On the Ides of March 2014, we selected for our project an unremarkable sophomore engineering student named Trevor Lee. Little did he know that he would become TEST SUBJECT 22: the breakthrough proof-of-concept for our years of research into cerebral reconfiguration. Twelve months later, despite no previous nor natural athletic inclination, Lee walked onto the University baseball team—remade as the ideal designated hitter, both in mind and body. As a result, the Dept of Athletics took keen interest in our continuation of the project, promising significant support and funding.
We knew right away that our immediate priority was to maintain our gift to the team. Lee would graduate by the end of the 2016 season. Therefore starting in the fall of 2015 we began building his replacement for the 2017 season. This time we recruited a freshman named Andrew Petit. At intake the asset—designated TEST SUBJECT 25—was a waif-like art history major. However, like SUBJECT 22, SUBJECT 25 now suffers from markedly reduced academic ability, and has had to switch to a General Education BS, with specially awarded credits in “applied hypertrophic sciences” from the Kinesthesiology Department.
Like SUBJECT 22, SUBJECT 25 acquired high-level visual motion-tracking, reflexes, and proprioception through our cerebral reconfiguration techniques. Subject was also given a high drive to pursue muscular hypertrophy, under the guidance of the baseball team’s strength coach, Mr. Terrazas. We programmed Subject with an absolute, emotionally-charged loyalty to Mr. Terrazas, whom Subject now sees as a father figure. Aided by our reprogramming of pituitary function to increase luteinizing hormone secretion, Subject made rapid gains in muscular development.
Further programming imprinted hitting coach Mr. Howard and head coach Mr. Burnett as additional father figures, who report perfect compliance, dedication, and “coachability” from Subject. Along with further guidance from SUBJECT 22—who served as a “big brother” figure in his training, SUBJECT 25 developed extremely rapidly towards game readiness. Subject was selected onto the team’s roster in December 2016, and had a moderately successful debut season by all relevant statistics. As of this writing, Subject will soon begin play in a summer collegiate league to continue his development, and will receive training in a fielding position.
The usefulness of interpersonal foci in our programming is now undeniable, and shall now be a part of protocol in future projects. We note as having profound reinforcing effect the private sessions which Subject shared with his mentors, which may be examined in our video archive.
As per Tony's request, Bruce has started writing down all of the snarky things that he keeps to himself every day. Once a week, the two of them go out to lunch and Tony laughs his butt off reading all of the comments.
‘Peter’ was so young that it almost hurt. As young as the ideals of friendship he’d thought would survive because they were forged in battle instead of realising they were little more than schoolyard ties and would melt given space or pressure. As young as he and Tony and Natasha had never been. As young as Client’s family. As young as Friday and Vision and the scars on Johannesburg and Sokovia and Lagos.
Bruce looked at him because it was easier than looking at Tony and seeing what had happened to him. Vision had been vague about the matter, vague and distant, distracted almost as though deeply wounded in a way they could not yet comprehend.
Peter looked back, squirmed, seemed to physically bite his tongue, squirmed again, and blurted, “I’m gonna get you some coffee, Mr Stark, okay? I’ll be right back I swear.”
He left with a certain inhuman speed and Bruce catalogued it at the back of his mind as a tick next to the series of questions surrounding his presence at Tony’s bedside.
“Hey, Big Green, aren’t you meant to be hiding out off planet? Haven’t we had this discussion seven times? Haven’t we agreed you aren’t safe here? We have. I’m sure we have. I know I didn’t imagine it. I know I didn’t make up the list of 239 reasons why you are safer NOT HERE.” Tony drew his gaze like the magnet he always was, tone pointed and sharp and a little relieved beyond that. “Why are you messing with the plan, Brucie-Bear?”
“Hi Tony,” he said, and sat on the chair beside the bed and looked. It was bad, then. Tony’s face was smashed, his eyes nearly shut, a tube down his nose and bandages around his torso. Even after New York and the wormhole, Tony hadn’t been like this. Not this cold. Not this pale. Not this - “Doesn’t sound like anyone is safe back here. Who is the child?”
“An intern,” Tony said too promptly. He was relieved not to be grilled on current affairs, that was obvious, and Bruce had time. Bruce would make sure they all had time. He could feel the dark primal rage of the Hulk growling approval - Hulk had always liked the Tin Man after all. “You’d like him. He’s clever and awkward and kind of like how I imagine a puppy would be if I’d ever had a puppy.”
“He’s the Spider boy, isn’t he?”
“SHHHT!” Tony grinned lopsidedly and made and show of glancing dramatically around the room. “Ix-nay on the Ider-spay! ”
Bruce grinned back and prodded a leg gently. “Pig Latin? Really? Why not just Latin?”
“I’ve had enough of people looking at me as though I’m speaking a foreign language, shall we say?”
There was a pause, long enough for Bruce to count the ways they had lost themselves.
“Did he get injured?”
“Of course he did, they weren’t pulling their punches.” But the answer hurt, and Bruce could see that and poked the leg again.
“He does the vigilante stuff himself, Tony. You didn’t exactly bring him into this out of obscurity.”
“That doesn’t -”
“Mr Stark! You told him??” It was the exclamation of a betrayed teenager, and Bruce watched with raised eyebrows as Spiderboy Peter stormed in with coffee cups galore and stood at the foot of the bed with arms akimbo - or at least as akimbo as they could be with all that coffee. “You promised!”
“Whoa, kid, he guessed! You can’t hold me responsible for the workings of Bruce’s lovely brain -” Tony blew him a kiss and Bruce nodded gracefully and accepted it as his dues. “He’s a genius. You’ll like him. Take a breath.”
Spiderboy Peter took a long shaky breath and then turned enormous sad - oh god they were like a puppy’s - eyes on Bruce himself. “Is it that obvious?”
“Not to a casual observer. You’re the same height, you move a fraction more quickly than expected and Tony would rather kiss Justin Hammer on the lips than have an intern in his hospital room no matter how fond of them he is.”
That got a quick smile and a disgusted ‘BRUCE! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU WOULD SAY THAT HOW COULD YOU!’ from Tony and a laugh out of the Spiderkid and Bruce felt a little loosening of the knot in his chest. Maybe there were some things that hadn’t been completely ruined yet.
BRO! Look what I found clubbin last night! This bro’s wearing one of Coach’s muscle growth necklaces! Someone from the team musta dropped it… Lookit, tho… Since he didn’t get it directly from Coach, nobody told him to only wear it 8 hours a day… So so it never stops drainin his mind.
I looked up his facebook. It says he’s a math major in the chess club, but there’s no way that’s true anymore. There’s like, nothing left inside his head. All his brains burned into gainz… His whole wall is just selfies of him flexing, huhuh. I had to hold his hand the whole way here so he won’t get lost. But he’s hella swole, ain’t he? When we bring him to Coach, I’ma ask if he can be my lil bro. From his baller shorts I know he’s already got my style.
Bruce tugged on the sleeves of the white jacket uneasily, keeping his head low as he navigated through the massive hospital looking for whatever white sterile room Tony had been hidden away in. There wasn’t anyone to help him this time. No Avengers to light his way home - he smiled morthlessly at the thought. Had he been so blinded by the novelty of their acceptance of both sides of him that he had allowed such fantastic hyperbole even in his own thoughts?
A phrase from a long time ago, from a neighbour’s television set as she babysat him - “whitewashed tombs”. That was what this was. This was digging under the pristine exterior and finding nothing but rot and worms and death.
No Pepper to offer advice except a sharp and grim ‘you stayed away too long, doctor.’ Nothing from the Colonel except a tired glare. Nothing from -
Nothing from JARVIS.
Just Friday, sending him coordinates as best she could. Just Bruce who was invisible in a white jacket. Just his rage and his fear and TONYTONYTONY why Tony why now why him why like this what had happened.
He turned a corner and found a door open and heard Tony’s voice, breathless and a little sharp with pain.
“I’ve always liked cacti. Green. Prickly. Resilient. Doesn’t matter when I forget to water them. Hey Peter, open the door for my friend, would you?”
“Sure, Mr Stark!” A far too eager young voice, a too too young voice and the door was swinging open wider and Bruce realised that he was expected perhaps after all and he didn’t know what he was going to say.
Prompt: ‘Just because I died doesn’t mean I’m really dead.’
He actually rather liked hospitals. They were a sign of a world where people did not die unnecessary deaths because of preventable, curable diseases or infections. He felt as though he could relax in a hospital, as though he could be somewhat sure that people were well cared for.
Tony was ruining hospitals for him.
Pepper had been by. She’d explained hastily that she couldn’t stay as long as she wanted to, someone had to keep the company bolstered through the uncertainty and the press were asking plenty of questions about where Mr Stark Iron Man was. She had looked frayed and older than she had been once, and Bruce had wanted to take her hand and assure her that no excuses were necessary, that he knew where her heart was - but she was so distant that she might as well have been in a separate room.
“Why did you leave him to do all this on his own?” She asked. “Why did you leave him with friends he couldn’t trust, with people who didn’t understand, with me, with them.”
She was a shard of glass, shattered and hurting and dangerous and beautiful. Bruce wondered what part of this she blamed on herself or if that was the lot of those who watched people like Tony from the sidelines.
She told him that Rhodey could not manage the trip yet but talked to Tony on the phone, defiantly as though it was her job to defend why he was so isolated. Vision was too recognisable. Peter was safe, Peter wouldn’t draw attention. She told him what was wrong, how Tony had suffered massive impact to his chest from a ‘large disk-like object’ that had destroyed the arc reactor completely and had stranded him in a dead Hydra Base in Siberia. How ribs had been broken and one had pierced his lung. How if he hadn’t been smart enough to get Friday to track him and ask Vision to come after him if her wasn’t back by a certain time then he would have died in the snow.
She didn’t blame Steve but he heard the anger in every word and he knew who was responsible in her mind.
Large, disk-like object.
She left, and Bruce took the time to shower and change into something nondescript before returning to Tony’s room. He was wondering if it was worth risking just asking Friday for the suit’s camera feeds when he realised the door was slightly ajar and voices -
“You promised me he was safe, Stark. This is not safe.”
“Hey, he was safe. This wasn’t my idea, Natashalie. I just thought I’d let you know before you run into him in the corridor and the two of you freak out and bring Ross down around our ears.”
Bruce’s first thought was that Tony must be monitoring the security camera feeds because there was no way he didn’t know that Bruce was outside right now. If that phrasing wasn’t a dry mix of ironic timing and subtle warning then Bruce would eat his socks (which he would hate to do as they were thermal and warm and had pictures of spaceships on them).
Bruce’s second thought was that Tony’s nicknames always meant something. ‘Brucie-Bear’, for instance, was some strange sentimental mix between either ‘teddy bear’ or ‘grizzly bear’ or just the alliteration and Bruce rather suspected that it was a reference to all three. With anyone else he’d have called the implication that the Hulk was anything like either a bear or a teddy bear painfully naïve, but Tony knew what he was doing. Tony always knew what he was doing. He didn’t always know what the outcome would be, but anyone who said he didn’t understand his own actions was delusional at best. Rhodey? He’d had a sweet tooth in college and when they’d first roomed together Tony had found a great way of getting his attention was to yell ‘Cupcake’. It had stuck. Pepper was because of her hair. Clint was generally some sort of fictional archer. After New York it had taken Steve months to be called anything but ‘Cap’ or ‘Capsicle’ or ‘Your National Holiday-ness’.
Natasha herself had told Bruce about Natashalie. Tony wouldn’t. Tony didn’t when he had been betrayed. Bruce wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t think he would be believed or if he just thought other people wouldn’t care, but he kept such things close to his chest and guarded them and learned from them, and wasn’t that one of the most brilliant and terrifying things about Tony? Natasha had told the whole ridiculous palladium-poisoning story with a dry tone, as though she didn’t see the big deal and Bruce had had to actually literally explain the impact of heavy metal poisoning on behaviour and mental capabilities before going and having a long stern conversation with Nick Fury about responsible people management. Natasha had later thanked him, had said it helped her understand better the difference between that Tony and the Avengers Tony.
Natashalie had passed and had been replaced by ‘Nat’ or just ‘Natasha’.
He’d seen enough in the news to have some idea as to why Tony might use that nickname again.
“This could all have been avoided if you hadn’t –“
“If I hadn’t what, Romanov? If I hadn’t what?”
“If you hadn’t let your ego drive you! You could have used my help, Stark!”
“You were being hunted, for god’s sake! I couldn’t take more chances than I was already goddamn taking! Do you have any idea how many risks I took going to the Raft and finding out where Rogers had gone? Any idea how many ways from here to the ends of the earth which is pretty darn close to Siberia this could have gone wrong with just me involved? We could both have been killed!”
“Instead of which only you were.”
Bruce barely heard Tony’s reply through the roaring in his ears.
“Just because I died, Romanov, doesn’t mean I’m really dead.”
Walk away. Walk away. Bruce moved on sluggishly, the tail of their conversation registering barely as he fought against a wave of grief and anger so fierce that he wasn’t sure if it was the Hulk or his own.
“As I said. This was avoidable.”
“Yeah. I know. I’m sorry too.”
Tony sighed and passed a hand over his face. “He’s gone. There were easier ways to tell him all that.”
“He deserves to know whom he should trust.” Natasha unfolded gracefully. “And who he should not.”
“You were trying to prevent loss of life, I’m not blind to that.”
“My point stands.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Bloody stubborn superheroes, when would he have normal everyday board members to deal with again? “Go hide out at the tower for a bit until I can get this mess sorted. Don’t go disappearing to unnamed countries where I definitely don’t know the others have gone to.”
She smiled a sharp sad smile and was gone before he’d finished speaking. Rude.
I just want Mikey to:
A. Be the most badass kickass ray of sunshine ever.
B. Be a great tragic big damn hero.
C. Be downright supernatural because we know Ciro will never really explain why Mikey was able to do all those WTF things that no one else could do. Be the most spiritual because Leo’s pedestal is still too high.
D. Be more beloved by his family. No more hard slaps to the head. More hugs. Fewer angery frowns. Better “good job Mikey, we underestimate you.” Actual emotional impact within the team. More hugs.
E. Fill in the blank. ____
F. PS, Electric Mikey totally could have stayed. They could have made it work. I’m still grumpy cat.
G. …. ??
H. B-TEAM SCIENCE BROS.
I. I should be sleeping. Mikey needs to empath me relaxed. Mikey should be therapeutic.