Betty glanced up, pausing in the act of packing up her laptop. Her hands were still shaking, a tiny bit, the reaction familiar and almost comforting. She depended on this little bit of 'clean up' to clear her head, and pull herself together. Most of the time, she managed to put out enough of a 'busy now' vibe that people left her alone in the wake of a talk or a lecture.
The pretty young woman in front of her didn't look like she was put off by much.
She smiled, her big eyes bright, her dark hair caught back in a tangle of a topknot. There was a pencil sticking out of the swirl of hair, the pink of the eraser showing clear signs of teeth marks, and for some reason, Betty caught herself relaxing. "Hello," she said, giving the woman a smile.
Her slim shoulders relaxed, her mouth softening into an answering smile. "Hello," she said. "My name is Jane. Dr. Jane Foster. I really enjoyed your lecture, Dr. Ross. I wondered-" She reached up and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I wondered if I could talk to you for a minute? Unless you have something planned?"
Betty opened her mouth, about to politely decline, but something stopped her. The pencil, maybe it was the pencil, or maybe it was the straightforward and sharp look in Jane Foster's eyes. But she found herself stopping. “I don't,” she said at last, each word careful.
Jane shifted her weight, a battered leather satchel swinging against her hip. Her suit was clean and well tailored, but that bag had seen fieldwork, and a lot of it. “May I treat you to a cup of coffee?” she asked.
Betty bought herself a few seconds, packing up the remainder of her lecture supplies. “I think I'd like that,” she said, surprised to find she meant it. “There's a Starbucks in the lobby.”
“There's a small coffee shop just across the street,” Jane said. “If you don't mind? I prefer the local places.”
“Of course.” Betty picked up her case. “How are you enjoying the conference?”
“A lot, actually.” Jane gave her a smile. Her hand was clinging to her bag with a sort of death grip, but the tension didn't translate to her voice. “All of the lectures and talks have been fascinating.”
“What's your specialization?”
“Astrophysics,” Jane said, and Betty blinked.
“Astrophysics?” she asked, not able to hold back a small laugh. “Whatever were you doing in my talk? I could not be more Earth bound.”
“The best thing about these sorts of events,” Jane said, leading the way across the conference center lobby. Women were milling around in small groups and ones and twos, walking and standing and chatting, lugging bags and holding stacks of papers. Jane and Betty strode through the crowds, and Betty glanced around, recognizing faces and voices and nodding to one or two colleagues. “I like to attend everything I find interesting,” Jane continued. “I don't get much of a chance to get outside of my comfort zone, so I look forward to this.”
“That's a good way of thinking about it.”
The coffee shop was quiet at this hour of the day, a dozen tables inside and a couple unoccupied outside. Despite the traffic that was speeding past on the street, the sidewalk was quiet. Betty paused, her hand resting delicately on the back of one of the metal chairs. “Do you mind if we stay out here?” she asked. “I feel like I never see the sun these days.”
“You think you have it bad?” Jane asked, grinning. “I work at night.”
Laughing, Betty glanced at the door. “Do you want something? I'm going to-”
She paused, her lips parting. “Excuse me?”
“I was looking for you, before your talk. I'm sorry,” Jane said, sinking slowly into the other seat. “I am. I've done something unforgiveable.”
Betty took a seat, curious now. “Did you steal my experimental data, or my post doc assistant?” she asked, smiling just a bit. “Because that's all that's coming to mind that would count as 'unforgiveable.'”
Jane had her satchel open on her lap, and she drew a manila folder out. Her head snapped around, her eyes sliding across the sidewalk at the few passer by, and then she reached out. A car roared past, and her hand jerked. The folder tumbled to the table, and its contents spilled out. Betty recoiled, her whole body jerking backwards, the legs of her chair scraping against the concrete. For an instant, everything was still, frozen. Her hands were shaking badly as she picked up the photo. The image trembled and wavered, and she realized her eyes were filled with tears.
Bruce was sitting on a couch, his feet bare and his knees drawn up, his back against the arm of the couch. His glasses were low on his nose, and he had an amused expression on his face. One broad hand was gesturing to something outside the frame. Betty stared down at him, one hand clapped over her mouth, her eyes stinging.
Behind him, a massive blonde man was swinging a video game controller, his arms half over his head, his face split with a massive grin. The muscles in his arms bulged, and Betty was surprised that the plastic controller hadn't broken under the strain. On the other end of the couch, one foot kicking in mid-air, a man with narrowed eyes and short, dirty blonde hair was flailing along with a controller of his own. Sprawled in a seat at a safe distance, Tony Stark was laughing, his tie yanked loose and his body lax. He had a decanter of golden brown liquor in one hand and a glass in the other. Seated cross-legged on the floor, a handsome blonde man was hunched over his controller, his shoulders drawn up around his ears and a flop of blonde hair swinging low over his eyes. He was grinning, boyish and warm. A gorgeous redhead was smirking as she twisted the controller around in her delicate hands.
"The Avengers." The words were soft and careful and hers, and Betty jolted, just a bit, at the sound of her own voice.
"Yeah." Jane was sitting very still across the table, her hands folded in front of her. "I'm sorry. I am. I know, I know this is completely unacceptable, and rude, and the last thing you want is, well, me, in your business, but I-" Her head went down, ducking for just an instant. When it came back up, her gaze was steady. "If it was me? I'd want to know he was okay."
Betty stroked her fingertip against the familiar contours of Bruce's face. She took a breath, and it shuddered in her chest, it rattled like something broken or something missing. "Are you- And he?" she asked, looking up. And she was smiling, just a little, because that was fine, that was okay. That was a good thing, if he had made that choice.
Jane stared at her, her brows drawn up tight, and then her eyes went wide. "What, me, and him? No! Oh, no, oh, my GOD, no, I'm so sorry, no-" She swallowed. "Uh, Thor. I'm- Me, and-" She reached out and tapped her finger against the massive blonde man. "Him."
Betty choked on a laugh. "Really?" she asked, a grin blooming on her face.
Jane was beet red, her eyes slipping sideways. "He crash landed in the middle of my experimental data," she said, her lips twitching. "Literally. Left a pretty sizable crater."
Betty studied the size of the man's shoulders. "I can imagine," she said, and just like that, they were both laughing, a little too loud and a little too hard, and she didn't care, it felt good, it felt like a relief. For a long moment, she just folded forward, trying to stifle the sound of her giggles behind one hand, and Jane had clapped both palms over her mouth, her eyes filled with amusement.
"How is-" Betty stopped, laughter overwhelming the words. "How's that working out for you?" she managed at last.
"I am losing control of my life, my work and my sanity," Jane said, and she was grinning as she said it, her head shaking, her shoulders twitching with giggles. "What's not to love?”
Grinning, Betty looked back down at the picture. "So, Thor, and Bruce I know, of course, and everyone knows Tony Stark-"
"That is the way he likes it," Jane explained.
"So this is, this is Captain America?" Betty asked, her finger brushing lightly over the man seated on the floor.
"And these two?"
"Natasha and Clint. SHIELD agents. I fully expected you to buy a coffee just so you could throw it at me, I would not have blamed you, but-"
"But?" Betty asked.
"I live with them,” Jane said, each word careful. Like it was a speech she had rehearsed. “Thor brought us to New York, my friend Darcy and I. Because it was safer for us here. We work for SHIELD. But we live with them.”
Her fingers were laced together, her knuckles bone white where they pressed too tightly together. “Bruce doesn't know I'm here. He wouldn't be happy.” Her head ducked down. “But he's been very nice to me.” She took a breath. “And he worries about you.”
The words hurt, but soothed at the same time. Betty nodded. “Tell me,” she asked at last. “Are you afraid of him?”
Jane glanced at him. “Yes,” she said. “But no. I don't know how to explain it.”
“No. I understand.” Betty smiled down at the picture. “Thank you for this,” she said.
“I brought more. If you want them?" Jane asked, her voice cautious.
"Yes. Yes, thank you." Betty smiled at her, and it was tremulous and uneven and a little broken, but it was real. She reached for the folder, even as Jane pushed it towards her. It was full of pictures.
The one on top was the man with the sandy blonde crew cut, dressed in a pair of running shorts, sitting on the edge of a marble kitchen counter, his legs dangling in mid-air, his face buried in his coffee cup. Bruce was leaning up against the counter next to him, looking equally exhausted, his eyes at half-mast. He was dressed in ragged sweatpants and a gray t-shirt with a hole next to the collar, and his hair was a riotous mass of curls, gilded by the early morning light. There was a toaster under his elbow, and a Band-aid on his eyebrow.
"Clint. He's the archer," Betty asked, studying the man's battered face. His leg was almost touching Bruce's arm, and Bruce was leaning into the contact, instead of away. "Isn't he?"
"Yes. He carries Bruce's tranquilizers, for when the-” She paused, her eyes flicking up to Betty's. “For when the other guy comes out."
Betty nodded. "Brave." The man was relaxed, his face slack and his shoulders a gentle slope. The two men weren't looking at each other, but they were clearly comfortable in each others presence.
"Maybe crazy, but I think, I think the other guy likes him. Likes all of them, actually." Jane reached into the folder and flipped a few pictures out of the way. "Especially Tony."
Tony Stark was stripped down to a filthy tank top and a battered pair of jeans, his arms and hands nearly black with oil and dirt, his hair a mess. He was gesturing wildly with one arm to the machine behind him, a pair of goggles hanging around his neck and a wrench gripped tight in his other hand. He'd been caught in an instant of movement, his face alive and open, his mouth working and his body a live wire of energy. Across from him, Bruce was standing, his body canted backwards, his arms crossed, one hand cupping his mouth and chin. But behind the cover of his fingers, a smile could be seen, just curling the corners of his lips, and arching his eyebrows. His gaze was warm and open, amusement clear in his face.
"I don't think Mr. Stark is going to win this argument," Betty said, grinning down at the picture.
"Tony's really persuasive," Jane told her. Her eyes were dancing. "But I think Bruce likes to make him work for it."
"Good for him." Betty looked up, tucking her hair behind her ear. “He was always-” She smiled. “He was always very strong willed,” she said at last and Jane was smiling. “Very stubborn.”
The next picture was Bruce, in rumpled formal wear, a bow tie untied around his throat, his shirt unbuttoned and his jacket tossed aside. He was seated on the edge of a raised stone platform, a chessboard next to him and a steaming teacup beside his hand. Across the board, the redhead was seated, her gown a beautiful fall of glittering blue silk, her hair a swirl against one pale cheek. She was smiling, a champagne flute in one graceful hand, her long lashes shading her eyes. Behind them, a dark haired man in a crisp black suit was considering the position of the pieces.
“Agent Coulson,” Jane explained, tapping a finger against the man's image. “The three of them play chess a lot, Steve does sometimes, and so does Tony, but they don't have the patience a lot of the time. Natasha and Phil do. They play.”
Betty nodded, smiling. She flipped over the picture, and another one. Bruce, sitting beside a pool, his feet dangling in the water. Bruce flipping pancakes with an expression of fierce concentration on his face and a woman with dark hair and glasses cheering him on at the table. Bruce laughing at a bar, a can of soda in front of him as Tony poured himself a drink.
“Tell me,” Betty said, and her voice ached with every word, “is he happy?”
“Yes,” Jane said. She paused, a beat of consideration. “I think he is. He's-” She cleared her throat. “He's got his own lab. He does research on what he wants to study. And SHIELD asks him for help on things, on Gamma radiation and medical things. He fills in for the medical staff for the Avengers, sometimes. Because they trust him, and he trusts them.
“Kids send him pictures. More than any of the others, I think. They send him pictures they've drawn, of the other guy, and he keeps them all. He puts them up beside his workbench in his lab, dozens of them.
“He's always watching, and he sees things, I think he sees more than anyone else there.” She cleared her throat. “I was having a problem with my latest paper. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't write. I was just paralyzed, I was frustrated and I didn't know what to do.
“And I came home from SHIELD one day, and there was this little bag hanging from my doorknob. He'd left me a tin of tea, and a note that said that he knew how hard it could be without an actual department to support my work. And that if I needed a second set of eyes, he'd be happy to read my draft. I brought it to him, and he read it that night, and until three am, he sat up with me and he talked me through a bunch of points.”
Betty was laughing, under her breath. “Oh, God. Did he-” She leaned forward, grabbing Jane's hands. “Does he still do that thing where he makes a cup of tea, then forgets it until it goes cold?”
“And he microwaves it,” Jane said, her eyes dancing. “And forgets it in the microwave!”
“And eventually gives up and drinks it cold,” Betty finished. “And the pens?”
“He chewed through one last week. Blue, of course. It got everywhere.”
“His teeth,” Betty said, shaking her head. It was a relief, it was a huge relief to say the words. To remember with such affection. “He eats apple cores! The whole thing, I never knew you could DO that!”
“And only the cream centers of Oreos!” Jane said, laughing out loud. “The cookies just sit there! He just lets them sit there!”
“I used to eat them,” Betty said, “they looked so sad and pathetic, that pile of chocolate wafers. And he buys plants?”
“Natasha takes them when they start to die of neglect. He doesn't notice, I don't think.” Jane's fingers squeezed hers tight, her eyes brilliant. “He wears shirts until they fall apart.”
“And all of his socks have holes in them,” Betty said, grinning. Her head ducked down. “God, I miss him,” she said. The truth was so stark that her hands came up, clutching her mouth. “I miss him so much,” she whispered. Through the mask of her fingers, she said, “I know why he won't see me. I understand. I do, I respect that, I respect that and I hate him for being that way. I miss him.”
Jane's smile died. “He misses you,” she said. She took a deep breath. “I shouldn't have done this. I shouldn't have come looking for you, I shouldn't have done any of this. But I love Thor, and I worry about him. A lot.
“And if I left him, or if he left me, I don't think I could ever lose that part of me, the part that worries. The part that wants to know, above all else, that he's safe and happy and somewhere where he is...” She glanced up. “Loved.”
Betty took a deep breath. “I love him,” she said, the words stark. “And having him gone aches like a phantom limb. Like something that hurts for its very absence, but that I can't bring myself to believe is gone. I love him.” She smiled, and it felt real. “I spent a lot of time telling myself that the pain meant that he was gone. That I would never-” Her hands fell down, loose and empty in front of her. “I don't think I want to fight it any more. I'm... Fine with my phantom pain. I ache for him, and for me, and he will never leave me. Not really.”
The picture beneath her hands was Bruce, his eyebrows arched, a faint smile on his face, and it was dusk, light glowing in the windows behind him. All around him were the others, faces that she had seen on the news, faces that were now becoming familiar. Tired and battered and dusty, they faced the camera, pride and exhaustion and pain on their faces, but they were together, a united front, safe and steady and behind them, the city was still standing.
And Betty knew a lot of that had to do with Bruce, his chin up, his shoulders back, the sadness in his eyes muted now, banked and hidden beneath something warmer.
It was still Bruce Banner. A Bruce that she desperately wished she could know better.
"Enough about men." Betty closed the file folder, her hands careful, and shaking just a bit, shaking the way they always did when she stood in front of a crowd and laid herself bare. The way they shook when she defended her ideas, her work. The way they shook when she got through an entire public lecture, and had studied every face, looking for the one that was never there. She tucked the folder away, and she was glad that her hands were still shaking. "Tell me about your work, Jane."
Jane shook her head, her cheeks flushed. "No, really, it's not very interesting."
Betty narrowed her eyes, studying Jane. "I don't believe that for a second," she said, smiling. "Come on now, you got to hear about everything I was doing, I think I deserve to hear just what it is that you're up to."
Jane let out a peel of laughter, and she had a good laugh, warm and real and a little too loud. "Yes," she said, covering her mouth. "I guess you do." She stood, dusting her hands on her hips. "But now that I'm pretty sure you won't throw it in my face, I could use a cup of coffee. Can I get you something? My treat?"
Betty thought about that, for just a second. "Could you see if they have a jasmine tea?" she asked at last.
"I bet they do." With a quick nod, Jane headed for the door. "I'll be right back."
Betty shifted her bag into her lap, opening up a large interior pocket. With far more care than it needed, she slipped the folder in, in the midst of her test results and documents, copies of scholarly papers she'd gained from others at the conference and information on programs around the world. She tucked the folder in and secured the pocket, checking it twice before she went to put her bag bag down.
A germ of an idea caught her, and she paused, dragging her tablet out. She pulled up a blank window, and set her stylus against the empty canvas. It took her only a second to settle on what she wanted to say, and when Jane returned to the table, a cup in each hand, Betty was smiling down at her work.
She looked up as Jane set her cup in front of her, and the smell of delicate, sweet tea was as familiar as Bruce's dark eyes. "Would you do me a favor?” Betty asked. “Could you take a picture of me?" She held the tablet up in front of her, and Jane bit her lip, her face twisting for a second. She blinked hard, nodding.
"Yeah, I can do that." She fished her phone out of her bag. "Smile."
Bruce raised a hand. “Back here,” he said, not abandoning his microscope. His pen scratched rapidly across the paper, and he didn't bother even looking up. “Sorry, give me a second here.”
The sound of footsteps brought his head up finally, and he winced as his back protested the sudden movement. He pushed his glasses back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Hi,” he said, managing a smile for Jane. “How was the conference?”
She shifted on her feet, a delicate rearranging of her weight, and Bruce sat back, recognizing the signs of nervousness. His eyes slid to Clint, hovering a few steps behind her. Clint leaned up against the workbench, one shoulder rising and falling in a half-shrug. His bow was slung across his shoulder, held loose and easy in one hand, but it was there.
“It was very good,” Jane said, pulling Bruce's attention back to her. She bit her lower lip, her white teeth digging in. “I'm sorry.”
Bruce pulled his glasses off of his forehead, rolling the frames between his fingers. “Is that so?” he asked, reaching for a square of lens cleaning tissue. “Why?” He kept his head down, but his eyes slid up, meeting hers.
Jane sucked in a breath. “I meddled,” she said, and held out an envelope, cradling it between both hands.
Bruce took it with one hand, shifting it to the bench so he could put his glasses aside. “You... Meddled?”
“Betty Ross was one of the speakers.”
He froze. “Ah. Yes. I had-” His throat felt tight, and he forced the words out anyway. “I had heard that.” He glanced at the envelope. “She was always excellent, she was an excellent speaker. She can make anything fascinating.”
“It was a very good talk,” Jane agreed. She nodded at the envelope. “She sent you something.”
Bruce leaned back, crossing his arms. “Jane, you shouldn't-”
“I know, I know, but-” She paused, her eyelashes dipping low. She grabbed the envelope and pulled out a single picture, shoving it towards him. Startled, Bruce took it, his hands coming up instinctively. He stared down at the picture, the ache in his chest suddenly enough to take his breath away.
Betty was smiling, sweet and soft and tremulous, her eyes huge and damp, her eyelashes spiky with tears. But she was smiling, and she was luminous with it, her cheeks flushed and her head tipped to the side, just a little, with that familiar little dip of her chin. She was smiling.
The tablet in her hands read, "I am so proud of you, Bruce Banner."
His vision swam, and he ducked his head, his teeth locking as he tried to hold himself together. The first brush of fingers against his shoulder made him jolt, and he sucked in a breath on a sob, harsh and gritty in his throat. He kept his head down, he kept his eyes closed, and he knew he couldn't control his strength in these situations, but he couldn't let go of that slick bit of photo paper.
Arms went around him, cautious and careful at first, and then, when he didn't pull back, when he didn't object, with a fierce, feminine strength. He was sobbing now, no tears, but the rhythm of his breathing was fast and staccato, every single inhale breaking him, every exhale draining him. He clung to her, his arms around her waist, his face buried in her shoulder, and Jane held on.
Held on so tight it hurt.
When he finally gathered the remains of his control, when he pulled himself together enough to pull away, she let her hands slide down the length of his arms. Her face was wet, her eyes and nose red, and Clint was rubbing the heel of his hand against his eyes, avoiding Bruce's gaze. Bruce let out a chuckle, soft and uneven. "Thank you, Jane," he said, smiling up at her.
She grinned back. "Sorry I meddled."
He glanced back down at the picture. It was undamaged by his grip, by the controlled force of his fingers. "I'm not," he said at last. Looking back up, he added, "I'm glad you brought Clint, though. That was smart."
Jane took a deep breath. "Everyone needs a support now and than."
"Clint isn't glad you brought Clint," Clint complained, making Jane laugh. "I am no longer your bodyguard, Dr. Foster, you have an actual God for that, and I am lousy at the emotional shit." But he was holding back a grin when he looked at Bruce. "I'm not drunk enough for emotions."
"Thor can be a little overwhelming in emotional situations," Jane said, affection clear in her voice. "I figured a badass sniper such as yourself could get through a single discussion without getting all worked up."
"Well, that's where you're wrong," Clint told her, and Bruce started to laugh.
“I'm telling Darcy,” she said.
Clint shrugged. “Bring it on, I've got far worse on Ms. Lewis.” He glanced at Bruce, his head tipped forward, his hands braced on the workbench behind him. “So, you coming tonight?”
Bruce glanced up. “Hmm? Oh. I don't know.”
“Steve's been planning for this forever,” Clint said. “You don't show, he's going to get all pinched and unhappy.”
“Ooooooh,” Jane said, her lips pursed. She was working to hold back a smile. “Braver man than me, Bruce, disappointing Captain America.”
“C'mon,” Clint said, grinning outright now. “Classic black and white films, newly restored theater, team time.” His eyebrows arched. “Stark's given them enough money that we'll have a good box in the balcony. I'm wearing the good suit. And Darcy has a dress that might be illegal in a couple of less progressive states.”
“It is a really excellent dress,” Jane agreed. “Really. Excellent.”
Bruce felt his lips twitch. He stood, his shoulders coming up, and it wasn't so bad, his back didn't ache, his shoulders didn't hurt. It was as if a burden had been lifted from him, one that he didn't even know he'd been carrying, and he was lighter for it. Almost buoyant. He took a deep breath and it settled, warm and comforting, in the pit of his stomach.
He crossed in front of them, his strides purposeful, and headed back to his desk. Carefully, he added the picture of Betty to the collage of crayon drawings, a magnet holding it in place. It gleamed, slick and shiny in the midst of the squares of drawing and notebook paper. But Betty grinned out at him, in the center of all those little green figures, in the middle of red and pink hearts and smiling stick figures.
“Okay,” Bruce said, not looking away from those pictures.
There was a beat of silence. “Okay?” Clint asked.
Bruce glanced at him. Clint had that watchful, steady gaze that he'd come to know so well. “Okay,” Bruce repeated. He smiled. “I'll go.”
Jane grinned, wide and bright. “I'm glad.” She bounced on her feet, her hair a soft, dark wave as she turned, and for an instant, she was achingly familiar. But then she glanced back, and she was Jane again, slim and delicate and beautiful and brilliant. “She's amazing, Bruce.”
Bruce felt the grin bloom on his face. “You have no idea,” he told her.
“I know, but I'm looking forward to finding out.”
“Hey, Jane?” He waited until she paused, her head tipped to the side, a bird momentarially at rest, and then said, “Thank you.”
She nodded. “I'm sorry. I won't do it again. But she needed to know. She deserved to know. That you're safe and happy.” Her eyebrows arched. “You owed her that, Bruce.”
“Thought she was better off not knowing,” he admitted.
“Well, that was dumb.”
Bruce chuckled. “Yeah. It was.”
Jane left, her feet light on the tile, and Clint pushed away from the workbench. “So,” he said, a faint smirk on his lips, “and I'm just putting this out here, because I owe you a solid or two, but if you ever decide to give it a try? I'll be happy to play chaperone.”
Bruce laughed out loud at that, at the thought of Clint in full SHIELD gear hovering in a tree as he and Betty walked through the park. “That is a horrible idea.”
“No, really, I am a man of refinement and discretion,” Clint said, ignoring Bruce's disbelieving stare. “I am fucking discreet. Your secrets are safe with me.”
“You tell Natasha everything!”
“So do you!” Clint grinning, his eyes dancing, his voice full of warmth.
“Yeah, she's good at that.” Bruce settled down in his desk chair. “I'll, uh, I'll keep you posted, Clint.”
“Yeah, you do that.” Clint kicked lightly at his chair, making it spin. “She was trying to do something nice for you, you know that, right?”
Bruce glanced at the picture. “Yeah. I know that.”
“Okay.” Sticking his hands in his pockets, Clint ambled for the door, his bow still slung over his shoulder, a quiver with a single arrow bouncing against his hip. Bruce watched it swing, in a slow counterpoint to Clint's steady steps.
“Clint?” Bruce called after him. When Clint's feet paused, he smiled. “Thanks for being her backup.”
Clint pulled out his single arrow, twirling it between his fingers. “She told me that it wasn't necessary, but you always do better when you've got a safety net.” He headed for the door. “We all do.”
In the silence that fell in his wake, Bruce turned his chair, leaning back. “Thanks,” he said to the picture, and Betty seemed to smile a little brighter. “I'm still trying. Thank you. For seeing that.” He took a deep breath, and turned to his desk. “I'm still trying.”