When Bruce came back to New York, it wasn’t because the world was ending. For a while he had thought that was the only thing that could do it, really, because Natasha and Steve had tried in their own ways, and they had failed. But when he came, it wasn’t because of a new weapon or gamma rays or S.H.I.E.L.D., or any of the things he’d always feared might have the power to convince him to return. It certainly wasn’t Tony Stark.
Instead, it was Pepper Potts.
From: Pepper Potts
Sent: Monday, February 4, 2013 1:47PM
Subject: May be of interest
I took the liberty of using this address. I hope you don’t mind.
I know it’s been a long time, and that we were only briefly acquainted to begin with, but recently I ran across this data and couldn’t help but think of you. It’s a bit over my head I’m afraid, but I’ve attached analyses and results of a recent test. I hope you find it interesting, if only for curiosity’s sake.
I hope this email finds you well. I wish you the best in all that you do,
Pepper Potts | STARK INDUSTRIES
President & CEO | P (212) 555-4837 | F (212) 555-4839 | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Briefly acquainted” was probably the only part of the email that was actually the truth. After the Chitauri attack, Bruce had stayed in Stark Tower for a little under a week; Pepper had returned on the red-eye after the battle, and he’d met her when he finally woke up. She’d been kind and very friendly, made an excellent cup of coffee and was extremely efficient with press. There’d been so much going on with aftermath and Tony that Bruce hadn’t thought about her quite as much as he probably should have.
The attachments to the email included matrices delineating how the Chitauri had been linked with their host vessel. In a way, it paralleled the interaction of the Tesseract and Loki’s scepter, which were also delineated, with brief calculations as to the interaction between the Tesseract’s gamma waves and human neural synapses. This was something big—basically mind control amidst civilizations far more complex than theirs. And it built on the radiation theory that Bruce himself had developed.
In short, Pepper’s innocuous, cordial email was a succinct and thorough lie. I hope you find it interesting meant I can make you pant for it like a dog in heat, and in all that you do meant I expect you within the week. As for the email address, she’d either gotten it from S.H.I.E.L.D., who had hacked it, or she frequented nuclear physics forums. Somehow Bruce wasn’t banking on the latter.
I ran across this recent data meant only one thing, and that was Tony Stark. His signature was practically scrawled all over this data; if Pepper thought that Bruce couldn’t recognize Tony’s particular flare for nuclear physics in this deranged, brilliant, erratic piece of work, then it’s a bit over my head meant he employs me for my body.
Tony Stark definitely didn’t employ Pepper Potts for her body.
She was acting on her own initiative, for one thing. Tony probably hadn’t even shown her this data, because it was theoretical and sketchy enough that there was little to be got from it without molecular biology. Pepper had either stolen it or hacked it, and on the off chance that Tony had given it to her, he never would have if he’d thought she’d forward it to Bruce. Tony would have said Bruce didn’t deserve it.
Bruce tried very much not to care. He deleted the email, then the attachments, and tried not to think about Pepper, whom he could imagine looking at him innocently and saying things like, “Oh, I’m glad you found them interesting,” and “How was Honduras?” and “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Instead, Bruce found himself awake at two in the morning in Madagascar, jotting down equations and drawing diagrams, because he’d already memorized the attachments. The problem was, they contained good research and theory; they could help. They were tangential, of course, to finding the cure, but he hadn’t thought about it in quite this way before. It was a breakthrough, and it was interesting; it was delicious.
It wasn’t Bruce’s only reason for going back to the States. He had needed time to deal with the way that Loki had tried to use him—the way that S.H.I.E.L.D. had tried to use him too. He’d needed to deal with what he’d done on the helicarrier, and what he’d done in New York City. He’d needed to think about what Tony had said.
It had been ten months, and Bruce had thought about it. He was ready for something different; he was ready to try something new. Still, he found it pretty ironic that it was Pepper’s email that proved to be the catalyst.
Against tanks and guns, Bruce would have fought. Moral duty, honor, and heroism apparently weren’t enough to turn his head. He’d learned about trust in Honduras and faith in Uganda, but neither had ever swayed him. A couple Greek letters and some graphs, neutral pion decay and some squiggly lines, and he was utterly and completely broken. Bruce should not have been surprised; he had always been this way.
It was how the Hulk started his career.
When Bruce got to New York, he didn’t contact Pepper. Instead, he rented an apartment in Queens, and started getting together some semblance of a life—going to Goodwill, finding the laundry mat. He got broadband set up, started a cursory search for a job, looked into a couple labs. He didn’t call old friends, because he didn’t really have any here, except for maybe one, but he did have drinks with three different acquaintances he’d made last time he was here. And then he defused a bomb.
The first acquaintance was Natasha, who showed up after he’d been there about a week. Bruce wasn’t surprised, exactly. He’d been using his bank account, and while there wasn’t much in it, he hardly ever used his bank account, so S.H.I.E.L.D. probably knew the second he’d bought the ticket to New York. In fact, he wondered why it’d taken so long.
“You knocked,” he told Natasha, when he opened the door.
The corner of her mouth pushed in. “I wanted to take you by surprise.”
Her hair was a different color, browner than the red she’d had the last time he was here, but darker than the color of her roots in Honduras. She wore street clothes—jeans, a gray hoodie, and he wondered what identity it represented, because he didn’t think of Natasha as wearing normal clothes for normal purposes. He didn’t think of Natasha as having normal purposes.
“I brought you something,” Natasha said, when the silence had stretched too long. Reaching into her messenger bag, she took out a file.
Bruce really wanted to say something about Brutus also stabbing Caesar, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Come in.”
Handing him the file, she walked into the apartment, looking around while Bruce found his glasses. There really wasn’t much in the space except a half empty book shelf, a card table, and a folding chair; the room opened to the kitchen, where there wasn’t much more. In his bedroom there was a dresser and a bedframe; those had been there when he got there. He was working on getting a mattress. Maybe a cesium scintillation detector.
The file wasn’t the same as the one Pepper had sent him, not even close. After a while of looking it over, Bruce looked up at her over his glasses. “Where did you get this?” he asked.
“I was going to ask you the same question.” Apparently finished with her assessment of the living room, she went into the kitchen. “Did you go shopping in Sparta?”
“These are—” Bruce flipped a blueprint in the file—“very inventive toys.”
“Call them my house-warming present.”
“How close are they to being complete?”
“I don’t know. I got those plans three days ago. You don’t have any milk.” Natasha’s head was in his refrigerator.
“If I had known you were coming,” said Bruce, and flipped another page.
“Do you even know how to make cake?” Natasha poked her head above the door of the refrigerator. She looked kind of like she wanted cake. Somewhere, Bruce filed that away.
“I make a mean flan,” he said, and went back to looking at the file.
She left the refrigerator open, resting her chin atop the edge of the door. “And coffee,” she said.
“Really. I wasn’t sure you liked it,” even though she had said she did.
“I didn’t lie,” she said, and shut the fridge.
Glancing at her, he put the file on the counter, then started opening a drawer.
“Pen’s in the bedroom,” Natasha said.
“I knew that,” said Bruce, even though Natasha hadn’t been in the bedroom. She couldn’t have known. Closing the drawer, he went to the bedroom and got the pen, then came back and started marking up the file.
“How do you lose things in an apartment the size of a postage stamp?”
“You mail big letters.” Bruce circled part of the diagram. “Are there cameras in here?”
Bruce looked up.
“Don’t take it personally,” said Natasha. “Plenty of people would like to watch you shower.”
“Good,” Bruce said again, and looked back down at the file. “Cameras would make me angry.”
“I’ve already seen you naked,” said Natasha.
“Thanks for your discretion.”
Natasha rolled her chin on the edge of the door, tilting her head. “You seem different.”
“I’m here by choice.”
“No one asked you to leave,” Natasha said softly.
“They kept asking me to come back.”
She put her elbows on the door instead of her chin, which she put in her hands. Though she was wasting electricity and she had to be chilly, she didn’t seem to notice. “Why did you?” she said.
“St. Patrick’s Day is coming up,” said Bruce.
“You thought you could be in the parade?”
“Something like that.”
“Was it that email Potts sent you?”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “I would’ve thought Tony would have better security.”
“It wasn’t Stark who sent it,” Natasha pointed out.
Bruce stacked the pages back in the file. “I outlined what these weapons are going to do. Is that what you needed?”
Natasha closed the refrigerator, not quite looking at him. “I keep thinking about that coffee.”
“I keep thinking about those cameras.”
“If I hadn’t wanted you to know that I was in this apartment before, then I wouldn’t have said anything about your pen.” Natasha raised her eyes. “I only came on recon. Just me.”
He’d been working on some notes with the pen in the bedroom the night before. This morning, he’d only stepped out for twenty minutes to pick up toilet paper. “And now?” Bruce asked, still not really trusting her.
Mouth tightening, Natasha came and picked up the files. “This is what I needed,” she said, heading toward the door.
“I don’t have any coffee,” he said, as her hand went for the door knob.
She stopped. “I would have been fine with water.”
He looked at her a while. She hadn’t turned around, but her head was tilted slightly; he could see her in distorted profile—something she often did, he supposed, in order to look like she wasn’t quite looking. “Natasha,” he said, “would you like some water?”
Slowly, she turned around, lifting the files. “I got them from the group in Honduras.”
Bruce went into the kitchen and got a cup. “Three days ago?”
“They’re not in Honduras anymore.”
“Do you want ice?”
Natasha came back, setting the files onto the counter. “Yes, please, and a little pink straw.”
“Sorry,” said Bruce, because he didn’t have ice. He’d bought those little trays, but they were all empty, and of course she somehow knew that. He hadn’t even seen her look in the freezer. He filled the glass from the tap and gave it to her, saying, “They seem to have gotten reasonably more sophisticated since Honduras.”
Natasha was looking around the living room again, not drinking the water. “Well, with the elimination of Colonel Fritz, they’re under considerably better leadership.”
Bruce didn’t particularly want to think about the elimination of Colonel Fritz. If he thought about it hard enough he could remember a green fist squeezing a human body until the eyes popped just like grapes, but that was no fun for anyone. He’d have liked to think that what happened in Honduras stayed in Honduras, but apparently it didn’t; what happened in Honduras found new leaders and new weapons and was probably going to kill a whole hell of a lot of people.
So Bruce said, “Do you want anything to eat?”
“All you have is Ramen.”
“I’m a really good cook.”
She had been looking at the book case; now she glanced back. “You’re not even a little bit curious.”
Bruce looked down. He was touching his knuckles again, and stopped it. “I am. I just . . . what with the terrorists and the ninjas and the terrorist ninjas . . . it gets complicated.”
“You came to New York.”
Natasha was looking over the trinkets on his shelves—most of them from Africa, this time around. She looked casually curious, the way you look at the covers of magazines when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, but Bruce knew he could quiz her later and she’d be able to name every single one of his books. Heaven knew what she was going to do with that information; it was just her way.
“Alright,” Bruce said. “I’ll bite.”
“It’s the Hand,” said Natasha, and pulled out a book.
“Thought you said they weren’t involved.”
“They weren’t.” She put the book back. “Now they are.”
“Goody. You said something about a . . . was it a chalice? In Honduras.”
Natasha shook her head, took out another book. “I gave them outdated information. Oldest trick in the book.”
“Then do you have any idea what the Hand is doing with these weapons?”
“Killing people, probably.” She turned away from the shelf, came back over to the kitchen to pick up the file.
“Plenty of S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists could have read those plans,” Bruce pointed out.
“They already did.”
“I wanted someone I could trust. Also, I wanted to mock your taste in literature.”
The thing about Natasha, Bruce had learned, was that sometimes she made you think she was lying, just by telling the truth. There was nothing suspicious in her face and nothing earnest either, just full lips pressed together and a strong jaw, large eyes. Swallowing, Bruce looked away. “Literature?”
“Remind me next time you’re bored.” She waved the files. “I get plenty of reading material just like this.”
“I don’t really get bored.”
Natasha shrugged. “Then don’t. It’s up to you.”
Bruce wanted to, but couldn’t stop himself from asking, “What do you get out of this?” The curiosity was killing him.
She tilted her head. “Do you spar?”
He looked at her incredulously. “I sort of have this history of violence.”
“Then we have something in common.” Her face was blank. Not for the first time, Bruce remembered asking her if they started young, and her flat voice: I did.
“Some self-defense practice would probably be good for you,” Natasha went on, “and I’d see it as a challenge. I like challenges.” She knocked back a big gulp of the water, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She picked up the files again. “Also, you owe me.”
Bruce’s thumb ran over his fingers. He’d liked to have thought that Honduras made up for what had happened on the helicarrier, but of course, it didn’t. It had made things worse. “Here I thought you just wanted coffee,” said Bruce.
“I’d settle for that.”
Bruce raised his brows. “Would you?”
“I know what it’s like to run, Bruce. I also know what it’s like to stop. Thanks for the water.”
“Natasha,” Bruce said, as she headed for the door. She looked at him over her shoulder. “Thank you for the shoes,” was all Bruce could think of to say.
She smiled. “Think about the sparring,” she said, and left.
The second acquaintance Bruce reestablished contact with was the one he considered a friend. No one had ever really made the attempt to understand Bruce the way he had, and Bruce wanted him to know that he appreciated that. Bruce was the one who knocked on the door that time, at an apartment in Manhattan one fine March morning.
“Doctor Banner,” Steve said, surprised.
“Hi, Steve,” said Bruce, startling as Steve took a step forward into his space. Then Steve’s hands were on his shoulders and it was very obvious what he meant to do, only he stopped himself. Squeezing Bruce’s shoulders instead, Steve grinned brilliantly, then let him go.
“It’s so good to see you, what are you doing here, come in,” Steve said.
“Okay,” said Bruce, and went in.
Bruce wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this. The loft had what some would have called “character”—a brick wall, old hardwood, an old appliance juxtaposed against a sleek new leather couch, a Jazz era painting next to a big screen TV. It looked trendy and comfortable, and it didn’t seem like Steve at all.
“I didn’t know you were in town.” Steve was still grinning.
“I just got in a little bit ago,” said Bruce, which was only a lie depending on your definition of little bit.
“How was your flight; do you want something to drink?”
“Fine.” Bruce smiled. “Sure.”
The kitchen was open to the living room, separated by an island bar with some diner-style stools on one side. Bruce sat down on one of them and Steve squeezed his shoulder again as he passed around him; he was very manfully avoiding hugging him. Hugging was something more guys did in the 1930s, Bruce guessed. All of the sudden he found it rather depressing that he didn’t reciprocate. Tony would have.
Then he would have done something lewd.
“Milk, lemonade, water, ginger ale, grape Gatorade, orange juice.” Steve was looking in the refrigerator. “I don’t have coffee, sorry.”
“That’s a lot to choose from,” Bruce pointed out.
“Staying hydrated is very important.” Steve looked back, smile still pulling at his lips. “Where are you coming from? Are you staying long? I’m sorry.” He glanced at the refrigerator again. “What did you want to drink?”
“Ginger ale. Antananarivo, Madagascar. I’m not sure how long I’m saying.”
Steve laughed. “I don’t mean to bombard you. This is just such a surprise.” He took out a can and a carton of milk, and then got a glass. “Do you want ice?”
“This is fine,” Bruce said, opening his can. “It’s nice to see you too, Steve.”
Steve laughed again. “Geez. I’d already forgotten the way you . . .” He trailed off, smiling, pouring his milk.
Bruce raised his brows. “The way I what?”
“Just the way you are.” Steve shook his head. “You make things seem less chaotic; do you know that?”
“I don’t know.” Bruce sipped the ginger ale. “I’ve been known to kick up quite a ruckus.”
“And then there’s your sense of humor.” Closing the milk, Steve put it back in the refrigerator. Bruce guessed Steve knew that drinking a glass full of milk was very cliché of him. He probably just didn’t care.
Bruce felt a twist in his chest, and realized it was fondness, and the ache beside his mouth meant that he was still smiling. “How have you been?” he asked.
For a moment, Steve didn’t answer, just looked at the milk. “Alright, I guess,” he said at last, and drank.
“What is it?”
Steve just shrugged, a fluid hitch of very straight shoulders. “I don’t know. I went to Tibet. After Uganda.”
Bruce raised his brows. “Where?”
“Baga. It’s a village in Mainling County. I know what you’re thinking,” said Steve. “You’re thinking Captain America in Tibet is just as bad as Captain America in Africa.”
Bruce looked down at his ginger ale.
Steve finished up his milk and said, “I guess you’re right. I just wanted to see it.”
Bruce turned the can around, tipped it so it stood on the edge of its rim. Looked at Steve’s refrigerator, which was sleek and metal and so totally wrong for him, the self-consciously retro style of the tiles on the counters. He wondered if this was the way that Natasha had felt, looking at his apartment, and it surprised him, because the feeling was precisely this: you deserve better.
“Pepper Potts emailed me some of Tony’s research,” Bruce said, righting the can.
“Is that why you came back?”
Bruce glanced up at him, then back at the can. “There was nothing in it about how to cure cancer or engineering self-cleaning streets.”
“I bet it wasn’t schematics for a new and improved i-pod, either,” Steve pointed out.
“Stark Industries already has a portable media player.”
“I know,” said Steve. “It’s terrible at playing records.” He looked at Bruce a little while, leaned up against the counter with his ankles crossed, hands slid casually in his pockets. J. Crew ad, Bruce decided. Maybe Gap. Too damn good-looking for the typical, “Milk, it does a body good,” type of thing. Sesame Street was still on, but Steve had missed the golden era of The Muppets and grown men earnestly talking to puppets. Steve had missed classic David Bowie.
“What are you going to do?” Steve asked.
If the late thirties were typified by Steve, and the late seventies were typified by Bowie, Bruce wondered just what now was. “I still haven’t figured it out,” he said.
The corner of Steve’s mouth turned down—a smile, somewhat rueful. “Let me know when you figure it out, Doctor Banner.”
Three weeks after arriving in New York, Bruce emailed Pepper. He didn’t say much, just basically, “You’re right; it’s interesting, thanks.” She emailed back:
I’m so pleased to hear that, and welcome back to our neck of the woods. We should catch up! I know this great tea shop—Yaya, 51 Chrystie St, 3 p.m. Tue 3/12? Let me know if that time doesn’t work for you and we can reschedule. It really is so nice to hear from you; I want to hear all about your travels.
Bruce was left trying to figure out whether she’d had his IP tracked down or whether she had found out where he was from S.H.I.E.L.D., and whether Tony knew. He knew that he didn’t have to decide whether to meet Pepper for tea. He wouldn’t be able to stop himself.
Five days later he was looking at the menu in the tea shop thinking, is this what Steve feels all the time? when Pepper came in. She put out her hand and he was shaking it before it occurred to him not to; she was the kind of person that made you want to be polite.
“Bruce, you look wonderful,” she said. It wasn’t something Tony would have said; Bruce still hadn’t managed to invest any more in new clothes, though he was getting tired of the laundry mat twice a week. It seemed strange that washing by hand really could be so much easier, but it also seemed strange to do it in the bathtub and he certainly wasn’t doing it outside with a bucket, the way he’d done so many times, and—the music seemed loud. The menus moved.
Pepper smiled in a patient way. “Get onigiri if you want a snack,” she said. “You won’t regret it.”
Bruce ordered the jasmine. While Pepper ordered some complicated kind of bubble tea, Bruce tried to reorient himself (again) to the idea that he was in America, where things were bigger and faster and sometimes Japanese. You didn’t see that as much in Africa, and he was also trying to figure out the social significance of beverages. They meant, “friendly acquaintances,” but they also meant, “not friendly enough for a meal.”
Bruce had gotten dinner with Steve.
The day Bruce had left New York, he’d had breakfast with Tony.
“How is it?” said Pepper.
“Flowery,” said Bruce. They sat at a little table sort of toward the back, right near the bathrooms and a large display of products with bright plastic packaging, and Bruce tried to figure out what it was she wanted from him.
“Is it too loud in here?” she asked him. “We can go somewhere else.”
“I imagine it’s a bit of a shock.” She smiled in that sympathetic way again. “How was Madagascar?”
“You were there during rainy season.” She sucked on her straw, which for some reason seemed rather incongruous, this top executive of one of the very top corporations in the country, sucking bubble tea from a plastic straw under fluorescent light. She would not have been out of place with a glass of wine in a very expensive, softly-lit bar, but somehow she made this look natural, with her strawberry hair, and melancholy eyes.
She was very pretty, and it was her very naturalness that made something in Bruce’s gut tighten and warn: danger.
“Steve said Uganda was very seasonable,” she went on.
“Uganda is on the equator.”
“I assumed that was what he meant.” Pepper smiled, a wide, generous thing. “He said that he built a church.”
Bruce looked at her for long enough that she should have gotten uncomfortable, except that she didn’t, just sipped her tea and smiled.
“He said he wasn’t sure that you approved,” she said.
“What are we doing here?” Bruce asked.
“Failing miserably at small talk.” She just smiled again. “I honestly want to know how you’ve been. Really.”
“Why did you send me those files?”
She looked surprised. “I thought you would enjoy them.” There was something about her big, big eyes that always looked kind, and a little sad. “I’m not trying to force you into anything.”
Bruce could feel his jaw tighten. “What about Tony?”
She shook her head. “Tony doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
“They’re his files.”
“Oh. Well, there’s that.” She poked her tea with the straw. “Sometimes he can be so stubborn.”
“If you know how he feels about it, why did you send them to me?”
“Bruce, Tony thinks single malt whiskey is a perfectly acceptable breakfast. His feelings shouldn’t be anyone’s guiding star. Not even his.”
“You went behind his back.”
“Are you scolding me?”
Bruce found that his tea cup was clenched in his hand, so he let it go. “I had the same conversation with Tony before I left. It ended . . . badly.”
Bruce looked down at the tea. “He wanted me to be an Avenger.”
“I keep telling him that’s a ridiculous name.”
Bruce looked up.
Pepper’s smile was less pained and more pitying, now. “Please don’t get confused, just because my name’s not on the building. Tony has his own little projects; I have a company to run. I’m not really interested in super heroes.”
Pressing his lips together, Bruce moved his tea cup off the saucer, then back on. Fiddled with the spoon, looked up.
Her voice was very gentle when she said, “I never asked him to be Ironman.”
Bruce grimaced. Sure, he could take her at face value—a beautiful woman who was sensitive and kind, who competently and efficiently managed to run one of the world’s most powerful corporations and yet still managed to look sort of sweet and unassuming in front of the cameras, the girl-next-door who’d stolen the heart of one of the world’s most notorious womanizers through the sheer power of her lawful goodness.
Bruce didn’t buy it, not for a second. She had her own agenda—she had just admitted as much—and what he didn’t like about it was that he couldn’t figure out what it was. He wondered whether Tony knew, but here was the annoying, rather heart-wrenching thing about Tony: he probably didn’t even think about it.
Pepper just smiled again, still with that aura of sweet melancholy. “I’m not as difficult to understand as you think, Bruce.”
“My proposition is very simple.” She took another sip from her straw. “You need some form of employment, and Stark Industries is hiring.”
“Huh,” said Bruce, and sat back in his chair.
“We have state of the art research facilities.”
“You’re saying I should work for you,” said Bruce, still bemused, “instead of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“I suppose brawn has its place.” Pepper shrugged. “I want brains.”
“You have plenty of researchers.”
“Yes, but none of them is you.”
Bruce’s thumb ran over his fingers. “What about Tony?”
“Tony isn’t you either.” With her thin, well-shaped lips, at times elfin face, Pepper could have out-smirked even Loki. The disconcerting thing about Pepper was that she never did smirk. She always just looked nice. “He doesn’t really factor into this.”
“That’s weird,” said Bruce, turning his tea cup on the saucer now. It was making a horrible sound that was very comforting. “I could have sworn he was in some way connected with Stark Industries, but maybe that’s just another rumor.”
Pepper looked down at Bruce’s cup. Her lashes were long and light. There was a very faint dusting of freckles across her cheeks and nose, barely noticeable.
“You disappointed him,” she said at last, lifting her eyes. “Tony doesn’t get disappointed very often. He doesn’t expect much from many people, and the people he does expect things from are usually very eager to please him.” She drank the last of her tea. “He’ll get over it. It will be good for him.”
The only way that this made sense was if Pepper had some sort of horrible project brewing on the side that involved Bruce’s particular forms of expertise, or she was trying to keep him around. The latter made a little bit more sense, since she had to know he’d refuse pretty much anything that had to do with developing serums or gamma-based weapons.
Steve had told him, before Bruce left New York the first time, that Tony was the one who had predicted Bruce would come back after what happened on the helicarrier. Tony had had “faith” in him; that’s what Steve had said. Bruce knew that was how Tony felt about it too—that was what had Tony so bent out of shape, because Tony didn’t understand that coming back had had nothing to do with a firm decision to “do the right thing,” and everything to do with not being able to leave old injuries well enough alone.
Now Pepper wanted him around, and the only question was whether it was because she, too, had some kind of utterly baseless belief in how she and Tony defined heroics, or whether it was for some nefarious purpose of her own.
“You can say no,” Pepper told him.
“No,” said Bruce.
She raised her brows. “You could also have said yes.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Okay.” Poking her straw in her drink again, she said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“I handle disappointment much better than Tony.” Pepper smiled. “Do you have other plans? Or are you just waiting to see what comes up?”
Bruce made the scraping sound with his teacup again. “I taught some in Uganda.”
“That sounds nice.” Her tone was encouraging. “Steve has some friends from there he still writes to.”
Bruce told her a little bit about Solomon and Irene, then, because she asked. He talked about Esther and Muhindo too—people who’d taken Steve in. They talked about Steve; Pepper mentioned she had coffee with him whenever he was in town. Bruce wondered what Tony thought about that, and slowly it dawned on him that Pepper went around mending bridges wherever Tony damaged them, and that that was what this was about. The question was whether she did it for Tony, the company, or some other game. Then again, maybe she was just good-natured.
Superheroes were pretty straight forward, when it came right down to it. The world of corporate relations was not. There was a reason that Tony was Ironman and Pepper was C.E.O., and not the other way around. Even if Pepper was truly as gracious as she seemed, it was probably best to be careful.
When she said, “My offer stands, if you ever reconsider,” Bruce just said:
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
And when the bomb almost went off in Manhattan, he thought maybe he had her figured out.
The bomb was not a bomb in the normal sense. Nor was it a biological weapon in the normal sense, because in point of fact, the biological weapon had been filtering through the city’s HVAC systems for weeks, only for the time being it was harmless. Once the bomb went off, however, the particulates already in the air would activate, thus making the air ten million New Yorkers were breathing literally explosive.
Bruce knew all of this because he’d seen calculations for it in the plans that Natasha had given him. He found out it was happening in Manhattan because Steve called to tell him.
Bruce didn’t have a phone, but he couldn’t say he was shocked when he heard one ringing in his apartment. Natasha had this habit of not putting her things away.
“I told you never to call me here,” he said, because he thought that it was her.
“Miss Romanoff says you know something about biochemical weapons,” said Steve.
It was probably good Steve couldn’t see his expression. “You’re talking to one.”
“We have a problem.”
It wasn’t that Steve sounded panicked. He sounded very in control of the situation, which usually meant you probably should be panicking. When everything was okay, there could be this barely identifiable thread of uncertainty in Steve’s voice at times. Not much, but sometimes.
It was never there when he wore the uniform.
“The weapon Miss Romanoff showed you’s in Central Park.”
“That’s a problem,” Bruce agreed.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming to get you,” Steve said.
Bruce hadn’t heard Steve use that tone before—short and sharp and ugly. Bruce didn’t know what it meant. “Are you okay?”
“Just get down here. Doctor Banner?” Steve still didn’t sound nice. “That’s an order.”
The line went dead, so Bruce couldn’t say anything like, you are not my captain, or since when do I take orders from you? It would have been pointless anyway, because it was Steve, and Steve—that bastard—knew it.
Bruce sometimes wondered, if he had been Tony, whether he would have been able to use a nuke on anyone, even an alien race bent on slaughter, even if it meant the livelihood of Earth. Tony had done what he had to do, but that didn’t make it right. Bruce wondered if the subtle difference between those two ideas would have paralyzed him with indecision—but then again, that wasn’t really a possibility.
The Hulk was the opposite of indecision, and that was the whole problem. The Hulk wouldn’t have even hesitated—just like Tony probably hadn’t hesitated—and whatever needed to be done, Bruce couldn’t just be alright with it. There could have been another way. He had to believe there could have been another way, because he didn’t want to live in a world in which massacre was the only answer.
And that was why Bruce wouldn’t have walked away from a bomb that was going to kill all of Manhattan and change, if he could possibly do something to help—no matter who called him on the phone. But if it hadn’t been Steve, Bruce might have been able to think of alternatives. He might have been able, somewhere in this minefield of a brain, to have come up with an excuse. Instead, it was Steve, and all Bruce could think of was: this is what is wrong with Captain America.
You trusted him, you believed in him; you loved him—that really was a problem—so that when he said jump, you said how high. Bruce thought about the time they’d spent together in another country, far away, and wondered whether it had been just a lie. Not a lie either of them had consciously told, just a lie that made them who they wanted to be, instead of who they were.
A couple minutes later, the phone rang again. “Banner,” said the voice on the other end. “This is Maria Hill.”
“Oh hey, Maria,” said Bruce. “How’s tricks?”
“Meet us on the roof in three,” she said, then hung up.
These people just didn’t know how to say a proper goodbye.
Bruce didn’t even really know how to get to the roof; it wasn’t something he’d expected to have to do in this particular apartment, but it was true that he was sort of an expert at finding an escape route.
When he got to the roof, Maria was waiting by the door. “Come with me,” she shouted over the roar of the chopper, and they ran through the gusts of wind over to the door. She helped him get in the back, and then they were going. Two other agents were in front; Bruce didn’t recognize them.
“I’m sorry it was more than three minutes,” Bruce yelled, because it was really loud. “I don’t really like to run.”
“We have Banner,” Maria told her earpiece. She turned to Bruce. “That’s okay.”
“I don’t really like choppers, either.”
“Let me brief you on the situation,” she yelled back.
Bruce thought about the way Steve had said he’s busy, and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t.” Off Maria’s look, he added, “I don’t really want to know.”
Right after the accident, unexpected loud noises and sudden jolts could set off the reaction. Even then, though, doing something like running or being on a helicopter wouldn’t have necessarily set Bruce off. Helicopters were loud and bumpy, but they were just generally unpleasant, rather than terrifying or infuriating. It was more Bruce’s personal history with helicopters and also what might be happening in Manhattan that had him a little worried.
He’d jumped out of one once. The free fall had been almost pleasant, so much so that he found himself relaxing—the exact opposite of the reaction he’d expected to have. Far less relaxing was the image of Betty in that whirring metal cage—ripped out of the sky, thrown down across cement, the helicopter burning and all the world was green—
“Do you have pets?” Bruce asked Maria.
“Pets?” she yelled back, maybe because she just couldn’t hear him over the shudder of the chopper.
“Work with me here,” Bruce yelled.
Maria looked at him, at the pilot in front of her, then down at the ground far below them. When she turned to him again, her face was strong and blank. “I used to have a cat.”
“I’m a dog person myself,” said Bruce.
“Really?” she said. “Have you ever had one?”
“Once. In Brazil. Steve said I should have had a puppy.”
She shook her head. “Don’t do that. Constant headache. Get a cat. Then you’ll never have to bother.”
“Or a goldfish, maybe.”
For a moment she was quiet, just looking at him. There was something very steely about her eyes. “Her name was Hypatia. The cat. I was eleven.”
“Did you want to be a philosopher?”
“No. I wanted to be police.”
He smiled. “You got your wish.”
She didn’t smile back. Instead, she held his eyes, then turned to the pilot. “Put us down here,” she yelled, and the pilot nodded.
There was something not quite right about the view down below. Not enough cars for Manhattan, this time of day. Bruce had said he didn’t want to be briefed because it was already bad enough—the way that Steve had sounded. The fact that he hadn’t heard anything from Natasha. And Tony was busy, which just made Bruce think all sorts of horrible things. That suit was meant to make him stronger, keep him alive, but when Bruce really thought about it there were a lot more ways to die in a tin can than there were—
Bruce’s thumb ran over his fingers. “I’ve been wondering this for a long time: where do you and Fury live?” When Maria scowled at him, he said, “I mean, do you all have apartments in Manhattan like you got for Steve or—”
The scowl turned into a bit of a smirk. “Classified,” was all she said.
Bruce smiled back a little, touching his knuckles, now. “So, not like Steve’s. Good. Because Steve’s place is stylish and swanky and truly awful.”
“He could file a request for a new apartment,” Maria pointed out.
“He went to a village in Africa,” Bruce said. “There wasn’t any electricity or running water. It was much better for him than that place now.”
Maria was still smirking. “Maybe he should get a kitty.”
“You don’t think Steve is a dog person too?”
“You’d be surprised.” Turning in the seat, Maria clamped her hand down on the pilot’s shoulder. “Right over there, Davis.”
“There are apartments in the helicarrier schematics,” Bruce said. When Maria turned back, he said, “Hey. I was just wondering.” He looked down at the ground, which appeared to be rapidly rising toward them. “Tony hacked the system, not me. I’m just along for the ride.”
“So I’ve heard.” She took out a handgun from somewhere—Bruce wasn’t really clear on where; those uniforms were really tight—and loaded a clip. “Any sign of our escort?” she asked the guy sitting next to the pilot, then put her hand to her earpiece. “Alright,” she said, after a moment, “give us a window.”
Bruce eyed her gun, and thought about her cat. Maria Hill at eleven with a fluffy little tabby, wishing she could be real police. He wondered why—because it was tough, or because it was just. Maybe she just thought there wasn’t any alternative, because it was the right thing to do. There seemed to be a lot of that going around.
Bruce didn’t like guns, either.
He really hoped she did have an apartment, but not in Manhattan, and not in the helicarrier. He hoped that she read good books—Greek literature and dumb spy novels—and that she went to farmers’ markets, that sometimes she went to Petsmart and just looked in the window.
“I’ll cover you,” said Maria. “We’re going that way.” She pointed north as the helicopter began to make the grass flatten with air. “Banner’s on the ground; you better be ready.” Then she looked at Bruce again. “You good?”
“Sublime,” said Bruce, and opened the door.
Maria pulled him back. “Ask the director about his dog some time,” she said, then let him go. “Okay. Push out. I’m right behind you.”
Bruce got out of the helicopter and jogged, head down, in the direction she had pointed. When he got to the line of trees, Captain America was there.
“Doctor Banner,” Steve said.
Bruce really wanted to say something about that uniform; Steve was bigger somehow and about a million miles tall. All of this would have seemed very very silly if it wasn’t serious, so Bruce just said, “Steve.”
“Enough with the chit-chat,” another voice said, and then there was a thud behind him.
Bruce turned to see Barton jumping out of a tree. They’d never properly met; while Bruce had been getting to know the other Avengers, Barton had been working with Loki. He’d been on their side in the battle against the Chitauri, but Bruce hadn’t really been himself for most of that. He’d seen Barton exactly twice after that—for shawarmas and then again, sending Loki back to Asgard. Tony had made Bruce come for that, saying Natasha would never give him his stuff back unless he sucked it up and said fuck you to Loki like a man.
“We’ve got it from here,” said Steve. “Thanks, Maria.”
“I’ll be at the perimeter,” said Maria. “Good luck. Agent Davis? Move out.”
“Nice girl,” said Bruce, watching her jog off in the opposite direction.
“Stay behind me,” Steve said. “Hawkeye’s got our backs.”
Barton pulled an arrow out of his quiver. Slotting it against the bow, he said, “You’re really a lot shorter than I remembered,” and turned around, covering their retreat.
“We’re taking it slow,” Steve said, and started moving forward, shield at the ready. Bruce followed closely, just like he’d been told, and Barton followed behind them, slowly turning his aim in a hundred degree radius. “How we doing?” Steve said, and glanced back.
“Peachy,” said Barton.
Steve faced forward. “Doctor Banner?”
“We’ve been having very fine weather,” offered Bruce, who still didn’t know what the hell was going on, and really didn’t care to.
Steve glanced back again, and this time, there was a smile at the corner of his mouth. It was difficult to see his eyes clearly when he was wearing the cowl, but that was the first moment he was recognizably Steve, and it was a bit of a shock to Bruce that Tony could wear an entire suit of iron, and he could turn into the Hulk, but that Steve Rogers was the one who looked like an entirely different person in uniform.
“The weather channel is predicting light rains tomorrow,” said Steve, who was facing forward again.
“Did you know Nick Fury had a dog?” said Bruce. “He just doesn’t seem the type.”
“I thought—” Cutting himself off, Steve paused. “Hawkeye.”
“I saw him hours ago,” said Barton.
There was a little whiff behind Bruce’s head, sort of like a whisper, and Bruce turned to see something suspiciously human crumple to the ground forty feet away.
Notching another arrow, Barton said, “Carry on, ladies.”
“Where’s Natasha?” Bruce asked, because he finally couldn’t stop himself.
“She had some questions,” said Steve. They were moving forward again. “She’s finding someone to answer them.”
Behind them, Barton snorted. “She dilly-dallies. Takes her sweet time, that one.”
“She was pretty quick with Loki,” Bruce said.
“So says the man who wasn’t brainwashed almost a week.” Barton didn’t exactly sound bitter, just direct.
Steve stopped again.
“I got ‘em; I got ‘em,” said Barton. There was another whiff. “Cool your jets, Cap.” Then another whiff, and another.
“Behind me,” Steve said, grabbing Bruce, pulling him around.
There were guys coming out of the trees, and they seemed considerably more adept than some of the folks in Honduras. Barton’s bow went whiff whiff whiff. Steve brought his shield up and edged closer.
This was not at all a recipe for calm.
“Hm?” Bruce looked up. Steve was much closer than he expected, and really, when you thought about it, that outfit was kind of obscene. “Sure,” said Bruce.
“We need your brains on this one.”
Yes, Bruce thought, but where’s Tony? He didn’t ask, though, because he had his suspicions about the answer. For Bruce threatened, sad, or upset pretty much meant angry, and what if Tony was dead, or bleeding out somewhere, or maybe he just needed help but Bruce couldn’t help him because there was this crazy super technology and he had to dismantle it or everyone would die, except why couldn’t Tony just—
“Pepper says you write to Solomon and Irene,” said Bruce. “I assumed it was Solomon and Irene. Could be Esther, I suppose.”
“Pepper?” Steve seemed distracted. Possibly by the guys nearby trying to kill them, but Barton seemed to have a handle on it.
“Yeah, we’re buddies now; didn’t she tell you?” Bruce said.
“Cap,” said Barton.
“Stay here,” said Steve.
Barton was still taking down guys pretty steadily, but there was one coming from the opposite direction and Barton wasn’t going to have time for them all, and Steve was—he was really very fast. And sort of violent, when you considered the calm and quiet way he’d asked about Pepper and talked about the weather. Bruce wondered whether Steve hated it as much as he did, and thought that he couldn’t, because look—he’d just broken that guy’s arm.
But of course that wasn’t fair; they all did things because they thought they had to.
For instance, Bruce. He just stood there and watched.
The upside of this was that Bruce wasn’t really worried about Steve and wasn’t terribly bent out of shape about Barton, either, and of course, Bruce wasn’t in the least bit concerned about himself. Their attackers were just normal humans—very well trained, apparently, but they weren’t super soldiers. The only thing—Tony, Natasha—the only thing there was to worry about really was the whole bomb thing.
Christ, what a shitty day.
“Move,” said Steve, and Bruce moved.
“I humbly suggest that we get the fuck out of here,” said Barton, sliding in behind them.
“Suggestion noted,” said Steve, and yet he took the time to look down at Bruce and assess. “You good to run?”
“Sure,” said Bruce.
They ran, and there were guns firing, and then they were at a fountain, where S.H.I.E.L.D. had set up a perimeter, and Fury was waiting. They were centered around a device near the fountain, about three feet high. It matched the schematics Natasha had shown Bruce: a clear canister was balanced in the middle of the device with a swirling liquid. Soon as that vaporized, the catalyst was airborne, and there was no way to stop the reaction of the chemical with the reactive particles in the air.
Bruce walked by Fury on the way to the bomb. “Doctor Banner,” said Fury. “Nice of you to join us.”
“Wish I could say the same,” said Bruce. “Get rid of that tank. I really don’t like them.”
“You don’t like a lot of things,” Fury muttered, as if knowing he was one of them.
“Good luck, Doctor Banner,” said Steve, squeezing his shoulder. Then he and Barton moved away, and Bruce got down to work.
There were a lot of wires and little moving parts. Really, this was more Tony’s thing. Bruce was very good with theory, quantum mechanics, theoretical physics—and yeah, okay, when it came right down to it, he was alright with chemistry and a bit of computational and molecular biology. Actual, real machines and little moving parts though—Bruce had always been decidedly less interested in those. He’d never liked building new things as much as he’d liked the idea of discovering new things, all the reactions that could be produced if he could only master the secrets of a molecule.
Putting on his glasses, Bruce tried to think less of Tony and a whole lot more of his little experience with engineering, and those plans Natasha had shown him.
“What do you need?” said Fury, from somewhere above him. He must have moved closer.
“I was serious about the tank.”
There was a pause. “Anything else?”
“Just get it out of my sight.”
The presence from above disappeared again. Minutes later, so did the tank. When Fury came back, he handed him a tablet. “The plans Romanoff showed you.”
That was interesting, because Natasha called him Nick.
“I’m sort of busy,” said Bruce, and then realized he was anxious and frustrated, and lifted his head up a little from where he’d had it on the pavement, trying to see under the device. “Sorry. I meant, I remember it pretty well.”
Fury touched the tablet. “Alright, but since you two are still in the midst of your little tiff, I’m betting you didn’t see what Stark did to it.”
Fury’s use of the present tense was very reassuring. Bruce took the tablet. It was unclear to him whether Natasha had shown the plans to Tony, or whether Fury had had Tony look at them. Knowing him, Tony had hacked them off the S.H.I.E.L.D. server and messed around with them just for fun.
There wasn’t much more work on them than the sorts of things that Bruce had done when Natasha had given him the plans—some raw calculations about the reaction of the catalyst with the particulates, a sort of sketchy plan on the mechanics of the device, an unfleshed idea involving deactivation. It was all from a slightly different—Tony-shaped—angle; that was helpful. The other way in which it was different were the suggestions for modifications: the way the device could be improved.
Of course, in the end, the modifications highlighted the flaws in the design, and that was how Bruce was able to defuse it. He wasn’t sure the version Tony had delineated could have been stopped, which was probably the point.
Even once Bruce had figured out how to do it, it was a bit slow going. It required steadier hands than he had, really, but he didn’t trust himself to be able to describe what needed to be done, so he concentrated, and ignored everything else.
This got considerably more difficult when the gunfire intensified.
It was all around them, really, and Bruce thought he heard Barton say, “I thought we had a fucking tank.”
Someone else, Bruce couldn’t really hear whom, said Bruce’s name and some kind of garbled explanation.
“Why’s he gonna take our big green thing if he’s not gonna fucking put out?”
Bruce clenched his jaw, pressing his lips together, and pretended not to hear. Vague stirrings of guilt slid away once he was able to focus on the delicate metal casing in front of him and the little panel blocking off three slender strips of uranium. Someone had given him wire cutters and a screwdriver, though Bruce had no idea when. He already felt like he’d been at this for hours.
Bruce pulled his head away from the device and looked around.
“Hey,” he said to the masked man closest to him.
The man looked over. He had on a tank of some kind—looked like oxygen, like a scuba diver.
“Yeah, you,” Bruce said, and scratched the back of his neck. “Can you get me a pair of—hey. You don’t really want to do that.”
The guy had a gun aimed straight at him.
“You really don’t,” said Bruce, in his most soothing way.
Then Captain America was there and the gun wasn’t, and Bruce looked around to see if someone could get him tweezers. There seemed to be . . . well, exploding things, which wasn’t very good. Bruce saw a flash of red hair and black-clad limbs and decided to look away, because if she got hurt he didn’t really think he’d be able to handle it. Even if she was faking it. And if she wasn’t faking it—God, to see her get taken down after the things he’d seen her do—to see her well and truly hurt—
Helpless. That was the problem; he had never seen her helpless, not even once, and he never wanted to, so Bruce turned back to Steve fighting the guy in front of him and thought about how he needed tweezers. He could pick up the uranium with his hands of course, and it probably wouldn’t kill him, but he was—well, sort of radioactive, and he didn’t really know what would happen. He didn’t want to think about what would happen.
He sure wished Steve would hurry up.
Then the guy was on the ground and Steve was rushing up, dropping to a knee beside him. “Little close there, Doctor Banner. Did he—”
“I could really use some tweezers,” Bruce said.
“Tweezers.” Bruce had thought it was hard to see Steve’s eyes in his uniform, and it sort of was, but nevertheless Steve’s eyes were blue and searching his, warm with concern.
“I’m fine,” said Bruce. “But tweezers. If you have time.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “I have time. Hang tight.”
Bruce grimaced at the device, then looked out around him at Central Park where men and women were fighting and things were blowing up—at least there weren’t any tanks—and grimaced at that too. He lay down on the pavement again and looked inside of the device, at those three little strips of uranium. Touching the clear panel that covered them up, he thought about all the delicate, beautiful things used for destruction.
He wondered whether the Chitauri came from a different, better world. Maybe it was exactly the same as this one. He’d always had this irrational, half-ironic hope that if and when we found extra-terrestrial life, we would learn the value of our own.
A hand on his opened his fingers, pressed something metal into it. “Thanks,” said Bruce.
Removing the panel, he took out the uranium with the tweezers, then put it in the metal casing he’d already emptied out for it. He’d deal with that later. Now he just had to snip a wire and—
He pulled his face away. Taking off his glasses, he sat up.
“They’re pulling out,” Fury said.
Bruce squinted up in the sunlight. “That’s nice of them.”
“Are we good?” Fury nodded at the device.
“Yeah, it’s good. I mean, don’t put it in a dishwasher or anything.” Bruce looked around. “You should probably take it away carefully. You have scientists, don’t you?”
It was sort of impossible to tell whether Fury was smirking or scowling at him. Maybe a bit of both. “They were in the tank.”
“I’m sorry.” Bruce squinted up at him again. “Maybe I have some sort of internal rivalry, I don’t know.”
Fury’s brow went up. “With scientists?”
Fury put out his hand. Bruce could feel his lips flatten; he didn’t really want to take it, but—Bruce didn’t like being rude and everyone looked sort of sweaty and beat up, except for Fury, so Fury was probably sweaty and beat up on the inside. Bruce took his hand, and Fury helped him up.
“I hear you have a dog,” said Bruce.
Fury scowled. “Who’s been volunteering classified information?”
For instance, that right there—that was a joke, right; it should have sounded comical. Instead it just sort of sounded threatening.
“Martell,” Fury said, nodding at one of the agents walking toward the fountain. “Help get this breath bomb out of here. Doctor Banner, you and me need to have a talk.”
“I’d really rather not,” said Bruce.
Fury just looked at him—and yeah, okay, Bruce could read this one. That was Fury’s please don’t disappoint me again face, even though it looked exactly like his the hell you say face.
Bruce touched his knuckles. “You’re going to say a lot of things that have already been said,” he said. “Trust me. I’ve thought about it a lot.”
Fury frowned at him. “Okay.”
Bruce was surprised. “That was . . . easy.”
Fury’s gaze held his, just long enough that Bruce looked away. “I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want.”
“Okay, and now that sounds ominous.”
“When you’re ready, Banner.” Fury turned away. “Maria will take you home.”
“Um . . . I think I’ll walk a little bit,” Bruce told his retreating back. “It’s such a nice day.”
Three days later, there was a knock on Bruce’s door. When Bruce opened it, Tony stood there in the doorway.
Bruce had found out about Tony the day he’d defused the bomb—for one thing, it had been all over the news. There’d been an accident, the Ironman suit was totally trashed; Tony Stark was okay. Steve, who’d come by late that night (“briefings,” he’d explained, resigned but also a little disgusted), told a slightly different story, but he still said Tony was okay. Natasha hadn’t been by.
“If I’m this good to look at now, what must I be like with two hands? Here, take this,” Tony said. He leaned in so that the bottle of bourbon resting on his arm—which was in a sling—tilted toward Bruce. Bruce took it, and Tony swept past him into his apartment.
“So, this is the old homestead, is it?” Tony said, walking directly into the kitchen. His other hand was bandaged, and he used it to open first one cupboard, then another. He pulled two mugs off the shelf when he found them, putting them on the counter. “Bring that over here,” he said, so Bruce closed the door and brought Tony the bourbon. “Somehow I just knew you were going to have an absolute shithole of a place.”
Bruce smiled. “You can see why I invited you.”
Tony glanced up at him quickly, then away.
It was supposed to be a joke, because Bruce hadn’t invited him.
Tony unscrewed the cap of the bottle one-handed. “I’m getting an Anger camera,” he said when he started pouring the bourbon into the mugs.
“You know what that is. Here. Take one.”
Bruce went and took one, mostly because Tony told him to. “I know what that is. I’m just confused about what you need a gamma camera for,” Bruce said. He tried the bourbon. “It’s nice.”
“Not a gamma camera. An Anger camera.”
Bruce raised his brows. “You do know those are the same thing.”
“I know, but I wouldn’t be buying it if it didn’t have a hilarious name.”
“Hal Anger was a brilliant scientist.”
“His name was Hal. Tell me how this is not funny.”
Tony wasn’t actually laughing, so Bruce didn’t say anything.
“Anyway, who knows,” Tony went on. “Maybe I’ll come across an amazing, poorly dressed scientist one day who’s interested in gamma radiation; crazier things have happened.” He took a sip of the bourbon, and scowled. “We’re drinking a five hundred dollar bottle of bourbon, and you say it’s nice?”
“Sorry.” Bruce pressed his lips together. “I’m not really a fan of whiskey.”
“You know what’s wrong with you? You’re so fucking picky.” Tony tossed back the rest of the bourbon, and put down his mug. He moved a little stiffly. “Gimme that, if you’re not gonna drink it.”
Bruce gave him his mug. “You’re drinking five hundred dollar bourbon out of Goodwill mugs?”
“Stand back and watch a pro; this is how a real man drinks.”
Please tell me it’s just bruised ribs, Bruce wanted to say, and also: Jesus Christ, Tony, why are you even on your feet? but he didn’t.
“Pepper’s been sending you my research,” Tony said next. He took a gulp from the mug he’d given Bruce, rolled it around his tongue. When he swallowed, he bared his teeth a little—that’s why Bruce didn’t like whiskey.
“It was very interesting,” Bruce said.
“Of course it was. It was mine.”
“A little practical.”
Tony took another swig of bourbon. “Oh?”
“You should allow for a little whimsy in your Heisenberg uncertainty.” Bruce smiled a little. “If neural oscillation is a field, and bosons are acting as storage vehicles, why wouldn’t the Tesseract affect neural plasticity? It’s just a thought.”
Tony looked at him then—really looked at him, and it was the first time he’d done so since he’d walked in. First time he’d done so since ten months ago, when Bruce had walked out, and Tony had said, Don’t come back.
It hadn’t been a personal difference; it had been philosophical, but Tony had a way of making things personal. Tony thought the world needed Bruce—and the Hulk; he thought Bruce was irresponsible for not wanting to hang around New York and be an Avenger whenever S.H.I.E.L.D. needed him. Tony had a world of reasons to absolutely despise irresponsibility, and Bruce understood that all too well.
What Tony had said had still hurt, though, and Tony’s eyes had this way of looking down into you, as if he could see more than what you were showing.
Tony used that gaze to intimidate, Bruce realized. Bruce didn’t feel intimidated. He felt vaguely sympathetic, which he knew Tony wouldn’t like.
“You gonna run that simulation on your 2009 Toshiba?” Tony said at last, and took another sip of bourbon.
“No,” said Bruce.
“You could do it on mine. Not on my Toshiba. That would be currently tiling my basement floor, if it were good enough for that.”
Bruce touched his knuckles. “It was a random thought, Tony. Not a suggestion.”
Tony just kept looking at him in that flat way. Then he finished his bourbon, grimaced again, and turned away. “It was a good thing, wasn’t it,” he said, unscrewing the cap on the bottle again, “that you saw those files before you got to the park. Had time to work it out, postulate. Think for a moment about what would have happened if S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Thirteen and Twenty-one had had to dismantle that thing.”
“I like how you remember people’s names,” Bruce said. “It’s sweet.”
“That’s what Pepper’s for.”
“I thought she was there to run your company.”
“Is she still doing that? Huh. I told her she should have hobbies.”
Bruce put his hands in his pockets. “She asked me to work for her,” he said, because now he understood why. At least she did want him for his brains, but if she wanted him in on the ground floor of current research so that he could be there to do what he’d done in Central Park—she was essentially still asking him to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. Bruce didn’t know what he thought of that. He didn’t know what he thought of anything, really. He guessed that was why he was here.
“You turned her down,” Tony said. He recapped the bourbon, but didn’t take a sip from the mug. Bruce wouldn’t be surprised if Tony just wanted to have it in his hand.
“Don’t take it to heart,” Bruce said lightly.
“I’m not. This keeps everything away.” Tony clinked the mug against the metal in his chest. “I have a mock-up of the x-element on JARVIS. We could run a virtual trial on a neural oscillation field lickety-split. Just for funsies.” He came closer. “We could go right now. You and me.”
Bruce didn’t move, because as much as Tony didn’t intimidate him, he didn’t tempt him either. The only problem was that Bruce really, really liked him. He admired him, actually, in a way that Bruce wasn’t sure that Tony would like to be admired. He admired him not in spite of all the little flaws and insecurities, but partially because of them. Tony on the surface was so certain, and Bruce envied that; he really did.
Bruce said finally, “I’m not sure that kind of research is really up my alley—”
“Don’t lie to me,” Tony said, in that quick, so self-assured way he had. “I really don’t like it, especially from you.”
The day Tony had met him, he’d acted as though he’d always known him.
Tony held his eyes a moment more, then looked down, frowning. Swirling the bourbon in his mug, he said, “If Edison hadn’t invented the lightbulb, do you think someone else would have done it?”
“Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb,” Bruce said.
“Precisely.” Tony put down the mug. “He invented the efficient lightbulb. ‘There’s no point in building railroads until you invent the train.’ That’s Robert Heinlein. But once you invent the train, everyone’s inventing railroads—it’s just a question of who can invent it faster and better and safer. Guess what—it’s railroading time. You think what we’re doing is dangerous?”
“Are your ribs bruised or are they broken, Tony?” Bruce said, because he’d been dying to ask.
Tony made a fluttering motion with the bandaged hand—the one not in the sling. “I’m talking about research.”
“Not Ironman?” Bruce kept his voice pleasant. “I’m sorry. Is there a difference?”
“If we hadn’t gotten to the A-bomb first, someone would have gotten there. It was a near miss with the moon. Whatever I discover, whatever I develop, someone else is discovering and developing the same things. At least if I get to it before them, I can make it safe.”
“You have no idea how terrifying you are.”
“I’m talking about doing the right thing.”
“In my world, ‘arms race’ and ‘right’ are antithetical.”
“Your world is a dream.”
“I know.” Bruce looked at his hands.
There was a moment of silence, then the clink of the mug on the counter, signifying that Tony had downed yet another inch of bourbon. Tony’s voice sounded raw when he said, “Why are you even here?”
Bruce lifted his eyes. “I’m here to help. Just let me do it in my own way. You can do it in yours.”
“Christ. Now you sound like Steve.”
Bruce smiled a little. “You’ll probably be interested to know that sometimes, Steve sounds just like you.”
“Categorical impossibility.” Tony picked up the mug, realized it was empty, put it down again. “What the fuck did you two even get up to in Africa,” he said, but it lacked heat and the tone of a question, as though he already knew the answer and was resigned to it.
“We didn’t redesign the toilet.”
Taking out his phone, Tony glanced down. “I noticed.” He touched something on the screen. “What about that?”
“Toilets,” said Tony. “Let’s make them sexy. Let’s make them five dollars a pop. Let’s make them double service as a barbeque. What do you say?”
“You want to make toilets.”
Tony touched something else on his phone again, scrolling with his thumb. “Sure I do. If you make them with me.”
“That’s your stipulation,” said Bruce. “You’ll only build a toilet if I help you.”
“It won’t be any fun without you. Come on. We can shoot the shit all day. We can get our hands dirty. We won’t have to put up with any crap. Let’s put a stop to the waste of waste. Let’s get shit done.” He kept on scrolling with his thumb. “I can stop any time.”
“Why?” Bruce couldn’t help asking.
“I have a bet going with Romanoff.”
Bruce raised his brows. “Which is?”
“I bet I could make you stay.” Tony slipped his phone in his pocket.
“Don’t you two have better things to do?”
“Oh, yeah, we save the world and shit. You in?”
“I’d be fine with the shit part,” said Bruce.
“We’ve got to work on that self-esteem.” Tony’s phone buzzed, and he pulled it partially out of his pocket to glance at it. “Pepper says this is the start of a beautiful friendship,” he said, and slipped the phone back in.
“Pepper,” said Bruce.
“She’s like Big Brother. Be very careful. Take me out for hot wings. This apartment makes me feel like I’m in Queens.”
“You are in Queens.”
“What a great reason to leave. Are you coming?”
“Yes,” said Bruce, because it was Tony.
Tony made him want to say yes whenever he possibly could.
The next day, Steve came over. He’d only visited briefly after the incident in Central Park—just to check on Bruce, he’d said, to see if he was okay. This time Steve came, he brought shitty beer, probably because he didn’t know that Miller wasn’t even American-owned. He didn’t bring a movie, because Bruce didn’t have a television, but they ordered pizza, and Bruce thought that this wasn’t so bad.
Steve had thanked him for what he’d done in the park, but they hadn’t talked about it much. It was pretty clear to both of them—they’d both done what they needed to do, and there weren’t many questions they could ask about that. Neither of them were happy with it, but neither of them were happy with the idea that the Hand was apparently trying to destroy New York, either.
“We still don’t know what they actually want,” said Steve.
“What does Natasha say?” Bruce asked, taking another bite of pizza.
Steve just shrugged. “S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t know what they’re up to.”
Bruce was fine with talking to Steve about S.H.I.E.L.D., because he knew Steve was just talking—he wasn’t trying to force him to do anything. If he was—actually, he probably was (weren’t they all)—at least he wasn’t as painfully forceful about it as Tony. “Do you know where she is?” Bruce asked, once he finished chewing.
“She doesn’t really keep in touch.” Steve looked at him curiously. “I never asked you what happened in Honduras.”
“I ran away,” said Bruce.
Steve held his eyes for a moment. “Alright, Doctor Banner,” he said, and let it go.
Just then there was a knock on the door.
“Special delivery,” said a non-descript man, when Bruce opened the door.
“It’s a little late for a package,” said Bruce, but took the box anyway.
The postman just shrugged. “Express. Sign.”
Bruce signed his name, and the postman went away.
“Maybe you better be careful,” said Steve.
The box was about a foot in every dimension, and Bruce opened it carefully as advised, even though he wasn’t really worried. Inside there was a glass vessel, hourglass shaped, some triangles of paper, and two ceramic mugs. The glass and ceramic were imperfect, blown and thrown by hand.
“What’s that?” said Steve.
“A coffee-maker,” said Bruce.
The note at the bottom of the box said, For sticking around.