Tony has watched so many people leave him. He knows that he can't help it, or in some cases, he doesn't want to help it. His mother, his father, his friends, his one night stands. One by one, they're gone. They die, they betray him, they use him and then they're gone. Tony finds this to be easier the more it happens. Soon, he doesn't care anymore, and eventually, it's all he knows. In fact, Tony prefers it.
He likes working alone at night, it helps him think. He doesn't need a ring on his finger, he has too much to do and and he tells himself he would make a lousy partner. He shudders with self-loathing when he thinks what kind of father he would be. He finds a reprieve in his abandonment. He will never have to deal with these things that he doesn't know how to deal with. So he sticks to the things he knows: sex, booze, and science.
Tony likes being a part of the Avengers initiative, but it's hard to explain why or even admitting it. He doesn't want to admit to himself that he finds comfort among the others in the group, even if they usually just glare or roll their eyes at them. He finds relief in their arguments and he waits to be expelled from the group by Fury. He tells himself that he can still be Iron Man, with or without them. They don't need Tony Stark, but they still keep him there. He's both secretly glad and secretly terrified. He should be used to watching people leave him.
Now Tony has Bruce staying in Stark Tower. He tells SHIELD to go fuck themselves by trying to lock Bruce away. Since the original conception of the Iron Man suit, Tony understands what it means to be imprisoned until useful. He knows what it's like to be held until he can be a weapon of mass destruction. Tony, of course, empathizes for Bruce Banner, but he also deeply respects him. For this rare combination, plus the exciting fact that he can actually use his full range of vocabulary around the doctor, he has him stay in the Tower. Of course, the Tower is massive, so Tony never feels crowded.
When they work in the lab together, Bruce is usually quiet as a mouse. Or, if they do talk, it's so effortless that Tony never sighs in exasperation. When Tony dwells on this effortlessness, he feels cautious. Breathing is effortless, but Tony has literally had his heart ripped out. He knows what happens when something that is effortless and wonderful is taken away from him. So Tony prefers not to dwell on why or how he enjoys Bruce's company. He tells people he respects guys that can melt you with his brain or literally transform into an alter ego and melt you with his fists. He says what he needs to, to get by and then do his own thing - alone.
But now there's a quiet, dark haired man with glasses in his lab, in his office, in his building, in his home and he doesn't mind. He doesn't know when or how things became this way so easily, but they just are. Sometimes they talk latest technology, usually in Bruce's fields. Tony always does his homework before speaking to him on things he knows Bruce is well-versed on. In fact, it's the only homework Tony has ever willingly done. Other times, they talk about their personal lives- again, mostly Bruce's. It generally consists of Tony asking questions about Bruce's plans, his time in India, questions about the hulk, and teasing him how he can calibrate a mass spectrometer but not name a song that has been released in the past ten years. Bruce says at least he knows his social security number.
This routine goes on for months until Tony doesn't even realize how effortlessly Bruce Banner has built himself a home in Tony's heart. Bruce doesn't realize this either. If Tony's life is defined by abandonment, then Bruce's is defined by running. He is the one who abandons. He's gotten used to it now, so used to it that it comes as easy as breathing. He's learned to value this impermanence and match his life accordingly. It wasn't easy at first, in fact it was heartbreaking, but Bruce had little choice in the matter. Now all he knows is running, always looking for a way out, always with one foot out the door. Monsters shouldn't be invited in homes. Bruce tells himself that they don't belong there.
Bruce truly enjoys being at Stark Tower. It's not the amenities or convenience or the seemingly infinite play budget Tony gives to him. It's the look that Tony gives Bruce, and the messages it conveys. It's Tony's careless devil-may-care attitude about the 'other guy' and the lack of fear Tony has towards him. It's the way Tony treats him like a human being. It's an odd feeling, but Bruce cherishes it wholly. It's something nice to think about from time to time, but he doesn't dwell on it. Bruce knows better to analyze something without tools. If the scientific method doesn't apply, he doesn't dwell. He tells himself this is better for the long-term.
But this doesn't mean Bruce doesn't enjoy the little things, because he does. He likes how Tony purposefully tries to banter with him. It's as if he's known how long it's been since his days at Culver and how he could just go intellectually wild with someone. He even likes it when Tony teases him. He knows it's all in good fun and he looks fondly on something to brighten his day. He doesn't even mind when Tony runs by him during the day and jabs him in the side or when he hops out from behind a corner and has made him drop all his research notes. Tony says he's training Bruce to stay angry, but Bruce knows that Tony makes efforts to make Bruce feel existent. He knows that when there is no place in the world for him, he has a place in Tony's mind.
It's been months without incident and it's been effortless and wonderful. SHIELD hasn't had use for the 'other guy' and by proxy, Bruce Banner. He is glad, not only for the sake of the security of the world, but in a way Bruce believes to be selfish: for his own sake. He only admits to Tony that he is tired of being shackled to a monster that he'll never free himself of. Tony gives him a look whenever he mentions the 'other guy', walks up to him and grabs him by the shoulders. It's always the same look and the same shake his shoulders, like Tony could will away years of trauma by a stern look and a minor chastisement. Tony always tells him to dig deeper and embrace, but Bruce lets out a sigh of relief when he quickly changes it into a morbid joke about the 'other guy' embracing things or people instead.
And that's the problem, Bruce thinks. It's been too easy and too long without incident and he's beginning to think of Stark Tower as his home. Bruce knows better than to think of anywhere as his home. He tells himself that monsters don't deserve homes, and he's just an accident waiting to happen. Tony has become important to Bruce, and that's why if Bruce truly cares for him, he'll leave. It's the only way to keep him safe. Bruce tells himself that this is just the way things are. You can't keep someone that runs. You can't domesticate a beast.
Bruce is all packed up now and it didn't take long with his sparse belongings. He drafts a handwritten note for Tony and thanks him for his unconditional friendship. Bruce and Tony know that SHIELD will find him once again, but Bruce hopes that day will never come where Earth needs a monster to fight monsters. They don't need Bruce, anyways. They need the 'other guy'. No one ever needs Bruce. He tapes the note to Tony's main console.
Shall I prepare a flight for you, sir? Jarvis voice fills the room. Bruce is used to the AI's presence, almost as much as Tony's.
"Nah. Thank you, Jarvis." Bruce sighs and looks up around the lab. He knows he'll miss it. He'll miss it more than anywhere he's been and he knows that he's already stayed too long.
Be safe, Doctor Banner.
"Give me a head start against Tony, will you?"
Of course, Sir.
Bruce presses the elevator button and picks his suitcase from the floor as the elevator doors open. Tony stands in the elevator and blinks at Bruce. He slowly eyes at the suitcase at his side and his lips twitch into a small smile.
"What's up, Doc? Going somewhere?"
Bruce is stunned and he tries not to stutter and pale behind his glasses as he lowers his head.
"Just dropping some equipment off at SHIELD." Bruce shrugs and he can't look up into Tony's face. Tony slowly extends his hand to take the suitcase.
"Well that's no problem, I'll have some guys run it over for you." Tony insists, his open inviting hand waiting for it. Bruce knows he hates being handed things, but here's his hand, waiting only for him. Bruce's knuckles turn white as he clenches his fist firmly around the handle.
"I wanted to get out for a bit anyways. I'll see you around, Tony." Bruce steps into the elevator with his head lowered, pushing past Tony. As soon as Tony steps out, Bruce presses the button to ground floor. As the doors close, Bruce finally looks up at Tony's face.
"But you never want to get out." Tony mumbles and his eyes go wide with shock and betrayal. Their eyes meet for a split second and Bruce is sure that Tony knows now. He knows he is being abandoned and his closest friend is leaving him. Tony moves to step forward but the door closes shut.
"No, but I need to." Bruce quietly says as the elevator descends.
Tony stands shocked and he blinks once more in disbelief. Surely Bruce would give him some sort of warning, some sort of indication that he was unhappy? Tony is in denial even though he should have seen it coming. As he walks to his console in a slow daze, he asks Jarvis for a drink. It's time to return to things he knows, a drink and inevitable abandonment.
As a robot delivers him his drink, Tony finds the note taped to his screen. He plucks it off and finds Bruce's pointed scrawl. The paper has stains on them and Tony runs a thumb over small wet spots that bled through the paper. Tears. Tony reads Bruce's apology. He reads how Bruce found this day inevitable. He reads how Bruce thanked him for his friendship and unconditional trust and belief. Tony reads that Bruce wished he deserved it.
He's nearing the exits, sir.
"Thanks Jarvis. I got a date." Tony sets the note down on the desk and dries his own tears, running to hit the elevator button.
A date with Doctor Banner, sir?
"Date with Banner, date with destiny, what's today, June 17th? Sure, that can be the date." Tony looks in the mirror of the elevator as it descends and straightens his tie.
A date for what, sir?
"The date where I don't watch another person I care about walk out of my life."
Bruce paces across the lobby as he heads for the exit. He figures he'll catch a cab, then a train, then a plane once he's cooled down. He doesn't know where he'll go - anywhere seems preferable than here. This is where heartbreak happens and as soon as he exits the building, he'll feel alone. Alone is better than heartbreak. Bruce can handle alone; he always has before. He presses against the door to exit, but it won't budge. He realizes he's locked in.
Bruce sets down his suitcase as he slams his hands against the door, turning around to look for another exit. Tony has locked him in, and returning to the elevator would make him trapped. His heart beats wildly and he for the first time in a very long time, he feels fear. He slams his hands against the door again, grabbing it by the handle and shaking it. He screams out as he struggles to push and pull it open. He slams his body against the door.
"Goddamnit, Tony. Let me out! This is my choice! You can't keep me here!" He shouts out, clenching his teeth as he slams his body against the door. He can't stop the tears welling in his eyes. He needs to get out and fast. He's losing himself to primal emotions and fear and anger are overriding him. He can feel the 'other guy' stir inside him and Bruce falls slack against the door in an angry choking sob. Then he hears the the elevator door 'ding' open.
"Don't come any closer! Just let me go, Tony." Bruce holds out his hand as he leans against the door in resignation. He can feel something feral and raw in his veins. He knows the beast wants out. He can only hope Tony could set aside his pride for once and let him go before he causes too much damage. He hears Tony's footsteps come closer until he feels Tony hold his outstretched hand.
"No." Tony says firmly and calmly as Bruce comes undone before him.
"Let me go right now or I'll tear this goddamn building down!" Bruce pulls his hand from Tony's, struggling to stand. He clenches his teeth again as he slams his body against the door. He does it again and again and again until his heart beats wildly against his chest and he sees the world through shades of green. He cries out as he slams his shoulder against the door again. Tony simply stands there, waiting.
"I can replace the building. I can't replace you." Tony looks to Bruce just as Bruce turns his head to look up at him. Bruce knows he can see the transformation begin to take place but Tony doesn't even flinch. "As soon as I locked down the doors, I had everyone go out the garages. It's just you and me."
"You and me and the other guy. You and a monster! You can't fix me, Tony. I'm not your goddamned project!"
"No." Tony shakes his head and then smiles, as if he's just realized something funny. "Just you and me. I never wanted to fix you, Bruce. I only fix what's broken or needs to be improved. That's the thing, you don't need to be fixed. I want you just as you are. I've grown up alone and it's because people always leave. I know what I want and this time, I'm not going to watch another person walk away."
Bruce can feel his heartbreaking inside his chest as he looks up to Tony's face. He hears his words, but he reads them on his face. He's showing vulnerability that he doesn't show to anyone, and he's showing it to Bruce. He's begging him to stay when he knows what he is. Bruce knows the motivating force and he knows it's not pity. It's love. His vision goes hazy as the beast stirs inside him, tears welling in his eyes.
"If you don't let me go, I'll hurt you. I want to go, you have to let me go."
Tony shakes his head and smiles sadly. "No, I don't think so. I know there's only one way you can hurt me and that won't happen if you stay. I'm afraid of you, but not because of the other guy. It's because I know you can go right out that door and I'll never see you again."
"You're an idiot, Stark." Bruce growls. Tony laughs and nods, kicking his foot against the floor. "Yeah," he mumbles with a chuckle. Then there's a silence as Bruce feels his heart sink against his chest and tears stream down his cheek. He hasn't cried in years, why now, he wonders. He knows because for the first time in many years, he'll experience loss. He's terrified.
"Are you a masochist?" Bruce mutters as he slowly stands and looks to him with desperation. Tony smirks that shit-eating grin before he quips, "Wanna find out?"
Bruce frowns and looks out the door. One step and he'll be gone. One step and that's all it takes for either of them to be destroyed. One step and everything he knows will change. One step and Bruce knows he'll never be able to forgive himself. One step and everything ends.
"Jarvis, unlock the doors." Tony says and with a click, the doors become unlocked.
"I'm not going to make you a prisoner. Been there, done that, not exactly fun, but I'll tell you what I will do." Tony raises his brows as he runs a hand over his face to calm himself. He's glad that Bruce isn't about to flip out in what Tony calls 'rage mode', but it doesn't stop him from realizing what's still at stake. He looks to Bruce who seems visibly shaken and stunned, his eyes moving to glance out the doors. He watches as Bruce gently presses his shoulder against the door and it gives, letting warm summer air breeze against them. Bruce looks back to Tony.
"I'll be here if you leave. I'll be here every goddamned day if you walk out the door and I'll wait for you. You can be sure of that much. I'll respect your decision and accept it, but only if it's what you really want. You're telling me you want this?" Tony shakes his head. "If you want this, then I won't stop you from taking your little suitcase and going right on out."
"What does it matter what I want? It's never been about what I want." Bruce mutters, his eyes falling to the floor. Tony feels at a loss. He's always been the one to crack a joke or make a quip. He knows nothing about being vulnerable or empathetic or comforting or affectionate. He's always waiting for that one foot out the door and the eventual door slamming shut. He's always read for inevitable loss. Tony knows nothing about love or investment. But he's willing to learn. He reaches out to take Bruce's hand in his. His hand brushes against his palm and his fingers clasp around Bruce's hand. Bruce's fingers slowly flex around him, returning the gesture.
"I'll give you anything you want. I want you to take whatever you want. What do you want, Bruce?" Tony says and it comes out as a barely audible whisper. He can feel his heart twist and clench in his chest and a lump form in his throat. His eyes meet Bruce's as he waits the longest moment of his life. This singular moment defines not only Tony, but Bruce. Tony realizes their lives will never be the same after this, regardless of what Bruce chooses.
"I've been running from everything I've known because I hated myself. I ran from people who loved me, not only because I was afraid I would hurt them, but because I was afraid they would hurt me. Sometimes, staying is harder." Bruce says slowly as he looks into Tony's eyes. Tony nods.
"It won't be easy. But you know, you've probably noticed this, but I don't really 'do' easy." Tony shrugs as he smiles. He squeezes Bruce's hand in his. This is Tony Stark putting everything on the line. This scares the hell out of him, but at the same time, he's never felt so sure and so alive about anything else before.
"Another incident will happen." Bruce lowers his head as his sullen gaze darts to the ground. Tony reaches out with his free hand to gently cup Bruce's cheek, pulling his face to meet his. He steps forward as Bruce slowly looks up at him.
"Yeah." Tony nods and searches Bruce's eyes for an answer. "The tower might not be here, but you can be damn sure I will be." He smirks as Bruce's hand slowly rises to fold over Tony's hand resting on his cheek. "So what's it going to be? What do you want? Because I would give you anything, if you just name it."
"I want..." Bruce's brows knit together as he looks into Tony's eyes. Tony waits and he waits and he waits. But he's already committed to something, and Tony doesn't do commitment. But he does commitment for Bruce Banner and he says he'll always wait, so he waits. The moment seems to last forever until tears well in Bruce's eyes once more. Tony waits for disappointment, for inevitable abandonment. He waits to go back to the same routine, only with the horrible empty feeling in his chest.
"I want to stay." Bruce sighs and slowly smiles. Tony's heart skips a beat. That horrible emptiness never comes to exist because for the first time in his life, he isn't alone. No one's walking out that door. He laughs and press his forehead to Bruce's, gently pressing his lips to his. He cherishes this moment that fulfills and heals him. It's wonderful and effortless and Tony now realizes what this is. It's love.