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Observer Effect

Chapter Text

It was early evening when the sleek black car pulled into the small parking lot outside of the Big Slice. Happy hopped out of the front and stepped quickly to the back, opening the door for the two occupants. Pepper stepped out first, the setting sun catching on the shine of her gold heels and flashing as she took a few steps from the car. She smoothed her hair back over her shoulder as she looked up and down at the small building in front of them.

The worn brick and cracked sidewalk spoke of years of occupancy and the smell in the air, bread and tomato sauce and something savory like beef or sausage, made her mouth water somewhat.

Tony got out after her, straightening his jacket and putting on his shades. He took in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh, “God, I will never know how I survived three months in the desert without good old American cuisine. Come on, I hear this place has a fantastic rating and I’m dying for a big slice.”

Pepper shook her head slightly, but smiled anyway, following Tony as Happy led the way to the door. The pizzeria was dimly lit inside, with small booths and circular tables giving it a tight, homey sort of feel. The smell of the place was even better on the inside and Pepper swallowed. She hadn’t had a bite to eat since that morning’s breakfast and she was quite hungry.

Taking her cue from Tony, who admired the posters and decals in the foyer and ignored the hostess, Pepper stepped forward. “Booth for three,” she said with a smile.

The hostess, probably a college student from the Culver University nearby, nodded. Her eyes kept flicking to Tony, growing a little wider each time, and Pepper just smiled benevolently. It was the first time Tony had really been out sin Afghanistan and, with how odd he had been lately, she worried a little bit about how he would act. Would he slip right back into his old flirty, playboy ways? So far he hadn’t, even though the woman who led them to a booth in the back corner of the place seemed plenty young and pretty.

Tony took the seat where he could see the rest of the pizzeria, leaving Pepper and Happy to share the other side of the booth. The three of them got water to start with and without even looking at the menu, left on the table by the hostess, Tony asked for two plates of appetizers.

When asked what kind, he shrugged and asked to be surprised.

The woman set a desperate look to Pepper and Happy and Pepper quickly flipped open the menu, skimmed the options and said, “The garlic sticks and green salads will be fine to start with, thank you.”

The woman nodded and hurried off.

Tony rested an elbow on the table and gave her a frown. “Salads, Pepper? We’re at a pizza place! You don’t eat salad with pizza!”

“That’s right,” She replied, looking at the rest of the menu, it didn’t have much, just different categories of items and lists. Other than a few suggestions of pizzas at the bottom, their selection seemed to be totally custom. “We’re having salad before our pizza.”

Tony laughed and shook his head. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out his phone and idly tapped at it. “Order something good for me,” he said, “I’m going to head to the restroom.”

Happy half started to get out but Tony waved him down and left the two of them sitting alone. Pepper sighed and shifted in her seat. She looked over her shoulder, watching as he made his way through the tables and towards a doorway in the back labeled Restrooms.

“What should we get?” Happy asked, taking Tony’s instruction to heart. Pepper tried to put Tony’s oddness out of her head and gave the menu serious thought.

 


 

Through the doorway under the sign Restrooms, there were three doorways. One labeled Mens. One labeled Womens. And one labeled Employee Only.

Tony went for the third door and tried the handle. It was locked, of course, but really that had never stopped him from getting into someplace he wanted to be before. He searched his pockets until he found his favorite metal pen. Twisting it in half, he pulled out the lockpicks from inside and got to work.

He didn’t have to worry about the security camera that was above his shoulder and to the right, tucked into the corner of the hallway to keep from anyone getting where they weren’t supposed to. NOBODY had a handle on that already.

It took longer than he would’ve liked- he was getting rusty in his lock picking ways, it seemed- but soon he had the door open and he could step inside. The door opened almost immediately onto some stairs and it was these that Tony went up, lowering his glasses just enough so he could see in the dim light. He pushed them back into place as he reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the illuminated hallway.

A blip on his phone made him look down and read the message sent there.

SECOND DOOR ON THE LEFT.

Tony sent back a thumbs up emoji and tucked the phone away. He went up to the door and stopped, hand raised, ready to knock. Uncertainty darted through him like a fish in a fast moving stream. He had already changed a lot with Stane. He had already altered the timeline by putting off his debut as Iron Man. This whole world was going to be different now, but those things had been his things. His life. His past. His mistakes. His enemies. His problems.

If he turned back now, he could wait to meet Banner when Banner was brought to see him in the Helicarrier…

Tony shook his head.

No. He was trying to prevent the Helicarrier entirely. Bruce had been right when he’d call them a disaster waiting to happen, a bomb, not a team. It had exploded in Tony’s hands. It had nearly destroyed him- it probably had, actually- but now he was getting another chance in another timeline.

And if they didn’t want Tony to play nice on their team, then fine. Tony would make his own team. He had the money to support it, the charm to win people over and the intelligence needed to manage it. SHIELD wasn't necessary- he'd learned that after it's fall in his proper timeline.

He was going to change Banner’s future. He was going to change everyone’s future. That was what Tony Stark did. He made the future.

Tony knocked three times, and then waited. There was a shuffling sound and then a creak of a floorboard. He waited. Finally footsteps and a cautious, “Stanley?” through the door.

“Not quite, Buttercup,” Tony said cheerfully back at him.

A silence. Another creak.

Tony knocked again, “I wouldn’t bother trying to escape out the window. It’s really undignified for a man with the number of doctorates that you have, plus I’ll just find you again. If it helps, I’m here to offer you a job, not to drag you off kicking and screaming to the United States Armed Forces.”

Tony heard a soft mutter on the other side of the door. He could practically feel the tension oozing through from Bruce, but he just stood and smiled and waited.

The handle turned. The door pulled open. Bruce peered at him from a crack that, as he took in Tony’s appearance, from his shades to his jacket to the shirt and shoes, not one ounce of a military in the look of him, grew wider until Tony could see all of Bruce’s incredulous expression and worn, second-hand clothing. Tony waved one hand, wiggling his fingers, “Well hello darling, my name is-”

“You’re Tony Stark,” Banner just stared at him, “You’re actually Tony Stark, aren’t you? What the hell are you doing here?”

“I have a job opening that has an awful lot of very particular requirements to it and when I was searching for possible candidates, it turns out you’re the only fellow on the whole planet who can fill them,” Tony shrugged. “So here I am, to give you the job interview of a lifetime.”

“What?” Banner asked. “A job?” The surprise on his face darkened into something else and he growled out, “Don’t you make weapons of mass destruction?”

“I see your time abroad has closed you off from the current media sensations,” Tony said. He pulled out his phone, tapped a few things and then turned it around. On the screen was a recording of his announcement to the press. Banner watched, mouth opening slightly, as the recording of Tony renounced weapons and essentially declared an upheaval of his entire empire.

“Stark Industries no longer deals in weapons. We’re all about the future and the future is pretty green,” Tony lowered his shades and winked at Banner.

Banner leaned back, caught off guard. He opened his mouth, shut it again, then bit his lip. Tony felt bad for him. It wasn’t every day the CEO of the biggest company in the country tracked someone like Bruce down and gave them a job. Usually, there were people for that, like Pepper or the people Tony had working for Pepper.

But Banner was different. Banner required a special touch.

And, truth be told, Tony had missed the bastard. He’d vanished after Sokovia and Tony hadn’t had the ability to track him down. Maybe things would’ve been different for the Accords if he’d had Banner and the Big Green Mean Machine on his side.

“You know about-” Banner cleared his throat, “You know about him, don’t you.”

Tony nodded.

“And you’re still offering me a job? Any lab that I work in… It could be completely destroyed…”

“As if I do not have the ability to destroy my own labs without you?” Tony scoffed, “Come on, Brucie-bear don’t be so myopic. Besides, you haven’t even heard the terms of employment! I have a whole thing for you and for Big Green.”

“What?” Banner choked out.

Tony kept going like he hadn’t said anything, “Really, just come on downstairs, join me for some dinner -we’re having pizza by the way- and let me discuss the terms with you. We’re talking some pretty juicy terms, too, like state of the art lab facilities, unlimited budget, unlimited data access, and a big party room whenever you happen to lose your temper a little bit so you and the big guy can cool off and then get back to work. I’ll even cover medical costs! I don’t know why you wouldn’t jump on the chance, honestly, because the other options out there aren’t nearly as great.”

“Other… Other options?” Banner asked. He looked a little pale, a little dazed. Tony’s heart was pounding. He could feel the hum of the arc reactor in his chest and the ache of it was real. Last time, Bruce had resisted his offer with a sad look and uncertainty. Tony didn’t want to lose Banner again.

“You were hiding for years, Brucie,” Tony said, his words softening slightly. This was his friend, one of the few he’d had before, and he wanted so badly to ease the pain and confusion he could see in Banner’s face. “You were hiding for good reason, too. But now you’re back and you’re still trying to hide but sooner or later you will be found. I got here first because I’m the best, but I won’t be the only one who figures out who it is that took up that spare room in the best pizzeria in this little town.”

Tony reached out and gently put his hand on Banner’s shoulder. Banner went still under his touch. Tony fully removed his shades and looked him in the eye.

“I know what it’s like for people to look at you and see only the death you could create and for that to somehow be the best thing that could come from your hands. I know what it’s like for people to see what you can do and demand that they get to control you because of it. My offer is not about controlling you, Bruce. I’m offering you a job, because once you work for Tony Stark, Tony Stark will work for you.”

The air between them was charged, heavy with Tony’s sincerity and Banner’s distrust. Banner’s cheek clenched. Tony held his eyes. He waited.

Finally, Banner opened the door a little more, nodding his head slightly. “I’ll hear your offer,” he said, lifting up his hand to shake his finger at Tony, “No promises. If I don’t like it, I won’t take it. But I’ll listen to it.”

Tony slid his shades back on and grinned, “Brucie-bear, it will be all you could hope for and more. Now, let's go, shall we? I told my Pepper I would be gone for a minute but she’s bound to get worried if I’m gone much longer!” He scoffed, smoothing his jacket over his chest, “You get kidnapped once and people start thinking you’re going to get kidnapped every time you’re gone for twenty minutes!” He turned and strode away.

Banner, after a hesitant thirty seconds, followed him down the stairs.

 


 

Pepper looked up to see Happy walking back with Tony only a minute after Happy had left their table in search of the man. There was a tightness in her chest that relaxed when she saw him, smiling and talking to another man with his regular ease. Happy took his seat beside her as Tony slid in and gestured for the man beside him to follow. Pepper recognized him from the search she’d done on him after Tony had finally, finally told her his name on the plane. He looked a little thin and nervous, twitchy almost, as he gingerly sat at the edge of the booth.

“Pepper, Happy,” Tony said with a gesture to indicate them, “This is Dr. Bruce Banner. Brucie, this is Pepper and Happy. He keeps me safe and she tells me where to go. Now, what did you two order for our dinner? And here, Bruce, for you,” he pushed over his untouched salad to Bruce, who looked at it and then at Tony.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Banner,” Pepper said pleasantly. “Mr. Stark had me prepare two contracts for you to review as part of your potential employment for Stark Industries.” She reached for her bag and pulled out a slim folder. She slid it across the table to him, too used to Tony’s Don’t-Hand-Me-Things to even think twice about it.

Banner picked up the folder and gave Tony an incredulous look. “Two?”

“Well I can’t exactly ask Big Green to help me in the lab, can I? His skillset is a little different than yours.” Tony said, picking up his water and sipping from it.

Banner’s lips pressed into a thin line. “You keep treating him like… He’s not like that. He’s just a- a monster.”

“I have faith,” Tony said, “Now, give those a little look, will you?” He picked up one of the breadsticks, broke it in half and bit into it. “Tell me if I’m missing something and we can tack it on. Whatever you want, Brucie, we’ll put it in there for you.”

Pepper winced. “Mr. Stark,” she said, lowering her voice slightly, “To promise him anything-”

“A zen garden?” Banner said, looking up from the third page of the document. “I don’t understand. The labs and the access I get, and even the security detail, that’s fine. But this whole section on how you’ll outfit my living quarters- Mr. Stark, you can’t be serious.”

“Zen gardens are good,” Tony quipped, “I think you’ll like them.” He leaned over into the man’s space, shoulder’s brushing, and gestured down at the contract with the half of his breadstick. “You can rake sand and enjoy nature and I can even have a few big rocks put in there so the big guy can enjoy it too.”

Banner lowered the pages and leveled Tony with a hard stare, “You’re not taking this seriously. You’re not taking him seriously. This isn’t- I’m not some sort of weird pet you get to keep around because you’re a billionaire and you think you can do that kind of shit.”

Pepper saw the way that Tony went still and she fought the urge to speak up in his defense. She’d been at first confused and then amused by all the extra things Tony had thrown into the contract. He’d clearly thought it through all the way, even down to Banner’s troubled relationship with the military, and had thought of all the sorts of things he could do to deal with the problems. Tony had clearly approached Banner’s situation, living on the run and dealing with the fallout of his experimentation, with the intention to help Banner, not to fix the man but to fix the problems around him.

He wanted to support Banner. It was obvious to anyone who knew Tony that the gifts and the consideration and the playful attitude were all those things. It was just that Banner knew nothing of Tony and had nothing but distrust for him right now.

“You won’t be locked up,” Tony said, “I won’t keep you anywhere against your will. Neither you or him are a pet, Bruce. But neither one of you is a monster either. You’re a scientist. He’s big and green. You didn’t mean to do this to yourself and I don’t think he means to hurt people. But there are people who want your work, who think what happened to you can be turned into a weapon. And I,” He pointed to himself, tapping himself in the chest, there was an odd almost plastic sound to the tap. Pepper had almost forgotten about the thing in Tony’s chest since he kept it covered with a light blocking cap. “I don’t approve of the way you’ve been treated. So this?” he pointed to the contracts, “All of that and all of this ,” He gestured to the four of them at the table, to the pizzas and the salads and the cups with condensation running down the sides.

“All of it is because I don’t think you should be treated the way you have been and I just happen to have the money, the resources, and the balls to tell everyone who wants you to be their weapon to shove it right up their ass. Come and work for me, take the zen garden, get the labs, enjoy the party room, help me make the world better, Bruce, because if we don’t start now there won’t be time later.”

Silence descended on the table. Tony and Banner stared at each other. Pepper looked between the two of them, her eyes trying to catch Tony’s but only seeing Banner’s reflection in his shades.

Banner said nothing. He looked down at the contracts. He took the thicker one, the one for him, off the top and went for the much thinner, two-page document underneath.

Pepper nervously picked up her glass of water. She knew what that page said and knew that since he hadn’t finished the first packet, Banner wouldn’t have any warning.

All the language on the second document had been simplified. The things provided, the parameters of the contract- there wasn’t much that Tony was providing the thing he called Big Green other than somewhere to rage and someone to help clean up the mess afterward.

And there, at the bottom, where Banner’s eyes now looked, was the single responsibility of said Big Green.

Banner looked up and repeated the words out incredulously, “Protect the world from secret shadow organizations and future alien invasions? What the hell?”

Tony smiled. “They’re coming, Brucie,” he looked at the man over the top edge of his glasses. The orange glow of his eyes was even more obvious in the dim light of the restaurant, “I’ve seen them.”

 


 

Between the four of them, two and a half pizzas and two trays of breadsticks were demolished. Sometime after Bruce had gone back to the first contract, setting aside the obviously insane pseudo-contract that had been drafted up for, well, him, Stanley had noticed he was over there and puttered over, looking worried and horribly curious. Stark had been a firecracker of personality to the man, more than willing to pose for a picture and declare his pizza the best in town. It was clear that Stanley was both a little awestruck and hopeful that having a framed Stark on his wall might draw in more customers. Times had been hard, recently, especially for a small, personalized place like this.

Stark, for his part, seemed actually enthusiastic about the pizza, more than willing to gulp down slices while he diverted his attention to Bruce, his employees across the both, and the phone in his hand. His mind seemed to work at a clip a step above everyone else and, Bruce, for the first time since he’d left his research behind, for the first time since the accident, for the first time since Hulk, found he might not be the smartest one in the room anymore.

Not that measuring their respective intelligences would make one smarter than the other, but Stark had both feet planted firmly on the ground while he commanded the world around him to bend to his frankly preposterous beliefs. Honestly. Alien invasions? Secret shadow organizations? Who the hell did Stark think he was kidding? What had happened to Bruce was horrible but accidental and he didn’t want it to happen to anyone else, sure, but Bruce had read through the contract more thoroughly and he was certain that Stark, for his genius, had to have several screws completely missing.

And still, somehow, he seemed more comfortable with Bruce’s bad side than Bruce himself was. It was disorientating. Where he expected fear or caution, Stark referenced the monster in friendly terms like ‘Big Guy’ or ‘Big Green’. Where he could see avid curiosity or obsession, like Bruce had seen in others who wanted to use him to get to the Hulk, to make more people like the Hulk, Stark hadn’t seemed to care at all. He wasn’t surprised by the monster. He wasn’t scared of Bruce. He wasn’t interested in parading him around. All he wanted was to give Bruce a lab and space to cool off if he needed it,  in return for the use of Bruce’s brain and, occasionally, the Hulk’s brawn.

It was entirely unsettling.

Even Pepper- Ms. Potts, Bruce had to remind himself because he barely knew the woman and even if Stark was confident in calling her Pepper or Pep, he just couldn’t get away with it, no matter how contagious the nick-name- seemed a little wary of him. She smiled and was plenty polite, sure, but she had a stiff posture whenever Stark hadn’t distracted her to the point of her forgetting Bruce was there.

She knew about the Hulk. He could tell. And she was afraid.

At least someone had some sense at this table.

“Should we get dessert?” Stark asked the table at large. He stirred his straw around and around in his cup, rattling the ice in it noisily. “Ice cream maybe? A froyo place if they have it? This is a college town, isn’t it? There’s got to be some little shop like that. What do you say, Brucie? Is there somewhere we can get a frozen bite to eat?”

“You can find me easily enough,” Bruce replied, “Can’t you look up a place?” he gestured idly to Stark’s phone. The screen was dark, but Bruce had seen him poking at it all night. Who he was talking to or what he was doing, Bruce couldn’t quite catch it, but that was mostly because Stark’s fingers obscured most of the screen.

“But where’s the fun in that?” Stark honest-to-god whined and then turned his pout to Pepper, “Pep, frozen yogurt or ice cream?”

“Yogurt,” she replied simply. “It’s better for you.”

“They’re both desserts,” Stark said, waving his hand at her. “Now,” he tapped his thumb at the screen and then swiped it upwards, “What do you think of that place? It’s not too far and we can be there in a hop and a skip, right Happy?”

Both Happy and Pepper pulled out phones and looked at them. Happy nodded, “About eight minutes away, sir. And that’s only if the lights act against us.”

Pepper sighed. “It has fine enough reviews, but honestly, Tony. Frozen yogurt?”

“Why not?”

She looked at him, her lips pressed into a thin line, and then glanced at Bruce. “How much more time do you need to consider your contracts?”

“Pepper!” Stark gasped at her but his affront was clearly an act, even to Bruce. “Don’t let her rush you, Bruce. Take all the time you need to decide-”

“The easiest and simplest course of action will be a concrete yes or no while we’re still here, where you live,” Pepper said simply, ignoring Stark and looking directly at Bruce. “If you come with us to the yogurt shop, we’ll still have to come back whether or not you say yes or no. If you decline now, we can leave and part ways this way. If you accept now, we can take what you’d like and put it in the car, then get ice cream and head to the jet.”

“And I take it the offer expires once you’re gone?” Bruce asked.

Pepper opened her mouth but Stark cut in with a little jerking motion of his hand, “No. It doesn’t expire. I don’t want to rush you into anything, you have to chose to come to work for me.”

Pepper sighed and added, “There is a clause that holds it open indefinitely, however, it only works one way. If you say no now you can still say yes later, but once you say yes, you can’t say no. Once you say yes, you’re bound to the contract for the duration of its effect.” She folded her hands together on top of the counter, “Mr. Stark would absolutely love to welcome you to work for him in his state of the art, top of the line laboratories, Dr. Banner, but he is adamant that it is a choice you make for yourself.”

Stark’s shoulders sank and he sighed, “Bubble burster,” he accused Pepper but she just gave him a little frown.

“Mr. Stark,” she said, her tone holding not an ounce of flexibility, “We have been sitting in this booth for five hours. I’m sure Mr. Lieber would like to close his shop and clean up. The frozen yogurt place will be open for only another hour and I’d hate to have to leave only to come back to drop off Dr. Banner and disturb Mr. Leiber.”

Stark frowned at her again, but she was unmoved. So he turned his attention to Bruce, who tensed. This close, and in the dim light, he could see the orange glow of Stark’s eyes even with the shades on his face. They weren’t solidly orange and the light seemed unwilling to diffuse, instead, it created a sharp, narrow ring of orange light like a red-hot wire in the center of his eyes.

It was those eyes that had kept Bruce there. Long after the contract had lost its shiny appeal of supposed freedom of research and unlimited supplies, and after the fake contract for the Hulk had lost the twitches of humor it had failed to inspire, it was the eyes that had kept Bruce sitting there, wondering, considering it, thinking it over. Because it was the eyes that spoke to something in him, eyes like that weren’t… human. They just weren’t. They looked lit up from the inside and Bruce had teetered between cybernetic enhancement and, fuck it, alien interaction.

Because Stark had looked at him with those eyes, had looked at him and had told him a truth that Stark believed one hundred percent.

There were aliens. He had seen them.

“I,” Bruce began, fingers fiddling with the corner of the pages. A bit of doubt chewed at his thoughts. What if the contract for the Hulk wasn’t a joke at all? What if Stark was serious? What if he could build a room to contain the Hulk? What if he would help Bruce get the antidote he needed? After all, Stark’s father had been part of the first super-soldier serum that Bruce had been studying, access to that data… It would’ve been invaluable the first time around. “I,” he repeated himself. His thoughts were a tumbling mess. His heart was beginning to pound. He had been thinking about this for hours, his brain running in circles and-

“Bruce?”

The voice, achingly familiar but faint, came through Bruce like a wave, crashing against his tumultuous mind and leaving him shivering, staring at the speaker.

Betty stared at him. She was arm in arm with someone Bruce might’ve recognized if he bothered looking at him at all. All he could see, all he needed to see, was Betty. Her dark eyes widened as her question was answered. Was he Bruce? Yes. He was.

Bruce hesitated and then felt an elbow against his side. He jumped and found himself being ushered out by Tony Stark. Betty’s eyes grew wider as Bruce slid out of the booth and Tony Stark followed him. Even the man at her side seemed shocked, mouth dropping open before he remembered to snap it shut.

“Tony Stark,” Stark said with a brilliant smile. He held out his hand to Betty. She shook it, looking dazed. “You must be Betty Ross. And this with you?”

“Dr. Leonard Samson,” he said, regaining his composure first. He put his arm possessively around Betty and something in Bruce stirred, annoyed. Angry.

He abruptly looked away from the two of them and accidentally caught Pepper’s eye. She looked resigned, lips pressed into a thin line and her eyes watching Stark. She noticed he was looking at her and said quietly, “Sorry, I don’t know how much he knows about you or your life but knowing him… If it’s in a computer somewhere. He’s read it.”

He knows everything, Pepper’s gaze told him. Her worry made sense, but Bruce had a feeling she wasn’t so much worried for the people around Stark as she was for Stark himself.

Bruce took in a deep breath and turned back just in time to see Betty, with Stark’s charming smile easing the way, slip her arm from Samson’s and come towards him. Stark was asking Samson for something or about something but Bruce couldn’t be bothered to care. Not when Betty suddenly stood in front of him, close enough to touch, close enough to almost smell her perfume, close enough to realize that, oh god, she was on a date. She was dressed up, not a whole lot because it was just some pizzeria, but enough. There were dangling earrings and a little bit of lipstick and a sparkle to her cheeks and the blouse she wore looked silky soft and comfortable.

“Betty,” Bruce began, then stopped. He didn’t have a clue what to say to her. Where to begin? Everything was still so turbulent between them-

“It’s good to see you, Bruce,” she said gently. “I didn’t realize you were back in the area.”

“Just got back a few days ago,” he replied. He hadn’t even been there a week. He had no idea how Stark had found him so fast. It was kind of terrifying. “How are you? How are things? You look-” his words failed him.

She smiled and Bruce couldn’t help but smile back. He’d spent the whole evening feeling wrongfooted, but when Betty did it, it just made him feel shy and young and dumb, not anxious and nervous. “Things are fine,” She said, “I’m doing all right. Culver is… well, it’s just fine I suppose. Samson and I-” for the first time, she turned to look over her shoulder and bit the corner of her lip nervously.

Samson had visibly given up all pretense in trying to return to her side. Stark had him looking at something on his phone, brows furrowed together, lips pressed into a thin line. Betty laughed lightly and shook her head. “I really didn’t expect to see you here,” she said instead, “What are you doing here?”

“I.. Uh..”

And then there was Pepper at his side, prim and smiling even having spent five hours in a pizzeria booth with her probably insane but definitely genius boss, a monster-man and, well, Happy. She smiled at Betty and said, “Mr. Stark came to see Dr. Banner about a job interview. He informed me that if we happened to cross paths with you, Dr. Ross, to provide you with this.”

Pepper produced yet another bundle of paper, smooth and professional, and Bruce stared at her.

Betty took the papers and looked at them, blinking, almost dazed in her expression. “This is… This is a contract for employment,” she said quietly.

“What?” Bruce said. He stepped forward, unable to stop himself, and next to Betty. There it was, just like his own, his two, an employment contract. It began in similar ways but offered different things. Things that Betty would like or need, things relating to her own studies.

“Pepper,” Stark was suddenly back in the middle of them, “Draft me up a consultant form with the appropriate NDAs and have it sent over to Dr. Samson ASAP. He’s going to help me with that whole popsicle debacle that’s coming up soon.” He turned, saw the pages in Betty’s hands and grinned, “Now I know you have employment at Culver currently, but we can negotiate with you on that. Pepper, explain it to her will you?”

“This can’t be happening,” Bruce said in a daze, stepping back as Pepper came to do just as Stark had told her to. Betty was listening to her, holding the contract in her hands like it was a delicate, breakable thing and Pepper was helpfully discussing her options. Bruce looked over and even Samson seemed a little out of it. He just stared at the phone in his hands, his fingers over his mouth, eyes wide.

And in the middle of it all was Stark. Stark who looked at him with those eyes, glowing behind the glasses, burning two holes into the center of Bruce, intense and unforgiving even above that cheeky, smarmy little smile.

Oh but it is, Stark’s eyes seemed to say, It is happening and I made It happen.

He opened his mouth and Bruce held his breath. Dread filled him. What the hell was Stark going to do now? How could he add to this chaos?

“Happy, get the car ready. I want some froyo.”

 


 

In the parking lot of the frozen yogurt shop, two couples rest against opposite sides of the same sleek black vehicle. The parking lot is primarily lit up from the distant street lamps and the wide windows of the shop, casting long shadows that bleed into the darkness of the night and letting just the hint of stars glimmer above them.

Banner and Ross are quiet, leaning against the trunk of the black Cadillac, their heads bowed together, their shoulders touching. He’s holding his empty cup against his thigh and Ross stirs her yogurt with her spoon. They talk quietly, their voices a murmur that is drowned out every time a car drives nearby.

Tony and Happy lean against the hood of the car, Tony with his phone in his hands, the screen reflecting a harsh box of light against the shades he has pushed up onto the top of his head and Happy looking upwards at the sky as he silently eats his dessert. Pepper is inside the car, her voice muffled as she makes phone calls and works, capable even while so far from her office and home.

Happy sighs heavily, his shoulders heaving. Tony flicks his eyes up at him and makes a muted questioning noise. Happy lifts his spoon up and gestures at the sky, “You really sure that there’s shit out there, Tony? Honest to god, you’re not pulling some shit just to get a guy with a half dozen doctorates to jump into the industries arms?”

Tony doesn’t look up at the stars. He tries to avoid doing that, actually. There’s something about the blackness of it, with or without the stars, that digs into his chest and pulls at him. He’s not overly fond of the feeling. “I’m sure,” he said.

“Then how come we haven’t seen any of them?” Happy asked, “Is it like in men in black? Where they are everywhere and hide from the public?”

Tony snorted, “No. But I wouldn’t put it past the general population to be dumb enough to let that happen.”

Happy frowned at him. “But how do you know? If they haven’t shown up yet?”

Tony hummed thoughtfully, “We haven’t really pushed to explore space. Sure, we’ve got satellites and a few observers, but we’re not out in space. We’re not nearly advanced enough to communicate with what’s out there for the most part, let alone go out and visit it. And there’s still a shitton of space out there, Happy, we’re looking into a dark room, searching the darkness for something, but not every inch of space has shit in it.” He shrugged his shoulders, knowing he wasn’t explaining it well but Happy was looking studiously at him so Tony continued to try. “Think of it this way, would you consider an eight-year-old kid, first time in the ring, to be a danger to a trained boxer? Imagine it. Skinny arms and gloves that are definitely too big? He might have a lot of spirit and maybe one day he’ll be a force to reckon with, but he’s just a kid. He’s not worth the energy to deal with.”

“Unless you plan on training him,” Happy said, “If you see potential in someone and you can teach them, it doesn’t hurt to try.” He pat Tony on the shoulder when he said that, smiling.

Tony smiled back, “Well, Earth is that eight-year-old kid. And there just isn’t anyone around thinking they should lend us a hand or take us under their wing. Which, can you blame them? One look at our world and it's obvious how much of a mess we still are.” Tony wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “No, they’ll wait until we declare we’re good and ready to make nice with the rest of the civilized universe.” He gestured off, towards the darkness of the sky.

“Or, if we have something they want, they’ll come for it and take it. But what kind of backwater little place like this is going to have anything worthwhile?”

“The vibranium,” Happy suggested, “Like the stuff that Captain America’s shield is made out of. You remember that old thing, right? Found it in that old storage room and put it in the closet. You said it was made of that rare metal, vibranium. If there’s more of that on the Earth, wouldn’t they want it?”

“They say that shit came from an asteroid,” Tony said, shrugging again. “There’s probably plenty up in space, none of which you’ve got to go through an atmosphere to get to. But yeah, something like that or. Well. Something like this.” He turned over his hand and held his phone face up. He tapped the screen with his thumb and a video appeared. Happy leaned over, eyes widening as he saw the glowing and frankly alien looking blue square contained in a small box made of some clear material. It was clear that someone was trying to study it, having some sort of wire contraption hooked up to it, but there was no sound and no explanation.

“What is that?” Happy whispered. The blue glow was intense, even transmitted through the screen.

“My father fished it up out of the ocean while searching the sea for the lost captain,” Tony said, his voice casual. He’s watched this video feed for hours, the blue glow as familiar to him now as the lights in his workshop. “He turned it over to an organization that prides itself on being a super secret, para-military government agency and they’ve been poking and prodding it ever since.”

Happy’s gaze lifted from the phone to Tony’s face. His expression was hard to see in the low light, but from his pressed lips and grim gaze, Tony thought his intent was clear enough. Happy didn’t much approve of Howard Stark. Over their time together, Tony had told him enough bits and pieces for him to have a dislike of the man that nearly matched Tony’s own. Happy squeezed his shoulder a little tighter and said, using his empty cup to point at Tony’s phone. “Looks like they’re not making good use of it,” he said, “What is it? What can it do?”

Tony takes a moment to make sure his breath is even. He can’t have his voice shake and betray trauma for an event that hadn’t ever happened. That wouldn’t ever happen. That he would not let happen.

“It makes doorways,” Tony said, “Through space. At least, that’s one thing that I know it can do. I haven’t been able to do much testing myself. After all, I’m not supposed to even know this organization exists, let alone what my father contributed to it.”

“But you do,” Happy said.

Tony nodded.

Lifting his hand, Happy scraped the last spoonful of yogurt from his cup and put it in his mouth. He was looking thoughtfully at the blue glow again, not as entranced as he was before. Happy quickly lost interest in shiny tech, Tony knew that. He was a more simple man than Tony, taking easy pleasures in good shows and nice cars and the satisfaction of a taxing boxing workout.

Sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep at night, Tony wondered if he would’ve been better off, would’ve been happier if he was more like Happy.

But then someone else would have to organize the protection of the Earth and Tony wasn’t going to give someone else the chance to try. They would just fuck it up.

He heard the grit of footsteps and turned his phone over, tucking it back into a pocket and removing the blue glow. Happy half turned towards the sound.

It was Banner and Ross, coming around the side of the Cadillac. Ross had one hand on Banner’s shoulder, supportive and comforting, but it was Banner who met Tony’s gaze and looked like had something he wanted to say.

“Brucie, Betty,” Tony said with a smile. He opened his mouth to continue but stopped when Banner lifted his hand. Instead, he tucked his hands into his pockets and waited.

“I don’t know how you found out about me,” Banner starts, “I don’t know how you know as much as you do because I’m pretty sure a lot of the information is classified and not available to civilians, no matter how much money they have. Betty tells me the military’s pretty pissed with you considering you reneged on practically every weapons contract you have with them and that most of the world is waiting for the other shoe to drop on this going-green act you have.” Tony cannot suppress the grin at Banner’s words, but it's the pun that gets him, not the actual content. Banner looks at him like he’s crazy like he can’t make sense of Tony, but he doesn’t look at Tony like he hates him or is disgusted by him and Tony considers that a point in his favor for sure.

“But,” Banner continues after a little moment, waiting for Tony’s grin to fade, “ But I can’t-- I can’t pass up this offer. Betty has duplicates of most of her data, but without access to a proper lab I’m basically hoping that others will be willing to help me under the table. And I can’t-- I can’t guarantee that those people won’t take my blood and do something with it, that they won’t try to make more people like me even as I’m trying to find a cure.” He looked tired and shook his head. Tony nodded slightly because Banner was right. You couldn’t trust anyone to help cure you but you yourself. He knew that well enough already.

“If you keep your word,” Banner said, looking Tony in the eyes. “I’ll sign the contract. I’ll need the lab and the privacy and sure, the zen garden too, but I honestly could care less about that stuff. I’m signing the contract because I believe you, Tony Stark. I believe you when you say you’re done making weapons to kill people with. Maybe I’m an idiot for doing it, because everything I heard about you before this evening says you’re just in it for the thrill of making things and have no impulse control and don’t really give a shit about what your technology can do, but god help me, I believe you. I’ll sign your contract.”

“So will I,” Betty added, quiet and confident. “I would like to see if I can continue to teach after settling into our new facility, but even if I can’t, I want to be with Bruce and I want to help him and,” there was a glitter in her eyes, steely in the sharp light cast from the frozen yogurt shop’s windows, “because I trust you to not underestimate my father. I trust you to protect Bruce from him, and because of that, I’ll sign.”

“Well then,” Tony said. He felt a soft smile on his lips and a warmth in his chest. He’d hoped for this option, had been willing to wait and wait and wait for them to talk it out and come to the right conclusion. Bruce would be safe, now, and Betty right at his side so he could be happy, too. So much of what he knew of the future would be made easier with them in his back pocket, formidable scientists both. He almost wished that Killian was somewhere even a tiny bit close to getting his Extremis formula to work. If he kept dragging his feet, Tony would snap up his little company and dump Maya and her work at Bruce’s feet before Killian could even stutter out a complaint.

Tony stepped forward and offered his hand. Bruce shook it, gripping hard. Then Tony shook Ross’s hand and she, too, shook firmly. “Welcome to Stark Industries,” he said, “Dr. Ross, I’m sure you have some affairs to look to here and if there’s anything that you need, I will be more than happy to provide help. Movers, lawyers, accountants, whatever you need to get your belongings to your new home. How do you feel about Colorado?” He asked, looking to them both now, “Plenty of fresh air and mountains and I have just the facility waiting.”

Ross blinked, “You’ve- You’ve already built the place?” she asked, “You were that sure we would sign?”

“I had faith,” Tony said, smiling, lying through his teeth. He crinkled his eyes, just enough for it to look real, too, and knew that it worked when they shared an exasperated look between the two of them. “And Dr. Banner, Brucie-bear, I know you might not have much in the way of belongings or affairs to take care of, but we’ll put you up for the night in a nice hotel and pick up anything you’d like from the pizzeria tomorrow morning. Then it’s right to Colorado for you and into that nice new lab.”

Banner nodded.

Tony half turned to Happy, but he was already going to the side door and opening it. As soon as he did so, Pepper poked her head out and looked at Tony. He made a scooting in motion with his hand and she obliged. The three of them got into the back while Happy closed the door after them and got behind the wheel.

Banner and Ross signed their contracts right there, handing them back to Pepper who promised to make a copy and handed back a pair of phones. Banner glanced to Tony when he took the phone and Tony, trying to not sink into the leather of the seat and pass out from exhaustion, smiled. “All scientists with your clearance level in SI get a business issued phone,” Pepper said as an explanation, saving Tony the work. “You have the other research and development heads programmed in there already, as well as my secretary’s number and a line to Mr. Stark.”

“It’s to Jarvis, really,” Tony said with a yawn, “Don’t mind his sass. I don’t know where he gets it from.”

“Thank you,” Ross said, tucking the phone into her purse. Banner nodded and put his away.

Tony slid his shades over his eyes and then closed them. With Banner on the payroll, most of the tension ran out of his shoulders. Now it was time to focus on the next problem, or rather, problems.

Hammer. Vanko.

And the poison.