Chapter 1: Genius
Worrying his bottom lip aggressively, Tony watches through the rain-speckled window as the streets of Manhattan below grow dark from the surprise autumn shower. Cars flare on their headlights and honk their annoyance at how wet everything suddenly is, while pedestrians either flip open their large dark umbrellas or scatter in various directions for quick shelter. Everything begins to glimmer, the street lights igniting in their soft glow, the city building a peaceful atmosphere that contradicts the irritation the people are cursing at the clouds.
“It wasn’t supposed to rain until later tonight,” he mutters, catching sight of his frowning reflection. He’s not swearing at the weather like the rest of Manhattan, but a section of his brain is definitely constructing plans to develop a faster, far more accurate weather app. He can make a satellite in less than a week, no problem – maybe a handful of them, if he wants to go smaller, which is probably a better idea. Smaller means more means he can spread them out which means the weather can be monitored in several areas which means he’d totally be aware if something were to potentially pop up while his kids are outside and vulnerable to it-
“Tony.” Bruce’s voice floats to him from the other side of the room, exasperated and fond. “They’re fine.”
“Of course they’re fine.” Tony nods. “It’s just a little bit of rain, no big deal. They’re not made of wires or metal and have spent extended time out in the rain and Ultron totally knows not to let it get into his eyes while the fibers are still settling-.”
“I’m sure Vision made him keep his glasses on once it started raining.” There’s the sound of paper cutting through air. “They’re not stupid, Tony, it’s not like they don’t know what rain is. Besides, I doubt the teachers let any of the kids go outside in this weather, so they probably didn’t even get wet.”
Tony hums, taking a step forward so that his breath touches the glass with puffs of fog. He knows they aren’t stupid. Hell, if they hadn’t been cut off from the internet connection, they’d be smarter than both he and Bruce by now. He knows that they know what rain is, and how to avoid getting a shock or short from it, and it’s not like they’re walking home from school – “Why aren’t we picking them up?”
“In simple terms, it’s because they’re big boys now and they don’t need their dads to pick them up and smother them with hugs and kisses in front of their new peers.” Again, there’s the sound of paper cutting through air. “And they think it’s cool to be able to ride in the back of the car by themselves while Happy chauffeurs them around.”
Tony hums again.
“Tony, don’t be that parent.”
Parent. Yes, that’s what he is. A parent.
Ultron and Vision had been an accident. Too many days spent in the lab, with too much coffee and not enough sleep and Bruce Banner, of all people, to bounce his ideas off of, and to suck his own ideas in. Fifty-five hours into an engineering binge and arguing over their favorite science fiction novels, their caffeinated brains had decided ‘Hey! Let’s make androids!’
In his extremely weak and guilt-ridden defense, he’d meant for them to come out similar to Dum-E and U. They hadn’t even developed a synthetic skin for them. The androids had been meant to be temporary, something they could shut down before it got too out of hand. It had been strictly to see if they could even accomplish it.
They had. Their two awkward, tiny androids had blinked to life and opened their exaggerated eyes, and there had been a brief moment of shocked elation, but then –
Ultron had reached out for Tony, and Vision’s tinny, undeveloped voice had sang “father” through the computer system.
(Even now, neither Bruce or Tony could say who had broken first)
“What if they had a crap first day?” He wonders; the window fogs again. “What if they kept forgetting to answer to their other names? What if they hated the other kids? Or what if they got bullied? What if they can’t deal with how different they are?” (It’s been a difficult problem for Ultron in particular) “What if they don’t want to go back? Should we have kept homeschooling them? Or what if they do want to go back, but they want to go further? What if they got bored in class because the material wasn’t challenging enough? We can’t skip them up too far, people would get too suspicious, and then – what if they get discovered? Nothing’s more suspicious than two genius six-year-olds, especially ones who keep looking at everything in the world like it’s all brand new to them! And you!”
Tony whirls around, putting his back to the rain to aim his glare at the man reclining on the entirety of the couch.
“You’re just … sitting there, reading a book, acting like everything is totally normal, like we just sent our kids off to their first day of school and they’re going to come home with missing crayons and asking for help on math worksheets-.”
Bruce’s book slaps shut and falls to the cushions, but instead of a matching scowl on his face when he looks up, there’s just a small smile.
“Like I said, that parent.” He stands up slowly, feet moving expertly around Vision’s scattered puzzle pieces and fragments of the drone Ultron’s taken apart and put back together twenty times. He walks toward Tony easily, unconcerned of the waspish bite on his tongue. “We did just send our kids off to their first day of school,” he says in that reassuring tone that makes Tony huff. “They are going to come home, most likely with missing crayons because Vision probably shared all of his and Ultron probably gave his to Vision so he’d have some too.”
Bruce’s smile grows as he stops, his toes pressing against the tips of Tony’s. With both hands he reaches out and lightly grips Tony’s biceps, rubbing up and down soothingly. “They’re not going to ask for help on their math homework though. It’s probably already done. Vision will probably want to discuss any reading homework they’ve gotten, though. And Ultron will definitely need help on his writing. It was bad enough before his new eyes.” Carefully, he leans forward and knocks their foreheads together. “I’ll let you handle that one. He likes bickering with you. I bet that’s what he’ll want to do as soon as they get in.”
The panic Tony hadn’t realized had been building up since the rain had started slowly seeps from his skin with each pass of Bruce’s warm hands. He’s right. They’d warned both boys not to be too obvious with their mathematical or comprehension skills, but they’d also told them that they didn’t have to act dumb, either – so their math homework is likely already complete. But Vision has been enraptured by the written word since the first time they’d handed him a book, taking great joy in devouring and analyzing (and discussing, Jesus) every story he’s ever gotten in his hands, so he’ll definitely crawl into Bruce’s lap with whatever text he’s gotten from class. And Ultron, for all that he can read and understand everything, doesn’t have the best penmanship in the world and occasionally flips a letter around, and for some reason finds that Tony is the only one who can calm the hatred he has for himself whenever that happens.
“… They’re fine,” he breathes against Bruce’s mouth, and the other man nods slightly, smile still in place.
“They’re fine,” he agrees. “I know you’re scared – it makes me nervous too, them being out there without us, surrounded by strangers. But this was the right thing to do. They need to interact with other kids. Humans. This is good for them.” He snorts a little. “Even if they get a little wet from the rain.”
Alright. Fine. Worrying about them getting wet from the rain sounds stupid. They’ve got synthetic skin, their skeletons and wires have been long-since coated, and there’s no reason to believe that Vision hadn’t badgered Ultron into keeping his glasses on. Okay. He’s that parent. Still-
“Shut up, Banner,” he grumbles, and Bruce finally just laughs, puffs of amused chuckles brushing against Tony’s cheeks, and reflexively, Tony darts in for a kiss.
Bruce’s lips are soft along his chapped ones, molding along gently but not pushing for more. Slow, they’ve agreed. Slow and cautious.
Physical affection between them isn’t new – even before the kids, they’d fallen to each other for shoulder claps and hair scruffing and even I’m Having a Bad Day hugs – but the romantic aspect of their friendship is. They haven’t even told Ultron and Vision, because Tony’s still unsure if he’s good enough for it to stick and Bruce’s face still goes red and shy after every caressing touch. But so far, it’s going. It’s working just fine.
Bruce pulls back a little, separating the kiss, face flushed with pleased embarrassment that makes Tony’s stomach happily twist, and then leans forward again like he wants another, but instead just nuzzles along Tony’s ear.
“… They’re coming up the elevator now,” he grins, and steps away.
The two little boys swarm in as soon as the doors are open, their hair a little mussed and glossy from the rain, but otherwise mostly dry. They look a little lost, as if the world’s done something to confuse them, but they aren’t twitchy like they’ve shorted out, and their eyes are still in place, and they aren’t acting like they’ve just realized there isn’t actually a place for them in the world.
Vision beams at the sight of them, immediately rushing forward with a packet of papers in his hands and backpack swinging.
“Papa, look at this story we’re reading,” he calls out softly to Bruce, knocking into Tony for a quick, damp hug before waving the papers at Bruce. “It’s about space. Only it’s not very long. Why didn’t the author write more? They don’t talk enough about the glass planet they’ve landed on, and I don’t get to know the father’s name. Do you think that was intentional? Why?”
Ultron follows as at a more sedate pace, his frown seeming to fade a little the closer he gets, no longer pushing his eyebrows into the glasses he’s thankfully wearing. There’s a pencil tangled between his fingers, like he’s been practicing how to hold it.
“Mister Murdock says I should practice my letters,” he murmurs petulantly when he reaches them. He flicks the pencil forward, smacking Tony against the hand with it and deepening his frown again. “He said he would help, but I didn’t want him to.” I didn’t want him to know that I’m stupid, he doesn’t say, but they all hear him anyway. Help me not to be stupid, Dad.
Tony shares a look with Bruce over the tops of their heads, brief enough to acknowledge that Bruce is always right when it comes to the kids (but about nothing else, Banner, you hear me?) and share a small smile, before he looks back down at his oldest kid and tousles his dark wet hair.
“I’ll help you with it.”
Bruce has been in the cage for five-hundred and eighty-six days when the explosion happens.
It’s feeding time, and it’s been so long since he’s fought the rough placement of the tube that Ross isn’t on the other side of the glass wall to cheerfully hiss his degradation and threats as it happens. He’s weak enough, limbs still trembling and involuntarily jerking from the latest round of electric shock-based heartrate tests, that the techs have to lift and manhandle him into a working position, and therefore none of them have a free hand to catching themselves when the building rocks like it’s given birth to an earthquake.
All three of them hit the floor.
For a second, there’s just the growling echoes of the shake reverberating along the walls and no other sound. One of the techs is still holding Bruce’s elbow tightly to keep him from trying to move away, while the other begins to slowly reach out to pick up the scattering of instruments that had fallen to the floor with then. Things like this happen sometimes. There’s been an accident, or a miscalculated experiment, maybe. Techs are soldiers first, and they’ve been trained not to let something so insignificant distract them while they’re in the cage with Bruce.
But then the light above the main door on the cageless half of the room, silent since they day they’d thrown him in here, starts flashing a bright, frantic red. An off-key alarm begins to scream.
They drop him to the floor instantly, slipping and stumbling in their hurry to get outside, pausing only long enough to seal his cage before throwing open the main door and disappearing from sight.
Bruce lays there, legs tangled and shaky and useless, staring at the open door outside of his cage and the way the red light splashes color into the otherwise dull white room.
He hasn’t been alone in over a year – someone has at least always been on the other side of the wall, monitoring his brain activity or blood pressure or sleep patterns. They’d been expressionless, ignoring him anytime he lost control of himself and begged them to talk to him, had never even looked at him unless in study or active tests, but they’d been there. Always.
For the first time in months, panic swells in his uneasy gut, making bile rise to his throat. He can hear the mess of conglomerated shouting from beyond the open door – the alarm is still blaring, the building isn’t empty – but the doorway remains clear of both body and shadow. The techs aren’t coming back, no one else is coming in – he’s been forgotten.
Months ago, he’d have rejoiced.
But the burn marks from the electric wires that had been wrapped around his wrists for the test are still aching, and the panic has made his stomach swirl in a nauseous need for something to fill it. The warmth from the technicians’ hands still lingers imprinted on his skin, and he feels unevenly displaced with how quickly the indifferent touch had been ripped away.
He’d had plans – he’d spent days upon days plotting is breakout of this cage, of taking advantage of the first available opportunity to control his own body – he’d had dreams of what he’d do after the escape. Some of those had involved squeezing Ross’ head between his bare hands until his skull cracked and shattered and smashed, where he’d walk out of this compound and leave horrifying handprints of brain tissue all along the walls as a signed farewell. Some had been of just cracking back Ross’ neck and yanking out his spine to mail in pieces to each one of his government backers. Most, though, had just been of getting out, of running as far away as he could and finding a hole to live in that would be deep enough that Ross would never be able to find him again.
But now, in the reality of grabbing that opportunity and starting those plans, his body can’t get up off the floor. His mind is too terrified to try.
‘Come back.’ The plea floats through his head unbidden on the notes of hysteria and disgust, and a faint, heavy pressure punches against his mind in anger at its existence. Bruce flinches, a whine slipping high and soft from his abused throat, but it just increases the panic. ‘Don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me here.’
This is another dream he’s had, created from times when Ross goes days without visiting and even the doctors seem bored with the test results, when they forget to feed him and the tech watching the machines dozes off at the screen. Dreams born of the knowledge that he’s never going to leave here, that they’re never going to let him go, that Ross hates him so much that he’d gladly leave him to waste away strapped to a gurney with no one around for his last breaths that second he’s no longer useful or too much of a liability to support. He dies alone, fading to nothing in the presence of no one, and Ross goes off to enjoy his military glory with an army of strong, furious, green soldiers made of Bruce’s blood.
Out of all of his fantasies, he’d always know it to be the one most likely to come true.
No justice, no satisfaction, no anything to make this all worth it. Ross gets his success and happy life, and Bruce gets the death his father had always said he deserves.
There’s another explosion, soft enough that it’s obviously on the other side of the base, but the low rumble of its growl still shakes the walls of the room. The anxious shouts outside grow, the roar of their heavy boots rolling in every direction, and gunfire begins to erupt in a river the flows away from him.
His arm gives out then, no longer able to support his weight, and he falls completely to the floor, head smacking against the tile. His elbow stings as the IV pulls, but instead of ripping free, the pole crashes to ground with him, the saline bag puncturing and leaking freely. With the flashes of red light, the solution almost looks like blood from a cartoon.
Again, there’s a feeble, heavy push against his mind.
‘Stop. We’re not getting out of here.’ Bruce isn’t sure which of them whispers it.
Bruce jolts, bolts of pain lacing through his body at the sudden movement, blood rushing through so fast that for a second, he’s flying. Ross’ voice has come to inspire dread, but in that tone, it makes his bones sing in fear. He struggles to make himself move as the shadow on the floor becomes the general’s body in the doorway, to make himself appear small and compliant and easy to manage to appeal to whatever side of the man likes him like that, and ignores the burning in his eyes that are tears of relief to not be alone anymore.
Because Ross’ face is red and twisted in its usual hot anger, and even in the alternating lighting, Bruce can make out the bruise on his temple and the trickle of blood that streams from his nose. The heavy push comes again – the man looks fallible.
“What the fuck did you do?” The man snarls. There’s a computer monitor on a cart a few feet in, and with a swipe of his infuriated fist it smashes to floor loudly enough to make Bruce flinch. “How did you get them here? You don’t even know where we are!”
‘Who?’ Ross stalks forward, and with every ounce of strength he can gather, even though the cage is still sealed, Bruce slides himself away while shaking his head as clearly and rapidly as he can. ‘Who?’
“Don’t play innocent with me you little shit.” Flecks of spit smack the glass as the other man stops against it, glaring down at him. “We caught it on their radio chatter as they hit! They’re looking for the man in the big glass cage, and they came here, to a base no one who isn’t already here knows exists, to find him! To find you!”
‘Me?’ There’s another spin in his stomach, only this time it flutters in much the same way that he remembers excitement used to do. There’s too much exhaustion in his veins to produce euphoria, but the nostalgia of it bites a soft smile onto his dry lips.
And then Ross’ fist pounds against the glass and steals Bruce’s breath.
“Do you think this is it?” he demands. “Do you think I’ve invested all this time and money and resources into keeping this world safe from a monster like you, to just let you walk out of here, free to hurt and kill innocent people?”
A tendril of anger licks forward from the back of Bruce’s mind at the accusations even as his chest goes heavy with the weight of the truth and crushes it. He tries to wiggle further back, but the IV pulls taut and unrelenting.
“No.” Ross continues, suddenly quieter. Bruce’s eyes track as the man reaches beneath his jacket, the spinning excitement stopping abruptly as he sees the glimmer of the gun. Ross, spotting his expression, offers up a small, vicious smile. “They’re coming for a man, they’ll have no reason to take a corpse,” he explains. “They’ll take one look at your dead body and they’ll leave it. And while the studies might suffer without a living test subject for their control element, the blood will still be viable for hours, longer if I get on ice in time, and that’s the real goldmine, isn’t it Banner?”
The man moves to the electronic pad by the door, and the next push against his mind is so violent that it makes Bruce cringe.
‘Shh. It’s alright. This is fine. There won’t be any more pain after this, and that’s good, right? We’ll be okay. This is okay.’
“And of course, the world will be rid of you, and that’s just icing on the c-.”
There’s a high-pitched whine, but before either of them can look for the source, blood and chunks of tissue violently smash against the glass.
For just a second, there’s no sound, no reaction.
Bruce watches in horror as the general’s lips drop the smile and twitch in want to say something else, eyes darting around the inside of his cage rapidly as if Bruce has done something wrong. The gun falls with an insignificant clatter that he doesn’t register, because the blood is streaking down the glass slowly, enough gap in the streams of it that he can see a large, messy, gaping hole where the Ross’ abdomen used to be, a gleam of gold barely seen through the strands that hang loosely inside of it.
“No!” A new voice shouts as the man stumbles, swaying. “What did you do? They wanted us to bring him in!”
With a soft, breathy groan, Ross falls.
And Bruce is then staring at a cold face of made of gold, with eyes narrowed in permanent anger and a mouth that doesn’t move. His left arm is hovering in the air, palm filled with a bright white light that’s slowly fading, and his face is pointed squarely at Bruce.
For just a moment, he thinks he’s dead – that Ross had pulled the trigger and this is the afterlife he’s stumbled into, where he’s facing down an angry robot that’s taller than he is, which apparently shoots lasers or something from its hand.
“This is Bruce Banner.” There’s no emotion in the robot’s voice. “This is the man from the videos she sent. Ross was about to kill him. What did you want me to do instead?”
He doesn’t notice the other guy until the robot turns his head – a man only slightly shorter, with a blue cap molded to his head and large, round black shield in his grip, who is gripping tightly to the wrist of the robot’s extended hand. What Bruce can see of his face is screwed up in a solemn expression that flickers with what can only be called exasperation. Exasperation. As if his robot killing a man is just something he’s become used to.
“We don’t have time for this, Captain,” the robot adds.
“… we’re going to talk about lowering your blaster output,” the man – Captain – sighs. “A non-lethal setting wouldn’t be terrible sometimes.”
The robot doesn’t respond, turning its head back toward the cage. Bruce’s heart starts racing again.
Its boot-heavy feet sound like rain on tin as they walk over the tile, pitch only becoming higher when it steps into Ross’ thickly seeping blood. It doesn’t even look down as it forcefully nudges the body out of the way with a few slow kicks, thick metal fingers reaching to tap against the lock pad. Before Bruce can shake his head to convey that no, he doesn’t know the code to open it, the robot grabs it and crushes it to whining pieces in its palm.
Immediately, as if it’s terrified of experiencing the same fate, the door whooshes open, and the quick rush of filtered air floats in to caress Bruce’s face. He trembles.
The robot’s steps become lighter, slower as it comes into the cage, and it moves carefully, like it’s scared of spooking him. This close, inside of his cage, Bruce can hear the tiny whirring as its mechanics work with and against each other to promote the movement, and it’d be fascinating to witness if panic weren’t gnawing at his brain stem at how close it’s getting.
The robot stops half a foot away, crouching down to the soundtrack of those whispered whirs, and, slowly enough that Bruce can track it, reaches its hand out toward him.
Bruce flinches. He can’t help it.
The robot freezes, but doesn’t retract its hand. He’s sure he can almost see it shake.
“I won’t hurt you,” it says. It’s voice is still as empty as it had been outside the cage, and somehow it’s stupidly reassuring. “But we need to leave. Can you walk, or will you allow me to carry you?”
His throat burns as he swallows, and he looks down. His hands are still violently shaking, his legs are distant and made of jello, and the IV is still hanging on, though the skin around the puncture has gone red and dark with irritation. He starts to shake his head – he can’t make it anywhere like this – when the robot … hums, and the red metal fingers lightly fall to the IV port. Bruce watches, stunned, as the metal seemingly melts away to retreat back to the red-coated wrist, leaving tanned, skin-covered fingers in its wake.
Human skin, so carefully touching his. Two clever fingers twist the tube free of the catheter as toss it carelessly aside, before coming back to pinch at the needle – they pull quickly, sliding the needle free in one smooth glide. And then his arm is being bent toward his chest, covering the bleeding mark left behind.
“Hold your arm like this until we get to the plane, we have medical supplies there,” the robot – the man – instructs. He can only nod.
“Iron Man!” Captain calls out from the main door. The metal head tilts but doesn’t turn away from Bruce. “Widow’s got the files and Thor’s all set. Grab him and let’s go!”
The man’s chin dips, acquiescent, and the metal sounds painful as he shifts closer to Bruce. “We need to leave. And you’re clearly in no condition to walk. Can I carry you?”
Bruce blinks at him. The words they’re saying – that Ross had said – make sense, only they don’t. He swallows again, and with more push than the heavy spot on his mind has ever managed, he gasps out, “leaving?”
Iron Man’s face is incapable of expression, but Bruce can read a silence. His voice sounds foreign and terrible even to his own ears, the words scraping over his throat that’s still raw and vulnerable from screaming through the day’s experiments that he hadn’t been able to keep down. There’s no doubt it sounds worse to strangers who don’t even know to excuse it for the circumstances.
But then the other golden red arm lifts up, both skin-covered hands reaching out for him. “We’re leaving,” Iron Man confirms, and then with smooth, effortless movement, pulls Bruce in and lifts him up.
The metal of the robotic suit is warm against the pains of his body.
But it’s the hands that brush over his exposed skin that he soaks in.
Bruce doesn’t look down as they step carefully over what must be Ross’ ruined corpse, too drunk already on a human touch that isn’t bringing him pain. He hears a brief crackle of a communications unit, the low murmurs of “we’ve got Doctor Banner. We’re heading up now. Get every civilian onto that plane. Clint, take care of any stragglers” from the Captain as they pass him, but nothing else is getting through. Not the whimpers and curses of the base’s fallen soldiers or the feel of eyes on him from one his techs now crippled and bleeding out in the halls they walk through, not the few rounds of gunfire still being exchanged in echoes from further away, not the amount of stairs they’re traveling up. Iron Man’s fingers are curled around the wrist of his injured arm, keeping it pinned in place, but oddly careful to not graze the burn mark wrapped around it, thumb resting just below it.
‘I never planned this scenario,’ he thinks, feeling floaty as he stares at the shine of the golden metal of the chest plate. The heaviness in his mind is gently pulsing, like it’s taking its own soft, timid breaths. ‘I’ve never even dreamt it up. I’m not entirely sure it isn’t a dream.’
He feels the breeze as Captain slips by them. “It’s very sunny outside today, Doctor Banner. You might want to close your eyes.”
He does as the other man advises, reveling as Iron Man’s grip tightens slightly around him.
There’s the sound of a door creaking slowly open.
And then, for the first time in five-hundred and eighty-six days, Bruce is hit with the scent of fresh air.
"The ... ocean?"
"The Raft - that's what Ross called this place - is in the northern Atlantic. You didn't know?"
Slowly, enraptured by the glow of the blue waves, Bruce shakes his head.
"Where did you think you were?"
"Not here. ... Not here."
RIP to the scene where Bucky makes Bruce a thin soup that "tastes like shit that's been scooped from Hell's only outhouse and boiled with cabbage, but you'll be able to keep it down, and it'll fill you up, I swear" because he knows from experience that the only thing worse than being starved is being given anything you want to eat and then having your own body reject it in denial of you.
... RIP to a lot of scenes, really.
Tony knows that the Capitol waits on bated breath for him to take on the role of Gamemaker.
They think he’ll be the next Howard Stark – the next Howard Stark, but with more flair. Where Howard Stark had created arenas with uneven landscapes that collapsed into deep pits of burning coals unless two people crossed at once (he’s been lauded as the man who created the concept of alliances between tributes, the greedy fuck) and biomechanical “zombies” of lost loved ones to either coax or scare away (that had been a dark year, but even though they’d been disturbed by the heartwrenching deaths of children to their deceased, everyone had agreed those Hunger Games had been one of the best), there are always whispers about what Tony could do, given the chance. Capitol citizens fell in love time and again with the inventions he would pop out at other, happier times of the year, and in their morbid minds that combined his innocent, useful creations with the ideas of Hunger Games murder instruments.
(“People are starting to get upset,” Obadiah had whispered to him at the back of a conference room as his father had presented new arena schematics to their cold president. “Howard’s ideas bring in too much emotion. People are getting too attached to the tributes, they’re complaining that they don’t need to all be killed. That there can be more than one victor. You, though – your mind is more technical than your father’s. You don’t crave the same kind of fame that he does. You can bring in more puzzles, more challenges. And the judgmental indifference of fate. You can help the citizens understand that the deaths of the children are both inescapable and necessary. You’d be so much better than he is, Tony.”)
Tony knows that he would be a better Gamemaker than his father.
He knows. It keeps him up at night, how much he knows.
How powerful he could be, arranging the murder of children.
He knows they would love him more than his father.
Which is why he chooses to become a tribute stylist instead.
For three years, Tony takes scared, broken teenagers and dresses them to impress.
He morphs them into imagery that appeals to their crowd – not to their poor, overworked districts who would rather watch them play sports, but to a capitol city full of people who have grown up on bloodshed and brutal, merciless murder, who regards each tribute as a something like a racehorse. First impressions matter to make you matter.
“They’re going to think you’re useless.” He makes sure he’s standing directly in front of Clint as he talks, keeps himself from speaking too quickly so that the teenager can watch his lips. He sees how intent the kid’s gaze is, how he seems to track every little movement Tony goes through, and makes a note to tell Natasha so that she can adjust his training. Someone so observant has more chance of surviving a Games than even the strongest of men. “They’ll think you’re a gimmick, a ploy, something to feel sorry for and to drag them investing in the narrative of the Games. You’ll get a lot of offers for alliances, because everyone knows that when you die, the people will fall in love with and support the people who helped and grieved for you.”
Clint’s eyebrows furrow in annoyance at the truth Tony’s spilling, but he cocks his head to the side in question that Tony easily reads.
“We’re not going to give away all your secrets, because that’ll be a death sentence. But what are going to do, kid, is show them how strong you actually are. And we’ll do that with -.” He snaps his fingers and his team bounds up to him, the garments he’d crafted and tailored for Clint hours ago in their hands. He grins a little when he sees Clint’s eyes go wide. “this. You’re never wearing sleeves in the Capitol ever again. Hiding those arms is a sin the single and desperate won’t thank you for. And neither will your chances in the arena.”
Yeah, the garments are purple, and have not a thing to do with his district, but so what? They bring out his eyes and hello, they’re body armor. They cling to and accentuate every muscle the Capitol has never seen.
Tony will make sure any potential tribute sponsor worth their salt in existence knows that Clint Barton isn’t just a pawn in this Hunger Games.
“First thing’s first, though.” He snatches up his makeup kit from the floor, scowling at one of his team who’d tried to grab it for him. Jesus. It’s one rule – don’t touch my stuff – why is that so hard to remember? Games-assigned teams are the worst. He turns back to Clint, and flashes the kit for him to see. “Let’s make you look enticing, huh? You’ll need to close your eyes, but feel free to kick me if you need my attention. Seriously. Or punch me, but lightly, okay? Like, normal-people lightly. I don’t need the bruises you’ll undoubtedly give me.”
The grin Clint gives him is hesitant, but sharp all the same.
Over the two weeks it takes for the 23rd Hunger Games to play out, Tony lives on too-little sleep and too-much caffeine, swimming in cold sweats and nightmares as he watches fifteen-year-old Clint Barton evade death again and again and again. Every day, children die on the screens they watch, bleeding out on the snow-covered ground in silence or sobbing for their family as they struggle to hold their intestines inside their little bodies, and he waits for Clint to join them, because that’s how life is – unfair to the people who need it.
In the end, however, Clint comes out of the arena as a victor – alive and hollow-eyed and shaking so bad he falls from the bed twice, covered in the blood of fifteen-year-old Pietro Maximoff, a kid who had latched onto Clint the day the Games started, who’d helped him and stayed with him and who’d undoubtedly been a friend, who’d jumped in front Clint at the last second to take what he had to have known would be a killing blow from eighteen-year-old Grant Ward. Who Clint had killed immediately after with a knife thrown straight through the throat, dying Pietro still in his arms.
(“You’re okay,” he whispers. “You’re okay, kid. You’re okay.”
‘I’m okay,’ Clint signs back in mechanical movements. His face stays blank.)
The day the Capitol cheers for and celebrates Clint Barton is the day Tony truly considers retiring to some back alley shop. He wavers on it for the months that the kid’s face flashes across their holoscreens, between ruining robots and emptying bottles of whiskey down his throat. He ignores calls, ignores visitors, hides away from his own offered limelight of being the one who had created the image of the country’s latest victor.
He lets Steve in only once, when he's too drunk to remember why he hasn't, and he and the tiny blonde share a new bottle between themselves as they watch the fire crackle in the hearth.
"It's harder when they come back alive, isn't it?" Steve asks, not looking at him.
Tony swallows his mouthful of alcohol, eyes watering satisfyingly at the burn, and doesn't look at Steve, either. "Yeah."
He drafts his public resignation again and again (it comes out better when he’s intoxicated – it’ll probably sound better being delivered while he’s intoxicated too).
The morning he wakes up sober enough to actually type it out is the morning that Capitol officials reap Bruce Banner to be a tribute in the 24th Hunger Games.
The phone rings five times before it’s picked up.
“Tony. Why are you calling me?”
His holoscreen is still on in the living room, flashing through recaps of the morning’s tribute selection between live footage of the departing trains that will bring those twenty-four children to the Capitol. Some faces are beaming, kids raised to believe there to be no greater honor than to murder and be murdered in the name of “country unity”. Others are pale, wide-eyed and terrified – some are even crying, not knowing that those few tears are already destroying their chances of returning home alive.
Only one face is caught in disbelieving relief.
“Let me be his stylist,” he blurts into the receiver. Returning silence deafens his ear.
“… Steve said you were quitting.” Barnes sounds ragged, as exhausted as Tony is but in an entirely deeper, far more wounded way, but also guarded. Tony understands. This is the first time since he’d won his own Games that Barnes is going to be back in the Capitol, and these are his first kids to mentor, and he’s probably drowning in the reality that he’s going to lose two more people he’s going to care about to the Hunger Games. That he’s never going to escape it.
“They already love him,” Tony says, ignoring all of it. “He’s already the little puppy that they want to protect from the world and cherish forever. Any other stylist you get is going to play too far into that. They’re going to design him to be some innocent, gullible little kid who can’t defend himself and needs the world to save him. You’ll get loads of potential sponsors and twenty-three bitter kids with weapons who will kill him the second he steps off the platform. He’ll be dead before you even sit down.”
There’s more silence, but if he strains, he can hear the soft, agonized screech of metal plates rubbing against each other in agitation.
“... I have to go meet them in the dining car for lunch,” Barnes grumbles. Tony hopes Steve is somewhere with reliable phone connection, because Barnes is going to need the support. “I’ll put in the request. Meet us at the facility.” He hangs up without a farewell.
In perfect timing, the images on the screen flash to images of Bruce Banner’s ‘shocking’ reaping.
Tony watches for the third time as the curly-haired brunette slips out of his spot as his name is called from the stage. There’s no emotion on his face – no denial or shock or fear – but his shoulders are hunched in by his ears, his chin tipped down and eyes as low as they can get while still being able to see where he’s going. No one in the gathered crowd reacts, as if they’re all indifferent to losing the teenager, until Bruce’s foot hits the first step.
The audio of the event has been cut out and covered with traditional reaping music, so the replay doesn’t have the vulgar shouting of the drunken man that breaks through the group of adults at the side , stumbling and sneering and reaching out for Bruce with long, angry fingers. They show Bruce freeze, slowly turning around toward who can only be his father, to go to him, before the man is slammed to the ground by three bulky Peacekeepers, and the teen is gently urged back on stage.
The camera operators focus on the struggling, obviously novices and easily amused and soon to be fired, but the Capitol has, of course, seized the opportunity.
HUNGER GAMES REAPING SAVES TRIBUTE FROM ABUSIVE HOME, the bottom of the screen reads.
Tony’s eyes stay locked on Bruce’s face. The way his shutters between disbelief and relief and finally, a jaw-clench of righteous vindication, too slight for any Capitol citizen to have known to see.
But he sees it clearly.
It’s exactly what he needs.
“I assume we’re making body armor again?”
Fairee is easily the most annoying person Tony has ever met. He’d hoped that, when he’d stepped away from the Capitol and became a hermit for twelve months, that she’d had gone off and found another job for herself, or at the very least, another team. If even Bucky Barnes had heard about his plans of quitting, than Fairee should have known about it ages ago and moved herself accordingly to something more reliably stable.
But her she is, purple-haired and bright-eyed and excited at the chance to dress up a ‘potential Hunger Games victor!’
She likes the attention she gets from being a stylist, winner or not. He wonders if she’d spent the entire year partying in celebration of Clint’s victory – it would certainly explain why the hell she’s still here.
“You assume wrong,” he responds flippantly. He doesn’t even look to her, gaze too busy darting between the door and the material he has spread out on the table in front of him. They’re late. This is not the fucking time to be late.
“But why?” Fairee’s voice is naturally (or not, he won’t put her above having gotten her voice modified) high-pitched, making her whines particularly painful, and as always it stabs at his ears. “The people loved it, I had so many other designers asking me about it. And it worked so well on Clint!” She adds as an afterthought.
Bruce isn’t Clint! he doesn’t say. “Repeating a look is lazy designing, Fairee. That’s why Tiberius doesn’t get attention for his designs anymore, and we don’t want to be like Tiberius Stone and his team. Or at least, I don’t think you want that?”
Her hand smacks down on the table as she releases a scandalized gasp. “Oh! Oh, no, Tony, I do- we don’t want to be like them. No sir, I’m sorry, you’re right, body armor is completely out. Very last season. We’re going to make something show-stopping, a look that gets our name –your name, Tony, your name back on top of-”
Across the room, he hears Hope, the lead stylist who is going to work on Barnes’ other tribute, smother a laugh, and he pinches the bridge of his nose with a sigh.
“Fairee,” he groans out, cutting into her babbling. “I was in such a hurry to get here on time that I accidentally left my electronics kit in my room, and it has the pieces I need to make this work. Could you go get it for me please?” He finally spares her a look, throwing on the falsely bright smile he’d learned so well from his mother years ago. “I’d really appreciate it.”
She melts at his attention, smile giddy as she nods enthusiastically. Her ego is sufficiently stroked. He’s never allowed anyone from his team to go into his rooms. “Of course, Tony! I’ll be right back. Fleur will never believe-.”
The room falls into working silence as Fairee flounces out the side door. Tony ignores the feel of Hope’s amused eyes on his back, fingers fiddling with the costume he’d spent hours drafting in his head and forming to life with his fingers, eyes returning to the main door, which still remains teasingly closed.
He hears the whispers between the rest of his team and all of Hope’s, about what it’s going to be like to care for and dress up Bruce. Mostly, they’re excited – they chatter about how they can’t wait to give him a nice bath, to smother him in kind words and gentle touches, to mercifully ignore any scars his ‘horrible father’ may have granted him with so that he knows he’s safe with them. They talk as if they already know him, as if he’s an animal they’ve picked up from the street that just needs cuddles and kindness and food to forget all the terrible things that made up the years of its life before. They think they can heal him – they’re excited to be the ones to do so.
They don’t know what they think they know. They’d either missed the father’s words on the initial broadcast, or they’d seen the silent replay enough that they’d changed the truth in their heads to that narrative. And maybe that’s for the best. They might not be able to touch Bruce at all, if they knew the true horror of his life, the things his father had forced him to do. It burns Tony’s tongue not to say anything.
There’s a sudden, sharp beep, and everyone falls into sudden silence.
The door opens, a puff of heat billowing in from the outside, warmth skirting gently over Tony’s face as Barnes suddenly appears in the frame, herding two thin teenagers into room. The girl he knows to be Betty smiles hesitantly at them all, and her eyes go wide as Hope and her people swarm in immediately, chattering rapidly again as they pull her toward the other side of the room with bright grins and easy laughter.
Barnes lets them go, his shoulders losing some of their tension at knowing Betty is being taken care of, and stomps toward Tony, effectively forcing his other charge to follow.
“Stark,” he growls, “Let’s see if you can live up to your words.” He reaches behind himself, metal arm gleaming in the light as it moves, and tugs Bruce forward. “He’s determined to die in that arena. Make it impossible.”
Tony doesn’t really hear Barnes’ words, doesn’t notice the tremble of desperation beneath them. Bruce, in the struggle to catch himself from stumbling at the rough treatment, hadn’t had time to lower his eyes in the presence of strangers, and they hook to Tony’s instantly.
There’s a brief flash of learned fear in his fractured eyes from being caught in eye contact, but it fades just as quickly, and Tony’s caught in a net of hazel fragments that war between curiosity and nervousness, but they’re heavy in an intelligence that immediately, pleasantly, weighs him down. It’s not the same sort that had pulsed so brilliantly in Clint, missed by a crowd just because they had been too prejudice to see him as anything other than deaf. No. This is … this is quiet. It’s not hidden under the bruises on his skin or the pain of his past. Bruce has buried his strength through his own desire, made himself unassuming.
It’s exactly as Tony had seen on the screen. It’s exactly what he’s going to sell to the crowds, to the other tributes, to the entire damn country.
“Hey, Bruce,” he finally says, carefully extending his hand. He keeps his voice low, well aware that Betty is close enough to hear him if she tries. “I’m Tony. I’m going to get you through this alive.”
Bruce glances down at his hand, and the back up. His shoulders are still hunched, but his lips twist a bit in a slightly smirk. Tony is unprepared when Bruce shakes his hand and says with a snort, “… good luck with that.”
Unprepared, but pleased.
Bruce does appreciate the irony that the Capitol wants to save him while at the same time have him fight for his life for their entertainment, yes.
Someone should tell Bucky he's at the very least going to lose one of his kids.
I wrote this from Bruce's perspective five times before I realized it was Tony's story anyway.