"I'm a mess," Tony said.
Bruce cocked his head and waited. Tony was prone to non-sequiturs--that was a thing you just learned to deal with when you spent any significant amount of time with him. Usually there was a thread to follow; you could, with enough effort, eventually figure out what logical steps and leaps he'd taken to get from point A to point B. This time, though, Tony had simple walked into the lab, watched Bruce thoughtfully for a minute or two, and said something inexplicable. Bruce was in the middle of a project of some considerable complexity, and didn't feel particularly motivated to do the "What's Tony Thinking?" guessing game. So he waited.
Finally, Tony sighed. "I push people away; I've always done it. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes because I'm just being an idiot. I'm no good at taking care of other people--hell, I can't even take care of myself. I'm a trial, and I'm aware of that, but I can't or won't do anything to change it."
Bruce carefully worked his safety goggles off his head and readjusted his glasses. "Is this going somewhere?" he asked gently.
"I kind of thought it was at first," Tony muttered, scratching his head. His hand fell back to his side and he fixed Bruce with a piercing stare. "Why are you still here?"
That was a hell of a question. Why was he still staying at Avengers Tower? When Tony had first extended the invitation, he'd protested, insisting he was too dangerous to stay in the heart of the city, around so many people, but Tony had slowly worn away at his objections. Tony chipped away at his fear and reluctance one smile at a time, one pizza at a time, one late-night visit to Bruce's lab at a time, where they would stay up far too late kicking around ideas and making raunchy jokes about quantum disturbances that probably weren't funny to anyone in the world but the two of them.
It had been a slow and subtle change, but eventually it had worked. Bruce now thought of this place as home, inasmuch as any place could really be home to him, and he felt more comfortable here than he had anywhere in the last eight years.
And, perhaps most unexpectedly, he felt comfortable around Tony. From what he'd heard, Tony had a way of growing on people like that. He was abrasive and socially clueless, but he was also earnest and strangely honest in a way that Bruce couldn't quite make sense of. He would dodge and deflect, but he wouldn't flat-out lie; when Tony bit the bullet and actually said something, you could be sure he meant it, at least a little.
Eventually Tony had wormed his way into Bruce's personal space so thoroughly that when he'd leaned in for a kiss, Bruce hadn't even bothered to be shocked or surprised. It was just the mild curiosity of noticing something that, in retrospect, had always in plain sight.
Surprisingly little had changed after that. Bruce still felt as comfortable as he always had around Tony, and they kept their easy, smooth rapport. The only real difference was that now they would occasionally tumble into bed together or exchange slow, lazy blowjobs in the lab when Bruce was supposed to be working. And one morning, when Bruce woke to see Tony snoring softly and taking up most of his bed, he realized that somewhere along the way, he'd ended up in a relationship with Tony Stark, even though neither of them had bothered to define it.
"I stay because I'm comfortable here," he finally said. "You've given me a place that I feel like I belong. And I stay because of you."
"Because of me," Tony repeated. "Right."
Bruce stepped closer, reaching out to lay a hand on Tony's arm. "Because of you. I love you," he said, the word still feeling blunt and awkward in his mouth. This was a new thing; Bruce had said it for the first time two weeks ago, and had yet to hear it back. Tony Stark was many things, but free with his emotions was not one of them. In a way, Bruce was glad for it; he had a few very good reasons to not want to rush things.
"Right," Tony said, patting Bruce's hand affectionately. As romantic gestures went, it wasn't the greatest, but Bruce took it for what it was. "Thanks for that. For staying. And for...you know."
Bruce's mouth twisted in a wry smile. "I know."
Tony let out a puff of breath. "Okay, this is going really badly, and I'm not sure why I thought it wouldn't, but here goes: I'm a mess and a trial, and probably the worst possible choice for someone like you to consider spending the rest of their life with. The paperwork alone could trigger a code green, since the board has a frankly ridiculous number of bylaws put in place to keep me from sabotaging Stark Industries with a drunken Vegas marriage. A prenup would be pretty much mandatory--not that I don't trust you, but...well, okay, I can't think of any way to put this that doesn't come off as me not trusting you, so I'm not going to bother. And of course the whole thing is a PR nightmare, and you'd be swarmed by paparazzi any time you left the tower. The Avengers stuff I'm not all that worried about, since if there's anyone in the world I trust to set aside emotional issues and not let feelings cloud his better judgement, it's Bruce Fucking Banner. I mean, I'm far more of a liability on that front, but I'm pretty good at pretending to be a callous bastard--which, again, is a reason it's a colossally bad idea, but hey, when have I ever let things like that change my course of action? Anyway," he said, his head down. He looked up through his eyelashes at Bruce, questioning.
"Was there supposed to be a question in there?" Bruce said mildly.
"Shit," Tony said, groaning. "Yeah, like I said, this is going badly."
"Oh, I don't think it's going that badly." Which was a lie, of course. It was taking levels of self-control usually reserved for preventing Hulk-outs to keep from laughing.
"It's pretty bad," Tony said with a sigh. He reached out, grabbed Bruce's hands, and looked him straight in the eye. "So, considering everything I just said, before I fuck this up any more, will you marry me?"
Bruce shook his head with a sad smile. "I can't right now."
Tony's eyes were wide, his face a mask of hurt and disbelief, and it made Bruce's heart ache. Tony so rarely laid his cards on the table so completely, and it was hard to not get swept up in that earnest energy. The Bruce from ten years ago would almost certainly have said yes.
"That's not a no," he said, disentangling one hand to stroke Tony's hair. Tony relaxed slightly, but his brow was still furrowed in confusion. "It's just a...not now. What we have here, whatever it is, is too new. It hasn't been tested. We've never even had a real fight. I love you," he said, and Tony turned to press his cheek into Bruce's hand, "and I think this could be a long term thing, but we still need to get to know each other better. And I'm looking forward to doing that."
Tony opened his eyes and gave Bruce a small smile. "So...ask again tomorrow is what you're saying?"
Bruce laughed. "Tomorrow would be pushing it. But definitely, ask again."
The next morning when Bruce woke, Tony had been gone long enough that the sheets on the other side of the bed were cold, but there was a glass of orange juice sitting on the nightstand and a folded piece of paper propped up against it. Bruce opened it and smiled. See you tonight, it said, Come hungry. Below that was, of all things, a tiny heart.
Well, Bruce thought, it was a start.