Bruce's eyes flew open. A high-pitched chirping, like a chorus of cell phones announcing incoming texts, filled the air around him.
No, not cell phones. Speakers. Along with every hologram and monitor in sight that now flashed with bright red letters:
"Oh we are never hearing the end of this."
Bruce startled. It wasn't that he'd fallen asleep on the gantry. He'd fallen asleep in much stranger and far more uncomfortable places over the past few years.
However at no time had Tony Stark ever slept beside him.
Assuming Tony had slept.
As though reading Bruce's thoughts, Tony flashed a grin at him. "You make a good pillow, doc. Who knew?"
Bruce tried to remember when they had fallen asleep. They had been talking and then -
The alarms blared out louder, interrupting Bruce's thoughts.
"Do you have to go?" Bruce asked, and immediately felt stupid. Tony was a Ranger. The answer should have been obvious, even without a female voice coming out over the sound of the alarms.
Iron Jaeger report to Bay 01. Rescue Patriot report to Bay 02. American Dream report to -
"My public demands," Tony said. He stood up, pulling himself up by the metal scaffolding around the gantry. "Jarvis! C'mon, buddy, we're up!"
"I am ready, sir," Jarvis replied. Bruce leaned over and saw him standing at the base of the scaffolding. Bruce wondered how long he'd been waiting there.
Tony pushed away from the railing. "Right. Not to snore and dash but I've got to see a kaiju about a thing."
"So I heard," Bruce said. He stood, tucking his hands into his lab coat to help resist the urge to pat a lock of Tony's hair into place. It had already been too much. Bruce had to start getting better control. He had to remember logic, and reality. "Uh - good luck?"
"Don't need it," Tony waved him off. "But, thing is, this'll take me like five, ten minutes tops. Which means I'll see you when I get back, right?"
Bruce thought about making a joke about how he wasn't going to stay on the gantry for the amount of time it took to take down a kaiju. But the cold truth of what Tony was really asking about made it impossible for Bruce to turn it into humor. "Tony, I - "
Tony rolled his eyes at the interruption. "Busy, Jarvis!"
"I'm aware, sir," Jarvis shouted back. "But I thought you and Dr. Banner should see the latest information."
Bruce and Tony both glanced at each other, then towards the closest display.
"They come in Category IV now?" Tony asked.
Bruce grabbed Tony's arm. Intellectually he knew he should be focusing on the size of the kaiju and all of the implications it had for his research. He should run to the lab and get to work.
But what he said was, "How about I'll promise to be here if you promise me you'll come back?"
"I have an umbrella if you need it, Dr. Banner," the pilot of the Sikorsky copter said as soon as they landed.
Bruce looked out across the helipad. Sheets of rain were pouring down, making it difficult to see more than blurry figures standing by the entrance to the SHIELD Shatterdome. Bruce could remember when rainy days had been an anomaly in Los Angeles. The pilot was young enough that she probably couldn't remember anything but.
"I'll be fine," Bruce said. He removed his glasses and tucked them into the inside pocket of his jacket for safe keeping. With a wry look he knew the pilot wouldn't understand, he added, "It takes more than a little water to kill me."
Bruce jogged out across the helipad as soon as the copter's steps were lowered. Marshall Fury was waiting for him by the entrance, along with another man who was dressed in a navy blue suit. The latter looked completely unruffled, even as the wind made his dark blue tie twist and flap over his left shoulder.
"Doctor," Fury said, holding out his hand to shake. "Thank you for coming."
Bruce hesitated, but offered his own hand in return. "Thanks for asking nicely. So, how long am I staying?"
"Once we've got our tracking system up and running, you're in the wind," Fury promised. He gestured to the man beside him. "This is Phil Coulson, our chief LOCCENT officer. He'll be acting as liaison between the command center and the labs."
Coulson was all business. He led the way into the Shatterdome as he picked up where Fury left off. "We have hundreds of sensors centered on The Breach. We can peg a kaiju as soon as it emerges. It's once they hit the open ocean that we have a problem."
They turned a corner and emerged into the central staging area for the Jaegers. From his vantage point, Bruce could see two of the four Jaegers that called the SHIELD Shatterdome their home. The first was American Dream, a Mark III with a design inspired by World War II era de Havilland airplanes. The second was Widow Hawk, a Mark V known for its speed and precision targeting.
The Jaegers were huge, like buildings. Scaffolding was all around them. People in grease-covered overalls and SHIELD uniforms swarmed around, working on the Jaegers, cleaning, repairing, transporting materials, building, moving, constantly moving.
Bruce was reminded of a time when he spoke to a dancer in India about her elaborately embroidered costumes. "When are they done?"
She'd grinned, pausing only for a moment in her sewing. "Dr. Banner, they are never done."
"Radar, sonar, infrared, satellite," Coulson continued, oblivious to Bruce's reverie, "if it's an observation or measurement system of some kind, it's eyes and ears for us. But the kaiju don't like to be tracked."
This part Bruce knew. "They're silicone based. What heat signatures they have vanish against the ocean. Radar's your best bet but that only works at close range."
"Close range means too damn close to the shoreline," Fury said. "We need to start pushing these bastards back before they break the ten mile mark."
"And you thought calling me in was more reasonable than arming every boat in the Pacific with radar guns?" Bruce said, going for a joke.
"You laugh but I've heard everything from that suggestion to building a damn wall," Fury told him. "Figuring out how the kaiju work actually is the most sensible option."
They stopped outside of a metal door. The sign on it identified it as the Research Center. Coulson paused as he reached for the knob.
"I should warn you," he said. "Your lab partner - "
"Partner?" Bruce asked. No one had said anything about a partner. For years the unspoken agreement was that it was better for everyone if Bruce worked alone.
"Just trust me when I say don't touch anyone's notes but your own." With that Coulson shouldered the door open and went inside.
The lab was enormous. It was three stories high and filled with tables, computers, and tools. Clear glass monitors covered every available wall, their screens flickering with graphs, maps, statistics, and more. Holograms floated throughout the space. Bruce recognized Jaeger parts in some, images of The Breach in others.
In the middle of all of this was a flurry of activity, caused by a petite woman with long brown hair.
"It's not working!" she threw up her hands in frustration. She was dressed in faded jeans and layers of flannel shirts in varying patterns of plaid. "It should be working. I'm right, I know I am."
"Dr. Banner," Fury spoke up, pitching his voice so it could be heard over the hums and beeps of the working machinery. "Allow me to introduce Dr. Jane Foster. She'll be working with you on tracking the kaiju once they leave The Breach. Dr. Foster?"
At Fury's prompting, Jane looked up. "What? When did you - who's this?"
"Bruce Banner," Coulson said. When Jane continued frowning, he added, "The kaiju expert?"
"We don't need a kaiju expert," Jane said. She gave Bruce a quick nod. "No offense Dr. Banner but The Breach is the key. Once we can predict when the next kaiju will appear we won't need to track it. We can have defense on site waiting to blast them before they've left the gate."
"I'm not here to get in anyone's way," Bruce assured her. He knew of Jane Foster by reputation, and people who were connected to her as colleagues of colleagues. To all reports she was a good person, and brilliant in her field. "To be honest I wasn't completely sold on coming."
"But why?" Jane looked confused. "Look, I'm no kaiju groupie or anything but I'll admit you can't find a better place to study them. They practically swim up to our door!"
Fury cleared his throat.
"Which is bad," Jane added. She gave Fury a pointed look. "I know it's bad. I'm not saying I'm happy about the destruction they cause. But the more data we get on them, the more we can fight them. I assume. Look, I'm here for The Breach. As long as you don't get in my way with that, go crazy."
"And don't touch her notes," Coulson added.
"You especially do not touch my stuff," Jane told Coulson. "Bruce - can I call you Bruce? Bruce is a scientist. He gets it."
"I won't be here long," Bruce said. He felt like he needed to emphasize that, both for himself and everyone around him. "I'm not here to study anything. I'm just going to help in whatever way I can, then I'll be off. I appreciate what you're saying but these days there's nothing kaiju related that tempts me."
"Well this is awkward," a new voice spoke up. They all turned to see none other than Tony Stark grinning at them from the doorway. Behind him one of the overall clad techs stood, clutching a glass tank with a kaiju gall bladder floating inside. "Guess I should've kept the receipts?"
Tech after tech came into the room, each either carrying a glass tank or, in the case of larger items, pushing one on wheels. Bruce stared at each piece of kaiju that appeared. Intestines, teeth, scales, lymph nodes, a complete brain - each specimen perfectly, carefully preserved in tanks filled with ammonia.
"Put those anywhere," Tony said to the techs.
Jane took a protective stance in front of her work area. "Not by my stuff!"
"Not by her stuff," Tony added. He waved the techs over towards a more open part of the lab. "Try there."
"Those - " Bruce had never seen so many parts of a kaiju in a single place in his life. "Are those real?"
"Philosophically, are any of us?" Tony said. "Practically I'm guessing you mean are these genuine bits of kaiju. To which I can say yes. I thought about getting fakes then remembered that being rich means I can buy whatever the hell I want. I think I even got a new Bugatti out of it as a gift with purchase."
"You're joking," Bruce said. One of the tanks looked like it held an actual skin parasite, still wriggling with life. Bruce had only ever seen them in pictures.
"I never joke," Tony said. "Isn't that right, Jarvis?"
The question had been addressed towards a pale, slight man who had come in after all the techs had deposited their cargo. Jarvis. Tony Stark's co-pilot. Bruce recognized him from the news.
"I can't ever recall you joking, sir," Jarvis said which, in and of itself, seemed to be a joke of some kind.
"Case closed." Tony came over and held out a hand to shake. Bruce found himself returning the gesture before he could think about it. "It's good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on lipid-protein interactions is unparalleled, and I'm a huge fan of the way you lost control and turned into an enormous blue rage monster in front of the pee-dicks."
So much for wondering if anybody other than Fury would know about Bruce's incident in front of the Council of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Bruce saw Jane do a double take as she realized she could attach his face to the rumor.
"Thanks," was all Bruce said. Oddly, he had the impression that Tony was being sincere, which went against everything he'd ever heard about Tony's reputation.
"I keep telling you that's not how you pronounce the acronym," Coulson said.
"Then they need to spell it differently," Tony replied.
"Dr. Banner is only here long enough to help us figure out how to track the kaiju," Fury said. "After that there's a ticket to Nebraska with his name on it."
The ticket had been part of Fury's promise, a guarantee that had helped convince Bruce to come. But Tony reacted as though Fury had spoken a threat.
"Nebraska?" Tony asked. He searched Bruce's face for answers. "Why?"
Bruce tried not to notice how brown Tony's eyes were.
"It's inland," was all Bruce said.
"This is our universe, and this is the kaiju's."
It was later. Fury and Coulson had left. Tony had time to change out of his rain-soaked clothing to dark jeans and a black polo shirt. He was now perched on top of a lab table. Bruce tried not to stare at the blue glow - nearly kaiju blue, in fact - of the arc reactor embedded in Tony's chest.
Jarvis sat in the corner, content to be in the background until spoken to. Jane stood in the center of them all and manipulated a hologram to illustrate her points.
"In the middle is The Throat," she said. Her hands traced the connection in the middle, a piece like the center of an hourglass pulled long. "Every time the kaiju travel to our world they have to pass through this. But it isn't open all the time. It couldn't be, or we'd be overrun."
"I have a question," Tony said.
"What?" Jane asked.
"Seriously, why Nebraska?"
Jane sighed. "That's not what we're talking about."
"I know your bit," Tony said. He waved a hand at the holographic image of The Breach. "Size correlation blah blah, traffic light blah blah, things increasing until we're all truly fucked blah blah."
"Did you just blah blah the potential destruction of humanity?" Jane asked.
"What I don't know," Tony continued, now gesturing towards Bruce. "Is why he thinks Nebraska is a good idea."
"I told you," Bruce said. He wanted to get back to the rest of Jane's theory. What she'd based solely on energy signatures wasn't far off from what Bruce had found from learning about the kaiju. In fact, it tied in to a theory of his own which he might be able to prove once he gave in to the temptation to study all the kaiju parts that were now within his reach.
"You said inland," Tony replied. "Inland does not explain dull. It does not explain boring. Nebraska is for boring people. It's the state slogan, like how Idaho is for people who find Montana too stressful. Back me up on this, Jarvis."
"Of course, sir," Jarvis said, without bothering to look in Tony's direction.
"Boring is good for me," Bruce said.
"Boring is good for nobody," Tony said. "That's why they call it boring."
"You don't have to listen to him," Jane said. She took advantage of the break in her presentation to twist her hair into a messy bun, which she then secured with a mechanical pencil. "And, to head it off at the pass, no matter what he says you don't have to sleep with him either."
Tony made a face at her. "Just because you turned it down, Ms. Australian-For-Beer."
"That's Doctor Australian-For-Beer," Jane replied, though she looked as though she was trying to hide amusement instead of anger.
"I - uh - I just want to finish my work here," Bruce said. He figured the jokes about Tony trying to sleep with him were more about Tony's status as a well-known playboy rather than about any likelihood that Tony might find Bruce attractive.
Not that Bruce was wondering if somebody like Tony would find him attractive.
"This is my point," Tony said, as though somehow Bruce had been agreeing with him. "We've already let this place start reeking like a giant meth lab so you can get your k-science on. You might as well linger. Much like the smell, now that I think about it."
"I never asked you to buy those samples," Bruce said.
"But now that I have, think of all the brilliant things you can do with them," Tony replied.
Again Bruce was struck by the impression that Tony meant it. Bruce wasn't used to being so encouraged. Not since the army and, well, look how that turned out.
"Let me look at the samples," Bruce said. "I may have something that works with your theory about The Breach."
"My theory is the attacks are going to get worse," Jane said.
"Yeah." Bruce twisted his mouth in a wry grimace. "Unfortunately that's my theory too."
Bruce was used to working alone. Even before Bruce decided to turn the benefit of his doctorates towards kaiju science, his habit was to get things done without anyone around him.
Granted, this was in no way hurt by the fact that ever since Bruce was a child he'd always been considered different. Strange.
It was perhaps chicken-or-egg as to whether Bruce worked alone because he preferred it, or if he preferred it because that was where life had led him. But either way he was content with it and that was far more than most could ever hope to be.
Then came the accident. And all that followed. And how these days Bruce needed to avoid human contact regardless of whether or not he'd ever wanted to.
Which he didn't. Not really. Alone did not necessarily mean lonely. That Bruce had been put into a situation where he had no choice in the matter was irrelevant, or effectively should be.
He'd only come to the SHIELD Shatterdome because Fury had pressed upon him how dire the need was for a way to track the kaiju. That and the promise that Fury would use everything in his power to make sure that once Bruce was done, he'd be left alone again. No one bothering him. No one chasing him.
Then Bruce found out what it was like to work with Tony Stark.
Loud music filled the lab. Bruce didn't recognize the band but the guitars were insistent and the drums downright angry. Tony clambered about, climbing on top of cabinets or scaffolding to get into position, and occasionally nodded his head to the beat.
Jane for her part managed to either tolerate the music or ignore it. Sometimes she would tap her fingers on a monitor and a twangy chord would ring out. To which Tony would immediately stop what he was doing and shout. "No country! Not now, not ever! Jarvis, fix it."
To which Jarvis would make adjustments on the monitor nearest to him, and Jane would smile to herself in a way that made Bruce wonder if she actually liked country music or simply liked the way it annoyed Tony.
Jane's work focused on The Breach. Tony's focused on the Jaegers. Six different holographic models floated around him, with more sketched out pieces hovering around besides. Tony spent his time manipulating the models, occasionally conferring with Jarvis for his input with a quick, shorthand language that only the two of them seemed to understand.
Bruce assumed Tony and Jane worked nearby but separately. But then he saw Jane flick a diagram off of her monitor to have it land on one of Tony's, and later Tony pushed a hologram in Jane's direction for her to make adjustments to.
Bruce then assumed he was, as always, the odd man out. Until Tony waved something off of one of his monitors and onto Bruce's.
"I've got you on the HOMER cluster," Tony said, to Bruce's unspoken question. "You should be clocking those calculations at about 600 teraflops."
"It's no Commodore 64," Bruce said, as though what Tony had given him would merely make do. He was rewarded when Tony gave him another grin.
Tony worked hard. Worked, in fact, constantly. Jane was no slouch either. Jarvis made and refilled multiple pots of coffee which both Jane and Tony drank without either pause or thought. This Bruce was used to. Even when working alone he'd been near other scientists. Long nights, bad (if any) food, caffeine back when it wasn't a bad idea for Bruce to take it. All of this was normal for people in their line of work.
But Jane stopped from time to time. She stepped away and did stretches on a yoga mat not far from her table before returning to her work with a rush of newly found inspiration. She undid her hair and redid it in still messier buns, or ponytails held in place by rubber bands, or one of Tony's smaller clamps repurposed as a butterfly clip. She passed by Jarvis and asked him how he was.
Tony, on the other hand, took no breaks. He only stopped having coffee to switch over to bright green energy drinks.
In spite of it all Tony didn't strike Bruce as manic, or jittery. If anything, he was determined. He kept going, working on multiple Jaeger designs at once. In the few hours Bruce had been there, the six models Tony had started with had turned into seven. An eighth was taking shape beside them.
Bruce thought about saying something. Making a joke like No wonder you're up to the Mark XCIX already.
But as he watched Tony, Bruce realized he didn't actually find it funny.
Bruce and Jane were sitting by Jane's lab table. Jarvis had produced pizza from somewhere and, protective of her notes though she was, Jane was the first to point out that Bruce's side of the lab wasn't the most appetizing to eat at. Tony finally joined them when Jarvis managed to get his attention. Bruce was certain that Jarvis succeeded thanks to sheer number of attempts, and not because the last one included a mention that Bruce was ready to share his findings.
Still, Tony listened as avidly as Jane did, though Jane was the one who interrupted.
"They look different," Bruce agreed. "But on a cellular level they're exactly the same. The samples here prove it. We've got parts of three different kaiju, all from different times and attack points. Each one has the same DNA. I don't think we're dealing with something grown so much as manufactured."
"Like a weapon," Tony said. Bruce wondered if it was Tony's sharp mind or previous experience as a weapons manufacturer that allowed him to make the conclusion so quickly. Perhaps it was a little of both.
"Possibly," Bruce said. He wondered how best to tell them the rest of it. The few times he'd ever bothered telling anyone had ended poorly, to say the least. "I don't think we're dealing with mindless monsters here."
"I've fought the things," Tony said. "I don't need to see one of their brains floating in that tank over there to tell you those radioactive T-Rexes can think."
Bruce was momentarily taken aback by the fact that Tony hadn't disagreed with him. "True. But I'm not talking about brains like animals. I - I have reason to believe the kaiju are sentient, or at least what's sending them is."
"You mean what's controlling The Breach," Jane said.
"Possibly." Bruce hadn't gotten far enough to determine exactly how travel through the passage worked. He could try it, of course. Arguably being at the SHIELD Shatterdome meant he was in the best place to let his mind wander down that path and see what results he could find.
Which was all the more reason why Bruce had to leave as soon as possible.
"If they're being manufactured that means there's a purpose," Bruce said. He pushed his pizza slice away, finding he was no longer hungry. "If they have a purpose that means when they get to our world they aren't attacking at random."
"They're picking targets," Tony said.
Bruce wondered why Tony spoke as though what Bruce said didn't surprise him. "I think so. If that's the case, then that's how we track them. We determine what makes an attractive target to the kaiju and use it to extrapolate an attack pattern."
One of the monitors over Jane's shoulder gave a beep. She turned to look at the display. "Can we extrapolate quickly? Because according to my model we're due for another attack."
"When?" Tony asked.
It was hard to tell time inside of the Shatterdome. There were no windows to let in natural light. The computers had clocks but who could be bothered to glance at them when there was so much other data to gather?
It must have been nighttime, though, because at some point Bruce blinked awake at his lab table. Which, by extension, meant at some point he'd fallen asleep. Long enough that someone had placed a thin woolen blanket over him without Bruce being aware.
In front of him calculations were still churning. The computers were running thousands of scenarios based upon the algorithms Bruce and Jane had programmed in. Thousands more would need to be run before all the errors could be found and fixed.
At 600 teraflops Bruce hoped that meant they'd be done before another nightfall.
The lights of the lab were dim. Bruce spotted Jane curled up on her yoga mat. One of her shirts was balled under her head like a pillow. Jarvis was asleep in a chair, looking so still Bruce found himself watching to be sure he was still breathing.
There was no sign of Tony.
Bruce figured that was to be expected. Regardless of where he worked, Tony was still a billionaire. He undoubtedly had a mansion he retreated to when the time came for sleep - or perhaps a well-appointed suite in the Shatterdome's living quarters. Rumor had it Tony paid for what the PPDC could not. If that was the case, why not add a nice bedroom to the mix?
Then Bruce heard the soft clank of metal against metal above him. He looked up. There, at the very top of the scaffolding, was a faint blue glow.
Bruce started climbing his way up before he could ask himself why.
Bruce reached the gantry. At this height the lab opened out onto the Jaeger staging area, specifically the bay for the Mark XCIX. From where Bruce stood he could practically look the Jaeger in the eyes. Signage told him that to his right was the track that led to the bay for the upgraded Mark II Jaeger that was jointly owned by the US Government and the PPDC. Bruce knew from the news that the agreement was a concession to the amount of power a civilian contractor had when, to all appearances, he could single-handedly build machines capable of taking down a kaiju.
Tony sat further down on the platform. He watched his Jaeger as though expecting it to speak.
"Did I wake you?" Bruce said, both question and apology.
Tony shrugged it off. He gestured for Bruce to come sit if he wanted. "I haven't slept since Trespasser."
Bruce sat beside Tony, stretching his legs out in front of him. Trespasser. The first kaiju that had made landfall, so many years ago. It had started in Malibu, then worked its way towards Los Angeles. Bruce had been at Culver University at the time, but he still knew what happened. The news had loved the story of how Tony Stark, notorious partier and weapons manufacturer, had gone missing and presumed dead during the attack. Then, much later, Tony had emerged, revealing that he and others had been trapped underground not far from the La Brea Tar Pits. With all available resources stretched thin, Tony had had to create rescue himself, using what amounted to a suit of armor he'd cobbled together from scraps in the wreckage.
It had later proven to be the inspiration that would spur Tony towards creating the Jaeger program.
"Long time," was all Bruce said in response.
"Einstein slept three hours a year. Look what he did." When Bruce didn't offer any comment to that, Tony changed the subject. "Jarvis okay?"
"Sleeping, last I saw him," Bruce said.
"Good." Tony gave a nod of satisfaction. "He needs it. I mean he hovers, if he thinks he has to worry about me. He's not - he's fine. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with him."
"Never thought there was," Bruce said. Jarvis had been trapped with Tony during Trespasser's attack. At the time he'd been known for being Tony's personal valet. After he'd been different. Not that Bruce knew the details, but based on what behavior he'd observed, he could hazard a guess. "It's not any of my business anyway."
"It's a memory thing." If anything, Bruce's claim seemed to make Tony more interested in talking about it. Tony gestured towards his forehead. "Some retro-antero thing. I dunno, I'm an engineer, not a doctor. But he's still him in there. Still himself."
"He can learn," Bruce said. He knew enough about how humans worked to have some understanding of what Tony was telling him, and what kinds of limitations someone in Jarvis's situation might come up against.
Tony nodded. "He doesn't remember learning but he learns. He's a good pilot, and his brain is as sharp as ever. Maybe more, now that it's not as cluttered."
Bruce hadn't realized that aspect of it. "He helped you with your lab work before?"
"Oh yeah. Always." Tony flickered his eyes towards Bruce. "I know what they say - 'Tony's such a self-absorbed dick the only person he could Drift with is a blank slate.' But that's not it. Jarvis… he's been there my whole life. Seen me at my worst. Even if he doesn't remember it, he's the only person I trust to get near those memories again."
"Is that why you came up with the Drift?" Bruce asked.
Tony laughed. "Hell no. That wasn't me. I'm just a mechanic. I got us to machine. It was some… friends of mine, who came up with the Drift. Separately. In pieces. I did the math to put it together."
Before meeting Tony, Bruce would've assumed any hesitation around the word 'friend' meant Tony was referring to former lovers. Something in Tony's voice made Bruce now suspect that it wasn't true. Or at least, it wasn't the entire truth. "Where are they now?"
Bruce winced. "I'm sorry."
"Nobody escapes kaiju entirely unscathed," Tony said. "I'm thinking you and I both know that better than anybody."
Bruce's shoulders slumped. This was exactly the kind of conversation he'd hoped to avoid. "Some of us have only ourselves to blame."
"I've got a cluster of shrapnel trying every second to crawl its way into my heart that disagrees with you," Tony said.
"What happened to you - you - " Bruce took a breath. He thought he'd gotten past being frustrated at the hand life had dealt him. "You grew from it. You figured out how to turn it to your advantage, how to control it."
"Because I learned how."
"It's still different." Bruce started to stand up. Returning to his models sounded like a good idea right now.
Tony caught him by the wrist before he could go anywhere. "Hey."
Bruce stilled. Normally people avoided making contact with him. They definitely avoided doing it in a way that made him stay.
"I heard all about your 'accident'," the dry tone of Tony's voice made the quote marks around the word clear. Tony looked at Bruce, his deep brown eyes watching him without pity, or disgust. If anything, Bruce would have called it understanding. "That much Kaiju Blue should've killed you."
"Lucky me," Bruce said. He didn't move. Tony's hand was still on his wrist. Bruce told himself he didn't notice how warm it was, or gentle. "Because this is definitely better than the alternative."
Bruce should've suspected that Tony of all people would be immune to sarcasm. "So Death took a holiday with your name on it. Me too. It's a terrible privilege but it only sucks if we let it. Maybe what happened to us is what we needed to put us on the path towards helping people."
"Please tell me Tony Stark isn't lecturing me about things working out for the best due to fate," Bruce told him.
"Okay, A) I don't lecture," Tony said. "And B) there's no fate but what we make."
They looked at each other for a long moment.
"Did you just quote Terminator at me?"
"I build giant robots for a living, this surprises you?" Tony grinned. "Besides, just because you know the reference doesn't mean it's not true."
"Tony Stark's an enormous nerd, who knew?" Bruce said as he finally sat back down.
"Only very select people," Tony said, which made Bruce feel as though Tony's hand was still on his arm, and not resting n the small space between them. The look in Tony's eyes didn't help.
"You're pretty cavalier about - what did you call it? Turning into an enormous blue rage monster?" Bruce asked.
"To be fair, I'm pretty cavalier about most things," Tony said. "Comes with the territory."
"It's not like that." Bruce decided he might as well be honest. "It's not rage. Not directly. It's - the kaiju have a direct access to my mind."
"The kaiju are angry?" Tony asked. He titled his head thoughtfully. "Can't say that surprises me."
Bruce raised his eyebrows at Tony. "I just said the kaiju have access to my mind and it's their mood that stands out to you?"
"I already know you're brilliant," Tony said. He turned to sit sideways, now facing Bruce instead of his Jaeger. "You tell me the kaiju and you are mentally Skyping and I've got no reason to doubt you."
"Thanks," Bruce said. He didn't know what to do with someone believing him without question, let alone someone who still looked at him like a person and not a freak. He wondered if Tony's time with Jarvis had given him practice at accepting the abnormal as normal. Or perhaps growing up as Tony Stark meant nothing in life was ever normal at all.
"What's it like?" Tony asked.
"It's not constant," Bruce said. He shifted, moving closer as though someone could possibly hear him when they were so high up from the rest of their enclosed world. "It didn't hit right right away. I had - I guess you could call them episodes. For a while the ongoing theory was seizures. It wasn't until I took a trip to Hong Kong that I realized the extent of it."
He'd been trying to research cures for cancer. He'd had a theory that the destructive properties of kaiju blood could be specialized, that they could be made to seek out cancer cells only and leave healthy cells behind. That the army had wanted Bruce's research to include any mention of how human cells might be improved thanks to kaiju blood - well, who didn't want to find ways to make life better for everyone?
In hindsight Bruce suspected his excitement over the kaiju and the huge swaths of biological possibilities they had presented had blinded him to the obvious truth. The army had lied to him. They didn't care about curing disease. They wanted to use kaiju blood to make super soldiers. But Bruce hadn't realized. And when General Ross told him that without concrete evidence their funding would be cut, offering himself as a test subject seemed like the right thing to do. Noble, even.
The injections and radiation had been off the scale. A fault of the machines, or so Bruce was told when he was coherent enough to understand.
He'd traveled. He didn't intend to. More often than not he woke in places with no memory of how he'd gotten there. First from city to city, then he hopped country borders.
It was in Hong Kong that the pieces fell into place.
There was a kaiju attack. Bruce had gone into one of the shelters. He'd been doing random work as a doctor, trying to help people when he could without drawing too much attention to himself. When the kaiju came inland enough to set the shelter walls shaking, Bruce assumed the world around him would blur and he would black out again.
He didn't. Instead for the first time he felt clarity. Only it was not his own.
It was the kaiju.
Kaiju didn't just have minds. They had hive minds. When Bruce had survived the Kaiju Blue injection, his own mind had been transformed. The times he thought he had passed out were when the kaiju thoughts were stronger than his own. Being near kaiju brought it about but so did strong emotions like fear or anger. It was as though the kaiju recognized those feelings as not dissimilar from their own, and used them to hone in on Bruce's thoughts.
Or he was being paranoid and attributing purpose to random sensations. But that didn't dispute the fact that Bruce could hear the kaiju thinking or see glimpses of their world. That he woke at times with the idea of destruction, death, get rid of the vermin on the planet and do as the Precursors wanted, make it right, make it ready -
"Hey." Tony's hand was on Bruce's shoulder now. His dark eyes watched Bruce with concern. "C'mon back to me, doc."
Bruce blinked until his vision cleared. He hadn't realized he'd lost himself in telling Tony his story. Of course that was always the danger of thinking too much about the kaiju. They had a tendency to think back, and Bruce couldn't always hold them off.
Tony's thumb drew small circles along Bruce's collarbone. It felt solid. Grounding. "So. Nebraska."
"Inland," Bruce said. Far away from the water. Maybe far enough away from their thoughts, or the chance that Bruce might lose control and end up hurting people.
Bruce didn't realize he'd spoken the last part aloud until Tony said, "To be fair, the Council is a giant bag of dicks. If anybody deserved a kaiju-fueled temper tantrum thrown at them, it's them."
"They were cutting funding," Bruce said, to add to his defense. It had been one of the last times he'd attempted to hold on to his old life. Before the blackouts got too bad. Before he went on the run, trying to get away from the army that would lock him up and experiment on him like he was no more than a piece of kaiju himself.
"Wish I could've seen their faces." Tony smiled at him. Bruce told himself it was wrong to smile back. Possibly even offensive given what they were talking about. Yet Tony's amusement was hard to deny.
"You can stay here," Tony told him. His hand was still on Bruce's shoulder. This was more physical contact than Bruce had had in years. Bruce told himself he should pull away, but the strength to do so wasn't coming. "Not for nothing but this place is built to handle giant robots whose sole function is taking kaiju down. If you're worried about danger I think we can handle it."
"Why?" Bruce asked. He honestly couldn't fathom any reason why anyone would want him to linger.
"Uh, your brain?" Tony replied. "And I'm not talking about the parts covered in glowing Smurf goo. I mean your brilliance. You could take what Jane and I are doing here and turn it into kid's play - "
"There's no way you are that modest," Bruce said.
Tony smirked, caught. "Okay, fine. But it's a rare day I tell somebody how fond I am of their IQ. Even rarer when I mean it. You could do good here. So that's a reason."
"There's another?" Bruce asked. He'd been going for surprise. Instead the question came out quiet. Sincere.
Tony responded by pressing his mouth to Bruce's lips.
"I was right! I knew I was right!" Jane pumped her fists in the air in triumph as she watched her displays. "I mean not that I'm happy for the danger, but we definitely have a kaiju and it's heading - "
"Right for us," Bruce said. He didn't need to look at his own models to know that. He felt it in his guts. Out there, in the water, slicing through the waves as though they were nothing, closing the distance to get to shore, get to the target, get to them -
"Bruce?" Jane left her spot to stand in front of him. He must have looked truly bad for Jane to abandon her research.
"I'm fine," Bruce lied. He looked around. The red lights were still flashing. Announcements rang out, telling the various Jaegers what to do, be it guard the ten mile barrier, hold the Miracle Mile, or be at the ready for whatever recovery missions were needed along the shore. "Uh - what do we do?"
"Work," Jane said. She gave him a look of sympathetic understanding. "It's all we can do."
Bruce turned to his machines. How strange to not be at the Shatterdome for 24 hours and yet think of this workspace as his. Those thoughts were wrong and he knew it. They made him think about staying. Think about Tony's kisses, which had gone on and on until exhaustion claimed them both.
Bruce hadn't been able to resist kissing Tony back. Even without the years of very little physical contact. Even regardless of how incredibly handsome Tony was. Kissing him had felt good. Right.
Like he belonged.
Stupid. Beyond stupid. Dangerous. Both to him and to Tony who was going off to fight and -
- and he could see it. Iron Jaeger, standing strong amongst the waves. The center of its chest glowed as energy built, then shot out. Bruce knew the word unibeam even as he also knew pain, hurt, lash back at the vermin, hit with a tail designed to stun and then kill. They will never suspect -
"Acid." Bruce whispered before he knew he was speaking.
"Top shelf, that cabinet," Jane pointed without looking away from her work.
"No." Bruce swallowed. He felt like he could taste briney seawater filling his throat as he opened his mouth, ready to bite, ready to tear -
Bruce shook his head. He told himself to focus, which somehow resulted in him thinking of Tony. "The kaiju. It's got acid. It'll dissolve the Jaegers. They need to know."
Jane glanced towards the monitors in front of Bruce, then back at him with confusion. "How do you - "
For the second time since Tony, Bruce was met with the phenomenon of someone simply believing him.
"Stay here," she told him, and bolted for the command center.
Bruce saw the fight. He couldn't not. After Jane had left Bruce had no more reason to cling to his coherence. The flood of kaiju thoughts took over. He saw everything, all from the kaiju's point of view as it hit one Jaeger, than the next. Bruce couldn't pull himself back enough to recognize what the Jaegers were doing, what patterns or teamwork they might be going through.
But that was for the best. Because the kaiju could hear him, could hear - Thresher, yes, a good name, a name that meant hurt, destroy. Lash out. Take the vermin down.
Bruce saw acid being spit as though from his own month. He smelled ammonia, and the tang of melting metal. One Jaeger launched electric netting towards the kaiju, and Bruce felt the painful shocks as though it had been his body stung by the crackling bite. Another punched with a plasma canon housed in its silver-red left arm.
Then there was the red and gold one. So many beams. So many tiny missiles that hit exactly in tender spots. This one had to go. Had to suffer. Had to feel the full strength of a swing of barbed tail, knocking it down, sending it deep into the water. Making it drown.
At which point Bruce could hear himself screaming, though he thought the sound was muffled, blocked by the wind and rain and the waves. But that was Tony's Jaeger. Tony himself inside.
With all of the strength inside of him Bruce reached out and grabbed the Iron Jaeger before it could fall.
"So that was new."
Bruce had no idea how many hours - days? - he'd been asleep. Actually sleep seemed like a generous term. It might have been a coma.
He was in a bed. That much he knew. In a small room decorated with clippings from newspapers and magazines, all of which had pictures of Tony and Jarvis and the various Jaegers Tony had built.
Tony himself was sitting at the foot of the bed, eating something that smelled of spiced lamb. There was a cut on his left cheek, along with some bruising. He spoke as though he and Bruce had been having a conversation.
"What?" Bruce asked. His voice was raspy, unused.
Tony handed him a cup of water. "Normally kaiju try to kill me during a fight. Never had one lend a hand before. Lend a paw? You know what I mean."
"That actually happened," Bruce said. So much felt surreal to him. Oddly, Tony was not part of that.
"Jarvis as my witness," Tony said, placing his hand over the blue glow in his chest like he was taking a pledge. "Also Steve, and Buckster, and Nat, and - "
"You're okay?" Bruce asked. He had to know that. He felt desperate to know that.
"I'm never okay," Tony said. But he flashed a grin at Bruce. "With that parameter as a given, yes, I'm fine. Ready to take on the next kaiju that wants to kiss me or kill me."
Bruce sat up. He felt light headed, but he needed to look Tony in the eyes. "He - what happened to it?"
"Dead." Tony didn't look away. He searched Bruce's face for any sign of reaction. "We destroyed it. We had to."
Relief flooded through Bruce. "Good."
"They're monsters," Bruce said. "They're here to kill us. They want us dead. They want us off the planet so they can have it for themselves. Killing them is the only way to stop them."
"Actually Fury's got some theories about that, but agreed." Tony said. He put his plate aside. "How about you? Everything okay in that blue head of yours?"
"Sure, until the next kaiju comes."
"I was accepting that as a given."
Silence hung between them. Bruce found it difficult to look away from Tony's gaze. It was calm. Understanding. Accepting.
Tony was the one who turned his head first. "Look, if you're that fired up over Nebraska I'll drive you to the bus station myself."
"Do you even know where the nearest bus station is?" Bruce asked.
Tony balled up a paper napkin and tossed it onto his plate. "No, but my cars have GPS. I can make do."
Bruce took several breaths. He thought about Tony, and Jane, and the work they could do. He thought about the danger. He thought about the risks Tony took every time he went off to fight a kaiju.
He thought about knowing Tony took those risks, and being too far away to do anything about it.
"Actually," Bruce said, when enough time had passed that Tony had begun glancing in his direction again, "I hear Nebraska's pretty dull."