Chapter 11: Suit Up
Bruce swiped his glasses off his face, pulling out a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe them clean again. He didn’t know what had possessed him to allow Agent Romanoff to convince him in helping them… It certainly wasn’t her good looks or the dozens of agents that had surrounded them in that shack in India.
Part of him smirked cynically at the thought of those puny agents trying to coerce him, a line from one of his favorite movies popping into his head… “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
A bigger boat, indeed, he thought mirthlessly, perching his glasses back on his nose as he curiously eavesdropped on the trio nestled up by the cockpit.
“You’re sure she’s alright?” Steve Rogers asked. Bruce was certain he’d posed the question at least five times previously.
Bruce rather liked the Captain, he’d decided upon meeting him. Seemed a straight-up guy even if a bit naive. While at one time in his life, he’d rather resented him – the experimentations on the Captain being a large inspiration for his own work in gamma radiation and partly responsible for the creation of the Other Guy – it ultimately wasn’t in Bruce to blame others for his own plights.
Didn’t hurt that Rogers seemed concerned but not judgmental about Bruce’s unique condition. It was rather refreshing not to be look at like a freak.
“She’s doing as well as can be expected, considering,” Phil Coulson answered. “I suspect she’ll be better with you guys back at base, then even more so when Tony makes his appearance. She seems to still be feeling the effects of the pull, but she’s ignoring her own pain and focusing on her training. There’s never a time she’s out of that gym.”
Phil Coulson was a bit of enigma. The man looked like he should be sitting behind a desk at a bank, but there was a strange air of competency around him. It’d be easy to underestimate him, Bruce decided. He didn’t know yet what to make of the man, but he certainly wouldn’t write him off.
“That could be for the best. She’s already handling it better than she’s handled past hardships. At least she’s focus – driven,” Agent Romanoff said.
Bruce was unimpressed with the agent known as Black Widow. He didn’t doubt her deadly skills and held a healthy respect for her abilities, but he didn’t care for being lied to no matter the reason for it. She was – first and foremost – a spy. Lies were all she knew and he’d keep that in mind when dealing with her.
“She’s not a soldier,” Steve scoffed.
“Not yet,” Natasha agreed. “But she will be. She wants to be.”
“It shouldn’t be necessary,” Steve began, only for Natasha to cut him off.
“You’re right, it shouldn’t. But that’s the way it is. Isabella’s going to be in the thick of things no matter what now – do you want her to be incapable of defending herself?”
“Of course not,” he scoffed.
“Then stop think with your heart, Captain,” Natasha lifted a pointed brow at him. “And start thinking with your head. Start thinking like the soldier you were trained to be. Isabella is our greatest asset in this battle.”
“Colonel Fury has been briefing her on some of the particulars of the situation,” Coulson said, breaking the tension between the two. “She’s willing.”
Steve snorted, but let the matter drop, each of them falling into silence as they neared the base.
Curiosity piqued, Bruce couldn’t help but to wonder about this Isabella character and her relationship with the three individuals, each one impressive in their own right. Seemed to him that a lot of this drama centered around her and to be honest, Bruce wasn’t looking forward to meeting her. Last thing his life needed was more drama.
Which was why given what he’d just overheard, he was surprised to disembark the jet and step out onto the military ship only to find the girl in question waiting for them; even more surprised when the group started moving to her and she jogged straight over to Romanoff, throwing her arms around her in a brief, but meaningful hug.
Romanoff looked a bit stunned herself at the show of affection, something that Bruce actually related to. Her arms closed around the girl in a jerky but sincere hug, her eyes closing as she accepted the embrace and whispered, sounding more open than Bruce had heard, “It’ll be alright, Bella. We’ll get him back.”
The girl’s shoulders shuddered and Bruce heard her give a wet sniff, but when she pulled back, he was mildly surprised by the strength he saw radiating from her gaze. “I know,” she said, making the words sound like a vow.
Steve cleared his throat, catching the girl’s attention. Isabella’s – Bella as she appeared to prefer – smile was small but warm as she wrapped the Captain in another hug. Bruce watched as he inhaled slightly and relaxed into her. He suspected there was more than friendship on the Captain’s mind, though Bella appeared oblivious.
“Thanks for coming, Steve. I mean, I know it’s a matter of national security or whatever, but still… It really means a lot to me.”
“Sure thing, Bella,” the Captain smiled as she pulled back. To Bruce, there was something a bit wistful there, but surprisingly lacking in bitterness.
“No luck with Victoria then?” Bella asked, almost in passing.
Steve shrugged. “Had her boxed in for a bit in northern Canada, but I think you were right about her gift… She’s more slippery than an eel.”
She snorted. “And just as nasty too. Thanks though. Seems like she’s such a minor thing now, but your help trying to catch her means a lot to me.”
Steve grinned at her and nodded.
Most surprising of the greetings was when Bella then turned to Agent Coulson and said, “Hey there, Captain Tightpants. Thanks for rallying the troops,” before wrapping him into a hug as well.
Coulson grinned and it was the most expressive Bruce had ever seen the man. “Well, you know what to do when someone ever tries to kill you…”
Bella’s small laugh was muffled into his suit jacket. “You try and kill ’em right back.”
Bruce shook his head, knowing he was a bit out of his depth. When the movement caught the girl’s attention and she turned to him, he froze, feeling like he’d just been tossed center stage and he’d forgotten all of his lines.
“You must be Dr. Banner,” Bella said, walking up to him with a small sad smile that was no less sincere than the ones she’d given the others. “I’m Bella Swan. I can’t thank you enough for coming.”
She held out her hand to him.
Bruce stared at it for a moment as if it was a coiled snake ready to strike. He wondered how much she knew about him… if she’d be so eager to shake his hand if she knew about the Other Guy. Shaking it off, Bruce jolted forward and accepted her hand. Her hand was soft and small in his own, but she had a firm grip that bespoke of strength.
Despite his earlier thoughts, Bruce became even more intrigued by Bella Swan.
“Wasn’t given much a choice,” he muttered dryly looking to Agent Romanoff, but he shot her a quick, awkward smile and continued, “But when the fate of the world is at stake…”
She snorted, releasing his hand, bringing her own up to her chest where she started rubbing it. “Screw the world. I just want my brother back.”
Bruce caught the concerned glances exchanged behind her, their eyes fixing on the hand still rubbing at her chest.
All his earlier misgivings were swept aside with her statement. While it was obvious she wouldn’t really forsake the world in favor of her brother, nothing about her seemed the type, Bruce rather admired the sentiment. Envied it, even. Being lightly briefed on the jet, everything had been military and tactical with occasional moments of intensity on Romanoff’s part whenever Clint Barton was mentioned. First and foremost, however, they were soldiers preparing for battle.
Before him now was not a soldier. There was steel and fire within her that could easily be forged into a soldier, but above all else, Bella Swan was just a sister desperate for her brother back.
An intriguing wave of empathy washed over him as he stared at the girl. Feeling his eyes, she looked to him and smiled once more. However sad and pathetic the expression was, Bruce still felt the warmth behind it settle over him. He was basking in her friendly acceptance and refreshingly straightforward desire to just save her brother, all else on the back-burner to be dealt with later.
Without knowing it, he smiled back.
“I will do what I can to help find your brother, Miss Swan,” he said softly, a curious blend of emotions stirring in his gut.
When she smiled again, it was like a sucker punch to the stomach.
Dear God, who is this girl, he couldn’t help but to wonder, frowning as he followed behind the group as the ship prepared to go airborne – which was a joke in and of itself, he decided humorlessly.
“We’re still looking into it,” Natasha said as she fell into step beside him.
Snapping out of his thoughts, he asked, “Come again?”
“Isabella,” she stated. “You were wondering what it was about her that made you forget all your misgivings, right?”
Bruce frowned, looking away from Natasha and stared at Bella’s back as she made half-hearted conversation with Steve. Anyone could tell the girl was exhausted, stretched thin like a threadbare blanket.
“Is there something more in play there?” he asked, not entirely discounting the idea. How quick she’d swayed him to her side despite all of his previous plans for avoiding her…
“We’re not sure. Maybe it’s just her – her personality and honest openness. They’re traits people like us seldom see so they would have stronger appeal.”
“But?” he prompted, sensing the word hovering on the tip of her tongue.
“But it wouldn’t be surprising – recent circumstances considering – if there was something more to it. As I said, we’re looking into all possibilities.”
Snorting, Bruce frowned again and shot the agent with a quiet glare. “So she’s just some lab rat to be dissected, then,” he hissed, his disgust at the notion evident.
Natasha stopped walking, grabbing his arm as the group continued on without them. “No,” she said in firm fierceness. “She’s not that – not to any of us. Isabella is many things, but she’s ours. Our friend, our sister – our family. We’re trying to learn more in order to help. Being ignorant would only hurt her.”
Damned if the infamous Black Widow didn’t have a heart, Bruce thought, blinking at Natasha as though seeing her for the first time. He’d overheard that she had some sort of relationship with Barton along with a fondness for his sister, but what he’d just seen went deeper than fondness. Deeper than obligation.
She loves that girl, he realized. Whether the agent knew it or not, Natasha Romanoff loved Bella Swan with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cub.
Against all odds, his opinion of the agent went up and he started to see a deeper layer to her. First impressions always lingered, though; he thought wryly of the woman cornering him in his little corner of India and trying to coerce him with guilt and white lies. The woman was still beside him, but he had to admit – however grudgingly – to respecting this new facet of her.
Scrambling for something to say to cut the lingering tension, Bruce was saved by Natasha dropping his arm and saying, “Let’s catch up to the others.”
She turned sharply without waiting for him and Bruce stood frozen for a moment before snapping back to it and jogging to catch up.
What followed was a slightly more thorough briefing of the situation. A hostile force by the name Loki was in possession of the tesseract – a potential weapon capable of wiping out the human race. Not only that, but this myth come to life also had some sort of spear that could put anyone under his thrall.
Anyone but Bella, apparently, Bruce noted as he watched the girl in question. He wasn’t the only one to focus on her when learning that tidbit along with her draw to the God of Mischief. Ignoring their eyes though, she attempted nonchalance as she passively scrolled through files on a nearby screen, her back to them all.
The others went back to exchanging information and while Bruce kept an ear on them, his attention remained riveted to the strange, mysterious girl. On the surface she wasn’t much to look at, but he knew better than to judge a book by its cover. There was real warmth to her, a sincerity he’d rarely seen in people. Especially people associating with him while knowing about the Other Guy; it became clear she knew when he saw a brief report on him pop up on her screen and she casually flicked the page away, completely unconcerned with the small video of the Other Guy roaring in her face.
She knew and she still shook my hand… he pondered in a daze. Not only that, but she never flinched, never gave any indiction of fear.
Remarkable, he shook his head as the meeting was dismissed. Isabella was out the door quickly. Trying to avoid a concerned talk with Steve and Natasha, he suspected as the two of them had the looks of one about to give a lecture.
Bruce was shown to a lab far better than he’d ever worked in, especially lately. Oddly, he found himself missing the dangers of war torn countries. There he could make a difference, small though it may be, while flying under the radar. With the glass walls in this new lab, he rather felt like a creature on display at a zoo on display for others’s amusement. It let him know that no matter what they said, they were keeping him under observation.
A soft knock broke his thoughts and he hesitantly called out for the person to enter.
Isabella walked in, not meeting his gaze at first as she closed the door behind her, leaning against it.
“Um, Bella? Are you alright?” Bruce asked, concerned as she seemed to be a bit breathless and there was a certain sallow tint to her complexion.
“I’m sorry to intrude, I know you’re very busy,” she said, her voice soft and timid even as she gave him an awkward smile.
Setting down the tablet he’d been using to start the algorithms to trace the gamma radiation from the tesseract, Bruce found himself smiling back at her. “It’s alright. The calculations wouldn’t take very long once done and then the computer will do most of the work after that.”
She nodded absently and finally moved away from the door.
“Still, I’m sorry to bug you. Sorry you got dragged into this whole mess.”
Bruce frowned as he watched her walk over to a screen. She typed in some equations and Bruce found himself slightly impressed at her knowledge. It was like advanced arithmetic for someone like him, but to others, her work was more advanced than calculus on any given day.
“That’s not really your fault,” he said quietly, staring at her as she worked. Stalling as she was, Bruce couldn’t help but to feel a trickle of concern dance down his spine.
“It is,” she whispered. It was so faint he almost missed it. “Most of it is my fault.”
Bruce went to her. He didn’t know her well enough to know how to comfort her. He didn’t think she’d appreciate hollow words of sympathy, so all he did was ask, “Why do you say that?” as he started working alongside her.
She was quiet a moment as they worked together until she started, “Loki-” she stopped. Her hand left the screen and rubbed her chest, her eyes squinting in pain. She cleared her throat and started again, “Loki has been visiting me in my dreams for weeks. I could’ve have said something – warned people. There was no stopping him from coming, I know that, but maybe we would have been better prepared…”
“There’s no real way to know that. You shouldn’t think in hypotheticals, Bella.”
She smirked and gave him a mildly cheeky look, “I thought you were a scientist? Even you know that just because they call is a theory doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
A laughing huff escaped him, sounding almost like a rusty sigh. It’d been a while since he’d laughed. “Clever girl, aren’t you? But still, it’s not right – or healthy – for you to think that way.”
She shrugged. “Maybe you’re right, but there’s one thing I do know… Loki wouldn’t have taken Clint if it hadn’t been for me.”
At a loss, Bruce was smart enough to realize there was a large possibility of that being true so he said nothing.
“He’s punishing me,” she whispered, one hand rubbing her chest as the other went back to her calculations. “He took Clint to punish me.”
Sighing, Bruce removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes, a migraine swelling. This was the last thing he’d expected when he’d agreed to this whole shindig. He hadn’t much choice, to be truthful, but even so his strategy had been to get in, get out. No ties, no complications.
He hadn’t seen Bella coming, not at all. She was a variable thrown into the equation he’d had no way of anticipating. A complication – but one he found himself welcoming.
“Those we care about are always at risk. Some more than others,” was all he said.
Another moment of silence.
“Dr. Banner?” she asked, a small catch in the middle of his name.
“You’re a doctor, right? I mean, like not just a scientist, but medically speaking as well?”
Frowning, he shot her a concerned look. “I’ve had training, yes. Why? Is there something wrong?”
Her eyes welled up, but to her credit, none of her tears fell. Still, Bruce was like a stereotypical man completely thrown off by a crying woman and his mind was horrified at the threat of her tears.
“I…” she cut off. Taking a deep, calming breath, she continued, “I was going to wait for Tony, but he said he was going to wrap something up for me before coming. I wanted to wait for him, but I can’t. Please, Dr. Banner, I could use your help.”
The past two days ran through his head and all seemed to narrow and focus on this one moment. All the reasons spewed to sway them to their cause – danger to everyone, so many lives to be saved, end of the world, yadda yadda yadda – all of them disipated and Bruce was left with the sinking feeling that this was the real reason he was here. Obligation to their country aside, he suspected she was the reason they were all there for.
Unsettled as he was, Bruce found himself saying, “Of course I’ll help you, Bella. Of course.”
Her shoulders sagged and Bruce recognized her exhale at his words as one of relief. She’d been holding her breath waiting to hear what he’d have to say.
Shooting a look to the glass walls and confirming that no one was watching – at least overtly – Bella looked to Bruce, her smile one of relief and gratefulness. “Thank you.”
And while it sounded like a small weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Bruce felt it settle in his chest as he stared at her. He didn’t think it would ever leave and he doubted things would ever be the same.
That he would ever be the same.
Bella’s relief at Bruce’s acceptance damn near had her fainting. That, or it could have been the fact that she could barely stomach food and it was a hardship to force herself to eat something as bland as saltines and soup lately.
The past couple days had been a blur of training, meetings and waiting. Lots of waiting that damn near had her crawling up the walls or collapsing to her knees in sobs. Such a futile thing.
But her stubbornness prevailed and she gave in to neither inclination, simply distracting herself with the gym and working herself so hard that she could fall into a deep sleep too exhausted for dreams.
It only worked half of the time.
The other half, Bella found herself heeding the unspoken call and following the tug on her chest, tumbling into a dream she now knew was real. They never spoke, though Bella was well aware he knew she was there. The few times she unconsciously followed the pull it seemed to catch him in the midst of meetings and the likes.
The last time had been the most unsettling. Finding herself on some sort of asteroid – Sanctuary, she thought she’d heard Loki refer to it in passing, though how it got that name she could hardly figure. It was the oddest thing to realize she somehow astral-projected into space…
She’d watched him as a strange, ugly creature berated him like a schoolboy. Their eyes had caught briefly, but then he’d scurried to distract the creature from turning her way. Would he have seen her? What would he have done if he had?
Why had Loki protected her?
Protecting himself, more like, she’d decided.
Shaking it off, she turned her attention back to Bruce Banner who stood patiently waiting for her to speak. She liked the good doctor, she’d decided almost immediately. He seemed… quiet. Shy. A lot like herself, really.
But there was a hardness to him – an edge she imagined he’d picked up while running for his life.
Truthfully, she was rather intrigued by his ability to ‘hulk’ out, she believed someone had called it. She had a lot of sympathy for him as it seemed to be something he used to push people away. There’d been no mistaking the leery looks he’d been giving her like he was waiting for her to freak out at him or get scared and run off.
She’d seen worse, she decided upon watching the few videos of the Hulk that S.H.I.E.L.D. had acquired. Her mind flashed to James… to him torturing her for the fun of it, turning it into a game. Then Victoria still out there hunting her.
Charlie’s body flashed in her mind before she shook it off.
Yes, she’d seen much, much worse.
“I don’t want the others to know,” she finally spoke. “I mean, I’m sure they suspect – damn near impossible keeping things hidden from spies – but with everything else going on… I just don’t want to concern them. Not about this.”
Bruce’s eyes softened. “I can relate. Go ahead, tell me what’s wrong.”
She could tell he was still leery – of her, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the whole shebang – but that he still appeared willing to help her? Well, he spoke a lot about the man’s character that he’d help some pip-squeak girl when no one had gone out of their way to help him out.
Turning her back to the glass walls, she motioned Bruce over to her. She unbuttoned the first three buttons on her top, smiling shyly as Bruce’s cheeks tinted in a faint blush. To his credit, he said nothing.
“It’s easier to show you,” she said by way of explanation.
Pulling back her shirt some, she exposed her chest above her heart, making sure all her important bits were covered, she turned her head as she showed him, unwilling to see his reaction. Though she could still hear it.
He sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth, the air whizzing like a sympathetic hiss. “Bella,” he said lowly, concern dripping from his tone.
Despite her resolve, the tears welled up again. “I’m sure they told you,” she said, voice thick with the tears she fought to keep back. “Told you how I appear to be tethered to him… Told you how he tried to use his spear on me to no effect. But I still feel it – feel him – inside me. Now that he’s here, but there’s distance between us, the tugging has gotten worse. I’m afraid my heart is going to be torn out of my chest.”
Which was no exaggeration. When he’d first arrived, the tugging had eased, but she’d quickly learned that was due to his proximity. Now that they were no longer in the same room, same building – hell, same country, even – the pain had returned with a new urgency.
A warm touch to her skin had her flinching before she relaxed, realizing it was Bruce trying to see clearly what she was asking his help with. She didn’t need to look down to know what he was staring to intently at. Her skin was puckered over her heart as if some invisible hook was buried there and yanking at her. Her veins had turned ice blue, lingering bits of Loki’s spell? She didn’t know for sure, but her skin was like ice there.
Instead of being unpleasant, she found it comforting. It was about the only thing that eased the pain of the constant tug.
“The others don’t know?” he clarified, pulling her shirt closed for her.
“They know about the pull,” she said. “Fury wants to use me as a Loki compass but with the distance between us being so far there’s no way of discerning where the pull is directing me to. It just hurts – all the time. There’s no relief, not even in sleep. And the blue tint? It’s spreading. It started as a small point over my heart, then it bled out.”
“I’ll have to run some tests,” he murmured. Bella was mildly touched at the note of concern behind the statement. Bruce Banner was a remarkable man to have suffered all that he had and still be willing to help others.
“I know. Tony will help you once he’s here, once I tell him, but I couldn’t wait any longer. Not even a day. It hurts so bad.”
Bruce squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll do what I can, Bella. I promise you.”
“Thank you,” she sniffed, feeling rather pathetic and low.
She missed Clint – God, how she missed her brother. How she wished he’d swoop in with, “I’ve got you, little bird. It’s okay, Eyas – Hawkeye has you.”
Shaking it off, Bella snap to the door as it slid open.
Natasha gave her a penetrating look that softened some when she noticed her tears. “Come to the deck – there’s been a sighting.”
Gathering her wits about her and holding them in a stranglehold, Bella nodded, shot Bruce another grateful look who assured her he’d get right to work, and then followed Natasha up to the deck. Loki’s face floated on the computer screens before her and Bella swallowed around the lump in her throat. He was dressed casually in a suit, a deep green she was relatively ashamed to admit she thought suited him well.
He was strolling through what looked like an art show in Stuttgart, Germany, smirking casually as he passed unsuspecting folks by.
“It’s like he wants to be seen,” Steve commented.
Bella moved to the screen for a better look. “He does. Loki always wants to be seen.”
“What’s the call, Colonel?” Phil asked, giving Bella a concerned look to which she just shook her head.
“I think it’s time for the Captain to suit up,” Fury said after a moment.
Before he could add anything else, Bella announced, “I’m going too.”
If only to stop this pain in my chest… in my heart, she thought. Both physically and emotionally. She needed to go – needed to follow the pull and had to find her brother.
Several people started talking over each other, some in favor of her going, most opposed.
“Please,” she broke though the cacophony of voices. “Be reasonable,” she urged them all. “If Loki is there, Clint is with him. We need to save Clint – we have to save my brother.”
“Isabella, there is more at stake here,” Fury began.
“Screw that,” she bit off, glaring at him. “I know there’s more going on here, but that doesn’t mean we abandon Clint. If you do not let me go, I will find a way to go on my own.”
Another moment of silence.
“She could be useful,” Natasha stated. She was speaking calmly and Bella appreciated someone being the voice of reason.
“Useful? She’ll be in even more danger – no offense, Bella, but you haven’t had the proper training. At least not enough,” Steve interjected.
“I don’t need training to cause a distraction,” she countered. “Let me go in first. You guys can do your thing and try to find my brother while I distracted Loki. I can do this. I know I can.”
“What if he kills you?” Steve asked, looking concerned and horrified at the idea.
“He won’t,” she said simply.
“And how do you know that, Miss Swan,” Colonel Fury asked appraisingly, not necessarily doubting, but curious as to her reasoning.
“Because if he’d wanted me dead, he would’ve done it a long time ago.”
“This plan has merit,” Natasha said.
Again, a long pause in which Fury weighed the pros and cons. “Alright. She goes in first, armed and prepared, but you only have fifteen minutes. After that, regardless if your brother is found or not, the Captain is coming in.
Steeling herself, Bella gave a firm nod. “Understood.”
“Then suit up, Isabella, you have a long night ahead of you,” Colonel Fury ordered.
Taking a deep breath, she gave another parting nod to him, then to Phil who smiled vaguely at her while murmuring, “Stay shiny, Isabella,” before turning and following Natasha out.
There was no way of knowing how the night would end for her, but at least she get a reprieve from the ceaseless tug at her chest, even if only for fifteen minutes.
Looks like it’s time for my fifteen minutes of fame…
It was sink or swim time; she just hoped that the spotlight suited her.
(A/N): I really hope you all enjoyed Bruce’s POV… he ended up talking to me longer than anticipated, but it was fun writing as him. I may do it again, but no promises.
Please let me know what you thought 🙂
Sanctuary – the name of Thanos’s lair. It’s not mentioned in the Avengers movie, but it is in Guardians of the Galaxy.