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Take a Chance, Take a Chance

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Tony invites Bruce to the Tower, and Bruce goes. They do science, and they sleep weird hours, and Pepper comes in and harasses them to eat something and gets into a days-long argument with Tony about how coffee does not count as food. An argument which, Bruce discovers, he’s not allowed to partake in because he doesn’t drink enough coffee by Tony’s standards to be considered an addict.

“Eighteen cups a day is at least three times as much as regular addicts,” Pepper points out.

“David Lynch drinks eighteen cups a day,” Tony replies.

“Unless you plan to be the next surrealist visionary of television and film, I think you’d do better not to argue your point from that angle,” Pepper says.

Bruce laughs without meaning to. They both pause, grin at him, and then go back to the debate. It feels good, Bruce thinks, to get acknowledgement without worry. To be seen and heard without fear coming up the back end of it.

He doesn't mean to stay more than a week. He left behind a lot of work in Calcutta, a lot of sick and dying people he could provide help for. He tries to explain this to Tony at the end of his second week when he finally realizes how much time has passed, and Tony slides a tablet across the table they’re sharing at the moment because Tony’s reviewing schematics and Bruce is reacquainting himself with back issues of Scientific America.

"What is this?" Bruce asks, though he can read the words and numbers clearly. It's just that he can't believe what he's seeing.

"Thirty doctors from Stark Medical, doing what they can to heal the sick with the absolute cutting-edge of medical technology while you and your gigantic brain stay here, review their research, and find ways to heal them faster when you're not helping me explore ways we could possibly blow things up in the name of science."

Bruce blinks. He might have tears in his eyes. "Tony, this is—"

"You helped save the world," Tony says. "You've more than paid whatever penance you think you owe, but I'm thinking you think that there's a lot more to pay, so here's my offer: let those thirty highly-trained, ridiculously-supplied doctors do twenty times what you could, and you stay here and research on their behalf."

Bruce considers it. "There are thirty of them," he says. "How are they only doing twenty times the work?"

"I don't let people into my garage who can't do science with the dedication of ten men," Tony replies. He has a grin on his face, but his eyes are serious. "But if you can't keep yourself from going back and paying the debt you think you owe, all those doctors and all those supplies stay where they are, at your disposal, with a guarantee of constant resupply and assistance."

"Is this what it's like to be your colleague?" Bruce asks.

"This is what it's like to be my friend. Hell, I gave Rhodey an entire Iron Man suit. Do you know the cost on those things? I can spare some medical supplies and staff."

Friend. The word echoes in Bruce's head for a few seconds. It's been a long time since anyone's used it to describe any relationship with him. Something tight in his chest loosens. He breathes deep and puts down the tablet. "I'll stay," he says, because he’d be a fool to try and do research while trying to save people. He’ll work better from here, able to see just the data and not the faces, see the big picture he had to struggle with every day he was making the rounds of the neighborhoods. "But I'm gonna need a few things."

"JARVIS, let Pepper know she needs to take Bruce on a shopping trip," Tony says.

"Yes, Sir," JARVIS replies.

"I don't—" Bruce begins.

"And have her gather all the paperwork Bruce needs to come on as a full-time consultant to Stark Industries. Immediate full benefits, ridiculous signing bonus, and a clothing allowance as decided by Ms. Potts."

"I am sure she'll be thrilled, Sir," JARVIS says.

"Tony, I don't need—" Bruce closes his mouth when Tony gives him a silencing look.

"I pay people for the work they do for me, Bruce. Friendship or not."

Hulk rumbles low down in Bruce's belly, confused at Bruce's raising heartbeat. It's okay, Bruce thinks. We're okay.

Hulk like Shiny Man, Hulk says.

Yeah, Bruce thinks, he kind of likes the shiny man, too. "All right," Bruce says, holding out his hand for Tony to shake.

"We'll do the full contract mumbo-jumbo," Tony tells him as he shakes Bruce's hand. "But right now, I really want to blow something up."

Bruce grins, then laughs. "What do you have in mind?" he asks.

They go old-school, staring with baking soda and vinegar just for the giggle, and then recreating all the more dangerous chemistry experiments they remember from high school. Bruce finds himself laughing uproariously when Tony creates a massive fireball using a pile of magnesium sheets and a very long match.

“I think you’re singed,” Bruce says, pointing to Tony’s hairline where ash is flaking.

“As long as my eyebrows are intact, I’m good,” Tony says, and he hands the next match to Bruce.

*

The next morning, as Bruce showers, JARVIS chimes on. "Sir, Ms. Potts is here to take you shopping."

"Already?" Bruce had figured they’d do it soon, but he hadn’t thought today.

"You are down to two shirts and three pairs of slacks. She feels now is better than later."

"Okay," Bruce says. He looks up at the ceiling because talking to thin air still feels weird. "So, do I have to let you let her in?"

"I will do so now," JARVIS replies.

"Thanks," Bruce says.

"My pleasure, Sir."

Bruce finishes showering, turns off the water, and reaches for his towel, realizing, as he wraps it around his waist, that his clothes are laid out on his bed. The suite is made up of the bathroom, a sitting area with a kitchenette, and a bedroom. He's going to have to cross in front of Pepper to get to the bedroom, and while he's certain she won't be shocked or appalled, it feels rude.

"Bruce?" Pepper's voice is right outside the door.

"Yeah?"

"There should be a robe in the linen closet to the left of the sink."

He wonders how she knew, and then he reminds himself that she's the only reason Tony ever does anything vaguely related to running a business. Of course she knew. "Thanks," he says. He scrubs himself dry, slings the towel around his neck, and finds the robe folded on the bottom shelf. It's dark blue and plush and a little too big on him. He double-knots it and runs the towel over his hair as he opens the bathroom door.

Pepper is sitting on the couch looking at something on her phone. She looks up and smiles at him. "I thought we'd have breakfast first," she says. "There's a great little café down the street that makes hashed browns from sweet potatoes, and their omelets are amazing."

"That sounds good," Bruce says. He stops drying his hair and holds his towel in both hands, feeling like he should say something.

"Are you—" Pepper asks.

"I haven't had anyone in my space in a long time," Bruce interrupts her. Pepper makes to stand, and he holds out a hand. "No. I'm sorry. That's not—" He bites lightly on the tip of his tongue to stop himself. "I haven't really talked to anyone in a long time, either," he says. "It's mostly been giving people medical advice. I'm rusty, but it's...it's nice to have you here. It's nice to be in a place where I'm...I'm trusted." He’d tried to say something similar to Tony the night before, but he’d refused to listen, telling Bruce with the look on his face that he wasn’t going to let him make declarations Tony felt were unnecessary.

Pepper smiles at him, soft and warm. "You haven't given any reason not to be trusted," she says like that’s all it takes. "Go get dressed," she adds when Bruce doesn't reply. "We've got a big day ahead of us."

He walks to the bedroom and closes the door, sits on the bed and runs his hands through his hair. Trusted, he thinks. By both of them in their own ways. He can feel tears welling up, and he blinks them away. It's been a really, really long time.

Hulk rumbles in him. Banner mad?

No, Bruce replies. Banner's pretty good.

*

Pepper lays out a tablet and stylus when they get seated at the café. "The service is a bit slow," she says, "but the food is completely worth it, and it'll give us time to get a few things sorted."
"Sorted?" Bruce asks.

Pepper slides the tablet to him and holds out the stylus. "I've taken the liberty of filling out what information I know, but I need you for the rest."

It's the contract and a W-4, Bruce's name and title—Independent Research Consultant—filled in. The address line is Stark Tower. "Um," Bruce says.

"It's not required," Pepper says. "If you'd like to apartment hunt, I can pull a list of recommended locations, but JARVIS informs me you and Tony are working, on average, about 16 hours a day, and he's also informed me that the average is skewed towards the shorter days." Her tone isn’t scolding, but she looks slightly long-suffering.

"What's the rent at Stark Tower?" Bruce asks, only half-joking.

"There is none. It's your space to do as you like. I can even move you to a larger suite if you'd prefer."

"I don't have any stuff," Bruce says.

Pepper grins. "Oh, give me a few hours, Doctor, and we'll have it sorted."

"Bruce," he says. He’s been meaning to correct her for the last two weeks, but there’s always been an experiment or an argument that’s distracted him from doing so.

"Bruce," she agrees with a softer smile and a small nod.

He signs the contract and fills out the W-4 and slides the tablet back to Pepper as the server comes over to fill their coffee mugs. He watches her add a pack of sugar and stir. She has long fingers, and smooth hands. She raises an eyebrow when she puts down her spoon and notices he's watching.

"Yes?"

"Sorry." He sips his own coffee. It's dark and rich, not the weak, multi-brewed grounds he occasionally had in Calcutta and not the rocket fuel Tony makes over a Bunsen burner even though he has a state-of-the-art coffee maker in the garage. "It's been...You're beautiful, and I..." he shakes his head.

"Thank you," Pepper says. She doesn't blush, but her eyes brighten. "Did you not have a lot of friends when you were in India?"

"I'm starting to think you're psychic," he says. "You always seem to know what I'm thinking."

She shrugs. "I have to keep up with Tony, which means I have to be able to read a mood in about 0.25 seconds."

Bruce takes another sip of his coffee and straightens his shoulders out of their hunch. "I appreciate everything you're doing for me," he says. "You and Tony, I mean. It's a risk—"

"It's not," Pepper interrupts. "You're a huge asset and a good person."

"My condition—"

"That reminds me," Pepper interrupts again, and Bruce is starting to think it’s a tactic to keep him from getting down on himself. She pulls out her phone and starts pressing on it. "I need to make sure Reed remembers we're coming by."

"Reed?"

"Reed Richards. He and the others just got back from some extra-dimensional something-or-other two days ago, and we need to stop in and see them."

Bruce blinks. "Are you saying we're going to go meet the Fantastic Four?"

"Well, I've met them, so no, I'm not meeting them. But if you haven't met them, then yes, you're meeting them."

"...why?"

"We have to get you new pants."

Bruce has absolutely no answer to that. He had assumed they’d be shopping for pants at a store, not in a lab. He's grateful that the server comes to take their order.

*

"Pepper!" Sue Richards is wearing a bright white button-down, a navy skirt, and a white labcoat. She looks like a model, Bruce thinks as she and Pepper hug like they're old friends.

"This is Dr. Banner," Pepper says, gesturing to Bruce. When he doesn't step up, Pepper puts a hand on his shoulder and gives him a tiny push. He holds out his hand, Sue shakes it, and Bruce tries to remember his manners.

"I can't promise Reed will even notice you're here," Sue says. "So let me say for the both of us that it's a thrill to know you're in New York, Dr. Banner. We're both deeply fascinated by your work."

"Thanks," Bruce manages, and then he's swept along in their wake, only keeping up with them because Pepper hooks a finger through his shirt cuff so he can't fall behind.

They walk into a lab that looks beyond modern, huge machines and gadgets everywhere. Reed's arm is near the door, typing information one-handed. The rest of him is halfway across the room, squinting at the information he's entering.

"Reed, honey," Sue says. "Pepper and Dr. Banner are here."

"Bruce," Bruce says.

"Hrm?" Reed says. He glances their way. "Oh! Yes. Hello."

"Reed," Pepper greets. She gives Bruce a half-grin that tells him everything he needs to know about how absent-minded Reed can be, and he grins in return.

"They're over here," Sue says, leading them across the room to a counter that's clear except for a pair of pants made in some sort of ribbed material. "Are you familiar with our work as the Fantastic Four, Bruce?"

"Vaguely," he says, pulling his glasses from his shirt pocket so he can get a better look at the pants. "You made the international news a few times."

"We designed our uniforms to mimic our powers," Sue explains. "So when Reed stretches, his uniform stretches, and when Johnny lights up, he's got something on when he turns off, and when I go invisible, I don’t have to be naked to do it."

"And these?" Bruce asks. He rubs the material between his fingers. It's got a silky feel, but it's more durable, and slightly rubbery in the way it bends.

"These are based off of the properties of Reed's uniform. You don't need your pants to turn big and green. You just need them to stay on, so we decided that stretching would be the way to go."

Bruce looks up, glancing from Sue to Pepper to Reed, who is still engrossed in his work. "We?" he asks.

"Tony and Reed are chess buddies," Pepper explains. "Which is to say they meet once a month to exchange favors. Tony asked Reed to see what he could do about getting you something more durable than your slacks."

"It won't save your slacks," Sue says. "But it should mean you won't have to always wear such baggy clothes if you'd prefer something different, and it means that when you shrink down again, you won’t be nude because what you were wearing was tattered."

"Um..." Bruce stares at the pants and feels a knot lodging in his throat. No one’s shown him this kind of kindness in years. "Have they been tested?" he gets out before he has to clear his throat.

"Tony said you have full control over the transformation," Reed pipes up, stretching his neck so he can join the conversation fully. "The entire Baxter Building is reinforced for Ben's mass, and from the information Tony sent me, you're comparable. If you can transform comfortably, we can test them right now."

"Right now? Like, right-right now? Isn't this building full of people?"

"We can do it in the basement," Sue offers. "It's doubly-enforced, and that way you wouldn't have to worry you might fall through the floor."

"I'm not worried about me," Bruce says. Sue, Pepper, and Reed say nothing.

Hulk like pants, Hulk tells Bruce. Hulk be nice.

You sure? Bruce asks. It's a lot of people. Someone might get scared.

Red Lady like us.

Bruce looks at Pepper. She's watching him, no judgment on her face, just patience. "Can you stay nearby?" he asks. "The Other Guy likes you. I think you'll help him stay calm if something spooks him."

"Sure," Pepper says like it's no big deal.

"If he gets spooked—"

"Bruce," Pepper says.

"It's not that I don't trust him," Bruce says. "It's that I can't account for all the variables."

"I'm going to make a call," Pepper says. "You get downstairs with Sue and Reed, okay?"

*

They go down to the basement, Bruce and Sue and Reed. It's a huge room with a high ceiling. There's an observation booth in one corner and gym mats all over the floor. "We test Ben's abilities down here," Reed says. "It allows us better control than the lab. He doesn’t have to worry he’ll rattle any beakers."

"There's a changing room just over there," Sue says, pointing to the left. "Take your time. We're going to set up a few parameters on the sensors."

Bruce walks into the changing room. It's just a bench and a locker and a water fountain. He takes off his shoes and socks and shirt and pants, folding them carefully and piling them on the bench. He pulls on the pants Reed and Sue have made for him. He thinks they'll be hard to get into, like a dry wetsuit, but they slide on easily, clinging to every inch of him once he lets go of the waistband. They end just below his knees and feel...weird.

"Your ass is ridiculous."

Bruce whirls around. Tony's leaning in the doorway in his full suit, the faceplate retracted. "Seriously," Tony continues. "Your ass is super cute."

"Hi?" Bruce says.

"Pepper called. Said you were trying on the stretchy pants and were a little worried the big guy might need a friend, so I figured I'd suit up and hang out if that's all right with the both of you."

Hulk like Shiny Man, Hulk says. Shiny Man can stay.

"Yeah," Bruce says. "It's good with us."

"All right," Tony says. "Let's do some science."

Bruce follows him back to the main room of the basement. Sue and Reed are behind the observation glass. Pepper is leaning against a support post near the door. Tony goes over and stands next to her. No one looks scared or worried or even nervous.

Ready? Bruce asks Hulk.

Hulk always ready.

No smashing, Bruce instructs.

Smashing fun, Hulk says.

I promise you'll get smashing time later, okay?

Hulk play with Shiny Man?

We'll see.

Bruce closes his eyes and breathes in deep and lets Hulk come out.

*

Hulk sits on the mats, hands resting on the ground between his legs. He looks like a gigantic, hairless gorilla, and Shiny Man laughs as he says so. Hulk snorts at him.

"You look great, Big Guy!" Shiny Man says, walking forward slowly. He points down at Hulk's legs. "Check it out! You've got a full set of pants!"

Hulk looks down and huffs. He pokes at the material and tries to tear it, but it stays in one piece. He looks at Shiny Man and smiles.

"Yeah, pretty cool, right?" Shiny Man holds up a fist, but not in a mean way. Hulk cocks his head at it.

"Tony," Red Lady says. Hulk knows another Red Lady, but this one has different hair. She doesn't make Hulk nervous.

"It's a bro fist," Shiny Man says to Hulk. "It means we're buddies. Here. Watch." Shiny Man walks over to Red Lady and holds out his fist to her. Red Lady rolls her eyes, and Hulk huffs a laugh. Red Lady smiles at him, and Hulk feels warm and special.

Friendship, Banner says. That's what the start of friendship feels like.

Hulk like friendship.

It's a good thing, Banner says. I guess you've never had it before.

Hulk isn't really listening to Banner. He's watching Red Lady and Shiny Man touch fists.

"You've got to do it easy," Shiny Man tells him. "Really, really soft. Watch again, okay?"

Hulk concentrates as hard as he can, leaning forward to see better. Shiny Man and Red Lady touch fists again, and then Shiny Man walks over to Hulk, holding his fist out again. Hulk makes a fist.

Easy, Banner says. Just a tap, okay?

Shiny Man staggers across the room on contact.

A softer tap, Banner says, but he doesn't sound mad like he does sometimes when Hulk is in charge.

"Tony?"

Hulk turns towards the voice. There's a man and woman in a booth. He remembers people in booths. People in booths try to hurt him.

"Easy," Shiny Man says, walking back over. "You're getting all frowny. That's Sue and Reed. They made your pants, remember?"

Hulk looks down at his pants again. They're shiny. He moves his legs, and they don't tear.

"You want to get up and walk around?" Shiny Man asks. "I know Sue and Reed would appreciate it."

"We would," the Lady Behind Glass says. She smiles at Hulk, but it's not the same as Red Lady.

We're not friends with them, yet, Banner tells him. But they're nice.

Nice, Hulk thinks. Nice. Nice. Nice.

He stands up and looks down at his pants again. He's not sure what to do. Banner says he can't smash.

"Can you walk to the wall?" Red Lady asks. She walks up to Hulk and touches his arm. She points to the wall. "Can you walk over there for Sue and Reed so they can make sure your pants fit?"

Hulk nods and walks. When he gets to the wall, he turns around and faces them.

Good job, Banner says. You're doing great.

Hulk feels proud. He puffs out his chest and walks back to where he was. He holds out his fist to Shiny Man. Shiny Man taps it.

"There you go!" Shiny Man says. "You got it! Reed, tell me you got the bro fist on camera!"

"We got the bro fist on camera," says the Man Behind Glass.

Hulk sits and then lies down. He stares at the ceiling.

You okay? Banner asks.

Feel funny, Hulk tells him. No one scared.

That's friendship, Banner explains. That's what it feels like.

Hulk rolls back and forth on the mats. He hears laughter and looks over. Red Lady is laughing, but it's not mean like he knows it can be. She points, and Hulk looks where she's pointing, and Shiny Man is on the mats near him, rolling back and forth too. When Hulk laughs, Lady Behind Glass jumps, and for a moment, he's scared.

"It's okay," Red Lady says. She walks over and sits down next to him. She puts her hand on his shoulder. "You just surprised Sue is all. You're all right, aren't you, Sue?"

"Just fine," Lady Behind Glass says. "Sorry, Hulk."

Sorry?

She didn't mean to scare you, Banner tells him. That's what that means, that you didn't mean to do something that hurts someone.

Sorry, Hulk thinks. "Sorry," he says out loud.

Shiny Man and Red Lady and Woman Behind Glass all smile at him. Man Behind Glass isn't looking at him, but it's not like when people usually don't look at him. It's not frightened or fearful. He's doing that thing that Banner does.

Working, Banner supplies. He's working.

Not scared? Hulk asks.

Nope.

Hulk laughs again and doesn't know why, but no one jumps this time.

*

Bruce gets Hulk to switch back after a few minutes. He stands up and walks to the changing room and puts on his clothes. His new stretching pants fit under his slacks, and Bruce can barely feel them once he’s fully dressed. When he comes out of the changing room, Sue and Reed are poring over whatever information they've lifted from him. Pepper and Tony are talking to each other, looking up at the same time when Bruce takes a few steps into the room.

"You like them?" Tony asks.

"They're comfortable," Bruce says. "The Other Guy liked them."

"Well, he's the one to please," Tony says. He presses a button on the inside of his wrist, and his suit retracts, folding into a briefcase at his feet. He’s wearing a button-down and black slacks underneath his armor. "Seemed like he had a good time while he was out."

"He did." Bruce looks from Tony to Pepper, then over to Sue and Reed. Sue and Reed are still absorbed in their data. "Thank you," Bruce tells Pepper and Tony. "For...for what you're doing. For the..."

"Hey," Tony puts a hand on Bruce's shoulder and steps in close, pitches his voice so it's just between him and Pepper and Bruce. "You keep thinking we're doing you favors. We're not. We want to reintroduce you to the land of the living because you shouldn't have had to run in the first place, okay?"

"I know that."

"Don't try to out-loathe a recovered self-loather," Tony says. "You're not gonna win." He puts his other hand on Bruce's other shoulder and gives him a gentle shake. "You and the Big Guy, you're a package, all right? I'm just glad he likes us."

"He's sweet," Pepper adds.

Friends, Hulk says. Hulk has friends.

"Thank you," Bruce says. He runs a hand through his hair and over his face, and he lets out a surprised laugh when Tony pulls him into a hug. "Hey!"

"Pepper," Tony says as he continues to hug Bruce. "Make sure you get him measured properly. There is an adorable ass beneath these baggy pants."

"Tony!" Bruce yelps, but Pepper just laughs.

"Reed!" Tony calls, letting Bruce go but ruffling his hair. "We good?"

"As long as Bruce is comfortable, we're fine," Sue says, giving them a little wave. Reed doesn't even look up. "Let us know if they need adjustments."

"We'll battle-test them eventually," Tony replies. He reaches down and picks up his briefcase. "Let's go, kiddos. Knowing Pepper, this is the first of many stops."

"Are you coming with?" Bruce asks.

"He has consultation hours today," Pepper says. "Give Phil my love," she tells Tony.

"No," Tony replies, but he grins and kisses Pepper and then turns and pecks Bruce on the nose. "Have fun, girls! Stop off for mimosas!" He sprints up the stairs from the basement.

"Girls?" Bruce asks as he and Pepper take the stairs more slowly.

"He shops more than I do," Pepper says. "But he thinks it doesn't count because it's for technology."

"It totally doesn't count," Bruce deadpans. He grins when Pepper pokes him in the arm.

"Come on," she says, threading her arm through his. "Let's get you outfitted."

*

She takes him to a tailor, and when Bruce tries to protest that he doesn't need specialty clothes, Pepper silences him with a look. "You are a full-time consultant for a top-ten Fortune 500 company. You will be pristine when presented to the public."

"Yes, Ma'am," Bruce says without thinking, and she shakes her head at him and starts discussing appropriate cuts with the tailor.

After the tailor, they go to a high-end shoe store. Bruce doesn't protest and simply lets Pepper work. She picks out three pairs of shoes to go with his suits, two pairs of loafers, and allows him free range to choose his own slippers. He gets dark blue felt ones with faux rabbit fur lining. They have no-slip treads, and Pepper shakes her head. "You are not wearing slippers in the garage," she says. "I disallow you two from getting that comfortable." She doesn't stop him from adding them to the pile of boxes, though.

They leave the shoe store, and go to the mall. "The mall?" Bruce asks.

"You need fitness wear and everyday wear," Pepper explains. "Tony likes everything tailored within an inch of its life, but I'm only particular about your suits. I figured a stop off at Foot Locker and the Gap might be more to your liking." She reaches for his neck and turns his collar so she can read the label. "Or Express."

"I like saturated colors," Bruce says. "They always have them."

"We'll get you a couple in every color," she says, "But slightly smaller, if you don't mind. I don't want to worry the Bunsen burner's going to catch your loose cuffs."

"They're not that—" Bruce stops talking when he shakes down his cuffs and realize they nearly slide over his hands. "Huh," he says.

"You didn't notice?"

"I spent a lot of time dressing for the Other Guy, trying to keep my clothes in one piece if I could, and then I moved to India and didn't really think about it. I had more than one set of clothes, and that put me beyond a lot of people."

There's something almost blissful about Pepper's face when he says that. "You are a remarkable man, Bruce Banner," she says.

He doesn't blush, but it's a near thing.

*

They stop for a late lunch after the mall. "Please tell me we're finished," Bruce says.

"One more stop," Pepper says. "And you don't have to try on anything at all."

Bruce smiles. She really can read him like he's see-through. "All right," he agrees. "One more."

*

The final stop is a home furnishings store. Tony is waiting by the entrance and talking heatedly into his phone. When he sees them approaching, he finishes the conversation with, "Sorry, have to go. I'm bored." and hangs up.

"Tony," Pepper scolds.

"SHIELD is trying to get me to work with Hammer," he says, kissing Pepper on the cheek. "My ire is fully justified." He grins at Bruce and gives him a quick hug. Bruce doesn't even get a chance to do more than raise his arms before Tony's pulling away again. "Too much?" he asks.

"Um. No. I'm—"

"I am determined to reintroduce you to actual human contact," Tony informs him. "But no still means no, okay?" He looks genuinely worried that he's overstepped his bounds.

"It’s good," Bruce says. "Just surprising, still."

"We'll break you of it," Tony says and slings an arm around Bruce's shoulder as he leads the way into the store.

The store is massive, separated into bright, color-coded sections that make Bruce have to stop and absorb everything before he can move forward. "It's been awhile," he says when Pepper and Tony look at him with concern.

"You did all right in the mall," Pepper says.

"It's the space," Bruce tries to explain. "The amount of area devoted to a single thing. It’s…" He searches for the right word while thinking about shacks no larger than lean-tos, seven or eight people all fitted into a room the size of the display area for the king-size mattresses.

"You're thinking about it wrong," Tony tells him. "It's one large area made up of several smaller areas."
Bruce points across the store. "The entire back wall is towels. The area of that wall is the size of—"

"Nope. Stop. Not doing it," Tony says, steering Bruce towards the bright blue section dedicated to comforters and general blankets. "I will not have you questioning the materialism of America when you only just now own enough pairs of pants you don't have to do laundry twice a week."

"That is not—" Bruce starts.

"We could go elsewhere," Pepper offers. "There are smaller stores, but I wasn't certain of your preferences, so I thought more options would be better."

"It's fine," Bruce says, and Tony starts talking again, and Bruce reaches over and covers Tony's mouth with his hand. Pepper laughs as Bruce says, "Tony, really, it's fine. I appreciate it. It's just been a long time." He drops his hand from Tony's mouth when Tony goes quiet, and Tony grins at him.

"All right, come on, let's get you set up," he says.

It takes hours. Even before Bruce had gone on the run, he'd never thought much about creature comforts besides good teas and the occasional steak dinner. His mind had always been on his work, and even when it wasn't, he'd had Betty to handle those things. She'd understood that when he said, "Honey, whatever you prefer," it was really what he meant.

"You okay?" Pepper asks. They're looking at sheets, Tony holding up variations on orange, Pepper gravitating towards Earth tones. And Bruce...

"Betty liked blue," Bruce says. He's holding three different blue sheets—one a plain light blue, one stripes of blue, and one a gradual darkening of blue—and it hits him, for the first time, that his even being here could be a risk for her. "Betty—"

"Dr. Ross is safe," Pepper tells him. "She's still teaching at Culver."

"Is she..." Bruce doesn't know how to ask. "She's okay?"

"She is," Tony says. He puts the orange sheets back into their appropriate slots and steps closer. "She's doing research. She has office hours."

"Her father—" Bruce cuts off when Tony starts to giggle.

"Tony and General Ross have met," Pepper explains, there's a smirk on the edge of her mouth.

"I bulldozed his favorite bar," Tony announces between giggles.

Bruce actually drops the sheets he's holding. "What?"

"Yup." Tony bounces on the balls of his feet. He reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out his phone. "I think I have a video."

Bruce looks at Pepper. Pepper shrugs and smiles. Bruce can't help smiling back as Tony holds out his phone. That's the General's favorite bar, and it is, in fact, getting bulldozed.

Hulk rumbles in Bruce's gut. Bad Man, he says as the camera angle changes to show an enraged General Ross screaming obscenities from behind a safety fence.

Yeah, Bruce agrees.

Smash man, Hulk says.

No, Bruce says. We don't need to do that. Shiny Man did it for us.

Hulk not smash.

"Bruce?" Pepper asks, hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"

Bruce looks between them. They both look concerned, though Tony is fighting down his grin. "I want the blue stripes," he says, crouching down to pick up the sheets he's dropped. "And I like orange checks," he says.

Tony's grin breaks through again. "Winner!" he grabs the set from its slot.

Pepper hands over a deep purple set with a wide satin ribbon running along the flat sheet. "They match your shirt."

Bruce adds them to the stack, and they move on to towels.

*

Hours later, the nighttime lights of Midtown streaming in his windows, Bruce sits on the couch in his suite at the tower and looks at the piles and piles of things that are now his. It's more than the clothes and linens. There’s cookware for the two-burner stovetop in the kitchenette, and plates and glasses and bowls. There’s food for the cupboards and toiletries. A new razor and some movies. There are books, but he and Pepper didn’t stop at a bookstore today; they were waiting for him when he got back. The top of the stack is a leather bound copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There's a sticky note from Tony on the inside flap.

Congratulations on the contract.
Look forward to working with you.
No feeling guilty that you're a human being with issues.

—t.

Bruce turns the book over in his hands and closes his eyes and breathes deep.

We're back in the world, he tells Hulk. We're going to stay here for a while.

Like world, Hulk says. World nice now.

*

The next morning, Bruce stands in front of his closet and stares for a few minutes. He's already wearing his Hulk-Pants, and those were the easy part. Now, he has to decide between more shirts and slacks and shoes than he's had in ten years and maybe even his life. "JARVIS," he says to the upper left corner of his closet. He doesn't know if there's actually a sensor there, but he has to look at something to not feel like he's talking to himself, "How does Tony do this?"

"Do what, Dr. Banner?"

"Figure out what the hell to wear."

"He generally starts with a preferred color, Sir. Might I recommend the navy blue button-down four shirts from your left? It would match with any of your slacks, though Ms. Potts has informed me not to allow you to wear black after a certain saturation point in your shirts."

JARVIS and Pepper have been talking about his wardrobe. Bruce is surprised to find himself smiling rather than freaking out. "Well, okay then," he says. He pulls the shirt in question and walks to the section of the closet where all his slacks are hung. "Khakis okay, you think?"

"Ms. Potts has marked those as acceptable and recommends a dark brown loafer and belt."

"I suppose that's handled then," Bruce mutters. He pulls the shirt over his shoulders and slips on the slacks, tucking in his shirt after he buttons it and checking himself in the full-length mirror as he sits on the stool built into the closet and pulls on his socks. He looks like a professor, he thinks with a grin at himself. He slides on the loafers and runs his fingers through his hair as he turns towards the closet door.

"Sir," JARVIS says, "Ms. Potts was quite insistent about the belt."

Bruce pauses and glances towards the shelf where his new belts (which he doesn't recall actually buying) are coiled into separate square boxes. He walks over and pulls out the dark brown one that matches his loafers. "I've got it, JARVIS."

"Very good, Sir."

He goes to the kitchen for coffee and breakfast because he hasn't unpacked all of his new supplies just yet. Pepper is standing at the counter in a black pencil skirt and tan shell top. There's a suit jacket hung over one of the chairs at the eat-in table in the corner. "JARVIS says you were insistent about the belt," he greets her, holding up the belt in question.

She smiles. "I was."

"The Other Guy doesn't like them very much," Bruce says. "They squeeze. I lost a few pairs of pants straight out before I gave up."

"You've got back-ups now," Pepper says. "I assume you're wearing them."

"I am."

"Then I'm sure you and Hulk can come to an agreement so that you can look presentable." Pepper puts down her coffee cup, grabs her suit jacket, and pauses to lay a hand on Bruce's arm. "I'm willing to negotiate a part-time arrangement if Hulk is adamant."

"Adamant is a good word for him."

"I won't require it in the garage but if you're out on official Stark business, consider it part of the uniform."

Bruce mulls it over. "We'll see," he says.

"Thank you." Pepper pecks him on the cheek and walks out. "If you need me, JARVIS has my schedule," she calls over her shoulder.

Your feelings on belts still the same? Bruce asks Hulk.

Hulk keep stretchy pants? Hulk asks.

Yeah. Those are yours, Bruce says, and he can't help grinning.

Hulk wear belt, Hulk says.

Bruce loops the belt on and secures it. He pours himself a cup of coffee, grabs an apple and banana from the fruit bowl, and heads for the garage. Tony is—unsurprisingly—already there, wrist-deep in wires and arguing with U, who is holding onto the soldering iron and looking...Bruce lets that thought go. He really can't let himself consider that Tony's robot looks downright smug about something when it doesn't even have a face.

"Bruce!" Tony greets, flashing him a grin. "Give us a twirl!"

"A twirl?"

"Let's see this fine display of fashion from all the angles," Tony says with a nod to Bruce's general person. "No need to curtsey or lead with the hips; a spin will do the trick."

"You can't be serious."

“C’mon! It’s easy. U can do it. You really want to be outdone by one of my ‘bots?”

“I am not—”

"U,” Tony interrupts, “make the spinny--wait! Put down the soldering iron, and then do the spinny motion. Show the good doctor how it's done."

U puts down the soldering iron, straightens up, and rotates on his base.

"I am disturbed I give your robots genders," Bruce says.

"I'd be disturbed if you didn't," Tony replies. "Come on, outdo the robot with your hot fashion moves."

Bruce gives in and turns in a circle. When he's facing Tony again, Tony lifts his hands from the mass of wires he's working with and gives a golf clap. "Sensational," he says. "Your ass is a work of art."

"It's not," Bruce says as he walks across the garage to the table he's claimed as his own.

"It is ridiculous, your ass. It's not Captain America ridiculous, but I'm pretty sure it'd be unpatriotic if it were."

"Are we really having this conversation?"

"We could make out," Tony suggests. His face is absolutely guileless, but Bruce has learned Tony's guileless face means he's anything but.

"Not right now, dear," Bruce says because he's learned the best way to deal with Tony's over-the-top moments is to tease in return. "I have a headache."

Tony grins. "You just let me know when you're up to it." He picks up the soldering iron, mutters something to U that makes the robot look—Bruce has to admit, if only to himself—chagrined, and then Tony's back to work, concentration fully on whatever he's building.

There's a tablet waiting on Bruce's table. He sits on a stool as he taps in his passcode to wake up the device. It's information from India, a full breakdown of supplies and treatments, some early speculation about infection rates, and a full-color map of Calcutta that's blinking with real-time updates of information as the Stark doctors go about their work. He flicks the map off the tablet and into the air and loses half an hour just watching the doctors move around, picturing them in tenements and doorways, watching their new information pop up in an automatically updating scroll on the tablet. When he finally looks away from it, he sees Tony watching him unabashedly. "What?" he asks.

"You get a little wrinkle," Tony says, walking over and pressing his finger between Bruce's eyebrows. "Right there. The big guy gets it, too."

"...okay?"

"It's cute. Makes you look distinguished." Tony's hand drops to Bruce's shoulder, fingers rubbing on the collar of his shirt. "Good color for you."

"Um," Bruce says. "Are you—" Tony kisses him, and Bruce wrenches back in surprise, nearly falling off the stool and only saved by Tony gripping his waist and helping him steady himself.

Banner scared? Hulk asks.

Banner surprised, Bruce replies.

Bad surprise? Hulk asks, poking at the edge of Bruce's control.

Tony looks apologetic. "Probably should have warned you on that one."

"Yeah," Bruce says, and it comes out bitingly sarcastic. "That'd have been nice."

Bad surprise? Hulk asks again.

No, Bruce tells him. Just a surprise.

"You and Pepper," he says to Tony.

"I have a note," Tony says. He reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out a folded piece of paper. He unfolds it and holds it up so Bruce can read it.

This is Tony's permission form to make out with you. Have fun!
—PP

Bruce closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them again, the note is still there. Tony is still right in front of him, and his hand is still on Bruce's hip. "I...what?"

"I am gleeful in my slutty, hedonistic lifestyle, and Pepper is the perfect woman because she also enjoys a slutty, hedonistic lifestyle. She's not quite at my level of slutty and hedonistic, but she informs me—rather rudely, I might add—that one of us has to do more than try to blow up the garage and have slutty, hedonistic sex."

Bruce shakes his head. "What are you...Tony, I...what?"

Tony's face screws up into an embarrassed expression that would be hilarious if Bruce were not currently afraid his brain was going to snap in half. "I'm starting to think Pepper's theory of sitting you down and asking really was the better idea, but she always defaults to talking and negotiation, and while it has saved my ass a hundred times over in business, I'm slutty and hedonistic and prefer just jumping the hot, smart guy in my garage because I want to stick my tongue down his throat and blow him on the floor."

"Tony—"

"And it's not just the blowjob I want," Tony says, ignoring Bruce's interruption. "I mean, yes, I want the blowjob. I want all the blowjobs, but I also thought, maybe, given that you are in obvious need of human affection and general contact, that we could start with making out and blowjobs and build up a nice, comfy relationship of science and blowjobs. And handjobs. And rim—"

"Tony!" Bruce yells, and that shuts Tony up.

"Yes?" Tony asks in an exaggerated way like Bruce is being rather rude.

"I could really use some background data in this situation," Bruce says. "Please."

Tony ticks off points on his fingers. "I am slutty and hedonistic. You are smart and hot. I want to make out with you and give blowjobs. Pepper is okay with these things."

"The note just says making out," Bruce says, and he can't believe it's his counterargument. It shouldn't be his counterargument. His counterargument should be no.

"So, you're saying we can make out?" Tony asks.

"No, I'm not saying—" Bruce closes his eyes again. He hears Tony shuffle backwards from him, hears him walk around him.

"I'm gonna rub your shoulders," Tony says. "Not in a sexy way, but in a I-think-I-just-gave-you-a-tension-headache way."

"No tension headache," Bruce says. It doesn't stop Tony from rubbing his shoulders. It feels nice. Solid. It's friendly. "I'm just...I don't understand."

"Which part?"

"I get slutty and hedonistic," Bruce says, and Tony chuckles behind him. "It's the rest. Well, not the rest individually, but the combination of you finding me attractive and wanting to...have sex with me—"

"My blowjobs bring all the nerds to the yard."

"And how Pepper fits in," Bruce continues, smiling a little at Tony's brag.

Tony stops massaging Bruce's shoulders, but he keeps his hands in place. "Which one do you want to tackle first?" he asks. "Your hotness and sexability or Pepper's part in all this?"

"Pepper," Bruce says.

Tony's hands squeeze Bruce's shoulders. "I thought you'd pick that one," Tony says quietly, voice serious, and Bruce feels like he chose wrong. Tony walks around so they're face-to-face, Tony leaning against the table and crossing his arms. "Pepper's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I don't mean that in a ‘she is a thing’ sort of way, but as a force in my life, she is the best thing that's ever happened to me. And for a long time, a really, really long time, I let her be almost-the-best thing that ever happened to me because Pepper deserves someone who will worship her—which I am more than happy to do—and be completely enamored with her, and I'm not great at that part because while I am completely enamored with her, I'm also something of a ho-bag who is scared of committed relationships because they require me to be less of a ho-bag, and I really like being a ho-bag. Questions so far?"

"Um...No. I'm following."

"Okay." Tony levers himself up onto the table and swings his legs as he continues. "So, a couple of years ago, there was this guy named Whiplash who tried to murder me."

"I saw that," Bruce says. "I remember it being on the news right before I...broke Harlem."

"Right before you defended yourself against that big, spiny guy," Tony tells him, pointing a finger at him, "and don't think I have theories on why you don't think you're fuckable and how they start with the fact that you think you’re at fault for defending yourself."

Bruce looks down at his hands and feels himself flush. "Um...Pepper? You? Ho-bag?"

"Avoider," Tony says, but it sounds fond. "Yes, me, Pepper, and ho-baggery. So, when I beat the bad guy—rather spectacularly, you're welcome—"

"I didn't say thank you," Bruce says, smiling a little.

"Quiet. Beat the bad guy, kissed the girl, and decided I wanted to keep kissing the girl, and lucky for me, the girl knows me better than I know myself and explained, very succulently, that as long as I got a note from home, I could continue to enjoy my skank-bot ways, and that all I'd have to do for her in return is return the consideration."

Bruce parses that mentally for a moment. "You and Pepper are in an open relationship," he says. "And she's approved you to make a move on me."

"Got it in one. Knew you were smart." Tony beams and swings his legs again. "So, you wanna make out?"

"Not just yet," Bruce says. He stands and paces in a slow circle around his stool. "What does this do to you and Pepper?"

"Nothing. We are us. You and I will do science and have sex, and Pepper and I will do other things and have sex. If you want, you and me and Pepper can do other things and have sex, or you and I could do other things and—"

"Wait, you and me and Pepper?" Bruce shakes his head. "I don't—"

"Pepper thinks you're adorable, and she's been sort-of looking since Phil ran off with the cellist, and—"

"Phil? You mean Coulson?"

Tony cocks his head, eyes narrowing as he watches Bruce press his hands against his eyes. "I just broke your brain, didn't I? Sorry. It broke my brain when Pepper asked for the okay because I mean, seriously, Coulson? But I think they bonded on some ultra-competence level, and it's not like I don't like the guy; I just don't want to see him naked. Ever. So I said yes, and—"

"Tony, just..." Bruce waves a hand, and Tony shuts up. Bruce looks up at the ceiling and waits.

"What is it?" Tony finally asks.

"I'm waiting for the porn music to start," Bruce says. "Because that is the only way this conversation makes sense."

"You're not in a porno," Tony tells him. He jumps down from the table and walks over to Bruce, his hands hovering for a moment before he settles them at Bruce's waist and pulls him in close. Bruce lets him because it feels good, because Tony's not afraid of him and because Tony, it seems, really, really wants to. "I want to date you," Tony says, voice low and warm, almost a murmur in Bruce's ear. "And Pepper wants to date you, but I got dibs because I saw you first."

Bruce can't help but chuckle at that, and Tony's hands tighten on his waist. "I get you're still in a weird place," Tony continues. "You've been hiding for a long time, and the big guy still makes you nervous, and I was going to wait to say anything at all, but that little wrinkle in your forehead should be illegal for how cute it is, and I have no impulse control. See the previous conversation about being slutty and hedonistic."

"I..." Bruce starts to say, but he's not sure how to finish it. "What..." he tries again, but he is completely at a loss, Tony so close Bruce can see his eyelashes and Bruce's whole body thrumming quietly at Tony being so close.

"My preferred option," Tony says, "is to drag you upstairs, throw you on the couch, put on some truly awful movie, and make out with you until you forget to be nervous."

"Um..."

"I would also accept staying down here, doing science, and letting you have your space except for the 15% of the time when I will walk over and get handsy or try to kiss you."

"Is there an option three?" Bruce asks.

"We stay down here, do science, and I keep my hands to myself until you tell me I don't have to."

"I can't..." Bruce shakes his head and closes his eyes. Tony inches even closer to him, and his hands slide around to lace at the small of Bruce's back. "You're cheating," he says.

"A little," Tony agrees. "But I will stay exactly right here until you tell me which option, unless you tell me to back off so you can think straight."

"Don't flatter yourself," Bruce tells him. He opens his eyes in time to catch Tony's slow smile.

Well? he asks Hulk.

Hulk not understand, Hulk replies. Banner not scared. Why Banner not do something?

It's not an easy decision, Bruce tells him. There are factors to consider.

Hulk like Shiny Man. Banner like Shiny Man. Shiny Man like Hulk and Banner.

It's not that easy, buddy.

Why?

It's...dangerous, Bruce thinks, wondering how to explain emotional entanglement to Hulk.

Hulk like danger.

"You're talking to him, aren't you?" Tony asks.

Bruce startles from his thoughts, and Tony runs his hands up his back. It's soothing, and it makes Bruce shudder in a good way. "Yeah," he says. "How'd you know?"

"Observation. You go quiet sometimes, but you look way more focused than anyone should ever look when they're just hanging out in their own head, and I saw you pull the big guy up at will during the fight, so I—"

"You're confirming a hypothesis," Bruce cuts in.

"Ruin my scientific fun," Tony grumbles, but his hands are still running up and down Bruce's back.

"I do talk to him," Bruce says, and it feels weird to say out loud. There are times, in his own head, where the sheer idea of it still sounds insane. "I figured it out after Harlem. I was trying to keep him repressed like a bad memory, but he's...he's a whole person." Saying it out loud actually makes Bruce hurt, tension suddenly pounding in his temples. "And I figured out, if I let him have a say, he could be reasoned with."

"This is why I'm not scared of you," Tony says. "This is why Pepper's not scared, either. I figured you and the big guy had an understanding, and I didn't see anything that said otherwise."

"The helicarrier—"

"Fear response," Tony interrupts. "The big guy's your survival instinct ramped up to a million. Of course he's gonna come out and fight when the entire helicarrier goes tits up."

Tony's matter-of-fact response wipes out all the tension from Bruce's body. "How are you so comfortable with this?" he asks.

"I would tap the Lite-Brite in my chest, but I like my hands where they are," Tony responds. His hands are still working their way up and down Bruce's back. "I know what it's like to lose part of yourself to your own science, okay? It's not just the reactor in my chest; the shrapnel's Stark tech, too."

Bruce wonders if he sounds as matter-of-fact as Tony when he talks about his own situation. He looks away from Tony, taking in the whole garage. His gaze lands on the map that's still displayed over the table. "I want option two," he says. "Research and you getting me used to human contact." He looks back at Tony, and Tony's beaming.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. But...that's it for right now. I know you've got the note and everything, but I want to talk to Pepper myself. Make sure it's really okay with her. I don't distrust you. I just want...I need to know it's okay."

"Which part?" Tony asks. "The you-and-me part or the you-and-her part or the you-and-me-and-her part?"

Bruce breathes out hard. "All three?" he says.

"You sound like you're guessing."

"I'm trying to assimilate new information. As I'm a good scientist, I tend to do that by posing questions."

"And being sarcastic," Tony says. He runs his hands down Bruce's back one more time and steps away, tucking his hands into his pockets. "I'll be on my best behavior."

"That's still a misdemeanor in some states, right?" Bruce grins when Tony laughs and turns to go back to his work, starting up an argument with U before he's taken more than two steps. Bruce stares at his back, letting all the new information sink in as he studies the lines of Tony's back and shoulders and thinks about what he's being offered. He turns back to his own research before he thinks on it too much. If he thinks on it too much, he's pretty sure he'll switch his answer to option one, and he really does want to talk to Pepper about the arrangement.

They pass the day in quiet companionship, Bruce digging into the up-to-the-minute research he's getting and Tony muttering to himself as he moves from project to project, stopping occasionally to circle over to Bruce and hug him or rub his shoulders or just lean against him, his chin propped on Bruce's shoulder as Bruce runs projections.

"Getting good stuff?" Tony asks, tilting his chin on Bruce’s shoulder so he can see Bruce's notes.

"So far. I'm hoping we can use the constant updates to identify infectious areas before they bloom into full-out problems. See if we can drop the mortality rate sometime in the next ten years."

"Funny," Tony says, voice pitched low, "for a guy hiding from the world all these years, you've still been trying to save the hell out of it."

"A tiny corner of it," Bruce corrects.

"You keep telling yourself that," Tony says. He gives Bruce a hug and backs off to his own work.

*

"Of course that note was legitimate," Pepper says hours later when Bruce asks her in the kitchen. She's having a late dinner, and Bruce is having what he should probably consider lunch, as he lost track of time and hasn't eaten since breakfast. He'd come upstairs an hour before and made a vegetarian stir fry, leaving enough in the pan for Pepper and Tony to help themselves. "I don't let Tony just whore himself out without warning. That's where lawsuits come from."

Bruce chews on a piece of baby corn and watches the way she spins noodles on her fork. They're sitting at the eat-in table. If Bruce shifts a little, he can touch his knee with hers. "I guess...it's not that I don't understand polyamory as a concept; it's that I don't understand why..."

"Why you," Pepper says. She doesn't look disappointed when Bruce looks at her face, but she definitely looks like she wants to give him a hug.

"Well, yeah. There are way less complicated people than me."

Pepper raises an eyebrow. "You've met Tony, right? And all of his issues? I could compile you a list if it'd help."

"But—”

"And you've noticed, I'm certain, that he has the attention span of an incredibly intelligent magpie."

"That's—okay, yes, that is a pretty good description," Bruce says with a grin.

"So, take those two things—enough issues for a very long list and Tony's attention span—and add his absolute want to be loved, and you get a man who is kind and intelligent but also sometimes very self-serving and unintentionally rude and sometimes demands all of your attention no matter what circumstances you might be in at the time. Imagine having a relationship with only him."

Bruce thinks about it for a minute, considers Pepper's own intelligence and confidence. "You love him," he says, "but no matter how much, what you give him is not going to be enough on its own."

"Yes, but it's not a bad thing because he knows it, and he's honest about it, and I'm not getting slighted because of it. We get a lot of love and affection from one another, and when I need the types of affection I can't get from him, I can get it from someone else, and he can do the same."

"What would I give him?" Bruce asks.

"Someone who speaks science," Pepper says.

Bruce can't disagree with that. "And you?" he asks. "Tony said you were interested too." He feels himself flush as he says it. It feels invasive to put it out in the open like that.

"I am extremely interested," Pepper says. Under the table, their knees touch. "But I actually have a layer of subtlety."

"Tony said he had first dibs because he saw me first."

"Tony has first dibs because when we mutually agree to date someone, he has even less patience than usual, so I let him make the first move on our behalf." Pepper reaches across the table and touches Bruce's hand, stroking her thumb over his knuckles. "But, yes, I am interested."

"Why?"

"Because it'd be very nice to have someone in my life who will actually ask me these questions rather than stumble around the point and try to make a joke out of everything."

"Oh." That's not what Bruce had been expecting. He'd been expecting something more in line with Tony's response, half joke and half honesty. Pepper stands up and picks up her plate and pauses at his shoulder to kiss the top of his head.

"But if you need a few days or more to settle into what that means to you, I'll be just fine."

Bruce stands up with his own plate and watches her move around the kitchen. She’d kicked off her shoes when she’d walked in, and she's graceful as she moves, scraping her scraps into the composter, rinsing her plate in the sink before putting it in the dishwasher. She meets his gaze with no challenge, simply watching him as he watches her. "I really have no idea what to do right now," he admits. "It's...it's been a really, really long time, and I've never..."

"What do you want to do?" Pepper asks. "What's going to make you the most comfortable?"

"I want to kiss you," he says. "But I don't know if I can actually do it."

"Why not?"

"Tony sort of surprised me with one today, and I feel like maybe I owe him one first."

Pepper laughs lightly. "God, of course he did," she says. She walks to him and stops when their toes touch. She stands on her toes and kisses him lightly on the mouth. "Pass that on to him," she says as she turns to leave the kitchen.

Bruce touches her arm, and when she looks at him again, he cups the back of her neck and pulls her to him, kissing her for a long, slow moment before pulling away. "If you'll pass that on to him," he says, feeling ridiculous but wanting to do something, to show her something, to give her something like Tony gave to him earlier.

"Done," she agrees, and she walks away, leaving Bruce standing in the middle of the kitchen with his dirty plate still in one hand.

I have no idea what to do, Bruce tells Hulk.

Hulk smash?

Not right now, Bruce replies, though it is tempting to let Hulk come out and break a few things so he doesn't have to think for a while.

*

Tony's already in the garage when Bruce goes down the next morning. "How'd you sleep?" Tony asks.

"FIne, thanks,"

"Made a decision?" Tony asks.

"No," Bruce replies.

"Pepper still in the kitchen?"

"Yeah."

"Can you run something up to her for me?"

"Sure," Bruce says. Before he can ask what needs to go upstairs, Tony walks over, cups his face in both hands, and kisses him, nibbling on his lower lip, sliding his tongue against the corner of Bruce's mouth, and then letting go to step back and grin.

"She said she gave you a message for me last night."

"Uh..." Bruce says because his brain is sort of frazzled. "Yeah," he manages. He pecks Tony on the mouth, a little surprised when Tony doesn't try to deepen it. "There you go," he says.

"Not up to her usual standards," Tony replies, "but the one from you last night? That was pretty good. I will definitely take more of those however I can get them."

"Even through her?" Bruce asks instead of asking if Tony is sure he wants to keep pursuing Bruce himself.

"Especially through her. Let Pepper loose on you. It's magical." Tony reaches down and gooses Bruce. "That's all for you. But that kiss still needs to get up to Pepper."

Bruce heads for the stairs without another word. Pepper is still in the kitchen, rinsing out her coffee cup as Bruce walks in. "Message from Tony," Bruce says, and there's a part of him that can't believe he's doing this. The rest of him is slightly giddy, like when he played his first game of spin the bottle.

"What's he need?" Pepper asks.

Bruce gives her the kiss.

*

The next three days go like that. Tony or Pepper kisses Bruce and asks him to pass it on. Bruce occasionally sends one to either of them through the other. When it's not happening, everything is as it was. Bruce and Tony work in the garage, and Pepper runs everything else, and Tony doesn't keep his hands to himself, but it's in the ways they agreed to, and Bruce starts to anticipate Tony coming up behind him or beside him to hug him or touch his shoulders or play with his hair. They all keep their own schedules, at least Pepper does, coming down to the garage every six hours to remind them to eat or drink or sleep or some combination of the three. On day three, as she is trying to convince Tony that, no, a protein bar does not count as dinner, Tony says, "Bruce, help me out here."

Bruce, without thinking, walks over to Pepper and kisses her, one hand sliding up her back and the other holding her waist. She kisses back for a moment before she pushes him off and points a finger at him. "No cheating," she says.

"No fair," Tony chimes in. "You've never kissed me like that."

Bruce is tempted to argue that he has, but he knows Tony will point out that those kisses were technically for Pepper. Bruce turns and kisses Tony. Tony kisses back.

On day four, when Bruce goes into the kitchen, he kisses Pepper good morning and doesn't ask her to pass it on. When he goes into the garage, Tony pecks him on the mouth as he passes by with a gizmo Bruce doesn't recognize, and they get to work.

*

"Tell me," Tony says a few days later as he presses against Bruce's back and tucks his nose under Bruce's collar. "Are you always this warm?"

"I run about five degrees hotter because of the Other Guy," Bruce says. "I'm surprised it took you this long to notice."

"I've been playing with the temperature controls the last few days. You didn't even shiver when I dropped it down to sixty."

"You didn't," Bruce says, delighted at the way Tony laughs against his neck. "You did."

"I totally did," Tony says. He taps Bruce's tablet and opens a file that breaks down Tony's guess at Bruce's body temperature and how it varied as Tony played with the thermostat.

"When did you have time to do this?"

"First thing in the morning before you get down here. You always walk in at 7:06."

Bruce laughs, throwing back his head. Tony bites lightly at the side of his neck, and suddenly, Bruce can't breathe, a thrill of pleasure sliding down his spine. "Tony," he groans.

"Need me to stop?" Tony asks, mouth next to Bruce's ear, arms tight around Bruce's middle.

"I..." Bruce breathes in deep, feels the way it shudders through his whole body. He can feel his heartbeat speeding up.

Banner angry? Hulk asks. Hulk come out?

No. That's not what this is, Bruce says. I need you to stay down, buddy.

Hulk bored. Hulk want smash.

Bruce waits for the push against his control, waits for Hulk to test his limits. There's nothing, just a relaxed sort of feeling in the part of his mind where Hulk lives.

"Everything okay in there?" Tony asks.

"...yeah," Bruce says, a little confused. "He says he's bored, but he's not fighting against it."

"Does he usually?"

"Regularly. It's why I always kept track of how many days between incidents with him. I was trying to find a pattern."

"Any luck?"

"No pattern I could discern outside of my own anger spikes."

"Hmmm." Tony pulls away from Bruce for a moment and rounds the stool so they're eye-to-eye. He tilts Bruce's head back and looks him over. "So, could we make out right now without him making an appearance?"

"God," Bruce breathes out because the way Tony's looking at him is making his heart trip-hammer. "I really, really want to."

Tony's face goes soft as he traces Bruce's eyebrows. "You think the big guy might make an appearance anyway?"

"I don't know. He might. Sometimes he doesn't push right away. He's clever."

"You share the same brain; he'd better be." Tony looks him over again, and then he grins, all teeth. Bruce has learned it means Tony's about to suggest something ridiculous. Like burger runs at four in the morning, or dousing circuits in whiskey to see how they'll burn or purposely mislabeling data to see how long it would take them to fix it. "You know, I might have a solution."

"What am I about to get into?" Bruce asks.

"A room," Tony answers. "A big, smash-worthy room."

*

Tony isn't kidding about the room. It's in the sub-sub-basement of Stark Tower, under enough security protocols that Bruce is surprised to find it's just a huge room with rocks and tree trunks and other debris. "Been working on it since you got here," he says. "Figured the big guy might want a space of his own."

"I..." Bruce can't find words. "You did this?"

"Not alone. Pepper did her usual magic and pulled in most of the big supplies. I just supervised the renovations to make sure it'd live up to Hulk Smash levels. As long as the big guy doesn't make an effort to punch his way out through the wall, we should be good to go."

"And if he does?" Bruce asks.

Tony shrugs. "Every wall down here is a single pressure point disconnected from the other walls. If he gets through one, the tower will still be standing."

"Tony..." Bruce shakes his head. "You didn't have to do this."

"I did," Tony says. His eyes go soft when he looks at Bruce, his manic grin dropping to something smaller, something much more intimate. "You need to know you're welcome here. All of you."

Bruce grabs Tony by his sleeve and reels him in, kisses him as hard as he can until his heart rate is skyrocketing, and Tony is moaning against his mouth.

Hulk want smash. Shiny Man give Hulk smash place.

Just a minute, buddy. I promise. Bruce kisses Tony a second time, slightly softer. "He wants out."

"I can hang," Tony offers.

"I'd rather you not, just in case," Bruce says.

Tony pecks him on the nose. "Have fun. You need me, I'll be in the garage."

"Are you ever anywhere else?" Bruce asks as he starts to unbutton his shirt. Tony watches him unabashedly until Bruce ducks his head.

"Going, going," Tony calls over his shoulder. "Tell the big guy to have fun."

"I'll pass it along." Bruce undoes his belt and takes off his pants, kicking off his shoes at the same time.

Hulk smash?

Bruce folds all his clothes and tucks them into a far corner he thinks maybe Hulk won't get to. He stretches his back and arms and breathes in deep. Okay, he says. Have some fun.

*

Hulk picks up a boulder and throws it across the room. It smashes, and he roars in victory. He picks up a tree trunk and swings it in a circle before letting go. It flies in an arc before it crashes against a wall and splinters. He jumps up and down. This room is big enough for him to jump without hitting his head if he's careful.

It's your room Banner tells him. Shiny Man and Red Lady built it for you.

For Hulk Smash!

Yeah, for Hulk Smash.

Nice? Hulk asks as he picks up a tractor tire and rolls it around on the floor. Shiny Man and Red Lady nice?

Yeah, Banner says. They are.

Hulk laughs, throwing back his head and dropping onto his haunches to rock back and forth as he sends another tractor tire spinning around the room.

“Nice. Nice. Nice.” Hulk repeats over and over as he smashes. “Nice. Nice. Nice.”

*

Hours later, Hulk happily smashed out and actually sleeping, Bruce changes back and lies on the floor amongst the debris. There's a beep and a hiss, and the door to the room opens, Pepper walking through with no fear or concern that Bruce can catalogue. She surveys the destruction and beams at Bruce. "Looks like it was a success."

"He's a big fan," Bruce replies. He stands and makes his way over to where he stacked his clothes. They're dusty and covered in bits of wood but otherwise unharmed. He pulls his shirt over his shoulders before turning back to face Pepper.

"The pants seem to have held up," she says, gesturing to his Hulk-Pants.

"Yeah, they did," Bruce agrees. He looks around the room at the mess. "Should we—"

"A crew will come in tomorrow and reset everything. All the debris will be sent to a small company specializing in organic, locally-sourced gardening accessories. The trees will go to mulch, and the remains of the boulders will be bagged as gravel. The tires will stay, obviously, but if Hulk ever does shred them, they'll be turned into walkway strips by the same company." Pepper grins as she steps closer to Bruce. "Every time Hulk smashes, he's helping support a small business."

"I don't know what to say to that," Bruce says. "That's..."

"He's smart," Pepper tells him, stepping even closer. They're nearly nose-to-nose, and Bruce finds himself trying to count her freckles. "He deserves to have a purpose."

Bruce is quiet for a long moment. He touches Pepper's waist, and she leans against him. "Thank you," Bruce says. He presses a kiss to her cheek, kisses lightly on her jaw. She tips her head up, and they kiss properly. It's different than the kiss with Tony earlier. It's softer, more relaxed. Pepper presses a hand to his stomach and stretches to meet him as he angles his head to deepen the kiss.

"Have you made out with Tony yet?" she asks against his mouth.

"No," Bruce says.

"Dibs," Pepper replies, and she hooks two fingers into the waistband of his Hulk-Pants and gives a small tug. "If that's all right with you."

"That is entirely all right with me," Bruce assures her.

She kisses him and backs away a step, does it again and again, leads him to the elevator that way, pins him against the wall with soft fingertips on his sternum and doesn't let him up for air until the elevator dings to tell them they're on the main floor. She turns from him and walks to the couch, kicking off her shoes and pulling down her hair, and throwing herself against the cushions with easy grace. Her skirt rides up her legs, and Bruce is touching her thighs before he can think. Pepper grabs him by the open front of his shirt and pulls him down on top of her, sliding her hips so her skirt rides up higher and he can fit between her legs.

"Tell me when," she says.

"Tell me," Bruce replies, and he kisses her collarbone through her top, runs his fingers through her hair, groans into her mouth when she bites his bottom lip. He stops thinking when she pulls lightly at his hair and presses her fingers against his shoulders. He slides a hand up the outside of her thigh and feels an arm snake around his middle. "Wha--"

"If this is weird, I can bail," Tony says against his neck. He's pressing open-mouthed kisses to Bruce's shoulders, using his teeth to pull Bruce's shirt back so he has bare skin to touch.

"It's not weird," Bruce says. It's overwhelming, a little, to have Tony wrapped around him from behind and Pepper warm at his front, foot hooked behind his knee and trying to reel him back in. "But I am way underdressed right now."

Pepper pulls off her top in one fluid motion, dangling it from a fingertip as she smirks. She reaches down with her other hand to undo her bra, but Bruce stops her by cupping her breast. The bra is beige, simple, obviously meant for comfort and function over sexiness.

"Can I..." Bruce asks. Pepper arches into his hand in answer. Bruce looks over his shoulder at Tony. "I..."

"We want this," Tony says. He pulls his own shirt over his head, throws it over his shoulder without looking. The arc reactor glows bright white against his chest. The edges of it are cool against Bruce’s skin when Tony presses against his back again. "We want what you want," Tony murmurs.

Bruce looks at Pepper, and she curls a hand around his bicep, presses just so with her thumb so that his arm nearly collapses out from under him. It's only Tony holding him up that keeps him from falling. "Come on," she says. "It's okay."

It's surreal, Bruce thinks, but he arches when Tony hits a spot on his shoulder blade, and then he ducks his head, pressing his mouth to Pepper's breast through her bra as she moans and combs her fingers through his hair. He slides his fingertips over the edge of her bra and pulls it down, stares at her freckled breast for a moment before sucking on the nipple. She shrieks and presses him closer when he slides his teeth lightly across it.

"That's just the opening number," Tony says. "You should hear her when you finger her."

"Show me," Bruce says, because the surreal feeling is getting scary, and he wants to back away as much as he wants to keep touching. He slides off the couch, settling on his knees next to Pepper's shoulder. She pulls him closer by digging her nails into his shoulder and kissing him until he's seeing flashes of light behind his closed eyes. When he pulls away, she smiles at him.

"That is not fair," Tony says. He's got a hand under Pepper's rucked skirt, the other pressed against her stomach. "You haven't kissed me like that," Tony says.

"I'll owe you one," Bruce deadpans. Pepper throws back her head and laughs. It turns into a deep-throated moan as Tony shifts his hand under her skirt.

"The secret," Tony says, "is that Pepper would be happy getting fingered for hours."

"Not a secret," Pepper grinds out as she sits up, balanced on one hand, and grabs Tony's wrist, holding his hand in place as she undulates.

"Bruce has wider fingers than me," Tony says in an undertone, and Pepper's eyes widen as she turns to look at him. Bruce feels like he's been caught out, and his heart rate skyrockets.

"You're flushing," Tony says, leaning forward so Pepper falls back and he's half-bent over her. She groans and scrabbles for purchase as he keeps his hand moving. "You okay, Bruce?"

"I'm good," Bruce says because he is. He pushes up from his knees and turns Tony's head until he can kiss Tony as hard as he can, raking his teeth over Tony's lower lip and pressing his thumb against the corner of Tony's mouth. "I want..."

"What?" Tony prompts, voice low, almost a purr against Bruce's cheek. "What do you want?" Tony asks at the same time Pepper swears at him for slowing down.

"I want…" Bruce stares at Tony’s mouth and grips himself through his pants. He's never been a talker during sex, but Tony's drawn-in breath tells him the message got across.

"But if I'm doing that, who will keep poor Pepper occupied?"

"Poor Pepper can occupy herself well enough, thank you," Pepper interjects. She starts to slide a hand down her front, but Bruce reaches out and catches her wrist in a careful grip.

"No," he says. "I...I want to touch you."

Tony twists his wrist, and Pepper nearly screams. "Do you want that, Pep?" he asks. "You want Bruce to fuck you with his fingers?"

"Yes," she says, wanton and beautiful, sweat beading on her forehead. Bruce can't look away from her as she shivers and shifts her hips. "Bruce," she groans.

"Hold on," Bruce says without meaning to. "Hold on."

Tony pulls his hand out from under Pepper's skirt. Two of his fingers are glistening wet, and he licks them as he steps off the couch and crouches on the floor. "Up you go," he murmurs to Bruce, and Bruce pulls himself up, stopping in a moment of awkwardness as he realizes he has no idea how to position himself.

Pepper is unzipping her skirt and shimmying out of her underwear, throwing a leg over the back of the couch as Bruce tries to figure out the angle.

"Like this," Tony says, and pushes Bruce until his shoulders are all the way back. Pepper tucks her leg around his neck as Tony pulls off Bruce's Hulk-Pants and pulls one of Bruce's legs over his shoulder. "Like this," Tony repeats, looking up at Bruce. "If you're okay."

"I'm okay," Bruce says. "I'm okay." He touches Pepper's clit with the pad of his thumb, and she grinds against him, the leg around his neck tightening. He turns his head and kisses her ankle without thinking at the same moment Tony sucks his cock into his mouth. Bruce's groan and Pepper's breathy pleased noise blend together, and Bruce slides a finger into Pepper at the same time Tony mouth slides all the way down Bruce's length.

"God," Bruce mutters. He throws back his head as Tony sucks hard.

"Bruce," Pepper groans. "Bruce, I swear to god--"

Bruce slides his finger deeper into her. When she gasps in pleasure, he slides a second alongside it.

"There you go," Pepper mutters. She rides his hand as he tries to set a rhythm, but every time he does, Tony does something with his mouth, either more suction or pulling off just enough that Bruce bucks his hips to follow. When Tony cups his balls and presses his bottom lip against the big vein on the underside of his cock, Bruce comes without meaning to, shouting sharply for just a moment and pressing hard against Pepper's clit with his thumb. She growls and rides his hand as Tony swallows Bruce's come and pulls off of his dick with a slow, soft suck.

"You good?" Tony asks, mouth pressed against Bruce's thigh.

"Uh-huh," Bruce manages, staring at the ceiling as he comes down. He comes back to himself and looks down at Tony, who's still crouched between his thighs. One of his legs is still over Tony's shoulder, and Tony presses a kiss to the inside of his knee. Pepper is still working Bruce's hand. Bruce watches, dazed, as Tony reaches between Pepper's legs, nudges Bruce's thumb out of the way, and presses his own in its place. He lets up after a moment and traces a finger over Pepper's folds as Bruce continues to finger her. She comes with a groan, her whole body clenching. Bruce looks at Tony and realizes, for the first time, that Tony is hard in his pants. He hadn't noticed, surrounded by more attention than he's allowed himself in years.

"It's okay," Tony says when he catches Bruce looking. "Pepper's a show stealer."

"Pot and kettle," Pepper mutters. She rolls her hips against Bruce’s hand one more time, and then touches his wrist. He slides his fingers out as she turns on her side to look at Tony fondly. Tony trails a hand down her side, and she smiles at him before turning her smile to Bruce. "That was phenomenal," she says.

"Thanks," Bruce replies. Pepper giggles sleepily at his earnestness, and Bruce feels himself smiling in return. He sticks his fingers into his mouth and tastes her juices. They're slightly tangy and wonderfully sticky between his fingers. Tony is watching him as he sucks, and Bruce slides to the floor and pushes at Tony's shoulder until Tony lies flat. "I want..."

"I'm making you verbalize next time," Tony says, as he lifts his hips so Bruce can pull off his pants. "I'm letting it go this time because the hotness of this first time should knock you mostly speechless."

"So modest," Pepper murmurs, eyes half-closed as she watches the two of them.

Bruce glances at her. Her hair is ruffled around her head. She's tucked one arm under her head. Her bra is still askew. She has freckles everywhere.

"I am down here," Tony announces loudly. "And I am not the world's cutest ginger, but I am full of awesome scientific advances that should be giving you at least a half a chub."

Bruce breaks down laughing for a moment. "Subtle," he tells Tony as he reaches out and brushes his left hand against the arc reactor. "Can you feel that?"

"My dick can feel everything," Tony says. "You should feel my dick."

Bruce laughs again. He hears Pepper join in as he looks from Tony's chest to his stomach to his groin. His dick is hard, purple at the head, and leaning slightly to the left. Bruce runs his fingertips down it, and Tony hisses between his teeth. Bruce repeats the gesture, and Tony whines in the back of his throat.

"Please tell me you've given a handjob before," Tony says. "Or tell me this is your very first time because that would be amazingly hot."

"I've given them before," Bruce tells him. "But it's been awhile." A decade at least, he thinks. Late, frustrating nights in the labs led to occasional helping hands from the other single guys. Bruce had always liked the experience, the weight and breadth of a dick in his hand, but it'd never meant anything before. He breathes out hard, wraps his hand around Tony's dick, and slides his hand up slowly, tightening his grip as he reaches the head.

"Oh, that's nice," Tony says. "That is excellent. Little more pull when you come up."

Bruce does as Tony suggests, and Tony presses his head against the floor. "Like that?" Bruce asks.

"Exactly like that. Exactly more of that. Give me another twenty seconds of that, and I will jizz all over your hand."

"Jizz," Pepper mutters. Bruce glances at her. She's mostly asleep but still watching them. When she sees Bruce watching, she drops a hand and presses it hard against Tony's reactor. He makes a noise Bruce can't quite place, but he knows a turned-on flush when he sees one.

"Do you like that?" Bruce asks, speeding his strokes. "You can feel it?"

"Yeah. It's...it's like licking a nine-volt battery, except that it doesn't taste like copper, and I'm pretty sure it's wired straight to my dick."

"Everything's wired straight to your dick," Pepper says, and she presses her hand against the reactor again.

Bruce slides his free hand up Tony's body, grips Tony's dick a tiny bit harder as he presses his fingertips against the reactor when Pepper moves to give him a clear workspace.

"Oooh, fast learner," Tony grinds out. "Love a fast learner."

"How much pressure?" Bruce asks, quickening his stroke again. He rubs his thumb over the head of Tony's dick, and Tony cants his hips.

"How much you got?" Tony asks.

Bruce presses his palm flat against the reactor. He can feel it vibrate against his hand. Tony shouts, and his hips press upwards, and he comes all over Bruce's hand and arm. When Bruce tries to lift his hand from the reactor, Tony presses it down again.

"All the way through," he mutters. "Just keep—"

"I've got it," Bruce promises, and he keeps pressing down until Tony finishes coming and rolls his shoulders against the floor. Bruce stares at his come-spattered hand and brings it to his mouth, sucking it off his thumb and licking it from his wrist out of curiosity. It's sour, with an interesting texture.

"Jesus Christ, you have to stop doing that," Tony groans. He's pushing himself into a sitting position, his limp dick pressed against one leg. "You look obscene when you do that."

"You look beautiful," Pepper adds. Her eyes are open wider now, the post-coital haze apparently wearing off. "Are you okay?" she asks Bruce.

"Yes," Bruce answers. "But I think I need a minute."

"Come on," Tony says. He manages to stand, staggering a step before holding out his hand to Bruce. Bruce grasps his wrist and lets himself be pulled up, wipes his come-covered hand on Tony’s shirt when Tony tosses it to him, and wonders where they're going until Tony pulls him onto the couch, poking at Pepper until she sits up and leans against his side. "Grab the blanket, will you?" Tony asks, pointing to the end of the couch closest to Bruce.

Bruce grabs the blanket and shakes it out, dropping it over the three of them before Tony reels him in close.

"How's the big guy?" Tony asks.

"Sleeping," Bruce says.

"The big guy has a good idea," Tony replies, and they all fall silent, dozing against each other for a few minutes.

Bruce loses track of time as he dozes, Tony's fingers trailing down his side. When he opens his eyes, he sees the glow of the arc reactor, and Pepper on Tony's other side. She has an arm wrapped around Tony, eyes closed as she rests her head on his shoulder. Bruce tilts his head to look up at Tony, and he's got his head thrown back, eyes closed. Bruce lifts a hand and touches Tony's chest. Tony opens his eyes and looks at him.

"Yeah?" Tony asks.

"Nothing," Bruce says. "Nothing." He trails his fingers from Tony's chest to his stomach and back again. When he touches Pepper's arm, she curls closer to Tony, stretches her fingers until she can touch Bruce's legs, and then settles back.

"I don't..." Bruce shakes his head and pulls away but stays under the blanket and under the curve of Tony's arm. "It's been a really long time," he says.

"For what?" Tony asks.

"Everything," Bruce replies. "Friendship. Companionship. Sex. Love."

"Love?" Tony asks.

"I don't think he means it as seriously as you just took it, Tony," Pepper says as she yawns and lifts her head. "I think he means in a more general sense."

"I do," Bruce assures them. "Not that I...yes, just love in general. Just, feeling like I can be someplace and be wanted."

Tony and Pepper are quiet for a long moment. "Pep?" Tony asks.

"You've mentioned emotions, so Tony is going to make us something to drink while you and I talk about those emotions," Pepper explains to Bruce. Tony untangles himself from the blankets, kisses them both on the top of their heads, and walks over to the wet bar in the corner, seemingly unconcerned that he is completely nude.

"But I'm staying close enough to learn something," Tony throws over his shoulder.

Pepper slides over to Bruce, and he lifts an arm without thinking, letting her curl against his side and throw her legs over his lap. "Oh, you are warm," she says and snuggles closer.

"The Other Guy makes me run hot," Bruce says. "On a few different levels."

Pepper chuckles and tips her head back so she can see Bruce. "Is he okay?" she asks. "I've read a lot of Tony's research on him, and there seems to be a heart-rate component to what brings him out."

"There was," Bruce says, "but we've been working on it, and he's worn out from smashing all afternoon, so he actually is asleep."

"What's that like?" Tony asks. He's behind the bar, rattling bottles and glasses as he mixes something in a pitcher. "Does it get quieter in your head?"

"A little." Bruce isn't quite sure how to explain it. No one's ever asked before. "We can't talk when he's sleeping, so there's that, but he's still in there."

"What does he think of everything?" Pepper asks. "Is he happy?"

"I...I don't know. I'd have to go down to him and ask." Pepper and Tony both give him a questioning look. "When I'm fully in charge or he's fully in charge, we can communicate, but it's pretty basic," Bruce explains. "It's two guys in one brain, so if one of us is running the show, the other takes a backseat. We can converse and talk to each other, but if I meditate, I can go down to him, and we can talk at a higher level. It's like..." He's not really sure what it's like.

"It's the difference between a telegraph and a telephone," Tony says as he walks back over to the table. He's got a pitcher and three glasses on a tray, and he sets it on the coffee table. "You can communicate with both, but the phone is faster, and it's easier to hear someone clearly the first time."

"Yeah," Bruce says. "It's like that." He watches as Tony leans down and kisses Pepper softly. He waits to feel jealous or out-of-place, but he just feels comfortable. When they pull away from each other, Pepper curls back against Bruce. "So, is this what this is?" Bruce asks.

"This is whatever you want it to be," Pepper says. "If this," she gestures to the three of them, "is what you want, it's what you'll get."

"If you decide Pepper's too needy," Tony steps out of the way when Pepper throws a pillow at him, “you can just fuck my brains out."

"Or, if Tony is being particularly annoying, you and I can have time together," Pepper adds. "No," she says, pointing a finger at Tony when he fishes an ice cube out of the pitcher.

Tony eyes her, then Bruce, and tosses the ice cube into his own mouth. "Or, if this has been fun and is as much as you can give, we'll all have a drink and call it done."

Bruce thinks about that as Tony pours drinks and passes them around. They're vodka martinis, extra-dirty and ice-cold. Tony sits on Bruce's far side, pulls Pepper's feet into his lap, and leans over to kiss Bruce's shoulder. "I think I need a few days," Bruce says. "This was...I haven't..." He shakes his head and takes a long drink of his martini. "I need a few days," he says again. "I need to assimilate everything."

"Do you need a completely hands-off few days?" Pepper asks. "Or are we still allowed to be affectionate?"

"Can I blow you in the garage?" Tony asks.

"Affection is good," Bruce says.

"I'm taking that as a negative on the blowjob," Tony says. He winces when Pepper digs her heel into his thigh. "Not that I'm saying you've made the wrong decision. I just have fantasies, which are completely healthy and normal."

"Does he have a thing about sex in the garage?" Bruce asks Pepper.

She rolls her eyes with affection. "I leave it to his one-night stands. It's fun the first few times, but once you start considering exactly how many of the tables you've been pressed up against, it loses its allure."

One-night stands. Bruce thinks about that for a minute. Tony and Pepper tease each other while he does it. "Where do I fit in?" he asks. "Am I allowed...other people?"

"Absolutely," Tony says. "It'd just be rude and sort of creepy if you had different rules than Pepper and I."

"But you're not required to," Pepper tells him. "All we expect is for you to be happy in whatever configuration makes you happy."

"What if I only want to be with one of you?" He can't help but ask. It's scientific curiosity and a small amount of fear at what they're so openly giving him. He needs to know how it could be taken away from him. He hasn't had anything good to call his own in a very long time.

"Tony will be slightly petty and pouty if you choose me," Pepper says. "But he won't actually be jealous."

"I am an immensely sore loser," Tony agrees. "But Pepper will be extra-classy about it if you decide you'd rather just let me rim you until you can't feel your feet."

"That's not actually an exaggeration," Pepper says when Bruce just blinks mutely.

"A few days," Bruce says. "Definitely need a few days."

"Just say when," Tony says. He knocks back the rest of his drink and kisses Bruce, the burn of vodka carrying into Bruce's mouth from Tony's tongue. "I need food," Tony announces when he pulls away. He maneuvers himself off the couch and walks towards the kitchen. Bruce can't help but stare at his ass.

"It's a work of art," Pepper says. She kisses his cheek and rearranges herself so her head is in Bruce's lap. "This okay?"

"Yeah," Bruce says, "this is nice." He runs his fingers through her hair and doesn't look away when she unhooks her bra and drops it on the floor and pulls the blanket over the both of them. "Is Tony hiding in the kitchen because he's scared of more emotions?"

"Absolutely," Pepper says. She sips her drink and puts it on the coffee table. "Can you reach the remote?" she asks. "There's a movie coming on I wanted to see."

It's such an absolutely mundane question that it takes a moment for Bruce to parse it. He hands her the remote and leans back against the couch and finishes his drink as Tony walks back into the room with a plate of sandwiches and a bag of chips. "What are we watching?" he asks as he sits.

"A movie," Pepper replies. She drapes her legs over Tony's lap when he gets settled, and he runs a hand up her calf. Neither of them seem even slightly perturbed that he's still there, that Pepper's head is in his lap, that Tony's fingers are brushing his shoulder.

They mean it, Bruce realizes. They really, actually mean it. They just want him here and comfortable and happy. They just want him.

*

Bruce thinks about the entire thing all through the next day. Tony and Pepper keep their word, giving him affection but not trying to entice him into anything else. Bruce concentrates on his work and helps Tony when he needs an extra set of hands, and after dinner—which they actually manage to have together for once—Bruce stands up and says, "I have to go talk to the Other Guy."

"See if he's got a rock preference," Tony says. "He smashed up the ones in the room pretty good. Make sure they're a challenge."

"I hope he's in a good mood," Pepper adds.

Bruce nods rather than answering; he's already concentrating on slowing his heartbeat and rearranging his thoughts so the compartment marked HULK is front and center. He goes to his suite and sits in the middle of the floor, no candles or incense, just him, his thoughts, and some concentration.

The place where the Hulk lives in his head is a wide open space with a blue, blue sky. It's barren, or it was the last time Bruce was here, a few days before Natasha showed up and talked him into coming back to the world. The entire space is lightly green now with fresh grass and even a few small trees. Bruce can hear but not see a creek, but there's a walking path leading in its direction. Most notable, though, is the wide, round building next to the pathway. Hulk's never had a dwelling, just always been in the middle of all the open air when Bruce comes to visit.

"Banner."

Bruce turns and looks up, shading his eyes so he can see Hulk's face properly. He is as large and green as always, but he's wearing the Hulk-Pants instead of the usual tattered slacks. "Hulk," he greets because he's not sure what else to say. Everything in here is so different from the usual. Even Hulk looks different. He's standing up a little straighter, not looking as wary as he usually is when Bruce comes to visit. "How are you?"

"Nice," Hulk says.

"You've redecorated," Bruce says with a wave of his hand.

"No," Hulk says. "This happened on its own."

"What?"

"I woke up today, and it was like this." Hulk surveys the wide open space, and he smiles. "I like it."

"It's certainly more inviting," Bruce tells him.

"Come inside," Hulk says. "Let me show you the inside."

Bruce follows Hulk into the wide, round building. It's one large room. There are cushions all over the floor, and a stack of books in the corner. Bruce gravitates towards them and picks them up. "Were these here when you woke up?"

"Yes. I'm reading this one." Hulk holds out a volume. It's oversized but still looks like a miniature in his hand. Bruce takes the book and looks at the title. Pride and Prejudice. "I remember reading this," Bruce says. "I liked it."

"Mrs. Bennet is funny," Hulk says. He flops onto a pile of cushions and watches Bruce as Bruce looks through his other books. They're all books Bruce has read before, but he read them a long time ago. Classics from college, some Hardy Boys from when he was a kid. There are a few science texts and books about basic engineering. There are even a few science fiction books. Bruce is completely unsure what is going on.

"Have you read any others?" he asks as he sits across from Hulk.

"No. I'm going to read them one at a time."

"Let me know which ones you like best," Bruce says, "and I'll read more like them."

"Are they your books?" Hulk asks. He looks stricken, like Bruce might take them away.

"No," Bruce says. "They're our books, so you have every right to them." He watches Hulk relax, and he tries to piece together what's happened. "You're different," he tells Hulk. "You usually don't like when I come to visit."

"You come to visit to tell me to be quiet," Hulk says. "I don't like being quiet all the time."

"I suppose that's true." Bruce looks around the room. He thinks about outside. "Do you like it better like this? With the books and the trees?"

"It's nice," Hulk says. "Nice. Nice. Nice."

Bruce thinks about how Hulk has been repeating that word when he's out. "You like that word," he says. "Nice."

"I like what it means," Hulk says.

"What does it mean?" Bruce asks.

"It means that you're not scared," Hulk says. "That I don't have to be scared. It means that people don't run away from me."

"Have you felt that way this whole time?" Bruce asks. "That people are running away from you?"

"Everyone was scared of me," Hulk says. "Now, not everyone is scared. Shiny Man and Red Lady aren't scared."

"No," Bruce says. "They're not." The truth of what's happened is starting to dawn on him. "Hulk--"

"Leader Man isn't scared, either. He wanted me to smash."

Leader Man? Bruce wonders. Then he remembers the battle in Manhattan, letting Hulk come out, and Hulk taking the order from Captain Rogers. The truth is a bright, painful light right in Bruce's eyes. "I'm sorry," Bruce says. "I didn't realize...I made some assumptions about how you act and thought it was your natural state."

"I like to smash," Hulk says.

"I know, but that's not what I'm talking about." Bruce drops his head into his hands and stares at his legs. He's usually in some worn-out form of his own clothes when he's here, but now he's in a clean pair of slacks and a button down, the same sort of thing he'd wear in the day-to-day at the tower. "You still scare me sometimes, buddy. But I think..." He looks at Hulk. Hulk is watching him. "I think, maybe, I've been a part of the problem."

"Problem?"

"You remember when we didn't get along at all? When I used to fight you back all the time?" Hulk nods, and Bruce works his teeth over his lower lip. "I think, maybe, part of your anger was because of me, because I wouldn't let you try and explain things."

"You let me explain now," Hulk says. "We have a dialogue."

Bruce grins, remembering teaching Hulk the meaning of that word after the incident in Harlem, when he'd decided, once and for all, to try and find a better form of control than the pulse monitor. "Yeah, we do. And I think that's maybe part of why it's been better for both of us. I think, maybe, you got all this new stuff because I'm still a little nervous, but the people around us aren't running away from you."

"Friends," Hulk says. "We have friends."

"Yeah," Bruce says.

"I like friends."

"Me, too." Bruce presses his palms to his eyes so he doesn't cry. "I wanted to... You like Shiny Man and Red Lady, right?"

"Yes."

"They want...me. Us. They want us both to be happy."

"Happy?" Hulk asks.

"It means...it's like nice, and it's like friendship, but it's better than both of them. It's sort of both of them fitted together."

"Happy," Hulk repeats. "Happy." His eyes light up. "Smashing is happy?" he asks. "Smashing makes me feel like nice and friendship."

"Happy is its own thing," Bruce explains. "It's a feeling, like anger is a feeling. Smashing is a thing that makes you happy."

"I understand," Hulk says. "The books make me happy," he says, looking at the books in the corner. "The trees outside make me happy."

"I'm glad," Bruce tells him. "I'm very glad to hear that." He stands and holds out his hand, meaning to shake, but Hulk looks confused. "I'm leaving," Bruce says. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay and that you liked Shiny Man and Red Lady."

"I like them," Hulk confirms. He still looks confused at Bruce's outstretched hand. He holds out his own but doesn't seem to know what to do with it. He curls his hand into a fist, and holds it out in front of him, like when Tony taught him to bro fist. Bruce can't help the smile that breaks out on his face. He mimics Hulk's movement, and they tap fists, exactly as lightly as Bruce had tried to teach him the first time.

"They like you," Bruce says. "I'll tell them you said hi."

"Okay," Hulk says. He leans back into his cushions and reaches for his book, not looking up when Bruce leaves.

Bruce walks outside and looks around. There are flowers peaking up through the grass. He bends down to examine them before he closes his eyes and concentrates on his heartbeat, and pulls himself back up to full consciousness.

He opens his eyes, and he's back in his suite, sitting in the middle of the living room with the evening lights of Manhattan streaming in the windows. He stands up, stretches his legs a few times, and goes down to the main living area. Tony and Pepper are on the couch, both doing work, but shoulder-to-shoulder. They look up when he walks in the room and smile at him.

"How's the big guy?" Tony asks.

"He's...happy," Bruce says. "He says hi."

"Does he usually do that?" Pepper asks.

"He's never had anyone to say it to before," Bruce says. He walks to an armchair and sinks into it. He can feel Tony and Pepper watching him as he stares at the floor, hands dangling between his knees. "I think maybe I'm part of the reason he's been so miserable for so long."

"Are you okay?" Pepper asks.

"I just have to accept it," Bruce says. He breathes in deep and looks at them. Tony has his arm around Pepper's shoulder. There's enough space on Tony's other side for Bruce to slot himself in neatly if he wants. "I think," he says slowly, "that I want to try with you two, but I don't actually know how. I think there's a lot I have to figure out about myself as much as about what I want. I don't know that I'm... I don't think I'm mentally prepared for what you want to give me."

"What do you want to do?" Pepper asks, voice soft. Tony's expression of concern doesn't change, but Bruce sees his jaw tighten.

"I want to stay here," Bruce says, and Tony's jaw loosens. "And I want to figure everything out, but I don't want to put the burden on you to put up with any freak outs or inappropriate behavior I might have. That's not fair."

"You've met me, right?" Tony asks. "You cannot out-diva me. I guarantee."

"I think it's in your contract," Pepper adds. "He's very particular about it."

Bruce huffs a laugh and rubs the back of his neck. "We can try?" he asks. "To make it all work, I mean. We can make an effort?"

"Of course we can," Pepper says.

"Absolutely," Tony adds.

"Okay," Bruce says. "Then let's do that." He's not prepared for Tony to come barreling off the couch to straddle his lap and kiss him until he's gasping for air like a landed fish.

"I'm getting champagne," Tony announces. "And we're going to toast to the ridiculous sex we will have in the future." He scrambles off Bruce's lap and heads for the kitchen.

"Um," Bruce gets out before Pepper sits on the arm of the chair and kisses him softly just behind the ear before turning Bruce's head so she can kiss him just as softly on the mouth. "I didn't agree to sex," he says.

"Tony thinks every agreement ends in sex," Pepper replies. "He will honestly be happy to have you however he can get you, and so will I."

"Thanks," Bruce says. He closes his eyes when she leans in again, and they both jump when the pop of the champagne cork echoes into the room.

"Come on," Pepper says. "Let's celebrate."

Bruce follows her into the kitchen and lets himself relax into their happiness as Tony pours them each a glass.

One bottle of champagne turns into two, which turns into four. Tony lifts him onto the kitchen counter and makes out with him while Pepper dances to the music coming from the stereo. When Tony walks over to pick a new song, Pepper hops onto the counter next to Bruce and kisses him until Tony comes back and asks Pepper if he can drink champagne out of her belly button. Bruce goes to bed properly drunk, giggling to himself about nothing. When he wakes up the next morning, he's painfully hungover, his stomach rolling and a headache pounding away at his temples.

"Sir," JARVIS's voice is lower and more mellow than usual. It manages not to make Bruce wince. "I took the liberty of starting your coffee pot."

"Thank you, JARVIS," Bruce says as he rolls out of bed. He stumbles to the bathroom and turns on the shower. It comes out in a soft cascade, and Bruce blinks at it for a few seconds.

"I thought, perhaps, your usual massage setting would be a bit much."

"Thanks," Bruce says. He steps in and rinses off, scrubbing at his face with his hands for a few seconds before just standing under the spray and checking himself over for drunken injuries. No bumps or bruises. He doesn't remember getting to bed, but he's not that concerned. It's only two floors up, after all. Six months ago, he'd never had let himself drink that much, if any at all. Hell, a month ago, the martini he had a few nights before would have been too worrisome. He'd have feared Hulk coming out against his will, pushing against Bruce's weakened mental barriers and making a break for it.

Banner having fun, Hulk says. Hulk not rude.

It takes a minute for Bruce to come up with a reply to that. Thanks, buddy. I appreciate it. When did you learn about being rude? Bruce is certain it's never come up between them.

Mr. Darcy rude, Hulk says.

Yeah, he is, Bruce replies, and he can't think of what else to say. He feels out Hulk in his mind, careful not to jostle him. Hulk is relaxed, comfortable. There's no return push against Bruce's control like he's used to when he checks on Hulk. You like the book? Bruce asks.

Book good. Hulk start new book soon.

Good. That's good. Bruce pulls away from the conversation when Hulk doesn't respond. He washes his hair and his body and considers the whole conversation as he dries off and wraps the towel around his waist so he can start to shave.

"Dr. Banner," JARVIS says, "Ms. Potts is at the door."

"Let her in, please," Bruce replies as he runs a washcloth under hot water and then presses it to his face to start softening up his whiskers.

"Can I come in?" Pepper asks from outside the bathroom door.

"Sure," Bruce says. It doesn't strike him as odd to agree until Pepper actually does come in, and Bruce realizes he's mostly naked and in a space small enough Pepper could be in real danger if the Other Guy came out.

Pepper doesn't seem to notice the way he freezes as she approaches. She stops just outside arms' length and holds up a tall, thin glass of something red. "Hangover cure," she says. "I thought you might want it before you headed down to the garage."

"God, yes," Bruce replies. He takes the glass and swallows it down in five large swallows. It tastes better than most of the hangover cures he remembers from the past, but it's still not something he'd drink without good reason. He sets down the glass and wipes at his mouth as he watches Pepper sit on the counter and watch him. "You're not hungover?" he asks. She looks completely pulled together and comfortable.

"I don't get hungover from champagne," she says.

Bruce waits for her to go on, but she doesn't, so he rewets the washcloth and presses it to his face again. Pepper watches him as he lathers up and shaves, smiling when he looks at her but otherwise being quiet. "Am I supposed to be doing something?" Bruce asks, pausing with the razor an inch from his chin.

"No," Pepper says. "I just wanted to see you. Do you want me to talk?"

"I like silence," Bruce replies. "But most people don't."

"I enjoy it," Pepper says. "It's rare around here."

Bruce grins as he leans down to splash water on his face. When he comes back up, she's holding out a hand towel. He takes it and dries his face, and then reaches for his toothbrush. He brushes his teeth and watches her in the mirror. She pulls a face, and he grins, but they don't talk. It's comfortable, intimate, and Bruce soaks it up as he rinses out his mouth and eyes his hair.

"You'll have to get it wrangled tonight," Pepper says as she watches him.

"Tonight?" Bruce asks.

"The gala's tonight. It's on your calendar."

"Gala?"

Pepper sighs. "I've reminded you and Tony a dozen times this last week. It's your big debut as Stark Industries' newest consultant."

Bruce shakes his head. "I don't remember this."

"Bruce, what day is it?"

He thinks for a second, trying to count back in his head. "Thursday?" he guesses.

"Friday," Pepper corrects. Her smile is wry. "JARVIS," she says, looking up at the ceiling, "could you get Tony on the intercom, please?"

"Yes, Ms. Potts," JARVIS says.

Tony's voice comes through the speakers a moment later. "What do you need, Pep?"

"What are you doing tonight?" Pepper asks.

There's a brief pause, then Tony says, "You, me, Bruce, gala. Out the door at eight, at the location at nine. I told you I'd remember."

"Well, you did," Pepper says.

"Ha, Bruce is in trouble," Tony replies.

"I'm right here," Bruce says.

"Good morning, sunshine. You're late to work."

"I'm hungover," Bruce says.

Tony makes a dismissive noise. "What kind of scientist can't do science hungover?"

"My kind," Bruce replies.

"Well, get down here, and I'll kiss you better."

"JARVIS," Pepper says, and the intercom goes silent. "Thank you."

"My pleasure, Ms. Potts."

Pepper looks at Bruce again. "Gala. Tonight. I've set up the garage so it'll chime at six to remind the both of you to start getting ready. Your tux is in your closet. If you ask very nicely, I'll help you tie your tie."

Bruce knows how to tie a bowtie, but there's something warm and promising in Pepper's eyes. "I'd like that," he says.

Pepper stands up from the counter, kisses him lightly on the mouth, and turns to leave. "I'll see you tonight," she says.

"Bye," Bruce says. He watches her leave and looks at himself in the mirror. "Good thing I shaved today," he says to his reflection.

*

The six o'clock chime is actually a klaxon. Bruce jumps in his seat and nearly topples over on his stool. The data he'd been comparing scatters wide, translucent bits of information flying in every direction as he tries to keep himself upright.

"Right. The gala." Tony says. He hadn't even twitched, up to his elbows in one of the legs of his suit. He turns and looks at Bruce, who is finally fully upright and trying to slow his hammering heart. "You okay?" he asks.

You okay? Bruce asks Hulk.

Hulk reading, Hulk answers.

"Yeah," Bruce says. "I'm good." He holds his arms straight out at his sides and sweeps them forward until his hands touch. All of his wayward data comes back, organized like it was before he'd jumped. "How much leeway do we get from that thing?"

"You've got about ten minutes to save everything. The second one's even worse, and it doesn't turn off until we actually leave.”

Bruce saves everything immediately, gets off his stool, and walks over to Tony. "Need help finishing that?"

"Nope. Just need another minute." Tony solders a few more wires, clicks the soldering iron off, and nods at his work. "That'll keep," he says. He reaches for Bruce, interlacing their fingers before kissing him. "Job well done," he says when he pulls away.

"For you, maybe; my data's giving me fits."

"What's up with it?" Tony asks as he leads Bruce from the garage by the hand.

"Everyone's scattered all over the city. I need them to concentrate in the areas where I think I'm seeing early warning signs of mass infection, but I don't want to pull them away from all the other work they're doing just so I can test my theories."

"Need more docs?" Tony asks.

"In a perfect world, yes," Bruce says.

"How many more?"

Bruce thinks about it as Tony leads him up the stairs beyond the kitchen and living room. "For proper data collection on top of continued assistance to the populace? A hundred at least. I'd let me get a better picture of infection rates while helping more of the infected people."

"How about a hundred and thirty?" Tony asks. "A hundred more in the field full time, and the other thirty helping you break down the new data?"

"That'd be great, but--"

"JARVIS!" Tony interrupts.

"I will put out the word, Sir," JARVIS says.

"Wait. What?" Bruce asks. He stops short and stares at Tony, who's a step ahead of him on the stairs. "What are you doing?"

"Finding you a hundred and thirty more doctors," Tony says. "We do not half-ass our research at Stark Industries."

"But..." Bruce shakes his head. "I don't--" He cuts himself off and blows out a breath. "Just like that, huh?" he asks, a smile slanting across his face.
"Just like that," Tony says. "But after these guys, I'm gonna make you justify it."

Bruce laughs and steps up to be on even footing with Tony. "You can't just hand me a hundred and thirty doctors."

"I'm not. I'm handing an impoverished section of Calcutta a hundred and thirty doctors. It'll give me something to brag about at that gala tonight." Tony backs himself against the wall, and pulls Bruce close, nuzzling against his temple. "I was hoping to keep you distracted until we were actually in my bedroom, but you got me all giddy about saving the world."

"Distracted?" Bruce asks as Tony nudges Bruce's head up with his nose and places an open-mouthed kiss on his neck.

"You said you wanted to go all-in with Pepper and I, and while I do not," Tony places another kiss on the other side of Bruce's neck, "doubt your sincerity, I thought you might still be a bit nervous about the hot sex with a man part since you haven't mentioned any ex-boyfriends, so I was going to get you into the bedroom before telling you I planned to have pre-gala sexcapades with you."

"I gave you a handjob the other night," Bruce says, arching against Tony when Tony sucks on his earlobe.

"Yes, but Pepper was there."

"It's just you and me?" Bruce asks.

"Yeah. Pep's gonna meet us there."

"Oh. She's supposed to tie my tie."

Tony giggles. "Yes, that's the important thing to consider right now. Plus, she'll meet us outside. She always ties mine, too, and while that is fascinating, I would like to get back to sexcapades."

Bruce thinks about that as Tony runs his hands up and down Bruce's chest and nibbles at the side of Bruce's neck. "I don't have ex-boyfriends," Bruce admits, and Tony's hands still. He's ready to back away if Bruce asks, Bruce knows. "There have been a couple of one-night stands," he continues, and Tony's fingers curl into the front of his shirt. "Usually just handjobs, but I don't--I'm not--" Bruce closes his eyes and concentrates on the warm knot of hopeful tension curled in his belly. "I'm attracted to men and women, but I never really pursued it because I never really pursued anyone, and women approach you if you don't approach them, and the men I was with, we were just helping each other out, and it was fun, but I had my work and then there was Betty, and I--" He falters because he's not entirely sure what he wants except for sex in whatever form Tony will give it to him because he knows Tony will only give him what he wants. He says the very first thing that comes to his mind. "I want your dick in my mouth."

"Holy shit yes. We can do that. We can completely do that." Tony grabs Bruce's collar and drags him up the stairs, kissing him the whole way. Bruce trips once, and Tony lets go of his collar to grab his belt and keep him upright. "Uh-uh. No concussions for sexcapades. Sexcapades are a full-contact, non-injury sport."

"I'll remember that," Bruce says, laughing against Tony's mouth as Tony tries to kiss him again.

They make it to Tony's room without injury. Tony throws himself on the bed with enough force to knock off two throw pillows, and Bruce can't help but stare at the bed. It's enormous, with bright yellow sheets and a bright red duvet. "Is your bed purposely Iron Man colors?" he asks.

"Of course it is," Tony says like that's something perfectly reasonable. He's got his hands on his waistband, undoing the button on his jeans.

"No," Bruce says. He drops to his knees on the bed next to Tony, brushes Tony's hands out of the way, and slowly pulls down the zip on Tony's jeans. He pauses after he does it, looks at the hint of skin behind the zipper. "You're not wearing underwear," Bruce says.

"Nope," Tony says.

Bruce reaches into Tony's jeans, wraps his hand around Tony's dick, and pulls it out through the zipper, careful not to catch it on anything. He folds back the sides of Tony's jeans and pushes them down so that they're just on the lower edge of Tony's hips, and Bruce has some room to work.

"I can kick them off," Tony says.

"No," Bruce tells him. He reaches up and pushes Tony's shirt up his stomach, bends over and sucks a kiss just under his sternum. He traces the edges of Tony's ribcage with his fingers, noses Tony's stomach, and presses his thumbs against Tony's hipbones.

"I was..." Tony sighs when Bruce licks delicately under his belly button. "I was thinking you'd be a little shyer," Tony gets out.

"Blushing virgin?" Bruce asks, smiling against Tony's chest as he pushes Tony's shirt up further and kisses his nipples.

"A little. Yeah. Oh, bite them, would you?"

Bruce bites down lightly on Tony's left nipple, and Tony grunts with satisfaction. Bruce moves across Tony's chest, pausing to nose the edge of the arc reactor, and bites the other. "This is the easy part," Bruce says.

"Are you a tease, Dr. Banner?"

Bruce trails his mouth down the left side of Tony's body, licks a wet stripe from the edge of his pushed-down jeans to an inch before he'd touch Tony's dick. "A little," he admits "Betty--" He cuts himself off, cringing at the faux pas.

"It's okay," Tony says, petting Bruce's hair. "I don't actually care if you've done similar stuff with other people in bed. You've got to learn somewhere."

Bruce runs his hands from Tony's hips to his armpits and back again. Tony squirms and bites his lip, thrusts his hips a little in Bruce's direction. "Betty liked being teased," Bruce says. "I used to spend a lot of time just kissing her all over."

"Betty's got good taste," Tony says. "I really wish we had time for you to give me the full show." Bruce can see that Tony really doesn't care that he's mentioned Betty, that Tony's turned on and flushing because Bruce is touching him, and the fact that Bruce is using techniques he used on someone else is negligible because they're working.

Bruce bends his head and sucks the head of Tony's dick into his mouth. Tony groans and cups the back of Bruce's head, but he doesn't force him down, doesn't push his hips up. He stays still as Bruce catalogues what he's feeling, not just the soft, warm head of Tony's dick, but Tony's fingernails scratching at his scalp, Tony's hairy upper thigh under his hand. Bruce dips his head down an inch and sucks. Tony makes an encouraging whine of a noise and shifts his hand, thumb coming to rest on the hinge of Bruce's jaw, not pushing, just there, rubbing lightly when Bruce opens his mouth a little more and slides down until it starts to feel uncomfortable. He pulls back a little, and it's better.

"Good god," Tony hisses.

Bruce sucks lightly, then harder by degrees until Tony finally does buck up his hips. Bruce nearly chokes, pulling off completely to get his bearings.

"Sorry," Tony says. He trails his thumb along Bruce's bottom lip. "You okay?"

"Fine," Bruce says. He clears his throat and reaches down, adjusting himself through his slacks.

"We could sixty-nine," Tony offers, eyes bright at the prospect.

"No," Bruce says. "I want to suck you off without getting distracted."

"I will not stop you in the least," Tony replies.

Bruce dips his head down again, avoids Tony's dick and kisses on either side of it instead, touches his balls with careful fingers, and jacks Tony once, twice, three times before taking Tony's dick back into his mouth, sucking until Tony cants his hips again. He keeps the pressure on as he cups Tony's balls and pulls back, concentrating on working the head, lapping at the underside with his tongue and dipping down an inch or two to lick the vein a little before pulling back again. Betty'd always done that, and it'd driven Bruce mad. It seems to have a similar effect on Tony, who's swearing and clutching the sheets and obviously holding his hips still by force of effort.

Bruce pulls off completely again, and Tony pushes up, trying to get Bruce to come back. His dick bumps the corner of Bruce's mouth, and Bruce kisses the tip as lightly as he can. "You okay?" he asks Tony, all wide-eyed innocence.

"You bastard," Tony gripes. He wraps his hand around his shaft and starts to jerk off. "You fucking bastard."

Bruce grins and leans down, taking the head into his mouth again as Tony keeps jerking off. He digs his thumbs into Tony's upper thighs and moans in appreciation when Tony brings his hand up to touch Bruce's lips and slide a finger into his mouth.

"God, you are gloriously filthy," Tony says. He goes back to jerking off, and Bruce ups the suction, and Tony comes a few seconds later, hips coming off the bed. Bruce moves with it, keeps Tony's dick in his mouth the entire time Tony comes, swallows what he can, and finally pulls off when Tony goes limp and heaves in a huge breath.

"Jesus, you are a fast fucking learner," Tony says. He props himself up on his elbows and watches Bruce as Bruce wipes his mouth on the top of Tony's hip. "Did you come?" he asks.

"No," Bruce says.

"I'm gonna jack you off in the shower and stick a finger in your ass," Tony says. "Unless you are against any part of that plan."

Bruce shudders as his dick pulses in his slacks. "I've never had anything in my ass," he says.

"I can just jack you off."

"No, I..." Bruce swallows hard to give himself a moment to get a bit of control. "I just don't know about fingers."

"But you want something in your ass."

Bruce stares at Tony's mouth. "Yes," he says.

Tony grins. "I've got an idea." He licks his bottom lip. Bruce grits his teeth and presses his face against Tony's stomach. "But I want to hear you say it."

"I want...I want you to rim me," Bruce gets out. He doesn't blush, but it's a near thing. Tony pushes himself into a sitting position, shimmies out of his jeans and yanks off his T-shirt, grabs Bruce by his belt, and pulls him into the bathroom. It's spacious and sparkling white. The shower is more than big enough for two people, and Tony turns on the water before backing Bruce against the counter and undoing his belt.

"If you don't scream with pleasure, I'm doing it wrong," Tony says as he pushes Bruce's slacks and Hulk pants down his legs and starts to work on his shirt.

Bruce toes off his shoes and manages to get his socks off using his toes before stepping out of his pants. "I'm not a screamer," he says.

"Oooh, a challenge." Tony grins and kisses Bruce as he pulls Bruce's shirt off his shoulders. He runs his hands up and down Bruce's chest. "Love a hairy guy," he says as he burrows his fingers into Bruce's chest hair. "Love smart, hairy guys," he says and kisses Bruce again. He sucks on Bruce's bottom lip and fucks Bruce's mouth with his tongue as he pulls Bruce into the shower.

The cubicle is full of steam, and Bruce groans in pleasure when the hot water hits his back and neck, instantly loosening the muscles there. He smiles into Tony's next kiss, which is a little softer than before, a friendly sort of kiss that makes Bruce wrap his arms around Tony to keep him close. "Can we make out for a few minutes?" Bruce asks.

"Absolutely," Tony says, and he presses even closer, so they're touching from shoulder to thigh, his arms tight around Bruce's middle as they kiss. Tony lets Bruce run the show, and Bruce keeps it soft, ghosting his tongue against Tony's bottom lip, sliding his mouth from Tony's mouth to his cheek to his neck to his shoulder. He laps water from Tony's shoulder and sucks lightly before pulling back. Tony presses kisses to Bruce's neck, the hollow of his collarbone, and slides his hand down Bruce's chest, cupping Bruce's dick lightly.

"Yes," Bruce says, half to encourage Tony, half because it just feels nice.

Tony jacks him slowly, fingers curled just tightly enough to give good friction but not so tight Bruce is close to coming. "Hold on," Tony says, and he reaches behind Bruce to the shower caddy. He squeezes a generous amount of shower gel onto Bruce's dick and starts stroking again. Bruce squeezes his eyes shut at how good it feels, just enough pressure from Tony's hand to make his whole body tighten up, just enough shower gel to make Tony's hand slip out of rhythm a bit. Bruce groans and presses a hand to the shower wall. "That is not a scream," Tony says.

"You'd better keep going then," Bruce replies.

Tony tightens his grip and speeds up his strokes, slowly and carefully maneuvering Bruce until Bruce is out from under the water and pressed against the far wall. Bruce groans again when Tony stops at the base of his cock and twists his hand so he’s cupping Bruce’s balls. “That was a little louder,” Tony says. “We’re getting there.”

Bruce laughs at the bravado and grips Tony's wrist, pulling it up and down to get the rhythm going again. "Please," he says.

"Please what?" Tony asks.

"Please," Bruce says, his voice going up on the 's,' making the plea a whine. Tony works him faster and leans in, his mouth an inch from Bruce's ear.

"You're going to come," Tony says. "And after you do, I'm going wash you all over and dry you off and bend you over the counter, and then I'm going to drop to my knees and bury my face in your ass and not come up until you scream and beg me to finger you the next time."

Bruce lets out a strangled moan, scrabbling for Tony's shoulders to pull him closer, trying to push his dick against Tony's thigh so he can rut against him.

"Do you want that?" Tony asks, voice amused and rough. "Is that what you want, Bruce?"

"Yes," Bruce gets out. "God, yes."

"You want me to eat your ass? Tongue fuck you hard?"

"Yes."

"I'm going to," Tony promises. "An ass like yours deserves the royal treatment. I'm going to make you feel every nerve ending in your body. I'm going to outdo everything you've ever had done to you. I'm going to work you over so good it'll come back to you in the middle of the gala. You'll be making small talk, and you'll see me across the room, and all you're going to be able to think about is my tongue in your ass, my hands holding you still."

Bruce bucks and cries out.

"Not quite a scream," Tony says. He speeds up again. "And I'm going to tell Pepper I did it," he continues. "She loves it when I tongue fuck her, and the two of you will look at each other and think about it all night, and on the way home afterwards, she's going to fuck your brains out, and I'm going to watch."

Bruce shouts and digs his fingers into Tony's arms and comes so hard he has white spots in front of his eyes. Hulk pushes against his control, curious about what's going on.

Banner in danger?

No, Bruce replies. No, no. Everything's...everything's fine.

Hulk sinks back down, and Bruce takes great, gasping breaths. He leans his head against the shower wall and stares at the ceiling as Tony drizzles shower gel over his chest and starts to lather him up. "I..." is all Bruce can say.

"And that was just act one," Tony says.

Bruce manages to move his head and make eye contact. Tony's smirking at him, affection bright in his eyes as he lathers up Bruce's arms and drags him back under the spray. The hot water clears the last of the post-coital cobwebs from Bruce's head, and he nuzzles against Tony as Tony soaps up his back. "Jesus," he says. "You're gonna be the death of me."

"I'm gonna bring you back to life," Tony says. "Me and Pepper, we're big on the living thing, and we want you up at our level."

"How high is your level?"

"Oh, it's up there." Tony rotates them so Bruce is fully under the spray while Tony soaps himself up. "It'll take a little work to match us, but you can do it."

"You just..." Bruce shakes his head and runs his fingers through his hair, getting it slicked back from his forehead before moving so Tony can rinse off. "Are you going to doubt me at any point?" he asks.

"Not until you give me a reason to think you won't come through." Tony finishes rinsing off, flicks off the shower, and steps out onto the bathmat. He picks up a towel and scrubs it over his head before wrapping it around his waist, and then he turns and holds a towel open for Bruce.

"That easy?" Bruce asks. He steps in front of Tony and laughs when Tony throws the towel over his head, letting it sit there for a moment before starting to dry Bruce's hair.

"That easy," Tony says, pulling the towel clear of Bruce's face and starting to dry the rest of him. "And speaking of things that are easy," he says as he steps around Bruce and presses against his back.

"I resent that," Bruce says with a grin.

"Didn't say I was talking about you," Tony says and sinks to his knees. He kneads Bruce's ass with both hands, spreading his cheeks and letting them fall back together. He spreads them again and licks Bruce from the bottom to the top.

Bruce's knees damn near go out from under him. He slumps, resting his forearms on the counter as Tony licks him again. "God. That's--" He cuts off when Tony actually probes at his hole with his tongue. "You're--" Tony flutters his tongue, and Bruce groans and tries to arch closer, but Tony presses back in return, hands clenching harder against Bruce's ass so that Bruce's hips are digging against the counter. His tongue circles Bruce's hole, and then it presses inside him, and Bruce bites his lip and pushes back and tries to keep himself mostly upright as Tony works him over.

Tony pulls away after when Bruce whines in the back of his throat, biting lightly on Bruce's left ass cheek. "You are ridiculously responsive," he says before biting Bruce's right ass cheek. "I could do this to you all night."

Bruce can't articulate an answer. When he opens his mouth, he just moans. Tony chuckles against his ass.

"Do you want more?" Tony asks. "Want me to keep going?"

"I'm still standing," Bruce replies. He yelps when Tony opens him up and dives in without hesitation. Tongue flat against him for a moment before Tony sucks hard and then tongue fucks him fast. Bruce's knees actually buckle when Tony pulls back to tease again. Tony pushes him hard to keep him upright and just breathes over Bruce's hole for a moment.

"More?" Tony asks.

"I..." Bruce looks up and catches sight of himself in the mirror. His eyes are wide, face bright red from arousal, hair an absolute mess around his head. Tony kisses up his ass and spine, stops halfway up Bruce's back when he catches Bruce looking at himself.

"Goddamn, you are ridiculous," Tony says. "Perfect ass, amazing mouth. The second-hottest brain in the world."

"I assume you take top honors," Bruce says, smirking at Tony in the mirror.

Tony smirks in return, hand trailing down Bruce's back to his ass, until he lightly presses a fingertip against Bruce's entrance. Bruce drops his head and groans. "Only in the brains department. Your ass is the gold standard."

"How--" Bruce arches when Tony cups his dick. He's only half-hard, still recovering from his previous orgasm, but it still feels amazing. "How do I outrank Captain America?" he asks.

"Because I can play with yours," Tony says.

"Sir," JARVIS says before Bruce can come up with a coherent reply. "It is now seven o'clock. Ms. Potts requested I remind you so you will actually be prepared in time for the car's arrival at half-past eight."

"Thank you, JARVIS," Tony says. He caresses Bruce's dick and kisses his shoulder. "I can make this quick and dirty if you want."

Bruce reaches back and grips Tony's hip. "I think I'm good right now. That was..."

"Astounding? Relaxing? Mind-blowing?" Tony asks as he pulls away and bends over to take a drink of water from the faucet.

"Definitely relaxing," Bruce says. He trails his fingers up and down Tony's spine, and Tony arches into him like a cat. "Not quite astounding."

"And you're too good a scientist to let your mind get blown from a little anallinguis," Tony says with a grin.

"Sure," Bruce agrees, and he and Tony share a teasing smile.

"Come on," Tony says, wrapping an arm around Bruce's waist. "Let's see what you look like in a full tux."

*

On the drive over, Tony keeps his hand high on Bruce's thigh. Happy seems completely unconcerned about the fact that his boss is feeling up his latest employee. Happy and Tony discuss batting averages, and Bruce mentally prepares to be in a large ballroom full of people, most of them possibly drunk. "What's this for, anyway?" he asks when Tony and Happy have a lull in their conversation. "The gala, I mean."

"Dick-waving contest," Tony replies. "A bunch of incredibly rich assholes trying to out-asshole everyone else."

"I'm sure you'll manage, Mr. Stark," Happy says.

Tony grins. "Oh, don't I always?"

Bruce chuckles as Happy pulls up to the curb in front of the hotel. It's only as Tony's opening the door and stepping out in a small flurry of flashbulbs that Bruce realizes he has no idea how he's supposed to act. He's agreed to be with Tony and Pepper, but is the nature of their relationship something that's open knowledge? He has no ideas what the rules are.

"Easy," Tony murmurs as Bruce steps out of the car. "You're losing that just-fucked look."

"Shouldn't I be?" Bruce asks. "Do people know?"

"Rumors, conjecture, no direct questions. Pepper has a lot of fun with it, actually," Tony says as he places a hand at the small of Bruce's back and leads him to one side of the wide front stairs of the hotel. "She figures if they don't ask directly, she can be equally vague. It's sort of a game."

Pepper's just to the left of the stairs, tucked into a tiny, shadowed corner and typing away on her phone. She looks up and beams as they walk over, sliding her phone into her clutch. She's wearing a subtly shiny bronze gown. It's gathered over one hip, and the bodice is cut in a halter style that drapes lightly over the top of her breasts. "There you two are," she greets, leaning over to kiss Tony hello before she ties his tie. Bruce and Tony are both in tuxes. Bruce's is in standard black and white with a cummerbund. Tony is wearing a bronze waistcoat that matches Pepper's dress.

"You look amazing," Bruce says without thinking. Pepper beams at him and taps his chin so he tilts his head up, and she can tie his tie.

"So do you," she says. "You're looking a lot more relaxed than I was expecting." She slants a glance at Tony.

Tony smirks. "We got it on," he says. "It was awesome."

"I spend the whole day in the office, change in my office, meet you here to tie your ties, and you were having sex?"

"Only after six," Bruce says. He grins when she swats his arm.

Tony pulls Pepper close. "I rimmed him. It was glorious." His voice is just loud enough to carry to Bruce, who can't help but rock back on his heels. "And I will tell you all the glorious details when I'm eating you out in the third floor bathroom after we get Bruce settled in."

"Agreed," Pepper says. She presses her hand lightly against the arc reactor and gives Bruce and conspiratorial grin when Tony groans and drops his head on her shoulder. "Ready to schmooze?" she asks sweetly.

"If I must," Tony replies.

Pepper steps over to Bruce and tucks her hand into his elbow. "If you'll escort me in, Dr. Banner."

"That won't raise eyebrows?" Bruce asks.

"Pepper's CEO," Tony says, shaking out his cuffs and adjusting himself in his pants. "You're our shiny new employee. No one's gonna connect the dots the right way."

"Actually, I plan to walk by without talking to any of them," Pepper says as she tugs on Bruce's arm to get him moving. "By the time we leave tonight, everyone will know you'll the latest acquisition, and it'll shut up the gossips before they get a chance to misconstrue something I say."

"Oh," Bruce says. He's not used to playing business politics anymore. He spends a moment trying to shift himself into the headspace for it, but one thing keeps blocking him from getting there. "Third floor bathroom?" he asks Pepper as he takes her hand to help her up the stairs.

"It's an old favorite."

"Of course," Bruce says because there's really no other answer to that.

"Smile," Pepper says, pressing against his arm as they reach the top of the stairs and Tony pecks her on the cheek, pats Bruce on the back, and steps around the both of them to shakes hands with a man standing just inside the hotel's wide front doorways. "Mr. Lionel Tennyson," Pepper says. "He and Tony are currently jockeying for most ridiculous car collection."

"Shouldn't Leno be here for that discussion?"

Pepper chuckles as they step inside, steering Bruce from the foyer to a ballroom half-full of tables and chairs and dozens of people in more finery than Bruce has seen in his life. "Breathe," she instructs, and Bruce realizes he's sort of frozen in place.

"I wasn't good at these sorts of things before the Other Guy," Bruce says. "And I am years out of practice."

"About half the people here are researchers, and the other half are the people who employ them. Tony calls it the nyah-nyah gala."

"Nyah-nyah gala?"

"My scientist is better than your scientist. Nyah-nyah," Pepper explains, sounding exactly like a bratty child. Bruce laughs, and Pepper smiles at him as she leads him over to a small group of people and makes introductions.

Twenty minutes and two groups later, Bruce is feeling much more relaxed. Pepper is chatting with someone about the latest developments for the Stark Industries Clean Energy Initiative, and Bruce has been pulled into a conversation about cellular degeneration in lab experiments. Tony appears between them, sliding an arm around Pepper's waist and handing Bruce something clear and fizzy in a tumbler glass.

"Club soda and tonic," Tony says. "Just in case you're still feeling a little under the weather."

"Thanks," Bruce says, feeling like everyone in the room can see that the three of them are obviously connected.

"Pep," Tony says. "A word?" He glances at Bruce, face guileless. "If you're comfortable with that, Bruce. I know you don't know a lot of people here."

"I'm fine," he says.

"You're sure?" Pepper asks. Her expression is polite. Behind her, Tony licks the corner of his mouth and gives Bruce a hot, promising look. Bruce has to take a drink of his soda and tonic to compose himself before he answers. "I'm fine," he says. "You two take care of business."

"Back in a bit," Tony says, and his hand slips around Pepper's hip, fingers sliding against the fabric of her dress as they walk away.

It takes Bruce nearly a minute to get his brain working well enough that he can actually respond to the introduction of another scientist into the group. All he can see for that minute is Tony and Pepper kissing, pressed together and grabbing at each other as Tony presses Pepper against the bathroom sink--he doesn't know what the sink looks like, but he fills one in--and then drops to his knees, pushing up her dress and pressing his face--

"Dr. Banner?" the scientist he's been speaking with, Dr. Jiang, asks, "Are you with us?"

"Yes. Sorry." Bruce clears his throat and takes a sip of his drink and clears his throat again. "I just remembered something I need to do tonight."

He and Dr. Jiang fall back into their conversation. She's well-versed in cellular biology and also has some theories on gamma radiation, which she approaches with a small, pinched smile and a quiet, "If it wouldn't be uncomfortable for you."

"No," Bruce says. "It's fine. Although, I'm still getting used to the topic coming up without a tank appearing out of thin air."

Dr. Jiang laughs lightly. "I hope that means you're settling into New York comfortably."

"I am," Bruce replies. "It's been a comfortable transition. What were you wanting to discuss about my gamma research?"

They fall back into conversation, other scientists sidling over to join in as they realize Dr. Jiang is talking with the Dr. Banner. Bruce is fully relaxed when Tony reappears, slinging an arm around his shoulders and greeting everyone in the group by name.

"Has he told you about his latest?" Tony asks. "He's working on infection rates in Calcutta."

"I wouldn't say 'working' just yet," Bruce replies, embarrassed at the way everyone in the group looks impressed. "We're still compiling data. I think it'll be awhile until we can actually make headway into infection rates."

"Uh-uh," Tony says, wagging his finger at Bruce's nose, "No being a downer. It's good work, even now."

Bruce looks around the group. They're all smiling knowingly, a few even looking at Tony with indulgence. "Is he always like this?" Bruce asks, and everyone in the group chuckles, a few people nodding.

"This is a very minor example," Dr. Jiang says. "A few of us have a chart."

"Do you?" Tony asks, leaning forward. The whole side of his body presses against Bruce. "Can I see?"

"Sorry, Mr. Stark, it's restricted information."

"Well, I know when I'm not wanted." Tony announces. "Anyone needs me, I'll be talking to the cool people."

"You're in a room full of scientists and CEOs," Bruce replies. "I don't think there's a cool person here."

The group laughs again, saying goodbye as Tony sidles away and into another group. Dr. Jiang tucks her hand into Bruce's elbow and pulls him in the opposite direction, introducing him around until he finds himself, hours later, in the middle of a conversation between himself, two French physicists specializing in nuclear technology, and a translator explaining that they would like Bruce to come visit them in France so they can study his transformation into the Hulk because they believe it will help them build a nuclear fission device.

"Um, yeah," Bruce says, and winces when the translator relays it and the scientists look thrilled. "I mean no," he says. "I meant no. I was trying to phrase it better, but I...no."

The translator relays this, and both scientists explode into pleas and theories. At least, that's what Bruce assumes they are, before the translator can even begin to sort it out, Pepper shows up at Bruce's elbow, says something very polite in French, and pulls Bruce away. "I told them you had an early meeting," she says.

"Thank you," Bruce says. "They want to watch me change for nuclear fission." He shudders without meaning to, and Pepper runs a hand across his shoulders.

"Would it be so bad?"

"The Other Guy and I are on good terms now, but I don't want to put anyone at risk."

"Come on," Pepper says, leading him towards the door of the ballroom. "Let's go unwind."

Tony's waiting for them by the curb, leaning against a full stretch limo. He grins when Bruce raises his eyebrows. "Ever been in one?" he asks.

"No," Bruce says. Tony waves him in, and Bruce bends down to get in. Tony gooses him, and Bruce nearly slams his head on the doorframe. "Hey!" he shouts. Tony shoves him in the middle of his back, and Bruce nearly falls flat on his face as he stumbles fully into the backseat.

"Tony," Pepper admonishes as she gets in after Bruce, snuggling up close to him as Tony gets in and shuts the door.

"His ass looks ridiculous in those pants," Tony says.

Bruce glances towards the front of the limo, expecting Happy to be raising an eyebrow at the conversation. Instead, there's a dark partition running from the top of the facing seat in front of them to the ceiling.

"He actually does have half an ounce of tact," Pepper says. "On his very good days."
"Hey, now," Tony says. He presses a button on the door and says, "Just drive around awhile." There's no response from the driver, but the car slowly moves forward, and soon, they're in traffic, other cars on either side of the tinted windows as they move.

Pepper stands up and moves across the floor space to the other seat. She sits and bends over to undo her shoes. The drapery on the front of her dress spills open, and the tops of her breasts are exposed. She looks at Bruce, a small, teasing smile on her face. "Oops," she says.

Bruce stares at the curve of her smile and the curve of her breasts. She rucks up her skirt when she kicks off her shoes. She leans back against the seat, reaching behind her neck to undo the halter neckline so the straps fall down, pulling at the top of her dress but not causing it to fully fall down. Bruce looks at Tony. Tony is watching him, eyes bright.

"I promised Pepper limo sex," Tony says. "From you. You know, like we talked about."

"Like we talked about," Bruce repeats. He reaches down and curls his hand over Tony's thigh, squeezing lightly before standing and walking to Pepper, sitting next to her and touching her bare knee. "Well, we talked about it," he says.

"We did," Pepper agrees, and she smiles when Bruce leans in to kiss her.

He slides his hand up her skirt as she deepens the kiss, trails his fingers up and down her inner thigh as he cups the back of her neck, and then he slides his hand against her outer lips, and she is wet. Bruce groans into her mouth, sliding his hand down so she can press against his palm. She's not just wet but warm as well, heat radiating from her sex as Bruce slides his hand back up so he can rub her clit and slide two fingers inside her.

"Oh!" Pepper says, jumping a little. Bruce thinks he's hurt her, and he starts to pull away, but she clenches around his fingers, shoves at his shoulders, and then straddles him, pressing against his hand as she stretches an arm behind her.

"Oh, do you need me?" Tony asks, all amusement and pleasure.

"Not for very long," Pepper says. She presses her breasts against Bruce's face when he leans forward to kiss them. When she pulls away, her dress has slipped down another inch. One of her nipples is resting just above the fabric.

"God, you are amazing," Bruce breathes, pushing his fingers deeper into her and tugging her dress down further with his teeth.

"You don't even know," Pepper tells him. She lifts herself off his fingers, and flashes the condom she got from Tony. Bruce undoes his pants and pushes them down below his knees. Pepper tears the condom out of its packet and rolls it down on him.

"Oh, god," Bruce says, his entire body shuddering at the feel of her hands on his dick.

Pepper jerks him off for a few strokes, then gathers her skirt in one hand, lines herself up, and slides down in a move so absolutely perfect all Bruce can do is groan and reach for her hips. She catches his right hand before he can touch her. "Clean your hand, please," she says.

Bruce slides his fingers into his mouth and sucks them clean. He hears Tony say something but can't quite hear him over the sound of his own ragged breathing. He pulls his hand out of his mouth, wipes his fingers on the limo seat, and reaches for Pepper's hip again. She lets him, smiling at him as she slowly rocks her hips.

"Lift her skirt," Tony says.

"He's so demanding," Pepper murmurs against Bruce's mouth before she kisses him deep.

Bruce gathers Pepper's skirt in both hands as he kisses back, twisting the fabric until Pepper's lower half is fully in view and he can grip her hips again. He pushes his hips up as he directs hers down, and she pulls out of the kiss, gasping in pleasure and pulling his hair a little. He pushes up again, and Pepper lets her weight fall. They move in tandem, Pepper contracting around Bruce's dick every few strokes. He's getting close, and he wants to see her laid out. "Hold on," he says.

Pepper grabs his shoulders and yelps in surprise when Bruce levers them from the seat to the floor, careful of Pepper's back and head as he lays her down. "Are you going to fuck me through the floor, Dr. Banner?" she asks, practically purring when he presses hard into her and thumbs her nipple.

"I just might, Ms. Potts," Bruce replies, and he rubs her clit as he speeds his stroke. Pepper throws back her head and moans, open-mouthed. Her lipstick is smeared on one side, and the imperfection makes Bruce thrust harder.

"Too much?" Bruce asks.

"Oh, god no," Pepper says. She wraps her legs around Bruce's waist and pushes his hand away from her clit, pressing two fingers against it as Bruce keeps moving.

Bruce is sweating under his tux, on his forehead. He can feel dampness at his temples, and he's so close. He slides nearly all the way out, then presses back in, Pepper rocking her hips to meet him. "You're amazing," Bruce says, dropping his head to her shoulder as he picks up speed again. He comes with a groan, kissing along her shoulder and having trouble catching his breath as Pepper continues to rock against him and reach her own orgasm.

"Well," Pepper pants out after a few seconds. She lifts her hand from her clit and wipes it on her bare shoulder as Bruce shifts off of her and removes the condom.

"God. Damn." Tony says.

Bruce looks up at him. Tony's still in his seat, legs spread wide. He has one hand cupped loosely over his groin, and he looks like he's seen something amazing. "You okay?" Bruce asks.

"You do not fuck me with that kind of abandon," Tony says. "I think I'm jealous."

"You are not," Pepper says. "You probably get a much sweeter version for yourself."

"Did I do something wrong?" Bruce asks.

"Absolutely not," Pepper says.

"Double absolutely not," Tony adds. "It was magnificent."

"Incredible," Pepper assures Bruce as she stretches her arms above her head. Her hand brushes Tony's leg, and he reaches down and kisses her knuckles.

"I just didn't know you had that in you," Tony says.

Bruce wipes himself off with napkins from the wet bar and does up his pants. "I'm used to sex with women," Bruce says. "You're--"

"Your first!" Tony declares with much glee.

"My first serious attempt, yes," Bruce corrects. Pepper chuckles as she reaches around Bruce for her own napkins. He kisses her neck and behind her ear, and she runs her fingers through his hair. He presses his face against her neck before pulling away and going to slump next to Tony, his limbs like lead. "So I'm a bit more cautious."

"I like it, for the record. It's adorable." Tony curls his hand around Bruce's thigh and presses a kiss to his mouth. Pepper drops onto the seat on Bruce's other side, and he reaches behind him to touch her leg.

"Hello," she says and gives his fingers a squeeze.

Bruce pulls away from Tony's kiss and drops his head on the back of the seat. "I am exhausted," he says.

"Is that why you confused the French physicists?" Pepper asks.

"French physicists?" Tony asks.

Bruce waves a hand tiredly, giving Pepper permission to tell the story as he dozes off for a few minutes. When he comes awake again, Tony and Pepper are having a quiet conversation over him, Tony's hand still warm on his leg, and Pepper warm against the entire side of his body.

"I want to tell him," Tony says.

"No," Pepper replies.

"But it's true."

"I know it's true, but that doesn't make it a good idea."

"You think I'll spook him?"

"Absolutely yes."

"You want to tell him, too."

"That is not the point."

Bruce dozes off again, trying to figure out exactly how he feels that he's pretty sure they're discussing telling him they love him.

*

Bruce wakes up in his room the next morning and doesn't quite remember how he got there. He has a fuzzy recollection of Tony pulling him out of the limo and keeping up a steady stream of conversation to get him moving and keep him helpful as Tony and Pepper stripped him down and put him to bed. They'd kissed him goodnight and left him to his own space. He wondered if he should have invited them to stay. There are so many rules he still doesn't know.

"Would you care for coffee this morning, Sir?" JARVIS asks as Bruce starts the shower.

"I'll get it in the main kitchen," Bruce replies.

"Very good, Sir."

He showers and brushes his teeth and gets dressed, then heads downstairs to the main kitchen. Pepper is pouring two cups of coffee, and Tony is sitting at the eat-in table playing with some combination of floating molecules, eggs and bacon going cold in front of him. "Morning, Sunshine," Tony greets with a grin.

"Morning," Bruce replies. He crosses to the cupboards and pulls down a mug. Pepper kisses him on the cheek as he pours his own coffee, and he smiles at her as he crosses to sit at the table. "Last night was fun," he says.

"Which parts?" Tony asks with a leer.

"All of them. I haven't been able to talk science with that many people in a while." Bruce tilts his head when Tony looks at him, eyes sharp. "What?" he asks, when Tony doesn't say anything.

"Did you want to talk to people?" Tony asks. "Should I have set you up in R&D over at the main campus?"

"...no," Bruce says. "I meant it was nice to talk to everyone. I like our working arrangement."

"Good," Tony says. He shovels a bite of egg into his mouth. Bruce thinks maybe he's nervous.

Bruce looks at Pepper. She seems unconcerned. "Um..." Bruce says, trying to pull his thoughts together. "Did I..." He shakes his head when the words won't come, takes a drink of his coffee. "Was I supposed to ask you to stay last night?" he asks. "When you put me to bed, I mean."

"No," Pepper says. "But we'd have stayed if you wanted."

Bruce looks down into his coffee mug. Tony takes a noisy bite of his bacon. Pepper is flicking through information on a tablet. It feels comfortable. It feels nice. "What are the rules?" Bruce asks. "Are there rules? I feel..."

"What rules do you want?" Tony asks. "Because I'd like to request a relaxation of garage rules so I can distract you with sex sometimes."

"Tony," Pepper says.

"Do you need a date night?" Tony asks. "You and me and Pep at the movies or going to a carnival? Would that help?"

Bruce thinks about it. Tony eats another piece of bacon, and Pepper moves her tablet to one side, giving him her full attention. "You want me here," Bruce says. "I know that. And I know I'm welcome as long as I want, but I..." He breathes in and out, feels his heart speed up a little. "I woke up a little in the limo," he says. "I heard you two talking about telling me something." Pepper is all composure, but Tony has the worst poker face Bruce has ever seen. He fidgets, and one of his floating molecules goes drifting off in the wrong direction. Bruce reaches up and taps it back in Tony's direction. "And I was wondering if you'd tell me what it was you were talking about," Bruce continues, "because I have a hypothesis, but I'm not sure it's correct."

Tony and Pepper look at one another. Pepper gives a minute shake of her head. Tony works his jaw back and forth, leans over, kisses Bruce on the mouth, and says, "We're in love with you."

"You barely know me," Bruce says.

"You've got a good heart. You're smart. You're honest. You're kind," Pepper ticks off.

"But that's not..." Bruce shakes his head. "I'm not saying..." He's not sure what he's not saying. Tony is watching him with pure intensity. Pepper is being a bit more subtle but still obviously attuned to every twitch Bruce feels under his skin. "It took me a year to say it to Betty," he finally says. "It didn't take me that long to feel it, but it took me a year to say it."

"How long did it take you to feel it?" Tony asks.

"A few months," Bruce replies.

"We're coming up on a month and a half," Tony says. "And I'm betting we all see each other a lot more often than you were seeing Betty then."

"Yeah, but..." Bruce closes his eyes and clenches his hands around his mug. He thinks about them, the way Tony and Pepper work so well together, the way they're so comfortable and easy to be around. Tony's constant muttering when he's working, his affection for his robots, the way his head snaps up to watch the newsfeed if there's even the barest mention of trouble somewhere. Pepper's never-ending list of tasks, the way she knows with a look how he's feeling, the way she pushes them both to take care of themselves just a smidge. Tony's determination to believe in him from the start, and Pepper's quiet acceptance that he'd be staying. "I don't know that I'm ready for this," Bruce says, opening his eyes and catching the fleeting devastation on Tony's face.

"Well--" Tony starts.

"But do you want it?" Pepper asks. There's steel under her voice, clearly a warning to Tony to be quiet.

"Yes," Bruce says. "But I don't know...We're...I'm..." He shakes his head and thumps his coffee mug on the table. Hulk stirs under his skin.

Banner scared?

Yes, Bruce thinks. Banner is sort of terrified. He doesn't share that with Hulk. Instead, he watches his hand flex on his coffee mug. "I need to think," he says.

"You deserve to be loved," Tony says. His voice is just louder than a whisper. "Even if you don't think so, you do."

Bruce can't meet his eyes. He stands up from the table and walks towards the stairs, pausing to figure out where he's going. Part of him wants to go back to his suite. He could meditate there, clear his head. He heads downstairs instead, takes the elevator to Hulk's room and stands in the center of it, taking it all in.

Hulk smash? Bruce offers.

Hulk smash, Hulk agrees.

Bruce sheds his clothes, save his Hulk-Pants, and lets Hulk out.

*

Smashing is always fun. Hulk likes to smash. He throws rocks and stomps on trees. His tires are all stacked on a big pole with a round top. He can't pull the tires over it. He doesn't want to smash the pole. The tires bounce, and he likes the bouncing. He doesn't want to break the tires.

It's a puzzle, Banner tells him. There's a way to get the tires without breaking them, but you have to think it through.

Like Sally, Hulk says.

Who's Sally?

Sally has two brothers. Sally and her brothers each have a pet. Sally's pet is not a fish.

Banner doesn't answer. He feels small and confused in the back of Hulk's mind. Hulk squeezes the round top again, and the shape changes a second time, but he still can't get the tires off. He pushes against the pole. It bends but does not snap. There's something poking out of the end of the pole. Hulk bends the pole again until it almost touches the ground. He crouches down to look at the bottom of the pole and pulls at the piece that's sticking out. The piece slides out, and the pole falls over completely, one of the tires rolling off from the bottom.

Hulk has tires. Hulk want tires. Hulk get tires, Hulk tells Banner.

Good job, Banner replies.

Hulk like puzzle. Hulk picks up a tire and flings it across the room, jumping up and down when it bounces off the wall. Sally's pet was a rabbit. He sends another tire rolling and watches it circle the room. He sits on the ground and picks up bits from one of the boulders he threw. He feels like smashing, but he doesn't feel like smashing. There's something more important than smashing going on. Banner scared?

Banner doesn't answer right away. Hulk starts arranging pebbles in a pattern.

What are you making? Banner asks.

Necklace, Hulk replies. Read book on beading.

I've don't remember reading a book about beading, Banner tells him. He sounds confused.

This book property of Betty Ross, Hulk says.

Oh. I must have read it when I was bored or something.

Hulk arranges a few more pebbles, finding bigger ones in the dust to add to his pattern. Banner scared? he asks again.

Banner at a loss, Banner tells him. Hulk knows what that means. When he and Banner first started talking, Banner was at a loss a lot. Banner got told something he wasn't expecting.

Bad something?

No, it was good.

Hulk sweeps aside all the pebbles and starts to make a new pattern. Big pebble, small pebble, small pebble, big pebble. Why Banner at a loss? Good things don't make Banner at a loss.

It's complicated, Bruce tells him. There's a lot going on. I...Shiny Man and Red Lady love me, but I don't know how I feel about it.

Hulk smiles at his pattern and stands up, stepping over it to walk to the other end of the room and break a boulder apart with his hands, piece by piece. Love not always good. St. John love Jane, but Jane not love St. John the same way. That love made Jane sad.

You read Jane Eyre?

Felt sad for Bertha. Mr. Rochester mean to Bertha.

Banner doesn't say anything. Hulk finishes breaking the boulder and gathers the rocks in his arms, moving them to a corner.

Rocks for Hulk, Hulk tells Banner. Tell Red Lady these are Hulk rocks.

I'll let her know, Bruce promises. Are you making something?

Hulk going to build house.

Why?

Hulk live here now. Hulk want room like Banner room.

You're going to need something to hold those rocks together.

Banner tell Shiny Man get Hulk mud.

Okay, Banner agrees.

Hulk breaks another boulder into pieces and then another. Banner doesn't say anything else. Hulk has begun to sort all the rocks by size when he hears a beep. He turns and watches the door to his room open. Shiny Man walks in, but he's not wearing his suit. He's wearing regular clothes. He stops just inside the doorway. "Is it okay if I'm in here?" Shiny Man asks.

Hulk grunts assent, and Shiny Man comes further into the room. Hulk points to a corner where there are a few logs stacked, and Shiny Man walks over and sits down. "I like it here," Shiny Man says. "You like it here?"

Hulk nods as he keeps sorting his rocks.

"Do you mind if I talk while you work?"

Hulk shakes his head. "Nice," he says.

"Well, I'm glad someone appreciates me." Shiny Man leans back against the logs and looks around the room. "Do you like the boulders? Bruce didn't mention if you like the boulders or not."

"Like boulders," Hulk says. "Like logs. Need mud."

"Mud?" Shiny Man watches Hulk sort rocks. "You're building something?"

"Hut for Hulk."

"I could order something in if you want. You tell me what you like, and I can set it up in here for you."

"No, Hulk build hut," Hulk says.

"All right," Shiny Man replies. "If that's how you wanna work it, that's how we'll work it. It's your space."

My space, Hulk thinks. He likes the way it sounds. He hears another beep and turns around as the door opens again. Red Lady stands just on the other side. She's looking at Shiny Man like she's mad.

"Tony," she says. She smiles at Hulk. She looks tired. "May I come in?" she asks.

Hulk nods, and Red Lady steps inside. She walks over to him and looks him over. "Is Tony bothering you?"

"No," Hulk says. "Hulk building."

"We need to get him mud, Pep. He's requested mud."

"Do you have a specific mud in mind?" Pepper asks.

Hulk shakes his head.

"I'll find something," Pepper says. "Maybe there's a sampler."

Sampler? Hulk asks Banner.

It's a collection of the same thing so you can pick your favorite. Banner sounds uncomfortable.

Banner scared of Red Lady?

No. Just...it's complicated.

Hulk watches Red Lady sit next to Shiny Man. They're having a conversation very quietly, and he turns away because he doesn't want to be rude. They keep talking quietly as Hulk finishes sorting his rocks, and then Shiny Man says loudly enough for Hulk to hear, "I don't care if Bruce might be uncomfortable. Bruce isn't here right now, and Hulk says we can be here, so I'm fucking staying."

"Tony--"
"Don't 'Tony' me." Shiny Man looks at Hulk. "If you want us to leave, you just say so, okay? We'll leave if you want."
Hulk grunts in agreement. He walks over and sits down near them, looking between them as they look mad at each other. "Banner in trouble?" Hulk asks.

"It's not--" Red Lady starts to say.

"Banner's being a coward," Shiny Man interrupts. "He's down here letting you run around because he doesn't want to talk about important things."

Banner?

That's not exactly true, Banner says.

"Not exactly true," Hulk tells Shiny Man.

Shiny Man stands up, walks over to Hulk, and climbs up his leg so they're pretty close to face-to-face. "You tell Banner, he doesn't get to use you to talk through his feelings, all right? That's disrespectful to you, and he should know better."

"Mad at Banner?"

"Frustrated," Shiny Man says. "It's different."

Hulk thinks about that as Shiny Man sits on his leg. "Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy," Hulk says.

"Huh?" Shiny Man asks.

"Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy," Hulk repeats.

Red Lady laughs. Hulk's heard her laugh like that when Banner's in charge. He knows it's not a mean laugh. "From Pride and Prejudice?" she asks Hulk. He nods. "You've read it?"

"Hulk reading lots of books," Hulk says.

"How are you reading books?" Shiny Man asks. "Do you have books down here?"

"Hulk can read all the books Banner reads," Hulk explains. "All the books are in Banner's head."

"And you guys share the space," Shiny Man says. Hulk nods.

"And you've read Pride and Prejudice," Red Lady says.

"Banner is Mr. Darcy," Hulk says. "Yes?"

"In a way," Red Lady says. She walks down to Hulk and Shiny Man and sits on Hulk's other leg. "Mr. Darcy's problem was that he caused Elizabeth frustration because he was too honest about how his status should affect the fact that he loves her."

"Mr. Darcy was an awkward bastard who got sidelined by being put up against someone as smart and stubborn as he was," Shiny Man says. "Don't give me this societal classes crap, Pep."

"It's not 'crap,' Tony. All of Austen's works were satirical on at least some level. The entire character of Mrs. Bennet is a commentary on how denying women an education makes them silly and ill-prepared to handle actual conflict and points of emotional concern."

"Sometimes a dick is just a dick," Shiny Man replies.

Hulk grunts to get their attention. "Darcy love Elizabeth," he says. "But Darcy scared of Elizabeth."

"Scared?" Red Lady asks.

"Elizabeth everything Darcy wants but thinks he can't have," Hulk says.

Shiny Man and Red Lady look at each other. Banner stirs in the back of Hulk's mind. I think I need to talk to them, he says to Hulk.

"Banner willing to talk," Hulk tells them.

"Nope," Shiny Man says.

"Tony," Red Lady says.

"He ran and hid, Pep, and he let the big guy come out so he could do it." Shiny Man points at Hulk. "You stay out as long as you want, okay? Banner doesn't get to use you like this." Shiny Man holds up his fist. "Bros before hos."

Bros before hos? Hulk asks Banner.

I am not explaining that, Banner tells him. He sounds like he's mad and amused at the same time.

Hulk holds up his fist, and Tony taps it. “Good man,” Tony says. “You keep working on your hut. Give us a couple of days to get the mud in, all right?”

Hulk nods and waves goodbye when Shiny Man and Red Lady leave.

I should come out, Banner says.

No, Hulk replies. Hulk not done yet.

*

It’s late into the evening before Hulk finally tires out and lets Bruce back in control. Bruce stares at the ceiling of the Hulk room for a few minutes before pushing himself to his feet and walking to the elevator to go up to the kitchen. Pepper and Tony, unsurprisingly, are still awake, sitting at the kitchen table and talking to one another. They both look up when Bruce enters. Tony grins like he’s about to tell a joke; Pepper just looks serious.

“And what have we learned?” Tony asks. His grin slips from joking to self-satisfied.

“I’m guessing the moral of the story is that I shouldn’t run scared,” Brue says, dry, as he sits at the table. Tony pushes his own mug towards Bruce, and Bruce takes a sip. It’s tea, extra-strong and extra-sweet. He takes another sip.

“This doesn’t work if we don’t communicate,” Pepper says. “Tony and I have realized, while you’ve been downstairs, that we didn’t make certain you understood how everything worked and that we should have followed up to make sure you were feeling comfortable.”

“Epically hot sex is a massive distraction,” Tony pipes up.

“So,” Pepper continues, giving Tony a ‘be quiet’ look, “we apologize for not making sure you were okay.”

“But only if you apologize for running off like that. Which is not fair because I’m the emotionally stunted one in this relationship, and I don’t like anyone trying to outdo me,” Tony adds.

Pepper looks like she’s forcing down a smile, but she doesn’t drop Bruce’s gaze. Bruce looks into his tea, then at Tony—who is also staring him down—and then back into his tea. “I didn’t…” Bruce tries to organize his thoughts. Even all the time in the Hulk-Space in his head hasn’t prepared him for this as much as he’d hoped it would. “Hulk was pretty pissed at me,” he says. “For making you both upset and for possibly losing him friends, and I had to explain that you wouldn’t just abandon us because we did one stupid thing, but he was…I haven’t treated him very well,” he finishes off. “And I think, maybe, I haven’t treated myself very well, either.”

“You mean running scared all these years and keeping low and not allowing yourself any happiness?” Tony asks. “Nah, that all sounds totally normal.”

Bruce expects Pepper to jump to his defense, but she just raises an eyebrow at him that clearly says she’s on Tony’s sarcastic side for this. “And not allowing myself to maintain relationships,” Bruce says. “I’m out of practice with a lot of things, and you two offered me acceptance on a lot of levels, and I thought I’d accepted it, but…” He runs a hand over his hair and neck, rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms and then wraps his hands back around the mug.

“But?” Pepper prompts when Bruce stays quiet.

“I thought it was conditional,” Bruce says, and he hates the way Tony’s face falls for an instant before he schools it into blandness. “Not purposefully, but I…Everything I’ve ever had has been taken from me somehow, you see? Loving parents taken from me by my father being abusive. My career taken from me when I got irradiated. Betty taken from me when I…when her father…when…” Bruce shakes his head. “And then…”

“And then?” Tony prompts when Bruce goes quiet again.

“And then you,” Bruce says, looking at Tony, reaching out and gripping his forearm. “You just…accepting me right off the bat like I hadn’t leveled half of Harlem or killed—”

“Saved,” Tony corrects, pulling back his arm so he can clench Bruce’s hand. “You saved so many people from the spiny dude. You saved so many people when you beat up the aliens a couple of months ago. You saved so many people when you worked in India. You—”

“They were acts of contrition,” Bruce interrupts. “Me trying to make up for the Other Guy, because the Other Guy…” He squeezes his eyes shut and reaches down for Hulk.

Hulk tired, Hulk tells him. Banner leave Hulk alone.

I’m sorry, buddy, Bruce replies. I’m so sorry.

“Bruce?” Pepper asks.

He opens his eyes and reaches for her. She takes his hand in both of hers, squeezing when she realizes it’s shaking. “You were supposed to run scared,” he says. “Both of you. You were supposed to give me a chance, and then the Other Guy would send you running away, and I was…I was waiting for it, and trying not to think about it but still waiting for it, but today, when you said…and then you came down there and talked to him, and I…”

“I made a giant metal suit to go beat bad guys,” Tony said. “And Pep’s been putting up with me for years without getting laid—”

“Because I would not let you,” Pepper interjects.

“--what in shit made you think we’d go running?” Tony continues as though she hasn’t interrupted.

“Because that’s how it happens,” Bruce says. “That’s how it works.”

“Like hell it does,” Tony says. He squeezes Bruce’s hand. “We don’t do that here. Me and Pep, we’re in it until you tell us we’re not, okay? And if by some chance, we decide we don’t want you around anymore, it won’t be because of the Other Guy, okay? He’s just you all ramped up on rage juice. It’s not a factor.”

“Maybe it’s—”

“Not. A. Factor.” Pepper interrupts.

Bruce can’t say anything for a moment. He’s too choked up. He swallows hard and closes his eyes and breathes in deep to center himself. “Day one,” he murmurs.

“Day one?” Tony asks.

“I’m…I always…” Bruce shakes his head and opens his eyes. “Day one was always the restart after an incident…after the Other Guy got out and wrecked something. It was the restart. This is…” Bruce thinks for a moment, wondering how to phrase it. “Day one where I take you at your word,” he says. “Day one where I trust myself to trust you.”

“Day one,” Pepper agrees, beaming.

“Day one,” Tony repeats.

“Day one,” Bruce says again. “I haven’t looked forward to a day one in a long time.”