The Hub is aptly named, Tony thinks not for the first time, as a countless number of S.H.I.E.L.D. spy agents of varying rank and purpose bustle about him. There are agents in gear ready to head out on assignment. There are agents clearly just back from assignment as they look worn and ready to just have their debriefings and be done with it. There are medics and scientists and new recruits and even some young kids over in one corner on a field trip from The Academy, not that they'll see much beyond the safe places designated for lower level agents just in case.
As Tony strolls up to a glass elevator that his access card can open, he muses on how there are floors and floors below where those kids and many agents will never have the right to go for some reason or another. He smirks a little, relishing in the privilege as the doors slide shut and he descends into the belly of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. The glass elevator glows with a florescent blue as it passes one floor after another. Those floors are also open to view by large glass windows – the transparent theme throughout the agency is either a great strategy or proof of how cynical and untrusting they all are by nature of the game they play. His personal favorite is the Research and Development levels so he decides to bring the elevator to a stop on the main floor of the department rather than go straight to his meeting with Director Fury; annoying the Director with his tardiness will be a bonus.
The elevator doors slide open again and Tony is greeted with a very different hub of activity. Brilliant scientists and engineers fill the space with so much intelligence and creativity that Tony could get drunk on it. From weapons to espionage tech to innovative forms of communication to robots to projects made solely for the purpose of bettering the world they all work to keep at peace, the space is alive and breathing. It's matched only by the R&D levels of his own Stark Tower, but Tony can admit it's in part because many of his scientists are also S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists and they bring the equipment and breakthroughs that can't be published by the spy agency to Stark Industries where they can.
Tony's eyes immediately scan the various stations around him as he walks through, feet moving in one direction in particular, and he picks up on the designs and equations with ease. He can't stop himself from stopping and adding his two cents here and there. His first stop is in front of two of the newest promoted scientists, barely out of The Academy, and quite the duo of genius. He watches them in amusement as they bicker at one another about which subatomic particle to power a phase gun prototype they're working on.
"If it helps, you're both wrong," he says with a smirk and they stop to look up at him.
"Yes, well, it doesn't," the male half of the duo, Agent Fitz, says tartly.
"Hush," the charming female half, Agent Simmons, admonishes him and then smiles brightly. "Thank you for your input, Agent Stark. What would you suggest?"
Tony shrugs. "Honestly, why reinvent the wheel? We already have plenty of effective items for stunning a person. Why not build on those, see if you can't streamline them into something more effective."
Simmons' smile strains a little as if put on the spot and not enjoying the pressure and it's Fitz that snaps his fingers in a show of sudden clarity. "Yes," he agrees. "Like dendrotoxin," he says with a nod and immediately pulls up a holographic screen to write on.
"Dendrotoxin?" Simmons reels back around to look at him. Tony shakes his head, leaving them to start a new argument.
He continues on through the science ballet taking place all around him until another sight catches his eyes. He can't help but stop, smile like an imp and then clear his throat. Agent Blake, code name Thor, and his tech specialist, Agent Foster – Dr. Jane Foster, she would clarify to anyone who doubted her know-how – break apart from their kiss and look at him with wide eyes before realizing it isn't anyone who might reprimand them for the on-the-clock fraternization.
"Oh, it's just you." Foster manages to sigh and glare at the same time.
"I'm wondering how it is Fury's never separated you two," Tony says, shaking his head. He then looks Thor over, six foot three and all bulging muscle – a man truly built for brawn missions – and decides if he were Fury he wouldn't want to take on the blond either.
Foster scoffs. "As if Fury cares about that," she says with a wave of her hand. "Besides, nobody else here had the patience to be this goof's tech specialist." She scrunches her nose fondly at her boyfriend then shrugs. "Now it's just a matter of not making anyone else have to learn what makes him tick."
"Fair enough," Tony concedes.
It's true in that the whole point of tech specialists is to match R&D agents with field agents much like field agents are sometimes assigned to one another as partners or in teams. With one R&D scientist per one spy, there is a chance to build up an understanding of the individual spy's unique skills and needs in the field, among other benefits.
"But I suppose you wouldn't think about that," Foster goads.
She's referring to the fact that since he's a literal engineering genius, he's never needed someone to come up with cool gadgets for him. He's always been able to come up with that stuff on his own, even out in the field as he goes when need be. He doesn't have to wait around on a tech specialist to give him new stuff. He doesn't have an additional person he has to consult with regularly.
At least not officially.
"Just cutting out the middle man," Tony says, unaffected, and leaves them. Ironically, he heads once more in the direction of the middle man.
At the far end of the space is a partitioned off area, a lab within a lab so to speak, belonging to Agent Banner – or Dr. Bruce Banner as Tony would be quick to point out to anyone who might underestimate the man's brilliance – the head of R&D. Tony stops in the opening that acts as a door to the partitioned space and watches him for a moment. The guy is barely as tall as he himself is, and they're both on the slighter side, and he fits the cliché image of rumpled, awkward scientist rather well. He's currently bent over a work station fiddling with wires like they're a Rubik's cube – engineering not being his primary – as he holds his tongue between his teeth in concentration.
Banner isn't his tech specialist, but it's an unspoken truth that if he had one it would be Bruce. It also happens to be a universally known truth and perhaps partly the reason Bruce has never been any other agent's tech specialist, taking on the universal role as head instead. It allows him to help any and all as needed and that, of course, also means Tony is free to call on him at any time. Tony doesn't need a tech specialist, but he values Bruce's input and trusts him perhaps more than anyone else employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. In the rare instances Tony needs any kind of technical backup during a mission Bruce gets his call and another unspoken truth is that, unless it means somebody else less capable will be placed in dire straits on account of it, Bruce always takes that call as if Tony is his assigned agent and thus his only priority.
"Aha, gotcha," Bruce chirps in triumph and Tony smiles. He then applauds for good measure and Bruce startles ever so slightly as he turns his head to see him. The startled expression turns to a thin smile as Bruce straightens his back to stand upright.
"Just so you know if large quantities of dendrotoxin suddenly go missing it's FitzSimmons," Tony says without segue as he moves further into the space. Bruce's smile fades and his face scrunches up. "Uh, also, I had nothing to do with it."
Bruce gives a considering look. “I don't know if I like the idea of those two playing around with dendrotoxin.” Then he throws Tony a wry look before turning his attention back to his project. “Also I don’t believe you. What do they even want it for?”
“They’re working on a phaser gun of some sort,” Tony answers as he moves to stand on the opposite side of the work station to study what Bruce is toiling away at this time. It's bound to be infinitely more interesting than the junior set. “And all I did was tell them not to reinvent the wheel.”
“A phaser gun? With dendrotoxin?” Bruce mulls over it aloud and then shakes his head. “This should be good. And that’s more than enough for me to hold you responsible.” Bruce flashes an amused grin at him across the station.
“A radiation scanner?” Tony lifts an eyebrow, changing the subject more out of genuine curiosity than any threat of being held responsible for future dendrotoxin-related lab accidents.
“Hmm?” Bruce hums and then blinks as if his mind had wandered. “Oh, mhmm. I’m recalibrating it to scan for gamma signatures.”
“Of course you are,” Tony responds, allowing his tone to be fonder than is strictly professional. “But don’t tell me our targets are into gamma radiation now,” he adds, grimacing.
Bruce chuckles. “I certainly hope not," he agrees. "But apparently we do have a guy stealing relics with gamma signatures." He shrugs and then picks up one of the pieces to inspect.
Tony knows they’re not supposed to over share when it comes to assignments, but he wonders if it’s the current bastard that eludes him. “Code name: Tesseract?” he ventures.
Bruce pauses and looks at him again. "Your assignment?" Tony gives a single nod. "Huh. They don't usually give me tasks related to your assignments," he ponders and there's a line between his eyes. "And you didn't ask?"
"No," Tony confirms. He considers what it might mean before pursing his lips and hitching a shoulder. "Maybe they just figured I'd need the help this time and decided to skip to the part where you step in. Gamma is a bit out of my wheelhouse."
Bruce raises his eyebrows high above the rims of his glasses. "Oh, a bit, huh? I hold a doctorate in nuclear physics with a concentration in gamma and you, Mr. Masters, you think you can just stand there and say it's only a bit out of your wheelhouse?"
Tony smiles wide as he sets a palm firmly on the work bench and leans sideways across it in a casual pose. "Well, I am looking for a tutor. Interested?" He looks at him imploringly.
Tony sees the way Bruce's lips twitch in humor at the edges. Bruce places both of his palms flat against the work bench and leans across it. He shakes his head twice and says slowly, "Not a chance."
Tony turns to mirror Bruce's two-palmed lean. "I pay really well," he insists.
"I only do pro bono for worthy causes," Bruce quips.
"Hippie," Tony retorts.
There's a feminine clearing of a throat and they both turn their heads in sync to see Foster standing at the door with a smirk. "Oh, so that's why he's not officially your tech specialist," she says, looking at Tony. "Makes sense now."
"It does?" Bruce asks as he straightens up. "Okay, if you say so," he then concedes, entirely oblivious, and returns to his task.
Tony, of course, isn't oblivious and so frowns at the other scientist. "It's hardly comparable," he tells her. She just shrugs in a way that says she doesn't believe him, like she thinks they were actually on the verge of the same lip-lock she and hers had been engaged in.
"Coulson stopped by," Foster informs him before he can dwell too much on her assumptions. She moves over to the work station to study Bruce's work as well; it's a scientist thing. "Says you have two minutes to get to Fury's office or he will personally Taser you himself."
"Uh oh," Bruce intones rather adorably, not even pausing or looking up.
"And he might have said something about watching Super Nanny while you drool into the carpet," she adds. Her face quirks after the fact, clearly not sure what to do with that.
"He means business," Tony says knowingly and it's in stereo as Bruce says it at the same time. "Jinx," Tony adds quickly as he moves from the room, earning a chuckle and glance from Bruce as he does. "Sodas are on you, Brucey," he finishes with a point at him before making his exit. He only just catches Jane's mmhmm. Tony just rolls his eyes and heads toward the elevator, taking it the rest of the way to the floor Fury's office is on.
The elevator opens onto the true control center of The Hub. This is where Fury's hand-picked deputy officers, handlers, coordinators and communications specialists do much of their busy work as missions unfold all over the globe. He's immediately assaulted by the various commands, coordinates and 'do you copy?'s' being spouted out in a chorus throughout the space.
Commander Maria Hill is currently the one overseeing the controlled chaos. She pauses when she notices him and Tony doesn't miss the way she holds on hard to an unprofessional eye roll. "Agent Stark," she says, much too surly, "Fury's been expecting you."
"Sorry," he says in a dismissive tone, because two can play this game – and they have been for as long as he can recall. "My tutoring session on nuclear physics ran a little long." She furrows her brow as if not sure how to take that. He almost suspects she's wondering if that's some sort of lewd code speak, which he has no qualms with whatsoever if she does.
He bounds past the hustle of the control center and toward the offices and briefing rooms that reside in a corridor off the right. He follows the hall all the way to the office at its end, passing entirely nondescript rooms as he goes. The door is open, so he enters without a second thought.
"I give you an eight a.m. meeting time knowing damn well you'd take that to mean nine a.m.," Fury clips, brusque as can be, and points to a chair across from his own. "Now here it is going on nine-thirty."
Most people are afraid of the director, who cuts a formidable figure with his black eye patch, covering the left eye he'd damaged permanently in a mission when he was a field agent, and matching all black leather get up complete with trench coat, of of which may or may not match his black heart if you were to ask Tony's opinion. Black heart or no,Tony is not one of those people. The predecessor of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the S.S.R. and the S.S.R. was co-founded by none other than Howard Stark, Tony's father. It gives him a sort of privilege that he's always known how to abuse.
Thus, Tony sits down in the chair and crosses his arms behind his head in a nonchalant fashion. "So maybe you should have scheduled the meeting for eight-thirty," he suggests.
Fury draws his lips into a straight line and narrows his eye. "Then you wouldn't have been here until ten."
Tony beams at him and opens his palms up behind his head. "So you do get how this works. Just checking."
"What will your wife ever do with you, Stark?" Fury says grimly.
It takes a second for Tony to process, but when he does he's suddenly sitting up straight in his chair as he chokes out, "My what?" He blinks several times and tries to be rational. "Okay, are the tabloids saying I've gone and gotten drunk-hitched in Vegas again?" After all, he's a practical celebrity in his everyday life, outside of his job as a spy. And tabloid stories such as this one, suggesting the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist has finally settled down, are at least a biannual occurrence.
"No, because that's not enough of the kind of cover we need right now," Fury says evenly. "More like several long weeks of publicity and opulent wedding-planning and a reception at the home of the Tesseract itself."
Tony's not quite sure how long he stares blankly at Fury before he's able to process all of the Director's words and put them into an order that sort of make sense even if it makes for an absolutely ludicrous statement. "Just to clarify, are you suggesting I get married?"
Fury actually snorts. "No. I wouldn't actually force any poor soul to marry you even if it could be annulled."
"But I am suggesting a scenario where the public believes you're getting married and you single-handedly prevent easy access to the State Museum for the next six weeks."
"Because our latest intel suggests he'll go after his key objective within that time frame," Tony replies with a nod. He'd gotten that intel only a few nights ago from a very chatty bedmate. "Still, a fake wedding? With who? Because, you know, I don't think Ms. Potts will appreciate it now that she's with Happy. And, you know, she's also busy running my company," he says in referral to the Stark Industries CEO he had publicly dated a few years prior, making her the likeliest candidate where the masses were concerned.
"Hilarious," Fury says, tone as bland as the decor in his office. "As if we'd use a civilian. We've gone through the list of potential agents that could work with you on this, based on availability and, of course, rank. For all intents and purposes, Agent Romanoff will be assigned as the future Mrs. Stark."
Fury says it so conversationally that Tony thinks he may have misheard. He couldn't have possibly said, "Romanoff? Is this your idea of a joke because her code name is Black Widow? Or is this some elaborate scheme to off me?" Tony eyes him with suspicion. "Because if she doesn't do it, Barton will. Or he'll try anyway."
"She's my best agent," Fury explain, even if technically she isn't even number one. "She'll be able to handle this. And you," Fury adds, glowering.
Tony sighs. "This isn't up for discussion, is it?"
"Look, Stark," Fury steeples his fingers, "you're good at this. You know a good plan when you hear it. You know as well as I do that this is right in line with your cover. With any luck we can draw the guy out since we learned in Stuttgart he seems to get a thrill from having an audience."
"Do you think there's a chance he'll catch on that I'm the guy that's been trailing him?"
"Sure," Fury says with a shrug, leaning back again. "But if he truly thrives on the cat and mouse dynamic, the possibility to try and ID you may only draw him out further."
Tony sighs again. He looks down at the table, purses his lips wanting to say no, but then realizes Fury's right. It's a good plan and he really wants to catch this guy.
"When do we announce the engagement?"
"Rumor hits the stands tomorrow morning. Give it the weekend. Confirm Monday."
"Well," Tony says with as much humor as he can muster, "at least I have the party tonight to look forward to before the next six weeks of torture."
Fury gives him a long, surprisingly genuine chuckle and it becomes clear the man is enjoying this plan far too much already. "You never know, Stark. Maybe you'll get lucky and our guy will strike earlier than our intel suggests."
Tony responds with a twisted expression that he knows reads as: fuck you.
The annual Maria Stark Foundation Charity Ball is the hottest ticket in town on a Thursday night and packed to the brim with high society, celebrities, paparazzi and, of course, select S.H.I.E.L.D. spies there by invitation from either Tony Stark himself or given invitation by Director Fury because he wants them there. In fact, as Bruce looks around the current room he's wandered into, he realizes he doesn't even know which of those people he's not acquainted with are agents; in the name of self-preservation, not all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents ever meet, at least knowingly. Bruce shakes his head, clearing away thoughts of the secrets and lies, and wills himself to enjoy himself. He's there by invitation of Tony, after all, which makes him one of the few privileged.
Bruce is invited by his friend every year, he just doesn’t usually attend the crazy soiree. It's not his preferred way to spend an evening and as he looks around at all of the schmoozing and dancing and drinking and laughing and flirting and – he's not even sure what's going on in that corner over there – he's reminded of why. Rather than join in, he's able only to stand around, awkward and gawking and, occasionally, wondering why he doesn't own a nicer suit. He can barely absorb the atmosphere let alone make much effort to participate.
In reality, Bruce is only here this time because Tony had come back up to R&D after his meeting with Fury to tell him all about his latest assignment with Agent Romanoff, ignoring the general rule they all have of not divulging these kinds of details to unauthorized agents. Tony had filled him in on the situation with so little aplomb that Bruce could just foresee Tony getting smashed at the party and doing something spectacularly stupid. Like the time he'd thought it would be fun to ask a crowded room to throw targets up for him to destroy using one of his repulsor gauntlets, his own invention of course. It mostly had been empty bottles, that earlier had been full of alcohol, but Bruce is fairly certain Tony is banned from that particular venue for also shattering a hundred-year-old chandelier and destroying a grand piano after his coordination had finally gone kaput.
Bruce would like to prevent that kind of drunken recklessness again if he can, at least on this particular occasion. He's not Tony's keeper by any stretch of the imagination, but Tony is… well, whatever he is, Bruce thinks he's far too good to let the alcohol take him the way it can. It diminishes him. He's already the life of the party and charismatic without bringing alcoholic-induced shenanigans into it, shenanigans that really only earn him jeers and whispers and head shakes and tabloid covers when all is said and done. None of those things would be very good at a time like this, when Tony needs the media on his side. Of course, Bruce also hates drunkenness so if he can stave it off altogether that would be a nice bonus.
Bruce is broken from his thoughts when a thin, thirty-something blonde trips into him. He awkwardly attempts to steady her while she awkwardly sways a little. She's clearly already on her way to being drunk. "So... sorry," she says slowly. She then shakes her head as if to clear the bubbles and looks at him. "Guess I should lay off the free wet bar," she says with a giggle.
"It might be advisable," he replies blandly.
"Then again, you're cute," she comments with an appraising look that's followed by a twinkling-eyed smile. "I'd love to trip into you again."
"Uh…" He's pretty sure she's complimenting him and he's fairly certain he should respond, but he doesn't know quite how.
"And bashful too," she says with another giggle and Bruce bites back an exasperated sigh. He takes a casual glance around, searching for an escape, while she continues to titter.
"Hey, what's going on here?" Tony is suddenly beside him, flinging an arm around his shoulders while pointing between him and the blonde. "Don't tell me I'm going to have to cut you off, Ver," he says then to the blonde with a playfully shrewd gaze.
"No, no," she says, shaking her head and looking a little surprised by Tony's sudden appearance. She and Bruce have that in common since Bruce hadn't even glimpsed Tony anywhere nearby. "I was just saying I'm not going to drink anymore unless it means getting to trip into tall, dark and bashful here."
Tony's eyes widen and he looks at Bruce with an impish smile that crinkles his eyes. "Did you hear that, Bruce? She thinks you're tall."
Bruce tries not to smile back. "Well, she's also a little on the tipsy side so let's not trust her judgment."
"Bruce is a cute name," the blonde says. Bruce wonders if she's even aware of their ridiculing her sobriety right in front of her. "You know him, Tony?" She looks at the billionaire questioningly.
"Sure do," Tony answers, squeezing the shoulder his hand is on before letting it fall. "Veronica, Bruce. Bruce, Veronica."
Suddenly Veronica is smiling at Bruce with a predatory gleam in her eyes. Her leopard print gown seems appropriate. He isn’t sure if it’s flattering or unnerving, but if pressed he would say the latter. “So, do you dance, Bwuciekins?” she asks with such exaggerated cuteness that Bruce thinks he'd be feeling debilitating second-hand embarrassment if not for the fact his head is screaming at him to make a run for it.
“I… Uh…” Bruce glances at Tony, meaning to signal to him to bail him out before he takes matters into his own hands, in ways that would likely be as embarrassing as Veronica's antics, but Tony already has a tight smile on his face and a sharp look fixed on the woman.
“Only with guys,” Tony answers for him and Bruce’s eyebrows fly upward. Maybe he should have just ran. “Which reminds me,” Tony turns to him, “you still owe your host a dance.”
Bruce considers the excuse, but he'd rather not dance with the tipsy woman. So he plasters on a fake smile, nowhere near as good as Tony's, and goes with it.
“Nice to have met you, Veronica,” Bruce tells her politely, since lying is at least easy enough as often as he’s done it in his life. He then lets Tony steer him clear of the awkward situation. “Bit drastic to out me, but thanks,” he remarks once they’re far enough away.
Bruce startles when he realizes Tony is actually leading him toward one of the many dance floors. “Any time,” Tony replies, tone breezy. He stops and turns to him in invitation.
"Um… We don’t—"
“1. We do," Tony interjects. "Don’t let Ver’s inebriated blonde shtick fool you. Once she has a target, she locks on until she’s got it trapped." Bruce grimaces at the image that conjures in his mind. "So unless you were actually interested, probably best if you follow through with the excuse." Bruce glances around and does see Veronica eyeing them with an awareness she hadn't seemed to possess previously. "2. You’ve been hiding out all evening so if this is what it takes to spend time with my bestie…” He trails and holds out his hand further.
Bruce huffs in amusement and shakes his head before taking it. “Don’t call me bestie,” he says dryly.
“You’re right,” Tony agrees, in that tone of his that suggests something infinitely worse is coming. “Science bro is much more appropriate.” Bruce just groans and lets Tony lead. After the first awkward minute, the one where neither talks and instead silently attempts to rationalize that dancing with one's best friend isn't weird regardless of social stigma – or at least that’s how Bruce spends it – Tony gives him a looking-over. “Not that the bohemian professor look doesn’t work for you, because it does, it’s a shame you don’t come to my parties. You’ve been holding out on how good you look in a fitted suit." Bruce blinks and swallows hard. "I’d love to let my tailor get hold of you.”
Bruce's throat is dry as he tries to find a response. First leopard-printed blondes, now Tony? He’s not used to a bombardment of flattery. It’s not that it's the first time Tony has reassured him he’s attractive; it’s just that Bruce never really believes it and the man doesn’t say it too often because he knows Bruce is easily flustered by that sort of thing.
"I bet you say that to all the people you dance with," Bruce settles for bantering since that comes easy with Tony, and it serves as good deflection.
"Well, not all," Tony replies, putting a lot of emphasis on the last word. Bruce chuckles. "So…" Tony pulls him a little closer and… it's not entirely awkward. "As my fake best man I'm counting on you to get me through this three ring... no, ten ring nightmare."
"Are you asking me?"
"Yes, of course." Tony looks at him though like it's not even up for debate. "If I'm going to get almost hitched, I at least want somebody tolerable around."
"Thank you?" Bruce scrunches his face.
Tony just flashes him a smile; that brilliant, blinding, honestly breathtaking smile that's ruined countless hearts and charmed just as many snakes. Bruce isn't even sure what category he falls into as he blinks in the face of its brightness.
Once upon a time his heart didn't let anyone in because he was dangerous and unpredictable. Then Tony had come along. He lulled him and then, being the master spy he is, managed to find a way past his defenses. Tony had settled into a special place in his heart, easily as if it had always belonged to him anyhow.
The testament to Tony's feat is in the feeling of swaying this close to the other man, while dressed to make at least some kind of impression in an obnoxious crowd he has almost nothing in common with, other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents notwithstanding. The testament to Tony's feat is in Bruce's small, answering smile despite how out of character this all should be for a man like him.
“Ah, so I’m a beard,” Natasha interrupts in a wry tone. They pause in their, somewhat graceless, swaying to look at her. Her lips are quirked ever so slightly as she stands there in her knock-out, little, black dress eyeing them with interest.
“Uh oh,” Bruce is surprised to find himself playing along, “she’s found us out. I told you we shouldn’t do this with all these people watching.”
“I couldn’t pretend anymore,” Tony goes along with it easily.
“Well, then," Natasha says, "I hope you know this means I’m going to go on fucking our wedding planner.”
Tony sputters. “I wasn’t aware we’d already gotten a wedding planner." He glances at Bruce, his expression saying he’s actually worried about this new development.
Natasha either doesn't notice Tony's discomfort or else doesn't care too much for his overreaction and simply quirks her lips a little higher. “Don’t worry," she drawls, cat-like. "Clint is very good at this sort of thing.”
Tony’s mouth falls open while Bruce tries to stifle a laugh at his friend's expense. “We—We are not letting Barton plan our fake wedding.” Natasha rolls her eyes. "I mean that. I'll take the matter to Fury if I have to."
Bruce shakes his head, still amused. “I think I should let you two work this out between yourselves,” he teases and leaves them to their good-nature bickering as they start to dance. He only looks back once to wonder a little at how believable they look and sound as a couple already. He walks as far away as possible when the thought is accompanied by something small but decidedly unpleasant in his stomach.
He wanders around the party a little, carefully avoiding any more drunken people who might trip into him. He's almost tempted to call it a night and let Tony do whatever he wants when he spots Clint chasing after a man in a waiter's outfit. Barton seems desperate and on edge. Bruce looks around to see if anyone else has noticed and then cautiously follows him.
"I haven't seen you in thirteen years. And suddenly you just emerge from the shadows and expect me not to have questions?" Bruce hears Clint practically hiss and a quick peek around a corner shows the other agent has got the man – Bruce can't see his face because his back is turned to him – in a firm grip 'round his arm. "Where the hell have you been, Barney?"
The man, Barney, pushes him off with a quick movement of his arm. Barton has a strong grip, thanks to expertise in long range archery of all things, so it's a testament to this Barney's strength.
"While you've been busy playing good cop, I've been off getting filthy rich," Barney tells him.
"By being a hired gun that does the dirty work for guys who don't mind if you end up taking the fall," Clint says in regards to the mystery man's line of work. So he's clearly an assassin or hired thug of some other sort. "Where's the integrity in that?"
"Really? Isn't that what you do?" Bruce furrows his brow because this guy seems intimately aware of Clint's secretive profession and that's dangerous. "Take the hard shots so the FBI and fat cats in government don't get their hands dirty? So the poor, simpleminded citizens don't learn how horrible politics really is?" Bruce furrows his brow again because that's not exactly what Clint does; he's not a hired assassin even if he has license to kill. Maybe Clint has constructed a myth for the other guy to believe.
Clint glances over and Bruce doesn't fall back so he knows there's no way Clint could have missed him, especially since Clint is known for his excellent eyesight; his code name is even Hawkeye. The spy sighs and glances back at Barney. "You're right," he says and it's good, convincing. "That is what I do." He pauses. "So why are you here, Barney? Who's the target?"
"Ah, no." Barney replies. "I'll be a sap and let you make a break for it for old times, but I'm not telling you so you can louse it up."
"What's the matter?" Clint smiles wide and it seems incongruous with the all but outright confession Barney is there with a target in sight. "Don't trust your baby brother?"
Bruce is grateful he has more training than to let out an ill-timed gasp.
"Not ever since you sold me out, you little punk."
"You mean that same time when you were going to sell me out and I beat you to the punch?" Clint asks evenly and Bruce can't help but wonder about the guy's sordid past. He knows S.H.I.E.L.D is in the business of hiring ex-cons and ex-felons and troubled souls, but if this was at least thirteen years ago then Clint couldn't have been more than 17 at the time. "Yeah, don't think you're the only one here with an interest in self-preservation, Barn. So in the spirit of self-interest, I'm interested in what game you're playing."
There's a long silence and Clint studies his older brother meticulously. At the moment, Bruce wishes he were certain regarding the game Clint is playing, but he's taking a chance that he's still on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s team whatever it is.
"What game?" Barney asks, and even Bruce can tell it's insincere. "Just a straightforward target for cash like alw—"
"Save the bullshit for someone gullible, Barney," Clint cuts him off. "I'm here so we both know that there's something bigger at stake. Maybe we even have the same target." Oh, Bruce thinks, he's trying to steer Barney away from the truth that the place is crawling with agents who need to keep their identities secret.
"Huh." Barney seems truly contemplative. "That bastard would."
"Yeah," Clint says with a derisive snort and looks away, making sure to flash a telling look in Bruce's direction; Bruce is now certain Clint is playing the spy game and trying to get the info he needs without showing his hand. "How do you think I feel? Must not trust me given my associations and sent you in instead to make sure it gets done one way or another."
Barney chuckles. "Can you blame the guy? He's got a score to settle. You know how it goes with those crazed revengers."
Clint narrows his eyes. "Yeah so we're back to the original point. Neither one of us is stupid enough to risk our necks with a crazed backer unless the payout is worth it. And I think we both know it is which brings up the next question. Which of us is going to score big here?"
"Well, from what I hear, this Loki guy never turns down the best," Barney says. Bruce sees the way Clint wills himself to be impassive the same way Bruce wills away another gasp. According to intel, Loki is a known alias of the guy Tony's been trying to take down. "So if we both take this shot and go back to Stane together saying we're a packaged deal, I don't see why he shouldn't give us both the secret password to Loki's inner sanctum. Besides, we're sure to be more persuasive with blackmail on our side. We'll know where Stark's body is buried and Stane's goons are no match for us as a team."
This time Bruce does gasp, damn it.
"What the hell!?" Clint's the first to react in alarm. Bruce knows it's in order to keep his ruse going. For his part Bruce stands there like he's just a dumbstruck guy who's wandered around the corner at the wrong time for as long as it can buy him. "I think that guy knows Stark!" Clint hisses and Bruce isn't sure why he would go that far until he realizes Clint's in this thing now. He's signed himself up for a trip all the way to the top, to this Loki guy, if he can manage it.
"Then we need to take this shot now before he tips him off," Barney growls. "I'll get this guy. You get Stark."
Bruce waits until the last second to run. He's glad this Barney guy had settled on sending Clint after Tony because Agent Barton won't shoot to kill. That doesn't mean he has no thought for himself so he run into the thick of the party, hoping the assassin won't be stupid enough to shoot in the middle of a crowd and risk his original business there. Also, there are agents scattered throughout the place so there's a chance one or two of them might jump in inconspicuously to help.
Of course his traitorous feet would lead him to where Tony and Natasha are, the two having moved to a different location from where he'd left them. By now he also realizes the guy isn't going to stop chasing him no matter how many guests murmur and scream because of the gun Bruce had seen him pull out during a quick glance over his shoulder.
"Bruce?" Tony's eyes widen and Bruce sees him contemplate if he should blow his cover, fingers twitching as if ready to reach for his hidden firearm. Clint comes up behind Tony at that moment. Tony is surrounded - at least in Barney's mind - so Bruce stops short, giving Barney a chance to catch him.
Barney does and yanks him back sharply. Immediately the cold metal of the gun digs into his temple as Barney holds him hostage. Tony's eyes are wide with panic and he takes a step forward.
"Get back, Tony," Bruce urges, meaning it just as much for Tony's safety as for his hopeful play. "The guy's crazy. He wants to kill you."
"Barney, don't be an idiot," Clint shouts and Natasha jerks her head to look at him. Tony doesn't look. His eyes stay fixed on his own, and Bruce has never quite noticed how intense they can be. "He's probably got this place surrounded with security," Clint says and it's an invitation.
Natasha pulls out her gun before Bruce can even blink and levels it on Barney. "Your partner's right. He does," she says, voice cold and even.
"Let him go," Tony demands, raising his hands in a placating manner. "You want me. Not him."
"You're right," Barney says. "I do want you. So it's him for you. You come with us," Barney jerks them both to look at Natasha, "without interference, and I'll let the guy here live." He sees her studying the situation with her expert level of training and intuition.
Bruce then glances at Tony and his stomach falls when he realizes Tony is contemplating the deal. "Don't do it, Tony!" If Tony goes with them, Barney may shoot to kill before Tony and Clint even get the chance to overpower him.
"You've got five seconds," Barney barks. "Five. Four."
"One," Clint says. A gunshot rings out followed by another one, both bullets striking Tony in his back. Tony topples forward onto his knees, eyes going blank and his jaw slack.
"No!" Bruce shouts in horror and wrenches away from Barney, whose hold has gone loose in surprise. He falls in front of Tony and cradles his dead weight.
Natasha takes advantage of the chaos and shoots the gun from Barney's hand. He rears back in pain and into the waiting hold of another agent. "The other guy," Natasha says into her diamond bracelet like it's a dispatch to other security. Maybe it is. "The other guy's getting away." She rushes after Clint while Barney mumbles about being sold out again. Bruce would feel bad for him if not for the fact he's holding Tony with full knowledge that if Clint's brother had taken the shot it wouldn't have been just for show.
He hears Tony groan and he helps him stand up to his feet. There are legitimate gasps from party-goers who have no idea Tony does this kind of dangerous thing on a regular basis. Now that he thinks about it that idea makes him a little uncomfortable too; so, he doesn't think about it for more than a few seconds. Behind him Barney is mumbling in confusion again.
"It's fine. I'm fine," Tony says in a strained voice and unbuttons his shirt to reveal his Kevlar vest. Only, it's not made of Kevlar. It's made from the far rarer vibranium that S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to procure for its top agents. Bruce feels a bit of relief that Tony is one of those agents, if only because he's entitled to it since his father was the one to procure vibranium for the agency in the first place. "You don't survive a run in with terrorists and a crazy ex-CEO without learning it's a good idea to wear one of these babies," he says in a flippant tone like it's a joke. A few people actually laugh.
Crazy ex-CEO? Right. He'll have to tell Tony that Stane's out to get him and perhaps working with Loki.
Right after he dodges all of the questions Tony seems to be gearing up to ask him, if the way he's studying him is any indication. After all, Bruce had managed his side of the situation like a skilled field operative, something that can't have gone unnoticed by a highly skilled field operative. It might be a little hard to explain as a meager S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist.
Bruce rubs at his neck while he waits in the S.H.I.E.L.D. medical bay for his mandatory check up. Barton's brother had been rough, but the adrenaline had made it unnoticeable at the time. All of his thoughts had been in hoping it would all work out, in hoping Tony wouldn't be hurt, in hoping no civilians were caught in the crossfire. If he lets himself think about it, if he lets it all replay in his mind, his heart begins to pound in his ears again.
It's been a long time since he's felt that kind of fear. He's just glad it hadn't been crippling. He's also glad for Clint's quick thinking, even if seeing Tony get shot now officially ranks as number one on his list of things he never wants to see again. For a split-second Bruce hadn't considered Tony's vest and it had felt like his world had ended. It's perhaps a little funny what adrenaline can do to one's psych, he reasons.
"How's your neck?" Bruce drops his hand at the familiar voice. Before he can even register his friend in the door, Tony is in front of him and studying Bruce's neck for himself. "Any tighter and that bastard would have had you in a sleeper hold."
"Maybe would have defeated the purpose of the gun," Bruce muses with a dry chuckle.
Tony flinches. "That's not funny, Bruce."
"No, it's not," Bruce agrees.
"What the hell happened?" Tony asks, fingers gently brushing along the chapped skin. Bruce doesn't know if he wants to shiver or suck in a harsh breath. Tony ends his inspection and looks directly at him before he can do either. "How did you get mixed up in all of that? And what were you thinking?"
Bruce sighs and looks down at his knees. "That guy was there to kill you."
"Already understood," Tony says.
"He's Clint's brother apparently. An assassin," Bruce adds and looks up at Tony. "You were his target."
"Still understood," Tony says, eyebrows knitting together.
"Yeah, maybe you understand," Bruce snaps, heart rate spiking again. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "Sorry. Still trying to compartmentalize the fact that if things had gone to plan my best friend would be dead right now," he admits. There's a long moment of just silence, like neither wants to address the topic further. There's only his and Tony's breathing.
"Yeah, I guess it takes years of field op work to figure out how to do that," Tony finally replies. His tone is sympathetic, but also mixed with something else. Bruce opens his eyes and meets with an intense gaze, one that reminds him of the way Tony had looked at him while he'd been in Barney's hold.
Tony's alive, Bruce tells himself. He's wrong about any length of time or experience being enough to compartmentalize this kind of thing, but he's alive so Bruce focuses on that.
"So, this Barney guy is Clint's brother?" Tony returns to the casual interrogation.
"Barney Barton," Natasha interjects. Bruce looks past Tony as Tony spins ninety degrees to look as well. She, Coulson, and the medic are all entering the room. The medic doesn't look too pleased as she eyes Tony's close proximity to her next patient, but doesn't say anything as she gathers some supplies. "Clint's told me about him. He's a damn good shot. We got lucky."
Bruce looks up at Tony again in 'what-if' dread. Tony meets his gaze and smiles softly. Right. Still alive.
"How did you become involved, Dr. Banner?" Coulson asks.
Tony raises an eyebrow in shared askance. He then looks at the medic and crosses his arms defiantly when she tries to shoo him away. He takes a measly step back so she can stand directly in front of Bruce and then remains standing there like a guard dog. Bruce debates whether or not he should be embarrassed or grateful. He decides to forgo a conclusion and return to the question at hand.
"I was at the party when I saw Clint chasing after his brother. I was curious and I didn't see any other agents seem to pick up on the problem so I followed him."
"Curiosity kills the cat, Dr. Banner," Coulson says in what sounds like almost admonishment. Tony flinches again and it occurs to Bruce then that he isn't the only one trying to compartmentalize a friend being in a dangerous situation.
"Yes, but it's a good thing I did. I was able to get a lot of intel. Clint knew I was there and was very deliberate. He managed to tip me off to his decision to take on an undercover op using his brother. And he got Barney to admit to agreeing to the hit for a middle man that can connect him to Loki."
Tony's arms unfold at that. He opens his mouth to say something when Bruce sucks in a breath and one eye goes shut, the medic beginning to clean his neck with a mild astringent. Tony gives a sympathetic wince before looking back at Coulson.
"If there's a middle man who placed a hit on me do you think that means Loki knows I'm the agent trying to stop him?" Tony asks. Bruce opens both eyes and watches for the their superior officer's reaction.
"Possibly," Coulson answers, but he doesn't sound too certain. "We can't rule it out of course. But it may also indicate he hasn't figured it out."
Bruce scrunches his face, then winces at the cold medicine now being applied to his neck. "It's just coincidence?" He attempts to appear dubious in spite of his current medical treatment.
"Yes," Coulson replies. "All of our current intel suggests Loki isn't the kind of guy to send a middle-man after someone unless they're a trifle. Let alone an assassin hired by a middle man."
"Right," Tony seems to agree. "He'd probably like that pleasure himself."
"Assuming our intel is correct," Bruce says, grateful that the medic has just finished covering his abrasion with gauze. He glances at Tony and hitches his shoulder. "No offense. I'm sure you're great at making sure your contacts are on the up and up, but—"
"Part and parcel with the job," Tony interrupts with a raise of his hands. "Loki could be playing me like a very expensive violin." Bruce sighs and wrings his hands nervously as he considers it. "What?" Tony looks at him with concern. "What is it?"
"The middle man," he says hesitantly. "It's Obadiah Stane."
"Shit." Tony let's out a harsh breath as his eyes widen. He glances long at Bruce and then looks at Coulson and Natasha.
"Then we have two possible scenarios here," Coulson interjects. "Loki and Stane both know and have a common interest or it's a very uncanny coincidence. It's probably best that we assume it's the first." Tony nods. "Since Barton's your partner," he says to Natasha, "I want you to try and make contact as soon as possible. I'll give Director Fury the information you shared, Dr. Banner along with anything that can be found out from an interrogation of Barton's brother." Coulson looks directly between Bruce and Tony. "You two can expect Fury will want to speak with you himself, but until then you go dark. You won't be sent on any other missions, Stark and Dr. Banner, you get a short vacation."
Bruce sighs and shakes his head. "Well, I guess I'll have time to work on some of my own projects," he muses.
"You can swing by Stark Tower," Tony offers with a manic grin. Tony is always trying to get him to moonlight for his company's research and development. And, frankly, Bruce wants to, but he has a list of reasons why it probably wouldn't be a good idea.
"Actually, before anybody does anything," Coulson begins in a tone that suggests whatever he's about to say is not up for debate, "Dr. Banner will need to do a thorough psych evaluation."
"Ooh," Natasha remarks, sympathy in her voice.
"Ouch," Tony agrees.
"Why?" Bruce asks.
Coulson looks pointedly at him. "You were in a hostage situation," he reminds him.
"Oh that," Bruce says and Tony gapes at him.
"'Oh that?' Don't think I didn't see the way you pulled up short on purpose, Bruce. You made a call. Which reminds me you never answered my question. The hell were you thinking?" Tony looks at him with narrowed eyes focused on him with something teetering between frustration and concern.
"Yes, I made a call," Bruce says as neutrally as he can. "But I don't know if I'm in any frame of mind to discuss it further tonight. I'm tired and the main thing here is I'm okay and you're okay. I made a call and maybe it was stupid, but it all worked out, didn't it?"
"Dr. Banner is right," Coulson intervenes and Bruce breathes a sigh of relief. The topic can be dropped for now at least.
Tony had expected at least a little time between the crazy night before and a meeting with Fury. Thus he'd gone home and gotten a little drunk. Not as smashed as he used to be capable of, but enough for his head to begrudge this ten a.m. wake up call. He doesn't even bother removing his sunglasses as he strides through the Hub toward the elevator. As he gets on it and turns around, he spots Bruce hurrying to catch it. He smiles and holds the door open for him.
"Morning, Brucey," he chirps in spite of his hangover. He then looks him over, noting the bandage on his neck, and tries to ignore the spike of anger that follows.
"Morning," Bruce says with a friendly smile in return. As soon as the door shuts them in, Bruce proffers one of the two cups in his hand. "It's not soda, but I thought you might forgive me."
Seeing as the cup is from a coffee place he adores it's a million times better than soda. Tony takes it like it's manna from heaven. He holds it up to his nose and breathes in the steam and aroma, just the cure for his mild hangover, and a smile breaks out across his face. It's the extra strong, not for the faint of heart blend that Tony loves best.
He takes a sip and practically sighs. "I love you," he declares.
"You got drunk," Bruce retorts knowingly.
"It's a coping mechanism," Tony replies and takes another drink. "Between the party and then Pepper calling and lecturing me on how I'm getting too old to do the reckless spy thing and how it's a risk to the company or some other nonsense, it was either alcohol or sex. Alcohol was more readily available."
"You don't have to tell me it's a coping mechanism, Tony," Bruce responds and takes a sip of his own drink, a peppermint Chai tea no doubt. "I know you well enough by now. Hence the coffee."
"Seriously, you're the best. Although if I had known Fury was going to play this game this morning, I would have opted for sex," he then says as he rubs at his temple with his free hand.
"That so?" Bruce queries.
Tony sighs. "Not really. Besides, Pepper probably would have gotten all huffy about that too. She's already been sending me really weird texts about needing to give her fair warning, but what about I have no clue. She expects me to keep up with—What are you doing?" He asks when he realizes Bruce has grabbed the hand that had been at his temple.
Bruce doesn't answer as he takes the tip of Tony's thumb and practically smashes it between his own thumb and index finger. It hurts like hell and Tony's taken plenty of beatings in his lifetime. But then Bruce lets go and Tony blinks in surprise.
"What did you just do?" He looks at Bruce in disbelief. His headache is entirely gone.
Bruce returns the look with a pleased smile, then shrugs. "Just a little trick I picked up once." Tony blinks again before shaking his head in awe.
"Wowzers," he says. "Any other tricks you know?" He looks him over with a playful leer.
"Uh…" Bruce falters. "There might be a couple of others," he eventually answers. "But I'm sure they're nothing you'd be interested in."
"Hmm." Tony studies him. "Well, you know me. The surest way to spike my interest is to tell me I wouldn't be interested."
Bruce snorts. "Yeah, just like a kid."
"But an adorable kid," Tony says before taking a drink of his coffee.
"Or obnoxious," Bruce quips.
Tony narrows his eyes at him. "First you buy me coffee, then you insult me. I'm starting to get mixed signals here, Dr. Banner."
"And here I thought I was being fairly obvious."
Tony opens his mouth to respond to that somehow, although he isn't quite sure where to go with that joke... that doesn't quite feel like a joke... when the door of the elevator opens on one of the training floors. Natasha strolls in and looks at them with an upward quirk of an eyebrow. Tony realizes for two men who have the entire elevator to themselves they probably are standing a little closer than necessary. They just naturally gravitate toward one another.
"Good morning," Natasha says with a terrifying, thin smile. It's terrifying because it exists for no reason at all that Tony can think of. "Assuming either of you slept to begin with." She studies them.
"I passed out with the help of a little alcohol, thank you," Tony indulges her and takes another gulp of coffee. Bruce looks at him with a raised eyebrow over his glasses. "Only a little, I swear."
Bruce just hums skeptically. "Well, I was here early so they could get my psych evaluation in before this meeting," he then says with a shrug.
"No wonder you made a caffeine run," Tony says, looking at him in slight horror.
Natasha studies the coffee in his hand and then glances at Bruce. "How considerate of him."
"Sorry," Bruce apologizes with a shrug. "You're used to early mornings. Did you sleep?" He then turns the table and Tony cocks his head patronizingly towards her to share in the question.
"If I had we wouldn't be having this meeting," she says with an infuriating knowing gleam in her eyes. "I had a four a.m. date with Clint."
"But, snookums," Tony gasps as dramatically as possible as the elevator opens and they all walk into the control center. "We're getting married. How could you betray me like that?"
"You really don't know, do you?" Natasha asks with a tilt of her head.
Tony looks at her questioningly and then at Bruce who seems just as confused. That's when he notices a few other agents in the room attempting to study them without being caught.
"Agents," Coulson calls to them before he can pursue the topic.
With a sigh, Tony follows Natasha's lead. Bruce walks alongside him. Fury is standing with his back turned to the door when they enter the conference room. As soon as they sit down, Tony in the seat next to Bruce and Natasha a few chairs down to Tony's right, the Director turns and glances between them. His eye lands on Bruce last and he sighs. Tony isn't sure how to take that, but he feels a prickle of uneasiness.
Bruce tenses beside him, but he says in deflecting humor, "So much for my short vacation."
Fury nods. "I wasn't expecting to call either of you in this early to go over our options, but in light of this morning's press it seemed a good idea to advance my timeline. Luckily Agent Romanoff was able to make contact with Agent Barton as quickly as she did. And thankfully Dr. Banner's psych evaluation this morning..." He pauses and narrows his one eye on Bruce, causing Tony to feel a little uneasy again. "Well, it came back as good as can be expected."
"That's... reassuring," Bruce says with a nervous chuckle.
"Reassuring enough for me to have come to a decision regarding the future of Operation: Tesseract, particularly where Agent Stark's wedding is concerned."
"About that," Tony interrupts, "do I have to buy an engagement ring for this little setup?"
Fury glances at him, at Bruce and then back again. "I supposed that's entirely up to Dr. Banner," he says with a shrug.
"Why would it be up to me?" Bruce asks.
"Because not every male fiancé prefers a ring prior to marriage, understandably."
"Male fiancé?" Tony narrows his eyes, but a glance at Natasha's quiet amusement causes him to put two and two together. But the answer still can't be right so he asks, "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying there's been a slight tweak to the mission. Tony Stark asked Dr. Bruce Banner to marry him. Dr. Banner eagerly agreed."
"What!?" Tony exclaims in perfect unison with the man sitting at the conference table beside him.
He and Bruce turn to look at each other in sync before turning their heads back toward Fury.
Fury rolls his eye and looks at Agent Coulson. "Did I mumble?"
"No, sir. You did not, sir," Coulson answers.
"With all due respect, sir," Bruce tries, tone beseeching, "this doesn't make very much sense. You have to understand our confusion." Tony nods and looks from Coulson to Fury to Natasha.
"It really doesn't," he agrees. "We planted all of the gossip last night about Natasha." He points a thumb in her direction.
"Correction," Coulson interjects. "Gossip was planted that you are engaged. And the story was given to the press there to run wild with. Well," Coulson pulls up a screen of a magazine cover with Tony and Natasha on it, "they ran wild with it." The headline reads: Tony Stark Seeking Mrs. Stark?
"Okay, see?" Tony lifts a hand towards it and looks at Fury. It proves his point. "I was supposed to be seen with Natasha all night so this would happen and it did. I even danced with her."
"You say it that way again, Stark, and I'll show you why my code name is Black Widow," Natasha warns.
"Look, you know you felt the same way," Tony bites back. She rolls her eyes upward, but then shrugs once in concession.
"But she's not the only one you danced with, now is she?" Fury interrupts. He sounds as if he's talking to a five-year-old, trying to get a very basic point across.
"I rarely ever only dance with just one—" Tony stops when realization strikes him. "Oh."
"Like I said," Coulson flicks the screen until another magazine cover appears, "they ran wild with it."
"Oh," Bruce mumbles softly beside him. This must be what Pepper's spazzy texts had been about, Tony thinks.
This cover is of him and Bruce dancing and the headline reads: The Real Future Mrs. Stark?
Emasculating headline aside, even Tony has to admit that if he were a random passerby and saw the two different covers, he'd believe this one. He and Bruce like each other, are friends, and so it's obvious in the photo they're more comfortable with each other. Hell, it's a good picture. It's just the right angle and lighting for Tony to look absolutely… He swallows hard.
"It's just one—" He starts quickly, but he's cut off by another headline, no photos this time, that reads: Tony Stark and Rumored Fiancé Involved in Hostage Situation. He winces. It's followed in quick succession by story after story, photo after photo that makes it seem like Bruce is his rumored lover and that's the reason why he was targeted and why he was the one to fall to his knees when Tony had been shot. Tony swallows hard again.
"With the way things went down last night," Fury speaks again, "Romanoff makes more sense to the public as your head of security. She pulled a gun and chased after Barton. So congratulations on your engagement to Dr. Banner," he says with an air of finality.
Beside him Bruce sighs in defeat, but Tony's not quite had the last word yet. "Bruce isn't a field operative," he points out and it's a point he's legitimately worried about. "You said you selected Romanoff based on her rank ergo her ability. You know this is going to be a dangerous op. Maybe even more so now that Stane's baying for blood on top of it."
"He seemed to handle himself just fine last night," Fury says with a shrug and Tony scowls.
"Barton's brother had a gun to his head!" It's not an image Tony will live down soon and it's not a situation he ever wants to see repeated.
"It seemed like a reasonable risk," Bruce defends himself evenly, hitching a shoulder. Tony turns the scowl on him. Just because Bruce had deflected his questions before and had insisted he was okay it doesn't mean Tony is okay with the risk he'd taken. "I just had to buy some time. Barney wouldn't have aimed for your vest like Clint did," he says with a sharp glance.
"He wasn't exactly aiming for your vest either, Bruce," Tony replies just as sharply. "Look, I get that you must have some kind of operative training if the way you handled yourself last night is any indication." He sees Bruce blanch and files it away. "But it's obviously not enough and I can't believe you would take that chance." He turns his gaze back on Fury in anger.
"Stark, let me handle the assessments here," Fury berates. "The story makes sense and we've always believed the two of you make for a good team," he says in reference to the fact that Bruce should have been his tech specialist – which is a million times removed from being his partner in the field! "He'll be fine. End of discussion."
"Besides, Stark," Natasha interjects. "I'll be staying on as your head of security. I've got him covered if he needs it."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence everybody," Bruce states dryly. He then sighs. "Look, I think we're missing the bigger problem here." They all look at him. "Why would the notorious playboy Tony Stark suddenly want to tie himself down to me of all people? And how the hell do you expect someone like me to navigate the attention of being part of a celebrity couple? I don't even handle parties very well." He looks at Tony with a full body shrug.
"You'll just have to find a way to manage," Fury says without sympathy
Tony sighs, but clasps him on the shoulder and squeezes. "As long as we have to do this, I promise to have you covered on that end." He means it. He doesn't want Bruce to feel weird and uncomfortable. "We'll make sure the press knows you're an introvert that doesn't do big crowds or interviews whenever you can avoid them. We'll play it up as, I don't know, opposites attract or something."
"Thank you," Bruce says with a small smile. "That's some relief at least. But also defeats the purpose of the ten ring circus of a wedding." Oh. Right.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Dr. Banner," Coulson intervenes. "After last night we have faith you can handle yourself if the situation calls for it. As for why Tony Stark is suddenly interested in someone like you, I would think the answer should be clear," Coulson replies to the previous question. "It's true love."
Bruce snorts. "It's true love? Even though he's never publicly been with a man let alone me before this party?"
"It's true love and he's been closeted," Coulson adjusts the explanation.
Tony's eyes widen. "You're going to prop us with the LGBTQ community?" he asks in disbelief and he feels Bruce tense beneath his hand right before he finally lets it fall from his shoulder.
"It would add to the publicity," Fury states.
"I'm not okay with using the community to promote a fake wedding," Bruce says, quite heatedly.
Fury sighs. "Look, Dr. Banner, they're already talking since you both danced. It's too late for there to be no discussion. If we do this there is no way we'll be able to get out of people posing those questions, for better or worse."
"Just like they would have posited I'm just a gold digging tramp," Natasha points out. Tony cringes when he realizes that's exactly how it would have read, especially with the age gap, her stunning looks, and his reputation.
"Fine. They can pose the questions," Bruce grumbles. "But we're not using those questions for extra publicity on purpose. When they ask me I'm going to be completely honest about my orientation."
Tony furrows his brow. He's fairly certain Bruce is as straight as a ruler – hence his drastically off the mark excuse to Veronica the night before – so how is that going to work? Will he say Tony is the exception?
For some reason Coulson seems nonplussed as he says, "Fair enough, Dr. Banner. And I guess we can find a way to sidestep any messy 'coming out' story with Stark."
"Okay, for the record, I was never 'in' and I'm not sure why that isn't already common speculation," Tony says, trying to help. "There's gotta be a rag somewhere that has pictures. So I'll be honest about my orientation too," he says.
"Still doesn’t make any sense," Bruce says, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Tony Stark with Natasha Romanoff. Makes sense. She's young and beautiful and could play any part necessary to sidestep allegations."
"That's actually really sweet," Natasha interjects.
"Tony Stark with any number of beautiful and accomplished women, like Pepper Potts, makes sense," Bruce continues. "If billionaire playboy Tony Stark is going to be settling down with a man why shouldn't those men also fit that mold?"
"What the hell are you implying, Bruce?" Tony frowns.
Bruce gives an exasperated huff. "I'm saying there are other male agents that make more sense. Thor. Agent 1. Agent—"
"You did not just say Agent 1," Tony cuts him off.
"Based on looks and age, Tony," Bruce counters.
"You've got to be kidding." Tony glares at him. "One, you are fucking gorgeous so deal with it already." Bruce's eyes widen. "Two, in a hypothetical situation where given the choice of dancing with either you or Agent 1 or anyone comparable to Agent 1, I would still pick you. The press will get with the program or they won't. That's just how it works."
Bruce squeaks as his mouth falls open and the contrast of his reaction to Tony's really drives home the point. If he has to fake a relationship with someone, as awkward as it might be for them as friends, hypothetically speaking Bruce is… a lot of the things that would make for an ideal partner for the long haul and not as just some flash-in-the-pan celebrity romance. Tony swallows that realization down hard.
"Stark didn't dance with Thor. Or Agent 1. There are no photos. There are no rumors." Fury is talking again and Tony blinks, willing himself to look away from his friend after their exchange. For some reason Coulson is smiling at them in that smug, knowing way of his. "So here's where we stand. Now that Barton's running his angle, I want Romanoff ready at any time to help him. That's not conducive for her being part of a celebrity wedding so the plan would have been a little muddled anyway."
"I could probably manage it," Natasha offers and Tony doesn't doubt it. She's good at her job after all.
"But it ups the odds of being caught," Tony says, understanding that much. If she somehow gets captured – as unlikely as that kind of scenario is – or tangled up on Barton's end in another way then it could easily turn into a case of the missing fiancé with the eagle eyed media. The plan is for Tony Stark to be so over the moon and high on planning a perfect wedding with his amore that nobody questions it, rather gets behind it and looks forward to the spectacle – thus, supporting their outlandish commandeering of an entire museum for the venue.
"So either we stick with the revised wedding mission with Banner as the lucky guy or we go back to the drawing board altogether and maybe Loki gets away," Fury states plaintively. "We don't have time to convince the world that Stark just happened to be dancing with two people on the same night, neither of whom are the love of his life, and that one happened to be a hostage due to an unfortunate misunderstanding."
Tony bites his lip. As loathe as he is to admit it, Fury is right. He's not right often, not in Tony's biased opinion, but about this he is. There's really no use debating it. Tony doesn't like Bruce being put in danger, but he'll do what he can to keep him safe if he has to.
Bruce, on the other hand, is the one with a lot of superficial concerns, thinking he's not good enough or that Tony would prefer someone else. No matter how unfounded they might be, maybe they're fueled by an underlying concern of having to be linked to Tony in this way. Maybe he's genuinely not comfortable with this and that's fair. He's a scientist, not a field operative and this is asking a lot just because Tony hadn't been able to think of any out for Bruce with Veronica other than dancing with him. He maybe got them into this mess so if Bruce wants out, he'll get him out of it too.
"Give us a minute," Tony says and stands to his feet. Bruce looks up at him in confusion. Tony just grabs him by his sleeve and pulls him out of the chair and along with him from the room, ignoring Fury's protests.
"A minute to do what?" Bruce asks when they're alone in the hall.
Tony lets go and turns to look at him. "A minute to discuss this like rational adults." Bruce gives a silent 'ah' before shrugging.
"What's to discuss? You heard Fury. If we don't do this you may not catch this guy. Not really a way out of this one."
Tony looks at him intently and says with conviction, "There is always a way out. Always."
Bruce rolls his tongue around his cheek and then sighs, all the while not making eye contact with him. "Yeah, I used to think that."
Tony has a feeling that might be a reference to his shitty childhood, which they very deliberately don't discuss unless Bruce initiates the conversation, so he doesn't comment. Instead, he places a hand on Bruce's shoulder and waits for him to meet his gaze again. Bruce does, dark eyes that are as soulful and deep as he is. They're the eyes of a genius and a man who deserves the world. Tony can at least give him this choice, as small and silly as it may seem in the grand scheme of things.
"My point is, you don't have to do this."
Bruce's dark eyes narrow slightly. "Fury kind of implied otherwise."
"And Fury can go fuck a snake."
"Okay, that's an odd animal choice," Bruce responds dryly. Tony holds back a smile at his reaction.
"This is your choice, Bruce. If you say no, I'll figure out something else. I'll go back to the drawing board. Hell, I'd work with Agent 1 if I had to."
"No you wouldn't," Bruce challenges disbelievingly.
"Yes, I would," Tony insists. "And you'd get to hear me complain about it every step of the way which might be infinitely worse for you, but I'm not going to let Fury make you do something you're not comfortable with." Tony pauses. He looks at his hand on Bruce's shoulder for a moment. He then squeezes once and lets it fall before looking at Bruce again. "You're my best friend and I don't want this to be so awkward for you that it casts a shadow on our friendship."
"I'm sure we could manage it rationally," Bruce says, but his tone isn't as convincing as he might think it is.
"Forget about Fury," Tony continues. "Forget about catching this guy. If you don't want this then that's that."
Bruce doesn't answer for a long moment. He only searches Tony's face for something. "You really mean that don't you?" Apparently he was searching for a sign that Tony was bluffing?
"Yes? Why wouldn't I?"
Bruce closes his eyes and lets out a long sigh. "Kiss me," he says barely above a whisper.
Tony blinks several times and his stomach flips. "Uh…"
Bruce opens his eyes. "We'll have to, you know that, right? At least once or twice for media reasons. We can probably get by with less intimate gestures like hand holding or maybe quick pecks on the cheek or whatever, but…" He shrugs and looks at him seriously. "If we're going to do this, we need to make sure we can, you know, kiss without it completely blowing our cover."
Tony hates standing there dumbly, but he can't help it. Bruce sounds like a skilled field operative running the variables of an undercover operation, looking at it with analytical detachment sort of like how Tony has to in order to put up with simpletons long enough to get intel – although that's a can of worms not worth thinking about at the moment. Bruce is looking at this logically.
"If we both cringe it won't be believable," Tony agrees to his reasoning. "And on the flip side if either or both of us overcompensate it'll be obvious bad acting."
"And if you're a horrible kisser maybe I'd just rather not go through with this," Bruce teases, breaking the seriousness of their venture with the easiness of their friendship.
"Oh is that so?" Tony smirks and takes it as a challenge to show his best friend there certainly won't be any worries there.
He falls into Bruce's space with ease and, in one swift and deft motion, pulls the other man's lips against his own. Bruce gives a startled sort of 'ahmmph' that is so adorable and uniquely Bruce that Tony decides even between friends it's fair play to capture the sound to memory for later. In spite of the surprise on Bruce's part he falls right into Tony's space too, relaxed and letting the kiss happen. He even reaches up and caresses the wrist of the hand Tony has attached to the side of his face.
The kiss isn't too long, it's tender, there isn't even tongue, but when they break apart at the same time – as if in perfect synchronicity regarding how long they should linger – Tony knows without a doubt that this kiss has just put to shame every single other kiss he's engaged in, for the sake of an op or otherwise. And he can see it in Bruce's eyes as they stand there looking at each other, hands still in position, that if every kiss is as easy and as natural as that one had been, just like the night before with their natural chemistry while dancing, they shouldn't have any problem convincing anyone.
Bruce finally lets go of Tony's wrist and Tony lets his own hand fall as well. They stay silent for another moment and Bruce searches his face again. Then Bruce takes a deep breath and a small smile touches his lips.
"Let's catch this guy."
Tony can't help but answer back with a broad smile and eager, "Yes, let's."
It is maybe a little concerning though how much Bruce's declaration makes Tony want to kiss him again just for the hell of it.
The ride in the elevator up to the party deck of Stark Tower is more awkward than Tony would like it to be. Which is precisely what he hadn't wanted to happen between him and Bruce if they agreed to a fake relationship. So naturally he's starting to panic a little.
Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. everything had seemed natural and Bruce had seemed sure they could handle this like professional adults and skilled actors – which if often what being a spy feels like only with real guns and violence. Now that they're at Stark Tower to iron out more of the details to prepare them for their charade Tony can't help but wonder if doubt is starting to sink in. Maybe it's becoming a little too real or they've had a little more time to think about it and change their minds. Well, truthfully, he hasn't necessarily changed his mind, but he will if Bruce does; because no matter what he still wants what Bruce wants and whatever will keep him from losing his best friend.
He doesn't know what to do with the awkwardness he feels or know where it's specifically coming from. Tony only knows that unlike the elevator ride prior to the meeting at S.H.I.E.L.D. he and Bruce currently are allowing the distance of another person – that person being Natasha – separate them. It feels intentional. It feels awkward. Worst of all it feels wrong.
Or maybe it's just Natasha that is making it awkward. Tony certainly hopes so, but he'll be sure to ask Bruce about it later. Then again Bruce hates it when he beleaguers a point after he's insisted how he feels about it. So maybe the best tactic is to stop adding to the awkwardness by not being his usual nonchalant self. Thus, Tony leans against his side of the elevator, crosses his arms casually, and gives Bruce a smug look.
"Well, well, well. I've got you at Stark Tower at long last," he says. Bruce slowly turns his head to look at him with an expression that suggests he thinks Tony's ridiculous, but in a fond way, of course.
"I swear if I find out this has all been one elaborate rouse you've cooked up for just that purpose," he threatens in teasing deadpan.
"You'll what?" Tony challenges with a raised brow, latching a tad desperately on to the return of their typical repertoire, as he pushes off the wall. Bruce narrows his eyes at his cheeky grin. "I'm waiting. What, got nothing? You know most people would be flattered by that kind of elaborate demonstration."
Bruce snorts. "Or they would find it borderline psychotic and file for a restraining order."
"You should have filed for it while you had the chance, Brucey. The judge won't take you seriously now that you've agreed to marry me."
"I could plea temporary insanity and name you as the cause."
"Hey, lovebirds," Natasha interrupts, "are we getting off or not?"
Tony turns his head and sees the elevator door has opened and Natasha is standing on the other side of the threshold waiting for them both. He then realizes that amidst their exchange the distance between himself and Bruce had narrowed significantly without his even realizing it. He feels a small bit of relief that they had naturally fallen into one another's space again, but it's short-lived when he realizes Bruce seems to feel the opposite. Natasha's comment seems to have made him withdraw again. Tony decides that's as good a reason as any to blame the awkwardness on Natasha as they step out of the elevator.
When they come into the lounge area of the party deck Pepper is already waiting for them, arms and legs crossed where she sits, since Tony had finally responded to one of her texts to let her know he'd let her in on everything once he arrived back at the tower. Bruce goes to sit so that she's across from him and Tony doesn't miss the way Pepper studies him very carefully. Then she studies Natasha.
"So," Tony speaks first, crossing over to the bar as he does, "drinks to toast the occasion?"
"You're stalling," Pepper says knowingly, glancing at him now. "And I have another meeting after this one so just a splash, and I mean a splash, Tony. Whatever you give me," she ends indifferently.
"Vodka," Natasha says without blinking an eye. "And your good stuff, Stark. Not the water you tried to serve at your last party."
"That was my good stuff," Tony counters with a frown and she raises her eyebrows judgmentally. He sighs and pulls out his best Vodka, along with two bottles of wine, just the same. He goes to pour her some, but before he can she comes over and takes the whole bottle. "Hey," he protests.
"I'm going to need more than a toast," she says with an easy shrug and heads back over to the sitting area, taking Pepper her drink as she goes.
Tony shakes his head and pours two more glasses. He then crosses the space and holds out one of the glasses to Bruce. The physicist looks up at him with a crease in his brow.
"Tony, you know I don't like—" Tony doesn't let him finish.
"Just trust me," he insists and pushes the glass forward another inch.
Bruce takes it tentatively and looks at it like it might poison him. He then, as Tony knew he would, brings the glass up to his nose and breathes in the aroma. His eyes widen in surprise and he looks back up at him with something between disbelief and genuine interest.
"Port?" He takes a small sip and clearly relishes in it. While Bruce will make a general exception to his distaste for alcohol where wine is concerned, as Tony has learned over the years, his one true alcoholic indulgence is Port – although still in moderation as Tony has also learned is a very big caveat for Bruce when it comes to anything relating to alcohol. "Good Port," Bruce says as he savors it. He glances back up at him in confusion again as Tony continues to stand there. "You hate Port," he says dubiously. "Why do you even have this?"
"True," Tony says with a shrug and takes a sip of his definitely-not-Port wine for emphasis. "But my best friend loves it so why wouldn't I have it? It's not my fault said best friend rarely visits." Bruce doesn't seem to know how to respond to that, rather ducks his head and gives a very small smile as he looks into his glass.
"Tony," Pepper breaks him away from where he'd been staring thoughtlessly at Bruce and he turns his head to see her in business mode, although not without a small studious glance between the two men. She has set aside her drink and has a Stark-tech tablet in one hand and stylus in the other. "We need to do damage control and fast. I'm also working with PR to schedule an official announcement interview on Good Morning America followed by a secondary interview on Today."
"Don't most celebrities confirm this kind of thing on Ellen these days?" Tony asks with a smirk.
"Maybe, but there's no way you'll be able to get in a filming with Ellen before Monday press," she says, but he sees her scribble down a note. "Besides, she may not be as forgiving when you annul your fake wedding after a hullabaloo. We're already looking at intensive PR strategy for the fallout with the general public not to mention the Board since they have no clue about your moonlighting and will only see this as another sign you're not even fit to be within ten feet of your own company." She finishes with a long sigh.
He winces because she has a point. She'll be his only ally in trying to manage his persona with the press and Board as she's the only one outside of S.H.I.E.L.D. who knows his secret. So not only is it a lot to ask of her as usual she's already thinking three steps ahead.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he says as he sets down his drink and flops down in the empty space next to Bruce. "How about we focus on the here and now. You haven't even congratulated us," he says cheekily and clasps a hand on Bruce's shoulder for effect. "I'm hurt, Pep."
Her eyes slowly widen and she straightens her head. She looks back and forth between them and Natasha in very obvious confusion. He couldn't have asked for a better reaction.
"No," she finally says plainly.
"No?" He has to admit that's not the verbal response he was expecting.
"No," she says again, more firmly. "I have a fake wedding to help you with. I can't deal with whatever is happening with you and Dr. Banner on top of everything else. This, this can't be public, Tony. I'm sorry," she apologizes in an earnest tone. "We're already looking at potentially damaging press from the party last night if people think you're already having an affair. I suppose we could spin it as an open relationship situation with Natasha, but even then you won't be able to go public with Bruce in the future without there being some insinuation that he's the one that came between the two of you."
Tony lets his hand fall as Pepper's small rant suddenly processes in his momentarily stalled brain. He blinks several times and looks at Bruce beside him. The other man seems just as stunned by the conclusion she's drawn. Then again, maybe it's a good thing that they have even her fooled?
"You think Bruce and I are in love?" he asks her curiously and she sighs in exasperation.
"I'm not blind, Tony," she replies. "But you picked a hell of a time to let yourselves get caught by the media."
Finally, Tony can't help but laugh. He looks at Bruce with an eager grin.
"Wow, Bruce. Clearly after this mission is over you and I need to go to Hollywood and give Cooper and Lawrence a run for their money. Who needs dangerous spy work when we can go live the easy life as a beloved screen pairing?" Bruce looks at him incredulously.
"Tony, you can already live the easy life sans dangerous spy work," he points out.
"True, but acting could be fun. Maybe we could be the first mainstream non-hetero romantic comedy team." He smiles wide at the notion and Bruce rolls his eyes, though not without an amused quirk of his own lips.
"Would somebody please tell me what's going on here?" Pepper questions.
"I'm not drunk enough for this," Natasha mutters. Then louder she says, "There's been a change of plans after last night's incident. I'm going to be coming on undercover as Stark's security," she explains.
"And the wedding?" Pepper glances between them.
"I dodged a bullet," Natasha answers with a wry grin.
"And it hit me instead," Bruce adds with a sigh and shake of his head.
"Wait," Pepper blinks, "you mean Bruce is going to be your fake fiancé?"
"Hey, she gets it finally," Tony cheers teasingly. "Fury thought it made sense given the conclusions some in the media jumped to and given other complications in our operation. Complications that are classified to certain non-S.H.I.E.L.D. parties currently present."
"Wow," Pepper says sardonically. "That was a very long winded way of saying 'sorry it's a secret' even for you. You seriously love to hear yourself talk, don't you?"
Without warning Bruce breaks out into a laugh beside him. Tony turns his head sideways with a raised eyebrow. It's not that it isn't always nice when Bruce really lets himself go and laughs like that, it's just not as endearing when it's aimed at him – unless he's the one poking fun at himself to elicit that reaction from him.
"Okay, maybe you two should get fake-married instead," he says between the last of his chuckles, pointing between Tony and Pepper.
"Oh, no, no, no," Pepper protests immediately. "That bullet didn't ricochet. It's lodged in there deep, Dr. Banner, meaning he's your problem where this is concerned and not mine." Bruce looks at him sideways for a moment and then looks back at Pepper.
"Yeah, I guess he is." Bruce hitches a shoulder.
Tony frowns. Something about that stings and he feels an indignant urge to get defensive. Logically he's fairly certain Bruce is teasing, but at the same time he wonders if he's that undesirable? That his own best friend thinks it's a bullet, that he's a problem where this type of hypothetical relationship is concerned.
Natasha hadn't been thrilled at the prospect and only willing to go through with it for the sake of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pepper probably wouldn't agree to it even if she'd been cleared to take on the role. So maybe Bruce's hesitance is more than just awkwardness between friends. Maybe the idea of ever being romantically linked to him actually disgusts him in a way that transcends, "Ew, gross, no, he's my friend" which, for the record, Tony himself doesn't necessarily feel towards Bruce thus leaving him to wonder all the more what might be going on in Bruce's head.
"Hey?" Bruce nudges him. "Where'd you go? Are you okay?"
Tony gives into his urge to get defensive. Or at least to pout. So he stands to his feet and walks to the far end of the room where there's a large expanse of window with a view to die for. He hears Pepper quiz him as to what's wrong and Natasha mutter about how much she hates this assignment already. But more than anything he feels Bruce's eyes on him. He doesn't have to turn to know his friend's face is contorted in concerned confusion, his scientist's gaze fixed on him like he's something under a microscope that must be studied.
"Okay," Pepper says with a defeated sigh, choosing not to push the matter further and let him wallow in his confused thoughts. "Well, now that I know Bruce is the one playing the role of Tony's would-be spouse I guess that nixes the affair damage control, but you realize this will raise other press concerns."
"We're aware of it, yes," Bruce answers with his own defeated sigh. "But what we've seen so far seems receptive so maybe we'll get lucky. Maybe we won't need to worry too much about this affecting Tony and the company." Tony snorts at that and turns back from the window, drawn back into the conversation.
"Right. Because people are willing to forgive Tony Stark the misogynistic playboy with a little black book as big as the Yellow Pages so long as he keeps making tech and smiling unabashedly for cameras," Tony replies with no small amount of derision at his reputation. He shakes his head. "But all bets are off if he falls in love with a single person and attempts to commit to that person so long as it's another man."
"Tony," Bruce counters in a long-suffering sort of tone, "that's still the norm and I think it's important you realize what this could mean for the long term. No matter what becomes of Loki your life will still go on and all of this could have several repercussions you're not prepared to deal with. Repercussions you don't deserve. Pepper's already made the point of potential fallout after we pretend to split."
"Look, I'm flattered that you're concerned," Tony says genuinely as he crosses back over to them. "But if all this means long term is that the public knows once and for all that Tony Stark isn't some raging homophobe and couldn't care less how people feel about that then I'm okay with it. Hell, I shut down Stark Industries' weapons manufacturing which was at least eighty percent of our overhead profit." He shrugs. "I didn't care what people thought then and I certainly don't care now."
Bruce blinks, opens his mouth in a considering way, and then shuts it again with a small hmm. Tony can't help but find it adorable even if Bruce would probably give him a playful shove and tell him not to call him adorable. That, of course, in turn would be adorable and Tony would probably say so leaving them in an endless loop for a good five minutes at least until one of them acquiesced to the other, although they might just call a truce at the same time, both laughing at their own antics.
"You know what," Bruce finally gathers his thoughts, but looks slightly sheepish as he does, "I… I'm glad to hear that."
"You are?" Tony raises his brow.
"Yeah," he says with a nod. "Don't get me wrong. I still don't want you to have to deal with the backlash, but it's kind of reassuring to know you're willing to stand by your convictions even when you don't have to."
"I think that's his way of saying your little speech was attractive," Natasha says with a snort and takes another swig of vodka. Tony glances at her in both surprise and slight concern seeing as he's never thought her to be one to drink this openly in the middle of the day while discussing a mission.
"I—" Bruce squeaks in surprise.
"Hey, I hope so," Tony decides to intervene. Bruce seems just as surprised by that. "I mean, I'm also a little hurt my best friend hasn't always known this to be the case about me," he says genuinely, but maybe it's his fault since he plays so many roles as a spy he doesn't always discuss truths about himself openly when it's just him and Bruce, just takes for granted it doesn't matter. "Still I'd be disappointed if my fake fiancé wasn't okay with my convictions."
He looks intently at Bruce and understanding passes between them. It'll be the last of the subject of Tony's public persona's reputation and the good of his company if it can be helped. They know where the other stands on the ridiculous media storm that's going to follow over the next several weeks, and then the weeks after that, so there's no point in discussing it further. Tony has committed to this thing and going around in circles is only going to make it harder for the both of them.
Suddenly Pepper sighs and they all look at her. "Fake fiancé," she says in a tone that's somewhere between tired and wistful. "You live for making my life difficult don't you, Tony?" She looks at him with a shake of her head and then stands to her feet. "Alright, let's get this show on the road," she says in business-like crispness. "Just so you know, Tony, I'm scheduling a Trustees meeting for tomorrow morning. They need to hear this directly from you before the announcement on Monday. And you'd better have a hell of a good back story because going from absolutely no relationship on the radar to public wedding is going to be a hard sell even for you."
"I could just go in and say, 'Hey, it's my life, yolo, I write your paychecks, etc.'" Tony reasons flippantly. Bruce snorts.
"You do that and I'll track down this Loki guy myself and personally deliver him to Stark Tower so he can kick your ass," Pepper threatens. Then, without batting an eye, she glances at Natasha. "Let's go get you set up as Tony's new bodyguard. Happy Hogan is head of security, but we can say you're assistant head of security and our lovebirds' personal security." She then smirks. "So in other words glorified babysitter."
"Now you know why I'm drinking," Natasha quips as she stands to her feet without so much as a hint that she's practically drained his best bottle of vodka.
Once they've gone Tony sighs and looks at Bruce. He's not sure where they should go from here. It feels like the awkward in between. They know they have to present something to the public, but not quite yet.
As they remain in silence Bruce takes a sip of his previously forgotten Port and Tony thinks he looks a little like he'd be at home sitting there with his wine and a good book on a lazy Sunday. Tony wonders if that's how he unwinds at night, and then realizes he probably wouldn't indulge in alcohol that frequently so it's more likely that his drink of choice at night is some relaxing herbal tea that Tony could never begin to stomach himself.
"What now?" The question startles Tony from his wandering thoughts. He looks to see the earnest expression on Bruce's face.
"I think…" He checks his thoughts on the matter and makes a call. "I think you and I need to just relax."
"Yes. Things are probably going to get crazy and fast so let's just take as much time as we can to do what we want without the stress. You can go play in my lab if you want, work on those projects you were talking about last night. Or you can go home or… honestly, how about take out and a Star Trek marathon?"
Bruce blinks a few times, but then a thin smile spreads across his face. He looks up at him and gives one very small nod.
"Take out and Star Trek sounds amazing," he says with a sigh that Tony thinks almost sounds relieved. Or Tony could be projecting the relief that he feels.
"I think I actually forgot how much food you can put away," Tony says to him with a smirk from where he lays back on his couch.
Bruce just shrugs and builds another shawarma sandwich from the leftovers spread out on the coffee table in Tony's penthouse living room. Tony had ordered enough takeout for an army or something at lunch time and Bruce can't help it if he doesn't want to see it go to waste now that it's dinner time. It's not like Natasha is coming back any time soon. She and Pepper had dropped back by earlier, but they've been watching Star Trek for hours and refused to stop just because the two women disapproved of their choice in entertainment.
"Seriously, catering is going to be a beast with your appetite," Tony continues to rib him. Tony then nudges at his arm with his bare foot since Bruce had moved to sit on the floor for a while; they're both a little restless and tend to change seats and positions and have very manly pillow fights at random when they hang out like this. (And Bruce can't help but think it's been too damn long because just spending time with Tony like this is admittedly one of his favorite things to do.)
"Har-har," Bruce says dryly around a bite of food. He swallows and then wipes at his mouth with a napkin before turning his eyes on his bemused friend. "I find your poking fun at my metabolic disorder offensive. Besides, it's not like you have the appetite of a dainty princess over there," he ribs back and goes to take another bite.
Before he can blink Tony is suddenly up and snatching his sandwich out of his hand. Bruce does blink then and turns his head quickly to see the other man sat crossed-leg in the middle of the couch and eating the sandwich – his sandwich – with an obscenely pleased expression.
Bruce's brain shuts down because all he can think of is making sure Tony knows he can't get away with stealing his food that easily so he lunges to swipe the sandwich back. Of course, Tony has excellent reflexes and manages to dodge mid bite and hold the sandwich away while effectively squirming back on the couch. Just like their manly pillow fights, it turns into the two wrestling, Tony playing keep away while Bruce continues simultaneously to try and overpower his strong, well-trained friend and reach for the sandwich.
"You've got strength, I'll give you that, Brucey," Tony manages to smirk, the bastard, even as he grunts out the words. "But you're going to have to try harder than that," he says with a wink.
It's all the warning Bruce gets before his lower body is firmly trapped between Tony's thighs and in an expert move he finds himself rolled onto the floor – he's grateful Tony has a sofa with a low design – and straddled just as firmly by the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, damn good spy. He's too stunned to react immediately and Tony takes it as an opportunity to take a victory bite of the sandwich. Of course, that serves to break him from his trance and he can't fight the urge to try harder so he does.
Bruce waits for Tony to swallow, since he doesn't want him to choke to death or anything, then takes a deep breath and contorts until both of his knees are pressed on either side of Tony and then locks his ankles behind the spy's back. He uses Tony's body as a fulcrum and pulls up so that he's nearly eye level with the other man, his expression as stunned as Bruce's had likely been previously, before using all of his strength to flip them again.
Tony is still holding the sandwich so Bruce leans down and takes a victory bite of his own, Tony still staring at him with wide eyes, before pushing off and up onto the couch with a thin smile. Tony seems glued to the ground because he doesn’t move. Finally Bruce rolls his eyes and reaches out a hand. Tony clasps onto his forearm and Bruce helps him into an upright sitting position.
"What the hell," Tony croaks at last and tosses the sandwich onto the nearby table. "Seriously, you're a pretzel. How long have you been a pretzel?" Bruce's brain stutters for a moment.
"I do yoga?"
"That…" Tony blinks. "Seriously? Yoga? I'm not even sure Natasha could have done that and she could probably crush a man's skull between her thighs if she wanted to." Bruce chokes out a laugh and reaches for his drink, feeling belated exertion from not having had to be that flexible in quite a long while - with the weight of another person anyhow.
"Natasha took ballet for years," Bruce counters. "I'm sure she could do that and then some."
"Wait." For some reason Tony's face contorts in a somewhat unreadable expression. "How do you know Natasha took ballet for years?" It's not what Bruce was expecting from him.
"Uh, she told me?" He furrows his brow.
"Freely?" Tony doesn't seem to believe it. "When?"
"Of course, freely," Bruce says with an amused chortle. "She's not a robot, Tony. She's capable of conversation. Friendship even. I don't know remember when."
"I thought she only had those things with Barton," Tony replies to that. "Does Clint know?" Bruce sighs in exasperation as the amusement wears off.
"That Natasha and I hang out sometimes? Sure." He shrugs, but Tony looks like his brain has just short-circuited.
"I’m… You… You hang out?"
"Is this one of those weird 'you can only have one friend and it's me' deals?" Bruce asks with a raised eyebrow, some amusement returning in spite of everything. "Because we're really too old for that and you should know better than to think Natasha could replace you."
He remembers the night before and how if anyone could be replaced easily in the equation it's himself. Tony and Natasha have a sort of love-hate chemistry – that could only be matched by one other agent if Tony would stop being bullheaded about it although that's even less of a possibility Bruce wants to think about. Meanwhile he's just a steady companion that can give Tony intellectually stimulating conversation from time to time when he needs it but is otherwise dull and not at all to Tony's speed; Tony himself had even petulantly pointed out earlier that Bruce doesn't visit enough. So Bruce doesn't necessarily know how their friendship just works so naturally and perfectly in the first place - let alone why Tony would insist he'd pick him over other agents in hypothetical romantic scenarios. He only knows Tony has nothing to be worried about because Bruce would just as soon put his life on the line than willingly be the one to cut off his friendship with Tony; there would have to be a very good reason to make him walk away completely and every scenario Bruce can imagine that would lead to that end involve him screwing it up badly and it being for Tony's good. On the contrary he'd be lying if he said he didn't wonder if Tony could ever think the same—
"Good," Tony cuts through his thoughts. "Because I mean it, Bruce. Your friendship means a hell of a lot to me. Don't think I could handle being replaced."
There's a long moment of silence and Bruce lets himself believe that Tony means it. He's never give him reason to doubt him thus far, no matter how much Bruce may not understand it. Bruce decides to go on relishing in it selfishly.
"The feeling is mutual," he admits. He then adds playfully, "Probably why I had to go to desperate measures to take Tasha out."
"Ah, so you admit it was you who had the elaborate scheme and not me," Tony quips without missing a beat and moves to sit on the couch as well, grabbing the sandwich and handing it to him.
"Guilty," Bruce says with a chuckle before taking a bite of the sandwich. He then passes it back to Tony so they can share the rest of it like mature adults – even though there's plenty of food still on the table, a small part of his brain rationalizes. "So," he says while he waits for Tony to pass it back, "we probably should iron out a game plan for our little act before your meeting tomorrow."
"I've already got an idea," Tony says as he chews and then passes the sandwich back.
"Should I be worried?" Bruce asks in amusement, not taking another bite right away.
"No," Tony swallows, "not really. S.H.I.E.L.D. tactical already suggested using your public persona rather than creating a fake one. Makes sense. You've published enough of your own papers to at least be known in the scientific community and where better for me to meet someone stable than in the scientific community I'm also a part of?"
"Yeah, okay," Bruce starts, but then sees Tony looking between him and the sandwich impatiently. Bruce huffs gently and rolls his eyes before handing it back to him without taking a bite. "I get why that makes sense and it's not like I've ever really been on the map in a way that would cause issues. But Pepper seems to think that won't be enough of a sell. It still doesn't answer the question: why me?"
Tony groans. "Not this again."
"Yes, this again," Bruce counters, perhaps a little stubbornly. "At least until we come up with something solid and convincing as to why of all the people in the scientific community I'm the one who stuck enough that you suddenly want to pick out curtains without so much as having shown me off first… which we both know you probably would," he points out reasonably. He takes the sandwich back for the final bite left.
"I have a story, Bruce," Tony reiterates and pats him on his leg. "And it'll answer that question. Trust me."
The thing is Bruce does trust him. He doesn't trust a lot of people, not really when he gets down to the nitty gritty even if he tries or hides it well, and he's spent a lot of years not even trusting himself. But. He trusts Tony even when logic says the guy can be reckless.
So he nods, swallows the last bite of sandwich and says, "Okay."
"Thank you. I'll try it out on the Board tomorrow for good measure. If they don't believe me, we'll just embellish it some more until they either realize I'm lying and still going to do this whether they like it or not or believe me. But I think they will. I'm an excellent liar."
"That's not as reassuring as you might think it sounds," Bruce replies dryly.
"Noted," Tony says and then quickly, "but next we need to discuss living arrangements."
"What?" Bruce blinks.
"I'm thinking you can either take one of the residential apartments here in Stark Tower or if you think we should play it safe and go for the full effect you can take my guest room here in the penthouse." Tony keeps his eyes fixed on the television in a way that suggests he's nervous about the proposition. Bruce admits it's a bit odd.
"I have an apartment," he points out.
"I know," Tony nods, "I know. But I really think you need to be here for a few reasons. And I think they're logical reasons. And I'm not trying to make this any weirder, but—"
"Right." Tony gets back on track. "So my reasons. One, the papz are going to be all over us come Monday." Bruce cringes slightly at the notion. "They're going to be following both of us more heavily even with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s usual interference to keep certain secrets from coming to light." Bruce nods in understanding, but still doesn't follow the overall point. "You really don't want them to follow you to your place and then start camping out there do you? Especially after the break up?"
"Oh." Bruce's eyes widen. "Oh, I guess… I guess not," he admits.
"It might be less of an ordeal if you just stick as close to me as possible," Tony says with a shrug. He then glances away. "Two, it might be safer too," he says less confidently.
"Safer?" Bruce repeats. Tony won't look at him on his own so Bruce touches his arm reassuringly causing the other man to look back at him.
"This may feel like some weird reality show, but it's still a mission," Tony starts tentatively. He looks down at Bruce's hand on his arm and then back up again. "And it could get dangerous. If you're here, you've got Stark Tower security, my smart home system," the ridiculously smart AI Tony had created for himself named J.A.R.V.I.S., "and then Natasha since she'll be staying in one of the residential suites." Tony sighs. "Look, I know it's your choice. But I'd just feel better if…well, if you stayed here until this whole thing is over."
Tony is so earnest as he looks at him and he's sometimes surprisingly insecure in spite of his best charms and healthy ego. Bruce can't help but be a little taken by his friend's request. It's even logical on both accounts, whether for his own comfort and convenience or so they can stick together like the team they're supposed to be on this mission. If Bruce is being honest ever since last night he'd rather Tony not do the lone gun thing on this one anyhow and Natasha can't very well protect them both if Bruce is regularly across town – since he knows that Tony, maybe Fury too, would make her make him her priority since he's not a field agent.
"My best friend wants me to be safe," Bruce concedes with a genuine smile and lets his hand fall. "How can I argue with that? I'll take the guest room."
After finishing a quick perimeter check, Natasha comes into the green room backstage of Good Morning America. She immediately notes that Bruce looks like a nervous wreck as he watches the live television feedback of Tony's interview, situated in a corner away from everyone else. She glances around at a few of the other guests, but realize they're mostly busy in their own worlds. She quietly moves to stand beside the other agent.
"Having fun yet?" She looks at him with a raised eyebrow.
He blinks, as if broken from a trance, and glances up at her. "Depends on if they actually expect me to go out there," he says and then looks back at the screen.
Tony is only talking about Stark Industries right now, drumming up the anticipation to his inevitable announcement right before the next commercial break. But once he does it's almost a guarantee that the hosts will want to talk to the happy couple. Bruce wouldn't have been cleared by security or put through makeup and the works if they weren't prepared for the possibility.
"You know they'll make you come out, Bruce," Natasha tells him like it is.
"In more ways than one," he mumbles and this time she blinks.
"Bruce," she starts to admonish him, but then pauses as Tony confirms that he's engaged. Bruce lets out a heavy sigh and she shakes her head at him. "Why are you still—" She starts to question, but she's interrupted again when a crew member comes into the room to usher Bruce out and into the wings to go on.
He gives her a defeated shrug as he passes her and she studies him as he goes. Then she takes the seat he'd been in and waits to watch the whole thing unfold. When the program returns from commercials the camera zooms in on Stark as he smiles broadly.
"We're back with genius tech mogul Tony Stark," George says. Tony holds up a peace sign to the camera in an obnoxiously charming sort of fashion.
"For those of you just joining us," Robin says, "right before the break Tony confirmed the crazy rumors that have been circulating all weekend. Our favorite infamous bachelor is not only off the market, he's getting married."
The crowd cheers and Tony nods eagerly, still smiling, but Natasha thinks his smile looks just a tad more genuine than it usually does when he's donning his media presence.
"I'm sure we'll all admit that you've stunned us with this sudden development, Tony," Lara states.
"Believe me," Tony replies, "nobody was as stunned as me."
Natasha snorts. That's an understatement.
"Okay, of course we want to hear all about it," Robin interjects, "but first can we bring your fiancé out here? Is that okay? Who wants to meet Tony Stark's fiancé?" she asks the audience and there's applause.
Bruce slowly, and a little awkwardly, walks out onto the set. Tony's face lights up. He quickly stands for him, applauding, and then gestures to him with both hands up and down in a show-offish manner. Bruce pauses for a moment when he notices Tony's antics and tilts his head before chuckling and visibly relaxing. Natasha feels an involuntary lift of her lips at the edges.
"Everyone," Tony says as Bruce settles into a seat and the applause dies down, "my amazing fiancé Dr. Bruce Banner." He then sits down again and immediately reaches for Bruce's hand. Natasha is trained to detect subtle nuances and she notes that Bruce doesn't even flinch in the slightest. He even smiles thinly so that the sickening fluff of it is completely natural.
"Dodged a bullet," she mutters to herself as she tries to imagine herself in the same role. She glances at the others in the room and notices a few of them have started paying attention so she studies them for a few moments while a more formal introduction of Bruce is given, including mention of his work in the scientific community.
"Isn't he handsome?" Lara asks rhetorically.
"I think so," Tony answers just the same. Natasha looks back at the screen with a roll of her eyes because she knows for certain that the question of Bruce's attractiveness isn't even up for debate in Stark's mind. If they were only being interviewed as colleagues and it was mentioned, he still would have agreed.
"Now, Tony," George speaks up again, "you've been a notorious playboy in the past. And while we all know you've settled down quite a bit in recent years," he pauses and looks at the audience with a nod, before saying in fracture, "I'm sure we all remember your relationship with your CEO a few years back, for example. You've still got quite the reputation behind you."
"No need to sugarcoat it, George," Tony responds breezily. "My name has definitely been synonymous with lady killer." The panel laughs, but Natasha sees the nervous way Tony scratches at his nose with his free hand before faking a laugh himself. He also glances briefly at Bruce. "I mean," he interjects, "I've maintained for years that some of that was greatly exaggerated." Natasha sees the subtle, confused glance Bruce gives him although Tony doesn't. "But, yeah, I've definitely had more than my fair share of meaningless flings."
"That's not the f-word I would have used," someone mutters and Natasha glances over to see Christine Everhart, according to the security details she was given, looking at the screen in utter disbelieving contempt. One of those past flings, Natasha concludes.
"So you can imagine our surprise that someone finally has you hearing wedding bells," George states.
"And I'm sure we don't need to tell you about the speculation," Robin starts and Bruce takes a deep breath in trying to look calm, but Natasha can tell he's anything but. "This seems to have come as quite the unexpected revelation in more ways than one and-" Before she can finish, Tony holds up a hand.
"Can I just," he says, lowering it. "Can I just politely stop you right there." Robin raises her eyebrows. "We know about the speculation. We're not, you know, bothered by the questions or anything, but we've talked long and hard about it and we feel that it honestly doesn't bear getting into. If we do someone somewhere is going to make an even bigger issue out of it than it needs to be and all we want right now is to focus on each other and our future together."
Natasha blinks, genuinely as surprised as Bruce seems. She thinks back to all of Bruce's protests about misusing the community and realizes that Tony is trying to find a way out for him so that he's more comfortable about the situation. Her lips subtly quirk up to one side; again it's involuntarily.
"Care to elaborate at least a little for us so your proponents and opponents understand where you're coming from?"
"Sure." Tony shrugs and looks at Bruce for a long moment, eyes studying him before looking back at the panel. "Love is love. And I don't mean that flippantly, by any means. So to everyone fighting, keep on. Feel free to disagree with me. Feel free to find what I'm saying offensive if it offends you. But for us, on a personal level, love is the important thing we want to present. We want our actions to speak louder than words because we have the right to get married and we're not going to let others make us feel like we need to defend that right." Bruce's eyes dart all across Tony's face as he talks and there are so many emotions there that Natasha can't even keep up. "Look, if people want a firm statement or feel like they need to know if Tony Stark has always been attracted to men then, the quick answer is yes. Do with it what you will. I'm sure somebody has receipts." He lifts his free hand in an open palmed shrug and then looks at the audience. "But the only statement at this time that I'm interested in making is..." He looks at Bruce and pauses, their eyes meeting. Natasha imagines the world has stopped all around them for a brief moment. "Man or woman, Tony Stark has never felt this way about anyone before."
Natasha's eyes widen as Bruce practically melts in front of four million viewers and leans in, inviting Tony to meet him halfway for a chaste kiss; it's somehow so small and tender that it makes it all the more believable. It's the kind of quick gesture shared between seasoned lovers. There's not even a hint of hesitation on either side and the crowd eats it up with more applause.
"You know, I definitely think that's reasonable," George responds. "It's your time to be happy without worrying about what people are saying." The audience applauds at that and Natasha wonders how many of them actually agree and how many are just responding favorably because it seems appropriate to do so.
"So with that cleared up," Robin takes over, "what is it about Dr. Banner specifically that finally captured the heart of America's favorite bachelor? It's obviously been a whirlwind romance or else you've been hiding him somewhere." The audience laughs.
Natasha listens more attentively. She hasn't heard the official story Tony and Bruce had come up with, but she knows from the stunned expression on Pepper's face after the Board Meeting, it's gotta be something good. Of course, Tony is a good spy when she's willing to admit it so this shouldn't have been too difficult for him. She wonders if Bruce has heard it yet since he wasn't in that meeting either.
"It really wasn't sudden at all," Tony says.
"It wasn't," Bruce agrees, finally speaking again, and Natasha realizes then that Tony is also successfully commandeering most of the conversation for Bruce's sake.
Tony smiles at the quick interjection, encouraging him with his look. "Bruce and I have run in the same circles for years," he continues. Not a lie, Natasha notes. "For one, I went to MIT."
"And I went to Harvard around the same time," Bruce adds smoothly, but Natasha sees the way his brain seems to be calculating this part very carefully. It's like he doesn't know the story and is waiting for appropriate cues to feed off of. It's a demonstration of the dynamic that makes them suited to each other as partners in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s book. "Then there's our both being in the scientific community."
"So we were friends first," Tony continues. Another truth, if out of context. "But you know how life can be. It takes you in different directions so you're not able to be as close as you'd probably like to be." Natasha thinks she's beginning to understand Tony's game. He's not having a hard time selling it because none of it is a legitimate lie. He's telling vague truths with the conviction telling the truth affords. "Then all of a sudden it throws you together in a way you never expected." Another ambiguous truth even if Natasha rolls her eyes slightly at his reference to the situation at hand. "Things are different. And a…" Tony then looks at Bruce intently, but something passes across his face that makes Natasha tilt her head before he restarts. "And a dance turns into a kiss," he says and Bruce's eyes widen just enough for Natasha to recognize it. "And a kiss turns into… will you marry me?"
"Yes," Bruce interjects. "The answer is a definite yes." The panel of hosts respond with 'aww' which causes a chorus to echo from the audience.
"It wasn't sudden," Tony looks back at the hosts, "but that doesn't mean it hasn't felt like a whirlwind. Then again I guess that's what happens when you realize you're head over heels in love with your best friend."
Natasha's eyebrows climb higher and she wonders if Tony even realizes he's rigged his own game.
"Damn," Clint mutters.
There's a television in the lobby of an embassy he's currently sitting in, having been brought there by some of Stane's men, and it's tuned to a playback of Good Morning America from earlier in the day. Bruce had just leaned in slightly and Tony had met him halfway for a kiss. A kiss that leaves Clint a little shell-shocked.
He can't help thinking of Natasha. He knows she would have been able to sell this thing without even batting her eyes because she's the best there is - it's not even up for debate. But with Bruce, that kiss hadn't just been believable, he's pretty sure it was telling.
"Does it just burn you up?" Clint is asked by a smooth voice possessing a received pronunciation accent.
It breaks him from his thoughts and he turns his head. Nearby is a tall, slender man in a well-cut suit with his hands behind his back and head tilted in a studious fashion. His shoulder-length raven black hair is slicked back and everything about him screams that not only would it be unwise to trust him he's likely devilishly good at getting people to trust him anyhow. Without even needing to be ascertained of the fact Clint knows that this is Loki. The guy has always been a few steps ahead of the game so they don't have a face, but they've managed to get a physical type and profile and this guy definitely fits it from head to toe. That and Clint has good instincts.
"I was wondering why you were playing a recording of GMA," Clint says. "Now I see you did it to taunt me." He stands to his feet and looks at the television again. "He's a cheeky bastard, I'll give him that. Survives an attempt on his life and his fiancé almost gets caught in the crossfire so what does he do? Brags about how amazing his life is going for him right now and parades his fiancé around. I don't know about you, but I think I would keep a lower profile than that, at least for my lover's sake."
Loki purses his lips and narrows his eyes down the line of his nose to look at the ground. He then says, "If you'll follow me."
Clint does and is led not to an elevator, but to a set of stairs. Clint gets the picture. It's a sign of non-trust. Loki has enough self-preservation not to allow himself to be in an enclosed box with a skilled assassin. Frankly, Clint trusts Loki even less than he'd trust himself in the guy's shoes.
"I believe your Mr. Stark addressed his actions on the other frivolous morning talk show he was on," Loki returns to the previous topic of conversation as they climb the stairs. "Something insipid about how he was reminded of the brevity of life. He's wasted this much time on foolish antics so now that he's found the person he wants to spend forever with he seems to be set on marrying him as soon as possible."
"Yeah, well, those celebrity types," Clint replies coolly. "It'll probably be over within a year." Six weeks tops if things go to plan.
"I was struck by the same likelihood," Loki replies. "Although I'm willing to concede they do seem genuinely taken with one another." Clint raises an eyebrow at the contemplative tone in Loki's statement. "But it's of trivial concern to me," he says then and it sounds like a mask of his true intent. They approach a door watched by security. Loki opens it and leads him into a spacious suite with the standard embassy style accommodations. "Forgive me if I don't offer you a drink," he says once he's closed the door behind them.
Loki then moves to sit down in an armchair so obscenely large and indulgent that it practically looks like a throne. He crosses his legs and gestures to the other seating.
"It's fine," Clint responds as he takes a seat and looks around the place. "Frankly, I'd like to cut to the chase. I'm starting to wonder why I'm here if you're not interested in Stark."
Loki gives him a long look before a smile slowly creeps onto his face. "You're here because you have heart." Clint lets his eyebrows fly up quickly and gives an intentionally wary look over of the other man. Loki chuckles like he smiles: slowly. "No, I'm not interested in that, I assure you. But, yes, let's cut to the chase. You shot a man twice in an open area and let your brother take the fall." Clint doesn't respond, just waits for Loki to continue. "Now, I know you didn't take those shots for Obadiah Stane. Did you take them for someone else? Do you despise this Tony Stark so much that it seemed like a worthy risk? After all, it's lucky you weren't caught. You realize that, yes?"
"I didn't get lucky," Clint says honestly and Loki tilts his head. "I'm good at what I do. Security was focused on preventing a brutal hostage situation. Those shots were for more than just killing Stark. They were for distracting my brother and security long enough to make a run for it. And they were to give me an in with Stane since my idiot brother tipped me off that he was working for someone of far more interest."
"You flatter me," Loki says with a sharp smile. "As you should because I'm not stupid." Clint keeps his face neutral, but his heart rate increases. There's always the off chance Loki knows exactly who he is and who he works for. "I knew you took those shots for your own gain. But I believe in letting a man answer for himself."
"See how he'll spin it?" Clint asks knowingly.
"You really are clever, aren't you," he says like a statement, not a question. "Now spin this," he continues with a shrewd look that makes Clint's trepidation return, "if not to take a shot on Stark, why were you there at all?"
Clint's trepidation eases. He'd already come up with an alibi should he be questioned on the matter.
"Same as most who were there." He shrugs. "I was on the guest list. I’m friends with someone who works for Stark. She's gotten me onto the list the past three years."
Loki blinks in and then gives a small, eh-heh sort of chuckle. "You know, some would say then that your taking the shot was madness, all things considered."
Clint knows he means his story implies he has a target on his back, but he also knows that it's an amateur move to get defensive or oversell it because. It's a tell that you really need the other person to buy it.
So with disregard he merely replies, "Yeah maybe it was. Stark's parties were killer without bringing assassination into it. I'm going to miss not being invited anymore."
"Well, then," Loki smiles like a predator, "I'll have to make your sacrifice worth the while, won't I?"
Tony is slightly startled when he comes into his living room following a long nap and finds Bruce settled comfortably on the couch, legs crossed, and his eyes focused on his laptop as he types away at something. Tony is still getting used to Bruce's presence being around more often and when Bruce retreats to his own space for several hours, as he'd done when they'd gotten back, it's easy for him to forget that Bruce will be back again at all. It's a pleasant surprise though. The major upside to this mission is having Bruce around. He wishes they could always spend this much time together because it feels good.
Bruce must feel him staring because he pauses his light tapping of the keys and looks at him with a line between his brow. The line fades and a small smile touches his face when he realizes it's him. "Hey," he greets simply. He adjusts a little as if his muscles are stiff, but doesn't otherwise move.
"Hey," Tony greets back, voice gravelly from non-use, and trudges closer to the couch.
"I was starting to get a little worried," Bruce says, going back to whatever he's working on. Tony furrows his brow. "I asked J.A.R.V.I.S. and he informed me you took a sleeping aid." Bruce glances back up at him then with a frown. "Just how much did you take?"
Tony's brain takes a minute to process the question, but he doesn't have an answer he'd like to give so he asks, "Why?"
"Did you not see the clock?"
"I don't have a clock in my room," Tony answers with a hitch of his shoulder. "Clocks annoy me. If I need the time I have a phone or J.A.R.V.I.S. Otherwise keeping time isn't too important to me." Bruce looks like he wants to chuckle or roll his eyes or answer that with any other bemused expression or remark about his quirks.
"Tony," instead he says in a very serious tone, "it's going on two in the morning."
"What?" Tony's eyes go wide. "That can't be right. J?"
"It is 1:43 a.m., sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. confirms.
"No shitting?" He studies Bruce for any sign that this might be some planned joke.
Bruce's non-answer is to ask, "Did you not sleep well last night?"
"I…" Tony opens his mouth, but then closes it again. He moves the rest of the way to the couch and sits down close next to Bruce. "I don't know if I ever sleep well, but I've really been asleep for almost 11 hours?"
"I even tried waking you for dinner," Bruce admits. "That's when I asked J.A.R.V.I.S. if everything was okay since you wouldn't respond." As if suddenly remembering that food is a necessity of life, Tony's stomach growls loudly and Bruce gives a small chuckle. "I saved you some spicy—"
"Chicken masala?" Tony perks up hopefully.
"Yeah," Bruce nods, smiling thinly, and then looks back at his laptop. "Sorry you missed it live and I'll have you know I had to promise Natasha we'd name our firstborn after her to keep her from playing losers weepers with your share, but it should reheat well enough."
Tony's head spins a little and he's not sure which part of that he wants to respond to most or how, so finally he just gets up eagerly and goes to get the leftovers of his absolute favorite dish. Well, to be fair, it's everybody's favorite dish. Anybody at S.H.I.E.L.D. that's had the pleasure of having a taste of it has practically proposed to the physicist right there on the spot.
But I'm the lucky guy, his brain supplies on autopilot and Tony stops in his tracks. He looks back and studies Bruce across the room with a small furrow of his brow. Apparently his sleep-fuzzy mind doesn't quite grasp the difference between what's real and what isn't.
"Something wrong?" Bruce notices and looks at him with concern.
Tony doesn't know how to answer that so he lies, "Uh, my brain's still waking up." For some reason Bruce's concerned look seems to deepen. "How long should I heat it up for?"
"Oh, um, put a cup of water in there for two minutes first and then heat up the chicken by opening the lid just a little and I'd say in a couple of one minute intervals."
"Got it," Tony says and goes to do so.
About five minutes later his nostrils are filled with the tantalizing smell of Bruce's spicy chicken masala as he crosses the space to sit on the couch again, his stomach practically growling like a caged beast gnashing its teeth at something just beyond reach. When the first bite hits his tongue Tony's fairly certain angels sing somewhere and that he's discovered the true meaning of that old adage about the way to a man's heart. After swallowing with an almost-obscene mmm, Tony says, "I would have asked you to move in with me sooner if I'd known you'd spoil me with your chicken masala."
Bruce looks at him with a smile, clearly pleased by the appreciative comment. Then he ducks his head and fiddles with his glasses. "Yeah, well, I, um, I figured it was the least I could do after how you handled the interview." He starts focusing on his screen again which Tony now realizes has a Word document on it.
"For keeping my promise to have your back?" Tony asks for clarification. Bruce looks at him a little surprised. "Hey," Tony says with a shrug, "it's our fake engagement so it should be on our terms. You didn't want to disrespect the community or make a spectacle out of it, right? So I laid down those terms. We're not going to respond to baiting of any kind. It's not conducive to the mission anyhow."
Bruce continues to look at him for a moment before his expression fades into a smile. "Still, I thought it was sweet," he replies with his own shrug and it's Tony's turn to look surprised. "So, uh, thanks. For having my back like you promised."
There's a lull in the conversation then. Tony uses it to eat while contemplating the feeling he'd gotten from Bruce calling him sweet.
He also tries to resist rudely reading over Bruce's shoulder while he writes, but finally he has to ask, "So what's got you burning the two a.m. oil?" He leans over and sets his empty dish on the coffee table and grabs the tablet beside it before leaning back again.
"Just working on another paper on anti-electron collision," Bruce answers.
"Wait. Spicy chicken masala?" Tony smiles as he pulls up his inbox and finds several emails from the Stark Industries public relations team. "And flaunting that big brain of yours in my presence?" He gives Bruce a coy look. "Dr. Banner, are you trying to seduce me?"
"Depends," Bruce says evenly. He then meets Tony's coy look with one of his own. "Is it working?"
Tony runs his eyes over every nook and ridge and line of Bruce's face. "I think it just might be." He means to banter, but it feels far too intimate once the words leave his mouth. He blinks a few times and then clears his throat. He looks back at his emails and clicks on one of the links sent to him. "So I guess that means I can dismiss that Maxim model I've got waiting downstairs in the lobby," he adds jokingly for good measure. "Oh wow. We already have a Tumblr."
"A what?" Bruce furrows his brow, puts his laptop off to the space beside him and leans in to look at the site Tony has pulled up.
"It's a, uh, very interesting social media site. First time I was sent a link to check a fan blog about me, I lost about three days of my life," Tony attempts to explain. "From what I can tell it's mostly fan stuff. Like this one apparently. A bunch of people adore us and... Oh look," he chuckles, "they're already fighting over what our relationship name should be. What do you think? Stanner? Truce? Science Husbands is pretty clever."
"Science Fiancés would be more accurate in our case," Bruce replies. "What's with all of the gif images of us on Good Morning America?"
"It's kind of a thing about this site," Tony replies with a shrug. "There's always a lot of gifs. Usually it's the same gif over and over just, I don't know, colored or sized differently?"
Bruce snorts and reaches over to start scrolling where Tony has stopped. "You'd think they'd get tired of seeing us kiss on endless loop," he says in regards to one of the gifs that dominates every other post.
"Well, it was a good kiss," Tony points out with a glance at him, and he's not joking because it had been.
"Fair enough," Bruce says, but then squeaks. Tony looks back down and his eyes widen.
"Right. That." He chuckles again, a little more nervously this time. "That's another thing about this site. Probably should have warned you." Bruce looks up at him with mouth open and eyes wide. "It's definitely not safe for work."
"I don't even know how to respond to that," Bruce says, waving his hands a little and looking away. "Never thought anyone would be interested in…" He glances back in a way that suggests it's a train wreck he can't quite look away from. "They're really that interested in our sex life?" He furrows his brow dubiously.
"Most of them are probably hormonal teenagers, Bruce," Tony reasons. "And who can blame anyone for being interested in our sex life? Hypothetically it would probably be amazing." Bruce sputters, head jerking back a little on his shoulders. "Not to make things weird or anything."
"H—How is that not making it weird? " Bruce asks with a disbelieving chuckle. "You know what, maybe I don't want to know. You probably shouldn't keep your Maxim model waiting." He rolls his eyes and grabs his laptop back.
"I don't really have a Maxim model waiting," Tony clarifies.
Bruce chuckles again. "I know that," he says as he begins typing again. "But as long as we're on the subject: as your temporary live-in, I'd appreciate it if you give me a heads up when you do invite someone over. That way I can hang out somewhere else. The lab, with Natasha, Brooklyn maybe."
"Why would you go to Brooklyn?" Tony asks curiously, but then shakes his head because that's not important. "And you really think I'd invite someone over while you're here?"
"Uh," Bruce drawls as his hands still on the keys, one finger out and tracing the line of the screen before he starts again, "I don't know. I mean, it's your place and I understand if you have," he pauses typing again and his head turns slightly to the side opposite of Tony. "I get you probably have needs." He shrugs. "A warm body is better than abusing sleeping aids. And I'd rather not deal with you being drunk so—"
"Stop," Tony protests, the words wrenched from him and Bruce looks at him quickly. Tony realizes what he's done and blanches. He then swallows hard and decides there's no dodging the subject. "It's not like that," he says, pursing his lips.
"I… Okay, yes, sometimes I sleep with someone for the distraction," he admits with a sigh and Bruce looks at him intently. Tony finds he can't hold Bruce's gaze so looks away. "But I… It's just sex."
"I mean," he looks back again, "it's a living." Bruce's eyebrows go up slightly. "Or maybe a habit. When you sleep with as many people as I do to get information otherwise unattainable you get used to it. Or maybe I got used to it after my shitty teen years so that's why I'm able to sleep with as many people as I do without batting an eye."
"Could be a combination," Bruce hazards meekly. "So, what are you saying?"
Tony sighs again, trying to find the words to describe his feelings on the matter.
"I'm saying it's just sex," he repeats. "I'm not sure I even remember what genuine sexual attraction feels like. That feeling where you just want a person so damn bad? And, you know, not just because your body's reacting naturally once you've initiated the act, but because you legitimately want to spend the night with someone and are willing to bend every single rule you have just to make it happen. I don't think I feel that anymore."
"That's why everyone thinks you've settled down?" Bruce queries. "Because now you mostly do it for the job?"
Tony nods. "No need to scratch an itch you don't really have anymore. Or, well..." He bites his lip and looks at Bruce cautiously. "That's maybe not exactly true. I've had moments where I think I feel something real, but I don't trust them. You know," he detours that point when Bruce studies him all the more carefully, "I'd thought that's what it was with Pepper. She'd already been working for me and maybe it was the stress from everything that went down with Stane," he breezes over the betrayal quickly since like Bruce's childhood they don't talk about it in detail if they don't need to. "Whatever it was I saw her across the room and felt something more, I don't know, fond maybe? I thought it was real attraction and maybe something even more. Maybe it was a little bit, but it still didn't work because it didn't amount to much more than fondness in the end. And for us fondness wasn't enough and it didn't seem like love was likely to happen if we stuck it out."
Bruce doesn't respond again right away, just continues to study him. Then finally he ducks his head and removes his glasses. "I think I understand what you mean." He doesn't elaborate, but his tone seems genuine. "Wish you would have told me sooner." He glances up at him soberly.
Tony snorts in self-derision. "Not exactly something you advertise when you're supposed to be a notorious, cocksure playboy. I mean, okay, I'm still cocksure and damn good in bed," he adds, but Bruce just continues to look at him with his soul-deep eyes. "But, you know."
"Those people or what they get out of it don't matter to me, Tony. You do," Bruce says and Tony feels one of those confusing surges of desire that he doesn't trust. "I care about your feelings. I want to have your back the way you have mine so you sure as hell don't have to worry about your reputation around me." He glances down in an uncertain fashion. "Besides, I've never really ranked playboy very high on your list of accolades. You've always had too many other amazing things going for you." Tony smiles at the assessment.
They go silent for a long while, letting the conversation settle in and process the way that it deserves. Tony decides to turn on the television while simultaneously scrolling through the links he's been sent. Beside him Bruce returns to work on his paper. In spite of the unexpected confession, Tony feels at ease. He's relaxed in a way he usually isn't this time of night.
The feeling only breaks a little when he clicks on a link that takes him to an article discussing the topic of his orientation. "Of course it was too much to ask that nobody mention it ever," he mumbles and he sees Bruce glance at the tablet from the corner of his eye.
"I've, uh, been meaning to ask," Bruce says hesitantly, "but maybe now I shouldn't since you've told me about… well, about how you feel." Tony glances at him with a raised brow. "I guess I was a little naïve before to think you've never slept with any men for, well, for the job." He almost looks like he wants to cringe. "But you said you're attracted to men. Are you or were you just…"
"Making it up?" Tony fills in the blanks and Bruce nods. "Nothing I said today was a lie, Bruce," he tells him. "The way to fabricate successfully is to fabricate nothing. I'm attracted to men," he confirms. "I'm superficially attracted to them, my body isn't repelled when I have to sleep with a man for the job, and I've… I've wanted a man pretty damn bad before." Tony pauses to study him. "I'm assuming given your interest in protecting the community, that doesn't bother you, right?"
"I—" Bruce falters, looks stunned. "No," he shakes his head, "it… It doesn't bother me. I just... was curious, I guess."
"Oh," Tony replies and then shrugs before looking away. "Well, there you have it. We can't all be strictly hetero like you, Brucey." He's glad he's not looking at Bruce when he says it because he's certain his expression might have given away how unpleasant that truth was for him to express.
Bruce is standing at the stove, lazily cooking a frittata and fighting with his run amok thoughts, when he hears footsteps behind him. It's not Tony because he knows for a fact Tony is getting ready for their first meeting with a S.H.I.E.L.D. approved event planner in about an hour. They have to get the ball rolling on the spectacle of a fast-tracked wedding. The only other people with access to the penthouse that he knows of are himself, Pepper, Happy, Tony's best friend James Rhodes, and now Natasha.
"This is just sad, Bruce," Natasha confirms that it's her with a patronizing tone. He turns to look at her and sees her expression is much the same. "He's already got you in the kitchen making him meals."
Bruce purses his lips and shakes his head before turning back to the frittata and plating it. "I like cooking," he counters. "It's relaxing. Helps me think. Gives me something to do that also has a practical purpose," he explains like he's giving a lecture. "Would you like me to make you one too?" he then asks, glancing at her with a raised eyebrow.
"Of course," she answers and he nods to say, 'thought so' before preparing another one. After a few minutes of silence she says, "So you're trying to relax and think, huh?" He sighs. The problem about being so closely connected to so many spies is, well, they're spies. It's hard to pull a bluff.
"I'm a coward, Tasha," he says after another long minute of silence.
"Situational or in general?"
"Both." He continues to stare a hole into the skillet. "Tony shared something very special with me last night and—"
"No offense, Bruce, but I’m not exactly the girl friend that wants to gab about the details of your sex life," Natasha cuts him off.
"What?" Bruce's head straightens quickly and he knows his eyes are as wide as they can be as he looks at her. "No—I… That's not—"
Natasha looks at him archly. "Well, as flustered as you are I wager you wouldn't mind if it was."
"We're just friends, Tasha," Bruce protests.
"Friends getting married," Natasha says with a lilt.
"And you seemed rather comfortable kissing him on live television," she points out.
Bruce feels his cheeks heat and he can't help but think back to their first kiss at S.H.I.E.L.D. It had been… not perfect, he tells himself firmly. It had only been a kiss to test their ability to stage kiss. But still it's been branded in his mind for the past three days. A dance… a kiss…
"We're just friends," Bruce insists again. "And I'm not even a very good one."
"Because you're a coward?" Natasha stops teasing him and asks in a genuine tone.
Bruce finishes the frittata and pushes it from the burner in frustration before turning it off and turning to face her. "He's my best friend," he says bitterly, "and I can't even tell him the truth. I'm terrified that if he knew… it would change things."
"It won't matter to him, Bruce," Natasha replies.
"Really? It won't matter that I've lied to him since the day we met? And it's not just that, Tasha. I've…" He bites his lip and shakes his head. "There are so many things he doesn't know about me."
"You think there aren't parts of him you don't know about?" Natasha asks and the question takes him by surprise. She's not inherently wrong. Just the night before he'd learned something Tony had kept to himself, but that wasn't the point here. The point was instead of sharing in turn, he'd kept his lips tight. "He's a spy, Bruce. And take it from someone who knows. When you're a spy it gets easier to lie and harder to be open and vulnerable with every mission until you don't even have a personal life that isn't at least a little fabricated. As your friend, I think you need to be careful."
"Careful?" Bruce furrows his brow. "You think Tony would hurt me? Is that what you're implying?"
"I don't know, Bruce." She gives a broad-shouldered shrug. "Probably not intentionally, but it could happen." She looks around the kitchen. "And I think now more than ever you need to make sure you don’t get in over your head just in case. This is a mission and one that has the potential to blow up in everyone's face as far as I can tell. I was barely on board with it from the beginning, but I'm less on board with it now that you're involved."
Bruce's head is beginning to spin from what he's certain is Natasha simply playing the role of concerned friend, but is coming out all hibbity jibbity. He finally plates the third frittata and sets to starting some coffee.
"You think it's above my pay grade."
"No, I think you have more to lose if things go wrong," she says evenly.
"Really? And why's that?" he asks, trying not to sound snippy. He doesn't want to think about losing things. He's lost things before and… He couldn't stand it if he'd lost what he has now.
"Because you care about Stark," she reaches her punchline. And it definitely feels like a punch. "I like the guy, but he's more colleague than friend so I could have pulled this off with more detachment. You have more to lose if things take a turn for the worse." Bruce flinches as his mind immediately supplies him with all of the ways that could happen. The memory of Clint shooting Tony is still fresh. "And, frankly, so does he," she adds and he closes his eyes. He remembers the feeling of Tony's concerned touches on his neck and the look of horror when he'd been in Barney Barton's hold. "This is a dangerous job when you care about your partner."
"I know," Bruce says. He knows it in a dangerously deep way.
"Do you know I haven't slept well since Thursday?"
He turns and looks at her with a frown. "He'll be okay," Bruce offers. "He's a good agent."
"Yeah, he is," Natasha agrees. "But I'd still sleep better if I was with him. And that's no good because I need to keep my mind focused on the mission. I need to keep my mind focused here. That's why I'm telling you to be careful, Bruce. Because once you start playing the spy game with your heart instead of your head, that's when the lines blur. You get careless and someone usually gets hurt."
Bruce sighs and tramples down emotions and memories. "You might be surprised how aware of that I already am," he says.
"I smell coffee. Coffee and good food," Tony interrupts before she can quiz him on the matter or lecture him further. He comes into the kitchen with a bright smile and smelling freshly showered as he approaches Bruce. "You realize you don't have to cook everything, Bruce," he says as he eyes the frittata appreciatively. "I'm… capable enough to get by."
"Yeah," Bruce teases with a snort, "the collection of assorted soups and boxes of mac and cheese are a little hard to miss."
Tony snorts too. "I'm just saying, next meal is on me," he says with a shrug as he pulls down a coffee mug. "I'll have you know I make a very mean mac and cheese." He turns and looks at him with another bright smile and playful wink.
Bruce smiles thinly and, without permission, his mind tells him that if this were all real then their banter would be accentuated with a quick peck to the lips. If it were real he would be able to wrap himself up in Tony's arms and breathe in his fresh scent and get drunk on it. If it were real Natasha would maybe need to worry. But it's not real and Bruce is more than aware of that. Absolutely nothing about it is real and there's no reason for him to think otherwise. This is a mission and the only lines he needs to worry about blurring are the ones that already exist because Tony is his best friend and he would do anything to keep him safe.
Still, when he glances at Natasha he gets the feeling she isn't convinced.
"Now comes the fun part," Tony says, a pep in his step and giddy tone in his voice as he approaches the couch in the party lounge.
"How so?" Bruce asks. He also raises an eyebrow at the two cups of coffee Tony has in hand. He's pretty sure this is Tony's fourth since breakfast. It's no wonder he doesn't sleep well.
Tony sets them both down on the coffee table and looks at him. "Well, I figure as long as we need to make this a spectacle, why not do all the crazy things we'd never ever do if this were a real wedding?"
Bruce hums, considering that, and then teases, "Somehow I imagine whatever you have in mind you'd definitely try to do if it were real."
"That's probably true," Tony replies with a snort. "But I know you." He wags a finger at him. "You'd never let me get away with half of it."
Bruce blinks and opens his mouth to respond, but nothing immediately comes out. Does Tony even realize that implies Bruce would still be his groom in a hypothetical real wedding? Before he can figure out how to bring it up, the elevator door opens.
They turn their heads in sync to see Natasha usher in the event planner, a Darcy Lewis according to what they'd been told. She's a vivacious looking young woman whose eyes are darting about the space with unprofessional awe. Just behind her is a young man who seems to be doing much of the same.
"Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner," Natasha addresses them with all of the professionalism the two guests lack, and Bruce stands to his feet. "They're clear," she says.
"Well, I hope so if you brought them up here, Natalie," Tony replies, calling her by her alias for the mission. "You can go now. Thanks." Bruce gets the feeling Tony is enjoying playing the role of Natasha's boss a little too much.
"I'll be over there," Natasha points toward the bar, a low-key challenge for him to keep pushing his luck, "keeping an eye on things." She wanders off and Tony turns his head to watch her go with narrowed eyes.
"Tony." Bruce nudges him.
"Right." Tony looks back at the two newcomers. "Welcome. We're looking forward to working with you, Miss… uh…"
"Her name is Ms. Lewis," Bruce reminds him and then offers the woman an apologetic smile. Something tells him he'd be doing the same if this weren't just a hypothetical wedding, but he quickly shrugs that thought off.
"Darcy Lewis," she chirps. "But you can call me Darcy. And this is my photographer, Peter."
"Nice to meet you, Peter." Bruce extends a hand to him.
"She says photographer," Peter says in a snarky tone as he returns the handshake, "but it's more like head of all things digital, from photos and video to web content." He shrugs as he lets go.
"Sounds like we're in good hands," Bruce remarks and looks at Tony.
"Agreed," Tony says, not offering a hand to either of them. "So let's jump right in then." He gestures at the seating that's been rearranged especially for this meeting.
Bruce sits down and isn't too surprised when Tony sits down close enough beside him that their bodies are pressed together. They're putting on a show for the event planner after all. He is a little surprised when Tony also drapes his arm around the back of the couch and leans in so as to make the space between them dwindle that much more.
"Aww," Darcy coos. "Phone," she says with a quick snap of her fingers at Peter. He pulls out a phone, as does she. They're both Starkphones, Bruce notices and feels Tony preen beside him. Strangely enough, he feels a good deal of pride about it too. "Smile," Darcy says brightly. Bruce shares a confused look with Tony who shrugs. Tony looks back at the two with a smile, so Bruce follows suit. Darcy snaps a photo. "Adorable," she says, looking at how it turned out. Bruce highly doubts it's adorable, at least not with him in it, but he keeps that thought to himself. "This one is going on my company's Instagram and Facebook for publicity." Bruce holds his breath and counts to ten, reminding himself that his face being everywhere is part of the mission and he'd known that when he agreed to do it. "Peter," she says with a nod of her head.
Peter reaches out with his phone toward Tony, but Bruce intercepts. "I'll take it, thanks." He takes the phone and looks at Darcy. "Although I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with it?"
"Take a selfie of course," she says in an obvious tone. Bruce furrows his brow and looks down at the phone before looking at Tony. Tony takes the phone from him and opens up the camera.
"Can I ask why?" Tony says as he holds the phone out in front of them. His arm moves from the back of the couch to wrap around Bruce's shoulders and he leans his head in so that they're touching. "Smile, Brucey," he says as he follows his own advice effortlessly. "Or don't," he adds. "The model pout is sexy on you." Bruce can't help himself. His face softens and a chuckle bubbles up in the back of his throat, causing his lips to quirking upward. Tony snaps the photo at just that moment. He clicks on the photo so they can look at it and then turns his head slightly to look at him. "But your smile is what really does things for me."
Suddenly Bruce feels the lack of space between them acutely. It's just a little hard to breathe and he's grateful for when Tony removes his arm and leans forward to give the phone back to Peter. At least, he thinks he's relieved. The sensation that follows is also a little like loss.
Darcy blinks as if she'd been in a reverie before looking at Peter. "Caption it: About to start our wedding planning. Use the party and wedding chapel emojis and don't forget to hashtag it with their names, our company and tag our Insta." Peter rolls his eyes as if he's done this a million times and doesn't need the instruction.
"Wait," Bruce puts two and two together, "people really want to see a picture of us just getting ready to talk to you?"
"Yes," Darcy answers, looking back at them. "Having a wedding Instagram is a fun way to let your adoring fans feel like they're involved with you in the process. With your fast-tracked timeline it's even better because they won't have to follow you for months, which sometimes leads to loss of interest in the staggered out planning. So, I've set up a wedding account for you and before we leave we'll give you the login information so you can have fun with it yourselves." She seems to consider something for a few seconds. "Well, not too much fun. Don't spam or be too obnoxious. And don't break any guidelines, if you know what I mean," she says with a saucy wink and smirk.
"I don't think that'll be a problem," Bruce mutters, trying not to think too hard on it.
"I've also set up a Facebook page for the wedding for fans to like." She studies them. "Neither of you strike me as the type to have a blog or Pinterest presence. But we can discuss it. I will be giving you a personal board on my own Pinterest account highlighting choices made for the event, tips, and so forth as I do for all events I plan."
Suddenly the feeling of not being able to breathe returns, but in decided contrast to last time. Now Bruce knows that before it had been a pleasant sort of asphyxiation. This is more along the lines of wanting to flee the room, find some place where he's alone and nobody can see him. It feels like every single eye in Manhattan is peering at him through the window.
Before he can give into any panicked notion to run, Tony takes his hand and starts rubbing circles on his wrist. He calls over to the bar, "Natalie, I want you to come over here and talk to Darcy for a second." He looks at Darcy. "Do you mind running through that process with her real quick? You understand with recent events, we can't be too careful with our social media presence. Especially if we'll be expected to tag our locations."
"Oh." Darcy's eyes widen and Bruce's almost do. The whole point of this ruse is to draw Loki out; so, unless he means as precaution against Stane, Bruce guesses it might be an attempt at giving them a reprieve from Darcy's enthusiasm. "Oh, of course. We can definitely work out something that keeps it safe," she says and looks up at Natasha.
"While you do that, would either of you like a drink?" Tony asks. He narrows his eyes at Peter as he stands. "Of a non-alcoholic variety."
"Do you have anything sparkling?" Darcy asks.
"Whatever soda you have," Peter says.
"An Edward Cullen and Underage Frat Boy coming right up," Tony says and looks at Bruce. "You wanna join me, babe?" Bruce's eyes do widen this time at the unexpected pet name, but then he smiles when he realizes his guess about the reprieve was correct.
"Yes." He stands and follows Tony over to the bar. "Thanks," he says once they're removed from the conversation, nearly sighing as he does.
"Want to talk about it?" Tony asks him as he pulls out the drinks.
"Too much," he replies and Tony looks at him patiently. He lets out a breath. "It was just too much at once. I'm fine," he assures him. And he is now that he's had a moment. "I just didn't psych myself up for that much at once, I guess."
"Yeah, she's a little too much, isn't she?" Tony looks past him to study the event planner. "Wonder why S.H.I.E.L.D. went with her. She seems like the blabby type or the type who wouldn't do well in a crossfire situation. And her photographer, is he even out of high school?"
Bruce understands perfectly what's going on in Tony's head, even without the small shadow that passes across his face. He's genuinely worried about these two civilians. Bruce thinks if people could see him unguarded like this, no one would every be able to question his conscience. Tony worries about innocent lives no less than Bruce does. Of course, that kind of open vulnerability is dangerous in their line of work, he thinks bitterly and then ignores the other thoughts that typically go along with it.
"I'm guessing because she's got the best set up for making this the celebrity spectacle we need it to be," Bruce says with a shaky laugh, glancing over his shoulder and hoping to ease Tony's concern the way Tony is trying to help him. "But I draw the line at a TLC special." He looks back at Tony with a smile. He feels more able to face things now that he understands this part of their mission a little bit better and he's glad to see Tony come back from inside his own head.
"Actually," Tony smiles, "I think that's the next mission. Fury's going to have us adopt a bunch of spy kids and convert to some obscure religion that our logistics team will come up with."
Another chuckle bubbles up in the back of Bruce's throat only this time he can't hold it in and it comes out as a goofy sort of belly laugh. Tony joins in and they laugh until they're both sputtering against the bar. Bruce lets out a sigh as the need to breathe finally overpowers his funny bone and he starts to recompose himself. He watches Tony with a smile as he does the same, Tony watching him back.
Their eyes lock for a brief moment before Tony glances away. In a low, conspiratorial tone he says, "Don't look now, Bruce. Petey-boy is filming us." He looks back at him, eyes still dancing with mirth and Bruce can't find it in him to be too bothered by the knowledge. "Maybe we should..."
"Give him a show?" Bruce is surprised to hear himself finish Tony's line so easily. Even more surprised when he adds, "Probably."
Tony smiles and leans across the bar. Their lips brush for what Bruce assumes will be a quick love peck like on Good Morning America, but it's a lingering touch. As it lingers, the fingers of one of Tony's hands begin to dance along his cheek and down his neck before resting on his shoulder. The touch makes Bruce push a little more into the kiss and the angle of it changes just enough that their lips slide together a few times before slotting together for another brief moment. When Bruce pulls away it's because he can't breathe again.
Hell of a show, he thinks.
Natasha rolls her eyes too many times to keep count as she follows Tony and Bruce around yet another potential venue. It's the fifth one they've been to over the past week, but of course it's all a ruse since they already have their target location and simply don't want to make it seem too obvious; likewise, it's the third museum they've visited in order to create an obvious theme of interest. If Loki doesn't know who Tony really is then they need to keep it that way in order to ensure the odds of him still making his play at the museum in spite of a wedding, or maybe because of the wonderful distraction a wedding might present to him. They haven't been able yet to make contact with Clint to ask him if he's figured out how much Loki knows.
"Do you think it would be offensive to caption this with 'still on the hunt for a roaring venue'?" Tony asks Bruce of a selfie he'd just taken in front of a taxidermized lion, effectively breaking Natasha from her thoughts before they can dwell on Clint's dangerous mission for too long.
"Absolutely," Bruce says flatly.
"Even if I use a fun hat sticker?" Tony pesters. Natasha would wonder at Bruce's fondness for him at all, but she can't deny Clint would probably be up to the same antics if they were in the men's shoes, a
Only she wouldn't care about the photo the same way Bruce seems to because he replies, "Tony, hunting and poaching is still a very serious issue all around the world. It's not funny or cute and this… this is public. I don't want people to think we're promoting that. Not even as a joke."
Tony quirks his lips to one side, studies Bruce for a long moment, then looks down at his phone. He starts tapping out something and shortly after pockets it, saying, "Understood."
"Thank you," Bruce replies as they continue their stroll, waiting for Darcy to finish her preliminary meeting with the manager.
They come to another stop in front of a bird exhibit while Bruce excuses himself for a visit to the nearby bathroom. Natasha stares blankly at the many types of birds displayed along with facts about each of them. Tony comes over to stand directly beside her.
"So, how's your bird?" he asks. His voice is low, but also conversational. "Any contact?"
She continues to stare directly ahead, at nothing in particular. She takes a breath and holds it for a moment before answering. "S.H.I.E.L.D. spotted him near an embassy."
"An embassy?" Tony doesn't say anything more right away, but Natasha can practically hear his thoughts calculating the update. "So we're potentially looking at international politics," he finally says. "I guess that could explain his ability to hit so many cities and elite venues."
"That's the working theory," Natasha confirms from her brief with Coulson a few days prior. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is working on making contact and setting up a rendezvous. Think you lovebirds will be fine without Natalie shadowing you for a few days?" She senses Tony's movement and turns her head to see him looking at her with a strangely empathetic expression.
"Look," he says, "Barton is your first priority, understand?"
Natasha furrows her brow. "I thought that was making sure Banner stays safe in all of this."
"Well, yes, that's my first priority," he replies in a hedging tone, "and it's easier with back up, I'll admit it. But your priority is your partner. Don't worry about what's going on here with me and Bruce. Don't worry about logistics. Don't worry about directives. At the end of the day, your only priority is Barton, no matter what. Don't let any mission ever make you doubt that. Understood?"
Natasha studies him for a moment, looking for another meaning in his random pep talk besides the obvious. "I understand," she finally says. After a pause, she glances straight ahead again and adds, "And at the end of the day, your only priority is Banner?" When Tony doesn't respond, she glances back to see him staring at nothing in particular with a deep crease between his brow and his lips drawn into a line.
"So, did I miss anything interesting?" Bruce asks when he returns from the restroom no more than thirty seconds following the exchange.
"Hmm?" Tony blinks and looks at him. "Oh, yeah, definitely. For example, did you know hawks mate for life? Also, males perform aerial tricks to impress females."
Natasha gives a soft snort in spite of herself, understanding Tony's intent. Bruce seems to as well because he looks at her with a thin smile. "Can confirm," she replies, keeping up with the playful tone. "Especially the part about aerial tricks. He's quite the acrobat."
"Oh?" Tony's tone and expression are both exaggerated. "Do tell."
"Please, don't tell," Bruce counters with a laugh and shake of his head.
"Oh, my gosh!" Darcy interrupts before the conversation can go any further. They turn to see the event planner hurrying toward them. "Such a brilliant update on Instagram! Truly inspired. Like, I don't think I'll be over it anytime soon," she gushes. Natasha narrows her eyes at Tony, admittedly curious. Bruce obviously is too as he pulls out his phone. A few seconds later, his mouth falls open with a small squeak. "It's playful, romantic, endearing, just all around perfect," Darcy is still going on as she looks at her own phone.
Natasha moves to her side to try and take a look at it herself. Darcy is eager to share it, handing her the phone, so it's not difficult for her to see what all the fuss is about as she reads Tony's caption:
STILL ON THE HUNT FOR A ROARING VENUE! But hey, I'd actually like to take this opportunity to speak about an important issue that also happens to be dear to my fiancé's humanitarian heart, and mine: the protection and preservation of wildlife. As most of you are aware, hunting and poaching are very serious issues and extinction rates are increasing exponentially. I know that some of us may feel helpless to do anything about it, but here's a quick way for you to do your part for nothing more than the price of a little shameless boosting to my ego. Help the animals by helping me surprise Dr. Banner. For every little heart you awesome folks give this post, I'll donate five thousand dollars to the wildlife charity of his choice. #ProtectTheEarth
"Oh gosh, quick, I need this back," Darcy interrupts Natasha's jumbled thoughts as she re-reads the caption, pulling the phone away to snap a picture of something.
Natasha looks up to see what it is only for her face to go slack at the sight of the other two agents in the middle of a kiss, that from the looks of it Bruce had initiated. She can't see Bruce's expression, but she can certainly see Tony's and she has to wonder if he even knows that he looks like he's found the only good thing there is in the world as he clings to it almost desperately.
"Bozhe moi," she mutters.
Tony is startled by the sound of the elevator dinging as deep in thought as he'd been. He rapidly blinks and sets down his phone, putting the screen to sleep. He then takes a sip of his coffee only to spit it back out. He frowns at the lukewarm waste of precious caffeine, but it's his fault for forgetting about it. He decides to go make himself a new cup, getting up and turning towards the kitchen.
"How's the project—" he aborts the question, having expected to see Bruce and finding Romanoff and Coulson instead. "Disappointed," he quips, earning a strange look from them both as he passes them on his mission to get fresh coffee.
"Is he still?" Natasha quirks an eyebrow, glancing from him toward the elevator.
"Is he still what?" Coulson asks, eyes narrowing between them.
As Tony fills a new cup, he sees Natasha hesitate before answering, "Things got a little uncomfortable yesterday with the play-acting." Tony frowns and looks down at the counter. "Bruce thinks he might have overdone it with the sell and now there's a pretty little kiss all over Instagram." Tony glances up again to see Natasha's laser-intense focus on him. He sighs and lifts his hot coffee to his mouth and shrugs.
"Oh, you mean the reaction kiss to the charity thing?" Coulson raises an eyebrow. "I thought that was a brilliant follow-up. Really sold the whole thing. And if you didn't already have a massive following before, you certainly do now."
"That wasn't the point," Tony snaps before he can stop himself. He sighs again and walks back to the lounge.
"What wasn't the point, Stark?" Coulson queries. "The kiss wasn't an act?"
Tony freezes. He closes his eyes as the ghost of Bruce's lips whisper against his. He can still smell Bruce's musk in that moment. He can taste the green tea smoothie he'd gotten earlier at the museum's overpriced café. He wants to explore the taste further, see if it's one that could be acquired. He wants to trail his lips down—
Tony's eyes snap open in realization of where his thoughts are trying to go without his permission. This is Bruce. His best friend. Not his fiancé. Not even his lover.
"Of course it was an act," Tony replies. Because of course it had been. And a damn good one at that. For a moment it had felt realer than anything Tony has ever known in his carefully constructed, make-believe life. And for a moment Tony had thought he might just be okay with that. He turns back around to look at them. "But the charity thing wasn't. I was trying to surprise my best friend. It had nothing to do with trying to win the public over to our side for this fake wedding." Tony finds he doesn't really want to talk about it anymore so he changes the subject. " Why are you here, Agent? News about Barton?" He glances at Natasha for any tell on the subject in her features; she looks away at nothing.
"No, not yet," Coulson answers. "But I'm here for similar reasons. Romanoff and Barton have been trailing a fence, a General Tchalakov, that we're hoping will lead us to whoever he's working for. Potentially looking at some under the table exports involving someone in Congress which makes it a matter of national importance."
Tony furrows his brow and looks back and forth between them. "So she needs to go take care of that instead? Is that what you're driving at? Look, I can handle this mission without her backup. I've told her that—"
"Wrong conclusion, Stark," Coulson interrupts. "She's the one that needs backup."
Tony's eyes widen and he meets Natasha's studious gaze. "Really? Since when? I mean, I get you're used to doing the team thing with Barton, but don’t you two ever do solo missions?"
"Obviously we do," Natasha replies in a snippy tone before sighing. "Look, I don't need you to tell me I'm capable of handling things on my own, Stark," her tone is still a little defensive, "but—"
"But," Coulson interjects, "I'm not comfortable sending her in without a little extra muscle. Tchalakov might have our government fooled, but he has a nasty habit of, well, being more handsy than he should be according to all of our intel." Tony's stomach lurches and Natasha looks away again. "He has an even nastier habit of cruel and unusual torture to get what he wants if he suspects anything. We're sending Natasha in to seduce him, so that's going to put her in a rather delicate position. She can handle herself, but I'd prefer it if she has backup should things go south. Believe me, Stark, you weren't the first choice on this particular one," he tells him. "But it'll be easy for you to get into the function he'll be in attendance at Saturday evening."
"You mean the Military Charity Ball," Tony says, recalling the invite he'd gotten for the event.
"You know," Tony nods toward Coulson with his coffee cup and takes a drink before continuing, "haven't been to that function for a couple of years now. Not making weapons for the military anymore," he cocks his head to one side, "kind of made things a little awkward. The wonderful boys and girls of our armed forces don't seem to like that I'll give money to the veterans and their families, but won't make weapons to make their jobs easier or something." He shrugs and takes another drink.
"How unreasonable of them," Natasha says with a snort, a little of her humor returning it would seem.
"Agreed." Tony moves to set his coffee mug down and then turns back to look at them, eyes landing on Natasha. "But I'm willing to withstand a little awkwardness for Romanoff's sake." She narrows her eyes, the lines of her face reading with suspicion. "For old time's sake," he says. "After all, she was nearly the one." He grins an obnoxious grin and she rolls her eyes, but she can't hide the way her lips twitch as if holding back a genuine laugh.
"Good, so—" Coulson starts, but Tony cuts over him.
"Just one question," Tony says. "What brings me back in spite of that little hiccup and at a time when I should be knee-deep in planning a whirlwind marriage?"
Coulson sighs as if tired, but then checks his exasperation, answering in an even tone, "Lt. Colonel Rhodes has been confirmed as an attendee."
"What?" Tony doesn’t know whether or not to believe him. "Rhodey's state side? He hasn't said anything to me." He furrows his brow and looks toward a random spot on the floor as he considers it.
"Well, I guess you can ask him about it when you ask him to be your best man," Coulson says, unconcerned.
Tony snaps his eyes back to Coulson "Best man?"
"Every fake wedding needs one," Natasha says and Tony's eyes move quickly over to her.
"Yeah, okay," he starts, but it's anything but okay as his mind rapidly comes up with reasons this could backfire. "I get that, but I don't know if it's a good idea." He looks back at Coulson, the other man lifting one eyebrow. "I mean, he's one of my best friends. I can't lie to him like that."
"You can't?" Natasha asks, her tone completely disbelieving. Tony looks to see her studying him with an expression he's never seen her wear before, and one he doesn't comprehend. "You've been lying to him for years."
Tony scowls. "Hey, it's one thing to omit part of my job because it's classified," he counters. "He does the same thing. It's another entirely to intentionally lead him on with this charade."
Natasha's stance stiffens and her eyes turn dangerous. "You're fooling yourself, Stark. You can try and dress it up or repackage it in a way that makes you feel better, like telling vague truths," Tony's eyes widen, "but we're all liars by trade and you know that."
"I'm not a liar!" Tony shouts.
"Is everything okay?" They all turn their heads in sync to see Bruce standing there, looking between them with an uncertain expression. Tony hadn't even heard the elevator, he'd been so upset by Natasha's accusation. "Should I leave?" Bruce asks when none of them answer and Tony worries he'll skitter off and hide again.
"No, you're fine, Dr. Banner," Coulson responds before Tony can. "These two were just having a small disagreement regarding an upcoming mission."
Bruce scrunches his face. "Mission?"
"They want me to ask Rhodey to be my best man," Tony explains. Sure, that's not the mission, but it might as well be as much as it's asking of him.
Bruce frowns, his eyes darting from Tony's face to Coulson's and then back again. "I wasn't aware Colonel Rhodes was in the know."
"He's not," Tony says. He suddenly feels guilty for not telling his friend sooner, consequences – like the bureaucratic nightmare it is reporting the move to S.H.I.E.L.D. – be damned.
Bruce gives him a scrutinizing look and Tony gets the idea he's suddenly wondering why Tony hasn't told Rhodey sooner too. He doesn't say as much, but what he says next lets Tony know he's on the same page as him. "Then isn't that a bad idea? It could be dangerous to get him involved. I thought we were trying to keep the civilian count at the wedding at a bare minimum. I can understand Tony's wariness on this."
"Of course you can," Natasha mumbles and Bruce frowns, glancing at her.
Coulson sighs, closes his eyes, and rubs at the bridge of his nose. "Okay, look, I can't make you ask the Colonel to be your best man." He opens his eyes. "But you will be at that Ball to support Romanoff with Tchalakov."
Tony bites his lip and glances at Natasha. Her face has gone impassive compared to their previous skirmish. Regardless of that skirmish Tony imagines her mission going south and even if she's partnered with someone else, he'd regret not being there for her. He decides not to analyze his unexpected feelings of fondness for the other agent. They're not exactly friends, he reminds himself.
"That I can do," Tony agrees just the same.
"Well, I guess I'll hold down the fort here then," Bruce interjects with a hitch of his shoulder. He wrinkles his nose. "Actually, I should probably get back to HQ and make sure FitzSimmons haven't done any damage with dendrotoxin or the likes," he says with a chuckle. "Not to mention I'm sure Selvig is begging for a reprieve as interim head."
"He is," Coulson confirms with a small laugh. "But it might look strange for Stark to show up at a Military Charity Ball without the love of his life on his arm."
"Uh… Um…" Bruce looks at him with apprehension written all over his face. "It's… Military? I just—"
"I could say he's feeling under the weather," Tony suggests, not liking the hunted look in Bruce's eyes. He's already doing a lot for the mission without adding this to his plate. Even if Tony wouldn't mind the excuse to dance with him again, his mind supplies before he can check the stray thought. "Maybe a little tired from all the searching for a wedding venue." He meets Bruce's gaze to see his face has softened drastically.
Coulson gives a considering hum. "I suppose it would be best if he wasn't in the way."
"He wouldn't be in the way," Tony counters that ridiculous notion, looking at him. "He'll be safer here, sure, but he's never in the way."
"Actually," Bruce interjects, but his voice sounds a little smaller and tighter than before, "people might talk if I'm suddenly absent at that kind of thing. Especially if I'm all over Instagram again come Monday." Tony furrows his brow and glances back at Bruce. He looks nervous, but there's something else that Tony can't quite read in his expression. "I appreciate the offer," he says, tone tentative, "but do we want the gossip rags to suggest we had a fight or something?"
"He has a point," Coulson agrees. "Unless you're willing to come up with an alibi you can prove, people will probably suspect the worst. Your biggest fans will probably come to your defense. It may even be good publicity. What's the adage about no such thing as bad press?"
Tony frowns. He doesn't want bad press, even if it's all a sham. He also wants Bruce to do what he's comfortable with regardless of press, good or bad.
"Are you sure, Bruce?" He looks him over. "You really don't have to. We can come up with something that'll keep the press off of us."
Bruce hesitates. He licks his lips and looks down at his hands. Tony tracks the motion and sees that he's wringing them very slightly. Bruce glances up, his eyes flickering toward Phil and Natasha for a moment before meeting Tony's gaze again.
Tony wonders a little at the small bit of determination he hears in Bruce's voice.
It doesn't happen at first or even suddenly. Instead, Bruce's body gradually grows the slightest bit more tense as Tony leads him around the benefit, mingling with the people of most interest. Everyone asks them about their relationship and if they really mean to be married so quickly and if they're at all concerned about Stark Industries' foreign markets and business deals. Tony suspects that it's that last question and similar ones that have Bruce on edge because he's not alone. Tony feels his own media smile growing sharper with each turn.
"Alright, alright," Tony says with a fake laugh at the last group, a particularly large one that manages to miss the very basic of social cues. He moves his hand from the small of Bruce's back, where it's been resting comfortably for most of the evening thus far, and takes Bruce's hand in his. Bruce doesn't flinch, but he does give him a confused look, masked skillfully behind amusement, when Tony meets his gaze. "Sorry to be rude to everyone," he says, not taking his eyes off of Bruce, "but I'd like to dance with my fiance for a little bit." Tony lifts Bruce's hand to his lips while a few people coo and a few chuckle and a few more heckle.
Bruce blinks and his mouth is open to respond a few seconds longer than it takes him to actually reply. "I... would like that too."
Tony smiles, unable to look away for a moment. He finally says, "So, if you'll excuse us." The other guests don't waylay them and Tony walks with Bruce over to the grand ballroom's open dance floor. He doesn't let go of Bruce's hand the entire way there which provides him the ability to pull him into a dance more easily when they reach their destination.
"You don't always have to do that, you know," Bruce says after a nice moment of just the two of them swaying together in silence. Tony raises an eyebrow. "Swoop in to save the day," he elaborates.
"Maybe I have a hero complex," Tony replies, but he wonders if he's wounded Bruce's ego at all.
Bruce gives a small snort. "I'm positive you do." He studies him. "And did you really have to make it such a spectacle?"
Tony frowns, now really wondering if he's messed up. Bruce had already been on edge after the museum kiss. He doesn't need to make things worse.
He opts for humor. "Maybe I just really wanted to kiss your hand?"
Bruce hums in the tone that tells Tony he's going to banter back, and it's a huge relief. "Naturally. Who doesn't?" He smiles thinly and Tony answers with a smile that's anything but.
"So… we're even on the spontaneous kisses?" Tony ventures after another quiet moment. Bruce's eyes go wide and he swallows visibly enough that Tony thinks he might have blown it again. He hurries to backtrack when something catches his eye over Bruce's shoulder. Rather, someone. He furrows his brow hard enough that Bruce must wonder what it is because he turns his head to look. "He looked right at me," Tony mumbles.
"He's ignoring you?" Bruce turns his head back and Tony meets his confused expression.
"It's starting to seem that way." Tony bites his lip and lets his eyes wander back over to his other friend.
"You're going to tell him," Bruce guesses the thoughts running through his head before Tony has a chance to pin any of them down and confess his intention. He looks at Bruce with wide eyes. "I think you should," Bruce says.
"Not here," Tony hedges.
"No," Bruce agrees. "Not here. But soon," he tells him. Tony lifts an eyebrow at the almost-command in Bruce's statement. "I know you, Tony," he says. Tony lowers the eyebrow again and tilts his head. "You've been thinking about this since Phil brought it up. You want to tell him and you'll probably fixate on it until you do."
Tony has to smile because Bruce does know him. He knows it's maybe not fair to his other friends, like Rhodey or Pepper, but sometimes it feels like nobody knows him better than Bruce. "You're right," he admits. "I have been. Natasha called me a liar and now… I can't stop wondering if she's right. But damn it, there are just certain things that I can't lie about. There are people I can't lie to. And he's one of them." Bruce gives a small smile, but it's tinged with something a little bittersweet that Tony wonders about.
"Then stop lying," he says, that bittersweet expression coming out in his voice as well. Tony furrows his brow, but before he can consider it any further, Bruce says, "Let's stop putting this off and go say hi to him."
"You're tired of dancing with me?" Tony teases. Bruce looks up toward the ceiling and sighs. "Alright, you're right. Let's— Wait," he stops abruptly, "I just thought of something." Bruce's eyes shift back down. "If I tell him about me, he's bound to figure out your part in this. Unless you want me to let him think you already know and are playing along?"
Bruce's small smile returns and there's nothing bitter about it this time. Tony has to admit he's having a hard time keeping up with reading Bruce's signals at the moment.
"I'd say that might be a little mean, don't you think?" Bruce asks, tone hypothetical. "If he finds out Pepper knows and he thinks that I'm just a civilian like her then how's he supposed to feel being the odd friend out? You've known him longer than any of us."
"Right." Tony sighs. "I might as well just string him along at that rate." Bruce nods. "So, you're okay if I tell him that you're tangled up in this too?"
Bruce hesitates, another strange look passing across his face. "I don't think there's a way around it. And… And I don't want you to lie to him. So, yes. I'm okay with it. It's all tangled up enough as it is."
"You're amazing," Tony says before he can stop himself and he means it with every ounce of affection he's capable of. Bruce's eyes widen slightly and he swallows hard again. "Of course, everyone realizes that," he adds quickly, trying to cover up the gaff with a lighter tone. "I mean, how are you still single?" Tony immediately realizes he's probably making it worse.
"I—" Bruce gives a false start and Tony holds his breath. Suddenly, Bruce chuckles. "Is this your way of saying you're calling it off?" he asks, teasing, and Tony could practically kiss him he's so relieved.
Then again, kissing him would just mess everything up again so instead he says, "Nope. Losers weepers."
"If you two are done flirting," Natasha pesters, "I thought I'd let you know the General is already quite eager to take me back to his hotel." Tony winces, having forgotten they were linked. A quick perusal of Bruce shows the other man looking around in a sheepish manner.
"Right. We're just about to go talk to Rhodey for the alibi."
"I'm about to go dark," she says.
Bruce frowns. "Be careful, Natasha. And, remember, even the slightest turn you—"
"Hit the panic button you gave me," she finishes in an impatient tone. "The concern is sweet, but I can handle this. I'll give you my coordinates when I'm finished," she says confidently and then cuts her end of the link.
"I'm sure she'll be fine," Tony assures Bruce, and maybe himself a little bit. "Now for Rhodey—"
"Yeah, about that," Bruce starts and looks around in a guilty fashion before meeting Tony's gaze. "Maybe you should handle this without me." Tony opens his mouth to protest. "He's your friend, Tony. And if he's upset then you owe it to him to have a conversation about it without my hanging around in the background making things more awkward."
"Yeah, but…" Tony sighs and shakes his head. "Good point," he concedes. "Save me the last dance," he tells Bruce, earning a smile and eye roll, before making his way across the room toward his other friend. He sees Rhodey square his shoulders as if bracing himself and his stomach sinks with guilt and apprehension. What if he's lost him? He pushes that thought aside and smiles like nothing is wrong as he greets the lieutenant colonel. "Hey, just the man I came here to see."
Rhodey glances at the man he'd been speaking with, a younger man of a lower rank who clearly recognizes the tension and hightails it out of there. "Really?" Rhodey looks back at him.
"When are they finally going to give you your eagle?" Tony deflects, studying his friend's insignia as if it's the most interesting thing in the world.
"Well, when they do, you'll be the first to know," Rhodey responds.
Tony frowns and meets his sharp gaze. "You know, if you were going for subtle, you failed."
Tony sighs. "I have an explanation, but I'm not sure it'll make it any better."
Rhodey lets him hang for a moment, but eventually his face softens. "Alright, I'll hear what you have to say. But I left my drink back at the table." Tony smiles, understanding his meaning and follows him. They take a seat at a round table and a waiter asks him if he'd like anything. He's on the clock in a capacity where he may need to keep his wits about him so he declines. It's the first tell because Rhodey gives him a strange look. "You want to be sober for this?"
Tony is grateful for that kind of lead in. "Not even a little." He shakes his head. "Which is why what I really have to tell you will need to wait until we're not here."
Rhodey narrows his eyes and glances around. He tilts his head as he looks back at Tony. "Not here?" Tony shrugs. Rhodey leans in and in a hushed voice says, "Look, Tone, if you're in some kind of trouble, you can tell me. Did something happen? I know you and the military haven't been on great terms lately."
"It's not that," Tony says and Rhodey leans back in his seat. "But it does have to do with my line of work," he hedges. "It's difficult to explain and requires a little alcohol and vulnerability," Rhodey's eyebrows lift in an incredulous manner, "so I'd just prefer we go somewhere else for the full conversation. Are you staying somewhere nearby?"
"The Hilton down the street," Rhodey answers.
"Good. How about we get drinks there after this little shindig. Just you and me."
"And Dr. Banner won't wonder where his fiancé has disappeared to? He won't think the notorious Tony Stark is cheating on him?"
"I could never do that to him," Tony counters, feathers ruffled by the thought. It's only after he's said it that he realizes it's a moot point and counterproductive to his purpose in speaking with Rhodey.
"I don't know which is the sharper knife," Rhodey says before Tony can backtrack. "That I have to learn my best friend is engaged from some of my colleagues, who got it from the internet no less." He shakes his head, studying him. "Or that you actually think you need alcohol and a private room to come out to me."
"You know I've never been in favor of DADT. So why would you think I'd have a problem with you not being into women? I get the media image, Tony, but honestly, you could have trusted me with the truth." Tony's eyes are wide as his brain stutters. Rhodey sighs. "I'm still upset with you, but I'm happy you at least managed to get with the program. You deserve to be happy. I'm surprised Bruce put up with your issues as long as he did, but he did seem like a stand-up guy the few times we met."
Tony finally finds his voice. "What are you talking about?"
"Which part?" Rhodey seems genuinely confused. "You lying to me? Or you and Dr. Banner dancing around this for at least a couple of years?" He raises an eyebrow. "Or were you dating that whole time and didn't tell me that either?"
"We weren't dating," Tony says, needing to put an end to this before Rhodey breaks his brain. "We're still not."
"Okay, not technically if you're engaged," Rhodey starts, brow furrowed.
"No, I mean…" Tony glances around before leaning in. "You know those moments when your friend is at the bar and a jerk is hitting on them so you swoop in with the whole fake boyfriend act until the creep backs off?"
The crease in Rhodey's brow deepens. "Sure. But I don't get—" His eyes widen and Tony sits back, shrugging as he does. "What are you talking about?"
Tony sighs, takes another breath in and says, "I didn't tell you because it's an act."
The confession hangs in the air for a pregnant moment. Rhodey studies him in the silence. He doesn't look like he believes him. He opens his mouth, something clearly incredulous on the tip of his tongue, before glancing somewhere beyond Tony, his eyebrows rising.
"So, is that why Dr. Banner looks like he's getting particularly cozy with Betty Ross?"
"What?" Tony whips his head around and sees Bruce across the room with the former general's daughter, laughing openly and looking strangely at ease.
"All an act, huh?" Rhodey breaks through his thoughts and Tony whips his head back towards his friend to see him looking at him with his hand on his chin and a scrutinizing expression on his face.
Tony holds his gaze for a long moment, before standing to his feet. He tells himself he's not running away from the question. He's just unable to keep his curiosity about Bruce and Betty Ross reigned in enough not to go investigate.
Bruce spots him coming and smiles so that's reassuring that he's not trying to keep this a secret. And of course he wouldn't, Tony admonishes himself right after he thinks it. Bruce doesn't have to explain himself to him. Bruce glances at Betty, still smiling, and she gives a small smirk that makes Bruce duck his head. Tony furrows his brow, wondering what that exchange meant and why they seem to know each other so intimately.
Bruce clears his throat when Tony reaches them and looks up, smile dimmed. "Hey, Tony. This is Dr. Ross," he introduces them. "Betty, this is my— Tony. This is Tony." Tony narrows his eyes at Bruce's fumble and the small tint of color on his cheeks before checking it with a friendly smile in Dr. Ross' direction.
"Nice to meet you, Dr. Ross. Officially. I'm familiar with your work in physics and biochemistry. Also, I had the displeasure of knowing your father, no offense."
"Absolutely none taken," she says, her smile tightening as she throws such a quick, discreet glance at Bruce that Tony probably wouldn't have caught it if he wasn't looking directly at her and trained somewhat in noticing small tells such as that. He might not be as skilled as Romanoff and Barton in that respect, but he's no sous either. Her smile turns charming and playful again as she holds out her hand and says, "It's nice to meet you too, Bruce's Tony." She throws an intentional and not at all discreet look at Bruce this time.
Bruce's eyes widen and his cheeks turn an even darker shade. "Um. I meant—"
"Nice to see you again, Dr. Banner," Rhodey interjects, just at that moment and Bruce looks so relieved that Tony can't begrudge his friend even if he wants to know what Bruce had meant. "I hear you finally ensnared my boy, Tony, here." Any relief that had been there is immediately gone as Bruce furrows his brow and looks at Tony. Tony scrambles to think of something to say, and makes a note to harp on Rhodey for thinking he's funny later, when his friend looks at Dr. Ross. "Nice to see you as well, Dr. Ross. May I say you're the prettiest woman here tonight?"
"You may, Lieutenant," Betty smiles and shakes her head, "but it's not true."
"It is," Bruce disagrees with her.
"I hear he's a genius so I think that settles it," Rhodey says with a wide smile and Tony narrows his eyes at his friend. He's a little out of practice, Tony thinks with a small smirk. "So how is Major Talbot doing these days? I haven't seen him in a while."
Betty's smile tightens again and Tony realizes his friend is definitely out of practice.
"Well, that makes two of us these days."
"Oh." Tony holds back a snicker at the deer-in-headlights look on his friend's face. "Oh, well, uh—"
"Tasha," Bruce interrupts with a frantic breath, looking at Tony with wide eyes. He glances back and forth between Rhodey and Betty. "I'm sorry, I… I have something I need to do," he says gracelessly and rushes off.
Rhodey looks at Tony with a raised eyebrow. Betty doesn't seem to share his confusion. Tony runs through a possible list of excuses before settling on, "The code name for a project he's working on." Betty narrows her eyes at him which is weird, but it's another glance at Rhodey that makes him feel guilty for lying yet again. He sighs and looks off in the direction Bruce had gone before looking back. "So, I guess I should be a good fiance and go see if he wants any help with that," he says, one compartment of his brain running through a plan of extraction for Natasha and another processing his concern for her well-being. "If I don't see you again before you leave, I'll give you a call and meet you at your hotel later?"
Rhodey blinks. "Uh, yeah, uh, sure I guess. But you've got a hell of a lot of explaining to do," he warns him.
"You have no idea," Tony replies with a shake of his head and turns his attention to Betty. She's studying him even harder than before. "I'm sorry we couldn't talk longer, Dr. Ross," he offers regardless. "But any friend of Bruce is welcome to stop by Stark Tower. We can give you a tour of R&D. Every scientist's dream come true."
"I'm sure it is," she says and her face softens. She doesn't say anything else more so Tony just gives her a smile and turns. He only gets a few paces away before there's a hand on his shoulder and a, "Mr. Stark." He turns to see Betty looking at him with her eyes set sternly. "Bruce Banner once meant a great deal to me," she says and something in Tony's stomach lurches. "And I guess a part of me can't ever forget what that felt like."
"I don't imagine anyone could," Tony admits. Her stern eyes blink and she tilts her head. He guesses her point and says, "I won't hurt him. I promise."
"Are you sure you can promise that?"
"Such a shame." Tchalakov smooths his hand down Natasha's cheek. She rolls her eyes, a nice reprieve from batting them all night – all for nothing, she thinks in annoyance. "I would have liked it better if you had not been a spy. Such a pretty face," he coos. He leans in to kiss her while she's unable to push him back, seeing as she's currently tied to a chair in his room.
She spits on him and that does the job well enough for her. "Now yours looks better." The violent strike to her head from his lackey and Russian slur in response is better than the kiss would have been.
"They send a little girl to challenge me? I am insulted by your government," Tchalakov says as he loosens his tie and begins unbuttoning his jacket. He glances at the lackey who nods and leaves the room.
"Doesn't seem to stop you from using it to your advantage," Natasha counters. "We know you have a darling in Congress, General."
Tchalakov laughs, sounding generally amused as he tosses aside his jacket and pulls off his tie. "A straightforward admittance? Do you think I will be any more likely to give you a name, Agent Romanoff?" He fingers the fabric of his tie before pulling it taut from end to end. Natasha feels like rolling her eyes again since men are nothing if not predictable in these situations.
"It's easy. Information for information. We're interested in dealing with our own traitors. We're not stupid enough to think we can touch you." She lifts an eyebrow. "Unless you give the government another reason."
"Agent Romanoff," he chuckles again, "you are in no position to bargain." He walks around to the back of the chair and wraps the tie around her neck, grasping the two ends tightly enough to tell her what his intent is. He leans down and nuzzles her ear as he says, "They will not have another reason."
He tugs her neck backward and she sees the sadistic pleasure on his face. Natasha begins calculating which maneuver will best overtake her unsuspecting assailant and how to take down him and the lackey both, who will certainly join in if he hears the ruckus, since obviously the original plan is a no-go. With any luck she can salvage it by searching his person and room for anything that might give S.H.I.E.L.D. a lead on who he's working with.
Suddenly there's muffled shouting and a thud against the door. Natasha uses the distraction to stand up in the chair – since the General had made the strangely amateur mistake of not securing her feet – and whip around with it to body slam herself and it into the stunned General. He reels back a few feet, but almost immediately regroups and rushes back toward her. Behind her the door busts open and she hears a body slam against a wall before a familiar repulse blast breaks her hands free from their binds. She grips the chair and swings it over her head to bring it crashing down on the General's.
"You realize you could have jeopardized the mission," she gripes at Stark before rushing and leaping at Tchalakov as he attempts to stand back to his feet, managing to get him in a choke hold between her thighs and then slamming him back down bodily onto the floor unconscious.
"Damn," Tony mutters before taking down another lackey of his own while blasting one rushing into the room. "The mission was already a bust," he then defends, "the moment Bruce got your distress signal."
A few more thugs enter the room, two coming toward her and the other toward him. She rolls her eyes and takes on the men easily. "I didn't send a distress signal."
"Yeah, we know that now obviously," Tony replies. "Tchalakov must have detonated a mini EMP." Natasha finishes with the two thugs and spins around with wide eyes. "You were darker than dark and this place is crawling with Tchalakov's men. I've been fighting them the whole way up here. Only way we found you is Bruce is a paranoid genius." She arches an eyebrow. "He rigged the distress beacon to automatically send your last known coordinates in the case of an EMP or other hardware failure. Good thing too since this isn't the hotel Tchalakov is registered at so that would have been a dead end in finding you."
"Dirty manager?" Natasha guesses.
Tony glances down at his arm and that's when she notices the bloody, gash there where he'd no doubt faced a knife. "Dirty manager."
"Bruce isn't going to like that," she says as she begins searching for incriminating evidence.
"Yeah, well, I'm planning on skipping out so I can go talk to Rhodey so unless you tell him—"
"And get in the middle of that drama?" Natasha snorts. "No thanks."
"Aha, what do we have here?" Natasha turns to see Tony pulling something out of the jacket of one of Tchalakov's goons. "Tsk, tsk, tsk," he clucks his tongue and shakes his head as he stands upright. "Amateur move there, buddy. Good thing we got to you before Tchalakov did."
Natasha lifts an eyebrow as she walks over to take the item from Tony. She reads over the coded message. "If he's one of ours, Fury needs to reprimand whoever was in charge of his training at the Academy."
"Hmm," Tony contemplates. "Unless he's one of ours and your mission wasn't to get the information from Tchalakov directly, but—"
"But to get into a skirmish so I could find it hidden on another operative," she finishes. "Right. I was wondering who tipped off the General."
"Explains why Coulson was jumpy too," Tony theorizes. "He knew you'd be in a mess and didn't want to chance it."
"Another day, another dollar," she says with a sigh. Then she eyes Tony. "So you're really going to tell Rhodes?"
"Hopefully I don't regret it, but yes. Feel free to let Coulson know what I'm up to when you talk to him. By the way," he glances at a clock, "Bruce is waiting at a rendezvous point down the street and you have about five minutes before he calls S.H.I.E.L.D. or gets it into his head to come find us himself. Tell him not to wait up for me."
Phil rubs his temples in a circular pattern as he listens to Agent Romanoff and Dr. Banner explain what had happened. Sans Stark. Because he's off spilling his guts to Colonel Rhodes without any warning or explicit permission.
"I should have known by the way he was acting that this was coming," he says with a sigh, interrupting Romanoff from detailing her entire encounter with General Tchalakov.
"You really should have," Banner says with a tired sounding chuckle.
"Just like I should have known this wasn't a straightforward mission by the way you were acting," Romanoff counters. "Not that I wouldn't have been able to manage it on my own just the same," she adds, calm and confident as ever.
"Sorry," Banner comments. "I panicked. I thought you needed us… Well, Tony that is," he corrects and Phil narrows his eyes.
"It's fine," Romanoff assures him and then looks back at the screen. "You're not the one who didn't give me the full details of the mission so I wouldn't be caught unaware by Tchalakov. I hate being caught unaware."
"I know you do," Phil replies. "Feeling's mutual at the moment. But logistics decided it was in everyone's best interest if you didn’t know. That way there was no risk of your giving away the other operative if for some reason Tchalakov or any of the others escaped."
"But logistics aren't always reliable," Banner says in a sour tone.
"No, they aren't. Which is why we won't fault you and Stark for reacting to the unexpected and jeopardizing the mission to extract Romanoff. I'm very aware that there's always going to be a human element involved." Unsurprisingly Banner scowls deeply and turns away. "That's why I also understand why Stark is doing what he thinks he needs to." Banner glances back over his shoulder. "Don't get me wrong. I expect you to make sure he knows he's not leaving D.C. without filling out every single page of paperwork. But what's done is done and if Stark feels better having another friend on his side, well, we all have our limits as to what we're willing to give to this job and—"
"Limits!?" Banner turns sharply. "You don't know the half of what he's given to this job. He's lied to his best friend for years for you. Don't you think Colonel Rhodes has earned Tony's trust by now? Don't you think Tony has done enough to deserve this without making it out as some kind of weakness? What more do you want from him? Every day he and every other agent puts their lives on the line for this. And for what? No glory. No normalcy. Sure, they help keep the world safe, but what's the point if they never get to—" He shakes his head. "I'm sorry. Sorry, I just… I need some air," he says and leaves the room.
Phil closes his eyes and shakes his head. "This wasn't a good idea, Coulson," Romanoff says after a moment. Phil opens his eyes to see her looking in the direction Banner left. She looks at him. "Did logistics tell you it was?"
"Only with you," he answers after considering it a moment. "The moment Banner decided he needed to protect Tony it turned into the human element." She purses her lips and looks down. "Director Fury is taking a chance that this is one of those times where the human element is the better call in the long run. It's happened before," he says with a smile and she meets his eyes. "Speaking of Agent Barton, he made contact. How do you feel about billiards?"
"—doesn't look too comfortable."
Bruce awakes with a start, grabs the arm of the person standing over him and flips them onto the couch, straddling their hips, before he becomes conscious enough to realize said person is Tony. The other man's eyes are wide as they search his face. Bruce quickly lets go of him and rolls off, chest heaving as he tries to compose himself.
"Holy shit, that was unexpected," Tony says, unmoving as if still pinned.
Bruce scrubs a hand down his face and holds it over his mouth for a second before glancing fully at Tony. "You think?" He lets the hand fall.
"Sorry," Tony says, sitting up. "You just looked uncomfortable. I wasn't thinking. Good reflexes though." His look is studious.
Bruce lets out a sharp breath and ignores it. "Thanks." He blinks his eyes a few times and then remembers why he'd been on the couch in the first place. "How'd it go?"
"Don't tell me you were waiting up," Tony grumbles in non-answer.
Bruce opens his eyes and gives him an incredulous look. "Of course I was waiting up. You skipped out and I only had Natasha's word that you were okay too. You—" He suddenly realizes not only is Tony wearing a completely different shirt than the one he had on earlier in the evening, but there's fresh blood seeping through one of his sleeves.
He looks back and forth between it and Tony's face. Tony follows his gaze and winces. "Damn it. Must have aggravated it when you manhandled me." He sighs and strips off his shirt, revealing an even bloodier mess of bandage wrapping his arm.
Bruce doesn't know whether he should scowl or gape so he ends up doing both as he looks at it. "What the hell?" He stands to his feet and folds his arms.
"One of Tchalakov's people brought a knife to a gun fight," Tony answers with a shrug. His small grimace of pain doesn't go unnoticed by Bruce.
"So you were injured and instead of going to the Triskellion with me and Tasha to get it checked out, you decided to go get tipsy with Rhodey?" Tony raises an eyebrow. "I can smell it," he explains. "And your reflexes were shit."
"Right." Tony shakes his head. "Look, Bruce, it's not that bad."
Bruce closes his eyes and counts to ten in his head while he brings his hands to rest against his mouth, pressing them together since he might as well be praying to any deity that might exist for the presence of mind to deal with this.
"Tony," he says as calmly as he can manage, "remember that time you were poisoned and incapacitated for weeks?" He opens his eyes to see Tony rolling his lips and looking everywhere but at him. "You said it wasn't that bad. Those were your exact words."
"Well, it wasn't," Tony argues.
Bruce rolls his eyes and tries to forget, yet again, how terribly dangerous this job is. For Tony. For Natasha. For Clint. For everybody. For Tony, he thinks again and looks at his arm. He shakes his head and makes his way into the spare room of their spacious hotel suite. Tony can call him paranoid all he wants, but he pulls an extensive first aid kit from his overnight bag and returns to the living room. The spy looks at it and then tilts his head forward incredulously.
"Don't look at me like that. Sit," Bruce tells him. Tony huffs and rolls his eyes, but sits back down on the couch just the same. Bruce sits beside him and carefully unwraps the bandage while Tony grits his teeth. Bruce sucks in a breath through his teeth when he sees the nasty wound and then looks at Tony with another disbelieving scowl. "Tony. This isn't bad? It needs stitches."
"I was going to stitch it up myself when I got back here, if you must know," Tony grouses as Bruce presses firmly onto the wound with a clean gauze to stop the bleeding.
Bruce shakes his head and inspects the wound. Satisfied, he pulls out several alcohol pads to clean it. "Was Rhodey with you when you patched this up the first time?" he asks as he wipes away the excess blood and Tony grits his teeth some more. "If so I'm a little pissed at him for not insisting you go to a hospital."
"It's really not that bad," Tony insists. "And he was a little too busy freaking out about my being a spy all these years."
Bruce sighs and decides to stop harassing him about his wound. "Was he aware of S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
"Not by name. Just that there are other intelligence agencies deeper shadow than the likes of CIA and MI6. He knows about S.W.O.R.D. though."
"Really?" Bruce lifts an eyebrow as he begins unraveling some new bandage tape.
"Yeah, but he did good not to mention who or how," Tony answers. "So no worries there regarding him keeping our secret for us. But my money is on one of his exes. Carol was something else. Wait? You're not going to stitch it up?"
"Nope," Bruce says easily and proves it by placing a clean gauze on the wound and beginning a new wrap. "You're going to go to S.H.I.E.L.D. and let an actual medic take care of it. Then you can fill out the paperwork that's waiting for you."
Tony sighs. "It was worth it," he then says after a brief pause. "I feel like there's a weight off my shoulders I didn't even know was there, you know?"
Bruce carefully moves his eyes away from his work to Tony's bare chest and then up to his face to find the other man's eyes closed and his head resting back on the couch. Bruce licks his lips and glances away at nothing in particular before finishing the wrap and pointedly moving his hands back to himself.
"I can imagine," he says. Tony opens his eyes and looks at him before looking down at his arm. "And I'm sure you two had quite the laugh about his getting offended about not knowing about you and me," he adds, maybe more for himself than for the sake of conversation, and begins cleaning up the mess. "Hope he didn't feel too—" Bruce stops abruptly when he stands to his feet and looks at Tony to see his distant expression. "—foolish. Tony?"
"Hmm?" Tony glances up at him. His eyes widen before he blinks them several times. "Oh, uh, yeah. It was… a real riot."
Bruce tells himself that doesn't sting as he turns back towards the spare room. "I'm going to wash up real quick. I know you're probably tired so you can sleep while I drive you to S.H.I.E.L.D." He intends to remain resolute where that is concerned.
Tony gives a resigned, slightly amused grunt. "You win, Brucey. You win." Bruce is almost to the room when Tony calls after him, "You know, you don't always have to do that. Swoop in and make sure I'm okay."
Bruce doesn't know whether to smile or to frown so he shakes his head and answers, "Maybe I have a hero complex." He disappears into his room before Tony can respond.
Bruce glances up from his work on a new panic button when he hears a loud pop of electricity followed by a muffled string of profanities, some of a cartoonish variety. Tony shakes his hand and then sucks on two of his fingers, no doubt to sooth some small burns.
Tony looks up and meets Bruce's eyes across from the spacious workshop and for a moment they just stare at each other like they've just realized the other is there.
Then, of course, Tony decides to ruin whatever spell had come over them by narrowing his eyes down the line of his nose and back again with a raised brow before making a lewd spectacle of the fingers still in his mouth. Bruce responds with a chuckle and shake of his head as he goes back to his work, stamping down certain other responses of a problematic nature in the process.
He looks up again when from out of the corner of his eye he sees Tony perch against his workstation. The other man is studying him hard enough that it makes Bruce squirm.
"Is, uh," Bruce licks his suddenly dry lips and darts his eyes away for a second, "there something you wanted to say?" He looks back again to find Tony's expression changed slightly. He almost seems startled by the question.
Tony blinks and clears his throat. His previous expression is replaced by one of his usual smirks. "I was just thinking about how delicious you look like this." It's Bruce's turn to blink, previously trampled down problematic responses fighting their way back up. "You in my workshop. Working with my tools. It's doing things to me, Brucey."
And you saying things like that… he starts to say, but doesn't. He doesn't even let himself finish the thought. Instead he sighs and shakes his head, trying for fond exasperation. Not that it's difficult to achieve with Tony. No matter what there will always be genuine fondness and exasperation both when it comes to him.
"I think there's a pretty simple biological reason for that, caveman," Bruce says.
When he focuses his eyes on Tony again, the smirk is gone and he almost looks stricken. Bruce furrows his brow, trying to figure out why Tony would take offense to a joke about primitive instincts and possessive sexual attraction— Oh.
Bruce wants to kick himself. Tony had shared that secret with him, and not only had he not shared any of his own in turn, now he'd already gone and been insensitive to it by ignoring – well, forgetting – that Tony doesn't feel like he works quite that way, at least not anymore. It's Bruce's daily reminder that if there's a chance to screw up something, he's sure to do it.
"Tony—" he starts, but Tony doesn't let him get anywhere further.
"So, how's the new panic button going?" Tony deflects instead. "Also I'm sort of wondering who you're making it for."
Bruce wants to apologize, but maybe that'll just make it worse so he indulges the deflection. He looks down at his project. "Um, it's going okay I guess. I'm just trying to figure out how to make it send an additional code when it goes off due to an EMP or being otherwise destroyed." He shrugs. "Just something to signify that it was likely a short-circuit rather than activated by the agent willingly so HQ can act accordingly. Probably should have considered this sooner since I anticipated EMPs from the get go," he rambles as he scrunches his face and fiddles with his glasses.
"Brilliant," Tony breathes out the word and sounds so awestruck that Bruce startles and looks up to see an equally awed expression on the other man's face. Bruce isn't sure if he remembers how to breathe. "You are…" Tony's eyes search his face. He shakes his head as if he can't believe something. "You're brilliant, Bruce," he finishes at last, though his tone is a little less sentimental.
Bruce remembers how to breathe after all, but just barely. He lets out a shaky chuckle. "Yeah, well, you, um," he looks down and fiddles with the device, "you might want to save that assessment for when I can get to actually work." He shrugs and removes his glasses. "I don't know if it's a problem in the syntax—"
"I can help." Bruce blinks and looks up again. "Unless you don't want me to," Tony hedges quickly. "Which, I understand. But two geniuses are better than one, right? Maybe together we could figure it out faster."
"I… Yeah, I'd love… help." He stutters and fumbles. "Of course you'll probably take one look at it and see the solution immediately."
"Well, it is in my wheelhouse," Tony teases. "But," he drawls the words out, "I'm willing to tutor you. Pro Bono for a worthy cause."
Bruce's mouth opens to respond, but J.A.R.V.I.S. interrupts first with, "Sirs, Ms. Lewis has arrived. She is passing through security at this moment. Agent Romanoff has gone to fetch her."
He and Tony groan in sync, then look at each other for a moment before breaking out into snickers over their shared annoyance with the wedding planner.
Bruce is the first to recompose himself and asks, "What is this consultation even about? I've lost track at this point."
"Is it the…" Tony purses his lips, considering it hard, before letting out a puff of air and shaking his head. "I've got nothing."
"Alright, well, I guess there's only one way to find out," Bruce says with a sigh. He'd been looking forward to working with Tony sooner rather than later. They don't get to do that a lot. He wonders sometimes if that would be different if he were Tony's tech specialist.
They ride the elevator up to the penthouse and freshen up just in time for Darcy's arrival along with Natasha.
"Great news," Darcy says as she moves to her now usual seat and begins unloading her large bag. Bruce spies several menus and guesses what at least one of their tasks will be this afternoon. "I've got you an officiant." Bruce's eyes widen and he looks at Tony. "Don't worry. He's not a preacher," she adds, misreading his alarm. "Well, he's registered with the UU, but personally he aligns himself with Nordic traditions. Or something like that," she says with a wave of her hand. "I've scheduled us a quick meeting with him before your cake testings on Thursday so you can speak with Minister Blake yourself and make the final decision.He's already aware of the thorough background check—"
"Wait, did you say Blake?" Bruce blurts out before he can stop himself.
"Mhm. Minister Donald Blake," she elaborates and Bruce spares a glance at Tony. "You may have already heard of him, I'm guessing." She lifts an eyebrow. Tony gives a small nod.
They weren't, or at least Bruce wasn't, aware that Fury would be sending in another agent to fulfill the role of officiator, but now that he considers it, it makes more sense than the original plan of having a legal sham marriage only to annul it after the fact - which would require more time and effort on their part to keep up the charade. This way the entire thing is a farce. Even if they should say 'I Do' before Loki is apprehended, if he's apprehended at all after their efforts, it will all be an act down to the marriage and following annulment papers. Papers that Fury can easily forge.
"Alright," Darcy continues in a bubbly tone before Bruce can consider how he feels about any of it, "I've brought the menus. Lots and lots of menus."
"Good," Tony says with a chuckle, "because, believe it or not, my gorgeous fiancé here is a pro at putting food away." Tony turns his head and smiles at Bruce. "And I happen to find it incredibly endearing."
Bruce's mouth falls open. He's not sure which part of that statement his brain wants to respond to because it's short-circuited at the moment.
"Oh," Darcy drags out the word, glancing between them with a raised brow and curious smirk. "That's interesting. Food kinksters?"
Bruce chokes on air, his confusion turning to shock, and Tony just takes it in stride, breezily saying, "How about we get started on those food selections?"
Darcy hums as if that alone is an answer to her question, and an affirmative one at that, but she, with whatever semi-professionalism she's endowed with, acquiesces. "Let's start with alcohol selection since there's less to go over and could affect your food choices."
Bruce's shock turns to discomfort. Tony tenses beside him and gives him a questioning look. "I'm going to go get some water actually," Bruce says, standing to his feet. "If you'll excuse me, Darcy. This is more Tony's area of expertise anyway so you can settle it with him while I'm gone. Would you like anything?" He poses the question to both of them and then leaves when they shake their heads, not giving either of them a chance to try and call him back. Although, he knows Tony wouldn't think of it.
Natasha follows him and Bruce guesses what she might be thinking. What she actually says, however, is a little unexpected. "Bruce, don't you see what's going on here?"
"No." He sighs and brings a hand to cover the top half of his face. "The lines are too blurred for me to see anything," he admits.
"Okay, I'm starting to wish Clint had stuck around to be our wedding planner instead," Tony says to Bruce as the two men go over fine details for the wedding that Darcy had sent to them for approval.
Natasha looks up from her book. "I'm not," she says.
"Harsh. Enjoying your freedom?" Tony asks.
"From you, yeah," she says with a laugh. He looks up in confusion. "Need I remind you, if Clint were still the wedding planner, I'd be the one about to tie the knot right now. And even with Thor on board now to keep it from being legal, that's still too close of a call."
"You know, snookums," Tony smirks and goes back to what he was doing, "Shakespeare has a colloquialism for what you're doing so you might not want to keep up with the protests." She rolls her eyes. "God, it just goes on and on," he then says in a weary tone. "Why the hell does it matter what design is on the silverware? It's just silverware. I need a drink." He stands to his feet. "How about you, Bruce? Want some Port?"
Bruce hitches a shoulder, looking up at him. "Sure. I could go for a glass."
"Coming right up," Tony says with a smile and walks toward the bar.
"You'd better pour something for me too," Natasha calls after him.
"Jesus, Natasha," Tony grouses, "I'm pretty sure you've already drained my entire supply of vodka as it is."
"It's fine," Natasha says with a lilt. "I had J.A.R.V.I.S. order some more."
Bruce snickers and Natasha cranes her head over her shoulder to smirk at him. "If your life now consisted of listening to someone complain about silverware, you'd have done the same thing."
"And tablecloths. Don't forget his rant about tablecloths," Bruce adds, smiling thinly as he conspires with her against the other genius.
"Ah, okay, yes," Tony agrees, coming over with vodka for her and Port for Bruce. He then moves back toward the bar to fetch his own drink. "But let's not forget who had to do actual pranayama over the ribbons for the place settings."
"That's not how pranayama is pronounced," Natasha counters as he watches her walk past her chair and sit back down beside Bruce.
"Be nice, Tasha," Bruce chastises her. "He's still learning." There's something between a smirk and actual pleased smile playing at the edge of his lips. "And, yes, I fully admit that one was on me. But, honestly, there should not be that many damn ways to tie ribbon around a card and silverware. I mean, who the hell profits from it? It's a waste of materials that aren't even biodegradable. And all for a putting on a big, fake show that-"
"Deep breaths, Bruce," Tony intervenes.
"Don't tell me to take deep breaths," Bruce says sharply, previous smile gone. "Having an outlandish wedding just because we can was your idea."
Tony sighs and holds up his hands. "Look, let's just shoot Darcy a text and tell her we're going to be skipping some of the items she sent us because we'd prefer her to find us green options instead. How's that sound?"
Bruce's eyes widen. "Yes," he breathes out the word. "Better. Let's definitely do that."
"On it." Tony pulls out his phone. "Anything for my blushing hippie bridezilla."
"Way to ruin the moment, asshole," Bruce says flatly.
"Maybe, but I'm still your asshole."
"I thought we agreed not until our wedding night," Bruce retorts and Tony barks out a laugh.
"Just for that you get a kiss on the cheek," Tony says, kissing his hand and patting Bruce's cheek with it even as he still texts Darcy.
"God, this glass isn't big enough," Natasha mumbles into her drink.
The sketchy dive bar simultaneously goes quiet and breaks out into whistles and howls. That's how Clint knows Natasha is there long before she siddles up to the pool table beside him and leans against it.
He swallows hard, as weak to her charms as everyone else, as she tilts her head back and the blonde wig she's wearing cascades with the movement. She rolls her head in his direction, being sure to keep her neck bared enticingly and her chest extended. One of these days she'll be the death of him, he thinks, since he's sure this little show is more for him than to sell it to their audience.
"Hey, handsome," she says. "Mind doing me a favor?"
Several men heckle the question with answers like: "If he won't, I will." "If he doesn't, he's gay." Clint doesn't usually do the possessive thing since he and Natasha both do their fair share of this sort of thing with other people when the job calls for it, but at the moment he's feeling pretty damn possessive. Then again, it does tend to happen when he's not seen her for a while and knowing where this is going to go doesn't help matters.
"What did you have in mind?" he asks as he racks up the balls.
"Well, my friends seem to think I don't know how to play this game and they challenged me to a game next time they're in town. Which is in a couple of days so I'm looking for someone to teach me. I really don't want to embarrass myself," she explains, her voice dripping with a lethal combination of seduction and genuine obliviousness. He almost wants to roll his eyes because he knows she could take every person in the building on at pool and then knock them unconscious using the cues and balls before they even see it coming. She leans in and he sees the mischievous gleam in her eyes and the small smirk at the corner of her lips. "I'll make it worth your while."
"Fuck," Clint bites out while the other guys whistle some more. He has no idea how he's going to get through this little façade. "Got yourself a deal, sweetheart. Any particular name you want me to remember for later?"
She throws her head back and laughs a very small laugh. It's her genuine laugh. The one only a few people like himself gets to hear. The one that says his retort actually amused her. The one that reminds him this isn't all just an act. The one that reminds him he's the luckiest damn man in the world. It's going to be even harder now to get through this game of teaching her how to shoot pool.
"And he has a sense of humor too," she muses as she straightens up. She turns around to face the table and turns her head to meet his eyes.
Clint blinks and then shrugs. "Alright, so how about you and I double up against those two," he says nodding to the other two he'd been playing. They shrug as he removes the rack. Clint holds up the cue stick and says, "I assume you know you use this to hit the balls, right?"
"Like I said," she replies, probably holding back an eye roll, "he has a sense of humor too."
"Right. So I'm going to break the balls to get the game started. Watch carefully." He leans over with cue in hand. "See how I'm holding the stick?" He demonstrates slowly how to position one's hands and then strikes the pool balls, the familiar clacks ringing through the space, a striped ball landing in one of the pockets. "Stripes," he says. "That means we're going to only aim for the striped balls and they'll aim for the solids. Alright since a ball went in, I'm going to go again. You'll notice that first, I'm going to call the specific ball I'm aiming for and the pocket I'm going to send it into. Second, I'm going to take my position and aim for the solid white ball, called the cue ball. That's the ball you want to use to knock the indicated ball into the pocket. You want to try not to pocket the 8 ball or send the cue ball into the pocket."
"Seems kind of complicated," Natasha drawls in an almost sultry manner.
Clint clears his throat. "9 ball in the corner left," he says and sends said ball into the pocket with ease. "Now you give it a shot," he holds out the cue stick. "It's easier than you think."
"Hmm." Natasha takes the cue stick and, very purposely, leans over the table with an exaggerated air. "Like this?"
"Looks good to me," someone from somewhere behind them says and the two on the other side of the table are practically salivating.
Clint tightens his jaw and decides a little alpha male posturing couldn't hurt at the moment. "Close," he says and moves to stand behind her, earning some more heckling that he mostly ignores – although some of the heckling is of a jealous nature, he notes. "You're going to line the stick up with your hip like this," he tells her, gripping one hip with one hand and guiding the stick in place beside her other hip with his other. "And you don't have to lean over quite so far," he says next and moves the hand on her hip round to her stomach, gently guiding her back up. "Now," he moves that hand quickly, for his own sanity, to place her anchor hand in a correct position, "you're going to use this hand as an anchor. With your other hand you want to glide the stick smoothly through the v between your thumb and index fingers to hit the sweet spot of the cue ball."
"And here I thought billiards was a gentleman's game," she retorts, craning her neck to glance up at him over her shoulder.
"This isn't billiards, beautiful. It's pool."
They earn some more whistles for their banter.
She lifts an eyebrow and then looks back at the table. "12 ball in the side pocket," she says. "Here goes nothing." She exaggerates a clumsy technique to make the others believe she's a beginner, but the cue ball hits the 12 hard enough to send it into the called pocket and the 11 into the opposite corner."
"Typical beginner's luck," Clint mumbles to throw off any suspicion and, thankfully, is met with disgruntled agreement from the other players.
Then, before he can even blink, Natasha spins around and attacks his lips in a purposely-sloppy kiss. Clint doesn't even have to feign surprise. She pulls away and smirks up at him just a little as she licks her lips in a way that threatens to ruin him right there on the spot – if there was anything left of him for her to ruin that is.
"I think I've got the basics, handsome," she says.
"Um," Clint's voice is strangled, "there are other rules and mechanics to the game you should probably learn." Not that he wants to prolong this agony in the least.
"The name's Talia," she says, earning a raised eyebrow from him. She moves her hands slowly up his chest to rest around his neck. "And right now the only game I'm interested in is you."
She pulls his head back down to kiss him again, slow and filthy to play up to their voyeurism. Clint wastes no time in kissing back, hands moving to her hips as she starts to walk them backwards. They break apart and Clint glances past her at his 'colleagues' with a smirk, earning thumbs up and cheers in response. Then he quickly pulls her toward the door, making out with her some more along the way – and not at all for show.
Once outside, he pushes her against the building. "God, I've missed you," he mumbles, low enough just in case anyone were to hear although he's fairly certain it's only paranoia that imagines the possibility. She lets him take control of the kiss so he can show her just how much. "How's babysitting the genius twins going?" he asks with a chuckle as he pulls away and she groans.
"I haven't drank this much since Budapest, but I'm not about to discuss those two idiots while we fuck in a parking lot."
"Why is it you and I always seem to remember very different aspects of that mission?" he asks, smirking against the column of her neck before devouring it as if it's been years.
"Also," she cards her fingers sensually through his hair and then guides his head back up to meet her firm expression, "we're not going to fuck in a parking lot."
Clint gives a crooked, probably besotted, smile and jerks his head backwards. "There's a motel across the street."
Natasha grins back, just a little bit wicked. "I noticed."
Tony spins aimlessly in his chair while he waits for the brief to start. For once he's the first person here. He contemplates very seriously whether or not he should take this rare opportunity to give everyone hell about it.
"Having fun?" Bruce asks with a chuckle. Tony stops spinning and looks up at him to see his amused expression. He forgets giving hell when a different impulse strikes him.
The only warning Tony gives him is an impish expression before grabbing Bruce by his arm and pulling him into his lap. He starts spinning madly again while Bruce fights his iron vice hold, though not without laughing at his childishness.
"Having fun, Dr. Banner?" Tony teases as he keeps spinning.
"No, now let go before I vomit or something," he answers between laughs, craning his neck to look at him like he's crazy.
Tony scoffs. "I'd actually pay to see that. And Fury's expression when—"
Tony stops abruptly and Bruce jerks his head straight. Fury, Coulson, Natasha and Thor are all standing in front of them with varying expressions of: What the hell is going on here? Well, actually, Thor is just beaming at them like he's amused.
"Never mind," Tony backtracks.
"You should probably let me go now, Tony," Bruce says with a nervous chuckle and Tony does so immediately at the reminder he's still holding onto him.
Bruce gets up and moves to the seat beside him and it, laughably, almost looks like he's doing a walk of shame. With the judgmental glare Natasha's giving them both, Tony especially, it's as if they'd caught them doing something far more salacious.
"I'm sorry you all had to see that," Tony says, deciding to play up their ridiculous reactions. "I have terrible self-control. You might want to sit as far away from me as possible. Never know when I'll get the urge."
"Seems like fun," Thor remarks, still with a cheesy grin on his face.
"You can find out, point break," Tony retorts. "I'm sure Dr. Foster will understand." Natasha is glaring even harder at him when he glances at her.
"No, but thank you," Thor says with good humor in his voice. At least he gets the joke. "I'm not quite sure that would be wise with your fiancé sitting right there."
Tony snorts and then spins his chair around to look at Bruce. He looks even more uncomfortable than before and Tony regrets keeping the subject going… or perhaps putting him in these situations in the first place.
He leans in and tries to get him to see the humor in it instead, saying, "Don't worry, Bruce. I didn't mean it. You're the only one who gets to ride in the spin-y chair with me. It's an exclusive spin-y relationship."
Bruce glances sideways at him, eyes narrowed in an almost-glare before glancing away again. With a sigh and shake of his head he says, "It better be." He looks at Tony with enough of a smirk for Tony to feel a little relieved.
He turns his attention to Fury, who's studying them. "You know, none of this would have happened in the first place if you'd shown up to this meeting on time. I'm absolutely appalled at your lack of dedication to this establishment. Appalled."
"Oh my god, shut him up, Bruce," Natasha says with a groan.
"You've been living with us for a month now and you still think I'm capable of shutting him up?" Bruce retorts. "Seriously?"
"I seem to recall you doing a pretty decent job of it at the museum."
"I hate you," Bruce deadpans. "Can we get on with this brief? Tony and I have to see a tailor at 3."
"And I'm far more eager for that than this so..." Tony mimes zipping his lips and gives Fury a Chesire grin.
Fury pinches the bridge of his nose before sighing. "Well, with any luck you may not have to go with your vows after all," he says, becoming professional again.
"You mean fake vows," Bruce comments. "Why didn't you give us the head's up on Agent Blake?" Then he furrows his brow. "Wait, what?"
"What do you mean we may not have to?" Tony ignores his vow of silence, not that he wouldn't have anyway. He glances at Natasha and then at Fury. "Did Barton manage to find something?"
"He found plenty," Natasha says.
"But we'll focus on the most pertinent bit for now," Fury says. "Barton tipped us off on Loki's upcoming schedule. He plans on doing a little bit of a goodwill tour over the coming week," Fury explains. "He's going to be meeting with a lot of contacts, probably setting up some new deals. As it turns out, one of those meetings is going to be at a lodge upstate that, to our great fortune, happens to be hosting a couples retreat event this upcoming Thursday through Sunday. According to the schedule, Loki should be there Friday night."
"So Tony and I go to the retreat. Best case scenario, we apprehend him," Bruce starts.
"Second best scenario is we finally lure him into the deliberate cat and mouse," Tony finishes. "It'll look like I'm trailing him."
"And," Bruce starts again, "when the media finds out Tony and I are at a couples retreat only a week before our wedding and presumed honeymoon it'll look like trouble in paradise. Whether we call off the wedding early or we fake annulling the marriage after, this should help the story. Well," he chuckles, shrugs and looks at Tony, "guess all relationships go sour at some point."
Tony's stomach drops.
"Okay, okay, I get you're a spy and you say this wedding is only for show, but come on. This isn't completely fake."
"Let's see. I never actually proposed. It's over once the smoke clears. Bruce and I aren't even in a relationship. So, yeah, pretty sure it is."
"Only pretty sure?"
"Can you cut to the chase, Rhodey?"
"Tony, you're in love with that man."
"I… I'm not. It… can't be that."
"You with us, Stark?"
Tony blinks and realizes Bruce is looking at him with concern. He glances at Fury. He then glances at Thor and Natasha, the latter studying him with a calculating expression. He looks back at Fury and tries to recompose himself.
"Uh, yeah, yeah." He shakes his head. "I just started thinking about how this could go wrong," he comes up with a genuine response.
"There's always a chance for it to go wrong," Coulson remarks.
"I know, but specifically for Agent Barton." He glances at Natasha and sees the way she tweaks her jaw uncomfortably. "I mean, if Barton was at my party and Loki finds out that I'm the one who's been trailing him, he's going to put two and two together. Even if he only suspects we're working together he's not going to take a chance."
"He's right," Natasha chimes in. "We have to be prepared for that possibility. With all due respect, sir, I won't sit by idly and hope for the best. He's my partner. I'll go in and extract him lone gun myself if I have to."
Fury rolls his eye and looks at Coulson like he's asking the man to give him some of his patience. "This is why we used to have rules." He then sighs and looks back. "Alright, we'll get to work on an extraction plan. In the meanwhile, you three pack for that lodge. You," he says to Thor, "are on standby for that wedding if it still happens."
If it still happens.
The words ring in Tony's ear like a warning and he steals a long glance at Bruce.
It's all been a ruse, but Tony's not ready for it to end.
"Reservation for Stark and Banner," Tony says to the woman at the check-in desk. Beside him Bruce is looking around the large, rustic main lobby of the resort.
"Welcome, Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner," she says. Tony nods and Bruce does as well before going back to his study. "We were pleased to see you would be joining us this weekend. Security is aware that it may need to be extra vigilant over the next few days to ensure you enjoy the maximum amount of privacy. We can assign a staff member to act as an escort if you wish."
"That won't be necessary," he tells her and looks around at the lobby himself, memorizing it just in case there's a fight, although he hopes not. He looks back. "Our personal bodyguard will be checking in a little later today. Natalie Rushman. She'll probably wish to speak to your security team about her job. She'll be keeping an extra eye on things for us, if that's alright."
"Of course, Mr. Stark. We're happy to accommodate you in whatever ways we can. Here is your room key. And the itinerary for the retreat activities exclusive to couples here for our special weekend."
"I'll take those," Bruce immediately turns his attention back to the woman and intercepts the items, "thank you."
Tony gives him a grateful smile and tries not to think about how used to this he's become over the past five weeks. Whether they catch Loki this weekend or next, soon things will go back to the way they were before. Tony will be back to flying solo, only calling Bruce in an absolute pinch when he needs him, only seeing him when he has a spare moment to steal away to the labs or when Bruce has the time and inclination to visit him.
"I'm sure we will," Bruce is saying to the woman and Tony snaps out of his melancholy thoughts to see the other man giving him a strange look.
"Likewise," Tony says to the woman with a wide smile, pretending he hadn't been elsewhere in thought.
Bruce takes the lead then, looking at the room number on the key and then at the resort map to locate their room. Tony follows, taking in more of the place to memory.
"You know," he says, deciding to compartmentalize his thoughts for the time being – or forever, whichever – when they reach their room, "if I had known we would have to spend the weekend in the middle of nowhere, I think I would have just told Fury forget it and stuck it out another week."
Bruce turns around from where he'd been unlocking the door and looks at him with an amused expression. "Should I be offended? That you would have been willing to rough it with me another week instead of roughing it here?"
Tony winces, only partly in jest. "Okay, well, yeah, when you put it that way… Guess we need this couples retreat after all."
Bruce shakes his head, chuckling as he grabs the handle of the door behind him and leans back into it a little. Tony's mouth goes dry and his brain nearly short circuits. Bruce looks perfect, as usual, and enticing.
Tony tells himself it can't be true. He wants to lean in and kiss Bruce, wants to make it long and deep and nothing like any of the kisses they've shared so far. It can't be true. He wants to kiss him right here against this door and then push him inside for more. It can't be. Tony wants him so damn bad, he can't even remember the last time it's felt like this, if it ever has.
But maybe that's not true either. He's wanted Bruce this way before. He's wanted Bruce at times when he's seen him working brilliantly in the lab. He's wanted Bruce at times when he's been patched through to him on a mission. He wanted Bruce for himself when Veronica had her hands on him. He wanted Bruce when they were dancing. He wanted Bruce every single time they kissed. He's wanted Bruce. He still wants Bruce. He never wants to want anyone else again.
Bruce finally stops chuckling and looks at him with open contentment, like he feels just as okay with where they are at this very moment, and Tony realizes belatedly that time must have stopped because only seconds have passed.
"But, honestly, Tony," Bruce says, and Tony loves the way he says his name, wants that too, to hear it all the time. "I've literally been in the middle of nowhere and this definitely isn't it."
"You have?" Tony furrows his brow. He knows Bruce is into this sort of thing, and suddenly realizes that Bruce must have been looking around so raptly because he's actually looking forward to it, which makes Tony rethink his negative opinion a little bit. But that he's literally been in the middle of nowhere is new information. "When was that?"
"Uh," Bruce licks his lips and looks away and Tony's curiosity deepens, "you know. Back before I came to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. as the head tech specialist."
"You know, Bruce," Tony says slowly, "I'm starting to think there are a lot of things I don't know about you."
Bruce swallows hard enough that Tony sees it, but wills his eyes not to linger on his best friend's throat, emphasis on friend he reminds himself. Bruce quickly opens the door and steps into the room as he says with a nervous chuckle, "Well, I guess you're right about us needing this couple's retreat."
He turns around with haste and starts to walk further into the room only to stop in his tracks. Tony nearly runs into him, noting the tense line of Bruce's back when he does. Tony cranes his neck to look past Bruce and realizes immediately what must have his attention. Tony looks around at the rest of the layout of the small room. There's a small attached bathroom. There's a small table with two chairs for cozy dining. There's a combination wardrobe and television stand. There's a fireplace, but only one lounge, entirely inadequate for sleeping, near it. He looks back again at the bed. The single, solitary queen-size bed.
"This is… cozy," Tony tries for casual. "Not exactly my taste, but cozy."
Bruce turns and looks at him with an expression that's anything but casual and it might as well be a punch to the gut the way Tony is reminded again of how very heterosexual the other man is. It doesn't matter if Tony can trust himself this time. Bruce isn't an option and not just because of what it might do to their friendship if it turns out Tony is wrong again, although his and Pepper's had survived. He can't want Bruce. Not in any way, shape or form. When the clock strikes midnight, Tony will go back to being a lonely prince and Bruce no longer will be obligated to pretend it's a prince he's looking for.
"Look, I know what you're thinking—"
There's a knock on the door and they turn to see a bellhop with their luggage.
"You probably don't," Bruce practically sighs the words under his breath, just loud enough for Tony to hear, as he takes the opportunity to flee toward the window. Tony watches him for a moment before going to help gather their things.
"You don't have to," the bellhop says. "It's my pleasure to make your stay as relaxing as possible." Tony sets down the suitcase he'd grabbed and then takes a step back so not to offend the young man doing his job. He pulls out his wallet to get a tip ready for him instead. A generous one since he can and also since the young man looks barely out of high school so he could probably use it. "Also, I know this is against policy," the man says as he continues to do his job, "and if it makes you uncomfortable don't hesitate to throw me out without a tip, but…"
Tony raises an eyebrow and glances toward Bruce, who seems curious enough to glance back.
"Well," the bellhop sets down the last bag and then squares his shoulders, "the thing is, my boyfriend is a huge fan." Tony raises his other eyebrow as the bellhop looks back and forth between them. "Of both of you. Not just as scientists. He's, uh, a bit of a romantic. He's been following your wedding stuff and keeping me in the loop. He even made sure I liked the animal post on Instagram. And pretty much everyone else we know," he adds with a chuckle.
Tony smiles. "I'm pleased to hear that."
The bellhop nods, looks down, and then looks up again. "Anyway, do you think it would be possible for you to give him a shout-out on Instagram?" He pulls out a piece of paper with a username scribbled on it. Tony decides to make an exception, and not the kind he has to make when he's in character as a spy, taking the proffered item from him. "It would make him smile for weeks at least," the bellhop says with no small amount of warmth in his voice.
Tony's smile softens. "And that would make you smile." That makes the young man blush even if it's clear he's trying to hide it. He nods again, more vigorously. Tony glances at Bruce just in time to see his smile before he looks back out the window. Tony looks at the bellhop and nods. "I understand." Tony hands him the generous tip and the young man looks at it with wide eyes. They grow wider when Tony says, "And your boyfriend will definitely be getting a surprise shout-out thanks to his policy-breaking Romeo."
"Thank you, sir!" The bellhop nearly trips over his feet as he moves back toward the door, taking the luggage cart with him. "Thank you! If you need anything at all while you're here, I'll see what I can do. Thank you both and I hope you enjoy your stay. And, uh, congratulations on the upcoming marriage. You're definitely an inspiration," he says and then hurries out.
That last bit stings. When Tony turns to look at Bruce, he finds the other genius practically slumped against the window.
"Why did I agree to do this again?" Bruce mutters and something about the question strikes Tony as odd. He's not even sure Bruce meant for him to hear it. Tony moves to stand beside him. "I'm a monster," Bruce says, staring at his reflection in the glass like he sees something that isn't there. Tony bites his lip and twists his head. He hates hearing Bruce call himself that, wants to protest that none of this is his fault, but he's too busy feeling like a monster right along with him. "Those two boys are going to be crushed." Bruce turns his head to look at him, his face twisted into ugly, pained lines. "And for what? Is any of this worth it? Taking advantage of a bunch of innocent people just to stop some asshole our government can't figure out how to stop without all of this nonsense?"
Bruce closes his eyes and shakes his head in a bitter fashion before hanging it. Tony lets out a heavy sigh and looks at the small piece of paper in his hands. He licks his lips and shakes his own head before pocketing the paper and pulling Bruce into a hug, earning a small sound of surprise from him.
"You're right, Bruce. It's nonsense. And you should have never been dragged into it. You're not the monster here," he assures him, even if he doubts it'll change the way Bruce views himself in light of his collusion. "I'm sorry, Bruce. I am. None of this was worth it."
Tony closes his eyes, feeling the weight of those words as deeply as he'd felt his want for Bruce not even fifteen minutes before. He then opens them and pulls back to look at him. No matter what he feels or doesn't feel, no matter how much he hates to think of all of this ending or their little adventure never having happened at all, it's not real and it's not worth it.
It's not worth it seeing Bruce hurting like this. It's not worth it knowing others like that bellhop and his boyfriend might hurt from this.
None of it will be worth it when it ends and Tony's hurting really begins.
"But," Tony puts on a brave face, if only because he wants to see Bruce smile again, "we'll figure it out. We're geniuses. And we're partners." Bruce's eyes widen slightly. "Even if we have to keep this little façade going for a little longer than we anticipated so we can let people down more gently," he suggests off the top of his head, but he would never expect that much from Bruce after everything else so far, and he'd only be complicating his own feelings. "We'll figure out how to handle the bed thing like two grown men too," he adds in humor.
A small smile touches Bruce's lips. It's barely noticeable, but Tony thinks he would have seen it from space as welcome as it is.
"We'll figure it out," Bruce agrees.
"In the meantime, let's enjoy ourselves," Tony tells him. "We've got plenty of time to angst in the future and I know you really enjoy the idea of being here."
Bruce looks out the window and smiles a little wider. "Guilty." Tony can't keep from smiling in response.
"Alright then," he clasps his hands together once, "mission: indulge my fiancé is a go. We'll do whatever you want to do, Bruce." Tony turns to go get the itinerary. "We can—"
"Tony," Bruce says his name and like a spell that compels him Tony stops and turns back around. "I… Uh…" Bruce glances out the window again. He clears his throat softly. "You were right earlier." He looks back. "There are a lot of things you don't know about me."
Tony briefly wonders at why Bruce would bring that up again, but decides if Bruce wants to elaborate, he will. Otherwise, Tony doesn't want to risk the lighter mood that they'd begun to cultivate.
"Well, you know I'm always eager to learn new things," he offers with a smile and a shrug.
Natasha isn't sure what to make of the scene when she finally intercepts Bruce and Tony. They're both doing tai chi with a group of people, following an instructor, and it's obvious that they've been hiking or something of a similar nature because Tony looks like a mess. He's out of his element out here in the elements, Natasha muses. In comparison, Bruce looks like he's at peace and relishing the slower pace and closeness to nature.
He also looks like he's losing patience with the man beside him as he makes faces and plays up how incompetent at tai chi he is. Of course, there's also a small waver to his frown that moves it in the opposite direction because Bruce can't help himself. She had wondered if Bruce had seen what was going on with Tony's devotion to him, but now she has to wonder if it's not the other way around too. Does Tony see what's going on here?
Bruce stops finally and shakes his head, smiling more obviously. He pulls Tony away from the tai chi session and towards where Natasha stands. "You've suffered enough," she hears him teasing the billionaire. "Oh," he stops when he notices her and lets go of Tony's arm, "hi, Natash— Natalie."
"Hi," she says, smirking as she looks them over more closely – Tony especially. Both men understand her assessment, one rolling his lips to hold back his amusement and the other scowling at her. "Dirt is a good look on you, Mr. Stark." She notices his ripped shorts and wonders if he got into a fight with a tree branch or forest animal along the trail. "I'm sure Dr. Banner agrees," she adds, which immediately causes the men to swap their reactions.
"Is that so, Dr. Banner?" Tony looks at him with one of his patented leers, only – Natasha's eyes widen – this time there's something genuinely dark and longing in his eyes that she's never seen up close like this before.
It's enough to make Natasha avert her eyes and narrow them while she's at it. Is there's something she's missing? The lines can't possibly be this blurred.
Bruce sighs. "Alright, you got me," he says and Natasha snaps her eyes back toward them. "I like you nice and dirty," he says without even batting an eye. The same can't be said for Tony. "Which is why I booked us for the full spa treatment. We have a mud bath in ten minutes."
Tony's eyes are wide and he's practically a salivating mess. Natasha's having a hard time keeping up, let alone figuring out what the hell is actually going on here so she's inclined to just wash her hands of the matter completely. Either they've already figured it out or they never will.
"That means you'll be nice and dirty too," Tony says, his voice a little wrecked. "Lead the way, Bruce."
Bruce looks like a deer in headlights, or maybe a fish out of water, for half a second before rolling his eyes and saying, "Come on, you."
Natasha turns and watches them as they start to walk away, but maybe she can't wash her hands completely of the matter after all. "Mr. Stark," she calls after them.
They both stop and look at each other. Tony shrugs and comes back over while Bruce heads back toward the lodge.
"Yes, Natalie?" He lifts one brow. "This better be important since I'm not about to miss Bruce sinking down into a tub of mud."
"Okay, what is it with horny men and mud?" she asks dryly. Before he can retort she pins him with a sharp look that causes his mouth to snap shut. "What's going on here, Tony? Because if you hurt him—"
Tony flinches and his eyes go distant for a brief, disconcerting moment. "I’m afraid it's too late for that," he murmurs.
Natasha realizes with clarity that he doesn't mean that the way she had meant it. He means something else, something more private. Something that hurts him just as much, if not more. She's seen his expression in her own mirror plenty of times to know that Tony is in his own private hell somewhere inside his head.
So the lines really are that blurred.
"I don't think it is," Natasha decides, even if she knows what she means isn't what he'd meant. But whatever it is he'd meant, her answer still seems to give him pause. "You know," she lowers her voice and leans in to keep their conversation as private as possible, "Clint's code name is Hawkeye for a reason. He likes to say he sees better from a distance. Maybe you're too close to the problem to see the solution." She steps back again. "So, there's a couples trivia tournament tonight. Looks like fun. I think I'll sign up. You and Bruce should do it. There's a thousand dollar prize to the winner. Not that you need it, but you could always donate it as another gesture for Bruce."
For once, Tony is the one reeling from somebody else's stream-of-consciousness. He blinks and says, "Uh, yeah. Yeah, I saw that. It… does sound like fun," he agrees. He then tilts his head. "But it's couples only. They won't let you sign up."
She smirks. "Oh, didn't Fury tell you? I brought a date." His eyes widen. Before he can ask she looks past him and sees Bruce standing near the lodge, watching them with intense focus. Her eyes aren't as good as Clint's, but even she can see from here that his eyes look needlessly green. "But you'll just have to live in suspense. I think you have your own date waiting for you at the moment. Something about a mud bath?"
He looks over his shoulder and then looks back at her with a nod and besotted smile. "Hell yes. Later, Natalie." He turns on his heel and hurries toward his fake fiancé.
Natasha stays where she is, watching them again and considering the situation for the hundredth time at least. How can it be obvious to everyone except them all the while they both act like it's obvious to everyone except the other?
The lines are so blurred even she's starting to wonder what's real and what isn't.
Steve had known this would be awkward.
He and Agent Stark don't exactly see eye to eye on, well, anything. S.H.I.E.L.D. had figured that out pretty quickly years back. Director Fury might have had big plans for the younger Stark and the young agent, fresh out of The Academy, who'd shattered all the records and won the older Stark's respect and excessive adulation in the process, but it only took the two men working together once for those big plans to be put to rest. There was no chance of them becoming a duo out in the field, another great strike team, when even a fairly simple and straightforward mission they'd had to work together on, though Steve suspected Fury had meant it as a trial run, had nearly ended in disaster. They'd nearly killed each other instead of catching their target.
To be fair, Steve hadn't wanted Tony as a partner any more than Tony had wanted him. Dr. Banner recently had joined the agency as the head of Research and Development and everyone had known right away that he was the only agent that Agent Stark would ever want to work with on a regular basis. As for Steve, well, he'd already found the right partner at The Academy and nobody could replace him.
Things aren't so antagonistic these days, and Steve feels guilty because he suspects Howard's passing helped with that, but they still tend to clash when they are in the same vicinity for one reason or another. Which is exactly why Steve had known this would be awkward.
"Well," Bruce intervenes when the silence extends past even the most reasonable person's threshold, "I for one am glad you're here, Steve." He smiles and reaches out a hand. Steve returns the smile as he shakes it.
"It's good to see you again, Dr. Banner. It's been a while outside of the occasional distress call my specialist can't handle," he says with a chuckle.
"It has," Bruce agrees. Steve notes that Tony looks like his head is spinning. "In fact, I've been meaning to pay you a visit, but everything's been so crazy." Steve gives another snort in understanding, and at how Tony's brain now looks especially broken. "I guess now's as good a time as any though," Bruce says with a shrug. "How would you like to be my Best Man?"
"I'd like that. I'll talk to my boss about it," he jokes. He was assigned to attend the wedding already, since the guest list will be filled out with more agents than civilians, so he doesn't expect Fury will have any problem with it.
"Wait, wait, okay, wait," Tony finally speaks up. "First Ro—Rushman. Now Rogers?" Tony looks around at him and Natasha before looking at Bruce. "Are you friends with everybody? I thought you said I'm irreplaceable."
Bruce huffs. "I said as a friend. Which means you're assuming Steve and I are just friends."
Steve's eyes widen at Bruce's remark, clearly meant to be dry humor. Clearly the humor is lost on Tony, given the stricken expression that flashes across his face before he hardens it into a terrible attempt at neutrality.
"Relax, Tony," Steve interjects. "Bruce here is amazing, but I promise you I have no designs on your fiancé. He's all yours."
"Right," Bruce remarks, "because for whatever reason I prefer my men to have a possessive streak." He then fixes Tony with a look and sighs. "My best friends too apparently. Honestly, Tony. Steve is a great guy and a great friend. And you would know that if you two would stop posturing for five seconds and actually try to get along."
"We get along," Steve says at the same time Tony says, "Who says we don't get along?"
Natasha snorts and shakes her head.
"This is what I'm talking about," Bruce says. "Deny it all you want, but you two have more in common than you think."
"They're both stubborn for one thing," Natasha chimes in.
"Okay this entire evening is officially too awkward for me," Tony says with a shake of his head, choosing to deflect rather than admit to any possible similarities between them - which annoys Steve and makes him doubt Bruce's call on this one. "Bruce, how about we call it a night instead?"
"I bet Natasha twenty bucks you and I can win this thing so stop acting like a petulant child and sit your ass down," Bruce replies flatly, taking the initiative to sit down at the table first. Tony immediately sits down in the chair beside him, indeed looking like a petulant child that's just been chastised into obedience.
Steve looks at Natasha and raises an eyebrow. She got Bruce to bet he and Tony can win? He thinks he knows Agent Romanoff well enough by now to recognize her sense of humor when he sees it.
Sure enough, it doesn't even take more than a few rounds of the contest before his hunch is confirmed.
Tony and Bruce are in the lead and have yet to get any strikes against them, which can automatically eliminate a team from the game. The way it's going it's absurd that Natasha would have bet against them. Which is the punchline, Steve guesses, since she seems to be getting a kick out of their revealing just how well they know each other question after question.
Even questions that Steve thinks are beyond the bounds of a normal friendship, one where there's absolutely no sexual tension whatsoever, are a breeze for the two men. Questions like—
"Bruce Banner," the host of the event says as he returns to their table, the spotlight following him, "you're up next. Here's your question and, boy oh boy, it's a fun one," he says, earning 'oohs' from the other contestants and spectators; by now they know the host means the question is sexual in nature. "What's something kinky you think Tony is dying to try with you in bed? You both have thirty seconds to lock in your answers."
Steve watches curiously as Bruce studies Tony for a few seconds and then writes his answer on his tablet. Steve can't help noticing the way his skin looks a little bit darker in color as he does.
"Time's up," the host interjects. "Okay, let's put Bruce's answer up on the screen." He turns and points to the large screen the tablets are synced to. "Wowzers," the host hams it up, "he says sounding." The audience breaks into whistles and cheers.
Steve has always been a bit on the naïve side so he's never heard of whatever that is, but Bruce is beet red now and Tony looks like he's won the lottery and might actually die from shock.
"Now for Tony's answer," the host continues. "And, look. at. that, folks! It's also sounding. Let's give them a round of applause for another correct answer." The audience reacts accordingly. "Also, just a reminder, guests can pick up a complimentary set of earplugs at the front desk at any time. Something tells me you'll be needing them tonight." He winks at both men.
Steve opens his mouth to ask the two men just how exactly they managed that one when he remembers both that they're in character and that it's his turn. The host turns his cornball grin on him confirming this fact.
"Next, we have Steve and Natalie. Natalie, what is something about Steve that he doesn't like to advertise?" Steve racks his brain regarding what Natasha might know about him that isn't common knowledge before quickly writing in an answer. "Time's up. Let's see how they did. Natalie says… Oh, that's definitely something. Steve can't be trusted around bad boys." Steve's eyes widen and he looks at Natasha. She merely lifts an eyebrow and gives him a bored expression. "And Steve says he doesn't always follow the rules." Steve ducks his head and then looks up at the host. "Ooh, it's so obvious you two were on the right track. But it's not quite similar enough for us to count it. That's your second strike so I'm afraid you're eliminated," he says. "But you'll still receive a parting gift at the end of the contest. We wish you the best of luck with your relationship and hope you enjoy the rest of your stay with us this weekend." He then moves on to another table.
Steve looks back at Natasha. "What do you mean I like bad boys? What kind of answer was that?"
"You know perfectly well what I mean, Steve." His eyes widen further. She can't possibly mean what that could mean.
"And it's awkward again," Tony quips. "I'm learning things about Rogers I definitely never counted on. And since when do you not follow all the rules? I specifically remember us fighting about how I wasn't following the rules."
"Oh please," Natasha retorts before Steve can explain. "You and Bruce are over there thinking about sounding. And we're the ones making it awkward?"
"Um, that's not exactly why I—" Bruce stutters.
Natasha cuts him off with, "Is that a conversation you've had? Has Tony specifically told you he'd like to try sounding?" Bruce looks down, the answer obvious even if he doesn't say it. "Then congratulations. Even your kinks are in sync. But fair warning, if either of you get injured, Fury's never going to let you live it down. Neither will I."
"Okay, to be fair," Steve intervenes when Bruce, and surprisingly even Tony, look like they're about to die from embarrassment, "you're definitely the one that just made this sufficiently awkward, Nat."
"Alright everyone," the host says before they can discuss it further, "it's time for double rounds. Every couple left in the contest will be asked the same question. And they will only score if they both answer correctly. Since they're currently in the lead, let's head back over to our celebrity couple to get things started," he says, coming back over to their table. "Here's your question. If you and yours had cheat lists, that is, a list of people you or your partner is allowed to cheat on you with," he explains and Steve is grateful even as he grimaces a bit at the idea, "what celebrity would be at the top of your partner's list? Or," he chuckles, “in this case I guess what other celebrity? You have thirty seconds."
Steve blinks at how quickly the two men write their answers down. Then again, he figures this one is probably a little bit easier. Lots of guys discuss people they're interested in with their friends.
"Okay, Bruce," the host speaks again, "who would be at the top of your list?"
"Easy. Paul Rudd," Bruce answers.
"Paul Rudd, he says," the host repeats. "And Tony answered…" Tony's answer comes onto the screen. "Paul Rudd. Okay, are you two telepathic?" the host jokes. "But Tony, Bruce still has to get your answer correct. Who would be on your list? And I hope you didn't cheat and use somebody from your notorious black book," he teases.
For some reason Tony's smile turns sharp and uneasy and Bruce frowns at the host. "Well, he's been on my list for a while, but I promise I haven't gotten around to him. Jude Law."
"Tony says Jude Law. Alrighty, let's see what Bruce said." He points to the screen. "Jude Law, ladies and gentlemen. Can these two be stopped? Let's keep playing and find out."
The host moves away and Steve looks around the table to see everyone wearing strange expressions. Natasha especially seems to be studying Tony.
Finally, she says, "Paul Rudd, huh?"
Tony bites his lip and for half a second looks cornered before he shrugs it off. Funnily, Bruce has a bit of a cornered look to him as well.
"Well, it would have been weird to answer with an actress and I figured Bruce would think the same thing. It wouldn't be in character. So," Tony shrugs again, keeping his eyes everywhere but on the man beside him, "I went with the only actor I can think of that Bruce has enough of a man crush on that he'd consider being gay for him."
Steve's eyebrows shoot upward. He looks at Natasha to see her looking at Bruce with a judgmental expression that the man seems to understand if his pitiful expression is anything to go by. Tony still seems lost in his own little world, a world where he's avoiding looking at his best friend.
As for Steve, he's just really confused and feeling awkward all over again. Sure, Bruce has never said anything to him outright, but Steve has always assumed the other agent is gay. Has he misjudged him this entire time?
Bruce spits his mouthwash into the sink and watches it with morbid interest as it makes its way down the drain. It feels like a sad analogy for his courage all these years.
He looks back up into the mirror and studies his reflection. It would be the same reflection if he were a straight man.
But he's not.
He's a liar and a coward, but he's not remotely interested in women. He's a man with skeletons in his closet, but this isn't supposed to be one of them.
Bruce sighs and makes his decision. He's tired of pretending. So he opens the bathroom door and moves back into the main room before he can talk himself out of something too long in coming.
"Tony, we—" He stops in his tracks and furrows his brow. "—need to talk," he finishes and then tilts his head when Tony looks at him. "What are you doing?"
"I had an inspired idea. I called the front desk and asked if it was possible to get an extra quilt and a couple of pillows for snuggling in front of the fire. My exact words. They couldn't resist how adorable that sounds. So here we are," he says with a big grin and returns to arranging the pillows on the floor.
"With you so far. Trying to work out the why..."
Tony looks at him incredulously. "Isn't it obvious? You can take the bed tonight and I can sleep down here. That way it's not too weird for you and—"
"Tony," Bruce cuts him off quickly. "About that talk."
Bruce takes a deep breath and moves to sit on the side of the bed nearest to the fireplace and Tony's bizarre nest. He looks at Tony for a moment and then stares at the fire instead.
"Tony, did you ever stop to consider that there might be another reason I could be uncomfortable sharing a bed with you?"
"No, not really," Tony answers and he sounds confused. Bruce looks at him again to see his brow pinched in a matching expression. "Wait, are you a sleep talker? Walker? What's that disorder where you punch people in your sleep?"
Bruce snorts. "Well, I might do that last one. I don't know. I've got PTSD so…"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to bring that up," Tony apologizes gently.
Tony only knows the half of it and has been the best friend he could ever ask for with that much. Bruce feels even guiltier for not trusting Tony with the truth sooner, for letting him draw his own conclusions. He knows exactly how Tony must have felt when he confronted Colonel Rhodes. He can only hope that he'll be as understanding of Bruce as his other friend had been of him.
"Tony," he sighs and starts again, "it's ridiculous for one of us to have to sleep on the floor. Unless you decide you're uncomfortable. In which case, it should be me that sleeps there."
"Why would I be uncomfortable?" Tony asks with an amused sounding scoff.
Bruce takes another deep breath.
"Because I'm gay."
The answer hangs in the air for what feels like an eternity. Tony's eyes are wide in disbelief. His mouth opens and closes several times before he finally manages a quiet, "What?"
"I'm attracted to men," Bruce reiterates. "I... I always have been. The Paul Rudd thing? That's not a man crush, Tony. It's just your regular, run-of-the-mill crush." He pauses and takes the time to study Tony's reaction. It's still just shock. Bruce starts to panic and barrels on. "And, and maybe I should have told you before we started this thing. You had the right to know that the man you were kissing for show is, well, more than okay with that sort of thing objectively. That's why I'm telling you now. Because I can't promise you how my body will react to sharing a bed with another man for the first time in, well… never mind how long," he finishes lamely.
There's another long stretch of silence until Bruce can't take it anymore and he practically begs, "Please, say something?"
"I…" It's more like a squeak than anything. Tony purses his lips and shakes his head, focusing his eyes on nothing in particular. He starts again, "I'm trying really hard not to be a hypocrite right now." Bruce furrows his brow. Tony meets his gaze. "I told Rhodey not to freak out and jump to conclusions, but I'm sort of freaking out and jumping to conclusions over here."
"No, not that… Don't apologize for being gay if that's what you were about to do."
"I wasn't," Bruce says in surprise.
"Okay good. So you're not ashamed of being gay then? That's not why you've waited this long to tell me? You're not in the closet?"
"I—I—" Bruce swallows hard. "Well, I mean… I'm okay with being gay. There was a time I wasn't."
"And you were with Betty Ross?"
Bruce blinks. He hadn't realized that had been obvious from their small conversation at the military ball. "Um, yes. Before I accepted it," he swallows hard again, trying not to think about the circumstances surrounding that period of time in his life, "I was briefly with Betty. She… She figured it out, of course. And, helped me. But it's not a happy story in general and it's... complicated. I really don't want to go into it. Not… not right now. Or ever if I have to, but—"
"I get it," Tony intervenes with a reassuring tone. Bruce feels guilty again because Tony doesn't get it, can't possibly get it if Bruce doesn't tell him and Bruce can't tell him. "I know how hard it must have been for you," he says. "Being gay on top of everything else that happened to you."
Bruce nods and closes his eyes tight. "Yeah, he hated me for that too." Suddenly there's a hand on his shoulder. Bruce opens his eyes and looks up to see Tony standing in front of him with sympathy, or perhaps empathy is more accurate.
"So, if you're okay with it," Tony moves his hand back to his side and searches his face, "why didn't you ever set me straight? By the way, I'm trying not to ruin the moment with a pun."
Bruce shakes his head, glad for Tony's tried-and-true quips, but there was a hint of betrayal Tony couldn't quite keep from his eyes and Bruce looks toward the window to avoid meeting it.
"I've started to tell you more times than I can remember," he practically whispers. After a moment to gather his thoughts he continues, louder, "But I guess being okay with it and being out are, well, two different things. I didn't really get that until recently. It takes a certain kind of bravery to tell someone the truth. Natasha guessed the truth so I admitted it. Same with Clint and that was only because I had Natasha in my corner. But, um," he shrugs and forces himself to meet Tony's gaze again, "I guess I was still afraid. I'm not ashamed of it. I like it even. But there were enough things that happened in my past that I guess once I made peace with who I was, I decided that was enough. No unnecessary risks. No putting myself in a position where… where…" His lip quivers as he tries hard to block out his memories. "I'm sorry," he apologizes again. "I should have been honest with you. You're my best friend and I've been lying to you."
Tony bites his lip and then hitches a shoulder. He sits down beside Bruce on the bed, maybe to let him know concretely that this doesn't change anything. He's not going to put distance between them. Bruce feels at least some of the kinks in his stomach start to uncoil.
"Okay, so it smarts a little bit," Tony admits. "But Natasha's probably right. She said we're all liars by trade and no matter how much I hate that, it's pretty close to the truth. I mean, I only just told you about my, uh, sexual quirks and you're the only one who knows. Because it's just easier to let people think what they want to. I get that. But, hey, if yours isn't broken, you don't deserve my fate. You deserve to be out there letting everyone know who you are and enjoying it as all the gay and bi men throw themselves at you, you know?" he offers with a chuckle, but Bruce can only look at him with a sick feeling in his stomach.
"Tony, you're not broken." Tony turns his head to look back at him. Bruce considers what he can say to get through to him. "For all you know you were always this way and you just never stopped to let yourself figure it out. Or maybe it still would have developed this way over time without the circumstances your job put you in. I'm not saying those things didn't confuse things for you up here," he taps on Tony's temple, "but that doesn't mean you're damaged goods. There's nothing at all wrong with not being immediately attracted to every single thing that walks the way you let people think. And… And maybe we both should take your advice." Tony lifts an eyebrow. "Maybe we both need to get out of our heads about this and just stop worrying about the risks."
Tony's other eyebrow goes up and he says, "Maybe we should take a step back so the lines aren't so blurred."
Bruce's mouth goes dry. Does Tony know? Did Natasha tip him off?
Before he can consider it Tony stands to his feet, taking Bruce's hand in his and pulling him up as well. Then, as mesmerizing as a siren, he pulls Bruce along with him over toward the fireplace.
"So, how about we start by using these pillows and blankets for what I told the person at the front desk they were for?" Bruce sucks in a breath. He's not really sure that's taking a step back. "Something tells me we could both use a warm body."
"Or maybe," Tony interjects, stopping his protest, "I just found out my best friend, who also happens to be my fake fiancé, is gay and I'd like to monopolize that."
Bruce's mouth falls open and his heart starts racing. "Are… Are you propositioning me?"
"For a snuggle by the fire?" Bruce ducks his head and smiles. "See, it's too adorable to resist, right? It's nauseating really. But, yes. I am." Bruce looks up again through his lashes. "But I mean, hey, if you want more than that, I promise you, there will be absolutely no problems getting this bad boy up where you're concerned so—"
Bruce chokes on a laugh, interrupting that statement, and he tells his own body not to get too excited. Tony is just being Tony. Making every moment easy and light, filling Bruce's life with humor and…
"Alright." Bruce ignores the impossible places his thoughts had gone and decides to be reckless. Maybe he'll still regret it. Maybe it's taking advantage of a situation and he'll feel guilty about it later, but right now, he's going to go with it. "Why the hell not?"
"To which part?" Tony lifts an eyebrow. Bruce rolls his eyes and settles down on the floor.
He makes the mistake of looking up at Tony.
Tony is looking down at him, the fire casting shadows on him in the low light of the room and dancing in those dark eyes of his. Dark eyes that could probably consume much stronger men than Bruce. His heart is pounding in his chest hard enough that it reverberates in his ears. He knows it's not just the fire that warms his cheeks as Tony still stands there; it's the thoughts running wild in his head, imagining a world where Tony decides Bruce is one of those rare people he wants and proceeds to prove it by making love to him right there in front of the fire. Because that's what it would be. Tony would want him because of something deeper, something more fond, something...
"A snuggle of course," Bruce forces himself to answer and hopes his voice hadn't sounded too strangled.
"Right," Tony says with a nod. "Of course."
He carefully settles down onto the floor beside him and it's almost too overwhelming. It's entirely platonic in nature, not even snuggling by definition, but Tony's right there and suddenly Bruce never wants him to be anywhere else.
No, not suddenly. There isn't anything sudden about it.
Bruce closes his eyes and tries not to feel what he feels. What he's always felt. The real thing he's always been afraid of Tony finding out if he found out where his interest lies.
Bruce opens his eyes and turns his head to look at Tony. The other man's eyes are already closed and his breath comes in slow, rhythmic, soothing rises and falls of his chest as he drifts into sleep.
This is all pretend, he reminds himself and forces himself to look away, watch shadows dance on the ceiling instead of Tony's face.
Bruce isn't done pretending after all.
He rolls over onto his side, facing Tony. After watching him sleep long enough to feel guilty about it, Bruce sighs and whispers, "Tony, I have another secret." Tony, of course, doesn't even stir and Bruce closes his eyes tight. "I'm only pretending that I'm only pretending I'm in love with you."
1. The end of this chapter has been the driving force of this fic since the moment the plot bunny spawned in my head. Along with some other details, many of which are finally coming in the next few chapters, the big reveal complete with bed-sharing and Bruce's line at the very end were the clearest ideas I had for this fic, which made me excited to write it. And Bruce's line at the end has been one of three major moments conceived from the beginning driving me to see this fic through to the end.
2. Okay, so obviously implied Steve/Bucky. It was almost Steve/Peggy, but I kept having these character backstory headcanons where Bucky has ended up becoming a spy for the 'bad guys' (maybe because of some similar brainwashing type deal after an Academy training mission turned bad, idk for sure) and he's one of the best spies out there working for the 'shady' governments, people and agencies that the likes of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and similar) are always trying to stop. Steve finds this out eventually when they cross paths and is ofc stunned and can't believe his 'right partner' is this bad guy now. So, naturally, he's constantly trailing him and taking on missions against him and they cross paths a lot, but they have soft spots for each other and they're constantly saving each other and helping the other get out of sticky situations alive and never hurting the other, etc. So essentially the opposite-team, frienemies-to-lovers spy romance lol. Idk.
3. Paul Rudd because of the Mark Ruffalo gif/jokes about Paul Rudd and Jude Law because he's Watson in the RDJ Sherlock movies.
"So which one of us initiated the spooning? Because if it was me, I'm not apologizing. I'm enjoying it too much. I think I could get used to waking up like this actually."
"Remind me to agree with you once I've actually woken up."
"Note to self: remind Bruce to agree that we should sleep together every night. Preferably in a bed."
"Alright, how many cups of coffee have you had already this morning?"
"None. Just woke up. Honest. I've just…"
"Guess I finally got a good night's rest for once. Forgot what that feels like. I like it. We're definitely making this permanent."
"You look like you're on another planet."
Bruce blinks several times and then turns his head to see Steve standing next to the table wearing a curious expression. The agent then follows the line of Bruce's previous gaze before looking back at him with a smile. Bruce ducks his head, an obvious admittance of guilt.
"Yeah, I, uh, guess I was."
How could he not be? His best friend finally knew the truth. His best friend hadn't pushed him away, rather pulled him closer. Literally. He now knows what it's like to wake up beside his best friend, to banter with him first thing in the morning, to feel his warmth and know without a doubt—
"And you're gone again," Steve says with a small, teasing chuckle before sitting down beside him. "You know," the famous Agent 1 says, tone casual, "last night I was a little confused." Bruce furrows his brow and studies him. "But now I get that it must be Tony that's confused. A man doesn't look at another man the way you were just looking at Stark without being attracted to men."
"Oh, uh," Bruce blinks, darts his eyes toward Tony and then looks back, "right…" He takes a deep breath and remembers the night before. No more worrying about the risks. "That's probably because I am," he confesses. "Attracted to men."
"Right, I understand that," Steve replies in an easy manner that surprises Bruce a little. "I never doubted that for a second until last night when Tony seemed to think…" Steve lets the statement trail, lifting an eyebrow as he does. "He doesn't know?"
Bruce takes a brief moment to gather his thoughts and answer accordingly. He's starting to think everyone guessed the truth except Tony. He wonders at that for a few seconds before brushing the thought aside with the rest.
"Honestly, I wasn't even aware you knew," Bruce says finally, shrugging. "But he does now. I, um, told him last night. After the contest," Bruce explains, leaving out everything else of course.
"I guess I'm trying to understand how he could have thought otherwise to begin with," Steve hazards after a quiet moment. "You two are… well, you seem to be close," he fumbles a little in his wording. "I mean, you and him are close friends. Certainly closer than you and me," he compares, "but even without your confirmation I guessed right. So unless Tony isn't…" He rubs at the back of his neck and turns his gaze towards the bar where Tony is mingling with the several dignitaries that are there for the evening, Natasha standing nearby acting as his bodyguard. Steve studies the man and then looks back at Bruce. He lowers his head and his voice and asks, "Is it him I'm confused about? Is he not attracted to men?"
Bruce's eyebrows rise quickly and he turns his own gaze back toward Tony. It's not his place to discuss the nuances of who the billionaire is attracted to or how he measures that attraction – although Bruce briefly wonders if that does have anything to do with Tony not recognizing his seemingly obvious orientation – and definitely not with a man that Tony isn't always on the easiest terms with. Bruce isn't even sure he understands Tony's nuances completely himself yet, since he only knows what Tony has told him and Tony doesn't seem to understand it completely.
Bruce forces himself to look away from Tony when a younger man seems to take it upon himself to flirt with him. Bruce can understand where the thrill in that sort of venture might be, considering Tony is who he is and that his sudden and unexpected unavailability has been highly publicized. He also has no actual right to be jealous. Of course, if he glances back and Tony is clearly uncomfortable, he might return Tony's favor and rescue him from this unknown Veronica.
"He's attracted to men," Bruce finally answers Steve's question. "Sometimes," he adds vaguely, to be closer to the truth than not.
"Right. I understand it's not exclusive," Steve replies. Bruce decides to remain tightlipped and looks down at the table. That's technically true anyhow. "But it's painfully obvious that he's not attracted to that guy," Steve comments. Bruce glances at him quickly to find Steve's knowing gaze fixed on him. "Look, I know I may not know the extent of anything that's going on between the two of you, but you're the only man in this place that has Tony's attention."
Steve smiles and gestures with his eyes for Bruce to look back at the bar. Bruce furrows his brow, but does so. His stomach flips when his eyes lock with Tony's, the other man having already been looking at him. All around Tony people are talking, vying for his attention, including the flirtatious young man closest to him, but Tony is watching him instead.
Maybe it's a cry for help, the ever-logical part of Bruce's brain reasons.
Then Tony's lips quirk, forming a lopsided grin that reaches all the way to his eyes and a part of Bruce's brain that's still too connected to his heart to do any good roars back to life with hope, escaping from the recesses of his mind where he'd tried to lock it away a long time ago.
Maybe Tony just needed to know the truth. That Bruce could want him that way. Maybe, as unbelievable as it still is, Tony has been saying so much more than Bruce realized when he tells him he's attractive. Maybe Tony could want him. Maybe Tony really could pick him.
"If you'll excuse me," Bruce says, standing to his feet, "I'm going to go ask my fiancé for a dance."
"Something tells me he'll say yes," Bruce hears Steve retort before he makes his way across the lodge's large party room.
Tony's smile widens as he approaches. Beside him the 'Veronica' slinks backwards a step, face going sour over the arrival of his competition. Maybe that hopeful part of Bruce is wrong and he's not even in the running, but he's not about to risk it now of all times.
"Well now," Tony slips into his usual flirtatious bravado, but it's aimed at Bruce and for once he can admit to himself how much he enjoys it, "if I'd known the most breathtaking man in the world was going to be here tonight I would have taken a little more time dressing appropriately."
Bruce gives him an appreciative look-over, not even a little in jest regardless if Tony might think so, and then deadpans, "Well, as it happens I feel like slumming it this evening, so, you'll do nicely." He looks at the 'Veronica' and then back again. "Care to dance with the most breathtaking man in the world?"
"Absolutely," Tony answers, setting down his drink, "but I have to warn you. If I enjoy it I may just have to ask you to marry me."
There are some laughs from the peanut gallery and Bruce gives a soft snort as well, understanding the joke in the way they don't – save Natasha, who's watching them curiously.
"Your hero complex is out of control, Bruce," Tony teases once they find an empty space amid other dancing couples. "But thank you."
"As long as you're aware this means the tabloids will grossly speculate on the nature of our relationship," Bruce replies.
"Well," Tony hitches a shoulder, "from what I've heard it's not always so bad when they do."
Bruce's breath hitches and he searches Tony's face for a sign that this isn't just playful banter between friends.
Tony eventually breaks the small silence that lingers between them with, "I wonder if this means the circle has been completed." His tone is almost regretful and it matches the sour turn Bruce's stomach takes at the notion.
Loki – or Delegate Loren Olson as they know him now – hasn't shown up after all, at least not as of yet. But Tony's statement is ominous. Bruce half suspects that if he turns his gaze toward the door he'll see the man this entire charade has hinged on, arriving to end it.
Loki isn't there when he does, but the communicator in his ear buzzes. He furrows his brow and looks at Tony to see him looking similarly perplexed. They both move their hands to their ears to turn them on.
"Bruce," Natasha says as soon as the link is established, "my communicator just emitted three subsequent beeps even though it wasn't on. Please tell me that doesn't mean what I think it means."
Bruce swallows hard and looks at Tony.
Natasha passed along a panic button to Clint during their rendezvous and Bruce configured it to send the signal to her communicator directly just as he'd linked Natasha's to his own previously. If it's working the way he and Tony programmed it to, three beeps means that Clint triggered it himself.
"Shit," Tony curses, understanding. "Natasha, get Steve and meet me at my car," Tony tells her.
Meanwhile Bruce tries his best not to panic. It's just an unknown variable and Clint is capable of getting out of difficult situations. There's no room for panic in the field. He knows this. He knows this.
"I can use the tracking program you added to J.A.R.V.I.S. last time to pinpoint his location, right?" Tony's question brings him back to the moment.
"It should still work," Bruce answers slowly. "I don't think any of the new coding would interfere with the specific tracking syntax."
"And J.A.R.V.I.S. could probably compensate for any errors automatically," Tony says in a considering tone.
"Or I could go—"
"You're not a field operative," Tony shuts down that suggestion immediately.
"No, but that's essentially what I've been doing so far and I do have training, Tony." He swallows, his throat turning to ash, and looks down. "More than you know," he confesses.
"Bruce," Tony says his name in a way that forces Bruce to meet his gaze, one that's a little desperate, "I won't drag you further into harm's way. I... I can't."
Bruce is overwhelmed by Tony's conviction to the point he can't do anything other than nod. Tony nods as well and then turns to leave.
"Wait," Bruce says, and reaches out for Tony's arm. Tony stops and looks back. "It's probably a trap."
"It's undoubtedly a trap," Tony agrees.
Bruce looks down at the arm still in his grasp, thinking of the sutures that have yet to dissolve, thinking of all of the ways things could go wrong, thinking of all of the important reasons he needs to stop panicking.
"Be careful, Tony," he says, looking up again. "Just... be careful."
Tony smiles at him. "I will."
"Don't think I'm turning off my communicator this time," he adds and is greeted by a huff and chuckle.
Bruce sighs inwardly and watches as Tony maneuvers his way through the room as discreetly as possible. The room feels both empty and suffocating once he's gone. After a few minutes Bruce decides to step out onto one of the decks for some fresh air. After that he'll probably head back to their room.
The night is beautiful. He really does love the feel of the place. He's been more than a little bit indulgent the past two days and Tony has made good on spoiling him. Bruce closes his eyes and shakes his head.
"Mind if I join you?"
A chill runs down Bruce's spine. He turns quickly to see who could possibly belong to a voice that's smoother than ice and twice as cold. His heart stops when he recognizes Loki immediately from Clint's thorough description of him to Natasha.
Loki stalks towards him, bringing a finger to his lips. Bruce understands and contemplates resistance, contemplates alerting Tony and the others. He decides against it and lets Loki pluck the communicator from his ear and toss it off the deck. Bruce breathes deeply and tries not to panic as Loki then turns a predatory gaze on him, not stepping back from Bruce's personal space.
"Ah, that's better," he says. "Wouldn't want your bodyguard to have to send that fetching blond back to interrupt things now that I've finally got you alone."
So, he knows Natasha and Steve are agents too, Bruce realizes.
"Tell me," Loki continues, smiling in a condescending fashion as he towers over him, "did you send your pet billionaire off to bed or did he just get bored of drooling over you?"
Bruce's eyes widen and his thoughts race in time with his heart. Does Loki think he's the one trailing him? Does he not suspect an ostentatious man like Tony could be the real agent here?
"So you know who I am then," Bruce plays along.
"Oh yes. I've heard all about the infamous Hulk."
Bruce hopes his absolute shock doesn't give away his ruse.
"J.A.R.V.I.S., run Dr. Banner's panic button tracking algorithm," Tony says as soon as he's in his car.
"Yes, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. replies and the dash lights up with the special interface he'd tricked out most of his vehicles with for moments just like this. The rest of the car is bathed in blue light and Tony glances at Steve when he sees him looking around with slack jaw wonder.
"This isn't S.H.I.E.L.D. issued is it?"
"Nope," Tony answers, feeling more than a little smug. "All mine."
"I always knew you were smarter than average, but—"
"Surprised to find out my brain is as big as all the rumors suggest?" Tony quips with a smirk.
Steve rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "I guess I can see why you don't need a tech specialist anyway."
"Hey now," Tony says, "I will always need a tech specialist."
"We don't have time for you to flirt with Bruce," Natasha snaps. "This damn thing isn't going to find Clint in time—"
"First of all, I can multitask," Tony defends himself. "Second of all, Bruce is the genius behind this algorithm so don't insult it," he then defends Bruce, with at least triple the conviction. "Although, maybe there's a way to calibrate it to go a little quicker. Thoughts, Bruce?" There's no answer. "Bruce?" He furrows his brow and glances at Natasha, who has the decency to look concerned in spite of her worries about Clint. "Uh, hey, Bruce, do you copy?" He listens closely, but there's just static.
"Go back," Natasha says.
"Go back and make sure he's okay," she insists. "If this is a trap, we don't know that Dr. Banner isn't also a target."
"Or the target," Steve adds.
Tony's eyes go wide and bile rises up in the back of his throat. "Shit. Shit! Damn it, I'm an idiot! I shouldn't have left him!"
"Agent Barton has been located," J.A.R.V.I.S. says.
Tony takes a breath and looks at Natasha. She nods.
"Only priority," he says and opens the door. The car is out of sight before he even makes it a few feet away, but he doesn't stop to really look back. Instead he rushes toward the lodge.
As he approaches he stops dead in his tracks when he sees the back of Bruce's head. He's standing on a deck off the lounge where they'd been previously and another man is towering over him. Tony doesn't need to get a better look at the man to know exactly who he is.
Tony blinks away his stupor and stops standing there like a statue. He hurries back into the lodge, and with each second that passes he prays Loki hasn't already done something unthinkable.
Tony breathes a sigh of relief when he sees Bruce is still fine, although his body language reads fear and disgust as he looks up at the fiend who has him practically backed up against the railing. Tony seethes. He's just about to march in and throw Loki over said railing, if he has to, when a gust of wind off the lake blows the unlatched door open wider, enough so that Tony hears the last thing he'd ever expected.
"So you know who I am then."
"Oh yes. I've heard all about the infamous Hulk."
Tony furrows his brow. It can't be.
"Nobody's called me by that code name for years," Bruce says after a long moment and Tony's eyes widen.
Tony has heard of Hulk. He'd been another spy in the field. He hadn't been with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Tony had never crossed paths with him, but he'd been good enough at his job for word of it to reach other spies. Until one day he vanished from the grid, rumors ranging from retirement to a fatal mission.
But Bruce? Bruce being Hulk? Tony swallows hard as some of the pieces start to add up in his mind, making a clearer picture even as his mind rejects it. It's impossible.
"No," Loki starts speaking again. Tony deliberates between eavesdropping further and barging out, ready; fire; aim, as he'd intended before his world had been thrown off axis. "No, I don't imagine they have, have they? Which is why it was a very clever ruse. I'm sure neither you nor Agent Barton had any reason to think I would ever connect him to you. I doubt there are many plebeians who would recognize Dr. Bruce Banner as anything more than the man who turned Tony Stark into a lap dog."
Tony furrows his brow at that, delaying his instincts to rush in. Does Loki have it backwards? He thinks Bruce, or Hulk, or whoever the hell his friend is, is the one who's been trailing him?
"You say that like it isn't the other way around," Bruce replies. "Maybe you underestimate the power he holds over me."
Tony's eyebrows move upward. There's conviction in Bruce's voice. It's probably a terrible time for him to be reminded of his hopefulness that Bruce might just be interested in him too. Especially since at the moment Tony doesn't know what the hell is true anymore. He'd never expected to be on this side of the spy game with someone he considers himself close to.
"Oh? So does he know then that the man who kisses him so passionately for the camera is a liar?" Loki accuses and Tony feels like he was struck by the blow instead. "Does he know that the quaint museum wedding venue is all a ploy to catch a thief? Hmm?" Loki's tone grows crueler with each word. "Does he know he was merely convenient?" Tony shuts his eyes and realizes how it certainly could be twisted that way. If Loki thinks Bruce is a spy, it's suspicious for him to become engaged to a celebrity with a target on his back by someone who's a nice stepping stone to Loki. "Tell me, does he know about the partner you watched die? Does he know how easy it could be for me to make you watch it happen again with hi-"
"No," Bruce gasps and Tony flinches at how stricken he sounds. "No, you… I swear if you hurt him—"
"You'll, what?" Loki sounds viciously pleased, sending a shiver through Tony. "Will you strangle me like you did General Ross? Try to bash my head in? Will you relish in your license to kill like the monster we both know you really are?"
"No," Bruce says again, voice strangled, and Tony's head reels as he thinks of all the rumors regarding Hulk's disappearance. There had been a few about his having crossed some ethical thin line they tried to uphold. But... Bruce? "Never again." There's a moment of silence and Tony is just about to end this battle of wits Loki's waged on his friend when Bruce says, voice hard like a stone, "But I won't let you touch Stark. I'll make sure you get what you want, if you give me your word you'll leave him out of this."
"You're after the Cosmic Cube," Bruce says, voice even with determination. "It's the only relic in that museum that emits a gamma signature. I won't interfere with your heist."
Bruce's offer hangs in the air unanswered for a moment.
"I must say, I'm a little disappointed," Loki finally says. Tony's a little disappointed too, if he has to be honest. Bruce knows better than to sacrifice the entire mission for him. Unless he's lying. "All of our lovely back and forth of late only for you to give up like this. And for what? Because you were foolish enough to fall in love with a measly pawn?"
"He's no pawn," Bruce says. "And I've been in love with him for years."
Tony brings his hand to his mouth to stop himself from making any noise, surprise and confusion and elation coursing through his veins and overwhelming his system. Years?
This… this whole time maybe? Has Tony been so confused about his own feelings for Bruce that he's missed the obvious this whole damn time?
"Now, do I have your word?" Bruce presses.
Loki sighs as if put upon. "Seeing as I need that Cube and you're so determined. I trust this will stay between just the two of us then?"
"Nobody else will know until you're long gone," Bruce promises him. "But don't think I won't catch you eventually."
"Oh, I look forward to your efforts." Loki reaches for Bruce's jaw, his intent perfectly clear to Tony and that's the one thing he won't stand by and let happen while Bruce leads the villain on.
He yanks his ear piece out of his ear and pockets it, just in case Loki were to spot it. Then he pushes out onto the balcony dramatically.
"What the hell is going on out here?"
"Tony?!" Bruce looks at him with genuine shock, since Tony should be long gone.
Loki spins around, the picture of innocence painted on his features. He blinks as if surprised and then looks at Bruce.
"You didn't tell me you have a boyfriend," he says in a scandalized ruse. "I don't play that game, I'm afraid." He turns and moves back toward the indoors. He pauses and looks Tony over, the smirk of a pleased feline on his face as he does. "I'd keep a better eye on him from now on. He's obviously in over his head." Tony studies him with contempt as he goes.
"What are you doing here, Tony?" Bruce asks as soon as they're certain they're alone. "Clint—"
"Has two very capable agents on route to extract him," Tony cuts over him. "You, on the other hand, weren't responding to your communicator and seeing as you might have been a sitting duck for Loki, I came back to make sure nothing had happened to you. Right call apparently. What the hell did he want? What did he say?"
"I… He…" Bruce freezes up and turns around to look out over the land surrounding the lodge. "He knows. I think Clint was a distraction to, to get me alone."
Tony sighs in relief. He waits for Bruce to tell him the rest of what Loki said, although he still suspects he'll leave the details about Hulk out of it. He briefly wonders if Bruce had been lying about that too to lead Loki on, but his reaction had been too real; even Tony could see that.
"I'm just glad he didn't hurt you," Tony says when Bruce isn't immediately forthcoming with the rest of the details of the incident. "I was so scared, Bruce. Honestly." He takes a chance and places his hands on Bruce's shoulders, standing just behind him. Bruce tenses underneath his touch before spinning around to look at him.
"He… he threatened me," Bruce says, face reading with emotions that he probably thinks Tony has no understanding of. "If you try to stop him, he'll hurt me."
"What?" Tony's eyes widen and he takes a step back, reeling from the outright lie. Or, well, convenient inversion of the truth.
Bruce's hand flies up to cover his mouth and he closes his eyes, choking on a sob. Tony bites his lip and jerks his head, conflicted, before pulling Bruce into his arms. He wants to be angry with him. He is angry with him. Or at least hurt that Bruce can lie so easily to him. But the way Bruce trembles with emotion in his embrace, and holds him back as tightly as he can, tells him it's not easy at all. He knows what he's doing and he hates himself for it. He hates himself the way Tony hates himself and Tony had never thought Bruce would have to know how deeply that feeling goes.
Then again, if Bruce was Hulk, maybe he's known this whole time and has been drowning in it.
Tony closes his eyes and swallows back his anger and confusion. He focuses on the why. Bruce loves him. He's being irrational about this because he loves him. Tony smiles in spite of everything, knowing he would very likely be doing the same thing in Bruce's shoes. He will do the same thing if he has to.
"We'll figure it out," Tony promises, but he knows Bruce probably doesn't believe him. "I won't let him hurt you. I promised."
"Tony," Bruce chokes on his name and shakes his head against his shoulder, "you can't promise that."
"Are you sure you can promise that?"
Betty's words ring in his ears and send Tony reeling again. She was right. He can't promise he won't hurt Bruce.
But he can still keep this promise.
"Yes, I can, Bruce," he tells him. And because he knows Bruce wants him to, he pulls back and says, "I won't stop him."
Bruce looks at him with wide-eyes, disbelieving and filled with relief. "But Fury—"
"Forget about Fury, remember?" Bruce's eyes widen the slightest bit more. "You are my only priority in this. That hasn't changed."
He forces himself to smile. He wishes he could do more. He wishes he could tell Bruce what he's heard. He wishes he could lean in and kiss Bruce, assure him that what he feels for him isn't unrequited no matter how much it scares Tony that he might mess it up and give Bruce more hope than will be good for him in the end. But he can't do that. Not yet.
Still, he can't stop himself from adding, "And it never will, Bruce."
For the first time Tony recognizes the hope and longing on Bruce's face, and he realizes it's not the first time those feelings have been there. He only wishes he'd noticed sooner.
"How is he?"
Natasha blinks, returning from deep inside her head. She isn't even sure how long she'd been zoned out. She turns to see Tony standing just inside the room. He has a concerned expression on his face, darting his eyes from her to Clint, where he lays confined – literally – to a S.H.I.E.L.D. medical bed. He bites the corner of his lip and Natasha is a little surprised to see the guilty lines that accompany the motion, like he blames himself for Clint's condition. Then again, Natasha is starting to realize just what kind of man Stark is, outside of the bravado and arrogance. And, of course, the care and friendship he's always shown to Bruce.
"He was drugged pretty badly," she answers finally and he glances back at her. "The doctor thinks he'll be fine, but the withdrawals have been dicey so far."
Tony nods. "I'm just glad nothing worse happened."
"To him or Bruce?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.
Bruce had given them all a scare when he hadn't responded, but according to him and Tony in the short debrief, it had been a false alarm. That doesn't mean Tony isn't considering the million and one ways it could have been the real deal.
He furrows his brow. "I'm capable of being relieved for the both of them." He sighs and runs a hand through his hair before turning to face away from her and Clint both. "I know we've never been close," he says after a moment. He shakes his head. "But I don't… I don't know how I could live with myself if something were to happen and I couldn't prevent it." She narrows her eyes at the strange tone in his voice. It's almost like he's referring to something else than his straightforward statement implies. He turns quickly. "I mean, could you? This job is dangerous and anyone of us at any time could…" He sighs, flaps his arms up only to slap them back down at his sides again.
"I know." She purses her lips and looks at Clint. "The most dangerous part is letting yourself get close to somebody also caught up in our line of work." She knows that he knows this already. "It's been a long time since I haven't lived with the feeling of knowing what it's like to watch somebody die." She glances back at Tony in time to see him flinch. "I don't remember if it's worse not knowing what that feels like than it is. At least once you know, you know what the stakes are."
"But it makes it harder to get close to people to begin with," Tony says ruefully. "And when we do, we know what we have to do to keep it from ever happening again."
She hitches a shoulder, glancing at Clint instinctively. Then she furrows her brow. "Or maybe pretending we're not all cheating death a little in this business is what makes it dangerous. Maybe we know how it feels, but we still don't like to think it'll happen again, or to us for that matter. How's that old song go?" She looks at Tony archly. "'Odds are you won't live to see tomorrow?'"
Tony smiles weakly and nods. "It's my ringtone actually," he says with an equally weak laugh.
"Of course it is." She rolls her eyes. "I hope Bruce has given you endless grief about it."
Tony's smile slowly turns down, his head following suit. "He has."
"Tony, look, I'll tell you the same thing I've told Bruce and Coulson. I think this was a mistake."
"Yes," she says. "It was a mistake for Fury to make Bruce your partner on this, a mistake for Bruce to agree to it." Tony closes his eyes as if her words sting him; she assumes it's because he agrees. "Because you both care about each other and neither of you have ever been in this kind of situation before. He's just a tech guy and you've always flown solo. You've never had to face the fear of losing your best friend head on like this." Tony flinches again. "I know," she says, forcing herself not to look at Clint. "But take it from me. That's why now, more than ever, you've got to keep your heart out of this, Stark."
"It's too late for that," he says and opens his eyes. Natasha's widen. "And I won't risk Bruce's life to stop this guy."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying I… I've figured out Loki's play."
She furrows her brow for a second before putting together his meaning. "It's still Bruce." She looks at Clint. "During one of his episodes Clint kept saying 'Dr. Banner' and 'trap'. We must have gotten lucky. Or maybe Loki didn't make his move because you went back," she suggests, looking back at Tony. She furrows her brow again at the strange look she sees there before Tony pulls up a neutral mask.
"We're going to go through with this wedding the way Fury wants, but not at the museum."
"Fury will never allow that."
"He will if you help me." He glances at Clint, a calculating look in his eyes. Natasha studies it, an inkling of his strategy dawning in her mind. "If Clint says he's got intel that Loki's been playing me from the beginning and means to strike a different museum—"
"One of the others you were considering," she cuts over him, filling in the blanks with a nod. "Fury will okay the last minute venue change. Loki gets what he wants and gets away."
Tony licks his lips and tilts his head. "At the very least, Bruce will be safe and this whole fucked up mission will be over with."
Natasha considers it. "Okay," she replies in a hedging tone. "But what if Loki just goes after Bruce later because he means something to you? A divorce spectacle may not change that. It may just egg him on. The way Clint talks, he's mad. Going after Bruce while he thinks you're even more vulnerable might appeal to him."
"It will," Tony says with hard conviction. "Which is why I'm going to have to make sure I can stop him before that happens," he says, determination like iron in his eyes.
"But at least this takes the immediate target off his back," Natasha concludes with a nod. "Loki probably won't go out of his way to get him."
"I'm hoping he won't anyway."
"Why don't we just go to Fury with this?" Natasha suggests after another moment of careful thought. "Instead of lying about Clint's intel, why don't we suggest to him the idea of tricking Loki with the venue change? Fury can still send in another team."
"No," Tony says firmly, shaking his head. "No, we can't risk Fury disagreeing with the plan and not allowing the venue change. This is the way it has to be. I've… run all the angles. I stepped back, Natasha," he tells her and her eyebrows fly upward. "I stepped back and I found the solution. This is the way it has to be," he repeats.
Natasha sighs, looks at Clint and realizes what she would want Tony to do if it were the other way around. "Okay," she agrees. "We do it your way."
"Oh, come on!" Darcy yells as she hangs up her phone. She turns and looks at Tony and Bruce with a surprisingly frightening glare for someone of her stature and usual manner. "Who turns down that much money just because of a little inconvenience?"
Tony worries his lip and says, "Double it." The wedding planner's eyes go wide.
"Tony, that's too much money," Bruce says, voice subdued and lined with guilt.
Tony hasn't missed the undertone in all of Bruce's words and actions since that night on the balcony. He wishes Bruce would just trust him with the truth, buckle and admit that he's trying to let Loki get away because he's afraid for Tony's sake. But Tony has come to the firm conclusion that Bruce is too strong for that. Hell, Bruce might be the strongest man in the world as far as Tony is concerned considering all of the trauma he's lived through in his life, more trauma than Tony realized until Loki had enlightened him on other points of interest.
"It's fine, Bruce," Tony insists. "Our reason for changing the venue is more important than a little money that we'll hardly miss."
Bruce looks undone by that answer and quickly moves over to where Peter is photographing the mock-up of the table arrangements, now that all of the items have arrived, feigning deep interest. Tony sighs.
"Just make it happen, Darcy," Tony tells her before following after his friend.
"Alright, alright," she calls after him, "but you still haven't made your song selection. If I make the impossible happen and you two don't have a song by then, I might just call it quits. Peter, play some songs to give them ideas."
Peter stops taking photos and looks at them before rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. "Sorry," he says, "she gets a little intense when it comes to music." He moves toward one of Darcy's bags and pulls out a portable speaker.
"Are you okay, Bruce?" Tony takes the chance to ask him in a low voice.
"You already know the answer to that," he says flatly.
"I do, but I also know you don't have to keep beating yourself up about this. What's done is done and it's fine."
Bruce turns and looks at him, distress in his eyes. "What if our plan doesn't work? What if this is exactly what Loki wanted and he's still playing us?" Tony's eyes widen. "Or, or, what about when you go after him in the future? Now that he knows, he may still hurt you. And I don't want that to happen. Ever. I can't…" He shakes his head before hanging it, his entire body sagging like a balloon that's lost its helium.
Tony opens his mouth before realizing he can't say any of the things he wants to say.
"I like this song," Bruce says, a rueful sounding deflection that takes Tony by surprise. He pays attention to what it is.
Bruce snorts, although it's humorless, and looks up at Tony again. He shrugs. "What? Olivia Newton-John has a lovely voice."
"I don't necessarily disagree with you," Tony replies, "but I'm pretty sure this song doesn't have a happy ending."
Tony hates the way Bruce's eyes respond to that, as if saying neither will we. His lips move into a thin, ironic smile and he says out loud, "I guess that's true. Can't have that."
"Right," Tony says with a furtive glance at Peter. He catches the kid's eyes and shakes his head. Peter huffs and changes the song. "Hey!" Tony perks up at the familiar opening of the song that comes on next.
Bruce gives an outright laugh, the first genuine one Tony's heard in days and at the moment Tony isn't sure he's missed anything so much in his life as the sound of Bruce's laugh.
"No. We're not dancing to Queen at our wedding." Tony pouts. "I mean, I guess it can be on the overall playlist for later in the reception, but definitely not for our first dance. Peter?"
Bruce glances over his shoulder at the photographer and just like that Tony's swept away again by how easy this all would be if this really was their wedding, if this really was nothing more complicated and unnatural than just the two of them looking for the right song to dance their first dance to as husbands.
The music changes again, this time to the easy piano refrains of Bryan Adams, and Tony feels something tug at his inside. Bruce must feel it too because he looks back at Tony and they both say, "Oh."
"I…" Bruce continues after a few lines. "It's maybe a little, uh, cheesy…" He seems hesitant and maybe a little shy to admit how attached he already is to the cliché love ballad, but so is Tony.
"No, it's, well, yeah, okay, it's Bryan Adams so it's cheesy," Tony gabbles, "but this is the one, Bruce."
"You think so?"
"Sure," he answers. In fact, he's so sure he can't even wait until their reception. He has to dance with Bruce to this song, here and now, just in case he never gets another chance. "See, I'll prove it to you." He disguises his intent by pulling Bruce back with him into a dance in a more open space.
Peter immediately takes notice and starts photographing the moment while Bruce looks at him stunned, but he doesn't protest or push away. Then, for a moment, Tony could swear everything around them fades away. There's only them and the gravely, romantic sound of Bryan Adams' vocals as they dance.
"Can't you imagine it?" Tony murmurs eventually, reminding himself that he's supposed to be making a point.
"Yes," Bruce whispers. "I…" He suddenly blinks and pulls away. He looks around the room and then back at Tony with wide eyes. Tony glances around as well and is a little surprised to see Agent Blake there; he must have arrived while Tony had been lost in the spell dancing with Bruce always seems to cast over him. Bruce clears his throat and shakes his head. "Sorry, I… Yeah, I agree. This song. Um, I… need a minute before we talk to Th— Minister Blake."
Tony watches him go, wishing he could chase after him and fix this mess once and for all. Contemplates whether he should, if he's doing the right thing. Instead, he sighs. He then looks at Peter who gets the hint and turns off the song. If the photographer thinks whatever happened was strange for a soon-to-be-married couple, he keeps it to himself and goes back to his painstaking photos of silverware and plates.
Tony turns to Thor and says, "Bruce will join us in a moment. Would you like a drink?"
Thor smiles and follows him over to the privacy of the bar. Once there his smile falls. "Sorry if I scared Dr. Banner off," he says in a hushed voice; it sounds like low, rolling thunder.
Tony shakes his head as he pulls out a couple of glasses. He sets them on the bar top and then grips the edges. "It wasn't you," he assures him. "It's me. It's everything. It's... complicated." Thor gives no other response than a somber nod. Tony lets out a harsh breath and starts pouring two drinks. "So, you're here about the, uh, license, right?"
"Yes, but mainly about he vows. We need to go over your wishes for the vows so I can have the script ready for Saturday," he says. Tony raises his brow as he takes a drink and Agent Blake chuckles knowingly. "You can do the traditional vows if you wish, but there are actually quite a few options for couples these days. Especially if you wish to stray from an orthodox religious ceremony, as was indicated."
Tony gives an impressed nod at how in character the other Agent is. "That's true," Tony says. "Definitely none of that honor and obey crap for us. Not even if it's all fake."
Thor nods, smiling as he does. "There are plenty of vow options without that, I assure you. As for the marriage license, I'll help you get started with the online application and give you the instructions for completing it at the City Clerk's Office."
Tony nearly chokes on his liquor and puts his glass down quickly. He blinks at the other man. "I'm sorry, what? I thought we were faking the papers. Isn't that why Fury enlisted you?"
"Well, I... I volunteered actually, but..." Thor seems uncharacteristically uncertain and Tony's ingrained suspicion flares to life.
"But what?" Tony narrows his eyes.
"I have a confession," he responds in non-answer, looking like a child caught doing something he's ashamed of. "I cannot go through with this having seen you and Dr. Banner just now. It wouldn't be right. Well," he considers, "it would be, but that's perhaps the point."
"What is this, Shakespeare in the Park?" Tony grouses at Thor's longwinded and vague beating around the bush. "Out with it already."
"I really am a registered officiant."
Tony's eyes go wide and he falls a step back from the bar. "You're a real—" He starts to shout, but realizes they shouldn't draw attention to their conversation. He takes a deep breath, moves back to the bar and leans his head forward. "You're a real officiant?" he whispers. Thor nods. "Does Fury know?" Thor opens his mouth, then must think better of answering aloud because he shuts it again and gives a single shake of his head instead. "You're telling me that you volunteered to fake that you're faking our wedding. Then surprise-surprise, it would be legal?"
"It was Jane's idea," Thor says, throwing his girlfriend under the bus. "Well, not exclusively," he backtracks. "There were others in favor of the ruse. But if things are as complicated as you say, I won't make it worse. I'll talk to Fury and—"
"No," the word flies from Tony's mouth before he can stop it, let alone process the thought that's attached to it. Thor gives him a strange look and Tony swallows hard before looking down at the bar. "That is..." His thoughts are racing at the speed of light now. "It would be legal?" he repeats the question and holds his breath.
"If you file for the license," Thor answers slowly, as if unsure, "I officiate, and I turn the license back in to the Clerk, then yes."
Tony exhales sharply. "I... I've got to think about this. We'll, uh, we'll start the license process at least—"
"Tony, what are you planning?" The other agent is the suspicious one now, and for good reason.
Tony meets his curious gaze and shakes his head. "Something that may blow up in my face, but I'm willing to take that risk."
"Then am I right to assume you don't wish for Bruce to know?"
Tony looks down at his drink, long and hard. It's a terrible idea, but should the worst happen he's selfish enough to want to go out knowing he was married, really and truly, to Bruce Banner.
"You're right to assume," Tony says before picking up his drink and knocking back the rest.
Bruce groans as his trembling fingers slip on another button of his jacket. He spins away from the mirror and starts to pace. He briefly wonders if he can leave Tony at the altar and use the excuse later that he thought it would make for good publicity, seeing as the mission's already a bust.
He stops pacing and shakes his head. No. He can't, he won't, keep lying to Tony. He shouldn't have lied to him at all.
"Bruce," Steve says, ducking his head into the room, "you have a visitor." Bruce furrows his brow and looks at him. "A lovely Ms. Ross," he supplies.
Bruce's eyes widen, a smile spreading across his face involuntarily. "Let her in," he tells him and a moment later Betty comes into the room, shutting the door behind her. "You look beautiful, Betty," he says as she moves toward him and throws her arms around him. He hugs her back without effort, even relishes in the comfort it gives him.
"You're shaking like a leaf," she says and pulls back to look at him with a raised eyebrow. "Don't tell me you're nervous."
"Right," Bruce snorts and turns toward the mirror to try with his pesky buttons again, "because I've never been nervous before in my life. Completely out of character."
Behind him Betty sighs and he sees her reflection move toward him in the mirror. She gently takes him by the shoulders and spins him around before moving her hands to cover his. She smiles, squeezes those hands and then pushes them out of the way in order to do the job for him.
"Why didn't you invite me?" He blinks at the non-sequitur. "I had to trick Colonel Rhodes into bringing me as his plus one." She finishes with the buttons and uses her hands to iron out non-existent wrinkles.
"I'm sure it wasn't hard," Bruce teases. "And I would have if this were a real wedding, Betty. You know that. But most of the guests here are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents."
"What," her tone is lilting, "no former agents of S.M.A.S.H. allowed?" He flinches away, moving over to and falling onto a small settee nearby. "Bruce, I'm sorry," she apologizes immediately and sits beside him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders in a side embrace.
"Not your fault," Bruce says through gritted teeth before exhaling sharply. "It's just… A little fresh in my mind right now." He closes his eyes tightly and tries to shake the image of his fallen friend and partner, tries hard not to imagine Tony lying there instead.
"Bruce?" Betty's genteel concern breaks through his memories and wild imagination.
"The guy Tony is trying to catch knows who I used to be," Bruce tells her. He has to get it off his chest before it consumes him and he really does pull a runaway groom. "And… he cornered me. He… he threatened Tony." Betty gasps and hugs him closer, bringing his head down to rest against hers. "I panicked again. I made a stupid, stupid call because I can't—" he chokes on the words.
She shushes him. "You didn't tell Tony," she guesses, stating it as fact rather than in askance. "And you've been drowning in your memories of what happened to Agent Jones all by yourself, afraid it'll happen again only this time…" She pulls away a little and he looks at her. "This time it'll be the man you love."
Bruce closes his eyes and nods. "More than that," he manages to speak, but it's a rough whisper. "I lied to him," he confesses and opens his eyes. Her expression isn't judgmental, merely curious. "I told him I was threatened." She blinks rapidly. "I… I manipulated him. I made him pick between going after this guy and keeping me safe."
"Oh, Bruce," she says, tone also not judgmental although on the edge.
"I know," he nods, "it was wrong. This guy is going to get away because I panicked again. I just wanted to keep Tony safe, but I'm afraid he'll never forgive me when… when I tell him the truth." Her eyebrows move upward. "And I'm going to," he confirms. "I have to stop lying to him. I… I'm going to tell him everything. About…about what I used to be, how I failed Rick, how I—" He cuts himself off, standing to his feet abruptly to pace.
"Bruce, when are you going to realize what happened was a tragedy and how you responded could have happened to anyone? Hell, Bruce, most probably would have just shot my father point blank."
"That doesn't help, Betty," Bruce counters, glancing at her. "My reaction was visceral, savage. It was an instinct."
She sighs and looks away, knowing full well what he means by that. "Bruce," she looks back again, "the point is what happened wasn't your fault. Not entirely. Maybe a little, but that's how this job works. No one can make the right call every single time and that's what makes it dangerous, fatal even." She gives a thoughtful look and then says, "Tony did the same thing."
"He made a call. Given the choice of catching his target and protecting you, he chose you." Bruce's stomach flutters annoyingly with hope. "That may have been the wrong call, Bruce. For all he knows, he might have caught this guy this time and everything would have been fine. Maybe next time…" her sentence trails and she shrugs.
"Oh my god," Bruce chokes out, his head spinning. "I have to go tell him. I have to go tell him now. Maybe we can still stop him."
Betty blocks his path to the door before he can reach it. "Bruce, you're panicking again."
"Because I love him!" he shouts. Then the words hang in the air and threaten to suffocate him. He hangs his head. "I love him, Betty. And I don't want to lose him. I'm scared of losing him."
"Then fight, Bruce," she says. He looks up at her in confusion. "Fight for the right reasons for a change. Stop fighting your past. Stop fighting how you feel about him. Stop fighting the truth. But most of all stop fighting by yourself." His mouth falls open. "Go out there and marry him. Finish this mission. Then tell him the truth and start fighting with him. I know it's hard, but it's time for you to stop being afraid of having a partner again." Her face softens. "And something tells me you know that already or you wouldn’t have let yourself get swept up into this mess in the first place."
Bruce blinks and looks down. "I don’t know. Tony was very persuasive," he lies, again, but when he meets Betty's twinkling gaze he knows that she knows that already. He sighs and says, "But I might still lose him, Betty. What if he doesn't want anything to do with me after this?"
"Oh, Bruce," Betty says with a sigh, this time definitely patronizing if still not outright judgmental. "I don't think that's possible."
Songs referenced: Secret Agent Man (Johnny Rivers), I Honestly Love You (Olivia Newton-John), Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Queen) and Everything I Do (Bryan Adams).
"Now the grooms will share the vow they have crafted together for their union," Thor announces, his solemn voice resonating like a summer midafternoon storm – at least it rattles at Bruce's nerves like one.
Or maybe that's merely the way he can't keep from looking at Tony with adoration. He wants this to be real so badly. Tony has to see it in his eyes. He has to know now.
"Tony, Bruce," Thor speaks directly to them, breaking Bruce from his reverie, "this vow should not be spoken lightly, but with the presence of mind that you are entering into a partnership. The desire for this partnership is as old as civilization itself, expanding all manner of human life regardless of gender, race, or creed. It is a partnership that should be filled with love, with devotion, with trust, with patience, and with honesty."
Bruce swallows hard as those words wash over him.
"You are committing yourselves to sharing your lives together," Thor continues. "You are committing yourselves to remaining faithful companions one to another henceforth, be the road smooth or be the road worn. Like a warrior and his sword, a soldier and his shield, a king and his guard, you are binding yourselves in oath. You will have a responsibility to fight to protect this oath at all costs for it is worth preserving."
Thor pauses and smiles warmly.
"Please, join hands."
Bruce takes a deep breath and follows the instruction, and briefly wonders if he'll ever managed to let go of Tony's hands again.
"Tony, please repeat after me," Thor says and begins the vow.
This isn't real and yet Bruce hangs on every word as Tony repeats, "Bruce, I take you to be my husband from this moment until my last breath. I promise never to leave you. I promise never to harm you. I promise always to encourage you. I promise always to trust you. I promise to give you all of my best. I promise to love you through your worst. I will fight with you and for you. I will care with you and for you. I will cherish you and only you."
"Bruce, please repeat after me," Thor prompts him next. Bruce licks his lips and takes a deep breath, steeling his nerves.
It's not real. It's not… But that's only partially true. It's real to him. The words are more than just words; they're the words Bruce wishes he could say to Tony, even if he's done a miserable job of proving himself able to keep the promises they convey thus far.
"Tony, I take you to be my husband from this moment until my last breath. I promise never to leave you. I promise never to harm you. I promise always to encourage you. I promise always to trust you. I promise to give you all of my best. I promise to love you through your worst. I will fight with you and for you. I will care with you and for you. I will cherish you and only you."
Tony's smile gets just a little brighter and there's an inkling of something in his eyes that Bruce has never noticed before. Maybe it's knowing, or understanding that Bruce has just poured out his heart to him for more than just show, but he's not quite sure it's that.
"Now the grooms will exchange their rings," Thor announces. "If you each will place your rings on the third finger of your beloved's hand," Thor instructs, "and repeat this final oath after me."
Rhodey and Steve hand them each a ring in lieu of an official ringbearer and they turn back to one another.
Tony still has that bright smile on his face as he extends his left hand for Bruce to slip his ring on first, and if Tony hasn't figured it out yet he wonders at how the other man excuses the way Bruce's hands shake.
"I give you this ring," Bruce repeats when Thor begins, "as a physical symbol of the love I have for you in my heart. It is my desire to have my life entwined with yours from this day forward."
Bruce follows suit, Tony's eyes locked on his with matchless intensity as he slips the ring onto his finger and repeats, "I give you this ring as a physical symbol of the love I have for you in my heart. It is my desire to have my life entwined with yours from this day forward."
"With these vows the grooms have agreed to the joyous bond of matrimony," Thor starts again, his voice sunny, but Bruce barely registers what he has to say. The only thing in the world is Tony. No matter what happens when he tells him the truth, Bruce will always cherish this moment. "So it is with equal joy, by the powers given me, that I pronounce them as husband and husband."
Bruce's eyes widen when he realizes what's coming next. He only has a short moment to consider the thought that suddenly roars to life in his mind.
"The two of you may now seal your vows with a kiss."
Tony leans in, respectful of Bruce and his comfort, and Bruce can't help it. He surges forward, earning a small gasp against his lips, and pours all of his unspoken feelings for Tony into the kiss. If Tony is going to learn the truth, all of it, Bruce is going to start the conversation with action. To his own surprise, Tony pulls him closer and claims his lips in turn. They only break away when the sound of cheers from their audience reminds Bruce of where he is. He pulls back first, with great effort and a drunken feeling no wine could ever give him.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Thor's voice booms, "I present to you the happy newlyweds, Mr. Stark and Dr. Banner."
Tony smiles and reaches out his hand to Bruce. Bruce takes it and they make their way back down the makeshift wedding aisle toward the exit of the exhibit hall. When they reach the end, they smile and wave as is customary and Tony leans in for another kiss.
"I'm sorry, Bruce," Tony whispers against his lips and kisses him tenderly. Bruce furrows his brow when Tony pulls away again, but before he can ask him what he means Darcy is urging them on toward the reception set up in another part of the museum so they can be ready to accept the well wishes of their guests when they arrive.
It quickly becomes a blur of people, some of them agents Bruce recognizes and some of them agents he doesn't and some of them Stark Industries higher ups that Tony had been required to invite and some of them celebrities that had managed a wedding invitation somehow or another that Bruce doesn't dare guess since the guest list was generated for them entirely by S.H.I.E.L.D.
Tony ducks out at some point, once the onslaught of people begins to lessen, offering to get Bruce a drink and leaving him to handle the stragglers which are mostly their closest friends. When the other man doesn't return in a timely manner Bruce figures he must have gotten caught up somewhere else and decides to go find him. Unfortunately, Bruce meets the same fate and he has to mingle his way through the crowd on his quest to find his missing husband.
Fake husband, he chastises himself.
It must not do much good though because when he happens upon Betty, she immediately wraps him in a hug and whispers, "I've never seen you look happier."
"That's a scary thought," he remarks as they break the embrace.
"No, Bruce, it isn't."
"I would kiss the groom," Rhodey intervenes before Bruce has to respond to that, approaching them with two glasses of wine in hand, "but I think I know Tony well enough to know that's one tradition he wouldn't appreciate."
Betty smirks and Bruce ducks his head before clearing his throat. "That's fine. Not sure I would either," he looks up and adds, "no offense. You're a very handsome man, Colonel, but no thanks."
Rhodey laughs. "You've been hanging out with Tony too long. Or else that sense of humor is what does it for him."
Bruce shakes his head, feeling a little more at ease with Colonel Rhodes regardless of the subject. "Probably the former," he credits Tony. "But you know how influential he can be." Rhodey nods as he finally hands off one of his glasses of wine to Betty. "By the way, thank you for being here. I don't know if Tony would admit it, but it meant a lot to him, all things considered. Our line of work can get pretty lonely so I'm glad he didn't lose you when he told you the truth." He spares a glance at Betty and sees the look of knowing on her face before darting his eyes back to Rhodey.
"Well," Rhodey pauses in taking a drink, the glass just at his lips, and shrugs, "he's Tony. I probably would have forgiven him for not telling me about the engagement too. Eventually. And, honestly, I understand how classified information works. Sure, I wish he'd told me sooner, but once the initial shock wore off I was more relieved it was that he was choosing not to share with me as opposed to something major like proposing to you. I'm supposed to be his best friend. His wing man. That's the kind of thing he's supposed to want to know my opinion on. The kind of thing he's supposed to trust me with, you know? None of that stuff changes just because Tony has a different job than I thought he did. He's still my best friend."
Rhodey's words strike Bruce and he blinks, suddenly putting himself in the other man's shoes and then putting himself in Tony's regarding the secrets Bruce still has to share. Before he can run through his onslaught of thoughts, Rhodey sputters on his wine and narrows his eyes at it.
"Port? What the hell? Tony hates this stuff."
He looks at Bruce for some kind of answer, but Bruce can't remember how to speak. His heart is in his ears and the room spins around because the answer is screaming in his ears. The answer had been right in front of him this whole time.
"Oh my god," he whispers. He looks at Betty to see her smiling at him. He looks at her untouched glass and then glances around the room for Tony. "Oh my god, he… I... Please excuse me," he says and hurries off. He doesn't find Tony, but he finds the next best thing at the moment. "Darcy, the wine is Port," he blurts and she turns from talking with Clint and Natasha to look at him with a furrowed brow.
"Uh, yeah? Wait, is it not supposed to be?" Her eyes widen, slightly panicked. "Because I'm almost certain that's right." She rolls her eyes upward as if thinking about something. After a few seconds she nods. "Yes, I know it is. Mr. Stark made it absolutely clear that Port was the only wine that could be served at the reception. Which made the food pairings super fun, let me tell you," she rambles. "And he insisted on the best of the best of course—"
"Oh my god," Bruce says again, darting his eyes between Natasha and Clint. The smile that spreads across his face is so big that he's not sure he's ever smiled so wide in his life. All of the pieces, the signs, the hope that he'd started to have, it all falls into place and he doesn't think he'll ever stop smiling. "He's in love with me," he breathes out in awe, still scarcely able to believe it's true.
Everything is silent for a moment, then Darcy declares, "Really?" Her tone is incredulous, but it's accompanied with a smirk. "That's what makes it obvious?"
Bruce blinks. "Uh, well, no, not only, but—" He stops abruptly and blinks again. She should already assume Tony is in love with him. So why is she asking a question like that?
Clint realizes the reason for his dumbstruck expression and looks at him with a dubious one in response. "You really thought Fury was going to let a couple of civilians hang out with you and the other genius that much?" he asks with a snort. "Yeah, no. Darcy and Peter are agents. Well, Parker is still at The Academy," he tacks on.
Bruce stares at the young woman with wide eyes. She's an agent?
"Surprise!" Darcy bounces her shoulders upwards. "The look on your face is so worth what it took to convince Natasha not to let you in on it."
"She's right," Natasha confirms.
"Okay, you know what," Bruce holds up his hands, "I can only handle one revelation at a time. I need to find Tony. Have you seen him?"
"Yeah," Darcy answers, "he said the two of you got separated. He asked if I'd seen you."
"We must have missed each other when I went looking for him."
"That's weird. I'd only just left you with the stragglers myself," Darcy says in a confused tone. "It shouldn't have been hard for him to track you down." She looks around the room.
"Why don't you just buzz him on his communicator?" Clint suggests.
"He doesn't have one in," Bruce says, his stomach lurching with a foreboding sense of dread. Then he really processes Clint's question and his stomach lurches again. "You and Natasha told Tony that the two of us shouldn't wear any. Just in case some of the civilians notice and wonder about it."
"What?" Clint sputters on the word. "Why the hell would we say that? When this place could just as easily end up targeted by—"
"Bozhe moi," Natasha mutters. She looks between them with wide eyes. "He's going after Loki alone. That's what this was about."
Bruce stumbles backwards, the rush of panic overwhelming his senses. Tony's apology echoes in his ears, everything suddenly making sense even if it doesn't make sense why Tony is doing this at all. Did he figure out Bruce was lying somehow? Why would he be so stupid and…
Before Bruce can finish that thought, he takes off running for the exit as fast as his legs can carry him. He has to get to that museum. He has to make sure nothing happens to Tony. He has to—
A disorienting sound reverberates through the main foyer of the museum. Bruce holds his hands to his ears instinctively when his body starts to go into shock and he tilts his head upward, furrowing his brow.
What if this is exactly what Loki wanted and he's still playing us?
Bruce's eyes widen, his spy training and instincts coming into sharp focus for the first time since that night at the party when he'd needed to help Clint keep Tony safe from his brother, for the first time since letting the lines blur instead of facing his fears. He's still panicking, but there isn't time for him to second-guess what his gut is telling him: Tony is somewhere in this museum and, damn it, he's not going to fight Loki alone.
Tony finds Loki exactly where he expects him to be.
He's not mid-heist of the Tesseract, or Cosmic Cube as it's also called apparently, at the museum where he'd been supposed to strike. Instead, he's mid-heist of an ancient spear residing on the top floor of the wedding venue. Whatever this spear is for, Tony knows it has a gamma signature too. He'd combed the museum scanning for anything Loki might go after here as well, once Bruce had put the idea in his head that maybe a change in venue was precisely what Loki wanted. Turns out Bruce's haphazard hunch was right and Tony's glad he'd followed it; otherwise he might have gone to the other museum to try and head him off only to leave Bruce a sitting duck.
The thief is casual as can be as he watches an accomplice descend from the ceiling above. Leave it to Loki, Tony thinks, to avoid doing the dirty work. He's a strategist with an army of thieves and other villains at his beck and call.
When the accomplice spots Tony, his eyes go wide and he yanks at his cord to halt the descent. Loki turns to look at him, losing none of his casual air. Tony thinks that's as good as confirmation of his other suspicion that Loki would be expecting him to figure out his play, maybe even wanted this stand-off and meant to bait him with his warning that Bruce was in over his head.
"If your goal was not to get caught," Tony says, "you should have stayed away from my husband." Tony tramples down his instinct to smile at the way that word sounds, how it feels against his lips. Right now, it's just him and Loki.
Loki smiles blindingly, the madness Clint has hinted at playing at the edges. "Perhaps it would please you to know you had me fooled up until that night at the lodge," he says. "I never would have guessed it was you until you conveniently disappeared the same time as those other two agents only to return just as I had Banner cornered," he explains, taking a few steps toward him. "And Banner's poker face leaves much to be desired." Loki looks him over as if trying to determine something beyond just sizing him up.
"To be fair," Tony defends Bruce, "he's a little rusty at this."
"Ah," Loki's eyes widen and his smile returns, "so you do know. Or did you overhear everything, hmm? How did it feel to find out your husband could lie to you about who he really is?" He takes a few steps forward. "Did it crush you? You're a fool if you think he wasn't lying about everything. He doesn't love you--"
"Save it," Tony says through gritted teeth, hating the man for intentionally manipulating Bruce and causing him grief more than for his attempt to manipulate him now. "Whatever game you're trying to play here, Loki, the only way you come out on top is if you kill me. But seeing as the man I love is downstairs waiting for me regardless of what he may or may not feel, I'm pretty determined to keep that from happening. And you can be damn well sure I won't let you get anywhere near him again." Tony jerks his arm, activating a skin-mold prototype gauntlet so that it slides down his arm and over his hand like a glove. He holds up his hand and aims it at Loki to let him know precisely what his intent is. "You see, whatever it is you think you know about him, it doesn't change what I know about him."
Loki's eyes widen for half a second, but then any concern he might have had fades and he laughs, a slow and sinister eh-heh-heh. "Oh no, I won't kill you, Stark." He moves a few more feet toward him and Tony lifts an eyebrow, fingers twitching to use his license to kill and get it over with. This man threatened him in order to hurt Bruce and that's more than enough reason. All he has to do is flex his hand and—
There's a terrible, high-frequency pulse in his ear that he would know anywhere since it's stolen from his own tech. The sonic taser had been meant to temporarily paralyze a person without rendering them unconscious and this copy works the way it's supposed to because Tony's body goes into shock and he falls to the floor. His vision is blurry, but he can clearly make out Obadiah Stane's form towering over him.
"As much as I would enjoy that," Loki continues coldly, "it would be much more pleasurable for me to watch him do it."
"I've waited a long time for this, Tony," Stane says, the sound of his voice enough to curdle Tony's stomach.
Tony fights to get control of his senses and over his limbs as the man he once would have trusted with his life slowly crouches down to straddle him, pushing down against his chest with one arm and with his free hand pulling out a knife. The sick feeling in the pit of Tony's stomach grows and he reminds himself to keep a cool head. He breathes deeply and tries to focus. Maybe it's his own sheer willpower, but he starts to feel his muscles tingle back to life. Either that or he's lucky that his stolen, re-engineered tech doesn't perform as perfectly as Tony's own design had.
"It's actually quite lucky that Barton failed," Stane says with an even lilt to his voice, calm with the underlying chill of vicious insanity. "Now I can do this myself."
Stane reaches for his suit lapels and jerks him up toward him and suddenly Tony recalls Bruce's yoga move, even as his brain supplies that it had actually been from intense physical training as a spy.
"And I promise you, it's going to hurt," Stane adds with a manic smile before touching the cold blade to his neck.
Tony uses all the energy and concentration he has to move his legs into position, feigning struggling against the older man so he won't suspect; not that it isn't a real struggle as his body doesn't want to cooperate.
"Stop fidgeting, Tony," Stane says with the same authoritative voice he would use when Tony was being a reckless young man. "You always were too fidgety."
"And you," Tony chokes out the words, grunting them through gritted teeth, "you always did need stronger and smarter men than you to do the heavy lifting, didn't you?" He knows Stane will rise to the bait. He just needs to buy a little more time for the paralysis to wear off more. "At least it feels just like old times."
Stane barks out a laugh, the kind that masks the blow Tony knows his accusation was. "Oh, Tony, Tony. For that," he digs the knife in just a little more – enough to make Tony question just how safe this plan of his is, "I'm not going to stop with you. Oh no. Once you're dead, I'm going after this Dr. Banner of yours." Tony swallows back the bile that rises in his throat. "Then… Then maybe I'll go after Pepper. I have a score to settle with her too. Rhodes might not be so easy being military, but I can find a way. I'll destroy everyone you care about and all the work you've ever done by time I'm fini—"
Rage consumes Tony and powers every muscle in his body, sending the world in motion as he flips Stane over. Tony only barely registers the searing pain of the knife slicing through his skin before it clatters to the ground. He also realizes just how easy it must have been for Bruce to strangle General Ross; the thought of Stane going anywhere near Bruce or the others makes Tony see red.
Before he can make the same mistake as his friend, there's a blow to the side of his head that sends him flying off of the other man. Tony instinctively rolls into the harsh landing and flexes his hand. He fires at his assailant only for Loki to block it with the same spear he must have hit him with.
Tony continues to fire, scrambling backwards and trying to find his footing. His body is still a little numb from the sonic taser, wrestling Stane, and Loki's blow combined. And he's bleeding enough now that he can feel it trickle down his neck. If he lives, Bruce is probably going to kill him.
Loki dodges another, more concentrated shot and then suddenly lunges toward him just as Tony's nearly to his feet. The other agent wraps a large, bony hand around his neck, pressing as hard as he can into Tony's neck not to cut off his air supply but to render him useless from the pain that Tony definitely registers now. The man looks like a wild animal up close, teeth bared and eyes inflamed.
"I guess now I will have the pleasure of killing you, Stark," he says, spitting the words - literally. "I only hope Banner has the displeasure of seeing it when your body breaks in half!"
Tony is trying to power through the pain and fire another shot when Loki throws him, with more strength than Tony would have ever guessed the thin man could possess, toward the railing that wraps around each floor as a barrier from the open space in the center of the museum.
The force of the throw and Tony's wobbly effort to control his legs causes him to flip over the railing and into inevitable free fall towards the bottom floor, which unfortunately for him is five floors too far on the one day he didn't think a grapple gun or parachute would be a good idea.
It's times like these he really needs some sort of exoskeleton flight suit he can call to his aid at any given time during a mission.
"Tony!" Bruce's voice breaks through that thought and suddenly he isn't in free fall anymore.
Before Tony can even register what's happening, he and Bruce come crashing down harshly onto a lower floor of the museum, both rolling one over the other a few times until he's essentially crushing Bruce's spleen where he lays perpendicular atop of him.
"That could have gone smoother," Bruce wheezes out.
"What the hell?" Tony looks at him in disbelief as he sets up and off him.
"Grapple cuff link," Bruce says as he sits up. He holds up his wrist and studies the spot where his cuff link has ripped from his suit. "It was a prototype I figured might come in handy just in case. Only good for one use apparently. Maybe lucky it even held." He shakes his head as he runs through his analysis of the device. Then, before Tony can respond beyond blinking eyes, Bruce's voice turns angry and he says, "Now it's my turn. What the hell!?"
"I—" Tony starts, but then his eyes focus just beyond Bruce's head when there's a frustrated snarl.
"You're starting to seem like a very annoying cockroach," Loki hisses through gritted as he stalks toward them, rage in his eyes and the spear in hand like some sort of scepter.
Tony opens his mouth to give a snappy retort when Bruce turns his head sharply, his whole body going rigid before he pushes to his feet with a dangerous look in his eyes.
"I lied," Bruce's voice is a low growl. "I am going to strangle you. And I'm going to enjoy every second of it." Tony's eyes go wide when he then lunges for the other man.
The mild-mannered physicist is practically transformed before Tony's eyes as he acts on his most primitive instincts to protect and avenge. A shiver runs down Tony's spine, knowing that he's the one that Bruce is doing this for. From the moment Bruce attempted to stop Barney Barton, Tony realizes with sudden clarity what he hadn't before, he's been putting himself on the line in spite of his past – all for Tony.
Another shiver runs down his spine when he realizes if Bruce still regrets what he did to General Ross over the actual death of a partner, he'll regret this too.
Tony scrambles to his feet and charges toward the two men where they're locked in hand to hand combat, Bruce proving he might be rusty but not that rusty. Tony flexes his hand to charge up another repulsor blast, then flexes it again two more times to increase the power so that it does significant damage to its target. He doesn't know what it says about him, but he won't have the same remorse Bruce will. Then again, he's always known Bruce is the better man between them.
Tony waits for a clear shot and doesn't hesitate when it opens up. The spear drops to the floor with a heavy clang a few seconds before Loki falls after it. Bruce looks between Loki and Tony a few times, blinking like he's been broken from some spell, before reaching down and grabbing the spear. He looks at it for a long moment, then uses his feet to roughly push Loki's paralyzed body over onto his back.
"It would be so easy to finish this so you never have a chance to hurt anyone else ever again," Bruce says darkly. He glances at Tony again and the fight drains from his face, the gentler and sadder lineaments that Tony is most familiar with returning. He looks down at the spear before chucking it away. "Too easy," he says as he shakes his head and backs away. "And I don't want to be that man."
"Don't worry. You aren't," Tony tells him, breathing a sigh of relief just the same for Bruce's sake. He moves to bridge the distance between them and Bruce meets him in the middle. "Although. I don't think you've been completely honest with me, Dr. Banner," he adds with a nervous laugh.
"And you—" His eyes zero in on Tony's neck for the first time and he looks at him. "And you need medical attention immediately."
"I'm sure it's not that bad," Tony says, looking him over before locking his eyes on his. He hopes that Bruce can see how grateful he is, and how sorry he is that Bruce had almost relived one of his darkest memories. "The inevitable splat if you hadn't caught me. That… Now that would have been bad."
"Shut up," Bruce chokes out before surging forward and kissing him.
It's this side of clumsy and Bruce trembles just a little, but it may be the best kiss they've shared so far because it's raw and it's aching and Tony knows for sure now that Bruce is kissing him because he wants to. And Tony wants him to know he wants this too, so he pulls Bruce closer to him and deepens the kiss.
There's a thud that breaks them apart and they look down to see two of Loki's men in a heap on the floor with tranquilizers in their backs. They look in sync to see Clint heading toward them.
"I'm fairly certain there aren't any cameras up here," the other agent says flatly, "so I hope this means the rest of us can stop choking on your unresolved sexual tension." He moves past them towards Loki.
That's when Tony notices the villain has started to regain his composure enough to slowly try sitting up. He flexes his hand again, but before he can fire another shot Clint shoots Loki point blank in the chest with another tranquilizer. He falls back unconscious to the floor.
"Now I feel better," Clint quips. Tony snorts, even though he's not entirely sure of the context.
Tony then looks at Bruce with a smile. He searches his eyes and is about to pull him in for another kiss if he'll let him, fairly hopeful he will, but the moment is thwarted by what sounds like breaking glass followed by screams. They both run toward the railing and look over to see several wedding crashers.
Stane stands in the midst of them.
"Shit," Tony says and pulls back. "Forgot about Stane." He looks at Clint.
"Natasha says at least twenty, but it looks like they're coming in waves," he says. After a moment he adds, "More muscle than guns." His eyebrows widen. "Shit, Natasha just dropped one with some explosives on him. These guys might be a distraction." Clint moves to the railing and immediately starts darting his eyes around in search for others that may be attempting to rig the place to blow.
"Tell her to get somebody on civilian evacuation immediately and then some agents up here to deal with Loki," Tony says before hurrying toward the next fight. Bruce follows on his heels. "I'd rather you stay and help Clint. I really don't want you anywhere near Stane," Tony says in frustration. "He'll kill you if he gets a chance, just to get at me."
"I know, but he'll also kill you if he gets a chance so I'm not leaving your side," Bruce replies as they run. His voice is strong with determination. "And if he blows the place it's not like it matters anyway," he offers with a dry chuckle. "But I can handle myself, Tony. Promise."
"Yeah," Tony huffs out, "I've noticed." That doesn't change Tony's personal feelings in anyway whatsoever, of course. Danger is danger.
"About that… Guess now's as good a time as any…" Bruce mumbles a little to himself. "Before I was a tech specialist, I was a spy with another agency," he confesses.
"Wish you would have told me sooner, but I already know," Tony admits. Bruce seems stunned speechless so Tony explains, "I heard everything Loki said that night."
"You— But— Then why didn't you say something? Oh my god, so I lied to you about what Loki said and you—" His statement is cut off when they reach the main floor and are attacked by a couple of Stane's men. They take them down easily enough. "You let me believe you so you could go after him without me knowing?" Clarity dawns in his eyes even as he poses the question.
"I know it looks bad, but Loki figured out my weakness when I came back that night. He wasn't going to stop going after you, Bruce," Tony tries to make him understand. "I couldn't let that happen. I needed to stop him before he could try again and maybe do something even worse."
"Then you should have just told me! I'm your partner, damn it!"
"My partner I promised to keep safe—" Tony counters.
"I'd rather have you safe," Bruce interjects. "And you promised he wouldn't hurt me, but losing you would hurt me!"
"—and besides, you're not an agent anymore." Tony blinks as Bruce's words process.
"But we also have a team!" Bruce doesn't budge. "God, Tony, your hero complex—" He spins around and takes out another person, the both of them entering the thick of the fight now.
"My hero complex!?" Tony cries in disbelief before spinning around as well so that they're practically back to back. "That's rich coming from a guy who lied to me just because Loki threatened me. That's the nature of the game. You're not the only one who can handle himself...and why the hell are Darcy and Peter fighting?" he asks as an afterthought when he catches a glimpse of them.
"I panicked okay," Bruce counters, voice drowned out a little from one of Tony's repulsor blasts. "That's exactly why I'm not an agent anymore. When push comes to shove I always panic." He huffs. "And apparently they're agents."
"You're not panicking now— Wait, what?" Tony stops fighting and turns to look at Bruce in disbelief.
"Stop trying to change the subject and don't you dare try to compare what I did with your stunt," Bruce says, glancing over his shoulders. His eyes widen and he turns quickly. He rushes past Tony to take out someone who must have been ready to attack him while his back was turned. "Sure, I was trying to protect you too, but my plan didn't involve taking on a fucking mad man fucking lone gun and barely fucking armed." He drops the attacker to the floor, breathing heavily before looking up at Tony.
"Okay, forget Stane. I kind of just want to fuck you right here and now." Tony whips his arm up and blasts three more of Stane's hired help in quick succession before they can get anywhere near Bruce. He turns back to look at him, the man frozen in place and eyelashes fluttering in surprise.
"The feeling is mutual," Bruce croaks out. He then recomposes himself with a shake of his head and says, "But you and I can't even figure out how to properly communicate so I don't think fucking is a good idea."
"Sex solves a lot of marital problems," Tony points out with a shrug, neither of them paying attention to what's happening around them at the moment.
"We're not married," Bruce counters slowly.
"Right," Tony glances around furtively, "about that." He notices Steve engaged in combat with an unfair amount of people decides to be generous and take two of them out for him before looking back at Bruce. "We actually might be." He shrugs again and decides to run from any impending wrath by heading for what looks like the last insurgence still being dealt with.
"What do you mean we might be?" Bruce asks, still following him.
"Um, so, it turns out Thor's a registered officiant," he answers as he takes down another foe. "The documents we signed are real. So, it's not even a might be. We, uh, are. It's technically legal."
"What!?" He looks at Bruce to see him frozen in place again, eyes wide. "Wait, so you knew about this? Better question how long have you known this?"
"I… Yes." Tony doesn't stop fighting. "The day Agent Blake-" he starts, but Bruce cuts him off before he can finish.
"You mean you legally married me against my consent? Is that seriously what you're telling me?"
"I… Yes again?" He sighs and turns around completely, trusting the other agents to handle things. "Look, if it helps make you less mad at me, I added you to my will. I figured it was a good idea just in case the worst happened."
"That's supposed to make it better!?" Bruce shouts. "That I could be your legal widower!?"
"I thought I was taking care of you!" Tony shouts back, throwing up his arms. "I thought I was-"
Bruce opens his mouth to respond, but his eyes go wide and he crumples forward before he can. Tony's stomach threatens to empty itself and his heart stops as he catches him into his arms. He sees the two holes in his Bruce's suit and looks across the room to see Stane with a manic grin on his face even as he's wrestled to the ground by Steve and Thor.
The desire to strangle the man returns as he starts laughing and shouting, "I win, Tony! I win!" among other nonsense.
Tony is two seconds away from doing just that when he hears Bruce groan. "God, I forgot how much that hurts," he says in a ragged voice.
"Oh god," Tony breathes out, tears rushing to his eyes.
Bruce pushes himself upright, but Tony doesn't let him get far. Instead he pulls him into an embrace, laughing a little manically in relief because if he doesn't the tears pooling in his eyes might never stop. He breathes in and out deeply and mutters he's okay, he's okay, he's okay in his head to convince himself it's true.
"I guess I am a little paranoid," Bruce says with a shaky laugh, but Tony just hugs him tighter in response, grateful that Bruce had thought to come to their wedding more suitably dressed for a fight than Tony had, well minus his gauntlet and own bullet proof vest of course, and desperate to feel Bruce's still-beating heart against his own.
Somewhere in the chaos, Tony hears Stane's insanity turn towards anger and disbelief at the realization he's been thwarted, but Tony doesn't care. Stane's defeat seems to send his remaining men scattering, but Tony doesn't care about that either.
The only thing he cares about now that it's all over is clearing the air, properly, with the man in his arms and then hopefully getting that dance and maybe some cake and, well, maybe he's getting ahead of himself to even entertain the notion of a honeymoon.
But all of that requires letting go of Bruce and he doesn't really want to at the moment. Not when he'd watched his entire world fall apart in the span of the few seconds he'd thought Bruce had been shot.
Bruce pulls away from the embrace first, though Tony's not sure how much time has passed when he does. The physicist takes a look around.
"So. This all seems horrible," he muses, wringing his hands and licking his lips.
Tony glances around too, a little fuzzy-eyed as he watches the various culprits be herded away from the area by those agents there incognito as security uniforms, no doubt in case any of the civilians should return and see them.
"Let's hope they didn't wreck too much of anything in the actual reception area," Bruce adds with a wince. "Then again, Darcy did have a sort of 'face my wrath' look." He chuckles, a little nervous and awkward, and shakes his head before heading in that direction, casual as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened and they're still two ordinary men who need to salvage their wedding reception.
Tony's world tunnels around him as the warmth of Bruce's body leaves him, a terrible reminder of what he might have lost before even having the chance to have it truly, and for once he knows exactly what he needs to do, what he needs to say. It can't wait another second. It never should have taken this long in the first place.
"Bruce," he calls after him.
Bruce stops and turns around with a raised eyebrow. Tony takes a deep breath and moves to stand in front of him for a moment. He searches his face before dropping down in entreaty, willing to beg - even in front of the remaining agents suddenly surrounding them with interest - if he has to. Bruce's eyes have never looked so big and unsure and hopeful in all the time Tony has known him.
"Bruce," Tony repeats, "I'm in love with you. I've been in love with you. I realize now that's what it was all along." Bruce alone understands what he means - if the small, awed, gaping expression is any indication. "I wish I could have trusted that feeling sooner, but I'm trusting it now. Loving you is maybe the only truth I've ever known."
"Tony," Bruce whispers his name and Tony smiles.
"And I want you," he continues before Bruce can manage anything more. "Every part of you. Even the parts I don't know quite everything about yet." He ducks his head. "Maybe you can't forgive me for lying to you about, well, everything," he hedges before looking back up, "and maybe it'll turn out you don't want any of this with me, but I'll regret it if I go another minute without letting you know how much you mean to me. How much you've always meant to me. I'll regret it if I don't ask you." He takes a deep breath. "Bruce, will you stay married to me?"
A bright, wide, disbelieving smile spreads across Bruce's face and Tony hopes that means he'll have a chance to make him smile like that every single day they're together, for the rest of their lives.
"Yes," Bruce says. "Yes, Tony," he says again and Tony stands quickly to his feet, intent on kissing his husband again. "On one condition," Bruce interrupts that plan once they're at eye level. "We need to be open with each other. No more secrets between us. No more lies."
"Not even the little white ones like who accidentally left the milk out," Tony promises with a wide smile of his own, even if he knows that's probably an exaggeration. Bruce snorts softly, eyes twinkling with what Tony is pretty sure are tears, but he can't tease him about it since his own eyes are still a little wet too.
He leans in and Bruce does too before pulling back with an, "Oh, two conditions actually." Tony blinks, waiting for him to elaborate. "You never, ever, ever pull a crazy-ass stunt like that again. I realize that's probably like asking the sun not to shine where you're concerned," he teases gently before looking at him with earnest, "but I mean it. I want to be your husband even when I'm pushing a hundred and still spry thanks to advancements in medicine."
Tony snorts this time, his chest swelling so much that it's a wonder his heart can take it.
"Bruce," he manages enough of a serious tone to let him know he's just as earnest, "I'll hand in my resignation to Fury tomorrow if you ask me to." Nearly every agent around them reacts to that, mostly in shock, because they realize how much Bruce must mean to him if he'd pick him over the job. "You're my only priority."
Bruce's tears finally reach his cheeks and he chokes out an, "I love you" before surging forward for their aborted kiss.
Tony only barely registers the shouts and cheers and applause before getting lost in the kiss, because this. This is the best kiss they've shared so far. Then again, Tony has a feeling he'd better stop keeping score since from here on out they'll probably all be the best.
The magic of the moment is only shattered when Bruce accidentally runs a hand up Tony's chest and it lands on his neck, causing him to hiss. Bruce startles away from him like he's been burned, eyes wide and expression worried and guilty and sympathetic all at once. He looks at the wound and then at Tony.
"I'm so sorry."
"It's fine," Tony says, trying to laugh it off.
Bruce doesn’t laugh. His sympathetic expression turns stern instead. "It's not fine. You need medical attention."
"What I need is for us to go celebrate our wedding," Tony counters. He looks over at Darcy and asks, "How's it look?"
"A few of the guest tables are destroyed, we're down one of the catering tables, and the chandelier is decorating the dance floor," she answers. She then throws up her hands and cheers, "But I saved the cake!"
"We saved the cake," Peter argues.
"Yeah, right. That's what I meant," she says with a shrug. "I mean, I technically tasered the big guy before you got there, but we saved the cake."
Tony snorts and looks back at Bruce to see his expression unchanged. "Oh, come on," he insists. "Our guests are going to be clamoring to get back in here any minute now. Moths to flames, honestly. We have to finish this thing."
"Do you want this to be the third condition?" Bruce raises an eyebrow. Tony sighs and their friends laugh. And it's weird since Tony has never really considered them all his friends before.
"Hill and Coulson just arrived," Steve intervenes with an uncertain glance between them. "They'll probably have a medic with them."
Bruce smiles at him before looking back at Tony. "Alright, we'll compromise. Natasha can go escort the civilian guests back in, I go help Darcy and Peter clean up what we can, and you," he pokes him softly in the chest, "can at the very least go get that cleaned and bandaged."
"Fine, fine," Tony grumbles and throws up his hands. "Our wedding photos are going to be a mess and I can't wait for all the exaggerated press about how I was injured in a hostage situation." He considers it. "That's what we're going with, right? Maybe we can spin it so that I took a knife to the throat trying to save you. I mean, it's technically true even if you weren't there, and at least that'll make the story more romantic when it's retold a thousand times. Alright, I'm going, I'm going," he then says to Bruce's look of amused exasperation.
He turns to go find the medic, but Bruce grabs his hand, stopping him. Tony furrows his brow right before Bruce leans in and gives him a sweet, nearly chaste kiss. Bruce searches his eyes and says, "I promise to care with you and for you." His lips turn up just a little at the edges in a small smile.
Tony sighs and any complaints he had melt away with a soft, contented smile. If this is what being married to his best friend will be like, well, Tony couldn't ask for anything better.
"I'm starting to think we should have danced to Queen instead. Since you clearly took the lyrics to this song too literally."
"I would give it all. I would sacrifice..."
"And I never knew you had such a nice voice."
"One of my first missions I went undercover as a musician. Want to hear my Mercury impression?"
"Not particularly. I... I just want to relish the feeling of dancing with you if that's okay."
"More than okay."
"I didn’t think—"
"Me either, Bruce."
"When you asked me if I could imagine it... I thought I could, but I was wrong."
"This is better than anything I imagined. It's real, for one thing, and—mmm."
"It's always been real."
"I'm so glad I didn't run."
"At that party, when you came up with the excuse for us to dance, I wanted to run. I'm glad I didn't."
"I'm glad you didn't too. And I'm glad the press could see how in love with you I was even when I was still too afraid to believe it could be true..."
"We're here, Bruce."
Bruce is roused by Tony's words and a gentle squeeze of his knee. He blinks away his grogginess, realizing he must have dozed off at some point while simultaneously listening to Tony and replaying happy memories as he watched the scenic views of upstate New York pass by.
He turns his head to look out the passenger-side window. They're just about up the long drive that leads to the front of the lodge. He blinks a few more times, focusing his eyes to take in the sight of the building, warmly lit against the fading dusk. He then looks back at Tony.
"You could have woken me sooner if you wanted," he says with a small yawn. He stretches a little to get the blood flowing again. "Sorry I fell asleep on your story," he adds in apology since it definitely hadn't been the story or Tony's telling of it.
"You're fine," Tony assures him. "Besides, I still find it incredibly adorable that long drives put you to sleep."
Bruce snorts as he starts to wake up fully; Tony's ridiculousness is a hell of a stimulant, and one he's glad to have.
"Right, because nothing screams adorable like drooling on the leather seat of an expensive Italian sports car," he deadpans.
"It's a German sports car and it was the window," Tony corrects, "but glad you agree with me." Bruce just hums.
"Although, at first, I suspected you were just playing possum to avoid the question," Tony says as he pulls up into a valet spot outside the lodge. Bruce blinks as Tony puts the car in park before looking at him with a smirk and raised eyebrow. "I'd mentioned how you never really did say whether or not you want me to retire." Bruce's eyes widen in surprise. "But apparently you were out of it by that point and I hadn't even noticed," he explains.
Bruce's surprise turns to incredulity. "Well, the sound of your voice is pretty distracting." Tony's other eyebrow flies upward in amusement. "As for the retirement thing, there for a minute I wasn't sure I'd need to," he replies with a shrug. "After that debrief—"
"From hell," Tony interjects.
"I was pretty much expecting Fury to fire us both. But at least you." He offers Tony his own smirk, and a scrunch of his nose, before getting out of the car.
Tony is out and beside him in seconds, scoffing as he passes off his keys to the valet. "He would never fire me. I know where all the bodies are buried."
"I don't know," Bruce deliberates slowly, though not without a grimace at how literal that phrase might be in this case. "I'm pretty sure he was tempted. Actually," he laughs, "there for a minute I was more afraid he would bar us from having time off for a honeymoon." As it is, it's been almost two weeks since their wedding.
Tony isn't wrong about it being the debrief from hell. It had lasted days – Fury interrogating them all individually for their various acts of insubordination and then as a group. Strangely enough, rather than anyone being fired it had ended in Fury saying since they all got on so well, they could expect to be working together more often when the need for a team effort presented itself, excepting Bruce unless he was absolutely needed again since he was more than okay with remaining the head of R&D.
After that, it had taken almost an entire week for Fury to finally approve their request for a long honeymoon, starting here for a couple nights before the extravagant trek around the world they'd planned on a whim after Tony had suggested it one night. In retrospect, they'd been a little delirious from exhaustion at the end of one of those hellish debrief days and the idea of being away from that for as long as possible with just each other sounded like heaven, but Bruce isn't so sure he wouldn't have agreed to the idea even if that hadn't been the case. The idea of traveling again, especially the idea of doing so with Tony, spoke to a small nomadic part of him that had developed when he was a spy.
Tony groans as they enter the lobby, breaking Bruce from his musings. "You're right," he says. "The cheeky bastard definitely kept us in limbo just to make us squirm. I'm fairly certain I heard Jane in Coulson's office chewing him out about it."
Bruce furrows his brow. "Natasha said Darcy did that."
"I think I'd prefer to think it was just Jane," Tony replies to that and Bruce chuckles, understanding why.
When they reach the front desk, they glance at each other in surprise. The check-in clerk is the bellhop they'd encountered there weeks earlier. The young man smiles as soon as he recognizes them.
"Hey!" Tony chirps, grin wide and earnest. "If it isn't our old pal. I guess breaking policy paid off, huh?"
He nods and says, "It did, actually. That video got me and my boyfriend so much attention my boss decided to reprimand me first and then promote me."
"I'm glad to hear that," Bruce chimes in.
The young man shrugs, typing on the computer keyboard as he does. "Thank you," he says, "but I'm not sure I would have minded too much if it hadn't worked out in my favor. Not after the look on his face when he saw it." A reflex smile spreads across his face.
Bruce smiles too and glances at Tony. There's a gleam in his eyes and Bruce suddenly suspects he'd selected this as their first stop just so they could run into the bellhop again, and undoubtedly for Bruce's sake since he knew how much Bruce had been afraid their orchestrated split might irrevocably disenchant people like this young man and his boyfriend. Bruce is relieved that didn't happen; of course, a little of that is because it means he's married to Tony for real.
"So, here's your key for the newlywed suite," the young man interrupts Bruce's thoughts. Bruce moves quickly to take the key, but Tony intercepts it easily enough for himself. Bruce smiles at the obvious reason why. "And the packet with all the information on what's complimentary to our newlywed guests." Bruce takes that. "We're pleased you've chosen to stay with us again and we're here to make your stay as pleasant as possible. If you require any further accommodations, please let us know."
"Thank you," Bruce says. "And feel free to say hi to your boyfriend for us," he adds with a smile.
"Actually," Tony says, pointing to the young man before throwing an arm around Bruce, "if he's available at all while we're here, have him come by. You said he's into activism, right?"
"Yes, and science."
"Great," Tony chirps. "I think we can make time for a nice lunch or dinner with him if he's interested."
Bruce smiles at Tony's sudden, overflowing generosity. Then again, he's actually never been as stingy as he lets on. Save for with the things that he considers truly his and his alone, usually because they're vitally important to him, of course. A small shiver of delight runs down his spine when he thinks about how he's at the top of that list.
"He'll probably drop everything to get here," the man says with a laugh. "Are you sure?"
"We're sure," Bruce answers, glancing at Tony.
"Thank you. I'll let him know. You two have a good night," he says.
Tony smirks and says, "Oh, we plan on it. So if you don't mind holding our bags until we call for them, we'd appreciate it."
"Will do, Mr. Stark."
Bruce chokes on nothing and ribs Tony, making him drop his arm, as they walk away. "He didn't need that mental image, Tony."
Tony takes Bruce's hand instead and shrugs. "He's a young, gay man… or I suppose bisexual or otherwise," he hedges breezily. "And he just checked in two men on their honeymoon. Do you really think I needed to even say anything for him to already have that mental image? Or did you miss the smirk when he said 'have a good night' hmm?"
Bruce rolls his eyes and chuckles. "I guess I did. Still, I'd rather not think about his thinking about… that."
"Okay," Tony says, in the tone he has that suggests he's definitely not going to drop it at that. Then again, it's Tony and he rarely ever drops a conversation that easily. Bruce shakes his head in amusement and braces himself for whatever it is he's mulling over in his brief silence. It's only when they reach the room that Tony decides to add, gesticulating with the key in hand, "But you do realize the last time we were here everyone had mental images of us defiling each other with sounding equipment, right?"
Bruce chokes on air again and quickly grabs the key from Tony's hand to distract himself with opening the door. It's a little embarrassing how many tries it takes him to actually get the door unlocked.
"So, I really don't think some young check-in clerk having a brief mental image of a celebrity couple getting it on in the newlywed suite is really—"
"Oh my god, please stop," Bruce huffs out, turning to look at him.
For some reason, Tony seems pleased by his outburst. He smirks and looks him over before leaning in and saying, "Only if you give me something better to do." Bruce's eyes widen briefly before closing when Tony punctuates his statement with a kiss.
The kiss is immediately deep and full of intent. Bruce reaches for the door behind him to open it, Tony chasing after his lips as they fumble into the room. They move a few more feet before stopping, mouths moving hungrily against one another for a long, breathless moment.
Bruce breaks first, panting for oxygen as he says, "We should probably close the door."
Tony smirks, but it's more besotted than usual and his chest is heaving just as much as Bruce's. The billionaire moves to close the door while Bruce moves to put down the key and packet. Bruce notes from the corner of his eye that Tony also puts the Do Not Disturb sign on the outside handle and locks the door once it's shut.
Tony turns around and for a moment just stands there, undressing him with his eyes. When he finally moves forward Bruce half expects Tony to skip any kind of languid foreplay and just tackle him down onto the bed. Instead, Tony walks over to the bed and pulls off the quilt. Bruce watches with wide eyes and growing want since he has a pretty good idea what he's up to.
Sure enough, Tony takes the quilt along with the pillows over to the already lit fire and tosses them to the floor in front of it. As casual as can be Tony makes a small bed out of the items before standing up straight again.
When Tony turns back to look at him Bruce's breath hitches in his throat. He makes a vow to brush up on his own come hither look so he can make Tony turn to putty too. He swallows hard and goes over to stand in front of him. Tony's eyes are half-lidded and they telegraph his intent; it's an intent Bruce shares.
The kiss is slow and tender this time, or at least it starts that way. Gradually it turns into something slow and completely wanton.
"Never knew you were so sentimental," Bruce says, the words distorted a little between their thorough ravaging of each other's mouths.
"M'not," Tony insists, but Bruce knows that's a little white lie – one he can easily forgive since he knows that Tony knows he's not fooling him one bit. "But…" Tony pulls back, slowly enough that Bruce's lips try to chase the movement. He rests his forehead against Bruce's and they share in each other's shallow breaths. "But last time we were here it took every last ounce of willpower I had not to make love to you in front of that fireplace."
Bruce swallows hard again, a shiver running down his spine as certain parts of him respond in eager anticipation of what's to follow Tony's confession. Bruce pulls back just enough to kiss him and whisper against his mouth, "And the last time we were here, you didn't know how badly I wanted you to." Tony's eyes are wide at the revelation when Bruce pulls back again. Bruce smiles and as gracefully as he can moves to the floor and looks up at his husband.
Fleetingly, he hopes all of his lust and longing and absolute need are clear enough that it has the effect on Tony he wants it to; but then, that same dark look as before, contrasted only by the firelight, settles deep in Tony's eyes and Bruce suddenly realizes he doesn't need to do a thing at all to capture Tony's full attention because he's always had it.
Tony wanted him then and Tony wants him now and it's because Tony loves him.
It had never been pretend.
Tony takes another sip of his martini, not his drink of choice but fitting of his current character, and glances up into the mirror behind the bar. He scans the various people coming and going behind him before his eyes lock onto a young man eyeing him from the far end of the bar. The man is wearing a small pin along his lapel that indicates to Tony he's the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent he's been waiting for. S.H.I.E.L.D. has new, time-sensitive information regarding his undercover mission and since Tony hasn't exactly been able to get his hands on any materials discreetly enough to do the job himself, Bruce has also sent along some critical tech for him.
Tony focuses his mind away from Bruce, reminding himself he'll be able to contact him later via their secure link. Right now he needs to focus on pulling off this rendezvous without a hitch.
He gives the signal to the other agent that he's indeed who he's looking for. Tony's wearing a nifty Nano mask to disguise his appearance and he knows the agent would be looking for him based on how he currently looks, but there's always a chance of an enemy spy infiltrating the rendezvous with similar tech so the signal is coordinated by S.H.I.E.L.D. and signals are rarely repeated.
Tony finishes off his martini with a groan when the agent begins moving toward him with just enough of a prowling look that Tony realizes he's going to go for the predictable act of picking him up at the bar rather than keeping it platonic. Tony understands why it's the go-to-choice, of course. They're in a swanky hotel bar after all. It's just that Bruce always heckles him about these things later while simultaneously trying to distract Tony from noticing his genuine jealousy. Tony doesn't particularly enjoy the heckling or knowing that Bruce is needlessly jealous.
In fact, between that and being away from Bruce sometimes for longer periods of time than he'd like to be, Tony's started to wonder if retirement isn't in the cards finally, or at least worth being given some more serious consideration. Maybe it's time for him and Bruce to settle down into a life that's a little more mundane – well, as mundane as a couple of genius billionaire philanthropists can manage anyway. He thinks Bruce has been thinking about it too…
"Does your wife know you like to make eyes at young men when she's not around?" the other agent asks coyly. Tony almost replies that he has a husband, thank you very much, when he remembers his current character does have a wife, somewhere conveniently off screen of course.
Focusing his mind back on his task, Tony turns his head to take in the other man's appearance. He pulls up the usual mask of moody indifference, the kind that sets the tone of a casual meeting between two bored and sexually-charged strangers that turns into something equally casual in its torridness, but it nearly slips upon seeing the other agent up close. His eyes are an almost impossibly vibrant green.
Tony gapes for longer than he should.
"My wife doesn't need to know everything," he finally responds with a smirk. "What'll you have, on me?" he offers, gesturing to the bar with one hand.
The agent lifts an eyebrow. "I don't think my answer to that question involves alcohol," he says. He then darts his eyes toward the bartender and adds, "And I don't really drink much myself."
"Really now?" Tony quirks an eyebrow. "Some might say that makes a bar a strange place for you to hang around, Green Eyes." He adds, "They are... incredibly breathtaking by the way."
"Maybe I like to pick up a man here and there who does. Let's call it," the other agent leans in dangerously close, eying Tony's lips, "an acquired taste."
Tony lets the other agent kiss him, closes his eyes and lets the feeling wash over him, before pulling back and saying, "In that case, how'd you like to get a better taste upstairs, hmm?"
The other agent pulls back, eyes half-lidded, and replies coyly, "You'll do nicely." With an equally coy smile he turns and heads toward the exit.
Tony smirks again and lays down a tip on the bar before following. He glances around in a conspicuous fashion - like a married man afraid of being seen leaving with someone who isn't his spouse, a younger man no less, only to make it extremely obvious what he's up to in his effort to avoid attention. He notes more than a few people attempting to hide their looks in his direction which he's glad for. It's always better to have witnesses when staging a rendezvous.
He meets the other agent at the elevator. When it opens a few people step off, leaving it empty. Once inside, the other agent asks with a raised eyebrow, "What floor?"
Tony answers him by pressing the button himself while pushing him into the corner, lips first. The agent moans against his assault and pulls him closer. It's frantic and heady and probably a nice show for the security guard on monitor duty. They only break apart when the doors slide open again on the designated floor.
"I was hoping you'd be up for more than pretend," the agent says in a husky voice as they exit the elevator.
"I'm sure you were," Tony remarks smugly before leading him to his suite. He wastes as little time as possible unlocking the door and pulling the other agent into the room. "I guess it's a good thing for you that you're absolutely irresistible," he tells him before continuing where they'd left off in the elevator.
As the kiss deepens, still frantic and hungry like neither of them have kissed another living soul in ages, Tony moves his hands from the agent's waist to trail them slowly up the expanse of the body he would know anywhere until his fingers brush along each jaw. Tony presses both of his index fingers into the hidden locks there with just enough pressure so that they release. He then slowly strips away the Nano mask until he has to break the kiss in order to remove it completely.
Bruce's eyes flutter open, back to their natural brown - only slightly darker with lust. They blink owlishly at him for a few seconds before clarity returns to them and they shift to look at the mask in Tony's hands. Tony would be concerned about Bruce letting his guard down so much so that he hadn't even noticed what Tony was doing if he wasn't too busy feeling a little bit smug – and turned on – over his husband being that far gone just from being able to kiss him again.
After a moment, Bruce sighs at his ruse being discovered. Tony had considered letting the fantasy play out until whatever point Bruce decided to reveal himself, but the urge to spoil his fun had been just a tad too strong. Maybe next time...
"When did you figure it out?" Bruce asks with a small chuckle, proving he doesn't begrudge him for it.
"Honestly," Tony smirks and folds his arms, "the green eyes."
"What?" Bruce gives him a bewildered look.
"Green was your calling card, right? When you were a spy?"
"Yeah, but," Bruce narrows his eyes and folds his own arms, "I don't recall having told you that."
Tony shrugs broadly, his arms falling back down to his sides. "I'm a master spy, Bruce. I have my ways."
"You mean J.A.R.V.I.S. has his ways," Bruce replies to that with a knowing shake of his head, followed by another small chuckle as his arms relax too.
"Like I said," Tony agrees. "But even without that I would have known," Tony tells him, bridging the space between them and searching Bruce's face with a smile as he does. Bruce looks at him with stubborn incredulity. "Green or brown or any other color, I know your expression by heart when someone offers you alcohol." Bruce's face softens into fond disbelief instead. "And your banter was a little obvious," he continues, moving closer so that his lips are a breath away from Bruce's. "And I think it's safe to say I've memorized the taste of your lips-"
"Have you now?"
"-and the way your body fits against mine."
He accentuates that last statement with hands on Bruce's hips and a slow, tender kiss. Bruce's hands move to reciprocate removing his mask, but Tony dodges away and playfully protests, "Ah, no, I'm supposed to be undercover, remember?"
Bruce looks at him with raised brows and replies, "Mhm, and I'd like you to be even more undercover in the very near future, but if I don't get to wear the mask, neither do you."
He moves toward him to try again only for Tony to resist some more until it devolves into one of their – extremely manly, if anyone asks – pillow fights when Tony picks one up to block Bruce's efforts. The pillows are just as quickly abandoned when Bruce opts for wrestling him to the bed instead. It's only a wonder they manage it between their fits of laughter.
"Don't think you'll win this time," Tony heckles him after several minutes in a deadlock. "I've learned all your moves, Brucey."
Bruce stops wrestling to look down at him from where he straddles his hips, chest heaving up and down. He quirks an eyebrow and his lips turn up into a small, wry smile. It's only slightly terrifying, and in the best kind of way.
"You don't really believe that do you?" His question carries the promise of all the little surprises he still has in store for him, and Tony can hardly wait. "After all, a husband has to maintain some aura of mystery. How else can I keep you on your—"
Tony interrupts that thought by reaching his hand around to Bruce's back and finding that very random and highly sensitive ticklish spot he's fairly certain his husband doesn't know he's mapped out. Bruce squirms immediately and Tony uses it to his advantage to flip their positions.
"You're right," he says with a smirk as Bruce looks up at him in breathless confusion. "A husband should always have a few new tricks up his sleeve."
Bruce huffs and says, "More like a dirty trick."
Tony's smirk turns into something far more salacious. "If you think that was dirty, wait until you see what else I've got."
Bruce's eyes widen, darkening again as they do. He then surges upward to capture his lips, Tony meeting him halfway with renewed hunger. Bruce's hands scrabble for purchase on his shoulders as he breaks away just long enough to say, "Missed you." His lips are back on Tony's immediately, tongue pushing into his slightly open mouth and proving how much Tony's been missed without words.
Tony reaches for Bruce's hands and moves them to his neck where the mask's locks are located. Bruce pulls back from the kiss, smiling in understanding. He carefully pulls it off while Tony pushes him back down onto the bed, bracketing him as Bruce finishes and lays the mask aside. Bruce's smile widens and he looks at him like he hasn't seen him for far longer than it's actually been.
"Missed you too," Tony says, smiling back and tracing familiar lines with his thumb until he reaches Bruce's lips. He leans down and brushes them chastely with his own before adding, "So maybe it's time we talk about quitting the spy game and settling down." He feels, more than hears, Bruce's small gasp. "Or I suppose you could always join me in the field full time."
"We—" Bruce blinks. "We can discuss it when you come home. Right now... Right now we need to—"
Tony finishes that thought with a long, deep kiss while Bruce's hands move between them to start work on getting him unclothed.
"Wait," Tony breaks the kiss suddenly when Bruce's comment fully processes, "which one? Retirement or you becoming a field agent again?"
Tony isn't particularly surprised when Bruce merely lifts an eyebrow and gives him a fond, lopsided smile before pulling him back into the kiss.
It's a secret for another day.
Thank you so much to everyone who's stuck with this fic for the far too long of time it took to complete. Thank you for always being amazing and encouraging and for thinking my humble offerings are worth your time and appreciation. (And thank you in advance to any potential readers who stumble upon this work in the future and give it a read as well!) I hope it was worth it in the end and that you enjoyed it as much as I did writing it. This one was truly a fun ride for me as an author (more than I ever counted on when I originally tagged it with "this is gonna be bad"!!!) so I can only hope that earnestness was transmuted into the work, making it a fun ride for anyone reading.