A/N: Well, dear readers, we have now come to the conclusion of the story! This is the last chapter of Entangled States. Thank you for all your support, your reviews, and your reading over the past year! I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. Massive thanks to RedTigress of the Beta Branch for her inspiration, brainstorming, betaing, and for putting up with all my insecurities for the past year. This story would not exist without her. :) Now, on to the main event: the final chapter! Trigger warning for mention of suicide.
Beside him, Clint slumped with relief. "Jesus, man, you had me scared," he exclaimed. His face broke into a relieved grin that Bruce couldn't emulate, even if he wanted to try.
Bruce didn't. It did feel good to see the archer again, though. His concern was refreshingly direct. In all his awkward visits to Medical, Tony had just avoided…well, everything. Steve was genuinely worried but he'd reverted to walking on eggshells around Bruce again out of an overabundance of well-meaning caution. So far Natasha was the only one wise enough to give him space, and as for Pepper… Bruce wasn't sure he'd ever be able to look her in the eye again.
Acid, suffocating guilt rose up in his chest. The nebulous green mass on the edge of his consciousness that was the Hulk rumbled, and indignation seeped through the still-permeable barrier between himself and the Other Guy. Bruce forced himself to take a deep breath, trying to ignore the alien emotion. He didn't have to consciously remind himself not to stop short before his lungs filled anymore, now that the searing pain caused by the arc reactor was just a memory. He looked back across the skyline as he exhaled slowly.
But the silence had lasted too long, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Clint's smile fade. A new stab of guilt lanced into his stomach. "It-it does feel good to be back," Bruce said hastily, trying to reassure him. His voice felt raspy from disuse; he hadn't spoken more than a few words to anyone in days. "Physically, I mean. It's just…" He meant to say something about feeling complete, about how nice it was to have his own hands back, but his throat suddenly felt tight and he trailed off without finishing the sentence.
Clint sighed and leaned backwards on his palms, despite the gravel. "How much do you remember?"
The odd thing was that the memories were there. They were hazy from fever and colored with fear and panic, but they were there. It was almost a new experience. "All of it," Bruce replied. He could feel the control over his voice beginning to fray while he tried to cram his feelings deep into his psyche, down with the Hulk where they belonged. He failed, and his voice cracked. He glanced up at the archer briefly before averting his eyes again. "This time- this time it's all…there."
Clint was silent while he digested those words. Bruce felt his cheeks growing warm as the agent's laser gaze bored into the side of his head. "You know, it's funny. I'm not used to, uh, remembering doing the things I'm ashamed of."
"Bruce," Clint started in a low voice. Bruce knew what he was going to say before he said it. "You were sick. You were sick, you were scared, it's not-"
"My fault?" Bruce interrupted bitterly. Acrid guilt was burning up through his chest again and he felt the ghost of Pepper's arm around his shoulders. He shook it off, earning a puzzled glance from the archer. "That wasn't me? I was going to run, Clint. I was going to get away before anyone could stop me. I was going to kill Tony. I made the decision to kill Tony. Tony! How could I do that?"
"Look, man, you were out of your head," Clint said. "You were seeing things-"
"That's no excuse!" Bruce cried. "You know it's not." Clint didn't flinch, but the skin around his eyes tightened. He cringed inwardly but it was like barrier in his mind had suddenly burst and words were spilling out of him almost faster than he could articulate them. "I knew it was wrong. I tried to get away because I knew it was wrong. I remember making the decision, Clint. How could I do that to Tony? Is that what I really am? Is that what I am without him?"
"But you didn't do anything," Clint exclaimed. "Hulk or no Hulk, you're the one who made the choice to go back, Bruce. Nobody thinks any less of you for struggling with it."
"I do," Bruce said in an undertone. He reached up and pinched the bridge of his noise. His glasses rose up on his fingers. Their small weight was simultaneously irritating after days of perfect vision and comfortingly familiar. "I almost didn't."
"Banner," Clint said sharply. "Do you really think we would have just let you and Tony die?"
Bruce shot him a questioning look. "What?" Clint raised his eyebrows suggestively, and the physicist blinked. They had never had any intention of letting him carry out his plan, and he knew without asking that Clint (and Steve, probably) had been prepared to use force to that end. The implications made Bruce's skin crawl. "Well, that explains Steve's recent apologetic behavior," he tried to quip, but he shuddered anyway. Bruce held his knees a little tighter even though the gesture was less than mature. He resisted the urge to pinch his nose again. "God."
Clint shrugged awkwardly. "Hey, I'm just grateful you didn't make me do it."
There was relief in his voice, more than Bruce had been expecting. He looked at his hands (his hands!), guilt smothering him. There was a very tiny part of him that warmed to the idea that they cared enough to do something so repugnant to both of them to save his life. He tried to focus on that. "Sorry."
"What are friends for?" Clint asked rhetorically. He shifted on the gravel at Bruce's side. "Look, I'm not gonna say don't feel guilty," he said slowly. "I know that don't help. Just…don't be too hard on yourself, okay? Maybe on some level you knew it was wrong, but you were sick, Bruce. You weren't yourself. The point is that you still made the right choice. You just had a little help making it. There's no shame in that."
He had a point, a logical corner of Bruce's brain told him. Somehow Clint's words had burned through the smothering layer of shame and self-loathing, and no matter what he did, he couldn't ignore them. He watched the tip of his thumb trace over his knuckles again.
"So what changed?"
Bruce shifted uncomfortably, feeling sharp gravel digging into his flesh through his worn trousers. How could he possibly explain? It sounded stupid, so very stupid now in his head. Maybe then, this was part of his penance. Letting Clint laugh at him if he wanted.
"I promised myself I wouldn't," he started uncertainly. Clint raised an eyebrow, and Bruce ran a hand awkwardly through his hair. He looked at his knees. "After the first time, I mean, when I woke up and saw what I'd done and realized- I realized I was going to have to live with this thing. I thought I'd done the right thing, the thing that wouldn't harm anyone but me, but the destruction touched everyone around me. So I, uh, promised myself I'd never try again. That I'd never put myself or anyone else in that position again. I never wanted it to happen again."
Clint didn't laugh. He moved a little, as if to demonstrate his presence, but he said nothing.
"And it didn't," Bruce continued, heartened by this silent support. It was weirdly cathartic to finally confess all of this to someone. " I finally clawed out of that pit and things looked up and got better and better and…well, then I woke up in Tony's body without the Hulk and…" He trailed off. "I was tempted. But again, there were people that would get hurt. I won't deny it took a little while to remember."
He glanced over at the still-silent archer. "I still believe in what we're trying to do here, I do," Bruce added desperately. He suddenly wasn't sure if he was trying to convince Clint or himself. "I really do. It's just hard. And now, after getting a glimpse of what I used to have..." His voice cracked and it took him a moment to get it back under control. "I'd thought I was over it, but no. Now I'm wondering if I'm ever really going to be over it, and how I'm going to live with that for…however long."
"One day at a time, man," Clint said knowingly. He sounded a little relieved. "One day at a time."
Bruce raised an eyebrow in a feeble attempt at humor. "I thought I was supposed to be the zen one."
"Maybe, but you ain't the only one 'round here with regrets," Clint said sagely, but with a smirk. He sobered slightly. "Stark's gonna regret some things the next time I see him, though. The hell has he been?"
Bruce sighed. The archer had to have spoken to Stark to find him on the roof; Bruce wondered what had happened between Clint and Tony to anger Clint. "Don't be too hard on Tony," he said quietly. "He tried. So did Pepper. I was just…"
He trailed off into nothing. Tony had been there, after Bruce had woken up. He'd been there, thrilled to have his friend back and clearly desperate to make amends. The problem was Bruce had been so wracked with guilt could barely stand to even look at Tony, let alone interact with him. He'd nearly killed Tony, and Pepper…well, Pepper had seen him like that. Facing her had been equally impossible. So Bruce had pushed them away, retreating to his apartment to hide behind the deadbolts Tony could not breach. He didn't deserve any of their kindness. He'd been so wrapped up in his own pain and shame that he'd been blind to everything else.
"He tried," Bruce repeated. "I was in such a bad place I couldn't see it at the time, and Tony's not…well, you know Tony."
"Surprised he didn't cut and run to back to LA," Clint said, but there was a thoughtful quality about his words that Bruce couldn't quite place. Regret, maybe.
"He, uh, did send one of his robots to keep an eye on me when I got out of Medical," Bruce said, coming to Tony's defense. He felt the corners of his mouth twitch a little at the absurdity of the statement.
Clint quirked an eyebrow. "What?"
Tony wasn't stupid; he'd sensed Bruce was avoiding him. That hadn't stopped him trying to help. "Dummy, one of his robots, you know, was waiting in my kitchen. He made me an omelet."
Clint smiled at the mental image. "What did you do?"
"I, uh, ate it. It was pretty good, actually."
Clint guffawed. To Bruce's surprise, he found himself chuckling. He wasn't exactly happy or amused; he didn't know where it was coming from, but there was a green rumble of approval from the back of his mind. "I didn't know what else to do!" the physicist exclaimed. "I let him hang around a few days so Tony would feel like he'd done something."
Barton burst into peals of laughter, and despite himself, Bruce began to laugh as well. It wasn't happy laughter. It tore painfully, almost hysterically, from his chest and once it started, there wasn't anything he could do to stop it. His eyes stung and he could feel Clint's hand pressing into his shoulder.
"Thanks," he said aloud when the spell had passed. He brushed tears from his eyes with a shaking hand. He felt drained, but somehow…better than he'd felt since waking up in Medical. It was that same feeling of relief that Bruce sometimes had when he woke up after letting the Other Guy out for a while. A little of the weight seemed lifted from his chest.
"Look, I don't want to push it, but you gotta make good with Stark," Clint said, after Bruce had pulled himself together yet again. "Somehow I think he's got into his head that you're up here because of him."
Bruce released his knees and slumped a little. "I didn't realize it was so bad," he admitted. Clint nodded. He'd been so wrapped up in his own pain he hadn't ever considered how his actions might affect Tony. He sighed. "I will."
The archer clapped him fondly on the back, and Bruce coughed. "It's good to have you back," Clint told him, and for the first time, Bruce really felt back. He got to his feet. "I'm gonna go crash. Jet-lagged as hell, man. Comin' in?"
"No, I'll stay a little longer," Bruce told him. He liked this time of night. The city was glowing below him, and there was something soothing about the twinkling pinpoints of light. In his dreams he saw it from a slightly different perspective: higher and blurred with motion, but his stationary vantage point from the top of Stark Tower would have to do.
"Banner," Clint said as he turned to leave. "What the hell are you doing up here, anyway? I didn't think you liked heights."
Bruce swallowed. He felt stupid again, but maybe the archer would understand. He liked high places, didn't he? "I don't," he admitted hesitantly. "But this is, uh, about the closest I can get to flying now."
Despite Clint's encouragement on the roof, it took Bruce a few more days to work up the courage to approach Tony. He finally made his way down to the workshop after a handful of aborted attempts, unwilling to ask JARVIS' assistance in locating the engineer. Just looking at the door made Bruce's pulse quicken with nerves. He swallowed and keyed in the entry code.
Bruce hadn't been inside the workshop since completing the machine, and from the looks of it, neither had Tony. Everything was just too…clean. His heart sank a little. "Tony?" he called, just in case the billionaire was puttering around somewhere out of sight of the door. "Tony, are you in here?"
The workshop was eerily silent under the slight whoosh of the air handling system. He could see the bright blue eyes of Tony's armor glowing in their alcove, and a sudden pang of longing stabbed at his heart. Bruce quickly averted his eyes. That very brief period of his life was over; he needed to stop dwelling on what might have been. He made himself take a few steps inside. JARVIS automatically brightened the overhead lights.
His eyes immediately fell onto the machine. Bruce's stomach tightened fearfully. It wasn't supposed to be there; Clint had promised to destroy it! He swallowed hard and made himself approach it. The top of the control box was open. Even a cursory glance inside revealed that one of the circuit boards was missing. Bruce felt the tension drain from his shoulders. The device couldn't function without that board; Clint had been more or less true to his word.
Tony clearly wasn't around; perhaps he'd be in the garage. After all, it wasn't like him to go so long without tinkering with something. Bruce turned to leave. He hadn't gone more than two paces before he hesitated and turned back. The machine was there, almost taunting him. A bubble of hatred started to rise in his chest and he gritted his teeth. His eyes went to the drawer that he knew contained a heavy wrench. There were no consequences now, were there?
There was a roar of encouragement from the Other Guy in the deeper recesses of his mind. Normally Bruce would have told him to shut up, but he was already reaching for the door of a different equipment locker that he knew contained a sledgehammer. His fingers tightened around the handle. The smooth wood felt very good in his hands, even if he knew he would barely be able lift it.
Bruce hefted the sledgehammer. It was heavy, so heavy, but real rage was boiling into his stomach now and he had another day or two with the serum effects and there weren't any consequences.
He swung savagely at the control box. It smashed to pieces, and he smashed the fallen pieces to bits. The Other Guy roared his approval, the impossibly loud sound echoing through Bruce's skull. Joy surged through him. Everything began to blur as he swung again, just like when he transformed. But the transformation never came; the Hulk merely hovered on the periphery of his conscious, bellowing his approval as the hammer fell again and again.
When Bruce next came to himself, he was on his knees in the midst of a pile of debris, his chest heaving and his palms stinging with fresh blisters. Blood was still roaring in his ears. He sagged backwards onto his haunches, panting, and reached up to wipe sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. The muscles in his shoulders burned.
"Made a hell of a mess of my workshop, Banner," a familiar male voice said behind him. Bruce whirled around. Tony Stark nudged a few shattered pieces of casing out of the way with the toe of one fashionable sneaker and strolled up to him. His dark eyes roamed over the destruction, and he smiled, a little grimly, at the remnants of the machine's chassis. Even the sledge hadn't made more than dents on the heavy metal.
"Tony," Bruce gasped. He blinked frantically, feeling a like a deer caught in headlights. He dropped the sledgehammer's handle, which slid down his knees and hit the floor with a thunk. "I-um, sorry. I-I should have asked, I know- I'm sorry."
Tony gestured expansively. "You're always welcome to blow off a little steam. Both of you, I mean. You guys. Feel free to smash anything; just try to avoid the garage."
He extended a hand towards Bruce. Bruce accepted it and was pulled to his feet. His vision suddenly swam and his knees felt weak. He grabbed for one of the worktables and slumped against it heavily. "Banner?" Tony was saying, worry in his voice. He really did look bad, Bruce thought. Dark circles under his eyes and that sort of sallow look that meant he was drinking his meals again. The scientist's insides squirmed unpleasantly. Had he really driven Tony to that?
"Think I, uh, overdid it," Bruce panted sheepishly, as soon as he started to catch his breath. He eased to lean against the edge of the table. "Keep forgetting I was still in a coma last week."
Pain suddenly flashed across Tony's eyes. He quickly turned away and strode over to another table. He dropped something heavy onto it (it looked vaguely armor-shaped, thought Bruce couldn't identify a specific piece) and silently began removing tools from a nearby drawer. Bruce cringed. This was not at all how he had envisioned this conversation taking place.
The engineer glanced over his shoulder. "Well, don't let me keep you," Tony said, gesturing at the fallen sledgehammer. "JARVIS, play-"
"I'm sorry," Bruce blurted to his friend's back. Tony didn't look up; he was lining up his tools into a precise row on the worktable's surface. Bruce sighed silently. He ran a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. "I didn't mean- I know I've been pretty hard to be around lately. I just wanted to apologize for that."
Tony didn't say anything, didn't twitch, didn't give any indication that he was listening. Bruce steeled himself and licked his lips to continue. His fingers worked together nervously. "I know Pepper told you what, uh, happened. The decision to go back…it shouldn't have been a decision, I should have just been able to just do it. But I couldn't. It felt like losing everything after the accident all over again. I'd thought I was over that life, but…but I just wasn't. You trusted me. I was horrible and selfish, and you nearly paid the price for it."
Bruce had built up so much momentum now he couldn't stop, despite Tony's apparent disinterest in his words. "You and Pepper have been so good to me and look how I repaid you! After everything…when I woke up, I felt so bad for what I'd nearly done. I was so guilty I couldn't even look at you, Tony. Or Pepper. Not after how she'd seen just how awful I really am." He sagged onto the edge of the table and squeezed his temples. Tony still hadn't moved. "Are you even listening to me?" he snapped, annoyed.
"It's okay," Tony said without turning. His tone was flat. "Quit worrying about it."
Bruce's blood was beginning to boil. Here he was, baring his soul, and Tony clearly hadn't bothered to listen. "It's okay?" Bruce demanded incredulously. The volume of his voice was rising towards a shout and the Hulk was roaring at the back of his mind, but he didn't care. "It's okay? I nearly killed you, Tony! How is that possibly okay?"
"Emphasis on nearly," Tony quipped, stabbing the air with a finger. Still, he did not look up from his work. "It's fine. I'm not mad."
This was so inadequate it only angered Bruce further. "What do you mean you're not mad?" he cried. "You almost died!"
Finally, Tony looked up, but he didn't turn around. "Banner-"
"Just tell me, Tony! What, you're not mad, just disappointed? Or-"
Something slammed into the table, startling the scientist. "Bruce, I get it!" Tony shouted. He had turned to face Bruce, his face pale around his beard and his eyes blazing, but not with anger. "Look, I get it. I'm not mad; I get it."
Bruce froze, stunned. "What?" he stammered. Anger was draining out of him nearly as quickly as it had risen. "You do?"
The scientist glanced up hopefully, but Tony's eyes were so sad and so serious that he had to look away again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tony's shoulders slump a little. "Bruce, I've been you," he started. He glanced away from Bruce and reached into a different drawer, removing a half-filled bottle of amber liquid. The raw aroma of spirits prickled Bruce's nose when he opened it. "And I didn't even make it three days."
Tony took a swig from the bottle and offered it to him out of habit, more than anything else. Bruce accepted it numbly. He had a few serum days to go; why the hell not? The scotch burned going down his throat, and Bruce coughed as he handed the bottle back to Tony. Tony smirked, and for a moment, it was like nothing had ever happened between them.
But Tony's smirk quickly faded. "Living with the Hulk…it's a lot. The constant fear, someone's eyes always on the back of your neck…" Tony shuddered and took another drink from the bottle. "Seriously, I don't know how you do it. How you've done it for so long. I can't blame you for wanting out."
Bruce's breath seemed to catch in his throat. His heart began to pound against his ribs. Tony understood. He really understood. Tony had actually lived with the Hulk, transformed…everything. He wasn't alone anymore, Bruce suddenly realized. He'd been so, so stupid not to see it before.
"Don't get me wrong," Tony added hastily, with a tinge of his old humor. "I certainlythink you made the right choice."
"Thanks," Bruce said awkwardly, finally finding his voice. He didn't know what else to say.
"You shouldn't have had to face it alone, though," Stark added in a low voice. "That choice."
"Pepper and Clint were there," Bruce said quickly, but Tony's eyes had fallen to his shoes and his shoulders slipped a little further. He was blaming himself for what had happened, Bruce realized. "Tony," he started, but he couldn't continue beyond his friend's name. He wanted to say that it was okay, that Tony had really only accelerated the inevitable by using the serum, but it wasn't. It would have been that much harder for Bruce to break down if Tony had been there during the last stages of building the machine. What Tony had done was wrong and they both knew it. Glossing over that fact to make him feel better wouldn't fix anything.
Tony let out a little huff of air; the sound of someone trying to pull himself together. "So where to?" he asked with feigned brightness and a false grin. "I promise I won't tell SHIELD. Fury wouldn't believe me, even if he was dumb enough to ask. If he did, I'd just tell him Mongolia. You'd be better off in Tierra del Fuego. Language is easier, and the food's better."
Bruce blinked. "What?"
"That's why you're apologizing, isn't it?" the billionaire asked in a low voice.
"Tony, I'm not going anywhere," Bruce told him. "I still believe in the Avengers, trying to use the Other Guy for good…all that stuff. I'm not leaving."
For an instant, Tony's whole face lit up with joy. He immediately retreated behind a more guarded expression. "But I thought-"
"I, uh, wasn't all there when I made that decision," Bruce said with a sheepish shrug. "I can't run from this and I'm not going to try."
Tony brushed the piece of armor and his tools out of the way before he jumped up to take a seat on the edge of the worktable. He was careful to not look at Bruce, but Bruce could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was relieved. He shot a furtive look at Bruce before reaching up and hesitantly massaging around the skin around the arc reactor's edges. He had never done anything like that in Bruce's presence before. Bruce glanced away, afraid to break the spell, as Tony reached over and took another swig out of the bottle. He capped it with an air of finality and set it to one side.
"Takes the edge off," he muttered by way of explanation.
"You know I'm not going to tell anyone," Bruce said, in response to the unspoken challenge. He was relieved the drinking hadn't been entirely his fault. Not that it was a healthy habit or anything that he should be encouraging. Really, there were probably much more effective ways for Tony to address the chronic pain-
"I told Pepper," Tony added in a low voice.
Bruce looked up with surprise. Tony had been so adamant about her not knowing, despite the fact that she was the closest to him. "How'd she take it?"
Tony snorted. "Is your couch free for the next few months?"
The corner of Bruce's mouth twitched. "That well, huh?"
"Yep," Tony agreed. He scratched his beard. "I think she suspected something was up for a while, though. The exact words were 'Tony, you drilled a hole into your ribcage. Of course it hurts!' She's at a spa in the Hamptons right now. Said I drove her to it. Funny, she didn't mention you."
His words were light and as playful as he could make them given the subject matter, but it still didn't feel like their usual banter. There was a ghost, a memory, of an ache deep in Bruce's chest. Unconsciously he brushed his fingers across the place in his chest where the arc reactor used to sit. He looked up. "Tony, we could-"
"No," Stark interrupted flatly, guessing what Bruce was about to suggest. He bristled. "It's a reminder."
Bruce looked at his hands. Despite Tony's newfound openness, the arc reactor still seemed to be a sensitive subject. Well, old habits died hard. But clearly Tony felt bad for snapping, because he quickly tried to elaborate.
"It's a nice thought. It was nice to not have the pain for a while but I just felt somehow…incomplete without it."
"I think I know what you mean," Bruce replied. The absence of the Hulk had left a void in his psyche that Bruce hadn't even noticed until he was back. He didn't like to think about it. "As much as I, uh, hate to admit it."
There was a rumble from the back of his mind that Bruce tried to ignore. He and Tony sat in silence for a few moments. Despite the banter, despite their shared experiences, he could still sense a sort of invisible barrier looming between them. It was weaker than it had been before, but still very much there.
Bruce levered himself off the edge of the worktable. He fished around for a stylus and struck the blunt end against the table to activate the holographic display. He thought for a moment before beginning to write directly on the tabletop. A set of complex mathematical equations appeared in midair as he wrote. Bruce had had to solve them as a doctoral student, but Tony didn't know that.
"What's that?" Tony asked casually, but Bruce could tell was unable to drag his eyes from the display.
"Your new code to my lab," Bruce said as he finished the final line of the problem. He made a mental note to let JARVIS know as soon as he left the workshop. "If you still want it."
The words had barely left his lips before Tony was snatching the stylus out of his hand. He squinted up at the math and raised an eyebrow at Bruce. "Is this a…wave equation?"
"Just one?" Bruce asked rhetorically. "I hadn't noticed." Tony shot him a look this time, and despite all odds, he felt a smirk beginning to tug at the corners of his mouth. "Hey, I couldn't make it too easy, could I?"
"I haven't done quantum mechanics since…like, last Thursday," Tony complained, but the familiar light of a challenge was back in his eyes. He nudged Bruce out of the way and began to scribble on the tabletop. Bruce's equations, re-written in Tony's scrawl and his own nonstandard notation, materialized term by term under Bruce's writing. It was the first step in solving any math problem: copying it down.
"I thought your math was always right," Bruce needled playfully.
"It is always right," Tony retorted, sounding distracted. He tapped the stylus against his chin when he had finished copying, studying the series of equations with the narrowed eyes of total concentration. Bruce knew without asking that he wouldn't leave the workshop until the problem was solved.
As far as first steps went, it wasn't bad. Even if Tony's notation was goofy. Bruce smiled and left him to it.
Please review, and thanks for reading! :) Stay tuned for a sequel (!) in the coming months...