(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Bruce wasn't that fond of charity, and he didn't completely trust Tony Stark at first. He wouldn't have accepted Tony's offer of a home and a job in Stark Tower; didn't, the first time he offered or the second. But --
It was like this: he wasn't in touch with the Other Guy, exactly. They didn't share. That being said, the Other Guy was a product of Bruce's own rage, the deep shaking anger he had carried as long as he could remember, part helplessness and part guilt. There was a reason the Other Guy manifested as someone so strong and invincible and yet with the mental acuity of -- what, maybe a four year old? If that?
And because the Other Guy was partly him, there was always a moment during the transformation from Bruce to Hulk that was sort of like an information dump. In that moment they could exchange something, and that was the key, even before he knew it was. If Bruce was in pain, frightened or upset, Hulk lashed out. If Bruce was determined, if Bruce let the Other Guy out, Hulk knew where to aim. And likewise, Bruce could get sensations from him.
He knew that the Other Guy liked Tony. He liked Steve and Clint too; Natasha confused him, but he liked her. He probably would never like Thor, but Thor could take what Hulk dished out. It was just that Hulk especially liked Tony, because Bruce liked Tony, and because the Iron Man armor was shiny.
Bruce never claimed his alter ego had depth.
Still, he'd learned to trust the Other Guy's instincts when it came to character. And Tony was so careless, Tony treated him like he wasn't weird or dangerous. Besides, as much as he loved Calcutta, and he did genuinely love it there, America was where he was born and raised, and he'd missed it.
So Bruce accepted Tony's offer and moved into his home and the day Tony unveiled Bruce's lab, all his, nobody else allowed in unless he wanted them there, Bruce knew he'd made the right call. He stood in the middle of this white, white lab with beautiful black counters and clean new machines and whole shelves of tools and couldn't wait, he could not wait, to make a great big mess in it.
Bruce had no idea how to pay Tony back and he knew Tony didn't care, would be annoyed by an attempt, so he did what he could for his own sake: he helped in Tony's workshop when his expertise could be of use, took Tony's side in disputes with SHIELD, and cooked meals that ensured Tony ate somewhat regularly.
"You're in cahoots with me on this," Pepper told him, as Bruce tested the steamed potatoes with a fork. "Feeding Tony, I mean. It's nice to have a partner in crime. And I know Steve will enjoy whatever you make."
"Well, there's nothing I like more than a good cahoot," Bruce replied. "You think Captain America likes BLTs?"
"I'm pretty sure after growing up in the Depression he likes just about anything edible," she said. "Are you nervous about cooking for the Big A?"
"Given my life to date, that would be ludicrous," he said, because otherwise the answer was yes. Bruce had grown up on Captain America comics just like every other nerd he knew; Isaac Asimov, Captain America, and The Anarchist's Cookbook all gave him fond nostalgic feelings. When he was really little and his dad was going at it, he used to imagine Captain America or Superman or even sometimes Namor the Sub-Mariner would burst into the house and lay his dad out flat.
"Ludicrous, of course," Pepper replied with a knowing smile.
But Steve Rogers was just a nice guy, and he seemed to really enjoy the curried potato salad and the BLTs Bruce made for them.
Steve started looking in on them more often, probably at Pepper's behest; she knew Bruce didn't really have much stomach for trying to control Tony when she wasn't around, and Steve was ruthless in that regard.
Bruce saw the others much more rarely, usually only on missions. He didn't have clear memories of those for relatively obvious reasons, but he'd get impressions from the Other Guy, sometimes as they transitioned into each other, sometimes in dreams on the following nights.
There was Tony, alias Shiny Man, and Shiny Man Hulk Roar always meant Tony was injured or Hulk thought he was, and made Bruce worry until he could look Tony over for himself. Steve was Bossy Blue, and most common was Bossy Blue Say Smash. Clint was rarely mentioned, but Hulk had dubbed him Naked Man, presumably because he didn't wear sleeves. Any time Clint annoyed him, Bruce just thought Naked Man and laughed to himself, and could sometimes hear an echo of the Other Guy's roaring laugh as well.
After Thor came back Hulk always had something to say about Ugly Hairs, which was just spiteful, because Thor had the most amazing hair Bruce had ever seen, man or woman.
Natasha, for some reason, was Strong Man. Hulk had differentiated between male and female before without difficulty, but perhaps her presence on an otherwise all-male team was confusing him. She was strong, of course, but not Captain America strong or anything. It puzzled both of him.
"Dr. Banner," JARVIS announced, the weekend that Natasha moved into the Tower. "Agent Romanoff is at the door."
"Is she armed?"
"I'm given to understand Agent Romanoff does not need to be armed."
"Point," Bruce answered thoughtfully. "Okay, let her in."
The door at the end of the lab popped open and she strode in, all badassery and tight pants.
"Hiya, Doc," she called, looking around, no doubt cataloguing how everything could be used as a weapon.
"Come in, pull up a stool," Bruce replied, sitting back from the equations he was entering into the laptop in front of him. "Welcome to the Tower."
"Thanks. I'm pretty sure I could house a standing army in my apartment."
"Well, when your inevitable rise to power is complete, I expect to be issued citizenship in Natashagrad," he replied. "What do I call you, anyway? Black Widow seems a little like calling you Maneater."
"Natasha is fine," she said, and they lapsed into awkward silence until she spoke again.
"We don't see each other much outside of work," she said.
"Work," he repeated with a smile. "Makes it sound like we get dressed up in costumes and go sit in cubicles."
"Picture Captain America trying to work a fax," she said, and Bruce snickered. "I just thought now that we're all living here, things should be...sorted out. I'm a tidy person, I like it when everything's clear."
"Uh, okay," he said, because he wasn't sure where this was going. "Tidiness, check."
"Are we good?"
He blinked at her.
"Is there a reason we shouldn't be?" he asked, honestly curious.
"We have some weird history, Doc."
"I hadn't really thought about it," he admitted. "Yeah. We're okay. As long as you're okay with the Other Guy."
"That time he tried to kill me aside, we get along."
"Good. That's good," he said, and with a twinge realized that he was still unused to people treating him and the Other Guy as separate people.
"All right," she said, standing up, and she was at the door before he called out.
"Hey -- I'm making dinner for Pepper and Tony tonight," he said. He hadn't planned on it, but Pepper would be pleased and Tony hardly noticed food either way. "You should come."
"I don't want to intrude."
"No intrusion. Invite Clint, I'll ask Thor, it'll be like a welcome dinner," he said, warming to the idea.
"What are you making?"
"Spanish rice and pork loin," he improvised. There was probably a pork loin somewhere, and if not JARVIS could find one. "Guaranteed not to suck."
A slow smile spread over her face. She didn't smile much, and it brightened the whole room.
"I'd like that. I'll tell the others. Thanks, Doc." And she was gone.
Bruce waited to a count of ten, just to be sure, and then slid off his stool. "JARVIS!"
"The refrigerator in the penthouse has all the necessary components," JARVIS replied, and Bruce loved the AI just a little inappropriately. "Initiating thaw sequence on the meat. It is recommended that you begin marination in the next thirty minutes for appropriate -- "
"Yeah, yeah, I got it," Bruce said, grabbing his laptop and hurrying for the elevator.
"Shall I invite Captain Rogers?"
"Christ, is he here already?"
"He is scheduled to move in on Wednesday."
"Argh, yes, invite, invite," Bruce answered.
"Very good, Dr. Banner."
"How much rice do you think Thor can eat? I'm guessing a lot," Bruce continued, as he rode up to the penthouse.
"I would be more concerned with his protein consumption," JARVIS answered. "Be advised Ms. Potts is in the living room."
"Thanks for the warning," Bruce replied, settling himself a little as the doors pinged open. Pepper looked up from her work in alarm.
"End of the world?" she asked, sounding faintly worried.
"Marinade," he replied, hurrying to the kitchen.
"Oh! Carry on," she called. "Dinner's on you?"
"I may have made a minor social faux pas," he yelled back.
"Honey, I hear the Other Guy sometimes foregoes pants. I think you're okay," she assured him, strolling into the kitchen. He dug a bag of rice out of the pantry and tossed it on the table. "What did you do?"
"Invited the entire Avengers Initiative to dinner at your place. Promise I'll do the dishes," he offered.
"We have a robot for that. Did you have a motivation of some kind?"
For a split second, he considered confessing that he was trying to impress a woman, but Pepper would tell Tony and Tony would extrapolate and be ruthless.
"Sudden urge to become a caterer," he replied.
"Well, don't let me stop you. Do you need any help?"
"More than any one person could possibly provide," he sighed.
Still, Bruce liked cooking, because it reminded him of chemistry, and he'd always found the certainties of chemistry very comforting. He wasn't particularly imaginative in the kitchen, but he could re-create and sometimes improve on most recipes he was given.
He had JARVIS put on some music, and buried himself in edible chemistry.
Steve was the first to arrive for dinner, bearing a bottle of wine and smiling bemusedly when he caught Bruce singing along to Baba O'Riley.
I put my back into my liviiiiiin! I don't need to fight to prove I'm right -- I don't need to be forgiveeeeen...
"THE WHO, RIGHT?" Steve yelled above the music.
"YOU'RE CATCHING ON," Bruce agreed, turning the music down. "Hey, you didn't need to bring anything."
"Never show up to dinner empty-handed," Steve said gravely. "Can I help?"
"Crack open the wine," Bruce replied.
"I like the sound of that," Natasha said, appearing in the kitchen doorway. Clint leaned in the other side, sniffing the air. Bruce wasn't sure if anyone else had noticed that Clint wasn't...doing well; he was flawless in the field, but the dark smudges under his eyes seemed permanent, and Bruce would make bets those hadn't been there before. One part Loki and one part losing his handler, Bruce guessed. Maybe the others were just letting him be.
Steve had poured the wine, and was looking like he wasn't sure what to do with himself. "I'll go rout Tony out of his workshop," he said.
"COMRADES!" Thor's voice boomed, as Steve hurried away. "I HAVE BROUGHT PROVISIONS FOR OUR FEAST!"
"Oh, god," Bruce said faintly.
Natasha stepped into the kitchen and Clint backed out of it as Thor burst through the doorway, carrying two grocery bags in one hand and a keg, an actual keg, on his shoulder.
"I asked Friend Stark's ghostly servant what was required for this feast," he announced, setting the keg on the kitchen counter. "I was informed that sweet ices were lacking!"
Natasha peered into the bags. "Did you clean them out?"
"I didn't know what would be preferable," Thor replied, unpacking carton after carton of ice cream. Clint started loading them into the freezer, carefully sorting by some preference set Bruce didn't quite understand. Thor picked up a glass of wine, threw it back in a single swallow, raised his hand like he was going to toss it down -- then paused and set it carefully on the counter.
Bruce decided he probably hadn't made enough food.
Tony tapped the keg like the pro that he was, because Steve's bottle of wine barely stretched to one glass apiece, and by the end of dinner they were...mellow.
"I shouldn't have doubted your guarantee," Natasha said to Bruce as he collected up the plates.
"Which one was that?" he asked. "Oh -- about the food being good? I never put my word on anything I'm not planning to live up to."
"It's excruciating," Tony groaned, one hand resting on his stomach. "You and Cap should hang out. The rest of us liars will throw parties and make false promises without you."
"A word is a man's bond," Thor put in. Tony covered his eyes with his other hand. "I have yet to see you swear falsely, Tony."
"You have yet to see me at a shareholder meeting. There is nothing I will not say to make those people shut the hell up," Tony replied.
"Don't look at me," Bruce heard Natasha say, as he set the plates in the sink. "I lie for a living."
"I don't think it's considered lying when the US government pays you for it," he said, coming back into the dining room.
"If you're the government of another country, you tend to have a different take on that," Natasha pointed out.
"Okay, can we...not?" Clint said suddenly. The others looked at him. "Just...it's not a joke."
"Looks like it's Tony and Natasha against the world," Steve said, standing up. "Who wants to get taken down on the video game thing?"
"That's his idea of smack talk," Tony said, as the tension broke. Bruce smiled, relieved, as the others trooped into the living room, Thor dragging the keg behind him.
There was no earthly possibility of killing the keg, just the seven of them. Still, the Avengers were people who met challenges head-on, so they kept drinking (steadily if not quickly) while Steve spanked them all at video games. It was, admittedly, awe-inspiring to watch.
"We should get into video games," Tony said, curled up with Pepper in a corner of the couch. "It's a pretty steady business, not a lot of up and down, even with apps and shit coming in."
"Language," Steve said absently.
"Fuck," Tony replied.
"You're not allowed to buy Nintendo," Pepper announced.
"Though you could do promo shots for Super Mario," Clint added. He was perched on the back of the couch, behind Steve, so that during the difficult shooting bits of the game Steve could pass the controller up to him.
"Look who's talking, Link," Bruce said lazily.
"I could rock the shit out of that hat and tunic," Clint answered, unconcerned. The beer seemed to be doing him good. Natasha, who was sitting on the floor between Steve's right leg and Bruce's left, patted Bruce's shoe.
"It wouldn't be the first time," she said.
"The first time he rocked a hat?" Bruce asked.
"Tasha," Clint said warningly.
"Fine. I'll tell you later," she said to Bruce, standing and strolling over to the keg. "Who's empty?"
Tony held up his glass; Bruce waved off a refill when she looked at him.
"I'm serious though. We could license the Avengers. Game writes itself. Choose a character, multiplayer, maybe a versus mode. Have to invent some villains, real bad guys are notoriously litigious about their copyright," Tony said thoughtfully, leaning around Pepper to pick up his StarkPad. She smacked him on the head, and he sighed and collapsed back against her.
"I think I've had enough of being public property for one lifetime," Steve said, neatly slicing the arm off an enemy soldier.
"You wouldn't be public property, you'd be property of Stark Games," Tony replied. "Thank you," he added, as Natasha carried a fresh beer towards him. She deftly avoided his seeking hand, putting it in Pepper's instead.
"This is a conspiracy," Tony declared.
"I'm sorry, what's the ratio of women to men in this room again?" Pepper asked.
"But you're like four women on your own," Tony informed her.
"I see why she puts up with you," Bruce said, somewhat impressed by Tony's delivery and the way it made Pepper smile.
"Don't be fooled, I only love him for his body," Pepper replied. "When you get old I'm trading you in," she said to Tony.
"Like I'm ever going to get old," Tony scoffed.
"Yes!" Steve interrupted, throwing both arms over his head in triumph as he beat the level. "Nuts to you, evil oppressors!"
"You tell them," Bruce said, and Steve lowered his arms, blushing.
Thanks to Exileena for the Clint-as-Link suggestion!
A few days after Tony brought up video games, Bruce found a folder in the high-security lab server he and Tony shared marked A-A.V.G.v1. Intrigued, he opened it and found "AVENGERS: ASSEMBLE".
The code was crude, more concept than game, but he could see where Tony was going with it. True to his idea, the game had single-player, multi-player, and versus modes, plus notes for various puzzles and villains.
The single-player mode was ingenious, taking a page from the old Sonic game; if you chose to play one character, another followed you around. Iron Man had Super Pep, which made Bruce laugh -- in a pinch she could give him a charge of energy. Captain America had Iron Man, who could occasionally lift him into the air; Steve sometimes hitched rides with Tony that way if he needed to be somewhere in a hurry during a fight. Hawkeye followed Thor, and Black Widow followed the Hulk, both going into places the bigger hitters couldn't fit. Hawkeye and Black Widow were both followed by The Suit, a plain-looking man who provided heavy backup ammunition in certain situations.
"I programmed it drunk," Tony said, and Bruce startled. He glanced up at Tony, who was grinning down at him. "I'll clean it up later if I get bored. What do you think?"
Bruce gave him a hesitant smile. "Seems fun."
"But?" Tony prompted.
"Um. No disrespect meant, but...knock it off with The Suit," Bruce said. "I don't think Clint and Natasha want that haunting them. Especially Clint."
Tony's mouth tightened, but he nodded. "Yeah. Of course, Jesus, I mentioned I was drunk, right? Good point, I can just..." he scooted Bruce physically out of the way, pushing his chair along, and ducked into the code.
"Tony," Bruce said, a little worried.
"No, that was so incredibly -- this is why I have people to tell me when I'm being a dipshit," Tony mumbled, recoding as he went. "Natasha can have Super Pep, all-girl team, I like that, and Clint..."
"Yeah," Bruce agreed.
"Can he have Hulk?" Tony asked, glancing at him.
"Sure. A hitter and a long-range weapon, that makes sense."
"Hulk can warp, too, check this out," Tony said, and a rough animation on the screen showed the Other Guy leaping across an entire level.
"The finest minds of our generation at work, I see," Bruce heard Natasha say, and he spun in his chair, turning towards the door. She was leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, looking faintly amused.
"Meanwhile, the super-spy puts her skills to work pointlessly breaking into my lab," Tony said, still coding.
"It's Bruce's lab, and I'm on the guest list," Natasha replied.
"It's my building."
"Did I break into your building?" Natasha asked. "I'm pretty sure I recall an invitation."
"I know you know how logic works," Tony said. "Lab A is in building A. Building A belongs to superhero T. Superhero T therefore owns both Building A and its subset, Lab A."
"Did Superhero T need something?" Bruce asked gently. "Or can he go code in the lab subset not assigned to Superhero B?"
"Just for that, I'm putting a whole scene in this where Hulk gets turned into a human and his pants fall off," Tony said, but he closed down the code editor and stepped back from the monitor. "I'll be in my workshop, revolutionizing civilization. Come down when you get bored."
"Hi, Doc," Natasha said, as Tony left.
"Natasha," Bruce replied, smiling in welcome. "What can I do for you today?"
"Actually, I'm just here for Clint," she said, and Bruce felt unaccountably disappointed.
"He's not here, I'm afraid," he said.
Natasha pointed at the ceiling. Bruce looked up and found himself nose to nose with Clint Barton, who was dangling from the ductwork, face a couple of inches over his head.
"Holy -- " Bruce yelped, and fell out of his chair.
"Clint!" Natasha yelled, at the same time Clint said "Doc!" in a really alarmed voice, and landed on his feet next to Bruce. Natasha was already kneeling at his side, carefully not touching him, and Clint joined her on his other side, looking wary.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Bruce said, picking up his glasses from where they'd fallen. "Bruised ego and backside, that's all."
"What the hell were you thinking?" Natasha asked, punching Clint in the shoulder. It looked like it hurt.
"Clearly I wasn't!" Clint retorted. "Sorry, Doc," he added, leaning back and rising easily to his feet again as Bruce stood up.
"How long were you up there?" Bruce asked, leaning against the table, trying to calm his racing heart. The Other Guy was keeping pretty quiet, but calmer was always better.
Both of them looked guilty.
"And what were you doing up there?" he asked, because that was much less awkward.
"Spy games," Clint said. "We should declare his lab off-limits," he added to Natasha.
"Yes, please," Bruce said.
"Uh, thanks for..." Clint made a complicated gesture towards the computer. The hollows under his eyes seemed to deepen momentarily. "With the...and everything."
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "No problem."
"Cool. Okay, Tasha, declare an out of bounds, I'm gonna..." Clint jerked his thumb at the door, and Natasha nodded. "Count of ten."
"Does anything ever faze you?" Bruce asked, amused, as Clint jogged out.
"Some things," she said, tightening the strap of her fingerless gloves. "Thousand seven, thousand eight, thousand nine, thousand ten. Seeya, Doc!"
Thor had been back from Asgard for a few weeks before he called a meeting in the designated Avengers conference room at the Tower (it had extra jammers so they could be sure nobody was listening in).
He hadn't really been at the Tower much, at least not that Bruce had seen. He'd spent some time wandering New York, apparently, and Clint mentioned that he'd been on the Helicarrier for a while too. A news report that crossed Bruce's occasional blog reading said that he'd been seen in Germany, but Bruce knew you couldn't trust the news when it came to the Avengers. If he listened to every report that said Pepper Potts was pregnant, she'd have had three or four kids by now.
Anyway, Thor had been around, but not really around, for a month or so when JARVIS informed him that Thor requested his presence in the meeting room.
"Something up?" Bruce asked, shutting down his experiments. "JARVIS, keep an eye on table three for me, let me know if the temperature rises at all."
"He has not mentioned any issues to the other Avengers," JARVIS informed him. "I will monitor table three."
"You are Tony's best day's work," Bruce told him, and locked up his lab before stepping into the elevator, where Tony and Natasha were already on their way up.
"You know why Thor's calling a meeting?" Tony asked. "I didn't even think he knew how. I figured if he needed to see all of us he'd just bring another asston of ice cream in."
"Verily, a mighty feast," Bruce replied, and heard Natasha snort.
When they arrived, Clint and Steve were there, and Thor was standing at the head of the table next to a large object wrapped in a leather bag.
"So what's cookin', Weatherman?" Tony asked, throwing himself into a chair. Only then, apparently, did he notice Thor's guilty, unhappy expression, which Bruce saw the second he came in the room and which filled him with dread. "Ah, shit, if you say Loki escaped -- "
"No," Thor said. "My brother is still in chains in Asgard."
"Hey, um, I volunteer to mail them more chains, if they want him in more chains," Clint said.
"Let's not forget that's his brother," Steve said, gently scolding.
"Let's not forget his brother's a homicidal -- "
"Okay!" Bruce said brightly, because he'd found that any reminder that he was in the room tended to instantly make people behave. Oh, the power. "Thor, you have the floor."
Thor looked down at his feet.
"It means it's your turn to talk," Bruce sighed.
"Ah. My friends," Thor said, sorrowfully, "I have not been entirely candid in my motives for returning to this realm." He opened the leather bag next to him and took out a large glass jar, filled with glowing light. Bruce fought the urge to go ooooooh.
They he found out the jar contained the immortal essence of what remained of Phil Coulson, and was torn between ick, jar of soul and shit.
"I hate magic," Tony hissed at him on the flight out to Arlington to investigate Phil Coulson's grave, which was just about the last thing Bruce ever, ever wanted to do. "I hate religion because nobody's imaginary best friend gets to tell me what to do or who to fuck and I hate magic because it has no rational basis. You know what keeps this plane up? Science. You know what runs this thing?" he asked, really warming up to the topic, tapping his reactor through his shirt. "Science! You know why Captain StarkPod over there is running around like a propaganda poster after seventy years in the freezer?" he demanded, waving a hand at Steve, who had his headphones in and was blissfully unaware of Tony's rant.
"Science?" Bruce asked mildly.
"SCIENCE," Tony boomed.
"But you read science fiction," Bruce said reasonably. Sometimes it was fun to wind Tony up and watch him go.
"There's no magic in science fiction! You know what they call it when you put magic in science fiction? Fantasy."
"I like fantasy," Natasha said from the seat across from them. Clint was asleep with his head on her shoulder, which Bruce suspected was due to her drugging the soda she'd brought him just before takeoff. "The first book I ever read in English was a contraband copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe."
"Contraband?" Bruce asked.
"It's about a talking lion as a metaphor for Jesus," Natasha said. "Not really approved reading for communist spies in training. Someone smuggled it in and we passed it around."
"Oh. I guess I can see that." Bruce grinned. "I wanted to go to Narnia when I was a kid. I used to open every door, wherever we went, just in case."
"You are a traitor to the scientific method," Tony accused.
"It was very scientific. I did it in a methodical fashion. Never checked the same place twice," Bruce said calmly.
"I wanted to be the Snow Queen," Natasha put in.
"You are both dead to me," Tony declared, climbing out of his chair and over Bruce, heading for the bar.
"Tony's just bitter his Hogwarts letter never came," Bruce said. "Have you read the others?"
Natasha nodded, and one of her rare, pretty smiles emerged slowly. "Coulson gave them to me as a present, when I was taken off probationary status after I joined SHIELD."
"Did you ever want to go to Narnia?" Bruce asked, and Natasha's smile faded into a wistful look.
"Sometimes I still do," she said.
Stupid dead green men, stupid dead bones should not be moving. Dead bones should stay still in the ground. Stupid dead bones moving around, Hulk will smash them all.
Stupid Ugly Hairs brought Hulk here, Stupid Ugly Hairs and his stupid jar. Tiny Bruce should not listen to Ugly Hairs. Tiny Bruce should listen to Hulk! Ugly Hairs always getting Shiny Man and Naked Man and Strong Man and Bossy Blue into trouble. Ugly Hairs and his Ugly Hair Brother.
Tiny Bruce should listen to Strong Man. Strong Man protects Tiny Bruce. Tiny Bruce is too tiny, too weak, should let Strong Man and Shiny Man protect him.
Shiny Man is good. Shiny Man flies, shoots like whoom like kaboom. They should go back to Shiny Man Tall Place, where Tiny Bruce can eatsleepcookfuckrunwork be happy. Not be out here in terrible dead place with stupid dead bones moving around.
Tiny Bruce should listen to Hulk. Hulk knows best.
Bet no stupid big flying things drop kaboom-bombs on Hulk at Shiny Man Tall Place.
Bruce was always exhausted after the Other Guy got out. Even before there had been an Other Guy, back when it was just Bruce and his unexpected, terrifying temper, once the rage was over he'd always felt wrung out, guilty, weary. There was less guilt now, but all he really wanted to do was sleep. He was mildly annoyed at the paramedics who were triaging him, giving him oxygen and taking blood samples, but he wrapped himself in the blanket they gave him and let himself be distracted by Steve.
Steve looked awful, sick and upset and frightened, and Bruce felt a sudden warm surge of affection for their Captain. When Steve sat down next to him, Bruce tugged his big blond head over to rest on Bruce's shoulder, ruffling his hair gently. There was this, too, which was perhaps more worrying than the exhaustion: after Hulk was done, Bruce was always really affectionate, heavily tactile. Still, Steve didn't seem to mind, slumping against him quietly until Pepper showed up.
Bruce slept his way through the post-battle cleanup, mostly, and dozed through the debrief. When it was finally time to go home, he let himself be led barefoot to a helicopter and collapsed into the seat next to Steve, leaning on his arm and maybe mashing his face just a little into Steve's shoulder (well, Steve owed him one). The rumble of the copter was oddly soothing, and when Bruce woke up again they had landed at the Tower.
Steve shot him a questioning look, but Bruce shook his head and began a slow, exhausted walk to the elevators. He was staring at the button, trying fuzzily to remember how it worked, when a hand reached out and pushed it, and a slim shoulder was shoved under his arm.
"Easy," Natasha said, as Bruce leaned gratefully on her for support. "Tired?"
"Yeah," he breathed, focusing on keeping his eyes opened. "How're you?"
"Fine. Nice work back there."
Bruce yawned as the door opened. "I'll let the big guy know."
They rode down to Bruce's floor in silence, and Natasha wrapped an arm around his waist as he overbalanced, leaning forward to let the scanner read his retina. Inside, he made it to the couch before collapsing.
"Probably best they didn't bother giving you shoes," Natasha said, settling the shock blanket over his shoulders. Bruce burrowed into the couch, groaning in relief at being horizontal.
"Gotta buy new shoes. JARVIS, note," Bruce mumbled.
"Noted, Dr. Banner," JARVIS replied. "Shall I set an alarm?"
"No," Natasha answered, as Bruce yawned again. "Let him sleep himself out, please, JARVIS."
"Very good, Agent Romanoff."
"Bruce?" Natasha asked, from somewhere very far away. "Doc?"
"You okay here?"
"Sure. Slept in worse," he said, the words slurring a little.
"You want me to stay?" she asked, her voice amused. Bruce managed to crack one eye open and found that he'd wrapped an arm around her where she sat, perched on the edge of the couch, and was pinning her in place.
"Sorry, s'a thing," he managed, letting go of her waist.
"It's okay, Doc," she said, and he was sure he felt her fingers smoothing down his hair before he drifted off.
Warning: some implication of PTSD (from sexual assault) in this chapter.
Bruce would have said that 99% of the people who could keep up with Tony Stark couldn't stand to be in the same room with him, but that would be mathematically false. There weren't a hundred people in the world who could keep up with him, and you couldn't have only part of a person putting up with him, people and math didn't interact that way.
There were maybe twenty people operating on or above Tony's level, and that was being generous; Bruce only knew of eight personally. But assuming that perhaps some of the world's geniuses were intelligently and calmly keeping the fuck out of the public eye, as he wished he had done, twenty was a sound estimate. Which meant that the number dropped to 95%, and he was the five percent with both the capacity and the tolerance for long exposure. Other people could, and did, put up with Tony, even love him, but they weren't interested in the deep dark gritty greasy math-and-science that Bruce and Tony both adored.
It wasn't ego. Bruce knew his limitations, but he also knew that he was not like the other kids. He knew that in anything short of robotics he was Tony's equal, and in chemistry his superior. On the personality side he had both the calm which Hulk had taught him and the objectivity that came of dysfunctionally avoiding depending on anyone else emotionally, and those things made them ideal lab mates.
He liked the others too, it wasn't that he didn't. He tried to be friendly and accommodating and mostly succeeded. His anger had never stopped simmering just below the surface -- why should it? It didn't stop for anyone, even Tony -- but repressing that was part of his gift to them too. His impatience and annoyance was his problem, not theirs, and so it was simply the right thing to do. Though Bruce figured that if reincarnation did exist, he was due to be reborn as a guru or a wealthy man or maybe a fucking awesome dragon.
Hey, he didn't piss in anyone else's fantasy life, they had no right to piss in his. Dragons might exist.
The point was that in his own way, Bruce loved Tony; it wasn't a romantic thing but a "This guy gave me a life and also is the best friend I have been craving since I was five" thing. They got each other. And he liked Pepper, kind and smart and beautiful Pepper, who was clearly someone Tony had needed for a long time.
So when Steve showed up for lunch one day with a hickey and a glow and confided to Bruce where he'd been last night (being fair, Bruce asked) he wasn't jealous that Steve apparently got both Tony and Pepper. He wasn't annoyed with Steve's obvious good mood. He just wished idly that he could have someone to trust like that.
(Also, fucking. God, he missed sex. Filthy, messy, maybe a little violent, maybe sometimes really slow and affectionate sex. It was impossible to be touch-starved around Tony because Tony touched people all the time, but it was not the same.)
Steve Rogers got a threesome, and Bruce Banner got a bromance.
Still, could be worse. He had a lab and a home and friends, none of which he'd had for a long time.
"We should go out," Tony said, a few days after the Steve Incident. He hadn't been to the workshop in days; Bruce diagnosed a combination of Stark Industries needing him and having two beautiful people waiting for him when SI was done with him.
"Hm?" Bruce asked, looking up from his microscope.
"The Avengers. You know. Like the party we had for Coulson. Go out, be seen, make a scene. Good team bonding, good PR."
"Until Thor misinterprets Midgardian culture and throws someone through the bar, or Steve has a seizure over what women are wearing this season."
"He's not a prude, once you dig down. I mean, you should hear -- "
"Tony, I love you like a brother. Stop talking about your sex life," Bruce said quickly. Tony cocked his head.
"Are you worried about the Other Guy if we go out? Because we could do somewhere mellow."
"I just want to...do my work and maybe watch a nature documentary or something," Bruce said.
"We have got to improve your porn stash."
Bruce sat back, rolling his shoulders. "Believe it or not, not everyone has your constant drive to fornicate."
"Yeah, see, I don't believe that. Well, maybe, in a statistical sense, but not of you," Tony said, pointing at him with a screwdriver. "Come on, you can tell me, I'm like a therapist only not expensive or judgmental."
"Your therapist is judgmental?"
"Therapists, plural, in my past, and yes, which is why I dress up in a costume and fight crime now instead," Tony said. "Nice diversion, but I'm faster than you. So what, this no sex thing, is it a fear of commitment? Are you scared the big guy might -- oh, Jesus, he doesn't, does he? I mean -- holy shit, Bruce -- "
"No! No," Bruce said hurriedly. "I think I've got a handle on what makes him tick now, I think I'd be good. I mean, I'm good solo, so...."
"So what is it, Dr. Feelgood? Because when Captain Can't Take A Hint is getting more action than you, trouble's brewing."
Bruce tapped his fingers on the counter, staring at them. Tap-tap-tap.
"I always had a temper," he said, keeping his eyes on his fingers, keeping his pulse in mind. "Even before. 'Cause my dad -- he knocked us around. Me and Mom. And I swore I would never hit someone I loved, but I always worried -- wondered, you know. If I lost my temper at the wrong moment, in the wrong way, was I capable of that?"
He risked a glance at Tony, expecting pity or horror, but Tony was watching him with careful, sympathetic eyes.
"And now it's so, so much worse," he said, looking back down. "I can't put anyone in that position, Tony, you get that, right? So...it's nice to think about it, but I'm not going to push my luck, and I don't need you pushing it for me."
"You can't be alone forever," Tony said quietly.
"I'm not alone. I have the Avengers. Besides," he added with a grin, trying to lighten the mood, "you haven't actually seen my porn stash."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Is that a challenge?"
"It's not digital."
"Oh lordy!" Tony laughed, pretend-scandalized.
"Anyway, it's a nice thought, but I'd better not."
"Come on, dinner at least," Tony wheedled. "No pushing, I promise, just dinner out with the team."
Bruce nodded. "Okay. Just dinner. And nowhere with strobe lights or strippers."
"Trust me, my stripper days are far behind me. Though it'd be worth it for the expression on Steve's face."
"Funnier for the expression on Coulson's."
Tony did his best Coulson face, bland little smile and slightly raised eyebrows, which never failed to crack Bruce up.
Tony kept his word, at least, and didn't spring a nightclub or strippers on them when he called a team dinner. It wasn't quite as fancy as the last one, no private dining room, but Bruce understood that the purpose of this meal was to be Seen. The Avengers, out for a night on the town, getting along, signing the occasional autograph as they ate and talked and generally behaved like civilized people.
Of course, as one of the Avengers, things looked a little different from the inside. Steve, seated between Tony and Pepper, looked like he was in constant fear of being molested in public (possibly with good cause, given the amount of time Pepper's hand spent on his thigh under the table). Clint was constantly checking sightlines even as he stole food off Coulson's plate. Thor had been coached on proper Midgardian feast protocol and was on his meekest, best behavior, sitting between Tony and Coulson.
Well, Natasha clearly considered this an undercover job of a sort, and had dressed the part. Pristine makeup, gorgeous hair, beautiful black dress with just the right amount of shoulder showing. Bruce tried not to sneak glances at her as she sat next to him, joking with Clint and arguing good-naturedly with Pepper about SI's marketing strategy.
"You know, as jobs go, I've had worse," she said to him, as Pepper turned away to say something in Steve's ear.
"Tony is the best sugar daddy," Bruce agreed, grinning.
"He beats Director Fury," she said. "Hey, Clint and Pepper and I are going out for drinks after, you want to come?"
"I don't do well in bars," he said regretfully.
"It's okay, we're going somewhere nice. At least Pepper says that. Clint's idea of somewhere nice is a place with free peanuts."
"This is New York," Pepper said, leaning around her. "It's chock full of classy bars. Come along, Bruce, you'll have fun. You can be our designated driver."
"Yeah, sounds 'fun'," he said, smiling to take the sting from the sarcasm.
"You haven't seen what you get to drive," Pepper informed him.
"Are you sure it's okay to send Tony and Steve home in a cab?" Bruce asked, half an hour later. He was sitting in the driver's seat of a Rolls-Royce, worried about what would happen if he dropped the clutch but otherwise enjoying the hell out of himself. In the back, Natasha and Clint were arguing about what constituted a girly drink. "Or...without you?"
"Trust me," Pepper said. "These things are delicate."
"The car, or...?"
Bruce raised an eyebrow.
"Steve's a little unsure of himself," she murmured. "I thought some alone-time for the boys might help."
"Oh -- oh," Bruce blinked. "Oh. Okay. As long as you're sure."
"I'm sure. If I were the jealous type, Bruce, I wouldn't be dating Tony. Besides, he'll return the favor."
"It's nice that you three have someone to talk to about this," Bruce sighed, ignoring the evening crowds eyeballing the car from the sidewalk. "Where are we going? I'm just driving aimlessly at this point."
"Up ahead another few blocks," Pepper replied. "Tony thinks we should find you a nice girl, you know. Or a nice boy, I don't know what you prefer."
"Women, pretty much exclusively," Bruce replied. "But mostly an uncomplicated life."
"As opposed to what?" Natasha asked, leaning forward between the seats.
"Tony wants to set Bruce up," Pepper replied.
"I know some SHIELD agents," Clint offered, elbowing Natasha out of the way. "Most of them are still on speaking terms with me."
"He's not looking for a one-night stand with a spy," Natasha replied.
"Well, failing all else..." Bruce began. Clint's fist appeared next to his ear. He rolled his eyes, but lifted a hand off the wheel long enough to bump it. "I'm not really looking for anyone right now, though."
"Reasons," Bruce said. "Oh look, we're at the bar. Let's go inside and leave the awkward conversation in the glovebox."
The bar was, actually, pretty nice. Muted music, reasonably well-lit, and nobody bothered any of them. Bruce drank sparkling water while Natasha and Clint continued their argument about girly drinks, and Pepper smiled into her cosmo and questioned why 'girly' was such a pejorative. It was pleasant. Sociable. Something he hadn't had a lot of even before the Other Guy.
"Quit while you're ahead," Pepper said, as Clint started to tie himself in knots over how girly didn't actually mean 'for a girl'. "Come on, help me get the next round."
Which left Bruce alone with Natasha, and suddenly out of things to say.
"It's a nice bar," he observed inanely.
"Are you really not looking for anyone?" Natasha asked, sliding her glass from the fingertips of her right hand to her left and back again.
Bruce sat back. "Points for bluntness."
"Thanks, but I'm already way out ahead of everyone else."
"Probably so." He thought about it for a second. "When you think of the Other Guy, what's the first thing that comes to mind?"
"Running from him on the Helicarrier. Well, no," she corrected. "I think about watching him catch Stark in the fight with Loki, and remembering running from him while I watched."
"But he's a person to you."
"More or less. He's not much on conversation, you know that, right?"
Bruce gave her a wry smile. "I know. And I appreciate that you think of us as separate people. Try this, though: think of him like...a mental illness. Something in me. A disability, something that requires accommodation. You can't see it most of the time, so it's easy to forget it's there. But it always is. He's not me, but he's my problem. And anyone who gets close to me, he's their problem too. That doesn't mean nobody can get close. Just that they have to be...different. Willing to tolerate that. And I can't imagine inflicting that problem on someone I love. This is the rest of my life, and for all I know, that's going to be a very, very long one, because he seems particularly durable."
"People with mental illness fall in love, get married, lead their lives," she pointed out. "Disability isn't something you inflict on someone. It's something they accept, if they love you."
"That's a nice way to think about it, but that's not how I feel. I couldn't put a life in danger like that. With the Avengers, it's different. Everyone can handle themselves, and we all jump into danger on a regular basis anyway. Can you honestly picture me dating an ordinary person?"
Natasha looked down at her drink. "No, I guess not. Clint's idea is decent, though -- someone from SHIELD, someone who can handle herself, accept the dangers."
"I'm not sure the..." he tried to figure out how to say it. "The SHIELD mentality makes for the kind of person I'd get along with, in general."
"Don't know until you try."
"But I'm reasonably happy not trying, so why take the risk?"
She looked up at him. "Reasonably happy and actually happy aren't the same thing."
"They are if you're me. This is better than I've had it in years, Natasha. Maybe ever. I'm not going to spoil that. If that means I walk a fine line...I'm okay with that. Sometimes we want more and can't have it. Just the way things are. Life could be a lot worse."
"What did we miss?" Pepper asked, sliding back into the booth and putting a new drink in front of Natasha. Natasha eyed the green concoction suspiciously.
"If you can tell me what it is, I'll drink the rest and you can have my beer," Clint declared.
Which was how Bruce ended up refereeing multiple rounds of What's My Booze?
On the drive home, he found himself in the front seat alone. Clint was asleep on Natasha's shoulder in the back, and Pepper had sort of fallen in on her other side after 'helping' her in. Natasha seemed almost sober, except for the relaxed set of her shoulders and the way one of her hands was curled gently against Clint's short hair.
"Home, chauffeur," Pepper said with a wave of her hand.
"Yes ma'am," Bruce answered, pulling out into traffic. "JARVIS?"
"Yes, Dr. Banner," JARVIS answered from the dashboard.
"Turn the garage lights on, and let anyone who's still awake know that we're on our way, and I'd appreciate a little help with the party animals in the back."
"Agent Coulson is awake," JARVIS said, after a pause. "He has confirmed he will meet you in the garage."
"In that case, give me a map home and some driving music," Bruce replied.
"As you like, Dr. Banner," JARVIS said. A map popped up on the lower part of the windscreen, and soft music began to play.
"What is that?" Natasha asked, after about thirty seconds.
"Don't judge," Bruce replied, catching her eye in the rearview. "I like stupid pop."
"No, I actually don't know what it is," she replied. "Spent twenty years in the USSR, remember?"
"Oh, right," he said, frowning. "It's -- well, his stage name is Meat Loaf."
I'd lie for you and that's the truth -- do anything you asked me to...
Natasha cocked her head, listening, then started to hum along.
"JARVIS, stay on this playlist," Bruce said.
They made it through Simply Irresistible and Forever Young before they hit another Meat Loaf song, and Bruce found himself singing along as they drew close to Stark Tower.
She used her body just like a bandage,
She used my body just like a wound
I'll probably never know where she disappeared
But I can see her rising up out of the back seat now
Just like an angel rising up from a tomb...
JARVIS killed the music as they pulled into the garage, and sure enough Coulson was there, tapping away on his phone, sitting on the hood of a car worth more than most peoples' lifetime earnings.
"Everybody on their feet," Bruce called, climbing out of the car and opening the back door to offer Pepper a hand getting out. On the other side, Coulson was quietly waking Clint. Natasha gave Pepper a slight boost, then shook her head when Bruce leaned back in for her.
"I'm fine," she said. "You take Pepper up, Coulson's got Clint."
"Hey, baby," Clint murmured, as Coulson helped him heave himself out of the car. Bruce glanced at Coulson curiously. Clint nuzzled into his hair.
"The heart is a mysterious thing," Coulson said, catching Bruce's look.
"You're telling me," Bruce replied, steadying Pepper as she stepped out of her high heels. He turned back to make sure Natasha was following them, and saw her still in the back seat, head tilted back. "Natasha?"
"I'll be out in a minute," she said. "Go on, I'm fine."
She sounded all right; maybe she was just waiting for them to clear the way. He shrugged and went back to helping Pepper through the somewhat complex security checks necessary to get into the penthouse, and then walking her to the bedroom. He had a glimpse of Steve's broad back amid the rumpled covers, Tony curled up against him, before Pepper turned and thanked him. He smiled.
"Anytime. Drink some water before you go to bed," he cautioned, and left her to however the three of them wrangled sleeping arrangements.
On a hunch, he went back down to the garage. Natasha was Russian, right? Surely she'd been raised on vodka or something and could handle her alcohol better than any of them. But there she was, curled up on the back seat of the Rolls, shoes kicked off, looking cold and miserable.
"Hey," he said, leaning against the doorway of the car. "Sure you don't want some help?"
She looked up at him, then slowly pushed herself up.
"Clint gave me Everclear," she complained. "It just hit me."
"Yeah, I can imagine it did," he said, offering a hand. She looked suspicious before she took it. "I thought you were supposed to have the alcohol tolerance of three men, or something."
"We're not supposed to drink on the job. Even if we have to drink with...people," she replied, leaning into him, then pulling away again. He looked at her, confused. "We swap out drinks, dump them, that kind of thing. Not much tolerance anymore, I guess."
"You still put Clint under the table, if it's any consolation," he replied, reaching for her. Her hand snapped out, closing around his wrist, and finally he got it.
She was looking at him with deep mistrust, but also a sort of want -- like she wished she could let him help.
"Hey," he said softly, and her hand loosened around his wrist. "Listen, I am many things, including the monster that almost killed you once, but Natasha, I am not That Guy."
Her eyes narrowed.
"All I'm gonna do here is take you up to your place and make sure you're okay," he continued in the same low voice. "If you want, I won't come in. Hell, if you want I'll just put you in the elevator and have JARVIS keep an eye on you. I just want to make sure you get to sleep in your own bed tonight. Car's not comfortable, believe me, I know."
She let go of his wrist. "You do know."
"You know a lot."
He tilted his head, acknowledging it. "Most I could have done without knowing. I think you know how that is."
"Okay," she said finally, coming forward to lean into his side. He put an arm around her waist carefully. "You leave me at the door."
"You got it," he agreed, leading her into the elevator. "Hey, I didn't know about Clint and Agent Coulson," he added, trying to keep her awake as they rode upwards.
"Clint has a bow," she said, and started laughing into his shoulder. Bruce wasn't sure why this was funny, but he let it go.
"I always thought you and he, maybe," he said.
"Years ago," she replied. "Old news."
"Mmhm. Okay, your floor," he added, when the elevator stopped. He kept his arm around her waist until they reached the door. "You okay to get to bed on your own?"
She twisted to look up at him, considering -- assessing him.
"You can come in," she said magnanimously. Bruce let her unlock the door and then came inside with her, following her unsteady progress down the hall to the bedroom. He stopped a few feet from the doorway.
"I'll get you some water," he said, and she nodded. When he came back from the kitchen with a glass, she was lying on the bed, curled around one of about a million pillows. He hesitated in the doorway again, then slowly circled the bed to set the glass on her nightstand.
"See?" she said, yawning.
"See what?" he asked.
"We look after each other," she told him, eyes dark, as if this were somehow incredibly profound. He smiled, heading back for the door.
"Night," she mumbled, as he flicked off the light and left.
Most of the time, especially if the Other Guy wasn't needed for a fight, Bruce was the designated patch-up artist afterward. Clint had issues with doctors which Bruce didn't inquire into very closely, since he had his own and he knew where they came from. Tony preferred the SHIELD medics ("Because they have drugs") but often didn't notice he was hurt until long after a fight, when Bruce was closer anyway. Steve rarely needed medical attention of any kind, and Thor never seemed to. Natasha didn't like strangers tending her wounds, but apparently he now fell under 'trusted' in her personal lexicon, which was nice; at any rate, if it was an equal distance between him and SHIELD, she came to him.
He actually had been needed, this time around, or rather the Other Guy had. It was aliens again because, as Fury had pointed out, apparently it was open season on Earth now. Nothing nearly as destructive as the Chitauri, but unpredictable enough that Hulk's brand of heavy-duty anarchic fighting was a welcome aid. At least this time they got to debrief in the plane on the flight back to New York from Maine (Maine? Really?) and Bruce could get to his apartment under his own power.
When he woke hours later it was well into afternoon, drizzly and grey outside. He yawned and stretched and thought he might as well blow the rest of the day in the lab. He doubted he'd do much more than stare stupidly at the results of the tests he'd been running when they were called up, but maybe he'd have some kind of epiphany.
He was happily staring at the results, absorbing absolutely nothing on the screen in front of him but kind of enjoying it, when JARVIS said, "Agent Romanoff is at the door, sir."
"Let her in," he said absently, turning away from the screen. "Natasha?"
"Hey, Doc," she said, peering around the door. "Have you got a minute?"
"How're you feeling?"
"Sleepy. Dumb. Nothing unusual," he said, as she came inside. She was holding herself oddly; looked like maybe some bruising on her ribcage, and something wrong with her shoulder -- no, her left arm. "Need a consult?"
She held up her arm, wrist stiff. "I think it's a sprain, but it might be broken. Didn't notice until it started to hurt."
"When was that?" he asked, clearing a space for her to rest it on the table. He wasn't actually trained in medicine, but he'd done enough work in his fugitive days that he could tell broken bones from swollen muscles.
"Guess it never really stopped, is more the issue. Noticed it about twenty minutes ago. JARVIS said you were up."
"Mmh," he said, testing the wrist gingerly. "Scale of one to ten -- "
"Real four, or SHIELD four?" he asked.
"What's the difference?"
"SHIELD four, I add two for an accurate measure."
She smiled. "Real four. Promise."
"Okay. Doesn't feel broken, but wrist bones are tricky. If it still hurts the same tomorrow, you should take it down to the biolabs in R&D and have them image it. Want me to brace it?"
"Please," she said, and he opened the first-aid drawer, taking out a new ace bandage. She rolled the sleeve of her shirt up to her elbow.
"You know the drill," he said, as he wrapped the wrist carefully. "If your fingers start to throb or turn purple -- "
"Panic and tighten the bandage, right?" she asked. He laughed.
"Right. I can see you're a pro," he said. "Try taking it off tomorrow morning and see how you feel. In the meantime keep it elevated, ice for twenty minutes every three hours. Naproxen sodium for the pain."
"Sure," she said, and smiled again.
"Two smiles in one day," he said, and she looked up at him, puzzled. "Sorry. You don't do that often. I was just thinking I must be doing something right."
"I just like this," Natasha said, as he secured the end of the bandage, testing to make sure it wasn't too tight. "What we do."
Bruce frowned, taking off his glasses. "The part where I patch you up so you don't have to go to medical?"
"The part where we look after each other," she said. "The Other Guy saved my ass this time around. Did you know that?"
"No, I didn't -- " Strong Man Safe, he heard Hulk say in his head. "Well. Actually that clarifies something. I'm glad."
"I think he likes me," Natasha continued. "Now, anyway."
"I think so too. Though the only one he seems to have a real problem with is Thor."
"I think you like me, don't you?"
"Course I do," Bruce said, turning away to throw out the box the bandage had come in.
"Doc," she said quietly, and Bruce looked back. "I like you too."
She pulled her arm gently out of his grip and touched her fingers to the side of his face, and Bruce leaned into it because he was only human, after all, or at least part of him was. She smelled like soap, and the peculiar elastic-latex scent of the bandage on her wrist.
They stayed like that for a moment, the air charging between them, her pulse speeding up against his skin -- and then she kicked out of her chair at the same time he stood up, her mouth finding his, teeth digging into his lip. It was rough and harsh and delicious, all her coiled power pressed up against him, dragging him forward as she pulled them around so she was up against a glass-fronted cabinet, beakers rattling inside when her shoulders hit the frame. His whole body felt like it came awake at once.
She dug her fingernails into his scalp just above his neck and he growled into the kiss, worrying even as he did so that he'd scare her off -- but she just bit down harder, hitching her thighs over his hips, tugging one of his hands down to her ass to support her. Bruce exhaled sharply as he adjusted his hold until it was perfect, tilting his head to kiss the side of her throat, to bite at the soft skin there and listen to her moan. The heel of her shoe dug into his thigh, and she murmured, "That's it, Doc, come on," into his ear. Bruce's hips bucked.
She let go of his hair to rip clumsily at his shirt, buttons pinging off the floor, and she got it halfway down his arms before the seams at the shoulders tore. Bruce spared a rueful thought that he'd ruined another shirt, but that got lost quickly in the haze of foreplay: licking down her collarbone, fingers tightening around her ass, trying with his other hand to get her tank top off, the task made more difficult by the way she was rolling against him, rubbing against his dick through his pants. She raked her fingernails down his chest and then pushed him back, pulling the shirt over her head and her bra with it.
Their eyes locked for a minute, knocking Bruce breathless with the intensity of it, and then she executed some kind of move with her shoes -- her shoes -- and got his pants down over his hips. He bent his head to her breast and nosed at the skin there, lips and teeth, while wondered how the fuck he was going to get her pants off without breaking contact.
She shoved him more roughly and he stumbled back, letting her go. She landed on her feet (of course she did) and Bruce surged back in to pin her to the cabinet as his hands worked the fly of her uniform pants, unbuckled the thigh holster and shoved them off with her help, his face buried in the join of her shoulder and neck. She bit his ear and shoved a thigh between his legs, and Bruce whimpered into her skin.
"Condom," he mumbled, though he knew he didn't have any and definitely not in the lab. "Fuck, Natasha, I don't -- "
"I got it, Doc," she said, holding up a small, thin packet. He looked at it and then at her.
"Utility belt?" he asked.
"You'd be amazed what we keep in those things," she replied, tearing it open. She rolled it onto him one-handed, the fingers of her braced left hand pawing at his ass, and then squeezed him roughly before pulling him against her, their bodies slamming into the cupboard again. Bruce felt her lift, got a hand on her hip to steady her, and then leaned in as she sank down on a long, slow moan. "Fuck that's good," she murmured.
He grunted an agreement, hips already moving, pants still around his thighs and the buckle of his belt clattering against the glass. It was -- ruthless, was the best word for it, ruthless and not at all gentle. She pulled his hair and bit his jaw and he kissed her to make her be still, shoved his tongue in her mouth and swallowed her moans while she scratched his shoulders, heels kicking against his thighs. He caught her nipple between his fingers and twisted, first gently and then with more force when she swore and writhed. He bit the top of her breast, catching soft skin between his teeth, and got harsh scratches down his shoulders in return. She bucked against him, tugged his head back up so she could kiss him, and started swearing in Russian.
"Come on, come on," he murmured, as her movements became less rhythmic, less controlled. "Natasha -- oh, Jesus you're fantastic -- "
She stiffened, keening, and clenched a hand so tightly around the back of his neck that he choked off a cry and came, startled, slamming into her and shuddering through possibly the best orgasm of his life. Definitely the best since grad school.
She clung to him, panting. Bruce pushed his whole body against her, pinning her hard on instinct, and she came again.
He caught his breath with his forehead pressed to hers, her hands softer against his skin now, stroking down the marks she'd left, the scratches that were just beginning to burn. He eased back, pulling out of her with an oversensitized huff.
They stared at each other for a few seconds.
"Well," he said, turning away to deal with the condom, hitching his pants up over his hips again. "That was...violent."
He felt Natasha slink an arm around his waist, felt her breasts press against his shoulder blades as she kissed his shoulder from behind. "I like violent. I didn't hear you complain."
"You wouldn't hear me complain about that in a million years," he said, buckling his belt and turning around, startled when she kissed his mouth. It was gentle, and it was strange to feel it over the soft throb of the bite she'd left in his lip.
"Been a long time for you?" she asked, pulling back a little. Her pants had ended up on the table, draped over an inactive gas burner, and she pulled them on with a little jump that made her breasts sway hypnotically.
"You could say that, yes," he said, retrieving her shirt from the floor and handing it to her, bra dangling out of it. She did something that looked like it broke the laws of physics, twisted it around, and pulled the whole thing on. He picked up his shirt, studying the ripped seams and missing buttons with a feeling approaching glee. When he glanced up, Natasha had a hand over her mouth. he gave her a raised eyebrow and she laughed.
"I didn't think one more shirt would break you," she said, fingering one of the dangling, half-attached buttons. Her hand drifted up to the red streaks on his chest. "You may want to put something on those."
"Badges of pride," he said, leaning in to kiss her again. "You're going to want to wear turtlenecks for a few days yourself."
"You didn't mind?" she asked.
"Did I seem like I did?"
"A lot of men..." she shrugged. "They think I'm...demure."
"I promise you," he said, "of all the adjectives I know, demure is not one I apply to you."
She kissed him again, then pulled his head down and kissed his forehead too.
"I have a meeting with Clint," she said. "Super-secret spy stuff. Enjoy the afterglow, okay?"
"Mmhm," he agreed, and watched her put a little extra shake into her ass as she left.
He took a shirt off one of the supply racks -- it always seemed wise to keep a change of clothes around, in a lab full of dangerous chemicals -- and settled back in his lab chair, content with the world.
He went back to his notes, eventually, working lazily at the equations until JARVIS reminded him it was dinner time, and informed him that Ms. Potts had requested his presence in the penthouse. When he got there, he found Tony and Pepper unpacking enough take-away to feed a small army, while Steve set the table and Thor investigated the concept of chopsticks.
"I called Clint and Natasha, but nobody answered," Pepper said, passing Bruce a plate of gyoza and cashew chicken.
"I think they had spy stuff they're doing," Bruce replied, reaching around Tony for a fortune cookie.
"Holy shit," Tony said, and Bruce found himself pinned to the counter, Tony tugging the collar of his shirt down. "What the hell happened to you?"
"What?" Bruce asked, squirming away.
"Bruce," Pepper said, horrified. Bruce looked back and forth between them, confused. "Your neck."
"Hm?" he angled himself so he could see his reflection in the shiny chrome of the fridge. Three livid bruises stood out in a row on one side of his throat; there was one long one on the other side, just below his ear.
"Were you attacked?" Tony asked. "Was it ninjas?"
"Oh, my God," Pepper added, touching the scratches on the back of his neck. Bruce flinched. "You've got blood on your neck, Bruce, what happened? Is it from the fight today?"
"No! It's nothing," Bruce said, laughing nervously, pulling his collar up. "I'm fine, don't worry."
Which was, of course, when Steve grabbed him by the arm, pushed him until he caught himself on the counter, tugged his collar down, and proceeded to inspect his neck and the tops of his shoulders.
"This isn't nothing," he said, in his best Cap voice. Bruce sighed. "Was someone in the lab? Did you fall? I thought when Hulk was hurt it didn't affect you."
"There are spirits in this Tower," Thor said ominously.
"It's JARVIS, I've explained this to you," Tony said, as Pepper wetted a paper towel and began wiping Bruce's neck down while Steve held him still.
"I'm not a -- Pepper!" Bruce yelped, as she rubbed the scratches. "I'm not a puppy, for God's sake! Let go, Steve!"
Steve released him, holding his hands up innocently. All four of them were staring at him as he straightened.
"It was, uh." Bruce fumbled for a word. "Um. Consensual."
Tony's eyes went wide. Steve and Thor both looked confused.
"Aaawkward," Pepper said, and executed a neat turn, going to the table. "So, so awkward!"
"Does that mean what I think...?" Steve asked, still looking faintly concerned.
"It means no more questions, I'll explain when you're older," Tony said, leading Steve away from Bruce.
"AHA!" Thor boomed, realization dawning. "The doctor has taken a lover!"
Bruce picked up his plate, rubbed his eyes with his other hand, and settled down to eat. There was an uncomfortable silence.
"Who -- " Tony began.
"No," Bruce said, stuffing half a gyoza in his mouth.
"But is she -- "
"No," Bruce repeated.
"Are you sure you're -- " Steve tried.
"Yes," Bruce said.
"But you're -- "
"Enjoying my dinner," Bruce finished for him, around a mouthful of food.
"For someone who just got laid he's really cranky," Tony said to Steve in a stage whisper.
"As long as you're happy," Pepper said, and then added somewhat threateningly, "and safe."
"She says, to the rage monster," Bruce responded.
"Have no fear of my inquiries," Thor assured him. "Asgardians understand discretion."
"Thank you," Bruce sighed.
"Hey, wait a minute, does this mean you went out and had post-battle victory sex?" Tony asked.
Bruce sighed, and reached for the spring rolls.
After dinner, which was much less awkward after Tony gave up trying to find out who'd mauled him, Bruce went down to his quarters, wondering if he should...call her? Send flowers? What was the protocol after someone jumped you in your lab? It had never happened to him before.
Or...he could walk into his living room to find Natasha sitting on his couch, reading the book he'd discarded that morning.
"I didn't figure you for a Wilkie Collins fan," she said, setting it down.
"It's an old favorite," he replied, standing in the middle of the room. The awkward of dinner was nothing compared to this. "How was your secret spy stuff?"
"Classified," she said, but her voice was encouraging enough that he came forward, sitting on the couch and not even startling when she crawled into his lap. "So, today was a little impulsive."
"A little," he allowed, wits deserting him. She brushed her fingers gently against his neck.
"I did a number on you," she murmured.
"They noticed at dinner."
Natasha shifted a little, eyes darkening. "Oh?"
"Pepper thought I'd been attacked."
"What did you tell them?"
"That it was consensual, and none of their business."
"Good for you," she said, kissing him. "You know as soon as Clint mentions he saw a bite on my neck -- and he will, because he's Clint -- they're going to put two and two together."
"We could be doing that right now."
She paused and pulled back a little, looking at him. "Please tell me that's not your best line. You're a bright guy, you can do so much better."
"Beautiful women make me stupid," he said.
"There you go."
"So...are we doing this?" he asked, curious. "Is this victory sex? Or...?"
"Not for me," she said. "I told you. I like you. I like us."
"Would it be narcissistic of me to ask why?" he said. "You have to admit, it's somewhat unlikely."
"Why?" she asked. "You said it yourself -- for you it would have to be someone who could hold her own. Why not me?"
"Is that the only reason?"
"I like a guy who's not afraid to be a little rough. I like smart boys. And however dangerous you might be -- you're not That Guy."
"Didn't think you'd remember that," he murmured.
"I remember," she said. She tugged on his hair, gently. "You like this too, don't you? Being close. Touching."
He nodded, closing his eyes, leaning into her. "Very much."
"Finding people we trust is difficult. For both of us. I'm not exactly saying it's easy, but it's easier than the alternative."
"Loneliness for you. Jealousy for me."
"Jealousy?" he asked, opening his eyes. She sighed.
"I envy people who don't have the hangups I have -- the stuff we, anyone who works for SHIELD, has. Or people who've found ways around it. I like Pepper a lot, even if I don't like Stark that much sometimes -- sorry," she interrupted, seeing his expression. "I know he's your friend, but seriously."
"He requires patience," Bruce admitted.
"He requires a slap in the head," she said, and then continued. "I love Clint like a brother and Coulson like a father. But I am deeply, viciously jealous of what Pepper and Clint have. I want that, I want someone to come home to, someone who understands. Maybe we don't work out, but I'm willing to take the risk and try, to get what they have. I think you should, too."
He looked up at her face, pale and beautiful, framed by red hair.
"Honesty?" he asked.
"Even if I think it might scare you off?"
"Try me," she said, giving him a scowl.
"I don't think the risk would be worth it for anyone else," he said. "For you, though, yes. I think so."
She smiled. "Not even close to scary enough, Doc."
"I kinda like it when you call me that."
"I kinda noticed," she said.
"Wanna make out?" he asked, and she was opening her mouth to reply when instead she threw herself to one side, rolling along the edge of the couch, and came up with a gun pointed at the door just as Tony burst through.
"I KNEW IT," Tony shouted. "Oh my god, you slept with the assassin. Clint said -- "
"I'm going to murder Clint," Natasha said, putting the gun away. Bruce wasn't sure where it had come from in the first place.
"You are seducing my lab partner and -- "
"You don't own him!" Natasha interrupted.
"He's my lab partner! And you beat him up!"
"I didn't beat him up, we had sex, you want to see my bite mark -- "
"Clint already mentioned that -- "
"And don't think he won't pay -- "
"HEY," Bruce barked, and both of them startled, turning to him. "Do I need to get the Other Guy out? Because you're acting about on his level right now."
There was a long silence.
"I think you should know I'm totally getting this on film," a voice said from the hallway.
"Clint!" Natasha yelled, and burst past Tony out into the hallway. There was the sound of running feet, and then a clatter. Tony leaned into the hall to see what was happening.
"Uh," he said, turning back to Bruce. "They just disappeared. Sorry about cockblocking you?"
Bruce sighed. "It's fine. We got the important stuff out of the way."
"Want me to go see if I can...?" Tony jerked his thumb at the hall. "I think they're in the air ducts."
"No, they'll be at it for hours," Bruce said, standing and brushing the wrinkles from his pants. "Want to go build stuff till they come out?"
Tony grinned. "I thought you'd never ask."
"And the real motivation behind your cockblocking is revealed," Bruce said, following him towards the elevator. "By the way, you just earned me a week's worth of choosing the music in your lab."
"Nooo," Tony groaned. "If I have to listen to any more Sting than I'm currently hearing, my IQ's going to drop."
"You burst in on me and a beautiful redhead," Bruce reminded him. "It's this or I cue it up to play whenever you and Pepper and your kept man are in the same room."
"If you think anyone is capable of keeping Steve Rogers, I give you permission to try," Tony answered. "I never met a bossier -- "
"And again, while you may want a narrated play-by-play of my love life, please keep me in the dark about yours," Bruce said. Tony stopped him as they stepped into the workshop, a hand on his chest. His fingers drummed against Bruce's shirt.
"She good for you?" he asked.
"She could be," Bruce said. "It's very new."
"And those scratches, you liked that?"
"That's a little personal there, Tony."
"You know what I'm asking," Tony said with a frown.
"I appreciate the older brother routine," Bruce said, looking Tony in the eye. "I do. But you don't need to protect me. I'm going in eyes-open. And yeah, it was kind of nice. Like you zapping me with the prod. I don't care for kid gloves."
Tony let his hand fall. "Okay then. What are the odds the two of us could build a trebuchet that would fire projectiles at the speed of sound?"
Bruce grinned. "Well, if we can't build it, nobody can."
"Thank Turing we're on the side of good then, I guess," Tony said, and started clearing a space for them to work.
Bruce crawled into bed late that night, assured by JARVIS that Natasha and Clint were still somewhere in the building. About ten minutes after he turned off the lights, when he was just on the verge of sleep, he heard soft footsteps on the balcony adjoining the bedroom.
"Don't startle me," he mumbled sleepily.
"Why do you think you heard me coming?" Natasha asked, leaning over the bed.
"Much obliged," he replied, easing the blankets back and sitting up. She covered her mouth, eyes dropping down to his shirt. It was cheap enough, the old I <3 NY logo except that the heart had been replaced by an image of Steve's shield.
"The profits from shirt sales went to rebuilding aid," he said, tugging self-consciously on it.
"If that's what you need to tell yourself," she said, sounding amused.
"You want to stay?" he asked, gesturing to the blankets. She looked indecisive, then shook her head.
"I prefer to sleep in my own," she said. "Just came to say goodnight."
He studied her, the way her eyes cut away, face unusually open.
"I could come up to yours," he said. "If you wanted, I mean, but if not that's fine, I was just -- "
"No, if you want to...you can," she said. "It's not a you thing, it's a bed thing."
"I sleep pretty much anywhere," he replied. "You're not going to stab me in your sleep or anything, right?"
"There is a machete under the bed," she said thoughtfully.
"As long as it stays there," he replied, sliding to his feet. She didn't back up, as he thought she would; instead she leaned in and kissed him, hand sliding around his wrist.
"Going to put some pants on?" she asked, tugging him towards the door.
"Not unless you think I should," he replied.
"Wandering around Stark Tower in your boxers?"
"Who's up at this hour? Even Tony's in bed," he replied, following her down the hall.
Which was, of course, when the elevator door opened, and they found themselves facing Steve Rogers, shirtless, in a pair of sweatpants.
"Bruce, Natasha," he said, eyes wide but voice tightly controlled. "Going up?"
Steve's quarters and the gym were both below Bruce's floor, not above.
"Steve," Bruce said, stepping inside. Natasha followed with a nod, pressing the button for her floor, and the door closed on the most uncomfortable silence ever.
The elevator seemed to move especially slow, ticking past Clint's floor and then Thor's, until finally Steve inhaled. Bruce had a terrible moment where he imagined everything Captain America could possibly say in this situation, and then Steve said, "I like your shirt, Bruce."
"Oh! Uh, thanks," Bruce replied, patting it self-consciously. "The profits go to rebuilding in Manhattan."
"And this is us," Natasha said briskly, bolting through the doors as they opened. "Night Steve!"
"Goodnight," Steve said, still utterly calm and controlled, but his cheeks were red. Bruce hurried after Natasha.
"Oh, my god," she said, when they had put at least two doors between them and Steve. "You should have put on pants."
"He should have worn a shirt!"
"He was going to a booty call."
"So was I," Bruce pointed out, and Natasha kissed him again.
"I thought we were sleeping," she said.
"I can do sleep," he agreed, yawning. "But it's the appearance of the thing."
Natasha's bed was covered in pillows, which he remembered from his last, brief visit here, and he settled in against them while she changed, watching her through half-lidded eyes. Finally she crawled into the nest of pillows and blankets, curling up against him, and tucked her head under his chin.
"You're sure this is okay?" he asked.
She sighed happily. "Mmhm." She was silent for a moment. "Worth the risk of getting caught in an elevator in your boxers by Captain America?"
"Yep," he answered. "Worth it."
Bruce had spent a long time thinking he was going to be alone, often even before the Other Guy came along. He kept strange hours, and he was a dork for science, and he didn't really care much for the usual social things. He wasn't the most ideal boyfriend, and he was always worried about his temper, worried about becoming like his dad.
There was this one time, see, when someone attacked the Helicarrier and he ended up turning into a monster right in front of a woman trapped under a pile of rubble, and he was sure even as he changed that when he came back he'd find he'd killed her. But it turned out she survived, and she never had anything more to say about that one time than "No hard feelings?"
Bruce could get used to a woman like that.
Hulk adores Strong Man. He's stopped insisting Puny Bruce should spend all his time in the Tower being safe; apparently as long as Bruce takes Strong Man along, he has Hulk's approval to do as he pleases. He might even like Strong Man more than Shiny Man now, though Bruce has to promise not to tell Tony.
Natasha was taught, as a child, that she wasn't a person; she was a weapon. The first person she ever really trusted in her life was a guy some American shadow government sent to kill her, and it was because he made her feel like she could be more than just a loaded gun. Loaded guns don't get to fall in love or have boyfriends or have sex because they like it; sex was a weapon, and love was for losers. Natasha wanted to win, even before she was recruited -- it was why she was recruited. It took her a long time to get past all that crap. When she finally did, it was to the sharp and painful realization that most men reacted to her with either arrogance or fear. It seemed she wouldn't get to fall in love anyway; nobody seemed worth falling in love with, except a pair of guys who were depressingly already in love with each other.
And then she met this nerdy, dry-witted guy who wasn't afraid of her -- who seemed to revel in her ability to take anything he could throw at her -- and who even seemed, in an awkward, shy way, to be trying to impress her. He took care of her and, more importantly, he let her take care of him. He didn't seem to want anything from her, to feel it was his right to have anything she didn't want to give.
When they slept together, actually slept, it was in her bed, because she was more comfortable there; when they fucked, he took what she offered and still wasn't afraid. She liked the way he leaned into her touch when she was gentle, and the way he admired the bruises on his arms when she wasn't.
And she realized one morning, listening to Pepper talk about Tony and Steve playing pranks on her in bed, that she wasn't jealous. There was no envious anger trying to claw its way up her throat, there was just amusement, a sort of fellow-feeling, because the only bigger nerd around than Bruce was her friend's boyfriend Tony.
"What about you?" Pepper asked, noticing Natasha had spaced out for a minute. "Seems like you're good for Bruce. He's coming out of his shell more."
"Yeah," Natasha said, smiling into her coffee. "He's pretty good for me too."