Bruce bites his tongue between his molars, the sting doing nothing to ease the urge to contradict her. The bullet points sound wrong coming from between her lips, and he shifts his wrist so he can hook his fingers into hers, curl them close into his palm like a coveted treasure. He’s almost glad for the distraction though, afraid her touch might flee if he pays it too much attention to it. And he needs that touch to be able to listen, needs it to ground him through it; he’s become so used to his own vague explanations and detached admissions, Maria’s words breaking down the barrier between him and the mess of those memories.
“I was gone before anyone had a hope of realizing. Nothing short of a 24/7 detail could’ve stopped that.” He huffs a faint, pessimistic laugh; “And I have a tendency of getting decently lost.” Dedicated surveillance makes him jittery, settles uncomfortably in a way that makes it impossible to find peace until he’s alone again. Fury had found the happy medium, keeping an from a distance; Bruce hadn’t had confirmation until they’d shown their hand, and he could live with that.
‘We can’t’ – at least they agree on that much. It feels like a victory; albeit a small one, the same way his unseated hand on her hips feels like one, the same way her warming fingers in his hand feel like one. He squeezes her fingers gently, a show of support and agreement.
And he’s going to resist her question, redirect and find something else to talk about, something other than his harboured terror of what’s waiting in the woodwork for him to discover…
But then she says his name and he pushes two fingers through hers: “I don’t know what he did to you,” he admits in a pained rush, keeping a lid on the gush of desperation and helplessness he feels. “I don’t know what he did to Pepper, or Tony, or Darcy – any number of people and I’m just, what? I have no idea. None.”
He has to clip it there, staring down at Maria’s face below him and praying she gives him something he can use to resolve this tight cluster of betrayal and violation knotting his chest. Praying blindly that she can give him a reason to stop feeling so damaged and lost.
He’s right. She knows he is, about everything. It hadn’t been avoidable- how could you prepare for something you didn’t expect? For something you didn’t see coming, even after the invasion was underway. Maria lets out a soft exhale, dips her chin, shakes her head gently. She knows deep down how right he is, but then why does it still feel as though she could have prevented it somehow? But this her JOB, shouldering the blame. Who ELSE should it fall to? Who else would she wish it upon? ( No one. )
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attitude toward Banner and the Hulk was something put in place and kept there after Fury stepped down. Maria was one of the few who believed it should still be honored- keep enough of a distance to give freedom, but still remain close enough to observe properly, to step in should there be an incident. It wasn’t just him, either, but he had always been more of a special condition. The corners of her mouth quirk before she lifts her gaze, the slightest bit of bittersweet bemusement bubbling up at the realization of their individual WALLOWING.
The gentle shift of his fingers brings her knuckles against the skin of his palm, warm to her icy chill ( always ) and she pushes away the thought of BEFORE, when she’d reached out to comfort him. Instinctual, unexpected, but it hadn’t been HIM. Did it matter–? She’d thought it was Bruce, the memory of the Skrull makes her skin want to crawl, but it’s the thought behind the action ( at whom it was given- ) that ultimately holds the most weight. Right?
“Nothing.” A pause. She’s looking at him, earnest- he needs to know that this isn’t his fault. That the unaccounted for time isn’t something he can punish himself with. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
A thumb brushes across the underside of his fingers, a fleeting sensation. Maria is absolutely one hundred percent confident that those he’d mentioned don’t hold him accountable for their interactions with the Skrull, either. “Bruce– if it wasn’t you, it would’ve been someone else.”