STARK ON STARK
"So what's the deal with you two?'
The voice is as jarring as it is perky. Banner, sitting cross-legged on the 'R' this morning (he's developed Steve's habit of rotating letters on a schedule) grits his teeth automatically, then, gingerly loosening his jaw, sighs soundlessly in relief. Much as Stark annoys him, he doesn't… quite… piss him off, so the Other Guy, snoring away after a long series of late nights rerouting mountains passes and diverting avalanche paths in preparation for the ski season over in Colorado, only grunts and turns over.
"Hello, Stark," he says, and screws the lid off the top of his thermos. Hot chocolate this morning. He's tired, and the Other Guy hates Earl Grey, Hot even more than he does. No point in rocking the boat, or the internal cradle, as the case may be. "How are you?'
"Pepper's quite satisfied with the status quo, thank you. How's Steve?'
"If you're inquiring on his general well-being, he's coming along nicely." He sips his chocolate. The Other Guy snores. With the addition of the mini-marshmallows, it's more of a purr. "Though, that being said, you can tell Fury – again – that no matter my quirks and eccentricities, my oath of medical confidentiality still stands. He's not getting squat on the details.'
"When did you become that kind of doctor again?"
"I've always been that kind of doctor." It's more than a bit rude, but an effective physician, Banner has learned, plays to his audience, and no one has ever said that Tony Stark is any sort of paragon of subtlety.
"Huh?' his audience says blankly. Bruce sighs again, not quite soundlessly this time.
"I don't discuss my personal life with those not a part of it, Stark," he says gently. "Nor anyone else's. You may be able to buy and sell the world, but class and gentlemanly manners don't have price tags, or shouldn't, anyway. Now, go away, would you? Please?"
Tony Stark actually looks genuinely hurt for a split second, but only for a split second.
"It's my tower. You go away."
"Really?" Banner looks at him, and… What the hell. He pokes the Other Guy just enough to provoke an inquiring snore that turns whites of his eyes an ever-so-pale shade of green. "I mean… Really? We're at the top of the highest building in North America, and you're telling me to take a flying leap?'
"You can shove me all you want," Stark says sullenly. "I can fly."
"You don't say," Banner sips his hot chocolate one more time, just for the pleasure of the fact that it isn't Earl Grey, Hot, before backhanding the man right off the R and down three hundred stories to the streets below.
"That," Stark informs him as he soars back up and reseats himself, removing his helmet as he does so, "Was neither classy, nor gentlemanly."
"Oh well," Bruce says peaceably, and lies on his back, one arm tucked under his head. He watches the clouds float by as Tony glares at him, and turns his head. "Yes?"
"You're really annoying, you know that? You're one of the only people I've ever met who's as smart as I am, and yet you refuse to share the love. I'm not that bad, really."
"Yes you are. And I do appreciate your brain, I just don't appreciate everything that comes with it."
"So what, my personality sets you on edge or something?'
"Or something," Banner agrees. "Don't take it badly. I accept you for who you are; I just don't want to associate with you on the personal level.'
"Why not? You associate with everyone else on the team! You even went out for lunch with Thor the other day!"
"Case in point: friends don't spy on would-be friends. And we weren't socializing anyway, we were consulting."
"Loki. He wanted to know if I would be able to provide him with any potentially relevant insights into… How did he put it… 'the chronically unsettled temperament.'"
"He is," Banner says, patiently. "A prince. One day he will be a king, and his adopted brother and next-in-line is an incorrigible psychopath with more back issues than Playboy, never mind all of the powers of a small-g god and a now-personal grudge against my home planet. I felt it both my personal and professional responsibility.'
"I have a chronically unsettled temperament and he didn't offer to buy me dinner!"
"That's because he thinks you're a twit. He's just too well brought up to say so." The Other Guy grunts in agreement, and rolls over… Banner turns on his side and peers over the side of the tower.
"Nicely done," he says to the Other Guy. 'That might just bruise his ass, if not his ego."
"Bruce!" a voice greets him. "You're back! How was Colorado?"
"Cold," Bruce says, accepting the proffered, still-warm blueberry strudel with only a slight pang of guilt. Steve might be a growing boy, but from the smell of his backpack, he also hit Zabar's for half their morning stock of bagels and smoked salmon. "I worked up a good sweat, but I'm still working around the topless issue."
"Spandex," Captain America advises, plunking himself down beside him. "It stretches like you wouldn't believe." He cranes his neck. "That's some arc. Olympic-worthy, even. What did he say to piss you off this time?'
"Nothing in particular." Banner flexes and sits up, dangling his bare feet over the side of the R. "Steve?'
"You are aware that the entire team thinks we're sleeping together, aren't you?"
'You don't say.'
"Yep. And half of Asgard too. Thor really got himself worked up over the thought that I might be taking advantage of you."
Captain America can't help but snort, but sobers quickly.
"You didn't hurt him, did you?'
"Nah. I just adopted 'bewildered and bemused' look number six, and he was all over himself apologizing. I just wanted to make sure you're aware of what's running through peoples' minds.'
"Oh. Okay. Um. It's not running through your mind, is it?'
"Uh. No. I'm chronically angry, not repressed."
"Ah. Alright then." He removes his backpack, and from it, a fragrant bag of bagels, a tub of cream cheese, another of lox, and a pair of plastic butter knives. Banner gives him an odd look.
"You're not upset?'
"Why would I be upset?'
"I dunno. Because you're a traditional sort of man?'
"I am," Captain America concedes. "But speculation is just that - speculation, and freedom of thought and expression is constitutionally guaranteed. Too, it may come as a surprise, but mass sexual preoccupation is not exactly a post- World War Two development. My temporal peers might not have put every perverse and perverted thought in their heads out there for social dissection and analysis as seems mandated these days, but that certainly didn't mean that they didn't have them." He spreads cream cheese on a bagel. "And I was in the army besides."
"So… You're not offended by the particular type or trend of speculation?'
"It wouldn't make a difference whether I was or not, it seems."
"It would to me," Banner says. Steve looks him over
"They mean well," he says. "I understand that. But it's not about sex, is it? They're afraid of us… Both of us… And want to be reassured that we're normal. Happy, because we're safer that way.'
"You think they're afraid of you?'
"Yes." It is flat and unequivocal. "Oh, maybe not physically – I have restraint, after all – but otherwise? Somewhere, somewhen when I was out of it, the world lost its sense of the moral absolute; of any sense of definitive right and wrong, and that makes me, my past and potential political and social influence considered, and more than any serum ever could – a dangerous man. A marked man, when it comes right down to it. " He reaches for the lox. "Our friends aren't asking if we're in a relationship, because they truly want to know if we're getting it on, Banner. They're asking because someone – my money's on Fury- put the idea into their heads, because he wants to know if I have any so-called secrets that I would consider indicative of a moral and exploitable personal failing.'
"That's rather cynical of you.'
"Not terribly. I'm a soldier. It comes with the territory, and my inherent sense of the tactical got its makeover right along with me."
"So did mine," Banner says morosely. "It now consists of two words, "Hulk Smash."'
"There's something to be said for the clear and concise, straightforward approach," Steve agrees, and hauls a thermos out of his backpack. "Mushroom soup?"
"Campbell's predates even my sense of morality. I added milk though, instead of water this time.'
"No thanks. So, what do you want me to say when they ask again?'
Steve considers that.
"Scenario number one," he says. "We tell them the truth. They probably won't believe us; overly prurient imaginations aside, Tash and Pepper both have those largely thwarted penchants for directing rather than acting, never mind the workaholic partners…"
"And we've both got really great hair."
"We do." He licks the plastic butter knife. "Never mind the fact that this century is far too preoccupied with instantaneous gratification. I vote we just keep our mouths shut and let them stew. It'll be good for all of them, never mind entertaining, especially when we move in together.'
"I beg your pardon?'
"The second bedroom in my new apartment is finished. I just got the bed delivered. A room-mate would be nice, and would help with the bills besides. "
"What happened to all your back pay?'
"I gave it away." He digs into the cream cheese again. "To people who need it more than I do. They weren't hard to find; that includes most of the population of Manhattan these days.'
"I don't really plan to stay in New York long term, you know.'
'You don't?' He looks up at that. He looks not just startled, but shocked, and crestfallen. Banner can't help but be a bit touched.
"You'll be fine," he says. "Fury will make sure of it."
"But Fury's not my friend.' It sounds achingly young, and vulnerable, and Bruce Banner's heart twists again, in spite of itself, tiredly and painfully.
"Not to sound like that kind of doctor," he says. "But you really need to work on that, man. Not with Fury, specifically; the man's a dick, but in general."
"I was working on it," Steve mutters. "And then I died for seventy years, and came back to life again."
"We all have our challenges. The trick is to find people who can relate."
That earns him a rather dour look. Banner grimaces.
"Thor's not that bad," he offers. "Bit of an egomaniac, and a bit too obsessed with his own hammer, but he's deeper than people give him credit for. And he's just as bemused by this world as you are; you could figure it out together."
"He's bemused because he's not human. I'm too human, that's my problem. And he's got that girlfriend besides, and any time he spent here with me would be at her – their - expense. I don't think I want to be responsible for that."
"Life is about more than romance, you know?'
"I know, but there's romance, and then there's love."
"What about Clint?'
"He never looks at anybody in the eye. Well he does, but only if their eye is their next target. And he thinks of me as a kid, anyway, and Tony's just…"
There was a whoosh, and a thud. "Just what?' the perky voice says
"Annoying," Bruce said. "And nosy."
"Psychologically unstable," Steve says primly. "And kind of an asshole."
"You've been reading my file again. Bad Capsicle." He settles himself and reaches for the bagels. Steve removes them firmly. Stark hmmphs.
"Oink" Steve said flatly. "Blame it on the bottle again, since that's what defines me."
Tony Stark actually has the grace to look discomfited at that.
"Look man," he says. "I didn't mean… It was a stressful moment. We all say things we don't mean in the stressful moments, yeah?'
"I never say what I don't mean. And for the record, that's a habit that predates my career as a lab rat."
"Oh for... I am trying to apologize here!"
"What do you mean, why? Because I'm not a heartless bastard, that's why! Well, technically I am, but…"
Steve gets to his feet, gathering up his backpack.
"Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist," he recites. "None of those are terribly special in my book. The first was accidental, the second is your choice, the third was handed to you, and the fourth? The fourth is only what any decent person should aspire to, and you do it because it's good ad copy. The only thing that leaves you to your credit is the inexplicable love of a woman that you don't, and won't ever deserve, and don't have the humility to appreciate."
"Leave Pepper out of this! And I do so appreciate her! And…" He splutters. "I was ready to die with that damned missile!"
"You can't even make the effort to buy her roses yourself. And the missile doesn't make you special either," Captain America says. "And the fact that you seem to think that it does, or there was any other choice available to you there only reinforces the fact."
"ARRGH!" Tony splutters again, springing to his feet, and off the side of the tower. Steve watches him plummet and sits down again. Bruce eyes him.
'You really need to stop projecting there," he observes. "For the record.'
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"He's not his father. I know you never had one, and that you resent him for the fact, and resent him even more for the fact of where his father's experimentation has landed you, and the universe for the fact that his father isn't here to answer for the fact… But your time-slip isn't Stark's fault, Steve. And I know you don't know him well… But Tony Stark doesn't apologize. To anyone, for anything, least of all his lab rats. That, in and of itself… Proves that he thinks you're pretty special.'
'And what about Pepper's roses?'
Bruce actually laughs.
"Trust me," he says. "The genius bag? Highly overrated. Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep track of things with novas blossoming in your brain full-time? Pepper understands that, and no matter how much she sulks and complains, she realizes that asking Jarvis to remember for him is about as romantic a gesture as it gets, from any man. It proves to her that he recognizes his handicaps – and they are handicaps, trust me again – and is making sure that she isn't affected by them.'
"I thought you don't like him!"
"I don't dislike him," Banner corrects. "I just prefer not to spend time with him, because his class of novas distract me from mine. That's got nothing to do with whether you and he like each other, though, does it?'
"We don't have anything in common!"
"I know that you're a good man, and that he tries – is trying - desperately to be one, and that he sees in you someone to help him along there."
"He calls you 'old man'," Banner says. "There are two ways to interpret that slur, and I know that the slang is – was – as applicable in your day as it is now.'
Steve stares at him, taken aback. Banner nibbles at his strudel.
"Think about it," he advises. "And have a look at his file again, while you're at it. The Howard Stark you knew was a very different man from the Howard Stark his son knew. It might clear up a few things for you, including the fact of why said son is desperate enough for your attention to actually apologize.'
"I've already read them."
"Then you know you got the good bits of him," Banner said. "The bits that this Stark never knew. The bits he wants – no, needs to know about, in order to reconcile the good bits in himself."
Steve Rogers sinks down and thinks about that.
"I still think he's an asshole," he says eventually. Bruce smiles a little.
"We're all assholes," he says. "Every one of us. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve all. Glory and shame enough to go around with that much left to spare, isn't that how the quote goes?'
'Wardrobes," Steve says morosely. "Particularly the temporal ones, are highly overrated."
"Are they? I'll have to take your word on that. I was glad enough to leave my own past behind, the occasional pleasant moments notwithstanding."
"I missed my pleasant moment."
For a split second… Just for a split second… A flash of green shows.
"Word of advice?" Banner says.
"Let it go. Let her go.'
And there it is. And just like that, the damned dam finally, finally breaks. He puts up a valiant struggle, the not-that-kind-of-doctor notes, but in the end…
Seventy years is a long, long time. Seventy years' worth of tears, frozen tears, thawed all at once, it seems, and the man beside him turns, rising to his knees and wrapping him up in those surprisingly strong arms as Captain America chokes, wailing on the stunning flood of tears.
"Shh. Shh now," Banner soothes. "Shh, Steve. I'm right here. Just let it out, okay? Let it out, and let it go."
"I can't! You don't understand, you don't.."
"I do. I do. And you can. It's alright, Steve. It's alright."
"It's alright," he says again. "She'd want you to. I know."
"But I don't want to!"
"Sometimes," Bruce Banner says, stroking the blond hair and shaking shoulders. "We just don't get what we want, do we? Sometimes we don't even get what we need. Sometimes, we just get… What is. What happens. And it's never all bad. It can't be. That's just not how the universe works."
"It's just so weird here! Now!"
"It's weirder in here,' Banner says, tapping his own head. "Trust me."
That actually earns him a sodden chuckle, and a hitched breath. The first breath, and it takes awhile again, but finally, finally, the young man begins to calm.
"I do." He sniffles into his shoulder. "Trust you, I mean."
"Then take these…" He shoves the backpack. "And go find Tony. Accept his apology, and let him be an asshole. It's just his way, really."
"Yeah," a voice said from just below. "It's just my way. Really."
"Stark? How long have you been hovering there?'
"Since I jumped," Stark said, floating up. "Sometimes I like to do my reconnaissance the old-fashioned way, and the wind keeps blowing all the damned bugs off these letters besides."
"The wind," Banner says, 'has nothing do with it."
"Oh for God's sake, Banner! Do you know how much that technology costs?"
"We didn't know whether they were your bugs or Fury's," Steve says, wiping his nose. "And you may be an asshole, but he's just a dick.'
"Finally. Something we can agree on." He seats himself alongside, setting his helmet aside. "Though to be fair, he did try to stop the launch of that missile."
"Lesson number one," Steve says. "That was an act that doesn't even fall on the scale for essential decency."
"No. It just qualifies you as a human being."
'Oh." Stark considers that. "Okay." He looks up as Banner rises to his feet. "Where are you going?"
"Home," Bruce says. "I spent the night playing Lego with the mountains near Boulder. Hulk Sleepy.'
"I have beds downstairs, if you like?'
"Hulk no like. Hulk have own bed now, over…" He points vaguely west. "There. Own room, even. Right opposite Steve's."
"Oh my God. You did not move in with him! Do you have any idea what kind of strain that will put on Pepper's imagination?'
"What can Hulk say? Hulk not responsible for Stark's inadequacies," Banner says. "If Pepper needs to resort to imaginating Stark's friends in order to fulfil her needs."
"HEY!" Stark swats at him indignantly, but it is too late. Banner is already gone, an oddly graceful green blur smearing the now-vivid sunrise. "You're going to pay for that, you great… hulking…gamma-ridden… green… HULK!"
He splutters, muttering. Steve just sputters, mirthfully, into his thermos of soup.