01. Wild West
Tony is riding a mechanical horse -- so much more efficient than the real thing, though prone to overheating, which he'll fix in the next model -- over an empty lake bed towards a crater in the distance. The papers all say that a fearsome creature exploded out of a passing train and barreled through the desert before collapsing somewhere in the distance. Apparently there was a lot of dust kicked up when it finally stopped moving.
Everyone who got off the train in Starkville told everybody else to avoid it. So of course, Tony is riding right to it.
Bruce would've sent a letter ahead if he wasn't coming at all.
Bruce hasn't been willing to sit down and get hooked up to a virtual simulator in years, which means that when he's in distance of one he usually has to walk places to get his news, either from a lone remaining print stand or a café with a TV installed in every corner.
Even after all these years, the equipment for simulators is delicate, and Bruce knows too much about himself -- from reading scans projected in, you guessed it, simulators -- that he has a good chance of ruining someone's hard work if the jolts of electricity that keep his brain active virtually make him twitch the wrong way.
But he sits down without a second thought when Tony brandishes the new unit he's developed and brings out the tube of cold gel to apply to his temples. The chair is softer than others Bruce has had access to in recent memory, and it tilts back so he can watch Tony's shoulders move while he types in the commands to send Bruce in.
This set of wires and computers is a Stark prototype. No one besides Tony and a few R&D people have seen it before, let alone laid hands on it. It doesn't have a real name, and is worth more money than some people have promised for proof of Bruce's death.
The way Tony's hands move over the keyboard lets him relax enough to shut his eyes, even, before he slips under. He doesn't think he has anything to worry about here.
Tony is the first person who's really understood that the Other Guy is nothing like the abilities everyone else grows into by the time they hit puberty, and not just because Bruce is naked afterwards.
He's also the first person Bruce tells about the Other Guy preventing him from shifting into of his other forms.
Later, when Bruce is watching them clean up New York from one of the windows in the Stark Tower, Tony brings him a drink and mentions that he might have deleted some of the more speculative -- if potentially damning -- notes from staff who've contributed to Bruce's SHIELD file. And that he's sorry if that causes Bruce trouble in the future.
Bruce sips his drink. He's pretty sure it'll be okay.
None of Tony's ships has ever lost a fight with a pirate vessel. The big shipments don't travel alone, and every one has guards on it that know better than to mess with Stark by taking bribes. So he feels absolutely confident sailing across the Pacific with Bruce and a Stark flag flying high above the ship.
Bruce folds his arms on the railing. He seems a lot more doubtful. "Only because of the flotilla on the horizon," he tells Tony.
Tony hadn't known pirates would ever sail in groups larger than three. He still isn't worried, though.
"It's going to be okay," he says, finishing the last of his drink.
Bruce pours his own over the railing and into the ocean. "If you say so."
05. …In SPACE!!
"Missing you," Tony says, while he floats upside down for -- apparently -- the hell of it. Bruce knows that the space station has artificial gravity because he listened to Tony designing it for like, four hours before he found his headphones.
Bruce looks over the diagrams Tony's sent him from the station. "You've talked to me for six hours a day since you left … two days ago," he says. He and Tony had a very short but pointed and clear discussion about why Bruce would never set foot on a space station that, when broken, did not provide a handy atmosphere to leap into. "And you missed an exponent on page three."
"The people here are boring," Tony says, waving a hand dismissively. He grabs a stylus and scribbles on his tablet. "Got it."
"The people there are some of the greatest minds in SHIELD," Bruce points out. His tablet automatically updates with Tony's fixed notes, along with a little lopsided smiley face.
Tony sticks his tongue out. "Like I said. Boring."
06. Born Another Gender
Bryce absently sketches out equations across one of the StarkSmart(C) boards Stark gave her to keep her occupied during renovations to Stark Tower. Normally she'd just be honest and call it a tablet, but Stark's gone to so much trouble over her that she's going to give him a little victory here or there.
She doesn't have too much of a comparison range, and she doesn't know if anybody else has noticed, but besides all the toys and the luxurious penthouse and unrestricted lab access he's given her, Stark is wearing a lot of v-neck shirts nowadays. At least, he is when he's on her floor or they're working together in the labs. He even went out and changed into one once when she'd surprised him in his personal lab. He'd said his other one got oil on it.
The only files she hasn't gotten into are the ones about his personal ARC reactor. She poked at them out of idle curiosity, but she'd needed a password she hadn't wanted to spend time guessing.
Besides. She knows Stark wants her to ask him himself. Why else would he constantly be leaning over tables so she can see the blue glow coming off his chest? Bryce will get around to it eventually.
It's fun to see how long she can keep him (relatively) patient, anyway.
Bruce doesn't think that he's going to last long at this academy. He already has dark circles under his eyes, and he can only eat half of his meal at lunch. Only half his teachers can remember his name.
The fourth time he eats lunch on the floor, alone, in the back corner of the cafeteria, someone sits down in front of him. He seizes up and launches into a breathing exercise before he can even process that somebody in cut-off jeans sitting cross-legged with bright teal toenails is probably not working for SHIELD.
"My name is Pepper. You're in my chemistry class," the girl says, ripping open the plastic packaging on a bag of mini carrots.
"Yeah…" Bruce says, eyeing them jealously. She has a brown bag from home. He has lumpy mashed potatoes, soggy green beans, and pizza that's too wet to even consider eating from the school cafeteria.
Pepper holds out her bag and smiles. "Want some?"
He hesitates. But he doesn't think anybody that nice could get along with the people he's met working at SHIELD, so he thanks her and takes one of the sticks.
"It took me foooorever to find you," somebody interrupts, making Bruce jump. He shoves the carrot stick into his mouth like he's actually worried someone's going to take it away from him.
Pepper rolls her eyes and sets the bag down between her and Bruce. "It took you one minute, Tony," she says. She takes out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and placidly spreads it out over her lap. Bruce tentatively takes another carrot stick, and she smiles at him again. She has a nice smile.
The new guy, Tony, drops down on the floor next to her so hard Bruce is surprised his food doesn't slosh right off his tray, especially since he got the mush that passes for casserole here. "Eating on the roof is so much quieter," he says, but he digs into his food anyway.
It's the only thing about him that makes Bruce want to edge back. He doesn't understand how someone who's already made science magazine covers that Bruce has to sneak-read at the bookstore is A) at this school (not that Bruce is complaining), B) willing to eat what they're serving with such gusto.
"And so much more against the rules," Pepper says, with a dreamy sigh. She seems to be ignoring the carrot sticks, so Bruce tries a third one.
Tony wiggles his eyebrows at her. "That's why it's so nice," he says. The smile that spreads over his face is even better than Pepper's, Bruce thinks. He might last a little longer at this academy than he'd bet.
The Iron Man suit -- which is an inaccurate name, but he can't shake what the guys at the house wanted to call it -- is built to withstand temperatures that aren't really suited for humans. It maneuvers like a dream, and when Tony is wearing it, he can lift beams and rubble that would take a crew hours to bring away normally. He builds filters into the mask so he doesn't have to worry about smoke, and scanners that can isolate a human outline from a wall of flame.
There are still bodies left to bring out from Ground Zero by the time he's out of the hospital and has his heart pumping relatively safely again. That's all he does with the suit for a month, and no matter what the alarms tell him, it's all he thinks about when he puts it on now.
The scanners give him a different first reaction when he sees a giant green guy digging a semi-crushed car out from a parking garage. The police see what they assume caused the collapse. Through the smoke Tony sees the way he puts it down to the side and yanks a door off so the people can run out to the paramedics.
He wants to talk to the guy, but he has to do his job before he can do that. And by the time he's done, whoever/whatever it is has left. The police are stumped.
Tony isn't. But he doesn't feel like he has to show them the trail the suit's given him. Nobody else could follow it like him, anyway.
09. Urban Fantasy
Bruce walks in on Pepper doing paperwork and almost immediately backs out of the room just on reflex. She pokes her head around some of the floating forms and smiles at him, though, so he guesses it's okay to walk through here… Though he still tries to just press himself against the wall and edge around all of Pepper's work.
He still doesn't know how she manages to apply spell work to keep an entire year's worth of tax records organized in mid-air (eye level), but that's why Pepper's a coven co-leader and Bruce is … not.
"He's through there," Pepper says, gesturing at a back door without causing a single sheet of paper to waver in the air.
"Thanks," Bruce says.
He pulls open the door and again nearly has to jump back. He's prepared for a lot of things when he's visiting Tony without a firm appointment, but walking straight into a meeting with SHIELD's top witches, warlocks, mages, wizards, and … necromancers? … was not one of them.
Each appears in astral form, gauzy and blue and glowing like the crystal energy-gatherer in Tony's chest, in the middle of a stone circle Tony has created for them. Tony himself is in the middle of the room, lounging in a rolling office chair that spins around. Bruce knows this because he turns to the door when it opens, and a huge grin lights up his face.
When Bruce steps into the room, Tony isn't the only one who's not in formal robes anymore, but that doesn't seem to halt any of the dark looks they're shooting in the Stark heir's reaction. "I didn't mean to interrupt," Bruce says, subtly tugging at the hem of his shirt to smooth out some of the wrinkles.
"Oh, gods and goddesses, you're not interrupting," Tony assures him, in a voice that nearly makes Bruce laugh. A few of the astral figures glower.
Tony kicks on the ground to roll his chair over to Bruce and sticks a hand out to greet him with. He rolls his eyes when Bruce kisses the gold and crystal warlock ring on Tony's right hand. Tony shakes his hand loose and grips the side of Bruce's face. "C'mere," he says. It's all the prep Bruce gets before Tony is kissing him, and if he didn't know better he'd think that one of the astral figures from SHIELD let out a low whistle.
"If you are very done, Mr. Stark," Nick Fury says, glimmering on the other side of the room.
Tony flicks his wrist so one of the stones from Fury's circle skips a few feet across the carpet, causing his astral figure to shimmer and disappear. "Very," Tony says, baring his teeth at the rest of the SHIELD representatives before they vanish, too.
"I don't think that was the best idea," Bruce says. But he kisses Tony again because it's better when they're alone.
Bruce stares at the identification locket for a long moment before slowly raising his eyes. The locket is silver, engraved with a lot of intricate designs Bruce doesn't know the exact meaning of but can guess at. "I'm under an academic contract, Lord Stark," he says, slowly, stretching out his arm and letting the locket pool in Tony's palm.
Tony clenches his hand around it and grins. "I thought I'd try."
"Can I expect my real identification tomorrow?"
"I've got it in my other pocket."