“If you were wondering,” Tony said once, during one of the rare days he hung out in Lab C to use a piece of equipment that he didn't have in his main lab, “Jarvis is completely voice activated. And he has a line into all the computing devices.”
Bruce nodded absently. Most of his attention was still on the simulation he was watching and the variables he wanted to tweak for the next run. “I know,” he murmured, and promptly forgot about the conversation when Tony didn't say anything else.
Tony said a lot of weird things. It'd be futile to keep track of them all.
Once (exactly once), a sniper shot Vianne.
Bruce didn't even remember it happening. He'd left the village he'd been staying at to fetch more water from the well and the next thing he knew he was waking up at the end of a path of flattened trees, deep in the jungle, Vianne a peaceful but heavy weight on his chest.
She'd remembered a little more – the sudden impact, falling to the ground, and the Hulk between them rushing up in a roaring rage.
Normally, when the Hulk came out, everything got damaged, but the destruction looked almost like an accident. He became angry, roared a lot, and threw things or ran until people stopped shooting at him. He'd casually backhand soldiers and send them flying into walls, but ducking out of sight could usually cause him to lose interest. He was a dangerous beast, sure, but he wasn't malicious.
But that time, he'd gone straight for the sniper and killed him. Then, he'd killed every other person shooting at him, stomped the vehicles they'd come in into little more than lumps of flattened metal, and somehow caught and crushed a helicopter that had drifted too close as well.
There had been dried blood in Vianne's fur and caked on his skin when he'd woken up. Bruce hadn't gone back but footage of the attack had been in the news. When they'd seen it, Vianne had said, low and serious, “I don't care. We'll kill them all if they do it again.”
Bruce hadn't said anything, but they both knew he agreed.
“What happens to her when the other guy shows up?” Tony asked, right after he prodded Bruce in the kidney with a pen.
“Do you have to keep doing that? Are you trying to find out in person?” Bruce replied, annoyed.
Tony dropped the pen in the oversized front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and waved a hand dismissively. “Please,” he said. “You wouldn't change in here. It'd wreck all your projects.”
“I don't always get a choice,” Bruce gritted out. Vianne nudged her dark nose against his hand. He stroked her head, then ran his fingers through the top of the mane that trailed down her spine.
“You know you do here,” she reminded him in an undertone. She was right. He'd never changed in Tony's tower and they hadn't even really felt more of the Hulk than they usually did, lurking ever-wary in the dark parts of their psyche.
“You didn't answer my question,” Tony said.
“You've seen the videos. She turns into Dust.” There was footage of it from the New York incident.
“But she always come back. Where does she go?”
Daemons didn't normally come back when they disappeared into Dust. In fact, they never did, except for Vianne, who shimmered back into existence when the green finally finished fading from Bruce's skin. They weren't entirely sure how it worked but they had theories. A dozen theories and no way to test them.
“The other guy doesn't have a daemon. If he had one, she'd just make him vulnerable. Even if she can't be hurt, even if she was just like him, she could be captured and used to control or hurt him,” Bruce said.
Tony nodded his agreement. “You're only ever as safe as your daemon is.” It was an old adage.
“But he's not a zombie or else he wouldn't fight whenever someone goes after him,” Bruce continued. “So we think Vianne gets absorbed somehow during the transformation process. Maybe she turns into Dust like a dying daemon or maybe she changes into something else that just looks like Dust. Some other form of energy that the other guy absorbs when he changes.”
“They locked me in a metal box once,” Vianne commented. She'd taken an extra interest in Tony ever since their second week working in the tower when Tony had quietly added several modified chairs, with seats large enough to hold her comfortably, to all the labs so that she could see over the edge of the tables to Bruce's notes while he was writing them. She didn't use them often, but they both appreciated the thought. “It didn't work.”
There was more to it than that, of course. This was a theory that had been several years in the making and it had serious implications about daemons and what they could do. There was the way that both he and Vianne had separate, fragmented memories of what happened while they were the Hulk and the way she could feel him too, buried deep inside them.
There was proof it was possible in the form of Thor, who had no daemon but was definitely whole. No one on Asgard had daemons. Thor had reacted to the sight of theirs with wonder and amusement, as if the Midgardians had done something equal parts impractical and charming.
But more than that, there was that when Bruce and Vianne were at the deepest stages of their meditation, their bond felt not like a bond at all but instead like a barrier, thinning until their separate minds became one.
“You know, you could find out,” Tony said.
“Find out what?”
“I have a Rusakov reader around here somewhere. We can hook it up in one of the panic rooms, you can Hulk out, we'll see what happens. I'm guessing you never did that yourself, what with the whole –” He flapped a hand awkwardly.
“Turning into a giant green rage monster thing?”
“I was going to say 'not having anyone around to take notes and fiddle with the equipment',” Tony continued without missing a beat, “but that too.”
“It's not safe.”
“It's a panic room. It's Hulk-proof. It's everything-proof. Or if you don't like it, we can go somewhere else. Anywhere you want, Brucie-baby. We can fly out somewhere nice, set up the sensors, I can suit up, and you and the other guy can timeshare back and forth until we have all the data we can possibly need. Can you do that? Go back and forth?”
“I – not really. It takes a lot of energy and if I get too tired, I can't change back.”
“But you can always turn into him,” Tony said. “Aren't you curious? Don't you want to know?”
Bruce opened his mouth to say no, but Vianne spoke before he could, pushing her head out from under the table to look directly at Tony. “Maybe, but we're not ready yet.”
Tony stopped short. The pocket on his hoodie was open at the top and he dropped his right hand into it now. His daemon, a squirrel monkey that Bruce often noticed in the various pouches and hoods that Tony wore when he was dressed casually, poked his head out.
“It's okay if you're not ready,” he said seriously to Vianne. “We only want to if you want to.”
“Maybe later,” she said politely. She always tried to be as polite and unassuming as possible; many other people were uncomfortable around hyena daemons, though Tony had never been. “But thank you for offering.”
Tony blinked, looking first down at his own daemon, then at Bruce. “Well, that settles it,” he declared. “I'll write up some proposals and stick 'em on the server with all the other ones and you can let me know when you want to give any of them a spin.”
There was a folder on one of the servers Bruce had access to that held ideas Tony had had that he hadn't gotten around to fully exploring yet. It had to be an incomplete set, of course, because Bruce hadn't seen a single one related to the suit, arc reactors, or anything else that could be used even indirectly for warfare.
But it held a lot about other things – energy efficiency, manufacturing techniques, natural language processing, and even had several folders named after people. “Banner, Bruce” was one of those folders and when Bruce had first seen it, his heart had seized in fear at the thought that Tony wanted to experiment on them.
Vianne had bitten him and called him stupid that time, because even if Tony wanted to experiment on them, there was no reason Tony would want to experiment on any of the people whose names decorated the other folders, all leading scientists in their fields. Nor would he put that information on a relatively insecure server.
He'd ended up looking at the files. Their timestamps had marked most of them as written before he'd had his accident, some of them years before. There had been one job offer (annotated with comments like “missing some pieces of equipment but willing to upgrade for the right person” and “Do you want a team? I can give you a team, or no team if you'd rather be a hermit. I won't judge.”) and three half-formed research proposals that were invitations for a collaboration (including one idea that didn't even make sense, where Tony had come to the same conclusion halfway through and ended mid-sentence with “NEVERMIND THIS ONE ISN'T POSSIBLE YET”).
“I don't think that's too likely,” Bruce said. Vianne nudged her nose against his hand. “But thank you.”
Bruce was used to nightmares, but they weren't usually so bad that he couldn't fall asleep again after sitting up and trying to meditate for a few minutes. This time, they were. He spent several long minutes clutching Vianne to his chest and breathing against her fur before she shook herself and said, “Let's go to the lab.”
There was bound to be something there he could distract himself with.
The lights to Lab C were already on, but Bruce wasn't surprised. Tony kept odd hours and Bruce frequently bumped into him in the halls in the morning when he was just starting his day and Tony was about to go to bed.
What did surprise him, though, was when the doors to the lab slid open and Tony was nowhere to be found. That is, Tony was nowhere to be found but his daemon was. He was standing comfortably in a clear space on one of the counters, typing on a virtual keyboard projected in midair.
They stared at each other.
The daemon broke the silence first, addressing Vianne. His voice carried. “We needed some extra machines from your lab, but there's still a terminal free if you need to do something.”
Vianne stepped on Bruce's shoe, her way of telling him that he was being rude. “It's okay,” she said. “We just couldn't sleep.”
Tony's daemon darted quickly across the room, making a flying leap at the end that ended with him perched on one of the monitors that swiveled, mid-jump, into place for him to land on. Well, Bruce realized, that explained the decorative bars he'd seen on them. Not so decorative after all. The daemon looked at Vianne, ignoring Bruce altogether.
“How much do you know about wormholes?”
Bruce could feel her surprise echo through their bond. No one had ever asked her that before, but of course she knew just as much as Bruce did. Maybe even more because she flipped through the journals they subscribed to and frequently read articles that didn't interest Bruce. It was one of her quirks that he'd stopped letting people find out. It'd never garnered a good reaction and his father, especially, had hated it.
“It's okay to say you don't care about them,” Tony's daemon said, misinterpreting her silence. “I don't really need your help. Tony's almost back.”
“No,” Vianne said defiantly, while Bruce was wondering just where Tony had gone without his daemon. “I like them. I know a lot. I want to help.”
That was when the doors to the lab slid open again and Tony rushed in, pushing a wheeled cart laden with more equipment and samples in brightly marked hazard boxes. He was breathing heavily and Bruce didn't miss the way his eyes darted first to Bruce and Vianne, then to his daemon, then back to Bruce. “Hey,” he said to Bruce, acting casual. He wasn't wearing his hooded sweatshirt. The arc reactor glowed beneath his shirt. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Sorry,” Bruce apologized, feeling as if he'd overstepped somewhere. “We couldn't sleep.”
There was a layer of insincerity and tension in Tony's smile that Bruce rarely saw directed at himself. He looked sharp, brittle, like he'd draw blood if Bruce came too near. “Oh, totally understand. We're just doing a couple experiments, you know, burning the midnight oil and all. You're welcome to stay, we were just --”
“Don't mind him,” Tony's daemon said to Vianne, loudly and pointedly. “He's just way too overprotective when we're apart.” He darted to the side, up the robotic arm that held the monitor, across the counters, and made a flying leap onto Tony's shoulder. He moved remarkably quickly.
Tony relaxed visibly and that was when Bruce realized, guiltily and belatedly, that he had accidentally been between Tony and his daemon. He shuffled a little bit to the side.
“Sorry,” Tony said, before Bruce could apologize first. His smile became a fraction more genuine. “I don't like other people around my daemon. Nothing personal.”
“It's fine,” Bruce said. “I understand. I feel the same way.” He stroked his fingers through the hair on the back of Vianne's neck, ready to make an excuse and leave, but she interrupted before he could.
“What are you doing with wormholes? Can I help? We didn't mean to scare him,” she said.
“I wasn't scared,” Tony muttered defensively. He held out his arm at about waist height. His daemon walked down it to talk to Vianne. To Bruce, he gave a more relaxed smile and said, “I don't really know yet, but Esta thinks there might be something in the Chitauri's tech that might point us towards making stable wormholes.”
“I thought SHIELD confiscated all the Chitauri technology from the Battle of New York,” Bruce said.
“Well, you know. There was just so much of it, and it looked really useful. They don't really need all of it. Besides, I work for SHIELD sometimes so my having it is practically the same thing.”
Bruce was pretty sure it was not the same thing at all and he would have said as much, but Vianne was already bumping him expectantly. He could take a hint. “Well, we'll be happy to help, if you want it.”
Tony shrugged. Sometime while they were talking, his daemon (Esta, and Bruce was sure that was the first time Tony had mentioned his daemon's name to him) had already hopped back onto the counters and was doing something with the machines, rattling instructions to Jarvis. “Yeah, sure, we can make a party of it. We're using the machines to run simulations right now, but I'm gonna poke at a couple of these things,” Tony motioned with his head to the cart he'd been pushing, “to see if there's anything that might give me an insight.”
No one had ever mentioned that Tony was separated. It made sense. Bruce knew, as did everyone, that Tony had spent some time kidnapped in the desert and come out of it with a prototype version of his Iron Man suit. But Bruce had never seen him without his daemon before. Even in the suit, his daemon was right there, space for him built into the suit's chest.
“What should I do?” Bruce asked.
Tony pointed at a biohazard container. “There's some tissue samples in there. I can't make heads or tails of them, but you're way better at the fleshy stuff than me. ”
Vianne had already approached Esta and hopped onto one of her chairs, near the edge of their range. She stared at the monitor that corresponded to his keyboard and every few moments, would say something to him.
Tony followed Bruce's gaze. “Really,” he said. “Jarvis understands everything we say. He can take dictation just fine if she can't handle a keyboard. Do you think she'd rather have a keyboard?” He frowned. “I don't really know how paws work. Esta was never big on not having hands and Kandire's perfectly happy not being able to type, but I'm sure I can rig something mechanical up if she wants.”
Daemons didn't usually type. Not unless their human was somehow unable to.
“Oh, um,” Bruce said. “It's fine.” He picked up one of the tissue samples from the tray and looked consideringly at the bio portion of the lab. It wasn't in their range. Vianne looked up too, then hopped out of her chair to rejoin him.
“It's just a monitor,” she said. “It moves.”
So Bruce went to his station and booted up the machines he'd need, and Tony went to the nearest station that had what he needed, and Vianne and Esta sat somewhere in-between, surrounded first by one monitor, then by two more as their work progressed.
They worked in relative silence, except for the occasional murmurs of Vianne's voice dictating to Jarvis and Tony's bitten-off curses whenever he was careless with something hot.
It was nice.
“So, does she publish?” Tony asked. Bruce had thought Tony had already warmed up to him, but now he was even warmer, bringing Bruce food when he ordered takeout and they were both in, and stopping by randomly just to chat. He'd even stopped stabbing him with various office supplies.
Okay, Bruce wasn't sure if that last one was because Tony had chosen to stop being a rude jerk or if he'd just given up on getting a new response.
“You mean by herself? Papers?” Bruce asked, puzzled. It wasn't completely unheard of for papers to be published with both the human and the daemon's name, but that was more of a Daemon Studies thing, not Physics, and even there it was still rare.
“Sure,” Tony said easily. “Or jointly with you. That's what me and Esta do. Sometimes he's even first author, if we really want to piss someone off.”
“You may not have noticed this,” Bruce pointed out dryly, “but I'm not exactly welcome in academia anymore. Something about being the literal embodiment of a failed experiment. We can't just submit something for peer review.”
“I don't see why not,” Tony replied. “It's not like you have to go anywhere in person. Send a telepresence robot.” He snapped his fingers. “Or better yet, a hologram! I bet I could rig one up, easy peasy.”
“It's fine,” Bruce said. He didn't want to project a hologram of himself at a conference anywhere. But they'd always kind of liked academia. Oh, not the people parts, or the begging for grant money parts, but the rest of it: writing a paper, sending it out for review, seeing his name in a journal, and building, just a little bit, on the sum total of knowledge the human race had acquired. Before the accident, they'd been content with the idea that that would be his foreseeable future. They hadn't wanted anything more.
He still missed it sometimes, the life he'd left behind.
The security clearance needed to read it was too high. It'd never be published outside of SHIELD and would have to join any of the dozens of others available on the SHIELD internal network. None of his other friends, if colleagues counted as friends, would understand it.
They had received, in total, three peer reviews.
But it felt damn good to see his name in print again. It was nearly as good as seeing hers.
Stark, E., Stark, A., Banner, V., & R. Banner. 2013. The Attenuating Properties of Foreign Organic Matter in the Stabilization of Polchinski-Klein Micro-Wormholes.