(If you are reading this on any PAY site this is a STOLEN WORK, the author has NOT Given Permission for it to be here. If you're paying to read it, you're being cheated too because you can read it on Archiveofourown for FREE.)
Bruce reminds himself quite often that he volunteered for the experiment, so really it was all his fault, just as his stepfather and stepbrothers always said. He'd tried to prove himself by coming up with a health tonic better than the ones they sold, bottled and marketed anonymously with the labels changed whenever too many patients died. He just wanted to help people.
Well, also he wanted the Osborns to have a little respect for him. Bruce's mother had died soon after marrying Norman Osborn. They were barely home from the funeral before Victor and Octavio took over his room on the basis that he'd have no use for it because he'd have to live at the factory and work to pay for his keep. He was too young to get a job anywhere else, especially since he'd been home-schooled and had no academic credentials. He was told to be grateful that Osborn was willing to risk getting in trouble by giving him the opportunity to continue his experiments. Most of his possessions, and his mother's, were sold to finance Oscorp's expansion into drugs. Apparently their swords weren't killing people fast enough. So he'd worked in hidden corners of the factory, always trying for the breakthrough that would finally be enough to repay the debts Osborn said he owed.
He'd been sure he'd copied down Erskine's old formula correctly-- well, except for the squiggle at the end, which obviously was missing a few letters-- there isn't any such thing as a 'vita-ray', so it had to be 'vitamins and gamma ray'. Gamma accelerates the maturation of alcoholic beverages, ionizing liquor so the chemical reactions which normally take years only take a few minutes. So that made sense.
The only thing was, it simply wouldn't work on anything but a living human being. In animals and in human tissue samples it was inert. The theory was sound. Eskine even claimed to have succeeded before he died and his lab books mysteriously fell into Norman's hands. But... well, when Bruce hesitated, Norman had said he'd hire Peter Parker, a village orphan, to take it.
Bruce knew Peter. The kid was bright, and good-hearted, and he had a girlfriend. He had a future. Not like Bruce, who lived in the lab basement at Oscorp, constantly belittled and occasionally beaten when his work didn't meet Norman's increasingly impossible demands. Bruce didn't really think he had much to look forward to, and you know, if he died, that would get this misery over with, and at least he'd do one good thing with his life by saving Peter.
He hadn't anticipated being turned into a gigantic green ogre too clumsy for lab work and too stupid for much of anything else. He smashed everything he touched to flinders. When he fell asleep he turned human, but as soon as he got angry, he was a big, useless, green hulk they called Flinders. And really, two minutes with Norman or his step-brothers always made him angry. So they put him in a pit with ore to smash with his hands, and at night, they let him come up to clean up in the deserted labs and eat whatever was left of the workers' lunches. It didn't matter how thin he got, Flinders was always just as big in the morning when they dropped him back in the pit.
As he dumped waste paper baskets into the rolling bin, a bit of bright red and gold envelope caught on the edge. He picked it up and retrieved his eyeglasses from the drawer where he kept them when he was too big to wear them. They were scratched and the frames were bent, but he could still read with them.
His name was on the envelope, probably pulled from old records. He brushed his fingers over the gold embossing. Bruce Banner. It was nice. You know, nice to think that someone out there knew he existed. It had been thrown away unopened. Well, it was his, he could read it, whatever it was. He opened it carefully, thinking to save the envelope in a niche in his pit. Flinders liked shiny things, so he probably wouldn't destroy it. "Oh. It's an invitation. For me?" He read further and his surprise faded. Apparently all the scientists and technicians in the valley got one. Tony Stark had given up being the Merchant of Death and was looking for a new lab partner to explore other ways of making money. Wow, Tony Stark, he was the richest and the cleverest scientist in the whole valley. Even down in the basement, Bruce had heard of him. There was to be a three-day, round the clock, competition at Stark Industries to decide who'd get the position. Bruce unfolded the glossy brochure showing the testing pavilion, and he sighed wistfully. All that bright and shining top-of-the-line equipment, not the trash that Osborn had expected Bruce to work miracles with. His fingers itched to do his proper work again, just for even a few hours.
He looked at a desk calendar - today was the first day. He could... no, he couldn't. He could take a lab coat, sneak out, borrow a bicycle and get there, sure, that would be possible. But then what? Someone would shout, he'd drop a beaker, a mis-timed experiment would explode... and he'd be the big, green, clumsy fool. Even if Norman didn't see him and punish him, he might hurt someone, he wouldn't be safe in his pit. No. No, he'd stay here, where he belonged, cleaning up other people's experiments.
Bruce was sniffling over the autoclave when he heard a musical chime unlike any of the normal alert noises. He turned to see a woman dressed entirely in red, much too tightly fitting to be appropriate lab gear even if it were the right color. And no one wore capes in the lab. Well, except for Victor, but then he was crazy. "Who are you?" he asked as politely and calmly as possible. He didn't want to get mad and wreck the lab. Osborn would find someplace worse than the pit for Flinders if he did.
"I'm Wanda, your witch godmother." The witch frowned at him. "I'm not a very good one, I'm afraid. Just look at you."
Bruce looked down at himself. As usual he was wearing a tattered pair of trousers, rubbish left by the pit for him in order to preserve the minimal decencies. He wasn't dirty at least, since he showered off the ore dust before being allowed to dress and enter the lab. He didn't remember the last time his hair had been cut, though, and the curls were a tangled mess. "Sorry?"
The witch sighed. "I was supposed to give you good luck, but I inverted a fraction."
"Oh, well, anyone can make a mistake," he said mildly.
Wanda shook her head. "I should have been here sooner, but I got tangled up in a time-loop. Nasty business, time-loops."
Bruce nodded, although he really didn't believe in time-loops. Or in witches, for that matter. Or even godmothers.
"I'm here now, and I'm going to give you good luck this time, or my name's not Wanda Maximoff, or Wanda Frank, or maybe Ana Maximoff." She lifted her hands and they glowed. Glowing things in labs are usually not a good sign. Particularly when attached to someone who thinks she's an inept witch.
"Um, no, really," Bruce said, ducking away from her. "I'm fine! I don't need any..." And then the pink glow engulfed him. "Whoa!" He backed up and was surprised to hear the sound of shoe heels. He looked down at himself again. He was wearing a sturdy new lab coat, almost shining in its whiteness, and his shoes were new, black shiny leather, not quite dress shoes, but very nice. He caught a glimpse of black trousers of the same quality of the shoes when the lab coat parted. He patted at his chest. He had a shirt and... even a tie. He peered at himself in the nearest metal surface smooth enough to reflect. He was clean shaven, and wearing new eyeglasses; a better prescription than his old ones, he could see distance as well as reading with them. His unruly hair was clean and combed smooth. It hadn't been cut, though. It was tied back by a green silk ribbon that matched his tie. "What?" he asked, befuddled, as he touched his clothes and tried to figure out how she'd done that.
"Tony likes long hair."
Bruce stared at her. "Who?"
"Tony Stark. Your host." Wanda took him by the arm and led him out of the lab. "I'll keep you from turning into Flinders no matter what happens, but the spell expires at midnight." She scowled. "Stupid rules. Anyway, you'll get a few hours of fun, and you can go back the next two nights, too, just so long as you get back here before midnight."
A yellow taxi was waiting at the gates. "What was this taxi?" he asked warily.
"It's a taxi. Get in."
"I mean, what did you make turn into it?"
"I made it turn into this street." She opened the door of the cab and pushed him in. "Stark Industries. The Competition Pavilion." She handed the driver a fistful of currency. "That make you happy?"
"I'm Happy," the driver said.
Bruce looked back at Wanda as the taxi drove off, and then he shrugged. So, this was crazy. At least he'd get to look at the fancy equipment.
It was heaven. Bruce handed in his invitation at the door. He was given a surgical mask and a little badge bearing a number was clipped onto his lab coat. "Wear the mask at all times. To prevent his familiarity with anyone from influencing Mr. Stark's decision, all team entries will be by number instead of name," he was told. It didn't matter. He didn't expect even to find out who won. The pavilion was huge, and divided up into work stations of various sizes to accommodate all the corporate and family entries, with one man stations set around the edges. Roxxon would probably win the contest. Or maybe the husband and wife team of the Richards'. He was fairly confident the Osborns couldn't create anything except trouble. They had a good-size station, with all their employees rushing about trying to look competent. He chose the one man station farthest from them, chalked his number on the board set up in front of it and set up an experiment, happily humming to himself.
Lovely lovely equipment, beyond state-of-the-art. If he worked hard he could get the rice-splicing project done and sneak out the results to some competent lab, heck, maybe just tack a Creative Commons license on it and leave it here. If Stark Industries was really refocusing on improving the quality of life, this would make a good addition to their Intellicrops line. "Oh, niiice," he said as he pulled up the genomes for rice, corn and tomato without having to struggle to convince the computer what he needed. Now, strip out and combine gene sequences so you'd have rice clustered thickly in easily harvested cobs on fast-growing plants that don't need water-intensive agriculture... delete the sequences that cause allergic reactions in susceptible individuals... oh, yes.
He happily hummed and gene-spliced... maybe he should add quinoa, very nutritious, fewer digestibility problems, the major downside was the tiny size of the grains.
"Oh, hey, that... that might work."
Bruce looked up, blinking as he tried to refocus his eyes after staring at genes on the computer monitor. "Uh. Yeah, it looks promising," he told the young man who was smiling at him and rocking on his heels as if he just was too full of energy to stay still. He wasn't wearing a mask, which let Bruce see that he had the beginnings of a beard- like Bruce he was too young to manage a proper crop- and was wearing rather grubby shirt and trousers instead of a lab coat. He didn't have a number badge, either. "Excuse me, do you work here?"
The man's grin widened and he bounced a bit more. "Nah. I just sneaked in to see what was going on. Why would I want to work with Tony Stark? Everyone says he's a jerk, you know, mouthy and pushy, and I've heard he sexually harasses everyone."
"I don't know about any of that," Bruce said. "I just came because I wanted to play with his equipment."
The man laughed out loud.
Bruce blushed as he realized what he'd said. "I mean, I could do a lot with this. I don't want to be rude, but I don't have much time to complete this."
"Well, if you win, you could take your time."
"I'm not trying to win. I just want to complete my work."
"Don't you want to win?"
"I don't often get what I want." Bruce turned back to the monitor and tried to ignore the man shifting behind him.
"You know, my mother tried to raise tomatoes. Caterpillars got them before we did, up until she planted herbs around them. Lavender, sage and peppermint, I think."
Bruce looked up. "Mmm... so...the scent, I suppose... now if the leaves could be made to smell like peppermint..." He turned to smile at the man. "Thanks."
"No problem." The man pulled up a lab stool and sat next to Bruce. "I like the way you think. You have a beautiful mind. Do you mind if I watch?"
"Um, no, that's all right." Bruce thought his face felt a little warm. It had been so long since anyone had given him a compliment he didn't know what to do with it.
After a while, Bruce became used to the man chattering beside him, offering ideas and praise and touching him. It was... nice. He'd finished one gene sequence and got a pat on the back. Another and his hair was ruffled. And a tray of coffee and snacks mysteriously appeared when he was so involved he didn't realize he was eating with one hand and typing with the other.
When the alarm beep he'd programmed into the computer to go off at eleven p.m. rang, he hastily saved his work and shut down the equipment.
"Hey, what's wrong? Don't you pull all-nighters? I've heard Tony Stark does."
Bruce took off his eyeglasses and rubbed his eyelids for a moment before putting them back on. "I can't." Behind his mask he smiled ruefully. "I turn into a beast. I've got to go now. Really. It was very nice not quite meeting you."
"Wait, you can't go! You didn't finish!"
"I'll be back tomorrow night. I've... really got to go now." Bruce hurried away, trying not to hear his new and only friend protesting. The cab was waiting for him at the gate. He got back to his pit and hid his clothes and eyeglasses before curling up to catch a few hours sleep before he was awakened at dawn for another long day of mindless smashing as Flinders.
Bruce was surprised and pleased when his friend showed up right after he returned the next night. The witch had given him new clothes under another new lab coat and he wasn't sure, but she might have given him a manicure as well. His friend was still wearing jeans and t-shirt, but this time there wasn't any grease on it, which Bruce supposed was the equivalent of Sunday best for him. "Are you a... science groupie?" he asked after finding a break in the chatter that seemed to flow constantly from the guy.
"Sorta. I just... you know, all the other people here, they want to make money, or a name for themselves, or to pick Tony Stark's brains. You're the only one who's here because he wants to help others."
"I'm sure that's not true. The Richards' don't need to make a name or money."
His friend made a disgusted face. "Have you met Reed Richards? He doesn't even know other people exist." He poked Bruce in the ribs. "I'll be your science groupie, big guy."
Bruce giggled. "Sure."
The third night, Bruce tried not to think that he'll never see his friend again. Instead he worked on refining the gene sequence, in between drinking the endless stream of coffee cups that appeared next to his left hand, along with doughnuts or pizza, or cheeseburgers. He was going to miss that, too. "There, that's got it, don't you think?"
"Well, biology's not my strong point, but the computer says it'll do what you want. Congratulations!"
Bruce accepted the pat on the back and the handshake with pleasure. He took off his eyeglasses to wipe them and smiled. "Thanks." He saved the data and put an anonymous Creative Commons license on it.
"You're releasing it into the wild? Don't you even want to put your name on it? Make sure Stark Industries doesn't misuse it?"
"I trust Stark Industries. Besides, I used Mr. Stark's equipment." Bruce shrugged. "It's really his, not mine."
"I should be going." Bruce checked the time; it was a little after ten p.m.
"Wait, hey no, you always leave at eleven, you have an hour. We could play chess. Come on, lightning rounds, there's an app on the computer, I found it this morning before you got here."
"Well... all right."
There was more coffee, and bear claws and cherry cheese danish, munched around trash-talking and giggling whenever he was poked in the ribs if he made a move that annoyed his opponent. He lost track of the number of games they played, lost track of the time... and then they finished a round and he happened to look at the tiny clock in the corner of the monitor. "It's almost midnight! Why didn't the alarm go off?" Bruce jumped off his stool, kicking it to one side as he turned to run for the exit.
"Wait! I'm sorry, I shut it off, I just wanted you to stay. Don't go!"
Bruce growled, feeling Flinders pressing against his skin, and pushed his friend away. His head hurt, everything hurt. He tore off his eyeglasses and threw them to one side before running out of the pavilion, brushing aside everyone who got in his way. He almost reached the waiting taxi when the change took over. Flinders roared and ran off in the night, back to the pit, the only place he belonged.
Flinders smashed, and smashed and smashed all day long, and into the night. Day and night, day and night and day and night. He didn't want to sleep, didn't want to be Bruce. Inside him, Bruce wasn't even trying to get out. Bruce was sad, and that made Flinders mad. "MORE ROCK!" he roared again and again. Then they stopped giving him more rock, and Flinders was even angrier.
He looked up from the pit and growled when he saw the Osborns. Bruce wouldn't let him smash them. But he wanted to.
"Come out, Flinders," Norman Osborn ordered. He looked nervous and mean, he always looked mean. Flinders didn't know why Bruce wouldn't let him smash Norman. Norman would look so much better smashed.
Flinders grunted and jumped out of the pit. The Osborns flinched away from him. They always did. There was another person there, another little man. Flinders squinted at him, puzzled. This wasn't one of the people who threw rock for him. They always wore ugly gray clothes. This man was wearing a shiny purple suit and talking. A lot, very fast, so fast Flinders wasn't listening to him. Flinders thought the suit was pretty. He couldn't see very well, and so he bent down until his face was close to the new man. Oh. Bruce knew him. This was... friend. Flinders wasn't sure what to do with friend. Friend wasn't for smashing or roaring, what else was there? He asked Bruce. Bruce was stupid, he didn't want to tell Flinders. He wanted Flinders to go back in the pit and hide.
Hide from friend? Stupid Bruce. Flinders remembered now. You poke friend in ribs. He did that, and everyone shouted and pointed guns at him, except for little purple man who laughed, and held something up. Flinders squinted at it. He didn't understand. Little purple man was talking again, but this time he was talking slower. Flinders tried really hard to understand.
"This is a gene-splice chart," little purple man said, holding up a piece of white paper. "A genius made it. I've traveled all over the valley showing it to every scientist I can find, and none of them can point out the flaw in it."
Flinders squinted. He squeezed his eyes nearly shut and still all he could see was a blur. This was no good.
"Maybe you need these?" Purple man held out Bruce's eyeglasses. "It's a very unusual prescription. No one has been able to read with them."
Flinders took the eyeglasses as delicately as he could. They wouldn't fit. He sat down at the edge of the pit, and felt very tired. Very very tired. He sighed. This was too confusing for him. Bruce should come out. Flinders didn't care what Bruce wanted, this was for him to do; Flinders smashes, Bruce reads. Flinders pushed Bruce outside.
Bruce pulled his legs up to hide his nakedness a little, and put on his eyeglasses. He sighed and pointed out the flaw. "This gene sequence has been transposed. Ok, fine, can I go back to my pit now?" He didn't want to look at his friend, his friend in the outrageously expensive bespoke suit. His friend who made the Osborns grovel like they did in the presence of wealth and power. He felt very stupid not to realize that had been Tony Stark playing at being a nobody, having his little joke.
"No. You can't. Bruce, you're too good for this. Come with me." Tony Stark held out his hand.
"I'm a monster. You met him. Flinders, all he's good for is smashing."
"I have a lot of stuff I don't need that he could smash, if he wants to. I think he only wants to because he's unhappy. Who wouldn't be a little grumpy living here?" Tony kept his hand out. "C'mon, Bruce, you won the contest. Time to collect your prize."
"You don't want me as a partner." Bruce waved a hand at himself. "Look at me!"
"I am looking. Looks fine to me." Tony smiled. "Would you want to make it a domestic partnership?"
Bruce swallowed hard. He wanted. He ached with wanting. "I never get what I want. And you're forgetting about the other guy."
Tony poked him in the ribs, and Bruce caught his hand instinctively. Tony said, "It's about time you got what you want. And I'm open to threesomes."
Bruce let Tony pull him to his feet, and toss a lab coat around him. "You're crazy, Tony."
"Crazy about you, big guy." Tony hugged him. "Come on, let's blow this popsicle stand." Tony started walking, half-dragging Bruce past the disgruntled Osborns.
Bruce resisted the urge to make an impolite gesture in their direction. It wasn't that difficult. Tony was grinning at him and Bruce felt far too happy to be mad at anyone. "Does anyone even say that any more?"
"Well, obviously. I just did." Tony tightened his grip on Bruce's hand. "I say a lot of things. I might, perhaps, talk a little too much. You might want to ignore me sometimes. Or tell me to shut up."
"No." Bruce smiled at Tony. "I like the way you talk."
"Good then," Tony said. "We're good."