He just kept seeing her face.
Bruce didn’t need to close his eyes to imagine it. He had it memorized, from the wrinkles around the edges of her eyes and lips to the faded lipstick to the pale pink eyeshadow. He saw it perfectly, etched into his brain in exquisite detail, right down to the the furrowed look of worry she’d turned his direction as she touched him at just the wrong moment, when his body had started to tremble and change.
“Are you okay?” she’d asked. “Do you need help?”
She had worried about him, the woman with the curly brown hair, the soft hazel eyes. She had worried, and had come into the alley to offer assistance. Her tiny hand - god, she had been such a small woman - touched his shoulder, and he’d just wanted her to get away before it was too late...
He’d pushed her. And he was strong, stronger than he’d known. And she’d lifted from the ground, arms and legs flailing, coming down too fast, too close to the building.
The sound of her head impacting the wall, that terrible crack, followed him into the change, feeding his fury.
The news yesterday put a name to the face: Virginia Ann Watanoski, 59, born and raised in the city, proud citizen of Brooklyn. She had a husband, two daughters, a grandson.
She’d never woken up. She’d lingered a week - strong, fighting - but in the end, she hadn’t woken up, and her body gave in.
Bruce looked over the city, so amazingly small from a hundred floors up, and repeated to himself the details he knew. She hadn’t gone to college, had spent her younger years working in a sausage factory. After getting married, she devoted herself to raising twin girls, then turned to painting as a hobby in her early 40’s. She was fond of her work, as were many of the local establishments in her neighborhood; there had been at least a dozen pictures of her art in the papers, on the news.
Her husband was older - 67 - but he seemed a kindly sort, huddled with his daughters in front of the news cameras. Bruce could see him now, clutching his daughters’ shoulders as if for support, kneading them as he fought back tears, tried to answer questions. “She was a beautiful woman. Beautiful.”
Her death had been listed as an assault. The police suspected a local gang, known for cornering the weak and unwary. There were flyers, asking the public for help. No one else knew the truth - that Virginia had stopped to try and help a dangerous man, and had paid for her kindness with her life.
The police wouldn’t come for him; Bruce knew that. But that really didn’t matter. Even if they did, there was no cell that could hold him, no building that could keep him confined. No - in matters like this, Bruce himself had to be judge and jury.
And, if need be, if possible, executioner.
Virginia wasn’t the first, Bruce knew. But she was the first since he’d come to New York, since he’d tried to reboot his life, turn the Other Guy into a force for good. Or maybe not; his rampage through New York during the alien invasion, the damage he’d done...someone could have easily been caught in the wake of his destruction. Tony and Fury would call it collateral damage, but Bruce...didn’t see it that way. Never could, despite the fact that he knew the Other Guy had helped, had stopped the unstoppable.
In the process, though, the Hulk had torn half the city apart.
It was the same every time: the Avengers were called out, the mission outlined, and if any serious demolition was required, they asked Bruce to suit up. He’d played along, even enjoyed it - being part of a team, a hero. He’d let it go to his head, forgotten how much of a time bomb he really was, how dangerous he could be under even the smallest circumstance.
He’d gone out for coffee, damnit. And Virginia, and her family and friends, ultimately paid for his lapse in judgment.
No one else was willing to see this for what it was. They called it an accident, a lapse. An issue. They brushed his shoulder as they walked by, hid sympathetic expressions, changed subjects. They pretended things were normal, okay, unchanged. They didn’t ask for explanation, and Bruce didn’t offer any.
Because, in the end, there was no justification. This was murder, and Bruce was guilty of it.
Already, his thoughts were starting to slow, his vision blurring just a bit. He’d taken every pill he could find, washed them down with a glass of champagne left over from the mayor’s brunch at the tower earlier. Now, he stood on the edge of the observation deck, watching the world pass by below, wondering if he had the courage for another attempt, if it would even matter if he tried. Nothing in the past had worked, but then...he’d never had access to such good pharmaceuticals before, the kind that might keep the Other Guy deep inside, confused, at least for a moment. Maybe, maybe, for just long enough.
“It’s a nasty fall,” Tony stated flatly behind him. “Believe me, I’ve taken it.”
Bruce turned away from the edge, put a hand up to shield his eyes from the sun, squint in the other man’s direction. It would be Tony, of course. He was never far away these days, shadowing Bruce, all but seeing him to his rooms every night. Tony saw too much, wanted too much. Bruce didn’t have it to give.
“I was looking for privacy, Tony,” Bruce responded, his voice softer, slower, than he’d anticipated.
Tony nodded, something Bruce caught in the corner of his eye. He wasn’t willing to look up, meet Tony’s gaze. “I can see that,” came Tony’s response, still yards away. Plenty of space, if Bruce felt...decided...
Bruce covered his eyes with his hand, didn’t want to give anything away. This could be his one, his only, chance.
“I just needed some air, after all those guests,” Bruce started, but even he didn’t buy the line, so he stopped before he could say anything else. He lifted his hand and looked down, staring now at the slacks he was wearing, thinking the price tag for them could feed a village in India for a month.
“Air,” Tony responded, closer now. “I get it.”
Bruce pressed his lips together, swallowed. “So, if you don’t mind -”
“Sorry,” Tony responded, interrupting. “I’m not in the business of sitting idly by while friends try to kill themselves.”
Bruce wanted to protest, but knew he couldn’t lie. His throat worked as he stared at those insanely-expensive slacks, at the muscles underneath.
“So, in case you’re wondering, I have the suit on standby, and you wouldn’t make it twenty feet. I won’t let you.” The voice was closer still, and exceptionally determined, and Bruce felt his opportunity fading.
He was on the edge of the platform already; it was easy for Bruce to step to the other side of the guardrail, balance there. Time on the run had taught him to be quick, and Tony barely had a chance to move before it was done, before all that stood between Bruce and the drop was sheer will. And Bruce wasn’t at all sure which part of his will was stronger, as the beast curled and howled in the deep, as his conscience screamed at him to end the threat, once and for all.
Tony was running now, behind him. Time was limited. He needed to choose.
“I’m too much of a threat, Tony,” Bruce managed, his words slurred now. He leaned over the edge, holding on to the railing with one hand. He could see the ground below, felt the beast within slide deeper, hating, unable to rise. Good.
“Fuck that,” Tony called, closer still, and he was closing on Bruce, might be able to grab him soon. “Fuck all that and a bag of chips, Bruce. You’re an asset, a fucking asset, Green Guy or no, and I’m not going to let you -”
“Can’t stop me,” Bruce interrupted, the hand gripping the railing starting to loosen. He was ready to fly, be free from this all. His heart, his soul, was done.
A hand gripped his as he started to slide, to fall. “No,” Tony stated, his voice strangely quiet, calm. He stood on the other side of the railing, feet braced on the concrete edge, holding Bruce’s arm with both hands now.
Bruce was surprisingly calm as he looked back, met Tony’s gaze. “Let me go, Tony,” he asked, as easily as he’d ever asked for a cup of coffee, the salt shaker, a piece of paper.
“Can’t,” Tony responded simply, and Bruce could hear the suit firing up behind him. Ten seconds, maybe less.
Bruce closed his eyes, saw Virginia’s face, her worried expression. He heard her questions, and that terrible crack. It was more than he could face.
“Now, Tony,” Bruce responded, pushing away from the edge. One foot dangled in the air now, and Tony grasped Bruce’s hand desperately in both of his own.
“Now,” he repeated, and his second foot scooted to the edge, and Tony was braced and panting now. “You can’t hold me.”
Tony grunted and tried to pull back, but Bruce was stronger, and had better leverage. One heel planted firmly still on the side of the tower, Bruce turned back toward Tony, his desire bleeding into frustration. “Let me go,” he fairly growled, then bared teeth as Tony shook his head no.
It wasn’t planned; Bruce’s body moved all on its own. One moment, Tony held onto Bruce with both hands, the suit coming to life behind him, and the next, Bruce had a hand on the railing, jerking hard with his other arm to try and pull himself out of Tony’s grasp. Tony lost his balance, eyes going wide as his grip slipped, as Bruce pulled his arm free.
Part of Bruce roared triumph as he let go of the rail, air meeting his back. But the other part watched in horror as Tony, still off balance, reached for him and missed, overcompensated, and came tumbling over the edge after him.
In that moment, when Tony’s expression bled from horror into terror, when his shoulder and arm caught on the edge of the platform and Bruce heard that horrible crack again, again...all thoughts of Virginia’s death, his guilt, his burdens vanished. He watched as Tony’s expression registered fear and pain, then suddenly slackened, and Bruce knew the suit wouldn’t help, couldn’t, not if Tony wasn’t conscious to steer...
All Bruce could think was that Tony was falling, and it was his fault, and that no one else could do anything. Not Jarvis, not the suit, not the other Avengers. He was in freefall, and so was Tony, and he had to do something right now.
Inside Bruce, every nerve lit with sudden fury, and Bruce fed it, pulled it up, screaming at himself in his head to just fucking act until the Other Guy clawed his way out of the depths, tearing out of him with such ferocity that Bruce’s mind shattered and fell away.
Bruce gasped for breath, inhaling dust and damp air deep into his lungs. He coughed and hacked, unable to open his eyes for several moments, lost and confused and afraid. The last thing he remembered was Tony falling after him - terror in his eyes, then pain, then nothing - as he hurtled toward the city streets.
And Bruce had done it to him. Bruce had ripped his hand away hard enough to send Tony tumbling over the edge.
He could feel the Other Guy, barely under the surface, roaring. STUPID BANNER! STUPID TONY! The fury he felt bled into Bruce, setting his limbs shuddering with the desire to smash, destroy, run and jump and tear and crush until nothing could...could...
Bruce put a trembling hand over his eyes, took several shaky breaths. He had to stay calm, find out what happened to Tony.
Something close to him, on him, shifted, and Bruce jerked upright, eyes opening, fighting to focus. Crushed and mangled trees surrounded him, far too close on all sides. A light drizzle fell, and had been falling long enough that his hair and skin were soaked.
Bruce’s body trembled - not because he was shivering this time, but because whatever, whoever, was pressed against him was shaking hard. Bruce looked down and wanted to shout and cry all at once.
Tony. Tony was there, nearly lying in Bruce’s lap, his clothing shredded. He was shaking hard enough that his teeth rattled, seemed barely conscious.
“Oh, god, Tony.” Bruce wasn’t sure what to do, whether it was safe to move him. How far had they traveled? How high? How much damage did that do to...to...
Tony twisted just a bit in Bruce’s lap, and his face contorted in pain. Damage enough. He had to get help.
Bruce’s clothes were completely gone, so he gently patted Tony’s pockets, seeking a phone. Tony jerked away from the touch, eyes flying open, wild. He tried to sit up, howled in pain instead. The arm he’d tried to use bent in an impossible angle.
“Sorry! Oh, god, Tony, I’m so sorry,” Bruce managed, pulling his hands back, putting them up and in front of him, palms facing Tony. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, didn’t -”
“Shut up,” Tony responded, voice shaky and on edge, but no less authoritarian for it. Bruce did as he was told, wanting desperately to apologize, well aware that it wouldn’t help. Not with Tony. Not after what Bruce had done.
“You selfish fucking prick,” Tony spat, head still leaning against Bruce’s thigh. He looked up at Bruce with eyes too bright, lit with pain and fury. “You heartless bastard. How dare you -” the words cut off, replaced with a pained groan; he’d tried to point at Bruce, but with the wrong hand.
Tony curled his knees up to his chest, snarling. “Fuck, that hurts...” he nearly whispered, eyes squeezed so tightly shut that tears leaked out.
Bruce didn’t know what to say, knew he deserved Tony’s hatred. He’d earned it; shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have even tried when he knew it was impossible, and sure as shit shouldn’t have let Tony be there to watch. His shoulders slumped as he buried his face in his hands, rocking forward. He was a bastard, a fucking nightmare that left destruction in his wake, Other Guy or no.
“Uh-uh. Don’t you do that.” Tony coughed, reached up with his good arm, slapped a hand away from Bruce’s face. “I can feel your self-hatred from here, you jerk. Fucking stop it. Stop it.” He grabbed the other hand with his own, jerked it away, too, and this time kept hold. He squeezed tight, hard enough to hurt.
The beast inside was still close to the surface, and it roared at that touch. It was the Other Guy who returned that squeeze, who nodded in the depths, agreeing with Tony. STOP, BANNER.
“I swear on the suit, Bruce Banner, that if you ever, ever try something like that again, I will find a way to let the Big Guy out for good. If that’s what I have to do to protect you from yourself, you sorry-ass, shit-eating...” He trailed off, squeezing that hand again, lips trembling for just a moment. He twisted so he could see Bruce’s face more fully, eyes glittering. “I will do that shit, Bruce. I will do it. Don’t test me.”
Bruce’s smile was wan, but genuine, and Tony nodded once. “Good.” He held Bruce’s hand tight. “Good.”
“You still got a phone on you?” Bruce asked quietly, and Tony motioned with his head toward his left pants pocket. Bruce moved slowly, carefully, trying not to jostle Tony, who seemed intent on leaving his head in Bruce’s lap, clinging to Bruce’s hand.
They had signal. Good. Bruce hit the emergency button, asked for an ambulance, left the phone on for them to trace.
“Scoot up a bit, Tony,” Bruce asked, and helped Tony get his shoulders into Bruce’s lap as well. He leaned over Tony, shielding his face from the drizzle, wiped his free hand through Tony’s hair to squeeze out some of the water. “They’ll be a little while.”
Tony swallowed, face drained of color. “‘s fine,” he managed, a little shaky. “Gives me more time to yell at you. Buttmunch.”
By the time the ambulance arrived, Tony had run out of curse words, and his speech had devolved into grunts and hastily-slung insults. Bruce was chuckling, shaking his head, still holding Tony’s hand as the paramedics lifted him, wrapped them both in blankets, gave Tony something for the pain.
“You made me a promise, Brucie,” Tony called out as their hands finally parted, Bruce climbing into the ambulance behind Tony. He lifted his head to catch Bruce’s gaze. “I’m going to hold you to it!”
“Good,” Bruce answered. “Good.”
They had a serious discussion about Virginia Ann Watanoski the following week. Bruce couldn’t go to the police, turn himself in; it was simply far too dangerous for everyone for him to be locked away. At the same time, they didn’t want the police wasting time chasing down impossible leads, and her family deserved closure. Bruce needed them to have closure.
So they discussed options, came up with a plan. Tony pulled strings, threw some money around. The chief of police himself explained to Virginia’s family that the man who’d ended her life threw himself off the top of a building, driven by guilt and grief. Tony set up a scholarship in her honor, her youngest daughter the first recipient. And Bruce set about working off the cost of it in the tower - doing maintenance, janitorial duty, labor. Hard work, hours of it, every day for a year. That was the deal. That was the promise.
Three months in, Tony allowed Bruce to lock his suite doors again. Bruce left the doors open anyway, the lack of privacy a good reminder to him that he was part of the world, and his choices impacted those in it. Tony came by whenever he wanted, and late night discussions became commonplace.
Six months in, the Other Guy’s fury at Bruce subsided. It never left - the Hulk remembered, and was wary - but Bruce’s sleep was no longer bombarded with that great voice telling him to swear he’d never try again. Bruce had sworn, every time, and finally, the Other Guy had started to believe.
And so did Bruce, at last. Lying in bed one night, trying to stretch the ache out of his back after a particularly grueling work week, he realized that he felt pleased. Accomplished. That ten months after that horrible accident, he hadn’t quite forgiven himself, but he had, at least, stopped hating himself for it happening.
“Whiskey or tea, what’ll it be?” Tony’s voice came from the doorway where he stood, waggling two very different drinks in his hands, and Bruce smiled, grateful for the moment. The choice.
“I make my own teas, you know,” Bruce responded, padding over to take the ceramic cup, sniff, grimace. “What’s this?”
“Lipton,” Tony replied, smiling. “Found it stuffed in the back of a drawer in the lab.”
“Hm. Typical.” But Bruce smiled as well. “Come on in.” He motioned for Tony to follow, and the men settled onto tall stools while they talked, ignoring the time, sharing their days, their discoveries, debating a theory or two. They fell into routine, chatting their way into the living room where Tony stretched out on the sofa, voice getting slower and quieter though he swore he was awake, had one more thing to say...
When Tony was snoring lightly, Bruce picked up the blanket he kept nearby for just this situation and draped it over the man. Tony stirred a little, hand reaching out, finding Bruce’s wrist and closing around it for a moment. “Hey, wait...”
Bruce waited, but Tony didn’t say anything more. His hand went limp and fell away. Bruce smiled, picked it up, started to tuck it back under the blanket.
Deep inside, the Other Guy stirred and reached out through Bruce. He gripped Tony’s hand, held on, and Bruce felt him swell with pride, appreciation, protectiveness. Bruce gave him the moment, pulling away only when Tony sighed and rolled over.
A memory bled through then, powerful and fast: great hands holding Tony’s limp body, settling him carefully close by, poking him until he woke up, howling in pain. Tony had collapsed against that huge body, muttering “thank you, thank you,” into a gigantic green side, and the Hulk had wrapped him up in one hand, pulled him close, and sheltered him until Bruce could return.
Bruce shivered, hugged his arms close. “Let’s never do that again,” he said aloud, both to the man in the room and the one dwelling within. He patted Tony’s shoulder lightly as he stood, shaking off the memory so it didn’t follow him into dreams.
No, never again.