It took a week for Bruce to ask to see Tony’s arc reactor. Not that Bruce wasn’t curious. He was, as much as he admitted his emotions to himself, incredibly curious. It wasn’t every day that the chance to learn about, let alone examine, a device that took absolutely everything science knew about harnessing and using energy and turned it on its ear. Bruce would be completely and utterly lying if he’d said that he hadn’t been interested in doing a deep dive into what made the arc reactor tick.
What stopped him was that the arc reactor was attached to Tony. Not that Bruce had a problem with Tony. He suspected he might be one of the very few who didn’t have a problem with Tony, which put Bruce on a short list with Tony’s body guard, JARVIS, and Pepper when she had patience enough to be especially forgiving.
No, Tony was fine. Talking to Tony about science was fine. It just felt a little bit strange to combine the two and ask to see the incredible scientific innovation that happened to reside inside of Tony’s chest.
Sure there were other arc reactors to look at – the ones powering the suits, for example. But Bruce had just enough of a medical background to have an itch that could only be scratched by finding out how Tony had taken the device and merged it with his own body.
So Bruce asked. Finally. After a week of working and staying with Tony at Stark Tower. Bruce figured a week meant that either they were comfortable enough around each other that the question wouldn’t seem intrusive, or that any discomfort would be a sign that Bruce had overstayed his welcome and it was time for him to leave.
Of course Bruce hadn’t considered a third option, which was that Tony’s standards for what was and wasn’t appropriate bore little resemblance to those of, say, anyone else on the planet.
In hindsight Bruce had to admit that should’ve been more obvious to him.
"Sure," Tony said, in response to Bruce’s question. And though it hadn’t been this direct – Bruce couldn’t even think of being that direct – Tony immediately pulled off his shirt and tank top and hopped up on Bruce’s lab table.
Bruce stared at Tony’s bare chest. He’d asked if Tony would mind maybe someday giving him an overview of the reactor. He hadn’t intended it to be now, honestly. He also hadn’t intended it to be a request for Tony to get shirtless. Then again it was Tony. There were probably a lot of things that he interpreted as a request to get shirtless.
"So…" Tony said, drawing the word out into what Bruce realized had been a long silence. "Am I explaining anything or did you want to stand and stare?"
"Explain." Bruce covered up the awkward pause by looking for his glasses. They turned out to be next to Tony’s left thigh. Bruce hoped that was because Tony had been nice enough not to deliberately sit on them. "Sorry. Just – whatever you’re comfortable with. I’m not trying to pry. It’s only –"
"Science. I know. I get it." Tony grinned at him, waggling his eyebrows at the word ‘science’ in the same way he might have at the word ‘strippers.’ Not that he’d ever said the word strippers around Bruce, but Bruce felt safe with the conjecture all the same.
"Right, so, I told you the beginning. Kidnapped, explosions, shrapnel near the ticker, blah, blah." Tony waved all of that off as though it were boring. "Woke up with the first electromagnet in my chest. That one was powered by a car battery."
Bruce tried to imagine what that must’ve looked like. There would’ve been wires. Bruce could pool his knowledge together to come up with where he would’ve attached the wires to Tony to provide the power needed to keep the shrapnel from reaching Tony’s heart. There was nothing about it which sounded appealing. "Fun."
"Oh yeah. Two thumbs up. You should see the review I wrote for TripAdvisor." Tony mimed the two thumbs up part and then kept talking. "The guy who set me up with that was Dr. Yinsen. I’m telling you, you would’ve loved this guy, Bruce. Medical knowledge, engineering, freaking genius. The two of you would’ve been drinking buddies in like five minutes flat. Probably less."
"I’ve read some of his papers," Bruce said, after taking a moment to confirm that the bell rung by Yinsen’s name hadn’t been because he’d heard Tony mention him before.
Something flickered in Tony’s eyes. "Of course you have."
Bruce couldn’t tell if that had been a compliment or an insult or some strange combination of the two. He figured the safest bet was to ignore it. "He helped you with the first reactor?"
"That and the suit," Tony confirmed. "I took the concept of the arc reactor which powered Stark Industries and figured out how to miniaturize it to power the electromagnet keeping me alive and the first version of the Iron Man suit. Yinsen helped me out with all of it."
Bruce knew that the death of the man he’d shared captivity with was a tender spot for Tony. He gave careful consideration to his words before he said, "You created the first Iron Man suit and a miniaturized arc reactor in a cave in the middle of Afghanistan using nothing but spare parts and Yinsen helped you do it? You’re right, I would’ve loved the guy."
Based on the smile Tony gave him that had been the absolute right thing to say. Perfect, even. Bruce felt better knowing that not only had he said it, but that it was true.
"Yes. Exactly!" Tony pointed at Bruce as though he were a game show host awarding him a prize. "Now, brilliant as that was – as, let’s face it, all my creations are – it wasn’t enough to give full power to the suit. Not with all the useful stuff like weapons, flight capability, espresso maker, and so on. So I made the next version of the reactor which powered me and the suits off of the same palladium core."
Bruce had been following along with all of that – yes, of course Tony would need more power for the flight capability – and had even started calculations in his head to figure out the amount of energy needed to combat the G-forces when a word stuck out to him. "Palladium? That would’ve killed you."
There was that flicker in Tony’s eyes again, but his more obvious response was a dismissive snort. "Sure, doc, say that now. Where were you at the time, huh? And don’t say Kolkata. That’s your excuse for everything and I’m already tired of it."
Bruce sensed that there was delicate ground here and he wanted to tread carefully. "Actually my excuse for everything is that I turn into a giant green rage monster."
That… had not been careful. That had been the exact opposite of careful and was, in fact, rude and joking about something that should not be joked about. And yet he’d said it anyway.
Bruce wondered if he could blame Tony for being a bad influence. Though if he was honest he’d admit that the sense of humor was entirely his own. Tony just encouraged him to use it. Which was an influence, certainly.
"Yeah, well, I’m tired of that excuse too." Tony said. "Change the record because it’s getting old. Also your taste in music sucks."
"Your arc reactor?" Bruce prompted him, before Tony could chatter his way too far off course.
"My arc reactor." Tony straightened his shoulders so that the device in his chest was front and center. "Having discovered what you could’ve told me if you’d been here and not willingly hiding yourself under a rock, I had to come up with a new element for the core. Cut to: some experimentation, some posthumous help from dear ol’ Dad, one new particle accelerator built in my garage, and ta da! A brand new element for this and every other arc reactor which will change the face of clean energy as we – wait, why am I explaining the awesomeness of this when there are others who can do it for me? JARVIS, cue up the news reports on –"
"I don’t want to see the news reports," Bruce said. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the glowing circle in Tony’s chest. The words new element floated around in Bruce’s mind along with concepts like Tony building a particle accelerator in his garage and treating it like it was no big deal. Because, to Tony, it wasn’t. "The real thing is more than enough, honestly."
"Well, there it is." Tony gestured towards his chest. "One of the many pinnacles of Stark Technology. Not sure what my next trick will be. Maybe a popcorn popper that doesn’t leave the little kernels at the – "
"Can I touch it?" The question was asked before Bruce realized what words his lips were forming. He didn't do this. Normally he didn't touch things. Not things connected to people, anyway. There was too much of a risk. He’d trained himself to be extremely careful about where his hands were at all times. But he realized that one of his hands was already half way to Tony’s chest, its progress halted by whatever instinct had allowed Bruce’s mind to scramble to catch up and ask permission.
"What? Sure. Yes. Absolutely." Tony braced his hands on the table to leave his torso free and clear. "Mi arc reactor es tu arc reactor. Go crazy."
"Gracias," Bruce replied, because sometimes it was fun to meet Tony halfway on things. Bruce adjusted his glasses and leaned in to get a proper look. He let his hand resume its former progress to skim lightly, gently, fingertips only, along the reactor’s smooth cover. Bruce thought about how it was a remarkable bit of engineering. That as much damage as was done to the suits and Tony in them – and as much damage as Tony did to himself with the suits or not – that there wasn’t even a scratch along the surface.
Even as Bruce let his fingers slowly move from the top of the reactor’s circle to the bottom it felt fine, almost pleasant to the touch. Of course that only made sense. Tony wouldn’t design anything that wasn’t, in his opinion, perfect in every way. Naturally the thing inside of his body, the thing keeping him alive, would have every detail taken care of, from the core to the surface.
And oh what a core. Moving closer, Bruce could see past the lights to the parts of the reactor itself. He thought about that new element, right in front of his eyes (not visible to his eyes of course, but still), and how Tony had managed to create it and the fusion power generating device that was small enough to fit in Tony’s chest yet strong enough to power the suits and so much more.
Of course the suits had their own arc reactors now. Bruce was glad about that. He thought about mentioning it to Tony, how it was good that Tony was letting himself have his own reactor, no sharing, and therefore less danger of it going off, or being damaged, and Tony getting hurt in the process.
Bruce didn’t know if maybe he should say something like that, if Tony would even listen to him. Or if that was the thing to ask now instead of the dozens of questions forming in Bruce’s mind about the specifics of the reactor’s working. Some of which Bruce was able to answer himself as he continued his examination. Others he put on a list so he could ask Tony the right questions, to prove that he was giving Tony the best of his intelligence and attention in return for Tony letting him look like this.
And then there were other questions entirely.
"Are you humming the national anthem?" Bruce asked, after he realized that the sounds he was hearing weren’t coming from the reactor, or the lab, or any of Tony’s collection of robots of various intelligence.
"Yep," Tony replied. He scratched his neck absently, but didn’t otherwise change his position.
Bruce told himself he didn’t want to know. And yet he still asked: "Why?"
"I’m finding it really useful to think about Steve right now." Then, before Bruce could ask another question he was sure he didn’t want the answer to, Tony helpfully continued, "Well, to be fair it doesn’t have to be Steve, much though he has the whole trapped in ice imagery going for him. Could be Barton. Could be Fury. But the only song that comes to mind for Fury is the theme from Shaft and, let’s face it, that doesn’t exactly take a guy’s mind off of sex."
Bruce told himself to shut up. He told himself this was Tony being Tony and not to engage. "Sex?"
Tony gave him an oh please look. "Yeah, hello. The last time I had anybody anywhere near as smart as you this up close and personal to me was the last time I jacked it. So lunch. Though I was thinking of you the whole time. Well not you exactly. Sometimes it was you, sometimes it was your notes. Which I realize counts as you but it’s different enough I figure it’s gotta be worth a mention."
"You took a long lunch," Bruce said, reminding himself more than anything. He frowned at Tony. "My notes?"
"I only read them for the articles, I swear," Tony replied without missing a blink. "And if we’re being technical I took a long shower, but I feel that’s quibbling about unimportant details."
Bruce glanced towards the workspace he’d been using as his desk. "You had my notes in the shower?"
"Whoa, no!" Tony held up his hands. "What kind of idiot do you take me for? That’s sacred stuff! I thought about your notes in the shower. When I wasn’t thinking of you. I wouldn’t ruin your work by – actually, if the shower was set up to display text and images I could have your notes with me while I – JARVIS, start working on a setup for the showers so that I can read and look at things while I’m in there. Why haven’t I thought of this before? I should have thought of this before. Clearly I’ve been distracted. I blame you."
It took Bruce a moment to realize Tony was talking to him again. "How is this my fault?"
"I’m not saying fault, I’m saying distracting," Tony replied. "Which, bee-tee-dubs, if your thumb moves around the edge of my arc reactor one more time I’m not going to be able to think of anything but you, me, a bed of some kind, and you yanking that thing in and out of my chest with precision timing that would make breath play look like the missionary position. And if you’re going to do that to my train of thought you could at least take your shirt off."
Bruce’s eyes went wide. He hadn’t even realized that he hadn’t taken his hand off of Tony’s chest. He didn’t do that. He didn’t touch people in any way but purposefully. Yet there he was, covering the glow of Tony’s arc reactor with his palm while the tip of his thumb moved slowly back and forth along the edge. "Tony, I don’t – "
"Undo a couple of buttons then," Tony said. "We can start slow. I don’t mind slow. The tease might drive me insane but maybe that’s your kink."
"I don't have a kink," Bruce said, because he really, really so did not. His mind was swimming at the mere thought of what Tony suggested about them and timing and Christ. "This isn't a tease. Tony, I don't know what gave you the idea – "
"Um, you asked me to take my shirt off?"
"I asked if I could see your arc reactor!" Bruce replied. He knew that one for damn sure.
"How exactly does that happen when I've got clothes on?" Tony arched his eyebrows up. "Really. I'm curious. Because I know it makes one hell of a night light even with a couple of t-shirts on but if you want to see how it works – "
"—then that is not happening with fiber in the way," Tony finished, as though Bruce's interjection had merely been to agree with him. "You tell me to take my shirt off –"
"Ask. I asked –"
"So now you admit you asked me to take my shirt off."
"To see your arc reactor!"
"Which you then asked to touch and now you're doing something with your palm which, do not get me wrong, I in no way think you should stop because it's causing fascinating reactions at the base of my spine," Tony said, and Bruce started to realize that maybe Tony wasn't breathing hard because of the air he needed to get all those words out of his mouth, "and what else is a guy supposed to think?"
"Anything," Bruce offered. Though he noticed he still hadn't removed his hand from Tony's chest and that, as Tony had pointed out, the heel of his hand was now rubbing semicircles in the space where Tony's skin met the bottom of the arc reactor. "Anything at all. Science. Professional curiosity. Anything that isn't sex."
Tony screwed his face up as though he needed to think hard to translate what Bruce had just told him. "I'm not seeing how science and professional curiosity mean it can't be sex."
"Try," Bruce suggested.
"In fact," Tony continued as though Bruce hadn't spoken at all, "I'd say that would make the sex better since it's taking at least three of my favorite things and putting them into one. Four if we count you as one of my favorite things. And now I'm thinking about you talking science to me while we're in bed and I have to say it's not exactly a turn off."
"That's not happening," Bruce told him.
"Well duh." Tony rolled his eyes. "We're still at the stage where I'm trying to get you to unbutton your shirt. Just one? For me? Doesn't even have to be at the top. Dealer's choice. Surprise me."
"Tony." Bruce pressed his hand deliberately against Tony's chest, trying to get Tony to focus on him. He could feel the thud of Tony's heartbeat under his fingers. Or maybe it was his own pulse that had become more noticeable. Maybe both. Regardless, it was all the more reason to put a stop to things. "I don't know if this is you having fun –"
"Not yet I'm not."
"Or making a joke," Bruce amended, "but whatever it is, stop. It isn't funny."
"I'm not trying to be funny." Tony squinted at him, studying Bruce's face. "Do you – Bruce, I am being the exact opposite of funny. I want you so bad that if you were anybody else I'd have you up against the wall or on the floor by now. But I know you've got that thing about touching so, much as parts of me are turning what I am sure is an attractive shade of blue, I'm holding off."
It was Bruce's turn to frown in confusion. "No you're not."
"Yeah, I am," Tony replied. He looked Bruce right in the eye, which made Bruce feel like he should look away. It seemed… too much, somehow.
"Tony," Bruce tried for a laugh, as though this was just one of Tony's jokes after all. "C'mon. You could have anybody you wanted."
"I could," Tony agreed. "Now let that tidbit of information sink into that genius brain of yours as I sit here about two seconds away from begging you for it. And so we're clear: if that involves being on my knees we can make that happen. I promise there's not much in bed you won't find me willing to do, or that I am not phenomenally good at. You don't have to take my word on the last part, by the way. I can give you references. Or I could show you if you would just let me, Bruce."
Bruce… didn't care for the feeling he got at the thought of Tony's references. Granted it was but one of many feelings that were swirling around him and were only getting worse the more Tony tried to put ideas in his head. But Bruce couldn't shake the one feeling which went down to his very core and had been there for years. "No. It can't happen."
"Give me one good reason why," Tony replied.
Bruce shot Tony his own are you kidding me? look. "Because I turn into a giant green rage monster?"
"Then it works out nicely that nothing I want to do to your testicles involves a cattle prod," Tony retorted. "Bruce, c'mon. You're not even anywhere near a hint of green right now. You're not angry you're – I dunno, nervous or something. Don't be. Stop being the guy who thinks he has to – do – do you just not get how hot I find you? Because I'm reasonably certain I passed being subtle about this like a thousand years ago."
Bruce watched as Tony started to reach out for him and then stopped himself. Stopped, because he knew Bruce had a thing about being touched.
"You are hot, Bruce," Tony said, perhaps taking Bruce's silence as encouragement to continue. Or perhaps he would've continued even if Bruce had shouted. "Your brain is the most amazing – I get hard just thinking about how smart you are. Though don't get me wrong, your body is nothing to complain about either. I mean I wouldn't hate seeing you in clothes that even sort of fit you properly but I'm willing to put that way down on the wish list of items that includes seeing you with no clothes whatsoever. Also on that list, for the record, are about a million things I'd like to do with your mouth, or have your mouth do to me, and again I'm not picky about who gets firsties on that scale."
When Bruce still didn't say anything, Tony kept going, "I'm not saying we have to go right to that if you're not ready. Much as I'd love – and have frequently thought of – the two of us going at it against this very table I'm not saying it has to be the first step. We could do other things. Lots of other things. Big, small, and – you do like this, right? I didn't widely miscalculate your love of cutting edge lab equipment and possible admiration for my own brilliance? Because normally I wouldn't use the arc reactor as an opening move but you did ask and I thought maybe – "
"Tony," Bruce said, interjecting with a quiet murmur.
Tony's teeth clicked together as he snapped his mouth shut. He looked at Bruce expectantly. When nothing was forthcoming he asked, "What?"
"This is a bad idea," Bruce told him.
Then he kissed Tony anyway.