Another month, another town. Bruce had realized some time ago that he had never really thought about how big India was and every time he moved on to another village, he was afraid he would somehow stumble into another country, having run out of places to hide in this country he had come to call home. But every time he left, he eventually came across another cluster of buildings populated by people who still spoke some dialect that he could understand to a certain point and informed him that he was in fact still residing in India.
His extended stay here was working in his favor, at least in terms of getting the locals to trust him. The more he could speak any dialect, the more that translated to the next town over and the faster they would bring their sick and dying to him.
In fact, in some of the larger towns, his reputation preceded him. Once or twice, he would be recognized by someone before entering the town. He wasn't sure what gave it away, since they shouldn't have been able to tell his skin color from so far away, but stranger things had happened in his life. He didn't question it too much, although he did sometimes have nightmares of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents waiting to ambush him when he entered a town that knew who he was already.
It had been about eight months since he had last seen Nico, that last fateful and emotional night. Nico had seemed so excited about 'Iris-Messaging' him, even though Bruce still did not understand what exactly meant. He hoped that he hadn't somehow missed an IM from Nico simply due to not knowing what it looked like, but he would have been willing to bet that it was due to Nico getting too caught up in war preparations to contact him.
This new town was bigger than the majority of the towns Bruce was willing to go to, as more people meant more chances for S.H.I.E.L.D. to find him. But things had been quiet for the (more than a) year that he had been on the run, so he felt confident in his ability to hide and still help people. Because on the other hand, more people meant more people he could help.
He immediately settled in, following the same process that had worked for him in the past. Walk into the center of town, ignore the stares unless they seemed malicious in any way, find someone who seemed important and start a conversation with them. He would explain who he was and the fact that he is a doctor. He would ask for a place to live for the next month or so, and in return he would attempt to heal anyone they wanted him to.
That conversation had gotten infinitely easier the more he could speak of their language. The dialectal difference was always a hindrance, but was minimal the closer the towns were to each other.
He was always afraid of the people he spoke to denying him sanctuary in their village, which had happened more than once. But more often than not, he was quickly shown to an empty room he could live in and even quicker shown to or was brought a sick or injured person they wanted him to heal. The townspeople often supplied him with food and occasionally drink for the first couple of nights, before Bruce began bartering trades with them.
He hated feeling indebted to the people in the village, even if he was already providing them with a service he refused to let them pay for. After all, the second most common reason they did not go a doctor anyway, behind the physical distances that often lay between the sick person and a doctor, was money. If there was a doctor anywhere near, the prices were often exorbitant and could only be paid by the rich.
So Bruce refused any sort of monetary payment for his healing, but he would accept physical gifts. Small paintings, carvings, but never money. Something that they had already made and put their own time and skill into, he could never refuse that. Those gifts are what he used to barter for food and drink from the townspeople.
After about two weeks in this town, Bruce was wandering around the market, simply enjoying everyone around him. He liked to do this from time to time, not worry about getting something specific but just appreciating his freedom and those he got to spend it with.
A man suddenly swooped into Bruce's vision, speaking urgently and loudly. Bruce could barely understand him, but he caught the words he knows the best, "Daughter…sick…dying…please help". Bruce nodded, spoke with the father as best he could while following him to a house, presumably where the family lived. Bruce spoke calmly and reassured the man that he would do his best to heal his daughter. As he kept calm, the father began calming as well, ever so slightly. Enough that Bruce could catch more details of the girl's symptoms, how long they had going on, and how grateful the man was that Bruce would try to help.
They reached the house, Bruce already pulling out medical tools before he was led into the family's living room. The girl, whose name Bruce had gleaned from the father is Naitee, was laying across several blankets on the floor, feverishly tossing her head back and forth, eyes unable to focus on anyone or anything.
To the right of Naitee a television was playing YouTube videos of American news channels, but the sound was low, and Bruce hardly noticed it. Around her were various pieces of furniture, the majority of which were occupied by family and friends. Many were praying, some were talking quietly, but all were focused on the 14-year-old girl who didn't seem to know that any of them were there.
Bruce ignored all of them, knowing from experience that he needed to examine her before getting information from the relatives. Nearly every single time, they had already attempted to heal their sick with tried-and-true herbal reliefs, and Bruce knew he needed that information, but only after diagnosing her to the best of his abilities.
So that is what he did. He could hear them speaking to him, some people simply talking to him as if he was an old friend, others shouting at him for taking so long or for ignoring their 'sage' advice. Bruce let their voices fade into the background, knowing that their advice and admonishment would still be there when he had finished examining Naitee.
When he finally finished, about a half hour later, everyone was quiet, staring at him and Naitee. Bruce smiled at them, feeling extremely optimistic. He told them haltingly, with the father understanding the most and helping translate, that Naitee simply had a rather aggressive bacterial infection that had taken hold from a cut on her stomach. She was already on the mend, miraculously fighting it herself, but that Bruce had antibiotics she would have to take for the next 10 days to ensure the infection was truly gone.
Everyone in the room, minus Naitee who had fallen asleep, began to quietly celebrate. They took turns hugging him and fawning over Naitee, expressing their gratitude to Bruce in a thousand different ways. Bruce had come to expect this giant celebration, having learned how close families tend to be here, with multiple generations often living together. After he had finished his explanation, somehow managed to get the antibiotics to the father, and the family moved their celebration away from him, Bruce glanced at the television.
He saw the image of Mount St. Helens erupting with an intense fury. The text on the lower third of the screen told him that the mountain "erupted due to unknown causes…hasn't erupted with this magnitude since 1980". But what caught Bruce's attention more than the fact a volcano had erupted in the United States, was the vaguely human-shaped piece of mountain that was ejected from the volcano at incredible speed, hurtling straight toward the ocean.
Bruce's blood ran cold.
"Keep an eye out for stuff that's not normal. Something that, if you think about it too hard, just doesn't make complete sense."
Those were Nico's parting words, so many months ago. Bruce had done his best, but there were only so many homes that wanted to and had figured out how to access American news channels that it was very hard for him to do that.
Fate seemed to have pulled him to this household, at this moment in time, for him to see this cosmic unlikely event to happen. As the human-shaped piece vanished from his sight, the YouTube video abruptly stopped and the next one began playing with no way for Bruce to verify what he was thinking: the war between gods and monsters had really started.
And he still had no idea where Nico was.