The once brilliant sun dog on the horizon had faded into the smoky clouds of dusk, and with nightfall came the most violent snowstorm Bruce Banner had seen in years. Well, that was what you got for camping out in a cave in the Hindu Kush, he supposed. Calcutta no longer welcomed him, and he had been hopping around Northern India for the past three weeks before he’d hit Pakistan. Last week Bruce finally made it to Peshawar (where he’d hitched an itchy ride all the way across the border to Kabul in a stack of hay) and was now somewhere in the middle of the Salang Pass; probably closer to Bagram if his little half-dead compass was anything to go by.
He sucked on a pomegranate absently, stomach twisting with hunger and brow drawn in faint unease at the shrieking wind. Snow in the mountains tended to hole people up for days—weeks, even, and all Bruce had was another pomegranate, bread, and some goat’s milk. He inwardly cursed his lack of atmospheric insight and pulled his shawl tighter around him. He used an old wooden chess board that he had bought in the village to ease his boredom. Not that he had the money to spare, but Bruce did not care to be alone with his thoughts for extended stretches of time. One could understand.
When even chess began to grow tiresome, he dozed.
Sometime later the shuffle of footsteps woke Bruce up from a fitful nap, alerting him to the fact that he had started to drift off, and that the snowfall had thickened drastically in the time that he had been asleep. His fire was waning, breathing its crackly last in the vicious breeze.
It was one of the mountaineers, Bruce saw. The man stomped the snow off his boots and brushed some more from his shoulders. Thick furs encased his body and, as Bruce watched, he doffed his hood to reveal several scarves wrapped around his neck.
“You’re rather ill-equipped for the mountains,” the man said. Or at least that was what Bruce heard; his Dari was quite rusty. Or maybe it was Pashto. Bruce’s head was too fuzzy to tell.
He offered a wan smile and replied, “I lost my coat.” Having to barter it for the food made his statement true, in a sense.
“You will freeze solid in the night,” the mountaineer said. He stepped further into the cave, ducking his head at the low entrance. Reaching over the bulk of furs and down, he removed a pack from his back. “I can tell you’re not from here. Allow me to assist you with the ways of our people.”
And suddenly Bruce found himself bombarded with what looked like a feast: dried fruit, barley, potatoes, pine nuts, preserved meat. He opened his mouth to protest, but the mountaineer held up a hand.
“It is why some of us travel through the Salang Pass during storms,” he said, “so that we may help wanderers. Why did you not take the public tunnel?”
Because the Bagram Airfield is too close for comfort, and I’d rather avoid the U.S. military, Bruce wanted to say. Hunger and fatigue almost made him do so, but at the last moment Bruce swallowed it down and shook his head. He picked up a piece of meat and turned it over curiously.
“Londi,” the man said. “Spiced jerky.”
“Thanks,” Bruce said. He eyed the food with caution. It was dawning on him that he had eaten little besides bread and fruit during these past two days, and before he could stop himself he dug in.
The mountaineer, looking satisfied, came over to sit on a rock by the fire. He was a burly man with supple hair that curled in dark waves above his brow. “Why do you travel on foot?” he asked, taking in Bruce’s backpack and briefcase that, albeit ratty and tattered, marked him as a foreigner.
Bruce paused, wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. “I’m sorry, my Dari isn’t so great,” he said. Thankfully, the man seemed to understand Bruce’s implications and bowed his head. He gestured toward the wooden chess board.
“Then let us partake in something that uses little words, travelling stranger.”
Bruce looked up. “You play?”
“I’m rather good,” the man said—in English—and smiled. He reached over into his pack and unfurled a Persian lamb coat, setting it on the dirt floor with care as Bruce reset the chess pieces.
The man knew his way well around the board and he was good enough to keep Bruce’s mind distracted from the snow and ice. It had been quite a while since Bruce had had somebody to play with. He enjoyed not having to conjure a ghost opponent, even if the company was only temporary.
The moon was high in the sky, pale and soft. Bruce casually executed another en passant. An adequate amount of food in his belly really did wonders for sharpening his intellect. “Thanks again,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
“People up here rarely do,” the man replied, staring at the board. Bruce was winning, but it was close. “You look troubled. Keep your skin.”
“The coat,” the man said.
Bruce pursed his lips and said nothing.
The man left at dawn after draping another pelt around Bruce as he slept. When the sun rose and the snow calmed, Bruce woke, packed the remaining food into his bag, and set out west. The coats had kept him warm through the night, and they were softer than baby’s hair.
Bruce left both of them behind.
He had several false bank accounts around the world. All of his possessions fit neatly into his knapsack. He knew eight languages, four methods of deleting a paper trail, and three different ways to start a car. He could spot a bug seconds within entering a room. Bruce Banner was prepared to run at any time. He knew how to navigate the backroads of society like a smeared chalk shadow.
And then there were other times, when he was not so prepared.
Bruce dug into his coat pockets, fingers scooping futilely for currency that he already knew was not there. Three damn Euros and he could get on the train to Milan.
He had apparently underestimated the rate of inflation. Bruce could not remember the Venezia Santa Lucia being this expensive in the past. He cursed silently. Aloud, he said, “Never mind, I’ll come back later,” and gave the Ticketmaster what he hoped was an apologetic smile.
Italy was never a safe place when it came to money. The Costa Notra and the Camorra speckled the streets like a Dalmatian’s spots, dealing their heroin, and Interpol was completely oblivious to the whole Naples branch of the Black Market that sold Extremis and compounds of the Serum. Yet, Bruce found himself right in the middle of it all because a source had promised him information. They were to rendezvous at a TED talk in Milan, if Bruce could ever get there.
He was standing awkwardly outside the ticket booth, contemplating what to do next with the Venetian sun beating down his back when a voice behind him said, “Short on change, young man?”
Bruce did a half-turn to find an elderly man holding what looked to be an extremely sumptuous wallet.
“No—I’m okay,” he said, giving a hasty wave of his hand. The last thing he needed was to be in more debt. He owed people enough already.
“Pah!” The man exclaimed. His gray mustache wiggled when he talked. “You look like a respectable enough gentleman. Where are you going?”
“Uh, Milan,” Bruce answered.
The man reached up and placed a withered hand on Bruce’s back. “That is nothing, my friend! Here, let me buy your ticket.”
“I’m really fine,” Bruce protested, but the man was already pushing him back toward the booth. Sometimes he had to admire the persistence of Italian hospitality.
“Cavelli,” the old man said, grasping Bruce’s hand after he had purchased two first-class tickets to Milan.
“Bruce,” Bruce said, slowly shaking Cavelli’s hand. “And thank you again for the ticket. I can try to pay you b—“
“Nonsense, Bruce,” Cavelli said, smiling. “I’m an old man with far too much money and a desire to spend it on something other than Toscanos.”
Bruce feigned sleep on the ride to Milan, as he often did when he was eager to evade the loquacity of good-natured civilians. When the ride was over Cavelli brushed off Bruce’s thanks and clapped him on the back before hobbling off to another part of the station.
Thinking back on it now, and what happened after, Bruce really should have refused his offer. The TED talk happened to be a lure from the US government, possibly—probably—run by Ross or a subordinate of Ross’s. Two blocks were destroyed, SHIELD had to intervene, and Bruce was forced to start a fresh tally page in his “Days Without Incident” journal.
With some aid from Nick Fury Bruce was able to make it across the Atlantic, all the while trying not to wonder if Sr. Cavelli had been on the list of the dead.
Bruce admitted that Chicago was not one of the most subtle destinations, but he needed to make a pit stop for supplies on his way to New York. He had been travelling mostly on foot for the past two weeks and felt dirtier than he actually looked. At least the blisters beneath his socks were fading. Bruce was mostly inured to the late March winds, but a hot meal sounded like heaven, money be damned.
He found one of those dimly lit diners with fake stained glass windows and chose a booth near the back. When the deep-dish pizza came out Bruce almost wept. So overwhelmed was he that he did not notice the waitress’s appreciative glances until she returned to his table.
“You looked like you needed that,” she said as Bruce snarfed the last bite. Bruce cleaned his hands on a napkin and offered her a smile. She was not beautiful but she was pretty, and clearly interested in him (though for the love of Asgard Bruce could not see how, what needing a shower, a good iron press and a haircut).
“What’s your name?” the waitress asked.
“Bruce.” Somehow he always found it difficult to give a fake name to a civilian in casual situations. It made him feel dirty.
“Nice to meet you, Bruce,” the waitress said, and gestured to her name tag with a roll of her eyes. It read CLARA in printed blue font. “Name’s right here but it’s polite to say it anyway: I’m Clara. Are you travelling?”
Bruce raised his eyebrows and bit his lip around a smile. “You can tell.”
“Looking a bit peaky, I have to say,” Clara said. She eyed his shirt. “I bet those clothes used to fit some time ago.”
Bruce shrugged, admitting that she had a point. His button-down shirt hung on him in a decidedly unflattering way and his belt needed another notch cut into it. He simply had not noticed, what with the fiasco in Italy and the transcontinental smuggling and whatnot.
“If you want I can…help you find some new clothes,” Clara offered. “I can clean and iron those too, if you aren’t busy.” She smiled at Bruce. The thick, dark hair that pooled over her shoulders reminded him of Betty. “My shift ends at three.”
Bruce considered. He knew he had to minimize contact with other people as much as possible, but clean clothes and a steaming shower…it was tempting. “Um, if it’s not too much,” he replied. “I need to run some errands, but I could—I could meet you back here then.” Clara gave a bright smile as she collected his empty plate and utensils.
True to his word, Bruce returned to the diner at three. He waited by the entrance, shuffling his feet and rubbing his thumbs together until Clara practically hauled him out the door and to the nearest men’s outerwear store. Afterward he paced her flat as she washed his clothes, now wearing something cheap but comfortable that she had picked out for him at Penny’s.
Once Clara had fixed up his wardrobe to the best of her abilities Bruce thanked her and started toward the door, eager to be off.
“You could stay the night,” Clara said, biting her lip. She put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder; a gesture so tender that Bruce could not bear it. Gently but firmly, Bruce pulled away.
“You’ve been very nice,” he said. “And helpful too; I appreciate that. But I…can’t.”
Clara paused for a minute. Finally, she tucked a lock of hair behind one ear and nodded. “I understand,” she said. Bruce considered himself lucky that she did not press the matter.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, gathering his things and carefully concealing the woebegone shadows under his eyes. “Thank you again, Clara. I should, uh, I should go.”
And with that he left, doubting very much that she really understood.
Bruce barely heard the shouting of men over the pounding in his ears and the drumming of rain against mud. He permitted himself the sneeze that had been toying with him for the last ten minutes.
Rainwater, shivery and cool, dripped from his hair. The sneeze brought only momentary relief. After a quick glance around Bruce dropped his sandbag and cupped his hand around his nose and mouth to sneeze three more times. "Heh-tscht! Tscht! Ah-tscht!"
Groaning, Bruce sniffed and massaged his temples. He rubbed two fingers under his twitching nose, coughed, and blinked water out of his eyes. He sneezed a final time, violently, as he picked up his sandbag and hobbled over to place it with the others in the dam. His boots squelched in the soft mud and he coughed some more, but it was all unheard over the deluge.
Of course, the one day the eastern Mississippi bank had to flood over was the day that Bruce’s flu was at its raging worst. Aches, fever, congestion, the whole nine yards. In the frenzy of the storm he had not been able to get any medicine; instead he had been recruited to help stop the gradual rise of water into the town before he could protest.
“Williams! We need more men on the south side!”
Bruce wearily raised a hand to show that he’d heard and set off in that direction. He had decided to stay in a little rural town outside Memphis for a bit, adopting a pseud and renting a room at one of those quaint little apple-pie inns with more vacancies than mice. The townspeople were pleasant and he was far enough south that the chances of him being recognized were slim.
Bruce rubbed his chest and grabbed another sandbag. He hauled his bag onto the embankment, shaking the dizziness away and coughing. Was it just him or were the bags getting heavier?
“That’s quite the cough you got there, Williams!”
Squinting through the rain, Bruce could just make out one of his neighbors—Robbie or Ricky, or something like that.
“You okay out here?” the man (Randy, Bruce remembered now) asked. Bruce gave a shrug, too tired to lie and throat too raw to shout over the storm.
Randy gave Bruce a once-over. “Go home, Williams,” he said. “Storm’s no place for a sick man.” Bruce nodded and made his way back to the inn on foot. The innkeeper tittered as he splashed mud and water on her wood, but by that point Bruce was feeling too miserable to care. Once he reached his room Bruce toweled off and collapsed on the bed. He was aware of little after that.
The next time he was halfway awake the digital clock on his nightstand told him it was near dinnertime. The rain was still falling hard, and at first he thought he imagined the knock on his door. The knock came again, soft but firm, and Bruce eased himself up off the bed to see who it was. A glance through the peephole revealed that it was Randy. A woman stood slightly behind him.
Randy peered at Bruce as Bruce undid the chain lock and opened the door. “Nasty bug you got, looks like,” he said.
“Um,” Bruce said. He ran a hand down his face in hopes that it would clear the cobwebs from his vision. He was sure he looked decidedly bedraggled, and probably sounded worse.
“Water levels are steady around the corner of Breene Street and we’ve got more men by Strattle,” Randy informed him. Bruce was not particularly interested in the flood status but he listened and nodded to the best of his weary ability.
“This is the Missus,” Randy said suddenly, rubbing the shoulder of the woman at his side. “Cooked some soup for you, she did.” He winked at Bruce. “The Grand Panacea if I ever saw it.”
“Martha,” the woman said, setting down a Tupperware container on the nearest flat surface. Bruce’s inner voice (or perhaps the Other Guy) chanted Stewart in his head and he tried not to laugh. It wasn’t really that funny, but he was probably running a fever. With a cough and a tight crick in his neck Bruce noted the steam on the inside of the plastic and admitted that some hot soup sounded blissful. Yet, the nicer it sounded the more uncomfortable it made him.
“Oh, you—you really didn’t have to,” he started. “I mean, thank you for the thought, but I really don’t need anything…”
Martha waved her hand dismissively. “Our children’re all grown up so I need some excuse to make my special soup,” she said, and jerked her head in Randy’s direction. “This guy’s healthy as a horse. But you, on the other hand. You look like you’ve been through the runner. Have you taken anything?”
Bruce shook his head and sneezed hard. It sounded congested and wet. Ew. Randy pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Bruce, who took it with reddening ears. Bruce dimly hoped that this couple would notice how uncomfortable he was with their coddling and choose to leave him alone, but he knew it was wishful thinking.
“Sorry,” he mumbled as he blew his nose.
“Sit,” Martha ordered, gesturing toward the bed. “I have some paracetamol that should put you right in a couple of hours.”
“As long as you don’t go outside,” Randy added, and he and his wife laughed together. The sound should have split Bruce’s aching head with a red snap of pain, but instead it relaxed him.
“Thanks again,” he said, taking the pills. “I’m sorry you had to come out here in this weather—“
“You act like no one’s ever gotten the grippe before,” Martha said as she poured some more water from the dispenser into a plastic cup. She met his glazed gaze, firm but smiling. “No more sorries.”
They stayed until the already grey sky deepened to a rich plum black. Bruce, drowsy and full of hot soup, forced himself to stay awake until Randy and his wife left. Who knows what kind of lurid nightdreams he would have with this fever, and what he might say in his sleep?
Without bothering to change into pajamas he lay down on the bed and tucked the blankets tightly around him. Already he was beginning to feel a bit better, but the guilt at having to be mother-henned over dug into his side like an uncoiled wire. He would leave in the morning, no matter how he felt. The last thought Bruce had before he sunk into sleep was to avoid Hulking out if he had a nightmare.
Surprisingly, he dreamed of his days at Culver, of those hot chocolate winters, of sitting in the lounge with the powder-snow falling outside and Betty massaging his shoulders.
Alas, Bruce knew better than to have thought he’d escaped the rain when he arrived in Willowdale. Virginia was warm, but it was moist and wet and the foliage was much too green for his liking. To add a little physical discomfort in there Bruce had grown a beard for subtlety and it itched terribly, like a spider along his chin.
Culver had a spacious demesne with many fields and thin woods surrounding the entire campus. Bruce had bought a package tent (much to his dismay it came in green) from K-Mart in order to camp out in the woods for a day or two, at least until he had met with Selvig.
Coming back to the university made Bruce feel like an old wolf returning to the scene of its first kill. The wolf’s fur was white and its eyes were tired, but it could still smell the pain and taste the violence on the grass as though it had happened yesterday. There was a strange allure about places like these, Bruce thought. Their memories were frozen in their walls and tingled the air; each time he returned Bruce could feel a thumb and forefinger pinching his heart and twisting. And yet, places of heartbreak were sometimes important to revisit…at least until he could let go completely.
Bruce had no intention of visiting Betty. Twenty pounds thinner, wearing unwashed clothes and a natty beard covering his face, he was not exactly dashing. No; Bruce had gotten wind of a new gamma file that the biotech division had come out with—top secret, of course, and funded by Thaddeus Ross. Erik was the mole and provided a small window of knowledge to SHIELD, and to Bruce.
On the second day Bruce became bored, despite himself, and decided to sneak into one of the evening lectures. The lecture happened to be on political philosophy and the effects of interdimensional travel on behaviorism; something that hummed at Bruce’s nerves as he listened simply because the astrophysical data was—to him—impossible. He had never seen readings like that, not once in his life. Dimly Bruce wondered how much government funding Culver was getting nowadays. He rubbed his face, pulled his Broncos cap over his eyes, and squinted at the board again as the lecture went on. The lecturer, a grad student with wavy hair and glasses, ended the presentation with an emphatic gesture to the PowerPoint on the wall. Some people even applauded. Bruce, for lack of a better word, skedaddled.
One could picture his surprise when, back in his little tent, Bruce discovered the rustling of leaves and twigs to be not a raccoon or a squirrel but the poli-sci lecturer from the university. Here in his tent.
“Oh!” Bruce started when she pulled the entrance of the tent back. He calmed his pulse and swallowed, eyeing her warily. Definitely the grad student he had just seen give a lecture. “Um, you. How did you…?”
The student gave a wide, warm smile and crawled into the tent, seemingly unabashed at her intrusion. She crossed her legs on the blanket Bruce had covered the ground with and regarded him with a confidence that Bruce had not witnessed since…well, since he had met Tony Stark, really.
“Bruce Banner,” the girl (young woman, really) said. She stuck out her hand, which Bruce took after a minute. Her grip was firm and warm; his tentative, cool. “D’you think I couldn’t recognize you a mile away? I’m Darcy Lewis, if you were wondering.”
“Yeah, I was wondering,” Bruce said. “I mean—ah, nice to meet you, I think.”
“Thanks,” Darcy said, reaching over and grabbing a banana from Bruce’s meager stash of portable foods. She pursed her lips. “Sorry about the following. I’ve always wanted to meet you. Erik talks about you sometimes.”
“You know Erik?”
Darcy snorted. “Know him? I’m the one who has to carry his sorry ass to bed when he gets too drunk to walk on weekends.” She rolled her eyes, adding, “He’s probably the one who’s been filching songs off my iTunes because Jane definitely wouldn’t listen to Týr—“
“Jane Foster?” Bruce’s eyes went wide under his Broncos cap. Of course. All of those astrophysical figures, the impossible equations. It made sense now.
“Yup. We’ve got funding to help repair the Bifrӧst—from SHIELD, don’t worry,” Darcy said, catching Bruce’s expression. “We don’t take shit from the lieutenant general.” Hearing the disgust Darcy put into pronouncing Ross’s rank made some of the muscles in Bruce’s shoulders relax.
“I was wondering where you got all that information from,” he mused. “If you could tell Erik I’m looking for him, perhaps he could meet me tomorrow…”
Darcy stood up and brushed some crumbles of earth from her suit pants. “Sure thing, Doctor,” she said. “But first, we have to do something about this.”
Bruce frowned, shoulders tensing again. “This?” Perhaps she was a spy after all.
Darcy nodded. A hand with red nail-polish waved at the tent they were sitting in. “This,” she said, “is absolutely unacceptable. We live in a trailer, sure, but I mean, who actually camps out in a tent nowadays? Do you want to get lime disease?”
“I don’t get things like that anymore,” Bruce answered, truthful. He gestured to his body with his eyes and a small nod. “Plus, I’d rather not risk a hotel.” Darcy’s eyes widened behind her spectacles and her mouth dropped open.
“Oh, get it, get it. Right. But I’m still taking you home,” she said. “And I know how wrong that just sounded but I’m sure Erik would yell at me if I let one of his colleagues stay out in the woods.”
“Thanks, but I really—“
“There’s a story, here at Culver,” Darcy said, overriding Bruce, “to scare the freshman. They say that there is a monster in these woods. A werewolf or something. Some say it was an experiment in the science department gone wrong a few years ago, and that the only student to catch it on film was paid dinero grande to keep it on the hush.”
Bruce gave a lopsided smile and tried not to squirm.
“They say it’s something big that will tear your throat out, and that its roars can be heard two miles away, like a tiger’s,” Darcy continued. She smiled wolfishly at him. ”Those stories come from you, you know.”
Bruce suddenly found the ends of his shirt very interesting. His fingers bunched and fiddled with them and he looked down at the floor.
“Come on, Bruce.”
“I’m really fine here,” Bruce protested.
Darcy’s nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. “Save it. You’re not the first guy we brought home, and I’m not leaving until you get your things, shave, and agree to spend the night with a roof over your head,” she snapped. Then she sighed, smiling again. “Now. Are we going to have a problem, Bruce?”
Bruce shuddered at those words. Ones very similar, in a different time and a different place, threatened to spill forth in his memory. A white table. Chains. Needles. Are we going to have problems with you, Doctor Banner?
Bruce shook that thought away and, with a grunt, pushed himself to his feet. He crouched awkwardly, as the tent was not tall enough for him to stand fully erect.
“Fine,” he said. Darcy beamed. “You’d better call Erik.”
A metal intercom on the wall.
Artificial Intelligence wired into every electrical mainframe in the building.
Twelve unsmiling doormen and a PA with unusually sharp heels.
It was official: there was no way Bruce was sneaking out of this one undetected.
“Good morning, Doctor Banner.”
Bruce sat up with a wince and pushed away what felt like clouds. Upon further inspection he discovered the clouds to be covers to a king sized bed. He checked the tags on his pillowcase and was unsurprised to read that the thread count was over six hundred. So yeah, clouds compared to what he was used to sleeping on. Bruce groaned. “JARVIS, I presume.”
“Correct, Sir. And may I add that the temperature outside is approximately seventy-two degrees, partly cloudy, and humidity at fifty-six percent.”
“That’s…” Bruce sighed. “That’s great. Um. Could you tell me where to find Mister Stark?”
“Sir is currently in sub-level one,” JARVIS answered. “He wished to inform you that if you try to leave the building he will send the entire US Air Force out to bring you back.”
“Does Stark even have—“ Bruce cut himself off. It was Stark. Of course he had power over the military.
“There is also a pot of Assam tea for you in the downstairs kitchen.”
Bruce stood up and was grateful to find that his legs were steady. He was not as grateful to find a pair of clean, yet unfamiliar Calvin Klein boxer shorts covering his loins. Another sigh blew out of him. “I guess I’m not leaving, am I?”
The AI was silent.
Bruce found Tony in his basement lab plinking around with the interiors of a spare metal leg. He tapped on the glass with tentative fingers and licked his lips.
“Four zero one two,” Tony called, not looking up but waving to the keypad outside the door with a grease-covered hand. Once Bruce had shuffled in Tony paused at his table and raised an eyebrow at him. “Nice digs.”
Bruce pinched out a crease in a button-down shirt that was most certainly not his, pursing his lips. The slacks were comfortable and loose-fitting, and he did not even want to begin thinking about how much they must have cost. “I’ll have this washed and returned once I get something else,” he said. “I’ll mail it to you.”
“Yeah, I—“Bruce cleared his throat—“I should be off…”
“Aw, and I was so excited to finally have someone to talk to about the saturated electron velocity of gallium arsenide-Vibranium compounds,” Tony said. He didn’t quite pout, but he frowned and jutted out his lower lip in a deceivingly nonchalant way. “Did you know that the chemical makeup of both Vibranium and an arsenic compound mixed together increases the bandgap and makes it almost entirely resistant to heat?”
Bruce slid his hands into his pockets. Due to the new pants, it took a second to find the pockets and his hands fished about his thighs awkwardly before finding comfortable refuge. “Did I just imagine yesterday, or do you really not understand? “He asked quietly.
Tony put down his miniature drill and rose from the table. “Wrong on both accounts,” he said, tone still casual. Too casual. “And if I must say, your performance was spectacular. I never thought a bridge could bend like that.” He opened a 3D projection of some blueprint files with a twist of his fingers.
Bruce dropped his gaze to the floor. “Yeah, see, the bridge wasn’t supposed to bend at all.”
“Well then that’s Ross’s fault, not yours.”
“Did I kill anyone?” Tony only pressed his lips together and shrugged.
“Look, Banner. I get it. I get it all, and I really don’t want to go into a big thing about it, but you’re smart enough to know by now that running away from people will not always save them,” he began. “And the ones who are, let’s say, unfortunate enough to get under your foot as you bring it down…well, then they usually deserve it.”
Bruce grimaced. “That’s not really how I do things, Stark,” he said. “Those guys and…my guy will always turn up, and it’s my job to not be around civilians or anybody I care about when they do.”
Tony clapped the holo-image shut, snatched up a cleaning rag, and wiped some excess grease from his hands. “You see the thing is,” he replied, “the world isn’t as full of dicks as you think. Sure, you’ve got your asses and your douches and then you have me, but putting us aside you find the jewels. Have you ever had someone take care of you? Make you soup when you were sick or something?”
Bruce thought of Martha Not-Stewart from Tennessee and the flooding river. He thought of Clara and her dark hair, Darcy; the man from the mountains.
Tony noticed Bruce’s pause. “There are plenty of good people, and they’re usually in places where you’d least expect them,” he said. “Your problem isn’t them, it’s you. You don’t give them the chance to protect you. Bonhomie is a rare seed, but you can find it in the stoniest soils.” He made a face. “Wow, okay. I don’t usually do symbolism. Don’t tell Pepper I said that; she’ll laugh.”
“Tony. It’s been almost a year now, which in my world merits a first-name basis,” Tony corrected. “Anthony is out of the question, though.”
“Tony,” Bruce said. It was close to a minute before he opened his mouth again, and when he did he was hesitant, almost resigned. “What do you want me to do?”
“What I want,” Tony replied, “is for you to pull up a chair and see how totally awesome my new helical gear design is, and then you can mix up some compounds, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.” He grinned. “Oh, and I’m having Pepper make lunch for us because last time she had Rhodey do it and I almost died. Never trust a colonel to cook a meal.”
Bruce met Tony’s dark, pointed stare and had to remind himself that he was standing before a man who was used to getting everything he wanted. Bruce shook his head. It was infuriating, nonsensical, and just slightly fabulous. He realized that, since it was Tony Stark he was up against, he would have to try a lot harder to get out of this one. He also realized, though he was chary to admit it, that a part of him kind of didn’t want to. There were shadows and lines along Tony’s eyes that Bruce could not recall being there when they first met, and he suspected that maybe Tony had other reasons apart from Bruce’s own welfare for wanting him to stay.
Tony had plopped back down into his chair, arms dangling out in a comfortable sprawl. The light of his arc reactor pulsed a muted turquoise through his scruffy workshirt. “Well?” he said.
Bruce let out a snort of laughter, surprising himself. What the hell, he thought. Stark Tower—Tony—couldn’t be so bad. There were automatic doors, temperature controls, and iodine to spare. Bruce thought about Pepper, lunch to come, and that Assam tea upstairs and his stomach began to rumble.
Perhaps he’d stay for a little while longer.