The croaking of birds as they circled overhead the man went mostly ignored, as the man trudged along the empty road. A thin breeze stirred flurry hair, slightly touched with gray, tugging at the hooded sweater the man wore. A baseball cap was tugged low over his eyes, and there was light stubble on his chin.
The man paused for a moment, glancing around the road, almost uneasily, as if trying to decide what he was doing out there. “Bruce Banner,” He murmured out loud to himself, with the air of a man who had finally cracked and didn’t know what to do next, “What are you doing out here in the desert?”
He was traveling of course. He always traveled- it was how he felt safe.
Except- he didn’t exactly feel safe like this. Emptiness had once been his friend- it allowed him to concentrate on his emotions, learn how to quietly fold them and roll them beneath the surface of calmness.
It was where he was supposed to sleep best- out in the middle of nowhere, able to hear for miles, know when a car was attempting to approach. In fact- there was one approaching now, a low, growling hum.
Bruce turned slightly to eye the car, before moving right off the road- there were, along the horizon, and steadily looming rock formations towering above the mostly flat landscape. The scientist had been planning on camping the night there, before striking out across the desert where no car drove to a small oasis where he had hidden a small hut.
It was probably compromised by now, but it was good to check up on it, to make sure if he ever needed it, it was still usable.
Of course, nowadays whenever he was out here in the middle of nowhere, he also had five Avengers after him, protecting him, as well. He slipped down, past a little crease in the landscape, letting the car roll on by, as he wondered what the others were doing. He could still remember Tony’s face when he announced that he was leaving only a week ago.
Guilt pricked uneasily at the memory, recalling the disappointment on Steve’s face as Tony stormed off muttering about getting bigger, newer toys. He could also remember Natasha’s scowl of displeasure as he walked out the door, and Clint’s watchful eyes from up on top.
It was a good thing that Thor hadn’t been around, for the man just didn’t understand Bruce’s wanderlust, his need to go out and wander the world, using constant travel to keep himself under control and to keep himself safe. Except for the whole fact that he wasn’t feeling very safe right now.
In fact, he was thinking about just turning right around and going back to the tower. Which… didn’t make sense. He hadn’t stayed in one place for any longer then four months, and he had just spent three in Stark Tower.
That was longer then he spent in most disaster areas!
Bruce sighed as the car rumbled past, and slowly pulled himself out of his hiding place.
Eyes flared violent green at the unexpected voice, and he jumped, turning fast.
Agent Coulson, dressed impeccably as always, stood at the roadside. “C-Coulson? What are you doing here?”
“I-“ Coulson announced, marching closer to Banner, “Am here to bring you back to Stark Tower.”
“Did something happen? Another attack? Tony told me he’d text me if something happened-“
“Beyond an alien that can summon thunder throwing a temper tantrum? Nothing much. What I’m more concerned about is Pepper’s call saying that Tony was trying to buy a entire nuclear facility while muttering about how you couldn’t walk away from that.”
Bruce blinked, certain he’d missed something. While Tony was a little angry whenever he left, he figured the man would get over it soon enough- it wasn’t like he was known for his attachedness to people. He was far well known for throwing random people out in the middle of the night.
Coulson was giving him that look. The one that even Clint and Natasha sat up and paid attention to. “Well Banner, please follow me.”
“But- I was planning on going-“
“If you mean that safe-house, it has already been dismantled.”
Good thing he’d long fallen into the habit of wiping all of his materials off of computers. “They were transported to Stark Towers. As were your hideouts in Canada, Brazil, China, and Switzerland.”
There were two not mentioned, but Bruce wasn’t about to push his luck. Instead he sighed heavily as he ran a hand through his hair. “Look Coulson, I know it makes it easier for you to keep track of me when I stay at Stark Towers, but I’m not…” I’m not ready to stay there permanently, I’m not willing to give up what small amount of freedom I have-
And I miss them all so much.
Bruce blinked, mouth attempting to say something, before switching into his default, Keep-Hulk-Away mode, “I’m sorry. Sorry, but no.”
Coulson pulled off his sunglasses, “Bruce- if I have to deal with Tony’s crazy schemes to court you back by buying the world for one more day, I’m going to taze the man and watch reality shows over his drooling body. Then I’m going to blame you. So just come back already.”
Bruce looked at Coulson, and back over his shoulder.
The howling wilds beckoned him, ingrained in his blood after years of wandering and waking up in strange places. He had gotten so used to the idea of waking up on a riverside muddy bank, to trees knocked down in a small crater, to the peaks of majestic mountains, it hadn’t really occurred to him that he could potentially wake up in an actual bed with a real mattress.
He looked back to Coulson, thinking of, warm nights spent gathered around a table, bickering over whose turn it was to do dishes, the low beep of robots Tony built to do the Avenger’s bidding, Thor’s loud boom as he inquired what the talking box was talking about, Steve’s flustered look when yet another delicate piece of technology blew up in his face, Natasha’s smirk as she demonstrated her cooking and killing prowess with uncommon ingredients, and Clint’s insistence on living in the ceiling tiles.
Memories, piled up, warm and caring, filling- having already filled the empty part of his heart, slowly, drop by drop.
“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over… Samuel Johnson said that.” Bruce quoted aloud, staring up in the starry night sky, a sight that he thought he had known well until Thor had decided that his Midgardian friends needed to be educated on the constellations he had known hundred of thousands of years ago.
Coulson looked at him, and Bruce nodded back. “I’ll return. Just- not right now. I have a couple of things to think about.” I do my best thinking alone went unsaid.
The Shield agent looked at his watch, and nodded sharply. “You have one week, or I’m coming after you again.”
Tony glowered down at the tablet. Pepper refused to buy him his nuclear facility. It was just one, measly nuclear facility! He could totally upgrade it, and then he and Banner could actually discover the secret to Fission. Or, at least they could start down that path, and all he had to do was get Bruce interested enough to never leave again.
Of course, he’d still have to buy the facility and wait for Bruce to come back from whatever travels he had taken off for.
Thor slouched in his seat, morosely regarding his coffee. “I like better the drink that Banner creates.”
The thunder alien certainly did like the tea- it was rather odd and distinctly hilarious, but it was agreed. No one touched Bruce’s tea except Bruce himself. Thor continued to grumble, “I have not yet finished my explanation of the star charts. Now I must wait.”
“I hear you big guy.” Tony tapped onto the tablet, frowning slightly at what the algorithm spat back.
“What are you doing Tony?” A blond man leaned across his shoulder from behind, and Tony waved a lazy hand at the tablet.
“I’m trying to create an algorithm so that way I can predict when Bruce comes and goes.” Tony scowled darkly at it, “According to it, Bruce shouldn’t be back for another three months.”
Up above in the ceiling tiles, Clint idly announced, “It’s broken. It’s gotta be. You’re doing it wrong Tony.”
Steve glanced upwards, and shook his head. He was growing far too used to his teammates quirks. “Bruce isn’t the only one who leaves.”
“He’s the only one who leaves when not on a mission.” Natasha felt the need to remind, “And when he does that, it takes awhile for Shield to find him.”
During which time he’s completely alone and defenseless and can be kidnapped.
Tony snarled at the tablet, and pointed at the ceiling, “Screw politeness, Jarvis, activate the tracking chip I stored on Bruce.”
An entire wall rippled, and changed, a picture of the world appearing, with a glowing dot hovering on it. “Huh.” Clint murmured, “He’s not even out of state.”
Nobody bothered asking how he knew as Jarvis began to zoom in, pulling further and further into America, into New York State, into New York City, and then- “Is there a reason why everyone is staring at Stark Towers on the kitchen wall?”
The mild, polite, unassuming voice snapped everyone’s attention to the man standing in scruffy jeans and hoodie, looking like he’d just walked several thousand miles to get there. Tony wouldn’t put it past the man. “Bruce?”
“Hello. I know it’s earlier then normal, but I missed you all.” For reserved little Bruce, that sort of statement was like the a regular person writing it in flowing glittery pink pen with little hearts for dots on pink stationary in a red envelope and feelings were everywhere.
Tony felt the need to cut to the chase. “How long you staying this time?”
Bruce looked a little lost, before shrugging uncomfortably, shaking a bit of dirt off onto the ground. “As long as you’ll have me?”
“Perfect, then it’s settled. You’re staying here forever. Jarvis, call Pepper and tell her she can cancel buying that nuclear plant. Unless you want a nuclear plant?”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Bruce said, an amused look crossing his face. “Now if you don’t mind me, I’m going to go find my room.”
“We remolded it. It’s bright green now. With its own thermostat. It can turn your rooms all the way up to a hundred degrees. Oh, and it isn’t a room, it’s a floor.”
Bruce nodded, and Tony grinned back, all fierce joy and smiles- “By the way, now that you’re staying, we can officially rename the tower.”
“To what?” Everyone looked at Tony in curiosity, Steve asking the question that plagued them all.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to the Avengers Tower.”