A Few Good Friends
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The first time it's Tony.
Bruce stares at him. He doesn't mean to, but there are very few people who are willing to wait around for him to wake up after seeing what he's capable of. Then his brain catches up to him. "What happened to you?"
Tony looks, well, he looks like he's fought off an alien invasion. Bruce very much doubts he's still wearing the suit because it's comfortable, and the cuts and bruises he can see on his teammates' face are alarming to say the least. Somehow, Tony is still smirking. "Had a bit of a busy day. The usual y'know, giant space whales, evil demigods, nuclear missiles..."
As distraction tactics go it's a good one, but not quite good enough. Bruce shakes his head, forcing aside his own lingering aches. He knows he'll be fine; right now he has no such assurances about Tony. "Have you at least seen a medic?" He knows better than to demand an immediate trip to the hospital.
Tony shakes his head, grimaces, and stops. "They're busy. JARVIS says I'll survive, that's enough for now. Besides," he says, before Bruce can protest, "thought you might like a change of clothes."
Bruce looks at the rags that were once a perfectly functional pair of pants and shudders. "Thanks, but–"
"Anyway, you up for shwarma? Cap and Thor are in. I was gonna ask Natalie, or whatever she's calling herself this week, but she's talking to the bird guy with the arrows and the last time someone tried to interrupt I swear she tried to kill them with her mind."
Bruce follows that as best as he can while he pulls on his new clothes, and where Tony got them from he doesn't want to know, but his brain really isn't up to processing the babble so he just nods, and is rewarded with the return of Tony's bright grin. "I'm sure there's something going on between them. We'll have to investigate. Cap might be a killjoy about it, but I'm sure we can get Thor to help. Or Hill. If she understands the meaning of the word fun, that is. Oh, and thanks."
Bruce is beginning to suspect that Tony has a concussion. Or ADHD. Possibly both. "For what?"
Tony tilts his head to one side, his dark eyes narrowing. "You don't remember?"
Bruce shakes his head. "I never do." Probably a good thing. The aftermath is bad enough.
"Really? Not even punching out the giant space whales?"
He remembers one, and Rogers telling him to get angry. It doesn't require multiple PhDs to extrapolate the rest, but... "Whales? As in more than one?"
"Yep," says Tony cheerfully. "Few whales, and a whole load of Chitauri. You even smashed Loki."
"Loki," Bruce repeats, and he doesn't care that he's beginning to sound like an idiot, because there's no way the Other Guy could be this helpful. It must be a trick, there must be something going on. He already knows that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't trust him; this would be the perfect time for them to try to control him...
But Tony would never go along with but. And he looks closer, and the admiration and trust are completely genuine. Something he doesn't want to acknowledge begins to flicker in his belly; if the Other Guy had helped, if he had done some good...
"You also saved my life."
Bruce's head whips round. Tony isn't smiling now; instead he's watching Bruce with an intensity that's difficult to bear. "I'm serious. I lost power, and fell, and you caught me. And then you woke me up without kissing me."
Bruce pauses. He did not need that last mental image. Tony smirks at his reaction and stretches. "So, yeah. Thanks."
"Any time," says Bruce softly.
The silence is broken by the rumbling of Tony's stomach. "And now it's definitely time for shwarma," Tony announces. He attempts to get up, but falls back with a crash. "Er, little help here?"
It takes a minute, but eventually they're both on their feet. Tony's stomach rumbles again, and Bruce glances at him. "You didn't have to wait, you know."
Tony claps him on the shoulder as gently as a man in a heavy metal suit can. "Wasn't gonna start without you, buddy."
Second time, it's Thor's turn.
"How are you feeling, my friend?"
"'m okay." He's vaguely aware that he's mumbling, but transforming is difficult, and he's quite warm and comfortable where he is. Which makes a change. That's when he realises that he's wrapped up in something. Namely, the dark red cloak belonging to the god of thunder. "What-"
"These are temperatures more suited to Jotunheim than Midgard," says Thor by way of explanation. "Tony has supplied more appropriate clothing." His own arms are bare, but he doesn't even appear to be shivering. Nonetheless, Bruce changes as fast as possible, and makes a mental note to speed up development of a suitably stretchy polymer, because this was getting ridiculous. He tries to hand the cloak back, only for Thor to shake his head.
"Our transport may be some time, and Mjolnir has not yet returned to me." He doesn't sound too concerned about the loss of one of the most powerful weapons in all the realms. Then again, permanently losing said weapon would probably be beyond even Tony's capabilities.
"Where are the others?" he asks instead.
"They are well," says Thor quickly. "They remained behind to deal with the secondary threat."
That's when Bruce realises that they're way out at the edge of the city. And when he sees just how much chaos he's caused. He can't see a single house that's undamaged, and as for the road...
Why is he even surprised? The Other Guy might be willing try to do some good now, but he'll always cause more harm than he prevents. Bruce's stomach roils unpleasantly, and he has to fight to keep from throwing up as the cost of the destruction fills his mind. Tony will cover the expenses, as he always does, but the memories... It's always the innocents who suffer. He should never have been allowed to join this team. He grits his teeth as the monster within him stirs. He won't let it out now. He won't allow it to do any more harm.
"Dr. Banner, it might be advisable for you to breathe now."
Bruce sucks in breath just as the world starts to tilt. He staggers, but there's a hand at his elbow, lowering him to the floor as if he weighed less than a feather. Bruce puts his head between his knees and concentrates on breathing, but he hears Thor crouching opposite him.
"Your counterpart fought well," he says softly. "He saved many lives today."
Bruce doesn't even try to suppress a snort. "Still needs to work on property damage."
"It was not the highest priority," Thor admits. "For good reason." He grips Bruce's shoulder and Bruce looks round despite himself. Then blinks.
The monster lying in the middle of the nearest crater is four times the size of the Hulk.
"Not all the blame rests with you, my friend."
Bruce looks round to see a rueful smile dancing at Thor's lips. The knowledge lifts his spirits a little, but the truth of the matter remains and Bruce sighs. "Not this time."
"There was little choice," Thor points out. "And you were not in control of your actions."
"That doesn't make it all right," Bruce mutters. He's still the reason these people won't have homes to go to tonight. Thor and the others might be destructive, but they never cause the devastation he does.
Thor grips his shoulder, and Bruce looks up to find his blue eyes dark with compassion. "Would it help if I told you that I once had to rebuild an entire street?"
Bruce stares at him. "You?"
Thor grimaces. "I would say that I did not know my own strength, but in truth I was young and foolish. A game with my fellow warriors got a little out of hand."
Bruce tries to imagine a game that could result in the destruction of an entire street and winces. Thor nods. "My parents were not impressed. Nor was Sif. Loki found it most amusing." His expression darkens for a moment before he looks up. "That was the result of carelessness and youthful spirits. Your other self did what he had to to save innocent lives. I can find no blame in that." His eyes blaze as he looks at Bruce. "And certainly none in you."
Bruce doesn't say anything, but his heart momentarily fills with something that isn't guilt. Thor smiles, and together they sit and watch the sun rise.
He doesn't remember what triggered the change this time, but Clint is sitting quietly next to him when he finally fights his way back to consciousness. The archer's clothes are speckled with blood, and there are a couple of nasty tears in his vest, but his bow is on the ground next to him, and Bruce allows tense muscles to relax. Clint catches his eye.
Bruce nods, but the movement sends stabs of pain through his head and neck and he stops. "What happened? He hasn't had a transformation that violent in a while. The way Clint's expression darkens confirms his fears. "Sniper?"
Clint nods curtly. "I took care of it." He holds Bruce's gaze for a minute before looking away. "Sorry about that."
"You couldn't have known-"
"It's my job to know," Clint snaps. He rubs a hand over his face, and his next words are so soft Bruce has to strain to hear them. "You weren't supposed to have to do that this time."
Bruce sighs. He might have been brought along for his scientific knowledge, but he's under no illusions. He had known this mission would be dangerous, and Fury had asked for him specifically for a reason. "It was always a possibility." And Clint knew that.
"It still shouldn't have happened," Clint growls.
He seems a little upset. Then again, Bruce did just get shot right in front of him. He sighs again. "No harm done." He manages to keep most of the bitterness from his voice. The Other Guy can be useful. Clint, however, continues to look away, and though he mutters something it's too low for Bruce to make out. He looks around in an attempt to give the archer some space and winces.
"So much for getting in and out without them realising we were here."
There are several walls which are only barely defying gravity. The fence surrounding the compound is in tatters, and Bruce can see a number of vehicles lying on their backs, sides, or in separate pieces. He can only imagine what the interior is like. Clint glances round and shrugs. "It's better than the alternative."
Bruce manages a small smile at that. He knows Fury will agree, but it's nice to know his teammate doesn't blame him. He sits up slowly, wincing as strained muscles protest, and gives Clint a grateful nod when the archer gives him his own jacket. "Thanks."
Clint just nods. "Extraction team's on its way. Not exactly a rush."
Bruce studies him. Despite the lack of danger, and he knows there's no danger because the Other Guy would never leave a threat in that situation, Clint's muscles are so tense one would think the Black Widow was after him. Bruce doesn't need to be that kind of doctor to know that something more than an aborted mission is bothering his friend.
"Clint," he says softly. "This isn't the first time the Other Guy's come along."
"I know that."
Bruce says nothing. Clint is more than sharp enough to catch the unasked question.
Sure enough, Clint catches his eye and his shoulders slump. "It's different when you don't have a choice."
Whatever Bruce was expecting it wasn't that. The platitudes he had prepared died in his throat as he continued to stare at Clint, understanding all too clearly and hating himself for not seeing it sooner. Clint shifted under the scrutiny and looked away.
"It should be your choice," he says softly. He looked back, his eyes flashing in a way that Bruce hasn't seen in a long time. "Now on, it will be your choice."
Natasha's next. Bruce is beginning to wonder if there's a schedule.
"How are you feeling?"
"Relieved Tony's stretchy pants idea worked," Bruce mumbles. Otherwise this would be incredibly embarrassing. Then his attention is diverted by the sight of her arm in a sling. "What happened?"
She grimaces. "There were a few more than we were expecting. Nothing to worry about."
Anyone else, and Bruce would have believed them. There's certainly nothing in Natasha's face or voice to indicate a lie. But Bruce has learned how to read people, and he can see the tension in the set of her shoulders. He could attribute it to the stress of a difficult battle, but this isn't the first time he's seen Natasha after a battle. He sits up slowly, mindful of aching muscles, so he can look her in the eye. "You sure about that?"
Natasha doesn't so much as bat an eyelid. "You can check the reports if you want."
There's still nothing that should be a cause for concern. Bruce frowns, letting his gaze wander round the room as he tries to plan his next move. There's surprisingly little damage. None in fact.
No cause for concern.
A vice seems to close around his chest. Slowly, he looks back at Natasha. "You moved me." She doesn't reply, and the vice constricts. "Why did you move me?"
"Natasha, what did I do?"
"You did nothing," Natasha hisses, and the vehemence in her voice is enough to make Bruce pause for a moment.
But the implication soon sinks in, and the temperature seems to plummet. "And what did the Other Guy do?"
Natasha's eyes flash. "He did his job. That's all."
Bruce opens his mouth to argue. To insist he has the right to know what damage he's done. To know what he can add to the list of things he needs to atone for. The look in her eye stops him. Not the compassion, he was expecting that. They've all given him far more of it than he deserves.
But the understanding... It's the look of someone who has done terrible things, things they never would have chosen to do, things they know they can never atone for. He remembers what she's told him of her past, and the time she spent with Clint after the incident with Loki. He remembers how she looked at him, and never let him blame himself for the things he had had to do.
"I was hit from behind," Natasha continues softly. "There were too many, and Clint and Tony were too far away to reach us." She leans forward. "The Hulk saved my life, Bruce. And the lives of the four hostages."
Bruce wants to ask about the cost. How many lives he took to buy these five. He'll find out sooner or later, from the media, or whichever S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison Tony hasn't managed to drive away. He can't avoid it forever.
For once, Natasha is easy to read. He'll find out soon enough, but it won't be from her. He might as well ask a brick wall for all the good it would do.
So he doesn't. He doesn't say anything, but the tension drains from Natasha's body. She tilts her head to one side as she hands him a black hoodie. "So whose idea was it to make the pants purple?"
This time he's not at all surprised to see Steve leaning against a pile of rubble next to him.
Bruce has to smile, despite his aching body. They moved onto first name terms weeks ago, but Steve's made a habit of using his title after a change. The reminder isn't necessary, but the thought is very welcome. "Captain. Did we win?"
Steve smiles. His arms are resting loosely on his drawn up legs, and the position makes him look far more like a schoolboy than a 6'2" super-soldier should. "Was there any doubt?"
Bruce gives up on the idea of moving for the moment. There's clearly no danger, and S.H.I.E.L.D. knows better than to bother them straight after a change. He's still slightly embarrassed by how long it took him to understand that the others were running interference for him, but he's starting to get used to it. "Everyone else?"
"All fine," Steve assured him. "Doom got away, but you and Thor caused enough damage to keep him busy for a while."
Bruce nods, allowing his eyes to close for a moment. Maybe they'll have some peace now. Although given the amount of super-powered threats that have been popping up, that may be just a dream.
"It's Captain America!"
Bruce's eyes fly open, but Steve is already on his feet, his hand on his shield. A moment later he relaxes, a smile playing on his lips. "Looks like we've got some visitors."
Bruce pushes himself up with a grunt, and turns just in time to see two small faces poke round the corner. Steve chuckles and squats down. "You all right over there?"
There's a pause before the two boys emerge, but Bruce has to smother a grin when they do. They're clearly brothers, neither can be more than eight, and they're staring at Steve like he's the saviour of the world. "C-Captain America?"
Steve's grin lights up the entire street.
The older boy's jaw drops, but the younger one is now peering at Bruce. "Who're you?"
His brother rolls his eyes in the manner of big brothers everywhere. "Are you blind? That's the Hulk!"
Bruce flinches. He's not used to being recognised, and it's difficult to break the habits of the past several years. He's attended the mandatory press conferences, and when people like Tony, Steve and Thor are there, it's relatively simple for him to fade into the background, but even so he's been stopped more than once. It's rarely a positive experience. Even when people don't quite go as far as insulting one of the people who saved New York, they can't disguise the fear in their eyes, or the way they keep their children behind them. Bruce doesn't blame them. They're only taking sensible precautions. Steve glances at him, and then at the children, his eyes hardening. His intent is clear, but before Bruce can tell him to leave it he's interrupted.
"That's so cool!"
Bruce's jar drops. Both boys are staring at him like he's Captain America, or Iron Man. The younger one scrambles over, his eyes shining.
"You're my favourite! I've got all your action figures, and giant Hulk hands, and Dad says if I'm extra specially good I'll get a Hulk costume for Christmas!"
Bruce can only stare at him, until Steve gives him a not so subtle kick. "That's...that's good."
The boy nods vigorously. "You're the best 'cause you're stronger than Thor and you're smarter than Iron Man, and you're just awesome!"
Bruce realises his mouth is hanging open and closes it, but doesn't say anything. He can't. The boy tilts his head to one side. "Does it hurt?"
"Joey," the older boy hisses, but Bruce shakes his head.
"No, no." He crouches down so he's at Joey's level and tries to work out how much to say. Kids aren't stupid, and he doesn't want to lie, but... "Not enough to stop me." Joey beams up at him, brown eyes shining, and Bruce can't help but ruffle his hair. "You really shouldn't be out here, you know. Where are your parents?"
"We wanted to see the robots," Joey protests.
"I don't blame you," says Bruce softly, "but you should still keep your distance. You might get hurt."
Joey frowns at him. "No, we won't. You won't let that happen."
Once again Bruce finds himself at a loss for words. It's completely bewildering; he's talked to demigods, assassins, and super-spies, not to mention a genius billionaire and the most famous soldier in history, but a six year old? A six year old with this much faith in him? That's something else. He feels Steve's gaze and manages to swallow. "No. We won't."
"That's what we're here for," says Steve softly.
Joey seems to consider that for a moment before beaming up at Bruce. "Thanks, Mr Hulk!"
"Dr. Banner," his brother hisses with a groan, and a look of such exaggerated dismay that Bruce has to chuckle. Steve grins at him, and Bruce just nods.
This is what makes it all worthwhile.
Thank you for reading. Any feedback would be very much appreciated.