The trick to meditation wasn’t mystical, it was to focus on one thought above all others. One thought to drive out all the other stimuli and patterns that wanted to form behind the eyes. Bruce wasn’t unaware of the room around him with its wooden floor worn smooth and the warm sunlight casting stripes of yellow across the room. He wasn’t unaware of the sound of heels on the wooden floor and the creak and rustle of clothes as the wearer settled beside his mat.
She allowed him the opportunity to speak first. His eyes remained closed, his breathing deep and even.
“You should come back to the Avengers.” Natasha said in the stillness.
Bruce scrubbed his face with both hands.
By the time Bruce had reached the wilds of northern Canada he had felt regret. He could have done a better job of saying goodbye. He could have waited for South Africa to decide whether or not to arrest him. He could have helped Tony tell the world what had happened with Ultron.
Except that he couldn’t.
All of that would have meant staying near the crowds of people with all of them right there and everyone watching him. Knowing that both the Hulk and Banner were monstrous.
That was why Bruce stayed away but it wasn’t why Hulk ran.
A large part of the sciences as Bruce learned them, was patterns. Patterns of proteins, patterns of damage, waves and valences and growth. There was a structure to it, something to follow from one conclusion to the next.
Emotions weren’t like that. They jumped from one thing to the next across associations without regard for time or logic. Even all the work he’d done to control the Hulk over the years just gave him practice at narrowing down why his anger had built up. He could do it in days instead of weeks now. Almost always.
But standing and staring at a glacier that wouldn’t scream, cry, or look at him in horror, he wasn’t sure why he was angry. He had no doubt he was swimming in rage, it was coming out of every pore. Even when he couldn’t really feel it because it was so normal, it was there under the surface. Waiting to explode out of him wrapped in green muscle.
He could still hear his father’s voice as he looked down at Bruce’s mother after a beating. “Look what you made me do.”
Of course it was why he was angry. But that told him nothing about this week and why he was alone and the thought of going back filled him with apathy. It just told him what he was afraid of.
Parties were tricky things. Staying on the edges and sending the signals that he wanted space made people upset and accuse him of moping. Staying on the edges and simply watching meant people would approach him and try to engage with him in conversation. Groups of people would pass the conversation back and forth so fast that Bruce felt clumsy and awkward trying to follow it. The best thing was to have a single person to talk to. That way most people wouldn’t interrupt and no one would decide he just needed to be talked out of his shell.
Talking science with Tony at a party might make people think he was rude or a bore but that wasn’t why he avoided it. Watching Tony socialize at a party was like watching a figure skater. It was gliding and looked effortless but Bruce was aware of how hard Tony had trained to do it. He enjoyed it as much as any skater enjoyed performing for an audience but it was a major effort and he’d stop to help Bruce through the party if Bruce let him. Bruce would rather leave Tony free to flit as his routine demanded. The emotions on that were tangled up with pride and admiration and envy and fondness for Tony.
Bruce would have liked to be as much fun at parties as Tony was, to make people feel as good as Tony did but he didn’t envy the metaphorical early morning practices and bruises that led to that kind of skill. If nothing else, the Hulk had forced him to be honest with himself on these sorts of things.
But actually being at a party was nice. It made him feel included and gave him an opportunity to talk to people in more relaxed settings and show them he wasn’t standoffish. That was why when he saw Natasha alone at the bar, he approached. He knew she enjoyed flirting so he thought of the worst pickup line he could and dropped it at her feet with all the pride of a cat bringing in something dead and smelly.
Then she’d hit on him and the conversation dissolved into uncertainty and discomfort.
He’d been trying to meditate on Wanda’s treatment of him. Bruce could follow that line straight to rage and fear. And he was angry about that, he knew he was. And afraid. She did it once, she could do it again. Whatever her reasons, whatever else she had to offer the team, she could put her fingers inside his mind and drag the Hulk out into the open.
By standing still she called on the part of him that wanted to grab her by throat and shake her until her eyeballs rattled out wanted to scream at her, “Look what you made me do.”
It was the obvious starting place. But he kept thinking of Natasha and her red hair shining and her bright green eyes trapping his as she batted her eyelashes at him and the rage would clench his guts all over again.
And then the memory slapped him across the face.
”I adore you,” her lips against his, her body against his. And then he was falling and the Hulk was rushing up to meet him. And he felt-
He stood up, and walked out to find a moose or a glacier to punch.
“I mean it,” Natasha said. “Tony needs you. We need you.”
“You really don’t,” Bruce said tiredly.
“You don’t know what’s happened,” Natasha said, her eyebrows drawing together. “It’s time to stop sulking and get back on the field.”
Bruce snorted, “Sulking. Right. Why are you here, Natasha? Trying to relive that moment you found me in Calcutta? I’m not feeling nostalgic.”
She paused, frowning more harshly. She looked worn and tired. Bruce wanted to feel that surge of camaraderie and the feeling of warmth of knowing that he was worth something to someone. Worth looking for. Worth convincing.
“I know you feel responsible for Ultron,” Natasha began.
“I am responsible for Ultron.” Bruce said. “But you know what? I have spent most of the last year thinking about it and I can’t figure out what we did wrong.”
“You started an AI project without checking with the rest of the team.” Natasha said dryly.
“Steve wanted to know how Hydra made enhanced humans. How did he think we were going to do that? Human testing?” Bruce felt the words sliding out of his mouth like razors, his shoulders hunching harder on the tide of rage. “Tony and I’ve learned to only inject our own shit.”
“So your options were human testing or a murderbot?” Natasha threw his own word back at him.
“It wasn’t meant to be a murderbot. No, stop. You don’t understand,” he snapped as soon as she opened her mouth. “It wasn’t supposed to happen and on a mechanical level I don’t know why it did. It shouldn’t have. And I don’t mean that in a better world we would have peace and love. Do you know how difficult reverse engineering is? Very! And it takes longer than three days. We needed to be sure we had enough to work with to figure out the scepter after it was gone. We needed to be able to interact with it to see if what we downloaded could function. We didn’t have time to figure out all the moving parts.”
“So why not tell this to the team?” Natasha said. Bruce couldn’t tell if she was honestly curious or trying to trap him.
“Because you didn’t respect us and our professional judgment.”
“What?” That might be honest surprise in Natasha’s voice.
“You would have argued with us about the course of action. You would have argued with us about the necessity. And three days later no one would have decided a thing and we’d be stuck facing whatever Hydra managed to get from it completely blind.” Bruce realized his voice was getting loud and took a deep, deliberate breath.
“And we wouldn’t have had Ultron.”
“Hindsight,” he answered tightly.
He revisited the memory of the party, before it went wrong over and over in those first few weeks. He wondered what would have happened if he’d walked away. He’d felt like a drowning man trying to signal for a lifeguard. She told him he had a temper. That was blunt but true and he’d kind of asked for it earlier that day. But then she said he stayed out of fights because he could win them.
And that- He didn’t have the words in him for that. He remembered the desire not to hurt her. It was an understandable mistake. He hadn’t wanted to punish her for it. But he couldn’t explain to her why letting the Hulk pummel people was losing. He avoided fights because even when he won, he lost. He could use the Hulk to do good but he’d known in his bones what the people of Johannesburg had learned the hard way. The Hulk didn’t heroically come to anyone’s rescue.
She said he was all fluff deep down and that was wrong. Deep under the cover of rage was more rage. He’d been mad at her right then.
There were many flavors of anger. That frustration that she could so easily read so many things but she couldn’t see something so basic was different from the anger as Steve had aggressively inserted himself into the conversation while Natasha wagged her butt going up the stairs over his shoulder. And that was nothing like the white-hot rage that had come bursting up from his foundations when Steve had said, “As the world’s leading authority on waiting too long.” He thought he’d mostly kept himself from sneering. If he hadn’t, Steve seemed too caught up on the conversation he was insisting on having to be upset about it.
On that thought, he left to find an internet cafe and email Betty. It was about time he checked to see how she and her husband were doing. At least one of them was happy.
Natasha shifted restlessly on the mat beside Bruce. “So, what? If not Ultron, then what?”
“You know, I’m the only Avenger who’s had a normal job. The rest of you were spies and assassins and Tony has been running a company since he was barely old enough to drink and Thor is a Prince. Steve might have had a normal job but it was back in the forties. I’ve worked for good bosses and awful bosses. Steve is a terrible boss.”
Sounding lost, Natasha tried to catch Bruce’s eyes. “Steve isn’t the best team leader but he’s no Ross.”
Bruce snorted angrily. “No, he’s not. But that’s not the point.” Bruce’s gaze remained internally fixed on that moment Thor’s hand had closed around Tony’s throat. Yes, Steve had told Thor to release Tony but then there’d been nothing else. And Thor had been getting ready to do it again, bearing down on Tony for daring to try to defend himself. Defend them. On instinct Bruce had undermined Tony and he was angry at Thor and angry at Tony and angry at himself but Tony’s throat wasn’t crushed.
He wasn’t even sure what, if anything, Natasha had said in response. “When Thor grabbed Tony’s throat, why didn’t you stop him?”
“He was already on Tony-”
“Clint warned everyone.”
“By the time I’d have been there, he’d have had his hand around Tony’s throat and if he’d twitched wrong, Stark would have had a crushed trachea.” Her tone had gone clinical and distant.
“That’s not normal coworker behavior.”
“You can’t blame Steve for Thor’s behavior.”
“He’s the boss. He’s supposed to stop that before it gets started.” The unfairness of it rankled. “Thor may be a rich kid spending his gap year with the Avengers and we may be completely unable to stop him if he decides to do whatever but that doesn’t mean he needs to keep being an Avenger. And how badly do we need him if he’s that willing to hurt us?”
“He went back to Asgard.”
“Of course he did but did Steve learn from dealing with him? And last I heard you guys recruited the Hydra experiment who sicced me on Johannesburg.”
Months of replaying conversations with Natasha allowed him to recognize the change in posture as Natasha finding the ground she’d expected to find. “She’s been removed from the team.”
“Why? Did she scramble someone else’s brain? Someone you guys think is important enough to make her stop?”
Bruce knew everyone had been hit hard in the fight in the tanker but it had taken him awhile to realize that Tony hadn’t been. Wanda Maximoff had left Tony alone and gone after everyone else barring Clint. Maybe an oversight.
But she hated Stark with a depth and passion Bruce personally reserved for his own father. It took him many months to stumble onto the idea that she had messed with Tony first. Tony had come back from apprehending Strucker off his game, overly aggressive. The hysteria in the laughter that Thor had objected to so strongly had been unusual. It hadn’t been the first time Bruce had seen Rhodey step in to tell Tony to cool his jets. It was the first time Tony had simply stopped fighting.
The idea that Tony had been fighting his way toward something rather than just flailing had unknotted something in Bruce’s gut. Tony had been talking about the portal, talking about protecting everyone. Flinching away from the memory of something that had never happened, his mother’s blood under his nails, he had considered the idea that Wanda had given Tony a push.
It didn’t make Tony’s voice saying, “we’re mad scientists,” sting any less. The yawning halls of emptiness that had opened in the depths of Bruce’s being, sluicing away all of his emotions into a numbness that made action the only possible solution, that didn’t go away. He still shuddered at the memory of his own voice saying he could kill Wanda without Hulking out. He still felt a vise grip his soul, crushing it as he knew he’d meant it. He would kill her to simply be free of the fear and it wasn’t okay, would never be okay.
But the truth was, it made more sense that Tony was rushing and pushing because he himself was pushed than that his friendship with Tony had suddenly turned sour. It made more sense that Tony was saying the things he feared about himself rather than anything to do with Bruce even if he was right. But Tony hadn’t been filled with a need to hurt Bruce. He’d relied on Bruce even as he was spiraling and that- that made Bruce feel better about staying away. Because when he went back, he needed to be able to stand his ground for Tony. He couldn’t allow himself to be rushed and pushed again because it wasn’t good for either of them.
And he would need to talk to Tony about the way Tony put himself between Bruce and Thor. There was a reason he’d begun having nightmares about Thor choking his mother while Bruce remained frozen, unable to do anything but roll over and let the others know that he surrendered. They didn’t have to hit him, he gave up.
After he’d acknowledged to himself that Tony had hurt him and he had a right to be upset but he still ultimately wanted to help Tony, things progressed more quickly. He made forays out into the wider world to email Martina and Rick and more frequently, Betty. He moved to Thailand, staying off the grid. He found a temporary place to rebuild himself in the vague company of crowds of strangers.
And still, when he tried to meditate on Wanda, he thought of Natasha. He thought of the shock of seeing her waiting for him when he exited the bathroom on the Barton Farm. He remembered the vertiginous rush of air moving past him as he fell from her hands.
They had all been rattled by Wanda. Natasha had been searching for control. And Bruce hadn’t wanted to hurt her. He’d tried telling her no as many ways as he could think of, having been ambushed. He didn’t want to go to Calcutta, he wanted to go where there were no people to hurt. No people meant no indoor plumbing, no television, no amenities. He had no doubt Natasha could live that way but he wasn’t convinced she’d enjoy it and he’d wanted solitude. Nothing but the wind to keep him company.
She’d ignored that and simply told him she’d be safe with him.
After he’d blown the lock off the door and she’d asked him if he was going to Hulk out, he’d said no. She’d ignored him. No, worse. His denial hadn’t mattered.
He’d tried to tell her it didn’t work that way. No one was safe from Hulk.
He remembered Betty sitting on his chest while he expanded and expanded, looking into his eyes.
He remembered that after Natasha had given him the lullaby before they’d brought back the scepter, she’d left him floundering in the snow without gear. For just a moment but it had been there.
They’d been standing in a child’s room on the Barton farm, surrounded by all the comforting signs of a home belonging to a loving family that weren’t going to murder one another. And he’d told her he couldn’t give her that.
And she’d told him deeply personal details about her history. Things he couldn’t fight. Horrible things that he wasn’t sure she actually wanted him to know. She’d never brought them up before but there in that effort to gain some control over something, she’d spilled them all over him. She pulled the fire alarm rather than risk flunking her test.
It wasn’t fair.
“I don’t think we should be on a team together.” Bruce said finally. Heavily. He finally found a word for what had been behind Hulk’s smile as she’d told him they were finishing the job in Sokovia. That feeling was contempt. “The lullaby was a bad idea.”
“But it helped-”
“Natasha, how are you different from Ross?”
“Why would you even ask me that?” That might be honest hurt in her voice. Maybe.
“I told you the Big Guy wasn’t coming out. I told you. ” Bruce shook his head. “I need to be the one who decides when the Hulk is out. Me. The person who has to live with the consequences of what he does.”
“Why did you come back for me if it was so horrible?”
“Because you were my teammate and I cared about you. You said you’d had enough. You wanted to be done. And I thought if you were waiting for a reason to run, I’d give you a reason so you’d be free to try for a life you wanted. You’d spent your childhood in that place and then SHIELD and then us. We could go find somewhere away from it to learn how to be people again.” Again after Wanda made them forget. Bruce saw raw confusion on Natasha’s face.
“You pushed me down a hole, Natasha! That’s not okay!”
“But I needed-”
“No! You wanted.” Bruce rubbed his face again. “Did you know that if you just told me you were going back there and asked for me to back you up, I would have? I wouldn’t have wanted to watch you run off alone. You’d done enough.”
“But that wasn’t good enough. You needed a sure thing. You made me into your pet monster.” He dropped his hands into his lap. “He really, really hates that, Natasha.”
“You mean you hate that.” Natasha said, flipping it back on him.
“Of course I do. But I can rationalize and justify my way to behaving civilly. Any rationalizations or justifications I make don’t matter to him at all. I can’t convince him to forgive you. It will happen or it won’t. So far it hasn’t.”
“That isn’t what I was trying to do. We needed you and you were going to run away.”
“And right or wrong, I get to run away. I’m a competent adult. I can run from Ross and I can from you and Wanda and whoever else I feel like.”
“Tony is working with Ross, you know.”
A blinding moment of rage ran through him from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. The memory of Tony repeatedly standing between him and Thor flooded through his mind. “Of course, you’d say that.”
“Yeah but you’re trying to win again by leaving out all the context and just throwing it at me to put me off balance.” He snorted as the realization struck him. He’d been angry at Steve for claiming expertise in relationships changing because someone waited too long but Steve had also been trying to win an argument Bruce hadn’t wanted to have. They both set up the arguments to win. After praising Bruce for showing restraint because he would win, she forced him to fail.
It wasn’t fair.
“I know you don’t trust me, Bruce, but I’m trying to do the right thing here.”
“Tony’s going to do what he thinks will protect the most people. Steve is going to refuse to listen to anyone because he thinks that’s what it means to be a leader. And I‘d only get in the way because Steve would assume I was on his side and Tony would try to protect me.” Bruce spread his hands in a small, tight shrug.
At a distant party, Steve had approached Bruce with an awkward expression. “So, this Tower’s a bit much, huh?”
“It’s nice.” Bruce had said. He’d heard for a good ten minutes about all the things Pepper had added and why. It sounded like she’d done most of the interior decoration. The goofy grin on Tony's face as he’d listed his girlfriend's contributions to the Avengers had been heartwarming. “You should see the labs.”
Steve had fumbled with his beer bottle. “It’s like it all came out of a catalog.”
“More like the catalog comes out of it.” Bruce had said with a wry smile. “It’s a nice change from the favela I was living in before.”
“Oh.” Steve frowned at his beer. He turned to scan the crowd. “Clint! Found a girlfriend yet?” He was already moving away.
“You think the team is going to split?”
“Yeah,” Bruce’s mouth twitched. “We were a time bomb.”
He realized he was watching something behind her eyes crumble. Something precious to her was leaving the room. She stood abruptly. “I’ll leave you to your sulking.”
Bruce closed his eyes and returned to his meditation. The world would catch up with him again soon enough. He needed to be ready.