One day, Bruce opened the door to his apartment in Queens and Steve was standing there, a square wooden board under one arm and a worn cardboard box in his other hand.
“Chess,” said Bruce.
“Hi Doctor Banner,” said Steve.
“Hey,” said Bruce, and let him in.
“How are you doing?” said Steve.
“Okay,” said Bruce. “How was church?”
“Good.” Steve put the board and box on the card table. “You do play, right?”
Bruce’s thumb ran over his fingers. “I know how,” he said finally.
“I thought since you didn’t have a TV,” Steve said, opening the box.
Bruce had been in New York City almost two months, and Steve had been coming over every Sunday after church for about half of that time. When they had lived in Uganda, Steve had visited fairly frequently. At first, Bruce had thought it was because Steve had questions or wanted help, but eventually he’d figured out that Steve really liked other people’s company. It was the typical difference between an extrovert and introvert: Steve gained energy from being around other people; Bruce found being around other people exhausting.
It had taken an embarrassingly long time to remember that fact in New York, after several phone calls that left Bruce wondering why Steve wanted to spend time together so often. It had taken an even longer time to realize that Steve didn’t have that many friends here. Bruce felt like he probably should have known that, once he realized it, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Steve considered him a friend. It took even longer for it to occur to Bruce that Steve considered him among the best of them.
Steve was setting up the chess pieces while Bruce got the coffee going in the kitchen. “I used to play with Bucky,” Steve said.
“Was he any good?” Bruce asked, because Steve liked to talk about Bucky.
“Nope,” said Steve. “He pretty much lost horribly every single time.”
“Just so you know, I’m pretty much going to lose horribly.” The water was on the stove, and Bruce had measured out the grounds, so he came back to the living room area and sat across from Steve. “I didn’t know you played.”
Steve smiled at him. “When you’re no good at ball, you do plenty of nerdy things to stay entertained. Anyway,” he said, “geniuses are supposed to be good at chess. What’s wrong with you?”
Rolling his eyes, Bruce pushed a pawn. “I’m sorry I’m not a master of strategy.”
“I’m not a master of strategy.” Steve pushed his own pawn.
“You sell yourself short,” Bruce said, and moved his knight.
Steve looked at him, then looked down. His strong hand should probably have looked too large and beefy moving over the board, but instead he made each move look elegant, the flick of his wrist moving through the tendon up bare, strong arms. “Speaking of nerdy things,” Steve said.
Bruce focused on the board again, and moved his bishop. “It’s going alright.”
“Oh?” Steve moved his knight.
Shooting Steve a look, Bruce said, “He’s been surprisingly . . . patient.”
Steve smiled, a line showing up at the side of his mouth. “I was talking about the college.”
“Oh. That’s going alright too.” Bruce had been doing some lab work at City College so he could pay the bills. They’d offered him a guest professorship for the summer term.
He’d also been working with Tony in a lab in Stark Tower off and on for around five weeks. They were trying to build a more economically efficient toilet for use in third world countries, because among all of Tony’s projects, it was the only one Bruce couldn’t see being used as a weapon.
“I’ve never known Mister Stark to be patient,” Steve said. They exchanged moves again, and Bruce castled. Steve looked at him, blue eyes quick and too perceptive, then back down at the board. He moved another pawn. “Do you think it’s because of what happened last time?”
“You mean he thinks I’m going to turn tail and run?”
Bruce moved his other bishop again. “I don’t know, Steve. So far, we’re okay. I mean, we’re designing a toilet, not mind control.”
Steve pushed another pawn up to attack the bishop. “Was there a possibility of developing mind control?”
“Tony was working on technology powered by the Tesseract when I got back.” Bruce moved his bishop back. “It’s why I came.”
“I would have thought that would make you run in the other direction.”
Bruce smiled ruefully. “Then you don’t know me very well.”
Another flash of blue eyes, and Steve’s long blond lashes. “I know you’re not a fan of doing anything that will hurt people,” he said quietly, pushing another pawn to attack.
“I’m not.” Bruce moved his bishop back again. “Knowing Tony, he thinks I’m some kind of wild animal he just has to lure out into the open.”
“You think he’s trying to trap you?”
“More like tame me. Once I see how harmless building toilets is, I’m going to think it’s grand and dandy to build Iron Man suits and—whatever other dangerous thing Tony is working on these days.”
Steve smiled crookedly, the corner of his mouth turning down in a teasing way. “I suppose green energy is very dangerous to oil companies.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.” Steve’s smile faded and his gaze turned thoughtful as he looked up at Bruce. Bruce never quite wanted to meet his eyes when Steve looked at him that way. “How much of a threat is the armor?” Steve said. “Does it outweigh the good it can do?” He advanced another pawn.
“Who gets to decide what’s good?” Bruce said, recklessly moving his queen. “You? Fury?”
“We do what we have to, Doctor Banner. Even you.” Steve moved his bishop. “Check.”
“Told you I was no good at this.”
“You’re just rusty.”
“Is that what you used to tell Bucky?”
Steve’s gaze shuttered. “No.”
Bruce hadn’t actually meant to press any buttons.
“He didn’t get out of practice,” Steve said.
Bruce wanted to say he was sorry, but it would only make himself feel better, not Steve. He moved his king out of check.
Steve’s eyes flicked up. “You’re boiling.”
“What?” Then, hearing the water too, Bruce stood up and he went to the kitchen. He took the pot off, turned off the stove, and started pouring the water over the filter. When it got full, he poked his head out of the kitchen. “Knight to queen eight,” he said.
“You didn’t see where I moved,” said Steve.
“I already know how you’re going to beat me.”
Steve moved Bruce’s piece, then moved his own. “How’s the coffee working out for you?”
“You’ll have to tell me.”
Steve looked up. “Have you heard from her lately?”
“No,” said Bruce, and went back into the kitchen.
Steve was talking about Natasha. Almost two months ago, she’d shown up at Bruce’s apartment with plans for a weapon of mass destruction. She hadn’t provided much of an explanation, just handed Bruce the plans. Bruce had looked over them, working out what the weapons did and what the diagrams meant. Two weeks after that, Bruce had defused one of the weapons in Central Park. Natasha’s only acknowledgement of the incident had been the coffee pot she’d sent to Bruce’s apartment. He hadn’t heard from her since.
Bruce poured a little bit more water into the filter. “Queen to queen two,” he said, when he poked his head out again. “Was I supposed to hear from her?”
“I thought she wanted to spar,” Steve said, moving Bruce’s piece again.
“Yeah, you ever think maybe a life of espionage might, I don’t know, make you lose your marbles?”
“She didn’t ask the Hulk.” Steve moved his own piece. “She asked you.”
“You don’t think that’s a little weird?” Bruce had thought it was weird. She’d also offered to show him plans for weapons of mass destruction any time he liked. That was a little less weird—Pepper had made the same offer, albeit a little more subtly. They wanted him to be prepared for any enemies S.H.I.E.L.D. might face. In the end, it was just an underhand bid for the Hulk.
“Maybe she’s waiting for you to get in touch,” said Steve.
“Why would I do that?”
Steve looked up, his eyes running over Bruce in a way that was very thorough and very kind, and made Bruce feel far worse than being naked. “Give me a list of the people you trust,” Steve said, his voice light, when Bruce looked away.
“Steve Rogers,” Bruce said, and went back into the kitchen. He poured the coffee into the mugs Natasha had also provided, and brought them both to the living room.
“Thank you,” Steve said, looking up at him.
Bruce sat down and drank his coffee.
“She made the first move,” said Steve. “Maybe it’s your turn.”
Bruce moved his knight. “Why are you pushing this, Steve?”
Steve looked down at his coffee, pursing his lips. When he looked back up, Bruce couldn’t help but notice how long his lashes were, how young and sad his mouth. “When I worked with the Howlers, we were a team. We weren’t just partners. We were friends. I’ve worked with the Avengers—or whatever we’re calling ourselves now—seven times now. We’re plenty of things. But we’re not a team, and we’re not friends.”
Steve moved his knight . “Check. Most of the time I’m convinced Stark hates me. Then there are times when suddenly, he’s closer than we’ve ever . . . . When we work together, it’s amazing. We’re so in sync, it’s like we were made for each other.”
Taking Steve’s knight with his pawn, Bruce didn’t say anything. He never ventured to guess just who or what, exactly, Tony had been thinking of when he made the suit, and if Steve didn’t have that figured out, it wasn’t Bruce’s place to suggest it.
“But it’s the rest of the time that bothers me,” Steve went on, deftly taking Bruce’s own knight. “Besides Stark, I partner with Miss Romanoff—we’re both good on the ground, and we work well together too. In a battle, we don’t have to communicate much. I don’t have to tell her what to do, because she always knows already, and she knows what I’m going to do too. But outside a battle—I can’t read a single thing off her. I know she’s friends with Clint, who acts like an open book, but doesn’t confide in anyone, besides maybe her. As for Romanoff, besides Clint, she’s never even seemed to have the inclination to reach out to a single one of us—except for you.”
Taking another burning gulp of coffee, Bruce moved carelessly. “I’m not a part of your team, Steve.” He knew that Steve’s warm blue eyes were trying to catch his own, but he didn’t look up.
Instead, Steve methodically captured Bruce’s bishop. “You know I’m not asking you to be.”
“Right,” said Bruce, blocking Steve’s next move with a pawn. “You’re asking me to make an effort. Well, just so you know, being terrified of me isn’t a gesture of friendship.”
“You don’t know her,” Steve said, moving his bishop.
“Neither do you,” said Bruce, countering.
“I’d like to,” said Steve. “I think she has a good heart.”
Steve probably thought everyone who saved the world had a good heart.
Bruce thought about Natasha—her strange gifts, the way she smiled, the fact that she’d come to him specifically. I’m always afraid, she had told him, and he wondered whether she had picked him because he was never afraid, or because he constantly was. He felt like he didn’t know anything about her, and yet he also felt like he knew exactly how she worked.
He wanted to know how she worked.
“Check mate,” said Steve.
“Good game,” said Bruce.
When Bruce got to the lab on the forty-ninth floor of Stark Tower the morning after the chess game with Steve, a boy of about ten or twelve was standing behind one of the benches. He dropped a tablet when he saw Bruce, and took a step back. Then the boy stopped, tilted his head, and took a step back forward.
“You’re . . .” Bruce looked the kid up and down. He wore a really big Van Halen shirt and really big black pants that he was holding up with one hand. “. . . Not supposed to be here,” Bruce finished.
“What’s going on?” said the boy. He had brown hair, coming down to about his ears, curling just a little. Big dark eyes, impish little mouth, and not a bit familiar.
“I’m really not sure,” said Bruce. “Where’s Tony?”
The boy lifted his chin defiantly. “Is that some kind of joke?”
“It . . . wasn’t supposed to be.” The thing was, the boy was a little familiar. “JARVIS,” Bruce said.
“This may come as a shock,” said the polite British voice, and the boy jumped, clutching the bench in front of him.
The boy looked around. “Jarvis?” he asked, edging along the bench, then putting his back to the wall. “Where are you?”
“Wait a minute, JARVIS,” Bruce said, because he didn’t like shocks. He wondered whether Tony had programmed it to warn him. Bruce turned to the kid, because he still had the whole defiant thing going on, but he was pretty obviously terrified. “It’s a computer,” Bruce explained.
The boy shook his head. “That’s Jarvis.”
“I’m sorry.” Bruce’s thumb moved over his fingers. “I didn’t know you knew the voice.”
The boy turned wide eyes on him, waist of his pants still clutched in a fist. “He’s our butler.”
The t-shirt, the pants—the fact that he was here in the first place—oh God, his mouth—but . . . Tony could have had a son without anyone knowing about it. This was a perfectly rational explanation: a son the press hadn’t managed to find, who had tracked his father down suddenly and—maybe he was a runaway, and had had to borrow Tony’s clothes. Plenty of people borrowed Tony’s clothes, no big deal. And then Tony had modeled JARVIS’s vocals off his son’s butler. Why not.
“What are you looking at?” the boy demanded.
“Okay, JARVIS,” said Bruce. “I’m ready for that shock.”
“Perhaps not in front of the child,” JARVIS suggested.
“I’m not a child,” said the child. “When my father gets wind of this, he is going to hand you your ass, and you’re not getting any money out of my family, I can tell you right now, so you better start explaining, or—you’ll be sorry.” The boy sneered, and yes, it was the mouth—pursed out a bit in annoyance, quite expressive when he chose. “You’ll wish you’d put your testicles in a blender and your eyeballs in a toaster; you’ll wish—”
“I got it,” Bruce said.
The kid smirked. “I’m just getting started.”
“I know,” said Bruce, because he did know him, and that’s when fear and worry sliced through him just like a knife. This was completely crazy; this was impossible, but Tony had been working on the technology of the Tesseract, which could fold a portal through space and open it right up, so maybe it was possible, theoretically, but Tony didn’t have the Tesseract.
Bruce looked around the lab. The skeleton of the apparatus that had held the Tesseract was on the other side of the room, open like a rib cage in an autopsy, spilling what would have been its guts all around. Trace fragments, Bruce realized, and God damn it, Tony—
“Who the hell are you?” Tony said, and for a moment Bruce was just so angry. Of all the stupid, irresponsible—
Bruce took a deep breath. “I’m Bruce Banner,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t play games with me,” Tony said.
The terror in his voice relaxed Bruce’s shoulders a bit. “You know I didn’t kidnap you,” he said gently.
Tony scowled. “Then how did I get here?”
“I don’t know.” Bruce took a step forward. “Maybe we can figure that out.”
Tony tilted his head in that defiant way again. “Jarvis?” His voice was tentative.
“I’m not familiar with the mechanics of the entire process,” said JARVIS, “nor the necessary modifications for reversal.”
“Reversal,” said Tony. “You mean like—sending me back to school?”
“Not precisely,” said JARVIS.
“Then what, precisely?” Irritation compounded fear in Tony’s voice.
“In due time, Mister Stark.”
“That’s enough, JARVIS,” Bruce said. “Do you know where you are, Tony?”
Tony just sneered. “So, not acting like you don’t know my name any more.”
“I figured it out,” Bruce said, taking another step forward.
“Don’t come any closer.”
“Okay,” said Bruce, and put his hands in his pockets.
“Now,” said Tony, “tell me exactly what is going on. And no lies. My dad is developing truth-telling technology and he will make you comply if you lie. And he’ll have you arrested,” he added in afterthought. “And I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Are you finished?” Bruce said.
“No.” Tony’s chin jutted out. “I can plant dirty evidence, you know. Pornography. And you’ll rot in prison forever and probably get the death sentence, if the inmates don’t string you up by the balls first.”
“You’re very graphic.”
Tony smirked. “Just thorough. Now tell me what the hell that computer knows and why the fuck I’m here.”
“I think you were working with the element in the Tesseract,” Bruce said. “I think you were running some experiments and managed to accidentally . . . purposely perform one on yourself. I think you turned yourself from a man in his forties into a kid, using alien technology. Ringing any bells?”
“Yeah,” said Tony. “You’re a fucking nutcase.”
“JARVIS?” said Bruce.
“You’ve summarized it adequately,” said JARVIS.
“And that’s a recording of my butler,” Tony said.
“Ask it a question,” Bruce said, tone still gentle.
“Why the fuck are you pretending to be Jarvis when you’re just a recording?”
“I am not pretending,” said JARVIS. “You programmed me with the vocal patterns and the essential personality traits of your erstwhile butler, such that—”
“Erstwhile?” Tony’s voice cracked. “Bullshit. You’re a guy in a room with some kind of . . . voice manipulation software.”
“I am not a ‘guy in a room,’” said JARVIS. Then it said, in Pepper’s voice, “My other vocal protocols are more limited, but I can change them if the primary protocol discomforts you.”
“Who is that?” said Tony, flinching.
Bruce didn’t really want to think about why JARVIS could talk in Pepper’s voice. “Tony, do you know where we are?” he asked, keeping his voice calm and soothing.
Tony turned his defiant sneer on Bruce, looking like he was going to make another smart remark. Then he looked around, and his shoulders deflated a little. He shifted his grip on his pants. “Manhattan? I . . .” His eyes darted around again. “I don’t recognize the room.”
“What year do you think it is?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on with this. This is bullshit.”
“It’s 2013, Tony,” Bruce said.
“Okay, let me just . . .” Bruce held up a hand to show Tony he meant no harm, moving a little farther into the room. The nearest computer was already booted, so Bruce tapped the keyboard. “Come look at this with me.” He looked over at Tony, who was still against the wall. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“That’s what they say before they murder you and sell you for parts, you know,” said Tony, but he came, holding his pants up and kicking the legs forward as he went.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Bruce asked him, once he was close enough to see.
Tony shrugged. “You’ve got, you know, a very expensive TV, so what.”
“You know it’s not a TV,” Bruce said. “This is a search. Go on and type.” He pushed the keyboard Tony’s way.
Tony frowned at it, then frowned at Bruce, then rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said, and typed in T-O-N-Y S-T-A-R-K, which, really, was to be expected.
It probably wasn’t the best thing for Tony to look at first. JARVIS may have been patronizing, but his caution was also sort of justified. However, this was the most compliant the kid had gotten so far, and Bruce understood—Tony appreciated the chance to do something himself. “Press Enter,” was all Bruce said.
“Whatever,” Tony said, and pressed Enter.
When the results came up, Tony immediately started tapping the down arrow, scrolling down the screen. Then he tried pressing Enter again. When nothing happened, he frowned a little—an expression Bruce recognized—and let go of the pants and set his fingers on home row. The pants stayed up around his narrow hips, just barely, and with his eyes still glued on the screen, Tony’s fingers started flying over the keyboard. Nothing happened. He tugged up his pants again.
“There’s,” Bruce began, but stopped when Tony frowned down at the table, found the mouse, and put his hand on it. Tony moved the cursor over, Tony Stark: World’s Sexiest Icon, because he might have been between the age of ten and twelve, but he was still Tony. “Go to images,” Bruce suggested.
Tony didn’t go to images. Instead, one hand holding his pants and the other on the cursor, he clicked Tony Stark: World’s Sexiest Icon, and there was a picture of Tony, circa 2013, right next to a picture of Iron Man.
“That’s not me,” said Tony. “That guy looks like a prick.”
“Um,” said Bruce.
Tony scrolled through the site, clicked back, clicked on another site, skimmed through it, clicked back. “What’s an Iron Man?” he asked, even as he typed it in on the search field.
“That would be your alter ego,” Bruce said, a little bemused.
“That’s dumb,” said Tony. Scrolling through the search results for Iron Man, he clicked on Images for iron man. “Fuck me,” Tony said, clicking on, The Man Behind the Iron. “What even is this shit?”
“How old are you?”
“Twelve,” Tony said, tone absent. Apparently he forget to be defiant and bitchy— threatened—when absorbed. And he definitely was completely absorbed.
Bruce squeezed his hands into fists and released them. “What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked.
“I have a girlfriend,” said Tony. He was doing a search on Pepper now. “Whoa. Babe-city. I would totally do her.”
Forty or fifty images of Pepper filled the screen, and then Tony went back up to the search bar, typing, “pepper potts cleavage”. “Tony,” Bruce said.
“Chill,” said Tony. He scrolled through the image page, then went back and changed the search to “pepper potts tits”.
“Okay. You have fun with that.” Turning away, Bruce went to go find a phone. He didn’t carry one, but Tony had to have more than one of them. Or maybe he just had the one, which might mean it was in Tony’s—
“This doesn’t prove anything, you know.”
Bruce turned around.
Tony had closed the browser and was giving Bruce his patented steely-eyed stare, except that it just looked sort of petulant—maybe a little frightened—instead of threatening. “So, you’ve got a computer. You’ve written some very clever software, and the image quality is . . .” He flicked the hand not holding up his pants in an absent way. “But all it proves is you’re a fucking nutcase. I’ve run into them before, you know.”
“You can type anything into that search,” Bruce pointed out. “You really think I made all that content up?”
“You and whoever you’re working for.”
“Tony, I don’t work for anyone.”
“Everyone works for someone.”
Tony had a sharp little chin, and that same mouth; his cheeks were soft, and Bruce didn’t like him at all. He wanted the other Tony back—the one who looked like a prick—because this was wrong. It was really really wrong, that this little boy could have this face and that expression, could say such a thing, and look so young.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Tony demanded.
Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers. “I need to make some phone calls,” he said.
“You won’t find any phones,” Tony said. “I checked.”
“That’s alright,” said Bruce. “Can you check your pocket for me?”
Tony frowned, but checked his pocket, the other hand still holding up the pants as he did so. “What the fuck is this?” he said, pulling the phone out of one of the pockets.
“It’s a cell phone,” said Bruce. “Can I use it, please?”
“This a fucking tracking device?” Scowling, Tony examined it, quickly finding the button and pressing it. “You’re going to tell me these are my old dude clothes. Like I’m all fat and shit. And this is my old dude phone. Jesus, I’m on fucking Star Trek.”
Bruce watched him explore the phone, a little helplessly. Telling Tony what to do would probably produce further defiance, and that way led to frustration and . . . other things, besides which, Bruce didn’t actually want to tell him what to do. He remembered what it was like, and it wasn’t fun.
Being a kid should have been fun, Bruce thought. Tony just looked so vulnerable like this; it was awful.
Touching the screen, Tony put the phone up to his ear. “It’s ringing,” he informed Bruce, and whatever happened next wasn’t going to be pretty. “Oh, hello Pepper Potts.” He smirked at Bruce, as though expecting him to put up a protest. Bruce just raised his brows.
“No, Tony told me to call you,” Tony said into the phone. “Hey, is it true you give great head?” He paused, then his smirk fell away.
Tony swallowed hard, then sort of tried to smirk again, but it looked half-hearted. “Really?” he said, his voice cracking. “So, can you describe, in extreme detail . . . Mm-hm. I see. Maybe this once you could . . . really?” He perked up a bit. “You think so?”
Here was the really beautiful thing about Pepper Potts—Tony Stark was blushing.
“Okay,” Tony said, forcing himself past the blush, “but maybe you could . . . No, he’s not at home at the moment. But if you want to I could . . . I told you, he gave it to me.”
“Tony,” Bruce said.
Tony’s eyes flicked up, then away. “You should know,” Tony said, “there’s this guy with pictures of your tits on his computer. . . . Yeah, this creepy guy.” Tony glanced at him again. “I dunno, Pep, he’s got pictures of your tits. . . . No, but I mean you know, serious cleavage and shit. Also he’s a shitty dresser.” Tony frowned at something Pepper must have said, then held out the phone. “You’re in cahoots,” was all he said.
“Thanks,” Bruce said, and took the phone. “I’m sorry, Pepper.”
“Bruce,” said Pepper. “Where’s Tony?”
“There’s been an accident,” said Bruce. “It’s serious, but Tony isn’t wounded.”
“Oh God,” said Pepper. “What happened? Is he alright?”
“I think we should talk about it in person,” Bruce said. Tony went back to the computer, clicking various things on the desktop. “As soon as possible,” Bruce added.
“Does it have to do with the boy?” said Pepper. When Bruce said yes, she said, “I’m on my way.”
“There’s another thing,” Bruce said. “Can you bring some clothes? For a twelve year old.”
He worked out the details with Pepper, and then hung up.
“So my girlfriend’s coming over?” Tony said, without turning around. “You two are pretty tight.”
“I’ve heard she gives excellent blow-jobs,” Bruce said.
Tony’s head whipped around. Bruce calmly scrolled through the contacts on Tony’s phone until he got to Steve. Tony’s eyes narrowed, but he turned back to the computer screen.
“Hello, Mister Stark,” Steve said.
“Uh, hi Steve,” said Bruce. “Sorry, Tony’s phone.”
“Doctor Banner.” Steve’s tone hadn’t been cold when he’d answered, but it was still decidedly warmer now. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really,” said Bruce. “Tony had an accident at the lab. He’s not wounded, but I think he might need some protection. Can you come?”
“I’m on my way. Is he going to be alright?”
“I hope so,” said Bruce. “Listen, this is . . . complicated, and I have to go. I can explain it when you get here, okay?”
“Sure, anything,” said Steve.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Bruce. “Just get here fast.”
“Okay, it won’t be long. You take care.” Steve hung up.
“That your boyfriend?” Tony asked, still not looking over. “Steve?”
“No,” said Bruce.
“He my bodyguard?”
“No,” Bruce said again. “Sometimes.”
“Cool-city.” Tony punched a couple more keys on the keyboard, then turned around. “You turn into a monster-truck sized man-beast. So, that’s bitchin’.”
Bruce glanced at the computer, then back at Tony. “I don’t think If You Give A Mouse A Cookie is even from your decade.”
Tony smirked. “The Hulk. What’s it like?”
“Big,” said Bruce.
Tony’s smile turned rakish, which, since he was twelve years old, made him look really goofy. “How big?”
“No one’s ever really got a tape measure on me.”
“Do it,” said Tony. “Change into a green berserker behemoth. Come on, I wanna see.”
Bruce smiled mildly. “I can’t really do it on command.”
“What’s the point of that? When do you do it?”
Bruce shrugged. “Only in specific circumstances.”
“Like what? Full moon shit? Are you a were-Gojira? Seriously?”
“Something like that,” said Bruce.
“And you’re more powerful than a locomotive.”
“Leap buildings in a single bound?”
“Faster than a speeding bullet?”
The problem with twelve-year-old Tony’s rakish, goofy smile was that there was actually something charming about it, whether it was the attempt to be adult itself or in just how powerfully he failed, it was difficult to say. It was so absolutely brazen and self-aware that he probably got away with a lot of things, just by flashing some teeth. “You know who’s faster than a speeding bullet?” Tony asked.
“Me. Change of plans,” Tony announced, tugging on his pants. “I’m bored of ARPANET. I want to see the suit.”
“Wow, you’re quick. Do they teach you to think like that at Hulk School?”
“Okay,” said Bruce.
“It’s not like I’m tall enough to fit in it,” Tony said, and then blinked. “Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Bruce. “You wanna see the suit, you can see the suit.” He smiled a little. “You’re not tall enough to fit in it.”
Tony bounced on the balls of his feet then rocked back on his heels, lips pursing. “I do get taller though, right? I mean, I’m not walking on these pants for nothing; I’m not, you know, some kind of shrimp.”
Bruce smiled a little more. “You get taller.”
Tony looked pleased. “Taller than my dad?”
Bruce realized he was squeezing the phone before he realized he was still holding it. He put it in his pocket, along with his hands. “I don’t know.”
“Okay, but when I’m standing beside him—”
“You don’t stand beside him,” Bruce said flatly.
Tony didn’t move, just pressed his lips together, and for a moment was very still. “Whatever,” he said.
“When did it—whatever.” Tony moved his head as though to shrug, but his shoulders didn’t follow through. “I’m all old and shit now, right? His time is past. Out with the old, in with the new; that’s what I always say. This is the future, right? So, what? You’re going to TARDIS me back in time? And I won’t remember any of this; is that right?”
“You didn’t time travel, Tony.”
“Right, teleporter accident; I forgot. You know what? Dad wasn’t Jesus Christ. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking he was totally Jesus Christ.” Tony waved a hand. “Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. But he was a shitty dad. He didn’t buy me a car when I turned twelve, and he never bought me that apartment in Malibu for weekends. It was like he didn’t have time for me at all. You know what? I bet he didn’t even love me.”
Tony was still smirking—a vacant, ugly thing, so Bruce didn’t say anything.
“People think he’s so altruistic.” Tony stepped closer, defiant, adolescent gait much like a swagger, sort of ruined by the way he had to step on his hems. “They think he’s all about their safety and protection and America, but he isn’t. You know what he is? He’s a whore. For the military.”
Tony was in Bruce’s space now, not at all intimidated by facing off an adult this way, and Bruce would have said Tony was enjoying it, except for the fact that the smirk had turned into a sneer.
“Anyway, I don’t see what’s so great about America. Just a bunch of fucking politicians, who are whores, and soldiers, who are also whores, and businessmen—who are johns—panting to see who can take it up the ass the fastest, and what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m just listening,” Bruce said.
“You’re saying I turned myself into a twelve-year old with alien technology and you’re this fucking mellow?”
“I’m kind of a low key guy.”
“What the fuck’s your problem? What if you can’t turn me back? What if I’m stuck this way, and I don’t remember—don’t you even care?”
For some reason, it was at this point that the hand Bruce didn’t even know was clenched around his heart started to squeeze. “I’m sorry about your dad, Tony.”
Making a huffing sound, Tony turned away. “Why are you sorry? Your dad isn’t dead.”
He was, but Tony was right: Bruce wasn’t sorry about that. Bruce didn’t say anything.
“Whatever,” Tony said again, and marched to the computer and started typing and clicking again, his back deliberately turned on Bruce.
Deciding Tony needed some time, Bruce went to one of the other computers in the lab, putting on his glasses. JARVIS let him in the system, and Bruce booted the volumetric projectors on the other side of the room. Tony called it the holodesk, even though technically, it didn’t use holography. They’d all grown up watching Star Trek, Bruce guessed, because the name stuck.
Bruce still felt weird using interfaces like this, partially because it came to him far more naturally than it should have. He’d been jamming on a crappy laptop for the past six years; he should have had to work more to familiarize himself with this system and this kind of technology, and he just didn’t. His comfort with all of it made him vaguely uneasy.
Bruce called up the footage of the lab for the past eight hours—Tony always kept video records of his work, and Bruce wanted to see exactly how the transition had happened. He also called up all the files Tony had been working on before it happened. One was diagrams for a toilet; another was some kind of neural microchip based on some of the calculations from Loki’s scepter—who knew why he was looking at that; another was some technology that looked Chitauri—and these were complete schematics, which means that Tony had most likely kept their guns and one of their fliers, dammit, Tony.
“What’re you doing?”
Bruce glanced down. Tony was holding his pants and looking at the images, his eyes wide and brown, his piquant little face tilted up.
“I’m trying to figure out what happened,” Bruce said, “so I can reverse it.”
“That looks painful,” Tony said, nodding at the video.
The footage from sixty minutes ago showed the older Tony Stark convulsing and—well, shrinking. It also looked like he was screaming, but Bruce had the sound turned off. There was no evidence as to where the arc reactor had gone. One moment it was glowing through his shirt; the next moment it was gone.
Right before the change had begun, Tony had been fiddling with the apparatus that was now sitting at the other end of the lab. Bruce needed to take the apparatus apart, figure out what Tony had done to it and how it worked.
“You shouldn’t be showing this to a kid, you know,” Tony said, peering at his older self, who was writhing.
“Do you want me to turn it off?”
Tony glanced up at him. “Nuh-uh, it’s cool. I love torture porn. What’s this?” He reached out toward the image with the schematics for the chip, and the image pulled out into his hand.
“That’s your older self being stupid,” Bruce said.
“Three-d!” said Tony. “Far out.” He turned the volumetric diagram every which way.
“You call this the holodesk,” Bruce said.
Tony kept turning the three dimensional image. “What’s this thing do?”
“I don’t even want to know,” said Bruce. The Tony in the video was now a twelve-year-old on a floor in a little puddle of clothes, so Bruce cut the feed, and pulled up the schematics.
“It’s a microchip for your brain,” Tony said. “This is mondo cool.”
“Oh, mondo cool.” Bruce pulled some of the other diagrams off the projection field. “I guess that makes it alright.”
Dropping the three-d image, Tony looked over. “What are you doing?”
“Same thing as before.” Bruce glanced down. “You can help, if you want.”
“Most people last at least a couple hours before they wanna get rid of me, you know.” Tony smirked.
The hand closed around Bruce’s heart again. “I don’t want to get rid of you,” he said, with as little inflection as he could. “I want to help you.”
“And make torture porn.”
Bruce kept his voice steady and soft. “I don’t want to hurt you, either.”
“That’s what they all say. What’s this?”
Glancing up, Bruce said, “That’s a toilet.”
“That’s shitty.” Tony tapped at the image opposite Bruce’s. “Why would I work on crap?”
Bruce pulled apart some of the schematics for the device Tony had devised from parts of the original Tesseract apparatus, and what looked like parts of a Chitauri gun. It used some of the calculations Tony had been working on with regards to Loki’s scepter, and Tony had also taken into account something Bruce had said about neuroplasticity. Christ. It had just been an off-hand comment; he hadn’t even been thinking about how Tony might have kept the Tesseract apparatus, and—
“What are you doing now?” Tony asked.
Bruce smiled a little. One thing could be said in grown-up Tony’s defense: at least he had an attention span to speak of. “Still the same thing, Tony.”
Tony tugged on his pants. “Your glasses are hilarious, you know.”
“Thanks,” said Bruce, tapping the image.
“No, seriously. You’re, you know, a total dork.”
Tony watched the images as Bruce pulled up another schematic. “’Kay. What do you want me to do?”
Bruce glanced at him. “I need to take samples, maybe some scans, and I’ll need to know exactly what happened when you—”
“Do you need a semen sample?” Tony interrupted, and shot him a ridiculous attempt at a leer.
Bruce coughed. “I can leave you alone with Google, if that’s what’s got you so excited.”
Tony blushed. Pretending not to notice, he lifted his head in his arrogant way. “No, but I hear my girlfriend’s coming over.”
Bruce raised his brows. “I can leave you alone with her as soon as she gets here.”
Tony’s blush turned violent. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time.” His eyes darted away, but then, apparently gaining resolution, he looked back up at Bruce. “I think maybe I should know you better before I let you take cuttings of me and try to grow new ones.”
“I won’t be taking any cuttings.”
Tony watched the images for a little while longer as Bruce moved through the various equations. Some of this was just the older Tony doodling, and Bruce would have liked to criticize him for being so disorganized, except he wasn’t one to really talk. Then again, he’d sort of learned his lesson about science experiments, and apparently Tony hadn’t.
“So . . . you’re a doctor?”
Bruce glanced down at Tony again. He looked a little lost, standing there in the glow of the images, holding onto his baggy black pants. “No,” Bruce said, “but I know a little bit about the equipment you were working with, and I know some people who can help.”
Tony frowned. “Like who?”
“A man named Erik Selvig,” said Bruce. “I have some other contacts—for that matter, so do you. We can bring them in, if you want.”
“If I want.”
Bruce raised his brows again. “You’re the one who’s twelve.”
“And who are you, exactly?”
“I thought you Googled me.” Bruce nodded at the computer. “Pretty sure you weren’t looking at my tits.”
For some reason, this made Tony blush, and Bruce instantly adjusted several preconceptions he’d already made about this version of Tony. He was a child, and Bruce didn’t want him hurt. Lifting his chin through the blush, Tony said, “I didn’t have time to read it all.”
“I can tell you anything you want to know,” Bruce said, making his voice softer. He glanced down at him again, then closed the files. Tony wasn’t happy at the idea of the tests; he should have realized that. Taking off his glasses, Bruce said, “Did you still want to see the suit?”
Tony scowled, then shrugged. “Okay. Movie set. Let’s go.”
Bruce headed toward the door. “You think we made a set?”
Tony walked with him, holding his pants and kicking his hems. “This movie would be wicked, you know.”
“Why would we make a set just to trick you? And who is ‘we’?”
“You tell me, Hulkabaloo.” Tony smirked up at him as they got into the elevator. “You’re not the first person to try to kidnap me, you know.”
Bruce’s hand faltered as he reached toward the panel. Then he pressed the button, and the elevator closed.
“You’re concerned.” Tony’s grin turned toothy.
Bruce just looked down at him. “Yes.”
The grin got a whole lot less toothy. Instead, Tony looked curious. “Why?”
“I didn’t know that had happened to you,” was all Bruce said.
Tony flapped a hand. “It was a family thing. Very hush hush. Anyway, don’t worry, Obadiah got me out. Where is Obadiah these days?”
“He’s dead,” said Bruce. “So’s your mother.”
“You don’t pull any punches.” The elevator opened, and Tony stalked out—as best he could stalk, still holding his pants and kicking his hems.
Bruce followed him into the shop, looking around. When Bruce had first come to Stark Tower ten months ago, Tony had given him a tour, showing him where he kept some of the old suits. “For parts,” Tony had said, but Bruce thought there were probably plenty of other reasons, not the least of which were nostalgia. They were kept behind bullet-proof glass and encrypted locks, just in case anyone was of a mind to steal one. They weren’t active anyway, but Bruce guessed they could be hotwired by someone really smart and desperate.
Pressing a button, he hit the lights on one of the cases. Turning around, Tony walked up to it, looking at the eerie glow on the red and gold. Bruce stood a little behind him.
When Bruce was growing up, he’d thought the idea of having kids was stupid. It was just this biological urge, and the world was over-populated anyway; he didn’t see the point. Then he’d met Betty, and all the sudden, he’d thought about it. He’d wondered if he could—whether he’d had the strength for that, whether he had love enough for that.
Sometime around then, he’d developed a strange (for him, who had never been very empathetic) protective streak—for children, but also for a space inside him that held a thing very much like hope. Inside that space he understood at last that children could have different childhoods than his own.
Possibility went away with the accident. The space inside did not.
At last, Tony spoke. “What’s that in its chest?”
“It’s for the arc reactor,” Bruce said. “It’s a device you made to keep a piece of shrapnel away from your heart.”
Tony looked up at him. “How did it happen? I mean, my mom.”
“Car accident. Your dad was with her.”
Tony frowned up at him. “Don’t you have any comforting words?” he asked sarcastically.
“No,” said Bruce.
Tony turned away. Kicking at his hems, he looked around the rest of the room, occasionally reaching out to touch the robotics, stroking the metal with slender fingers. “I built all this?”
“Yeah. I think so,” Bruce said, watching him to make sure he didn’t touch anything that could hurt him.
“Decent.” Tony stopped in front of a robotic arm. “Hey! It’s Dummy.”
The robotic arm started waving.
“Watch it!” Tony said, jumping aside. “You’ll put out someone’s eye. Still stupid, huh? Don’t answer. Hey, at least you’re not dead. I’ve been working on this,” he said, turning back to Bruce.
Bruce raised his brows, smiling. “Impressive.”
“No, it’s a piece of shit. Hey, don’t take it personally,” Tony told the arm, then turned back to Bruce. “He’s gotten a little better. Vocal recognition!” Tony looked the arm over. “Modifications, I guess. So,” he said, turning again, “you’re a scientist?”
“Something like that.”
“And you turn into a monster.” Tony turned back to the arm. “Get me that drill—Jesus fucking Christ, not with the goddamn clamp; use your fucking rotary magnet—no! I can see you have one—there. Okay. What a hunk of junk.” Slowly, the arm brought Tony the drill, and Tony grabbed it.
Tony probably wasn’t going to be happy that someone had messed with his machines if and when he got back to his normal age, even if that someone was himself. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he ruined it, Bruce thought—then maybe Tony would think twice before being so goddamn stupid.
“How did that happen?” Tony was lying on his back, using the drill on a panel on the robot’s underside. It was weird to see a twelve-year-old use a drill, and Bruce was momentarily distracted.
“Hulk,” said Tony. “How did that happen?”
Tony poked his head out. “Like me?”
That was the thing that really pissed Bruce off. Tony could ignore Bruce’s protests all he wanted to, but that wasn’t the same as turning around and doing the exact thing that Bruce had warned against. Tony could be such a child sometimes. Or all the time, Bruce guessed, watching Tony pull the panel off the bottom of the robot.
Tony looked over at him expectantly. “Something like that,” Bruce said.
“What were you trying to do?”
Bruce usually didn’t talk about this. “I was trying to recreate the super soldier serum.”
“You mean Captain America?” Tony poked around at the wires inside, then glanced over at him. “Whatever. You’re way more bitchin’.”
Bruce just raised his brows, and Tony went back to picking through the wires. “Oh, far out,” he said at one point, then poked his head out. Somehow he’d gotten grease smeared across one of his cheeks. “Looks like I replaced the rotor coils. Still using inverse kinematics for the software, though; I can tell.” The arm started moving, and Tony yanked something under it. “Quit it,” he said, then put his head back under.
A minute or so later, he reattached the panel. “Gimme that rag,” he said, and the robot got it for him, knocking a tablet off the table as it did so. “Oh my God, why didn’t I get rid of this thing? What am I, a fucking retard? Don’t answer that. So,” he said, wiping his face. “Hulk-recipe. You introduced some kind of sterone that binds to glucocorticoids so you could stimulate the adrenal response, and I’m guessing some kind of xanthine alkaloid like theobromine, and maybe some kind of fluorescent green protein? Just for kicks.”
“Not really.” Bruce withheld a smile, because he didn’t want to be patronizing. Tony was extremely bright, but still only twelve years old.
Tony tossed his rag aside, expression disgruntled. “Then what?”
“I don’t really like to talk about the specifics.”
“Afraid I’ll steal your research?”
Bruce raised his brows. “You did turn yourself into a twelve-year-old.”
“Details.” Tony flapped a hand. “Come on. Tell me how.” He hiked up his pants again. “Are you telling me you didn’t use sterones at all?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.” Bruce looked his inquisitive, narrow little face, and figured there wasn’t much harm in giving him a little more. “Think about it,” Bruce said. “A couple hormones and little caffeine and protein isn’t going to account for the mass.”
“Oh.” Tony pursed his lips thoughtfully. “What about my mass?” Holding his pants with one hand, he plucked at the huge Van Halen shirt.
“I don’t know,” said Bruce. “That’s one thing I have to figure out.” It had Bruce pretty worried, actually. The extra matter that made up Tony’s adult body had to have gone somewhere, and there wasn’t exactly a hunk of flesh quivering on the lab floor, and there wasn’t an arc reactor either. Bruce guessed it was a good thing, but there was no evidence of disintegration of the video feed.
There was the question, too, of Tony’s memories. Maybe they were just locked inside the child’s brain, or perhaps when Tony’s brain was completely restructured into the exact configuration of his adult form, the memories would simply be there. It was the theory behind transportation, after all.
On Star Trek.
“So, how does it work?” Tony asked.
“The Hulk. Big tank man. Rawr.” Tony hopped up on one of the metal counters, hiking his pants up to make sure they came with him. “How does it work?”
Bruce tried to explain it in basic terms that a twelve year old genius would understand—the way gamma rays interacted with the PNT bonds holding his body together and the Compton scattering that resulted, the process that allowed him to quickly absorb carbon from the air and the formation of fullerenes. Tony’s eyes started to glaze over, but he looked up when Bruce stopped talking.
“So basically, you photosynthesize.”
“No,” said Bruce.
“Yes, you do. You take carbon from the air, which you metabolize into fullerenes and carbon skeletons you can use to metabolize the amino acids that rebuild your muscles. I bet that’s why you’re green, you know.”
“You can’t metabolize fullerenes,” Bruce said.
“It’s not that simple.”
Frowning, Tony looked down at his feet, kicking against the counter.
Bruce hadn’t meant to be condescending. It wasn’t that simple, and there was no easy way to explain it.
“Am I a genius when I grow up?” Tony said, looking up again. “I mean. I built all this.”
Bruce smiled a little ruefully. “Yes.”
“But am I—” Tony kicked some more—“. . . as smart as you?”
“No.” Seeing the disappointment on Tony’s face, Bruce explained, “I think you’re smarter. You and I are very different, Tony.”
Not really looking mollified, Tony shook his hair back. “How so?”
“You’re much more involved in . . . practical application. I tend to be more abstract. Baroque, really, while you are . . . eloquent. You’re very efficient.”
“You mean you’re not an engineer.”
Bruce smiled at Tony. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“So.” Tony kicked his feet. “How am I at C.E.O.ing? I’m completely awesome, right?”
“Uh, well,” said Bruce. “You’re not C.E.O. Your girlfriend is.”
“My girlf—Pepper? You’re telling me Pepper Potts runs Stark Industries?”
“Yup,” said Bruce. “You wanna go back upstairs?”
“But it was—it was supposed to be—” Tony bit his lip. “Did I give it to her?”
“Something like that.”
“Was I drunk?”
“Smartest thing you ever did.”
“But I . . .” Tony looked around him then, for the first time seeming bewildered.
“Did you really want to run Stark Industries?” Bruce said gently.
“I . . .” Tony just looked lost.
It was obvious that Tony had said what he had about his dad just to rile Bruce up, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t meant it. If there had been any age at which Tony had begun to resent that his future was laid out for him on a silver platter, that age was probably right now. Actually, if Bruce’s guesses were correct, Tony had only stopped feeling that way when he’d become a prisoner in a cave in Afghanistan. Tony hadn’t signed Stark Industries over to Pepper because he’d grown less invested. He’d done it for the opposite reason.
“I sort of wanted to be an astronaut you know,” Tony said, not really looking at him.
Bruce could feel himself instantly go gooey inside. “Really?”
“I didn’t want to be Buzz Aldrin or anything,” Tony said sharply. He turned back to Bruce. “You were joking about the aliens, right?”
“What were they like?”
“Mostly they wanted to kill us?” Bruce scratched the back of his neck. “I don’t know. I didn’t really get a good look.”
“Because you were hulking it. Bummer. So they have cool toys, though?”
“Cool would be an interesting word choice.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on, Spock. Fascinating? Spit it out.”
“They used a weapon called the Tesseract to fold the fabric of space time so they could attack us.”
“Well.” Bruce scratched the back of his neck again. “Yeah.”
“Oh my God. What will they think of next? A sphere?”
Bruce smiled. “It was a very powerful cube.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, cosmic cube. I can’t believe an alien race attacked us and all we have to show for it is a Yahtzee die.”
“Well,” said Bruce, and then the phone in his pocket rang.
“Bruce?” said Pepper.
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “We’re in Tony’s shop.”
“I’ll come up.”
Bruce glanced at Tony. “We’re on our way back down.”
“Alright, see you there,” Pepper said, and hung up.
“So,” Tony said, hopping off the counter. “The Avengers. What’s up with them? Are you one, or aren’t you?”
Walking with him over to the elevator, Bruce raised his brows. “You said you didn’t get that far on the internet.”
“Far enough,” Tony said, holding up his pants and kicking his hems. “What are they?”
Bruce pushed the button in the elevator. “I hear they fight crime.”
“Like superheroes? Isn’t that comic book stuff?”
“Sometimes it feels that way.”
“But I am one, right? An Avenger? I saved the world or some shit?”
“Yes, Tony. You saved the world.”
Tony lifted his chin to an arrogant angle. “I guess I’m too busy being a badass to be C.E.O. What about Steve—” the elevator door opened—“Rogers,” said Tony, his gaze landing on the man himself, who stood there with Pepper in the foyer of the lab.
“Oh no,” said Pepper, her eyes landing on Tony.
“Hi Doctor Banner,” said Steve. “What’s going—”
“Steve Rogers,” said Tony, his eyes absolutely huge.
“Uh,” said Bruce. “So, maybe I should have explained.”
“The Steve Rogers.” Tony marched up to Steve, and pushed him in the stomach. “A real, live Steve Rogers. Are you a clone?”
“How did this happen?” asked Pepper, her eyes locked on Tony.
“I’m working on it,” said Bruce.
“I’m not a clone,” said Steve, “but yes, my name is Steve Rogers. And you are . . .”
“Tony,” Pepper finished for him, looking worried and sad.
“I thought you’d be, you know, some kind of reincarnation,” Tony said. “Or a robot. Are you a robot? Did I invent you?” He turned to Bruce. “Did I invent a Captain America robot? Did I start doing heroin or something? Fuck me Jesus,” he went on, turning back to Steve, “are you a sex bot?” Then, as though realizing what he’d said might imply, he blushed. “I mean, do I pimp you out?” He turned back to Bruce. “Am I a pimp? A sex bot pimp?”
“Can you reverse it?” Pepper asked.
“I’m going to try,” said Bruce.
“I’m not a sex bot,” said Steve. He turned to look between Pepper and Bruce. “There’s no such thing as sex robots, right? I would have heard of that by now.”
“Not that I know of,” Bruce said, scratching the back of his neck.
“Why would I build a Steve Rogers?”
“You didn’t build me,” said Steve.
“He was frozen in ice,” said Bruce.
“Bullshit.” Tony scowled. “We didn’t even have suspended animation in the 1940s.”
Steve glanced from Pepper to Bruce again. “You’re saying this is Tony?”
Tony smirked. “Got a problem, capsicle?”
“Wow.” Steve smiled dully. “That one just never gets old.”
“I brought you something else to wear,” Pepper said.
Turning on her, Tony smiled brilliantly. “We just met, and already you’re trying to get me out of my clothes. I can just tell we’re going to hit it off. What do you say you and me go up to my shop, and I can show you my huge . . . robotic arm?”
Pepper smiled. “I’ve seen your huge robotic arm many times. In exquisite detail. Here’s your underwear.”
Tony opened his mouth, then shut it. “Maybe I’ll just go change,” he said, taking the clothes. Holding them wadded in one hand while he held up his pants with the other, he walked out of the lab. “But seriously, Pep, no peeking!” he called out over his shoulder.
“That shouldn’t be physically possible,” said Steve, watching Tony’s retreating figure. “How is that physically possible?”
Bruce rubbed his eyes. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He took them into the lab, over to the holodesk.
“I told him to be careful,” Pepper said. “I knew something like this was going to happen.”
It was a serious enough situation that Bruce did not have to actively resist saying, I told you so, but he had to admit, the thought had crossed his mind. Bruce called up the video.
“He looks like he’s being tortured,” said Steve.
“Have you called Selvig?” said Pepper, turning away from the video and taking out her phone.
“Not yet.” Bruce turned away as well. “Listen, Pepper—we may need Selvig, but this—” he waved his hand back at the video—“. . . could be a problem if people find out.”
Pepper put her phone down. “You mean people are going to try to hurt him.”
“Tony’s enemies,” Steve said, finally managing to pry his eyes from the video.
“Among others,” Bruce said.
“People have died to find the fountain of life.” Pepper looked at the video, where the smaller and younger Tony was struggling to sit up in his tangled black clothes.
“And those kinds of people are going to want that technology,” Steve said.
“Selvig was under Loki’s influence when he opened the portal,” Pepper said. “He wouldn’t tell anyone about Tony.”
“How well do you know him?” Bruce asked.
“Not very well.” Pepper pulled her eyes off the video. “I know Tony respects his work.”
Bruce’s thumb moved over his fingers. “Tony makes a lot of mistakes.”
Pepper pursed her lips.
“We need a plan,” Steve said. “I’m on protection detail?”
Pepper nodded. “JARVIS’s security is good, but Tony’s been working on the assumption that he’s his own self-defense squad for years now.”
“Great, I’m a bodyguard,” said Steve. “Tony’s going to be thrilled; I can already tell.” He frowned, line appearing between his brows. “What did he mean by . . . sex bots?”
“It’s complicated,” Pepper said smoothly.
Steve looked at the video again, frown fading into something a little more wistful as he looked at twelve-year-old Tony. “I just didn’t realize he started hating me at such an early age.”
Pepper said, “He doesn’t hate you.”
“So you’ve said.” Steve turned away from the video, and Pepper looked at him sympathetically.
“I’ve always thought Tony was old enough to handle his own problems,” she said, “but now he’s not, so I’m going to tell you something that might help a little, at least until we get this sorted out.” She tucked a piece of her strawberry hair behind her ear. “It might work best if you treat him as someone who absolutely worships you, and resents the fact that he does so.”
It answered the question about what Tony had been thinking of when he invented the armor, though Bruce would never have suggested it himself.
“Worships?” said Steve, as though unable to process the word.
“He’s going to kill me when he grows up,” said Pepper.
“But worships?” said Steve.
“You guys talking about me?” Tony said, sauntering in the room, apparently having only heard the word worship.
“Yes,” said Steve, turning around.
“As well you should. I’m worth talking about, you know.” Tony gave him a toothy grin.
The clothes fit rather perfectly—a pair of green cargo pants and a long-sleeve thermal t-shirt, the kind of thing adult-Tony would probably wear on a weekend. Bruce was unclear on whether Pepper had figured out the whole thing before even arriving, or whether it was only upon seeing Tony that the final pieces had slotted into place. Maybe this was just Pepper’s taste in clothes, which meant that Pepper’s taste in clothes was Tony’s taste in clothes, which made Bruce pretty curious about the Van Halen t-shirt.
“How are you feeling?” Pepper asked.
“Like a million bucks,” said Tony. “Let’s order Thai and take a spin in my limo. I have limos, right?”
“I’m going to get to work,” said Bruce.
“Does he ever have any fun?” Tony asked Pepper.
“He has plenty,” said Steve. “Listen, it might be dangerous for you to go out.”
Tony let out a large, dramatic groan. “Jesus Christ, I can tell you are going to be the epitome of a drag.”
“We can get Thai delivered,” said Pepper.
Bruce tuned them out, turning back to the computer screen. He was beginning to see what Tony had done. It was complicated, ridiculous, and absolutely genius. Faster than light travel was impossible, according to the laws of physics. The Tesseract had made that irrelevant by eliminating the time it would take to travel from point A to point B—by folding space until A and B were essentially on top of each other.
Tony had extrapolated this idea onto an extremely small scale—folding the space in his body so that it was physically smaller. It answered the question of Tony’s extra mass and the arc reactor, though Bruce was still unclear as to wear the folded matter went.
It had also had an unexpected side effect—age was the result of not travelling at light speed. If the particles in the body could accelerate to light speed, time would stop, and aging would cease—which meant that if the particles in the body could accelerate past light speed, aging could reverse. Theoretically, of course.
Tony wasn’t traveling faster than the speed of light, but during the time the device had had its effect, the photon bonds holding his body together had behaved as if he was, thus causing the reverse aging. In order to make Tony grow up, Bruce just had to make those same bonds behave as though the particles in Tony’s body traveled at a fraction of the speed of the rest of the world.
Easier said than done.
“Heya Hulkminster Fuller. Those glasses? Still dork-city.”
Bruce glanced down. Tony stood beside him, examining the volumetric image of the broken pieces of the apparatus that had held the Tesseract. In the video there was no clear mechanism that had caused Tony’s age reduction, but he had been standing by the device. According to Tony’s files and the calculations the older Tony had been working on, this was the equipment that had caused the change. Bruce was trying to make sure he understood how the parts worked before he started taking it apart.
He must have been pretty focused, because usually he didn’t let people sneak up on him—just another danger of Tony’s lab and Tony’s little projects. Frowning, Bruce looked around. At some point, someone had brought him Thai, but he didn’t really remember eating it. Steve and Pepper stood on the other side of the lab, Steve looking rather unhappy.
“What’s this?” Tony said, poking at a volumetric image of an arc reactor.
Bruce took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Almost six.” Tony pulled over the images of the calculations Bruce had been working on to calibrate the machine. “Pepper wants you to take a break. Steve too. I think he has a thing for you, man.”
“What are they arguing about?”
“Some guy name Rhodey. What’s he, like, my best buddy?”
“Rhodey?” Bruce blinked owlishly. “I dunno. I think I’ve heard you mention him.”
“This is heavy shit,” Tony said, looking at Bruce’s calculations. “You’re really famous, huh?” He waved aside the files.
Without the pools of clothes, he looked far more like the rich, spoiled kid Bruce might have imagined, had he had cause to imagine it. Tony’s hair was shiny and chestnut, flopping about his face. Bruce had already forgotten just how arresting that face could be, so young and fine and untouched. Bruce probably would have hated him as a kid.
“How many Nobels do you have?”
“Come on,” said Tony. “Don’t be modest; that’s for people who don’t have anything to be conceited about. Tell me how many Nobels you have. Three? Four?”
“Tony,” Bruce said, scrubbing his face. “I don’t have any Nobels.”
“Why the hell not?” Tony frowned. “You’re like the smartest person in the history of all of ever, aren’t you?”
“Do you even know how many people I’ve killed?”
Tony’s eyes went almost comically wide. They were chocolate brown.
“I’m sorry.” Bruce turned back to the holodesk. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You?” Tony’s voice cracked. Quickly, he went on, “Yeah, I mean, of course you have. Chartreuse gorilla beast, I get it. But they were all bad guys, right?”
Bruce looked at the images. He didn’t know what to say.
“Right?” Tony’s voice cracked again, and Bruce looked helplessly over to Pepper and Steve.
As if sensing his distress, Pepper came over. “Hi Tony. Bruce, how’s it going?”
“Okay.” Getting out his glasses again, Bruce steadfastly didn’t look at Tony, instead peering at the digitally projected apparatus. “I’ve worked out the theory; now I’ve just got work out the mechanics.”
“Tony mentioned tests?” said Pepper.
“Um.” Bruce started to move his head, then still didn’t look at Tony. “Maybe we do need to bring in S.H.I.E.L.D.; they have physicians. Or—does Tony have a personal physician?”
“Hello? Standing right here.” Tony waved a hand.
“He does,” said Pepper, “but it changes every other month—if he even manages to go twice a year in the first place. He really doesn’t like—”
“—doctors, and they don’t understand his technology anyway, and—”
“I want him to do it,” Tony said.
“—and he can be pushy,” Pepper finished.
“You wanna eat?” Steve asked Tony.
“We just ate,” Tony whined.
“Come on,” Steve said, clapping him on the back. “That was three hours ago.”
“Just because I don’t have the metabolism of a nuclear reactor,” Tony said, squirming out of his grasp. “And why are you so touchy-feely? Is this a 1940s thing, or are you a homo?”
Steve smiled ruefully. “That never gets old, either.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. is an international organization,” Bruce told Tony. “Iron Man works with them a lot. I’m sure they have a doctor who can—”
“No.” Tony crossed his arms. “You said you were going to do it.”
Bruce pressed his lips together. “Do you honestly want—”
“You. I said you and I meant you.” Tony glared around at all of them, as though he expected protest. “I only want him. I don’t want anyone else touching me. That means you can keep your big baseball mitts to yourself,” he added, sneering at Steve.
“Okay.” Steve held up his hands. “No baseball mitts.”
“I can make exceptions, of course,” Tony said, leering at Pepper. “My offer to go up to the shop still stands.”
“I thought you didn’t want to include anyone else,” Pepper said, turning to Bruce.
“He doesn’t,” said Tony. “He’s mine. Next question. Mister Rogers.” He rounded on Steve. “Order us a pizza, if you’re so hungry.”
Steve just looked at him, then said, “Okay.” He turned, reaching out toward Bruce, and Bruce handed him Tony’s phone. Steve brushed by him to order the pizza.
Tony watched the wordless exchange with narrowed eyes. “So, Captain America’s a push-over,” he said, as Steve started talking to the person on the other end of the phone.
“No,” said Pepper. “He just respects your adult self.”
Tony brightened considerably. “So he does whatever I say?”
“You wish.” Pepper smiled, then turned to Bruce. “I’m guessing you won’t finish tonight?” she asked.
Bruce grimaced. “Probably not. I’m hoping by tomorrow . . .” He trailed off, scrolling through data on the images.
“I should pick up pajamas, then, and more clothes.”
“Come on, Pep.” Tony was using his whiny voice again. Interestingly, he never did that as an adult—he’d learned how to whine without sounding as though he was. “Don’t I have servants for that?”
“No,” said Pepper. “You have me.” Then she put her hand on his cheek, and Tony blushed vigorously. “Take care, you,” she said, and walked away.
“Mondo babe,” Tony said, right before she was out of ear shot. He turned to look back at the volumetric apparatus. “Are you seriously going to do this all night?”
“Probably,” said Bruce, expanding one of the diagrams.
Bruce glanced down. “I want you to get better.”
The corners of Tony’s mouth went tight, and he swallowed. “What did Pepper mean? I mean about—Steve and my adult self?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce said, changing the schematic to fit the equation.
“Yes you do.”
Bruce looked down again. Tony was looking at the volumetric spectrometer, but it was obvious he wasn’t really seeing it. There was something dejected in the curve of his shoulders. Bruce swallowed a sigh. “She meant that Steve’s not going to call you on it if you treat him like shit. That he’ll make an allowance for you, because you’re twelve.”
Tony was very still. “How do I treat him when I’m grown up?”
“How do you think?” Bruce said, and went back to the apparatus.
“What about you?” said Tony.
“Steve’s my friend,” Bruce said, pulling aside the casing over one segment of the apparatus. He was surprised that he could say it so straight-forwardly, without any strings or regret attached. Somehow that had happened, and Bruce realized that that was okay.
“No,” said Tony, “I mean you. How do I . . . are we friends?”
Bruce looked up. “You were never anything but kind to me,” he said, because for the most part, it was true.
“Good,” Tony said.
“Twenty minutes,” Steve said, and handed Bruce back the phone.
“Thanks,” said Bruce, slipping the phone in his pocket.
Steve looked around. “Where’d Pepper go?”
“We got her out of the picture so Hulkenstein here can perform wild experimentations on me; isn’t that right, Hulkgor?”
Steve grinned. “So, you Igor or Frankenstein?” he asked Bruce.
“Not sure,” said Bruce, smiling crookedly. “It’s nice not to be the monster for once, though.”
“That’s him,” said Tony, jerking his thumb at Steve. “He was grown in a lab, you know.”
“Yeah.” Steve ran a hand through his hair. “Listen, Doctor Banner—”
“I always wanted to be grown in a lab,” Tony said quickly, darting a glance at Bruce and then focusing on Steve. “I mean, that’d be wicked cool. But Dad was completely against it. I don’t see why, since . . .” He trailed off. “But you know, all the great men of the future are going to be born in test tubes. You just beat them to it.”
“Your father didn’t want you to be me,” Steve said, very carefully. He sounded like maybe it was something he’d been wanting to say to Tony for a long, long time.
Tony just tossed Bruce a long-suffering look, then rolled his eyes at Steve. “Of course he didn’t. I’m the most perfect and amazing son. Catch up. Or I mean—” Tony looked away. “I was.”
“Tony,” Steve began.
“Whatever,” Tony said loudly. “Me and Hulk are busy. What’s this do?”
“It’s a particle accelerator,” said Bruce.
“I knew that.” Tony peered at it. “Like a Van de Graaf generator. That’s the thing that makes your hair stand up.” He almost glanced at Steve, but didn’t quite make it.
“I know what a Van de Graaf generator is,” Steve said quietly.
“Smarter than he looks,” said Tony, and Bruce swallowed another sigh.
“What have you guys been doing?” Bruce said, because apparently even when Tony tried to be nice, he couldn’t resist ribbing Steve. This had to be worse—and more subtle—when Tony was actually a grown-up; it made Bruce glad he hadn’t been around the both of them at once since they’d sent Loki back to Asgard.
“Watched some dumb movie,” Tony said.
“It was Back to the Future,” Steve said.
“Yeah, like I said, it was dumb. Totally implausible science. It was like they got a bunch of science words and tossed them in a blender. Flux Capacitor? Get real. DeLoreans are bad, though. I’m gonna get me one as soon as they come out.”
“Bad means good,” Steve told Bruce. “They’re already out, Tony. This is the thing about time travel.”
“I told you,” Tony said loftily. “It’s not time travel. It’s a transporter accident.”
“I haven’t gotten all the way through Next Gen, yet.”
“Can you believe this, Hulk?” said Tony. “Steve says there’s more Star Trek.”
“I can believe it,” Bruce said. “What else did you do?”
“Pepper made us smoothies. Steve had three.”
Bruce hoped Steve knew that this was what admiration sounded like on twelve-year-old Tony.
“Doctor Banner didn’t want his,” Steve said, rather innocently.
Bruce didn’t really remember getting offered a smoothie, but he had this problem of focusing rather intensely on things.
“Tony snorted smoothie up his nose,” Steve informed Bruce.
“I’m practicing to be an adult, for when I get drugs.” Tony looked from Bruce to Steve and back again. “That was a joke.”
“I re-envisioned the twin paradox,” Bruce said. “If anyone was interested.”
“And then we sparred,” Steve said.
“You sparred with Steve?” Bruce asked Tony, surprised.
Tony blushed, then thrust his chin forward, as though to pretend he wasn’t doing it. “Yeah, we did. And it was awesome.”
“Did Pepper spar with anyone?” Bruce asked.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Apparently Pepper keeps forgetting that I’m her boyfriend, not her phone.”
“Her phone is very attractive,” Steve pointed out. “I’ve been eying it myself.”
“She’s a very busy lady,” said Bruce, “and you did interrupt her schedule.”
“You’d think she’d stop for long enough to watch me kick Captain America’s ass,” said Tony.
“You kicked Captain America’s ass?” said Bruce.
“Yep,” said Steve, and Tony blushed some more.
“How many times did he beat you first?” Bruce asked Tony.
“None,” said Tony, at the same time as Steve said, “Seventeen.”
Tony waved a hand. “Details.”
“I told him biting wasn’t generally allowed in sparring matches,” Steve said.
Bruce finally pulled his eyes away from Tony to look at Steve, who was smiling rather affectionately. Bruce couldn’t figure out whether Steve looked like that with all children, or whether it was specifically Tony.
Usually Bruce had a good time when Steve came over; they talked and joked around; sometimes they talked about ethics and the past, and sometimes they just talked about beer and the incomprehensibility of foosball. But Bruce had not seen Steve look so genuinely happy in quite some time—not since Bruce had first shown up at his door in New York, really.
Bruce wanted him to look happy like that. All the time.
Blinking, Bruce turned away. “You bit Steve?” he asked Tony.
Tony shrugged. “All’s fair in war,” he said.
Bruce just looked at him for a moment. The blush still painted Tony’s cheeks.
“What’s this?” Tony asked, turning around rather hastily. He pointed at another part of the volumetric display.
“It’s a transition radiation tracker,” Bruce said. “JARVIS suggested it held trace elements from the Tesseract.”
“We’re calling it the Cosmic Cube now,” Tony informed him. “And this machine is the Flux Accelerator.”
“The Flux Accelerator?” said Bruce.
“Also on the list of things you need to know,” said Tony, “Pepper did something to JARVIS.”
“Yeah. I guess she didn’t like him sounding foxy, so she made him stop talking to me.”
“I don’t really want to know,” said Bruce.
“You really don’t,” said Steve. Bruce turned to give him half of a knowing smile, and Steve basically used the opportunity to take horrible advantage of him, pinning him with direct, blue eyes. “Come on, Professor. Take a break.”
Bruce smiled anyway, a little ruefully. “Is that an order?”
“You didn’t tell me you were a professor,” Tony said, sounding irritated, “and what is he, your master?”
Steve just raised his brows. “You’re not gonna be any good to us if you’re dead on your feet.”
“Captain your captain?” Tony said. “Does he order you around? Seriously?”
“Maybe we could get started on those tests, actually,” Bruce said, waving aside the display.
Even as he went a shade paler, Tony tossed his head. “Pepper’s been trying to get me out of my clothes all day and now you wanna party?”
“I can get someone else to do it with you,” Bruce said quietly.
“No!” Tony thrust out his chin. “No. I want you.”
“Okay,” said Bruce.
Steve looked concerned. “Tony—”
The chin tilted toward Steve. “I don’t want him.”
Tony wasn’t meeting Steve’s gaze. Steve turned to Bruce. “Alright,” Steve said, sounding a little defeated. “Okay. But you guys have to stop when the pizza comes,” he added, directing the last part at Tony.
“Yes, Mother,” Tony said.
His little smirk faded when Steve stepped outside the lab. He wouldn’t meet Bruce’s eyes.
Bruce glanced out the glass doors. Steve was parking himself on the chair by the elevator. Thoughtfully, he’d pulled it around so that he wasn’t looking into the lab, but apparently he had his concerns about Tony making a dash for it. That was okay. Bruce shared his concerns.
“Come on,” said Bruce. “Let’s go to D Lab.”
“Ooooh,” Tony said. “D Lab. Haven’t been there before. I’ve always wanted to go to D Lab.”
Originally the top ten floors of Stark Tower had been research and development, at least according to Tony. After the Chitauri attack, however, Tony had had some obvious rebuilding to do. Bruce suspected Tony had also made other changes.
The forty-ninth floor held several other elevators, not to mention fire escapes, but luckily the medical lab wasn’t terribly close to any of them. There was also had a personal apartment complete with a kitchen and a gym, not to mention A Lab. A Lab had a whole set of equipment pretty much identical to the equipment in Tony’s own lab on the fifty-fourth floor—except for the gamma camera, which Tony claimed to have purchased because he thought Anger camera was a funny name.
Bruce glanced down at Tony, who was scuffing his feet despite being barefoot and at last outfitted in clothes that fit him. “Want to tell me why you’re nervous?” Bruce said quietly, when they entered the medical lab.
“Nervous?” Tony said sarcastically. “Who, me?”
“Okay,” said Bruce. “I’m just going to take some blood first. Just a fingerstick should do.”
Tony had shown him the floor when they’d first started working on the toilet, but Bruce had never had a reason to go in here before. The design made sense, however, and it wasn’t long before Bruce found the capillary tubes, collection devices, cotton, alcohol, Band-Aids, and labels all there.
Tony had come around the corner, but didn’t touch any of the supplies, instead staring at the Band-Aids moodily. He was also quiet, which Bruce had learned was unusual for Tony at any age.
Bruce pulled his glasses out of his pocket and put them on. “You want to sit down?” he asked, gently as possible.
“It’s a finger prick, not a lobotomy.”
“Okay,” Bruce said again. “Want to give me your hand?”
“Not particularly,” Tony said, but he gave him his hand.
Holding Tony’s middle finger, Bruce swabbed it with alcohol and got the cotton ready. Then he pricked the finger and covered it with cotton quickly as he could, putting the collection on the counter.
Bruce had half expected Tony to howl in protest with the way he was acting, but he didn’t make a sound. When Bruce picked up the Band-Aid, however, Tony jerked his hand away. “Jesus Christ, it’s a finger prick,” he said again.
“At least let me clean it,” Bruce said.
“Or what? You’ll get angry?” Tony sneered. “Yeah, Captain Fancy Pants told me about your little secret.”
Tony didn’t seem like he’d be willing to surrender the finger in question any time soon, so Bruce labeled the sample and went to put it in the refrigerator. Taking off his glasses, he said, “I need to figure out whether the device changed your physiology in any other significant ways.” He knew something was wrong, and thought whys and wherefores might be comforting. They would have been, for him. “I was thinking about doing a CT scan. Do you know what that is?”
Tony frowned. “You have a CT scanner here?”
“It’s similar,” said Bruce. “I think you put one in to run diagnostics on some of your more delicate equipment. Do you—”
“I know what it is,” Tony said, irritated. “At least Hounsfield and Cormack got a Nobel.”
“That’s right,” Bruce said. “They did. They contributed a lot to the medical field. How do you feel about taking one?”
Tony glared at him. “How do you think?”
“Okay,” said Bruce. “Did Steve or Pepper tell you any more about your arc reactor?”
Tony appeared to be trying to think of a smart response. His eyes slid away. “No,” he mumbled.
“Okay,” Bruce said again. “I’m going to sit down.” He sat down in one of the lab’s rolling chairs, and started to tell Tony about the arc reactor. Bruce wasn’t an expert, but he understood the basics. He’d read Tony’s file.
He was fairly certain the shrapnel was with the arc reactor and all the rest of Tony’s mass, but he wasn’t certain. For that matter, he didn’t even know if all of the arc reactor had been displaced; there could still be framework for it on or in Tony’s chest. Even if the arc reactor was gone, the shrapnel wouldn’t reach his heart for another day at least, but it was still a concern, and one of the reasons Bruce wanted to do the CT scan sooner rather than later.
“Great,” said Tony. “So you mean a piece of metal’s going to kill me if your age ray doesn’t.”
The hand squeezed around Bruce’s heart again. Tony had rolled up another chair beside Bruce and was folded up in it, his knees at the level of his chin. There was something bird-like about that posture; it made him look very breakable. “Is that why you’re upset?” Bruce asked gently.
“I’m not upset.” Tony shook his hair out of his face.
“The scan won’t hurt.”
“I know.” Tony scowled. “Just, what if I—God, whatever, this is so stupid—” He started getting out of the chair, and Bruce caught his wrist.
It was small and bony and Bruce knew that if he looked for it, he could find Tony’s pulse beating frantically under his own. “It’s not stupid,” was all Bruce said.
Tony glared at the floor, but made no move to get away.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” Bruce said.
“I’m not afraid,” Tony said moodily.
“It’s okay to be afraid of the age restoration too.” Bruce let go of his hand. “Anyone would be. I just want to check your chest. Is that okay with you?” As Tony nodded sullenly, Bruce took out his glasses. “Alright. Can you lift up your shirt?”
“Oh my God, everyone just wants to undress me,” said Tony, but he lifted up his shirt.
He blushed when Bruce touched him, as Bruce had already begun to suspect he might. Bruce tried to make the examination brief and clinical.
“You don’t have to talk to me,” Bruce said, checking Tony’s heartbeat. “I just want you to know that you can.”
“I just.” Tony grimaced. “What if something goes wrong?”
“I’m going to feel along your sternum,” Bruce said. “Tell me if it hurts.” Moving his hand gently over Tony’s chest, he said slowly, “I know a lot of people make promises they can’t keep, but I can promise that I will do absolutely everything in my power to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
“But what if it does?” said Tony.
Bruce started to take his hand away, but both of Tony’s hands closed around his wrist, and held it there.
Bruce didn’t know what to do; he wanted to take his hand away, but he knew that was his own problem, and that right now Tony’s was more important. Bruce’s own insecurities, his reluctance to experiment with the kind of technology—he couldn’t let Tony see it. He couldn’t let Tony even get a whiff of it, and yet lying about this—this—felt wrong.
“I don’t know,” Bruce said at last, honestly. “I just know that I would do anything to keep you safe.”
“What if . . .”
“What if what?”
“What if I grow up into someone I don’t want to be?”
“Tony,” Bruce said, his heart breaking just a little bit.
“Me, like I am right now—I’m not going to live my life,” said Tony. “It’s not going to happen for me. Mom and Dad. Obadiah. Even Jarvis. I’m just going to grow up into some person I don’t know, and—everything will have happened already.”
Bruce took his hand away. “It did happen,” he said.
“I know, but I want the chance,” said Tony. “I want the chance to live it; I don’t want anyone to decide who I am.”
“No one decided but you, Tony.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Bruce took off his glasses, and looked him in the eye. “You decide who you are. More than any man I’ve ever met.”
“But am I good?” Tony met his eyes directly. “Am I good person?”
It had never once occurred to Bruce that Tony Stark’s life goal, at the age of twelve, was to be a good person.
Bruce supposed it explained a lot.
Swallowing the hundred other things he could have said, Bruce said instead, “You’re one of the greatest men I’ve ever met.”
“Not quite the same,” Tony murmured, but let it go. When he lifted his eyes again, he said, “Is the age ray going to hurt?”
“I think so,” said Bruce. “Yes.”
“Okay. Let’s go do some scanning.” Tony started to turn away, but stopped. “Don’t tell Steve, okay? Or Pepper.”
Bruce didn’t know what it meant, that Tony was willing to show him fear, but not to any of the others. “I won’t,” was all Bruce said.
Pepper came back around the time the pizza came. The four of them ate together, Tony hopelessly flirting with Pepper, making some rather disgusting comments about cheese, and interrupting loudly any time Steve and Bruce talked to each other for more than five seconds without including him.
Afterwards, Tony finally convinced Pepper to go up to the shop with him. Steve elected to go also, which didn’t seem to displease Tony in the least, despite whatever plans he claimed to have about showing Pepper his huge robotic arm. Bruce went back to the lab and got to work, and didn’t resurface until four hours later, when Tony came back to the lab in his pajamas.
It was eleven o’ clock, and Pepper had gone to bed. Tony had claimed he had worn her out, but he wasn’t tired, and Steve had either run out of ways to distract him, or Tony just really liked being in the lab. Both were probably true, so Steve put headphones on and watched the news on one of the computers, while Bruce endured a constant litany of what’s that what’s that what’s that? from Tony.
After about an hour of it, Bruce began to wonder whether Tony was keeping it up at this point just to see whether Bruce had a breaking point. Certainly Tony had to be used to adults getting frustrated and telling him to mind his own business, but Bruce wasn’t about to do that. He had a wealth of patience that wasn’t going to be exhausted any time soon, particularly by someone as precocious as Tony. Bruce didn’t mind explaining things to people who understood them. In fact, he rather liked it.
Eventually Tony curled up in a chair and merely watched him, only occasionally asking questions. When Bruce hadn’t heard anything for a while, he looked over and found that Tony had fallen asleep. His mouth was open and his thin long limbs were sprawled over the chair in an impossible tangle. Bruce felt the hand that he hadn’t been aware was still there squeeze over his heart. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so desperately tender.
The light across the room dimmed, and Steve took out his headphones. He walked over to where Bruce was standing. “How’s it going?” Steve asked quietly.
“As well as can be expected,” said Bruce, thumb running over his fingers.
Steve turned to look at Tony, who closed his mouth, shifted his head, and opened his mouth again. “And I thought sleeping in ice for sixty-odd years was remarkable,” Steve said.
“It’s pretty incredible,” said Bruce.
There was something wistful in Steve’s gaze. “I keep thinking about if it hadn’t happened. If I’d watched Howard get married, have a son. I would have known him like this, and then maybe we could have . . .”
“You would have been the cool uncle,” Bruce said.
Steve shook his head. “I don’t want to be the cool uncle. I’ve only ever wanted to be his friend.”
Bruce watched as Tony shifted in his sleep again, obviously uncomfortable in the chair. He wondered how many friends Tony had had at this age. He wondered how many friends Tony had now. Bruce suddenly felt certain that Tony had added living quarters, kitchens, gyms and other recreational facilities to five of his research and development floors because he had some mad plan about the Avengers moving in. He’d just built it, hoping they would come.
Am I a good person? Tony had asked.
“I suppose I should take him up to bed,” Steve said.
“Big day tomorrow,” Bruce said.
“I sure hope so,” said Steve, then scooped Tony up in his arms. He was so gentle that Tony barely even seemed to notice, though really he was quite a bit past the age when he could be carried up to bed by a normal adult.
Bruce had this thing about children and Steve, the way they looked so vulnerable in his arms and the way that Steve just looked so capable and strong. He watched as Steve positioned Tony’s arms around his neck and Tony, sleepy and compliant, obeyed, until Bruce couldn’t watch any more, and had to look away.
“I’m not asleep, you know,” Tony mumbled.
“Of course you’re not,” said Steve softly. “Good night, Doctor Banner,” he said, and took Tony away.
Bruce looked at the glowing lights and various metal skeletons arrayed before him, and for the first time in a long time, desperately didn’t want to be alone.
By noon the next day, Bruce felt sure he had the device—the Flux Accelerator, Tony insisted—working, but it still needed to be tested. Bruce decided to try aging an apple first, since nothing would get hurt if the device failed.
“Great,” said Tony. “I’m going to be a withered piece of fruit.”
“I like you withered,” Pepper said.
“I’m going to deage it first,” Bruce explained, “then reverse the process. It’s important to restructure it exactly as it was originally; there’s no way to perform the test correctly without doing both.”
Bruce would really rather not have performed the experiment with anyone else in the room, in case something went wrong, but shutting Tony out could increase his fear. Of course, seeing the apple explode would also increase his fear, but it wouldn’t explode. It probably wouldn’t explode. It definitely wouldn’t explode.
Before the experiment, Bruce explained a little about the Flux Accelerator. It should generate a field around the apple, folding its mass and causing the bonds in the apple to behave as though the apple were accelerating faster than light. If Bruce had performed his calculations correctly, the apple would deage into a seed. Then he should be able to reverse the process, and reage it into the original apple.
“Should be able to,” Tony repeated sarcastically.
“That’s why we’re testing an apple,” Bruce said. “Alright, stand back.”
Bruce had told Pepper, Steve, and Tony to stand on the other side of the lab. Instead of joining Pepper and Steve, Tony came to stand next to him. Though at first he pretended to watch what Bruce was doing, eventually it became clear that that wasn’t why Tony was there. He stood so close to Bruce that his side was almost flush with Bruce’s, hindering the movement of Bruce’s arm until Bruce finally swallowed a sigh and put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony smiled up at him, and Bruce felt his heart jump into his throat.
“Initialize,” Bruce told JARVIS.
When Bruce felt the agonizing pain slice through him, he realized he must have made an error in his calculations.
It felt exactly the opposite of turning into the Hulk.
He was getting smaller.
When Bruce woke up, the last thing that he remembered was Mom saying he’d better get his books off of the kitchen table, but that was yesterday—or the day before . . . no, it was an argument with his chemistry teacher about Bohr’s atom, but what did that guy know; he was the football coach . . . no, it was Dad, in one of his better moods, and he’d had his arm around Bruce and Bruce had gotten to sit really close and he’d been explaining why Bruce’s diagrams for the air conditioner were wrong, all wrong, didn’t he know anything, but that was alright because Dad knew everything . . . right?
Bruce looked around. His head hurt and these clothes weren’t right; he didn’t know how he got here and he didn’t know where here was. There were some other kids, a blonde girl, all around twelve or so, the same age as him. Their clothes were too big too. Bruce started thinking maybe he’d gotten into trouble again—maybe with these kids, or maybe these were some other kids who . . . and this could be a chemistry laboratory, except it wasn’t.
There were a lot of electronics and computers in here, not at all like school. There were computers where Dad worked—big ones, with lots of buttons. Bruce had learned never to touch those, but he never went to Dad’s work anymore. Not for a long time.
“Well, this is FUBARed,” said one of the kids. Actually, his clothes fit.
“Where are we?” said another kid. He was small, skinny and blond.
“What’s going on here?” said the blonde girl.
So, no help from any of them, then.
“Hulk?” said the first kid.
Bruce was tempted to try one of the computers, but Dad would probably kill him for touching anything—even if this wasn’t his lab. In fact, Dad would probably kill him for even being here.
Eyes narrowing, Bruce looked at the first kid again. His clothes were a little strange, but obviously not cheap. He had glossy hair and one of those know-it-all kinds of faces. Bruce was sure he didn’t know him. “Who are you?”
“Tony Stark,” said the kid.
Stark rang instant bells; of course, plenty of people could have that name, but it would explain all of the expensive, high tech looking equipment.
“You’re Howard Stark’s son,” said the blonde girl.
Smirking, Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re Pepper Potts.”
“Who’s Howard Stark?” asked the blond boy.
Smart, smart-and-an-asshole, stupid, thought Bruce in regards to each of the respectively. He looked around again. The only reason he could think of for being brought here was something to do with Dad’s research, but that didn’t explain why he was here, unless you believed in conspiracy theories, which generally Bruce didn’t.
“You’re Steve Rogers,” Tony said, turning on the blond boy. “And wow, you’re really small.”
“Thanks,” said the blond boy, clutching his pants. “Going to tell us why we’re here?”
“There was a little accident,” Tony said, and smiled.
Great, he was going to draw it out.
Bruce wondered if maybe he’d had a black-out. He’d never had a black-out before, but he’d heard they happened to people. He wouldn’t know why he’d have a black-out, but sometimes he got so angry he couldn’t even control what he was saying or doing. He supposed clinically it was possible that the adrenalin could momentarily short circuit important neural connections in the frontal lobe.
He wondered whether that was what happened with Dad.
“We were trying to turn an apple into a seed,” said Tony.
“Why don’t you try coring it?” asked Pepper, obviously irritated.
“You will not believe how many fertilization jokes I’m skipping right here,” said Tony. “Anyway, so the year is 2013; I got turned into a kid using alien technology; you guys are a bunch of old farts who were trying to fix me, and then you got zapped, too. Any questions?”
“What are you smoking?” asked Pepper.
“Where are we?” Steve asked.
“Stark Tower,” said Tony. “I kind of own it. Howard Stark was my dad, but he’s dead now, which is sad, but you know, I’m a grown man, I’ll get over it, also I saved the world so Steve—God, I’ve always wanted to say this to you—you can suck it.”
“Suck what?” said Steve.
“His dick,” said Pepper.
At around that point, Bruce adjusted his assessment of each of them: stupid, stupid, and stupid.
There were two exits in this lab; to the left, there were clear doors, behind which was a visible elevator. On the other side was another set of clear doors, beyond which there appeared to be a hallway. No one else seemed to be around, which—if you did believe in conspiracy theories—didn’t make a lot of sense.
They were talking about Tony’s dick or something, so Bruce walked over to one of the screens with a keyboard in front—or he tried. His shoes were too big, so he toed them off, then walked over, holding his pants up as he went. He found glasses in his shirt pocket and put them on. Those were too big too, but it couldn’t be helped.
The screen was definitely a computer monitor, but it was almost completely flat, with an image quality he had never seen; it was like a TV. Better than a TV—better than Star Trek. There were a bunch of diagrams on it, covered in equations.
Bruce tried to push up his sleeves while holding his pants, which proved difficult. He looked around, finding a stool, and dragged it over to the bench. The stool freed his hands from holding his pants up. Bruce rolled up his sleeves and pressed Escape. Nothing happened. He put his fingers on home row, and typed in every key command he knew. Still nothing happened, which meant—Bruce checked the cord, and found the mouse.
“You have to use the mouse,” Tony said, and Bruce put his hand on it and clicked.
There wasn’t a mouse on any of Dad’s computers at work, but Bruce had read about them. It irritated him that Tony knew how to use it, but Bruce supposed that could be helpful, so he didn’t say anything, and went about figuring out how to use it himself.
“Enough with the funny business,” Pepper was saying. “What the hell is going on?”
“What is he doing?” Steve asked.
“It’s a computer,” said Pepper.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Tony. “I’m actually going to have to prove it to you. Hulk? Fire up the internet; here we come. It’s okay, Steve. It won’t bite.”
Bruce scrolled through the diagrams on the screen. He recognized the parts for the device, but not the purpose, and some of the equations he didn’t understand. Some of the hand-written parts felt half-familiar, and yet he couldn’t figure them out, and it wasn’t giving him any clue as to why he was here.
Tony, however, was unalarmed, and seemed to think the whole thing was a big joke, which meant maybe he was in on it. It could be some kind of weird experiment—and that was getting into conspiracy theory territory, although when Bruce looked at the schematics for this device, he already felt like he was in some kind of stagey sci-fi play. And then there were these scribbles about the twin paradox, which were—actually, they were very—
“Hulkmeister,” said Tony, clapping a hand on his shoulder, “I said fire up the—”
Bruce grabbed his wrist and twisted it.
“The fuck,” said Tony, yanking his arm away.
“Don’t touch me,” Bruce said, turning back to the computer.
“Hey,” said Steve, walking over to them, almost tripping on all of his giant clothes. “We don’t need any fighting here. He wasn’t trying to hurt you. I think we’re all disoriented, and—”
“Oh my God, shut up Steve,” said Tony. “He didn’t hurt me. Hey Hulk—Bruce—”
“Why don’t you shut up?” Pepper was there now too, holding up the waist of her skirt with one hand. She’d taken off her shoes as well.
Bruce knew that other people usually had a difficult time concentrating with people around them yelling, but he’d mostly learned that from hearsay. From personal experience, he didn’t find it difficult at all to concentrate when people were yelling. Life skill.
As they went on arguing, Bruce figured out the basics of the mouse and the operating system, and in the start menu he found a search. In it he typed, Tony Stark, which came up with thousands of results. Bruce opened the first one, which appeared to be schematics for some kind of car. The next file was a diagram for a reactor, and the next—
“Jarvis,” Tony said, loudly enough that Bruce was momentarily thrown. “I know Pepper turned you off, but we could really use your help right now.”
“It’s okay, Pepper,” Steve was saying in a soothing way. “I don’t think he means to be such a . . . twit.”
“What’s he trying to be then?”
“I think he . . .” There was a pause. “I know this sounds crazy, but I think he really might believe what he’s saying.”
“I do believe what I’m saying, because it’s fucking true. Jesus Christ, you all are such children! Look around you.”
“I’m looking,” said Pepper’s testy voice.
“Jarvis,” Tony whined.
“Who’s Jarvis?” Steve asked gently, “maybe I can help you find him.”
As they went on babbling, Bruce scrolled through the results some more, realizing that he wasn’t getting to anything important partly because there was a whole folder called “Tony”. In fact, there were several, and all the files inside of them were interesting, but they didn’t explain anything. Tony apparently had free run of this computer, which meant searching for him was—
“I said search the internet, Bruce,” said Tony, so Bruce typed “internet” into the start menu search field. “I said search the internet, not search for the internet; fuck me with a—there you go.”
The search had come up with “Internet Explorer,” so Bruce clicked on that. It opened a new window with a new search field, so Bruce typed in Tony Stark.
“Click on ‘Tony Stark: World’s Sexiest Icon’,” Tony said, so Bruce clicked on Images for tony stark.
“What is that thing?” said Steve.
“I dunno,” said Pepper. “I mean, it’s a computer, but—but like, gnarly.”
“I don’t think it’s gross at all,” said Steve. “I think it’s rather pretty, in fact. Who are those pictures of?”
“Stop sucking up to my girlfriend, Steve,” said Tony.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” said Pepper. “Ew. Ew. I am not his girlfriend.”
“Um,” said Steve. “I didn’t think you were.”
Bruce was still trying to figure out what the results meant. He clicked back from the images, because the guy looked a little like Howard Stark from the news—and a little like Tony—but it wasn’t Howard and it definitely wasn’t Tony, and all of this information here—it was like . . . some sort of fantasy future that some dickwad rich kid with too much time on his hands and apparently too much access to technology would create, Bruce supposed. When Bruce thought about what he would have done with a machine like this—what a fucking waste.
“Pepper,” Tony was saying, “pleeease can you just tell Jarvis he can talk to me? Pretty please with a cherry on top?”
“Not until you tell me who Jarvis is,” said Pepper.
“I believe he said it was his robot butler,” Steve pointed out.
“Yes, thank you Steve. See,” said Tony, “Steve listens to me.”
“Um,” said Steve, “only because you appear to be the only person with any idea of what is happening, not because I necessarily believe in robot butlers.”
“Yes,” said Tony. “Thank you. I know what is happening; Jarvis knows what is happening; Pepper, will you please—”
Pepper huffed. “Okay, fine. Jarvis, you can talk, whatever that means.”
“Hello, Tony,” said a calm British voice.
Startled, Bruce looked around over the tops of his glasses. The voice was obviously issuing from some kind of speaker, but at the moment he couldn’t find it. The others were looking around as well.
“Oh my God, never do that to me again, Jarvis,” said Tony.
“While I can override certain commands as necessity dictates, I have found that where Miss Potts is concerned, it is always best to do as instructed,” the voice said.
“Um.” Still looking around, Pepper twisted a piece of hair around her finger. “Miss Potts?”
Unable to find the speaker, Bruce pushed up his glasses, then typed “Jarvis” into the search field. When the results appeared to be non-specific, he typed in “Jarvis robot butler.” This time there were fewer results, but still a good number, and all of them were about Tony. Bruce clicked on the one that said, Stark’s AI Home of the Future.
“Where is he?” Steve said.
“He’s all around you,” said Tony. “You’re like, totally inside of Jarvis.”
“Oh my God,” said Pepper. “Big Brother.”
“Like that,” said Tony, “only cooler.”
“There is nothing about Big Brother that is cool,” said Pepper.
“Well, no,” said Tony, a little chagrined.
“I think I need to sit down,” said Steve.
“Holy shit, Steve,” said Tony, and he sounded surprised and concerned enough that Bruce glanced around.
The kid was looking a little pale, swaying slightly. Going to faint—from all the excitement, probably—what a big wuss. Tony had been right; the kid was puny. Bruce turned back to the computer, because it was far more interesting.
“Are you okay?” Pepper was asking.
“Let me get you a chair,” said Tony. “And a drink of water. Get him a drink of water, Pepper.”
“You get him a drink of water,” said Pepper.
“It’s okay,” said Steve. “I’m fine.”
“No you’re not,” said Tony. “You’re pre-serum; I’ll go get you a glass of water; watch over him, okay, Pep? He’s delicate.”
“I’m not delicate.”
“Be right back,” said Tony. “Jarvis, can you do something like—”
“Monitor his vitals?” Jarvis asked. “Young Mister Rogers does not appear to be in any danger.”
“See?” said Steve.
“Young Mister Rogers,” Tony gloated. “Okay, Steve? I’m sorry I was such a fucking asshole, but that is never going to not be funny,” he said, and left the lab.
Bruce’s hand hovered over the keyboard. Finally, he typed “current news” into the search field.
“Well,” said Steve. “He’s bracing.”
“What’s wrong?” said Pepper. “Can I do anything?”
“I’m alright. It’s only—you two . . . appear to . . . I’m sorry, Pepper; you’re going to think this is ridiculous, but—what year is it?”
“Oh, I get it,” said Pepper. “You’ve never read 1984.”
“No,” said Steve. “I can’t say that I have. When was it written?”
“I dunno, a long time ago, like in the forties. Haven’t you heard of George Orwell?”
“No,” Steve said again. “For me, it’s 1929. Or at least, it was.”
“You don’t mean you believe that hoser?”
“Your name was Bruce, right?”
Steve had stood up and moved closer. Bruce didn’t really want to be a part of their little club or whatever, but obviously there was information to be gained from at least a modicum of interaction. He glanced at Steve, then back at the computer. “1929, you said?”
“Yes,” said Steve. “What year is it for you?”
“’79,” said Bruce. “On here it says 2013.”
“You guys are totally smoking something,” said Pepper.
“I’m not saying we time traveled.” Bruce turned away from the computer, irritated.
Pepper crossed her arms over her chest. Her hair was really long and her face was really freckled. She had large, heavy-lidded eyes. “Then what are you saying?”
“He’s saying that if we work together, we can figure this out.”
Steve was obviously a people-pleaser, one of those sorts who just wanted everyone to get along. Bruce had encountered those types before. They were generally stupid. Turning back to the computer, he typed “time travel” into the search field.
“Okay, you’re right,” Pepper said. “I just think that Tony—”
“—is totally radical and far out and the epitome of cool?” asked Tony. He must have come back in with a glass of water, because he went on, “Here, Steve. I brought you some crackers. And some figs. You like figs, right? You should eat. You’ll feel better if you eat.”
“Thanks,” said Steve. “I think I like figs, but I’m not sure. And I feel fine.”
“What year do you think it is?” said Pepper.
“2013,” said Tony.
“But if you’re Howard Stark’s son,” she began.
“I know,” said Tony. “It should be 1977, but it isn’t; it’s 2013. Can we move past the incredulity portion of our program, and onto the portion where we outsmart the adults, get chased by criminals, find hidden treasure, and you fall desperately in love with me? It could be a show, like Scooby-Doo with more me. We could call it Tony and Friends. Hey—where are you going?”
This last was directed at Bruce, who had put away his glasses and was headed toward the door. So far, the computer seemed to collaborate Tony’s story, but didn’t supply any feasible means of time travel or age reduction. Being cooped up in here wasn’t going to solve anything, and these stupid kids obviously didn’t know anything, so if Bruce was going to figure any of this out, it was going to be on his own.
Tony, however, was standing in front of the doors.
“Move it,” said Bruce, and pushed him.
“Jesus, I didn’t know you were a jerk,” said Tony, and pushed him back.
“Hey!” called Steve.
As he came running up, tripping over his enormous pants, Bruce grabbed Tony’s arm and twisted, but Tony brought his knee up toward Bruce’s crotch, and Bruce wanted to break his arm. Fucking little shit, thinking he knew everything, and Bruce had known from the moment he saw him he was one of those spoiled rich kids who thought they were going to always get their way, and it wasn’t fair when he knew what was going on and the rest of them didn’t; he hated dickwads like that who took advantage of the situation, and tried to lord whatever superior position they had over—
“Quit it,” said Steve, “right now—” He jerked Bruce’s arm, and Bruce shook him off, hard, and Steve fell down in a massive puddle of clothes.
Bruce looked down at him in surprise.
Then Pepper punched him in the eye.
“Fuck,” said Bruce, covering his eye. “What the fuck did you do that for?”
“Steve,” Pepper said, and knelt to try to help Steve stand.
Steve was getting up, struggling amidst excess fabric. Finally he stood, closing in beside Tony, Pepper closing in beside Steve. Three against one was never good odds. Bruce knew that from experience, and his eye fucking hurt. Christ, what a goddamn mess, and if Dad found out he’d got in another fight, he was going to—
“What the fuck is your problem?” said Tony. “Is this seriously what you were like as a kid? Seriously? You could have broken my fucking arm; what the fuck were you—”
“Take a deep breath,” said Steve, “and calm down.”
Tony didn’t take a deep breath, and didn’t calm down. “He fucking hit you, Steve!”
Bruce’s voice was low. “Get out of my way.”
“No wonder you were so fucking sad as a grown-up,” said Tony. “No one fucking liked you.”
“He really knows how to defuse a situation,” Pepper said to Steve.
“Really.” Steve stepped between Tony and Bruce—actually stepped between them, like Steve could stop him, this skimpy little weed of a thing, and said, “Okay, listen up. Bruce, you want to go outside. Doesn’t look like you’re going to back down, so Tony—”
“He can’t go outside,” said Tony.
“What is it,” said Bruce, “some kind of fucking space ship?”
“Supposedly, it’s the future.” Pepper frowned down at Tony—she was taller than all of them. “Is Big Brother watching?”
“No,” said Tony, “but we—we’re pretty important people, and there could be—”
“Wow, really?” said Bruce. “You’re important? Because Daddy is famous and wealthy? My Dad is—”
“Are we going to have a Dad off?” said Pepper. “Really?”
“My Dad is dead,” said Tony, “because this is the future, and I’m a superhero, and you’re my girlfriend,” he told Pepper, “and didn’t you Google yourself?” he asked Bruce, but didn’t wait for an answer, “and haven’t you guys figured out who he is, yet?”
“I’m not your girlfriend,” said Pepper.
Bruce glanced at Steve, and then—didn’t look away. Because okay, yes: 1929, the way he looked and talked, his clothes, his very weakness, and what Tony had said about serum . . . “Captain America is dead,” said Bruce.
“Captain America?” said Pepper.
“Yes, Captain America,” Tony said.
Frowning, Pepper crossed her arms over her chest. It seemed to be a favorite pose of hers. “Impossible,” she said.
“Um.” Steve raised his hand. “Who is Captain America?”
“You are,” said Tony.
“Really?” Steve looked interested. “Captain? I didn’t think—”
“Yes.” Tony flapped a hand. “You’re a captain in the U.S. army during World War II; they injected you with a super soldier serum; you were very famous, wore a little suit—”
Steve was going pale. “World War II? Who—”
“Germany,” said Tony.
“History lesson later,” said Pepper. “I hate to agree with the juvenile delinquent again, but he’s right. Captain America is dead.”
“Frozen in ice,” said Tony. “Capsicle.” Looking thoughtful, he put his head to one side. “He was right; that doesn’t get old.”
Steve began, “But why would Germany—”
Bruce went for the door again, because everyone was being idiotic, but Tony got in his way. “Can’t let you do that,” he said.
“I’m getting out of here,” said Bruce, “whether you move or I have to make you.”
Tony sneered. “Make me, Hulk.”
“Stop calling me that,” said Bruce, reaching out to push him again.
“Stop right there,” said Steve, and Pepper got in Bruce’s way.
“Do I really have to hit you in your other eye?” she said, “because I’m not a violent person, but so help me God, I will.”
“I’ll go with you,” Steve said to Bruce.
“What?” Tony said.
Steve turned to him. “You said it’s not safe; he’s not going to stay in here, whatever the reason. There’s no point arguing. I’ll go with him, and if we get into trouble—”
“You’ll what?” Tony demanded. “Faint on him?”
Scowling, Steve put his hands on his hips. It was a weirdly aggressive posture for such a girly little shrimp, and even if his size hadn’t mitigated it, the fact that he was holding up his pants would have. He really was positively swimming in them. “I’m not going to faint.”
“Get out of my way,” said Bruce.
“Fine,” said Tony, “I’ll go too.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Great, an idiot parade.”
“Just one thing,” Tony said, not moving an inch. “Give me the phone. It’s in your pocket.”
“Move it,” said Bruce.
“Is that some kind of grody joke?” said Pepper. “Because if so, I don’t want to know.”
“Just reach into your pocket and give it to me,” said Tony. “Not that hard.”
“Okay, compromise,” said Steve. “Bruce, give Tony whatever’s in your pocket; Tony, get out of Bruce’s way.”
“I’m not giving you anything,” said Bruce.
“It’s my phone anyway,” said Tony. “You’re the one who took it.”
Bruce sneered. “I didn’t take anything from you.”
“Three against one,” said Pepper, “and I’m going too.”
Rolling his eyes again, Bruce reached into his pocket, pulling out a plastic case with a smooth black face on one side. Frowning at it, he pressed what seemed to be a button on the front. The black face lit up just like the computer monitor at which Bruce had been looking earlier, filled with a picture of a sleek, stylized car. “Slide to unlock,” it said, so Bruce slid his thumb over it.
“Give it to me,” Tony said. When Bruce didn’t hand it over, he went on, “God, you’re a real fucking—”
“That’s not helping, Tony,” Steve said.
“What is it?” Still holding up her skirt, Pepper moved closer to Bruce.
“It’s a digital interface,” Bruce said, taking out the glasses again. It sort of hurt to put them on his face with his hurt eyes, but whatever. He touched the little icons on the screen, then the button on the bottom to get back to the start screen. “It’s a phone,” he added, when he got to Contacts. “You’re on here.”
“I am?” said Pepper.
Bruce showed her her name. The picture was of an older, blonder woman, with the same great big mouth and heavy-lidded eyes. “That your mom?”
Pepper shook her head. “My mom looks completely different. I don’t know who that would be, except . . .”
“Captain America is in here too,” said Bruce.
“Let me see,” said Steve.
“Hello,” said Tony. “That’s my phone.”
“That isn’t me.” Steve, looking over Bruce’s shoulder from the other side, went a shade paler. “That man is—wow. Wow.”
“I’ll say,” said Pepper. Pulling her eyes off Captain America, she glanced at Bruce. “Are you in it?”
Bruce scrolled through the contacts some more. He wasn’t under Bruce. Scrolling back down, Bruce touched the contact that said Hulk.
“Is it some kind of monster movie?” Pepper said, interested, as she looked down at the big green thing filling the tiny screen.
“That’s Hulk,” said Tony, then turned to Bruce. “Who, by the way, is way cooler than you. Try calling Pepper. Then you’ll see what I mean.”
Bruce pressed the phone number under Pepper’s name. “It says—”
“What’s that?” Pepper asked. Music had started playing on the other side of the room.
“The only boyfriend you love more than me,” said Tony. “Go answer it.”
“It sounds like a radio,” said Steve. “With very . . . interesting music.”
Looking around, Pepper followed the sound. She found another case similar to the one in Bruce’s hand sitting on a lab bench on the other side of the room. First she looked at it, then she touched the screen. “Hello?” she said, once she put it up to her ear.
Bruce put the screen up to his ear, careful to make sure it didn’t touch his cheekbone, which he could tell was already starting to puff up. “Say something,” he said into the phone.
“I can hear you,” Pepper said.
Pulling the phone away from his ear, Bruce frowned, then looked the device over. “It’s like a walkie talkie.”
“No,” said Tony. “You could call her from home. Does it say ‘Shield’ in there? Because that’s who we need to call.”
Bruce scrolled through the options. “It doesn’t have Shield. Do you have any more dumb nicknames?”
“How about Rhodey?” Tony said.
“It has that,” said Bruce.
“What’s Shield?” Steve asked.
“Wait a minute.” Tony chewed on his lip a little. “Steve—I mean, Captain Adult—said Rhodey was in the military. I’m not sure we want the military in on this.”
Bruce scoffed. “Got something against the military?”
“I don’t know.” Tony scowled. “Jarvis? A little help.”
“Yes, Mister Stark?” said Jarvis.
“Why would he have something against the military?” asked Steve.
Pepper was still on the other side of the room, looking at the phone. “I have a senator in here. You know, a United States senator. It says so right here.”
“Everybody just shut up for a minute,” Tony said.
“He doesn’t have anything against our glorious and just armed forces,” Bruce told Steve. “Tony’s just a poseur.”
“Jarvis,” said Tony. “Security emergency. We need, you know, body guards and stuff, and we don’t want anyone to know about it, and—oh. We need, you know, scientists. Who do I call?”
“Might I suggest Miss Romanoff,” said Jarvis. “Highly trained in both weaponry and defense, she has acted as both your personal assistant and your bodyguard before. She is also quite capable of keeping a secret, and will be able to put you in touch with any S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist of your choice.”
“Is it talking about . . . a girl?” Steve asked, his brow furrowed.
“Sounds like a babe,” said Tony.
Bruce scrolled through the contacts again. “There isn’t any Romanoff in this phone.”
“Try ‘La Femme’,” Jarvis suggested.
“She’s in here,” said Bruce, “but I don’t need a bodyguard.”
“Hello?” said Pepper from the other side of the room. “Is this Miss Romanoff?”
Bruce turned to look at her. She was certainly efficient, that one, and Bruce felt absolutely no impulse to change his assessment of her from ‘the smart one.’
“Yes,” Pepper went on. “Pepper Potts. We seem to have found ourselves in a rather inconvenient situation, and Jarvis suggested that we call you.” She listened for a moment, twisting the piece of hair around her finger. “A bit of one, yes. I was wondering if you could come over; I think we need your help . . . . Mm-hm. Well, it’s a bit difficult to explain—”
“Now that is a babe.”
Tony appeared riveted on Pepper. Taking off his glasses, Bruce realized that escape right now would probably be entirely possible. This Romanoff, whoever she was, could just be a part of this whole stupid . . . whatever was going on. Then again, Bruce had slowly been eliminating possible explanations for the situation, and the phone seemed like a tipping point. They just didn’t have this kind of technology yet. No one did, not even Stark Industries; there was no way they could make something this small also this powerful.
There were a few other explanations for everything that had happened so far, but all of them were just as far-fetched as Tony’s. Bruce wavered between sticking it out to find out was going on and getting out of here.
“If you leave, I’m still going with you,” Steve said quietly, which decided it.
Bruce stayed, listening to Pepper’s end of the conversation. She was explaining about how Tony said they had been turned into children.
“Tony, Steve, and Bruce,” Pepper said, in answer to something. “Yes,” she said, after a pause. “Bruce. Yes.” She flicked her gaze over toward them. “Stark Tower?”
“The forty-ninth floor,” Tony called.
“The forty-ninth floor,” said Pepper. “Tony said it—yes. Thank you so much; you’ve been very—” Blinking, she pulled the phone away from her face. Then she shrugged, and pressed the button. “She said she’s coming, and she’s bringing reinforcements.”
Bruce scowled. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re not going to get us all killed,” Tony said. He smiled across the room. “Thanks, Pepper. That was really cool, what you did there.”
“Making a phone call?” said Pepper, coming back to join them. “Yeah, that was sooo cool.”
“It was foxy,” said Tony.
Pepper just looked at him. “Wow. You really need to get out more.”
“What,” said Bruce, “we’re just going to sit here until she comes?”
“You’re a fun-sucker,” said Tony. “You suck the fun right out of the room.”
“I’m going to look at the computer Bruce was looking at,” said Pepper. “Steve, you wanna help me out? It looked kind of like a library. Or an encyclopedia. Maybe we can even find something about World War II.”
Raising his brows, Steve turned to Bruce. “What are you doing?”
Bruce wasn’t sure when Steve had assigned himself to be Bruce’s keeper. It wasn’t like it was Steve’s business, but he was standing there with his eyebrows raised, like he could really do something about it if Bruce didn’t want to be a good little boy and go along with their plans, or whatever. The guy acted like he was Captain America, which was laughable, really, when you thought about it. Seriously the guy was so thin and pale that you could probably knock him over if you breathed on him.
Bruce turned his back on him and went over to the other side of the room, where there was what seemed to be another computer, a significant distance from the one he’d been using before. Whatever. The other guys could do whatever they wanted. Bruce had his own things to explore, and when Romanoff or whoever came, he would be ready to figure out just what exactly was going on.
Seeing that Bruce wasn’t leaving, Steve eventually went over to Pepper. Tony went over there too, so Bruce put on his glasses and started poking around at the new computer. After a couple of minutes a light blinked on, startling Bruce enough that he looked around to see if anyone saw. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to . . . but they were talking and laughing and eating figs or whatever. Who the hell ate figs? Who the hell had figs to eat? Who the fuck just had figs lying around, and Bruce didn’t see what was so funny anyway.
Bruce looked back at the light and saw that it was an image. With a little fiddling, it focused, and then Bruce figured out how to turn on other images. Digital projection, without a screen.
Glancing across the room, Bruce saw that the other guys hadn’t even noticed that he had fucking Star Wars over here. Of course they were all like best friends now. Obviously, they weren’t including Bruce. Right, obviously they wouldn’t. When he thought about it, he knew he’d been a jerk—a total and complete fucking asshole. He’d hit that guy Steve, and he hadn’t even meant to. Not to mention he was Captain America, apparently. Everyone knew only bad guys hit Captain America.
They were laughing again and looking at Tony, who was waving his arms. Sure, because Tony was good-looking and not an asshole. Or at least not as much of an asshole as him. Bruce didn’t even know why he’d been an asshole. It’d seemed like a really, really good idea at the time and now he could not remember a single reason why he’d been so terrified.
The images were all diagrams of the weird metal apparatus sitting on the other side of the room. There were calculations among the images, too, and now Bruce was starting to realize what was familiar about some of them: he’d written them. This was probably the machine that had reduced their ages—that was, if you wanted to believe that was what had actually happened. Bruce was starting to believe it.
Unable to resist, Bruce called up the internet search thing and typed in his name. He felt weird about doing it, so he opened up the articles and slid them beside the diagrams, so he could switch from looking at the apparatus to . . . reading about himself.
Bruce startled guiltily.
“Chill,” said Tony. “I just asked.”
“Don’t sneak up on me,” said Bruce, even though he hadn’t.
Tony looked around at the images. “You’re reading about the Hulk.”
“No I’m not,” Bruce said, dragging the files out of the projection field.
“Yes you are.” Tony came up closer, poking the projection of the images for the metal thing. “Did you know you could do this?” he asked, pulling at the images until it came out of the field, a three dimensional thing.
“Yes,” said Bruce, even though he hadn’t.
“It’s a hologram,” said Tony.
“No, it isn’t.”
Tony scowled. “Yes, it is. This is the holodesk.”
“It’s volumetric. Holograms are flat.”
“Whatever.” Shrugging, Tony dropped the image, which dissolved. “So, did you figure out how the Hulk works?”
Bruce looked over at Pepper and Steve, who were still talking and laughing. Ignoring them, and ignoring Tony, Bruce turned back to the projection field. He tried to pull the image out himself.
“You don’t have to yank it,” said Tony. “Just give it a little tug, like—” He reached out, and Bruce jerked away. “Okay, okay,” Tony said. “Not touching. God, you need to mellow out. Just, you know, give it a little tickle. A little come hither. Pretend like it’s a Chihuaha or a cheerleader or something.”
Bruce tried to tickle the projection. It made him feel like an idiot. That was most likely Tony’s intention. Then the whole thing came out, the whole machine, made of light, hovering there in front of him. It was about five feet tall and three feet in diameter, big and complicated and really interesting.
“There you go. Did you figure out what that is yet?” Tony asked.
“And a bunch of radiation monitors. Some magnets, some kind of vacuum tube and some super-coolant.” And then a million other things that Bruce didn’t recognize, but he didn’t mention those because Tony didn’t have to know.
“It’s a Flux Accelerator.”
“I knew that.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
Tony smirked. “So, the Hulk. You think you used sterones, or what?”
Smirk growing wider, Tony said, “Sterones. You know, steroid hormones. You can make synthetic—”
Rolling his eyes, Bruce said, “I know what sterones are. What do they have to do with—” he waved his hand the same direction he’d tossed the files about the Hulk—“that?”
“I thought maybe you did it with sterones,” said Tony.
Bruce snorted. “You think some hormones are going to make an invincible giant? And what, throw some kind of tropane alkaloid into a milkshake? That’s stupid. That doesn’t even account for the extra mass.”
Tony just looked at him for a moment, his gaze very still. “Alright,” he said, shrugging. “What about that extra mass?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you think about it?”
“I said I don’t know.”
“You think maybe you get it from the air?”
Bruce shrugged. “I guess.”
Rolling his eyes again, Bruce said, “No. That’s dumb.”
“Why is it dumb?”
“For one thing, it’d have to be a lot faster, and for another, you’d have to be able to do it in the dark, and more importantly, it’s got to be far more complicated. Carbohydrates are weak; you’d need to metabolize something stronger, like—like maybe—”
“—right, and you can’t just metabolize fullerenes, or if you could, it’d mean you were taking apart some of the atoms in your body to build them—which, by the way, you’d have to do anyway, in order to restructure your mass that way. It’s probably like some kind of condensed gamma bomb that restructures all the PNT bonds so that they’re stronger, with more space between them—like a contained reaction that causes everything to burst apart.”
“Compton scattering,” said Tony.
“Now you got it,” said Bruce, opening the part of the volumetric Flux Accelerator that looked like it was the coolant valve. He was a little surprised Tony was even following along. He knew Howard Stark’s kid was supposed to be a genius or whatever, but usually people didn’t understand what he was saying when he talked like that—except for Dad, but Bruce didn’t talk like that around Dad. Mostly he didn’t say much of anything around Dad.
Tony tilted his head, just looking at him. He didn’t say anything—Bruce had known him maybe half an hour, and he’d never not said anything—but he was just looking, standing very still.
“What?” said Bruce, irritated, after this went on too long.
“I think we got started out on the wrong foot,” Tony said, his tone completely different than the one he had been using before.
Bruce tugged on the image so that he could see farther into the Flux Accelerator, then remembered he had to tickle.
“You were really cool as an old dude,” Tony went on.
“I’m sorry I’m not old,” Bruce said sarcastically.
“You know what I really dug about you?” Tony hopped up on the bench beside the projection field. “You didn’t bullshit. People are always trying to bullshit me. Pepper and Steve—it wasn’t like they lied. They were just really aware I was a kid, and they treated me like one. You didn’t do that. You were . . . you were kind of impossibly awesome, actually.”
Bruce wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up, because all he was saying was that he wasn’t impossibly awesome, not right now, and yet somehow Bruce’s tongue felt thick, and he couldn’t say the words.
“Don’t tell anybody this, alright?” said Tony. “And don’t take it the wrong way. I know it sounds weird. But when you were, you know, old, I sort of wished . . . I sort of wished you were my—I wished my dad was more like you. I just wanted you to know.”
Swallowing, Bruce ducked his head into the projected images. Maybe if he pretended it was really interesting, Tony would go away.
Instead, Tony sat there kicking his legs against the bench, and started talking about the Flux Accelerator. Apparently, it was the thing that had turned them all into kids, and it worked by folding matter, or whatever, which affected time.
After a while, Bruce pulled his head out. “How do you know all that?” he asked.
Tony grinned. “You.”
“So,” said Bruce, “um—what does this do?” He pointed to another part he hadn’t been able to figure out.
“Oh, that.” Tony jumped off the bench. “It’s a stabilizer, you dig?” He walked right through the image, and then he was in there with Bruce, enlarging the display a little with his hands. “See how it connects to this cooling valve? Hulk said that in the original—the one with the Cosmic Cube—”
“Cosmic Cube?” said Bruce.
“Yeah.” Tony smirked. “Alien weapons technology. Mondo explosive shit. Opened a portal up in space.”
“Aliens? You mean real aliens?”
“Far out, right? And this bit here is where they put the iridium.” Tony went to tickle another part of the display, his hand brushing Bruce’s as he did so.
Bruce found he didn’t mind that much.
Tony went on explaining, and they took apart the whole virtual machine, and Bruce found that he didn’t mind at all.
“Hey,” another voice said, after a little while.
“Hey,” said Tony, poking his head out of the display. “What’s Pepper doing?”
“Looking up stuff about that senator she found in her phone. Hey, Bruce.”
Bruce didn’t take his head out of the display. He was trying to figure out how this weird part worked, and besides, Steve was Captain America.
“You should put some ice on that,” said Steve.
Tony walked out of the image. “What?”
“I mean Bruce,” said Steve. “You should put some ice on your face. It will keep the swelling down.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce mumbled.
“Can I look at it?” said Steve. “Whenever I get a black eye, I use a piece of meat, if I can get one.”
Tony snorted. “Like you get black eyes.”
There was a pause. Bruce couldn’t tell what Steve was doing, because Bruce still wasn’t looking at them.
“I get black eyes all the time,” Steve said finally.
“Have you seen me?” Steve asked. “Or maybe you thought you were the only one who could pick on my size.”
“I didn’t mean to do that,” Tony said. “I was just—I’m sorry. I said I was sorry.”
“It’s okay. You know, if I were bigger, I’d probably pick on my size too.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
Steve just laughed.
If there was any time to apologize, it would be right now. Bruce could just apologize to both of them, tell them he was sorry—for hurting Tony’s arm, pushing Steve down, and just in general being a bastard. He could tell them he’d just been lashing out out of—he didn’t know; he could make something up—fear—
God. So fucking lame. Lame. That was really fucking lame. Bruce kept his head in the display.
“Who picks on you?” Tony was demanding.
“Just kids,” Steve said. “It isn’t a big deal.”
“It is a big deal. Tell me who picks on you, and—and . . . .”
“You’ll beat up their great-grandkids?” Steve’s voice didn’t actually sound mean.
There was a little pause. “I can show you some moves,” Tony said finally. “You know, self-defense.”
Steve began, “I don’t really—”
“You showed me.”
“You showed me,” Tony said. “When you were all . . . big and old and captainy. We did some sparring stuff, and you showed me all these moves. Kung fu stuff. Except, you know, not kung fu. There’s a gym here and everything—mats and shit so you won’t get hurt. I can totally go easy on you, you know; we’ll take it slow.”
“Yeah, it’ll be awesome. You might swim out of your clothes, though.” Another pause, Tony must have been interpreting the expression on Steve’s face. “No, it’s decent. We’ll make what’s-her-name get you something to wear.”
“If what you’re saying is true,” Steve said, “I don’t need to learn moves; I already know them.”
“Yeah, but Steve. It’s fun. Don’t you know how to have fun? I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
“Well.” Steve sounded a little reluctant, and Tony’s tone turned wheedling.
“I bet you’re better than you think,” said Tony.
This was really great, Bruce thought, surrounded by the light of the display. Tony and Steve were making friends, just great. He wondered why they couldn’t do it, maybe, somewhere else. They seemed to have forgotten he was there, and he wasn’t about to remind them. He just wished they would go away.
Tony was saying, “That serum I was talking about just augments your muscles and stuff. Not your brain. Dad always said you were the most brilliant tactician alive.”
“Yeah, he was your biggest fan; Steve come oooon; don’t be lame.”
“Um,” said Steve. “Alright.”
“Yes! I knew you were cool.”
“I . . . did you want to go now?”
Bruce hoped Tony did want to go now. Then he would finally be alone and not have to listen to this—this bullshit. This people-making-friends type bullshit.
“No,” Tony said immediately. “Bruce and I’re working on this. But we totally can later.”
“Oh,” said Steve. “What are you working on?”
“Hul—Bruce?” said Tony.
Bruce bit his tongue and stayed inside the display. He wondered if there was any way of darkening it so that it wasn’t so transparent.
“What Bruce is trying to say—hey Pepper. Finished crushing on your senator?”
“No, he’s so dreamy,” Pepper said, her tone sarcastic. “You should really put something on that eye,” she went on, and Bruce guessed she was talking to him. “I’m sorry I hit you. For real. I’ve never given someone a shiner before.”
“Whoopsy daisy,” said Steve.
“You said whoopsy daisy,” Tony accused.
“I was gonna go get Bruce some ice,” said Steve. “Sorry, Bruce. I got side-tracked. Um, Tony, do you know where the—”
“Golly gee willikers, Batman,” Tony said. “Where are my manners? I should have given you fine friendly folks a tour.”
“Batman?” said Steve.
“By George gee Moses,” Tony said.
“Tony?” said Pepper. “Shut up.”
“He said whoopsy daisy, Pep.”
“I know what he said,” Pepper said. “Come on, Steve. We can find ice on our own.”
“That’s okay,” said Steve. “Tony, I’d really like a tour.”
“You’re a champ,” Tony told him. “Coming, Bruce?”
“I’m kind of busy,” Bruce mumbled.
“No you’re not.” Tony nudged Bruce’s foot with his own. “Come on. Lemme show you the old homestead. I’ve got wicked awesome toys. It’ll be fun.”
“I’m just getting the hang of this,” Bruce said, head still in the display of the Flux Accelerator.
“Come oooooooon,” Tony whined. “I have robots!”
“Don’t be such a pain,” said Pepper. “Leave him alone, if he wants to be left alone.”
“He doesn’t want to be left alone,” said Tony. “He’s just saying that.”
“You have to respect people’s wishes, Tony,” Steve said.
“Jesus H. Christ,” said Tony. “Do you two rag on me like this when we’re grown up? Because if you do, I kind of hate you now. This is why Hulk is totally my homeboy. What? Didn’t I tell you?” He grinned at Bruce. “We’re homeboys when we grow up. Total science homeboys. Are you sure you’re not coming?”
“I’m sure,” said Bruce.
“Fine,” said Tony. “Go ahead and brood.”
“I don’t even know if I want to go with you,” Pepper told Tony.
“It’ll be fun,” said Steve. “He said there are robots. We’ll be right back, Bruce.”
“Catch you on the flip-side,” said Tony.
“Whatever,” said Bruce.
He took his head out of the display in time to see them all troop out the door, Tony talking a mile a minute. Then they were gone, and Bruce was alone.
Bruce didn’t even know why he couldn’t even just go with them. It would have been like swallowing his pride or something, like saying he was sorry, and he didn’t even know why he couldn’t, because he was sorry. Steve acted like nothing even happened, like he’d never even pushed him, and Pepper had said she was sorry, and Tony—Tony was—but oh no, Bruce couldn’t say sorry. Because he was a fucking retard.
Whatever. They could all be friends, have their little club or whatever; he didn’t care. Bruce pushed the Flux Accelerator back into two dimensions, which actually felt kind of good. If this was his program, he’d’ve made it so it exploded when you pushed it like that, but it was nice getting to shove it around without making a mess or hurting himself, which he tended to do. He guessed the Hulk didn’t hurt itself.
He did that a couple times, tickling the display out, thinking of Tony, then shoving it back in. Eventually he got bored, heaved a sigh, and left it out. As long as they were out having fun or whatever, he could do something useful and productive. It was really stupid, but maybe if he had the Flux Accelerator figured out by the time they got back, he could face them and they’d forgive him; they’d have to thank him and stuff, too. Whatever, it really was stupid, but . . . not unappealing.
When the door to the lab opened, Bruce didn’t have it figured out, but he’d learned some neat things. For instance, he’d recognized a reactor in the Flux Accelerator that was a lot like the schematics for reactor he’d seen when he’d first looked at Tony’s computer. It turned out the older Tony had invented it, and it was really cool.
Finding things out made Bruce feel a lot better. Calmer. He felt like he could show these things to Tony, and Tony would be really interested and think he was really smart, and Bruce knew that was totally cheap, but he could do it and it would be nice. The people at the lab door weren’t Tony, though, and Bruce instantly felt less calm.
It was a lady and a man. A big man with big muscles and arms, carrying a big bag. He looked old, with crags in his face, and he didn’t look nice—though it wasn’t like he was ugly. The lady was really pretty, in fact. In fact, they sort of did look like celebrities, even though they weren’t really dressed like celebrities. They just wore jeans and shirts and jackets, and they were both wearing boots. The lady had really red hair—like it was dyed, it was so red.
“Hey,” the lady said, putting a hand on the man’s chest. She didn’t look over at the man, her eyes locked on Bruce. “Bruce?”
Who wants to know? Bruce almost said, before he realized it was stupid. He’d also backed up against the wall, he realized. He must look like a complete ignoramus. He ripped off his glasses and put them in his pocket, then stepped forward. “You must be Romanoff,” he said, and was impressed with how cool he sounded.
She smiled a bit, and the man raised his brows. “Natasha,” she said. “This is Clint. Where are the others?”
Bruce shrugged. “I don’t know. Tony said he was going to show off his robots or something.” Yeah, he was totally cool.
Natasha looked up at Clint, and Clint nodded. Putting down his bag, he turned around and left the lab.
“Clint’s just going to go find them,” Natasha said, stepping closer. “How are we doing?”
Bruce shrugged again. “Can’t complain.”
“Uh-huh,” said Natasha. “Who did that to your eye?”
Dammit. He was going to be in trouble, now; he’d forgotten that he looked like a total juvenile delinquent. “Pepper,” he said, wincing, because getting hit by a girl was basically the epitome of uncool.
Natasha’s brows went straight up to her hairline. “Potts?”
“Yeah,” said Bruce. “I have no idea why.”
“Uh-huh,” she said again, non-committedly.
“Listen.” Bruce’s voice broke a little, and he coughed to clear his throat. “Is what Tony’s saying true?”
“I dunno,” she said. “What’s Tony saying?”
“That we’re all adults and we got turned into kids using alien technology.”
“I admit that’s pretty goddamn weird,” Natasha said, “but you seem to be living proof.”
Bruce pressed his lips together. “So, you know me as an adult?”
Natasha smiled. “I’ve run into you a couple times.”
“So what year do you think it is?”
“I think it’s 2013. Of course, we could all be suffering a mass delusion, but . . . Occam’s Razor.”
Bruce pretended to sigh, so she would see he knew what Occam’s Razor was. “Yeah. Do you have any idea how to get us back to normal?”
“I’m working on it. Meanwhile, you wanna start at the beginning?” Natasha sat down, then hooked another stool with her ankle, dragging it closer. “Potts gave me the short version.”
Bruce sat down. She made him want to have really good posture, which he typically didn’t. Dad was always griping at him about it.
He told her about how it had felt like waking up, looking around the lab and trying to figure out where he was and what he remembered. Explaining what happened after that, he conveniently left out all the parts where he was a dick and jerked people around—especially the part where he’d pushed Steve. Then he explained how he’d been looking at the Flux Accelerator, and he didn’t leave out anything about that, because he was proud he’d figured it out, and—well—it was awesome.
Starting to explain how he thought the Flux Accelerator worked, he called up the volumetric display on the holodesk. Then he put on his big glasses.
“Bruce,” she said.
When he looked up, he saw that she was smiling. “And this part is the arc reactor. It—”
“Bruce,” she said again.
“What?” he said, a little irritated, because this was the coolest part, and the older Tony must be awesome, and they were probably best friends, and the hydrogen fusion occurring in the plasma was really—
“You’re way over my head,” said Natasha.
“Oh,” said Bruce, and pulled off his glasses. “I . . . didn’t mean to.”
“That’s okay. We’re gonna get some scientists on this. I bet you can help them.”
“Really?” Bruce could feel his skin heating up.
Her smiled deepened. “Yeah. You’re as smart as any of them; I’m sure they’ll welcome the help.”
Just then, the door opened, Clint coming back with Pepper, Steve, and Tony. “Looky what I found,” Clint said. “We’d love to welcome you to Munchkinland.”
“He doesn’t get to call me munch— . . .” Tony trailed off, staring at Natasha. Then, shock appearing to have worn off, he marched straight up to her. “You must be Miss Romanoff. I’m sorry, but you seem real familiar. You look like you must be in my future.” He thrust out his hand.
“Seriously?” said Clint. “He’s twelve.”
“Thanks, kid,” said Natasha, shaking Tony’s hand. “You just won me a bet. Cough it up, Barton.”
Walking around them, Steve approached Bruce, and held out a bag full of ice. “We got you this,” he said. “Sorry it got a little melted.”
“Thanks,” said Bruce, putting the bag up to his face.
Muttering, Clint was reaching into his wallet while Natasha smirked at him.
“Wanna go up to my shop and take a look at my—”
Pepper moaned. “You are not going to make that robotic arm joke again.”
Tony looked miffed. “Why? It really is huge.”
Rolling her eyes, Pepper walked up to Natasha. “Hi, Miss Romanoff,” she said, also sticking out her hand. “We spoke on the phone. Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“Potts,” was all Natasha said, shaking Pepper’s hand.
Bruce realized he should’ve shaken her hand too. That would have been really mature or whatever, but instead he’d just stood there looking at her like some kind of dork.
As Steve introduced himself too, Clint stepped over toward Bruce. Probably going to tell him how rude he’d been, and Bruce started trying to think of an excuse. He looked around for the doors again. Maybe he could just—
“What is this, anyway?” Clint said out of the side of his mouth. “The Von Trapp Family Avengers?” He smiled down at Bruce. “You alright there, buddy?”
Bruce took the bag of melted ice off his face as quickly as he could and put it behind his back. “Yes, sir. I didn’t get in a fight.”
“That’s okay,” said Clint, smiling more. “You wanna let me take a—”
He reached down, his hand coming straight for Bruce's face, and Bruce jerked away, hard.
Clint let his arm fall, just looking at him.
Bruce had fucked up. He knew he’d fucked up.
“Right then,” Clint said softly. He turned around and walked back over to the other kids.
Bruce couldn’t believe what an idiot he’d been. God. No wonder Clint wanted to go talk to the other kids. Not that Bruce wanted to talk to him anyway; it was just—he hadn’t meant to act like a—like a jerk. Bruce was just—embarrassed. That was all.
“I’m gonna go buy clothes,” Natasha was saying. “Clint’s going to stay here with you.”
“Can I go?” said Pepper.
“Nope,” said Natasha.
“Why not?” Pepper tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “I’m good at shopping.”
“She is, you know,” said Tony. “Besides. You’ll need our sizes.”
“No, I won’t,” said Natasha. “JARVIS?”
“Forwarding measurements to your account,” said the British voice. “Will you be needing shoe sizes?”
“Oh my God, it is Big Brother,” said Tony.
“Sure,” said Natasha. “Why not.”
“We really have to stay in here?” Pepper said, frowning her big frown.
“She has a point,” said Tony. “Wouldn’t want anyone going stir crazy, would you? And you know, before he got tinyfied, Captain Adult totally let me take a spin in the limo, didn’t you, Cap?”
“I’m not sure what a limo is,” said Steve, folding his arms, “but my guess is no.”
“Chill out.” Tony turned back to Natasha. “He doesn’t remember. Did I mention he doesn’t remember? He took me out. He wasn’t afraid of some measly super-villains, were you, Steve? Oh yeah, don’t answer that. Do you want to be a square like Steve, Natasha? We got Thai. There was curry!”
Pepper was clutching her skirt around her waist, trying not to look desperate. “We won’t be any trouble. We just really want to see what the future looks like.”
“Nat,” said Clint, nodding his head toward the other side of the lab.
They moved away, and Clint started talking in an undertone to Natasha. Tony started to go over there to hear what they were saying, but Steve grabbed his arm. “They’re talking,” Steve said.
“They’re talking about us,” Tony whined.
“Sure, they are,” said Steve. “And you can feel free to talk about them.”
“Why don’t you talk about them?” said Tony. “Bet you never seen a girl dressed like that, eh Steve?”
Steve blushed, and Natasha turned around. “Bruce,” she said.
Bruce looked up.
“You can come with me. The rest of you, you’re staying here.” Natasha got out her phone, touching the screen.
“Now who’s up for a nice game of Parcheesi?” said Clint, with a big wide grin.
“Seriously?” said Tony. “Seriously, Bruce gets to go?”
Bruce could feel his face heating up, his thumb running over the rest of his fingers. Clint had said something about him. He just knew Clint had said something about him—maybe he’d told Natasha about how he’d gotten into a fight, or something about how rude he’d been—
Pepper’s face was heating up too, if the color of it was any indication. “I asked first!”
“I’m sure they have a reason,” Steve began.
“Whatever,” Bruce said, trying to shrug, like it was nothing. Natasha was on the phone. For just one second, Bruce thought she might be calling Dad, until he realized that was utterly preposterous. “I can stay,” he said.
“Nope,” said Clint. “Natasha says she really wants to take you. She’s calling for a car, so you don’t have to walk far in your shoes. I reckon they’re too big, but you’ll probably want to put them on.”
“Yes sir,” Bruce said, going to get his shoes. He didn’t look at any of them.
“Look at him,” said Tony. “He doesn’t even want to go. It’s okay, Bruce.” Putting his hand over his heart, Tony stepped forward. “I’ll make the sacrifice. I, alone, though it gives me no pleasure, shall escort the beautiful Miss Romanoff through the wilds of the future—”
“Oh my God, shut up,” said Pepper. Frowning, she was looking between Clint, Natasha, and Bruce a little suspiciously. They probably have a reason, Steve had said. Pepper was really smart. She was probably figuring it out.
“I would have thought that you would have learned by now that I am physically incapable of shutting up,” Tony was saying, while Natasha put away her phone and walked over to Bruce. “It’s a rare condition,” Tony went on. “Few people learn to live with it. Jesus fucking Christ, Bruce, just go already. What is with you? She doesn’t have cooties. Only Pepper has cooties—right, Pep? Because when we make out in the future—”
“Alright, Bruce?” Natasha said, smiling down at him. “Come on. Let’s go. Bring your ice.”
Reluctantly, Bruce followed her to the door, carrying his ice.
“Do you know what we’re going to do?” Clint said as they left. “Circus stunts. Yes, circus stunts. I know this one stunt where you have to shut up for a whole five minutes straight. It’s awesome.”
Then Bruce was going out the door with Natasha. They got on the elevator and started the ride down in silence. With one hand, Bruce held the ice to his face. On his other hand his thumb kept running over his fingers; he couldn’t stop it.
“What’s the matter?” Natasha said, when they were near the bottom. “Don’t like shopping?”
“Not particularly,” said Bruce, taking the ice away from his face.
She smiled. “And here I invited you because I thought shopping with an unlimited credit card was the childhood dream of every young man.”
“I’m not a child,” said Bruce, hating how childish he sounded, “and you didn’t invite me.”
“Sure I did,” said Natasha.
“No, you didn’t,” said Bruce. “Clint told you to bring me.”
Natasha looked down at him. Unlike his mother and plenty of his teachers, he couldn’t read what she was thinking. “There’s one thing you should know about Clint,” she said as the elevator door opened. “He doesn’t tell me to do anything. Sometimes he suggests; then he stands back and hopes I listen.”
They stepped out. Bruce couldn’t help being curious, even if he was still embarrassed and humiliated by getting sent away. The lobby looked like plenty of lobbies on television, but Bruce hadn’t had much cause to be in big New York office buildings before, and there were computers at the front desk.
Leading him to the doors, Natasha looked down at him. “Why do you think Clint told me to bring you?”
Bruce glanced up, and then away. “I don’t think he likes me,” he said.
“I see.” The words were clipped and lacked inflection; Bruce couldn’t tell what she saw.
Then they were going outside, and for a minute or two, Bruce was absorbed in looking around him. The cars were different—sleeker, rounder. The clothing was a little different too—more like Natasha’s, a little more understated and less colorful. There weren’t any hover cars, though. Bruce wanted to ask Natasha about it, but he didn’t want her to laugh, or say something like, ha ha, of course there aren’t any hover cars, so he didn’t.
“This is us,” she said, when a black sedan rolled up. She opened the back door and poked her head inside, then got in. “Come on,” she said, scooting over. “Get in.” As Bruce got in, she added, “Just don’t tell Stark you rode around Manhattan like a diva. He’ll get jealous.”
It wasn’t a limo or anything, but it was certainly the nicest car that Bruce had ever been in. There was a plastic wall to separate them from the driver, like he’d seen in taxis in the movies. The car started moving.
“Are you friends?” Bruce blurted, before he could stop himself. “I mean, with Tony. When he’s grown up.”
“Friends is such a strong word.” She pursed her mouth; it twisted to one side. “How ‘bout I put it this way. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that man. Also, he’s hilarious. Not always intentionally.”
“Why?” said Bruce. “I mean, why do you respect him?”
“Good question.” For a moment, Bruce thought that meant she wasn’t going to answer, but then she looked straight at him. “I think it’s because every decision he’s ever made is his own. He decided who he was going to be and that’s who he was. Not many people can say that. Here, gimme that.”
As she reached out her hand, Bruce gave her his ice. She rolled down her window, opened the bag, then poured out the excess water as the street rolled on by. Then she twisted the bag around the remaining ice, and rolled up the window. “There you go.”
Embarrassed about the whole thing, Bruce took the ice, and looked out his own window.
Natasha didn’t say anything for a while. Then, “I didn’t bring you because Clint suggested it. I brought you because I wanted you with me.”
“Yeah?” Bruce’s voice was sarcastic. He didn’t look back at her.
“Yeah,” said Natasha. “I like the moody ones. Ask Clint.”
“I’m not moody,” said Bruce.
There was another pause. Bruce tried to see Natasha’s reflection in the window, but he couldn’t. It was a bummer, because he couldn’t really see the street that well either. The windows were tinted.
“You’re not going to ask me whether we’re friends when we’re grown up?” Natasha asked.
“I already know the answer,” said Bruce, pressing in his ice.
“Oh?” said Natasha. “Can you tell me? Because I would really like to know.”
Bruce was going to say, I don’t have friends, but then it occurred to him that she might—she just might—say something horrifically saccharine, such as of course you do. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stand it, especially if she didn’t say it after all, so he didn’t say anything.
He didn’t even really care. He was old. He was living on his own. He didn’t have to worry any more, and idly, he wondered whether he would even visit Mom, whether he would have developed some warped sense of obligation. He didn’t think he would. He wondered whether he missed her, though, whether he ever got a craving for the taste of her spaghetti. She made the sauce with sour cream. Took the edge off, she said.
The thing was, he didn’t have to be this person any more. He wasn’t this person anymore; he was grown up already. If only he could be grown up right now; he wouldn’t even have to think about this. He wouldn’t have to think about Clint or any of it. It would all be over, and he’d never feel like this again.
This was the simplest answer possible, to everything. This was Occam’s Razor.
“Can you tell me everything that’s happened?” Bruce asked at last. “In the world I mean. Since 1979.”
“Sure,” said Natasha. “I can tell you. You know what the Berlin Wall is, right?”
Natasha was an efficient shopper. When they got out of the car, she told the driver to drive around; then they went into the store and straight up to the young adult section. It was Macy’s. The only real difference between now and 1979, besides the clothes, was that everyone seemed to have phones or tiny computers or whatever. Otherwise it was boring. Tony and Pepper probably would have enjoyed it.
Once they were among the racks, Natasha had her phone in one hand—probably looking at the sizes—and just started pulling things off shelves with the other. “You’re not even going to look at the prices?” Bruce asked.
“Why should I?” said Natasha. “I’m going to use Tony’s card.”
“His credit card?” Bruce said. “How did you—”
“I have my ways,” was all Natasha would say.
Later, she made him look at glasses. Bruce didn’t want to, because the other ones fit and it seemed pointless to get new glasses since this was supposed to be only a temporary thing. She didn’t seem interested in his protests, though, and made him try on several.
“Gimme your old ones,” she said. Reluctantly, Bruce took them out, and she slipped them in the pocket of her jacket. “These new ones won’t be prescription, but at least they’ll fit your face.”
“I don’t care.”
“Here. Try these." She handed him a new pair. "These are cute.”
“I don’t want to be cute.”
She’d sort of smiled then. “Then you have a serious problem I can't help you solve.”
By the time they left, Bruce had new glasses, and they had four big bags of clothes. Bruce’s own bag had two pairs of pants, four shirts, two belts, a bag of underwear, a bag of socks, pajamas, a bathing suit, flip-flops, his old clothes, and his old shoes. Their car drove up, but Natasha just tossed the bags in, took Bruce’s bag, and tossed that in too. After she said something to the driver, the car drove away.
“Aren’t we going back?” asked Bruce.
Natasha was doing something on her phone. “Do you like ice cream, Bruce?”
“How about frozen yogurt?”
“I’ve never had frozen yogurt,” said Bruce, “but it sounds disgusting.”
She smiled, just on the side of her mouth. “Come on.”
The frozen yogurt place was about a block away, and it was called Pinkberry. Inside there were a lot of recessed boxes in the walls with silver levers.
“You can try them out if you want,” Natasha explained. She picked up a tiny paper cup, like for ketchup, and pushed down on one of the handles on the one of the machines. It was like soft serve, Bruce guessed, and a dollop of ice cream or whatever landed in the cup. Natasha pulled it out with her tongue, and Bruce looked away.
He didn’t really like pretty girls. In fact, he didn’t like girls at all. He thought they were dumb. They just made him feel . . . awkward and sort of sweaty. Guys like Tony wanted to do things to them, but they just made Bruce wish they would go away. Just another way to be a freak, he guessed.
“It’s good,” said Natasha. “Come on and try it.”
Bruce tried it.
It was alright, he guessed.
Natasha got a bowl for him and he put some chocolate yogurt in his cup while she got her own; then she pointed him over to the toppings. There were a lot of cookies and brownies and . . . weird stuff like cereal and round, smushy things—all kinds of stuff Mom never would have let him have, and Natasha said he could have as much as he wanted, so he got a lot. “Don’t forget to get sauce,” said Natasha, passing him by with this utterly tiny cup of vanilla with some strawberries on top. “They have marshmallow cream.”
That was the point at which Bruce looked up, and took his hand off the bowl.
“You done?” said Natasha. “’Cause they gotta weigh it.”
“I don’t want it,” said Bruce.
Bruce crossed his arms over his chest.
Natasha just shrugged. “Okay.” She picked up his bowl and took it over to the cashier, paid for both of them, then picked them up and started walking to a table. “You gonna sit with me, at least?” she said, looking over her shoulder.
Scowling, Bruce went to go sit with her at one of the little white tables.
“What’s up?” she said, nudging his bowl toward him.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Mm. That’s a loaded question.” She took a bite of her yogurt, turning her spoon in her mouth.
Bruce looked away. She’d bought the yogurt for a reason. She was probably doing that to her spoon for a reason, too. People like her—teachers and doctors and counselors and whatever—they always had plans, because they always thought they knew what was going on. Like being old made them experts on being a kid.
“Probably right now what I most want is for you to tell me why you don't want your yogurt,” Natasha said thoughtfully. “But I also really want to get these assassin ninja bastards who’ve been making my life a living hell lately off my back, so you know.” Natasha nibbled on the end of her spoon, then took it out again. “It’s a tossup.”
“You’re trying to get something out of me,” Bruce said, irritated.
“Ah,” Natasha said lightly. “I wouldn’t be nice to you otherwise, right?”
Bruce glared at the yogurt.
“You gonna laser beam that with your eyes, or what? ‘Cause lapushka, it’s already melting.”
Bruce didn’t know what lapushka meant; it was Russian or something. Bruce was pretty sure it was a way to make fun of him. She took another bite of yogurt, doing things with her spoon again—Bruce was pretty sure that was a way to make fun of him, too.
“At least put it to good use,” Natasha went on, when she’d finally extracted the spoon. “You could put it on your eye, or something. How’s that feel, by the way?” She took another bite of yogurt.
Bruce looked away. “Fine.”
“Okay. You ever had a black eye before?” She sucked on the spoon.
“Yeah,” he said, before he realized it was a trick.
“Mm-hm.” Focusing her gaze solely on her yogurt, she scooped up more of it and ate it. “How did those happen?”
Bruce glared at her. “I ran into something.”
“That sucks. What’d you run into?”
“I’m just asking.”
“Why? I didn’t do anything.”
She looked up then, putting down her yogurt. “I know you didn’t,” she said, her voice steady and quiet.
“Did Clint tell you I got in a fight?” Bruce asked, his fist clenching under the table. “Because I didn’t. Pepper hit me.”
She shook her head. “Clint didn’t tell me anything. Are you sure you’re not going to eat your yogurt? Because if you’re not, I’m going to.”
“Have it,” said Bruce.
“Goody.” Natasha pulled the bowl closer with her spoon, then took a great big bite. “So, tell me all about you. You’re in school, huh?”
“I’m not in school,” said Bruce, still irritated. “I’m forty-five. Apparently.”
“Sure,” said Natasha, “but I wanna know about you the age you are now.”
“Maybe I don’t want to tell you.”
“Okay.” She took another bite of his yogurt. “So you’re in what, eighth grade?”
“I’m a sophomore. In highschool.”
“Huh. I thought American middle school was—”
“I skipped grades.”
Natasha nodded, twisting the spoon in her mouth again, then taking it out. “Is it hard?”
“It’s too easy.”
“Want some yogurt?” Natasha said, and pushed it back to him.
Bruce picked up his spoon, and poked at the yogurt like he wasn’t going to eat it. Then Natasha went back to eating her own, so he started eating his.
“What about your parents?” she said, after a little while.
“What about them?” Regretting eating any of the yogurt, he started poking at it again. She was definitely trying to get something out of him.
Bruce shrugged. “My dad’s a physicist.”
“A nuclear physicist.” When Natasha seemed unimpressed, Bruce went on, “Better than Alvarez. Better than Richter and that lot. You only don’t know about him because—because he’s not—he’s not flashy like those other guys. He’s actually a genius.”
“Oh?” Natasha said. “How do you know?”
Bruce tilted his head. “I guess you just wouldn’t understand.”
“Uh-huh,” said Natasha. “I know who Brian Banner was.”
“Really?” Bruce guessed he should have been happy or proud or whatever, because that was always how he thought he’d feel when Dad finally made a breakthrough, and his colleagues started appreciating him and he got past his mistakes or whatever. Instead, Bruce could feel a pit opening inside of him. “He’s famous?”
“He’s dead,” said Natasha.
The pit clotted up. Bruce couldn’t feel anything inside of it.
Dad is dead.
He guessed he visited Mom all the time, then.
“My father was a bright man too,” Natasha said. “He taught me almost everything I know.”
“Oh,” said Bruce.
“My guess is he had some things in common with your dad. Not everything. Just essentials.”
Somehow Bruce doubted that. He poked at his yogurt. “So is my mom . . . close by?”
Natasha shook her head. “She’s dead too.”
“What?” Bruce dropped his spoon. “Why? I mean—how? I thought if Dad—” He made himself stop that thought, and instead tried to search in that pit still inside his chest for something. Anything.
Dad was dead; Mom was dead, and sure, Dad did some bad things, but it was Dad, and Mom was Mom with her big brown eyes and faded dumpy dresses, and the way she listened to the radio and sang these stupid, stupid songs, and the way she was disappointed he didn’t have green eyes like Dad’s, and the way she was so happy he had inherited her skin, and the way she said all the time, You are so bright. Just like your father. Your father’s bright, bright boy—stupid things like that.
He should feel something, like sad or upset or maybe relieved or helpless or stunned—was this stunned?—but instead he just felt nothing. There was nothing there. It was like a great big sinkhole in the cavity of his chest; where his heart should be, there was nothing.
There was something wrong with him, Bruce guessed, dragging his spoon through the melting yogurt.
“I’m sorry,” said Natasha.
He looked up at her. She appeared to be investigating her yogurt. “How did she die?” he asked.
“Car accident. Instantaneous.”
“Oh,” said Bruce, and then he did feel relieved. “Good.” Then he realized what he’d said. “I mean—”
“No, very good. Death is a certainty; the way we go isn’t.”
“I read about the Hulk on the internet,” Bruce said finally, after a long time. “I read I killed people.”
“Hm.” When he looked at her at last, she added, “I guess we’re even.”
“I’ve killed people too.”
Bruce swallowed, but refused to feel afraid. “Why?” was all he said.
Natasha just shrugged. “There were reasons at the time.”
Bruce looked at his yogurt. “I pushed Steve.”
“Yeah,” said Natasha, sounding unsurprised. He knew Clint must have told her, though when he thought about it, he didn’t really know how Clint knew. “Why did you do that?”
Bruce just shrugged. “He got in the way.”
He lifted his eyes. “You’re not angry?”
Natasha finished up her yogurt, then looked over at Bruce’s. “Here, you wanna eat this together?” She dipped her spoon in his cup again.
“Okay,” he said, and took another bite.
“Plenty of things are all my fault,” she said, after they’d eaten a couple bites. “But there are plenty of things that aren’t. Violence isn’t a thing that springs fully formed into your heart when you’re twenty-one, Bruce, or when you have an accident. Lots of times, it begins when you’re young. Lots of times, you’re not the one who put it there. You wanna know who told me that?”
Bruce ate the frozen yogurt.
She twisted the spoon in her mouth, took it out. “It was Clint.”
When they got back to Stark Tower, Pepper and Steve went to go change. Tony stayed in the rec room, trying to tell Bruce all about how awesome Clint was. “He can swallow a whole knife,” Tony said, and tried to demonstrate. Actually there were sort of a lot of knives in here.
“You’re fired,” Natasha told Clint.
“Come on,” said Clint. “He’s twelve. That’s like . . . eight years older than he needs to be.”
Attention deprived, Bruce thought, as he watched Tony trying to put the knife in his mouth. That’s what this was called; that’s what teachers said sometimes when he got in fights. Whatever. So Tony’s dad worked too much and didn’t pay attention to him. Boo hoo. Get in line.
After that, Natasha said they were going to order pizza, and Tony argued (“That’s what we had last night; can we please just go to The Four Seasons”) until she agreed to get Indian. Then Pepper and Steve got back, and Clint tried to show them how to do back flips while Natasha went off somewhere to talk on the phone.
Tony was still trying to fill Bruce in on everything they had done while he had been shopping with Natasha. “And then we sparred,” said Tony. “I showed Steve all the moves.”
“He was a really good teacher,” Steve said.
Tony went pink and beamed at the same time. “You’re not so bad yourself,” said Tony. “Just remember when you grow up and are kicking a lot of ass, you learned it all from me.”
Steve smiled. “I did beat you once, remember.”
Tony blushed again, darting a look at Bruce. “Yeah, well,” he started to say, then coughed. He looked at Steve. “I remember. Good job.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Did you let him win?”
“Yes,” said Steve, but he was still smiling.
“Stop saying that,” Tony told Steve, looking earnestly pleased that Bruce had guessed the truth. “You totally got the better of me. You distracted me. You used strategy.”
Bruce was going to tell him that he was laying it on a little thick, but Steve smiled and said, “Well thanks,” and Tony beamed so goddamn incandescently that Bruce wasn’t going to ruin the moment or whatever. They could stand there and smile at each other all day; he didn’t care. And now Steve was asking Tony to maybe show him some more stuff, and Tony was trying and failing horrible to act modest, like he couldn’t tell Steve didn’t care about kung fu and was just asking to be nice. Whatever. Just whatever.
Then Natasha came over and said she had someone named Doctor Erik Selvig on the phone, and she wanted Tony and Bruce to come talk to him about what had happened. They went back to the lab, where there was this old guy on a clear panel television, who just stared at them in shock for a moment before saying, “Mister Stark and Doctor Banner, I presume?”
“’Doctor’?” said Bruce, perking up. “I mean, yes, sir.”
“He’s a doctor too,” Tony reminded Bruce. “Hey Erik. Can I call you Erik? Listen, I bet you have all kinds’ve questions. Lemme get Jarvis to fire up the video, and we’ll go from there. Jarvis, baby? Hit it.”
Tony talked for a while about what had happened, and Doctor Selvig asked a few questions, then Tony mentioned as to how Bruce had been testing the “cure” or whatever, and that was how they all got here. Tony went on talking after that, but Bruce didn’t really hear. Tony hadn’t mentioned this was Bruce’s fault before. He’d conveniently left that part out.
“Oh,” Tony was saying, when Bruce tuned in again. “Bruce’s got it worked out better’n me. You wanna take it away, sparky?”
“What?” Bruce said.
Tony nudged him. “Erik wants to know about the Flux Accelerator.”
“Oh,” said Bruce. “Yes, sir. I mean, Doctor. I mean.” Then Bruce tried to explain what he’d gotten from the notes left by his older self. It would’ve been a really good chance to sound really smart and articulate and way more adult than Tony, but Bruce kept thinking about how he’d messed it all up—even when he was an adult—and he kept kind of stumbling. When he explained the part about the twin paradox and traveling faster than light, Doctor Selvig started frowning.
“This doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Bruce said, looking at his feet.
Tony nudged him again. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, “but it happened. Jarvis, forward Erik Hulk’s notes.”
“I’ve got them right here,” said Doctor Selvig. “The calculations are correct, and I’ve got to admit that both the equipment and the theory are brilliant, but in terms of—ah, ‘convincing’ the bonds in the body that the body’s particles are moving faster than light . . . this is pure science fiction.”
“Yeah,” said Tony, “but Hulk did it. He’s the smartest man alive.”
“Tony,” Bruce muttered.
“He is,” Tony insisted. “He showed me how it worked. I didn’t get all of it, but I know that he—”
“Shut up,” Bruce said, nudging him. Hard.
“What’s your problem?” Tony hissed.
Bruce glanced at the screen. He did not want to be having this conversation in front of an important scientist. “I got it wrong,” he said in an undertone.
“No, you didn’t,” said Tony. “Didn’t I tell you? I found the apple. It was a seed.”
“You did that part,” Bruce muttered, because Tony had been the one to reduce his own age. Bruce had just been the one to mistakenly do it to everyone else.
“Yeah, well,” said Tony. “That just means that I’m a genius too.” He turned back to Doctor Selvig. “Aliens attacked Manhattan. We’re living science fiction.”
“You have a point,” said Doctor Selvig. For a moment, he appeared to be thinking about it, and then he shook his head. “Miss Romanoff?”
“’Sup, Doc?” said Natasha, slipping the phone she’d been looking at into her back pocket and stepping forward.
“I’m afraid I need eyes on this,” Doctor Selvig said.
Natasha glanced at Tony and Bruce, then turned back to the screen. “Sooner would be better than later,” she said.
“I understand,” said Doctor Selvig. “It would take me two or three days to get to New York—”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. can have you here in twenty hours.”
“If that’s true,” said Doctor Selvig, “you could have a scientist of twice my worth there in five.”
“Foster,” said Natasha.
Doctor Selvig nodded. “With your permission, I’ll call her and forward her these notes.”
“Great,” said Natasha. “Tell her the jet’ll be there at seven.”
The food came and everyone argued and whined about what movie to watch while Bruce pretended like he didn’t care.
“You’d make everyone watch Pinocchio if I left it up to you,” said Natasha.
“Why not?” said Clint. “Best movie ever made.”
“Everyone’s already seen that,” said Tony.
“I haven’t,” said Steve.
“We want to watch a movie from the future,” said Pepper.
“Terminator II,” said Natasha.
“Way to be retro,” said Clint.
“I first saw it last year,” said Natasha. She crooked a finger at Tony. “He made me.”
“Oooh,” said Tony. “Did I tie you up?”
“It was one of the better ones,” said Natasha. “That, and Run Lola Run.”
“God,” said Clint, “are we really having this conversation again?”
“Nope,” said Natasha.
Instead they watched this Star Trek movie that was sort of like Star Trek, but with new people. There was this whole time travel alternate reality thing that was completely implausible, but otherwise it was okay.
After that Tony said he wanted to go swimming, and Steve said he didn’t know how.
“How could you not know how to swim?” said Tony.
Steve frowned at him. “Why would I?”
“I don’t know,” said Tony. “Maybe so you don’t drown?”
“It’s okay, Steve,” said Pepper. “I’ll teach you.”
Tony’s face instantly heated up. “I was going to teach him.”
Pepper raised her brows at him. “Then you should have said something, instead of being a jerk about it.”
Tony rounded on Steve. “Which of us do you want to teach you, Steve—Pepper or me?”
“Um,” said Steve. “Are you going swimming, Bruce?”
“Swimming is lame,” said Bruce, who didn’t know how to swim either. He wasn’t about to tell Tony that, and anyway, he couldn’t think of anything he would less rather do. Bruce didn’t have anything showing—he’d checked when he’d changed—but even when he didn’t, he didn’t even like changing for gym. Besides, getting wet for no reason and pointlessly going in circles sounded way less interesting than checking out the Flux Accelerator some more.
Tony argued with him for a while, but eventually he, Pepper and Steve went down to the pool (why did this building even have a pool, anyway, Bruce thought) and Natasha stayed up in the lab with Bruce. “I don’t need a baby-sitter,” Bruce tried to tell her, but she’d just smiled.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I like you better anyway.”
She was obviously just saying that, but it made him feel kind of nice, in an uncomfortable way. Bruce had told the others that the shopping was boring (and that there weren’t any hover cars). They hadn’t asked again why he got to go and they didn’t. Maybe Clint had warned them about him or something.
Bruce didn’t really care.
Later Pepper and Tony came back up to the lab, wearing more new clothes, their hair wet. Actually, when Bruce thought about it, they kind of looked like movie stars too—just very young ones: Pepper with her hair long and neatly combed, wearing a little yellow sundress or whatever that Natasha had given her; Tony with his big, shit-eating grin and stupid pants. Of course, Bruce had nice pants now too, but they made him feel like a dork. He knew he didn’t wear them like Tony, who looked like they’d been made for him. Tony and Pepper made Bruce wish he didn’t have to look at them, so he didn’t.
Tony strode right up to Bruce, sliding his hands easily into his pockets. “What’s the buzz,” he said, “tell me what’s happenin’.”
Bruce closed some of the files he’d been looking at. He didn’t really want Tony to know he’d been reading about Iron Man part of the time. For one thing, Bruce already knew Tony was the type to get a big head. Glancing up, Bruce saw that Pepper was on another computer, and Natasha was still on her phone. Clint and Steve weren’t around.
Following his gaze, Tony said, “Natasha, huh? Yeah, totally a babe. It’s okay if you like ‘em older. Not really my style, but—”
“Did you teach Steve to swim?” Bruce asked.
“Yep.” Tony bounced on the balls of his feet, then rocked back on his heels. “He’s a regular Spitz. What did you do?”
“I thought Pepper wanted to teach him.”
“Actually, we kind of both did. Tickle it, Bruce,” he said, because Bruce was having trouble getting a part of the display to expand. “Here.” He tickled it and of course it worked for him. “Clint showed us how to do these different dives. Steve almost drowned like eight times, but I saved him. I was sort of hoping Pepper might almost drown so I could give her mouth-to-mouth, but she didn’t. She’s a fantastic swimmer.” Tony rocked on his heels again. “She wore a two-piece, you know. You should have come.”
“Whatever,” said Bruce.
Tony glanced to the other side of the lab. “Wanted to see Natasha in a two-piece? Is that it?”
“Then what gives, man? Why are you so—”
“So what?” Bruce demanded.
Tony just shrugged. “Heavy.”
“I’m not heavy,” Bruce said, even though he didn’t really know what Tony meant by that.
“Yeah,” said Tony. “What’re you doing?”
Still fiddling with the display, Bruce just said, “Where is Steve, anyway?”
Tony shrugged. “Said he had to ‘rest before supper’. Can you believe that guy?”
“What about Pepper?”
“What about Pepper?”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you go bug her?”
For a moment, Tony just looked at him. “Because I’m bugging you,” he said finally.
Bruce tried to think of something that would make him go away, but the only thing he could think of was, “Well, don’t.” He reached out for another panel on the Flux Accelerator, but it wouldn’t come.
Then Tony tickled it, and it went. “I lied, you know,” he said.
Bruce glanced up at him. Tony’s eyes were locked on him, his gaze solid and so still that Bruce looked away.
“When I said that no one liked you when you were grown up,” Tony said. “They both liked you. Pepper liked you, and she’s supposed to be my girlfriend. And Steve—he liked you best.”
“Steve is Captain America,” Bruce said, hating how thick and dull that sounded.
“Yeah. He was.” Bruce wasn’t looking at him, but he could tell when Tony dropped his gaze. “He was even better in person than he was in all the—” he waved a hand—“legend and hoopla. You know what they always say he was: big, strong, handsome, righteous to the core. They also forgot to mention he was really fucking nice, but it was different with you.”
“What?” said Bruce, startled into swallowing hard.
“Yeah. With you, he was more than just nice. It was like . . .” Tony swallowed also, looking down at his shoes. “He’d get this special look, you know? Like he wanted to make things better for you. Like he wished the whole world could be better for you—like he wanted to make it that way.”
“But . . . he’s Captain America,” Bruce said stupidly.
“And what are you, moldy cottage cheese?” Something ticked in Tony’s jaw, and the hands in his pockets were fists. “I’m telling you, you were, you know, best friends. You always looked tired, but when you looked at him, you weren’t. It was—you know, you made each other stronger.”
Bruce could tell that Tony was trying to tell him something. There was something he wasn’t quite saying, something he wanted Bruce to understand, and Bruce didn’t know what it was.
Tony slipped his hands in his pockets again. “It this super-secret club with just the two of you.”
“So you’re saying Captain America and me were faggots?”
Tony flinched, a flush spilling over his cheeks, just as though he’d been slapped. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Bruce knew he’d hit a nerve, and he didn’t know quite how or why he’d done it, just that he’d been sure Tony had been making fun of him, and now he was really sure he hadn’t been. “Were you jealous?” he asked, because he was an asshole and he wanted to make sure Tony knew it.
“Whatever,” Tony said, whirling around. “What the fuck ever. You’re not even worth it.”
Later Natasha ordered cheeseburgers and Clint showed them how to make animals out of the paper wrappings. Bruce thought it was dumb, but he didn’t say anything; Tony thought it was dumb and said so. He was touchy with everyone and kept saying he wanted to go out, and that if Clint and Natasha were any good, they would have let him go outside because it wouldn’t matter where he was, if they were so ‘highly trained in weapons and defense,’ like Jarvis had said.
“We are highly trained,” said Natasha. “We’re just not babysitters.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Clint. “Now, whoever burps the loudest gets a prize.”
Pepper got a little paper swan for all her trouble. “Maybe my prize should be I get to go outside,” she said.
“Clever,” said Clint.
“No,” was all Natasha said.
“Whenever you’re considering a life of espionage, call me,” Clint told Pepper, making a phone gesture with his hand and wagging it by his hear. “I got the hook ups.”
Natasha snorted. “Sometimes I find it hard to believe you even exist.”
“Whenever we have kids she’s going to make a terrible father,” said Clint.
Steve looked interested. “Are you married?”
Scowling, Clint leaned back in his chair. “You know? I can’t remember. Natasha, are we married?”
“You’re going to make someone a lovely housewife one day,” said Natasha.
“Whatever,” said Tony, crumpling his paper into a ball. He threw it at the trashcan, missed, and turned to walk away. “I’m going to find a video game or something.”
“What’s his problem?” Pepper wanted to know.
Steve looked out after him, then turned back to the table. “May I please be excused?” he asked.
“Stop asking things like that,” said Natasha.
“What she means is, yes,” said Clint.
“Thank you, sir,” said Steve, pushing away from the table. He hurried out after Tony.
“That boy should eat his victuals,” said Clint, then reached over, grabbed the rest of Steve’s hamburger, shoved it in his mouth. Wiping his hands on a napkin, he stood up. “I’ll go see what they’re up to,” he said, mouth still half-full.
“I’m sure there’s a sitcom like this,” Natasha said.
“Family Ties,” said Pepper.
“Something like that,” said Natasha. “Let’s watch something with a lot of blood and guts.”
Kill Bill was okay. Bruce liked the girl in it. Steve had a lot of questions about it, but after a while he stopped asking them. At first Bruce thought it was because Steve had decided it was an awful movie, but later he realized Steve was asleep. Natasha just let him, while Pepper seemed torn between thinking the movie was fascinating and absolutely appalling.
Tony didn’t watch it with them; he was off having a sulk somewhere, and Bruce guessed Clint had to keep an eye on him. Maybe Tony was just having a good time with his brand new dad or whatever. Bruce didn’t care.
He didn’t understand what Tony was so mad about anyway. He’d twisted Tony’s arm and pushed him around, and later Tony acted like nothing had happened, but oh no, make fun of Captain America and Tony was totally all up in arms. Bruce didn’t see what the big deal was. He got called a faggot all the time, because he was smaller than all the kids he went to school with and because they were all dumb fucking dipshits. So what. It was just a name.
Before the movie was over, Clint came down with Tony. Bruce guessed Natasha had texted him to come get Steve—he’d found out about texting when they ate, because Tony’s phone kept getting texts.
Tony just hovered in the doorway while Clint went over to Steve. “Bedtime for Bonzo,” he said, in a low, murmuring voice, then scooped Steve up in his arms. Then he left, and Natasha turned off the TV, saying they had a scientist to meet.
Jane Foster, the scientist, was far younger and far prettier than Bruce had expected. “Oh, wow,” she said, when they walked in with Natasha.
“Back atcha,” said Tony. He sauntered up, and stuck out his hand. “I’m Tony. AKA Iron Man. I don’t know if we’ve ever met, but if we have, my future’s looking up.”
She shook his hand. “It’s really you. I mean—we haven’t met. But—it’s really you.” She just kept shaking his hand.
“In the flesh,” said Tony.
“Wow. That’s just—wow.”
Tony puffed up. “That’s what they all say.”
“Can I—” Letting go of his hand, she reached out to touch Tony’s chest, and Tony’s jumped.
“Hey, whoa, this is moving a little fast, usually I wait until at least the first date, but okay, I’m easy—”
“This is incredible,” Foster said, poking at Tony’s sternum.
“I’ll say,” said Tony, blushing.
Foster turned away—it was actually sort of like she forgot him. “And you’re Doctor Banner. Wow.” She stuck out her hand. “This is really great.”
Bruce looked over at Natasha, who was just watching, so Bruce shook Foster’s hand.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” Foster said. “Weird under these circumstances, but I really admire your work.” She was still shaking his hand. “Do you still—you know—” she made a little face, then dropped his hand in order to wave her arms crazily—“grrrr-aaaaargh?”
“Um,” said Bruce, then looked at Natasha again for help.
“He doesn’t,” said Natasha, her voice flat. “Miss Foster, can we—”
“Jane,” Foster said, her own voice absent. “I’m sorry. This is just—Pepper Potts, right? Jane Foster.” Foster sort of seemed to forget she was shaking people’s hands; once she started doing it, she just kept on doing it. “I really admire Stark Industries’ work on green energy. And the Foundation’s recent contributions to contraceptive distribution. I feel like it’s a real humanitarian direction for—I’m sorry. Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”
Pepper smirked, which was weird, if you asked Bruce. Her brow also went up, but she kept on shaking Foster’s hand, and all she said was, “Twelve.”
“Uh-huh. Foster finally dropped her hand and turned to Bruce. “And you?”
“Twelve,” said Bruce.
“And you’re twelve,” Foster said to Tony.
Tony lifted his chin. “I act much older than my age.”
Foster glanced at Natasha. “It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it . . .” She turned back to Bruce, Tony, and Pepper. “I wonder if we calculated your ages to the day—it’s fascinating, because if the device is set to fold a specific mass, then—is Steve Rogers twelve as well?”
“Yes,” said Tony. “I can answer any questions about Steve. He and I have grown very close with time.” Lifting his chin again, he steadfastly didn’t look at Bruce.
“Like I thought,” said Foster. “He would have been much older than you, according to the differential in his own size, so obviously the mass removed is proportionate, rather than—but you’re obviously not the same size, either. You didn’t even deage the same number of years, since—what year is it?”
Pepper smirked some more. “2013.”
“I’m 1979,” said Bruce.
“’77,” said Tony. “I’m the oldest.”
“And what’s the last day you remember?” said Foster.
“Yeah, that’s where it starts to get a little hazy,” said Tony.
“I think it was April,” said Pepper. “Maybe May?”
Bruce had tried to remember what had been happening right before he woke up here, but it had seemed hazy, like Tony had said. He had really distinct memories of going to school and doing homework, Dad coming home from work and brushing his teeth in the morning, but it felt like . . . last week sometime, like there were a couple days—maybe weeks—that were unaccounted for. Like someone had reached in his head and swirled it around.
“Hulk did tests on me,” said Tony. “I’m sure the results are around here somewhere.”
“I did tests on you?” Bruce said, turning to him in surprise.
Tony didn’t even look at him. His voice was icy when he said, “I said Hulk did tests on me. Because I let him.”
“But the brains’ mass can’t have changed that much,” Foster said. She was still looking at them the way you would look at a jigsaw. Or maybe animals in a zoo. “The volume of grey matter peaks before the age of twenty. Or so I’m told. We could ask a physiologist, but—”
“Ask Jarvis,” said Tony.
“The volume of total cerebral and gray matter does peak between the ages of ten and twenty,” said Jarvis, “but white matter and ventricular volume may continue to increase with age.”
“Is that—is that AI?” said Jane. She had a look of wonder on her face. “My God, this tech.” Walking farther into the lab, she looked around. “Wow, this makes me hate S.H.I.E.L.D. even more. I mean, no offense,” she said, glancing at Natasha and Clint, “but they have this dickly habit of stealing research and cutting me out of important work.”
“Fury, dickly?” said Clint. He made a blank, innocent face. “He would never.”
“If we could get to the point,” said Natasha.
“Yeah, sorry,” said Foster, but didn’t look very sorry. Instead, she still looked sort of in awe, turning away from Clint and Natasha and looking around her again. “Jarvis?” she asked.
“Doctor Banner does have some calculations concerning Mister Stark’s age and mass reduction,” said Jarvis.
“Incredible,” said Jane, shaking her head. “It’s a good thing Darcy isn’t here. She would not be able to shut up about this. What’s your voice protocol software like?”
Jarvis started talking to her about his software and systems, so Bruce turned to Tony, because he hadn’t said anything in a while.
“Don’t you think she’s a babe?” Bruce said in an undertone.
“Hey, Pepper,” said Tony, and deliberately moved away from him. “So, what do you think? Can Jane make you my girlfriend again, or what?”
“Is that really what you’re looking forward to?” said Pepper, though she was smiling a little. “Being my boyfriend?”
“And all that hot sex,” said Tony. “Also, did I mention I’m Iron Man?”
Bruce clenched his hands into fists, then shoved them into his pockets. He felt like such an idiot.
Foster was talking to Jarvis about the Flux Accelerator now, and Bruce listened in. At first it was all really basic stuff, easy to understand, and then they moved into some of the stuff that had been in the notes of his older self. Bruce understood some of the theory and calculations, and he’d been over all of the parts of the Flux Accelerator, but then they got into some of the stuff about how it actually worked, and Bruce felt a little lost.
“I can show you that part,” Tony said suddenly. “Hulk showed it to me.”
He sauntered over to the holodesk and flicked on the images. “This is called the Flux Accelerator.”
“Oh my God,” said Jane, “a volumetric display.”
“I know,” said Tony. “Pretty wicked, right?”
“This is—” She reached her hand right into the display. When she pulled it out, a volumetric panel followed. “This is better than Star Wars. Where does Stark even get all this? The best labs I’ve ever seen don’t have this.”
Tony puffed up again. “I’m sure I invented it.”
“Jarvis,” said Foster. “Where are the lasers? Is there an ionization field bending the light, or is there some kind of electromagnetic field? Or are there actual voxels involved?"
While Jarvis started explaining the holodesk, Natasha went to go talk on her phone, and Clint started looking at a tablet or whatever. Tony looked like he wanted to contribute to the conversation going on between Jarvis and Foster, but didn’t quite know what to say for once.
“She’s really easily distracted,” said Pepper, nodding at Foster.
“I noticed,” said Bruce.
Pepper turned to him, looking him over. “What did you do to Tony?”
“What?” said Bruce, stiffening. “I didn’t do anything.”
Shrugging, Pepper said, “He’s really upset, whatever you did.”
“I didn’t do anything,” said Bruce.
Pepper turned back to watch Foster poke at the volumetric images. “We could be friends,” she said. At first Bruce thought she was talking about Foster. “But we can’t be if you hurt my friends.”
I don’t care, Bruce wanted to say, but somehow couldn’t, because then she would think he didn’t care.
“Tony might be kind of a dipstick,” said Pepper, still not looking at him, “but only because he’s trying so hard to pretend he doesn’t care.”
Bruce wanted to say he already knew that; he saw right through Tony, because didn’t everyone; he was such a show-off and a whiner and pretty much the coolest person Bruce had ever met. He really was incredibly smart—not as smart as Bruce but he knew so much, and Bruce didn’t know why, but Tony had tried to be his friend. Bruce didn’t know what to do.
“Just say you’re sorry,” said Pepper, as if reading his thoughts. “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s a bit of a soft touch.”
“He is not,” said Bruce.
“Oh, so you’re defending him now.” Raising her brows, Pepper smiled. “That’s interesting.”
I’m not defending him, Bruce wanted to say, but again felt tongue-tied. He didn’t want her to think he wasn’t defending him; he just didn’t want to admit that he was. Glancing around the room again, Bruce’s gaze landed on Clint, and he remembered what Clint had said about Pepper and espionage. Pepper was slippery, Bruce decided.
Foster was back to talking about the Flux Accelerator, Jarvis and Tony periodically contributing to her analysis. Bruce went over there with him. Not to say he was sorry or anything. Just because it was interesting. While Jarvis was talking, Foster reached out for the reactor to see inside of it.
“You have to tickle it,” said Bruce. He looked toward Tony, but wasn’t able to quite meet his eyes. “Like a Chihuaha.”
“A Chihuaha,” said Foster, but she tickled it and it came. “What’s the superconductor; is it—”
“Vibranium,” said Bruce. “I found Tony’s—I mean, grown-up Tony’s schematics for it. Here.” He went to go use the keyboard, calling up the file he’d found. “It’s pretty neat. I mean, really neat. I think he must be really smart.” Tilting his head, he was going to look at Tony again, but just couldn’t. “He’s probably a genius. See, it keeps the plasma in place with these magnetic fields—”
“Right, so we’ve got some hydrogen fusion going on,” said Foster. “Mini-sun, right in your chest. Jarvis, call up the output for this puppy. I wanna run those calculations for the acceleration field again, since that’s an obvious place we went wrong here.”
Tony was looking at the reactor schematics, then pretending like he wasn’t whenever Bruce glanced his way. Leaving the schematics up, Bruce moved away from them so Tony could look, but instead Foster moved in and started touching the display, switching it instead to a bunch of equations.
Bruce pulled up the schematics again on a clear tablet, and handed it to Tony. “If you wanted to look at it,” he said, not quite meeting Tony’s eyes.
Tony didn’t say anything, but he took it.
Bruce messed around on another tablet for a little while. “This one is cool too,” he said, when he thought maybe he wouldn’t sound desperate. “It’s a car you built. You wanna see?”
“Okay,” said Tony, putting down his tablet.
“I can send it to you,” Bruce said. “Like this.” He slid the schematics for the car into a little box, then picked up Tony’s tablet and slid them out of the box. “It’s like a message thing,” he explained.
Tony looked at the car.
“And I found stuff about your robots,” Bruce went on.
Looking up, Tony shook back his hair. “I built a robot. I mean, I’m building one. It’s named Dummy. Old-me improved it but I started it.”
“That’s cool,” said Bruce.
“Yeah,” said Tony, smiling a little. “Lemme see if I can find it.”
Then he came to stand near Bruce. Maybe he just forgot the message box thing, but Bruce didn’t mind at all because Tony started pointing at things over his shoulder and telling him to do things, and Bruce decided not to mind that either. He could feel Tony’s breath on his ear, and Tony kept telling him about his robots and all the stuff he was doing. It was really cool.
Meanwhile, Foster was talking to Jarvis and messing around with the Flux Accelerator display, while Natasha and Clint were doing whatever on tablets. Pepper was doing something on one of the computers, but eventually she came over to Bruce and Tony. “What are you doing?” she said.
“Important science things.” Tony smirked. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Sure,” said Pepper. “Did you know a Black guy is President?”
“What?” said Tony. “Far out.”
“I know, for real,” said Pepper. “And the USSR doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Wait, what?” said Tony. “Did the Russians—”
“No,” said Bruce. “It dissolved. And there’s no Berlin Wall, either.”
“Wicked,” said Tony. “Wait, how do you know?”
“Natasha told me,” said Bruce, and then they talked about the future—or history, whatever—for a little while.
Tony was getting this very pleased, know-it-all type look on his face, just like everything was going his way. He kept looking at Pepper and then at Bruce and smirking, his face all pink but not at all like it had been when Bruce had said Captain America was a faggot. Tony caught him looking, and knocked Bruce’s shoulder with his own. “Hey brewski, you never got to see my huge robotic arm. Wanna come with me? It’s huge.”
“Oh my God,” said Pepper. “You are so immature.”
“What?” said Tony, his voice innocent. “It is huge. It got, you know, even bigger when I grew up. Whaddya say, Bruce? Can you dig it?”
“Okay,” said Bruce, and they went to go look at Tony’s huge robotic arm.
Natasha came with them to the shop, and Tony showed Bruce around. Tony pretty much was just showing off, but Bruce acted like he didn’t mind it, and anyway, some of the machines were really interesting. When they came back up, Pepper was talking to Clint and Foster was still working with Jarvis and the holodesk. Tony said he was going to go to bed, which Bruce found pretty weird.
“Tired,” Tony announced. “Need my beauty sleep. So, I’m off to bed! Anyone coming?”
Bruce frowned at him, then looked over at Natasha. “Do we have to go to bed?” he said.
She made a face like he was a little bit crazy. “What? I don’t care.”
“For real,” said Pepper, “you don’t want to stay up?”
“No,” said Tony, in a pointed sort of way. “I think I need to be alone and go to sleep, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Pepper.
“I know what you mean,” said Clint. “Go to bed. All of you.”
“Shut the fuck up, Barton,” said Natasha.
Clint just shrugged. “Sorry, man,” he said to Tony. “I tried.”
Pepper scowled at Clint. “What does he mean?”
“What?” said Clint. “I have no idea.”
“Aren’t you tired?” Tony said.
“No,” said Pepper. “Not really.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Bruce? Isn’t it, you know, past our bedtimes?”
Bruce felt a little helpless. He’d sort of been agreeing with everything Tony said since Tony forgave him, but he didn’t know what Tony meant and he really wasn’t tired. “I thought maybe . . .” He glanced at Natasha, who wasn’t paying attention, and then at Foster, who definitely wasn’t paying attention. “I mean, don’t you want to help Miss Foster?”
“No, I don’t want to help Miss Foster; I want to go to bed.”
“Well, okay,” said Bruce. “I mean, if you’re tired.”
Tony rolled his eyes again. “Oh my God. Check you losers later.”
“Whatever,” said Pepper.
“Um, good night,” said Bruce.
Thirty minutes after Tony went to bed, Bruce’s phone made a sound. Pepper’s phone made a sound also. When Bruce took it out, a little bar across the front said, 1 Text, Tony Stark. When he touched it, the phone said this:
Since you losers appear to be ignorant re: the idea of *secret slumber party*, I guess we have to do it this way
Suddenly, Bruce understood why Tony had wanted to go to bed. Bruce had never been to a slumber party, but he knew it was something other kids did. What he didn’t understand was where Tony had even gotten a phone, because the one Bruce had was Tony’s. He’d been getting messages on it all day.
In case you haven’t noticed, la femme is hellbent on following us *everywhere*
This is the *only* way we can play truth or dare in peace
Bruce also knew other kids played Truth or Dare. Even though he’d never really been interested, the fact that he was being invited to play sort of made him want to play.
While he was trying to think of what to say in response, Tony texted:
No I don’t want to make out I texted bruce too
Besides I have steve…meet me next to my huuuuuuuuuuuuuuge robot arm if you want him to live
Figuring out how to reply, Bruce laboriously typed “Ok” and hit send. Almost immediately, the reply came through:
Yesssssssssssssssssss b I knew u were cool tell p she’s a dork
Across the lab, Pepper stretched. “I’m getting tired,” she said, walking over to Clint and Natasha. “I think maybe I will go to bed.”
“Me too,” Bruce said, getting up quickly.
Natasha was doing something on a tablet. “Have fun at your secret slumber party,” she said.
“Nat, you suck,” said Clint. “I set up some beds in the penthouse.”
“How did you know?” said Pepper.
Natasha glanced at Clint, and then rolled her eyes. “Know what?”
Frowning, Pepper crossed her arms over her chest. “You can’t pretend like you don’t know, now that we know you know.”
“What’s she talking about?” said Clint. “I thought everyone was just getting tired and wanted to go to bed.”
“Here’s what you need to know about alcohol,” said Natasha. “If you drink too much on any empty stomach you’re just going to be miserable later, and I’m not cleaning up any vomit.”
“Have fun,” said Clint.
Tony had indeed brought alcohol, and also Steve, who was in pajamas and looked rather sleepy.
“I don’t even know how to play Truth or Dare,” Steve said.
“You don’t have to know,” said Tony. “There aren’t any rules.”
“Clint and Natasha know we’re here,” said Pepper.
“Pepper,” said Tony. “At least allow me my illusions.”
Pepper shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
“They really are Big Brother,” said Tony. He spread a blanket out on the floor, and put the glass decanter of brown liquid in the middle of it. Then he sat on one corner, and started distributing short, tiny glasses—who knew where he’d gotten them from. Bruce, who had never done anything like this before, sat down on another corner. He wasn’t going to say anything, but this was totally cool.
“You should go first,” said Pepper, sitting on her own corner. “Truth or dare?”
“Dare,” said Tony. “And every time someone successfully does a dare, you have to take a shot.”
“You said there weren’t any rules,” said Steve, and yawned. He had sat down in his corner, but that almost instantly turned to sprawling in his corner, his legs spread out in front of him and his head cradled in his hands. He looked like he was going to fall asleep any minute.
“There aren’t,” said Tony. “You only do a shot if you’re cool.”
“Fine,” said Steve. “I’m not cool.”
“No,” said Tony, sounding a little anxious, “you only do a shot if you want to play with us. So, you do a shot.”
“I don’t want a shot,” said Steve.
“Yes, you do,” said Tony, still sounding anxious. “It makes you cool.”
Steve yawned again. “I told you, I don’t care about being cool.”
“Yes, you do,” Tony said again. “Everyone cares about being cool. Come on.”
“I don’t care about being cool,” said Pepper. “And anyway, it’s a moot point. You’re not going to do my dare.”
Tony put his nose in the air. “Maybe I would, if you said what it was.”
Pepper smirked. “I dare you not to disrespect me this whole game.”
Rolling his eyes, Tony said, “That’s not a dare.”
“Yes it is,” said Pepper.
“No it isn’t.”
Pepper leaned back on her hands, her legs out in front of her on the blanket. “How is that not a dare? I think it’s a pretty good one.”
“No, it’s not. That’s a fucking rule, not a dare.”
“You’re just saying that because you can’t do my dare,” said Pepper.
“I can do it,” said Tony, “I’m just not going to. It’s a lame dare. You can’t dare that.”
“Yes I can,” said Pepper.
Steve cracked open an eye. “You said there weren’t any rules.”
“Unless you do a lame dare,” said Tony. He looked around at everyone. Bruce just shrugged, and Tony turned big eyes onto Pepper. “Come on, Pep. That’s such a dumb dare.”
“Because you can’t do it,” said Pepper.
“Fine,” said Tony. “Everyone take a shot.”
“You haven’t done it yet,” Steve pointed out, not even opening his eyes this time.
“Yes, I have,” said Tony. “I’m not disrespecting anyone. See? No disrespect.”
“For the whole game,” said Pepper.
“No shots until the end,” said Steve.
Tony turned to Bruce. “Why are we even playing Truth or Dare with them? They’re a complete drag.”
Bruce shrugged, smiling a little, because Tony was kidding around and totally including him. “I dunno,” he said. “You invited them.”
“Fine,” said Tony. “Pepper. Truth or dare?”
Tony boggled. “Really?”
Pepper just shrugged. “Why not?”
“Fine,” Tony said again. “I dare you to . . . kiss one of us.” He smirked, like he’d thought of something really good.
“Fine,” said Pepper. Getting to her knees, she leaned across the blanket. Steve opened his eyes, presumably to watch, while Tony closed his eyes and puckered up his lips. Pepper brushed her mouth right over Steve’s.
“Oh,” said Steve, scrambling back, his eyes comically wide.
“Hey,” said Tony. “What the hell?”
Then Pepper leaned in again, and Steve, sort of seeming dazed, let her come. It was way more intense that time, like Pepper was frenching him or something, and Steve closed his eyes, and sort of put his hands on her shoulders. Bruce looked away, because he always felt weird when people kissed like that, like his skin was too tight, or like—
“What the fuck,” said Tony, “I didn’t say make-out with—ugh! Stop! Stop it!”
Pepper pulled away, and there was an audible smack. “What?”
Bruce looked again, and Steve’s cheeks were bright pink, his lips red and glossy. His big blue eyes were blinking, and Bruce looked away.
“Wow,” said Steve.
“Yeah,” said Pepper.
“That was . . .” Steve trailed off. He was still beet red.
“Yeah,” Pepper said again. “Tony says we go steady. I’m not sure I even believe him, but you know, if we ever break up . . .”
“What the fuck?” said Tony. “What the flying fuck?”
“Go steady?” said Steve.
“I know what going steady means,” Steve told Pepper. “I just meant . . . you go steady with him?”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Apparently. Like we can believe anything he says.”
“I didn’t lie,” said Tony. “You can check the fucking internet if you—”
“Take a chill pill,” said Pepper.
Tony scowled at her. “I didn’t make it up. You like me. You want to do me. You—”
“Whatever,” said Pepper. “Now let’s do shots.”
Bruce had never done a shot before. He was pretty sure Dad would kill him if he ever touched alcohol, but Pepper had taken the glass stopper out of the decanter and was pouring a round.
“Sure you don’t want one, Steve?” she asked.
“Um.” Steve’s face was still pink, his lips shiny, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. “Maybe a little,” he said.
“Cool,” she said, not quite pouring him a full one.
“Okay, fine,” said Tony, taking his. “Now, you got to make sure you take a deep breath, tip it back and—” He stopped because Pepper started coughing.
“Burns,” she wheezed, dropping her empty glass on the blanket. She waved her hand in front of her throat. “Burns!”
“I was going to tell you,” Tony started saying in an uppity voice. “If you had listened—
“Are you okay?” Steve asked, abandoning his own glass and leaning forward to pat Pepper on the back.
Squinching his eyes shut, Bruce held his breath and drank his own shot. Pepper was right—it burned, and he couldn’t drink it all, but he was trying really hard not to cough.
“Oh my God,” said Tony. “That’s my girlfriend. Steve! Stop touching my girlfriend!”
Face still pink, Steve looked at him with wide eyes. “I just wanted . . .” He looked back at Pepper, who had her hand on his shoulder. “I just wanted to see if she was okay,” he said, and started pulling away.
“No,” said Pepper, and pulled him back. “Thank you.” She squeezed his arm, then let him go, and Steve went to sit back in his place.
Tony glared at him. “You guys are a bunch of—Bruce, man, what the hell? Why did you drink yours without me?”
“I didn’t know we couldn’t drink without you,” said Bruce.
“You guys suck at Truth or Dare,” said Tony, then tossed back his shot. He didn’t cough or anything, and he drank the whole thing, though at the end he made an ugly face and stuck out his tongue. “Yeah, that’s the stuff. Steve, you gotta drink if you’re gonna feel up my girl, dude.”
“I’m not your girl, and you lost your dare,” said Pepper.
“What,” said Tony, “I didn’t direspect you; you are—”
“For the guy who wanted to play, you sure hold up the game,” said Pepper. “Hey Steve.” She smiled. “Truth or dare?”
“Steve didn’t even drink yet,” said Tony, frowning.
“You don’t have to drink anything,” said Pepper.
“That’s okay,” said Steve. He picked up the glass and swallowed down its contents. “I think I’ll do truth.” They all looked at him and he looked back at them. “What?” he said finally.
Pepper’s brow furrowed. “Um. Steve, have you had alcohol before?”
Steve frowned back. “Yes, haven’t y— . . .” He looked around at all of them. “They give it to me sometimes when I have a cough. They don’t do that anymore? I thought it was good for you.”
“Boy,” said Tony. “I wish I lived in your time. I always have to steal it.”
“You steal—” Steve began, and Tony flapped his hand at him.
“You picked truth, not me. So, tell us. Who was your first kiss?”
Heating up again, Steve looked at the floor.
“What was that?” said Tony. “We couldn’t hear.”
“Pepper,” Steve said.
Putting her hand over her mouth, Pepper made a little oh sound. “Steve,” she said through her fingers. Her eyes were wide and concerned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—I should have—”
Steve kept looking at the blanket, getting redder and redder. “It was nice,” he said.
“But I should have—”
“I said it was nice,” said Steve. “As far as kisses go, it was—” He slid a glance at Tony, then looked at Pepper and for some reason, Bruce. “Is this really such a big deal? You just did it on a dare, and you’re not—” His gaze dropped again. “I don’t think you’re fast, so—”
“Fast?” Tony scowled. “Who said anything about Pepper being fast? She’s not fast. Pepper isn’t fast. I’ve been going at her all day, and she isn’t—”
“Shut up,” said Pepper.
Steve’s gaze remained fixed on the blanket. “No one I knew ever kissed someone on a dare,” he said quietly.
Pepper made her oh sound again, her eyes huge and luminous. “I didn’t mean—”
“Welcome to the backwards era of unfree love,” said Tony. “I take back what I said. I am so glad I was born in the sixties.”
“I’m sorry, Steve.” Pepper put a piece of her hair behind her ear. “It’s not such a big deal to—I mean, people do it—girls—oh my God.” She put her hand over her mouth again. “I bet all the girls always wear dresses, too, didn’t they.”
“No,” said Steve. “Sometimes they wear skirts. Honestly, it’s fine. I’m glad that—that . . . I mean, Miss Romanoff seems very intelligent and successful, and Tony says the new scientist Miss Foster is—is very accomplished—”
“I told him she was foxy to the max.” Tony nudged Bruce. “Isn’t that right, Bruce?”
“Yeah,” Bruce said.
“I’m sure it’s very different for you. Oh crap!” Pepper covered her mouth again. “My bathing suit! Was it—was it shocking?”
“I thought it was nice,” said Steve.
“I’m just going to keep thinking of things,” said Pepper. “Now it’s—it’s so different. I mean, a woman went into space.”
“A girl went to space?” said Tony.
“Also,” Bruce told Steve, “we went to space.”
“We already told him all the important things like that,” Tony told Bruce. “But seriously. A girl?”
Pepper crossed her arms. “The feminist movement is an important thing,” Pepper told him. I was just—distracted.”
“Whatever,” said Tony. “Bruce, your turn. Truth or dare?”
“Um.” Bruce didn’t look around at any of them. He’d been thinking about this: if he picked dare, they could make him do something humiliating, but if he picked truth, he might have to tell them something he didn’t want to. That was the whole point of the game of course—and why Bruce never would have played it with pretty much any other kids he’d ever met before. But it was Tony and besides, Pepper and Steve wouldn’t let him do anything really mean. Besides, Bruce could always just lie, so finally he looked up and said, “Truth.”
Tony’s question came immediately. “Why did you get to go with Natasha?”
“Wh-what?” Bruce said. He looked around at Pepper and Steve, but they didn’t seem to think it was such a bad question. Bruce had come up with plenty of horrible embarrassing things they could ask, but it was all stuff like whether he’d kissed any girls or smoked any cigarettes or whatever—not anything like this.
“Come on,” said Tony, nudging him again. “Just tell us.”
“Um,” said Bruce, and tried to think past the fog in his brain. Even the lies he was coming up with were—they were completely implausible, and then—and then they would know . . . “I don’t know,” he said finally, his tongue feeling thick.
“Miss Romanoff didn’t say anything?” asked Pepper. “She didn’t give you any clues?”
Pepper just looked honestly curious, like she didn’t suspect anything, like she really did think maybe Natasha just wanted—
“We go out,” said Bruce.
“What?” said Tony.
“I mean,” Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers, stalling. “We—she knows the adult me. We’re, you know, close. She, you know, she knows me—I mean, better than the rest of you, so she—she wanted to spend time with me, because we’re—we’re friends.”
“Hulk didn’t tell me he had a girlfriend.” Tony’s eyes narrowed. “That wasn’t on the internet.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Bruce said quickly. “I mean—”
“But you said you go out.” Pepper’s voice wasn’t accusatory, the way Tony’s was, but she seemed a little confused.
“I just mean we—she knows me better, so she wanted to, you know. See what I was like. As a—as a kid.”
Tony was still frowning. “She doesn’t treat you special other times.”
Bruce frowned back. “I’m not going out with her now. I mean—I’m not in the future, either. I just mean she—you know. She’s interested. Or—or that’s what she said, anyway.”
“Huh,” said Tony. “I guess I can see it.”
Bruce wanted to ask what he saw, but he also wanted to get off of the subject as soon as possible, lest they see any flaws in his story.
“Natasha’s totally a babe, and Hulk had this whole—” Tony waved a hand in an airy way, then seemed to realize what he was saying. Going a little pink, he swallowed. “Anyway, I wouldn’t go for Natasha, is all I’m saying. I hate red hair.”
Glaring at him, Pepper crossed her arms over her chest again. “What kind of girls do you like?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Tony said, smirking. “Guess you’ll have to ask me next time it’s my turn.”
Pepper narrowed her eyes. “Truth or dare,” she said, her low voice not even really a question.
Bruce released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
Tony smirked. “Dare.”
Pepper’s eyes stayed narrow. “I dare you to answer the question I’m going to ask next truthfully.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Pepper, that’s not a real dare, and Steve, are you sleeping?”
“No,” said Steve, cracking open an eye. “You said it wasn’t a real dare and Bruce said his grown-up self is friends with Natasha, and you said you didn’t like redheads even though you do, because Pepper’s hair is red.” He closed his eyes again. “Did I miss anything?”
“You don’t know if I like redheads,” said Tony, “and anyway, Pepper’s hair isn’t red. It’s light brown.”
“I thought it was blonde,” said Bruce.
“News flash,” said Pepper. “Natasha’s hair isn’t red either.”
“I was wondering about that,” Steve said, with his eyes closed.
“Fine,” said Tony. “I like girls who are smart and know what they want, and who aren’t afraid to have a little fun. Now everyone has to do a shot.”
“I didn’t ask my question,” said Pepper.
“I already answered your question.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on, that’s not fair.”
“You’re awful at this game,” said Steve.
“Fine. Whatever.” Tony started setting up the shots anyway. “Ask your question.”
Pepper wasn’t smirking now, her expression open and serious. The thing about her big blue eyes was that they sort of looked like they could look right into you, and see all the sad things there and feel them too. That was something that adults sometimes did, but Pepper did it too, and Bruce thought maybe that was just what her eyes were like. She was doing it to Tony now. “What’s your least favorite part of being a kid?”
“What?” said Tony. Maybe he’d been expecting questions about kissing and smoking too.
“I think you heard me,” said Pepper, and put a piece of her hair behind her ear.
Tony frowned at her a long time. His gaze could be very still—sort of like he could see down into you too, but with Tony it was more like he could pull all the insides out, like he had a very sharp knife and could gut you with it, dragging it out of you until you begged him to stop. Finally, he looked away from Pepper. “Dad,” he said. “Okay, now we drink.”
“Your dad?” Steve sat up. “Really? I thought—”
“We drink, Steve,” said Tony, and knocked back his own glass.
Bruce did it too, even though he could already feel the other swallow he’d had taking effect. It wasn’t like it was bad or anything. Well—the taste was, and the way it burned his throat was, but it was nice inside. Warm, and loose.
“You said your dad and me are friends,” said Steve.
“You were,” said Tony, “and I also said drink.”
“But do you mean he’s—”
“I don’t mean anything,” said Tony.
“He doesn’t have to talk about it if he doesn’t want to.” Pepper swallowed her own shot. “He did my dare.”
“I’m sorry,” said Steve. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“S’okay,” said Tony. “Not a big deal. Just, you know. We don’t really get along most of the time. It’s not like he’s a bad—holy fuck, I’m drunk.”
“You’re not drunk,” said Pepper.
“Yes I am,” said Tony, sounding miserable. “I must be so fucking drunk.”
“You don’t really sound drunk,” said Steve.
“I am though,” said Tony. “I really fucking hate the bastard, okay, but here I am trying to convince you he’s cool and shit so that when you meet him you—and this is the part that’s so goddamn stupid—you’re not going to meet him because you already met him and you guys were totally World War II homeboys and I had to grow up with all these goddamn stories about you and him and him and you and I thought I fucking—oh my God, Hulk.” Tony tugged on Bruce’s shoulder. “Hulk, why don’t you shut me up?”
“Um,” said Bruce, feeling rather uncertain. “Am I supposed to?”
“Yes, you’re supposed to,” Tony moaned, at the same time as Steve said, “You don’t have to shut up, Tony. It’s okay. I mean, I understand that you’re upset about—”
“Oh my God, you don’t understand anything,” said Tony.
“Shut up,” Bruce said.
“And you’re all against me.” Tony tugged on Bruce’s shoulder some more. “Even you, and we were supposed to be homeboys.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “You told him to shut you up.”
“And you were supposed to be my girlfriend.” Tony was sort of hanging on Bruce’s shoulder now, and Bruce didn’t know what to do other than stay very, very still. “You know, you told me on the phone that you knew how to give excellent head.”
“Ew, barf me out,” said Pepper, her face a paroxysm of disgust.
“Maybe you really should shut up,” said Bruce.
“Maybe he really is drunk,” said Steve. He sounded warm and concerned about it. “Can I—”
“Don’t touch me,” Tony said, vaguely flapping a hand while he slumped onto Bruce. “Hulk is taking care of me. Aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Bruce said, and sat up a little straighter.
“I’m never drinking again,” Tony moaned.
“You’re not even drunk,” said Pepper, “and anyway, you didn’t do your dare. You disrespected me.”
“That’s right.” Tony wiggled against Bruce, sort of flopping around a bit on Bruce’s side until at last he was lying down and his head was on Bruce’s thigh. He put a dramatic hand over his eyes. “Who’s turn is it?”
“Mine,” said Pepper. “I pick truth.”
“That’s not fair,” Tony said, sitting up so straight and quickly that he almost knocked Bruce in the jaw. “How come the first time you say dare and you kiss Steve, but then the next time—”
“You could have just dared me to kiss you,” said Pepper. “But I noticed you didn’t.”
“Because I thought—”
“Because you think you’re God’s gift to manhood, is that it?” said Pepper. “Get real.”
Frowning, Tony sort of slumped. His head found Bruce’s thigh again. “God’s gift to manhood is Captain America. Everyone knows that. I don’t care. I’m God’s gift to geniusness. Aren’t we, Hulk?”
Tony looked up, smiling, and Bruce really didn’t like him there. His head was heavy and awkwardly hard and uncomfortably close to his crotch, and Tony couldn’t be comfortable anyway, because his neck was at a weird angle and just—just people didn’t sit this way; they didn’t sit this way on him. Bruce tried to adjust his leg without moving it too much so that Tony would be more comfortable.
“Anyway, Pepper has truth,” said Tony. “So . . . can you truthfully take off your shirt?”
Pepper just raised a brow. “Is that really your question?”
“No—Steve!” Tony sat up, narrowly missing Bruce’s jaw again. “Steve, are you sleeping?”
“No.” Steve blinked opened his eyes. “Are you and Pepper still arguing?”
“Such a loser,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Someone needs to keep you awake. Want me to keep poking you? I can totally keep poking you.”
Steve yawned. “Aren’t you guys even tired?”
“I can go all night.” Tony smirked rakishly. “If you’re tired, you can lean on me. I’ll keep you awake.”
“I’m fine,” said Steve.
“Whatever,” said Tony, but didn’t lean back on Bruce.
Bruce guessed maybe his leg had been uncomfortable after all or whatever.
“What do you hope is different about yourself?” said Steve. “In the future, I mean. Pepper, for your truth.”
“Good question,” said Tony, and didn’t even sound sarcastic.
Steve smiled. His cheeks were pink, from the alcohol, Bruce guessed. “Thanks,” Steve said.
“What do I wish was different.” Pepper started twisting a bit of her hair around her finger, frowning. “I guess I wish . . . people thought I was less bossy.”
“People think you’re bossy?” Tony said, in this really falsely innocent voice.
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Shut up.”
“Because you never tell me what to do.”
“Oh, I still want to tell people what to do,” said Pepper, still twisting her hair. “I just don’t want them to think I’m bossy.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed. He had been right. She was slippery. “You want to tell them what to do without them knowing you’re telling them?” he said. “You want them to think it’s their idea?”
“That makes it sound manipulative.” Pepper sounded thoughtful. “That’s not quite it. I just hate how—how people won’t listen to me just because they think I’m being bossy. If I could just find a way to say the things I want to say—and say them in a nice way—then maybe people would see reason.”
“And you’re always reasonable?” Bruce said.
“Well.” Sounding a little hurt, Pepper frowned. “I’m not unreasonable.”
“When I grow up, people do whatever I say because I’m Iron Man,” said Tony.
Pepper rolled her eyes. “No, they don’t.”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Yes, they do.”
Steve leaned over toward Bruce, saying in an undertone, “If we left right now, I bet they wouldn’t even notice.”
Bruce sort of wanted to ask Steve what he hoped would be different about himself when he grew up, because if he was really Captain America, he’d gone through all these changes, and Bruce was interested in them. He didn’t ask though, because that would leave it open for Steve to ask it back, and Bruce didn’t want to answer. Instead he just said, “Yeah,” and listened to Tony and Pepper argue.
“I’m sure I don’t do what you tell me,” Pepper was saying.
“Yes you do,” said Tony, “because you go out with me. And I bet you go down on me all the time.”
“Ugh,” said Pepper. “Why are you so grody?”
“You know you love me.” Tony smiled sweetly. “When I grow up.”
“Sicko,” said Pepper. “Not anymore.”
“Just wait.” Tony turned away from her. “Steve, are you—” He cut himself off, looking between Steve and Bruce.
Steve had moved closer, Bruce guessed. Bruce had hardly even talked to him, but Tony had stopped like he’d thought he was interrupting their conversation, and then Bruce started thinking about what Tony had said, about him and Steve.
“—awake,” Tony finished, after a long pause. “Anyway,” he said, shaking his hair back from his face. “It’s your turn. Truth or dare?”
“Truth,” said Steve.
“Fool that you are,” said Tony, with an exaggerated sigh. “Okay, what—”
“Hey,” said Pepper. “You don’t get to ask all the questions.”
“Yes, I do,” said Tony. “It’s my game. And I’m drunk.”
“Oh my God, stop saying that.” Pepper rolled her eyes. “Steve, what are you going to miss most about being a kid?”
“That’s what you ask him?” said Tony. “Why did you ask him what he’s going to miss, when you asked me—”
“Is this a part where I need to shut you up because you’re drunk?” said Bruce. “Or is it a part where you just want to hear yourself talk? Because I can do either.”
“Hmph,” said Tony, and then went back to leaning on Bruce. “Whatever.”
Bruce was surprised, because as soon as the comment was out of his mouth, he’d realized he was being an asshole, even though he hadn’t meant it that way. That was something that happened to him a lot, but Tony apparently—apparently Tony didn’t care. Bruce looked down at the head on his leg. Tony was pretending like he was asleep. This time Bruce was very careful not to move or shift at all.
“Steve?” Pepper tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “Did you hear my question?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” said Steve. “I’m just thinking.”
Tony cracked open an eye. “It’s not a hard question, Steve.”
There was a silence, and then Tony sat up. Bruce decided not to worry where or why he was going, because Tony was sort of all over the place. “You don’t have to answer,” Tony said.
“I can answer,” said Steve.
“I know,” said Tony. “But you don’t have to. I mean, if you don’t want to.”
Steve’s brow furrowed. “Isn’t this the game?”
“Yeah, but—” Tony got closer to him. “But I mean, we don’t have to.”
“Thanks?” said Steve. “I was going to say I like drawing, but it’s . . . that’s not singular to childhood.”
“No,” said Tony. “That’s great. That’s a good answer.”
“You can still draw when you grow up,” said Pepper.
“That’s what I meant,” said Steve. “I’m trying to think of something that—”
“It’s okay, Steve.” Tony sounded anxious. “Drawing’s great. That’s the bees’ knees. Drawing. Who doesn’t love drawing? It’s the best part of childhood. Bruce, truth or—”
“Oh,” said Steve, brightening considerably. “Sometimes we get comics.”
Pepper put her hand over her mouth. “I’m so sorry. I forgot. You grew up in an orphanage, didn’t you?”
Steve frowned. “How did you—”
“Not to worry,” said Tony. “It’s Bruce’s turn.”
“I’m sorry,” said Pepper. “I read about you. I mean, it said—I’m so sorry. I would never have asked. I—I forgot.”
Steve was still frowning. “Why wouldn’t you ask? It’s an orphanage, not a prison. It’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t. I’m—”
“Heya, ankle-biters,” said Clint.
They all turned around, and Clint strode up to them. “Hate to break up the party,” he said, and fear poured over Bruce like a cold bucket of water.
Clint wasn’t looking at him, though. He was smiling at the blanket, glasses, and booze. “I’m sort of hurt I wasn’t invited. Bet you’ve got the best sauce,” Clint said to Tony.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Can’t you even pretend to be upset?”
“Nope,” said Clint. “Gimme that scotch; I wanna try it.”
Tony went on looking testy while Clint swiped the bottle and a glass. “We’re having a clandestine meeting here.”
Pouring himself a shot, Clint gave Tony a crooked smile. “Was that what it was?”
“You’re a dork, you know,” said Tony.
“Do we have to go to bed?” Pepper asked, getting to her feet.
“No.” Clint threw back the shot. “But if you want, you can to come down and see what Foster did. Actually, she says Doctor Banner did it.”
Clint didn’t look at Bruce, though. He just put the stopper back in the decanter and turned the glass over. In fact, Clint had never paid any particular attention to him, ever since that first time when he’d reached out and Bruce had jumped away like a dumb shithead. He wondered where Natasha was.
“Bruce?” said Pepper.
“I didn’t know you were a doctor,” said Steve.
“I told you he’s a genius,” said Tony.
“Come on,” said Clint. “Let’s go see.”
Bruce didn’t really want to go, but he didn’t really see how he could get away—Tony would whine at him and Clint would probably be mad or something, so he went.
They all went, even though Steve kept yawning. For some reason, they went to the fifty-fourth floor, even though the Flux Accelerator itself was on the forty-ninth. This lab was very similar, though, with another holodesk just like the other one, holding yet another volumetric display of the virtual Flux Accelerator.
Foster seemed to have fixed it.
“I didn’t fix it,” said Foster. “I recalibrated it. That was all that was wrong, Doctor Banner. You calculated the field of effect to be much smaller—actually, that was probably the same mistake that Stark made in his own accident. Once I finally understood this—” she waved a hand—“it was easy.”
“Easy?” said Pepper, smirking.
“Easy in a theoretical physics sort of—Steve Rogers. The Steve Rogers.” Foster put out her hand, and obviously not knowing what he was getting into, Steve took it. “This is—a miracle of science. Darcy would flip her shit. Excuse my French. I’m sorry, is it terribly inappropriate if I mention you’re . . . kind of adorable?”
“No ma’am,” said Steve, but he blushed beet red. Foster was still shaking his hand.
“Yes,” said Tony. “It’s entirely inappropriate. Steve is unprepared to accept advances from women of the future. Especially older women of the future.”
Laughing, Foster dropped Steve’s hand. “I’m all out of advances.”
“As Steve is thusly unequipped,” said Tony, “I am prepared to accept on his behalf any forms of flirtation or admiration that would otherwise be bestowed upon him. I will be sure to render them unto him at such a time as he grasps mating rituals of the future.”
Foster just laughed again. “Careful what you say. I know some people who would blackmail you for photos of you, ah, ‘rendering’.”
Tony blushed now, too. “I meant—I meant I wouldn’t render them, because he’s never going to grasp—”
“Uh-huh,” said Foster.
“Why wouldn’t I grasp the mating rituals of the future?” said Steve, his face rather incandescently pink.
“Because,” said Tony, “because—”
“Anyway,” said Foster. “Check this out.” She tapped a large, clear panel, which blinked on to show the lab on the forty-ninth floor.
“It’s a live stream,” said Foster. “Now, see the apple?”
Bruce, Pepper and Steve moved closer to the screen, while the camera zoomed on the Flux Accelerator. Right beside it on the floor was an apple.
“You and Clint are going to be totally cool as kids,” Tony said, hanging back near Foster instead of looking at the screen. “But I don’t know about Natasha. She’s kind of intense.”
“That’s why we’re up here and not in there,” said Foster. “Just in case.”
“Whatever,” said Tony. “Just don’t make me a baby or anything.”
“Alright,” said Foster. “Eyes on the apple. JARVIS, work with me here.”
“Initializing,” said Jarvis.
Bruce tried to watch closely, but it didn’t look like anything was happening. Even when the apple started shrinking, he couldn’t really see anything else, except that maybe the air looked shimmery around it. Then the apple was gone.
“It’s still there,” Foster explained, coming closer. “It’s just a seed. Okay now, JARVIS, reverse the process.”
“Reversing,” said Jarvis.
The apple started to grow again.
Steve turned away from the screen, looking at Foster curiously. “I’m sorry, this may be a stupid question, but if Jarvis can just reverse the process . . .”
Foster shook her head. “He couldn’t, because he didn’t know how. Doctor Banner worked out the theory, then applied it to the equipment. He’d mostly worked it out, but when he went to test the procedure—”
“We got in the way,” said Pepper.
“’Fraid so,” said Foster.
“So,” said Bruce, thinking he was asking the obvious question, “can we do it now?”
“What?” Foster looked surprised, then laughed. “Oh, no. I have a lot more tests to do before we do it on you guys. I’ve got to make sure it’s restoring mass exactly as it was distributed previously, and then there’s the neural configuration. Your brains couldn’t have lost that much mass, since most of your actual brain growth is done. My guess is the neural matter was restructured, which brings us to the question of whether when you—ah, reage, whether the neural matter will be similarly restructured back to its previous configuration—and whether you’ll have all your memories, et cetera. It’s going to be a little while. I mean, ordinarily, it would take years before we . . .”
Bruce’s shoulders slumped.
“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Foster said, in a comforting way. “I’m hoping to have it done by some time tomorrow.”
Tomorrow was much better than years from now, so Bruce tried not to be disappointed.
Foster looked at them thoughtfully, her eyes finally coming to rest on Bruce. “You all could help, if you’re up for it. I’m just going to be doing a lot of tests, so I could use runners. Rat wranglers. Apple stabbers, that sort of thing.”
“Rat wranglers?” said Pepper, sounding interested.
“Yeah, Natasha’s getting us some rats. They should be trained for specific tasks—running a maze, loud noise means cheese, that sort of thing. Then I’ll throw them in the Flux Accelerator, zap ‘em baby-sized then pop ‘em back to adult, see whether they can still run the maze, et cetera. Run a bunch of scans on their brains, too.”
“That’s totally radical,” said Pepper.
Foster laughed. “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to play Truth or Dare any more anyway,” said Tony, lifting his nose. “You all were lame.” He turned to Clint. “Pepper dared me to respect her.”
“Nat dared me to do that once,” said Clint.
Bringing down his nose, Tony looked curious. “What did you do?”
“Kid,” said Clint, “I do what I have to to survive.”
Then Steve yawned, and Tony looked at him in concern. “Steve, are you sleepy? Do you need to go back to bed?”
“No,” said Steve, yawning again. “I want to be a rat wrangler.”
“I’m sure you can wrangle in the morning,” said Tony anxiously.
“No, I want to be an apple stabber too. Maybe I’ll just sit down.”
“You can lean on me,” Tony said. Steve sank down on one of the stools, and Tony looked around. “I’ll get you a blanket. I’m going to go get Steve a blanket,” he announced, because he was so concerned about Steve or whatever.
Bruce didn’t care. He went over to look at the volumetric Flux Accelerator to see what Foster had done with it, but couldn’t see any difference, and the screen with the real Flux Accelerator and the apple kept distracting him. Tomorrow, he could be in that apple’s place.
Sometime later—it must have been like four in the morning—Bruce woke up to a hand on his shoulder, and he startled violently.
“Just me,” Natasha murmured.
Bruce looked around, wiping his face. Foster was standing over near the holodesk, but no one else was around.
“They all went to bed,” said Natasha. “You lasted the longest.”
“I’m up,” Bruce said, yawning.
“Okay,” said Natasha. “But if you want, I can show you where you can sleep.”
Blinking his eyes hard, Bruce shook his head. “I’m not sleepy.”
“There isn’t a prize.” Natasha smiled. “There’s just a mattress and some pillows, if you want them.”
“Fine,” said Bruce, and yawned again.
She handed him his pajamas, and he followed her to the top floor. She showed him where the bed was, and then she touched his face. “Good night, Brusichik,” she said and left.
Bruce thought Brusichik was kind of a dumb nickname, but actually he really liked it, so he changed into his pajamas and then got in the bed.
Mid-afternoon the next day, Foster deemed the Flux Accelerator a success, and ready for human trial.
“Human trial?” Tony said.
“We’re the only human test subjects it makes sense to try,” Bruce pointed out.
“Yes, but trial?”
Bruce rolled his eyes, because Tony could be so stupid sometimes, and they got into their adult clothes. They had to go down to the lab on the forty-ninth floor alone, just in case, while Foster, Clint, and Natasha stayed in the other lab on the fifty-fourth. Bruce was a little scared, but he never would have admitted it.
“Are you scared?” Steve asked the rest of them.
“Of course not,” said Tony arrogantly, lifting his head. Then his tone softened. “You can hold my hand if you want, Steve.”
“A little,” said Pepper, and held Steve’s other hand.
“I’m not scared,” said Bruce, scowling. He pushed past them to go stand near the Flux Accelerator. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get this over with.
“Of course you’re not,” said Tony, then looked down at Steve. “Don’t worry. Hulk and I will protect you.”
“Not if you get turned into a five year old,” said Pepper.
“Don’t listen to her, Steve,” said Tony. “We’re going to be awesome adults.”
“Please stand by,” said Jarvis.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Tony. “Standing by.” He was holding Steve’s hand and his pants up with the other, while Steve held Pepper’s hand.
Bruce stood a little bit apart from them, holding up his own pants. Tony was just reaching out his hand to him when the pain started, doubling Bruce over.
It felt oddly familiar, and suddenly Bruce had this swirling, strange memory of standing here before; his skin felt too small everywhere, like something was trying to come out. There was a roaring in his ears, but he couldn’t tell if someone was screaming or maybe it was him. Then finally, it seemed to stop, and he stood up.
His pants threatened to slip down his hips, so Bruce grabbed them, his too-long sleeves getting in the way.
Three adults he didn’t know stood in front of him, holding hands.
“Well, that was awkward,” said one of the men. He had a goatee and his eyes—
“Let’s all just agree that what happened in our childhoods stays in Vegas. Or something. Hey, you wanna—Bruce,” he said, at the same time as the big blond man said, “Doctor Banner,” and the tall woman said, “Oh, Tony. Look.”
Bruce started backing up.
Tony took a step forward, then stopped. He was just staring. “My God.”
“What went wrong?” The blond guy said—Steve—Captain America—obviously.
“Why didn’t I grow up?” Bruce said, backing up some more. He sort of tripped on his hems, and Steve—Captain America—came toward him. “Why didn’t I,” Bruce began, then bit his lip.
Oh God. He was going to cry. He hated crying, and he wasn’t going to do it in front of them, not when they were all grown-up and beautiful and perfect, and he wouldn’t have done it before either, but now it was worse; it was so, so much worse—
“Bruce,” said Tony, taking another step toward him.
Captain America was coming toward him too; he was closer.
“Get away from me,” Bruce said, jerking away from Captain America. “Why didn’t I grow up; why am I—”
“It’s okay,” said Captain America.
“We’ll figure it out,” said Tony.
They were both moving closer; Bruce backed up until the back of his legs hit a stool. He moved around it and pushed it at them, hard. “It’s not okay; you already fucking figured it out,” he said, and there was another stool, so he picked it up and threw it.
“Whoa.” Steve caught the stool easily, just like it was a ball or something, and then he was coming toward Bruce and his hand was on his shoulder, and he was really fucking huge so Bruce swung around and hit him in the jaw, and Steve was grabbing him, and it was just like all those times—those times when Bruce knew he was going to get punished and he didn’t care he didn’t care he didn’t—he fought back, just waiting for it to start—
“Steve,” said Tony.
Steve was saying something, but Bruce couldn’t really hear him because he was going to get away get away get away, Bruce was going to hurt him and get—
“Steve, get the fuck away from him,” Tony said, his voice very low and yet perfectly audible. “Right the fuck now,” and Steve let him go instantly. “By me,” said Tony. “Right now.”
There was a computer monitor on the bench so Bruce picked it up and threw it on the floor, and then there was other stuff so Bruce threw that too, struggling to get around the bench.
“Get over by the Flux Accelerator,” said Tony, in that same low voice. “Don’t let him touch it.”
Tony—adult Tony—sounded angry, lethally angry—of course he was, because Bruce was crazy and out of control and tearing things apart and he didn’t care, he hated Tony, hated him, and Bruce didn’t care if Tony hit him, so he threw another stool, and Tony caught that just like Steve but not nearly as easily, so Bruce smashed another monitor, and then this whole big thing that was like a bunch of glass and plastic, and then Bruce was bleeding.
He knew he needed to get away, get out, but he just couldn’t; he was getting blood on stuff like tablets and keyboards and things and smashing them on the floor; and he knew that he was crying and they were just watching him; they were just watching—
“Bruce.” Then Natasha was there in front of him, not touching. “You don’t want them to see.”
He made some sort of sound, this horrible sound, and pushed something at her; he didn’t know what but he wanted it to hurt her, except he didn’t want to hurt her, and she stepped neatly aside.
“—somewhere else,” Natasha was saying. “Just you and me, lapushka. You don’t want them to see. Come on.”
Then her hand was gently but firmly gripping Bruce’s arm, and he let her. She pulled him away and he let her. There was no one in his line of sight, which was nice because he hated it when people watched, the way they looked angry and scared and helpless, like he was wild, like he was some sort of freak, but Bruce couldn’t resist glancing over his shoulder.
All three of them were by the Flux Accelerator, Tony with his arm around Pepper.
“Come on,” said Natasha. “Just you and me.”
He went with her out the doors and down a hall. She wasn’t pulling him at all, but she wasn’t letting go of him either, and right about when he started thinking he was going to push her down, she let go of him. “Come with me,” she said, and her voice didn’t sound scared or worried or upset or anything at all, nothing at all like they usually sounded when—“Don’t let them see,” she said, so Bruce went with her down the hall.
They turned some corners. Then she opened a door and went inside, but Bruce stayed out in the hall because sometimes—
“Come in here,” said Natasha. “I’ll stay with you,” so Bruce went in.
It was just a room. Like a living room with a big screen and a couch and a table and some shelves, with a light hanging from the ceiling, just a normal room. It was so normal and stupid, and Bruce hated the way he’d acted; he’d broken so many things and—and Tony—fucking Tony was going to be so mad, so disgusted disappointed infuriated with him, because Tony used to think he was cool, but now he knew the truth, and you would have thought Bruce would learn his fucking lesson, but he’d hit Captain America again—lots—
“It’s okay,” said Natasha. “You can do anything you want. They can’t see us in here. We’re safe.”
Bruce took a deep breath and hated it, because it sounded like a sob. God damn it fuck, he didn’t want to cry.
“I don’t care,” said Natasha. “You can do anything you please.” Then she was touching him, and Bruce struggled a little—but only a little, and she just pulled him harder, and wrapped her arms around him. “You can do anything you want,” she said again. “They can’t hurt you. They won’t touch you. I won’t let them. Lapushka, I will never let anyone hurt you. I swear this to you.”
Bruce stood there shuddering, her arms around him. He wanted to push her away, because he didn’t need someone to hug him, God damn it; he didn’t need anyone to tell him it was going to be okay, but he didn’t want her to leave. So he just stood there and let her do it until he started hiccoughing, and his hand started to hurt where he cut it, and he still somehow couldn’t move away.
Then he started to notice how she was really soft, and he was sort of squished up against her boobs—like, he could feel them, and her cheek was against his face. She wasn’t all that tall—only like three inches taller than him or something, and if he moved he could have put his arms around her waist. It made him desperately uncomfortable, and he really wanted to get away now, except he didn’t want to push her or anything; in fact, he didn’t even want to touch her now that he’d noticed the way—
Her hand moved through his hair, and then she let him go. “I’m gonna go get you some clothes,” she said. “I’ll be back in five minutes. No one’s going to come. It’s just you and me.”
Once she was gone, he looked down at his hand. There was blood everywhere, all over his sleeve, up his arm. He’d probably got blood on Natasha—on her pretty clothes and nice skin, the way he sometimes got it on Mom, and—Bruce looked around to see if he could wash it.
It was like an apartment, and there was a living room and a bedroom and a kitchen, so Bruce washed his hand off in the sink and got a lot of blood on one of the towels. He put it under the sink, because he knew blood stained.
He hated the way his head felt, whenever he cried. It always felt so thick and stuffy, his mouth all full of mucous, and he bet they were talking about him. He was sure they were talking about him. Tony was probably really mad. And Natasha was just . . .
He didn’t really know why Natasha was being nice to him. Damage control, he guessed, but she hadn’t been angry or afraid. Mom was usually angry and afraid. He didn’t know what he should do. Maybe he should just get out of here. Run away.
The Flux Accelerator obviously didn’t work on him, and it wasn’t like they would want him here, now, and—he didn’t know. Maybe they would keep him around and—he didn’t know; maybe they’d do experiments on him.
“It’s just me,” said Natasha, when she opened the door. She set down the bag of clothes on the couch. “Come on, let me look at your hand.”
He held it out kind of reluctantly, and she took it very gently, turning it to see the other cuts. They were scratches mostly, except for the big one. Bruce still didn’t really remember what he’d broken—something with beakers or something, glass tubes. Science equipment. Dad really would have killed him.
“Let’s go to the kitchen,” she said, dropping his hand and grabbing a purse from the Macy’s bag. “Better light and a sink. Can you get up on the counter?” she asked, when they were in the kitchen.
Bruce nodded and tried to get up on the counter, but then he noticed he was getting blood all over it and tried to wipe it.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Natasha. “I’m good at getting blood out of things, and you can change your clothes,” so Bruce got up on the counter. She looked around, then found another towel on the other side of the kitchen. Coming back over, she said, “You don’t need to hide anything. It’s just me.” She wiped his hand, then pulled it under the faucet and rinsed it. “No one’s coming in here but me.” She wiped Bruce’s hand with the towel again, then held it against the pad of his thumb, where the big cut was. “You’re going to need stitches.”
He pulled his hand away. “No, I don’t.”
She just looked at him, lips pursing together a bit. Her mouth was sort of like a strawberry, he decided. He thought it was really pretty.
“It’s fine,” said Bruce.
“I can do them,” she said. “It won’t hurt. We don’t have to go anywhere. We can hang out here as long as you want.”
“Oh,” said Bruce, holding his hand. “Okay.”
She put the purse on the counter beside him and opened it, taking out gauze and anti-bacterial cream and some other things. “Can you put some pressure on that?” she said. “You want it to stop bleeding.”
“Okay,” said Bruce.
She got out a needle and threaded it, then set it on the counter with the other things. “Let me see it again.”
Bruce showed her his hand, and she started rubbing the cut down with gauze and alcohol. “You don’t remember,” she said, “but you did this once for me.”
“What?” he asked, startled.
She was looking down at his hand. He was higher up than her on the counter, so he mostly could only see her hair, soft and sort of curly, hiding her face. “We were in Honduras,” she said. “I got cut. You thought I was in trouble, so you came in and saved me.”
“I saved you?”
“Yes,” she said, and picked up the needle.
He thought about that. “But were you in trouble?” he asked, figuring out why what she had said sounded weird.
“I’m always in trouble,” she said, and poked the needle through. “That okay?”
“Yeah,” said Bruce. “How come you’re always in trouble?”
“Just born that way, I guess. You ever had stitches before?”
“Lots of times,” said Bruce, because he wasn’t afraid; it didn’t hurt, and then he realized that she’d tricked him again. “I mean—”
“That’s okay,” said Natasha, and he relaxed. “That’s good. Just means you’ve got experience. You’re doing great.” She poked the needle in again.
“Did I—” Bruce hesitated. “Did I turn into that—that thing? When I saved you, I mean.”
“The Hulk? You did,” she said. “You kicked a whole lot of ass.”
“So I . . . hurt people,” Bruce said.
“Only bad people,” said Natasha. “And you saved me. Not just because you hulked. You sewed me up after.”
“I did?” Bruce sat up a little straighter.
“Yup.” She pushed the needle in again, then tied off another stitch. “You wore those glasses, like you do, and you stitched me up, and you were very . . . kind.”
“Oh,” said Bruce.
“Gentle,” said Natasha, tying off the thread and snipping it. “A little bit acerbic, but very gentle.” She threaded the needle again. “I think that you were worried about me.”
“Yes. Last one.” She poked him with the needle again. “I never really thanked you,” she said. “Or apologized.”
Not answering his question, she tied off the stitch. “You want to see my scar?” she asked
“Um,” said Bruce. “Okay.”
She snipped the thread on his hand with the scissors. Then, turning away from him, she tugged her shirt, drawing it down off her shoulder. Lifting her hair, she said, “It’s that lump.” Bruce leaned closer, and she said, “It’s okay. You can touch it.”
Bruce touched it with his uninjured hand. It was just a scar, a bit of stiff, jagged tissue on otherwise creamy skin.
“You sewed that up,” said Natasha. “In another three years, it probably won’t even feel rough.”
He didn’t mind that it was rough, but he stopped touching it as soon as he realized he was also touching the strap of her bra.
She pulled her shirt back up her shoulder. “I’m going to wrap your hand,” she said. “We’ll keep it that way just for a little while, and then we’ll take it off.”
“Okay,” said Bruce, and stuck out his hand again.
First she cleaned it again, then she put on antibiotic cream. Her fingers were gentle, just as she’d said he’d been, and then she got out the gauze. “Your blood is usually radioactive, you know.” Bruce tried to pull away his hand, but she held it fast. She was pretty strong, actually. “It’s okay,” she said. “It didn’t hurt me. Stark and Foster are working on getting you back to what you need to be.”
“Do they know why I didn’t . . . ?”
“They think it’s your molecules. Something like that. Because of the Hulk. You’ll have to ask them; I’m no good with stuff like that.”
“Does . . .” Bruce swallowed. “Do they all remember?”
“They remember. They’ll fix it. There you go.”
Bruce glared down at his hand, which she’d finished bandaging, and finally stopped touching.
“Come on,” Natasha said. “Want to change?”
Bruce wanted to ask her why they were working on it. They could just leave him like this; he’d destroyed Tony’s lab or whatever, so he didn’t see why they’d want to help him. They should probably just lock him away.
Hopping off the counter, he followed Natasha into the other room, where she was picking up the Macy’s bag. “Here,” she said. “You want me to get you something to eat?”
“No,” said Bruce. He always felt a little sick to his stomach when he’d been crying.
“What about a milkshake?”
Bruce frowned. “What’s your thing with ice cream?”
Natasha smiled. “You don’t like ice cream?”
“It’s good for you.”
Scowling, Bruce said, “Ice cream isn’t good for you.”
“Did you wanna sit around and eat broccoli all day?” Natasha smiled again. “I thought not.”
“Did you have a lot of ice cream when you were a kid?”
“I suppose,” said Natasha, “but never to enjoy it.”
“It was to lure people into the belief that I was the kind of kid who had a lot of ice cream,” said Natasha. “And then we betrayed them, stole from them, and sometimes killed them.”
Bruce scowled again. “That’s not funny.”
“I’m not joking.” Natasha’s face was simply blank, her jaw held kind of firmly but not tightly, her brows just mostly straight.
“But,” said Bruce.
“I’ll go get you that milkshake,” Natasha said, and then she left.
When she got back, he had changed, and she had changed also. He guessed he’d gotten blood on her shirt after all. She gave him the milkshake, sat down, and started talking.
“My father’s name was Drakoff,” she said. “You haven’t heard of him, but if you lived in present times and were in the Russian mob, he would be the story you would tell your children to give them nightmares. He was a bad, evil man, and I loved him mindlessly. Drink your milkshake.”
Bruce drank his milkshake. It was chocolate and it was huge, and he really liked it. There was a straw. He couldn’t believe that Natasha was telling him this, and he wasn’t sure he believed her. She said everything in such a matter-of-fact way.
“He was the head that moved the Hand, as they say,” she said. “They were just a two-bit organization of thugs before he got involved, but he had plans—big plans. Different plans than just stealing and robbing and killing, than nuclear weapons trade or ruling the country. He was going to change the world. And he was going to do it with me. How is your hand?”
“Fine.” Bruce drank more of his milkshake. “What was he going to do to you?”
“He did it. Brain-washing. Mind-control. The Cold War was an arms race, and I was the raise on the latest weapon. He just never got to use me the way he planned.”
Bruce pulled his mouth off his straw. “Is that what you meant by mindless?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I loved him before that. As a little girl, I worshipped him. I believed in everything he stood for. He brainwashed me in a different way before he—even after, I knew what he was. I knew what he’d done to me, and I believed in it. I volunteered for it.”
“How come it didn’t work?” said Bruce, then sucked on his straw.
“Because I killed him.”
“You . . .” Bruce looked down at his milkshake. Suddenly he felt a little sick.
“Yes,” was all she said, and he looked up then. She wasn’t looking at him, her head slanted to the side, hair covering the angle of her face.
“But,” Bruce said.
“Stark and Foster want to see you,” she said. “When you’re ready.”
Bruce didn’t know what to say, so he said, “How come?”
“They want to do some tests,” she said. “Figure out why the Flux Accelerator didn’t work on you.”
“I meant,” said Bruce.
She still didn’t look at him. “I was trying to do the right thing.”
“But . . .” Bruce didn’t think she wanted to answer him, but he couldn’t help asking the questions. “I thought you were mind controlled.”
“I was. Despite what they call it in English, brainwashing is never clean.”
“How did you . . .” He wasn’t sure how to ask.
“Clint saved me,” she said.
“Why?” asked Bruce.
“Because he’s Clint.” She stood up. “Did you want to go now?”
Bruce didn’t really want to. He wanted to stay here and talk to her some more; he wanted her to feel better and he wanted her not to be sad. He didn’t know how to say any of that, though. “You can have the rest of my milkshake,” he said instead.
“Thanks,” she said, taking it.
Then they went to go find Tony.
Foster and Tony were in the lab on the fifty-fourth floor, not the one he had destroyed. No one else was around, and Foster was looking at the holodesk again. Tony, eating something out of a stiff plastic bag, was looking at some clear panel screens. He barely glanced over when they came in. “Oh, hey,” he said. “Bruce, you wanna come look at this with me?”
Feeling his face heat up, Bruce glanced up at Natasha. She just shrugged, so Bruce went over to Tony. Tony was acting like nothing had happened, but sometimes Dad acted like that too, and Bruce didn’t know what to do. He was ashamed of the way he’d behaved, but he wouldn’t—he couldn’t—say he was sorry. That would be like admitting that he’d done it, and that was just way too humiliating.
“Dried pea?” said Tony. Although he was still looking up at the panels, he shook the bag in Bruce’s direction. “Watch out, they’re wasabi.”
Bruce didn’t know what wasabi was, but he knew he didn’t like peas. Maybe he was supposed to take them, though. Bruce tried to think of Tony as he had been—around his height with floppy hair, the way he’d been a know-it-all and friendly and sort of weirdly high-strung, how easily his face had changed color. The way that Tony had put his head on his leg.
This guy kind of had the same mouth and eyes, but his hair was darker and seemed textured differently, and he had a goatee, with lines in his face. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and Bruce could see something blue glowing through the fabric on his chest. He was tall and not largely muscled, but he looked strong, and confident in a way that the other Tony hadn’t, even though he’d pretended to be.
Bruce just couldn’t put it together; it wasn’t the same person.
“No sweat,” said Tony, pulling back the bag. “More for me.” He reached into the bag, then tossed some of the peas into his mouth. “Check this out,” he went on, touching the screen. “This is you.”
It was a diagram of a molecule or something. Bruce didn’t really get it, so he stopped looking at it, looking at his shoes instead.
“Or at least,” said Tony, “I think it’s you. Could be my great aunt Molly. Won’t know until we test it. Wanna try?”
“We could go to D Lab,” said Tony. “Take some blood, run some scans. Find out how to Flux you back to forty.” He waited, like Bruce was supposed to say something, but he didn’t know what to say. When he looked up, Tony was just staring at him. “Everyone wants to go to D Lab,” Tony said. “It’s the place to party.”
Bruce glanced over at Natasha, who was leaning up against the wall, arms crossed. Her head was turned a little to the side, like she wasn’t paying attention. Bruce thought she was definitely paying attention. Like she was watching out for him, or something, and goddamn it, that was lame, but it made him feel a whole lot better.
“We’ll take Romanoff,” said Tony, following the direction of his gaze. “We can test her too. I’ve always wanted to see whether she’s a robot.”
Bruce just looked at Natasha some more, wondering if she really expected him to put up with this guy, or what. She’d said she respected Tony, back in the car when they’d been going shopping. She’d also said he was funny. That didn’t make him okay, though. To Bruce he seemed sort of like a clown at a party that tried to make kids laugh and instead made them cry. Not that he’d been to many parties, and none of them had had clowns. Bruce knew that that was what happened, though, at parties with clowns.
“You want to go with Jane instead of me?” said Tony.
Bruce just shrugged again, but he always got in trouble when he answered that way, so then he said, “No, sir.”
“Ouch.” Tony winced. “Listen—you don’t . . . hm.”
Bruce could tell he was upset. Tony had turned back to the panels, touching things on them like he was busy—acting like he wasn’t upset. The younger Tony had pretended things all the time, but this was different—less obvious. People were always acting like they weren’t upset, and they thought they could get away with it. Bruce could always tell.
“You can call me Tony,” Tony said after a moment, still looking at the panels.
“Yes, sir,” said Bruce. He wasn’t even sure why he said it: whether it was to make Tony not upset, or to upset him more.
Tony just looked down at him. “’Kay,” he said, after a moment, acting like it didn’t bother him. He touched the screen again, wiping it clean. “We’re just going over to the D Lab, Jane. You know, where all the fun lives. Back in a few.”
They started walking, and Natasha peeled off the wall. They ended up at an elevator—a different elevator than the one Bruce was used to using. “We’re going to your D Lab,” said Tony, pressing the button for the forty-ninth floor. “Did you know you had your own D Lab?”
Bruce didn’t know what he was talking about, but the forty-ninth floor was where he’d destroyed the lab. He didn’t particularly want to go there again.
“You have a whole floor,” Tony said. “Did you know we were building a toilet?”
Bruce didn’t say anything, because of course he didn’t know what he’d been doing as a grown-up, and why would he build a toilet anyway; that was stupid. He could feel Natasha behind him, just standing there.
“Your idea,” said Tony. “You were thinking maybe we could use poop for barbeque. I think you’re crazy. And a genius. Very fuel efficient, anyway. Here we are.” The elevator opened and they stepped out. “You took me to D Lab too, you know. When you were forty-you, and I was wee-me. You poked me with needles, and I was annoying little shit. It was a barrel of laughs.”
Bruce just looked back at Natasha, who shrugged.
“It’s okay,” said Tony. “You can tell me I was annoying little shit. I can take it.”
Tony had quite possibly been the coolest kid that Bruce had ever met. He was sort of an annoying shit now, though.
“This is it,” said Tony, opening the door of another lab. It wasn’t the lab that Bruce had destroyed; they hadn’t even passed by that one. “Go ahead and make yourself comfortable. Lobotomy at five.”
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want,” said Natasha, passing by Bruce on the way into the lab.
“Not true.” Tony was opening drawers, getting things out. “You still have to get dressed in the morning. I thought I was going to get to be naked whenever I wanted.”
Bruce didn’t know what to say to that, either.
“Turns out, it’s all lies,” said Tony. “You wanna come over here? I can’t poke you with sharp things if you’re all the way over there.”
Bruce gave Natasha a long-suffering look, then went over to Tony.
“Gimme a five,” said Tony.
Bruce just stared at him. He knew he was being insolent or whatever, but he couldn’t really tell what Tony was playing at. Like, Bruce could tell Tony was trying to be nice, or whatever, but it sort of seemed false. Like he was still pretending he wasn’t upset or whatever.
“Down low, too slow,” said Tony taking away his hand. “How’s your hand?”
“Probably feel like you’ve given enough blood for one day, and then we come and ask for more.” Tony tilted his head to one side. “Do you ever wonder if vampires pee? I’ve always wondered that. Can you put out your hand? I von to take a sample.” Bruce put out his hand, and Tony pretended to look at it. “Dear God,” he said. “Your life line is shaped like an integral. You know what that means—oops, there you go.”
“Ow,” said Bruce, pulling his hand away. Tony had pricked it without warning; Bruce hadn’t even seen the needle. “That hurt.”
“I’m gonna label this, put it in the refrigerator,” said Tony, “and I can see exactly how much fun we’re going to have. Want a Band-Aid?”
Bruce just glared at him.
“It’s okay.” Tony scribbled something, then went to put the sample in the refrigerator. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I would have hated me too. Sure you don’t want any peas?” Walking back over, he waggled the bag again. “Natasha, want any peas?”
“Sure,” she said, peeling herself off the wall again. She took the bag, poured out a little handful. “Bruce, you want some peas?”
“Okay,” said Bruce, and put out his hand.
They were crunchy and tasted weird, and then they were too spicy. He could feel his face going red.
Tony snatched the bag back from Natasha. “That was mean,” he said. Raising his brows at Bruce, he asked, “Too spicy?”
Bruce swallowed hard. “Fine,” he said, then added, “sir,” just because he wanted to see what Tony would do.
“Uh-huh.” Tony just tossed more peas in his mouth. “We think the covalent bonds holding your molecules together are different. You heard of tau bonds?”
“Yes,” Bruce said, frowning.
“Great.” Tony ate some more peas. “Shaped like bananas. More reactive than normal bonds, so they fly apart easier, but your bonds, they bounce back. I know you know how this works. You told me all about it when I was still pretending I thought it was photosynthesis. More peas?”
“The truth is, you’re smarter than me. I might be good with the mechanics, but your work on the theory—it just really . . . blows my mind. Natasha, take this bag; I’m going to eat the whole thing. Pepper gets mad when I do that; I break into hives. I’m actually allergic to wasabi.”
Rolling her eyes, Natasha took the bag.
Bruce didn’t really care if Tony was saying he was smarter. Adults said things like that all the time, and then still tried to tell you what to do. If they really thought you were smarter than they were, they would just do what you said, but they never did.
“We think that’s why you didn’t age up,” Tony said. “You’re used to taking on mass and releasing it—or at least, the part of you that’s folded somewhere in space-time is used to it, and it’s causing your body here to resist the Flux Accelerator.”
“You mean I’m a freak,” said Bruce.
Tony just stared at him. Then he said, “Yes.”
Bruce glanced at Natasha.
“You think there’s something wrong with being a freak?” Tony’s gaze flicked over to Natasha as well. “Romanoff, there something wrong with being a freak?”
“Nope.” Natasha was eating the peas. Sort of like a traitor, but she smiled up at Bruce. “It’s cool.”
“Natasha thinks it’s cool,” said Tony. “I think it’s great.” He tapped the blue light in his chest. “Sometimes it has its downside. People try to kill you. But it definitely has perks.”
Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers. “Like what?” he asked.
“Natasha?” said Tony.
“You can help people you couldn’t otherwise help if you weren’t a freak,” Natasha said, and popped a pea into her mouth.
“That,” said Tony, looking at Natasha. “I was going to say that.” He looked back down at Bruce. “I was totally going to say that. But also.” He looked thoughtful. “You get all the girls. Romanoff, is that true?”
“Sometimes.” Natasha smiled. “Sometimes I get all the girls.”
“Natasha and I’re on the same page,” said Tony. “We’re both freaks.”
Bruce looked at his shoes.
“You don’t always get a choice to be a freak.” Tony glanced at Natasha again, and Bruce wondered whether he knew—whether Tony knew about her dad and everything. He’d sort of felt like it was a thing she’d just told him, but whatever; he bet Tony knew. “In fact,” Tony went on, “I would venture to say that almost no one chooses to be a freak in the way that we are freaks. You can only choose what you do with it. You gonna make that choice?”
Bruce lifted his eyes. “What do you want me to do?”
“Do the rest of these tests with me,” said Tony. “And then we’re going to solve your problem. I just . . .” For a moment, he seemed to search for words, which seemed odd for a man like Tony. His gaze slid over to Natasha, and then he looked around the lab. “I need you with me on this, okay?”
Bruce dropped his eyes again. “What about your lab?”
“Your lab,” Bruce said loudly. “You know, the one I destroyed?”
There was a silence, and at last Bruce looked up. Tony was just staring at him. “Bruce, I don’t give a fuck about the lab,” he said.
“No. You listen to me.”
Then Tony stepped closer, Bruce took a step back, and Natasha shifted behind him. Not very much, but enough, so that Bruce knew she was there—and he could tell Tony knew too. He could also tell that it upset Tony. He didn’t scowl or frown or anything, but Bruce could tell. Like maybe Tony didn’t want Natasha to be there. Like maybe Tony knew that no one could hurt him, no one could touch him, with Natasha there, and that’s why Tony was pissed off. Like maybe Tony would have if Natasha wasn’t—but the thing was Natasha was short, and Tony was tall. Natasha was small, and Tony wasn’t.
Sometimes Mom tried to protect him too.
“The lab is absolutely the last thing I care about,” said Tony. His voice was almost scary-soft. The way he’d said to Steve, get the fuck away from him, like Bruce was a wild animal, like Bruce was going to destroy everything, which he sort of had. “At this point,” Tony said, “all I care about is you. You’re the only thing, Bruce. The only thing.”
Bruce’s good hand was in a fist, but he wasn’t sure how it got that way. Opening it, he ran his thumb over his fingers. “Why?” was all he said.
“Because you’re my friend.” Tony said it quickly, with absolutely confidence. “And I got you into this mess, and I’m going to get you out. I want,” he began, then changed it. “I only ever wanted—” Then he cut himself off completely, his mouth twisting at the side.
Bruce finally got it, then. Tony was upset because he wanted him back—the other Bruce, the Hulk. The one who he’d said he’d liked so much when he was a kid.
Bruce took another step back. “We’re not friends.”
Tony was quiet for a moment, then said, “That’s okay. That’s—we don’t need to be friends.” Turning away, he scratched the spot on his chest near the lights. He was pretending he wasn’t upset again. “We don’t need to be friends; we just need to work together on this. Come on and look at this with me.” He walked over to a computer.
Bruce looked back at Natasha, who was acting like she hadn’t even stepped up in the first place. Instead, she was digging through the bag of peas. “He’s not bad once you get to know him,” she said, so Bruce went.
Tony called up some files to show Bruce the work he and Foster had already been doing on Bruce’s . . . condition or whatever, and then Tony started explaining them. Bruce got out the glasses Natasha had gotten for him, and tried to pay attention. Sometimes he didn’t understand what Tony was saying, but he was reluctant to ask. At least Tony wasn’t acting like he was a kid anymore.
After several minutes or so, he let Bruce get on the computer, and then started pointing things out to him, and it was a little—just a little—like when they’d both been the same age and Tony had been showing him the Flux Accelerator. Except it wasn’t really like that all, partly because Tony was much bigger and much smarter, and also didn’t act like such a know-it-all—maybe because now he actually did know it all.
The other difference was that Tony didn’t keep touching him all the time, like he had before. He didn’t touch him at all. Not even once.
“You did a CT scan on me,” Tony was saying.
Bruce guessed that would have told him about Tony’s tissues or whatever, but he didn’t really see how it connected to his own problem, which seemed to be on a molecular level. He still didn’t say anything though—even though Tony kind of seemed like he was waiting.
Tony waited a moment more, then said, “That’s not really going to give us much of anything. Luckily, you just happen to have a gamma camera sitting around your lab. Fancy that.” He waited again, glancing at Bruce, then tapped something on his tablet, changing the equations on Bruce’s screen. “Never thought I’d have a chance to use it,” Tony went on, after a moment. “Been sitting around picking up dust. Forty-you didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was hilarious. Have you seen 2001, A Space Oddyssey?”
Bruce wanted to be agreeable. He wasn’t trying to be disagreeable—or anyway, not anymore, because he knew Tony was trying to help him, but he hadn’t seen 2001. So he said, “No.”
“You should see it. It’s good. Great big robot. Super quick aging at the end. You’ll love it.”
“Okay,” said Bruce.
Tony opened his mouth, then shut it. Turning away, he started poking things on his tablet. “What movies do you like?” he asked after a moment. When Bruce just shrugged, he said, “Yeah. Me too. Too busy. I was always building things. No time for cartoons and movies. How about you?”
Bruce did homework, his own projects, and a lot of detention. It didn’t really leave time for things like movies, even if Mom had approved of things like movies, which she didn’t. He’d seen part of Star Wars, because it was Star Wars. Bruce wasn’t about to mention that, though, because he’d snuck in, so all he said was, “Yeah.”
Tony looked like he wanted to say something again, and then didn’t. “Normally we’d use radiopharmaceuticals,” he said instead, touching things on his tablet again. “Positron-emitting radionuclide. It’d work like a tracer, and we’d measure gamma rays. Luckily, that’s all we want, so no pharmaceuticals for you. You just gotta lie there and get measured. Easy-peasy.”
“Alright,” said Bruce, because Tony hadn’t liked ‘okay’ last time.
“Sure, it’s alright.” Tony’s voice went a little softer. “What do you think?”
Bruce glanced over at Natasha again. She was doing something on her phone, like she wasn’t paying attention again. Swallowing, Bruce turned back to Tony. “I think it sounds good?”
“Yes, of course it’s good. I thought it up.” Tony’s voice went softer still. “Are you alright with it?”
Swallowing again, Bruce wasn’t sure what to say. He’d already said it was alright, so he said, “Yes, sir,” which—oops. He’d forgotten that Tony hated ‘sir’. He’d honestly just forgotten.
Tony poked things on his tablet. “Okay,” he said, and turned away. “Okay.” His voice just kept reminding Bruce of the way Tony had said, get the fuck away from him. Bruce tried not to look at Natasha, because he was starting to think that Tony didn’t like that either. “Come over to the camera with me,” said Tony. “We’ll get you set up.”
The camera was like a tube with a bed that slid in, sort of like the pictures in books of things like CAT scanners and MRIs. Taking off his glasses, Bruce went with him, just like Tony said. He got on the bed thing, just like Tony said, and he laid down on it, just like Tony said. He was trying to do everything that Tony said, and it felt like Tony’s voice just kept getting softer and softer, like he was getting more and more upset with him and trying to hide it more and more and more. He wasn’t even trying to be funny anymore, which Bruce could already tell was a bad thing. It was a really bad thing.
“It’s okay,” said Tony, when Bruce was lying on the bed thing and Tony was turning on the scanner. “It’s not going to hurt.”
Which was stupid, because Bruce knew it wasn’t going to hurt, but he tried not to act like he thought it was stupid, so he said, “Okay.”
“You want to be careful not to move,” said Tony. “Can you stay still? Is that okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Bruce said, because he forgot again, and that was stupid too. He knew he had to say still, and Tony kept acting like Bruce was dumb or something.
“Bruce.” Tony’s voice was that same scary-soft tone. “Just relax.”
He was relaxed, but Bruce tried to do it, and said, “Okay.”
Tony was working on the computer, touching the screen, occasionally typing things in. “Alright, we’ll get things started; it's just going to go a little bit at a time,” Tony said. “It’s okay. Not going to hurt.”
Tony must think he was really fucking dumb.
“Bruce,” Tony said quietly. “Remember, stay still.”
He was still, but then Bruce realized he was doing that thing with his hand, so he stopped. The table moved some—scanning or whatever.
“Bruce,” Tony said again, after several minutes. He was still using that quiet tone, but now it sounded strained. “Relax; it’s okay.”
Bruce wanted to shout at him I’m relaxed, but he didn’t.
“Alright,” Tony said. “I’m just going to go talk to Natasha, okay? Stay right here; it’s still scanning.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bruce, trying not to move. He didn’t get why Tony was so frustrated; he was doing everything Tony asked, and he wasn’t complaining or being insolent or anything, and Bruce didn’t want him to talk to Natasha, because he didn’t want her to go away.
“Hey,” said Natasha, and Bruce accidentally looked up. “It’s okay,” she said. “You just lay right there, and I’m gonna sit right here.”
Bruce tried to look without moving his head. Natasha had dragged a stool up next to the bed, and Tony was back over at the computer.
“You’ve gotta stay still.” Natasha put her hand on his, and Bruce realized he was doing that thing again with his thumb, so he stopped.
He guessed he’d been doing it the whole time. That’s why Tony was frustrated, and then he’d had to go and get Natasha—like Bruce was some kind of wuss, or something. Except Tony didn’t think he was a wuss, Bruce finally realized. Tony was afraid.
He was afraid Bruce was going to lose it—just fly off the handle like he’d done last time, just go completely ballistic, and the problem was Bruce couldn’t even blame him. It was completely understandable that that was what Tony thought he was going to do. Who knew. Bruce might even do it. He might even do it right now, who knew; he could never tell, and Tony probably thought he was insane. Like, clinically insane, like some kind of psychopath, and of course Tony didn’t want to touch him. Obviously. Who would want to touch—
“Brusichik,” Natasha said, and Bruce stopped moving his hand again.
Tony had stopped talking completely.
After the scan was finally over, Natasha said lunch was ready.
“Go on ahead,” said Tony, doing things on the computer. He wasn’t really looking at either one of them. “I’m just going to go over these results. Bruce,” he said, as they started to walk away. Bruce turned back, and Tony was looking at him then, his eyes as straight and direct as ever. “Good job. You did really well.”
They both knew he hadn’t done well, and Bruce didn’t understand why he felt the need to lie. Sometimes people just did things like that, though, so Bruce left the lab with Natasha.
Pepper and Captain America were in the kitchen with sandwiches. The last time he’d seen them, he’d thrown a stool at Steve’s head, and Pepper had been so horrified she couldn’t even look at him.
“Hey, Bruce,” said Pepper.
“Hi, Doctor Banner,” said Captain America, and took a big bite of his sandwich.
Bruce didn’t actually want to talk to either of them, but when he looked over at Natasha for help she was rummaging among the sandwiches. “Any with ham?” she asked.
“This one,” said Pepper, picking up a plate.
“Thanks.” Natasha checked under the bread. “Bruce, you like ham and mustard?”
“Yes,” said Bruce, wondering how she knew. Not looking at any of them, he got up on the stool that was at the other end of the bar from Captain America.
“Good,” she said, and put the plate in front of him.
“Do you like crusts?” said Pepper.
Frowning, Bruce finally looked up at her. “Crusts?”
Pepper just shrugged. “I hated them. Mom used to cut them off for me.”
Thumb running over his fingers, Bruce glared down at his plate, because she wasn’t his mom.
“What do you want to drink?” asked Pepper.
“Is this salami?” asked Natasha.
“Yes,” said Pepper.
“I don’t care,” said Bruce, still glaring at his plate.
“Want a ginger ale?” said Captain America. He slid a closed, sweaty can in front of Bruce. “I haven’t even started this one.”
Bruce tried to look over at him, but he couldn’t quite make it. It was like sitting next to Abe Lincoln or something. Abe Lincoln whom you had socked in the face. “Thank you, sir,” Bruce said.
“I think I’ll bring Tony and Jane lunch,” said Pepper. She picked up three plates, though, so Bruce guessed she was going to eat with them. He guessed Tony really was her boyfriend, or whatever. He didn’t want to eat with her anyway. “Have a good lunch,” she said, walking out. “There’s cantaloupe in the fridge.”
“I told her you like cantaloupe,” said Captain America, “so she went and got some. Do you still like cantaloupe?”
“Yes, sir,” said Bruce.
“Neat.” Steve sounded like he didn’t mind being called sir at all. He stood up and went and got the cantaloupe out of the refrigerator, and didn’t look like he was hiding anything at all. Like he really did think it was neat that Bruce liked cantaloupe, which was sort of dumb, but whatever.
“Cantaloupe is disgusting,” Natasha said.
Bruce looked around, swallowing. “Where’s Clint?”
“Somewhere.” Natasha flapped a hand. “Probably brooding.”
“Um.” Bruce picked at his crust. Now that he really thought about it, crusts were totally not the best parts of sandwiches. “Why?”
Natasha swallowed a bite of sandwich. “There are a few things Clint hates,” she said. “Absolutely positively despises. He hates them so much he goes off into the rafters and cries about them whenever he sees them, just like the big girl he is.”
“Oh.” Bruce had no idea what she was saying. “What did he see?”
“Probably a cantaloupe,” said Natasha, and went on eating.
“I can’t believe you don’t like cantaloupe.” Holding one of the cantaloupe halves, Steve was carving out the seeds. “Bruce and I love cantaloupe.”
Bruce picked up his sandwich and started eating.
“Disgusting,” Natasha said.
“We had it in Uganda.” Steve started slicing the cantaloupe. “Did you know we lived in Uganda, Bruce?”
“No, sir,” said Bruce, then took another bite of his sandwich.
“Well, we did,” said Steve. “You were a doctor. You really helped people there.”
Bruce glanced at Natasha, who was still eating her sandwich. He guessed Steve was telling the truth. It sounded nice.
“We went on safari,” Steve went on. “We saw elephants. And hippos and a waterfall.”
Bruce kept on eating his sandwich, because he didn’t care about elephants or whatever. Also, he found it highly implausible that he’d gone on safari with Captain America, because that . . . sounded like something a movie star would do or something, like someone who had nothing better to do. In fact, the only thing Bruce could think of that he’d want to do with Captain America was dissect him, and he certainly wasn’t going to say anything to Steve about that.
People never liked it when he said things like that.
“You told me about a bunch of scientific discoveries that had been made in Africa,” Steve went on, slicing the rinds off the cantaloupe slices now. “There was this one fossil in Ethiopia. I think she was named Lucy? You said she was very important to human evolution. Something about the skull.”
“The brain case,” said Bruce.
“Yeah.” Steve put a slice of cantaloupe on Bruce’s plate. “It was smaller than the scientist thought it was going to be. It had something to do with her spine, or something.”
“She walked upright.” Bruce took a bite of the cantaloupe. It was really good, and he couldn’t believe he’d gone on safari. That was really cool, actually. “They knew because of the lumbar curve. And she had a valgus knee, and something about the top of her femur; I forgot what that part is called, but it doesn’t come past the femoral head and that’s how they know she was bipedal.” Then he made himself stop talking, but Steve didn’t look annoyed. He was just eating cantaloupe, and he looked really interested, actually.
“And scientists were surprised, because before, they thought that humans evolved big brains before they started walking on two legs, right?” said Steve.
“Yeah. She’s the oldest bipedal hominid.” Bruce took another bite of cantaloupe.
“I never really thought about evolution before we talked about it that day,” said Steve. He picked up another piece of cantaloupe.
“Well, because I was taught that God created us all,” said Steve. “I just never really thought about it much beyond that.”
“What do you think now?” Bruce sort of sucked on his cantaloupe, which Mom would have hated.
Steve just smiled. “I still think God had something to do with it.”
“Religion is stupid,” said Bruce. “There isn’t any God.” Then he waited, because that would really have upset Mom. She really hated it when he and Dad said things like that, but that was because he and Dad were really smart, and she wasn’t.
Steve just grabbed another piece of cantaloupe. He’d already had like three. Bruce guessed his metabolism must be completely out of whack. “That’s sort of what you told me before,” he said. “But you were much more polite about it.”
Bruce wanted to ask Natasha if she thought religion was stupid, but she was eating her sandwich and looking at her phone again, so he didn’t. He sucked on his cantaloupe some more, then told Steve, “I went to Honduras.” It sounded kind of important, like going to Uganda.
“Yeah, I heard about that,” said Steve, “That sounds really swell. I’ve always wanted to see more of the world, but then . . . there never seemed to be time.”
“You’re Captain America,” said Bruce, surprised into looking up. “I mean, sir. Captain.” Whatever.
“Sure,” said Steve. “That doesn’t mean I get to do whatever I want.”
Bruce scowled. “Why not?”
“Well, I believe I have a responsibility,” said Steve. He was cutting the rind off more cantaloupe, now.
“Because you’re a freak,” said Bruce. Steve looked surprised, and Bruce went red. “Tony, I mean—” Swallowing, he realized he didn’t really know what to call any of them now. “He said that he was a freak and Natasha was a freak, and I’m a freak, and Natasha said that meant—that it meant we could help people. Or whatever.”
Steve looked at Natasha in surprise. Bruce shouldn’t have said that, he guessed, waiting to see what Steve would do.
But Steve just turned back to Bruce and said, “Sometimes Stark has a funny way of putting things, but yes, that’s what I meant.” He pulled out some plastic from a big box on the counter and started using it to wrap the other half of the cantaloupe. “I really believe in what Miss Romanoff said. I think that we can help people.”
Natasha finally put away her phone. “There any milk in there, Rogers?” she said, as Steve opened the refrigerator and put the cantaloupe in.
“Sure,” said Steve. “Want some?”
“Yeah.” Putting her plate to one side, Natasha hopped up on the counter, then picked her plate up again. “Hit me up.”
Steve got the milk out and two glasses. Bruce was going to tell him he didn’t like milk, but when Steve finished pouring the glasses, he gave one to Natasha and then took one for himself. People were always telling Bruce to drink milk, because they said it was for kids and he looked so small for his grade. It was weird to see adults drinking it, like they thought it was great.
“Why were we in Uganda?” Bruce asked finally.
“Mostly just visiting,” said Steve. “You travel a lot, help people. I wanted to . . . be somewhere else.”
“I help people with the Hulk?” said Bruce.
“Not usually,” said Steve.
“You will if you have to.” Natasha drained the rest of her milk, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’ve seen you.”
“Well, yes,” said Steve. He finished his own glass, then put it carefully on the counter. “I’ve seen that too.”
“Is it cool?” said Bruce.
“It’s terrifying,” said Natasha.
“What Miss Romanoff means,” said Steve, plucking yet another piece of the cantaloupe he’d cut from the counter, “is that terrifying is a good thing.”
“You mean because of the aliens,” said Bruce.
“Evil aliens,” Natasha clarified.
“Because of those,” Steve agreed. “Hey, Bruce. Are you still interested in the serum?”
“What?” said Bruce, startled into talking with his mouth full.
“Erskine’s serum,” said Steve. “You used to be interested in it; I was wondering if you still are.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Swallowing, Bruce picked at the remains of his sandwich. He sort of just wanted more cantaloupe. “It’s never been recreated.”
“I know,” said Steve, and put another slice of cantaloupe on Bruce's plate. “I hear people have tried.”
Bruce took another bite of cantaloupe, looking at Steve and wondering whether he should tell him. He was used to people laughing when he said it, so he’d sort of stopped telling them. And his biology teacher had told him he shouldn’t try it, because Captain America was special or whatever, which was stupid. Bruce had sort of liked her before she’d said that, even though she wasn’t all that bright. “I’ve thought about trying it,” Bruce said, watching to see how Steve would react.
“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” Steve said. He started eating the last slice of cantaloupe. “I thought maybe we could go to one of the laboratories, and you could look at my blood.”
“What?” Bruce dropped his cantaloupe.
“It was just a thought.”
“Why?” Bruce knew he sounded suspicious, but he couldn’t help it.
Steve just shrugged. “Once when I visited you, you were looking at your blood in a microscope. I thought it sounded neat—you know, because you’re the Hulk. You said maybe one day we could compare.”
Bruce glanced at Natasha, who was on her phone again, then back at Steve. “But I’m not the Hulk yet.”
“I know,” said Steve. “We don’t have to compare, if you don’t want. We could just look at mine and you could . . . tell me about it. I don’t know; maybe it was a dumb i—”
“I want to,” Bruce said very quickly, so that Steve wouldn’t take it away. “Sir.”
“Neat,” said Steve. “Maybe I’ll learn something.”
Bruce frowned. “Didn’t you learn something when we looked at it before?”
Steve shook his head. “We didn’t look at it. We went on safari instead.”
“I went on safari instead of looking at your blood?” Bruce asked, because that didn’t sound like him at all. He was beginning to doubt the veracity of the safari story all over again. What was he when he grew up, dumb?
Steve smiled. “I don’t think you’re as interested in it later. I mean, you turn into the Hulk, right?”
“That’s not the same,” said Bruce.
“No,” said Steve, “but it’s its own brand of cool. You want to finish up and then we can go play in the lab?”
Ordinarily, Bruce would have grimaced at the way Steve said go play, just like he was a little kid. And, okay, Bruce did grimace a little, but he actually really liked Steve. He hadn’t really thought about Steve all that much when he was a kid—like he was nice and everything, but he hadn’t been cool, and he hadn’t known nearly as much as Tony did. But now it was different. Nice was important when you were grown-up, he guessed. More important than being cool.
So, “Okay,” Bruce said. “Natasha, do you want to come?”
“I dunno,” said Natasha, touching something on her phone. “Are you gonna have to look at things close up?”
Bruce scowled. “Yes?”
“Okay.” Hopping off the counter, Natasha slipped her phone into her pocket. “I think the glasses I got him are cute,” she told Steve.
Bruce scowled some more. “They’re not cute.”
“He doesn’t think they’re cute,” said Natasha.
“They’re not,” Bruce insisted.
“I dunno, Doctor Banner,” said Steve. “If I had a pretty girl telling me I looked cute in glasses, I’d probably wear them all the time.”
Bruce scowled at both of them, then. “I don’t want the rest of my sandwich,” he said. “Do I have to eat it?”
“I’ll put it in a plastic baggy,” said Steve. “You can have it later.”
“Okay,” said Bruce, because Steve was kind of just like Mom, except with big muscles.
He was actually sort of huge, Bruce realized, when he got off the stool and left the kitchen with Steve and Natasha. Bruce remembered that he’d hit him a lot and pushed him down when he was a little kid, but he wasn’t sure Steve even remembered those things. Sometimes people acted like they didn’t remember, but they always did, except Steve was Captain America. Bruce wasn’t even sure Captain America knew how to pretend. He was just like George Washington.
And Bruce was going to get to look at his blood.
“Do you know where we should go?” Steve asked, as they walked toward the elevator.
Bruce looked up at him, but he wasn’t asking Natasha, who was already looking at her phone again. “Um,” Bruce said. He didn’t want to go to the lab he’d messed up, and D Lab looked more medical anyway, but maybe Tony was still in there. Bruce glanced over at Natasha. “Maybe we can go to D Lab if it’s empty,” he decided.
“It’s empty,” said Natasha. “Stark’s with Foster on fifty-four.”
“Okay,” said Bruce. “We’re going to floor forty-nine. That’s my floor.”
“You have a floor?” Steve asked, as they got in the elevator.
“Yeah.” Bruce pressed the button. “There’s a gamma camera and everything.”
“I guess that’s appropriate,” Steve said.
They were quiet for a while as the elevator went down, then they got out. “This way,” Bruce told them, and Steve and Natasha just followed him and didn’t try to get in front. Bruce tried to glance surreptitiously up at Steve. “Did you like being a kid?” Bruce asked finally, as he pulled the door to the lab open. “I mean, getting turned into a kid? Was it fun?”
“It was really disorienting,” said Steve. “I didn’t know anything. I sort of just started pretending I was in a film.”
Bruce started looking through the drawers. He already knew where the needles and tubes and stuff were, and he’d seen a microscope earlier. The main thing he needed to find were some blank slides.
Steve said, “There was this comic strip when I was little—it was called Buck Rogers. I used to pretend I was him—because, you know, the name and everything. When I got changed into a kid—well, that seemed pretty apropos.”
Glancing from the drawer over to Steve, Bruce asked, “So it wasn’t fun?”
Steve thought about that for a while. “Well, parts were fun. I really liked learning to swim. And when Tony taught me to spar—I could tell he was trying really hard to be nice.”
Yeah. Tony tried really hard to be nice. Bruce shoved one of the drawers closed. Instead of looking over at Captain America, he opened another drawer, because he knew Steve was going to start asking him questions, now. Teachers and counselors and people like him always asked questions; usually it was just why don’t you like so-and-so, but sometimes it was did he hurt you and where did he touch you, and it was stupid. It was really fucking stupid.
But Steve didn’t ask any question about Tony. Instead he just said, “I rather liked Truth or Dare at the time, but now I’m pretty mortified, actually.”
“Mortified?” Bruce asked, and then he remembered that Pepper had kissed Steve.
“I’m sure Pepper is too,” said Steve, and didn’t actually sound that mortified.
“Is Tony—Stark mad?”
“I haven’t really talked to him about it,” said Steve, “but I’m guessing not. Mister Stark doesn’t really get mad all that much.” Bruce wondered why he was lying, then Steve went on, “Knowing Tony, he probably just thinks it’s funny. Tony thinks lots of things are funny.”
That was also a lie, because Tony just pretended lots of things were funny, and then Bruce realized that Steve didn’t know he was lying. Steve just didn’t have it figured out yet.
“You have to prick your finger,” was all Bruce said, because he’d found the blank slides. He got the prick-thing ready, and the tube.
“You can do it,” Steve said, and put out his hand.
Bruce looked at it, Steve’s big, strong hand, with its veins and very well-trimmed nails, and tried not to let anything show on his face. There was nothing he would less rather do than touch Steve’s hand and prick Steve’s finger. He didn’t even know why. It just seemed horrible somehow, but Bruce really wanted to see his blood. He hadn’t considered this when Steve had suggested it.
“I’ll do it,” said Natasha—which just proved she did pay attention when she looked like she wasn’t. Bruce had been pretty sure about that, and now he knew. “Don’t be a girl now,” she told Steve, then took his hand.
“As long as you’re gentle with me,” said Steve, and she pricked it.
“There you go,” she said, and handed Bruce the blood. “You okay?" she asked Steve. "Want a Band-Aid or something?”
“I think I’ll live,” said Steve.
While Bruce put on his glasses, Natasha smirked at Steve. “You’re supposed to keep your blood on the inside, you know.”
“I could say the same to you,” said Steve.
Bruce hadn’t really thought about how maybe they got bloody sometimes, fighting aliens or whatever crazy things people from the future did. He thought about it as he prepared the slide; he didn't like the thought of Natasha getting hurt, but Jarvis said she was highly trained or whatever, and it sounded like Captain America maybe helped her. He wasn't sure what he thought about that.
“Don’t worry.” Natasha came around to Bruce's side, like she wanted to see what he was doing or something. “Rogers always has my back.”
“Miss Romanoff always has mine.” Steve hooked a stool with his ankle, and sat beside Bruce on his other side. “She’s right, you know,” he said. “Those glasses are cute.”
“No, they’re not,” said Bruce. It wasn’t fair, because he had to concentrate on getting the droplets on the glass, but he really wanted to glare at Steve.
“Of course they’re cute,” said Natasha. “I bought them.”
“They’re not cute,” Bruce said again, and put the plastic over the drop of blood.
“You know what makes them even cuter?” said Steve. “Whining.”
Bruce wasn’t whining, but he didn’t want to give them any ammunition, so he didn’t say anything, and put the slide under the microscope. “Whatever,” he said, and wondered if this was what having parents was supposed to be like.
After they looked at the blood—it was really neat—Natasha said they should go out, since it was just Bruce, and they could bring Steve. Bruce wondered about that, because he thought he was supposed to help Tony and Foster or whatever, but he guessed maybe Tony didn’t want his help after all. So he and Natasha and Steve went to go see a movie—it was the next Star Trek movie—and then got dinner. Then they got back to Stark Tower, and Bruce had tried to help Foster then while Tony was on floor forty-nine doing something on the Flux Accelerator. Eventually Bruce must have gotten sleepy, because Natasha woke him up and took him to bed again.
Late that night, or maybe early the next morning, Natasha came to wake Bruce up. One hand was on his arm, another in his hair when he startled awake, and she said, “Shh, it’s me.”
Bruce sort of couldn’t believe how much he would have liked for her to get into bed beside him, the way that Mom used to do when he had nightmares. That was seriously messed up, because he was way older now and she was—she was way prettier than Mom and earlier today (yesterday?) he’d accidentally felt her boobs. But honestly he didn’t want to do anything like that with her; he just wanted her there, and for her to say nice things, and keep touching his hair.
Then he woke up the rest of the way, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “What?”
“They’ve got it working.” She ruffled his hair, then took her hand away. Picking up a pile of clothes, she said, “I brought you big clothes, so you’ll fit in them. You want to get dressed and come with me?”
Bruce looked up at her. “How do they know it works?”
“They’re as certain as they can be. I know you find this hard to believe, but Stark . . . wants to protect you. He wouldn’t do it if he thought there was a remote possibility of it hurting you.”
Bruce frowned down at his sheets. “I don’t think Stark likes me.”
Natasha stared down at him, then after a moment, touched his sheet-covered knees. “Scooch,” she said. He shifted over, and she sat down. “Someone needs to tell you this before we do this, just in case. Stark likes you so much he can barely see straight.”
It took Bruce a moment to process that she must mean Tony liked the adult him.
“Whether you’re an adult or kid,” said Natasha. “If he seems on edge, it’s because he thinks that he’s put you in danger. I’ve known Stark a while. I thought he was crazy before, but I’ve never seen him crazy like this. He’s out of his mind with the thought that he’s hurt you. He’s so out of his mind that I’d say he was certifiable, except Stark's crazy isn't like other people's crazy. He gets stone-cold determined, and when he's like that, nothing can stop him. If anyone can get you out of this, he can, and if no one can do it, he will find a way. That man would break into Hell itself for you, and there’s not many people he would do that for.”
Bruce just looked at his hands. He didn’t understand how what Natasha was saying could possibly be true. “I don’t want to make anyone crazy,” was all he said.
“I know you don’t, lapushka. You just do.” Her hand carded through his hair again, and she stood up. “I’ll be right outside.”
After Bruce got dressed, they went in the elevator. “Do you want to see them first?” Natasha asked, holding the elevator doors. “They’re all waiting in the viewing lab, but they’ll understand if you don’t want to see them. We can just go straight down to the Flux Accelerator, if you want.”
“Um,” said Bruce, rubbing his eyes. Steve wasn’t so bad, and he didn’t mind Pepper, but when he thought about what Natasha had said about Tony, he really didn’t want to see him. Bruce really didn’t want to make anyone crazy, and the only reason he could think of why Tony would be that way was that he really didn’t like Bruce as a kid and just wanted the other Bruce back. Thinking he wouldn’t like to see the hope on all of their faces—hope that was so mirrored in himself—he finally said, “Can we just go down?”
“Of course,” said Natasha, and pressed the button for the forty-ninth floor.
“Did you buy these?” said Bruce, plucking at his too-big pants. They didn’t fit so differently from his other ones, which he guessed he’d gotten blood all over. These were still really big, but the material was much nicer than he was used to wearing.
“They’re Stark’s,” said Natasha. “I’m sorry. Your own were in the wash; I didn’t know when the Accelerator would be ready.”
Bruce just kept thinking about what Natasha had said, and it made him really not want to be wearing Stark’s clothes. “He doesn’t mind if I borrow them?”
“He doesn’t mind,” said Natasha. “You’ve done it before. I’m going to get you set up in the lab, and then I’m going to leave. They’re going to start the procedure, and when it’s finished, I’ll be there. You got that?” she said, as the doors to the elevator opened. “I will be the first thing you see.”
“Got it,” said Bruce.
“Okay,” she said, and they walked into the lab.
Though someone had cleaned up most of the broken monitors and glass, the lab still bore evidence of his tantrum—missing computers, a missing stool, some of the benches just standing empty. Bruce tried not to look.
This was probably why he made people crazy.
“Alright,” said Natasha, once they were by the Flux Accelerator. “You just have to stand here, okay?”
“Natasha?” he asked, as she turned away.
She turned all the way back to him then. “Don’t ever forget what I promised you,” she said, and kissed him on the forehead.
Then she turned and walked away.
At first, Bruce thought maybe she was referring to what she’d said about being the first thing he saw, but then he realized she hadn’t promised that. She’d only promised just one thing.
I will never let anyone hurt you.
“Mister Stark wishes to know whether you are ready,” said Jarvis.
“Yes,” said Bruce, and closed his eyes. He didn’t even know what he’d do if this didn’t work.
“Initializing,” said Jarvis, and then the pain started.
Bruce came to on his knees, and he remembered everything. When he looked up, the first thing he saw was Natasha.
He just kind of wanted to curl up and die, so he slowly stood up, and remembered to breathe.
Natasha smiled. “Welcome back, Doctor Banner.”
“Yeah,” said Bruce. “Thanks.”
“Guess I have to give you these.” She held out his glasses.
He took them back. “Thanks,” he said again. In her eyes, he could read all the things that she could see now—all the things that all of them could see.
It wasn’t ever like he’d kept it a close secret, except he sort of had. What his father had done to his mother had been in his file, but the rest hadn’t been. Now they all knew, and it wasn’t as though any of them would treat him any differently for it, just as none of them treated any differently after he’d told them about the bullet he’d put in his mouth.
The only difference was that they now knew more of him than any people he had ever known. They now knew more than Betty. They—this strange group of misfits and live wires that Fury had brought together, who never should have even existed.
Bruce felt raw, watching the rest come in—Tony, Pepper—and Steve, who was the one person Bruce wouldn’t have minded telling. Bruce was long past the point of shame—he had dealt with that long ago. Still, it was a bit . . . difficult, looking at them and knowing that they now understood what exactly the Hulk was, and where exactly it came from.
“Doctor Banner, it’s nice to have you back,” Steve said, his hand warm and firm on Bruce’s shoulder. His voice was good. It always sounded good.
“Do you feel okay?” Pepper asked, and Bruce knew why she had stayed away when she had been grown and he had been small. It was the quality of her eyes, how completely pity could fill them. She must have known that about herself, and known that Bruce would hate it.
Then there was Tony. There was always Tony. “Welcome back,” he said, and then he was touching Bruce too—the hand on his shoulder, strong palm in his own. “Not that we don’t miss mini-you.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Foster said, putting out her hand. It was an excuse to turn away from Tony, so Bruce took it. “You-you, I mean. It was nice to meet the other you too.”
“Thanks for all your help,” Bruce said. She was still shaking his hand. He wished he’d remembered that about her, because he could strongly do without all this touching, just now.
“Absolutely my pleasure. Sorry about the botched calculations on the first run.”
“Not your fault,” said Bruce. “In case you didn’t notice, I did the same thing.”
“Not your fault either,” Tony said, in that quick, confident voice.
Bruce slid his gaze over to him, and then couldn’t meet his eyes. “Um, Jane?” Bruce said. “Can I have my hand?”
“God, sorry. Did I mention I’m a fan of yours? We should get together. Have coffee.”
“Doctor Banner makes excellent coffee,” said Steve.
“Really?” said Jane. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you anyway. There needs to be a way on our end to open up a portal to Asgard, and I was wondering if you had any—”
“I’m so sorry, Jane,” said Bruce. “But I am really, really tired right now. Can this possibly . . . wait?”
“God, of course, you’re exhausted,” Jane said. “Do you want anything? Coffee? Tea? They have a great soda selection here.”
“I’m just . . .” He just wasn’t going to explode, right here. Right now. “I’m going to go home.” He looked around. Natasha wasn’t there anymore. Neither was Clint. “If that’s alright with everyone.”
“I’ll take you,” said Steve, which was very nice, but the thought of riding with Steve on his motorcycle made Bruce feel physically ill. He didn’t even know if it was the bump and roar of the bike or just the thought of having to be that close to Steve.
“That’s okay. Please.” Bruce looked around at everyone again. “I’m sorry I turned everyone into kids, and thank you for being so nice to me. Thank you for . . . everything. Thank Natasha and Clint, too.”
He’d made it to the door by the time Tony stopped him, which Bruce had completely expected, just hoped wouldn’t happen. Tony tugged his elbow. Too weary to protest, Bruce turned around.
“That was genius, what you did,” said Tony.
“Tony,” said Bruce.
Tony grimaced. “I understand you’re angry. Just let me finish. I wanted you to know that I meant what I said, too. About when I was wee-me and you were forty-you. You were—incredibly good. You didn’t question, and you didn’t condemn; you just did what you had to to fix the problem and you were unfathomably, incandescently—noble. You deserve a prize, for what you did. You deserve medals. And the way you were with me—that was good, too.”
Bruce closed his eyes, and when he opened them, Tony was still there. “What the fuck were you thinking?” he said, his voice husky and scraped raw.
Tony bared his teeth. “Jesus, Bruce—”
“I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. I know it. But just . . .” Bruce ground his teeth together, pressed his lips in, and somehow even his exhaustion felt like rage. “Just what were you thinking?”
“I wanted to make a time machine,” Tony said blankly.
“Congratulations,” Bruce said, opening the door. “You made one.”
Tony put his palm flat on the door, shut it. “I wasn’t fucking around. I was trying to make this world better.”
Bruce just looked at him. “Even if you did make a time machine, what are you going to do? Go back in time and kill Hitler?”
“Fuck you,” said Bruce.
“I didn’t think I would succeed. Dammit, Bruce.” Tony looked across the lab, where Pepper, Jane, and Steve were all talking to each other quietly. Both Pepper and Steve kept tossing concerned glances their way, while Jane did most of the talking. “Some of the world’s brightest innovations have come out of attempts to achieve the impossible,” Tony said, turning back. “I was working on the . . . Flux Accelerator—” he waved a hand—“whatever you want to call it, because the next time the Tesseract comes to town, I’m going to be ready for it.”
“The Tesseract is in Asgard,” Bruce said tiredly. “With Thor. It’s not going anywhere.”
“And it’s the only object in the universe that could possibly be a threat? Wake up, Bruce.”
Bruce found that his fists were clenched, so he put them in his pockets. “If you had succeeded—if you could go back in time—would you change your history? Any of it?”
“No,” said Tony. “Of course not. I was never going to—”
“And mine?” Bruce lifted his brows. “Knowing what you now know. Would you change mine?”
Tony flinched. For a moment, his gaze flicked away. It came back almost immediately, hot and intense, burning through Bruce. “No. You know I wouldn’t. Even for that. But if you’re trying to tell me that things happen for a reason, so help me God—”
“No,” said Bruce. “I’m saying some weapons should never be used. Ever. No matter how bad things get. No matter how extreme or terrible it seems—there’s always something worse. There’s always something worse. You can’t just fix things with enough guns.”
“It’s not a gun,” said Tony.
“I’m done with this conversation.” As Bruce tried to pull open the door again, Tony held his hand out and shut it. Bruce said, “If you don’t let me out of here—”
“You’ll what?” Tony said. “Go on and do it.”
“Jesus Christ, Tony.” Bruce couldn’t help glancing at the lab that he’d basically destroyed. “I already did.”
“Don’t.” Tony’s voice was hoarse. “Don’t say that. You were a child, Bruce. A child. And, know what, if I could go back and time and—”
Bruce didn’t want to listen to this. He didn’t have to listen to this. “I didn’t trust you when I was twelve. Want to know why?”
Tony shut his mouth.
“It was because as the adult, you had all of the power, but you didn’t act like you did.”
Tony’s face was blank, unreadable. His eyes seemed almost black, like holes in his face.
“You were trying to make me comfortable, and I appreciate that,” said Bruce. “I do, and I’m sorry that you failed. But when you’re the one with the power, you’ve also got to be the one who’s responsible for the fact that not everything’s going to work the way you want it to. You can’t just fix everything. You just can’t.”
Tony stared at him for a moment longer. Then, grimacing, he looked away. “I can’t fix everything. I can only try. If that’s not good enough for you, then you can go.”
“Go on,” said Tony. “Go.”
For the first few days after Bruce grew up, he’d been sure he was going to leave town. He didn’t want to talk to anyone; City College kept calling and leaving him messages. Then Steve called. Bruce didn’t want to talk to him either, but he answered because it was Steve. His voice sounded nothing like pity, and everything like redemption.
So he came over and they played another game of chess.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Steve said. “We don’t have to.”
Bruce laughed, a little harshly. He’d said practically the same words to Tony when Tony had been twelve. He supposed a part of him would always be twelve. “At least I can say now that I’m really sorry I pushed you when you were a kid,” was all he said.
“Just think about how Pepper feels.”
Bruce moved his rooks. “I actually have no lasting trauma concerning a twelve year old girl hitting me.”
Steve smirked. “I meant because she kissed me.”
Bruce was surprised into laughter. “Right. You mean it’s not all about me?”
“It isn’t, but a lot of it was.”
“Well, Rogers, spill. Was she any good?”
Steve just smiled. “I don’t kiss and tell, Doctor Banner.” He moved his knight. “I want to say that I’m sorry I grabbed you. We don’t have to talk about it. I’m just sorry that any of that happened.”
Swallowing a sigh, Bruce pushed a pawn. “Wasn’t your fault, Steve.”
“Wasn’t yours either.” Steve looked up, eyes too blue, really, to be believed. “It puts what you did that day in Uganda in a new light.”
Bruce didn’t want to think about that day in Uganda. It had been hot, the school yard very dry. The child had cried out, the principal had had a cane, and the only thing Bruce had been able to think was not my call.
Bruce didn’t want to think about any of it.
Steve went on, “I wanted to tell you—I admire you for doing what you did that day, even though I was angry at the time. You were . . . noble.”
“Tony said the same thing,” he said, not meeting Steve’s eyes.
“Stark’s doing the best that he can.” Steve glanced up, then had mercy, and looked back at the board. “I’m not trying to excuse him to you.”
“Thanks,” said Bruce.
Steve took his pawn with a bishop. “Talked to Miss Romanoff lately?”
Steve shrugged. “Just wondering.”
Swallowing another sigh, Bruce moved his queen out of check. “I should be angry with you for showing me your blood.”
Smiling, Steve pushed a pawn. “It was the one thing I was sure would catch your interest at that age.”
“I know. You were a crafty bastard.”
“Me?” said Steve. “Doctor Banner, I’m offended. Check.”
Already knowing he was going to lose horribly, Bruce made a stupid move with his queen. “Twelve-year-old Tony asked about us,” he said.
“Did he?” said Steve. He was closing in with his knights, a pair of pincers. He always did that—when it wasn’t the bishops.
“He asked whether we were friends,” said Bruce, moving another rook.
“I hope you didn’t tell him how much we talk about him behind his back,” Steve said, moving his knight again.
Bruce laughed, pushing a pawn. “No, his ego was big enough at that age.”
“Good,” said Steve. “Checkmate. Good game.” He stuck out his hand, because he did that when he won.
Bruce took it. “It was an awful game. But I liked it.”
Three days later, Bruce took a good look at his phone. Scrolling through the contacts, he found the one he wanted, a number he had never called. He hadn’t even put it in the phone. Then again, it wasn’t his phone; it had just been given to him. He pressed the button.
“Banner?” said the voice on the other end, surprised.
“So, I heard you want to spar,” said Bruce.