Bruce joins Steve on the couch, covering a yawn as he leans back. He looks exhausted, Steve thinks. It's not too surprising - it's almost three in the morning, and he suspects Bruce came from the labs, not his suite.
"Good morning," he says. He's still not sure how he and Bruce are supposed to get along on a day-to-day basis - despite Tony's ease, Steve doesn't share that same comfort, not yet. A cautious, polite air has been the hallmark of his interactions with Bruce so far.
Bruce gives him a tired smile. "Yeah," he covers another yawn. "I couldn't sleep."
Steve doesn't ask; nightmares are the answer, he's sure of it. He gets them too, and at the thought of them he has to take a moment, look at anything but his sketchbook. Bruce looks sympathetic, understanding.
"It's been a long night," Steve murmurs, awkward all over again. Surely Bruce doesn't want to hear the banalities, or to be offered coffee -
"Have you been drawing all night, Steve?" Bruce asks, tone almost gentle. Familiar.
That's been something else Steve can't explain. He's never been 'Captain', or 'Rogers' - Bruce calls him Steve, called him Steve almost from the start.
"Not all night," Steve says, ducking his head a little. "I've been to the gym."
(Hours at the bag, beating it until even he feels tired, ready for his four hours of sleep, the longest he'll sleep without being utterly drained or drugged - )
He puts his pencil down for a moment, stretches out his fingers. "What brings you out here?" He almost calls him doctor, isn't quite ready to return the familiarity and call him Bruce. They don't know each other that well, not yet.
"I've hit a wall," Bruce says, and for a minute he explains the problem - Steve follows along as best he can, but - and he'll admit this, freely - he hasn't had an education in chemistry, and this is the cutting edge of that field.
"I've lost you," Bruce says, after a moment.
Steve nods, sheepish. "I'd like to learn." And he will - he wants an education, in things besides history and pop culture and modern amenities.
Oddly enough, strangely enough, that's the topic they fall to, in the wee hours of the morning: Steve asks Bruce for advice on where or how he should go to school, Bruce tells him he hasn't been in the system for years, they talk about schools and colleges and online classes and education.
It's nice. It's really nice, and he says as much to Bruce.
"School?" Bruce must be tired.
"Talking about it," Steve clarifies. "You know what you're talking about."
That's not it, though: Tony knows about it, everyone knows about an education. No, no: the difference is, Bruce speaks to him in his tired, comfortable tones and explains patiently how things work now, and offers smart suggestions and apologizes for yawning again.
He's comfortable with Steve, as if they're old friends.
"I'm glad I could help," Bruce says, and finally pulls himself off the couch. "I think I need to - " He yawns again, and Steve feels tired looking at him.
Steve gives him a friendly smile and wave. "Good night, doctor."
Bruce's expression turns a little funny, a little unpleasant, then he yawns again and starts to walk off, leaving behind only a 'good night' to mark his passing.
Steve sits back in the couch and opens his sketchbook, almost unthinkingly beginning to sketch Bruce.
When the lines form together to duplicate Bruce's last odd expression he can put his finger on what's bothering him about it, specifically: it looks like self-blame, the realization of a mistake.
He studies the rest of the face, then closes the sketchbook, deep in thought.
It takes a day before Steve can - not quite work up the nerve, but rather decide how he wants to approach this - before he can go to Bruce and ask to have coffee together.
He means a conversation, he means something more private than a casual meeting in the kitchens of the Tower: Bruce seems surprised when he asks, almost wary, always a little awkward, but he says sure.
"What did you want to talk about?" Bruce asks as he fills his mug.
"Can I call you Bruce?" Steve starts with that, blunt. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is the surprise - and gratitude? - on Bruce's face.
"Yes," he says, eyes flicking to and focusing on his drink. "Go ahead, Steve."
It's unfounded, unexpected, but he has a moment when he looks at Bruce and sees the Hulk. This is not new, this is something he's learned to live with around Bruce. Moments when he remembers how dangerous his teammate can potentially be to those around him.
It reminds him, oddly, of his own strength. He's learned to be gentle when he's not sure, because he is strong.
"Thank you," he remembers, saying it almost too late. Awkward, again. There are lines of nervous tension in Bruce's body, signs that he's uncomfortable, and only now can Steve appreciate how comfortable Bruce was a few nights ago.
They sit. They drink. Steve finds himself tongue-tied. What did he want to talk to Bruce about?
The image of Bruce's face, the sketch just above it, sits in his memory. He can't ask about it, not that blunt, not after he got away with Bruce's name.
Hell, he thinks. I'm Captain America. It's a bitter thought, bitter amusement that he can use that as an internal pep talk, but he looks at Bruce and clears his throat and asks: "Did I do something wrong the other night?"
"No?" Bruce asks, brows furrowing. He lowers his drink, hands wrapped around the mug. "No, why?"
"You looked bothered when you left," Steve reminds him.
There's a minute of silence that lasts and stretches. Bruce continues to stare at his drink.
"There's - " Bruce starts, and ends. Steve turns his head, follows Bruce's gaze; Tony's standing in the doorway, Tony's strolling over, and he probably knows he picked the wrong moment for an entrance - or the right moment, from Bruce's point-of-view.
"Is that coffee?" Tony asks, and pours himself a cup. "This is coffee. Decaf?"
"No," Bruce says, and Tony quirks an eyebrow.
"That seems counter-intuitive."
Steve looks between the two of them and sips his coffee, unsure if he should stay now. Bruce catches his eye and Steve thinks he understands what Bruce can't say in front of Tony: he'll tell him later.
"And now you're talking about me," Tony says. "Turn off the psychic powers, boys, let me in."
"That would defeat the point of the psychic powers," Bruce murmurs.
"C'mon, Bruce, spill." Tony fits himself into Bruce's personal space as if he belongs there, and if Steve's not seeing things, that's the hint of a smile Bruce is showing.
"No, Tony," Bruce says, and he finishes his cup of coffee. "Steve, I'll talk to you later."
Steve finishes his coffee and takes the hint, excusing himself from the room, only listening to Tony's eager, friendly chatter with half an ear.
Steve's doing push-ups when he sees Bruce next. They're almost effortless now, even as he counts higher and higher, to the mid-hundreds, and he has to wonder if it's worth it to even bother with the exercise, but he keeps going, focused on wearing himself out.
He wants to sleep. He's spent too many nights tossing and turning in his new bed, and he has to sleep at least once in a while to stay in peak physical condition.
There hasn't been an emergency in weeks.
It's almost silly to expect another one so soon after the Chitauri, but the invasion wound up everyone, and it's taken this long for them all to even begin to relax. It's true for Steve, at least - he's slowly beginning to think that maybe he won't have to fight today or tomorrow, and all of that energy that comes from being ready all the time is beginning to push him to seek out other outlets before it drives him crazy.
He breaks a thousand push-ups and stops, turning to lie on the ground for a moment, trying again to come to terms with his body. It will never stop being new for him, and it will never stop being a surprise that he can do a thousand push-ups and barely break a sweat.
Bruce is standing in the doorway.
"Ah, hello," Bruce says, and Steve raises a hand in greeting. "The door was open."
That's true; what surprises Steve is more that he didn't notice Bruce at all. He wonders how long Bruce has been standing there.
"Come in," he offers, and he sits up.
Bruce hesitates for a moment, then steps in. "Thank you, Steve."
Steve reaches for a towel as he stands up, gestures to an armchair that found its way into his suite when he moved in. It's still unnerving to realize that this home Tony has offered him is larger than anywhere he's ever lived before, and it's only one floor of the entire tower.
Steve still likes it more than he liked the apartment SHIELD arranged for him. The location isn't right, but he can't think of living in Brooklyn without Bucky.
He finishes wiping the sweat from his brow and puts the towel away, apologizing to Bruce; he's a mess.
"I can't say I mind," Bruce says, and he clasps his hands in front of him, elbows on his knees. "I came to answer your question."
"Oh, thank you." Steve hesitates, then sits opposite Bruce.
Bruce takes a breath, then begins to talk. His eyes are elsewhere, focused on anything but Steve. "Captain, I don't know if my dossier included many details on how the Other Guy was created."
Steve inclines his head. "I heard you were trying to replicate the serum."
Bruce nods. "I was."
That's all he says. It hangs in the air between them, the spectre of the Hulk looming over them both.
Steve's not sure he wants to touch that, not sure Bruce wants him to, not yet understanding why this answers his question.
"There's something you need to understand," Bruce says, and he still hasn't looked up. "I studied everything about the serum. You. Any surviving samples of you. Anything that Doctor Erskine left behind. I - I thought it would work." The last sentence sounds painful, sounds like it hurts Bruce to say. "I thought I knew everything about you."
It clicks: why Bruce was so comfortable with him. Why Bruce calls him Steve so easily when they barely know each other.
Bruce looks up at him now, expectant, and Steve realizes that he's waiting for something. What? Censure? Steve can't be angry at him, can't resent him. Wouldn't know where to begin if he had to try, because there's nothing to be angry about, not from his perspective.
"I'm not angry, Bruce," he says. "I don't think I could be."
Bruce's expression shifts, and Steve catches the glimpse of pain.
This is a boundary he has yet to figure out around Bruce, one that may take years to learn: if he can talk about anger around Bruce, if he can talk about the Hulk. Bruce isn't shy about the subject when it comes up, but he usually presents the topic of his anger almost as a defiant offering - 'here, talk about it, go ahead.'
The presentation of the Hulk as the 'Other Guy' is awkward enough.
Bruce stands up, and Steve stands as well. "Now you know," he says. "I'm sorry I intruded on your privacy."
"The door was open," Steve reminds him, and he walks Bruce to the doorway. "You can come back. I'd like that."
Bruce looks at him, confused, then nods like he understands some private joke. "I may take you up on that."
"Good night," Steve says, trying to be kind, and he closes the door behind Bruce.
He stops for a moment, hand on the doorknob, and pictures Bruce with a working serum. He thinks about Erskine. He wonders if Erskine would have approved of the serum in Bruce's hands, then shakes his head. It's not his place to wonder, and it's not right of him to think even briefly that Bruce may not have deserved it.
There is always the Hulk, who was created because of hubris and anger, and who did so much damage to Harlem, to the Helicarrier - but who knew to save Tony, who didn't smash any of them, only the Chitauri, only Loki.
Steve rests his forehead against the door and thinks about his teammates, all of them.
He trusts them in a fight, yes, but further than that? He thinks of his original team, feels the flash of bitter loss there, and realizes that he's being an idiot.
Of course he trusts his team. He's been a fool, not to listen to his gut. His gut says trust them all, and he does.
There's something he has to do for Bruce soon: apologize.
(A thought back to Tony, another member of the team he wasn't sure he could trust when they met, was sure they would never get along, and then to what he did after the fight, when Tony would listen: he apologized for what he said. It was cruel of him, and wrong. Tony had looked - surprised, like Steve was speaking a foreign language, then had given an awkward apology back, but heartfelt, even if he tried to downplay it.)
He opens the door, then, mind made up.
And startles, because Bruce is still there, and he looks surprised to see Steve again.
"Steve," he starts, but Steve doesn't let him finish.
"I'm sorry," Steve starts, then stops, because Bruce is saying the same thing.
"...What for?" he asks, curious.
"Were you going somewhere?" Bruce says, and Steve shakes his head.
"We ended that conversation a little fast," Steve says. "Do you want to come back in?"
"No, I should probably go - I came back because I wanted to say one more thing, Steve. I wasn't leading up to ask you for samples of your blood."
It's something Steve should have thought of, but the statement takes him by surprise. "I wasn't thinking of that," he says, honest. "...Are you still working on replicating the serum?"
Bruce's expression is bitter, bitter, bitter.
He shakes his head and steps back. "I should go. Thank you for listening."
Steve has the feeling that he shouldn't let it happen; shouldn't let Bruce go - but he nods, and doesn't stop him as he walks away.
There isn't another conversation until Steve learns that the AIM he should’ve been studying up on isn’t AOL Instant Messenger but Advanced Idea Mechanics - he’s unfamiliar with their motivations, their goals, and that puts him at a serious disadvantage in his first tangle with them.
By the time he realizes that he and Bruce are their goals, it’s too late.
The Hulk is the first one to be tagged, then Steve, and then there's excited shouting from the scientist supreme: 'it worked!'
Steve loses track of the fight after that, losing his consciousness in a haze of pain and anger.
"Well, the good news is that we won. Fried their stuff, caught them, the whole nine yards. And hey, you're alive! The bad news is that we fried their tech. Which, I know, not a big deal to you, you wouldn't follow half of what it does, but we kind of need it to reverse whatever it did, so that leads us right into the really bad news."
It's Tony, his voice a needle being pushed right into his brain, and Steve takes a moment before opening his eyes just to breathe and calm down.
"Tony," he says, his voice sounding funny in his ears, pitch off, and he opens his eyes, finally.
The sound of footsteps, and Tony comes to his side, looking down at him with a relieved, worried look that takes Steve by surprise.
"Hey, Bruce - " Tony starts, and Steve begins to wonder if he's dreaming as the sound of his own voice interrupts.
"That's not Bruce."
Tony turns to look, expression going confused, and as Steve sits up, as seconds pass, it shifts into understanding.
"Steve," he says, voice a little lower, a little more serious. "Whatever you do, don't get angry."
Steve has the sense that he'll be embarrassed later for how long it takes him to realize what Tony's talking about, and that sense irritates him, and it takes him a minute just to breathe and think around that. He's not used to his temper being so close to the surface.
It feels like he's trying to light a match, and every flare of irritation is a slide of friction, only just not enough to set it alight.
Oh, he thinks, gaze on his hands. They aren't his hands, and everything clicks together.
However AIM did it, however their technology works, he recalls that excited shout of 'it worked': these are Bruce's hands, and this is Bruce's body, and sitting opposite him on another bed is Bruce, wearing his skin.
Bruce's expression, when he looks, is a familiar one. He's seen it on Bruce's face before, and on his own, in reflections and mirrors after the army labeled him 4F. It's bitterness, and a sick want, and shades of anger.
He meets Bruce's eyes, wonders what he looks like right now, and Bruce's expression shifts, clearing, and he just looks neutral now, a little apologetic. It's a mask.
Steve doesn't know what to say to him; he looks at Tony, asks: "Can you switch us back?"
Out of the corner of his eye he sees pain in Bruce's face, but he can't take it back. He's a risk like this. He doesn't have the control over his anger like Bruce does, or the experience, and he realizes he's being selfish, and it - it makes him angry, that this is what Bruce lives with, that he's been put in this situation, that above all else he wants to do the right thing.
"We probably can, given time and the pieces of the tech they used on you two, but - "
Steve curls his hands into fists and looks at the two of them, trying to slow his breathing, to stay calm. "I need to be sedated," he asks. "Please. I don't think I can stop."
Bruce stands up and walks over to him, putting his hands on Steve's shoulders, those big broad hands that Steve's so familiar with, and he pushes down slightly, grounding Steve.
"Breathe with me," Bruce says, and he slows his own breathing, squeezes Steve's shoulders reassuringly as Steve finds the rhythm.
It works. The tension runs out of him as he focuses on their breaths, eyes glued to Bruce's, and from the outside looking in he can appreciate how blue his eyes are, and from the inside looking out he can appreciate how much stress Bruce lives with every second of his life, and he regrets even more asking Tony the practical question as soon as he thought of it.
It wasn't fair to Bruce.
"Better?" Bruce asks, and Steve nods, mute. Bruce nods back and squeezes his shoulders once more before stepping back, giving him space. "That won't always work," he warns.
"So we'll enroll him in some anger management classes," Tony says, and Steve looks at him, almost startled to realize that he's still here. "Simple enough, right?"
"Tony, you need to go," Bruce says, before Steve can say it.
"What, really? I need to talk you two into coming down to the lab for scans," Tony starts, but Bruce shakes his head.
"I'll come down later. You should keep your distance from Steve."
"He's right," Steve says, straightening.
"...Yeah, I know," Tony says. "Don't go green, Cap," he says, and Steve watches him walk out, shooting a worried glance back at Bruce as he goes.
Steve lets out a breath, looking up at Bruce. "Thank you."
"He means well," Bruce says with a soft sigh. He sits on the bed opposite Steve and looks at him, idly drumming his fingers on his knee. "Is it always this...ready to go?"
"You mean my body?" Steve asks.
Another swiftly hidden bitter look, then a hesitant nod, and Steve feels an irrational possessive flare - he's Captain America, damn it - and that's something else he has to push aside and try not to focus on, because otherwise - otherwise he'll get angry, and he can't do that.
"Yes," he says, looking down at his (Bruce's?) hands. "There's a lot of excess energy - you should go running," he says, then looks up. "No, gym first. You don't want to run until you're ready for it."
"Are you speaking from personal experience?"
"Yes," Steve says, and he'd take a moment to tell the story, but instead: he remembers Erskine's death, remembers that he should die at the moment of his success, and he has to stop and breathe again, but that doesn't work, not when he's angry that he can't think of memories now without risking everyone around him, and from there - from there his mind chases up other memories, of other deaths, senseless deaths -
- Bucky falling -
- if he had been faster -
Bruce slaps him, a sudden sharp sting. "Stop!"
Steve loses the thread of memories, stares at Bruce, then gives a shaky laugh.
"This is where I thank you, right?"
"You don't need to," Bruce says, and his smile is tight, almost kind but too tinged with bitterness to ring true. "Come with me - a drink will help. It's something to focus on."
"You know best," Steve says as he stands up, and has a moment of vertigo. He's been in this room before, but he was taller before, and everything is subtly off. He has to blink a few times to get used to it, and he's aware now of how Bruce's body aches in ways he's not used to.
Bruce doesn't wait for long, however, and Steve quickly moves to follow him as he leaves.
It occurs to him as he leaves that the bone-deep aches he feels are likely echoes of injuries the Hulk suffered, impacts that would have crushed even his bones, if he were in his own body.
As Steve drinks his water, another thought occurs to him: that Bruce probably has another, more personal reason for helping him stay calm: he may not want to see the transformation from the outside.
He has no idea how right he is.
Bruce leans against the counter and watches himself drink a clear glass of water. He has to tear his eyes away and he almost walks out, almost goes for the distance from his body that he so badly (bitterly) wants.
But the Hulk is his creation; his responsibility.
"Steve," he says. He can't abandon Steve to the whims of temper.
Steve looks up, and it's like looking in a mirror.
"If you have any pet peeves, or people you can't stand," Bruce starts, then stops, then starts again. "You need to stay in your room until you know how to control yourself." He can't help the hard edge in his voice. He knows it's only Steve's voice that lends his words the extra weight.
From Captain America's lips, he thinks darkly.
He knows he needs to retreat to his suite as well and refind his center. There may not be a Hulk to worry about now - he may be able to feel anger without fear right now - but they won't be like this forever.
He has a responsibility.
"Do sedatives help?" Steve asks, and Bruce gives a little shrug.
"Sometimes. But nothing is a guarantee if you can't control yourself. I've told you the secret." A moment of bravado, a moment where he - the Hulk - was needed.
"You're always angry."
"I am," Bruce says. "I know it, Steve. What makes it worse. What doesn't." His expression must be bitter. "I know how much is too much."
Steve studies his hands again, quiet for a long moment, and Bruce wonders if he understands.
"Is it hard for you to talk about it?" Steve asks, then shakes his head. "I - "
"Yes." Bruce says, with a tone of finality. "You should go to your suite now and rest. I'll do the same." He turns on his heels, walking out of there before Steve can say anything else.
This is irresponsible of him. He needs a minute. He can get mad now without consequence. He still needs the minute. He can't let himself feel the rage that he wants - wants to feel, and oh, it's a sick want -
He stops walking, breathing slow and deep and even, tense all over.
He has everything he's ever wanted and he can't keep it.
There's a hand on his shoulder, suddenly, and he turns, startled, then stops. It's Steve.
It's not what Bruce wants. He shakes his head, but Steve doesn't let go of his shoulder.
"Bruce, I shouldn't have - "
"Now isn't a good time," Bruce says through gritted teeth.
"You don't have to control yourself right now," Steve says, low. "If you're angry - "
"I don't have that luxury," Bruce snaps, and turns away. His control is slipping, and he'd be terrified right now if he were in his own body. But he's not, and the fear isn't present to help, and every time he realizes that he's in a body improved by the serum, he just gets angrier.
"Steve," he says, forcing himself to take his own advice and breath. "I need space right now."
"No," Steve says, and he takes his arm. "Come with me."
Bruce is temporarily distracted from his anger to marvel at how he doesn't have to move if he doesn't want to. He can plant his feet, and no one could budge him. (No one but the Hulk.)
Steve still tugs, and it's so - so odd to see such determination on his face, and to know that it's determination to help. He can't recognize himself in that expression.
"Please, Bruce," he tries, and Bruce finally allows himself to be led away to the elevator.
They don't talk during the ride down, and Bruce finds himself automatically matching his breaths to Steve's, finds out that if he listens for it, he can hear Steve's pulse. Everything is heightened in Steve's body, and if he stops and pays attention he can hear and smell and feel so many things he couldn't before.
He wonders if the Hulk can do the same thing.
He thinks it's probable, even likely. The Hulk is the serum exaggerated, twisted. That monster exists beyond the peak of human perfection, when all Bruce wanted was to reach that peak in the first place.
It's a bitter thought, and he has far too many of those.
It's a welcome relief to follow Steve into the gym, and he realizes immediately what Steve wants him to do.
"Are you going to - ?" He asks, nodding towards the bag.
"I was going to get you set up and then watch," Steve admits.
"That's okay," Bruce says, and he follows Steve's instructions, wrapping his hands and standing in a stance he's seen before; studied before.
His first jab misses, and he can hear the huff of laughter before Steve stops himself.
He tries it again, then a more solid punch, and the bag barely moves. It's heavy, he knows this intellectually, heavy enough to withstand Steve's stronger blows without splitting, but this is the first time he has ever tried to move it himself, and it comes together and clicks in his mind as he settles into the stance again.
He has to hit it harder. As if he means it.
(Bruce has spent so much time ducking and running from physical confrontation that he knows better how to surrender than to fight, but at the same time he knows how to fight, to survive, and he has been lucky, if lucky's the word, that he hasn’t had anyone pick a fight with him for a while.)
He's not supposed to throw a punch and let himself get lost, this time. He's supposed to follow through.
This time the bag moves, and his follow-up punch makes it swing, and he discovers why Steve spends so much time at the bag: the solid impact feels good, satisfying, as if he has finished a hard task, and he can do it again, and again, and the bag will stand up to it, and all he has to do is focus on punching.
The focus is addicting, and he lets himself fall into a rhythm and temporarily forget why he's here.
Steve sits on a nearby bench and watches Bruce go at the bag as if it's offended him, and smiles a little to himself. He knew it would help.
He sits back and mulls over Bruce's advice as he watches, wonders at the inevitability of losing control. He's pretty calm right now, but he knows how quickly that can change now - his temper has never been closer to the surface than now, and anything can set it off.
Such as jealousy. He realizes several minutes in that he wants to be up there thrashing the bag, but it's not a good idea, not with all the adrenaline he would then have to cope with, and his respect for Bruce grows even more.
He wonders, briefly, if he shouldn't leave the tower, get out of the city. Make like Bruce and leave for a safer area. Should he call SHIELD, request their holding cell?
Then he remembers that they lost that cell, and he doesn't know if they've retrieved it yet.
He gets up from the bench, then remembers Bruce's other advice and takes one of the water bottles and drinks from it, glad for the liquid.
He sits back down, sipping occasionally, still thinking, and he has to wonder: is it really a good idea to lock himself up away from other people? Yes, he won't risk being provoked, but on the other hand that leaves him with fewer distractions from his memories and emotions, and it's like an itch, or worse.
In short, he’s on a timer, and he needs to start thinking about containment plans, contingency plans, a way to minimize the damage.
It gets worse every single time he realizes that this is something Bruce copes with all the time, this fear, this constant planning to keep himself from hurting other people.
He doesn't know if he could live with it, himself. He does know that he has to, for as long as it takes for them to switch back, and it makes him feel horrible for hoping that Tony will work quickly, because this is a break he is glad he can give to Bruce, a chance to live without control, and if there were a way to do it safely he would let Bruce have freedom for a day, a week.
But then the anger stirs and he can't allow it, he admits it to himself that deep down he doesn't truly want to be that good, not that much. He wants his body back, he wants his identity back, and Bruce can't have it.
And he needs to pick another train of thought, one that won't lead him to be at war with himself, one that won't lead to the Hulk.
It's terrible, and he watches Bruce slam the bag with more force than necessary and understands.
"Well, you look happy," Tony says as Bruce enters the lab, and he peers over a screen at him. "Did you shower?"
"I did," Bruce admits.
"Well, how big is it?"
"Tony." Bruce should not be surprised. Bruce is not surprised. He sighs and comes around to Tony's side, looking at his notes and graphs, and reaches out to begin to add to the work, make additions that Tony hasn't thought of yet because this isn't his specialty.
"I think you should answer before you start playing with my numbers," Tony says, but he doesn't stop him. "How's Steve?"
"Asleep," Bruce says, tearing his attention away from the work to look at Tony. The angle is different, but Tony is the same as usual, irritating as ever. "I had to carry him to his room."
"So what happens if he gets a nightmare?" Tony asks, and Bruce shakes his head.
"There's nothing we can do if he starts changing before he wakes up - I told JARVIS to activate the sprinklers if he detects that kind of agitation, however, and to call us."
"Good man," Tony says, and pats his shoulder. "Speaking of that problem, I have good and bad news for you."
"The bad," Bruce prompts.
"Right, the bad. It's going to take me a while to figure out exactly how they did this to you guys, and as I told you earlier, the equipment they used is slag, so I'm working from scraps, recordings my armor took, and guesswork. I'll appreciate getting some scans on you, now that I've got you handy."
"Of course. What's the good news?"
"It's going to take me a while to figure out how to change you back, so enjoy the vacation."
Bruce doesn't know if he can correct Tony, or if he should. He thinks of Steve and the strained expression on his face, and the fear, and he has a moment where he wants to help, to change them back, but it fades as he looks at his hands and remembers that he can do anything he wants right now.
He can punch Tony, if he wants.
He won't. Tony's irritating, but not that irritating. He likes him.
"So, scans," Tony says, and he steers Bruce around to a table. "Think Steve'll mind if I keep a few blood samples?"
After a too-long pause, Bruce says "yes."
"You don't have to hide it, Bruce, I know you want it."
Bruce just closes his eyes and lets Tony scan him, letting the intentionally provocative chatter wash over him. Tony only means what he says when he feels like it, and they both know that Tony wants him to lose his temper. Tony wants to poke the Hulk, and it's an ongoing game between them - Tony lets Bruce stay and use his labs and Bruce enjoys his company.
Sometimes he thinks they're actually friends, and other times, when he's low, usually in the wee hours of the night, he wonders if Tony's just sizing him up, getting ready for one big experiment to study and weaponize the Hulk. He knows what Tony used to do, but at the same time he knows that Tony's closed the book on that chapter of his life and left it behind in favor of superheroing.
Bruce knows he shouldn't suspect Tony of anything of the kind. At the same time he has nurtured a healthy paranoia, and it's as important now as it was while he was on the run.
"Okay, got it," Tony says as he takes the last sample he needs. "You're almost free to go, doctor."
"I'm not leaving," Bruce says as he watches his - Steve's - skin heal. There's no need for a band-aid, and Tony bottles the blood, offering him a cottonball. Just a little dot of blood to wipe up and he's done.
There's no ache.
"What are you thinking?" Tony asks, peering at him.
"It's done healing," Bruce says, a tone of wonder in his voice. "It doesn't hurt at all."
"What, do you hurt after the - ?"
"Huh," Tony says. "Well, done healing or not, you need to get a powerbar."
"I know," Bruce reminds him, and he goes for the snacks. This is something else he will need to get used to, in Steve's body: eating. His new metabolism runs faster, and as his body will do everything it can to keep him first alive and then in peak condition, he needs to keep his calorie counts up.
It's something to ask Steve about later: how he copes with it.
"With enough luck I'll get you swapped back before you learn to hate the taste of those things," Tony says, and Bruce shoots him another look. "What, want me to spend my time working on new flavors?"
An emphatic shake of the head, and Tony grins, getting back to work.
Bruce peers into the mini-fridge as he finishes the powerbar and after a long look at the limited selection he takes a wrapped sandwich out, coming back to Tony's side as he bites into it. (There's another facet of the metabolism: he's been getting used to a gnawing sense of hunger.)
"You need to restock that," he comments.
"Yeah, yeah," Tony waves a hand at him. "Why don't you go do that, if you're not going to stay here and be useful?"
Bruce examines what Tony's doing - studying scans of the device used on them and it looks like he's trying to reconstruct the innards via guesswork and holographic simulations - and nods. "Guess I will."
"Seeya," Tony waves a hand at him, and Bruce pauses. It was under Tony's breath, probably something he didn't mean to say, but with super-hearing Bruce heard it all the same: "Cap."
He doesn't say anything.
It takes Bruce a half-dozen sandwiches before the sensation of hunger begins to fade, and he makes more than that, carefully wrapping them so they can stock Tony's mini-fridge and fuel his late-night lab sprees.
It's probably not a healthy thing to encourage, or enable, but he likes having a snack when he's working, too, and sometimes he gets caught by the same bug and can't put down a project for bed or anything.
Steve finds him as he's carrying the bag of wrapped sandwiches down to the lab, and he looks sleep-tousled and apologetic.
"Hi," he says, and Bruce stops. "Did you put me in bed?"
"Yes," Bruce says. "Tony didn't see me." It's an unnecessary thing to add, but sometimes it helps, because they both know how prone to teasing Tony is.
"Thanks," Steve says. "Are you going to the lab now?"
"Yes - do you want a sandwich?" Bruce lifts his bag.
"No," Steve says, and covers a yawn. "Has he - "
"He's taken scans of me," Bruce says. "Come down and get it over with."
Steve nods, expression slowly sobering from its sleepiness, and together they walk down to the lab. (Bruce has always known he was a slow riser, but it's interesting - and eerie - to see it from the outside like this.)
"Steve," he says as he inputs the code to let them into the lab. "How much do you normally eat?"
"Uh," Steve says, and when Bruce looks over he looks almost alarmed. "Why?"
Is that guilt?
"Oh. Well, I eat enough."
Bruce nods, slow, and steps into the lab. Something's wrong there - a problem he can see the shape of, and he stops and turns to face Steve. "How often are you hungry?"
There's a flash of guilt in Steve's eyes, and Bruce pointedly opens his bag and holds out a sandwich. "If you're hungry, eat," he says, painfully aware that he sounds awfully patriotic. "We aren't in a depression, there aren't rations, and your body needs all the fuel it can get."
Steve opens his mouth, then closes it, and takes the sandwich.
Later - and it stings again, when he realizes what he's thinking - later he will have to follow-up on this, see if Steve truly is eating enough for his metabolism, instead of neglecting himself due to an outdated idea to stick to rations, or worse, to hoard food.
"What was so fascinating over there?" Tony asks as they approach his area of the lab, then: "Hey, sandwiches!"
Bruce wordlessly digs out another one and holds it out.
"Lifesaver," Tony hums, unwrapping it and attacking it with gusto. "And hey, you brought your other half. On the table, let's get this over with."
Steve gets on the table and closes his eyes, leaving his still-wrapped sandwich on a console. Bruce begins to put the rest of the sandwiches away, keeping an ear out for any trouble, but to his surprise Tony's quiet as he runs the scans, and he doesn't have the excuse of eating.
When Bruce comes back Tony's frowning over some readings, his sandwich left on his console, with only a bite taken out of it.
Tony startles and looks over, then waves him over. "You know how I always find you fascinating," he says, and shows him the readings. "Is that fluctuation due to Steve or the Hulk?"
"It could be both," Bruce says, and slides it back over after a look. "Finish the scans and I'll look them over for any serious changes."
Tony nods, and there's silence for another minute. Steve looks like he's sleeping on the table, but Bruce doesn't think he is - his breathing isn't even enough for that, not like it was earlier.
"Hey, think the Hulk knows you two swapped places?" Tony asks out of the blue, and they both stare at him.
Steve even sits up. "I - I don't know."
"Probably," Bruce says evenly, eyes on Tony, waiting for it.
"I'd like to find out for sure," Tony says, and Bruce immediately reaches out, grabbing Tony's wrist.
"No. We are not testing that."
Steve, when he looks, is uneasy.
"Just a thought, Bruce. I wouldn't."
"I know that," Bruce says. "But does Steve?"
"...Huh, good point. Hey, Steve, I'm not going to provoke you on purpose."
And to Bruce's surprise, Steve's face twists and looks bitter, sullen.
"Kid gloves?" Steve asks, and there's an angry note in his voice that's more than alarming - it makes Tony back up and Bruce immediately get closer. "You're putting the kid gloves on now?"
"Tony, get out," Bruce orders, gripping Steve's shoulder. "Nothing you say can help right now."
Steve looks up at him, scowling. "I can do this."
"Listen to yourself," Bruce says, holding on. "Steve, please listen to yourself."
"I'm in control," Steve snaps, and it's the worst-case scenario: Bruce can see green beginning to creep up the side of his neck, the color breaking out over his skin like a rash, an ugly, awful rash, and he never wanted to see this. Not this close, not from the outside.
There isn't time to watch it, though - he has a responsibility, to Tony, to Steve, to this lab. He can try to minimize the damage.
So he grabs Steve and hefts him over his shoulder, turning and running for the entrance of the lab, moving too quickly to realize that he's throwing himself in danger. He's trying to save the lab, he's hoping that Tony has gone for cover.
The weight on his shoulder is getting heavier fast, and by the time he's out beyond the doors, he has to let go of Steve and put himself between the Hulk and the lab. He hears JARVIS' too calm tones announcing a lock-down but all of his attention is on the Hulk.
He's seen footage of the Hulk before, and intellectually he knows how big the giant is.
This is the first time he's had to look up at the Hulk. He's larger than Bruce was expecting, but what was he expecting? In some respects he's disappointed that the Hulk is only so tall, only so big - he looms so large in Bruce's life as an almost mythical figure, the bogeyman fueled by rage - it feels wrong now to see how mundane the beast is now.
Then the Hulk snarls at him, slams a fist down on the ground and roars, the sound painful to Bruce's enhanced ears.
He shifts his stance, mind working, trying to figure out what he should do. Half of him, in a maniac gesture, wants to roar back, wants to challenge the Hulk, when that would only lead to injuries or worse.
He should run, but where? He doesn't want to lead the Hulk outside, and he doesn't want this place to get wrecked.
The Hulk whuffs, an irritated sound, slams another fist against the floor, then lumbers towards him, and Bruce doesn't have time to run. Even in the body he has now, there's nowhere to go, nothing he can do. The Hulk slams his fist into him before he realizes how close the Hulk is, and he crashes back into - through the wall.
There's another roar, and the sound of pounding feet, but they're going away, and Bruce just lies there for a moment and tries to figure out if he can stand.
He may have the body of a super-soldier but he doesn't know how to be a super-soldier. He spends too much time pulling the trigger and standing aside as someone else takes care of the violence.
Everything hurts, especially his ego (he was useless there), but the pain's fading fast in some places, taking longer in others, and he probably can stand.
He realizes he can hear his own heartbeat, and it's rabbit-fast. He closes his eyes for a moment, and admits it to himself: it's not just his own inexperience at work here - the Hulk terrifies him.
Tony has one and one plan only when it comes to a Hulk-out: get in the armor. It made sense the first time, when getting thrown off the Helicarrier would lead directly to a fatal drop, and the second time he was already armored when the Hulk showed up. (And that time the Hulk saved his life.)
This time he doesn't know if the Hulk will recognize or remember him, but he lives in a tower. He wants to be as sure of his safety as he can be.
And hey, it's paid off: he's circling around the right floor when the Hulk erupts from one window and bounds off through the city, and Tony can easily follow along, noting down which streets and which cars he'll have to pay for, occasionally ducking in to save civilizans if the Hulk gets too close.
"Hey, Hulk," he calls when he can let up a little on the constant coordinating - the tower's on lockdown, Bruce is alive, payments have begun to be made to the right places.
The Hulk twists in mid-air to swat at him, snarling with a purely beastial rage. That, Tony thinks, answers that. There's no recognition, which means one of two things: the Hulk doesn't have much of a memory, or that having Steve in there changed something.
Like, oh, the reason the Hulk's out: Tony can admit it, he should have kept his trap shut and let Bruce handle it, but then again - he stops that train of thought, deciding not to defend his actions when instead he should be paying more attention to how close the Hulk is.
"Hey, whoa whoa whoa, don't touch the goods," Tony calls as he flies higher, evading the Hulk's grasp once more. "Hulk, buddy, it's me."
Doubts about the Hulk remembering him aside, he has to try - it'll give the Hulk a target, and he can lead him away from populated areas.
"Hulk, it's Iron Man, Tony, remember me?" He tries again, flying down just a little lower, too close for JARVIS' tastes.
"Sir, you should ascend," JARVIS starts, but he's interrupted by the Hulk bellowing up at him again and instead of jumping for him, he, well - he flings a tree at him instead of behaving like a civilized giant green rage monster.
He almost, almost narrowly dodges it, but luck is not on his side today - he feels the impact, he fires his jet boots, and it all happens very quickly: the tree slams into his legs, turning him in the air so as he fires the boots he's flying directly towards the ground, and seconds later the Hulk snatches him out of the air, holding him upside down in a tight hold.
"Shit," Tony says eloquently.
He is probably going to suffer massive internal bleeding unless he can figure a way out of this one, which he probably can't as long as the Hulk keeps a firm grip on him.
The Hulk lands with an earth-shaking rumble, then lifts Tony up to his face, glaring hard at him.
"Hulk angry," Hulk informs him, and he shakes him, a painful affair. "Banner gone."
"Oh, is that what you were angry about - "
The Hulk roars in his face, leaving his ears ringing.
"Hulk angry," he emphasizes, and promptly hurls Tony into another tree.
Time slows down, or seems to, and Tony can feel the metal bend inwards, he can almost pinpoint each moment as he likely breaks bones, and when time seems to speed back up he's collapsed on some exposed roots, injured and he really needs to think about installing a morphine drip in the armor.
He feels the Hulk walk off more than he hears it, and he breathes out.
"...JARVIS, you there?" He asks, sure of it, aware that he needs to get back up and follow that Hulk.
"Always, sir," JARVIS says, and Tony grins a little, pained. "The armor is still capable of flight, but I could not recommend it in your present state."
"Yeah," Tony says with a pained grunt as he begins to get up. "Ow. Don't call home, Captain Bruce doesn't need to hear about this yet."
"Promise to get prompt medical attention when you return, sir, and I will hold radio silence."
"JARVIS, I always get prompt medical attention when I need it."
"Indubitably, sir," JARVIS says, tones dripping with sarcasm, but he lapses into silence, letting Tony focus on the damage readouts and then on figuring out which way the Hulk went.
Whenever the Hulk calms down and Steve comes to, Tony's sure of one thing: the flight home is going to be awkward.
One minute he's sitting through scans, the next there's a question about the Hulk that scares him, and then - and then Tony says something and he can't help it. He's too angry, the scrape of the match finally catching and bursting into flame.
He's too angry to realize what he's done before the Hulk's free.
Rational thought returns hours later - countless hours, and he doesn't know what the extent of the damage is, or even if his teammates are alive.
Steve lies on grass and leaves and stares up at foliage, feeling at once exhausted and rested at the same time, and curiously empty. He's not angry, and he doesn't know if he has the strength to be angry.
Not that he wants to be - instead he's worried, scared. He's anticipating the worst when he gets back and finds out what he's done.
He lets out a soft groan as he sits up, and realizes that he's not as sore as he was when he first woke up in Bruce's body. He thinks that means he wasn't shot at, or in a serious fight, but he can't be sure.
The next thing he realizes is that he's managed to completely destroy one of Bruce's pairs of pants.
"You're finally awake," Tony says from behind him, and Steve startles, twisting to look back at where Tony's leaning against a tree. His armor looks dented from this angle, and Steve has a sinking feeling that he's the cause of that damage.
"Tony," Steve says, and Tony holds up a hand.
"We knew it would happen," Tony says. "And we're idiots, we should have taken you out of the city sooner rather than later, but that's hindsight for you. Now, before you ask, no one's dead. Bruce is back at the tower discovering what wonderful super-healing you have, and the trail of destruction out of the city is purely cosmetic. Barely a ding on my wallet."
"How badly was he hurt?"
"Hulk put him through a wall, so essentially he wasn't. Me on the other hand - " Tony gives a little shrug, and Steve begins to realize why the face-plate's still down. He's probably hiding pain, and that means -
"Hey - " Tony startles as Steve makes his way over, then sighs and turns around, showing -
"Tony," Steve says, staring. "It looks impacted."
"That's because it is. He threw me into a tree."
"Can you fly?"
"Of course. Can we get going already? I have a date with a painkiller."
"You're taking me back into the city," Steve states.
"I can't guarantee that this won't happen again."
"Can we argue about this later?" Tony asks, and Steve falters, then nods.
Tony turns back around and doesn't give Steve any warning before he scoops him up into a bridal carry and takes off.
"Hey - " Steve starts, realizing too late that this is a bad idea, especially if Tony's injured, but Tony doesn't answer, not yet. "Tony, you're injured!"
"You're half naked. I'm not making you walk home," Tony says, and his voice sounds tight, clipped, even through the robotic filter on his voice.
Steve can't do anything now, and the thought sits like a lead stone in his stomach - he's helpless again while people put themselves in danger. He's helpless as the Hulk rampages. He has to close his eyes and reach for that exhaustion to help blanket his thoughts and prevent the train of thought.
Then he forces his eyes back open, looking down over the landscape, trying to find proof that the Hulk has been here, and it's not hard to find - a ruined road there, a small crater there. It gets worse as he flies over the city, and finally Tony speaks up.
"Stop looking. It won't do you any good."
"I'm responsible for that," Steve says, staring down at the rubble.
"It isn't that bad," Tony says, and he finally approaches the tower. "Remember, no casualties."
Steve stares at the face-plate as Tony lands, and tries not to feel sick.
Tony doesn't go through the armor removal walkway, and he doesn't let Steve down until they're standing next to the bar just inside. "Bruce is on his way up."
Steve reaches out, gripping the edge of the bar for balance, and nods, eyes on Tony's suit. It's easier to focus on the damage he can see there instead of focusing on how dangerous he is, what he's done. It's easier to worry about Tony than about everything else.
"Is anything broken?"
"Hey, Bruce," Tony says as the elevators ding open, and Steve narrows his eyes. That's a yes. "We're home!"
"He's injured," Steve says, tone flat.
He tries not to let himself be distracted from Tony, but he has to look and see if Bruce is injured. He didn't need to worry, he discovers with some surprise - Bruce looks the same as he did earlier, with not a bruise in sight. And Tony had said he had been thrown through a wall?
Bruce gives him a careful smile before focusing on Tony, and it's a relief, that.
"How badly injured?"
"Something's broken. The Hulk threw him into a tree." Steve grips the counter tighter as he speaks, beginning to feel a disconnect from reality. That's his body over there, studying Tony with an appraising eye, that's Tony there standing in damaged armor, and they're talking about the Hulk. Who he let loose.
He wants to laugh and cry, and he feels almost out of control again, and suddenly there's a hand on his arm, a big warm hand.
He looks up into his own face, startled, brought back down to reality.
"Get some water and lie down," Bruce says, voice low, tone soothing. "You're going to feel unstable until you get some real rest."
"Is that dangerously unstable?" Tony asks.
"No," Bruce assures, focus still on Steve. "It's an endorphin rush. You need to sleep it off."
Steve swallows thickly and nods, overly aware of how large the hand on his arm is. How warm it is.
And without thinking he steps closer to Bruce and leans into him, soaking in the heat and the sheer solidity he represents.
"Ah," Bruce says, and Steve closes his eyes. He is so tired, too tired to realize what he's doing. "Steve, not on me."
"Pretty sure he's sleeping," Tony comments.
"Tony, leave," Bruce says with that Captain-America-authortative-tone that's unsettling to hear from this side. "I'll manage things here."
"You just want him all for yourself, admit it - "
If he weren't so tired he might parse that, he might understand what Tony's suggesting.
Instead he feels himself beginning to fall asleep, but every time he thinks he's gone, Bruce shifts or says something with that sharp tone that brings him back.
"Bruce, come on - "
"Go. You need treatment. I've got this."
"Of course you do," Tony says, and does Steve hear jealousy? He can't bring up enough energy in himself to open his eyes and look.
He hears metal footsteps, then the whine of the jetboots, and then the hand on his arm shifts up, and he's turned around, guided to what must be the elevator.
"It's a short walk," Bruce says. "I don't want to have to carry you again, Steve."
It's enough to convince him to try and open his eyes and stay awake, and he tilts his head, peeking back up at Bruce. It's still so odd to look back and see blond hair.
"Don't beat yourself up," Bruce murmurs. "Just rest."
"Was he telling the truth?" Steve asks, quiet, forcing himself awake enough for this. "Was he the only one really hurt?"
There's only the faintest hesitation before Bruce nods.
"What are you leaving out?"
"Did he mention that I..."
"Yes," Steve finishes for him. "I wouldn't be able to tell now."
"I'm still sore," Bruce admits as he opens the door. "I'm going to remember that for when we're back where we belong - how long does it take for that to fade?"
"It depends on the injury," Steve says, and, "I'm sorry."
They look at each other for a long moment, and then the exhaustion catches up with Steve all at once, and he pitches forward, losing consciousness - but he feels arms catching him, and he can let go in peace.
Bruce stands and looks down at Steve, safely tucked away in his bed, resting up so he'll have enough energy to change into the Hulk again. It would be safer to sedate him now, or wake him up - completely eliminate the opportunity for Steve to get angry and change again.
He doesn't want to face the Hulk again.
He doesn't want Steve to suffer that again.
He doesn't want Tony to put off medical care again.
But - he can't bring himself to do either of those things. Steve doesn't deserve to be treated like a prisoner, doesn't deserve to be treated as if - he's the one keeping the Hulk at bay.
A cynical note in Bruce's mind asks him why he's so willing to trust Steve with this when he's clearly proven that he doesn't have the same control he does. Why he's so willing to give him a second chance.
He looks down at Steve and thinks of Tony.
There's his answer, and his smile is grim as he turns to leave the room, turning out the lights as he goes. Tony had trusted him not to lose control - had been so convinced that he never would slip up.
Had practically insisted on it.
"JARVIS," he says, standing outside the bedroom. "Call me if he looks like he's beginning to wake up."
"Yes, sir," JARVIS says. "Will there be anything else?"
"No, no thank you." Bruce says, and sighs. He can't do anything else, now. Tony will get treatment from a medical doctor, Steve will rest, and he will wait.
The dreams are vivid, focused: his skin splits open, his face melts, his body bulges into an ugly mass of muscle and bone and it's red in color, green in color, depending on the second, and he screams - roars - and that's all he can do, because he is not in control.
He sees Bruce in his dream, he watches Bruce turn green before laughing at him, the green fading as he becomes tall, blond, blue-eyed. It's not true, Bruce wouldn't voluntarily do that to him, but this is dream logic, this is where he roars as an animal would and charges, lunging to crush Bruce for doing this to him. This is a dream, where Bruce catches his blows, tells him that he is stronger than the Hulk, and always has been and always will be.
This is a dream where he wakes up screaming.
The lights snap to full brightness so quickly it hurts, and he hears a door opening, footsteps.
It's Bruce. Steve holds his breath and lets it out slowly when no monster takes control of him and forces him to hurt his friend because he has an irrational anger at him.
Bruce touches his shoulder. "Are you under control now?"
It flashes into his mind then that Bruce knows everything about him, that Bruce studied him, and he can't nod, not when he has to make himself look at his blankets and try not to feel so exposed - or angry.
He can't let himself get angry again. He can't.
It's only now that the endorphins have faded that images and sensations of changing and turning into the Hulk return to him, in almost perfect detail. It's not as sharp as he's used to memories being - every memory he wants to forget from his past is preserved with perfect clarity in his body, but as Bruce he is perfectly normal in all ways but one.
"I'm sorry," he says, and Bruce squeezes his shoulder. "Is it always like this?" He grips the blankets and rephrases. "Are you always...woozy, then tired, then back to normal?"
"Yes," Bruce says, after a too-long pause.
Steve looks up at him. "How did you get to us if you were that tired?"
"...Not always," Bruce amends. "I was needed."
And that's something Steve understands. That's something he understands so much it's almost painful. He would have dragged himself to the fight, if he had been in Bruce's place. He would have forced himself there, and for a moment he's in the past again, justifying his choices to himself, angry with himself, angry with the world and the war, desperate to be accepted, to be stamped with anything but 4F.
Because he had been needed, hadn't he? He saved Bucky's life, he saved more lives than that, he had been needed, and if he hadn't tried -
He shakes his head, coming out of it, but before he remembers the cold again.
"Come eat," Bruce says, breaking into his thoughts.
Steve gets out of the bed, almost wrapping the blanket around his waist before deciding not to, going for clothes instead. There's no reason to be modest, not when Bruce won't care. "Are you always this irritable?"
"I believe that's a side-effect of the Hulk," Bruce says, and Steve turns his head, looking at him. Hulk, not Other Guy.
Bruce looks back, steady. There's something off in his expression again, something Steve can't put his finger on.
"Come eat," he repeats.
"Okay." Steve says, pulling on new pants. "How's Tony?"
"Tony's fine," Bruce says. "He got back a few hours ago, and should be resting right now."
Steve shakes his head, dragging on a shirt. They'll both worry about Tony, but there isn't much they can do when Tony's determined not to stay in a hospital, or not to rest.
"We'll find him in the lab, hard at work on rebuilding that thing," Steve says, and he starts for the kitchen, following Bruce out of the room.
"Not yet, sirs," JARVIS speaks from the ceiling. "He is still currently asleep."
"Good," Steve says, and he stops, looking at Bruce's back. "Bruce?"
Bruce stops, and turns.
"I need to be moved away from the city."
It's hard, asking, but Bruce just nods. Steve knows he understands.
Bruce doesn't turn back around, waiting for another question, and it takes Steve too long to realize that.
"Come on," he tries. "Let's go."
"Aren't you curious?" Bruce asks.
"Why I'm still here."
"Tony invited you," Steve says, simply. "And you're trustworthy."
Unlike Steve, as he has no leash for his temper.
"So are you," Bruce says. There's a long pause. Steve wants to point to a broken wall, to where Tony is sleeping away injuries.
"No," he says instead.
"You are," Bruce says, insisting. "You know what it feels like now."
"It was an accident," Steve says, mind leaping back to that moment when his control didn't so much as slip as completely get washed away.
"You didn't do it on purpose, and now you know what to look out for," Bruce says. He comes closer, eyes on Steve's. "You can stop it."
"Why are you so sure?" Steve asks. This is odd, now that he realizes it. There isn't bitterness from Bruce now, or anger, just conviction. Conviction that he can control the anger, can prevent the Hulk from hurting anyone else. There isn't cynicism.
"You're better than that."
Steve curls his hands into fists and shakes his head. "No," he says. "No, I'm not."
This is the first time that he's discovered that this kind of faith is painful.
Bruce just looks at him, looks at him as if he knows what's going through Steve's mind, and doesn't say a word.
"Bruce, I'm not - " Steve takes a deep breath, forces himself to unclench his hands. He is not angry. He is not angry, not here, not now. "This isn't something I'm good at."
"You're stubborn," Bruce says, finally, quiet. "You're going to decide that you won't let it happen again, and then it won't." There is the unspoken: I can't do that. You can.
And Steve wonders if Bruce really knows him as well as he thinks he does.
"...Come on. Let's go eat," Bruce says, and he turns around.
And Steve wonders if Bruce remembers how close his temper is - how close the Hulk is. If he's managed to forget it just by living in Steve's body, where there isn't an undercurrent of irritation all the time.
He follows Bruce without a word, curling and uncurling his fingers, aching to punch something.
Bruce asks a question he shouldn't as they both eat eggs.
"Steve, what changes did you notice after you adjusted to the serum?"
Steve looks up from his broken yolks to meet Bruce's eye, and doesn't understand the question. "You mean, other physical changes?"
"Yes and no," Bruce says. "I mean the changes you wouldn't notice by standing in front of a mirror, like the change in your metabolism. Did the serum change anything psychologically for you?"
Steve takes a bite of egg and thinks. He's not sure he can answer. "...My memory got better," he says. That's an understatement, and when he stops to think about it he feels goosebumps - he can't even remember things that happened within the last day without them being slightly fuzzy.
His memories of Hulking out are confused, which makes sense, but waking up to discover that he was in Bruce's body? That's something he should remember with perfect clarity, not a scene that feels almost dreamlike.
Intellectually he knows that this is normal, most people have memories that aren't perfect. His used to be as flawed.
Emotionally it's disorienting, frightening. Is he losing his mind? What else will he forget?
"I noticed," Bruce says. "...I don't know how you live with it."
Bruce shifts; seems surprised. "If I close my eyes, I can remember the Hulk coming at me as if it happened seconds ago," he says, quiet. "You've been through a war with a perfect memory."
"Oh," Steve says. "It's not..." He's not sure how to explain. "It's not perfect," he says finally. "I can forget details, and I have to focus to remember some things. It's not..." He struggles for words. "My memories aren't photographs with crisp detail - some of it is out of focus."
"But you can bring it into focus."
"Yes," Steve says, and he picks up his glass. "You're going to miss it when we're changed back."
Bruce stares at him, and Steve looks back, drinking his water. He puts the glass back down.
"Master Stark is awake," JARVIS speaks up before they can say anything. "He will join you shortly."
Bruce gives Steve another long look, then gets up, and Steve watches as he cooks more food.
"There's another change," he says. "I'm angrier."
Bruce just looks back at him and after a long pause neither of them can keep a straight face - Steve can't explain it, can't explain why it's so funny, but it is, and this is what Tony walks in on.
Tony looks at them both with a bleary eye and shakes his head, going to the coffeepot.
Steve pushes his chair back and gets up, going to Tony's side.
"What're you doing," Tony mumbles as Steve gently exposes the bandages. "I'm fine."
"It looks like you are," Steve says, a little surprised to find that they don't need to be replaced.
"I may not heal as fast as Bruce does," Tony says. "But I'm tougher than you give me credit for, Cap."
There are several things wrong there, from Tony's proclamation that he's tough - he overestimates himself, considers himself invincible when he's not - to how he's referencing Steve's enhanced healing as if it's Bruce's, and Steve curls his fingers into fists before deliberately making himself breathe and calm down.
"Okay, you need to go spend some time with Bruce learning how to manage that. Shoo." Tony touches his shoulder. "We don't need a repeat of yesterday."
He's not scolding, not really, but it still rubs Steve the wrong way, and he has to manage his reaction before it gets out of hand.
It's not fair that Tony should be able to provoke him so easily, Steve thinks, and he's just able to keep himself from pushing Tony's hand off. He feels warm.
"Tony," he starts, and Tony squeezes his shoulder. "I've got it."
To his surprise, he does. He's able to come away from the edge, and he puts a hand on Tony's.
He wants to do something he shouldn't. He wants to - it takes a moment, realizing that he wants to lean forward and kiss Tony. He is still touching Tony's hand. He lets go, pulls away, walks away.
Thinks and breathes and he hears Tony ask 'what is it?' in the distance but he's not listening as he makes his way to the gym. Is it the anger that's got him off-balance?
It must be. It must be. He doesn't ordinarily want to kiss teammates.
Bruce watches Steve go, confused.
He turns off the stove. "I'll go talk to him. Can you take these?"
"What? Oh, yeah," Tony says, and he takes over breakfast as Bruce jogs out after Steve.
He finds him in the gym, staring at the punching bag. He's not in any stance, and Bruce doubts he's going to begin punching it any time soon.
"What - oh," Steve turns. He raises a hand to his hair. "I'm in control."
Bruce bites back the 'I know' that wouldn't help with his temper and instead approaches him. "What happened back there?"
Steve hesitates, causing Bruce to suspect that he's thinking up a lie, but he shakes his head. "I'm not sure."
"Can you talk to me?" Bruce asks, keeping his voice mild.
Steve looks at him, then away, then back, and he shifts on his feet.
"I want to," he starts, uncertain, and he looks back at Bruce, hands spreading. "It's not anger."
Bruce just waits, patient, letting Steve finish his sentence in his own time. He thinks back, uses that near-perfect memory he has now to bring Steve's face as Tony put his hand on his shoulder into sharp relief, and he suspects he knows what happened.
Steve shifts and looks away again. He's red now, embarrassed. "It's none of my business."
"You have to live with it," Bruce says, mild. "I'd say that it is your business, for now."
"I wanted to kiss him," Steve blurts.
Bruce fights the urge to close his eyes. “That’s...interesting.”
"What?" Steve is looking at him.
"I'm attracted to him," Bruce says, shifting on his feet. This is a conversation where he has to trust JARVIS to be discreet about what gets sent back to Tony.
There's a long minute as Steve stares at him, naked shock apparent on his face, and that is something Bruce has never had occasion to view on his own face before.
"...Oh," Steve says, then he says it again.
"If that's a problem for you," Bruce starts, but Steve's shaking his head.
"It's fine," he says, quick. "Really."
There's a long pause. It's not fine, Bruce thinks.
"I don't think of him that way," Steve says. "I mean, I didn't. It's Tony."
Which makes sense; Bruce has seen them fight. Still, that reminds him of something he should have done sooner.
He steps closer, berating himself. "Steve," he says, touching his shoulder. "Sex shouldn't be on your mind. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner."
"What - I'm not going to - Bruce - !"
"I know you're not," Bruce says, patient. "You have more respect for me than that."
"Right!" Steve says.
Bruce nods, feeling himself blushing more. He can't believe he's about to say this to Steve, of all people. He can't believe it's a good idea. "Steve," he starts. "You shouldn't touch yourself while you're in me."
It sounds worse than he expected. Now he does have to close his eyes for a moment, embarrassed.
"I...guess it has something to do with the Hulk?" Steve asks, after a prolonged pause. Bruce doesn't miss how the corner of his mouth is twitching. At least he has the decency to hold back laughter.
"It has everything to do with him," Bruce says, awkward. He lets go of Steve's shoulder - probably shouldn't come off as creepy as well as embarrassed - and turns away, clearing his throat.
"I'm sorry," Steve says.
For a moment Bruce stops, uncertain if he's talking to Steve or Tony. "Excuse me?"
"I'm sorry that he took that away, too," Steve says, and he looks as awkward as Bruce still feels.
It's Steve, though, not Tony - he's all genuine sentiment, and that's it. There are no direct lines into suggestions for ways to get around that, there isn't an engineer trying to fix a problem presented to him.
It's just Steve.
Bruce doesn't know what to say.
Steve clears his throat and looks away, then up. "JARVIS, purge all of that from the tapes."
"I have taken the liberty of doing so already, sir," JARVIS says.
"Thank you," Steve says, and he gives Bruce a sheepish smile. "We don't need to give Tony any more ammunition for teasing, right?"
Bruce nods, speechless.
"He doesn't know when to keep his ears to himself sometimes," Steve mutters, then shifts on his feet. "Bruce?"
A change of subject; Bruce is so grateful. "Yes?"
"I'd like to learn more ways to stay in control," Steve says, straight out. "Can you help?"
That's a given. Bruce nods. "Come with me."
Steve curls his toes in Bruce's carpet, then shifts into a crosslegged position. "Like this?"
"Yes, like that," Bruce says, his own legs crossed, hands laid palm up on his knees.
Steve takes a breath, and looks around the room as he lays his palms out - it's a nice room, as spacious as all of the suites in the tower, but it's somehow even more sparse than his room is. There's a duffel bag by the door.
He might have understood the bag's presence there before, but now with how closely he has to watch himself lest he get angry, Steve understands the readiness to pack up and run.
"Take a deep breathe," Bruce says. "Focus on it."
Steve does, and he breathes out, slow, listening to Bruce's instructions. He's supposed to clear his mind, focus on one thing, and breathe. He lets go of the thoughts of running.
But other thoughts plague him. His memory scares him. His lack of memory scares him more.
Bucky's face isn't as crisp as it should be, and he doesn't know if he'll remember the contours of his friend's face as sharply as he originally did when he gets back to his body. He doesn't know if he can get back memories once they've faded.
"Breathe," Bruce cuts in. He does.
Bruce introduces a mantra, a mindless set of syllables to chant with, to breathe with. The thoughts ebb, fade.
It doesn't last for long: he curls his toes and thinks again of how close he's come to exploring this body in spare moments. He has, of course, been as polite as he can about this. He hasn't handled Bruce's body more than he's needed to.
It wouldn't be a problem except that he's been told that he can't, no exceptions, and just like the anger: do not think about what makes him angry. Do not think about sex. Do not think about foreign skin with reactions he's never felt before.
Do not think about how it could turn green at any moment.
Bruce is watching him.
He wonders how many times he's watched Bruce with that same expression.
He wonders how many times Bruce has had to put his hands to his sides and done anything but touch himself.
He wonders if Bruce has ever had to stop someone from touching him.
"Steve," Bruce says. "Try to stay focused."
"Try to let go."
Steve wonders if Bruce knows what he's thinking about; wonders how open his face is. He remembers Bruce's expressions, remembers how hard he could be to read at times, everything masked in bitterness.
He's not bitter, is he? He can't help but smile.
He closes his eyes and tries to focus again, trying to think of only his breathing.
Almost immediately, as if waiting for him to try and calm down, he is intensely aware of himself. How he isn't allowed to touch himself. He can't get angry, he can't even -
He wouldn't, he reminds himself. This is Bruce's body, and he isn't rude. Simply knowing that he can't shouldn't change anything.
Yet his hand on his knee has moved further down, and he quickly puts it back, scolding himself. He's trying to focus. He sighs, then shakes his head. There's something he has to address before he can focus.
"Yes?" Bruce opens his eyes, looking across the mat at him.
Steve swallows. "How do you deal with it?"
"With what?" His tone is almost too mild.
"The attraction to other people."
"Patience," Bruce says. "Control."
"But if you want to - "
"I can't." Bruce's tone is firm. "And if I can't, neither can you."
"But if you like someone, you don't have to make love with them." He can feel a blush starting again.
He can't believe he's even broaching this. A friendship doesn't mean -
"I know that, Steve," Bruce says. "...Steve, are you - "
"We're friends," Steve says, sitting up straighter. "I don't want to ruin anything." His tentative home here in Tony's tower with two teammates is too important for him to wreck with feelings he shouldn't bring to the workplace, he knows this.
He trusts Bruce.
Bruce comes closer, losing the lotus position to touch Steve's knee.
Bruce kisses him, light, barely a touch of the lips. Steve has to dig his fingernails into his palms to stay calm.
Bruce leans back, apology written all over his face.
"I shouldn't have," he starts.
"I - you're right," Steve says, wondering what he looks like, what Bruce's face looks like right now. "Maybe after we're back - ?" He hesitates to say it, to suggest it. The subject is touchy for a multitude of reasons.
Bruce shifts back, folding his legs back into the lotus position. "We'll talk about it then, Steve."
Steve can't believe it. He nods. "Okay."
Bruce, when he looks next, is smiling.
There's a knock at the door.
Steve stifles the surge of annoyance - he'd almost reached a quiet place - and looks at the door, which opens. It's Tony. Of course it's Tony.
"Here to join us?" Bruce asks, tone a little tighter than usual.
"Nope. I've got good news."
That can only mean one thing, and Tony smiles at them.
"Come and see if it works."
Bruce is nervous as he looks over Tony's machine, afraid that it might work, afraid that it won't. It's too easy for this machine to blow up in their faces instead of changing them back, and it's easier still for it to do something else, something they can't fix.
He wants to change back, to talk to Steve, but that's later, that's the only reason he wants to change back, now, and he doesn't want this thing to kill him or worse in the process.
"Lighten up," Tony says from behind him, and Bruce shoots him a glare. "It's not the end of the world."
If anything, Bruce can only glare more. Tony knows exactly what's bothering him, he knows that, and he's -
Bruce stops, blinking. Wait.
"...Are you baiting me?"
"Last chance to get angry, doctor," Tony says. "Let rip while you still can."
"...No, Tony, I can't."
Bruce straightens, bringing himself to Steve's full height, looking down at Tony. He crosses his arms. "It's cruel."
He doesn't miss Tony's glance across the room towards Steve, and he doesn't miss the subtle flinch. It's interesting, to see how Tony reacts to his words when they're said with Captain America's voice. Bruce isn't sure he likes the change.
"Okay, okay, fine."
Tony backs away from him, and Bruce exhales, turning back to the device Tony's jury-rigged for them.
He can't say he understands its construction nearly as well as Tony does, but he can begin to understand what it does: personality transfer.
It's the kind of thing that should be impossible, but Bruce has long given up on the idea of impossible between Steve's existence here in the present to the Norse demigods who are as real as the Hulk is.
The question is, how does it work?
"Tony," he says. "What did you say this does again?"
"It should swap you both back to where you need to be," Tony starts, but Bruce shakes his head.
"No," he says. "Specifics. How?"
"Um," Tony says. "That's going to take longer - "
"...You don't completely understand it, do you."
"Well, that's not strictly the case. I know what it does, fairly specifically, but the how - well. It shouldn't work, that's the problem. You shouldn't be able to wholesale copy memories and thoughts and tics from a person and implant them wholesale into another person at the same time they're going through the same thing. And I'm just preaching to the choir here. So back to the drawing board - "
Bruce frowns. "It's not an eldritch piece of equipment."
"It might as well be," Tony puts a hand on the box. "I built it, I put cables back where it had cables originally, I made connections where it made sense to have connections - and where it didn't - and it's definitely on right now. I know what to do to make it go, so to speak."
"Then let's get it over with," Steve says, finally approaching them. His expression is defiant, fearless.
"Is it just me, or does this sound familiar," Tony says, and both Steve and Bruce give him a hard stare. "What - okay, okay, boy are you both touchy. Okay. Steve, hulk out."
"I was able to fish out the temporary memory, and I can tell you how it was last configured, and it's definitely tuned for the Hulk. However it works, it wants Mr. Green Giant before it'll swap anything."
Bruce comes forward again, looking at the interface of the device, trying again to puzzle what the output means.
"Are you sure that's right?" He asks, even though he knows that Tony is, and it's better for the circumstances of the swap to be as close to the original as possible. "Are you sure?" He knows he's sounds desperate. He's sorry for it.
Steve, when he does look, is pale.
"...You know I would change it if I could, big guy," Tony says, voice level. "But I don't want to risk setting it for something that might not work. Or worse, it'll get ideas, and we'll all get mixed up. Me, Hulk, bad combination."
Bruce doesn't comment. He eventually looks up from the device and breathes. He's not ready to see the Hulk again. He'll never be ready to see the Hulk from the outside again.
"We shouldn't do this here," Steve says into the silence.
There isn't an answer, not from Bruce. Tony speaks up.
"Middle of nowhere or over the ocean? Tell me where we can drop the Hulk off when we're done and we can be there within the hour."
Bruce closes his eyes, clenching his hands into fists, wondering if this is his cue to get angry.
Contrast: Steve feels oddly calm upon hearing Tony's news, something in him relaxing, as if it knew this was coming. He somehow knew he would have to face the Hulk again from the inside.
All he has to do to become Captain America again is get angry.
That's easy. It's so easy he has to stop himself from going down those paths now. This isn't the time or place.
He looks at Tony, and frowns. "Are you certain you're ready to fly again so soon?"
"What? Oh, that. I'll be fine. Flown with worse, and this is just an errand - swap you two back, grab the device and your body, and scoot. Probably have a quinjet waiting nearby, so I won't have to fly so far. Easy."
Bruce laughs, the sound harsh and not at all happy.
"Easy." He grates out. "It's not going to be easy."
"Tony - " Steve starts.
"How about I get back to running tests on this thing and making sure we're really ready for this, and you two leave." Tony says, tone going flatter. "Before I piss off someone else, yeah?"
Steve nods, and turns to Bruce, touching his shoulder. "Let's go back to meditation." He'd hope that his touch would be a calming one, but Bruce pulls his shoulder away.
Tony's touched a nerve here. Steve breathes out, stepping back, giving Bruce space.
"Aren't I supposed to be better, with the serum?" Bruce asks.
"It improves everything about you," Bruce says. "Exaggerates the good traits - and the bad. I'm affected by it, right now. Aren't I?"
"Then why - " Bruce breaks off. "I should know why."
"Probably a matter of that body being tuned for Steve," Tony speaks up. "Unless it's working to rewire his body according to your thoughts, I don't think you're going to change in there. Not any more than you already have, anyways."
Both of them look at Tony.
"Who hasn't studied the serum at some point or another?" Tony asks, hands up. "Granted, not my area, I never went far in that, Bruce is the expert here, but as I said, what self-respecting scientist doesn't wonder about how it works exactly? But hey, that's right, you two were leaving. Go rest up, prepare, all that. We'll leave in a few hours."
Steve curls his fingers, reminds himself that he's not going down that path, not letting any sparks catch.
He knows - knows - that the serum did more to him than he ever expected it would. He knows it altered his personality. Not enough to change him, just enough to exaggerate who he is. He knows he isn't the same man he was before the serum.
It's a change he came to terms with a long time ago. Had to come to terms with, or else get caught with his pants down on a stage or in a warzone.
"Come on," he tells Bruce. "We can talk about the serum later."
"When you're the one affected by it again, you mean."
Steve almost asks him why he's so angry, almost reacts, then stops himself, stepping back. Bruce hasn't been able to get angry in a long time. This has been too long in coming.
"Please yell at Tony," he asks, quieter. "Not at me."
Bruce stares at him, then slumps, the wind obviously taken from his sails, and he looks down. "I'm sorry."
"Don't start," Tony says. "We get it. How about you two go get some space and a few drinks or something?"
Steve touches his arm, catches Bruce before he says anything to Tony. "For once, I agree with Tony. Let's go."
Bruce shakes his head, but he heads for the door this time.
It takes a second for what he's seeing to register, and when it does Steve stops in his tracks, eyes widening, watching the lines of his own body as they move. He - he has never seen himself look so defeated. Not like this.
For a second it crosses his mind and isn't immediately dismissed: that maybe he should stay where he is, and leave Bruce the benefits of that body.
He squeezes his eyes shut, and has to breathe before he can follow Bruce.
Guilt - guilt does not sit easy.
He can't talk to Bruce again until after they're on their way to a desert, miles from anywhere.
Bruce, it seems, can't talk to him either.
Tony is almost unnaturally quiet, piloting the quinjet in silence.
Maybe he should have spoken to Bruce sooner, back when they were meditating - back when he could clear his mind and think of nothing at all - but what would he have said? They both had known all along. They were changing back.
The jet lands, and Tony gets up, gesturing for them to carry the machine out.
That had been a condition. No heavy lifting for Tony, not this soon after his injuries.
Steve has to look away when Bruce picks up the machine. He can't look at Bruce's expression.
He follows, carrying extra pieces, and tries not to flinch at the sudden heat of the desert.
Tony mutters to himself as he puts things together, a stream of chatter Steve tunes out, focused on the rocks and dust around him. He still can't look at Bruce. It's too easy to get angry too soon. It's too easy to get angry on behalf of Bruce's situation.
"Get angry," Tony says, sudden.
Steve looks at him, startled to realize that Tony's armored up without him noticing. He's in a light-weight Iron Man armor he hasn't seen before, the gold replaced with silver. The face-plate's up, and Steve bets it's only up so Tony can express himself more.
Like so: Tony raises an eyebrow, an expectant look on his face, his hands hovering over the make-shift console.
Steve swallows and nods, Tony's sentence sinking in. It's time.
He looks at Bruce, and he thinks of how they have made their beds and how they have to lie in them, and he thinks of the crash into the Atlantic - and he thinks of the Hulk. This wasn't the bed Bruce meant to make, he thinks.
He's supposed to be dead, Bruce is supposed to have the serum in hand, and that's not what either of them got, is it?
He takes a breath.
"Need some help?" Tony asks, and Steve frowns at him. "Performance issues?"
Steve scowls, but he grateful for it. This time, when the irritation comes, all he has to do is think of all the times he's fought - bickered - with Tony. The little jabs, the too-painful ones - everything he is, out of a test tube - for once, it's helpful that the man is maddening.
He reaches for the buttons on his shirt, undoing them, and he wads it up in his hands, before pitching it at Tony. It's not throwing a fist, but it's close enough.
Tony catches the shirt, barely stopping a laugh in time. He's got to be ready to split, the moment he's triggered the swap. Just start flying up, and don't stop.
He straightens up, watching as Steve's face contorts and twists, baring his teeth. Bruce, just off to the left, isn't watching.
They can both hear Steve growling, low in his throat.
Whatever memory he's tapped, it's certainly potent, and Tony watches as the green creeps across skin.
Bruce can't watch. He can barely listen. He doesn't want this - not again, not again - but it's too late now. Once the Hulk's come that far, there's nothing anyone can do to stop him.
He raises a hand, almost covers his mouth, almost covers his eyes, then drops it; belatedly realizing that he's made a fist.
"Tony - " He says, turning, flinching as he gets another first-hand look at himself as his body explodes with muscles and skin. "Tony, do it!"
- before I smash that machine myself -
The faceplate snaps closed as the Hulk roars at them.
It happens too quickly for Bruce to stop: the Hulk reaches out, grabbing Tony, growling at him, shaking him in his grasp.
No - !
He can't say anything, he doesn't dare - the realization creeps up on him as the Hulk lumbers off with Tony in hand. He can't listen to Tony's shouts. He can't -
The machine is right there, waiting to be used, ready to be used, ready to put them both back where they belong - he steps towards it, then stops. He takes another slow step towards it.
The ground stops shaking, and he involuntarily looks towards the Hulk.
"Hulk not have performance issues," snarls the beast, and Bruce winces as Tony's hurled down at the ground. The Hulk crouches, as if preparing to leap, and Bruce's perception of time slows to a crawl, his thoughts racing.
This is his last chance. He can smash the machine himself, he can run, he can -
He doesn't have to be that monster anymore.
He can't strand Steve in there. He can't, it's too cruel -
If the Hulk attacks Tony again, he's dead.
He'd be leaving Tony to his death and Steve to a fate worse than death -
"Hulk!" he calls, trapped into the only choice he can possibly make. "Puny Hulk!"
The Hulk's head whips around, and he begins to lumber towards him, the ground shaking.
Bruce presses the button, activating the machine.
For a few seconds, nothing happens, and he grimaces. It will work, he knows it will, but if it needs time to charge, time they didn't account for -
The machine flashes, and his world twists away.
Steve wakes up first. There's grit in his eyes, sand he has to wipe away as he sits up, and the relief he feels as he sees his hand -
He's himself again. He pats himself down, feels his muscles and can't stop the relieved grin. He almost whoops for good measure, but memories catch up with him, and he looks around instead.
They're still in the desert, the little patch of wasteland that they deemed safe enough to use for the transfer. There's Bruce, thankfully no longer the Hulk, sleeping up against a rock.
There's the heap of armor that is Tony. Steve pales and leaps to his feet, racing over.
"Tony?" He's not dead, he can't be dead - Steve carefully turns the armor over, wishing now that he hadn't insisted on the lighter armor. He doesn't hesitate to pull the faceplate off of this helmet, remembering how Thor had done it easily. He doesn't toss it aside, instead dropping it next to them. He doesn't want to have to search for it when they leave.
Tony's face has blood smeared across it.
"Not again," Steve mutters. He checks for breath, then gets up and runs for the quinjet.
Tony will be fine, he insists to himself as he runs. They'll all be fine. All he has to do is treat Tony, transport both of them to the quinjet, and take them home.
Everything goes smoothly; Bruce even sleeps the whole way home.
Steve tries to focus on just flying, but he has to stop and run fingers over his knuckles, trace his face, pat his knee. He's himself again, with everything that implies.
He can hear Tony breathing from up in the cockpit, he listens to the small sounds Bruce makes in his sleep, and he can smell them again, too, the sharp scent of metal that Iron Man carries with him, the grittier, sweatier smell of Bruce, and it's almost too much, but he has lived with too much for most of his life. It doesn't take long to adjust.
Even his memories are recovering, coming back into sharper focus; his relief for that is palpable.
Not everything is amazing, though: Tony is badly injured again. He'll make it - there's no way he can't make it - but Steve's going to drop him off at a hospital again, and there is the nagging worry that he is responsible for Tony's injuries.
After all, who else would have hurt him but the Hulk?
It's troubling, but he can't dwell on it. The controls of the quinjet are too smooth and he is too glad to see and feel and to be Captain America again.
The tower is just coming into view as he realizes how much he wants to be there when Bruce wakes up, and how much he shouldn't be there when Bruce wakes up.
But: he can hear the soft sounds of Bruce waking up.
He should say something, but he's too busy landing the quinjet to turn around, and he has nothing to say, nothing that Bruce doesn't already understand.
There's a hand on his shoulder. The quinjet settles on the landing pad.
He turns it off, and looks up at Bruce; it's unsettling. That's the face he's gotten used to over the past week. That's what he should see when he looks in a mirror.
Bruce looks tired.
"I'm sorry," he says. Steve shakes his head.
"Bruce - " He covers Bruce's hand, keeps his eyes on his face. "Let's go inside. Tony's at the hospital."
"He didn't push the button," Bruce says. "I had to."
Steve blinks, then gets up out of the cockpit. "Inside first, please? We need to clean up."
"Steve, I wouldn't have pushed it. You wouldn't be - yourself again."
"But you did it in the end," Steve says, putting a firm hand on his shoulder. "Inside, Bruce."
Bruce's shoulders drop, and he turns.
"Don't think about the what-ifs," Steve says, quieter. "What would have happened if you'd been faster, or done anything else - " He has to stop for a moment. "Don't think about those."
Bruce looks back at him. Steve tries a smile, knows it comes out weak.
"We're here now," he says. "Home."
"...Thank you," Bruce says, and he lets Steve steer him off the quinjet and into the tower.
They don't talk immediately: as soon as they're inside, they separate and retreat to their rooms, cleaning up and changing clothes.
Bruce stalls entering the bathroom, but eventually he has to go in. The mirror hangs on the wall like an accusation, and he remembers his hesitation before he put them back into their correct bodies.
But you did it in the end.
He knows. He sees the proof of that in his hands. He feels the proof of that in the little aches his body gives him, reminders that the Hulk manifested recently.
He runs a hand over his forehead; breathes.
Calm: he is calm. He is in control. It's a cruel joke that he's calmer in his own body than he was in Steve's.
"The water is ready, sir," JARVIS speaks from above, and Bruce steps into the shower, just standing in the water for a long minute. He tilts his head up, eyes closed.
He can feel the Hulk, the lurking beast under his skin, and he can feel his anger, rising and calming like a steady wave.
He's home. His smile is bitter as he begins to soap up.
It takes a while for that to fade, and for his thoughts to inevitably turn to Steve. He must be happier than he's been in days, free to be his heroic self again. It's not a mean thought.
He pauses, remembers the excess energy he'd felt in Steve's body almost all the time.
"JARVIS, where is Steve now?"
"Not within the tower, sir."
"Ah," he says, and resumes washing up. "He's running?"
"It appears so, sir."
Bruce nods to himself, rinsing away soap. "Let me know when he gets back."
Bruce closes his eyes, hands between his thighs, unasked-for images of Steve's body coming up in his mind. He'd stood in this same shower and done his best to be polite then. It wouldn't have been right to linger over the muscles and smooth skin - or worse, pleasure himself.
It occurs to him now that he didn't get to enjoy either benefit of being in Steve's body - he never truly lost his temper, and he never got to have sex.
Not that he would have, or could have. Tony was busy, and then injured, and Steve -
Steve had been off-limits.
And then he hadn't been (he remembers his own face's pleasantly surprised expression) - but then Tony had come in, and there had been more important concerns to think of.
And now - ?
He shakes his head. It's too soon to tell if Steve had been serious.
Still, his mind wanders: it's easy to imagine Steve blushing. Easier still to imagine that perfect body stretched out and trembling as Bruce shows him what can feel good.
He palms himself, breathing. Any arousal he feels has to be a slow enjoyment. Nothing sudden. Nothing that would spike out of control.
He'd like to watch Steve struggle to control himself as Bruce works fingers into him. He'd like to see those muscles tremble in the effort to stay still - would Steve let Bruce boss him around, set limits?
Bruce lets out a soft hiss and puts his hands on the wall. "JARVIS, cold shower, now."
He kissed Steve, and that had been it. It's far, far too early to think of experimenting on the man.
Bruce laughs to himself, dropping his head, trying not to react to the cold. He just has to wait and see.
Steve runs a towel through his hair, dropping onto the couch next to Bruce.
"Here," he says, holding out the water bottle he brought on his way up. Bruce takes it, uncapping it as Steve finishes, leaving the towel around his neck.
"Did you run while I was showering?" Bruce asks, and Steve can't help but look sheepish.
"A short one," he admits.
He's ready for Bruce to look unhappy, bitter - but Bruce surprises him, smiles a little instead.
"You don't have to deny that you're happy being yourself," he says.
Steve is silent for a moment, just looking at Bruce, then he frowns. He probably knows the answer to this, but he asks anyways:
"...Not quite," Bruce says. "I feel calmer as I am now - can you believe that?"
"Yes," Steve says. "It's like putting on a shoe you've broken in."
"That is one way of looking at it," Bruce says, and then he moves in, kissing Steve again, just as gentle as the first time.
Steve makes a sound, then leans forward, kissing back, putting his hands on Bruce's shoulders.
"Are you sure," he says right after the kiss, staring at Bruce.
Bruce just answers him with another kiss, pushing forward into it, and Steve's yelp turns into a laugh as he topples over, winding up under Bruce on the couch.
Bruce is grinning.
"Did I miss something?" Steve asks, blinking up at him.
"No," Bruce says. "I want to, Steve." He touches Steve's cheek, then his chin, fingers feeling foreign and familiar. He knows those calluses.
Steve turns his head; kisses one of those fingers, watches as a blush creeps up Bruce's cheeks.
"This didn't come from nowhere," Bruce murmurs. "Did it?"
"I trust you," Steve says, low. "And after I realized you were gay - "
"Ah. I'm bisexual," Bruce corrects. He leans in. "Is that a problem?"
"No," Steve says. "I don't think so?"
"Good," Bruce says, and he cups Steve's cheek as he kisses him again. It's longer this time, better. Steve tries to take it longer still, but Bruce leans back up, gasping a little.
"Sorry," Steve says.
Steve nods, and he has to ask, has to be sure before he keeps going.
"You won't lose control," he says, eyes on Bruce. "Right?"
Bruce meets his eyes. "Right." There's something steady there, a confidence Bruce was lacking earlier, a sense of stability he did not have in Steve's body, as Captain America.
"...You are happy," he realizes, reaching up to cup the back of Bruce's head, bringing him down for another kiss.
Bruce hums into the kiss, a satisfied sound, and he rests his body on Steve's, a warm steady weight. Steve puts a hand on the small of his back.
"Do we do more?" He asks, uncertain, feeling Bruce breathing against his skin.
"Not on the couch," Bruce says. "And I can't join in too much."
"What's that mean?"
"I prefer to watch," Bruce says, watching him, sliding a hand into his hair. "Understand?"
Steve swallows, flushes more as Bruce tightens his hold in his hair. "Yes."
"Bedroom," Bruce says, voice rough. "Now."
They don't touch each other the whole way to Bruce's room, not out of abstinence but out of a need to reorient themselves, make sure that they're both in control. Steve hasn't - he's not a hundred percent sure of what's coming, other than that it's something he wants. Bruce has, but he has to be sure that he's got it, he's not going to lose it over the vision of Captain America undressing for him, and then there is one more concern.
"JARVIS," Bruce says to the ceiling. "What's Tony's condition?"
"Stable," JARVIS says. "He has regained consciousness, but has not yet been able to check himself out of the hospital."
"Thank you," Bruce says, relieved. "That's all, JARVIS."
Steve looks at him with a side-long glance, then smiles a little, and Bruce nods.
"He'll be fine," Bruce says. "As usual."
"He has to stop baiting the Hulk," Steve murmurs.
"Not now," Bruce says, and he moves in, pressing Steve up against the wall as he kisses him again. He doesn't want to think about the Hulk. He wants to feel Steve's impressive strength yielding under his hands, allowing him to take charge in this kiss.
Steve makes a sound into his mouth, eyes on his, wide and blue. It's good.
"Should I take off my shirt?" Steve asks, and Bruce looks at him, causing him to swallow and pull the towel off of his shoulders, then to pull the tee up and off, and Bruce has to stop and stare. Now that he has permission - invitation - to touch, he can't help but openly admire Steve.
He begins to unbutton his own shirt, eyes still mapping out Steve's skin, following the blush.
"And your pants," he says after a moment, looking at the track pants. "Take those off."
"Okay," Steve says, voice dipping lower, and Bruce smiles to himself, letting his shirt hang open as he comes closer, touching Steve's skin.
He traces the contours of Steve's muscles, rests a hand on his chest and feels Steve's heartbeat. It's exploration he didn't indulge in when he was in Steve's body, not to the extent he would have wanted. He regrets it now, regrets being polite.
Steve's hands are at his waist, thumbs under the waistband of his pants, still.
"Take them off," Bruce says. "I want to see all of you."
Steve nods, short, and off they go, followed by his briefs. Bruce takes that as an invitation and slides his hand lower, resting it on Steve's stomach.
"Amazing," he murmurs.
"Bruce," Steve says, flushing more. "Are you just going to look?"
"Yes," he says. "We shouldn't experiment yet. I want you to touch yourself."
Bruce slides his hand further down and around, resting it on Steve's hip, looking at his cock now. It's big, yes, but not outrageously so. He keeps watching as Steve hesitantly takes himself in hand, not clumsy, but awkward.
It doesn't feel quite real, Bruce admits to himself. He's watching Captain America jerk himself off with all the finesse of a schoolboy. He's telling Captain America to do it, and what's more he's listening.
Steve lets out a little gasp, cock twitching in his hands, hardening quickly.
"That's good," Bruce murmurs. "Keep going."
Steve turns his head, still stroking himself, and Bruce tears his eyes away to look at his face.
He touches Steve's cheek, not tugging him around to face him, just touching. Steve closes his eyes.
"I'd like to have dinner with you sometime," Bruce murmurs. "Do this more than once."
"A date?" Steve asks, voice low. He turns his head, looking at him. "You want a date?"
"I do," Bruce says.
"I can't dance."
Bruce pauses; shakes his head. "I'm not asking you to."
Steve opens his mouth, closes it. He lets go of himself, and hugs Bruce, tight.
Bruce hugs back after a moment, wrapping his arms around Steve, patting his back. Maybe it was the wrong thing to say, maybe not. He doesn't let go.
Steve pulls back after a moment and rubs the back of his head. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Bruce says. "Can we continue?"
"Yes," Steve says immediately. He smiles at him, and Bruce knows he's passed some unacknowledged test.
He steps back, watching again as Steve grips himself, stroking with a firm hand, mouth open.
He steps back again, and sits on the bed, breathing. Calm, he reminds himself. He does not get to participate. He gets instead to watch, and that's more than enough.
Steve closes his eyes, body arching and twisting as he keeps at it, occasionally rubbing his thumb over his tip, smearing pre-come over himself. Bruce makes a soft sound, hands on the bed, attention caught.
"G-good?" Steve asks, bucking into his hands.
"Amazing," Bruce breathes. "Don't stop."
"I won't!" Steve moans under his breath, bites his lip. He's been mostly quiet; Bruce wonders at that, wonders if Steve's trained himself to be quiet in bunks. Now's not the time to ask, and he files it away for later.
He shifts his hands into his lap, palming himself through his pants, eyes glued to Steve and his hands. He won't go far, he can't go far. All of it has to be careful. He takes a long breath; lets it out.
Steve whimpers under his breath, coming in his hands, leaning back up against the wall as he does, body shuddering. His eyes are closed, mouth open.
So soon; Bruce has to stop a little rise of disappointment.
Steve breathes, working his fingers over himself.
"Bruce," he says, eyes still closed. "I'm sorry for the mess."
"It's fine," Bruce says. "Will you come here?"
"Not yet," Steve says, and Bruce can only watch with eyes wide open as Steve cups his balls and rubs his thighs, then hisses under his breath as his cock slowly begins to harden again.
"Stamina," Bruce murmurs, awed to see it in action.
"Y-yeah," Steve opens his eyes, ducks his head. "Do you want to keep watching?"
"Of course," Bruce says immediately. "How many times - ?"
"I usually stop at two," Steve says, flushing more, smiling a little, sheepish. "Sometimes three. I don't know my limit."
Bruce breathes in. He's jealous, he realizes. This isn't new. "Keep going."
"Got it," Steve says, and he resumes, faster this time, and it's less about savoring it and more about just finding pleasure and taking it, as fast as he can. Bruce shudders a little, eyes wide as he watches, aware that he's hard.
He finds himself on his feet seconds later, and he comes over, suddenly seizing Steve's face and kissing him, hard, muffling a moan in his mouth.
Steve kisses him back, eager, mouthing at his lips, licking, and Bruce can feel his hand bumping into him, still working furiously.
"Slower," he mutters, watching Steve. "Slower, Steve."
Steve just kisses him again, harder, letting out little breaths into his mouth.
Bruce whimpers, soft, and lets a hand down to grip Steve's forearm.
Steve goes still, tilting his head. "Bruce?"
"I'm fine," he says. "Keep going."
Steve nods, and Bruce shifts his grip to Steve's shoulders, feeling muscle flex under his hands, hearing Steve's little groans, turning his head to kiss Steve again, and again -
There's warmth on his stomach and he will have to clean his pants, but he doesn't care. He's watching from front-row seats this time as Steve comes again, mouth working, eyes wide.
They stand together like that without moving for over a minute before Bruce can bring himself to step away.
"Bruce," Steve starts. "Should I - "
He should know better. Bruce looks at him, and shakes his head. "We should clean up."
He turns to make for the bathroom, but is caught by a hand on his shoulder. He stands still as Steve pulls the rest of his shirt off, then finally seizes Steve's hands as they work on his pants.
"No," he says. Whatever Steve's doing, he's not ready for it.
Steve looks at him for a long moment, then nods. "You should take them off."
Wordlessly, Bruce undoes his pants, pushing his pants and underwear down. Steve stays close, watching, hands held bare inches from his skin. To Bruce's relief, he does not touch.
"I'll meet you in the shower," Bruce murmurs, and he likes the light of interest in Steve's eyes.
Steve's running hot right now, sparks under his skin as he gets to touch and kiss Bruce. He's allowed to; encouraged to except for those moments where Bruce takes his hands and then they both wait, letting Bruce catch his breath. Steve has to be excited for the both of them, because Bruce can't afford to let himself go too far.
Steve wraps him in his arms, holding him close, feeling Bruce tremble against him. It must be frustrating, it is frustrating, he knows this, and still - he trusts Bruce to know where the limits of his control are. All he can do from here is trust Bruce to push them apart when he needs it.
He presses his nose to Bruce's hair and flattens his hand against the skin of Bruce's back and listens to their heartbeats, eyes closed.
He's nudged, a gentle finger in the side, and loosens his hold enough to look at Bruce.
"Don't sleep on me," Bruce says, looking up at him.
"I couldn't sleep," Steve says. "Time to get out of the shower?"
Bruce opens his mouth, then shakes his head, a smile showing on his face. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Steve says. "We can do this again, right?"
"Just what I wanted to hear," Steve says, and he kisses him once more, just because he can.