Bruce is working in the lab. He's scruffy and unshaven. He's been locked away for three days now, wrestling with a problem on Tony's new Ironman suit, only emerging for sandwiches and tea, which he makes quickly and retreats directly back to the lab.
At three o'clock in the morning, Tony enters the lab, without knocking or seeking prior consent. One look at him and Bruce knows why. He's drunk.
Bruce sighs and removes his glasses, rubbing his tired eyes and looking at his watch, was it REALLY this late? "What can I do for you Tony?" He asks wearily, turning his focus back to his laptop.
"Gotta talk to you Bruce" Tony may be a drunk, but he is a well-practised drunk. He isn't slurring his words and only a slight wobble in his posture and a slightly aggressive demeanor give away his inebriated state.
Bruce, still looking at his computer pleads, "Tony, can it wait ‘til morning? I'm almost through here and I really want to get to bed"
"No" pouts Stark, "Has to be now"
Bruce carefully shuts the lid of the laptop, "Ok Tony, what is it?"
"Me and Pep…" begins Tony, but suddenly he finds it difficult to continue. Bruce pats the lab stool next to him at the desk. "Tell me everything..." He starts, but Tony snaps at him, "No, Bruce, this is important. Don't patronise me. No talking, just listen" And he places his finger on the scientist's lips "Ssssshhhhh"
Bruce gently moves Tony's hand away from his lips, "Alright, I'm all ears"
Tony takes a deep breath, "Pep and me broke up"
Bruce is genuinely sorry, he likes Pepper immensely, knows she is good for his friend; keeps him on track. She's been nothing but warm and welcoming the whole time he's been here and he is glad of her friendship.
"Tony, I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Was never going to work, but we broke up because of a very specific reason"
"Sheesh, no." Stark waves his hand in Bruce's face, "Broke up cos of...." He tails off not meeting Bruce’s eyes
Bruce swallows, “Tony, I… I’m not in the least interested in Pepper, you know that. I would never…you…you’re the closest thing I’ve had in a friend in… God, I don’t know how long… I don’t even see her that way…”
“Tony, you’ve got to keep your jealousy in check, Pepper’s never been anything but wonderful to me as a friend..”
“Goddammit Bruce, shut up for fuck’s sake!” Tony hurls the glass from his hand across the lab, it shatters against Bruce’s lab table, spattering Bruce’s work with glass and whisky.
Bruce closes his mouth, not willing to provoke Tony any further by telling him that’s the best part of a month’s work probably ruined. He eyes Tony nervously, not because he’s afraid of what Tony will do, but because he’s mentally monitoring his own heartbeat, keeping his anger in check, breathing deeply to keep the green away.
Tony is leaning his forehead on his hand. He’s breathing hard, and it takes Bruce a minute to realise that he’s laughing. His shoulders are shaking, and it takes him a moment to get a hold on himself. When he looks up at Bruce, he has tears in his eyes, “Oh, God Bruce, you have no idea do you? You just couldn’t even imagine someone being attracted to you, could you? I know that you don’t have designs on Pep, I mean I wouldn’t blame you, who wouldn’t have designs on her? She’s gorgeous and smart and… Oh God” The head sinks back onto the hand and Tony descends into silence once more.
Bruce, unsure of what to do, tidies some papers on his desk, “Tony, I’m sorry, I’m really tired, let’s talk in the morning, it’ll all look better then…”
“Bruce” Tony is speaking softly now, more serious than Bruce has ever heard, no quips, no smart ass-ery, “Bruce, I… O God, why is this so hard? Ok, I’m just going to say it… Bruce, I think I love you.”
For a moment Bruce is so thunderstruck, so knocked out, that he can’t speak. The silence is interminable. Finally he licks his lower lip, “Tony, how much did you drink tonight?”
“Not enough to not remember every second of this in the morning. I’m crazy about you Bruce, your brain, your personality, just you. I can’t stop thinking about you. I’ve, fuck, I’ve never felt like this, not even with Pepper, so…”
Tony looks at Bruce pleadingly, sorrowfully, but he’s gone this far, he can’t stop, “I’ve worked it all out. We’re both grown men, we’ll live here, and no-one else needs to know. You’re already an employee of Stark Industries, there’ll be nothing odd about you being here, and I’ll keep it a deathly secret until my dying day, just please Bruce, Be with me?”
Banner’s wringing his hands – a sign that stress is building, Tony knows this from months working with him in the labs. Tony’s watched him intimately, scrutinised him and etched every detail on his memory. The image of Bruce working, delicately working out equations on his computer, forehead wrinkled in concentration; Bruce first thing in the morning, yawning over a cup of mint tea, his hair askew and usually falling over one eye; Bruce’s rare smile, a flash like a brilliant diamond that makes Tony’s heart thud against the arc reactor; he knows it all.
“Tony.” he takes Tony’s hand, and Tony’s heart swells with hope, he swallows hard, “Yeah..?” He croaks.
Bruce breathes a deep breath and grips his hand harder, “I’m… I’m not attracted to men, never have been, I couldn’t be with you in the way you want me to be. I’m sorry Tony, I’m so, so sorry, but you’re asking me to be something I’m not. I’d be living a lie, and yes, I do love you and Pep, and working here, but there can never be anything meaningful between us, because it’s not the way I’m made. Can you accept that?”
Tony doesn’t answer. His world has crashed, and he’s not used to rejection, from anyone. He stands up abruptly, leans over to Bruce, taking Bruce’s face in both hands and kissing him hard. Bruce doesn’t respond, but neither does he pull away. Eventually he extricates himself from Tony’s embrace, says oh so gently, “Tony, it’s nearly 3.30, I think it’s time you went to bed”
Tony, with one hand still on Bruce’s face, stares into his eyes as if to stare into his soul, his thumb stroking Bruce’s cheek. Without a word and with as much dignity as he can muster, he spins on his heel and leaves the lab.
The next morning Bruce, who is usually punctual for breakfast, is missing. One glance into Bruce’s room tells Tony Stark all he needs to know, the neatly made bed, not slept in, the empty wardrobe, not a trace that the room had ever been used. Years on the run made Bruce a master of quick exits.
A note has been left on the bed, in Bruce’s scrawly handwriting, it reads simply:
Go apologise to Pepper, she needs you.
Tony stuffed the note into his pocket, sat on the bed, breathing the last of the air Bruce breathed in this room before he left, then went down to the kitchen. Pepper was sitting at the table a pot of coffee already made for him. As he enters, she pours him a cup. Written on the cup in lipstick is the word ‘Sorry’.
Tony accepts the cup and kisses Pepper on the top of her head, breathing the scent of her shampoo. When with the almost supernatural ability that radio waves have to tap in to our feelings this song comes on the radio…
A tear slides from Tony Stark's eye, splashing onto the table. Pepper kisses him, and he lays his face into her collar bone and lets the tears come.