Chapter 1: Aftermath of Battle
For a brief moment in time, after the events of the Battle of Manhattan, Bruce truly thought things were turning around. The team – his team – seemed to accept him and the Other Guy. He wasn’t the only one with “red in his ledger,” as Romanov liked to put it. He thought maybe he could help people both as himself and his…bigger half.
Tony had almost convinced him that he could make it work. After Thor returned to Asgard with Loki and the Tesseract in tow, he had returned to New York City, to Stark Tower. Tony was rebranding it Avengers Tower and offered him both a place to live and lab space and at first, it seemed like it was going smoothly. But he found that the construction in the Tower put him on edge in a way he hadn’t expected. Coupled with the amount of damage the Other Guy had caused, even if this time he’d been saving people, the noise of rebuilding was wreaking havoc on his control. He knew he needed a break from the city, but for the first time in a long time, he was hopeful. After some time away to center himself, he felt confident he would be able to return once the construction was completed.
Now all he had to do was break the news to Tony.
“You’re coming back though, right?” Tony’s voice took on a petulant tone.
“Because I’ve put a lot of time and effort into building your lab. Blood, sweat, and tears have all gone into it.” Tony poked Bruce in the chest with a finger to emphasize his point.
“Okay okay, Jolly Green Giant, the bodily fluids weren’t mine, but the design and funding is.” Tony had stopped poking him and gone back to waving his arms instead.
“If you’d just –“
“I mean if you’re just going to abandon me, I would never have joined you in Science Matrimony and built you your own suite of – “
“TONY!” Bruce snapped, finally interrupting.
“What?” Tony looked surprised at the interruption.
“If you’d let me get a word in edgewise…?” Bruce asked, mildly.
Tony conceded with a nod.
“Yes, I’m planning to come back. It’s just that all of the rebuilding efforts have the Other Guy feeling…uneasy, so I’m going to go back to India for a little, settle the both of us down a bit, and then when all the construction is finished, I’ll come back.” Bruce explained.
Tony squinted at him suspiciously. “This isn’t a ploy to confuse me so you can do another runner, is it? Because JARVIS and I will find you.”
“I’ll check my email once a week, on Mondays. When the Tower is done, send me an email and I’ll come back.” Bruce promised.
“I’m not going to take no for an answer. So don’t go changing your mind while you’re on your Eat Pray Love quest. If you don’t come back right away when I tell you it’s done, you’ll have only yourself to blame for my decorating your suite. I’ll make it the worst design you’ve ever seen – stripes and plaids in puce and mauve and orange, just truly heinous. That will be your punishment for dragging your feet.”
Bruce sighed, rolling his eyes, then held out his hand. “Deal.”
Tony shook it, stating “Verbal contracts are binding in the state of New York, just fyi. And JARVIS will have a record.”
Bruce should have known that SHIELD wasn’t going to let him leave the country. Less than five minutes after he left the Tower, a black SUV pulled up next to him. The back window was rolled down and an older man he’d never seen before peered out at him.
“Doctor Banner. Would you like to get in the car?”
“Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice.” Bruce retorted, getting in without argument.
“Alexander Pierce.” The man introduced himself. “I’m the Secretary of the World Security Council.”
“We’re in charge of SHIELD.”
“Ah. What’s this about, Mr. Pierce?”
“Well Doctor Banner, it seems as though you’re about to flee the country.”
Bruce huffed out a perplexed breath. “Flee? I’m just getting out of the city during construction…it seems to bother the Other Guy. I told Stark where I was going – he knows how to reach me.”
“So all you need is a place to calm down?” Pierce raised an eyebrow. “SHIELD can provide that “
“With all due respect, Mr. Pierce – “ Bruce was cut off by a sudden stinging sensation in this neck…did the seat belt just bite him? He shook his head to clear away the strange notion, but as he did a ringing started in his ears. The ringing noise started to increase and his vision went blurry. Unlike normal, the Other Guy was eerily silent as he struggled to regain his wits.
That’s odd. He thought mildly, I always thought his silence would be comforting, not terrifying.
Aloud, he could only force out a single, choked “What - ?”
“Don’t worry Doctor, we’re just looking out for your well being.” Pierce assured him.
It was the last thing he heard for a long, long time.
Clint had been confined to base for what felt like years. He had been poked and prodded within an inch of his life. He had multiple meetings with every single psychiatrist in SHEILD’s employ. While he wasn’t the picture of mental stability, he was pronounced clear of Loki’s influence. That didn’t change the fact that he could count the number of agents who trusted him on one hand and still have fingers left over. Nat, Fury, Hill.
He managed to keep up and indifferent façade, most likely because Nat had been sent out on a mission pretty much the second they finished eating their shawarma.
Clint wasn’t stupid, even if he had dropped out of school to join the circus. He knew he was still way too fucked up about Loki to be mission ready. He hadn’t even laid a finger on his bow since the Battle – another thing that would not have gone unnoticed if Nat were around.
He looked terrible. He’d lost weight he didn’t have to lose, he couldn’t sleep, and if he even thought about picking up a weapon, he got the shakes so bad he had to sit down. So what the fuck did his doctor think he was doing, clearing him for duty?
He wasn’t too proud to admit to himself that he didn’t think he could survive without SHIELD. But he also couldn’t ignore the feeling of terror he got any time he thought about returning to the field.
Since Phil…his new superior officer was Sitwell. He apparently had Sitwell convinced of both his sanity and his readiness, because he was told to report to the range in 2 days.
His normal coping mechanism of shooting his bow as meditation was obviously out; he had taken to pushing himself on the treadmill instead, running so hard and for so long that the exhaustion would let him sleep for a few hours before the nightmares came.
That night, as per usual, once he woke from Loki filled dreams, he felt like his room was too exposed and he retreated into the vents above, wearing his oldest, cuddliest hoodie. Most nights, he could huddle right above his bed and get in a few more cat naps, but on nights like tonight, nervous energy drove him to explore.
He found himself above a room filled with a bank of tv screens. Glancing down to check that no one had noticed he was there, he caught a glimpse of what they were watching. It was someone’s apartment; and that person was clearly asleep on the couch, cocooned in blankets. He couldn’t tell who it was because they were facing into the couch, but each monitor had a feed with a different angle on the bedroom, living room, or kitchen. The only room free from monitoring appeared to be the bathroom.
That was odd. Not that SHEILD was doing surveillance on somebody, but that they were hiding it in what amounted to a spare janitorial closet. He started paying attention to the two men monitoring the feeds.
“-since the last incident. The gas appears to be working as a preventative measure to keep him from turning all the way.” The taller man was saying.
“Yeah, it works better than the injection. When they brought him in, I thought he was a corpse – apparently it was too big of a dose.” The other replied.
“This job is a lot less exciting than I was expecting.” The first man sighed. “I’ve never watched a more boring mark. All he does is sit around and read.”
The second man grunted in agreement and their conversation turned into a discussion of the Mets chances this season.
Clint frowned. It sounded like SHIELD was, what, drugging someone to keep them in line? This would require more investigation, but later when he wasn’t quite so tired. He decided to mosey back towards his own room to catch a cat nap.
Clint woke abruptly, with a crawling sensation on the back of his neck, indicating he was being watched. Natasha Romanov was sitting cross-legged in the vent, staring at him.
“Nat! You’re back!” Clint cried. He could tell by the minute movement of her eyebrows that his jovial greeting has surprised both of them.
“Yeah, you’re my first stop – after showering and sleep. I hear you’ve been cleared for duty.”
“Uh, yeah.” Clint rubbed at the back of his neck uncomfortably. “I’m supposed to retake my qualifying exam tomorrow.”
Nat’s gaze remained steady as she asked “When is the last time you picked up your bow?”
Clint opened his mouth to gloss over the truth, but closed it again as he glanced down at his hands. Nat would know. She always knew. He was half convinced she was psychic. He sighed, trying to figure out what to say, how to explain that he just…couldn’t, but when he met her eyes, he realized she already knew.
“I didn’t want to go on the mission.” That was Nat Speak for I’m so sorry I haven’t been here for you. Clint was fluent in Nat Speak the same way that she was fluent in his body language.
“I know.” He replied. The hunch of his shoulders said They kept us apart on purpose because they knew you wouldn’t like the methods they use to make sure Loki was out of my head for good.
“I hate having to break in new back up.” They sent along a babysitter to make sure I didn’t double back.
“How many of ‘em did you make cry?” I know you haven’t been okay either.
“Only four. I’m slipping.” I’m more worried about you. You look terrible – you haven’t been taking care of yourself.
“You? Never.” I’m glad you’re back.
“Come on. Let’s get out of this metal death trap and order some Chinese.” Me too.
An hour later, they were leaning against each other on his couch watching the Great British Baking Show and chowing down on kung pow chicken. Clint could feel his body start to relax the second her familiar weight pressed up along his left side. The friendship between the two had always been full of a platonic physicality. They were both starved for that sort of expression of affection as children and found both reassurance and relief from the contact. It lead people to make all sorts of assumptions about their relationship and they were both happy to encourage the misconception most of the time.
Clint woke up hours later after the first dreamless sleep he’d had since the Battle with his head on Nat’s knee and her hand on his forehead. She had slipped down so that her own head was propped up on the arm of the couch. As soon as she felt him stir, her eyes popped open. “Thanks.” He told her quietly.
Her nod in response was Nat Speak for You’ve done the same for me. “Stark invited us to check out his renovated Tower later today. There are supposed to be some great training facilities if you’re interested.” If you want to try out your bow without SHIELD watching, we can go there.
He shrugged. “If you want.” Yes please.
Tony Stark stood in front of a well-maintained brick building in a quiet neighborhood just outside of Washington, DC, and he was hesitating. Tony was not someone who hesitates. Normally, he rushed in halfcocked and improvised, but today he was feeling uncertain. He wasn’t sure exactly what kind of situation he was about to encounter and after the Battle of Manhattan, he didn’t like uncertainty. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and swaggered through the door. The man he was coming to see was seated on a bench just inside the door, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
“Yo, Rogers. How is the 21st century treating you? Have you figured out how a microwave works – hey, uh, are you alright? You look like someone pissed in your Wheaties.”
Steve Rogers’ head had snapped up the second Tony began speaking and he looked awful. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot, with dark circles indicating his trouble sleeping, lending him the air of a racoon that had recently been smoking pot. It was clear that he had recently been crying and his face looked gaunt. For all his bulk, he seemed…small. He looked befuddled to find Tony in front of him and it took him a second before he straightened and stood. “Mr. Stark.”
“Really Capsicle? I think we can dispense with the formalities since we stopped an alien invasion together.”
Rogers sighed. “Now isn’t a great time, Tony.” The forlorn look on his face made him look like a kicked puppy. Well shit.
Tony’s bored expression softened and he took off his sunglasses. His voice was unusually gentle as he asked “Aunt Peggy’s having a bad day today?”
Rogers’ eyes widened so much it was almost comical. It only took a second for his brain to connect the dots and he replied “I-I should have realized…I mean, why wouldn’t you…That is, Howard was Peggy’s friend too and it makes sense that…well that you would know her. I just…” he trailed off.
“You missed a lot.” Tony replied bluntly.
“Bit of an understatement.” Rogers mouth twisted into a wry grin. It was more of a grimace really, and it didn’t look right on his stupid perfect golden retriever face.
“Excuse me, but I am a Master of understatement, thank you.” Tony retorted. “It isn’t surprising that you wouldn’t think of it. I mean, your whole…” Tony waved his hands in front of Rogers, “situation is unprecedented. Plus it has been pointed out to me that I’ve been a bit of a dick to you. Granted, that doesn’t make you special – I’m a bit of a dick to everyone. It’s just perhaps I’ve been unfair to you, specifically.”
Rogers look of surprise intensified to the point where he actually had to sit back down. He opened his mouth to speak and closed it again. Shaking his head, he finally managed, “Who, uh, who told you that?”
Tony raised an eyebrow, counting them out on his fingers. “Let’s see, Pepper, Happy, Director Eyepatch didn’t say it out loud, but I could tell he was thinking it, Romanov’s eyebrows certainly held some judgement, if Thor understood what was going on I’m sure I would have gotten a Shakespearean soliloquy on my behavior, and even Barton fresh from having an alien god crawling through his brain had a few choice words for my treatment of a national icon, but he was pretty close to Coulson and…well. Aunt Peggy herself was none too pleased. She called me last week, did you know?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “But Bruce is the reason I came.”
“Doctor Banner? I…didn’t even think he liked me much.” Rogers’ face was going to stick like that if he didn’t change his expression from Surprised Labradoodle soon.
“Remember that day you came into the lab? Right before Thor took Loki back to Asgard, when we had all been living in the Tower?” Tony asked.
“Uh, yeah…I came to apologize to you. For the things I said under the influence of Loki’s staff.” Surprised Labradoodle was gone and Earnest Golden Retriever had taken its place.
“And instead of graciously accepting said apology and reciprocating, I doubled down on what I had said to you – “
Rogers interrupted “That everything special about me came out of a bottle. Yeah, I remember.” Oh god, Earnest Golder Retriever morphed into Sad Poodle.
“Uh, yeah, well that was, uh, harsh. And not true, I’ve heard all the pre-serum Rogers stories from Aunt Peggy, so... Would it help if I told you that I hadn’t slept in three days at that point? It’s…not really an excuse, I know, but it is the truth.” Tony had not felt this uncomfortable during a conversation in years. Stupid Captain America and his stupid puppy dog eyes…
“But what does that have to do with Doctor Banner? I mean, I know he was in the lab that day, but he didn’t say anything.”
“He may not have said anything to you. But he hit me with some hard truths after you broke my door.”
Rogers had slammed the door of the lab so hard when he left that one of the hinges broke. Bruce waited for a few minutes and then said quietly, “You do realize that he isn’t Captain America, right?”
Tony narrowed his eyes. “Are you high right now? I knew it! I knew your mellow attitude came from a big bag of weed! And you didn’t offer me any? That’s just rude, Bruce. I let you live here rent free, the least you could do is share your pot with me.”
Bruce rolled his eyes “I mean that we grew up hearing about Captain America, wearing Captain America merchandise, reading Captain America comic books, watching Captain America biopics, putting up Captain America posters. You even more so than most kids – your dad actually knew the guy. His legend has been built up for 70 years. That’s 70 years’ worth of stories, being told and retold and exaggerated and added to, all of which shape your perception of who Captain America is.”
“I know who Captain America is – the self-righteous judgmental grandpa that just broke my door.”
Bruce smile didn’t reach his eyes. “No. Steve Rogers just broke your door. And I don’t think anyone alive today actually knows him. That’s my point, Tony. I realize his birthdate means he’s old enough to be both our grandfathers…but really, he’s not even 30 years old. He crashed a plane into the ocean expecting to die for his country and instead woke up in a world where every single person he ever even met is either dead or in a nursing home. We’ve had 70 years to process what happened during World War II. For him, it was less than a month ago. He had been awake for a matter of weeks when he was called upon to defend the world from an alien invasion, which he did without complaint. You realize for the rest of his life, every person he ever talks to will have preconceived notions of who he is based on their idea of the Captain America they grew up with? People look to him to lead in a crisis because that’s what he did in the cartoons they watched on Saturday mornings. It’s an awfully lonely life Tony. And he could easily be really bitter about it. You said some terrible things to him and instead of holding them against you, he came here to apologize to you. You should really cut the kid a little slack.”
Tony gaped like a fish. It was the longest speech he’d ever heard Bruce give that wasn’t science related. “Jesus, Bruce. You don’t pull your punches even when you aren’t big and green. Now I know how Loki felt.”
Clearly embarrassed by his impassioned plea, Bruce turned away. “I just think you should be a little nicer to him. He deserves to be judged on who he actually is, not on his reputation.” On that note, he escaped to his room.
“And if anyone knows what it’s like to be judged negatively by his reputation, it’s Bruce.” Concluded Tony. “So I guess what I’m trying to say is…I’m sorry. And I will try to only be a dick to you based on my opinions of Steve Rogers and not Captain America going forward.”
Earnest Golder Retriever was back. “I…I really appreciate that Tony.”
“Alright, that’s enough of this touchy-feely crap. I would have come before now, but I wanted to wait until the Tower was done in case I needed to do some groveling. Your floor is a bit sparse right now, I wasn’t sure what you’d want in there. My dad may have mentioned once or twice or a hundred times that you were an artist before the war, so I had Pepper design some studio space. But I didn’t know if you would want a big kitchen since I have no idea if you can even cook, or if you’d want a big tv or to pretend like it was still 1945 and just have a radio, so I figured instead of just surprising you I would ask for your opinion.”
Aaaand there was Confused Beagle face, right on schedule. “You...made a floor for me? But you don’t even know me.”
Tony sighed. “Look, I may not know Steve Rogers. I may not even really know Captain America. Which, by the way, is confusing. I mean, I am Iron Man and Iron Man is me.”
Earnest Golder Retriever replied “Yes, but Iron Man isn’t all you are. Iron Man is your public persona; I have a hard time believing that there’s nothing more than that behind closed doors.”
“That…was a surprisingly insightful comment on modern celebrity culture from a man born before Hawaii was a state.” It was Tony’s turn to be surprised.
“People forget that before Captain America fought in the war, I toured the country with a bunch of chorus girls. I met a lot of people who made assumptions based on that persona even back during the war. Until your father helped me mount what I was very lucky did not turn out to be a suicide mission, no one took me seriously – especially the soldiers who had been on the front lines.” Rogers didn’t look like any particular dog at the moment, he just looked thoughtful.
“Yeah I’ve heard that story. My dad never shut up about you….and my therapist says his obsession with you is why I’ve been taking out some of my daddy issues on you. Not that I needed a therapist to tell me that; it was very obvious and I figured it out all on my own. Although I did forget you were a chorus girl. Tell me, did you also wear – no, no…I promised I was going to be nicer so I’ll save that joke until I get to know you better. As I was saying, I may not know you but I do know that when the world needs you, you’ve proven you’ll be there. And I know that the world will need the Avengers again and it will go a lot smoother if we skip the in-fighting next time. We’re sort of a motley crew; I know Thor and Banner don’t have permanent places to stay stateside and from what I’ve seen of Romanov and Barton, they seem the sort to use SHIELD as home base, so I took the liberty of providing everyone with a place to hang their hats…or hammers, bows, and shields. It’s there if you want it. And I find it very difficult to take no for an answer, so it will be easier for all of us if you just say yes.” Tony paused, making eye contact with Rogers. “So what do you say, Rogers?”
“Has everyone else agreed?” Rogers’ face appeared carefully expressionless.
“The good doctor already agreed before construction on the residential floors started, although he’s sort of …on sabbatical at the moment. Apparently his big green alter ego doesn’t like the noise that several dozen men wielding saws and hammers make, so he retreated back to India until it was done. He should be on his way back now; I emailed him. As for the wonder twins of SHIELD, Romanov texted me right before I got on the jet this morning; she and Barton will be by for the tour tonight. As for Thor, well it’s hard to get an email to reach Asgard. I was, uh, waiting to talk to you until the others had agreed and it was ready.” Tony had the grace to flush slightly with embarrassment. “I figured I had a better chance of convincing you if the others had already agreed, since you could trust their judgment over mine.”
“Well….it beats living out of a motel.” Rogers finally replied.
“Great. You can join tonight’s tour. We’ll take my jet.” Tony clapped him on the shoulder with one hand, putting his shades back on with the other, and started striding out the door without waiting to see if the good captain was following.