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The Letter

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Dear Betty,

I’m sending this letter to tell you I’m fine; you probably knew that, all things considered, but I thought you might want confirmation. I also had some things to say to you that I thought might be better this way.

***

A man came to her door on a sunny Saturday morning, to the door of the house she no longer shared with Leonard. Betty wouldn’t have answered the knock, but he didn’t look like he was trying to convert her to God or sell her anything. He was a giant of a man, in a motorcycle jacket and thick black boots, and when she opened the door he gave her a friendly smile.

"Dr. Ross?" he asked.

"Yes?" she said hesitantly.

"My name is Steve Rogers. I’ve come to give you this," he said, and held out a letter. It was addressed to her in Bruce’s handwriting. She stared at it.

The battle of New York was four days gone. She’d spent those days practically paralyzed, unsure what to do. Bruce might already be gone again, and she wasn’t sure she could bear it if she went to New York and found he wasn’t there.

"Ma’am?" the man asked.

"I...thank you," she said distractedly, accepting the envelope, still staring at it. "I’m sorry, please, come in," she added, opening the door wider.

"I don’t want to intrude," he said.

"Have a coffee. Least I can do," she replied, and led the way through to the kitchen, pouring a cup from the pot next to the stove. He took it, gave her a baffled smile, and seated himself at the kitchen island while she slitted the letter open.

***

I want you to know that I’d understand if you didn’t want to read it, or if you didn’t want to reply once you had. If I don’t hear from you, well, we know how we left things last time. If you don’t want this dangerous thing in your life, I’ll know and understand. Don’t feel guilty. Please.

***

When she was done reading the letter, she folded it and smoothed the creases. The man, Steve, watched her over his coffee cup.

"He asked you to bring this?" she said.

"I was headed this way anyway, wasn’t any trouble."

He had a hint of a New York accent. She wondered where Bruce had picked him up, but Bruce -- who always thought of himself as a loner -- tended to find people and make them like him. He was a charmer that way.

"Are you going back to New York now?" she asked.

"If you want me to take a reply."

"Would you give me a ride?"

He grinned. “You all right on a motorcycle?”

***

I don’t have the right to say this, for many reasons, but I wanted you to know I thought of you. No matter where I was, I thought of you. I still think of you. I know we weren’t always perfect, but I remember us and sometimes that’s what gets me through hard moments.

There are less of those now, at least.

***

"Are you sure I can’t bribe you to stay?" Tony asked, standing in the lobby of Stark Tower. "I need a plaything."

Bruce grinned as he shouldered his bag. “Sorry, Mom said I had to be home by six.”

"You should stay," Natasha said.

"Your strutting lessons aren’t complete," Tony added.

"Dangerous lessons. Not just for me. Besides," Bruce said, gesturing at Natasha, "SHIELD knows how to find me."

"Christ, Banner, that’s not why I’m asking," Tony insisted, frowning.

"You aren’t going to wait for a reply?" Natasha asked.

Both men looked at her.

"I know all," she said mysteriously.

"Reply to what?" Tony asked Bruce.

"No. It was a stupid idea," Bruce said, ignoring Tony.

"What stupid idea?" Tony persisted.

"I’m going, Tony," Bruce said, giving him a one-armed hug. Tony reached up and flicked his ear from behind. "Ow!"

"Don’t be a loser. Call if you need anything," Tony said.

"I will. I’ve got plenty of..." Bruce was already turning to leave, thinking of the cab he’d need to hail to get to the train station, but he stopped when he saw Steve’s bike through the window. Steve was climbing off, offering his hand to someone wearing his helmet to help her off as well --

"Bruce?" Tony asked.

The bag fell off his shoulder, and he watched as Steve took the helmet from her, held the door, followed her inside. She looked up and around first, taking in the high ceiling and security cameras, and then looked down.

Straight at him.

***

Do you remember the first time you asked me out? I almost looked behind me to make sure you weren’t talking to someone else. You were brilliant and beautiful and I was just another scrubby geek. And there were you, all, “You want to get dinner sometime?” like you were actually hoping I’d say yes.

***

Betty wasn’t sure how she got from her shocked standstill in the lobby of this giant ugly building to Bruce. She wasn’t aware of the people passing or the squeak of her shoes on the floor, only that suddenly she was in his arms, folded into warmth, burrowing her face into his shoulder. He was like a furnace, big and hot and surrounding her, warming her face and her fingertips.

"You’re wet," he said, when she finally let him go. His hand brushed the damp ends of her hair back, the other one cupping her face.

"We hit a rainstorm..." she turned to gesture at Steve, who had given her his jacket when the rain started, but he was across the lobby, herding the people who’d been talking to Bruce into an elevator. The dark-haired man with him (oh God, that was Tony Stark) gave her a wink as the doors closed. “We got wet,” she added, sniffling and trying to smile.

"I see that," he said gently. "You didn’t have to -- "

"I had to. Your letter..." she pulled the letter out of her pocket. It dripped onto the floor, disintegrating wetly in her hands.

***

I don’t have enough regrets to matter, but the regrets I do have is that we didn’t do that more often. Just get out, away from the lab, go somewhere we could be together without the rest of our lives getting in the way. I wish I’d spent fewer nights in the lab and more with you. I don’t even know if you’d have wanted that, you were usually right there in the lab with me, but I wish we’d gone dancing. I wish for a lot of things.

***

"Don’t go," Betty said. "I know you’re going to leave again. Don’t."

"Betty -- "

"Leonard left," she blurted. "He said he couldn’t -- and I -- because you...because of you. Don’t go, I want you to stay."

He stared at her, shock on his face.

"You want to get dinner sometime?" she managed.

His smile was slow, but it spread across his face and turned into a laugh, low and pleased, teeth flashing. And then he kissed her, still laughing.

"Let’s get you out of the wet clothes, first," he said.

She looked up at him.

"Yeah," she replied. "Let’s do that."

***

It’s not like it was before. I have friends in high places now, and I don’t have to hide so deeply. I’ve been some amazing places, you know. I’d like to send you postcards.

I’d like to send you flowers, but I’ll settle for postcards. If you’d like that.

***

He took her up in one of the luxurious elevators of the Tower, so far up her ears popped.

"Stark -- Tony -- he gave me a place. There’s not much there. I wasn’t planning on staying," he said, as he showed her into a large, sterile apartment. He set his bag on the beige sofa and opened it up. "If you don’t mind wearing...my clothes are clean, but I’m sure I could find something more -- "

She put her hand on his mouth. “It’s fine. Show me the bedroom?”

He handed her some clothing, leading the way silently to the bedroom. "I'll just -- "

"No, Bruce, stay and talk to me," she said, unself-consciously pulling off her shirt. He turned away abruptly. It was ridiculous; he’d seen her naked plenty of times, had undressed her himself more than once. But now he seemed shy. Not the Bruce she remembered. Perhaps that was better, in some ways.

She took off her bra, undid her pants and slipped her wet socks off. He’d given her his own clothes — shirt much too large, pants that would never stay on her hips, a pair of obviously brand-new y-front briefs.

She left them there in a pile at the foot of the bed and went over to him, in just her rain-damp underwear, pulling her hair back. Touched his arm and turned him around.

"How much control have you learned?" she asked, watching his eyes slip down her throat to her breasts, to her hips, feeling his fingertips slide up her arms.

"Enough," he answered.

"Good. Because I don’t really want dinner," she replied, and kissed him.

***

When I dream, the good dreams, I dream about you. I used to say I didn’t buy into the idea that you could love someone your whole life, but I was just scared. I never wanted to hurt you, and the only thing I knew about love was that when you got hurt you came back for more. I didn’t want that for you.

I still don’t want to hurt you, and it would be so easy. But I know better now, and things have changed. I’ve learned control. Enough that I don’t worry so much as I did about hurting everyone around me.

***

When she'd met Bruce, he was a weedy academic, pale from too much time in a lab. The last time she’d seen him -- him, not the Other Guy -- he’d put on muscle, but he’d still been...lean, almost underfed. Wherever he was before now, though, it must have agreed with him. he’d filled out, skin darkly tanned, arms steady and strong, a breadth to his body that made her dizzy when she pressed her hands against his chest. With a sharp inhale he plucked her up like she was nothing, her thighs going around his hips, arms around his shoulders.

He kissed like he was starved for it, tongue tracing into her mouth, pulling her hard against him. His lips were chapped but the rough rub of them felt perfect, made her feel alive, and the shift of new muscle under her hands reminded her that he’d lived. He’d seen the world and still come back here, still come back to her.

She tried to cling to him with one arm and undo the buttons on his shirt, but it was a new shirt and the fabric was stiff. He huffed in sympathetic frustration and turned sharply, dropping her back on the bed in a swift motion and following her down. She laughed and caught his face in her hands before he could kiss her again, studying the new lines on it, the early grey in his thick hair.

"You’ll tell me," she said. "If it’s too much. Tell me. I won't go anywhere."

He bent and pressed his face to her throat, kissing the dip between her collarbones, mouthing down to her breasts.

"I can’t do everything," he said, pain evident in his voice.

"Nobody can do everything,” she replied. He exhaled against her. "Bruce."

"At the best of times it’s not risk-free," he said. "And definitely not without a condom. Sorry to ruin the moment."

"Nothing’s ruined," she said, pulling him up so she could work at his buttons again. She got three undone before tugging at it, and he pulled it off over his head. "God, did you sunbathe nude?"

"Worked in hot climates," he replied, and she could see a hint of ego for her admiring look. "I’ll tell you about it."

"I look forward to it," she answered, unbuckling his belt, hampered by his attempts to pull off her panties while she did it.

***

I dream about you all the time. Your skin, your hair, your smile, your brilliant mind, I dream about touching you and holding you. I dream about us together. There’s no point in being dishonest now. You were it, for me.

You should probably destroy this letter when you’re done.

***

Bruce’s huge hands framed her thighs, sliding up to her hips reverently. He bent to kiss her stomach, pants still on, belt hanging off the loops ridiculously.

"It didn’t occur to me last time," he said, nuzzling her belly. "In that horrible motel -- I wasn’t thinking clearly, I just wanted so much..."

"But?" she asked, threading her fingers in his hair.

"But whatever else is wrong with me -- "

"Sweetheart, you’re not wrong.”

He looked up at her, eyes dark, a smile on his lips. “Well, whatever else makes this difficult...there’s nothing wrong with my mouth.”

Betty laughed. “If you’re offering...”

"I am," he said, serious suddenly. And she got it -- he wanted her not just to accept it, but to say yes.

"Yes," she said softly, and he bent and pressed his mouth to her thigh, sliding up, parting her and flicking his tongue out.

She tipped her head back, hands still tangled in his hair, and let herself fall into it, into the feeling of Bruce’s tongue and hands, the pressure against her clit and oh -- God -- Bruce --

When she came down from her orgasm, limp and satisfied with the world, he was bent over her, watching. Taking everything in, gauging her reactions. They had, she thought, a long way to go before he would trust that she believed him -- and that she’d chosen him, chosen to come back to him the same way he had come back to her, even if he didn’t know it.

Her brilliant, stupid scientist.

She sat up and kissed him, using the distraction to get his fly undone and shove his pants down --

"What are you wearing?" she asked, because as impressive as his erection was, his briefs...

They said PROPERTY OF STARK INDUSTRIES on them.

"Tony," he said, rolling onto his back to tug his pants and underwear off. "He gave me a bunch of clothing and, well, beggars, choosers..."

She pounced on him once he was naked, pulling his hands over his head and straddling his waist. his hips bucked and he made a soft, plaintive noise.

"Shh," she said, kissing his forehead.

"You can’t -- "

"Shh, I know." She pulled him over until they were lying on their sides, face to face, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He inhaled sharply when she touched him, but it was the only noise he made as she stroked his cock, deep breaths meant to keep him calm.

She wasn’t sure if it was helping, how slow she was going, or whether it was just a tease.

His breathing grew faster, almost imperceptibly at first, and then he started to writhe and pant. She held him firmly around the shoulders and let him whimper into her skin, until he brought both hands up sharply and pushed her back.

***

I didn’t set out to write you a love letter, but I guess that was really in the back of my mind all along, just to tell you this. I love you, and I will always love you, and your happiness means more to me than anything. I want you to be happy and if you aren’t happy, ever, I want you to remember that you were loved with the whole of at least one person’s heart.

***

"I can’t -- oh god -- " Bruce said, curling in on himself, moaning. Betty watched, still startled, as he came into his own hand, spilling across his skin and onto the bedspread between them.

"Sorry," he breathed, when he was done. "It’s -- toxic, I didn’t want -- should have warned you."

She stroked his face, careful not to actually come any closer to him.

"People live with this kind of thing every day," she said softly.

"Not this kind of thing,” he said ruefully.

"Yes, this kind of thing. It might be different, but it’s not unique," she replied. "Bruce."

"Hm?" he asked. Next time, she decided, they wouldn’t ruin the afterglow.

"Stay here. I’ll stay too. We’ll figure this out. Together."

He nodded, sliding off the bed and tugging at the blanket. She rolled enough for him to pull it away, bundle it up and throw it in a corner.

"And I’ll be happy," she added, sliding under the sheet. He pulled the ridiculous underwear back on and crawled in after her, trembling as he pulled her up against his body.

"That’s all I want," he murmured into her shoulder.

"I know," she said, and the tension shuddered out of his body. "This was much better than a dinner date, you know."

***

There’s no pain for me in any of this. Perhaps that’s not healthy, I don’t know, but I would rather love you and miss you than see you hurt or sad for even a moment.

But if I could write to you, that would be nice.

I love you.

Bruce

***

In the morning, she woke to a voice yelling, “BRUCE!”

"Nrfhmmgh?" Bruce mumbled.

"BRUCE! BREAKFAST! CELEBRATORY WAFFLES! Do you know how to make waffles?" the voice continued.

Betty rolled over and sat up, holding the sheet around her armpits.

"Hi!" said the giant face of Tony Stark, embedded in one wall. "You must be Ross. Lookin’ fine. We’re having waffles to celebrate your seducing my new favorite into staying. Come down, I’ll probably have it figured out by then."

The screen blacked out. Betty tapped Bruce on the chin and he woke, startling like he used to years ago.

"After Tony Stark," she said, "Hulk’s going to be a piece of cake."