February 10th, 2015.
Manhattan, New York.
“Doctor Banner?” Jarvis said in his smooth, mechanized voice.
Bruce looked up from a large electron microscope. He stood in the main research lab of Avengers Tower, his new home. During his brief sojourn here, Bruce has grown quite fond of the prim, British-sounding A.I. program, and now sensed a tone of hesitance, yet urgency in his inflection.
“I’ve just received a video chat request for you.”
“Me?” Bruce stepped away from the counter and walked toward the flat screen monitor which dominated the far wall. “From who?”
“Doctor Elizabeth Ross.”
Bruce sighed. For an instant, his eyes flashed a deep emerald green—which might’ve been a trick of the light. “Put her through,” he said, pulling his glasses from his lab coat.
The screen, which had been showing a muted CNN newsfeed, flickered. Bruce slid his trembling hands into his pockets and did his best to look composed. But deep inside, the tormented scientist felt anything but.
My God. It’s been seven years since that night in Harlem. What could she possibly have to say?
A beautiful, dark-haired woman appeared. Sad but intent, Betty’s eyes bore the unmistakable puffiness of recent tears. Seeing her again, even on a video screen, recalled deep feelings of loss and regret.
And fading love.
She’s still gorgeous…
Behind Betty, a stark white wall loomed, giving Bruce the idea that she’d called him from a clinical environment.
Oh, please tell me she’s not sick!
When the visual feed connected on her end, Betty brightened. The picture shook as she moved; filming herself with her phone.
“Yeah, Betty. I’m here. What’s going on?”
Betty’s smile held a moment longer, as if the very sight of Bruce pleased her. Then it faded, replaced by an expression of utter sorrow.
“It’s Dad. They think he’s had another heart attack.”
Bruce stiffened. “That’s terrible!”
“I know. They’re running tests on him right now…”
Bruce gazed at the screen, at the woman he used to love more than anything. The first time General Ross had suffered a heart attack, he’d been in Calcutta, helping the local peasants. That had been before the Chitauri invasion, before The Avengers. Before he’d met Natasha.
Before a lot of things.
“I need to see you, Bruce.”
The words, unexpected yet unsurprising, cut into his heart like a cold knife, and Bruce felt his breath leave in a rush. “I can’t,” he said, and shook his head.
“You can, though. I’m in D.C., at Med Star Hospital. That’s not that far.”
She can’t be serious…
“Betty, I can’t go to the hospital. There’ll be security everywhere. Not to mention that if your dad gets wind of me being anywhere near him, he’ll fly into a serious rage. Someone could get hurt.”
Betty gave Bruce her stern, I-won’t-take-no-for-an-answer look, which he knew quite well. “We can meet up at Meridian Hill Park. Lots of wide open space. No one will bother us.”
“That’s a sound plan, Doctor,” Jarvis said. “I can provide a schematic of the park if you’d like.”
Chuckling, Bruce again shook his head.
Betty’s face wrinkled with annoyance. “Who was that?”
“That’s Jarvis. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop. He’s an A.I. program Tony uses to keep his life in order. He runs everything.”
“Quite correct, Doctor Banner. My apologies for interrupting, Doctor Ross.”
“Oh.” Betty’s face softened. “That’s okay, Jarvis.”
“How did you know I was here?” Bruce asked.
“Are you kidding? Since the collapse of S.H.E.I.L.D., and with The Avengers hunting down Hydra, the news has been all over you guys. It’s certainly no secret where your headquarters are.”
“Right.” Bruce looked at the floor.
I can’t do this.
“Bruce…will you come? Please?”
A silent moment passed. Bruce shut his eyes. Tony had left on a business conference with Pepper. Steve had gone to visit Peggy. Thor had taken Jane to dinner. Clint had disappeared. Which left just him and Natasha and Jarvis.
Please don’t beg, Betty.
Bruce thought of Natasha. Her long, lean body. Her dark red hair. Her stoic, mischievous gaze. He pictured her in the gym, sweaty and intense. She wouldn’t want him to go, either—for a variety of reasons.
“Please come, Bruce. We can just talk.”
Seven years, Betty.
But in his heart, Bruce knew that he had to go—for a variety of reasons. “Alright,” he said, looking up. “I’ll come.”
“Thank you, Bruce.” Betty smiled a hopeful smile. “See you soon.”
Bruce nodded. “Yeah… see you soon.”
Betty’s smiling face disappeared. The screen remained blank and dark.
“I’ve already taken the liberty, Doctor. A Quinjet will be waiting on the roof. I’ll notify Agent Romanoff once we’re in the air to simplify matters.”
Taking off his lab coat, Bruce smirked.
Good old Jarvis; he thought of everything.
“Approaching Meridian Hill Park, Doctor Banner.”
Bruce didn’t respond. The Quinjet could’ve made the trip in under five minutes, but Bruce had instructed Jarvis to take it slow. Thus, for the last half hour Bruce had been staring through the side window, reflecting on his tumultuous relationship with Betty. Their first meeting. Their first date. Working on the gamma project together. The experiment which had ruined his life. Her father’s rage, which had sparked a manhunt and forced him to live as a fugitive for several years.
All just water under the bridge now.
Yeah. Deep, dark water…and a very shaky bridge.
“I’ve located Doctor Ross. She’s standing at the base of that splendid cascade fountain.”
Bruce turned to the control panel. His face looked taught, pensive.
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
“My pleasure, Doctor Banner. Starting our descent.”
Sighing, Bruce settled back. Through the front window, he saw a large water garden, lit by intermittent lamps, looming out of the darkness. The Quinjet whispered over its calm surface. Bruce had never been here, and marveled at the thirteen-tiered fountain, also lit up against the darkness. Sure enough, at the base, he saw a lone figure with dark hair.
The Quinjet slowed and stopped, hovering over the shallow reservoir. Bruce removed his glasses, unstrapped himself, then walked to the back. The rear hatch opened with a loud hiss, and a ramp extended to the walkway. Bruce, clad in a black sweater and jeans, strode down the ramp with a forced air of nonchalance. His lips twitched. His hands curled into fists, swinging at his sides.
“Bruce!” Betty exclaimed, rushing toward him.
She met him halfway, threw her arms around him. Bruce stiffened against her, but returned the gesture. Through her thick parka, through her mittens, he felt deep, uncompromising warmth.
“How are you?”
Bruce smiled. Her cheek felt good pressed against his. Her hair smelled of fresh berries. “Good. How’s your father?”
Betty released him, stepped back. “Dad’s doing okay,” she replied, wiping her eyes with her mittens. “The doctor thinks it was just acute indigestion.”
Sniffing, Betty smiled. Her cheeks had reddened, like the tip of her nose. “It’s so good to see you!”
“Yeah. It’s good to see you, too.”
“You look like you’ve been taking care of yourself.”
Bruce shrugged. “Stark built a hell of a gym for us.”
“I can’t imagine what it’s like living in Avenger’s Tower, Bruce.”
“It’s luxurious. Don’t really feel at home there yet.”
Come on, Betty. Get to the point.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking…” Betty stepped toward him, hesitant yet eager. “Things are different, so maybe they can be different between us.”
“How do you mean?”
“Come on, Bruce. You’re an Avenger now. A hero. Practically sanctioned by the government. That means…”
“What?” Bruce looked hard into her eyes. Imploring. Knowing what she meant, but demanding that she come out and say it. “What does it mean, Betty?”
Betty’s forehead wrinkled. “No one thinks you’re a monster anymore…”
Bruce chuckled, walked to the edge of the water garden. The cool, calm surface rippled in the light breeze.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, Betty. You and I both know the truth.”
“You and I both know that we love each other…don’t we?”
Bruce closed his eyes. He envisioned Natasha watching him; arms crossed, awaiting his answer.
God, this is the last thing I need right now.
“Your father…he still believes I’m a monster, regardless. He’d never allow it.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Has he told you differently?”
“Well, no…I mean, not exactly.”
Bruce opened his eyes, turned to Betty with an incredulous look.
Is she kidding?
“But after his heart attack,” Betty continued, “he’s been a changed man. He’s nowhere near as angry as he used to be.”
“Betty. If he knew you were here talking to me, this place would already be surrounded with heavy artillery.”
No, Bruce.” Betty shook her head. “It wouldn’t. I know it would—”
“Uh, guys?” a new voice called. Raspy. Sultry. Businesslike. “Hate to break up the reunion, but I’ve got bad news.”
Bruce and Betty turned toward the Quinjet. There, at the top of the ramp, stood Natasha Romanoff; left hand resting on the bulkhead, right hand resting on her cocked hip. Her eyes looked severe, but a slight grin played upon her lips.
“Jarvis says there’s something headed this way, fast. A ship of some kind, and it seems hostile.”
Bruce’s right hand leapt to his forehead. “Natasha! What’re you doing here?”
Natasha’s gaze never left Betty. “Looks like I’m saving your ass from an unnecessary Code: Green.”
“Were you on the ship the whole time?”
“Yep. Just watching out for my impetuous partner.”
Betty turned to Bruce. “What’s a Code: Green?”
“Uh…” Bruce looked at Betty, held out his hands. “It’s when the Other Guy is needed for a mission.”
“Oh.” Betty turned back to Natasha. Vapor streamed from her nose as she appraised the black-clad woman. “You’re Black Widow, right?”
“That’s right, Doctor Ross. And right now we’ve gotta be going. Say goodbye, Bruce.”
Bruce put his right hand on Betty’s shoulder, extended his left toward Natasha. “Look, I just need a minute here.”
“And I’m telling you we don’t have it. We need to get airborne, now!”
He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Look, bring Ross if you want, but hurry!”
Shivering, Betty looked skyward. “Maybe you should do as she says, Bruce. But I’ve gotta stay here with Dad.”
What the hell is going on here?
Confused and annoyed, Bruce looked at Betty. “I’m sorry. This is crazy. Maybe we could talk another time?”
“Come on, Bruce!” Natasha’s voice now sounded as intense as her gaze felt. Eyes wide, she removed the gun holstered on her right thigh. “We’re safer in the air!”
“Right, Natasha.” Looking into Betty’s sad, startled eyes, Bruce felt an inner tug. Whatever still existed between them hadn’t been resolved, and might never be. “Sorry, Betty, I’ve gotta go.”
Betty tried to smile, but failed. “I know, Bruce. It’s okay.”
Bruce turned from Betty. Toward the Quinjet. Toward Natasha. Frustration filled his heart, and he had to remind himself to take a deep breath, lest his blood pressure get too high.
This is what I get for trying to sneak off. Now Natasha’s gonna be angry, and I’ll have to explain. Never had an assassin of her caliber mad at me before. Bet that won’t be fun. She probably makes the Other Guy look like a pussycat. Might need to call a Code: Green just to save myse—
“MISTER GREEN, I PRESUME!” a sudden, amplified voice shouted.
Bruce froze. He, Betty, and Natasha all looked up as a bright spotlight fell upon them.
Squinting, shielding his eyes, Bruce gazed into the sky. Something large and ovular hovered above them, and for a panicked moment he thought the Chitauri had returned. But that couldn’t be it. Not without another portal. And besides, the tyrannical voice had called him Mr. Green—
The name I used when I was on the run…
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“YOU AND I HAVE AN EXPERIMENT TO FINISH, BANNER!”
“Bruce, I’m scared!” Betty whispered.
“You know this maniac?” Natasha said, shielding her eyes with one hand while aiming her gun with the other.
Bruce grit his teeth.
No questions, damnit! Just let me think!
“Doctor Sterns? Is that you?”
“CORRECT, BANNER! I KNEW IF I FOLLOWED ROSS LONG ENOUGH, YOU’D EVENTUALLY SHOW YOUR FACE!”
“I thought Blonsky killed Sterns,” Betty whispered.
“Me, too,” Bruce replied. He remembered all too well the night Sterns had tried to help cure him, and the disaster which followed when Emile Blonsky, a high-strung special forces soldier, somehow became a superpowered Abomination, waging a one-monster war on New York City.
And he got that way because of my DNA. Now Sterns must be infected, too!
Natasha stepped off the ramp, cocked the hammer on her gun. “Whoever you are, listen to me very carefully. My name is Agent Romanoff of The Avengers. You’re creating a potentially disastrous situation here. You need to stand down.”
Betty jerked toward Natasha. Still staring up, Bruce’s jaw fell.
“STAND DOWN? AHAHAHAHAHAAA! NEVER! IT’S BANNER’S FAULT THAT I’VE BECOME WHAT I NOW AM! AND HE’LL REPAY ME BY GIVING ME A SAMPLE OF HIS SINGULAR BLOOD—RIGHT NOW!”
“Your play, Bruce,” Natasha said.
Betty moaned. “Bruce, you can’t! He wants the power of—”
“I know what he wants,” Bruce interrupted. Then, to the ship, “What If I refuse? What, then?”
A moment passed. Dim red lights flickered on the ship’s underbelly. A loud whirring sound cut through the air.
“IF YOU REFUSE, I’LL HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO DEPLOY MY DRONES AND HURT YOUR TWO GIRLFRIENDS!”
Girlfriends? Bruce bristled at the implication.
“I’m not his girlfriend!” Natasha yelled.
“Stay calm, Bruce!” Betty said.
“I’m trying, Betty.” Taking slow, measured breaths, the angry scientist walked to the center of the spotlight. “No, Sterns. No way I’m giving you anymore of my blood. The cops’ll be swarming all over this park in a minute, and you’re gonna end up in the Vault with Blonsky.”
“SO YOU REFUSE?”
“THEN PAY THE PRICE!”
“I think not,” Jarvis said from the Quinjet. Then the ramp slid inward, and the rear hatch hissed shut. The downward-facing jets roared to life as the plane rose up, turning to face the strange ship in the sky.
“Good job, Jarvis!” Bruce called.
“Evens the playing field, doesn’t it?” Natasha said.
“YOU THINK YOU’RE ANY MATCH FOR THE LEADER? WELL, TAKE YOUR BEST SHOT!”
“My pleasure,” Jarvis replied, and two red beams shot from the Quinjet’s underbelly. The ship lit up with a dark red sheen which faded, and from within came the sound of maniacal laughter:
“HAHAHAHAHAAA! STARK-GRADE REPULSAR BLASTS, EH? TOO BAD THEY’RE NO MATCH FOR MY FORCE FIELD!”
With a roar of its own, the ship flew forward, smashing into the Quinjet—
“Whoa!” Bruce said.
“Take cover!” Natasha yelled as she ran toward Bruce and Betty, pushing them toward the sheer granite wall of the fountain.
More laughter filled the night sky as the Quinjet sputtered and shook. Jarvis fired another repulsar blast which dissipated around the ship, and reversed engines.
“Sir, it appears that we’re at an impasse,” Jarvis said. “We cannot damage each other significantly enough to gain the upper hand. But I have alerted the nearby authorities.”
“BAH! THE AUTHORITIES! WHAT HAVE I TO FEAR FROM THEM?”
Another whirring sound sliced the air. Bruce’s eyes widened as he saw six glowing orbs descend from the ship. They dropped like falling bombs, then turned and swarmed in his direction. As they neared, he saw that they looked like giant eyes with neon red pupils, and each of them had four metallic tentacles slithering at its side.
“Drones!” Natasha cried. “Get down!”
Bruce stepped in front of Betty, who wrapped her arms around his waist. Natasha rolled forward, coming up on one knee, and fired two shots into the air.
A bullet bounced off of the closest drone, and it swerved—but didn’t die. Natasha rose, leapt into the air with a spinning kick which connected on another drone—
—knocking it away, but not disabling it.
Jarvis fired another blast which faded around the ship’s force field.
“Damn!” Natasha screamed. Two drones had descended upon her, their tentacles wrapped around her arms and holding her in place. The rest flew toward Bruce and Betty,
“You won’t get away with this, Sterns!”
“NO ONE CAN STOP ME, BANNER! NOT EVEN YOU!”
Four drones now hovered around Bruce. Breathing deep, the scientist raised his fists. Behind him, Betty whimpered.
Bruce stepped forward. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Sterns!”
“THAT’S WHERE YOU’RE WRONG, BANNER! THIS IS NO GAME!”
The drones swooped in. Bruce swung and missed as they dipped and dodged his fists. Two of them skirted around him and latched onto Betty. She shrieked, and Bruce spun on his heels.
Another blast from the Quinjet. This time, the ship faltered—
—and lurched forward. Intending to fly beneath the ship, the Quinjet dipped, but not before the ship crashed into the cockpit—
—driving it backward and down into the shallow water.
“SUBMIT, BANNER! COME PEACEFULLY, AND I’LL SPARE YOUR GIRLFRIENDS THE SAME FATE AS YOUR JET!”
Facing Betty, Bruce began to shake with rage. The drones held her arms just as the other two held Natasha’s, and two more hovered at his sides, waiting. He felt powerless, even as the beast within began to stir.
But if I let it out, I could level D.C. What if I end up smashing the White House?
“TEN SECONDS, BANNER! THEN MY LITTLE HELPERS PULL YOUR GIRLFRIENDS’ ARMS OFF LIKE BUTTERFLY WINGS!”
“NO!” Betty screamed.
“Bruce,” Natasha said. “Code: Green.”
Bruce sighed. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. It’s the only way. I’ll provide the lullaby.”
Jaw hanging, Betty’s gaze flicked from Bruce to Natasha, Natasha to Bruce. Detesting the fear and pain in her eyes, Bruce raised his arms.
“Fine. Take your sample, Sterns.”
“WISE DECISION, BANNER!”
Yeah, Sterns. We’ll see…
Bruce closed his eyes. They ached from the glare of the light. Sirens arose in the distance as he waited. A moment later, he felt metallic coils slithering around his biceps; cold from the night air. He heard Betty breathe a sigh of relief and knew that she’d been let go. Natasha, too, by the sound of the cocking gun behind him.
She wouldn’t need it.
“Betty!” Natasha called. “Run to me!”
Bruce smiled as he heard Betty’s shoes slapping against the concrete. Now, he could let loose.
“HANG ON, BANNER! YOU’RE GOING FOR A RIDE!”
The drones tightened their grip, began to rise. Bruce planted himself, allowing the rage brimming in his heart to overflow.
I don’t think so, Sterns!
When Bruce willed the change, it happened much faster and with far less pain than when he tried to resist. Every molecule in his body began to vibrate. Numbing cold shot through him as his bones began to thicken and grow. His heart pounded. His veins pulsed. Blood flooded into expanding muscle tissue.
Then it came.
The moment when it felt as if a bomb had gone off in the center of his brain.
The moment where Banner ended and the Other Guy began.
An inhuman roar echoed throughout Meridian Hill Park, alerting all within earshot that something monstrous loomed by the vaunted cascade fountain. And there, beneath the spotlight of the ship, stood the mighty Hulk. Twelve feet tall, emerald-skinned, and layered with muscle. Veins bulged from his neck and forearms as he curled his hands into massive fists. The remnants of Banner’s clothing lay at his bare feet. Something had tried to hurt his friends, and fury lived in his every breath. He wanted to rend, he wanted to destroy.
He wanted to smash.
Hulk looked at the ocular-shaped drones with slithering tentacles, and decided to smash them first.
“AH! I SEE YOU WISH TO DO THIS THE HARD WAY! WELL, YOUR CHOICE, BANNER!”
The spotlight intensified; almost like looking at the sun. Pain stabbed at Hulk’s eyes, making him flinch. He snarled, blinded, and swiped at the air. Maniacal laughter filled his ears, and he dropped into a crouch, forgetting the drones, ready to leap at the bright thing in the sky.
Then another blast came, direct from the ship.
A thin shriek, as of metal grating against metal, filled Hulk’s ears. Augmented to a torturous decibel, the sonic beam would’ve ruptured the eardrums of any mortal, but Hulk withstood it. Not without extreme pain, though. It didn’t just sound like scraping metal, it felt like scraping metal. Inside his ears, inside his brain. Combined with the blazing, blinding light, Hulk felt assaulted on all sides. Miserable. Unable to fight.
Eyes shut, hands clamped over his ears, Hulk sank to one knee; hunched over, growling, shaking, trying to escape the unbearable pain. The merciless soundwaves rippled over his flesh, rattling him as if someone had reached into his body, grabbed his spine, and shook it hard.
“HAHAHAAA! FOOLS! EVERYONE ELSE TRIES TO BEAT YOU WITH STRENGTH! BUT I, THE LEADER, THE SUPEREME INTELLECT, KNOW YOUR TRUE WEAKENESSES!”
Another roar filled Meridian Hill Park. Hulk hated the bright light. Hulk hated the shrieking sound. Hulk hated the dumb ship in the sky. And, most of all, Hulk hated the voice calling out to him.
“Puny voice thinks it’s strong! But Hulk is stronger! HULK IS STRONGEST ONE THERE IS!”
Head bowed, Hulk slit his bloodshot eyes. The drones had surrounded him, forming a ring of unblinking, neon pupils against the white glow. He leapt, snarling, and grabbed two; one in each powerful hand. The drones crumpled like aluminum cans, then Hulk threw them as hard as he could upward and into the light.
“THE DRONES ARE EXPENDABLE, BANNER! JUST LIKE YOU!”
Again, Hulk roared—from pain, this time. His hands flew back to his unprotected ears as he shut his eyes. “Not Banner!” he growled, tensing his legs.
The green giant sprang up with sudden vigor, flying straight into the air. Toward the ship. Toward the light. Toward the horrid noise, which grew ever louder, ever more painful as he approached. The sonic ripples even served to slow him somewhat.
Using himself as a battering ram, Hulk slammed into the ship. He felt the force field, the steel underbelly fold like cardboard against him, then, aided by the sonic blast, gravity yanked him back.
Being that close to the sound overwhelmed him.
“DAMN YOU, BANNER!”
Hulk landed on his knees, causing a small earthquake which sloshed the dark water behind him. Fault lines spread through the concrete from the point of impact. The fall didn’t hurt, though. The sound did, even as it faded and everything went quiet. He felt sudden moisture on his palms, and understood that blood now dripped from his ears. His soundless ears.
HULK CAN’T HEAR!
Still, Hulk felt the shockwaves slamming into him, and bent forward. The pain in his head increased tenfold; a sledgehammer whacking his brain over and over. For the first time, Hulk felt utter confusion. He raged, but his rage couldn’t stop this particular pain. Then, taking advantage of his fallen posture, two steel tentacles slithered around his neck and began to constrict. Two more slithered around from behind. The drones, trying to choke him in tandem.
MUST GET AWAY FROM NOISE!
Collapsing, Hulk barrel-rolled to his right, but the pounding shockwaves followed, hammering him into the cement.
NO! MUST GET AWAY!
A sudden gust of wind passed over him. Cold liquid sprayed his side. Again, Hulk rolled, and this time, the sonic hammering lessened. Shielding his face with bloody hands, Hulk slit his eyes to see a big, black shape rising from the water. The Quinjet, angled toward the ship, and from its two cannons came shimmering red beams. Hulk couldn’t bear to look up, but a moment later, the light faded…the shockwaves subsided.
Pounding stop, but Hulk still can’t hear!
The beast looked up to see two more beams streak from the Quinjet into the ship’s exposed underbelly. A soundless explosion lit up the night sky, and the sight emboldened him to rise.
His head still throbbed. His eyes still hadn’t focused. He felt tired. He felt weak. But the rage still burned, an urge to destroy still lived. So he ripped the drones from his neck and crushed them into metallic dust. The other two flew toward him and he swatted them down like gnats. He glared up at the fiery ship as it wobbled and began to descend. The Quinjet’s engines turned downward, hovering over the water.
SHIP HURT HULK, NOW HULK HURT SHIP!
The ship fell.
With no force field, the steel walls shredded like paper. Hulk burst through with ease, and in a frenzy began to rip the interior to pieces. Blinded by fury, he didn’t see much except a great web of gears, cogs, and metal tubing. No Leader to account for the voice which had hounded him.
Not that Hulk cared. He destroyed the ship with glee, even as he fell. This time, Hulk landed on his own two feet—
Another small earthquake as Hulk steadied himself. He couldn’t hear the sirens, but he saw them. Hulk knew what that meant. The puny men in blue with guns would try to stop him, but they couldn’t.
HULK WILL SMASH THEM ALL!
Facing the fountain, Hulk started forward. Something moved from the corner of his eye, and he turned. Two women now walked toward him, fear evident on their faces. He recognized them as Betty and Natasha; both friends. He growled, surprised at their presence. He still wanted to smash, but seeing them made him want to smash less.
Hulk miss friends…
He stepped forward. Both women halted. He read the words, Hey, big guy on Natasha’s lips, and smiled.
Big Guy is Hulk.
Tears streamed down Betty’s face. Bruce, you’re bleeding, she said, and although Hulk hated being called Bruce, he hated seeing Betty cry more.
Hulk looked down at his bloodstained hands, and groaned. The pain in his head had begun to ebb, but he still felt tired.
Maybe Hulk not fine. Maybe Hulk sleep.
He looked up, saw concern on both women’s faces. Both reached out to him, and, sinking to his knees, Hulk reached out to both. Natasha took his left hand while Betty took his right. Even in gloves and mittens, their hands felt warm and comforting. The urge to smash dissipated, replaced by the urge to rest. Jaw hanging, Hulk looked from Natasha to Betty, and back, reading the conversation on their lips:
Are you okay, Doctor Ross?
Not really, Agent Romanoff.
Well, don’t worry. He’ll rest now.
Hulk’s eyes began to flutter. He felt a chill from deep inside as the last of his rage faded, along with his mighty strength.
Eyes closed, Hulk went slack. His emerald green skin began to fade into a more human hue. His bones began to shorten, his muscles shrank like deflating balloons.
Becoming plain old Doctor Banner, mild-mannered scientist, once again.
When Bruce awoke, he found that part of his hearing had returned; the miracle of his gamma-poisoned condition. He lay on his back, naked, shivering against the cold—and now cracked—concrete. Betty held his hand in both of hers. Her scarf lay bunched beneath his head. Her parka lay over his groin and abdomen. His entire skull throbbed, but, looking into Betty’s worried, tear-stained face, the melancholy scientist forgot his own pain.
“Betty…is everything okay?”
“Yeah, Bruce. Sterns is gone, and no one got hurt. Except you.”
Bruce groaned. In the distance, he heard faint sirens and even fainter voices. All jumbled, frantic. Annoying.
“Is Natasha handling the cops?”
Using Betty’s grip for leverage, Bruce sat up, rolled to one knee, and stood, clutching her parka around his waist. The cold bit into his skin like a barrage of needles. His breath steamed out in monstrous clouds. He shook his head to clear it, then looked around.
The Quinjet again hovered over the water garden, hatch open, ramp extended. Debris from the ship lay all around, and the walkway looked as if it had been struck by a meteor shower.
Fallout from the Code: Green.
“You’re freezing, Bruce!” Betty said, pulling him close and wrapping herself around him.
Bruce put his free arm around her, smiled as she kissed his cheek.
“I’m so sorry. I guess this was a bad idea…”
“No, Betty. It was good to see you. I just…I hope that now you understand why I have to stay away.”
Head buried against his bare shoulder, Betty gasped. Bruce knew that he’d caused more tears, more heartache, but like any disciplined doctor, he’d done it for her own good.
At least, that’s what he told himself.
Bruce looked up to see Natasha jogging down the steps beside the fountain. She looked cool, calm, and businesslike; per usual.
“I smoothed everything out with Washington P.D., but we need to get outta here, ASAP, before they change their minds and try to arrest you.”
Bruce looked apologetic and helpless over Betty’s shoulder. He glanced down at Betty, indicating that he needed time. Head cocked, Natasha crossed her arms.
“Two minutes. See ya on the Quinjet.”
Gee, thanks, Natasha…
Bruce sighed as his fellow Avenger strode past him. At the top of the fountain, several wide-eyed policemen stood and watched. A general’s daughter had been put at risk tonight, and they didn’t want their butts caught in the ringer over it.
Natasha’s right. Time to wrap this up.
“I have to go, Betty.”
“No, you don’t,” Betty mewled in between sobs. “You can stay here, with me.”
Hugging her tighter, Bruce closed his eyes. He’d hurt Betty enough for one lifetime, and with great personal injury, forced himself to pull away.
“No, Bruce! Don’t!”
“I have to. You know that.”
Betty’s eyes flashed. She groaned, shook her head like a stubborn child. Bruce replied with a firm nod, mouthing, I’m sorry.
And he meant it.
For a moment, Betty refused to let go…then her obstinate expression melted with grief. Bruce stepped back, and her mittened hands came away with her parka. Weeping harder, Betty held the coat in her arms as if it contained a piece of Bruce’s soul. The words I-love-you played on her glistening lips, and if she said it, Bruce didn’t hear.
Turning, refusing to hurt himself any worse, Bruce Banner limped up the Quinjet’s ramp, naked, shivering, morose, and filled with regret.
Believe me, Betty. This is the last thing I wanted.
“Hello, Doctor Banner,” Jarvis said as the hatch hissed shut.
“How are you?”
Bruce winced. “I’ve felt better, Jarvis.”
“Sorry to hear that, Doctor, although I’m glad to see you back in human form. There’s a change of clothes in your locker.”
“Thanks.” Bruce stumbled as the Quinjet began to rise. “Full speed home, okay?”
“I’m afraid Agent Romanoff has assumed the controls.”
Bruce didn’t have the energy to get dressed. He felt like crying, but didn’t have the energy for that, either. So he sank into Thor’s seat on the starboard side, waiting for the inevitable.
“So,” Natasha called in a coy, sarcastic tone. “Wanna tell me why you snuck out on a solo mission without even telling me where you were going?”
With the weariest of sighs, Bruce leant forward, buried his face in his blood-encrusted hands. He had a lot of explaining to do, and even at top speed, this promised to be a long ride home.