The Avengers compound was a ghost town.
Bruce had been surprised he was able to get in at all; he’d never actually been to the new facility, and even if he had, he would’ve assumed that Tony had changed all the security settings after everything went south six months ago. But Bruce scanned in without an issue and the elevator brought him up to the communal living space.
Its footprint was similar to the communal area in the tower that Bruce had once shared with the others. But it felt completely different. They had all put time and effort into making the tower feel like a home, and by the end, it really had. Here – there wasn’t a layer of dust over everything, but it felt like there should be.
“Hello?” he said tentatively.
“Dr. Banner,” a pleasant female voice said. “Welcome home. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is FRIDAY.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Bruce said. “Uh. Where is everyone?”
“Colonel Rhodes had a medical appointment at eleven. Mr. Stark accompanied him. They should return shortly.”
“What about the others – Vision, Maria Hill?” Bruce hesitated. “Pepper?”
“Vision and Maria Hill are both away on official business. Ms. Potts is in Malibu. Her last visit was approximately seven months ago.”
Ouch. Bruce couldn’t say he was surprised, but still. “Could you tell Tony I’m back? I don’t have a phone right now, and I don’t want to surprise him. Them,” he amended, remembering Rhodes.
“Of course. Please make yourself at home.”
Bruce supposed he might as well. He dropped the duffel bag full of all his earthly possessions on the sofa and went into the kitchen to poke around.
The fridge told its own story about what had been going on with the compound’s residents. There were a lot of protein shakes in the fridge, a couple containers of takeout that Bruce sniffed and then pitched. A large pitcher container of green juice that looked like it was mostly kale. Lots of cereal and almond milk. Coffee.
Bruce supposed it could have been worse. It was sad but at least it was nutritionally sound.
He helped himself to a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa to wait. The letter from Steve was burning a hole in his pocket, but he resisted the urge to take it out and look at it again. It’d become a nervous habit, but he’d basically memorized it by now. Nothing about it was going to change. Steve and the others were still in Wakanda, under T’Challa’s protection. The Avengers were still broken.
He wanted to find Steve and shake him. Not for the Accords; if Bruce had been here, he would have stood with Steve and the others and he’d probably be in Wakanda now, too. He hadn’t been, and so he was not, for once, the wanted fugitive in this scenario. He had to admit, it made a nice change of pace.
But no, the Accords weren’t the problem. Siberia was the problem.
I made a mistake in not telling Tony about his parents, Steve had written, toward the end of the very long letter, which read more like a confession than anything else. Bruce wasn’t sure what kind of absolution Steve was hoping for, but he doubted he could be the one to give it. And I should have handled things differently in Siberia. I was afraid for Bucky, but Tony was – is, I hope – my friend, too, and I can see now how much he was hurting.
Please, Bruce, if you’re at all able to look in on him – you don’t owe me anything, but I know he’s missed you, and I would feel better knowing you were there.
Bruce had been on a plane within the day. He only wished the letter had found him sooner; it was dated four months earlier, but he’d been moving around a lot. He was lucky it’d found him at all.
The elevator doors slid open with a ding. “Big Green!” Tony called as he strode in. “Thought FRIDAY was playing a joke on me when she told me you were here.”
Bruce stood to greet them. “Hi Tony. Colonel Rhodes.”
“Rhodey,” Rhodes corrected, making his way out of the elevator behind Tony – slowly, carefully, but relatively smoothly. Bruce wondered just how many decades Tony had advanced the field of neural cybernetics to get his best friend walking again. “C’mon on, man, do we have to do this every time?”
“Rhodey,” Bruce amended. “How are you?”
“Hey, y’know,” Rhodes shrugged. “Sometimes you get a bad beat. But it could be worse. Lot of vets out there don’t have the resources I do. How about you, what brings you here?”
Bruce glanced at Tony, who was digging around in the refrigerator. He wondered, not for the first time, how much he should say. He was tempted to say nothing about Steve’s letter. If Tony thought he was being handled, especially by Steve, he wouldn’t react well.
On the other hand…lying was what got them into this mess.
“I had a letter from a mutual friend,” he finally said.
“Oh yeah?” Tony said, handing Rhodes a protein shake. He took a sip of his coffee. “Which one?”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Which one do you think?”
Tony frowned. “Spangles?”
“Huh. I got one, too, actually. Was yours a giant ‘fuck you’? Because mine basically was.”
Rhodes sighed. “Tony…”
“Nah, this is fascinating.” Tony leaned against the kitchen island. “Tell me more about this letter, Bruce. What’s Steve got to say for himself?”
Bruce shrugged. “He’s worried about you.”
“So he sent you,” Tony said flatly. “Well, sweet as that is, it wasn’t necessary. I’m fine. I’m great. And I’ve been peachy-keen without Captain-fucking-America interfering in my life.”
“He’s not –“
“Yeah, actually, he is. And you are. And you can both just stop, all right?” Tony spun on his heel. “Some of us have things to do, multi-billion dollar companies to keep afloat, that sort of thing. Anyone needs me, I’ll be in my workshop.“
Too late. Tony vanished back into the elevator.
Bruce heaved a sigh and looked at Rhodes. “That could have gone better."
Rhodes grimaced and shuffled over toward the sofa. He lowered himself with a faint groan and looked up at Bruce. “Believe it or not, that was better than I would’ve expected for that conversation.”
“No, I mean it. Tony’s been all bottled up, that was the closest I’ve seen him to cracking so far.”
“And that’s a good thing?” Bruce said dubiously, seating himself on the sofa.
“It might be.” Rhodes sighed. “Look. Tony won’t tell me anything. He says he’s fine. I know he’s not. I think he’s having headaches. I know he isn’t sleeping well. But he won’t lay his shit on me right now. This might be the most considerate he’s ever been in the three decades I’ve known him, but it’s fucking inconvenient.”
“Ah,” Bruce said. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the sofa. “What’d he tell you about Siberia?”
“Not a hell of a lot. Bad shit went down with him and Rogers and Barnes. He said Barnes murdered his parents way back in the day.”
“Did he tell you he saw video of it?”
Rhodes’s eyes widened. “No. What the hell?”
“Yeah. Steve told me, in the letter.” Bruce took a deep breath. “I’m gonna stay a while.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear it.”
“Not sure he’ll talk to me. When Tony gets stubborn...” Bruce shook his head. “Well, I don’t need to tell you.”
“No, you don’t,” Rhodes agreed. “But in this case...I don’t know. He always trusted you more than anyone else.”
Except Steve. Neither of them said it. Neither of them had to.
Bruce spent the next couple of days settling into the compound. It was weird without all the others there, a lot of empty spaces and echoing rooms. Rhodes kept to his apartment and Tony kept to his workshop unless they were doing PT on the set of parallel bars in the living room.
By day four, Bruce had just about had enough. He went out in the morning on a grocery run and came back a little after noon, loaded down with grocery bags. “FRIDAY, where is everyone?” he asked as he started packing away the perishables. The veggies he left out on the counter. He was going to start cooking right away, after all.
“Colonel Rhodes left an hour ago,” FRIDAY replied. “His calendar indicates he’ll be gone until five.”
Good. Bruce suspected Rhodes was right. Tony would never crack in front of him. He’d intended to work around Rhodes, but if he didn’t have to, so much the better. “Let me guess,” Bruce said, slicing an onion in half. “Tony’s in the ‘shop?”
“Correct, Dr. Banner.”
“Tell him I’m making chicken vindaloo and it’ll be ready at 1:30. And can you put on some music? Leonard Cohen, maybe?”
“Of course, Dr. Banner.”
The opening chords of “Anthem” filled the kitchen. Bruce hummed to himself and chopped vegetables, letting himself get satisfaction out of putting together a meal with his own hands for someone he cared about. It’d been a long time since he had had the opportunity. Not since before Ultron. Not long before, if he remembered correctly; it’d been maybe a week before the mission in Sokovia that he’d cooked for everyone, right in this kitchen, and then they’d all sat down to show Steve the Lord of the Rings movies.
He had to put the knife down and breathe for a minute. It was hard to believe that all of that was gone. He hadn’t realized how much it had meant to know that it was waiting for him if he was ever able to return. Not until it was really lost to him. And he hadn’t realized just how lost it was until he’d come back to find...this.
He wiped his eyes with a paper towel, then went back to chopping vegetables and, once they were in the pan, cubing chicken. He made the sauce from memory, as hot as he wanted, because he and Tony had about the same spice tolerance. He’d always held back a little when he’d cooked for the group; Steve was still working his way up to twenty-first century levels of spice, and Clint had always said he preferred not to lose a whole layer of skin off his mouth.
He set the sauce to simmering and put the rice on in the rice maker. The kitchen filled with the smells of curry spices and simmering chicken. If he concentrated hard enough, Bruce thought he could almost hear the others bickering in the other room, fighting over the remote and which movie to watch when the food was ready.
Bruce thought he might have to go drag Tony out of his workshop when it was done. But at 1:30 on the dot, the elevator doors opened and Tony emerged.
“Vindaloo, huh?” Tony said, arms crossed over his chest. “You must really be feeling sorry for me.”
“More like I haven’t had a real kitchen in months,” Bruce replied. He heaped rice onto two plates and covered it with sauce, veggies, and meat. “Here. You might want to grab a beer. I didn’t hold back on the spice.”
“Hmm,” Tony said, sounding dubious. But he accepted the beer and took a seat at the kitchen island. Bruce cracked open his own beer and joined him.
They ate in companionable silence. Tony cleaned his plate and went back for more, which was gratifying, even if it also made Bruce wonder how long it had been since he’d had real food.
Bruce waited until they were both on their second beers before saying anything. He drew a deep breath.
“Here it comes,” Tony muttered.
Bruce blinked. “What?”
Tony gestured with his beer. “I’m not stupid, Bruce. All this? I know there must be a reason. Out with it.”
Bruce nodded, figuring there was no point in denying it. “I wanted to say what I should’ve said the other day. Steve’s letter got me on the plane, but that’s not why I’m here. I missed you, Tony. I’m glad I came home.”
Tony looked down at his plate, swallowing rapidly a couple of times. “Not much to come home to.”
“It’s enough,” Bruce said gently. You’re enough, he didn’t say.
Tony gave a very damp laugh. “You may be the only person who’s ever thought that.”
Bruce sighed. “Tony.”
“Sorry.” Tony scrubbed a hand over his face. “Didn’t meant to invite you to my pity party.” He shook his head. “I know you probably think I fucked this all up.”
“I don’t think that.”
“I do.” Tony was staring down at his empty plate again.
“Well, if that’s true,” Bruce said, “then you had a lot of help. This was a team effort. Including by those of us who weren’t here.”
“Wasn’t anything you could’ve done,” Tony said with a shrug. “And if you had been here, you know which side you would’ve been on.”
“Probably,” Bruce allowed, because there was no use in denying it. “But maybe I could have helped mitigate some of the damage. And I could have been a friend for you when you needed one.”
Tony gave a brief, harsh laugh. “Sure. The same way the others were?” He shook his head. “Nah, Bruce, if you’d been here, you’d be in Wakanda with everyone else.”
Bruce let out a long breath. “Then I’m glad I wasn’t.”
Tony was silent for a long time, tracing patterns in the condensation on the sides of his beer bottle. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Me too.”
It felt like a break-through. Bruce let himself relax, just a little. “So how are you, then? Really? Steve said it got pretty intense between the two of you and Barnes in Siberia.”
Tony laughed. “Intense. Yeah, that’s one way to put it. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But you have talked about it, haven’t you?” Bruce pressed. “With someone?”
“What, you mean ‘that kind of doctor’?” Tony shook his head. “Nah. I’m fine.”
“Steve told me about the video,” Bruce said, going for broke. “I don’t think anyone would be fine after seeing that.”
Tony slammed his beer bottle onto the counter hard enough to make Bruce wince. “Well, there are a lot of people who think I’m borderline sociopathic, so.”
“Tony, we both know that’s not true.”
“Yeah, it’s funny, there are a bunch of things you seem to know,” Tony said, raising his head to glare at him. “Even though, as you said, you weren’t here. Actually no one was, not when it mattered.”
Bruce winced. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, me too.” Tony drained the last of his beer. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Wait, Tony –”
“Nope,” Tony said, popping the ‘p’ sound obnoxiously. “Can’t wait. Suits to build, bots to bug, CEO’s to harass, you know how it is. See ya, Big Green.”
Bruce watched him go. He drained the last of his own beer and said the only thing he could think of under the circumstances.
Bruce wasn’t really a people person, but he knew Tony Stark pretty well. And he was pretty sure, after an uncomfortable heart-to-heart like the one they’d had over vindaloo, that it would be four or five days before he saw Tony again. Avoidance was a time-honored Tony Stark coping mechanism, and Bruce suspected there was something punitive about it as well. Though who was being punished, him or Tony, Bruce couldn’t say for sure.
Given all of that, it was something of a surprise when Bruce was woken in the middle of the night only two nights later by FRIDAY.
“Dr. Banner,” she said softly. “I apologize for waking you.”
“No, no.” Bruce sat up and rubbed a hand over his face. “S’okay. What’s going on?”
“Mr. Stark is requesting your presence in his rooms.”
“Tony’s asking for...me?” Bruce said, frowning. “Where’s Rhodes? Isn’t he here?”
“Colonel Rhodes is asleep in his rooms. Mr. Stark asked for you.”
“Um, okay.” Bruce stood up and pulled on a sweatshirt but decided that slippers and pajama pants were probably okay for whatever this was. “Is Tony all right?”
“Mr. Stark is in some distress, but his vitals don’t indicate immediate danger. He does, however, ask that you not turn any of the lights on when you come in.”
Bruce frowned. ‘Some distress’ could mean anything. The lights thing...narrowed it down some.
Tony’s apartment was dark and quiet but fully navigable by the glow of the compound that came in through the full length windows to the west. Bruce headed for the bedroom, which, in contrast to the living room, was pitch dark. Bruce stubbed his toe and swore, hopping. “FRIDAY, lights at five percent?”
The room lightened just enough to prevent Bruce from damaging himself further and possibly hulking out. He glanced around, taking in the rumpled, empty bed and another door that was cracked open.
“Tony?” he called softly, easing the door open to peer inside. He stopped. Tony was sitting wedged into the corner between the bathtub and the wall, his head resting wearily on the edge of the tub. Both his hands were tucked into the pocket of his faded MIT hoodie.
One eye opened warily. “Bruce. Sorry about waking you.”
“It’s okay.” Bruce crouched down beside him. “What’s going on?”
“Migraine,” Tony muttered.
Bruce nodded, unsurprised. “You take anything for it?”
“Imitrex. Doesn’t really work, but s’not like anyone understands migraines.” He pulled one hand out to show Bruce a bottle of pills. “My hands are numb. I can’t get it open.”
Bruce took it from him and twisted it open, shaking one out into his palm. He stood up, filled the plastic cup on the sink with water from the tap, and crouched back down to hand it to Tony. “Hard to believe you’re making do with run-of-the-mill migraine medication that doesn’t really work for you,” Bruce remarked. “Or haven’t you decided to disrupt that market yet?”
Tony just pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and groaned. “Fuck. Bad one.”
“Aw, Tony, I’m sorry.” Bruce sat down next to him on the floor. “I shouldn’t have made a joke.” Tony didn’t respond, and Bruce eyed him worriedly. He started to shove himself to his feet.
“Don’t go,” Tony said suddenly, looking up at him. “Please.”
“I won’t, I’m just gonna get you something cold for the back of your neck.”
“There’s a bag of peas in the freezer, Dr. Banner,” FRIDAY said, very quietly.
“Perfect. I’ll be right back,” Bruce promised Tony, and headed back out through the darkened bedroom. He found the promised bag of peas and a clean dishcloth in the kitchen.
He came back to find Tony climbing back into the bed. He moved slowly and carefully, like all his soft spots hurt. Bruce helped him get settled with a pillow propping him up against the headboard, and then put the peas, wrapped in the dishcloth, on the back of his neck. Tony’s head drooped forward. Bruce ruffled his hair and sat beside him on the bed.
“Any better?” he asked after a couple of minutes.
“No. And I’m woozy. And stupid,” Tony added peevishly, as though that was the real offense. “The cold is good, though.”
“Good.” Bruce hesitated. “Tell me if I’m overstepping.” He reached for Tony’s hand and held it between both of his. “There are some pressure points that can help. One here,” he pressed lightly on the base of Tony’s hand, near his thumb, “a couple on the feet, and a few on the scalp.”
“Go for it,” Tony said with a sigh. “I’ll try anything.”
Bruce nodded. He cradled Tony’s hand in his, gently, and started pressing on the base of his hand with his thumbs, gradually increasing the pressure. “I didn’t know you got migraines,” he said mildly.
“I haven’t for years.” Tony grunted at the increased pressure, but he didn’t ask Bruce to stop. “Not since my early late teens, early twenties. I saw a neurologist for a while, but they knew even less back then than they do now. They stopped on their own.”
“Interesting timing,” Bruce said mildly. Tony had lost his parents at seventeen.
“Not really.” Tony grunted again, and this time Bruce let up.
“Maybe a little,” Tony said, squinting. “You gonna rub my feet?”
“Thought I’d start with your head. If it’s all right.”
Tony shrugged. “I guess.” Bruce pulled a pillow onto his lap and reached to draw Tony down to lay his head on it. “Whoa,” Tony said, resisting. “What?”
“How else do you want me to do it?” Bruce asked.
Tony pulled away. “You know what? I’m fine.”
Bruce arched an eyebrow at him. “Tony. What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t...I don’t know,” Tony admitted. He took a deep breath and rubbed between his eyebrows, as though trying to soothe away the pain. “It’s not that I don’t trust you.”
“It’s that right now, you don’t trust anyone.”
Tony swallowed. “Yeah. Maybe.” He gave a brief, mirthless laugh. “You know there’s all this research now about how losing your parents before your brain finishes developing really fucks you up? It changes your brain physiology just like PTSD does.”
“Yes. I’ve read some of it.”
“Me too. A lot of it, actually.” Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “It was like looking into a mirror. Not that I wasn’t already kind of a disaster, both my parents were kind of – withholding, that's the word my therapists really liked. The things Dad said to me sometimes weren’t – I know they weren’t okay. But I spent a long time dealing with all of that, and with the fact that I was never going to get what I needed from them, what with them being dead and everything, and I honestly thought I was over it.”
“Not so much,” Bruce said quietly.
“No, not so much.”
Tony went quiet. This time, when Bruce tugged him down to lay his head on his lap, Tony didn’t resist.
Bruce adjusted the bag of peas, now starting to melt and soak through the dish cloth. He ran his fingers through Tony's hair a few times before going for the first pressure point at the base of his skull. He probably should have encouraged Tony to roll over onto his back for this, but he didn't want to rock the boat.
He spent a long time with his thumbs dug into the nerves at the base of Tony’s skull, watching Tony’s expression shift minutely back and forth between relaxation and discomfort. Eventually he prodded Tony into turning over. He discarded the bag of now decidedly unfrozen peas altogether, so he could actually reach Tony’s temples and the area between his eyes. That seemed to be less painful, and Tony's face stayed slack, his breathing even. At the end, he pressed firmly against the crown of Tony's head.
Tony groaned. “That's weird. I feel that in the small of my back.” He sighed, eyes opening. “Where'd you learn this?”
“Here and there,” Bruce said vaguely. “I'm not a professional.”
Tony yawned. “Pretty close.” He rolled his head from side to side. “I feel much better. Can I keep you on retainer?”
Bruce smiled. “Any time, Tony. You know that.”
“If you're in the country.”
“There is that caveat,” Bruce admitted. “But I've been thinking I want to stay a while. If that's okay.”
“Whatever you want, Big Green.” Tony yawned and rolled off Bruce’s lap. “Stay or go, up to you. I'm going back to sleep.”
Bruce decided he'd pushed his luck enough for one night. He brushed his hand over Tony’s head one last time and left for his own bed.
If Bruce had been hoping for any kind of significant change in Tony after their talk, he would have been sorely disappointed. Fortunately he knew Tony. He backed off, giving Tony the space he needed to deal with unexpected intimacy, and spent a few days reading up on the latest research into trauma and the brain.
Bruce could see how reading it would've been like looking into a mirror. It was uncomfortably like that for him, too, though he had never deluded himself that he was over his childhood. He reached for certain sense memories – the sound of a fist hitting a face, the smells of cheap whiskey and burnt food – any time he needed to transform.
“Well-adjusted people don't become super heroes,” Rhodey told Bruce when he brought it up. Bruce raised his eyebrows, and Rhodey shook his head. “I'm not like all of you. The crazy vigilante thing never did it for me. I'm a soldier.”
“So is Steve.”
“So is Sam. But Tony isn't. And neither are you.” Rhodey broke off with a faint groan. He was stretched out on the floor, doing a set of exercises his physical therapist had given him. They looked – and sounded – painful. “I think you had to be the one to do this,” he went on after a few seconds, breathlessly. “I didn't know that, or I would've tracked you down a lot sooner.”
“That's...a lot of responsibility,” Bruce said slowly.
“As the person who was just about his only friend in the world when his parents died,” Rhodey said, very carefully folding himself up in preparation for standing, “you have my deepest sympathy.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Bruce gave Rhodey a hand up. “You would’ve been at MIT together at the time.”
“Yeah. It was fucking terrifying,” Rhodey told him before Bruce even had to ask. “Tony at seventeen was a nightmare. And I was twenty and an idiot myself, so it was like feeling my way through a field of landmines, blindfolded. I went to sleep every night hoping I wouldn’t wake up to find him dead on the bathroom floor.”
“Pretty much.” Rhodey looked at him. “Look, I’d walk through fire for the guy, and I know he’d do the same for me. But I can’t do this for him. He won’t let me.”
“I don’t know quite what to do,” Bruce confessed.
“I think he’ll come to you eventually,” Rhodey said, strolling over to the bar. He pulled out a bottle of Scotch and two glasses. He poured a splash into both. “That’s the thing I eventually figured out about Tony. He holds everyone at arm’s length and is a master avoider, but he desperately wants to let people in. He just has no idea how.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said, accepting a glass from Rhodey. He eyed it curiously. “What’s this for?” He hadn’t noticed Rhodey drinking at all, much less after PT.
“A toast,” Rhodey said. “To Howard fucking Stark. May he rot in hell.”
“Amen,” Bruce said, and knocked it back.
Bruce knew the Avengers’ absence didn’t mean that the threats that popped up with disturbing regularity in Manhattan vanished as well. But for the first two weeks he was at the compound, there was almost nothing. Vision and Hill were away dealing with something, it seemed, and there were a bunch of loners throughout New York that took care of small-scale threats. Tony had a special interest in one of them, some kid with a spider shtick who seemed to trigger all kinds of parental urges in Tony that Bruce would’ve never guessed at otherwise. But there weren’t any Iron Man level problems.
That couldn’t last, of course. A week after Tony’s migraine, Tony got called out because a portal had opened in Williamsburg and was leaking some kind of shape shifting goo. Tony bitched the whole time about how they should just let the aliens have Williamsburg, since there was nothing there but hipsters and overpriced coffee shops, anyway, but he went where he was called.
“You’ll let me know if you need me,” Bruce told him as he left.
“I’ll be fine,” Tony replied. “Besides, you don’t want Ross and his guys knowing you’re here. If I need back-up, I have Spiderman on speed dial.”
As back-up went, Bruce thought, watching him launch, one teenager wasn’t much. Not when Tony had maybe finally started to get used to having a team behind him – just in time to have it yanked away.
Bruce didn’t watch the news while Tony was out; it was just going to make his simmering anxiety boil over. Instead, he cooked, deciding that if he couldn’t help Tony in the field, the least he could do was have real food waiting for him when he got home. He put a whole chicken in the oven, with roasted potatoes and root vegetables, and then, when he found himself with nothing else to do, decided to make a couple loaves of bread from scratch. The kneading would at least be soothing.
Rhodey was watching the news and almost visibly twitching at not being allowed out in the field yet. With the changes Tony had been making to the War Machine armor, it seemed likely he would eventually, but neither Rhodey nor the armor was ready yet.
Bruce had just covered the second loaf with plastic to let it rise when Rhodey swore loudly. Bruce took a deep breath, wondering if he wanted to know.
“Is he alive?” he called.
“Yeah,” Rhodey answered back. “That's the end of that suit, though. And we might need the big guy to pry him out of it.”
“I hope not,” Bruce replied. “His fine motor skills leave something to be desired.”
“Threat’s contained, at least,” Rhodey said, entering the kitchen. “He should be on his way back – well, actually, he should be on his way to medical, but he won't let them touch him if he's conscious.”
“Is the suit in good enough shape to get him home?” Bruce asked, looking up from the bread.
Rhodey grimaced. “Not sure. FRIDAY?”
“Mr. Stark’s suit is badly damaged but functional. He should arrive on the landing pad in approximately seven minutes.”
That was a relief. Bruce left the bread to rise and went to wait with Rhodey on the landing pad.
It was blustery and cold this far up. Bruce pulled the sleeves of his sweater down over his hands. The two of them stood silently, watching the horizon, until at last a speck appeared on it, tiny but rapidly growing larger.
“Jesus,” Rhodey said when Tony got close enough for them to take in the damage to the suit. Bruce had to agree. There didn't seem to be any part of it that wasn't dinged up, crumpled, or dented, except the helmet, which was reassuringly intact.
Tony landed with a lot less grace than usual. Bruce moved to steady him so that Rhodey wouldn't have to, grunting as he took on the considerable weight of the armor. He hit the catch that would detach the helmet and ripped it off.
“Fuck,” Tony mumbled. “Fresh air, thank God. It was getting hard to breathe in there.”
“Might also have something to do with your ribs,” Bruce said, eyeing the crumpled chest plate warily. He eased Tony down onto his back. Tony didn't fight him on it. Bruce looked up at Rhodey. “One piece at a time?”
“Sounds good,” Rhodey said, and the two of them got to work. It took them nearly fifteen minutes – with a break for Bruce to go pull dinner out of the oven so it wouldn’t burn – to get him free. Some of the latches were smashed beyond repair and others weren't in the same place Bruce remembered them being the last time he’d done this, on an earlier version of the suit. Tony wasn't much help, quiet and acquiescent in a way that worried Bruce.
Finally, the two of them had him out of the armor, nothing left but the under suit and a pile of crumpled metal pieces beside them. “Thanks,” Tony said, the first he'd spoken since his barely controlled collapse on the platform. He tried to sit up and groaned, hand going to his ribs.
“Yeah, those are cracked,” Bruce said flatly. “You should probably have x-rays just to make sure they're not broken.”
“Sure. You definitely look fine,” Rhodey said, frowning at him.
“Sass,” Tony muttered, “nothing but sass.”
“Sass and dinner,” Bruce said. “And once you've got something in your stomach, you can have painkillers.”
“You're my favorite,” Tony said fervently. ”He's my favorite now, sorry, Rhodey.”
Rhodey’s lips quirked. “I'll get over it.”
“I'm not bringing the food out here, though, it's freezing,” Bruce said. “So we have to get you inside.”
“Ugh, never mind, you're not my favorite after all. C’mon, doesn't a picnic on the landing platform sound nice? There's a great view.”
“Nope,” Bruce said, and got one shoulder under Tony's arm so he could haul him up. Tony's bitching cut off mid-sentence and he went white, but he managed to keep his feet. They staggered, off-balance, into the living room and over to the sofa.
“Ice?” Rhodey asked, heading for the kitchen.
“Yeah, let's try and get the swelling down.” Bruce sat down next to Tony on the sofa. Tony's eyes were shut. “Hey, you with us?”
“Yeah.” Tony opened his eyes. “Hurts like hell.”
“Cracked ribs do,” Bruce agreed. Rhodey came back with an ice pack wrapped in a dish towel and Bruce helped Tony slip it under the shirt of the under suit. “Keep that there for a few minutes. I'm going to get dinner for all of us.”
“You're the best housewife, Banner,” Tony said, smiling faintly.
“Shut it, or you won't get any chicken, just a pile of carrots.”
“Lies,” Tony said, already leaning into Rhodey’s side.
However much pain Tony was in, it didn't seem to affect his appetite. He inhaled the chicken and veggies Bruce gave him, and then asked for more, with a side of Vicodin. Bruce doled out two, refused to let him wash them down with scotch, and gave him a slice of rosemary sea salt bread, fresh from the oven, instead. Tony inhaled that, too, but by the time the food was gone, he was looking pretty glassy-eyed. Rhodey detached himself to clear the plates and load the dishwasher. Tony, bereft of his human body pillow, listed toward Bruce.
Bruce put an arm around him and tangled his fingers into Tony’s hair. “Feeling better?”
“Yes. No. Mmph.” Tony face planted into Bruce's collarbone.
“Well, as long as we're clear.” Bruce tugged the throw blanket draped over the back of the couch down and tried to straighten it out over Tony. “You want me to put the TV on?”
“FRIDAY, some music?” Bruce said. “Nothing too hard or heavy.”
“Of course, Dr. Banner,” she said, and proceeded to play the only thing Bruce had ever asked her for.
Tony turned his head and sighed. “My dad liked Leonard Cohen.”
“Assholes can have good taste in music, too,” Bruce said, without really thinking about it.
Tony went very still, giving Bruce just enough time to wonder if he’d screwed up big time. Then Tony laughed. No – he giggled. And groaned, because gigging with cracked ribs was a bad idea.
“Is there anything besides the ribs we should be worried about?” Bruce asked. He’d checked Tony over as they’d taken the armor off of him, but he still thought he should have gone to medical.
“I might’ve whacked my head. Jesus, shape shifting goo, who’d have thought it’d be such a pain in the ass? Really could’ve used back-up on this one.”
Bruce grimaced. “Must be weird going out in the field alone.”
Tony didn’t answer for a long time. Bruce rubbed back and forth between his shoulder blades and listened to Rhodey doing dishes in the other room.
“I forgot,” Tony finally said. “That there wasn’t anyone else in the field with me. It’s stupid, I should never have gotten used to it to begin with, but I still have these moments when I forget, just for a couple of seconds. It made me – I got sloppy.”
“Damn,” Bruce said quietly.
“It’s funny, everyone used to tell me that I wasn’t a team player,” Tony said, as though Bruce hadn’t said anything. His voice was a little dreamy and a lot tired. “And I’m not, you know. Or I wasn’t. And now...I thought it’d be easier to go back. But it’s really, it’s...” Tony broke off and swallowed. “I really miss them, Bruce.”
Bruce sighed deeply and tightened his arms around Tony. “So do I.”
“I screwed this all up,” Tony whispered.
“No,” Bruce said firmly. “Tony, listen to me. If you’re responsible for this, then so are the rest of us. It takes a team to get things this messed up. And if there’s any hope of repairing it, that’s going to have to be a team effort, too.”
Tony shook his head. “I’ve spent a lifetime fixing the unfixable, but I don’t see a way forward on this one. James Barnes killed my parents, Bruce. He murdered them in cold blood. I saw it. And Steve –” Tony’s voice caught, cracked, shattered. “And Steve still chose him.”
Bruce’s throat was suddenly tight. He looked over at the kitchen and saw Rhodey in the doorway, fist pressed against his mouth. His eyes were very bright. After a few seconds he backed away, leaving the two of them alone.
“I can’t – I can’t say why Steve made that choice,” Bruce said, when he thought he could speak without losing it completely. “I can’t imagine it was easy for him.”
Tony gave a harsh laugh. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“But he still cares. He still cares about you, Tony. They all do. Steve asked me to come make sure you were okay. And I’m really glad he did.”
“Yeah,” Tony said faintly. “Me too.” He drew a deep breath. “But you’re going to leave again. No, you know it’s true,” he said, when Bruce started to object. “At some point, Ross is going to realize you’re here, if he hasn’t already, and you can’t – I don’t want you to feel like you have to sign the Accords just for me. When that happens, you’ll leave.”
Bruce didn’t want to admit it, but Tony was probably right. “I’m here now, though.”
“I know.” Tony went quiet, and Bruce didn’t push him. It wasn’t unpleasant at all, lying there with Tony draped over him, Leonard Cohen playing quietly in the background. Everything felt safe and quiet, and it was hard for Bruce to believe that Tony was right – someday, he probably would have to walk away again.
“Maybe...something else,” Tony mumbled after a while.
Bruce nodded. “Planet Earth, please, FRIDAY. Any episode.”
The music cut and the familiar sound of the Planet Earth credits filled the living room. Bruce put his hand on the back of Tony’s head and concentrated on breathing deep and even, until Tony fell asleep on top of him.
It took Tony’s ribs weeks to heal. Bruce suspected that if Tony had let them do x-rays, they would have found that he’d cracked his sternum, in addition to several ribs. But there wasn’t actually anything that a doctor could have done, except prescribe painkillers and try to force Tony to rest.
Tony was surprisingly sensible about the painkillers. Mostly he let Bruce decide when and how much, and Bruce kept careful track. Rest on the other hand...well, that had never been Tony’s strong suit, and if anything he was worse about it now. Bruce was an early to rise and early to bed kind of guy, which meant he crashed by ten most nights. But he started setting an alarm for one o’clock, so he could go down to the workshop and force Tony to go to bed.
It was kind of a pain in the ass to have to get up in the middle of the night to force someone else to sleep. Bruce knew Rhodey thought he was a saint for putting up with it. But the truth was that those moments, in the deep dark of the night, when Tony was tired and Bruce was only half-awake, were the ones where Bruce felt like he really got to see Tony.
“I was being unfair when I called Steve’s letter a giant ‘fuck you,’” Tony told Bruce blearily one night, after he’d tumbled into bed.
“Oh?” Bruce said, sitting down beside him. He took his glasses off and stretched his legs out. He tried to make it back to his bed, but it didn’t always happen.
“It wasn’t, really. Felt like it at the time,” Tony mumbled. Bruce wondered if he even knew he was talking aloud. He sighed, head bumping against Bruce’s hip. “He sent me a phone.”
“Yeah. It’s a brick. But the encryption is serious.”
“So you could call him.”
“Yeah. Sometimes I’m tempted, but then I think about Siberia and I just...I can’t.” Tony swallowed painfully hard. “I keep asking myself if we had to end up here. If I could’ve done something else. And maybe, with the Accords. But then there’s the Winter Soldier and my parents and I just...” Tony gave a little gasp, painful sounding, that made Bruce open his eyes and look at him. “I don’t know,” he finished, breathlessly.
“Sit up,” Bruce said, and helped Tony pull himself, wincing, into a seated position. He shoved a pillow behind Tony’s back. “Breathe.” Tony nodded, shakily. Bruce got up and went into the bathroom, where he filled a glass with water and brought it back for Tony to sip on, carefully, and so hopefully avoid any kind of coughing fit. Coughing fits were awful.
“You really want to know what I think?” Bruce asked, stretching back out on the bed.
Tony cradled the glass of water against his chest. “Yeah, I do.”
“I think a lot of bad decisions were made in Siberia. I want to say that Steve should’ve seen what was happening with you. You got triggered, severely, watching that tape of your parents,” Bruce added, looking at Tony, because he honestly wasn’t sure that Tony realized that. “I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure you were in the middle of a significant PTSD episode during that fight. I want to say that Steve should’ve seen that. And he might have, except...”
“Barnes,” Tony finished, bitterly.
“Barnes,” Bruce agreed. “Steve has no objectivity at all when it comes to Barnes. I don’t know if it’s that he’s all Steve’s got left of his old life, or that Steve feels guilty for not finding him sooner, or, hell, if it’s just that Steve’s in love with him” – Tony blinked, as though that had never occurred to him – “but I think we’ve all made irrational decisions out of fear for the people we love. God knows I have.”
“Yeah,” Tony said quietly, “me too.” He took a deep breath and then winced, pressing a hand to the center of his chest. “But that doesn’t change anything.”
“I know.” Bruce hesitated, wondering how far he dared go. But after a week and a half of late night chats, he thought he had a little more room to be blunt. “You don’t have any control over what Steve does, or what Barnes did. The only thing you control is yourself, going forward.” Tony nodded once, jerkily. “So I guess the question is this: Do you think you’ll ever be able to see Barnes and the Winter Soldier separately enough to deal with him?”
Tony bit his lip. “I don’t know. I’ve thought about it. But every time I do, i just...” He rubbed his chest absently. Bruce wasn’t sure he was even aware he was doing it. “It’s asking a hell of a lot.”
“And I’m not asking it of you,” Bruce said, because it was important that Tony knew that. “No one can ask that of you, Tony. Not Steve. Certainly not Barnes. There’s a hell of a lot of water under that bridge.”
“I’d have to do some hardcore compartmentalizing,” Tony said with a grimace. “Or I guess could just...get over it.”
“Forgiveness is always an option,” Bruce agreed quietly.
Tony shook his head. “I don’t know if I can forgive Barnes.”
“Maybe start with Steve.”
Tony blinked at that. He frowned. “Steve’s not even here.”
Bruce shrugged. “So? Forgiveness isn’t just about the person being forgiven. And if he can get a letter to you, I’m pretty sure you could get a letter to him.”
Tony was quiet. Bruce leaned against the headboard and tried to keep his eyes open.
“You know, for someone who’s not that kind of doctor,” Tony said at last, “you’re not half-bad at it.”
Bruce shrugged. “My grandfather used to tell me that if I made enough mistakes, someday I’d get wise.”
“A theory I disprove every day,” Tony said, with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“No, you don’t,” Bruce said seriously.
Tony opened his mouth, closed it, and looked at Bruce like he had no idea what to do with him. Bruce snorted out a laugh and reached out, cupping the back of Tony’s neck with his hand. “It’s time to sleep,” he told him. “And in the morning, I think you should start writing a letter to Steve. Even if you never send it.”
To his surprise, Tony didn’t immediately scoff at the idea. He nodded, looking distant, and went silent. After a minute or two, Bruce helped him ease back down and pulled the covers over him.
“You staying?” Tony asked blearily.
Bruce sighed. He really should get back to his own bed, he knew. But Tony’s bed was enormous and extremely comfortable. Moving seemed like a lot of effort for not a lot of reward. “Yeah, if that’s okay.”
“S’okay,” Tony mumbled, already more than halfway asleep. “Stay.”
Tony didn’t say anything about their middle-of-the-night chat the next morning. But Bruce suspected that he was thinking about it – possibly too much, judging by the sudden uptick in migraine frequency. Two migraines in six days had Bruce reading up on alternative ways of managing migraine pain, since Tony was right, the Imitrex was useless for him.
He ordered in some tea from his favorite health food store in Brooklyn, which some online forums had said might help. It was a mark of how at the end of his rope Tony was that he actually gave it a shot and drank the stuff. But nothing except pressure point therapy seemed to do anything.
“I want to show Rhodey how to do this,” Bruce said to Tony during the second headache. He had Tony’s hand in his and was keeping a steady pressure on the base of his palm.
Tony closed his eyes and turning his face away. “He doesn’t need to deal with my shit.”
“He wants to, though. He’s frustrated that you won’t let him.”
“He needs to concentrate on getting better.”
“He is better, Tony. And he’d like to feel useful when his best friend is clearly suffering.”
Tony didn’t respond. Bruce bit his tongue and refrained, valiantly, from saying anything else for a good twenty minutes. When he did speak again, he had Tony’s head cradled in his hands, pressing up into the nerves at back of his skull with his fingers and rubbing slow circles on his temples with his thumbs.
“I know you feel guilty about what happened to Rhodey,” Bruce said quietly. “But he doesn’t blame you, and it doesn’t help him when you won’t let him help you. In fact, it makes him feel worse. So if you don’t want him to help you, then that’s your choice. But keep in mind when you make that choice that it’s really about your comfort, not his.”
“Jesus,” Tony muttered. “You don’t mince words, do you?”
“I don’t really see the point with you. It would make me feel better to know that if I have to leave, you’ll let Rhodey help you.”
Tony sighed. “Fine.”
“Thank you,” Bruce said, and let go of Tony to pull his phone out and start tapping out a text to Rhodey, telling him to come to Tony’s rooms.
“What, now?” Tony said, shoving himself partway up into a sitting position.
“Is there a better time?”
Tony hesitated. “I...okay,” he finally said, albeit with palpable reluctance.
Bruce frowned at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Tony muttered. “It’s fine.”
But something clearly was wrong, and it didn’t get better once Rhodey was there. Tony had come around to letting Bruce touch him and move him around the way he needed to. Bruce thought Tony would find it easier with Rhodey, whom he’d helped with his own physical therapy, some of which was pretty invasive of personal space. But Bruce could feel the tension running through Tony’s body, even when they started small, with just the pressure point on Tony’s hand. Bruce kept his fingers stroking from the center of Tony’s forehead and down across his temples, hoping that would soothe him. But if anything that seemed to make it worse.
“I can’t,” Tony finally gasped, pulling away from both of them. He rolled over and curled up on his side. “I can’t. I can’t.”
“Tony,” Rhodey said, a note of begging in his voice.
“It’s too much, I can’t.” Tony’s back was heaving. He pulled a pillow over his head, apparently in an attempt to block both of them out.
“Too much what?” Bruce asked, making his voice calm and reasonable.
But Tony was way beyond being able to use his words, it seemed. “Go, please,” he said, voice muffled by the pillow. But Bruce could hear the strain in it. “Both of you.”
Bruce stood up. So did Rhodey, though he looked like it was just about killing him. “If you need either of us, Tony, we’ll be here,” Bruce said. “Just let FRIDAY know.” He pulled Rhodey out of the room.
Neither of them spoke until they were in the elevator down to the common area. Rhodey smacked the wall with his open hand. “Goddammit,” he swore.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said quietly. “I should have known better. I should’ve realized that that much focused attention was going to be too much.”
Rhodey shook his head, his mouth a tight line. “I don’t think he’s going to ever let go of his guilt over what happened to me enough to let me help him. He’d rather suffer on his own for hours.”
Bruce sighed. “He really needs more help than either of us can give him. He should be in therapy. He’s done it before, I’m not sure why he’s so resistant this time.”
Rhodey was quiet as the elevator arrived on the communal level. He followed Bruce out and into the kitchen, where Bruce started making tea for both of them. “He feels guilty as hell for everything. He feels like he broke the Avengers. Which is –”
“– ridiculous,” Bruce agreed. He drummed his fingers on the edge of the kitchen island. “I’m trying to get him and Steve to start talking again. I feel like that’s important, but it won’t fix everything.”
“Nothing’s going to fix everything,” Rhodey said. “This situation is totally FUBAR’d. And I say that as someone who has seen some fucked up shit.”
Bruce had to agree.
He kept an eye on Tony through FRIDAY for the next few hours. It made him twitch to deliberately stay away when he knew he could have helped Tony – which gave him some taste of how Rhodey was feeling – but he knew better than to force himself in where he wasn’t wanted. If he tried that, Tony would stop letting him in altogether.
By the time he went to bed, FRIDAY reported that Tony had fallen asleep. Bruce hoped that meant that he’d started feeling better. He did breathing exercises, staring at the ceiling, until he managed to slip into sleep himself.
Bruce was making breakfast the next morning when Tony shuffled in. He didn’t look well: pale, his hair a little greasy, dark circles under his eyes. But he wasn’t squinting like the light was bothering him. Bruce poured him a cup of coffee and fixed him a bowl of yogurt and granola, same as his.
“How are you?” Bruce asked, hitching himself onto a stool at the kitchen island next to Tony.
“Better,” Tony said, subdued. “Sorry about last night.”
Bruce shook his head. “Don’t apologize. We shouldn’t have pushed you.”
Tony shrugged. “I didn’t have to get all fight-or-flight over it.” He took a long sip of his coffee and turned the mug around between his hands. “Rhodey upset?”
Bruce shrugged. “A little. Neither of us wants to make you uncomfortable.”
Tony nodded. They ate in silence for a few minutes, though to Bruce’s watchful eye, it looked more like Tony was moving food around in his bowl.
Tony sucked in a quick breath. Bruce glanced up, startled. “If you had to leave suddenly,” Tony said, “it’d be good for Rhodey to know what to do. I don’t want to go back to how things were.”
“Teach him what to do,” Tony said, sounding determined. “I’ll let him sit with me next time and we can – we can try.”
“Okay,” Bruce said. “Thank you, Tony. I know it’s not easy.”
Tony snorted. “I really had gotten better. It’s ridiculous that this has fucked me up so badly.”
“No, Tony.” Bruce shook his head. “it’s not ridiculous. It’s a lot of things, but it’s not ridiculous.”
Tony bit his lip. “I haven’t written Steve that letter yet. Thought about it a lot, though. Especially yesterday when I was staring at the ceiling for hours. Kept thinking about what I’d say if I had the chance. But it seems useless to write it when he isn’t going to read it.”
Bruce sipped his tea slowly. An idea had been slowly percolating in the back of his mind, ever since their conversation a few nights ago. “What if I delivered it to him?”
Tony frowned. “In Wakanda?”
Bruce nodded. “I’m not leaving tomorrow, or any time soon if I can help it. But if and when I have to go, I could take it with me.”
Tony shook his head slowly. “I don’t know, Bruce. I just – maybe it’s easier to just –”
“Be miserable?” Bruce suggested.
Tony let out a snort of laughter. “Yeah. That. Seems safer.”
Bruce nodded. “What do you think the worst case scenario is here? You write the letter to Steve, I deliver it to him, and then what?”
Tony opened his mouth, then shut it. He shrugged. “I never said it was rational.” He pushed his bowl away only half-eaten. “All right. Here’s the problem.” He swallowed. “I don’t want this to be it. He writes me a letter, I write him a letter, and then that’s it, that’s the ballgame, we never see each other or speak to each other again. It feels fucking final.”
“It’s not, though,” Bruce said. “You know that, right?”
Tony shook his head. “Like I said. I don’t see a way forward on this one. Do you?”
Bruce was forced to admit that he didn’t. “But I believe there is one. I believe that you and Steve can stand in a room together someday as friends and allies. And I think this letter might be a first step toward that.”
“I wish I had your optimism,” Tony muttered.
Bruce had to smile. “An overly positive outlook is not something I’ve often been accused of.” Tony cracked a weak smile. Bruce leaned over so his shoulder nudged up against Tony’s. “It’s up to you. I won’t bring it up again.”
Tony outright laughed at that. “I don’t believe you. You can’t help meddling. You, Bruce Banner, are meddlesome.”
Bruce didn’t deny it. When it came to Tony and Tony’s happiness, he’d realized, he was meddlesome. But someone had to be. Steve wasn’t here. Rhodey tried, but Tony, so far, wouldn’t let him. Someone had to intervene, and Bruce wasn’t sorry that it’d been him this time. It might yet do some good.
But if it was going to do some good, it needed to do it fast. Bruce had the feeling he was running out of time in which to fix things. He didn’t know what made him think that, except that every day that went by without Ross noticing he was there felt increasingly improbable. Someone was protecting him, he suspected, as month two in the compound bled into month three. And there was only so long that could go on.
Bruce didn’t say anything to Rhodey or Tony about his suspicions. Nor did he do anything try and rush things between them; having made that mistake once, he tried not to make it again. Tony managed to go a week, then ten days without a migraine. His ribs healed, albeit slowly. Bruce didn’t ask if he’d started the letter. He’d know when he had to.
It was easy enough for Bruce to show Rhodey how to use pressure point therapy to relieve Tony’s headaches. He found some useful illustrations on the internet, but mostly he just showed Rhodey how to do it. There was nothing like literal hands-on experience when it came to massage therapy.
“Yes, like that,” Bruce said, looking up at Rhodey. The two of them were on the sofa in the living room; Rhodey had his head cradled in his hands, fingers dug into the nerves at the base of his skull, thumbs pressing lightly on his temples. Bruce suddenly had a little more sympathy for Tony’s reticence. It was a remarkably vulnerable position, even when Bruce wasn’t in pain. He forced himself to breathe through the discomfort, reminding himself that Rhodey was his friend, and he could be trusted.
“Great,” Rhodey said. “Now Tony just has to let me.”
Bruce sat up. “I think he will, when it comes down to it.”
Rhodey looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers thoughtfully. “I get why he doesn’t trust me. I mean, there’s Steve, but Steve is just the most recent in a long line of betrayals. And he’s far from the worst. I know it’s not personal.”
But it’s hard not to take it that way, Bruce heard, just as clearly as though Rhodey had said it. “Just be patient,” he said. “Let him come to you, if you can.”
Rhodey grimaced. “I’m worried I might be waiting a long time in that case. But I guess you’re right. No other choice, really.”
Bruce glanced at his watch. “I’m going to start dinner. Tony asked for vindaloo. You want to join us?”
“That depends,” Rhodey said. “How hot are we talking here?”
“I’ll dial it back,” Bruce promised, standing to head into the kitchen. And then, unable to resist teasing him, he added, “There’s some plain yogurt in the fridge you can add. That’s what the parents in the village I lived in did for kids who couldn’t handle the spice yet.”
“Jerk,” Rhodey muttered. “Just because I don’t have a death wish. But yeah, sure, I’ll have some. Who needs a stomach lining, anyway?”
“That’s the spirit,” Bruce said, as he started to pull ingredients out of the fridge. He held up a bag of peppers. “Want to chop these? Take the seeds and veins out and they just add flavor. Mostly,” he added conscientiously. “There’s going to be a bit of a kick, but curry without spice is just wrong.”
“Sure,” Rhodey said, and got up to follow him into the kitchen.
The two of them worked easily together to make a slightly toned down version of the vindaloo that Bruce had made for Tony right after he’d returned. It was nice, Bruce thought, and realized that he would miss Rhodey when he left.
Tony wandered in just as the rice finished cooking. “Smells good in here,” he said, going to the fridge for a beer.
“Only the cooks get to eat,” Rhodey told him.
Tony snorted. “How about only the guy who paid for the food and everything in this kitchen gets to eat?”
“Hmm,” Rhodey said, looking at Bruce. “I guess he has a point.”
“Pushover,” Bruce said, even as he made up plates for all three of them. They ate sitting at the kitchen island, Tony wedged in between him and Rhodey. They talked about the upgrades Tony was giving the new suit, about Rhodey’s new physical therapist, about the small town in India that Bruce’s vindaloo recipe came from.
It was as close to normal as anything had felt since Bruce had come back. It didn’t feel like anyone was playacting, or like they were dancing around an elephant in the room. They could almost have been in Avengers Tower, back when they had all been together, back when life, as complicated as it had seemed at the time, had been infinitely simpler. For all that he’d told Tony that he believed it was possible for him and Steve to stand in a room again some day, as friends and allies, Bruce couldn’t see the future and didn’t know if they would ever get that sense of camaraderie back – if they would ever really be a team again, much less a family.
But this – this was good, too.
“You got kind of quiet there, Big Green,” Tony said to him, as they were loading the dishes into the dishwasher. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, Tony,” Bruce said, and slung his arm around Tony’s shoulders, pulling him into a one-armed hug. “Everything’s fine.”
Three days later, Bruce’s clock ran out.
There was a park not far from the compound where Bruce liked to go on the rare occasions he ventured out. He usually got coffee at a cart nearby and sat on a bench near a fountain for a few minutes before heading back. He liked the break from the constant technological inundations of the compound.
He’d had the chance to take exactly two sips of his coffee when a shadow fell over him. Bruce looked up.
Maria Hill was looking back at him.
Bruce’s stomach dropped. “Commander Hill,” he said, politely.
“Just Maria,” she replied. “Hi Bruce. How are you?”
“Can’t complain.” He gestured her to take the seat next to him on the bench. “FRIDAY said you’ve been away on official business.”
Hill nodded. “I was. I’m back now.”
“And I’m your first stop, I take it. Are you advance guard?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m your head start.”
He’d been expecting it, but it was still a kick to the gut. “I see.”
“I covered for you as long as I could, but it got back to Ross late last night. He thinks you just arrived, and I want it to stay that way. But he’s told me to bring you in, and I can’t refuse.”
“Well, I knew this was coming.” He glanced at her. “How long have you known I was here?”
“Within two hours of your arrival. SHIELD might not exist anymore, but many of our eyes and ears still do.”
“Why’d you cover for me?” Bruce asked, out of sheer curiosity.
She sighed. “I’ve been worried about Stark going off the deep end. It seemed like if anyone was going to get anywhere with him, it was probably going to be you. So I stayed out of your way and kept Ross in the dark.”
“I appreciate that.”
“And I appreciate the effort you made with Stark. I know it couldn’t have been easy.”
Bruce shrugged. “He’s my friend. It wasn’t a mission.”
“And that’s why it had to be you.”
Bruce supposed that made sense. “How much of a head start do I have?”
She glanced at her watch. “Four hours, give or take.”
Time enough to get back to the compound, grab his go-bag, and say goodbye to Tony, if he didn’t dawdle. “I’d better get going, then.” Bruce stood, then hesitated. “How much trouble is this going to make for you?”
She shrugged. “No more than I’m willing to handle. No more than I’m used to these days. Besides, you’re slippery. Good at disappearing. Everyone knows that. You know where you’re going?”
Bruce nodded. “In broad strokes. I’ll improvise the rest.”
“Good. Safe travels.”
“Thank you,” Bruce said, and left her sitting on the park bench by the fountain.
He didn't want to attract attention by running back to the compound, but he walked as quickly as he could, shucking his mostly full coffee cup into a trash can on his way. His mind was already ticking over, going into survival mode. His go-bag had new identification and a new passport, one that didn’t look much like him. He’d shave the scruff and cut his hair as soon as he was away; put in the colored contacts and ditch the glasses altogether. By the time he got to the airport, he wouldn’t look anything at all like Bruce Banner.
Back at the compound, Bruce took the elevator up to the communal floor. There was no one in the living area. Christ, he hoped Tony was home. If he had to leave without saying good-bye, that would be...very, very not good. That would probably negate almost all the progress they’d made in the last few weeks.
He shoved the door to his bedroom open and found Tony sitting on the bed, Bruce’s go-bag between his feet on the floor.
Bruce jumped, hand going to his chest. “Tony. You scared me.”
“Sorry.” Tony stood up. “Hill called. You haven’t got a lot of time, and I didn’t want you to waste it trying to track me down.”
“I appreciate that.” Bruce nodded at the bag on the floor. “I’m going to need that.”
“And you can have it,” Tony said, picking it up and tossing it to him. Bruce caught it. “I just needed to add a couple things. Check the side pockets.”
Bruce opened one of the side pockets and pulled out a StarkPhone. “What’s this?”
“The finest encryption money can’t buy. I don’t like to throw the word ‘unhackable’ around because I’m, well, me, and I’ve hacked a lot of things people said were unhackable, but that – that is pretty fucking unhackable. It’s for emergencies. Or, you know.” His eyes cut away. “Letting me know you got there okay, whatever. Texting is probably safest.”
Bruce’s throat was tight. “Thanks, Tony.”
“Got a couple other goodies for you in there. Extra pair of Hulk pants, just in case, a few of those energy bars you like for the trip. And then there’s this.”
He pulled an envelope out of his back pocket. It was thick, and on the front of it, Tony had written, Steve.
Bruce accepted it from him and slipped it into the side pocket along with the phone. “I’ll make sure it gets to him.” He took a deep breath. “Where’s Rhodey?”
“PT,” Tony said. “Won’t be back for a while. I’ll tell him you said good-bye.”
The idea of leaving without saying goodbye to Rhodey was harder than Bruce had expected. But he couldn’t afford to waste much more time. “I’d appreciate that,” Bruce said, tightening his hold on his go-bag. “Tony. Promise me you’ll let him help you.”
Tony was silent for a few seconds, looking anywhere but at Bruce. Bruce held his breath and tried to ignore the ticking clock in his head.
“I promise I’ll try,” Tony finally said. “I’ll try, Bruce.”
Bruce nodded. It wasn’t perfect, but it was all he had time for. He let his go-bag fall to the floor. “C’mere,” he said, and stepped forward to pull Tony into a rough hug.
Tony went stiff, then brought his hands up to hug him back, hard, clutching at the back of his shirt. “Bruce,” he said wetly. “I just want to say – if you hadn’t come back when you did –”
“Hey, no,” Bruce said, voice rough. “I’ll see you, okay? This isn’t it. I swear to you, Tony, this isn’t it. Do you believe me?”
Tony tucked his head into the crook of Bruce’s neck and gave a damp laugh. “I want to.” He pulled away, slowly. “Say hi to everyone for me.”
“I will. And I’ll text you, let you know I get there okay.”
“Tell.” Tony stopped, throat working. “Tell Steve that if he wants to call me after he reads the letter, I’ll answer.”
Tony stepped back, arms crossed over his chest. Bruce picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. He looked at Tony, hunched in on himself and looking, suddenly, extremely young. As young in some ways as he must have looked the night Howard and Maria Stark had left on their ill-fated drive to the airport.
Bruce knew he had to leave. Not leaving wasn’t an option. Even if leaving felt like the hardest thing he’d ever had to do – harder by far than walking away from Nat had been. He’d known she would be fine. He was much less certain about Tony, even after everything.
But he had to go.
“Take care of yourself, Tony.”
Bruce turned and walked away.