One day, Bruce opened the door to his apartment in Queens and Steve was standing there, a square wooden board under one arm and a worn cardboard box in his other hand.
“Chess,” said Bruce.
“Hi Doctor Banner,” said Steve.
“Hey,” said Bruce, and let him in.
“How are you doing?” said Steve.
“Okay,” said Bruce. “How was church?”
“Good.” Steve put the board and box on the card table. “You do play, right?”
Bruce’s thumb ran over his fingers. “I know how,” he said finally.
“I thought since you didn’t have a TV,” Steve said, opening the box.
Bruce had been in New York City almost two months, and Steve had been coming over every Sunday after church for about half of that time. When they had lived in Uganda, Steve had visited fairly frequently. At first, Bruce had thought it was because Steve had questions or wanted help, but eventually he’d figured out that Steve really liked other people’s company. It was the typical difference between an extrovert and introvert: Steve gained energy from being around other people; Bruce found being around other people exhausting.
It had taken an embarrassingly long time to remember that fact in New York, after several phone calls that left Bruce wondering why Steve wanted to spend time together so often. It had taken an even longer time to realize that Steve didn’t have that many friends here. Bruce felt like he probably should have known that, once he realized it, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Steve considered him a friend. It took even longer for it to occur to Bruce that Steve considered him among the best of them.
Steve was setting up the chess pieces while Bruce got the coffee going in the kitchen. “I used to play with Bucky,” Steve said.
“Was he any good?” Bruce asked, because Steve liked to talk about Bucky.
“Nope,” said Steve. “He pretty much lost horribly every single time.”
“Just so you know, I’m pretty much going to lose horribly.” The water was on the stove, and Bruce had measured out the grounds, so he came back to the living room area and sat across from Steve. “I didn’t know you played.”
Steve smiled at him. “When you’re no good at ball, you do plenty of nerdy things to stay entertained. Anyway,” he said, “geniuses are supposed to be good at chess. What’s wrong with you?”
Rolling his eyes, Bruce pushed a pawn. “I’m sorry I’m not a master of strategy.”
“I’m not a master of strategy.” Steve pushed his own pawn.
“You sell yourself short,” Bruce said, and moved his knight.
Steve looked at him, then looked down. His strong hand should probably have looked too large and beefy moving over the board, but instead he made each move look elegant, the flick of his wrist moving through the tendon up bare, strong arms. “Speaking of nerdy things,” Steve said.
Bruce focused on the board again, and moved his bishop. “It’s going alright.”
“Oh?” Steve moved his knight.
Shooting Steve a look, Bruce said, “He’s been surprisingly . . . patient.”
Steve smiled, a line showing up at the side of his mouth. “I was talking about the college.”
“Oh. That’s going alright too.” Bruce had been doing some lab work at City College so he could pay the bills. They’d offered him a guest professorship for the summer term.
He’d also been working with Tony in a lab in Stark Tower off and on for around five weeks. They were trying to build a more economically efficient toilet for use in third world countries, because among all of Tony’s projects, it was the only one Bruce couldn’t see being used as a weapon.
“I’ve never known Mister Stark to be patient,” Steve said. They exchanged moves again, and Bruce castled. Steve looked at him, blue eyes quick and too perceptive, then back down at the board. He moved another pawn. “Do you think it’s because of what happened last time?”
“You mean he thinks I’m going to turn tail and run?”
Bruce moved his other bishop again. “I don’t know, Steve. So far, we’re okay. I mean, we’re designing a toilet, not mind control.”
Steve pushed another pawn up to attack the bishop. “Was there a possibility of developing mind control?”
“Tony was working on technology powered by the Tesseract when I got back.” Bruce moved his bishop back. “It’s why I came.”
“I would have thought that would make you run in the other direction.”
Bruce smiled ruefully. “Then you don’t know me very well.”
Another flash of blue eyes, and Steve’s long blond lashes. “I know you’re not a fan of doing anything that will hurt people,” he said quietly, pushing another pawn to attack.
“I’m not.” Bruce moved his bishop back again. “Knowing Tony, he thinks I’m some kind of wild animal he just has to lure out into the open.”
“You think he’s trying to trap you?”
“More like tame me. Once I see how harmless building toilets is, I’m going to think it’s grand and dandy to build Iron Man suits and—whatever other dangerous thing Tony is working on these days.”
Steve smiled crookedly, the corner of his mouth turning down in a teasing way. “I suppose green energy is very dangerous to oil companies.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.” Steve’s smile faded and his gaze turned thoughtful as he looked up at Bruce. Bruce never quite wanted to meet his eyes when Steve looked at him that way. “How much of a threat is the armor?” Steve said. “Does it outweigh the good it can do?” He advanced another pawn.
“Who gets to decide what’s good?” Bruce said, recklessly moving his queen. “You? Fury?”
“We do what we have to, Doctor Banner. Even you.” Steve moved his bishop. “Check.”
“Told you I was no good at this.”
“You’re just rusty.”
“Is that what you used to tell Bucky?”
Steve’s gaze shuttered. “No.”
Bruce hadn’t actually meant to press any buttons.
“He didn’t get out of practice,” Steve said.
Bruce wanted to say he was sorry, but it would only make himself feel better, not Steve. He moved his king out of check.
Steve’s eyes flicked up. “You’re boiling.”
“What?” Then, hearing the water too, Bruce stood up and he went to the kitchen. He took the pot off, turned off the stove, and started pouring the water over the filter. When it got full, he poked his head out of the kitchen. “Knight to queen eight,” he said.
“You didn’t see where I moved,” said Steve.
“I already know how you’re going to beat me.”
Steve moved Bruce’s piece, then moved his own. “How’s the coffee working out for you?”
“You’ll have to tell me.”
Steve looked up. “Have you heard from her lately?”
“No,” said Bruce, and went back into the kitchen.
Steve was talking about Natasha. Almost two months ago, she’d shown up at Bruce’s apartment with plans for a weapon of mass destruction. She hadn’t provided much of an explanation, just handed Bruce the plans. Bruce had looked over them, working out what the weapons did and what the diagrams meant. Two weeks after that, Bruce had defused one of the weapons in Central Park. Natasha’s only acknowledgement of the incident had been the coffee pot she’d sent to Bruce’s apartment. He hadn’t heard from her since.
Bruce poured a little bit more water into the filter. “Queen to queen two,” he said, when he poked his head out again. “Was I supposed to hear from her?”
“I thought she wanted to spar,” Steve said, moving Bruce’s piece again.
“Yeah, you ever think maybe a life of espionage might, I don’t know, make you lose your marbles?”
“She didn’t ask the Hulk.” Steve moved his own piece. “She asked you.”
“You don’t think that’s a little weird?” Bruce had thought it was weird. She’d also offered to show him plans for weapons of mass destruction any time he liked. That was a little less weird—Pepper had made the same offer, albeit a little more subtly. They wanted him to be prepared for any enemies S.H.I.E.L.D. might face. In the end, it was just an underhand bid for the Hulk.
“Maybe she’s waiting for you to get in touch,” said Steve.
“Why would I do that?”
Steve looked up, his eyes running over Bruce in a way that was very thorough and very kind, and made Bruce feel far worse than being naked. “Give me a list of the people you trust,” Steve said, his voice light, when Bruce looked away.
“Steve Rogers,” Bruce said, and went back into the kitchen. He poured the coffee into the mugs Natasha had also provided, and brought them both to the living room.
“Thank you,” Steve said, looking up at him.
Bruce sat down and drank his coffee.
“She made the first move,” said Steve. “Maybe it’s your turn.”
Bruce moved his knight. “Why are you pushing this, Steve?”
Steve looked down at his coffee, pursing his lips. When he looked back up, Bruce couldn’t help but notice how long his lashes were, how young and sad his mouth. “When I worked with the Howlers, we were a team. We weren’t just partners. We were friends. I’ve worked with the Avengers—or whatever we’re calling ourselves now—seven times now. We’re plenty of things. But we’re not a team, and we’re not friends.”
Steve moved his knight . “Check. Most of the time I’m convinced Stark hates me. Then there are times when suddenly, he’s closer than we’ve ever . . . . When we work together, it’s amazing. We’re so in sync, it’s like we were made for each other.”
Taking Steve’s knight with his pawn, Bruce didn’t say anything. He never ventured to guess just who or what, exactly, Tony had been thinking of when he made the suit, and if Steve didn’t have that figured out, it wasn’t Bruce’s place to suggest it.
“But it’s the rest of the time that bothers me,” Steve went on, deftly taking Bruce’s own knight. “Besides Stark, I partner with Miss Romanoff—we’re both good on the ground, and we work well together too. In a battle, we don’t have to communicate much. I don’t have to tell her what to do, because she always knows already, and she knows what I’m going to do too. But outside a battle—I can’t read a single thing off her. I know she’s friends with Clint, who acts like an open book, but doesn’t confide in anyone, besides maybe her. As for Romanoff, besides Clint, she’s never even seemed to have the inclination to reach out to a single one of us—except for you.”
Taking another burning gulp of coffee, Bruce moved carelessly. “I’m not a part of your team, Steve.” He knew that Steve’s warm blue eyes were trying to catch his own, but he didn’t look up.
Instead, Steve methodically captured Bruce’s bishop. “You know I’m not asking you to be.”
“Right,” said Bruce, blocking Steve’s next move with a pawn. “You’re asking me to make an effort. Well, just so you know, being terrified of me isn’t a gesture of friendship.”
“You don’t know her,” Steve said, moving his bishop.
“Neither do you,” said Bruce, countering.
“I’d like to,” said Steve. “I think she has a good heart.”
Steve probably thought everyone who saved the world had a good heart.
Bruce thought about Natasha—her strange gifts, the way she smiled, the fact that she’d come to him specifically. I’m always afraid, she had told him, and he wondered whether she had picked him because he was never afraid, or because he constantly was. He felt like he didn’t know anything about her, and yet he also felt like he knew exactly how she worked.
He wanted to know how she worked.
“Check mate,” said Steve.
“Good game,” said Bruce.
When Bruce got to the lab on the forty-ninth floor of Stark Tower the morning after the chess game with Steve, a boy of about ten or twelve was standing behind one of the benches. He dropped a tablet when he saw Bruce, and took a step back. Then the boy stopped, tilted his head, and took a step back forward.
“You’re . . .” Bruce looked the kid up and down. He wore a really big Van Halen shirt and really big black pants that he was holding up with one hand. “. . . Not supposed to be here,” Bruce finished.
“What’s going on?” said the boy. He had brown hair, coming down to about his ears, curling just a little. Big dark eyes, impish little mouth, and not a bit familiar.
“I’m really not sure,” said Bruce. “Where’s Tony?”
The boy lifted his chin defiantly. “Is that some kind of joke?”
“It . . . wasn’t supposed to be.” The thing was, the boy was a little familiar. “JARVIS,” Bruce said.
“This may come as a shock,” said the polite British voice, and the boy jumped, clutching the bench in front of him.
The boy looked around. “Jarvis?” he asked, edging along the bench, then putting his back to the wall. “Where are you?”
“Wait a minute, JARVIS,” Bruce said, because he didn’t like shocks. He wondered whether Tony had programmed it to warn him. Bruce turned to the kid, because he still had the whole defiant thing going on, but he was pretty obviously terrified. “It’s a computer,” Bruce explained.
The boy shook his head. “That’s Jarvis.”
“I’m sorry.” Bruce’s thumb moved over his fingers. “I didn’t know you knew the voice.”
The boy turned wide eyes on him, waist of his pants still clutched in a fist. “He’s our butler.”
The t-shirt, the pants—the fact that he was here in the first place—oh God, his mouth—but . . . Tony could have had a son without anyone knowing about it. This was a perfectly rational explanation: a son the press hadn’t managed to find, who had tracked his father down suddenly and—maybe he was a runaway, and had had to borrow Tony’s clothes. Plenty of people borrowed Tony’s clothes, no big deal. And then Tony had modeled JARVIS’s vocals off his son’s butler. Why not.
“What are you looking at?” the boy demanded.
“Okay, JARVIS,” said Bruce. “I’m ready for that shock.”
“Perhaps not in front of the child,” JARVIS suggested.
“I’m not a child,” said the child. “When my father gets wind of this, he is going to hand you your ass, and you’re not getting any money out of my family, I can tell you right now, so you better start explaining, or—you’ll be sorry.” The boy sneered, and yes, it was the mouth—pursed out a bit in annoyance, quite expressive when he chose. “You’ll wish you’d put your testicles in a blender and your eyeballs in a toaster; you’ll wish—”
“I got it,” Bruce said.
The kid smirked. “I’m just getting started.”
“I know,” said Bruce, because he did know him, and that’s when fear and worry sliced through him just like a knife. This was completely crazy; this was impossible, but Tony had been working on the technology of the Tesseract, which could fold a portal through space and open it right up, so maybe it was possible, theoretically, but Tony didn’t have the Tesseract.
Bruce looked around the lab. The skeleton of the apparatus that had held the Tesseract was on the other side of the room, open like a rib cage in an autopsy, spilling what would have been its guts all around. Trace fragments, Bruce realized, and God damn it, Tony—
“Who the hell are you?” Tony said, and for a moment Bruce was just so angry. Of all the stupid, irresponsible—
Bruce took a deep breath. “I’m Bruce Banner,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t play games with me,” Tony said.
The terror in his voice relaxed Bruce’s shoulders a bit. “You know I didn’t kidnap you,” he said gently.
Tony scowled. “Then how did I get here?”
“I don’t know.” Bruce took a step forward. “Maybe we can figure that out.”
Tony tilted his head in that defiant way again. “Jarvis?” His voice was tentative.
“I’m not familiar with the mechanics of the entire process,” said JARVIS, “nor the necessary modifications for reversal.”
“Reversal,” said Tony. “You mean like—sending me back to school?”
“Not precisely,” said JARVIS.
“Then what, precisely?” Irritation compounded fear in Tony’s voice.
“In due time, Mister Stark.”
“That’s enough, JARVIS,” Bruce said. “Do you know where you are, Tony?”
Tony just sneered. “So, not acting like you don’t know my name any more.”
“I figured it out,” Bruce said, taking another step forward.
“Don’t come any closer.”
“Okay,” said Bruce, and put his hands in his pockets.
“Now,” said Tony, “tell me exactly what is going on. And no lies. My dad is developing truth-telling technology and he will make you comply if you lie. And he’ll have you arrested,” he added in afterthought. “And I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Are you finished?” Bruce said.
“No.” Tony’s chin jutted out. “I can plant dirty evidence, you know. Pornography. And you’ll rot in prison forever and probably get the death sentence, if the inmates don’t string you up by the balls first.”
“You’re very graphic.”
Tony smirked. “Just thorough. Now tell me what the hell that computer knows and why the fuck I’m here.”
“I think you were working with the element in the Tesseract,” Bruce said. “I think you were running some experiments and managed to accidentally . . . purposely perform one on yourself. I think you turned yourself from a man in his forties into a kid, using alien technology. Ringing any bells?”
“Yeah,” said Tony. “You’re a fucking nutcase.”
“JARVIS?” said Bruce.
“You’ve summarized it adequately,” said JARVIS.
“And that’s a recording of my butler,” Tony said.
“Ask it a question,” Bruce said, tone still gentle.
“Why the fuck are you pretending to be Jarvis when you’re just a recording?”
“I am not pretending,” said JARVIS. “You programmed me with the vocal patterns and the essential personality traits of your erstwhile butler, such that—”
“Erstwhile?” Tony’s voice cracked. “Bullshit. You’re a guy in a room with some kind of . . . voice manipulation software.”
“I am not a ‘guy in a room,’” said JARVIS. Then it said, in Pepper’s voice, “My other vocal protocols are more limited, but I can change them if the primary protocol discomforts you.”
“Who is that?” said Tony, flinching.
Bruce didn’t really want to think about why JARVIS could talk in Pepper’s voice. “Tony, do you know where we are?” he asked, keeping his voice calm and soothing.
Tony turned his defiant sneer on Bruce, looking like he was going to make another smart remark. Then he looked around, and his shoulders deflated a little. He shifted his grip on his pants. “Manhattan? I . . .” His eyes darted around again. “I don’t recognize the room.”
“What year do you think it is?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on with this. This is bullshit.”
“It’s 2013, Tony,” Bruce said.
“Okay, let me just . . .” Bruce held up a hand to show Tony he meant no harm, moving a little farther into the room. The nearest computer was already booted, so Bruce tapped the keyboard. “Come look at this with me.” He looked over at Tony, who was still against the wall. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“That’s what they say before they murder you and sell you for parts, you know,” said Tony, but he came, holding his pants up and kicking the legs forward as he went.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Bruce asked him, once he was close enough to see.
Tony shrugged. “You’ve got, you know, a very expensive TV, so what.”
“You know it’s not a TV,” Bruce said. “This is a search. Go on and type.” He pushed the keyboard Tony’s way.
Tony frowned at it, then frowned at Bruce, then rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said, and typed in T-O-N-Y S-T-A-R-K, which, really, was to be expected.
It probably wasn’t the best thing for Tony to look at first. JARVIS may have been patronizing, but his caution was also sort of justified. However, this was the most compliant the kid had gotten so far, and Bruce understood—Tony appreciated the chance to do something himself. “Press Enter,” was all Bruce said.
“Whatever,” Tony said, and pressed Enter.
When the results came up, Tony immediately started tapping the down arrow, scrolling down the screen. Then he tried pressing Enter again. When nothing happened, he frowned a little—an expression Bruce recognized—and let go of the pants and set his fingers on home row. The pants stayed up around his narrow hips, just barely, and with his eyes still glued on the screen, Tony’s fingers started flying over the keyboard. Nothing happened. He tugged up his pants again.
“There’s,” Bruce began, but stopped when Tony frowned down at the table, found the mouse, and put his hand on it. Tony moved the cursor over, Tony Stark: World’s Sexiest Icon, because he might have been between the age of ten and twelve, but he was still Tony. “Go to images,” Bruce suggested.
Tony didn’t go to images. Instead, one hand holding his pants and the other on the cursor, he clicked Tony Stark: World’s Sexiest Icon, and there was a picture of Tony, circa 2013, right next to a picture of Iron Man.
“That’s not me,” said Tony. “That guy looks like a prick.”
“Um,” said Bruce.
Tony scrolled through the site, clicked back, clicked on another site, skimmed through it, clicked back. “What’s an Iron Man?” he asked, even as he typed it in on the search field.
“That would be your alter ego,” Bruce said, a little bemused.
“That’s dumb,” said Tony. Scrolling through the search results for Iron Man, he clicked on Images for iron man. “Fuck me,” Tony said, clicking on, The Man Behind the Iron. “What even is this shit?”
“How old are you?”
“Twelve,” Tony said, tone absent. Apparently he forget to be defiant and bitchy— threatened—when absorbed. And he definitely was completely absorbed.
Bruce squeezed his hands into fists and released them. “What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked.
“I have a girlfriend,” said Tony. He was doing a search on Pepper now. “Whoa. Babe-city. I would totally do her.”
Forty or fifty images of Pepper filled the screen, and then Tony went back up to the search bar, typing, “pepper potts cleavage”. “Tony,” Bruce said.
“Chill,” said Tony. He scrolled through the image page, then went back and changed the search to “pepper potts tits”.
“Okay. You have fun with that.” Turning away, Bruce went to go find a phone. He didn’t carry one, but Tony had to have more than one of them. Or maybe he just had the one, which might mean it was in Tony’s—
“This doesn’t prove anything, you know.”
Bruce turned around.
Tony had closed the browser and was giving Bruce his patented steely-eyed stare, except that it just looked sort of petulant—maybe a little frightened—instead of threatening. “So, you’ve got a computer. You’ve written some very clever software, and the image quality is . . .” He flicked the hand not holding up his pants in an absent way. “But all it proves is you’re a fucking nutcase. I’ve run into them before, you know.”
“You can type anything into that search,” Bruce pointed out. “You really think I made all that content up?”
“You and whoever you’re working for.”
“Tony, I don’t work for anyone.”
“Everyone works for someone.”
Tony had a sharp little chin, and that same mouth; his cheeks were soft, and Bruce didn’t like him at all. He wanted the other Tony back—the one who looked like a prick—because this was wrong. It was really really wrong, that this little boy could have this face and that expression, could say such a thing, and look so young.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Tony demanded.
Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers. “I need to make some phone calls,” he said.
“You won’t find any phones,” Tony said. “I checked.”
“That’s alright,” said Bruce. “Can you check your pocket for me?”
Tony frowned, but checked his pocket, the other hand still holding up the pants as he did so. “What the fuck is this?” he said, pulling the phone out of one of the pockets.
“It’s a cell phone,” said Bruce. “Can I use it, please?”
“This a fucking tracking device?” Scowling, Tony examined it, quickly finding the button and pressing it. “You’re going to tell me these are my old dude clothes. Like I’m all fat and shit. And this is my old dude phone. Jesus, I’m on fucking Star Trek.”
Bruce watched him explore the phone, a little helplessly. Telling Tony what to do would probably produce further defiance, and that way led to frustration and . . . other things, besides which, Bruce didn’t actually want to tell him what to do. He remembered what it was like, and it wasn’t fun.
Being a kid should have been fun, Bruce thought. Tony just looked so vulnerable like this; it was awful.
Touching the screen, Tony put the phone up to his ear. “It’s ringing,” he informed Bruce, and whatever happened next wasn’t going to be pretty. “Oh, hello Pepper Potts.” He smirked at Bruce, as though expecting him to put up a protest. Bruce just raised his brows.
“No, Tony told me to call you,” Tony said into the phone. “Hey, is it true you give great head?” He paused, then his smirk fell away.
Tony swallowed hard, then sort of tried to smirk again, but it looked half-hearted. “Really?” he said, his voice cracking. “So, can you describe, in extreme detail . . . Mm-hm. I see. Maybe this once you could . . . really?” He perked up a bit. “You think so?”
Here was the really beautiful thing about Pepper Potts—Tony Stark was blushing.
“Okay,” Tony said, forcing himself past the blush, “but maybe you could . . . No, he’s not at home at the moment. But if you want to I could . . . I told you, he gave it to me.”
“Tony,” Bruce said.
Tony’s eyes flicked up, then away. “You should know,” Tony said, “there’s this guy with pictures of your tits on his computer. . . . Yeah, this creepy guy.” Tony glanced at him again. “I dunno, Pep, he’s got pictures of your tits. . . . No, but I mean you know, serious cleavage and shit. Also he’s a shitty dresser.” Tony frowned at something Pepper must have said, then held out the phone. “You’re in cahoots,” was all he said.
“Thanks,” Bruce said, and took the phone. “I’m sorry, Pepper.”
“Bruce,” said Pepper. “Where’s Tony?”
“There’s been an accident,” said Bruce. “It’s serious, but Tony isn’t wounded.”
“Oh God,” said Pepper. “What happened? Is he alright?”
“I think we should talk about it in person,” Bruce said. Tony went back to the computer, clicking various things on the desktop. “As soon as possible,” Bruce added.
“Does it have to do with the boy?” said Pepper. When Bruce said yes, she said, “I’m on my way.”
“There’s another thing,” Bruce said. “Can you bring some clothes? For a twelve year old.”
He worked out the details with Pepper, and then hung up.
“So my girlfriend’s coming over?” Tony said, without turning around. “You two are pretty tight.”
“I’ve heard she gives excellent blow-jobs,” Bruce said.
Tony’s head whipped around. Bruce calmly scrolled through the contacts on Tony’s phone until he got to Steve. Tony’s eyes narrowed, but he turned back to the computer screen.
“Hello, Mister Stark,” Steve said.
“Uh, hi Steve,” said Bruce. “Sorry, Tony’s phone.”
“Doctor Banner.” Steve’s tone hadn’t been cold when he’d answered, but it was still decidedly warmer now. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really,” said Bruce. “Tony had an accident at the lab. He’s not wounded, but I think he might need some protection. Can you come?”
“I’m on my way. Is he going to be alright?”
“I hope so,” said Bruce. “Listen, this is . . . complicated, and I have to go. I can explain it when you get here, okay?”
“Sure, anything,” said Steve.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Bruce. “Just get here fast.”
“Okay, it won’t be long. You take care.” Steve hung up.
“That your boyfriend?” Tony asked, still not looking over. “Steve?”
“No,” said Bruce.
“He my bodyguard?”
“No,” Bruce said again. “Sometimes.”
“Cool-city.” Tony punched a couple more keys on the keyboard, then turned around. “You turn into a monster-truck sized man-beast. So, that’s bitchin’.”
Bruce glanced at the computer, then back at Tony. “I don’t think If You Give A Mouse A Cookie is even from your decade.”
Tony smirked. “The Hulk. What’s it like?”
“Big,” said Bruce.
Tony’s smile turned rakish, which, since he was twelve years old, made him look really goofy. “How big?”
“No one’s ever really got a tape measure on me.”
“Do it,” said Tony. “Change into a green berserker behemoth. Come on, I wanna see.”
Bruce smiled mildly. “I can’t really do it on command.”
“What’s the point of that? When do you do it?”
Bruce shrugged. “Only in specific circumstances.”
“Like what? Full moon shit? Are you a were-Gojira? Seriously?”
“Something like that,” said Bruce.
“And you’re more powerful than a locomotive.”
“Leap buildings in a single bound?”
“Faster than a speeding bullet?”
The problem with twelve-year-old Tony’s rakish, goofy smile was that there was actually something charming about it, whether it was the attempt to be adult itself or in just how powerfully he failed, it was difficult to say. It was so absolutely brazen and self-aware that he probably got away with a lot of things, just by flashing some teeth. “You know who’s faster than a speeding bullet?” Tony asked.
“Me. Change of plans,” Tony announced, tugging on his pants. “I’m bored of ARPANET. I want to see the suit.”
“Wow, you’re quick. Do they teach you to think like that at Hulk School?”
“Okay,” said Bruce.
“It’s not like I’m tall enough to fit in it,” Tony said, and then blinked. “Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Bruce. “You wanna see the suit, you can see the suit.” He smiled a little. “You’re not tall enough to fit in it.”
Tony bounced on the balls of his feet then rocked back on his heels, lips pursing. “I do get taller though, right? I mean, I’m not walking on these pants for nothing; I’m not, you know, some kind of shrimp.”
Bruce smiled a little more. “You get taller.”
Tony looked pleased. “Taller than my dad?”
Bruce realized he was squeezing the phone before he realized he was still holding it. He put it in his pocket, along with his hands. “I don’t know.”
“Okay, but when I’m standing beside him—”
“You don’t stand beside him,” Bruce said flatly.
Tony didn’t move, just pressed his lips together, and for a moment was very still. “Whatever,” he said.
“When did it—whatever.” Tony moved his head as though to shrug, but his shoulders didn’t follow through. “I’m all old and shit now, right? His time is past. Out with the old, in with the new; that’s what I always say. This is the future, right? So, what? You’re going to TARDIS me back in time? And I won’t remember any of this; is that right?”
“You didn’t time travel, Tony.”
“Right, teleporter accident; I forgot. You know what? Dad wasn’t Jesus Christ. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking he was totally Jesus Christ.” Tony waved a hand. “Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. But he was a shitty dad. He didn’t buy me a car when I turned twelve, and he never bought me that apartment in Malibu for weekends. It was like he didn’t have time for me at all. You know what? I bet he didn’t even love me.”
Tony was still smirking—a vacant, ugly thing, so Bruce didn’t say anything.
“People think he’s so altruistic.” Tony stepped closer, defiant, adolescent gait much like a swagger, sort of ruined by the way he had to step on his hems. “They think he’s all about their safety and protection and America, but he isn’t. You know what he is? He’s a whore. For the military.”
Tony was in Bruce’s space now, not at all intimidated by facing off an adult this way, and Bruce would have said Tony was enjoying it, except for the fact that the smirk had turned into a sneer.
“Anyway, I don’t see what’s so great about America. Just a bunch of fucking politicians, who are whores, and soldiers, who are also whores, and businessmen—who are johns—panting to see who can take it up the ass the fastest, and what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m just listening,” Bruce said.
“You’re saying I turned myself into a twelve-year old with alien technology and you’re this fucking mellow?”
“I’m kind of a low key guy.”
“What the fuck’s your problem? What if you can’t turn me back? What if I’m stuck this way, and I don’t remember—don’t you even care?”
For some reason, it was at this point that the hand Bruce didn’t even know was clenched around his heart started to squeeze. “I’m sorry about your dad, Tony.”
Making a huffing sound, Tony turned away. “Why are you sorry? Your dad isn’t dead.”
He was, but Tony was right: Bruce wasn’t sorry about that. Bruce didn’t say anything.
“Whatever,” Tony said again, and marched to the computer and started typing and clicking again, his back deliberately turned on Bruce.
Deciding Tony needed some time, Bruce went to one of the other computers in the lab, putting on his glasses. JARVIS let him in the system, and Bruce booted the volumetric projectors on the other side of the room. Tony called it the holodesk, even though technically, it didn’t use holography. They’d all grown up watching Star Trek, Bruce guessed, because the name stuck.
Bruce still felt weird using interfaces like this, partially because it came to him far more naturally than it should have. He’d been jamming on a crappy laptop for the past six years; he should have had to work more to familiarize himself with this system and this kind of technology, and he just didn’t. His comfort with all of it made him vaguely uneasy.
Bruce called up the footage of the lab for the past eight hours—Tony always kept video records of his work, and Bruce wanted to see exactly how the transition had happened. He also called up all the files Tony had been working on before it happened. One was diagrams for a toilet; another was some kind of neural microchip based on some of the calculations from Loki’s scepter—who knew why he was looking at that; another was some technology that looked Chitauri—and these were complete schematics, which means that Tony had most likely kept their guns and one of their fliers, dammit, Tony.
“What’re you doing?”
Bruce glanced down. Tony was holding his pants and looking at the images, his eyes wide and brown, his piquant little face tilted up.
“I’m trying to figure out what happened,” Bruce said, “so I can reverse it.”
“That looks painful,” Tony said, nodding at the video.
The footage from sixty minutes ago showed the older Tony Stark convulsing and—well, shrinking. It also looked like he was screaming, but Bruce had the sound turned off. There was no evidence as to where the arc reactor had gone. One moment it was glowing through his shirt; the next moment it was gone.
Right before the change had begun, Tony had been fiddling with the apparatus that was now sitting at the other end of the lab. Bruce needed to take the apparatus apart, figure out what Tony had done to it and how it worked.
“You shouldn’t be showing this to a kid, you know,” Tony said, peering at his older self, who was writhing.
“Do you want me to turn it off?”
Tony glanced up at him. “Nuh-uh, it’s cool. I love torture porn. What’s this?” He reached out toward the image with the schematics for the chip, and the image pulled out into his hand.
“That’s your older self being stupid,” Bruce said.
“Three-d!” said Tony. “Far out.” He turned the volumetric diagram every which way.
“You call this the holodesk,” Bruce said.
Tony kept turning the three dimensional image. “What’s this thing do?”
“I don’t even want to know,” said Bruce. The Tony in the video was now a twelve-year-old on a floor in a little puddle of clothes, so Bruce cut the feed, and pulled up the schematics.
“It’s a microchip for your brain,” Tony said. “This is mondo cool.”
“Oh, mondo cool.” Bruce pulled some of the other diagrams off the projection field. “I guess that makes it alright.”
Dropping the three-d image, Tony looked over. “What are you doing?”
“Same thing as before.” Bruce glanced down. “You can help, if you want.”
“Most people last at least a couple hours before they wanna get rid of me, you know.” Tony smirked.
The hand closed around Bruce’s heart again. “I don’t want to get rid of you,” he said, with as little inflection as he could. “I want to help you.”
“And make torture porn.”
Bruce kept his voice steady and soft. “I don’t want to hurt you, either.”
“That’s what they all say. What’s this?”
Glancing up, Bruce said, “That’s a toilet.”
“That’s shitty.” Tony tapped at the image opposite Bruce’s. “Why would I work on crap?”
Bruce pulled apart some of the schematics for the device Tony had devised from parts of the original Tesseract apparatus, and what looked like parts of a Chitauri gun. It used some of the calculations Tony had been working on with regards to Loki’s scepter, and Tony had also taken into account something Bruce had said about neuroplasticity. Christ. It had just been an off-hand comment; he hadn’t even been thinking about how Tony might have kept the Tesseract apparatus, and—
“What are you doing now?” Tony asked.
Bruce smiled a little. One thing could be said in grown-up Tony’s defense: at least he had an attention span to speak of. “Still the same thing, Tony.”
Tony tugged on his pants. “Your glasses are hilarious, you know.”
“Thanks,” said Bruce, tapping the image.
“No, seriously. You’re, you know, a total dork.”
Tony watched the images as Bruce pulled up another schematic. “’Kay. What do you want me to do?”
Bruce glanced at him. “I need to take samples, maybe some scans, and I’ll need to know exactly what happened when you—”
“Do you need a semen sample?” Tony interrupted, and shot him a ridiculous attempt at a leer.
Bruce coughed. “I can leave you alone with Google, if that’s what’s got you so excited.”
Tony blushed. Pretending not to notice, he lifted his head in his arrogant way. “No, but I hear my girlfriend’s coming over.”
Bruce raised his brows. “I can leave you alone with her as soon as she gets here.”
Tony’s blush turned violent. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time.” His eyes darted away, but then, apparently gaining resolution, he looked back up at Bruce. “I think maybe I should know you better before I let you take cuttings of me and try to grow new ones.”
“I won’t be taking any cuttings.”
Tony watched the images for a little while longer as Bruce moved through the various equations. Some of this was just the older Tony doodling, and Bruce would have liked to criticize him for being so disorganized, except he wasn’t one to really talk. Then again, he’d sort of learned his lesson about science experiments, and apparently Tony hadn’t.
“So . . . you’re a doctor?”
Bruce glanced down at Tony again. He looked a little lost, standing there in the glow of the images, holding onto his baggy black pants. “No,” Bruce said, “but I know a little bit about the equipment you were working with, and I know some people who can help.”
Tony frowned. “Like who?”
“A man named Erik Selvig,” said Bruce. “I have some other contacts—for that matter, so do you. We can bring them in, if you want.”
“If I want.”
Bruce raised his brows again. “You’re the one who’s twelve.”
“And who are you, exactly?”
“I thought you Googled me.” Bruce nodded at the computer. “Pretty sure you weren’t looking at my tits.”
For some reason, this made Tony blush, and Bruce instantly adjusted several preconceptions he’d already made about this version of Tony. He was a child, and Bruce didn’t want him hurt. Lifting his chin through the blush, Tony said, “I didn’t have time to read it all.”
“I can tell you anything you want to know,” Bruce said, making his voice softer. He glanced down at him again, then closed the files. Tony wasn’t happy at the idea of the tests; he should have realized that. Taking off his glasses, Bruce said, “Did you still want to see the suit?”
Tony scowled, then shrugged. “Okay. Movie set. Let’s go.”
Bruce headed toward the door. “You think we made a set?”
Tony walked with him, holding his pants and kicking his hems. “This movie would be wicked, you know.”
“Why would we make a set just to trick you? And who is ‘we’?”
“You tell me, Hulkabaloo.” Tony smirked up at him as they got into the elevator. “You’re not the first person to try to kidnap me, you know.”
Bruce’s hand faltered as he reached toward the panel. Then he pressed the button, and the elevator closed.
“You’re concerned.” Tony’s grin turned toothy.
Bruce just looked down at him. “Yes.”
The grin got a whole lot less toothy. Instead, Tony looked curious. “Why?”
“I didn’t know that had happened to you,” was all Bruce said.
Tony flapped a hand. “It was a family thing. Very hush hush. Anyway, don’t worry, Obadiah got me out. Where is Obadiah these days?”
“He’s dead,” said Bruce. “So’s your mother.”
“You don’t pull any punches.” The elevator opened, and Tony stalked out—as best he could stalk, still holding his pants and kicking his hems.
Bruce followed him into the shop, looking around. When Bruce had first come to Stark Tower ten months ago, Tony had given him a tour, showing him where he kept some of the old suits. “For parts,” Tony had said, but Bruce thought there were probably plenty of other reasons, not the least of which were nostalgia. They were kept behind bullet-proof glass and encrypted locks, just in case anyone was of a mind to steal one. They weren’t active anyway, but Bruce guessed they could be hotwired by someone really smart and desperate.
Pressing a button, he hit the lights on one of the cases. Turning around, Tony walked up to it, looking at the eerie glow on the red and gold. Bruce stood a little behind him.
When Bruce was growing up, he’d thought the idea of having kids was stupid. It was just this biological urge, and the world was over-populated anyway; he didn’t see the point. Then he’d met Betty, and all the sudden, he’d thought about it. He’d wondered if he could—whether he’d had the strength for that, whether he had love enough for that.
Sometime around then, he’d developed a strange (for him, who had never been very empathetic) protective streak—for children, but also for a space inside him that held a thing very much like hope. Inside that space he understood at last that children could have different childhoods than his own.
Possibility went away with the accident. The space inside did not.
At last, Tony spoke. “What’s that in its chest?”
“It’s for the arc reactor,” Bruce said. “It’s a device you made to keep a piece of shrapnel away from your heart.”
Tony looked up at him. “How did it happen? I mean, my mom.”
“Car accident. Your dad was with her.”
Tony frowned up at him. “Don’t you have any comforting words?” he asked sarcastically.
“No,” said Bruce.
Tony turned away. Kicking at his hems, he looked around the rest of the room, occasionally reaching out to touch the robotics, stroking the metal with slender fingers. “I built all this?”
“Yeah. I think so,” Bruce said, watching him to make sure he didn’t touch anything that could hurt him.
“Decent.” Tony stopped in front of a robotic arm. “Hey! It’s Dummy.”
The robotic arm started waving.
“Watch it!” Tony said, jumping aside. “You’ll put out someone’s eye. Still stupid, huh? Don’t answer. Hey, at least you’re not dead. I’ve been working on this,” he said, turning back to Bruce.
Bruce raised his brows, smiling. “Impressive.”
“No, it’s a piece of shit. Hey, don’t take it personally,” Tony told the arm, then turned back to Bruce. “He’s gotten a little better. Vocal recognition!” Tony looked the arm over. “Modifications, I guess. So,” he said, turning again, “you’re a scientist?”
“Something like that.”
“And you turn into a monster.” Tony turned back to the arm. “Get me that drill—Jesus fucking Christ, not with the goddamn clamp; use your fucking rotary magnet—no! I can see you have one—there. Okay. What a hunk of junk.” Slowly, the arm brought Tony the drill, and Tony grabbed it.
Tony probably wasn’t going to be happy that someone had messed with his machines if and when he got back to his normal age, even if that someone was himself. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he ruined it, Bruce thought—then maybe Tony would think twice before being so goddamn stupid.
“How did that happen?” Tony was lying on his back, using the drill on a panel on the robot’s underside. It was weird to see a twelve-year-old use a drill, and Bruce was momentarily distracted.
“Hulk,” said Tony. “How did that happen?”
Tony poked his head out. “Like me?”
That was the thing that really pissed Bruce off. Tony could ignore Bruce’s protests all he wanted to, but that wasn’t the same as turning around and doing the exact thing that Bruce had warned against. Tony could be such a child sometimes. Or all the time, Bruce guessed, watching Tony pull the panel off the bottom of the robot.
Tony looked over at him expectantly. “Something like that,” Bruce said.
“What were you trying to do?”
Bruce usually didn’t talk about this. “I was trying to recreate the super soldier serum.”
“You mean Captain America?” Tony poked around at the wires inside, then glanced over at him. “Whatever. You’re way more bitchin’.”
Bruce just raised his brows, and Tony went back to picking through the wires. “Oh, far out,” he said at one point, then poked his head out. Somehow he’d gotten grease smeared across one of his cheeks. “Looks like I replaced the rotor coils. Still using inverse kinematics for the software, though; I can tell.” The arm started moving, and Tony yanked something under it. “Quit it,” he said, then put his head back under.
A minute or so later, he reattached the panel. “Gimme that rag,” he said, and the robot got it for him, knocking a tablet off the table as it did so. “Oh my God, why didn’t I get rid of this thing? What am I, a fucking retard? Don’t answer that. So,” he said, wiping his face. “Hulk-recipe. You introduced some kind of sterone that binds to glucocorticoids so you could stimulate the adrenal response, and I’m guessing some kind of xanthine alkaloid like theobromine, and maybe some kind of fluorescent green protein? Just for kicks.”
“Not really.” Bruce withheld a smile, because he didn’t want to be patronizing. Tony was extremely bright, but still only twelve years old.
Tony tossed his rag aside, expression disgruntled. “Then what?”
“I don’t really like to talk about the specifics.”
“Afraid I’ll steal your research?”
Bruce raised his brows. “You did turn yourself into a twelve-year-old.”
“Details.” Tony flapped a hand. “Come on. Tell me how.” He hiked up his pants again. “Are you telling me you didn’t use sterones at all?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.” Bruce looked his inquisitive, narrow little face, and figured there wasn’t much harm in giving him a little more. “Think about it,” Bruce said. “A couple hormones and little caffeine and protein isn’t going to account for the mass.”
“Oh.” Tony pursed his lips thoughtfully. “What about my mass?” Holding his pants with one hand, he plucked at the huge Van Halen shirt.
“I don’t know,” said Bruce. “That’s one thing I have to figure out.” It had Bruce pretty worried, actually. The extra matter that made up Tony’s adult body had to have gone somewhere, and there wasn’t exactly a hunk of flesh quivering on the lab floor, and there wasn’t an arc reactor either. Bruce guessed it was a good thing, but there was no evidence of disintegration of the video feed.
There was the question, too, of Tony’s memories. Maybe they were just locked inside the child’s brain, or perhaps when Tony’s brain was completely restructured into the exact configuration of his adult form, the memories would simply be there. It was the theory behind transportation, after all.
On Star Trek.
“So, how does it work?” Tony asked.
“The Hulk. Big tank man. Rawr.” Tony hopped up on one of the metal counters, hiking his pants up to make sure they came with him. “How does it work?”
Bruce tried to explain it in basic terms that a twelve year old genius would understand—the way gamma rays interacted with the PNT bonds holding his body together and the Compton scattering that resulted, the process that allowed him to quickly absorb carbon from the air and the formation of fullerenes. Tony’s eyes started to glaze over, but he looked up when Bruce stopped talking.
“So basically, you photosynthesize.”
“No,” said Bruce.
“Yes, you do. You take carbon from the air, which you metabolize into fullerenes and carbon skeletons you can use to metabolize the amino acids that rebuild your muscles. I bet that’s why you’re green, you know.”
“You can’t metabolize fullerenes,” Bruce said.
“It’s not that simple.”
Frowning, Tony looked down at his feet, kicking against the counter.
Bruce hadn’t meant to be condescending. It wasn’t that simple, and there was no easy way to explain it.
“Am I a genius when I grow up?” Tony said, looking up again. “I mean. I built all this.”
Bruce smiled a little ruefully. “Yes.”
“But am I—” Tony kicked some more—“. . . as smart as you?”
“No.” Seeing the disappointment on Tony’s face, Bruce explained, “I think you’re smarter. You and I are very different, Tony.”
Not really looking mollified, Tony shook his hair back. “How so?”
“You’re much more involved in . . . practical application. I tend to be more abstract. Baroque, really, while you are . . . eloquent. You’re very efficient.”
“You mean you’re not an engineer.”
Bruce smiled at Tony. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“So.” Tony kicked his feet. “How am I at C.E.O.ing? I’m completely awesome, right?”
“Uh, well,” said Bruce. “You’re not C.E.O. Your girlfriend is.”
“My girlf—Pepper? You’re telling me Pepper Potts runs Stark Industries?”
“Yup,” said Bruce. “You wanna go back upstairs?”
“But it was—it was supposed to be—” Tony bit his lip. “Did I give it to her?”
“Something like that.”
“Was I drunk?”
“Smartest thing you ever did.”
“But I . . .” Tony looked around him then, for the first time seeming bewildered.
“Did you really want to run Stark Industries?” Bruce said gently.
“I . . .” Tony just looked lost.
It was obvious that Tony had said what he had about his dad just to rile Bruce up, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t meant it. If there had been any age at which Tony had begun to resent that his future was laid out for him on a silver platter, that age was probably right now. Actually, if Bruce’s guesses were correct, Tony had only stopped feeling that way when he’d become a prisoner in a cave in Afghanistan. Tony hadn’t signed Stark Industries over to Pepper because he’d grown less invested. He’d done it for the opposite reason.
“I sort of wanted to be an astronaut you know,” Tony said, not really looking at him.
Bruce could feel himself instantly go gooey inside. “Really?”
“I didn’t want to be Buzz Aldrin or anything,” Tony said sharply. He turned back to Bruce. “You were joking about the aliens, right?”
“What were they like?”
“Mostly they wanted to kill us?” Bruce scratched the back of his neck. “I don’t know. I didn’t really get a good look.”
“Because you were hulking it. Bummer. So they have cool toys, though?”
“Cool would be an interesting word choice.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Come on, Spock. Fascinating? Spit it out.”
“They used a weapon called the Tesseract to fold the fabric of space time so they could attack us.”
“Well.” Bruce scratched the back of his neck again. “Yeah.”
“Oh my God. What will they think of next? A sphere?”
Bruce smiled. “It was a very powerful cube.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, cosmic cube. I can’t believe an alien race attacked us and all we have to show for it is a Yahtzee die.”
“Well,” said Bruce, and then the phone in his pocket rang.
“Bruce?” said Pepper.
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “We’re in Tony’s shop.”
“I’ll come up.”
Bruce glanced at Tony. “We’re on our way back down.”
“Alright, see you there,” Pepper said, and hung up.
“So,” Tony said, hopping off the counter. “The Avengers. What’s up with them? Are you one, or aren’t you?”
Walking with him over to the elevator, Bruce raised his brows. “You said you didn’t get that far on the internet.”
“Far enough,” Tony said, holding up his pants and kicking his hems. “What are they?”
Bruce pushed the button in the elevator. “I hear they fight crime.”
“Like superheroes? Isn’t that comic book stuff?”
“Sometimes it feels that way.”
“But I am one, right? An Avenger? I saved the world or some shit?”
“Yes, Tony. You saved the world.”
Tony lifted his chin to an arrogant angle. “I guess I’m too busy being a badass to be C.E.O. What about Steve—” the elevator door opened—“Rogers,” said Tony, his gaze landing on the man himself, who stood there with Pepper in the foyer of the lab.
“Oh no,” said Pepper, her eyes landing on Tony.
“Hi Doctor Banner,” said Steve. “What’s going—”
“Steve Rogers,” said Tony, his eyes absolutely huge.
“Uh,” said Bruce. “So, maybe I should have explained.”
“The Steve Rogers.” Tony marched up to Steve, and pushed him in the stomach. “A real, live Steve Rogers. Are you a clone?”
“How did this happen?” asked Pepper, her eyes locked on Tony.
“I’m working on it,” said Bruce.
“I’m not a clone,” said Steve, “but yes, my name is Steve Rogers. And you are . . .”
“Tony,” Pepper finished for him, looking worried and sad.
“I thought you’d be, you know, some kind of reincarnation,” Tony said. “Or a robot. Are you a robot? Did I invent you?” He turned to Bruce. “Did I invent a Captain America robot? Did I start doing heroin or something? Fuck me Jesus,” he went on, turning back to Steve, “are you a sex bot?” Then, as though realizing what he’d said might imply, he blushed. “I mean, do I pimp you out?” He turned back to Bruce. “Am I a pimp? A sex bot pimp?”
“Can you reverse it?” Pepper asked.
“I’m going to try,” said Bruce.
“I’m not a sex bot,” said Steve. He turned to look between Pepper and Bruce. “There’s no such thing as sex robots, right? I would have heard of that by now.”
“Not that I know of,” Bruce said, scratching the back of his neck.
“Why would I build a Steve Rogers?”
“You didn’t build me,” said Steve.
“He was frozen in ice,” said Bruce.
“Bullshit.” Tony scowled. “We didn’t even have suspended animation in the 1940s.”
Steve glanced from Pepper to Bruce again. “You’re saying this is Tony?”
Tony smirked. “Got a problem, capsicle?”
“Wow.” Steve smiled dully. “That one just never gets old.”
“I brought you something else to wear,” Pepper said.
Turning on her, Tony smiled brilliantly. “We just met, and already you’re trying to get me out of my clothes. I can just tell we’re going to hit it off. What do you say you and me go up to my shop, and I can show you my huge . . . robotic arm?”
Pepper smiled. “I’ve seen your huge robotic arm many times. In exquisite detail. Here’s your underwear.”
Tony opened his mouth, then shut it. “Maybe I’ll just go change,” he said, taking the clothes. Holding them wadded in one hand while he held up his pants with the other, he walked out of the lab. “But seriously, Pep, no peeking!” he called out over his shoulder.
“That shouldn’t be physically possible,” said Steve, watching Tony’s retreating figure. “How is that physically possible?”
Bruce rubbed his eyes. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He took them into the lab, over to the holodesk.
“I told him to be careful,” Pepper said. “I knew something like this was going to happen.”
It was a serious enough situation that Bruce did not have to actively resist saying, I told you so, but he had to admit, the thought had crossed his mind. Bruce called up the video.
“He looks like he’s being tortured,” said Steve.
“Have you called Selvig?” said Pepper, turning away from the video and taking out her phone.
“Not yet.” Bruce turned away as well. “Listen, Pepper—we may need Selvig, but this—” he waved his hand back at the video—“. . . could be a problem if people find out.”
Pepper put her phone down. “You mean people are going to try to hurt him.”
“Tony’s enemies,” Steve said, finally managing to pry his eyes from the video.
“Among others,” Bruce said.
“People have died to find the fountain of life.” Pepper looked at the video, where the smaller and younger Tony was struggling to sit up in his tangled black clothes.
“And those kinds of people are going to want that technology,” Steve said.
“Selvig was under Loki’s influence when he opened the portal,” Pepper said. “He wouldn’t tell anyone about Tony.”
“How well do you know him?” Bruce asked.
“Not very well.” Pepper pulled her eyes off the video. “I know Tony respects his work.”
Bruce’s thumb moved over his fingers. “Tony makes a lot of mistakes.”
Pepper pursed her lips.
“We need a plan,” Steve said. “I’m on protection detail?”
Pepper nodded. “JARVIS’s security is good, but Tony’s been working on the assumption that he’s his own self-defense squad for years now.”
“Great, I’m a bodyguard,” said Steve. “Tony’s going to be thrilled; I can already tell.” He frowned, line appearing between his brows. “What did he mean by . . . sex bots?”
“It’s complicated,” Pepper said smoothly.
Steve looked at the video again, frown fading into something a little more wistful as he looked at twelve-year-old Tony. “I just didn’t realize he started hating me at such an early age.”
Pepper said, “He doesn’t hate you.”
“So you’ve said.” Steve turned away from the video, and Pepper looked at him sympathetically.
“I’ve always thought Tony was old enough to handle his own problems,” she said, “but now he’s not, so I’m going to tell you something that might help a little, at least until we get this sorted out.” She tucked a piece of her strawberry hair behind her ear. “It might work best if you treat him as someone who absolutely worships you, and resents the fact that he does so.”
It answered the question about what Tony had been thinking of when he invented the armor, though Bruce would never have suggested it himself.
“Worships?” said Steve, as though unable to process the word.
“He’s going to kill me when he grows up,” said Pepper.
“But worships?” said Steve.
“You guys talking about me?” Tony said, sauntering in the room, apparently having only heard the word worship.
“Yes,” said Steve, turning around.
“As well you should. I’m worth talking about, you know.” Tony gave him a toothy grin.
The clothes fit rather perfectly—a pair of green cargo pants and a long-sleeve thermal t-shirt, the kind of thing adult-Tony would probably wear on a weekend. Bruce was unclear on whether Pepper had figured out the whole thing before even arriving, or whether it was only upon seeing Tony that the final pieces had slotted into place. Maybe this was just Pepper’s taste in clothes, which meant that Pepper’s taste in clothes was Tony’s taste in clothes, which made Bruce pretty curious about the Van Halen t-shirt.
“How are you feeling?” Pepper asked.
“Like a million bucks,” said Tony. “Let’s order Thai and take a spin in my limo. I have limos, right?”
“I’m going to get to work,” said Bruce.
“Does he ever have any fun?” Tony asked Pepper.
“He has plenty,” said Steve. “Listen, it might be dangerous for you to go out.”
Tony let out a large, dramatic groan. “Jesus Christ, I can tell you are going to be the epitome of a drag.”
“We can get Thai delivered,” said Pepper.
Bruce tuned them out, turning back to the computer screen. He was beginning to see what Tony had done. It was complicated, ridiculous, and absolutely genius. Faster than light travel was impossible, according to the laws of physics. The Tesseract had made that irrelevant by eliminating the time it would take to travel from point A to point B—by folding space until A and B were essentially on top of each other.
Tony had extrapolated this idea onto an extremely small scale—folding the space in his body so that it was physically smaller. It answered the question of Tony’s extra mass and the arc reactor, though Bruce was still unclear as to wear the folded matter went.
It had also had an unexpected side effect—age was the result of not travelling at light speed. If the particles in the body could accelerate to light speed, time would stop, and aging would cease—which meant that if the particles in the body could accelerate past light speed, aging could reverse. Theoretically, of course.
Tony wasn’t traveling faster than the speed of light, but during the time the device had had its effect, the photon bonds holding his body together had behaved as if he was, thus causing the reverse aging. In order to make Tony grow up, Bruce just had to make those same bonds behave as though the particles in Tony’s body traveled at a fraction of the speed of the rest of the world.
Easier said than done.
“Heya Hulkminster Fuller. Those glasses? Still dork-city.”
Bruce glanced down. Tony stood beside him, examining the volumetric image of the broken pieces of the apparatus that had held the Tesseract. In the video there was no clear mechanism that had caused Tony’s age reduction, but he had been standing by the device. According to Tony’s files and the calculations the older Tony had been working on, this was the equipment that had caused the change. Bruce was trying to make sure he understood how the parts worked before he started taking it apart.
He must have been pretty focused, because usually he didn’t let people sneak up on him—just another danger of Tony’s lab and Tony’s little projects. Frowning, Bruce looked around. At some point, someone had brought him Thai, but he didn’t really remember eating it. Steve and Pepper stood on the other side of the lab, Steve looking rather unhappy.
“What’s this?” Tony said, poking at a volumetric image of an arc reactor.
Bruce took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Almost six.” Tony pulled over the images of the calculations Bruce had been working on to calibrate the machine. “Pepper wants you to take a break. Steve too. I think he has a thing for you, man.”
“What are they arguing about?”
“Some guy name Rhodey. What’s he, like, my best buddy?”
“Rhodey?” Bruce blinked owlishly. “I dunno. I think I’ve heard you mention him.”
“This is heavy shit,” Tony said, looking at Bruce’s calculations. “You’re really famous, huh?” He waved aside the files.
Without the pools of clothes, he looked far more like the rich, spoiled kid Bruce might have imagined, had he had cause to imagine it. Tony’s hair was shiny and chestnut, flopping about his face. Bruce had already forgotten just how arresting that face could be, so young and fine and untouched. Bruce probably would have hated him as a kid.
“How many Nobels do you have?”
“Come on,” said Tony. “Don’t be modest; that’s for people who don’t have anything to be conceited about. Tell me how many Nobels you have. Three? Four?”
“Tony,” Bruce said, scrubbing his face. “I don’t have any Nobels.”
“Why the hell not?” Tony frowned. “You’re like the smartest person in the history of all of ever, aren’t you?”
“Do you even know how many people I’ve killed?”
Tony’s eyes went almost comically wide. They were chocolate brown.
“I’m sorry.” Bruce turned back to the holodesk. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You?” Tony’s voice cracked. Quickly, he went on, “Yeah, I mean, of course you have. Chartreuse gorilla beast, I get it. But they were all bad guys, right?”
Bruce looked at the images. He didn’t know what to say.
“Right?” Tony’s voice cracked again, and Bruce looked helplessly over to Pepper and Steve.
As if sensing his distress, Pepper came over. “Hi Tony. Bruce, how’s it going?”
“Okay.” Getting out his glasses again, Bruce steadfastly didn’t look at Tony, instead peering at the digitally projected apparatus. “I’ve worked out the theory; now I’ve just got work out the mechanics.”
“Tony mentioned tests?” said Pepper.
“Um.” Bruce started to move his head, then still didn’t look at Tony. “Maybe we do need to bring in S.H.I.E.L.D.; they have physicians. Or—does Tony have a personal physician?”
“Hello? Standing right here.” Tony waved a hand.
“He does,” said Pepper, “but it changes every other month—if he even manages to go twice a year in the first place. He really doesn’t like—”
“—doctors, and they don’t understand his technology anyway, and—”
“I want him to do it,” Tony said.
“—and he can be pushy,” Pepper finished.
“You wanna eat?” Steve asked Tony.
“We just ate,” Tony whined.
“Come on,” Steve said, clapping him on the back. “That was three hours ago.”
“Just because I don’t have the metabolism of a nuclear reactor,” Tony said, squirming out of his grasp. “And why are you so touchy-feely? Is this a 1940s thing, or are you a homo?”
Steve smiled ruefully. “That never gets old, either.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. is an international organization,” Bruce told Tony. “Iron Man works with them a lot. I’m sure they have a doctor who can—”
“No.” Tony crossed his arms. “You said you were going to do it.”
Bruce pressed his lips together. “Do you honestly want—”
“You. I said you and I meant you.” Tony glared around at all of them, as though he expected protest. “I only want him. I don’t want anyone else touching me. That means you can keep your big baseball mitts to yourself,” he added, sneering at Steve.
“Okay.” Steve held up his hands. “No baseball mitts.”
“I can make exceptions, of course,” Tony said, leering at Pepper. “My offer to go up to the shop still stands.”
“I thought you didn’t want to include anyone else,” Pepper said, turning to Bruce.
“He doesn’t,” said Tony. “He’s mine. Next question. Mister Rogers.” He rounded on Steve. “Order us a pizza, if you’re so hungry.”
Steve just looked at him, then said, “Okay.” He turned, reaching out toward Bruce, and Bruce handed him Tony’s phone. Steve brushed by him to order the pizza.
Tony watched the wordless exchange with narrowed eyes. “So, Captain America’s a push-over,” he said, as Steve started talking to the person on the other end of the phone.
“No,” said Pepper. “He just respects your adult self.”
Tony brightened considerably. “So he does whatever I say?”
“You wish.” Pepper smiled, then turned to Bruce. “I’m guessing you won’t finish tonight?” she asked.
Bruce grimaced. “Probably not. I’m hoping by tomorrow . . .” He trailed off, scrolling through data on the images.
“I should pick up pajamas, then, and more clothes.”
“Come on, Pep.” Tony was using his whiny voice again. Interestingly, he never did that as an adult—he’d learned how to whine without sounding as though he was. “Don’t I have servants for that?”
“No,” said Pepper. “You have me.” Then she put her hand on his cheek, and Tony blushed vigorously. “Take care, you,” she said, and walked away.
“Mondo babe,” Tony said, right before she was out of ear shot. He turned to look back at the volumetric apparatus. “Are you seriously going to do this all night?”
“Probably,” said Bruce, expanding one of the diagrams.
Bruce glanced down. “I want you to get better.”
The corners of Tony’s mouth went tight, and he swallowed. “What did Pepper mean? I mean about—Steve and my adult self?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce said, changing the schematic to fit the equation.
“Yes you do.”
Bruce looked down again. Tony was looking at the volumetric spectrometer, but it was obvious he wasn’t really seeing it. There was something dejected in the curve of his shoulders. Bruce swallowed a sigh. “She meant that Steve’s not going to call you on it if you treat him like shit. That he’ll make an allowance for you, because you’re twelve.”
Tony was very still. “How do I treat him when I’m grown up?”
“How do you think?” Bruce said, and went back to the apparatus.
“What about you?” said Tony.
“Steve’s my friend,” Bruce said, pulling aside the casing over one segment of the apparatus. He was surprised that he could say it so straight-forwardly, without any strings or regret attached. Somehow that had happened, and Bruce realized that that was okay.
“No,” said Tony, “I mean you. How do I . . . are we friends?”
Bruce looked up. “You were never anything but kind to me,” he said, because for the most part, it was true.
“Good,” Tony said.
“Twenty minutes,” Steve said, and handed Bruce back the phone.
“Thanks,” said Bruce, slipping the phone in his pocket.
Steve looked around. “Where’d Pepper go?”
“We got her out of the picture so Hulkenstein here can perform wild experimentations on me; isn’t that right, Hulkgor?”
Steve grinned. “So, you Igor or Frankenstein?” he asked Bruce.
“Not sure,” said Bruce, smiling crookedly. “It’s nice not to be the monster for once, though.”
“That’s him,” said Tony, jerking his thumb at Steve. “He was grown in a lab, you know.”
“Yeah.” Steve ran a hand through his hair. “Listen, Doctor Banner—”
“I always wanted to be grown in a lab,” Tony said quickly, darting a glance at Bruce and then focusing on Steve. “I mean, that’d be wicked cool. But Dad was completely against it. I don’t see why, since . . .” He trailed off. “But you know, all the great men of the future are going to be born in test tubes. You just beat them to it.”
“Your father didn’t want you to be me,” Steve said, very carefully. He sounded like maybe it was something he’d been wanting to say to Tony for a long, long time.
Tony just tossed Bruce a long-suffering look, then rolled his eyes at Steve. “Of course he didn’t. I’m the most perfect and amazing son. Catch up. Or I mean—” Tony looked away. “I was.”
“Tony,” Steve began.
“Whatever,” Tony said loudly. “Me and Hulk are busy. What’s this do?”
“It’s a particle accelerator,” said Bruce.
“I knew that.” Tony peered at it. “Like a Van de Graaf generator. That’s the thing that makes your hair stand up.” He almost glanced at Steve, but didn’t quite make it.
“I know what a Van de Graaf generator is,” Steve said quietly.
“Smarter than he looks,” said Tony, and Bruce swallowed another sigh.
“What have you guys been doing?” Bruce said, because apparently even when Tony tried to be nice, he couldn’t resist ribbing Steve. This had to be worse—and more subtle—when Tony was actually a grown-up; it made Bruce glad he hadn’t been around the both of them at once since they’d sent Loki back to Asgard.
“Watched some dumb movie,” Tony said.
“It was Back to the Future,” Steve said.
“Yeah, like I said, it was dumb. Totally implausible science. It was like they got a bunch of science words and tossed them in a blender. Flux Capacitor? Get real. DeLoreans are bad, though. I’m gonna get me one as soon as they come out.”
“Bad means good,” Steve told Bruce. “They’re already out, Tony. This is the thing about time travel.”
“I told you,” Tony said loftily. “It’s not time travel. It’s a transporter accident.”
“I haven’t gotten all the way through Next Gen, yet.”
“Can you believe this, Hulk?” said Tony. “Steve says there’s more Star Trek.”
“I can believe it,” Bruce said. “What else did you do?”
“Pepper made us smoothies. Steve had three.”
Bruce hoped Steve knew that this was what admiration sounded like on twelve-year-old Tony.
“Doctor Banner didn’t want his,” Steve said, rather innocently.
Bruce didn’t really remember getting offered a smoothie, but he had this problem of focusing rather intensely on things.
“Tony snorted smoothie up his nose,” Steve informed Bruce.
“I’m practicing to be an adult, for when I get drugs.” Tony looked from Bruce to Steve and back again. “That was a joke.”
“I re-envisioned the twin paradox,” Bruce said. “If anyone was interested.”
“And then we sparred,” Steve said.
“You sparred with Steve?” Bruce asked Tony, surprised.
Tony blushed, then thrust his chin forward, as though to pretend he wasn’t doing it. “Yeah, we did. And it was awesome.”
“Did Pepper spar with anyone?” Bruce asked.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Apparently Pepper keeps forgetting that I’m her boyfriend, not her phone.”
“Her phone is very attractive,” Steve pointed out. “I’ve been eying it myself.”
“She’s a very busy lady,” said Bruce, “and you did interrupt her schedule.”
“You’d think she’d stop for long enough to watch me kick Captain America’s ass,” said Tony.
“You kicked Captain America’s ass?” said Bruce.
“Yep,” said Steve, and Tony blushed some more.
“How many times did he beat you first?” Bruce asked Tony.
“None,” said Tony, at the same time as Steve said, “Seventeen.”
Tony waved a hand. “Details.”
“I told him biting wasn’t generally allowed in sparring matches,” Steve said.
Bruce finally pulled his eyes away from Tony to look at Steve, who was smiling rather affectionately. Bruce couldn’t figure out whether Steve looked like that with all children, or whether it was specifically Tony.
Usually Bruce had a good time when Steve came over; they talked and joked around; sometimes they talked about ethics and the past, and sometimes they just talked about beer and the incomprehensibility of foosball. But Bruce had not seen Steve look so genuinely happy in quite some time—not since Bruce had first shown up at his door in New York, really.
Bruce wanted him to look happy like that. All the time.
Blinking, Bruce turned away. “You bit Steve?” he asked Tony.
Tony shrugged. “All’s fair in war,” he said.
Bruce just looked at him for a moment. The blush still painted Tony’s cheeks.
“What’s this?” Tony asked, turning around rather hastily. He pointed at another part of the volumetric display.
“It’s a transition radiation tracker,” Bruce said. “JARVIS suggested it held trace elements from the Tesseract.”
“We’re calling it the Cosmic Cube now,” Tony informed him. “And this machine is the Flux Accelerator.”
“The Flux Accelerator?” said Bruce.
“Also on the list of things you need to know,” said Tony, “Pepper did something to JARVIS.”
“Yeah. I guess she didn’t like him sounding foxy, so she made him stop talking to me.”
“I don’t really want to know,” said Bruce.
“You really don’t,” said Steve. Bruce turned to give him half of a knowing smile, and Steve basically used the opportunity to take horrible advantage of him, pinning him with direct, blue eyes. “Come on, Professor. Take a break.”
Bruce smiled anyway, a little ruefully. “Is that an order?”
“You didn’t tell me you were a professor,” Tony said, sounding irritated, “and what is he, your master?”
Steve just raised his brows. “You’re not gonna be any good to us if you’re dead on your feet.”
“Captain your captain?” Tony said. “Does he order you around? Seriously?”
“Maybe we could get started on those tests, actually,” Bruce said, waving aside the display.
Even as he went a shade paler, Tony tossed his head. “Pepper’s been trying to get me out of my clothes all day and now you wanna party?”
“I can get someone else to do it with you,” Bruce said quietly.
“No!” Tony thrust out his chin. “No. I want you.”
“Okay,” said Bruce.
Steve looked concerned. “Tony—”
The chin tilted toward Steve. “I don’t want him.”
Tony wasn’t meeting Steve’s gaze. Steve turned to Bruce. “Alright,” Steve said, sounding a little defeated. “Okay. But you guys have to stop when the pizza comes,” he added, directing the last part at Tony.
“Yes, Mother,” Tony said.
His little smirk faded when Steve stepped outside the lab. He wouldn’t meet Bruce’s eyes.
Bruce glanced out the glass doors. Steve was parking himself on the chair by the elevator. Thoughtfully, he’d pulled it around so that he wasn’t looking into the lab, but apparently he had his concerns about Tony making a dash for it. That was okay. Bruce shared his concerns.
“Come on,” said Bruce. “Let’s go to D Lab.”
“Ooooh,” Tony said. “D Lab. Haven’t been there before. I’ve always wanted to go to D Lab.”
Originally the top ten floors of Stark Tower had been research and development, at least according to Tony. After the Chitauri attack, however, Tony had had some obvious rebuilding to do. Bruce suspected Tony had also made other changes.
The forty-ninth floor held several other elevators, not to mention fire escapes, but luckily the medical lab wasn’t terribly close to any of them. There was also had a personal apartment complete with a kitchen and a gym, not to mention A Lab. A Lab had a whole set of equipment pretty much identical to the equipment in Tony’s own lab on the fifty-fourth floor—except for the gamma camera, which Tony claimed to have purchased because he thought Anger camera was a funny name.
Bruce glanced down at Tony, who was scuffing his feet despite being barefoot and at last outfitted in clothes that fit him. “Want to tell me why you’re nervous?” Bruce said quietly, when they entered the medical lab.
“Nervous?” Tony said sarcastically. “Who, me?”
“Okay,” said Bruce. “I’m just going to take some blood first. Just a fingerstick should do.”
Tony had shown him the floor when they’d first started working on the toilet, but Bruce had never had a reason to go in here before. The design made sense, however, and it wasn’t long before Bruce found the capillary tubes, collection devices, cotton, alcohol, Band-Aids, and labels all there.
Tony had come around the corner, but didn’t touch any of the supplies, instead staring at the Band-Aids moodily. He was also quiet, which Bruce had learned was unusual for Tony at any age.
Bruce pulled his glasses out of his pocket and put them on. “You want to sit down?” he asked, gently as possible.
“It’s a finger prick, not a lobotomy.”
“Okay,” Bruce said again. “Want to give me your hand?”
“Not particularly,” Tony said, but he gave him his hand.
Holding Tony’s middle finger, Bruce swabbed it with alcohol and got the cotton ready. Then he pricked the finger and covered it with cotton quickly as he could, putting the collection on the counter.
Bruce had half expected Tony to howl in protest with the way he was acting, but he didn’t make a sound. When Bruce picked up the Band-Aid, however, Tony jerked his hand away. “Jesus Christ, it’s a finger prick,” he said again.
“At least let me clean it,” Bruce said.
“Or what? You’ll get angry?” Tony sneered. “Yeah, Captain Fancy Pants told me about your little secret.”
Tony didn’t seem like he’d be willing to surrender the finger in question any time soon, so Bruce labeled the sample and went to put it in the refrigerator. Taking off his glasses, he said, “I need to figure out whether the device changed your physiology in any other significant ways.” He knew something was wrong, and thought whys and wherefores might be comforting. They would have been, for him. “I was thinking about doing a CT scan. Do you know what that is?”
Tony frowned. “You have a CT scanner here?”
“It’s similar,” said Bruce. “I think you put one in to run diagnostics on some of your more delicate equipment. Do you—”
“I know what it is,” Tony said, irritated. “At least Hounsfield and Cormack got a Nobel.”
“That’s right,” Bruce said. “They did. They contributed a lot to the medical field. How do you feel about taking one?”
Tony glared at him. “How do you think?”
“Okay,” said Bruce. “Did Steve or Pepper tell you any more about your arc reactor?”
Tony appeared to be trying to think of a smart response. His eyes slid away. “No,” he mumbled.
“Okay,” Bruce said again. “I’m going to sit down.” He sat down in one of the lab’s rolling chairs, and started to tell Tony about the arc reactor. Bruce wasn’t an expert, but he understood the basics. He’d read Tony’s file.
He was fairly certain the shrapnel was with the arc reactor and all the rest of Tony’s mass, but he wasn’t certain. For that matter, he didn’t even know if all of the arc reactor had been displaced; there could still be framework for it on or in Tony’s chest. Even if the arc reactor was gone, the shrapnel wouldn’t reach his heart for another day at least, but it was still a concern, and one of the reasons Bruce wanted to do the CT scan sooner rather than later.
“Great,” said Tony. “So you mean a piece of metal’s going to kill me if your age ray doesn’t.”
The hand squeezed around Bruce’s heart again. Tony had rolled up another chair beside Bruce and was folded up in it, his knees at the level of his chin. There was something bird-like about that posture; it made him look very breakable. “Is that why you’re upset?” Bruce asked gently.
“I’m not upset.” Tony shook his hair out of his face.
“The scan won’t hurt.”
“I know.” Tony scowled. “Just, what if I—God, whatever, this is so stupid—” He started getting out of the chair, and Bruce caught his wrist.
It was small and bony and Bruce knew that if he looked for it, he could find Tony’s pulse beating frantically under his own. “It’s not stupid,” was all Bruce said.
Tony glared at the floor, but made no move to get away.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” Bruce said.
“I’m not afraid,” Tony said moodily.
“It’s okay to be afraid of the age restoration too.” Bruce let go of his hand. “Anyone would be. I just want to check your chest. Is that okay with you?” As Tony nodded sullenly, Bruce took out his glasses. “Alright. Can you lift up your shirt?”
“Oh my God, everyone just wants to undress me,” said Tony, but he lifted up his shirt.
He blushed when Bruce touched him, as Bruce had already begun to suspect he might. Bruce tried to make the examination brief and clinical.
“You don’t have to talk to me,” Bruce said, checking Tony’s heartbeat. “I just want you to know that you can.”
“I just.” Tony grimaced. “What if something goes wrong?”
“I’m going to feel along your sternum,” Bruce said. “Tell me if it hurts.” Moving his hand gently over Tony’s chest, he said slowly, “I know a lot of people make promises they can’t keep, but I can promise that I will do absolutely everything in my power to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
“But what if it does?” said Tony.
Bruce started to take his hand away, but both of Tony’s hands closed around his wrist, and held it there.
Bruce didn’t know what to do; he wanted to take his hand away, but he knew that was his own problem, and that right now Tony’s was more important. Bruce’s own insecurities, his reluctance to experiment with the kind of technology—he couldn’t let Tony see it. He couldn’t let Tony even get a whiff of it, and yet lying about this—this—felt wrong.
“I don’t know,” Bruce said at last, honestly. “I just know that I would do anything to keep you safe.”
“What if . . .”
“What if what?”
“What if I grow up into someone I don’t want to be?”
“Tony,” Bruce said, his heart breaking just a little bit.
“Me, like I am right now—I’m not going to live my life,” said Tony. “It’s not going to happen for me. Mom and Dad. Obadiah. Even Jarvis. I’m just going to grow up into some person I don’t know, and—everything will have happened already.”
Bruce took his hand away. “It did happen,” he said.
“I know, but I want the chance,” said Tony. “I want the chance to live it; I don’t want anyone to decide who I am.”
“No one decided but you, Tony.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Bruce took off his glasses, and looked him in the eye. “You decide who you are. More than any man I’ve ever met.”
“But am I good?” Tony met his eyes directly. “Am I good person?”
It had never once occurred to Bruce that Tony Stark’s life goal, at the age of twelve, was to be a good person.
Bruce supposed it explained a lot.
Swallowing the hundred other things he could have said, Bruce said instead, “You’re one of the greatest men I’ve ever met.”
“Not quite the same,” Tony murmured, but let it go. When he lifted his eyes again, he said, “Is the age ray going to hurt?”
“I think so,” said Bruce. “Yes.”
“Okay. Let’s go do some scanning.” Tony started to turn away, but stopped. “Don’t tell Steve, okay? Or Pepper.”
Bruce didn’t know what it meant, that Tony was willing to show him fear, but not to any of the others. “I won’t,” was all Bruce said.
Pepper came back around the time the pizza came. The four of them ate together, Tony hopelessly flirting with Pepper, making some rather disgusting comments about cheese, and interrupting loudly any time Steve and Bruce talked to each other for more than five seconds without including him.
Afterwards, Tony finally convinced Pepper to go up to the shop with him. Steve elected to go also, which didn’t seem to displease Tony in the least, despite whatever plans he claimed to have about showing Pepper his huge robotic arm. Bruce went back to the lab and got to work, and didn’t resurface until four hours later, when Tony came back to the lab in his pajamas.
It was eleven o’ clock, and Pepper had gone to bed. Tony had claimed he had worn her out, but he wasn’t tired, and Steve had either run out of ways to distract him, or Tony just really liked being in the lab. Both were probably true, so Steve put headphones on and watched the news on one of the computers, while Bruce endured a constant litany of what’s that what’s that what’s that? from Tony.
After about an hour of it, Bruce began to wonder whether Tony was keeping it up at this point just to see whether Bruce had a breaking point. Certainly Tony had to be used to adults getting frustrated and telling him to mind his own business, but Bruce wasn’t about to do that. He had a wealth of patience that wasn’t going to be exhausted any time soon, particularly by someone as precocious as Tony. Bruce didn’t mind explaining things to people who understood them. In fact, he rather liked it.
Eventually Tony curled up in a chair and merely watched him, only occasionally asking questions. When Bruce hadn’t heard anything for a while, he looked over and found that Tony had fallen asleep. His mouth was open and his thin long limbs were sprawled over the chair in an impossible tangle. Bruce felt the hand that he hadn’t been aware was still there squeeze over his heart. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so desperately tender.
The light across the room dimmed, and Steve took out his headphones. He walked over to where Bruce was standing. “How’s it going?” Steve asked quietly.
“As well as can be expected,” said Bruce, thumb running over his fingers.
Steve turned to look at Tony, who closed his mouth, shifted his head, and opened his mouth again. “And I thought sleeping in ice for sixty-odd years was remarkable,” Steve said.
“It’s pretty incredible,” said Bruce.
There was something wistful in Steve’s gaze. “I keep thinking about if it hadn’t happened. If I’d watched Howard get married, have a son. I would have known him like this, and then maybe we could have . . .”
“You would have been the cool uncle,” Bruce said.
Steve shook his head. “I don’t want to be the cool uncle. I’ve only ever wanted to be his friend.”
Bruce watched as Tony shifted in his sleep again, obviously uncomfortable in the chair. He wondered how many friends Tony had had at this age. He wondered how many friends Tony had now. Bruce suddenly felt certain that Tony had added living quarters, kitchens, gyms and other recreational facilities to five of his research and development floors because he had some mad plan about the Avengers moving in. He’d just built it, hoping they would come.
Am I a good person? Tony had asked.
“I suppose I should take him up to bed,” Steve said.
“Big day tomorrow,” Bruce said.
“I sure hope so,” said Steve, then scooped Tony up in his arms. He was so gentle that Tony barely even seemed to notice, though really he was quite a bit past the age when he could be carried up to bed by a normal adult.
Bruce had this thing about children and Steve, the way they looked so vulnerable in his arms and the way that Steve just looked so capable and strong. He watched as Steve positioned Tony’s arms around his neck and Tony, sleepy and compliant, obeyed, until Bruce couldn’t watch any more, and had to look away.
“I’m not asleep, you know,” Tony mumbled.
“Of course you’re not,” said Steve softly. “Good night, Doctor Banner,” he said, and took Tony away.
Bruce looked at the glowing lights and various metal skeletons arrayed before him, and for the first time in a long time, desperately didn’t want to be alone.
By noon the next day, Bruce felt sure he had the device—the Flux Accelerator, Tony insisted—working, but it still needed to be tested. Bruce decided to try aging an apple first, since nothing would get hurt if the device failed.
“Great,” said Tony. “I’m going to be a withered piece of fruit.”
“I like you withered,” Pepper said.
“I’m going to deage it first,” Bruce explained, “then reverse the process. It’s important to restructure it exactly as it was originally; there’s no way to perform the test correctly without doing both.”
Bruce would really rather not have performed the experiment with anyone else in the room, in case something went wrong, but shutting Tony out could increase his fear. Of course, seeing the apple explode would also increase his fear, but it wouldn’t explode. It probably wouldn’t explode. It definitely wouldn’t explode.
Before the experiment, Bruce explained a little about the Flux Accelerator. It should generate a field around the apple, folding its mass and causing the bonds in the apple to behave as though the apple were accelerating faster than light. If Bruce had performed his calculations correctly, the apple would deage into a seed. Then he should be able to reverse the process, and reage it into the original apple.
“Should be able to,” Tony repeated sarcastically.
“That’s why we’re testing an apple,” Bruce said. “Alright, stand back.”
Bruce had told Pepper, Steve, and Tony to stand on the other side of the lab. Instead of joining Pepper and Steve, Tony came to stand next to him. Though at first he pretended to watch what Bruce was doing, eventually it became clear that that wasn’t why Tony was there. He stood so close to Bruce that his side was almost flush with Bruce’s, hindering the movement of Bruce’s arm until Bruce finally swallowed a sigh and put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony smiled up at him, and Bruce felt his heart jump into his throat.
“Initialize,” Bruce told JARVIS.
When Bruce felt the agonizing pain slice through him, he realized he must have made an error in his calculations.
It felt exactly the opposite of turning into the Hulk.
He was getting smaller.