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How Many Scientists Does it Take to Screw in the Stark Tower?

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It's the surprising parts that are getting to Bruce the most. There's a lot about Tony Stark that's not much of a surprise - not the ego, not the attitude and not that he backs most of that up with a dizzying capacity to learn and apply just about anything he really wants to. Tony obviously wasn't resting on Howard Stark's laurels anymore - he'd torn the whole company down and put it back together again. So what was truly surprising Bruce wasn't usually his actions, it was his reasons.

Honestly, Bruce hadn't gone into this looking to form any lasting attachments - if he was honest with himself, he knew better. Someday, he'd snap again, and there'd be no rampaging evil alien race to direct his frustrations at. The other guy didn't much care for taking orders that weren't any fun. Bruce had meant to keep that measure of reserve and separation, to protect himself as much as them.

Stark had poked right through that, deliberately learning a foreign field of scientific study just to be able to converse on the same level as Bruce could - and with a true understanding of the subject. He realizes now that it was a calculated move. Stark had pierced his shell the way minor upsets or pokes with sharp objects couldn't do. Subtly, and waking Bruce's interest in - anything again, almost before he could even realize it. Bruce is grateful for that, and while he knows that agreeing to Stark's 'non-business proposition' isn't his best idea, it will probably be okay. He hopes.

His optimism is somewhat rewarded when he climbs into Tony's convertible thinking idly how the other guy would be able to lift the expensive car in one hand and probably toss it clear down into the Manhattan river.

"I know what you're doing," Tony Stark says, his voice raised to be hear d over the sound of wind and highway travel. He never speaks slowly, at least not in conversation. Sometimes, when his mind is going faster than even he can follow, he slows down just a little.

"Riding in the most expensive car I've ever seen?" Bruce asks, diverting, but he knows better than to expect it to work. The dashboard music console - obviously more than just that, but it's behaving itself and pretending that all it can do is place cellular calls and tap into Pandora - is a confusing LCD display of patterns and flashing lights. Bruce is focusing on it so he doesn't seem to be looking at Tony as much as he actually is. The music is too quiet to hear. Whatever bombshell he's about to drop, it isn't so serious as to keep him from joking.

"Happy's on vacation, or you'd have seen my real car- no, that's not what I meant," Stark reins himself in. It's interesting at times, not to say the expected thing. Tony's mind takes off with the unexpected input as quickly as if he'd been waiting for it and goes off in the most interesting directions. "I mean with this whole self-isolation-I-could-blow-at-any-minute thing."

Bruce is watching Tony drive and think - for someone like Stark, that is multitasking. He's focused on the road, eyes shifting over everything there is to take in, but he doesn't miss Bruce's response. "Really?"

"Sure. I could see it when we all had that Loki-stick induced group therapy session - if that's what it was and not just ten pounds of ego in a four pound pail."
Bruce lets him continue, turning his undivided attention on Stark, who only takes his eyes away from the road for a second to makes sure his captive audience is paying attention.

"You're keeping us from getting too attached," Tony starts, and then overruns Bruce's guffaw - which is half act and half actual shock. "No, hear me out on this. Hear me out - you know that on earth, right now, there are probably only two or three people - and I lose the term loosely to include our Norse pal - who could take on the other guy.

"Ironically they're the same people who seem to want you around anyway, even with the full knowledge of who you are and what the possibilities are. And they - we even have a tolerance for the other guy too so long as he's only hitting the red targets."

Tony pauses to grin at Bruce, or rather out the windshield with the understanding that Bruce is watching. Bruce isn't really sure what to say - yes he was keeping them at arm's length, but he didn't allow anyone close these days. That he'd go a step further to isolate himself from people who might have to- the only people who could kill him - seemed like common sense.

"So my question is, how much of that being ever so careful, always on the edge crap is just an act?"

"You think I'm - what? Exaggerating my condition for - for pity?" Bruce is struggling to get his thoughts moving again. He isn't upset by the accusation, just a little saddened by the thought that Tony didn't understand him as well as he seemed to at times.

Even if it was a little flattering - it meant Tony hadn't seen how close Bruce could get to the edge so quickly, or that Bruce really was doing a better job managing - externally at least. "I mean, not to poke too many holes in that, but I've gone full on giant green monster twice this last week and you don't think it's as bad as I make it out to be?"

Stark looks at him over his sunglasses, as if he can't believe someone as smart as Bruce was could be so obtuse. "No. I'm sorry - are we having the same conversation? I don't think we are. I'm talking about the fact that I can see you pushing us away and trying to prove us - me - wrong so there won't be any hesitation if we think you're a danger."

Stark drops the statement into a silent atmosphere and Bruce is genuinely startled by how easily someone like Tony Stark had seen through him. If Stark could see all that from the limited exposure he'd had to Bruce - he was more than he let on, too.

Leaning back in his seat, Bruce digests the implications in stunned silence, and finds his hands cupped over his mouth in a miserably nervous gesture that he can't stop and that gives Stark the benefit of victory without verbal confirmation.

Tony pulls into the Stark Tower parking garage, which recognizes either him or the car, and opens a series of gates for them so they can bypass the long series of ramps that lead around the normal employee parking areas. They go straight up to the hangar-slash-garage where Tony keeps his four wheeled toys.

"Yeah, well, I'm not going for it buddy," Tony continues, as if Bruce had said something in his own defense. Bruce is developing an affection for hearing Stark continue a conversation on his own, without mis-guessing where it would go. "You're going to have to try a lot harder for me to believe you're one mean word away from Mister Hyde."

"Don't say that," Bruce finally puts in, but he's smiling - it's nervous and feels like it could shatter, but there anyway. "This isn't - a challenge or a game. It- I really don't know what could set it off, I just know what will."

"So we stay way from that, but anything else should be fair game, if we try slow enough," Tony parks the car, and leans back, swinging one arm out over the cover of the convertible top, and letting the other hang over the driver's side door. "Give me a list of no-no's and we'll come up with a list of 'ok's'."

"Why?" Bruce asks, trying not to sound too bewildered or hopeless. "Why take the risk at all?"

Tony looks at him over his sunglasses again, a picture of frank disbelief. "Because I think half your problem is living in that little box you put yourself in. Hell - I'd be angry all the time, too, if I lived like that. You're always so aware of what you can't do. Maybe it'd help, a little, to know what you can."

Bruce is having a hard time understanding why, of all his new 'business associates', this is coming from Tony Stark. The man isn't fragile - but a mistake at one critical point, and they'd be mopping his remains out of the highly polished Stark tower floors. If there was any floor left. But - well - Tony's a grown guy. He's seen a lot of shit too, for a 'billionaire, genius, playboy philanthropist'. The descriptor had notably disincluded 'survivor', which was a quality Bruce knew the man had to spare.

He draws a breath - sighs- and when he closes his eyes to gather himself he remembers seeing Stark falling.

It was hazy - everything he saw and remembered from the other guy was hazy and tinged with instinct. But he'd wanted - more than anything he'd wanted in a long time - to stop Tony Stark from falling to the ground. The realization that Stark might already be dead had made him angry, and it hadn't mattered because the Hulk was already there - but some part of that mixed emotion had translated into the gesture that had saved Tony after all. Maybe - this was some extension of that. Maybe Tony Stark couldn't stand to see him falling unresisting through the air, somewhere in the limbo between life and death.

Tony is still waiting for an answer, and Bruce finally just relents. "Okay."

Stark turns further in the cramped seat - not much room in this car except to sit the way you were supposed to - adopting an openly conversational posture. As if he could sit here all day. He could, and Bruce almost wants to make him, to see the lack of activity slowly unwind Stark's attempt at lazy collection of focus. He isn't going to push that far yet, though.

"It's - I mean, it's a pretty short list," Bruce starts, ticking items off on his fingers. "If I get hurt. If I'm going to - to hurt myself. When I get very mad. And - he - we get jealous."

It seems simple but all of it got really complicated, fast. Stark already seems to be brushing it off, not quite as child's play but as manageable anyway.

"So it's not just any strong emotion?" Tony prods.

Bruce shakes his head - but qualifies. "It's difficult to explain. Half the time it's a presence, but extremely muted. Like - asleep, almost? Or - or at least not paying attention. But some things make him pay attention. It's not an automatic danger, but it's one step away. And I haven't figured out everything that does that yet."

Tony is obviously listening with a surprising amount of interest. Bruce knows his language is unclear and worse, unscientific. But so were thought processes and feelings in the first place. "And there's the risk it could be one of those things that takes you past start, without collecting two hundred dollars."

"There's that, yes." Bruce answers, glad to be understood without having to try and drag more out. He has no real proof that talking about the other guy will get his attention, but he has no proof otherwise, either. "It's embarrassing and - hard to think about."

"Hmm." Tony agrees, thinking about it. For a guy who claims to like machines better than people, he's putting a lot of effort into understanding something so human. Barely human, either - instinctively, bestially primitive. Something the mind had yet to discard as a useless trait for survival in today's society. Bruce is just starting to make himself comfortable, already used to the far-off expression that accompanied Stark's - well you couldn't really call it wandering- mind. He's just leaning back in his seat a little, feeling all the places he's still a bit sore, when Tony snaps back.

"You don't have to spend your whole life punishing yourself for it," he says, and Bruce finds the man's eyes on him with all the acute attention of a laser rifle sight. "It's okay to keep going."

"What?" The sentiment hits Bruce in a wholly unexpected place, and he gets irritated again. Living with Stark is going to be a nightmare if he's going to just keep throwing barbs out like this. "That's not funny."

Tony arches his brows and displays his palms - he's not laughing.

"I can deal with the jabs and pokes, Tony - what you're doing is no worse than what I'm already doing to myself all the time. But don't-" Bruce finds his hands curling into fists when he sees Stark's attention shift. Just his eyes, not his posture. "Don't poke at that, it's not respectful."

His expression looks faintly surprised, and then Tony seems to stop himself, thinking - looking like he's trying to put his answer into small words. "I'm not poking. I'm telling you to stop believing you deserve this as some kind of payment for 'your' actions."

"Mister Stark," Bruce begins, he doesn't feel angry anymore, just tired. Exhausted. "How many people died as a result of my actions? I can't just hide behind 'the other guy' did it, I am the Hulk. Someone has to be responsible."

"So you're intent on taking responsibility for all your actions, even those you can't possibly calculate or predict because they belonged entirely to the - decidedly unstoppable force of the other guy's instincts?"


"So what about all the people you saved?"

Bruce is unable to stop himself from falling into that trap - even if he should have seen it coming. Worse he can't even argue it was incidental. That the lives saved had only been a byproduct of having a convenient, threatening target at hand for the Hulk to spend himself fighting. He'd saved Tony as an exclusive, decided point, after the fighting had already ended.

"Thank you, by the way." Tony says, and he clearly means it. "It may not always seem like it, but I'm pretty attached to myself."

Bruce laughs in spite of himself. Tony's sincere tone is a strange surprise as well as the joke on his own ego. Bruce isn't sure if that's the way he intended it, because Tony is sort of a paradox that way - he obviously had a lot of self-directed affection, but he'd hardly hesitated to put himself in danger's way, when it mattered. Bruce hadn't seen anyone else volunteering to take a warhead through an inter-dimensional gate.

Tony's smile answers, satisfied. Bruce realizes that Tony had wanted the laughter, and isn't really sure what to make of that. "I couldn't say why he did it. I wanted to, but it's not like that ever mattered in the past."

Tony shrugs. He doesn't care how or why, he's still appreciative. "I've learned not to look gift rescues in the mouth." Stark considers his own statement for a second, shrugs off his own restraint or good taste, and adds. "I thought about it, though. Non-metaphorically."

"What do you think you'd - what would you be looking for in his mouth?"

Tony sighs and yanks the keys out of the ignition, the signal that they were apparently finally going to get out of the car. Bruce has his hand in the door handle when Tony finally clears his confusion. "Not his mouth. Yours."

But he gets out of the car in a quick motion that doesn't let Bruce formulate a question in response, and they stop moving at a reasonable pace and get going in Stark's gear again.


"Yes, sir?" The computer answers through speakers, adjusting the light in the garage as it does so, programmed to know that Stark wouldn't want brighter lights until he was moving around or asked for them.

"Tell Dummy to have drinks ready upstairs in the meeting room on three. And tell him if he spills anything on the carpet, I'm going to take him apart and give him to art students." Tony glances over at Bruce to make sure he's got his bag out of the trunk before he begins leading the way toward the lifts. "It's amazing what they call 'art' these days, right? Found Objects - speaks for itself."

Bruce shoulders his bag and gets into the lift after Tony - it's marked 'private'- and decides he's ready to follow Tony through this whole thing.