JARVIS directs him to the sea north of Scotland. It’s only as he descends that he realises he is landing on a small island, far out from the main coastline, half forest and half cleared land for farming. Tony finds him by the shore, checking his line and watching the gulls circling far above. He takes a seat beside him, lifts his helmet and stretches out after a long flight. Bruce is still looking ahead but he sits back down, folding his knees up to his chest.
“Well I for one could go for an American cheeseburger.”
Bruce smiles and nods towards the bucket beside his fishing pole.
“Got lunch right here.”
Tony takes a look, pretending not to be impressed that Bruce can apparently fish.
“Not that I don’t appreciate your rustic cooking, but there’s a joint that just opened in the East Village. Best burgers I’ve ever tasted. They even steam the fucking cheese. That’s magic right there.”
Tony takes a moment to look over towards his colleague and friend. He looks thinner than usual, paler. Maybe it’s the weather in these neck of the woods. Tony hopes that’s all it is.
Bruce draws in a long breath. “I like it here. It’s quiet, it’s earthy...”
“It’s twenty degrees in the summer,” Tony puts in. Bruce pauses, waits to see if he has another quip in him, then continues.
“It’s not like the cities. My nearest neighbour is on the other side of the island. Gives me time to think and work on my ideas.”
Usually he hides in the cities. Those huge, bustling mazes that have swelled and burst at the seams over centuries. Places where you never know who your neighbours are and that’s fine. Bruce can blend in with the most hostile and decrepit of areas. Sometimes Tony thinks Bruce is trying to find a place so horrific he wouldn’t dare go in to look for him. Usually he’s just impressed Bruce has found yet another place to hide after swearing he’ll stay in New York for good.
Now he’s in the wilderness. He definitely seems calmer than when he’s living in whatever slum he calls a home, but he also looks wilder. He’s unshaven and his clothes are even shabbier than usual. Tony is reminded of a homeless person who still carries an air of dignity; of someone at the bottom of the social pile but doesn’t seem to notice.
“Well, you’ve definitely got the whole Grizzly Adams thing going,” Tony says. Bruce chuckles softly, touching his beard as if remembering it’s there. He rubs his hands and they are hardened, the pads of his fingers and palms calloused and dry.
“So. Are you here with a mission? Or are you just here to check on my digs?”
“No. No mission, I mean. The green guy can stand down,” and Tony pats Bruce on the back like he’s giving the Other Guy a mighty thump of approval. “Just making sure I can still find you.”
“What gave it away this time?”
“Oh, I’ve been working on a new, more sophisticated model of the gamma ray sensor we built. This one has been designed to your exact radiation signal. I can find you even without you Hulking out.”
Bruce opens his mouth to firstly say how impressed he is, and then to request Tony destroy such an irresponsible device, until he notices the grin spreading across Tony’s face.
“Plus, there was a sighting of a green monster swimming in the sea around here a couple days ago. And seeing as we both know the creature of the Loch Ness is a myth...”
Bruce groans softly, pretending to occupy himself with the line. He can’t bear to look at Tony’s shit-eating grin, much less confirm that he lost his temper and ran before he did something that he’d truly regret. The local paper mentioned it and he’s sure Tony gets JARVIS to scan every single paper in the world for ‘suspicious behaviour.’
“You, uh, seem okay now,” Tony says finally, noticing just how quiet Bruce is.
“Now you know why I picked this place,” Bruce shoots at him.
They sit in silence for a long time, Bruce reeling in his line, checking his bait, letting it out again, both of them staring ahead across the ocean and beyond. Tony is unusually patient and sits back on the pebbles and sand, making a point not to study Bruce like he normally does but taking in everything he observes. Maybe Bruce has been running for too long, because he looks uneasy even in this wilderness.
Finally, the line tugs and Bruce picks up the rod to bring in his catch.
“Twelve footer?” Tony teases as his friend struggles to pull it up. Eventually a large plaice is pulled out of the water, twitching and struggling. Bruce unhooks it and places it in the bucket, grinning with pride. He picks up his rod, bait box and catch and nods towards a small cottage up the beach.
“Are you going to bitch about my cooking or do you want some?”
Tony follows without a word. The cottage is dark and cramped but it’s warm from the large wood-burning stove in the corner of the kitchen. Bruce also lights a fire in the small fireplace in the living area and tells Tony to make himself at home - in other words, lose the Iron Man suit.
They converse on the sofa whilst the fish steams and Tony makes a point to tell Bruce about all the fun he is missing.
“Oh, and Natasha has pretty much revolutionised the way SHIELD trains its new recruits. She put a bunch of newbies into the field straight away and they literally learnt from experience. I read the files - they destroyed an entire drug empire in one evening. That woman could be president if she didn’t insist on killing her enemies personally.”
Bruce laughs. “I always figured she’d make a good diplomat. She could make anybody do as she wanted with a single look.”
“That she could,” Tony agrees.
“And I see the new suit is up and running.”
“Oh this is just the prototype. The Mark IX is going to conquer space travel. Look out for the headline - I’m going to be the first man on Mars.”
“I can’t wait,” he replies. He gets up to check on dinner and Tony stretches out a little, looking around the room. It’s barren but for a few books that look tatty and were probably bought second hand. Every time Bruce decides - or is forced - to leave he can’t take anything with him. If lucky he salvages the clothes on his back and that is all. The one luxury item he owns is probably his reading glasses which are always the closest prescription he can find. Tony once offered to send him the right type but Bruce told him not to bother, saying they wouldn’t last long enough to put in the effort.
How does he manage to give up everything each time he runs? he wonders sadly.
He gets up and walks into the kitchen, leaning against the doorframe and watching Bruce at work.
“So, have you found a job here, yet?”
Bruce shrugs. “The nearby town already has a doctor, but I might get to help out with house calls if the weather turns bad. Right now I’m just working on a fishing boat. Lobster pots and such. It’s lousy money but it keeps this place heated.”
Tony wants to make some quip about a man with an IQ as high as his working as a fisherman, but he can’t. He’s done that joke too many times.
“Why don’t you come back with me?”
The words tumble out before he can stop them. Bruce doesn’t move for a moment, his eyes fixed on their food and his back to Tony. Finally he turns to him, removing his glasses and folding his arms.
“It’s not safe.”
“I’ve got an energy field in my chest. We’re friends with gods and assassins. Nothing is safe.”
“I haven’t controlled my anger.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to live in the woods until you do.”
“General Ross is still looking to use me as a weapon.”
“He’ll have to get through me first.”
There’s a hint of a smile and Tony thinks he’s got him cornered. Bruce frowns, looking down at the stone floor.
“Maybe some other time.”
They eat the freshly caught fish, conversing over a worn and uneven table, throwing quips and ideas around until the light outside fades and they are in darkness aside from the fire. Then they light a few candles and talk some more, Tony telling Bruce about his latest inventions, Bruce helping him find solutions to his next Iron Man suit. By the time they have run out of things to say the fire is down to the last few embers on white coals.
“You’re not flying home now,” Bruce says, and it’s a command Tony can’t find a reason to refuse.
“Is there a spare bed in this shithole?”
Bruce doesn’t reply - he just walks into the bedroom. Tony pauses, wondering if this is finally what he thinks it is after a million false starts between them.
When he gets into the bedroom, Bruce is already pulling his shirt over his head and kicking off his boots. Tony follows along, removing his jeans and folding them up. Bruce waits for him to strip down to his underwear, the arc reactor now their main source of light, before he pulls back the duvet and slips into bed. Tony gets in and he’s not sure what Bruce wants. What the plan is, if any?
“Just... don’t make a thing of this,” Bruce says nervously. Tony makes a point of putting his hand on his friend’s chest.
“Oh I won’t.”
They lie on their backs for what feels like hours, letting the silence of the small island envelop them. Tony isn’t used to quiet at this magnitude; with only the sounds of the ocean to keep him company. Finally he turns on his side, the reactor lighting up Bruce’s face, his eyes closed.
He wants to ask him a million questions. How can he live such a life? Why won’t he accept the help of his friends? What is he so scared of? Will he ever let someone in ever again? Does he feel useless, thinking they only want his help when he’s transformed? Doesn’t he trust them?
The problem is he can’t think of how to ask him without the help of his old friend sarcasm.
Bruce opens his eyes, looking up at Tony. He takes his hand in his own and clutches it tightly. Tony edges closer, daring to put a hand by Bruce’s temple, where his hair is starting to grey. Bruce looks lost and scared but he moves closer too.
Tony thinks this is the perfect opportunity, if ever he saw one, but as he reaches closer Bruce shuts his eyes and lets go of his hand.
“You know I-- that I can’t...”
“Yeah. Of course. I know,” Tony replies, even though he doesn’t. Still he picks up Bruce’s hand, holds it to his chest and then pulls Bruce towards him to follow suit. Resting Bruce’s head just under the arc reactor, Tony puts his arm around him and notices Bruce is shaking ever so slightly, like something deep within him is resisting this closeness.
“You’re not going to change, Bruce,” Tony says forcefully. “Not for a fucking man-hug.”
And Bruce laughs and the shaking stops. Tony rakes his fingers through Bruce’s unruly hair and feels his friend’s breathing steadying out. They fall asleep not long after, Bruce still in Tony’s arms, Tony still holding his hand and combing his fingers through his hair.
They awake early the next morning. Bruce gets up first, having gotten used to early rises these past few weeks. Tony sleeps in until he is called to breakfast, where Bruce has made the best of a poorly-stocked kitchen and presents scrambled eggs and toast. They start talking again, this time about nothing to do with work but just about what interests them. Neither of them try to touch again.
Suit back on, he gives his friend a mighty thump on the back, tells him to look after the Other Guy and flies off. Until the next time he finds Bruce living somewhere away from prying and dangerous eyes. Until the next time he plucks up up the courage to ask him to come home.