All characters (c) Marvel Comics
Summary: Loki's sceptre has some vestigial effects on Tony's arc reactor. Post-Avengers.
The Schrödinger Effect
Figuratively, he was one of the biggest men on the planet. After witnessing an entire Chitauri fleet up in space, however, Tony Stark felt rather small.
For about a day.
He sent several thousand dollars in funds to the NYPD for cleanup purposes and set JARVIS to work at the rubble surrounding Stark Tower. He called Steve Rogers and after twenty minutes of somewhat awkward chit-chat gave something resembling an apology (although since he was Tony Stark the words "I'm sorry" never actually chose to make an appearance). He went swimming with Pepper and let her give him a full-body massage. Another five thousand dollars were donated to the hospitals and shelters downtown. Nick Fury opened his laptop to find his S.H.I.E.L.D. bank account hacked into; yet, in lieu of a withdrawal he saw a deposit of almost a million dollars and an attached e-mail, anonymous, reading, 'I do play well with others.'
Hence following the attack on downtown Manhattan, or the "Iron Sky Invasion," as some were now calling it, many people had heard from Tony Stark.
Doctor Erik Selvig had not expected to be one of them.
He was brewing a pot of Italian roast in his little house in Taos, his hair still shower-damp and a pair of faded Hush Puppy slippers on his bare feet. S.H.I.E.L.D. had granted him and Barton a leave of absence to recoup, though Barton had refused, being the young and spritely soldier that he was. Erik on the other hand had almost wept with joy at the premise of a week off. Unlike Barton he did not have a lady-friend to help him through his most recent transgressions. Jane was down near Santa Fe working on her latest atmospheric calculations with Darcy at her heels (complaining noisily all the way, Erik was sure), and was too busy to do anything more than call him.
So when his phone rang that morning Erik assumed it was Jane checking up on him, or possibly Director Fury with updates from New York. He certainly got a surprise when Stark—the Tony Stark—officially introduced himself on the other line. They had never actually had an erstwhile conversation, so Erik found himself puzzled at the sudden engagement. Not to mention the fact that Stark had called him on his land-line, of all things.
For a while they talked entropic equations and thermal fluids. Stark loved to hear his own voice, as was reputed of him, though Erik could tell that the latter was merely using the conversation to gage his intelligence and deductive capabilities. Stark was quizzing him? Fine, then. Erik would give Stark a run for his money (and considering Stark was quite capacious in those regards, it was a bold move as any).
Stark seemed contented enough following their brief but compact debate on the archaist variables of the Carnot theorem, and before Erik could do a thing about it he smoothly directed the verbal tides to the Tesseract. Erik internally groaned; from the moment he realized it was Tony Stark on the other line he had the inkling that his motives behind a seemingly innocuous phone call might have been something like this.
"There is not much I can tell you that you don't already know," he said, hesitantly. If Stark was trying to use the Tesseract energy somehow, he wanted no part in it.
"I know," Stark replied, "I hacked into every HYDRA file that S.H.I.E.L.D. has, not to mention your own notes. I called," he continued, "because I want to know what you found out about it after."
"I don't understand." Oh, but he thought he did. Erik felt a hard weight in his chest and he pushed his coffee aside, stomach suddenly tight.
"After Loki's magic stick of wonders touched you, you were able to complete more technological advances in three days than most of us would have been able to in twenty years," Stark told him.
"Yes," Erik admitted. "I was under the, ah, delusion that the Tesseract had somehow opened my eyes to new truths." The words were bitter on his tongue, sour and rancid like road kill on a hot day. Because, as he'd informed them during the debriefing, he remembered every minute of it.
"You do not want to hear the fallacies of an altered mind, Mister Stark," he added, though a voice inside of him told him that, for whatever reason, those fallacies were exactly what Stark wanted to hear. Erik heard a sigh over the line, a quiet expulsion of air; almost silent if one were not listening for it.
"Look. Selvig. It's been great talking with you buddy, it really has. You should know I usually don't stay on the phone with anybody for longer than five minutes if I don't have to. Consider it a great privilege. If you're worried about me using this information for my own gain—which you are, I can hear it in your voice—you can stop because I have much better things to do, believe me. And I'm not gonna go tell Fury any of this so he can forget about building his little arsenal." Sarcasm tinctured Stark's tone as he said this last bit.
Erik took a minute to process all of this. "Then…why do you want to know?" he asked. There was a pause on the other end where the only sounds for a moment were the dry, brittle crackles of a long-distance call.
"Let's just say it's a personal interest," Stark answered.
The first time Tony had begun to feel…off was somewhere on the I-87 between Albany and Manhattan. He and Bruce had just spent the night at a quaint little apple-pie Bed and Breakfast at the foot of the Catskills and were driving back to the city in Tony's open-topped Ferrari. They had taken off the day before almost immediately after Thor's departure, both agreeing that the events of the past week merited a little fresh air.
Nothing had really happened, at first. Tony was driving, idly humming to a Led Zeppelin song filtering out quietly from the car's speakers. After a while he became aware of a queer sensation, almost like déjà vu. The sun was glistening and yellow-white against the bright sky; Bruce was still sitting in the passenger's seat, staring off into the scenery, and there was still a field of Black Angus cows to his left. All the same, Tony had been overcome with the feeling that he was driving somewhere else, sometime else, and it was momentarily disorienting. He had stopped humming.
The second time had been later that evening after a grand dinner of mushroom lasagna topped off with a tiered Dutch chocolate cake (that Pepper had actually baked herself). The three of them lounged about the living room slowly digesting in a moment of rare tranquility; Tony sprawled on the suede couch, Pepper with her legs over his, and Bruce tinkling away at the piano with some pseudo-jazzy chord progressions. Tony looked over at Bruce and realized, with an odd sort of feeling, that the last person to sit at that piano had been Obadiah Stane.
Behind Bruce the night stars winked and comet belts swirled. Tony frowned, because one, the only windows in the room were behind him, not in front, and two, the sky did not have comet belts. At least their sky did not. A few gray rocks floated by, some dog-sized, some man-sized and some even larger than the couch. Tony looked down and saw that the couch itself had vanished and that he appeared to be floating in space, despite the fact that he could feel the couch beneath him.
He blinked because there were stars and meteoroids in the room, and Bruce was playing the piano.
Tony gave his head a little shake. "What?"
Suddenly Pepper was there, tapping the muted glow beneath his shirt and frowning. "I asked if it was always that color," she said. Tony stared down at his arc reactor and discovered that it had indeed changed color—the disparity was slight, but noticeable. The element he created had a lambent white glow with just the barest tincture of green-blue around the edges, like Caribbean sea foam. Tony's button-down shirt was cream colored so it was easy to see that the reactor's light had darkened to a faded, cerulean blue. Almost like the swirling blue eyes of those agents who had attacked the Helicarrier—
"It's just the light," he said, gesturing to the dim fluorescents and sounding a trifle defensive.
Bruce had stopped playing. "I can see it's the light," he said from the piano, smiling faintly at his own joke. The smile was quickly replaced by a more concerned expression. "And I also don't remember it being that color. Is everything alright?"
No, because just a moment ago you were playing on a floating rock the size of my penthouse bed, Tony wanted to say. Instead he shrugged his shoulders dismissively and quickly made something up extempore about the neutron disturbance of his latest model and pigmentation and such not. If Bruce had been skeptical he hid it well. Tony made a well-timed exit for his lab and the night continued undisturbed.
The seventh time was when it hit Tony that he had not slept for a while. It had been five days since the shawarma and four since Thor and Loki had left. Since returning from the Catskills, Tony had been fully conscious for eighty-eight hours, sixteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds.
Every time he started to drift off he found himself in space. It would have been beautiful if not for the dust-powder, rocks and bits of steel floating in a belt of debris through the crisp black sky. Tony recognized the scene, as he had once seen it intact before he sent an explosion from his world up to destroy it.
The Chitauri fleet, suspended in a grave of ice and stars. The rotten phalanx of a dead species.
Tony had replaced his arc reactor twice. After an hour or two of wearing them both had darkened to that curious, swirling cobalt-blue. Whatever issue had been going on with the first one, it had long since contaminated him and was disturbing the electro-magnetic flow of whatever reactor entered his chest. Tony suspected it had all begun when Loki touched him with his sceptre. The energy and—Tony was reluctant to say—magic had somehow interfered with the reactor, causing delayed and fairly unpleasant results.
If the Tesseract was still on Earth he could at least have a template to work with. Its absence made things tricky. He spent Monday morning downloading S.H.I.E.L.D.'s coded weaponry files, which gave him a slumgullion of mechanic blueprints and scant energy readings. Tony admitted that while promising for other occasions, the thermonuclear stats were mostly useless when some sort of extraterrestrial telepathy played with you like a kitten with some string.
Too exhausted to think clearly, Tony made his workspace his bedroom (as he often did when tinkering away at some particularly demanding project) and sat down at his mainframe with a pillow and an unfinished mug of espresso. He spent an unidentifiable amount of time simply staring at the mug with squinted eyes. It was a Stark Industries mug; his favorite despite the chip among the rim. He sighed.
One sixty-nine IQ or not, he needed some rest. Chemically or physically induced he did not care.
So, he employed JARVIS to "cognitively recalibrate" him in hopes that what he called the Barton Easy-Fix would do the job. It half-worked. Barton had been directly controlled, whereas this was more of a failed, vestigial thing, slipping in and out with meandering leisure. A mind-worm at work behind his eyes. The visions were kept at bay for a while, but they would always come back.
After a while his head began to hurt (not to mention the fact that Dummy had used spares from his own suit to hit him), so he tried a number of narcotic serums. Most of them he made himself, which did not have as stellar an outcome as he had hoped. Tony spent a good few hours of Tuesday vomiting.
Bruce would leave next Thursday for Kolkata. Tony supposed he could ask him for some help, but the guy had been through enough already. Tony had set up his spare lab so Bruce could work on his compounds for a while; aside from the times they popped in on one another to compare notes and equations, Tony did not see Bruce for the majority of the day. JARVIS commented, with some snark, that having Bruce upstairs was like having a "good" version of Tony around. Tony had threatened to downgrade JARVIS's personality software.
When he did see him Bruce would have that troubled, scrutinizing look, removing his wire-framed glasses but saying nothing. No, Tony did not want to tell Bruce— even Tony was not blind to the years of hardship etched into the crow's feet at Bruce's eyes and the graying at the temples. As of late Tony had noticed slightly fewer wrinkles lining Bruce's face and a few more smiles curling his lips. Stark Tower was Bruce's haven, acting as a place of like minds, an anodyne and an unspoken 'thank you' for catching Tony as he fell. This time was precious; the calm after the storm before they all went back to their normal lives. When Bruce left Tony would repair his tower and Bruce would go back to treating patients and avoiding big cities. Life would go on.
Telling Bruce that he saw the remnants of the Chitauri's floating derelict in his mind would only serve to add to Bruce's worry.
The visions, if one could call them that, were becoming more vivid as the days passed. Tony saw the shapes of giant saurian corpses behind the rocks, darkling shadows against a greater darkness because the light of the stars was so dim. Chunks of twisted, rusting metal floated like flotsam atop invisible waves, occasionally creaking as the cold slowly divulsed the steel into smaller pieces.
Somewhere at the heart of the rubble was a meteoroid with a brittle, coiling staircase. The stairs were foreboding in and of themselves; hardly Penrose, but an odd sort of trompe l'oeil as they seemed to be going both left and right at the same time. The gemstones lining the stairs flickered Tesseract-blue.
Lately Tony had begun to feel the cold of space on his arms. He could hear the silence for thousands of miles, smell rocks of other worlds and taste the desiccated air where no wind blew at all.
Some part of Tony knew that he was still in his lab, in Manhattan, and there was a Cambodian sandwich deli down the block that sometimes made the air smell like chicken on a hot day. He was not in space.
Ninety-four hours, forty minutes and twenty-nine seconds. JARVIS offered to knock him out again.
Oh, but he could hear something at the top of those stairs roaring.
On Saturday Tony picked up the phone and gave Erik Selvig a call.
Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off an incipient headache, reminding himself that food, divided by sleep times hours, equaled energy and should not be neglected for too long. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was almost one. Another glance to the hallway light leading down to the lower levels told him that Tony was still awake.
He walked into one of the smaller kitchens and got out two mugs, subsequently boiling the water for some Assam tea. Naturally, Tony had it directly imported fresh from India once he heard that Bruce liked it. Bruce supposed that with the kind of money Tony had you could import Patil's bindi straight off her forehead and not blink twice.
Once the kettle began to whistle Bruce turned off the stove and let the teabags steep for a minute before heading down to the lower levels. Tony had given him the three-digit code for the keypad outside his lab, which demonstrated an enormous amount of trust that Bruce was not entirely sure he deserved.
Nonetheless, he punched in the code and brought the tea in to find Tony standing in the middle of the lab, unblinkingly staring into space.
Bruce set the platter down on a nearby desk and frowned. "Tony?" There was no response.
He walked over and quickly tried to gage the situation, eyes scanning and calculating like he was so used to doing. Tony's pupils were dilated and he did not flinch when Bruce snapped in front of his face. His stance suggested tension but not pain. Bruce placed two fingers against Tony's jugular to find a speedy but steady pulse. His skin was cool.
It was then that Bruce registered the light of the arc reactor on Tony's chest.
Even through the natty black work shirt that Tony wore Bruce could see that the reactor had darkened to a deep blue. The color seemed motile, swirling. It almost reminded him a little of…Curious, Bruce reached out a hand.
"I wouldn't touch that, if I were you."
Bruce started, pulling his fingers back. Tony was looking at him with a frown that poorly disguised his dazed expression. There were smudges under his eyes and a faint tremble to his fingertips, so slight that only a trained eye could spot it. Bruce gave him a look that needed little words. "Tony."
Tony looked around, as if he was not quite sure where he was, spotted his chair, and plopped down in it with a sigh. There were no jokes or quips, just a puff of air and an expression of resigned annoyance. "Loki did some magic voodoo on me," he confessed.
Bruce swallowed. If it was anything like what Loki had done to him or Natasha or Barton, well, Bruce feared for the worst. "When?" he asked, voice rusty-sounding.
Tony replied with an indifferent shrug. "Probably when he tried to control me during the invasion." He tapped his reactor. "Didn't work because of this, though."
Bruce tilted his head up in a half-nod. He valued being able to discern more from look and body language than most people, or he would have had to pull some serious teeth to get answers out of Tony. He noted how bloodshot Tony's eyes were, how he was swaying and looking around him as if checking that he was still here.
"But it did something else entirely," he concluded.
"Check—"Tony punctuated his sentence with a wide yawn—"check my notes over there," he said, gesturing to his main desk and rubbing his eye. "I called Selvig yesterday."
Tony grunted, kicking his legs up on the chair. "JARVIS, recalibrate me," he ordered. A somewhat weary 'very well, Sir,' could be heard from one of the many speakers in the room and a large machine began to wheel itself over to the chair. Bruce watched as Tony shot him a look that vaguely resembled guilt. It sat wrong on Tony Stark, like a fat man trying to fit into a kiddie swing. The image just wasn't right.
It clicked in less than a second, what Tony was about to do. Bruce stepped forward. "Wait—"
"It's the only way I can get some sleep at the moment," Tony admitted before a metal arm (was that part of the Ironman prototype? Bruce wondered) came crashing down on his temples, swiftly knocking him unconscious.
Bruce stood there frozen, his hand still outstretched. After a moment he shook his head and rumpled his hair, lips pursing together with dissatisfaction. "You know I am a doctor, too."
JARVIS spoke from the mainframe, of his own accord. 'I grow tired of doing that. Perhaps you can talk some sense into him, Mister Banner?'
"I can try," Bruce replied, picking up the thick portfolio on the desk. He flipped through it and saw at least a dozen pages on the Tesseract, all written in Tony's loopy scrawl. That was odd, Bruce thought; with such an elaborate computers system it was decidedly out of character for Tony to handwrite anything. Perhaps he had not wanted to risk this information to a hard drive. Bruce had not been around this kind of technology long enough to get a firm grip on it yet, and another voice inside him whispered that Tony might have anticipated this and had handwritten the notes specifically for this purpose. For Bruce.
Bruce watched the pulsing blue light at the center of Tony's chest rise and fall for a moment longer before taking a seat with the file in hand. His tea had grown lukewarm.
If asked, Bruce Banner would tell you that science and magic were two twigs of the same branch. It was one of the oldest debates in the book, though people often had a proclivity to replace the word "magic" with "religion." He did not believe in God but he believed that luck played a part in it all to some degree, spirit to another, and karma most definitely. The rest was simply brains.
Bruce knew he was dealing with an equation that lacked several variables. Most nuclear physicists did not have to factor intergalactic elements into their research, damn them. What was affecting Tony was most likely chemical and was likely to be fixed with a compound of some sort. He just did not know what kind. The Tesseract emitted low-frequency gamma waves, Bruce knew, so he decided to start from there.
Or he planned to, before he found the CD taped to the inside of Tony's portfolio. Something told Bruce he should listen to that first, so after a slightly embarrassing attempt to find the player drive, he popped it in.
It was a recording of Tony's phone call with Selvig. Bruce listened and shifted in his chair all the while, slightly uncomfortable. It felt like a breach of privacy; something surveillance organizations like the FBI and the CIA and S.H.I.E.L.D. did.
At the beginning, Selvig and Tony chatted apropos thermodynamics and other unrelated things. Tony mouthed off at a bunch of scientists in the process, which made Bruce's lips quirk up in a smile. Eventually, Tony began asking questions about the Tesseract.
"There is not much I can tell you that you don't already know."
"I know," was Tony's reply on the recording. "I hacked into every HYDRA file that S.H.I.E.L.D. has, not to mention your own notes. I called because I want to know what you found out about it after."
Bruce listened to the conversation for a while, his mouth dry. Selvig, sounding unsure of himself, reluctantly began with the basics: chemical composition, energy stats, dimensional rifts. Bruce took mental notes, pausing only when the scientific readings gave way to something more…interesting.
"The Tesseract is semi-sentient," Selvig was saying, "and was made to connect with whoever used it. Or was used by it." Stark asked what he meant, and Selvig went on to explain.
"It taps into your desires, your fears. It shows you what you have been avoiding and eventually turns you into what you want to be the most," Selvig replied. "Take me, for example. I was always stubborn—one of the biggest skeptics in my field. I didn't believe in anything I could not prove or see. The guys at Culver used to hate me for it." There was a chuckle on the recording. "I hated falsities, so the Tesseract showed me truth."
"What, so it's some kind of orbitofrontal-amygdala manipulator or something?"
"If you want to call it that, yes. Loki used to say it did not affect the brain so much as the heart."
The two lapsed into a brief debate on the absolute control of cerebral functions, causing Bruce to grip the arms of his chair in anticipation. His brow crinkled and he stirred impatiently, anxious to get to the most important part.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, Tony asked about the chemical effects of the Tesseract on a few specific elements; all of which Bruce recognized as components of his arc reactor. Selvig seemed to realize this as well.
"Did Loki touch you?" The question sounded horribly unseemly out of context, made even more so by the fact that it was a disembodied voice filtering out of a speaker. Bruce suppressed a shiver.
Tony adroitly sidestepped a direct answer, as he often did when he was avoiding something unpleasant, and asked how to expurgate the effects.
Selvig was silent for a moment before replying, "If you want it in strictly technical terms it sounds like the neutron configuration of your reactor was disturbed by the shindoleum, causing an imbalance to your bloodstream and your cerebral…"
At last, something Bruce could work with. He made note of the significant elements Selvig listed, biting his lower lip as he listened. It sounded thorny but not insoluble. Eventually the call ended and Bruce immediately set to work. Tony's notes were extremely helpful, but Bruce could see how it would be difficult to work on this alone when you were running on no sleep and were battling a sporadically transferring consciousness.
Selvig had not asked what Tony had seen. It had not been his place to, though Bruce was sure he had silently wondered what billionaires with everything desired or feared. Bruce looked over at the plush chair. Tony was still sprawled over it, head lolling to one side, dead to the world.
"What are you seeing?" Bruce muttered softly. His voice was met only by the methodic sound of Tony's breathing and nothing more.
"Do you ever feel small?"
Bruce looked up from his hydrostatic notes. Tony had on a pair of gloves and was crumbling some iridium oxide onto a piece of wax paper, eyes on the task. His face was deceptively casual.
"That's an interesting question," Bruce responded. It was an oddly existential question for Tony, and Bruce was not sure what else to say. He simply waited, as Tony hated silence (even while working) and was apt to fill it with something.
"Earth isn't the hot shit of the universe, no matter how much we think it is," Tony went on, blowing some powder off his knife. "There are tons of planets out there."
"We think ourselves so big, but when it comes down to it we're just tiny specks," Bruce said. Cupping his chin in his hand, he added, "I think Loki understood that on some level."
"I'm sure he did," Tony replied. He fell silent, and Bruce returned to his notes.
A day had passed since Bruce had found Tony in his lab. He had cancelled his return flight to India and had moved his small workspace to the far corner of Tony's workroom (next to the Rolls-Royce). Tony, in fear of getting forcibly sent to the hospital, had informed a somewhat offended Pepper that they were on the brink of discovery and were not to be disturbed unless it was for coffee or for sex. Pepper joked to Bruce about being the housewife of a self-obsessed genius, but she had picked up on how serious the two of them looked and said no more. She had even left the coffee (tea for Bruce) outside the glass doors of the lab instead of bringing it in like she usually did.
In the midst of making a counteractive solution, Bruce had witnessed Tony's "departures" three more times. They struck without warning; Tony's face would become slack and he would simply stop whatever it was he was doing. One time Tony had been holding a pair of white-hot pliers and Bruce had jumped up to take them before they burned a hole in Tony's pants. It had been close.
That evening, however, posed something new. Bruce had seen the telltale signs that Tony was not all there and had quickly attached two scalp electrodes to the sides of Tony's head. He activated JARVIS's BCI screen so he could measure Tony's brainwaves, only to look up in surprise when Tony began to talk.
It was just a farrago of mumbling at first, but it sounded curiously…far away, as if Tony was speaking from across a football field. When the inchoate words began to form phrases, it initially sounded like nonsense to Bruce.
"…because you seriously need to lay off the cherry popsicles," Tony was saying. There was a brief pause. "That's right." Another pause, longer this time. "Oh, that was me."
Tony's jaw abruptly clenched and cords stood out on his neck. Alarmed, Bruce went back over to Tony and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Tony," he said, shaking gently. There was no answer. Whoever or whatever was in Tony's mind was engaging him in conversation. Loki, perhaps. Bruce did not know. Judging from the strained groan issuing from Tony's lips and the way his head was unnaturally tilted back, the other party was not entirely pleased with him and seemingly had him by the hair. Bruce felt a bead of sweat, cold like a pinhead, trickle down the back of his neck. This was more than an illusion.
So, he did the only thing he could think of; he attached a pair of vital clamps to his own temples, lifted up Tony's shirt and placed his palm on the exposed reactor.
Immediately, Bruce felt cold. Freezing, in fact. The warm light of the lab had vanished, replaced by blackness so complete that Bruce felt a tugging sense of vertigo. He was surrounded by stars. Space, Bruce presumed, though he knew not where or when or why. Was this what Tony had been seeing?
He saw him floating some feet away on a rock with a long stairwell depending from the bottom of it. A humanoid figure in a cloak was standing beside him, forcibly exposing his throat. Bruce saw that the hand clenching Tony's hair was an odd bluish color and was six-fingered. Metal and gears and junk floated in the air behind them and it all snapped into place for Bruce.
He felt the Other Guy stir inside him and took a few calming breaths. How he was getting oxygen he did not know or care; what mattered was that the Chitauri were here. Bruce somehow reached the rock Tony was on and got a closer look at the creature that had Tony, descrying that it did not in fact resemble the Chitauri that had massacred downtown New York. There was armor but no metal, and its teeth were red. Bruce felt a giddy laugh bubble up inside him because he knew exactly what Tony had meant about the popsicles now.
Tony was staring at him with a mingled look of bemusement and reprieve. "Bruce! Nice to see you in these parts of the universe," he managed, neck still drawn uncomfortably back. His expression turned annoyed. "You touched the reactor, didn't you?"
Bruce managed a thin, cautious smile, eyes still on the figure gripping Tony. The Other Guy could have some play-time, if he wished it, but Bruce had a sneaking suspicion that if he did that Tony's lab would end up in shambles. They had not moved, after all. Even the vividness of the scene before them was not enough to convince him otherwise. It was still science at work, albeit a science so advanced that one would indeed call it magic. Bruce held on to this thought.
Tony jabbed a thumb at the creature behind him. "He doesn't like that I blew up his army," he complained.
"Yeah, well, they attacked us," Bruce said automatically, still not willing to believe that he was in deep space. His eyes met Tony's. "Tony. He's not real."
"I am real," the cloak figure argued. The voice was like gravel and barbed wire scratched along the inside of a cave wall. "As real as you. Humans who seek me out with their stunted minds know nothing of the wonders it can do. The distances it can travel."
"Uh, excuse me?" Tony reached out and poked the blue arm with his finger, subsequently using the same finger to point to Bruce. "That guy over there and I. We kind of have a combined IQ of like, three forty-something so don't talk to me about stunted minds."
"You shouldn't make him angry," Bruce said as the figure let out a snarl of irritation, wincing at the words as they came forth. Tony laughed in response.
"Ironic coming from you, don't you think?"
"I'm serious, Tony," Bruce said. "Why are you here?" Oh, but he thought he knew. Ever since he touched the arc reactor, he knew. It had been stitching itself together, piece by piece along the fabric of his mind and creating a quilt of answers and finality. Such was the mind of a genius. Once you boiled things down to a simple equation, however complicated it had originally seemed, the problem could always be solved.
The figure released Tony's hair with a shove. "The human sought me out," it said, spitting the word human with as much acerbity as it could manage.
"Believe me, it wasn't intentional," Tony muttered, scowling.
"No, it wasn't intentional," Bruce agreed, "but maybe it was subconscious." Under the cloak the figure bared its beet-red teeth in a grin; Tony looked confused for about a tenth of a second before realization dawned on him. He had been the one to call Selvig, after all.
Bruce gave a shrug. "You're always trying to get me to express my feelings, so now I'm just turning it back on you." He smiled a plaintive, yet sympathetic smile and gestured to the expanse of winking stars and wreckage around them.
"You almost didn't make it back, from what I heard," he went on. "And after seeing the universe raw, all that space—"
"Don't," Tony said. He was not exactly pleading, but requesting.
"I've found that sometimes it's good to say things aloud," Bruce replied quietly. Tony was silent; a rarity, so Bruce took advantage of it.
"You felt small, like you said. And we are—we're smaller than microscopic dots, despite how big we get in our little bubble of the solar system," Bruce said. "You were afraid of being lost out here: tiny, insignificant, where you would have nothing. The Tesseract brought that out and took you here."
Tony sighed and some of the tightness left his shoulders. "I have seven doctorates," he admitted finally, "but I never got one in psych. Maybe I should have." He stared down at his hands for a minute, picking at a nail. "You're right," he said.
The figure in the cloak issued a mordant chuckle behind him. "To think we were bested by creatures that have such little notions of their own workings," it mused.
"Yeah, you were," Tony said, rounding on the figure. "And don't you forget it. It's what makes us puny humans so powerful, though I doubt that you—"he flapped his hand dismissively—"and your little entourage would ever understand that."
"I have a name," the figure said testily.
"And I don't care," Tony said. "I'm in two places at once, so you can't really hurt me. You just have my mind." One eyebrow rose and his lips drew together, tugging upwards on one side. It was an expression that Bruce, with some relief, could only describe as being so very Tony.
"But sorry, that's my stuff and you're not allowed to touch it." On that final note Tony turned back towards Bruce. "Well, doctor," he announced, "let's go back. Even though we never really left, technically."
Bruce opened his mouth to protest, but Tony already knew what he would say. "There's only one way out," he explained to Bruce, looking down.
Bruce swallowed with an audible click, unsure if even he would take such a leap of faith. Literally. "Gravity might get in the way of your, uh, Reichenbach-ian efforts," he said hesitantly.
Tony shook his head. "Somehow I don't think that will be a problem right now, Watson. Am I right?" he asked the figure behind him without turning around.
"What you wish will be your reality," it obscurely answered. Well. However disguised that was, it was a confirmation, or so Bruce was inclined to gather. Otherworldly beings tended to be so cryptic.
"You know," Bruce began, casting Tony a dryly amused look, "most normal guys just have a midlife crisis."
Tony snorted and motioned to his chest, to the reactor that bathed the lower half of his face in a luminescent blue light. The brightness of it was augmented by the perpetually benighted atmosphere. "I'm just special like that. Put your hand here," he instructed Bruce. Wordlessly, Bruce complied, and together they walked over to the edge of the rock.
"Ours may not be the only world out there," Tony said, staring into the endless drop, "but I'll tell you something—figuratively and egotistically speaking, of course." Bruce could almost feel rather than hear the cloaked figure ask what is it?
Tony broke into a smile. "I am my own universe," he said.
And they jumped.
It was like nothing Bruce had ever experienced before. He had fallen from buildings, planes, missiles—shallow space, even, but this was different. He felt the fall in a way he would in a dream.
He could feel a discursive whirligig of thoughts beside him, spiraling toward him, and suddenly he was inside Tony's mind. Completely and utterly. And Tony was in his. It was both wonderful and terrifying, the coalescing of two separate essences into one. There were colors and spiraling algorithms that strung along the expanse of galaxies; emotions in the forms of comets and bursting stars. Was this what the Tesseract could do?
For a while there were only memories and numbers and they were one and the same. Words like shared extrasensory perception and telepathy whizzed by, all meaningless when one could just feel. This was purely magic.
Dimensions blended like watercolors upon an infinite canvas. He was Tony (Bruce?). He was palladium, iridium, the burn of gamma. He was the torrid sunbursted sand in a New Mexican desert, the limestone of an Afghani cave, the copper of pleading blood. The innocence of a boy under a Cyprus tree. The malice of alcohol. Tony was Bruce and Bruce was Tony, and he understood. He was everything and nothing, falling past the atoms and gases of creation. The theorems of the stars. But somehow, he/they thought, it felt okay. It felt right.
Because this time they fell together.
Pepper Potts was flipping a shit. To her credit she was doing so calmly, calmer than most people, as years of Tony's frivolities had rather inured her to dire situations. Vengeful plasma whip-toting enemies, drunken manhandling of dangerous machinery, poisoning—yeah, she knew the drills.
So when she walked into the lab and found Tony and Doctor Banner with electrodes on their temples, both semi-catatonic and unresponsive, Pepper did the most sensible thing she could and immediately called Tony's personal medical squad. After the incident with Stane she had employed an around-the-clock team in case something went wrong and nobody was around to provide aid.
Once she had called them Pepper checked for vitals and had JARVIS fill her in on the rest, which, despite the interface's efforts, was still a little too technical to completely wrap her head around. The vitals told her that Tony and Banner were not in any immediate danger, but Tony's arc reactor was glowing so strongly through his shirt that it practically lit up his entire face. That worried her. That and their dual washboard expressions stirred a pit of unease at the base of her stomach.
Pepper looked over the BCI scanner and a feeling of unreality washed over her when she saw the EEG stats. The two sets of brain waves were identical, right down to the very last spike. It was impossible, she knew, and blinked to make sure she was seeing the screen correctly. They were still exactly the same.
"JARVIS, what is…" she trailed off, not knowing how to finish. Never mind. She would wait for the physician and the medics upstairs and contemplate just how much she was going to yell at Tony if this was another one of his hazardous experiments. At least he was not blowing holes in the ceiling this time (though in all honesty, Pepper would have preferred that to this).
When the medics came Pepper led them down to the lower levels. The sound of voices made her freeze as she was about to swipe them into the lab. Pepper peered into the room through the glass doors, afraid of what she might find. Tony was cataloging holographic notes in the air, moving files about and scratching his head. Bruce was sitting cross-legged in a nearby chair, cleaning his glasses and making little additions to the files with his free hand. The two of them looked completely at ease.
Pepper gawked at the spectacle, forcing her mouth to close. "I'm sorry," she told the medics, "they were…"she shook her head. "Can you, um, wait upstairs for just a minute? I'll be with you shortly." She flashed them her best passive-aggressive businesswoman smile, showing just the right amount of teeth. The medics hastily left. Even they knew better than to get in Pepper's way when she had that smile on.
"Oh hi, Pep," Tony said as she let herself in. His nonchalance was deliberate and infuriating and it drove Pepper's blood pressure up a few notches.
"Tony," she exclaimed, "what are you doing?" Tony faltered, hand pausing in the air at his notes, and Bruce squirmed uncomfortably.
Pepper blinked. "I came in here a few minutes ago and you—you two were—"she realized it was useless to try to argue this time and exhaled, brushing back a strand of hair. "Can I at least ask if you're okay now?"
"Fine. We were just doing some neurological experiments," Tony answered. He and Bruce shared a grin.
You also shared comas, but this you neglected to mention. "And what about that?" Pepper nodded to Tony's arc reactor. The light was no longer blinding, but it pulsed a muted blue against the fabric of the shirt covering it.
"If I may," Bruce politely interjected, "there was some chemical disturbance caused by last week's events, but now we know how to fix it."
Pepper blanched. "Disturbance?"
"Nothing big. Bruce and I are working on a compound to counteract the effects," Tony explained. "It's almost done; should be foolproof. I just have to drink some nasty-tasting shit for a few days and it'll clear right up. Happy?"
Pepper felt her anger dissipating. It was usually a slow process that involved a lot of multi-ethnic breathing techniques, but Tony appeared to be fine. Bruce too. They looked comfortable, relaxed. Matching expressions, Pepper thought. Her mind strayed again to those EEG readings.
She turned in preparation to leave. "So you're alright now?" she asked them once more. Best to be sure before she threw the medics out. "You guys were catatonic. Both of you, staring into space, and…"
She was not sure what she had said to start it, but Tony suddenly began to laugh. It took Pepper by surprise because it was not the My IQ Is Greater Than This Idiot laugh or the What You Said Wasn't Really Funny But I Want To Get In Your Pants laugh or the Look At My New Lamborghini laugh. It was Tony's genuine laugh, the uncharted one. It made him look markedly younger.
Pepper looked over and saw that Bruce was laughing too, hard. His chair shook underneath him and he tried to cover up his amusement with a hand over his mouth. Tony was practically howling by this point, which only made Bruce laugh harder. One of them snorted.
Finally, Pepper felt all of her tension evaporate and she let herself smile. It was difficult not to. It did not even matter that she did not understand the joke. She would, later, when she and Tony were lying entwined in silk sheets and red wine and he would talk to her.
Pepper looked to the two of them at present. They had all been through a difficult few weeks, but seeing them now, still doubled over and snickering, she thought that things just might be all right in the long run.
Pepper also noted, because she had never really seen it before, that Doctor Banner had a nice smile.