A/N: Hello, everyone! After two and a half years, I've finally decided to piece together these ideas I've had on my computer. I hope you enjoy!
"So where are you off to now?" Natasha asked, handing the doctor a weathered duffel bag.
Bruce flashed her a sheepish grin and began to chuckle. "Tony mentioned having me stay until things even out here. I'd like to stay and help with clean-up." He took the bag from her and slung it across his shoulder.
"Seems like you're in for trouble if Stark's taking you in," Natasha hinted. "Mind if I give you my number? Just in case you end up in the slammer…"
Her sly grin made his own smile widen. "Yeah." Twice Natasha had seen him change into the beast. The first time, he nearly killed her. Why was she smiling as if nothing happened? "Please," he nodded. 'We could use a little worse,' he recalled her saying. The second time she witnessed the transformation, they fought side by side against an army of aliens. Was fighting for justice enough to make her see past the monster? Surely she harbored some kind of grudge against him…Bruce reached into his pocket for his phone and set up a new contact before handing it off to his newfound teammate.
Natasha accepted the phone and input her number and e-mail address before handing the device back. "Keep in touch, Doc."
He took back the phone and slowly slipped it into a side pocket.
"I look forward to working with you again."
Bruce nodded and watched as she turned on her heel and began walking towards the archer, her red curls bouncing behind her with every step. Did she really intend to work with him again? With him? He had her number now-he could always ask…
"Big guy!" Tony called out, snapping Bruce from his daze as his car pulled up dangerously close. "You ready?" He lowered his sunglasses for a moment to wink at his partner.
He nodded and hurried to the passenger's side, carelessly tossing his bag into the backseat before they were off. "What a week, huh? Aliens, Loki, Asgard… How safe do you think we are now that we've seen the things we've seen?" Bruce asked with a slight wince. The wind breezed past the topless convertible, rustling his graying curls.
"I'd say we'll be seeing more of M.C. Hammer. Right now, all I want is my jet bound for LA," Tony gleefully announced.
"'LA?'" Bruce shot his partner an exasperated glare. "You plan on picking up and leaving? What about the city?"
"Not my city," Tony muttered. "Besides, we took care of the hard part…" His knuckles tightened around the steering wheel as he saw the wormhole begin to close in on him. "We deserve a break…"
Bruce's brows knitted together as his hand formed a tight fist. "People view us as heroes, Tony!" he snapped. "We can't pick up and leave after all that's happened!"
"I'd say we're doing a damn good job at bailing," he remarked, eyes focused on the road ahead.
"Tony!" Bruce threw his hand out the car to point at the debris sprayed across the road, broken glass covering sidewalks, and piles of rubble where a line of shops once stood. "Have you even looked around?!" Before the man could answer, Bruce quickly interjected. "And don't give me a smartass answer, either! Don't you see-"
"I'll pay to build this whole place back up," was all Tony had to say in reply.
Bruce reflected back on the past three days worth of news segments. Every morning, names of missing people were recited. At the end of the day, very few of those names were revealed to be found, most in critical condition. "Money can't buy back the dead," he softly muttered. Bruce kept his gaze locked on the dashboard dials. Looking outside made his stomach churn. He couldn't bear to be constantly reminded of those who lost homes, children who lost parents…
"You shouldn't be feeling so down," Tony quipped. "You're the one who gave Loki the whooping of his life. I'm not filling in those cracks, by the way."
If Tony was trying to help, it wasn't working. At this rate, nothing was going to help until the city started to get back on its feet. That was likely to take months of non-stop repair. Sighing, he pulled his phone from his pocket and opened up his contacts. The first name on the list eerily stood out like a sore thumb. His finger hovered over the contact as he debated whether to make attempt number seventy-eight. The first thirty tries on day one after the alien disaster were hopeless. He tried again yesterday, three times every few hours.
She always had her phone on her.
During a crisis, who wouldn't have their phone close by?
A flashing red breaking news report suddenly popped into his head. The onscreen reporter was busy reciting a list of names, a list of those who didn't make it, and the very last name…
Bruce let his thumb slide away from his phone's screen.
Tony's eyes flickered to his friend as he approached a line of cars, all waiting for the cops on duty to give them the go ahead to proceed. He had noticed the doctor slipping away to make calls, even asking JARVIS if he had any clue on her whereabouts. JARVIS had nothing to divulge to the doctor, only because Tony knew everything. He forced his computer to keep quiet until he could find the right time to tell his colleague. Tony knew he couldn't keep the guy waiting forever. It was bound to worry him sick. "Manhattan, right?"
Bruce glanced up at him with a dazed stare. "What?"
"We can visit."
Bruce's mouth dropped open and he felt hot tears sting his eyes. "You know where she is?!" he gasped.
"Listen, Bruce, I-"
"She's alive?!" Tears soon escaped his eyes and his lower lip couldn't stop trembling.
Tony looked away to avoid the man's pitiful stare. A horn behind them blared, forcing him to tighten his grip around the wheel.
"Tony…" his voice croaked.
Another horn honked and an officer began to shout, signaling for him to go, but Tony's foot was frozen as it hovered over the gas pedal.
"T…" Bruce's weak voice trailed off. His partner's silence spoke louder than anything. He lurched forward, fingers clawing at his scalp as an animalistic howl escaped his throat.
Two weeks had passed since the attack on the city.
Two weeks since Betty was killed.
All Bruce knew was that her apartment building collapsed. She was most likely in it, frightened and alone as the ceiling caved in and crushed her before she knew what was coming. Bruce hugged himself tightly at the horrific thought.
Her memorial was a week ago. It was shared with the thousands of other deceased victims whose bodies lay in the rubble. There, Bruce was another face lost in a sea of mourners.
He couldn't stand to be in the grieving city after the memorial. Bruce told Tony he needed to get away, and not to Casa Stark in sunny wanted to help, so he offered to buy Bruce a one way ticket to the next closest thing he had to home.
Staying up until his five am flight was no trouble due to countless sleepless nights. The entire trip became a drawn out one-way nap into Calcutta.
Bruce chose not to resume with the work he originally came for. It was too soon. He chose to keep himself holed up in his straw hut, separate from the rest of the village. He hardly ate and sleep was still difficult to come by, especially since it rained during the nights, disturbing his horribly leaky roof.
The only moment Bruce left the safety of his wool blankets was when he heard an engine drawing near. Footsteps followed and he felt the need to investigate. By the time Bruce got to the door, the car had sped off. He glanced down to find a pristine white envelope lying in the dirt at his feet. Bruce picked it up and opened it, and when he saw the unfamiliar cursive that began with "Dear Bruce," he returned inside to sit and read the remainder of the letter.
I honestly don't know what to say, but what I do want to say shouldn't be sent through an e-mail. I can't seem to get through to your phone. Stark told me you went away, and I'm going out on a whim by entrusting this letter to an agent passing through, so I'm sorry in advance for prying. You don't want to be found, I understand, but I just want to let you know that we're all thinking of you, Bruce.
There was a large chunk of empty space after the apology. It was as if she wanted to write something else, but couldn't, and all she could settle on was a menial "sorry."
I know it's hard, but hang in there. You're a good man, Bruce. We all see that.
His fingers wrinkled the edges of the letter, nearly tearing the sides.
Promise me you'll hang in there, big guy.
Another empty gap. Couldn't she think of something else to write?
Natasha… A part of Bruce wanted to crumble the letter up or rip the thing to shreds to toss into the fire. Instead, he folded it back up and slid it back into the envelope.
Even in a letter, he could sense Natasha's difficulty in opening up. He barely knew the woman, which leads him to the question pressing on his mind.
Why does she care?
He tried to kill her.
He was a monster.
Bruce sank to the floor and found his fingers subconsciously opening the letter back up.
Promise me you'll hang in there, big guy.
That particular line stood out in crisp, bold writing. Bruce found himself staring at it, re-reading it over and over and permanently engraving the flow of her penmanship into his brain.
He needed those words.
But the 'big guy' needed them more…
He proceeded to once again fold the letter back up and tucked it safely into the envelope.
The urge to return to New York was steadily growing.
He wanted to help build the city back up, assist the injured, and especially reassure the frightened kids who lost one or both parents… He wanted to see Steve again, even Tony. But mostly Natasha.
He had a question for her, and he wanted her to answer it in person.