When Bruce comes home, after a long day of lectures, to find a strange woman sitting on his couch, his first thought is, ‘Shit. This is it.’
(He’s not entirely wrong, as this meeting will start the path that leads towards his secret getting out. But, for now, it is safe.)
“Who - uh… who are you?” is what he says out loud, making a conscious effort to not wring his hands together as her eyes seem to pierce into his soul, assessing him.
“My name is Agent Romanov. I’m here on behalf of SHIELD.”
Bruce nods. He’s heard of SHIELD. They’ve approached a colleague of his in the past, which was a mistake on their part because Erik tends to run his mouth quite a bit when he’s drunk and with friends that he trusts. Bruce hasn’t told a soul about the things that Erik had revealed to him about SHIELD, but it seems that SHIELD knows that Bruce knows anyway, as Romanov doesn’t elaborate on who they are. He decides there’s no point being coy. If they had somehow found out his secret, then things are most likely about to get ugly, and he’d rather get it over with right now.
“And what do you want?” he asks. His heart is pounding his his chest, but somehow he manages to keep his voice level, expression neutral.
A small smile pulls at the corner of her lips, as if she’s amused but trying not to be. He wonders if it’s intentional or a genuine display of trust.
“We want your help, Doctor Banner.” She pulls out - from an inside pocket of the jacket she’s wearing over her thick, black catsuit - a sleek tablet. Cautiously, Bruce steps forward to take it from her.
“This is the Tesseract,” she explains, as he flicks through several pages of the image of a glowing blue cube and the graphs that go with it. “It’s a powerful source of energy that was recently stolen. The scientist who worked on it before it was stolen couldn’t identify all of its components. All they know is that it emits --”
“-- a gamma signature?” Bruce cuts her of, a mild look of understanding dawning on his face as he reads the screen. It comes with a small frown. So… she’s not here because they’ve discovered that he can turn into the Hulk? Or is this perhaps a trap, to lure him into a false sense of security? He looks up at her, trying to gauge anything from her expression.
Nothing. Not that he expected it to be any different; SHIELD isn’t (usually) sloppy. He sighs and flicks to another page, which specifies some of the earlier, more basic tests the scientist had conducted, such as dimensions and weight. He gathers that it’s roughly the size of his head.
“So you need me to find this?”
“That is correct.”
Bruce scratches his head, nervously. Their intentions seem clear enough. He comes in, finds the Tesseract and goes home. Simple. And yet, there’s a nagging doubt in his mind telling him that he needs to stay as far away from this as possible. SHIELD are dangerous people and all it’d take is one slip up in front of them to buy him a life sentence as a military labrat.
He hums, as if considering and then smiles in such a way that looks more like a grimace, as he tries to look apologetic. “Sorry, Agent Romanov. I already have a lot on my plate right now, and I don’t have time to look for some little battery.”
There is no noticeable expression on Romanov’s face but for just a moment, Bruce thinks he sees a flash of worry in her eyes. She stands and Bruce is surprised to hear a sigh escape her. Now that he’s standing close to her he thinks he can see dark rings under her eyes, concealed under several layers of carefully placed make-up.
“Doctor Banner… it may be hard to imagine, but this little battery -” She points to the tablet. “- has the potential energy to wipe out the planet. What we’re facing here is potential global catastrophe, and we need the best of the best to help us to stop it.”
Bruce worries his lower lip between his teeth, suddenly reminded of the power within his own small, mortal body.
“I can imagine.” He reaches out a hand, offering the tablet back to her.
As she tries to take it from him, Bruce finds himself keeping a firm grip on it, which prompts her to look up at him with a questioning lift of her eyebrow.
And so his fate is sealed.
“Ouch,” Bruce deadpans, not looking away from the screen in front of him. Tony Stark pouts, coming around behind it and closing the page that Bruce had been reading with a pinch of his fingers. A swish of the pen that he’d just used to poke Bruce in the side sends the little window flying across the room via the dozen other holographic screens that are set up around the lab. Bruce watches it go with a longing look, before turning to Tony with a questioning, exasperated, and a little amused look.
“There’s something about you, Banner,” Stark says, eyes narrowing, curiosity coming off him in waves. Bruce knows the feeling. A hunch that you don’t know where to start but need to start on something, just to get some pieces that will help you figure it out. He just wishes Stark hadn’t got this feeling about him. “Something… mm, special. What’s going on in that brain of yours? What secrets are you hiding?”
Bruce knows it must be a joke but that doesn’t prevent the little skip in his chest that comes with the question. He laughs, trying to focus on Stark’s antics - which he does find genuinely refreshing, if a little exasperating at times - rather than the paranoia telling him that Stark is two seconds away from figuring him out.
“Special? I’m not the one who goes around saving the world with a flying suit of armour or an indestructible shield.”
“Would you like to be?” Stark asks, a lighthearted lilt in his tone. “Seriously, if you come down to my lab, I might be convinced to let you try out one of my training models for five minutes.”
“Thanks. But I like to keep my feet on the ground.” Bruce smiles, ruefully, which gets him an odd look. There’s another beat, in which Stark looks contemplative and Bruce is beginning to wonder if he can get back to his work. Then Stark speaks, more seriously than before.
“So, you’re secretly afraid of flying? Makes sense,” he nods to himself, a faraway look in his eyes. “You’ve been pretty jittery since you got here.”
Bruce swallows, throat feeling dry. Is Stark trying to send some sort of cryptic message here? Does he suspect that Bruce is probably one of the most - if not the most dangerous man on SHIELD’s flying headquarters right now? Or is he being genuine?
“Um… have I?”
To his surprise Stark reaches around and pats him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all got fears. Me? I can’t stand water. I’m really glad this thing didn’t turn out to be a submarine after all.” Finally, he removes his hand from Bruce’s shoulder and walks back over to his own work station, flicking the window that Bruce had been working on back to him as he passes the last screen.
“Don’t worry, Doctor,” he says, fingers moving rapidly across a keyboard as he talks. “With what I’ve seen from that big beautiful brain of yours… you’ll have this cube on lockdown and be out of here in no time.”
Bruce sighs quietly in relief and flashes Stark a playful smile over the top of his screen.
“Still trying to sweet talk me into your lab, huh?”
“Well, you are one of a kind.”
“I bet you say that to all the scientists.”
Not good , his brain tells him. Not good, not good, not good.
He’s in the lab still, shortly after having watched the ragtag team of Avengers successfully capture the thief that had stolen the Tesseract. His name was Loki… as in the Norse god. Apparently he was more of a really old alien. All Bruce knew is that he was dangerous and had a piercing gaze that unsettled Bruce to no end, as he watched an entourage of agents take him away to the small cell that had been built for him. In fact (as with every other encounter with a person who had looked at Bruce for more than three seconds) that gaze had filled Bruce with an anxious doubt, questioning if maybe, just maybe, Loki had worked out his secret. Except this time, at least to him, it’s more of a realistic fear than usual; he’d watched the live footage of the Avengers confrontation with Loki. He had some kind of magic, the extent of which was unknown … was it possible that he could use it to read Bruce’s mind? Maybe he’d use that to his advantage. Maybe Bruce’s one weakness, his secret, would be the cause of the global catastrophe that Romanov had warned him about.
His musings were cut short by Director Fury himself, storming into the lab. Apparently, he’d gotten wind of Stark’s side project of hacking into SHIELD’s servers, helped by Bruce, who had taken the chance in the hopes of finding what they have on him. Maybe it’d put his mind at ease, he’d thought at the time. And of course, he also wasn’t too keen on unknowingly being used to build weapons of mass destruction for a shadowy, government-funded organisation.
That’s one of the reasons why he’d kept his secret from the world in the first place.
Shortly after that, all hell broke loose.
And here he was with five of the most powerful people on the planet arguing over what they had done, what they were going to do.
Not good, not good, not good, Bruce’s mind races. Stop it!
It’s only after the collected voice of Captain America him-fucking-self addresses Bruce, that he realises that he’d shouted his last thought out loud. Every eye in the room is on him now, much to his horror, and without thinking he takes a step back from them, feeling the hard edge of a table dig into his hip as he does so.
“Oh my god,” he hears someone mutter and he turns his head to find the often guarded expression of Agent Romanov replaced with one of alarm. In fact, as he looks around the room, he notices that the rest of them are in various states of shock, confusion and even, most significantly in Stark’s case, curiosity.
He has no idea what’s going on but the weight that has just dropped into his stomach gives him a pretty good idea what it may be related to. It’s been a year since his last ‘incident’ but he remembers the feeling, the deep rumbling that is currently growing louder in the back of his mind, like it was only yesterday. Indeed an impressed comment from Stark confirms his suspicions.
“Whoa,” he intones, studying Bruce with interest. “What happened to your…” He holds up two fingers and points them to his own eyes, which are squinted in confusion and thought. Bruce’s own eyes widen and he flinches away from the group, hands bracing on on the table he’d been up against as he reels. There’s a dark tablet right in front of him now and as he stares down at it, he can see through the dim reflection that his eyes are a bright, radioactive green.
This is it.
He needs to stop it. He needs to do something!
He moves to rub his hand over his face, hoping that maybe he can erase the colour from his eyes before his mind goes too far and he does something that he will inevitably regret… only to find it stopped by a rod of cool metal, which the hand refuses to let go of.
Two clicks pierce the tense silence, the sound of the safety of two guns being uncatched.
“Doctor Banner... put down the sceptre,” Captain Rogers says, closer behind him than he was five seconds ago. Bold move, Bruce thinks. Although he doubts that any of the people in here yet understand the true magnitude of what danger they’re in. How easy it would be to just show them, to break his way out of this mess, to be free of his secrets, to unleash the Hulk…
At that train of thought he drops the sceptre, abruptly as if burned by it, and clutches the hand that had held it to his chest.
No. It’s not too late now. He can still hold it in, maybe even find a way to bluff his way out of this mess so that no one will know…
He looks around the room, feeling light-headed and dazed. The guns are still on him and Romanov has one hand on her ear, muttering something under her breath. She seems to be subtly heading for the door, no doubt intending to bring in backup from her fellow agents.
One of the computers beeps and Stark’s eyes shift to look at it. It’s a positive location on the Tesseract. Bruce knows it is, he’d programmed the algorithm himself. Slowly, Stark makes his way over to the workspace, eyes flickering between Bruce and the screen as he does so.
“Got it,” he confirms after a second.
They should be celebrating. They should be patting themselves on the back and getting ready to go home. This is the moment they’ve all been waiting for… but instead all of the attention is on Bruce, who knows that the colour in his eyes hasn’t changed back any more than the racing of his pulse has slowed down.
“Get the coordinates,” Fury orders Stark. No one else moves.
“Is this Loki?” Captain Rogers asks, gesturing to Bruce but directing the question at Thor, who tilts his head in puzzlement, lip jutted out as he considers Bruce.
“I am uncertain. Loki’s power is... different since he fell from Asgard. I do not know what gifts the sceptre has granted him but I fear it is affecting all of us. Some, perhaps, more than others.”
Bruce doesn’t disagree with him. First of all because it makes sense - the argument had escalated out of almost nowhere so perhaps they had been influenced - but secondly because if he admits that, no this is more than Loki, then it really will be well and truly over for him.
Fury’s one-eyed gaze never wavers from Bruce as he issues his decision. “If Doctor Banner has been compromised, then we need to detain him until we can find out what exactly is happening.” He tilts his head, changing his tone to address Bruce. “Doctor. If you could step away from the table and --”
“Shit. Guys --”
Stark’s own interruption is cut off by the room shuddering violently. Suddenly, everyone is thrown in different directions across the floor. Everyone but Bruce that is; as soon as the room explodes he finds that there is no floor beneath him for him to be thrown across. Instead he just falls, straight down, all the way down through the hole, until he lands with a painful thud on one of the lower levels of the helicarrier.
Three things. That’s all his pain-addled mind manages to take in of his surroundings before his vision blurs into a green mist.
One: He’s trapped beneath something heavy. It landed on him after the fall and if the warmth and pain in his side is anything to go by, then he’s bleeding too.
Two: It’s dark. The energy must have been cut off by the explosion or at least in this part of the craft.
Three: There’s not a sound in the corridor he’s laying in, only the distant shouts of panic far above him. He is, luckily, utterly alone.
And then, for the first time in several decades, he changes.