Just killing time here until next I get to go see Age of Ultron again... so I thought I'd have a look forward to Civil War. Uh, there are some super-general spoilers for AoU in this, so I guess if you're hyper paranoid, come back after you see it? And there are definitely a couple of mild Agents of SHIELD spoilers (recent episodes, mostly) so if you care about that, get caught up first. Otherwise, the usual disclaimers apply, none of the characters are mine, etc, etc...
The first thing he does when he gets to the island is find the only payphone in town. It still works, the guy in the shop across the street tells him, but the change tumblers are broken, and it can only receive calls, so no one ever uses it. He goes and memorizes the number anyway.
The second thing he does is go walking along a row of run-down shops until he finds a spinning metal rack standing outside of what passes for the post office around here. The rack is rusted and doesn't really spin anymore; none of the postcards are in English, and they're all faded and look like they had been printed in the eighties, but he doesn't care. He doesn't have any money they'll take here, not yet, but the kid working in the store has a pitifully-small international coin collection he is eager to show off to the American. He looks pretty lost and pitiful himself, so the kid agrees to use his own cash, so long as he will boost the coin collection in return.
A dollar and seventy-five cents in American change buys him a mostly-blank postcard, sent away to a New York address he doesn't know he will ever see again. He knows he's supposed to be getting himself off of anyone's radar, but he can't quite bring himself to get completely lost again.
Getting lost again means he'll never hear her voice issuing from that payphone in the middle of this town whose name he still can't pronounce correctly. He's on an island somewhere in the Pacific, so chosen because some of the residents speak Hindi, and no one asks too many questions, even of an American who appeared quite out of nowhere one stormy night. He'll never pass for a local; even if he looked more the part, his accent is atrocious. But once he's reacquired a tan, cut his hair, and grown a bit of a beard, he doesn't stand out so much. He makes his home in what used to be a groundskeeper's cottage for some British Colonial-era plantation that was bulldozed long ago. There's a modern apartment building there now, but someone decided to keep the little cottage by the beach intact, and the woman who owns it was happy to rent it to him cheap when she found out he was a doctor. The closest real one is two hours away by car, in a place where not many people have access to a car, so he's now Dr. Roberts to the poor families who live in the nameless, concrete apartment building where the plantation used to be.
His first patient is a little girl who falls into a piece of machinery at the textile factory up the road. She is lucky; not that he is there, but that her injuries aren't beyond his skill to mend. He still hovers nearby for three days until he's sure she is out of danger.
The island is smaller than he is used to. Sometimes he can't help but look over his shoulder. But at least the army isn't coming for him this time.
The only one who really wants to find him is her.
She keeps her distance, but they have a standing payphone date, so every Wednesday afternoon, he hangs around in the village square, waiting for her to call. He draws questions and stares at first, but eventually the villagers get used to his eccentricities. Since no one ever uses it, they don't bother him, not even when he stands there long into the night. After about three weeks, someone puts a rusty old metal folding chair out by the phone so he can sit. He never does figure out who put it there. Otherwise, he'd thank them.
He tells her stories about his patients on the island, and she tells him about the new Avengers she and Steve and Clint are training. Vision pops in and out, she says, and a couple of new guys had joined the team on a provisional basis. He almost doesn't believe her when she tells him about them.
"He's got this suit that lets him shrink down to the size of an ant," she tries to explain in a stern, matter-of-fact tone once he stops laughing, "Hence the name. You'd like him though, he kind of reminds me of Stark. And before you start, no, I don't know anything about how the suit works."
The other new member hailed from Wakanda, of all places; some kind of tribal hero whose father had had run-ins with Ulysses Klaue. The Black Panther, he called himself. According to her, he was the quiet, stoic type.
"Ants and panthers and spiders, oh my," he deadpans. He can almost hear her rolling her eyes.
They still haven't figured out who Spiderman is, she informs him with a hint of irritation in her voice, though he continues to be helpful in a street-level sort of way. He assures her she'll solve the puzzle eventually. There are more, he knows, others like this Spiderman guy who would probably never be willing to take on the mantle of 'Avenger'; heroes who took up the fight for justice with or without powers, just trying to clean up their neighborhoods.
With that knowledge, and the knowledge that the provisionary roster has swollen to nine, he doesn't feel as bad about leaving the team. Maybe, for the moment, the world is better off without the Hulk.
This is the status-quo for a very long time, even as her stories begin to acquire an edge he doesn't like. The ones about Tony, in particular, worry him. Even though Iron Man has ceded his position on the team to War Machine, he's still considered an auxiliary member, and is very much politically involved in the Avengers operation, but his attitude towards powered people seems to have begun to change for the worse every time the Avengers face off against a new Enhanced.
Tony is hardly the only one who seems to be worried about it. Even out here, practically in the middle of the Pacific, he's beginning to hear grumblings. Fear and anger and resentment quietly boiling just beneath the surface whenever the news had something new to say about strange happenings or people with superpowers. An enhanced being spotted on camera robbing a bank. In his own village, whenever something strange happens, someone is quick to mutter accusations about someone else they don't like. And even though no one really ever takes it seriously, it's the little things that seem poised to do everyone in, and it's the kind of talk that leads to witch hunts.
He tells her about these things, and makes her promise she'll be careful. She brushes off his worry, sure it will be fine. They have an indestructible android and a telekinetic powerhouse on their side, she jokes.
"And an Ant-Man," he adds.
She giggles and he laughs on cue, but the sound is hollow in his own ears, and he has to stop himself from telling her that there might come a day with these things are more a hindrance than a help.
Once or twice he almost tells her he's coming back, but he can't quite get the words out.
Then she misses a date without warning and he nearly does book a flight for New York, consequences be damned. He talks himself out of it, walking around his living room and running his hands through his hair, trying not to let himself go crazy waiting for the next time she's supposed to call. If she doesn't make this one, he tells himself, I'll go back to New York.
She makes the next one and explains that she was injured on a mission, but she's fine now. This is the first he hears about alien breeding experiments and a colony of enhanced people living somewhere in central Asia. He also learns that Phil Coulson is still alive, and that there is a faction of SHIELD that has been operating under the radar since the Hellicarriers fell. It turns out all of the intel that Hill had been funneling to them during their hunt for the scepter had come from them. Steve doesn't like that they weren't told about this, or that Coulson was operating in secret, she says. Fury and Hill are uneasy about the people that Coulson wound up going to war with; they call themselves Inhumans, and though this secret war had been a short one, it had been furious, and both sides had taken casualties.
But worse even than all of that, she says in a voice so quiet he can barely hear her, is that Thaddeus Ross has reappeared and started poking his nose into the Avengers operation.
He nearly drops the receiver. She doesn't need to tell him that this might be the last chance they get to talk; she doesn't need to say not to come back now, not under any circumstances. An old fear swamps him, one he thought he had banished long ago, and he hates that he is such a coward, because there is a new fear that terrifies him even more.
He knows what the General is capable of. He knows what lengths he'll go to if he thinks he can get what he wants. And there is no doubt in his mind that what he would want, what Ross always wants, is his head on a platter. If she gets in his way…
"Don't worry about me," she tells him, almost as if she can read his mind, and though he can hear the smile in her voice, he thinks it's probably strained.
"Too late for that," he replies sullenly.
He'd never missed her more than he does in that moment. They don't speak again for months.
It isn't until three months later that he starts seeing the first debates about "the Enhanced threat" online. Congressmen and military leaders in the United States debating whether or not these people should be allowed to remain free. A general named Talbot is a frequent sight; Ross shows himself sometimes. He has to at least mute the video when this happens (it's the General's voice, for some reason, that he remembers most clearly), or else he's afraid he'll lose what few shreds of self-control he has left.
The Hulk remembers Ross. The Hulk is still afraid of him.
They go on and on, insisting that the Avengers and all the other "freaks" like them should be held accountable for the destruction they cause. They aren't wrong. He understands their position. He understands the dangers.
But he's also watched Vision walk around the Tower with Thor's hammer when none of the rest of them could even get the damn thing an inch off the table, and he knows that Pietro Maximoff threw himself in front of a barrage of laser blasts to save Barton and an innocent child, and no matter the things that she had done to him and his teammates, he can't bring himself to hate Wanda. At the end of the day, he knows that she, like him, is just a monster who is trying to do the right thing.
After all, prominent amongst the footage that the anti-enhanced crowd likes to play as proof of their fears is a greatest-hits collection of Hulk rampages, and Johannesburg is always on the reel. They can't have asked for a better cautionary tale, could they? A frightening green monster being unleashed on innocent civilians, egged on by another Enhanced, and not even Iron Man could stop him. They play it over and over, the sounds of people screaming and the Hulk's piercing roars interrupted only by a host demanding Bruce Banner's arrest for crimes against humanity. He might have agreed, a year ago. He might have held out his hands for the cuffs without complaint. But things have been quietly changing in him ever since he sentenced himself to voluntary exile. He is not the same man who crawled into a stealthed Quinjet a year ago, ready to leave it all behind. So he sits there and watches the footage, over and over. He won't turn away, no matter how much he wants to, because he has begun to realize something incredibly important.
He will never have full control over the Other Guy, but that doesn't mean he allowed that atrocity to happen. Johannesburg wasn't his fault. Johannesburg wasn't even the Other Guy's fault.
There is more he knows but doesn't yet know how to accept. Like the fact that there isn't another guy. He's denied it for so long, but now he has a reason to work for it. Now he has a reason to find a way to finally say those words out loud: Bruce Banner is the Hulk, and the Hulk is Bruce Banner, and that's okay. Until he can admit this, he knows, he will never be free. But he's trying.
He swears on all he holds dear that if he can do that, he'll call her and tell her he's coming home. He'll get on a plane and meet her at the airport, and he won't even care if she decides to kiss him while the whole world looks on.
Assuming, of course, the world doesn't end first.
In the usual vein of things in places like the one he was calling home, temporarily, he doesn't get word about what happened until long after it had begun. An implosion of politics after the United States Congress tries to institute some kind of Enhanced registration program, or at least that was what he first riddled out of the scattered, confused reports about the whole mess. When he finally gets the details of it, they make him sick to his stomach; any American citizen who possesses superhuman abilities of any kind is ordered to report to a local facility in order to have their identities and abilities registered. Legal adults are also required to submit for "service" when called. Anyone, even children, caught using their powers without express permission are to be jailed indefinitely as a "national security risk".
They finally make good on their calls for Dr. Bruce Banner to be arrested for various incidents, chief amongst them Johannesburg. They are, he reflects, at least fair about that; they also demand that the hero known as Scarlet Witch, known to be the originator of that event, turn herself in on similar charges. They finally find grounds to turn on the Black Widow, too, which they do, calling her a war criminal and a murderer, but no one can apprehend her before she disappears. Not even Captain America escapes the madness unscathed. In the end, he is once again on the run from the government he had so long and so stalwartly defended, and once again, he organizes a resistance, or at least that's the rumor online.
But more disturbing than anything for him is Tony's take on the whole situation.
That his friend had always been a bit paranoid, and that more recently he had perhaps been unsure of this sudden revelation about just how many Enhanced people were living in plain sight… all of this he knows; Tony Stark is a lot of things, but perfect was never one of them. He still never expects him to turn on his friends and former colleagues. Rhodes, too, sides with the government; the Falcon, Spiderman and the Vision try to stay neutral, even as discussion devolves into chaotic shouting matches. What's left of SHIELD appears to be as splintered as the Avengers.
To be fair, he notes that none of the pro-registration heroes, not even Tony, are the ones calling for the worst of it. If anything, from what he can tell, they are only advocating for a compromise position, removing the worst of the restrictions from the bill, but maintaining some way to keep track of Enhanced people. But Steve has always had a frustrating tendency to see the world in black and white, and to all appearances, their once-intrepid leader took their dissent as disloyalty. Wanda disappears with him, of course, along with T'Challa. A few others are still trying to remain neutral. Truthfully, he doesn't like what he is hearing from the rebels any more than from the pro-registration crowd.
He watches helplessly from the sidelines as the fight turns physical.
Part of him waits for her to show up, but then she is braver than he will ever be. She has never been one to give up the fight or run away and hide, and perhaps her silence is something like respect. Because he cannot allow the Hulk into the fray; that would hurt far more than it would help.
He's never been a religious man. He doesn't really believe in God. But he does believe in karma, and trying to do the right thing because it's the right thing, and the boundless power of the human mind and the human soul, and if nothing else, he decides he'll pray to that; he prays his faith in humanity is not misplaced, and he prays the friends he had left behind on both sides of this senseless conflict would make it out alive, and he prays for her most of all. He prays for her as he watches with bated breath, on the old television in the local bar that gets broadcasts in English sometimes, watches her squaring off against a squad of soldiers. She's got that devil-may-care smirk on her face, and he prays she's got a plan.
He keeps on praying even as he watches the building above collapse and bury her, because he has never been surer that he loves her than he is in the moment he is sure he's finally lost her.
The world falls apart on a Tuesday.
This seems strange to him. He keeps thinking it should have happened on a Thursday. He doesn't know why he thinks this. Of course, he hasn't been thinking very clearly since last night.
He opens his eyes and is, for an instant, afraid the Other Guy took control, but he is lying in his bed in the little cottage on the beach. He doesn't remember walking home from the bar, but he remembers why he doesn't remember.
He can't bring himself to look at his computer. He knows what it will tell him. It will show him pictures of Steve Rogers lying dead in the middle of a street somewhere, and it will show him pictures of the rubble of the building that had taken her away from him for good; all it will do is assault him with more and more pictures, of all of them, his friends and the heroes he's never met, beaten and bruised and left in ruins because... because of what? What had any of this accomplished?
It's entirely too bright and cheerful an afternoon on his little island in the middle of the Pacific, but he stumbles into town anyway. Because it's Wednesday afternoon, and he won't miss a date, even if there's no one on the other end of the line.
He walks into the village and sees little memorials all over the place. It's a strange sight in this little foreign factory town, but they are everywhere. Clumsily-sewn American flags; scraps of red, white and blue cloth hanging from a roof here or there, dangling from clotheslines and signs. Someone had painted Steve's shield on the side of the bus shelter. And on the ground right in front of the payphone, there is a pattern of lines drawn in the dirt, decorated with red flowers, in the vague shape of an hourglass.
Faces peer out at him from windows and doorways; groups of women and children walking along the street stop to watch him. He dimly realizes he knows them all; every face belongs to someone who had come through his door with a broken limb, or a fever, or a stomach ailment, or the victim of one of the terrible accidents that are so common at the factory. Every life he had ever saved, or made just a little bit better, in this little village on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and here they all were, watching him silently as he slowly makes his way past the flowers and the bits of cloth and paint that stand in tribute to the fallen heroes, as if to assure them that they had not fought and sacrificed in vain.
He realizes suddenly that he has never once fooled any of them. They have known exactly who he is, ever since he walked up to the post office and exchanged one dollar and seventy-five since in American change for a faded postcard. And each and every one of them know what he has lost.
He sits on the ground next to the payphone in the middle of the village, his back pressed against the wooden pole holding it up, and he cries. He doesn't know how long he sits there. Long enough that normal life resumes all around him, even though there are people still watching. He doesn't care. A little girl runs up and throws her arms around him, whispering gratitude into his ear. He doesn't remember at first, not until she runs away again, that she is the girl who fell into the machine at the textile factory. His very first patient on the island.
She is covered in scars, and she has a bit of a limp in one leg, but she is running and playing and laughing with her friends, and that is something. He looks down at the slightly-crumpled flower she'd left in his hand, and for the first time in almost a decade, for the first time since the accident, he thinks that maybe he isn't such a monster after all.
Then he notices a pair of slim, black boots standing on the ground in front of him.
"What's a guy like you doing in a place like this?"
Whoo-hoo, that was long, wasn't it? Sorry about that... anyways, reviews are nice if you feel like it. Hope you enjoyed it.