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The Spaces between Staying and Walking Away

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1.

"Um, Tony, the airport's that way," Bruce says, halfway through the ride.

"Yup. We're not going to the airport," Tony replies, flashing his shit-eating grin at Bruce, the one he wears when he's getting himself, not to mention other people, into a boatload of trouble.

Bruce frowns at him for a second, rapidly catching up. Still, he tries his best to reason with Tony. "But - you said -"

"I said I was getting you to the airport, big guy, I just didn't say when." And there's that grin again. It's making Bruce really antsy, that grin. All he wants is to go back to a place where no-one knew him, and to get on with his work. Is that really too much to ask?

"Look, Tony, I know what you're trying to do, and I appreciate it, but -"

He's cut off again. "But nothing. And I'm not trying to do anything, I just want to show off my lab to someone who will actually appreciate it. C'mon, you know you want to."

Bruce pauses for a second, because yeah, a full-blown lab with no expenses spared sounds pretty tempting after years of being on the run. Judging by Tony's tone, he knows it, too, and he's not hesitating in using it to his advantage. Still, there is the way Tony is looking at him, sideways and pretending not to look at all. And plus, is Bruce going mad or is Tony actually looking at him hopefully, there, for a second?

Bruce relents, because he really wants to see the lab, but also, there's something nice about having someone actually wanting him around, for once. "Fine, but just for a few days, all right?"

Tony's delighted smile is answer enough, and he blasts AC/DC all the way home. Bruce decides that he doesn't actually mind.

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2.

A few days turn into a few weeks without him even realising, and by the time he does, he finds that he's already carved out a place for himself in the Stark Towers. Not a big one, admittedly, because after years of living with the barest amount of things to survive on, minimalism is kind of ingrained in him already. Still, it's the little things he notices first.

He now has his own space in Tony's lab. There are lots of huge, unused laboratories in Stark Towers that he could have happily settled for, but Tony wouldn't have any of it. He insists that his lab is the most advanced, and that's where Bruce should be. And moreover, he adds, he wouldn't mind having someone to bounce his ideas off of - someone who isn't JARVIS, at least. Bruce suspects that Tony just likes having someone around, but he doesn't say anything, because honestly, he likes having Tony around, too. After all, lab-work is usually pretty lonely, and having someone to talk to, and in Tony's case, to tease mercilessly, is a very welcome change.

Soon, he's having lunches and dinners with Tony, and Pepper, too, when their crazy schedules actually coincide. Bruce was a little concerned about Pepper's reaction to, y'know, him basically being a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off, but he shouldn't have even worried. He gets to call her 'Miss Potts' just once, before she insists on Pepper. He doesn't argue, and they've gotten along famously ever since. The best thing about Pepper, Bruce decides, is that with her around, he gets to annoy Tony just as much as the other man does him. Only much more subtly, of course.

He and Pepper have taken to commiserating about Tony, while being in range of his hearing. Sometimes they'd hear a mock-affronted "hey!" or "that's not true!" from Tony. He doesn't really mind, though, judging by the way he usually tries, and fails, to hide his grin.

When he realises just how settled he’s become in Tony’s home, Bruce has a minor freak-out. This isn’t him, not anymore. He’s not supposed to be here, playing roommate to a genius billionaire inventor. He’s supposed to be out there, trying not to hurt anyone, and to do some good to make up for all the shitty things he’d done.

So, he packs up what little things he has, and plans to leave quietly, without anyone noticing. He should have known it wouldn’t work, really. Tony, being Tony, barged in his room without knocking, talking a mile a minute about his latest project. He only stops when his mind finally registers the open duffle-bag sitting on Bruce’s bed.

A slew of emotion plays across his face – confusion, worry, and Bruce thinks he even spotted a flash of hurt there – for just a second, before his cheerful mask slips back on.

“Oh, good idea, I’ve been meaning to move you to a bigger room,” he says, and strides across the room to pick up the bag. “Yeah, I’ve got just the room; it’s only a floor down from mine. You’ll love it.”

Bruce moves to protest, but his words dies in his throat when Tony’s eyes locks on his. Bruce has never bought the whole ‘eyes are the windows to the soul’ thing, but in Tony’s case, he might make an exception. Because Tony’s eyes are saying everything he’s not. Stay, and, surprisingly, for Tony, please.

Well, staying a few more weeks won’t cause any harm, would it? This time, he’ll tell Tony upfront, so it won’t take him by surprise. Yeah, a few more weeks and then he’ll leave.

Taking a deep breath, he says, “So, show me this room, then.”

Tony’s grin, his real one this time, is blinding.

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3.

See, this is the way life works, if you’re Bruce Banner. He spends some time in some remote parts of the world, offers his medical services to the locals if they have a need for it, and makes a home in an unfamiliar world. A while later, he moves on, and the process starts all over again. Over time, the routine becomes comfortingly familiar; soothing even. He stays off the grid, and bolts at even the slightest hint of military surveillance.

So, to say that he’s not used to this life would be an understatement. He’s still not used to having people around who are perfectly aware of what he is, and still be willing to let him into their lives. And in Tony’s case, still be willing to poke him with a sharp stick without even a hint of fear in his eyes.

So, yeah, he’s not used to this at all, because it seems too good to be true. Sometimes, he feels like he’s walking on eggshells all the time, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, of course, it does.

There have always been concerns about having a giant, green, uncontrollable monster in the Avengers. These usually came from people who generally know next to nothing about them, and Fury’s usually very good at shutting down those concerns, so Bruce doesn’t spend time worrying about it. Well, not much, anyway.

But suddenly there are talks about ‘examining’ him, to see what makes him tick. Of course, Bruce is one of the first people to know about this, because JARVIS is monitoring all the channels concerning the team, and he’s very good at his job. Bruce knows exactly the kind of ‘examining’ the army intends to do, and he also knows that if they get him in a lab, his chances of being let out is, realistically, slim to none.

His first instinct is to run. After all, running’s served him well all those years, why wouldn’t he turn to it now?

Tony must have at least an inkling of what is going on in his mind, because when Bruce gets there that very night, he’s waiting outside their laboratory.

Bruce doesn’t say a word, because what is there to say, really? Even if he wants to stay, which he’s beginning to admit to himself that he does, there is no way he’s letting himself become a lab rat, to be pulled apart and put together again, at someone else’s leisure. No. Been there, done that, got the mental scars to prove it. Never again.

So he lets himself into the lab without a word, and Tony follows him inside, equally quiet. To Bruce’s surprise, Tony immediately engages the privacy locks, and then turns around to face him. Bruce starts to say something, anything to break the silence that suddenly feels oppressive. But Tony gets there first.

“Look, I get it if you want to leave,” he says, very seriously. It makes Bruce a little bit worried, because he’s seen Tony face things that could crush him with a quip and a smirk, but he’s never seen him looking this grave.

“If you’re leaving, I’ll personally make sure that wherever you’re going, they’re not going to find you,” Tony says, looking everywhere but at Bruce.

“But,” he continues, and now his eyes are locked on Bruce’s face. “But, if you decide to stay, they’re not going to lay a hand on you. Not even a finger, because you know what? I’m not going to let them. Me and JARVIS and the team? Hell, even Pepper; we’d take on anything - destroy anything - that tries to hurt you, okay?” All that is said softly, deliberately expressionless. That, Bruce understands. He’s done it himself enough times. No emotions, you tell yourself, because you can’t bear to show what’s really underneath.

In the face of that, Bruce is speechless. Because he hadn’t realised. He hadn’t seen how much he had, here, that this bunch of people – flawed, broken, amazing people – are willing to risk so much, just for him.

How can he say no to something like that? Oh, don’t get him wrong, he’s still scared – terrified, really – but looking at Tony now, he thinks that he can survive this. He’s been running far too long. And if they want him now, they can damn well come and get him.

He tells Tony that, and the fierce joy on the other man’s face makes the decision far too easy for his liking.

But then Tony says softly, just at the edge of his hearing, “You won’t regret this, I promise.” And he knows that they’ll be fine.

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4.

Coming back from the Hulk, well, let’s just say it’s not a particularly pleasant experience. Most times, he wakes up – on the ground if he’s lucky, or in the middle of a pile of rubble if he’s not – disoriented, and in quite a bit of pain from the transformation.

This time is no different, except that he usually has an idea of what exactly caused him to transform. Now, though, there’s nothing. The last thing he remembers is Tony Stark’s face, and while he could be very irritating sometimes, Bruce doubts that it was enough to cause him to lose control.

So when he blinks his way awake, he’s not sure of what to expect. The first thing he sees is the damage, all around him. Shattered furniture, broken glass, bits of the ceiling missing, the usual. Regrettable, but not unexpected at this point.

What is unexpected, however, is the fact that he is lying on a mostly-intact sofa, and it appears that somebody had covered him with a blanket.

“Hey, buddy,” says a quiet voice, just to his left. “You awake?”

He twists around, trying to find the source, and felt his muscles twinge in protest. He finds Tony, sitting in a propped up armchair, looking a little worse for wear, but not much.

“What…what happened?” he says, and tries to sit up. Okay, yeah, not a good idea, as his body immediately aches with pain.

To his surprise, he feels warm, callused hands pressing him back onto the couch. He blinks a little, and Tony’s face swims into focus above him, his face sporting fresh cuts and bruises. That’s when he realises, Tony’s not in the suit. And that means…

“Hey, no, don’t worry,” Tony says quickly, probably seeing the change in his expression. “You didn’t hurt anyone. Well, not anyone who’s not trying to kill us, anyway.”

Tony relays the abbreviated version of the incident. Apparently, a few nasty aliens snuck past Stark Towers’ defences, and took them by surprise. The other guy made an appearance, and held them off long enough for backup to arrive and finish them off.

Even in Bruce’s still-hazy mind, something didn’t make sense. Tony had mentioned Bruce’s part in the fight, and all the team, too, but he hadn’t mentioned himself once. And well, for all his qualities, Tony Stark isn’t exactly the modest type. So he has to ask.

Tony tries to pass it off as nothing, that he just sat out the battle because he didn’t have the suit at hand, but Bruce knows that something is definitely wrong. Tony’s looks had turned shifty the moment he asked the question. Bruce would never have pegged him for a bad liar, but there it is.

“Tony…” says Bruce, as seriously as he can manage. “What the hell happened, really? And if you weren’t in the fight, how are you so banged up?”

And Tony…he flinches, at that. Just a little bit, something Bruce probably wouldn’t have noticed, if he isn’t paying attention. But it did happen, and that tiny movement causes a jolt of dread to snake down his spine.

He scrambles up, paying no attention to his screaming muscles. Tony makes a noise of protest, and hurries to steady him when he starts to sway.

“Did I-” he says, forcing the words past his lips. “Did I hurt you, Tony?”

Tony looks at him then, his eyes dark and serious, and Bruce knows, immediately, that the answer is yes. He’s the cause of those cuts and bruises marring Tony’s face.

Oh. Oh no. This is exactly what he was trying to avoid when he ran away, before. He knew that this is a bad idea, staying here, taking the huge risk of hurting someone every time he changes. And now it’s happened, and to Tony, of all people.

“I need…I need to leave,” Bruce says, trying to get to his feet.

He doesn’t manage to, because a pair of hand settles on his shoulders, holding him there. He looks up, swallowing when he sees Tony’s expression. Gentle and concerned, but not wary. Not scared.

“You saved my life,” he says, casually, as if it’s really that simple. Bruce watches him closely, trying desperately to believe Tony’s words. “The other guy, I mean. He pushed me into a wall, to keep me from getting hit. I mean, it hurt, don’t get me wrong, but a few scrapes is a small price to pay for staying alive, don’t you think?”

Bruce blinks, slowly, trying to process this new information. Shaking his head, he says, “He was trying to…” He trails off, because he’s honestly not sure how to continue.

“Protect me, yeah,” says Tony. “That’s twice now. I think the Big Guy’s pretty fond of me, y’know.” He’s grinning now, a little gleefully.

Bruce shook his head in wonder, because if there’s anyone who would be glad that a giant green creature is fond of him, of course it would be Tony Stark.

“Hey,” says Tony, soft now. “Thanks for saving my life, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Bruce says, shakily, trying to speak trough the lump in his throat. “Any time, Tony.”

He runs out of words, then, and Tony seems to understand, because he moves to sit beside him on the couch. Propping him up, really, because Bruce doesn’t have enough energy to stay upright on his own.

“I think you might be right though,” Bruce says, after a long pause. “The other guy does like you, quite a lot, it seems.”

And he hopes that Tony understands what he means, but can’t say just yet. That what he’s really saying is, “I’m quite fond of you, too.” Judging by the smile he gets in return, Bruce thinks that he’s managed to get the point across.

“Me too, big guy,” Tony says, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “Me too.”

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The first inkling Tony has that something is wrong is when Bruce drops to sleep in the middle of a research session in the lab. That in itself wouldn’t have been a concern, because let’s face it, it’s something that Tony has done countless times, too, after pulling all-nighters in the workshop.

No. what makes Tony concerned is the way Bruce startles awake from his sleep, and immediately looks around in panic. He only calms down when he catches sight of Tony, and recognises where they are.

When Tony asks him about it, Bruce tries to brush it off as nothing. He says that it’s only a bad dream, and can they get back to the science now?

Tony agrees, but keeps a watch out for him anyway. Now that he’s paying attention, he sees that Bruce is sporting heavy bags under his eyes, and he looks tired and beaten-down. Almost as bad as he looked when he first joined the Avengers, if he’s honest.

They should have noticed, really. All of them, but particularly Tony, since he’s spending the most time with the man. But he’s not used to this. Looking out for someone else; even having someone to look after? Yeah, not his strong suit.

But still, they should have noticed, especially when the last few days were so bad, and were chock full of nightmare material, for all of them. But, y’know, this is kind of their life now, this is what being an Avenger is all about. Bad days are followed by another bad day, and if they’re really unlucky, a very, very bad day.

Tony forgets, sometimes, that this isn’t how life should be; that people shouldn’t be under the stress of fighting alien invasions and defeating supervillians every other week. Because his life has always been hectic, and those things just seemed like the freakin’ icing on the cake.

After all, when Tony’s angry or just plain frustrated, he’d let off steam by destroying something expensive in the workshop or making life miserable for some poor employee. But then again, he’s not the one that has to keep his emotions under wraps, lest a giant green monster comes out to play. So, they should have anticipated this, maybe.

So, one day, when Tony finds Bruce in the kitchen, staring into a mug of cold coffee and looking like he’s trying desperately to fight off sleep, he’s not surprised. He doesn’t say anything, just brews a fresh pot of coffee and then slides into a seat opposite Bruce.

“Can’t sleep?” asks Tony.

Bruce smiles, thinly. “Don’t really want to,” he replies.

“Nightmares?” Tony asks, honestly curious.

“Yeah, sometimes,” Bruce replies slowly, choosing his words carefully. “It’s just…I don’t have any control when I’m asleep. Fear and adrenalin and bad, bad images? Perfect recipe for the Hulk.”

And that Tony understands. Not the Hulk part, obviously, but the nightmares, and the fear. Those he gets, because he knows what that's like. The things that you tell yourself, that you have to tell yourself, just to get some sleep. You’re not there anymore. It’s not real. It’s over.

And sometimes, nothing works. Not exhaustion, not alcohol, nothing. He knows that first hand, because sometimes, he still wakes up terrified, dreaming about caves and car batteries. So yeah, he understands.

“What do you need?” he asks, because he knows that there’s no point in empty reassurance, and that’s probably the last thing Bruce wants, anyway.

“I need to go,” he says, voice low. “Get away from…you know, all this.”

Tony’s stomach drops when he hears Bruce’s words, but honestly, he’s been expecting this. He’d stopped Bruce from leaving before, every time he tried, because those times, he could see that Bruce had really wanted to stay, but was leaving for someone else’s sake. But this time? This is him saying that he needed to leave, and for his own good.

So Tony just nods, and tells him to wait for the morning, and that he’ll arrange for a jet to take him anywhere he wants to go. Bruce smiles at him, grateful, and maybe a little sad, too, and they sit together until the morning comes.

That’s how Pepper discovers them, sitting with a pot of coffee between them and talking softly. When she hears that Bruce is leaving, she hugs him, kisses his cheek and tells him to stay in touch. Bruce agrees, but they both know that he probably won’t. Before she leaves to make the arrangements, Pepper shoots Tony a sad little look that he can’t decipher.

Just before Bruce leaves, Tony hands him a bundle of cash that Bruce he could probably make last for years, and a slim, black satellite-phone.

“Don’t worry,” Tony says. “I won’t even contact you if you don’t want me to. Nobody else has the number, just me and Pepper. Not even Fury.”

Bruce gives him a wry smile. “Do you really think you can keep anything from Fury?”

Maybe not. So he gives Bruce a hard hug and sends him on his way, because that's what friends do, and turns away as soon as the plane takes off.

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After a week, he hasn’t heard anything from Bruce, who is supposedly somewhere deep in India again. Just when he thinks he’s not going to hear from the man again, he gets a text message.

Met a kid today, a whiz with tech. Practically had a workshop in his shed. Reminded me of you.

The message is short, and more than a little random, but Tony grins widely anyway, because this is Bruce, and he’s talking to Tony, even when he doesn’t have to.

A few weeks later - Saw you on TV today. That crash looked like it hurt. You okay?

Tony knows he shouldn’t, he knows, but –

Yeah. No Hulk to catch me this time. I’m fine, though, but Pepper’s giving me a lecture, and by the way, she says hello.

A month passes with radio silence at the other end, and Tony’s starting to get concerned. To distract himself, he gets started on his plans to re-build a floor for each member of the team. And even with him being halfway around the world, he starts with Bruce’s.

And then suddenly, out of the blue, he gets a message. There’s something for you at your front door. As if right on cue, JARVIS informs him that there’s somebody standing outside the house.

Tony raises his eyebrows and makes his way to his front door. When he does, he thinks that it’s a good thing he started on Bruce’s floor first. Because there, standing on his doorstep, is a dishevelled, scruffier-than-usual scientist smiling self-consciously, with a duffel-bag slung over his shoulder.

Tony smiles, and gestures him inside. Truthfully, he had expected Bruce to come back at some point, but after the non-communication over the last month, he wasn’t sure of what to think.

“While you were gone, I Hulk-proofed some of the rooms,” he says, just to watch the surprise that blooms on Bruce’s face. “And I upgraded the labs, too, so there are more cool toys than ever.”

“You knew I’d come back?” Bruce asks with amusement, as if he’s not surprised at all.

“Well, it’s more of a hunch, really,” says Tony. “So, are you staying this time?”

“Yeah,” Bruce says. “Yeah, I think I am.”