Resilience III: Unparallelled

Part Two


[Week Thirteen, cont'd]

"Don't do this, Tony," said Banner.

"Hey Bruce, you enjoying fucking my leftovers? How about Romanoff? Do you have to tie her down to get her to hold still? I hear she's into that."

"Pepper," said Banner, his voice rough in his throat, "sit on the floor and turn your back to me. Don't say anything." She blanched, but complied. Banner turned back to Stark. "Tony, I'm begging you—"

"Fuck you, Bruce. And the big green horse you rode in on. You want out? Smash your way out." He tore the IV needle out of his wrist and struggled to sit up.

Through the rising red haze Banner thought dimly, oh shit, now I'll have to find another vein...

Rage rose up and swallowed him.

He is in a cage.

With the cage-maker.

The small pale one sits still, still, but she is shaking.

Smash the door.

Smash the cage-maker first.

Loud noise behind him. He turns.

The door is gone. Smoke, heat. The red one is there, the spy, the liar. She stinks of fear.

"The door's open. You're free," she says. She stands aside. Light. Air. Freedom.

The cage-maker laughs at him. "Run away," he says.

He roars and turns back. The red one throws herself over the cage-maker.

He tears her off the bed, holds her up, shakes her. She stares at him, holds up one hand. Small thing, small noise.

"They can't see you now," she says. Sad. Afraid. Sad. Eyes on his eyes. He struggles to remember. A gift from the red one...

Behind her the cage-maker. The fearless one. The...

Patient, whispers the weak one from deep inside, and something inside him breaks.

It hurts. He knows pain, but he does not break...

Do no harm, cries the weak one.

"They can't see you," says the red one again. Good, the hidden eyes closed, no weak one watching again and again as he smashes these two, these three—

—a gift—

First, do no harm. Do no harm. No harm, the weak one pleads.

He groans. His knees fold. He holds the red one carefully. Remembers catching the fearless one, holding him—

Banner came to himself on his knees, one hand on the floor, the other cradling Romanoff against his chest. Potts's quiet sobs and the sizzling metal of the doorframe were the only sounds besides his harsh, ragged breathing.

"Thank you," he said, his voice still husky. He let go of Romanoff and slowly, carefully backed away from her, still on hands and knees. "Pepper? You okay?"

"I'm okay," she said firmly. He looked up. She was kneeling on the bed behind Stark; she had him in a chokehold. Stark was struggling, clawing at her face and hair, and she set the choke more firmly. His eyes fluttered, he swayed back against her and his arms dropped to his sides.

"Don't suffocate him!" Banner said, alarmed.

"She won't," said Romanoff, getting to her feet. "She's doing it right. Carotids, not trachea."

And indeed, Stark's chest was rising and falling regularly. Banner took a deep, cleansing breath and stood up. "Where were we?" he asked the room at large.

"I know you don't want to sedate him," said Romanoff, "but what about a paralytic?"

Banner looked at her, startled. "That's harsh," he said.

"But effective?"

He nodded. "Definitely. And probably safe. But he—"

Romanoff looked grim. "I've made my stupid concession to Tony Stark's feelings for the day," she said. "I'll hold him down for you."

"Want me to let up on the choke?" asked Potts.

"Not yet," said Romanoff. "On three."

Banner found the vial he wanted, filled a syringe and nodded to them. Romanoff counted to three, Potts released the choke hold and Stark opened his eyes just as Banner injected him.

Stark struggled and screamed, but the needle went in smoothly and his weak thrashing grew weaker and then subsided entirely. His eyes were wide in panic, but his breathing was unimpaired and he blinked normally. Romanoff backed off to stand in front of the open doorway and let the other two arrange Stark on the bed.

"I'm sorry, Tony," said Banner. "This is going to hurt. I did tell you not to pull out that IV." He swabbed the new site inside Stark's right elbow, inserted the needle and taped it down.

Once the drip was started and the wound from the old IV bandaged, he reattached the monitors. "Might as well keep him here, at least until that doorframe is cool enough to move him safely," he said. "Natasha. Thanks again."

"That's what they pay me for," she said.

Potts smoothed Stark's hair away from his sweaty forehead, but said nothing. Banner pulled a chair up to the bedside for her, then gestured Romanoff to the other chair. She shook her head and remained standing by the open doorway. Banner took the chair himself and arranged it so each of the three could see the other two and Stark.

"What do we do about Jarvis?" asked Romanoff. "Now I sort of wish I had installed a back door, but I didn't."

"Tony revoked my privileges, but he didn't tell Jarvis not to listen to me," said Banner. "Jarvis?"

"Yes," said the AI.

"Will you review my notes on Tony Stark's medical condition?"

"Yes."

"I know that you can't stop him from risking his life. But under ordinary circumstances, are you directed to keep him alive and intact?"

"Yes."

"Are you empowered to act when he's asleep or unconscious?"

"Yes."

"Do you agree that his judgment is currently impaired?"

"Yes."

"Will you end lockdown and restore communications?"

A short pause, this time. Then, faintly, the sound of doors unlocking from down the hall.

"Thank you," Banner said.

"On that note," said Romanoff, "I'm going out. Call if you need me. Otherwise I'll be back in the morning."

A few hours later, the doorframe having cooled to a safe temperature, Banner and Potts moved Stark, along with his bed and all the equipment, into an adjacent room.

"You all right to stay with him?" Banner asked.

Potts nodded.

"Look. I'm sorry..."

"Don't," she said. "I know it's not voluntary. Tony did everything he could to set you off. And you didn't hurt any of us."

"He...I...could have."

"I know. He meant for you to."

"You did well."

She shrugged. "Natalie's a good teacher. Go get some sleep. You look like Tony after a migraine."

Banner started to extend a hand to her, thought better of it, and simply nodded and headed for his room.

At 3 a.m., he woke abruptly to the shrilling of an alarm. "Pepper?" he called.

Potts' voice on his phone was tense. "He vomited and choked," she reported. "I did the Heimlich; he's breathing again. Still coughing, though."

"Damn it. On my way."

Stark was breathing well by the time he got to the room; he helped Potts clean him up and get him back in the bed, placing Stark on his side, supported with pillows to avoid a recurrence.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Potts nodded, still shaken. "But this brings up a problem. I know how to replace the reactor—he made me help him a couple of times—and I know CPR, but I have no idea if it'll even work with the reactor in the way. I don't know if a defibrillator would work on him, or if it would short out the reactor."

"Jarvis?" asked Banner. "Do you have any information on the effectiveness of CPR or an automated external defibrillator with the arc reactor?"

"No," said Jarvis. "No data is available on either contingency."

They pondered this for a moment. Banner sighed"Well, we know he can survive for several minutes without the reactor, so if his heart stops I guess we just remove the unit, restart his heart, and hope for the best," he said. "Will you show me?"

Potts nodded. She hesitated, stroked Stark's cheek with a murmured, "I'm sorry, Tony," then showed Banner how to remove and disconnect the reactor. Stark gasped and his eyes widened but his face remained expressionless. Potts immediately reconnected and replaced the unit.

"Thanks," murmured Banner. "I know this isn't easy."

"If I'd wanted easy, I'd have picked somebody besides Tony Stark," she said. "It's okay. Go back to bed."


[Week Fourteen]

Two more days passed without major complications, but treating an alert, unwilling, immobilized patient was wearing Banner to the bone. He finally called Romanoff.

"Come down here," he said.

When she arrived, he backed away to the far corner to give her space, and motioned her to look at Stark. The paralyzed man lay motionless, propped up to half-sitting. His dark eyes were bloodshot and roved ceaselessly; the fierce, rapid pulse in his neck was visible from across the room. His breathing was harsh and labored.

"We can't leave him like this," Banner said. "It's too cruel."

Romanoff nodded. "Can you give me twelve more hours?" she asked. "I can get what I need by then. I'll get him to cooperate."

"You're not torturing my patient," said Banner flatly.

Romanoff sighed. "Look. I'm an interrogator. I don't use torture, because it doesn't work. By the way, from his perspective, what you're doing to him now is torture."

"Believe me, I'm aware of that. So what are you going to do?"

"Instill a spirit of cooperation. You'll be watching every move, I promise. I'll be back in the morning."

That evening, Banner began tapering the paralytic. Stark moaned, shifted his head on the pillow and made aimless, twitchy movements of his limbs. Reluctantly, Banner put him in restraints. As the drug continued to clear out of his system, Stark began muttering, and then settled into a steady "No. No. No," at a rate of about one every three seconds, that went on and on and on. Potts arrived to stay with him, but after half an hour she was unable to bear any more. Banner gave her a sympathetic squeeze of the shoulder as she left.

Stark drifted in and out of consciousness for the rest of the night. Every time he woke, his steadfast "No. No. No." began again.

Romanoff returned during one of his quiet periods. Banner briefly told her the story of the night. She nodded.

"All right, Dr. Banner. Sit there, and don't say a word. This is my area of expertise. You can watch, but you have to agree you won't interfere."

Banner sat, slowly. "Agreed," he said reluctantly.

Stark was coming out of his half-sleep. "Nnh. Nuh. No. No. No," he began his mantra again, eyes still closed. Romanoff ignored him, pulled a chair up to his bedside. Stark's eyelids fluttered.

Romanoff opened her small satchel, took out a plastic bag of marijuana and a packet of cigarette papers. Blearily, Stark focused on her. Unhurriedly, skillfully, she rolled a joint, held it in her lips, lit it. She took a long drag and blew the smoke towards Stark. At some point he had forgotten to keep up his ceaseless litany. He was staring hungrily at her. Romanoff looked at him, held up the joint between two fingers, and raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," said Stark reluctantly.

She put the joint back in her mouth and slowly raised the head of his bed, pausing occasionally to adjust the restraints to the correct tension. Then she moved her chair up, sat beside him and held the joint to his lips.

Banner drew in a sharp breath. The look of defeat and shame on Stark's face was almost unbearable. Romanoff shot Banner a quick glance but he shook his head, dropped his gaze, and stayed silent in his chair.

By the time Stark finished the joint, he looked relaxed and drowsy. His forehead was still creased and his eyes were wet, but he said nothing.

"Right answer, Tony," said Romanoff, stubbing out the butt. "I'll be back tomorrow."

Stark dozed off. He stayed asleep through nightfall and beyond. Potts came in, made a silent shooing gesture at Banner, and settled into the recliner.

At 5 a.m., Stark woke up and resumed his chant of "No. No. No." Potts buzzed Banner and then fled, with an apologetic glance over her shoulder. Banner sighed and busied himself with his notes. After the first hour, he was more or less able to tune out the ceaseless "No" and focus on his work, but he looked up when Stark suddenly fell silent.

"Good morning, Tony," said Romanoff. Stark didn't answer. The agent seemed untroubled by this. She sat at the bedside again, and again pulled out her pouch and began rolling a joint. Without looking at Stark she asked, "Would you like one hand free?"

He hesitated, but eventually said "Yes."

She rose, adjusted his bed as before, freed his left hand from the strap, took the joint from her mouth and passed it to him. He closed his eyes and drew heavily on it, smoking as though his life depended on it, occasionally coughing but not stopping until he burned his fingers. Romanoff quickly pinched the butt out before it could ignite the blanket.

"Pepper's coming to sit with you for a while. Try not to upset her," said Romanoff. "I'll be back tomorrow. What I bring you will depend on what I hear from her."

Stark didn't answer. But when Potts took her place beside him and smoothed his hair, he turned his head into the caress. Banner retreated to his room to sleep.

Potts remained at Stark's bedside for the rest of the day. His color was better, he had fewer bouts of retching and he alternately gazed at the ceiling or slept, both peacefully.

Banner returned for the night shift, which was uneventful.

He was checking blood test results when Romanoff returned. "How's your patient's liver function, Doctor?" she asked.

"Better. Not quite within low-normal range, but not dangerously bad."

"Good," said Romanoff, and from her satchel she took a bottle of single-malt whiskey and two glasses. She poured.

"Is that my—" Stark began indignantly.

Romanoff overrode him. "Tony, your line is either 'yes' or 'no', " she said.

Stark drew a breath, hesitated, frowned, and eventually came out with "Yes."

She nodded, raised the head of the bed, freed his left hand and handed him a glass. He downed it in three rapid gulps, almost choking on the third. She raised her eyebrows at him. She sipped her own drink slowly and with evident enjoyment, but said nothing until she finished. Then she collected his glass, nodded pleasantly to him, and said, "Tomorrow." And then she left.

The following day she brought a bottle of Stolichnaya and two shot glasses. She poured.

"I hate Stoli," said Stark.

Romanoff raised an eyebrow at him. "Yes or no," she said.

"No."

Romanoff shrugged. "Tomorrow, then. Doctor?" She proffered a glass to him. He shook his head. She shrugged again, downed both shots, and left. Stark was out of sorts for the rest of the day, but did not resume his complaints.

The following day, Romanoff left her satchel unopened. "Today you get a choice," she informed Stark. "Stoli or weed?"

"Weed."

She nodded, rolled a joint, lit it, adjusted the bed, freed his left hand without comment, and passed him the joint. As he began smoking, she moved her chair to the foot of the bed and uncovered his feet. He stopped smoking. "No," he said.

"You don't get a choice about this," she told him. He jerked his bare foot away from her as far as the restraints allowed, but she recaptured it and began massaging the arch, slowly and firmly. He struggled momentarily but then groaned as she hit a pressure point. She smiled.

She switched to the other foot when he was about halfway through the joint. By the time they both finished, he was trembling slightly. She replaced the blanket, stubbed out the smoldering butt, and said, "Tomorrow."

It was an hour later that Stark spoke to Banner for the first time. "I'm beginning to understand why you hate her," he said. Banner sighed but didn't reply.

The next day was the first of several respite days between bouts of chemotherapy. Romanoff offered Stark the same choice, with the same result. This time she massaged not only his feet but his calves. He didn't object, even though he ran out of marijuana ten minutes before she finished.

The following day Stark was already beginning to show signs of recovery from the chemo. He was much more alert, though he stayed silent. Romanoff entered a little later than usual.

"Doctor Banner, today I'd like you to sit farther away, and I'd like you to repeat your promise to me that you won't interfere," she said.

Banner moved his chair to the far end of the room, sat, and said "You have my word."

"All right," said Romanoff. She released Stark's left arm and began massaging his hand. She worked slowly, giving attention to every joint of every finger. Stark didn't look at her; he kept his eyes on the ceiling, or closed them, and as she worked her way up his palm, wrist and forearm he bit back an occasional groan.

Once she'd reached his shoulder she moved to the other side of the bed, unfastened the other strap, and started on his right hand. He appeared not to notice that he now had both hands free while both of hers were occupied. He didn't move.

Again she worked her way up fingers, palm, wrist, forearm to shoulder, and then stepped back. Stark sighed deeply and opened his eyes.

Romanoff reached into her satchel, pulled out a pistol, and tossed it onto his lap.

After a startled half-second, he grabbed the gun, flicked off the safety, aimed it at her chest and pulled the trigger. It gave a loud, hollow click. Banner and Stark both sat frozen. Romanoff extended her hand.

"Do you mind?" she asked. "Dry-firing is bad for the mechanism."

After a moment, Stark handed the pistol back to her.

"Day after tomorrow, Tony," she said, and buckled him back into his restraints.

As she left, Stark leaned his head back on his pillow and shut his eyes. A tear ran down his cheek. Banner sat breathing deeply until he felt his heart rate return to normal.

As he came in to relieve Potts the next morning, Banner noticed that the restraints on Stark's arms looked a little loose. He affected not to notice, but took care to stay out of reach, flipping through his notes, manually adjusting the lights. As he turned back toward the bed he glanced down and realized the AED was not where he'd left it.

Three days off the protocol and your cognition's improved enough to rig a booby-trap, he thought admiringly. In restraints, without tools, and under constant watch. I pity those poor bastards who took you hostage. He sent Potts a text.

In the lab, on the shelf above

the coffeemaker, there's a

small black box with a

parabolic antenna on one

end. Would you bring it to

me before you head up to bed?

Potts tapped lightly on the door. Banner screened it with his body as he opened it and took the EMP generator from her.

"What is that?" she murmured.

"Watch," said Banner. He set the controls and held the unit down by his side as he turned, keeping it hidden from Stark until he was close enough to fire. There was a flash and pop from under the bedclothes as the weak electromagnetic pulse neatly disarmed the modified AED without taking out either the arc reactor in his chest or the medical monitors.

"You fucker," groaned Stark. "Do you have any idea how long that took?" He began twisting his hands out of the straps, but Banner caught his wrists.

"With just your teeth and fingernails? Probably the better part of the past three nights," said Banner mildly. "Pepper, tighten these for me."

Potts complied.

"Nice work, Tony," Banner continued, examining the now-defunct improvised taser. "Couldn't you get Pepper to come close enough?"

"I was saving it for Romanoff," Stark muttered.

"Well, thanks for that, I guess," said Potts.

"I don't want to hurt you," said Stark.

Potts laughed incredulously. "Tony, ten days ago you tried to goad Bruce into killing us both."

"What?" said Stark. "You're crazy. I wouldn't...I..." he looked back and forth between Banner and Potts.

Banner propped his phone up on the nightstand. "Ask Jarvis," he suggested.

"Jarvis?" said Stark. "I can't—"

"Yes, sir?" the AI responded.

Stark looked back and forth between Potts and Banner again. "What day is it?"

"January 7th, 2013," said Potts.

"Jarvis, play security video from...December 28?"

"About ten-thirty a.m., wasn't it?" said Potts.

"Go back to ten a.m.," suggested Banner. "That'll pick up Natasha's part." There was a pause. "You'll have to tell him, Tony; he won't take orders from me or Pepper."

"Jarvis, play video from ten a.m., December 28th," said Stark.

"Dr. Banner, do you concur?" asked the AI.

"Yes," said Banner.

"I thought he wouldn't take orders from you," said Stark.

"He won't. But he asks my advice, because...well, you'll see."

Stark watched the video until it got to the point where Banner injected the paralytic. "Stop," he said and Jarvis halted playback. "I do remember calling Romanoff," he said uneasily. He looked up at Banner. "You knew I called her. You and she were..."

"Cooperating," said Banner. "Yes. By the way, she really did hack into all my files. Not just the ones here, but my original research from Fukushima."

"I'm supposed to take your word for it," said Stark.

Banner shrugged. "There's not a lot I can do to convince you, other than let you get out of that bed, suit up, and fly around shooting anyone you think might be conspiring against you. Not planning to do that."

Stark bit his lip in frustration. "You could have faked that video," he said.

"Not me personally, but yes, I suppose someone could have. Of course, we'd also have to have Jarvis's cooperation. But then, I can't prove that we don't."

"Tony," said Potts, "you know that, if I'd wanted Stark Industries, you already handed it to me on a silver platter last year. If I wanted to hurt you or kill you, I've had a thousand opportunities. I'm on your side."

Stark looked at her, lines of pain and doubt etched on his face. "I believe you think you're doing the right thing," he said.

"For my part, Tony," said Banner. "I am truly sorry about the restraints. But as you've demonstrated, you're too resourceful and too unpredictable for us to risk releasing you."

"You planning to keep me like this forever?"

"No. Only until I finish treating you. Once you're in remission and I stop the chemo, your...mental state should return to normal pretty quickly. Once that happens, I'll let you go. It'll be up to you whether to bring charges or not."

Stark was silent for a moment. He looked at Potts, then at Banner. "I won't bait you again, Bruce," he said slowly, "But I see no reason why I should make this easy for you."

"Do you want to be paralyzed again?"

Stark whitened. "No."

Banner tightened the restraints again and checked them at all points. "Good answer. I'll put the new AED where you can't reach it. And I think I'll add a bed alarm."

"And I'll quit assuming it's safe for me to take a nap just because I think you're asleep," added Potts.

"Same here," said Banner ruefully.


[Week Fifteen]

When Romanoff returned, Stark said "Yes" to the vodka. Romanoff allowed him three shots, and she neither touched him nor spoke to him as he drank them. His hands shook.

Potts met her in the hallway.

"Did Bruce tell you we watched the security tapes from the 28th?" she asked.

"Yes. I wish he'd checked with me first, but it can't be helped now."

"I want you to explain what you're doing to Tony."

Romanoff looked grim. "Ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?"

"Yes."

"That's essentially it. With some modification. I'm manipulating his emotions, trying to prevent another escape attempt; and I'm inducing him to trust you and Dr. Banner, in contrast to myself."

"You're brainwashing him."

"No. I'm not trying to change his fundamental loyalties; I'm not making him distrust his own perceptions and memory. I want him to come out of this as nearly intact as possible. But no matter how well I do it, he's going to have some issues. For example, right now he would really like to kill me."

"That could be a problem when we let him go."

"Believe me, I don't plan to turn my back on him until I'm sure he's rational. He may still regard me as the enemy, but at least when he's in his right mind, Tony doesn't go around murdering his enemies."

The day after that, Banner started another round of treatment. Stark grew pale, weak and sick, but noticeably less so than on the previous round. Banner followed Romanoff out of the room after her visit, as Potts stayed with Stark.

"He's better."

She nodded. "He looks it."

"I think he's going to make it. His white count came up much more slowly this time. It's barely above ten thousand, and fewer of them are abnormal."

She nodded again. "My part's going well too. He's more rational, of course, which is down to you. But he's also focusing more and more of his resentment and suspicion on me, instead of on you and Pepper. By the time you're done with this round, I may be able to finish up and leave the last round to you."

Banner looked at her curiously. "You're better too."

"You noticed."

"It took me long enough. I was focused on Tony. But you're not flinching when I make eye contact, and I noticed you can turn your back on me."

She nodded again. "I've been focused on Tony too. It helps. Mostly it's just desensitization; with the frequent brief contacts, the reaction gets weaker and weaker." She looked up at him. "And the fact that you didn't actually hurt me this time made a difference."

Banner nodded.

"You're better too," said Romanoff.

"I am. I have a less...jaundiced perspective. It was hard, at first, watching you at work. But Tony was right; you're very good at what you do, and I can see you're doing far less damage than I would have expected."

Romanoff looked away. "But there is damage. This will be hard for him to live with, later."

Banner was silent for a moment. "Is that experience talking?"

She nodded. "More than once, and not always...gently." She looked back at Banner. "I need you to promise me something."

He looked questioningly at her, but said nothing.

"If this goes badly—if Tony doesn't come out of it more or less himself—don't let Fury get hold of him. Call Clint. Or if he's not available, Hill. But not Fury. It won't go well."

"Why not you?"

"Let's just say 'not Fury' and leave it at that."

"All right. Not Fury."


[Week Seventeen]

The treatment, though it did exhaust Stark and leave him sick and occasionally confused, did not seem to bring on the erratic behavior and paranoia of the previous round. After the first week, Banner cautiously discontinued the restraints. But he kept the AED and other equipment outside the room, switching to wireless sensors; the door was kept locked; and either Potts, Romanoff or himself was on watch around the clock.

Romanoff kept up an ever-changing round of bodywork and drugs (mainly marijuana, which genuinely seemed to help with the nausea and headaches; occasionally alcohol; and once each, ketamine and Ecstasy). Where the drugs were concerned she would take no for an answer; with the bodywork she occasionally would not.

On the first day of Stark's respite from chemo, Romanoff had him lying prone as she worked on his back and shoulders.

"Ow. God. That hurts, damn it!" Stark complained, but made no move to get away from her.

"I know. Bear with me. Deep breath in."

Stark complied.

"Let it out slowly."

As he began to breathe out she dug in with an elbow. Stark hissed in pain but didn't move. She let up as he ran out of air.

"Better?"

He rolled his shoulder experimentally. "Yeah," he said.

"Good. You can sit up."

Stark slowly gathered himself, rolled over and sat up. Meanwhile, Romanoff raised an eyebrow at Banner and gestured him to move his chair to the far end of the room again.

"Doctor, I'll remind you again of your promise not to interfere."

Banner nodded.

"No matter what."

"No matter what," he repeated.

"Thank you."

She pulled out her pistol, ejected the clip, worked the slide to eject the round from the chamber, and tossed the full clip to Stark.

"Count them."

"Ten," he said softly.

She took the clip back from him, reloaded the gun, racked the slide and flicked the safety on. Then she dropped the gun in his lap.

He looked at it, looked at her, then grabbed the gun, flicked the safety off and fired. Or tried to. This time the trigger didn't budge. Banner eased back down into his chair.

"Palm lock," said Stark. "Fuck you, Tasha." Without warning he hurled the pistol at her head but she easily dodged and caught it.

"See you in three days, Tony," she said, nodded to Banner, and left.


[Week Nineteen]

Two weeks later, at the end of his respite period, Stark sat cross-legged on his bed, wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants. Banner sat in the recliner.

"Tomorrow we start another round of chemo," he said. "It should be your last. Your white count's improving, and the normal cells now outnumber the abnormal ones."

Stark nodded. "Okay," he said.

"How do you feel?" asked Banner.

"Not bad. A little weak still. A little fuzzy. Not like a hangover, more like six in the morning after an all-nighter."

"What's today's date?"

"February twelfth, 2013."

"Where are you?"

"Room 6B, sub-basement level, Stark Tower."

"Why are you here?"

"You're treating me for leukemia."

"How'd you get leukemia?"

"I flew a nuclear warhead through the portal Loki opened with the tesseract. The warhead exploded. I was hit by gamma rays, which struck my armor and made it emit neutrons, which damaged my bone marrow."

"What's the density of titanium?"

"4.4 grams per cubic centimeter."

"Melting point?"

"One thousand nine hundred forty-three Kelvin."

"Atomic number?"

"Twenty-two."

"What's the half-life of plutonium-239?"

"Twenty-four thousand two hundred years."

"What's the next prime number after eight hundred thirty-nine?"

Stark looked up in thought, but within a few seconds said "Eight fifty-three."

"Who won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1998?"

Stark's face broke into a grin. "I did."

"Jarvis," said Banner, "in my professional opinion, Tony Stark is cognitively able to resume control of his own affairs, though he still requires medical treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia."

"Thank you, Doctor Banner," said the AI. "Additional testimony is required to support your position."

"What the hell else do you want, Jarvis?" asked Stark.

"Agent Natasha Romanoff of SHIELD is the relevant expert," Jarvis replied. "Unfortunately I am not currently permitted to accept input from Agent Romanoff."

"All right," said Stark. "Give Natasha Romanoff guest privileges only."

"Dr. Banner," said Jarvis, "do you concur?"

"Yes," said Banner.

"Very well," said Jarvis.

"By the way, Tony, can I have my guest privileges back too? My email's starting to pile up."

"Fine, fine," said Stark. "Jarvis, guest privileges for Bruce Banner as well." He was still scowling when Romanoff arrived.

"What's up?" she asked. Stark didn't answer.

"Tony's annoyed because Jarvis wants your opinion on whether he can resume control of his affairs," said Banner. "You have guest privileges again, so you can give him that opinion."

"All right," said Romanoff. "Dr. Banner, please leave the room."

"What?"

"I'll set up video and audio feed to your phone," she said, digging out a small wireless camera and microphone and placing them on the nightstand. "But I need you out of here. Your presence is a distraction, and you'd be tempted to interfere. Jarvis, on my signal will you please transmit from this camera and mic to Dr. Banner's phone?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Banner gathered his notes and left, rather pointedly closing the door behind him.

"Jarvis, I want a thirty-second delay on that transmission, please," said Romanoff. "Unmarked."

"Yes, ma'am," said the AI.

"Start now," said Romanoff.

"Tasha, what are you up to?" said Stark suspiciously.

By way of reply, she pulled her pistol out of her bag again. She stood close to him as she ejected the magazine, ejected the round from the chamber, and removed all but two bullets.

"Count them, Tony."

"Two," he said uneasily.

"Choose your targets carefully," she said. She replaced the magazine, flicked on the safety, and racked the slide. She held the pistol in her open hand and let him watch her disable the palm lock. Then she handed him the pistol and took three steps back.

"All yours," she said, and stood still. Stark hesitated, then flicked the safety off. Romanoff didn't move. Deliberately, he took aim at the wall beside the bed and fired the first round. She didn't flinch. There was no sound from outside the room.

"Good soundproofing," remarked Romanoff. Stark didn't reply. Six long seconds ticked past. Then, abruptly, he fired the second round into the wall next to the first, and set the pistol down on the nightstand.

"Jarvis," said Romanoff, "he's good to go." She put the pistol away and picked up the spent cartridges. "Happy graduation, Tony. I hope the next time you have a shot at me, it's not that tempting."

"How do you know that second round was yours?" Stark asked.

Romanoff smiled.

The door flew open abruptly. Banner stopped in his tracks.

"All over, Dr. Banner," said Romanoff. "Sorry about the time delay, but I really couldn't have you interrupting."

"You—"

"We're good. I'm done here. I have some work to do in New Mexico," she said. She turned back to Stark. "Tony," she said, "I'm leaving a signed letter of resignation on your desk. If you decide you can't work with me, send it to Fury."

"You never made me that offer," said Banner.

Romanoff's glance at him was measured and cold. "I didn't do to you what I did to him," she said. Then to Stark, "Give Pepper my regards." And she walked out the door.


[Week Twenty-Two]

Tony Stark sat on his couch, sipping champagne. His hair was freshly cut; beard and mustache exquisitely trimmed; and he was looking very much himself, in jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt. Pepper Potts sat next to him, looking elegant and comfortable in a linen skirt and crocheted sweater, her hair loose, her own champagne flute in her hand. They gazed out the picture window together at the sunset.

"So how do you feel?"

"Not great, but better. I'm still...not getting out of second gear mentally. But at least the gears aren't slipping now."

"Good. And you're done in time to welcome Captain Rogers back tomorrow."

She kicked off her sandals, tucked her feet up under her and leaned into his shoulder. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. She smiled and snuggled in closer.

"I finally remembered what I meant to tell Bruce about Jarvis," said Stark.

"What?"

"Jarvis is designed to die when I do. There's a little wiggle room built in to handle situations like resuscitation, but not much. All the basic functions will still work, but his personality will erase itself." Another pause. "I didn't want...this is stupid."

"What, Tony?"

"I didn't want him to have another owner. It's too much like slavery. I know. Stupid. He doesn't have feelings or self-direction. Well, he kind of has initiative, but...if you ask him what he wants, he dodges the question."

"Have you tried it?"

"Yeah."

"Did you ask him if he minds dying?"

"Yeah. He said no." Stark shifted uneasily. "But he's built to tell me what he thinks I want to hear."

"You could reprogram him."

"I could have. At one time. I can't now."

"This is temporary, Tony. You'll make it. And you'll be yourself again."

"What if I'm not? I was okay with dying, if it came to that, but if I end up..."

"Normal?"

Stark winced. "Ordinary."

"Like me."

Stark winced again. "That's not what I meant."

"It's okay. I know what you meant."

"Do you...never mind."

"What?"

"It's not important. Forget it."

"Indulge me, Tony."

"What about you? Could you live with me if I was just some guy? Would you want to?"

"How can I answer that? Even before you got sick, you weren't the man I fell in love with."

"What?" Stark sat up straighter, spilling a little champagne in the process.

"The old Tony Stark wouldn't have sacrificed himself to save Manhattan. Hell, the old Tony Stark wouldn't have limited himself to one woman. For a long time you didn't."

"Didn't—okay, Potts, at what point did you fall in love with me?"

"Embarrassingly early."

"So what you're saying is—"

"You've changed. A lot. And so far the changes have been for the better. With a few brief exceptions." She took a sip of champagne. "I'm willing to trust that trend."

Stark set down his glass and cupped her cheek in his hand. He looked at her, troubled. Then:

"I don't deserve you," he said.

"You will," she said, and kissed him.


Epilogue

Natasha Romanoff lowered herself slowly into an armchair. Outside the window, the full moon lent an illusion of warmth to the frosty spring night.

"I know that one is never supposed to say this to a beautiful woman, but you look tired," said Dr. Erik Selvig, handing her a cup of coffee.

"I'm flattered," she said. "If I looked as bad as I feel, you'd have called the coroner by now." She sipped her coffee. "Thank you."

They sat in silence for a while, looking out at the night sky.

"It's been an interesting experience, working with you and Agent Barton," said Selvig. "You're very good at what you do."

Romanoff's smile flickered on, then off. "The last two people who said that both tried to kill me," she said. "I feel like I should search you for weapons, but as you noticed, I'm tired."

"Why do you do it?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why are you in this line of work?"

Romanoff didn't answer for a few moments. Then she said, "I could say, because it's all I know, but that's not actually true. Part of my skillset is rapidly acquiring new skills. There are a dozen things I could do instead, and a hundred more I could learn if I wanted." She sipped her coffee and looked out at the stars. "The truth is," she said at last, "that the world needs a certain number of people who can do terrible things. So that people like Banner, and Stark, and Thor, and Rogers can do what they do."

"I've done one terrible thing," said Selvig. "Which is just enough to give me a glimpse into your world. I am in awe of your endurance."

"It has its limits," she said. "One of these days I'll guess wrong, or pay not quite enough attention. And then..." she trailed off.

"And then?"

She shrugged. "I'll get some rest."

## the end ##