How the hell, Tony wondered, could Banner—of course they wound up sitting next to each other—eat that stuff without a grimace on his face? Yeah, they’d saved the world and he’d only mentioned this place because he was practically dead. Babbling. Letting out whatever words wanted to escape, lying there on his back with his mind shattered into a million pieces (a nuke, a damn nuke, and he’d gone to another dimension and thought the last thing he would ever see was a cell phone picture of Pepper) and who the hell knew that what would come out of his mouth were the words have you ever tried shawarma? And then the ever-intelligent rest of it: there’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I want to try it.
In that moment, with his life still flashing before his eyes, he wanted to try everything he hadn’t yet. Why not shawarma? He didn’t want to die without tasting it.
They tried it.
The meat, covered with dust and plaster, wasn’t quite as tough as the fight to save Manhattan from Loki’s army, but it still sucked. The only one who looked like he didn’t mind was Banner.
Figured. The guy probably got used to eating all sorts of unusual crap during his years in hiding.
In Calcutta, back when he could keep big green and angry under control because his focus was on other people instead of himself, other people instead of proving or disproving the science that let his trousers grow in size with him (humiliating when they didn’t, but he was a pretty private person to start with) he seemed like a miracle worker providing antibiotics for infections and good blends of local Ayurvedic and Western medicines. He was a good doctor, and sick people trusted him. They put their lives in his hands. That was the kind of superhero work he wanted to do, but then Natasha Romanov waltzed into his place like she owned it, talking about Tesseracts and the future of the world and that was that. No more Mr. Nice Bruce Banner Guy doing his work for the good of society simply because it’s what he’d chosen to do.
He missed the kids in India. He missed their families. He missed being helpful on an individual and personal level. More than anything, he missed pretending he wasn’t about to explode with anger every minute of every day.
There was one thing he could do, though, that would make things seem a little bit better. Walking into his laboratory, he closed and locked the door. The TOP SECRET sign wobbled back and forth and nearly fell to the ground. What could Bruce say? He liked simple old-fashioned things. They satisfied his longing for nostalgia, something he didn’t like to wallow in for too long. What was the point? Of all people, he knew nobody could go back and rewrite the past.
They could only promise a brighter future.
For days, Bruce moved around the makeshift lab Tony had granted him at Stark Tower as furtively as possible. When he was seen, he’d be tapping a pencil against his lip, muttering calculations in a voice meant to remain under the radar. He’d run his hands through his hair, push his glasses up his nose, and ignore every inquiry, every interruption. He carried an old-fashioned note pad and from time to time scribbled down a thought or an equation without letting anyone else in on what he was doing.
Dr. Banner enjoyed the mystery. It kept the others from provoking him. Whether they’d been eye-witnesses to his transformation or not, people knew what could happen when he was agitated. He wasn’t exactly sure why anyone would want to unleash the—the other guy again, unless it was on some sort of sick bet. If that was the case, then Stark would be the instigator for sure. Not Cap, he was too pure of heart (did people that good actually exist?). Sure, Natasha knew how to play people, but seeing as how he’d come this close to killing her, she kept a wide berth. Thor was too busy, and Clint… who knew. Who the hell even knew about that guy, other than that his aim was deadly and he felt he had a lot to atone for. No, if anyone was messing with him now, it had to be their resident billionaire playboy.
To be fair, Tony had actually been pretty decent to him when all was said and done. From their little heart-to-heart when he’d first arrived on the S.H.I.E.L.D. mothership to the way his mad-as-hell alter-ego leaped to prevent Stark from becoming dust in a crater in midtown Manhattan after his fall, Bruce felt like they actually had an understanding. He took nothing for granted, because taking anything about Tony Stark as a matter of course was a dangerous thing and would certainly set most mortals up for one hell of a fall. But now that they’d saved the world, things were a little mellower. Nick Fury wasn’t on their asses. Cap had a motorcycle. Thor was probably still in Asgard after delivering up Loki. Natasha and Clint were off doing Nat and Clint things, and here he was with access to the most incredible and high-tech gadgets and gizmos. If he needed anything to further his research, all he had to do was tell J.A.R.V.I.S. Or snap his fingers.
It was enough to make anyone—man of medicine, researcher, everyday Joe—green with envy, he thought with a laugh.
Being able to laugh at himself was a nice change. Sure, he was still angry and sure, he never let his guard down, not for a red hot second, because who knew when it would be that one thing that was too much, that one thing that tipped the scales from seethed containment to HULK SMASH. Life would have been a lot easier if the big green guy at least had a decent command of the English language, but that wasn’t the case.
At least the Hulk seemed content to slumber in silence for the time being.
Finally, Bruce had the lab set up to his satisfaction: this was a new branch of research for him. The spike stood tall in the center of a sanitized stainless steel vat, and when he turned the motor the inner workings rotated at precisely 1.5” per each ten-second interval. The enclosure kept the central vortex heated to the required 165˚ Fahrenheit mark. Satisfied, Dr. Banner ran his test scenario for six hours. No overheating was present and the equipment he’d designed stubbornly refused to malfunction in any way whatsoever. Slipping out of the building, he made his way unnoticed through a city still recovering from its other-worldly attack. As Bruce Banner he had the luxury of blending in.
He wouldn’t let himself fall back into memories of his most spectacular failed experiment. That would only make him angrier and more anxious than he already was, and he knew what that meant. Instead, he focused on winding his way through midtown stopping at this location and that, gathering his needed supplies. This afternoon, his experiment would move into Phase Two and once that happened, there would be no turning back.
Dr. Banner was unsurprised at the insistent knocking at his laboratory door, despite the presence of both the TOP SECRET and DO NOT DISTURB signs clearly evident. He wasn’t sure, as a man of science, whether he’d have been unable to contain his curiosity either, all things considered. Glasses askew, lab coat unbuttoned, he peered through the peephole and nodded to himself before a wry grin took up residence on his face.
“Come on in.” He waved Tony into the lab.
“I followed the smell,” Tony admitted. “What is that? I’ve been pretty good, trying to leave you alone, but when something like this happens on my own property, I have to investigate. For all I know, you could be building the next nuke in here.”
Bruce laughed. “A nuke that smells like dinner? Now there’s a piece of science worth investigating.” Nodding Tony around the corner, he gave his best game show host impersonation, a flip of his hand indicating the project he’d undertaken.
Tony Stark’s expression of curiosity morphed into shock and from that, quickly into a rare and genuine smile. “Am I looking at what I think I’m looking at? Because if that is what I’m looking at, you’re more of a genius than I imagined. Could that be? That you’re even more brilliant than I thought?” Taking a step forward, he approached the machine. Across the top, the words SHAWARMA 1.0 were engraved, along with a warning that the experiment was a prototype and that no guarantees were implicit.
Bruce handed Tony a plate and a carving knife. “I’ve never claimed to be much of a cook, but I’ve also never found a problem a good dose of scientific research and imagination combined couldn’t solve. I figured if anyone deserved some really good shawarma, it was you.”
One more time, Tony Stark grinned. “You are a genius. And I’m not sharing this with anyone else. Don’t tell them. Don’t even let them think you’re hiding something.” He carved strips of perfectly-cooked meat onto his plate, pressed the button for condiments, and helped himself to a taste.
And a second, and then a third.
“Bliss,” he said as the aroma and the sound of sizzling juices infused the room around them. “Banner, you’ll always have a place on my team. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”