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To the Naked Eye

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Bruce hasn’t been sleeping very well since—well, since Johannesburg, if he’s being completely honest. After Sokovia, when he’d gone on the run, he’d slept with one eye open so to speak. Even when invisible, he’d maintained a certain state of alert.

 

What if he became visible while he slept? What if someone found him?

 

And now he’s at the compound and relatively safe, and Bruce still can’t sleep, because what if he wakes up and he’s invisible again?

 

He starts awake again, and the quality of light indicates the sun is rising, which means he can legitimately get up without letting on that he hadn’t slept.

 

And hey, he’s still visible.

 

He heads out to the kitchen and is relieved to find that he’s alone. He’s seen Vision a few times, but Vision seems content to give Bruce his space. Rhodey hasn’t been back to the compound yet, though, and that’s the person Bruce is most dreading.

 

He and Rhodey were friendly in the past, although they rarely crossed paths, but that was before the Accords.

 

Rhodey signed the Accords, and he’s still military, which means he’s just as likely to turn Bruce in as turn a blind eye.

 

Bruce has no idea what his next steps are going to be, but he knows he doesn’t want to end up in Ross’ hands.

 

Bruce makes a cup of tea and puts some bread in the toaster and hopes that somehow it will settle his roiling stomach.

 

“You’re up early.”

 

Bruce turns to look at Tony. “I was awake. What about you?”

 

“Early morning phone call,” Tony replies.

 

Bruce knows he’s in trouble as soon as he sees the look on Tony’s face. “No. Whatever you’re going to say, just no.”

 

“I thought you liked Rhodey,” Tony protests.

 

“I like Colonel Rhodes just fine,” Bruce replies, pleased at how even his voice remains. “But he could turn me in.”

 

Tony frowns. “Maybe, but he won’t.”

 

“You don’t know that.”

 

“I’ll explain it to him,” Tony replies. “He hates what Ross did as much as I do, and you didn’t do anything wrong!”

 

“Johannesburg,” Bruce counters.

 

“Not your fault,” Tony says. “Also, pre-Accords, so you haven’t broken them. You haven’t even transformed since Sokovia!”

 

Bruce frowns at him. “Do you think Ross cares about that?”

 

“I think I don’t fucking care what Ross thinks at this point,” Tony snaps. “Rhodey won’t either.”

 

He feels a welling panic. “Tony—”

 

“I wish you’d trust me,” Tony says, and the hurt in his voice causes Bruce to feel guilt on top of the panic, and he suddenly wants to be anywhere but here.

 

He wants to be doing just about anything other than arguing with Tony about this, or making Tony choose between his oldest friend and Bruce.

 

“Bruce?” Tony calls, sounding panicked.

 

Bruce glances down at himself, but he already knows what happened. “Yeah, so that happened.”

 

“I’m sorry, I won’t make you see Rhodey, and I won’t breathe a word that you’re here, or elsewhere, I’ve got other places you can stay,” Tony says in a rush. “Just—you know—get visible again.”

 

Bruce tries, but just like before, he remains stubbornly invisible. “Sorry.”

 

Tony runs a hand through his hair. “Okay. Well, we can fix this. Can’t we? You fixed it before.”

 

Bruce doesn’t say that he’d wanted to be seen before and doesn’t really want to be seen now. “It’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

 

“Do you want to stay somewhere else?” Tony asks. “You could go back to the Tower, and I have another place in the city. You could stay there?”

 

The Tower is the first place Bruce felt at home in years, and he asks, “No one would know that I’m at the Tower?”

 

“I’d make certain of it,” Tony promises. “No one will know. The Penthouse is empty most of the time anyway. Pepper prefers Los Angeles.”

 

“I’d like to go to the Tower, then,” Bruce replies.

 

“I’ll take you myself,” Tony replies, and he’s as good as his word. He drives Bruce into the city and walks him up to the penthouse to avoid raising eyebrows when the elevator goes up empty.

 

“Are you going to be okay here by yourself?” Tony asks. “I can stay.”

 

Bruce shakes his head, then realizes Tony can’t see him. “I’ll be fine.”

 

“Your things are still here,” Tony says. “And I had the fridge filled. I’ll be back in a few days.”

 

“Tony, I’m an adult,” Bruce replies. “I’ll be fine.”

 

Tony frowns. “I don’t believe you. You’re invisible.

 

“Which is something I don’t have any control over apparently,” Bruce points out.

 

“We’re going to fix this,” Tony promises again. “I’ll do some research.”

 

Bruce sighs. “It’s fine.”

 

“It’s not.”

 

They’re at an impasse, and Bruce says, “You should get going.”

 

Tony looks frustrated. “I don’t like leaving things this way.”

 

“We’re good,” Bruce replies, wanting to offer him something. “No hard feelings.”

 

“How do I know you’re not lying to make me feel better?” Tony asks suspiciously.

 

“Would it matter if I was?” Bruce asks.

 

“Yes!” Tony says. “I’ve lost too many friends already.”

 

Bruce realizes that he needs to offer something more than verbal reassurance and he moves closer to Tony, reaching out slowly to grip his shoulder. “We’re good.” And then he gives into the urge to pull Tony closer. “We’re solid.”

 

~~~~~

 

He feels like a ghost in the penthouse, although he feels more secure there then he had at the upstate compound. It’s quiet, and there’s no one to bother him. He doesn’t have to worry about being caught out.

 

Oddly enough, he sleeps better in the Tower, too. Other than Tony, no one knows he’s there, and no one can see him. The security is top-notch, so he doesn’t have to worry about someone sneaking up on him.

 

Tony sends him a few projects, and Bruce contents himself with working and playing hermit.

 

It’s a bit of a relief. When he’d been at the compound, the absence of the rest of the team had been obvious. On the run, Bruce wanted nothing more than to get back the life he lost, but that’s clearly not going to happen, not any time soon.

 

His losses seem irrevocable at this point—what’s the loss of visibility in the grand scheme of things? He’s not inclined to do anything about it, not when it’s protecting him.

 

A week later, Tony returns to the Tower, calling Bruce’s name. “FRIDAY says you’re here!” he calls. “Are you decent?”

 

“Does it matter?” Bruce asks from the couch where he’d been reading some scientific journals he wants to catch up on.

 

Tony rounds the couch. “It’s weird that I can see the depression in the cushions but not you.”

 

“That’s not the only thing that’s weird,” Bruce replies. “How’s Colonel Rhodes?”

 

“Back on duty,” Tony replies. “As expected, they’d rather have him back in the chain of command now that I’m not playing ball.”

 

Bruce isn’t quite sure how to respond to that, so he says, “I’m sure he’s relieved.”

 

“You could say that,” Tony replies. He sits down on the other end of the couch, and Bruce pulls his legs back. “To be honest, Rhodey and I aren’t seeing eye to eye right now.”

 

“Is it about the Accords?” Bruce asks.

 

“More about the fact that I’m turning down missions at the moment,” Tony replies. “But it’s an amicable sort of disagreement. We’ve had those before.”

 

Bruce wants to offer reassurance, to say that strong friendships can weather that sort of thing, but that seems insensitive considering everything that happened. “I’m not sure what to say,” he admits.

 

“It’s fine,” Tony says, waving a hand. “I think I’ve found someone who can help you.”

 

Bruce frowns, but then realizes that Tony can’t see his expression. “Oh?”

 

“Dr. Stephen Strange, former neurosurgeon, now apparently specializing in all things—well, strange,” Tony replies. “And he’s here in the city so you don’t even have to travel.”

 

Bruce knows that expression, and this time, he can’t think of a reason to turn Tony down. “Or we could just wait for it to wear off again.”

 

“It doesn’t seem to be wearing off,” Tony counters.

 

“It lasted for months last time,” Bruce says.

 

Tony frowns in his general direction. “Do you really want it to last that long?”

 

“It might be easier,” Bruce replies. “If no one can see me, then I’m not at risk.”

 

“But Bruce, if no one can see you, then no one can see you,” Tony says. “I mean, yes, I get it. It feels safer, but it’s really fucking lonely, too.”

 

“I still have you,” Bruce replies with a smile.

 

Tony reaches out and clumsily pats Bruce’s shin. “Granted, but I’m just saying, you’re pretty unrecognizable. You could go out, hell, we could travel. We could go somewhere no one knows us. We could do anything.”

 

“You’re never going to be unknown, Tony,” Bruce replies, but he doesn’t pull back from Tony’s touch. “And people are always going to be hunting me as long as Ross is in charge.”

 

“So maybe he shouldn’t be in charge,” Tony mutters. “But that’s a problem for the future. We have an appointment in an hour.”

 

Bruce thinks about protesting but he knows it would be fruitless. “Let me get my shoes.”

 

His shoes disappear as soon as he puts them on, part of the weird alchemy that’s his life at present. “How does that even work?” Tony asks. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“I don’t know,” Bruce says wearily. “If I knew, I could probably stop being invisible.”

 

“You did before,” Tony says.

 

“Yeah, and I don’t know why it started or stopped,” Bruce replies. “I thought that was why we were going to see this Dr. Strange.”

 

Tony sighs audibly. “Yeah. It’s just—I don’t like things I can’t explain.”

 

Bruce shrugs. “You get used to it.”

 

“I don’t want to!” Tony snaps, then scrubs a hand over his face. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s fine,” Bruce says. “We’re good.”

 

Tony nods. “I’ll drive. His place is in Greenwich Village.”

 

Bruce doesn’t mind the drive. Tony takes a convertible, and it’s nice to feel the sun on his face and the wind in his hair after a week inside. In this case, it’s relatively risk-free, too.

 

Tony somehow finds street parking just a couple of blocks away, and they walk to 177A Bleecker Street, Bruce matching his steps to Tony’s out of habit. He’d learned that trick after the first time he’d become invisible, quickly discovering that the sound of disembodied footsteps makes people nervous.

 

“It’s really eerie how good you are at disappearing,” Tony mutters under his breath.

 

Bruce makes a noncommittal sound, knowing that hearing a disembodied voice is even freakier.

 

“Yeah, well,” Tony says.

 

The red door of the residence has an old fashioned knocker, and Tony raps briskly. The door swings open a few moments later, although there’s no one immediately visible. “Come in,” a man calls. “Mr. Stark, a pleasure to meet you. And Dr. Banner, I must admit that I’m quite impressed.”

 

A man appears, seemingly out of the blue. He’s probably a little younger than Bruce, with streaks of gray over each temple and wearing clothes that wouldn’t be out of place at a Medieval Renaissance fair complete with a dramatic cloak.

 

And he looks straight at Bruce. “Very impressive,” he adds. “Normally, it takes a long time to master the mystical arts enough to hide one’s presence.”

 

“You can see me?” Bruce blurts out.

 

“You’re only invisible to the naked eye, Dr. Banner,” Strange replies with a smirk. “Your presence is still quite obvious to those of us who have accessed the third eye.”

 

Tony frowns unhappily, probably because Strange can see Bruce and he can’t. “Can you teach me that trick, or can just anybody learn it?”

 

“Well, I’ll admit that I had a certain motivation at the time,” Strange replies, waving them inside. “Much like Dr. Banner likely had when he wished to be invisible.”

 

Bruce hunches his shoulders. He would still like to be invisible, except maybe to Tony, and he has no idea how to stop wanting that. “I was motivated at the time.”

 

Strange hums and gestures to the couch in what looks to be a study. “Exactly. Tea?”

 

“No thanks,” Tony says, managing to keep a modicum of courtesy. “So, about Bruce?”

 

“Dr. Banner?”

 

“I’d take some tea,” Bruce replies, and finds a cup in his hand. He sips and makes an appreciative noise. “That’s good tea.”

 

Strange smiles. “I learned from the best.”

 

Tony is clearly holding onto his patience by his fingernails—but it’s Tony, so Bruce isn’t too surprised. “Can you help him?”

 

Strange steeples his fingers in front of his face. “Well, yes and no. I can no more force Dr. Banner to be visible than I could force you to stop being Iron Man. And was that a direct reference to the Black Sabbath song or more a happy accident?”

 

Bruce can see the question disarms Tony. “It’s not actually iron,” Tony replies. “It’s a gold titanium alloy, but—” He stops. “Nice try.”

 

Strange smirks. Bruce didn’t think that anyone could out-smirk Tony, but Strange is giving him a run for his money. “Happy accident then.”

 

Tony rolls his eyes. “Yes, very happy. If I was going to be named after a song, I’d rather it be something like Black Sabbath than Engelbert Humperdinck.”

 

“No, I suppose not,” Strange muses. “Somehow I just don’t see you as a ‘Beautiful Baby’ or ‘Golden Girl.’”

 

Bruce snorts, relaxing into the banter. He doesn’t mind that Strange and Tony are trying to out-snark each other. It’s kind of entertaining.

 

“Ah, yes, there,” Strange murmurs. “Do you feel that, Dr. Banner?”

 

Bruce freezes, the relaxed feeling falling away, and Strange turns back to Tony. “Of course, the media could have called you Mr. Roboto. I’m sure you would have preferred Styx to Engelbert.”

 

“And then I would have been forced to say domo arigato in every interview,” Tony replies, waving a hand dismissively. “Not going to happen. But what about you? Did you pick a stage name? Or did the weird shit make the decision for you?”

 

“I’ll have you know that it’s French in origin,” Strange replies, with mock hauteur.

 

Tony smirks at him and says something in—of course—French. Bruce doesn’t understand it anymore than Strange does. “I was a little too busy learning Sanskrit to focus on French,” Strange says.

 

And with the spotlight off him, Bruce feels that same relaxation, as of a muscle long clenched with the tension finally easing. This time, Strange doesn’t say anything to him, and Tony doesn’t look at him, and Bruce flickers back into visibility while Tony and Strange argue about useful languages.

 

“Ah, there you are,” Strange says with a smile. “Well done.”

 

Tony breathes a sigh of relief. “So, you know how to fix it now?”

 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Bruce hedges. “But I think I know what it feels like to become visible again. A little.”

 

“As my teacher once said to me, it takes study and practice, Dr. Banner,” Strange says. “I suggest at least trying to bring it under conscious control, although—”

 

He stops, and Tony prompts, “What?”

 

“It might be tied to Dr. Banner’s other—self,” Strange replies diplomatically. “And defense mechanisms are rarely under our conscious control. That said, if it happens again and you get stuck, you can always come back. Mr. Stark and I will discuss his atrocious taste until you feel yourself again.”

 

Bruce laughs at that. “Tony does have terrible taste—at least in some things.”

 

“Hey!” Tony protests, but he looks so relieved to see Bruce that Bruce feels shamed he’d ever wanted to hide from Tony. “I have excellent taste in people.”

 

“That I would agree with,” Strange replies. “Come back any time, Dr. Banner.”

 

And then he’s gone in a swish of his ridiculous cape.

 

Tony frowns. “But we got zero answers!”

 

Bruce’s lips twitch. “Well, he did solve the problem.”

 

Tony rubs his eyes. “Look, if I’m pushing you into something, just—tell me, okay? I don’t mean to, but I just…want everything to be okay again.”

 

Bruce shrugs. “I’ll try. It’s not exactly under my control.”

 

Tony gives him a look. “Shall we blow this popsicle stand? I think that cupboard is looking at me, and it’s giving me the creeps.”

 

“Yeah, let’s go,” Bruce replies. “And Tony, even if I don’t really want to see anything else, you came for me. You found me. We’re always going to be good.”

 

Tony scratches his beard. “Yeah, before we get too sappy, we should get going. The cupboard is definitely looking at me.”

 

“Please do leave!” Strange’s disembodied voice says. “And perhaps think about getting a room!”

 

And Bruce can’t help but laugh.