Title: For the Heart That Cannot Vary
Author: Keira Marcos
Relationship: Bruce Banner/Betty Ross
Genre: Canon Divergence
Warnings: Adult language, no beta
Word Count: 2350
Challenge: One Sentence prompt on Rough Trade. You can find the challenge here.
Author’s Notes: Jilly and I are exploring specific prompts in preparation for writing from the same specific prompt in November of this year during the RT NaNoWriMo event. This could be read as a sequel to What Howard Stark Built. The title of this story comes from the poem “Present in Absence” by John Donne.
Jilly’s Response: A Common Disaster (link to her site)
The Prompt: She couldn’t follow him when he ran but if Bruce is going to stay in New York with Tony Stark then Iron Man better have room for Betty Ross, too.
* * * *
Finding Tony Stark’s mansion on 5th Avenue was easy, but the obvious small army of security proved to be a little daunting. It had been impossible to get a flight into New York so she’d driven straight through and now she was frustrated, tired, heartsick and furious. When Bruce had run, Betty had understood that she couldn’t follow. Her father’s pursuit of the Hulk had driven Bruce around the world.
Bruce begged her to move on and forget what they had. Her father had ordered her to never contact Bruce again. She couldn’t do what either man expected of her, and it was way past time that they both understood that. There was a gentle knock on her window. Betty jerked and turned to find a man in a suit standing beside her car. After a moment’s hesitation, she hit the button to lower the window.
“Dr. Ross, Mr. Stark would like to know if you wish to park in the private garage and come inside?”
“I…” Tears sprung into her eyes.
The man cleared his throat, and with a motion of his hand, another man appeared at his side. “Dr. Ross, if you’ll come with me I’ll have one of my people move the vehicle for you. Do you have a bag?”
“Yes, in the back seat.” Betty unlatched her seatbelt, unlocked the door, and the man opened the door. “Your name?”
“Happy Hogan, ma’am. I’m the head of security for Stark Industries.” He offered her a hand and helped her from the car.
“Is Bruce here?”
“Yes, Dr. Banner is in residence.”
She allowed herself to be led into the ridiculous sprawling mansion and clenched her hands into fists briefly as he left her in the foyer to stop the trembling. It didn’t work so she shoved them into her jacket pockets and took a deep breath then another.
“You look like you need a stiff drink.”
Betty turned and found Tony Stark a few feet away from her. He inclined his head, and she followed him when he turned on his heel and walked away. Quickly, she found herself in an elegantly appointed sitting room with a full bar. Stark strolled behind it but didn’t ask her a preference. Instead, he tossed some ice in a glass and poured sparkling water into it.
“So much for the stiff drink.” She slid up onto the barstool and shed her jacket.
“Needing a drink and actually taking a drink are two different things,” Stark pointed out reasonably. “I’m trying to learn the difference.”
She cupped the glass with both hands and stared a the gently fizzing bubbles for a few moments. “Are you gatekeeping for him or me?”
“Neither, I’d be terrible at such a thing. Bruce is asleep—we had a bit of a big green this afternoon after we learned some pretty terrible shit about SHIELD. Steve and I got him calmed down before he broke my house, but he took his dinner to his rooms and hasn’t left since. Jarvis says he’s currently sleeping, but he prowled around for a bit and apparently gave himself and the Big Guy a lecture about their temper.”
Betty took a deep breath. “I’m not here to cause problems, you know.”
“I’m barely keeping your father at bay on the Hulk issue,” Tony said flatly. “And since we’ve been poking at SHIELD a bit Fury isn’t all that interested in helping us. I’ve had to call in a few favors, but I don’t know how long they’re going to hold with you in the mix.”
“I can fix that,” Betty said grimly and pulled out her phone. He father picked up quickly.
“Betty, where are you? I was hoping to take you to dinner, but you weren’t home.”
“If you’d called in advance, you’d have saved yourself some travel,” Betty responded. “As to where I am—I’m in New York sitting in Tony Stark’s mansion. He told me you’re trying to take custody of Bruce.”
“Containing the Hulk is a priority. You’re to leave that house immediately,” her father hissed. “Banner is dangerous.”
“To you,” Betty said. “But never once has Bruce been dangerous to me. This is how it’s going to go—you’re going to get a different priority, and you’re going to leave Bruce alone. If you don’t, I’ll ruin you.”
“Ruin…what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the bribes, the money in off-shore accounts, and your disgusting preference for fucking my babysitters. Just how old was Sarah when you started in on her? Fifteen? Sixteen? She sure as hell wasn’t legal and she wasn’t the only one either.”
Her father took a ragged breath. “You…I’m your father.”
“You were at best, an acknowledged sperm donor,” Betty said. “And I’m tired of pretending otherwise. Leave Bruce alone, or you’ll pay for it. I’m going to give you a little demonstration of exactly how bad this could get for you. Consider the next twenty-four hours a warning shot.” She ended the call, put the phone down on the bar and turned to Stark. He pulled her water glass away and set a tumbler with two fingers of what looked like bourbon down in front of her.
“I know from daddy issues.”
She laughed and pulled a USB drive from her pocket. “How would you like to tell the world about what really happened in Harlem and how my father is responsible for the creation of a monster ten times worse than the Hulk could ever be?”
Stark picked up the drive and raised an eyebrow. “I’m listening.”
“Emil Blonsky was in the Royal Marines when my father borrowed him,” Betty began and took a sip of the bourbon. It was smooth as silk.
* * * *
Bruce woke with the sun as that had been his habit for many years. He stumbled through a quick shower and put on some clothes from the closet that fit him better than they should. Eventually, he was going to have to break down and actually ask how Tony knew his inseam measurement. Or maybe not, the pants fit well, and the labs in the mansion were state of the art. Eventually, he’d have to run because he really didn’t think Stark’s lawyers could hold off SHIELD and the US government long term. But he’d take what he could while he could.
He left his bedroom buttoning his shirt. The faint scent of Diorissimo drifted in the air of his room, and his mouth went dry. He knew only one woman who wore that perfume. Bruce’s gaze fell to the sofa and his breath caught at the sight of her. Betty. He stumbled forward, breath ragged, and dropped to his knees on the floor in front of her. She stirred and her eyes flickered open.
“What are you doing here?” Bruce asked hoarsely and winced. He hadn’t meant to ask such a stupid question, but there she was in front of him after so many years still beautiful and amazing, and he felt like an idiot.
She glared at him. “You asshole.” Betty swung her feet around as she sat up and managed to kick him not so softly in the side. “What am I doing here? I’m here for you! You’re all over the damn news!” She poked him in the chest. “I can’t fucking believe that you didn’t call me to tell me you were okay after fucking aliens invaded the fucking planet!”
He blinked at her. “It doesn’t seem like anything can hurt the Big Guy.”
She huffed. “And you? You were along for the ride! I saw one clip on CNN that showed one of those giant space worms swallowing you whole!”
“Well, we just sort of just went in there and tore it apart from the inside,” Bruce waved a hand. “It was fine, and he didn’t…hurt anyone innocent.”
“Hulk never has when he had a single choice,” Betty retorted and crossed her arms.
“And I don’t have your phone number.”
“It hasn’t changed,” Betty snapped. “Like I’d change it? You…” She huffed and lurched off the couch. “You’re such a…bah!”
Bruce stared in confusion as she stormed out of his suite. “Wait. How did you even get here?”
He followed along behind her when she didn’t answer and didn’t manage to catch up with her until she was in the kitchen rummaging around in Stark’s cabinets like she owned the place. Stark and Rogers were seated at the table, drinking coffee, and clearly resolved not to get involved.
“Betty? How did you get here?”
“From Virginia?” He frowned. “By yourself?”
“I’m a grown ass woman, Robert Bruce Banner!” Betty pointed at him with the coffee cup she’d chosen. “And I don’t need anyone’s permission to go anywhere—not you and not that bastard who fathered me either!”
Rogers cleared his throat. “Ma’am…could you not yell at Dr. Banner? We’d rather not have another incident so soon.”
She scoffed. “Relax, Captain Tight Pants, Hulk knows better than to try to fight Bruce’s battles with me.”
“That’s true,” Bruce admitted and sighed as Tony snorted in laughter. “Also, someone has already been a terrible influence on you. Betty, your father is going to—”
“He’s actually being arrested,” Stark interjected and turned the tablet he was holding around to show them both.
Bruce squinted at the screen and wondered where he’d put his new glasses. “Arrested for what?”
“Unlawful human experimentation, the violation of several treaties involving the UK, and a host of UCMJ violations regarding the inappropriate use of military personnel for what has been deemed as a personal, revenge-fueled manhunt of a citizen of the United States. Furthermore, he’s facing perjury charges for lying to Congress about the events that saw Harlem nearly destroyed. The city of New York is in the process of announcing a lawsuit against the federal government for damages, and there’s talk of a class action case for the citizens of Harlem who were displaced from their home because of Blonsky’s actions.”
“How did they…” Bruce trailed off and focused on Betty who was leaning on the counter drinking studiously from her cup. “Did you…throw your own father to the wolves?”
“No, I’m saving that for when he wiggles his way free from this mess and he will. He’s a lot of powerful friends, and I’m sure the President is already getting ready to pardon him for his mistakes in judgment.” She frowned. “He’ll either learn now that I mean business or he’ll keep trying to come for you, and I’ll finish ruining his life.”
“He’s your father,” Bruce said quietly.
“And you’re my man,” she returned evenly and hitched up her chin when he stared at her in surprise. “Even if you have been criminally negligent regarding my emotional and physical needs for the last six years.”
“Oh, look, it’s time for that meeting,” Rogers said immediately and stood. He grabbed Tony and hauled him up from the chair.
“We don’t have a meeting,” Stark protested.
“We have a very important meeting,” Steve stated and dragged Tony from the room.
“Oh, come on, I was getting breakfast and a show!” Stark shouted.
“Betty.” Bruce took a deep breath. “I’ve been working…with Reed Richards regarding a solution to…this.” He waved at himself. “But my life is dangerous and unpredictable and you—”
“I love you,” Betty blurted out. “I think I fell in love with the moment I set eyes on you and nothing is ever going to change that. Stop running from me, Bruce, because it’s…” She rubbed angrily at her eyes. “It’s killing me and love isn’t supposed to hurt like this.”
He walked across the kitchen, took the cup from her hand, and set it on the counter. “I wanted…I hoped you could be happy without me.”
“That’s just stupid and wrong and mean,” she muttered, and her breath hitched. “Were you happy without me?”
“No. I don’t see how I could be, but I’ll never have anything normal ever again, Betty, and you deserve so much more than I have to give.”
“I want your love,” she whispered. “And your faith. Believe in me, Bruce, because I want to be with you. Just trust me to know what I want for my life and stop treating me like I don’t have the right to make this decision. If I want to live with you in a hovel in the middle of nowhere—then just let me.”
Bruce curled one hand around her hip and pulled her close despite the many hundreds of reasons he shouldn’t and trembled when she buried her face against his neck. “I’ve missed you—more than I could ever say.” He cupped the back of her head briefly. “You cut your hair.”
She laughed a little. “A bunch of times.”
“I mean…it’s short now.” He ran his fingers through the curls. “Still beautiful though.”
Her cheeks darkened pink. “You look terrible.”
He laughed and gave in the temptation to kiss her—just once, soft and undemanding. No risks, he thought. In the back of his mind, Hulk rumbled and seemed to settle down for a nap. Bruce sucked in a startled breath and met Betty’s gaze as they parted. “The moment I set eyes on you, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you, and I’ve used the pain and rage of losing you to survive since I was forced to run. When we were together, I had everything and when it was…when I thought it was over…there was nothing. I had nothing.”
Her eyes welled up with tears. “Bruce.”
“I can’t run with you, baby. I can’t put you through that life…” He touched her lips when she started to speak. “But I can and will stay here. I’ll fight for the life I want for us both no matter what it costs me because I don’t want to know another day without you.”
Tears fell down her cheeks. “You’re still an asshole.”
He laughed and pulled her close. “I love you.”