Of all the things that passed over Skid Row--tourists, taxes, taxis, the police, garbage collectors--the sun was not one of them, although if it had free will, it would want to. Even if its rays could penetrate the cloak of smog, they would only illuminate further greyness: grey streets and sidewalks, grey buildings, grey people. The same sun that harkened dawn over Central Park, letting joggers know it was time for their pre-work dash across the green; signaled the Union Square Farmer’s Market vendors to unload their trucks and set up their stands; created a shining halo over the one hundred-story Stark Tower; even reached the underground and signalled the subways to run at more frequent intervals--that same sun could not change the corpse-like pall of Skid Row.
Bruce Banner, who arguably did have free will, did not pass over Skid Row, either. He worked in Skid Row’s sad little flower shop that somehow stayed open, even though he, with his genius intellect, would be hard-pressed to explain how. He lived on Skid Row, in a tiny slice of a room above the store. Straight out of Dickens, his little box: furnished with a cot, lit by candle, heated by a nest of blankets.
He began his mornings--the mornings that he did sleep-- relieved to escape his sleeping nightmares and resume his waking one. Depending on how bad his dreams were, he’d extricate himself from a tangle of blankets. Otherwise, he’d unceremoniously rise, blankets tumbling to the ground. Visitors--if he ever had them, which he didn’t--might fill in a Gestalt picture of uncleanliness based on the location, lighting, and dreariness. In fact, the floor was clean, so it was no great sanitation hazard when his blankets reached the floor.
Next, in a fluid sequence he’d:
- Set a pot of water on the hot plate
- Brush his teeth
- Let a thin stream of alternately frigid-cold and scalding-hot water drip onto him.
When he first moved into the apartment, the shower had been one of the most unpleasant surprises. Instinct told him to hop away from the water, especially when it burned, but Bruce was nothing if not adaptable and good at nothing if not resisting his impulses. Soon, he could slump in the shower, let whatever hit him hit him, and suffer the slings and arrows of his fortune .
By the time the shower ended, the pot of water would be boiling, and he’d treat himself to a mug of tea and a newspaper, science journal, or book, depending on how depressed he was.
He’d put on one of three pairs of slacks and one of five button-downs, then head downstairs to his shop. That was where the plants lived. It was also, really, where he lived. He slept in his apartment, but downstairs he watered, pruned, swept, experimented with different soils and sunlight exposures, rearranged plants and furniture. Sometimes, if he had a customer--which he usually didn’t—he would chat.
And some days, he’d have The Customer.
The most exciting thing to ever happen on Skid Row--if you didn’t count muggings, robberies, and murders, which Bruce didn’t--happened at Bruce’s flower shop: sometimes Tony Stark, the Tony Stark, the Tony Stark of Stark Industries, the Tony Stark of Stark Towers, stopped by Bruce’s store. Luckily, people on Skid Row--to borrow a phrase from the neighborhood--didn’t see shit, and if they did see shit, they wouldn’t say shit.
Bruce wasn’t starstruck. In fact, Tony’s visits irritated him. Well, not irritated. They should have been irritating, but they were flattering. Or they should have been flattering but they were irritating. Or there should have been a precise, identifiable emotion Bruce could name. Yet for all the hours he spent, sitting on carpeted floors next to Duplex blocks and wire roller coasters, as a kindly social worker asked him to look at flash cards of feelings and discuss his own (“How do you know when you’re angry, Bruce? What about happy?”), he was at a loss when it came to Tony.
But it was objectively cool that Tony Stark visited his shop. No one with savings and more than a four-figure salary had any reason to venture down, down, downtown into that metropolitan Underworld. And billionaires? They didn’t exist in the same universe--except when Tony Stark was within Bruce’s walls. So that was kind of special.
Tony Stark Days were irregular, but moderately frequent: no less than nine days apart, no more than two weeks. Today was a Tony Stark Day.
Instead of the usual trumpeting fanfare (an A-list celebrity bellowing “TOOONNYYY STAAARK!” to an adoring crowd of thousands), a door chime signaled his entrance. Titan of industry, most powerful man in the world or not, he was still just a man and thus not immune to small metal jingling.
Head cocked, Tony surveyed his surroundings as if he had never been in any store before, let alone this one. Eyeing the hanging plants in the corner, Tony unzipped his microfleece. (The store ran hot and stuffy in the winter, and even hotter and stuffier in the summer.) Next, the sunglasses came off. Aviators, Tony painstakingly corrected him, but to Bruce they’d always be sunglasses. His brow furrowed at the larkspur, then he nodded approvingly. He ran a finger across the hydrangeas.
“Hey, Tony,” Bruce said. Tony turned his attention to Bruce as if he was just now realizing there was another person in the room.
“Dr. Banner!” He approached Bruce’s desk with his arms spread wide, greeting his old, old friend from ten days ago.
“What can I get for you today?” Bruce asked.
“Another pair of hands in the lab! A set of agile, nimble fingers that can coax life from plants and metal.” Tony grabbed Bruce’s hand and pressed his thumb against Bruce’s palm, making his fingers lay flat. No one dared touch Bruce in this way; no one else dared touch Bruce, period--well, except Audrey, who’d fling herself on him with casual hugs and only occasionally notice that he flinched.
After a moment past awkward, Bruce extracted his hand from Tony’s grip.
“What can I get for Pepper, then?”
“This Saturday is either her grandmother’s birthday or her grandfather’s funeral. Does that make a difference?”
“I like a challenge. One birthday-funeral special coming up.”
Bruce knew it was for a birthday because Tony would never be so flippant about a death in Pepper’s family. Bruce never met her, probably never would, but he knew she was special: Tony gushed about her almost as much as he did himself.
“If you liked a challenge, you’d be working with me instead of wasting your life and that beautiful brain.”
“I’m not wasting my life. I like it here.” Bruce puttered around his store and plucked flowers from here and there: the larkspur that Tony eyed, the hydrangeas he’d fingered. Then he filled in the rest, something festive yet classy. He’d seen Pepper on TV, holding press conferences, and though he would never meet her and never cared about impressing anyone, he could tell she was a woman of impeccable taste. Maybe he did want to impress her a little bit.
“You’re too smart to believe that.”
And you’re too smart to believe that I could be happier anywhere. Bruce returned to his desk and arranged his selections on top of a red foil sheet. Tony studied his every movement, trying to figure out what every flip, switch, and placement meant. Moments like these, Bruce felt they were two valuable components of the same ecosystem, each filling a niche that the other could not: Tony could run an international mega-conglomerate; Bruce could arrange flowers in aesthetically pleasing displays. They were equals.
“Pick a card,” Bruce said, tossing a handful of options in front of Tony so that he would have something to do while Bruce tied the ribbon. Handmade cards were one of the little-known perks of the little-known store. They had all been drawn and designed by Audrey. Bruce discovered her talent one idle summer day when it was too hot to kill time with needless time cleaning, and the exertion of energy would create sweat-odor. Bruce read an austere science journal, heavy and cumbersome on his lap, and Audrey sat on the floor. He assumed she’d be on her phone or something, some online dating service or playing--what was the cool thing now? Kardashian? CandyCrush? When he set his tome down he glimpsed her drawings out of the corner of his eye. They looked...good. They couldn’t have possibly been that good.
“Can I see those?” Bruce asked.
“Oh, uh, sure. They’re nothing really.” But she immediately gathered up her scraps of paper and handed them over.
He flipped through them. She had created two-dimensional black-and-white replicas of his desk and the flowers on the back of receipts. He glanced up at the room to compare her drawings to their real-life counterparts. The details, the shading...it was almost spooky how exact they were. But still-lifes were still-lifes. It was the landscape paintings that struck him. She’d created a world outside her immediate surroundings, a world of her own design. Identical houses and identical lawns that in real life would bore Bruce to death somehow took on a sweet suburban life when rendered on the back of a flyer. He realized why: they were drawn with love. They were Audrey’s dream.
God, who on earth loved the suburbs?
“Audrey, these are really good.”
“Aw, Doctor, you don’t gotta…”
“No, I’m serious. Do you enjoying drawing?”
“I love it! If I could make money as an artist--well, if I wasn’t working here--I mean, I love working here, but--”
“It might be a good idea to have some cards on hand. Would you like to do that?”
“I’d love to!”
He’d dipped into his savings for a couple of hundred sheets of canvas and linen cardstock and some art supplies. Audrey filled them up within a week. He expected many of them: cute cartoons with cheap jokes and bad puns written in dialogue bubbles, bubbly Happy Birthday cards.
But some were downright tasteful, classy even, and he couldn’t imagine where Audrey had gotten that kind of eye.
Most customers waved the cards away. Tony, though, took his time with each of his options, staring at them as if he were selecting which million-dollar painting to hang in the living room of his penthouse.
“Audrey drew these, yeah?”
“They’re really good.”
Tony slid a simple yet elegant red card with gold edges towards Bruce. Bruce dug into his drawer for his calligraphy pen.
“How old is Pepper’s grandmother?”
“Turning 97,” Tony said. He leaned over to watch Bruce’s fingers stroke the words Happy 97th Birthday inside the card.
Tony told him, and he wrote it on the front of the card.
“If science isn’t your thing,” Tony said, throat sounding suddenly dry, “we could use an in-house calligrapher.”
Bruce ignored him and added a few flourishes.The tail of the final “y” grew out in a curve and swooped over the other words. Then he taped the card to the vase.
“Can I keep this one?” Tony held up one of the cards, a brown-and-white spotted palomino. When Bruce first saw it, he had no idea what occasion anyone could use it for, but the drawing was quite good. Now, he guessed, it had found a purpose.
“Of course. Anything else?” He said, tapping the pen against the counter.
“Dinner. On me. My choice of restaurant. All you have to do is show up.”
Bruce slid the completed bouquet over to Tony. “Say hi to Pepper for me.”
“I know a vegan Indian place that is absolutely divine. Quiet, low-key, you can come dressed like that.” Getting no reaction, Tony pressed on. “Or you can stop by Stark Tower, check out my tech. But I’d recommend bringing everything you own, because you won’t want to leave.”
At the word “tech,” Bruce glanced up. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t the first time Tony brought up a job offer—it wasn’t even the first time that day—but that word, in Tony’s voice, dinged a Pavlovian response. It filled Bruce’s mind with the stuff of fantasy--well, sci-fi--well, sci-reality, thanks to Tony Stark. He couldn’t help but envision himself in the middle of an expansive, expensive lab, working on gamma tech or nano tech or whatever is heart desired that day.
“We can negotiate starting salary later. I’m sure you’ll want to talk me down, but I’m gonna remain firm: seven-figure starting. You can choose the digits and whatever order they go in.”
“Tony. You know I can’t work for you. I’m poison. It would be a PR debacle that even you couldn’t handle. It’s just not worth it.” I’m not worth it, Bruce thought.
“Poison can’t make plants grow like this.”
Tony tilted Bruce’s chin so that they were looking at each other. Eye contact wasn’t Bruce’s forte. Neither was touch. But if he kept his expression carefully neutral and stared at Tony’s eyebrows, averting his gaze from those sharp, probing eyes--maybe he could hide that. Neither heard the door chime. They could not say the same for Audrey’s accompanying chatter.
“Hey, Mr. Stark! You know, it’s so funny, you look exactly like that guy in the papers all the time! And your names are the same. You sure you two aren’t related? At all?”
Tony instantly drew away from Bruce but, Bruce figured, not fast enough. “Audrey Fulquard. You are more radiant than the sun. Thank goodness I have shades.” Tony lowered the sunglasses--Aviators-- over his eyes. “Speaking of radiant beauty, you drew this?” He held up the horse card between two fingers.
“Yeah. It’s just a doodle.” Audrey blushed.
“Doodle or not, it’s incredible. Let me know if--” He stopped short of shifting his job-offering attentions to her. “Let me know if you ever have an art show, OK?”
Audrey giggled. “I can’t tell if you’re teasing me.”
“Tony would never be disingenuous.”
“That’s right. I am only ever ingenuous.”
“I’m sure your lawyers can attest.”
“And several hundred hours of court transcript.”
“You talk so fast with each other! I can’t tell who’s smarter.”
Bruce smiled, bracing himself for some up-close, brand name, moderately-insulting Tony Stark Ego. Everything Tony did made headlines, from his latest innovations to his most recent vacations, and everything in between. The man couldn’t stand next to a woman without both winding up on Page 6. No tweet escaped cable news analysts’ probing eyes. But nothing evoked as much ire and dissection as his ego.
Popular consensus was that a person should have some humility, and even if they didn’t, they should at least act like they did. Popular consensus was that Tony Stark did not. But Tony’s most egregious transgression was that his swollen head was thoroughly earned.
So it took Bruce a split second longer to register what Tony actually said:
“Oh, that’s easy. Bruce is.”
The billionaire pecked Audrey on the cheek and departed.
Bruce replayed the conversation in his head. Either he’d missed a sentence or two, or Tony was teasing or flirting or flirt-teasing, or.
Or he’d meant it.
“I wish someone looked at me the way Mr. Stark looks at you,” Audrey sighed. Moments like these tempted Bruce to hug Audrey, but there were so many ways it could go wrong. Like, they could accidentally smack each other going in. Or his hug could be creepily long or offensively short. Worst of all, she’d had bad experiences with men, nothing but awful from what Bruce could tell, and he knew that, rather than offend him, she would accept an unwanted touch. He never wanted to put her in that position
Instead, he simply said, “You broke up with the dentist?”
“Oh, um. No.” Audrey blushed and dusted off the racks.
“Oh.” Bruce didn’t like to pry, but he felt that he really, really should. Or shouldn’t. He busied himself with the stack of cash Tony left on the counter. It was more money than the bouquet had cost (“You’re low-balling me, big guy.”) Actually, it was more money than a hundred bouquets would cost.
Maybe that was how they stayed in business.
“Why don’t you and Mr. Stark--well, you know? You’d be such a cute couple! I bet he lives somewhere nice. Uptown. Like Hamilton Heights or Inwood! Right near Lin-Manuel Miranda! You could watch those smart game shows together, the real smart ones, like Jeopardy and Family Feud.” She leaned against the counter, staring at a spot just above the door, lost in fantasy. “Ooh, you could cook him dinner, and he could buy you flowers--well, maybe not flowers, but books! You could buy him flowers!”
“Tony’s a flirt. He looks at everyone that way. But I think you should find someone who looks at you the way Tony—the way you think Tony looks at me. And if the dentist doesn’t, you should find someone who does.
“Oh, I...I don’t know. He's not so bad.” Audrey turned away from him and resumed dusting.
I’ll protect you, he thought, from the fallout that can be as bad, worse, than staying, but you need to want to leave first. Please want to leave.
Bruce felt the old churning inside, that roiling, hungry rumble. The one part of him that didn’t come from his brain but from some place primal and evil. He’d tried to tuck all the vestiges from his medieval spleen into the folds of his brain so that they were neat and manageable and safe, but there was still...that…
“I’m gonna go for a walk, OK?” Bruce said. “You can hold down the fort while I’m gone?”
"Of course, Dr. Banner," Audrey said, flinging her arms around him and squeezing him tight. "You go clear your head."
He needed fresh air and peace of mind—neither of which could be found on Skid Row. Regardless, he headed outside and pulled on a rumpled jacket. Crime rates being what they were, he took most of Tony’s largesse and told Audrey to call him if she needed anything.
He passed by his regular fruit vendor, the one with the least-bruised fruit, and then his second-most regular fruit vendor, the one with the most-bruised fruit, good for composting. He passed a sad little patch of grass and a splintered, knocked-over bench: Skid Row Park. The Park hosted a special exhibit of a decaying squirrel getting picked apart by maggots.
Down the block, geysers of water burst from the busted-open caps of the neighborhood’s last fire hydrant. With no children outside to play, and in the dead of winter, the water went to waste. Bruce sighed. It was so unnecessary.
A bird soared above him. Far away, it looked like nothing more than a featureless little shadow. Featureless or not, it was going somewhere, making a brave, rare journey by itself. Somehow even birds and squirrels knew to avoid the area. This one did not get the instinctual memo, or it was the avian equivalent to Robert Frost’s famous traveler, choosing the less-traveled path.
It dropped from the sky and landed at Bruce’s feet.
Just as Bruce registered the thud, a rustling beside him stole his attention. Another pitch-black shadow with glinting red eyes emerged from the thick planks of wood boarding up what had once been a candle shop/meth lab. It darted to the dead bird and grabbed it in its mouth, not breaking pace until it reached the sewer grate. The rat charged between the bars, and turned around for the bird, pulling it through once, twice, until it was twisted and flattened enough to join follow it into the abyss.
Maybe today was an uptown day.
Busses ran roughly every twenty-six hours, so Bruce walked the four miles to the nearest subway station and headed uptown.
Most people on Skid Row respected him. They thought his politeness and lavender polos signalled that he was, in fact, the craziest and most dangerous motherfucker in town.
Uptown was trickier. Simply put, there were too many people: thousands of anonymous faces with their own unknowable pasts sprawling behind them, and their expansive present lives spreading ahead. Then they all drifted in a space that was simultaneously too large and too small, each forced to navigate the unpredictability of human behavior. However bad strangers were, recognition was even worse, because it meant Bruce did something someone remembered him for, and what could it be?
Statistically speaking, each time he went uptown, he risked multiple random variations both surprise recognition and uncontrolled unknowingness.
At least he could somewhat control his experience in the Flower District. He knew where each shop was, who was on shift, their politics, family, safe topics of conversation. When all else failed, he could talk about plants!
The vendors seemed to like him, inasmuch as anyone could. The older women especially doted on him. They had daughters or granddaughters to set him up with; the more worldly ones offered sons and grandsons. He’d blush and help heft their boxes on their tables or unload their cars, fetch them water or Danishes, compliment their flowers.
No moment rivaled the first breath at the top of the staircase leading up from the subway, the first image of the Oz-like transition from the dreary black-and-white of Kansas to the technicolor spread before him, stacks of flowers splayed across tables like rainbows embodied and given scent.
All business was sinister. The brighter the facade, the darker the underbelly. But from this vantage, right outside the subway staircase looking in, he could pretend otherwise.
He inhaled the comparatively fresh city air and stepped forward.
The cold weather meant business was not booming, which was perfect for Bruce. He weaved through a family crouching over gardenias, overheard young men in couples act like they knew what they were talking about. Business women strolled through the market on their lunch break, pulling their friends towards particularly eye-catching bouquets, snippets about marriage reaching his ear.
As for Bruce, he went through his professional rounds. Where had he been they’d missed him so much they hoped everything was OK could he please pick up that cord such a dear he should stop by more often they hadn’t seen him in ages they thought something happened to him. By the end, his hands were full of purchases and freebies foisted on him.
His last stop was Mr. Mushnik’s, the old Jewish uncle-figure Bruce never had. Mushnik hated his job, but he knew plants. He was the only vendor who recognized a rare clipping when he saw one. The others presented Bruce with slightly-browned lettuce leaves and oddly-colored scraps of paper (“In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this!”) and he’d humor them, pore over the subject, and graciously take it home (the garbage) to study (throw out).
“Brucie boy!” Mr. Mushnik exclaimed. “You’ve been gone for too long!”
“Hey, Mr. Mushnik.” To this day, Bruce did not know his first name or if Mr. Mushnik ever told him.
“Nothing new or unusual today, I’m afraid.”
“That’s OK,” Bruce said. He could use some new zinnias. Mushnik’s were passable zinnias, not the best-- Mr. Maraczek’s were--but that was the trade-off for not having a speciality.
Suddenly, the vibrant zinnias darkened. Bruce squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again. They were still several shades darker.
A murmuring commotion grew in the pathway. Bruce turned to see people clustered together, pointing at the sky.
The thing about New Yorkers was, as much as they boasted otherwise, they were people. So when they saw a dark shadow pass over the sun--which Anderson Cooper most assuredly did not warn anyone about--they panicked.
“Oh my god, oh my god, what is that? What IS that?” A man repeated.
“What’s happening to the sun?” A woman asked her friend, clutching at her. “Is that a solar eclipse? Was that supposed to happen?”
To their credit, it was not full-blown mania and, hell, it wasn’t like citizens of a major metropolitan area had no reason to panic when they saw a strange occurrence in the sky, especially an unpredicted solar eclipse.
Solar eclipses did not—could not—happen randomly. As darkness fell over New York on a Tuesday morning, Bruce’s scientist mind flared with hypotheses. But he was no longer part of that world. He had no equipment, resources, or funding anymore. He was a member of the gasping hoard now, those who posted the eclipse on Youtube and waited for Reddit to explain what the hell happened.
When the sun reappeared a few minutes later, the murmuring broke with nervous laughs and excited chatter. Bruce turned back to the zinnias.
“Was this here before?” Bruce asked. An ugly, bulbous little plant appeared amidst the bright petals. He could swear under oath—Bruce closed his eyes, shook his head, banished the thought—he had been certain the plant was not there before. Now was not a great time for his sense of reality to slip away from him.
“Yes, yes, of course! I completely forgot. Ugly little thing, isn’t it?”
He looked from the plant to Mr. Mushnik and back at the plant again. It had not been there before the eclipse. One moment an inexplicable natural phenomenon ground New York City to a halt; the next, a plant materialized. Most disturbing of all, Bruce could not identify it.
“If you like it so much, it’s yours.”
“Do you—“ Bruce swallowed, contemplating his next words as a sign of defeat, “—do you know what this is?”
“Me? Kid, if you don’t know, I don’t know!”
Bruce was lucky enough—imagine being lucky—to catch the bus back to Skid Row from the subway. He sat with the little plant in his lap. Mr. Mushnik was right: it was ugly, ugly-cute. Its bulbous head looked broken into a grin, and its two little leaves were raised upright as if waving. Actually, it looked like a children’s toy or a kitschy little office tchotchke to make the dreary nine-to-five seem less dull, without, of course, the hassle of having to care for an actual living thing. He pressed his fingers against the leaves, ran his pinky along the top of its head. No, it had the textures of a real plant, and smelled faintly of mulch and copper.
The unexpected solar eclipse settled in the back of his head. Talking heads would give airtime to experts and idiots alike about why it happened. Aliens, the mafia, Stonehenge, maybe a plausible scientific explanation thrown in. Perhaps it was some crazed billionaire’s experimental attempt to block out the sun. Bruce smirked. Tony .
His inability to identify the plant troubled him more than the eclipse. No species of flora in his expeditions to rainforests and his journeys to Australia stumped him. He had never needed to consult a guidebook except when someone questioned his prowess and he needed to prove them wrong.
Still. Wasn’t it sheer ego to think he could identify every plant in the world, even at the peak of his expertise? New species were being discovered every day. He couldn’t possibly know all of them, especially after so much time in his flower shop, dealing in roses and chrysanthemums day in and day out.
Perhaps he needed to reawaken his brain with a trip. He could close up shop for a few months. Maybe he’d take Audrey along. Seeing the world would do her good. She’d never been on a plan.
The idea died by the time he returned to the flower shop. It wasn’t more than an idle daydream whose lifetime began and ended on the bus.
“Hey, Audrey,” he said. He knew better than to ask if they had customers.
Audrey beamed when he told her he went to the market. She helped him unload, pressing her face against each new flower. “I bet everyone was thrilled to see you! Oh, these must be Mrs. Armfeldt’s carnations. She always has the loveliest. What’s that little one you got there? In the pot?”
“Oh, this? It’s, uh, something from Mr. Mushnik. He didn’t know what it was so he gave it to me. I guess I’ll keep it as a pet project.”
“What are you gonna name it?”
“Yeah! If it’s gonna be here for a while, it should have a name. What about Twoney?”
“Like Tony, but the second one. Twoney. And it looks like a cartoon.”
Bruce smiled a wry, crooked smile as he observed the plant. Any other person of Tony’s stature would be offended to the point of litigation to find out an ugly weed like this was named after him. Tony would preen with flattery when he found out. Maybe a little too much preening and a little too much flattery, but Audrey already cooed the name at the plant, and that's how it was decided.
"Twoney it is."
Hello everyone! Thank you for reading this if you are. I appreciate it. I also appreciate any and all comments and feedback, especially if it's good.
When I started writing this I thought it was going to have a similar tone to the Little Shop musical, but the fic shaped up to be much darker. It gets bloodier from here on out (though not immediately). Heed the tags.
I have Bruce's backstory mapped out and down the line (far, far down the line), there will be a backstory chapter, although if you know his comic book origin story, you can probably figure out what it is. It explains (I hope) why Bruce is making the choices he's making with regard to Orin and Audrey. There is also a reason he doesn't seem to worry about money (that's not just because he doesn't care).
Bruce tried to treat all his plants equally. It was silly, he knew. Florists talked to plants and that was acceptable because common wisdom stated that it helped them grow. The data wasn’t as conclusive as people thought, but it didn’t hurt, and there was nothing embarrassing--well, nothing that Bruce found embarrassing--about talking in a room devoid of anything except himself and plants.
But treating plants “equally,” as if plants had a standard of justice, and that it would align, no matter how primitively, with human conceptions of fairness, was wholly sentimental and subjective. Even granting those premises, it was a preposterous leap to imagine plants would register the time their caretakers spent with others, like jealous siblings searching for quantifiable proof that they were, in fact, the least favorite.
Regardless, Bruce viewed it as botanical Pascal’s Wager: if the plants could sense human vibes, then fairness was appropriate. If the plants could not, then it was an exercise in empathy. He didn’t even have a favorite type of flower.
Still, it was hard not to play favorites with Twoney. Twoney was a one-of-a-kind specimen, for Bruce and Bruce alone. Other plants came and went. They came to Bruce’s shop with the sole purpose of leaving, one day, in a sale. But he would never sell Twoney. Twoney’s value was as a specimen, and what better pairing was there than an undiscovered plant and genius scientist? It didn’t help that Audrey kept mixing up the phrases “pet” and “pet project.”
Since Twoney arrived on a Tony Stark Day, it took him two weeks to meet his namesake.
“You’ll find him interesting,” Bruce told him as the days drew closer. “Well, no, you won’t, you’re a plant. But I bet he’ll find you interesting.”
Finally, the day arrived. Tony barely finished swaggering in when he spotted Twoney on the far back wall behind Bruce’s desk.
“What is that beautiful creature back there?” Tony asked, gesturing to Twoney. Bruce appreciated Tony complimenting the plant, even if he was sarcastic. Too many people called the plant ugly and, well, vibes.
Tony leaned over Bruce’s desk to peer, stretching on his tip-toes, his way of respecting and testing the boundary that was Bruce’s desk. It was how Tony treated Bruce like a professional, his way of saying, “You might not make a lot of money, you might live in a shitty neighborhood, your profession might be so far below your education and skills that it is practically a grave, but you are a business-owner and I will treat you like one.” Bruce appreciated the sentiment and liked to take advantage any chance he got. He cocked his head in confusion and turned around, brow furrowed.
“That--that thing--” Tony’s curiosity strained his voice, stretching his finger toward the wall.
“Oh, this?” Bruce said, at last plucking the pot from the shelf. “It’s a funny story.” Bruce stared at his hand, like an amateur Hamlet forgetting his lines to Yorick’s skull.
“You know that solar eclipse a couple of weeks ago?”
At Tony’s impatient “yes,” Bruce retold the story--his trip uptown, his triumphant return to the flower market and his reunion with all the vendors, the solar eclipse. By the end, Tony was bouncing up and down on his heels, eyes fixed on the plant.
“So what is that ?”
“Oh. That’s the other funny thing. I don’t know.”
“ You don’t know ? So you’re telling me this plant materialized during a solar eclipse and you can’t identify it?”
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “Wanna see it?”
He held the pot in his outstretched palm, and Tony snatched it. The plant itself meant nothing to him. Bruce could have told him it was a rare begonia and been done with it. Tony’s not-knowing--and now coupled with the gravity of Bruce not knowing—made the plant an irresistible temptation. Tony’s clever, analytical eyes observed the alien species, as if staring at it long enough would provide a solution. It didn’t matter that Tony didn’t know anything about plants. Between his brain and his fingertips, Tony thought he had all the information he ever needed.
“Its name is Twoney,” Bruce supplied helpfully.
“You named it after me? I am touched.” Tony clutched his chest in an exaggerated gesture of sincerity to hide that he was, in fact, sincere, and taking the opportunity to distract from his lack of expertise.
“Audrey named it, actually.”
“Can’t give me any satisfaction, can you, Banner.”
“Someone has to tell you no.”
Tony held the plant up to his face. “The resemblance is uncanny.”
“He doesn’t look quite as smug.”
“Give him a few years.”
“So, what are you planning to do with him?” Tony asked, handing Twoney back.
“What do you mean?” The response Bruce had been expecting and dreading: future-thinking Tony Stark asking “What’s next?” It was his brand. It was his slogan. Bruce once suggested those two words should be etched on his grave. Tony laughed, called Pepper right then and there, and told her to make a note: that’s what he wanted on his headstone.
“Well, are you gonna go on talk shows with your magical rare plant? Start a vlog?”
“It’s not magical, and I’m not really a talk show type of guy. Or a...vlog person.” He wasn’t sure what a vlog was, which was all the proof he needed.
“Study, then. Call up some of your old lab contacts. Solve this mystery.”
“I’m not really at that point yet.”
Tony sighed. Bruce’s squandered brain stung Tony as much as Tony’s hoarded wealth struck Bruce. Somehow they made their friendship work.
“Well, when you are… ”
Four weeks later, Twoney was dying. His green color paled to a sickly yellow, and the strange Harlequin smile drooped into a frown. Even the leaves sagged.
Bruce sat crossed-legged on the floor with a notebook in his lap, staring at his data, the subject in front of him. All the little rows and columns of information, the painstaking numbers, variable after variable, test after test, added up to nothing. No direction, no course of study, nothing.
With time, and a larger sample size, he could figure out the problem. But he didn’t have time and there were no other members of the species. He consulted guidebooks, websites, several branches of the New York Public Library—the most fruitful leads yielded dead ends; the majority bore nothing. It would be a shame if such a peculiar little plant died because he couldn’t save it.
There was nothing more he could do today. Tomorrow he’d increase the moisture in the soil.
He set Twoney on a shelf near the entrance. Keeping him on the shelf behind the desk, away from everyone, might not be the problem, but it could be a problem. Maybe being closer to the other plants and potential customers would help him thrive.
In the next episode of How to Treat Your Plant Like a Desperate Home-Schooling Parent With a Weird Kid…
How sad, Doctor Bruce Banner using his expertise to work on one pathetic little plant when he could be...curing cancer was the go-to expression. Rocket science. Brain surgery.
It was time to play small-town sheriff, put his feet up on his desk, and re-read some Vonnegut. He tossed his notebook in a drawer and exchanged it for the ratty paperback. He was barely a sentence in when the door flung open so wide that it clattered against the wall, sending the chime unmoored across the room. Down came Bruce’s feet, book stayed in hand.
Orin swaggered in as the door closed behind him on the rebound. The slumped shoulders, fists shoved into his pockets, the surly scowl that stopped short of disdain because disdain required too much effort—Orin, Bruce was glad to report, was not particularly angry. It was just how he opened the door.
“Hey, Bruth .”
“How’s your day?”
“It’s shit. Audrey here?”
“No, not yet. Feel free to wait.” Bruce turned back to his book.
Barely a second passed before Orin groaned. “How long’s she gonna take, anyway? The fuck’s she doing?”
“It’s my fault, actually. I asked her to do a couple of errands around the city. She should be back soon.” Bruce paused, then quickly amended, “Well, maybe not soon. Some of them were pretty time intensive.”
Orin sneered at the plants. With a flat, open palm, he whacked a hanging pot. It swung back and forth like a pinata, except instead of bursting open with treats it sprinkled a layer of dirt on the floor.
“You don’t think this whole flower thing is kind of gay?” Orin said. He snatched the rare plant off the shelf and turned it back and forth in his hands. Bruce’s heart quickened, but he kept his expression neutral. Don’t reveal anything. Don’t give anything away.
“No, I think sleeping with other men is gay. I do both, so it gets confusing.”
He’d said it amiably enough. Orin didn’t know amiability; he knew power, and Banner’s smart mouth was an assault to Orin’s pride. He mumbled exactly loud enough to hear, “Like anyone’s fucked you” and casually let the vase drop to the ground. Bruce did not look up. Men who fed on anger deserved to starve.
Save for the turning of a page and the metallic clink of Orin’s chain as he lolloped around, the room was silent. Nothing else broke as far as Bruce could tell, not that it mattered; plants could be replanted, pots were just things.
The chain grew louder and louder, then stopped. Menthol-and-whiskey breath wafted downward. The scent was strong and familiar enough to blow Bruce adrift on a journey through time, one that would be easier to avoid than to return from. He took a deep breath, concentrating on floral scents. He was in his flower shop on Skid Row. He was forty-three and on his thirtieth reread of Cat’s Cradle, not a scrawny twelve-year old picking up the book for the first time. The person he would see when he looked up was his assistant’s boyfriend, not—well, obviously not—his father.
This close, Bruce noticed all the details he tried to ignore from a distance: Orin was a good six inches taller (which also meant he was over a foot taller than Audrey). He had broad shoulders and bruised knuckles. Faint scars lined his face and arms, which Bruce assumed did not come from heroic or tragic acts. The only thing that separated them was the desk, which Orin could shove it away with one firm push whenever he decided to. “You know, if you’re gay, you should tell Audrey. I don’t think she got the memo, the way she talks about you.”
A hundred smart remarks flickered and died. They would only hurt Audrey in the end.
“I assure you, she can’t possibly speak more highly of me than she does of you.” He smiled. No hard feelings, no sarcasm, no threat.
Orin eyed Bruce, as if Bruce were the one he should be wary of.
“Yeah? What’s she say?”
Bruce swallowed. God, he’d only been good at lying once, and after that he’d never wanted to lie again, no matter the stakes. Compounding his anxiety was the knowledge that abusers set traps. And this was a trap. With people like Orin, everything was a trap.
Luckily, the door opened before the tension could mount. For someone who was always late, Audrey had perfect timing.
“Audrey, thank you for taking care of those errands.”
Please go along with it.... Bruce thought. Audrey looked confused, and worse, like she was about to refute him, but then she saw Orin and forgot everything else.
“Orin!” She squealed. She ran over and flung her arms around him. He hoisted her up and they began a furious, loud make-out session. It started off fast and smacking and hungry, and then turned slow and deep. Audrey’s low moans echoed Orin’s crooning “Oh, yeah, baby, you’re so good.”
“Oh, um, OK,” Bruce muttered, busying himself with inventory. Mark down one clay plot.
“Oh! Doctor Banner!” Audrey pulled her face away from Orin and looked at Bruce, as if just seeing him for the first time. “I’m so sorry.”
“Quite alright,” Bruce said, rubbing the back of his neck. Figured that he withstood the property damage, stayed strong against homophobia, stood firm against the threatening snarls, and was thrown off by kissing.
“Orin, stop. Orin!” The words threatened to grip Bruce’s wiring and tug. He looked up sharply. Audrey pushed Orin away as he went for her neck, her mouth, her breasts.
It was past time to step in. To this day, he did not know how. He never figured out how to minimize damage, what to say to fix everything.
Once again, he didn’t need to say anything. Orin deflated before Bruce could speak up. Audrey slid out of his arms, unharmed. Her gaze landed on the piles of dirt, the broken chime, and sad little flower on the floor.
“Doctor, what happened here?”
“Nothing, just a little mess. I’ll take care of it.”
As soon as Orin and Audrey left, Bruce closed the store and cleaned up. First, getting a head start on tomorrow’s data—not correct procedure, but fuck it—he repotted the little plant in the moistest soil he had, practically mud.
“Sorry about earlier, buddy,” he told the plant, spading the mud in a neat, even level. “Situations like that, it’s not like throwing yourself on a grenade. It’s like defusing a bomb. Except there’s no way to defuse it. It’s gonna explode no matter what. You try to evacuate civilians, except they don’t want to leave. So what do you do?” He placed the spade on the shelf next to Twoney. Why should he burden a plant with the problems of humans?
He knelt down to pick out the shards of ceramic and scoop the dirt into the dustpan. Audrey might like painting on ceramic. He could sand the edges and give them to her. If she liked the new medium, she could decorate pots.
Last, he grabbed the wind chime. The intrepid chime withstood so many of Orin’s entrances that Bruce swiped it up without a glance. This time, he should have looked--although he couldn’t have known that the metal finally cracked and that when he grabbed it, it sliced his finger open.
It was a clean, thin slice, the type that doesn’t even sting at first, so he didn’t notice until he grabbed the gardening spade next to Twoney and saw smears of blood on it. Once he saw the bright stream of blood spilling from the pad of his finger, he felt the accompanying pain. “Ow,” he realized belatedly.
As he tried to remember if he had band-aids or needed to run out to the store, the sickly plant’s stem drooped down and forward. At first, Bruce thought it was a particularly dramatic death knell--was that a soft sigh he heard, or was he just imagining it?--until he realized that the plant’s head landed directly on his finger and sucked.
The plant continued sucking as Bruce stared. How was one supposed to react when a plant lapped up your blood? His mind flitted blank for a second, as if he were about to black out. A reasonable reaction. But he didn’t black out. He let the plant finish (was that a sigh of contentment or, again, his imagination?) and then grabbed his notebook from the drawer. God, if only he’d measured the amount of blood! Squeezing his eyes shut, he calculated a quick estimate and jotted down notes.
Blood. Blood changed everything. That sucking mechanism, the plant’s instinctive pull towards it. How did it work? And what about different animals? Different blood types? He threw his pen down and buried his face in his hands.
Maybe he wasn’t the right scientist for this job. What if Twoney required fresh blood? The thought of dead animals made him sick. Then again, it was cruel to force a vegan or vegetarian diet on animals that naturally required meat. Surely the same standards applied to plants.
Still, he couldn’t research the full breadth of study which would include human subjects. Humans who weren’t him. How on earth would he acquire different types of human blood?
Maybe his restraint made him exactly the right person. His days of youthful, manic ambition were gone. He imagined young scientists presenting the plant with whole bloodied cows for sacrifice, working their way up tp corpses, trails of bodies and blood behind him. Doctoral students—they’d be the worst; they always were. Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s vegetable monster. But Bruce, those days behind him, would know when to stop. Wouldn’t he?
It could all be an hallucination. That was closer to the realm of possibility than he’d like to admit. What triggered it? Orin? The whiskey breath, the slamming door, the sharp metal against his flesh, no matter how small?
OK, he was getting ahead of himself. Once he pulled himself out of his mental whirlpool and back to immediate physical surroundings, he realized he was sweating and trembling and—though Twoney staunched the major bloodflow—still bleeding. Just like the old days. Mad scientist on the edge.
Wasn’t him anymore.
Immediate concern: his finger. He worked with too much dirt to forego wrapping the wound. Ethics and experimental design and evaluation of his psychological health could wait. For now, he had a simple task with a definite end. He pressed a paper towel around his finger a little too tightly. It felt good to be grounded.
Here is the cartoon that Bruce thinks about in the second paragraph: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3s3aas
It wasn’t long before Twoney grew too big for the little pot placed upon a shelf and moved to a large terracotta pot in the corner. Behind Bruce’s desk, as always. He did not like to think about what would happen if some scraped-kneed child wandered into the store.
It reminded Bruce of the cartoon he’d seen as a child where a little mouse found a little bird’s egg. The mouse nurtured the bird, raised it like his own offspring, gave it piggyback rides even when the bird grew four times the size of the mouse, kept it in his home even when he learned the bird is destined to become a giant, mouse-eating hawk. Bruce didn’t remember how it ended. He mostly remembered the giant bird backing the nervous mouse against the wall of his own home, the bird rubbing his feathered hands together in anticipation for a meal.
Bruce didn’t like to think about parenting.
He also didn’t like to think of himself as a cutter, although he habitually cut himself so, by definition…
There had to be a loophole regarding hungry plants, right? He thought his days of poring over the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, trying to figure out what was wrong with him, were over. When he was twelve, the book seemed almost as heavy as he was and three times as scary, more intimidating than any of the graduate-level physics books he’d consumed years prior. But it was supposed to have the answers he needed, so he stood on his toes, stretched his arm as far as it would go and pulled it off the shelf, nearly dropping it on his head. Then he carried it to an abandoned corner of the library and read it all, stomach churning with every full page of symptoms that fit him.
He’d never fully recovered from seeing Homosexuality under Sexual orientation disturbance in an admittedly outdated copy of the book. That, more than any of the other apt diagnoses, made the words swirl and blur together until he realized he wasn’t even reading anymore; he was tucked into his chair with his knees up to his chest. Luckily, he came to his senses before the librarian came around and announced that the library was closing. Heart pounding, he put the book back on the shelf and walked home in a daze.
It turned out what was wrong with him was everything, down to his core.
But things were different now. Psychology was different. Social mores were different. He was--well, he was at least taller.
Still, when he ventured uptown to look at the DSM--the most recent edition, shiny and modern and with openly gay professionals as contributors (he hoped), checking the index for Self-harm and flipping straight to that section, the words swirled, he was 12 again, and he didn’t want to know the answer.
The answer didn’t matter. He had a plant to take care of. A plant with a taste for human blood. So, twice a week, in the dark of night or early-morning pre-dawn glow, he’d roll his sleeves all the way up to his shoulders and press a clean metal blade against his upper arm. The blade was so sharp that he had to watch until blood started dripping because he couldn’t feel the slice at first. Then he’d crouch beside Twoney and let him lap up the mess. Soon, if Twoney kept growing at this rate, Bruce wouldn’t need to crouch. Soon, he’d need to cut deeper, and more frequently. But he didn’t like to think about that, either.
Tony did not visit for another month. “Business in Vienna. Edelweiss, edelweiss,” he’d texted, followed by a bunch of emojis that showed up in Bruce’s phone as plain-text squares.
Tony was a busy international businessman and bi-weekly meetings to a flowershop were not always feasible. Bruce was impressed that Tony kept them up as routinely as he did and, though he’d never admit it, touched that he kept Bruce apprised of his whereabouts.
The next time Tony visited, he locked eyes on the giant pot in the corner, whipped off his sunglasses--Aviators--and made a beeline to Twoney.
“Holy hell! What have you been feeding this thing? Last time I saw him, he was a dying little weed.” Tony crouched down as if observing a child. Bruce jolted forward to stop him, but the surest way of getting Tony to do something was to tell him not to. He didn’t seen to have any open wounds, so Bruce leaned faux-casually against his desk.
“Secret,” Bruce said. “Since you know all of mine, I decided to get some new ones.” His tone was playful, but Tony frowned. Now, for the first time since his arrival, Tony looked at Bruce and rose to his feet.
“Really? Because history has shown that you keeping secrets…”
“It’s a simple organic compound,” Bruce explained, realizing his mistake.
Tony reached his hand out to feel Bruce’s forehead. “You look pale.”
“Plants soak up all the sunlight.”
Tony sighed and crossed his arms. “You understand why I’d be worried, right?”
“In theory. In practice, there’s no reason to be. What can I get for you?”
“Something nice for Pepper. Some random ‘thank you’ bouquet. But, uh, it should also double as an apology bouquet, in case I did something I need to apologize for.”
“ Did you?”
“No, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
Tony’s traditional order when he needed an excuse to stop by.
Bruce ignored how Tony’s observant gaze followed him around the store, looking for tell-tale signs of whatever damage Bruce was dealing with. Yes, he understood why Tony would be worried, but he didn’t understand why the world’s most powerful man chose to concern himself with a very broken florist.
He arranged purple irises and white daisies around yellow roses and tied them together with a purple bow.
“One other thing,” Tony said, whipping out a tablet. “New Mars rover. The tech is decades and decades down the road--I hope to have it released by the end of next year--but I’m hitting a snag with the designs.”
Tony often presented Bruce with problems-- challenges-- he encountered with his new inventions. The questions were clearly designed to reawaken Bruce’s problem-solving instincts and beckon him to the world where Tony thought he belonged. Some were so condescendingly simple that Bruce wanted to call his bluff.
“Alright,” Bruce sighed. He never did call Tony’s bluff. If the questions were genuine, Bruce didn’t want to destroy the last bit of Tony’s humility that allowed him to go to a friend for help.
Tony handed Bruce his coveted personal tablet. The tech was worth millions and the content worth more than the U.S.’s military budget. It contained secrets that could sink nations. The cataclysmic disaster that of it falling into the wrong hands was the premise of the latest James Bond movie. And here was Tony, handing it to a humble florist as casually as if they were frat boys showing each other funny dog videos.
“Hold on,” Bruce muttered. He swiped through the designs. His oft-mocked flip phone--even strangers had the nerve to tease him--belied his near-magical tech expertise. Any gadgets placed in his hands became extensions of himself. Better extensions. Computers didn’t do anything he didn’t tell them to do. He knew how they worked. He could take them apart and put them back together, faster, more efficient. He could not say the same about his own inner-workings. His frayed circuitry and jumbled wires were beyond comprehension, let alone repair.
His brow furrowed. Normally he glanced at Tony’s designs and the solution would come to him. This was trickier. Maybe it was an earnest question.
Tearing a piece of receipt paper (he wasn’t writing many receipts, anyway), he scribbled a few numbers down. Glanced back at the plans, glanced back at his scrapwork, adjusted a few numbers...
“Have you tried titanium?”
“Titanium. Christ. I have a whole team of people working on this. I could fire them all and replace them with you.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Don’t fire anyone on my account.”
“Can I at least take you on as a freelance consultant?”
“I do it for the thrill of science,” Bruce deadpanned, handing Tony back the tablet. “Anything else?”
Before Tony could pose another fake problem--or a date or a job offer--the door opened with a slam.
At the loud bang! Tony turned around to scold whatever rude guest entered, missing Bruce’s full-body recoil. Bruce knew immediately it was Orin, but he and Tony never had the pleasure of meeting.
“Hey, no animals allowed,” Tony snapped at him.
“Tone--” Bruce muttered, keeping his voice low in case Orin made the connection between this Tony and The Tony Stark.
“The fuck did you say?” Orin demanded. Tony and Orin met halfway between desk and door, each pulling themselves up to their full height. Bruce buried his face in his hands. God, Tony, it’s Skid Row. People carry guns.
“I said, if you can’t respect a place of business like a normal human being you should go outside and shit in the street like the animal that you are.”
“And you’re gonna make me?”
“Yeah, I’ll knock the shit out of you right here if you--”
“Orin, Audrey’s not here today. Feel free to stay and check out the flowers if you’d like.” The enticement of flowers, more than the promise of a fight, would get him to leave. Orin sneered at Tony, mustered up an equal amount of fury at the surrounding plants, and left, kicking the door on his way out.
“What the fuck was that, Banner? You let him barge in here and you show your belly?”
Tony would never hurt him. Of the few things Bruce believed in, he knew that with unyielding faith, a fact more certain than the color of the sky. He knew it in his bones and his joints, which did not involuntarily spasm on the rare occasion Tony raised his voice.
It didn’t mean he liked being scolded, though. And it didn’t mean that Tony shouldn’t know better. And it didn’t mean he wanted to talk about it. “Tony…”
Hands trembling, Bruce hoisted a box of roses onto his desk and pulled a paring knife from his desk drawer. Although he had an efficient pair of rose strippers, nothing beat the satisfaction of manually pushing a knife. Right now, he needed that. After a split second of hesitating-- was now a good time to handle sharp objects? Shouldn’t he at least put on his gloves?--he decided it was too late. He didn’t want to break his concentration. The knife scraped against a thorn. The secret was gentle, even pressure and the thorn would come off easy. They could even be removed by bare hand, if one chose.
Tony persisted. “ And you’re letting Audrey mess around with that brute?”
A little too much pressure, and the knife almost knocked into Bruce’s other hand. “Look. I know it’s not an ideal situation, but you can’t be mean to him.”
“What the hell do you mean? Someone has to put him in his place.”
“Damn it, Tony!” Bruce pounded his fist on the table. “He’ll take it out on her.” His tone softened. “And you can’t force someone to leave if they don’t want to.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I don’t know these things.”
If Letterman had a Top 10 Things Tony Stark Would Never Say, those would be one and two.
Well, you should, Bruce thought. What he said was, “Most people don’t.” His voice came out tight and strained, which Tony would undoubtedly attribute to his sensitivity. As long as he didn’t know the real reason: when Bruce slammed his fist on the table, it struck a rose thorn, effectively impaling his hand. Bruce’s outburst distracted the ever-observant Tony, allowing Bruce to perform the sleight of hand (haha) of removing the thorn and hiding his damaged body part under the table. Now, if only he could get Tony out…
“Bruce, I’m sorry—“
“It’s fine. Now you know.” The impatience in his voice, rather than send Tony away, made him venture behind the desk, closer to Bruce. His hand stung.
“It must be hard for you…” No one was smarter or knew his past better than Tony, but it still took the puzzle pieces way too long to shift into a picture of Empathy. And there was still a piece missing.
“Not as hard as it is for her. Listen, can you please just--I’m not mad at you, I just--it just--”
Tony’s eyes were soft and sympathetic—and full of mistaken misunderstanding. Worse, they were swirling with the heretofore unknown emotion of contrition. What, other than Bruce’s tragedies, could chasten Tony Stark? It deserved acknowledgement, but Tony needed to leave. Bruce didn’t want to fuck around with sporotrichosis.
“Yeah. OK. Be well, big guy.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but decided against it and left.
Bruce lifted his hand. The tiny red puncture was right on the side, halfway between his little finger and wrist. As far as placements, it wasn’t too bad. It wouldn’t interfere with his ability to hold a pen or any manual tasks, for that matter. It was the depth Bruce worried about. And, of course, infection.
He pressed his fingernail just below the injury, coaxing out a tiny trickle of blood. It was nowhere near the amount Twoney required; it would barely even count as a snack. Plus, letting an undocumented plant suck a plant-related injury wasn’t a great idea. The amount of blood was too small to yield significant scientific results, but not too small for a significant infection.
Still, against his better judgment, he presented his hand. For one terrifying moment, Bruce thought Twoney would engulf his entire hand, suck up his arm. He was now certainly big enough to. Instead, he gently lapped up the blood, seemingly grateful for it, no matter the amount. Bruce breathed a sigh of relief.
Thank you to @heyjupiter who is as amazing a beta as she is a writer, which is VERY AMAZING.
Things start to get bloodier and darker from here on out. Next chapter will be posted soon!
Spring meant graduation, and graduation meant a fraction of the handful of parents of graduating kids stopped by the store for a congratulatory bouquet. Every year, Tony overestimated the increase in business--Skid Row had a single-digit graduation rate, and an even smaller interest in floral arrangements-- and made himself scarce for a month or two. Every year, Bruce neglected to point out that graduation only amounted to ten or fifteen additional customers. It would only take one inopportune customer to blow Tony’s cover to the National Enquirer: Tony Stark Plays Sugar Daddy To Schlubby Skid Row Florist.
This year, the surge of new customers surpassed its previous seasonal record in the first week. It didn’t take Bruce long to figure out why. Kids pulled their parents into the shop and pointed at Twoney's corner, eyes bulging, chattering excitedly. “Oooh he looks like he can eat a man!” Flocks of teenagers with no intention of buying--nor, fortunately, stealing--anything, smacking each other’s shoulders. “Lookit how ugly it is!” Bruce greeted them all with weak smiles, silence, and space. At least he wasn’t the one being gawked at.
Word spread through the florist grapevine, and several made the trek from midtown to Bruce’s shop. Even Mr. Mushnik stopped by, twisting his hat in his hands, gawking at Twoney. “Gee, kid, you sure got a talent,” he said, half-admiring, half-longing.
Bruce hoped never to be alone in a room with six or seven whispering strangers, even if they were just locals stopping by to see a botanic wonder, so, like every spring, he increased Audrey’s hours. She was better at dealing with customers and kids and making sales. And maybe, maybe Bruce felt better with another person in the shop, knowing that Tony would not return until late spring. If the crowds didn’t let up, he might never come back. Maybe he would move Twoney upstairs.
The first sign something was wrong: Audrey arrived on time. Bruce glanced at his watch: 9:00 exactly. She hadn’t been on time since she was a fresh hire, a recent high school dropout desperate to make a good impression. Her punctuality lasted a week.
If she had one special skill, it was walking in outrageously high heels. Five, six inches on a normal day. Today she stumbled in a modest two inches. Bruce held his breath, waiting for her to take off her light spring coat and uncover secrets. Although a skilled abuser like Orin knew how to hide marks, Bruce might be able to spot a telltale wince, a slight discoloration. Even sleeves would be revealing—she did not usually wear them.
But when she hung up her coat, she revealed nothing more than her usual amount of flesh. Plunging neckline that barely covered her breasts, tiny skirt that barely covered her thighs. The only difference--and perhaps it meant nothing--was the color. Instead of her usual exotic prints, the clothes were navy blue, as if she were taking a half-measure into conservative dress.
Realizing that he was studying her flesh and clothes with more intensity than he’d ever looked at anyone, man or woman, he quickly looked down at his order forms.
“Good morning, Audrey,” he said. He glanced up to gauge her reaction.
“Good morning, Doctor. Doctor ,” She repeated with strange emphasis. Bruce cocked his head to the side.
“Is everything OK?” He asked.
“What? Oh, yeah. Yes.” She didn’t look at him. Avoided looking at him the entire time, actually. The room murmured with the tension of two people refusing to look at each other and Bruce, at least, did not know why.
He had guesses—one single guess that trapped his mind: Orin wanted her to quit. It was a classic move, isolating the victim. First, he’d get rid of her pesky social support. No friends warning her against him, nowhere to run when--if--she decided to flee. As an added bonus, she’d lose her source of income (although of course Bruce would still pay her; she barely worked the hours on her payroll, anyway. But income didn’t matter if Orin poached it.)
Or Orin took it a step further and told her Bruce was the abuser. After all, Orin would say, laying out page after page of the infamous Banner trial, who does that to his own father?
Bruce would have to...he’d have to do something, but once the ropes were slashed, she’d be adrift at sea.
Except for the occasional “I dusted that already,” the day passed in silence. Bruce’s palms were coated in so much sweat he could wring his hands out over the plants to water them if sweat weren’t so salty.
Five o’clock finally arrived. He expected Audrey to scurry away as soon as the clock struck her final minute. Instead, she lingered, making up for avoiding him by staring at him with large, tremulous eyes.
“Doctor Banner?” She squeaked. There was only one thing that could make her afraid of him.
“Yes, Audrey?” He turned around and leaned against his desk. She once told him he looked like a sexy professor when he did that, “you know, like on TV.” Since then, he tried to avoid the position, but it was the closest he could get to casual.
“I was thinking about maybe getting my GED.”
The fears that frayed his brain a moment ago vanished. Orin wasn’t escalating his control; Audrey was--despite Orin’s efforts.
He beamed with relief and a far-buried, unidentifiable emotion that couldn’t be pride. Pride was one of the emotions parents, theoretically, felt for their children. Pride meant that he contributed something—some unknown emotional investment that gave him stakes in and partial credit for another person’s choices. He was happy for Audrey. He couldn’t afford pride.
“That’s amazing! I’m so happy to hear that!”
Her strange repetitions suddenly made more sense: emphasizing the R in doctor, changing “yeah” to “yes.” Even the dark clothes fit neatly into the puzzle. Audrey, he realized with a wry smile, was trying to speak good and dress proper.
“You are?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, I thought you’d be mad or something!”
“Why on earth would I--” Bruce stopped himself. Of course not everyone in her life would be supportive. “Of course I’m happy for you.”
“I’m really nervous. I looked at the books and they’re so hard--I was wondering if you would, well, I know you’re so busy, but…You’re the smartest, most patient man I know and I was wondering--”
“Do you want me to tutor you?”
“Yes! Would you?”
“You’d have to go slow. I’m not smart like you.”
Oh, this moment is going to call for a hug, Bruce realized, and in that split second, Audrey flung herself at him. The surprise knocked him back on his heels. He managed to plant his soles back on the ground before he could fall over, then regained the presence of mind to put one arm around her. The whole process seemed to take forever. At last, Audrey pulled away.
She rattled off her coursework and schedule--three nights a week of classes, which left two nights for tutoring --and he nodded as the words washed over him. “We could do it after work if you’re not too tired. I’ll tell Orin I’m working late. It’s kinda true.”
Nightmare images of Orin bursting into the shop after dark flashed in Bruce’s mind. It would clearly be a chaste study session--books splayed in front of them, Bruce very gay--but it wouldn’t matter to Orin or his rage. It might, in fact, be worse if Audrey pursued something as incomprehensible as self-betterment instead of lust.
The cowardly mouse part of his brain begged him to renege and retreat. Tell her to find a different tutor, ideally a woman, or better yet, forget the GED completely.
How could he even think that?
“Are you OK?” Her eyes softened with concern. “You been looking so tired. Are you sure you want to do this?”
An organic, almost-guilt-free way to squirm out. Yes, he had been feeling tired lately. Drained, actually. Take it, Banner, or you’re an idiot.
He smiled. He tried to make it seem genuine. It might have actually been. “I’d love to.”
That night, he sat at his desk, skimming through Audrey’s books for ideas about the curriculum. High school was ages ago, and he never attended normal classes. Always “special,” “gifted,” “advanced,” until he shot straight through the ceiling and into Harvard at a scrawny 16 years of age. He would never tell Audrey, though.
Nor would he tell her that if she sat in a room and quizzed herself with flashcards, she would get a high enough grade to pass. Rote memorization, that’s all it was, or at least the necessary sixty-five percent needed to get a pointless piece of paper to unlock the gates guarding other useless pieces of paper. You’re an asshole, he told himself. Every kind word you say is a fake.
Smart people did not necessarily make good teachers. In fact, they were often the worst. His college faculty had consisted of Nobel laureates and Pulitzer winners who stood in the front of the lecture hall and rattled off their expertise in a rapid mutter until the seat after seat emptied out and the only students left were the ones who didn’t need the class in the first place. Brusque, impatient assholes who figured if you couldn’t learn this shit on your own, why bother? Another reason he never should have agreed to help in the first place. He did not, contrary to popular belief, have the temperament.
Sighing, he closed the book and walked over to Twoney. A feeding was not due for a couple of days, but Bruce would move it up because….Because why not. In case he got too busy, in case he forgot...He was here late, might as well roll up his sleeves. One reason is a reason. Several are excuses. He dismissed the thought and unbuttoned his shirt.
Earlier, he expected Audrey’s skin to be marred and bruised when it had actually been clean and perfect. He could not say the same about his own. The maze of scars, which started as tiny tally marks on his upper arm and shoulder, now encroached on his chest in long lashes. He was surprisingly hairy, his body’s lone symbol of virility, though really it just indicated his Italianess and acted as a good place for hiding scars.
He drew the knife across his chest, quick, efficient, almost painless. Normally, he measured the amount, but sometimes--with increasing regularity-- he felt compelled to let Twoney lap it straight from his flesh and estimate the milliliters later. Twoney did not need guidance. His stem swerved to the dripping blood. Bruce leaned his head against the wall, lips curled in discomfort. This, and not the blood or the scars or the anemia, was his least favorite part. Why couldn’t Twoney’s lucky finder be someone whose browser history was filled with futile searches for “giant plant lapping blood from chest?” There were people in this world who would get off to this, who might not even know and would benefit from such an awakening, while Bruce bore it like an amateur colonoscopy.
“Alright, that’s enough.” His tone was unfairly clipped. The plant couldn’t control his hunger; the plant did not know what weird value systems human applied to survival. Wound drained dry and clotting rapidly, Bruce buttoned his shirt and went back to his desk.
Audrey. Right. He recalled the feeling that wasn’t pride, the brightness of her face when he agreed to help. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, Nick, just remember that all the people in this world blah blah.
He sat down and started taking notes.
A full kitchen was one of the few amenities Bruce missed by living like a penitent monk. If he had one, he could bake his own bread and grill his own salmon. The smells would fill the empty air and create an illusion of domesticity, which Bruce could bask in until the scents dissipated.
The salmon and bread were store-bought on a venture uptown. His one culinary contribution was smashing an avocado in a bowl. Regardless, Audrey would be impressed. Bruce had never seen her eat anything that wasn’t an artificial neon color or heavily processed or both.
He carried the platter downstairs and set it on the fold-out table. To his well-hidden astonishment, she was early and already waiting at the table.
"Did you make this?”
“I assembled it,” he said, taking a bite. His cooking would be much better--the marinade more flavorful, the salmon not as dry. “Education isn’t just about memorizing facts. It’s about new experiences. Cuisine is a component of a well-rounded education.”
“I thought you don’t eat meat.”
“I eat fish. I’m a pescatarian.” He took another bite. A flash of red took over his brain; he imagined his blood glowing brighter with every taste of salmon. Each taste of salmon reminded him that he’d been slacking on iron replenishment. For the first time in decades a steak popped into his head with cartoon-style waves of aroma and steam floating off of it. He grabbed a third bite before Audrey gamely took a first.
“You’re so smart. Like I thought there was only vegetarians and normal people, but you know about pestatarians. Who ever even heard of such a thing? And who’d ever think to put fish on guacamole?”
Bruce smiled. “Pescatarian. From the Latin word piscis meaning fish.”
“How do you know that?”
“You know it, too. What do you call the fish sign of the Zodiac?”
Audrey clasped her hands over her mouth as if Bruce reached into her brain and pulled out shiny quarter.
“Pisces! That’s amazing!”
“I’m not doing this to show off how smart I am. I’m showing that you can learn it, too.” He pulled a pen out of his front pocket and wrote the words on the nearest napkin. “See? Vege, like vegetable?”
“And they both have -arian at the end! That probably means, like, eater or something.”
Nodding, he decided he’d give it to her--she was close enough.
“So words are made up of other words! And we talk about them using words!”
“Er, we’ll get to Lacan later. Yes. Words are made up of other words. The history of words is called etymology. Does that word remind you of any other word?”
“Like astrology? cosmetology?”
Neurology, psychology, traumatology, histology, pathology. His whole life, distilled in one suffix.
“Right. So what do you think that means?”
“They’re all, like, things you learn about?”
“Yes! Exactly. -Ology at the end of a word means the study of.”
Audrey laughed. “Then what do you call the study of learning?”
“I don’t know, actually.” Pedagogy, his mind supplied, but he didn’t want to confuse her.
“I can’t believe I thought of something you don’t know!”
“I wish I was smart. Like you and Tony,” she sighed. “I could be a billionaire like him.”
“You shouldn’t--you can’t compare yourself to Tony. He’s a genius, he is, but he comes from a tech dynasty. He has opportunities that ninety-nine percent of the world can’t dream of. And look at me,” he offered, self-deprecatingly. “I’m here, like you.” Living off a near-miraculous income from patents from twenty-something years ago, even when 80% of it goes to charities. He bit his cuticle. No, he couldn’t compare himself to Audrey any more than she could compare herself to Tony.
“Yeah, but you, like, choose to be here ‘cause of psychological reasons or something--”
A fresh stripe of blood opened up where his cuticle had been. He looked up sharply. “Did Tony tell you that?”
“What? No, I just figured, ‘cause Tony keeps offering ways out and you keep saying no, and ‘cause you’re sad all the time.”
Betrayal gave way to discomfort. Even Audrey could clock his damage.
“Dr. Banner, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” She put her hand over his. To his credit, he barely flinched.
“It’s okay. I overreacted.”
“I’m really glad you stay. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Bruce coughed. “Well, we should begin.” His gaze lingered on the science practice book. He had flipped through it earlier, eyes scanning the paragraphs heavy on bold vocabulary terms and simple diagrams. The anatomy of a cell. Cute. Photosynthesis. Hah. When had he learned those facts? He wasn’t so arrogant as to think he was born with this knowledge, but he may as well have been. And when had the Duplex building blocks of knowledge become skyscrapers? And when had those skyscrapers fallen?
He reached for the history book. “Let’s start from the very beginning. Paleolithic era.”
The sessions went well, considering Bruce flew by the seat of his pants as a teacher and Audrey often got sidetracked by the, well, the trivial.
“I can’t believe you never heard of the Kardashians! Everyone knows the Kardashians. I can teach you something!”
“You teach me history and English and stuff, and I can teach you about culture.”
“ Popular culture,” Bruce corrected, feeling his old arrogant elitism threaten to boil over. “It’s not quite equal.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m never going to functionally need to know who the...Cardassians are.”
“I’m never gonna need to functionally know this ,” Audrey said, holding up 400 pages of polynomials and parabolas. Touche. “You can talk to customers about the Kardashians. And I bet Tony knows them personally! You can talk to him!”
The trivial and the personal: Has Bruce talked to Tony lately? Hear from him? Sure is lonely without Mr. Stark. Did Bruce miss him?
Bruce swallowed preemptive regret down before saying, “I’ll make you a deal. You pass the GED and then you can teach me about whatever celebrities you want.”
“Then you really will know everything.”
It wasn’t all levity. The first few sessions, Bruce expected the door to fling open, Orin busting in and charging straight to Audrey. When he remembered the door was locked, he envisioned glass shattering, Orin’s bloody fist punching through the windows.
Enough sessions passed that Bruce could breathe easily--well, no less easily than he usually breathed--when he found the telltale mark he’d been expected weeks before. Underneath a flaky layer of foundation was a slight discoloration around Audrey’s eye.
“Audrey,” Bruce choked, “your eye—“
“Oh, this? I’m so clumsy. Ran right into a—“
Door. Bruce finished mentally.
“If Orin is hurting you—“
“Of course he isn’t, Dr. Banner. It’s sweet of you to worry.”
She lied without a hitch to her voice or a shift of her eyes. She placed a hand on his cheek, like a mother consoling her child about an imaginary monster. It was supposed to be comforting but it made him feel ridiculous, a 43-year old man who would always be a child with his same childish fears.
“If he is,” he tried again, “if he is, I—I’ll help you. I can get you away from him and—“ Trembling like a chihuahua in a snowstorm, he did not seem like a convincing protector. He couldn’t blame her if she hedged her bets with Orin.
“Oh, Dr. Banner, you’re so sweet. I’m fine.”
Why is she lying to me?
And a voiced echoed back, Why do you lie to Tony?
Maybe she isn’t lying, a small voice said hopefully. He quickly silenced it with Oh, shut up.
Again, many thanks to heyjupiter and I cannot recommend her fic enough.
That night, after Audrey left and the sun had gone down, Bruce tried a vein.
It was in the name of science, of course. Experimental procedure. How would blood from a vein affect Twoney’s growth?
Before, he was hesitant to try. The touch of metal against a shoulder was clinical, but blade against wrist seemed too much like...Well. Like suicide. But a small cut, even on the wrist, wouldn’t be concerning, not even to Tony, and it would not awaken any urges in Bruce himself.
“This is not gonna be a regular thing. Even if you start singing and dancing.” Bruce told the plant as a blue vein gave way to red blood. He felt neither the legendary endorphin rush of bloodletting or the normal queasiness. Blood didn’t shake him. Memories did. Unless the blood pooled on an asphalt driveway, or spattered against a large grey stone...The slamming of a door. The black and blue around Audrey’s eye in a certain light.
He blinked back to awareness, brow furrowing at the strange, wet log resting on his desk. A knife stuck out of it, slowly creeping down, releasing more fluid.
He realized too late that the log was his arm and the fluid was blood and the knife kept moving. He tried to pull the blade away but a third, invisible hand wrestled it down, keeping it against his flesh and moving it up toward his elbow, deeper as he tried to wrest it free, jagged when the cut had once been straight, until finally he managed to yank it up. The knife flew out of his hand and across the room, landing with a clatter and a spray of blood. He’d worry about it later.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. The damage was already done. Cradling his arm against his chest, he pulled open the storage closet. There had to be a towel here somewhere, a relatively clean-ish-looking towel. He threw rag after dirty rag out of a bucket until finally he found one and wrapped it around his arm.
When he turned around, the only thing he could see were the blood stains on the floor. The spray from the arc of the knife, the puddles from his arm. The flower shop looked like a murder scene. Oh god, oh god. He closed his eyes. He was forty-three years old. He was in his flower shop...His heart pounded the facts out of his head. A murder scene. No, no. Brain, not heart: It was 2018, the blood was from his arm, every single drop of blood in the room was his.
He had two options: he could stitch himself up or go to a doctor.
Was stitching himself up an option? Maybe if he’d cut open his thigh or his leg but stitching himself up one-handed was unfathomably stupid.
Then again, so was going to a doctor. He didn’t have a car, and neither an ambulance nor taxi would pick him up from the depths of Skid Row.
He could call someone, but Audrey didn’t have a car, either, and he didn’t want to test her in a crisis situation. She’d believe whatever lie he thought up, but at what cost?
The only other person was Tony.
God, stitching himself up sounded like the best option.
He dug into his pocket and flipped open the phone with his chin.
“Tone? Hey, um, it’s Bruce. Can you do me a favor? I need a ride somewhere and—uh, a doctor. No, it’s not an emergency,” Bruce said as blood dripped onto his shoes. “Thanks. Oh, uh, don’t bring a nice car.”
Twenty minutes. Fuck. He’d be flat on his back on the floor by the time Tony arrived, but it beat the alternatives.
Bruce unwrapped the towel from his arm and headed to the desk. It would be a shame to waste data after all.
“I’m never doing this again,” Bruce told Twoney. The bulbous head lapped up the blood, running over Bruce’s arm like a vacuum. It tickled. Twoney kept going back and forth, cleaning up Bruce’s arm. When Tony arrived, there would be less evidence of how much blood Bruce actually lost. Small blessings like that.
The gentle tickling changed to a weird pressure. The plant’s head was over the wound now, trying to go inside the opening. Bruce jerked his arm away.
He didn’t have time to reflect on that moment of horror. A black car pulled up in front of the store after a record-breaking ten minutes. He didn’t like to think about what laws of man and physics Tony broke to get here. With one last disturbed glance at Twoney, Bruce let himself out and locked up.
The passenger door opened electronically. Bruce expected the car to be high-tech, with doors that opened automatically and a dashboard that spoke to the driver--it was Tony Stark’s, after all. But it was so clean and smelled so crisp it was like it had never been used. It was as Bruce feared: slick leather seats, immaculate interior. Bruce gestured to his arm, smiled weakly. “Told you not to use a nice car.”
Tony frowned and inhaled sharply. He didn’t want to say it, but Bruce knew: he didn’t consider this a nice one.
The good thing about slicing yourself at one in the morning was that, even in New York City, the traffic wasn’t bad. Tony sped through the streets in silence. Blood had long since saturated the towel, so Bruce kept his arm sandwiched between his knees and torso, trying to keep the blood, if not in him, then at least on him.
“What happened?” Tony asked.
“It’s a long story.”
“Well, I wanna fucking hear it.”
Bruce spun a yarn about how a knife fell from a shelf--he didn’t even remember putting it there--and as it tumbled down it struck his arm and split it wide open, almost from wrist to elbow in the second it took to hit the ground. “If you look at it—well, not now, obviously—you’ll notice how it’s crooked.” He knew the physics didn’t work, and he knew Tony knew, but please please let Tony pretend he believed it.
Tony sighed. “You’re a terrible liar.” Tony would call him a freak or yell at him for being stupid or slow to a stop and kick him out and speed away. It would hurt, but Bruce expected it. At this point, it was many years—decades—coming, and at least now he was in a part of the city where cabs dared to tread.
Tony did none of those things. He continued to drive in silence, eyes on the empty road. It was a while before he spoke again. “I’m really glad you called me.” Tony extended an arm and ruffled Bruce’s hair. Bruce didn’t realize he had braced for a strike until his shoulders relaxed.
Arm around Bruce, Tony marched into the lobby of one of New York City’s luxury apartments. Bruce had been in a few a lifetime ago--a lifetime when he was a prospective tenant. Now, he squinted at the opulence and thought about the homeless.
Though it was not Stark Towers, the doorman nodded and greeted Tony by name. The only acknowledgment that Tony was supporting a shabby, bleeding man was the offer of a wheelchair.
“What d’you say?” Tony asked. Bruce blinked. The lights were bright, the building was shiny, black spots danced before his eyes. He hung heavily from Tony’s shoulder. “Wheelchair, buddy?” Bruce shook his head.
“Where we going?” Bruce asked, head drooping, as Tony ushered him into an elevator.
“Special doctor. Old friend.”
Too many reflective surfaces in the elevator. Even the floor threw his visage back at him. Then the doors chimed open on the highest floor and Tony half-supported, half-dragged Bruce into a penthouse living room.
“Hey, Stephen. Stephen, this is Bruce. Bruce, this is Dr. Stephen Strange.”
Bruce gave a wobbly nod.
“Had a little accident with a knife.”
“Don’t look,” Bruce muttered, keeping his arm against his chest.
“I assure you, I’ve seen worse. Care to follow me?”
“You want me to come in with you?” Tony offered.
Kind of ; but then Tony would see the ugly injury and know, with empirical evidence, that he lied. Bruce shook his head.
Bruce wondered when he walked from a person’s penthouse into an exam room. Dr. Strange must have sensed his confusion.
“Special clientele, special privacy needs. You are far from the first or the most unusual circumstances.”
“Is your name really Dr. Strange or am I just blood loss?” Bruce slurred as the doctor helped helped him into the chair and coaxed his arm away from his chest. Time passed in flashes: a damp cloth running across his arm, a cup of water with a straw pressed into his other hand. The doctor’s touches were more efficient than comforting, which Bruce appreciated. Must have been one of the reasons Tony chose him--efficiency and discretion. Bruce watched the cloth wipe away his blood with an odd sense of detachment. There was something vaguely hypnotizing about watching the red turn pink and drip into a bucket.
“How do you know Tony?” Dr. Strange asked, sensing Bruce’s spaciness.
Bruce blinked and did his best impression of a person not about to pass out. “Uh, college originally. Now he comes to my store.”
“What’s your profession?”
“I own a flower shop.”
“How’d you get this?”
Bruce repeated the story about the falling knife like a nervous amateur actor reciting a monologue after a few too many shots of courage. It didn’t matter if he delivered it like Olivier, though--the doctor didn’t buy it.
“So a knife landed exactly on the vein in your wrist and maintained enough pressure to slice through your arm on the way down? And somehow alternated depth along the way, and got oddly jagged toward the end...” Good thing Tony never saw the actual injury. He’d cut through Bruce’s bullshit like—well, like a knife through an arm. “It looks like a suicide attempt. In fact, it looks like someone tried to wrestle the blade away from you—“
“Stop! Stop!” Bruce’s arm spasmed. Instinctively, he tried to pull it away, but it remained in the doctor’s grasp. “That’s not what happened.” His heart pounded. The wild-eyed terror he undoubtedly broadcast did not help his case. After a few deep, calming breaths, he explained, “I had a dissociative thing.”
“A dissociative thing?”
It seemed more truthful than not.
“An episode. A dissociative episode. Please don’t tell Tony.”
“Are you in danger of harming yourself or others?”
Bruce laughed. Always.
A laugh was not an acceptable answer. The doctor looked up at him with raised eyebrows.
“No,” Bruce quickly amended.
“Do you have these ‘dissociative things’ often?”
Not recently. “No. Please don’t tell Tony.”
“You need to see a psychiatrist. I don’t want to find out I made a mistake not committing you here and now.”
Bruce whimpered. He should have tried stitching himself up or let himself bleed out on the floor. His trust for Tony meant nothing if Tony’s trust for this man ended with Bruce locked up once again.
“I won’t tell Tony, but whatever is going on with you, there’s no man I’d rather have as a confidante. Word of advice: if Tony Stark wants to help you, it would be stupid not to accept. You’re a smart man, Dr. Banner. Don’t keep knives on shelves.”
Bruce nodded. He’d never mentioned his title.
“Try to get some rest. You must be exhausted.” His voice was gentle, as if to apologize for the stress without saying the words “I’m sorry.” But Bruce didn’t want to close his eyes. He might wake up to uniformed men taking him away. “I promise. I won’t call anyone and I won’t tell anyone. But don’t make me regret it.”
“...follow up in a week…”
“Should we let him sleep?”
“Hi. Hey. I’m up.” He’d fallen asleep in the chair and, apparently, stayed there after the procedure was done. His arm was wrapped in a clean white bandage over what he assumed was an ugly arm’s length of stitches. Dr. Strange and Tony stood in the doorway--Bruce didn’t know for how long or what they discussed. He tried to hasten his way towards consciousness by rubbing his eyes and stretching his legs to the very end of the chair. It didn’t make him more wakeful. It just made him seem sleepier.
“Good to see you again, Dr. Banner. Feel free to use my shower.”
Bruce hesitated. He didn’t have a Plan B, clotheswise, and he didn’t want to take advantage of a stranger’s generosity. Then again, he was soaked in so much blood that it could have passed through his skin and returned inside his body.
Dr. Strange sensed his hesitation. “Let me rephrase: use my shower. Please.”
“You’re about my size, right?” Tony asked.
“Cool. Put these on when you’re cleaned up.” Tony raised his arm to toss the bundles of fabric, thought better of it, and walked over to place them in Bruce’s lap.
“You are drenched in blood, my friend, and I’m not gonna risk being caught by the tabloids with someone who looks like an axe murderer, no matter how dashingly handsome he is.”
Bruce looked at the ground. Tony knew enough to recover from his gaffe without apology or acknowledgment.
“Where did you even get these?”
“Spare in the car. You never know what’s gonna happen. Coffee spill or...bloodbath.”
Saran wrap securely in place around his bandage, Bruce walked into the bathroom. It was what he expected the bathroom to be: classy and modern with sleek grey marble tiling and a shower the size of Bruce’s whole apartment. The one surprise was the shower door sliding aside automatically for him, like a grocery store door, albeit classier.
The first gush of water hit his hair. He moaned. He’d forgotten showers felt this good. Luckily no one was there to hear his orgiastic pleasure. He played with the shower settings--jet stream, drizzle, hard bullets bombarding your back, frigid cold, scalding hot, and then, guiltily, he returned the settings back to normal.
After a shower that was simultaneously too long and nowhere near long enough, Bruce pulled on Tony’s satiny shirt, clumsily slipping the tiny buttons through the equally tiny slots. It was a miracle he was still standing. Sheer strength of will. A stubborn refusal to sway in front of Tony. He stepped out of the bathroom mostly dry.
“You’re keeping that, big guy. How is this tailored for me but looks better on you?” Tony fake-whined as he adjusted the sleeves.
“I’m just a better-looking guy, I guess,” Bruce muttered, looking down at his shoes where, thankfully, blood was not as noticeable.
“That,” Tony unbuttoned the top button—it was a bit stuffy—“is exactly what I want to hear.”
“You can use one of my guest rooms as well,” Dr. Strange offered. “In fact, I hope you do.”
“Oh, uh, I couldn’t possibly. Thank you for the offer, though.” Bruce smiled politely.
The doctor nodded solemnly, as if it were what he expected and didn’t want to hear.
“Thanks a ton,” Tony said, returning his arm to its protective position around Bruce’s shoulder. Dr. Strange nodded stiffly.
“So, I have a proposition for you.” They were in the elevator heading down to the car. Bruce felt much better after a nap, a nice shower, and medical attention.
“Don’t you always?” Bruce asked.
“Come back to my place?”
“Do you intend to take advantage of me in my weakened, woozy state?”
“No. I intend to spare you a long ride back to the Underworld and give you a big, cushy bed as far away from me as you like.”
Bruce closed his eyes. Big, cushy bed sounded nice. Big, cushy bed sounded like the three best words in the English language. The elevator dinged the end of their trip. Bruce shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Tony, I can’t. My arm isn’t bleeding anymore, so I can probably get a Lyft back ”
“Get in the car, Banner.” Tony said, not unkindly.
The leather seats were just as good as a bed. Certainly better than the bed Bruce had waiting for him on Skid Row.
“I wasn’t sure what you wanted so I got mix of whatever.” Tony sensed Bruce’s confusion. “Half your blood just escaped from your arm. You need cookies and juice or something. Or, preferably, knowing your work habits—our work habits—a meal.”
“You went to a bodega?”
“I support local businesses.”
Bruce dug through the plastic bag. He imagined Tony in a corner store--had he ever set foot in one?--handing the cashier more hundreds than the inventory was worth and then dumping random packets and bottles into a bag. Gripping one end of the plastic wrapping with his teeth, Bruce tore open a packet of cookies.
“Pain meds, too, from the doctor. The good stuff.”
Bruce peered at the label. It was, indeed, the good stuff. He put the bottle back in the bag, where it would remain untouched.
“You’re lucky you don’t have nerve damage,” Tony said. After relief and coddling came chastisement. No one ever knew how to react, how to balance boundaries with care, unconditional love with frustration.
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
Tony took his eyes off the road to glare at Bruce, a horrible mix of betrayed and offended that made Bruce turn away.
“You expect me to believe that happened accidentally?”
“I didn’t say it was an accident. I said it wasn’t on purpose.”
Tony sighed. “If this had been the first time, or even the second…” Or even the eighth or the ninth. Tony’s voice sounded tight and oddly strangled. He didn’t know what worked with Bruce, but he knew what made things worse: anger. Bruce could tell he was wrestling the urge to scream What the hell is wrong with you? Why won’t you tell me? Guilt gnawed at Bruce. Tony deserved better than him.
“I haven’t tried in a long time, and I didn’t tonight. I know it sounds absurd, but it’s true.”
“Christ,” Tony exhaled. His emotions would swirl and the settle, like sediment shaken in a glass of water, and he wouldn’t push Bruce--not tonight, anyway. “Then can you do me a favor?”
“Sleep in tomorrow.”
“If you’re not gonna crash at my swank pad, then at least leave the Closed sign on the store, wake up late, listen to some NPR or whatever you do to unwind. Read some books. Go to a rave. Get some blood back.”
“I didn’t want to have to play this card, but you owe me. And this is how I want to cash in the favor.”
“Fine. I’m turning off my alarm.” He pressed down on his flip phone until his screen went black. “Wait, actually, I should tell Audrey I--”
“JARVIS,” Tony said. “Send text to Audrey Fulquard. Tell her it’s Tony, and the doctor’s taking a day to heal himself and won’t be at work tomorrow.”
Bruce felt a soft touch on his shoulder. After a lifetime of not sleeping in anyone else’s presence, his natural reaction was to jolt awake.
It was only Tony, sitting in the driver’s seat with the car in park, his eyes oddly soft.
“Last call, Bruce. I’m driving back to my place anyway. You’re welcome to come along.”
“Thanks.“ Bruce’s mouth was dry and cottony. He chugged apple juice with absolutely no dignity before continuing. “I’m good here.”
“I don’t want to leave you alone tonight,” Tony said, as if he were confessing a vulnerability. Bruce hesitated, unsure how to respond. He could say something comforting, or he could indulge Tony and take his offer.
“I’ll be fine, I promise. Sorry you have to drive back. I’d invite you to crash, but…” There was no space, and he lived in squalor, and he didn’t want to give Tony more reasons to fuss.
Tony took a shaking breath. “No worries, big guy. Just remember what I said, OK?”
The car did not pull away until Bruce ascended the staircase and turned on the light to his apartment, mostly a signal to Tony—I’m in, I’m safe, go home. Bruce could have flopped into his bed three steps from the door in the dark.
If he stayed awake another moment, he might have contemplated how, with a single phone call, a humble florist got the the world’s most powerful man to drive him back and forth and back again across New York City at one in the morning. A reversal of nature, like sheep hunting lions or plants eating people.
As always, many thanks to heyjupter for her impeccable eyes!
Bruce woke from a hard, heavy sleep, the type of unconsciousness that would cling to him for hours. A piercing whine penetrated the back of his skull, which was already achey from dehydration. It took him several moments to register that it was his cell phone. It was louder than he would ever set his ring--his phone never rang regardless--and the dim recesses of his brain pulled up a memory of him turning off his phone quite explicitly. He reached into his pants pocket with his one good arm—he didn’t change out of his clothes from the night before (which, he realized belatedly, were Tony’s)—and answered.
“Bruce? Were you asleep?” The voice on the other end was pitched higher than usual, but unmistakably Tony.
“Yeah.” He sat up in bed, squinting against the crack of light coming in through the window. One hell of a hangover. The worst kind. He didn’t even have fun last night.
“Oh, thank God.”
“Is everything OK?”
A pause on the other end. “Are you?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” His bandaged arm lay heavily in his lap. “Didn’t I turn my phone off last night? It’s so loud.”
“Sorry about that. I, uh, I was getting worried and I turned it on.”
“It seemed less dramatic than barging into your apartment.”
In Bruce’s opinion, the options were equal. He checked his watch. It was only five. That meant a little over twelve hours of sleep which seemed perfectly reasonable, even encouraged, for the ordeal he’d been through—put himself through—the night before.
“I’ve only been asleep for twelve hours, Tone. I would’ve called you as soon as I woke up.”
Another pause, longer than the last. “It’s Wednesday.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you got some sleep, I figured you were conked out. But I couldn’t get in touch with you and…”
And you thought I’d killed myself.
“Then you showed remarkable restraint.”
“Yeah. Uh. You can delete the texts, then.”
“I’m sorry I worried you.”
“Just don’t do it again,” Tony said, trying to keep his tone light.
“Okay, big guy, I’ll let you go.”
“See you,” Bruce said softly, ending the call at the same time as Tony. He glimpsed his home screen: 38 messages, some from Audrey, some from Tony. Bruce had never put their names in the phone. After all, only two numbers called him and they were easy to differentiate based on context and style.
Hey big guy! Just making sure you’re home OK. Call me when you wake up.
DR.!!! tony says ur not feeling good. r u ok?
I’m sure you’re still sleeping. Just wanted to check in. Call me.
Then, toward the most recent:
Starting to panic. Please call.
Gonna give it another hour.
Another 50 minutes.
He deleted the rest of the messages before reading them. After all, Tony told him not to look, and they would probably be increasingly frantic in a way that would be embarrassing to Tony and make Bruce feel guilty. He lay back down on his bed, resting his bandaged arm on his pillow. You’re a crazy idiot, Banner, he thought, staring at his arm.
Time passed in a lazy haze, Bruce’s eyes drifting open and shut for who knew how long. Every time his eyes opened, he’d see the thick white bandage, know he’d have to confront it eventually, but, too lazy to move, he would let his eyes close again, and repeat.
It could have easily been a cycle of thirty minutes or another day. The thought didn’t bother him until he heard another knock at the door. The sound jolted his heart and shocked his body upright. No one ever knocked on his door. Either he had lost another day and Tony was there, as promised, to bust down the door, or it was the police or a robber, or the police, police, police…
Bruce shook his head. He hadn’t hurt anyone except himself, and Tony wouldn’t have called them…
His heart pounded. The doctor. Dr. Strange. He knew Bruce had no intention of seeing a therapist, and called…
The knocking continued, louder and more insistent, and a familiar feminine voice shouting. “Dr. Banner! Please open up! It’s Audrey!”
He stood on unsteady legs. This time, the spots that flashed before his eyes were white. He just needed to get his blood flow, whatever was left, back to normal and adjust to the light. He cracked his door open--in Skid Row, you could never be too sure--and, seeing it was Audrey, unlatched and opened up.
“Dr. Banner!” She flung an arm around him. The other held an aluminum tray, which crinkled between them.
With another person, even one as small as Audrey, his miniscule dwelling seemed half its size. Suffocating. Instinctively, Bruce looked around for an escape--an escape from his own house, from his own life, from his diminutive employee. What was he going to do, jump out a window?
Audrey had never been up here before. It was a consideration he hadn’t taken into account: she didn’t really know how he lived. No one did. But he certainly couldn’t leave her locked out. Regardless, it was too late now: she was inside.
“Tony told me you weren’t feeling well and I haven’t heard from you.” She spotted his wrapped arm and lifted it gingerly. “You poor thing! What happened?”
He told the story about the shelf. One of the many things his unique experiences taught him was that if a lie couldn’t be believable, then it could at least be consistent, and sometimes consistency could make up for utter nonsense. Sometimes. It took three tries but at long last, he got the desired reaction: wide-eyed credulity.
“You should be more careful. What would we do if something happened to you?” Audrey asked. Bruce wasn’t sure who “we” was. Audrey continued to chatter. “Anyway, I made you fishsticks. You’re always making food for me, so I figured why not take care of you for once?”
It wasn’t that he had a total aversion to junk food—just the majority. And something specifically about fish sticks repulsed him. They were heresy against the noble fish who gave their lives for cuisine and the people who chose to eat them.
“I know, a woman should be a better cook…”
“Did Orin tell you that?” Bruce asked. He vowed to eat all of the soggy logs of fish-flavored breading.
“No,” Audrey blushed, which meant yes. “It’s just somethin’...Well, I just figured I should cook better.”
“It’s very thoughtful and I’m sure they’re wonderful, really. Um. I’d invite you to join me but I don’t actually own a table.” He thought, by the end of the sentence, that he’d be able to think of a better excuse, and as usual, he’d wound up with embarrassing honesty.
Audrey giggled. “Of course you don’t have a table. Where would you put it?” Where indeed.
“Wait, we have a session today, right? Why don’t we go downstairs--”
“Oh, no, of course not, you should rest.”
“Nonsense. Nothing should ever get in the way of education.” School: his favorite and most reliable lifelong distraction. Why shouldn’t it work when he was teacher instead of student? No matter what was going on in his life, he was always able to lose himself in a library, poring over texts; working late hours at the lab; or impressing his teachers in a classroom. Coursework increased in difficulty until it required the concentration of his every conscious thought, and as soon as he stepped out of the lab or classroom or library a pore would open up and other things would be able to penetrate, so the only reasonable choice was to stay in his fortresses for as long as possible and not think about anything else.
“Um, okay….If you say so.”
“Besides, the exam is coming up soon, right?”
“Two weeks,” Audrey admitted.
They descended the staircase. The flaw in his plan didn’t strike him until he’d already turned the key to unlock the store. The blood. The spray from the knife, the pools that formed as he stood there, dumb and waiting. It would be too conspicuous, even for Audrey, if he changed his mind and turned back now. He pushed open the door.
The immaculate floor shone up at him. They both ventured farther inside—he, with halting steps; Audrey, with nonchalant strides. He couldn’t remember cleaning, although it wouldn’t be the first time his memory failed him. But it didn’t make logistical sense. When would he have cleaned? Surely not when the blood was still pouring and not when he’d been passed out in bed.
“Audrey, were you in here?”
She set the tray on the table and removed the tinfoil covering. “No. Yesterday was my day off, and I figured you were takin’ today to heal up…”
His eyes landed on Twoney, looking vibrant and verdant, in the corner. His knees almost gave out. Audrey’s hands gently wrapped around his elbow.
“You should go back to bed, Doctor.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
“Twoney’s looking really good. Maybe you should take lessons from him.”
Bruce faltered again, and this time, he almost knocked Audrey off balance. “Listen, Mr. Stark’ll kill me if he finds out I didn’t take care of you.”
“I’m not your responsibility.” Also, she was talking to Tony? About him? How often? “I’m just a little disoriented from being in bed so long. It’ll be good for me to….” He trailed off, forgetting the words he meant to say. “To uh, help you with this. Studying.”
“If you say so,” Audrey sighed. She pulled a book out of her bag. Good. Time to get to work. “It’s just that--you look so pale, and thinkin’ about you here all alone bleeding like that--”
“Audrey,” Bruce smiled, trying to trick his impatience into hiding, “I assure you, I’m fine. It was a minor accident.”
“How did you even get to the hospital?”
“Tony took me.”
“He did ? Oh, that’s so romantic!”
“We’re--we’re friends,” Bruce said. He didn’t think he’d ever called Tony a friend before, not recently at least. They were never not friends. There was no reason admitting they were should feel as large as confessing they were boyfriends or lovers. In fact, Tony would probably be upset if he knew that Bruce felt puzzled.
“How do you two know each other?” Audrey asked brightly, suddenly unconcerned with either Bruce’s health or her studies. “You guys seem so cozy together, but you don’t hang out outside the flower shop, I don’t think.”
Bruce cleared his throat. “We met in college,” he stated. “We were up to mitochondria, weren’t we?”
“Were you roommates?”
“We were not, no. Do you recall what mitochondria does?”
“It’s the powerhouse of the cell. It makes energy and stuff. So did you meet in class or at a party….?” She trailed off, waiting for Bruce to confirm or deny a party animal past.
Bruce wrung his hands and smiled again. “I appreciate your interest in my life. Right now, though, don’t you think we should be focused on the test? And then after, you can interview me.”
“Interview? It’s not a TV thing. I known you for years and hardly know anything about you.”
“I’m not that interesting,” Bruce said. “There’s not much to say.”
“That’s not true. You know so much and I wanna know how you learned it all. And you’re so sweet. I tell you things I don’t even tell my girlfriends. I never met anyone I trusted like you. You’re...safe.”
Throat suddenly dry, Bruce went to the sink and filled a cup of water, chugged it, realized how thirsty he was, and drank two more cups before returning to the table with a fourth.
Audrey persisted. “What if every time I get a question right, I get to ask you something?”
“That seems like a profoundly imbalanced exchange and a waste of time that could be spent studying.” Bruce’s tone was clipped and sterner than he expected it, like a snooty college student with a stick up his ass. Or a parent chastising their child. The tone, as much as Bruce hated it, seemed to be effective. Audrey cast her eyes to the table and muttered that he was right. She even apologized.
He was tempted to apologize as well, which would risk setting their conversation back to personal prying and probing and they'd never remain on course for studying. So he chose not to.
This chapter features gore, violence, implied abuse, and a couple of uses of the f-slur, so uh...have fun.
Ten days later, Bruce went to the clinic to have his stitches removed, opting to avoid Dr. Strange. He’d either have to admit he had not seen a psychiatrist or he would have to lie, and Dr. Strange seemed like a difficult person to be dishonest to. He imagined the scene in his head: hunching in the exam chair, avoiding the doctor’s penetrating gaze and insistent questioning, the admission that he had no intention to see a therapist lurking on the tip of his tongue. Radical honesty that could ruin his life.
Besides, he wouldn’t be able to go without asking Tony for the address, and then Tony would insist on accompanying him and it would be a much bigger event than Bruce wanted it to be. Tonight was Audrey’s last session before her exam and he wanted to make the most of it. For some reason (she was vague about it, but he had his suspicions) she was busy for the next three nights. Could be worse. They’d made it this far without any unwanted intrusions, and it wasn’t like last-minute cramming would save her if she didn’t already know the material.
“I’m just so nervous,” she told him that night. “What if I fail and wasted all your time?”
“Even if you fail, the time won’t be wasted. I enjoyed spending it with you. And didn’t you learn a lot, even if the tests don’t say so?”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
“Anyway, you’re not gonna fail.” That was probably what she wanted to hear.
He’d had a feeling that the last session would be more like a pep talk, and that was probably what she really needed, anyway. She grasped the material at exactly the level she needed to in order to get a satisfactory grade--a B, at the very least; maybe an A on a curve. Of course, Bruce’s standards tended to be more exacting than those of any educational institute, so it would probably be an A.
He was about to say more when there was a loud crash from the front of the store. At first, he thought it was a nightmare. It was too much like a nightmare to be anything else. An oft-imagined fear manifesting in full sound and color. The door smashed off its hinges, Orin in its place.
Orin stumbled closer, the stench of alcohol on his breath becoming overwhelming. His speech was slurred but still easy enough to understand, based on context.
“ This is where you been? On a date? With this fag?”
Bruce rose out of his chair in an instant, practically teleporting between Audrey and Orin.
She hesitated, staring at Bruce with eyes widened in terror. She knew what she was about to leave him to and she wanted to stay and what, help? Do a noble and useless thing to stave off guilt?
The second thing he wanted to tell her was not to feel guilty about whatever was about to transpire, that the world was a pattern of sad cycles but if you tried there were certain knobs you could turn to control the settings. It was a shoddy, half-formed thought and time was of the essence, and the first and most important thing he wanted to tell her--again--was, “Fuck, Audrey, get out!”
This got through to her, or else self-preservation naturally took hold, and she darted out of the store like a rabbit, a feat that seemed impossible in heels outside of movies. Orin, an angry drunk, was also a slow one. He stared after Audrey, eyelids falling and rising over glazed eyes, and would have chased after if Bruce hadn’t leapt at him.
Bruce really didn’t have a plan after that.
Act as bait, he guessed: keep Orin away from Audrey. Technically he could do it without doing anything. Go limp. Dissociate. Just let Orin beat him up. One of his many hidden talents: taking a beating.
The only blow he felt was the first one. It was a hard-well aimed punch to his solar plexus. A good first move, he thought, as all his air exploded from him and he topped sideways.
He thought of green. An apple orchard, one of the few happy memories of his childhood. His mother’s attempt at normalcy: loading the family upstate, his father brooding in the driver’s seat, his aunt and cousin (witnesses, unknowing protectors) teaching him car games in the backseat. The games had seemed stupid, and he’d had a book he wanted to read, but he adored his aunts and cousin Jennifer and was willing to make sacrifice for them, so he set his book aside and clapped his hands against Jennifer’s to repetitive, vaguely irritating rhythms.
“Mom’s pregnant again,” Jennifer told him. “I told her I don’t want a brother unless he’s exactly like you. She said she can’t make any promises.” She sighed, heavy and world-weary, a sound she’d undoubtedly picked up from TV. Bruce preened. Someone wanted him. Then his father muttered something in the front seat, and he stopped preening.
He remembered: wanting to know why Elaine and Jennifer couldn’t live with them all the time. His mother laughing awkwardly. Couldn’t remember the inadequate answer she gave. Wanting a sister, then realizing his hypothetical sister would be in the situation as him, and he appreciated being an only child if only for the sake of his imaginary siblings.
Arriving at the orchard, everything green and red. A small terrier that followed the kids through the gentle grassy slopes. Friendly competition between him and Jennifer about who could get the most apples, which wasn’t fair, since she was already taller. His father nowhere in sight. He had not yet had the epiphany that it was better to know where his father was--it took away the element of surprise.
That day, it wasn’t his father who attacked. It was a bee. The buzzing insect had made a beeline for Bruce and pressed its stinger into his side. It was a sharp, stabbing pain, and blood gushed out in a bright red fountain. Then a second and third bee followed in quick succession, leaving three giant puncture holes pouring blood. Then they shrunk to a single regular bee sting, an angry red mark. And it was on his arm, not his side.
His mother hoisted him up in an instant, set him on a picnic table, and started wailing for help. In those days, he’d had too many close calls health-wise, although none had been from bee stings or allergies, so she had no reason to sound the alarm other than her habit of overcompensating for his hurts. She couldn’t stop the source of his pain--or, he was starting to realize with increasing fury, wouldn’t --so she comforted him in the aftermath. Holding him close, kissing everything from paper cuts to skinned knees to stab wounds.
“Rebecca, he’ll be fine. Panicking won’t help,” Elaine said.
“The bee’s going to die,” Bruce said, simply. It was one of those sad pieces of knowledge he simultaneously felt cursed with and reveled in.
“You’re gonna become a bee now,” Jennifer giggled, prompting Bruce to laugh as well.
The orchard owner came out with a pair of tweezers and plucked the stinger from Bruce’s arm. “Doesn’t seem allergic,” he muttered, no doubt thinking of the hundreds of hysterical city parents and high-strung suburban moms who shrieked if they saw so much as a fly.
“I’m fine,” Bruce said. “Thank you for removing the stinger.”
Rebecca wiped tears away with her eyes, looking around with the blank look of belated embarrassment.
His father had materialized, smirking. “He gonna die?”
“He’s going to be fine,” Bruce’s aunt told Brian coldly. “He was very brave.”
“What a shame. He should die. He should die. He should…”
The orchard vanished, replaced by a man’s face with Bruce’s own features: his jawline, albeit squarer; a crooked, more aquiline nose; and eyes that were harder and colder than what he saw in the mirror. Still, unquestionably a face of the same genetics. He never knew who hated sharing it more.
That face dissolved into the less familiar--yet still all-too-familiar--one of the dentist’s.
Strong hands picked Bruce up by his hair and his shirt, and then slammed his shoulders against the wall. Strangely, though his back absorbed the blow, it was his side that throbbed white-hot, scrambling his vision and leaving him limp. His feet dangled off the ground; the only thing keeping him up were the hands of a much stronger man. He knew what happened when someone had him in this position: he’d be dumped, unceremoniously, onto concrete or tile.
“Is this how you fight?”
“No,” Bruce responded, “ this is how I fight.” He slammed his fist against Orin’s throat. The dentist sputtered and dropped Bruce. It would have been cool if Bruce had landed gracefully, but his legs gave out when he hit the ground and he broke the fall with his hands. He straightened up quickly, though, and lunged at Orin again, landing punch after punch in Orin’s face. Hard, solid punches that made Orin back away and his nose burst open.
Bruce didn’t let up until Orin was near the metal table. Then Bruce leapt again, knocking him over with the force of his own weight and the propulsion of gravity, angled in such a way that the dentist hit his head on the sharp metal edge of the table. They tumbled to the ground together, but surprisingly only one of their heads was split open. Head wounds bled a lot, so it looked like a much more gratifying injury than it was.
It was the element of surprise that did the most damage. Dumb Orin, dumber with alcohol, and dumbest with the astonishment of scrappy monster Bruce, would never regain the upper hand. Not when Bruce Banner was full of surprises. He could smash vases in Orin’s face until it was unrecognizable pulp. Stamp on his fingers and hands. He thought about his own fingers pressing into Orin’s eyes, thought about taking Orin’s ear between his teeth... He could ride this wave of ferality until he felt like delivering the final blow, whenever he felt like it, which could be hours from now, could be a lifetime of letting Orin suffer with the knowledge that a fag destroyed his face.
Or he could end it now and keep some of the humanity he worked so hard to maintain. He grabbed a blood-soaked pair of pruning shears and jammed them into Orin’s chest. The rib cage crackled and crunched. Bruce kept pushing and pushing until his fingers brushed the slick pool of blood and whatever flesh was left, then he flattened his palms and made sure the pruning shears were out of sight, buried in organs and blood.
Several coats of blood covered the floors and wall in inelegant splatters, like some art student’s subversive final project, edgy Jackson Pollock. Fresh blood, still dripping. He watched a drop trickle down from its insane mess on the wall, trailing a thin line to the floor. He couldn’t bear to look at the corpse in front of him, unrecognizable as a human, let alone a specific one.
Behind him, something rustled. It’s the body, he thought, even though it was right in front of him, as motionless as he was. The rustling grew louder. It’s coming for me, he thought, until the source of the noise came into view: the round head of the plant, as big as a boulder, mouth split open like a giant snake’s. Its stem stretched the expanse of the room and headed right towards him. It’s coming for me, he thought, now giddy, accepting this as the crazy end to his equally insane story.
The plant was right in front of him, mouth open wide enough to swallow his body. But it kept going. Straight. Its head didn’t even brush Bruce; Bruce would need to reach out his hand to touch it if he wanted, or if he could move.
It went for Orin instead.
First, it sucked his feet up, and his feet disappeared into the cavernous black hole. His legs followed immediately, tipping his torso down at the waist, jostling the red-white glint of ribcage and the hint of a coil of guts. No matter. They were gone soon enough, along with the pruning shears that were lodged among his organs and bones. Probably a cause for indigestion. Or maybe not. Someone should look into it.
Soon Orin was nothing more than a disappearing head. He seemed alive in that moment, his eyes wide and surprised as if to say, Am I being eaten by a plant?
Then he was nothing.
The plant retracted as quickly as measuring tape going back into its holder, leaving Bruce completely alone.
I’m hallucinating again, Bruce thought. I’m repeating...a lot of habits again. He wanted to crawl to the nearest corner, put his knees up to his chest, and hide, but he couldn’t even manage that. He was frozen in the middle of the room, knees on the hard floor, arms dangling limply at his sides.
Through his brain fog and out of the corner of his eye, he spied Tony in the doorway.
“Hey, Tony. You look nice.” It was all he could manage to say.
Tony walked over and knelt in front of Bruce, right in one of the puddles of blood. “Wish I could say the same about you, big guy.” He cupped Bruce’s cheek. I’m covered in blood, he wanted to point out. Instead, he let his head fall against Tony’s shoulder. Tony must have noticed the whole blood situation--it was hard to miss--and not cared, must have known that this was the last time he would ever see Bruce.
There was every possibility he was an apparition, that Bruce’s sad, addled mind sought comfort in the familiar, and that was the reason why Tony didn’t seem to mind the blood. And why he looked even more dapper than usual. Handsome. Tony always looked handsome. Who would Bruce want to see more in his final moments as a free man than his handsome, charming friend, who had never seemed real anyway? Who could grant more comfort in Bruce’s last moment of peace? Bruce wanted to filter out the coppery pungency of blood and focus only on Tony, Tony’s expensive cologne. “If this were a musical,” Bruce muttered into Tony’s shoulder, “there’d be a song right now."
“If this were a romcom, we’d kiss.”
“If this were a romcom, there wouldn’t be a bloody corpse on the floor.”
“I don’t know. They’re pretty subversive these days.”
They stayed there in silence. Bruce let Tony’s fingers brush the back of his neck, probably the least bloody part of his body. If he had known his life would amount to this--again--and if he could go back in time and take Tony’s comfort, given a little more of himself...he probably wouldn’t. But he at least he had this moment, Tony’s soothing fingers, Tony’s sleeves soaking with blood.
Are you real? Bruce was tempted to ask, but he didn’t want to know the answer.
“I--I should turn myself in.”
He struggled to push himself up from his knees, but Tony kept his grip and shushed him. Bruce didn’t struggle that hard, and Tony won.
“You killed an evil man who deserved to die more than you deserve to go to jail. If any jury is dumb enough to convict you…” Tony exhaled shakily and tightened his hold on Bruce. “I won’t let you go to jail.”
“That just makes me uncomfortable about the corruptibility of a pay-to-play criminal justice system.”
Tony pulled Bruce away to look at him at arm’s length, brow furrowed. Are you fucking kidding right now?
“Please, please don’t turn yourself in.” Audrey joined them in the puddle of blood like another apparition to comfort Bruce, wiping blood off his face as gently as she could with a coarse paper towel. It was a futile gesture, the thought that counts.
She must have realized the Sisyphean task at hand as she gazed down the rest of his body, encrusted in blood. Then her eyes bulged and she reached for his side, stopping just short of touching him.
“Doctor, you’re bleeding.”
“What? No, it’s--” Bruce followed Audrey’s gaze. The blood was thicker and darker there, almost black, and when he tried to pull his shirt up, it stuck painfully to his skin, so sharp and unexpected that he hissed. The facts hit him like a gatling gun: he was soaked in blood, his own and someone else’s, and there was a body in his flower shop and two witnesses. There had been a scuffle--no, a fight--no, a murder, and his adrenaline would drop any minute, any second, right now, which could only mean one thing.
“He’s going into shock,” Tony said to Audrey, tightening his grip on Bruce’s waist and shoulder. He guided Bruce’s eyes to his face. “You need to lie down.”
Lie down? The only thing keeping Bruce upright was Tony. If it were up to him, he’d flop to the floor right this second and probably hit his head and crack his skull open.
“Ah, Christ, when you said this is where a song would go I didn’t think it would be ‘A Little Fall of Rain.’” Somehow, Tony managed to pull off his suit jacket while keeping Bruce upright, ball it into a pillow under Bruce’s head, and set him down. Bruce didn’t realize it happened until he was flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. He tried not to think about the blood pooled around him despite Tony’s application of pressure, but thinking about not thinking about something was the same as thinking about it. All that blood...
“...will help the flowers grow,” Bruce quoted, dazed. Twoney could feast on this smorgasbord crime scene. Bruce flopped his head toward Tony. “Oh. Your suit. It’s a tux.” Bruce sounded embarrassed like all the blood was red wine and he had accidentally dumped a cask of it on Tony at a party, clumsy him.
“I’ll call the rental agency and explain what happened. They’ll be fine.”
Panic seized Bruce. “E-explain?” No, no. It was getting harder to breathe. He groped for Tony’s hand. Please don’t tell.
“Shh, shh, it’s a joke, I own all my tuxes.”
“There’s a body in here, Tone.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Tony looked over his shoulder and called for Audrey to get him something to elevate his legs, and then turned back to Bruce. “You’re going to be OK.”
“Can you, um, could you get rid of the body first?”
“If we don’t take care of you first, there’ll be two bodies to get rid of, and I really, really don’t want one of them to be yours.”
“I can’t go to the hospital,” Bruce said. He couldn’t risk a paper trail, investigation, cops questioning him and tying it back to.... Obviously, this meant he was going to die, and Tony should know if he didn’t already.
“I know, big guy. Don’t you worry about a thing. I got it all under control. Hey, Audrey, come sit with Bruce for a minute. I have to make a call. Keep him awake.”
“Mr. Stark told me t-to keep you awake.” As much as she tried to keep her tears at bay, she burst into sobs. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine. It’s a cycle, and there are knobs.” His brow furrowed. He was delirious enough to talk nonsense, but not delirious enough to not realize it was nonsense.
“It looks like it hurts so much.” A new burst of tears.
“It doesn’t. Honest.”
And it didn’t. He knew that was a bad sign, that he’d be hearing a voice tell him to go towards the light any second and he’d probably obey. But Audrey didn’t have to know that.
Tony returned to his side and stroked his hair. “Hey, big guy, I got you all set up. You’re gonna be fine. Just hold on a bit.”
Bruce never imagined dying surrounded by people. Well, by two people, which was still way more than dying alone. It felt surprisingly nice--warm, even though the blood loss was keeping him cold. But also bad, because these nice people would watch him die, and they’d suffer nightmares, and they might feel guilty, even if they had nothing to feel guilty about….If only he could say something to alleviate some of the trauma.
He was a killer, he was broken, and although the circumstances of his death weren’t ideal, at least they happened sooner rather than later. And there was something, not ideal but poetic, about his final moments revealing what he was all along: a killer. Tony could let go--he’d spent years, no, decades, trying to save him, and though Bruce had never asked, he had taken. Now Tony was free of the leech on his life, his one failure.
At least he’d been able to save Audrey from her main torment. Poor Audrey, forced to witness this spectacle. He hoped she wouldn’t blame herself too much. She knew, now, that he wasn’t a good man, a safe man.
“It’s OK if I die.” Laying out his points would show them that it was a reasonable statement and not at all as grim as it sounded. But his tongue was too thick to elaborate, his eyelids too heavy, and he couldn’t piece together his thoughts into words. His statement--his last words—didn’t have the comforting effect he hoped. Audrey wailed, Tony cursed, and everything went black.
So this is why the wait between chapters is so long.
This is based on Bruce's background in the comics with a lot liberties taken.
I didn’t want the abuse and violence to be gratuitous, and I think the detachment works for Bruce’s mindset. Same for the quick glossings-over of time passing.
Also if I’d written more then it would be longer than the main section, so I used Restraint.
Bruce’s earliest memory is of his father calling him a freak and then following it with a crack of his belt. Bruce couldn’t tell if he’d been aiming for his back and accidentally struck his face, or vice versa, but it stung both.
His mother scooped him up and carried him to another room, checked his wounds, did her best.
Bruce remembered crying a lot. In that memory and others, there was endless crying (from himself and his mother) and screaming (from them and his father, as well).
It didn’t take him long to question why his mother didn’t just put a stop to all the crying and leave. At first, he thought his father was right. He was a freak. No one liked him at school. The teachers didn’t even understand him. He saw it in their eyes when he answered questions or spoke: scared blankness. Referrals to the school counselor, who got the same scared, blank, confused look on her face. He saw special doctors and then had to see other doctors because he’d been too much of a freak for the first set of doctors to handle.
But even if the premise was true, that he was a freak, why did his father need to hit him all the time? Worse, why did he need to hit her? She never did anything wrong. She was perfect. She bought him books and helped hide them from Dad. At nights when he was passed out on the couch, she’d lie next to Bruce in bed and read him the heaviest and most difficult ones even though she didn’t know most of the words. She drove him back and forth from the park and the special doctors and the libraries, even when when the book he needed was several towns over. It was on one of these drives that he asked one of his nagging questions.
“Did Dad hurt you before I was born?” Bruce asked. He knew there were only two answers: yes, in which case she had Bruce knowing that his father would beat them and maybe she knew deep down that he deserved it. Or no, in which case it was Bruce’s fault that his father hurt her. He was inclined to believe the latter.
“It isn’t complicated! I’m smarter than you and I’m smarter than Dad, probably. It’s stupid. Why can’t we just leave?” He kicked his feet against the dashboard. “Why? It’s stupid to not leave.”
“Bruce, honey, it’s--”
“Don’t say it’s complicated!”
The car slowed and then stopped. She’d pulled over to the side of the road, sobbing too hard to keep her eyes open.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was too quiet against her sobs. He’d made her cry, just like him . Of course he’d become just like him, with wild, violent emotions. He was getting a head start on it, too, so by the time he was that old he’d be meaner and more terrible. He’d be a big, roaring monster who punched holes through walls and threw tables across the room.
All of a sudden, he couldn’t breathe. It was like his throat and chest closed all at once so air couldn’t get in or out. He had to gasp for little quarter-breaths, which weren’t enough. He tried to think about what must be happening to his body, accompanied by diagrams of organ systems he’d seen in books, but all he could register were the facts that:
- He was dying.
- It was good he was dying, because then he wouldn’t become like his father and he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
- It was still very unpleasant, regardless of how much better it was for himself and the universe, in the long term.
The next thing he noticed was that his mother stopped crying and turned her attention to him, coaxing his breath back to normal. His vision no longer blurred. His mother was petting him and whispering, promising that he was right and that they’d leave.
None of his books fit in his bag. He’d have to leave them behind and get new ones.
He trailed into the kitchen with his backpack and stared at his mother, who was mashing potatoes in a bowl. She stared at him, equally confused.
“Are we leaving?” e asked.
His mother stopped mid-mash, pale. Then she left the bowl and knelt in front of Bruce.
“If he hurts you again. I swear. The next time he hurts you.”
She kept her promise. The next time Brian hurt him, they took a train ride so long that it was light when they left and dark when they stopped. Aunt Susan picked them up at the station and Rebecca spoke airily about Brian needing some space for the weekend.
Aunt Susan had a lot of land and dogs, which Bruce enjoyed almost as much as spending time with Jennifer and Elaine. He actually liked being outdoors, especially gardening. He’d read about botany but never actually practiced it. Aunt Susan had seeds and books to guide him. The dogs helped him dig holes, happily kicking their feet up and then walking away once they were satisfied with their job.
He didn’t know where he’d go to school. There were no buildings for miles. He didn’t need to go to school, anyway. He was already way ahead of his classes and even his teachers. But he’d need somewhere to get books, a library or a bookstore. Susan had a lot of cookbooks and gardening books and craft books, but those didn’t actually count.
For now, he wouldn’t worry about it. He was away from his father, and that was all that mattered.
“Bruce, are you ready to go?” His mother asked a few days later. He’d just planted some ferns and came into the house to wash his hands and give the dogs water. He was in no position to go anywhere. The knees of his jeans were scuffed and the gardening gloves were too big so his wrists were smudged with dirt.
There was a confused pause, and then Rebecca said, “We’re going home, honey.”
He fantasized about kicking and screaming, clutching at bed posts and door jambs on his way out, but when the time came he left obediently, trailed his mother like a lackey. This time they took a cab to the train station, and it was Brian who picked them up and drove them home.
After that, things were quiet for a few days until they weren’t. That was the pattern. Rebecca and Bruce left again. And then they’d return again. Turns out, Bruce and his mother had very different ideas about what “leaving” meant. Leaving should be permanent and far, not a simple train ride back and forth. A plane across the sea, then a train far away from the city, as far away from an airport as he could get. A dark forest where no one knew who he was and where he could get lost. Leaving should be a solution, not a stopgap.
If he couldn’t leave physically, he decided, he could at least leave mentally. The next time his father beat him, he simply ignored it (not quite “simply,” but his brain was his only weapon and he liked to pretend it was enough to shut it off). Once, his mother held him on his bed, apologizing with each new wound she discovered, and he’d calmly stated, “It’s fine. I don’t know what happens.”
That might have signalled something to Rebecca--why that, of all things, Bruce didn’t know--because the next time Brian Banner slammed the door and left his family slumped and sobbing in the living room, Rebecca immediately dried her eyes and stood up.
“We’re leaving. For good.” Her voice took on a strange edge. Determination, he realized. He’d never heard it before--not in her, not in anyone. He gaped at her, trying to preserve what she sounded like in that moment, the wild look in her eyes. For the first time, he felt that she really could protect him when she needed to.
“ Get your stuff now !”
He ran to his room and pulled his bags from his closet. One was already packed in case of situations like this. But if they were going to leave for good --and he had no reason not to believe his mother; she had never said leave for good before--he should bring an extra bag.
Clothes, not books, his mother had told him. Clothes are more important.
No they’re not, he’d insisted indignantly.
You go through books much more quickly, so it makes more sense to pack clothes. They last longer.
Honestly, he didn’t know why he needed so many stupid outfits anyway. Clothes could be washed. Really all he needed was one t-shirt and one pair of jeans and he could just wear them. But this was one argument Mom wouldn’t give up on.
Outside, the front door slammed again. His mother leaving? Without him? Then he heard the deep voice of his father. It was a returning slam, not a leaving slam.
“What is this?” His mother’s response, much quieter, escaped his ear.
He pretended that he didn’t hear anything. He looked back at his stuff. He could fit maybe three books in, or one large tome. Oxford Planetary Science Guide to Advanced Astrophyiscs, which he was only three-quarters of the way through. Or Principles of Neuroscience, which seemed more important in the long-run.
He heard a smack. He tossed the clothes from his second bag onto the floor, filled it with books, and hefted his backpack onto his back. He had to drag the second bag on the floor, it was so heavy, but if it came down to it, he could swing it as a weapon. He’d have adrenaline.
He arrived in the living room just in time to see the heavy metal vase come down on her head.
She was dead. He didn’t even waste time hoping otherwise, just let the bag handle fall from his hand and screamed.
He kept screaming even when his mind flared black and red. He didn’t have another conscious thought until his father smacked him across the face. Blinking, he realized he’d been dragged to his closet and shoved down to the floor. His father was saying something to him, but he didn’t understand what.
Then there was a blow that almost smacked his head off his neck. When he realized that the flesh didn’t cut straight against bone, he felt profoundly disappointed. If it had, this would all be over.
“There was a break in. I tried to fight him. They killed your mother and got away. You ran to the closet, like the coward that you are. Do you understand?
A hand wrenched his hair, pulling his head back. “Did I ever hit your mother?”
“N-no.” Bruce whimpered.
“If someone asks today or tomorrow or fifty years from now or ever , if I was ever violent or hit anyone or killed her, what are you going to say?”
“You weren’t,” Bruce choked.
“If you ever, ever waver,” his father’s mouth was so close Bruce almost choked on the sharp whiskey breath, “the same thing will happen to your aunts and Jen. Do I make myself clear?”
Bruce whimpered and nodded.
“Good. Now stay here.”
Time passed. He wasn’t sure how much. He hoped it was days. Or weeks. Maybe he could stay in the closet forever. All things considered, it seemed like the best living situation: he’d never have to see his dad again, and he had no mother to see, and he’d be forgotten and wouldn’t have to lie to the police. He could disappear into the darkness and no one would find him until he was a pile of bones.
Then a sliver of light appeared at his side. He curled in on himself more. If he made himself smaller, then maybe they couldn’t find him…
“Bruce!” His father’s voice. “Are you okay?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce glanced outside, but made no move to get up. Next to him, a policewoman crouched down.
“Bruce, honey, you’re safe now. Can you come out?”
She didn’t look at all like his mother. Her hair was pixie-cut and blonde. Her uniform cut her a solid and stern shape compared to his mom’s flowy floral skirts. Yet next to Brian, Bruce would choose anyone, and he couldn’t stay in the closet forever. His dad might yank him out and…
He scrambled to his feet and darted to the policewoman’s legs. When he recalled this scene years later, he’d remember--or imagine--a split-second glance as the policewoman looked up to Brian, then back to Bruce, and stood up, a hand around his shoulder. The air was heavy, as it was around most murder scenes, but in his memory it was even more leaden: the earliest moment he could have undone things, the choice that would have spared him the most damage.
But things went the way they went.
“Bruce,” Brian said, “come here.”
And he did.
He haunted his mother’s funeral as a spooky, almost catatonic spectre, like a little boy out of a haunted Victorian mansion. He remembers Jen taking him into a parlor and maneuvering his head in her lap and stroking his hair.
When his father came to take him home, he clung to Jen, silent, eyes wide and solemn, and there was a slight psychological tug-o-war between his father and Elaine: Bruce could ride back with her and Jen; but no, Brian insisted, the boy should be with his father. Eventually, Brian won the car ride back.
There was a post-funeral reception which, small mercy, Bruce was spared. Elaine tucked him in and waited until she thought he fell asleep. As soon as the door closed and the footsteps receded, Bruce grabbed a book and a flashlight and dived into his closet, shutting the door behind him.
Existence proceeded after the funeral, although Bruce had no recollection of it. Whatever his father did or didn’t do no longer factored into Bruce’s mind. Either the following weeks were unpleasant or his father left him alone. It didn’t make a difference. Bruce’s mind never registered them.
The next thing he knew, he was sitting across from Elaine in her living room, his father next to him on her sofa, petting his hair. Bruce could do nothing but focus on not focusing on his father’s hand.
“It’s hard to raise a son without a mother’s touch. I will, of course, pay for whatever he costs you…I know with a baby, it’s difficult.”
“We love Bruce. Of course he’s welcome here as long as he wants. Forever, even.” She smiled at him and leaned closer. “Would you like to stay with us?”
His father’s hand moved to his back, a gesture of comfort from Elaine’s vantage but, in reality, a discreet way to pinch Bruce. Bruce nodded.
“Oh, I’m so happy!” Elaine leapt over and flung her arms around him. He accepted the embrace, stiff as a board, head smushed in her arms. She started crying. Now she realized what it really meant, to have Bruce Banner as a son. Now she was going to change her mind. But she kept crying and holding him at the same time, and she didn’t say she changed her mind, which was all a stupid, confusing mixture of decisions on her part.
Finally, she pulled away and looked at him, then looked at Brian. “Shall we drive by and pick up his belongings, or--?”
“Actually, I didn’t mean to be presumptuous, but they’re in the car.”
“Wonderful! The guest room’s set up--well, it’s Bruce’s room now--and we can go shopping this weekend. Would you like that?”
Bruce nodded before his father could pinch him again. Really, Bruce didn’t care one way or another. It was easier to nod than to explain that they should do whatever was easiest. He didn’t even need a room, really. A closet would be ideal.
Hindsight and maturity, again, made him realize how amazing his aunt and uncle had been, taking him in. Especially when they had two children of their own, one scarcely an infant. At the time, he thought being quiet and distant--besides being the only things he was capable of--was also right , so they wouldn’t feel obligated towards him and if they ever wanted to get rid of him they wouldn’t feel too bad.
No matter how good his relationship with Jen had been on family outings, getting a new housemate--essentially another new brother--would be an unpleasant surprise for any young girl. Jen could have easily been bratty or temperamental or distant or too cool for her creepy little cousin, if not at first, then upon realizing how spooky he’d become. Still, she’d knock on his door, wait for whatever sound of assent he gave (he would never turn her away, and she didn’t need to ask permission), and ask if he wanted to go for a walk or see a movie. He’d shake his head, privately wishing he could thank her. The impoliteness never seemed to bother her. “Maybe next time,” she’d say.
He remembers the exact moment he broke his silence. He wished it was something heartwarming—a kind gesture that finally got through, the gentle spirit of his mother reaching him—instead of the shameful thing it actually was.
Elaine had been putting him to bed, coaxing him with maternal affection and maybe (probably) talking about how much she loved him, and how they felt blessed to have him in their family, when he snapped.
“I don’t want you! I want my mom!” With a violent sweep of his arms, he knocked the nightstand over. The sight recalled too many similar ones: splintered woods, broken book spines, glasses of water smashed to the floor. He couldn’t look away, suddenly tense and quiet except for his heaving breaths. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay. Go back to bed. I’ll clean it up.”
“ I’ll do it !” He thought of his mother on her knees cleaning up his father’s messes, never once did he pick up after himself. People who acted that way should be punished, not coddled. He immediately dropped to the floor, hands scrambling over the detritus. A sharp, stinging pain almost broke his pace but he continued despite it.
“Bruce, you’re bleeding. There’s glass.”
She pulled his hand away and spread his fingers apart. “That’s why I didn’t want you to do it,” she sighed. “Let’s get it wrapped up.”
After that, he added more “please” and “thank you” to his vocabulary. He helped put dishes away. Changed diapers. Ventured to complete sentences. He was still acutely aware that he was a freak, using all his energy to reach the level of a half-formed person and still falling short. But he was trying. It was better.
And then Elaine, sitting in the living room, the same couch where he’d been passed off months before.
“Honey,” she said, “Bruce, baby, can I talk to you for a second? It’s something important.” She patted the couch cushion next to her. Who else died? He thought. Had Brian killed them out of spite? Car crash. Nuclear explosion. As his mind reeled with possibilities, he was surprised at how little emotion felt. Just a dull recitation of things that could go wrong.
But Elaine was in front of him. So maybe Jen and everyone else was OK, too. And if they were, what else did Bruce have to lose? Even if he had to go back to live with his father, as long as everyone else was safe, it didn’t matter.
“Are you sending me away.”
“No, sweetheart, of course not. I would never.” She pulled him to her chest. He slumped against her. “The police...the police think your father...They arrested him. They think he killed…”
In retrospect, it wasn’t the best response. There should have been shock or shame. Or something. A little boy, believing his father to be innocent, should have leapt to his dad’s defense. Stupid mis-steps that Bruce didn’t realize until after the trial was over: not running to his father when the closet door opened. No emotion when he was left with his aunt. Never asking to see his dad.
“Bruce. Did he-- did he--?” When Bruce evaluated that moment from the lens of distance and time, approaching the age his aunt had been at that time and then surpassing it, he realized the dueling emotions she must have felt: the desire to hear “no” and the need for the truth and whatever horrible suppositions her mind produced.
Not that any seven-year old could process that depth of feeling in another person, but Bruce especially could only give one answer, and no consideration to any other possibility.
Time slipped from his grasp once more as his father was put on trial. “They,” the shadowy Defense Team, wanted Bruce to be called as a witness. He wasn’t sure if he always knew the Defense Team and his father were one and the same, or if that knowledge shifted into place in the following weeks. It didn’t matter. If anyone asked him if Brian hurt his mother, he needed to say no.
His aunt and uncle grappled with mysterious figures: how could you ask a child to do this? Let the police do their jobs. Doesn’t the forensics speak for itself? Why do you need to put this on a child?
One night when he was pressed against the closet wall, he overheard Elaine contemplating taking the stand herself, testifying about Rebecca and Brian’s relationship, and broke off in tears under the crushing weight of hindsight.
Bruce never put up much of a fight. He took the stand, father’s threats as fresh in his mind as the day they were made, and insisted that his father never hurt anyone.
It seemed ludicrous to think that, with the parade of forensic experts, family-friends, the policewoman, and Bruce’s own medical records, Brian Banner would walk. That a seven-year old’s testimony would amount to anything. It turns out, it amounted to everything. Brian Banner was declared not guilty. Ludicrous, yes, but somehow inevitable. Bruce never expected otherwise.
Therapists called them negative coping mechanisms and Bruce tried them all. Cigarettes, which he hated, and only tried once. Alcohol, which made his stomach roil but he figured he’d give it a shot anyway--like father, like son. Most of his thirteenth year was spent in a haze of weed, which didn’t make a difference because his days were blurry anyway. Being lifted onto a stretcher in what would be the first of many, many, many suicide attempts.
Then there were the coping mechanisms he didn’t have control over. Blinking and discovering he’d forgotten the past three months up until this minute and couldn’t even reconstruct how he wound up standing in the kitchen. Realizing he’d been awake for five days and couldn’t go to bed if he tried--which he didn’t. Hallucinations usually accompanied these sleepless nights, hallucinations which took the place if dreams.
One thing that remained, sure and stable, was his ever-expanding breadth and depth of knowledge. At times, he forgot where he was, or who he was, but he never forgot what he learned. The building blocks of life--chemistry, biology, physics--made more sense than life itself.
That single unbroken trail was all he needed because it led him where he needed to be: college. Two years ahead of schedule and on a full scholarship so he would no longer need to drain the Walters’ resources.
College was going to be great. It was a place of learning where nothing else mattered, where you didn’t need social ties or family because that wasn’t the point. If you wasted your time making friends, you’d also be wasting the small fortune you were spending in tuition.
Most of his classmates had money to burn. They could afford to fail without ever actually failing. Their family names would bump an F to an A. But Bruce had nothing but his scholarship, and at sixteen years old, there wasn’t a social slot he could wedge himself into. So, schoolwork.
He was under no delusion that his age would earn him admiration from his colleagues, even at an institution that ostensibly prized achievement above all else. Ire and envy, that’s what he would get, and he would just have to protect himself the best he could. Keep his head down, do his work, ignore the whispers. He had handled far worse bullies in his life.
The one person he was, well, not necessarily afraid, but wary of, was Tony Stark. Even someone as sequestered as Bruce knew that Tony Stark was a big deal inside and outside of the school. For good reason, Stark evoked a number of biological reactions in Bruce that were similar to mild fear, such as increased heart rate and shallow breathing: if slighted, the man, although barely older than Bruce, could crush his entire future. The best thing to do was keep his head down and make sure Tony never learned his name.
Tony Stark was hard to avoid. He seemed to be everywhere, which of course was not the case, but when he was in the vicinity, everyone knew. He had a special, magnetic power that drew people’s attention, even in a crowd of hundreds. Walking across campus, Bruce would spot Tony on a bench with an adoring group, and that one second glimpse would fill Bruce’s mind for the entire day.
Worse, Bruce and Tony shared many classes. Some were in large lecture halls of hundred-plus students, where personhood did not exist within the walls and where no one had an identity. Future leaders of America showing up late in sweatshirts and with coffee, some drifting off to sleep, knowing they’d be safe in relatively anonymity. Bruce loved these classes the most--not the content, because they were mostly basic, beginner classes; the academic equivalent of factories. He loved that he could blend in. No one cared in lecture halls.
Other classes were more intimate. They were more difficult and more important and he’d sometimes be a mere feet away from Tony, although never next to him. Bruce prepared himself: Tony sat in that seat, or that row, so Bruce knew to shrink down and not look in that direction--but not too obviously because that was also offensive. He was certain he navigated the waters safely and that Tony had no idea who he was.
Everything changed one day at the library when a loud scraping chair across from him interrupted Bruce’s reading.
Bruce jolted upright. That top-to-bottom startle reflex--an embarrassing tell about his past and disposition.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” Tony said. His apology seemed sincere yet unbothered, and he slid into the seat across from Bruce. He sat on his knees and leaned forward, arms resting on the center of the table. If he was going to sit so close, why didn’t he take a seat next to him? Bruce thought bitterly. Better yet, why didn’t he keep more space between them? “Hey, listen, I’m having trouble in Professor Hoenikker’s class.”
He stared at Tony Stark, resisting the urge to fidget or flee.
“Do you want me to do your homework for you?”
Tony’s face crumpled in what appeared to be genuine offense. “What? No! How would I learn it?” Bruce reran the sentence in his head for sarcasm, detected none. “I was wondering if you could help me.”
Bruce stared at him. In his experience, people born to wealth liked to boast about what hard workers they were more than they actually liked to work. They’d never work at all if they could help it--and they usually could.
Tony sighed and continued. “I’d offer to help in classes you’re having trouble with, but I don’t think there are any. I could pay you--I’d be better at that than teaching, anyway.”
“Pay...me?” No bullying? No threats? No strong-arming? No flushing Bruce’s head in the toilet, stealing his books?
“Yeah. For your time. Look, asking for help is not one of my areas of expertise, so if I said something wrong--”
“Why me? ” Bruce asked. If Tony wasn’t going to terrorize him, then what was the point in choosing the smallest, scrawniest target in the entire university?
“Because you know your shit? There are professors here who’d ask you to teach them if it wouldn’t be seppuku for their pride. Me, I’m pretty damn arrogant, but I’m not stupid. I need help--God, it feels so weird to say those words--and you’re the best person to do it.”
Bruce continued to stare. Tony continued. “I was thinking, like, two hundred. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Two hundred what?”
“Two hundred dollars. To help me.” Bruce was on full scholarship and a generous stipend, but books and housing and utilities knocked his savings down to nothing. An additional two hundred for helping out a rich kid all semester. Sounded nice. But if it indebted him for a year, or worse, indefinitely…
“For how long?”
“Per hour?” Tony asked. “I gotta make it worth your time, right?”
“Two hundred dollars an hour?” Bruce’s voice cracked. It had to be a joke.
“I can’t tell if you’re offended or grateful.”
“No, I’m--that’s a lot. That’s too much. I can do it for less.”
“Kid, now I’m offended. Never say those words again.”
Bruce’s mouth hung open. He hadn’t meant to offend Tony Stark and now he was screwed, preparing himself to grovel for forgiveness.
Instead, when Tony extended his arm, it wasn’t to slap him; it was to shake his hand. Bruce noticed, maybe an instant past normal, and grabbed his hand.
At the end of their first session, Bruce realized that Tony wasn’t nearly as behind in Hoenikker’s class as he seemed to think. Still, it was wise to seek help as soon as possible. Science built on itself, and if Tony had waited a class or two (and been a little less brilliant), he would have fucked himself over for the semester.
By the end of their third session, Bruce realized that Hoenniker’s class was the least of Tony’s concerns--that he, in fact, had bigger extracurricular plans that still required Bruce’s insight. Robotics. AI. Space travel. Perhaps Tony sensed Bruce’s trepidation, or realized that a sensitive soul not given to trust easily might see this as deceit, because he fully disclosed his motives the next day.
“It’s just, there’s no one else here who’s even close to our level,” Tony explained, “and certainly no one I’d want to work with. Anyway, I totally understand if you can’t, or don’t want to or whatever.”
“I do,” Bruce said quickly. “I really do.”
Bruce hadn’t even considered the resources Tony Stark had access to. Most of the Stark family tech largesse was in New York City, and their work often lead them to weekend trips to outside of Massachusetts. For the most part, they stayed local, hanging out in Tony’s off-campus house and bouncing theories off each other.
“You have to be patient,” Bruce said, with a slight edge as Tony sketched out some equations. “Take your time going through the calculations.”
“Funny how you’re lecturing me about patience with that tone.”
Bruce had hoped it wasn’t noticeable. His face flushed red. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. I like when you’re snarky. What kind of friends would we be if we couldn’t rag on each other?”
Friends? Bruce thought, stopping short of saying it out loud. He wasn’t supposed to make friends. Friends would want to know his background, where his parents were, where he came from, what was on his mind, and friends would find it weird when he couldn’t--wouldn’t-- offer up that information. He assumed he was safe from Tony Stark. A billionaire’s son would never consider him a friend. Not when Stark had real relationships. Good relationships.
“Did I fuck up this time?” Tony asked. Bruce stared at him. Did he fuck up? Obviously, Bruce was the fuck up. Went into a spiral after hearing the f-word. “The equations?” Tony tapped his finger against the paper.
“Oh,” Bruce said, looking down, corralling his mind to the work. “Yeah, it should work.”
After the initial shock wore off, Bruce liked knowing that he and Tony were friends. Jennifer was the closest thing he ever had to one, and she was family so it didn’t really count. It felt...good? he guessed. His thoughts sometimes spiralled with nightmare scenarios: saying something stupid and ruining their friendship forever, Tony getting sick of him, a great reveal that it had all been a hoax. But then Tony would appear with his arm around Bruce’s shoulder and a crazy and/or brilliant new idea he wanted Bruce’s opinion on, and he knew they’d survive another day, maybe another two.
The worst Worst Case Scenario was the ghosts of his past reappearing. He didn’t quite believe his father was lurking in the corners, waiting to leap out, although it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility or his actual nightmares. Eight-foot-tall Brian Banner with claws for hands and razor teeth materializing in front of Bruce and Tony in the Commons. “Wait, that’s your dad?” Dream-Tony would ask. “You freak.”
It was more likely Bruce’s red temper would detonate. An argument or a fight. A problem they couldn’t solve, or someone giving him trouble...His anger burst open and it-- friendship-- would all be over. At first, he’d avoided Tony Stark to keep himself safe; it might be that their closeness undid him.
Leave it to Tony to note Bruce’s absence of a temper.
“You never get angry,” Tony said one day, after he’d finished a long, dramatic rant about a professor. The rant had been on Bruce’s behalf; a professor was singling Bruce out and picking on him, and Bruce took it in stride. It made Tony’s sense of justice flare up. “You get pissy sometimes but then you immediately retreat. I wonder what it would be like. Seeing you mad.”
Bruce looked at the middle distance. Tony couldn’t know the bull’s eye he’d hit Nor could Bruce ever tell him. So how on Earth could Bruce navigate a conversation as difficult as this with someone as observant as Tony?
He exhaled and then carefully, slowly, responded, “I don’t think you’d like me when I’m angry.”
Tony’s eyes widened--at first, Bruce thought, in fear, and then he realized in admiration.
“Fuck! That’s a great line. You gotta get that copyrighted and put on t-shirts. Seriously, though. Bottling stuff up’s not good. You don’t need to tiptoe around me, big guy. Someone’s being a dick to you, you should vent. Or seek retribution.”
Not everyone can afford justice, Bruce thought sadly. He rubbed his hands together and ventured another explanation. “I’m not tiptoeing around you. I prefer not to get mad. It’s that simple.”
Fall semester ended with straight A’s and his first friend and the unvoiced feeling that at least for now, he may have carved out something good in his life.
Then he checked his mail and a found letter written in familiar, spidery handwriting. No envelope. No postage. It had been put in his mailbox.
The letter began, “My dearest son Bruce.”
He couldn’t read all of it. Who cared what it said? The nerve of Brian to think he had any right to Bruce’s life. He shouldn’t have any rights at all. But whose fault was that? Bruce reminded himself. Should he tell a professor? Security? He wasn’t in immediate danger and he didn’t want the university to know he was damaged goods. Obviously, he couldn’t go to the administration.
Or Tony. Tony would react dramatically, but Bruce couldn’t tell in which direction. Hiring a hitman was not out of the realm of possibility. Whatever billionaires do to make people “disappear.” Then again, Tony could do the opposite, the all-too-thinkable unthinkable: cut Bruce out of his life. Ah , he’d think, so much baggage . That would explain why he’s so weird and broken. Well, certainly the Starks cannot be associated with such trash.
He crumpled the letter and tore it to shreds, then ripped the shreds to pieces, ending up with his fists clenched around hundreds of bits of paper, evidence he needed to destroy. How? Set them on fire? No, then he’d be the weird fire-setting kid. Flush them. Swallow them. God, he was sick. It wasn’t the inherent repulsiveness of eating paper that deterred him; it was the thought of his father’s words being inside of him.
Ripping up the letter seemed like the best idea until that night, when Bruce turned off his lights and closed his eyes. His mind buzzed with thoughts.
- The audacity of Brian to reach out to him. He’d done what Brian said. Never told a soul. Committed perjury for him. What more did he want?
- Were Elaine and Jennifer safe? When was the last time Bruce spoke to them? Too long ago. They could be dead. He was an idiot to think his father would keep his promise. Promises were for men of honor and Brian Banner was--Bruce would have been notified, right?
- How did he even find out where he was? He’d put it directly in his mailbox. He’d been on Bruce’s property. In his apartment? His bedroom? (Professors, Bruce thought, who somehow knew Brian but not the whole Banner family drama? Professors who--oh God--knew and were in cahoots.)
- What did the letter say? Was it a threat? Should he have read it? Was the cruelty enough, or would it be followed by something physical? If Bruce didn’t respond, would his father feel compelled to escalate? Or was it enough for him to know that his son would lie awake in his room, thoughts whirring, unable to sleep.
He threw the blanket off and threw himself into work, brainstorming ideas for Tony and getting a head start on the next semester. He did this the next night, too, and the night after that, until he started bypassing the first part of trying to sleep at all.
Tony noticed something amiss on the third day. It was hard to hide seventy-two hours of insomnia, especially with the seventy-two hours’ worth of sleeplessness dulling your brain.
“I’m fine,” Bruce said. That night, he made a point to slip into unconsciousness for a good fifty-eight minutes before awakening from a dream he couldn’t remember, but which he knew had been terrifying.
“What’s going on?” Tony asked the next day.
“Allergies,” Bruce said. Tony rolled his eyes and threw his head back in frustration.
On the eighth day, Bruce showed up at Tony’s, as usual, buzzing on eight cups of coffee and trying to focus through his foggy brain. He stood above the living room work table, studying their blueprints, when Tony walked over, folded up all the papers and said, “We’re not working today.”
“ What ?”
“Yeah, no, you’re either going to tell me what’s wrong or we’re having mandated nap time.”
“I’m fine,” Bruce muttered as his knees fell out beneath him. Grunting more in exasperation than exertion, Tony slipped an arm under Bruce’s legs. Bruce let himself be carried—he didn’t have a choice and, besides, he didn’t mind it as much as he should. Tony’s bones were nice and firm and his were mush, as were his brain and willpower.
“I assume this is some combination of stress, dehydration, malnourishment, and exhaustion,” Tony stated. Bruce concurred, not that he’d admit it.
Through half-lidded eyes, Bruce saw Tony carry him down the hallway and into his bedroom, set him down in his-- Tony Stark’s-- bed. That meant the comforter he tucked around Bruce was his as well, and smelled like him, and was softer and warmer than the scratchy Goodwill cast-off he had at home. He’d probably get a good night of half-embarrassing, half-rewarding sleep and then hope that Tony never brought it up again.
“D-don’t send me to the infirmary,” Bruce said, which he’d intended to mean “Let me sleep it off in my own room.”
Tony took it to mean—or decided it meant—that Bruce should stay in Tony’s room until he was better. At least.
The next time he was semi-conscious, Bruce heard Tony’s voice above him. Same room but seemed oddly distant. He couldn’t see where it was coming from. It was eerie until he realized his face was buried in a pillow and he didn’t have the strength to turn over. “Hey, kid, you mind if I call a doctor? It would look really bad if a promising young freshman died in my bed.”
No, no, doctors cost money...I can go back to my room. The words never made it out of Bruce’s mouth, which informed Tony’s decision to call a medical professional.
Bruce wouldn’t find out until much later that this was four days after Tony initially put Bruce to bed. Four days spent in Tony’s room, hazy with fever. It would take Bruce thirty years to realize that this was the stitching at the seam of Tony’s relationship to him, no matter how much Bruce tried to forget it, and that it would reverberate with deafening callbacks decades later. Really, then and now, Bruce wanted them both to forget it.
“...should take him to a hospital…”
“He doesn’t want to go.”
“I don’t know. He’s private. Unless he’s gonna die, I’m not gonna take him.”
The doctor sighed. “No, he’s not going to die. But if he gets worse, it doesn’t matter if he’s hiding state secrets, you need to take him. How old is he, anyway?”
“He looks like he’s 12. You know, you’re the only college boy I’d trust to nurse a sick teenager back to health in his own dorm room. Anyone else, that kid would be dead already.”
The door closed.
“You hear that, kid? Don’t die, or I’ll look like an idiot. And I’m sure the media will pepper in some rumors of a rich kid who kept a dangerously ill pre-teen sex slave in his bedroom."
“Won’t die, wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Yeah, I know you wouldn’t,” Tony sighed softly and rattled something in his hands. “You got some good pills, and I’m gonna keep watering you like a plant, and you should be good as new.”
Bruce hummed and felt Tony’s hand ruffle his hair.
“C’mon,” Tony said, rolling him over. “First pill.”
Two days later, Bruce was conscious enough to watch as Tony mopped sweat away from his forehead, but still too lethargic to protest.
“You never struck me as a caretaker,” Bruce said, voice hoarse and scratchy. Tony switched the rag for a cup of water with a straw and held it up to Bruce.
“Why? Because I’m so self-absorbed?”
Bruce blinked. He’d never witnessed any man take care of anyone before. Jennifer’s dad had been affectionate towards her and even towards their infant son. He’d tried with Bruce--awkward shoulder pats, high-fives, aborted attempts at hugging, but Bruce would often catch him looking his way with a profound sadness, as if wondering how on Earth his family had been cursed with such damaged pieces of a child. When Bruce graduated high school, Jennifer’s dad tried to hug him, but Bruce recoiled in surprise. Maybe it was a Bruce thing, not a man thing.
“I dunno, just...didn’t.”
“ “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.’” Tony quoted.
“Robert Heinlein,” Bruce couldn’t help it. His lips curled up in a smile. “So, can you do all that?”
“Hmm….Most of it. Not so great with the taking orders and cooperating.”
“You seem to be fine with me.”
“You’re a very special case. I think your fever’s breaking, or close to it. What do you say, a good night of sleep and then back to work?”
Bruce knew Tony was kidding about the work part, but he wanted nothing more than to get back to his work station and tinker. “Sounds good,” he muttered, rolling onto his side and nestling into the pillows.
The fever broke the next day, which was good because Bruce wasn’t sure how much longer he could drain Tony’s hospitality. Still, Tony was in good spirits, sitting at Bruce’s bedside, eating soup, and arguing about which superheroes would win fights against each other.
It was almost a betrayal when Tony suddenly, without warning, became serious.
“Are you worried about failing or something?”
“F-failing?” The thought never crossed Bruce’s mind. Was that something else he needed to worry about?
“That usually accompanies the whole work-until-the-point of collapse thing.”
Oh. Tony was still on that whole thing.
“No. It’s not that.”
Bruce spun his spoon in his bowl. “I can’t talk about it.”
“Is someone hurting you?”
“I can’t...no.” His father wasn’t hurting him. He was hurting himself, working himself into a mess because of a stupid letter. “I don’t know. Where have you been sleeping?”
“Couch at first, then I realized you only take up a tiny corner of my massive bed and figured you wouldn’t notice if I slept on the other side. And you didn’t.” Tony shrugged.
“Thanks.” Bruce’s side of the bedspread was soggy with sweat. “I’ll wash the sheets. Um. And the doctor—I don’t know, I’ll pay you back or something.”
“Bruce,” Tony exhaled, for once choosing his words carefully. “The doctor is our family doctor. Our private doctor.”
“You own a doctor?”
“I don’t own a doctor. We pay him a salary and he--” Tony rubbed his hand down his face. “Don’t worry about the sheets or payment or anything. And I’d feel better if you stayed here for the rest of break, at least the rest of the week. I understand if you want to go back home and get your stuff—and if you want to stay there, I’m not gonna fight. But I’m not kicking you out. And I don’t want you to leave. In fact, I would really, really appreciate it if you stayed, and I’d sleep better knowing you were OK.”
“You tend not to sleep at all,” Bruce said softly.
“Yeah, so imagine how much worse it would be.”
Bruce stared at the bedspread. If his nightmare murmurings ever became intelligible, Tony would know too much. Or if his father tracked him down, he’d track him down to Tony’s, and Tony would find out...or get hurt.
“We see each other so often, you’ll know if I’m not feeling well.”
“Yeah, like when you swooned in my arms?”
“I didn’t swoon. And you did notice something was wrong. I just kept it from you.” Not a strong argument in his favor.
“Look, you’re a teenager, so problems seem bigger than they are, scarier, insurmountable--”
“Technically, you’re still a teenager, too.”
“I know. And everything seems terrible,” Tony said, pertly. He rubbed his hands together in impatience, glancing to the insurmountable problem sitting next to him. “We’re the two smartest guys on the planet. You can’t possibly have a challenge we can’t overcome together.”
Tony had no idea. “I appreciate that. Honestly, though, knowing you’re on my side...that’s enough.”
“Heartwarming. But you almost died in my bed.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “You’re not gonna let it go, are you.”
Tony flung himself on the bed and kicked his feet. “Staaay with meee! I get lonely.”
“Well. If you beg like that…”
Classes resumed. Bruce went back to his own place, even though Tony practically clung to his ankles to get him to stay. He got extra locks for his doors and windows and switched housing when his lease was up, as he did for his entire four-year stint at college.
Bruce lived each day as if he’d get another letter or worse, a visit from his father, because he was certain as soon as he let his guard down, it would. Though the letter was not a one-time thing, his father never showed up, and each subsequent letter lost a half-life of power.
Four years ago, graduation had seemed far away and whenever Bruce thought about it, he imagined walking through dark fog that led off a cliff. Now that it was happening, Bruce felt more secure than nervous. He had several job offers and dozens of professors asking him if they could be his recommendation.
Neither he nor Tony wanted to do the whole graduation walking ceremony but Tony had too many adoring fans and his father to appease. Bruce's trek across the stage would be awkwardly quiet and Tony's would be filled with enough cheers to fill a sports stadium.
“It’s a great photo op, you see,” Tony explained, “and if I’m not there, it’ll be whole big thing to my dad and the press.”
“Oh,” Bruce said, simply, unsure whether Tony was exaggerating or if that really was how his life and the media worked. He’d known Tony for four years; at this point, he was inclined to believe the latter.
The night before graduation, they gathered in Tony’s house, just the two of them. Tony bypassed a few pre-graduation parties to spend time with Bruce, not that Bruce asked him to. Besides, Tony would be busy for the next week with friends and his family’s graduation celebrations.
“No pressure, but since you’re not worried about losing your scholarship anymore,” Tony said with a sly grin, producing a joint, “I am pleased to present this to you. Now, the trick is to inhale and hold--oh. You know what you’re doing.”
Muscle memory overtook Bruce and he didn’t think to act like a novice. He inhaled deeply, held the smoke in his lungs, held it a little longer...a little longer...and exhaled smoothly.
“Well, fuck, Banner, have you been holding out on me? Where’d you learn that?” Tony asked, taking his turn.
Tony plopped onto the couch, stunned and impressed. “Does my sweet little Banner have a secret wild past?”
Bruce chuckled and joined Tony. “You have no idea.”
“My soft-spoken little dork who loves science and Star Trek--”
“ You love science and Star Trek.”
“Shit. We’re missing it.” Tony grabbed the remote.
Sex wasn’t something Bruce speculated about ever, but it was hard not to speculate regarding Tony, who exuded sexuality and sex appeal. It was impossible not to get sucked up into that orbit. Presently, Tony was talking about which Star Trek characters he’d most like to...well. Around Tony, it was unavoidable.
“Uhura. No contest. What about you?”
Bruce could plead the fifth, or he could lie, or he could answer. Tony seemed worldly and cosmopolitan, but that didn’t always transfer to tolerance.
“Kirk.” His face heated up with the confession.
“Kirk’s your type, huh? Yeah. I could see it. I wouldn’t say no to either of them.”
Bruce expected an awkward pause or confusion. He wasn’t sure Tony understood, so he clarified. “Tony, I’m gay.”
“I got that when you said you’d fuck Kirk.”
Tony laughed. “What, did you want me to be shocked?”
“No, I--I thought you’d be disappointed.”
Tony cocked his head to the side. “Do you want me to be? I’m having a hard time reading the vibe here, buddy.”
It felt stupid, the thing that twisted up his stomach for as long as he could remember, and when he finally expelled it from his gut it just fizzled in the air. Like maybe he shouldn’t have kept it in so long in the first place.
“Am I the first person you came out to?”
“Well, then, I’m proud of you.”
“Tony, you also said you’d fuck Kirk.”
“But you’d also fuck Uhura? Are you--? I mean, what--what are you?”
Tony’s arm snaked around Bruce’s shoulder and pulled him closer, laughing into his hair, “Buddy, I’m from New York.”
He maneuvered Bruce horizontally so that he was in Tony’s lap. Tony got tactile when he was high, and Bruce never had the heart to deny him. Now that he was high too, Bruce especially didn’t mind lying down and letting Tony indulge.
“I can’t believe I just came out to you. And I’m stoned.”
“That’s usually how it happens.”
The Star Trek episode was simultaneously harder to follow and more rewarding. Truthfully, Bruce had no idea what was going on but it felt great to stare at the screen and not worry.
The credits were rolling when Bruce became aware of Tony repeating his last name over and over again--might have been for the entire of the episode.
“Banner. Banner. Banner.”
“Hmm?” He rolled over slightly, enough to glimpse a little bit of Tony out of the corner of his eye.
“We aren’t college friends. This is a lifelong partnership, okay, Banner? You’re going to do amazing things.”
And for a while, he did. Non-profit work. Medical breakthroughs. Patents he could retire on.
Not having a social life aided his success. Tony made a point to check up on him, take him to dinner, invite him to parties, a few of which he even attended. He seemed well-liked, untouched by petty politics either because he was irreplacably brilliant or irreproachably mild-mannered. That temper, that ego, he kept caged like a wild animal. Whenever he felt his heart rate increase, all it took was a glimpse of broken wood and shattered glass to beat it into submission. He had every right to and every instinct towards condescension but that, too, was defeated with the memory of a sneer.
Ten years of uninterrupted memory. The longest stretch he’d had in his life. It was also the longest stretch of having Tony Stark in his life, but Bruce knew better than to confuse correlation with causation.
Bruce took exactly one day off a year: the anniversary of his mother’s death. Holidays came and went unacknowledged and sometimes unknown (“Oh, yesterday was Christmas?”) but no matter where he was, on November 15th, he’d be at her grave. In college, that meant five-hour bus rides there and back, timed for school the next day. By adulthood, he could--and often needed to--afford plane rides.
He’d always bring handmade bouquets of flowers. It was a silly, stupid flare that only struck that one day of the year, and whose origin he wasn’t sure of.
He’d put a rock on the headstone and stare, wouldn’t even read or study. Sometimes he found himself sitting. More often, he stood the entire day, mind blank, until the sun set. It wasn’t like the disorienting helplessness of losing time. It was more like voluntarily giving up a pre-set amount. It was the closest he’d ever come to peace.
When the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s death struck, at the age of twenty-eight, he was beginning to think he could enter the next decade of his life kind of OK. He had a degree, which he was always destined to have, and an excellent reputation, which he’d never cared about but which, he discovered, was awfully nice. His name had been published in dozens of journals, drowning out his father’s paltry academic citations. He woke up in sweat-soaked nightmare-terror only once every four days.
You’d be proud of me regardless, but I think you’d be really proud of me.
His father’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect if he’d be reading his mind for the past twenty years.
He heard footsteps behind him. It’s not like he was the only person with a loved one buried here; it was probably just a family or a sad old widower passing through, paying their respects, leaving.
Still, a dark cloud settled around him and he found his head lowering and his shoulders rising, and then a paternal hand on his back.
“I never thanked you, Bruce. For saving my life.”
And everything fell away.
He didn’t know what happened between that moment and finding himself coated blood and brain matter. Forensic psychologists would later try to reconstruct how much force he needed to bash in his father’s skull like that, how much longer he kept pounding the jagged rock against flesh after the man was obviously dead. They’d argue if his neck snapped before or after he died, if it broke against a headstone or if the nebbish defendant twisted it with his bare hands. The presence of bite marks was disputed. The skin was so damaged it was hard to say what, exactly, happened. If Bruce had to wager a guess, he’d say no, he never bit his father--too intimate. But he truly didn’t know.
He didn’t know what happened from there. He pieced it together from testimony and from criminal procedure. The cops putting him in cuffs, herding him in a car. What do you do when your suspect is caked with evidence? Surely there must be procedure; it must, in fact, be common in murder cases. At one point he must have showered because he wasn’t still coated in blood although it still felt like he was. The phantom feeling weighed on his skin.
Then he must have slept in a jail cell and met with attorneys and been profoundly unhelpful to his defense, one-word answers and grunts and shrugs. “Do you want to go to jail?” His attorneys shouted, probably more than once. Yes, he’d think, knowing better than to say it out loud. Then he’d say it out loud.
Yes, he belonged in jail. Yes, he wanted to be punished. Justice should be served, even--especially--against himself. He’d killed someone violently and with his bare hands. Where else, he wanted to ask, did he belong?
In retrospect, his most regrettable decision was not fighting harder to keep the cameras out of the courtroom. But everyone wanted to see the man who killed his own father. The brilliant scientist (the “Mad Scientist,” they called him), small and unassuming and sometimes even described as cute, who was capable of unleashing a terrible monster of rage and murder. Inevitably, his other media moniker was Jekyll and Hyde.
He had a surprising number of visitors, all of whom he dismissed, until a guard ushered him to a plate glass window. It was against Bruce’s will, but he was nothing if not acquiescent.
He was thrust into the seat right across from Tony Stark.
Tony looked agonizingly like Tony. Bright-eyed and alert and even more handsome than Bruce remembered. For the first time, Bruce thought about what he must look like. Shabby prison uniform, haphazard shaving regimen. On the outside he made his careless personal care work for him (and it had never been all that careless, really). Behind prison walls, well, what could he do?
“I said I didn’t want any visitors.”
“I’m Tony Stark. If I want to be somewhere, I pay the entry fee.”
Bruce sighed. “I should’ve known that the criminal justice system is helplessly corrupt on all levels and never in a way that benefits me.”
“I missed you.”
Bruce couldn’t help but laugh--well, it was more like a scoff accompanied by a twisted smile, which he ducked down to hide.
“You never told me. I could have helped.”
Bruce was torn between asking how and saying no, you couldn’t. Instead, he stared at his lap.
“You don’t have to go to jail. There are people on your side. Victims’ advocate groups, child abuse survivors, legal teams, me. You’re too smart and too good to punish yourself. He killed your mother, didn’t he? He--”
Bruce slammed the phone down and turned away without a glance at Tony.
He didn’t realize how hard he was trembling until he was back in his room, his bed vibrating beneath him.
The days cycled in and out until he found himself in a courtroom. Inevitably, his mother’s murder trial was exhumed. All the witnesses, his childhood medical records, old and new psychologists, Elaine and Jennifer. He deserved it, he guessed, for carte blanche agreeing to his attorneys but never actually listening to what they were saying.
He didn’t listen in the courtroom, either. Wars were fought over his demeanor: His thousand-yard stare; expressionless mien; utter impassivity no matter what was thrown from the stand, whether it was a graphic retelling of the abuse he must have endured based on his medical records or his aunt and cousin sobbing, telling him that they loved him and that they were sorry.
It was a telltale mark of trauma, one pundit explained, completely consistent with a life of trauma. In fact, nothing corroborated the defense’s findings more.
“Sociopath!” Another pundit rebutted. “No remorse!”
The truth, Bruce thought years later, was somewhere in the middle.
There was some debate over whether or not Bruce should take the stand. He had a large legal team working on his case, but the two main faces were Natasha Romanov and Steve Rogers. If he cared enough, he would have asked why so many ambitious attorneys kept him as a client. Did they love a challenge that much--a reckless, suicidal man who killed his father in broad daylight and would have locked himself inside his own jail cell? How much were the being paid? Bruce certainly wasn’t footing the bill, so who was? He had his guesses.
Natasha and Steve had an almost comically stereotypical Good Cop/Bad Cop dynamic. It was one of the few things Bruce commented on later, towards the end of the trial, when he started opening up, cracking the door open, knowing he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison and this would be his last chance to offer wry observations.
“I’m surprised she’s not playing Good Cop to remind me of my mother, and he’s not playing Bad Cop to remind me of…”
“Your dad?” Steve finished.
Bruce ducked his head and smiled. “No, not my dad.”
His smile grew and he lowered his head more. Not his dad, but Tony. The public persona Tony cultivated, the Tony that most people knew, the confident peacock Tony Stark. Tony’s personality in a man as handsome as Steve, paired with Natasha as a maternal Homunculus—he figured those would be large, red Freudian buttons to press.
Natasha interrupted. “We’re not playing anything, Banner. You’re the only one fucking around. You got everyone who’s ever met you picking up the slack for your self-hatred.”
“She doesn’t mean that. Everyone who’s testifying is doing it because they love you.”
Bruce resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Perhaps a gentler man was the right call, in the model of the private side of Tony that only Bruce saw. Safer; too: the lawyer’s brains wouldn’t wind up mashed against the edge of the desk.
It was Steve who wanted Bruce to take stand. He seemed to have a lot of faith, so naive and effusive that it spread from “faith in the world” to “faith in Bruce.” Something formative either had or hadn’t happened to him to instill the belief that the world was fundamentally good. Most of the time, it was Steve versus Bruce and Natasha, the hardened cynics.
Two to one, It wouldn’t have been an issue if Steve had not doubled down every time the press attacked Bruce’s demeanor. It was the only thing that might clear the murky waters surrounding his past, his perjury. They needed to see the real Bruce, Steve argued.
“It’s the only thing that might save us,” Steve said, because even though there were so many willing to vouch for Bruce’s character, there was still the pesky little patricide and Bruce’s testimony from another lifetime. Turns out, the jury didn’t understand that a seven-year old might not understand the legal ramifications of lying under oath, and that the immediate threat of an abusive parent might outweigh his evaluation of long-term consequences, and Bruce’s flat affect didn’t help convince them he was anything other than a ghoul. They didn’t like him and were eager to throw the lying, off-putting father-murderer in jail.
“Can’t you at least fake-cry or something?” Natasha bemoaned.
“My tear ducts were irradiated.”
“Oh, Bruce, I’m so sorry…” Steve put a hand on his shoulder. “People express emotion in different ways, though. The important thing is you tell your story. You’re the only one who can.”
“It was a joke, Steve. The kind of thing he thinks passes for one,” Natasha drawled and looked Bruce up and down. “Banner isn’t the solution, he’s the problem.”
“ Natasha! ” Steve scolded, then turned to Bruce with an apologetic frown. “She didn’t mean—“
“It’s OK,” Bruce sighed. “No need to apologize for honesty.”
He smiled weakly and let it go.
He didn’t actually let it go. Her words replayed in his head over and over again, no emotion attached to them, just spreading branches of thoughts. He had always been the problem, and who was he to set this fire and walk away, so to speak? Why should he let strangers shoulder the burden? Their only crime had been colliding with the eternal mess that was Bruce Banner, and now they felt obligated to defend a man who wouldn’t speak on his own behalf.
The next meeting, he announced that he wanted to take the stand. Steve’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and delight. Natasha raised one of hers skeptically.
“ Really ?” Steve exclaimed at the same time Natasha said, flatly, “Really.”
“Yeah. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Natasha folded her arms and glanced at Steve. This is all your fault, it said. “Can you honestly tell me that when you get up there, you’ll be able to—I don’t know—articulate all this? Like a, like a…”
“Normal human being?” Bruce offered. “No, I can’t promise that. But if it blows the whole case you’ll be able to blame it on your psycho client who insisted on going up for questioning.”
Steve touched his arm. “Bruce, you’re not—“
“It’s fine. It’s what the press will say and I give you permission to repeat it. You think I’ve already lost us the case, right? That I—that I’ve hung people out for my self-loathing.”
“So you’re taking a swan dive off the ledge? Lighting yourself in fire?”
“I’m tired of fighting,” Bruce said. For the first time since the trial began, he felt a genuine human emotion: exhaustion.
“You really want to go to jail, don’t you,” Natasha said.
No matter what faux-rapport Bruce developed with Natasha and Steve, in the walls of the courtroom, Bruce sunk right back into silence. He couldn’t see himself, but he could feel the change, like his body pushed his brain down a well and all he could do was yell helplessly at the empty expanse above him.
However it manifested physically--deader eyes, worse posture--Natasha and Steve saw the change instantly.
“Don’t go up,” Steve whispered. “Please.” His eyes softened with concern and, Bruce guessed, preemptive guilt: Bruce was about to fall on the sword that Steve kept proffering; the weapon that, in his Pollyanna-like optimism, he thought would save them. Maybe it seemed like a cruel set-up, a lesson to teach Steve not to believe in anyone, and to drag him into the dark depths with Natasha and Bruce. Bruce had just enough presence of mind to smile weakly and put his hand on top of Steve’s.
The defense’s main goal had been to establish Brian as an abuser and murderer, and really, the only person who could do that was Bruce. From there, he could justify his testimony from 30 years ago and from there he could explain his father’s murder.
There was no made-for-TV miracle. Bruce was awkward and grunting, despite the group’s well-rehearsed questioning. The questions slipped in and out of his brain like sand through fingers. You really want to go to jail, don’t you, Natasha had asked, and she was right.
It was downhill from there once the prosecution tore into him. Banner isn’t the solution, he’s the problem.
“At worst,” the prosecutor said, either ramping up to something big or working down to her big conclusion, “you’re lying right now to save your own skin. To justify murdering your own father. At best, you lied on the stand and let your mother’s murderer walk free. If you are telling the truth--and who can know for sure, really--then you saw your father killed your mother and you made the decision to let him walk free.”
“I was eight,” Bruce said, his voice wavering. A flare of indignation lit up inside of him. It was that spectacular injustice against a child--even if that child would later grow up to be him--that motivated him to continue talking. Not to defend himself, but to defend a kid who’d been put in a shitty situation. “I never had a monster under my bed because I had my father. I mean, what can the imagination conjure that’s more terrifying than a monster that’s inside your house and in your blood and…” He closed his eyes. “I can’t articulate...Unless you experienced the same thing, you don’t really know.”
When the verdict was announced, Steve pulled him into an embrace that was tighter and longer than any lawyer had ever given a client--completely inappropriate, but it didn’t matter now. Dazed, Bruce pulled back and gradually became aware of everything else surrounding him: Natasha smirking up at him with a wry, “Good job, Banner. I knew you could do it.” Cameras flashing, reporters shouting, Steve’s arms returning, once again, around his shoulders. “Let’s avoid the press, yeah?”
Bruce sat in the back seat of Steve’s tasteful sedan, staring out the window, trying not to think about anything. Gratitude. He knew he should muster some facsimile of it, but he’d never been good at that. He thought of Elaine and Jennifer and his former professors and co-workers and all the people to whom he owed his life now. And Tony.
Natasha flicked her eyes to the rear-view mirror. “What’re you gonna do now?” Bruce hadn’t thought about it. He’d expected--hoped--to be in a jail cell.
Bruce’s first conscious thought was that he was in a comfortable bed and someone was soothing a horse in the same room, whispering “Shh, shh, you’re okay, big guy.” He imagined Tony—it sounded like Tony’s voice, and Tony was a nice image—patting a horse’s flank, the horse trotting in place, pleased at the attention.
He gradually became aware that there was a hand carding through his hair, realized that he was the horse being soothed and turned over abruptly, shielding his eyes from the light. Everything was white and blurry except the brown-ish blur directly in front of him.
“Tony? Is this--is this real?”
“Yeah. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“How long was I out for?” Bruce kept his eyes squinted and fluttering until they finally adjusted. Even then, the light was an assault. He felt a migraine coming on.
“Seven days. You keep setting new records for yourself. Almost dying.” There was no humor in Tony’s voice. He seemed, if anything, subdued with muted anger.
“He watched over you this entire time,” Audrey chirped from the corner, oddly satisfied. Bruce’s limited range of movement meant it was hard to keep track of who was in the room and where. He turned his head to the other side, eyes fluttering through lightheadedness. No one else that he could see.
Seven days in a boring hospital room. That would be enough to dull Tony Stark. Had Tony ever stayed put for that long?
Wait. No. Hospital room? He couldn’t be. That would mean explaining what happened. Witnesses. A paper trail.
“Where am I?”
“Stark Towers Special Cases Bureau. We got to try some new equipment on you. You might grow an extra spleen. We’ll keep an eye out.” The words were clearly Tony trying to be Tony but his voice was still so flat, so un-Tonylike, that Bruce clutched the blanket in his hands and eagerly changed the subject. A week meant...
“Audrey! Your test.”
“I made her take it. Didn’t want her to go through all that studying for nothing.” Again, his words were dull and affectless. Was he angry? At Bruce? What was he supposed to do, let Orin attack Audrey?
“ And he said that you’d want me to take it, so I did.”
“Good, good.” He’d missed an entire week. It seemed like a significant amount of time, both qualitatively and quantitatively. At least he’d been asleep for most of it instead of actively destructive. He probably didn’t kill anyone else. He didn’t want to ask. He didn’t want to think about anything that had happened, at least in specific terms.
Of course, it would be unavoidable in the coming days. Tony and Audrey would check on him, ask him questions, want to Talk About It. He knew better than to say “I never want to talk or think about it again, but thank you for asking,” but he knew how to put up walls around it: shrugging, ambiguous hums, feigned confusion. Eventually, they’d get the message and let it drop. Tony never referenced Bruce’s dad or the trial.
At least this time he wouldn’t have to face a jury. Probably wouldn’t have to. Nothing was guaranteed.
He felt himself fading. Drifting off while hospitalized for an injury seemed inevitable, not even worth fighting, and pointless, because apparently he’d spent the last week unconscious in front of Audrey and Tony. He was about to let himself succumb to sleep when the door opened again. He jolted awake.
Luckily, the figure at the door wasn’t a burly dentist. It was a woman he’d never met before, but whom he recognized on sight from TV and reputation: Tony’s lauded assistant, Pepper Potts. I guess we’re finally meeting, Bruce thought.
“Is Bruce awake?” Pepper asked, walking through the door. She took a seat at the edge of his bed. “You are exactly as cute as Tony said you were.”
Bruce smiled weakly. “Is that a line he told you to say?”
“No. In fact, she’s fired for saying it.” Some of the humor finally returned to Tony’s voice, and his eyes were brighter. It was a meeting he’d tried to arrange for years now and it was finally happening, albeit not under the best of circumstances. Bruce ventured a wider smile.
“It’s wonderful to finally meet you,” Pepper gushed, sounding sincere. “Is it okay if I hug you?”
He loved her for asking as much as he did for the hug. He found himself unable to resist wrapping both arms around her, closing his eyes, inhaling. She was older than his mother was when she died, not that it mattered. A soft, feminine hand stroked the back of his head and his arms spasmed her closer to him. The hug went on for several moments past awkward, but when he pulled away, no one said anything.
“Tony’s told me so much about you,” Pepper continued.
“Tony talks a lot.” Bruce felt his words slurring together. The extra shot of adrenaline from Pepper’s entrance disappeared when he realized there was no threat. As much as he hated falling asleep in front of strangers, Pepper didn’t feel like one. And even if she did, there was no way he could stay awake longer.
Tony clapped his hands together once, signalling the end of the conversation for now. “There’ll be plenty of time to talk about me later. And next you can meet Rhodey!”
That didn’t seem like a bad prospect. As long as they waited until he was out of here.
He awoke in the middle of the night. Audrey was curled up on the opposite side of the bed. Still too close. Tony was passed out in a chair, a loose grip on Bruce’s hand. Bruce felt surrounded, not in a good way, not like when he thought there was an end in sight.
The hurried clacking of Pepper’s shoes told him there was yet a third person around him, wide awake and alert.
“Bruce? What’s wrong?”
What wasn’t wrong? He should be in jail, he should be dead, Audrey should be home, Tony should be…doing whatever Tony did. And now there was a third person, Pepper, trying to soothe him, and somehow this was more overwhelming than murder.
He looked blearily for a clock. 3:30, presumably AM.
“Do you want something to help you sleep?”
Did he? He didn’t want to lose control of his faculties, but he didn’t want to have faculties at all.
He signed “yes.” It was a crapshoot if Pepper understood; no, it wasn’t, he reminded himself, she knew a billion languages, even provided sign language translations of Tony’s speeches on occasion. She came back with two pills and a glass of water.
“You don’t have to sign, you know. Audrey took some pills and Tony sleeps so rarely that when he does, he conks out.”
Bruce wanted to explain that sometimes, especially in situations like this, he physically couldn’t speak. It hadn’t happened in decades so, cruelly, he had lost the words in his hands, too. It wasn’t important anyway. It was best Pepper didn’t know. He swallowed the pills and chugged the water.
When he woke again, this time with sunlight streaming in through the windows, Audrey’s arm was wrapped around his chest, her whole body was pressed against his, and Tony was gone. His heart pounded. She was close enough to hear it, not astute to figure out why or even to notice the thumping.
“Morning, Doctor,” Audrey said.
“Hello, Audrey.” Bruce would rather have this conversation--any conversation--vertically, and preferably a minimum of two feet away from the other person. He’d suck it up and bear it, though.
“I’m so glad you’re OK. If anything happened to you—anything worse, I mean—I never would of forgave myself.” Audrey paused. “Would have forgiven.”
He slipped into the usual role he took with Audrey. Friendly? Paternal? (No, not that, definitely not that). He’d never been able to find a name for it. “I wouldn’t want you to blame yourself. I don’t blame you.”
“Mr. Stark canceled like a million meetings and barely left your side for one second. It was so romantic.”
All these stupid things people did and said to make someone feel better only made Bruce feel worse. Tony should have gone to his stupid meetings. Audrey should be wrapped around a nice man her age, not him. Touch, companionship, care—they were supposed to be soothing. How could he explain that they were stifling?
“It’s really strange, though. He got a private helicopter to lift you outta Skid Row and bring you here, and he’s not even The Tony Stark from TV. If I ever have a kid, I’m gonna name him Tony Stark, ‘cuz that’s a lucky name.’
Luckily, Bruce’s hands were pressed against his sides; otherwise, he would have smacked his face.
Audrey spoke in a gentle murmur. “Or Bruce…That’s an even better name than Tony. I just wanna say, I never knew my dad, and—“
“I need to use the bathroom,” Bruce said.
“Oh! Sure.” Audrey sat up. “I thought they hooked you up with a pee tube.”
Bruce blinked at her. “I need to do the other one.”
It took Audrey a second to understand. Or she was figuring out that he did not actually need to go to the bathroom at all and was instead using a cheap gimmick to get out of a conversation he was not equipped to have or even listen to. Either way, she did not call his bluff.
“Oh! Of course. Do you need a hand?”
He probably did, but he declined and instantly regretted it. A sharp pain shot up his side and he was forced back into bed, tightly curled up on his non-punctured side.
“Oh no! Are you OK?”
He nodded, face contorted in pain, eyes shut tight. He heard Audrey shuffle next to him but couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes. Then the pain was gone, faster than it had come. He felt good.
He opened one eye experimentally, then the other. The world had a pleasant, hazy cast over it. Audrey laughed.
“Mr. Stark’s special pain medication. He told me to use it in case of emergencies.”
“S’good.” Stark’s brilliance coursing through his veins...very good. He’d have to tell him.
Audrey adjusted the blanket around him and he just let it happen. He was spread too comfortably across the bed to do anything. He really should tell people things. Like how he felt. Poor Audrey had undergone something just as traumatic as he had, and all she had for support, as far as Bruce knew, was an emotionally unavailable flower shopkeeper.
She laughed again. “Yes?”
She either laughed again or didn’t stop laughing in the first place. yes “Do you still have to use the bathroom?”
I haven’t ingested solids in a week, Audrey. What on earth would I excrete? He thought, laughing. We studied this.
“No, I’m good.” He shut his eyes. It felt good, opening up like that.
When he woke up the next day, he was alone. Of course he was. Audrey probably realized his panicked response to her touch and how he’d lied to avoid her emotional expression and then got high off pain meds—not his proudest moment. Tony realized he had better things to do than babysit. And Bruce couldn’t handle being with people, so they left him—isn’t that what he wanted?
At least he was finally in one of Tony Stark’s big, cushy beds instead of his Skid Row cot. And he finally got a first-hand look at StarkTech. He was examining the sleek, unobtrusive medical equipment--who said that catheters couldn’t be stylish?-- when the door opened and Tony entered and immediately strode over to Bruce.
“Can I hug you?” Tony asked. Pepper must have had a talk with him. He was torn between gratefulness and paranoia--how did that conversation go down, what did she say? None of it mattered because all Bruce wanted to say was “Yes,” and all Tony wanted to hear was yes, so it worked out. Tony wrapped his arms around Bruce. Didn’t leave your side for days...cancelled a million meetings...
As always, Bruce’s curiosity got the best of him. “Pepper, uh, talked to you about touching and—asking?”
“Pep’s always talking to me about boundaries.” It came out like a joke. At least, Bruce hoped it was. “Hey, so, uh...the thing that happened in the flower shop…”
Bruce swallowed. He knew they’d have to talk about it eventually. Tony wouldn’t have brought it up if he thought Bruce was fragile which--positive spin--meant he thought Bruce was strong enough to handle it. A little bit of dignity restored.
Tony continued. “Can you believe me when I tell you that everything is fine, and that you should focus on recovering?”
Bruce looked up, brow furrowed. There was an odd catch to Tony’s voice, and no, he couldn’t believe that everything was fine. And Tony knew that. Something must be wrong.
“Don’t worry,” Tony said, catching onto Bruce’s thoughts, “it’s OK.”
“There was body in there, and blood...And the plants are gonna starve.”
“The plant ate the body and lapped up the blood.”
Bruce shook his head. “N-no. You weren’t around for that. That was my hallucination.”
“I thought it was my hallucination. As soon as I got there, I saw the body go into the—plant mouth. I thought it was a stress-induced hallucination from seeing my friend in a pool of blood, so I checked the tapes. It was real.”
It sounded like Tony thought that should have comforted Bruce--no, you’re not crazy, life really is that fucked up!--but Bruce fixated on one thing.
“Security vid. I fed your plants, by the way. Well, except the one.”
Oh, how he wanted to die. Tony saw the two worst parts of him, the weak, limp nothing-man he was, getting pummelled and beaten. And the violent murderer.
“I had to, buddy. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have watched them if I didn’t need to. Please, forgive me.”
“Forgive...you?” Bruce repeated slowly.
“For invading your privacy,” Tony said blankly. “It was a violation of your trust. Right?”
“Oh. Maybe, I guess,” Bruce shook his head. That wasn’t the issue. “It was dangerous! The plant could have gone after you. I can’t believe you just walked into a store with a cannibalistic plant! And you poked around long enough to get the security tapes and water the others? You could have died! And--and you saw what happened, what I did--all of it?”
Piecing That Night together wasn’t something Bruce ever wanted to do, except now he needed to figure out what, exactly, Tony saw. It was just like the trial, his dad, the splattered brains on his mother’s grave.
“OK, well, first of all, the plant isn’t cannibalistic since it’s not a person but I guess you’re, uh, you’re not in the mood for pedantry right now.” Tony shifted slightly, letting the awkwardness pass, and gripped Bruce’s shoulder. When he channeled his intensity into touch, Tony seemed more like an evangelical preacher than an engineer--a preacher who truly believed that grabbing you and staring into your eyes will exorcise your demons. Bruce looked away. “Whatever I saw, it doesn’t change anything. I love you from the shittiest sewers of my heart to the shittiest sewers of yours. I don’t care if I have to pine after you for the rest of my life because it means I get to be around you. You’re so, so dumb if you don’t realize that.” Tony pulled Bruce closer, fingers scritching his hair.
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
Bruce stayed convalescing longer than he would have liked to. Tony kept bringing up the fact that he almost died, so Bruce didn’t have any bargaining chips. Even though he thought Tony was being a tad bit dramatic, he doubted Audrey or Pepper would take Bruce’s side.
Bruce’s only other visitor was Dr. Strange, who checked on Bruce’s stitches and berated him.
“You were stabbed in your side three times with gardening shears. You’re lucky your poor body didn’t have to fight off an infection.You never would have survived. You’re severely anemic, malnourished, dehydrated…”
Bruce looked helplessly at Tony, who shrugged. “He’s saying all this so I don’t have to.”
After Dr. Strange left, Tony said, “So I guess the blood-eating plant explains the other scars?”
“The--oh. Shit.” His entire body, marked. He hadn’t anticipated anyone seeing him unclothed or thought about how he got out of his blood-stained polo and into a clean new t-shirt and sweatpants. Different feeding times flashed in his head: a broad stroke across his chest, his upper arms. Tony and Dr. Strange and maybe even Pepper and Audrey had seen them all.
“It’s good to know that you weren’t doing it to, uh...I mean, Dr. Strange has thought you want to kill yourself since the day he met you, for obvious reasons. And then we saw all the other...It took a lot of convincing to get him to leave it alone without mentioning the plant.”
Bruce muttered a begrudging thanks. He didn’t mean to sound ungrateful--he was actually quite thankful Tony had his back many times when no sane person would--but shit. People saw everything. He took a moment to process it.
“I told him you’re gonna be staying with me after this.”
“And program some of your famous AI bots to have me on suicide watch?” Bruce joked.
“Yeah.” Tony sounded not-joking.
“Wait, are you serious?”
“Fuck yes, I’m serious. I’m sorry, but the scars...and the attack…”
“I’m not in danger. The scars are because of the plant and Orin is dead--” God, the plant. All his plants. He couldn’t have anyone go back in and water the plants, not when The Other Plant was so unpredictable. What was he supposed to do now?
“You almost died in my arms.”
“I was on the floor:”
Bruce flung his head back against his pillow. Tony really wasn’t going to let this go.
He had almost died, and it had almost been in Tony’s arms (and Tony had dropped the l-word which, no, Bruce wasn’t even going to think about), and the whole Orin ordeal was the type of thing that would distress Tony (and, if the situation had been reversed, would distress Bruce). So was a late-night call to a hospital with his arm split open and any of the other things Bruce put Tony through over the years. If being in close proximity would put Tony’s mind at ease, then Bruce owed it to him.
Besides, even when Bruce healed up, he couldn’t get up to his apartment without being near the store, and he couldn’t face going back to the shop, not even with his plants’ lives at stake. Add another trauma to the bucket.
“Okay,” Bruce decided. He didn’t have much of a choice.
Finally, even Tony couldn’t deny that Bruce was ready to leave medical care--and, more importantly, was impatient to show Bruce his new home. “It’s quite a trip. You up for it?”
“I’ll manage,” Bruce said, smiling wryly, playing along. They stepped into the elevator.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to exhaust you.”
“If I faint, you’ll-“
The elevator dinged open. A disembodied voice--the famed JARVIS-- welcomed Mr. Stark and Dr. Banner to the thirtieth floor living quarters.
“Fancy Alexa, huh?” Bruce teased.
To Bruce’s dismay, Tony’s face was marred by a rare look of offense--and then, a second later, Bruce realized Tony wasn’t offended, he was stricken.
The same disembodied voice spoke again. “Dr. Banner, if you weren’t a cherished friend of Mr. Stark, I would have you evicted from the premises.”
It was Bruce’s turn to look stricken.
“I--I’m sorry,” Bruce squeaked in a small voice, ignoring the wide grin breaking out on Tony’s face. “Mr. JARVIS, I apologize, I didn’t mean--”
“Apology accepted,” the voice said stiffly. Or was that just how he spoke? Bruce wanted to stammer more apologies, but Tony wrapped his arm around Bruce’s shoulder and led him further into the living room.
“It’s OK. I’ll just tell him to forget it.”
He entered the living room in a daze, vaguely noting that the interior design was sleek and nice, and the living room was big. It had probably been featured in magazines, with photoshoots arranged by Pepper and write-ups about all the tech. He could fit his entire apartment and shop and oh God, he’d already offended JARVIS.
“Sit down. Welcome,” Tony said, maneuvering him to a black leather couch near the window, which was also a wall, because the window was the size of the entire wall and overlooking the city. Maybe Bruce should have studied more magazines in preparation, to have some idea what to expect.
“No, no, feet on the couch. Make yourself comfortable.” Tony slid Bruce’s legs sideways and tucked a pillow under his back. “Sushi?”
Tony unveiled a platter of raw fish on the coffee table. Bruce wanted to decline, but his traitorous stomach roared an answer. Anyway, he couldn’t decline food the entire time he was here. No sense letting good, expensive fish go to waste.
Tony held up a pair of chopsticks and clacked them in Bruce’s face. “Just like college, huh? You, laid low, me spoon-feeding you.”
“OK, there’s no reason for that,” Bruce said, snatching the chopsticks from Tony’s hand and helping himself to chutoro. He closed his eyes, threw his head back, and moaned. It couldn’t have tasted fresher if he’d fished it out of the sea and put it directly in his mouth. It was like eating from the tree of knowledge: he suddenly became aware, truly aware, of the luxury surrounding him. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes were the high vaulted-ceilings where the sleek smart-tech lighting hid. Above it, out of sight, the most advanced R&D lab in the world. Directly beneath him, a luxurious leather couch. In front of him, single pieces of sushi that cost his annual grocery budget.
Bruce breathed it all in, trying to push away his instinctive resentment towards the wealthy and channel the respect and admiration he had for his friend--a philanthropist, a good man, his best friend.
“So this is how you live,” Bruce said.
“Actually, this is your floor.”
“My floor? ”
“Yeah. Your own kitchen, your own bathroom. Finish eating and I’ll show you your bedroom.”
“I just sat down,” Bruce said, toro halfway to his mouth.
“ When you finish eating,” Tony amended, although Bruce could tell from the impatience in his voice that he’d meant what he said the first time.
When Bruce was done, Tony yanked him off the couch and led him down a hallway.
“Nothing overboard,” Tony explained as the doors to Bruce’s bedroom slid open. “Just a bed and a table and some books. Didn’t want to scare you away.”
It wasn’t just a bed and table and some books. It was an enormous four-poster bed with sheets that seemed to shimmer with softness, and in-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves already fully stocked and organized. Bruce would have been moved to tears if there was any emotional force strong enough to dampen his eyes.
“The most ostentatious gifts are the amount of clothes in the closet and the king-sized bed—knowing you, you’ll probably just curl up in the corner.”
Bruce flushed, unsure how to react that someone, let alone Tony, knew his sleeping habits.
“Thank you. Really. Thank you.”
“Hey, this room’s been waiting for you for years. Er, metaphorically.”
It was sweet, really, and he was grateful-- really. But he couldn’t forget that he was here because there’d been too many metal blades in and against his flesh lately.
Bruce said slowly, tentatively, “And JARVIS. He sees everything?”
“He can. He’s programmed not to tell me anything unless you, uh...Unless you do something distressing.”
Bruce nodded stiffly. Remarkable tech. Of course, he trusted Tony. The question was whether Tony trusted him not to jump out a window. Probably not, Bruce thought, not that I could blame him.
As if reading Bruce’s mind, Tony said, “It’s either this or a hospital, buddy. And they don’t know you like I do.” He nudged Bruce in the direction of the shelves. A carefully curated personal library. He was touched to notice copies of all the journals he’d been published in, and Vonnegut and Adams and authors he’d wanted to check out and never had the chance to.
“It’s OK,” Bruce said, quickly putting on a smile. “It’s very kind and more than generous. And I definitely prefer plush carpeting over padded walls.” He didn’t want Tony to feel guilty for helping him. What other person in his situation—a mentally ill, self-harming, two-time-killer—would get the bounty of Stark Tower instead of a prison cell?
Bruce had decided, before he even left Stark’s medical facility, that he wasn’t going to be stubborn and refuse to work in the lab. He wanted to get his hands on Stark Tech just as much as Tony wanted him to. Always had. Now that it was a two-second elevator ride away--essentially in his home --Bruce couldn’t deny his desires any longer. Two days after he moved in, he told Tony.
And of course that’s when Tony hedged on his offer. “I don’t want you to feel obligated."
“I want to.”
“Now that you’re living here, you suddenly changed your mind?”
Bruce didn’t want to unravel his tangle of motivations and feelings and repression. Instead, he said “Yes.”
“You’re not indentured.”
Tony shifted his eyes to the floor, avoiding Bruce’s gaze. He was dancing around an issue, surprisingly bad at it.
“What?” Bruce said, sharper, although he had a hunch.
“You’re healing. You shouldn’t be exerting yourself,” Tony half-mumbled. Bruce rolled his eyes after the first two words.
“I stayed under medical care far longer than I needed to. Anyway, I need to work. I can’t wallow on the fainting couch like a fragile Victorian woman.”
Either Tony’s eagerness to share his toys with Bruce outweighed his hesitance, or he didn’t intend to put up much of a fight in the first place, because he quickly acquiesced.
Tony fawned over Bruce’s advancements with an enthusiasm reminiscent of a mother gushing over her child’s crayon scribbles. Bruce was far more skilled as a scientist than as an artist, so Tony’s praises were closer to the truth than his mother's had been—if a little overblown. “You put us ten years ahead in the past week,” morphed into, “Banner, if you join our side, you could put Stark Tech ahead two hundred years.” He liked that Tony measured his achievements in years and not dollars, and, however hyperbolic it was, he couldn’t help but preen under Tony’s excitement.
I could have been doing this for the past twenty years, Bruce thought, a quieter voice adding, I could have been doing this with him.
Weeks passed. Bruce’s thoughts about returning to his old life had dwindled, alarmingly, down to almost nothing. The store could have been looted. It was Skid Row, after all, and though his flower shop hadn’t usually been of interest, it had become quite popular over the past few months. He thought about the plant’s giant head descending on two hapless robbers and felt a twinge of guilt and worry. Bruce believed in a system of rehabilitative justice— not punitive or retributive—for everyone except himself.
He’d have to clean out the shop eventually and face all the withered brown leaves. He forbade Audrey, Tony, Pepper, Rhodey, and any and all hapless Stark interns from going into the store. He’d have to figure out what to do with The Other Plant, which was likely dead but Bruce had the nagging feeling had defied the odds. After all, it had eaten quite a heavy meal before Bruce left.
“Mr. Stark, urgent call.” JARVIS announced for the eighth time. Tony and Bruce had been working in the lab for two hours, on the cusp of something big, and Tony quickly shut JARVIS’ unwanted announcements down. But then JARVIS spoke again and again, and Tony huffed as he slammed his wrench down. Eight times overriding Tony’s instructions meant that it might, in fact, be urgent; at the very least, the interruptions stunted their productivity and should be addressed.
“Ugh. I’ll be right back.”
But Tony didn’t come back. Bruce continued tinkering for a bit, but Tony’s absence was too glaring to continue working. He found a good stopping point and wandered outside.
Tony was in the common area, already in a suit, a cup of coffee in one hand and his phone in the other, barking orders alternately to JARVIS and the phone. He ended the call with an angry sigh and added a generous pour of whiskey to his mug. He seemed oblivious to Bruce’s presence, and Bruce couldn’t help but feel he was spying.
“Um,” Bruce announced.
Tony looked up. “Oh. Bruce. Hi.”
“Hi. Is everything OK?”
“Uh.” Tony hesitated a moment, and then shrugged and said, “I guess you’ll find out from the news. My father died.”
There were rumors about how Howard treated his son that ranged from the comparatively normal (and, from Bruce’s perspective, enviable) emotional neglect to ridiculous tabloid-fodder ("Tony Stark Locked In Cage With Violent Giraffe As Punishment For Using The Wrong Fork") and everything in between. Tony never spoke about his father except the occasional off-hand jokes which never painted Howard in a positive light--had, in fact, lended credibility to the mid-tier unsavory whispers—but Tony delivered them with such casual glibness that there was no appropriate response other than to let them slide.
Which Bruce had been perhaps too eager to do, because now he was at a loss for what to say other than the generic, “Oh, Tone. I’m so sorry.”
Tony shrugged. “Whatever. I just gotta do the press junket, make a few speeches, choke up but not cry.” He sucked in a breath, put his fist in front of his mouth, and squeezed his eyes shut before opening them and continuing cheerfully, “Like that.”
Bruce shifted. He wasn’t sure how to handle emotions in any way other than not handling them. Tony was hiding them in plain sight with performance and humor, which, in Bruce’s opinion, was not hiding them at all.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Nah. You’re recovering. Pepper will be there to make sure the pyrotechnic display goes off without a hitch. Kidding. She vetoed the fireworks.”
“Er...do you want to talk about it?”
“As soon as I could pick up a crayon, I had to sign an NDA.” Tony paused and then added, “He wasn’t as bad as yours.”
“Lots of fathers aren’t as bad as mine. Doesn’t make yours good.” I’m the gold standard of child abuse, Bruce thought with a twinge of bitter amusement.
“He’s dead now, so…” Tony trailed off with casual dismissiveness, setting the record for Most Shrugs in a Five-Minute Conversation. Bruce wanted to say that death doesn’t erase the past, but who was he to point that out?
“If you decide to talk about it, uh...I’m here,” Bruce finished weakly, quietly hoping it would never come to that.
“Thanks, buddy,” Tony said, with one final scroll-through of his phone. “I’ll be back soon. All the festivities are in New York. Thank God I don’t have to go to London or Dubai or something. Fuck. I gotta get going.”
Bruce tried to go back to work. Some progress might cheer Tony up, and Bruce wanted something good to show him when he got back. But he couldn’t concentrate. He told JARVIS to tell him when Tony got back, hoping against hope that JARVIS would glitch and forget.
As the sky darkened, Bruce felt the rewarding end of a wasted day behind him and perfectly justified going to bed. Tony still wasn’t home--that was a worry--but maybe JARVIS did glitch. Or maybe Tony didn’t want visitors. Or maybe Tony would get home later, and Bruce would be asleep.
He was curled up on his couch with a cup of tea and a book when JARVIS informed him that Tony had returned.
Bruce looked up from his book, even though there was no one to look at. “Did he ask for me?”
A way out. Maybe Tony wanted privacy.
“Should I go to him?”
Silence, and then: “That might be advisable.”
Bruce tried not to read into the fact that fully-stocked bars were as prevalent in Stark Tower as bathrooms--at least one on every floor--and not just because Tony entertained frequently. Bruce knew firsthand Tony’s love of drinking and, even if he didn’t, the media provided a long, detailed record. Lately, Tony seemed to be either cutting back or getting better at hiding it.
Except, understably, now. When Bruce arrived, Tony was behind the bar, sloshing whiskey into two glasses and taking a long swig from the bottle.
“Bruce! Couldn’t sleep?”
“Something like that.”
“Have a seat.” Tony nodded in the direction of the couch and Bruce sat, slouching into his spread knees.
Tony carried the two glasses over to the couch, liquid spilling over his fingers and onto the floor. Bruce wasn’t a fan of hard liquor--Tony knew that--but he could make an exception for today, for Tony. He reached for the glass before realizing that both drinks had been finished in two quick swallows.
“I’m grieving,” Tony explained, voice strained with alcohol burn.
If Bruce knew Tony, Tony had been drinking steadily all day although not as much as he wanted to, and abstaining from food so that those long-awaited shots would hit him fast and hard. Based on Tony’s tightly shut eyes and hoarse voice, Bruce was right.
Tony slid horizontally, head against Bruce’s thigh. “Let me know if you get uncomfortable.”
“I mean emotionally.”
Bruce could handle this. Definitely. For Tony. Be there for him. Help him sort through the complicated mess of feelings. He lifted a hand and placed it on Tony’s head, which seemed like a rough approximation of a comforting gesture.
“How’d it go?”
“It was mostly business shit. Press shit. I’m pretty sure I kicked ass.”
“I’m sure you kicked ass, too.”
Tony’s hand grabbed blindly at the coffee table until it finally found a glass. He plucked it off the table turned it over above his face, moaning when he saw that barely a drop of alcohol remained.
Bruce wasn’t sure if it was ethical to offer Tony a refill, but it seemed like the thing a good bro would do. “Want me to get you more?”
“No. Just stay. Please.”
Bruce looked around, unsure how to continue, wishing Tony had wanted more booze because it would give Bruce something to do, even if the amber pour conjured up too many memories. But it was fine. Staying was simple.
“My father was an asshole,” Tony said, as if confirming the answer to an unresolved mystery. Bruce let out a noncommittal hum, closer to “Interesting” than “No way! Really?”
“When you’re in the public eye--born into it, not thrust--” Tony waved a hand, in Bruce’s vague direction, accounting for the father-murdering trial--”you get used to not talking about it. Even if it’s public knowledge. Even if other people are saying it. Like, a Stark can’t just talk about the family. It all has to be PR and smiles. Even in my college dorm, even in the privacy of my house, it has to be all PR and smiles. A recording of my dad smashing me with his belt could air in every household in America and I would still have to deny it or justify it or never talk about it.”
“Tone, I’m sorry.”
“‘Ts just a hypothetical,” Tony muttered, although it didn’t sound like it. “And even now that he’s dead and buried and I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’m still muzzled. I don’t know. I fantasize about having a press conference and declaring it open season on Howard Stark’s legacy, ask me anything, no holds barred, and there’s nothing stopping me from doing it now, really, except I know I won’t do it. Except you also had that mafioso vow of silence about your dad and you didn’t even—“
“You don’t have to negotiate your situation against mine.”
“OK,” Tony said, grabbing Bruce’s hand, the one that wasn’t now carding through Tony’s hair. “I feel like a lot of people, if they had a choice, would make the trade. A dad like that for all of this.” He waved his hand limply again, around the living room, the coffee table, the empty glasses, his weird friend—not the grandest sample of his empire but, maybe for his purposes, the perfect one. “I probably would, too. If I’d had the option.”
“But you didn’t have a choice. No one does.”
“And some people get the shitty dad without the billions of dollars.”
“Yeah. Some people do.”
“Or the genius intellect.”
Bruce wasn’t sure if Tony was referring to his own intellect or circling back, again, to Bruce.
“I still feel like an idiot telling you about this. Dad stuff. I mean. You got the market cornered.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing could ever make you feel like an idiot.”
Tony laughed. “ You do.”
“Yeah. When I give you those problems the team’s been agonizing over for months and you just look at it and solve it. It’s like intellectual castration.”
“Wait, you really needed help with those? Those problems were real?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t they be?”
Bruce tried to think of the least offensive answer and instead went with the honest one: “Because they were easy.”
Tony paused for a moment, then burst out laughing. Bruce couldn’t help it--he joined in, mostly out of relief that Tony’s pride didn’t take a hit.
“Banner?” Tony asked once he’d stopped laughing, staring blearily up at Bruce through hazy eyes.
“Yeah?” Please don’t be another love confession.
“I’m glad you’re alive.”
“Thanks. I’m glad you’re alive, too.”
Sometime during the night, Bruce shifted onto his side and flung his arm around Tony. When he awoke, he was pressed against the back of the couch and his friend.
His first instinct was to extricate himself, ideally without Tony finding out that they both spent the night cuddling and that Bruce immediately wanted to bolt. Tony would probably find the cuddles a nice way to wake up, but what kind of message would that send? Something that Bruce wouldn’t be able to follow through on.
He hesitated a moment too long. Tony stirred, rolled over halfway and blinked at Bruce. “Never figured you for a big spoon.”
“I’m usually more of a knife, actually.”
Tony sat up, head drooping, and pressed his fingers into his eyes. “Next time, I’m big spoon.”
That was exactly what Bruce had been afraid of. The assumption of next time. But what kind of monster would he be if he explained that he accidentally comforted his friend too much?
“Relax,” Tony said, “I’m kidding.
“Do you want coffee or something?” Bruce asked.
“That would be amazing.”
“Full hangover breakfast?”
“ God yes.”
Mid-meal, Pepper arrived, carrying two cups of coffee and a greasy paper bag of fast food breakfast. At first, Bruce couldn’t help but feel that he was caught in the middle of an affair as the other woman. Of course Pepper should be the one providing Tony with his mourning hangover breakfast and, though Bruce still wasn’t clear about the specifics of their relationship, probably the one who should have held him last night. But based on the looks on Pepper’s and Tony’s faces, no one else thought anything was amiss.
Mouth full of eggs, Tony told Pepper to sit down. “Bruce made breakfast.”
“A florist, scientist, and cook?” Pepper said, smiling and sitting on the chair Tony had kicked out. “No wonder you’re so desperate to keep him.”
Bruce blushed and looked at the table. “There’s tofu scramble.”
“There’s what? ” Tony asked, appalled.
“The thing you had three helpings of.”
Tony poked around his plate, trying to find the treacherous dish, giving Pepper the opportunity to mouth “Thank you” to Bruce. Bruce gave a little nod, unsure what, specifically, she was thanking him for and opting not to inquire further.
“You here to go over boring funeral stuff?” Tony asked.
“I’m here to check up on you, Tony. The funeral stuff can wait. And your input isn’t even necessary for most of it.”
“Pepper throws some kick-ass funerals. The only snag is we need to find a new flower guy. But whatever. I just wanna get him in the ground. That asshole’s gonna shut down Fifth Avenue.”
Pepper skillfully redirected the conversation away from the looming ghost in the room. Bruce tried to remember the last time he had a nice breakfast in a person’s kitchen, homemade food in front of him and people he liked on either side of him, chatting. It might have been the first.
Once his hangover was successfully greased, Tony excused himself to go to the bathroom. Pepper turned to Bruce.
“The next couple of weeks are going to be hard. Tony’s going to be away most of the time, dealing with the funeral, but even after the funeral...When he’s here, he might...” She trailed off, trying to think of the best phrasing and winding up with what sounded like a translation to English from another language. “Have moods.”
“Well, if there’s anything I can do…”
Pepper sighed. “I’m just saying, it’s a lot of dad stuff. For both of you. A lot of roiling emotions.”
There was no nice way to broach the topic, but even Pepper Potts’ famous diplomacy skills fell short with Bruce, who didn’t appreciate the absolutely true insinuation that being emotionally available might be complicated for him. Bruce was tough. He could handle someone else’s grief. He’d handled his own.
“My dad stuff happened ages ago. I’m over it.”
Pepper raised one perfect eyebrow in a quizzical arch and Bruce burst out laughing.
Tony returned from the bathroom, complaining about whiskey shits. Pepper smoothly looked away from Bruce and started talking about stocks.
“Dr. Banner, Audrey Fulquard is requesting access to your quarters. Would you like me to let her in?” JARVIS asked.
“Of course,” Bruce chirped in what could only be described as “customer service perky,” an overly polite voice he’d never used prior to his initial encounter with JARVIS.
The elevator doors opened and she flung her arms around him, a sheet of paper clutched in her hands.
“I passed!” She exclaimed, thrusting the paper at him. “See?”
“That’s great!” Bruce said. He skimmed the results to make sure there was no misunderstanding.
“You know what that means?” Audrey said in a sing-song voice. Bruce kept his smile plastered on his face, but it turned confused. “I get to teach you about pop culture now!”
“I was stabbed,” Bruce whispered, low enough that she wouldn’t hear it. He’d rather watch whatever-the-hell she had in mind than use his injury as leverage.
He hated every minute of it. He wanted to smack the cup out of Harvey Levin’s hand. He felt cursed with the mere knowledge of Cardi B’s name. He dreaded the day he could tell the Kardashians apart. For all the major life events he’d forced into the mausoleum of his mind, the first time he saw Justin Bieber’s smug asshole smirk was one image he could not vanish.
Bruce’s fingers itched to change the channel to any news network, all of which were broadcasting Howard Stark’s funeral. He wanted to see how Tony was doing. He wanted confirmation that Tony was holding up, like always, under the barrage of camera flashes, and that Pepper and Rhodey were behind him, accompanying him because Bruce couldn’t. But Bruce wouldn’t give the vultures another view.
Bruce had dodged the bullet of publicity by fleeing the country soon after his trial, keeping a low profile, and letting himself disappear from the public eye. That same bullet was a homing missile for Tony, one that would follow him from birth to death. A man should be allowed to bury his father without networks picking apart his eulogy and suit and selling million-dollar ad time.
The celebrity stuff was the same sort of bullshit, except they seemed to volunteer themselves for the scrutiny, whereas Tony had never had the choice. And if he had, would he really have chosen it? Or was he just making the best out of a situation no human should be in?
“I’m going to make lunch,” Bruce proclaimed stiffly. He quickly rose from the couch and shuffled to the kitchen.
He could make something simple, like sandwiches, but that wouldn’t keep him away for too long. Unless he made the fixings from scratch.
“Kendall’s Instagram feed is like the best. She’s so smart. You have to see it.”
And the bread.
“How would you feel about tempeh Reubens, Audrey?” Bruce asked, examining the fridge.
“Uh, is that a food?”
“Sure. I love their counters. Isn’t their house gorgeous? How’d they get closets so big? And so much clothes.”
They have money, Audrey, Bruce thought, arranging the ingredients on the counter.
“I don’t know why Caitlyn Jenner didn’t spell her name with a K like the rest of the family. Maybe she’s making a statement.” Audrey continued rambling as Bruce kneaded dough and let her words wash over him. And then, out of the blue: “Tony cried a lot when he thought I was asleep.”
Bruce was startled by this disclosure. It was a strange transition; he thought--hoped--he didn’t hear it correctly, or that she was referring to Beyonce’s brother or someone, so he said nothing. Audrey mistook the silence for confusion.
“You know,” she clarified, “after you were stabbed.”
“Audrey, that’s a very personal thing to reveal about someone.”
“He was heartbroken. ”
Bruce tapped his fist against his thigh, dusting powder on his jeans. What was he making?
“What’s your, uh, tolerance level for spice?” he asked.
“If you died, I don’t think either of us would have gotten over it. Not ever.”
Bruce tilted his head to the side. He wasn’t sure what she was trying to say.
“Well, it’s fine now,” he said, washing his hands and hastily adding, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Dr. Banner, are you, like, one of those geniuses who doesn’t understand people? Like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?”
The hand towels seemed expensive and pristine, like Bruce would be the first one using them ever. He shook his hands dry instead. “Yes.”
Bruce busied himself in the kitchen while celebrity news droned from the other room. Audrey left shortly after politely choking down the tempeh reuben. Like Tony, she had more difficulty enjoying vegan fare when she knew what it was.
After she was gone, Bruce waited for Tony to return. The news networks, of course, were covering Howard’s funeral. Even when Tony wasn’t speaking, a small corner on the bottom of the screen was reserved to monitor his reactions: TROUBLED SON GRIEVES DAD.
He looked stunningly handsome and, to Bruce’s mind, beyond reproach. His face was carefully neutral—sad, but more pensive. His hair was perfect, other than a few stray strands falling across his forehead. Bruce wondered if it had been planned that way, to give him a sense of vulnerability as the day went on. Bruce felt the strangest impulse to touch him or, by proxy, the screen.
He looked good, too good, enviably poised. Flanked by Rhodey and Pepper, they created a picture-perfect model of grief. Like Bruce had figured: beyond reproach. The headlines, with nothing to criticize that moment, scrolled with reminders about Tony’s party days. Bruce rolled his eyes and switched to infomercials.
Tony got home when it was barely after dusk. JARVIS asked if Bruce would see him and Bruce said of course . There was no after-midnight, drunken stumbling arrival. He seemed sober, though not at all somber, and, if the beeline for Bruce’s kitchen was any indication, ravenous.
“This a reuben?”
“‘Ts good,” Tony said, mouth full. “Did you watch the funeral?”
I couldn’t stomach it. “Not very much.”
“They’re probably doing their post-funeral commentary bullshit now.” Tony sat next to Bruce, sandwich in his hand, no plate. He turned on the news. Four men in suits sat around a table talking over one another loudly, while a replay video of the procession played in the corner. “See?”
Bruce wrinkled his nose. Who would be shameless enough to pick apart a funeral, even one as gaudy and alien as Howard Stark’s? Tony changed channels. There was a countdown of the best dressed attendees, moving on from number two to number one: a tie between Tony and Pepper.
“Yeah! Tie for best dressed!” Tony put his palm out and Bruce, several seconds too late, realized that Tony wanted a high-five. He timidly tapped Tony’s hand. “JARVIS, send Pepper a congratulations. She’s as beautiful as I am.”
“You looked nice.”
“I wanted powder blue. Pepper said no. Rhodey said hell no, I’d never be able to pull it off. So I wound up with black and you wouldn’t believe how much work still went into choosing the suit I’d wear.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t,” Bruce said. He’d expected a replay of that first night--too much alcohol, a need for touch that tested Bruce’s upper limits. But Tony was chatty, casual, like they were bros at a Super Bowl party (another experience that was out of Bruce’s wheelhouse).
“You know, like, how much black is too black? That’s something we had to decide. We didn’t want me to look like an NYU student. I suggested Darth Vader at one point. Joke works on a couple of levels. But the designer and fabric and tailoring--the media shitheads analyze all of that. They were waiting for any indication that I didn’t love my father but…” Tony’s eyes darkened, his voice became serious. “I don’t think I gave them any.”
Bruce placed a hand on his knee and said softly, “No, you didn’t.”
“There were protestors,” Tony brightly swerved into the next topic.
Tony shrugged. “I don’t think they knew, either. But protesting Howard Stark’s funeral just seems like the right thing to do.” Bruce smiled. Classic protestors.
“And I think I’d look great in powder blue, yeah? Next function with Rhodey. I’ll show him.”
Bruce laughed. He could never be part of Tony’s entourage. He’d let him wear anything; let him, in light of his father’s funeral, do anything.
Bruce didn’t know what possessed him next. And “possessed” was the right word, because Bruce didn’t anticipate or decide it, and it was so uncharacteristic that it was like another entity was in his body. He flung his arms around Tony.
Tony laughed, taken aback. “Is this a ‘sorry-your-dad-died’ pity hug?”
“No, it’s an ‘I—’“ Bruce wanted to say ‘love,’ but he couldn’t bring the word out of his mouth. “It’s an ‘I’m glad we’re friends’ hug. And you’re amazing, to face this under scrutiny that no one should ever face…The way you handle yourself…”
“Well, I must seem really fucking tragic if I’m getting an unprompted hug from Bruce Banner,” Tony joked.
“Not tragic, just brave.”
“Honestly, losing someone you don’t love isn’t as bad as almost losing someone you do.”
Bruce held on a second longer and then pulled away, telling himself that Tony could have been speaking in generalities, or about some other near-loss.
“I’m sick of this shit. What else is on?” Tony asked.
That night, Bruce awoke to a hand shaking his shoulder, a voice urgently whispering his name. He rolled over half-way, entrapping himself further in what was already a tangle of blankets.
“Tony? What’re you doing?” Bruce’s voice was hoarse--he’d been screaming.
“You were having a nightmare.”
“What?” He tried to piece things together through his haze of sleep. The worry was slowly leaving Tony’s eyes, replaced with soft concern. “How’d you know?”
“JARVIS told me. Shh, shh,” Tony sensed his indignation and tried to quiet him, but Bruce jolted upright and wouldn’t be silenced.
“You said he’d only tell you if I was in distress!”
“You seemed to be pretty distressed! He didn’t know. I didn’t think of nightmares when I was programming him.” Tony looked guiltily at the floor. Bruce assumed it was the unintentional breach of privacy; maybe it was equally the oversight of Bruce’s nightmares. “I’ll reprogram him to exclude them.”
“Thanks.” Bruce settled back down. Tony only wanted to help. He probably came to Bruce’s room in a panic, thinking Bruce hurt himself or worse, and then woke him out of the nightmare because it seemed like the right thing to do. Bruce would let it go for now. In the morning, he’d have to explain to Tony that barging into his room when he was not in control of his faculties and not aware of his surroundings could be dangerous, a fact he should have already figured out based on two violent murders.
“What was it about?”
“I don’t remember.” It was true. He never remembered any of his dreams. The physiological remnants--dry mouth, foggy brain-- were the only indication he had upon waking. He never chased down the details, just went about his day. Tony probably didn’t believe him, assumed Bruce was putting up another emotional barrier.
“What do you usually do?”
Bruce looked confused. Tony clarified. “When you have a night terror. Is there a special tea or...Valium?”
“Uh, sleep through it?” Now he really wanted to go back to sleep. He rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. “Good night, Tony.”
“Good night, Bruce,” Tony muttered. He could sense Tony’s hesitancy, imagine Tony’s pitying look. He knew Tony would stay awake for the rest of the night, either in the lab or on a treadmill, fretting. And Bruce, in turn, wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep either. He’d be guilty about leaving Tony to worry about him, the night after his father’s funeral.
Bruce called out before Tony reached the door. “Wait.”
“Yeah?” Tony responded a little too quickly.
“You can stay. If you want.”
Tony was already sliding next to Bruce. “Are you just placating me?”
“No. It might be comforting.”
“As close as you want,” Bruce said, exhausted.
Tony wrapped his arms around Bruce like a vice grip and pulled him flush against his body. Bruce let out a small, strangled yelp of surprise. He hadn’t expected Tony to be that strong.
“This too much?” Tony asked.
“No.” It was fine when he got used to it, once his body adapted to the constricted air flow. There was no way Tony could keep that grip the entire night.
“Try to have good dreams,” Tony said, his arms relaxing. Bruce thought he actually might.
The next time Bruce woke up, his head and one hand was against Tony’s chest. His first instinct was to bolt upright, which, luckily, he was too sluggish to act on.
“Morning,” Tony said.
“What time is it?”
JARVIS answered--11:12. Bruce had gotten over eight hours of sleep, not counting the hours before he’d woken up from his nightmare.
Bruce sat up and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t think I ever slept that long. Not with all my blood, anyway.”
“Bruce Banner on a full night’s sleep and no life-threatening injuries. You can take over the world.”
“Take it over from you?”
“I also slept well, so you’ll have some tough competition. But why would we fight when we can team up?”
“You’re right. We’ll colonize Mars.” Bruce looked out the window, sunlight streaming in at full blast. “It’s almost noon? Don’t you have, like, business...whatever?”
“Do you know how much the ‘dead father’ card gets you out of?”
“Er, no, I don’t.”
Tony’s eyes widened in mortification. He uttered the first syllable of an apology, and then Bruce burst out laughing.
“Fortunately, I had a get-out-of-jail free card.”
“So what’s the agenda? Stay in bed more? Brunch?”
“I’ll cook something.”
“Stay in bed more!” Tony whined, flinging himself around Bruce. Bruce flinched, just barely. Progress.
“OK. Alright. Fine.”
They lounged until JARVIS interrupted with a call from Pepper, who wanted to stop by with Rhodey and check on Tony. Tony whined softly.
“Tone, we can...we can do this more some other time,” Bruce whispered, not knowing why he made the promise but intending to keep it.
“Tony, is that Bruce?” Pepper asked. “Hi, Bruce!”
A wave of paranoia overtook Bruce, suggesting that she knew, that she could see them in bed together, but she had no way of knowing they were even in bed, he reminded himself. He and Tony could be in any room--the kitchen, the living room. The bedroom.
Tony sat up, grumbling. “OK, Pepper. Bruce will cook us brunch.”
“That’s very sweet of him.”
“Yes, that is very sweet of him,” Bruce said, once she’d hung up.
“Well, he’s a very sweet guy.”
Tony did the chivalrous thing and followed Bruce out to the kitchen even though Tony had the option to stay in bed longer. It wasn’t like he’d be cooking or even assisting. Bruce was fussy and particular about his work, and Tony only knew his way around a fork.
“You could open a bakery. A restaurant,” Tony said, inhaling the aromas. Bruce’s hand froze around the whisk. Open a business. The flower shop. God, he’d have to...do something about that. Eventually.
“I think entrepreneurial ventures are more your thing.”
“Really? No dreams of opening BannerTech? Give me a little competition? Bust up a monopoly?”
The door opened as Bruce was plating the eggs, completing the spread on the table. By now, Bruce knew about Tony’s friends’ dietary preferences, how Pepper liked blueberry pancakes but was allergic to strawberries, how Rhodey was surprisingly amenable to eating second helpings of anything Bruce prepared.
“How lovely, Bruce,” Pepper said, sliding into the chair that Tony held out for her.
“JARVIS told us you were on Bruce’s floor,” Rhodey said, smirking.
“Oh, yeah. Forgot to mention that.” Tony said.
Bruce cleared his throat in a matter not at all as inconspicuous as he’d wanted it to be. “Toast?”
“Untoasted is fine, Bruce,” Pepper said, grabbing a piece. “You made it?”
“The jam, too.”
“So did you all sleep late?” Rhodey asked.
Tony tread lightly on Bruce’s foot, signalling for him to shut up and let Tony take over. Bruce obliged. “Not sure how long Bruce slept, but I, for one, slept like a log.”
“Of course you did,” Pepper said, rubbing Tony’s arm. “You must be exhausted after this week.”
“What were you going to say, Bruce?” Rhodey asked.
“Uh, same.” Bruce shoveled eggs into his mouth.
“Bruce,” Pepper announced, “I was thinking about hiring an assistant.”
Bruce nodded, wishing Pepper had been more subtle in her redirect. What on Earth would he have to do with her assistant? “An assistant to the assistant. Very, uh. Very corporate.”
“I was thinking specifically of Audrey.”
“Oh. That would be a great opportunity for her.”
He glanced at Tony, whose face remained impassive. Too impassive. He and Pepper must have discussed it before.
“I understand that she might have developed some, um, bad work habits, but I see real potential in her. And I’m quite good at ironing bad habits out of people,” Pepper smiled. Bruce had let her get away with tardiness and flakiness, back when he thought the flower shop would be there forever and assumed she would, too, or else move onto an equally forgiving job.
Rhodey cocked his head toward Tony. “Are you?”
Bruce responded to Pepper. “Well--uh, sure, I don’t think…” The flower shop had been closed for over two months now, and with no intention of reopening, he should have thought about Audrey’s future more. A GED was far from a job guarantee. His cheeks reddened. “I don’t think the shop is reopening so...yes, that would be very, uh. Good for her.”
Pepper smiled warmly and wrapped her fingers around his, trying to absolve him.
Rhodey broke the silence. “So what were you two doing down here?”
Bruce stammered, Tony made a joke about Rhodey being jealous, and Pepper changed the subject.
The story is OFFICIALLY done and the last few chapters will be out in the coming days.
Their relationship couldn’t be called a quick-start by any measurement of the term. By Tony’s standards, it must have been the most agonizingly slow project of his life: his Mars rover had developed in half the time. But from Bruce’s perspective, it was as fast as combustion.
And still, still it wasn’t an all-out relationship like Tony was used to, where he spent weeks having sex in beach houses and hotel suites. Not that it mattered, but Tony must have had sex dozens of times. Hundreds? Bruce was too inexperienced to estimate.
Bruce hated himself for being prickly. As far as he could tell, he was the only source of friction, the one who sunk deep into dark moods and sequestered himself in his room in Tony’s tower, in the closet, or in the bed that Tony had bought. After spending his life alone, sharing it felt suffocating. But it wasn’t, really. Tony gave him space. Tony traveled frequently. Took business trips that Bruce wanted no part in. Had a rich social life without him. So Bruce would emerge, stomach twisting, figuring that this would be Tony’s limit. He’d need a partner he could regularly have on his arm in parties, not a reclusive shadow-creature. But once Bruce snapped out of his mood, Tony acted like nothing happened. Or maybe he genuinely didn’t notice. Bruce never dared to probe. He was grateful to be accepted, no questions asked.
Not that Tony was perfect. He had a habit of mentioning, off-handedly but too frequently, that he wanted to take Bruce into the public eye more. Bruce either dismissed or ignored the comments, and Tony would drop it in the moment, but persist later.
Casual comments like, “Imagine how inspirational it would be for gay kids in Dayton to see Tony Stark with his equally handsome science boyfriend.”
To which Bruce responded, “I don’t think anything could be more inspirational than that time you dated Anderson Cooper.”
Or when Bruce declined nine out of ten invitations to conferences, Tony wheedled him: “Don’t you want to claim your research?”
“My name’s on the patents and papers, isn’t it?”
Eventually, Bruce knew he’d have to have a long, sustained conversation instead of lazily swatting down Tony’s hints. He knew Tony was trying to help. Tony assumed it was a self-confidence thing, figured that Bruce didn’t want to be on TV because he was schlubby or scruffy or awkward. While Bruce was all those things and knew it, they were, combined, only a small fraction of his consideration.
“I’m just not built for the large-scale attention. The scrutiny... It makes me tense just thinking about it.”
“The cameras have been on me since I was born and you’ve never met anyone as healthy and well-adjusted,” Tony said. The last part had been at least half a joke; Bruce let it slide.
“But that’s the point. You know how to wrangle them. And you’re handsome and charming and charismatic. You’re like a media toreador.”
Tony perked up, eyes bright. “Oooh, I like that. ‘Media toreador.’”
“And my presence would compound every negative they say about you. Merchant of Death teamed up with Dr. Jekyll.”
Tony cringed; both nicknames had fallen into disuse, and Tony’s had mostly been used by extreme conspiracy theorists who reached depths of crazy that even Bruce couldn’t fathom. Still, it struck a nerve.
“And the whole Orin thing,” Bruce continued. “I need to keep a low profile. I don’t want people making connections.”
“That’s the thing! Orin owed a lot of bad people a lot of money! You couldn’t have chosen a better murder victim. You’re good at that.”
Bruce’s leg shook, his clasped hands on top of his knee.
“I’m not punishing myself or being paranoid. It—it didn’t happen often, but a few times over the years, people would come to the shop...Young girls, mostly. You could tell that they didn’t belong that far downtown. And they’d huddle in the corner and whisper and giggle...True crime groupies. ‘Well,’ I’d tell myself, ‘At least they’re not fangirling Manson or Bundy,’ although for all I knew they were.
“Sometimes I got letters, angry ones, threats...Men’s rights groups, I guess? Which was weird because I’m a guy. Point is, I didn’t vanish completely from the public consciousness. You know better than anyone that I’m able to be found if someone cares enough to, but not everyone likes me like you do. Or they do like me but only because they think murder is sexy. And I don’t want to make it easier for those people.”
“OK, OK,” Tony conceded. “You’ll stay my elusive mystery man. Nothing hotter.”
The rifts were the exceptions. Mostly, Bruce was happy. Happy to know such an improbably good man; happy, when he could bring himself to admit it, that he somehow had that man’s devotion. He enjoyed the few conferences he did go to, where he felt admired for his contributions to science, and even tolerated the parties. Even when Tony stepped away from him—Bruce didn’t need a babysitter, refused to let Tony be one—he still felt safe. No one would dare whisper, not within the same four walls as him. He watched from across the room as Tony worked the crowd in full persona mode. Sometimes they’d leave a little later than Bruce wanted to and sometimes a little earlier than Tony was used to, and each would alternate being grateful for having made the sacrifice or having the sacrifice made for him.
Bruce acquiesced to Tony’s thirst for adventure. He wouldn’t be such a martyr that he’d ruin Tony’s pleasure—couldn’t be such a martyr that he’d set his jaw and mope on journeys to Paris and London. In his head, he entitled these excursions How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Conspicuous Consumption , because ultimately he did come to love them. Loved being around Tony. Loved living together, working together, marathon sessions at the lab, JARVIS blasting reminders to eat, Pepper ushering them away from work and into bed because she knew they’d both been awake for the same ungodly number of days. That was the heart of their relationship: the day-to-day, not the parties or the tabloids or Bruce’s sulking.
One day Bruce posed the idea of doing something normal.
“Normal?” Tony asked.
“Yeah. Like something most people do when they don’t control the world and 99% of the world’s wealth.”
“Like...ride the subway?”
“Ride the subway to somewhere.”
Bruce smiled, trying to figure out if Tony was doing an extended bit. “Like a bookstores or a farmer’s market or a—I don’t know, Greenpoint? Do you really not know what normal is?” He realized his mistake as soon as he said it.
“Normal,” Tony began, smirking.
“Oh, no. Come on, Tone. Don’t say it.”
Bruce threw his head back and groaned.
“You know, I don’t avoid the subway because I hate inhaling the same air as the hoi polloi. I will get recognized. And you’ll be right there with me. Tony Stark’s mystery man.” He fondly ruffled Bruce’s hair.
Tony didn’t care; it was Bruce who resisted recognition, and Bruce didn’t want to be a hypocrite. “Well, I just don’t want to make it easy for...You’re right. But can we at least go to, uh…” Where did he used to go when he lived his humble florist life? Mostly the shop and his miserable apartment and the Flower District, to which he would never return. And that’s when Bruce realized he didn’t know what normal people did, either.
They compromised: private transportation to the Met with an incognito Tony. Not one for art, Tony contented himself by hanging his head on Bruce’s shoulder as Bruce examined artwork.
“This is where I send two hundred mill a year?”
“Three hundred,” Bruce corrected.
“Oh. Should I donate more?”
“You should always donate more,” Bruce chirped, taking Tony’s hand and leading him to the next room.
Things get worse again but then they get better?
There was still the nagging, wide-open door of his past: the flower shop. He needed to clean it out, dump the dead plants in a bag, and lock the door one last time, symbolically and literally. He couldn’t keep putting it off.
Telling Tony was the hard part. He could easily go downtown, clean up quickly, and head back up before Tony noticed he was gone. Then he would tell Tony over dinner, try to convince him that it was so casual that Bruce hadn’t even thought to tell him. “Oh, yeah, I went down to the store today, cleaned it out. How was your day?”
But they were in a...relationship or something, and Bruce couldn’t pretend that Tony wouldn’t want to know. And if it really weren’t a big deal, Bruce should bring it up.
“I think I need to go back to the flower shop.”
“ Back -back? Like—for good?”
Tony’s alarm pained Bruce. By now, he could handle Tony being vulnerable, but couldn’t accept Tony being vulnerable because of him.
Bruce took his hand. “Just to clean it out.”
“OK. But don’t you think someone should go with you? Me or Audrey or—ooh, we can bring the whole team.”
“I have to do it myself.” Tony opened his mouth to say something, but Bruce cut him off. “This is not gonna work if I think I’m in a cage.”
The comment wasn’t fair—despite Tony’s occasional clinginess, Bruce didn’t feel trapped. But going down to his old stomping grounds was something he should be able to do without negotiation.
“OK. But you’re happy here, right? The water pressure’s good?” Tony said, wrapping his arms around Bruce’s shoulders.
Bruce snorted. Tony asked questions like a hotel concierge, passing them off as light and joking, really hiding his need for constant reassurance that Bruce planned to stay.
Bruce indulged him. “Yes, the water pressure’s good. And I like it here. And I like you.”
Tony fidgeted, still uncertain.
“I’ll be fine, Tone. Just a quick cleanup.”
“And then you’ll come home?”
“And then I’ll come home.”
He had, in fact, planned to stay with Tony. The return to the flower shop was meant to be closure on the shop and the formal end to the era of his too-long self-imposed exile. Clean it out so someone else could take it. More likely, it would lie vacant for years, but Skid Row real estate wasn’t his problem.
Walking down the street to his former store, Bruce realized why Tony was so concerned about Bruce returning alone. He also realized that Tony was probably right. His stomach squirmed. He couldn’t shake the foreboding feeling, the thought that Orin or Brian would emerge from alleyway or shuttered up window, zombie-like and oozing.
But he was a grown man. He didn’t need a chaperone and, he thought as he opened the door to his shop, he cleaned up his own messes.
The smell hit him immediately. It wasn’t normal dead flower scent. Not even multiplied by a hundred. The closest comparison was the hours-old scent of blood and brain matter from when he murdered his father.
He lifted the front of his shirt of his nose before he ducked in and closed the door, as if the miasma would spread throughout the city if it weren’t contained.
One hand kept his shirt pressed against his nose, the other remained on the door. He froze in this tableau, sightless to what lay ahead of him.
Coming alone was a mistake. He could run back to Tony and let Tony gloat, rescue him—
Suddenly his arm felt thick and heavy. He jerked it away from the door. It was covered in blood, thick and dark, coated up to his shoulder. His sleeve had stiffened with it. Had he opened his wound again or…
He squeezed his eyes shut. His arm was clean.
The shop, however, was a mess. The plants had browned and shriveled, dried-out flakes sprinkling the ground like ashes. Between the foul smell and hideous sight, it was the essence of flowers inverted, like someone had reached into a corpse and pulled the guts out.
Sweat began to drip down his face, the salt stinging his eyes. He’d expected this. He wasn’t stupid. The only thing he hadn’t accounted for was his physiological reaction, the way the musk clung to his skin.
Scanning the room, the eyes landed on the corner behind his desk: the sole survivor. Drooping, wan, but red. Alive. And staring at him forlornly, a mischievous grin on its bulb.
His eyelids fluttered. Orin was on the ground, head smashed open, the shears sticking out of his gushing chest. But that was impossible. It had been months, and even Tony said he was gone, and Tony wouldn’t lie.
He squeezed his eyes again. Orin vanished.
Plants don’t grin, he reminded himself. Plants aren’t capable of mischief. Plants aren’t capable of eating corpses.
Hand shaking, Bruce knocked a couple of plants into his trash bag. Crashes and clatters like a skull against rock...
He could leave now, call Tony, and Tony would deign to pick up a garbage bag and throw away musty old plant parts or he’d bring a team of robot cleaners. They’d get the cleaning done in less than half the time it would take the tremulous Bruce. Then Tony would take Bruce home and ensconce him safely on the couch and…
And then what? Repeat this until one of them died? Until Bruce fucked up again?
Bruce hurried into the closet, knocking over mops and buckets as he scrunched against the wall. The darkness was better than the inundation of sights, the antiseptic smell more comforting than the musk outside. He let his shirt fall away from his face and his head fall back against the wall. He could think now. Plan.
- Fire off a quick text to Tony, explaining that everything was fine and he needed some space. It was kind and neutral and also honest phrasing that would prevent Tony from worrying or taking offense.
- Dump all the plants and pots in a large plastic trash bag like he’d intended, sweep up, get the hell out, upstairs to his old place. Throw all his belongings in a suitcase—his handful of moldy shirts and pants and…He’d take inventory later.
- Get a trailer and a cage and flee to the barrenest desert of Nevada.
In retrospect, calling Audrey was a mistake. He should have stuck to his original plan: a clean getaway. No goodbyes. No last looks. It was like he wanted to mess it up, wanted to cry for help in someone’s face, taunt them with how unreachable he was.
That’s what it seemed like in retrospect. But really, when he asked her to come over to his apartment, it was to give her an apology—in the form of a check— for neglecting her and her future, wish her luck with Stark, and grant her a clean break.
“Dr. Banner?” She asked, walking in. He could hear the confusion in those two words. Bruce spoke immediately. Get it over with quickly. That was his plan.
“Hello, Audrey. I’m going away for a bit. I know you have a position with Stark now, but I think it’s fair to give you a severance check as well.”
She took the paper from Bruce’s outstretched hand on reflex, but didn’t take her eyes off of Bruce.
“What? Where are you going?” Audrey looked between the check and Bruce, mouth hanging open. If generosity were measured in the number of 0’s to the right of an integer, then it was more than generous. He’d hoped it would serve as a distraction as well as an apology and security net.
Moisture formed at his temple. He really hadn’t thought this through. “It doesn’t matter. I just need to leave.”
She blinked at him. “Of course it matters! Why do you need to leave?”
This wasn’t going the way he’d hoped.
“It’s—it’s dangerous if I stay,” he explained.
“Is this about Orin? I’m sorry! I’ll never date anyone ever again.”
“It’s not about Orin.”
“Tell me what’s wrong. Please. We’ll fix it.”
She reached for him and he jolted away, wrung his hands together. Her persistence, these dramatics...he hadn’t planned for them, and he needed to get her out. He could break her in half emotionally. A few well-chosen words would destroy her—any amount of cruelty from him would. The tie would be severed and she’d either stitch herself up or not. Either way, she’d be free from him, and vice versa.
He fought the temptation.
He tried to soften his voice. If he sounded like the Bruce she was familiar with, it might ease her concerns. “It’s for the best. For you, for both of us. I—“
“How could you do this? What are you doing? I don’t understand.”
He swallowed a few retorts. He did owe Audrey more than a check. He owed her the truth.
“When I was in my mid-twenties, I murdered my father. He was very much the same type of person as Orin, and the circumstances were just as bloody, just as primal...The details are unpleasant. I went to trial and they let me walk free.
“After that, I left the country. If I hadn’t, I probably would have killed myself. It was very heavily publicized. I’m lucky—well, in this regard, I’m lucky—that it was before the internet became so pervasive. Otherwise I would have never been able to escape the notoriety. But I fled and let the talk die down and by the time I got back the U.S had already cycled through countless other lurid true crime sensations—“ He shook his head, getting away from his original point.
“History has a way of repeating itself, whether you learn from it or not. I’m not meant to put down roots. I’m bad—f-for people and I’m just going to keep hurting them and—and I’m not designed to have a family, or a—whatever. Friends. You don’t know how much damage I can do.”
“Dr. Banner, that’s so stupid. So you killed a couple of people. Who cares? Of course you deserve a family!”
Bruce shook his head.
“I’m sorry. It’s better this way. Tony and Pepper are good people. They’ll take care of you. If it helps, think of me as a conman whose been lying to you the entire time I’ve known you.”
She broke down in howling cries, and not for the first time, he realized how lucky he was that no one on Skid Row would react to a person’s screams. And, with a wave of nausea, he remembered that Audrey’s father had left her when she was young. He wondered if he called her into a room like this and said a stiff and formal goodbye, or if she simply woke up one morning and he was gone. Which was worse?
He felt his resolve soften. If she kept this up, she’d compel him to stay. She’d coax him back to Tony, and he’d shuffle into Stark Tower sheepishly, and Tony would rub his back and ask if he wanted to talk about it, and Tony Stark, a man not known for his patience, would be patient with him, and Pepper would dote on him and Audrey would tell him how her job was going, and Rhodey would tease him fondly, and he’d fuck up again, somehow, and hurt one of them, or next time he’d commit a murder that he couldn’t get out of and he’d sink them all.
“Cash the check or don’t. I don’t care. You really want to keep tussling with angry men? Then go ahead. I don’t care. But I won’t be one to indulge your self-destructive streak.”
“That’s an awful thing to say,” Audrey said, her voice shaking.
“So are you going to stay here and listen? Or are you going to do the smart thing and leave?”
Audrey tore up the check. Bruce watched the pieces flutter to the floor and settle, as the pieces of his own father’s letter had years ago.
“For the record,” she spat, “ this is the only time you ever hurt me.”
He wanted to tell her he’d hurt her worse if he stuck around long enough—not a threat or a promise, but a prophecy. He waited, counted, and looked up. She was gone.
Forty minutes later, a hard knock on the door prompted Bruce to look up from his map and his plans. Another failure: he should have had his escape route ready to go before talking to Audrey.
Don’t answer, don’t answer, Bruce told himself, even as the knocking got louder, harder, turned into cracks.
Wood splintering from metal hinges. Unclean fractures down the middle. By the time a door was broken, it was too late. The invader was already inside whatever space he’d tried to claim for safety, and unless he was fast and strong and lucky he wasn’t going to make it out.
But it wasn’t an invader. It was Tony, and Tony wasn’t going to hurt him. Well, probably wasn’t going to. Bruce was owed a beating for what he’d done to Audrey, which surely Tony found out about, hence the breaking and entering.
More importantly, Bruce wasn’t going to hurt Tony. Even if Tony slammed his head head against the wall and kicked him into a bloody heap on the ground. He’d take this beating, he’d stay in full control of his faculties lest he slip into beast mode. The most important thing was not hurting Tony.
“What the fuck,” Tony snarled, approaching him. “I just got off the phone with Audrey. She was sobbing. She said she was worried about you, that you were acting weird. And also the text I got from you which by the way I had no idea how to respond to and which sounded suspiciously like a suicide note that you didn’t want to sound like a suicide note. Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or are you going to keep me guessing like always?”
Bruce stared at his table, ran his fingers down the surface. How the fuck was he supposed to answer shitty questions like that? It wasn’t smart of Tony to take that tone, that condescending, accusatory, sneering...but Bruce wasn’t going to hurt him so it didn’t matter, even as Tony raised his voice: “Do you like tormenting people who love you? Do you get off on keeping us in suspense? Not knowing whether you’re going to be alive tomorrow?”
Bruce breathed in. Tony had a flair for the dramatic but this was well-deserved and long overdue—and so would be whatever blows Tony would strike. Bruce folded his arms across his chest, tucking his hands into his armpits like a self-made straitjacket.
“I explained to Audrey what I was doing. I did not once imply I was going to kill myself. In fact, I-“
“No, no, of course you’re not going to kill yourself, you’ll just slice your arm open from wrist to elbow. Or battle a man a foot taller than you and sixty pounds heavier. Or go into hiding for ten years.” Tony pressed his hand against his eyes. He took a deep, shuddering breath before he continued. Tony was crying. Not under cover of night. No Aviators to hide it. He forced out the next sentence: “You said ‘It’s OK if I die,’ and then passed out in a pool of your own blood. Do you understand how scary that was?”
“I was there .”
“And that’s the problem, isn’t it? It happened to you, but you don’t care at all and you don’t see why anyone else would. Those could have been your last words.”
“It was supposed to be comforting! Would you have rather I’d cried and begged God not to take me?”
“Yes! Something that indicated you want to live.”
Well, I didn’t. “ So you’d rather me die scared and miserable?”
Tony stammered—actually stammered—and landed on, “How would you feel if I died?”
“I—I don’t know. Sad, I guess—I don’t like to think about you dying.”
“Well, I have to think about you dying because it almost happens fairly frequently.”
Bruce wanted to object. It didn’t happen that frequently. But it happened often enough. More, he assumed, than average.
“And we couldn’t even talk about it. You wanted to pretend that the holes in your side came from nowhere and if you wanted to handle it that way, then what could we do besides let you and wait for you to explode or break down? But not all of us can compartmentalize like you. I don’t think anyone can. The smell of blood--watching you fade—I still have nightmares. I’d wake up thinking you were dead and I’d ask JARVIS if you were OK and it got to the point where he’d just know that’s what I was gonna ask. That was before we started sleeping together, of course.” Tony laughed bitterly—their sexless, confusing arrangement, whatever it was.
Tony was still in front of the entrance. Bruce would have to fight his way out to escape. The window was not a great option. Jumping from it would probably lend credibility to Tony’s belief that he was unstable. The only thing Bruce could do was talk Tony out of the room and not hurt him.
“I’m sorry you had to, uh, deal with that, Tone.”
Tony continued as if he hadn’t heard. “And what about Audrey? She blames herself--”
“Well, she shouldn’t.”
“--and if you had died--”
“Well, I didn’t,” Bruce said, a little too sharply.
“You’re like a father to her!”
“That’s her problem! I never wanted to be!”
The volley stopped. A long moment passed between the two, Bruce hoping Tony would back off and Tony waiting for Bruce to take it back. When neither happened, Tony spoke, his voice clear and devoid of tears.
“You’re really putting up a wall of ice here, Bruce. You might capable of saying it, but you’re not capable of meaning it.”
“You don’t know what I’m capable of.”
“I have some idea,” Tony muttered darkly, loaded and true. Tony had seen Bruce through his awkward teenage years and his awkward adulthood, seen him covered in blood and loved him anyway. And Tony wasn’t stupid or lonely or desperate. He had no reason to pursue Bruce other than sheer unconditional love, no matter how much damage Bruce did.
“And I know,” Bruce began slowly, his brain flashing with WARNING signs, “that you’re not capable of anything you can’t throw Daddy’s money at. Maybe you took me on as a lifelong project to show otherwise, but you’re just a hollow person stuffed with cash. You know it, I know it, and your father knew it.”
Stop, stop, just apologize. Take it back.
Tony’s reaction was a deep, sad sigh. “Bruce, I am terrified that if I leave you right now, you’re going to hurt herself.” Tony’s carefully-timed visits.
Ask him to stay. Beg him. “It wouldn’t be any of your business if I did.”
“Is that really what you want?”
“Yes. Get the fuck away from me.”
Tony sighed again, looked up at the ceiling. Bruce thought he was going to do something cheesy and cinematic, like walking over and hugging him. Or punching him in the jaw. But he didn’t do either. He turned on heel and left.
Finally, for the first time in years, Bruce was free. Sure, he was grounded stateside by the plant, his cross to bear, his albatross, but it was as much a comforting weight as it was an oppressive one. Who would he be without his unwieldy burdens? Where on Earth would he go if he truly could go anywhere? Better to never find out. Better to haul an ostentatious manifestation of his guilt in his literal-figurative trailer-mind.
“Don’t worry, big guy,” Bruce said as he locked the plant in a cage attached to the trailer. “You’ll have plenty of space when we get to where we’re going.” Desert soil. But if the plant could survive months of starvation, it could survive Nevada.
And the point wasn’t survival; the point was isolation. He’d live out the rest of his days alone, feeding the plant until he died and then the plant would die and they’d rot together in the middle of nowhere and never hurt anyone again.
He wasn’t going to tell the plant that part, though.
The vegetarian options at truck stops and rest stops were sorely lacking. He found himself staring enviously at burgers, gambling with fish sandwiches, tearing grilled cheeses apart over salads to make enhanced croutons. Fast food gave him indigestion, which he suffered through because it beat the alternative: passing out behind the wheel of a trailer and killing drivers and letting the plant fall into the wrong hands.
The trailer was somehow noticeably smaller than his Skid Row apartment, which he’d thought was the gold standard of downsizing. That was before he squeezed himself onto a pull-out cot in what was supposed to also be a living room. Maybe he was used to Tony’s largesse, a bed on which he could stretch out diagonally, a kitchen where he could assemble tofu feasts, a bathtub he could drown in.
That had all been a detour. His true destination, he reminded himself through gritted teeth, was a desert where vultures could get him.
The first day of settlement was busy: setting up a water tap, planting the plant about a mile away from his trailer. He was unprepared for the amount of physical labor involved and wondered, not for the first time, how a scrap of man like himself could have a body count and why he couldn’t channel that strength when needed.
At first, his days were an endless cycle of feeding the plant and waiting until the next time he had to feed the plant. On the drive there, he’d thrown his phone in a lake and resisted the temptation to buy a junk computer from a boonie pawn shop. Electronics were to Tony what fish were to Aquaman, and Bruce was justifiably paranoid that Tony would be able to find him if he kept any sort of outlet to the world. But the real danger of a computer would be the temptation to send Tony a groveling apology and his coordinates.
He had no one but himself and the plant, as was his plan, but he realized how crazy that plan was. He didn’t understand what waiting out the clock until he died meant until he was actually doing it, and then he realized how agonizing it was--even for him to inflict upon himself.
This was a psychological free fall, Bruce realized in a rare moment of honest self-reflection. Past tense because he’d already hit rock bottom--how much lower could he get? He’d never experienced a fall like this. He’d been low his whole life, stoically bearing the flat plains and downward slopes. Even the drop from his prosperous period during and immediately after college, ending in the murder of his father, wasn’t as drastic as moving from Stark Tower to a trailer in the desert.
Bruce wanted to pretend that the psychological power the plant had to make him slit his wrists and flee to the desert was responsible for all his craziness, but the plant wasn’t around when he killed his dad, or the first time he split his mind from his body. He was just crazy. He was destined to be from the day he was born.
Most days, he’d sleep for long stretches, sleep-walk the mile to the plant, sleep-slice some part of his body open, and trudge back to the trailer. He didn’t know how he managed--zombielike, with no more intent than a plant growing toward sunlight, or a Venus flytrap snapping...he really needed to stop thinking in plant metaphors. But it was a good sign he was thinking something. Most of the time, he didn’t think at all.
Waking up became more difficult; getting up became an almost insurmountable task, even to feed and hydrate. What was the point of living? In the past, his self-destructive thoughts had been as sharp as his mind, which raced with vivid replays of his traumas. Now, his existential angst was a dull throb. What was the point of living? An idle question that made him burrow deeper into his slab of a mattress when the plant summoned him to feed.
But even he had to have a limit, and that limit came when he woke up one morning to arms wrapped around him, pleasant, warm…He felt good, but that didn’t make sense, because he was stuck in the desert and miserable.
He jumped, looked next to him, and saw Tony. But it wasn’t Tony. Tony was gone from his life, and wouldn’t just sneak into his trailer and slip into Bruce’s pull-out bed—OK, maybe Tony would, but he physically couldn’t. The pull-out wasn’t big enough for two people. It was barely big enough for one.
“Fuck! Get out of my bed! Also, you’re not real!”
His heart pounded blood that his body wasn’t ready for. He came perilously close to fainting back onto his pillow. Swooning, his mind supplied.
The imaginary Tony cajoled him. “You like this! Come on. You might as well enjoy your time here.” Fake Tony grabbed his hand, but it was just an illusion. There was no warmth, and no resistance when he jerked his hand away.
“No!” He bolted out of bed and stormed outside for fresh air, yelping when he almost ran into his mother.
He weakened. His mother. How could he ignore her, even if it wasn't really her? His throat tightened.
This could be paradise. What did he have to prove, anyway? And to whom? Why shouldn’t he stay here with Tony and his mom?
Then he shook his head and stormed to the plant like an enraged worshipper at the altar of a god who’d betrayed him.
Not the altar of a god, Bruce thought, swallowing. That’s the god itself. The plant must have been twenty, thirty feet tall, and somehow suspended on top of its stalk was the bulbous red head the size of a subway car. Bruce had been in too much of a fog to notice how it had grown—like Clifford the Big Red Dog, or that bird from that cartoon. The bird that was destined to eat its adoptive mouse parent.
Down there, hidden beneath the ground, was more plant. Roots stretching to his trailer and beyond. When had it gotten so big? And how? He must have fed the plant more than he thought. Made sense, given that he wasn’t in control of his faculties. But that amount of blood...And even he had to admit he wasn’t taking great care of himself out here, not even by his normal standards.
I’m dead. I succeeded. I gave the plant so much blood that it thrived and I died, and I’m in this miserable afterlife.
Death had been his plan, after all, coming into fruition sooner than he expected. He should be grateful, right? Except what was the point of dying if you were still conscious and suffering?
He closed his eyes. He wasn’t dead, even though that explanation made even more sense than being crazy.
When you eliminate the impossible...Occam’s razor...Schrodinger’s fucking flower boy.
But even if he was dead, he wouldn’t let the plant call the shots.
He looked up. He was good at facing things that were bigger than he was. Stronger. Creatures that could kill him. “T-this is you, right? You’re doing this to me?”
“The plant is giving you a gift,” Rebecca said. Her voice was soft, kind. For his entire life, he wanted nothing more than to hear it again.
“Aw, fuck,” Bruce moaned, clutching his hair. I want Tony.
“I’m right here!” Tony said.
“I—I reject this,” Bruce stammered. “I know it’s rude but I reject your gift. I’ll stay here, I’ll feed you, but this? No. I put my foot down.” For effect, he stomped his foot.
Rebecca and Tony looked at him pityingly and vanished.
He was shaky for days, maybe weeks, after. He scrunched himself into the smallest nooks of the trailer, slept under the pull-out, trembled. He took to carrying an axe and sleeping with it beside him. There were moments when he wished he’d succumbed to the plant’s delusions, mostly at night when he lay awake in utter silence and darkness. Then he’d hear something—maybe a rattlesnake, maybe the wind sweeping up sand—and he’d think it was them and take back his wish.
You acted real impulsively, Banner, he told himself. Looking back, he’d spent only one day planning and preparing his self-exile from civilization and now he was paying for it. He should have at least brought books, but in a fit of full-fledged masochism (that was, after all, the point), he made the conscious choice not to bring any.
Sometimes he wanted to return. He’d stare at the gas gauge and think about how he had enough fuel to get somewhere. But what about the plant? And where would he go? What would he have? If he couldn’t go back to Tony and Audrey—and he certainly couldn’t—then he might as well rot in the desert.
After the incident with the hallucinations, he tried to follow a routine—eat regularly, shave, wash at least four times what he estimated a week to be. Acting like a normal person might keep the abnormality at bay.
One morning, as he finished up shaving, he heard a door open and shut. He tensed in front of the mirror, still and silent, waiting for his mind’s tricks to conclude. But the noises continued, shuffling around the trailer, too loud, too close to be desert noise. Bruce grabbed his axe and followed the noises.
He saw Tony, surveying the trailer judgmentally, even looking up at the ceiling to judge that, as the real Tony Stark would in the same situation. Bruce studied him for a moment. The plant had gotten smarter, the tricks were more authentic. Bruce was almost tempted to accept this one.
The fake Tony turned around, his eyes landing on Bruce.
“Bruce,” Tony said.
Good thing I shaved today, he thought. A beard would be an immediate giveaway that he wasn’t doing well.
Then he remembered Tony was fake and he needed to cut through the delusion. He roared and raised his weapon but couldn’t slam it down—Tony had grabbed the axe handle and pushed back hard, sending Bruce sprawling against the wall.
“You aren’t real!” Bruce shouted.
“I promise, if you hacked me with that thing, I would bleed. A lot.”
Apparition Tony wouldn’t fight back. Apparition Tony wouldn’t have the strength to push Bruce across the room--Bruce didn’t have the energy for that Fight Club shit.
“Tony,” Bruce sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them, Tony was still there. He wanted more proof—he wanted to squeeze Tony’s hands and brush the hair away from his forehead and pat him down for weaponry and prick his arm and yikes the desert had done a number on him. “How—how’s Audrey?”
“ How’s Audrey ? You fucked up, Bruce! In a thousand years I’ll never understand how—or why—you said those things to her. The shit you said to me, fine, whatever, but Audrey? She couldn’t even talk about what really went down for like two weeks and even then she was mostly panicked that you were hurt.”
Bruce sank to the floor, trembling, clutching his head. He hadn’t been able to think about what he said to either of them. Like most of his past, it was like a vault that closed and locked behind him, something he would never look back on. Lot fleeing burning cities.
But now he couldn’t help but replay the conversation in his head, the turn of anger he’d taken at the end. He knew about her father and continued undeterred. He didn’t stop until she’d left and he was alone. And he’d done the same to Tony. If they didn’t hate him, then his cruelty had been for nothing.
“How—how’d you find me?”
“You threw your phone in a lake,” Tony sighed. “I used good old-fashioned detective work for the rest.”
“ How,” Bruce said helplessly. He’d been so careful. Cash only for everything, leaving his credit cards at home, no electronics, no temptations. He felt silly when he remembered this, but he’d worn sunglasses and baggy flannel and covered his face with a cap when he bought his supplies.
Tony drew his phone out of his pocket and typed. “Say what you will about the American public, they notice a trailer hauling a giant caged plant across the country.” He handed Bruce his phone, a sad smile on his face. “They thought it was Banksy.”
Bruce had to suppress his own smile. #Plantsy had gone viral, his long journey catalogued by excited sightings on the road. Teenagers posed dangerously close to the parked trailer, gleefully pointing at Bruce’s murder plant.
Tony sighed and withdrew his phone, continuing, “If I didn’t have that, I’d have nothing. You were a missing person and I couldn’t get the police involved. I thought you were dead.”
“Then why didn’t you pretend I was ? Get a jumpstart on grieving. Move on. Don’t you get tired of all this?” Bruce asked. He remained in a pathetic heap on the ground, although he shifted to a slightly respectable cross-legged position.
“Yes, frankly, I do! But I don’t get tired of you, and I’m never going to.”
Tony sighed and sat next to Bruce, who was hunched and miserable. “She said you told her about your father, so I assumed you’d told her about your mother, too. But you didn’t. So I had to.”
Bruce shut his eyes tightly. Why was Tony bringing his mother up all of a sudden?
“Uh, yeah, that’s fine, it’s public knowledge.”
“I just find it interesting that you laid your soul bare but left out that important detail.”
“It’s hard to talk about.”
“It’s all hard to talk about.”
“What do you want me to say? That I didn’t bring it up because I’m too much of a coward to admit I let my mother’s murderer walk free? Or because I’m the one who made her try to leave in the first place?”
“No. I think you failed to bring it up because your entire sense of self predicates that you’re a monster. You hoped that Audrey would see you the way you see yourself—heartless and dangerous and unforgivable and not worth loving. But you’re not.”
Bruce huffed at Tony’s armchair psychology and shrank deeper into himself.
“And where does that leave you and Audrey?” Bruce asked.
“Hopefully with you. I didn’t track you down to kick your ass. But really, the desert? I hate the desert.”
Bruce laughed humorlessly and stared at his lap. ”So do I.”
“Then let’s go.”
It seemed so simple, reasonable, solvable to Tony. And maybe it was. No, it definitely was. To anyone whose brain fired properly. But it was just as obvious to Bruce that he needed to stay.
“I’ve destroyed so much. I need to keep something alive for once.”
“Then we’ll get a dog!”
Bruce looked at him with blank eyes, unwilling to indulge Tony’s humor. He was probably at least half-serious, too. Bruce wouldn’t indulge that, either.
Tony threw up his hands. “Oh, I see. It needs to drain your life while you’re taking care of it. Then we’ll get a chihuahua. Come on, Bruce! This is stupid. We’ll get you therapy. We’ll get you pills. We’ll get you away from that fucking plant.”
“It’s not the plant. It’s me. It has to be this way.”
Tony sighed and stood up. Bruce heard him rustle through a duffel bag he’d brought. From what Bruce could see, it was mostly filled with water bottles and clothes.
“Tell Audrey I’m sorry,” Bruce whimpered.
“Yeah,” Tony scoffed. “At least let me make sure you’re hydrated.” He grabbed two bottles and returned to his spot next to Bruce. They clinked the plastic together and each took a long drink. Tony acquiesced easily in the end--and that is what it was: the end. It seemed final, their last drink, a bittersweet--mostly bitter--parting of ways. Bruce swallowed more water.
Bruce smiled weakly at Tony, and Tony smiled back. Sheepish, apologetic. “Sorry,” Tony said. Bruce wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for. Maybe the totality of their friendship.
“I’m sorry, too.”
“No worries, big guy.”
It wasn’t until his vision blurred that he realized what Tony was apologizing for.
Bruce came to in a heap on the floor, his bottle capped neatly in front of him. This time, he spotted the slightly peeled corner of the label, a subtle mark for Tony to drug him with this one.
He stumbled upright and threw the bottle against the wall. That’s why Tony gave in. He had a Plan B, a plan that involved drugging Bruce who was too stupid, too trusting, to figure it out.
He surveyed the room. The axe was gone. Probably a smart decision. Tony didn’t know how angry Bruce would be when he woke up, how crazy he would be after finding out he’d been drugged.
It wasn’t so much the drugging that upset Bruce. It was that Tony was completely justified. In a way, Bruce should be grateful that it was so mild, and that it didn’t happen sooner. Tony had plenty of opportunities to institutionalize him, lock him up, put him on sedatives, electroshock him. Bruce had no right to be angry, which made him angrier.
He did a quick sweep of the premises (any sweep would be quick, the place was so small). No Tony.
He scrubbed his hand across his face. The missing axe. The drugging. Just Phase One of Plan B.
Fear beat out anger, despite Bruce’s best efforts to stay mad. He flung open the door and stared into the distance. He couldn’t see any figure other than the plant.
Feet kicking up sand, he strode in the plant’s direction. He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious for— he fucking drugged me! —and broke into a sprint when he really didn't see Tony anywhere.
He stopped when he was close enough to make out details. He almost faceplanted in the sand. Some leaves severed from the stalk, and a bloody shoe. Italian leather if he remembered correctly.
He didn’t remember getting back to the trailer, throwing the door open and collapsing on the floor. It didn’t matter. The grief felt more primal than bloodlust. Of course he’d kill the one good thing he had in his life. Cause the death of seemed a matter of semantics. Killed Tony because he’d kept the stupid plant alive and somehow beckoned Tony to him, didn’t cover his tracks well enough because he secretly, subconsciously wanted to lure Tony to his death. Tony, poor Tony. He’d died alone when he should have been surrounded by loved ones, forty, fifty years in the future, his mind still sharp and bright.
Bruce cried until his chest hurt and the tears dried up so all that was left was dry heaving and strange, animalistic noises.
There was only one thing he could do, which he should have done ages ago.
He didn’t want to feed the plant. He felt pettily stubborn about that. He hated the plant and he wanted the plant’s death to be slower, more agonizing, than his own.
He had a sharp butcher’s knife in the kitchen. A butcher knife, like an axe, seemed like a good thing to have handy, even in the middle of the desert. He clambered to his feet and stumbled to the smaller-than-a-closet sliver of kitchen. Still sobbing, he pressed the knife over his heart. It was melodramatic and Shakespearean and also a certain, painful way to die. No matter how accurate his aim was, bleeding out would be slow but no one would find him. Perfect.
It was hard to keep the knife steady while he was shaking. He took a deep breath. Ideally, he’d have enough force to get through his chest on the first try but if he had to plunge it in again and again, he would.
“Bruce? What are you doing?”
He saw the reflection in the mirror. Tony, face scraped, clothing torn, slightly uneven on one shoe. Bruce didn’t care if he was real or fake. He flung himself at the figure, who somehow managed to keep his balance, pat Bruce’s back, and lower them both to the floor.
“I thought you were dead,” Bruce cried. “I thought you were dead.” Even knowing Tony was alive, even with little fluid to spare, Bruce couldn’t stop crying. His sobs gave way to dry whimpers and he let Tony rock him back and forth.
“You think I’m dead for thirty seconds so you try to kill yourself?”
“Well, I have other things going on too,” Bruce said indignantly, although the quivering made him sound petulant.
“OK. But it was mostly ‘cause you thought I died, right?”
Bruce playfully punched him in his chest and regretted it when Tony winced.
“Can we please, please get you home?” Tony asked again, and this time Bruce was all too eager to oblige. He’d let Tony lock him up, let Tony stick an icepick in his brain if Tony wanted to go medieval. For less than half an hour, he’d thought Tony dead, and now he realized he’d surrender his life to him. Realized that he had no life without him. “You were happy there, right? The temperature was OK?”
“The temperature was fine,” Bruce laughed through sniffles. “It was perfect.”
“So what do we do about you-know-what?”
“Pull up the roots and chop it up and find a safe place to light it on fire.”
“OK. But I’ll do it. None of this macho ‘shoot-my-own-dog’ shit. I’ll take care of it.”
“You got your ass kicked.”
“The plant was stronger than I thought,” Tony huffed. Bruce couldn’t tell if he meant physically, or if there had been some psychological and emotional attack. He didn’t ask.
“We’ll do it together.”
Tony said something about getting Bruce more water, the rest wasn’t drugged. But it was drowned out by a sound similar to, though not exactly like, a table breaking, or a door crashing open. Orin. Brian. Howard, he thought, even though they were all dead. He tensed, and Tony adjusted his grip.
“What?” Tony asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Didn’t you hear--”
If Tony didn’t hear it the first time, he heard it now: giant roots tearing through the ground and breaking the trailer floor. Bruce and Tony bolted to their feet, but there was nowhere to go. The entire trailer rose to the air on uneven roots, leaves breaking through the windows. Beneath them, next to them, they were trapped.
“Tony, I’m sorry. l l—“
“Whatever you’re going to say, tell me after. I’m not gonna let a plant kill me.” Tony swiped Bruce’s butcher knife off the floor. Moments ago, it had seemed big enough to plunge into his body and crush through Bruce’s 40-something years of torment but now, against the monster plant, it seemed tiny. Even the axe, which had slid into the room during the upheaval, looked pathetic.
Bruce picked it up anyway. If Tony wanted to go down fighting, so would Bruce.
Tony sliced through the tendrils with surprising ease and apparent relish. But he needed to get close, too close, to his opponents to fight them while Bruce had more range. They should have switched weapons, but that split second could lose the fight.
“Tony, run. You drove here, right? I’ll hold the plant off and you—“
“What did we just discuss, Banner? Teamwork,” Tony said, yanking a vine through the window and slicing it. “We could use some of that bruiser strength now.”
“That’s what I—I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’m getting hurt right now! Kill this fucking thing!” A tendril had wrapped around Tony’s waist and he cut himself free, but for every one casualty there were three, four more slinking in to take its place, roping around Tony’s ankle, grabbing his wrist.
Bruce smashed through the wall, cutting off several feet of plant but also revealing how far up the roots had lifted the trailer. Twenty feet off the ground. On a good day, they could risk the jump, but Tony was already injured and they would just fall into plant territory, anyway.
“This is a mess, Tone.” What he’d meant to say was, This is futile.
“Let’s clean it up.”
Bruce yelled and smashed the axe into the ground, slicing through and revealing thick, heavy roots. The axe came down again, and he kept smashing until he was standing on splinters and plant roots.
Maybe they could defeat the plant, he thought, pausing to catch his breath. He just needed a second. The brown floor of the trailer swirled with the plant roots.
“Bruce!” Tony shouted. Bruce turned around too quickly. His head swayed. He would have hit the ground if tendrils hadn’t wrapped around his legs, arms, and torso and lifted him in the air, crashing through the trailer’s roof. Feet away from him, he saw that Tony suffered the same fate.
“Hey, that thing you were gonna tell me back there," Tony choked as the vines tightened around his chest, “now would be a good time.”
Bruce couldn’t bring himself to say it. Not for his old reasons of emotional constipation (progress!) but because he physically couldn’t: the vines were tightening, cutting off his airflow, blurring his vision.
Tony had said, “I’m not gonna let a plant kill me.” But the plant was, because Bruce was too impotent to save him. Please let him go, I’ll do anything you want, Bruce thought, hoping that his apparent psychic connection would work to his advantage if the plant could sense his honesty and desperation. But Tony continued to choke and writhe across from him, and all he could do was watch as his vision blurred and darkened. Not seeing Tony die was a small mercy but it didn’t spare Bruce the knowledge that it was happening. Feet away from him. Bruce’s last conscious thoughts were that he couldn’t even die the way he wanted--alone, knowing Tony was safe.
This death was different than bleeding out on the floor. Noisier. Cacophonous. Intense whirring overhead, which he figured was his body firing its last-ditch attempts at survival, and metal clanging, which was simply weird. And then, unexpectedly, he felt himself soaring. Also unexpected, the popular mythology held true: the afterlife was in the skies and that good souls ascend upon death. And most unexpected of all: his soul was ascending. Maybe, all things considered, the goodness of his deeds outweighed the bad. Maybe his earthly jury hadn’t made a mistake if the heavenly one agreed.
Then the wind swished as he plummeted in the opposite direction. Downward. Ah, that’s more like it.
His body scraped against sand as he slid, presumably, across the desert. His oxygen-deprived brain picked through the jumble of observations:
1) The solid and physical realness of the ground and unpleasant (but not torturous) grittiness of the sand— wasn’t part of any religious mythology he knew of.
2) His breath returning to him, as well as pain.
3) Tony’s voice next to him, dazed: “Pepper’s here. Hi, Pepper.”
Somehow Bruce gathered the strength of will to push himself upright. The images of Pepper, Rhodey, and Audrey came into focus, as well as a jet and chains and the giant carcass of the uprooted plant. His head felt light. He almost fell back down, but somehow managed to stay upright. He barely registered the things happening around him--Rhodey mouthing, what the fuck at him over Tony’s shoulder, Audrey burying her head in his shoulder and wrapping his arms around him.
“You killed my monster, so I killed yours!”
“Bruce,” Pepper said, raking her fingers through his and Tony’s hair. “ What the fuck. ”
Rhodey, Pepper, and Audrey had the easiest time venturing out into the desert. Tony had dashed away without warning. It took Pepper a few hours to realize he had vanished, and a day to really worry that he wasn’t just playing hooky from his responsibilities. From there, it only took her thirty seconds to track his phone and his car to Nowhere, Nevada.
Audrey explained, to the best of her abilities, the evil plant. At that point, it was hunches and guesswork based on her conversations with Tony but the bottom line was that they needed to destroy it.
Rhodey fired up the jet. They loaded it with weapons—the chains and chainsaws but also flamethrowers and machetes and holy water and salt and whatever else they could think of: silver bullets, crosses; Pepper drew the line at garlic.
“I was so relieved when I saw a giant plant killing you,” Rhodey said, “because up until then I thought you’d all gone insane.”
“Rhodey was a very good sport about it,” Pepper said.
Bruce shrunk in on himself. It had all been his fault, this panic, this mad dash into the middle of the desert, the inconvenience; they didn’t even know Tony almost died twice. If they had, they wouldn’t be so forgiving. Bruce was still sick with the thought.
Rhodey and Pepper helped a limping Tony onto the jet. Audrey aided Bruce. It was not one of Tony’s spacious, luxury liners. It was on the small and efficient end of the spectrum, and Bruce was glad for that. He and Tony scrunched up in the backseat while the others chopped the plant up with chainsaws. If the chainsaws were closer and Bruce were less drained, he might be a jumpy bundle of nerves, but now, he was oddly lulled by the distant buzzing.
“That was awesome,” Tony said.
“You almost died.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t. That’s what makes it so awesome.”
“Should we be helping them?” Bruce muttered, half-asleep.
“Sure. Why don’t you grab a chainsaw?”
Bruce thought about what that would entail--sitting up, standing up, walking over, hefting the weight of a whirring metal chopping machine. He couldn’t even think farther than that. He moaned and nestled deeper into the jet seat.
Eventually, the buzzing stopped and Rhodey climbed into the pilot’s seat. “You guys ready to go?”
“Where’s Pepper and Audrey?” Bruce asked, squinting one eye open.
“They’re driving Tony’s car back. A little plant hearse for the plant funeral. You guys really are cute together.”
“I’m cute with everyone,” Tony huffed.
“So what happened back there?” Rhodey shouted over the roar of the jet. Bruce, fighting his headache and exhaustion, was about to break into an explanation, but Tony spared them all.
“Talk later. Naptime now.”
A doctor was waiting for them when they arrived at the tower. Dr. Helen Cho, this time--“If Stephen saw the shape we’re in,” Tony explained, “he’d never let us hang out together.”
Tony was treated for scrapes and bruises, bruised ribs, a nasty gash down the side of his leg. On top of Bruce’s similar battle wounds, he was also severely dehydrated and anemic.
“I’m sorry, Tone,” Bruce said once the doctor left. “I owe you and Pepper and--”
“Just don’t do it again, OK?” Tony snapped. Bruce was startled by the anger in his voice. “Or anything like that, or anything in the same planet as that. Fuck, Banner, we almost died.”
“I won’t,” Bruce whispered. He didn’t point out that a few hours ago, Tony had declared that the near-death was awesome.
“OK. Just--ugh, let’s just get some sleep.”
Tony’s arm settled around Bruce, like old times—a good sign, surely—and they fell asleep immediately.
It was dark outside when JARVIS awoke them with an announcement that Pepper was calling.
Tony groaned and rubbed sleep out of his eyes. “Yeah?”
“Hi, Mr. Stark!” Audrey chirped. “We’re burning the plant in an incinerator and then we’re gonna scatter the ashes on our way back. We were just wondering if you wanted any sample--.”
“NO!” Bruce and Tony shouted in unison.
“That’s what we thought but I wanted to make sure.” Audrey hung up.
“I feel bad they have to drive all that way,” Bruce said.
“They’re having a girl’s trip, staying in swank hotels on company dime, and probably spent a couple of hours in Vegas. Stop feeling bad about things.” Tony’s tone was gruff. Bruce curled in on himself. Of course Tony was going to be pissed off, and he had every right to be. But that didn’t mean he’d throw Bruce out when his head was clear. Or take it out on him in other ways. They were sharing a bed—that had to mean something.
There was still an awful part of him that wanted to flee again rather than face the repercussions that awaited him. He’d have to go to therapy, he’d have to take pills, he’d have to have a heavier conversation with Audrey, with more emotions laid bare. Pepper might be cold to him. Rhodey would think he was crazy. They’d look at him differently. Like a flight risk. A ticking bomb. The inexplicable Achilles heel of Tony Stark.
Bruce stayed awake long after Tony resumed snoring.
The next morning, he woke up alone. That happened sometimes—Tony dashing off to some faraway time zone, or buzzing to get back to the lab before Bruce awoke. Bruce tried not to read into it as he padded out to the living room.
Tony was hunched over on the couch, a cup of coffee in one hand and a tablet in the other. Bruce watched him from a distance, looking for tells in his face, his mannerisms.
“Hey,” Tony said without moving his head.
“Hey.” Bruce couldn’t speak louder than a whisper.
“Sit down. Or are you gonna run away again?”
Bruce swallowed. His throat hurt. Tony’s did, too, maybe even worse.
Bruce took timid steps towards the couch, sat down. Tried to ignore the bandage around Tony’s leg.
“See? The girls are having a good time,” Tony showed Bruce a selfie Audrey had sent, her and Pepper in front of a particular scenic mountainscape. What state it was, Bruce couldn’t begin to identify. Maybe Colorado. Despite the smiling photograph, Tony’s voice was flat--as colder than when Bruce first woke up after his stabbing. Bruce hummed, then sat in silence and waited for Tony to speak again.
“How do you think I felt,” Tony asked, “realizing you were gone? Walk me through it.”
It was a strange question, Bruce thought, and harsh, but well-deserved. He hadn’t been great at taking others’ feelings into account.
“B-bad, I guess.” Bruce said, rubbing his hands together despite his aching. And then he couldn’t stop: the betrayal, the abandonment—Bruce had promised to come back, and he’d meant it at the time—but Tony had no way of knowing that. And Bruce had spewed such vitriol in his apartment… “You didn’t deserve to feel that way. Any of it.”
By the end, he was collapsed in on himself, crying again. The second time in two days. Making up for lost time. Tony put his hand on Bruce’s back, kept it there, stared straight ahead in silence. Of course Tony would wind up comforting him when it should have been the other way around.
“And can you imagine how I feel having you back?”
Bruce wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeves. “About half as good as I feel having you back.”
“Good answer. Wrong, but good. Look, I’m willing to chalk this up to the plant...Seventy percent. It might be more, it might be less, but since we can’t calculate all the variables, seventy percent seems fair.”
Bruce nodded. It was more than fair. It was beyond generous. That was probably the point.
“But you’re seeing a doctor. Non-negotiable.”
Bruce nodded. Also fair.
“We’ll sort the rest out later. We just got back. You just got back…”
I’ll do anything, Bruce thought. The promises he’d made in the desert: locked up, lobotomized, anything.
Tony sighed. “I don’t have a contingency plan if you do this again.”
“I won’t,” Bruce said. His last chance. Strangely, it didn’t seem dire—it seemed hopeful. Bruce’s words meant nothing to Tony now, but for the first time in his life, he trusted himself, and he knew he’d earn back Tony’s.
Tony clasped a hand on Bruce’s knee. Bruce winced—the plant had really gripped him, both of them, and Tony was probably regretting the force of his own gesture as well.
“You ready to face the world, Banner?”
Bruce nodded. Anything.
“Good. ‘cause you’re coming back to this.”
Tony proudly dropped his tablet on the table, displaying the headline SIZZLING CHEMISTRY: TONY STARK’S NEW SCIENCE BEAU above a picture of the two at the Met, Tony draped over Bruce’s shoulder. He barely skimmed the article: he’d been identified as Bruce Banner, science genius, his stint in patricide mercifully condensed to a couple of sentences toward the end of the article—how strange to receive mercy from a newspaper—and ending with the innocent pondering about how long the couple would last.
“So the world knows…” Bruce said slowly.
“...about how clingy you are.”
“My clinginess saved your life!” Tony exclaimed as Bruce rose from the couch and headed to the kitchen. “My clinginess saved the world from that plant! And they’ll never know!”
Breakfast was a good starting point, he thought as he whisked eggs despite his sore arm. Bruce had started over so many times in his life but he was now starting again , at a specific spot. The highest point in his life.
So you killed a couple of people. Who cares? Audrey’s surprising voice of reason echoed in his mind. And Tony still loved him…
“What’re you smiling about?” Tony asked, standing next to him.
“You,” Bruce said, so honest and uninhibited that Tony actually blushed. Then Bruce did something he’d never done before, never came close to doing, and grabbed the back of Tony’s head, pulled him close, and kissed him. They’d kissed before--sometimes passionate but mostly pecks, always initiated by Tony. When they pulled away, Tony’s eyes were glassy. He opened and closed his mouth, trying to figure out what to say.
He eventually settled on a breathless, “Did you learn that in the desert?”
“I learned a lot of things in the desert,” Bruce said, “but that wasn’t one of them.” I learned that from you.
“Was that to distract me from the, uh, the...whatever it was?”
“No. I’m going to own up to what I did. To you and to Audrey and…” He tugged at his sleeves. “That was just because I’m glad you’re alive.”
The road ahead didn’t seem so daunting: Anything, he’d begged the plant, the fates, himself. He would have done anything to save Tony. He’d do anything for Tony. And he had the opportunity to make good on that promise. A second chance, a third chance, a last chance, several miracles. He could grow his future as large and monstrous as the plant had been. Only in a good way.
I wanted to do an epilogue ever since I finished this, and I simply never did....until now.
I had originally intended Tony to make good on his promise to get dogs, but they're busy right now. They'll adopt eventually.
There are three stealth musical references in this chapter. Points if you can catch any of them.
Thank you heyjupiter for her amazing betaing.
A year after the rescue from the Plant Incident, Bruce had stayed put. Well, stayed put emotionally and mentally. Being Tony Stark’s partner--in both the business and personal senses of the word--meant travelling the world, this time in luxury (Bruce had talked Tony down to modest luxury, so somewhere between a hotel suite and a desert R.V) with a home to go back to, and not in penance, adrift.
A year to the day after the rescue from the Plant Incident, Bruce and Tony were tinkering in the lab. Bruce turned around to grab something from a workchest, and when he turned around again, Tony was on one knee, his hand outstretched with a small box.
“So...I think we should get married,” Tony said simply.
Bruce shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. His first instinct was to laugh (nervously). Then he realized how badly a laugh, nervous or not, would come off in response to a proposal. He quickly said, “I suppose you waited long enough,” and put on the ring.
“Very magnanimous, Banner,” Tony said, standing up and flinging his arms around Bruce in a kiss. Once they broke away for air, Bruce panted, “I’m taking your name.”
They quickly left the lab for their bedroom and spent the rest of the day (and night) celebrating.
“We have breakfast with the rescue squad tomorrow,” Tony said once they were done, flinging an arm around Bruce.
“Did you plan that intentionally?”
“Might’ve. I bet Pepper notices first.”
“Nah. Audrey will.”
“I don’t think we should count Rhodey out…”
“It’ll be Audrey,” Bruce said. Despite her ditziness, she had preternatural observation skills for matters related to Bruce and Tony’s relationship.
Tony fell asleep first from, Bruce assumed, exertion and relief and post-coital, post-proposal contentment. But Bruce couldn’t slow his pulse no matter how he tried.
His heart was palpitating not from stress, but from excitement. A year ago, he wouldn’t have been able to say yes. He would have laid in bed, thinking about fleeing. Now, he was just thinking about how he wasn’t thinking about fleeing. He’d said yes, and he intended to keep his promise.
He wasn’t Abused Child Bruce, cowering in dark places away from his father. He wasn’t College Wunderkind Bruce, waiting for his solid ground of happiness to fall out from under him. He wasn’t Murderer Bruce, and the transitory fugue states that followed--prison, trial, his worldwide self-imposed exile. Skid Row Flower Shop Bruce, Self-Imposed Exile Part Two (Desert Edition) Bruce. He was...Tony Stark's Bruce. Soon to be Bruce Stark. And if he needed help remembering, he would twist the simple, conflict-free gold band around his finger and glance next to him. Even if Tony wasn’t next to him at the moment--off on a trip, or running off a nightmare on his treadmill--the extra space on the bed was a reminder that Tony was usually there. It wasn’t his Skid Row cot or his trailer pull-out. It was home.
Audrey noticed the rings first. From an impressive distance, too: Bruce and Tony had barely walked through the door to her apartment before she spotted the bands against the champagne bottles they’d brought.
“You’re engaged?!” She grabbed Bruce’s hand before he could react, sending the champagne bottle plummeting to the floor.
Luckily, Rhodey caught it before it shattered. “Congrats! Who’s the lucky man?”
Bruce smiled, his ears burning red. Tony flashed his own matching ring at Rhodey, then switched to a different finger.
“Congratulations!” Pepper sounded enthusiastic but unsurprised. “Just in case CNN didn’t hear Audrey, do you want me to call Anderson?”
“No, we were thinking of keeping it quiet for a while.” Bruce looked at Tony for assurance. That was what they’d decided on the night before. It was Tony’s idea. Eventually, they’d need to have a soiree, but their real wedding would be personal, meaningful, and quiet.
“A quiet wedding…?” Pepper asked, as if to confirm she’d heard correctly.
“A small ceremony. Guest list:” Tony cleared his throat as Audrey and Pepper got their phones ready. “You three and Jen.”
When things settled down after the Plant Incident, Tony had encouraged Bruce to reach out to his cousin. Before, Bruce would have resisted, but he knew it was a good idea and something he needed to do. It only took him a few days to gather his nerves and call her. His hand shook uncontrollably as he squeezed his phone against his ear, waiting for her to pick up. He felt an acute glimmer of hope that she’d want him back in his life, but he couldn’t help but prepare for the worst. I hate you, how could you do this to me… When she recognized his shy, tentative “Hi,” she broke down in tears--clearly of joy--and Bruce did the same. They caught up: she was married with kids, her parents were still alive, and they’d all love to see Bruce. They picked up easily where they’d left off. Better, in fact, than where they’d left off.
Pepper stopped typing long before she expected to. She looked up at Tony for confirmation. “That’s all?”
“How exclusive!” Audrey exclaimed.
“I told Tony he can invite more…” Bruce muttered.
Tony shrugged. “We’re eloping. It’ll be fun. I’d like one good major life event of mine to be unsullied by the media.”
Word would get around fast in New York--too fast. They couldn’t risk a loose-lipped, starstruck clerk or a lucky gossip columnist leaking the news or a few photographs. The event would need to be as private as possible: a family affair in Jen’s parents’ Ohio home. Jennifer herself had become a powerful New York attorney, which created ample opportunity for her to see Bruce and the others, but her parents were still settled in Ohio with little desire to travel.
Bruce was confident he’d be able to return to the old house without breaking down. Ninety-percent confident. Confident enough. If he thought about it too much then yes, going back was a risk to his mental and emotional stability, and probably a bad idea to test it right before their wedding. But he hadn’t thought about it at all when he’d agreed to it. It seemed like the best idea at the time. The venue was as private as could be, the guests the most trustworthy. Best of all, no one would even expect a billionaire tech mogul to get married in the suburbs of Ohio.
Then, as the day got closer, his doubts grew darker. The house had more ghosts than the flower shop. What if the bad memories inundated him as soon as he walked in? What was stopping him from fleeing to the desert as he had done before? His progress? His security? Was the dam strong enough to hold against the flood?
He tried to keep the worst of his anxiety at bay in the days leading up to their departure, but he was still clearly tense. The others gave him space, chalking it up to pre-wedding jitters, which Tony also had, although Tony’s manifested differently. He was even more chatty, more frenetic, like a podcast turned up to twice its normal speed. He’d tried to assuage Tony’s fears--that Bruce would “do take-backs”--while managing his own as best as he could.
But when they finally made it to Ohio and Bruce walked up the old patio he thought he’d never see again, the fear swirled in his stomach like a small tornado.
This is the first time I’ve been here since....the last time I’ve been here, Bruce thought inanely as he stared down at a kitschy doormat as he dug around for the spare keys Jen had given him. When was that? It must have been before he left for college, but it couldn’t have been. That was decades ago, a lifetime he didn’t remember...
“You OK?” Tony asked, coming up behind him. Bruce nodded as if in a daze and opened the door. The house had been touched up in the intervening years, but not drastically: wallpaper that was a rough approximation of the one he grew up with, which was probably discontinued; more photos, different knick knacks, but very much the same. The photos told the story of a parallel world he’d left behind: the son Bruce never knew; Jen’s wedding (he felt an especially sharp pang of regret); the grandchildren. He hadn’t just missed out on his lifetime.
Tony’s hand clasped his shoulders and Bruce pulled himself together.
“Hello?” He called. Though they’d spoken on the phone frequently, it was also his first time seeing Elaine and William in person since he left. They should have arranged a rehearsal reunion, one that didn’t take place within a day of another emotionally-laden event. It was too late now.
William, Elaine, and Jen emerged from the kitchen. Bruce returned their hugs as best as he could. He choked down his tears and sounded like he was suffering from allergies. By now, the living room was filled with people. Even with Pepper, Tony, Rhodey, and Audrey buffering Bruce against the full onslaught of conversation, it was overwhelming. Bruce knew his energy would be zapped within minutes.
“Look at you, all grown up!” Elaine said.
“Almost as tall as me,” Jen said wryly, pouring Pepper a drink. It was the type of thing they should have said to a pre-teen at the holidays, not a grown man getting married. Jen casually handed him a glass of water so that he would have something to do with his hands.
“How was your flight? Did you take Air Force One or fly commercial?” William joked.
“We took Amtrak,” Tony said, his voice in an unreadable strain.
William laughed and looked at Elaine, impressed by Tony’s quick wit. “He’s so funny, just like on TV!”
“We actually did take Amtrak,” Bruce said. “The environmental footprint…”
“Where on Earth did our little Bruce meet the Stark boy?” Elaine asked. Bruce blushed and stared into his water glass.
“They met in college!” Audrey interjected, eternally pleased that, after prying for so long, she finally possessed the knowledge of Bruce and Tony’s origin story.
“College!” Elaine exclaimed, disbelieving. The dizzying chasm between himself and his family appeared before Bruce. Elaine, William, even Jen would never know about the three puncture wounds in his side, or his manic time spent in the desert.
“It was so romantic,” Audrey went on. “Tony pined for him for years. ”
“I didn’t pine,” Tony huffed, “I simply...made an effort to keep in touch with a more introverted friend.”
Bruce knew that if Audrey kept talking, she might accidentally veer into uncomfortable territory: multiple murders, a crazy plant, several psychotic breaks...She’d gotten better at tact and norms, but she got a little overexcited about matters related to him, and it was too easy to tread on a conversational landmine.
“Uh, I’m sorry for not visiting sooner,” Bruce said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Elaine said. “You’re saving the world. We’re glad you’re here now. What an occasion!”
Tony glowed when he talked to people and when he was genuinely happy, he was like Mulder and Scully’s flashlights turned to max setting. Bruce couldn’t make out the exact words he was saying, but watching him, knowing he was happy, was enough.
The talking continued and Bruce did his best to stay focused on Tony, but his eyes wandered around the living room. That spot on the couch--a newer couch, but the same couch concept--that’s where he sat when he found out his father was being investigated. Down the hall, he’d find the room where he’d knocked over a table and slammed his door and hid. That was where he’d spend the night with Tony, while Pepper, Rhodey, and Audrey were in a nearby bed-and-breakfast.
He must have drifted too much, too frequently, because the next thing he noticed, everyone was saying good night.
“You must be exhausted after the train ride,” Elaine said, rubbing Bruce’s arm. She generously attributed his exhaustion to the journey, even though everyone knew it was from socialization. He and Tony would be led to his old room soon, and he didn’t have much time to mentally fortify himself, so he just nodded and smiled and let himself be led. Elaine opened the door, flipped on the light switch, and left.
Bruce stood in the doorway, taking it in. He expected a twin bed against the wall, a child’s desk, his books. But instead, a queen-sized bed dominated the center of the room, and a non-descript adult dresser was placed across from it. Other than a few equally generic decorations, there were no personal markers. The room could have belonged to anyone--anyone except young Bruce.
“Oh, thank God,” Bruce said, stepping inside.
“What?” Tony followed.
“They turned it into a guest room.”
“Yeah, that’s what empty nesters usually do.”
“I don’t know. For some reason, I thought it would look the same as it did...I thought I’d have to spend the night in a room that looked like…” He trailed off and wrung his hands.
“We’d be squashed on a twin bed.”
“Yeah. It would be uncomfortable.”
“We’d make it work. Do you believe that I’ve never been in a house like this?”
“I mean, I know it’s what most houses look like...I’ve just never been inside of one…Is this what they call...Middle America?” Tony asked, examining a purple-framed picture of a purple cat, presumably from Home Goods (or so Bruce hoped--it wouldn’t be ideal consumerism, but would at least be better than radical-right Hobby Lobby).
“Wow. So, how are you feeling?”
“Yeah? You OK being back here?” As soon as Tony asked, Bruce realized how much everyone was cognizant of, and actively avoided bringing up, the issue.
Bruce wanted to play it off and say, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” Instead, he nodded solemnly. “Yeah. I was a little nervous at first, but it’s better than I thought it would be.”
“Because if you aren’t…” Tony said, gently putting his arms around Bruce, “we can, I don’t know, we can--”
“No, I’m fine,” Bruce said. “What about you? Being here must be traumatic for you, too.”
“Well, it’s a one-story house. If you look out the window, you’ll only see a yard. The pizza here is garbage. Nothing’s open after eight P.M…”
“Eight?! How is that possible? People don’t wake up until eight!”
“First of all, most people are very much awake before eight. And second of all, it’s not like we’re moving here.”
“No,” Tony agreed. “Not until we have kids.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Anyway, goodnight, tomorrow’s the big day!”
Actually, I think today was the big day, Bruce thought, and it was almost over. Tomorrow would be the easy part: confirming what he already knew would be the rest of his life.
When Bruce woke up the next morning, Tony wasn’t next to him, but there weren’t that many places Tony could go--or places he would want to. Bruce washed up and went to the kitchen.
Tony and Elaine sat at the tabling, having breakfast and poring over photos. Tony looked completely out of place at the tiny table, leaning over a cheap photo album and holding a tacky mug filled with undoubtedly terrible coffee, but he was grinning smugly, reveling in the new experience. Bruce couldn’t help but smile.
“We’re looking at baby pictures!”
“Of course you are,” Bruce muttered, making a cup of tea. He took the steaming mug to the table and sat down.
“You never told me you won first place at your middle school science fair. That’s impressive.”
“It was pretty tough. I was up against a baking soda volcano.”
Elaine described each picture one by one, even though Tony spent more time looking at the real Bruce in front of him than at the photos. Bruce was worried that she wouldn’t be finished in time for the wedding or, worse, that she’d start over again for an audience of Pepper, who’d politely tease him; Rhodey, who would never let Bruce live it down; and Audrey, who would absolutely lose her mind.
Jennifer’s brother arrived. The unborn child Bruce had been jealous of was now an adult man. He was unaware of any past animus on Bruce’s part--obviously, since he was a fetus during it.
Then the others showed up. Pepper was at a loss, trying to scout out something to do when the only set-up involved moving some chairs to the yard and putting potato salad on the table. At least officiating gave her something to do, even if it wasn’t her usual number of responsibilities.
After some festive Ohioan cuisine, Pepper said a few words, and Bruce and Tony stood up to say their vows.
“Uh, I’m not a big public speaking...not a big fan of public speaking,” Bruce said, squeezing his eyes shut. “I volunteered to go first to get it over with and ‘cause Tony’s gonna be a tough act to follow.” He looked up at Tony, who was smiling warmly.
“There’s a lot of things to like about you...Your humor, your intelligence, your charm...You exude it. People can feel it when you’re in a room, and people can see it in as little as a five-second soundbite. But I have the privilege not just to like you, but to love you. The thing I love most about you is your ability to surprise and astound. Just when I think you’ve reached the human limits of kindness and generosity and sacrifice, there’s more. And there’s no amount of awards and encomiums that can capture it.
“I used to think it was a shame that not everyone has you, the real you, in their lives. But I’m focused now on how fortunate I am to. To watch you astound every day. So thank you for finding me...For—for never losing me. I don’t know where I’d be without you.
“Um, these are supposed to be vows, and I guess vows are promises but how can I enumerate the promises we make to each other every day, unspoken, always changing? And still we manage to keep them? And keep up with each other? I’m sorry, this is getting away from me.” Bruce laughed and, realizing, said, “This is the only wedding I’ve ever been to.” He buried his face in Tony’s chest, ready to stop his improved barrage.
“And I’ve been to so many,” Tony said, evoking a laugh from everyone and heroically distracting from Bruce’s private moment, “but only one that matters.” Bruce regained his composure, pulled his face away, and looked at Tony. Tony continued, “You’re right. What’s the point of listing trite item after trite item? I promise you everything. Carte blanche.”
“You two may kiss as husbands. Finally,” Pepper said.
Weeks passed. Bruce and Tony got used to discreetly slipping their rings off in public and on in private. It was nice to have their marriage to themselves for a while, and Tony was especially excited to keep another little secret from the press.
But the arrangement couldn’t go on forever, and neither of them wanted it to. Publicity was no longer a source of shame and guilt for Bruce. Though he would have preferred a lower profile life, it was a sacrifice he was glad to make for Tony. And it wasn’t as bad as he thought--public perception had shifted and he was now (a little uncomfortably) an icon of justice.
The biggest issue was that a marriage as high-profile as Tony Stark obligated a wedding, not on some farm in Ohio, but a full-blown event. Though Bruce hated social politics, especially at this level, he got the gist of the repercussions: if the tabloids spotted Tony with an engagement ring, it would usurp several wars as front-page news. A cadre of tycoons and world leaders would think that Tony Stark snubbed them, and then they might react like emotional teenagers, snub Tony in turn, and lose him a couple of hundred million dollars, or something. Bruce lost the thread when it got to the personal and financial specifics.
To the billionaire’s credit, Tony didn’t insist on a wedding. “I’ll explain to anyone who asks that it was a small private ceremony,” he offered. The issue was no one would believe Tony Stark had a wedding with only a handful of guests, and talk would continue behind his back. Besides, Tony deserved a party. Plus, Bruce couldn’t deprive Pepper of the opportunity to plan it.
Tony was excited to tell Pepper and Audrey that they could begin their budgetless wedding planning festivities. They got together for another brunch, sans Rhodey, who previously made it clear that he’d happily accept his role of best man but he didn’t want anything to do with the early stages of planning. Tony had responded, “What makes you think you’re gonna be my best man?”
“So Bruce and I are ready to move forward with Wedding B,” Tony announced before they even sat down at his dining room table.
“Perfect! We already have the venue!” Audrey exclaimed. Pepper sighed and rolled her head forward.
“What?” Bruce and Tony asked at the same time. At least Tony seemed just as surprised as Bruce; it meant they hadn’t been conspiring with them.
Pepper exhaled before doing damage control. “We don’t have the venue,” she clarified. “We have several venue options. Which we gathered after you got engaged. In case you had a change of heart.”
Tony crossed his arms and surveyed her. The opportunity to chastise Pepper was rare, and if you subtracted the times when she’d turned out to be right after all, the number went down to zero. Still, Bruce couldn’t be mad at her. Tony was spontaneous and wealthy and, though he was settling down, he could have decided at the last minute to get married in a Welsh castle or a Tuscan villa or on the moon, and Pepper had to be prepared for the possibility.
“And the vendors?” Bruce asked.
“Well, we--” Audrey began, but Pepper cut her off, saying, “We didn’t get that far,” with a discreet glance that revealed they had.
“Eco-friendly everything. Carbon footprint zero. The Sierra Club could do an audit and come back with nothing,” Tony said, glancing at Bruce for approval.
“Lavish but environmentally responsible,” Bruce added dryly.
Tony shrugged. “It can be done. And if you have trouble finding ethically unimpeachable candidates, my brilliant Renaissance fiance can do all of it, the cooking, the decorating, the flowers—“
Bruce’s brain blipped on the word, and Tony realized his mistake at the same moment.
“He can but he won’t, ” Pepper said. Then she confessed, “We might have created a cursory list of vendors. I’ll see if I can dig it up.”
“Right, of course. We’ll support businesses. Money isn’t worth anything unless it’s spread around like manure, helping young things grow.” Tony’s gaze flickered to Bruce when he thought Bruce wasn’t looking. No harm, no foul. The moment could pass unremarked upon.
“Speaking of things growing,” Audrey said, “the wedding doesn’t have to have flowers.” Ah, there it was. All eyes turned to Bruce.
“I’m not afraid of flowers, guys,” Bruce said with a little laugh at the ridiculousness of the idea. But he’d gone into one of his favorite defensive postures, his hands tucked under his armpits, and his nervousness under their gazes made him even less convincing.
The truth was, he wasn’t afraid of flowers, but ever since the, er, incident, he tried to avoid them. When he couldn’t avoid them, he avoided looking at them. And if he couldn’t avoid looking at them, he was fine. No more on edge than usual--well, not much more, anyway.
“I’m just saying,” Audrey went on, “lots of weddings don’t have flowers nowadays. They replace them with mason jars.”
“I don’t think mason jars replace flowers, Audrey,” Bruce said kindly, although for all he knew what was “hip,” maybe they did.
“You’re right,” Audrey realized. “They replace the vases.”
“Okay, okay, why don’t we hold off on the flower discussion for now?” Tony shifted closer to Bruce in a gesture of subconscious but obvious protectiveness. Bruce knew he should have appreciated it, but it embarrassed him. “Finalize a list of the venues and vendors and send them to me when you’re ready.”
Tony’s hand found its way to the small of Bruce’s back, another gesture of unwarranted protection. His other hand went to his pocket; his phone was buzzing and he peered at the message with a frown.
“I just sent you our lists, like you asked!” Audrey chirped. Pepper put her hand in front of her face to hide her frustration and her laughter.
Bruce hoped the flower discussion could wait until, oh, after the wedding, maybe forever, but Tony brought it up the moment they got ready for bed that night.
“Audrey does have a point. We don’t need to have flowers,” Tony said, untying his tie. “Didn’t you say the industry’s an environmental nightmare?”
“Well, yeah, if you’re going for cheap, mass-produced ones. But I took pains with my sourcing to ensure they didn’t harm the environment. Others do, too.”
Tony laughed. “Everyone thought your flower shop was a drug front.”
“Think about it. A flower shop on Skid Row, owned by some fish-out-of-water poindexter who was always getting into trouble, operated on weird hours, never got robbed by one of the locals, never turned a profit but ran for years, then one day you mysteriously vanished? They probably thought you were Walter White.”
Bruce sat at the edge of the bed and thought about it. “Oh.”
“Anyway, meth lab or not, we don’t need to have flowers.”
“People will notice.”
“I’ll think of an eccentric billionaire excuse.”
Bruce sighed and stretched out on the bed, his arm draped against his eyes to block out light and annoyance. The bed dipped next to him. Bruce peeked under his arm. Tony had stretched out beside him, a concerned look on his face. “It’s just, it’s the one thing you can’t talk about in therapy. But you can talk about it with me. And you haven’t really.”
“I’m fine. OK, so I’m jittery around plants, and apparently everyone realized, but it’s not a big deal.”
“Well, I’d prefer to have a wedding without flowers,” Tony said in his executive decision voice. “I doubt any of the guests will even notice. They don’t even care about the disappearing rainforests…”
Bruce rolled his eyes fondly. Tony loved to convince everyone, Bruce especially, that he wasn’t like other billionaires. And Bruce had to admit that he wasn’t: he was married to Bruce. “Okay. Since it’s your decision.”
Bruce thought that Pepper and Audrey’s lists meant the bulk of the wedding planning was already done. It turned out the work was just beginning. Both Bruce and Tony needed to be active participants. Even though they trusted Pepper’s taste, which was far better than their own, they still needed to have an informed say in the decisions. They had to actually check out venues in person and look at color swatches and eat samples of cake.
As far as petty, privileged problems went, disliking wedding planning topped the list. Bruce didn’t want to damper the joyous occasion, not even for one moment, so he feigned enjoyment as best he could.
Planning the guest list was a matter of who they wanted to snub and who they didn’t, much like a high schooler’s Sweet Sixteen. It was also Bruce’s least favorite part of planning. He was astounded by how many people had billions of dollars--even one was too many--and how many had mutualistic access to his husband. Seeing all the names spread out on a list, he couldn’t conceptualize that many people in one room. If it were up to him, he’d make everyone on the list pick up trash on the side of the road and fill the seats with underprivileged youth.
But it wasn’t up to Bruce. Tony gave him power to veto 15% of the initial list, which Bruce thought was generous. To be honest, he didn’t expect any veto power, and he would have been fine without it--he trusted Tony not to invite anyone completely evil. Bezos, for example, was never mentioned.
Finally, they carved out a final list and sent it to Pepper and Audrey for invitations. Tony kissed Bruce’s cheek and said, “I’m sorry for being a billionaire.”
Bruce took Tony’s face in his hands, looked into his eyes, and said, “You should be.” Then he smiled, poured Tony a nightcap, and settled down together in front of a shitty movie.
Eventually, the tasks that at first seemed insurmountable were finished. They finally decided on their cakes, though Tony claimed Bruce’s were better. They got their suits tailored (Bruce’s was a surprisingly tasteful pick by Audrey). Save the date cards were mailed out, then invitations, which Bruce thought was a waste of trees.
Even though Bruce was far removed from executing the tasks, they exhausted him. The exhaustion didn’t relent as the boxes were checked off. He figured it was the day itself looming over him: the prospect of schmoozing with hundreds, seemingly thousands, of people for an entire day, of needing to be at least three-quarters as charming and effervescent as Tony. But he had gotten more comfortable in social settings, and he wasn’t as worried about the marathon schmooze session as he thought. Their venue had a secret library for Bruce to escape to when it got to be too much for him, though it was really more of a sitting room; the books were chosen for aesthetics, not pleasure.
Then one night he woke up panting and darted to the bathroom, curling up on the cold tiles to catch his breath. He remembered green and red tendrils roping themselves around ankles, and he felt the physiological aftermath to other horrors that his waking brain protected him from. His brain grasped to remember them—it was Tony, Tony was in danger—but he quickly shut down the search. He focused on regulating his breathing and hoped that Tony didn’t notice anything.
But of course Tony noticed; Bruce had practically dived into the bathroom. By the time Bruce caught his breath, there was a gentle knock on the door, as if Tony had waited for the exact right time to check on him. Which, of course, he had.
His nightmares hadn’t completely vanished since settling down, nor had Tony’s, but they lessened to a manageable degree--both in frequency and intensity. They rarely warranted either of them getting out of bed.
“One minute,” Bruce called like he was in a public restroom. He pushed himself up and opened the door, trying not to look rumpled and distressed when he faced Tony.
“Nightmare,” Bruce admitted, because there was no point in lying. He stepped past Tony and went back to bed.
The nightmares persisted over the next few nights. Blood-red tendrils, plants gobbling up bodies.
“Talk to me,” Tony said one night, rubbing Bruce’s back. “Are you worried about the wedding? Talking to people?”
“No, I’m not. I’m actually not…”
“Are you...are you having second thoughts?” Tony asked quietly.
“No, of course not! Never!” He kissed Tony to prove how much he meant it. “How could you even think…?”
“I don’t know, Bruce. I don’t know what’s going on in your head if you don’t tell me.”
“Really? You seem to do a pretty good job,” Bruce joked, but Tony’s face remained grim and concerned. “I...I think it’s the flowers.”
“But we’re not having flowers.”
Tony exhaled, understandably frustrated. “Can you help me out here?”
“I’m trying, Tony. I really don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He curled against Tony’s chest, because Tony always felt better when he felt like he was helping. “I don’t want to be afraid of them anymore. It’s stupid. What do you call an environmentalist with a fear of flora?”
“I call him brave and sweet and amazing and perfect. Look, even I’m jittery around plants and I didn’t get it half as bad as you. That thing mind-sucked you for a year.”
“I know,” Bruce sighed, eager to change the subject. “Don’t ever think it’s you. You are the best thing that ever has happened to me.”
“OK, I believe it,” Tony laughed.
“I said I don’t know where I’d be without you, but I...I do know, I’d--” Bruce couldn’t bring himself to finish his sentence. They both knew, and neither wanted to hear him say it.
Bruce heard Tony’s heart hitch before he said, “Are you sure there’s nothing else weighing on you? Nothing at all?”
“I promise. It’s just the stupid flower thing.”
After a few nights of feigned sleep, an idea struck Bruce. At first, he thought it was a strange, half-conscious thought brought on by too little sleep. Then he realized it was actually a good idea. Or at least, he thought so. He wasn’t sure if Tony would agree. He definitely couldn’t bring it up in the strange twilight hours. It would need to wait until morning, over breakfast, like normal people.
They made innocent chitchat over bagels and lox about Audrey’s ambitious new outreach program for inner city youth, about charity-matching the cost of their party, about new projects and inventions. Once the lox was cleared, Bruce began.
“Tony, I was thinking about going away for a while…” He realized that “a while” was a scary, indefinite period of time, so he quickly clarified, “A week at most. There’s something I have to do.”
Tony took a moment, then cocked his head to the side. “Really? Because the last time you went away to do ‘something you had to,’ things went south really fast.”
“I’ll come back.”
“You said that the last time, too.” Tony’s voice was even, non-confrontational, and Bruce knew this wouldn’t be a fight, even if Tony wasn’t thrilled.
Bruce wanted to promise and beg. He really had changed. He slept in his old house without breaking down. He got married without running away. But Tony was right to be worried. From what he could remember of that scary, hazy time, this was eerily similar to what he’d said before cutting loose to the desert. Bruce had nothing except his word to show that it wouldn’t be a repeat.
“I won’t go if you don’t want me to,” Bruce decided.
Tony sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t want to tether you. Can you at least tell me what you have in mind? It doesn’t help that you’re being cryptic.”
Bruce told him, and at the end, Tony nodded. “Seems innocent enough. You sure you don’t want me to come?”
“You’re my husband, not my babysitter. You...you deserve to know that when, if, I go away, I’ll come back."
“Would you at least consider bringing Audrey?”
Bruce smiled. It was like putting down collateral—Audrey wouldn’t come back without Bruce. And Bruce wouldn’t abandon Audrey. Plus, she’d love a road trip with her surrogate father. For Tony’s peace of mind, Bruce agreed.
“And promise you’ll call every day?” Tony asked.
“Twice a day. Have a crazy bachelor party when I’m gone,” Bruce said.
“I’m not a bachelor anymore.”
“Hmm. Live vicariously through Rhodey.”
“He’s not engaged.”
“You’ll figure something out.”
Bruce kept his promise and called twice (sometimes three or four times) a day, but his initial estimate of a week was a drastic lowball, and two of those calls were to ask for an extension--first to ten days, then to a full two weeks. He could sense the hesitance and concern on Tony’s end, knew that Tony was thinking about hopping in the jet and rescuing Bruce from him wherever he was, but Bruce sounded good--steady--and Audrey vouched for Bruce’s stability.
He didn’t extend the trip for leisure. Bruce wanted to go home. He wanted to calm Tony’s fears and be with him again. Every day, he thought about leaving his project half finished, three-quarters finished, seven-eighth finished, good enough. But he held out until he finished, focusing on his task at hand instead of the internal forces pulling him back to Tony. It would be all the more gratifying when he did return, task completed, life intact.
Tony tentatively, then warmly, returned the embrace. “Wow, you’re demonstrative.”
“I’m glad to be home,” Bruce said.
“Did you get everything you need?”
“Yeah.” Bruce pulled away. He was excited to start the next part of his project but more excited to reunite with Tony.
“Trip went smoothly?” Tony sounded casual, but Bruce could tell he was waiting for a bombshell.
“Well...good!” Tony exclaimed as if he hadn’t expected a glowing report.
“What about you? How were your two weeks of freedom?”
“The thing is, I kind of met someone…”
“ Tony. ”
“I’m kidding. I waited for you to get home, staring out the window like a sailor’s wife.”
“I missed you so much. Every day, I thought about turning around…”
“I wish you had,” Tony kissed his forehead, “but I’m glad you didn’t. So...you have to finish it, right?”
“Yeah, but tonight is for you.”
He felt compelled only to have dinner with his husband, and everything else could wait.
Thanks to Pepper’s planning, the wedding party was still a full month away. Bruce worked on his project diligently, but not obsessively, and he slept well every night.
He didn’t want anyone to see the project until it was done. Tony joked that he was being an old-fashioned bride not wanting to be seen on her wedding day. Tony wheedled and nudged to see Bruce’s masterpiece, but Bruce only smiled and told him to be patient.
Tony’s patience finally paid off. Bruce emerged from his workroom with a coy smirk on his face, letting Tony know he could stop watching Tiger King and finally see the product of Bruce’s labor.
“It’s done?” Tony said, rising from the couch. Bruce nodded and beckoned Tony to follow him to his workroom.
Tony’s initial gasp was audible and presumably genuine, even though he'd seen so many wondrous things in his lifetime. Bruce had to admit he’d outdone himself with his sweeping tableau of flowers, thousands of them arranged in a wooden frame half the size of a billboard. They were secured to a wire mesh backing, which couldn’t be spotted against the colors. He’d kept the flowers’ shapes as best as he could, with plans to replant the trimmings.
“Flowers from the quad at Cambridge. And the place you liked to go with your parents in Saratoga Springs.” Bruce pointed to the flowers that represented each place--his childhood apple orchard, the family garden in Ohio, the Stark’s vacation houses scattered throughout the east coast. “Obviously I couldn’t travel the world on crunch time, but I found some close relatives to ones from your Swiss boarding school and Marseille…”
Incredibly, Tony zeroed in on a small patch of flowers. “My father was buried with those.”
“Not those specifically,” Bruce said, for a bit of dark humor. “Er. Yeah. The good and the bad. I even included some desert flowers from Nevada.” He smiled weakly, hoping it wasn’t too raw, too real. Tony turned to him and beamed.
“This is amazing. You’re astounding.” Tony pulled Bruce closer and kissed him. “A masterpiece for a viewership of two?”
“Actually, I don’t mind showing it off at the party…” Bruce said.
“You’d willingly bring a conversation starter? To engage people? With something personal about yourself?”
“I suppose when you put it like that, I can burn it.” Bruce made a move as if to grab the giant board, but Tony held him in place. “Obviously I’m not going to explain why there’s so many blood flowers scattered throughout, but...Yeah. I made it for us, about us, and I don’t care who sees it or who doesn’t. But...it would be nice, I think, if a lot of people did.”
“You exhibitionist,” Tony growled, his voice low and delighted.
Finally, the day arrived. Tony was bustling with energy, and Bruce wasn’t as eager to get it over with as he thought.
He still wasn’t thrilled being in a large hall filled with the wealthy, but he smiled at the absurdity at seeing them so human, guzzling drinks from the open bar even though they owned distilleries, getting into tacky drunk arguments where they thought no one could hear them.
“I’m thinking of storming the Bastille,” Bruce whispered.
“Baby, you’re part of the Bastille now,” Tony replied. Bruce pouted.
Rhodey--who was, in fact, Tony’s choice for best man--gave a speech that the screenwriters in the room were sure to steal. More speeches followed. People came over to say their congratulations and comment on the strange and interesting flower board. They seemed genuinely impressed when Bruce said he made it--and their genuineness was confirmed when Bruce overheard several people say that they wanted to make flower boards a new wedding trend. He bristled at first, but he’d expected such an outcome. If the flower board started making appearances at celebrity weddings until it trickled down to Pinterest boards, that was fine--they couldn’t hurt him. As long as he pushed them in the direction of environmentally-friendly sourcing.
Suddenly, he realized that Tony was nowhere to be found. Bruce assumed he’d been whisked off to discuss whatever it was business people discussed at weddings (probably oblique business stuff, nothing pleasurable). He didn’t mind at first, but then Tony’s absence grew longer. After Bruce did a quick round and some discreet questioning, Tony was still unaccounted for. Bruce didn’t panic. He simply excused himself and slipped away.
Tony was in the secret getaway library, slouched on the couch and reading a random book he’d grabbed from the shelves.
“Sorry,” Tony said, looking up. “I didn’t think I’d be here this long. I simply got caught up in...this thing.”
Tony held up a gorgeous book; Bruce smiled at the Albanian title. He sat next to Tony.
“It’s a bit much after a while,” Tony said, gesturing vaguely outside. “I’m surprised I ducked out before you.”
“Actually, I...I just came here to find you.”
Tony smiled as if that was all he wanted to hear. He was clearly in need of a distraction, in a language he could understand, so Bruce chatted about the more amusing parts of the night.
“Audrey’s talking to Kim and Kylie,” Bruce said, with a grimace.
“Oh no,” Tony groaned.
“It’s a dream come true for her. And my nightmare.”
“Sorry for being a bad influence.”
“Pepper will notice our absence soon.” Tony closed the book and made to stand up, but remained seated.
“We could...give her something to walk in on,” Bruce said shyly.
Tony gasped, mock-scandalized, “Dr. Banner! Bill Gates is here!”
“Or we could just go rejoin the party.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
Nevertheless, they sat in comfortable silence for a few more minutes, the book long forgotten, the wedding forgotten, everything forgotten except for each other.
Eventually, Bruce stood and helped Tony up, feeling Tony’s gigawatt charge return. Surprisingly, Bruce felt just as happy to go back and talk to people he didn’t particularly like, as long as Tony was there, and to go home at the end of the night, knowing that Tony would be there too. He looked forward to the lifetime of moments, both mundane or extravagant, that lay ahead of him, knowing that the ground was safe and stable beneath both of them.