"So, word is, you're heading back to New York," Tony says. He's eating while he talks to Steve, popping some snack food into his mouth a piece at a time. Popcorn, or more dried fruit, maybe. Steve frowns down at the image on the little phone, and then, unable to help himself, looks around for someone who might be watching him. It's nothing but miles and miles of dusty highway, winding from town to town, close enough to the interstate that no one but Steve is currently using it. In the distance, dipping up over the horizon, he sees a pickup truck hauling a horse trailer.
"Look up," Tony chuckles. Steve doesn't, because he wasn't born yesterday. He arches an eyebrow at Tony.
"Satellites," Steve says. "You've been tracking me the whole time?" He's been on the road for about a month now, and it makes him uneasy to think that each little stop, each roadside diner and tiny motel, had been noticed and recorded.
"Relax, I wasn't tracking you." Steve doesn't relax, and Tony justifies his tension by continuing, "SHIELD was tracking you. They felt like maybe they should know where you are in case you get kidnapped by your new fans and murdered or something."
"They're not so bad," Steve says. "And I know how to deal with fans." He does, and folks have been pretty polite anyway, so mostly he signed some autographs and took a couple of pictures here and there, no big deal. It was the media attention that bothered him; journalists and photographers showing up in the strangest places, no doubt following tips and rumors, tracking him down at odd moments, in small towns and big cities alike.
It hasn't been quite the open road Steve hoped for. He wishes desperately that his face weren't known, that the Chitauri in the bank hadn't unmasked him. He didn't realize, at the time, what the consequences of standing in the street with his cowl off would be.
"Whatever, media darling. Anyway, I wanted you to know that you're welcome to bunk at Stark Tower if you need to get away from it all." He pops more food in his mouth, carelessly, chews while he talks. "Your apartment's on the ninety-eighth floor, keyed to your voice and retinal scan."
"I wouldn't get in your way, or Ms Potts'?" Steve's not exactly sure what the tower is for, but he assumes that it has uses other than as an apartment building for old superheroes.
"Nah, are you kidding? We're in Malibu most of the time anyway. And you have your own floor, so there's no one's way you could possibly get in."
Steve doesn't say anything to that, he's so busy calculating the square footage of an entire floor in Stark Tower and trying to convince himself that he heard wrong. The truck with the horse trailer roars by, stirring up dust and ruffling Steve's hair as he tries to come up with a way to reply. Tony appears to sense his hesitation, though he obviously doesn't understand the cause of it.
"And there's a pool, and a gym, and a library, and all the cars you could ever want to drive – not my personal collection, of course, but plenty of others – and, oh, the saunas – I have a masseuse and a chef on staff, you're welcome to – "
Steve cuts him off, unable to listen to any more. "Thank you for the offer, Mr Stark, but I don't need all that."
Tony rolls his eyes and sighs dramatically, then puts another bite or two of whatever-it-is in his mouth. "Oh, right right, I'm sure you don't even need to exercise to maintain your superpowered physique," Tony scoffs, clipping the K sound on physique, like it's an insult. "And you probably never get muscle cramps, and you can survive on air and sunshine or whatever, blah blah blah. God, Cap, I gotta get me a hit of that serum sometime."
Steve's spine straightens, unconsciously, and he purses his lips. He considers replying to this, setting Tony straight, but the idea passes in an instant: impossible. "I meant I'm fine with my apartment in Brooklyn," he says instead.
Tony quirks his eyebrows, as if to say your funeral. "Okay. Your funeral. But the offer's always open."
Steve thanks him again and ends the call quickly. He looks around to be sure, but there's no traffic for miles, so Steve pulls his bike slowly back onto the road and guns it up to speed again. With the wind against his skin and the sun beating down on his back, the blacktop empty in all directions, he can almost pretend that he's alone.
When he gets back to New York, Steve only lasts five days living in Williamsburg before he packs up again and heads, shamefaced, to Stark Tower. The people are nice enough, but they're a kind of rich that Steve doesn't know how to deal with, and the neighborhood is crowded and strange, with too many eyes on him all the time.
Since the Battle of New York he's had to wear his collar pulled up and his Mets cap pulled down wherever he goes, but even with that his neighbors are able to recognize him in a few seconds flat. He signs a few autographs and ruffles some kids' hair, and that's okay, he can do that, be Captain America for them. But when more people start showing up, and then the reporters, Steve can't handle it anymore. His next-door neighbor, who passes him in the stairwell as he carries his stuff down to the curb, looks relieved to see him go. One of Tony's cars picks him up, which seemed like a ludicrous expense to Steve when Tony's assistant suggested it, but now seems like the only logical course of action as Steve shoulders his way past camera flashes and autograph-seekers to fall into the dark, private space of the car's backseat.
Stark Tower is the opposite of his place in Williamsburg: quiet and empty, with hardly anyone in the building above the ninetieth floor. He still feels watched, but it's different, all cameras and robots, an antiseptic kind of observance that doesn't make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. An assistant shows him to what is apparently his floor, introduces him to the robot butler, and then that's it: his own apartment, complete with a fully stocked kitchen, three balconies, and more gadgets than he knows what to do with. He had thought, when Tony said "your apartment," he'd meant "an apartment I've put aside for you," and had expected something generic and somewhat empty, but when he looks around he finds out that it was actually stocked – maybe even designed – with him in mind.
Or some version of him, at least.
The fridge is full of boxes of powerbars and nutritional shakes, which is a pretty good idea, actually. Steve drinks four before realizing that he should make them last, and puts the fifth down regretfully. They're not bad, and he found on his trip that these new meal replacers can keep him going pretty well.
The front room is decorated in reds and blues, like a joke, Steve guesses. It's comfortable and relatively tasteful, anyway, even if Steve never has looked that good in red, and he figures he'll get used to it. Red and white and blue: he wonders if that's all that Stark sees in him, wonders if it's meant to be a shared joke or not.
In one room, the corner room with the best natural light, he finds an easel and a set of watercolor paints, which makes him feel equal parts touched and annoyed; touched, that Stark would've thought of his art – he didn't know that anyone even knew about his art – but annoyed, because he's never worked with watercolors in his life, and anyway, he didn't ask for this.
He'll buy himself some paper and pens and charcoal at the art supply store, though, it's nothing to get worked up about.
It also comes with access to the downstairs gym, which Steve is profoundly grateful for, since the job that he's ostensibly on retainer for with SHIELD – defending Earth against aliens and supervillains and such – turns out not to be much of a demand on his time, and at least beating on the bag can take the edge off. There's a common area too, a couple floors below Steve, but whenever he goes down there it's as still and quiet as his own apartment.
So he rattles around Stark Tower like the only pea in a pod and reads the internet a lot.
Tony eventually comes up to welcome him, when he's back from Malibu a week or so later.
"Settling in okay?" he asks, trailing his fingertips over the furniture, the few books Steve's got stacked neatly on the end table.
Steve shrugs, uncomfortable with the magnitude of his debt to Tony and the fact that Tony doesn't seem to care about it. "It's great. Thanks again for letting me stay."
"Don't mention it, it makes no difference to me." He glances up at Steve again, shrewd. "You know you can just ask JARVIS if you need anything, right? Or one of the human support staff, of course, Helen's pretty good – "
"I know," Steve says quellingly. "I'm fine."
"Right," Tony nods quickly. "Right, of course."
They were allies in battle, and Steve thinks they're probably friends now, but he doesn't know what to say to him, how to relate. They spend the next minute or so looking at different sections of the walls.
"You know Bruce is living here too, now, right?" Tony says eventually.
"Oh?" Steve doesn't know what he'd have to say to Dr Banner, either, but it is comforting to know that he's not the only one here.
"Yeah, big old superhero slumber party, really. I'm spending some time in New York to get some science done with him for SHIELD, work on the Chitauri bio-weapons and stuff."
"Ah," Steve says. "Is that dangerous?" He doesn't know how the Chitauri weapons were put together, but it wouldn't surprise him if their power sources were capable of taking out whole city blocks.
"Oh, sure, of course, but I live for danger," Tony smirks. "And Bruce – well, we all know Bruce can't be hurt. He's even less squishy than you are, Steve-o." He pokes one finger into Steve's chest, and Steve can't tell if it's friendly and playful, or intended as a taunt. Maybe it's both.
"Yeah," Steve agrees slowly, thinking back to that moment on the helicarrier when Dr Banner had confessed his attempted suicide. "I'm glad he's doing all right," he says.
"He's doing all right on the floor above yours, in fact, now that I finally talked him into moving in. So no loud music, okay? I don't want the Hulk crashing through my newly renovated tower."
Steve frowns. "You're kidding," he says.
"Yes, yes, of course I'm kidding. Bruce wouldn't hulk out at loud music. And the apartments are all soundproof anyway. Rock out as hard as you want."
Steve doesn't know what that means, so he says, "Okay."
Tony narrows his eyes. "You're a tough nut to crack, you know that, Rogers?"
Steve's somewhat taken aback; he's never thought of himself that way at all. "Sorry, I – sorry. I really am grateful for the place, Tony."
"Good, yeah, you said. Okay. I'd better get back to the lab, then, before Bruce blows anything interesting up without me." Then, before Steve can say much of anything else, Tony is gone, back to work, back to doing something useful for the good of the world, and Steve is alone again in his ironically red and blue sitting room. He picks up his laptop, sighing as he sits down gingerly on the dark red couch, and wonders if SHIELD will ever actually have a mission for him. He considers, once again, joining in with the rebuilding effort, hauling concrete or girders, but forces himself to set the idea aside.
He's too famous, now. His face is all over the internet. He would slow everyone down by bringing a media circus down on their heads. Better to wait for SHIELD, for an opportunity to work in his official capacity as Captain America.
But maybe he should take up some hobbies, just in case.
"Oh, you're back," Dr Banner says, a couple days later, when he finds Steve reading a book in the common area. He's carrying a steaming coffee cup and what Steve assumes is a science journal, and it looks like he wasn't expecting company. Tony must not have told him Steve was here, which seems . . . strange.
"Hi," Steve smiles, by way of agreement, and stands. "I am. Were you looking for privacy? I was actually hoping to run into you, but I don't want to intrude."
"Please," Dr Banner says, waving Steve to sit back down. "So long as you can resist the temptation to snap your fingers in my face and make me fix your math, we can probably share the space."
Steve smiles at this. "How is it, working with Mr Stark?"
Dr Banner sighs, but he doesn't look bothered. "It's great. He's just a bit . . . "
"High-speed?" Steve guesses, with a twitch of his lips. Dr Banner smiles slowly.
"Something like that. So sometimes I need a break. And no one comes here to the common area – I think Tony had some idea that the whole team would move in here, but so far it's only me." He leans his hip against the arm of the couch, but doesn't sit. "And now you, I guess?"
"Yeah, I – it seemed best. Secure facility and all. I got back from my trip last week, and SHIELD had set me up with an apartment in Brooklyn, near where I used to live, but it was too weird."
"It's changed a lot," Dr Banner agrees. "Or so I understand. I'm from Ohio."
"I was just in Ohio, on the way back to New York."
"How was it?"
"Pretty much the same as when I went through in the forties," Steve says, just to make him smile. Dr Banner obliges him with a soft chuckle. "I thought you were from the southwest somewhere."
"I went to school there, but I'm not – well." He purses his lips, and his gaze slides away from Steve. "The Hulk's from New Mexico. Maybe that's what you're thinking of."
"Huh," Steve says, taking this information in. "By that logic, you could say that parts of me are from below an antique store near Prospect Park."
Dr Banner hesitates, but Steve stays quiet and waits for him to speak. "You know, I got a travel grant to go to that antique store. When I was doing research on you – on the serum, I mean. I combed through what was left of the basement and the lab and questioned anyone who might've known anything about what went on back then. Looking for records, trying to figure out how to duplicate the experiment."
"Hot on my trail," Steve says. Dr Banner looks faintly uncomfortable.
"Well, you've found me now," Steve says. Dr Banner is still standing, leaning against the far arm of the couch, keeping his distance. "Here I am. You want to do any scientific experiments or anything?" He holds out his arm, baring the soft underside.
Dr Banner's eyes flick to the blue vein at the crook of his elbow, then back up to his face. "No," he says.
"You wanna sit down, then?" Steve gestures at the end of the couch. Dr Banner glances back at the chair behind him, but then sets his cup on the table and settles in gingerly next to Steve instead. Steve takes it as a victory.
"I promise I don't bite," Steve says.
Dr Banner laughs, getting more comfortable and opening his journal. "Thanks, Steve." He settles back, adjusting his glasses. "What's amazing is that you're so sure I don't."
Warmed by the kind, familiar use of his first name, Steve smiles. "I'm not sure of anything yet," he says slowly. "But there's only one way to find out."
Dr Banner – Bruce – makes a little humming noise. "Interesting," he says, and for a moment he does look interested in Steve, eyes bright behind his glasses, as if Steve is still the object of scientific fascination that had once driven Bruce to genetically alter and irradiate his own body.
Then he blinks, looks back down at his journal, and the intensity of the moment is broken.
They read together, quietly, companionably, for a long time, until Tony finally comes upstairs to figure out where his lab partner had gone.
Steve sees Dr Banner around the tower fairly often, reading or cooking in the common area, or sometimes in transit with a load of scientific equipment, halfway between experiments. He's not exactly a roommate – Steve has to laugh at the idea, given the sizes of rooms that he used to share with Bucky – but he's around, a warm, living presence amidst all the perfect, clean modern technology. They share the common room and read together sometimes, or play a hand or two of gin. Bruce is the most gracious loser Steve has ever met, which makes him suspect that he used to be a very, very bad one. Steve can't help but respect the kind of control and self-discipline that implies.
A couple weeks after Steve arrives, Ms Potts institutes a new policy: one shared household meal per week, when she and Tony are in town, his presence mandatory. She says it's because she needs to interact with humans who don't work for her, but Steve suspects it's also a way of prying Tony and Bruce from their lab and Steve from his rooms.
"There, isn't this perfectly lovely," she says, as they sit down together to the first one. She and Tony sit at the ends of the table, with Bruce and Steve, as the guests, facing each other on either side.
"It looks delicious," Steve supplies, into the somewhat awkward silence. "Did you – is this all your doing, Ms Potts?"
Ms Potts smiles into a sip of her wine. "Oh, you're so darling! Please, it's Pepper. And I'm flattered that you think I could be capable of this – " she waves her wine glass at the assembled dishes, all beautifully arranged and color-coordinated, " – but no, I had Thomas whip something up for us. You have met Thomas, right?"
Steve nods; the chef had introduced himself when Steve first arrived.
"It looks really great," Bruce says.
"Oh my god, let's stop talking about it and eat it," Tony whines. Steve almost laughs, and across the table Bruce cracks a smile, and the tension is broken, for the most part.
They all dig in, while Pepper talks about Stark Industries' assistance in the ongoing Rebuild New York efforts, and Tony talks about the work he and Bruce have been doing in the lab.
"And what about you, Steve?" Pepper asks. "What have you been up to, since you got back into town?"
Steve shrugs; looking down, he notices that he's cleaned his plate. "Not much, ma'am. Pepper." She smiles at him, and he smiles back, pleased. "I've been reading, you know, trying to catch up. But I'd prefer it if SHIELD had a little more for me to do, to be quite honest. It's . . . hard, to go out in public."
She nods. "You do seem to have become the face of The Avengers, I'm afraid."
"And here I never thought the media would get tired of my pretty face," Tony agrees cheerfully.
"Yeah, I can't think why everyone latched on to handsome young Captain America as the new superhero of note, rather than the government assassins, the missing alien demigod, or, uh, me," Bruce puts in. "For some reason no one chases me down Fifth Avenue for an autograph."
Pepper smiles at him fondly. "They don't know what they're missing," she says, which makes Bruce chuckle. Steve is fascinated by the white flash of his teeth, the way the wrinkles in his forehead smooth out a little when he laughs.
"Seriously, Steve," Tony says, and Steve sits up slightly; it's not often that Tony begins a sentence that way. "It doesn't help that you're so elusive. You should do more interviews."
"I guess," Steve says. That was what SHIELD PR had been telling him, too. He did one for the New York Times, and one for a nightly news program whose name he can't remember, and he'd hoped it would be enough. But both interviews were full of questions he didn't quite understand, language that wasn't quite right to him, and he felt like he still had a lot of studying to do before he could confidently represent anything, or even avoid making a fool of himself and the Avengers.
From across the table, Bruce just looks at him, not saying anything, as if Steve is some piece of technology that he's studying in the lab.
"Steve, can I serve you seconds?" Pepper asks. Steve smiles again.
"No thanks," he says. "It was delicious, though."
Bruce quirks an eyebrow, and his gaze finally drops back to his own plate.
"Let me speak with Deputy Director Hill," Pepper says. "It might be that she doesn't realize you're willing to come out for the smaller missions. It's not right that you should sit around here when you want to be working."
Steve smiles at her. Pepper seems like the kind of person who understands the need to work, and he's grateful for it. "I'd be happy to swab the deck, honestly."
Pepper grins. "I'm sure we can do better than that. But I'll tell her you said so."
A couple days later, Tony and Pepper head back to Malibu, and the tower feels emptier for it.
A day after Pepper and Tony leave, Deputy Director Hill calls him with a mission, and Steve reminds himself to send Pepper a thank-you note. Maybe on email, if he can manage to do it without breaking the machine.
He dresses quickly in his uniform and is running up to the helipad to meet the SHIELD helicopter – it's just a smash-and-grab with Natasha, nothing fancy, but he's excited anyway – when he literally bumps into Bruce. Steve's moving quickly, jogging around corners shield-first, and Bruce, he finds out, is coming the other way with an armful of . . . something. Something that was made out of glass. Steve, on the protected side of his shield, experiences it as a little jolt, but Bruce falls spectacularly backwards, flat onto the floor, glass already shattering around him.
"I'm so sorry," Steve says immediately, throwing his shield down and going to kneel at Bruce's side. A bit of glass cuts into his knee, marked by a bright flare of pain, but he ignores it. "Are you all right?"
Bruce blinks up at him. "I'm fine," he says. "Not going to hulk out, if that's what you mean."
"I – no, I meant, are you hurt at all? Cut?"
Bruce levers himself to a sitting position, checking himself carefully. "I'm not bleeding, so that's a plus. I think I landed before the glass did. But I don't think my blood would hurt you anyway."
Steve's eyes widen; he hadn't even considered Bruce's blood and its effects, though he's read about it in the SHIELD files. "Uh. Maybe we'd better decontaminate this area anyway, just in case."
Looking around, Bruce makes a face at all the glass, as if wondering how to pick it up without injuring himself. Before he can say anything, though, some tiny robots come out of suddenly-appearing mouse holes in the walls and start vacuuming up the shards.
"Protocol one," Bruce tells them, and they beep in acknowledgement. "That's so that anything they pick up goes in hazardous waste," he explains to Steve.
Steve nods. "I'm sorry I broke your glass . . . thing. I was in a hurry, and I guess I forgot that someone might be around that corner." He smiles apologetically. "It sometimes feels so quiet around here."
Bruce shrugs. "Tony can afford a new one." He looks at Steve, as if seeing him for the first time. His eyes rake up and down Steve's body, taking in the uniform. "Where are you off to all dressed up?"
Steve glances down at himself; the new uniform is pretty form-fitting, pretty bright, and it makes him feel conspicuous on the best of days. It feels good to wear out on a battlefield, fighting strange monsters and villains; inside a hallway next to an elevator, in the middle of a mundane domestic mix-up, it feels silly. Like it's a Halloween costume, and he's nothing but a kid playing around.
"I'm supposed to be meeting the SHIELD helicopter on the roof. I have a mission with Natasha."
Bruce looks around, placing his hands carefully so that he can get his feet under him. "Give me a hand up?"
Steve does, taking Bruce's warm hand in his and tugging him to his feet. Bruce lets go of his hand a little too slowly, and Steve takes a moment to wonder about it.
"I guess it's not the kind of mission you'd need me or Tony for?"
"Nah. Just a little thing. Subtle."
Bruce's eyes flick up to the little wings on the side of Steve's head, as if to point out the extreme lack of subtlety involved in draping yourself in the flag before going out to fight bad guys. "You know, I haven't really seen you in the new uniform with the cowl up before. It was pretty dirty and torn up by the time I de-hulked last time."
Steve spreads his arms and squares his stance. "Well, here it is. If nothing else, it's pretty distracting."
Bruce quirks his eyebrows. "I bet," he says. He wets his lips, maybe unconsciously, and it makes Steve feel a little warm under the cowl. "I like it. It's very – nostalgic. While maintaining that modern sex appeal aspect."
Steve laughs nervously. "I promise the sex appeal aspect was a consideration when they originally designed it, too. It was just as tight back then."
"Hmm," Bruce says. "I remember."
He looks down, taking in Steve's boots, and notices the spot of Steve's blood on the floor. The bots haven't quite gotten to that area yet.
"Oh, shit," he says. "Be careful, I might be cut after all."
"No, no," Steve says. "That's mine. When I knelt down next to you."
Bruce crouches down to look again at the spot of blood, then notices the tiny cut at Steve's knee. "Oh, ouch," he says.
"It's nothing," Steve says. "I didn't even feel it."
Bruce rises slowly from his crouching position. Standing up straight, he's not eye to eye with Steve, not by a long shot, but he still seems solid, a powerful presence in his own right. When he speaks, it's without his usual deference or detachment, as if he's forgotten to be cautious for a moment.
"Yes, you did. Why would you lie about that?"
Steve blinks in shock. "I – really, it's nothing. The serum – "
"The serum gave you heightened sensory perception. It goes along with the hearing and the vision and the sense of balance. You feel pain more acutely than most people."
Steve sighs. "I guess I do. You'd be surprised how many people don't want to hear that, though."
Bruce hesitates, then says, "I want to hear it."
"Because you studied me?" He tries not to sound accusatory. Bruce looks uncomfortable anyway.
"It's more – I don't know. I don't like the idea of SHIELD or whoever using you like an unbreakable action figure."
Steve smiles at him. "I am pretty unbreakable, Bruce."
Bruce's expression softens. "So am I. I know what it's like."
It hits Steve then, the horror story that Bruce has lived, the unbreakability that's probably felt like a curse rather than a blessing. The negative sides of the serum enhancement with which Bruce is all too familiar. "Oh," he says.
"Just – watch yourself, okay? Don't let them take too much. You're not a military asset."
"I'll remember that," Steve promises. They stand together for a long moment before Steve breaks the silence. "I guess I'd better go meet my helicopter, though."
"Right," Bruce agrees, stepping aside to give him access to the elevator. "Give 'em hell, Cap'n."
Steve tosses him a salute as he goes.
The look of surprise and gratitude on Bruce's face when he does it stays with Steve the whole mission.
To Steve's surprise, he starts seeing Bruce in the gym sometimes, usually at night, when the rest of the tower is dark and quiet. There's nothing odd about that in itself, Steve tells himself; there's no reason Bruce shouldn't want to work out, and the late hour makes sense. Steve imagines that Bruce's genetic enhancements might make him prone to late nights, light sleep, and nervous energy. Or else that he's chased out of bed by dark thoughts, anxieties, nightmares.
Steve can sympathize with either possibility.
So it makes perfect sense that he would come down here, the way Steve does, to kill time or energy or demons. Steve's seen him running on the treadmill, grimacing, his eyes focused on some distant point, and wonders if it's a carefully applied substitute for the kind of running that Dr Banner has to talk himself out of doing every day, like a man ruthlessly chewing gum to kick a cigarette habit.
What Steve doesn't quite understand is why Bruce would intentionally time his visits to the gym to coincide with Steve's. It might be that they both tend to come down around the same time, but Bruce is almost always there when Steve is. Maybe he likes the company; but then, they never talk. They barely acknowledge one another.
Or maybe, Steve reflects bitterly, it's just odds: he spends a lot of time punching the bag, trying not to spend his time alone with his thoughts, and Bruce is bound to come in when he's here.
This particular night, as he works the speedbag, Steve notices something out of the corner of his eye; more a feeling than an observation, but as he pauses to steady the bag and get ready for another go, he lets himself glance over, and his feeling is confirmed.
Bruce is watching him.
It's possible, Steve realizes in that moment, that Bruce has been watching him this whole time, as they work out in the same giant gym space, saying nothing, simply existing in the room together. He's not obvious about it, but once Steve has seen it, he sees it again and again.
Bruce's eyes on him, surreptitious, fleeting, as if he can't help himself, even though he wants to.
Steve's no stranger to attention, whether sexual, envious, scientific, or military, and while he's fairly sure Dr Banner's attention isn't about the last, he does wonder whether it's one of the first three. He makes himself finish, taking his time, running through his usual routine. Now that he knows what's happening, he feels it every time Bruce looks at him, along with a strange small wave of satisfaction. There's something flattering in Bruce's attention, that his quick mind would choose to settle on Steve for any length of time. Steve can't help but be curious.
When he finishes his workout, he walks over to where Bruce is doing yoga, pushing his body into what Steve assumes must be a difficult pose. He's distracted for a moment, wondering whether it would be difficult for his own body to copy the movements; probably not, but it might be interesting to try. A change of pace.
He shakes it off and asks what he came over to ask. "I noticed you," he says, bluntly. "Watching me while I was working out." He tries not to make it a challenge, though from the fleeting wince that passes across Bruce's face, he's not sure he was entirely successful. He feels awkward, has to stop himself from fidgeting where he stands, but in the end Steve would rather clear the air than let the question gnaw at him.
Bruce breathes out slowly, brings his body back to a simple sitting position, and meets Steve's eyes. He's wearing a plain grey t-shirt and loose black pants, but he could be wearing a tie and a lab coat and holding a clipboard, he projects such an air of detached intelligence.
"Yup," he agrees. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be obvious about it. Does it bother you?"
"Not particularly," Steve returns. "But I, uh, wanted to know why. Is it – a scientific interest?" This idea discomfits him; he never particularly liked being a lab rat.
"I'm not much interested in pursuing that particular line of research any further," Bruce says dryly, and Steve gives him a smile.
Bruce opens his mouth for a moment, then closes it, then shrugs. Eventually he just says, "You're beautiful."
Oh. Steve has heard this plenty of times, since taking the serum, from fans and chorus girls, waitresses and bartenders, the occasional bright-eyed young serviceman. He still remembers Howard and Dr Erskine and Peggy all crowding up around his body when it was new, like he had suddenly become magnetic. Since then he's grown into himself a lot, but compliments still don't touch him deeply.
"Thank you," he says perfunctorily.
"I don't mean, you know, your body," Bruce waves his hand vaguely in Steve's general direction. "I mean, you are physically beautiful, very symmetrical and everything, but that's not interesting." He stands up, not at all smoothly despite the yoga, every inch the unassuming middle-aged scientist. "But the way you use your body, the way you move it, the way you inhabit it – that's very beautiful. I always thought so, when I – you know. Saw you in the old movies." Bruce shrugs. "But it's different in real life. You're different."
Steve feels himself blushing. The emotion that comes along with the sensation – some heady mix of pleasure and self-consciousness – is surprising in its intensity.
Bruce is still looking at him, cataloguing this reaction, not turning away or trying to hide even though he seems a little sheepish about being caught. He leaves a gap in the conversation, a pause in case Steve would want to say anything, but Steve can't think of what to say, and after a moment Bruce brushes past him, slowly, to survey the equipment on the other side of the gym.
"I was kind of curious about your workout, though." He prods one of the now-useless heavy bags on the floor with his foot. "Given your strength, the things you're capable of, I can't really imagine that any of this is tiring for you."
Steve's blush fades; so it is scientific interest, then, at least in part. Dr Banner is interested in Captain America's physical limits.
"They did plenty of tests on me back during the war when I went through the procedure," he says. "I'm sure you could look up the reports."
Bruce chuckles. "Oh, I read the reports, believe me," he says, and Steve is reminded of what he said that day in the common room, about how he'd tracked down every last reference to Steve and to the serum. "I know, uh, how much you can bench press. I didn't mean it like that. I meant – " and now he looks back at Steve, suddenly unsure, biting his lip and clasping his hands in front of him. "I meant, how does it feel to you. To not get tired, to not have limits."
There's a long pause. Steve licks his lips, takes a breath, but when he opens his mouth again Bruce interrupts him.
"You know what, I shouldn't have asked; I'm sorry. I've made you uncomfortable."
He does seem genuinely sorry, so Steve takes a few steps forward, closing the gap between them. "No, you haven't," he says. "I just don't know how to answer that question. No one's ever asked me before."
"Poor qualitative science," Bruce says. "They should've."
"I'll think about it," Steve says. "But – you haven't made me uncomfortable. I like having your, uh. Company. In the gym."
It's a non sequitur, but Bruce takes it in the spirit it was intended and offers him a small smile in response.
"Then maybe I'll see you tomorrow. Steve," he says, and Steve nods.
But Steve never makes it to the gym the next day, as he's too busy infiltrating a secret HammerTech facility, and stealing secret HammerTech files, and fighting secret HammerTech drones in order to make his way out. There's a giant fire-breathing tank-robot, along with an awful lot of little fire-breathing tank robots, and by the end of it Steve is exhausted, singed, a little beat up, and completely soaking wet from the fire suppression system.
"Get some rest, Cap," Natasha says, as she drops him off on the Stark Tower helipad. "I think we'll need you again next week, after Maria's followed up on the files you got us today."
"All right," Steve agrees. It's good, at least, to be doing good; Hill had explained that this raid would shut down the majority of HammerTech's illegal weapons dealing, and that's work worth doing. He's had far too much downtime recently, too much time to brood.
"You gonna be okay?" she asks, looking at him more closely. "You look – tired." She says the last word doubtfully, as if she's not sure it's a term that can ever apply to him. He straightens his back.
"Of course," he says, tossing her a smile. "Nothing a shower and a hot meal won't cure."
Her expression is flat, and he gets the sense, as he often does from her, that she's not buying it for a minute, but she doesn't say anything about it.
"Okay, Steve," she says, more softly. "Look after yourself."
Steve plans to; there are still a bunch of powerbars in his kitchen, and if he eats them fast enough, maybe with some juice, he should be fine.
When he walks off the elevator and into his apartment, though, it already smells good, like cooking onions. Confused, half-imagining some supervillain scheme that involves breaking into his home and cooking him dinner, he proceeds to the kitchen and finds Bruce at the stove. He's standing over three pans, all full of something bubbling and delicious-smelling, wielding a spatula and cursing softly as he turns down the heat.
Steve clears his throat.
"Oh, hey!" Bruce says. "I hope you don't mind, I thought you'd be tired after the mission."
"So you broke in to cook – is that eggs?"
"Eggs, sausage, black beans, zucchini, red peppers, onion, salsa, a ton of cheese," Bruce replies, still poking at the pans. "I'm making breakfast burritos. Sit down and drink your milkshake."
Bemused, Steve sits at the kitchen table, where a giant frosty glass is waiting with a straw already poking out of it. He takes a cautious sip; it's chocolate peanut butter, the kind he always gets at the diner down the street, when he can bring himself to venture outside. He looks up at Bruce questioningly.
"I asked JARVIS what you liked," he says, frowning apologetically.
Just then Steve's body starts clamoring for more sugar-fat-protein, and he inhales half of the milkshake before replying. "This is great," he says, amazed. "How did you – SHIELD called me in at four this morning – " He hadn't even left word with JARVIS that he'd be gone.
"Four yesterday morning, actually. It's two a.m."
Steve glances up at the clock on the wall and sees, blearily, that it's true. He was working his way through the HammerTech facility for at least nineteen hours. He drinks down the rest of the milkshake, and only has a few seconds to regret finishing it so quickly before Bruce pulls another one from the fridge and sets it in front of him.
"When you didn't show up for our date at the gym, I wondered where you were. JARVIS said you'd received a call from SHIELD."
"It was a date?" Steve asks without thinking. The moment the words are out of his mouth he wants to pull them back in, pluck them physically out of the air and stuff them back inside his mouth where they can't do any harm. Bruce glances down at the floor, then turns back to the stove.
"Well. You know what I mean. I just wondered, and when I realized you were out on a mission I figured you'd be hungry when you got back. And I figured you wouldn't call Thomas."
Steve's second milkshake is gone, and he's feeling steadier. "That was – really thoughtful," he says. "But this is too much, Bruce."
This makes Bruce turn back to him, a curious light in his eyes. "You mean you can't eat all of this? Or that you shouldn't?"
Steve sighs. "I can get by on very little, actually. I didn't have a personal chef during the war."
Bruce looks at him for a long moment, until Steve starts to feel uncomfortable. He wishes he had some milkshake left so that he could break the tension by taking a sip. He toys with his straw, looks down at the table.
Bruce sets a third milkshake down in front of him. "It's okay. I already know what your body needs," he says, soft and confident. Steve wants to shiver, and not from the cold of the ice cream. "I did the math on your optimal caloric intake twenty years ago, okay? You don't have to deny yourself, or hide it."
Steve sighs, but dutifully picks up the milkshake and takes a sip. "I know that," he says. "I know. It's . . . it's a habit. The burritos smell delicious. Did I tell you they're my new favorite food?"
Bruce smiles. "You did. Last week."
"No utensils, and everything you need is right there in the burrito. It's perfect."
"They'll be done in about five minutes," Bruce says. "I started them when JARVIS said a SHIELD helicopter was approaching."
"Okay," Steve nods. "I'll take my milkshake and go have a shower, then."
On the way by, he squeezes Bruce's shoulder, trying to put all of the emotion he feels into the gesture. He's too much of a coward to turn around and look at Bruce's reaction to the touch.
He puts away four breakfast burritos – his new favorite variety of his new favorite food – before he starts to fall asleep. Bruce finishes one burrito in that time, and pokes Steve awake just as he's about to fall into his plate.
"Guess you do have limits after all," he jokes quietly.
"Yup," Steve drawls, blinking. He should be embarrassed for passing out like this in front of Bruce, or ashamed, but he's too tired to muster up the emotion. "Coulda told you."
"Better get to bed," Bruce suggests.
"Thank you, Bruce," Steve says, as sincerely as he can. "This meant a lot to me."
The half-smile that Bruce gives him before he leaves is hesitant but genuine. "Anytime."
He sleeps a solid eight hours and wakes up feeling refreshed, not draggy like he usually does after a long mission, and thanks Bruce again silently. He spends the day drawing, watching movies, waiting in anticipation for the moment when he can go down to the gym and see Bruce again.
He's got it bad, he figures. Now if he only knew what it is he's got.
That night, when he goes to the gym, it's empty, everything quiet and gleaming. Steve walks over to the bank of treadmills and runs his palm over the handrail of the one Bruce usually uses. It's cold, of course, and doesn't remember Bruce's presence.
Steve doesn't use them; he likes to run outside, a few laps around Central Park or down along the river. No one usually bothers him, or even recognizes him, if he's running fast enough. Bruce obviously prefers a controlled environment, buried inside the tower, strapped to a machine that will exercise his body in private.
The treadmills are pointed toward a giant television screen that hangs from the ceiling, but Steve has never seen Bruce turn it on.
Biting his lip, not sure exactly what he's doing, Steve picks up Bruce's usual treadmill and turns it about sixty degrees, until it's facing the area with the heavy bag where Steve usually works out. Then he goes to wrap his hands and get started.
Bruce comes in about ten minutes later, and takes all of two seconds to notice the new orientation of the treadmill. This time when he looks up at Steve, Steve looks back, still punching the bag. He forces himself to keep looking, even though Bruce's gaze is intense and frankly evaluative; a moment later Bruce's expression breaks into a small smile and he gives Steve a quick nod before stepping up onto the treadmill. Steve nods back, then faces the canvas again, not letting himself look at Bruce, letting Bruce look at him.
They don't talk; Bruce walks and runs while Steve works the bag, and then Bruce cools down with some breathing exercises and starts his yoga routine while Steve pumps iron, hits the speed bag, runs through some calisthenics, and then does some pushups.
Whenever Steve looks up from what he's doing, Bruce is almost always watching him. It feels good, that gaze, like sun on his skin, like he's being weighed and measured and found . . . beautiful, was the word Bruce had used, like Bruce was carefully calculating Steve's beauty. As if Bruce's interest was neither sexual nor scientific but something precariously balanced between the two.
When Bruce is finished, he stands up and collects his stuff, towel over his shoulder, water bottle in hand, but when he turns toward the door, he hesitates. During the three seconds that Bruce stands there, unmoving, Steve's breath catches in his throat, and he holds plank position between one pushup and the next. Then the moment of hesitation is over, and Bruce is walking towards him. Steve sits up on his knees, but doesn't get to his feet. It makes him feel self-conscious to be kneeling while Bruce stands, but it also feels good, familiar, to have to look up at someone. He does, tilting his chin upwards and meeting Bruce's eyes.
Bruce is holding his water bottle with one hand and has his other hand clenched in a fist at his side; when he steps into Steve's space, though, his fist slowly unclenches, perhaps requiring conscious effort on Bruce's part, and comes up to ruffle through Steve's hair. Steve licks his lips.
"Thanks for the company," Bruce says. His voice is soft, confident, belying the hesitation of his hand.
"Anytime," Steve replies.
Bruce draws his hand back slowly, his fingers trailing down behind Steve's ear and brushing his shoulder lightly, very lightly, only for a second or two, before offering Steve a half-smile and turning to go. It's a friendly gesture, platonic but oddly intimate, and Steve, still kneeling on the mat, can feel it against his skin long after Bruce leaves the gym.
Steve is still thinking about that touch the next day, and the day after that, and so he goes out for long runs rather than going down to the gym, trying to give himself space to think about what it means to him. With every thud of his stride against the pavement he feels something inside himself beginning to shake loose, something huge and warm and terrifying. As a consequence, or – if he's being honest – as an intended result, he doesn't see Bruce except in passing, when Bruce is making himself tea in the communal kitchen, or when Steve joins Bruce and Tony and Pepper for their weekly dinner. Natasha is there too, this time, as is Tony's friend Jim Rhodes, and while that makes the conversation considerably less awkward, it also means that Steve and Bruce don't have much of a chance to talk.
It's just as well, Steve thinks, when Bruce leaves the dinner party first. He wouldn't know what to say, anyhow.
"I'm sorry," Bruce says to him the next morning, when they run into each other in the communal sitting room, five days after he ran his hand casually down over Steve's shoulder, five days after Steve looked up at him from his kneeling position and experienced the sensation of their bodies touching. He glances down at Bruce's hand, and notices that it's reformed itself into a fist; he's clenching his fingernails into his palm, and his thumb is rubbing nervously over his knuckles. Steve is swept by compassion, and with regret for not saying something to him sooner.
"What for?" Steve asks, setting down his smoothie.
Bruce shrugs tightly. "Touching you. Making you feel that the gym wasn't your space anymore." Thumb moving back and forth over white knuckles.
"That isn't what happened," Steve protests. Bruce's fist doesn't unclench, but he does stop his fidgeting.
"No?" He sounds disbelieving, like he thinks Steve might be lying to him to spare his feelings. Steve thinks for a minute. He's not sure what words he wants to say to Bruce, or how to explain what he's thinking without it sounding strange.
Without it sounding queer, Steve thinks, and sighs inwardly. He doesn't know how to do this; the world has changed, and all the old codes and passwords don't work anymore. Time was he could just drop a word or two and the fella would understand him.
Time was he didn't have lost loves and lost decades weighing him down, either, making him hesitant to speak and slow to trust, driving him out into the streets instead of down to the gym where he might encounter Bruce again.
"Bruce," he says, taking a deep breath, "do you want to go to the museum with me?"
There's a show on at the Met that Steve's been wanting to see, so they take the subway down to 86th Street and walk a few blocks over to Fifth Avenue. With his collar up and his cap pulled down – and, maybe, with Bruce at his side to scare people away – he doesn't get stopped, which is a nice change. It's good to feel somewhat anonymous in New York again, able to take in the new shapes of the buildings and the crisp scent of the air while he strolls slowly through Manhattan.
There's no snow on the ground yet but it's cold outside, a bitter wind blowing between the buildings. Bruce puts up the collar on his jacket, but it doesn't look very warm.
"Did you want my coat, Doc?" Steve asks, smiling sidelong. He means it; he's wearing a thick wool greatcoat he found in his closet at Stark Tower, and it's more than he needs. Bruce cracks a smile – over the course of their subway ride he'd loosened up a lot, his fist gradually unclenching on his knee – but shakes his head.
"Nah, I'm good. I don't really get that cold, since . . . " he ends the sentence with a shrug, because his life is dominated by one major event, separated into a before and an after. When Bruce Banner says "since" in that way, there's only one thing he can mean.
"Me neither," Steve replies, shrugging. "Since." He offers Bruce a tentative smile and feels a small thrill at seeing it returned, superhuman to superhuman.
Once they get into the museum and pay their admission, Bruce looks at Steve expectantly. "So what are we going to see?"
"It's a Matisse exhibit," Steve explains, leading them toward it.
"Right, okay," Bruce says, nodding. "I guess that was big in your time?"
Steve shrugs. "I wasn't the biggest Matisse fan. Give me the surrealists or the muralists any day. But this exhibit is about his process, how he revised and reinterpreted his own work all the time."
"And you like seeing the process?" They walk into the exhibit hall and are surrounded by the sudden shock of Matisse's colors, rich rusty reds and yellows, cool blues and greens, dotted here and there with the sepia or black of an early or uncompleted sketch.
"I like seeing how art is made," Steve agrees. "All the steps that go into it." He pauses to think, then adds, "the way it's gradual, and slow, and difficult."
Bruce gives him a glance out of the side of his eye, but doesn't respond.
They wander around for a while, and Bruce turns out to be a good art gallery companion: interested, fairly knowledgeable, happy to ask Steve questions when he doesn't know something and to speculate wildly when neither of them know. Steve finds himself laughing, more than once, at Bruce's fabricated explanations of the paintings' histories, amazed by the feeling of the laughter inside of him.
They pause in front of one called Laurette Seated in a Pink Armchair. Laurette is staring at the painter, frank and knowing, and something about it draws Steve in. Matisse doesn't usually capture this much personality in his human faces, not in finished pieces. It's part of why Steve likes his sketches and works in progress so much better.
"We saw another painting with her, right?" Bruce asks. Steve nods.
"Laurette. Matisse painted her over twenty five times within a couple years, I think. She was apparently quite a character; used to stand naked at the open window between sessions. The police in the station across the street would come to their window to stare at her."
Bruce turns away from the painting to give Steve an interested glance. "You know a lot about Matisse and his models for someone who's not much of a fan."
Steve smiles. "Well, I knew his son. Pierre. He had a gallery here in New York, and talked about his dad a lot. He used to let me in for free to sit and look at the paintings, when I could get to Manhattan."
There's a beat before Bruce speaks.
"And why would he let you do that?" Steve can already see the wheels turning behind Bruce's eyes. He's so quick, so deadly, his mind like Steve's body, able to solve any problem set for it. Steve gives him the information he needs to put the pieces together.
"Why would any sophisticated artistic fella let any small, delicate-looking guy with limited resources do anything?" Steve replies. "Used to give me a little money, too, when he'd had a sale and was feeling generous. I liked him."
They walk together to the next wall of paintings. Bruce doesn't say anything. These ones are a pair of nudes, Seated Nude and Nude With a White Scarf. Steve can't take his eyes off the shading on the thighs, dark intense smudges.
Bruce speaks, interrupting his reverie. "The thing about nudes," he says, "is that I don't quite understand them in the context of art. Are they supposed to be sexual? Am I supposed to be turned on? Or should I be admiring them purely aesthetically? It doesn't make sense to me."
"There's something about putting naked pictures on a wall for everyone to admire in public that gets pretty confusing," Steve agrees. He's drawn a few nudes in his day, but he only ever showed them to the subjects themselves. It had seemed too private – not the nudity itself, but the admission that he'd looked at someone that way, in order to draw them. Carol, from the chorus line. Jack Fury. Bucky. He'd never had the opportunity to draw Peggy. But they all had revealed more of himself than of his subjects, revealed the way he'd seen them and desired them.
"Yeah," Bruce says slowly. "If it's not pornography, if it's something more personal or, or artistic, then is it wrong to look at them like they're sexy?"
"These were called pornographic at the time," Steve muses. "Pornographic and disgraceful. Not because they were nudes, obviously, but because of the way they were portrayed. The brushstrokes were pornographic, the lines, the colors." He raises his hand and waves it as if over the lines of the painting in front of them, following the curves of the model's body from three feet away. He has a deep urge to touch it.
In Paris they had jeered at Matisse's Woman With a Hat, scratched at the paint with their fingernails to try to destroy it.
Bruce shakes his head. "There's a reason I went into science, I guess."
Steve can't help laughing under his breath. "You understand better than you let on, Doctor. It's not about the content, but the context. The method. Applying a different method to the same content yields a different result."
Bruce is silent for a moment. Steve notices that he's watching Steve's hand moving in the air, rather than the painting itself. "You think these models felt exploited? Or felt like prostitutes?" he asks.
Steve shrugs. "Maybe some of them did. Some of them didn't. Some probably were prostitutes, of course, but they might not have thought of this in the same way."
"Context, huh." Bruce takes a step that brings him closer to Steve, not demanding, but definitely offering his proximity, an invitation for Steve to close the gap between them.
"Context and method. And consent. Laurette posed for Matisse a lot. You have to imagine she got something out of it."
"Maybe she liked being looked at," Bruce suggests.
Steve takes a step sideways, so that his arm is pressed up against Bruce's shoulder. They're alone in this section of the gallery, for the moment, so he lets his fingers curl around Bruce's hand and then squeezes briefly before letting go.
"Maybe she liked being seen."
When they get back to the tower, Bruce reaches out, reaches out for Steve for the first time in days, and grips his arm gently, just above the elbow.
"Thanks for taking me to the gallery," he says.
"Thanks for coming with me."
After that things get easier, and Steve goes back to the gym in the evenings. He moves the treadmill carefully, in anticipation of Bruce's arrival, but it takes Bruce a few days to join him.
Steve doesn't mind. He can wait.
When Bruce does show up, he notes the position of the treadmill and, with a hot, anticipatory glance at Steve, gets on it.
Steve enjoys the workout, his dick half-hard in his sweatpants the whole time as Bruce watches him, as Bruce sees him work without sweating and punch without tiring. He imagines that Bruce must know every muscle of his body by now, the way his back flexes under his t-shirt and the way his feet move on the mat. He imagines that Bruce can see right through his skin, even, to the blood and muscles below, the organs and impulses that make him go.
This time when Bruce finishes his exercise he walks directly over to Steve, who's doing situps, and crouches down next to him. Steve stops his workout and sits up all the way, waiting for Bruce to speak.
Bruce clears his throat, nervous maybe. "I enjoyed this," he says eventually.
"Yeah," Steve agrees. "It was good to have the company again."
Bruce moves as if to touch Steve, reaches out towards Steve's shoulder or maybe his face, but then pulls back again instantly, aborting the gesture. Steve doesn't think about it; he lets himself move as fast as he can, lightning-fast, and takes Bruce's hand in his before he can pull away completely.
They hold hands lightly, easily, mostly just brushing fingers, as if halfway to a handshake.
"Will I see you tomorrow?" Steve asks. Bruce is looking down at their hands, transfixed.
"Yeah," he says. He tightens his grip, stilling Steve's hand, and rubs his thumb slowly and deliberately over Steve's knuckles. He looks up again, making eye contact. "Yeah."
"Good," Steve breathes.
And then Bruce is standing, leaving, and Steve thinks he has a lot more situps to get through before he'll be able to sleep.
The next day SHIELD calls him in for the first time in weeks. The briefing is ridiculous but mundane: a swarm of gamma-irradiated raccoons is attacking Boise, having escaped from a secret facility – also in Boise, apparently – where someone had been trying to copy Bruce's gamma research using animal test subjects.
"But why raccoons?" Steve can't help asking. Hill looks at him for a long annoyed moment.
"If you want to read the long-form report, sir, there is information on the exigencies of the facility's research practice . . . "
Steve holds up a hand, cutting her off. "So I go and kill a bunch of hulked-out monster raccoons?"
"We go and kill a bunch of hulked-out monster raccoons." Bruce's voice comes from the doorway behind him. Steve hadn't even known he was on the helicarrier.
He swivels in his chair and offers Bruce a smile. "Just the two of us?"
"You and Doctor Banner are the only ones we're sure are immune to the effects of gamma-irradiated blood," Hill explains. "And we're not sure the raccoons can't pierce body armor with their teeth."
"Terrific," Steve sighs. He's going home covered in glowing raccoon bites for sure.
By the time the briefing is over they're hovering over the right section of Idaho; apparently Boise has now been mostly evacuated by SHIELD and the Army, though some citizens remain locked and trapped in their houses. Steve pulls on his parachute and averts his eyes as Bruce starts calmly stripping down in the launch bay.
Not that Steve hasn't seen him naked before. When Bruce turned back into himself after the Battle of New York, his pants were – irretrievable. But it feels different now than it did then, even though Bruce is no more concerned about his nakedness. Maybe if you've spent five years of your life as the Hulk you stop thinking of public nudity as the most embarrassing thing that can happen to you.
When Steve turns back Bruce is wearing black spandex pants that come down to his knees; they don't leave much to the imagination. Bruce catches his gaze.
"Seems only fair that you'd get to watch me back," he says, softly, so that none of the nearby SHIELD agents are likely to hear.
"Yeah," Steve says, his voice thick. Bruce is stout and strong, pretty hairy by modern standards, though it wouldn't have been anything worth mentioning in Steve's time. He clears his throat, trying to think of something to say other than nice chest, sailor. "Anything I should know about these raccoons that wasn't covered in the briefing?"
Bruce grimaces, looking out towards the bay doors, which are now opening. "Gamma-irradiated mammal subjects that reach stage three of gamma poisoning are typically wild, out of control, unable to think clearly or to work cooperatively. They're easily lured into traps – though you might not have any time to construct one, and the Hulk won't be a lot of help with that. They might swarm us, but it'll be incidental; they don't work together."
Steve nods, and considers. "Typically? Did you work with animals in your experiments? Before . . . "
Bruce shakes his head no, then stops to consider. "Well. We had mice. We'd only gotten as far as mice before the funding shut down and Ross turned up the pressure and I did . . . what I did. No, there are a couple of these incidents each year. My legacy. Some idiot thinks they can do it better than I did, or else thinks they want to do exactly what I did, create more Hulks, and this happens. This isn't the first time SHIELD has called me in to deal with one of these messes."
One of my messes, Steve hears. Unthinkingly he walks up behind Bruce and rests a hand on his bare shoulder. The skin is warm and smooth, giving no sign that it's about to burst and swell with thick muscle and green skin.
"This time we can do it together," Steve says. Bruce nods. He doesn't say anything, but Steve thinks the tension in his shoulder loosens slightly. They walk toward the bay doors, into the thin air and the howling wind. Steve pulls on his gauntlets.
"What stage of gamma poisoning are you at?" Steve asks. Bruce's grin, when he turns to look at Steve, is feral. His eyes are green.
"Four," he says, in a voice too deep for him, right before he ripples and shifts into the other version of himself.
Steve and the Hulk jump for land together.
Afterwards, Steve carries Bruce back to the rendezvous point. Bruce doesn't notice, being unconscious at the time. The helicopter pilot doesn't say anything about Steve keeping Bruce in his lap for the ride, so Steve decides not to worry about it.
He's just looking after a teammate.
Bruce finally wakes up again on the helicarrier, after Steve sets him down on a cot and gently brushes his hair off of his forehead. When he finally opens his eyes, his first words are directed at Steve.
Bruce's hand waves shakily in the air, pointing towards Steve's ribs and belly. Steve glances down. It is a lot of blood, now that he looks at it, caked on his skin and over his ripped uniform.
"I'm fine," Steve says.
Bruce doesn't hear him, or else isn't deterred by the attempt at reassurance. He reaches up a little further and dips his fingers into the ragged gap in the uniform where two of the raccoons had gotten past Steve's shield. He runs his fingertips along Steve's skin where it's healing, just faint pink lines to show where bites and gouges had been an hour before. The area is sensitive, still a little painful; if Steve had less control he'd squirm under that touch, try to push himself into it, or away from it, or both.
"So much blood," Bruce says slowly. "And you won't even scar."
Steve wraps his fingers around Bruce's wrist, holding his hand in place for a moment. Bruce's fingertips are four warm points against his exposed skin. "You don't scar either," he says.
After a moment, Steve pulls Bruce's hand away and sets it at his side. Bruce collapses into unconsciousness again soon after. Steve reassures the medics when they come; neither he nor Bruce has anything to worry about. The medics look dubious, and hook both of them up to an IV drip, just to be sure.
Bruce is still asleep when the helicarrier gets them back to New York, so Steve carries him again, down from the Stark Tower helipad and into Bruce's apartment. He tucks him into bed and pulls up the covers.
"Thanks, Steve," Bruce mutters into the dark, as Steve leaves the room.
"You're welcome," Steve says softly. Bruce is already snoring.
After closing the bedroom door behind him, it only takes Steve a minute or so to be able to do what he does next. "JARVIS?" he says hesitantly.
"Can you get – I mean, Bruce is going to need something to eat when he wakes up. And I could go for something too. Can you get enough food for both of us?"
"Of course, Captain. Any preferences as to the type of food?"
He smiles softly. "Whatever Bruce likes best," he says.
A couple hours later, when Bruce stumbles out of his bedroom again, he finds Steve sitting on his living room floor, chopsticks in hand, trying sushi for the first time.
"I thought you'd be hungry," Steve says. "If you're anything like me."
Bruce's eyebrows go up into his messy, sleep-rumpled hair, but then his surprise seems to pass, and he sits crosslegged on the floor next to Steve. He slumps down and lets his forehead rest against Steve's arm, tentatively at first, but with increasing trust, a sleep-warm weight on Steve's bicep.
"Well, I don't know how much I'm like you," Bruce says softly. His breath ghosts over Steve's skin. "But I am really hungry."
Steve offers him chopsticks. Bruce takes them, and they eat together quietly, leaning on each other.
When Tony and Pepper come back after Christmas, Tony seems settled, more sure of himself, and Pepper seems to be able to breathe fire.
"You should all try having everything you know and love destroyed," Tony says flippantly. "It's just the thing."
"I did that last year," Steve objects.
"I did that five years ago," Bruce laughs. Tony looks put out.
"Okay, well, whatever, there's no need to brag, gentlemen. You'll make Rhodey feel bad, he's never had everything he knows and loves destroyed."
"I'm fine with that, by the way," Jim calls from the balcony, where he and Pepper and Natasha are having a quiet conversation. Pepper is looking down at her hand, concentrating fiercely, and making little flames dance from fingertip to fingertip.
"And everything you know and love wasn't destroyed, Tony, in case you failed to notice that," she calls out, without looking up.
"Rhodey's jealous," Tony confides. "Pepper's trying to make him feel better. Anyway, Pep and I will be around a lot more, while the Malibu place is being rebuilt."
There's a quiet foom as Pepper's fire flares up too high; Natasha and Jim each take a slightly alarmed step backwards.
"And while Pep gets her new superpowers under control," Tony adds, wincing as he peers out towards the balcony. "You okay, babe?" he calls.
"Still got my eyebrows," Pepper calls back. This seems to satisfy Tony.
"Just so long as you don't invade my lab space," Bruce says, smiling. "I'm getting another drink, anyone else?" Tony and Steve shake their heads, and Bruce wanders off towards the kitchen. Steve doesn't think he's ever seen Bruce drink alcohol before, beyond a glass of wine with dinner; he wonders if it's a signal that he's more relaxed, too, more trusting of these new people.
"We'll be glad to have you back, Tony," Steve says. Tony blinks at him, as if that was the last thing he was expecting Steve to say.
"Okay," he says. Then he says it again, differently: "Okay." Steve smiles.
"Mostly I mean we'll be glad to have Pepper around," he continues.
"Oh, of course."
"I don't really care for you all that much."
"No, I wouldn't either."
Steve claps him on the shoulder fondly, and Tony accepts the gesture, bemused.
The big team dinner has expanded, now, to include Maria Hill and Jasper Sitwell, both of whom Steve's worked with at SHIELD several times now. Clint, who's back from his extended mission in Beijing, has finally managed to come too, so it's a good sized group. When it had been the four of them, Steve had felt awkward and out of place, grasping desperately for something to say to fill the silence. Now it's loud, friendly, with ten conversations going on at once.
He's sitting next to Jim at the table, and ends up falling into easy back and forth about the military, the things that have changed since Steve's time and the things that really, emphatically, haven't. As good as it is to work with SHIELD agents and fellow superheroes, there's something Steve's missed about proper military men, the innate understanding that they often share with Steve: trust, loyalty, sacrifice. Brotherhood.
"The first desegregated unit," Jim is saying, shaking his head. "What was it like?"
"In retrospect, it was a mess," Steve says. "We had guys from Negro units who outranked some of the white guys, and then there was all the international stuff, so it . . . it was a mess."
"In retrospect?" Jim asks.
"Yeah, well. At the time it just seemed like the thing to do. I had these guys who all had unique skills, all from different branches of the military, and every one of them was indispensable. So we made it work. Had to separate some guys, though. Lots of soldiers refused to join us, or left not long after we started."
"Well, they said that it would disturb the cohesion of the unit," Jim says, with an ironic twist to his lips. Steve snorts.
"They say that about everything. About – about gay soldiers, now."
Jim had been gazing forward, towards the center of the table; now he turns his attention on Steve, bright and focused. "You read about that, huh?"
"Yeah, I – " Steve hesitates, unsure if this is the time or place to be asking, but Jim is the closest friend he has in the real American military, and everyone else is wrapped up in their own conversations, not paying them any attention in the din. "I wanted to ask you, actually."
Jim's brow furrows and he draws back a little in his chair. Steve doesn't second-guess himself, though, just spits it out. "What's the – generally, what's the reaction when a high-ranking or, uh, famous guy is – I mean, when he comes out." The terminology is still new and strange in Steve's mouth, but he thinks he said it right.
"Tony told you, huh," Jim says, his voice flat. Steve has a moment to be confused before he continues, "I'm not out, Steve, so I don't know, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd keep it quiet."
Steve takes a minute to let the world spin around him and resettle. "You – you're not – what?" he manages, eventually. Jim looks confused.
"You – Tony didn't tell you?"
"No," Steve says. Jim lets out a little laugh.
"Okay, well, that was pointless, then."
"I won't tell anyone," Steve promises.
"But if you didn't mean me, then – " Jim's eyes widen almost comedically. Steve shrugs at him and makes a little ta-da! gesture.
"Wow. Wow. I gotta say, my inner twelve year old feels pretty justified right now," Jim grins, which makes Steve laugh.
"Glad to be of service."
"You – really?"
"Really," Steve nods.
"Huh. Wow." To his credit, Jim doesn't take long to absorb the information, though he still looks a little starry-eyed. "Well, to answer your question, I . . . can't answer your question. Plenty of high-ranking guys and gals have come out since the change, but you're a unique case. I couldn't predict what would happen at all."
"But do you think the Army would . . . " Steve gestures helplessly.
"Kick you out? Take you off its recruitment posters? Wait, are you even still in the Army?"
"I'm on recruitment posters?"
"They dragged out the old images from the forties. They still own the rights to them."
"I don't know what the Army would do, Steve," Jim says seriously. "But I know that I would throw you a goddamn party. Lots of people would."
Steve blushes. "Thanks," he says. It's good knowledge to have; not the information Steve was looking for, not really, but maybe the information he needed. Belatedly, shyly, he adds, "You too."
"Huh." Jim glances away, licks his lips. "So, okay, the inner twelve year old would never forgive me if I didn't ask: are you seeing someone? Is that why you wanted to know what the reaction would be?"
"Sort of," Steve says. "I think so. That is why I asked, though."
Jim pauses and stares at Steve suspiciously for a second. "Oh God, it's not Tony, is it?"
Steve laughs. "No. I promise." A thought occurs to him. "Are you and Tony . . . "
Jim holds out a hand, see-sawing it back and forth. "Sometimes. It's not for the faint of heart. But it works for me, and for Tony, and for Pepper."
"What about Tony?" Tony calls from down the table, ever-sensitive to the sound of his own name.
"Nothing," Jim returns. "Not everything is about you."
"That's not what I want to hear, Rhodey," Tony chides. Jim rolls his eyes at Steve, as if to say, you see what I deal with? which makes him laugh again.
Grateful, Steve finds Jim's hand under the table, takes it in his and squeezes gently. Jim looks briefly shocked, but after a moment he squeezes back, so that Steve can feel the reassuring pressure of his fingers against his skin.
"A really big party, I promise," Jim says fervently. Their hands separate, and Steve picks up his fork again.
"I appreciate that," Steve says quietly.
Jim is quiet for a moment, obviously considering his next words carefully. "Or anything else you need, Steve. I mean it. You've got friends."
Steve meets his eyes and nods, too overwhelmed to know what to say.
When the food is done, and the drinking is done, and the talking is mostly done, Steve finds Bruce again.
"Hey, didn't see you much at dinner," Bruce says, bumping against his shoulder. "You have a good chat with Jim?"
"I did." They're strolling together towards the elevator. "Walk me to my door?" Steve asks, on a whim.
"So old-fashioned," Bruce chuckles.
They take the elevator together, and both get off at Steve's floor. It opens, of course, on his front room, without a door to stop at. Bruce elects to walk him to the bedroom door instead, taking his elbow gently in one hand.
"It's always so Captain America in here," he says, glancing around.
"Tony's idea of a joke, I guess," Steve replies.
"Why don't you change it, if you don't like it?" Bruce asks the question as if he already knows the answer.
"No need. It doesn't really bother me that much. And I don't know, maybe it gives other people comfort to see me that way, like I am the uniform. Incorruptible, unbreakable. I don't mind." They reach the door and lean together on the wall outside to prolong the conversation.
"Whereas in reality you're completely corruptible and terribly breakable," Bruce smiles.
"I am, I swear."
"Breakable, maybe. Though I've yet to see much of those limits you talked about. Corruptible, nah. Never."
"I'm not perfect," Steve says, feeling almost desperate with the need to communicate this concept, to make sure that Bruce, if no one else, understands it. To his relief, Bruce stops teasing and nods seriously.
"I know," he says. "I know, Steve." He reaches out and runs his fingertips along the outside of Steve's hand; Steve turns his wrist to reciprocate, letting his fingers twine and tangle with Bruce's.
"What else did you get from the Hulk?" Steve asks, into the quiet. Bruce's fingers still for a moment, then pick up their slow, teasing dance again.
"What do you mean?"
"Your body temperature runs a little hot. You need to eat and sleep after a transformation. Your blood is poisonous. What else?"
Bruce takes a deep breath. "I lost all my scars," he says. "After the first transformation. I mean, I don't make new ones, but also I lost all the old ones."
"Hmmm," Steve says. "You had a lot of scars?"
"From when I was a kid," Bruce says. His fingers still rub and play along Steve's knuckles, the palm of his hand, the ball of his thumb. "I had a lot. Yeah, a lot. I used to think they were so ugly. But then, once they were gone, I kind of missed them."
"Yeah," Steve agrees. He'd lost his scars, too, when he got the super soldier serum, but he doesn't bother to say that; Bruce already knows that.
"And I have, you know. Better hearing. Better sense of smell. Still need my glasses, though."
"Do you have the increased pain sensitivity?" Steve asks.
"Yeah. It's good, actually, since I need to know if I'm ever bleeding."
"You got a lot of the bad parts of the serum," Steve says.
Bruce smiles. "So did you."
No one, absolutely no one, has ever said that to Steve before – ever even known that before, really. The way his body always clamored for calories when food supplies were scarce; the way every nick and cut felt like a wound, and every wound like death; the way he needs to run sometimes, when he brims over with unspent energy and needs to move move move so that he doesn't go out of his mind.
The way he doesn't sleep much. The way he can't get drunk.
It'd never seemed right to complain, not after all the serum had given him, but Bruce knows it, has studied it, has lived it himself. Bruce knows Steve's body from the inside, so that Steve doesn't have to say it.
"Anyway," Bruce says, "it's not all bad."
Steve smiles. "I like having the Hulk at my back in a fight."
Bruce is surprised into a laugh, and then he's moving, bringing his other hand to where their hands are joined, and before Steve knows what's happening he's lifting Steve's palm to his mouth and pressing a soft, reverent kiss in the center.
Steve thrills at the feeling of Bruce's lips against his skin.
"I'm going to go," Bruce says. "But maybe I'll see you tomorrow sometime?"
"We might run into one another in the gym," Steve agrees.
Bruce nods slowly. "Good."
He's back in the elevator a moment later, waving awkwardly to Steve as the doors close. Steve waves back, unable to keep himself from smiling.
He's thought a lot about what to say, about what he wants to say, so when he finds Bruce in the gym the next night he doesn't waste any time.
"I have limits. I want you to know that. It's important to me that you know that."
Bruce nods, and Steve continues. "They're just hard to find, sometimes. I have trouble – hitting them."
Bruce's eyebrows go up in surprise. "Why?" he asks, after a moment.
"I – " Steve swallows. "I don't know," he says.
"You're very strong, very flexible, have enhanced endurance, all that stuff," Bruce says, almost to himself, as if trying to solve a problem in the lab. "So it should be hard to do. But not impossible. Especially if you focused exclusively on one muscle group, one activity." He gives Steve a shrewd look. "How many pushups would it take to tire you out?"
"No idea," Steve replies. Bruce cocks his head, considering.
"Why don't you try to find out?"
It's not quite a question. Steve doesn't usually start his workout that way, but at Bruce's words he finds that his body drops down into the position almost without conscious direction, and he's counted twenty pushups before Bruce has walked over to the mat and crouched down next to him.
Steve keeps going, though the warm proximity of Bruce's body is distracting.
"Is it your head?" he asks softly. "I've seen you on the heavy bag, it looks like you're . . . not present."
"Yeah," Steve grunts out, the confirmation coming on the exhalation of breath as he drops down, the realization of what he's just confirmed coming belatedly, as he pushes himself back up from the ground again.
"I get that," Bruce says, matter-of-factly. "You're smart, I bet it's hard to do something monotonous like this without getting lost in thought."
"Being lost in thought isn't necessarily a bad thing," Steve offers.
Steve speeds up a little: down, up; down, up; down, up, letting his muscles work as fast as they want to. He keeps count in his mind – fifty, ninety, one hundred and thirty – without consciously meaning to do so. Time passes. Bruce shifts from a crouch down to his knees, close to Steve's shoulder but not quite touching him.
He's at two hundred and seventy, a few minutes later, before Bruce speaks again. When he does, he sounds quiet, hoarse maybe.
"I imagine it's easier to get frustrated than tired."
"Yeah," Steve says again, on the exhalation of breath, and it's easier this time to admit it. Steve speeds up again.
Three hundred and fifty.
Bruce reaches out and puts a hand on his back, trailing up over his left shoulder.
Four hundred. Bruce's index fingers press with professional precision against Steve's pulse point.
"Your heartrate's still under seventy," he says. "What does it take to get you out of breath?"
Steve can't help the images that flash into his mind at that: of Bruce's body hard against his, Bruce bending him over something, Bruce's hands slow and meticulous on his bare skin.
Four hundred and fifty. Five hundred. Bruce's hand draws back from Steve's throat, drags back over his shoulder again, rests there.
He turns his head to look at Bruce, who's kneeling on the mat now. "You'd have to press down a little harder, to start with," he says. Bruce raises an eyebrow, and Steve looks back down at the floor.
Bruce rises up on his knees and pushes down squarely on the center of Steve's back, providing more resistance, and it's good, it helps.
"I could sit on your back like those USO girls used to do," he says, and Steve huffs out a laugh.
Five hundred and fifty. Six hundred.
"Or maybe you'd prefer it if I used my boot?" A simple interrogative, offered without judgment.
Steve strains against Bruce's hand. "No. I – no, not that."
He feels rather than sees Bruce nodding beside him. "All right." There's a soft sound, Bruce licking his lips. "Tell me if this isn't working," he says. "Uh, for you."
"Yes," Steve agrees, unthinking, on another exhalation of breath.
Six hundred and fifty. Seven hundred. Seven hundred and fifty. Bruce's hand pushing down on Steve's back. Eight hundred. Eight hundred and fifty. Steve wants to stop, wants to get up, wants to move.
"Keep going," Bruce says softly. "Keep going until you're tired."
Eight hundred and seventy-three.
"I'm never going to get tired," Steve growls down at the floor.
"You are," Bruce says simply. "Your body will give out if you keep pushing it. Your heart rate is climbing."
Nine hundred and twelve.
Steve feels himself starting to sweat; unconsciously, he opens his mouth to suck in more air, half of a gasp.
"Good," Bruce says softly.
One thousand. He starts the count again.
His muscles start to ache a little, still pumping fast and sure. Bruce pushes down a little harder on his back, leaning his weight down onto Steve's body. His presence above Steve is solid, sure, holding Steve in place.
He hates the sweat that trickles over his neck, that rises on his face; he hates the heat he can feel coming off of himself, radiating up to Bruce's hands, his face, his body. Steve's heart is getting faster and faster, his breathing picking up too, and he wishes he couldn't feel them at all. He realizes that he's slowed down just as Bruce speaks again.
"Faster. You can do it."
Steve grits his teeth and does it.
One hundred and twenty-six.
"You're all right," Bruce says soothingly, voice soft and gentle compared to the hard pressure of his hand between Steve's shoulderblades. "You can keep going."
"I can't," Steve gasps, "not forever."
Bruce's fingers dig into his back. Two hundred and seventeen.
"No," Bruce agrees. "Not forever. Keep going."
Steve keeps pushing, fast as he can, driving himself further towards exhaustion, towards the need to stop.
"You don't like this feeling."
Two hundred and ninety-four.
"No." He doesn't: the slight trembling that begins in his arms, the sudden need for more air that makes his breathing pick up, all against his will. He has an intense awareness of the edges of his body, the places where he stops, the area outside his influence. He can feel his heart, now, thumping in his chest, a tiny lump of muscle working too hard and so easily interrupted.
"You're doing really well," Bruce says warmly, and Steve squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, overwhelmed by a feeling he can't quite name. Bruce shifts beside him, coming up on his knees so that he can bring more weight to bear on Steve's back.
Steve grunts against the added labor, the way it makes fresh sweat break out on his temples.
"Feel it, Steve. Feel how tired you're getting." Steve realizes that he can hear Bruce breathing too, that Bruce is breathing fast too. "You're so beautiful like this."
The words run over Steve's body like fire, lighting him up, heating his skin to a deeper flush than the one brought on by the exercise. His cock is heavy against his sweatpants, brushing against the soft fabric with each repetition.
Three hundred and seventy.
"When you get too tired to keep going," Bruce murmurs, "when your body gives out, you're going to stop. You're going to surrender."
"I – " the word tears out of Steve's throat with a gasp, but he doesn't know what words to use to follow it: I can't, or I won't, or I want to surrender now, please, let me. He puts on a new burst of speed, down and up, down and up, feeling exhaustion sing in his muscles for the first time in a long time.
Four hundred and eighty-eight.
"So beautiful," Bruce says. Steve can feel each of his fingertips where they press down hard into his skin. "And so good, Steve. I know this is hard for you. You're doing so good."
Five hundred. Steve wants to scream with the feeling of it, with the need to gasp and sweat and tremble, and he pushes his body to do it again, and again, and again.
"You don't shy away from doing the difficult thing," Bruce says. "That's what makes you great, Steve. That's always been what made you great. But this is the hardest, isn't it? To realize your limits, to need to give up."
Five hundred and forty-five. His body is in pain, now, his muscles beginning to scream at him.
"You're going to give up soon. You can do it. You're doing so well."
Steve can't help but make a noise, a moan, a cry, half protest and half joy at the idea. His arousal is layered over the exhaustion, buzzing along his hot skin and through his tired muscles, and he imagines that Bruce must know, that it must be coming off of him in waves, dripping off of him like sweat. But Bruce's hand on his back doesn't falter, and Bruce's body next to his is solid and unshakeable, and Steve is overwhelmed by the idea that it might be okay; that it might be okay to stop, to let go, to let him see.
He wants to be seen. He wants Bruce to see.
Six hundred and seventy.
"I can't," Steve cries, "I can't, I can't anymore, I have to stop – " but he doesn't stop, keeps pushing himself through, down and up, down and up, Six hundred and seventy-six, six hundred and seventy-nine –
"Shhh, that's good, you've done so well," Bruce intones, as Steve continues: six hundred and eighty-four, six hundred and eighty-five. "You can give up if you want to. Surrender for me."
"I have to, I have to," Steve gasps, and then he does, collapses down onto the mat, rolls over onto his back and flings an arm over his eyes, chest heaving with his breath, sweat trickling down into his hair. He loses contact with Bruce's hand as he does it, but then Bruce is right there beside him again, hand on his shoulder, gripping gently and reassuringly.
"You did so good, so good, Steve. I know that was hard, but you did it." Bruce's thumb rubs against Steve's collarbone in short, soothing strokes. "So beautiful," Bruce says finally, and his voice sounds choked. Steve opens his eyes, and when he does tears spill out of the corners.
"Thank you," he says, as sincerely as he knows how. "Thank you, Bruce, thank you – "
"Shhhh, it's fine. You did so well." Bruce is smiling down at him. His hand shifts slowly up Steve's neck, his broad palm cupping Steve's face. "I knew it would be something to see, that moment when you gave up control."
Leaning down, he places a soft, close-mouthed kiss on Steve's cheek. It's like the praise, a reward for what he's done; Steve's skin tingles with it, and he reaches upward to cup Bruce's face before Bruce can pull away.
"Kiss me again," Steve pants. "Please." The words escape his mouth without conscious thought, as if, in making surrender possible, he's made it inevitable. As if he's beginning to create a path inside himself, and each time it's going to be easier. He holds his breath for a half a second after he speaks, searching Bruce's face, worried that he'll be left here aching. They didn't – it's not as though they've ever – but Bruce seems to –
Above him, Bruce smiles, and the sight of it scatters Steve's anxious thoughts. He starts breathing again, mouth falling open a little as he tries to get the oxygen his body so desperately wants. Bruce leans back down, kissing him on the lips this time, still soft and close-mouthed.
"Anything you want," he breathes against Steve's lips. "You deserve it." And then he kisses Steve again, hungrily now, deep and wet, and Steve opens himself to it, lets Bruce have everything.
His cock is hot and aching, desperate for touch. He groans and shimmies his hips until Bruce falls down on top of him, his thigh rubbing hard and rough against him, and it's so good that Steve has to cry out again, in pleasure this time.
"God, those noises," Bruce mutters, burying his face in Steve's neck. "Once you start making noise you can't stop, is that it?"
"Y-yeah," Steve stutters, as Bruce's hands roam over his chest, his belly, as his thumb rubs over one hard nipple. Steve arches back and moans.
"I love it. You're so open now, Steve. So responsive."
Steve feels it too; now that he's not actively pushing his body, the exhaustion is leaving his muscles and his breathing is slowing down. His recovery time from this kind of exhaustion is negligible, but as the pain and fatigue dissipate they leave something else behind, a feeling of emptiness, readiness, like he's a vessel waiting to be filled. His skin feels hot and sensitive. Every brush of Bruce's hands over him makes him want to writhe, to groan, to push up into the feeling and get more of it.
"Touch me," he says, drawing Bruce's hand down slowly, until Bruce's fingers are pushing under the edge of Steve's sweatpants and shorts. Bruce takes the hint and reaches down further, wrapping his hand around Steve's dick while Steve arches under his touch.
Bruce kisses his neck, just below the jawline, and Steve gasps, letting the sensation burst bright along his skin. Bruce gives his dick a slow, firm stroke, and Steve shudders all over, the pleasure traveling through him uninhibited.
"Mmm. Yes," Bruce says, licking sweat from Steve's temple, from the hollow of his collarbones. "The way you sound, the way you taste. The way you want this – want this so badly, god, Steve."
Bruce's voice still sounds calm, almost detached, as if Steve's body is nothing more than a particularly exciting experiment, but the way he looks down at Steve, the way his hands roam over Steve's body, betray a hunger that has nothing to do with scientific curiosity. Steve pushes up against his hands, chasing that feeling of being desired, known, possessed.
"I want you to fuck me," Steve says, without hesitating over the words at all. Bruce stills, chest heaving with hard, silent breaths.
"JARVIS, engage privacy mode," he says, without breaking eye contact with Steve.
"Engaged," JARVIS replies politely.
"How'd they do this in your day?" Bruce asks, peeling Steve's shirt off of him. It's sweat-soaked, the white gone translucent. Bruce's hands slip against his damp skin. "Just spit and hope?"
"Sometimes," Steve says. His breath is coming fast again, but not from exertion. "Sometimes vaseline, if we had it."
Bruce skins off his own shirt, then falls down to kiss Steve again. Steve lets himself be pressed down into the mat.
"You can take it, though," Bruce whispers against Steve's skin, the tender place behind his ear. "Your body can take it."
Steve shudders. "Yes."
They both squirm out of the rest of their clothes, fast and sloppy, needing to fuck, and it's just like the old days, just the way Steve remembers it. This, at least, hasn't changed all that much. Bruce gets him on his hands and knees and rubs his palm up and down Steve's spine in hot anticipation. Steve feels like he can absorb the touch through his skin, like Bruce is sinking into him somehow. He closes his eyes as Bruce uses spit and a couple of fingers to loosen him up.
"Tell me how this feels," Bruce says. Steve groans in frustration.
"It feels great, come on, get inside me – "
Behind him Bruce spits again, and then a moment later he's there, pushing into Steve's ass slow and insistent. Taking him at his word, knowing that he can take it. Steve cries out with the sensation of it, unable to stop the noise behind his teeth.
"That's it, that's it," Bruce says. "Give it up, c'mon, you feel so good." The push inside him is steady and unyielding, all reined-in power and restraint; Steve knows that Bruce is only a minute or two away from letting go and fucking him hard.
"Do it," Steve gasps. Bruce's hand is running over his hip, squeezing, stroking, rubbing hard against the soft skin. "I can take it. Let go. I'm not going to break."
Behind him, Bruce laughs, and his hands spasm tighter where they're holding Steve's hips in place. "Of course you're not," he says. "This is nothing to you."
It doesn't feel like nothing, Bruce breaking him open, stretching him wide.
It feels like everything.
Steve feels a noise begin to build in his chest, in his throat, behind his lips.
"Could you take it if I really let go, I wonder?" Bruce murmurs. "If I turned into the Hulk and fucked you? How much could you take, Steve?"
Steve is moaning, almost screaming, the sound emerging from his body unbidden and uncontrolled: from the sensation of Bruce hard and big inside him, from the image of Bruce gone green, or half-green, fucking down into him with superhuman strength and speed. Bruce's hand curls into Steve's hair and tugs once, not too hard, but enough to remind Steve of everything he keeps at bay. Perfect control.
Another firm tug. "I should've jerked you off while you were doing pushups." And he starts to fuck faster, the sheer momentum shoving Steve forward and down, into the mat, his hands skidding against the plastic surface. He could resist, brace his arms, push back, but he doesn't want to. He just wants to take it. He lets himself be moved. He lets Bruce fuck him down into the floor.
"Next time," Steve groans, and Bruce laughs again.
"You're perfect," he says, still laughing. "God, you're amazing, I – love – fucking you – like this – "
Bruce's voice has started to come in stuttering gasps, and his thrusts are getting faster and harder. Steve shoves back against him and moans, needing to be touched, needing to come.
"Please," he says, "touch me," and it's only half a breath before Bruce does, his hand hot and sure and slick with sweat, squeezing and rubbing Steve's dick while he wraps his other arm around Steve's torso to keep him in place.
"So beautiful, Steve," he says. "Let go, let me see it again, c'mon – give up – "
That's all it takes for Steve to lose control completely, coming in Bruce's hand and around Bruce's cock, his whole body shuddering and rolling with pleasure. By the time he comes back to himself Bruce is coming too, thrusting a few last times before stilling and crying out quietly.
Even with his head swimming and his body tingling Steve hears that sound, that rare soft sound of Bruce out of control, and he stores it up in his memory.
There's a long moment where they breathe together, him and Bruce, and then Bruce is pulling out, pulling back, the warmth of his body no longer pressed up against Steve's skin. Steve crawls forward a little, then rolls over onto his back, tugging his sweatpants back up over his hips. They're . . . not in great shape.
He glances over at Bruce and laughs ruefully; he's damp and sweaty, splattered with semen, and a perfect match to Steve. They'll make quite a pair as they make the trip from the gym back to their apartments.
Bruce is smiling at him, grinning even, not at all ironic. His hair is curlier than usual, and falling into his eyes. It's a good look for him.
"I have to be honest, Bruce," Steve says, loving the way that Bruce's chest is still rising and falling with his fast breaths. "This isn't exactly how I pictured this thing between us playing out."
He smiles, though, and reaches out to touch the back of Bruce's hand, so that Bruce will know that Steve liked it anyway. Bruce's unselfconscious grin gets wider, and he turns his hand over under Steve's fingers so that they're palm to palm.
"Me neither," he says, "though I'd be lying if I said I hadn't fantasized about it."
Steve takes Bruce's hand more firmly and pulls him forward, so that he falls back on his elbows with Bruce lying on top of him. He's hot, Steve notices, not for the first time, his body temperature artificially elevated just like Steve's. Maybe more so.
"Yeah?" Steve asks softly, surprised into a blush. "You thought about . . . this?" Leaning up, he kisses Bruce's mouth briefly.
"I did," Bruce agrees quietly, brushing a kiss of his own over Steve's lips. Steve sighs and settles into it, this soft post-coital kissing, so unhurried and undemanding. Bruce's voice is a gentle murmur against his mouth between kisses. "I thought it was just interest at first, you know, just . . . fascination, but the day you moved the treadmill, oh, I wanted so badly to – mmmm – to take you. Then and there."
Steve lets his eyes fall closed as a warm wave of desire passes through him. He's already getting hard again, and he wonders if Bruce has noticed yet. "Uh," he says, "it may further fascinate you to know that my stamina is also superhuman. And you'd best let me up before . . . " Steve trails off as Bruce sucks gently behind his ear.
"Before what?" Bruce asks.
"Before I am no longer fit to leave the gym," Steve laughs, pulling Bruce up by the shoulders so that they're face to face again.
Bruce runs his hand down Steve's bare chest and palms him over his sweatpants. "Hmm, I see the problem. You never reported increased sexual stamina or a shorter refractory period to the scientists who tested you," he says, mock-accusing.
"Yeah, I'm sure my withholding of that information was a real blow to science," Steve agrees, then gasps as Bruce starts to move his hand slowly. "Anyway, they never asked. Though they did measure."
"Mmm, I read that report. Several times. It doesn't do justice to the live specimen."
"Flattering." Steve's hard now, his cock straining up against Bruce's hand.
"Subject returns to full arousal less than three minutes after orgasm," Bruce narrates. "Want me to suck you off?"
Steve blinks, surprised. He's had blowjobs before, but never from the kind of guy who would hold him down and fuck him hard like Bruce just did. Different times, he supposes.
"Yes?" he says eventually, and Bruce chuckles, low and dark, before pulling Steve's messy sweatpants back down and bending his head to take his dick in his mouth. Steve isn't sure where to put his hands, or whether it would be rude to just lie down and spread his legs. After a moment of Steve's fidgeting, Bruce pulls off again.
"Lie back," he says softly. "Relax. I've got you." Then, even more quietly, as if he's not sure Steve wants to hear it, "It's okay to want this."
Steve sighs, letting his shoulders hit the mat and tilting his head back in pleasure. Bruce takes care of him.
After they clean up, the trip back to their respective floors is furtive, slightly embarrassing even though no one actually sees them, and Steve finds himself holding back laughter as they fast-walk for the elevator. Once inside, Bruce grabs a handful of Steve's shirt and pulls him down to kiss him thoroughly.
"I want to do this again," Steve says, the moment they break apart. He hasn't just done 1,685 pushups, but he's out of breath anyway. "I want you."
He thinks he sees surprise on Bruce's face, but then Bruce says, "Yeah. Yeah. Me too."
Steve kisses him until the elevator dings for his floor. He watches Bruce's smile until the elevator doors close all the way, and then, whistling, goes to take a shower.
They make up for the slow, excruciating pace of their courtship with a two-week honeymoon period in which they fuck, and fuck, and fuck, and Steve goes on a mission for SHIELD, and Bruce invents some kind of biopolymer, and then they fuck some more. Each time they do it the sex is better, more intense, more and more like Steve's being turned slowly inside out. He wonders, when he comes back to himself after orgasm, if this is how it feels to turn into the Hulk, to feel everything inside yourself suddenly raw and exposed to the world, overwhelmed by sensation, huge and powerful and completely out of control.
They fuck in Steve's bed, and in Bruce's, and on couches, floors, over Bruce's kitchen table; Bruce fucks Steve until he doesn't know how to stop himself from asking for everything he wants.
"Hold my wrists," Steve says, lost in the middle of things, his skin tingling, his body trembling, and Bruce does, pinning Steve to the floor with his weight, with his hands, with his hips against Steve's hips, his lips against Steve's lips.
"Harder," Steve says, and Bruce laughs deeply and fucks him harder and harder, until Steve is shoved forward with every thrust, until they're making obscene amounts of noise, until Steve wonders if Bruce is actually going to go green this time.
"Please," Steve says, licking his lips and writhing uncontrollably up against Bruce's body, "please, please, please, let me come, please," and when Bruce finally lets him it's like being taken apart. He imagines, in that moment, that Bruce can see inside him, to all of his parts, and knows how each and every piece of him fits together.
Bruce asks for things of his own, simple things: Steve's mouth on his cock, Steve's fingers in his ass, Steve's teeth against the inside of his thighs. Once, he asks Steve if he'll jerk off while he watches, and it ends up being one of the hottest things that's ever happened to Steve in his life. He lies back, naked, while Bruce sits fully clothed ten feet away, murmuring encouragement and fisting his own dick. Steve comes crying out Bruce's name, held down by Bruce's gaze on his body, making himself available to Bruce's careful observation.
When they can no longer fuck they lie together in bed, laughing with exhaustion, eating ravenously, bodies cooling. Steve tangles his fingers in Bruce's hair, and Bruce kisses the insides of Steve's elbows where the blue veins still run undisturbed, and they speak all of their most mundane secrets in low murmurs and quiet whispers until they both sleep, sated, exhausted, and glad.
"So, here's a thing," Bruce says one night, when they're twined together, exchanging lazy kisses. "Tony asked me who I'm having sex with."
"He asks me that all the time," Steve grins. Bruce shakes his head.
"He meant it. So, I wondered – you know."
"Is this a secret?" Steve fills in. Bruce nods.
Steve lets himself imagine it, for a moment: everyone knowing. The Avengers, SHIELD, maybe even the general public. Imagines reporters shouting questions at him and camera flashes going off when he stands next to Bruce, imagines letting everyone in his life, everyone in the world, know that he . . . needs someone. Wants someone. Wants Bruce.
The idea is terrifying, almost immobilizing. Steve feels his muscles begin to tense, and works to consciously relax them.
"It can stay a secret," Bruce says kindly. "I don't need to advertise. And anyway, this relationship would be great for my reputation and, uh, probably pretty bad for yours."
Steve smiles, fondness welling up inside him, and in that moment, as Bruce smiles back, Steve can't bear to feel terrified anymore.
"We can tell them," he says. "Let's tell them."
"Or at least let them catch us making out," Bruce agrees. Steve laughs, all the tension dissipating completely as he bends his head and presses his nose into Bruce's collarbone.
Bruce kisses the top of his head, breath stirring Steve's hair.
"So the little blue alien is designed for planetary conquest," Steve says. He's leaning back against Bruce's chest as they lie together on one of the low couches, Bruce's legs on either side of Steve's waist. To their right, Tony is sprawled over Pepper and Jim; to their left, Clint and Natasha are eating popcorn and doing a pretty good job of feigning casual relaxation.
"Much like myself," Tony agrees. Pepper laughs, running sparking fingertips warningly through his hair.
"Much like MODOK, I was thinking," Steve says with a grin.
"Like MODOK but cuter," Bruce agrees softly, from above him. Steve frowns.
"Oh, ew, this spit thing is a little much," Clint is saying, pointing at the screen. "People should keep spit in their bodies."
"Everything is cuter than MODOK," Steve says, tilting his head back to look at Bruce.
"Yes, Clint, everyone knows about your weird bodily fluids thing," Natasha sighs. "One mucous demon invades from Asgard one time – "
"I just mean, how is 'cuter than MODOK' even a descriptor?"
"I was glued to the sidewalk, Natasha, they had to chip my feet free – "
"I'm saying, if I'm choosing something designed for planetary conquest, I'd definitely go with Stitch, who is cuter," Bruce explains.
"Big baby," Natasha says, poking at Clint. Clint pokes back, and it escalates predictably quickly. The popcorn hits the floor, but lands miraculously right-side up, so that only a few kernels bounce out.
"I don't see how cuteness comes up at all," Steve insists. "He's a giant head in a jar with arms and legs sticking out."
"Hey, hey, some of us are being quiet and trying to watch the movie," Jim protests. Tony sits up halfway to stare at him, astonished.
"Was I included in that group of people?" he asks.
"Yes, for the very first time, you were. Congratulations."
Clint and Natasha settle back down, and Steve keeps his mouth shut.
"Pass that fruit tray over here, would you, Jim?" Bruce asks, and Jim leans over and extends one long arm; Bruce does the same, from his side, so that neither of them have to get up.
On screen, the little blue alien is cackling and blasting away in a police spaceship. Steve feels for Captain Gantu. He's had days like that, trying to herd Avengers.
Above him, Bruce is munching on bits of fruit.
"Share?" Steve says quietly. Bruce looks down at him, surprised.
Steve nods against Bruce's chest. Gently, Bruce proffers a piece of fruit, something half-moon shaped in green and black; Steve leans up slightly and takes it in his mouth, lips brushing wetly against Bruce's fingers.
"Oh wow," Steve says, unable to help himself. "What is that?" It's tart and sweet at the edges but smooth and creamy in the middle; Steve's never tasted anything like it.
"Kiwi," Bruce says. "You never had kiwi? It's from China, I think."
"It's amazing." Steve licks his lips and glances around the room, but everyone is focused on the screen, not paying them any attention. "What else you got?" he whispers.
"Mango," Bruce says, and feeds him a slice; it's slippery and soft. Steve licks up at Bruce's fingers to get all of the juice. Bruce lets his fingertip linger against Steve's lips while he chews.
"Hey, Bruce, does Stitch remind you of anyone?" Tony calls from the other side of the room.
Bruce laughs; on screen, the little blue guy is now getting run over by a truck.
"The Hulk is much better at trucks. And nowhere near that mischievous."
"Have you met the Hulk recently?" Tony asks.
"I've actually never had the pleasure," Bruce replies. Steve laughs, leaning up to accept another piece of fruit.
"Seedless grape," Bruce murmurs to him. Then, louder, for Tony, "also, the Hulk isn't that cute."
"I dunno," Steve says, grinning. "He's not bad. Definitely cuter than MODOK."
Bruce pushes another grape into Steve's mouth to shut him up.
"You two are adorable, you know that?" Jim says, smiling over at them. He's leaning back, head next to Pepper's on the back of the couch, rubbing a slow, absent palm over Tony's knee.
In response, Bruce cards his hand fondly through Steve's hair.
"I was actually thinking that Stitch is more like you, Tony," Steve says, twisting a little to see Tony's sour expression as he says it.
"I am both flattered and offended," Tony pronounces.
"It's a fair cop," Pepper laughs.
The movie goes to a musical section, in which Stitch misbehaves and Lilo is exasperated.
"This is Elvis?" Steve asks.
"Yup," Bruce replies.
"I like it." Bruce's hand is still in his hair, caressing slowly. His other hand brings a new piece of fruit to Steve's mouth, and Steve sighs as he eats it. A piece of orange; this one he recognizes, though it's sweeter than he remembers. Next to them, Clint laughs at Stitch's bad behavior, and Natasha smiles as she tucks her bare feet up under her on the couch. She looks . . . actually relaxed, Steve reflects, rather than looking like someone masterfully pretending to be relaxed. It makes him glad.
He can't remember when he last felt this safe.
"Hey Bruce," Steve says. Bruce makes a gentle interrogative noise.
"I think I want to do more interviews. Maybe – including some with gay newspapers, you know."
Bruce's hand in his hair stills for just a moment, then starts again. "Okay." There's a long pause. Steve smiles as Stitch spits slices of cake from his mouth back onto plates, and pulls a cherry from his throat.
"I can go with you," Bruce says, eventually. "If you want. To scare off reporters. Make them keep their distance."
Steve tilts his head back to look up at him. "I could never ask you to do that for me," he says, eventually. Bruce smiles.
"I know," he says gently, bending to kiss Steve's forehead. "That's why I offered."
Pepper helps him draft the initial press release, and coaches him with the right words and phrases to say in response to questions.
"Just tell your story," she says, over and over. "That's all they really need to hear."
She also gives him a rundown of American history and gay history that's a lot more thorough, and a lot more flavored, than what he got off of Wikipedia and from textbooks.
"There are references they'll expect you to know, jokes they'll expect you to get," she warns, "but not that many, really. You can learn them. You'll be prepared." Steve feels a coiled knot of tension ease in his belly at her words; his biggest fear is getting lost in the middle of a conversation, the way he does sometimes with the team, or with SHIELD agents.
"Thanks, Pepper," he says, looking over the study materials she made him. She smiles, and then, sweetly, she kisses him on the cheek.
Tony provides a tailor, and they spend long afternoons dressing Steve up like a paper doll, with Tony shaking his head and snapping his fingers and pointing at details on Steve's cuffs that Steve himself can't see. The confusing part is that it's all the kinds of clothes that Steve likes to wear anyway – comfortable trousers, leather jackets, button-up shirts – but with a lot more attention paid to colors, fit, and combination than Steve can keep up with. Tony ends up making him an organizational chart to tell him which shoes can be worn with which pants, which shirts aren't for wearing on daytime TV, and how to coordinate watches. Watches, plural, which Steve now apparently owns.
After Mr Romano hems the last hem and leaves them, finally, with Steve's new wardrobe, Tony pulls out one more little bag.
"Oh, no, please, I can't try anything else on. What is that, a tie?"
Tony snorts. "You're way too earnest in a tie. Though I am considering hats and hipster glasses for you." He tips the bag over, and a smaller plastic bag tumbles out into his hand; inside is a simple piece of leather thong.
"Trust me," Tony says, and gestures for Steve to hold out his arm. Steve offers Tony his wrist.
"I do," he says simply. Tony raises an eyebrow at him while he ties the leather cord around Steve's wrist.
"There. You don't have to take it off, you can wear it in the shower and everything. Just roll up your sleeves in public every now and then, and the internet will take care of the rest."
Steve holds up his wrist; it looks . . . delicate, for once. Pretty. "I like it," he says. Tony beams at him.
Natasha decides to help by teaching Steve body language, but this, at least, he already knows: sit up straight, smile at the right cameras, shoulders back, arms uncrossed, legs uncrossed. After about fifteen minutes she declares him a natural, not at all in need of teaching, and they spend the rest of the day seeing how many books they can balance on their heads while walking or running across the room. By the end of it they're both suffering from what are probably minor book-related concussions and laughing together on the floor, Steve's head pillowed on a copy of The Encyclopedia Britannica – Aa – Ae, Natasha's head pillowed on Steve's belly.
"Eh, you'll be fine," she says. "They love you anyway. There's really nothing you could do to stop them from loving you, at this point."
Steve smiles, thinking about the trusting feeling of her body relaxed against his. "Good to know."
The day after the press release goes out, Jim drives Steve and Bruce out to the studio and walks them in. He's wearing civvies, rather than his dress blues, so that he's less likely to be recognized, but a couple of guys nod to him in the street anyway.
"You making public statements about your sexuality today too, Jim?" Steve asks, holding the door open for him and for Bruce.
"Not today," Jim says, shaking his head. "But if I ever do, I expect a ride."
"Count on it," Steve says.
The elevator ride up to the studio is tense. Steve doesn't know if he takes Bruce's hand, or Bruce takes his, but by the time the doors open, they're holding on to each other tightly.
"Good luck," Jim says, clapping them both on the shoulder, then following an assistant to his seat in the audience. The looks on the audience members' faces when they realize that they're sitting next to Iron Patriot is almost worth the entire experience all by itself.
Ms Maddow comes out before too long to welcome them, shaking both of their hands with obvious excitement.
"I just can't tell you how glad we are that you decided to come here first in your media tour," she says, holding Steve's hand just a little too long. "What made you choose us? I know you could've gone anywhere. Anderson Cooper is moping."
"I like your show," Steve says warmly. "I like your approach to contemporary politics. I learn a lot from you."
Ms Maddow looks a bit poleaxed at that, and Steve isn't quite sure what to say to make her less flustered. Bruce steps in. "It's really because you dressed up as Steve last Halloween," he says. "He thought it was cute."
She laughs, obviously delighted, so Steve adds, "You did look adorable. I can't carry off the little wings on the cowl like you did."
Ms Maddow rolls her eyes. "All right, all right, that's enough buttering me up. I'll meet you on the stage again soon, okay boys? It's a real honor to have you here."
"I don't remember the last time anyone ever said that to me," Bruce whispers, sounding stunned.
"I can start saying it in bed, if you like," Steve offers. Bruce punches him lightly on the arm.
Time passes in a blur as they get made up and sent to the green room, and then slows right down again while they wait for Ms Maddow to say their names.
"You gonna hurl?" Bruce asks dryly, which makes Steve laugh.
"No, but you'd better kiss me now, just in case."
"Gross," Bruce says, stepping into his space and leaning up into a kiss.
"I know you don't like this kind of thing," Steve says. "Thank you for coming."
"Wouldn't change it for the world," Bruce says.
When Ms Maddow finally calls their names, right after the words world's first LGBT superheroes, they head out onto the stage together, holding hands.
"So, Steve," she says, once they get through the greeting ritual and get sitting down. "Turns out America's a lot queerer than we thought."
Steve laughs. "Always has been," he says, and the audience bursts into cheers and applause. He glances over at Bruce, who winks at him, and opens his mouth to speak again.
It's April when they go out to Coney Island for an afternoon, a little early in the year for it but of course everything's open. Steve buys them cotton candy and they ride the Cyclone together. Steve, in a fit of warm nostalgia, tells Bruce the story about him and Bucky.
"And I threw up, oh, over there somewhere," Steve finishes, pointing vaguely. He's not actually sure if it's the same area or not – so many things are different, and so many are familiar, that it's hard to tell. In a way, Steve feels the full weight of the time that's passed since then, even if he's only lived a year of it. "Bucky never let me live it down."
"Last week you showed me that place in Brooklyn where you threw up after having the shit kicked out of you," Bruce remarks, lipping inelegantly at his cotton candy. He's holding Steve's hand, warm and easy and a little sticky. "Does this conclude the Steve Rogers Vomit Tour of New York, or do we have other landmarks yet to visit?"
"I could set up a whole bus tour," Steve assures him. "Don't worry."
"The sad thing is, I'm sure people would pay for that bus tour."
"I am indeed a media darling," Steve grins.
They come to a milk bottle toss; Steve, unable to help himself, fingers the baseballs on the low counter.
Bruce leans up and nudges Steve's shoulder with his own. "Win me a teddy bear?"
The attendant comes over and talks it up, obviously not recognizing them. Steve tosses the ball in the air and catches it a few times, casually. He feels full, content, complete. Smiling slyly, he looks over at Bruce.
Bruce gives him a slow, serious nod. Steve nods back, and, without looking, throws the ball, nowhere near as hard as he can. He knows that Bruce can tell exactly how much he's pulled it.
The milk bottles . . . surrender. Bruce kisses him, there in the midway, just a soft touch of their lips, and Steve assumes from the camera flashes going off that they've been made, are going to be in the newspapers and blogs again. While Bruce's warm body is pressed to his in triumph, he can't bring himself to care.