Disclaimer: I do not own The Avengers, nor do I own the related characters.
Notes: What can I say? I have no excuse for taking more than two months to update this story. I had a really, really hard time writing Bruce. After many re-writes, this is what I ended up with and I finally just had to post it, and I truly hope it lives up to your expectations. For now, I'm going to mark this story as complete, although I may add a chapter with Pepper in the future. I cannot say thank you enough to everyone who stuck with me and reviewed, favorited, alerted and just read this story. It honestly means so much, and I hope to keep up in this fandom and see you all again! And as a brief side note, I did not make up the character of James Falsworth. I found him on the Marvel Wiki under the Howling Commandos. Anyway, thanks again everyone, and enjoy!
These New Days
Reminding himself that he had volunteered for this didn't make it easier. Or less awkward, for that matter.
And really, in retrospect, he wasn't quite sure why he had been so quick to offer to be the one to bring his teammate back. Honestly, despite their social abnormalities and sometimes blatant lack of societal skills, every single one of the Avengers could comfort each other in some form. They had all had to do it at one point or another, after all. Whether through guilt or depression or fury, Bruce had comforted all of them and they had all been there for him in return.
Still, in many ways, this was different. Steve didn't exactly jump at the offer of friendship nowadays.
But despite this fact and regardless of how different they all may be, Bruce cared about them- all of them. Which is how he found the courage to drop onto the step next to their Captain, the bright lights of a busy hospital reflected on their backs. It wasn't, however, how he found any courage whatsoever to open his mouth.
Upon the arrival of his companion, Steve sniffed loudly, running a shaking hand over his face and scrubbing quickly at his nose. Bruce caught a brief glimpse of red eyes and his stomach tightened just a little bit. After a long couple minutes of awkward and near painful silence, Bruce finally spoke, stretching his legs out in front of him and crossing his ankles, "We've been looking for you. Tony ran the GPS on your cell. I know it's not exactly screaming 'respect for privacy', but nobody has heard from you in two days, Steve."
Steve turned his head away from Bruce; knees raised and extended arms resting atop them.
Bruce nodded to himself, looking over at his friend, "We heard about James Falsworth. I'm sorry."
After a beat, Steve cleared his throat, "He was the last one." He still didn't look over, his voice gritty and hoarse, and Bruce would have liked to believe it wasn't because the otherwise hardened man beside him had been crying.
"I know," Bruce replied gently, "But it's been a more than a day since he passed away, Steve. What are you still doing here?"
Steve didn't answer right away, clearing his throat several times and wiping noisily at his nose again. Truthfully, he wasn't so sure what the hospital had to offer for him anymore. It hadn't been murder- there hadn't been any foul play whatsoever. The fact was simple: the only friend he had from his life back then had died of old age, and it was a bitter pill to swallow. He was surrounded by it, sitting in front of a hospital where few bothered him in hesitation of interrupting what was surely grief. After all, why else would he be here?
And why the hell hadn't he left?
"He was the last one," Steve repeated lamely, his voice impossibly quiet, practically a whisper that Bruce had to strain to hear through the city noise around them.
Allowing only a brief second of hesitation, Bruce reached an arm out and rested it on the back of Steve's neck, squeezing tightly, offering all he could by way of reassurance. In many ways, he was better than the rest of them by means of physical comfort. After all, he had been trained to mend the body and along the way had learned to mend the soul too. And after years of suppressing all emotion with fear of letting his ugly side show, Bruce was finally learning to let go just a little bit. He was finally surrounded by a group of people who accepted him- who weren't even afraid.
In them giving him strength, he had fine-tuned returning it.
"You shouldn't have looked this far, Steve," he wasn't reprimanding, just thinking aloud- the same thoughts they had all pushed upon Steve when he first starting searching for all the loved ones he had left behind, "It's been over seventy years. They wouldn't want you to do this to yourself."
But he had done it to himself- willingly and eagerly.
Steve had to know, he had to know what had become of everyone he had loved.
Knowing was a different pain though, knowing that they had all lived and all died and he was left with nothing of his previous life. If he was being realistic (a feat in face of mass loss), he knew it was unfair of him to grieve for people who had, for the most part, lived long and happy lives. He still grieved every day for Bucky, but nearly all of the rest of them had gone on to have success and families, and most importantly they had all moved on.
Colonel Phillips, all of his fellow soldiers and the Howling Commandos, including James Falsworth who died just a couple days ago in the hospital Steve couldn't leave at the age of ninety one.
Hell, Peggy Carter lived to seventy six. Married with two children and five grandchildren.
And Steve Rogers wasn't sure he could make it to thirty with the weight of this knowledge practically suffocating him.
Bruce sighed after what felt like a lifetime, keeping his hand firm on Steve's neck and pinching the bridge of his nose under his glasses, "Losing everything- it's not, I mean, I know. I know it's not easy. I know it will never be the same. Trust me, I know."
And finally Steve turned his head, looking up under uncharacteristically shaggy hair, and he felt like maybe he was really looking at Bruce for the first time. Quiet Bruce who mediates and understands and spends so much time just knowing the answer to everything that sometimes it makes Steve dizzy. Bruce who would sit with him all night, a simple touch with a hint of fondness grounding him, if that's what it took. If nothing else in the world was working out right now, it was maybe just enough for Steve to know that little fact at least.
Bruce met Steve's bloodshot eyes with a humorless laugh, "I left behind everything to avoid unleashing the 'monster'. And everyone. I would have given anything, to go back to the life I didn't want before this happened, but there isn't a damn thing I can do," he gave Steve's neck one last squeeze and then dropped his hand, rubbing his palms together and then removing his glasses, "And there's nothing you can do either. Everyone from then- they're gone, Steve, and they're not coming back. And I know it hurts and I know that in a lot of ways what I'm talking about will never be the same thing, but you have people here too. And we aren't going anywhere. I swear."
Steve swallowed a lump and nodded tightly, "I know. I know that. It's just- it's not-"
"I know," Bruce interrupted softly, replacing his glasses, "It's not the same. But perhaps instead of sitting here and grieving alone you could come back with me and let us help. You guard us like we're going to up and leave or suddenly drop dead on you, but we're not. Your friends- they got to live long and happy lives, but I guarantee they all would have been even happier if you had been able to be a part of it. You knew a lot of good people, good soldiers, and if Howard Stark is any indication, you were missed like crazy. And now these good people, these friends you're missing, they'd want you to live too. To move on. You survived, Steve. Maybe now it's time to live?"
Steve shook his head, though he couldn't formulate any sort of denial, and tightened his already quivering jaw.
"You've put yourself through enough. It's time to move on."
Bruce clasped a firm hand on Steve's knee, pushing himself up and standing, stretching onto his toes for a moment and then reaching a hand down in front of his friend.
"Let's go back to the Tower, okay? It's cold and you've probably been sitting here all day," Steve looked hesitantly at Bruce's hand, eyes finally looking a little clearer, and Bruce sighed, "You can go up to your room and stay there all night if you want, okay? But I'm not leaving here without you."
Steve diverted his eyes, running a hand over his face and hair and then letting out a long breath before finally accepting the outstretched hand, allowing himself to be pulled up and then clapping a hand on Bruce's back, "Thanks for, ah… thanks for coming."
"You're welcome," after permitting a brief moment for Steve to collect himself, Bruce began leading the way to one of Tony Stark's many cars, not having to look to know the taller man would be following him.
The streets were quiet and the two fell into an easy pace next to each other, a comfortable silence stretching over the pair until Bruce took another glance at Steve, who was looking in the opposite direction, "It will be okay, you know? It may not be the same, but it'll be okay."
Finally Steve smiled just a little, though Bruce was pretty certain his thoughts still weren't quite in this moment, "Thank you, Bruce. You're a good friend."
Steve was always sincere. Bruce respected that.
In place of a response, Bruce offered Steve a polite smile and a brief head nod, and he knew they had reached some sort of understanding.
Steve didn't have much left to say, hadn't had too much to say in the first place, but this wasn't the first time one of these friends of his had pulled him up. Bruce was one of the very few people Steve had ever met who could express himself calmly, rationally, and logically and do all of it while still being incredibly kind. And maybe he was right, maybe they did have a lot in common- he and Bruce. Maybe it was time to see that he had people here who would sit through countless awkward conversations and heartfelt reassurances and still be there to fight along his side in the morning.
After all, Bruce was, first foremost, right.
Everything that was there for him back then was gone. Steve knew that was the point, even if Bruce hadn't said so quite as explicitly. Falsworth was the last one and now it was time for him to stop allowing his grief to take a physical form. He would always remember them, but now it was time for him to move on and start making memories now. It was time to start doing things that mattered now.
Perhaps tomorrow he could walk with his head a little bit higher, he could maybe miss them a little less than every single moment. He had a life worth protecting now, even if sometimes it was aggravating and frustrating and just so damn painfully different that he thought he might explode. He wasn't quite sure how his teammates had become such a driving force in his life, had become his friends and his backbone, but it was a fact that they were all he had now. All he had left, and it was time to start protecting what he had.
It was time to live.
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