Tony Stark had a few flaws, as far as Bruce Banner could see. He was arrogant, sure, and far too brilliant for his own good, and he tended to not notice that other people had needs unless they were the kind that could be fixed by punching, blasting, or judicious application of WD-40.
But Tony also had a plethora of good qualities, and chief among them, to Bruce’s mind, was the fact that he was the only person on the team who actually saw past the Other Guy without ignoring him completely.
Steve said, when they first met, that the only thing he cared about was Bruce’s work, his mind, and Bruce had been relieved to hear it. He’d even tried to make a joke about it, about the insanity inherent with taking a monster onto an airship. Steve hadn’t laughed, and when Tony had been prodding Bruce in the lab a few hours later, Steve had shown - beyond a shadow of Bruce’s mind - that he cared about the Other Guy, that he was afraid of him. He’d yelled at Tony, who at least had the common decency to acknowledge what Bruce was, the balls to say it to his face, rather than hide behind platitudes and a flag.
Not that Bruce disliked Steve, he was just disappointed. But he was used to disappointment
Still, when the Avengers started moving into the tower, four months after the fight with Loki, Bruce noticed how they moved around him, how each of them interacted with the man who held their safety on a hair trigger.
Clint was cagey - S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't want him, not after he was compromised, and so he’d had no choice but to become an Avenger, and Bruce was pretty sure he resented all of them for it, so he stuck to his own rooms and the roof at first, which was just fine with Bruce. The more time he spent around the twitchy archer, the twitchier Bruce got, and that tended to have a domino effect of Enhanced Communal Twitchiness, which was a pretty great name for a theory, maybe, one about electron excitement, but a pretty crap way to live your life.
Steve crept silently on little cat feet, like Carl Sandburg’s fog, and he jumped every time someone sneezed around Bruce, which was just fine, he guessed, because it was going to take time for Steve to get used to the facts of living not only with other heroes, but living in this century, complete with not only cell phones, but air conditioners and tennis shoes and integration. Bruce tried to help; he never assumed that Steve was stupid, but he answered questions when they came up. Which wasn’t often, it turned out, because Steve was clever and still relatively young and Tony was doing a fine job of getting him up to date with pop culture, which helped speed the process.
Natasha, never one to move in the way people expected her to, charged straight into the issue, choosing to confront Bruce the day after she arrived, a smattering of freckles and the ghost of a tan clinging to her face. She was buttering a bagel (which - why would you do that to a bagel? Bruce was insulted on the bagel’s behalf, really) in the kitchen when he entered, looking for orange juice.
"So," she asked, blunt and uncompromising as always, "how does it work?"
Bruce blinked, because it was somewhere in the vicinity of fuck o’clock in the am, and he rubbed a hand across his eyes. "That’s a hell of a question. What are we talking about?"
"You," she said, gesturing with her chin. "How does the whole monster thing work?"
Bruce poured himself a glass of juice and sat at the table, staring at his new roommate. "Are you asking about the mechanics of gamma mutations?"
"No," Natasha shook her head. "I’m asking how you become him."
"Oh." Bruce sighed. "This is a hell of a talk for breakfast."
Natasha shrugged and took a bite of her bagel.
"You want to know," Bruce sighed. "Why I tried to kill you on the helicarrier and not in New York?"
"Okay. Well. When we were on the helicarrier, we were all yelling and fighting and then the floor fell out from under me. And I lost control. You- I remember you trying to talk me out of it, right? Telling me to stay with you?"
"Yeah," Natasha nodded.
"Well, okay. I fought it, and I lost. And then in the battle, I accepted it, I did it on purpose. Like, the difference between a swan dive and a belly flop. You’re falling either way, you just land better, right?"
He could see the wheels in her head turning, he knew she didn’t get it, but he couldn’t think of any other way to explain it - it simply was. He didn’t know why, and didn’t feel like looking for a metaphor that made sense to Natasha.
"If I choose to become the Other Guy, I can control it," he told her. "If I’m forced into it, I can’t. I wish I could tell you more, but I-- you know."
Natasha shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
Bruce bit his tongue and drained his glass. He wasn’t going to get through to her this way, not by talking, it had to be shown, he was going to have to prove to her and Clint and Steve, and probably Thor and Tony, too, that he was in control most of the time.
He missed the days when he was allowed to have more than one emotion, when he was allowed to get annoyed and stressed and anxious without having an extra layer of danger built in, without having to worry who he was going to kill.
He stood and put his glass in the sink, and headed down to his labs. At least if he broke things down there, he wasn’t going to hurt anyone but himself.
Thor was in Asgard for a long while - the others had already moved in, settled, and saved the world like twice before he came back, bearing a status report on his brother, which seemed to be mostly "still crazy", and Bruce ached, quietly, for both of them. He understood what it was to have family that you loved and who hurt you, just as he understood not being wanted in the society that created you.
Bruce wasn’t sure who he felt for more, but he did root for Loki just a little, he did want him to recover from whatever mental break he’d suffered, just so he could live a normal life.
Whatever normal meant for him.
Bruce had a certain kind of uneasy peace with the other Avengers. The more they worked together, the more they treated him like a human being, even when he wasn’t one. Natasha and Steve no longer avoided him; if they weren’t exactly friends, well, they had no problem watching television with him or using weapons he had made. He started to think that, just maybe, he would be accepted within the standard deviation of what it meant to be an Avenger.
He had even developed an additional superpower when he was on the lam in India; living in the tower, Bruce found that even among Gods and assassins, he was able to enter most rooms without being noticed. He assumed it was because he had practiced not being seen, wearing plain clothes and looking down. And with Tony and Steve and Thor around, it was easy to blend into the woodwork. All you had to do was not talk, and those three took care of the rest.
He was going to Tony’s lab to ask a question; something about the efficiency of the larger arc reactors and the heatsink they’d need to make one that could power the quinjet, but Thor’s voice was booming into the hall, and Bruce thought he could ask later, probably, like next week or never or something, when the phrase "healing rooms" interrupted his thoughts.
He wasn’t the type to eavesdrop, but Bruce knew about the melding of magic and technology in Asgard - Jane Foster had been all too willing to share her findings on the Einstein-Rosen bridge, and Thor had been quite illuminating about the expenditures of dark energy created by the Bifrost, and if they used different terminology or came from different societies, the laws of physics were laws for a reason, and they could always fall back on Conservation of Matter as a common foothold.
He had just never thought about what that magic-science meld as it related to medicine.
Tony sounded agitated, the way he always did when someone else was in control. "Thor, man, seriously. No."
Thor’s voice was louder than Tony’s, easier to make out. "I simply mean, my friend, that you could live without impairment--"
"I already do."
"I did not intend--"
"Yeah," Tony sounded tired. "I got it."
"Very well. If you change your mind."
"Got it, big guy."
The door to Tony’s lab slid open on its smooth hinges, and Thor emerged, barreling straight into Bruce and knocking him sprawling.
"Forgive me!" Thor cried, as he bent to help Bruce up.
Bruce accepted his hand, and was pulled to his feet. He waited for Thor to start the conversation with him, to offer the same thing he had just offered Tony - the choice to live without impairment, and God what that would mean - but Thor simply brushed the dust off of Bruce’s shirt and smiled. "Did I injure you?"
"No," Bruce shook his head. "I’m fine."
Thor grinned, thumped Bruce on the shoulder and went on his way up the stairs, presumably to find someone else who wasn’t Bruce to help with his stupid magic.
Tony was bent over one of his workstations, a tumbler of something amber next to his soldering iron, which glowed white hot against the dark surface. Bruce decided he looked busy and turned to leave, but Tony called out without looking up.
"Are you thinking about neutrons or protons?"
Bruce laughed softly. "Heat sinks and Norse Gods."
"Sounds like a terrible joke," Tony quipped, taking a sip of his drink. "A heat sink and a Norse God walk into a bar, and the bartender says-- something funny."
"Why the long face?"
"Do heat sinks have long faces?"
Bruce shrugged. "I suppose they might if they had faces."
"We," Tony sighed, looking up from his diagram. "Are not comedians. Not when it comes to Thor, anyway. What can I do for you?"
"I was thinking about the Quinjet propulsion method, and the low-density adamantium shell--"
"He wanted to take me to Asgard," Tony said, seemingly out of nowhere, and Bruce had to scramble out of science mode and into personal to follow the statement.
"Yeah. He wanted to take me there and cure me."
"Are you sick?"
Tony tapped his arc reactor with a finger. After this long, Bruce barely noticed the blue light shining under Tony’s shirt, sometimes he barely saw it at all, but he knew that Tony felt it keenly, every day. "Cluster of shrapnel, remember?"
Bruce remembered. "And he could-- fix that?"
Tony nodded. "So he says."
"And you said no?"
"Of course I said no. The adamantium would be too heavy, even in the ultra-light form, we need to find a way to make a super-reinforced steel, or synthesize some vibranium."
"No," Bruce slid his glasses off his face to polish them on his shirt, though they weren’t dirty. "Why say no?"
Tony shrugged. "What if I die?"
"What if you live?"
"Already alive," Tony said, gesturing at his workstation, so one of the models he was tinkering with blew up to twice its size, and set itself spinning it in the air. "Not sure why I would want to mess with that."
Bruce didn’t say anything, just watched as Tony picked at his augmented reality model, moving parts here and there, reconfiguring it to suit some unseen whims.
"You would go, wouldn’t you?" Tony asked, after an interminable amount of time spent fiddling.
"In a second."
Tony pushed the model back onto his desk, smashing it flat like silly putty. "Jarvis, calculate the efficiency on that, and mock up the resonance if taken to, say, mach 6. Why?"
Bruce figured the last bit was for him, because that’s what a conversation with Tony was like - you were never quite sure when he stopped engineering and started talking to you again. "Because I would be safe again."
Tony made a dismissive gesture. "You’re safe now."
"Not for you."
"I seem to remember," Tony said, turning to face Bruce for the first time. "That you’re the one who stopped Iron Man from becoming an Iron Pancake after I played Hide-The-Nuke with the Chitauri."
Bruce shrugged. "Not me, the Other Guy."
"You are the other guy."
Bruce sighed. "I know, but I’m not, too, you know?"
Tony shrugged. "No. I am Iron Man, Iron Man is me. Cogito Ergo Sum."
"I don’t think that means what you think it means."
"Sure it does," Tony grinned. "See, I can’t be anything but what I am. Am I in danger? Sure, every minute of every day. But I would be without the shrapnel, by virtue of genius and money and past wrongs. Every beat of my heart might be my last, and maybe that bit of danger and adrenaline I get from that makes me live more than I ever did before."
"Doesn't it ever bother you," Bruce sighed. "That everyone sees you as an inefficient carrying case for a piece of elegant technology?"
"No. But it bothers you that everyone sees you as a variable for destruction."
Bruce thought, in his life before, he would have started to get angry here, started to yell and maybe smash some lab equipment, but in his life as a fissile material, even low energy neutrons had to be avoided. So instead he just hung his head. "Shouldn’t it?"
Tony sighed. "You don’t even see, do you? What about - have we discussed the aerodynamic and frictional properties of Thiotimoline?"
Bruce shook his head, not even bothering to explain to Tony that Asimov had made up Thiotimoline. He’d figure it out sooner or later. Instead, Bruce took a deep steadying breath, gave an excuse that Tony didn’t hear, and left the lab.
He had to ask Thor.
It had been a week since Bruce overheard the conversation between Thor and Tony in Tony’s lab, and Thor still hadn’t come to talk to Bruce about his healing chambers, so it was up to Bruce to do some investigating.
Thankfully he was a scientist, so he began with a hypothesis.
If I can be cured, then the technology exists in Asgard.
He drew a steady line through the conclusion, because he could be cured in the future, even if there was no extant technology in the here and now.
If I can be cured, he wrote, then Thor will offer.
That seemed closer to the truth, and yet missing somehow. He tried once more.
If I cannot be cured, then I don’t want to know.
He scribbled that out in sweeping pen strokes, his frantic movements boring a hole through the paper. Better, than, to find Thor and ask, and not torture himself with the possibilities and uncertainties that would only lead him to anger and hate and the dark side, like the little Yoda on his shoulder always said.
Thor and Steve made it a point to watch afternoon talk shows whenever they could; Steve claimed it cued him into the modern psyche, and Thor claimed he needed to view them to better understand Midgardian society. Tony said they liked to watch human tragedy.
Whatever the reason, Thursdays usually found Thor watching alone, as Steve had signed up for art classes a nearby studio, so Bruce approached him during one of those shows where the judge yelled at everyone for having the audacity to trust each other.
The large man’s face split in a grin when he saw Bruce. They’d not spent much time together, Thor and Bruce, in part because Bruce was still a little guilty about cold-cocking him in the train station all those months ago, but Thor seemed to have an abundance of love and compassion for his teammates that was unending and sincere, and greeted Bruce with a warm enthusiasm.
"Hello!" Thor cried. "Have you come to watch with me?"
Bruce shook his head. "Can we talk?"
"Of course!" Thor fumbled for the remotes, turning off the TV, the Tivo, the soundsystem, and probably fourteen other gadgets and whosits in their turn.
"Can’t Jarvis do that?" Bruce asked, watching the routine.
Thor shrugged. "Perhaps. But I enjoy interacting with Midgardian technology."
Of course he did.
"Actually," Bruce eased himself onto the couch, "that’s kinda what I want to talk to you about."
Thor raised one of this impressive eyebrows and gestured for Bruce to continue.
"I heard you, the other day, talking to Tony. About healing him?"
"Yes," Thor agreed, "he declined the offer."
"Right, well. How come, I mean, why don’t--" Bruce took a shaky breath. "I would want to be healed."
Thor’s smile sagged at the corner. "Of course you would. Please - I did not mean to exclude you, Bruce, my friend. It is just, the nature of your-- impediment."
Bruce nodded. That’s what he thought.
"You have been changed," Thor went on, "at a most fundamental level, and we do not have the ability to heal that. Tony has a physical ailment. It would be a matter of no importance to remove the shrapnel and repair his heart. It was once done for Hogun the Grim, when he was wounded in battle with Surtur. And yet, Tony refuses to be cured."
"Tony," Bruce sighed. "Doesn’t think he needs a cure."
"Is he not injured?"
Bruce shrugged. "We’re all injured, I guess."
Thor nodded. "We can cure many things, in Asgard. But we cannot heal sickness of the mind, the kind that plagues my brother, and we cannot heal changes in your base makeup, as you have. I am sorry, Bruce. I should have spoken to you earlier."
"Well. Thanks, I guess," Bruce shrugged, wondering how he managed to maintain the energy to move his shoulders, work his jaw and breath out words to thank Thor, and encourage him to find out who really owed who for that yacht on Judge Whomever. He felt like he was moving through wet cotton, like Frodo on Mount Doom, finally devoid of hope. He had always thought - always believed - that there was a way to cure himself, be it with radiation or Tony’s Big Bag of Weed, but he supposed that if Æsir technology was lacking, there wasn't much hope in human innovation, either.
Wordlessly, he pushed himself to his feet and walked, without looking back to his lab, where he could sit on the floor and take deep breaths and no one needed to know.
"I’m not always in control," he told Clint.
They were sitting on the couch, each immersed in their own book, and Clint glanced at him over the top of Little Women.
"No one is."
"You are," Bruce said, meeting Clint’s eyes which were, for his place in the book, shockingly dry and not red.
Clint shrugged. "Am I?"
"Well, not as in control as, say, Natasha, but-"
"But more so than anyone else?"
Bruce nodded, and Clint sighed.
"I mean, I’m a sniper, man. My main talents are sitting still and hitting what I aim for. You think that’s control?"
Bruce nodded. "You know you’re going to hit what you aim at, right? I figure, it’s like, you and the others - you have weapons and suits and you get to choose what you point them at. I just-- Smash."
"Is that really you?" Clint asked. "I thought that was the other guy?"
"I am the Other Guy," Bruce said. "Or he’s me. Thor said - you know, we’re locked together, linked. I can’t be separated from what he is."
Clint shrugged. "And?"
"And you might never be safe around me."
Bruce thought for a moment that Clint was going to roll his eyes, but instead he put his book down, folding the page to mark it, the way he always did and it drove Natasha nuts.
"Congrats, Bruce. You’re a freaking human."
"Look, we all have our things, right? Tony and the arc reactor, and before that the money and the fame. Nat has her past. Thor has his family and the whole alien thing. Steve still gets a little twitchy about online banking. You happen to turn into a monster, but we all do that. We just don’t get big and green."
"What about you?"
"I was drummed out of the only job I ever loved because I might have an evil alien living in my brain and no one can tell me otherwise. You think you’re scared? At least you know what your trigger is."
Bruce hung his head. "You really think-"
"I don’t know," Clint said. "And I might never. But, you know, I might someday. And I honestly can’t tell you which would be worse."
Clint flipped his book open again, and they sat in silence for a moment before he slammed it closed once more.
"Look, Bruce," he said, "no matter how many times I read this fucking book, and it’s been a lot of times, Beth is always going to die. Jo is always going to cut her hair. Amy is always going to marry Laurie, yeah?" He ran an impatient hand through his hair. "And I read it every time like that might change."
Bruce didn’t say anything, waiting with an interminable patience for Clint to say something more, but the archer just sighed deeply.
"Okay," Clint sighed, after a long few moments. "Do you want to be in control?"
"Of myself? Yes."
"Then learn some fucking control," Clint snapped, standing in a hurry. "I’m-- I need a-- I need to be somewhere else, okay?"
Bruce nodded, listening to Clint’s retreating footsteps. He had the distinct impression that it didn’t matter if he gave consent here, he had upset Clint, and Clint was leaving.
And Bruce was alone again.
"Thor says I can’t be cured."
Tony peered up at Bruce, who stood silhouetted in what he hoped was a dramatic way in the doorway to Tony’s lab.
"I asked Thor," Bruce said, leaning against the doorjamb, "why he didn't offer me the healing rooms like he did you. He says I can’t be cured."
Tony put down the wrench he was holding and wiped the oil off his hands, rubbing them on his pants. Bruce winced for the people he knew in India, who could have bought houses for the amount that Tony paid for what amounted to a wearable oil rag.
"I say," Tony said, crossing his arms and leaning against his table, "you’re not sick."
"I don’t know why you say that."
Tony shrugged. "Call it the hole in my chest, I don’t know."
"You didn't know me before," Bruce sighed. "I was, I was like a whole person with no monster parts."
"No, Bruce," Tony snapped, slamming his hand on the table, "you didn’t know me before. When I was a monster with no human parts."
"Damn straight," Tony sighed, brushing his hair off his forehead. "Because you, God, you are so fucking lucky and you don't even see it."
"You keep saying that. Explain how I’m lucky, Tony, I would love to know."
"You’re alive, and you shouldn’t be." Tony closed his eyes, a move that Bruce thought might have been called, in a lesser man, gathering strength. "I woke up one day in a cave with a car battery stuck in my chest, and a man who kept me from dying. And he kept me alive when I should have died, and he helped me build this thing, and then he died. So no, I don’t want Thor to fix me, because of that man, because if I suddenly get to be whole outside, then what did he die for?
"You get to be alive, Bruce, you get to do all the things Buffy said, walk and talk and shop and chew gum, and you get to spend your days with four of the freaking coolest superheroes on the fucking planet, and you want to mope around about your genetics?"
Bruce wished he could be angry, but instead he breathed deep, the smell of burning metal and engine oil and man filling his nostrils, and stood up straight. "I’m not moping. I want to be what I was."
"Because what I was-- it was good. It was me."
"Was," Tony said, "was. This is you now, and wishing-- wish in one hand, spit in the other, man."
"You’re telling me to give up?" Bruce took another deep breath, and met Tony’s gaze.
"Never," Tony said. "Never stop trying, okay, but accept the now. Live in it. You said - Natasha told me you said it was the difference between a swan dive and a belly flop, right? How you change?"
"So, that's life, Bruce. We’re all going to die, and we don’t get to choose how - a bomb blast, an iceburg, a cave, a bullet. But we get to choose what comes before. So stop making stupid choices, and make some choices that are fun."
"You’re not a monster," Bruce muttered, moving to clean his glasses.
"You said before that you were a monster. You’re not, I don’t think."
Tony smiled. "I don’t think you are, either."
Bruce sighed. "Well. Maybe if you believe it--"
"Believe in one hand," Tony laughed, "spit in the other."
"And the bartender will say, why the long face?"
"What did I say about comedy?"
"That we should leave it to Clint?"
Tony pulled a horrified face. "Oh god, please tell me I was drunk when I said that."
Bruce actually laughed, wondering, absently, when the last time he had done that was - it was probably the last time he and Tony had tried to make up a joke.
"Here’s the plan," Tony said, coming around his workbench to clap Bruce on the shoulder. "We’re, you and me, going to get some goddamn ribs. You want ribs? Because I do. And we’re going to have beers, and talk, and you’re going to believe that I’m not a monster, and I’m going to believe the same about you."
Bruce smiled and nodded. "I can do that."
"Okay, good," Tony said, moving his hand to Bruce’s back and steering him out of the lab. "And we’ll come back and keep believing that, and spitting in our other hands, and we’ll see where that gets us."
"It’s always spitting with you. Spitting and food."
"I am a man of simple pleasures, my friend."
Bruce nodded, slipping a tentative arm around Tony’s shoulders, a move which Tony echoed in turn, and they stepped into the elevator when it came.
"Ribs are good," Bruce said as the doors slid closed. "But first maybe you take a shower. You smell like an engine."
Tony just laughed and pressed the button for his apartment before turning suddenly and throwing his arms around Bruce.
"What--" Bruce started, feeling his heart rate jump suddenly at the contact.
"Hey," Tony murmured. "Sometimes we all need a hug."
Bruce laughed and returned the embrace for a few seconds before pulling away. "I suppose if Tony Stark thinks you need a hug--"
"Then you have a longer face than any bartender could help," Tony supplied, and Bruce laughed again.
"That’s not even funny."
"Shut up," Tony grinned. "Or I’ll hug you again."
"That," Bruce rolled his eyes, "would be the worst."
"Yeah," Tony threw his arm around Bruce’s shoulders again. "I like you, too."
Bruce smiled and, for the first time in a long, long while, he accepted the offered support.