Dr. Bruce Banner had spent a very long time learning to keep his emotions in check. It came in handy in Port-au-Prince, since there were a lot of things there that would make a normal human furious. The traffic, the heat, the poverty... so it was important to take deep breaths and focus on small delights. A cliche, admittedly, but if a cliche kept Bruce from turning into the Other Guy, he'd keep it.
So Bruce took a deep breath and meditated briefly on how thankful he was that the ceiling fan in his exam room had been repaired. Then he turned his attention back to his patient, focusing on ways he could help rather dwelling on the problems he couldn't fix. He couldn't reverse his patient's malnourished childhood, but he could make sure his broken leg mended correctly. He'd already sawed off the cast and was examining the thin, weakened limb when Atabei, the nurse, appeared in the doorway.
"Dokte Bruce..." she said. Her voice sounded nervous.
Bruce looked up and said, "Mwen ak yon pasyan." I'm with a patient. Which she knew, since she'd brought the patient in in the first place. She was smart enough and busy enough that she wouldn't have returned if it weren't important. He sighed and said, "Tout bagay anfom?" Is everything okay?
"Oui. Li di ke li se zanmi ou," she said. Yes. He said he was your friend. And Bruce looked behind her to see a sweaty, indignant Tony Stark.
"Mwen se zanmi ou," Tony said, looking down at his phone. I am your friend.
"Tony? Is everything all right?" Bruce asked, in English. He took a deep breath, preparing to hear that Loki had returned to Earth with more aliens, or that Nick Fury wanted them to send another atomic bomb into space, or something beyond Bruce's ability to imagine.
Tony shrugged. "You said you'd come back to visit, but instead you dropped off the grid. I figured I'd come to you."
Bruce took another deep breath. "So everything's fine?"
"Well, it's hot as hell and it smells weird in here, but you know, generally speaking, globally, everything is fine."
"Then please, wait until I'm finished treating my patient," Bruce said, as calmly as he could. "We have whole rooms for that, actually. For waiting."
Tony blinked. Bruce didn't think this was the reception he had expected.
Atabei was watching the conversation cautiously. She understood basic English, and Bruce was pretty sure she'd recognized Tony. Tony Stark had intensive media presence, even in Haiti. He looked at her and said, "Tout se amann. Ou ka ale." Everything is fine. You can go. She nodded and left, though not without a glance back over her shoulder.
Then Bruce turned to Tony and said, "That goes for you, too."
"Come on. I flew across the world and I don't even get a handshake?"
"Tony. I'm with a patient. And Haiti isn't really across the world from New York."
"Well, I was in China," Tony sulked.
Yann, Bruce's patient, coughed and looked at the ground.
"Get out, Tony, I'll see you when I'm finished with work." Bruce wanted to cross his arms to emphasize his point, but he didn't want to touch his gloved hands to his shirt, so he just tried to glare.
Tony laughed. "For somebody who can turn into a green rage monster, you are really not that good at being mad at somebody."
Bruce stared at him, and Tony finally said, "All right, all right. I'll be in the waiting room. Hurry up, though, I'm hungry."
Bruce kept staring until Tony actually turned around and left the small examining room. When he was gone, Bruce told Yann, "Mwen regret sa." I'm sorry.
Yann shrugged. They both knew he was lucky to be seeing a doctor at all, which made Yann quiet and Bruce angry. He closed his eyes for a moment, focusing. By now it was was really child's play to keep the anger in check. Bruce sent Yann home with some vitamins and painkillers. Yann thanked him profusely and limped off.
Bruce set about sterilizing his equipment and examining table. It was the kind of work a doctor wouldn't do in a first world hospital, but Bruce was in Haiti. And anyway, he liked the work. It soothed him. Which was good, considering that Tony Stark burst back into his exam room thirty seconds after Yann left it.
Bruce took a deep breath and said, "I told you to wait in the waiting room, Tony."
"Yeah, but your guy left. I saw him. Anyway, it's kinda gross in there. And you need a break."
"It's kinda gross in there because those people need medical help," Bruce said. "I'm a doctor. See how it fits?"
Tony stepped toward him and Bruce said, "I just changed the cover on the table, don't even think about it."
"Fine, then let's go get some dinner before I ruin your precious exam table," Tony said, wiggling his fingers in Bruce's general direction.
Bruce squirted some hand sanitizer into his palm and passed the bottle to Tony. "There's a cholera epidemic, so, you might want to wash your hands once in awhile."
"Oh, for a minute I was afraid this was your only booze."
Bruce snorted in spite of himself. "Well, Haiti's pretty low on a lot of basic supplies, but when times are tough, there's always alcohol around."
"Are times ever not tough in Haiti?"
"Not in recent memory. So we'll get some rum."
Tony shook his head. "I got some stuff at the duty free."
"Of course you did. Where is your stuff, anyway?"
"Left it with my driver."
"Your... of course you did."
Bruce carefully sterilized his instruments and put them away, feeling Tony's eyes on him the whole time. He wasn't sure if he was annoyed or touched that Tony had come. He suspected he'd have to find out more about Tony's motives before he made a judgment on that one. He had missed Tony, but he had also gotten used to being without him.
He changed out of his scrubs, grabbed his helmet, bid the nurses a good night, and quietly led Tony out of the hospital, trying his best to ignore the crowded waiting room. The night shift doctors could handle it.
"Aren't you impressed that I found you?" Tony asked.
Bruce shrugged. "I left a note."
Tony gave him a perfectly honed incredulous look. "You left a note a year ago that said 'Going to Haiti, sorry, see you later.' You didn't call, you didn't write..."
"I wrote," Bruce said, though he knew he hadn't given a return address.
"Anyway, I assume you just had Pepper ask Coulson?"
"No," Tony scowled. "I asked Coulson myself."
"Well. You found me," Bruce said. "How is he, anyway?"
"Coulson? Fine. You'd never know he had any artificial organs."
Bruce stopped in front of the cluster of dirt bikes and motorcycles in the hospital's cramped parking lot.
"I told you, I got a driver," Tony said.
Bruce shrugged. "I can't leave my bike here overnight."
"Well, grab it, and we'll put it in the back of the SUV. I'm sure you can park it at my hotel."
"Or," Bruce said, "You can come back with me to my house and I can park it there."
"All right," Tony said. "I wouldn't mind seeing Chateau Hulk."
Bruce shook his head and put on his helmet. Being annoyed with Tony felt pleasantly familiar.
"What's with the helmet, anyway? Not like you'd get hurt if anything happened."
"I try to serve as a good example," Bruce said, and he climbed on his bike. To his moderate surprise, Tony climbed on behind him.
"I thought you had a driver."
"I want to see your commute."
Bruce shrugged. He took off his helmet and passed it to Tony.
"Hey, I don't--"
"Take it, Tony. As you said, I don't really need it. But traffic in Port-au-Prince is... intense. I'd feel better if you had it."
"Tony. Don't make me angry."
Tony laughed and snapped it on, and Bruce started his bike. He was sure Tony had a garage full of much nicer vehicles, but his little Yamaha did the job well enough. He zipped out of the parking lot, getting used to the bike's heavier weight. He wove in and out of traffic, slowly climbing the hills of the city and avoiding as many potholes as possible. Finally, he stopped in front of his modest rented house. His neighbors, Antoine and Micheline, were sitting out in front of their house on plastic chairs with a few of their friends, while their kids played in the grass. Bruce mentally cursed.
"I have to introduce you to my neighbors," he muttered.
Tony looked intrigued, and maybe jealous. "You have friends here?"
"Kind of. They look after me a bit--it's not usual for anyone to live alone here. Micheline doesn't believe I'm capable of feeding myself. Anyway, here, it's just so rude if I don't introduce you," Bruce said, hoping that Tony wouldn't decide to be contrary for the sake of being contrary.
But Tony grinned, showing off his expensive dental work, and said, "I'd love to meet your neighbors."
So Bruce took Tony next door and presented the new blan to his neighbors. Tony used his translator app on his phone to happily participate in the small talk. He admired their rooftop cistern that saved rainwater and they gave him a sack of mangos, which Tony accepted with enthusiasm.
Finally, they retreated back to Bruce's house. Bruce wheeled his bike inside to its usual spot on the living room floor.
"They're nice," Tony said.
"Now, give me a grand tour!" Tony said. His excitement seemed incongruous.
"Well. I'm living pretty large." They strolled around the house as Bruce narrated, "I've got a living room, an indoor toilet, a kitchen, and a bedroom. All the rooms have concrete floors. I have a backup generator and a talking robot butler."
Tony narrowed his eyes and said, "JARVIS is proprietary technology."
"Yeah. I, uh, was just kidding about the robot butler. Concrete floors are a pretty big deal, though."
"Instead of carpet?"
"Instead of dirt."
"Well. Since you came all this way, may I offer you a drink?"
"Please," Tony said. He frowned when Bruce came back with a metal cup of room temperature water.
"It's safe to drink," Bruce said.
"I believe promises were made of rum."
"I'll have to run out and get it. I don't keep much alcohol around the house. But you should hydrate."
"Looks like you don't keep much of anything around here."
Bruce shrugged. "I try to live simply."
"You're an Avenger. You turn into a green rage monster and fight off aliens."
"So... I try to live simply when I'm not doing that," Bruce said, settling into a plastic chair.
"This is lawn furniture," Tony said, frowning and sitting in the room's other chair.
"Everyone uses it here. That or wood. It's cheap and it doesn't get moldy."
Tony sipped his water and said, "Mold is a problem?"
"Because of the humidity."
"So if we could engineer mold-proof La-Z-Boys, you'd get some comfortable furniture around here?"
"Then there's the problem of getting furniture delivered up these hills."
"Good thing you know Iron Man, then."
Bruce laughed then, at the mental image of Iron Man flying around Port-au-Prince with an armchair. Tony looked inordinately pleased with himself--moreso than usual, even.
"All right. So, dinner, and then we can talk about why you're punishing yourself by living in a place with lawn furniture and no AC. Speaking of, I could use a shower first."
"I turned the ceiling fan on its highest setting," Bruce said mildly. It was still hot, but he was more or less used to it by now. "You're welcome to shower here."
"Uh, no thank you, I have a suite booked at La Villa Creole, and I'm pretty sure they have people there who professionally deal with mold."
"You shoved a nuclear bomb through a wormhole and you're scared of a little mold?"
"I'm not scared of it. But I got rid of that bomb in order to protect our God-given right to a nice, clean shower."
"You probably want hot water too, huh?"
"You don't have hot water here?"
Bruce shrugged. "We have it at the hospital. Usually."
Tony ran a hand through his hair and pulled out his phone. "Right. We're going to the hotel. And then dinner. And then rum."
"Fine," Bruce said, because he'd learned there was little point in arguing with Tony Stark. And anyway, a hot shower in an air conditioned room sounded... nice.
"Bring a change of clothes. Wait, no, you probably don't have anything decent. I'll lend you something."
"Fine," Bruce repeated. Because there was little point in arguing Tony Stark, especially when one has been living in Haiti for a year with the same backpack's worth of clothing. So Tony called his driver and passed the phone to Bruce, who gave directions. Then he hung up and self-consciously wiped the ear sweat off the phone before handing it back to Tony. He knew too well the damaging effects of sweat on consumer electronics.
Tony appeared not to care as he slipped the phone back into his pocket, or maybe he just didn't notice. "How many languages do you speak, anyway?"
Bruce shrugged. "When I go to a place, I try to learn enough to get by, at least. But I lose a lot of it if I don't speak it regularly."
"But how many can you get by in?"
"Uh. English. Spanish. Portuguese. French. Italian. German. Hindi. Gujarati. Swahili. Kreyol," Bruce said, counting on his fingers while Tony watched with a small smirk. "Anyway. It'll be awhile before Jean-Pierre makes it up here. Let me get you more water and then let's go upstairs. It'll be a bit cooler."
Tony frowned. "You have an upstairs?"
"Kind of," Bruce said, and he led Tony up the cement stairs to the roof. He had a couple of plastic chairs up there, a few potted plants, and a cistern. More importantly, they had a faint breeze.
Bruce lit a coil of mosquito repelling incense. Tony sprawled in his plastic chair and offered Bruce a mango from his newly acquired sack. It was mango season and the fruit was everywhere, but Bruce didn't think he could get tired of it. He accepted and neatly butchered it with his pocket knife, then handed half of it back to Tony. They spent a few minutes sitting quietly, trying not to get mango juice on their shirts or mango pulp in their teeth, though it was a losing battle.
"That incense smells terrible," Tony said.
Bruce sucked mango pulp out of his teeth and said, "It works, though."
Tony said, "I saw a TED talk about a laser that will kill mosquitos. I should make you one."
"Great. I'll be the first house on the block with a mosquito laser."
"I could probably also get you a water heater."
"I have one. Well, I have a stove."
Tony shook his head and stared off over the roof. "Haiti's pretty," he said suddenly. "They never make it look pretty on TV. I didn't know there were so many mountains."
Bruce said, "Every country I've ever been to has been beautiful. Even the poor ones. Especially the poor ones. But American media doesn't deal very well with complexity. It's hard to show Haiti as being both poor and beautiful. And why show Haiti at all when you could be showing something important, like the latest--Apple product?" Bruce frowned slightly and hoped Tony wouldn't take offense. At least he hadn't said Stark. He just hadn't had anyone to talk about these things to for a while now.
But Tony just said, "Yeah. I know what you mean," and Bruce recalled that Tony was no stranger to the media's lack of complexity himself.
"Did you ever read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains?"
"No," Tony said. "I don't get a chance to do much reading."
"Well. That book is why I wanted to come to Haiti in the first place. It's about Paul Farmer--do you know him?"
"Sure," Tony said. "I hosted a fundraiser for Partners in Health a few years ago."
"Right. Good. Well, anyway, the title is from a Haitian proverb. Beyond mountains, there are mountains."
"Not really a very good proverb, is it? More just like geographical description."
Bruce took a breath and tried to keep his face level. He didn't know why he'd thought Tony Stark might understand. He said, "Traffic should be better now. Your driver should be here soon."
"Afghanistan wasn't beautiful," Tony said. "Well, I don't know, I was mostly in a cave. I've never really been into caves. I'm not what you'd call a spelunker."
"I've never been to Afghanistan."
Tony opened his mouth to respond, but a black SUV arrived in front of Bruce's house and caused a small commotion among the neighbors. Tony smiled and said, "Ah, our chariot!"
Bruce led Tony back down the concrete stairs, with a brief pause in the kitchen to put the mango skins in the compost bucket and rinse their hands off in the sink. Then they went outside, endured brief teasing from his neighbors about rich blans, and climbed into Tony's SUV. The outside was black and sturdy, the nondescript vehicle preferred by all of Haiti's wealthy foreigners. The inside was extremely air conditioned. Bruce was uncomfortably cold in the car. He glanced at Tony, who seemed to be enjoying the ride, so he said nothing and tried not to shiver.
In Port-au-Prince, the higher in elevation you went, the more expensive things were. La Villa Creole was much higher than Bruce's modest house, which in turn was much higher than the hospital campus. He watched out the window as the SUV climbed increasingly well-maintained roads. This was a view of the city he rarely got to see. Per Tony's request, the driver was blaring classic rock. Bruce didn't mind. The only American music he usually heard in Haiti was Michael Jackson, beloved the world entire, it seemed. And it wasn't that Bruce didn't like Michael Jackson, per se, but a little variety was nice.
Before long, they arrived at the hotel. La Villa Creole was a beautiful colonial style hotel, with impeccably kept grounds. Stepping out of the freezing car into the humid Haitian evening made Bruce feel sick for a moment. He breathed. The air smelled like gardenias. Flowers grew everywhere in the city, but often other odors overpowered them. Bruce could easily get used to air that didn't carry the scent of urine.
Two bellhops instantly appeared and swept Tony's suitcases onto a golden cart. Bruce boggled at the huge bags. How long did Tony intend to stay in Haiti? Did he have the Iron Man suit in there?
Tony checked in and the bellhops trailed them up to Tony's suite. It was approximately the size of Bruce's house, but nicer.
Tony glanced at the bellhops and muttered to Bruce, "I forgot to change money. Can I give them yuan?"
Bruce reached in his pocket and gave the bellhops most of his goud. He wasn't really sure how much one was supposed to tip in a place like this, but they probably needed it more than he did.
"You still haven't gotten a new assistant?" Bruce asked. When he'd stayed at Stark Tower he'd noticed how Pepper, the CEO of Stark Industries, seemed to do a lot of the work involved with keeping Tony Stark alive and content. At first he'd understood her to be a very supportive girlfriend, but then he'd learned that Pepper had originally been Tony's personal assistant, and a lot of things made a little more sense.
Tony shrugged. "I mean, there's Happy... there are a lot of people who assist me, but... how do you replace Pepper?"
"Have you tried Craigslist? Mogul seeks assistant. Requirements: Microsoft Office, mindreading."
"What about the Iron Man fan club? I'm sure you could find some very dedicated young devotees there."
Tony rolled his eyes.
Bruce shrugged and said, "Anyway, I'm sure you can change money downstairs. This place seems like it caters to businessmen."
"You don't think very much of me, do you?" Tony asked abruptly.
"What? What are you talking about?" Bruce asked, genuinely confused. He'd forgotten how quickly Tony's mind moved. "I... have a great deal of respect for you. Your work with the arc reactor and clean energy is brilliant. And you saved Manhattan from being nuked."
"Yeah, never mind, I know I'm great," Tony said. "Do you want first shower? Take it, I insist."
"Thanks," Bruce said. In truth he didn't care that much about the shower, but he sensed that Tony wanted his offer to be accepted. Tony liked being generous, and in this instance Bruce didn't mind accepting. He stepped into the beautiful, huge, mold-free bathroom and shucked off his sweaty clothes. The shower actually felt wonderful. Bruce had possibly forgotten just how nice a hot shower with plenty of water pressure felt, especially inside a climate controlled hotel. Normally he showered very quickly, just long enough to get the sweat off his skin before he'd step out of the bathroom and start sweating all over again. But here, he lingered under the water long after he'd washed his hair and skin with the fancy citrus-scented shampoo and soap.
His mind turned back to Tony. What was he doing here? How long was he planning to stay in Haiti? How long was Bruce himself planning to stay in Haiti?
Bruce used to solve problems in the shower. He'd compared notes with colleagues and found it was true for many. The forced blankness of the shower led to intuitive leaps that one couldn't make when one had been staring at the same page of calculations for hours. There were unexpected perks to the kind of bourgeois living Tony Stark was accustomed to. That was probably why Tony was such a genius, Bruce concluded. Stark Tower had ridiculously nice bathrooms.
Finally, Bruce turned off the shower. The bathroom's fan had kept the room's huge mirror from getting too foggy, and he stared at himself. His skin was scrubbed clean and red from the hot shower, and his fingertips were wrinkled. He looked thin and tired and his hair was going grey. He looked like the exact opposite of the Hulk. He wrapped a towel around his waist and gathered his dirty clothes.
Tony was sprawled in one of the suite's stuffed armchairs with an e-reader in his lap. Bruce was pretty sure Stark's version was just called a StarkReader, but he wasn't very up to date on consumer technology. Upon further inspection, Tony was looking down at it but his eyes were shut. Well, Tony had to be exhausted after a long flight and jet lag, not to mention the heat.
He was trying to walk quietly across the room to let Tony nap, but Tony opened his eyes and said, "How was the shower?"
"It was... great," Bruce admitted. "I forgot how great showers are."
Tony gave him an exceptionally smug smile and said, "Good. I hung your clothes up on the door."
Bruce turned. "Those look new."
"They are. You're too skinny to wear my clothes, are you kidding? I just called down and had them bring something up."
"They have room service for clothes?"
"Sure. If you're Tony Stark."
"Right," Bruce said. He grabbed the hangers off the door and went into the adjoining room to change. Tony had had a suit sent up for him. There were shoes, too, and silk boxers, of all things. It was ridiculous. But the time Bruce had spent living at Stark Tower had taught him that Tony loved to buy ridiculous things for people. Bruce suspected it was equal parts genuine generosity and showing off, but perhaps that was uncharitable. Maybe that was what Tony was talking about, when he'd said Bruce didn't think very much of him. Bruce buttoned up his shirt and stepped back into the other room, leaving the tie and blazer behind.
Tony said, "You clean up well. But where's the rest of it?"
"Tony, this is not a board meeting. Why do I need a suit?"
"You look very nice in suits. Everyone does. That's why we wear them."
Bruce breathed. Then he went back for the blazer. He tied the tie as best he could, which was admittedly not very well.
"Oh, is that why you didn't put on the rest of it?" Tony said. "You could have just asked. Just ask."
"Just say, Tony, will you please tie my tie for me."
"Do you know how to tie ties?" Bruce asked, slightly incredulously.
"Yes. Of course."
"I always just assumed you had somebody to do that kind of thing for you, I guess," Bruce said. He approached Tony and offered his throat. Tony waited with an eyebrow lifted, and Bruce said, "Tony. Will you please tie my tie for me."
"Certainly, Bruce, I would be delighted to help you in any way I can," Tony said. He stood up and tied the tie, quickly and efficiently. Then he adjusted it and gave Bruce a quick pat on the shoulder. "Now you can sit at the big kids' table."
"Uh. Thanks," Bruce said, self-consciously touching the tie.
"You can look at it in the mirror. That's how ties are supposed to look, Bruce."
"I'll keep that in mind the next time I have to wear one."
"Good. You'll thank me for it," Tony said confidently. "Now it's my turn for that rare wonder known as hot running water."
"Enjoy," Bruce said. He knew Tony wouldn't, though, not the way Bruce had. Tony would take hot running water for granted. He sat down on the couch, trying not to mess his suit up too much for fear that Tony would iron him, and he turned on the TV. Bruce didn't own a television at the moment, but his neighbors did. He joined them sometimes, to watch terrible American movies terribly dubbed into French. This hotel had cable, and Bruce looked forward to a few minutes of English language TV. He understood the French TV fine, but there was still something comforting about his native tongue.
He flipped around until he found an episode of Friends with French subtitles. He'd never watched Friends routinely, but here it felt like, well, an old friend. It was familiar and reassuring.
He was so weirdly engrossed in Phoebe's terrible musical performance that he barely noticed when Tony strutted out of the bathroom naked. It was the kind of thing Tony had done fairly often when Bruce had stayed at Stark Tower. Bruce was pretty sure Tony was just trying to get a reaction, so he'd generally ignored it and tried to refrain from making any jokes about being "stark naked." Anyway, it wasn't as if Tony hadn't ever seen Bruce naked. Just about everyone had seen Bruce naked.
Bruce ignored Tony now, and he grudgingly dressed himself in silence.
"We're probably getting dumber watching this," Tony said.
"I suppose we both have a few superfluous brain cells we could stand to kill off."
"I suppose," Bruce said, watching the cast of Friends drink their enormous lattes with mild jealousy.
The show cut to French commercials and Tony said, "All right. Dinner. No, drinks. Then dinner. And more drinks."
"All right," Bruce said. Before, he'd gotten used to seeing Tony around the Tower, dressed like a college kid in his glowy AC/DC T-shirts and jeans. But he did clean up well, Bruce had to admit. Which, of course, a billionaire playboy philanthropist pretty much had to do from time to time. Bruce had never really had a job that required a tie, and it felt unnatural. On Tony it looked like a natural extension of his wardrobe. Bruce wondered how many times you had to wear a tie before you felt normal wearing it. He forced himself to stop planning an experiment and turned off the TV. He stood up and tilted his head at Tony expectantly.
"According to my sources, the best restaurant in town is at the hotel," Tony said. "What do you think?"
Bruce laughed. "That's probably true. I mostly eat street food. Or what my neighbors cook."
Tony shook his head. "Okay. We'll start here, then."
They went downstairs. The hotel's bar and restaurant both opened into the courtyard. Tony ordered champagne for both of them.
"Champagne? Are we celebrating something?" Bruce asked, eyebrow raised.
"We're celebrating the fact that my long lost friend Bruce Banner is alive and well," Tony said, raising his glass.
Bruce took a breath in. He let it out. He clinked his glass against Tony's and completely understood how an asshole like Tony could be so successful with women.
"So," Tony said. "Are you going to tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"What you're doing here?"
"Volunteering my services as a doctor at l’Hopital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haiti."
Tony gave him an exasperated look, which Bruce felt he probably deserved.
Bruce looked down at his glass of champagne for a long moment. "Do you know how many cases of cholera there have been here in the last two years?"
"610,000," Tony answered promptly. "I looked it up. Also there's a travel advisory. Also a lot of kidnappings."
"Okay. Well, that's what I'm doing here."
"You have an MD and a PhD. Your experiments were at least ten years beyond anybody else in your field. You're the most brilliant person I've ever met except maybe me," Tony said frankly. Bruce kept himself from rolling his eyes because he knew that that was a heartfelt compliment from Tony Stark. "We were doing really great work, I thought. No, I know. We were doing really great work. Until one day you weren't there anymore. Then it was just me doing great work. Well, me and JARVIS."
"And what am I doing, Tony?" Bruce asked.
"You--okay, I mean, admittedly preparing medical care in a developing country is, that's good too, but--." Tony stopped when a waiter approached.
"Are you ready to order?" he asked in lilting English.
Bruce ordered for both of them in Kreyol. He didn't want to be mistaken for a tourist. For a businessman.
The waiter smiled and complimented Bruce on his Kreyol, then took their order back to the kitchen.
"Did you get us more drinks?" Tony asked.
"We still have half a bottle of champagne."
"Not for long," Tony said, refilling their glasses.
It had been a long time since lunch--actually had Bruce eaten lunch today? Maybe not?--anyway, the champagne was going to his head fairly quickly. Bruce didn't drink very often and it was going to his head. But he was pretty sure being sober around Tony Stark tonight was more likely to cause a problem for Bruce than drinking would.
"Well, I'm sure someone will be paying attention to us soon," Bruce said, eyeing the nearly-empty bottle.
"As they should," Tony said. "Bruce, are you--do you know--I'm sure you know--how many people the Hulk has killed?"
Bruce clenched his fists, then released them. He breathed in. He breathed out. He closed his eyes. When he got up the nerve to open them he was still looking at his own pale hands. "Tony. What the fuck is wrong with you?" he asked. "We're in a restaurant. With people. Someone could get hurt."
"Yeah. Look, Bruce, here's the thing. You keep going off the grid. You don't want to hurt anybody. Fine. But you keep putting yourself in the most crowded slums. If you ever, you know, got angry, there'd probably be more people in your path in Kolkata or Port-au-Prince than there would be in Manhattan. So I figure you're trying to atone for something. Which, first of all, was totally out of your control--"
"It's not," Bruce said. "I can control it."
Tony nodded. "Yeah. I think you can. Now. But you couldn't before, and that wasn't your--"
"I volunteered," Bruce said. "I thought--I thought I had it figured out." He drained his drink. "I didn't. The--the Hulk has killed 43 people and injured 203. Of course I know that. How could I not know that." He'd painstakingly assembled newspaper articles after the fact, forcing himself to read about events that he couldn't remember.
Tony sucked his teeth for a moment and said, "Are you including Loki in your count?"
"Two hundred and four, then. Can we please not do this, not at dinner?"
"No, 203, you're right. I'm sorry. But I just--can I just make my point?"
Bruce crossed his arms and looked at Tony, who looked vaguely contrite. "Come on. I said I was sorry. Do you even know how rare that is?"
It was a fair point, and Bruce tilted his head in a go on gesture.
"My point is, the--the Other Guy may have--done some damage. But if--if you made a pie chart, say, of people hurt compared to people helped, by you, Dr. Bruce Banner, I think you would find that 'people helped' is a much, much bigger slice of the pie."
"Did you actually make a pie chart?" Bruce asked.
"I... may have," Tony said. "Do you want to see it?"
Bruce thought about it. "Yes," he said. Tony fidgeted with his phone and projected it in the air above the table, and they both considered it. It was pretty similar to Bruce's own count. "What data did you use for this?" Bruce asked.
"I had an intern put it together from news reports mostly. And extrapolations of available data."
Part of Bruce wanted to ask for a detailed breakdown of data points. But regardless of the margin of error, he knew as well as Tony did that his net impact on the world was positive. But it didn't really matter.
"I guess it doesn't really matter," Bruce said. Before he could continue, their waiter returned with plates of food. Bruce asked for rum, maybe a little too pathetically, but a full bottle appeared on their table almost immediately.
He stared down at his plate of goat meat. He wasn't terribly hungry, but he knew if he didn't eat something he'd get drunk way too fast. He had already conducted experiments that conclusively proved that. So he took a bite. He ate meat rarely. In the US it was because most meat came from horrendous conditions; in Haiti it was because most meat was cooked in horrendous conditions. But Haitian goats had pretty good lives, all things considered, and he was pretty sure a restaurant this fancy would have a clean kitchen. And if it didn't, well, he'd get some Paramox at the pharmacy.
"This is delicious," Tony said. "I might be a little drunk." He poured himself a generous glass of rum, and poured one for Bruce as well.
"Yeah," Bruce said.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, and Tony finally said, "What do you mean, it doesn't matter? If it doesn't matter, what are you doing here?"
Bruce took a long gulp of rum. "It... I... why do you do what you do?"
"Because... I'm very good at it. Because I... because... my company... maybe we should finish this conversation upstairs."
"Okay," Bruce said. "Fine by me."
Tony said, around a mouthful of goat, "So, what do you do for fun around here?"
"Mostly I read. Sometimes I watch movies with my neighbors. I do a lot of sudoku."
"What are you doing for fun these days?"
"Oh, you know. Galas. Soirees. The occasional cotillion."
"I said for fun, Stark."
Tony shrugged. "Mess around in R&D, mostly. It was more fun when you were there."
"I'm not a very fun person."
"Not by usual standards, no," Tony said. "But my standards are different than most people's. They're much higher."
"Are you trying to flatter me back to New York?"
"Is it working? Do you want me to stand under your window with a boom box?"
Bruce laughed. He was definitely drunk. "You could get an intern to do it."
"Can't trust interns to do anything important."
"Mm." Bruce looked down and realized he'd eaten his entire plate. Tony noticed and smiled. He beckoned the waiter over and ordered creme brulee, which Bruce didn't think was on the menu. But, nevertheless, two dishes of creme brulee arrived.
"This is good," Bruce said.
They kept eating and drinking until all the food and much of the rum was gone. Tony had it charged to their room and the waiter offered to send the rum up to their room.
"We'll keep it, thanks," Tony said. He clutched the bottle and walked on up to their room. Bruce followed with a vaguely apologetic glance back at the restaurant staff. He'd wanted to make it clear that he was with them, not with Tony. But the truth was that Bruce had access to different levels of society, even if he didn't really want them. His head felt empty and his stomach felt full.
Tony went out to the suite's balcony and sat down on a very nice chair. "You said everyone here used lawn furniture. This isn't lawn furniture."
"You got me," Bruce said.
"Stop punishing yourself, Bruce. You deserve real furniture."
Bruce wasn't sure he was up to this right now. He said, "What about my neighbors here? Don't they deserve real furniture?"
Tony took a swig of rum from the bottle. "Sure," he said.
"Well, they don't have it. And they don't have medical care. And they don't have clean water. And they don't have reliable electricity. And they don't have roads. Or schools, not really."
Tony said, "I gave money to Haiti. Everyone gave money to Haiti."
"Well, they need more."
"They need a physicist with a martyr complex?"
"Then why are you here?" Tony asked. "I already apologized. I--I know it's not that you don't like hot water. You said yourself that you love it."
"Yeah. It's pretty good," Bruce said. He took the bottle from Tony and said, quietly, "I feel useful here."
"Useful? You're useful in New York."
"Maybe. But I didn't feel useful."
"Is it--" Bruce could almost see wheels turning in Tony's mind. "I know Pepper said--I know--I'm not--easy to work with, but--"
"Tony, it's not about you," Bruce said.
"Really?" Tony asked. "Because for like, eight months, you were living with me and working with me and pretty much only interacting with me and you seemed perfectly happy, and then one night you saw me with--in a compromising position--and the next week you were gone with a note on the fridge."
"I left it on your desk," Bruce said mildly. "It wasn't--it's hard--for me to get close to people. And I felt close to you, and then--it--if--I felt like it would be better for me to leave." He had to be drunk. His face felt hot. It was true, though. He'd seen Tony making out with some cute 20-something Stark intern at a party. That happened often, of course, Tony's arrangement with Pepper being extremely flexible, but it was the first time he'd seen Tony with a cute male 20-something Stark intern, and... he'd put a few things together that he hadn't quite realized before that moment. It had made him angry, and Bruce didn't like it when he was angry.
"If you wanted me to make out with you, all you had to do was ask. Or get drunk and get your face close to my face," Tony said. "That probably would have done it. But no. You had to run off to Haiti and try to save the world. Like you didn't already do that."
"It's not saved enough! And if--" Bruce trailed off. "Yes. It seemed to me that my time would be more valued in Haiti."
"Okay. Bruce. I value you. I fucking value you. Okay?"
"It's not--Tony, it's not just--it's not like I had some crush on you and then I left the country because you didn't feel the same," Bruce said urgently. "I do. I really do feel--I wish--it's so unfair."
"Yeah," Tony said. He yawned suddenly, an insanely huge yawn.
"You came here from China," Bruce said. "You must be tired."
"I'm fine," Tony said, with a dismissive wave.
"You came here from China," Bruce repeated, and laughed. He couldn't stop laughing.
Tony looked at him sideways, then started laughing too. "Yeah," he finally said. "I came here from China."
Bruce looked at him and decided he might as well put his face close to Tony's face and see what happened. As an experiment. He soon found himself gathering data on what it felt like to be kissed by Tony Stark. It was not unenjoyable.
Tony led him inside, to the bed. The experiment's parameters widened. Bruce learned a lot about what Tony's mouth felt like, what Tony's skin tasted like, and what kind of sounds Tony made when he especially enjoyed something. After an unmeasured amount of time, Tony grew quiet, and Bruce realized that Tony had fallen asleep on his chest. Bruce sighed, remembering critical data points regarding time zones and alcohol, and figured he could forgive Tony for this. Then he yawned and decided to join him in sleep. It wasn't a very hard decision.
When Bruce woke up, he had a blinding headache. Tony was sitting on one of the rooms armchairs, quietly reading his StarkReader. There was a tray of food and, most importantly, coffee, on the table.
Even before the accident, Bruce had rarely had drunken one night stands. He wasn't really sure how to proceed for the hungover morning after.
Tony said, "Morning, Bruce. Have I told you lately that I value you?"
"Could you tell me more quietly, please?" Bruce asked.
Tony quirked his mouth and brought Bruce a glass of orange juice and a bottle of Tylenol. "Thank you," Bruce said. He thought it might be the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.
"You want breakfast?"
"No. What time is it? I should call work."
"I already did. Also, it's Saturday."
"I work on Saturdays."
"I figured you would. But you called in sick today. They'll get by without you. Just this once."
"Yeah," Bruce said. He decided he should probably lie down again. He decided to think of calling in sick as a capacity building tool, a step toward a Haitian hospital that didn't need any help from blans. He decided to think of anything that would keep him from throwing up.
Tony said, "Last night you asked me why I do what I do."
"I said a lot of things last night."
"Look. I've been reading that book you told me to read. Mountains Beyond Mountains."
"Yeah. And, might I add, the StarkReader let me download it twice as fast as a Kindle would have. Even here in Haiti."
"You should put that in the commercials," Bruce mumbled into the pillow.
"I should. But the point is, I've been reading it. And I... here," Tony said, tapping his tablet. It began to read aloud, in a British accent not unlike JARVIS's:
"On an evening a few days after arriving in Cange, I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, 'If you're making sacrifices, unless you're automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you're trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don't have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.' He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn't bristle, but his tone had an edge: 'I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can't buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. Comma.
This was for me the first of many encounters with Farmer's use of the word comma, placed at the end of a sentence. It stood for the word that would follow the comma, which was asshole. I understood he wasn't calling me one--he would never do that; he was almost invariably courteous. Comma was always directed at third parties, at those who felt comfortable with the current distribution of money and medicine in the world. And the implication, of course, was that you weren't one of those. Were you?"
"Mph," Bruce said.
"Bruce. I am trying to have, you know, a serious conversation with you."
"I am trying not to vomit."
"Just go do it. You'll feel better. Trust me, I'm kind of an expert on this." Bruce considered the possibility of feeling better versus the embarrassment of throwing up in front of Tony. He knew Tony had already seen him transform into the Other Guy, which was probably more embarrassing, but...
"Hey. How many times have you seen me hungover?" Tony asked.
"Mph." Bruce lay on the bed for a moment and considered how much he hated being awake. Then he stumbled to the extremely nice bathroom and threw up in it. He flushed the toilet and watched, impressed, as it removed all of his vomit. Then he wiped his mouth off and made his way back to the bed. Tony handed him a bottle of water.
"I don't care if you're hungover. I'm trying to say I think I get it, Bruce. I think... that's why I do the thing. The Iron Man thing."
"Because I'm hungover?"
"Because of my, uh, 'psychic discomfort,'" Tony said, looking down at his e-book. "Because it isn't fair. But what I was trying to tell you. Is that you can do more if you come back to New York. I'll put you in charge of my charitable enterprises. We'll build mosquito lasers. You can be an Avenger."
"I still am one. Aren't I?"
"Well yeah. Of course. But, see, I was thinking we could turn Stark Tower into a base. And, you know, maybe train together. Something. In case aliens come back. Or other stuff."
Bruce squinted and drank most of the water. "Cholera kills more people than aliens."
"But there are lots of people who can fight cholera. And not that many who can fight aliens."
"Maybe," Bruce said. "But nobody is. Or not enough people. It's not fair."
"I know," Tony said. "That's why we do what we do."
Bruce remembered suddenly the first press conference Tony had given after returning from Afghanistan. Bruce had been in Bangladesh at the time but it had been international news, the CEO of Stark Industries completely shutting down the weapons division. He'd never really talked to Tony about any of that. He didn't think Tony wanted to talk about it. But it was obvious that Tony had thought about it.
"The problem isn't that people aren't given money to Haiti," Bruce said. He was still primarily talking to his pillow. "The problem is that the money isn't making it here. It stays in the pockets of American consultants. Haiti needs infrastructure, not handouts."
"So... there needs to be a better system."
"Did you know Stark Industries is the world leader in clean energy?"
"Yeah, I have heard that."
"Maybe we can revolutionize foreign aid. With an experienced advisor like Dr. Bruce Banner."
"I think I'm technically still wanted by the US Army."
"You don't think Fury can wipe that record clean?"
"I think I'm still technically the Hulk."
"Now you're just making excuses."
Bruce wasn't looking at Tony but he could hear the smug smirk. "If I agree to visit New York, will you let me go back to sleep?"
"How long of a visit?"
"You're so annoying."
"I have heard that. How long?"
"Two months with an option to renew."
"What does that even mean? No, whatever, fine, leave me alone."
"Excellent," Tony said. Then, mercifully, he shut up and let Bruce go back to sleep.
When Bruce woke up again, his head felt better. He sat up and looked around the room. Tony Stark was reading about Paul Farmer and eating a cheeseburger.
"Morning, sunshine," Tony said. "By that I mean, afternoon. Want a cheeseburger?"
"Yeah, maybe." Bruce remembered eating fast food in college when he was hungover, which was rare. He and Betty usually kept busy with their studies.
"Well, I only got one, because I wasn't really sure how much longer your delicate system was gonna need to sleep off that hangover. God, nobody would believe what a lightweight the Hulk is."
"No, I know, I know, totally different. Here, I'll call room service myself to make it up to you."
"That's very noble."
"I know," Tony said, and then he picked up the phone and asked for a lot of greasy food to be brought up to their room. He hung up, turned to Bruce, and said, "I should have asked before. Does Haiti have an equivalent to schawarma?"
"I guess probably a chicken pattie. Which is like an empanada. But Haitian."
Tony nodded seriously. "I'm sure we can find those in New York."
Bruce nodded. "We'll get some here, before you leave. So you can compare."
A knock at the door signalled the arrival of food. Bruce intercepted it so the waiter wouldn't try to hand it to Tony. Tony nodded and pressed a wad of some currency, maybe yuan, in the waiter's hand. Bruce hoped he could change it at the hotel. He was pretty sure Tony had given the man enough to make it worth his while, at least.
Bruce turned and carried the tray out toward the balcony.
"Hang on," Tony said, and opened the door for him.
"Men anpil, chay pa lou," Bruce said.
Tony's phone translated with a crisp British accent: "Many hands make a load lighter."
"You're really into proverbs lately, huh?" Tony said.
Bruce shrugged. "They're like shortcuts. Like how you can just draw the symbol for pi and everyone knows exactly what number you mean." He bit into his cheeseburger and looked out at the mountains.
Tony sat down next to him and projected some diagrams into the air with his phone. "I've been calculating the energy needs of a mosquito laser. It would be best, I think, if they could be solar powered, but they'd need more power than a conventional panel. Which just means we need to find a way to make a much more efficient solar panel."
Bruce looked thoughtfully at the schematics. Then he gestured out at the view and said, "Beyond mountains, there are mountains."
"Yeah. But many hands make a mosquito laser that can make the mountains way less annoying. Is that a proverb? Can I make up new proverbs? I think I can."
Bruce nodded. "Beyond mountains, there are many hands making mosquito lasers."
A month later, Bruce stepped off a plane at LaGuardia. It had been three weeks since he'd seen Tony, but there he was, hanging out at the arrivals gate with a worn Metallica T-shirt on his chest and his phone in his hand. He looked up from the screen when Bruce approached and grinned.
"Hey, you made it!" he said, pocketing his phone and drawing Bruce in for a hug. Bruce accepted the hug and then took a step back.
"Well, somebody told me that in America there are hot showers on every corner and tofu dogs at every food truck?"
"Low expectations. I like that about you. Hey, is that your only bag?" Tony asked, pointing at Bruce's backpack.
"Not all of us have to travel with an armored suit."
"Fair enough. Hey, are you hungry? Do you like tacos? There's a really good taco truck between here and Stark Tower. We'll stop there."
"All right," Bruce said. He followed Tony through the airport and to a very nice convertible. He put his backpack in the back and sat in the passenger seat, listening to Tony babble about his experimental solar panels.
Back in Port-au-Prince, his old nurse, Atabei, was waiting to hear back about her medical school application. He was pretty sure she'd be accepted, what with her glowing letters of recommendation and sheer competence. And when she did, her education would be funded by a generous grant from Stark Industries. There were several employees of L'Hopital de l' Universite d'Etat d'Haiti who could say the same. Bruce thought of this, and he thought of the bathrooms at Stark Tower, and he smiled broadly.
Tony glanced at him and said, "I know what you're thinking, and yes, they have that creamy green hot sauce at this truck."
They ate their tacos standing in the sunshine. Bruce dripped green sauce down his sleeve and attempted to discreetly wipe it off. He looked up and saw Tony watching him from behind sunglasses. Bruce couldn't see Tony's eyes, but his mouth was smirking.
"You're going to have to clean up before I let you in my lab, you know," Tony said.
"Of course. I wouldn't want outside contaminants to affect the experiments."
Back at Stark Tower, JARVIS said, "Welcome back, Dr. Banner."
"Hey, what about me?" Tony asked.
"I'm certainly delighted to see that you have returned as well, Mr. Stark," JARVIS said smoothly. "Dr. Banner, your suite remains as you left it."
"Oh. Uh, thanks, JARVIS. And you can just call me Bruce."
"As you wish."
Upstairs, Bruce unpacked his backpack. It didn't take very long, although he did notice that Tony, or someone, had added new clothing to the drawers since the last time he was here. There were ties.
He ignored the ties and happily climbed in the shower. It was glorious; there were three different shower heads and all of them had great water pressure. He'd been in there a few minutes when he heard a knock on the bathroom door. "Yeah?" he called.
"You okay in there?" Tony called back.
"You need anything?"
"Can I come in?"
Bruce paused. He said, "Sure," but he was pretty sure Tony had opened the door before he'd answered. Tony was naked and he joined him in the shower without further comment.
"Something wrong with your shower?" Bruce asked.
"Yeah, actually, very lonely in there," Tony said.
Bruce rinsed shampoo out of his hair and put his face close to Tony's. It was as nice as he'd remembered it being. Tony pushed Bruce against the wall of the shower, then abruptly asked, "Is this okay?"
"Mm-hmm." Bruce put his arms around Tony and whispered, "Don't worry. The Other Guy likes you."
"Fuck, that's hot," Tony said. Nearly an hour later, Bruce and Tony were both pruney but very content. Bruce finally turned the water off and stumbled out into the steamy bathroom.
"That was... good," Bruce said, vaguely.
"Just good?" Tony asked. He looked concerned. "We'll have to try harder next time."
"I think we wasted a lot of water."
"That wasn't a waste," Tony said indignantly. "Anyway, Stark Tower has its own water reclamation system. It's very efficient."
"Of course it is," Bruce said. He and Tony dressed, and then Tony led him to the lab. In the hallway they bumped into Pepper heading the opposite direction. She beamed at them.
"Pepper! You're back early," Tony said happily.
"Just for a second, I scheduled a meeting with Marilyn later this afternoon and I wanted to grab that prototype to show her," Pepper said, vaguely waving a briefcase.
"She's gonna love it," Tony said.
"I think so," Pepper agreed. Then she turned to Bruce and said, "I'm so glad you're here! I worried when you were in Haiti."
"Um. Thanks. I'm fine, though," Bruce said, a little shyly. He knew Pepper was open to Tony's escapades, and his understanding was that she had a few outside interests herself, but he couldn't help but feel a bit like he was stealing from her.
She hugged Bruce and said, "Tony, you'd better take good care of him."
"I will," Tony promised. "I already fed him and everything."
"Really? With actual food?" Pepper sounded surprised.
"From that taco truck. The good one."
"Well, good, then."
"And we had shower sex."
Bruce blushed, but Pepper smiled and said, "About time. Tony was pining, Bruce. Pining."
"I wouldn't say 'pining,'" Tony said.
"Pining," Pepper mouthed to Bruce. "Anyway, I'll see you both tonight. I probably won't be back until late. Have fun and be careful with those lasers."
"You're no fun," Tony said. He kissed Pepper and she went on her way.
"Anyway, the lasers are calibrated at a very low level of intensity," Tony said, as if nothing weird had just happened. "I'm not crazy or anything."
"No, of course not," Bruce said, happy to be home.