It is nine AM on a Saturday, and Bruce wakes up to Penelope Garcia sitting on the end of his bed, watching him.
“Oh,fuck, Garcia,” he says, reeling back. “Are you here to kill me?”
“Not yet, Bruce Banner,” she says, slowly. “Not yet.”
Bruce grabs for the t-shirt he abandoned on the floor last night and pulls it on. He takes his time sitting up, pulling the sheets around him because he just slept in his boxers and he doesn’t need to give Garcia any more opportunity to talk about his ass. She claims it’s one of her favorite conversation topics.
“Have I done something?” he asks. “Do I need to repent?”
“We are neither of us Catholic, Banner. I just come as an intermediate for a mutual friend who, quite like yourself, has literally no idea what is going on in his own life,” she says. Garcia always talks like she’s reciting a monologue, and Bruce has never not been impressed by it, even after she’s broken into his apartment at an unholy hour.
“You use so many words,” Bruce murmurs, turning to press his forehead against the cold wall. “What are you talking about this time?”
“How long have you been in love with Spencer?” she asks, and wow, there was nothing roundabout about that question at all. He turns to meet her eyes, and she looks completely serious.
“I,” Bruce says, as calmly as he can, “still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know your life, Bruce Banner,” she says. “I know things about yourself that even you don’t know.”
“You’re the reason I deleted my Facebook,” Bruce says. He doesn’t exactly like the idea that she’s been digging into his past, especially considering he knows exactly what Garcia can do with a computer and enough time on her hands. He’s hardly an open book about some of the worst aspects of his life. Actually, when it comes to those, he’s more like a closed book with a padlock on it kept in a safe at the bottom of the ocean, and he likes it that way.
“I stopped looking when I hit the things that gave you old, old eyes, because those aren’t my secrets to know,” she continues. “I just wanted to check your possible arrest records before I allowed your and Spencer’s relationship to move forward. Now, I just have a few questions for you that I couldn’t find answers to. Who is your favorite Star Trek captain, are you a top or a bottom, and have you ever been careless with a delicate man?”
Bruce stares at her, and she slowly raises one eyebrow in reply.
“Picard, I’m not telling you that, and no,” he says, in one breath. “Also, Spencer and I don’t have a relationship.”
Garcia laughs. It only sounds a little bit evil.
“Okay, babe,” she says, leaning over to pat his knee through the sheets. “I guess you two are more alike than I thought.”
She gets up and straightens her skirt out before heading for the door. Bruce drops back down onto his pillows when the door shuts then jumps when she comes back in a few seconds later.
“Jesus, Penelope,” he groans.
“Oh, calm yourself,” she says, leaning into his doorframe. “I just wanted to tell you that you and Spencer should try talking about your respective families someday. It might be good for both of you.”
Bruce doesn’t want to know how far she went in her research. Her face has gone soft, gentle, and he doesn’t know anything about Spencer’s family except that he never mentions his dad and he’s hesitant about his mom.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay.”
Garcia blows him a kiss and actually leaves, and Bruce pulls his sheets up to his neck and pretends like he’s going to go back to sleep.
The first time Bruce meets Spencer Reid, he has overslept, and he’s running to make it to his TA gig on time and instead runs straight into this kid who murmurs something crude in Latin and catches himself on Bruce’s shoulder. His open messenger bag tips over in the process and spills out over the sidewalk.
“I am so sorry,” Bruce says, falling to his knees to help rescue print-outs and return them to their folders. “I’m normally better at multitasking.”
“Multitasking?” the kid asks, head bent down as he carefully puts each pen back in one of the pockets of his bag. Bruce picks up a heavy textbook that survived the fall aside from a few crumpled pages and holds it out.
“Panicking about losing my job and running,” he says, and the kid looks up with a small smile and these stupidly nice brown eyes.
“You should probably keep trying, then. ” He takes the book from him. “I can handle this.”
“Oh god, yes, I should. Thanks, and sorry, again,” Bruce says. He gets up to make a mad dash for his building, feeling like he’s maybe the worst at being a person, especially when he’s having to teach undergraduates at 8:00 in the morning.
The first time Bruce meets Penelope Garcia is the second time he meets Spencer Reid, and the first thing she asks him is if he always goes around assaulting defenseless children. He tries to explain how he’s incapable of being a human being at the same time that Spencer objects to being called a defenseless child. They all end up spending the day together, and, at the end of the night, Garcia kisses his cheek and Spencer won’t stop smiling at him.
Bruce had spent years before quietly going about his life in careful motions, studying and keeping to himself, studying and keeping to himself, studying and keeping to himself and never going out of the walls he neatly built around himself since childhood. It was easier that way. He never expected anyone to carve out a place in their life for him because he never let it get that far.
He never expected them to come along and change everything.
There’s some stuff in there early on that’s less pretty, like where he was briefly seeing Tony Stark while Tony was still with his girlfriend and Garcia judged him and Spencer didn’t say much of anything besides awkwardly reciting the historical significance of polyamory. It was a few weeks late last spring where they didn’t hang out much, and then Bruce broke it off with Tony and showed up at Garcia’s apartment with an ice cream cake and the 1st season of Buffy, claiming spring fever.
The point is, in his second to last year in his doctorate program, Bruce Banner makes two unexpected new friends out of a terrifying, rainbow-haired computer genius and a seventeen-year-old prodigy who will probably be the next Caltech alum to win a Nobel. There’s not a lot that matters, other than that.
Bruce TA’s for one of the Physics professors, and he always ends up teaching the freshmen classes on his own while Dr. McKay is off trying to get a McArthur grant and terrorizing his advisees. His only instructions at the beginning of this year were “weed out the worst of them so I don‘t have to deal with it next year,” so he tries to be as merciful to them as possible. They do a lot of hands-on labs and practical application and, since Bruce gets to write the tests instead of McKay, nobody has ever run out of the classroom sobbing.
He’s fifteen minutes into an introductory lecture on the next chapter of the text when he notices that Tony’s sitting in the back row. He reacts the second that Bruce notices him, propping up his feet on the chair of the flustered looking girl in front of him and grinning.
He keeps going, because he’s nothing if not professional, but he’s pretty sure at least half the class has forsaken him in favor of glancing at Tony every three seconds.
After they’ve all filed out, Tony gets to his feet and walks down the steps until he’s standing in front of Bruce’s podium.
“Oh, teacher,” Tony says, batting his eyelashes. “Can we discuss that extra credit assignment?”
“Can we discuss why you’re upsetting the freshmen?” Bruce asks.
“I didn’t upset them,” Tony says. “Did you see their adoring gazes? They’ve heard stories about me.”
“And every one of them is true,” Bruce says, trying not to smile.
“Damn straight.” Tony puts his hands on the front of the podium, leveling a serious gaze at him. “But, unexpectedly, I am not here to talk about me. I am here to discuss the very serious matter of your love life.”
This can’t be a coincidence. There is something rotten in the state of Caltech.
“Have you been talking to Garcia again?” he asks. “You know the FBI almost came for you the last time.”
“That was not our fault, their shoddy security was endangering our country and, also, there are not a sufficient amount of PSAs warning children about the dangers of mixing tequila and hacking,” Tony says, shaking his head mournfully. “How could we have known?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Oh, yeah. We may have. . .think-tanked the topic,” Tony replies.
“Did said think tank involve tequila?” Bruce asks.
“Tequila is a constant in my life, Bruce. We’re never apart.”
Bruce is well aware. It’s one of the reasons his stupid tryst with Tony didn’t last very long. If Bruce isn’t going to drink, he’s not going to be able to deal with someone whose body mostly consists of hard liquor. And Bruce isn’t going to drink.
“Well, nice talk,” he says, grabbing his bag and heading for the door. Tony jogs to catch up with him outside the classroom. He grabs Bruce’s wrist to get him to stop, and Bruce freezes, stiffens. Tony lets go of him instantly and takes a small step back.
“Hey, sorry, your personal space thing,” he says, voice low. “I forget.”
Bruce looks at him for a long moment, all big dark eyes and forehead wrinkled, concerned. Every once and awhile, Tony gets serious, and that’s when everyone knows to actually take what he’s saying without the usual necessary grain of salt.
“It’s fine, I‘m fine,” Bruce says. He lets himself smile this time. “Do you want to make a closing statement or something?”
“Penelope gave me something to recite about opening yourself up to happiness and letting go of your worries or something, I think she’s writing a self help book, but the point is: I am going to improvise.” Tony lifts a hand and Bruce shifts closer to give him permission to touch his arm. Fingers close gently on his elbow and stay there. “You’re a fucking amazing person who doesn’t know they’re fucking amazing, which doesn’t happen all that often. You deserve someone who realizes all of that.”
“Oh, Tony, dearest,” Bruce says. “Are you proposing?”
“Proposing that you stop punishing yourself for whatever reason you’re always, always punishing yourself that you never talk about because you‘re an international man of mystery,” Tony says. He lets go of Bruce and backs away, adding in a rushed voice, “And also proposing that you remember how your little prodigy friend turned eighteen last month, so it’s officially legal and less creepy if you two decide to go to town on each other.”
At that, Tony turns on his heel and makes for the nearest stairwell before Bruce can say anything else. He doesn’t know what he would say, anyway. He thinks he should probably talk to Spencer. They’re both waist-deep in research for their theses, so they’ve spent the last week or so in isolation aside from a few meals and stray text messages.
He heads for McKay‘s office, instead, pulling out his phone on the way to text Garcia: can’t believe you involved tony.
He gets a text back five seconds later: desperate times, hon.
Once he’s settled in with his laptop, he turns his phone off and tries to work instead of thinking about the fact that he hasn’t really denied anything they‘ve implied. He’s never even argued that maybe he doesn’t want Spencer or maybe Spencer doesn’t want him. It seems useless; there are things that all of them know that never get said, and maybe it’s because Spencer was seventeen before but it’s not like he’s any different now. A month hasn't changed anything.
When he turns his phone back on a few hours and a lot of angst later, he has a text from Spencer that says: garcia keeps sending me hourly reminders that normal people eat three times a day and often use it as a social activity. deli across from campus?
Bruce stares helplessly at the screen for too long before he texts him back and packs his bag again. McKay can deal with the backlash over never coming to his office hours by himself.
Spencer’s already halfway through a BLT when Bruce walks in, and there’s another one sitting untouched across from him. He slides into the booth, and Spencer looks up with a smile.
“Hey, stranger,” he says. He’s sitting sideways in his street, long legs stretched out so his feet hang off the end of the bench.
“Hey back,” Bruce says. “I hope this is for me.”
“I realized earlier that I actually didn’t remember the last time I’d eaten anything other than Skittles. I figured it was foreseeable that you were in a similar situation,” Spencer replies, then turns his attention back to his sandwich.
“I’m surviving entirely on coffee and will power,” Bruce says, nodding. “I’m not even brewing the coffee, I just eat the beans as I weep onto my keyboard.”
“I think I started hallucinating at some point,” Spencer says. “That, or the ghost of Isaac Newton really did visit me in the night.”
Bruce snorts, almost choking on his drink. They fall into a comfortable silence as they eat, Bruce watching Spencer almost without realizing it. The dark circles under his eyes are out in full force, but he looks relaxed in the moment, head tilted to rest against the back of the booth.
“Hey, have you been getting harassed recently?” Spencer asks, suddenly, and Bruce blinks at his profile
“Yes, actually,” he says. “Garcia broke into my apartment and Tony decided to audit one of my freshman classes.”
“I thought so.” Spencer doesn’t turn his head to look at Bruce, just keeps staring somewhere at the wall ahead of him. “I got a lot of mysterious messages slipped under my door and then both of them kidnapped me and took me to Waffle House at four in the morning.”
“Yeah?” Bruce asks, carefully. “And, uh, what did they want to talk about?”
“My lack of romantic entanglements and how I was a good person who should open myself up to the possibility of love. Actually, the phrase ‘eternal love flames’ was utilized. Do you think Garcia’s trying to write a self help book?”
“I’ve heard tell,” Bruce says. “And all of that sounds very familiar.”
Spencer nods. He laces his hands together, stretches his arms out as he yawns.
“They alluded to you a lot,” he says, quietly.
Bruce swallows hard.
“I think they have plans for us,” Spencer continues.
“I think they have too much time on their hands, considering they have the same deadlines as us,” Bruce adds, and Spencer smiles at the ceiling, faintly.
The silence that falls isn’t comfortable anymore, and Bruce is hyperaware of the noise the ice in his drink makes as he picks it up, the way Spencer is neatly cracking each knuckle like he does when he’s nervous. He’s considering getting up and running away and attempting to beat himself to death with the first few chapters of his thesis when Spencer says, almost too quiet to hear, “It’s okay if you’re freaked out. They just get these ideas in their head, you know?”
Bruce waits for a long moment before he says, “What if I’m not freaked out, though?”
Spencer finally turns to look at him, then, eyes widening like he can’t even stop them. He moves slow and cautious, dropping his feet to the floor and folding his arms on the table.
“Unless you’re freaked out,” Bruce continues, “you know, because I’m old and impossible to be around.”
“You’re not old, you‘re not even twenty-five,” Spencer says, “and if anyone’s impossible in this scenario, it’s me. I claim impossibility.”
“This scenario?” Bruce asks.
“This you and me being. . .together. . .scenario. . .” Spencer says, slowly. He makes a face at Bruce, who laughs.
“I don’t think either of us know how to go about this,” he says.
“Penelope’s been setting me up on dates with her brother’s friends forever, but I don’t exactly have enough in common with high schoolers to make that work,” Spencer says. “I always end up saying something about that they would need a degree to understand and it gets weird.”
“Well,” Bruce says, “I have one of those.”
“How did you and Tony happen?” Spencer asks, like he’s been building up to it. They’ve never talked about him and Tony, a big unspoken rule because Garcia gets pissy and Spencer gets quiet and Bruce would prefer to not think about it at all.
He says, “I don’t want us to happen like that.”
He doesn’t hate Tony or anything, but what they had wasn’t good. They were working together on project for a few weeks, spending all night in the library, and Tony wouldn’t stop joking and Bruce wouldn’t stop laughing at his jokes. He knew about Pepper, that they were still dating, but he didn’t stop himself. He’d just spent the weekend with his aunt, seeing pictures of his mom all over her house, and he didn’t want to stop himself anymore.
Spencer nods. He swirls his straw in his drink, then says, “I think we’re supposed to talk?”
“That was the plan,” Bruce agrees. “Share our childhood trauma.”
“Let’s walk back to my room.” Spencer doesn’t give him any time to argue, getting up and hefting his messenger bag over his shoulder. Bruce could probably list everything that’s in it at the moment, library books, legal pad, pens neatly lined up in the side pocket. He could list the things that make Spencer smile, if he needed to. He’s known all this for awhile.
Outside the deli, Bruce says, “You’ve never mentioned your father,” to which Spencer quickly replies, “Neither have you.” He eases into it, though, when Bruce doesn’t push. As they walk back, close enough that their shoulders brush and they can both tell that the other is comfortable, Spencer tells him about his father leaving a note and never coming home again, how he remembers everything like he’s replaying a movie in his head but can’t seem to piece together details about his father’s face or voice.
On the steps to Spencer’s dorm, Bruce tells him about his father seeking help in the bottoms of bottles and going off into rages when he didn‘t find any, about getting caught in the path too many times. About bruises and broken arms and his mom crying in his bedroom, holding his hand. He draws off, smiles politely when people pass by, and Spencer stands close, close, close. He keeps an hand on Bruce’s arm like his fingers might be the only things keeping him upright.
In the elevator, Spencer tells him about his mom’s schizophrenia, about making the choice to have her committed (just last month, and he didn‘t tell Bruce; Bruce didn‘t even know), and inside his room with the door shut, he tells him he’s worried about genetics and stress and never doing everything he needs to do.
On the bed, Bruce tells the story of his mom dying and his dad getting taken away for the first time in years, and Spencer breathes quietly and makes eye contact the entire time. After that, the stories are easier, and they’ve hit a rhythm. It’s like they went from slowly tying up all their secrets inside of their stomachs to not being able to hold anything back.
They’re sitting with their backs against the wall, touching at shoulder and thigh, when Spencer talks about high school.
“I broke three of my ribs, junior year,” he says, slowly. Long fingers splay across his stomach instinctually, and Bruce watches them for a moment before he looks back to find Spencer watching him.
“You broke them?” he asks.
“Well.” Spencer laughs, a soft huff of breath. “They were broken. And they, uh. They didn’t heal quite right.”
Bruce doesn’t know what they’re doing. Spencer’s fingers touch the hem of his t-shirt and stay there like a question, and he thinks he’s supposed to ask it.
“Can I see?” he asks, and Spencer nods, doesn’t say a word as he pulls up his shirt. Bruce can see the faint outlines of his ribs where pale skin stretches over them. Spencer isn’t thin like he doesn’t eat, he’s thin like he’s always been that way, like when he started growing, he only got taller. Bruce can already tell which ribs he’s talking about, deeper set than the rest. Spencer’s breath catches, and Bruce looks up as he starts to say, “You can, uhm,” and draws off.
Bruce runs his fingers over them, pressing down gently, and he can almost feel Spencer’s heartbeat speed up.
“I didn’t go to the hospital for a few days. I had a decent tolerance for pain by then, or at least I’d convinced myself I did because I happened to be in physical pain a lot, which is really a lot of what some forms of pain tolerance are. But I didn’t say anything, because I was just hoping they were bruised, and because I hated the hospital and didn‘t want to upset my mom again.”
Spencer almost gasps the words out. He’s nervous. He tries to fill up empty spaces with words, awkward gaps of silences or situations he thinks he doesn’t fit into. Bruce knows this like he knows everything else about Spencer, and he sits up and puts enough space between them that Spencer’s breathing evens out. He smooths his shirt down over his stomach.
“What changed your mind?” Bruce asks, smiling. He’s not sure why he’s smiling. When he first started spending time with Spencer, he used to treat him like a scared baby animal or something, but this isn’t one of those smiles. He doesn’t have to pretend for his sake anymore. He probably never needed to.
Spencer almost smiles back, one side of his lips tipped up.
He says, “I walked into the edge of the kitchen table and blacked out. My mom was furious. Apparently, I was another kick or so away from having a punctured lung.”
“Geez, Reid,” Bruce murmurs. “For someone who’s an actual genius. . .”
“I know,” Spencer says. “I’m kind of an idiot.”
“Well, you were also, what, six at the time?” Bruce asks, and Spencer’s laugh is choked, like he doesn’t expect it. He shoves Bruce gently, and Bruce thinks it’s probably one of the first times Spencer has touched him.
They sit comfortably for a few moments, not quite touching but close enough that Bruce can feel Spencer radiating heat. His cheeks are flushed when he looks up at Bruce and says, almost shyly, “I think we should try this bonding thing again sometime. I already feel more like I’ve always imagined a healthy, well-adjusted person might feel.”
Bruce grins back at him, and he catches Spencer leaning in a fraction before pulling back, smiling down at the bed.
“If I kiss you right now,” Bruce asks, before he can stop himself, “will you feel like I’m taking advantage of your emotional state or new legal adult status?”
Spencer takes a moment, biting his lip like he’s thinking really hard.
“No, not at all,” he replies, voice pitched high and breaking, raising his eyes up, “but thanks for asking.”
Spencer kisses him first, which is a revelation. He lifts himself up enough to catch Bruce’s lips, and it’s a slow drag of a kiss, teeth clicking once before Bruce’s heart gets caught somewhere temporarily in his throat where it’s keeping rapid time. There’s Spencer’s hand on his waist, Spencer’s long fingers at the nape of his neck, and Bruce groans into it.
“We are never going to hear the end of this,” he says, hoarsely, and Spencer’s laughter shakes them both.
They have breakfast with Garcia the next day, and she makes wide, wide eyes and stares back and forth between them accusingly the entire time. She keeps dropping hints like, “Well, I wonder if anyone shared any life-changing moments last night,” and, “Gosh, you know what I love? A good first kiss. I’d love to hear a good first kiss story right now.”
Spencer finishes his cereal and gets up, excusing himself to the bathroom. Before he leaves, he leans down and kisses Bruce on the cheek, and Garcia actually screams. The people around them all turn to make sure she's not being murdered over breakfast.
“You guys are the worst, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me the second we walked into this goddamn restaurant,” she gasps out. “I’m so excited, I’m so excited. I’m calling Tony right now.”
Bruce looks up to see Spencer hovering at the door, biting his lip around a smile. He shrugs when he sees that Bruce is looking at him, lifting his eyebrows and grinning as he backs into the bathroom. Garcia is yelling, "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," into her cellphone, and the rest of the patrons look disgruntled, and Bruce is happy.
He's starting to get used to being happy.