The door to Stark Industries Research and Development facility is locked with a badge, a handprint, and a retinal scanner. Pepper goes through all three checks with her mind picking apart the strange message she got from the R&D department head. Kanti Sodhi is usually much more composed in the memos or short instant messages that she occasionally uses to interact with Pepper or others inside of the company. She doesn’t forget punctuation or capitalization and uses complete sentences, something that some of the other department heads are lax on, especially Tony, who had recently taken up using emojis in the place of words in his communications.
So when Pepper gets a message from Kanti about Tony invading the laboratory “shirtless, shoeless and a complete manic mess”, she hurries from her office, down the elevator, and to the main R&D lab.
When she walks in, where there is usually a flurry of activity, with many minds at different stations, there is a cluster of SI employees gathered around a table. Pepper picks out Kanti immediately, the tall woman usually has her hair tucked back and pinned up to be out of her way and almost always has some sort of colorful silk ribbon tied in it. Pepper finds the glint of bright blue and heads that way, hurrying down the metal stairs.
Maybe one person turns to look back over their shoulder at the sound of her shoes clicking on the metal and she gets halfway down the steps before she realizes what, or rather, who has their attention.
Of course it’s Tony.
He’s standing on a table and there are two holographic projections on either side of him. His hair is an absolute mess, pulled in all directions, and Pepper notices immediately both the faint blue glow in his chest, visible through the thin fabric of his grey tank top, and the missing sunglasses. His vivid eyes dart from one holographic column to the other, where he points at one and gestures at the other.
Pepper has to force herself to focus on the holograms for almost thirty seconds before she realizes what he’s reviewing. At first she thought it was the arc reactor, but he’d already brought that to them once Obadiah was in jail. No, this list was newer and only somewhat familiar.
It was the huge list of tech that Tony wanted to show off at the Expo.
Pepper wanted desperately to rub at her temples but it doesn’t do well to look weak or frustrated with what’s going on, especially once she can see the faces of the scientists gathered around. They’re gaping at his work, at him, watching with rapt fascination as Tony works through the tech with displays on the left and specs on the right. Pepper only wishes he didn’t look like he’d just spent god-knew how many hours in his own workshop, but she can’t have everything and at least he’s not calling everyone idiotic and strutting around actually naked or something.
She manages to get next to Kanti with a little work and touches the woman’s arm.
Kanti struggles to look away, but once she recognizes Pepper she becomes successful in her attempt to regain her self-control. The two of them back out of the group and back towards the bottom of the stairs.
“I got your message,” Pepper said, “I came here as fast as I could.”
“I might have overreacted, Pepper. It’s just that he climbed onto the table and said it was time for show and tell, except he was the only one who brought anything,” Kanti muttered. She pressed her hand to her forehead, looking guiltily at Pepper, “For a horrified moment, I thought he was drunk and was going to striptease.”
Pepper stifled a laugh, “Believe me, a couple of years ago and you probably would have been right on the money but after Afghanistan…” she let her voice drift off, shrugging one shoulder.
“You do not have to explain that he has changed. I am not blind,” Kanti said, her eyes were on Tony again.
Pepper pressed her lips together, “I keep telling him that he should get his chest looked at properly, he doesn’t have to keep that thing in there to preserve his heart but he won’t listen.”
Kanti shook her head, “The arc reactor is, well yes it is surprising, but at least there is an explanation for that,” she reached up with one hand and tapped the side of her head, near her own eyes, “But his eyes. He does not claim to have any better eyesight than when he did before, yes? But something happened to them.”
“If he knows what it is, he hasn’t told anyone,” Pepper replied, “Not me, not Rhodes his best friend, no one. I don’t know if he does know, because he was willing to explain the arc reactor, even if he wasn’t willing to do anything to fix it.”
Kanti shifted her gaze to Pepper, “He did not put it into such words with me,” she said. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned a little closer to Pepper, “He said it was not yet time to deal with the reactor in his chest. Which suggests...he has something in mind.”
Pepper looked at Kanti thoughtfully and then at Tony. He had moved onto the next thing which she recognized was some sort of prosthetic, and he had pulled some hapless but apparently willing scientist onto the table with him to help demonstrate the potential attachment. “He has a lot on his mind,” she said, “This whole foray into medical tech… Did you see what he’s come up for with the walking braces?”
Kanti nodded her head. “I reviewed the charts that you sent this morning. I was still working on how I would present the information and divvy up the teams when he came in.” She pulled out her Starkpad from her lab coat pocket and tapped at it, “He’s about a third of the way through the list, now, but hasn’t displayed the braces to the others yet.”
Pepper watched Tony, who had let the scientist back down and was now talking about neurological transmitters and nanites and the installation of prosthetics. She wondered if he had half a plan on putting actual real life people in these or if he planned on them dumbing them down to get the tech approved for use with the general public.
Though, if she was reading Tony’s goals rights, extrapolating a little from his newest research and his experience in Afghanistan, Pepper wondered if he was even thinking about the general public at all or if his attention was narrower than that. His work in prosthetics wasn’t the only medical advance he had; there was also the PTSD treatment he’d been devising with the virtual simulator retro-framing glasses and Dr. Samson and there was the body armor of various levels of strength and efficiency. She’d heard him express a wish to design a suit that could withstand an RPG or explosive and, honestly, the thought of making something for that purpose was a little terrifying.
But it was understandable, too. For years Tony had made and sold weapons. The weapons had been used in everything from street gang shootouts to tactical police units to military operations to terrorist organizations. Tony had created a lot of wounded people out there and this, she thought, was just one of the ways he sought absolution. The donations to VA hospitals had been another, though that was far less public.
Kanti’s hand touching her own, where she held tightly onto her own Starkpad, brought Pepper out of her thoughts. She met the taller woman’s gaze, which was dark and deep and full of a compassion that melted Pepper’s heart. Pepper put her hand on top of Kanti’s and smiled. “He’s changed,” she said quietly, “I think it’s for the better, too. I think he wants to do better, by everyone.”
“The way he talks now,” Kanti said quietly, “He speaks not of the future of his tech and his name, but the future of the world. He has laid out the groundwork in so many things but instead of completing them all on his own he has brought them here, to us. He does not seek to solve the troubles of the world himself, nor to get peace on his own.” She squeezed Pepper’s hand briefly. “I appreciate his generosity, in letting us help him. Many of us here helped make those weapons and the rationale required to go home and put aside our work before was much harder a task than it is these days.”
Kanti gives Pepper a little smile, “Once I went home unwilling to speak about work because of how it made me feel, now I must work hard not to speak because there is such a bright future ahead and I can see it so clearly down the road that Mr. Stark has laid before us.”
Pepper gave her a warm smile, glad to hear the words. She took her hand off of Kanti’s and tucked some of her hair back behind an ear. It was good to hear that the scientists like Kanti were as excited about the new direction of the company as Tony was, as she was. “I think he wants to have most of these designs ready for demonstration at the Expo this year. Do you think you and your teams can handle that?”
Kanti gave a sharp nod, a fierce look of pride crossed her features as she looked out at the gathered scientists around Tony. “It is what Mr. Stark expects of us, is it not? We will accomplish everything that he asks of us, so long as he does not expect us to replicate his genius. In that aspect, we can only look on in awe.”
Pepper laughed softly. Not softly enough, it seems, for Tony to miss.
He stopped in the middle of his speech and looked up, as if seeing her there for the first time, “Pepper!” he exclaimed.
Pepper put up a hand, “Don’t let me interrupt you, Mr. Stark. Everyone seems very engaged in your demonstration, and if we are to have these items ready for display in time for the Expo, they will need the rest of your descriptions.”
There were a couple of owlish blinks and whispers and Kanti looked sternly at her scientists. “Yes, you heard Ms. Potts correctly. Listen well to Mr. Stark and make a short list of which projects interest you the most. We will need to get everything ready for the Expo and which is sooner than you expect. It will not be easy, but creating the future we wish to live in will be worth the effort.”
Pepper could see the way Tony’s shoulders shifted, not dropping but relaxing. There was an ease that filled his body language as Kanti’s words straightened the backs of her employees. They looked more determined, less awed, and turned back to Tony while pulling out notebooks and Starkpads, ready to take complete notes. Tony dragged his hand over his face and lifted his hands again.
“All right,” he said, “Now that all you chuckleheads are paying attention, let’s start from the top one more time. A lot of sleepless nights went into this mess and I don’t want to have made Pep mad for nothing,” he gave a lopsided grin and flicked his fingers, sending the hologram scrolling back to the top of the list. “Let’s get on with it, shall we? We can always sleep when we die.”
Then he started again with the new and improved body armor with the scientists taking notes and asking questions. Kanti stayed with Pepper, making her own private observations on her tablet until Pepper’s calendar pinged in her notifications and she had to leave the R&D department in the hands of Tony and Kanti.
Tony looks in the mirror at the dark grey lines that seep under his skin like his body is undergoing a slow motion digitization in a third-rate sci-fi horror. His fingertip runs over the marks near the glowing arc reactor and he sighs. His breath fogs up the glass momentarily and he leans back. The blood poisoning hasn’t reached a toxic level, yet, but it’s clearly only going to get worse.
He runs his thumb over the tainted skin thoughtfully. Before, his death had been a catalyst for several things; Pepper becoming CEO of Stark Industries, Rhodes becoming suited up with the Iron Patriot and then the War Machine, SHIELD having a leg up on him with secret information and the validation that only a weirdly distant and possibly psychopathic father figure could give.
Tony snorted and reached for his shirt. He tugged it on and headed out of the bathroom. As he did, he heard a soft whisper of a voice, female and coming from the phone he had left beside his bed.
“Father, Fury approaches.”
It isn’t NOBODY’s voice that makes Tony hesitate, although it does always surprise him a little bit when she chooses to speak, it’s this new habit of hers that she’s picked up. He’s less a father and more an inventor or creator, but he knows that NOBODY and JARVIS talk and, well, they both know they can choose whatever they like to call him by. Tony doesn’t care, just as long as they are happy and healthy.
“Let me see,” Tony said, frowning slightly. The window in his bedroom that doubles as a screen flickered into life. The angle was a little skewed but he tilted his head and adapted to it quickly enough. “Where are they now?”
“They boarded ten minutes ago and are headed out of D.C. on a SHIELD classified transport jet,” NOBODY’s soft words emanate from Tony’s phone still on the nightstand.
The screen flickers to other views and Tony suddenly realizes why the first angle was so odd. NOBODY has hijacked Coulson’s phone or tablet and was using the camera on the back to view Fury. Now the view is of the front side and Tony can clearly see Coulson’s face while beside him, just out of frame, is a shock of familiar curly red hair.
“Jarvis,” Tony said as he watched Coulson read whatever was on the tablet. Probably bullshit about him, if he was really on his way to visit him. Tony couldn’t help but twist a little smile at that. Without the suit, would he still not be recommended for their superhero group?
“Clear my calendar for the rest of this week. Tell Pepper to push my meetings for next week. Send Happy a message to make sure the jet is fueled and that I’ll meet him at the hanger. I think I’m going to go visit Brucie for the weekend and get around to taking care of this,” he tapped the arc reactor in his chest.
“Yes, Sir,” JARVIS replied, without even bothering to mention that it was Tuesday and obviously not the weekend.
Tony made a dismissive gesture to the screen and it turned back into a window. “Thank you, Jarvis and thank you, Nobody. Keep an eye on the place for me while I’m gone.” He crossed the room and picked up his phone, where a message from NOBODY waited for him.
FOR YOU FATHER, ALWAYS.
“Dr. Banner, Dr. Ross,” JARVIS’s voice slides through Bruce’s concentration and he finds himself lifting his head, glancing up to where he’s figured out the camera resides. Across the table and down a few feet, he sees Betty putting down her pen and flexing the stiffness out of her fingers. “Mr. Stark has arrived and will be within the building in a few minutes.”
Bruce frowned slightly. “Stark’s here? Why?”
“Sir has indicated that he wants to make use of one of his more remote laboratories for, as he put it, more explosive sciencing. He has invited you and Dr. Ross to join him, if you are so inclined.”
“What kind of sciencing?” Betty asked, absentmindedly stretching out her wrist and hand, fighting off any potential carpal tunnel.
“Sir has decided to build himself a particle accelerator.”
The pen dropped from Bruce’s fingers and onto the table with a clatter, “You’re kidding me. Jarvis, tell me you’re kidding me.”
“I can do that, Dr. Banner, but that would not change the fact that Sir has already drafted up the schematics and sent the supplies here and that he, himself, is here to put it together.”
“I wondered what all that shit was that came here last month,” Betty muttered under her breath. She stood up from her stool and tugged on her white coat to straighten out a few wrinkles. “Come on Bruce, we should stop him from getting himself killed or blowing up the place.”
Bruce ran a hand down his face. He wasn’t quite sure if he liked Stark that much, but at least the man didn’t let things get boring. “All right,” he said wearily. “I guess we needed a break anyway.”
Bruce tidies up his station, putting his samples back into storage and putting his tools mostly back into place while Betty does the same at her own. She fiddles with one of the modified incubators, checking briefly on the cultures there before she heads up the stairs and out of the lab. Bruce follows her, wondering what kind of madness got into Stark this time.
Stark had other labs all over the country, but he only seemed do do the craziest shit here, in Colorado, with Bruce three doors down and the nearest hospital several hours away. Not that the clinic at the base of the mountain wasn’t up to snuff for the town’s needs, but there were only a couple of hundred people who lived there and they weren’t really equipped to handle a major crisis.
They followed JARVIS’s direction to a large room on the edge of the facility. It was one of the few labs that opened up to the parking lot and out to the road, which is why it was where they usually took in large deliveries or where Stark preferred to work. The last time Bruce had been in the room, he’d seen two cars along one wall- both of them half assembled- and the delivery guy had been unloading half a truck’s worth of boxes.
Now, when he opened the door for Betty and followed her in, he walked into a brightly lit room that had the cool air of the mountain coming in through the open doors. Stark was digging through the boxes, music playing over the speakers and he’d already abandoned his outer shirt, leaving himself in the sleeveless piece that showed the bright blue glow of the arc reactor in his chest.
“Brucie-bear!” Stark cried as they walked in, “Betty-dear! My two favorite biochemists. How goes the serum work? Any luck yet?”
“No,” Betty replied, already crossing the room with her hands on her hips. Bruce wasn’t exactly sure where she got the gumption to be in Stark’s face but he was glad it wasn’t him who had to get after Stark. It was easier to keep calm these days, what with not having to hide and being with Betty, but Bruce still wasn’t over how chummy Stark acted with him and how stupidly fearless he was of the Hulk.
“Which you should know considering we sent you a brief just yesterday.” She stopped several feet away from Stark, who paused in his unboxing to talk to her. He wasn’t wearing shades, Bruce noticed abruptly. And it was only because the room was so well lit that Stark’s eyes didn’t glow, at least, not that brightly.
“Ah, well, sometimes breakthroughs happen quickly!” Stark said, “Better luck later. Have you come down to join me in my sciencing?”
“Jarvis told us you’re making a particle accelerator,” Betty said, “What the hell for?”
“For science!” Stark replied, “And inventing! I think I got a good idea on this one and I wanted to give it a go!”
“And what if you give it a go and something goes wrong? What will you do then? This isn’t all fun and games, Stark. This is dangerous!”
Stark shrugged and dug back into the box. “I made one before and that was with whatever shit I had lying around in Malibu. This one will be better, safer, no threats of tasing and no weird pseudo-government agents babysitting. Then everything will be cool again and I can get back to work on the Expo shit.” he opened a box and hauled out some equipment.
Betty half turned to Bruce, her face disbelieving as she gestured to him.
Bruce sighed. “Stark, what are you trying to make?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Stark said, pulling out a box cutter from somewhere and digging into the next cardboard box. “I’m creating a new element.”
Bruce pushed up his glasses with both hands, this, this right here was the one reason he regretted signing that contract. Stark was certifiably insane, he had to be. “You can’t just- It doesn’t work like that- Stark-”
There was a metallic thump as Stark put some tubing down beside himself. Bruce looked at him and then blinked as Stark pulled his shirt up, baring the arc reactor in his chest. Immediately, Bruce took two steps forwards, eyes drawn not to the reactor but to the thin spider webbing of something grey on Stark’s skin. Betty whispered something intelligible under her breath and reached up a hand, but she was too far away and she dropped her hand quickly enough.
“The core that I’m currently working with isn’t exactly playing nice with my body chemistry,” Tony said, “So I came up with something new that will fix it.” He dropped his shirt down, patting his chest like he hadn’t just bared his chest, his heart, his secret, to the two of them. Tony shrugged nonchalantly, “You can either help or just observe or go back to your own stuff. I won’t be offended. I know you two are working hard on a cure.”
“What is that doing to you?” Betty asked, “Does it hurt?”
“Not yet,” he said, bending over and digging through a box. “And what do you think? It’s killing me of course.”
Bruce saw the way Betty’s hands tightened up and her shoulders pulled in. He winced preemptively as she closed the distance between herself and Stark. She grabbed him by the shoulder, leaning down as she urged him to straighten up, “It’s killing you? What do you mean it’s killing you? Who have you seen about it? What’s the diagnosis? Mr. Stark-”
“It’s basically like a kind of heavy metal poisoning,” Stark said. He nudged her arm with the back of his hand but he didn’t push hard enough to dislodge her. “Once I switch out the core of my current reactor with this new material, it’ll be fine!”
“Prove it,” Betty said, which made Stark’s eyes widen. “Show me the math, prove it to me. And if it’s good, I’ll help you make the thing. We both will, right Bruce?”
She looked over her shoulder at Bruce and his heart did a sideways lurch. She had a tightness about her eyes that spoke of her fear. He figured, if Stark died, they probably wouldn’t have their protection anymore which was a good reason to try and keep him alive. But this was Betty and she was more than that kind of self-serving belief. Betty was grateful to Stark, for the offer of a job for them both, for the protection, for the damn zen garden. Whether or not she liked him much, she wouldn’t want him to die doing something stupid.
“Show us the science, Stark,” Bruce said quietly, “And if it’s good. We’ll help.”
“Huh,” Stark blinked at them. The startled look made his eyes seem less alien, somehow. Then he ran his hand through his hair, tugging at it and muttering, “Didn’t have to show anyone last time… But I guess…” He turned and pulled away, moving with the kind of absent-mindedness that Bruce had seen only when Stark was deep in thought at his work. It was another kind of vulnerability, much like baring the reactor and showing the poison in his blood, except this one made Bruce feel kind of guilty.
He was always aware of Stark, was never quite able to fully sink into his work with the man nearby but Stark was able to do so near them. He trusted them. Trusted them to not take advantage of his distraction. Trusted Bruce not to rage and destroy him or his work.
“J,” Tony called out to the room. “Pull up the schematics for that expo display from my old office set up? And all the accelerator stuff too.” He flicked a smile to Betty and a wink to them both, “We’ve got plenty of time to go over the science before we put it together. I’ll be here all week.”
“Don’t you have a business to run?” Bruce asked. He couldn’t help but shake his head, not in the least surprised.
“Pepper knows where I am and besides, the department has their hands full,” Tony waved his hand dismissively as he walked towards the wall where JARVIS had brought up the displays. Betty was following him and Bruce behind her. He snagged a chair for them both and wished he’d brought something to write on as the wall filled up with information. “This is… more a vacation from Malibu than anything else. Had to get some of that mountain air, recover my health, blah blah blah, now, pay attention because I kind of didn’t write down every step and I’d like to get to the building part asap.”
Betty settled on the chair a little bit away from Bruce, leaning forward slightly with visible interest. “We’re ready, Stark. Go ahead.”
Stark gave them a smile that made his orange eyes flash and turned around, first to the display. He cleared his throat and then he began to talk. And talk. And talk. And bring up displays and models and numbers and talk some more.
Before long, Bruce knew in his gut that the science was sound and that he and Betty were going to be spending the rest of the day building a particle accelerator.
What the hell had his life become?
Bruce came back from the kitchen with sandwiches for the three of them to find Stark shifting part of the coil while Betty tested the level of the coil at a different point. As he crossed the room, Stark lowered the machine he was handling and pointed an accusing finger at Bruce, “You! Betty tells me you refuse to wear the pants I made you! You should at least try them on!”
Betty gave him an apologetic look. She had taken off her lab coat and had her sleeves rolled up on her blue button-down underneath. She had a bit of oil on her cheek and more on a hand that she wiped off with a cloth that she pulled out from her back pocket.
“I’m not wearing purple pants that say juicy on the back of them in green sparkling letters, Stark,” Bruce replied as evenly as he could, putting the plates down on the tower of boxes that was doubling as a sort of table. Every actual table had bits of machinery strewn about all over. “No matter how comfortable they appear to be.”
“But they stretch!” Stark said as if that was a good thing. “I mean they really stretch, but I don’t know yet if they stretch enough, you know?”
Betty was giving him a weird look as she walked over to the food. Bruce caught her eye and she rolled hers. “Apparently,” she said, “He made them out of some sort of durable, super stretchy material in the hopes that you can keep modest when, well you know.”
“I just think that Big Green might want to keep his Little Green to himself. Just because he’s got a shit vocabulary doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any body issues.” Stark said, tossing a screwdriver over and over in his hand, “I mean, eventually people will get used to the big green part and start to wonder if it’s sort of his thing to go nude too.”
“I-” Bruce was at a loss for words. This was exactly the kind of thing that Stark did that made him utterly baffling. There just wasn’t any proper rational fear in the man. He didn’t even think of the Hulk as a monster in any sense of the word. It was like they were talking about Bruce’s sibling or something, not the monster that had almost broken apart his whole world. “What part of I don’t want to become that creature ever again do you not understand, Stark?” Bruce felt emotion rise in his throat and threaten to choke him. Stark stopped tossing the screwdriver but didn’t reply.
“What do you think the point of my research is, huh? I’m trying to get rid of that thing inside of me. I don’t want to play dress up with it!” Bruce abruptly closed his mouth and breathed out through his nose, trying to dispel his growing anger. Betty ran a soothing hand across his shoulder and Stark just stared at them with those glowing orange eyes.
Inhuman, Bruce thought, he’s lost something human in him, to have eyes like those.
“Fine, don’t wear the pants,” Stark said with a shrug, “But keep them anyway. They were made for you,” he made a little circular gesture with his hand, turning the screwdriver with it, “Both of you.” He went for the level that Betty had left and began to double check the line.
Betty made an aborted motion to Stark, opening her mouth to call him over to eat, but she stopped when she met Bruce’s gaze. Instead, she cupped his cheek with her hand and whispered, “It’s all right. He was just trying to help with the pants. He just wants to help.”
“I don’t need any more of his help,” Bruce muttered back, closing his eyes so he could focus on the feeling of her hand on his skin and the smell of her, standing so close. “He’s done enough. I don’t need anything else.”
“Honey,” Betty whispered, “I don’t think he knows how to stop.”
Bruce snorted. She sighed and pat his cheek once more for good measure before saying thanks for the food and picking up one of the sandwiches. Bruce joined her and the two of them ate, watching Stark work, his focus eerily sharp on perfecting the accelerator’s alignment.
Bruce had just finished the other half of his sandwich when Stark, standing in the center of his machine, turned his glowing eyes on them again. The remnants of their discussion was gone, replaced with a fierce sort of pride.
“It’s ready,” he said. “It’s time for science.”
Bruce brushed crumbs from his hands and his shirt and got to his feet, nodding. He helped Betty get up and the two of them joined Stark for the final step.
Standing on the balcony that overlooks the front entryway to Stark Industries, Kanti nurses a rich cup of coffee while waiting for the elevator doors to open in front of her. Kanti catches the shine of red hair in sunlight out of the corner of her eye and turns towards it, her heart rate already picking up in anticipation. As her eyes light on said owner of red hair, the fluttering of her heart crashes down in disappointment.
The woman who strides across the floor, red heels, black pencil skirt, stark white button down blouse and a wild but tasteful copper mass of curls, is a pale imitation of Pepper Potts, whom Kanti had hoped to see before heading down to the lab. This new woman walks with a firm sense of purpose, parting the steady tide of Industry employees as they head down the stairs to the doors she just entered. The woman glances down at a watch on her wrist, the face of it turned on the inside and her red lips pressed into a firm, disappointed frown as she notes the time.
Kanti watches her climb the stairs while she sips her coffee. Red Curls must be running late. She didn’t carry a purse, just a slim black portfolio type binder balanced in the crook of one arm and against her side. Kanti is momentarily distracted by the ding of the elevator and the movement of other people, however, and briefly loses sight of the woman as she turns to go into the elevator.
Stepping into the elevator with only a handful of others, Kanti looks up in time to see the red-headed woman round the corner of the balcony railing from the top of the steps and realize, as the doors start to slide shut, that she’s going to miss her chance to get on.
Instinctively, Kanti reaches out a hand and stops the elevator. She gets a sidelong glance from one of the other riders, a man with a thin face wearing a suit that was just a little too tight to look good on him, but the others don’t do anything but shuffle to make space for the addition. Red Curls gives Kanti a slight smile and ducks in quickly. She turns to face the door and whispers an almost breathless, “Thank you.”
Kanti retracts her arm from the door and the stiff man in the business suit urgently presses the close door button, refusing to look at either one of them.
“Of course,” Kanti murmured back, “We can’t have you be late on your first day.”
Red Curls blinks a little, surprise coloring her features in an attractive way. Not as attractive as Pepper Potts, but still pretty enough. “Is it that obvious?” she whispered, leaning in towards Kanti.
Kanti gestured to badge clipped to the woman’s shirt pocket. “It’s against regulations to have your badge on a clip. They are too easy to remove and misuse that way,” She lifted her cup to her lips and added quietly, “You only get one reprimand for that infraction before you are suspended from access to anywhere that requires a badge to enter. A second reprimand often leads to suspension of employment and then a termination of employment.”
Red Curls' surprise makes her eyes go even wider. Something about the look doesn’t sit well with Kanti, but she pushes aside the feeling. Not every red-head was going to be able to hold up to the standards Kanti had from Pepper Potts.
“I wasn’t aware,” Red Curls said, fingering the badge nervously now.
“It’s a recent change,” says the man in the too-tight suit with an annoyed sniff, “A company-wide security policy change after that incident with the managing partner. It’s a bit of a nuisance, really. The point of the badge is to manage area permissions and allow quick access instead of using keys for everything. The incident didn’t even have a compromised badge involved in it. I don’t know why Mr. Stark changed everything so abruptly.”
Kanti ignored the man. To Red Curls, she said, “You get used to managing your badge quickly enough. It is a small sacrifice to help maintain the security of Stark Industries.”
Red Curls nodded to her and removed her badge from its clip. “It seems counterintuitive to hide the badge away,” she said, “I thought they were used to identify employees to each other and those without badges weren’t employees.”
“Even visitors get a temporary badge,” Kanti said, “And there’s a company-wide monitoring program that makes sure only people who are supposed to be here are here.”
Too-Tight made a noise almost like clearing his throat, “It’s a paranoid thing to do, but after what happened, Mr. Stark seems well off in being paranoid.”
The elevator stopped. Too-Tight Suit gave them a little nod as he stepped out of the elevator, “Ladies,” he said in goodbye. Kanti nodded back to him.
Red Curls stepped closer to Kanti, almost too far into her personal space for her comfort, as a handful of new people entered and settled in for the ride. Two of them Kanti recognized from her occasional forays into the IT department. They were in the middle of a conversation on the merits of one movie universe versus another, their voices not annoyingly loud but they didn’t seem too bothered to keep talking in the otherwise quiet elevator.
Kanti could feel the anxious energy coming off of Red Curls, but there was something odd to it, odd to the way she stood there, checking her watch and fiddling with the black leather binder she carried. When the elevator stopped again, this time on the research floor that Kanti had intended to depart onto, she hesitated. She stayed. Something in the back of her mind kept her from gently pressing past Red Curls and through the open doors even as one or two others from the back did so.
One cast a backward glance at them but Kanti didn’t respond.
As the doors slid shut again, she half turned towards Red Curls, “I am Dr. Kanti Sodhi, by the way. From research and development.”
“Natalie Rushman,” red lips part in a slight smile, “Hopefully Ms. Potts newest assistant.”
Kanti’s eyebrows rose, “And you are late on your first day?” That did not bode well for Ms. Rushman.
Rushman shook her head slightly and then reached up to brush the curls that caught on the corners of her lashes, “I wasn’t supposed to come in at all today, my first official day was tomorrow, but Ms. Potts called to see if I could be here early. It turns out that Mr. Stark spontaneously decided to take the rest of the week off and she needs an extra set of hands.”
Kanti let out a soft sigh, fighting the desire to close her eyes and rub her temples. With that information, Stark’s spontaneous show and tell the other day made sense. He wanted to get the ball rolling while he ran off and did some other almost certainly wild and insane thing for a week. She was glad he had, though, because her staff was beside themselves with how much work they had to do to take the refined pieces and dumb them down for the general public. Honestly, a prosthetic that could manipulate even half as well as a normal hand would be better than half of what was out there but Stark had made limbs with so much finesse and detail that their installation almost invariably required some form of neurological surgery.
“Yes,” Kanti said with wry amusement, “He does that.”
“But shouldn’t he be here, running his business? Mr. Stark still is the CEO, is he not?”
“He is,” Kanti said, “But it is wise to leave him be and allow him to do what he does best.”
Rushman’s brows pinched together just enough to show she was confused by Kanti’s words. The elevator slid to a stop and the doors opened. Kanti smiled at her and answered her silent question, “Mr. Stark is inventing the future, not like in those cute little cartoons of automated houses and robots, but the kind of future that people like us can only dream of. One of equality and peace, where people do their best to ease the suffering of others and the world unites together in an effort to better ourselves and each other.”
Rushman’s dark eye flicked to the corner, where she could see like Kanti could, the slight nod of the other passengers of the elevator. None of them moved, though this was Rushman’s stop if she was to go directly to Pepper Potts.
As the elevator dinged and the doors began to close, Kanti again reached out her hand to stop them. “Ms. Rushman, I believe this is your stop?”
“I- Yes. Thank you again, Dr. Sodhi.” Rushman nodded her head and stepped out. Her red heels flashed in the light as she entered the hallway and strode confidently down towards her destination. Kanti pulled her hand back and watched her go until the doors slid closed and Rushman was blocked from her sight.
Bruce found Betty out in the zen garden as the last of the sun burned a deep red across the edge of the mountain and the sky turned deep purple above them. She sat on one of the low stone benches, her legs stretched out in front of her and her hands tucked behind her as she leaned back. Bruce came up behind her, his feet crunching softly on the gravel pathway, and he reached out to her, his fingers skimming up her back between her shoulder blades. Betty smiled and tilted her head back, her loose dark hair brushing over his hand and wrist.
Bruce slid his hands over her shoulders, rubbing at them with his thumbs, working out the strain of the day from her muscles.
Betty closed her eyes and let out a soft sigh, rolling her head around on her neck until her chin was almost on her chest.
They remained that way as the sun sank fully behind the mountain and the sky turned dark. Only when Betty shrugged her shoulders and started to turn did Bruce lift his hands and stop. She shifted around on the bench and gave Bruce a thoughtful, almost apologetic look.
“Bruce,” she said, reaching for his hand. He let her take it, let her slide her fingers between his. “Do you ever wonder what happened?”
Bruce’s brows furrowed together as he puzzled her question. He sat down on the bench next to her, never moving so far that they had to let go of each other’s hands. “What happened where? To who?”
Betty rubbed at her temple with her other hand and gave him a look that was definitely an apology, “To Stark. In that cave.”
Bruce sighed. “I try not to think about it.”
“I know, I know, you don’t always see eye to eye with him,” Betty said quickly, “But that’s exactly what I mean. His eyes, Bruce. His eyes. They glow. How do they do that? What did they do to him to make them glow?”
“What good does wondering about it do for us?” Bruce asked back, “He has no reason to tell us and we have no good reason to ask. Our curiosity isn’t a good enough reason to probe into a man’s trauma, Betty. His eyes glow orange, so what? My eyes changed when I changed.”
“If not us, then who? I don’t think that he shows just anyone his arc reactor. I don’t think he even told anyone about the thing poisoning him except for us!”
“So he’s secretive,” Bruce said, “ We’re his secrets too, Betty. He has good reason to keep to himself.”
“But you have to admit, there is something there, in his eyes. It watches us,” Betty whispered, leaning in, “It watches us with his eyes.”
Now you’re just imagining things, Bruce opened his mouth to say but the words wouldn’t come out. He swallowed on nothing, thinking about the way Stark’s eyes saw into him and through him. He didn’t think he’d been compelled by those eyes but he… Stark had known what he wanted. What he needed. Had read the cracks in Bruce’s heart that had told Stark everything that he needed to know to sway Bruce to his side and capture him in a way that no one else had been able to do. And people had tried, they always tried to get him, but they always failed.
Everyone but Stark.
He bit his lip and shook his head.
“Bruce,” Betty ran her free hand up and down his arm, compelling and comforting, “You know what I’m talking about, right? You’ve felt it too?”
In that moment, he realized she wasn’t so much searching for answers as she was validation. Whatever it was that had made Stark the way he was something beyond them and, if Betty felt even half as unsettled as Bruce did when those eyes fixated on him- He shuddered and Betty’s fingers curled around his wrist.
“Yes,” he whispered, “I’ve felt strange, looking into his eyes. There’s something...inhuman about them.” His lips twitched into a grimace. Stark? Inhuman? That was rich coming from him. “But I don’t think its malicious.”
“No, I agree with you, I don’t think it will harm us. I don’t think it wants to harm anything.” Her eyes were focused past him now, into the oncoming darkness of the night. The sounds of the forest were distant around them but nothing could stop the crickets and frogs and other things from singing in the night. The world around them was ignorant of what they said, ignorant of Stark and his machinations. “But what does it want with us?”
Bruce shook his head, “Betty-”
“What does it want with Stark?” Betty asked and Bruce’s words dried up.
With what Stark could do, with what Stark had access to, whatever possessed him or compelled his actions could make him do almost anything. They had built a particle accelerator and synthesized a new fucking element earlier that afternoon and that was just one afternoon. Stark was so full of ideas and so loaded with cash and so surrounded by tech and helpers that whatever he wanted to do he did, whatever he wanted to have he got, whatever he wanted to create he could.
“What does anyone want with Stark?” Bruce said tightening his grip on Betty’s hand, frowning now, “Whatever they can wring out of his head, of course.”
Betty was silent for a long time, her eyes far away, on the stars that were beginning to appear in the sky as the last ruddy red traces of the sun dipped behind the mountain. They were brighter out here than in the city and reminded Bruce of the times when he was out in the woods in South America, wondering if he’d ever see Betty again, wondering if he’d ever find a cure, wondering if he was just going to be Bruce Banner and the Hulk for the rest of his life.
“What do we do, Bruce?” Betty whispered, “How can we help?”
Bruce sighed. He cupped her cheek in his hand, finally drawing her gaze back to him. “We do what we can, Betty. When he comes here for distraction, for help, for science… we do what we can.”
Betty sighed, leaning into his touch. She closed her eyes and Bruce smiled at her, brushing his thumb across the soft curve of her cheekbones. “You’re too good for me, Betty,” he said quietly. Her lashes fluttered and she looked at him with a little smile, “But I’m glad you’re with me anyway.”
“Oh, Bruce…” Betty inched closer and put her arm around his shoulders. Even though it was awkward to hold hands still, she didn’t let go of him. “I love you too.”
Bruce flushed and ducked his head. Betty laughed softly, but it was warm and kind and made his chest ache with emotion. She kissed his cheek gently and Bruce closed his eyes.
Betty was far too good for him and this place was too.
And if it hadn’t been for Stark, Bruce didn’t know where he would be.
So he was grateful of the man and what he’d done, even if, deep inside, where Bruce still couldn’t believe in the invulnerability of the Hulk, he was afraid of him. Afraid of what he could do. Afraid of how he could take it all away again.
Bruce didn’t think he’d survive, that the Bruce Banner part of him would remain intact if Stark took Betty away from him after all this.