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Let's Stop The Time Warp (Again)

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*


It was 5:37 in the morning when the phone rang. Since only a couple of people even knew he had a phone and none of them seemed like they would have called him at that hour just for funsies, Bruce rolled over and picked the phone up off the cardboard box beside the bed. Caller ID said Steve. “Hey,” Bruce said, still groggy.

There was a roaring sound over the phone. “Sorry, I’m on my bike,” Steve said, road noises in the background. “Can you get dressed and be ready for pick-up on the street in twelve minutes?”

“Okay,” said Bruce, because it was Steve.

“Thanks,” Steve said. “I don’t need the Hulk. See you in twelve.”

Bruce started getting ready, which really would have taken all of two and a half minutes, except he took his time. Waiting around made him anxious. It must be an emergency, and Bruce tried to remember whether this was why he was living in New York. He wasn’t an Avenger, but he’d defused a bomb in March and that was okay; he’d turned Steve, Pepper, and Tony into twelve-year-olds in May and that wasn’t so okay.

It had been three hundred and seventy-one days since his last incident, but who was counting, and even though he’d been living in New York for about eighteen weeks he still had this irrational fear that someone would ask him to do something about it. Like there would be ninjas or Natasha would get into trouble—for real this time; I’m always in trouble, she had told him once, but what if she really did; he didn’t know what he would do, and who was he kidding. If Steve had called and said I do need the Hulk, Bruce might have said I will be your army.

Not in so many words. The Hulk couldn’t even have managed stringing together those five (he could do subject and verb; direct objects were beyond him), and Bruce would never say it later because he’d hate Steve forever for asking. But Bruce might still have done it. The question was whether Steve would ever betray him in that way.

(The answer was yes.)

One problem with living in New York was that apparently you couldn’t very well have an apartment with a bathroom that didn’t also have a mirror, and as Bruce shaved he told himself that it wasn’t really fair to condemn Steve for placing the livelihood of almost eight billion people above the neurotic phobia of one man who was kind of an asshole anyway.

‘Neurotic phobia’ was probably what Tony would have called it, had he been less . . . kind, and Bruce was betting that was not an adjective that modified the noun ‘Tony Stark’ very frequently, but it was true. Tony had been sort of unbearably gentle with him, more than once. No doubt Tony felt like Bruce was throwing that back in his face, but Bruce’s concern wasn’t a neurotic phobia. It was a very real issue, because it was very possible that Steve might decide the Hulk was worth it if he thought it could save lives, which some people—some very kind people—seemed to completely and whole-heartedly believe.

Get a grip, Banner. He said he wasn’t going to ask you.

Not today, anyway.

Bruce carefully washed his razor, then put it on the sink, and went down to the street. Steve was just rolling up on his bike, which was excellent timing when you considered that it had actually been a lot more like sixteen minutes than the twelve Steve had told him. Bruce was always rather chronically late, but for some reason he had thought that Steve was the punctual type.

“Can you come with me to Stark Tower?” Steve said, soon as he stopped beside the curb.

There was a leather bag attached to the back of the bike, just about the right size and shape for Captain America’s shield. A half a dozen sarcastic replies occurred to Bruce just then and all of them were no, so Bruce just looked at him and said, “Okay,” because Steve wouldn’t be asking if it weren’t important. He’d said he didn’t need the Hulk.

“Thank you,” said Steve.

Bruce wanted to ask him if the bike was really necessary, but Steve knew that he didn’t like the bike, so of course it was. Bruce got on behind him, and Steve was driving before Bruce could even put his arm around Steve’s torso, which wasn’t very much like Steve.

“I’m repeating the same day over and over,” Steve yelled over the roar of the engine. Bruce was going to say what, but instead Steve said, “I said, I’m repeating the same day over and over.”

Bruce was going to tell him that wasn’t possible, but Steve said, “I know it sounds impossible, but Stark tested it with a random number generator. He said it depends on when you take the test, so he fed JARVIS this seed to output control variables; every day it was the same seed, so I could always tell him the numbers. He calls it a zero-knowledge proof.”

That was . . . crazy. Also—

“Here’s another zero-knowledge proof,” Steve yelled. “It takes me fifteen and a half minutes to get to your place. If I tell you fifteen and a half, you take nineteen; if I tell you eight you take eleven and then you have to wait. Waiting makes you nervous. Even though I told you I didn’t need the Hulk, you still thought about it, but I don’t think you have a neurotic phobia. You’re right that I would put the well-being of eight billion people over one man, but the issue is more complex than that. Your objections are rational and moral, and they concern me deeply.”

Bruce opened his mouth.

“No,” said Steve. “I’m sure this isn’t telepathy. You told me all of that so that I could prove it to you.”

Bruce shut his mouth.

“You, Stark, Pepper, and Jane are helping me,” Steve said. “I’m going to need to go through all of this again with Tony, and it’s difficult to get into the specifics if I have to yell them, so let’s wait for the rest until we get there.”

Bruce thought about saying okay again, but Steve must have already known that it was okay. Steve already knew a bunch of things, apparently, and yet Bruce’s brain kept stumbling over there must be another explanation as though it was a stone in his path. Steve could be . . . going crazy, he supposed; mind-reading, that was what Tony had been working on; that was why Bruce had come to New York . . . but even if Steve could read minds, it wasn’t as though he’d use it to pull a stunt like this.

If Steve was experiencing the same day over and over—first of all, there was a an episode of Next Generation like that. In the episode, there was something about a temporal distortion in the space time continuum. Blowing up the Enterprise caught them in the loop; all they had to do was not blow up the Enterprise to get out. Data had figured it out.

Second of all, magic. People said Asgardians used magic, but of course they didn’t, not really. The Tesseract wasn’t magic; Loki’s scepter hadn’t been magic; not even Thor’s hammer was magic; it just looked like it was because the technology was so advanced. Bruce was pretty sure that not even Thor knew how his own hammer worked, but it wasn’t like Bruce hadn’t thought about it.

He’d thought about it when Tony had regressed into a twelve-year-old. Tony had been tinkering with the device that had held the Tesseract and opened up the portal for the Chitauri attack. He called it the Flux Accelerator. When they’d all been turned into adults again, Bruce had argued with Tony for messing with things they didn’t understand. Again. Then Bruce had left on bad terms. Again. He hadn’t seen Tony since then, except once on television in the shitty bar where Bruce sometimes got French fries.

Basically, going to Stark Tower and fixing Steve’s problem sounded sort of like a nightmare, except that Bruce had always wanted to be Data. Star Trek was basically the only television show Bruce had ever really watched; he’d actually spent a good chunk of his twenties pretending he was Data. Without the emotion chip.

Great. This was going to be a lot of fun.

*

Steve parked in the garage under the Tower, and they got off. “Please don’t blame Stark,” Steve said, grabbing the leather bag off the back of the bike. “It’s not his fault.”

Bruce was still busy being relieved that he wasn’t on the bike anymore, so Steve’s words hit him right in the gut. He must have blamed Tony another day. It sort of sounded like something he would do.

Steve was looking down at him as they walked through the garage toward the elevator. When Bruce glanced up, he looked away. “What you do and say changes more than other people.” Bruce was going to ask him what he meant, when Steve went on, “I mean that I think you, Tony, and Jane are close to solving the problem, so for the past fifty days or so, I’ve been doing and saying a lot of the exact same things to keep us going in the same direction. But I’ve noticed that if I say something different to you, you act differently, and not just in direct response to my words.”

They got into the elevator, and Steve pressed the button for the forty-ninth floor. “Tony and Jane end up doing and saying a lot of the same things, even if I change what I say or do. But when I say something to you or Pepper, you must really think about it, because it has a long-lasting effect.”

Bruce raised his brows.

“No,” Steve said, “you’re right. I don’t think Tony would be pleased to hear that he’s predictable, but I only ever told him this once. It did have a long-lasting effect. I didn’t particularly care for it. He’s easier to handle when he’s predictable.”

Bruce pressed his lips together.

“And no,” Steve said, “I don’t think he’d care to hear he’s easy to handle either.”

Bruce wondered—

“Yes.” Steve glanced at him. “I always tell you this, because it changes you even more. Before you ask, you’re kinder to him. More careful. Which is saying something.”

The elevator dinged and Steve stepped out, Bruce following. “You know what the amazing thing is?” Bruce said, falling into step beside him.

“Yes,” Steve said, smiling down at him. “And you’re right, it’s not just a habit with me.”

Bruce had been going to tell him that the amazing thing was that Steve said it had been one-hundred-and-six days, and he was still saying things like ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

Steve opened the door to the lab, and they went inside.

*

Tony walked over with a mug in his hand. Steve must have called him, Bruce guessed. Tony didn’t really seem like the type of person to be up and dressed at six in the morning, and he didn’t look all that surprised to see either of them.

“Hey,” Tony said. “How’s—”

“I’m repeating the same day over and over,” Steve said. “Yes, like that episode of Star Trek. You’ve used a random number generator to test it over a dozen times. Since it depends on when you take the test, you fed JARVIS a specific seed to output control variables; every day you use the same seed, so I can tell you all the numbers. I know it’s called a zero-knowledge proof—”

Tony opened his mouth.

“No, this isn’t a joke,” said Steve.

Tony closed it.

Steve went on. “You and Doctor Banner did a lot of tests, but there isn’t any kind of residue of whatever did this—particulate, radiation, or otherwise. On different days we’ve talked to Jane, and she thinks the best solution is to try to get Thor’s help. We know he’s capable of faster than light travel, since he must have used it when he came to fetch Loki, so we’re assuming he might have a higher understanding of temporal displacement.”

“Okay,” said Tony, “the idea of Thor—”

“I’m getting really tired of that joke,” said Steve.

Tony tilted his head. “You’re—”

“No fun,” said Steve. “I know.”

“Okay,” Tony said, and sipped his coffee. “What else?”

It occurred to Bruce just how much it probably unsettled Tony that Steve knew what he was going to say. Tony’s unpredictability was a shield just like basically everything else, and Steve finding him predictable probably left him feeling exposed.

Bruce felt a flood of pity, and wondered if this was what Steve meant about kindness.

“You’re using the Flux Accelerator,” Steve said, walking over to the holodesk. Tony followed him, not even glancing at Bruce, and Bruce went too. Steve started pulling out the volumetric images. “Basically, we’re attempting to use it for its original purpose, except this time, you’re not using the Tesseract, and we’re trying to get a signal out, instead of let the Chitauri in. We got Erik’s help on a lot of the other days. He didn’t just build this one.” Steve sorted through the images. “He built the one Thor used to take Loki back to Asgard.” He glanced up at Bruce. “Yeah, that was the same thing.”

Swallowing, Bruce wondered whether he had agreed to do this on other days. Steve certainly acted as though he had. That didn't actually mean anything, but Steve acting like he didn’t doubt him made it harder for Bruce to doubt himself.

“We’re trying to just send a beam of light, but Jane thinks Thor will notice something is happening here, even if we can’t get a coherent message through.” Steve turned to Tony. “The same way he noticed when the Tesseract let Loki through to Earth.” Steve looked down at the images lit up around him. “She doesn’t actually know.”

“Uh-huh,” said Tony.

“How Thor did it the first time,” Steve told Bruce, explaining the question Tony hadn’t asked. “Jane got the idea from you guys. You know the Flux Accelerator can fold space, and after what happened in March . . . you thought maybe it could fold time. We thought maybe that’s why I’m repeating—”

He meant that Bruce thought that.

“—and that maybe you could use the Flux Accelerator to . . . I don’t know.” Steve shrugged. “Jump start my day. But it was just too complicated, and without the Tesseract . . . Jane thought it’d be easier to get Thor’s attention. She thinks he might have a way to tell if some kind of space displacement is going on near Earth, and that’s how he found out what Loki was doing before.

“You’ve got all of the equations worked out,” said Steve. “I’ve got some of what you need to do to get started memorized; usually I repeat it all back to you over the next several hours while I get to work.” He glanced up. “I’d get pretty hoarse, if it weren’t for the serum. And no,” he added, smiling at Tony, “I haven’t really been getting my jollies just telling you what to do every day.”

Tony’s mouth twitched.

“And yes,” Steve said. “I know the mind-reading is freaky.”

Tony’s mouth twitched again.

“Yes, I know what you’re thinking right now,” Steve said, pulling out another image on the display, “and I won’t say it, because it’s filthy.”

Tony looked at him.

“And I won’t say that, either,” said Steve.

Tony went back to sipping coffee.

“Jane is on her way,” Steve said. “She was in Ohio with her family; it’ll be about four and a half more hours. I’m sorry, but please cancel the barbeque. You usually call Pepper and have her come over; she can help organize and order the supplies we need. Yes, I cancelled my TV appearance, and yes, it is some birthday.”

Because it was the Fourth of July, Bruce realized finally, and he’d read somewhere that that was Steve’s birthday. Bruce didn’t really get into holidays that much, especially not this one, but he’d completely forgotten, which was really rather shitty, seeing as how Steve was his best friend. Well, pretty much his only friend, unless you counted Natasha, which Bruce didn’t. Not yet.

“It’s okay, Doctor Banner,” Steve said, looking up from the display so that those same sad baby blues could wash over the length of him, then go back to the display. Tony didn’t look over, just went on sipping his coffee. “I think we almost did it, yesterday.”

“What happened?” Bruce asked.

Steve pulled apart another part of the display. “We ran out of time,” he said. “One of the problems is speed. The other problem is ingenuity. When we first started doing this, you built on your ideas from the day before each time. It’s easy for me to tell you your essential theories and equations, but once I tell you that, you’re onto the nitty gritty details. I can memorize a lot of that, but it’s hard for any of us to know what’s important. I could spend the whole day telling you every idea and fix you’ve had, but it won’t help you get anywhere. And I do let you get a word in edgewise,” Steve said, turning to Tony.

Feigning an expression of innocence, Tony mimed zipping his mouth closed.

“He gets tired of the exposition segment of the narrative,” Steve told Bruce. “I don’t think there’s much more to figure out,” Steve said. “I think that we can do it today, and no, I don’t say that every day.”

Bruce wasn’t sure which one of them the last comment was directed toward.

“We usually start with the basic geometry for the bridge. I’ve memorized some of the formulas. I can give them to you as you go along, while I prep the Flux Accelerator. After that, you—” Steve looked at Tony—“get started on gross mechanics, while you—” he looked at Bruce—“get started on the programming. On a good day, things are timed so that when Jane gets here, you two are working on orienting the bridge.” He looked back at Tony. “You and I work on modifying the Flux Accelerator.”

“Goody,” said Tony.

“What happens on a bad day?” said Bruce.

Steve smiled at him a little, and ignored the question. Turning to Tony instead, he said, “You’re going to ask about power. You came up with a solution for that. We’ll get to it in a little while. There’s some things on floor fifty-one we have to get.”

*

Tony had given Bruce a tour when Bruce had come back to New York and they’d decided to work on improving plumbing in the third world, but he’d skipped floor fifty-one. At the end of the corridor outside of the elevator, there was a door unlike most of the other doors in Stark Tower. It was solid and metal, with an electronic pad attached to the wall beside it. “Can you open it please?” Steve asked.

“Sure.” Tony stepped forward and leaned in for a retinal scan. They could all hear the lock release, then Tony opened the door. “Hope you’ve taken your chill pills,” he said, and went inside.

He certainly hadn’t meant the comment for Steve. It was the first thing Tony had said to him in two months.

Inside was another lab, in the midst of which was one of the Chitauri fliers. Bruce would lay money on the fact that behind the freezer door on the other end of the room was the body of an actual Chitauri. The body armor for one of the aliens was laid out very carefully on a lab bench.

“Please don’t say it,” Steve said quietly, and Bruce felt certain Steve was talking to him, because there were so many terrible things he wanted to say right now, but most of them were just so, so disappointed. Steve, however, was looking at Tony.

“Say what?” said Tony.

Bruce had suspected that this was somewhere in Stark Tower. The Flux Accelerator was practically proof; Bruce had been able to tell just by looking at it that the adjustments Tony had made to it had been riffing off of Chitauri technology. Bruce had also found schematics for the flier in JARVIS; he’d had to assume they couldn’t be that complete without access to an actual flier.

Even long before that, Bruce hadn’t been blind to the fact that Tony would do this. It was one of the main things they had argued about, when Bruce had left New York the last time. Tony had been arguing that they should study this stuff, and Bruce hadn’t been against it, exactly, because technology. Also, aliens. It wasn’t as though the Hulk invalidated scientific discovery; if anything, it made scientific discovery more important. Bruce just hadn’t liked the idea of studying those things on his own, because of what he could do with them, and he hadn’t like the idea of Tony doing it on his own either.

These things should be done with teams, checks, balances, regulations. “You want the military on this?” Tony had asked. “Really?”

Bruce had shaken his head.

“Then who do you want?” Tony had asked.

“The UN.”

“My God, but you’re naïve,” Tony had said.

It wasn’t that Bruce didn’t believe in private enterprise, either—or at least, he didn’t think that it was a completely bad thing. Just . . . these were weapons. Really, really dangerous weapons in the hands of a wealthy and very powerful man who had already proven again and again that he was willing to take the law into his own hands, and willing to take human lives if he deemed it necessary.

Bruce sort of wanted to throw up.

“The flier has some materials you’ll need,” Steve said. “Stark knows which ones they are. You’ll also need the transdimensional navigation system. That’s this thing right here.” Steve went over to the flier, and the same part of Bruce that had wanted to be Data longed to go and see, but he didn’t. Instead, his hand tightened into a fist, and he started touching his knuckles.

“I know it sounds really sci fi,” Steve said, “but Chitauri use crystals in a lot of their tech. I know you already figured that out; it’s for Bruce.” Tony was over there with Steve. “The coordinates for the Realms are actually programmed into the crystal. We need to hack it and use it to direct the signal to Asgard.”

“All in a day’s work,” said Tony.

“You’ve mostly got it worked out,” Steve said. “You and Doctor Banner are really brilliant together.” He came over toward Bruce, then stopped, looking at both of them. “You two can get to work extracting the navigation system. I’m going to get started entering a couple equations for you to use once you’re done here.” He squeezed Bruce’s arm as he passed. “Thanks again.” Then he was walking out the door.

You’re more careful. Steve had said that earlier because he’d already known this was going to happen. Steve wanted them to be able to work together, and he was a manipulative bastard. The thing about Tony was that he was very frank and direct; for all his walls, he was just so hopelessly transparent. Bruce always knew what Tony was asking of him, and knew that the answer would almost always be a no. Except right now, it had to be yes, because of Steve.

Goddamn Steve.

“He’s a piece of work,” Tony said, fiddling with something on the flier.

Bruce went over there, not really know what he was going to do. He didn’t know what anything on the flier was; there were plenty of parts that could be reactive or even explosive, so he didn’t know how to help. He didn’t particularly want to help—and yet, the sight of so many unknowns was making his skin prickle all over. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t even be looking at this.

“Daddy wants us to sort out our differences,” Tony said, twisting something on the flier that looked like a lever. “Don’t you wanna lay into me?”

“No,” Bruce said.

“That’s okay.” Abruptly, Tony let go of the lever and came around to the other side of the flier, where Bruce was standing. “I’ll be prescient, like Steve,” Tony said. “You’re going to call me irresponsible, because you love that word. You’re going to tell me that I was practically an arms dealer once, and that I said I’d learned better but I actually haven’t, have I.”

Tony started coming closer, that casual walk he had that was never casual, never non-aggressive. “Maybe you’ll bring up people I’ve killed or oh, I know, how I used a nuke on a sentient race. Want to know the worst part about that? Doesn’t even keep me up at night. Come on, Bruce.” Now he was close. Tony was really really close. “Give it to me,” he said. “I can take it.”

Bruce looked away. “Don’t.”

“You know you want to. Come on and tell me how I’m not the one who should get to decide what I do with my technology. Tell me how Iron Man is going to start another Cold War. Tell me how Stark Industries is the evil corporation in the film, who wants to study the aliens that are going to kill us all except Sigourney Weaver and her cat. Just tell me. I wanna hear.”

“Stop.”

“You have no fucking clue how much it turns me on when you just keep saying no. Know what I think? I think you secretly mean yes.” Bruce hadn’t thought Tony could get any closer without touching him, but he did. “I think you want me to convince you.”

Tony reached out then, but Bruce was half expecting it, and caught his hand. He didn’t know what Tony had been going to do, but Bruce held on.

“No, thanks.” Shaking him off, Tony took a neat step away. “I’m not the hand holding type.”

The problem was that Tony just took everything so goddamn personally. “I never meant to hurt you,” Bruce said, keeping his voice gentle.

“Hurt?” Tony barked a laugh. “Who’s hurt? No, this is just a difference of opinion. Just a philosophical discussion we’re having here, just like Steve wanted.”

“Steve’s doing his best.”

“Right. Because what the rest of us are doing is murder, with some war mongering thrown in.”

“I’ve never accused you of murder, Tony.”

“But it’s what you see, isn’t it? When you look at me. When you look at Iron Man you think: there is someone who hurts people.”

Bruce didn’t say anything, because when he looked at Iron Man, he saw someone who very much wanted to help people and usually succeeded—but only because he was willing to hurt people as well. Bruce had looked up that town in Afghanistan where Tony had been held captive. Everyone celebrated Tony as a hero there—except for four people who had died, and another who was badly disabled from the burns which had destroyed over sixty percent of his body.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Tony said, and turned away.

Bruce wanted to touch him. Touching wasn’t really his thing, but he wanted to—but Tony had already shaken him away, and Bruce didn’t know how to do it. “You’re doing your best too,” was all Bruce could think of to say.

“Right.” Tony walked to the flier, then turned back. “So, you’re thinking distortion in the continuum?”

“Tony.”

“Seriously, Bruce, I don’t give a fuck. Why Cap, though? Poor bastard. Could be the universe just hates the guy. I’d buy that; space-time could eddy around that stick in his ass. Still, if there was that kind of disturbance, you’d think we’d notice. So why is it just Steve? That’s the real question.”

Tony started fiddling with the lever again, and Bruce swallowed hard. “If it’s something he does, or something that triggers it,” Bruce suggested.

“If it was as simple as not blowing up the Enterprise, you’d think he would’ve figured it out by now. Wonder if we Fluxed him into the future, he could just skip today and have it over with.” Tony glanced up. “Don’t get your panties in a twist. I don’t think it’s a good idea either.”

Steve, damn him, had set it up this way. He’d given them a specific task, then left them alone to do it. He had to know that they would argue; he also had to know that they would get it done regardless. “He said you knew about the crystals?”

“Mostly icosahedrite,” Tony said, back to messing with the flier. “Or something a lot like it.”

“Quasicrystal,” said Bruce.

Tony glanced up. “Yeah.” Finally forcing the lever to the side, Tony slid open a compartment in the flier. Bruce hoped to God Tony knew what he was doing. “Haven’t gotten around to testing all of it,” Tony said. “There’s only so much, and—” He stopped whatever he was going to say, grimacing. “They’re photonic. Band structure probably translates to some kind of language or—” he twisted something inside the compartment—“code. But it’s a bitch computing aperiodic structures—” he twisted again, then put his face next to the compartment—“and you’re never gonna compute the whole lattice.”

Bruce thought about that. “I wonder if you could get the whole structure in a higher-dimensional unit cell.”

Tony glanced at him.

“I mean,” Bruce said quickly, because crystallography wasn’t really his thing, “assuming they took an irrational slice of a higher dimensional lattice.”

“Hold this.”

Bruce didn’t particularly want to hold anything from a Chitauri spaceship, but it was a test, just like practically everything Tony did was a test. Bruce put his hand out, and Tony put a device into it. Shaped like a disk, it was made out of some kind of gold-hued metal, with three finger-like jointed metal protrusions folded in toward the center. The center itself was three dull burgundy crystals arranged like a clover.

“Don’t drop it,” Tony said, then went back to messing around with the flier. “Just gonna—hold on, the way they do these panels is a bitch,” he said, yanking a long, gold piece of metal on the side of the flier. “Aliens ever heard of screws? Bring me that blowtorch.”

Swallowing again, Bruce looked around, because of course Tony had a blowtorch. Of course Tony had a blowtorch in this room of volatile things about which Tony could have no full understanding. It was lying on a bench a yard or so away, so Bruce held tightly onto the disk thing and went to get it. At least it was a little blowtorch, thank God, because Bruce didn’t much like fire. Bruce brought it to him and then when back for the goggles, and Tony took the tools without really looking, kneeling now to look at the side of the flier. “Gloves,” he said, so Bruce went to find those, too.

Tony put on the gear, then pressed the valve on the blowtorch, running it along the side of the plate where he wanted it to move. His gloved hand tried to wiggle the plate, but it didn’t shift.

“You know which episode I’m talking about, right?” Tony said suddenly, torching the plate again, then wiggling it. “We get to see Crusher in a negligee.”

“Wesley?” Bruce asked politely.

Snorting, Tony blasted the plate some more, wiggled it again.

“I always liked Data,” Bruce said.

Tony glanced at him, then went back to working on the plate. “You do know you’re Worf.”

Bruce smiled a little. “I know I’m Worf. But you’re kind of Riker. Sorry, man, you play trombone.”

“I’m not Riker.”

“Then who?”

“Whatever guy built Data. You know, the awesome one. Gimme a wrench.”

Bruce found a wrench and brought it over. Tony took it, gave the plate a solid thwack with it, and the plate came off. “Guessing Cap meant this.” He yanked something that looked like a shiny metal pipe out of the side of the flier. “Okay, dollface. We can leave the big scary room now.” He stood up.

“Tony,” Bruce said.

“I don’t wanna kiss and make up.” Tony thunked the pipe on the bench, then took off the gloves and goggles. “Let’s just go build some shit.”

“Tony,” Bruce said again, and grabbed his arm.

Tony stopped, slowly turned around. He was wearing a faded t-shirt with Bettie Paige on it, the light of the arc reactor shining through the line drawing of her mostly naked body. His hair was rumpled—more rumpled than usual, like he’d rolled out of bed when Steve called him and hadn’t done much else besides dress. There was stubble on his face around the beard, providing further evidence of just how long he’d been awake, but he didn’t look tired.

Being in a room with Tony sometimes made Bruce feel very dry, like standing in a field of broken, starving grass, and Tony was this snapped electric line, the metallic tang of lightning in a storm. It felt dangerous, oh so dangerous, and too exciting; right now, this second, Bruce felt it. He’d felt it just watching Tony take apart that flier and root around inside its guts, so completely without fear—Tony reaching inside those eighty thousand parts of machines that Bruce didn’t understand, but wanted to—the physics of it, the structure of the crystals, even the goddamn motors, and Bruce never cared about motors, but he just wanted to know; it made Bruce hungry in ways he’d forgotten that he could be hungry.

Bruce didn’t even know how to keep looking at him. He’d thought that Tony was the only man who could make him want to take risks he shouldn’t, and then he’d gotten to know Steve.

Thinking of Steve, Bruce said, “We can still be friends.”

“Too bad.” Tony took a step forward, too close all over again, and Bruce had to check the impulse to back up. “I want more from you than that.”

His eyes were bottomless.

“But you’re not going to give it to me,” Tony went on. “So what’s the point?” He scratched his chest. “Here’s the part that really throws me for a loop. Would you give it to Steve?”

Bruce thought of that morning, when he’d tried to decide what he would do if and when Steve said he needed the Hulk. When he had pretended to try to decide, even though he already knew.

Bruce looked down. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t get it. Is it because he asks nicely? Seriously, Bruce, is it that he bats those lashes at you, and you just—” Tony cut himself off so suddenly it was as though he’d clapped a hand over his mouth. “You just fucking give it up for him,” he said at last, after a long moment. “Everyone just fucking spreads, and why? Because Steve is nice. He’s so polite when he asks you to suck it.”

“Steve never asks me to suck it,” Bruce said quietly.

“He asked you to come here.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it?” Tony’s voice was bland. “Did you even hesitate, Bruce? You even once stop to contemplate your vows of chastity, or did you decide to give it up for king and country just because he asked?”

“He’s never asked for that.” Bruce lifted his gaze. “Ever, except for the one time I volunteered. That’s the difference, Tony.”

“Timing.” Tony scratched his chest again, the skin beside his arc reactor. “That’s the only difference. It’s only a matter of time. You don’t think that one day he’s gonna need just a little more firepower than even I can offer, and that on that day, he won’t turn to you? He’s Captain fucking America. Asking people to lay down for him is what he does. You know what the difference between you and everybody else is? When he asks you to lay down, you can get up again. That’s why you need to do it. That’s why you need to fight.”

The fact that the Hulk was virtually invincible was a big part of why Bruce felt he shouldn’t fight. It wasn’t as though he thought the things that Tony and Steve did were okay either, but at least they could be stopped with enough fire power, whereas . . . .

The problem was that Tony lived in this world where there were bad guys and good guys, where the only answer to the bad guys was violence, and the only violence that worked was the kind perpetrated by good guys who were so powerful that there wasn’t a check or balance in the world that could stand against them. The other problem was that maybe Tony was right.

Maybe they were all really living in that world, the world that Bruce had only assumed existed in fiction. For so much of his life, Bruce had been fairly certain he was living some post-modern drama in which there were no right answers, just ambiguity and shades of gray, but last year he’d fought aliens on tiny spaceships. Maybe the entire world had switched genres, and somehow he’d missed it.

Natasha said he had shitty taste in literature. Too much Kafka.

“Christ, why do I bother,” said Tony, and left.