A soft sound, almost like the fluttering of downy wings, flit into the consciousness of the physicist lying in bed. It was the window blinds, which automatically adjusted as per their design, tilting in place to allow warm sunlight to filter in through the 32nd floor and cast its glow about the room. The luminosity caused Bruce's brow to scrunch briefly along well-worn worry lines before smoothing back out as his eyes blinked open.
"Good morning, Dr. Banner," JARVIS greeted cheerfully as soon as the AI unit sensed the man had awoken from slumber.
"Hey, yeah, good morning," Bruce returned the greeting as he sat up and rolled his shoulders of the night's stiffness. He still wasn't quite used to being so cordially awoken every morning by Tony's program. After so long being on the run, it was odd to wake up in comfort, especially the luxurious suite Tony insisted he have while staying at Stark Tower. Bruce gave a soft chagrinned chuckle as he reached over to the nightstand to appropriate his spectacles, unfolding the silver stems before perching them on the bridge of his nose.
"The time is 7 AM, current outdoor temperature a mild 12.7° Celsius, with a high of 26.1 towards the afternoon," JARVIS went on as he stood to go over to his walk-in closet. The information would have been more important had he intended to go out, but most days he stuck to the lab. Just safer that way. No variables. Better if his environment remained constant. JARVIS either had a mind-reading feature or the AI had learned his habits because his next inquiry was, "Would you like me to brew a pot of coffee down in the laboratory so it is ready for you when you arrive, doctor?"
"Uh, yeah… that'd be nice, JARVIS, thanks," he responded as he eyed his choices- another thing Tony had done was ensured he had an entire wardrobe of nice clothes, the idea being if he accidentally ripped through a few he'd have plenty to replace them with. A kindly gesture, if a little bit too direct, but then again when wasn't Tony to the 'point' (sometimes more literally than other times)? There was something strangely… relieving about the other man's attitude on the subject of his 'condition', but Bruce didn't think too hard on it this morning. He selected a pair of grey tweed slacks and began going through the assortment of button-up shirts hanging on their rod, the metal hangers clinking together as he did so.
"Please allow me to be the first to wish you a Happy Birthday, sir. I've been informed by Miss Potts she should like to take you to lunch to celebrate."
Bruce's spine straightened upright and he blinked a couple of times. He'd completely forgotten his birthday was coming up- after all, it wasn't like the day had much greater significance than any other day. Plus, he couldn't remember the last time he'd actually celebrated a birthday- being alone in a foreign country and not knowing anyone did that to a person. He supposed JARVIS and Pepper were on the up-and-up because of the file SHIELD had on him, which had been distributed to the other Avengers prior to the group's formation. His fingers tightened around the hanger of his slacks. That fact still made him uncomfortable to this day… it meant they all knew about his slip-ups, what he had done, the atrocities he- well, the other guy- had wrought.
He swallowed down the swirling feeling in his gut. It was obvious the majority of them were still leery about him, even after the Chitauri incident. They could think what they wished; it wasn't like that anymore now that he had it under control, now that he could control when, for the most part, he 'hulked'. Pepper and Tony though… they were different. Accepting. Welcoming. Bruce let a smile creep across his features. "I'd be happy to accept Miss Potts' invitation," he told JARVIS, finally selecting a short-sleeved yellow dress shirt.
"I shall relay your confirmation at once," the AI assured him and Bruce nodded. He moved towards the bathroom adjoined to his suite with his outfit in hand, looking forward to the event greatly.
This early in the morning the lab was a nice place to work in- Tony wasn't banging and thumping around like he usually was. Not that he minded the company of his lab partner, far from it, he rather enjoyed it at times when the two of them got talking in depth. But sometimes it was really nice to have some goddamn peace and quiet, because crunching numbers to AC/DC blaring in the background wasn't always the easiest thing. Though he knew the light classical he occasionally put on had the other man ready to tear out his hair. Somehow they put up with one another. Bruce took a slow sip of his hot coffee, the steam temporarily fogging his lenses. He waited for them to clear, watching the altered schematics appear on-screen in front of him as they loaded his most recent modification.
It was the key difference between theory and engineering… the thinking and the doing… what set their two minds apart but also made them so good together. They both had the versatility to delve into the other's expertise, but sticking to their own and letting the other take care of the flipside increased efficiency by nearly an order of magnitude. If for that reason alone it was worth it to put up with one another, though it went a lot deeper than that. Their friendship had been growing since day one, and for all the ways they were completely different men, they were also startlingly alike. For example, they both enjoyed work immensely. It was why they both devoted so much of their free time to it, often neglecting sleep and meals in lieu of it. Bruce couldn't have thanked Tony enough for convincing him to stay and reigniting his drive. Almost like his existence had purpose again.
Bruce paged through a long log of calculations absently. In the back of his mind he couldn't help but wonder if Tony had any plans for celebrating his birthday. Not that he expected anything from the other scientist- he'd already been generous to the nth degree giving him a place to stay and a lab to work in and nice clothes and good meals and the list went on and on almost embarrassingly. Tony had the money to lavish things upon him and did whenever he felt the compulsion- just last week he'd bought him a brand new electron microscope at the drop of a hat. He could recall back in the early years of his career having to wait months for grant money enough to afford such expensive equipment and Tony did it without a hint of compunction. Bruce had never been so pampered in all his life.
So to expect a birthday gift would've just been ridiculous. At Stark Tower it was Christmas just about every other day. He rubbed his thumb over the Stark Industries logo on his mug before taking a slightly longer sip. And the coffee was excellent too. Much better than the mass-produced grinds he'd been stuck with during his stint in Brazil. Carefully he set it down on the workdesk, refocusing his attention on the information in front of him. He pondered the possibility of Tony being up and about by the time he and Pepper were back from lunch- he'd like to go over some things with him related to their current project, but the engineer might still be sleeping in by that time. Who knew how late he'd stayed up last night.
Not that Bruce didn't do the same from time to time, though it wasn't by choice like it was for Tony. Sometimes a bad nightmare would startle him awake with a pounding heart or insomnia would refuse to let him sleep a wink, awful memories replaying in his mind's eye in a never-ending loop. Thankfully, those ailments were lessening with each passing week living at Stark Tower; he was able to sleep easy surrounded by enjoyable research and even more enjoyable people.
Which additionally made him wonder how much longer he could really stay before wearing out his hosts' hospitality and inevitably having to move on. It couldn't last forever. Nothing this good ever did. The looming question began to bore a hole in his heart, deepening the longer he thought about it… made the other guy stir with frustration and fear; he shook his head roughly to rid himself of the emotions. Dwelling on the future would do him no good, only cause him consternation. He needed to focus on the here and now and getting good work done.
The physicist moved away from the workbench, setting the computer to a time-consuming task it could perform without his supervision, and sought out a clear space on the floor suitably away from the steady hum of electrical equipment. He sat down cross-legged and placed a palm on each knee, keeping his spine straight and his shoulders square as he shut his eyes to take a short meditation break.
He took a deep breath, held it for two beats, and let it out. Repeated the pattern, purging the negative- and the positive- to place himself in a serene state of simply being. Bruce was able to clear his mind completely, except, somewhat ironically, for the mischievous, signature smirk of Tony Stark.
He met Pepper at the Cornelia Street Cafe where she had gotten them reservations for that morning at 11:30. She was looking fantastic as usual, strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a conservative ponytail, dressed in business attire that suited her curves and tall, slender frame. Though in the three inch heels, she towered over Dr. Banner in a way that was almost comical considering how quickly the tables could be turned. She immediately came forward with her arms outspread to give him a hug around the neck, cooing affectionately. "Bruuuce, Happy Birthday!" Awkwardly, Bruce let his arms wrap loosely about her middle to return the embrace; he wasn't used to a lot of physical contact nowadays- anyone who knew him and knew what he was tended to want to keep their distance, but he didn't blame them. Although in Pepper's case, she had likely acclimated to having a 'superhero' around all the time and everything that entailed (including having living spaces frequently reduced to rubble, so what was the addition of a single enormous green rage monster? All in all, he was less of a handful than Tony).
"Oh, it's just so good to see you out! You look great," she continued. The head secretary withdrew wearing a beaming closed-mouth smile, holding onto his shoulders for just a moment more to lock gazes with him.
The physicist chuckled. "Well, thanks for getting me out. I wouldn't be if it weren't for you," he admitted as he rubbed his palm over his chin, which he had shaven smooth for the occasion.
Pepper placed one hand on her shoulder bag and hooked the other into the crook of his elbow- another friendly gesture that solidified her fondness for him. "You're welcome," she delivered matter-of-factly, turning on a heel to head them into the cafe. He walked alongside her, her hips swaying such that they nearly bumped his own with each step. "I keep telling Tony over and over he ought to get you out more, but I think he prefers having you cooped up with him in that lab of his."
"It is a nice lab," Bruce pointed out.
"Yes, it is," she conceded with a laugh, rolling her eyes and pursing her thin lips. The maitre d' confirmed their reservation and motioned at them to follow the waitress.
They were seated outdoors on the patio facing the street. The awning provided the little two-person table with shade from the sun, which was scattered in blotches by the leaves of the cottonwood trees growing at regular intervals where they'd been planted along the sidewalk. There was a very mild breeze, just enough to ruffle his unruly greying hair and keep the temperature comfortable for the both of them. A few other folks were dining and chatting at nearby tables, though none directly adjacent to them- this early the cafe hadn't become too crowded yet. It was a decidedly pleasant atmosphere; the other guy didn't so much as rumble. Dr. Banner removed his glasses from his breast pocket and placed them on his nose so he could peruse the lunch menu at leisure.
"You two certainly have been busy lately," Pepper observed casually, glancing over her menu at him.
Bruce found himself chuckling softly again. "Well, there's a lot to be done," he explained, lowering the bill of fare to gesture with a hand. "Especially if Tony wants to make the deadline for that Alternative Energy Demo in October. Most of the schematics are drawn up and the calculations verified, but implementation is a little more tricky… on a larger scale the element just wants to fall apart." Pepper nodded politely, which made him realize he had started to speak a bit tangentially.
When he didn't go on, she did. "Are you going to that?" Pepper inquired.
His eyebrows furrowed in the center. "Going to what? The demo?"
"Yes." The sparkle in her eyes was broken when the waitress reached over to place a glass of ice water at Miss Potts' right side. She gave a curt thank you and Bruce did the same when he was supplied his own. He wet his lips semi-nervously at the prospect of going to such an affair- he hadn't presumed he would be attending, but Pepper made it sound like she almost expected him to. He was able to stall off an answer for a while longer as the server set a wood block with a fresh baguette between them.
"Ready to order?" she asked them.
"Yeah, um…" Bruce responded, motioning at Pepper to go ahead per courtesy.
"I'll take the Spinach and Pear Salad," she smiled at the younger woman, waiting patiently as she wrote it down on her pad.
"Cranberry Vinaigrette alright?"
"Sounds lovely," Pepper said.
The attendant turned expectant eyes towards him.
He made a quick decision between two of the items that had been tempting him. "Black Sesame Crusted Salmon," he paused a moment, "Go easy on the wasabi." He liked the stuff, but it made the other guy temperamental.
"You've got it," she smiled, taking their menus and turning from them to go back to the kitchen.
Dr. Banner folded his spectacles back into his pocket and lifted his glass to take a sip from the rim. He cleared his throat as he set it back down. "I hadn't actually… made plans to go," he said.
"But it's yours and Mr. Stark's research. Shouldn't you present together?" the secretary reasoned. Her argument was logically flawless, which made it hard to dispute. He and Tony had been sinking hours upon hours into the project together… his name and credentials were all over the write-ups and blueprints and dissertation. 'Credit where credit is due,' Tony had said (more like insisted); Bruce had spent so much effort fading into the background it was mildly nerve-wracking to realize he would be re-emerging on the forefront of modern day energy technology alongside his prestigious lab partner. He hadn't so much as published a paper after the accident, and he had misgivings about how his return to academia would go over in the scientific community considering the terms on which he had left.
Bruce shook his head. "I don't know. It doesn't really seem like a good idea." His control was impeccable nowadays, but there would be multi-millions of dollars of equipment around, not to mention thousands of great-minded people whose life's work could be destroyed with the single irritated flick of a big green finger (which would be nearly as devastating as losing their very lives, Bruce could testify to the feeling).
"Well, you've still got time to decide," Pepper said, not pushing the issue but instead giving him an encouraging, warm-hearted smile. She reached across to give his hand a pat. "He may not have said so, but I know he wants you there." She waited for the message to sink in, then unfolded her utensils to set the cloth napkin over her lap.
The statement left Bruce a touch speechless. He had to question mentally if Pepper was merely projecting her desires through the other man, or if Tony had told her such in good confidence. In the latter case, he wasn't sure if he could let Tony down...
His meal was excellent, as was the scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of warm peach cobbler that followed as an added birthday treat on the house. Pepper insisted on picking up the check, and as the waitress went off to run the credit card through the scanner, the secretary of Stark Industries pulled a small wrapped package from her purse and slid it across the tablecloth to him.
"What's this?" Bruce asked with surprise. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands- it wasn't more than an inch tall and an inch and a half deep, though several inches long. "You didn't have to buy me a present," he said as he began to unwrap the smallest end where it had been taped.
"Well, Tony may employ that 'buy yourself something nice for me' stunt, but I prefer a more personal touch." Her jab at her boss was made with a playful smile and Bruce found himself chuckling as well. He could understand the woman's sentiment, but he could also appreciate how Tony's solution took out all the guesswork of whether the recipient would like what they were given.
His lips upturned in delight however when he had slipped off all the wrapping and lifted the lid on the little container. Inside sat a very fancy fountain pen, embossed with his initials- BB. He plucked it out with his forefinger and thumb to examine it closer, admiring the sleek design.
"Try it out," Pepper urged, pushing the scrap of her receipt at him.
He did as told, turning the receipt over to scribble on the back of it. The ink flowed boldly, yet smoothly, and moreover, it was an absolutely regal shade of purple. His favorite color. He smiled up at her. "This is wonderful. Thank you, Pepper."
She nodded curtly, ponytail giving a bob behind her head. "It was my pleasure. If I ever got one for Tony I know he'd never use it- I can barely get him to sign paperwork when it comes through the door," the secretary expressed slight exasperation before going on. "But I have an inkling you'll make good use of it." Her eyes crinkled upon delivery of the pun.
"Absolutely," Bruce nodded earnestly as he closed it back in its box safe and sound. "Sometimes it's nice to take a break from all the screens and do things out long-hand."
"Tell Tony that," she took another teasing shot at the billionaire.
Bruce found it amusing how often their conversation turned to the innovator who wasn't present. Which wasn't to say that it surprised him, far from it- Tony had had a huge influence on both of their lives and was a good friend to both of them, making him an easy topic for discussion between them. "I don't think it's possible to tell Tony anything… not if you expect him to listen," he postulated with a hint of good-humored wit.
"You can say that again," she agreed, bobbing her head.
When her credit card returned she checked the time on her phone and suggested they head back. They rode in the same cab on the return to Stark Tower, continuing to chit-chat and enjoy their extended lunch hour, which (depending on if you took the floor or the ceiling) had become either two or three hours in length. The secretary wished him one final 'Happy Birthday' before whisking away to her office to attend to Industry matters she'd been neglecting on his behalf, which left Dr. Banner to his own devices once more.
Twirling his new pen in his fingertips, Bruce headed up the lift to the laboratory to resume the work he had been emersed in prior to leaving. When the elevator doors opened, he was greeted by the familiar sound of some tool or another clattering to the ground- as it was Tony's nature to just drop something when he no longer had need of it. Despite the racket, Bruce smiled as he entered, glad his partner was up so they could talk and work in unison. He wordlessly passed by him on his way to the computer console to check the machine's progress.
Tony pulled himself upright from where he had been hunched over an electrical panel. "Wherever were you?" he inquired abruptly, setting his intense gaze upon him.
His fingers began to type, accessing a file from the directory. "Miss Potts took me out to lunch."
The engineer straightened, eyes widening ever so slightly. "Pepper took you to lunch?" he sought to confirm as if he didn't believe it. He stood and walked over, fiddling with some piece of conduit in his hands.
"She did. At Cornelia Street," Bruce responded over his shoulder. "It was very nice."
Tony looked befuddled by the information, but it didn't stop his rapid-fire interrogation. "What's that?" his sharp eyes narrowed down on his new pen.
"This?" the physicist held it up. "Pepper got it for me."
"She got you a pen?" he re-iterated incredulously.
Bruce leveled his gaze at his lab partner. "Tony…" he spoke slowly. "You didn't forget it was my birthday?"
The other man's reaction was well worth leading him on. "I didn't- no, of course not!" Tony Stark exclaimed. "How could I forget something as important as that?"
Dr. Banner laughed. "Well I did, until JARVIS reminded me this morning."
That gave the innovator slight pause, but it was only slight. "Forgetting your own birthday? That's generally not awesome, big guy." He leaned himself against the workbench, placing himself such that he partially obstructed his line of sight to the console. When Tony wanted to be the center of attention, he made it happen. The playboy went on. "What are we going to do about this, huh? You want to go out drinking? Or we could swing by the strip club. I've got a frequent customer discount."
The suggestions made the physicist snort with amusement; they seemed what would be typical Tony Stark entertainments. "How about a nice, quiet day in the lab?" he countered alternatively.
Tony frowned, looking a touch injured. "We should do something more enjoyable. You get that every day."
"And every day I enjoy it," Bruce smiled honestly, removing his spectacles to better convey his sincerity- he didn't know if he could ever get across how much just working here by Tony's side truly meant to him… that it was more of a gift than any birthday celebration could be. They held gazes for a moment before his lips twisted. "Though some days could be quieter than others."
The innovator chuckled, dropping his gaze to the floor. Not many people were graced with the ability to get Tony Stark to 'heel'… most times he did what he pleased, everyone else be damned and sometimes the consequences be damned too. But for whatever reason, Bruce was able to get Tony to let things drop. "I'll keep the AC/DC down today," the other scientist relented, motioning with the length of conduit as he removed himself from the work area. "But only for you. And only because it's your birthday."
Dr. Banner smiled to himself and resumed work.
Several hours later and not much closer to having the reactor up and performing to specs, Bruce agreed to let Tony pull him away from the lab awhile to go to the top floor of Stark Tower for a nightcap. It was a gorgeous room (remodeled after Loki made a mess of it) with twelve foot high ceilings embedded with canister lights and a wrap-around view of the entire city, as glass panes made up the majority of the walls. It was furnished lavishly as well, a long curved black leather sectional sofa in the center, along with a couple other easy chairs. Naturally a screen could be brought up in front of the seating area, and Tony had JARVIS bring up the news station, if only to serve as the ambient noise the engineer so liked to surround himself by. The closest analogy Bruce could think of was that Tony's mind was like a mouse wheel- if it wasn't turning, he wasn't happy. So there was always something going on to occupy it.
"Eventually we're going to make a breakthrough on this thing," Tony Stark said confidently as he made a bee line for the bar; Bruce followed along in his footsteps. The man snagged a decanter of scotch and a couple of tumbler glasses. He unstoppered it and began to pour into each one. "And when we do, it's going to be big. Going to be all over the six o'clock news," he motioned at the station currently playing. "In the papers. Rags. Blogs. You name it."
Dr. Banner licked his lips anxiously as Tony handed him his glass, staring down into the amber colored liquid a moment. He wasn't sure he was ready for that kind of publicity… in fact he was pretty sure he wasn't. But he was also aware that at this point, there was no backing out- things had already been set in motion that could not be stopped. "Yeah, probably so," was all he could muster, trying not to trod on his lab partner's elation. He took a slow sip and let the liquid burn down his throat.
Tony stepped in front of him, arc reactor glowing brilliantly through the thin fabric of his tank top. "You're worried. I can tell. Come on, talk to me. What's going on in that head of yours?" he asked, setting down his own glass so he could place both his hands on Bruce's upper arms, urging him to open up.
Tony was already privy to the fact that Bruce stayed well away from the press, and in fact anything that could possibly stir up rumors about him; for instance, he had declined several interviews in regards to the Chitauri attack and ever after those about the research he was allegedly conducting utilizing Stark Industries' laboratories. There wasn't much more to be said on the matter that hadn't already been in some way addressed. So instead he settled for a query of a more personal nature. "Pepper seemed to really want me to go to the demo in October."
"Mm," Tony made a small noise as he quickly swallowed the bit of drink in his mouth. "She wouldn't be doing her job if she didn't try and get you out there, get some connections."
"But that isn't really her job," Bruce pointed out. "She works for you, not me."
The billionaire's face faltered a split second. "Right. Well then. She must have just thought it would be good for you." He took another quick slug of his beverage to get his lips to stop moving, then moved around the bar to fetch some more.
The answer seemed cloaked, like there was something the innovator wasn't telling him. Tony never was particularly good at hiding secrets. But Bruce let it be for now. He nodded. "And what about you? Do you want me to go?"
"Well, Pepper's right, it would do you some good to get out-"
He cut the older scientist off. "That's not what I asked. I asked if you wanted me there." He looked Tony hard in the eyes. It was an important distinction. If it were just a question of if he was 'comfortable going' or if it were of some 'value to his career', then the answer would already be clear: No, he wouldn't be going. In fact, the only thing that could convince him to go was if Tony wanted him there. After all, Tony had been why he hadn't gone directly back to Kolkata. Tony had been why he took the project on. It always hinged on him. Because if Tony wanted it, then Bruce wanted it.
"Are you kidding with me?" the innovator said, somewhat aghast. He threw his arm up and over Bruce's shoulders in a chummy manner; the motion caused his drink to slosh. "Bruce, buddy, it's our first big project together. Yes, I want you there. Even I don't think I can do this one solo," he poked fun at himself.
Dr. Banner hummed thoughtfully at Tony's usage of the word 'first' as he stared into the depths of his glass again- it implied there were other projects Tony had in mind, that he saw their partnership extending into the foreseeable future. That their time together, working together, collaborating, didn't end with the reactor and the demo scheduled for October. Despite his better judgement, a glad smile wormed across his features. He reminded himself that he still shouldn't allow himself to get too comfortable here at Stark Tower, but for now he would let himself revel in the flicker of joy filling his heart. "I saw footage from the opening ceremony of Stark Expo two years ago… somehow I think you'd figure something out," he said candidly.
"Publicity stunt," Tony waved his words off with his drink in hand, "Through and through. Well, maybe not entirely. But mostly." He walked them towards the terrace. He was opening the sliding glass door when a wide grin overtook his face, the rows of his teeth practically glittering with mischief. "Pepper was livid."
"I wonder why," Bruce said sarcastically, recalling the scantily-clad showgirls that had been part of the routine. He proceeded out and took a seat in one of the recliners, as did Tony, setting his tumbler in the cupholder molded into the armrest.
"…Not sure where we'll find green girls for you though…" Tony seemed to muse out loud.
Bruce laughed and fell silent.
Their dialogue came to a brief reprieve. The physicist looked out over the city-scape twinkling around them… all the skyscrapers and office buildings reaching up towards the skies. Quite a few of them were taller than the Stark Tower, but none of them shone with the same brilliance it did. After all, none of them were powered by Tony's self-sustaining arc reactor technology. Yet. One day the whole city of Manhattan would be powered by it, of that Bruce was sure.
A cool breeze ruffled his hair and he shut his eyes, drawing a deep breath. There was good in this world (he hadn't always been convinced, but now he was), so much good. And at its heart was the man sitting beside him, who wanted to share his technology for the greater good of mankind. Bruce was just honored he got to be a part of it.
"So you're in then, right?" Tony's voice interrupted his thoughts.
Bruce opened his eyes to smile at his partner. "Yeah, I'm in."
"Good," the engineer settled with an approving nod. He stood suddenly and Bruce opened his mouth to ask where he was going (after all, he still had a good amount of scotch), but before he could, Tony was already speaking. "Walk with me," he invited, inclining his head. Bruce got up from his seat, leaving behind his drink to accompany him. Side by side, they ascended the curving slope that led out to the landing pad that housed the Mach 8. Dr. Banner studied the notches beneath his feet where the mechanism could open. It was an impressive design, the way it could trace the other scientist's movements and piece by piece equip or remove the suit hassle-free. Though it wasn't activated at the moment of course.
Removed from the shelter of the building, the wind tugged at them harder, threatening them toward the treacherous edge of the pier. It was a long way down from the top floor, but Bruce wasn't too concerned- if he were in the unlikely event to tumble off, the other guy would break his fall.
Tony took a stance out at the end, fists curled and posture erect, looking out at the streets below. He cut a very striking figure against the skyline, suit or no.
"I used to stand up here by myself, thinking I could do it all," he said. "Suit up, do a couple loop-de-loops," he joked, motioning his finger around in a circle. Dr. Banner listened patiently- it was rare that Tony opened up emotionally. The other man's tone turned somewhat somber. "Ever since Obadiah betrayed me, I've been going it alone. Doing everything by myself. I mean, there's Pepper. Obviously. I don't know what I'd do without her, but even so…"
Bruce wasn't sure what the other scientist was trying to get at. But he could certainly emphathize. "It's hard to go it alone," he agreed, setting a palm down on Tony's bare shoulder. "It takes a lot of conviction and bravery." He spoke from experience. He'd spent years after the accident hiding away in the crevices of society, feeling like the whole world was against him… out to get him. Making or keeping ties with those who he might have called friends had been impossible- it was just too dangerous… risky, for everyone involved. The last few months had been an exception to that. The physicist pursed his lips. Tony might be the talk of the town, famous around the globe, but that didn't mean he didn't feel the same painful isolatation Bruce once had.
Glassy brown eyes met his own. "Yeah, it does. And no one has more of it than you, big guy," he gave him a light punch on the shoulder, beaming.
Bruce rubbed his arm, amused by how quickly Tony had bounced back. Then again, that was his nature. The engineer took a seat, letting his feet dangle over the edge. "I haven't given you anything for your birthday, huh?"
The change of topic made Dr. Banner's eyebrow lift. "Not to my knowledge," he responded. There was perhaps only an hour left of said birthday, the evening quickly drawing to a close.
"Well that's atrociously unthoughtful of me. You'd think I ought to get you something."
"Tony," he started, "you really don't have to-"
"No, I insist," the other man said quickly, rising to his feet once more. "In fact, there's something I've been meaning to give you."
This twist had Dr. Banner's brow furrowing quizzically. He dropped his objections. "There is?" he asked.
Tony Stark nodded, putting his hand on the physicist's arm to turn him around and face the tower. He motioned with his other arm in a wide sweep. "Bruce, from this point forward, fifty percent of Stark Industries is yours. I'm giving it to you."
The noise that came out of his mouth could only be described as a splutter. "T-Tony, you can't be serious-"
"But I am, Bruce," the billionaire grabbed him with both hands now to squeeze his shoulders. Bruce stood in wide-eyed shell-shock. "I want you, by my side, every day for the rest of however long this company lasts," Tony said importantly. "Which, hopefully, if I have any say in it, will be a long, long time," he added with a shrug and slight roll of his eyes.
The enormity of the 'gift' was still making him reel as he tried to sort his way through his feelings on the matter. He almost couldn't believe what he was hearing. That Tony trusted him so much that he was willing- no, wanted- to split his empire with him. He had been desperately hoping he could stick around Stark Tower longer, maybe work on a few side projects if he was lucky, but this… Half? Of all of Stark Industries? They'd been tossing around the term 'partner' loosely from day one, but what Tony was proposing would make them equal partners in the business, not just down in the laboratory.
And there'd be no more running. No more hiding. He could finally leave that life behind for good.
Inside he felt the other guy give a deeply relieved sigh.
Bruce swallowed the lump that had built up in his throat, nervously working his hands together. "Y-you're… you're sure about this?" he asked. He wanted to know that it wasn't just one of the other scientist's sudden impulses that he'd end up regretting.
"You think I just offer up half my company to someone every other day?" Tony asked rhetorically. "Yeah, I'm sure." The innovator dropped his hands to his sides to look out at the city again. "I'm tired of going it alone. And working with you these past several months has felt so… right."
To this Dr. Banner nodded. "I couldn't agree more, Tony."
The older man rounded on him again. "Good, because I already told Pepper to have the paperwork on your desk tomorrow morning. You can sign them with that little-" he waggled his finger at the purple pen in his pocket- "of yours."
He wasn't terribly surprised Pepper had been in on all this from the get-go. Bruce shook his head with chagrin. "I really don't know what to say…" he said softly. "I don't deserve this."
"Zip it, big guy. I don't want to hear it. You're a genius and I love you," Tony said, then quickly added on, "…In a platonic kind of sense, of course."
Bruce found himself chuckling. "The line isn't always as distinct as you make it sound," he quipped, but he was more honored than he had words.
Tony merely raised a hand to wave dismissively. "Come on, let's have another drink," he settled, turning them towards the tower to go back inside. "I think a little celebratory champagne is in order!"
"Good morning, Dr. Banner," JARVIS issued his salutation warmly.
Bruce sat up and gave a slow stretch towards the ceiling of his suite, taking a deep breath and letting it out. "Good morning, JARVIS," he responded, unable to help the smile etched across his face as he reached out for his spectacles.
"May I remark it is excellent to see you in such good spirits, sir," the AI noticed. "The time is 7 AM, current outdoor temperature a brisk 11.3° Celsius, with a high of 24.9 towards the afternoon."
"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind," he nodded appreciatively to the info, rising to head over to his closet as per routine.
"Not today," the physicist said genially as he snagged his favorite long-sleeve purple button-up. He'd slept soundlessly the whole night through, not a single bad dream, no tossing and turning… and he was feeling ready to tackle the day and its challenges- without the regular caffeine boost that often kept him from falling asleep on his feet.
In no time he had made his way down to the laboratory, feeling energized as he stepped out of the elevator. It was quiet; Tony wasn't anywhere to be found, but that wasn't surprising this early in the day, and Bruce walked over to his desk. The large stack of paperwork was there, just as promised, but what made him smile more was the addition sitting on top.
It was a fresh blueberry muffin with a light glaze and a small candle jammed in the top, unlit. Tony had left a post-it note in his nearly illegible scrawl- Consider this part of the gift belated. Happy Birthday, big guy.