Applejack: Marvelous

by Dusty the Royal Janitor

Interlude - Dr. Bruce Banner

FRIDAY, APRIL 13, 2012 - 3:04 PM

Doctor Robert Bruce Banner was in his element. Away from the chaotic bustle and noise of humanity that defined Kolkata. Away from the seedy, tenuous social order that barely managed to keep civilization running in the favelas. Away from the tension and tight military discipline of the main helicarrier deck, ever breathing down his back. Here, in a quiet research lab, with nothing but the sounds of his own fingers tapping at the keys and the hum of electricity running through the machinery. Here - not out there - he was a superhero.

As he continued programming his algorithm, keyed to detect waves of gamma radiation at a frequency and intensity that would normally be overlooked by your average sensors, he couldn’t help but idly wonder how long he could make it last. Perhaps SHIELD might offer him a place to finally settle down? Someplace protected from Ross and his cronies? They had been utterly civil with him, save for that one moment he’d tested Natasha, and that was really his fault. Compared to Ross’ special forces units they had been downright friendly with him.

It would be nice to finally be able to stop running. To stop living in slums and on street corners, barely holding himself together. To stop having to constantly look over his shoulders for Ross or for another Blonsky. It’d be especially nice to finally be able to get back to work in some capacity. To have the chance to really make a difference again.

It’d be nice if maybe, for once, he could stop having to feel so goddamn angry all the time. If he could finally stop feeling… the other guy constantly threatening to come roaring out, always pushing against the back of his eyeballs and banging against the inside of his skull, barely contained by his sheer force of will.


No, it wouldn’t work. Sooner or later he’d slip up again. It was a foregone conclusion, honestly. All that Bruce could do was prolong the inevitable - to keep it from happening as long as he could, and make sure it happened as rarely as possible.

This wasn’t Ross and his band of goons. SHIELD was a hundred times more competent, and a thousand times more dangerous. Bruce could tell from just how calmly and casually they acted around him. They were practically blasé, even. They barely even kept him under guard.

Which told him one thing:

...SHIELD had a way to put him in the ground permanently.

If he were to be honest with himself, that little factoid made some sick parts of Bruce want to stick around even more: The deepest, darkest, most exhausted parts of him, weary from eight years of nothing but running. Part of him was angry at the audacity of it all; that SHIELD would come to him to help them clean up their own mess, all the while quietly planning to slide in the knife as soon as he was done. Another part was angry at himself, because if he were truly being honest, he realized that he had nobody else to blame for the situation he found himself in. One moment of overconfident idiocy eight years ago and he managed to ruin his whole goddamn life… and who knows how many others? Given what the other guy tended to do, how could he possibly blame SHIELD for wanting to put him down?

And then there was the last part of him. The one, tiny, infinitesimal part of him that dared to cling onto a flickering ember of hope. Hope that he might one day be able to free himself from the other guy. Hope that he might be able to live a normal life again. Hope that he might one day be able to focus on the things that truly mattered again and complete his life’s work.

The part of him that insisted he hold onto hope and survive.

No. Bruce couldn’t stay. He’d finish his work for Fury and get out from under the sword of Damocles that hung over him as long as he dared to stay here. And then he’d get back to work trying to cure himself of his “condition.”

He was about two-thirds of the way through programming his algorithm when he heard the door to the lab whoosh open. Bruce didn’t bother to look up, assuming that it was Hill or Coulson asking for an update.

“The program’s almost done,” he said. “Once it’s finished compiling we can upload it to the spectrometers you’ve set up and we can begin tracking the Tesseract.”

“That’s neat and all,” said a familiar voice, “but that wasn’t what I came for.”

Bruce blinked, looking up to spy his cousin Jennifer, a sheepish smile on her face and a pair of drinks in her hands. “Jenny…” he muttered dumbly.

Jen paused for a second before awkwardly approaching Bruce. “I…” she said hesitantly. “I brought you some coffee. I remember you said you practically lived on the stuff back in college.”

Bruce looked at the steaming mug in her hands for a moment before awkwardly standing up, reaching out to take it. “Yeah, well… when you were taking as many classes as I did there wasn’t much time in the day to sleep.” He took a sip of the dark brew. Black, with enough sugar that it was practically coffee-flavored syrup. Just how he liked it.

His cousin smiled fondly. “Mom and Dad were so proud of you when you graduated early though. With a double-major no less.”

“Uncle Will and Aunt Elaine…” Bruce muttered. “God… it’s been so long since I…” He trailed off, gazing into his mug. “How are they doing?”

Jen grinned. “They’re doing well. Dad made Captain a few years ago. He keeps grousing about how he’s stuck behind a desk now, but he knows he’s getting too old to play detective. And it’s done wonders for Mom’s blood pressure, knowing he’s not going undercover in drug dens anymore.” The smile fell from her face as she crooked a finger under Bruce’s chin, raising his head so she could look him in the eyes. “They miss you, you know.”

Bruce winced, nodding. “I know.”

“I missed you too.”

Bruce sighed, pulling away from her and shaking his head. “Jenny… I couldn’t…” he stuttered, trying to find the words. “I was being hunted. Every waking second of my life was spent running. I didn’t want to drag you into it. I didn’t want to…” he hesitated.

“‘You didn’t want to hurt me.’” Jen finished with a light scoff.

“Don’t act like I couldn’t have.” Bruce said, frowning. “Like I wouldn’t have.” He sat back down at his desk. “You joined SHIELD. You know all the details of my life these past eight years. How I hurt Betty the day of the accident. Everything I’ve done since then.”

“You hurt us anyway,” Jen insisted, “you leaving without a trace like that. You seriously couldn’t have called us once? Sent a freaking letter?!”

“Ross might have tapped your phones,” he replied. “Or been screening your mail.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t know.”

“Perhaps not, but I do know that he was obsessed. I wasn’t willing to take the chance. If I tried contacting you he might have arrested you all for ‘aiding and abetting a known terrorist.’ He did that with a friend of mine once. Don’t tell me SHIELD never heard about what happened to Rick.”

Jen was silent, still fuming but without a decent rebuttal. As much as she wanted to argue, she knew that, in the end, Bruce was right. If it got back to Ross that the Walters’ had been in contact with him… let alone harboring him… at best it would have meant the destruction of her father’s career. More likely it would have ended with one or all of them in jail.

Finally, Jen sighed, the fight leaving her. Her shoulders slumped as she collapsed into a chair across the desk from him. “That fucking bastard…” she muttered under her breath. “That fucking bastard ruined everything.”

“I’m at least partly to blame.” Bruce said. “I’m the one who got over excited and tested the process on myself,” he chuckled grimly. “Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. A scientist who’s supposed to be a genius pulls just about the dumbest move he can and tests his new, revolutionary super-cure upon himself? It’s like something out of a cliché comic book plot.”

“Ross was the one that hounded you, though.” Jen insisted. “He chased you to the ends of the earth over and over again when all you wanted was to be left alone. Even your…” she made a rolling gesture with one hand, “...other half said so in one of his rarer, lucid moments.”

Bruce took a long sip of his coffee before continuing. “Ross wanted to go down in history as the man who brought back Captain America. He wanted to be the one to finally complete the faulty serum that had been sitting in cold storage for over 60 years and bring super soldiers back into the light of day. When his pet scientist accidentally made something infinitely bigger and stronger than Captain America ever was…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “There was no way he was just going to let me go. He was obsessed with being remembered for something ‘great’ like that.”

Jennifer scoffed. “Even if you’d succeeded it would have been you who brought back Captain America, not him.”

“He oversaw it,” Bruce explained, chuckling ruefully. “He signed off on it. On paper, it was his project. I was just the one who did all the work.”

“And the one who got all the blame when things went wrong.” Jen spat. Her hands shook, her knuckles whitening as she gripped her coffee mug. “He got off scott free, you know? He’s been hobnobbing and ass-kissing all over Washington for the past couple years. I think he’s trying to become the next Secretary of Defense.”

Bruce sipped his coffee thoughtfully. He hadn’t heard that, actually. He could certainly believe it. It sounded like the old general to try and climb as high up the ladder as he possibly could, and damn anybody who got caught under his boot heel. The only person he actually seemed to care about in any real capacity was his daughter. And even then, he wouldn’t put it past the general to throw her under the bus if he thought it’d advance himself.

As if sensing his thoughts, Jenny continued. “If there’s any upside it’s that Betty’s completely cut ties with him. It clearly stresses him out.”

“Have you…” Bruce started, leaning forward in his chair. “Have you been keeping track of her?” At Jen’s nod he continued. “How is she?”

Jen swirled her coffee around in its mug. “She’s doing well. After cutting ties with her father she couldn’t use his contacts to get work anymore, so she took a job at Marquette University in Milwaukee teaching physics.” She chuckled. “She says she’s got some weird neighbors but other than that she’s making a good life for herself.”

For a split second, Bruce’s breath hitched and his heart beat a little faster. He quickly took back control of his breathing, though, setting his coffee mug down. “You’ve spoken to her?”

“Yeah. After your fight with Blonsky I tracked her down. We still keep in contact every now and then.” Jen said, looking up from her coffee to look Bruce directly in the eye. “She misses you too, you know? She still thinks about you... asks me how you’re doing.”

The news hit Bruce like a ton of bricks. As hard as he’d tried to forget the past… to keep moving forward and surviving one step ahead of those who hunted him… he still thought about Betty too. There was a part of him that desperately wanted to steal one of SHIELD’s quinjets and fly down to Milwaukee himself right that very second. To see Betty again for the first time in four years and take her into his arms.

It was more of an effort than usual to keep control of his heart and breathing.

“I can’t tell her anything more than the vaguest of information, though,” Jen said sadly. “I’m given access to your files as a courtesy from Fury himself. If I were to go spreading around confidential information like that, I’d be out on my ass before you could say ‘security breach.’” She sighed. “Though to be fair, it’s probably for the best I didn’t tell her. If I’d told her you were in India I’m pretty sure she would have been on the next flight out. And excommunicated or not, Ross would have definitely noticed his daughter making a surprise trip to Calcutta.”

“They’re calling it Kolkata now,” Bruce muttered lamely under his breath.

Jen continued, undeterred. “Then again… with how you look now, I’m not sure either of them would have recognized you.” She said softly, standing up from her chair. She circled around the desk and put a hand on Bruce’s cheek. “You never really got to tell me back on deck… what the hell did you do to your face?”

Bruce sighed. “After what happened in Harlem, not just Ross but the entire US military was gunning for me. A few foreign ones, too. I managed to hide out in British Columbia for a while, but it was little more than a month before I had spec-ops kicking my door down. I was forced to keep running, never stopping anywhere for more than a couple weeks at a time. I was running out of money and resources, reduced to begging on the streets. I finally got fed up with it all when I was in Russia. I begged on street corners for a month straight, barely eating anything and saving up what little I received to get enough money to meet with a doctor who was willing to do some… off the books plastic surgery for cheap. He used to be some secret Spetsnaz doctor back in the Soviet days, and I think he’d taken up working for the mobs since the USSR fell.”

Jen turned his face back and forth with her hand, getting a look at her cousin’s new visage from every angle she could. “I thought you couldn’t go under anesthetic? The reports said that if you were chemically put under you’d… change.”

“I can’t…” Bruce said, looking away from her. “Which is why I had the doctor use a local anesthetic.”

Jen gasped. “You… were awake the whole time?”

Bruce nodded. “I felt everything. Every cut of the flesh, every time the knife scraped against the bone, every dribble of blood… I just didn’t feel any pain,” he said, not daring to look his cousin in the eye. “It wasn’t easy. I had to keep perfectly still the whole time, and I spent the whole time meditating, desperately trying to keep the other guy at bay.” He smirked ruefully. “I think I kinda prefer my new face, though. It has some character.”

“I don’t like it,” Jen said plainly. Her bluntness actually got a quick, sharp laugh out of Bruce. She pouted playfully. “What?! I don’t!”

Bruce chuckled, smiling genuinely for what felt like the first time in eons. “I could always count on you to be straight with me, Jen, but I never expected you to just outright tell me that you ‘don’t like my face.’”

Jen started joining in, giggling herself. “Come to think of it, maybe I never liked your face. After all, I kept trying to change it myself. Remember the makeovers I tried to give you when I was five?”

“Oh god…” Bruce smiled painedly. “I was a teenager desperately trying to hold on to what little masculinity I had and there you were smearing lipstick and eyeshadow on me.”

The both of them broke into soft laughter, remembering better days, before lapsing into silence.

“What happened to us, Bruce?” Jen finally whispered. “What happened to our family?”

“Life, I guess?” Bruce answered, sparing a glance at his computer monitor. Thirty-two percent. It’d still be compiling for a while. “As a scientist I did everything I could to try and make sense of everything. To account for everything. But if being… the other guy… if being him has taught me anything it’s that life is chaos. You can never account for what happens next. And sometimes it’ll come completely out of left field and knock all your stinking teeth out.”

“We can still make choices though.” Jen said, looking Bruce in the eye. “We can still change our lives. We did that. You and me. When you gave me your bone marrow. You changed my life. And I took the chance you gave me and became a lawyer. A damn good one, if I may say so myself.”

Bruce nodded, conceding the point. “But sometimes things happen that are just… out of your control.” He sighed and finished off his coffee. “And sometimes you make a mistake that pretty much ensures you’ll never have control again.”

“But you do, though,” Jen insisted, “you do have control. When I slapped you back on the bridge you could’ve changed right then and there. But you didn’t. You took control.”

“It doesn’t really mean much.”

“It means everything,” said Jen.

Bruce shook his head again. “I still can’t live where I want. I can’t work where I want. I can’t be the person I was born to be. Even after changing my face I can’t make too many waves or someone will take notice and I’ll have the hounds after me again.”

“Maybe now you can, though?” Jennifer asked. “Now that SHIELD is on your side maybe they could give you a new identity? A job somewhere?” She smiled and waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe at a university in Milwaukee?”

Bruce glanced at her suspiciously. “Do you really trust SHIELD that much, Jen?”

Jennifer leaned back in her chair, pursing her lips, thinking it over. “...I trust Fury. He gave me access to your files personally, just because he knew I wanted to keep track of you. And I trust Coulson, even though I haven’t known him very long. Hill’s alright, even though she’s a bit of a bitch. And there are a few other people I’ve worked with that I know I trust. There’s this new girl who works on the same floor as me, Jill, who I really like.”

Bruce felt himself sitting up a little straighter. “Like or… like?”

Jen smirked, rolling her eyes. “Oh stop it, you.”

“I may not be your brother by blood, but I’ll give somebody a proper intimidating speech if I have to,” he quipped.

“Jesus…” Jen muttered. “It’s not like that, Bruce.” she said, adopting an annoyed tone, though she clearly had a wide grin plastered on her face. “I like men.”

“And yet, I seem to recall an email you sent me when you were still in high school.” Bruce prodded, a smile playing on his face. “Something about a girl on the cheer team?”

“Louise Mason...” Jennifer said, leaning back further in her chair and trying to hold back a blush. “Oh wow, I haven’t thought about her in years. Only friend I ever had in school. She tried so hard to make me less of a wallflower but it never really took.”

“Clearly,” Bruce grinned.

“Shut up,” she said offhandedly, making a dismissive gesture at him before continuing. “Jeez, I remember I used to call her ‘Weezi,’” Jen giggled, pinching the bridge of her nose and blushing. “She haaaated that nickname.”

“And what about that Applewood woman I met earlier?” Bruce asked. “You and she seem to have talked a lot. Am I going to have to fight her to defend your honor?”

Jennifer snickered. “You better not, cuz,” she said, “she might actually be a match for you.” Jen shook her head. “No, AJ’s just a friend. Her situation is… complicated. I don’t think she’s going to be in the mood for any relationships anytime soon.”

Bruce nodded “I suppose things are ‘complicated’ around here a lot.”

“The lives we lead,” Jen admitted, “just like you said; life is chaos.”

Silence reigned between the two of them once more for a few long moments. Jen’s head dipped as she gazed into her empty coffee mug. It was a good three or four minutes before Jennifer finally spoke again. “Bruce, I want you to promise me something.”

Bruce quirked a brow. “I’m not really good at keeping promises these days, Jenny. Stuff tends to get in the way.”

Jennifer held up a hand. “I want you to promise me…” she continued, “that when all this Loki business is said and done, you’ll keep contact with me this time. A letter, an email… something. Even if you have to write it in some kind of cypher or code. Even if you have to put ten layers of encryption on it. Give me something. But please… please don’t shut me out again.”

“Jenny…” Bruce muttered hesitantly.

“And if you can’t promise that,” Jennifer said, sniffling a little bit and wiping at her nose, “At least promise me you’ll try.” She looked up at Bruce, her large eyes wet and red behind her glasses. “Can you do that, Bruce? Can you at least promise me you’ll try?”

Bruce hesitated. There was so much that could go wrong. If he lost control again, he could easily lose SHIELD’s good will. He might be forced on the run again with even more powerful enemies at his back. And Jen was a part of SHIELD. They’d catch any communique he tried to send to her for sure.

But maybe…

...if he could control himself… just for this mission. Get off the helicarrier without screwing it up again… If he could keep himself in SHIELD’s good graces long enough to get off the ship and go to ground, maybe he could do it. He’d have to take precautions to make sure his communications weren’t intercepted by other parties of course… but…

“...okay, Jenny.” Bruce said, finally.

Jen smiled. It was a wet, tearful smile, but a genuine smile nonetheless. She stood, circling the desk again and pulled Bruce into a hug. “That’s all I ask, Bruce. Thank you.”

They held each other for a few long moments. There, in that moment in time, everything felt like it was going to be okay.

Finally, Jen broke the hug, chuckling to herself and sniffling. She pulled her glasses off and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Alright,” she said, weakly clearing her throat. “I should probably get moving. I do still have a job here, after all.” Replacing her glasses she blearily winked at her cousin. “That paperwork won’t file itself.”

Bruce smirked, nodding. “Yeah,” he said. “I need to get back to work too.”

“Liar,” she said, pointing at his computer screen. The loading bar read thirty-eight percent. “I know you were just sitting here, watching a bar fill up and moping yourself into a deep blue funk before I showed up.” She stepped past him, moving towards the door. “As long as you’re in a place with modern conveniences, you should enjoy some of the luxuries. Maybe take a hot shower for once.”

Bruce gave her a lopsided smirk. “Are you telling me I stink?”

Jen turned her head and flashed him a smile as she opened the door to leave. “You said it, not me.” And with that, the door shut behind her and she disappeared around a corner.

Bruce leaned back in his chair, looking back at his computer screen. The number ticked over from thirty-eight to thirty-nine. He sighed.

A stone settled into his gut. This whole thing with SHIELD… it wasn’t going to work out.

But… even if it didn’t work out… maybe it would work out just enough that he could have something again.

He couldn’t have a life ever again. That was a given. He’d be on the run forever.

But he could have something in his constant struggle for survival. Or rather… someone.

Long distance, perhaps.

Inconvenient. He’d have to take extensive security measures.

The time between messages would be astronomical.

But it was something… it was someone.

That tiny, infinitesimal, flickering ember of hope burned just a little bit brighter.

Bruce stood, turning off the computer monitor and pushing away his chair. He made his way over to the door and pushed it open, poking his head out. A SHIELD agent standing guard next to the entrance blinked at his appearance and took a short step back. “Sir?” the agent asked.

Bruce smirked. “Can you tell me where I might take a quick shower?”