Chapter 1: Welcome Home
A car was waiting for them at the airport. It wasn’t his usual driver, but he was okay with that. He was driving the car Pepper was in. Tony felt it was better that way. While he held the door for Pep, Tony held the door for Bruce, smiling when the doctor looked a little uncomfortable.
Everything was back to normal.
Tony hopped in the car behind him, slamming the door shut. He gave a little wave to the driver and they were off. Bruce buckled his seatbelt. Tony just slouched back in his seat, fingers drumming on his thighs. No particular melody, just something to keep his fingers occupied.
“Where are we going?”
Tony glanced up, looking over the top of his sunglasses. He smiled. “The Tower.” He leaned across the seat, smile only growing. “It has changed a lot since the last time you were there.”
Bruce tried to smile back, but it was only half of one. The way his shoulders were rolled, posture absolutely horrible, Tony knew he wasn’t liking the attention. He wasn’t exactly the type to back down, though.
“I think you’ll like what you see.”
Finally, Bruce glanced up. He nodded, then retracted into his shell again. Great.
“You still haven’t seen Candyland.”
“Tony, you know—”
“Yeah, I do. And I thought about the Other Guy while you were away. Trust me.”
That look, sharp, sudden, eyebrows drawn in, Tony knew that sort of look. Bruce wanted to trust him. It made him beam even harder, if that was possible. His mouth was probably going to be sore from smiling so much. He hadn’t smiled this much in what felt like ages. Maybe he’d never smiled this much before. That was a serious possibility.
“I’m not asking you to stay forever.” Tony took in a deep breath, turning to face forward in his seat. New York City flew by them in a blur. The people walking on the street did, at least. Traffic was miserable. “I’m just asking… for you to give me a chance.”
Bruce took a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. He pulled his glasses out of his shirt pocket, polishing them slowly, thoughtfully. Tony had to remind himself not to stare.
That was good enough for him.
0 0 0 0 0
Maybe it was all the years out at the brink of civilization, maybe it was the Other Guy, lurking in the back of his consciousness, biding his time, or maybe it was his general dislike for confined spaces, but he really hated elevators. Especially the elevator in Stark Tower. It felt like they were going up forever.
Tony seemed perfectly comfortable, which was not helping. He was in another of his no doubt countless posh suits, hands in his pockets, a small smile pulling at his lips. He glanced over now and then, that smile growing in those moments.
Bruce was not sure what to think of it, of this, any of it yet. He took a deep breath, counting down. Though it was just the two of them in the elevator, it felt crowded.
The elevator stopped suddenly. Bruce frowned, looking at the number. They were still a while below the R&D floors. This was a private elevator, so it couldn’t be someone else getting on. He glanced over at Tony. The man was rocking back and forth on his feet, looking like he was fighting not to grin.
The doors opened, Bruce forcing himself to look out.
Everything beyond the door had been done in muted, earth tones, so different from the sleek lines and metal and glass of the rest of the tower. Bruce took a step out slowly, letting his eyes roam.
The hallway was tall and wide, spacious, airy even. Bruce ran his hand over the wall. It almost felt like plaster. He smiled despite himself, shoes clicking on the stone floor as he explored.
He opened the first door he came to. It was oversized, sturdy and wooden. Bruce peeked inside. There was a lab, still decorated in the same earthen tones, but with brand new equipment and a few black work tables. It looked completely unused, though there was no dust. Bruce closed the door gently, glancing back.
Tony stood just outside the elevator, staring at him expectantly.
Bruce didn’t know what to say, so he kept looking around, opening the next door. It was a bedroom, with a big bed and tables and armoires for clothing, open and empty, and a bookshelf, also empty, and a large closet. Bruce glanced over his shoulder, then back in again. His bag was on the bed.
This space was made for him.
He backed out of the room, leaving this door open. The hallway curved to the side, and opened up into a round living space, complete with plush couches and a television, currently dark. Connected to it, open air, was a kitchen.
Bruce edged around the space, running a hand over the tiled kitchen counter. The space reminded him of Morocco; it was like a trip to a place far away, miraculously hidden in the most technologically advanced buildings in the United States.
A massive steel door loomed around the next corner. It looked starkly out of place, Bruce pausing when he saw it. It made him nervous. Bruce approached it slowly, hand shaking as he touched the doorknob. Counting to three, Bruce yanked the door open.
The room was huge, completely round and bare. He stepped inside, pressing his hand to the wall. The material felt strong, but had some give, Bruce frowning. He was not sure what it was made of, but he didn’t pull at any of the panels to see.
This space was for the other guy.
Bruce swallowed at the lump in his throat, leaning his head against the wall. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and then another. It wasn’t that he needed to calm himself. Or maybe it was, but not in the other guy was about to break loose sort of way.
Tony said he had been thinking about both of them.
A shadow fell across him, Bruce looking up.
Tony stood in the doorway, hands still in his pockets. His face was completely serious, but those eyes—Bruce wasn’t sure how he felt about those, either, because his eyes were like an open book, and Bruce wasn’t sure how to interpret what he was reading—were warm and worried. Bruce let out a small, nervous laugh.
“Do you like it?” Tony whispered the words, but they were loud in the quiet of the floor. He took a step forward, the smile he tried to put on wobbling. “The whole floor is yours. If you don’t want any visitors, you have the permissions to lock them out. Including me.”
Bruce straightened up, running a hand down his dress shirt. He felt grimy. He still hadn’t showered or changed since leaving the Yucatan, and he felt sorely out of place in this nice, new place.
This was his though. Tony had made this all for him.
“Thank you.” Bruce breathed the words, trying to return that smile but failing just as badly. He rubbed the back of his neck, looking down.
“My penthouse is a few floors up if you need anything.”
Tony turned to go.
He paused, not swiveling, though he glanced over.
Now Bruce had to say something. He looked around, trying to find something, but the barren room around him offered nothing.
“I, uh… You’re just leaving me here?”
Tony shrugged. “I figured you were tired, wanted to freshen up, after that whole… fiasco. Just call me if you need anything, or head upstairs.”
Bruce frowned. “I don’t have a phone. And didn’t you need a badge to use the elevator?”
“Yeah, about that, there’s a phone like mine in the bedside table, along with all the security badges you might need.” Tony flashed his usual smile again. It actually put Bruce at ease this time. “Oh, and I put a full map of the Tower in there, too, in case you wanted to explore some more.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Tony nodded and headed off, vanishing back into the elevator.
For the first time in years, he felt like he was actually home.
Chapter 2: Ticking
CHAPTER II: TICKING
There were no papers in the room. Clint sat slowly, lowering himself into the chair carefully, as though that might disappear, too. The metal table was clean, nothing on it. It was probably sterile enough to do open heart surgery on. That only made him more nervous.
The camera whirred, scanning the room.
He tried to release the tension from his muscles, concentrating on each group, on trying to relax them one by one. The process was slow, agonizing, and he felt none of the ease he was trying to portray. He schooled his features carefully to a look of boredom, drumming his fingers on his thighs to complete the look.
The clock on the wall, sharp digital numbers, were the only sign of time passing.
It was an hour before the door finally opened.
Clint glanced over his shoulder, immediately sitting up straighter.
Director Fury strode over, black suit formal, though it was offset by the turtleneck he wore off it, making it seem like a far-stretched business casual. He sat across from Clint, resting his elbows on the table.
If Fury was angry, his body language hid it well. Either that, or Clint was getting rusty.
“How are you hangin’ in there?”
Clint bobbed his head from side to side, not a yes or a no. “Do you want an honest answer, Sir?”
Fury cracked a smile, leaning back comfortably. “Yeah, why not?”
“I don’t like being grounded. I should be out there, in the world, picking up the pieces like everyone else.”
“Mhmm.” Fury nodded, putting an arm up on the back of his chair. The tension was entirely gone from the man. Clint didn’t think he could fake it that well. “Go on.”
“The tests are damn boring, as well.”
“Good. I’d hate to think you were getting used to them.”
“I’m reinstating you, Agent Barton. No more boring tests. For now, at least.”
“Don’t give me that. I’ve got to look out for my own, and that includes you. I wanted to make sure everything was okay before I sent you back into action.”
“Thank you, Sir, but I believe—”
“Better safe than sorry.”
“Yes, Sir.” Clint let out a shaky breath. After all this time, he was finally being let back in. It felt unreal. “Do you have orders for me?”
“Other than picking up one Agent Romanoff from the airport? No.”
Tasha. Clint smiled, but quickly hid it behind his mask again. “When?”
“How about right now.” Fury stood, leading the way to the door. He opened it, holding it so for Clint. It was a clear message. Fury was letting him out, but if anything went wrong, he’d be the one to put him back in.
Clint stood, walking swiftly—but not too quickly—for the door.
It felt good to have orders again.
0 0 0 0 0
They didn’t talk on the way back to HQ. That was fine. It was a comfortable sort of silence. She was happy to see him out and about. He seemed happy to be out and about. That was enough for now.
There was too much going through her head. For the most part, the meetings she sat in one were mind numbing, but she had to pay attention, to keep sharp, as a sea of languages swam around her. Every so often, she would hear something else, the inflection on a word, the sharpness of someone’s posture, the tightness of words, which eluded to fear.
Everyone feared the unknown. That was part of human nature. The problem was elsewhere.
If she spoke about it now, she felt like she would lose it all. The hours of observations and carefully filed notes were stored in her brain, like a bottle full of water, and if she took out the cork, they would all spill out.
Silence was preferable. It was safe.
Clint turned right instead of left. Natasha sat up, glancing over. His eyes were dark, keen, alert, features relaxed. She sank back into her seat again, pursing her red painted lips. It wasn’t in her nature to stop worrying, but… Clint had been compromised. Director Fury wouldn’t let him around other agents if there was any fear that her cognitive recalibration hadn’t worked, but it just wasn’t her nature to relax about these things.
Manhattan vanished around them as Clint pulled the car into the Stark Industries parking garage. She had seen the space before, but not with so many S.H.I.E.L.D. cars. They spiraled downward, until Clint pulled into a marked parking spot. The whole floor was for S.H.I.E.L.D..
Natasha stepped out slowly, shouldering her bag. Clint led the way to the elevator, holding it open for her. She stepped in, standing as still as she could in four inch heels. It was still remarkably still, a lot more so than Clint was standing, at least.
“This is the first time they let you out, isn’t it?”
Clint looked down sharply. She knew that was a yes.
“How does it feel?”
Clint shifted, glancing up. His hands were fidgeting. They probably had not even let him touch his bow. It was heartbreaking, in a way, if she had a heart left to break.
The silence stretched on, even though there was a whole conversation through their tiniest movements. She could feel it, and it was comfortable. Natasha was never let out. She was always on an assignment, filling a role, being someone else and she knew Clint understood that.
The same went for Clint. This was probably an assignment for him, as well. They were never really let out. It didn’t work that way at S.H.I.E.L.D.. It was what they were used to. Anything else would be a lie.
Sometimes silence spoke louder than words.
The elevator doors slid open, revealing a world both familiar and alien beyond. It was a S.H.I.E.L.D. command floor. She knew them well. What was so startling was the fact that from the view of Manhattan, they had to be inside the Stark Tower.
Clint gave her a small, encouraging smile and stepped out. Natasha followed quickly, keeping the surprise off her face more than the slight crease of her brows.
Stark was self-centered and loathed authority. She had to worry if he was letting S.H.I.E.L.D. relocate their home base into his monument to himself.
“How did Director Fury bargain for this?” Natasha sped up, heels clicking on the smooth, hard floors. She easily fell into pace with Clint.
“I have no idea.”
She filed away the information for later. She did not have time to ask for more details, as soon enough, they were standing in front of the Director’s office. When the receptionist showed her in, Clint said a quick good bye and left.
It was time to tell the Director everything, from the fact that everyone was still a little shocked over the fact that aliens had attacked Earth, to the fact that everyone was afraid, not of the unknown, but of the known, of the fact that there were “super” humans out there, fighting on the side of an organization everyone believed to be solely with America.
America had power, too much power in their minds, and, inevitably, power corrupts.
Chapter 3: Forced
CHAPTER III: FORCED
Diagrams covered every flat surface of the room, pinned downs with the instruments he had been allowed. There were not many, but they would suffice. The larger diagrams were hung on the walls, globes of light suspended to cast a golden glow over them. Suspended in the middle of the room was a three-dimensional diagram, crafted through magic, just the inner workings of the Bifrost in golden lines like a shimmering web.
Loki circled the stripped representation slowly, an arm crossed over him, other elbow on that arm. He tapped his fingers thoughtfully on his chin as he surveyed the display from all sides slowly. His movements were predatory, gaze focused, ready for the kill. His muscles were taut, ready.
A throat being cleared at his door broke his train of concentration. Loki spun with a frown, the diagram dissolving into the air.
Thor, of all Aesir, stood in his doorway, those lost blue eyes of his full of questions for once. Loki’s frown deepened, brows creasing.
“And to what do I owe the honor of your presence?” Loki flourished a bow, flicking his arm to the side extravagantly.
All this time, and Thor had not even come by once. It was surprising, though also thankful. Loki knew he would not be able to concentrate with his b—with Thor—coming around when-so-ever it pleased him. For a fleeting moment, he had thought, albeit hopefully, that Thor had forgotten his very existence.
Thor glanced at the guards on either side of the door. They stood at attention, stoic, unmoving. During their shift, they had done nothing but look like statues. Loki wondered what it would take to make them flinch, but every time such an urge came to test it, he reminded himself of the Allfather’s threat.
“I came to see if you needed as assistance.”
“And what, exactly, would you assist me with?”
“Please do not belittle me, brother.”
Loki tisked, rolling his eyes. After everything he had done, after everything Loki had put Thor through, he still insisted they were brothers. Loki turned away, weaving the diagram again from memory. If he wanted to reconstruct the Bifrost mechanism, he needed to know the diagram more intimately than his own hands.
“If there is anything I can do—”
“Leave. That is what you can do.” Loki closed his eyes, jaw clenched. He took a deep breath, leg moving though he did not stalk out. He was only allowed to leave for meals, official meetings, bodily functions, and whenever the Allfather summoned him. Wanting to escape Thor was sadly not on the list. At the next official meeting, he would have to bring that up.
“Please, I am not as simple of mind as you seem to assume.”
“Really?” Loki swiveled, the golden strands of magic making the main frame shaking with the rage building in his chest. “If you were even half as intelligent as that Midgardian, the metal man, then I would accept. I would gladly accept, because with that sort of wit, this project would be done in a Midgardian month rather than the years this will likely take with only my own mind to power it!”
Thor turned, striding out. Not a glance, not a single rebuttal, only that look of hurt, like a kicked pet.
Loki spun around again, slamming his arm through the diagram. It exploded in golden sparks, showering him, the floor, the table near at hand. The light flickered out, leaving just those globes and the controlled blazes framing his door.
The guards did not even flinch.
Sighing, he set back to work.
0 0 0 0 0
The debriefing had only taken two hours, a record since she had gotten involved with the Avengers Initiative, but it was one of the roughest. The weight of protecting the world was solely on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shoulders, and the rest of the world was only making it worse.
Clint sat on the stool next to her, setting an unopened beer in front of her. He nodded at it, offering a bottle opener. “Looks like you could use it.”
Natasha smiled faintly, popping the top off with the hook on her bracelet. He shrugged, tossing the opener to the side. She was still in her secretarial attire, but it wasn’t all looks. It was never all looks. She took a long swig, setting the bottle down.
She took another long swig, cradling the bottle in her hand. Asahi Extra Dry. It fit. It would be enough to take a little bit of the edge off, if nothing more.
“Rather than thanking us, the rest of the world wants to put sanctions on us.” She rolled the bottle, watching the light play through the glass and liquid. “It’s like the whole Iron Man fiasco all over again.”
Clint grunted, taking a drink of his own beer. It had been between the two of them, who would be sent into Stark Industries as a shadow. Because of Stark’s history with women, they chose Natasha and sent Clint to New Mexico, but he still knew all the details. Most of S.H.I.E.L.D. did. Stark had been a huge liability, a risk, ever since he escaped the Afghan desert.
“The world wasn’t ready.”
Natasha frowned, glancing over.
“Super powers. Aliens. Come on. The world is still warring over religion. They weren’t ready to know that there was something else out there.” Clint knocked back the last of his beer, setting it down. He stretched his hands, knuckles popping loudly. Natasha could see little pink grooves on three of the fingers on his left hand. He’d been in the shooting range.
Natasha tossed back the last of her bottle, putting with his. She wished he’d brought more. Then again, this was Stark’s tower. There was bound to be alcohol everywhere.
“Asgard didn’t give us a choice.”
Clint hung his head, making a small motion with his hands. Natasha smiled, a little warmer this time. She knew that motion.
“We just have to deal with what we have.”
“That’s what we were trained for.” Clint stood, giving a little nod. “Speaking of which, I have training to get caught up on.” He turned to go.
“Give me a minute, and I’ll be right down.” Natasha stood as well, already starting to unbutton her shirt. She kicked off her heels, leaving them at the kitchen bar. “Where is the training center, anyway?”
Clint smiled, looking away politely. They’d been on countless missions together, had seen one another in various stages of undress, and he still looked away. It was cute, if unneeded.
“I’ll wait for you, right here.”
“Good.” Natasha pulled off her shirt as she walked down the hall, disappearing into her room.
It would be good to be training with Clint. It was familiar, even if the world would never be normal again.
Chapter 4: Simple Equations
CHAPTER IV: SIMPLE EQUATIONS
It was still a little strange having so many spectacular people in the Stark Tower at any given time. These were superheroes. Pepper was just used to Tony, and he was a handful on his own, but now there were six more!
The bottom floor of the penthouse had become a common area of sorts, the kitchen she and Tony (rather, his chef) used now had others there, too, though each of the Avengers had their own kitchens on their respective floors. It created a sense of community. Pepper was excited by it and still a little surprised.
This time, Steve Rogers was in the kitchen, sitting on a stool eating a bowl of pasta. Pepper smiled and gave him a small hello, to which he responded, “Good afternoon, ma’am.” She wished he would teach Tony some of his manners! Fighting not to blush, Pepper opened the fridge, bending awkwardly in her business skirt to grab two sodas and the pizza she had ordered earlier for the boys.
It was still untouched.
“Steve is just fine, ma’am.”
“Okay, Steve, um, how long have Tony and Dr. Banner been in the lab?”
“I haven’t seen them today, Miss Potts. Do you want me to check on them?”
Pepper half-frowned. This was entirely to be expected. Tony had a shiny new toy—Dr. Banner, though she doubted he would be okay with being called that—and he wouldn’t stop playing with it until forced. It was about time she forced the matter.
“How long has Tony been in the lab?”
“Approximately seven hours.”
Pepper sighed. It was definitely time to force the matter. “Have they taken any breaks?”
“No, they have not. If they were not still alive, I would hypothesize that they have not even taken a moment to breathe.”
“Thank you, Jarvis.” Pepper rolled her eyes, awkwardly juggling the box and sodas so she could carry them all at once. “Where exactly are they?”
“Currently, they are in Mr. Stark’s workshop.”
Hefting everything, Pepper rounded the counter, heading for the elevator. Steve had gone back to eating, though he kept glancing at her like she was about to topple over. That was probably an accurate assessment, though she managed to smack her security badge against the reader with her elbow.
The workshop was the very top level of R&D, with roof access, though Tony promised he wouldn’t go up there without a fully flight tested suit on (she’d made Jarvis promise to lock the door if he wasn’t wearing one, just to be safe). It was a long elevator ride, especially from the lobby (thankfully she wasn’t all the way down there), but soon enough, she was at the workshop.
Tony and Bruce were bent over one of the work stations, going through some project or another on a glass screen. Paper schematics littered every flat surface and many holographic diagrams floated in the air all around them. Though they were talking, Pepper didn’t even understand 12% of it. They were both grinning, though (Dr. Banner’s was closer to a shy smile, but that might as well have been grinning for him, as reserved as he was) so it must have been interesting.
“Knock, knock.” Pepper ducked under a glowing diagram of Tony’s latest arc reactor, skirting around a table covered in what looked like plans for a new suit. She held up the box and bottles expectantly.
They looked up in unison. Dr. Banner immediately side stepped so their shoulders weren’t touching, looking down. She quirked an eyebrow but didn’t say anything.
“You brought food?”
“Yes, Tony, I brought food. I got this for you guys almost four hours ago.”
“Oh.” Tony frowned, running a hand up through his hair. “What time is it?”
“It is 5:32 p.m. currently, Sir.” Jarvis chimed in, thankfully. Pepper was sure she’d drop everything if she tried to look at her watch.
“Wow.” Dr. Banner took off his glasses, polishing them slowly. “I am really sorry, Miss Potts. We, uh, got distracted—”
“This man,” Tony pointed in the general direction of Dr. Banner before grabbing the box and bottles, “is an absolutely genius. I could pick his brain for days and only hit the tip of the iceberg, seriously.”
Tony shoved a stack of papers aside, plopping the box down. He tossed a soda to Dr. Banner, which he fumbled three times before actually catching it. Pepper covered her mouth to hide her smile, though from the way Dr. Banner quickly looked away, she knew he saw it.
“So, what’s up?” Tony hopped up on the counter, taking a huge bite of cold pizza.
Pepper held out her hands to the side, shaking her head. “I just haven’t really seen you in a while.”
Tony grunted, taking another massive bite. He must have been really hungry, but when he was in science mode, the rest of the world vanished. Pepper tried to smile again, but it didn’t quite work.
“It’s my fault, I’m sorry. We got talking and lost track of time.” Bruce rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the floor.
They really were a strange duo. Tony was loud, obnoxious, self-obsessed, unapologetic (she still loved him—most of the time). Dr. Banner was the exact opposite. He was awkward and self-conscious and seemed to be worried all the time. Where Tony ran around like a maniac, Dr. Banner had the calm of a deep, still lake.
She was surprised Tony hadn’t driven Dr. Banner crazy yet.
Speaking of which, Dr. Banner was staring at her, the worry entirely too apparent on his face.
Pepper laughed. It was breathy and stilted but enough that Tony didn’t seem to notice. She waved a hand, trying her hardest to keep up the happy impression. “Don’t worry, this isn’t anything new. He can’t get into much trouble up here, at least.” She bit her lip, trying to stop her nervous chatter but failing. “Just make sure he eats and sleeps and I won’t mind.”
Dr. Banner looked like he was about to say something, maybe even argue with her, but she shook her head.
“I’ll do that.”
“Thank you, Dr. Banner.” Pepper leaned over, placing a possessive kiss on Tony’s cheek. Dr. Banner turned away, shuffling papers. Tony didn’t respond at all, chewing away at his pizza. He opened his soda, chugging half of it before taking another slice.
Sighing, Pepper turned, heading out. She had more important things to do than babysit anyway, like practically running the company Tony had conveniently forgotten about again.
0 0 0 0 0
Bruce took off his glasses, rubbing the palm of his hand into his eyes. It was late. That was probably an understatement. He glanced out the window. At some point, the sun had gone down. Tony showed no sign of slowing down, regardless, mouth at terminal velocity and brain no doubt going even faster.
He grabbed his mug of coffee, downing the last of it. One of the workshop’s resident robots wheeled over with the half-full pot to offer him a refill. Bruce waved it off, putting his glasses back on.
The screen was a sea of swimming numbers and lines which might have been equations an hour ago. This wasn’t going to work.
Tony stopped suddenly, finally looking up. He was practically grinning from ear to ear. In the short time Bruce had known him, he knew the man didn’t smile much, unless it was for a camera or sarcastic. This looked like neither.
“Tony, we should probably go to bed.”
Tony choked on his coffee, swallowing roughly after smacking his chest twice.
That was probably the wrong choice of words. Bruce let out a shaky breath, shifting slightly away. Their sides had practically been smashed together for a greater part of the day as Tony ran him through all the computer systems and their applications. It wasn’t uncomfortable, other than the fact that people shouldn’t be that close to him. No one else wanted to be that close to him.
“Miss Potts said I should make sure you actually sleep.” Bruce smiled awkwardly. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Tony staring at him so intensely.
“You can call her Pepper. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.” Tony pushed the screen aside, leaning on the counter to face him. He was nonchalant about everything. It was like the whole world was easy for him.
As for how Miss Potts would feel about it, Bruce wasn’t so sure. The look she had given him earlier wasn’t the kindest he’d ever seen, not that he had much to compare it to. Other than Tony, and he was too kind.
Tony laughed suddenly, putting an arm around Bruce’s shoulder. “Stop worrying so much.” Tony gave his shoulders a squeeze. “You’re home now.”
Bruce lowered his head, sighing.
In all reality, this was the closest he’d had to a home since the accident. The worst part was that he was growing to love it. No, that wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part was that he didn’t mind that he was growing to love it.
0 0 0 0 0
Clint dropped onto the stool like a sack of bricks, leaning down on the cool counter. His puffed breaths made little steam circles, his cheek sticking to the counter with sweat.
It’d been one hell of a day.
“I hear you beat your own record on the course today.” Tasha slid into the stool beside him, holding up two bottles with a wry smile. Clint laughed against the counter, peeling himself up slowly to take one. “Congratulations.”
He laughed softly, popping the top and taking a swig in one motion. It was a stout. He swished the beer in his mouth, concentrating hard on the flavors. “Oatmeal stout?”
Tasha nodded, raising her bottle. Clint clinked his to it. She took a sip of her own, leaning forward against the counter with her elbows. “You’re good.”
“Got to be, with all these superheroes in S.H.I.E.L.D. now.”
Tasha hoisted her bottle to that, knocking it back. Clint mimicked her, only lowering his bottle when she did. It took a while; he almost had to come up for breath.
“Still wondering if the world was ready?”
Clint shook his head, readjusting on his stool. He was sore already. He’d probably have trouble moving in the morning, but he didn’t regret it. He still had it. Most importantly, he’d just proven to S.H.I.E.L.D. that he still had it.
“What is it then?” Tasha quirked an eyebrow at him, lips not quite a smile, not quite a frown. She was curious. And worried, though she hid it well. He knew what to look for, by now.
Clint pursed his lips, staring at his bottle. There was no label. For all he knew, Stark brewed this in his lab. If that was the case, it probably wasn’t safe for human consumption, but it tasted damn good, so he really didn’t care. He’d have to remember to ask later.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. About this whole superhero thing.” Clint took another sip. His bottle was almost empty. He really hoped Tasha had more hidden on her. “And about villains.”
“Clint, it wasn’t your fault—”
“I know.” Clint drank the last of his bottle with a clenched jaw, setting it down slowly. His hand shook. He quickly put his hand down flat on the counter. Tasha reached over, threading her fingers through his. He managed a small smile in return. “It isn’t about that.”
“Okay. What is it about, then?”
“I was wondering…” Clint took a deep breath. “If there weren’t superheroes, would there even be supervillains?”
Tasha looked away sharply, crimson brows pulling in just slightly, full lips pressed into a thin line. He knew her answer, even before he spoke it. He turned his hand over, giving hers a reassuring squeeze.
They both knew the files.
‘Iron Monger’ used the Mark I technology Stark developed, not to mention his arc reactor, pulled from his chest, to attack. ‘Whiplash’ used an arc reactor as well, and attacked as a sort of retribution against Stark. And then there was Loki. Would Loki even be a villain if it wasn’t for Thor?
“I don’t know.” Tasha bit her lip, finally looking over. She tried to smile, but it fell quickly. They didn’t need stuff like that. They could tell the truth. “Power corrupts. As long as there is power, people can be corrupted.”
“That includes all of us.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Clint pulled his hand away. “I wasn’t talking about us.”
“They are all good people at heart. I doubt we have to worry about them.”
Doubt. She wasn’t certain, and that worried him. Tasha was always certain. He wondered who she was worried about. Banner, definitely, but he seemed to have a pretty good grip on the Hulk. Stark was eccentric, but a good guy. He’d flown a nuke into space. That went without saying. Steve was hand selected for how good of a guy he was.
Thankfully, Tasha pulled out two more bottles, pushing one his way.
Chapter 5: Breaking
“JARVIS, hit it!”
Music pumped through the speakers, Tony strumming the welding torch like it was a guitar, banging his head to the beat. Jumping three times, he spun to face the work table.
Tony flipped down the hood of his welding mask with a grin, firing up the torch. Sparks showered the cleared work table, long flame licking the surface. He leaned over, setting to work.
One song melded into another, Tony pausing now and then to jam out before getting back to it, switching tools. His robots stood by, always ready but not really needed, not for this. Oil clung to his hands, as well as hydraulic fluid and flakes of shaved metal. His hair was a sweaty mess, pushed back by his helmet. After a while, he tossed it to the side, switching to goggles to keep the sweat and grime out of his eyes.
In two hours, he had a shield that spun in on itself, condensing into the size of his fist. Wiping off his hands as best as he could, Tony punched a few buttons on the nearest screen, watching as the shield expanded and closed again.
Now all he needed to do was get an energy field going through it, and they’d be in business.
Mini-mini-arc reactor. Tony smiled, hopping over his work bench to fish out the materials he needed. He still had a few palladium cores, but they were a bit big for the shield, especially since it wouldn’t need the same kind of power output as his suits required. Tony shoved everything into a box to be sorted later, dropping it on his work table.
Tony turned, pulling his goggles up on top of his head. His smile returned full force when he saw Bruce holding a bag and a drink carrier. “JARVIS, volume down.” The music faded into the background immediately, though his ears kept ringing.
“I brought lunch.” Bruce lifted the bag, eyes going up and down.
Tony finally looked down at himself. He grinned, laughing. “I should probably get cleaned up. Be right back, I promise.” Tony turned, stripping off his black work tank top as he went. He tossed it in the hazardous waste bin as he went, undoing his pants before he kicked the door shut behind him.
It was a safety shower, tiny and cramped compared to the one he had down in his penthouse, but it had all the good degreasers and a few sets of clothes under the sink, just in case he spilled chemicals on himself at some point. It’d happened more than once.
He clicked on the water, stepping under. It was cold, but it worked, Tony lathering up and rinsing off quickly. He only toweled off briefly, shaking most of the water out of his hair before pushing it back. He needed a haircut. He’d have to get his PA to make an appointment for that.
Pulling on a fresh shirt and the same dirty work pants, Tony emerged. Bruce had abandoned the food at the edge of the workshop and was bent over the shield, computer screen close at hand with his schematics.
“Not the finished project. Just a trial run.” Tony pulled up a chair, plopping down on it next to Bruce.
Bruce pulled his glasses down, casting a sideways glance at him. “Is palladium used in all of your arc reactors?”
Was that worry he detected? That sounded distinctly like worry.
“No. I mean yes. It used to be.” Tony half-smiled, but let it fall quickly. There was no point faking with Bruce. He deserved the truth. “My new chest piece doesn’t rely on it.”
“You were dying, weren’t you?”
Tony hung his head. No hiding. He refused to hide anything from Bruce, not after how much trust he’d been shown. He hadn’t even lied about the shrapnel, telling him straight out when he didn’t even discuss the details with Pep.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s fine.” Tony wetted his lips, staring at the table. “If it wasn’t for S.H.I.E.L.D. stepping in, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Bruce stared at him from over his glasses, dark gaze unwavering. That worry hadn’t changed, or at least, it hadn’t left. It was stronger, even. Tony couldn’t meet his eyes. He couldn’t return that look. It made him feel unarmored, vulnerable.
“Worse than the shrapnel?”
Tony closed his eyes. He had to open them quickly. Sometimes he could still see the bombs flying, the explosions, gunfire, the cave. Tony swallowed roughly. His mouth was really dry.
He wheeled away from the table, grabbing one of the drinks. It was the fuller of the two, so he assumed it was his, taking a long drink. It didn’t help.
“The arc reactor was poisoning me. Killing me. But if I didn’t have the arc reactor, I’d just die from the shrapnel. It was just a matter of time.”
“You sound like you were okay with that.”
“I was. I didn’t have a choice.” Tony opened the bag, glancing in it. For once, food didn’t sound appetizing. “I’d donated my art collection, forced Rhodey to take one of my suits, signed my company away to Pepper. I had all bases covered.”
Bruce didn’t say anything. There was nothing else to say. Tony let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He took another sip of his drink, but his mouth still felt unbelievably dry.
“Can I see it?”
Tony spun, catching himself on the table so he’d stop facing Bruce. “Excuse me?”
“Your new arc reactor, without the palladium.”
This was just scientific curiosity. Tony shrugged, pulling off his shirt. He set it down on the table, standing so Bruce could sit. That put him at the right height to poke and prod at the reactor, at least, which seemed to be what he wanted to do.
Rather than setting right in, Bruce just stared at it. Maybe that was setting in. Tony could see the soft white-blue light reflected on his glasses and face, though mostly his glasses. It was actually glaringly bright. He still wasn’t used to how much brighter this one was compared to the others. It’d come with time. Everything did.
Bruce reached up, but didn’t touch, fingers hovering just above it. He frowned, then dropped his hands, content just to look, it seemed.
Tony sighed. “It won’t kill me if you touch it. Really. Here.” Tony reached up, twisting the arc reactor with a grunt. He popped it out, chest hissing as the metal cavity depressurized. Bruce stared at him with wide eyes, but didn’t protest. Tony wasn’t really in the mood for it anyway. “As long as these wires are plugged in,” Tony rotated the reactor to show the small bundle of wires, “I’m fine.”
Bruce let out a shaky breath, cradling the reactor with both hands. He turned it slowly, leaned close enough so Tony could feel the heat of his breath. He shivered. Bruce, thankfully, was completely focused on the arc reactor, trying to pick it apart with his eyes, since he couldn’t actually take it apart.
He was so careful, so gentle. Tony wondered if Bruce realized he was cradling his heart.
Slowly, Bruce pressed the arc reactor back into place. Tony frowned.
“You aren’t complete without it.” Bruce let out a breathy laugh, clicking the arc reactor back into place.
Tony finally looked up.
Pepper was standing at the door, a lost look on her face. She backed out slowly, the door clicking shut so quietly he barely heard it. Bruce didn’t seem to notice, which was good. He’d probably just apologize then vanish back into his personal lab again.
Tony didn’t want that. Not at all.
0 0 0 0 0
The kitchen was dark, empty, clean. No one had come by in the last hour. She wasn’t sure if she was happy about that or not. She was hoping Tony would have come down, explained what she saw, but then again, when did anyone get what they hoped for from Tony Stark.
Pepper sighed, pushing her hair back with a huff.
The lights clicked on, Pepper looked up sharply.
It was just Natalie—no, Natasha, Natalie Rushman had been an alias. It was complicated keeping all those things separate. Her mind just didn’t want to do it right now. She didn’t want to do much of anything right now.
“Pepper, are you okay?” Natasha tilted her head slightly to the side, red lips just barely parted. She looked and sounded really concerned, but she was a spy. How was Pepper supposed to know?
She really didn’t care, either way. At least someone cared.
Natasha crossed the room quickly, heels barely even clicking on the tiled ground. Pepper wouldn’t be shocked to learn she glided rather than walked. She hopped up onto the stool next to her, offering out her arms.
Pepper sagged into them, pushing her face into Natasha’s shoulder.
Pepper swallowed, pressing her lips together tight to keep herself from verbally vomiting all over Natasha, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice, so she did.
“Every day Tony’s off in the lab and he’s lost in his work and normally that would be alone, because let’s face it, not many people in the world can keep up with him, but Dr. Banner is here now, and they can talk for hours and hours and I don’t even understand them, it’s like a completely different language, but he gets it and I don’t and…”
Natasha’s grip loosened for a moment, then her arms tightened again, patting Pepper gently, slowly, on the back. Pepper didn’t care that it was awkward. At least it was something.
“I’m losing him, aren’t I?”
There was no immediate answer. Natasha stopped patting her back, grabbing her shoulders to push her back so they could look eye to eye.
“What do you think?”
Pepper was hoping Natasha would have the answer to that question, but instead, here she was, getting asked it.
She wasn’t sure she wanted to answer it.
Natasha made a tiny smile, so small she barely saw it. “No one knows Tony as well as you do. What does it feel like?”
Pepper took a deep breath, letting it out slowly through her mouth. She’d known Tony for years, been his Personal Assistant for years before she got the promotion to CEO, and then quit, becoming his girlfriend.
“Thank you, Natasha.” Pepper smiled a sad smile, giving Natasha a squeeze on the arm. She stood slowly, testing her balance on her heels before she tried actually walking for the elevator.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes.” Pepper looked at the ground, then nodded. It was going to take a little getting used to, but she’d be fine. She always was, in the end.
Chapter 6: Reorganizing Life
Tony ruffled the towel through his hair, shaking his head. He blinked a few times, squinting at the wall of windows. It was too early. Sighing, he tossed the towel down on the bed.
A stack of papers flooded his vision. Tony glanced down at them, then up at the hand extending them.
Pepper was dressed in a sleek business dress, a simple black, with a purple blouse and polished purple heels. She was wearing lipstick, too. Tony blinked a few times, staring. She cleared her throat, shaking the stack of papers.
Tony finally dragged his gaze down, reading the top line. Virginia “Pepper” Potts, then an address he didn’t recognize, her telephone number…
“Why are you handing me a resume?”
“It’s my application.”
Tony frowned. What would she need to apply for?
“I’m applying for the position of your personal assistant.”
He swallowed, but that did nothing to make the lump in his throat go away. If anything, it just made it more annoying. “I have a P.A..”
“You’ve gone through three P.A.s in the last month alone.” Pepper frowned, shaking the pages again.
He didn’t want to take them.
He knew, if he took them, it was a silent promise.
“It’s over, isn’t it?”
Pepper sighed, putting the pages down on his bedside table. “All of my contact information and references are on the page. If you need any further information—”
“Pep, I know your qualifications.” Tony picked up the papers, staring at them. “You were the best P.A. I ever had, and lasted the longest, but we’re—”
“Tony.” Pepper smiled. He hadn’t noticed that her eyes were a little on the pink side until now. She’d been crying. “Tony, don’t take this personally.”
“You’re breaking up with me. What isn’t to take personally?”
“It was magical. I felt like I was living in a fairytale. Dating a billionaire CEO who also happens to be a superhero? It was great.”
“But I know you well enough to know when you are happy, to know what makes you happy, and as long as we are in a relationship, you aren’t going to be—”
“Pep, you make me happy—”
“Please, Tony, trust me, I know you better than you know yourself most of the time. I made you happy. I didn’t, however, make you joyful.”
“This is about Bruce, isn’t it?”
Pepper lowered her head, hands clasped carefully in front of her. He hadn’t seen her like this since the last time she was his P.A. and it was uncomfortable. Beyond uncomfortable.
“It isn’t what—”
“Tony, you wear your heart right here.” Pepper reached out, lightly touching the arc reactor. She smiled softly again, and this time, it looked completely genuine. “I’d like my job back, now.”
He let out his next breath slowly. Wow. This was definitely the most civil breakup he’d ever had. And probably the most creative one. He’d give her that much credit. More than 12%. She got 100% for this.
“Yeah. Okay. You’re hired. What’s my schedule looking like today?”
Pepper stood up a little straighter, swinging her oversized purse forward. She opened it, pulling a clipboard out. She flipped the leather top open, tracing down the page with the back end of her brown and gold embossed pen.
“You have a breakfast to attend with your fellows of the Avengers Initiative in approximately ten minutes. After that, I have three tech deals with big names that I need signed, and then you’re free to spend the rest of the day as you please—so long as it doesn’t involve something I’ll have to clean up after.”
That was… wow that was fast. Like a freight train. Tony took another deep breath, letting it out slowly again. This was too much.
“Two days. I spend all of yesterday relocating my belongings back to my apartment and getting caught up on Stark Industries affairs.”
“Good to know.” Tony needed a drink. He stumbled over to his dresser, throwing on some clothing quickly, then went straight to the elevator.
Breakfast in ten. That was enough time to fill up a flask to spike his coffee with.
0 0 0 0 0
Everyone looked up as the elevator dinged loudly, the doors sliding open. Tony stepped out, in a rumpled t-shirt and faded jeans, hair haphazardly done. Bruce frowned. Miss Potts wasn’t with him.
Tony grabbed a mug, slopping coffee in it. He pulled a flask out of his back pocket, splashing some amber liquid from it in the mug as well. He quickly pushed the flask into his pocket, stirring the coffee with a finger as he headed for the table.
Their ‘host’ plopped into one of the empty chairs without a word or a grumble or anything, taking a long sip of his coffee.
Bruce glanced to the empty chair next to Tony at the large round table. He was about to ask when Natasha interrupted him, shooting him a glare.
“I’m a little shocked, Stark. I didn’t think you did mornings.” She smiled, putting her elbows up on the table.
Tony just grunted into his mug, not moving his face far from it. Though Bruce was two chairs away, with Captain Rogers between them, he could smell the alcohol in his coffee. Bruce blinked a few times, slouching in his own chair.
The silence was not a comfortable one. Bruce concentrated on the sizzle of food in the kitchen, two chefs in clean white shirts fast at work. It smelled like crepes and some kind of fruit compote, though it was hard to tell over the lingering aroma of coffee and alcohol. He would know soon enough; it looked like the chefs were almost done.
“So, what are the schedules today?” Natasha was the one to break the silence again. It was like she knew something and wasn’t divulging the information. Bruce had a feeling it had to do with the absence of Pepper Potts.
“Training.” Steve and Clint spoke in unison, both falling silent. That just left Bruce and Tony.
“CEO stuff.” Tony sighed, knocking back the last of his cup. He got up, wandering back to the coffee pot. Sometimes Bruce forgot that Tony ran Stark Industries. They’d been in the lab so much lately that everything else was a blur.
Bruce just shrugged.
Natasha was watching Tony carefully. He got another full cup of coffee, putting in another splash of whatever was in the flask. Even for Tony, it was a little early to start drinking. Bruce frowned, but didn’t speak up. Natasha was sitting right next to him, though he doubted he would even be safe across the table from her, if he irritated her enough.
Not that she would try, considering her up close and personal date with the other guy in the helicarrier.
Bruce took another drink of his coffee. Thankfully, the chefs came bearing platters, setting them down along with plates and forks for everyone. It was crepes, and there was a wide assortment of things to put on them. The appearance of food made the silence not quite as awkward, everyone diving in immediately.
No one talks while eating. It is like the shawarma shop all over again, only this time, they aren’t all dead tired from saving the world. They are a different kind of tired. Bruce can see it in all of them, except maybe Natasha, but she hides it better than the rest of them. That’s what she’s trained to do.
When they are done eating, no one talks. Everyone sits around, lingering as though something has to be said, but no one does it. Bruce knows he should at least try, but can’t. He finishes his coffee in silence. Clint and Natasha excuse themselves, and then after a short while, so does Steve.
Finally alone, Bruce still can’t find the words to ask what happened. Instead he mumbles something about being in his lab and grabs a bottle of water from the fridge before going. Tony’s on his third cup of coffee by then and staring blankly at the table.
From that look, Bruce can guess. He doesn’t want to open the wounds any further. He hasn’t really had anyone to comfort, to console, since the accident, and he wouldn’t even know where to start. Instead, he just leaves.
Chapter 7: A Brittle Alliance
It had been a long time since he had walked the length of the rainbow bridge to the post where Heimdall once stood. He still stood there now, but without a place to guard. He merely watched, golden eyes seeing all in the Nine Realms and in Asgard itself. He was still there, golden armor gleaming against dark skin, stature like that of stone.
Thor did not approach Heimdall this time, stopping short.
The construction of a new portal for the Bifrost had officially commenced, Aesir buzzing about the end of the rainbow bridge like a furious nest of insects set aflame. Thor watched, gaze picking through each of them, finding names for most. They all worked hard, moving materials into place, making measurements, all to the beat of another’s drum.
That drum was Loki’s, though no one would admit it. They called it the Allfather’s project, yet the mind behind it was most certainly his brother’s. Under his unwavering leadership and genius, progress was being made, quite a while before anyone expected.
Despite their loathing of Loki, however misguided, the people of Asgard were in awe.
Thor took a deep breath, then began to weave through the workers, trying not to disturb them with his passing. Still they looked up, speaking warm greetings to him, waving, some even pausing for a quick embrace of arms. Thor humored this, if only to make his passage faster.
He had one goal and one goal alone. That was to see Loki before his departure.
Loki was at the middle of the chaos, standing on a small podium. He spoke quick, clear orders, directing everyone around him. Watching, it was like Loki was conducting a whole nebula to do his bidding. In a way, he was. Thor fought back a smile, knowing it would only start this exchange off ill, keeping his features as expressionless as he could as he approached.
At first, Loki seemed not to notice him. It took many moments before his brother looked down, those green eyes, matching the green woven into his tunic, finally locked on him. Loki’s mouth hung ajar for a moment, before it snapped shut, thin lips pursed.
Thor knew he only had a few moments to speak before Loki shut him out entirely. He had to make every moment count.
“I wanted to say farewell.”
Loki turned slowly to face him, hands falling to his sides. Thor could see them ball into fists then uncoil again, the only sign that he might be angry. He wondered if Loki would be as hateful if he knew what role Thor had played in his sentencing, or if that face would only fuel his rage further.
“I must return to Midgard.”
That brought a frown. Loki stepped down, bending close as to not be heard by any others. “You go to see her, do you not?”
Thor tensed. Though he ached to see Jane again, now was not the time. Thor shook his head, lowering his own voice out of respect. “No. I am returning on official business, to tell my comrades of your fate.”
Loki leaned back, taking one step onto his podium again. “You are… telling the truth.”
“What reason would I have to lie to you?”
His brother flinched and turned his back to him, fully stepping up onto the podium again. Those hands clenched, shaking slightly. There were more than a few eyes on them now. The tension was thick enough that Thor would have to be blind to miss it; they were ready for an attack at any moment. Thor refused to believe Loki would so carelessly forfeit his life when he had been handed a second chance on a silver platter.
Finally, Loki glanced over his shoulder, face cool and calm, though Thor knew there had to be more behind his countless masks. His brother was an expert liar—they had all fallen to his deceits at least once—but he knew to be looking now.
“When you return, you will have to tell me of these comrades of yours.”
Thor smiled, despite himself. He nodded, positively beaming now. “Of course. Keep yourself out of trouble’s way in my absence.”
Loki rolled his eyes, but rather than rebutting, he set back to work, firing off orders again as though he were a king and this, his court. Thor turned, weaving back through the crowd again. It was nearly time for the Allfather to muster the energies to send him back to Midgard, and he refused to be late.
0 0 0 0 0
He lifted his hands, stilling the punching bag. The chain it hung on groaned, but didn’t protest too much. He took a deep breath, flexing his hands. They were barely even sore. It still amazed him at times. Sighing, Steve unhooked the punching bag—it was battered, but not leaking—and hoisted it on his shoulder.
The personal gym was big, with a boxing ring, weights, an area for his punching bags, but it felt empty. There were no pictures on the wall, no sign of life other than himself and the stack of punching bags. He tossed his current one off his shoulder and onto the stack.
Pulling off his gloves, he shoved them in his bag, quickly undoing the wraps over his knuckles. There were no bruises, no cuts, no sign that he’d been in there for a few hours already. Other than the fact that he was hungry. He hadn’t gotten used to his metabolism yet, either. He tried not to think about it.
The news was on the television when he got back up to the main floor they shared. Steve gave the screen a glance then went to the fridge. He had food in his own fridge, but he liked the sense of community, the sense of being a team, even when the world was not in peril. They needed to keep up that bond, in case anything else came up.
He didn’t want to make anyone nervous, though, so he kept that to himself.
Instead, he rifled around for a while before pulling out sandwich meat, sliced cheese, and bread.
“The word is that Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts is once again under Stark Industries employ, hinting that playboy Tony Stark is once again on the field.”
Steve quirked an eyebrow, glancing over his shoulder at the screen. He set his half-made sandwich down, leaning back against the counter with his arms crossed. Didn’t the news have more important things to report?
That was when he noticed Dr. Banner standing in the living room, frowning deeply. Steve turned back to his sandwich, putting mayo on one slice of bread, mustard on the other.
“Have you seen Tony since breakfast?”
Steve put away the bags of deli meat and cheese, slamming the refrigerator door a little harder than he intended. “No.”
Of all the people on the team, Tony was the one he got along with the least. Mr. Stark had been a playboy as well, but he was an optimist, and constantly helping others. Tony seemed to only be concerned with himself and his stuff.
The nuke said something different entirely, but…
Steve frowned, grabbing his sandwich and making to leave. He liked the sense of community and all, but right now, it hardly felt like one.
He wasn’t helping that either. Steve tossed his plate down on the table. “Have you tried his workshop?”
“Yeah. And all ten R&D levels.”
“Have you tried his bar?”
Bruce flinched, but didn’t say anything. Steve took at as a no. He sat, digging in.
0 0 0 0 0
His phone was ringing. Tony frowned, the incoming call flashing on his HUD. Rolling his eyes, he answered it. “Yes, dear?”
Pepper cleared her throat on the other line. That was meant to be sarcastic. Too soon? He didn’t care.
“Pepper, what? I’m kind of flying right now.” Tony deployed the right back flaps, corkscrewing up over a parking garage. He punched on the thrusters, setting off three car alarms as he buzzed close overhead. Damn that felt good.
“You are currently needed back at the Stark Tower.”
Tony groaned. “I thought you said the rest of my day was clear.”
“At the time, I thought it was!”
Maybe he should have waited before hiring her back. Then again, the P.A. before her had resigned that morning, claiming that the job was too stressful, she couldn’t get a hold of him, blah blah, he really didn’t care.
“What’s the problem?”
Pepper sighed. She probably had her face in her hands at this point. He was kind of surprised she hadn’t resigned yet. “It’s not a problem. Just get back here, okay.”
“Fine, mom.” Tony hung up before she could throw out a rebuttal, banking hard around the Empire State Building before shooting straight up. He landed on the balcony with a hard metallic thud, straightening up.
As expected, Pepper was sitting at the bar with her face in her hands. Tony rolled his eyes, walking as the Tower dismantled the suit around him. Soon enough he was back in his plain black clothing, hands in his pockets.
Pepper stood quickly, smoothing out her skirt. She tried to smile. It was more forced than most of his were.
“Director Fury has called a meeting of all members of the Avengers Initiative. He has been trying to get in contact with you for the last hour.”
“I blocked his number.”
Pepper pursed her lips.
“Did they start without me?”
“Probably.” Pepper breathed out the word in another exasperated sigh. Maybe he was going for a record. Having a P.A. for only a few hours would be a new one.
Tony raised his hands in surrender, walking around Pepper to the elevator. “Okay, okay, I’m going.”
Everyone turned to look at him when he entered the meeting room, looks ranging from a quirked eyebrow on the part of Banner to a fiery glare comparable to the pits of hell on the part of Fury. Thankfully, he saw a quick out, smiling widely when he saw Thor standing near the front of the room.
“Hey! Long time, no see!”
“Stark.” Thor nodded in his direction, a small smile quirking up his lips as well.
That seemed to disperse some of the tension. Tony took the open seat next to Banner, leaning back in it comfortably.
The meeting started without a hitch, Fury telling them why they were there—Thor—and then handing the floor over—to Thor—so they could get going. For the most part, it was boring and mundane and spoken in such an archaic form of English that Tony would have fallen asleep if Natasha and Fury hadn’t both been glaring daggers at him.
Loki had been under house arrest, all his stuff taken away, let to stew. That sounded like an A+ Plan for a villain. Tony rolled his eyes, bouncing in his seat, arms crossed over his chest.
“He is now at the head of rebuilding the Bifrost.”
“Wow. Community service, huh?” Tony noted that he got a glare from Cap as well at that one. He was really making friends today.
“It is a great service to Asgard and he is doing so willingly.”
Tony wasn’t questioning that, but whatever.
“I honestly don’t see how he could have been let off so easily.”
Tony swiveled in his chair to stare at the Captain. He’d thought maybe, since he’d had some time to get used to the 21st Century and all, and since he wasn’t wearing the spangly outfit, that he’d dislodged the stick from up his ass. Seemed like he was wrong.
“You would have done it differently?”
“Yes, Mr. Stark, I would have.” Steve frowned at him. Tony ignored the warning glances, waiting with mock patience for the Captain to continue. “He caused millions of dollars of damage, over a hundred casualties, and personally killed two men—”
“Only one, actually.”
Was that a growl he just heard from Fury?
“Regardless, I think I speak for all of Earth when I say this: he deserved much worse.”
“Hey, so, there was this guy Gandhi—great guy, by the way—and he said something along the lines of ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,’ I think that was it, but the point is, I think that applies here.”
“Oh, because you are the fairest, must just person in the world.”
“The world gave me a second chance. Why not him?”
“This wasn’t his first offense!”
“The Jericho Missile wasn’t my first rodeo either!”
“Everyone, shut the fuck up!”
Everyone turned, facing Fury. He towered over the table, black leather trench coat actually looking a little more villainy than Tony had noticed before. Displeased as he was, he shut up, swiveling away from Captain Girlscout.
“When we shipped Loki back to Asgard, we were trusting them to make the right decision. So now we have to trust that decision. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Sir.” Cap was the only one to respond. He was the only one that needed the spanking right now, in Tony’s eyes.
“Good. Now, if you are all done with your pissing match, I’d like to get back to the meeting.”
Tony grumbled into his hand. Cap gave another ‘yes, sir’ like the good army boy he was.
There was absolutely no point in being here.
Tony pushed back his chair, standing sharply. Fury stopped in mid-sentence and eyed him. For a moment, Tony was worried Fury was armed. Other than his two little pet assassins, that is.
Thankfully, no weapons were pulled. That meant he had the floor.
“So, now that we’ve got the Loki stuff out of the way, is there a reason we’re here?” Tony clapped his hands together, looking around. “I’ve got a business to run and a suit to upgrade. Translation: I don’t have time for a massive pity party or whatever it is you’re throwing here.”
Fury rolled his eye, sighing. “You’re dismissed, Stark.”
“Thank you.” Tony gave a little bow, swiveling on his heel to go. He heard someone else stand, not bothering to look.
“Excuse me, Dr. Banner, I didn’t say you could go.”
“Try to stop me.”
Tony glanced over in time to see that small smile of Banners, just as he went through the door, the doctor right behind him.
He stopped, glancing over. Bruce’s wry little smile was gone. That was a shame. Tony liked that smile.
“Want to go to the lab? I wasn’t joking about the suit.”
Bruce sighed, but agreed.
0 0 0 0 0
Tony went right to work like nothing was wrong. Maybe he went right to work because everything was wrong. Bruce had read his file, since everything had settled down. He had caught up on countless news reels. When Stark was having personal trouble, he always fled to his workshop and didn’t emerge until he’d forgotten.
Then again, maybe he didn’t forget.
Bruce went along with it, paying attention as Tony explained quickly his prototype for a shield and bounced suit modifications his way. This sort of science—or rather, engineering—was not his field of expertise, but he commented where he could. That was the least he could do.
It started with handing him tools. The robots could do it, but Bruce could do it faster, and without messing something up, so he was the go to.
It became Bruce holding stuff in place while Tony worked, their arms crossing at awkward angles, Bruce having to twist this way while Tony pulled that way.
Soon enough, they were both bent over the table, arms still crisscrossing, both trying to see through the same magnifying glass. All the pieces looked like they were properly fitted together, Bruce pushing his glasses further up.
He could feel Tony smile, goatee rough against his cheek.
Bruce stiffened. He swallowed roughly, holding his breath.
He hadn’t even noticed they were cheek to cheek, practically wrapped around one another trying to hold everything in place.
He counted to ten, slowly.
Tony wasn’t moving.
Bruce went to move.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Tony spoke quietly, in a strained whisper. He didn’t seem to mind the contact at all. Then again, he completely disregarded the other guy. This wasn’t safe. People shouldn’t get this close. “Bruce, breathe. I can feel you not breathing. There’s just one more part—”
“Okay, okay, I’m staying.” Bruce finally breathed again. Tony’s goatee tickled, but he fought the urge to move away. He wanted to see this. He wanted to see it start up.
Tony gently dropped the fluid on the tiny metal ring, that smile pulling at his cheek as it started to glow. Bruce stared in awe.
“Lower it slowly.”
Bruce did as he was told, slowly lowering the tiny palladium ring into the miniaturized mini-arc reactor. He let out a slow breath the moment it touched its mount.
“There we go. Now turn that.”
He turned the top, the shield snapping over it, clear and letting the glow of the palladium shine through it. Bruce smiled as well now, even as Tony’s laugh reverberated through him.
“Congratulations, you two have just made an even smaller arc reactor. I will begin running diagnostics now.”
Bruce set his tools down slowly. Tony lowered the arc reactor onto its holder, a cradle with wires dangling from it at all angles. They put their hands on the table, but didn’t move away.
Tony closed his eyes; Bruce could barely see it in his periphery, a blur of colors and basic forms outside the line of his glasses.
He didn’t say anything at first.
It was a comfortable silence, but there was something else, something hovering just beneath it. It was like Bruce was expecting something, he didn’t know what, but there was something to expect.
Tony hung his head, finally breaking the contact between them. It was like a wire had been cut. Bruce pulled off his glasses, setting them down. He didn’t normally do this, but…
“You can talk to me.”
Tony glanced up slightly, Bruce barely able to make out when Tony half-smiled up at him. Tony sat on the bench. Bruce did the same. His knees hurt from kneeling on it so long anyway.
“Pepper broke up with me.”
Bruce nodded. He would say he was sorry, but from what he’d seen so far, Tony didn’t seem to be. There was no point in false condolences anyway.
“She said it’d been a great time.” Tony laughed nervously, wetting his lips. Bruce forced himself to look up into those eyes, instead. “But she didn’t make me happy. I mean, isn’t it supposed to be the other way. Like ‘oh, you don’t make me happy, so let’s break up’ not the other way around?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Tony looked over sharply, then glanced away. They’d almost been face to face for a moment there. Bruce was glad Tony had put even a tiny bit more distance between them.
“She said… she said she knew me better than I knew myself. I mean, I wouldn’t argue, entirely, maybe, but…” Tony hung his head again, fingers fidgeting. He obviously wasn’t good at the whole talking out emotions thing. What superhero was? “She saw something. Something more than I saw.”
There was that expectation again. It made a chill creep up his spine. Bruce had to fight not to squirm.
“Tony, you didn’t do anything wro—”
Lips brushed against his, warm and slightly chapped and softer than he was expecting. It was experimental, slow, questioning.
Bruce was paralyzed.
Tony hovered there, then turned, standing quickly. He grabbed a rag from the table, wiping off his hands.
The door slammed before he could even stand up or say that it hadn’t been a no.
Chapter 8: Falling
It was awkward at first. He wasn’t going to lie about that, even to himself. Whenever he ran into Bruce in what had become the common room, they only said a few words to one another before going about their days. It took a week before he’d finally stuck around in the room, and that’s when Bruce asked if he needed any more help in the lab.
That’s when he knew that everything was okay. He hadn’t messed up royally, like he did with everything else in his life. Well, everything that wasn’t science or engineering related. He and Pepper were even able to work together now, though their contact was limited. It had probably been that limited before, but he just hadn’t taken a moment to notice.
Tony was really glad. He would have hated to have lost this so soon.
0 0 0 0 0
It was good to have Thor back, even if it was for a short time. His presence diffused a lot of the tension. Morning meals became a regular occurrence, though not everyone attended. Usually Tony wasn’t there. Natasha wasn’t surprised about that.
Training was more interesting, too.
Natasha brushed out her hair as she walked, skin cool and fresh from a shower. Thor had joined them for training again, and the four of them (Clint, Thor, Steve, and herself) had run through the S.H.I.E.L.D. training course outside of town together. The operators threw everything they had at them, but they’d succeeded, and in good time.
She was tired now, but still had things to do. She didn’t have the luxury of still being fresh like Steve and Thor. One was a super-soldier, the other practically a god. Training or no, she was still a human.
Tossing her brush in her room as she passed it, she went to the elevator, riding it down to the S.H.I.E.L.D. floor. A few people nodded at her as she passed. Natasha kept walking, not out of being rude, but out of being a woman on a mission.
The secretary intercepted her at Fury’s door. Natasha waited patiently, then banged on the door herself.
Natasha opened the door a crack, slipping in quietly. She closed it with a gentle click. Fury swiveled in his chair, facing her with an expectant look.
“Do you have something to report, Agent Romanoff?”
“No.” Natasha pursed her lips, staying where she was across the room. “I have a question. And I want an honest answer.”
Fury motioned at one of the chairs in front of his desk. After a moment, Natasha decided it would be fine, taking a seat. She crossed her legs carefully, though she was in slacks. It was a force of habit.
“What is it?”
“Stark said that Loki only killed one person.”
“Stark says a lot of things.”
Natasha smiled a little at that. Yes, Tony did. This was serious, though, and she could tell Fury was trying to skirt around the subject. “Where is he?”
“Loki’s in Asgard.”
“Phil.” Natasha leaned forward, leveling her gaze at Fury’s one good eye. “Where is Phil?”
Fury leaned back in his chair, sighing. “He’s out of recovery.”
He really was alive.
“So you telling Stark and Captain Rogers that Phil was dead…” Natasha cracked a full smile at that, sitting back proudly. “You’re good.”
“I know.” Fury gave her a little nod. “Anything else?”
“Nope.” Natasha stood, about to go when Fury held up a hand.
“Don’t tell the others.”
“They will find out eventually. Stark already knows.”
“And he still hasn’t told anyone else, except for that little slip up at the meeting. I’d like to break it softly to the others, so they aren’t all up in arms.”
Natasha nodded. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“I’d hope so.”
0 0 0 0 0
Tony flipped back his hood, staring down at his handiwork. The last repair on the Mark VII was officially done, and then some. He’d finished upgrading it as well, all the bells and whistles included. With a grin, he lifted up the completed component, one of his robots taking it.
“Jarvis, I’d like to take a test flight of the Mark VII.”
“Shall I put it into the loader?”
Tony pulled off his welding mask, setting it aside with all his tools. He wiped off his hands with a rag, then picked up his bracelets, clicking them on.
“No. Put the deployment container on the roof.”
“Sir, are you planning on—”
“Do it, Jarvis!”
Tony checked the bracelets. They were secure. Nodding to himself, he left the workshop, the elevator dinging open just before he reached it.
Bruce stood there, fidgeting. Tony stepped in next to him, punching the button for his penthouse.
“I was just coming to—”
“Don’t worry about it. I was heading down.” Tony glanced over, then quickly looked at his feet. Bruce was wearing that yellow shirt Tony’d given him. It looked good on him.
The elevator headed down without any interruptions. Tony couldn’t stand still. Worse, he couldn’t stand the silence between them.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
Bruce frowned. “What did you do?”
Tony sighed. They’d been acting like nothing had happened for over a week. Maybe he should have just dropped it. He wasn’t good at leaving things alone. “For… invading your personal space.”
They didn’t say anything else on the way down. There was that silence again. Great.
0 0 0 0 0
The elevator doors opened, a rush of fresh air flooding in. Bruce took a deep breath, letting it relax some of the tension in his shoulders. Tony moved first, walking quickly out into his airy penthouse.
Bruce stood there a moment, watching as Tony moved across the spacious penthouse to the bar, getting a glass of water, surprisingly. The doors started to close. Bruce jumped, slipping through them.
The last time he had been up here, he’d been trapped in a mental cage, watching helplessly as the other guy smashed Loki into the floor. He could see that damage was repaired, thankfully. That was good. He hoped it hadn’t been too expensive.
Of course he was worrying about expenses rather than facing the actual problem. Tony Stark wasn’t the type to apologize. In fact, he wasn’t the type to think that he ever, actually, did anything wrong. But thinking about that would acknowledge emotions, acknowledge a level of caring he just wasn’t willing to attribute to Tony or to admit, himself.
Something was wrong. After so many years of trying not to get close to people, of trying to push others as far away as he could, Bruce didn’t know what to do.
Tony knocked back the last of his glass. He pressed a little meter to his thumb, frowning down at it. Slowly, he set the little metal device aside, and started walking for his suit assembly line. The machines didn’t initialize, the walkway remaining clear and empty.
Bruce approached the bar, picking up the device the moment Tony’s back was turned. Palladium Concentration 13%. Bruce frowned.
He looked up in time to see Tony jump.
Bruce dropped the blood toxicity reader. He didn’t hear it hit the floor over the pull of blood through his veins, pounding in his ears. He started in a stumble, running for the balcony.
His knees crashed against the metal floor, wrists jarring with pain as they hit the small lip on the balcony.
He leaned over the side. Wind slapped at his face, skin prickling, shivering, writhing. He took jagged breaths, searching the air for him. He couldn’t see anything.
Everything was fading into black.
“Deep breaths, Bruce.”
Bruce looked up, blinking.
Tony Stark, in full crimson and gold suit, hovered in the air in front of him. Tony angled his feet, swinging around onto the platform. He landed with a metal thud, flipping up his helmet.
“Come on, deep breaths. I can see the green in your eyes.”
Bruce stood in a rush, punching him.
“You should have told me what you were doing! I thought you had—I thought that you—”
Tony wiggled his jaw, blinking in surprise. He grabbed Bruce’s shoulders. Somehow his metal hands were actually holding him softly, albeit firmly. “Deep. Breaths.”
Bruce took a shaky breath in through his nose, then pushed it out through his mouth, repeating. His heart was flying at a million miles an hour. The rush in his ears still made it hard to hear Tony, or much of anything. His vision was clearing, though.
“You’re an asshole.”
Tony barked a laugh, slapping Bruce on the shoulder. “I’m not the suicide type.”
Bruce actually laughed at that. “Right. That’s what your file has written all over it.” Bruce shook his head. “Look, you’ve been acting weird lately and I saw that blood toxicity reader, and then you jumped and I—”
“Almost Hulked out. Yeah, I noticed.” Tony gave a small smile. “Thanks for the sentiment, but—”
“Come on, Tony, you know we all care about you.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Captain Flag-pole up his ass does not care about me.”
“Well I do.”
He could see the tension blossom in Tony’s jaw, the way all the muscles went taut. That probably wasn’t good for his teeth. He knew Tony wouldn’t want to hear that, though.
“I sense a ‘but’ here.”
Bruce sighed. That explained the tension. “Yeah, there is one. I… I’m sorry for freezing up. When…” Bruce made a non-committal noise. That was easier than outright saying it. “It’s just that I haven’t let anyone close since the accident. It’s not safe, with the other guy—”
“Would you stop with that?”
Bruce looked up sharply. There was something in Tony’s eyes, not quite hurt, but not quite angry. It was in between. Bruce was caught, though, he couldn’t look away. He wished Tony didn’t have that power over him.
“We’ve been working together for a while now, in one another’s personal spaces, and nothing bad has happened. This is the first time your big green buddy has even knocked on the door to get out, and guess what? You didn’t let him out.”
“Didn’t call for him. So he went back to sleep.”
“But increased heart rate, adrenalin, they can—”
“I don’t think that’s it.” Tony shook his shoulders gently, as though he had to keep Bruce’s attention. He had all of his attention. It wasn’t necessary. “Fight or flight. It’s a basic human instinct. And I think, that when your body registers that flight isn’t an option, the fight comes out.”
Well, there was no point in arguing. Tony had obviously done his homework. It was frustrating. Normally he could just hide behind the other guy like a shield and everyone would just accept it. Everyone would gladly back away, put distance between them, because they were too afraid of the monster to see the man behind it.
Tony wasn’t afraid of anything, it seemed. He had, after all, just jumped off a building.
“I know I asked you to give me a chance, but…” Tony looked away, staring off into the mid-distance. Bruce could finally look away from those eyes, but he didn’t want to. “Do you ever even give yourself a chance?”
That hurt. Bruce looked down, letting out a half-sigh, half-laugh. Wow. Tony had him pegged, guilty as charged.
Tony gave his shoulders a squeeze. “Please try?”
Bruce looked up. Tony was giving him that look again. It made his stomach flip.
There was only one answer he could give.
Bruce tilted his head up, tentatively pressing his lips to Tony’s. Tony turned his head, lips meshing with his. They weren’t as chapped this time. His lips spread. It was warm, welcoming. Bruce closed his eyes. Tony tasted like metal and something else, something slightly sweet.
Tony was the one to pull back. He was grinning again. “If I knew all it would take was jumping of a building…”
They laughed. Bruce looked away. What was he doing?
“Don’t worry.” Tony seemed to know. “I’ll take it slow.”
Bruce couldn’t help but give him a skeptical eye at that. Tony Stark, take it slow? The world must be ending.
“Well, slower than this.” Tony gave a mock salute and jumped off the building again.
Chapter 9: Normalcy
It wasn’t difficult to find Captain America. He was on a set schedule like clockwork. It screamed of the military, which Tony wasn’t exactly comfortable with. It probably showed. The problem was the fact that Captain A only seemed accessible at certain times of that schedule, the most notable of which was breakfast.
And he ate it early.
For the last few days, Tony had set an alarm. All three of those days he woke up around noon and found the alarm clock across the room. According to Jarvis, it was a miracle the thing hadn’t shattered yet, with how hard Tony threw it. He didn’t remember throwing the clock, but watching the security reel confirmed that he had actually thrown it.
Today was different. Tony hadn’t gone to sleep. He’d been sipping on coffee (and a bottle of water; had to at least keep hydrated) all night, working on the Mark VIII. Right now he had a holographic design with some notes and a few potential directions to go in, but nothing solid. He’d worked straight through the night, so that when morning came, and Jarvis announced to him that Steve was in the kitchen, Tony rushed for the elevator.
He found Steve standing over the stove, one hand manning a pan, the other a spatula. It smelled like he was cooking eggs, though Tony could be wrong. He’d only smelled them cooking once, and that’d been when he was trying to make that omelet for Pepper.
Wrong train of thought for right now.
Tony came up beside him, glancing at the coffee pot. It was empty. He could do this. He’d made coffee before. It couldn’t be more difficult than thermo-nuclear-astrophysics.
After staring at the pot for a minute, Steve finally intervened.
“The grounds and filters are in the cabinet. Two heaping scoops for a full pot.”
Tony grumbled a thank you, opening the cabinet. Just as Cap said. Tony pulled down the grounds, fitting a filter into the top of the coffee pot, in the slot it looked like it fit in. It was the only big round spot, so that had to be it. Popping off the top of the coffee canister, he shoveled out two massive scoops, plopping them into the filter.
“Next, fill up the carafe with water to the 12 mark and pour it into the back, behind the filter.”
Tony did just that, putting the glass carafe back into place. He took a deep breath, staring at the machine. He closed the top, leaning in to stare harder at the machine.
Steve reached over, pressing a button on the machine’s front.
And the coffee started brewing.
It kind of hurt, seeing Steve using a piece of post WWII technology without blinking an eye, when Tony had absolutely no idea what to do with it. He’d automated one of his robots to make coffee for him, but that was years ago, and he hadn’t had to do the process since. Either his robot did it, or someone else brought him coffee.
Sighing, Tony stared as a dark brown stream fell into the carafe, splashing on the bottom. A little bit of condensation appeared over the coffee line, from the heat differential. Tony strummed his fingers on the counter, collecting his thoughts.
“Yes, Mr. Stark?”
Tony frowned at that. He wondered if Cap had called his father that. Probably. Steve was nice to everyone—but him—so he could count on him being respectful. Steve probably even called Natasha ma’am, which hurt just to think about. He had to fight hard not to laugh.
Steve flipped his omelet off the pan and onto the plate. He turned off the stove, setting the pan to the side. Grabbing a fork, the man went to the breakfast bar, sitting on one of the stools. There was already a cup of orange juice at the seat. How wholesome.
Not willing to wait anymore, Tony grabbed a mug and poured out what was already brewed, then joined Steve, keeping a stool between them.
It took three sips of scalding hot black coffee for him to finally speak up again.
“What do normal people do on dates?”
Steve chewed slowly, shooting him a look. It was a mean sort of look, Tony snorting, giving one of his defensive grins. He kept his coffee in one hand, sipping it slowly without breaking eye contact. He’d never been the type to back down. He absolutely would not start where Cap was involved.
“Are you trying to be funny?”
Tony made his best ‘oh please’ face over his mug. “No. I was being honest for once.”
Steve gave a pinched, disapproving sigh. Tony took a gulp of his coffee, not caring that it burned all the way down. He had to steel himself for the lecture he could see coming from a mile away.
It didn’t come, though. Steve just shook his head, continuing to eat. “What makes you think I know anything about dating? You’re the… what was it? Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist? Your pinky probably knows more about women than I do.”
Tony couldn’t help but laugh at that. He almost choked on his coffee. Thankfully, it was only almost. He was still nervous about someone having to help him if he was choking—that squeezing motion might back his arc reactor pop out, if he wasn’t lucky.
“Yeah, well, playboy doesn’t mean dates. It means sex. Meaningless, unearned sex.” Tony played with his mug in his hands. Normally, he just went for sex. There were no emotional attachments, no expectations, no emotions, just carnal pleasure, and for years, he’d been perfectly fine with that.
He wanted something more now.
When he glanced up, Steve was blushing and eating a little faster.
“Look, I didn’t mean to make you embarrassed, I didn’t come in here to jab at your innocence.” Tony looked away. He wouldn’t say I’m sorry; this was the closest he’d get to it. Take it or leave it.
“What did you come here for, then?”
Steve set down his fork lightly. The plate was cleared. Great. Now Cap was going to run away and he’d still be at square one.
“Bucky would always take girls out dancing.”
“My best friend.” Steve gave a little smile. It didn’t match the sadness in his eyes, though. “Girls were lining up for him. He’d always take them to dance halls, show them a good time.”
“And, uh, what if the… girl… isn’t really into the whole dance scene? Or overstimulation?”
“Nothing wrong with an old fashioned dinner and a movie.” Steve laughed a little at that, shrugging.
Steve calling something old fashioned was priceless. It did, however, sound like it fit the bill.
“Thanks, Cap. I owe you.”
“Oh great.” Steve stood, going straight to the sink with his dishes to wash them by hand, even though they had a perfectly good dishwasher. And a cleaning staff.
Tony would never understand Steve, but at least he was a half-decent sounding board. When it came to normalcy, at least.
0 0 0 0 0
Bruce didn’t look up from the microscope. He knew it would be easier to stare at abnormal cell walls than it would be to face Tony’s expression at the refusal. He had to make Tony see his point in this. It was going to be difficult, very, very difficult, but not looking up was the first step.
“Tony, you know that’s a bad idea.”
He could practically hear Tony roll his eyes. Bruce concentrated on staring down at his work, flipping to a lens with a higher magnification.
“Give me one good reason why it’d be a bad idea.”
Bruce closed his eyes for a moment. Step two: logic. “The press follows you everywhere you go.”
Maybe logic wasn’t the best route. Maybe he should appeal to something else. “They will ruin it. Constantly following us, snapping pictures, asking questions. It wouldn’t be a date.”
He could hear Tony huff, which meant he was getting somewhere. That was a little surprising. Then again, Tony seemed like he had all the patience in the world concerning Bruce, something else that was surprising. Since that day Tony had taken out the Mark VII for tests, they hadn’t done much more than give a fleeting, decidedly chaste kiss here and there, and even that was like tiptoeing on thin ice.
“How about this.” Tony paused dramatically, drawing Bruce’s gaze up. He immediately regretted it. Tony was doing that thing with his eyes and the pouting. “I have my private chef make us a really nice dinner, then we watch a movie here. Well, in your living room.”
“Am I allowed to give more reasons?”
Tony frowned deeper. This wasn’t working at all. Bruce stood up fully from his work bench, turning. He rubbed his hands together, concentrating on them, but Tony kept giving him that look and he couldn’t just look away.
Bruce glanced down at his wrist. It was already 5:00 p.m. and he hadn’t even noticed. “Can you really get everything together that fast?”
Tony grinned. It was like a light bulb, a 1000 watt light bulb, had been turned on in his eyes. Bruce couldn’t say no, now.
“I’ll see you at 7:00?”
Tony made a gesture at the wall. “Your dining room?”
“Fine. I’ll see you then.”
Tony had an undeniable bounce to his steps as he left the lab, an uncontained joy that was absolutely infectious. Bruce couldn’t help but smile. He’d better wrap up his experiment and get ready.
0 0 0 0 0
Tony showed up to dinner in a suit, like they were going out to the best five-star restaurant in New York City and the whole world would be watching. It was just the two of them, though. The moment the chef was done working his magic in the kitchen, he left them alone.
There were candles on the table and a nice maroon tablecloth, which matched Bruce’s button up shirt, embarrassingly enough. Tony couldn’t have known what Bruce was going to wear, unless Jarvis had supplied the information. It was a possibility.
There was curry and chana masala and all sorts of other food he had been missing sorely, but didn’t want to admit to. Bruce ate eagerly, all the more so when Tony eyed some of the food suspiciously. He felt like he had all the patience in the world explaining what each thing was, what kind of spices were used, and how good they were for the human body.
Dinner lasted well over an hour. They weren’t eating the whole time, even though there were three courses, including an amazing desert. Mostly, they were talking. Some of it was about science. They couldn’t help it. The rest of it was about them.
Though they’d talked about their lives before their respective accidents, it had only been fleeting moments, bits and pieces here and there, with massive gaps. Now was different. It did not feel like he was hauling a desperate amount of baggage with him. It felt like he was handing Tony a book, and Tony was doing the same.
Tony was a good liar, but Bruce could tell the different. It was so small, so subtle, others might miss it, but Bruce knew, just like he knew Tony was being completely honest with him. Tony was trusting him.
Even being here should have proven Bruce trusted Tony just as much. He hoped it did.
They finally moved to the living room just before 9 p.m., both settling on the couch. A small box of dvd cases sat on the table, Bruce flipping through them slowly. Being at the furthest reaches of the world for so long, he didn’t know more than half of these movies, or these actors. He used to like movies. They were good for relaxing, for switching off his mind, not that he had liked to do that often.
Bruce glanced over his shoulder, over the rims of his glasses. Tony was fiddling with a smaller box, turning it over and over again in his hands. Bruce didn’t say anything, just watching that nervous motion. Thankfully, Tony got the hint and continued.
“I made you something.” Tony looked down, swallowing. It was really weird seeing the man nervous, even more so to hear him mumbling. “So you don’t have to worry so much.”
Bruce sat up slowly, taking the box when it was offered to him. It was light in weight, and he couldn’t hear anything strange. He pulled off the plain brown wrapping.
It was a metal wrist band, with a smooth circle of a different metal on the inside curve, a small, sleek display opposite of it, on the outside. Bruce turned it over in his hands, then finally looked up with knit in brows.
“It monitors things like adrenalin, serotonin, blood pressure, heart rate. That kind of stuff.” Tony was still staring down at his knees. “There’s a slide, next to the display. If you press the button under it… it injects a sedative.”
Bruce ran his thumb over the slide, seeing the little button beneath it. The band was a little wonder. It was so simple, and yet…
“I don’t know if it will work, but—”
“Thank you.” Bruce smiled, undoing the clasp to slide it over his hand. He latched it into place, the metal snug but not too tight on his skin. It was plain enough most people wouldn’t even notice it. It almost looked like a watch. It was perfect. “I don’t even—”
“It’s fine. I wanted to help.”
Bruce reached up, brushing his fingers under Tony’s chin. He pulled, Tony following willingly. Bruce kissed him tentatively, and Tony seemed to have the same sort of reserve, hesitation, until Bruce felt a tongue brush his lips. He opened his mouth before he could thing, that tongue exploring, coaxing his own up.
Hands ran from his shoulders to his waist, and suddenly he was turned, back hitting the plush cushions of the couch. He looked up, Tony staring down at him. His dark eyes were wide and warm and Bruce had to blink not to get lost in them. Tony leaned down, kissing again, this one faster.
His heart rate was rising. The bracelet gave a warning beep. Tony’s fingers were on his shirt, undoing the buttons carefully even though he didn’t break their mouths apart. It felt too hot in there, stifling. Tony’s tie was off, flung somewhere else. He was undoing his own shirt, tugging the tails up from underneath his pants.
His breathing was ragged, panted. The bracelet beeped again, louder this time, a shrill warning.
Tony paused. His face went slack. He sat back sharply.
Bruce rolled off the couch, stumbling, almost tripping over the table. He sprinted, the door barely clicking shut behind him when he felt the other guy come ripping out.
0 0 0 0 0
He opened his eyes. There was the bracelet, laying on the floor, clasp undone. He reached forward slowly with an aching arm, brushing his fingers against the cold, glass display. Somehow, the bracelet was whole, unbroken, untouched even. Bruce licked his lips, rolling them together to spread the moisture.
Bruce pushed himself up slowly, bleary eyes dancing around the room. The floor was intact beneath him, as were the walls, and the reinforced lights above him. Everything looked as it did when he entered the room… except for him.
His maroon shirt was in tatters, shreds of the cloth scattering the room. His grey slacks hung like a dilapidated sack around him, the fibers stretched out so much they were thin like a raggedy burlap bag. Bruce bundled the cloth up around his waist, standing shakily. He grabbed the bracelet, holding it in his hand gently.
It had survived the rampage somehow. He didn’t even know how he’d managed to get it off, much less avoided smashing it. Bruce sighed, clutching it a little tighter; it obviously wasn’t fragile.
Bruce opened the door, sagging on the frame.
Tony was still here.
Bruce straightened, eyes widening.
Tony sat on the cough, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. Even from that distance, he could see the tremble of Tony’s shoulders.
Bruce pushed off from the door frame, shuffling over. He kept his pants clutched in one hand, bracelet in the other.
Without saying anything, Bruce flopped down on the couch next to him.
Tony glanced up, if barely. Those eyes were rimmed with red.
Bruce reached out. That was awkward. He quickly readjusted his pants so they wouldn’t fall off awkwardly, then slid the bracelet back on his left wrist, security it. He reached out again, pulling Tony into a hug.
Tony laughed against him. His voice was hoarse, rasping.
“I’m sorry. I should have—”
“Shh.” Bruce hugged him tighter. It was a little awkward, since his chest was bare, and he was self-conscious of just how much hair he had on his chest, but Tony didn’t seem to mind, ear pressed against his heart. “It’s fine.”
“I promised I’d take it slow—”
“Tony, shut up.”
Tony frowned against him, turning in his grip. He didn’t quite look annoyed, which was good.
“I panicked.” Bruce gave a sheepish smile. As though that wasn’t already obvious. “I haven’t… no one’s even wanted to be that close to me since the accident, so I haven’t…”
Tony nodded slowly. The fact that Tony was still here, after a few hours with the other guy, was amazing. He just didn’t know how to express it.
“Just… just let me set the pace next time okay?”
It was like a light switch went on behind Tony’s eyes. “Next time?”
Tony grinned, settling back in against him again. Bruce threaded his fingers through Tony’s hair, stroking slowly. This was comfortable. For now, this was enough.
Chapter 10: Something Worth Avenging
Tony had the patience of a saint with him. It was surprising, considering how utterly impatient the man seemed to be with everything else in the world, from groundbreaking research to food, but somehow. Maybe that was it. Tony had been saving all of his patience, hoarding it away like a prize of gold, and now he had found something worth spending it on.
Bruce smiled to himself as the lights in his lab clicked on. It was still early, early enough that no one would be in the communal kitchen yet, so Bruce wouldn’t bother going up there. Not until later. He had grown to appreciate the sense of community, the fact that these people all treated him like another human being, despite their rocky start.
And then there was Tony.
Bruce tapped on the glass screen, waking up the computer. It booted up almost too quickly to follow, Bruce picking up his notes from the previous night in the meanwhile.
A yellow sticky note was pressed onto the front page. Bruce pulled it off lightly, fitting on his glasses to stare at it. In tiny writing was an equation, the pencil slightly smudged. He stared at it, but didn’t recognize it.
Pulling the computer screen closer, he typed in the equation, watching as points appeared on the graph. The dots connected slowly, too slowly, Bruce frowning until he saw it.
It was a heart.
Bruce smiled, looking down sheepishly. He wondered if Tony was watching over the video feed. Probably not. They’d been up almost all night, making science, as Tony had started calling it. Bruce rolled his eyes with a soft chuckle. Tony could make an innuendo out of anything.
But at the same time, Tony respected his limits and didn’t push. It made Bruce feel like the most special person in the world.
They ate most meals together, small, uneventful things, often in the corner of the lab, away from all the chemicals and tools. Bruce told himself it was so Tony wouldn’t forget to eat, but he wasn’t much better. After a while, they told J.A.R.V.I.S. to remind them if they worked for five hours without any breaks.
Despite that, Tony still set aside other mealtimes. At first, it was just the chef in Bruce’s kitchen. After a week, Bruce actually suggested going out somewhere. It was nothing special, not hundreds of dollars for a meal, but it was delicious and homey and in a way, made him miss traveling a little less.
After a month, Tony suggested they go to Malibu for a weekend. Bruce ran it by Fury first, to make sure they weren’t needed for some reason, and the Director waved them off, barely even glancing away from his computer for a second to acknowledge him. Authorization was authorization, so they went.
The mansion was amazing, the workshop was amazing, the view was amazing. Tony tried his hardest to make everything romantic, like a secret getaway. Just for them.
And Tony had the patience of a saint as they tentatively explored. Slow kissing on the couch turned to more. Tony had the patience of the saint as he whispered softly what he was doing, for approval, before he did it, slowly divesting them of their shirts and then undoing Bruce’s pants.
It was like a fever, temperature rising gently between them, one step at a time. It was never urgent. They took their time. Tony made sure he was comfortable that first time he tipped over the edge in what felt like ages, shuddering on the couch, Tony’s mouth around him. And Tony was fine that he was uncertain about returning the favor and never pressed it, telling Bruce that he was worth it, not to worry.
Coming back from Malibu felt like waking up from a dream. The S.H.I.E.L.D. hive was buzzing like someone had kicked it, but he didn’t care.
Bruce stared at the graph for a moment longer, then set down to work.
0 0 0 0 0
It had taken rebooting Jarvis to get access to the roof without putting on his suit. While the AI was offline, Tony manually unlocked the door, holding it open with a conspiratorial grin. Bruce sighed and went through, Tony quickly following him.
Up there, at the very top of the Stark Tower, everything was muted. Tony couldn’t hear the electric buzz of signs or the constant drone of cars and millions of people talking in a chaotic chorus. It was quiet and still and peaceful, and it seemed like the perfect place to take Bruce.
Tony tossed down the blanket he’d brought with him, spreading it out. He tossed the brown paper bag at its center, their little picnic, then sat down, back to a half-wall. Leaning against it, Tony let his gaze drift to the sky.
“It’s crazy thinking there was a portal with a whole alien army coming through it up there just a few months ago.”
Tony glanced over as Bruce sat next to him. “Yeah.” Right now, that was all he could say in response. There was too much going on in his head, too much other noise, which he could never quite control, though he tried. At least for Bruce, he tried.
“I wonder where it went.”
“I’ve tried seeing what kind of readings I could salvage from my suit, but no luck yet.” Tony let out a shaky sigh, shivering. He was glad he had made his suit pressurized, with a store of oxygen, because otherwise, flying into space like that would have killed him instantly. And he didn’t want to think about that. He rather liked living right now.
Bruce shrugged. He was staring up at the sky, too, even as he polished his glasses. Tony was used to it by now, had even joked a few times that he was surprised Bruce hadn’t worn a hole straight through the lenses from how much he did that. Normally it meant Bruce was worried. Or thinking. Or both. It could definitely be both right now.
“Why did you do it?”
Tony looked over sharply, biting back his automatic response. It had to be done. There had been other options, other ways out. Like Steve said, there was always a way out. Flying through that portal—with a nuke, no less—was supposed to be a one way trip. He had been okay with that. It hadn’t been a one way trip, though, and he was thankful for that every day.
“I…” Tony tried to smile. It wasn’t genuine, that business smile falling on easily. It wasn’t worth it. He let that smile drop, turning his gaze back to the stars, only the very brightest of which were even visible above them, with all that light pollution.
He took a deep breath, trying again.
“I finally found something worth avenging.”
He felt a hand on his, squeezing. Tony actually did smile, for real, this time. Their fingers intertwined, and they sat there, in a comfortable sort of silence, watching the stars (the satellites and occasional planes were more visible, but they were lights, too). It was nice. It was more than nice.
Tony wished he could hold on to this forever.
It might have been an hour, or two, three at most, before Bruce squeezed his hand again. Tony snapped out of his thoughts, turning his head. Bruce stood, tugging gently at his hand. “Come on.” Tony stood, letting himself be led back into the building.
0 0 0 0 0
Butterflies fluttered in his chest, in his stomach, making him feel lighter than air as he led him down the hallway. His heart drummed, loud but not intimidating for once, when he opened the door.
Jarvis brought up the lights to 20%. The bedroom was dark, but not so dark he would trip over his own feet as he led Tony by the hand. His thumb brushed against Tony’s wrist, feeling the pulse, counting the beats in his head, just barely elevated.
Taking a deep breath, Bruce sat on the bed, pulling Tony with him.
Tony didn’t say anything. He just kept holding his hand, not expecting anything.
Bruce was ready.
He turned, cupping Tony’s cheek in his palm. Tony leaned into it, closing his eyes. Bruce leaned in, kissing him lightly at first, savoring the taste. He’d figured it out. Coconut. Tony tasted like coconut and metal and nothing could be more him and Bruce couldn’t get enough of it, even as he made the kiss deeper, exploring tentatively.
Bruce toed off his shoes, moving back just far enough so he could see. His hands trembled as he pulled Tony’s shirt up over his head. Tony lifted his arms, but didn’t really move more than that, settling next to him again, waiting for instruction.
He was thankful for that. Tony was going to let him set the pace. He needed that.
Bruce let a soft kiss on the corner of Tony’s mouth, then the prickle of dark hair on his jaw, then his neck, savoring how warm it was, the soft salt tang from a long day. He feathered his lips down, feeling the way Tony shifted, feeling the increasing pulse under his lips.
Lightly, carefully, he placed a kiss on the arc reactor. It was warm, almost hot, and it vibrated faintly, just enough to make his lips tingle. Bruce smiled against it, smiled as he looked up, seeing in the dim light of the room, in the glow of the arc reactor, just how warm and full and truly happy Tony was staring at him.
Laughing softly, Bruce met those lips with more gusto, undoing the buttons of his own shirt, tossing it off. He pushed, and they fell side by side on the bed, still laughing and smiling. It was a matter of moments before neither of them were wearing clothes, legs tangled, lips massaging together. Tony was finally moving too, hands roaming, exploring, taking in everything with work calloused fingers.
Tony rolled them, Bruce jolting in surprise. His bracelet let out a dull beep, but he ignored it. Tony was staring up at him, all the care in the world in those dark eyes. He wiggled his legs, getting them out from underneath Bruce. The brush of Tony’s thighs around his waist made him shudder.
He found the lubricant in the bedside table with fumbling hands, looking away with a blush when Tony helped him pop the cap open and squirted some on Bruce’s fingers. Bruce took a deep breath, counting down from ten. He could do this. He wanted to do this. He needed to do this.
Bruce was gentle and slow. He put his ear to Tony’s chest, listening to each hitch in his breathing, to his increasing heart rate. Tony’s fingers laced through his hair, hand clenching now and then, but he was patient, he had all the patience of a saint as Bruce took his time, regulating his breathing, keeping his heart calm, despite what he was doing.
It was almost too much when he finally buried himself in Tony’s warmth. Bruce held his breath, sitting perfectly still. Tony stared up at him. The bracelet beeped twice, dull with the rush of blood through his ears.
He did. One breath. Two. Three. The bracelet went silent, Bruce rolling his hips with a ragged gasp. Tony wrapped his arms around him, and it was like they melded together, the rest of the world fading away.
It was only when they were sagging into one another, completely spent, that the world slowed down and time seemed to stop.
Bruce wouldn’t mind if time never started again.