so we swam to the bottom of the sea
found faith and a little bit of sanity
oh some peace and quiet may be what i need
it’ll be a lot better if you’re honest with me
“We’re both time bombs, you know,” Tony says. “Maybe we’re not ticking quite as fast anymore, but still.”
Bruce doesn’t respond, just stares into the melting ice cubes at the bottom of his glass. Tony’s standing at one of the machines across from him, adjusting variables, tightening up flight paths. He looks impatient, like he’s waiting for an answer. Bruce sets the near-empty drink down and unfolds his glasses. He ignores the huffing noise Tony makes when he brings up the data set on the screen again. After correcting an error, he throws back the rest of the watered-down whiskey. It stings.
Tony clears his throat. “Most people wouldn’t drink in front of a recovering alcoholic.”
“Most people wouldn’t let a person with anger issues like mine into a multi-million dollar lab,” Bruce counters, raising an eyebrow.
“Touché.” He enters a set of numbers into the program, only barely paying attention. The room goes silent again, save the beeping and whirring of computers. Tony slides a finger across the screen and shuts the program off. “You haven’t broken anything yet.”
Bruce gestures out at the skyline behind them. The city’s still in ruins. It’s been maybe a month since the incident with Loki and the tesseract and Tony falling, falling, falling from another dimension, another world, half-dead. Bruce doesn’t remember much—the Other Guy was in control for most of the day—but he remembers Tony plummeting, a burnt-out comet, and the ever-present physician’s instinct to save him before the green clouded his eyes again.
“Breaking New York was a team effort.” Tony grins, but Bruce doesn’t. He focuses down on the numbers, chances of radiation, costs and fuel economy; he ignores the showboat smile on Tony’s face. “Oh, come on, you’ve gotta admit it was impressive.”
“Impressive how?” Bruce finally looks up, peering over the lenses of his glasses. “I think you just like blowing things up.”
“Can’t argue with that.” Tony shrugs and comes around to Bruce’s side of the table. He looks at the calculations on the screen before leaning over and making an adjustment. Bruce makes a little surprised noise of agreement and the screen flashes an updated model. The new and improved Stark-branded S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier features extensive repairs to the emergency flight system, a more energy-efficient center generator, upgraded precautions for dealing with rogue demigods, and the state-of-the-art Phil Coulson memorial medical wing. Tony points out the medical wing, expands it on the screen. “But I also like fixing things.”
“Scratch the Coulson part, don’t you think? I mean, he isn’t dead.”
Tony protests. “He was mostly dead.”
“So were you,” Bruce adds, quiet. He taps the screen a few times and the machine powers down. Tony shuts up for once; Bruce stands, picks up his empty glass, turns away. “Is there something I can do with this?” He waves the glass at Tony, looking back.
But Tony doesn’t say anything and the room feels thick and strange and empty. The machines are cut off now and the whirring and beeping has stopped and there’s only Bruce and Tony and the low, barely audible hum of the reactor in Tony’s chest. Bruce remembers what Tony said—time bombs—and wonders if he’s right. He turns back around when the feeling of Tony staring at him gets too heavy.
“What?” Bruce says. Tony is slouched against the back wall, arms crossed loosely over his body, barefoot. He looks vulnerable, Bruce thinks, not very Tony-like at all.
Tony shrugs. “Not the first time I’ve been mostly dead.” He’s rather nonchalant about it, though Bruce supposes he has no reason not to be. This is Tony Stark, after all: a man whose entire life has been lived in the spotlight. Even in Calcutta, Bruce heard whispers—billionaire Tony Stark in rehab, billionaire Tony Stark missing in the Middle East, billionaire Tony Stark under fire for Iron Man experiment. Everyone knows what’s happening to Tony Stark; his actions are a fixture in the news, his face a fixture in the tabloids, his name a fixture in every household.
But right now, he doesn’t feel like that Tony—armored, protected. He usually has a way of hiding in plain sight, behind mixed drinks and flashbulbs and snark and suits. It’s kind of funny; Tony seems most human in moments like these when the glow of the reactor is visible.
Bruce doesn’t know what to say and Tony is still looking at him, waiting. Bruce nods and wrings his hands—a nervous habit—and thinks. He’s always thought too much and here he is doing it again, overanalyzing. “Well—I think that’s kind of a requirement for the whole Avengers thing, right?” he stammers out. Stupid, a stupid line. He twitches, chastises himself for it.
Tony doesn’t laugh. “Yeah.” He stands up taller, curls his toes against the floor, scratches his head. “You know what I mean, though.”
And the truth is that yeah, Bruce does know what he means. “Do you remember that earthquake in San Fran a few years back?” he asks after a few moments.
“Yeah, that was—that was me.”
Tony’s eyes go wide. “The, uh—Other Guy?”
“No, me. Well, you know. It was me. And then it wasn’t, but it—it was.” Bruce bites the inside of his lip and Tony is inspecting him from a distance, calculating, taking it in. “There was this conference and I was supposed to be speaking about the whole gamma thing, but this was after the, um—incident. I felt like a specimen. Everyone was keeping their distance—no one would talk to me like a normal person.”
Tony doesn’t say it, but he gets it. Because when you’re Tony Stark, no one treats you like a normal person, either. He knows about the spectacle of being in the public eye for all the wrong reasons—no one cares about how you revolutionized the energy industry; they all just want to know who you’re sleeping with. They see the sunglasses and the smiles and the champagne, not the daily battle with the shrapnel in your chest and the drinks they hand you and the women that you attract and the shadow of your father. It piles on. And on. And on.
Bruce starts talking again, softer this time. “After the first session—which was a waste, because no one would even contest my points—”
“With good reason.” Tony smirks.
“Be nice,” Bruce scolds, and Tony smiles, almost gently. “After the first session I flew back home and I was just so tired of it. You know, Betty and I weren’t, uh—well. That wasn’t working out. The Other Guy did some bad things. I did some bad things. And no one was treating me the same way and I just felt really…I don’t know—”
“Alone?” Tony says it quietly, but Bruce hears it. And it still aches, loneliness, for both of them.
“Yeah. So I went home, and, you know…destroyed half of San Francisco. I woke up at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ and I thought I was dead and Fury was God. Terrifying.” He manages a laugh and so does Tony. “They covered it up—said it was an earthquake—and decided it would be best if I went somewhere more out of the way. Jumped in front of a train in Calcutta just to try and get it over with, but, as you can see, it didn’t work.”
Words run through Tony’s head—I’m glad it didn’t and Are you better and You did good things in Calcutta and you’re doing good things here. Instead, he just says, “Yeah,” and Bruce stares at the floor when the room goes silent again.
“Sorry—you don’t care about this.” Bruce does the self-deprecating thing, shuffles his feet, folds up his glasses. He realizes how sweaty his palms are, how his legs have been shaking. He sits down and tries to catch his breath.
Tony comes around to the front of the table and pushes himself up onto the counter, shaking his head. “You underestimate me, Dr. Banner. I am actually capable of feelings. Sometimes.”
Bruce’s hands gravitate towards the empty glass and he finds himself rolling it between his palms in an attempt to disengage. But Tony is staring again with his jaw set hard and he looks like he’s going to say something.
“You know about the rehab thing?” Tony finally says. “Stupid question—everyone knows about the rehab thing, but humor me.”
“Is there a story that goes along with it? I knew you were in rehab, but I was in India—”
Tony exhales long and low before speaking again. “So I was drinking. A lot. That was my thing, you know, girls and booze and robots. You get kind of lost in what everyone expects you to be. Anyway, literally a day after I get out of rehab, I throw this—I don’t know—coming home party.”
“You threw a party for getting out of rehab?” Bruce stifles a laugh.
“I’ve never been very good with planning, okay? I throw this party and—well, honestly, I don’t remember it. This was before all of the Iron Man mess, thank God, because the reactor probably would have exploded or rusted or something. It was…really bad.” He pauses. “I don’t remember what happened,” he repeats.
Lying through his teeth. He remembers in flashes—cameras and sequined dresses and the pop of cork after cork after cork. He remembers girls who tasted like champagne and cigarettes, the feel of their fingers as they handed him glasses and called him handsome. He remembers empty bottles, broken glass, Pepper’s eyes, sirens. He remembers sterile hospital light, sick with regret.
Bruce is watching intently and Tony takes a breath. “Yeah. I don’t know. Rehab kind of put things into perspective and I was just done with it.” He laughs. “It was pretty shitty.”
And Bruce nods because he doesn’t know what to say. He never knows what to say. Sometimes it’s hard to believe Tony is a scientist because he’s just so damn talkative and charismatic all the time. Bruce knows numbers and formulas backwards and forth but when it comes to talking about feelings and life experiences, it’s a foreign language.
“Waking up and finding out that you almost choked on your own vomit is not a fun experience.” Tony stares at his hands. “Pepper wouldn’t let me out of the house for months.”
“She’s good for you,” Bruce mumbles. “Keeps you grounded.”
“Keeps me sane, more like. I think sometimes I do the Iron Man thing because it makes me feel dangerous. It’s an addiction like anything else. Sometimes I hope something will go wrong so no one will have to deal with me anymore.”
“Sometimes I wish the Other Guy would just take over forever. I get it, Tony. Mental instability—it’s a superhero thing.”
“It’s a genius thing.”
“You’re the only genius in this room.”
Tony waves a finger at Bruce, breaks the seriousness. “That’s bullshit and you know it.”
Bruce’s face flushes and he shrugs. “Okay.”
“This conversation is gonna get masturbatory if we keep going down that path, but—but you get it. And I get it. And what I’m trying to say is that we’re the same damn person. Metaphorically.”
“I have a Ph.D., I get metaphors.” Bruce is grinning. So is Tony. “You really think we’re time bombs?”
Tony’s expression softens and he pauses for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“That’s a cop-out, Stark.”
“It’s not a cop-out! You could Hulk out literally any time and kill both of us.” Bruce arches an eyebrow when Tony says this. Tony backtracks. “Well, you could kill me.”
“You know that’s not gonna happen,” Bruce says, and there’s a little while when no one says anything. The reactor is glowing, a little heartbeat, and Tony’s still smiling and outside the sirens have faded. Bruce wonders if Tony realizes how lucky they are—alive and fucked up and brilliant. Okay, it’s a little masturbatory, but it’s true. They’re brilliant and broken and better than they might have been whole; cynical and stupid and genius all at once. Monsters, maybe, not totally human, but better for it. And better together, Bruce adds, though he wouldn’t dare say it out loud. He kind of likes the unspokenness of it, whatever it is. It fits them.
Tony finally speaks again. “You know what the cool thing about being mostly dead is?”
“Mostly dead is slightly alive?”
He shakes his head and hops off the table, patting Bruce’s shoulder on his way out the door. “We come back so much stronger.”
Bruce doesn’t doubt it for a second.