"So, we're building you a floor, but it's not finished yet," Tony says. "This work for you?"
"Uh. Yeah." Bruce looks around—it's the main living area of a suite of some kind. This room alone is bigger than the last three places he's lived. "You don't need to build me a floor," he says.
"I'm building one for everyone on the team." Tony points to himself and tilts his head. "Billionaire. Comes in handy. By the way, is the other guy more likely to crash through the floor downwards or to burst through the ceiling upwards? I'm trying to figure out if yours goes on top or bottom." He twirls his finger a little at nothing.
Bruce frowns. "Uh, floor? Probably?"
"Great." Tony smiles. "So we'll put you on top, with Thor under you. I really felt you two bonded. Brute force, et cetera."
"You wanna see the lab space?" He jerks his hand towards the door.
"Yes," Bruce says. He shrugs his rucksack onto a table and turns. "Lead the way."
The lab's even bigger than the suite, and gorgeous as well: pristine, with none of the clutter a usual lab would have, detritus of former scientists left behind just in case. One of the walls is floor-to-ceiling glass, with a view of downtown Manhattan. There are several of those clear glass computer interfaces and a whiteboard on one wall, soldering iron and electronics components, optical bench and lenses and lasers, vibration isolation tables, all sorts of radiation detectors and cameras and telescopes and microscopes, some bulky equipment he'll have to investigate further, a fume hood for good measure. "I didn't know exactly what you'd need," Tony says.
"It's—wow." Bruce takes a step into the room, then stops and waits in case there's something else Tony needs to tell him.
"The two red buttons"—Tony indicates one near the door, one on the far wall—"will put steel plating over the doors and windows, in case you're feeling a little unfriendly. And the floor and ceiling are reinforced. Probably won't stop the other guy, but it'll at least slow him down."
Bruce nods. "Thanks," he said. "I'm glad you thought of that."
"Enjoy yourself." Tony claps him on the shoulder. "Dinner's at eight, Pepper insists."
"Okay," Bruce says. That sounds like a dismissal, and he's already moving to the cabinets along one wall, opening them to see what's inside. He hardly hears Tony leave.
Bruce sorts through the equipment in the lab, making notes on what kinds of experiments he can run right now and what he'll need in order to complete the work he brought with him. Then he spends the afternoon learning the computer interface. It's intuitive, but a bit Tony-esque, things spreading out in all directions when what Bruce wants is linearity; besides, even intuition is hard to learn when he's spent years training himself to follow specific paths to specific tasks.
He's not sure how long he'll have here before he needs to be doing something productive again. But he'll take the break while it's offered. A little down time, some breathing space to finish projects that don't have a pressing humanitarian or scientific reason to be completed. All in a gorgeous, fully outfitted lab, close to collaborators and his living space... It's like his dream of physics as a teenager, when he thought he'd have solved the universe by the time he was thirty.
Plus, there are some kickass games in the computer system. Pepper has to come get him at eight fifteen because he loses track of the time.
Stuffed full of delicious food, he makes his way back to his suite after dinner. It is, if anything, bigger than he remembered, and the bedroom is enormous. It's too bad he's past the age where he can just find somebody for the night, because the bed is giving him some serious ideas. The bathroom's pretty shareable, too—there's a hot tub so big, the other guy could take a bath with room to spare. The shower head has a number of nonstandard settings that make Bruce suspect Tony designed it.
He changes into pajamas and flips on the evening news, watches his usual six minutes and then picks up a crossword. It's the sort of quiet a hotel never is; there aren't any footsteps or stray voices drifting in from adjoining rooms. He's getting a little twitchy, actually. Low-stress isn't what he's used to. He can't shake the feeling he should be doing something.
Twitchy...isn't something he likes being. He turns off the lamp and goes to bed an hour earlier than he planned, then wakes up two hours later than usual, sleep-drunk and muzzy. He can barely work the shower in this state, but the default setting gives him a sinus-clearing level of pressure and enough hot water to raise his body temperature to wakefulness-like levels, so it works out all right anyway.
There's no coffee machine in the suite's not-a-kitchen, but with a few pokes at the computer interface he manages to acquire a mug of hot coffee from a small door in the wall. It's sort of like living on the Enterprise, with added gorgeous views of New York—well, of destroyed New York. Cheerful. He takes his coffee down to the lab and works through some tricky equations for a couple of hours before he gets stuck and needs a reference book. Books, now there's a catch: he hasn't seen a physical book since he stepped foot in Stark Tower.
He could probably use the computer to figure it out, but honestly he'd like to know what Tony's up to. He makes his way to Tony's workspace and pokes his head in the door. "Hey, you busy?"
"Door's open, so no," Tony says. There are parts all over the workbench and three different robotic arms doing things, but busy's a relative term for all of them. "How's the lab?"
Bruce smiles. "Everything you said. Maybe more."
Tony waves him in, so Bruce comes up to the workbench. "There are all sorts of odds and ends in the basement...basements...lower ten floors...well, ask Jarvis, he knows what we've got."
"Books?" Bruce says. "I need a QFT reference but I didn't see a library..."
"We have six digitized textbooks on quantum field theory, in addition to access to all major physics journals," Jarvis's voice says smoothly from thin air. "I have added shortcuts to the material to the main interface in your laboratory."
"Ah," Bruce says. "Digitized. Right."
"You should get on that," Bruce says. "Weightless paper. Harassed file clerks everywhere would worship you."
"Oh, they already do," Tony says.
"While we're speaking, sir," Jarvis says, "would you like me to turn on my voice interface for your laboratory or living quarters? Mr. Stark finds it aids in his productivity and smooths his working experience."
"Also, he writes great references," Tony says.
Bruce thinks about it. "Does he speak all the time, or—?"
"I can limit myself to responses to direct instructions if it would make you more comfortable."
"Yes, please," Bruce says. "So, um. Turn yourself on in the lab and the suite. Thanks."
"It's my pleasure, sir."
Tony grins at him and says, "QFT, huh? What are you working on?"
"Oh, I was just thinking about the efficiency of the gamma-ray spectrometers," Bruce says. "I thought we might look for a signature like the tesseract was giving off, in case there's anything like it still lying around."
Tony nods slowly, gone serious, and rolls up to the workbench. "I've been working on some sensors for the suit," he says. "Might be part of the same problem."
It isn't, but working it out takes the rest of the morning and improves the sensors while they're at it.
The longer he's here, the easier it is to relax into the pace of life. Breakfast provided by Jarvis; work a few hours in the lab; lunch with Tony and Pepper if they're in the building; more work in the afternoon, sometimes alone, sometimes with Tony, sometimes with his new friends in R&D three floors down. Dinner alone or with Tony and Pepper again. He has some old colleagues in New York, but he's not quite up to seeing them yet, not ready to see fear in the eyes of people who used to grade his problem sets. He's sleeping normal hours now, no longer getting twitchy at night.
He wonders if he could have had this years ago, when the change first happened, or if he needed—all the rest, his whole path here. Well, he has his contentment now; that should be good enough.
In his free time, he finds a tutoring center and volunteers to work there one night a week with the high school kids. It keeps him out of Tony and Pepper's hair some of the time, and he likes it—most of the kids don't know him on sight, though he suspects it'll get around within a few weeks. Mostly he helps with math, as there's a bigger need and a smaller available pool than for the science questions. It's kind of fun to stretch those muscles again and it keeps him connected to something a little more human-scale than Avengers and tesseracts, aliens and the rebuilding of New York City.
He tries setting up an email list for the team, for things that are important but not time-sensitive. Within the week, Tony is sending around schematics of new equipment for everyone, Steve is proposing training exercises, Clint's forwarding chain-email jokes, and Natasha has posted three very close-up shots of unidentifiable objects with no text attached.
"I have restocked the bar, sir," Jarvis says when they walk in for dinner one night while Pepper is out of town.
"Indeed." Tony walks across to the bar, where he pours himself what looks like soda. "Can I get you something, Bruce?"
"Got any juice back there?"
"Yep. Orange, cranberry, pineapple?"
"Great." Tony pours him a tidy glass of orange juice and brings them back to the chairs.
Bruce takes a sip. "I've been wondering. Is he sentient?"
"You can speak to me directly, sir," Jarvis says.
"Feisty tonight, aren't you?" Tony says. "Go ahead, wow him."
"I am not yet sentient, Dr. Banner. My independent action abilities have greatly increased in the last year; for example, I devised the omelette recipe that was used in your breakfast this morning. Mr. Stark keeps track of my progress in several important benchmark areas and his work suggests I will achieve true sentience in six point seven plus or minus zero point four years."
"And then maybe they'll let me retire," Tony says.
"You could make him an Iron Man suit—does it really need somebody inside it?" Bruce says.
"That's a terrifying thought. Never mention it again."
"I'll bear it in mind, Dr. Banner," Jarvis says.
It's almost funny, how ordinary he finds it to wander into Tony Stark's lab at any time of day. "Do you have people around here who can grind lenses?" Bruce asks.
Tony blinks up at him. There's soot on one of his cheekbones. "Sure," he says. "Machine shop'll take care of it. You been down there yet?"
"Nope," Bruce says.
"Let's go." Tony towels off his hands, but not his face. Bruce isn't sure how to mention it, but it's kind of—endearing is probably not the word for anything to do with Tony Stark.
The machine shop isn't on a floor Bruce has visited before; they walk out of the elevator and it's the entire floor, robots spinning and grinding hunks of metal and glass pulled from cubbyholes along one wall. Bruce says the first thing that comes into his mind, which is: "Your machine shop is run by actual machines."
"Not totally. Christine watches over everything." Tony waves to a glassed-in office that Bruce hadn't even registered against the windows; the petite woman inside waves back. "But mostly, yeah. I'd rather my people work on things that only people can do."
"Wow," Bruce says. It's one thing to have a lab full of high-grade equipment, something else entirely to have a fully automated factory downstairs.
"So, anything you need, just send the specs down—Jarvis can tell you how," Tony says.
"Yep," Bruce says.
"Slow reactor, aren't you?" Tony says. "Apart from, you know." He waves his hand. He's still got soot on his face.
"Yep," Bruce says again.
Just for fun, they spend one afternoon thinking up increasingly ludicrous ways to make near-lightspeed travel possible. Then they spend the night thinking up ways to make faster-than-light travel possible. They race each other designing and building calculators from standard electronics chips, then make two of the accountants use them for a day. (Tony's is ruled the easier one to use, but then he has more experience in making things usable. Bruce takes comfort in the fact that his does square roots.) They crash a physics colloquium at NYU and hang around afterwards, chatting and signing autographs for the faculty's children (and probably, Bruce thinks, a few of the faculty themselves). Bruce goes a whole day, then two, then five, without worrying about either his obligations or his occasional alter ego.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me you had liquid nitrogen," Bruce says.
"Well, I can't believe you thought I wouldn't have liquid nitrogen!" Tony says. "Here, try a banana."
Bruce dips the banana into the thermos. When he pulls it out, Tony smashes it into tiny pieces with a hammer. "We need to do this when Thor's here," Tony says. "Time of his life, am I right?"
"Absolutely," Bruce says. "Dare you to eat one of those."
Tony grabs one of the chunks in his gloves and goes to pop it in his mouth.
"No, don't!" Bruce says, lunging, but it's too late: Tony has a piece of banana frozen to his tongue.
He frowns. "Thith hurtth more than I thought it would," he says.
Bruce stares at him. "You knew it was going to—"
"Liw a li'l, Bwoothie boy," Tony says.
Bruce takes a photo. "We should probably make Pepper some ice cream," he says.
"Yeah," Tony says. The banana's softened enough that he pulls his tongue back into his mouth and eats it.
Bruce sorts through the bottles on the countertop. "White Russian, Grasshopper or Pink Squirrel?"
"Oh, White Russian," Tony says. "I bet we could make it even faster by using liquid helium, if it didn't freeze the bowl..."
"You have liquid helium, too?"
"Not as much. Some. Eh, enough," he says.
"This is just a playground for you, isn't it," Bruce says, and Tony grins and says, "Isn't it great?"
A month after Bruce takes up residence in Stark Tower, he finds Steve in Tony's kitchen, eating lunch like a starving man. Steve waves at him, swallows carefully—ever the gentleman—and says, "Morning."
"Hey, Steve," Bruce says. Steve's taken the fourth place at the small table, the place nobody usually uses, so Bruce sits down his usual chair. Pepper and Tony are nowhere to be seen. "What've you been up to?"
"Visiting some old haunts," he says. "The sandwiches here are amazing."
"Yep," Bruce says. He takes one from the plate in the middle of the table and starts chewing. Unsaid, but likely, Bruce thinks, is that Steve was also visiting some old friends. A few of them might still be around, if they were Steve's age before the ice. Come to think of it, it's pretty interesting that he didn't age. Was he hibernating in the ice, or really dead? If he was hibernating, exactly how much did his cellular growth slow down? Bruce wonders for a moment if Steve will ever age, or if the serum has robbed him of that too. Probably a bit ghoulish for lunchtime chatter.
Pepper comes in and smiles at them both before pulling up a chair. "Tony'll be here in a moment," she says. "He says it's life or death. I can't tell if he's joking."
"How's his armor?" Steve asks.
Pepper shrugs. "No new bruises, so it must be fine," she says. Steve looks momentarily startled, and Bruce hides his grin behind a sandwich.
Steve doesn't say anything else about work for the rest of lunch, but Bruce can tell he wants to. At this point, Bruce practically has a sixth sense for repression. They're out the door and into the elevator before Steve says, "Do you know how much of your muscle control affects your other form?"
"It's hard to do controlled tests," Bruce says.
Steve nods. "Well, I'm going to start a training regimen for Tony—his armor does a lot for him, but it can't hurt. Do you want to join in?"
"Sure," Bruce says.
Steve smiles at him, sweet, uncomplicated, as the elevator doors open. He really is so young. "Tomorrow morning, then?" he says.
Bruce blinks. "How early?"
The smile broadens into a grin. "Nine," he says. "Tony insisted."
"Sounds good," Bruce says.
It's nice seeing Steve, and—nicer—the thought of dealing with people every morning for something he hates doesn't even make him want to hide in his lab for the rest of the day.
That night, Pepper gets soundly drunk with Steve. Bruce doesn't let go like that, but he's got a nice buzz going, too. More than he has in years. Tony's puttering with something at the table, and partway through the evening he wanders over with a problem—he's still working on the suit sensors, apparently, and two of the possible lens coatings aren't playing well together. Bruce sends him off with a couple of ideas, and Pepper turns to him and says, "Normally he'd ramble on for five minutes and then get a drink." He realizes then that maybe this means something for Tony, too. Maybe Bruce is a stabilizing influence for other people. It's a strange notion, but—it's not as heavy a burden as he thinks it should feel.
There's a weird equation on one of the fancy glass screens when he gets back one night. Weird until he looks a little closer and realizes it's just a normal message written in the Greek alphabet.
"I think that should have been an omega, not an omicron," he tells Tony the next afternoon, and Tony just rolls his eyes and says, "Please, it was hard enough finding words without an H or a W. Do you know how many words have H's and W's?"
"Jarvis—" Bruce begins.
"I assume you would like me to exclude words where the h is part of a ph or th combination, sir?"
"You used to like me best," Tony says.
"We must be strict with the ones we love, sir," Jarvis says.
By the time Clint shows up, Bruce and Tony have built Steve a nice trebuchet and Steve's aim has gotten really good. Even Clint's eyesight can't protect him from a water balloon that was launched before the elevator doors opened.
"Aren't you supposed to be the good, calming influence?" Clint says. Water drips from his nose.
"I'm improving morale," Steve says.
His team, Bruce thinks, and grins, and shows Clint how the trebuchet works.
Week six is Lasers Week. Bruce has been preparing for Lasers Week the entire time he's been here, even when he thought he'd have a screaming fit and run away long before week six. Well, a screaming fit is probably an optimistic description of what he'd thought would happen.
Obviously one must start Lasers Week with something awesome, so Bruce tapes balloons all over the floor of the lab and puts the biggest laser on a turntable in the corner. He knows Tony will show up, but by five minute to ten, Tony, Steve, Clint, and Natasha are sitting on one table with two of the R&D staff. Perfect.
"Why are they numbered?" Steve says.
"I put two dozen doughnut holes in them," Bruce says. "Pick the right number and you get to eat the doughnut."
They take bets on the whiteboard and then Bruce pops all the balloons with the laser, which is even more satisfying than he'd been expecting. Clint gets the most doughnuts—he could probably see them through the rubber—but Natasha makes a good showing, too. Tony doesn't get any at all; Bruce doesn't think he's ever seen a more surprised human being.
With everyone in one place—at least everyone in this dimension—it should really be back to business as usual. And they do train, and talk tactics over lunch, and find ever-more ridiculous foods for Steve to try, and take out a couple of minor criminal conspiracies. But it's a whole extra month before Bruce figures out that this—this lab, this work, these people—this is business as usual.
"I really appreciate the hospitality," Bruce says, "but any time you need me to go—"
"Did I tell you we've started building your floor?" Tony says, and that's the last time they discuss it.