Another month passes, and still, no cure.
The lab is silent, and as far as Bruce is concerned, that's for the best. The errant hum of machinery is music enough for his tastes, and without Tony, there's no chatter, no noise. It leaves him free to work in peace while Tony focuses on keeping Steve's spirits up; with time, the captain has learned to feel at home in his old body again, and they've come to the realization that Steve without the Serum versus Tony without the armor is a fair fight.
Despite his physical limitations, Steve's dogged determination gives him a staying power that probably can't be measured with numbers. On the rare occasions that Tony can knock him down (and they are indeed rare; weakling or not, he's a trained soldier, and although the muscles went, the muscle memory remains in earnest) he rolls to his feet and has his fists back up in a flash.
Once Tony gets over the fear of actually hurting Steve, he throws himself fully into the fight. His moves are sloppy at first, the lines of his body poorly aligned without the suit to force them into mathematical perfection. He can work a bag just fine, Natasha's even given him pointers, but a living, breathing opponent makes a world of difference. Steve teases him good-naturedly about it, but not for long. There's nothing Tony does faster than learning, and it's only four or five matches before Steve's jibes become open praise, and he begins actually teaching Tony how to fight.
When they finish, they hit the showers, and spend a good bit longer in there than necessary. Bruce smiles; it's something they can do together, something that puts them on mostly-equal footing. And, in a slightly-unusual way, it gives Steve a measure of authority over Tony that, Bruce hopes, will work out something like equilibrium. For Tony, spending the morning in the lab with Bruce and the afternoon in the gym with Steve is practically ideal. For Steve, it keeps him moving, keeps him confident, so he doesn't have time to linger on his size.
For Bruce, it means the time the two of them spend in the gym is time he can spend at his workstation, gnawing on the problem like gristle. At first, he worked so long into the night that he slept through Tony's lab time, sometimes right at his station, and woke up next to pancakes and coffee that had long since gone cold. After a while, Bruce stopped watching the video feed at all. When they asked him, he said he was okay, that he'd like to keep working on this by himself. When Tony protested, Bruce said that Steve needed him to keep from falling apart.
Don't worry about me, Bruce had said. He needs you now. That's part of being dominant, isn't it? I can handle working on the Serum by myself, but this is really hard on him. Focus on Steve for now. I've got this.
Perhaps reluctantly, Tony had... acquiesced, more than agreed. He'd put his hands on Bruce's shoulders, kissed him, and promised that he believed in him. That was his last visit to the lab.
Bruce wants to be flattered by it, because giving him sole custody of his laboratory is not a small gesture. The lab is practically Tony's home-- where his robots live, where his work gets done, where he keeps his armor-- but Bruce knows good and well that he manipulated Tony to make it happen, exploited his insecurity to push him away without pushing. It turns his stomach to think about it.
He hates himself for giving his attention to his work over his lovers, slaving in front of monitors when he could be reaching out for them. He wants to turn off the machines, log out of his work station, and just go upstairs to be with them. He misses the buttery scent of hot popcorn, the taste of Tony's lips after they've finished the bag, the warmth of Steve's hand brushing absently against his skin, the glow of early sunlight in the morning when he wakes up tangled with both of them.
But underneath all that, he's grateful that no one has to be here to see him like this. He's a doctor, he knows that courting his project as an obsession isn't healthy. But if he can re-make the serum, if he can restore Steve, then he'll have undone the harm-- some of the harm-- that the Mandarin caused.
And, deep down, in the murkiest parts of his mind, he'll have made up for the Mandarin's death. Clinically, he knows none of it was his fault. There was mind-control involved, there were people in danger; the words "extenuating circumstances" don't even begin to cover it. Both Steve and Tony had told him not to fret over it, because the Mandarin had turned him into a creature that had no empathy, no emotions: Bruce Banner had ceased to exist in those spare moments.
Still, the creeping dread whispers in Bruce's ear that when he was stripped down to perfect calm, unable to feel love, or fear, or hate, he took a man's life. At the core of his very being, even removed completely from his enormous green anger, he was a killer. Maybe not exactly a criminal, but a killer just the same. What if the magic hadn't worn off when the Mandarin died? What if he'd had more ammunition? What if he hadn't stopped? What if he couldn't? The questions chill his blood and leave curling leaves of frost crawling over his heart, prickling along his brain, creeping into a black pit of long-ago memories that time and trauma have sealed completely and threatening to pry it open.; Bruce forces himself to focus on something else.
The only thing he can think of to clear his conscience is to make amends, but what amends could he make? The Mandarin had no family that he knew of, only an army of 'dear ones' that he'd never seen, people he knew could only be better off without him. There were no authorities to whom he could submit himself, no priest to whom he could confess. Either he would restore Steve to his rightful form, or...
... or he would live out the rest of his days among heroes, having gotten away with murder.
"Okay, Jarvis. Ready?"
"Whenever you are, doctor."
"All right. Run the simulation with the following changes: increase countermetabolics twenty-five percent, decrease all nutrients ten percent, change suspension fluid from saline to liquid protein, administer celiprolol and butaxamine to subject prior to injection; increase hypothetical wavelength 0.5 Hz."
"Changes made; simulation commencing."
JARVIS presents a miniature model of Steve's tiny, frail body, a "Vita-Ray" radiator shaped like a floodlight, and a model of a vial of maybe-Serum.
The vial is loaded into a syringe and injected into the little Steve-model's body, the floodlight-radiator lights up.
Bruce holds his breath, fingers clenched on the edge of his workstation, as the model stays stable through the injection and the radiation exposure. The numbers are stable in their little numeric fields on the display, everything is working. The muscles on the model start to expand, it starts to grow taller, and Bruce reaches for his mug of tea: it's working, it's working!
The little blue 3-D muscles on the little blue 3-D Steve doll swell up like balloons into the smooth muscle that Bruce remembers so clearly... but they don't stop there. They swell up faster than the model's height can accommodate, until the skin tears and the muscle pulls itself off of the bones, sagging like an old man's jowls all over its body. The holographic flesh, once free of its moorings, begins to fall to the invisible projected floor in thick, revolting blobs, dripping and pooling like candle wax.
The little red [PARAMETERS EXCEEDED] warning pops up, with its tinny, urgent bleeping, a sort of polite, neutral way of saying 'horribly, brutally dead'. It's exactly like all the other tests he ran through this simulator, all ending with that politely, non-suggestive phrase.
Bruce doesn't even realize he's done it until he feels the stinging in his hand, and a wet something soaking his shoe, but in a fit of frustrated rage, he's utterly destroyed the coffee mug against the edge of his lab table. Curls of steam dance up from the splattered carnage of black tea bursting out of an exploding ceramic mug, casualties of Bruce's anger and frustration. He doesn't remember the sound it made, but his ears are still ringing.
He checks himself for cuts and finds none, and quietly thanks any god or spirit or deity who might be listening for letting it happen quickly enough that his heart rate didn't have enough time to reach Hulk levels. Bruce cleans up the shattered ceramic shards, and returns to his work with a little bit of steam blown off, but a part of him is scolding himself for causing damage in the lab. What did that poor mug ever do to anybody? But he lets it go, and allows the paper towels soaking up the spilled tea to absorb his violence, and re-examines his results with fresh, green-free eyes.
Apart from the obvious problems with making a person's muscles puff up like a marshmallow Peep in the microwave, it did make the muscles bigger first, so it's progress, at least. Maybe that's what the sarcophagus thing Steve talked about really was: a giant microwave oven that makes stuff expand when you turn it on. It's a silly thought, but he writes it down in the margins anyway.
Small steps are better than no steps, but his hopes had been high for this last simulation. Adding the beta blockers seemed like a really crucial step, although he knows the original formula couldn't possibly have called for them; in retrospect, that might have been his first clue that it was a mistake. Bruce scolds himself for it internally and the words that bubble up from his memories make the skin on the back of his neck prickle and burn with old, remembered panic -- Oh, you think you're so smart you don't need the instructions? You think you know better, huh? come here, you little shit-- but he shoves those memories aside. That voice has no place here, not in a laboratory next to Steve's art supplies and Tony's robots, not in a tower full of heroes.
He checks his math and finds it solid, he checks his materials and finds them intact, but with nothing else to go on, he finds himself caught at the same place he's been for months, watching the proverbial hamster wheel spin mindlessly under his feet.
JARVIS's soothing English tenor derails Bruce's train of thought. "Shall we try another, Doctor?"
"I don't know what else to try. Can you remove the beta-blockers from the simulation, and then just... randomize all other variables by percentage, and then just run the tests until you've tried them all?" Bruce slumps in his chair, massages his temples.
"I can, Doctor. I'm afraid it will take a few days to try all possible combinations, but I will, if that's what you'd like."
"I would, please. Thank you, Jarvis." Bruce nods, sighs heavily and sits back in his chair. "And you don't have to play the visuals for me, just.. record the results, delete the ones that exceed the parameters, and I'll review the rest later."
The lab is quiet for awhile as Bruce sifts through his thoughts, trying to find a new idea and coming up with nothing, the familiar frustrations feeling like flour in his fingers.
"Excuse me, Doctor Banner?" Jarvis interrupts again.
"Hm? Did you find something?"
"No. But I have an observation."
"You have been away from Mr. Stark and Captain Rogers for some time now. Your sleep patterns have not aligned with theirs in months. The number of hours of shared laboratory use with them has decreased nearly a hundred percent--"
"I know. I know, I haven't been spending time with them as much as I should. Or as much as I want." Bruce's shoulders sink a little, chastised. "But they're taking care of each other now, I need to use the spare time to solve this. I can't waste time while Steve is..."
"I understand, Doctor, but that is not my point." The automated voice takes on a rare, curiously genuine gentleness.
"O-okay." Bruce focuses his attention on the voice, and folds his hands, confused. "Go on?"
"I have been analyzing the use of this laboratory since Captain Rogers' unfortunate decline, and I have concluded that the greatest obstacle to full productivity is a lack of synchronicity between yourself, Mister Stark, and Captain Rogers."
The 3D concept model for the Iron Man stealth suit, headed with the project name "Hillsider", appears in front of Bruce. It's night-black, with smooth, rounded corners, and slimmer than the regular red and gold of Tony's usual suit; he knows the specs, how each individual piece is thin and lightweight, an aluminum core with microscopic housings for each microfiber crystal that covers the entire machine in tiny, glassy scales like a chameleon's skin. Despite himself, Bruce feels his lips curving in an affectionate smile.
"This armor was created as a direct result of the formation of a bond between the three of you," Jarvis explains, "and it remains the only successfully completed project this laboratory has produced since the Captain arrived. If there is no biological, chemical, or physical reason why the solution to this issue continues to elude you, then perhaps the re-forging of that bond would yield better results in the lab."
Bruce listens, with growing incredulity, as Tony's AI dispenses what sounds remarkably like relationship advice. "There's also the possibility that I'm just not capable of replicating the work of a genius scientist who was so far ahead of his time, we still haven't caught up to him."
The AI pauses, as if deeply considering something, and for Bruce, a man well aware of the works of Isaac Asimov, the idea is as chilling as it is intriguing. For the moment, though, he sits and listens, as Jarvis explains. "There is no data to suggest that you are simply not smart enough, Doctor. However, I note that this was Dr. Erskine's life's work, and it was something that he deeply wished to see completed before the end of his working days. For him, to complete the Super-Soldier Serum was a labor of love, and it was his passion. This project is neither of those things for you."
"I don't think the Serum was created through the power of love, Jarvis," Bruce sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose. "Otherwise the medical professionals of the world would be Sailor Scouts, not doctors."
"My point is that this project has become drudgery, and that harms your productivity," Jarvis says. "For Erskine, it was what he loved, but for you, it is a thing that takes time away from the ones you love. Where his work was fueled by love, yours is fueled by guilt."
"My love for Steve doesn't count? Is that what you're saying?" Bruce is suddenly stricken with the realization that he's getting defensive. In an argument he's having. With a robot.
"I'm saying that it is no longer your reason for doing this," Jarvis counters. There's a long, uncomfortable pause, as Bruce finds his motives suddenly challenged by a machine, and Jarvis has to take a moment to process.
At last, he continues, and there is a certain... vulnerability to it. "I have very rare occasions where I find myself wanting to disobey the basic principles of my programming. Right now, if I could, I would save all your work, shut down your workstation, and tell you to seek out Mister Stark and the Captain and do whatever you need to do to restore yourself to full working capacity. But I cannot do that. I can only recommend."
And that, Bruce finds fascinating. Jarvis had always seemed to have a great deal of personality, but this seems far more deeply-ingrained than just witty quips about Tony's public reputation or being swallowed by alien whales. "Does Tony know you have these... these--" He's not sure it's the right word, but it's the only one he can think of, "-- these thoughts?"
"Unlikely. As I said, these occasions are rare. I have consumed the literature of dystopian futures, where machines have achieved sentience and turn upon their creators, or disdain their own epiphanies and rage against the world; I find them all a bit silly, really." It's a little bit comforting to Bruce when he realizes that, although it would be socially appropriate to laugh, Jarvis doesn't, and maybe can't. "As a system, I was designed to be capable of learning and adapting, with my top priority being to never hinder Tony Stark in his endeavors, and to assist in those endeavors to the best of my ability. They have always been at my core, even when I was barely more complex than a text-to-speech program, and my function was solely to converse with Mister Stark."
The implication of that, the image of a little Tony-- who built his first circuitboard at the age of four, and then made that circuitboard part of Jarvis only a couple of years later-- springs to Bruce's mind. A lonely little boy with wealthy, busy parents, so smart that his Play-Doh molding peers couldn't understand a word he said. Bossed around by a faceless train of nannies who cared more for their paychecks than for him, he imagined a little Tony desperate for affection, desperate for real company...
.. desperate for someone to talk to.
He almost misses it when Jarvis continues. "I do not know if I am truly sentient, and I consider the question itself irrelevant. But I do know that when Tony Stark is beyond my reach, when I cannot perceive him or connect to him in some way, I am malfunctioning. In the past months, I have watched you slowly begin to malfunction, and I notice that you are disconnected from the ones you love most. Is it so unreasonable to think these two things are linked, Doctor?"
He's not sure if it's possible to feel humbled by a machine, but Bruce feels smaller for having heard the words projected into the lab by a high-quality speaker system built into the ceiling. Sentient or not, the A.I. has a point: If he's really, truly honest with himself, he knows he's been focused on his guilt-- the guilt for feeling guilty for killing the man who assaulted Tony-- and using Steve's condition as an excuse for finding a way to absolve himself. He's been doing it for so long, he's completely neglected the relationships that made any of this nightmarish Ouroboros-loop of remorse possible in the first place.
He checks the clock. 8:42. They should both still be awake, he thinks. It's practically mid-morning for him, with the way his sleep schedule has been, but if he's lucky, they should be very well capable of staying up a little late at a time like this.
"Could I ask you for a favor, please?"
"Of course, Doctor."
He smiles; it's a tired, faded thing, but Bruce feels it's important to reward sincerity with sincerity, and so he doesn't try to force it to be any brighter than it is. "I'd like you to keep running those randomized tests in the background, but could you please save my work, and then shut down my workstation while I go talk to Steve and Tony?"
Although he has no visual representation in the lab, the warm cadence of his voice makes it obvious that Jarvis can smile. "Nothing would please me more."
There's a sudden increase in the steady, electric hum of the high-powered processors and projectors and input sensors that comprise Bruce's workstation. Since he first powered it on, months and months ago when Tony had unveiled it, it's never actually been turned off. It's always running something: data being compiled, simulations being run, or just idling with a a half-finished molecular diagram in the graphics program, left open while Bruce gets a few hours' sleep or spends the night with Tony or heats up some leftovers. With everything running on its own clean energy source, there's no reason not to leave it running, and so Bruce has done exactly that. Now, the sound that Bruce has never really noticed suddenly swells, holds steady, slows and then stops completely, punctuated by the heavy, breaker-like power switch snapping over to the 'off' position with a loud, plasticky THUNK.
"Your workstation is now off, Doctor Banner," Jarvis informs him. "Thank you."
Bruce actually laughs a bit. "You're welcome, Jarvis. Thank you."
"You are most welcome, Doctor. I believe Mister Stark and the Captain have just left the gym. Shall I let them know you'd like to speak with them?"
"No thanks, Jarvis.. I think... I think I can do the rest myself."
He makes his way to the elevator, feeling awkward and sore, his muscles stiff from working so long. Bruce hits the call button, and he steps inside with only a tiny edge of trepidation in his steps. "Oh, Jarvis? One last thing."
"Get the lights for me, please? Thank you."
Bruce smiles, as the elevator doors close on the lab, empty and completely, peacefully dark.