So what if Bruce was a bad guy? Maybe he liked it that way.
If people didn’t want to be manipulated, they shouldn’t make it so easy for him to do. They shouldn’t give in to his excuses of oh, anger issues or can’t help myself .
Ross had been the easiest. He thought he was so fucking clever, even though Bruce could see right through him. Could see right through to Betty , who would do anything as long as it was against her father and for the brown-ey ed, so soft man that Bruce could be for her. Ross hate d him; Ross needed him. Ross thought he could keep secrets, but Bruce read him like an open book as he fucked his daughter.
Ross gave him the Super Solider Serum and Bruce almost, almost made it work. When he stepped into the machine with a grin on his face, he really just wanted to see what would happen.
It wasn’t perfect. It was better than perfect. Better than he could ever have hoped for. Yeah it was big and green and loud, and horrible for stealth, but it was also animalistic .
Ross was the first person to believe that Hulk was mindless. Bruce wasn’t about to correct his misperception. Bruce spent a lot of time and energy pretending that he didn’t remember anything that happened with he was green—pretending that he had no control over his actions. It really just meant he could kill whoever he wanted and when he woke up people would cuddle him and pet his hair and whisper it’s all right, it wasn’t your fault, you weren’t in control .
But Bruce was always in control.
He was in control when he put Betty in the hospital. He was in control when he locked eyes with Ross and let him think he was being scared away. He was in control whe n he sent his blood to Mr. Blue. He was in control w hen he pretended to let Ross’s H ulkbuster team take him out. He was in control all the w ay to New York, and Harlem, and when he killed the only thing that had ever stood up to him. He was in control when he pretended to run and hide with his tail between his legs.
He was in control when he killed his first person with his own, still-pink hands.
It was different than when he was Hulk. As Hulk, he felt nothing. His skin was impervious to even the largest of explosions. He never felt metal twisting un der his grip or bones snapping beneath his fists. He literally did not have tactile sensation when he was Hulk.
She was fifteen and her legs were so thin they were the size of his wrists. He compared his elbows to her knobby knees as he sunk the injection into her blood.
She would have survived. Her disease was bad, the starvation was worse, but she would have lived with even the barest of medical intervention. He didn’t kill her just because he could. He didn’t kill her because he thought she deserved to die. He killed her to see what would happen as the paralytic took hold and he leaned over her with the blanket on her mouth, muffling her frantic breaths.
He felt her skin grow hot and flushed, then clammy. He felt her blood beating and struggling to keep her alive long after her lungs had given up the fight. He felt the last whisper of alive as it slipped into dead . He saw what happened, and he felt it to his very bones.
It was better than when he was Hulk. And when he went to tell her family that she had unfortunately passed away in the night, he was barely in control of the smile that threatened his face.
She wasn’t his last .
He kept up appearances. He even saved lives. He could attribute perhaps three or four hundred lives to his hands. Without him, they would not still exist. But there were others here and there, when he needed to see what would happen…
He was in control when he screamed in Agent Romanoff's face, made her fear him and feel sympathy for him. He was in control as he wrung his hands and pretended to debate whether he—whether any of them—were worthy of saving the world. He was in control as he tested the God of Thunder and finally found someone who could almost-not-quite match him. He was in control when he fell. He was in control when he picked himself up again and beat the God of Lies and Trickery to a p ulp, because if the two Asgardians ever teamed up he was done for.
And he was in control when he plucked Tony out of the air and saved his life. Not because he thought Tony was deserving of the life he’d been given, n or because he was attached to the man. No. It was because he had other plans for Tony.
Most of all, he just wanted to see what would happen .
Bruce was good at playing the long con. His longest running was, of course, the continued illusion that Hulk was somehow mindless, yet controllable. Infantile, yet intelligent. Beast and burden. Murderer and rescuer. Shield and sword.
He began a new con. An easy one, one he wouldn’t even have to work to maintain. He put on a yellow shirt and smiled at Tony Stark as he hopped into his car. He clutched his bag to his chest like he was hiding behind it. When Tony delivered him to the port authority to leave New York, he took Tony’s hand in his and held on just a bit too long.
Bruce dropped his eyes to Tony’s fingers wrapped around his own and whispered, “Thanks.”
He spent six months traveling along the southern edge of China. He saved ninety-eight lives and took twelve of his own. He knew SHIELD was breathing down his back, and he didn’t care. They never realized. Never knew. He delivered ideas to them occasionally and kept them preoccupied with his little inventions—his little pretend game of trying to cure himself of Hulk.
Others came after him, of course. Ross had long since given up the hunt, in the culmination of one of Bruce’s most brilliant cons to date. He’d turned Betty against him and fixed his puppy-dog eyes on the General, and Ross had given up. Family had always been so important to the man.
But he got calls, occasionally, from people desperate to use him to their own end. Small-time scientists interested in the Serum. Once, a representative from a company called Advanced Idea Mechanics. Each time he cowered and hid and wrung his hands together and let them think he was weak. SHIELD usually took care of them, and he would cast his eyes downward and whisper, “Oh. I’m in your debt.”
When Mandarin happened and Tony called pretending to smile around the tears locked behind his eyes, Bruce gladly went.
He was in control when he curled up on the chair in Tony’s Malibu study. He was in control as he listened just enough to be able to play Tony with his insecurities later. He was in control as he pretended to fall asleep, drove Tony just a little deeper into his own self-hatred. He was in control as he made excuses and put up with Tony’s babbling for a while longer.
Later, when Tony had finished laying his troubles out to bare, Bruce watched as Pepper came into the study with an unnatural glow under her skin and kissed Tony on the cheek. He watched as Tony smiled and winced at the same time. He watched as Pepper said she had a board meeting to attend. He watched as Tony followed her sadly with his eyes.
“What are you going to do with your spare time now?” Bruce asked when she had finally gone.
Tony glanced over at him, confused. “Well, I’m still Iron Man.”
“But you can’t build any new suits?” He said everything like a question.
“No.” Tony smiled. “But that’s okay. Pepper’s letting me keep one to work on. And I’ve got other projects.”
“Mm.” Bruce fiddled with his glasses, folding and unfolding their arms.
“’Mm?’” Tony mocked. “What do you mean ‘mm? ’”
“It-it’s nothing.” Bruce shrugged one shoulder and rubbed at the stubble on his face. “I was just thinking it must be nice. To love someone so much you’d be willing to change everything for them.”
Tony just looked at him with his strange, brown eyes intense on Bruce’s face. Bruce let him launch into another story—about college, or something, he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. He’d already planted the seed.
Pepper was dangerous.
She fixed where Tony was broken. She propped him up when he would fall. She kept him healthy and stable when Bruce needed him sick and insane.
So she had to go.
Bruce was in complete control when he stayed at Tony’s summer home instead of returning to China . He was in control when he said he was helping Tony through a tough time. He was in control when he directed Pepper to spend more time away, more time with the company, more time on herself and coming to grips with Extremis. He was in control when he whispered to Tony that he had changed so much, and Pepper had not changed for him at all.
(He had to be careful. It took months of work for Tony to look at Pepper with different eyes.)
Bruce loved a long con.
He loved when Tony finally snapped. When he asked Pepper why nothing he did was ever good enough. He loved how confused she was, then how angry. He loved how they fought tooth-and-nail against one another. He let it rise in tension, each scream louder and louder bouncing off the walls and making him smile within himself.
Then he knocked on the door, and was met with Tony’s sheepish face.
“Is everything all right?” Bruce asked. He let his hands shake and the barest hint of green beneath his skin. He didn’t look at Tony, though he knew without seeing.
He heard Tony suck in a breath. “Yeah, it’s fine. Sorry big guy.”
“It’s okay.” Bruce glanced up and gave him a soft smile, easy and worn. “I might, ah, st -step out. I’ll be back later.”
He left. He wasn’t there to hear their fight renewed. He wasn’t there to see Tony ripping out his hair in frustration. He wasn’t there to see Tony torn between two worlds—Bruce and Pepper. He didn’t hear all of Tony’s excuses for why he wouldn’t change, for why he couldn’t listen to Pepper every time. He wasn’t there to watch Tony make his biggest mistake when he looked Pepper in the eye and said, “I know you’ll always be there, but Bruce won’t .”
But he’d set it all in motion, so he knew what was coming.
When he went back to the mansion , Tony was alone with his thoughts and his ‘bots.
He was in control when he pretended to make an exception for drinking just-this-once. He was in control when he placed his hand over Tony’s to stop him from calling Pepper. He was in control as Tony fell deeper and deeper, broke more and more. He was in control when he bit his lip at the taste of whiskey, when he sat half-turned towards Tony, when he made Tony laugh at stupid story from his grad school days.
And he was in control when Tony tried to kiss him.
He almost would have liked to simply fall into bed, but this was a long con. He kissed back for only a few seconds before pulling away and worrying his lower lip. Tony was drunk, but not wasted. He would remember this in the morning.
“Tony, I can’t,” he said. “I can’t get too…excited.”
Betty had been disappointed, unwilling to try—her first failure, in his eyes. That had been what made Bruce give up on her. She wasn’t worth the effort of pulling her away from her friends and family. She was only worth a pawned necklace and getting Ross off his back. Tony was different. His eyes were bright and searching, jaw tense as he sipped his whiskey.
When Tony said, “We’ll work on it,” it wasn’t a surprise.
“I need to be in complete control,” Bruce said when Tony tried again a few days later, this time sober as a preacher. It was a lie. He didn’t need to be in control. He simply was. He controlled everything around him, tugged the strings on the people-shaped marionettes in his life just to see how they would dance. He was the one who decided how they fell when their strings were cut.
He held Tony’s hand in his own and remembered holding the hand of an elderly man in Calcutta . It had been his last, before Romanoff and Loki. The man had not been sick when he arrived, only confused. But when he slipped away, his tight fingers struggling around Bruce’s grip, his eyes had been clear. He’d known.
“We’ll start slow,” Tony said, and kissed him again.
It was slow, slower than Bruce had honestly expected from Tony. But that worked in his favor as he trailed his tongue over Tony’s lip, as he rested his thumb on Tony’s wrist. Tony let him take it slow, and so he did his best to drive Tony crazy. Tony had to think it was his idea when he pushed, had to blame himself when it all went wrong.
Tony pushed. And Bruce let it all go wrong.
It was freeing to be in his Hulk form. He hadn’t done it in so long. His blood rushed faster, his movements were quicker. Everything happened so rapidly . But it was also limiting. He couldn’t feel Tony’s body crushed beneath him. He couldn’t feel that pleasant whisper against his skin as Tony struggled for breath. The slickness of his blood on his fingertips would only be a visual memory. The crunch of his bones an auditory one.
He left Tony alive, because he wasn’t done with him yet, and because he wanted to see what would happen.
It went better than he ever could have dreamed.
Tony held him close, spooned across his back, as Bruce woke up. His right arm was broken and his voice was pained as he whispered into Bruce’s hair, “I’m so sorry, Bruce. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He was glad that Tony was facing away, for he wasn’t in control of the smile on his face. It was the first time since his first death that it got away from him, and he reveled for a moment in the sensation.
Then he turned and treated Tony’s injuries, felt all the damage his bigger hands had wrought, and begged forgiveness. Tony refused to give it to him, because Tony accepted all the blame. When Bruce pressed wrong o n his arm, Tony only whispered, “Sorry.” When Bruce bandaged his ribs a bit too tightly, Tony said, “It’s my own fault.” When Bruce cleaned the blood from his split lip Tony locked eyes with him and begged, “Please don’t go.”
Bruce said, “I have to,” and knew that his con had already paid off.
He didn’t leave.
Why would he? He had what he wanted. He had a Tony Stark who would do anything for him, who was so desperate for human contact that he would let his skin become a mottled mess, his bones like shattered glass beneath muscle.
Rhodey came, with a bottle of whisky and a whisper of good times. He was there to drink to Pepper moving on, to help Tony through his tough time. But Bruce didn’t want Tony helped. So when Rhodey questioned his broken arm, Bruce looked sheepish. When Rhodey tried to pour three glasses of whisky, Bruce looked panicked. He said that maybe he should go, and then watched as Tony pulled Rhodey aside and explained that if he was going to be there, there were a few ground rules.
No drinking. No questions. And Rhodey obeyed because he was a good friend. Exactly the kind of friend Bruce didn’t want Tony to have. But Rhodey wasn’t like Pepper. He didn’t live in Tony’s home, or even in the state. When Tony waved him away, Bruce knew he’d be back. But he hoped by then
he’d have Tony completely under his control.
Tony fell into him, like filthy water down a drain, rolling in tight spirals inevitably towards oblivion. Bruce pet his hair and kissed his lips and said he’d always be there for him.
Then, he set Tony to work.
He set him to work building metal men with fire-red eyes. To help , Bruce said. To protect . And if Bruce just happened to be behind all the coding, and if he just happened to slip in a few lines, well then. If Ultron happened to go rogue, who could stop it?
Bruce wanted to see what would happen, but Tony was too slow. His arm healed and his ribs no longer pained him, and Bruce longed to cause more damage. But if he did it then he might lose all he had worked for.
But he needed, desperately, to see what would happen when he snuck out of their home late one evening. When he flew to Washington , D.C. When he knocked on Natasha’s door and smiled at her. When he slipped in and said, “I wanted to apologize.”
When he wrapped his hands around her paralyzed neck and watched the light fade from her eyes.
Tony was in a panic when he finally returned. Bruce felt lighter than he had in a while, his needs momentarily sated. Tony collapsed against him, begged Bruce not to run again. Bruce held him close and buried his face in Tony’s neck and said it was a promise he couldn’t make, but he would try.
They found out that Natasha had died three days later. It was Steve who delivered the news, in his motorcycle jacket with his helmet tucked under one arm. He was somber and quiet, and the last person Bruce wanted to see.
Steve was too smart, too kind, too precious. He would see right through Tony’s panicking eyes and know what lay beneath. Bruises long since healed, but still fresh in his mi nd. Bruce feigned shell-shocked; Tony did not have to feign his scattered tears.
Steve looked back and forth between them, and eventually he saw. He asked Tony aside, and Tony surprised Bruce again.
“He thinks you’re hurting me!” Tony shouted after he slammed the door in Steve’s face.
“I would never do that.” Bruce reached out. Wrapped his hand around Tony’s arm. Thought about how easy it would be to snap the bones again. How easily he could twist Tony’s wrist and drive him to the floor. How he could cut the strings that held Tony aloft the same way he had cut Natasha’s.
“I know.” Tony folded against him and Bruce held him close. “He’s just confused because of what happened with Natasha. Bruce, I would, I would do anything for you. You know that, right?”
“Yes.” Bruce turned and kissed his temple, a mockery of kindness.
That night when Tony pushed, he only gave him a scare. Let eyes flash green and voice roll deep. It would have been easy to let everything go wrong, but then he wouldn’t get to see what would happen.
Steve did not give up.
He asked Tony to a dinner, just the two of them, to discuss this. Bruce worked on Ultron and pretended it was bothering him. Pretended it wasn’t the greatest gift Steve could have given him.
When Tony returned he was pleased. He kissed Bruce and Bruce kissed back. Tony didn’t push him that night. Nor the night after. Nor for the two weeks when he would disappear for a few hours with Steve each day and return with a spring in his step.
He was in control when he slumped into the chair. When he watched Tony dance around the lab. When he rubbed his hands together and cast his gaze to the ground. When he asked, “Are you cheating on me?”
He was in control as Tony flew to him, rushed assurances that he would never falling from his lips. He was in control when Tony pressed kisses to his face, his lips, his neck. He was in control when he pushed Tony away. When he said he didn’t believe him. Because he knew that Tony needed sex like he needed air, and Bruce couldn’t provide. Couldn’t provide because Tony wouldn’t let him. Wouldn’t let him take control.
He was always in control. It’s just how it was.
So when Tony whispered, “Anything, anything Bruce,” it wasn’t a surprise.
He held Tony down and Tony didn’t struggle, even though there were tears in his eyes and no on his lips.
Steve came around a bit more, but he and Tony no longer went off alone together. Bruce let it go on too long, maybe. He let Steve grow to understand their jittery dynamic, with Tony hiding and flinching and blabbering about Ultron and all the good they were doing. Steve would look at him with confused blue eyes, and Bruce knew it was only a matter of time before Steve did something drastic.
The idiot was too kind for his own good.
So Steve had to go, too. Which meant more quiet conversations with Tony and far too much work, because Bruce was actually concerned that Steve was just as immortal as he was. If it were true, then
trying to kill him would show his cards too early. But his Tony-shaped puppet performed admirably, locking himself deeper and darker until it was only Bruce who rocked him through the nightmares and ran hands through his hair.
Sometimes, Steve knocked on the door. No one answered.
It was a Wednesday when he hit Tony with his own, still-pink hands for the first time. It was an exhilarating, astonishing culmination of all he had been working towards. He’d hit people before, but not like this. Not when they dropped to their knees and said simultaneously I’m sorry and more .
It was a Friday when he slapped the final face plate on Ultron . Self-replicating. Genius.
It was a Saturday when he sat sipping tea with Tony curled up at his side, wondering what would happen. They watched the news together; Tony’s face growing paler and paler as Bruce held him down and refused to let him help.
In a way, it was like when he was Hulk. He couldn’t feel bodies twisting under metal fists. Couldn’t touch the burnt flesh, shattered bones, desperate wet blood. He could only watch and listen and remember for next time as Ultron worked its magic.
Steve knocked on the door.
No one answered.
He’d been right. Steve was immortal. Leading some paltry resistance against him, with the help of a banished god , a woman who breathed fire, and a decidedly-not-dead Abomination.
He didn’t care, really. He stroked Tony’s cheek and watched Tony shiver and cry against his leg. He sometimes wondered what would happen when he cut Tony’s strings. Watched him fall against the floor for the last time. Kicked his lifeless form around and resigned himse lf to dealing with Steve Rogers for the next infinity.
But he didn’t cut them yet. He still wanted to see what would happen.