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Take The Risk

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Bruce wasn't that fond of charity, and he didn't completely trust Tony Stark at first. He wouldn't have accepted Tony's offer of a home and a job in Stark Tower; didn't, the first time he offered or the second. But --

It was like this: he wasn't in touch with the Other Guy, exactly. They didn't share. That being said, the Other Guy was a product of Bruce's own rage, the deep shaking anger he had carried as long as he could remember, part helplessness and part guilt. There was a reason the Other Guy manifested as someone so strong and invincible and yet with the mental acuity of -- what, maybe a four year old? If that?

And because the Other Guy was partly him, there was always a moment during the transformation from Bruce to Hulk that was sort of like an information dump. In that moment they could exchange something, and that was the key, even before he knew it was. If Bruce was in pain, frightened or upset, Hulk lashed out. If Bruce was determined, if Bruce let the Other Guy out, Hulk knew where to aim. And likewise, Bruce could get sensations from him.

He knew that the Other Guy liked Tony. He liked Steve and Clint too; Natasha confused him, but he liked her. He probably would never like Thor, but Thor could take what Hulk dished out. It was just that Hulk especially liked Tony, because Bruce liked Tony, and because the Iron Man armor was shiny.

Bruce never claimed his alter ego had depth.

Still, he'd learned to trust the Other Guy's instincts when it came to character. And Tony was so careless, Tony treated him like he wasn't weird or dangerous. Besides, as much as he loved Calcutta, and he did genuinely love it there, America was where he was born and raised, and he'd missed it.

So Bruce accepted Tony's offer and moved into his home and the day Tony unveiled Bruce's lab, all his, nobody else allowed in unless he wanted them there, Bruce knew he'd made the right call. He stood in the middle of this white, white lab with beautiful black counters and clean new machines and whole shelves of tools and couldn't wait, he could not wait, to make a great big mess in it.

Bruce had no idea how to pay Tony back and he knew Tony didn't care, would be annoyed by an attempt, so he did what he could for his own sake: he helped in Tony's workshop when his expertise could be of use, took Tony's side in disputes with SHIELD, and cooked meals that ensured Tony ate somewhat regularly.

"You're in cahoots with me on this," Pepper told him, as Bruce tested the steamed potatoes with a fork. "Feeding Tony, I mean. It's nice to have a partner in crime. And I know Steve will enjoy whatever you make."

"Well, there's nothing I like more than a good cahoot," Bruce replied. "You think Captain America likes BLTs?"

"I'm pretty sure after growing up in the Depression he likes just about anything edible," she said. "Are you nervous about cooking for the Big A?"

"Given my life to date, that would be ludicrous," he said, because otherwise the answer was yes. Bruce had grown up on Captain America comics just like every other nerd he knew; Isaac Asimov, Captain America, and The Anarchist's Cookbook all gave him fond nostalgic feelings. When he was really little and his dad was going at it, he used to imagine Captain America or Superman or even sometimes Namor the Sub-Mariner would burst into the house and lay his dad out flat.

"Ludicrous, of course," Pepper replied with a knowing smile.

But Steve Rogers was just a nice guy, and he seemed to really enjoy the curried potato salad and the BLTs Bruce made for them.

Steve started looking in on them more often, probably at Pepper's behest; she knew Bruce didn't really have much stomach for trying to control Tony when she wasn't around, and Steve was ruthless in that regard.

Bruce saw the others much more rarely, usually only on missions. He didn't have clear memories of those for relatively obvious reasons, but he'd get impressions from the Other Guy, sometimes as they transitioned into each other, sometimes in dreams on the following nights.

There was Tony, alias Shiny Man, and Shiny Man Hulk Roar always meant Tony was injured or Hulk thought he was, and made Bruce worry until he could look Tony over for himself. Steve was Bossy Blue, and most common was Bossy Blue Say Smash. Clint was rarely mentioned, but Hulk had dubbed him Naked Man, presumably because he didn't wear sleeves. Any time Clint annoyed him, Bruce just thought Naked Man and laughed to himself, and could sometimes hear an echo of the Other Guy's roaring laugh as well.

After Thor came back Hulk always had something to say about Ugly Hairs, which was just spiteful, because Thor had the most amazing hair Bruce had ever seen, man or woman.

Natasha, for some reason, was Strong Man. Hulk had differentiated between male and female before without difficulty, but perhaps her presence on an otherwise all-male team was confusing him. She was strong, of course, but not Captain America strong or anything. It puzzled both of him.

"Dr. Banner," JARVIS announced, the weekend that Natasha moved into the Tower. "Agent Romanoff is at the door."

"Is she armed?"

"I'm given to understand Agent Romanoff does not need to be armed."

"Point," Bruce answered thoughtfully. "Okay, let her in."

The door at the end of the lab popped open and she strode in, all badassery and tight pants.

"Hiya, Doc," she called, looking around, no doubt cataloguing how everything could be used as a weapon.

"Come in, pull up a stool," Bruce replied, sitting back from the equations he was entering into the laptop in front of him. "Welcome to the Tower."

"Thanks. I'm pretty sure I could house a standing army in my apartment."

"Well, when your inevitable rise to power is complete, I expect to be issued citizenship in Natashagrad," he replied. "What do I call you, anyway? Black Widow seems a little like calling you Maneater."

"Natasha is fine," she said, and they lapsed into awkward silence until she spoke again.

"We don't see each other much outside of work," she said.

"Work," he repeated with a smile. "Makes it sound like we get dressed up in costumes and go sit in cubicles."

"Picture Captain America trying to work a fax," she said, and Bruce snickered. "I just thought now that we're all living here, things should be...sorted out. I'm a tidy person, I like it when everything's clear."

"Uh, okay," he said, because he wasn't sure where this was going. "Tidiness, check."

"Are we good?"

He blinked at her.

"Is there a reason we shouldn't be?" he asked, honestly curious.

"We have some weird history, Doc."

"I hadn't really thought about it," he admitted. "Yeah. We're okay. As long as you're okay with the Other Guy."

"That time he tried to kill me aside, we get along."

"Good. That's good," he said, and with a twinge realized that he was still unused to people treating him and the Other Guy as separate people.

"All right," she said, standing up, and she was at the door before he called out.

"Hey -- I'm making dinner for Pepper and Tony tonight," he said. He hadn't planned on it, but Pepper would be pleased and Tony hardly noticed food either way. "You should come."

"I don't want to intrude."

"No intrusion. Invite Clint, I'll ask Thor, it'll be like a welcome dinner," he said, warming to the idea.

"What are you making?"

"Spanish rice and pork loin," he improvised. There was probably a pork loin somewhere, and if not JARVIS could find one. "Guaranteed not to suck."

A slow smile spread over her face. She didn't smile much, and it brightened the whole room.

"I'd like that. I'll tell the others. Thanks, Doc." And she was gone.

Bruce waited to a count of ten, just to be sure, and then slid off his stool. "JARVIS!"

"The refrigerator in the penthouse has all the necessary components," JARVIS replied, and Bruce loved the AI just a little inappropriately. "Initiating thaw sequence on the meat. It is recommended that you begin marination in the next thirty minutes for appropriate -- "

"Yeah, yeah, I got it," Bruce said, grabbing his laptop and hurrying for the elevator.

"Shall I invite Captain Rogers?"

"Christ, is he here already?"

"He is scheduled to move in on Wednesday."

"Argh, yes, invite, invite," Bruce answered.

"Very good, Dr. Banner."

"How much rice do you think Thor can eat? I'm guessing a lot," Bruce continued, as he rode up to the penthouse.

"I would be more concerned with his protein consumption," JARVIS answered. "Be advised Ms. Potts is in the living room."

"Thanks for the warning," Bruce replied, settling himself a little as the doors pinged open. Pepper looked up from her work in alarm.

"End of the world?" she asked, sounding faintly worried.

"Marinade," he replied, hurrying to the kitchen.

"Oh! Carry on," she called. "Dinner's on you?"

"I may have made a minor social faux pas," he yelled back.

"Honey, I hear the Other Guy sometimes foregoes pants. I think you're okay," she assured him, strolling into the kitchen. He dug a bag of rice out of the pantry and tossed it on the table. "What did you do?"

"Invited the entire Avengers Initiative to dinner at your place. Promise I'll do the dishes," he offered.

"We have a robot for that. Did you have a motivation of some kind?"

For a split second, he considered confessing that he was trying to impress a woman, but Pepper would tell Tony and Tony would extrapolate and be ruthless.

"Sudden urge to become a caterer," he replied.

"Well, don't let me stop you. Do you need any help?"

"More than any one person could possibly provide," he sighed.

Still, Bruce liked cooking, because it reminded him of chemistry, and he'd always found the certainties of chemistry very comforting. He wasn't particularly imaginative in the kitchen, but he could re-create and sometimes improve on most recipes he was given.

He had JARVIS put on some music, and buried himself in edible chemistry.

Steve was the first to arrive for dinner, bearing a bottle of wine and smiling bemusedly when he caught Bruce singing along to Baba O'Riley.

I put my back into my liviiiiiin! I don't need to fight to prove I'm right -- I don't need to be forgiveeeeen...

"THE WHO, RIGHT?" Steve yelled above the music.

"YOU'RE CATCHING ON," Bruce agreed, turning the music down. "Hey, you didn't need to bring anything."

"Never show up to dinner empty-handed," Steve said gravely. "Can I help?"

"Crack open the wine," Bruce replied.

"I like the sound of that," Natasha said, appearing in the kitchen doorway. Clint leaned in the other side, sniffing the air. Bruce wasn't sure if anyone else had noticed that Clint wasn't...doing well; he was flawless in the field, but the dark smudges under his eyes seemed permanent, and Bruce would make bets those hadn't been there before. One part Loki and one part losing his handler, Bruce guessed. Maybe the others were just letting him be.

Steve had poured the wine, and was looking like he wasn't sure what to do with himself. "I'll go rout Tony out of his workshop," he said.

"COMRADES!" Thor's voice boomed, as Steve hurried away. "I HAVE BROUGHT PROVISIONS FOR OUR FEAST!"

"Oh, god," Bruce said faintly.

Natasha stepped into the kitchen and Clint backed out of it as Thor burst through the doorway, carrying two grocery bags in one hand and a keg, an actual keg, on his shoulder.

"I asked Friend Stark's ghostly servant what was required for this feast," he announced, setting the keg on the kitchen counter. "I was informed that sweet ices were lacking!"

Natasha peered into the bags. "Did you clean them out?"

"I didn't know what would be preferable," Thor replied, unpacking carton after carton of ice cream. Clint started loading them into the freezer, carefully sorting by some preference set Bruce didn't quite understand. Thor picked up a glass of wine, threw it back in a single swallow, raised his hand like he was going to toss it down -- then paused and set it carefully on the counter.

Bruce decided he probably hadn't made enough food.

Tony tapped the keg like the pro that he was, because Steve's bottle of wine barely stretched to one glass apiece, and by the end of dinner they were...mellow.

"I shouldn't have doubted your guarantee," Natasha said to Bruce as he collected up the plates.

"Which one was that?" he asked. "Oh -- about the food being good? I never put my word on anything I'm not planning to live up to."

"It's excruciating," Tony groaned, one hand resting on his stomach. "You and Cap should hang out. The rest of us liars will throw parties and make false promises without you."

"A word is a man's bond," Thor put in. Tony covered his eyes with his other hand. "I have yet to see you swear falsely, Tony."

"You have yet to see me at a shareholder meeting. There is nothing I will not say to make those people shut the hell up," Tony replied.

"Don't look at me," Bruce heard Natasha say, as he set the plates in the sink. "I lie for a living."

"I don't think it's considered lying when the US government pays you for it," he said, coming back into the dining room.

"If you're the government of another country, you tend to have a different take on that," Natasha pointed out.

"Okay, can we...not?" Clint said suddenly. The others looked at him. "'s not a joke."

"Looks like it's Tony and Natasha against the world," Steve said, standing up. "Who wants to get taken down on the video game thing?"

"That's his idea of smack talk," Tony said, as the tension broke. Bruce smiled, relieved, as the others trooped into the living room, Thor dragging the keg behind him.

There was no earthly possibility of killing the keg, just the seven of them. Still, the Avengers were people who met challenges head-on, so they kept drinking (steadily if not quickly) while Steve spanked them all at video games. It was, admittedly, awe-inspiring to watch.

"We should get into video games," Tony said, curled up with Pepper in a corner of the couch. "It's a pretty steady business, not a lot of up and down, even with apps and shit coming in."

"Language," Steve said absently.

"Fuck," Tony replied.

"You're not allowed to buy Nintendo," Pepper announced.

"Though you could do promo shots for Super Mario," Clint added. He was perched on the back of the couch, behind Steve, so that during the difficult shooting bits of the game Steve could pass the controller up to him.

"Look who's talking, Link," Bruce said lazily.

"I could rock the shit out of that hat and tunic," Clint answered, unconcerned. The beer seemed to be doing him good. Natasha, who was sitting on the floor between Steve's right leg and Bruce's left, patted Bruce's shoe.

"It wouldn't be the first time," she said.

"The first time he rocked a hat?" Bruce asked.

"Tasha," Clint said warningly.

"Fine. I'll tell you later," she said to Bruce, standing and strolling over to the keg. "Who's empty?"

Tony held up his glass; Bruce waved off a refill when she looked at him.

"I'm serious though. We could license the Avengers. Game writes itself. Choose a character, multiplayer, maybe a versus mode. Have to invent some villains, real bad guys are notoriously litigious about their copyright," Tony said thoughtfully, leaning around Pepper to pick up his StarkPad. She smacked him on the head, and he sighed and collapsed back against her.

"I think I've had enough of being public property for one lifetime," Steve said, neatly slicing the arm off an enemy soldier.

"You wouldn't be public property, you'd be property of Stark Games," Tony replied. "Thank you," he added, as Natasha carried a fresh beer towards him. She deftly avoided his seeking hand, putting it in Pepper's instead.

"This is a conspiracy," Tony declared.

"I'm sorry, what's the ratio of women to men in this room again?" Pepper asked.

"But you're like four women on your own," Tony informed her.

"I see why she puts up with you," Bruce said, somewhat impressed by Tony's delivery and the way it made Pepper smile.

"Don't be fooled, I only love him for his body," Pepper replied. "When you get old I'm trading you in," she said to Tony.

"Like I'm ever going to get old," Tony scoffed.

"Yes!" Steve interrupted, throwing both arms over his head in triumph as he beat the level. "Nuts to you, evil oppressors!"

"You tell them," Bruce said, and Steve lowered his arms, blushing.