A/N: Sorry again for the wait. Midterms this week, yay! ^_^;; Lots of feels went into making this one. Thank you all for being so patient and lovely for each update. It really honors me to know people are enjoying this so much. I hope you enjoy this chapter too, and read and review! They really keep me going. *hearts*
"Mr. Stark, there's just one thing the people don't understand," the reporter intoned with an edge of impatience, holding up the microphone for her station.
"Oh, I'd argue that Miss Simpson," Stark replied plainly, leaning against the front of the podium with his arms crossed. At a time like this, they wanted to see him squirm. They wanted to see him hiding behind the monolith of wood, flipping through note cards. He wouldn't ever give that to them. "Just one thing? No. I don't think so, I don't buy that. But ask your question, please. I like watching your lips. Very nice shape, like sort of a classic—Casablanca thing you have going on there."
The camera didn't catch the rolling of her eyes. "You've been called a hero of the nation, Stark. You carried a rogue nuclear missile into space using the Iron Man suit during the Chitauri incident last year and spared the city from a nuclear holocaust. So just why did you attack General Thaddeus Ross of the U.S. Army? Does it have anything to do with your long-standing dissent with the Supreme Court?"
"The interesting thing is I have nothing against Thunderbolt," he answered smoothly. "Actually, he and I have been what you might call cordial acquaintances for quite a long time. I know as much as you do. I was in the middle of something in Paris, and he intervened. There was some friendly fire. His bullet grazed my suit; caused about fifteen thou worth of damage I might add—not even mad about it—" He gestured in lieu of words, "And I might have accidentally ushered him into a solid wall."
The oncoming wave of flashing bulbs and scrambled voices arrived as reliably as clockwork. Tony endured it without so much as a blink.
"Just what were you in the middle of, Mr. Stark?" someone asked.
"Local reports in the city say that you were seen chasing after someone on foot, and suited up in broad daylight."
Tony's lips barely twitched.
"SHIELD business," he replied coolly. "And thanks to the general, a completely fruitless operation. Maybe once he's had a chance to cool his head, and really look at the footage, he'll send me some flowers. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I left something on upstairs."
As expected, they crowded around him, spilled in around the edges of his vision, but the son of Howard Stark couldn't be intimidated by a large crowd of hungry dogs. He fed off their desperation, shone in their photo flashes, grinned at their dissatisfaction, all the way to the elevator shaft.
And once the doors shut, his cocksure disposition switched off like a light.
He pressed the button, and one by one all the screens displaying all of the channels broadcasting the short press conference blipped off, leaving nothing but a glassy, charcoal wall, his furious one eyed reflection all to be seen.
"Well, well," Fury declared aloud to himself. "Look at our consultant go." He reached up and put pressure on a smaller button that was attached to a budlike device on his ear.
"Agent Hill, I'd like to see you in my office. Just saw the neatest thing on T.V."
"Jarvis, please turn that off. I really need to concentrate on this."
'Apologies, Dr. Banner. Mister Stark put direct input into my playback parameters this morning to play this program at this time. Only password authentication can dismiss the command.'
"Is the password "I'm an asshole"?" Bruce mumbled, eye deep in a microscope. His mouth was turned down in frustration. It wasn't any kind of frustration that he hadn't felt before at the sight of his blood cells not staying red, but it felt tenfold burning at the sound of Tony playing the crowd downstairs.
'I'm sorry, that is incorrect.' The screen playing the program lit up momentarily with a big red 'X'.
"That's okay," he replied under his breath, pushing back against the table to roll his chair off toward the LCD panel to check data analysis. "Could you turn it down, at least? Listening to him lie his face off—not something I'm particularly interested in right now."
'Understood.' It audibly turned down several notches. There was only a few moments pause.
'Far be it from me to be partial-but could it be possible for falsity to prove a better course of action in some situations than truth?'
The doctor's brows bent down into a straight line as he sat up in his chair, facing the faceless. "What do you think?" he asked.
'I don't,' Jarvis replied. Almost too quickly. 'But I do observe. And it would seem, Dr. Banner, that secrets are kept for many reasons. By many people who walk in and out of my presence. I have observed that sometimes we—and I use the royal we for sentient beings apart from myself—put stock of truth in the entirely false to keep a measure of normalcy and progress.'
Bruce was silent for a very long time, as he went about his work as though the AI had not spoken at all. He dripped the contents of the pipet onto the next slide and put it under. Silent he remained, as the bright red cells danced beyond his vision, and then blossomed into sickened green.
"Yeah, well." He suddenly said. "The longer you keep that observation from rubbing off on your learning software, the better off you'll be."
'Duly noted.' There was a blip of a floppy symbol on a screen in the corner of the room. Bruce just shook his head, and managed a smile.
"You know, Jarvis, you're really amazing. You shouldn't even exist, by most standards."
'Courtesy of Mister Stark,' Jarvis informed him humbly. 'Anything he puts his whole emotion toward happens to be incredibly ahead of its time.' He added dryly, 'Merely another observation, of course.'
The airlocked door of the sterile medical lab opened, and Tony walked in still dressed in full conference attire. "You watch?" Tony asked, coming up beside him with his dark eyes scanning over the data running over the screen. He jumped to the next question without leaving recourse for the first. "Progress?"
"No." Bruce moved away from him, walking over to another table to manage the centrifuge. "I mean, no to the second. Barely, to the first." His brows jumped dubiously, overlooking Tony's visible disdain at being blown off. "I tried for five years to manage this, cooped up in a dirty shack in Brazil. You would think working in a state-of-the-art med lab would up the odds. It…doesn't." Bruce gestured at the screen results. "Even lethal applicants trigger the gamma."
"Wait…why were you testing lethal applicants?"
Bruce didn't answer. "I don't think trying to neutralize the blood is going to work. It'd need a lot more time than we have. The best I can think to do is to modify someone else's blood sample and try to make it as close to my DNA strain as possible without actually being mine. But once again, if he tries testing it, he's going to know. The most we'll buy is a couple of days."
Tony paced along the worktable after him as he spoke, looking over the handwritten notes on the table, up at the screens. His face was knit up in a slight puzzlement. He had a little more than a working knowledge over everything he saw—but then there were just some things, especially the string of data flying down the screen Bruce was currently typing into—that had him clueless. Things that wandered head on into And then there were the lethal subjects he'd tested. Sure, they were just trying to neutralize a blood sample—no one would mourn a blood sample. But if it was lethal to the sample, it was lethal to Bruce.
And if it was lethal to Bruce—
"Yeah, yeah you're right. You know what, it's no good. Scratch all this. It's too much work for a few days' time. Jarvis, clear the board."
"Wait—"Bruce began, and suddenly all the screens went blank. He tapped several keys. Nothing returned. "What—what did you do?"
"I spent—Tony, I need those notes. They're still valuable," Bruce bit out, unerringly calm despite the glow in his eyes as he stared at him. Stark stared back, unfalteringly.
Bruce sighed, flinging himself from the keyboard. His hands pressed to his glasses, pulling them off as he kneaded at his brow.
"You—what is your problem? Why did you do that?" He couldn't help his voice from rising. "I'm trying to help you fix a mess you made."
"Yeah well, I don't like that way." He crossed his arms. "It leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
That earned him a 'are you fucking serious?' stare, but in the end the physicist just took a deep breath and sighed it out. "Tony…" he began. "No. It's fine. We'll think of something else." His shoulders slumped and he turned back to the screen, planting himself back down on the stool. "Hand me that notebook over there. Please don't burn it."
Tony brought it over, but instead of handing it to him, the holding arm wrapped around Bruce's shoulders. He blinked when the man stiffened up at first, but just grasped his shoulder in his other hand and squeezed. "Hey. Talk about tense. Come on." The notebook dropped onto the desk before him.
"Sorry. I'll—see if I can dig up the files later. Tell me how I can help. You sort of took this whole thing over on yourself—or I sort of pushed it off on you. Sorry." He took advantage of his closeness to brush his nose against the other man's cheek—something he probably wouldn't have done otherwise. He was rewarded by the smallest flutter of the man's eyelids. The only evidence that last night hadn't been some sick illusion.
"It's not about that. Just not sure what we can do. You've sort of put us in a corner," Bruce muttered quietly. "And now, now you basically lied to the entire country. What's going to happen if I show up on the radar?" He gestured at the screen. "Short of—giving him the goddamn sample, and breaking into a government base to steal it after he clears your name officially, I don't see a way out of this."
"Oh." Tony blinked. Realization hit him. "Well, hell. Why don't we just do that? We can do that."
"We can totally do that." Tony abruptly slid Bruce out of the way, prompted the screen, began running through all sorts of files that were being accessed from databases outside of the med lab. "I've been working on a cloaking device. The same line of products as the plasma shield. I can just modify it to the suit." He clapped his hands. "I can belt that out in two days, tops. Problem solved."
"N—no. Tony no. Not problem solved." Bruce began. "You can't just…"
"I'll need your help with the calibrations. But I really can do this. I'm prepared to do this." Tony looked at him eagerly. "C'mon, Bruce. Unless you know a way to turn back time and grab some clean blood from pre-Hulk Banner, offense is going to be the best defense either way." Then all humor left him as he added, "I'm not letting him have you."
Bruce's mouth fell open slightly, about to speak, but then going silent. After a few long moments, he went, "Okay." He rolled his shoulders. "Sounds like a plan."
"Yeah?" He almost sounded surprised.
"Yeah," Bruce relented softly. "I'll trust you on this. If that's what you want to do, then I'll help you."
"Okay." Tony definitely looked surprised then, but then flashed a grin. "So. Now that we have that out of the way. I'm starving."
Thunk. The next thing Bruce knew, the back of his chair was bumping against the back of the desk. Tony's tall body bowed over him. He was bombarded by the smell of aftershave, crisp linen, skin, coffee. He became frightfully aware of his arms leaning on either side, trapping him from moving away. Trapped.
Bruce's eyes widened as Tony leaned forward. The light of the reactor, dimmed beneath the white of his button-down shirt, caught his eyes and distracted him long enough for the man to just about reach his lips to his, and then damn if Banner could even move.
But their mouths never touched. Tony's moved up into a reminiscent smirk, though.
"Pizza sound good?"
And suddenly, he was walking away, leaving Bruce there blank-faced and growing steadily red as he ordered Jarvis to call up the usual, leaving the genius nuclear physicist to blink, breathe in and utter what was becoming a regular word for him in Stark Tower.