Resilience III: Unparalleled
(Author's note: this story takes place at the same time as, and interlocking with, "Resilience II: They Can't Take That Away From Me". You'll need to read that story to find out what Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Jane Foster and Erik Selvig are up to while this story's going on.)
Bruce Banner, M.D., Ph.D. cleaned his glasses on his shirttail and looked around, again, at his new workspace.
"Everything like you want it? Need me to bring anything in, move anything around?" asked his host and lab partner.
"No. It's fine."
"Light level OK? Chair comfortable? Or would you rather—"
"Tony. It's fine," Banner said, putting his glasses back on and tucking his shirt back in. "Stop hovering."
"Okay, good. I'm going to have a drink. You want one?"
"So, what do you want to work on? I heard rumors of an EMP generator."
"I want to work on treating you for radiation exposure."
"Don't worry about it, I'm fine."
"I have a pretty good idea how close you were to that warhead when it detonated. You are not fine."
"The suit absorbs gamma rays."
"And emits neutrons. You can't possibly not know that. You used to design nuclear weapons."
Stark sighed. "Geez. I'm surrounded by grownups. You haven't mentioned this to Pepper, have you?"
"No. I do have some vestiges of medical ethics. Sit down and roll up your sleeve. I want a blood sample."
"What if I say no?"
"Then I'll thank you for your hospitality, call a cab, and tell Fury to send a SHIELD medical team up here."
Stark, abruptly looking older, rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Okay, look. Let's have some ground rules. If...IF...I agree to let you test me for whatever, you are not to share your data with anyone without my express consent. In advance."
"And if I tell you to stop testing or analyzing or whatever and go away, you stop and you go away, and you still keep it to yourself."
Stark sat down and pushed up his left sleeve. "Did I mention that I absolutely hate needles?"
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," said Banner. He applied a tourniquet, got the vein on the first try in spite of Stark's wincing and flinching, and filled two vials. "Hold pressure on that for at least a minute or it'll bruise," he advised.
"How long is this going to take?"
"Not long. This is a baseline white blood cell count. I'm not expecting to find any abnormalities this soon; it's to compare with what I see in a week, or two weeks, or a month from now."
"Great. How long are you planning to keep doing this?"
"Until either something declares itself, or I'm convinced you've escaped major damage."
"And then what?"
"Then we'll talk treatment options, or if you don't need any, you can throw me out."
"News flash. It's my house. I can throw you out any time."
"Yes, but you won't. Nobody else here speaks English."
"Jarvis can't argue with you. Or at least, he can't win an argument with you."
"I'm working on that. Speaking of working on things: EMP generator?"
Banner sighed. "Okay, just a second." He slotted the vials into a centrifuge and switched it on. "You understand I didn't bring it with me. It's not something I want to share with SHIELD."
"I get that."
"I don't like surveillance."
"Fair enough. So can you draw me a schematic?"
"It would be more fun to watch you figure it out for yourself."
Stark smirked. "Voyeur."
Banner smiled. "I think that's the first time I've ever been accused of having an engineering kink. Here." He opened up a 3D display, sketched out a partial schematic, but left two crucial areas blank; power supply and a black box he labeled 'then a miracle happens'. "Knock yourself out," he said, sat back, and crossed his arms. Stark stepped up to the display with a trace of swagger, and replaced the power supply placeholder with a diagram of a miniature arc reactor.
Six hours later, he was still deep in engineering headspace. He'd skipped lunch and would have skipped dinner, but Potts had silently drifted in and put a turkey wrap in his hand, and he'd eaten it without noticing. Banner, once he'd finished his own lab work, mostly sat back and watched, though he did, in the spirit of inquiry, hand Stark a pen and disclosure and consent papers. Stark signed the forms, apparently with no awareness of their existence, much less their content. He rotated the model 180 degrees on its vertical axis.
"Okay, how the hell do you keep it from frying itself?" he muttered, apparently not expecting an answer. "You could use this as a kind of one-off grenade, though. Might be workable on a small scale." He dragged a copy of the blueprint into a folder labeled 'Romanoff', and continued to pace and stare.
By midnight, he had achieved a demonstration model that, at lowest power, could emit a half-second pulse with a radius of about a meter (carefully tested on the roof to avoid burning out anything important). Returning to the lab, with a sweeping gesture he cleared his working diagrams into a folder, opened a new folder, and started muttering about shielding.
"Tony," said Banner. Stark ignored him, or didn't notice him. "Tony."
Stark blinked, looked up, and for a moment seemed to be trying to recall who this guy in his lab was, and why he was holding a (physical) folder full of (hard copy) documents. "Oh, hi. Nice work, by the way, particularly with off-the-shelf parts. Did you rob a Radio Shack?"
"I robbed my own lab, mostly. Well, what used to be my lab. Plus the radiology departments of a hospital and a research institute that didn't revoke my credentials fast enough."
Stark looked impressed. "Huh. Didn't know you had it in you. Thought you were more the Albert Schweitzer type."
Banner's lips tightened. "I wanted to be left alone. I wanted...more than one way to enforce that."
Stark smiled. "I bet Fury just loved that."
"He still doesn't know what happened, unless he took me seriously at the debriefing. I think they blamed it on solar flares. Don't tell him."
"Oh hell no. So, okay, that was fun. What time is it? You want to get something to eat?"
"I did, a while back. Pepper brought food while you were in Never-Never Land."
"Yeah, she does that."
"I ran your blood count. Baseline numbers look good. What did you do with the suit, by the way? It's hazardous waste."
"Jarvis takes care of that. Whenever I take it off he checks for toxins and radioactivity. Jarvis, the suit was totalled, right? Was it radioactive?"
"Yes sir," said the disembodied voice. "The appropriate hazardous waste protocols have been followed."
"Send the relevant readings to Dr. Banner's desktop," said Stark.
"One more thing," said Banner. He handed Stark the disclosure and consent forms. "You were busy when you signed these. You might want to read them, and then reconsider."
Stark scowled. "And now you know why I hate it when people hand me things," he said. He scanned the paperwork. "Patient #0019?"
"The first eighteen were at Fukushima."
Stark looked up. "Are any of them still alive?"
"No. Four of them made it to the end of the year."
"That was significantly better than the control group did."
Stark read further. "So this is something new of yours?"
"Yes. Since it's experimental, I was only able to start after all the standard treatments had failed. I'd like the chance to try it when it might succeed. But given my record on human experimentation, I'll understand if you don't volunteer."
Stark turned the page. "The adverse effects are pretty daunting."
"Including one death attributed to the treatment."
"But he was in pretty bad shape to start with, right? You said they'd already been through standard treatment and it failed."
"That doesn't mean I didn't kill him."
"What are my chances if we don't do anything?"
Banner opened up the file Jarvis had sent him and skimmed through it. "You haven't shown any signs of an acute radiation syndrome. So you're probably not going to die in the next couple of weeks. Looking at the radioactivity readings from the suit, I'd put your chances of developing a malignancy at around 60 to 75% within the next 18 months. Probably lymphoma, though leukemia's also possible, and so is brain cancer, considering your orientation with respect to the blast. It's not impossible that you could develop more than one of those. Assuming it's just one, your five-year survival odds range from about 10% to about 30%, depending on the cell type and how aggressively it spreads. I think I can significantly improve those odds."
"The odds of survival, or the odds of getting something in the first place?"
"Both, if we start now. Obviously, if we wait till you've already developed cancer, I can only address the survival question."
Stark was silent for a while. "I'd like to sleep on it," he said.
"I insist that you do. We'll talk more in the morning."
Stark paused at the door. "The guy who died. Learn anything from him?"
Banner came downstairs the next morning to find Stark tinkering with a suit gauntlet. The signed consent and disclosure forms were on the workbench beside him.
"Since you haven't shredded those, I assume you're still considering treatment."
"Considering, yeah. I'm not sure how much of my life I'm willing to put on hold indefinitely, based on an indefinite risk. The treatment sounds pretty debilitating."
"If we wait to see if anything shows up, and nothing does, no harm done."
"True. Unlikely, but true."
"And if something does show up, I'm still way ahead of your other patients, because you won't have to start from square one with the conventional treatments."
"Not if you give me permission to go straight to the protocol, no."
"Still need to think about it."
"All right. I have a favor to ask you."
"Can you tell Jarvis to shut down surveillance in here while I'm working?"
"I think I mentioned that I hate surveillance. This place is already too much of a fishbowl for my comfort."
Stark frowned down at the gauntlet in his hand. "You understand, the surveillance is not on your account. It's standard security. We get a lot of threats, and a lot of attempts, one of which so far has been successful. Two, if you count Loki."
"You really think something's going to come in here that I can't stop?"
Stark smiled. "No. But I think you'd probably trash the place in the process."
Banner made a face. "Not unlikely."
"I can put a security lock on any recordings that include you, to require either your permission, or certification from SHIELD that you're out of action, before they can be viewed. And I can give you my word that no one will be watching you in realtime. Except for whoever's in the room with you, and Jarvis, listening for voice commands."
"Better than nothing," Banner said reluctantly.
"There's this, too: the surveillance cuts both ways. I can't guarantee to keep SHIELD out of here; Coulson—" Stark broke off, looked away momentarily. He collected himself and continued: "Coulson was able to get in, and I'm pretty sure Barton could too. Romanoff talked her way in. But not without warning. You're harder to sneak up on here than pretty much anywhere else on the grid."
"Normally I prefer to stay off the grid. But I need to be here at least until we get your radiation exposure taken care of. I'll...deal with the surveillance. Thanks."
"White count is still climbing," said Banner, "but it's still within normal range."
"So at what point—" Stark broke off as Banner's phone chimed. Banner looked at it and scowled.
"Who is it?"
"Romanoff. It can wait."
"You still pissed because she brought you in?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I heard you—excuse me. I heard the other guy worked her over pretty good."
"I really don't want to talk about it."
"She infiltrated my company and nearly stole my girlfriend."
"Tony. Really, really don't want to talk about it."
"Okay, okay." Stark opened his display and flicked through his project list. "So what did she want, anyway?"
Banner slapped his hand down on the workbench. "Damn it, Tony!"
Stark looked amused. Banner glared at him for a few seconds, then gave a rueful smile. "You're doing that on purpose."
"What is this morbid fascination you have with my...condition?"
"Probably not unlike the morbid fascination you have with my radiation exposure. Some things just don't get old. You've been poking around inside dead bodies since med school. Tired of it yet?"
"No. Though I do prefer not to know the cadavers personally. Not that it makes much difference in the actual poking-around part."
They worked side-by-side in silence for a while, then Stark said: "You're going to have to deal with Romanoff at some point. We're a team now."
Banner didn't look up from his data. "We're a team the next time Fury calls us up. A lot could happen between now and then." He pulled reference figures from a separate file and inserted them in a graph. Then he looked up. "Did she really make a pass at Pepper?"
"Not as such; Pepper would have turned her down if it'd been that blatant. They just gradually got really, really cozy with each other. I could claim they spent all their time talking about me, but as it happens I know they didn't."
Banner shook his head. "I'm surprised you can stand the sight of her."
"Personally I've always found her easy on the eyes. Even when she's not stabbing people who are shooting at me."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. I get the whole betrayal of trust thing. The thing I don't get is, what did you expect? We needed an expert on gamma radiation, good enough to help us find the Tesseract. You're it. We needed to get you to come in, without Hulking out and flattening large numbers of bystanders. Mission accomplished. And if you think about it, I don't think anyone else could have done it better than she did." He closed out the file he'd been working on and caught Banner's eye. "And by the way, if it hasn't occurred to you yet, I designed the cell on the helicarrier. Which I would think would piss you off a lot more than anything she's done."
Banner looked grim. "The thought had crossed my mind," he said. "Does it piss you off that I designed a weapon that can shut down the suit, remove your shrapnel-protection, and kill Jarvis?"
"It got my attention. But then, you immediately handed it over to me."
"I figured I owed you something for the room and board. Anyway, the difference between you and Romanoff is, you have something I want. She doesn't."
Stark gestured to the lab. "What, this?"
"This is a nice extra. But no. Do you know how many people know what I am, and can work alongside me without showing any signs of fear? One."
Stark held his gaze. "Think about where you are, Bruce," he said quietly. "You may be giving me more credit than I deserve."
Banner gave this a thin, humorless smile. "We may get to test that, before we're done."
Pepper Potts knocked at the edge of the doorframe. "Bruce. May I come in, or are you in the middle of something?"
"Nothing important," said Banner, quickly closing the file and logging off as he stood to greet her. "What can I do for you?"
"I have a favor to ask. And I really mean a favor. As far as I'm concerned, we both owe you and always will."
Banner shifted his feet. "Don't worry about it. What kind of favor?"
"Natalie...Natasha Romanoff wants to meet with you. Here, or anywhere else you'd like, for no more than thirty minutes. She asked me if I'd be willing to sit in, and I said yes, subject to your agreement."
Banner made a small noise of contempt. "Nice of her to do an end run around Tony."
"She didn't. She asked him first, and he refused to get involved. But he did say he'd give you meeting space here if you wanted it."
"What does she want?"
"She said to tell you it involved PTSD and team dynamics."
Banner sighed. "I know you're fond of her, Pepper, and I'm sorry she's put you in this position, but—"
"I'm more than fond of her. She saved Tony's life. And a lot of other people's."
He looked away and distractedly ran his fingers through his hair, tousling it further. "Why am I the only one around here who hates dealing with a professional liar?"
Potts shrugged, with a wry smile. "Maybe because you're the only one around here without a career in the military-industrial complex. Natalie's almost refreshing compared to what we're used to." She stepped closer, put a hand on his sleeve. "Please. One meeting."
Banner looked down at her. "Aren't you worried I'll lose my temper?"
She looked back steadily, but there was a slight tremor in her voice. "I'd be lying if I said no. But I trust you." She smiled again. "Besides, you've been living and working with Tony for a month, and the building's still standing. Evidence of your self-control."
Banner put his hand over hers and gave it a slight squeeze. "All right," he said. "One meeting. This afternoon?"
"We have a conference room free at two o'clock. I'll show you on the directory."
At two o'clock, Banner was seated in the middle of one long side of the conference room table, his back to the window, watching the door. Potts came in, followed by Romanoff, both in executive-chic: heels, narrow skirts just above the knee, silk blouses, tasteful jewelry. Romanoff's smile was courteous but entirely without warmth. Banner, who was watching for it, saw her slight flinch as he stood up. "Agent Romanoff," he said mildly.
"Dr. Banner," she replied. "Please excuse my not shaking hands. I hope I can remedy that soon. Do you mind if we sit down?"
Banner gave a polite nod and the three sat, Potts and Romanoff directly across from him. He could see Romanoff's quick glance at the window (eight stories up) and at the width of the table (somewhat less than the Hulk's reach). She swallowed. He dropped his gaze to the table.
"Pepper," said Romanoff, "please excuse me for talking around you for a while. I'll be glad to catch you up once Dr. Banner and I are through."
"No problem," Potts said. She sounded troubled.
"Dr. Banner," Romanoff continued, "the situation on the helicarrier has left me with some PTSD symptoms. I'm concerned that this will be a problem the next time we have to work together. I'd like your help in dealing with it."
"What kind of help?"
"I'd like to spend some time deconditioning myself to your presence, so that being around you doesn't—" her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. "—doesn't trigger me. Like now. Short amounts of time," she added. "Thirty minutes seems to have been optimistic."
Banner kept his eyes on the table. Out of sight in his lap, his hands curled into fists. "I'd like to help you, Agent Romanoff," he said evenly, "but you should know that I have some issues myself, and one of them is the proximity of people who are exhibiting a strong fear response." He glanced up briefly. "You're almost as triggering for me as I am for you."
Potts stood up and put a hand on Romanoff's shoulder. "I think we should continue this by video conference," she said. "Agreed?"
Romanoff and Banner both nodded, neither looking at the other. "Mind if we leave first?" Romanoff asked.
"Be my guest," said Banner. He remained in his chair as the two women rose to leave.
"Bruce, if you'd like to set up back in the lab, we'll take my office," said Potts. "See you in five. Natalie?" She gestured Romanoff toward the door.
"You go ahead. I'll be right there," said Romanoff. Potts frowned but went out, closing the door behind her.
Romanoff pulled a nickel-sized disc from her purse, squeezed it and dropped it onto the table. It emitted a small chirp.
"Interference detect—" Jarvis's voice began and then abruptly cut out.
"We have about 20 seconds," Romanoff said. She was sweating visibly and her voice shook, but she looked Banner in the eye as she continued. "Right here," she said, sketching a line between them with her finger, "is where the wedge gets driven to tear the whole team apart. Don't let that happen, Dr. Banner. We can't afford it." She picked the disc back up and tossed it to him. "Souvenir for you. It only works on Jarvis." Then, without turning her back to him, she slipped out the door.
Experimentally, Banner squeezed the disc, which chirped again.
"Interference cleared," said Jarvis. Banner slipped the disc into his pocket, rubbed the back of his neck and breathed deeply for a while. Then he got up and returned to the lab.
"Your video conference is ready for you to log on, sir," Jarvis informed him.
"Thanks," said Banner. "Go ahead."
Onscreen, Romanoff looked much calmer. She'd repaired her makeup, but the hair at her temples was still damp, and a few strands clung to her face.
"Do I assume this conversation is being monitored?" Banner asked.
"Where Tony's concerned, that's a safe assumption," said Romanoff. "You'll have to take it up with him. Pepper's not in the room, and generally she frowns on eavesdropping. For my part, I'm not recording it or passing it along."
"Why do I have a hard time believing that?"
"Inherent skepticism plus bitter experience?" said Romanoff. "I'm sorry, for what it's worth. I was worried about collateral damage. If I'd felt I could safely bring you in without deceiving you, I would have."
"Because deep down, you're honest as well as compassionate."
"Because I try not to alienate people I have to work with who can easily kill me."
"You don't have to work with me. Either of us could leave."
"The team needs us both."
"And if I don't give a damn about the team?"
"Then the next time Tony falls out of the sky with his jets blown out, he dies. And the next time we face something like Loki's army, we all die. And then nobody will have your back."
Banner laughed. "Nobody has my back now."
"You're wrong about that. They care about you. Rogers in particular. He feels responsible."
"Watch what I do and draw your own conclusions."
Banner rubbed his forehead. "What would it take to get you to drop this?" he said wearily.
"A higher priority mission."
"Drop it then. I already have one."
Romanoff studied his image carefully. "Tony," she said flatly. "He got irradiated, didn't he?"
"Shit." She glanced away from the screen for a moment, then looked back at him. "Pepper doesn't know yet."
"All right. I'll keep quiet. Do what you can for him. But when you're done, I'll be back."
"By that point, I may welcome the distraction."
"Good luck, Dr. Banner. And if there's anything I can do, for you or for either of them, call me."
"I'm not happy with your white blood count. I'm going to set up to do a differential—look at the actual cell types. Also, I think you're running a fever." Banner opened his medical kit and took out a thermometer. "Here."
Stark waved him off. "Just a minute, I'm in the middle of something here."
"Stick that under your tongue. You don't have to use the voice interface for everything. You have hands."
Stark scowled at him, but complied. The thermometer beeped just as his phone rang. The ringtone was '(I Always Feel Like) Somebody's Watching Me.' Stark pulled out the thermometer and handed it to Banner. "Here. I need to take this. It's my favorite ex-employee." He picked up the phone. "Agent Romanoff! What can I do for you? I'm putting you on speaker, so keep it clean."
"Tony. I just can't live without your money any longer. I mean body."
"Get in line, darling. Though not, as a purely hypothetical point, at the end of the line."
"How sweet. I'll keep that in mind. I have a proposition for you, though not that kind. And Dr. Banner might be interested too."
"Dr. Erik Selvig just got a message from Thor, inviting Captain America to Asgard. Selvig and Foster think they might actually know a way to get him there. They want you to build the hardware, and Cap wants to consult Dr. Banner on feasibility and risk."
Banner frowned and held up the thermometer. "One oh one point two," he said. "We may have more important things to work on."
"Oh, for...Natasha, that's a 'yes' from me and an 'I need my attitude adjusted' from Bruce. We'll get back with you shortly."
"Try not to level Manhattan," said Romanoff, and hung up.
"This can wait," said Banner. "I want to start you on the protocol now. Today."
"Don't I get a vote? I seem to remember that document I signed saying something about 'may withdraw at any time'."
"This sounds way more interesting than puking my guts out for eight weeks."
"How does immune system collapse and multiple organ failure followed by death sound? Tony, what the hell are you thinking?"
"Mainly that I'm so over the Life-Threatening Condition of the Week. It's getting old. This is not how I want to spend my time."
"Well, I would say 'quit flying through interdimensional portals with live nuclear warheads,' but to be fair, if you hadn't you'd be dead already, Stark Tower would be a smoking glass crater, and I'd have plenty of experimental subjects. So thank you, but would you please adjust your priorities?"
"Look. The test you were going to do—"
"Yeah. How long will that take?"
"A few hours."
"Would it hurt for me to spend those few hours talking to the rest of the team about the Asgard thing? It'll give me something to do besides annoy you."
Banner sighed. "All right. Roll up your sleeve."
Stark complied, then picked up his phone to call Romanoff.
"Right after you take this."
"Who let you in here, anyway?"
"I'm clearly going to have to have a talk with her about security."
"While you're at it, you could have a talk with her about acute myelogenous leukemia."
"No. I told you, as long as we can manage it, this is the flu. Martian Death Flu. Whatever you want to call it."
"She knows it's not the flu, Tony."
"You told her?"
"No. But she's not stupid. She knows you flew through a gate holding a nuke, and that the explosion damaged your armor to the point it had to be discarded. You need to tell her what's going on, or she'll start imagining it's worse than it is."
"It could be worse?"
"A lot worse. You're not actually dying at the moment."
"No, I just wish I were. Preferably quickly."
"That was the last dose for this round. You'll start feeling better sometime tonight. By day after tomorrow you should be almost normal, except for the weakness. You might even be able to get some work done."
Stark groaned. "I can't even imagine working."
"Have you looked over the stuff Foster and Selvig sent?"
"Yes. I had a long talk with Foster last night. I think I grasp the essentials, though most of it's outside my field. Both my fields. I'm going to email Steve this morning and give him my take on it."
"You think it's feasible?"
"Maybe. I'm not happy with the time dimension."
Stark rubbed his face unhappily. "If only I could fucking concentrate," he said. "This is like being permanently hung over. I can't focus."
"Any actual pain, or just nausea and weakness?"
"Headache. I can stand it."
"Want me to get you something?"
"No thanks. I wouldn't be able to keep it down."
"I could give you an injection."
"I prefer the headache."
"I said no. I need another week to ten days with my brain actually functioning."
"A week is too long. You'll lose too much ground."
"I'll chance it. I'm too close to stop now."
"Tony, if we don't keep you on the protocol the leukemia will kill you. I'm not guaranteeing it won't kill you anyway, but at least you'll have a chance of beating it."
"There's got to be something else you can do. What exactly is it that will kill me?"
"It's the combination of too few normal blood cells, which means insufficient oxygen transport and no immune function, and huge numbers of abnormal white cells, which clog and damage your internal organs."
"What would happen if you replaced all my blood? Like with massive transfusions?"
"Even if we could get enough blood of the right type, you'd probably have an immune reaction—no, wait. Maybe you wouldn't."
"Because my immune system's screwed up."
"Yes. But it would only be a temporary stopgap, because your marrow will still be pumping out abnormal leucocytes. And that process will accelerate unless we keep treating you."
Banner spoke reluctantly, as if the words were being dragged out of him. "A week or two."
"Tony, I can't advise this."
"I'm not asking you to. I'm saying it's this or nothing. I'm not going back on the protocol yet."
Banner stood still, except for his nervous hands, ceaselessly folding and unfolding his glasses. "I—" he stopped, started again. "Will you—"
"Bruce," said Stark seriously, "Listen. Not dying isn't one of my options. Something's going to get me sooner or later. I want to do what's important to me with the time I have left. Research is the best thing I do. This research could have applications that will help us defend the whole damn planet. I don't want to leave that undone. And there's no guarantee of my being able to come back to it. I have to do it now, while I still—while I'm still all here."
Banner closed his eyes. His hands stopped fidgeting. After a moment he looked back at Stark. "I'll do it on one condition. Tell Pepper. Tell her everything. If you die, I'm going to have to be the one to break it to her. And she deserves to know what you're up against."
Banner scowled at the readout. "Back above ten thousand again. We're out of time, Tony."
"Wait. Let's send him off. One more round of transfusions. I can have the equipment ready by the end of the week. Natasha should be able to get him here before then."
"And what happens if you're too sick to run it when it's time for him to come back?"
Stark waved this off impatiently. "Foster and Selvig have the theory nailed down. Once it's programmed, the machine's a simple on/off. Either you or Jarvis could program it, and we'll have both of you. Once we have a successful run one-way, you shouldn't need me. But I plan to be here anyhow, thanks very much."
"You're going to give us control of Jarvis?"
"No, I'm going to give you control of Jarvis. Jarvis: give Bruce Banner full administrative privileges, beginning now and continuing until revoked by me. There, see how easy that was?"
"Jarvis," said Banner, "Was that a valid command?"
"Yes, sir," said the AI.
"Do you know who 'the Hulk' is, and do you understand how he is related to me?"
"Yes, sir. I was provided information by SHIELD when you took up residence with us."
"I cut a deal with Fury," Stark admitted.
"Administrative privileges extended to me are not under any circumstances to be taken to include the Hulk. Is that clear?"
"Good thought," said Stark.
"He can talk, you know. He just usually doesn't bother. Getting back to Rogers, what if something goes wrong on the first run? We can program the thing, but we can't redesign it."
"If something goes wrong he probably won't go anywhere. If he goes to the wrong destination it probably won't be survivable. The chances of his getting stuck anywhere besides Asgard, and still being alive, are infinitesimal."
"Reassuring, in a not reassuring at all kind of way," said Banner.
Odin's raven Huginn had just brought the news of Rogers' safe arrival in Asgard, and Foster and Selvig were still grinning and exclaiming over their triumph, when Banner hustled Stark down into the treatment room. He went along so meekly that Banner kept expecting the other shoe to drop—for Stark to hit him over the head and make a run for it, or put the whole building into lockdown so he couldn't get to his equipment—but belatedly he realized Stark was exhausted to the point of stumbling. He rode the elevator all the way to the sub-basement without speaking a single word. Banner felt a chill of apprehension. He tried to ignore it.
"Pajamas or street clothes?" he asked.
"Anything but a damn gown," mumbled Stark. He fumbled at his belt buckle. Banner let him struggle with it, busying himself with an IV pole to avoid helping. Stark tried to shuck his shoes off, wavered, and sat on the bed to keep from falling. He did manage to undress without help, but it took a while and he was short of breath when he finished. Banner handed him pajamas and he slipped the pants on, but dropped the shirt on the floor and left it there. Banner turned down the bed for him, then after he climbed in, scrubbed the back of his left hand and inserted the IV needle. Stark neither flinched nor complained, just lay back and closed his eyes. Banner's throat felt tight. He tried focusing on his breathing for a while, as he mechanically taped the needle down and started the drip.
"When I was at TED last year," Stark's weak, husky voice interrupted, "the guy who had the slot ahead of me had Tourette's Syndrome. When he was waiting to speak, and when he was at the podium, he was all tics and jerks and twitches. He couldn't keep still for a second. And then he said, 'Let me show you what I do in my day job.' And he put up a video of himself doing surgery; a facial reconstruction. Didn't bat an eyelash. Hands steady as a rock. And he told us the surgery lasted seven hours."
"I know. I've heard of him."
"Is it like that for you?"
"Yes. So far. The other guy has never taken over when I'm treating a patient. No matter what happens."
"So even if I'm stupid enough to die, you're not going to tear up my lab."
"Good." A long pause, and then: "I'm so fucking tired," in almost a whisper.
"Go to sleep. This is just saline. It'll be a couple of hours before I start the drugs. You can get a little rest."
"Thanks." Stark didn't open his eyes, but he added, "I actually do appreciate your trying to keep me alive. I'm just really lousy at gratitude."
"You're welcome," said Banner. "Jarvis, lights down sixty percent. Tony, I'm going to be setting up a bunch of monitors. I'll try to keep the noise down."
Stark didn't respond. He lay limp and motionless except for the slow rise and fall of his chest.
"I gave you admin privileges with Jarvis, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did."
"Did I tell you...shit, there was something else...is the lab the way you want it?"
Stark shifted restlessly in his bed. "You may be the only one left who can get any use out of it. Don't turn it over to SHIELD. I don't trust those bastards."
"Stop. Don't lie to me. I don't like it any better than you do, even with a lifetime of practice. I could die from this. Even if I survive, I may have the IQ of a turnip. I read your damned research, back when I could still understand most of it."
"You know how limited those results were. None of the subjects were starting from as strong a position as you."
"None of them took sixteen days off in the middle of the protocol. My fault. You can say 'I told you so.' I won't argue."
"Yes you will. You'll argue with your last breath, hopefully several decades from now. Get some sleep, Tony. You're exhausted."
"Goddamn it, there was something else I wanted to tell you. About the lab. Or about Jarvis, I can't remember."
"It'll come back to you. Go to sleep," said Banner. "Jarvis; lights down eighty-five percent. Video feed to my phone, audio feed and monitor alarms to my headset." Various beeps and whines were silenced and the lights dimmed to a soft glow. "I'll be right outside, Tony. Call if you need anything." He stepped out and pulled the door closed.
Once in the corridor, he pulled out his phone and texted Potts: Need your input on an important decision. Do you have a minute?
And then Romanoff: Need your help. We'll be taking shifts so proximity not an issue. Call me.
The replies arrived in quick succession:
On my way. 5 mins.
Can't call from here, give me half an hour.
Banner placed two chairs and an end table near the door, then sat and placed the phone on the table where he could watch it. When Potts arrived, he gestured her to a chair and nodded toward the phone. "He's asleep. I've got audio feed, so if any alarms go off I'll hear them."
"Okay. How's he doing?"
Banner sighed. "Overall, holding steady. Emotionally, not well. He's not dealing well with the cognitive losses. And he's starting to seem—well, a little paranoid. More than usual. This is what I wanted to talk to you about."
"What can I do?"
"I'm not sure. The main thing that concerns me is, what if he tries to suit up? He's in no condition, mentally or physically, to fly or fight. But if I try to restrict his access, I'm afraid he'll see me as a threat. Do you know if Jarvis has any kind of protocol for situations where Tony's impaired?"
Potts sighed. "No. He doesn't. I've asked him several times to set up something like that, and he always says he'll get to it, then never does. You're right; it's a time bomb."
"What about—well, just a second. Jarvis, what is the current status of the latest version of Iron Man's armor?"
"The Mark VIII armor is seventy-three percent complete."
"What's the estimate on completion time?"
"The armor should be complete within one hundred fifty hours."
Banner rubbed his temples. "Great." He looked back at Potts. "Any ideas?"
Potts shrugged. "Jarvis, does he have the Mark VIII set up the same as the Mark VII? Self-donning, with the bracelets?"
"Locate the bracelets for me."
"The bracelets are located in Mr. Stark's sleeping quarters, in the drawer of the nightstand."
"Well, I can start there," said Potts. "I can move the bracelets, but Jarvis will know where they are and he'll tell Tony as soon as he asks."
"Don't do anything yet," said Banner. "Until the armor's finished, we've got a little breathing space. For now, I think we need to keep a 24-hour watch on him. I need some sleep; can you stay with him overnight? He should sleep most of the night, and if you need me you can always wake me up."
"Sure. Let me go grab a few things. I can sleep in the recliner."
"We'll need a third person. Someone he trusts."
Potts looked grim. "Rhodes would think it his duty to report what's going on. Happy...he's not good with illness or hospitals. And he can't stand up to Tony."
"What would you think about Agent Romanoff?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"No. I'm serious. I have my problems with her, but there's no doubt she has...relevant skills."
"Tony doesn't trust her any farther than he could throw her. And I mean in his current condition."
"He doesn't have to know she's here. We can keep her behind the scenes. More to the point, do you trust her?"
Potts pondered this. "Depends on the context. In this situation...yes. I trust her to act in Tony's best interest. Whether Tony likes it or not. And she's cagey enough to get around him even when he's at his best. So yes, I can deal with her as our third."
An hour later, Banner was finishing up his phone call with Romanoff:
"Let me get this straight," she said. "We're dealing with a paranoid Tony Stark. With dementia. "
"That pretty much sums it up."
"So basically I'll be babysitting North Korea."
"Except with a vastly superior weapons program. And a larger GDP."
"You see why I called you in."
"This may be above my pay grade."
"Would you like to suggest a substitute?"
Romanoff sighed. "No. Sign me up."
Banner yawned. "Pepper's on midnight to 8 a.m. shift. I'll take 8 to 4. That gives you a while to either get his permission to stay with him, or set up a covert watch on him."
"How physically frail is he? If it comes down to it, can I restrain him without hurting him? Are sedatives an option?"
"Yes to restraint, no to sedatives unless it's an emergency. He's weak, but his bones aren't fragile or anything. The sedative wouldn't be a good idea though; his cardiac function's not what it should be, and I don't want to risk ..."
Romanoff cut him off. "Hang on. Got another call." There was a beep, then silence. It stretched on for more than a minute. Then she was back. "Well. That was interesting."
"That was Tony Stark. He suspects you're up to something and wants me to come spy on you."
Banner opened his mouth but couldn't come up with a reply.
"I'm here," he said. "So...okay. I guess I can check off 'convince Stark to let Romanoff in', then."
"True," she said. "For my part, I can check off 'find an excuse not to be in the same room as Banner'."
"What can I do from my end?"
"Leave him alone for a while. Say, tomorrow, a bit after ten a.m. Set an alarm to go off in the lab, and take your time dealing with it."
The next morning, Banner excused himself from the treatment room at the sound of the alarm. Romanoff slipped in a few moments later.
"What can I do for you, Tony?" she asked.
"We don't have much time," Stark said nervously.
"We have a while," she reassured him. "I rigged some of his equipment with cascading faults. It'll take him at least half an hour to fix. Tell me what you need."
"I need you to find out what Banner's up to. This 'treatment' of his is fucking up my brain—I can't think straight, I'm having memory problems. I've had him under surveillance, but of course I don't have any way of analyzing what he's giving me. I don't know whether Pepper's involved, or whether she's at risk. I need data. Find out if he's communicating with anyone on the outside. If you can, get samples of the drugs and find out what's in them. If he's keeping a second set of records that Jarvis doesn't have access to, hack into them. You know."
"I can do that. But why me?"
"You're the only one on the team who doesn't like him. And if what I've heard from Fury is accurate, I don't blame you."
"We can go into that later. I'm going to get out of here. I'll be back in touch tomorrow."
Romanoff slipped out, and when Banner returned Stark was pretending to sleep.
She returned the following night, under cover of Banner's being called away by Potts.
"I did what you asked, Tony. He's clean."
"He can't be. What does he want, Tasha? I gave him access to everything—Jarvis, Stark Industries records, inventory, my SHIELD security clearance, my private files...he could move a quarter of my assets into an offshore account tomorrow if he tried."
"He wants you to survive, Tony."
"It doesn't make any sense."
"Only if you assume he's been lying to you. I don't think he has. I saw his notes. They're internally consistent. The best fit with the data is that you really do have leukemia, he really is treating you, and your symptoms really are due to a combination of the disease and the treatment."
"No. If this was all about me not dying, he'd never have let me stop the treatment."
"Maybe he's a good enough doctor to care what you want. We all know there are things you'd die to accomplish; we've seen it."
There was a brief silence.
"The other simple explanation is that you're in it with him," said Stark. "Jarvis—"
Romanoff slapped a hand over his mouth and interrupted: "Jarvis, говорите по-русски."
"Да, Мадам," the AI responded.
Romanoff uncovered Stark's mouth.
"What the fuck did you just do? You had a fucking back door—"
"No. Just a virus. I can change his language settings. You and Banner are still admins. You just have to speak to him in a language he understands."
"Fuck you. You are in on it."
"If by 'in on it' you mean the plan to keep you alive—yes. I got that mission before the first time I met you."
"Fuck all of you." Stark reached for the IV needle but Romanoff intercepted his grab.
"Don't do it, Tony. We can restrain you or sedate you if we have to. I'd really rather not. It would upset Pepper."
"You think Pepper doesn't know what you're doing?"
"Pepper knows exactly what we're doing." With her free hand, Romanoff touched the call button on the bed. "Bruce. Get Pepper. We need a conference." She kept hold of Stark's right hand and took the left one too, gently but firmly, until Banner entered the room.
"What's up?" he asked, looking at Stark rather than at her.
"Were you listening?" asked Romanoff.
"Then you're up to speed. How's your Russian?"
"I can switch Jarvis to Tamil if you want."
"Okay. Fill Pepper in. I'm going to get some air."
Banner took a position on the other side of the bed and laid his hands on Stark's wrists, carefully avoiding touching her or meeting her gaze directly. "Okay. Go."
"Thanks," she said softly, and slipped out.
"She's scared of you," Stark said wonderingly.
"You really did beat the crap out of her."
"And she's working with you anyway."
"We have a common interest."
"In what, for God's sake? What do you want from me?"
Banner sighed. "Tony. You're sick. You have leukemia. I'm trying to cure you."
"You planning to hold my arms down all night?"
"Not if I don't have to. If you—"
A knock at the door interrupted him. "Come in," he called. Potts entered.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Tony distrusts our motives," said Banner. "I'd like to convince him we're all on the same side." He turned back to Stark. "If I let go, are you going to try to pull that IV out? Because that's the best vein you've got, and any other site's going to hurt more."
"Tony, please don't," said Potts.
"Okay, okay," said Stark. "Let go."
Stark turned to Potts. "This was all your idea, I'm betting."
"No. I knew you were sick, but I didn't know anything else until you told me. Bruce wouldn't discuss it without your permission."
"He told you I had leukemia."
"You do have leukemia. I got a second opinion, with entirely separate lab work."
"You don't trust him."
"I've only known him for a couple of months."
"And you think this treatment is legit?"
"The doctor who gave me the second opinion predicted you'd be dead...about three weeks ago."
Stark closed his eyes. "Oh." He looked up at Banner with a trace of his old shrewdness. "Paranoid ideation. Side effect of the drugs. Right?"
Banner nodded. "Right."
"I do remember that." He looked back at Potts. "Sorry."
She shook her head. "Not like you did it on purpose."
"It'll probably happen again."
Stark looked back at Banner. "I'll behave. Or try to. Would you ask Romanoff to give me back Jarvis?"
"Sure." Banner pulled out his phone and sent off a text.
"What's this about Jarvis?" asked Potts, alarmed.
"Back door," said Stark. "Probably from back during that mess with Drago."
Banner's phone chimed. "Done," he said.
"Thanks. Could you get me some water?"
Banner got up, put his phone away and moved to the counter to pour a glass of ice water.
"Jarvis, you with me?" asked Stark.
"Yes, sir. My apologies for the recent misunderstanding."
"No problem. Revoke all Bruce Banner's privileges. Accept no input from Natasha Romanoff or Pepper Potts. And lock us down." He smiled crookedly at Banner as the door locked with a solid thunk. "Sorry, Bruce. If you're going to kill me, you're going to have to be a little more direct about it."
Banner stood frozen. "Tony. You did not just lock me in a room with you and Pepper."
"Yep. This should be fun."
## end part one ##
Interested readers can learn more about surgeons with Tourette's Syndrome (there are several) in Oliver Sacks' mind-bending book, An Anthropologist on Mars.
"Архангел Михаил": Archangel Michael
"говорите по-русски" (govorite po-russki): speak Russian
"Да, Мадам" (Da, Madam): yes ma'am