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When they finally come to destroy the earth (they'll have to go through you first)

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201.

Batman is on the national news for the first time, the Tumbler roaring down the highway and destroying probably more property than Bruce is entirely comfortable with, after the fact.

His private phone blares over the newscaster’s commentary, and when he picks up, the first thing he hears is a slurred, “You are one crazy motherfucker.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Bruce says flatly.

“Of course you don't. Hey listen, I know a guy who knows a guy who says that Wayne Enterprises' carbon fibre-reinforced articulated fabrics are shit. On a totally unrelated note, there's this engineer in Stark R&D who knows about these things, and is about to be made redundant by my idiotic board of directors by the end of the month. Do you want her?”

This is how Tony Stark shows that he cares. Or at least, this is how he shows Bruce that he cares.

“Tell her to send me her CV,” he says, “I'll pass it on to Lucius next time I see him.”

“Good,” Tony says vaguely, “Good. Okay, well. Later, alligator.”

“Take it easy, Tony,” Bruce says. “It's barely past six and you already sound wasted.”

“You're on Gotham time. It's barely past four in L.A., which means that pre-gaming for happy hour is a go. But don't worry dearest, I understand. Time for bats to get ready to leave to their caves, it’s all good, whtever floats your boat--”

“Tony...”

“Nighty night! Don't let the bad guys bite!”

It figures that only Tony Stark would figure out Bruce Wayne’s most important secret within hours of getting wind of it, all while under the influence of enough alcohol to fail a breathalyzer three times over.

Bruce hangs up, and takes comfort only in the fact that Tony is perhaps the only discreet drunk he’s ever known.

 

700.

Tony answers his phone and immediately says, “I don't want to hear it, Wayne.”

Bruce is staring at the television, his eyes glued to speed-of-sound blur of color streaking across the screen. “A red and gold robot suit? Seriously?”

“It’s called showmanship. And the gold is totally necessary, it's an essential alloy coating—”

“You're joking.”

A pause. “There's nothing funny about this,” Tony says.

Since Tony’s capture, Alfred has been leaving the newspaper religiously opened to the business section every morning at Bruce's breakfast table, tracking the stutter, rise, and fall of Stark Industries stock in tandem with Tony's disappearance, return, and dissolving of SI's weapons manufacture.

Bruce thinks about the weeks Tony endured, isolated and surviving, not by choice, but by force. “No,” he admits, “I guess I can't say that I'm laughing.”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees. “Hey, where do you buy your under-suit kevlar in bulk?”

Bruce continues to look at the screen, unseeing now, and wonders whether to celebrate Iron Man, or mourn the Tony Stark that he used to know. “I'll email you their number,” he says, after a second.

It will take him years to realize that Tony has been mourning him in just the same way for more than a decade.

 

4.

They are little more than a couple of shrimpy kids when they’re sent off, and their only similarities are that they come from wealth, they don't talk much, and they regularly fuck up the bell curve for everyone else in their classes.

In math and science, Tony is always best, Bruce second best. In the social sciences and humanities, Bruce is best, and Tony is above average, but mostly unwilling to apply himself. They don't study together. They don't compete. Tony takes to sitting down next to Bruce at lunch, but Bruce figures this is because Tony knows he can count on Bruce not to make too much conversation.

Bruce privately resents Tony in the first year, the same way he privately resents everyone else—because Tony has parents to come home to, not just an empty house, where every resonant step on a marble tile echoes the sounds of absence and loss that Alfred can never entirely stifle.

But then they come back from the holidays, and Tony has a split lip that he shrugs off as a skiing mishap, and his dismissal is a study in everything every policeman has ever done in front of Bruce to make him worry less, make him want revenge less.

Tony sits down in the cafeteria that first day back, next to Bruce as usual, his shoulders hunched like he’s cold even though they’re close to the kitchen's radiant heat. Bruce says quietly, “Hey.”

Tony blinks at him. Then he says, “Have you done the problem set for trig yet?”

“It was pretty easy,” Bruce nods.

“It was ludicrous!” Tony throws up his hands. His sleeves fall back around his forearms.

For a moment, Bruce can see the fading bruises on his wrists, in the shapes of fingers. Then Tony realizes what’s happened, and the cuffs are wrenched back down over his hands.

Bruce looks at the clenched fists in Tony's lap, then up at Tony's challenging expression, and says, “When do you think they'll let us attend the upper level classes?”

Something very subtle shifts in Tony's eyes. “I dunno,” he says. “But it better be soon, because I'm bored out of my mind.”

“We can play blindfold chess during, if you like,” Bruce offers.

Tony ducks his head. “Yeah. That’d be cool.”

After that, they’re maybe not friends, but they are allies.

 

862.

Bruce looks carefully at the woman standing in front of his desk. At first and second glance, she looks like not much more than an inordinately pretty secretary, fiery red hair framing a soft face and well-maintained hands clasping a file folder and clipboard.

But then Bruce notices the minute scars webbed across her knuckles, and the way she finds and grounds her center of balance every time she shifts in her towering stilettos.

“You said you want to know about my experience with Tony Stark?”

“That’s right,” she says, her smile pleasant and neutral. “I’m putting together a profile article for Vanity Fair, and I was hoping to get a more intimate perspective on his early years.”

“Well, I don’t know what you’ve been reading about boarding schools recently, but Stark and I have never been intimate.” Bruce waggles his eyebrows for good measure.

Only a small tightening of the muscles around her eyes indicates that she knows he’s evading her.

“What was he like as a child? I imagine quite a handful.”

“Depends,” Bruce shrugs. “All children are rambunctious at times.”

“I imagine his genius became apparent very early.”

“I couldn’t say. We didn’t share many classes.”

“Trigonometry, physics, BC calculus, drama and economics, actually,” she corrects, not bothering to look down at her notes.

“Goodness,” Bruce says, cocking his head and smiling vacantly, “How ever did you manage to access those sealed student records? Say, what was your name again?”

“Natalie Rushman,” she says, demeanor hardening by degrees. “And you’re not doing him any favors.”

“Tony doesn’t particularly care for favors,” Bruce replies, and pulls a stack of papers from his inbox. “He prefers to earn whatever praise or scorn he gets. Will that be all, Miss Rushman?”

“I should think so,” she says, and turns on her heel.

(Later, Tony says to him, “Man, she was probably telling the truth. You could have told her that I’m not nearly so screwed up as everyone else thinks I am.”

“Who says I think you’re not screwed up?” Bruce retorts, and Tony hangs up on him, as usual.)

 

21.

Tony becomes CEO of Stark Industries at age twenty-one, and his face beams out of every major newspaper for a week and a half while everyone speculates as to what he will bring to the table, and whether he is really destined to live up to Howard Stark’s memory.

Bruce calls him from a pay phone at the docks, his cheek still stinging from where Rachel slapped him, his hands burning from the asphalt.

“Hello?” Tony sounds…off. Bruce can’t place why, though.

“It’s Bruce.”

“Bruce! It’s been a while. What can I do for you?”

“I just…” Bruce stops, swallows down I’m leaving, and says instead, “I wanted to offer my congratulations. On the ascendancy.”

There’s silence for a moment, and then Tony says, a bit tightly, “Thanks. I mean, the board didn’t really have a choice, did they? Dear old Dad’s instructions.”

Bruce exhales. “You’ll show them up. You’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, sure.” Tony pauses, and then adds, “Hey, do you want to come to New York some time? I heard you’re not at Princeton anymore, so I thought maybe you’d be available.”

“I can’t,” Bruce replies, “I’m going…I have some things I’ve got to do.”

“Right,” Tony says, easily enough. “Well, I’ve got to get through this mountain of paperwork myself, so I guess I’ll talk to you later.”

He rings off.

Bruce looks up at the freighter looming in front of him, half loaded. He wonders why he called Tony at all.

 

676.

It’s a sunny, bland day when Tony goes to Afghanistan, and doesn’t come back.

Bruce realizes distantly that this is probably what it felt like to Tony, when Bruce first disappeared underground.

His phone goes off and displays a number he recognizes from when he’d last checked up on Tony. He picks up, and it only takes a second for him to make the connections.

“Listen, you don’t know me, but I’m—”

“You’re Lieutenant James Rhodes, U.S. Air Force. You were Tony’s closest friend at MIT, and one of the last people to see him before he was taken,” Bruce finishes. He’s standing behind his chair now, gripping its back hard enough for his knuckles to turn white. The flatscreen opposite him is on silent, but the ticker tape beneath the talking heads keeps scrolling, TONY STARK TAKEN FROM CONVOY, TONY STARK MISSING.

Bruce has lost a lot of people from his childhood. He isn’t going lose this one. “You want to know whether I can put the weight of Wayne Enterprises behind the military’s to get him back,” he says. “The answer is yes.”

He hears Rhodes pause, and then snort quietly. “You know, I really didn’t believe Tony when he said he’d trust Bruce Wayne with his life, but I guess I’m happy to be proven wrong in this case.”

“Don’t tell anyone,” Bruce says.

Rhodes laughs, but the sound is thin and worried. “Jesus. You’re practically two of a kind.”

Bruce would normally feel vaguely insulted, but coming from Rhodes, it’s a strange sort of comfort. “We’ll get him back,” he says.

“Yeah,” Rhodes says gravely, “Yeah, we will.”

 

130.

Seven years after Bruce disappears into the criminal underworld, and a week after reappearing, Tony shows up at Wayne Manor with a bottle of Taittinger with a tag on it that reads, Congratulations on not being dead!

Bruce looks at him, and then at the bottle, and says, “I guess you'd better come in.”

“Good choice. You were about two more seconds away from getting beaned in the head with this for letting your dearest friend think you were dead. Is your good crystal in the same place? Alfred! Can I get a bucket of ice for this? Hey, you talked to Rachel lately?”

“Master Tony, it's good to see you. If you'll adjourn to the green room, I'll bring everything there.”

“No, I haven't,” Bruce says, leading the way. “Why?”

“Just wondering if you're going right back to business as usual.” Tony narrows his eyes. “Something's different about you, though. Have you been working out?”

“You could say that.”

“Fine, don't tell me. I see how it is.”

Bruce sighs. “It's good to see you, Stark.”

“There we go, the friendly Bruce Wayne we know and tolerate. Ow! Fuck, you pack a punch nowadays.”

“Maybe you're just soft. How's Stark Industries?”

“Booming. The board doesn't even get on my case about the hookers and blow anymore.”

Bruce looks sharply at him. Tony shrugs, wide-eyed and guileless.

“I'm glad you're enjoying yourself,” Bruce says finally.

Alfred comes in with an ice bucket and two champagne glasses. “Thanks, Alfred,” Tony says. “Don't look at me like that, Wayne, it's not like I mean anything to the shareholders beyond being an extra special brain and a name to slap on things. I deserve my perks.”

He pauses, and Bruce listens to everything that silence says. Before he can question further though, Tony adds curtly, “Besides, Obie's got my back.”

“I guess I'll drink to that, then,” Bruce says, relieved at least that Tony doesn't pry further about where Bruce has been all this time.

Tony never lets the conversation stray back into company talk either, though.

 

778.

“Hey,” Tony coughs. His voice sounds wet, like he’s talking through a mouthful of water. Or blood. “You ever get tired of being the one who has to make his superpowers?”

“No,” Bruce replies, as he picks up his office phone to dial Rhodes. “I’m smarter than they are, so it doesn’t matter.”

Tony laughs, hiccuping. “‘Mnot smart enough, Bruce. I’m fucking brilliant, and I can’t fix it.”

“Can’t fix what?”

“Hah! The usual.”

He hangs up.

Bruce drums his fingers on the desk, listening to Rhodes’s phone ring, and wonders whether there was something he could have done, when they were younger. He fears the answer lies somewhere in the seven years that he wasn’t in any position to do anything.

 

923.

Neither of them understand how they eventually manage to acquire teams.

“Fuck this, I get enough micromanagement from Pepper,” Tony says. “I can't cope with SHIELD and their moto bullshit.”

“You need to stop borrowing Marine slang; it doesn't work for you, and Rhodes will kill you for switching allegiances,” Bruce replies. “Also, you probably need the micromanagement.”

“Hush, you control freak. Aren't you getting bossed around by some red and blue wonder too?”

He sighs. “Two years, and he's still a goddamn overgrown boyscout. No aspirin in the world is strong enough.”

“I hear you. Sometimes I just want to mess him up a bit.”

Bruce raises his eyebrows. He knows it doesn't translate down the phone lines, but Tony knows him well enough to sense it anyway.

“...Shit. Forget I said anything.”

“Sure, Stark, whatever you say.”

Like he's going to forget that his oldest friend still holds his same childhood torch for Captain America, even when the Cap is back from the dead and apparently just as obnoxious as Clark.

Tony grumbles something about spandex and distracting biceps and hangs up.

Bruce sits back in his chair.

“Alfred! What would be the ramifications of hacking into SHIELD to get information on Captain America?”

“I couldn't possibly begin to speculate, Master Wayne, but no doubt it would not be appreciated by anyone involved.”

 

265.

“Pepper’s gonna kill me. Whenever I come here she thinks I’m gonna get straight up murdered,” Tony confides, leaning over to Bruce in the limo while their dates giggle to each other over their champagne. His breath already smells astringent with vodka.

“Are you trashing my city, Stark?” Bruce says, eyes narrowed even as the corners of his mouth turn up.

“I’m not! Pepper definitely is, though. Don’t understand why, she’s a New Yorker through and through, could probably throw a top-end Gotham mob boss at her and she’d just pepper spray him into submission. Hah, Pepper with pepper.”

“She sounds impressive.”

“You’d love her, you know, when she’s not trashing your ‘hood. Younger than I am, but competent as fuck. Keeps me in line, as much as that’s possible. Hey,” Tony turns and squints at him, “You got someone watching your back? You know, with the—”

“Unlike you, I don’t need a disciplinarian to keep me on task,” Bruce interrupts dryly. Then he raises his voice, “Work hard, play hard--am I right, ladies?”

The two women raise their glasses and cheer.

Tony doesn’t react though, except to cock his head slightly. “This really isn’t you anymore, is it?” he says eventually.

Bruce drinks his champagne, and doesn’t say anything. He knows his only real thoughts all night have been about the case file he has waiting at the manor, and the armor hanging up in the cave.

Tony says, “I guess it wasn’t you to begin with, either. Silly me.”

Bruce has the fleeting thought that it’s kind of absurd, the way Tony can always see through Bruce’s bullshit, but never his own.

 

688.

“Hey. I hear you helped get me out.”

“I hear you brought back a souvenir.”

“I’m clearly going to have strong words with Rhodey, he is a tattle-tale of the first degree.”

There’s a faint tapping over the line, like fingernails against something small and glassy. Tony has many nervous tics, but tapping had never been one of them before.

“Try not to do anything stupid, Tony.”

“Nag, nag, nag.”

 

456.

The Joker shakes Bruce to his core, unlike anyone he’s ever dealt with before.

Hours before he truly goes to ground, an enemy of the city and of the state, Tony calls him and says, “This is bullshit. This has gone too far.”

“This is necessary,” Bruce says, feeling like he’s coming out of his own skin, pulling up all of the databases he'll need, making contingency plans, shoving himself forward into the abyss without hesitation.

“You're doing so much fucking good!”

“Oh? And what would you know about that, Stark?”

Tony hangs up. Bruce winces. He'll probably need to keep up with Tony for the sake of Wayne Enterprises. He supposes it’s for the best though, that even Tony should feel alienated from the Batman.

 

13.

Howard and Maria Stark die on a dark rainy highway, and the first place Tony goes is Wayne Manor.

Actually, that isn’t true. The first place he goes is his dorm in Boston, then the lab at MIT, then back to his dorm, rinse, repeat, for two weeks.

He doesn't leave Boston until the funeral, and then he goes to New York and watches the coffins go down into the earth; but as soon as it’s over, before Obadiah can steer him towards the waiting company car, Alfred is having a silent conversation with Jarvis, and then Bruce is leading him towards a different car altogether.

Then they are out of New York, headed towards the outskirts of Gotham.

“Obie didn't look happy,” Tony says quietly, two hours into the car ride. 

“Mr. Stane can feel how he likes,” Alfred says. “Mr. Jarvis and I have decided that you ought to get some distance from everything before beginning to take care of business affairs.”

“You also making decisions for me now, Alfred?” Tony asks, biting but also curious.

“I'm happy to turn the car around if you wish,” Alfred replies.

Tony looks at him, and then at Bruce. “That's okay. I'm good,” he says eventually.

Then, thirty minutes and forty miles later, he whispers, “Shit,” and Bruce slings an arm around his shoulders, holding him tightly as he crumples down into a ball in the back seat.

Bruce's grief over his parents is something pure and elemental, the product no doubt of them being genuine, decent people, and of Bruce losing them so early and so violently. Tony's grief is a complicated, knotted up thing by comparison, almost entirely alien to Bruce.

But it is still grief. Bruce knows what to do with that.

 

790.

They fight for their cities, they fight for the world, they refuse to talk about things that they know other people won't really get, because other people didn't grow up the way they did--didn't love, hate, and manipulate their privilege the way they did.

Bruce puts a compound fracture in his arm taking down Killer Croc, and Tony coordinates a kidnapping with the increasingly precocious Dick Grayson, such that Bruce finds himself held hostage out in Malibu with JARVIS and a great many tablet PCs for company.

It’s only Bruce’s respect for the memory of Jarvis-the-man that keeps him from hacking JARVIS-the-AI and getting the hell out. Also, his arm does still hurt. Slightly.

Later in the year, Tony nearly dies (again) and Bruce flies out to New York on the pretense of a business deal while actually conspiring with Rhodes to keep the whiskey out of arm's reach.

There are SHIELD agents lurking in the penthouse, but they don't seem to know Bruce's other identity (or at least are pretending they don’t), and they treat him with blank politeness.

“Wait, Stark had friends in grade school?” one of them, a compact guy with a compound bow on his back, asks. “Friends who can still stand him?”

Well, mostly with politeness.

Bruce smiles blandly. “One friend.”

 

734.

“The truth is...I am Iron Man.”

Bruce lets his head drop onto his desk in despair. Alfred calls him two minutes later.

“It seems we've failed to teach Master Stark the meaning of discretion.”

“Unfortunately,” Bruce says through gritted teeth, head still on the desk, “I don't think we could ever claim to be surprised about that.”

 

960.

Bruce can’t help himself. Let it never be said that Batman is entirely bereft of a sense of humor.

“His brother? Your team has some family issues to work out.”

Tony’s huff of exasperation is particularly static-y down the line. “Adopted brother. A frost giant, apparently. And who are you to judge, exactly? JLA is just as dysfunctional as we are.”

Bruce thinks about Clark suggesting last week that he should just push the Earth out of orbit a bit to avoid a gamma ray burst.

“It's a wonder we haven't all destroyed the world yet,” he says.

There’s a clang down the line; Tony must be in the workshop. “Amen, brother,” he says.

 

941.

In between missions, Bruce gets into the habit of calling Tony to berate him about his yo-yo-ing stock prices.

Tony sees it as a favour, considering that Bruce is just important enough to merit him dropping his real responsibilities to take his calls, and Bruce finds it useful because it means that he can do reconnaissance on corporate buildings while looking like a distracted angry stockbroker.

However, the third time Bruce decides to interrupt (scoping out one of Marconi's old outfits that has since been turned into a white collar crime mill), instead of Tony's drawl he gets a feminine voice which says evenly, “Mr. Stark is in a meeting, Mr. Wayne, so I'll save you the effort and merely pass on that, quote, you can take your truly hurtful criticism of my badass company and shove it up your ass, unquote.”

Bruce pauses. “You have the authority to act as your boss's mouthpiece verbatim, Miss...?”

“Potts. Virginia Potts.”

“Ah, you're Pepper. No wonder.”

“Mr. Wayne, you need to stop—”

“Miss Potts, I commend you for handling Tony for far longer than you probably deserve, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to keep me on the line until Tony's available, so that I can tell him exactly what he's doing to my portfolio.”

“I don't take orders from you, Mr. Wayne.”

“Do you want to hear about the macaroni incident of 1983 or not?”

There's a pause, and then, “I can get him out of the meeting in ten minutes. Spill.”

Ten minutes later on the dot, Tony is on the line, and Bruce is clear to wave off the security guard and head for the elevator. “Bruce, it's not that I mind skipping out of shareholders meetings, but if you steal my PA's loyalty again I will sick Barbara on you.”

“Oracle doesn't—”

“Oracle loves me. We diss Steve Jobs and make plans for world domination together.”

Well, shit. “Listen, if you wanted me to not have dirt on you, you really shouldn't have been such a stupid kid.”

“At least,” Tony says dramatically, “I can say I've lived.”

Bruce rolls his eyes, and launches into a spitting critique of SI's management as he slips into one of the unguarded offices. Tony laughs obnoxiously over the rant in between what sounds like Pepper trying to pry his phone away and then getting into a cab.

“Hey, I heard you have a Amazonian goddess in your line up. How's that going?”

“She has a far firmer grasp of social cues than your Norse god, so I think we'll come out ahead. How's your boyscout?”

“Rogers? He's...surprisingly decent.”

Bruce pauses halfway through picking the lock on a filing cabinet. “Tony. You haven't.”

“What?”

“You have.” The money laundering records are going to have to wait. “Tony.”

“Nothing's going on,” Tony says, a little too sharply. “Steve's a fossil, a literal fossil, like excavated from ice fossil―”

“Fossils don't actually—”

“—and he's straighter than an arrow, so it doesn't even matter.”

Bruce is not the person Tony should be talking to about this. “That doesn't exactly change anything on your end, though.”

“It doesn't matter,” Tony repeats. “You know me, Bruce, I'd eat him alive anyway.”

“From what I hear, he can take care of himself.”

“Yeah, well.”

Bruce swallows. “I have to finish casing this place.”

“You and your broad daylight raids. Are you sure you're nocturnal? I thought Batman was supposed to be a nightmare, not a daydream.”

“I take my opportunities when they come,” Bruce replies. “Now let me tell you about how you're running your company into the ground.”

“Fine,” Tony sighs. “Honestly, I don't get half as much abuse from my board, I should just hire you to be my taskmaster.”

“You have Pepper for that.” He turns back to his lock picks and eases open the file cabinet, and then launches into a diatribe about SI’s projected earnings for the next quarter. 

He tries not to think about Tony's wayward feelings. If he has to give Rogers the ‘you hurt him, I hospitalize you’ talk, he’s going to have to maybe reassess his life choices.

 

143.

What Bruce never says but Tony knows anyway, is that everything Bruce knows about playing the playboy, he learned from the years before Iron Man existed, the years of Tony's life that Tony would come to hate.

Two weeks after Tony’s impromptu welcome home, Alfred brings Bruce a protein shake and says that if Bruce wants to keep up this daft boogeyman charade, then Bruce is expected, on no uncertain terms, to act as a young billionaire should, when not in costume.

And so, Bruce watches the tabloids watch Tony. Tony in designer suits, tripping though expensive clubs, picking up supermodels, puking into trash cans, living hard. Bruce watches and he doesn't call or email, because he doesn't have anything to say to this Tony that he doesn’t really know, and he reads the police reports of disturbing the peace and public disruption, in between highlighting the more serious crimes that he’ll take his time pursuing.

Then he goes and stands in front of his bathroom mirror, and cultivates his Tony Stark smile. He shades it a little duller, a little more insipid and ignorant, but the uncaring, flashy emptiness stays at its core.

Tony ribs him about it, much later, patting his cheek in condescension at a party in the Hamptons, and Bruce bats his hand away, never losing the signature smirk that they now both share and knowingly fake.

Of all the things that Tony has invented over the years, his public mask is the one Bruce respects, and hates, the most.

 

1000.

Eventually, they both end up at a gala in DC. Several of the Avengers are there, as are a couple of members of the JLA. Clark is hovering somewhere on the outskirts with his notepad and attempting to look like a man of balsam rather than one of steel. Bruce is still nursing three broken ribs under his tuxedo from a run-in with the Scarecrow, such that when one of his share-holders vigorously shakes his hand, he barely manages to keep his expression bland and pleasant.

He apparently doesn't do a good enough job, because when Tony greets him, loud and obnoxious, his bonhomie clap on the back looks hearty but comes down on his spine gently, barely causing him a twinge. “Playing too hard?” Tony asks, smile wide and eyes worried.

Bruce returns the smile. “You know how it is.”

“That I do. Hey, have you met Steve? Steve, this is Bruce Wayne, of Wayne Enterprises. We go way back. Bruce, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America.”

Steve is tall and ridiculously chiseled, and he watches Tony with a sort of confused adoration, like he doesn't know why he's in Tony's thrall, but can't be bothered to mind all that much. Huh.

Bruce is going to have to actually indulge in some proper alcohol for this.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wayne,” Steve says earnestly. “It’s always great to meet Tony’s friends.”

“Wow, that is such a lie,” Tony says.

Steve quells him with a look. “Your real friends, Tony,” he says, and oh, that is interesting.

“Pleasure’s all mine, but please call me Bruce,” Bruce says, shaking his hand. “And thank you for your service, Captain.”

Steve nods, but his gaze is steady. “Thank you for yours, Bruce. Gotham owes you a great debt.”

Bruce shoots Tony a look, and Tony shrugs. He touches Steve’s forearm for slightly longer than necessary and says, “I’m gonna grab us some drinks. Coke okay for you?”

“Sure thing,” Steve smiles at him, and watches him slide away through the crowd.

“So,” Bruce starts, and then realizes that if he says ‘What are your intentions towards Tony?’ aloud, he will actually have to call Dick and ask him to come over from Gotham to punch him in the face.

“Are you the Bruce that Tony’s always calling?” Steve blurts, and then his ears turn pink.

Bruce stares at him for a second, and then blinks. And then he laughs, and he’s pretty sure it’s the first time he’s genuinely laughed as Bruce Wayne-in-public in a very long time.

Steve goes redder.

Bruce composes himself, and grins. “That’d be me,” he says. “We used to go to school together. We’ve…watched each other grow up, I suppose.”

Steve nods. Bruce decides to put him out of his misery. “I’m not seeing him, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Oh! Well, I mean, it’s obviously none of my business. I just—”

“It is definitely your business, and that is all I’m going to say about that,” Bruce says flatly.

Tony appears at Steve’s elbow, holding a coke and tumbler of scotch. Bruce snatches the tumbler out of his hands and drains it. “I’ve got to go and mingle,” he announces, handing Tony back the empty glass over his outraged spluttering. “You two have things to talk about, I’m sure. Tony, it’s great to see you, I’m really happy for you, and before you call me in a panic two weeks from now, you do deserve it, stop thinking you don’t. Captain, good to meet you, we’ll talk later. Have a good evening.”

And with that, he walks away, towards the entrance to the ballroom.

Clark falls into step with him. “You know, I totally get it now, why everyone eavesdrops when you decide to lecture me,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s really kind of hilarious when you’re not the one it’s happening to.”

“Shut up, Clark,” Bruce says. He glances back over his shoulder, at Diana chatting with Natalie (no, Natasha), at Tony and Steve, now bent together in quiet conversation, and he thinks also of the Gordons at home in Gotham, and Dick on patrol, and the rest of their collective dysfunctional families.

For two guys like them, he and Tony haven’t done too badly, it seems.

Tony spots him for a split second through the crowd, and mimes ‘I’ll call you’ at him with raised eyebrows.

“Of course you will,” Bruce murmurs.

Clark laughs.

Not too bad at all, really.

 

11.

Bruce plants himself in the doorway at the Stark mansion as Tony packs, which mostly consists of heaping great piles of laundry and books into suitcases until they're fit to burst. "Look at you, all ready to go to college like a real boy," he says.

Tony flips him the bird. He's still scrawny, the mop of his hair too long. Howard and Maria are arguing downstairs, their voices muffled. 

"You need any help?"

"Nah," Tony replies. "I got this." He turns and regards Bruce. "You gonna survive your last couple of years in that hell hole?"

"Obviously," Bruce shrugs. "You'll call though, right?"

"Of course. You know I've got your back."

Bruce smirks. "Pretty sure I got yours first."

Tony snorts, and quirks a smile at him. "Yeah. I guess you do."