When the invasion started, Betty was in Bethesda.
She was actually in a clean lab at a local biotech firm she was consulting with, working with virus samples, when someone knocked on the glass partition and made the universal sign for "get the hell out here right now."
In the fifteen minutes it took her to go through decontamination, she caught only glimpses of a television, everyone in the lab crowded around it. She could see the skyline of Manhattan and smoke in the air, and sudden fear rose up in her. She'd been twenty-three when the Twin Towers fell, well old enough to witness not just the act but the fallout from it. She could remember, dimly, a time when you could wear your shoes through airport security.
When she emerged, however, she found it wasn't terrorists. The was something in the sky.
She watched with the others, uncertain and afraid, for about five minutes. Then she saw Iron Man's repulsors leaving a trail of afterimage on the television cameras, and below him, a blur of green.
She backed quietly out of the room, left without telling anyone, and went to her car.
The drive to Manhattan was startlingly easy. Nobody was going towards the city; the roads out of it grew more and more crowded the further she went. Towards the end, as she passed Staten Island, people had actually begun to pull onto the northbound side of the freeway and were driving south on it, a few being chased by police cars. She stayed alert, turning down the radio still giving reports of the devastation, and by the time she hit Newark both the north and southbound sides were empty.
She met her first obstacle on the Newark Bay Bridge, where there was a military checkpoint. Her lab identification and her military dependent's card got her across the bridge, and through two more checkpoints in Jersey City. At the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, they made her pull off the road and get out of her car.
She worried, for a moment, that she'd come as far as she could, but when she'd climbed out and presented her identification to the young soldier who stopped her, he nodded.
"No civilian cars from here in. Pretty near everywhere's blocked somehow," he said. "You'll have to go in with the next troop transport."
"When's that?" she asked, as close to panicking as she'd come. Bruce was there on the other side of the water, somewhere, probably alone and confused -- or worse, Hulk was there, angry and lost and in need of someone to calm him.
"About fifteen minutes. Talk to the sergeant over there, he'll get you on the truck. You got any bags you need to bring in? We'll have to search 'em."
"Just my purse," she said, and he dutifully sorted through makeup and wallet and tissues and keys and the rest of the junk in the bottom of her purse, then handed it back with a nod.
"On the other side, the chain of command switches," he said. "SHIELD's in charge."
She sucked in a breath. "SHIELD."
"Strategic Homeland -- "
"I know what it is. Why SHIELD?"
He shook his head. "Sorry, doctor, that's above my pay grade."
Going in, riding in the open back of a transport truck carrying her, two other doctors, and fifteen soldiers, they passed two transports full of survivors coming out. Wrapped in identical green emergency blankets, there was little else they could be.
"How many people are left in the city?" she asked the private sitting next to her.
"Don't know. Middle of the workday, middle of the city, reckon a few million," he said. "Power's out to most of the island. Water's not drinkable," he added, kicking one of the crates of bottled water that was going with them. "Brooklyn Bridge is closed. Tunnels are under military checkpoint. Downtown's pretty thrashed, so I heard."
"If I wanted to find someone..."
"You got family in the city?" he asked, face creasing with concern.
"Well, they got signboards up and they're processing everyone they can through Central Park. Hang a sign, check the survivor rosters, never know your luck."
"Doctor," he said, leaning in. "They're saying Iron Man brought a team in. The Avengers, calling them. Weren't many fatalities."
"The cops moved in and people got underground pretty quick. New York's Fucking Finest, they've earned the name. Cops and Fire did awesome, guess 9/11 paid off. Look, my patrol's got orders to sweep the tunnels. What's your friend's name?"
Betty swallowed. "Bruce. Bruce Banner. Tell him Betty Ross is looking for him. I guess...I guess I'll be at Central Park."
"Betty Ross, looking for Bruce Banner," he repeated. "I'll pass the word."
"Thank you," she replied, and they rode on in darkness and silence.
They unloaded at Washington Square Park, the soldiers mustering into neat lines next to a few makeshift tents where more survivors were gathering. A smaller transport took her and the other two doctors north through a ghostly but undamaged city, at least until they hit 38th Street. Then wreckage began to appear, dead bodies of horrific aliens, rubble in the streets, overturned cars. Charred storefronts. They passed a behemoth of metal and flesh fallen across a fifteen-story building like it had been dumped there by a careless giant. They had to detour twice to get around blocked streets and soldiers sweeping building-to-building. She could see, could see the handprints of the Hulk on buildings, on buses, his footprints on the street.
One of the other doctors puked when they passed a heap of burning alien bodies.
Her cellphone had no bars.
At Central Park they were escorted by armed men in black uniforms through crowds of people, thousands of people. The men had SHIELD blazons on their shoulders. She wanted to go to the central processing tent, or find a signboard where she could put her name up, but they marched her straight to the medical tent.
And once she saw what was there, she couldn't leave.
It was growing dark when she arrived, and for a while she simply rolled up her sleeves, took one of the bottles of hand sanitizer by the entry, and dove in. There were people with bad injuries and slight ones, children crying, one woman in labor. For a while she forgot the desperate search, in favor of the desperate work. It was a long time since medical school, but this wasn't brain surgery; it was just stitching people up, shooting everyone up with antibiotics for as long as those held out, and moving on.
She'd been there for two hours when a line of trucks pulled up. SUVs, pickup trucks, vans, all obviously taken from the street. SHIELD agents were at the wheels.
"We need wounded who can be moved, the elderly, and families with small children," one of the SHIELD agents told her.
"Hospital?" Betty asked.
"They're full up. Only place outside of them with light and heat and clean water is Stark Tower," the woman replied. "Tony Stark's got thirty cleared floors of refugee space. Don't noise it around -- we'll get a mob," she added. "Let's just get people loaded up and out of here quietly."
The transport seemed neverending after that -- military trucks, sedans, anything with wheels that could carry people. By the time Betty stopped for breath again it was nearly midnight.
More doctors had arrived by then. One of them asked how long she'd been at it and then told her to take a break. She went outside the medical tent and sat down just as a large white van pulled up.
Two men got out; one of them, in a SHIELD uniform, hurried inside. The other, a wide-shouldered blond man, was in jeans and a t-shirt. A little light for the closing cold but she supposed some people had it worse. She was aware she herself was in light scrubs and a white coat spattered with the blood of half a dozen patients.
"You mind if I sit, ma'am?" he asked. She nodded at the bench and he settled down, offering her one of the two bottles of water he carried.
"Are you with the Stark Tower transports?" she asked.
"Yep. I'm just a lift-and-carry guy," he replied. "You one of the doctors?"
She nodded. "They told me to go off shift, but I don't really know what to do with myself. Too wired to sleep."
"I know the feeling."
"I should go down to the central tent," she added, leaning forward, letting her head hang exhaustedly. "Check the signboards and the rosters."
"You looking for someone?"
"A friend. My friend Bruce. I came here to find him but I couldn't..." she gestured at the people being helped into the van. "I couldn't leave them."
"Well, we appreciate the good work," he said. "You want, you can hitch a ride back to the Tower with us. We could use some more medical. Get a hot meal, sleep under a real roof."
"But the wounded..."
"Tapering off. And we're filling up. Folks can see..." he pointed southeast, to where Stark Tower stood like a beacon, the lights burning brightly. "Some aren't waiting to be processed, they just come. Tony, he rigged up something for internet and telephone too. By morning there should be some, uh. Some phones working. Maybe you can call your friend."
She laughed softly. "I don't know if he even has a phone with him. I wouldn't know the number if he did." Something occurred to her. "Tony...Tony Stark?"
"Yep. I think he's running on coffee and force of will at this point. I thought when the battle was over it'd all be done. Didn't think about all the people."
She looked at him. "You know Tony Stark."
He chewed his lip. "Sort of. Why?"
"He might be able to help me find my friend. I think he knows him."
The man tilted his head. "What's your friend's name? Bruce?"
"Bruce Banner," she said.
He turned fully to face her. "Bruce Banner."
"Yes -- "
"He's at the Tower," he said. She blinked. "He's working on the medical floors. How do you -- who are you?"
"My name's -- Elizabeth. Betty. Betty Ross," she replied.
"Well, Dr. Ross," he said, offering her a hand as he stood. "My name's Steve Rogers. I'm gonna take you to Dr. Banner, if you'd like to come along."
When they reached Stark Tower, Betty could see the unmistakable figure of Iron Man standing on top of a bus that had definitely seen better days. He was broadcasting through what had to be loudspeakers in his suit.
"New transports to the west face of the Tower. All new transports to the west face, let's go, come on, I could be getting laid right now. West face of the Tower has the loading dock. Please obey all SHIELD personnel. Families with children, in the lobby. Wounded go straight to the dock. If you haven't given your name to someone in a SHIELD uniform, please give that a try, we're trying to find like a million kids' parents. If you have a kid with no parent, take them to the twelfth floor. If you are a parent with no kid, Jesus Christ, I'm sorry, twelfth floor."
"This is our stop," Steve said, climbing out, hustling half a dozen kids out of the van. He shut the door, slapped the roof, and the van pulled away, heading for the dock.
"Help me get the kids in?" he asked, herding them past the bus. Betty followed them inside, through a well-lit lobby full of people. Some of them saluted Steve as he passed, leading the kids into an elevator.
"Who exactly are you?" she asked, over their heads.
"Just a guy from Brooklyn," Steve answered. "Uh, Mr. JARVIS?"
"Yes, Captain?" came a voice over the speakers.
"Can you find Dr. Banner for us?"
"Dr. Banner is currently in the medical ward on the fifteenth floor."
"That's our next stop after this, then," Steve said to Betty.
The doors opened on the twelfth floor to a racket like she'd never heard. Children were crying; people, presumably parents, were arguing with SHIELD agents; SHIELD agents were yelling orders to one another.
Above the din, she heard someone shout "MINA!" and a man burst out of the crowd, sweeping one of the girls they'd been bringing up into his arms. He started sobbing uncontrollably.
Steve grabbed the arm of a passing SHIELD agent.
"Get the guy and his kid somewhere to stay," he said, gesturing at them. "I think forty-nine's still got open space."
"Yes, Captain," the man answered smartly.
"Let's get out of here before someone gives us babies to hold," Steve said, hustling her back into the elevator. It began to ascend again.
"We're past the fifteenth floor," Steve said to the ceiling.
"Dr. Banner has returned to the ninety-fourth floor," the voice over the speakers replied.
"Ninety-fourth floor's the highest structurally stable floor," Steve said to Betty. "There's food there. And we can get you a real bed for the night, I think."
She barely heard him; all she could do was watch the numbers rise. Bruce was forty floors away, then thirty, then twenty, then ten --
Then the door was opening, on the smell of food cooking and the clatter of plates and silverware.
It wasn't very crowded. There was a tall blond man sitting on a chair in front of a closed door. Two redheaded women were sitting on a couch, eating from steaming bowls. A dark-haired man was asleep in a recliner nearby. A few people in business suits and SHIELD uniforms were in the kitchen area, serving themselves --
He was sitting at the table, studying a computer screen, one hand hovering over the touch-interface. A bowl of food sat forgotten near his other hand. The screen threw light on his face, casting shadows under his eyes, picking out the grey in his curly dark hair. He was so tanned that for a minute she wasn't sure it was him.
"Bruce," Steve called, leading her out of the elevator. Everyone looked up at them. Except Bruce.
"Hang on a second, Steve -- " Bruce said. "Trying to send the new refugee roster to Central."
Betty stepped forward, aware people were staring, and said, "Bruce?"
His head snapped up. His eyes, weary and bloodshot, widened.
"Found someone who was looking for you," Steve said, somewhere in the distance.
Bruce stood up, chair scraping across the floor. He was still staring at her.
"I thought you were in Bethesda," he said, not moving.
"I was," she replied, trying to get her breath. "I saw...on the television -- "
She wanted to explain, how she'd seen Hulk helping Iron Man, how she'd worried so much that Bruce would wake up lost and alone, or lost and hurt, how she'd meant to find him sooner but didn't know how.
Before she could, she found herself pulled forward, up against him, face buried in his neck as he held her so tight it hurt, and she didn't want him to stop.
"I came to find you," she said, shaking now that it was over, now that she knew he was safe and unhurt. "I saw you and I was so worried -- "
"Shh, I'm okay," he answered, one hand on the back of her head. "You should have stayed where it was safe."
"I couldn't, I saw, I couldn't," she managed. He let go of her and leaned back to look at her face, fingers brushing tears off her cheeks.
"Admit it," he said, his voice rough. "You're still pissed I left you in Harlem."
She started to laugh, and couldn't seem to stop, just laughed until he pressed his forehead against hers and flexed his fingers on her shoulders.
"Come have something to eat," he said softly.
She was about to answer, already trying to hide herself a little from all the other people in the room, when she heard Tony Stark's voice again.
"Holy shit I am going hoarse with shouting at idiots, this whole thing was sent to try my patience. Next time I'm turning out the lights and pretending I'm not -- hello, strange woman in my tower," he added, as Betty pulled away from Bruce and turned to face him. "What are you, who is cuddling with Banner, I didn't -- "
He stopped, then, and narrowed his eyes.
"Tony, uh," Bruce said. "This is -- "
"Elizabeth Ross," Stark interrupted. "Principles of Biology in Nanotechnical Applications. Christ I am having an actual real life fanboy moment. Dr. Ross. Holy shit, why are you?"
"Um," Betty said.
"What he means is, welcome to Stark Tower," one of the redheads said, coming forward to take Tony by the arm. "Tony gets a little incoherent after midnight."
"You two know each other?" Stark demanded, gesturing between her and Bruce. She took Bruce's hand. "Bruce, are you sleeping wi -- "
"And that's our cue to put the billionaire to bed. I swear he's a genius most of the time," the redhead said, pulling Stark away by one arm.
"You get used to him," Bruce said softly. "At least, I hope. I think he's eventually going to lock me in a lab and not let me leave. Are you, are you hungry? Tired? You...blood..." he suddenly looked a little queasy, studying the spatters on her lab coat.
"Not mine! Not mine," she said. "Food would be good. I had a granola bar like...four hours ago. I think."
Bruce turned towards the kitchen, but Steve was already there, holding out a bowl of stew. She took it, sitting gratefully when Bruce pulled out a chair from the table.
"You found her?" Bruce asked, looking up at Steve.
"I was working in the medical tent in Central Park. Steve showed up and brought me here," Betty said, around a mouthful of food. "I um. I still don't know who you are," she added. "I mean, in relation to everything. People keep calling you Captain."
"This is Captain Steve Rogers, he was in the fighting today," Bruce said. "How much have you heard?"
"Someone mentioned the Avengers," she said. "Some kind of team Mr. Stark put together?"
"Tony's getting the credit, huh?" the other redhead, not the one with Tony, uncurled from the couch and came to sit with them. "Figures."
"Betty, this is Natasha, she was there today too. The...sleeping guy is Clint, and that's Thor on guard duty..."
Bruce gestured at the blond man sitting in front of the door, who nodded his head solemnly.
"We're kind of the team," Bruce said.
Betty looked at Steve and Natasha, sitting together at the table, and then down at her food.
"Thanks for looking after him," she said softly.
"Wasn't much we had to do," Steve replied. "He..."
He hesitated, glancing at Bruce.
"It's fine. She knows," Bruce said.
"Well, Hulk helped us out," Natasha put in. Betty saw the look Bruce shot her, guilt and pleasure rolled into one, and she figured there was a story behind that. Some other time.
She ate silently, one hand still holding his, until she realized that the SHIELD people had left, and Natasha was asleep on the couch. Steve was gone, and the room was dim.
"Show me where to sleep?" she asked softly.
Bruce led her down a hallway to what looked like a guest room, letting go of her hand when she walked inside.
"I'll let you rest," he said.
"Come in," she replied.
"Betty, I don't -- "
"Please come in. Just to sleep," she said.
"You and -- "
"I left him. Months ago."
He stared at her, sadness in his face. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not." She shrugged off the filthy lab coat, then the scrub top. "Come in and sleep with me, please."
He looked confused but nodded, turning down the bed while she stepped out of her muddy shoes and took her scrub pants off. He was barefoot, wearing clothes she suspected he'd borrowed from Stark, and he left them on as he followed her under the covers. She curled up against him, waiting for him to relax a little. He was watching her in the dark.
"There's something different about you," she said softly, lifting a hand to stroke his hair.
"It's the tan."
"No -- it's something else."
He leaned into the touch a little. After a while, he spoke again.
"I controlled him today," he said softly. "I've been good about keeping him down, but I let him out today and -- I kept control. Not totally, but enough. I...we did good. Together."
She smiled. "I'm proud of you."
The last of the tension left his body, and he pulled her close.
"There you are," she murmured.
"I don't know how you got here or managed to find me," he said. "I guess you always do."
"Always, sweetheart," she said. "Sleep now. We can rest."
He nodded, and she wasn't sure which of them fell asleep first.