Tony swivels his chair in half-circles. Ostensibly, he's in the lab to work. Really, he's just here to watch Bruce. The man is amazing. All that intelligence and all that rage, wrapped up in one handsome package. He can—and has—listened to Bruce talk for hours. Bruce gets him. It's rare for Tony to have someone who will talk science with him on his level. Usually he has to wait for conferences but he has Bruce here, in his Tower, for the foreseeable future and he never wants to let Bruce go.
But Bruce will go. It's part of his pattern. When life gets too tough, he runs. Yeah, he came back when Manhattan was in danger. He might even come back the next time there's a crisis, but if Bruce runs now, there's nothing to call him back.
Tony wants to be Bruce's reason. He wants Bruce.
It's been so long since he's been in love. There was Pepper, yeah, but they were a flash-in-the-pan that never really took off. Better that way. Keeps their working relationship uncomplicated. He'd tried to give her strawberries for fuck's sake. He's a hot mess.
How do normal people do this? He's never asked someone out before. They come to him and he goes with it, because why not. He's never wanted someone like this—his heart raw and open, one word away from being crushed. Is this how teenagers feel? Is he going through emotional puberty?
"Something on your mind, Tony?" Bruce glances over at him. His head is ducked low over a microscope. His hair is messy, shirt wrinkled.
Tony is so lost.
"Did you ever realize," Tony says without thinking. His mouth does that. Often. Spews out words. He never knows where he's going to end up, but it usually works out. Usually. "...that screw rhymes with me and you?"
Bruce snorts. His shoulders shake with repressed laughter. When Bruce turns to look at him, his eyes are sparkling with mirth. Tony has hope for one second and then, "Very funny, Tony. Does that ever work for you?"
What? Seriously, what? Did he...? Did Bruce not...?
"Apparently not," Tony says. Bruce isn't looking anymore.
He leaves in favor of his own lab. He'd rather nurse his wounded pride where only his bots and JARVIS can make fun of him.
* * * * *
"Hey, Tony." Bruce smiles at him over a cup of tea.
Fuck. Shit. No. Bruce is the last person Tony wants to see. Pepper made JARVIS kick him out of the lab last night so he could sleep before the board meeting. He didn't sleep. Couldn't, so now he's up too early on too little sleep and Bruce is sitting there being heart-achingly perfect.
He blames his sleep deprivation for what comes out of his mouth. "Hey, I lost my underwear. Can I see yours?"
Bruce laughs, again. So does Natasha from where she's cooking something that smells amazing.
"That's a good one," Bruce says.
"It's really not." Natasha joins Bruce at the table, a plate of eggs scrambled with sausage and peppers in hand.
"I just heard it," Tony lies. He leaves without the coffee he came for. There's a machine in the boardroom. He'll get some there.
* * * * *
They're eating dinner. All of them. Steve had dragged Tony up from the lab where he had not—despite what JARVIS and Pepper would say—been moping. Not at all. The table's already set when he gets there and he's shoved into the chair between Bruce and Clint.
His mouth is going to be the death of him. Really it is. He's passing a bowl of rice to Bruce when he says, "What's your favorite utensil, because I like to spoon?"
Everyone laughs this time, even Bruce as he shakes his head. Clint slaps Tony on the back. They explain pick-up lines to Thor and then everyone's throwing some in, competing for who has the worst. Even Steve contributes.
Tony shrinks lower in his chair. He's so bad at this, it's a joke.
* * * * *
He thinks about asking Rhodey. Rhodey had been with him through his entire awkward college kid phase. This feels a lot like that, when he'd been young and clueless about social life outside of business functions and boarding school. But Rhodey's overseas and doesn't answer his phone, so Tony turns to Pepper instead.
"What is it, Tony? I'm busy." She doesn't even look at her phone. There's a thick pile of papers in front of her. She has her pen poised.
Right. Actual CEO work. The stuff Tony never wanted to do.
He must have waited too long because she turns to look at him. "Tony?"
"How do you ask someone out?" He says it all in a rush. It's the only way to get the words out.
She blinks. He can see her parsing his jumble of words. Her expression softens. She puts the pen down. "Oh, Tony, it's Bruce, isn't it?"
He doesn't ask how she knows. Pepper always knows. It's what makes her so awesome.
He exhales and stares at the ceiling. "Yes."
"Did you try asking him on a date?"
"Obviously not very well."
"He said no?" There's surprise and incredulity in Pepper's voice, enough that he looks back at the screen.
"No. I mean, technically he never said anything. He laughed."
"Well, what did you say?"
He throws his hands up. "I don't know! Stupid pick up lines. They worked on me."
"Everything works on you, Tony." She says it fondly. Pepper may not have approved of the timing of some of his past sexcapades but she never shamed him for it. He likes sex. He's not picky about who he has it with.
He folds forward, elbows on the desk, head in his hands. "He laughed at me, Pepper. I can't... I don't know what to say. I've never done this."
"You'll get there, Tony." Her hope is contagious. He feels better already. "Talk to him. Tell him how you feel. No jokes this time."
He stares at her.
She rolls her eyes. "I mean it. I know it's hard for you to talk about your feelings, but it will work. I promise. Be honest with him."
He sighs. "Fine."
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
He smiles. That line always makes him smile. His voice is soft and fond when he says, "Yes, that will be all, Miss Potts."
The call disconnects. He can do this. He just needs to get Bruce alone to talk.
* * * * *
Bruce is never alone. There's a virus outbreak in Uruguay that Bruce goes to help with and right when he gets back the Avengers get a call. Nothing major, just some particularly annoying Doom Bots. Hulk smashes. The team keeps them corralled while Tony figures out where they're being controlled from. There may have been a booby trap that exploded when he touched the console, but he's fine. The armor took most of the hit. He has a concussion but it's nothing to go to medical about. Not even when he falls twice trying to get out of the Quinjet.
"How many fingers am I holding up?" Bruce asks. He's shining a bright light in Tony's eyes which is not helping Tony's massive headache.
He swats Bruce's hand away. "Some number between one and five."
Bruce looks at someone behind the couch Tony's slumped on. Probably Steve. Steve turns into a complete mother hen when one of the team is injured. Tony is not injured. It's just a concussion.
"I wish I was your derivative, so I could lie tangent to your curves."
Did he say that? He must have said that because Bruce is giving him the same look Pepper does when he's being stupid.
"Now is really not the time for jokes, Tony."
Why is Bruce mad? Bruce is never mad at him. He doesn't understand. "But I wasn't-"
"He wants to sleep with you," Natasha cuts in. She crouches next to Bruce and takes Tony's face in both hands. "He'll be fine after some rest."
Tony nods, then remembers why he's trying not to move. "What she said." He's not sure which part he's agreeing with, but they're both true.
Steve sighs. Tony can hear him walk away. It's the boots. They're heavy boots. Loud.
Bruce hasn't said anything. Tony blinks and tries very hard to focus on Bruce. Bruce is gaping.
He should probably elaborate. "Not just sleep. Don't even have to have sex if you don't like it. Or me."
Natasha shakes her head and claps a hand on Bruce's shoulder. "I'll leave you to it." She stands and ushers Clint and Thor out, despite Clint's protests about staying to watch.
Bruce is still staring.
"Sorry," Tony says, though he's not sure what, exactly, he's apologizing for. "I can stop." He knows he's done something. He always has something to apologize for.
Bruce shakes his head, snapping out of whatever daze he'd been in. "No, it's fine. I... uh... Have you been trying to ask me out?"
Tony frowns. "'m bad at it."
There's that smile again and the sort of half-laugh. "Not as bad as you think." Bruce leans forward and presses a hand against Tony's cheek. Tony will deny that he rubs his face against Bruce's palm like a cat. "I should probably save this for when you're not concussed but... Nice shoes, wanna fuck?"
Tony bursts with laughter. "God yes." The room spins when he tries to stand up. "After my concussion goes away."
Bruce sits beside him on the couch and lets Tony lean against him. It's nice. Really nice. He owes Natasha a gift. Something shiny, maybe lethal.
He'll figure something out.