Bruce Banner, professor at Culver University, walks into his apartment to find a strange, red-headed woman sat on his couch and immediately thinks, Shit. This is it.
It’s been several decades since he was a scientist working in a military base somewhere in the desert landscape of New Mexico. Somehow he’s been able to keep what happened on his last days there a secret for all these years. No one in the base saw happened to him when the bomb went off, no one but the kid he’d saved, who swore never to tell in return for saving his life. No one knew how he’d survived. A goddamn miracle, the doctor had said when he woke up. Must have some guardian angel watching over him, Betty had added. Bruce had just nodded, dazed and confused at the time. But he was soon to learn to disagree with both of them.
It was no angel that had saved Bruce’s life that day. More of a monster. Several monsters, if he really thinks about it now, if he wants to get really deep into the things that led to who he is and what he became (which he doesn’t, really). His father, his grandfather. Both monsters, who passed on their mutated genes to him and allowed his body to absorb the gamma radiation, rather than having it tear through him during the blast.
And then there was also the very large, much more literal green monster. It had come out mere seconds after the gamma rays hit. Turning him inside out, shoving him inside the furthest corner his own mind and taking his place in the physical world. Bruce remembers screaming, blood boiling in agony as his cells mutated, muscles expanded, bones clicked in and out of place as they grew… and then his vision went dark. All he recalls after that is a singular feeling, an intense emotion being projected into his being: anger. Raw, invincible anger.
Over the years he’s seen therapists and learned techniques to keep the anger at bay. So many years of deep breathing and a compiling a list of triggering situations to avoid. Anything to avoid letting that monster out again.
In the beginning, he was often unsuccessful. Each ‘incident’ he experienced left a trail of destruction in his wake, making him all the more determined to stop it the next time. Which meant more vigilance. Discipline.
The fact of the matter is that, despite how Bruce’s body freezes in shock when he walks into his apartment to find a strange, red-headed woman sat on his couch, in his head he’s been expecting a visit like this since the day he first changed. Maybe not from this woman in particular but someone. Someone who had looked at his past movements, researched the trail of destruction his ‘other side’ had created over the years and finally connected the two dots into a line that points straight to him.
He’s been living safely in Virginia for over a decade now. His apartment is made up of all the comforts he has collected over the years. But still, in the false back of his closet, hidden in the darkest corner, there is an old, fully-packed duffel bag, ready and waiting for this day to come.
His eyes flicker to it now, just for a moment, and it’s fortunate that the woman is looking down at a copy of his book rather than at him or it would have given him away in a second. Calm down, he berates himself. His hands are twisted together, right hand scratching lightly at the back of his left. It’s an old nervous gesture. He forces them into his pockets instead and clears his throat.
“Who, uh... Who are you?”
The book closes and she sets it aside on the arm of the couch, finally looking up at him. It takes every ounce of discipline he has not to squirm under her piercing gaze. She’s assessing him. Not even subtly. Whether it’s a sign of trust or a confident threat, he’s still unsure.
“My name is Agent Romanov,” she says, finally, a small smile on her lips that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m here on behalf of SHIELD.”
He nods, almost dazedly. He’s heard of SHIELD. They’ve approached a colleague of his in the past - which was a mistake on their part because Erik Selvig tends to run his mouth quite a bit with his friends when he’s drunk. Bruce never told a soul about the things that Erik had revealed to him about SHIELD. But it would seem 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 have somehow found out his secret, then things are most likely about to get ugly, and he’d rather get it over with right now. The duffel is still in the closet and he can see the faint outline of a gun holstered in Romanov’s belt. “And what do you want?” His heart is pounding his his chest, but somehow he manages to keep his voice level, expression neutral.
She looks amused and Bruce gets the faintest impression that she’s toying with him. Intentionally creating tension to see how he squirms. Either she has him right where she wants him or she’s incredibly bored.
“We want your help, Doctor.” From the inside pocket of her jacket - which she wears over a thick, black catsuit - she pulls out a sleek, dark grey tablet and offers it to him. Cautiously, Bruce steps forward to take it from her. It’s lighter than anything he’s ever worked with but it functions the same as any other device. He unlocks the screen (which initially displays the same silver logo that Romanov has on the shoulder of her jacket) to find several pictures of a glowing blue cube arranged across the page, annotations and equations next to each one.
“This is the Tesseract,” Romanov explains as he flicks through several pages worth of graphs and notes, some displayed as short handwritten scribbles, some as neatly typed up blocks of data stretching over pages and pages at a time. Romanov continues, “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 finishes for her, a mild understanding dawning on his face. Of course. She’s read his book. Or rather, whoever picked him out at SHIELD has. This is his field. They’re not here for the monster. Unless…
This could be a trap. Maybe they do know. Maybe this is a way to lead him in to a false security, to get him in a cage with the least amount of fighting. Because they’d be fools to take Bruce on head on, he knows. And SHIELD, for all their mistakes, don’t strike him as fools.
He looks up from the tablet to study her, trying to gauge something, anything from her expression…. Nothing. Not that he should have expected anything different. He clears his throat, pretending it never happened.
“So you need me to find this?”
“That is correct.”
Bruce scratches the back of his head, nervously, eyes on the screen. Their intentions seem clear enough. He comes in, finds the Tesseract, gets paid 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.
So he hums, as if considering and then smiles in such a way that’s more of a grimace, as he tries to look apologetic. “Sorry, Agent Romanov. I’m afraid I already have a lot on my plate right now. I don’t have time to look for some little battery.” He tries to hand the tablet back to her, in what he hopes is a dismissive, casual gesture. Not at all like he’s waiting for her to pounce on him the moment she realises he’s not going to walk right into their waiting handcuffs.
But Romanov doesn’t move.There is no noticeable expression on her face but, just for 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. She looks tired. Only just visible but it’s there. He can’t even begin to guess what kind of pressure SHIELD put their agents through to remain unreadable but he knows they wouldn’t allow for any shows of weakness to a potential target.
It makes him wonder.
“Doctor Banner… it may be hard to imagine, but this little battery -” She taps a blunt, unpainted fingernail to the tablet screen, voice low.. “- has the potential energy to wipe out the planet. What we’re facing here is global catastrophe. And we need you to help us to stop it.” The page flicks again and this time Bruce sees the most recent entry in the file.
Essentially, it’s a recording of a power surge, caused by the Tesseract, that put one of SHIELD’s larges bases underground in less than five minutes. There’s some charts and graphs that are barely decipherable, whoever made them having not prepared for something quite this scale, although they didn’t do too badly. It’s enough for Bruce to understand. In fact, he barely even needs the numbers to make up his mind. Just the tone of Romanov’s voice, the tiniest inflection - caught by a man who’s spent more than half his life watching out for changes in people’s tone - that gives her away. Desperation.
And, Bruce thinks, he does have first hand experience with unassuming vessels for large amounts of energy. He knows what kind of destruction that they - or, if he’s being honest in the direction his mind is heading, that he - can wreak.
“I can imagine,” he says, quietly, half to himself.
But this isn’t about him. He will allow himself to believe that as a fact for now. And if it’s not…
Well, he’s lived a life.
Perhaps not as good or fully as it might have been if things had been different. If he weren’t constantly living in fear of being found out and taken away.
But a life.