Bruce blinked as he stepped out of Stark Tower, shading his eyes against the sunlight reflecting off the metal skyscrapers. It’s early, he thought, way too early for it to be this light out.
Pepper bounded up behind him, two coffees in hand. She grinned as she handed one to him, which he took with a bemused nod of thanks. Glad one of us is chipper this morning, he thought ruefully. She laughed when she saw his expression, still blinking against the brightness of the sun.
“This is what happens when you don’t come out of the R&D labs for three days straight,” she teased. “You’re like a wombat who’s been rolled out of his burrow too early.”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Wombats are nocturnal?”
She laughed again. “Now you know. C’mon, we’ve gotta get there before the line gets too long."
“I still don’t know why you wanted me for this jaunt,” Bruce said, “Isn’t Tony the one who usually needs to be reminded that fresh air exists?”
“He’s actually sleeping for once,” Pepper replied with a wry smile, “I don’t want to break that spell if I can. And we need at least two people to stand in line for tickets, and…well, people stare less at you than Thor.”
Bruce shrugged. Good enough reason as any, he supposed. And it was true that he hadn’t actually left Stark Tower in a good three days. He didn’t quite have Tony’s workaholic habits—he remembered to eat, sleep, shower occasionally—but when he got well and truly absorbed in a project, he did tend to forget that there was a world outside the microscopes and circuits. It was nice, though. It had been a long time since he’d had the freedom to concentrate so wholly on a project that was purely his.
But ever since Thor had realized Shakespeare in the Park was a thing that actually existed, he had been dying to get someone to show him what it was all about. Pepper, as it turned out, was an avid Shakespeare fan (somehow this did not surprise Bruce in the least), and set out trying to recruit everyone in the Tower to join them. Tony responded with a merciless mocking of the Bard, until Pepper had to remind him that it was technically his fault in the first place that Thor was so curious, and besides, hadn’t she gone with him to that godawful Aerosmith concert in January? Clint and Natasha were off doing work for SHIELD, and Steve, wonder of wonders, kept going on dates with some girl he’d met in his old apartment in Brooklyn. So when Pepper had turned her eye on Bruce, all determination and puppy-dog eyes, it had been nearly impossible to turn her down.
“Shall we take a car, or would you rather walk?” she asked now, bringing out her cell phone in case he answered the former.
“Walk, please,” he replied. It astonished him still how intuitive Pepper could be, that she knew so much about what he wanted, and why, without so much as a word. He still wasn’t used to this life, the cars and the drivers and robots that were willing to get him whatever he needed. It was hard to forget, still, that only two months ago he was half a world away, so many far cries from how he was living now. And though he was grateful beyond words for all that Tony had given to him, sometimes…the simpler things were better. Besides, it wasn’t that long of a walk to the Delacorte Theater, at least if he remembered his Manhattan geography right.
“Have you ever seen As You Like It?” she asked as they cut across 59th Street, “It’s one of my favorites.”
“Hmm, a play about a woman who cross-dresses and does whatever it takes to get the man she wants? Your favorite? Really?” Bruce grinned. “I never would have guessed.”
“Oh stop it,” Pepper smacked him on the arm, “have you or haven’t you?”
“Read it once, for a class back in college,” Bruce answered, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, though.”
“Well, you’re going to love it, I’m sure,” Pepper said, “They’ve made it an American frontier setting—too bad Steve couldn’t come, he’d go mad for it—and the woman playing Rosalind is amazing, I saw her in Merchant of Venice two years ago…”
Bruce let his mind wander as Pepper chattered away, enjoying the ease of their banter. It had taken him a long time to feel relaxed around her, to discard the wary mask he still wore around anyone who wasn’t…well, Tony, and occasionally Steve and Thor. He could never be sure, after all, if Pepper was only letting him call Stark Tower home because Tony had insisted on it. Again with the intuitiveness, though—it only took a week before she cornered him in the kitchen, informing him that it was “Pepper,” not “Miss Potts,” that she liked having an extra mad scientist running around with Tony, and that it paid to have someone in the Tower who actually knew a thing or two about cooking. Even after that, Bruce couldn’t quite loosen up with her, but a month and a half of her patient coaxing had been enough that he could finally have a conversation with her without thinking too hard about his every word and movement.
And now they were walking through Central Park, arguing about cross-dressing and misogyny in Shakespeare. Funny how life worked out sometimes.
It was hot, hotter than June had any right to be, and it was a much farther walk than Bruce had first anticipated. By the time they got to the Delacorte his too-large shirt clung to him in all the wrong places, and Pepper was swearing about walking through the park when she had meetings in the afternoon and damned business attire. She took off her blazer and flung it over her shoulder in mild irritation.
“Good thing I wore flats at least, otherwise I wouldn’t have even bothered to list walking as an option,” she said as they stepped into line. She stood on tiptoe and peered ahead of them, trying to gauge the length of the line.
“Yeah, we should be fine, I think,” she said, “we’ll be in the back, probably, but that might be just as well. Maybe it’ll keep Thor and Tony from attracting too much attention.”
“I think that particular ship has sailed, Pepper.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “When I was a kid I used to wish I could be a famous actress, or country music star. Think this is sort of the same thing?”
“Country music? Really?”
She gave him a mock-stern glare. “Not a word to Tony.”
The line formed hours before the box office actually opened, so Bruce and Pepper contented themselves with people-watching, making a game out of how many different breeds of dogs they could spot in the space of ten minutes.
“I love this,” Pepper said with a grin, “If Tony ever had business in New York over the summer, I’d demand to have the next day off just so I could spend the day wandering the park, seeing a show here, the works. He never figured out what I was really doing—probably thought I had some secret boyfriend here, or something. If he thought about it at all,” she mused, her eyes suddenly distant. Thinking, perhaps, at how much could change in just a few short years. Though who knew—that was something Bruce thought about every day, but his thoughts weren’t necessarily on a normal spectrum of daily ponderings.
“Sounds wonderful,” he finally said, “You must have seen a lot of plays over the years.”
“Hey,” she turned to him. “How long has it been since you’ve seen a play, anyway? Anywhere, I mean.”
“Oh…um…I don’t know, really,” Bruce said, “Definitely not since the accident. Small enclosed theaters, lots of people…not really a place I’d want the Other Guy showing up. Too enclosed, too many people exposed.”
“Oh! Oh, of course,” Pepper said, a worried look crossing her face. “Are you…are you gonna be okay with this, then? I don’t want to make you do anything you’re not comfortable doing…”
“It’s fine, Pepper,” he lied. Of course it didn’t make him comfortable, but the feeling was almost second nature to him now. After Loki he’d finally reached a point where he could learn to start trusting his control, but the contingency planning never went away. He’d been in hiding for so long, he couldn’t help himself from thinking about where he would go if the Army came after him, what he would do if something opened the dam that kept the Other Guy in place. Thinking about what might happen to him in a crowded theater was always going to be part and parcel of his life.
Some of that must have shown through his face, because Pepper’s worried look didn’t go away. “It’s fine,” he insisted, “Really. Besides, it’s an outdoor theater in Central Park—if the Other Guy were to make an appearance anywhere in this city, this is probably one of the safer spots.”
She nodded in understanding.
“You’d tell us, though, right?” she said after a pause.
“Tell you what?”
“Well…anything. If we’re pushing you too hard, making you do things you don’t want to do—superhero spectrum or otherwise. I mean—I don’t know anything about what you’ve been through, obviously I can’t. And I know Tony poking you with sharp objects isn’t exactly normal-person code for ‘welcome home,’ but—we want you to have a home here. We want you to feel safe, with us.” She paused. “But if you don’t want to do things like go to the theater—you’ve gotta tell us, okay?” She gave a twisted smile. “I’m not that good at reading minds, you know.”
“You do a pretty good job of faking it, sometimes,” Bruce quipped before he lapsed into silence. He’d known ever since he’d moved in that that was all Tony had wanted for him. Being Tony, he couldn’t say it in words, but Bruce knew what the full-stocked kitchenette, the arguments in the lab, the post-Hulk painkiller cocktail ready-made in his bathroom all meant. But this—walking through the park, talking freely about nothing with Pepper, doing something as simple and mundane as waiting in line with a friend—this somehow made him feel more safe than he had in years.
At that realization, Bruce opened his mouth, closed it. “Pepper, I—”
“Thanks,” he murmured finally, “thanks.”
“Anytime, big guy,” she smiled, patting him on the shoulder. “Now, to real business.” She pointed to a hot dog cart about fifty feet away from them.
“How long has it been since you had a hot dog from a place like that?”
“Um…seventh grade? Possibly longer?” He wrinkled his nose. “Do you even know what’s in those things? They’ll kill you slowly, Pepper, it’s worse than poison.”
“But it’s delicious, delicious poison,” she smirked. “You wait right here. We are reintroducing Dr. Banner to the evils of American fast food.”
“Doth mother know you wear-eth her drapes?” Thor boomed as he handed an usher his ticket. Bruce covered his mouth with his hand as the poor usher gave them all a hopelessly baffled look.
“Ah, Thor, buddy, that’s not a line you give to the ushers,” Tony muttered as he handed his ticket to the woman with a crooked smile and a wink, “You just give them the ticket and say ‘thanks very much.’”
“But is that not the standard greeting at a Shakespeare in the Park?” Thor said, “That is what you said to me, when first we met.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “That had nothing to do with Shakespeare. It was supposed to be a clever bit of sarcasm, in which I insulted you and your shiny red cape all in one go.”
“But what is the matter with my cape?” Thor rumbled, “And how is it anything like drapery?”
“Okay, enough, you two,” Pepper broke in, “I don’t want to listen to this all through the play.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re making me come to this anyway,” Tony grumbled.
“Because you still owe me for…well, a lot of things,” Pepper said as she kissed him, “And if you listen hard enough, there’s enough raunchy comedy in here to satisfy even your dirty mind.”
“Dirty mind? I’m insulted!” He frowned over at Bruce. “Or should I be flattered?”
Bruce chuckled as the warning against cell phones came on over the speakers. Pepper shushed them all, and the lights went up on Orlando and Adam standing outside the fort.
Bruce had never been much of an avid theatergoer, even before the Other Guy, and accepted it would take him awhile before he was fully absorbed in the action and the dialogue. While the sun still gave light he was content to let his mind wander, and watch the others watch the play. Tony was bent forward in concentration, trying for Pepper’s sake to understand her love for it, while Pepper’s eyes were glued to the stage in rapt delight . Thor was listening in a sort of awed wonder, laughing loudly at the jokes and beaming throughout the rest of it.
“These actors, they speak as I do!” Thor whispered loudly into Bruce’s ear as the scene changed, “Who is the author of his play? Where does he hail from?”
“Hate to break it to you, Thor, but he’s been dead at least four centuries,” Bruce murmured back, “But shh, ask me later, we’re disturbing everyone else.”
One by one the protagonists were tossed from the court and into the forest of Arden, and Bruce found himself forgetting his friends, becoming as captivated by the story as the rest of them. The actress playing Rosalind truly was wonderful, and he couldn’t help but be mesmerized by her and Celia’s journey through the forest. The lights shifted to blue, and night at the Duke Senior’s court. He watched as Orlando, so desperate, burst into the Duke’s court with his sword drawn, watched the Duke repay him with civility and warmth, watched Jacques gave his famous speech. Something in Bruce’s heart clenched tight as after all of this, the Duke opened his table to Orlando and Adam, without reserve, without query:
Welcome; fall to: I will not trouble you
As yet, to question you about your fortunes.
Give us some music; and, good cousin, sing.
The musicians started up a slow, lilting tune, the guitar player sang in a low tenor. Bruce knew the song shouldn’t give him the comfort that he felt—he knew it was more melancholy than peaceful, more bitter than hopeful, about things intangible that cut deep and couldn’t last:
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
But wasn’t that his life, anyhow? He couldn’t afford yet to believe what he had was permanent. His love was mere folly, and friendship…well, it was too new yet, too much to dare to hope for. But he had it now, at this moment, and for now it was enough. It was enough to see Pepper lean against Tony, her eyes bright; to see Thor’s awed joy; to know that he’d return to Stark Towers and Steve would be home, going on about his date like an overexcited puppy. To know that for now he had something approaching a home.