I) Breathing Exercises and Synthesising Polyphenols for Chocolate
Bruce wasn't asleep. Not really. Sure, his eyes drooped closed when Tony started talking about that nanny when he was fourteen, and he put his head back when Tony had gone off to MIT, and sometime after Tony's first roof-and-tunnel hack Bruce might have drifted a bit, but that was just to be expected when Tony had pulled him out of a village in Guizhou at 2 AM.
“... but there's no actual explanation for wave function collapse, so--”
“What?” Bruce woke up abruptly. “What do you mean no explanation? It's just entanglement with the measuring device--this was explained decades ago, and I don't get why people today still--”
“Relax, big guy,” Tony smirked. “I understand quantum decoherence--I built a particle accelerator in my basement, okay? You think I don't get wave function collapse?”
“Right,” Bruce said sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“Anyway, I was just trying to wake you up. And it worked--I knew that would get to you without waking up the Hulk. It was pretty clever, wasn't it?”
Bruce rolled his eyes.
“Aw, come on, you have to admit that was clever.”
“Okay, fine, that was clever—What do you want? A cookie?”
“Of course I want a cookie. What a silly question; how could anyone ever not want a cookie?”
“That's... actually a fair point,” Bruce shrugged. “Anyway, you wanted me awake, I'm awake. Now what?”
“Do you want pizza? There's a great place around the corner. Makes the best flat-bread pizza on the east coast.”
“Er,” Bruce stammered. “Well, it's 8 AM in China, which is two hours past the time I usually wake up. I'm not sure I'd be able to walk straight. Or be very good company.”
“Okay, fine,” Tony rolled his eyes. “Turn in. Do you want to see how Extremis works tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Bruce smiled.
Unsurprisingly given the jet-lag, Bruce woke up at 3 AM. Knowing he wasn't going to be able to fall back asleep, he decided to go down to the kitchen for a glass of water, or possibly a cup of tea.
Instead, he found Tony Stark in the kitchen, surrounded by test tubes, analytical balances, and beakers, and apparently doing some calculations on a tablet.
“Hey, what're you working on?” Bruce asked.
Tony jumped, knocking over a (thankfully empty) beaker. Bruce stepped over to catch the beaker before it rolled off the counter.
“Oh, hey, didn't hear you come in,” Tony said. He had dark circles under his eyes and Bruce tried not to think about how long it must have been since Tony had last slept.
Instead, he looked around his friend at the tablet. “Is this a process to synthesise the major polyphenols in chocolate?”
“Yes. I'm trying to make chocolate chip cookies.”
“And you ran out of chocolate?” Bruce raised an eyebrow.
“The world is running out of chocolate,” Tony shrugged. “Any robust algorithm to make chocolate chip cookies these days wouldn't need natural chocolate.”
“I see. Any reason why you are making cookies at 3 AM?”
“I may have been... unable to sleep,” Tony said, looking back at the tablet.
“Oh. I'm sorry,” Bruce offered, after a pregnant silence.
“Yeah. I. I thought things would get better after I destroyed the suits and took out the arc reactor. But when I close my eyes all I can see is... God, I can't even say it.”
Bruce didn't know what to say to that, so he remained silent.
“And apparently I can't even handle a chiral synthesis either,” Tony added, running his fingers through his hair.
“Huh,” Bruce sighed. That, at least, he could help with. He took the tablet out of Tony's hands, and flicked through the pages. “You know, this might work better if you condense the two epicatechin units.”
“Oh. That is brilliant!” Tony said. Then, he narrowed his eyes. “Wait a second. You're a physicist--there's no way you came up with that on the spot. How did you--you must have tried this before. You have, haven't you?”
Bruce shrugged. “You're not the only one who loses control and craves chocolate chip cookies at three in the morning sometimes.”
“And you ran out of chocolate the last time this happened?”
“I was in Cote d'Ivoire--a huge producer of chocolate. The place is drowning in it. And in child labour. And child slavery. I didn't have the stomach to buy chocolate.”
Tony grimaced. “Is that all there is to the world? Filth and horror?”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “If you believed that, you wouldn't have gone back to Tennessee and redecorated Harley's garage for him.”
Tony smiled, though his eyes remained distant. “And you say you don't have the temperament.”
Bruce returned Tony's smile.
"So," Tony continued lightly. "Last time, did you calculate the optimal temperature for the sixth step in the synthesis?"
With that, the two scientists plunged into the science. Bruce knew from experience that burying emotions in a flurry of calculations and experiments was only a temporary solution, but he also knew that sometimes a temporary solution was what was needed to tide someone over until they could re-examine what had happened with a more detached eye.
Two hours later, they had discovered syntheses for seven more compounds found in chocolate and actually tested four of them when Bruce noticed that Tony's head was resting on his crossed arms over the kitchen counter.
Bruce smiled, placed his sweater softly over Tony's shoulders, dimmed the lights, and continued his calculations in the dining area.
Three hours later, the sun was shimmering deceptively in the cold winter sky when Bruce heard a startled yelp and a crash from the kitchen. He winced and rushed over to find Tony staggering around wildly. One of the beakers was in pieces on the ground. Tony stumbled, and Bruce rushed over to catch him before he could fall onto the shattered glass.
“Hey, it's okay,” Bruce whispered. “I've got you.”
Tony didn't answer. Instead he continued to breathe harshly with quick shallow breaths.
Bruce helped Tony back to the stool. Tony looked at him, his eyes still wide with panic.
“Breathe with me,” Bruce said. “In,” he took a exaggeratedly deep breath in and waited for Tony to follow suit. “Out,” he exhaled. “Good, you're doing great. In. Out. In. Out.”
Bruce and Tony continued to stare at each other when Tony's breathing had come back to normal.
Tony opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed it again when no words came out. Bruce knew how difficult it was for him even to admit that he needed help.
“I worked out the synthesis for cocoa butter?” Bruce offered when the awkward silence had stretched too long.
Tony started giggling. After a moment, Bruce joined in, laughing with Tony as relief washed over him.
Tony looked soberly at the broken glass when the laughter died down. “You caught me,” he mumbled.
“When I fell, you caught me,” Tony bent down to pick up pieces of glass.
“So I did,” Bruce said, taking a broom out of the closet to help sweep up the the smaller pieces.
“Just like old times, huh?”
Bruce looked up at Tony, but Tony wasn't looking at him. “The Hulk and I would thank you not to make a habit of falling, but sure, just like old times.”
“So about that cocoa butter,” Tony said when they had finished cleaning the floor. “It's just a triglyceride isn't it? Any subtleties?”
“Want to try it?”
“It is what normal people would consider breakfast-time,” Bruce argued. “Perhaps while we're in the kitchen, we should make something that might actually get done within the hour?”
Tony checked the pantry and refrigerator. “We have all the ingredients for blueberry pancakes,” he suggested.
“Sounds good,” Bruce replied.
II) Exposure Therapy and Trolling Physics Conferences
Exposure therapy was, Bruce had heard, the most important step in healing PTSD. He was not a therapist, as he reiterated time and time again, but Tony had refused outright to see an actual therapist, and Bruce knew a thing or two about therapy, so he supposed it would have to do.
But how do you do exposure therapy when your trigger was wormholes? Oh, right. This would be easy.
“Hey Tony,” Bruce said over breakfast on his third day in New York. “There's this cosmology conference at Columbia today. The colloquium speaker is Dr. Pforzheimer, who, you know, discovered phantom energy. He's speaking this afternoon.”
“You want to go?” Tony asked lightly. “I suppose I could spare you for a few hours.”
“Actually,” Bruce said, glancing up at Tony. “I was hoping you'd come with me.”
Tony's eyes went wide. “Cosmology? Not interested.”
Bruce didn't miss the way Tony's hands had clenched into fists and his breathing became harsh and deliberate. He knew what was on both their minds--wormholes--but he wasn't going to acknowledge it if Tony didn't.
“You know, cosmologists can be quite opinionated. Have you ever riled up a conference enough to get people out of their seats and yelling at each other?”
Tony opened and closed his mouth. “And people call me an ass. What do you have against Dr. Pforzheimer?”
“Nothing,” Bruce chuckled. “Pfoho likes it when people get riled up. We used to troll each other's graduate seminars.”
“You know him?”
“He was a fourth year grad student when I started grad school. We haven't spoken in years, though. I think you'd like him. Heard he nearly got kicked out of the Royal Academy of Science last year for instigating a rather... heated argument.”
“Well, he does sound like my kind of guy, doesn't he?”
“So you're in?”
“Sure, why not? Let's see what he has to say about phantom energy.”
“... and these are some of the consequences of a super-negative equation of state on the formation of wormholes,” Pfoho was saying. “Now, I think we'll take a fifteen minute break. Any questions?”
“Excuse me,” Bruce said, waving his left hand obnoxiously in the air. Tony was gripping his right arm, and he didn't have the heart to extricate it. “But aren't there problems with the microscopic formulation, even in wormholes in asymptotically flat space-time?”
Pfoho turned sharply to him. When he caught Bruce's eyes, his mouth fell open in shock for a moment, before he caught himself and closed it.
As all the heads in the room turned to look at Bruce, Tony seemed to realise that his hand was clenching his friend's biceps. He let go abruptly and adjusted his sunglasses.
“Are you referring to the phenomenological constraints?” A deep voice asked from the front of the room. Bruce looked over to see Kaminski, an expert in black holes turning to look at him with one knee on his chair.
“Yeah, doesn't this cause negative kinetic terms?” Tony cut in, looking side-long at Bruce.
“Unless they're claiming wormholes don't exist in their version of space-time,” Bruce smiled back encouragingly.
“Which would be absurd given observational data. Not to mention,” Tony said, moving to rest his elbow on Bruce's shoulder, “there is an alternative viewpoint that everything can be accounted for with a non-symmetric gravitational theory. Though it's pretty alternative at the moment.”
Bruce smirked. He had told Tony to mention as many alternative viewpoints on dark matter as he could, with lots of emphasis on how alternative they were, because someone was sure to get offended.
“Are you mocking me?” Gatten, an early proponent of non-symmetric gravitational theory piped up from another corner of the room.
“Only because non-relativistic neutrinos is an absurd idea,” Hahn said from near the front row.
“Science is not done by claiming that any game-changing ideas are absurd, so just because you are stuck in an ancient framework--”
While the other scientists argued, Pfoho sauntered off the podium, towards where Bruce and Tony were sitting. Tony took his arm off Bruce's shoulder, and the two men stood to meet the speaker.
“Well, well, well, Bruce,” Pfoho said. “I don't even get an email for more than a decade and suddenly you're back here trolling my talk?”
Pfoho towered over Bruce, and his greying hair and tailored suit presented a distinguished air, but his sharp, green eyes danced with the same sort of mischief Bruce had known all those years ago.
“Thought I'd pop in, say hello,” Bruce replied pleasantly.
“And introduce the lucky man?” Pfoho raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, no it's not like that--” Bruce startled.
“Tony Stark,” Tony cut him off, extending a hand.
“Tony Stark?” Pfoho raised his eyebrows, taking Tony's hand. “You don't kid around, do you Bruce?” Pfoho glanced at Bruce before turning back to Tony. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Stark. Your synthesis of vibranium was simply incredible, and I love the way you always leave a trail of explosions in your wake.”
“Nothing says science like a good exothermic reaction,” Tony replied with a charming grin. “Though observational science is where it all starts, isn't it, Dr. Pforzheimer?”
“Please, call me Pfoho. And they never told me you were so sweet,” Pfoho smiled. Then, his face suddenly fell into an exaggeratedly serious expression. “But I'll have you know, if you mistreat my li'l physics bro, billionaire genius though you may be, I will find a way to get to you.”
“What?” Bruce yelped. “This is not what's happening. We,” he gestured between himself and Tony, “are not dating.”
Tony ignored Bruce and returned Pfoho's solemn expression. “Don't worry,” he said, putting an arm around Bruce's shoulders. “Your li'l physics bro is in good hands.”
“Tony!” Bruce growled, but he didn't move from under Tony's arm.
Tony simply grinned.
“Anyway,” Pfoho said. “It looks like the discussion's winding down.” He looked at Gatten, Kaminski, and Hahn, whose argument was in no way winding down. “Sometime... this century... maybe. I'd better get back to my talk. I'll leave you and your not-date to it.”
“Meet up later?” Bruce asked.
“Absolutely,” Pfoho smiled. “Shoot me an email. And don't you dare drop off the map again.”
“I don't think I will,” Bruce smiled.
“What the hell was that?” Bruce asked, as soon as he and Tony walked out of the conference hall.
“You are so adorable when you're flustered,” Tony replied. “And you made me sit through a talk about wormholes. I think I was entitled to get some of my own back.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Was it satisfying?”
There was a pause.
“Is 'physics bro' an exclusive relationship?”
Bruce would have laughed, but there was an odd vulnerability in Tony's voice, so he stopped himself.
“I doubt that. Considering as how Pfoho and I hadn't seen each other in more than ten years, and neither of us is the Penelope type.”
“Oh. That's good,” Tony breathed.
“Why? You thinking of spending more time with him?”
Tony tilted his head down and glared at Bruce.
Bruce smiled. “Anyway, you and I, we're more of an all-scientific-fields thing, don't you think?”
“Science bros, then?” Tony proposed.
“Has a ring to it,” Bruce shrugged.
That night, Bruce found Tony hacking into SHIELD's files to find the research on the Manhattan wormhole.
“Are you going to lecture me for hacking SHIELD?” Tony asked when he noticed Bruce staring.
“I didn't lecture you last time you hacked SHIELD.”
“Last time, we both knew they were up to something with that cube. This time, I'm just stealing research for fun.”
“Re-stealing,” Bruce corrected. “According to Thor, the research on the wormhole originally belonged to Dr. Foster. And considering SHIELD's track record, I'm inclined to believe him. Besides, I think it's good that you're learning about this wormhole.”
Tony tilted his head at Bruce. “Thank you,” he said, softly.
“Jeez, Stark,” Bruce frowned. “You don't have to thank your friends for not trying to stifle your curiosity.”
Tony stared at Bruce for a few seconds before shrugging and looking away. Only much later when Bruce was halfway through a calculation did he realise that that wasn't what Tony had been thanking him for. He considered telling him that you didn't need to thank your friends for being there for you when you were going through tough times, either, but Tony already seemed absorbed in the hack and Bruce didn't want to disturb him.
“Hey, science bro,” Tony said, the next day, looking up from the tablet he was working on.
“Yeah?” Bruce answered, lifting his head slightly without actually looking up from his papers.
“There's a Stark Industries board meeting that Pepper says I have to attend.”
“You mean the one she rescheduled for you seven times?”
“Six times,” Tony corrected. “The first time, it was rescheduled for the Battle of Manhattan. But yeah, that one.”
“Okay,” Bruce said, not sure what Tony was asking for.
“It started five minutes ago. We should probably leave now.”
“Wait, 'we'? I'm going with you?”
“Tony, you can't bring your lab partner to a--that's not how board meetings work.”
“Come on, Bruce, don't leave your science bro hanging. For morale?”
“Pepper wouldn't be happy with that. And the rest of the board would think you'd gone mad.” He paused. “More mad,” he corrected.
“Bruce, I haven't gone out in public, as me, in months, and last time... last time I lost control and tore up a child's drawing.”
“Then it's a good thing there are no children on the board.”
“Bruce.” Tony walked up to Bruce and grabbed his shoulder, forcing Bruce to make eye contact. Tony's eyes were not quite begging, but close.
Bruce sighed. “Put your comm link in. I'll stay on comms with you.”
Tony growled, but accepted the concession.
Things started to go wrong about fifteen minutes after the meeting began.
“I would like to put forth a motion of no confidence in Mr. Stark as director of Stark Industries Research and Development division,” Bruce heard a whiny male voice over the line.
“May I ask what reason you present for this motion?” Pepper's voice asked with trademark politeness.
“He's been suffering a severe case of PTSD, which would affect the direction in which he takes the research of the company.”
“I do not have PTSD!” Tony objected, maxing out the volume of the earbuds.
“You obviously haven't been sleeping, you're irritable, you can't even talk about wormholes without having a panic attack or a flash-back.”
Over the comms, Bruce could hear Tony's breathing becoming quick and harsh.
“In,” Bruce whispered. He inhaled slowly, and waited for Tony to follow suit. “Out,” he exhaled. “In. Out.”
“Nice! You're doing great. Now tell me how phantom energy feeds traversable wormholes.”
Bruce was gratified to hear Tony take a deep breath in as he always did when preparing to launch his motor-mouth.
“The wormhole in Manhattan was created when the tesseract stabilised the quantum tunnelling effect, channelling the cosmic fluid of phantom energy. And, see, I became an expert in this over the last day and a half.”
Tony paused and there was a shuffling sound. Bruce imagined Tony leaning forward in his seat.
“Now what do you want to know about this wormhole?” Tony asked, his voice turning deadly serious. “Do you want to know the traversal velocity in terms of the geometry of space-time--aka how quickly I could nuke an alien race? Do you want to know the propagation of gravitational fields through the wormhole--aka whether I was actually going to fall back to earth before the portal closed? Hmm? What do you want to know?”
There was another pause.
“Motion withdrawn,” whiney-voice said.
“That was brilliant,” Bruce let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.
“Thank you,” Tony said, in a tone just sarcastic enough to be answering whiney-voice, but just sincere enough to be answering Bruce.
III) On grounding techniques, pet dogs, and okay, fine, the Hulk is not a pet.
While Tony's days were getting better, his nights were as awful as ever. Bruce went to bed every night leaving JARVIS with clear instructions to wake him up if Tony needed anything--including company. JARVIS took him up on this, and Bruce found himself more than once waking up just to make compounds next to Tony or read dry, academic papers to him until the latter nodded off.
When Tony finally did fall asleep, Bruce took to finding a place to sleep nearby, because as often as not, Tony would wake up terrified and confused merely three hours later.
In was on such an occasion that Bruce woke to the sound of an explosion.
“JARVIS?” Bruce asked.
“I'm sorry Dr. Banner,” JARVIS answered. “I could not have predicted that Mr. Stark would... You may want to head over to lab 2A. I've cleared the doors for you.”
Bruce was running towards the lab before JARVIS even finished the sentence. There, he found half the lab demolished, and Tony covered in soot and leaning against a counter. He had his eyes scrunched shut, but he was taking slow, deep breaths, not the quick, shallow ones that are the trademark of a panic attack.
“Tony?” Bruce asked in a soothing voice.
Tony's eyes opened, but when he turned to Bruce, it was like he didn't recognise him. Flashback, Bruce realised. Shit. In that instance, Tony launched himself at Bruce.
“Tony!” Bruce said, as Tony shoved him into a wall and started trying to punch him.
Friend, Bruce reminded the Other Guy in his head. The Hulk did the mental equivalent of an eye-roll.
“Tony,” Bruce begged between blocking a punch and side-stepping a sweep. Tony wasn't hearing him. Bruce would need other ways to ground his friend.
“JARVIS, Tony's usual music, please, and loud!”
Some hard rock started blaring and Bruce nearly jumped. “Not that loud!”
The volume did not lower. “This is the normal volume when you're not here,” JARVIS informed him.
“Okay. Fine. Coffee,” Bruce said. “I need this place smelling like coffee.”
A coffee machine in a corner started running. With Bruce still busy dodging Tony's attacks, there was no one to place a mug to catch the coffee, so it spilled all over the ground.
Finally Tony started to calm down, stumbling and falling forward into Bruce's embrace. Bruce slid down the wall, so that Tony ended up in his lap. Tony was trembling so Bruce put his arms around him in an attempt to steady him.
“Who am I?” Tony asked miserably. “I don't even know who I am any more.”
JARVIS lowered the music and stopped the coffee flow.
“You're Tony Stark, aka Iron Man,” Bruce said.
Tony winced. Wrong answer.
“You're my science bro,” Bruce tried again.
That elicited a sarcastic smile and a huff.
“You're my brilliant, amazing science bro,” Bruce reiterated, because sarcastic or not, a smile was better than nothing.
Tony looked away. “I exploded the lab and destroyed the prototypes we were working on.”
“Yeah, you are definitely my science bro,” Bruce quipped, tightening his hold on Tony momentarily.
Tony snorted, extricated himself from Bruce's arms, and sat down next to him, with his back to the wall. He picked up a broken carburettor from the ground and started fiddling with throttle lever.
“Why do you do this?” Tony asked, not taking his eyes off the carburettor.
“Put up with this,” Tony said, gesturing around the demolished room, at himself, at Bruce.
“I thought we just went over this. We're science bros.”
“Were you a doctor in China?” Tony asked suddenly.
“Hm?” Bruce asked, not sure where this was going.
“Doctoring? Healing the sick?
“When I had to. But I was mostly busy teaching all day,” Bruce shrugged.
“Physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, English. They don't have a lot of human resources in places hours by bus to the nearest village with a telephone connection.”
“You were doing meaningful work there.”
“You could say so.”
“They need you, don't they?”
“They survived before I went. They'll survive without me. Why? Have I overstayed my welcome?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “They need you more than I do. You were changing lives, making futures--I know you care about those things. Here, you're just babysitting a broken man.”
If Bruce was totally honest with himself, that thought had occurred to him. There were dedicated, talented kids in that backwater village who actually had a chance of getting into college. But right now, Tony needed him, and that was all that mattered.
“You're important to me, Tony,” Bruce said earnestly. “And you are not broken.”
Tony huffed in disbelief.
“Well, not more broken than anyone else, anyway,” Bruce said. “I've had flashbacks, too. And anxiety. And nightmares.”
“How did you get better?” Tony asked. He continued to fiddle with the carburettor.
“Time,” Bruce shrugged.
“And company, I guess. I had a dog in Brazil. A street mongrel I took in,” Bruce smiled ruefully at the memory.
“A dog,” Tony repeated, as though that were the strangest concept he had ever heard of.
“Don't say it like that. Dogs are great,” Bruce said. “They're loyal and full of unconditional love. They're good listeners--unlike certain physicists.” Bruce gave his usual self-deprecating smile. “They don't judge books by their covers. They're excited about everything. Maybe you should try adopting one.”
“Maybe I should,” Tony said, raising his eyebrows as though considering the thought. “It would have to be a Great Dane. But bigger. Much bigger. Huge, muscular. One that could beat the shit out of two gods and tear apart an army. But then maybe gets tired and turns into a cuddly scientist. Actually, you know, I kinda like this idea.”
Tony turned to Bruce with a smirk. Bruce glared at him. Tony's smirk only grew wider.
When Bruce woke up the next day, Tony was out and JARVIS was helping some workers clean up the lab Tony had demolished the previous evening. The AI was rather vague on where Tony had gone, but he didn't sound worried and he distracted Bruce with new simulations for the nano-scale robots whenever he asked any questions, so the physicist decided to back off and let his friend have his privacy.
He had lost track of time when suddenly the doors to his lab opened. Bruce looked up to see if Tony had returned, but his attention was immediately caught instead by the familiar large, black ball of fur that was charging his way.
“Hey, wait!” Tony shouted at the dog, but Lepton paid him no mind and instead launched himself at Bruce.
“Oh my god, Lepton!” Bruce breathed, bending down to hug his dog. He looked up at Tony. “Did you go to Brazil this morning?”
“Maybe,” Tony said with a shy smile.
“How did you even find him?”
“He found me, actually,” Tony said. “Must have smelled you on me or something. I was just wandering around Rocinha--your SHIELD file said you were in Rocinha--and he kept following me around. Just couldn't shake him.”
“You are incredible.”
“You told me to get a dog,” Tony shrugged. “So I did. Also, really? You named him after an elementary particle? That is the dorkiest thing I've ever heard.”
“You wouldn't like it any other way,” Bruce said, letting Lepton snuggle against him.
“You're damn right I wouldn't,” Tony said. Then he smiled mischievously. “Except angry. I like you when you're angry, too, even though you're a lot less dorky. The enormous and green part makes up for it.”
Bruce glared at Tony over the rim of his glasses.
“So,” Tony said. “How are our nano-bots doing?”
And just like that they went back to what they do--learning, building, discovering, creating--and for a moment, everything was going to be okay. Even if they were still broken in so many ways, even if the lab next door was still under construction, everything was going to be okay.