Later, when Bruce has a moment to stop and think, he’ll wonder whether everything is his fault. It’s irrational, but Bruce’s life to date has been a series of unfortunate events, and just as things are going really well, and he starts to relax, things go pear-shaped again.
When it happens, Bruce is walking along a Manhattan sidewalk, Pepper’s arm through his, and Tony walking backward in front of them, telling some outrageous tale from his days as a student at MIT. Tony doesn’t bother looking where he’s going, trusting that people will clear the way for him—and they do.
Pepper’s laughing and leaning into Bruce, who’s full and maybe just a little tipsy from the wine Tony kept pouring into his glass. He’s wearing a suit that had probably cost more than he made in the last five years combined, and he’s just eaten dinner at a place with a months’ long waiting list and excellent food.
Tony is egged on by Pepper’s laughter and Bruce’s rusty chuckles, and his story seems to grow. “No, seriously,” Tony says. “After we reassembled the car in Porter’s office, I programmed it to talk to him. Every time he tried to do anything about it, it would scream in pain and tell him to get off.”
Bruce laughs, mostly at Tony’s delivery and Pepper’s infectious giggles. He’d taught long enough to feel a little bit of sympathy for Professor Porter, if not for the car in his office, then for having to deal with a teenage genius like Tony.
Then again, from what Tony had said, Porter had been something of an ass.
Bruce sees the change come over Tony’s face, the humor bleeding out of his expression, and he stops his backwards motion and pushes between them. Pepper lets out a little scream of surprise and would have fallen if Bruce hadn’t grabbed her. She clings to him, but Bruce is already looking around for the threat.
The thing about Tony is that he’s not nearly as selfish as he pretends to be. He’s a hedonist, sure, and he’s often distracted by whatever project has his attention at the time, but he’s also obscenely generous with his friends, and incredibly loyal.
And no matter what Steve had said, when it counts, Tony will lay down on the wire. He’d proved that in the battle against the Chitauri and Loki, and he’d looked after Bruce while Bruce had been—small.
Tony wouldn’t have shoved Pepper if there hadn’t been a threat, and Bruce hopes like hell that the Other Guy isn’t necessary. The streets are crowded, and there’s no telling who or what the Hulk will smash when he comes out.
Bruce scans the crowd and catches sight of a man in a three-piece suit with long dark hair, and he pushes Pepper behind him, keeping a tight rein on his anger. He can’t risk letting loose, not right now, not with so many people around.
“Bruce, what—” Pepper begins.
“Loki,” Bruce hisses, and he sees Loki’s smirk, and a bright light hits Tony square in the chest.
Tony goes down immediately, and Bruce steps forward, throwing his body over Tony’s, hearing Loki’s laughter, watching as Loki disappears into thin air.
“Bruce!” Pepper calls.
“Call for a car, and then call SHIELD,” Bruce orders, feeling the calm settle over him that he’s cultivated over the years. He’s been in the midst of disasters, staunching bleeding wounds and binding severed limbs, and as long as he’s not in any immediate danger, he can keep his cool.
Bruce glances down at Tony, and then curses creatively.
There’s a squeal of tires, and Happy pulls up at the curb. Bruce gathers Tony up into his arms and climbs into the backseat before Pepper can ask any questions.
She climbs in after him, saying, “Yes, Phil. We’re going back to Stark Tower. You can meet us there.” She hangs up and meets Bruce’s eyes. “He did the same thing to Tony as he did to you.”
“I think so, yes,” Bruce says. “I need to check his arc reactor.”
He’d made certain Tony still had a pulse immediately, but now he pushes the suit jacket aside and pulls up the overlarge shirt. Tony’s chest is smooth, his ribs and sternum clearly visible under thin, pale skin. Bruce settles Tony across his lap, unwilling to let him go.
“No arc reactor?” Pepper asks.
Bruce shakes his head. “I’m not surprised.”
“Why? You were still—well, you,” Pepper asks.
Bruce grimaces ruefully. “The best we could figure, Loki’s magic is an illusion in a sense. Loki can make us appear as our younger selves, but he can’t change our basic cellular structure. The arc reactor is an addition; the Other Guy is a part of me on a level Loki can’t change,” Bruce explains.
Pepper looks at the form of the sleeping Tony, who looks impossibly young, although Bruce can see the shadow of the man he’s to become in the boy’s smooth face. Tony’s long lashes flutter against his cheeks, and his dark hair falls across his forehead. Bruce brushes Tony’s hair back from his face.
“He looks so young,” Pepper says faintly.
Bruce glances up. “Are you all right? You weren’t hurt, were you?”
“No,” Pepper says quickly. “I think I twisted my ankle a little, but it’s nothing serious.”
“I can look at it,” Bruce offers.
Pepper shakes her head. “Look after Tony right now. How long do you think he’ll be out?”
Bruce shakes his head. “I don’t know. Loki got to me while I was the Other Guy, and there’s not much that can take him down. But I slept for about twelve hours straight when it wore off.”
“What the hell was Tony thinking?” Pepper bursts out. “He wasn’t even wearing his suit!”
“He was protecting us,” Bruce replies quietly.
She rubs her eyes. “I know. I know. I just—”
“Hate that he put himself in danger?” Bruce suggests, feeling about the same way. “I know. It sucks loving a superhero, doesn’t it?”
Pepper smiles ruefully. “You could say that.” Her eyes stray to Tony again. “It’s just strange. We were supposed to—” She stops and flushes. “Never mind.”
Bruce can guess. He’d had a beautiful girlfriend once. “I’m sure it’s difficult.”
“He’s a child,” Pepper says quietly. “I’m sorry. You already know that.”
Bruce shrugs. “He’s Tony. It’s probably easier for me.”
Pepper gives him a real smile. “You’re a good friend. Thank you.” She sighs. “We’re going to have to keep this out of the press, and I’m going to have to run the company without letting on what happened. I’ll find a story, but—”
“I’ll look after him,” Bruce promises. “Don’t worry about Tony.”
Pepper smiles. “I’ll worry about both of you. How’s that?”
Bruce smiles. “It’s been a long time since anyone worried about me.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s been as long as you think,” Pepper replies, her expression fond.
He flushes and glances down at Tony’s small, sleeping figure. He looks about six or seven, although Bruce can’t be certain. He has little experience with children. Then again, Tony had very little experience when Loki had hit Bruce with his spell, and he’d managed. Bruce could do no less.
“He’s a little bigger than I was, don’t you think?” he asks, desperate to change the subject.
“A little,” Pepper agrees. “But I kept all those clothes, and some of them will probably fit.”
Bruce looks up, startled. “You kept them?”
“Call it sentiment,” she suggests.
He doesn’t know how to feel about that, but Happy is pulling into the underground garage attached to Stark Tower, and Bruce gathers Tony up. “Which room should I use?”
“You’d better use the guest room next to yours,” Pepper says decisively. “It’s not too far away from my room, but it won’t be quite as confusing.”
Bruce doesn’t ask who it would confuse—Pepper or Tony. He suspects that Tony will remember very little, if anything, but Pepper…
Well, Bruce can only imagine how strange it would be if he were to suddenly find himself caring for Betty, aged six.
Not that Tony will be less complicated in the long run, but at least Bruce hasn’t slept with the man. That makes things easier in a way.
“Can I do anything?” Happy asks, his somber expression giving lie to his name.
Bruce manages a smile. “Not right now.”
Pepper pats him on the arm. “Don’t worry,” she assures him. “We have things under control.”
Between the two of them, they manage to remove Tony’s suit and dress shirt and get him into a set of pajamas Bruce had worn when he’d been under Loki’s spell.
He steps back and lets Pepper tuck the blankets up around Tony’s chin, but when she’s done, Bruce touches Tony’s forehead, as though in benediction. “Sleep well,” he murmurs.
When Bruce goes back into the common room, he finds Coulson waiting for them, along with Steve, and he heaves a purely internal sigh.
He suspects things are about to get complicated.
“How is he?” Steve demands.
“Sleeping,” Pepper replies firmly. “And he’s going to stay that way.”
“Of course,” Coulson agrees smoothly. “If you could just tell me what happened.”
Pepper gives her version of events, which is remarkably clear, given everything that had occurred. When Coulson turns to Bruce, he echoes her story, adding only that he ‘d seen Loki, and had heard his laughter.
“You didn’t stop him?” Steve asks.
Bruce tries not to bristle. “When should I have tried? Before or after I made sure Tony was still breathing? And how the hell was I supposed to take on Loki without—you know?”
Steve has the good grace to look abashed.
“I’m sure you did the best you could,” Coulson interjects diplomatically. “And we would rather not have another damage report from the Hulk making an appearance in Manhattan. It’s my job to ask these questions, Dr. Banner.”
Bruce is actually rather fond of Coulson, who maybe has the hardest job in SHIELD—and he doesn’t think his feelings are completely the result of his time under Loki’s spell, although he remembers Coulson had been kind to him.
“Still,” Coulson continues. “It might be best to have—others around while you’re dealing with Mr. Stark as he is now.”
It takes a moment for that to sink in, but Bruce realizes they don’t trust him around Tony on his own, and even though that hurts, he can’t blame them. “Fine,” he says. “If we’re done, I’m going to sit with Tony, just in case he wakes up.”
The guest room where he and Pepper had tucked Tony in is well appointed, and Bruce finds a comfortable chair and props his feet up on the bed. He hates the despair he feels, hates the hurt, because Tony is small and fragile, without even the Iron Man suit or the arc reactor to protect him. If the Other Guy were to show up, there’s no telling what damage he would do.
And yet—and yet Bruce dislikes the fact that Steve and Coulson didn’t feel that he was capable of looking after Tony in this state, when by all reports they hadn’t balked at Tony doing the same for Bruce.
After awhile, Pepper joins him, sitting on the opposite side of the bed, across from Bruce. “I want you to know that I trust him with you,” she says softly. “You would never hurt him.”
Her faith causes something tight inside his chest to uncurl. “No, I wouldn’t.” In that moment, he believes every word. Apparently Tony’s faith in the Other Guy is wearing off on Bruce.
Pepper smiles sadly. “They don’t know you the way we do.”
“Why would they?” Bruce asks.
Tony stirs then, whimpering a little, and Pepper touches his forehead. “Shh,” she soothes. “You’re fine, Tony. You’re safe.”
“Mommy?” he calls.
Pepper sends an alarmed look towards Bruce and says, “No, but your parents wanted you to stay with us for a while.”
Tony relaxes almost immediately. “You’re pretty,” he says, and his grin has an echo of the charm he’ll capitalize on as an adult. Bruce can’t help the quiet huff of laughter.
When Tony looks at him, Bruce says, “Hey. I’m Bruce.”
Tony’s eyes narrow. “Dad asked you to stay with me, too?”
“Well, he asked if you could stay with us,” Bruce replies. “It’s okay. You’re safe here. I promise.”
Something in Bruce’s expression must have convinced Tony, or else he’s too tired to argue. “Okay,” he replies, his eyes already drooping shut. “Tomorrow.”
Pepper shoots Bruce a panicked look. “How are we going to keep him occupied?”
“You take care of Stark Industries,” he replies. “Leave Tony to me.”
Steve isn’t entirely sure that he needs to be here. Bruce and Pepper seemed to have everything well in hand by the time he and Coulson arrived at Stark Tower, but Coulson had insisted Steve be present, and it’s obvious why once he hears the news.
“I think it’s probably best if you or one of the others is there while Tony is under Loki’s spell,” Coulson says on the way to the Tower. “Dr. Banner’s control has been impressive these last few months, but I’d rather not put it to the test when there’s a child at risk—even if it is Tony Stark.”
Steve smiles, because there’s probably no one Tony has annoyed more than Coulson. “I can stay with them. I’ve got a room there.”
“Good,” Coulson replies. “We’re already working on tracking Loki down and contacting Thor. We’ll call you in when we need you.”
“I’m happy to do whatever you think necessary,” Steve replies.
He almost regrets his easy acquiescence when he sees the hurt flash across Bruce’s face as he realizes they aren’t going to trust him with Tony.
Steve feels like he’s failed both of them in a sense—Tony because Loki got to him, and Bruce because Steve doesn’t quite trust him.
He doesn’t sleep well that night, even though the bed is far more comfortable than the one he has back in his apartment, and he’s up early the next morning, dressing in the clothes he finds in his closet. Tony, it seems, had thought of everything.
Steve expects to find the kitchen empty, but Bruce is at the stove, cooking breakfast with a boy sitting on the counter next to the stove, drumming his heels against the cabinet.
Pepper is sitting at the counter, sipping coffee and checking emails on her phone, and she smiles at him as he enters. “Hi, Steve.”
“Pepper,” he replies, having finally gotten over calling her “Miss Potts.” She’d only had to remind him about a dozen times.
Bruce glances over his shoulder, and says, “Good morning. Tony, this is Steve Rogers.”
The boy looks at Steve, and his eyes are sharp and knowing and full of mischief. “You’re Captain America,” he states. “My dad talks about you a lot.”
Steve feels a sudden sense of foreboding. Tony’s tone of voice suggests he’s not impressed. “Is that right?” he asks, trying to sound cheerful.
“Yeah, he’s always looking for you,” Tony replies. “That’s why he’s not around. Mom says it’s because you were his friend.”
“He was a good friend of mine,” Steve admits.
“Huh.” That sound is deeply suspicious, and Bruce turns back to the stove, hiding his face, but not before Steve sees his grin.
“Steve? You want French toast?” Bruce asks.
Steve nods. “Yeah, that would be great. Thanks.”
Pepper rises. “I have to get going. Bruce, thank you for breakfast.” She gives him a friendly peck on the cheek, and then does the same for Tony. “Tony, be good today.”
Tony smiles. “I’m always good.”
Pepper shakes her head, but doesn’t bother arguing. She nods at Steve as she leaves and picks up her briefcase from next to the door. The departure has the feeling of routine, even if Tony’s appearance is different, and Steve envies the easy camaraderie.
“Go sit,” Bruce orders. “I’ll bring your breakfast.”
Tony hops down. “I can carry it!”
Bruce puts a couple of pieces of French toast on a plate and hands it to Tony. “Both hands, please.”
Tony walks to the counter with exaggerated care, putting down the plate and climbing into the chair next to Steve. He pours enough maple syrup—the real stuff—over his French toast to completely drown it. “Awesome,” he mumbles through a full mouth.
“Thank you,” Bruce replies placidly. He sets another plate in front of Steve. “Eat up.”
The French toast is good, and Steve makes a mental note to be around for breakfast more often—at least if Bruce is cooking. “Do you do this every morning?” Steve asks.
“Every morning someone needs to be fed,” Bruce replies with a significant look at Tony.
“Oh, right,” Steve says, covering his confusion with another bite.
Bruce keeps cooking until Steve and Tony can’t eat anymore, and only then does he sit down.
“So, what are we doing today?” Steve asks with false cheer.
Bruce glances at Tony and says, “I have a few things to do in the lab.”
“Tony and I can do something, then,” Steve says. “How about it, pal?”
Tony frowns and looks at Bruce. “I want to stay with you.”
“You’re always welcome in the lab,” Bruce replies.
“Maybe that’s not such a great place,” Steve objects.
Bruce studies Steve for a long moment, and then he smiles. “If you insist. You know where to find me if you need me.” He finishes his breakfast and ruffles Tony’s hair. “You, too. If you need help, just ask Jarvis.”
Tony sighs but nods.
“Come on,” Steve says. “Let’s get this cleaned up.”
Tony drags his feet, clearly unhappy about being on KP duty and not being allowed to join Bruce in his lab.
“So, what do you want to do?” Steve asks pleasantly.
Tony shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“We could draw,” Steve suggests.
Tony rolls his eyes. “Boring.”
“How about we go to the park?”
“The park is stupid.”
Steve grits his teeth. “We could play a game.”
“Games are stupid.”
He takes a deep breath. “A movie, then.”
Tony sighs dramatically. “I don’t wanna.”
“Tell you what,” Steve says, keeping a tight rein on his temper. “We’ll go to the park this morning, you can run off some energy, and then we can do whatever you want.”
“I can hang out with Bruce in his lab?” Tony asks.
Steve knows that Bruce has impressive control, but if Tony’s this close to making him lose it after fifteen minutes alone together, Steve thinks the Hulk might be an inevitability.
Still, he doesn’t have a problem lying to Tony for his own good. “Sure,” he says.
Tony grins smugly, and Steve thinks he’s probably been had. “Cool.”
Jarvis helpfully supplies Steve with directions to the nearest park, sent to the Stark phone he’s finally figured out how to use, and they set off. At least the weather is nice—sunny, blue skies, and warm but not too hot.
“I thought you’d be old,” Tony says. “How come you’re not?”
“I was frozen,” Steve replies, deciding to keep it simple.
Tony frowns. “Being frozen kills you.”
“It didn’t kill me.”
“Why? Tony asks.
“I had a special medicine that made me strong,” Steve says. “Didn’t your dad say anything about that?”
Tony shrugs. “He said you were special.”
Steve has no idea how to respond to that. “I guess you could say that,” he finally replies when it appears that Tony is going to wait for his answer.
“Can I take the medicine?” Tony asks.
“No, there isn’t any more,” Steve says.
“Because it was destroyed.”
“Because there were bad men,” Steve replies, a little exasperated.
“But why didn’t anybody make more?” Tony presses.
“Because the scientist who created it was killed, and no one else knew how to do it,” Steve says.
“That’s stupid,” Tony replies. “You should write that kind of thing down.”
Steve resists the urge to rub his forehead. “Yes, you should. He did the best he could.”
“He didn’t tell my dad?” Tony asks. “My dad is really smart.”
“Yes, he w—is,” Steve replies, catching himself just in time. “And no, he didn’t, and no, I don’t know why.” He can’t help muttering, “Bruce wasn’t this difficult.”
Tony narrows his eyes. “You like Bruce better than me.”
Steve can’t help himself. “Right now, yeah, I do.”
Tony stares at him, hurt writ large on his face, and Steve sighs, and amends, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I like you both.” Wanting to change the subject as quickly as possible, Steve asks, “What do you want to do at the park?”
He probably should have seen it coming, but in his defense, Steve doesn’t think that anyone sees Tony Stark coming.
“Let’s play hide and seek,” Tony suggests guilelessly. “But you have to be it first.”
Since hide and seek is something Steve can do, he agrees readily. “Sure. Whatever you want.”
As instructed, when they get to the park, Steve counts to one hundred, and then he starts looking. For the first ten minutes, he thinks that maybe Tony is just that good at hiding—and then the panic starts setting in. Anything could have happened to Tony—someone could have grabbed him, or Loki could have come after him again.
And Steve will have to admit that he lost Tony Stark.
He searches the park for another fifteen minutes, feeling increasingly panicked, and then he calls Bruce. “Hey, uh…I think I lost Tony.”
“Lost him?” Bruce asks incredulously. “I thought—oh. Hey, Tony.”
Steve sags like a puppet whose strings have been cut. “He’s with you?”
“He just strolled in,” Bruce says, his voice warm with amusement. “I’ll talk to him. Why don’t you head back?”
Steve hangs up and takes a few deep breaths. “I really, really wish I could get drunk,” he mutters.
By the time he gets back to Stark Tower, Steve has worked up a full head of steam. He’s mad enough that he’s not even sure he cares if the Hulk shows up in response to Tony. Maybe he’d get the fear of God put in him.
Steve heads to Bruce’s lab immediately, stopping just inside the door. Tony sits on a stool next to Bruce, swinging his legs, as Bruce says, “So, here we see the effect of gamma radiation on the human cell, but it has different effects each time, so we can’t count on it to create beneficial mutations. Go ahead.”
Tony reaches out to touch a part of the hologram, and Steve can see something radiate, and the model of the cell splits rapidly.
Steve clears his throat.
Bruce glances over at him. “Tony, I think you have something to say to Steve.”
Tony mutters something Steve can’t make out.
“Tony.” Bruce’s voice holds a warning.
Tony turns his stool to face Steve. “I’m sorry.”
Steve isn’t sure he means it, but he says, “Apology accepted.”
Tony looks relieved. “Can I stay?”
“He’s fine here,” Bruce says mildly. “I don’t mind.”
Steve hesitates, and then says, “You know what, I should probably call in, see what they’ve found on our friend.”
“We’ll be fine,” Bruce assures him.
Steve thinks they just might be.
Natasha glances at Tony, who is fiddling with what looks like a circuit board. “Should we be doing this here?” she asks pointedly, although she keeps her voice low. “I thought Pepper was going to watch him.”
“Pepper’s running a company,” Bruce points out. “And she had something she couldn’t get out of. Besides, it’s weird for her.”
Everyone around the table makes a face.
They’re meeting at Stark Tower because it’s secure, and it’s easier with Tony to consider. Fury’s exact words had been that there was no way in hell he was letting a kid-sized Avenger loose on board his ship again. The conference room is set up with the latest in Stark gadgetry, and there’s a table in the corner for Tony to tinker.
The chairs are comfortable, and Coulson’s presiding, which is odd. Normally, Tony would be hogging the spotlight.
“Loki appears to be keeping a low profile since his appearance in Manhattan, but it’s difficult to know where he might appear next,” Coulson continues.
“He’s a sneaky son of a bitch,” Clint mutters.
Steve clears his throat and looks at Tony.
“I already know that word,” Tony announces, not looking up from his circuit board.
Natasha schools her expression so that she doesn’t reveal any amusement. She’s already heard the story from Steve, and she thinks that the miniature version of Tony is probably just as annoying—if not more so—than the adult.
But watching other people dealing with Tony amuses her. Call it schadenfreude, but Natasha takes her amusement where she can.
And Natasha is certain that she’s never seen Steve quite so frustrated as he’d been relaying the story of how Tony had ditched him in the park.
Then again, Natasha has long believed that Tony Stark is someone best enjoyed from a distance.
“I don’t think Loki is pulling any power from the Tesseract,” Bruce offers apologetically. “I’ve already tried the same scan we used before and nothing.”
Natasha frowns. “What about Thor?”
“We’ve sent a message, but there’s no telling whether he’s received it.” Coulson hesitates, then adds, “I think we have to consider the fact that if Loki is back, he may have succeeded in taking Thor out of commission.”
Natasha doesn’t get attached, but she feels a small pang at that. She likes Thor for his lack of artifice and cheerful demeanor.
“It’s a little early to say that,” Steve objects.
Bruce clears his throat. “I think the better question is why Loki would want Iron Man out of the way.”
Trust Bruce to cut to the heart of the matter, Natasha thinks. And trust him to phrase it in such a way so as not to alert Tony.
“Is there anything coming up that would necessitate that kind of move?” Coulson asks.
All eyes turn to Bruce, who shifts uncomfortably at being the center of attention. “Well, there’s the arc reactor. He’s revealing a new prototype that will produce more power for longer.”
“How long?” Natasha asks.
“Not sure,” Bruce admits. “But conservative estimates say at least five years—and Iron Man’s been working on the problem of intergalactic travel.”
“How is that a problem?” Clint asks. “As far as I can see, there’s one alien we actually like.”
“We haven’t met most of them,” Steve says. “But it’s a fair point.”
Coulson frowns. “I wasn’t aware of this project.”
Bruce shrugs. “Tony has kept it pretty quiet.”
“You knew.” Coulson’s tone holds a mild reproach, but Bruce merely shrugs.
“Can we trap him?” Steve asks. “If he’s after something of—uh, Iron Man’s, maybe we can stop him that way.”
Bruce shakes his head. “All of that information is on a private server. My guess is that whatever he’s planning, Iron Man would be the one who could stop him.”
“You could stop him,” Natasha says quietly. “Loki knows about the Hulk, and he knows about you.”
Bruce shakes his head. “I know gamma radiation, but I don’t have the range of knowledge Iron Man does. My expertise is theoretical; I’m not an engineer.”
Coulson fixes Bruce with a stern look. “Now is not the time for false modesty, Dr. Banner.”
Natasha can see the hint of temper in Bruce’s eyes. “It’s the truth,” Bruce insists.
“You’ll have to do your best,” Coulson says. “I don’t need to remind you what’s at stake.”
Bruce’s hands grip the edge of the table, and Natasha feels the tension in the room ratchet up. “You don’t need to tell me. I’m fully aware.”
“Hey!” Tony says. “Leave him alone!”
That breaks the tension, and Steve covers his mouth.
“We’re fine,” Coulson says.
Tony’s glaring at him, standing now, small fists clenched at his sides. He looks like he’s about a second away from going after Coulson. There’s a small part of Natasha that wonders what would happen if he tried.
“Tony,” Bruce says softly, and his hands are in his lap now. “We’re okay.”
Tony frowns. “You’re really smart, maybe smarter than Dad.”
Bruce smiles. “Thank you. Would you do me a favor and put the kettle on? Ask Jarvis to help.”
Tony nods uncertainly. “Okay.”
He drags his feet, but he goes, and Natasha makes note of that. If Bruce can get Tony to listen, Natasha thinks maybe Tony should be left to him.
Once the door has closed behind him, Bruce says, “I think it’s safe to say that no one has the breadth of knowledge that Tony Stark does. I can do my best, but if Loki went after Tony, it’s because he has an area of knowledge that I don’t.”
Coulson isn’t buying it. “Then you’ll just have to get up to speed once we determine what Loki is planning.”
Bruce rubs the back of his neck. “I have an idea for tracing him, but I’m going to need a couple of uninterrupted hours.”
Everyone’s eyes turn to Steve, who doesn’t look all that thrilled. “I, uh, have a thing.”
Natasha absolutely doesn’t smile, because that would only draw attention to herself, and she’s not about to get volunteered for this mission.
Still, she’s the next person that everybody looks at—everyone except for Bruce, who’s staring down at the glass table thoughtfully.
“I think Clint’s free,” Natasha says, and feels not one bit of remorse.
She figures it’s probably Clint’s turn to babysit anyway.
The thing is, Clint likes kids. He even likes Tony Stark—probably because, unlike Tasha, he didn’t have to babysit the man. But babysitting the pint-size version of Stark? Clint isn’t sure where to start, and he hadn’t come prepared the way he had with Bruce Banner.
And right now, Tony’s staring at him with the sort of calculation that Clint knows all too well—the kid is trying to figure out what he can get away with, and how he’s going to play Clint.
Banner’s advice had been simple: keep him occupied, and keep him distracted, but he hadn’t been more specific.
So, Clint gives a mental shrug and remembers Coulson’s advice from a mission gone bad ages ago: when in doubt, play to your strengths.
It might have been a lifetime ago, but he’d been a circus performer; he’d entertained kids for a living, and he’s got his bow and quiver with him.
“Doesn’t this place have a firing range?” Clint asks.
Tony frowns. “I don’t know. Jarvis? Does it?”
“It does, sir,” says the disembodied voice. “Sub-basement two. Mr. Barton, I would ask that you not use any explosive rounds while in the confines of the building.”
“No problem,” Clint replies easily.
“Explosives?” Tony asks, his eyes lit up with unholy glee.
Clint suspects that he’s going to have to apologize to Banner later, after Tony starts trying to make homemade explosives, but that’s not going to be Clint’s problem.
The range is just as high-tech and modern as the rest of the building. Clint wonders why he’s never used it before, and realizes that it’s because when he’s at the Tower, he’s there to hang out and take advantage of Stark’s plentiful supply of good food and even better booze. If he wants to practice, he does it on SHIELD’s range.
But there are rotating targets with varying speeds and sizes, and various programs that could be selected by voice activation. And on the fly.
Clint’s definitely coming back.
He puts on a good show, selecting a program that’s flashy but not too challenging, knowing that a performer always saves his best tricks for last.
“How did you do that?” Tony asks after the first round, his eyes wide.
“A lot of practice, and a bit of luck,” Clint says modestly.
“Can I try?”
There’s no way Clint’s going to let Tony touch his bow, but he’s not going to tell Tony that. It would just encourage him. “It’s too heavy for you to draw,” Clint replies. “Maybe when you’re older.”
“Show me again,” Tony demands.
He keeps up the requests, wanting Clint to do more tricks, each one more spectacular than the last, and Clint’s grateful that his training regimen has him in top shape. Tony could give some of his old drill sergeants a run for their money.
Tony wants to know everything. He wants to know what each arrow does, and who made them, and how they work. He wants to know if Clint can control them with his mind, and how he learned to shoot. Tony asks about the physics of shooting, and trajectories, and whether the wind blew the arrows away.
Clint answers as best he can, and when his fingers start to get sore, he switches to a set of throwing knives, teaching Tony the proper way to throw. He’s probably going to have to apologize to Banner for that, too.
He’s watching the clock, though, and after four hours go by, Clint calls it quits with a sense of relief.
“Let’s go see what Banner’s up to,” he suggests. He’s tired—really fucking tired—and when he sees Banner in the kitchen, he says, “I gave you four hours.”
“Thank you,” Banner replies, and smiles at Tony. “Go see what I set up for you,” he suggests. “It’s a puzzle. Clint, you want coffee?”
“God, yes,” Clint says with relief, accepting a full mug and Bruce’s knowing smile.
“You can stay for dinner if you want,” Banner offers. “We’re having tacos.”
Tony is already engrossed in the holographic model Banner has apparently set up, and Banner says, “I have a simulation running now. We should know something in a few hours.”
“How’d you manage it?” Clint asks.
Banner shrugs, stirring something in a pot with a rich, meaty odor. “I don’t know that I have yet, but my hypothesis is that Loki’s so-called magic leaves traces. I know where and when Loki hit Tony, and there were faint traces of an unknown kind of radiation.”
“Pretty smart, doc.”
Banner ducks his head. “Common sense, really.”
Clint forbears pointing out that it’s a common sense that only a nuclear physicist would have. He understands that Banner isn’t interested in accolades.
Pepper enters, stepping out of her heels by the door. “Oh, that smells delicious. Hi, Clint.”
He smiles. “Miss Potts.”
She laughs a little and rolls her eyes. “You know what I’ve told you about that.”
Clint shrugs and watches as she goes over to say hello to Tony. “Yeah, that’s a little weird,” he admits in a low voice as she ruffles Tony’s hair and presses a kiss to his cheek.
“Our lives are pretty weird,” Banner replies with wry humor. “I think I might be getting used to it.”
Clint wonders if maybe he should speak to Coulson about training SHIELD agents for weird shit, because it just keeps getting weirder.
Pepper has been legitimately busy with Stark Industries, trying to keep up appearances while Tony’s out of commission, as well as keeping a lid on the whys and wherefores of his disappearance. Knowing how long Loki’s spell had lasted on Bruce—several months—she’d told everyone that Tony had been seriously injured, but would make a full recovery in time.
But she also admits, if only to herself, that she’s been avoiding Tony, because it’s just too strange to see her lover as a child.
Bruce knows, Pepper’s certain of it, but he hasn’t said anything. He’s just done what he can to make things easy for her.
Still, there comes a point where Bruce’s research pays off, and they’ve managed to pin down Loki’s location. He’s apparently joined forces with some random alien that they hadn’t heard of before, and all the Avengers are needed—including Bruce, which means that Pepper’s the only one left to look after Tony.
She cancels her meetings and clears her schedule and wishes Bruce and the rest of them luck.
Pepper has to admit that it’s something of a relief for Tony to not be in the thick of things, even under the circumstances, and she knows better than to suggest doing anything that is going to require Tony to sit still.
Regular museums are out, as is the park, but the New York Hall of Science might just keep Tony preoccupied, at least for a couple of hours.
So, Pepper puts on jeans and a pair of comfortable shoes, and then she crouches down in front of Tony so she can look him right in the eyes. “We’re going to the Hall of Science, and we’re going to have fun,” she says firmly. “But if you try to ditch me like you ditched Steve, I will have Jarvis lock you in your room without any of your toys.”
Tony’s eyes narrow. “Are you going to send me to bed without dinner, too?”
Pepper smiles, the one she reserves for particularly difficult executives she’s about to eviscerate, and has the pleasure of seeing him gulp. “Do you really want to worry Bruce while he’s trying to capture a bad guy?”
She doesn’t mention the Hulk; she and Bruce had agreed that Tony doesn’t need to know about Bruce’s greener half, on the chance that Tony would try to deliberately provoke Bruce out of pure curiosity.
Tony shakes his head. “Is Bruce going to be okay?”
“He’s very good at taking care of himself, and he has Steve and the others to help,” Pepper says firmly. “Now, are you going to stick with me?”
Tony nods. “Promise.”
Pepper stands and holds out a hand. “Great. Let’s go.”
The Hall of Science is a great success, and while Tony runs a little wild, moving from exhibit to exhibit as the mood takes him, he’s not trying to leave her behind. Pepper is grateful for her comfortable shoes as she tries to keep up. Tony isn’t trying to ditch her, but like always, he forgets that others sometimes have a hard time keeping up with him.
Pepper doesn’t even have time to check her phone for messages, and by the time Tony announces that he’s hungry, she’s more than ready to sit for a while, and it’s with relief that she climbs into the backseat of the car.
“I want to sit up front!” Tony says.
“It’s not safe,” she replies. “Sit in the back.”
Tony frowns. “I wanna sit in the front.”
Pepper is tired and hungry, she’s worried about the others, and she’s not in the mood to deal with Tony’s temper. “Tony. Get in the car,” she says. “Please.”
For a minute, she thinks he’s going to fight her, but he climbs in next to her, and she heaves a sigh of relief.
A moment later, she’s regretting not allowing Tony to sit in the front. She insists that he put his seatbelt on, but he slides down in his seat so far that he’s half on the floor. He fidgets. He drums his heels on the floor. He rolls down the window and sticks his head out while Pepper is responding to an urgent email, and won’t immediately pull his head back in when she tells him to stop it.
He heaves a series of deep, noisy sighs. He hums. He drums his fingers on the door. He twists around in his seat, pushes himself up, and sits down again as loudly as he can within the confines of his seatbelt.
Pepper has never been so grateful to get out of a car in her life.
“Why don’t you go play video games?” she suggests, hanging on to her temper by her fingernails.
Tony pouts. “I don’t want to play by myself. You play with me.”
Pepper is quite sure that if she stays in the same room as Tony one moment longer, she’s going to murder him. “Have Jarvis play with you.”
“Jarvis will beat me.”
“So will I,” Pepper mutters under her breath. More loudly, she says, “It will be a challenge.”
When Tony leaves the room, she takes a moment to breathe deeply and wonders how the hell Bruce puts up with him.
As though her thoughts had summoned him, Bruce limps inside, looking wrung out as he always does after a transformation, followed closely by Steve, Clint, and Natasha.
“Hey,” Bruce says wearily. “How’d it go?”
“I should be asking you that,” Pepper replies. “Did you get him?”
Bruce nods. “Thor showed up in the thick of things. Loki did a number on him, which is why it took him so long.”
“Where is Thor?” she asks.
“He took Loki back immediately,” Steve supplies. “His father wasn’t going to wait.”
Pepper frowns. “How did he escape in the first place?”
“Sorcery is what Thor called it,” Natasha replies. “The hell if I know, though. Where’s Tony?”
“Trying to beat Jarvis at video games,” Pepper says. “I needed a break.”
Bruce chuckles. “Yeah, I’ll bet.”
“Is there anything to eat?” Steve asks plaintively. “I’m starving.”
He’d have to be; usually Steve is a little more polite than that.
“I’ll call for pizza,” Pepper says decisively.
Tony comes careening into the room. “Bruce! Come see!”
Bruce sighs, manages a smile, and mutters, “No rest for the wicked.”
Steve visibly steels himself. “I should help.”
“I was kind of hoping that Tony would snap back to normal now that Loki’s been caught,” Pepper admits.
Natasha smiles. “I’ll bet.”
Clint gives Natasha a dirty look. “It’s your turn next, Natasha. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’re the only one who hasn’t pulled babysitting duty yet.”
Natasha raises her eyebrows. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?”
Pepper exchanges a look with Clint, who grimaces. “You’d probably kill him after fifteen minutes,” Clint admits.
“Try five,” Natasha replies dryly.
“You know, I think maybe Steve’s up next,” Clint suggests. “Or we could just let Bruce deal with him. I don’t care what Coulson says—Tony’s safe enough.”
Pepper smiles. “I think that’s an excellent idea. Now, what do you want on your pizza?”
By the time they wrap things up with Loki, everyone agrees that the one best equipped to look after Tony is Bruce, and that Bruce’s control makes him uniquely equipped.
Besides, Bruce keeps coming up with complex puzzles and projects that keep Tony busy and out of his hair for whole minutes at a time—which is apparently what Tony is doing when Steve shows up to try babysitting again.
“Thank you so much for doing this,” Pepper tells him. “Tony’s working on a puzzle Bruce gave him, so he should be occupied for a little while anyway.” She’s wearing a black dress and red heels, and Steve has to swallow hard.
“You look great,” he manages.
Pepper beams at him. “Thank you.”
“Uh, Pepper, is this okay?” Bruce asks, emerging from the living quarters and tugging on the white sleeves of his dress shirt. He’s wearing a tux and tie, looking sharper and more polished than he usually does.
Pepper smiles at him. “You look wonderful.”
“So, what is this exactly?” Steve asks curiously.
“Iron Man was supposed to give a presentation on the arc reactor,” Pepper explains, adjusting Bruce’s tie absently, using Tony’s alias to avoid alerting him. “Since he’s not available, and Bruce is the one who knows the most about it next to him, Bruce is giving the presentation.”
Bruce rolls his shoulders. “I’m still not sure this is a good idea.”
“You’ll do fine,” Pepper tells him, patting his chest. “Steve, dinner will be delivered in about thirty minutes. Tony has been told that if he misbehaves, you’re allowed to send him to his room.”
Bruce offers a smile. “We talked. He should be good. To tell the truth, I’d rather stay home.”
“Someone has to give the presentation tonight,” Pepper replies. “And you’re technically a VP now.”
Steve frowns. “When did that happen?”
Bruce grimaces. “About the time Tony found out that SHIELD wasn’t paying me a consulting fee.”
“The rest of us get paid!” Steve protests.
“That’s what Tony said,” Bruce replies with a good-natured shrug.
Pepper smiles. “We’ve rectified the situation. If we don’t leave now, we’re going to be late. Call if you need us,” she says, and takes Bruce’s arm as they depart.
Steve gets a funny feeling, watching them, the way they’ve formed a tight unit around Tony, a little like how the whole team had circled around Bruce.
But Bruce had been a relatively easy kid to deal with, quiet and unassuming, much like the man, and mini-Hulk had been a lot easier to deal with than his full-sized counterpart. Tony is something else altogether.
Steve knows he needs to try a little harder with Tony.
He wanders around, wishing he had a better way to connect with Tony—but then, Steve feels the same way about the adult version.
“Is dinner here yet?” Tony asks, wandering out to the living room.
Steve checks the clock. “Twenty minutes, I think.”
Tony nods, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’m hungry.”
“Food should be here shortly.” Steve collapses back on the couch. “You going to try to ditch me again?”
Tony shrugs. “Bruce said he wouldn’t make any more puzzles for me if I gave you a hard time.”
“You like his puzzles that much?” Steve asks.
Tony gives him a winsome grin. “I like Bruce that much. He likes to spend time with me. He said so.”
That last is added with an air of challenge, as though daring Steve to disagree.
“There aren’t a lot of people Bruce likes to spend time with,” Steve says.
Disarmed, Tony ducks his head. “We could play video games tonight,” he offers. “I’ll even let you beat me.”
Steve smirks. “I’m going to wipe the floor with you.”
They eat burgers and play Wii, and Tony is still annoying—and both a sore loser and ungracious winner—but Steve keeps his temper in check.
When Tony falls asleep slumped against Steve, the remains of a chocolate milk mustache around his mouth, Steve feels well rewarded for his patience.
In spite of all her efforts, Natasha ends up stuck with Tony. She breaks an ankle on a mission, and that’s seriously annoying, but she can’t help that the floor of the old factory gives way under her as she’s fending off the mobsters trying to sell weapons to the Taliban.
But as Vice President of his own division, Bruce actually has duties to Stark Industries, particularly with Tony out of commission, and Pepper is busy running the rest of the company. Steve is making a publicity appearance to smooth over ruffled feathers for property damage done taking out the enemy of the week, and Clint is in South America on a mission.
That leaves Natasha, who is otherwise incapacitated, looking after a pint-sized Tony Stark.
“Be good,” Bruce warns Tony as he leaves. “I mean it.” And then he ruffles Tony’s hair and presses a kiss to his forehead.
“Thank you,” Bruce murmurs to Natasha, putting a pillow under her ankle. “And apologies in advance.”
“I promise I won’t hurt him—much,” Natasha replies.
Bruce smiles. “As long as he’s in one piece when I get home. It shouldn’t be more than a few hours. Sooner the better.”
Natasha smiles and taps Bruce’s tie. “Look at you, Dr. Banner. Times, they have changed.”
Bruce shrugs. “We do what we have to do, right?”
As soon as Bruce is gone, Tony stands in front of Natasha, a mischievous grin on his face. “So, you have to stay on the couch, right?”
Natasha narrows her eyes. “I haven’t bothered to count the number of ways I can kill a person. A broken ankle will buy you, at most, three seconds. And I wouldn’t bet on that.”
“Bruce left me some puzzles,” Tony offers in a small voice.
Natasha smiles. “Good choice.”
“Or we could watch a movie?” Tony suggests, bouncing back. “I mean, I wouldn’t want you to be bored or anything.”
Natasha holds up her book. “I’m good.”
“Okay. If you’re sure,” Tony adds. “Because Bruce said I was supposed to be nice to you.”
At this point, Tony’s killing her with kindness. “I’ll let you know.”
“Something to eat?” he asks, and there’s a hint of a smirk, which tells Natasha that he’s doing this to deliberately rile her up in such a way that she can’t exactly object. What is she supposed to tell Bruce, that she did Tony grievous bodily harm because he was being polite?
“I’m fine,” she says flatly.
“Because we have some really good cookies,” Tony continues.
Natasha doesn’t allow even a flicker of irritation to show on her face. “No, thank you.”
“Or we could play video games,” Tony offers. “I’ll let you beat me.”
Tony’s smirk widens into a grin. “But I’m supposed to be nice to you,” he says innocently and sits down on the couch, out of arm’s reach. “Bruce said so.”
Natasha thinks, Bruce should have told you to leave me alone, but she smiles sweetly, deciding that two can play at this game. “You know, on second thought, there is something you can do for me.”
Tony’s expression turns watchful. “What?”
“You can paint my toenails,” Natasha replies. “I’ll bet Pepper has some good colors.”
Tony stands up. “I don’t think I’m allowed in Pepper’s room.”
“I won’t tell her if you won’t,” Natasha suggests.
Tony shakes his head. “No, that’s okay. I have some stuff to do.”
“Are you sure?” Natasha asks sweetly. “We could have fun.”
“No, it’s okay,” Tony says. “It’s cool. Call if you need anything.” And then he disappears.
Natasha smiles. She’s still got it.
After all the stories, Phil has Tony’s number. He doesn’t bother pussyfooting around when his turn comes up. “Do not test me,” he says. “I still have to coordinate defenses for Long Island, and if I’m distracted, even for a minute, one of your friends may wind up dead.”
Tony gulps. “That would be bad.”
“Very bad,” Phil agrees.
“Can I help?” he offers.
Phil smiles. “You can stay quiet.”
“I’m really good with computers,” Tony says.
“I know you are, but right now, I need to focus, and I can’t worry about you.”
“I’ll be quiet,” Tony promises.
That’s probably more than the adult version could manage, but Phil nods. “Thanks.”
Tony’s as good as his word. When it’s all said and done, and his people are safe at home, Phil buys Tony a cookie.
He believes in positive reinforcement, and he’s hoping today’s lesson sticks when Loki’s spell wears off.
Bruce wanders out of his bedroom one morning about three months after that night in Manhattan when Loki had shown up. He’s been busy lately, away from home a lot, mostly on business for Stark Industries, trying to pick up the slack Tony’s absence has left.
He’s not entirely sure he’s been successful, although Pepper insists that he’s doing a good job. Bruce suspects that she might just be saying that because she likes sharing responsibility with someone who actually knows the truth.
Today, however, he’s got a free day to spend with Tony, and if he’s lucky, he’ll get some time in the lab.
Tony’s already awake when Bruce walks into the kitchen, with the coffeemaker in pieces in front of him.
“What’s this?” Bruce asks mildly.
Tony looks up, his expression a complicated mixture of guilt and defiance. “I’m making it better.”
“Okay,” Bruce replies, his expression neutral. He’s grateful that he’s just as fond of tea as he is of coffee, and the kettle isn’t something that would draw Tony’s attention.
“Are you mad?” Tony asks.
Bruce puts the kettle on. “Did you want to make me mad?”
He doesn’t say that Tony wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, because that might present a temptation too great, and he likes Tony too much to risk him.
Although it’s not much of a risk. Bruce has figured out that the Hulk pretty much likes the same people he does, and he’s just as careful with the people Bruce loves as Bruce is.
Tony shrugs. “No.”
Bruce has learned how to read Tony, and that’s definitely a yes in disguise. “Can you put it back together?” he asks.
Tony shrugs again. “Probably.”
“If you can’t do it on your own, we’ll do it together,” Bruce says.
Tony looks at him hopefully. “You’re not going to work today?”
Bruce smiles. “Not today.”
Tony grins. “Awesome.”
Bruce starts pulling out ingredients from the fridge. “Good thing we have a French press. Pepper isn’t going to be happy without her coffee.”
Tony winces. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I didn’t think you had,” Bruce says wryly. “It’s okay. We’ll make it work.”
Bruce just smiles, grateful to have at least one person in the world who wants him around. That’s the gift Tony’s given him, even if he doesn’t know it.
The afternoon Tony wakes up feeling like himself again, the first words out of his mouth are, “Oh, thank God.”
He understands now what Bruce had meant about his memories being fuzzy and indistinct. Intellectually, Tony knows that several months have passed, even though it feels as though he’s been dreaming one very long, strange dream.
It’s good to wake up, even if it’s 4 in the afternoon.
Tony taps the arc reactor to make sure it’s still ticking, back to working order, and it is—which he probably should have known by the lack of cardiac arrest. He’d ripped through the t-shirt and shorts he’d been wearing to sleep in, and he pads down the hall to the bedroom he’d shared with Pepper. All his things are still there, and he pulls on a pair of cargo pants and a t-shirt and then heads to the kitchen.
Bruce looks up from his tablet. “Hey. You’re up.”
“I checked on you when you weren’t up at your usual time,” Bruce admits. “Thought I’d let you sleep. Pepper’s setting up a press conference for you to announce your return to duty.”
Tony pulls a face. “Aw, Dad. Do I have to?”
Bruce glares at him. “That’s weird.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Tony agrees. “Sorry. And, you know, thanks.”
Bruce shrugs off his gratitude. “It’s no more than you did for me.”
“Still.” Tony claps Bruce on the shoulder. “Above and beyond and all of that.”
“Everybody will be glad to have you back,” Bruce replies, looking away.
“You were a lot more annoying at six,” Bruce replies.
“My old man thought so, too,” Tony jokes.
Bruce shakes his head. “I didn’t.”
“I know.” Tony grins, wide and sincere. “Funny thing, I like you better than I ever liked my old man.”
Pepper walks in the front door, and Tony feels as though he hasn’t seen her in an age suddenly.
“Tony,” she says, glad relief in her voice. “Tony.”
He sweeps her up in his arms, holding her so tightly her feet come off the floor, which is no mean feat given her height. Tony swings her around and kisses her deeply, and then he looks over her shoulder at Bruce, watching them wistfully.
Tony kisses Pepper, deeply, passionately, and then he looks at Bruce. “Hey, we should all go out to dinner.”
Bruce and Pepper share a look, and they both laugh. “Maybe we should order in,” Pepper suggests, her arm around Tony’s neck. “I could really go for Thai.”
Bruce shrugs. “No, it’s okay. I should let you two have some time alone.”
Tony squeezes Pepper tightly, a silent signal. It turns out that she hasn’t lost her fluency, because she says, “No, not at all. We should have dinner together. We can invite the team tomorrow.”
Bruce shakes his head. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“If you were intruding, I would tell you,” Tony replies. “Wouldn’t I?”
Bruce chuckles. “Yeah, I guess you would.”
Tony frowns. “Wait a minute. Did I miss that presentation thing? The one you were bugging me about, Pepper.”
“Bruce took your place,” Pepper replies. “He did a fantastic job.”
Tony pulls a face. “You’d think you were getting along just fine without me.”
“We still had you,” Bruce counters. “Just in a different form. But we’re glad to have you back.”
“What Bruce says,” Pepper adds, squeezing Tony’s waist. “Come on. We have a lot to tell you.”
Tony shrugs, and figures he’s probably lucky that the only people around are Bruce and Pepper, who are the only people in the known universe he would want here right now, while he gets reacclimated. In retrospect, Tony feels a little guilty for calling the whole team in when Bruce had snapped back to normal.
But only a little guilty, since Bruce had been appreciative in the end.
“Sit,” Pepper orders both of them. “I think this calls for a drink.”
Tony realizes that he hasn’t had a drink in months. “Excellent.”
“White goes well with Thai,” Pepper says. “I’ll be right back.”
Tony sits next to Bruce at the counter, and bumps their shoulders together. “I remember enough, you know.”
“So did I,” Bruce mumbles, staring down at the stainless steel. “Tony, I—”
“Don’t,” Tony says. “Let’s say we’re even and leave it at that.”
Bruce smirks. “Oh, I think you owe me one now. You were much more annoying than I was.”
Tony looks at him, and they both start laughing. They’re still laughing when Pepper returns with the bottle of champagne.
And Tony feels richer than he ever has before.