Thank you to TreeFrogie84 for their beta of an early draft of this fic.
Thank you to my most significant other for creating the title banner.
And very special thanks to Mythras who has been my biggest cheerleader through revisions and edits. <3
All remaining errors are my own.
"Hi there. Do you mind if I place my order while you finish doing… whatever it is you’re doing?”
“Whassat?” Tony asks, his question muffled by the screws held between his lips. He affixes the replacement metal plate to the automated juicer in a rush. With any luck, he’ll have this thing up and running again by the 7AM rush.
“Um, good morning,” Though there’s an obvious attempt to make himself heard, a yawn garbles the customer’s greeting. “Sorry.” A bit hoarse and carrying the drawl of exhaustion, they try again after a stretch. “Good morning.”
Tony’s ears perk up at the just-out-of-bed quality hanging off the baritone’s hello. The gentleman in him wants to insist the man go home and get some rest. But there’s a niggling thought behind that one, where the cad in him still plays. They tease, If this guy’s personality is half as interesting as the moans he makes while stretching, maybe we should offer him our bed - and our company - instead.
Tony shoos the idea away like he has so many times in recent weeks. It’s been tough resisting the temptation of old habits, ignoring flirations from folks he knows won’t be interested in him beyond a night or two. But he made a promise to himself. He has to stop diving into relationships sex-first. And so, Tony reminds himself to put his inappropriate thoughts to bed. Away. This is going to be hard. Ugh.
The man yawns yet again, this one ending with a sigh and a low groan.
If this guy is anything like himself - and the dozens of other true workaholics employed by Stark Industries - then his work ethic likely kept him burning the candle at both ends. But the guy shelves his impatience as he restates his request. He sounds sweet, humble and apologetic. Nothing like the narcissists and cutthroats Tony is used to doing business with. Must be new here , Tony jokes to himself.
“I hate to interrupt,” the customer starts again, “but I'm afraid I'm already running late. May I order? Are you even open for business?"
"Oh. Yep. Sure, sure. No problemo.” When he responds, Tony has his head wedged far up the juicer’s, well, ‘bottom’ would be a nice word for it. “I’ll be done with this in a sec.”
The juicer needs just a few finishing touches. Then, The Squeeze should be ready to run on its own.
Tony knows it’s gimmicky, a fully automated juice bar in the lobby of Stark Tower, but he’s had one in his penthouse for years. Why not share the awesome? It’s kinda his schtick. He’s a man of the people. Well, his people. The ones he likes, anyway. And he likes the people who work for him. For the most part. The ones who work for him now. Now that he’s weeded out the bad apples. Speaking of apples, he has a customer, doesn’t he?
Almost dreading the customer’s reaction of coming face-to-face with ‘the' Tony Stark, he ducks out from under the juicer to take a peek at them as they wait. There’s no sense in rushing the reveal. He thinks it would be nice to be ‘just some guy’ manning The Squeeze for awhile longer. So when Tony gets a look at the customer, he’s relieved to have even a few seconds to take in the sight of him undetected.
The man’s hands obscure his face as he rubs his eyes, but Tony can’t deny that the sight of him is adorable. Though he’s sharply dressed, there are a few suggestions Tony would make. For one, his mess of curls beg for fingers to run through them. He should ditch the tie. Undo the top buttons of his shirt. And toss the sports coat... Hell, it would look great on our bedroom floor.
Tony’s not that guy anymore. He hasn’t engaged in a random hookup in weeks. But Mr. Bedhead stifles another yawn and the soft sounds escaping his throat make it hard for Tony to think of anything else. Even the way he sways as if he’s half dreaming draws Tony’s mouth into a small smile.
“City That Never Sleeps, right?” Tony says conversationally. He’s not flirting. No; he’s been able to keep all inappropriateness locked up tight, thank you very much. Even if he did try to swagger his way through the question with a wink and a lick of his lips, he doubts the guy is awake enough to notice.
“So,” Tony tucks his screwdriver into his toolbox and washes his hands at the sink beside it. “What’s your poison?” Though the juicer will take a minute to boot up for a test run, there's no harm in the illusion of getting the ball rolling.
Mr. Bedhead still has his fingertips pressed hard into the corners of his eyes as he orders. "May I get your largest coffee, extra hot, extra light, extra sweet, extra whip, please." The kindness with which he continues to conduct himself is matched only by his clear inability to begin his day without the aforementioned cup-of-joe. In the absence of caffeine, apparently, the man can’t even read the juice bar signs. “A few shots of espresso wouldn’t hurt either.”
"Oh. Um.” The Squeeze isn’t equipped for coffee requests, but the man’s desperate need to feed his addiction almost inspires Tony to head out to the café around the corner.
It’s impractical and impulsive and not altogether off-brand. If this guy wasn’t running late, Tony would suggest they make the trip together. That’s a thing people do, right? Go out for a drink a coffee without the expectation they’ll be hopping into bed afterward?
Be that as it may, Village Coffee is usually packed during the morning rush. Even if Tony were to use his celebrity to cut the line, contending with sidewalk foot traffic there and back would be horrendous.
Stalling as the juicer stutters through its reboot, Tony asks, “Rough night?"
“You have no idea.”
Tony turns around to tinker with the machine - C’mon, princess, work with me here - like he has some kind of magic that will turn the spinach and pineapples into a Kona Blend. “Wanna talk about it?” He tosses the question over his shoulder as casually as he can muster.
He should never have banned coffee machines from the office. Surely JARVIS knows of someone who’s broken the rule - Tony's own right-hand woman, Pepper Potts, is probably one of them, if he had to venture a guess.
"Not much time for a chat," Mr. Bedhead says around another yawn. "Thanks, I guess?" He sounds unsure if Tony's offer is sincere and Tony wants to assure him, Even a genius, billionaire, philanthropist knows what it's like to need an ear.
Tony knows an invitation to sit down with the head of the company isn't something a new hire is presented with every day. So Mr. Bedhead's nonreaction to Tony and his offer throw him for a loop. Of course, the nonreaction is actually a better reaction than what he expected.
The typical peacocking Tony is used to seeing when he’s introduced to someone, employee or otherwise, got old decades ago. Everyone wants to be noticed by Tony Stark; wants Tony Stark to be impressed by them. Everyone wants something from Tony. Except for this guy.
Well, that's not true. He wants coffee.
And Tony can’t believe he’s actually considering a trip to the coffeeshop for this stranger, no matter how cute. But beyond a select few, this customer is the first person who’s treated Tony like a normal guy since forever.
Maybe he can convince Mr. Bedhead that a smoothie with an energy shot will have him feeling more awake and rejuvenated than any sugared-up coffee could ever do. Maybe a juice will tide him over until they can go out for drinks later tonight.
A grinding of gears and a warning beep bring that idea to a screeching halt.
With a huff of frustration, Tony lowers himself to his knees once more.
He wipes his hands on his tee-shirt, grateful he had the foresight to leave his suit jacket in his office lest it get grease-stained like the last one. Once his hands are dry, he digs into the machine again.
“Just making a final adjustment here and-”
Tony can’t jump out of the way fast enough. A spring snaps and a metal door falls, hitting him square in the face. “Shit!”
“Oh, my god! Are you alright?”
"Do I look it?" Tony’s question would sound like a whine even if the injury hadn't given his voice a nasal quality.
Suddenly awake and full of vitality, Mr. Bedhead scrambles to be useful.
Tony's eyes water and his nose begins to bleed. He blindly reaches for a hand towel and presses it to his nose. The day is off to such a wonderful start, he can only imagine how well he'll fare during the attack SHIELD has predicted for later today.
Tony has only a second to forecast doom and gloom before he hears rather than sees his customer moving above him.
Mr. Bedhead is quick to find the freezer bin and scoop ice for a makeshift ice pack. With hushed sounds of encouragement, he trades it for Tony's towel.
“Here. No-no-no, don't tip your head back.” Mr. Bedhead’s hand is gentle as it cradles Tony’s neck to keep him in position.
“You some kind of doctor?” Tony mumbles from under the ice.
“Heh.” Dr. Bedhead is leaning in close enough that Tony should be able to map the pattern of his irises, if only his own eyes weren’t swimming. “I've patched up more than my fair share of scrapes and bruises.”
“This is more than a scrape, Doc.”
“Don't be a baby.” The accompanying laugh is low and light and Tony marvels at how the laugh of a stranger can be such a sweet sound.
“Kicking me when I'm down, huh?”
Dr. Bedhead is still cradling Tony’s neck, but starting to pull away, when he says, “You seem like the type that gets off on that kind of thing.”
Tony’s face grows hot; he’s grateful the towel masks his blush.
"You should get going. You're late as it is,” Tony reminds the man, disappointed he has to rush him along. “There’s a coffee place around the corner if-"
There’s that laugh again. "Don’t worry about it. I’ve had enough excitement to get me through the morning.”
Tony knows this laugh will carry him through what will surely be a shit day. He wonders when he’ll get to hear its rise and fall again. He wants to say something, but he’s afraid of coming on too strong. He’s afraid it’ll sound like a line. And, for the first time in a long time, Tony thinks he could be interested in more.
A hand comes to rest on Tony’s shoulder. It’s warm and comforting and Tony’s almost sure he can feel a thumb moving in little circles trying to soothe. “Are you sure you’ll be OK?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ve survived worse.” Tony’s vision is still a blur, but he squints in his fruitless struggle to see the face of his white knight. He closes his eyes and imagines a face to go with the voice.
“I can help you write an incident report,” he offers, gentle and kind as ever. “Or go with you to HR as a witness."
Despite the throbbing pain radiating from his nose, Tony chuckles at the guy’s dry humor. The head of the company going to HR to complain about causing himself an injury? Oh, Pepper would love to catch wind of that.
And while this man’s concern for his well-being is rather endearing, Tony has an inkling that there’s more to the doc’s hovering than that.
"I’m starting to think you really want to miss this meeting." That’s alright, Tony muses, sitting back against the cabinet. If there wasn’t a power hungry demigod on the loose, Tony can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be. Except maybe Village Coffee exchanging pleasantries and open flirtations with Dr. Bedhead. Minus the bloody nose and half-frozen face, of course.
"You're right," the man says, checking his watch, "I have to go." Instead of rushing off, however, he lingers.
Tony hopes he's stalling to give a name, a number, an expression of interest. But what he gets is a quiet, "See you around," and Tony has to force his thoughts away from the loneliness of life in the public eye.
“JARVIS," Tony says as he listens to the stranger’s fading steps of retreat. "Once I get The Squeeze up and running, remind me to send Dr. Bedhead his juice, will ya?”
JARVIS responds immediately, snarky as always. “You imagine you’ll forget, sir?”
“Don’t get smart with me.”
“In all fairness, I’m not the one who fumbled the repair of my own appliance and the opportunity for a date both in the span of five minutes.”
“What do you mean five minutes?"
“Less than that, sir. I was being generous.”
“Eh, buzz off." Tony hurries toward his private elevator, still wiping blood from his nose and unshed tears from his eyes. "I gotta clean up and suit up before Rogers gets his tights in a bunch.”
“Dr. Banner." Phil Coulson greets Bruce with a curt gesture toward a pair of empty seats. "Nice of you to join us.”
Bruce scans the conference room before acknowledging all twelve of the people present with a single nod. “There was an, um, incident in the lobby,” he explains. Without apology for his tardiness, he takes his place at the table.
“Code: Green?” A man recognizable from military recruitment posters and campy advertisements sits forward in his chair. Concern is written in the lines of the face too young for its years.
Bruce takes off his glasses even though it makes him as blind as he was without them at the coffee counter. He produces a cloth from his pocket and proceeds to clean his lenses with care. The move provides the illusion that he's considering his response before he states, “Code: none of your goddamn business.”
“Language, Dr. Banner-" America’s Golden Lab Rat casts a fleeting glance toward the women in the room "-if you don't mind.”
Bruce glares at The Geriatric Boy Scout, turning his back on the SHIELD agents in the room. Bruce is here to help, but that doesn’t mean he respects anyone who believes they can control him.
He fits his glasses over his ears and directs the entirety of his attention to the Avengers at the table. “I can pin you guys easy enough… The Star Spangled Smurf, Dark Willow, Hot Guy, MC Hammer… Where's the Man in a Can?”
Coulson coughs into his fist, trying to hide his discomfort at being ignored. “He had more pressing matters with which to contend.”
“Really,” Bruce scoffs. “More pressing than an alien invasion led by a sociopath currently wielding a staff of psionic power?” Bruce had heard rumors about the narcissistic billionaire playboy but he'd hoped that, as Iron Man, Stark would put the needs of Earth’s safety above his own personal interests.
“I'm running point on the mission, not Stark," the babyfaced centenarian announces. He may as well puff out his chest for all the importance he places on that fact. “And as such, Dr. Banner, I need to know: how closely can I expect the Hulk to follow a game plan?”
Bruce grounds out a stiff, “Point him at the target. He'll get the job done, or wreck everything that stands in the way of your goal.”
“Or both,” supplies Black Widow helpfully.
“Probably both,” Bruce agrees. At least Widow is going into this mission with her eyes open. There's some level of comfort in that.
She's been upfront since finding Bruce hiding out in Damascus. As far as he can tell, she did everything she could to funnel misappropriated funds back into the villages that had been kind enough to take Bruce in when he needed a place to hide out. That earned her a splinter of his trust.
Their team captain clasps his hands together on the table and nods. “Fair enough."
Good Christ, Bruce winces inwardly, this is really happening. I've placed The Other Guy on a team with these poor bastards.
This is a bad idea. Bruce isn't even sure Hulk will stand still long enough to take directions, let alone care enough to follow them. Even so, he wants to try. He thinks, if he has any shot at making reparations for the damage Hulk has done, working alongside the Avengers is it.
But Coulson and Hill are talking at him like he has any control over Hulk after the transformation and Bruce is exhausted by the thought of trying to explain to them - yet again - that they've got it all wrong. Once Hulk takes the wheel, it's like Bruce is passed out in the back seat, unaware he's even along for the ride.
"Got all that, Dr. Banner?" Hill checks in like any of it makes a difference, and Bruce gives a curt nod in the hope the agents of SHIELD will move on to bother someone else.
Hill directs her attention elsewhere. Bruce doesn’t care where, he’s just happy to be out of the spotlight.
He should have stayed with the barista and ditched this meeting altogether. After hearing Hill’s spiel about Loki, Bruce thinks what the Avengers need is clue and a prayer, not a Hulk. And the longer Bruce sits in this room listening to strategy and procedure, the more he realizes how foolish he had been to think he had any chance with the klutz in the lobby.
They hadn’t shared a moment. The spark Bruce had felt as he helped the guy nurse his bloodied nose had to have been Bruce’s imagination. They hadn't even introduced themselves, for God's sake. And not for Bruce’s lack of trying. He was this close to asking for the barista’s number when Bruce decided instead to test the waters with an offer to walk him to HR. For that offer to have fallen dead at his feet is probably for the best anyway. There's no way any sane, intelligent person would consider a relationship with Bruce hulking Banner.
When Bruce comes out of his thoughts, Rogers is sitting up straight enough to have an actual rod up his ass without feeling a thing. The room is silent. Bruce figures he’s missed some blahdie, blahdie, bullshit while feeling sorry for himself. It’s not the first time; it won’t be the last.
"We move out in an hour." Rogers sends Bruce a sharp look that leaves him wondering for half a second if the super soldier can read thoughts. "Avengers," their captain says with command, "it’s time to suit up.”
Bruce takes a last look around the room before standing with the rest of them. Their civilian clothing will soon be replaced with suits unique to each person's strengths and weaknesses, while Bruce will strip to flesh and bone. With skin like Kevlar, SHIELD hasn't even offered Hulk a uniform, let alone armor.
Bruce steps in line behind Barton and suppresses the urge to roll his eyes.
Coulson catches Bruce's attitude at the door. “Are we going to have a problem, Dr. Banner?”
“Why would we? You don’t seem to have a problem with Stark." Bruce folds his arms over his chest, well aware that it makes him look smaller, that it looks like he's giving himself a hug. He's not trying to intimidate. People are already scared of him; Bruce doesn't add to that with petty posturing. "I showed up; that’s more than I can say for him. Unless, of course, Stark gets a free pass for signing your check.”
“Your check, too; don’t forget.”
“How could I?”
“No one dragged you here, Doctor. You had your reasons for following Agent Romanov out of Syria. Maybe you should try to remember what those were.”
Bruce's reasons are at the forefront of his mind, always. Contrition for the things he’s done, the monster he’s become.
Absolution may be impossible, unattainable, but Bruce tells himself he has to do something. He has to try to make up for the suffering he's caused. But the rest of them shouldn't delude themselves; Bruce is no hero. And he certainly didn’t come here to make friends.
An hour later, Bruce stands in the cargo hold of the Quinjet brushing shoulders with half of the Avengers team. For all his jabs at the briefing, there's no doubting who his teammates are now that they've donned their full regalia.
Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Thor are all strapped with armor and weapons. In contrast, Bruce stands with bare feet sticking out from under the hem of his pants. He's opted to keep an undershirt on in front of strangers today. He figures he can maintain some privacy for as long as they prefer that Dr. Banner stick around.
“Word on Stark?” Widow asks the room.
Hawkeye adjusts the strap of his quiver and smoothes it across his chest. “He’s already engaged with the target.” A pointy end of his bow catches Bruce’s hip as he turns to address Widow. Bruce bites back a wince of pain and brushes off Hawkeye’s apology.
Armor and weapons, that’s what the rest of the Avengers ride into battle wearing. Bruce, on the other hand, gets all of his failings strung out and corded together like an exposed nerve.
“He’s already out there?" Bruce sneers, keeping his anger on the real, immediate problem here: their supposed teammate who's gone off showboating for his fans. “That’s just great.”
Stark, The Most Famous Mass Murderer in the History of America, has caused more pain and more deaths than Bruce and the Hulk. He’s placed dictators into power and stocked the armories of terrorist groups. Stark is just as much a monster as Hulk, as Bruce. And yet, he's been forgiven -- lauded as a hero by the masses. So, maybe… No. Such a thing isn’t in the cards for a guy like Bruce Banner.
"Does Stark do this often?” Bruce asks.
Hawkeye’s armored elbow scrapes against Bruce’s bare arm as he shrugs.
“So he’s an egotist, a genius, and an idiot, all packed neatly into a weaponized suit." Bruce's dry, bitter laughter cracks. "I’m liking Captain Blue Balls better by the minute.”
“Seriously," Rogers sounds more confused than he does wounded, "what did I ever do to you?”
“Oh.” Without his glasses, Bruce honestly hadn't noticed the man enter the cargohold. “You’re here.”
“And so are you.” Rogers steps into focus and Bruce can't help but notice that in his super suit the supersoldier looks supersolid.
Bruce says, “In the flesh," as he idly wonders what a flick from the Hulk would do to the man.
Would it be an immovable object versus unstoppable force situation? Or would Captain crunch?
“I was thinking that your flesh would be a little more… green by now.”
There’s a rumble underfoot and a generic announcement to mind the closing doors as the jet readies for takeoff.
Bruce glances around at the team, minus the Iron Idiot. “Are you sure you want The Other Guy in here with you?” It’s their last chance to change their minds. Hulk in a confined space? Not really the best idea.
Hawkeye chuckles and mutters into his fist, “I think Captain Blue Balls is ready to take his chances.”
The metal fingers brushing ash from Bruce's hair are more dexterous than he had imagined them to be. The touch is gentle even as it knocks dust into Bruce's blinking eyes.
The first thing Bruce sees upon waking is a garish gold and red faceplate hovering way too close to his face. “Fuck you.”
The armored head tilts to the side, in birdlike fashion. “Well, aren’t you a peach?”
“If that’s a crack about my state of undress, I’ll have you know I retain residual strength for a few hours after transformation.”
“Is that true?” Iron Man sounds a little impressed and a whole lot skeptical.
“No,” Bruce deadpans, still lying flat on his back. The metal hand continues picking debris out of his hair. The faceplate is still unnervingly close. Bruce would be able to feel the guy's breath, to guess his breakfast, if he bothered to remove the helmet. Ever heard of personal space? Bruce lets out a long sigh. Idiot. “May I get up now?”
“I don’t know, can you?”
Bruce chooses to ignore the sincerity of the question.
“I said, ‘may I’. I don’t doubt my ability.” But Stark does.
Bruce pushes himself to sit as soon as the iron suit gives him enough space to do so. The room spins.
Maybe he should lie back down. He’s not sure if that’s an internal suggestion or one that comes from his companion. Out of defiance - in case it wasn’t his own idea to recline - Bruce remains upright. Then he ignores the hand that juts out to hoist him to his feet, and stands on his own.
Bruce looks around with a slow twist. When the air is a cloud of dust, and what used to be a building has turned into a heap of rubble, there’s not much one can tell by way of location. Any direction feels right and wrong.
When you're near blind without your glasses, you tend to be fucked no matter what.
Bruce follows Iron Man's gaze and carefully turns himself about. The patch of light catches his attention immediately. Through what he can guess is a Hulk-sized hole in the ruins, the setting sun casts its rays. They have an exit.
Bruce hates this part - these moments of disorientation and weakness - more than he hates giving up control of his agency to The Other Guy. Each step toward the light is a trial, a punishment for whatever sins he has committed under the guise of Hulk.
”Where are we?” he asks, climbing over broken tables and chairs. He approaches what could have been a customer service area just hours before.
Bruce stumbles over the uneven ground and catches his chest against the counter. Motherfuck.
“Whoa. Easy, killer.”
With a grunt and a clenched jaw, Bruce pushes himself up. Great choice of words. Bruce wonders how high Hulk's casualty count ran today. Day 1 as an Avenger, how bad could it be?
The splintered edge of the counter cuts Bruce’s palms and leaves his bare chest scraped and bleeding, but he doesn’t have the patience or supplies to deal with it here. Wherever here is exactly.
While picking at torn skin on his palm, Bruce notices there is a pastry case next to the counter. It’s to his chagrin the glass shattered over the baked goods; transformation always leaves him exhausted and starving.
The scrapheap on the counter drags Bruce's depression deeper. This was a café. Even in pieces, Bruce can identify the espresso machine more readily than he could the monstrosity that attacked the barista at Stark Tower.
It figures some kind of monster would lash out against the one person whose company he enjoyed today. That’s how it goes for Bruce, isn’t it? Except the monster isn’t usually a coffee machine. More often than not, it has been him.
Bruce glares at the ruins of the pastry case and espresso machine and asks them petulantly, Where were you this morning, hmmm?
White Plains, NY , comes his own sarcastic response.
“How’d we end up this far out?” Bruce asks aloud as he trudges toward the light.
“You took off running.”
Bruce sucks on his bottom lip, tastes blood. He’s not looking forward to the trip to Medical where they’ll take inventory of every bump and bruise he acquired after Hulk abandoned him under the falling rubble of the café. He’s not looking forward to the inevitable question they’ll ask in the examination room and at the debrief: 'How much do you remember?' Bruce is loathe to admit, ’I remember nothing’.
Taking a big step over a fallen sign, Bruce grumbles, “Wasn’t me.”
“Beg your pardon?” Iron Man waits at their exit.
It’s unnerving, being under his watchful gaze, but Bruce has no choice but to walk toward him. He keeps his eyes glued to his feet.
What was once rooftop now shifts and crumbles under his weight. Bruce needs his arms out for balance, his hands at the ready to catch himself from falling too hard. There's no privacy of body, so why not bare his soul? “Hulk ran,” Bruce clarifies, “Not me.”
“Not really.” Bruce isn’t sure why he even tries to correct people; no one seems to care. Why would Shell-head be any different? All Stark cares about is himself.
Except, there’s a quietude in the air now like Iron Man is waiting for Bruce to say more. The invitation to speak and the offer of a listening ear are too much, too strange, to entertain. Especially now that it has happened twice in one day. Bruce’s thoughts flit back to the barista in the lobby before he shuts them down hard. There’s no sense in dwelling on what could never be.
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Bruce changes the subject. “So what’s the plan?”
“I take you back to Manhattan.”
“Take? As in carry ?” Bruce has seen the news; he’s not naive to how Iron Man travels. He tears another piece of peeling skin from his palm. “Other options-” he demands; Tony must have a list “-let's hear 'em.”
“None, not really.”
“Am I supposed to ride piggyback?” Bruce wrinkles his nose at the thought of his skin chafing against that suit.
There’s no response from Metal Mouth for a minute and Bruce thinks, Good. Finally. He shut up. He also thinks, Shit.
Then Iron Man speaks again to make things worse. “I figured I'd carry you bridal style, Brucey-baby.”
“Screw you, Stark.”
There’s a whisper of hydraulics and Bruce squints to see Iron Man fold his arms over his chest. He tries not to be impressed by the execution of the suit’s design.
“Cap did say you had quite the potty mouth.”
“Oh, did he now.” Let the Avengers try to push that All-American goodie-two-shoes crap on him. Heroes? They’re all frauds; present company included.
“There’s been talk.”
“He’s known me less than a day.” Without his watch or phone, Bruce has no way to confirm the date on his own, but Iron Man shrugs in response.
“It appears you make quite an impression.”
Bruce scowls. “Pot meet kettle.”
“At least I know your better half likes me.”
Bruce ignores the proffered gauntlet as he steps up onto the sidewalk. The sun is sinking below the horizon and he’s grateful. The softening light is easy on his eyes which are still sensitive after his recent transformation. “My better half?”
“Yeah, the one who kicks ass and holds the sass. He saved my life today.”
“ He saved the city?”
“Well, he helped with that. But I was referring to when my suit failed for a minute.” The end of Tony’s statement lifts like a question. “When Hulk plucked me out of the sky; gave me a ride to the ground.”
“Oh.” That’s… different.
“You don't remember?”
“I told you. He isn't me.” Hulk hadn’t shown the same interest in the preservation of life, hadn’t had the same instincts to save a life, in the past.
“Anyway,” Helmet Head turns his eye slits toward the sky, “he likes me all the same.”
“He doesn't know you yet.”
“Neither do you.”
Stealth engines rumble overhead as the Quinjet hovers outside the devastated shopping center.
Bruce scoffs. “No other options, huh?”
Iron Man’s voice dips low. “You seemed genuinely averse to the idea of being carried all that way.” Then lower. “I'm not the asshole you paint me out to be.”
He taps the side of his helmet and for a moment Bruce thinks the faceplate is going to come off. Instead, communications between the Quinjet and Iron Man are broadcast through some kind of speaker so Bruce can listen in.
“Plenty of room for you to fly aboard,” Coulson says.
“Need that rope ladder,” Iron Man responds without hesitation. “The suit is still acting up.”
“Get on that ASAP,” another voice chimes in. “We got rid of Loki for now, but there's no telling when he'll come back.”
“Roger, Rogers. Now, how about that rope?”
Distressingly aware he’s in the company of more than one person, Bruce shields himself with cupped hands between his thighs. “Does lying just come as second nature to you," he snaps, "or do you have ‘no other option’ but to pretend your suit is malfunctioning?”
“My suit is malfunctioning today. Or did you miss the part where I mentioned almost falling to my death. Sure, I lied about needing the rope… to give you a modicum of privacy! But, screw me, right?”
Face flushed with anger and embarrassment, Bruce whispers through a tight jaw, “If you want to give me privacy, how about bringing some damn clothes next time?”
Tony sighs. “Yeah, I-” The ladder drops between them and they both step on.
To wrap an arm around the ladder, Bruce has no choice but to remove one of his hands from its place between his legs. That part isn’t as humiliating as being pressed bodily against a metal suit with his nose an inch from the faceplate.
Bruce holds his breath as a gauntlet comes to rest at the small of his back. He would bark at Iron Man to remove it if it weren’t for his fear of falling. Without Hulk’s strength to protect him from injury, he can't refuse the extra hand.
Bruce tries to hide his embarrassment, but even after God knows how many times he’s woken in some strange place among Hulk’s destruction, he isn’t used to being naked, injured, and weak.
“Bruce,” Iron Man says quietly -- it’s not only his voice that’s gone soft, the volume from the suit is set lower than before as if to insure his words won’t be overheard by the others -- “The reason I suggested carrying you bridal whatever is that I figured you'd be more comfortable. We could have found a way to keep you mostly covered up. Could have gotten you back to HQ without the cavalry.”
Bruce stares over the armored shoulder saying nothing. The metal hand on his back feels sturdy; there’s enough pressure that Bruce feels safe.
No. Bruce counters, Not ‘safe’.
As if to test this assertion, Bruce’s knees buckle. But in a swift and seamless move, Iron Man has Bruce under the arms and out of danger. Safe , Bruce’s mind rebuts.
He only allows himself to relax in feeling of security for the length of a breath before reminding himself that Iron Man is now dangling him, naked, over the ruins of a small town café. “Can this thing go any faster?” Bruce gripes.
He regains stable footing on the rope ladder and Iron Man resumes his one-handed hold around his waist. Bruce won’t fall, but nothing about being in Iron Man’s grasp, under the orders of SHIELD, should give him any semblance of what it is to feel safe.
“Almost there.” The voice within the suit is a whisper and Bruce looks up to see what Iron Man is looking at.
A blur of bodies stands above them, at the ready. As they come into focus, Bruce recognizes the rest of the Avengers team, Phil Coulson, Maria Hill, two women in scrubs and a third in a lab coat. “It’s a goddamn circus.”
Bruce thinks the hand on his back slides up an inch, pulling him infinitesimally closer to the armored body against his front. Maybe it’s his imagination. Today seems to be that kind of day; his mind’s been playing tricks on him since this morning.
In the same whisper as before, Iron Man manages to say, “I’m sorry,” before the two of them are pulled aboard the aircraft.
Once among the team, Iron Man is all guffaws and obnoxious exclamations of pride for his other teammates. He slaps people on the back and steers them away, leaving the new guy to the scrutiny and analysis of the professionals.
“Somebody get some pants on Banner, will ya? It’s drafty up here,” Iron Man shouts over his shoulder, and Bruce thinks, Fuck you and your shit-eating grin.
Even as he’s gearing up to string together every curse he knows, a Mylar blanket is draped over Bruce’s shoulders.
Maybe Stark’s comment wasn’t meant to draw attention to Bruce’s nudity in mockery. Maybe it was an honest effort to help him access cover. But Stark is a self-important, irresponsible jerkoff and nothing is going to change Bruce’s mind about that.
Cocooned in the blanket, Bruce stares across the cargo bay at the team. Although they huddle together for privacy, their voices carry a discussion about the kind of paperwork that Bruce will never have to fill out. With no memory of the mission, any attempt Bruce makes to provide an account of the battle will be a waste of time. Even his face-to-face debriefing at HQ, though required, will be all but useless until he reviews footage from the mission.
It's The Other Guy SHIELD really recruited, anyway. Bruce is just the vessel.
Bruce watches the team a minute - a wide, shifting smudge of low chatter - while the medical team decides what to do with him.
"I'm sorry, Dr Banner. We were told Hulk is invulnerable."
Bruce wants to tell them that everyone has a weakness. He wants to tell them that they're all assholes. Instead he says, "He's not me," for what feels like the thousandth time.
Then, from the Avengers’ huddle, Bruce hears a voice raised in agitation. "Come on, people, what's it gonna take to help our guy into some clothes and me outta mine, huh? Chop chop."
The nurses jump to action before the doctor can form another half-assed apology, and they seat Bruce for a preliminary exam.
As he is poked and prodded by nurses, as he’s assessed for concussion and his head wounds are wrapped, Bruce spares a glance at the still fully-suited Iron Man. Thanks, asshole , he thinks as loudly as his brain can muster.
If even a hint of sincerity slips into his unspoken gratitude, Bruce will cite post-Hulk-hangover-induced exhaustion (or insanity) as the cause.
By the time Bruce is released from SHIELD’s debriefings, medical exams, and paperwork, it’s a struggle to keep himself upright. He is alternatively inspired to crawl into the nearest supply closet at the Tower for a coma-esque nap or to set himself up with an IV of espresso. The trip down the long hallway toward the elevators seems to go on forever.
“Dr. Banner! Wait up.” Eager footsteps accompany the equally eager request.
And forever just got longer.
Bruce yawns into his fist before turning around. “Captain Rogers, sir,” he says with the brightest smile he can fake. “How may I assist you?”
“Oh, I’m not in need of- Are you making fun of me?”
Bruce stares with only enough energy to raise one eyebrow and zero brain power to form words to confirm, Yes, of course I am.
“Your man did some good work today, Doctor. Get some rest. You deserve it.”
My man? Bruce scratches his head. Hulk? No one has ever referred to him as anything else but some kind of beast.
“And if I didn’t?” Bruce asks.
“I’m sorry?” The old man seems genuinely confused.
“If I didn’t do anything to deserve the rest, would I still need your permission to take it?”
“I’m not- I didn’t mean-”
“Have a good night, Cap. You deserve it.” Bruce’s smile doesn’t falter until he turns away and resumes his trek.
The elevator button is almost within reach when Natasha steps in front of him, blocking his way. “You don’t have to do that, you know?”
“What is it you think I’m doing, exactly?”
“Pushing him away. Keeping us at a distance.” She cocks her head to the side and purses her lips before going on with her spiel. “Clint and I know well enough when a person needs space. Thor quite literally lives on another planet. So you don’t have to worry about us hovering around. But Steve’s not trying to encroach on you either. He’s trying to make sure you’re taken care of. That you’re taking care of yourself. You’re part of his team now. Our team. Give it some time. You’ll see, Steve is genuinely one of the good guys.”
“A real Boy Scout.”
“Yeah, he is.” Natasha looks Bruce over, head to toe. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? Rogers is everything you think you’re not? Steve is the supersoldier General Ross and his project leaders believed you could be.”
Bruce is too tired to go on the defensive, but she lays this out for him and he has no choice but to address her misconceptions.
“I never wanted to be a supersoldier or any soldier. When I dedicated my life to science, it was never my intention to strive for something like that. But you sign your life away to these…" What Ross put him through can't be put into words.
Bruce pushes on. "You don't really think SHIELD has your best interests at heart, do you? We’re weapons. Weapons get discharged, discarded, replaced.” It doesn’t go beyond Bruce’s notice that he and Natasha have acquired company. “You know all about that, don’t you Stark? Weapons are your specialty, after all.”
“Were.” Tony draws his mouth in a hard line. “Weapons were.” Now drawn into the conversation, he comes around Nat’s side to stand in front of the elevators as well. “They found you in Syria?”
Banner nods. “Damascus.”
Tony looks down, briefly unable to meet the eyes of anyone in the room. “I didn’t know what was happening-” Destruction. Government upheaval. Thousands of lives lost. Tony loses sleep over all of it - his international failures and transgressions.
“It’s your business.” Banner’s tone is sharp. “It’s your business to know. But you’re too busy with your parties and playmates to care.” His words cut into Tony like a blade.
“I’m not that person anymore.”
“People don’t change overnight,” Banner says and Tony can’t help but arch an eyebrow at the claim. If anyone's gonna defend how quickly someone can change, Tony thinks it should be him. But Banner is quick to correct course back to his diatribe. “So where were you this morning?”
“I-” Tony wants to argue with him, but he knows Banner’s right. He was a no-show for the team’s strategy meeting all over a guy. Even in the field he had gotten distracted mid-flight by a man on the ground with dark brown curls and a tweed jacket - a professor type that reminded him so much of Dr. Bedhead that it excited and scared Tony to see him watching the firefight in awe. The guy had been fearless, that is, before Tony shouted for him to get out of there and he took off running.
Banner shakes his head and Tony knows he’s filling in the blanks for himself.
Tony watches him push the button for the Tower's crystal elevator and step in. He shows Banner pity and calls it mercy. After seeing him in the aftermath of their mission, Tony knows he must be using all the strength he has left to stay on his feet. Banner grabs hold of the railing at his right and levels Tony with a glare.
As the doors close between them, Tony wishes he could have found a way to make a better impression. He wishes it for the team’s sake and for his own. Things had been so easy on the battlefield with Hulk.
At least now , Tony concedes, I know where I stand with Bruce.
Tony expects to hear from the guy.
Despite the attacks that keep happening every few weeks, most people return to their lives after evacuations are lifted. But all of Tony's inquiries to JARVIS regarding Dr. Bedhead's return to the Tower come up with zilch. According to the AI, he hasn’t been back since they met at the juice bar. Perhaps the man he assumed was a new hire hadn’t been an employee at all, but a consultant, or a visiting client.
Even so, it’s not like the AI to be so unhelpful. The one night Tony tries to call JARVIS out on it, however, he’s surprised to have the conversation turn back on him.
“If you want specific answers, sir, might I suggest asking specific questions? Afterall, I am just another (rather very) intelligent system. Certainly I can’t be expected to read your mind.”
Tony pours himself another tonic and lime and downs it in one go. JARVIS is right, on all accounts except the crack about not being a mind-reader. Tony thinks the AI has read him perfectly.
It would be easy for Tony to discover everything about his person-of-interest. Everything. But once he knows it all, what’s left? Sure, he would be able to impress the guy with trips to his favorite places and gifts that fit his particular tastes without ever having a discussion about them. But shouldn’t those conversations be part of the deal? If Tony truly wants someone to treat him like he’s more than the tabloids’ favorite charm-your-pants-off, love ‘em-and-leave ‘em playboy, shouldn’t he act like it?
And so, Tony has refrained from asking JARVIS for the man’s personal information. If their paths are truly meant to cross again, then they will. And if not…
Tony tells himself he shouldn’t care.
He tells himself to chalk it up as a loss and move on. Plenty of fish and all that jazz. But something about the guy at the counter - his laugh, his touch - holds Tony’s interest even weeks later.
It doesn’t help that things at work are overwhelming and things with the team feel like they’re coming undone. At least with SI affairs Tony has Pepper to help juggle the concerns of their investors. But among the Avengers...
Struggling to come to terms with his brother’s continued villainy, Thor has been spending most of his time off-world. Nat and Clint are away on official SHIELD business - again. And, although Steve does his best to cheer Tony up, he’s more of a downer than anything. Most of their talks are about how fast the world moves now, how quickly things change, and how they both wish it all would slow down. Their chats typically end with Tony spending the rest of the night working on projects to counteract everything he’s recently claimed to desire.
As for Banner, well, after his first mission he’s made it pretty clear that he’ll be back when he’s good and ready.
Tony can’t blame him. He had seen how drained Banner was by the transformation, had caught wind of how unprepared the medical staff were to tend to his needs. He needed to heal up before he could be expected to return. So, they all let him be. In return for the privacy and understanding, Banner has promised the team Hulk won’t leave them high and dry when he’s truly needed.
“Call me and I’ll be there,” he had said.
Though Coulson has expressed some doubt, Tony finds no reason not to take Banner at his word. Of course, nobody's asking for his opinion.
As Tony sinks into his couch and scrolls through his movie library for a distraction, he thinks it would be nice to have someone around to share the quiet moments. Someone who doesn't treat him like Iron Man or "Tony Stark". He certainly doesn't feel like either identity is doing him any favors.
Tony imagines a quick jab at his wounded ego. He calls to mind a low bounce of laughter and drags a hand down his face. He imagines kicking up his feet onto the lap of a companion as he stretches, and frowns when his feet meet only the cushions of the sofa. He curls onto his side, presses play, closes his eyes, and waits for sleep.
Loki returns to New York with a dozen Frost Giants at his back. And Hulk returns to the team. Loki’s arrival comes as a shock to the Avengers and SHIELD, but with Hulk rejoining their numbers, the battle is over in an afternoon.
The Metal Moron finds Bruce under a gaping hole in the ceiling of Restoration Hardware, amid one of the living room setups. Of course Hulk missed the plush sofa , Bruce thinks as he climbs over the frame of the shattered glass table upon which he had woken.
To Bruce’s surprise, Iron Maiden doesn't reach for him, doesn't offer a hand to be ignored. Instead, the first thing he does is toss a pair of running shorts onto the floor in front of Bruce's hands.
Oh , Bruce thinks as he picks them up. The smooth fabric falls across his lap as he sits back to examine the garment. It caresses his hypersensitive skin.
“Don't leave much to the imagination do they?” Bruce asks, but it really doesn’t matter. It was a request Bruce never expected to be taken seriously. There are more important things than Bruce’s modesty to take into account when saving the world, or at least that was the impression Bruce had gotten from SHIELD.
“I would have gotten them to you before.” Iron Man says and Bruce thinks there’s going to be a lecture on his absence from the Tower but Iron Man only adds, “Loki didn't really give us a heads up.”
“How rude of him.” Bruce crouches as much as he can in modesty and embarrassment and Iron Man turns away. “Not sure if you noticed,” Bruce says as he steps into the running shorts, “these won’t last long when I change.” There would have been no point in getting the shorts to Bruce ahead of time; Hulk would have destroyed them in an instant.
“They stretch,” Iron Man says, pulling a book off of the living room display's end table. “It's a fabric developed by a man who's somehow smarter than you.”
Was that a compliment?
“It's pretty fantastic stuff; the molecules are unstable. Richards says it'll match whatever size or shape you- You get the picture.”
“ Reed Richards?”
Iron Man nods. “You can wear it under your clothes.” With his other hand, he tosses a t-shirt and jeans at Bruce next.
Bruce looks from the clothes to Iron Man and back again. “You kept all of this in your suit?”
“I made a pit stop on my way over.” Metal fingers flip to the middle of the oversized novel Iron Man’s holding; then they pause on a page as if his intention is to read while he waits.
Bruce is almost certain that the book is for decoration only, that the pages are blank. He squints and the spine of the novel comes briefly into focus. Upside down.
Trying not to lend too much weight to the privacy afforded to him by Tony's feigned interest in the book, Bruce tears the tags off of his new clothes. But as he slips into the pants, he’s again surprised by the thoughtfulness put into the gesture. The jeans are distressed, the t-shirt is made of the softest cotton Bruce has ever felt, and both are just the right size.
Bruce worries his lip as he contemplates making another request.
“Is something wrong?” Iron Man asks, sensing his hesitation.
“Next time,” Bruce says as he wipes his hands against his thighs, “could you maybe bring my glasses?”
It’s a week after Hulk’s second mission as an Avenger when some second-rate narcissist attacks. Dreadknight may not have posed much of a threat, but Hulk’s fascination with the wack-job’s flying horse takes him - and, consequently, Banner - into some dangerous territory. Luckily, Hulk loses track of the My Little Pony: Nightmare Edition and lumbers back to Midtown. He makes it to a second-hand bookstore before collapsing in Banner’s form.
When Tony finds him, Banner is half buried under concrete and beams and a bookcase of science fiction. It’s quick work to dig him out, but Tony’s heart is beating even more quickly when he sees the state of his teammate. Estimated time for retrieval isn’t for another twenty minutes and these injuries look serious.
Watching Banner stir among well-loved copies of Dune and its sequels, Tony waits for him to wake.
“We're only a few blocks away from the Tower; we could walk.” Tony hands over Banner’s glasses and frowns at the fleeting spark of surprise he is given in turn. “Unless you wanna take me up on that offer for a ride.” Tony truly wishes Banner would let the stubbornness slide; the way he’s covered in deep scrapes and wide bruises, the guy looks like he’s been hit by a freight train. It’s worse than the first time Tony found him at the coffee shop - far worse.
“Uh, yeah…” Banner says as he stands on shaky legs. He stumbles toward Tony as a piece of the roof cracks and crashes just to their left.
Tony breathes a sigh of relief thinking Banner will allow himself to be carried now that he has clothes and eyewear. But then Banner completes his own thought with the announcement that he prefers to walk, and Tony’s stomach drops.
Banner trips again and Tony catches him before he lands hard on his knees. “C’mon, Bruce, work with me.” Tony most certainly does not sound like he’s begging. Pssh. Beg? Banner is a grown-ass man, fully capable of making his own decisions.
Banner groans as he straightens up and Tony is pretty sure he ended up grabbing hold of some tender bruises when lunging to catch him under his arms. He wants to apologize, but Banner speaks first. “I'm OK. I’ll be OK. I just… get pretty bent out of shape after these things.”
“I didn't know.” It’s true that before recruiting the man, SHIELD and the rest of them had been under the impression that both Bruce and Hulk were incapable of injury. But now, well… Tony had seen the aftermath of their run-ins with Loki.
Banner drops his eyes to the ground; “I’ve never admitted that - not to anyone... Dr. Amir keeps the worst of it from her nurses. I don’t want the others-”
“Secret’s safe with me.” Tony’s grateful he had cut group communication after cryptically announcing he’d found Banner amongst the sand dunes of Arrakis.
“Thanks.” Banner leans into Tony as they walk the rest of the way. "Dr. Amir and I are developing something. It’s been working pretty well." Banner coughs into his hand. Tony can't ignore the spatter of blood on Banner’s palm.
Banner hadn’t exactly been in tiptop shape after their first encounter, but - oddly enough - he seemed to heal quite a bit faster than Tony expected after their second. Hopefully this thing with Dr. Amir works as well as Banner believes it will.
They take their trip to the Tower slowly and stop for breaks along the way. During a pause on a street corner, Banner manages to choke down a few sips of soda and a bite of a hot pretzel. Tony hides his worry behind a tabloid, pretending not to notice Banner’s struggle, wet cough, or pale complexion.
On the move again, Banner rasps out a question about Hulk’s cooperation and Tony assures him their behemoth was perfectly well-behaved for their needs. And, an hour later than Tony predicted, they make it back to HQ.
Privately over the comms, Tony tells Coulson that under no circumstances should Banner be brought into debrief until after he has bathed and been tended to by Medical.
By the time he hands Banner over to Dr. Amir, the down-sized Avenger is asleep on his feet; his breathing is labored; his pulse is slow. Even with utmost confidence in the medical staff, Tony is terrified. Banner’s decline is on Tony’s head. He shouldn’t have listened to him; he should have insisted they fly.
Tony retires to his penthouse while the others finish their private debriefs. He can’t think - doesn’t want to. A drink helps; it’s the first one he’s had in three months.
When JARVIS passes along Hill’s request for him in her office, Tony walks like a man to his death sentence. There’s more than a slap on the wrist waiting for them, he’s sure of it.
Tony is on his way out of Hill’s office, stunned by her ignorance of Banner’s state, when he runs into the man of the hour in the hallway. Tony can’t believe he’s been cleared to attend his own debrief outside of a hospital bed. Whatever Bruce is doing with Dr. Amir must bend the laws of nature. Then again, that’s Banner for you.
Banner’s hair is shaggy and wet. It’s waterlogged and weighted down as if he didn’t take the time to towel it off before dressing. His face is adorned with butterfly bandages to close his wounds. His arms are bruised. But he’s walking upright without assistance. His breathing is strong.
“You’re OK?” Tony asks, in awe.
Tony thought he had healed quickly last time, but those were minor scrapes and bumps compared to… compared to… Tony thinks Banner had to have suffered serious internal injury this morning, he knows it.
“Told you I’d be fine.” Banner doesn’t break stride. In fact, he seems to quicken his step, like the faster he can get to the end of the hall, the better.
Understanding hits Tony like a swift kick to the chest. He’s seen Banner as vulnerable as he can get.
“Hey,” Tony taps Banner on the arm to catch his attention as he passes.
He can’t say he’s entirely surprised that the man doesn’t stop. But Banner turns and continues a backward stride toward Maria Hill’s office. He has given Tony his attention.
“You don’t need to rush off after this, you know?” Tony says. “You should stick around. Bunch of us are gonna play Jenga and watch Jumanji.” It’s not pity , Tony tells himself. Banner’s part of the team. He should be there. Tony wants him to stay.
“Smoke a j? Eat jambalaya?” Bruce catches the theme and even plays along.
A twitch of a smile plays at the corner of Tony’s mouth. “Damn,” Tony snaps his fingers in disappointment. “I should have thought of that.
“Barton got jelly beans and jerk chicken,” Tony says to entice. “Tashie really knows her way around a grill. And I bet we could score you that weed, if you want.”
Bruce rolls his eyes. “No thanks.”
“No thanks to the bud or…”
“All of it. Just… no thanks.” Banner turns on his heel just in time to miss smacking his face into the glass door. He pushes when the door says pull, but it’s such a little mistake most people probably wouldn’t notice.
Tony notices. And as he watches Banner fumble with the door, he wears an amused smile. Banner’s blundering reinforces Tony’s faith that his teammate’s health is on a rapid rise.
Though he has no way of knowing for sure, Tony thinks Banner’s split second of push-pull panic will be the highlight of his day.
Marked with the date and duration of the encounter, Bruce receives footage for the mission against Dreadknight in a file labeled similarly to the encounters versus Loki. Luckily, Bruce is only required to review the highlights - not that he's bothered with the first two missions yet.
He doesn’t think it’s obvious that he ignored the other files. Whoever monitors his computer has seen that the videos have been opened within hours of receiving them. That Bruce wasn’t in the same room - or even awake as they played - isn’t for anyone but Bruce to know.
He could do the same tonight. This morning. God, what time is it? 2:30. He could set up his laptop in the living room, take another handful of the SHIELD-developed (Banner-strength) anti-inflammatory tranquilizer cocktail, and retire to bed. If Loki or Dreadknight show up again, having watched the tapes won’t make a difference. Hulk is the only consciousness present during the action anyway.
Exactly. No Banner; only Hulk. Bruce scolds himself. You’re quite literally absent from the fray. It’s pertinent you review the film as soon as possible. Your insight into Hulk and strategy for working with him holds value. The team is counting on your participation.
Bruce isn’t sure when he started to care about the team. Even as he hugs himself, thinking of the shorts Stark had commissioned from Reed Richards - the ones that stretch and return to size during transformations. Even when he remembers Tony’s pleading tone suggesting they fly back to the Tower. Even when he feels the ghost of Tony’s arms around him as he fought to maintain consciousness on their way to HQ. Even as he recalls Tony’s soft words of encouragement when Bruce’s vision was blurry and the medical wing seemed far out of reach.
Bruce squeezes his eyes tight against the intrusive thoughts and forces a conclusion: he is absolutely ignorant as to when he started to care.
Nonetheless, Bruce makes himself comfortable on the couch. He pulls one of his legs to his chest, runs his hands up and down the fabric of his pajama pants, and wonders how in the world Tony found a pair of distressed jeans that feel softer than this flannel.
With his chin atop his knee, Bruce begins his weekend holed up on the couch of his oversized under-furnished New York apartment. Battle recaps compiled from CCTVs, news coverage, and the Iron Man suit play through once - then, a second time. Bruce tells himself that he’ll take notes, but his pen never touches his notebook.
Bruce’s eyes are glued to the laptop screen as the Avengers’ first encounter with Loki plays again. Bruce chews the inside of his lip as he watches Iron Man swoop down to gather civilians and place them out of harm's way. He watches Iron Man selflessly place himself in danger for the safety of the team and civilians alike.
Iron Man soars into the sky and Bruce sucks in a breath.
Iron Man’s little light falters. Stark’s thrusters sputter. Tony falls.
Bruce’s eyes are glued to the screen; his face pinches together like it had the first time he saw the footage.
Knowing Tony is alive and well makes no difference while watching the video of his descent. Bruce stops breathing. His heart seizes. His jaw tenses until it hurts.
Then, a figure leaps into view, blurring the screen with a streak of green. Hulk scoops the limp suit out of the air with a shout.
Cradling Iron Man in one arm, Hulk bounds down the rooftops, taking advantage of their different heights and using them like a staircase. His movements look as carefree as a child hopping tree stumps at a campsite, but his expression is one of determination -- and concern.
Bruce thinks, Careful, Hulk. Careful!
At street level, Hulk places the suit - which now looks terrifyingly like a rag doll - gingerly upon the ground, and Bruce exhales with the same relief he felt during his first review of the footage.
Hulk pokes at Iron Man’s shoulder and Bruce shakes his head, knowing there will be no response to the touch.
Tony hadn't mentioned this part back when he retrieved Bruce from the ruined café. But the reactor’s light is still dark. Maybe Tony hadn’t known.
Hulk knocks his heavy fist into the armored shoulder a second time. A third - harder. Then Hulk rears back and, like muscle memory is taking over, Bruce raises his chin as well. Bruce lays a hand over his throat in anticipation of what comes next. He closes his eyes.
When the goliath bends over the suit of armor again he lets out a thunderous roar, the likes of which would haunt the Devil's nightmares.
Miraculously, Tony's arc reactor flickers to life, and the fingers of his suit twitch before forming a fist.
Hulk nudges Iron Man once more as if to say ‘Wake up and play’ or ‘Glad you’re back’ or ‘Don't scare me like that again, asshole’.
Ok, so maybe the last one is all Bruce.
The footage cuts to a new angle.
Bruce doesn’t know how much time has passed during the cut, but Iron Man is sitting up now with his hand over his heart. No, his hand is over Hulk’s hand over his reactor.
The footage cuts again to Hulk bounding up a crumbling building heading North.
Bruce hits pause; rewind. He replays the three second clip of Iron Man and Hulk sharing a moment of silence on the fringe of battle. How had he missed that before?
Bruce wonders what communication passed between them, then lets the rest of the footage play through.
Tony looks as though he's taking it easy the rest of the battle, but after what Bruce witnessed he wouldn't be surprised to learn that Tony had been pushing himself past his limit.
Then, Loki is gone. The first battle is won. The war is far from over.
Iron Man volunteers to find The BFG and bring him home.
The word hits Bruce harder this time than during any previous viewing. He closes the lid of his laptop, takes a double dose of his medications, and waits for them to knock him out.
Fuck you, Stark. ‘Home’? Bruce doesn't even know what that word means.
Zzzax gives the Avengers a short respite before he attacks. But the attack hits too close for Bruce's comfort. Literally. The power is out in all of Lower Manhattan and the evacuation order makes it impossible for him to get to his apartment.
Despite Bruce’s insistence he doesn’t want to linger at the Tower, he finds himself in Tony’s main living room with the team hours after they were dismissed by SHIELD.
Natasha and Barton busy themselves playing some terrifying version of ‘catch’ involving darts and what appear to be Tony’s kitchen knives.
Rogers sits quietly, contemplating life or death or the fire burning in the hearth. Bruce doesn’t think he’s moved in an hour.
Thor is there too, technically. Bodily. Passed out on Asgardian ale, he lies in a heap by the fireplace, outlined with Barton’s arrows. The area looks very much like a bizarre crime scene.
If this is Tony’s idea of team bonding after a mission, then the guy is crazier than he thought.
“Don’t be too hard on Thor,” Rogers says. For the man to suddenly break his silence, Bruce thinks he must look like he really needs someone to talk to.
He doesn’t. Bruce is perfectly content drifting off into dreamspace until the evacuation order for his neighborhood is lifted.
Rogers clarifies, “The fella is taking this thing with Loki pretty hard.”
Bruce realizes he must be staring. But he can only sympathize with Thor’s plight. “Families are hard.” He wonders if anyone has bothered trying to talk to Thor, or if letting each other drown sorrows in liquor is a common occurrence. Going through something like this - knowing your greatest enemy is someone you were taught to trust - can tear a person in two. “Family is... complicated.”
“Damn straight.” Tony shuffles around the L-shaped sofa with three empty tumblers and a full bottle of scotch. “To what shall we toast this evening?”
Bruce all but sneers at the glasses in Tony’s hands and thinks, An attempt at sobriety, perhaps? , but he drops as much of the attitude as he can before he can make a true ass of himself.
The truth is, Tony pulled him out of another building today. And the burden of Bruce's guilt lies heavily on his shoulders. He isn’t sure how long Tony had been there, waiting for him to wake up, sitting in the smoldering wreck, putting his health - his life - at risk. But when Bruce regained consciousness there were fresh clothes, his glasses, a bottle of juice, and a protein bar resting on a slab of charred concrete beside him.
“I’m falling asleep as it is,” Bruce says, refusing a drink before any are poured. “Besides, I choose not to imbibe. Never had the taste for it before. And I like to maintain any semblance of control that I can.”
“Oh. I, um- Sure.” Tony sets the glasses on the table. “Steve? You?”
“No, I don’t think I will.” Rogers leaves the couch in favor of trying his hand at Monikers with Barton, Natasha, and Thor -- who had suddenly and spastically woken up with a booming request for entertainment to distract his tormented mind.
“Well, OK, then.” Tony turns his attention back to Bruce, and Bruce thinks he shouldn't be as invested in - or as relieved by - Tony's abstinence as he is.
He tells himself he cares only for Tony's speedy recovery. Of course, wounds heal more quickly without alcohol in one's bloodstream. And the sooner Tony is OK, the sooner Bruce can stop blaming himself for the burns up Tony's leg and the limp in his stride.
“Do you play charades?”
Bruce regards Tony with curiosity. It makes sense for Rogers to try to make nice; he’s team captain, after all. It’s been a while since Bruce’s days of high school soccer, but he remembers the role. For Tony to go out of his way for Bruce, however, doesn’t compute. Bruce has done nothing to deserve his ongoing kindness. Unless Tony’s friendship with Hulk has been influencing his interactions with Bruce.
“That game they’re playing-” Tony points to the group “-it’s a suped up version of-”
“You all seem to get along.” Bruce interrupts, letting it be known he doesn’t give two shits about that game they’re playing.
Tony gives a one-shouldered shrug and slowly lets it down on his exhale. Bruce wonders if his other shoulder is still sore from Hulk’s assault on it. No. That happened months ago. This is new. It takes effort to keep Bruce's own shoulders from sagging. But when had Iron Man's injuries become his fault?
“Well,” Tony says, “some of them stay here after we save the world. Take a few days to regroup, recoup, rest.”
“You like alliteration, huh?”
Tony’s mouth twitches in what could be a hint of a genuine smile. “I like patterns.”
Bruce has to get away. He has to think. No, he has to stop thinking.
He rubs his hands over his thighs in preparation to stand. Lounge pants, this time. Another post-transformation ‘gift’ from Tony. And when the Hell did he become ‘Tony’, huh?
Bruce clears his throat and pushes himself up from the sofa. “Well, I have a place of my own, so… as soon as I get the green light, I’ll be out of your lair.”
“Suit yourself.” Tony sits forward on the couch and Bruce thinks he’s going to reach for a drink. Instead, Tony looks up with a question. “But if you want to stretch your legs while you wait, maybe you’d be interested in checking out your lab?”
My what? “My what?”
There’s a light in Tony’s sudden smile that can only be matched by that of his reactor at full power. Bruce had seen the reactor flare once, on the news when the team had gone up against Electro without Hulk. He’d had to shield his eyes. But from Tony’s smile, Bruce can’t look away.
“Come on.” Tony leads Bruce to the seventh floor of the Avengers complex atop Stark Tower and crosses the threshold with a flourish. “Welcome to Seventh Heaven, Brucey-baby.”
Bruce doesn’t know when the nicknames started. Perhaps after their fifth mission together. He’s not even really sure he wants them to end, but he gives a half-hearted protest because by now it’s expected, “You’re gonna stop calling me that.”
“Ehhh.” Tony gives his head a little shake. “I’m gonna say nickname extinction is still a zero-probability event.” His smile still hasn’t faded and Bruce curses himself each time he spares it a glance. It’s charming and confusing and altogether unfair.
“Why do you-” Bruce cuts himself off when the lights come on and the sight of the lab leaves him in a state of shock. It’s not just a room. It’s got to be half of the seventh floor. Bruce can’t even see it all when standing in one place. He takes a lap, stunned into silence.
“I’ve got one just like it. I mean, mine’s better. Bigger. I’ve got a skylight and a landing pad. And a workshop so equipped even you’d be impressed.”
“Tony, shut up.” After the initial shock wears off, Bruce can see the cracks in what appears to be perfection. “I can’t accept this. It’s too-”
“It’s not too much,” Tony interrupts. “Money’s not a concern. This is, this is part of your stipend. Part of your contract. When you signed on with SHIELD, this was part of it. The Avengers don’t need Hulk alone, we need you, too. We need you, Dr. Banner.”
Bruce folds his arms over his chest, waiting for Tony to be done. “I’m not going to tell the man who has more money than God that I think a few tables and Bunsen burners are gifts too expensive to accept.”
“Oh. Then..?” Tony waits as if willing to consider whatever Bruce is going to say with vested interest.
We need you, Dr. Banner, Tony’s words play in Bruce’s mind. If that were true, wouldn’t someone have informed him of the lab earlier? Bruce shakes off the thoughts to say, “It’s too small.”
“It’s…” Tony looks around like he’s been flicked on the ear and doesn’t know in which direction to look for the offender who has run off. “It’s what?”
Bruce points to the ceiling and sighs. “If I ‘Hulk-out’, The Other Guy’s shoulders will crash through those beams, bringing the eighth floor down on my research and destroying my lab.”
Tony blinks. “And mine.”
“My lab’s above yours, on the eighth.”
“So you see our dilemma.”
“Mmm. What if I knock it down first?” Tony is squinting at the support beams. The gears of his mind turn like a well-oiled machine.
“You’re an idiot,” Bruce says, already anticipating Tony’s plans.
“Follow me here a minute. If I take out this ceiling. Make Seventh Heaven a double-tall. Hulk is safe. And so is our research.”
Bruce balks. Hulk is safe. Bruce watches Tony pace up and down the line of freezers. So Tony’s kindness is all about Hulk.
“I mean,” Tony faces Bruce head on, “if you don’t mind sharing a lab with me.”
“Depends…” With practiced ease, Bruce hides his hurt with bitterness. “How often are you going to be there?”
Tony drops eye contact with a frown that broadcasts disappointment. “You really are an asshole.”
Bruce doesn’t think Tony is putting on an act. He doesn’t think Tony’s words are spoken in jest.
“I told you, I’m tired.” Bruce wishes he had a better excuse, an apology. He’s never been good at saying ‘I’m sorry’. He knows he should try harder.
“Your bedroom is down the hall.”
Bruce sighs. “My apartment is downtown.” While the invitation to crash here tonight is tempting in his state of exhaustion, Bruce knows that without the prescriptions he’s left on his nightstand, he’ll never sleep properly.
Tony bites his tongue and scrubs at the stubble coming in under his jaw. “I’ll have JARVIS check on the situation. See if there’s an estimate on when you can get south of 14th.”
“Thank you.” Bruce is sincere; this part, gratitude toward Tony for respecting his wishes, is easy.
“You’ll be back tomorrow? The lab on the fourth floor isn’t as snazzy as this, but it’ll serve its function while the new lab is under construction.”
Tony offers a weak smile. It carries none of the brilliance of his last, but this one hurts to look at, too. “I could really use someone working on this project with me who knows what the hell we’re up against.”
Bruce isn’t sure what this project is and he’s too embarrassed to ask. He probably should have been working on it for SHIELD since Day 1.
He looks at Tony and another apology catches in his throat. “Yeah, Tony,” he manages past the mental block. “I’ll be here.”
Bruce hops out of bed bright and early. With feelings of guilt riddling his brain and twisting his gut, he couldn’t sleep well anyway. He should have been working alongside Tony this whole time. It was in his contract. Why hadn’t he read the damn thing more carefully?
Because all you cared about was the promise of no cages and the opportunity to prove to yourself and everyone else that Hulk is more than a monster.
Bruce showers and dresses, brushes his teeth, and heads out the door. With a piping hot coffee in each hand, he hails a cab and scoots in. He takes a quick searing sip from each paper cup to prevent spills as the taxi swerves into traffic. Unsurprisingly, he finds that despite being mostly sugar and cream the bodega’s French roast remains barely palatable. Coffee, however, is coffee. And Bruce is happy to have it in his hands.
Once he’s at the Tower, Bruce rushes through the dimly lit lobby and into an elevator. He makes it to the fourth floor without being caught with his caffeinated contraband. Bruce knows he is in blatant violation of Tony’s ‘no coffee’ rule. But the ungodly decision to deny employees an inhouse café remains incomprehensible and so Bruce refuses to follow it. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like SHIELD would fire the Hulk over something like this.
“Dr. Banner, sir,” JARVIS greets Bruce when he reaches the fourth floor. “There is a breakfast delivery for you, if you wouldn’t mind waiting. Master Stark prefers waitstaff not enter the lab.”
“Um, sure, JARVIS. Thanks.”
A young woman meets Bruce at the elevator, a plastic juice cup and straw on a small tray. She helps Bruce set his drinks upon the tray before handing everything over and placing a napkin atop the lid of the juice cup. “Here you go.” Then, just as quickly as she arrived, she makes her exit.
At first Bruce thinks the napkin is printed with information about sustainable resources and the importance of recycling - which it is, around the crimped border - but there’s a handwritten message as well.
As Bruce reads the note, his confused frown turns upside down. // A Rogers’ Rabbit for Dr. Bedhead, M.D.: I believe I owe you one. Hope you like carrots. -(Courtesy of The Squeeze) // The cartoon Bugs Bunny sketched on the back is a cute touch.
“JARVIS,” Bruce says into the now empty hall, “what’s this?”
“I was instructed to have this juice and message delivered to you. Today felt more appropriate than any other -- your first day working with us as Dr. Banner. I assume today you’ll stick around long enough to enjoy the drink.”
“Oh. But this is from…” Bruce can’t say he hasn’t thought about him, but to hope would to be played like a fool. Wouldn’t it? “This is from that guy, right? The one in the lobby… from my other first day?”
“It is in fact, sir, from that guy.”
Bruce has half a mind to inquire as to the man’s identity. But that’s cheating, isn’t it? If he really wants to get to know this person, to develop any kind of relationship with him, it would be better to introduce himself without the AI middleman.
With a quirked eyebrow, Bruce pockets the note - // Courtesy of The Squeeze //. “That’ll be all, JARVIS. Thank you.”
The fourth floor lab is dark and organized when Bruce goes in. None of Tony’s greasy fingerprints marr the equipment. He mustn’t have come in yet. After a late night playing drunk charades with the Avengers, who would want to come to work at a normal hour?
Then again, coming into work at 5AM isn’t exactly normal. And Bruce reminds himself they never actually agreed on a time to start.
When he moves past the extensive workshop of sheet metal and robotics, Bruce finds a station set up more to his own liking. Stark, however, has certainly left his mark. There are enough tech toys and gadgets to make Bruce dizzy, and a shelving unit with more flasks and other glassware than Bruce could ever use in this room of hypotheticals and computer synthesis programs.
Bruce foregoes his inspection of the safety apparati in favor of the shelves that catch his eye. A closer look brings into focus row upon row of some of the most corrosive, toxic, and volatile compounds on Earth. Bruce freezes. The biohazards are all housed within the same locked case. The potential risk nearly throws Bruce into a fit until JARVIS none-too-subtly directs his attention to a small sticky note Tony has left on the wall next to the case.
Breathe, Banner. It says. Just a hologram to jumpstart your engine.
Bruce raises his hand to the glass front of the case and curses when his fingertips pass through. Tony may know everything there is to know about combustion engines and ion vs. EM/Cannae drives, but he knows nothing of what it takes to ‘jumpstart Bruce’s engine’.
After crumpling the sticky note into a crude ball, Bruce chucks it into the small garbage bin beside his lab table and rolls his eyes.
JARVIS explains what Bruce already suspects, “The computer systems are equipped to synthesize whatever reactions you can dream up, Dr. Banner.” Then, the AI surprises him. “When you are ready for practical lab testing, the appropriate components can be ordered by request - no questions asked.”
After all Tony has done for him, Bruce knows he has to start cutting him some slack. But if the guy thinks lab accidents waiting to happen are funny, Bruce can’t see himself going easy on Tony any time soon.
Before heading to the lobby, Bruce prominently displays his coffee cups on his desk, making sure they are in plain view. Caffeine, Stark. That’s enough to get me started. And as for my other engine, well, its interests have little to do with you.
Bruce takes his juice with him downstairs, nervous and excited for another encounter with the man behind the counter. He’ll introduce himself and express his gratitude; and if sipping from a straw is interpreted as flirtation, well, that’s just fine.
The juice bar stands in the corner of the lobby. Tucked away from the entryway, elevators, and reception, it’s a quiet place for a drink, a bite, and a bit of work.
This morning the smattering of tables by the bar is occupied by people typing diligently on their laptops. A small group of mixed company chats quietly around a high top, surreptitiously glancing at their watches and phones. Everyone present has a cup of juice.
All signs point toward the shop being open for business. Bruce bites his lip. His chances for properly introducing himself to his nameless, faceless friend… person... (Bruce hesitates to call him an admirer) are looking favorable.
Bruce takes another large gulp of carrots, lemon, and ginger as he approaches the counter. But in all the time it takes him to cross the lobby, no one has shown up to watch the front end of the bar. With a little shrug and a not so little sigh, Bruce tosses his empty cup into the recycling can marked for TS cups. Then, there’s movement. An older person stalks across the lobby, like they're on a mission to kill, and Bruce’s sigh takes on new heights of frustration when he sees the metal sign they're holding: Out of Order.
“I swear, these new gadgets are more trouble than they’re worth,” he hears them grumble. They stomp past him on their way back to the reception area.
“Stark needs to spend more time saving the world and less time worrying about our cholesterol and blood sugar levels. That machine is jammed again. Why he thinks it can regularly handle pineapple crowns and cones is beyond me. For a genius, he really is an-”
“Idiot,” Bruce finishes with them.
He eyes the juice bar with disappointment. “So I’m guessing there’ll be no one manning the counter the rest of the day?”
“Not unless Mr. Stark comes down and does it himself,” they say with a snort.
Bruce gives them a short smile and nod before letting them go on their way. It’s not how he wanted his morning to go, no, but to be honest, he’s a bit excited by the mystery. Taking the napkin from his pocket, Bruce reads the note again. // ...For Dr. Bedhead, M.D.: ...I hope you like carrots. //
A smile spreads across Bruce’s face, wider than before; and he turns the napkin over, ready to respond. Against his palm, he writes sloppily beside the cartoon. || I prefer kale. And apples. -Dr. B. (Not an M.D.) ||
Bruce sneaks behind the counter to tuck the corner of the note under the new sign.
When he walks into the lab, Tony is already at work: sleeves rolled up, safety goggles on, fingertips dark with oil.
Tony looks up and pulls back looking a little startled. “A good morning?”
Bruce catches himself smiling and steels his expression.
“I take it you didn’t enjoy the hologram.”
“Yeah, I’d say you can take that to the bank.” Bruce could let it drop. He doesn't have to chastise Tony as if he's a child. “Do you know how dangerous that combination would have been?”
“It wasn’t real.”
“Tony, there are innocent people in this building.”
“Bruce, I'm sorry. I’d never-”
“You think everything is a game, don’t you?”
Even though Bruce can see there's hurt in Tony's expression, can hear the sincerity in the hitch of his denial, Bruce doesn't let him off easy.
For over an hour Tony endures scowls and side-eye, head shakes and mutterings under Bruce's breath until finally he comes to his own defense.
“We put our lives on the line every day," Tony says. "What’s the point of that if we can’t have a laugh, some fun, every now and then?”
“It wasn’t funny.” Bruce means it with every gamma irradiated fiber of his being.
“I can see that," Tony says; and Bruce can see the apology written in the lines of Tony's frown.
Bruce sets his work aside. It's important Tony understands this one fundamental thing. “A lab accident was what-”
“I… I know… I’m sorry.”
All at once, Bruce expects his spine to go rigid. He braces himself for it. He turns inward, checking on the precarious balance of Bruce and Hulk. Always on the edge, ready to transform at a moment's notice for his own safety and that of the team.
He waits to see green, to turn green. But all he feels is a profound sadness. Tony knew Hulk resulted from a lab accident, and still he-
“I wasn’t thinking.” Tony's voice is a whisper, like he's afraid to wake a baby - or a sleeping giant.
Bruce grips the edge of his desk and his nostrils flare. “What else is new?”
With everything Iron Man has helped him through, Bruce had fooled himself into believing he could trust Tony. It's not rage that burns Bruce's eyes. He can't let Tony see.
“I’m… I’ll leave you alone for a bit. I have some things I need to take care of.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Bruce lifts his reheated coffee for a sip and pretends not to notice Tony shutting down his work station. The saccharine brew scalds his tongue, but he's so focused on ignoring Tony that he doesn't even react.
Out of the corner of Bruce’s eye Tony pauses by the door, looks up at the ceiling, and takes a deep, silent breath. “I’ll bring up lunch when I get back.”
There’s a brief twinge in Bruce’s chest at the gesture, a surge of warmth, but he lifts his coffee up to his lips a second time. He mumbles into the cup, “Don’t bother," and burns his mouth again.
The lab is so still after that, Bruce thinks Tony has left. But then a quiet voice breaks the silence with a word, “Please,” and Bruce bites his aching tongue. He can’t help but think of the times Tony has said 'please' while offering him assistance during missions. He can’t help but remember the ‘I’m sorrys’ Tony has offered without expectation of forgiveness.
“On second thought, you were in the middle of something,” Bruce says by way of his own apology. “I should be the one to leave.” He senses Tony’s eyes on him as he gathers his things, and Bruce knows Tony is holding something back.
Bruce thinks he could turn it all around, accept the apology, take Tony’s lunch order, smooth things over. None of that would erase the thoughtlessness of Tony’s prank or the perhaps disproportionate cruelty of Bruce’s prolonged reaction. But it could put this to rest.
Bruce has one foot out the door when Tony stops him with a touch to his arm.
“Actually-” Tony’s eyes dart toward his station and back to Bruce “-I could use some help.”
Bruce squints at Tony in wonder. How can he open himself up for rejection, time after time? Tony’s eyebrows jump in question, and Bruce can't do it. He can't walk away.
"What's the project?"
With a spark of hope that, in Bruce’s opinion, leaves too little room for caution Tony leads the way to his desk.
Tension slides off Bruce as he sets his messenger bag aside. With their attention on the details of the Quinjet's schematics, there is no room for petulance or argument. At least not until Tony contrives some manic notion that they can adapt the Quinjet for interstellar travel. Even if they found a viable, sustainable energy source, Bruce doesn’t see how they can make it work.
“We have the technology,” Tony insists with a tap to his chest.
“That’s your solution to everything, I guess. Slap an arc reactor on it. And when those things fail? What happens then?” Bruce’s eyes drift to the muted glow of the reactor seated within Tony’s breastplate. He hadn’t meant to imply Tony’s own life was at stake, but now that he has, Bruce swallows hard in his parched throat.
Tony looks away, his jaw set and shoulders squared. His hands tremble as they reach for the holographic blueprint hovering in front of him.
Bruce wants to tell Tony it’ll be alright. He wants to present him with some shred of assurance akin to what Tony gives him each time he pulls him out of a wreck. But all sentiment feels like sand on his tongue.
It hasn’t escaped Bruce how often Tony has his back, how much Tony does to make sure he’s OK. It’s time he started returning the favor.
Instead of false promises Bruce can’t bring himself to make, he takes Tony’s right hand in his own; it shakes worse than the left. Bruce massages the anxiety from Tony’s palms and pulls it from his fingers. Tony relaxes under his touch.
All the while, Bruce pretends his focus is on the space travel problem before them. Engines. Life support. Shields. He directs their discussion toward variables so that even as his fingertips let up their pressure on the valley between Tony’s forefinger and thumb, they are too busy bickering to worry about whether Bruce's touch has lingered long enough. Bruce appreciates how Tony plays along. And tries not to think about the easy way Tony’s hand fits between his.
Bruce arrives at the lab before the sun rises to check on a group of cloning cells. All but a few have shriveled and expired. He’s tapping his pen on his desk and chewing on his bottom lip when a knock on the door startles him out of his thoughts.
“Hey.” Bruce raises his hand in a small wave as he meets the young woman at the door. “Erin, right?”
“Yep,” she answers cheerfully. “Having a good day, Dr. Banner?”
Bruce smiles, unsure how to answer the question. His experiment has neither gone well nor poorly; it’s just… run its course. “My morning has been interesting.” Bruce accepts her delivery of juice and a napkin. “You know, I can go down to get these myself.”
“Yeah, but-” Erin shrugs, holding her smile in place “-this is my job.”
“Oh, right, of course.” If everyone decided they could do without the delivery service, Erin and her co-workers would have to look for work elsewhere. Embarrassed, Bruce backs into the lab; Erin takes her cue to go.
What’s so bad about having a pen pal anyway? Eventually he’ll ask to meet up. Won’t he?
Bruce stares down at the napkin with a smile and leans on the door as it shuts behind him.
// There’s gotta be something you like other than kale. Not that I minded testing recipes on you this week. The napkin says. -T.S. (P.S. Been meaning to ask, are you really a doctor? P.P.S. Is bedhead an everyday thing or did I get lucky?) //
Bruce laughs at the inquiries.
|| Should I be concerned about possible stalker behavior from a barista? || He feels a little cheeky signing the note: -Dr. B., Ph.D. But it's an answer to the question without revealing anything he’s not ready for this stranger to know.
Sitting in a daze, Tony scarcely hears Bruce puttering about on his side of the lab. Glass flasks clink against each other and a computer speaks formulas for Bruce’s cogitation, but Tony’s mind ruminates on more important matters.
The napkin between his fingers is starting to wear along the edges. And Tony’s head is starting to ache with confusion. He turns the word over in his mind. The message written upon the small square of paper makes no sense.
He rubs at the deep lines in his forehead and asks himself again, This is a joke, right? The note had been written flirtatiously, had it not? If so, then the accusation of ‘stalker behavior’, wasn't to be taken seriously. And subsequently, Tony should assume the title of ‘barista’ fell in the same vein.
But, what if it wasn’t written in jest? That would explain some things… the easy way words pass between them, that one surreal morning an employee approached the juice bar counter and expected Tony Stark to play the part of food service staff member rather than boss.
Tony's gotta give himself props for his choice in tabletops; the adamantium alloy surface is as smooth and reflective as a mirror. It gives him an easy look at his face without actually having to make another trip to the bathroom. At this point, Bruce probably thinks -- nah, screw Bruce and what he thinks -- as long as he doesn’t catch on to Tony’s absolutely ludicrous identity crisis.
Such an oversight proves too much to hope for.
“Easy there, Narcissus, you hold your face like that long enough, it’ll stick.” Bruce laughs. No, not literally, but amusement shines from his eyes well enough that Tony can tell he’s suppressing a chuckle.
Tony sits back in his chair, letting out a heavy sigh.
“What?” Bruce's eyes are back on his work so quickly it's as if he had never looked up.
Intellectually, Tony knows he’s being ridiculous; between press conferences, the tabloid news, and his Iron Man persona, he knows his face is one of the most recognizable in the country - maybe the world. Yet, despite all of this, his customer didn't recognize him.
“I’m…” Tony doesn’t know how to ask without revealing his insecurity - and the real possibility that he’s losing his marbles. He’s back to examining his face, preening as if it made any difference regarding what had occurred months ago. “If we had met outside of work, do you think you would have-”
“If you’re fishing for compliments, you’ve cast your net in the wrong spot. And if you hate the goatee, just get rid of it.”
What? Bruce really is crap at reading people. Maybe if he spent two seconds actually looking at a person during a conversation… “I don’t hate the goatee. It’s an anchor beard, by the way.” With all of the care and patience it takes to get it trimmed just so, Tony would appreciate someone getting it right.
Tony glances over from his reflection confirming that Bruce's full attention is on his simmering flask of what looks like Mountain Dew.
“Whatever," Bruce grumbles.
“Wait… you hate the beard?”
Bruce lets out a stream of air through his lips and Tony can almost hear his eyes rolling.
Tony spins in his chair to make sure he's getting this straight. “Everyone loves the beard.”
“I don’t have a problem with your facial hair, Tony.”
No , Tony thinks. Bruce’s problem lies entirely with his perception of me as a person.
Bruce yawns and Tony doesn’t think it’s boredom. “I’m going out.”
Tony looks from his watch to Bruce and frowns. “Oh. Yeah. Ok.” It’s well past nine. Bruce doesn’t usually stay this late anyway.
Bruce shuffles notebooks into his bag as he waits for his extinguished burners to cool. When all is tucked away, he pats his pockets as if checking for his wallet. Then, taking a last look at his station, he absently runs his fingers through his hair. "You need anything?” he asks as his gaze lands on Tony.
“Well, um…” The way Bruce's loose curls unfurl between his fingers and lie fluffed and messy leave Tony distracted and disoriented. Bruce looks almost soft.
Tony blinks, rubs at his eyes, and the moment is gone.
“Right,” Bruce mutters under his breath. “Dumb question for the man who has everything." Bruce shrugs out of his lab coat, tosses it over the back of his chair, and slings his bag over his shoulder. Then louder, with a cool edge to his voice, Bruce addresses Tony directly. “I’m sure if you think of something, one of your bots can get it for you.”
Before Tony can formulate a response - argue that money isn’t everything, that it can’t buy a person everything; before Tony can ask Bruce what he did to piss him off this time; before Tony can offer a car for Bruce’s trip to his apartment downtown - Bruce is through the door in a huff. Of course, offering a car would have only served to prove Bruce’s point. Tony Stark: the man who has everything and enough to spare. Right.
At least, for Bruce, New York transit isn't so bad. Tony knows the man prefers taxis over buses, and wouldn't be caught dead in the subway, but he navigates the city with ease. Skates by unnoticed. Blends in. Of all the horrors resulting from Bruce's accident, one thing remains. His anonymity.
While Hulk is a public figure, Bruce has been able to fly under the radar, sail through Midtown without turning heads. That kind of privacy is something Tony’s money could never buy.
The door to the lab opens and Tony looks up from his reflection with a start. A glance at his watch confirms the clocks haven't turned back, it’s now after ten and well past the hours Bruce typically puts in.
“You’re back,” Tony announces, dumbfounded.
“You’re… still here,” Bruce counters.
With a shrug, Tony pockets the monogrammed napkin, the source of tonight's woes. He’s been sitting at Bruce’s station since he made the discovery that the surface of Bruce's lab table delivers a reflection even clearer than his own. Tony supposes when your desk is strewn with metals of varying hardnesses and origins, eventually - even adamantium - will lose some of its luster.
Bruce wears a frown as he approaches in long strides. In careful balance, he carries his messenger bag, a small stack of notebooks, and a cardboard tray holding not one but three large cups of coffee.
“Y’know…” Tony says gesturing flippantly toward the heart-stopping dose of caffeine, “that stuff’ll k-”
Bruce lifts an eyebrow as if daring Tony to complete the old adage.
“Nevermind.” Tony watches Bruce set down the coffee with the kind of care he’s seen him use while handling the most volatile chemicals. “Precious cargo, huh?” Tony leans into the scent of hazelnut cream and catches hints of coffee so burnt it could be rocket fuel. “Ugh.”
Much to Tony’s chagrin, Bruce produces a handful of sugar packets from his pocket and proceeds to add them all - one at a time - to his first cup. When Bruce lifts it to his lips Tony can’t help but scrunch his face into a scowl.
A plume of steam fogs Bruce’s glasses as he blows a stream of air over the surface of his drink and the man looks like he’s preparing to drink ambrosia from the Holy Grail itself.
He takes a sip. Makes a face. Sets it back down.
“See,” Tony smirks, satisfied by Bruce’s apparent disgust, “you don’t even like that stuff.”
Bruce grunts in denial, turning to lean against the lab table as he stands. “Burned my tongue.” Then clarifies, “It’s perfect.”
Tony pulls a face. “Alright, weirdo.”
“Still trying to find a place that makes it right. But Sonny’s brews it hot and strong.” After a pause, Bruce wets his lips with a roll of his mouth. “Did you need something?”
“Then... would you mind?” Bruce shoos Tony away from his desk and toward his own. It’s only then Tony realizes he’s been invading Bruce’s space this whole time.
The prototype shield at Tony’s workbench isn’t quite as impressive a mirror as either tabletop, but Tony makes due. He turns his head this way and that to get a good look at himself. Hemming and hawing, Tony continues to consider the impossibility that his bedheaded Ph.D. could have mistaken him for anyone but himself.
“Alright," Bruce grumbles, "I’ll bite.”
“What’s with the huffing and puffing over there? Are you really thinking you should change up your look?”
“No, I… I have a look ?”
“The signature anchor beard or the garish suit, take your pick.”
“That’s what I thought.” There is no way Tony’s favorite customer could have misidentified him. Could he?
When Tony catches Bruce cleaning coffee steam from his glasses, squinting as he inspects the lenses, Tony wonders aloud, “Just how blind are you without those things?”
Bruce expels a puff of air over each lens and polishes them again. “Screw you, Stark.”
“Geez, just asking.” But Bruce’s response is answer enough. Perhaps Dr. Bedhead hadn’t gotten a good look. After all, Tony hadn't been able to see much of the guy’s face either. Beyond messy hair and the patched elbows of his tweed sport-coat, Tony doesn't have much to go on to build a physical description.
“Look, I’m not gonna participate in any 90s chick flick-style makeover, so you can just forget it.”
Tony frowns. That isn’t it at all. Tony wouldn’t dream of swapping out the wire frames of Bruce’s glasses for contact lenses, or trading in his lab coats for anything else. Bruce has a mad scientist look that, well, works .
Bruce returns his glasses to their perch upon his nose and pushes them snugly into place. He scowls over his shoulder before turning his focus on the work at his station.
“I wouldn’t, you know.”
Bruce presses his palms to the table in front of him and sighs. “Wouldn’t what, Tony?”
“Wouldn’t try to change you.”
Bruce shakes his head, letting it fall slowly beneath his shoulders.
It’s disbelief. It’s resentment. From what Tony has learned about Bruce, there is one thing his teammate would change himself - and it’s massive.
Tony takes a measured breath, making sure he’s speaking honestly before he says, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Tony knows he can lighten the mood by adding a quip about Bruce’s attitude, by calling him out on being an asshole all the damn time. But he hears the almost imperceptible hitch in Bruce’s breathing and stops himself before he starts.
Tony stays with him; he abandons the workbench in favor of quieter work at his desk. He’s not making much progress, but he doesn’t think Bruce should be alone if he’s going to keep himself up all night.
It’s 4AM and the microwave’s whirr is hypnotizing. Bruce’s third coffee reheats for the second time when Tony folds his arms over his desk. He falls asleep with a hologram of Hawkeye’s hearing aids hovering overhead.
He wakes gradually, sniffing at a tickle on his cheek. Through heavy lashes, Tony can just make out the white fabric of a lab coat and the dark grey of Bruce’s slacks.
“I’m not asleep,” he thinks he says, but from Bruce's grunted response - “Uh huh” - Tony knows he hasn’t fooled him.
“Up, up.” Bruce’s palm rubs Tony’s back across his shoulders in warm, brisk passes. “There ya go.”
Tony assumes it’s a dream - the gentle coaxing of Bruce’s words, the careful way Bruce lifts him to his feet. It’s not altogether unfamiliar, the slow walk, arms wrapped around each other for support; only, it's usually the other way around. Bruce leaning on Tony.
“Thanks,” Tony whispers before smacking his lip in exhaustion.
As the elevator carries them to the penthouse, Tony doesn’t turn his head into Bruce’s shoulder. He definitely doesn’t nuzzle into the heat of his bare neck. At least, he hopes he doesn’t. But the steady beat of Bruce’s pulse under his ear sounds more authentic than Tony thinks his imagination can produce. He lets his eyes drift closed as the elevator comes to a smooth stop.
“Should I…” Bruce begins, but his hushed question fades. Tony hums in contentment as Bruce hitches him higher against his side. The next words he hears are Bruce’s resigned, “I guess I’ll help you upstairs, then.”
Tony rouses to near consciousness as Bruce tugs his shoes from his feet, and blearily opens his eyes when Bruce swings his legs onto the mattress. He doesn’t remember the trip from the foyer to the bedroom, nor what it took to get him into bed.
“Bruce, you-” Tony croaks before lightly clearing his throat. Tony tries to tell him there was no need to do all of this. Tony has slept in the lab, woken with cricks in his neck and a stiff back more times than he can count. But the words seem too much for his brain to muster.
He tries to clear the cobwebs from his mind with a shake, but all he manages to do is wake up just enough to find himself mesmerized. Behind Bruce the sun breaches the horizon with a soft glow. “Wow, that…” Tony stumbles for a word. “Beautiful.”
Bruce doesn’t blush. He doesn’t worry his lip as he tucks the comforter to Tony’s shoulders. He doesn’t card his fingers through Tony’s hair, just once, around the curve of his ear.
He doesn’t -- because if he does, that would mean something. Tony’s heart lurches against his ribcage as he stares up at Bruce. That would mean something.
When Tony can’t hold Bruce’s gaze any longer, he glances out the window. Bruce follows his shift of attention.
All at once, Tony is certain none of it was a dream. Bruce straightens up quickly, confirming he had been leaned over Tony as he lay. Tony’s scalp tingles in the absence of Bruce’s touch. And Bruce’s cheeks turn a deeper shade of pink.
“You should get some sleep.”
“You too,” Tony says and he realizes it’s not only a wish for his friend to rest, but also a belated response to Bruce’s presumed misunderstanding. In this light, in these moments, in the fog of a dream, Bruce had been as lovely as the view.
The following day Bruce dreads the idea that Tony could saunter into his workspace at any second. Could make some quip about last night, the way Bruce had misread the moment, embarrassed himself, and rushed out of the room with cheeks ablaze.
Bruce wonders how he could be so foolish as to think that Tony - or anyone who truly knew him - could think of him as anything other than a monster.
But Tony keeps his distance. And Bruce tells himself it’s a relief.
The little note Bruce receives with the next morning’s juice helps him forget all about his blunder.
// Stalker? Dr. Bedhead, you wound me. Try the Green Giant. -Not a barista //
Bruce smiles to himself. This ‘not a barista’ doesn’t know who he is, who and what he becomes. Talking to him is safe, it’s fun, it’s liberating in a way Bruce hasn’t felt in what feels like a lifetime.
Bruce takes small sips of the latest concoction, trying to get used to the flavor. Not exactly the recipe Bruce expected from someone who has claimed to specialize in green juice.
Notes of basil and citrus are prominent, but other than that it tastes odd - like a bland salad went into a blender. He doubts his Green Giant would be a fan.
The last of the drink is swirling around the drain of Bruce’s sink when Tony walks into the lab. Bruce takes a long gulp from his rapidly cooling coffee to wash the taste of pulverized spinach from his mouth, but lukewarm, the latte is almost as disgusting.
Tony calls out to him as Bruce approaches the microwave with his coffee. “Just how many times have you reheated that already?”
“If it’s not hot, it’s garbage.”
Bruce is certain he hears Tony mutter something about “hot garbage” under his breath. He makes a mental note to try a new coffeehouse when they break for lunch.
When Tony sees the building suddenly tremble and fall, JARVIS has to remind him to breathe. Iron Man and his colossal compadre had been fighting the U-Foes in harmonized beauty for the better part of the afternoon, but then Hulk chased Vapor into a dilapidated factory and Tony knew he was too human to follow. And now...
There is no doubt in Tony’s mind that it is Bruce, not Hulk, trapped under the building. It’s the only logical explanation for why Hulk hasn’t busted his way out already.
“He’s fine.” Coulson repeats over the comms. “Keep your eye on the mission. We’ll send rescue after we save the city.”
Tony reaches out to Cap and Thor individually and hears variations of the same message. “Hulk is invincible; the bridge is falling.”
“The bridge and city have been evacuated,” Tony snaps. “Banner could be crushed.” He’s been working alongside Bruce at the lab for a scant three months, collaborated with him on seven projects, and had only a handful of real conversations with him about things other than work that didn’t end up in 24 hours of the silent treatment. But, it doesn’t matter.
Sure, after their most recent spat Tony is probably the last person he’ll want to see when he wakes up, But tough shit, Brucey . Tony is a goddamn professional and, beyond that, he is terrified for his friend and teammate. He’ll stop at nothing to get to Hulk and Bruce, with or without the help of the others.
Standing atop the ruins, Tony starts tossing stones off the pile, one by one. Over the comms he continues to call for backup that doesn’t come.
But suddenly, a pocket opens and Tony has the wind knocked out of him at the sight of Bruce, alive and relatively unharmed.
After getting his bearings, Tony leans through the opening he’s created and reaches down. “We gotta stop meeting like this,” he jests.
Bruce blinks up at him and says through gritted teeth, “Don’t make me laugh.”
“Wh-” Tony surveys the scene and pulls up short. “Is that-” A shard of rebar sticks out of a concrete slab, pressed against Bruce’s side. The angle of such an impalement would surely puncture his right lung.
“It hasn’t pierced the skin.”
Tony stretches his reach. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
“I’m a nice guy.”
“You’re an asshole.”
Tony sighs, grabbing Bruce’s hand and gingerly pulling him over the spike. The rusting metal slices into Bruce’s thigh as he scrambles up the rubble, but it’s a minor injury compared to what could have been.
“Are you OK?”
“I’ve had worse.”
Tony doesn’t care about worse, he cares about now. He asks again, in earnest, “Are you OK?”
Bruce takes stock. “Minor concussion. Two, maybe three cracked ribs. With Dr. Amir’s regimen, I’ll be fine by tomorrow.”
Sitting atop the ruins, Tony pats Bruce on his uninjured leg. “You scared the shit out of me.”
Bruce stifles a laugh and a groan. “Then I hope you wore your brown pants.”
Bruce receives a message the third morning he’s back to his normal routine. He’s so grateful for the distraction he forgets all about Tony’s latest harebrained scheme and the migraine that’s been lingering behind his eyes since yesterday.
// Sorry you’ve had to go without for awhile; Bruce reads, it’s been hectic. -T.S. //
It’s easy to write back. || Busy, the life of ‘not a barista’, is it? (It’s not a problem. Experiencing the same.) -Dr. B. || Bruce tacks his note up on the Wall of Specials at the juice bar and discards his empty cup before heading back to the lab.
Tony bursts through the door with a cautious smile. “Morning, sunshine,” he says before tipping the straw of his juice to his mouth. “I take it it’s a good one?”
“It’s fine," Bruce answers as he takes his petri dishes from the incubator. But he can only hold up the façade of nonchalance for so long. In less time than it takes for Tony to rearrange his playlist, Bruce is ready to burst. He simply must share the results of his latest experiment. He taps Tony’s shoulder and signals for him to turn down the volume of the music blaring overhead.
"My brain died!” Bruce shouts over Poison before it fades into the background.
“What?” Tony lifts an eyebrow looking curious enough that Bruce retraces his words.
“My brain cells. I mean, I killed my brain cells.”
“Too much boob tube?” Tony asks slowly, “Or…”
“What? No. Zzzax. His energy absorption. When I used our device to deplete my sample cells they… I mean, it took sustained exposure - I’m talking hours even - to drain a sample this small, but…” Bruce cuts off his rambling with a gesture toward the microscope on the end of his table. “Have a look for yourself.”
Before peering into the viewfinder, Tony raises his eyes to Bruce as if seeking a last word of permission.
Tony remains hunched over the microscope for some time. Then, he straightens up. “So, you want the good news or the bad news first, Brucey-kins?”
“Is the good news that I get to kill your brain cells next?”
Tony gives a sharp wag of his finger. “Absolutely not. And for that, I get to decide what news to provide. Bad news: I have - just now - lost all confidence in the American education system - albeit that confidence has been on thin ice for a while. How you earned doctorates in varying fields of biology without understanding the difference between living and expired, is beyond me.”
Bruce knows his mouth is puckered more than it was when he took that first sip of The Squeeze’s latest disaster - lemon, lime, parsley, and cilantro. (Really, Bruce wonders if he’s being tortured on purpose.) But that doesn’t stop him from daring Tony to continue with his “analysis”. Air quotes necessary, present, and accounted for.
“Well, the good news, Brucey-boy, is your brain cells are thriving.”
The scowl falls from Bruce’s face just as quickly as the blood rushes from his cheeks. “What? That’s…”
Tony’s face falls, as well. “That’s a good thing, right?”
Bruce swallows hard and, without meaning to, he’s suddenly holding eye contact with Tony. “For the first time in years, I thought-”
“You don’t have to worry. These cells are indestructible. You’re invincible.”
“That’s... good news.” Bruce doesn’t sound certain.
Tony approaches with slow, even steps. “Isn’t it?”
Bruce shrugs and he can’t believe he’s being so honest, letting Tony see him come undone. “I-I don’t know. Things got bad - Tony - at the start. I wanted it to end.”
Bruce looks down at his hands as they fold and unfold the legs of his glasses. He knows this is the part that inspires pity. He knows this is the part that pushes people away. He doesn’t want to watch it happen again. “I pulled the trigger. Hulk spit out the bullet. But with this experiment, I thought maybe if the cells are isolated… If Hulk is out of the picture...”
Instead of finding that Tony has backed off, Bruce feels Tony hoist himself onto the edge of the lab table. Tony’s feet swing to and fro as he leans forward, elbows on his thighs. He’s close enough Bruce has to dodge Tony’s little kicks lest he catch a sneakered toe to his groin. Bruce turns with a scowl and replaces his glasses in an effort to understand Tony’s casual air.
Quizzical lines crease Tony’s forehead.
Bruce can’t help but ask, “What?”
“Holy shit,” Tony deadpans. “You really should just drop your biology degrees altogether, shouldn’t you? I mean, you have how many other fields to choose from? Although, if you’re just as ignorant in physics…” Tony is shaking his head with sarcastic dismay. At least, Bruce thinks he’s being sarcastic.
Bruce’s nervously twisting hands come to a halt.
“Hulk is written into your DNA,” Tony says, throwing up his arms. “Isn’t it likely that he took over those cells to set you right again?”
Instead of answering, Bruce shoves past Tony’s feet and goes to see the culture for himself. When he observes his cells dancing across the field, checks the computer’s analysis to confirm the neurons are communicating with each other, Bruce withholds all further reactions other than his blank stare.
“When you’re done pretending not to thank me for double checking your work, it’s my turn with our Zzzac-Attack thingamajig. I’m gonna zap a few of my newer suits with it.” Tony hops down from the tabletop with a low grunt. “That overgrown plasma ball keeps overloading my circuitry. But I think I may be able to get him to supercharge me instead.”
“Well, I think that’s a terrible idea, Tony.”
“Says the dude with half his brain in a petri dish.”
Bruce catches Tony’s smirk and really wishes he had saved some of his morning’s juice just to toss in his face. Even as petty villainy crosses his mind, Bruce thinks of his pen pal and bites back a secret smile.
Bruce hands over the electrical energy absorption ‘thingamajig’ and Tony retreats to a safe room where he spends the rest of the day alternatively cackling to himself and dictating copious notes to JARVIS. By nightfall, he’s blown up three suits and superfried another.
It’s been a good day. A fun day. He’s learned a lot and walks away satisfied. Tony looks forward to a night’s sleep and returning in the morning with fresh eyes. He’s already considering what new approaches he can take as the elevator doors close and he pushes the button for the lobby. Just one quick stop before he can retire to the penthouse.
There’s a faint ticking sound in the lab, growing louder then quieter, as Tony sits down to lunch. He’s able to ignore it, for the most part, used to Bruce clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth when deep in thought. Eventually, Bruce will harumph in defeat or hum in delight - each vocalization sparking Tony’s interest in their own right. But, until then, Tony’s mind drifts elsewhere.
|| Will you ever run out of green juice variations? Reads the previous night’s note from Dr. B. I can’t decide if you’re a fan of the Hulk or a vegan with an iron deficiency. ||
Tony sucks on the end of a chopstick as he leans back in his chair.
Behind him, Bruce paces the length of their tables clicking and ticking in his steady rhythm. Tony takes advantage of Bruce's distraction to scribble another message for the good doctor.
// Sir Smash, all the way. Tony’s hand alights to his chest beside the reactor; he can’t help the bloom of affection for his friend and teammate even as said lab partner does his best impression of a metronome. Biggest hero in the business. Did you like the Gamma Bomb? //
“Are you still eating that take out?” Bruce asks.
Tony snaps his head up at the question and stuffs the note under his plate. “I don't like to waste,” he explains, though he doesn’t think he has to. Everything Tony uses at the Tower is sustainably sourced - if it can be - and their recycling program is strict and thorough.
“Sure, billion dollar company probably wastes enough.”
OK , Tony sighs, so maybe he needs to explain a little bit. Though he doesn’t understand how Bruce can judge when he goes through five to-go cups per day. Recycling or not, the guy needs a mug.
“You’re right. No matter how much I try to keep the company sustainable, there’s waste. And a company this big… it’s significant. But it’s getting better, I’m figuring it out.”
“Guess there are some problems even the great Tony Stark can’t solve.”
“You callin’ me great, Brucey?”
Bruce rolls his eyes and reaches behind him for the cappuccino on his desk.
“Here’s one thing I can’t figure out,” Tony says, pointing with his chopsticks. “How come a man who needs to keep a tight lid on his ‘excitability’ allows himself stimulants but not alcohol?”
“Neither caffeine nor alcohol have much effect on my ‘excitability’,” Bruce replies with a brief grimace. “I never had a taste for liquor before. Coffee, on the other hand, was my favorite. With the metabolism I have now, the amount of caffeine in a cup - or a pot - doesn't cause more than a blip. Plus," Bruce adds after taking a long sip from his steaming cup, "Hulk has a sweet tooth.”
“Well, I don’t know for sure. But my sugar cravings didn’t start until after he- Wait, isn’t that stuff a week old? I don’t know if you should be eating that.”
Bruce eyes the half-full containers with a crinkle in his nose that Tony is surprised to find adorable. It's just as adorable on him, in fact, as it was on Hulk when they discovered the reactor's whirring tickles his palm.
Tony pinches a bite of noodles and drags them through sauce. “Tastes pretty good if you flash freeze and defrost it right.”
Bruce has been keeping his distance for days. Exposing the truth about the incident that resulted in Hulk - admitting to feelings of powerlessness and desperation - has taken a lot out of him. It’s changed the air in the lab. Shifted things between him and Tony in a way similar and different to when Bruce had suggested Tony’s reactor may one day fail.
But now, Bruce seems interested in company. Bruce sniffs the air, approaches, then hovers by the chair to Tony's left. Tony considers inviting him to sit, but he doesn't want to scare him away.
“So you and the big guy. Do you guys… talk?”
“No.” Bruce’s chews his lip during his pause. “Whatever’s going on between you two is between you two.”
An unexpected turn on the conversation. Tony wonders if maybe he asks about Hulk too often. “There’s nothing going on between-”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to imply- I, um,” Bruce takes a breath. “That came out wrong.”
“Not that he’s…” Tony tries to remedy. “I like Hulk. We make a good team.” He wishes Bruce could understand how quick and easy forming a bond with Hulk has been. He wishes Bruce could let his walls down for more than five seconds at a stretch, to let in a friend. “Makes me think that you and I - in here - we could-"
"He's not me."
Tony looks into Bruce's eyes. They're brown, not green, but the energy is there. The palpable thing between Tony and Hulk that draws them back to back in a firefight. The force that steers Tony to Bruce as he returns to form (even when the Iron Man suit is on the fritz and navigation is down). The element that drags Tony’s memory back to the moments they’ve shared when Bruce wasn’t pulling away, but rather drawing near.
Bruce believes his own words: He's not me.
Tony, however, disagrees. "But… maybe he is." Maybe Hulk is Bruce, even if only in part.
Tony waits for Bruce to put up a fight or walk away. Instead, he pulls out a chair and reaches for the chicken lo mein.
“You should try the stir fry,” Tony suggests with a nudge.
“Making sure I eat all my veggies?”
“Never seen you eat any before.”
Bruce’s lips twitch in an almost smile. He makes a sound that could almost be confused with a laugh.
“Trust me,” Bruce says, “I get plenty of vegetables in my diet.” But he pulls the plate toward him and serves himself a generous portion of the stir fry anyway.
Tony’s lips part and he takes a small breath, readying himself to ask for the dish when Bruce is done. Before he can get out the words, however, Bruce is spooning what remains onto Tony’s plate.
Bruce glances up and Tony swears the split second that passes must stretch for a minute. How else could Tony read the tender apology in Bruce’s eyes and the acknowledgment that, yes, maybe there is more Bruce in Hulk than he cares to admit; and, yes, maybe things could be different at the lab?
Tony says, “Thank you,” for the food, and for all of the things Bruce is unable to say aloud.
Bruce adjusts his glasses over his ears as he leans back in his chair. “Don’t mention it.”
The following evening Tony receives the answer to the message he left that morning and laughs out loud. || I can honestly say the Gamma Bomb was not the worst experience of my life, but it made the top 5. Definitely. ||
“Ha,” he says to the nearly empty lobby. Before stuffing the napkin into his pants pocket, Tony reads it again, thinks of Bruce, and his smile grows wider.
// Fine. Tony writes on a fresh napkin. No more jalapeños. Got it. // He programs Squeeze 3.1 to make another green juice with kale, peach, and mango. The tropical flavors seem to bring out the most positive responses from the doc.
|| I’ve certainly told you enough times, my mornings require more protein, carbs, and fat than pureed fruit salad can provide. -Dr. B. (But it is yummy.) Squished at the bottom, Bruce is barely able to fit. And by all means, do continue. || He hopes his pen pal will read between the lines and invite him to a real meal. Or, at least, send back a note with some clue that his interest in such a date is reciprocated.
// Extra protein powder in this one. You like raspberries? I'm thinking the roof needs a greenhouse. Not sure SHIELD will approve. -T.S. //
|| Good luck getting approval for that. I’m gonna start supplementing with a real breakfast. I’m thinking: bacon and eggs. Know a good diner? (Hate to burst your bubble, but pea protein just doesn’t cut it.) -Dr. B. ||
Bruce tries again, a little less subtly. But by the time he gets a note in reply, things are so hectic in the lab that Bruce doesn’t pay much attention to the response he receives.
// (Please, tell me more about your bubble butt.) I need something to take my mind off my latest work-tastrophe. -T.S. //
|| (Funny.) Work's rough all around. If I didn't know any better, I'd think my partner was trying to give himself an aneurysm. -Dr. B. ||
// Partner, huh? //
|| Co-worker. His stress is stressed. But the last project we worked on together literally blew up in our faces, so I’m trying to let him be. ||
// Oh. Tough spot. I think you’ll like this one. I call it, 'The Cure'. (You can give him some. It has chamomile to mellow you folks out.) //
|| (Not a chance.) It'll take a lot more than blueberries, beets, and tea to cure us. -Dr. B. ||
// Don't knock the healing power of antioxidants. Fresh fruits and veggies cleanse the body and soul. -T.S. //
|| Oh, is that what you’ve been doing? Cleansing my body and soul? -Dr. B. ||
// If that’s all you think this is, then I’m doing it wrong. -T.S. //
Bruce takes a sip of his smoothie and gags. He hears Tony enter the lab just as he’s spitting into the trash can. “Shit.” He wipes his tongue with the napkin note and discards it when his tongue feels clean enough.
Bruce spits into the trash can again. “I’m allergic.”
“You’re… allergic? Seriously? To what?” Tony’s voice rises an octave in disbelief.
“Nothing. Blackberries. No longer allergic, really. We’ll call it a residual aversion.”
“Uh… then why did you order a Widow’s Bliss?”
“I di- Nevermind.” Bruce leaves the drink on his desk while he goes to get water from the fridge. When he returns, his cup is gone, and his heart races in full panic mode. Bruce whips his head around to see Tony is at his workbench sipping at the purple smoothie with a furrowed brow.
“Are you insane?” Bruce snatches the cup from Tony’s hand. “What if there are trace amounts of my blood on this. What if the gamma is in my saliva now? Tony, it’s not safe!”
"It doesn't matter."
“What are you talking about? Of course it matters! What if…?” It’s suddenly hard to breathe. “I’m poison, Tony. We have to get you to Medical.” Bruce barely registers that he is hyperventilating until Tony’s hand is on his back. “Don’t, Tony. Don’t. I’m-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Buddy, you’re fine. I’m fine.” Tony taps his reactor. “See this? It filters all that shit out. SHIELD vaccinates us with gamma inhibitors. Whatever isn’t blocked by that, the reactor can handle. I’m safe.”
Tears sting in Bruce’s eyes as he struggles to catch a lungful of air.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says. “I thought you knew about the inhibitors. And I shouldn't have taken the drink from you like that.”
“I thought you were-" Tony’s hand rubs circles over Bruce’s back as the latter gathers his bearings. Bruce doesn’t understand how Tony could be so kind to him, could stand so close. Vaccination or not, Bruce is lethal any way you slice him. “Back when I said… about the reactors… I didn’t mean…”
Bruce knows he keeps pushing Tony away. But he thinks his arms are getting tired of holding Tony at bay. “I couldn't bear it if I hurt you.”
“Right back atcha, big guy. You wanna hug it out?”
It’s been so long since Bruce has felt real affection, he thinks if he puts his arms around Tony he won’t let go. “No.”
Tony pats Bruce’s back before giving his shoulder a light squeeze. “I’m gonna finish that smoothie, by the way. It’s really filling.”
“Yeah, well, blackberries are my only almost-allergy, so you won’t be getting anymore freebies from me.”
“Are you kidding me?” Tony holds up the cup to show off the branding. “This is my company. They’re all freebies.”
Bruce is chewing his pen cap to pulp, wracking his brain, trying to find the missing piece of his equation when he hears Tony speak up from his desk across the room.
"The gamma inhibitor should work on you, too, by the way. If you ever wanted a day at the Opera or a ball game without fear of transformation."
Bruce squints at the back of Tony's head. Wanting to suppress The Other Guy doesn't coincide with what Bruce knows of Tony's interactions with him. "You said you like Hulk."
"I do... I thought you didn't."
When he first sees it, Tony is standing inside the Quinjet, armored and ready for a mission at Canada’s border. But the sight leaves him completely disarmed.
For an instant, a genuine smile had flashed over Bruce’s features. It had reached his eyes and radiated enough levity to brighten the cargo hold. And just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.
Tony's heart lurches at its sudden absence like the muscle could reach out and wrestle another smile from Bruce if it tried hard enough. Then again, after mishandling his offer of gamma suppressant just hours prior, a smile from Bruce feels like a fantasy. Maybe Tony's eyes are playing tricks on him.
But Bruce takes his place between Natasha and Clint, and Tony sees a hint of what's left before Bruce turns his back toward him - a spark of humor in Bruce's eyes. No, the smile hadn't been a hallucination, but it hadn’t been aimed at him either.
Bruce leans toward the others as the three strike up a conversation, their hands moving too quickly for Tony to follow along.
Next comes the laugh. It’s stifled behind the crook of Bruce's elbow and masked by a cough. Even so, Tony hears it and stares. All other noises seem to vanish as Tony hones in. Everything else ceases to exist.
He knows that laugh.
Tony’s memory fills in the gaps and rounds out the sound. It’s a laugh that Tony has carried with him for a long, long time.
Once they’re back in the lab, all the joviality Tony had witnessed in Bruce pre-mission is gone.
Tony smooths the edges of the napkin he picked up after the team’s return from Niagara Falls. He reads the doctor’s messy scrawl on an endless loop.
|| Do you ever feel like people don’t understand what it’s like to be you? Just when you’re starting to feel comfortable with yourself, they want you to change? -Dr. B. ||
At the other end of the lab, too far to comfort and too close to miss, Bruce works in silence. There’s a heavy cloud, not hanging over Bruce, but filling the space between him and Tony as they work.
Yesterday’s offer of gamma suppressant hasn’t been mentioned again, but there isn’t a need. Bruce looks lost and forlorn and altogether misunderstood. It’s a shadow of the demeanor Bruce wore before they were called to Assemble but simultaneously worse. At least yesterday Bruce was speaking.
Tony wishes there was a joke or a word of comfort that would break the heavy silence. He wishes there was something he could say that would coax a smile or a laugh from the man who is his teammate, the man he considers a friend, the man Tony thinks could be more.
Tony lifts his eyes toward Bruce, with an offer for lunch at the tip of his tongue, and freezes. The way Bruce rubs his eyes and the way his curls fall over his face as he hunches over his desk remind him of his customer-turned-pen-pal in a way that can't be denied. But the laugh and hair of an anonymous admirer mean little when pitted against Bruce’s current state.
Tony pads through the hazy tension between their work stations and over to Bruce. “What do you wanna eat?”
“Nah, I had bullshit pizza yesterday.”
With a shake of his head, Tony reaches into Bruce’s breast pocket and takes out a pen. “I’ll give it right back.” In tight print Tony scribbles his invitation, then he replaces the pen as promised.
// Grab a coffee with me. Biggest they got. Hot, light, and sweet with whip. Extra everything. -T.S. //
Bruce hasn’t looked up from his work.
Tony supposes sending the note with Erin is just as good as having Bruce watch him write it on his desk. After all, what could be the harm in keeping up the charade a little longer?
Tony can’t help but notice that Bruce is skittish all day. It’s not the reaction he expects to see after a man receives an invitation to a date. But Tony had tasted the extra protein powder in the Widow’s Bliss smoothie, had heard his laugh. Now the bleary-eyed mornings, the mop of curls, and those careful hands all come together to form a picture that should have been familiar long ago. Dr. Bedhead. Dr. B.
And, come on... ‘Dr. B’? It has to be him, right? But Bruce… he was giving no indication he knew Tony was writing him back in kind.
There is a note in the usual spot that night. || You remember that? -Dr. B. ||
// Your coffee order? Of course. Friday. Village Coffee. Take a break at 4. Say yes. // Tony couldn't help himself. He has to meet the man in person. He has to find out for sure. Because if it's been Bruce this whole time, Tony doesn't know what he will do -- he doesn't know what Bruce will do.
For two days in a row, Tony finds Bruce’s smoothie in the lab refrigerator otherwise untouched, and he doesn't know what it means. But Tony finds a response to his invitation bright and early on the third. || Leaving me no other option, huh? -Dr. B. (OK. Tomorrow. Village Coffee at 4.) ||
Bruce starts and stops more conversations than usual. He approaches Tony with questions he surely knows the answer to and seeks out opinions on subjects of little significance to either of their projects.
“Bruce, I’m thrilled to have you as my science bro, but if there’s something nagging you-" Tell me it's you. Give me another clue. "If you need to talk about something, just spit it out.”
“Spit it out?" Bruce laughs, but it's nothing like the ones Tony has heard before. This is self-deprecating. Almost disappointed. "Gee, can’t imagine why we haven’t had a heart-to-heart before.”
Tony frowns. But they have had talks before. Serious talks. They're friends, aren't they?
“You know what I mean," Tony says, trying not to let the depths of his hurt show. "I’ve got two ears and a heart. Well, two hearts, kinda.”
Bruce’s gaze drifts to Tony’s chest and pauses, then he finds Tony’s eyes.
“So,” Tony clenches his jaw and takes a breath, “do you wanna grab a drink?” This is harder than the notes ever were and all he’s asking for is time with Bruce as a friend.
Is this the anxiety kindergarteners feel when they approach a new classmate on the playground? ‘Hey, Brucey-boy, wanna play?’
“Coffee?” Tony clarifies. “Or a bite?”
“Tony.” Bruce’s voice catches in his throat, wavering. “I can’t.”
"It's not you, it's-"
Tony forces a neutral expression and gives half a shrug, "Don't sweat it.” But the rejection hurts. “Let’s say it’s an open invitation, yeah?”
Tony turns back to his work, but he thinks he can feel Bruce’s eyes on him for a long time.
Tony spends that night feeling queasy and unsure. Bruce's rejection runs laps in his mind. Dr’s B.’s promise to meet follows at a sprint that never seems to catch up. || Village Coffee at 4. || The thoughts rob Tony of sleep as they chase each other through the night.
Tony lays awake in bed fretting. If it’s Bruce who shows up to find Tony waiting at the cafe, will he be disappointed? Will Bruce turn tail and run?
Hawkeye and Black Widow dash through the subway toward what’s left of the stairs shouting that they’ll be back with help.
Cap and Thor carefully arrange concrete slabs at Tony’s direction. Tony insists their makeshift support structures should keep this section of subway safe.
“Tony, if this does collapse...”
“It won’t. I know what I’m doing.” Hulk hasn’t slipped into unconsciousness, hasn’t transformed into Bruce. They can’t move him and Tony won’t leave him.
The tunnel around them buckles; dust and rock fall from the ceiling in sheets. “We can dig him out,” Cap insists. “Hulk will survive a collapse, we won’t.”
It’s not true; the supersoldier and god will bounce back from the worst of this. Tony knows the risk is his alone, but it's the one he’s willing to take.
“He won’t stay Hulk for much longer,” Tony barks back.
“Bruce will survive, too.” Cap’s reply is softer than it has any right to be. “You know that.”
Tony closes his eyes. If the subway does collapse, there is no way in Hell he’s about to risk Bruce suffering alone.
“Get out,” Tony says. It’s an order; it’s anger; it’s desperation. He understands the fears of his teammates; he’s just as terrified. Even so, he can’t abandon Hulk or Bruce.
“Man of Iron-” Thor begins. For once, his voice doesn’t shake the rafters.
“Go!” Tony insists, and is relieved when they do. The city is still under attack; there are civilians in need; and Tony can’t bear to be the reason for more lives lost.
He moves from Hulk’s side to sit near the crook of his neck, where he can keep an eye on the worst of Hulk’s wounds and card a hand through his hair. There’s a tremor in Tony’s touch, but he hopes the gesture will soothe Hulk to sleep so that he can down-size and be moved.
Tony cringes at the sight of alien shrapnel lodged in Hulk’s side, too deep for even Thor to remove, and his heart races. It’s not Hulk that will bear the brunt of this injury. Bruce is the one that can be treated medically. Bruce is the one that will suffer the pain of waking, surgery, and recovery.
Tony bows his head to Hulk’s. The guilt of distracting himself with thoughts of Bruce wracks his body with a dry sob.
Tony strokes Hulk’s cheek as the goliath groans and Tony thanks him for knocking him out of the way, “Even if you did smash the arm of my suit to smithereens, ya big lug.” At least, now, Tony can touch him. Tony presses his forehead to Hulk’s temple and wonders if anyone has ever touched him with tenderness before.
Hulk groans again, a sound of agony as he trembles and twists. It’s the first time Tony has been present during a transformation, but he doesn’t move away in fear.
Bruce emerges as Hulk recedes and Tony crawls to stay close to his shrinking form.
Bruce gasps, has a look at the foot of metal protruding from his chest, and passes out. Tony considers it a mercy.
“Come on, guys,” Tony says into the comms. “Where’s that jet?” He forces the tremor out of his voice. “Banner’s back. There’s a lot of blood.” Tony isn’t sure he should have added the last bit of information, possibly breaking his promise to Bruce about revealing his vulnerabilities. But he’s scared the others won’t be back; he’s scared Bruce is wrong about his immortality.
Bruce’s dry whisper stills the fingers Tony had been running through his curls. “It looks worse than it is,” Tony lies. He has no idea what internal damage the shrapnel has caused.
“Tony,” Bruce says again, a whimper.
Tony’s fingers resume their slow journey over Bruce’s scalp. “You’re gonna be OK.”
“Shhh,” Tony soothes. “Shhh.”
“No, Tony, shut up.” Bruce coughs and Tony’s frown turns up into a sad smile. “Richards’ material. Can you use it? Pull this thing out of me and use a pant leg to stop the bleeding? Could you get it tight enough?”
Tony’s jaw drops and his eyes flit from Bruce’s pained expression to the shorts he’s wearing. “I don't know. I can’t cut it,” he says, “I’d have to-”
Pulling out the piece of alien ship is the hard part -- hearing Bruce scream, watching him writhe, knowing it’s his hands putting him through the pain. But stripping Bruce out of his sole article of clothing, then shimmying him back into it, draws out sounds of agony almost as bad. And on top of that, it feels like a terrible violation of Bruce’s privacy.
Immediately after Bruce’s torso is secure in the sheath of a pant leg, Tony climbs out of his armor. Maybe he’s too hasty. Tony grunts as he slips on a pool of Bruce’s blood and falls on his ass. “Fuck.”
“Potty mouth.” Bruce says weakly before managing to turn his head. “W-what are you doing?” The sight of Tony without armor seems to have infused Bruce with energy, or sparked new anger. “Get back in your suit.”
“In a minute.” That’s all the time it takes for Tony to strip off his under armor and return to the safety of the Iron Man suit.
“You could have gotten yourself killed,” Bruce grumbles, his anger receding.
Tony slides his pants up Bruce’s legs and smooths the waistband around his hips. “You’re welcome.”
Bruce groans a quiet, “Thanks,” then adds, “Got a plan to get us out of this mess?”
“Why?” Tony asks as he checks his instruments for an ETA on the Quinjet. “You got a hot date?” Rescue is still ten minutes out, leaving plenty of time for Bruce to confess any plans for a secret rendezvous.
Bruce gives a small chuff as Tony’s hands join his putting pressure on his side. “Screw you, Stark.”
// I’m sorry our plans fell through. There was an emergency at work and, well, duty calls. -T.S. // Bruce nods at no one in his empty hospital room; he knows a thing or two about emergencies at work. There’s no request to reschedule, and he doesn’t know how long he’ll be stuck in SHIELD's medical wing recovering, so he doesn’t bring it up either.
|| It’s OK. The response from Dr. B. says. Work’s been trying to kill me, too. ||
Tony can’t shake the phrasing. It couldn’t be a coincidence that Dr. B. would joke while Bruce lay up on the second floor under round-the-clock care of doctors? But even bleeding out, delirious, Bruce hadn’t let slip any hint of the date.
Tony shakes his suspicions from his thoughts. He reads the note again and again, searching for an invitation and coming up short -- there’s no mention of wanting to try meeting up again.
Residue from the alien tech left behind after extraction affects Bruce in ways his usual regimen of meds can’t handle, and it’s two weeks before he returns to the lab. Immediately, Tony notices he’s taking on more than he can handle. Accelerated healing factor or not, Bruce should not be doing any heavy lifting.
“Easy there,” Tony rushes over to catch the brown delivery box from Bruce’s failing grip. He’s surprised by the light weight of the package and sets it down easily on the table.
“It’s just an awkward shape,” Bruce explains.
Tony looks at the long rectangular box and nods to avoid unnecessary discord. Without asking if Bruce needs help, Tony picks up the other boxes from the floor and lets Bruce tell him where they belong.
“I’m sorry I didn’t visit you in the medical wing.” Business as usual had pulled Tony away almost immediately following the attack. Investors had to be assured their property and interests were protected.
“It’s no problem.” Bruce clears his throat with a small cough. “Um, Steve came around mid-week. Clint, Natasha, and Thor were there at my discharge.”
But he was alone for the rest of the time. 11 days. Tony swallows hard as Bruce brushes past him to grab another box. Seemingly of its own accord, Tony’s hand reaches for Bruce as he goes. His fingertips pinch the sleeve of Bruce’s lab coat before he lets the fabric slip out of his grip. “I was across the country at meetings for-”
“Really, Tony, it’s not a big deal,” Bruce insists, but he doesn’t look Tony’s way. “I didn’t expect anyone to come.”
I should have been there, Tony wants to say. I would have been there.
“Hey, Tony?” Bruce asks from across the room.
Tony hums around a forkful of salad. “Mm, you want one?”
“Does it come with a bucket of chicken?”
Tony chokes on his bite. “No,” he chuckles as he regains his composure. “Yours has baked salmon on the side.”
Bruce shakes his head and joins Tony at the table. “I swear I end up eating half the diner menu for dinner the way you guys starve me here.”
“Yeah, you and,” Bruce smiles and Tony wishes it wasn’t fleeting, “...the food service staff.”
Tony hands Bruce the second salad container and his salmon. Hope and fear battle it out for purchase around his arc reactor’s ring. “If you ordered yourself something to eat, maybe I wouldn’t have to do it for you.”
Bruce’s hand pauses mid-reach for his fork.
Tony kicks himself and tries to correct course. “But I don’t mind. How about burgers tomorrow?”
Bruce looks skeptical, but then his timidity is gone and he digs into his salad with gusto. “Real meat?”
They eat their salads in comfortable quiet.
Every so often Tony passes Bruce a piece of chicken. He claims they’re bordering on undercooked, adding, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Brucey-bear. What doesn’t kill me gives me food poisoning.” Tony is pretty sure Bruce knows the chicken is fine, but if Bruce needs the calories and protein, he can have them.
Spearing the last shreds of romaine onto his fork, Bruce takes a breath that draws Tony’s attention.
“Is that room still open?” Bruce asks and Tony wonders if his casual demeanor is forced because he’s pretty sure he can feel Bruce’s knee bouncing under the table.
“Is what room… Your rooms? Yeah, of course they are.”
“Would it be alright if I crashed here for awhile? I want to keep a closer eye on some things in the lab and the back and forth while I’m healing might be-”
“Yeah!” Tony answers with more enthusiasm than he meant to let on. “Yes. They’re... yours. We, um, there’s communal dinners at 7 and you’re welcome to the penthouse rec room whenever you like. But if you prefer time to yourself, your rooms are- I mean, there’s a full apartment set up for you over there.”
Bruce says, “Oh,” and glances down at the empty salad bowl in his hands. He looks back at Tony before shaking the dazed look from his eyes. “That all sounds great.”
Tony knows he’s smiling like a fool; he knows because it hurts and he can’t seem to stop.
It strikes Bruce as odd that the doors to Tony's penthouse slide open for him automatically when he walks in at 7AM. Not that they've ever been locked to him before, or because of the early hour, but doesn't Tony deserve privacy? Living in a glass tower, Bruce thinks Tony would at least employ his locks.
Maybe , Bruce thinks, JARVIS announces visitors ahead of time. Maybe Tony's already up and expecting him.
When Tony startles at the sight of Bruce, he thinks, Maybe not.
With one hand on the staircase banister and the other toweling off his hair, Tony pauses his descent to the main living space. Bruce sucks in a breath at the sight of him -- bare feet, bare chest, boxer briefs, and a crooked smile.
Tony jerks his chin in Bruce’s direction as he continues to ruffle his damp hair. Foregoing a morning greeting, he jumps straight to the heart of Bruce’s visit. “What’cha got there?”
"Oh,” Bruce’s brain short-circuits for a moment, watching the muscles of Tony’s thighs flex as he resumes his descent. Eyes up. Eyes up. He implores. But that brings Bruce’s attention to Tony’s chest and his arms and his mouth and- “I know I shouldn’t be up here,” he says in a rush.
"Shouldn't?” Tony pulls back as if offended by the suggestion. “Why?"
"You obviously weren’t expecting company. And, I mean, I already live in your skyscraper, work in your lab… "
"Bruce, if I didn’t want you here, there are plenty of ways I could keep you out. And Seventh Heaven is our lab."
Bruce focuses on the second part so he can ignore the intimacy with which Tony said the first -- intimacy which Bruce surely imagined. "So we're really sticking with that name, huh?"
"Til death do us part." There's a softness to his voice again, one that really shouldn't be there. Not while he's in such a state of undress. Not while Bruce is harboring a crush he can do nothing about.
"So." Tony wears a smile Bruce is starting to recognize as one he saves only for him, and Bruce is charmed. "You gonna tell me what brings you up here this morning?"
“I met someone." It's guilt that draws out his confession and it feels strange to feel such a way about such a thing when standing in front of the man he knew as a playboy just short of a year ago.
Bruce stares at Tony’s hands as they grip the towel tighter around his neck. He tells himself he’s imagining the hurt in that solitary syllable.
“And I was making them breakfast,” Bruce continues, lifting the covered bowls he’s been holding.
Tony’s eyebrows rise up a fraction. Though the hurt remains in his expression it is now accompanied by some false bro-code version of congratulatory machismo. "Oh!"
Bruce’s heart hurts; this isn’t how the morning was supposed to go. “No, not- Tony, will you shut up?"
"I said 'oh'. I can't say 'oh'?"
"Not the way you say it. No."
"Oh.” Tony’s hands shoot up in a pacifying gesture and lead them to the kitchen. “Sorry; last one."
Bruce sighs. "I thought I’d bring him breakfast. I went down to the lobby, but he wasn’t there.” The stoneware bowls land on the table with a heavy *th-thunk* as Bruce slides them out of his hands.
"Trying to catch him on the way out?" Tony bypasses the table in favor of pouring himself a glass of greyish milk.
Organic unsweetened almond non-dairy beverage , Bruce reads from the carton. He rolls his eyes. "We never… He didn’t spend the night here. He works in the lobby."
Tony lowers his glass. "At reception?"
"The juice bar."
With a short nod, Tony leans over the counter on his forearms like he’s ready to fish for gossip. "So you made him breakfast," Tony says with nonchalance, but his poker face is terrible. This isn’t just small talk to him.
Bruce wishes he could read people better. No, screw other people. Bruce wishes he could get an accurate read on Tony; that would be enough.
"I guess, technically,” Bruce revises, “I made you breakfast."
"Technically.” Tony's half-smile is tight with amusement. “You really like him, huh?”
Bruce can’t deny it, no matter how confused his feelings are getting for Tony. “He’s the reason Hulk couldn’t get me out of the subway.” Bruce remembers Tony’s selflessness, his concern, and compassion. “I grabbed one of those gamma inhibitors from Coulson. I guess it didn't work the way SHIELD thought it would.”
Speaking the truth fills Bruce with shame. Taking the injection that morning had been the most selfish thing Bruce had done in years. “Hulk surfaced when we were called to Assemble, but I couldn't sustain him more than a couple of hours and then… I think it’s the reason it’s taking so long for me to heal."
"You took an inhibitor for this guy?" After all of their arguments about how Hulk isn’t some weapon to be put on a shelf until he’s convenient, Bruce isn’t surprised to hear the shock in Tony’s question.
"I wanted him to be safe, in case the date ended… favorably."
“Didn’t take you for one to put out on the first date.”
Bruce’s brow furrows; had he mentioned it was a first date? “I wouldn’t risk sex. Maybe not ever. But a kiss…”
“You were hoping for a kiss.”
Bruce looks down at his hands as they twist over one another. The warmth of Tony’s words brings thoughts of Bruce’s first visit to the Tower and the little notes that have followed to the forefront of his mind. “I was hoping that the date would go well enough that I would be hoping for a kiss.”
“That’s a lot of hope.”
Bruce releases a staggering breath. “More than I’ve had in a long time. Anyway, the, uh, the juice bar downstairs… that’s where we met. He was fixing one of the machines, I think. Nice guy. And funny. Generous.”
“He was a fucking klutz.” Bruce adds to lighten the mood, to cut through Tony’s tenderness. “With a great ass.”
Tony chokes on his laugh. “Yeah?” He clears his throat. “Better than mine?”
“Better than Cap’s.”
“Stop.” Tony holds up a scolding finger. “You’re talking about America’s ass right there.”
“Oh, I know. But this guy’s ass is perfection.” Bruce laughs until he notices Tony hiding his face behind his hands. “Are you blushing?”
“Just thinking about you checking out the team’s asses, Brucey. Though I can’t tell whether or not this conversation borders on sexual harassment in the workplace.”
“So,” Tony rounds the kitchen island and approaches the table with bravado, “how does mine stack up?”
The laughter dies down as Bruce looks at the cooling bowls of oatmeal in front of him. On a serious note, he says, “I think it’s better if we stop talking about this.”
Tony pulls out a chair and sits. When he speaks again, Bruce doesn’t quite mind the delicate way he asks, “You’re really hung up on this guy, huh?”
“I don’t know him as well as I’d like to, but I think he may be one of the good ones. You know?”
After a deep breath, Tony places his hand over Bruce’s. He mimics the pattern of Bruce’s thumb with his own, over and across the knuckles of his right hand until Bruce’s fidgeting stills. “I’m sorry he wasn’t there today. And I really hope it all works out, for you and, um, the juice guy.”
“Me too.” Bruce stares at Tony and wonders what would have happened between them if they had met at different points in their life, under different circumstances. It’s fear of the unknown, fear of feeding the feelings Bruce shouldn’t entertain, that prevents him from dwelling on the idea for too long.
“So,” Bruce slides his hands out from under Tony’s to pass them each a bowl, “is all of my hard work going to waste or shall we dig in?”
Tony gives a short laugh and lifts his spoon. “You really packed this thing, didn’t you.”
The oatmeal is dressed with nuts, seeds, and berries. A sprinkle of cinnamon and a scant drizzle of maple syrup finish it off.
“He’s kind of a health nut.”
Tony makes a satisfied sound as he takes his first bite. “I’m surprised you like him at all, then. Didn’t you use a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches as a burger bun last night?”
Bruce laughs. “That’s was good, by the way. Nat flips a mean burger.”
“And you make a mean grilled cheese.” Bruce smiles at Tony’s tiny bow and thinks, like lunch and dinner and the music in the lab, breakfast with Tony is something he could get used to.
“What are you planning for tonight?” Bruce asks in anticipation for their evening meal.
“I don’t know. Whatever the chef has in mind, I guess. Why, you got a craving?”
“I was thinking, maybe, the Boston Market family deal. Chicken, cornbread, a couple sides.”
Bruce pulls out his tablet to take notes. “So, what do you want me to order for you and the rest of the team?”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Hey… I’m a growing boy.”
Tony’s laugh is boisterous and genuine. “You’re a real piece o’ work, Banner.”
Pushing away his empty bowl, Bruce eyes the last half of Tony’s oatmeal.
“Well, if you’re not going to eat it.”
Tony shakes his head as Bruce shovels cereal into his mouth. It's cold and congealing but, "Hey, it's food. Waste not, want not, right?" Bruce knows it's the perfect argument against Tony's grimace.
Between bites of oatmeal from Tony's bowl, Bruce continues to fill Tony in on what’s been going on between him and the guy from the lobby.
“I keep telling him the protein shakes he sends don’t fill me up, but I really think he has no idea.”
“Tell you what,” Tony says as he takes the empty bowls to the sink. “You be a good boy; keep drinking your vegetables. And I’ll make sure we get some omelettes and bagels at the lab.”
Mornings are simple. Boiled eggs, chocolate croissants, cottage cheese with fruit. Bruce continues to sip his juice, but now he has food that actually manages to sustain him until he and Tony scrounge up lunch.
The notes on The Squeeze napkins continue without further mention of meeting again.
Bruce isn’t cleared by Dr. Amir to attempt transformation yet, but he watches the team train in the afternoon and takes notes, for whatever it’s worth. Maybe something will carry over to Hulk through their shared consciousness. And he certainly enjoys Clint’s hyperactive retellings of battles while waiting for Tony to finish up in the locker room.
“And then we herded them onto the docks. And Hulk was all “ROAR! SMASH!” and then Tony swooped in across the water and started letting those bugs really have it *FOOM* *FOOM*. I loosed a few at the overgrown roaches like *ZIP* *ZIP *ZIP* motherfuckers *KABOOM!* - incendiaries, y’know? And then Hulk was all “THUNDER CLAP!” And Thor jumped into the clouds to rain lightning down on the city without discrimination. He thinks he’s the God of Thunder but, like, I’m pretty sure he’s just a prince or something. He was so pissed at you. I mean Hulk. I mean, how does that actually wor- Ow!”
“I didn’t hear you mention what Widow and I were doing during that firefight.”
Clint’s eyes sparkle as his eyebrows waggle suggestively. “What were you and Widow doing, Captain Blue Balls?”
The comment earns the archer twin smacks to the back of the head, one each from both Steve and Bruce. Steve's glare says, 'leave', and Clint takes his cue in a hurry.
Clint is out of sight before he’s out of earshot, thanks to Tony’s newest hearing aid design, so Bruce waits before taking the opportunity to apologize for his first impression of the captain.
“Listen, Steve,” he begins cautiously. “When I came to join the team I was-”
“Water under the bridge.” Steve says with a wide, sweeping gesture.
“OK.” Bruce tries again. He can do this. He wants to. He’s been working up to it, dammit. “But I shouldn’t have-”
Steve interrupts again. “No harm, no foul.”
The gamma dampener regimen Bruce has been prescribed keeps his frustration boiling under the surface, just below the depths he can reach. “I’m trying to-”
“Team dinner tonight, yes?” With that, Steve turns on his heel and stalks down the hall.
“I was trying to apologize,” Bruce calls after him.
“‘I’m sorry’ is two words, Dr. Banner,” Steve says over his shoulder. “You’ll figure it out.”
Bruce doesn’t realize Tony is standing beside him until he hears him ask, “So, how long do you get to stare before it’s considered cheating on Mr. Smooth-ie?”
“Don’t start, Tony.”
“You know we told Rogers he doesn’t need to wear the suit during training exercises anymore.” Tony slings an arm around Bruce’s neck. “He says it’s grown on him.”
“Like a fungus?” Bruce smiles.
Tony pokes the faint dimple in Bruce’s cheek as they walk down the hall. “There you are,” he says, like he’s greeting an old friend.
Bruce leans into his side and Tony makes no move to shy away.
That evening the team follows the routine to which they’ve recently grown accustomed: dinner at Tony’s penthouse.
Bruce learned at their first dinner that there is someone on Earth that can pack away almost as much grub as him. Consequently, he and Cap ended up getting to know each other during their extra time spent at the table. Bruce had not only found that Steve lives up to his reputation, but tonight their moment of privacy offers Bruce a second opportunity to fuck up an apology for the first impression he made on the team. But he has a feeling Steve expects nothing less.
“B+ for effort,” Steve says as they load their plates with more of Natasha’s carne asada.
Tonight, she’s proven yet again that she is amazing at the grill; while a small electrical fire in the kitchen solidified everyone’s fear that she shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a microwave.
Clint returns to the table, calling dibs on the last of the steak, and dragging Thor and Tony with him. It takes mere seconds for Clint to pile his tortilla high and dive in. He loves tacos… probably too much.
Thor continues to bypass the prepared meal in favor of eating Wheaties straight out of boxes with his face on them. He’s currently on his fourth with no sign of slowing down.
Tony smiles. Despite the ungainly ice pack wrapped around his foot and the resulting hop in his step, Tony smiles. A lot.
And Bruce starts to think the warmth expanding in his chest must be what people feel when they talk about ‘home’.
At first, Bruce had assumed team dinners were always like this, but it’s Rogers who mades a comment that he likes the new, laid back vibe their evenings have adopted. Thor and Clint act less impressed and are always the first to leave. However, they never seem to be in any rush to go. Natasha is usually next to head out, with Steve not far behind. Bruce lingers and Tony doesn’t seem to mind.
It’s been over a month since Bruce’s almost-date fell through, since Hulk literally fell through Dyckman Street and had the subway almost collapse on him. Them. Hulk and Bruce... and Tony.
Bruce gives a small acknowledgment to Natasha and Steve as they call it a night and thinks back to what Tony had said about the team coming together for a few days after a mission. They were supposed to go their separate ways weeks ago. They have secret families, friends in and out of the superhero loop; they have lives beyond these walls. Bruce thinks that maybe they’re sticking around longer because of him.
Before he can decide if that’s a good thing, Tony’s hand is on his shoulder, his thumb landing above the collar of Bruce’s sweater to rest upon his bare neck. Bruce tips his head back to see him standing behind the couch.
“I was just about to make some popcorn and put on a movie when everyone bailed.”
“I’m beat,” Bruce answers with a little stretch and a groan. His hand alights to Tony’s just long enough to feel its warmth before he twists out of reach. “I’m gonna turn in.”
“Did something happen? Tonight?” Tony’s voice lifts with concern. “Or…” Tony limps around the couch to sit and Bruce wishes he wouldn’t worry. “Something happened with your guy?”
Tony sounds invested. He always sounds so invested in what Bruce has to say.
“It’s nothing.” It’s true. Nothing has happened with anyone, with anything. His health is on the mend, his relationships with the team are all positive and growing more so. “You’re all great.” And things with the guy from the juice bar are just as they always were.
“‘My guy’ is… The thing with ‘my guy’ is…” Suddenly, Bruce realizes he hasn’t received a note or drink from the juice bar in days. With catered breakfast, new projects, and spending more time with the team, Bruce hasn’t missed them. But now that he thinks about their absence, he wonders what he did wrong. “I don’t even know who he is,” he admits. “And he hasn’t asked to...”
Tony’s brow furrows as he settles into the cushions. “He hasn’t mentioned another date.”
Bruce stares as he chews the inside of his bottom lip. As usual, Tony has hit the nail on the head.
There’s a flicker of emotion that passes across Tony’s features. Bruce doesn’t quite catch it, can’t name it. But the energy in the room changes. The weight of Tony’s words pulls his gaze to the floor. “Anyone who doesn’t see you for who you really are, who doesn’t go after you with their full arsenal, is an idiot and a coward.”
Bruce lets silence diffuse some of the gravity before saying, “Um, Tony?”
“Hm?” He raises his eyes, but looks as though he’s still caught up in his own thoughts. His hands fiddle with the medical tape wrapped around the ice pack until his foot is free.
It’s hard to tell under the sock, but Bruce knows the ankle is still swollen and bruised. His fingers itch to reach out, as if their touch could somehow soothe Tony’s injury. Instead, Bruce holds his hands out for the ice pack and sets the wrappings aside.
“That’s literally my worst nightmare,” Bruce continues, settling in closer than before.
“What is?” Tony is fully in the present again and Bruce is happy to have him back.
“Someone coming after me with a full arsenal? Really?” Bruce notices his fingers combing through the hair around the curve of Tony’s ear and wonders when that started.
“Fine,” Tony says, “I’m the idiot.”
Bruce smiles as he brings his hand back. “Well, at least we agree on something.”
“So, does that mean you’re gonna stay?”
Grabbing a blanket from the back of the couch and draping it over his legs, Bruce makes himself comfortable. He fluffs the pillow behind him and drags the ottoman toward the couch with his toe. Bruce catches Tony staring.
“By all means,” Tony says, throwing up his hands, “do what you gotta do.”
Bruce sits back, pats his lap in invitation, and Tony stills.
Wearing an easy smile of encouragement, Bruce smoothes the blanket over his thighs. “You need to elevate that ankle.”
Tony lies back, but even as his head comes to rest upon the arm of the sofa, he looks unsure. He bends his knee, as if in question, before raising his legs onto the couch.
Without hesitation, but with careful hands, Bruce brings Tony’s feet into his lap. “So,” Bruce says, trying to ignore the little shimmy Tony does as he slides into position, “what are you in the mood for?”
Tony blinks up at him and Bruce tries not to read too much into the soft curve of Tony’s lips and the contented sigh that escapes them. He glides his hand up and down Tony’s shin as he waits for an answer. “Tony?”
“I, um… whatever you want is fine with me,” Tony stammers. “You decide.”
Bruce’s hand pauses on Tony’s knee and gives it a light squeeze. “I think I can manage that.”
Bruce pads up to Tony’s penthouse, showered and changed, but still rubbing his eyes. He’s an early bird but mornings are still mornings. Even though the effectiveness of caffeine on Bruce has been a moot point for years, waking up without a hot cup in his hands just isn’t the same. One of these days he’s going to get a coffee machine for his apartment, but first he needs to get his phone back.
The elevator opens to Tony’s floor with a delightful *ping* before the doors whisper shut behind him. But instead of making his way through Tony’s foyer, Bruce finds himself rooted in place.
Had he just referred to his rooms on the seventh floor as his apartment? Bruce banishes the thought.
But as he heads further into Tony’s penthouse, the question creeps up on him again, nagging and taunting until Bruce admits to himself that he’s starting to think of the Tower as... home.
A whistled melody carries into the hall from the kitchen and Bruce stops short just before the entry. He has to make a conscious effort to remind himself of the reason for his visit. Ah, yes, the phone. Bruce thinks it may have fallen out of his pocket during team movie night. His first thought is to check between the cushions where he’d passed out on the couch between Tony and Nat.
It should be here, somewhere , Bruce tells himself. But Tony should not. Tony should be at the gym; that’s where he says he goes in the morning, anyway, before showing up to the lab an hour later than Bruce.
Taking a more careful listen of the kitchen, Bruce hears a small symphony of sound. The metal on metal scrape of pans on a stovetop. Music playing; soft jazz. The rushed patter of rain on glass that Bruce likens to a storm.
“J, next song. And whaddaya say we increase the volume to thirty percent?”
Bruce can’t help but be enchanted by the pleasant mix of sounds created by Tony’s morning routine. He peeks his head through the doorframe, prepared with a ‘Looks like somebody woke up on the right side of the bed’ at the tip of his tongue.
When Tony comes into view, however, Bruce finds himself breathless. Bruce foregoes his greeting in favor of watching his friend enjoy this moment to himself.
Still dressed in the same pajama set he’d worn during last night’s movie, Tony bustles around the stove. Music pours in through the speakers. The silk moves with him as he sways and Bruce can almost feel the way the fabric warmed the space between them as they sat close to watch the film.
It doesn’t strike Bruce as odd that Tony is flipping an omelette, until he’s plating it beside a stack of toast and setting the plate on a wheeled cart. A quick scan of the room is enough for Bruce to notice the kitchen is a meticulous mess. Every inch of the kitchen island is covered in cutting boards, cutlery, bowls of chopped fruit, and plates of bacon and sausage.
Bruce blinks. Tony had said they were getting breakfast catered, hadn’t he?
He suddenly feels guilty for intruding on Tony like this, for watching him and saying nothing.
The phone can wait. He abandons his mission and soundlessly heads down to his floor- his lab- Tony’s lab.
Work will help distract him -- from the feelings he has for Tony and from this thing he has going on with the guy from downstairs. Bruce hopes it will. But when he walks into the lab and sees juice and a note waiting at his desk, all it does is remind him that he needs to choose.
This morning, the napkin's note isn't like the others: // Fool in the rain. Zeppelin // It's all Bruce can do but to find the song in Tony's collection and play it for himself. At first listen Bruce thinks it's some kind of guilt trip for missing their date without notice. It isn’t until the last verse that Bruce lowers his defenses:
Ooh now my body is starting to quiver
And the palms of my hands getting wet, oh
I got no reason to doubt you, baby
It's all a terrible mess
And I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless
When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop (hey)
And the thoughts of a fool's gotta count
I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block
It’s a song about missed connections, Bruce realizes. Standing on the wrong street corner to meet someone and trying desperately to get to the right place before the other person is gone.
Assuming the sentiment, Bruce turns over the napkin and writes. || Let’s try again. ||
Tony walks in then, the scent of onions and bacon grease still lingering on him despite him looking freshly showered and changed.
“Morning, sunshine,” Tony says, beaming as wait staff follows him in with the food cart.
“Morning,” Bruce returns and he tosses the napkin in the trash.
He’ll get around to writing out a new response after he’s had some time to think. Bruce figures, after days without hearing from the guy, he can wait a day of his own. Besides, there are more pressing matters to which he must attend.
Tony is spooning himself a plate of sauteed spinach and eggs as Bruce approaches the food cart. He glances up when, with new depths to his appreciation, Bruce compliments the breakfast spread.
“Yeah. The, uh, baked apples came out really well.”
It’s an off-handed comment that Bruce wonders if Tony let slip on purpose. When Tony’s ears go red, Bruce ducks his chin to hide a knowing smile.
“I mean,” Tony tries to save himself, “they smell good.”
A small step toward the fruit is all it takes to block Tony from making a hasty retreat to the table. Bruce won’t let him by without meeting his eye. “Thank you,” he says. His gratitude carries all the weight of sincerity that it can bear without revealing Bruce has discovered the truth.
The curious way Tony holds his gaze is enough to bring to Bruce’s awareness just how close they’re standing. Bruce’s attention drops to Tony’s lips as they part to speak. “I think this is yours.”
Bruce licks his lips, soaking up the lure of Tony’s kiss. The fantasy of Tony leaning in is dashed by the man stepping back to tap a phone against Bruce’s chest.
“Yeah.” Bruce fumbles the phone before securing it in his grasp. “Thanks.”
Tony pats Bruce’s chest one last time before sidling past. Bruce tries not to fixate on how Tony’s hand lingers, gliding over his shoulder, as he goes.
It takes all evening to dig through his memory, but Bruce is pretty sure he's figured out Tony’s schedule -- when he wakes up, at what time he starts cooking -- and the next morning Bruce is delighted to find Tony in the penthouse kitchen before he’s cracked a single egg.
“Morning, sunshine,” Bruce parrots Tony’s usual greeting. He’s expecting a, ‘Hey.’ Or a, ‘Forgot your phone again?’ Or a, ‘Right back at ya, Moonbeam.’ Something casual, light, friendly.
What he doesn’t anticipate is for Tony to jump out of his skin, knock himself in the face with the fridge door, swear like a sailor, and grumble a chant of, “Not again, not again, not again.”
Tony leans against the fridge door as it closes properly this time. “The Hell, Banner?”
Bruce just barely stifles his laugh, but he does nothing to hide his affection from his voice or his expression. “Are you OK? Here, lemme see.”
Tony shakes his head as he pinches his nose. “Nope, no way. Call a real doctor. You can’t tell if I’m alive or braindead.”
Bruce’s laughter dissolves into breathy chuckling as he rounds the counter. “To be fair, your brain doesn’t kick into high gear until after you’ve listened to some Sabbath.”
Tony uncovers his face as Bruce takes his head in his careful hands. Sniffing at the residual pain, Tony alights his hands to Bruce’s wrists and takes hold.
When Tony opens his eyes, Bruce is gazing down at him with a soft smile.
“I’ll patch you right up,” Bruce says.
Bruce moves his thumbs in a smooth caress over Tony’s face. They start at the bridge of Tony’s nose, then slide outward along his cheekbones to his ears. “That feel OK?”
Tony draws in a deep breath and relaxes into the touch. “Mhmm.”
Bruce’s smile pulls tight for a second before he steps backward and drops his hands to his sides. “I think you’ll be fine.” But Bruce isn’t sure he himself will be. Not if he doesn’t get more opportunities to touch Tony with such affection, not if he doesn’t get to see Tony looking up at him like this again. His heart loses its rhythm at the thought.
“I brought breakfast.”
“You did?” Tony searches the room until his gaze lands on the kitchen table. “You did.”
“There are pumpkin walnut muffins in the red bowl: gluten-free, sugar-free. They taste like cardboard, just the way you like ‘em. In the white bowl are blueberry muff- well, those are basically cupcakes.”
“Sounds about right,” Tony says, and in a moment the air between them shifts on the spectrum of friend and more. It settles toward friend and Bruce turns away with an ache in his chest.
This should make his decision easier, should help him stow away his feelings for Tony and help rein in his delusions of what could be. But all it does is hurt.
“The quiche came out good, though.” Bruce grabs a knife from the block and forks from the drawer; Tony takes plates from the cabinet without needing to be asked.
“You already ate one, didn’t you.” It’s not a question.
“Maybe. For a taste test.”
“Yeah,” Tony scoffs through his laughter, “‘Maybe.’”
I can do this , Bruce thinks. He can be friends with Tony if that’s all he gets, but it’s not all he wants.
However, when Tony asks, “Did you make anything special for your barista?” his voice is edged with something; Bruce reads it as jealousy.
He shouldn’t. A jealous Tony sparks hope. Hope is a road to a world of hurt. Even so, Bruce leans into the chance.
“He’s not a barista.” Bruce pulls a chair out from under the table and slides himself into the seat. “Nor is he ‘mine.’ He’s…” Bruce searches Tony’s face for a change, for proof of his interest, for a hint of desire. “I don’t know what he is.”
“You should meet him.” Tony speaks through a mouthful of muffin. His words would be barely comprehensible to anyone else, but Bruce has eaten with him often enough that he knows exactly what is being said. “Find out.”
Back and forth. Push and pull. Bruce would be confused by his relationship with Tony even if it wasn’t further complicated by his feelings for another man. Seconds ago it seemed like Tony was upset by the idea Bruce would do something nice for his juice bar man of mystery. But now he’s encouraging Bruce to meet him?
“I don’t know.” Bruce really doesn’t. “After you guys went up against Man-Thing without me, he didn’t write to me for a week.” Tony had been in pretty bad shape, so Bruce hadn’t bothered him with the vapid details of his love life during his hospital stay.
The other Avengers had been OK, but Bruce still blames himself for Hulk’s absence. Hulk would have kept Iron Man safe.
“I thought maybe something had happened to him, you know?” With the casualty count in the dozens and a lack of notes from downstairs, Bruce’s worry had skyrocketed. “Who does that? Who lets someone think the worst for so long?”
“Well, we already established this guy is an idiot.”
Bruce scowls and with a tut retorts, “And that it takes one to know one.”
Tony’s fun-loving expression falters and falls.
Bruce hadn’t meant for his words to come out as sharp as they had. He meant them as a joke, he thinks.
Bruce’s real frustration is toward the one who disappeared when he needed support. The one who wasn’t around when Bruce spent hours at Tony’s hospital bedside watching his friend struggle in and out of consciousness. The one who had returned without much of an apology after Bruce had spent a week filled with self-loathing, needing a friend, and finding silence.
But in a knee-jerk reaction, Bruce had jumped to his anonymous pen pal’s defense. His words cut down Tony’s mood and it feels like Bruce put a knife through his own heart.
“You’re a real sweet talker,” Tony says as he stands. “He’s a lucky sonofabitch.”
Bruce reaches out, tries to get Tony to return to the table. “No, with him I’m… With him, it’s different.”
Tony frowns down at Bruce, hurt carved into the furrow of his brow. “With him it’s slips of paper once or twice a day.”
Bruce clenches his jaw, feeling his agitation and defensiveness grow stronger as SHIELD’s gamma inhibitor wanes. Tony only knows what Bruce tells him; and Bruce thinks maybe he’s told him too much.
Tony must see the anger brewing in him, but he continues anyway. “With him it’s whatever you can fit on a napkin and tack up on a corkboard alongside the Flavor of the Week.”
If Tony were clear with his interest, his intentions for their friendship -- if it didn’t feel like Tony was stringing Bruce along half the time -- then maybe Bruce could have made his decision already.
For the first time since Bruce started the gamma inhibitor regimen, Bruce’s fingertips tingle with the memory of green. “Screw you, Stark.”
“So we’re back to that, are we?”
Bruce’s voice drops an octave, but neither he nor Tony show any sign of backing down. “I’ve been more productive, happier, than I’ve been in years.”
“Oh, and he’s the one to-”
“He brings out the best in me!” Bruce interjects. “While you-”
The color drains from Tony’s face and he takes a step back. “While I bring out the worst?”
Bruce swallows hard and his anger recedes so quickly it leaves him lightheaded and fatigued. To Tony - Bruce knows, Bruce has seen - the worst isn’t Hulk but his own bitter disdain.
The moment stretches too long before Bruce manages to form a coherent thought. “I wasn’t going to say that.”
“Whether you were going to say it or not-” Tony’s eyes shutter “-I sincerely hope you don’t believe it.”
Bruce wants to tell Tony that he’s sorry, that he’s the asshole, that he’s the idiot. Bruce wants to tell Tony that he had never let anyone close to him before, not like this. Not before the accident that brought out Hulk and not after.
And then he found someone who made him laugh. Yes, they are just slips of paper. But it was more than he had ever had until...
Tony. It was Tony who showed Bruce and Hulk compassion, despite everything Bruce put him through. It was Tony who somehow burrowed himself in; and Bruce kept him close, so close that the prospect of losing him now is frightening.
Bruce wants to tell Tony that he’s as easy to talk to as the anonymous pen pal and more accessible. More authentic. Candid. A complete picture.
Whether Tony had been speaking out of jealousy or the concern of a friend, he was right: all Bruce has of this other guy is snapshots. And maybe that’s not enough to be something real.
Bruce wants to say all of this and more, but he can’t put it into words.
In response to Bruce’s silence, Tony says, “Thanks for breakfast.” He runs a hand over his face and looks as tired as Bruce feels. “I have meetings all morning, so I guess I’ll see you this afternoon, if you’re still in the lab.”
“Do you want me?” Bruce asks.
Realizing a few seconds later that he left his question unfinished, he completes it in a rush. “In the lab. Do you want me to be in the lab?”
Tony gives half a shrug and a short nod and it all seems noncommittal until he asks Bruce, “How else am I gonna prove you wrong?”
// I’m sorry. // Although the juice on Bruce’s desk that morning is his favorite, the smile it brings to his face is marred by his indecision and apprehension. In his heart, however, there lies hope.
Bruce wants to ask, ‘For what?’ Instead, he writes, || We should meet. || It’s direct and simple. He carries the note downstairs and tacks it onto the board immediately. If he waits, Bruce thinks he’ll chicken out.
It’s better to know , Bruce tells himself. He needs to choose.
// Do you still want that coffee? //
|| Every day. ||
// You go to work early, right? //
|| I can be late. ||
// Come see me before you go to your desk tomorrow. I’ll be at our spot. //
Bruce stares at the napkin in his hands for a full minute before gingerly placing it on his desk. “Tomorrow,” he says, as if in a dream.
“What’s tomorrow?” Tony asks. He’s trying desperately not to look like he’s been holding his breath as Bruce reads his note, but Bruce is pretty sure he’s been spying on him.
Bruce has kept the most recent developments with the guy from the juice bar close to his chest, but he has a feeling - gleaned from Tony’s increased jitters and inquiries regarding the notes - that Tony is a great big snoop.
“I’m meeting him tomorrow,” Bruce admits, still in a daze. “It’s really happening.”
Tony gives Bruce his undivided attention and Bruce notices that the lab is quiet - no music, no machines. Bruce thinks he can hear the hum of Tony’s reactor in the pause.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
Bruce looks at Tony like it’s the first and the last time he’s seeing him. “I don’t know. Yes?” His voice drops to a whisper as Tony takes a step toward him. “I don’t know.”
“You’ll be fine. Remember, he’s the lucky one.”
“What if he’s different than I imagined? What if he’s an asshole?”
Tony offers a crooked smile. “You think everyone’s an asshole.”
“Not him…” Bruce whispers, “Not you. Not really.”
Bruce pulls his lower lip between his teeth as his eyebrows draw together in a deep v. “What if he hates me? What if he sees who I am, realizes who I become, and I scare him off?”
Tony draws Bruce into a firm embrace and holds him tightly. Bruce can feel the heat of the reactor and finds comfort in its whirr against his chest.
Bruce tucks his face into the crook of Tony’s neck. “Can I come up to see you first?”
“Well, yeah, it’s your turn to make breakfast, ya big jerk.”
A huff of laughter breaks loose from Bruce’s chest and he takes the opportunity to draw Tony in close for just a little longer. “K,” he says, brushing up against Tony’s 5 o’clock shadow as he nods. “OK.”
Tony turns away from the kitchen counter too quickly, but this time he’s able to catch the small door swinging dangerously close to his face. It’s only that of a cabinet anyway, likely to do far less damage than the appliance doors of the recent past.
“My turn to cater breakfast, remember?”
“I know, but…” Tony catches sight of the full cart and lets out a long whistle. There must be a half dozen varieties of scones in baskets and Tony thinks Bruce has even managed a soufflé. “Hungry?”
Bruce's expression sours, “Not even a little bit.”
“Nerves'll do that.” Tony hasn’t had much of an appetite for days. “How about a drink?” The question comes easier than it should, for all the importance it carries today. Old habits and all that.
Without waiting for an answer, Tony picks up a pair of tall mugs from the counter. The near scalding coffee sloshes precariously close to their rims as he walks them to the kitchen table.
“W-what’s that?” Bruce looks down at the cup placed in front of him and breathes in the scent of sweetened milk and dark roast.
Tony considers going through the whole spiel: hand-ground, slow-poured yadda yadda. Tony could tell Bruce that he’s been up all night playing the part of Goldilocks trying to get the grind and timing right. He could remind Bruce that Village Coffee really is just a walk around the block and he didn’t have to go through all the trouble… But the truth is, this coffee is for Bruce, and it’s been no trouble at all.
"That,” Tony says, “is for you.” It takes all of his strength to keep his tone light and, even so, Tony knows Bruce can see right through him. He reads Bruce’s mug like a mantra: Frankie says relax.
“It’s extra light, extra sweet. The biggest cup they had.” Tony holds up a finger, signaling he needs a minute, before rushing around the kitchen island to the fridge. From the top shelf he produces a can of whipped cream and a small metal bowl. "I tried to whip some myself,” he admits on the walk back. His cheeks are hot by the time he returns to the table. “Good news is we have fresh butter." Good news is: you're still here.
Bruce’s voice breaks as he speaks Tony’s name again.
Tony leaves the whipped cream and butter with the rest of their breakfast on the cart; he pushes aside what’s left of his bravado as well. “There were times I thought you knew,” he starts, “and th-”
“How long have you known?”
“The Widow’s Bliss. I was pretty sure after that.” No one else orders that many scoops of protein powder in their drinks; Tony had tasted the addition at the first sip. “Then there was… your laugh.”
A drop of coffee spills from Bruce’s mug as he places it on the table with a shaky hand.
Tony’s own hands twitch with the desire to comfort, but remain at his sides with the decency to give Bruce time. Watching Bruce reconcile what he’s learned, Tony stews in fear and anxiety. But more than that, seeing Bruce’s mouth twist and his jaw tremble breaks Tony’s heart. “I’m sorry I’m not who you w-”
“Don’t say that. Don’t say-” Bruce covers his own mouth with his palm and breathes hard through his nose. His eyes are wide and wet as they hold Tony’s gaze.
Bruce is still touching his face, rubbing his chin, as he shakes his head. “You have no idea how much I wanted- how much I wished-”
His step forward is timid, small. He moistens his lips before admitting, “I didn’t take an inhibitor. The doc’s been weaning me off of everything for a while now.”
Tony’s step toward Bruce is bold, but terrifying. “I take one every day, with the hope that I'll have a chance to be close to you.”
“Tony, I’ve been such an-”
Asshole , Tony wants to fill-in for him. A jerk. A hot-head. But not only that; Bruce has also been a friend. And more.
Tony remembers the man who pushed everyone away, the one who was ( is ) scared to be seen as vulnerable. He also remembers the man who came out of hiding to join the team. He remembers the monster who fought alongside strangers and bullied him back to life. He remembers the moment he himself learned that compassion comes in many forms -- and Tony has known, for a long time, that some people can’t rely on faith alone.
“Since the beginning, I didn’t even give you a chance before-”
“I know.” Tony lifts a shoulder and lets it fall. “But I figure we’ve got some time for you to make it up to me.”
Bruce rubs circles over the center of his chest and Tony is comforted knowing his heart isn’t the only one aching. “There’s so much I have to say.”
“‘I’m sorry’ is two words, Banner.”
Bruce closes the space between them. “I’m sorry.” After hesitating mid-reach, his free hand alights to Tony’s chest and mutes the reactor’s glow.
Tony draws a line down the slope of Bruce’s nose, taking special interest in the familiar crinkle shared by goliath and man.
“Hey,” Tony says, drawing Bruce’s attention away from the tiny vibrations against his palm. Tony’s finger hops down from the tip of Bruce’s nose to his chin, saving his first touch of Bruce’s lips for his own.
With a little hum and a dreamy expression, Bruce locks eyes with Tony.
Tony catches Bruce’s hand before it falls away and strokes his thumb across his knuckles as he holds it in place against his chest. The moment stretches so long Tony realizes they’ll never get anywhere without a push. “Kiss me, you idiot. Your coffee’s getting cold.”
That, apparently, is incentive enough to spur Bruce to action.
With his brain feeling like it’s firing on all cylinders and none at all, Bruce takes Tony’s face in his hands. The eyes staring into his shine with words left unspoken; they hint toward depths Bruce is too scared to study. He thinks if he gets too close to the edge, he’ll lose his footing. Bruce also knows that with Tony waiting to catch him, he’ll surrender himself to the fall.
“You’re sure?” Bruce’s question wavers on a whisper. Patience is a practiced skill at which Bruce is adept. There is no need to rush this. They have time.
Bruce waits. The light drag of his thumbs over Tony’s cheeks, over the curve of his ears, has Tony shuddering. Habit tells Bruce to pull away, that he’s putting too much pressure on the moment, but Tony’s grip on his arms urges him to stay.
Bruce's eyes roam Tony's features, ones he's memorized long ago. They search for hesitation, indecision, a second-thought. But Tony is rocking forward onto his toes and encouraging Bruce's touch.
Bruce's fingertips follow the line of Tony's jaw -- the angles of the stupid anchor beard that frame Tony’s smart mouth. With a finger just under Tony’s chin, Bruce beckons him closer until they are exchanging air with each breath.
Bruce leans in. He brushes gentle lips against Tony’s, his heart thundering like the pound of giant fists behind his ribcage.
To go further would mean putting his trust in the doctors at SHIELD. It would mean putting Tony's health, his life, into their hands. Even as a man of science, one who's picked apart the serum, Bruce hesitates to hope.
Tony's lips ghost over his again and Bruce can't help but wonder what he's done to earn such trust from the man. Bruce's mind strains against the idea that Tony would open himself up to him, but Bruce's own decision to put his heart into Tony's hands doesn't feel like a decision at all.
Bruce's hand alights to Tony’s chest and Tony's covers it like a prayer. Tony holds him in place and helps him find his center. And, of course, Bruce would find his center at Tony’s core.
The reactor hums under Bruce’s palm. His anxiety unfurls. A swell of affection takes its place. And suddenly, there's no room for doubt.
As if sensing the shift within Bruce, the dark center of Tony’s eyes go wide. The sound of his desire is both needy and content. Bruce smiles. Tony’s hand curves around the back of Bruce’s neck to pull him in the rest of the way.
It starts as a brief meeting of lips, Tony letting Bruce lead. When Bruce stills so does he. But Tony isn’t stalled by fear. The reactor’s hum is strong and steady. The pressure of his hand over Bruce's hasn't let up an ounce. Tony mumbles a word against Bruce’s lips- “Please” -and then they’re kissing in earnest - eager and striving, tender and sure.
Bruce angles his head as their mouths move in tandem and he keens. He floats into the feeling and a low moan rises from his throat. Tony has every right in the world and none whatsoever to lure him in with coffee just to set up a bait and switch for a kiss. But the kiss is a promise of so much more.
So when that kiss ends, Bruce takes another. And another. Whispering promises and apologies into each one.
And the coffee is going cold, but Bruce can’t find a shit to give. Tony is solid in his arms, soft against his lips, and warm on his tongue. All the weight of Bruce's worries feel light. And nothing has ever tasted as sweet.