Hi! :) I wasn't sure which category to put this in exactly, but I decided on the Avengers category, if only because of Coulson and Bruce Banner making an appearance. This is post-IM3, and I guess it has some spoilers, but it's not too much. If I removed those, it could just be a post-Avengers movie, so. -shrug- There's a lot of Catcher in the Rye in this story, which is where the title comes from; the title also is a reference to some events in IM3, although they're not really stated explicitly. So anyways, here we go, after the disclaimer:
Disclaimer: I do not own The Avengers or anything associated with it; all rights go to Marvel/Disney.
There was a bag on the coffee table. It hadn't been there in the morning, when Tony had left his opulent hotel room to check on the reconstruction of his Malibu home. But it was sitting there now, a flashy red with tufts of tissue paper poking out artfully. He picked it up instinctively, pulling the sides away from each other to peer inside. Nestled in the fluffy, slightly transparent paper was a book. He "hmmmed" thoughtfully, and reached into the bag for it. The Catcher in the Rye. J. D. Salinger.
Tony pulled his phone out of his pocket placing the book on an end table as he dialed Pepper's number. Propping the phone up against his ear, he sat down on the cushioned sofa, tapping his fingers nervously – a habit he had picked up after New York, and one he couldn't seem to stop, even when he wasn't very anxious. She didn't pick up. His fingers tapped faster, he felt the anxiety in his palms and his hands itched for a suit – maybe someone had attacked her, maybe she was in trouble – but he knew better. His phone vibrated, still sitting against his ear, and startled, Tony nearly dropped it.
Pepper [1:38 PM]: I'm in a meeting, Tony. Stop worrying, I'm fine.
Tony [1:38 PM]: I'm not worrying.
Pepper [1:39 PM]: Then why did you call me?
Tony [1:40 PM]: Did you by any chance drop off a gift bag at the hotel? And I thought you were in the middle of an important meeting.
His fingers tapped out his response quickly, and once finished he leaned back in the chair, more at ease than he had been before. He picked up the book again, turning to the back cover; a story about a wealthy teenage boy, living in New York city, expelled from his third expensive private school and trying to find his way in life. A groundbreaking word of literature, it read, that forever changed the postwar generation.
Pepper [1:46 PM]: Not from me, sorry. I'm still in New York, Tony. Did it come with a card?
Tony immediately reached for the bag, which he had dropped on the floor, and pulled out the paper within. A card – a muted yellow with fancy lettering – lay on top of the paper pile.
Congratulations on not dying. Again. – P. Coulson.
That didn't make sense. No, Tony thought, it couldn't be. Coulson was dead. He had seen him die, just like Tony himself had nearly died in the wormhole and he nearly almost didn't come back and then he had almost died again because of Aldrich Killian who had almost killed Pepper and Rhodey and– deep breaths, he told himself, to slow his heart rate and calm down. Tony mumbled to himself, working systematically through the symptoms of a panic attack – chest pain, nausea, dizziness sweating – in an effort to get a hold of himself, to prepare himself for next ten minutes or hour where thoughts of New York (Loki and magic scepters and falling, falling falling falling endlessly and he had no control, he couldn't control anything and he couldn't help anyone because he was completely out of control because he was dead, dead just like Coulson), before he realized that he wasn't. Wasn't panicking, that is. He could breathe just fine, no choking feeling, and he wasn't dizzy or trembling. He felt a little anxious, but that was from learning that Phil was alive, he was pretty sure. Maybe he was getting better after all.
Huh. That wasn't what he was expecting. He glanced at the book again. He had expect maybe Rhodey to give him the book. After all, it was "a monumental American classic," if the back cover could be believed. But Phil Coulson? He was supposed to be dead. Or maybe he had sent the book posthumously. No, that didn't make sense either, Tony mused, because of the "Again" clause. Phil had to be alive to know that Tony hadn't died fighting the Mandarin. Alive, and conscious, which meant that he hadn't died after getting stabbed through the back by Loki; Tony frowned, trying to calculate the odds…
Nick Fury, that little bitch. He had been the one to pronounce Phil dead, not the EMTs. He had played everyone, and it had worked. He had got his super secret boy band to save the world. In the name of their dead friend, they had thought. But he wasn't dead. What else had Fury kept a secret? Resolved to figure that out immediately, or at least once he told Pepper and… finished the book (it was a present, after all, and a present from a nearly-dead man was not something you ignore), Tony pushed the thoughts away.
Tony [1:53 PM]: You're a genius, Pepper. But I bet you didn't know that Agent Coulson wasn't dead.
Satisfied with his response – he couldn't seem shocked, could he? And he could talk to Pepper later, anyways – he set his phone in his lap, just in case Pepper needed him for something (although she probably wouldn't), rifling through the pages quickly. It wasn't a very long book. He could probably finish it before Bruce came by to check on him.
Pepper [1:55 PM]: Seriously? And this couldn't wait until I got home?
His heart warmed, however cheesy that sounded, to see that. Home. Home was with him, not this pricey, upscale hotel, nor Stark Tower, where she had been staying and would be staying for the next few days, attending to her CEO duties.
Tony [1:58 PM]: I'm sorry. I'll fill you in when you get home. And yes, that's a bribe. Get back here soon.
He decisively placed his phone to the side – in his lap it had done him no favors – and turned his attention to the book in his hands.
Someone knocked on the door a few hours later. Nearly done with the book, Tony fumbled for his phone with one hand, using the other to hold the book open. 5:30 PM. He'd read for a good 3 or so hours, and as much as he wanted to finish it, he knew that he had better eat. Standing up, he stretched leisurely as another knock, more rushed and forceful, came from the door. He trudged over, opening the door and moving to the side to let Bruce in without ceremony.
"Is it dinner time already?" He yawned, moving over to the coffee table, where he picked up a sheet of paper (an advertisement of some kind that he'd been too lazy to throw out) and stuck it in the book as a place holder before tossing it away.
"You know it is, Tony," Bruce answered, his hands stuck in his pocket as he shifted slightly, unaccustomed to the luxury rooms after spending so many months in various parts of the world – India, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Haiti, wherever he felt that his skills might be needed. "Catching up on a little reading?"
"Yeah, it turns out S.H.I.E.L.D.'s favorite agent isn't dead after all. He sent me this book," Tony said flippantly. He wasn't worried about Bruce "Hulking out," clearly at ease with his fellow scientist. "Pretty good, but I don't get why he gave it to me."
Bruce smiled wryly. "Why don't you tell me over dinner?"
"Why, Dr. Banner, are you asking me out?" Tony watched Bruce roll his eyes before continuing, "It's a date, then. Room service okay with you? I don't feel like going out."
It wasn't a lie, not exactly. Tony could definitely do without the media constantly hounding him, asking him about his suits, the Avengers, and New York, not to mention the Mandarin and Killian Aldrich. Nothing he wanted to talk about, but the media never cared about that, only about what would sell the best. And the PR nightmare that his PTSD would cause, well, even though he wasn't acting CEO anymore, he and Stark Industries were still connected (they had the same name, after all), and the Board certainly wouldn't be happy with any scandals. So he kept his head uncharacteristically low, hiding out in his hotel and overseeing his mansion's reconstruction, and for once in his life, took a break. No suits, no media, no S.H.I.E.L.D., even. Except for Phil sending him this book, evidently.
Lost in his thoughts, Tony started when he heard Bruce's voice, turning to see his friend on the phone ordering dinner. Hmm. Always considerate, that guy. Babysitting Tony Stark was not an easy job. Not that Tony needed a babysitter, but he could appreciate the concern.
"So, about this book?" Bruce prompted him, sitting in the chair across from Tony. He picked up the book from the coffee table. "Catcher in the Rye?"
"Yeah, it's about some high school kid. Whiny, can't get girls, hypocrite, asks the dumbest questions. He's kind of stupid, too. Got kicked out of school, maybe three times? It says at the beginning. I just can't stand him. I can't tell why this is a classic," Tony responded, miming quotation marks with his hands. "Or how he's supposed to be relatable at all."
"You don't see it?"
"What's there to see? This kid is just telling you about his life, and nothing's going on."
"He's you, Tony. That's what's going on." Bruce shifted in his seat again, trying to get more comfortable. This could take a while. But dinner would be here soon, maybe he should wait… Tony decided for him.
"He's not me, he's just some privileged kid who thinks he has a lot of problems that don't actually exist," Tony argued, frowning. Was Bruce really saying that he was the same as Holden?
"Isn't that what you are? You're wealthy, you build suits for fun, the media says. People think you're wasteful, and they make it out like Afghanistan and New York and the Mandarin shouldn't affect you at all because you're rich, Tony. But of course it does."
"Still, Holden hasn't had any hardship in his life." Tony's frown deepened a little as his friend defended a fictional character.
"His brother is dead, Tony. His little brother is dead, and it's sent him reeling. He doesn't know what to do anymore. In what world does the younger sibling die before the older?"
"Uh, the real world," Tony answered flippantly, but internally he was uncomfortable. Bruce was serious about this, so serious, and he wasn't sure how the conversation was going to end.
"Exactly. Holden just met the real world, and it's not what he thought it would be. He has what's expected of him – go to school, get good grades, be suave and smooth, uphold the family name, whatever. But that's not who he is. He's not sure who he is still, but he knows that's not it, and he's trying to figure it out. He's going through an existential crisis, coupled with some crippling PTSD, I'd say."
Tony raised an eyebrow doubtfully. "And he's like me how…?"
"You're really going to just avoid this forever, aren't you?" Bruce asked, exasperated. Tony pretended to misunderstand.
"New York? Going through that wormhole did a number on you. More than a number on you. It messed up with your control. So you build all these suits, hoping that they'll protect you from aliens and gods and whatever. And when you need them, they do, but they don't. You're not in complete control of your own life again, you don't know what you're meant to be and you can't sleep at night, nothing is how it's supposed to be and you're going to just continue on pretending that nothing's wrong!"
Tony flinched. Bruce was getting confrontational, upset even; but he wasn't scared, not of the Hulk. No, he was unnerved, more than anything else, by the fact that Bruce could see through him so completely.
"And so is Holden," Bruce added. "His understanding of the world's been turned upside down, and he's trying to find his own place in it. Looking for his purpose in life, too. Maybe that's why you got the book."
"I thought you weren't that kind of doctor," Tony deflected. He knew Bruce was right – more than right, if he could be; he had understood Tony exactly.
"Well, I've read my fair share of philosophy," Bruce responded. "Had to figure out my own purpose, y'know. Or, the Other Guy's, at least."
"Got any advice?"
"Not from me, but-" A knock on the door interrupted what Bruce was saying. He made to get up, but Tony immediately got up, gesturing with his hand that Bruce should stay seated. He greeted the server, gestured to an empty table, and then waited until the server had left to resume the conversation.
"So, what were you saying, Bruce?"
"Existence precedes essence. Jean-Paul Sartre. Good stuff. You should read him when you're done with this book," he paused as he moved to seat himself at the table. "Who sent you the book, anyways?"
"Agent Coulson," Tony answered dryly. "Apparently, he's not dead."
Thank you for reading! :) I know the ending is a bit abrupt, but I couldn't figure out how else to do it. And I'm sorry if Tony and Bruce are more than a tad OOC. I feel like they are, at least. But thank you for suffering through this.