they understand that getting knocked out and waking up with tubes in me was the stuff that haunted me in nightmares? Was I safe, or was this some kind of twisted hallucination? Was this just another experiment? What was going on? I needed to find a way out.
The panic was rising again as Thor stilled my hands. “Banner, listen to me. You have to stop fighting. You’re going to hurt yourself. Try to stay calm.”
“Try to stay calm?” The platitude enraged me. “My friends drugged me and chained me up and I’m supposed to stay calm?”
“Once you are recovered I would be more than happy to smite things together,” Thor promised, probably attempting to be reassuring, “but for now your health demands rest.”
I wrested my hands from his grip. “Let go of me!”
“Can I come in or are you going to go green and make all of our work pointless?” Tony asked from the doorway. “Because to be fair, Hulking out would probably leave you in much better shape.”
“I’m not going to ‘go green’,” I muttered. “Hulk and I had a falling out.” Thor and Tony exchanged concerned glances, but decided not to press further, which was a relief. The story behind my most recent transformation was not one I was ready to share. I doubted I’d ever be ready.
“Okay, so that is a pretty interesting piece of information that might have been good to know, but we’ll save that particular lecture for another day. Also, I should probably clear up that you are not chained to the bed, as much as that may have been a good idea,” Tony added. “You are wearing a cast because you had four broken ribs and a bruised kidney.”
“That’s right, oh.” Tony gestured angrily at the makeshift medical set-up around my bed. “Not to mention internal bleeding, bruising, burns, lacerations in various stages of healing—badly, may I add—and stress fractures in your feet, and, and, and. You can get a full list from Vision later if you want. I used to think I was the king of disregarding my own health around here, but you had to go and prove me wrong. At least I’ve got Pepper and Rhodey, hell, even Vision, looking out for me. If Pete hadn’t found you and stupidly taken you home, where would you be? You could have died!”
“Can’t,” I interrupted. Believe me, I’ve tried, I thought, but the words didn’t make it past my lips. “This was never in my plan, Tony! I just wanted to disappear. I’m sorry that it didn’t work, okay? I’m sorry.” I sagged back against the pillow, deflated.
“All we mean to say is that your health and safety are important to us,” Thor said gently. “And indeed, to all of Asgard. We would not wish one of our own to suffer needlessly. You granted us your aid on our world, a world that was foreign to you; should we not be allowed to do the same for you?”
“Well, I for one am not under Asgardian rule—”
Thor’s mutter under his breath cut Tony off for a moment. “Well, technically, Midgard is one of the Nine Realms, so you kind of are.”
“I am not under Asgardian rule,” Tony continued pointedly, “but I agree with the sentiment otherwise. You have a massive accepting-help-from-other-people problem. And I’m not really one to talk, but right now you’re the one who needs help, so either you accept that, or I let Antler Head knock you out until your body heals.”
I didn’t have the energy to keep fighting. “Okay.”
“I’ll cooperate. Just don’t call Loki Antler Head to his face, or I won’t be responsible for his behavior.” The automatic ability to joke was still there, a shield, a coping mechanism, but I felt so hollow. I closed my eyes as a nurse was called in to fix the IV.
Finally left alone, the weight of everything pressed down upon me. I felt that if I tried to move, I would teeter out of control and dip into the future and all that I could feel lying there in wait was a hungry void that sought to swallow me in its emptiness. A thousand guilt-ridden questions haunted me. Why had I disrupted my friends’ lives? Why hadn’t I refused Peter’s help out on the streets? Why had Loki and Nat followed me? Why hadn’t I been clearer with my intentions before disappearing so that they would let me go? Why were they all so keen on not letting me go? Couldn’t they see how desperately I wanted to be gone? Couldn’t they see that making me stay was only causing them all more problems? Out of the two of us, I was the failure, not the Hulk. He had been successful, even if it was on a distant planet; I, despite everything, was still the catastrophically foolish man who had created him. Hulk was right to hate me. I just wanted out.
Over the next week, the deep bruising went from purple to green to yellow, and the gashes and welts slowly began to fill with scar tissue, but the hollowness that had replaced all other emotions within me remained. I went about my days methodically, eating tasteless food when I was told, letting Vision check my wounds without a word, speaking only when absolutely necessary. Peter had gone home the previous Sunday evening. Thor and Loki had both returned to New Asgard at my urging, and Nat had disappeared without a word not long after Peter.
The facilities were almost painfully quiet. Tony stopped by to try to engage me in conversation on a regular basis, but when his attempts to get me to join him in research fell through and it became too difficult to engage with my monosyllabic dialogue, he would vanish into the labs for hours on end. Rhodes was in and out, often shouting at Tony in the hall over his own poor habits. He would drop by my rooms to check on me, but I couldn’t bear the man’s compassion and often pretended to be too tired for company. It wasn’t hard. My body ached with the work of healing, and often I lay on the bed for hours, staring at the ceiling. Just me, and the thoughts, and the void.
Even the Hulk never stirred restlessly within me as he had been wont to do in the past, instead going completely silent.
In the vacuum left by everything else in my life, I started playing the piano in my room, recalling old melodies to my fingertips. But the notes drew a grief to the surface from deep within me, far more painful than the physical wounds my body was trying to heal. Sometimes I soaked in it, needing to feel something even if it was painful; other times it was terrible and overwhelming and I would sink to the ground, curling in a ball and trying to blot everything out. I wondered, not for the first time, why I had ever tried to be an Avenger.
Chapter 7: Enhancement
Worried about Bruce's reclusive habits, Tony calls in reinforcements.
I hopped out of the car excitedly. “Hi Mr. Stark! Thanks for inviting me.”
He smiled, but I could tell he was worrying about something. “Always good to have you, kid. I’ve got a bit of a project for you, if you’re up to it.”
“Of course! What is it? Web fluid? Nanotech?”
As Tony explained his plan, I nodded along enthusiastically. This was even better than what I expected. I'd been dying for a chance to talk to my scientific hero.
The light knock at my freshly rebuilt door startled me out of my reverie.
“Come in,” I called, closing the book whose pages I had stared at unseeingly for the past hour, perhaps more.
“Hi, Dr. Banner, it’s me, um, Peter, Mr. Stark invited me over to work on stuff this weekend and I thought maybe if it wasn’t too much of a bother, well, I’ve been reading, trying to, anyway…” The kid was bursting with energy and enthusiasm as he thrust the book at me. “Mr. Stark said maybe if I asked nicely, you’d help me with my Spanish. I found a bunch of articles on bioengineering that I really want to read but I don’t know enough of the science vocabulary. Will you help me with my Spanish?” The words came out all in a rush.
I knew Tony had put him up to it, but I couldn’t mind, not when Peter seemed so happy about it. “Okay.”
Peter stopped mid-preparation for another run-on sentence. “Really?”
“Of course. ¡Adelante! No se quede en la puerta.” (1)
After an hour of scribbled conjugation charts and enthusiastically jotted down notes that led easily into multilingual banter, I found myself flipping through Peter’s Spanish textbook in a lull of conversation. A giant green tree arching over a bright but somewhat haphazardly built street caught my eye. I hummed in surprise at a pleasant memory. “Un país maravilloso.” (2)
“Guatemala? You’ve been there?” Peter set aside his notes and scooted closer on the floor where we had ended up in order to spread as many papers as possible around us.
“Briefly.” I scratched at my ear thoughtfully. “The land is breathtaking and the people are welcoming and generous.” For a moment, I could almost feel the dazzling sunlight on my skin and smell the warmth of fresh fruit mixed with the bitterness of burning grass the next town over.
Peter watched me without prying or answering, simply leaving open space if I was willing to add more. It was surprisingly freeing.
“I’d been working in a soda plant in Brazil,” I began, “trying to lie low. The general who had been overseeing the radiation resistance project I’d worked on managed to track me down again, and I ended up going green for a while. Next thing I knew, I was in the rainforest somewhere, and nobody spoke Portuguese.” I cracked a smile. “The moral of the story is that it’s important to know key phrases in as many languages as you can.”
“I’ve got a decent grasp of Spanish, and some French, and a lot of Latin, though that’s not likely to help me if I wake up in a different country, but I want to learn more,” Peter agreed earnestly. He frowned. “Sorry if this is too personal, like you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to—but if you transform in one country and switch back in another, you wouldn’t have anything with you, right? How do you get back where you started? Or I guess if you’re being tracked how to you get to a new place and start over if you have nothing?”
“I’ve gotten used to starting over. In Guatemala, though… that time was tough, since I hadn’t been expecting to leave Brazil yet. I’d been there almost a year without drawing attention to myself or breaking anything. Of course, I should have realized that never lasts. Normally I’d be able to find work, but that time I wasn’t presentable enough to get a job and the energy it took to transform for a couple of days wore me out so I ended up begging for a day or two until I could clean myself up and work.”
“Have you been to a lot of places?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been to a variety. Usually I try to make my way somewhere remote enough to minimize damage if the other guy comes out, but where I can do some good for the local people. It makes everything feel like less of a waste.” The amount I’d readily managed to tell Peter about life on the run surprised me. It wasn’t a topic I talked about much, if at all, with anyone. “Okay, my turn. Tengo curiosidad. Qué es la historia de la araña? (3) How does a straight-A Queens kid end up night-timing as an Avenger?”
Peter blushed. “I mean, I’m not technically an Avenger. Mr. Stark asked me to join the team once, but it’s not really my scene. I just keep an eye on small-scale crimes and stuff like that, because I can and it seems like if I can, it’s up to me to take care of the people near me, you know? But I’d be uncomfortable with doing anything official what with the Sokovia Accords and everything. I’m not registered or anything so I keep a low-profile.”
“That’s probably wise. I’ve seen what people are willing to do to people like us, Peter, and I don’t want you to have to go through that. Tony’s your best ally, there. I know he’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe and out from under a microscope.”
“Yeah, he’s awesome,” Peter agreed. “Can you believe I used to run around in an old hoodie I’d decorated with spiderwebs before Mr. Stark made my suit?”
I cracked a smile. “¿En serio? (4) That must have been quite the sight.”
“I’m still surprised anybody listened to me in that get-up. Although my web-slingers were pretty cool despite the rest of it.”
“¿Cuando empezaste a tener las calidades de una araña?" (5)
“Couple of years ago. I had just started at Midtown, and we went on a field trip to this lab that was working at the time on the effects of different kinds of radiation on plants and how that might affect their viability in space travel—which was super cool, by the way—and partway through the tour, I felt something pinch my arm and smacked it. Wiped spider guts off on my pants and didn’t think anything of it the next morning when I woke up so sick. I was puking my guts out, and I think I had a fever, but I just assumed I got the flu, you know? So I didn’t go to the hospital. And Aunt May was away on a work trip but I didn’t want her to worry so I didn’t tell her. Then the bite started looking weird, so I panicked a little bit, but at that point I started feeling really weird, too, like inside my bones. Like something was stretching.” Peter hesitated. “I don’t know, maybe I was just really out of it from the fever. I know it doesn’t make sense.”
“No, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” I encouraged him. “The sensation you’re describing reminds me of how I feel when the other guy takes the wheel. Did affect your awareness or perception at all?”
“Only by heightening my senses,” Peter explained. “And sometimes I get really strong goosebumps if there’s danger. To be honest, it’s not a great combination with my anxiety. For the first couple months I was so overloaded I could barely deal with school. I quit band because there was just too much sensory input. I could hear every key and valve move and it was hell. But as I gradually figured out the things I could do now, and designed my web-fluid and shooters, and finally started swinging around the city—it was the perfect release for all of that overload, and I felt so much freer.” He shrugged. “Not as exciting a story as one might expect, but that’s how it happened.”
A knock at the door interrupted our conversation.
“Come in,” I called.
Tony poked his head in. “Hey, I’ve got some Thai food waiting in the kitchen. Anybody hungry?”
Peter perked up immediately. “My metabolism would like to be clear that the answer to that question is always yes.” He glanced at me. “You’ll join us, right, Dr. Banner? ¿Por favor con una cereza en la parte superior?” (6)
I looked at Tony, who was standing in the doorway with a trademark smirk. “Can’t say no to that, can I, Mr. Stark,” I said pointedly. He certainly knew that I would find it more difficult to excuse my way around his protege, and had planned on it.
“Wouldn’t want to disappoint the teenage vigilante,” he agreed, molding his face into a more serious expression.
I grabbed the crutches Vision was insisting I use around the compound and sighed. “Thai it is, then. Lead the way, Spider-Man.”
As we made our way down to the kitchen, I smiled to myself at the sight of the two bantering animatedly ahead of me with an easy camaraderie. Mr. Stark seemed less stressed than when I’d first arrived, and Dr. Banner was actually smiling. Mission accomplished.
I really, really wanted to put more of their dialogue in Spanish, but I figured that would be too cumbersome for non-Spanish-speaking readers. Hopefully I managed to strike a good balance where it's readable for everyone and still gets across the idea that they are conversing in a mixture of both languages.
(1) Come in, don't just stand there in the doorway.
(2) A wonderful land.
(3) What's the spider story?
(5) When did you start having the qualities of a spider?
(6) Please, with a cherry on top?
On another note, unfortunately my break is wrapping up and I'll have to slow down my posting schedule and do the work I get paid for instead. :( But there are lots more chapters planned, so never fear! I'll be working on this story as much as I can.
Chapter 8: Renovate
Life can be confusing and traumatic and messy, but it also contains hidden glimmers of beauty along the way... stolen moments, places that make us feel at home, people who remind us of who we are when we feel lost.
Natasha seeks out the advice of a friend as she struggles to come to terms with her past.
Happy Women's Day! In case you're wondering what Natasha has been up to, here's a chapter for one of my favorite strong female characters.
From the outside, the farmhouse looked the same as I remembered it; but the inside told a different story. I let myself in quietly, stepping around sawdust and loose plywood. Nearly two years of house arrest had taken their toll as a series of renovations and projects.
I felt a wave of grief at the lost time. Two years. Baby Nat would barely recognize me by now. I shook the thought away quickly. I couldn’t visit with the children. I wasn’t supposed to be making contact at all. Slipping silently into the kitchen, I found a stool to perch on. Now to wait.
Dawn was just beginning to tinge the sky with pink when Clint padded out to the kitchen to start the coffee. He stiffened in the doorway, but relaxed as he recognized my silhouette.
“I promise, no one will ever know I was here,” I reassured him, worried that he’d see my arrival as a threat to his plea deal, but he had already crossed the kitchen in two bounds to embrace me.
“Nat, oh my god, it’s been too long. Where have you been?” Clint pulled back to get another look at me.
I shrugged awkwardly. “Didn’t want to get you in trouble. How’ve you been doing? You’ve only got what, a couple weeks now?”
“Getting a little stir-crazy.” Clint gestured around him at the various, half-completed renovations. “You? The kids ask about you all the time.”
“Europe, Wakanda, you name it.” I allowed myself to laugh. “Steve and I, and the rest of the crew that didn’t sign the Accords, have been dabbling in some vigilante work. But I really needed to talk to you.”
Clint grew serious, pulling up stools to the island in the middle of the kitchen. He wiped away a small pile of sawdust. “Any time, Nat. You know that. Want some coffee?”
“Yes, please.” I took the chair he offered and waited while he started the percolator. “How much have you heard about the Asgardian resettlement efforts?”
“Can’t say I’ve heard anything,” he admitted, retrieving two deep mugs from the cupboard. “What happened with Asgard?”
“Well, the short of it—Thor fell through an Einsten-Rosen Bridge to another planet where he happened to find the Hulk living as some sort of gladiator. Asgard went under attack by a goddess of death who turned out to be the older sister Thor never knew he had. Thor, Hulk, and Loki managed to get to Asgard and evacuate the people, but Asgard and Thor’s sister have both been destroyed by a fire monster, so now they’re attempting to rebuild their civilization. In Norway.”
Clint rubbed his forehead. “This is gonna call for more than one cup of coffee, isn’t it,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “Wait, so Thor and Bruce are back?”
I nodded. “That’s where it starts to get interesting.”
“Starts?” He poured steaming coffee into one of the mugs and passed it to me. “Hate to break it to you, Nat, but to any normal person, you passed ‘interesting’ lightyears ago.”
“Fair enough,” I conceded. “After they were mostly settled in, Bruce pulled a Bruce and disappeared again.”
Clint shook his head. “Any leads?”
“Turns out that destroying a planet and traveling through space together can really bring people together in unexpected ways. I know you’re probably going to disapprove, but a few days after Bruce disappeared, Loki contacted me about trying to track him down.”
“How’d he find you?”
“Wakanda has been a big player in getting New Asgard recognized on the world stage, so Loki was able to contact us pretty easily.”
He took a swig of the lighter coffee he’d poured out for himself and mixed with more cream and sugar than I would ever deem necessary. “Please tell me that you didn’t do anything rash.”
I shrugged. “Depends on if you count teaming up with the god of mischief to track down a friend as rash.”
Clint was quiet for a moment. “Definitely rash, but I’d have done the same for a chance at bringing Bruce home. Did you find him?”
“Yeah. Not until after Tony did, though. He’s in pretty rough shape, but they’ve patched him up pretty well.”
“Good.” He paused for a moment, allowing silence to blanket this kitchen. “That’s not all you’re here for, though, is it?”
I sighed. “Clint… when you found me, decided to give me a chance… why? Why not just shoot me?”
He studied the coffee for a minute. “Nat, I shoot to protect, not to kill.”
“Still,” I pressed. “Taking the shot was the mission.” We’d had this conversation once before, years ago. But back then, we hadn’t been friends….only hesitant allies. The talk had been brief. I thought you could use a little redemption, Romanoff. You’ve got a lot of red in your ledger.
We had grown from allies, to friends, to family over the years, but anything more to the story of that first encounter had remained unspoken, left behind in a closet of the past. I needed to know.
Clint met my eyes frankly. “Why now, Natasha?”
“Very well.” He realized I wasn’t going to give more, not yet anyway, and chose not to press further. “You know the goal was ultimately to take down the Red Room. Well, I’d been part of the strike team tracking a couple other assassins with ties to the KGB before you. Lost a lot of people that way. The mission before yours…” his voice cracked and he swallowed.
I stretched a hand across the table and took Clint’s, squeezing it for support. He looked up, eyes wet with unshed tears.
“She was just a kid, Nat. We didn’t know… After all the losses trying to get the other marks, we’d started trying to take them remotely. I was tracking the live feed from the helicopter. Right before the explosives went off, I saw her. Scared, lost. No escape. But it was too late, I couldn’t stop the detonation in time…”
“She would have killed you,” I said bluntly. “Any of us would have.”
Clint nodded. “I know that.” He was quiet again. “It really rocked me. So when I had you in my crosshairs and you just stood there, staring me down, waiting for me to kill you…I didn’t see an assassin anymore. I saw a kid with no way out.”
It was my turn to sit in silence.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Clint prompted after a few minutes.
“Glad we shut down that hellhole,” I muttered, clenching my hands into fists as I thought of the place that had stolen my innocence and turned me into an unflinching killer. “Got anything stronger than coffee?”
Clint raised one eyebrow. “At quarter of five in the morning? Laura would have my head.” He rinsed his cup in the sink. I focused on the sound of rushing water to still the tumult of my mind. The faucet turned off.
“I had ways out,” I blurted out in the vacuum. “I just… I was too scared to take them. And after a while…they were all I knew. I tried to fail, but they always knew. Eventually I craved the success, I needed to make them proud.” My whole body shuddered. My fingers dug deep enough into my palms that I could feel the pressure of my low-clipped nails. “By that mission, I was in so deep, I didn’t think I could ever get out. I just focused on the next target. That’s all there ever was. Then there was the shaft of an arrow staring me down, and I thought that finally—” my voice broke and I couldn’t finish the sentence.
Clint looked like he wanted to offer comfort, but I put up a silent hand to ward him off. The thought of being touched when my mind was disorganized like this set off alarms across the surface of my skin. I shivered.
“Nat? You okay?”
I shook my head slowly as I regained control of my emotions. “I’m fine,” I said dispassionately, straightening.
“You don’t have to go mission mode right now unless you want to,” Clint reminded me gently. “It’s okay if you want to let out those emotions.”
“Too late. Already locked back up.” I forced a laugh.
“It’s been years,” Clint pointed out. “Why the sudden interest now, after all this time?”
“I don’t know who I am anymore,” I said. “I was an assassin, once. Then, for a while, I had this crazy dream where I was an Avenger, and that I had a purpose there. But since the team fell apart, I’ve been drifting. You gave me a sense of direction when I was lost the last time. So I guess I came back to the one place where my life ever made sense.”
Clint laughed. “Really? An archer’s family at an off-the-grid farmhouse in the 21st century makes sense?”
“You know what I mean. When you brought me here and introduced me to your family, and your kids started calling me Aunt Nat, that’s when I realized I wasn’t the person I thought I was. Nobody brings an assassin home to play with their kids. When your daughter drew me a picture of Black Widow and the Avengers saving New York, I felt like I knew who I was. That my life made sense.” I sighed. “I’m trying to figure out what’s next. Who I am, apart from the Avengers. All my life, I’ve always been focused on the next mission. It’s how I blocked out who I’d become in the KGB. It’s how I’ve dealt with the past. But now? There is no next mission. And without that… well, it’s left me with a lot to still come to terms with.”
“What have you decided so far?”
“I’m not sure who I am is something I can just decide,” I contested.
He shrugged. “Isn’t it, though?”
I frowned at my coffee mug. “There’s still a whole lot of red left in my ledger, Clint.”
“Look at me,” he ordered. I did. “People are a whole lot more than just a list of pluses and minuses. And it’s a damn good thing that we are.”
I considered his words for a moment. “So where do I go from here?”
“If you’re asking me,” Clint said carefully, “I think you know where you want to go from here. But you’re scared of a future that doesn’t involve running anymore, afraid of making yourself vulnerable.”
“Nothing scares me.” We both knew the cynical statement was a lie, but the armor around my emotions had already opened up more than was comfortable for one day.
Clint raised one eyebrow, but didn’t comment. “I’m not going to judge you for going back to the compound, Nat, if that’s where you want to go. Tony made some rash, stupid choices, but he wasn’t the only one. I think if we could go back in time, we’d all do things a little differently.”
“Not sure there’s a home for me there, either,” I mumbled, staring down at my coffee. “Tony’s pretty worked up about whatever went down in Siberia with Steve, Rhodes was almost a casualty of the fallout, so I can’t help but feel guilty around him, and—” my voice trailed off.
“And the doctor took off to be a green space gladiator,” Clint finished perceptively. “You can’t blame yourself for any of that. We’re all adults, and we made our own choices.”
“We had talked about starting a new life together,” I admitted. “But I broke his trust, and he left the planet to get away from me.”
“If I had to make a wager, I’d bet he was trying to protect you, not get rid of you. Honestly, it might look like Bruce is keeping you at arm’s length, but that’s still closer than he’s let any of the rest of us get.”
“Still. What if they don’t want me to come back?”
“That’s on them.” Clint looked at me seriously. “Look, Nat—the Avengers broke up. It hurt. Not because we were enemies, but because we cared about each other and trusted each other. I don’t know if we can come back from that. But one of these days, the world’s gonna need us and we’re going to have to decide who we are as a team and how we can possibly move forward. If anyone can lay the foundation for healing, it’s you.”
I laughed in disbelief.
“Here’s the thing,” he pressed. “You put this team together, just as much as Fury did. You were the one out there in the field, keeping Tony alive, convincing Bruce to give up his life on the run, acclimating Steve to our present. And now, you know why everyone made the choices they did. Our teammates, on both sides—I guarantee you they all think things have happened that can’t be forgiven and can’t be undone. You know that isn’t true. After all, you rebuilt a new life for yourself after being deprogrammed from being a Russian murderbot. If you can forgive yourself and rebuild, so can they.”
“Have I?” I asked simply.
Clint held my gaze. “I don’t know. But I sure hope so.”
I took a deep breath. “Maybe I do need to process some emotions.”
“I’ve got some targets, a couple of punching bags, and a mostly-completed climbing wall over in the barn,” Clint offered.
“Knock yourself out.”
I paused on my way out, running my eyes analytically over yet another pile of pine boards and construction tools lit up by the gentle dawn. “I’m not sure this place can handle another week of you on house arrest. There won’t be anything left.”
"There will be plenty left," Clint protested. "It just might not look like what we started with."
Perhaps he was right in more ways than one.
Chapter 9: Flashes of the Past
Normal is hard to find when everything has changed.
Tony and Peter coax Bruce into spending some quality time in the lab. But beneath the friendly banter and camaraderie, the scars of the past still linger.
Peter stayed with us all weekend, and I found myself warming more and more to his bright, genuine presence.
“Tell you what,” Tony remarked after sending Peter on an errand. “We can share science time custody.”
“What?” I looked up from my notes.
“Peter. He’s my super-kid. I discovered him, so I’ve got dibs. But you can be his, like, mad scientist uncle or something. I’ll even write you into the suit protocols.”
I chuckled. “Suit protocols?”
Tony stuffed a handful of chips in his mouth. “Yeah, I switched him off of ‘Baby-Sitter’ mode after his computer nerd friend helped him hack it. Now I’m running something a little more subtle. I call it the ‘Grey Area’ protocol.”
“Do I want to know?”
“Don’t do anything Mr. Stark would do, but don’t do anything he wouldn’t do,” Peter recited, reappearing. “The grey area is where I operate.”*
Tony gestured with his arms as if to say see?
I rolled my eyes. “Logically, I’m not sure that checks out…”
“Hey Underoos, we’re adding a new protocol to your suit so you can call Bruce. If you’re in a jam and can’t get a hold of me, this guy is next.” Tony clapped me on the shoulder and winked. “You’ll be good for him. He needs better role models; after all, he hangs out with me all the time.”
Even though the wounds had mostly healed, I still found myself flinching. Hastily, I drew attention away from my reaction. “Yeah, that sounds great.”
Peter was practically bouncing. “You mean that, Dr. Banner?”
“You are going to get so many text messages,” Tony laughed.
“I don’t have a cellphone,” I pointed out.
Tony smirked wickedly. “We can fix that, too.”
“Can I teach him how to Snapchat? Pleeeease?” Peter begged.
“Is that what the kids are using nowadays?”
Tony chuckled. “Man, we have so much to fill you in on.”
I snorted. “So much? I was gone for two years. It’s not like you thawed me out of the ice after 70 years.” Tony flinched visibly and I cringed. Wrong topic. I blundered quickly onto a new subject. “So um, Peter, what’s the high school news? If I’m going to be your emergency contact, I need all the details—favorite classes, best friends, crushes…”
“Crushes?” Peter laughed. “Considering the last time I had a crush on a girl, her dad almost killed me... I'm in no hurry.”
“He's not joking,” Tony pointed out. “The guy turned out to be trading in black market alien tech, went tete-a-tete with Spider-Man all over one of my planes and wiped out Coney Island for six months in the process. Kid's the reigning champ of bad dates.”
“What about you?” Peter prompted cheekily.
“That wouldn’t be safe,” I said quickly. “I try to avoid getting close to people.”
“I think Agent Romanoff wishes you’d get a little closer.”
Tony turned away, coughing suspiciously.
I blushed. “That—that wouldn’t work out.”
“You don’t like her like that?” Peter pressed.
“No, I mean,” I floundered in discomfort. “I adore Natasha. I just—I couldn’t... she deserves to be with someone who can give her the life she wants.”
“How would that work, exactly?” Tony was eyeing me curiously in a way I was sure I was going to regret. “If raising your heart rate triggers the Big Green, then—”
“Tony!” My ears flushed red.
“You know, purely for scientific reasons, we might be able to find a workaround.” Tony casually pulled out a bag of Cheezits from an unmarked drawer and started eating them. “In case Banner ever wants to smash.”
“Better yet, let’s forget we ever had this conversation.” My only consolation was that Peter looked almost as flustered as I was. “Besides, it’s not really the heart rate per se, although a spike in heart rate often corresponds with the danger zone. Tried beta-blockers a couple of times, still transformed. Even developed a toxin that lowered my heart rate to one beat per minute once. Transformed immediately after the toxin took effect because the Other Guy freaked out and thought we were in danger. That was the end of that particular makeshift lab. But hey, at least I created a medically useful formula.”
I thought the conversation was over, when Peter jumped in, “So does that mean you CAN—”
Tony playfully clapped the kid’s shoulder. “Hey, the doctor doesn’t want to talk about his zucchini.” He whispered in Peter’s ear, “I’ll find out sooner or later.”
“Sorry, Tony, but you know I only like you as a friend, right?”
He guffawed. “I’ve been friend-zoned.”
We worked in silence for a few minutes before Tony piped up again, around a mouthful of Cheezits. “You know, Thor tells me Hulk is a bit of an exhibitionist.”
Although having Peter around had dragged me out of my solitude, maintaining the sense of normalcy during his visit took a lot of energy I didn’t have. When he left, I found myself stumbling to the shower to get ready for bed even though the sky was still light above the horizon.
I brushed my teeth mechanically. Almost subconsciously, I noted that the light over the sink was flickering. I should change the bulb later.
I spat out the minty foam and turned on the shower. Having easy access to hygiene was certainly a welcome change from living on the streets, and now that I’d convinced Vision to switch my cast for a brace, I could make better use of it. I tried not to look at the marks that marred my flesh. Focusing in on them, I’d learned, was enough to trigger memories I wasn’t ready to face. I felt a surge of gratitude as I thought of Peter, finding me on the streets and ill-advisedly welcoming me into his home, Loki and Nat, forming an unlikely partnership to search for me, Tony, offering his endless generosity yet again, no matter how many times I ran away and got myself hurt. Even after finding out my identity, none of them seemed to regret it, even if they should. I had asked Peter earlier, “Does it bother you at all, knowing that I've got a monster in me?”
The kid had shrugged. “Some people think spiders are monsters, too, Dr. Banner.”
Tony had returned at that point, leaving me unable to press further, but the comment had stuck with me.
My thoughts wandered as I stepped under the warm water. New Asgard… space… traveling through space had been truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. All the shock and confusion and fear of that time period couldn’t begin to cloud the breath-taking awe that was being surrounded by the infinity of the cosmos. Who would have ever thought that one day I would sail among the stars? I’d spent the entirety of the trip worrying that the Hulk would come back out and breach the hull of the ship, sending everyone onboard to a chilly, airless, depressurized death; but the beauty of it all stayed with me, overriding everything else.
A flash interrupted my reverie; then everything went dark. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I collapsed on the floor, rocking, hands digging into my scalp, eyes squeezed shut. The water was still running, but I felt none of it.
The next thing I knew, strong hands were draping a towel around me and lifting me from the tub. The water had turned off. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“Breathe with me, Bruce. C’mon. In. Out. Nice and slow.”
As my breathing slowed, I felt us walking from the bathroom to my bed; but from a distance, as if it were someone else’s body.
Slowly, I became aware that Tony was talking again, rambling on, filling the empty space with words.
“…And you know I know you like your privacy, but FRIDAY was worried about you—and you know how my AI’s get when they’re worried—and then you weren’t answering her, so I figured I’d better come over here and check on you so she’d drop it and leave us both alone…Jeeze, Bruce, you’re shivering, how long were you in there? Do you want me to get you some clothes, or are you good with the bathrobe for now? I mean, it’s your choice if you want to go commando in your own room, obviously.”
Command of my faculties was starting to come back to me. “Tony, Tony—I’m fine. Thanks. It was just a flashback. I’m okay now.”
Tony let out a deep breath of relief. “You sure? Do you wanna talk about? I’m not the greatest person to talk to, but I’m here, and that’s pretty convenient.”
I rubbed my eyes wearily. “I’d rather not.”
“How about a snack? Looks like it took a lot out of you.”
“Sure.” Now that he mentioned it, I was surprisingly hungry. And I wasn’t ready to sleep any time soon, not after that. “Let me get dressed.”
I wandered out to the kitchen in flannel pajamas and slippers that had appeared in my closet shortly after my arrival at the compound. I considered leaving the crutches propped by my bed, but it wasn’t worth the argument with Tony… and besides, he was right. I did need to keep off my feet if I wanted the stress fractures to heal. But that didn’t mean I had to like it.
“Tea and ice cream sound good?” Tony was poking around in the freezer.
“Ice cream? Really?”
“You could use some fattening up.”
I propped myself up awkwardly in the entranceway. “Need any help?”
“Nah, I’m good. Have a seat.”
Two mugs were waiting on the table, one with coffee and one with tea. I pulled up a chair to the tea, appreciatively breathing in the aroma of blackberries and cinnamon.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” I queried, gesturing to the mug of coffee.
Tony shrugged. “Sleep’s overrated.”
“That’s not healthy.”
“Speaking of unhealthy, do you want Karamel Sutra or Hunka Hulka Burnin’ Fudge?” Tony slid two pints of Ben & Jerry’s across the table to me, expertly rerouting the conversation.
“Hunka what now?”
“You didn’t know?” Tony smirked. “They named a flavor after you while you were on sabbatical as a gladiator.”
“Great. Just great.” I closed my eyes briefly, only to see another horrifying fragment of memory—green dust everywhere; a crowd, screaming; cerulean blood staining green hands, so much green—and snap them back open.
“Bruce? You okay there?”
I quickly snagged a spoon off of the table. “Karamel Sutra sounds good.”
“Okay, awesome, because I’m a huge fan of Hunka Hulka myself.”
We ate in silence for a few minutes.
Tony was the first to break the quiet that had fallen upon the kitchen, licking chocolate off of his spoon as he commented, “I missed this.”
I nodded and took another sip of tea. The warm fluid was comforting.
“The late nights in the lab, just hanging out… it was good.” He fished another chunk of fudge out of his pint.
I couldn’t argue with that. “Yes,” I agreed softly. “It was.”
Tony looked like he was about to say something, then changed his mind.
“I couldn’t stay, Tony. Not after the other guy destroyed another city. You know that, right?”
“You could have at least let me help you relocate!”
I flinched at the raised tone of voice, and Tony softened.
“Look, Bruce, if you ever feel like you need out, let me know, okay? The least I can do is fly you out to whatever remote refugee camp or medical crisis you want to go to. But this is your home, too. You’ve even got a room for the other guy, so there’s no reason to run away.”
I laughed hollowly and gestured at my crutches. “I don’t think I’ll be running anywhere any time soon. And the last time wasn’t entirely me. I’ll remind you that Hulk flew the plane, not Banner.”
“Huh. The big guy’s a pilot now?” Tony scraped the last of the ice cream from his pint.
I shrugged dismissively. “As you take pride in pointing out, the quinjet practically flies itself.” I poked at the softening ice cream, still barely scraping the surface. “Tony, I’m really sorry about everything that went down while I was gone.”
Tony sighed and dropped his head wearily onto one hand. “Yeah. So am I. It was a mess, Bruce. A real mess.” He was quiet for a moment, staring at his coffee. For a while, I thought he wasn't going to say anything more about, but after wrestling internally he continued. “I went off the deep end for a while. Tried to drink it all away. Pepper’s a champ for sticking with me after all the crap I’ve put her through. But between her, and Rhodey giving me a kick in the pants, and me wanting to be a better role model for Spider-Kid, I’ve been sober for almost a year now. Trying to stick with it, but damn… it’s hard, you know?”
“That’s tough,” I agreed quietly. “I’m happy for you, turning that around.”
“I don’t want Peter to make the kind of mistakes I’ve made. I want him to be better than me.” Tony gestured broadly. “The next generation of Avengers is already out there. Do you ever think about how we’re going to set things up for them, teach them, guide them down the right path?”
I shook my head. “I’m not cut out to be a teacher. Not anymore. But what you’re doing with Peter? That kid’s a genius, his heart is in the right place, and he really needs you. I think it’s great that you’ve taken him under your wing.”
“Yeah, he’s a great kid. I hope I don’t screw it up.”
“You won’t.” I hesitated. “Tony, you’re keeping his cover pretty tight, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Good.” I relaxed slightly at that reassurance. “People don’t always treat those of us with enhancements as human.”
Tony winced. “I’d really hoped the Sokovia Accords would put an end to that,” he muttered darkly. “But it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. People in power always find a way around the rules when it suits them.”
“I just don’t want Peter to end up… well…”
“Like you?” Tony finished bluntly.
I shrugged uncomfortably, unable to say it myself out loud.
“I’ve read your file. What hasn’t been redacted, anyway. And if anyone tries anything like that on Peter, I will personally send them to hell where they belong.”
I felt sick to my stomach just thinking of what was in that file. My fingernails bit thoughtlessly into my knees, trying to drive back unwelcome images of the past. “I’m glad Ross finally gave up on chasing me,” I said huskily. “They only ever managed to hold me for so long before I ended up snapping and letting the Other Guy kill people. Waking up in a new place with innocent blood on my hands is never a good way to start over.”
Tony looked uncomfortable. “Bruce—”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You probably didn’t need or want to know that. But I have a monster in me, Tony, and that’s not just going to go away because we pretend it’s not there.”
“That’s not what I was going to say.” Tony fidgeted with the empty ice cream carton. “I talked to Loki before he left, and you’ll probably find this out sooner or later, but…”
“What? What’s happened?” I could feel my heart rate starting to spike and forced myself to breathe deeply and slowly. This was a safe place. Tony was here. I wasn't in danger.
“We think Ross may have been behind your most recent capture.”
I closed my eyes and dropped my head into my hands. “No. No, that can’t be. That doesn’t make sense. He hasn’t been interested in me in years. And there wasn’t even really any experimenting this time. They were just trying to get the Hulk.” I hadn’t even realized I was shaking until Tony put a hand on my shoulder and I tensed up. “Don’t touch me!”
“Okay, okay, sorry.” Tony withdrew.
“Why now? Why start going after me again?” My voice broke.
“Don’t do this,” I begged. “The other guy will come out if you hurt me.”
General Ross, smiling down at me. “But you don’t want that, do you? You’ve worked so hard at getting control.”
A blinding pain in my abdomen as a man in a Hazmat suit cut out a tissue sample. I shook from the effort of keeping the Hulk down, calming the building roar in my mind. No, no, no, not again. I wouldn’t give in.
I gasped for breath.
“Bruce—Bruce, stay with me, okay?"
Hot tears burned at my eyes, and I smeared one flannel sleeve hastily across my face.
“I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, it’s fine,” I managed. I hastily took a spoonful of the barely-touched Karamel Sutra and stuffed it in my mouth, clinging to the resulting brain freeze to ground me back into the present. “It’s better to know.” Maybe I had overdone it on the brain freeze. I winced and rubbed my temples. “You know what’s worse than fearing death? Knowing that no matter what they do to you, you can’t die. There’s never a way out.”
“I promise you, if Ross wants to get to you again, he’s going to have to go through me. And let me tell you, I’d enjoy blasting that stupid mustache off his stupid face.”
I let out a shuddering breath of air that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. “The funny part? Most of what I know about the other guy is from his… experiments. You know how I really got a handle on keeping him in? Practice. Over and over. Every time I failed, more people died. What I’ve learned is that anger and pain aren’t the same thing. Anger has too much hope in it. Sometimes, I could just sit there and take it because I was so far past angry that it didn't matter anymore.” I felt suddenly exhausted. “Sorry, Tony,” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes under my glasses. “Didn’t mean to dump that on you.”
Tony had pulled a Starkpad out of nowhere and was poking at it with a frown of concentration. “There we go,” he announced. “Pulled all the data of your field work, and it should be available on the computer in your room any time you want it. You know, in case you ever want to be able to look at Big Green through a lens that isn’t Ross.”
“Isn’t that classified?”
“Isn’t it your life?”
I shrugged noncommittally. “Won’t that raise suspicion, hacking into data about me?”
“What do you take me for, an amateur?”
I relaxed. “Okay. Sorry. Thanks.”
Tony waited until I had put another full spoon of ice cream in my mouth before changing the subject. “So, I’ve been working a lot on nanotech recently. I’ve got the most recent iteration of my suit mostly keyed to my biometrics, but you know you’ve got much more expertise in that area and I could really use your input… what do you say to some lab time tomorrow? I promise I’ll keep you off your feet.”
To my surprise, I found myself agreeing. “Okay.”
Tony’s face lit up. “Great! You are going to love what we’ve done with the upper level of the lab space here.”
Chapter 10: Back in Black
Tony and Bruce work on Mark L.
Things are about to get darker. Again, if you find any of the tagged topics triggering, please proceed with caution.
Also, please pretend that this "science-ing" makes sense.
“So you’re probably familiar with—you know what, forget I said that. You were in space for what, two years? I’m going to start with the basics. Everything we make is good at what it does because of the way it’s arranged at the smallest level possible. Now, scientists around the world have been working with maximizing the potential of various substances at an atomic level, but I say, why stop there?”
“You’re talking quantum?” Bruce propped himself up in the entrance to the lab. We hadn’t made it through the doorway before I had started into the background for my current experiments.
“Sorry, promised Vision I’d keep you off your feet.” I spun a swivel chair in his direction and he caught it with sigh. “That’s better. Now where were we? Oh, yes, quantum level engineering for maximum potential. Not there yet, unfortunately, but my nanotech is still lightyears ahead of the other players if I do say so myself.”
Dragging Bruce into one of my pet projects I had stowed away on the upper level of the compound’s lab space made the half-emptied building seem normalized and back to business as usual. Who else could I bring up to speed on nanotechnology in under an hour? I interrupted my own train of thought. “By the way, what we managed to create with Vision… it’s truly remarkable. He’s developed and grown in the time you’ve been away. We’re way past artificial intelligence and right into sentience. On a related note, if you’ve got any sway with Hammer Boy, I’ve got some ideas for—”
“Tony,” Bruce cautioned. “We can’t just go around creating sentient beings all willy-nilly. It’s one thing that we have Vision. We didn’t totally know what would happen there, especially without Thor’s powers figured into the equation. But now that we know, ethically, we have a responsibility to really deliberate and work out the consequences and moral issues that would arise before doing anything else of the sort.”
I put my hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay, you’re right. But there’s plenty we could try out without wandering too far into philosophical quandaries. Like analyzing the composition and energy signature of Thor’s lightning a little more closely to see what’s really going on there. I take all of that ‘magic is just science you don’t understand yet’ stuff as a direct challenge.”
“Okay, that sounds…”
“Reasonable,” Bruce allowed.
“Come on, we made Vision together, the three of us, and then you two were just gone, and here I’ve been chomping at the bit wanting to analyze the results for ages. But that’s for another day. I need your big brain on the latest iteration of Iron Man. FRIDAY, turn on my productive music.” Rock music started blaring from the speakers.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “AC/DC?”
“Good, you haven’t forgotten everything I taught you,” I joked.
“Really brings me back,” Bruce admitted almost wistfully.
I felt a pang of old memories. Why did you leave without telling any of us? I wanted to ask, but already knew it wouldn’t help to bring it back up.
Bruce shook his head. “I can’t believe you were crazy enough to let a green time bomb live with you for all that time, Tony,” he joked, barely masking heavy emotion—loss? pain? grief?—with humor.
“Nobody I’d rather science with.”
“Those years…” he hesitated. “Honestly, that was the only time since the incident I really felt safe enough to stay anywhere. So, um, thank you for that, and please know I didn’t leave because I didn’t appreciate it, honest-to-God, working with you was the best.”
“It’s good to have you back bud,” I said awkwardly. “You’re one of my best friends, and, you know, it’s good to know I have more friends left than I thought.” I really needed a drink.
Bruce smiled a little, but he still looked worn and sad. “Yeah. For what it’s worth… I’m here. So… nanotech?”
“Weaponized nanotech.” I tapped the place on my chest where I used to carry the arc reactor. “This right here? Housing.”
Bruce stood up and leaned in to get a better look, adjusting his glasses. “Incredible.”
“Uh-uh. Sit down, big guy. I’m not getting Vision on my case again.”
“What iteration of the suit are you on now?” Bruce reluctantly followed instructions as I sat down on the table next to him to give him a better view.
“Wow. You’ve been busy.”
I popped off the top layer of casing to reveal the inner workings. “See, here’s the issue.” I poked at the carefully designed series of chambers. “I’ve implanted sensors throughout my body that are biometrically linked to the suit, but right now they don’t distinguish between my clothing and any other external threat.”
“So your clothes rip off every time you deploy the suit,” Bruce deduced. He shook his head, and I was sure I saw the hint of a smirk.
“What?” I demanded.
“Have you considered wearing extra stretchy sweatpants? You probably have a dozen pairs floating around here somewhere.”
I’d almost forgotten the pants I’d made for Hulk-outs. “Your old Hunk Trunks? Nah, saving those for you. Besides, the issue becomes more about the chafing than the nudity or the garment replacement. Mark L is coded for maximum power and efficiency, not comfort. Gives a terrible rash.” Bruce was full-out chuckling. I chucked an eraser at him. “Oh come on. You of all people should know it’s annoying to lose your clothes in combat.”
He shrugged and wiped his eyes. “I’m just entertained that you’re having a Hulk problem, that’s all. Also—Hunk Trunks? Really?”
“I have a compulsive need to give my projects cool names, Bruce.”
Laughing and bantering with Tony in the lab seemed so normal. The pounding of rock through the speakers, Tony’s wise-cracks and light-speed jumps from topic to topic, even the questionably functional robots whirring around brought me back as if Sokovia had never happened.
“By the way, FRIDAY and the bots are running some tests in the corner,” Tony cautioned, “so don’t be surprised if—yup, there it is.”
A small explosion drew my attention, followed by the hiss of a fire extinguisher as DUM-E happily doused the blaze. Green flames danced briefly and burned out, smothered. My hands tightened around the beaker as a foreign sensation rose within me.
Green. Always green. Piercing green eyes in hollow skulls. Fire, raging upwards through gilded turrets. Screams, and clanging of weapons. Sharp fangs the size of my forearm. Anger. Green blood.
The shattering of glass brought me back to the present. Suddenly, everything felt normal and I looked around me in horror.
“Oh my—Tony, I—I—” I dropped to my knees and unthinkingly tried to pick up the pieces of glass left scattered by the unexpected force of my grip.
“Okay, breathe,” Tony was instructing, “don’t touch that, it’ll cut you, DUM-E’s got it under control, it’s fine…” He tried to help me to my feet, but I recoiled in panic.
“Don’t touch me!” Rising panic overwhelmed everything else, and I turned and fled.
I had made it back to my room and slumped down against the locked door, breathing heavily and unable to calm my racing heart, when I realized I was still holding a shard of broken glass. I squeezed my hand tightly around it, relishing the pain as it bit into my palm. I felt like I was looking down at someone else, but the blood pooling up from the cuts, crimson and smooth… that was mine. I clung to it like a lifeline.
Guilt welled up in me moments later as I looked at myself and saw the damage, the lines of dotted red marring my forearms. A wave of dizziness and exhaustion swept over me, and I held my arms tight against my chest as the sting of the glass faded into a dull ache that drew forth hot tears. Stop it, stop it, stop it, I pleaded with myself. Stop breaking everything.
By the time I managed to get back up, the bleeding had stopped. I threw the shirt in a sink-full of cold water to soak out the blood and grabbed a sweatshirt to hide what I’d done to my arms. I couldn’t let Tony or Rhodes find out; I already wondered how I would be able to hide this from Vision. Fortunately he'd been off my case recently, assured that I was following his instructions. My hands shook. I stumbled over to my bed. I should never have tried to go back to normal. I wasn’t normal.
"Dr. Banner, Mr. Stark would like to know if you are alright," FRIDAY interjected into the silent room.
Shivering, I pressed my palms against my eyelids to block everything out. "Tell him I'm fine, please, FRIDAY."
"Are you certain of that, Dr. Banner?"
Tony and his stupidly perceptive AIs. "Just a flashback. Please let him know I'm sorry for bailing on him, but I'm tired and going back to bed."
"As you wish, sir."
Tony didn’t press me to go out again for several days. I felt guilty for hiding away again, but more than that I felt relieved. I couldn’t put myself back in that situation again, not until I got control. Who was I if I couldn’t control at least this part of myself? The thought of losing control of Banner, too, frightened me more than I wanted to admit.
Chapter 11: The Razor's Edge
These next couple of chapters have been a weird combination of tough-to-write and cathartic because in some ways I've been drawing on personal experience and using this cinematic universe as a way to work through some of the stuff I'm still carrying around myself. That being said please take care of yourselves (esp. on the tagged topics)! Thank you for reading.
The car gave off a pleased hum as I accelerated past the speed limit, daring the long stretches of open road to throw me a curve. I drummed my fingers against the steering wheel restlessly. At the back of my mind, a voice was nagging at me relentlessly, but I ignored it. Rhodes was out, Pepper was out—I could get one drink and none of them would be the wiser. I couldn’t take it anymore, wandering around an empty compound filled with the echoes of shattered friendships. Just a little something to take the edge off.
I coasted into an out-of-the-way town. As I pulled into a parking spot, FRIDAY alerted me of an incoming call.
“Patch him through, Fri.”
“Hi Tony, it’s Bruce.”
“Everything okay there?”
“Yeah… yeah, everything’s fine.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Good.”
“It’s just… I had an idea, for the suit problem. Sorry, are you busy? This isn’t super important, it’s just that when I asked FRIDAY where you were she called you and I wasn’t really intending to interrupt—”
“Relax,” I interjected. “I’m not—nothing important’s happening.”
“Are you driving?”
“Handsfree tech, Bruce. I’m not looking to be another Stephen Strange. But I’m parking now if that eases your mind.”
“Okay.” The line was quiet for a moment. “I’ll send you the equations in a bit. Making a few tweaks as we speak.”
“I’ll be back in about an hour, if you wanted to get in some lab time this afternoon.” Even as I said it, I was kicking myself, realizing I had just taken my alcohol run off the table. I almost thought he had hung up, from the length of silence on the other end. “Bruce?”
“Sorry. Um, no, I’m not really up to lab time. I’m sorry, Tony.” He sounded conflicted.
“You doing okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m just tired.”
“Have you eaten?”
“You’re as bad as Vision,” Bruce grumbled.
“Has he, FRIDAY?” I asked, pointedly ignoring the complaint.
“Not since yesterday,” FRIDAY informed me.
A quiet “oops” sounded from the other side of the phone.
“Bruce—” I began, but my lecture was cut off by another apology.
“I got wrapped up in thinking. I’m sorry, I promise it wasn’t on purpose. You know how it is when a project gets in your head.”
“That’s it, I’m sending Vision instructions to feed you lunch, and I’m ordering us pizza for tonight. Family dinner at 6 o’clock sharp.” As I spoke, I called up the work he had sent me on my StarkPad.
“Thanks, Tony. And I’m sorry.”
“My pleasure. And seriously, stop apologizing. This is brilliant.”
“Oh. Well, I guess I’ll see you later, then.” FRIDAY ended the call.
With a sigh, I closed the file and restarted the car, pulling away from the liquor store. Maybe I didn’t need that drink as much as I thought when I left. As I headed for the main road, a music shop caught my eye. If Bruce was going to keep himself holed away in his room playing piano, he could at least use some new material.
“What kind of tea would you like with your soup, Dr. Banner?” Vision asked, startling me with his sudden reappearance.
“You really don’t need to…” I began, but the android just looked at me. “Something without caffeine, please. Thank you, Vision.”
He vanished through the wall again and I shook my head. Tony was right, it did taking some getting used to.
Within a few moments Vision had returned, setting a tray on my desk. To my surprise, he pulled up a chair and sat with me.
“Thanks,” I said again, taking a sip of the hot liquid. My stomach rumbled, suddenly aware of its emptiness. “It’s been hard to get used to eating regularly again,” I admitted.
“From what I could tell, if it were not for your unique physiology, you would have starved several times over before Peter brought you back to us,” Vision supplied. “Your captors certainly did not feed you adequately if at all. All things considered, it is hardly surprising you find it difficult to interpret your body’s needs in the aftermath.”
Uncomfortably, I shifted my robe tighter around my body, feeling as though Vision could see right through me to the freshly scabbed marks on my arms and thighs. I changed the subject quickly. “Do you ever taste food just to see what it’s like?”
Vision smiled. “I have, on occasion. It is… a strange sensation, to be sure. But it seems wasteful to taste and dispose of that which could be feeding one of my companions, when I do not find any need of it.”
“The soup’s great, by the way.” Without really thinking about it, I had consumed over half the bowl already.
“I simply microwaved it,” Vision replied. “Although I am very knowledgeable of cooking techniques, my flavor choices can be less than desirable to the human palate. I thought it best to bring you something that would not induce discomfort.”
I let out a slight chuckle. “Not every human has the same flavor preferences, Vision. Don’t let it dissuade you too much.”
“What flavors are your preference, Dr. Banner?”
“Please, call me Bruce.” I took a sip of the tea and tasted honey. Memories washed over me, stirred up by the question and the warm sweetness of the beverage.
Natasha pinned me to the ground once again. Both of us were panting heavily as we lay there, but this time she made to no move to get back up. My senses were acutely aware of her presence. Her warm eyes meeting mine with auburn hair pulled carefully away from her face, that slight smile that graced her lips, the smell of sweat and something sweet and warm like summer…
“You smell like honey.”
She smiled. “Medovik.”
“I didn’t know you baked.”
As if realizing she was still holding me there, Nat rolled off of me and proffered a hand. “I don’t, usually. The memories can be… a bit much.”
I nodded. “Got it.”
She tossed me a towel. “If you ever wanted workout tanks, I’m sure anybody on the team would be happy to share. Heck, mention it to Tony and you'll have a whole closet.”
I fidgeted with the edge of my frayed grey sweatshirt, and shrugged.
“Not trying to push you if you’re uncomfortable,” Nat added perceptively. “You just seem overly warm whenever we workout.”
“Baring my arms and back has never been a good thing,” I joked, trying to be light about it. “Plus, everyone sees more of me than we’d like every time the other guy takes a turn at the wheel.”
Nat gave a genuine laugh. “As long as you don’t feel that we’re forcing you to compensate for the other guy’s exhibitionism by hiding you, okay? I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Banner myself.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I know I’m… what did Tony call it? Emotionally constipated? Working with the Avengers is the first time I’ve been around people I could confide in for years. So yeah, I’m a little backed up.”
“Keeping your feelings hidden away is second nature for people who’ve been through what you and I have been through. It’s hard to find people to trust, and even harder to let them in.” She hesitated. “But sometimes I find that I want to be open with them anyway. Bruce… if you knew the things I’ve done, would you still—” Nat bit back the question and shook her head, clearly frustrated with herself.
“Nothing from the past would make you any less of the person you are to me, Nat,” I offered gently. “I know there’s some dark stuff back there, hidden in closets you want to forget. I don’t need to poke into them to know who you are.”
Out of nowhere, Nat pressed her lips against mine, arms encircling my neck. I felt the rush of honey and spices and something that felt like home. In that moment was eternity and safety and life. Without giving it conscious thought, my arms had wrapped around her as well, drawing her in.
Then the moment broke, and I pulled back. “Nat… we can’t. I can’t.”
I turned and fled the workout room.
“Your thoughts are elsewhere,” Vision prompted.
I shrugged uncomfortably. “I miss Natasha.”
“You love her.” The words were an observation, not a question.
I nodded silently.
“Does she love you?”
“She did, once.” I shook my head. “I ruined it by running away.”
Vision looked thoughtful.
“It’s for the best,” I added hastily. “Any time anyone gets close to me, they end up hurt. But that doesn’t stop me from missing her.”
“Will you be all right here, Bruce?” Vision asked, standing suddenly. “There is something I need to attend to.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I agreed, confused by his abrupt change of subject. “Thanks for lunch.”
I was sitting against the wall, staring into space, when Tony dropped by.
“Brought you something.” Tony set a stack of books on my lap. “You need a change of pace from Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata or whatever it is you keep playing.”
“Beethoven,” I said automatically. “I’ve been playing Beethoven.”
“Still.” Tony gestured to the pile. “This stuff is more upbeat.”
I could tell Tony was still worried, and that made me feel guilty. “Thanks Tony. I’ll try some—what is this?” I picked up the first book off the top. “Led Zeppelin?”
“Good man,” Tony patted my shoulder. “You know if you need anything I’m here, right?”
He paused halfway out the doorway as if suddenly changing his mind about something. “Look, Bruce—after shit like this happens, the body isn’t the only thing that needs healing. If you wanna talk to a therapist or something, I’ve got some contacts who would keep your presence here hush-hush.”
“The flashbacks are getting better,” I said uncomfortably. “But thanks.”
“Would you tell me if they weren’t?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what I thought.” Tony crossed back over and sat down next to me. I stiffened at the sudden proximity. “Look, um… When I got back from Afghanistan—a while after, actually—I started having flashbacks and anxiety attacks. Didn’t really understand what was happening at first, since it had been a while since I had escaped. Actually thought I was poisoned, or having heart problems. Guess Petey’s right, our generation isn’t as aware of mental health stuff. But I’ve learned a lot from the experience. And I’m never gonna look down on you if you need help, kay?”
Part of me wanted to lean closer and accept the comforting warmth of a friend, but the part that was still tense at anyone nearby won out. “I’m sorry, Tony. I know you thought you were bringing home an Avenger, but you just got me, and I’m pretty much the opposite of saving the world. I’m a mess.”
“Being a mess doesn’t preclude you from being my friend, though. Have you met me?” Tony joked. “Seriously though, I didn’t bring you here just because you’re an Avenger. You’re a friend. And in a world where the number of those there are around seems to be constantly shrinking, that’s huge.”
I tried to smile. “Thanks, Tony.”
“Well—guess I’ll see you for dinner, then,” Tony got up awkwardly. “Happy piano-ing.”
When Tony left, I took the Led Zeppelin charts to the piano. My fingers played the keyboard transcriptions clumsily. Some of the lyrics stuck out to me, harkening back to a journey through the stars with the remnants of Asgard. How had I become an Avenger, anyway? Everyone else had a giftedness that enriched the world—Tony’s incredible engineering with the arc reactor, Thor’s godhood and associated skills, Steve’s super-strength, Clint’s matchless aim, Nat’s lethal skill. “Valhalla, I am coming…”
“You are one of us now,” Thor proclaimed on the bridge. “Valhalla smiles upon you for your bravery in fighting alongside Asgard in her time of need.”
“Thanks,” I managed, still in a state of confusion from being restored to my smaller and less green form. I didn’t remember any of the battle he was referencing. Did he not realize how fortunate we all were that I had not caused more damage than I had prevented?
“He’s not kidding,” the woman, who I was still trying to place other than having been told she was a Valkyrie, added, taking a swig of some presumably heavily alcoholic beverage. “Asgard’s not a place, it’s a people, yadda-yadda-yadda.”
Why was everyone so bent on convincing me I belonged when it was clear I didn’t? As loathe as I was to admit it, and as terrible as he was at fitting into a normal society, the other guy belonged far more than I ever did or would. He was at least useful in some situations. Banner? Nobody needed him or my seven PhDs. What good was everything I knew in the long run if all I had achieved was to create a monster of more use than I was. One who had given up on me as surely as everyone else should have. The Hulk had made it clear after the incident, when the lab had caught me in the aftermath, that I was on my own.
He hadn’t so much as murmured when I took the broken glass to my arms and hands a few days before. Not that time, or the next. Not even when I shifted the damage to my legs the next day, where it was easier to hide, and safer to go deeper. His voice had gone completely silent.
The musical phrase trailed off halfway as my hands slowed to a halt. I was on my own. The Hulk wouldn’t come out and stop me. I felt a weird, tranquil energy settle over me with a sort of mental clarity. The silence of the room echoed loudly in my ears. My limbs moved almost without my direction. A calm finality hung around as I dug in the cabinets methodically for paper, pen, and a sharp blade.
Before I knew it, I stood before the reinforced doorway. “Code green.”
This was it.
Chapter 12: "So now you'd better stop / And rebuild all your ruins"
Natasha returns to the Avengers Compound. Bruce's absence is noticed.
Please take care of yourselves. This chapter and the next few tackle some heavy stuff.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Is there anything else I can do to make things better between us?” I asked softly. Tension had been palpable in the room since I had arrived and told Tony I wanted back in. One shouting match, two hours of working through legalities, and three cups of black coffee later, he was still pacing restlessly. The technical details of bringing me back to the team had been thoroughly dissected, but I knew the logistics weren’t what was weighing on Tony's mind the most.
“Being double-crossed, smashed in the chest, and left for dead isn’t something you just get over,” Tony grumbled. He waved off any protest, though I wasn’t here to give one. “I know most of that wasn’t you. Still hurts, though. But your home here…” he gestured broadly at the compound without really looking up from the tall mug of black coffee. “Look, I haven’t been able to bring myself to remodel the rooms that were for any of you. Sometimes—sometimes I wake up and expect to see everyone back where they used to be, and that’s bullshit. But you’re here, and I’m here, and we gotta do our best to move forward.”
I nodded. It was about what I had expected. I was touched to read through Tony’s rambling to the man who was still grieving the loss of close friendship. That was the source of the worst of his anger.
“When I joined the Avengers initiative,” I began, “I came on board with a mission of bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Protecting instead of destroying. And for a while, that’s what we got to do. After the Accords… I didn’t want you to be hurt. I made the choices I did trying to minimize the harm to all of us. I don’t know if I would change anything looking back, but I wish that everything could have been solved without the damage dealt to our team. I know it’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but it’s the truth.”
Tony ran a hand through his hair wearily. “Why come back here?”
“After Germany, I knew I wasn’t likely to be a welcome figure around here, and realizing my presence would do more harm than good, I went underground for a while. But when Loki contacted me about Bruce… he wasn’t part of our fight. And even if he had been around, something tells me he would have refused to fight any of us, even though he would have won.” I quirked a smile, thinking back to the stolen moments during the Ultron catastrophe. “Maybe things would have gone differently, who knows. But for an assassin who can’t trust or be trusted, a friend who cares so deeply and always looks for the peaceful resolution in everything is incomparable. So reconnecting with Bruce was a big factor, especially at first, but after being around him again I started to realize how important reconnecting with the rest of the team was as well. That’s part of what I was doing this past week—letting the others know I won’t be back for a while.”
Tony frowned suddenly. “Speaking of Bruce, he was supposed to come down for dinner over an hour ago. FRIDAY, where is he?”
“Dr. Banner entered his Green Room almost five hours ago, sir.”
Tony swore loudly and took off down the hall. I wasn’t far behind. “Dammit, FRIDAY, that would have been good to know. Any idea of a potential trigger?”
“No, sir. His vitals were normal up until entering the Green Room, and my protocol does not extend within the room. No signs of distress or rage.”
We reached Bruce’s quarters and Tony opened a panel by the reinforced door and started punching in access codes. “Come on,” he muttered, “give me information.” He kicked the wall in frustration and pressed a few more buttons. “At least the room seems to be working, considering he’s still in there. Ah!”
A screen lit up. Bruce…maybe? it was hard to tell… was huddled in the corner of the room.
I sucked in my breath. “Is that blood?”
Tony flipped another switch and the display colorized. He was looking grey. “Um, yes. I think so.”
“Where’s it coming from?” I demanded.
“I suppose it’s too much to hope that our green friend went ham on a swarm of mosquitoes.” He continued adjusting the settings. “Trying to get some sound, here. Maybe we can talk to him.”
Bruce was shaking and spasming in and out of a pallid, half-hearted green on seemingly random body parts, but his face seemed to have gone full Hulk in hue if not structure. Shreds of paper stuck to the spatters of crimson on the floor. He had blood smeared all over his hands, suggesting some sort of battle, but otherwise he seemed in marked contrast to the bold, angry giant that normally made an appearance in these situations. His shoulders trembled.
“The Hulk’s crying,” I realized aloud.
“That’s… not normal. That isn’t normal, is it?” Tony was rendered almost incoherent. “Tell me that’s a normal thing for the big guy to be doing? Why isn't he Hulking out the rest of the way?”
I grabbed his arm. “Look, we need to get in there. Can you get me in there?”
“Yes, yes—maybe. FRIDAY, get Vision. We could really use his wall-ignoring trick right now.”
“Vision left,” the AI supplied. “He said to tell you he needed to make things right between him and Wanda.”
Tony swore again. “The only way we’re getting in that room is if Banner lets us in. He insisted on that as a failsafe to protect anybody else in the compound.” He gestured to the small mic. “The green guy is more likely to respond to you.”
Through the haze, I heard a voice, melodious and gentle and strangely familiar.
“Hey, big guy. Sun’s getting real low.”
I almost blacked out again for a few seconds but managed to hold on just enough to catch the tail end of a foreign voice exiting my mouth. “Banner not Hulk friend. Hulk say no. Banner go away.”
Then a few moments were gone again and I was so disoriented, but Nat’s voice was back, guiding and pleading. “Bruce, you have to trip the release in order to let us in. Please, let us in.”
There was blood everywhere. So much blood. Was it mine? I stumbled to my feet and pressed my hand against the scanner, blindly following her instructions. As the resulting hiss of the door sounded through the room, I slipped back into unconsciousness.
Yesterday was my two-year anniversary of deciding to go inpatient for mental health treatment. I'm in a much better place now. This fanfic, weird as it sounds, has been a way for me to process through some of that stuff, so a huge thank you to those of you who are joining me on this journey and have been leaving notes of encouragement.
Finally, I want to remind you all that you are loved and that help is available if you ever think the world would be better off without you. It does get better.
If you are in the US, the crisis text line is 741-741.
Chapter 13: Heartbeats
I'm a storyteller, not a doctor. Let's just agree to pretend that all of my fake science and fake medicine makes sense, okay?
As soon as the door hissed open I was through it, rushing to where Bruce had collapsed. Tony was only seconds behind me as I frantically searched for a heartbeat along our friend’s neck. The unconscious scientist’s body still pulsed pale green every few seconds, and the magnitude of the situation crashed in on me. The beats were the same.
“There’s a pulse, but it’s not Bruce’s.” I tried addressing the other guy directly. “Hulk, if you can hear me, this would be a great time to come out. Please.”
"NO!" the green face growled back at me, but he didn’t transform any further.
Suddenly, the green was gone, leaving Bruce pale and motionless. The heartbeats stopped entirely.
“FRIDAY, get me the closest AED.”
The next few minutes were a chaotic blur. Tearing open Bruce’s shirt, Tony charging the paddles, CLEAR.
For seconds that seemed to stretch on forever, I thought it hadn’t worked. The green was gone, and Bruce still laid motionless. Then the steady beeping of the heart rate monitor. A shuddering breath.
Tony dropped his glasses and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “He’s alive.”
I started taking stock of our friend’s condition, looking for the source of the blood. “Any idea what happened, Tony?”
“He was fine this morning.” Tony shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know.”
Peeling back the soaked purple sleeves, I gave a sudden intake of breath. “I think I found the problem. Gauze, please. We need to stop the bleeding.”
Tony took one glance and swore. “Shit.”
A long, deep gash lined the inside of Bruce’s arm. I reached for the other sleeve, even though in my sinking heart I already knew I would find its twin. The blood almost hid the partially healed cuts and older scars, but the wounds together told a very clear story. I felt sick.
Tony kicked the wall with such force that, if he hadn’t been partially suited up, he would have broken several toes. “He told me things were better,” he choked out.
“We can deal with that later. Right now, we need to stop the bleeding and sew him up.” It sounded heartless even to my own ears, but I had long before learned to compartmentalize until it was safe to deal with the emotions. “He didn’t hit the artery, thank God. He needs blood.”
“Nat, we can’t." I could tell Tony was starting to panic. "With his level of gamma radiation, we give him blood and his cells will burn it out of him in four hours, five hours tops, if it even helps at all. Best case scenario he dies in excruciating pain five hours from now instead of one.” He paced agitatedly.
“Then what do we do?” I was grasping at straws, applying pressure to the arms of my best friend, and pleading for answers, anything to stop the inevitable. “You’re too smart to give up. Bruce is dying. He needs you.”
“I’m trying!” Tony snapped. He paused suddenly. “No. No, it’s not me we need, it’s Helen. FRIDAY, start the jet.”
“What’s our play?”
“We give him a blood transfusion and pray it lasts from here to Norway.”
The next few minutes were a blur of bots, needles, and stretchers. As the roar of the jet leveled off in the sky, I hung up the cellphone. “They know we’re coming. Any sign of consciousness?”
Tony looked up from where he had finished securing the IV by Bruce’s stretcher. “Nothing yet.” His face was lined with weariness as, with his tasks completed, the ordeal finally hit. “Natasha, I—” His knees buckled and he lowered himself to the floor. “I don’t know how I missed this. He didn’t seem any different; actually, he’d seemed like he was doing better.”
A series of images flashed across my mind. Years of long sleeves, even in back in India. Forearms littered with faint, old scars I’d always attributed to the aftermath of Hulk-outs. Weeks in between New York and Sokovia where he’d disappear, only to return exhausted and without a word of where he’d gone or why. A moment back when he had first joined the team. “I put a bullet in my mouth, and the other guy spit it back out…” * I felt sick.
“Maybe it wasn’t different,” I realized out loud. “Tony…”
Based on the expression on Tony’s face, he had put the pieces together too. “He’s been suicidal for years and none of us noticed.”
“Waking up strapped to a stretcher with an IV in his arm is not going to be pleasant.”
"The transfusion's almost done. I'll make sure the IV's out before he can come around."
An exhausted silence filled the cabin as he worked. Finally, I broke it. “Why don’t you go call Dr. Cho again and brief her more in depth on his unusual physiology? I can sit here with Bruce.”
The first thing that pierced through the darkness of unconsciousness was the sensation of bands around my arms. A rising panic filled me. I couldn’t move. There was a needle in my arm, and my veins were burning. I was in the lab. I would never escape. I couldn’t move. I’d never get out. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move.
A scientist loomed over me and I couldn’t get away. I begged brokenly for release through sobbing gasps of air that never seemed to quite reach my lungs but there was no way out. There was never a way out.
My straining against the straps chafed my arms painfully, evoking conflicted memories and stirring up a new source of confusion. The thumping of a foreign heart, blood, Nat… please let us in. There was never a way out. I couldn’t breathe.
“Please, Bruce.” A soft voice cut through like the hesitant glow of an eastern cloud in the early hours of the morning.
Gradually, I became aware of gentle hands holding my shoulders and stilling my thrashing.
“Please, Bruce. You’re safe. You’re with me.”
“Natasha?” I struggled to sit up, but my arms were strapped down. “Are you okay? Where are we? What happened? Are you okay? Is Tony okay?” Another wave of fire arched through my body. “What’s going on?”
“I’m fine, Tony’s okay too.” The hands moved off of my shoulders as if trusting I had stopped trying to get up. “Bruce, what do you remember?”
“Did I Hulk out?”
“Not… not exactly.”
"Did I hurt anyone? You're okay?" I took stock of my surroundings. “Are we on a pla—mmgh.” I bit back a cry of pain as another surge of agony traveled up my arm.
Suddenly everything crashed down on me like a bomb. The scalpel, the blood, the room. “Oh my God.” I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the cold reality, but all I could see was the smoothly opening wounds, the welling up of blood, the tingling sense of resolve, that finally, finally, there was a way out. They knew. They knew everything.
“Breathe with me, Bruce, you need to breathe. Tony!”
“I’m so sorry, Nat. I am so, so sorry,” I managed. Another wave of pain, but this time I embraced it. I deserved it.
No,” she said firmly. “I’m sorry. For forcing the other guy out. For not finding you sooner. For not getting to the lab in time and stopping those men from torturing you. I’m sorry for not seeing the scars it had left on your mind until it was too late.” Her hand found mine and grasped it tightly. “Whatever they did or said to you, Bruce, you deserve to live.”
I forced myself to open my eyes, but I couldn’t meet Natasha’s. “You don’t understand, Nat,” I protested quietly. “That isn’t it. This was all my fault, all of it.” I blinked back hot tears. “This wasn’t the first time, okay?”
Something inside me told me it was time to just sit and listen and let him talk, so I did.
“Before the Avengers, I tried…” he hesitated, as if unsure how much to disclose, “… a couple times, but nothing came close to succeeding so I gave up for a while.” Unspoken between us was the understanding that a couple times was already more than I wanted to know. “Losing two years to the Hulk and realizing he’s getting stronger… I thought I had to do it soon, or I might never have the chance. Once New Asgard was underway, I slipped away because I thought I could do it. I was wrong. The other guy came out, and he was furious, made a mess, and left. That’s how they found me. When I was tortured, they wanted the Hulk, but couldn’t get him. They wanted to break the Hulk, but the Hulk had abandoned me to take it alone, and I’m not—without him, I’m just a man. They were so angry, so desperate…” Bruce was shaking. “I guess in the end they decided I must have been some sort of hoax and threw me out on the streets. I didn’t even save myself. I’m not a hero, Nat, I’m a monster. And every time I’ve tried to fix that, I’ve just made everything worse.”
“You’re not a monster to me,” I averred. “We will get you through this, Bruce. I promise. You won’t be fighting alone, not anymore.”
Bruce’s body shuddered, and it seemed as if he was trying not to cry out in pain. “What’s going on?” he asked tightly.
“You lost a lot of blood. Your heart stopped. It looked like your body tried to force the other guy out, but he said no.”
I saw a different kind of fear in his eyes as his mind spun rapidly through the potential scenarios. “Nat, that’s not going to work. Blood isn’t going to last very long before my body destroys it. We have to get me off this plane before… Here’s the thing, if Hulk knew what was going on and let my heart stop, if he can choose to let me die… that opens a whole new series of problems. I’m not sure anymore that he’d go with me. You can’t still be on a plane with him when the blood fails. If my heart stops again, you’ll have a maximum of ten minutes before brain death, at which point if my current hypothesis is correct there will be only Hulk.”
“I’ve crunched the numbers,” Tony said, reemerging behind me with his carefully cultivated calm back in place. “And according to my expert guesstimations, you’ve got almost three hours before your body finishes cooking the blood transfusion. We’re only two and a half hours from Dr. Cho’s set-up on the outskirts of New Asgard.”
Bruce’s back arched and he squeezed his eyes shut. His hand tensed around mine. “Breathe,” I murmured. “Just focus on breathing. Don’t worry about us.”
“That would be the blood transfusion,” Tony remarked. “Good news—as long as it hurts, it’s still working. Bad news—it’s gonna hurt.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce managed through clenched teeth. “Tony—I didn’t mean for this… it’s not you, any of you. I really thought I could take him with me. It’s just, if the Hulk ever comes out again, he might never leave. I can’t let that happen. I had to try to destroy us before—”
Tony slammed his fist into the wall. “Had to?” he demanded. “Like you had to run away from Sokovia and abandon the team, and had to run away from New Asgard? Had to always leave us wondering? Does this team mean so little to you that you keep throwing it away?”
“Tony!” I hissed. He hadn’t seen Bruce flinch at the sudden violence, nor noticed the scientist begin to shake as he stared wordlessly past us, but I had. “Hey big guy. It’s okay. You’re on a plane with me and Tony.” I tried to touch him, but he recoiled away from my hand, straining against the arm restraints and snapping out of the mute tremors into a full panic.
“Let me go, please, let me go!” The anguished, broken voice echoed the one I had heard on a video at the lab, shortly before Loki’s rage had incinerated the place. Bruce twisted and pulled against the straps holding him down in clear terror.
Tony looked stricken. “Nat, I—”
“Save it,” I snapped back angrily. “Bruce, you’re safe. Just listen to my voice, okay? Breathe in. Out.”
“Sir,” FRIDAY interrupted. “You have a phone call.”
“NOT NOW, FRIDAY.”
“But sir—“ the AI sounded almost apologetic “—it’s Thor. He’s says it’s urgent.”
I looked up in surprise. “Thor’s calling?”
“That’s not good,” Tony murmured. “FRIDAY, patch him through.”
“Tony, I need you right away. Call the rest of the team if you can, but come quickly. A powerful being called Thanos is after the infinity stones. Half the universe is at stake.”
The audio cut off.
“Thor has ended the call, sir,” FRIDAY informed us unhelpfully.
Tony had already begun to pace. “Not good, not good, not good.”
I processed the information with practiced calm. “Dr. Cho and her team are set up on the outskirts of New Asgard. We can join Thor after we land. In the mean time, we need to get Bruce calm before he hurts himself further.” Bruce’s arms were chafed and raw at the wrist and upper arm where he was strapped down. It was fortunate that the restraints were past his bandages, or he would have re-torn the stitched wounds.
Bruce had stopped crying out and was mumbling over and over, rocking and pulling against the bands that held him down. "Let me go, let me go, let me go."
I shook my head. “We have to untie him.”
“That’s not safe.”
“Look at him, Tony. He’s back in that lab, and as long as he’s scared, in pain, and tied down, we’re not going to convince him otherwise.”
The argument turned out to be unnecessary. With a snap, his straining arms broke through the restraints.
With the straps gone, Bruce curled away from us against the wall, huddled into a ball, shaking. Tony made a move to get closer, but I cut it off with an abrupt wave of my head. Gradually, his breathing slowed.
Bruce looked up, still somewhat dazed. “We’re on a plane?”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d still been holding. “Yes. We’re on a plane."
“Right.” Bruce rubbed wearily at his forehead. “Don’t suppose there’s a restroom? I gotta go.”
Bruce got up and stumbled his way down the aisle toward the restroom. I stopped him.
“Where are you going?”
Bruce looked at me unbelievingly. “I gotta go, Tony.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“That’s ridiculous!” As he realized I was serious, Bruce’s demeanor sagged. “Please, Tony. I really need to be alone.”
I hesitated. Could I trust Bruce to be safe? Or would the invasion of his privacy make things worse?
“Fine,” I allowed gruffly. “But if I don’t hear from you in 5 minutes, I’m coming in there.”
Bruce barely waited for the conditions, slipping inside and locking the door. Waiting outside, I heard rather than saw his body sink to the floor in anguish. The deep, wrenching sobs were quiet but tore at my heart. I didn’t know if my friend would ever be okay again.
Recognizing the end of Tony’s imposed time limit was approaching, I pulled myself together and did what I had said I had come here to do, splashing water on my face in hopes of hiding the evidence of my tears. It was over. My last hope of escape had failed spectacularly. Even if Hulk would not intervene to heal me, his body was poised to take over entirely, staying alive on his own. I had to live.
The bandages stared back at me from my forearms, mocking me in their pristine whiteness, and standing out starkly against my chafed skin. I dried my hands off on the spotless towel and fumbled with the bolt, feeling suddenly very heavy and clumsy. Tony was waiting for me on the other side.
“Perfect timing,” he joked, but I could see in the weary lines of his face that he was masking frustration, anger, even grief. “Look…I’m bad at figuring out how to say this, but… I’m sorry, about a lot of things.”
“Don’t be,” I murmured. “You’re a good guy, Tony.” I stumbled and put a hand out to catch myself on the wall. “If anybody should be sorry, it’s me. I never intended for you and Nat to have to pick up the pieces of another botched experiment.”
“Jeeze, Bruce,” Tony said angrily. “You’re not an experiment. Your life is not a botched experiment. And trying to kill yourself? That’s one attempt you damn well better botch or I will personally track you down in whatever afterlife there is to give you a piece of my mind.”
Guilt twisted in my heart as I realized that Tony’s eyes were blinking back tears. “Tony, I—”
He waved off the attempted apology and changed the subject. “Come on, Natasha got a more comfortable bed set up for you in the back of the plane.”
I hesitated. “No more restraints?” The words were almost a plea.
Tony’s arm wrapped around the small of my waist and guided me forward. “No more restraints, big guy. I promise,” he reassured me. “Just a bed so you can get some rest.”
The bed turned out to be a welcome suggestion for my weary body. My legs almost gave out as we approached it, but Tony was right there, holding me up and helping me the last few steps.
When Tony finally left me to my own devices, convinced that I had fallen asleep, I curled up against the pillow and wept. Deep inside me, I felt a surge of profound grief far beyond my own.
*quote from The Avengers
Chapter 14: Radioactive
Tony shrugged on a fresh t-shirt. The arc reactor glowed faintly through the dark cotton. “You all washed up?”
I nodded numbly. The sweatpants and tank I'd grabbed from Tony's stash of clothes weren't my usual style, but they were clean, and I could deal with that. As it was, I kept expecting to see blood every time I looked down at myself. I closed my eyes against that image.
“Good. As it is, you’d probably show up as a hot spot on a Geiger counter right now.” Tony's compulsion to live with any difficult emotions stifled behind a mask of humor had returned in full force.
My mind was in turmoil. I rubbed my hands against each other again thoughtlessly, still feeling the slickness of Bruce’s blood playing back through my senses despite the dozens of times I had washed my hands since coming on board.
“Natasha? Nat? Romanoff?”
I jolted back into focus. “Sorry, Tony, you were saying?”
“I was joking about the Geiger counter,” he said, almost apologetically. “Short term exposure to his blood isn’t going to…”
Silence filled the cabin for several long moments.
“He sent me a phone.” Tony finally put the words he’d been chewing on out in the open.
“What? Who did?”
“In case… well, I guess in case something like this ever happened. Thanos.”
In response, Tony pulled a flip phone from his jacket pocket, looking it over briefly before tossing it to me.
I shook my head. “This isn’t my phone call to make, Tony.”
He looked away. “Yeah. I know.”
“This isn’t about you and Steve anymore. It’s about everyone out there.” I jerked my head toward the window. “You heard Thor. Billions of lives are in danger, and we need all the help we can get. Especially…” I let the words trail off, unspoken.
Tony’s mind had gone to the same teammate. “You should head back and see how he’s doing.” He paused, then added, as if trying to be casual despite the tension in his voice, "Don't--don't hand it to me. Just set it down. I don't--"
"You don't like it when people hand you things. I know." Tony nodded.
Even as I rose gracefully from my seat in the front cabin, I could Tony’s thoughts were divided between our several predicaments. From the doorway, I glanced back. Tony was turning the flip phone over and over in his hands, torn. “You’ll be all right?”
Tony shook himself. “What? Yeah, yeah… of course.”
Bruce was seated on the bed, leaning against the wall and staring out the dark window. The redness around his eyes stood out from the paler-than-normal skin of his face.
“Mind if I join you?” I queried gently.
To my surprise, Bruce let me turn him from the window and take him into my arms. I held him tightly, trying to replace the pressure of gauze on lifeless flesh with the sensation of two living bodies pressed against each other for comfort.
His voice was muffled against my hair. “I’m so sorry, Nat,” he choked out. “I am so, so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I whispered, holding him as he wept. I ached inside in recognition of the deep hopelessness emanating from him. I hesitated, but after a moment I felt the need to press further. “Bruce, do you have any plans of trying again?”
He shook his head mutely.
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Promise me, if you ever get to that place again, talk to someone first. Please?”
Bruce looked up and met my eyes for the first time. “I don’t know what you see in me, Nat,” he said softly, brushing a strand of hair out of my face. “But if it means that much to you, I promise.” Blinking as if seeing the space around us for the first time, he added, “Where’s Tony?”
“Hopefully? Calling Steve.”
Bruce frowned. “I thought they weren’t on speaking terms.”
“They aren’t. But with what Thor said…”
A twinge of guilt. “I think you may have missed his call.”
“May have?” He looked confused.
I sucked in a breath. “You had a panic attack earlier when Tony raised his voice at you.”
Bruce winced and averted his gaze. “Sorry about that,” he mumbled. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”
“While you were out of it, Thor called, saying something about infinity stones and the end of the universe and a being called Thanos.”
“Thanos?” Bruce whipped his head up, eyes wide. “Oh, this is bad. This is very bad. Where’s Loki? Does Thor know how bad that is?”
“You’ve heard of him?” The urgency of Bruce’s voice surprised me.
“Loki hasn’t told you? New York, the Chitauri, the scepter? That was all him, Nat.”
Memories floated unbidden to the front of my consciousness. Loki, onboard the ship, bringing me back into myself...
“I take it you prefer this form.”
I nodded and startled as the cloak shifted around me into dark sweatpants, and purple flannel, and a tattered jacket I hadn’t seen since before my last code green on Earth. “Thanks.” He hadn’t said anything to that end, but I was beginning to suspect he had something to do with the other guy relinquishing his hold since no one else was to be seen, a task which must have been anything but pleasant. I was surprised he would have bothered.
Loki turned to leave, but paused in the doorway. “We all have a form we would prefer to forget, Banner,” he said softly, still turned away. “Dinner is in half an hour.”
Unsure what to say, I bumbled out, “I take it you prefer this form of me, too.”
To my surprise, Loki chuckled. “Yes, well... I hope not to be in need of the other fellow's cognitive recalibration services again any time soon.”
I furrowed my brow, a little bit dazed and lost. “What did he do now?”
“You don’t remember much from his time, do you.”
I shook my head. “Not usually. Emotions, sometimes. Are you all right? Has the Hulk hurt anyone?”
“Calm yourself, Banner.” Loki put his hands up in a placating--but perhaps also defensive, given the circumstances--gesture. “You have hurt no one but our enemies. No, the incident I referenced was years ago, and well-deserved, though served a touch aggressively.”
Nat shook her head. “Loki keeps his cards close to his chest. What’s the story?”
“Thanos was controlling Loki the whole time, just as Loki was controlling Clint and Erik. He wants to collect the infinity stones—like the tesseract, and the stone in the scepter—and destroy half the universe. If he’s coming here… that’s bad, Nat. Real bad.”
Natasha sank back against the headboard. “That would have been good to know,” she murmured.
My mind was reeling from the new information.
“Nat?” Bruce said again. I was surprised to feel his hands curl hesitatingly around mine, making voluntary first contact. “I don’t know that this is a battle we can win.” I squeezed back. “But I’m not going to run away anymore. Even if Banner won’t be much use. I’m damn well going to go out fighting to save the people I love, Hulk or no.”
“Win or lose, we’re Avengers. Not just the Hulk. You. Me. If the past two years has taught me anything, it’s that we’re going to need to stand together no matter the outcome of this fight.”
Bruce smiled, a rare sight in recent weeks. “As Thor would say—that’s what heroes do.”
I looked toward the cabin door where beyond, Tony had retreated for his phone call. “I’m not sure the fight itself will be the most difficult battle ahead of us. We have a lot of healing to do.”
“Nat… I know I’m not in the best place medically, but if Dr. Cho can figure out a way to patch me up, I intend to be a part of our defense as soon as I can walk myself out of medical. And if she can’t… well, the other guy’s usually more use in a fight anyway.”
My heart pinched. “She will,” I said firmly.
“Okay.” We both knew I couldn’t know that, but Bruce didn’t challenge the statement.
I pulled a blanket up over us. “In that case, you better get some rest,” I teased gently. “I can’t have my favorite hero passing out from exhaustion when we get to Norway.”
He smiled, curling up against me and already starting to doze off. “Don’t let Tony hear you say that,” he murmured. “He’s got a pathological need to be everyone’s favorite.”
“Jokes on him,” I returned. “You’ve always been my favorite.” There was no response as Bruce’s breathing slowed and evened out. I smoothed out the dark curls and planted a soft, chaste kiss on his forehead before settling in for a nap of my own. I didn’t know what the future would hold, or how much time we might have together, but we had right now. And in the moment, that was enough.
I stared at the cellphone in my hands, turning it over and over while playing out a million different scenarios in my head. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t call him. Every time I opened the phone to dial, I heard the sickening crack of the shield in my chest, felt the icy cold of Siberia in my bones, watched my erstwhile friend walk away and leave me there, broken and alone, without so much as a look behind him. I closed the phone again as the hot tears burned at my eyes, threatening to spill out. Some fences couldn’t be mended.
"Breathe," FRIDAY coached, and I realized my lungs were burning.
I couldn't see. Darkness was pressing in on my vision, I was back in the wormhole... My hand went automatically to my chest, clinging to the housing as I gasped for air.
"You are in a safe place. I am here with you. What can you hear around you?" Slowly, calmly, the AI talked me down from my panic.
I sucked in grateful gulps of fresh air as my vision settled back out and feeling returned to my hands. This wasn't going to work. I couldn't make this phone call. I turned to leave the cockpit, but an image halted me in my tracks. Pepper. Faithful, beautiful, loving Pepper. I would do anything to protect her from this new threat, travel to the edges of the universe, build the most powerful armor I could, even call someone I had sworn never to speak to again.
This time, when I flipped open the phone, my fingers didn’t hesitate.
“Steve? It’s Tony. We need you.”
I knew, immediately, that something was wrong. My vision was greying in and out, and for a wild moment I didn’t know where I was… where we were? Someone lay beside me. The burning sensation had spread across my body. I jolted upright, almost blacking out completely.
“Nat. Nat, please. Help,” I gasped the words out, but she was already awake, stirred by my sudden movement.
“Bruce, what’s wrong?”
“Something’s not right,” I mumbled out. My tongue lay heavy and thick in my mouth. Despite the mental fog and the disorienting, searing chill traveling up and down my body, my mind rushed ahead analyzing the situation. “Might be headed into shock.”
I was vaguely aware that she was paging Tony, but already I couldn’t process the jumbled, soupy sounds from the world around me. The blanket moved around my shoulders, and Nat was there, holding my hands in hers and trying to talk to me. “Bruce? Bruce, can you hear me?”
I tried to nod, but that made the sensation worse. “Banner is shutting down,” I managed. “I think my body has finished cooking the blood transfusion. Hulk doesn’t want out, but he won’t have a choice if—we need to get me off this plane and away from people, away from anything I might damage. I don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry, Nat. I’m so sorry.”
Natasha’s grounding, strong arms around me, holding me up, were the last thing I was fully aware of as my mind turned inward on itself, locking out everything around me.
At the page from Natasha, I rushed back into the main body of the plane to find Bruce grey and glassy-eyed, wrapped in a blanket. She filled me in succinctly.
“Hold on, big guy,” I tried to keep a positive tone in my voice as I scanned him. “We’re almost to Norway. If anyone can help…” My heart ached. I had already grieved Banner’s loss too many times; I couldn’t bear the thought of the possible outcomes of our predicament. With Hulk reclusive and unwilling to surface, the prognosis was grim; yet a Hulk-out on the plane would have been unlikely to end well. Even if we made it to New Asgard, the situation looked dark with Bruce’s unusual biology and the time constraints imposed by his sudden decline.
“Dammit,” I swore, dropping to the floor of the aisle and punching the leg of the seat next to me in frustration. “I thought he was doing better. I didn’t see this coming. And I should have, Natasha.”
What Tony thought he should have seen coming hung unspoken in the air between us. Bruce’s suicide attempt? The sudden decline into shock, dissociation, and perhaps worse, faster than expected despite our attempts to keep his body going long enough to find Dr. Cho? An unexpected alien enemy?
“He’s going to make it,” I established firmly.
"We don't know that." Tony seemed more hopeless than I'd seen him in years.
“We’re seven minutes out," I pressed on, "and medical help will meet us at the runway. You can’t beat yourself up over what’s behind us. Not now. We have to focus on what we can do in the present—saving Bruce, stopping Thanos, saving the world.”
A puff of air escaped Tony’s lips as a short, humorless chuckle. “Saving the universe this time, Nat. Not just this world. It’s a tall order, even for us.”