The day after Bloom goes to Montenegro, Stephen takes Bang Bang to the racetrack and together they get completely blown on Appletinis. Normally Stephen wouldn't be caught dead drinking an Appletini, but it's just him and Bang Bang, and his brother is gone, and his brother is gone, and his brother is gone. So he chokes down the fruity drink. It isn't sour enough, and it isn't strong enough, so Bang Bang distracts the bartender and Stephen slips into the back to steal the vodka bottle and lemon juice.
He puts his money on a horse named Last Chance Suzy, and he loses. Bang Bang bets on the underdog, Hidden Talents, and later, when she is counting her cash in the hotel room, Stephen finds six neat syringes hidden in her purse. Six syringes; seven horses.
Bang Bang never was one to leave anything to chance.
When he wakes up the next morning, Bang Bang is gone. Stephen never asks where she goes when she goes, in part because he hasn't earned the right to know and in part because Bang Bang wouldn't answer him anyway.
Stephen is hung over and hungry, so he goes to the hotel's restaurant and sits reading the paper and sipping coffee. Bloom would have beaten him down here. Bloom would be on his third cup, and his eyes would be drooping anyway. Bloom hates pancakes, but he always orders them in hotel restaurants because once, when they were kids, Stephen had told him that pancakes are every hotel chef's specialty.
Bloom is old enough to see it for a lie; Bloom orders pancakes anyway.
Halfway through the first column of the Classifieds, a woman with dark hair and near-violet eyes slams through the restaurant's swinging doors and hurls herself into a chair at the table across the aisle; she rips out her cell-phone when it rings and snarls into it, "I don't care what my father says—I am the head of this project, and if I say we're not testing on humans then we're not testing on humans."
She discards the cell phone onto the table and whips out a box of cigarettes, taking an inhale so long and deep that Stephen counts by Mississipis until she finishes.
Bloom was wrong when he said that Stephen wanted the whole world neat and written. Stephen's favorite kind of con is the kind he begins when he quietly orders the woman a coffee and waits for her to approach him. Cold-reading, fake psychics and musicians call it. Stephen looks at it differently: Stephen must be warm and limber to make the most of an improved con; he has to sink into a character that he invents as he goes, must live him so completely that he doesn't need to plant evidence, doesn't need to plan ahead.
When the waiter delivers the coffee and then gestures at Stephen, the woman looks over at him with a frown. She stands and comes to sit across from him.
"Do I know you?" she asks, her voice clipped and to the point. "Or do you just make a habit of picking up angry women in breakfast rooms?"
"Nothing sexier than breakfast," Stephen says with a straight face.
The woman laughs. She holds out a perfectly manicured hand and murmurs, "Betsy Ross," as he clasps it.
Two months into the Bruce Banner con, and Stephen hasn't yet figured out his endgame. This happens, sometimes, with his pet deceptions. He enters into them on instinct and plays them out until he can find the perfect ending.
Bloom is still gone. Bloom has been gone longer now than he has ever been before.
Betsy happens naturally enough. Their roles are cast from an almost too-obvious mold. He had been afraid, at first, that she would suspect him of being too perfect. She is a brilliant scientist struggling to get out from under her father's thumb without sacrificing her career; he is the casual genius, overconfident and sarcastic, who slouches before a war-hero and calls him Captain Underpants behind his back. Of course they will be together. They were created to be together.
For the record, Bruce Banner genuinely loves Betsy Ross; it is only Stephen who hesitates.
The end game comes to him like this: ten nine eight, Bruce, what is that, is that a person?, seven six five, that's a person oh my God, stop, stop the countdown, stop, that's a person, that's a kid—four three two, Bruce what are you—Bruce!
Oh, how beautiful, Stephen thinks as he races toward the boy on the bicycle, as he tackles him into a trench, as the heat explodes behind him and rips the skin from his back. Oh, what a perfect way for Bruce to end.
The pain is dazzling and his ears ring with screams and fire. Stephen closes his eyes and thinks of Bloom. I love you, he thinks. You are my brother. Written and unwritten, you are my brother.
And then he wakes up.
By the time Bang Bang comes to see him, half-starved and delirious in a little hut in South America, Stephen has already worked out the beginnings of The Last Con. It is easily the worst con in the history of cons, a fact that Bang Bang is quick to point out to him by casually lighting his diagram on fire.
"You could have been like, a thousand times nicer about that," he tells her, and drops his head into his hands. She flicks on her lighter, a friendly warning. Bloom sighs. "Yeah, yeah. I know."
He leans back. He has been practicing yoga, and this helps, sometimes. He's learning how to keep his pulse-rate down. He thinks that if Bloom ever saw him doing yoga by starlight he would shit himself.
He does other things to calm his temper, too. Digs half-moon landscapes into his palms with his fingernails, counts to a thousand in a Christopher Walken accent, catches flies out of mid-air.
He misses his brother. Everything that Stephen has ever done, that first con, Diamond Dog's eye, this stupid hut in the Middle of Nowhere, South America, has been because he loves his brother and does not want to lose him.
How can you plan a con if you don't want it to succeed?
Bang Bang puts her hand over his. When he looks at her, she mimes riding a bicycle.
He looks at his empty notebook and picks up a pen. "Okay," he says, and draws a box. In it he writes: 1. Find Bloom.
Twenty-six days later, he has a graph the size of a chalkboard with a hundred little numbered boxes. Bang Bang doesn't set it on fire, so he packs his bags and goes to Montenegro.
Bloom's voice trembles when he asks, fingers threaded into Stephen's collar, "Is this real? Or just the perfect con?"
Stephen stands. The blood on his shirt is red, and he feels the monster bubbling inside him, furious at Diamond Dog, furious at the color red, furious that this is goodbye, furious, furious.
"I love you," Bloom says, and there, that is the sound of Stephen shattering into a hundred million pieces, all over the stage.
But oh! how beautiful, Stephen thinks as Bloom runs down the aisle and gets into Penelope's car; oh, what a perfect way for The Brothers Bloom to die.
Bang Bang finds him, after, on a train to Boston. She looks at him for a long time, then kisses him on the mouth and puts her fingers to his temple.
"Bang-bang," she whispers.
He flicks his fingers against the glass windowpane of his train car and says, "Splat."
They sit in silence, just looking at one another, until Stephen's phone rings. When he digs it out of his pocket, she leaves, and he doesn't see her again.
"This is Bruce," he answers.
Betsy looks the same when he sees her. She cries. Bruce cries. Stephen cries, too, to his own surprise. The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just the thing they wanted.
"I looked for you," she whispers, running her fingers along his cheekbones and down his jaw. Her hands tremble like Bloom's did. "I thought . . . I don't know. I was afraid that you, that something had, I thought—"
"I'm okay," says Bruce. "Well, you know. I'm half-man, half-hulk, but I still look great naked, so. I'm okay."
Betsy laughs, and takes off her coat.
Two days later, a woman in all-black leather and a bobbed haircut shows up in his little shack and says calmly, "A thing is happening. You're part of it. Come with me, please, Mr. Bloom."
Bruce doesn't flicker. "It's Banner," he corrects politely. "Not real into 'things' these days. Been focusing on my Chakra. Metaphysical realities. Zen. Nirvana." He pauses. "Also puppies. Puppies are really in right now."
The woman smiles, but it's predatory, it's Bang Bang's smile. "Sure, okay. Banner, if you like. That's . . . Stephen Banner?"
"Bruce Banner? That's adorable. It alliterates. You've alliterated."
"I like symmetry."
"I like cats. Can we be done with the cute bullshit now?"
They look at one another in silence. Stephen flickers in and Bruce fades out. "What if I say . . . no?"
The woman raises an eyebrow. Her hands go to her sides and she pulls two daggers out. "I'll persuade you," she says.
Stephen isn't sure, but when they pull up to Tony Stark's disgustingly large apartment in Los Angeles, he thinks he might have actually died that day in the church. This isn't real. Stories aren't real, Bloom; you never get anything real out of telling yourself stories. It's a trap.
Except, no: because here is Tony Stark, glowing blue and raising a cool eyebrow as he says, "aren't you that guy that convinced my robots to give you my Social Security and credit card numbers a few months ago so that you could buy a camel?"
"It was my favorite camel," says Stephen, "but he turned out to be a terrible drunk, so. Joke's on me, I guess."
Tony looks offended. "You mean you conned Jarvis and you didn't even get a half-decent camel out of it?" He pauses. "Wait, a drunk? What's a camel like drunk? Can I have a drunken camel? Quick! Somebody write Pepper a memo: I want a drunk camel for Christmas."
The woman in leather—Natasha—looks at both of them with a blank expression. "Look, Bruce," she says flatly. "I got you a puppy."
A soft laugh from the couch draws Stephen's attention. A short-ish man, with buzzed hair and a jawline like an amorous Michelangelo made it, is playing with an arrowhead. "Long as I don't have to be the one cleaning up his shit."
"Oh, that," says Tony as Stephen raises a questioning eyebrow, "that's Clint, he's an asshole."
"Says the one who was only invited to the party because he wouldn't lend us his costume," Clint throws back.
"Can we not behave as men?" A blonde guy standing by the TV asks, frowning with his arms crossed over his chest. "And not as children?"
Tony rolls his eyes. "It's called banter, O Great Dude of Assguard."
"That's what I said. Is that not what I said? Assguard. One who guards asses. Oh hey, Thor, have you met Clint? You're perfect for each other."
Thor uncrosses his arms and steps forward; Clint flicks his arrowhead between his fingers the way that Bang Bang plays with lighters. Tony clenches his fingers into fists.
Natasha says, "All of your penises are tiny." A beat. "Except maybe yours, Steve, depending on how far they went with the full-body enlargement."
The man she had been addressing, Steve, stands in the doorway with an expression that Stephen recognizes from all the times that Bloom had said, "We're liars, Stephen, and that's all we are, so stop making it something noble."
He says, "That's inappropriate, Natasha."
Stephen thinks: Bloom, not even I could make this shit up.
Natasha teaches him to fight, Steve is He Who Frowns At Tony, Thor is confused by ninety-nine percent of things that humans do and talks like one of Bang Bang's Japanese television dramas, and Clint always has his arms full of all the Fucks He Does Not Give.
And they all . . . pretty much hate each other.
"We're not a team, we're a time bomb," Stephen shouts, and he sees them all flinch towards their weapons in case he loses control.
But he's not angry. He's playing a part, the greatest role of his life: the wild card in the team of heroes.
This isn't an unwritten life, he has come to realize; this is the most commonly written story in the world, so common that it's practically clichéd. They have Steve, the Straight Arrow (every con needs one); Tony, the Playboy (and every con needs one of those, too, for balance); Clint, the Irreveren(Bang Bang had always been this); Thor, the Foreigner (for flavor); and Natasha, the Badass (Bang Bang had been this, too).
Everyone turns to look at him, silenced. Stephen thinks: seriously? None of you have seen this movie?
"Bruce is right," Steve begins, almost gently, and all of the subtext reads try not to freak out and smash things. "Maybe we should all just . . . go our separate ways."
Tony spits out his gum and sticks it underneath the table. Somewhere in the world, Phil Coulson just got hives and the urge to put Everybody In Timeout.
"Sounds good to me. I'll go my way—the awesome way—and you, Steve, can go to the place where fun goes to die. You can take Thor with you. And Clint."
Natasha purses her lips. "I'm not sleeping with you, Tony."
"Fine, then. You can also take Natasha."
Oh, how beautiful, Stephen thinks. Look at you all, playing your roles so beautifully. They are all so good, and angry, and righteous, and hungering for something that they don't know how to name.
Separate, they are only pieces; together, they are Bloom.
"How about we all go to the place where fun goes to die and just don't invite Tony?" Stephen suggests, but lightly, with a grin, and he sees Clint's lips twitching upward.
"What?" Tony cries, indignant. "Bruce. I am wounded. Wounded. I was totally going to let you come to my Awesome Place. We were going to go to Awesome together. I'd even let you bring your drunk camel."
"You have a drunk camel?" Steve asks.
"Why would you waste good drink on a camel?" adds Thor.
"How did you even get a camel?" Clint wonders.
Stephen says, "I don't still have the camel. There was a government intervention. I was . . . intervened."
Tony turns to him, momentarily forgetting that Stephen was no longer invited to Awesome. "The government took your camel? You bought that camel!"
"Technically, you bought that camel," Natasha reminds him dryly.
Tony brightens. "Oh, right. Hey, team! I am giving you my camel. It can be our mascot!"
Thor turns to frown at Steve. "I don't understand. I thought the government stole your camel."
Clint readies his bow.
"For the record: this is fucking stupid."
"Sorry, what was that? The awesomeness of what we are doing right now totally got in the way of your rampant pessimism. Also, you look great in that outfit."
"Natasha, if his advances are unwanted—"
"Don't need you to protect me, Steve. But the offer is appreciated. You can hold him. I'll punch."
"Well, if you're into that sort of thing, I—"
"Hey, assholes. Do you want to talk about this weird three-way you're planning, or do you want to steal a camel?"
So there it is. The family that steals together stays together.
And this, this bond, this is Stephen's real perfect con, even more perfect than the one he gave to Bloom. He is living the story and everyone gets what they want. It's Christmas, Bloom. Every day is Christmas.
It hurts when he transforms, and he looks stupid in purple, but this is a long con and people need the spandex. He looks a little sillier and they look a little less frightened. He lets them take photos of him, as the Hulk (this is his name now—how stupid is that? No symbolism at all).
Never as Bruce.
He can't risk it. He can't risk that Bloom won't reach out casually one day to read the paper and see his face plastered across the front page.
This is a thing he never tells the others, not even when he begins to forget—if just a little—that he is Stephen and not Bruce. Bloom is buried so deeply that sometimes even Stephen has trouble conjuring him.
Of course, cameras or no cameras, Stephen forgets about Bang Bang.
It's Penelope—because of course it's Penelope—who shows up at Tony's apartment, hair long, beaming.
"Oh, hello," she says, breathless, and simply hugs him with all the joy and strength of Penelope Stamp, Smuggler and Con Artiste. "Well, you're alive, that's lovely, that's just—lovely." She lets out a breath. "May I come in?"
He steps aside as he asks, "How did you find me?"
"Bang Bang. She texted me weeks ago. I haven't told Bloom. I didn't know how to. And you were here, and we were in Istanbul, working in this circus as jugglers—well, I was a juggler, Bloom was filling in for the Master of Ceremonies. He's just great, Stephen, you should see him. He's as good as telling stories as you are."
Stephen's breath catches in his throat. "Always was."
"He has this joke. The audience loves it. It goes—"
"You can't tell him."
"'Why was there a pretzel in the police station?"
"You can't tell him."
"Because it had been a-salted! Isn't that hilarious? Well, Bloom tells it better. But anyway, I have this idea."
Stephen sits on the cough and rubs his hands over his eyes. After a moment, he feels Penelope put a little piece of paper on his lap.
He looks down. In her neat scribbles, she has written, over and over, Penelope and Bloom, Superheroes.
It's not until ten minutes later, when Stephen comes out of his panic coma, that he notices Bang Bang, standing casually in the corner smoking a cigarette. She points her fingers at him.
"Bang-bang," she says.
"Well, this is unexpected," is the first thing that comes out of Tony's mouth when Stephen, ashen-faced, gathers the Avengers to tell them. Steve reaches out and presses a hand to Bruce's . . . Stephen's shoulder.
"You have a family that loves you, and that lives," he says quietly. "Don't throw that away."
Stephen shakes his head. "You don't understand! All of you are superheroes; all of you can use your powers to protect the people you love. All I can do with mine is hurt them."
Clint and Natasha raise identical eyebrows. Clint's says, "We don't," and Natasha's finished, "feel bad for you." After a moment, Natasha sighs and looks at Clint; he gazes back at her, both debating silently which will have to expend the energy to speak. Finally, Natasha says, "It's really adorable that you think you'd be able to hurt them."
Stephen frowns. "I'm a thousand foot block of raging green fists," he says slowly, as if to children. "Bloom is a twig. The Hulk could crush him with, like, a strand of his hair."
Clint notches his crossbow. Thor swings Mjölnir onto his shoulder. Natasha's smile is feral as she spins ninja stars between her fingers, and both Tony and Steve grin at one another, united brothers in the way that they are when they stop paying attention.
"You misunderstand," says Clint, droll. "What she means is that it's adorable that you think we would let you."
"You are no longer alone, brother Stephen," says Thor, almost soft, for an Asgardian.
"The fuck else do you think we're here for?" asks Tony. "Pillow fights?"
When the bell rings, Stephen's pulse is so high that he can see a faint green stain spreading across his skin.
He is panicking. He is panicking.
"Calm your tits, Banner," says Clint, nudging him with his elbow. Clint is not the only one who refuses to call him Stephen, but Clint is the only one who understands why Stephen must be Bruce Banner, like this, with them. This is a long con. This has always been a long con, though the Avengers are no longer the mark.
Stephen himself is.
(Three days ago, when Stephen had brought Bang Bang to the apartment, she had started blowing things up in Tony's microwave, and Tony had said, dazed, "I want one of those, can I have that one? Bruce? Bruce? Can I keep her?"
Natasha had rolled her eyes. "One puppy is enough," she'd said. "Because guess who has to clean up all the shit?")
They stand together, the six of them, watching the numbers on the elevator light up, one two three four five six seven . . .
Natasha throws her weight into her hip, looking bored, looking relaxed, but Stephen feels the gentle pressure of her body next to his, feels Clint's elbow in his side, feels Tony and Steve behind him, together—they are always together, they are two sides of the same coin—feels Thor's hulking Thor-ness surrounding all of them.
The elevator pings, cheerful.
Bloom doesn't say anything.
Bloom stands in the door of the elevator as Penelope skips out, making her rounds, shaking hands, babbling about Tony's robots and falling half in love with Butterfingers, but Bloom just stands there, looking at him.
Bloom has always had the most exceptional poker face.
After a time, after a long time, Stephen says, voice cracking, "Hey."
It feels like Bloom watches the word come to him, watches it float from Stephen's mouth to his. He takes three steps forward and then throws a punch at the exact moment that he falls into Stephen's arms and stays there, whispering, "Oh, you terrific asshole."
It goes like this: they stand that way for a long time, the two of them, Bloom whispering, "asshole, asshole, asshole, I love you, I love you, asshole," and Stephen laughing, then maybe crying a little, then laughing again, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry Bloom, I had to—
And Penelope makes the rounds, oblivious, cracking Tony up and confusing the hell out of Steve, declaring them all superheroes, "and me too, please, I'd like to be one, too. I can juggle chainsaws."
After what she deems to be a long enough period, Natasha can no longer stand all the open affection in the room, and says, "Cool. Let's order pizza."
Two days later, some asshole in an octopus suit starts attacking the city and Bloom sees Stephen off with tears in his eyes.
"Go, you magnificent bastard," he declares, "and don't think I haven't noticed that this is the most clichéd life you've ever written."
"They're clichés for a reason," Stephen says with a grin as green spreads across his skin. "Clichés have the happiest endings."