"Oh my God, Tony!" Pepper's voice brought a smile to his face, and a little pinch of the heart. He had never been in this position before. And he never wanted to be there again.
Pepper interrupted him, tears obvious in her voice, "I missed your call, I'm so sorry! But it was on vibrate, and I was in the plane, watching the news, what was going on in Manhattan. I was so worried when I saw the missed call- I couldn't think why you'd call in the middle of a battle unless... Oh God, I tried to call Phil-"
"Pepper." He didn't raise his voice, but there was something in it that stopped her. She'd thought she'd heard every tone of his voice, from the hard bite when he talked about his father, to the smooth seductiveness he used with his girlfriends, and now, so very recently, the softness with her. But this, this was new. "Phil Coulson's dead."
"Did you hear me?"
She swallowed audibly, and then said the stupidest thing she could have said, but the only thing she could think of to say. "Are you sure?" Then, before he could speak, "Don't, don't answer that. I know you wouldn't call me if you weren't."
They were both quiet for a couple of minutes and then, when they spoke, it was about other things such as the level of devastation in the city, the damage to the suit, and when they would meet. Too soon, there was nothing left, and a loud, devastated silence. "I have to go now," Tony said finally.
Pepper nodded, then, "See you soon." She disconnected the phone and spared a second for the cellist. But grief is selfish, and she needed to indulge in a little selfishness of her own. Until Stane, she'd never known anyone to die of anything but old age, or sickness, and had never known a shocking moment of seeing someone she liked alive and healthy, and then found out they'd died the next day. And truthfully, she'd always thought that if it would be anyone, it would be wonderful, insane Tony, not logical, sweet Phil. It had just been one short day, and someone she cared for, a friend who had come and helped her during two of the most terrifying moments of her life, was gone.
"Oh Phil." She looked up at the sun, letting the light and grief bring tears to her eyes. She thought of the man Tony had been, how the suit and the man who had saved his life in a war-torn, devastated country had given him purpose, but SHIELD and being part of something else had given him focus. "Thank you. Thank you for saving Tony."
And while her eyes were glassy for a few minutes, she did not let herself cry. It took her almost three months of believing that he was alive, that, like Tony, he would appear out of the desert with a new purpose and spirit, before one day, doing something as mundane as reviewing a personnel file, she suddenly realized he was never coming back. Something broke inside her chest, and then she wept for the friend she had lost.
She should have waited one more day before coming to terms with Coulson's death.
"I've been assigned as your handler. And Agent Barton's. And, by extension, SHIELD liaison to the Avengers."
Natasha looked up from the food she'd barely touched. For just one second, the normally inscrutable face she showed the world slipped, and Maria Hill was treated to the small smile that few had seen. Hill had seen it before, and knew that it often hid something quite different from joy. "That was fast."
Hill shrugged. "You know Fury- he's already thinking of the next battle. He wants us to be prepared."
"Prepared for what? And what 'Avengers?' It was a one-time thing. I'm pretty sure Banner's halfway to India now, and we all know that he won't stay there for long. He seems to get that Nick Fury isn't going to experiment on the Hulk, but if SHIELD is looking for him-"
Hill ignored her. "Is this going to be a problem?"
Hill sat across the table from the Widow, putting down her tray. "Natasha," she said gently. She was the only one allowed to talk to Natasha in that tone of voice, and that privilege had been earned after years of working together, sharing bathrooms and quarters as (usually) the only two women on an Op. "Is this going to be a problem? Your avoidance makes me think it is."
Natasha scoffed. "When did you get your shrink's license? I've lost handlers before, I'll lose them again." Then, quirking her lips, "Sorry, too blunt?"
"No," Hill answered, narrowing her eyes. "I know the risk. He did too."
"Yes he did. He knew the risk when he took the job, when he came here. He even knew the risk when he went to confront Loki alone, while I tried to avoid the Hulk's stampede or beat up Barton, Thor played at being in a fishbowl, and the rest of you kept this stupid ship in the air. But you know what? That's cold comfort. He's still the best handler I've ever had. I wouldn't be here if he hadn't let Barton bring me, and argued with Fury for me. And -"
"Shut up. You think I need to have his praises sung to me? He was a friend, and more than that, he was my handler too once upon a time. He taught me everything I need to know about my job, and a lot more that I kind of wish I didn't know. But this is a job, and it's a risky one, and he was doing it when he confronted that fucking alien with identity issues. And it's a measure of his character that he did it well enough to train some of the best agents in the business, while inspiring the kind of loyalty and affection that has this entire ship reeling from his loss."
Natasha was silent in the face of Hill's diatribe. The brunette lost steam suddenly, and wiped a tired, shaky hand over her face. "God, Tasha, I'm sorry. I know this won't be easy. I'm not expecting to fill his shoes; they're big shoes to fill. I'll find my own space, and I hope you'll help me find it. And if you think this is easy for me, you're wrong. I hoped I'd be a lot older when it came to this, and that I'd still be able to call him up on a phone to ask if he had any tips to deal with Stark's latest escapade."
"This isn't what I wanted, or how I wanted it. But it's what is."
"'It is what is.' That's true enough, and appeals to the Russian in me." Natasha finally looked her in the eye. "It's going to hurt. I wish it would just be Fury for a while, because you'll be a constant reminder of what we've lost. But as you said, this is our job. Don't worry, I can do it. And if the circumstances were different, I'd say I'm honored to be serving under you."
Hill smiled slightly, ignoring the odd glances from other tables. It was a well-known fact that when Romanov and Hill smiled, heads would roll. "That's all I ask." She stood up, gathering the food she'd barely touched.
"Oh, and Agent Hill?" Natasha added, stopping Hill in her tracks. "Don't think I don't know why you're telling me first. I'll do it for you, break it to him, but you should know- he won't take it much easier, or make your life any less a living hell."
Hill smiled slightly and walked out of the mess with her customary confidence. Behind her, Natasha sat, silent and alone. No one, looking at her, had the slightest idea where her thoughts had taken her, even when her cutlery snapped between her fingers. Silent and alone- that was how the Black Widow grieved.
Bruce Banner pulled his hood a little lower over his face. He stared at the reflection of his surroundings and, when nothing stood out, opened the door. He saw her immediately, and could not stop the smile from taking over his face.
She must have been watching the door. Answering his smile, she stood up. They hugged, awkwardly. "You look good," she whispered.
That wasn't true. The passage of time had been much kinder to her than it had been to him. He was still handsome, and no one would call him old, but no one in the cafe would have believed that they had been at college and graduate school at the same time, that only two years separated them. "I am good," he said, and it was not a lie. "I don't think I've been better for a while."
"Are you going to stay?"
"No, I'm heading back to- I'm heading out tomorrow."
She put down the hand she'd raised to silence him. "Don't say it. Don't say where. I'm sure I dodged my tail and I'm certain you did too. But I don't want to assume he's not listening." What a strange world it was, she thought suddenly, when she trembled with fear at the thought of what her father would do, how far he would go, to get the man she loved. "Just get a message to me when you get there."
They stayed silent for a few minutes, and then she finally asked the question that had been bothering her for some time. "Why did you come back? And to a military facility- Bruce, you've been running from this for so long."
"It's not- it's not the same," he muttered, looking away. "They wanted me for me, not the big guy. It's been a long time since anyone's wanted me for me, you know?"
She took his hand, smiling faintly. "I want you for you, you know." It wasn't a question, just a quiet statement by the one person in the world who could look at the Hulk and only see Bruce.
"Oh Betty," he smiled tremulously. "I love you for that, you know? But except for you, there was no one... and then I was of use, and with a team. I've never been part of a team like this, where my skills, and the other guy's skills, are of use. And then we lost Coulson-"
He shrugged. "You won't see his name on any reports, but he was a good man, and he took on the enemy and lost. But he tried. He didn't have the crazy Hulk powers I do, the suit, or even the super-strength of the rest of us, but he tried. For the sake of the world. How could I do any less?"
Betty Ross looked into his eyes for a long moment. She was a soldier's daughter, no stranger to the way that loss brought soldiers together, how the death of one of them bonded soldiers together like nothing else. "When did he die?"
"Before the battle for Manhattan started, but I didn't find out until afterwards. I came back to New York to fight as part of this one battle, I told Tony Stark that I would be back in the future because of Coulson. I found myself wondering if I had anything worth dying for. I love you, you know I do, but I spend my life trying to help people in the little ways when I know I can do more, bigger things. All that stops me is fear of what I can do, but with these people, who have learned how to control and aim the Hulk, that fear isn't enough to stop me anymore. If a man armed with an untested gun can go up against a magical alien God and tell him with his dying breath that he will lose, I have no excuse. None."
"And don't smile like that. I know, I know, you've been telling me all the while that the Hulk is not a mindless monster, that he can do good." He mock-frowned at her, before suddenly becoming serious. "I just wish things could be different between us."
"Why can't they?" she pleaded. "If they want you for you, and you trust this team of yours, these Avengers, why can't I be a part of your life?"
"You are a part of my life," he promised, taking her hand to his lips and kissing it. "The best and brightest, don't you ever doubt that. But I don't completely trust SHIELD, and I know that they're not above using me as a weapon in wars I won't fight. It's different when it's aliens enslaving the world, and a totally different situation when they want me to fight poor people in a foreign country because of the actions of a few people, or because they happen to live on something we want. I won't do that, and I won't let the other guy become a hired gun for anyone who wants it. I need an out, Betty. I need someone to help me, somewhere I can go, where they're not looking."
She shook her head. "I won't be that forever. I get what you're saying, and I'm fine with that for a while, but once you become more comfortable, once you and the people you do trust figure something out, I'm coming to be with you. You need something worth living for just as much as you need something worth dying for, Bruce."
He held her hand to his face and, unable to look her in the eye, nodded. She relaxed her shoulders and took a deep breath, letting herself be soothed by the familiar and yearned for feeling of his hand in hers. Then she silently thanked a man she had never met for teaching her lover a lesson she had never thought he would learn. It was ironic- she wanted nothing so much, in that moment, as a chance to meet Phil Coulson so she could thank him in person, but there would be no reason to thank him if he had not died.