“I don’t know how you can stand it.” Bruce yanks at his tie, unraveling the knot halfway before he pauses. He undoes the rest of it with careful fingers, teasing the fabric straight with slow, deliberate motions.
Tony blinks at him, face perfectly blank. “Stand what?”
“The whole,” Bruce waves his hand, “thing. It’s just – don’t they understand? This, what you started here today, it’s the first step towards a total revolution of the energy industry. It’s fantastic.”
Tony’s eyes go warm, the line of his mouth softening. “They aren’t nearly as forward-thinking as you, honeypie,” he says. “Besides, they’re businessmen and rich socialites, mostly. Just wait until I give a speech at the next tech convention, they’ll be giving me a standing ovation.”
“Don’t call me that,” Bruce says half-heartedly. “And they already give you standing ovations. I’ve seen the videos on youtube.”
“See?” Tony grins. “Some people appreciate genius. I’m glad you’re one of them.”
“You’re ego is insufferable,” Bruce says, and focuses on undoing his cufflinks.
Actually, the truth is that Tony forgets sometimes, too. So much of his life is flash and bang, explosions for emphasis and money to dazzle, that he glosses over the little things, the quiet things. A meteor shower, chunks of rock that travel across the galaxy to burn up in the atmosphere. Dummy and Butterfingers and You creating a couple of new lines of code for themselves, streamlining and learning. The steady, subdued beat of his heart.
“Have you seen this?”
Tony gives one last turn of the screwdriver before he looks up, eyes wide. “Seen what?”
Bruce flicks his fingers, and the webpage he’s on slides across a number of screens to Tony’s workstation.
“Hm,” Tony says. His eyes move left to right rapidly, back and forth. “Hm!”
“Right?” Bruce says.
“You’re thinking it might help explain the whole,” Tony waves a hand, “mass thing? Or hey, maybe the super-healing that Cap’s got going on, he could be part zebrafish.”
“This is new research. I somehow doubt the scientists back then knew about it.”
“Doctor Erskine? Possibly, the guy’s theories were brilliant.”
“I didn’t know you knew who was behind the Super Serum project.”
“Oh. Dear old dad had a hand in the process, I found the name in some files. Erskine was off the wall. Exactly the kind of scientist I like.”
“You mean the kind with crackpot theories that shouldn’t work, but do?”
Tony looks up, gaze sharp. “I mean the kind with imagination.”
Sometimes he hates it, the banality of everyday life, the people around him. This mostly happens after a round in the armor, adrenaline flooding through his veins and making the world so much brighter, sharper, clearer. Coming down again is a disappointment, because it’s not just him that’s running slower, it’s everybody – constantly being the smartest person in the room means he can never really relax, always on a higher gear, always a step ahead, a bit out of touch. It’s exhausting.
At least when he’s in the armor, he doesn’t have to make small talk or pretend he’s on the same level as everybody else; he’s either better or dead.
“I remember things, you know,” Bruce says one day. He and Tony are working on the same floor, in the same lab, have been for the past week on a joint project: appropriate attire for the Hulk. They’ve got a new synthesized fabric down; now all they need is an earpiece that can survive the Hulk’s appearance and subsequent exertions.
“Mmph?” Tony says in response to his question. Bruce doesn’t mind. He likes to talk, sometimes, and it’s easier to share harsh truths when nobody is listening.
“When I’m… him. Sometimes it’s like a dream, and sometimes it’s like déjà vu – I’ll do something or see something and think that I’ve done or seen it before. And sometimes, well. Sometimes it’s like looking at something in water. Refraction. Everything’s too close or too far or too fragile or too fast.”
Tony is silent.
“Sometimes I remember every single thing,” Bruce says quietly.
Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t afraid of what they don’t know; they are afraid of what they do. Ignorance doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds contentment.
Nearly every cell in the human body replicates itself hundreds to thousands to millions of times during a person’s lifespan. Each time a cell replicates itself, there is the not-inconsiderable chance that it will replicate wrong and cause cancer.
Every bit of the Earth, and everything on it, is constantly subjected to various types of radiation.
Nuclear plant meltdowns have, and will happen – just looking at the Elephant’s Foot in Chernobyl would, in fact, kill someone instantly.
Tony, Bruce, the Avengers, any and all heroes; they fight beings that could burn the Earth to a crisp, that could utterly shatter dimensions, that could level cities. And everybody else, the normal people, the ignorant, the content – they go on with their lives, watching television and playing with their kids and making love and being bored. They have no clue what could happen, what sometimes has happened.
Occasionally, Tony is envious.
“Amazing,” Bruce breathes, and the skin under his fingers heaves in a laugh. “Thank you.”
Tony looks at him, limmed in blue light, something otherworldly. His eyes are warm. “For what?”
“Showing me this.” Bruce taps lightly on the arc reactor cover, carefully cataloging Tony’s tiny shiver. “Using the inductor coils like you did was ingenious, by the way.”
“My brain brings all the boys to the yard,” Tony agrees, then makes a face. “Ugh, no, scratch that, I am never referencing that travesty named as music again, one day I’ll make a device that can erase events from existence. Or memories. Whichever is easier.”
“I’m sure when you do, the universe will implode,” Bruce says.
“Probably,” Tony agrees.
Bruce is an intrusion into Tony’s life. It isn’t a bad thing, although the man would certainly take it that way if Tony told him – but before Bruce, before the Avengers, Tony was mostly alone.
Living like that, in the empty, echoing spaces, in the night when nobody else is up, out of sync with the rest of the world, it’s easy to lose touch. To forget that things outside of himself, and Jarvis, and his projects exist; that there is a wider world and actions have consequences.
Being alone makes it easy to be mechanical, and that isn’t what invention, what science is about.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen sunlight?” Bruce says after he comes down sees Tony wearing the same clothes as he did three days ago. Tony doesn’t react, just continues to manipulate the glowing blue wire frames suspended in the air, hands graceful for all that they’re trembling with fatigue. “Tony. Tony.”
Tony still doesn’t give any indication he realizes Bruce is there. “Jarvis? Pause everything, would you?”
“Of course, Dr. Banner.” God. He still can’t get over how expressive Jarvis can be, it’s so fantastic. If he hadn’t learned his lesson about experimentation and research on the mysteries of personal identity, he would have loved to study Jarvis.
Tony makes a noise like an angry cat as his data freezes, then disappears. “Jarvis, what the hell!”
“Tony,” Bruce says again, and smiles his best unassuming smile as Tony turns around with a glower. “How long have you been down here?”
Tony’s face flashes immediately to guilt. Then he covers it back up with irritation. “Not that long,” he says.
“On the contrary, sir,” Jarvis says. “You have been in the workshop for the past fifty-three hours, approximately.”
“Traitor,” Tony says, but his shoulders slump and he slouches his way towards the door under Bruce’s stern expression.
“Have you eaten?” Bruce says.
“Does coffee count?” Tony says.
“Sir has ingested six pounds of liquidized vegetables and sixteen carafes of coffee since you saw him last,” Jarvis provides.
“So much… traitorness. Betrayal,” Tony mutters.
“You need to eat and sleep,” Bruce says.
“I was making amazing scientific breakthroughs,” Tony yawns.
“You’re always making amazing scientific breakthroughs,” Bruce says. He even leaves most of the amusement out of his tone because it’s true. Tony is the smartest, most innovative person he’s ever met.
“It isn’t about that,” Tony says. He latches onto Bruce’s shoulder. “You know. You know. It’s about—“
“About wanting more,” Bruce finishes. “About learning, and making things better. Yes. I know.”
“The world is amazing,” Tony murmurs, and nearly walks into a wall.
“You certainly are,” Bruce agrees, softly.