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This Is Your Heart (Beating Off the Atrophy)

Chapter Text

Prologue

~*~

“Mr. Stark!”

“Dr. Banner!”

“Tony Stark!”

“Mr. Banner!”

Bruce blinks hard against the camera flashes as he shoulders past the reporters circling the tower.

“Dr. Banner, how do you feel about dating a man twenty-three years younger than you?”

“Did you know about the Iron Man suit before Mr. Stark’s admission?”

“Mr. Stark, what do you have to say to reports that Mr. Banner lived in Stark mansion for ten years?” one reporter calls out.

“It was thirteen, not ten,” Tony corrects, looping his arm around Bruce’s shoulder. He guides Bruce through the swell of paparazzi, letting him bury his face against wool of his suit jacket. Bruce sucks in a breath and forces himself to stay calm-- this is nothing they haven't dealt with before.

“Dr. Banner, are the allegations that you and Mr. Stark were romantically involved before he turned seventeen true?”

Tony ushers Bruce into a nondescript black sedan, and the muffled silence once the door shuts makes Bruce slump against the seat in relief.

“Happy, update,” Tony calls out. “Who leaked what, and why didn’t I know about it before we stepped into the circus?”

“It’s SHIELD, sir,” Happy says. The lines around his eyes are tight in the rearview mirror.  “SHIELD has been compromised, and your file was among those leaked.”

“Fuck.”

~*~

Chapter 1

~*~

5

Tony Stark is five when Bruce Banner moves into the Stark’s Fifth Avenue mansion.

Bruce is twenty-eight, old beyond his years, and tired of running.

He stands in the Starks’ decadent foyer with his duffle bag of earthly belonging and wonders what the hell he’s doing here. His tattered suit is more patches than original material, and his last haircut was seven months ago in front of a cracked bathroom mirror in Kolkata. Bruce hunches his shoulders as he faces his godparents, the instinct to make himself as small as possible overwhelming his urge to look presentable.

Maria Stark sweeps him into a wordless hug, and he presses his face into the crook of her neck, breathing in lavender and ink and the closest thing to home he’s smelled in three years. “We’re so glad you’re safe,” she says.

Her fingers catch in his unruly curls as he nods.

Bruce’s neck prickles, and he looks up from her embrace on instinct. A little boy is perched on the first landing of the oak stairs, tiny hands wrapped around the spindles and face pressed between them to get a better view of the proceedings.

Anthony, Bruce remembers. Last time he saw the kid, he was only an infant in his mother’s arms and Bruce’s world was a much simpler place. That was over four years ago, and he can still remember how quiet Anthony had been, grinning toothlessly as he grabbed for Bruce’s glasses.

Now, however, Anthony's old enough for his resemblance to Howard to be striking. He has the same unruly dark hair of Howard’s youth, but the most striking resemblance is in the fierce intelligence that sparkles in his brown eyes. It startles Bruce to see eyes that sharp set into a face so young and otherwise devoid of expression.

Then the boy catches his gaze and smiles, open and wide but equally sharp. A look of childish mischief replaces his bored expression as he holds one finger up to his lips in a shushing gesture. Bruce can’t help quirking a small smile back, the first smile in months he hasn’t had to force.

“You’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future, then?”

Howard’s words startle Bruce back to the present. He disengages from Maria’s hold and takes a steadying breath. “I- No, I have no intention of imposing on your hospitality for longer than necessary. I just need a few days to sort out things and plan my next move.”

Bruce knows they could afford it, but that isn’t the issue. He’s not going to become a freeloader, rich godparents or not. More than that, though, seeing Anthony drives home the facts: Bruce is dangerous, and a family home is no place for a thing like him.

Howard claps him on the shoulder bracingly. “I have enough contacts at SHIELD to be able to help out with your… situation, and Stark Industries’ resources are invaluable. I wish you’d come to me sooner.”

“You know why I couldn’t.”

“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” Howard says, turning pointedly. He strolls through the ornate study doors without looking back, leaving them ajarin what could either be invitation or just a lack of concern. Bruce stifles another sigh and hesitates, but Maria’s hand at the small of his back urges him forward.

“And Tony?” Howard calls from the doorway, “Go to bed.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce sees Anthony pull a face before scampering up the stairs.

“He’ll be listening through the vents in three minutes,” Maria murmurs as she ushers Bruce into the study. “We haven’t found a nanny yet who can keep him in bed.”

A sudden series of coughs wrack her slender frame. Bruce reaches towards her automatically, but stops short of making contact, hand hovering just off her shoulder. “I’m fine,” she says from behind her hand. “I’m just getting over a bout of the flu.”

Bruce perches awkwardly on a red leather sofa as Howard pours three glasses of bourbon. He pauses, glancing at the amount in each before adding an extra measure to the third. Apparently satisfied, he claims that one as his own and takes a sip as Maria passes one to Bruce.

Howard cocks his hip against the mahogany desk. “When you wrote we honestly didn’t know what to expect. After three years of radio silence, I had to, ah, acquire a few SHIELD reports to even find out that you were still alive.”

Bruce stared down at his bourbon, and Howard continued, “I must admit, you look in much better health than I’d expected. Aside from a dire need for a new suit and a good meal, there doesn’t appear to be any physical deterioration. The way you spoke in your letters, I rather expected you to be a permanent shade of grass green.”

“It’s, better than it used to be,” Bruce says delicately. “I’ve figured out how to keep it locked down. Mostly. That’s the only reason I even considered coming back to the States.”

“Stark Industries R&D could always use a mind like yours. Open access to anything that could help you research a cure.”

“Howard, you know my situation. It’s not that simple. Even commuting in New York to get to the labs is dangerous for me.”

Too much stimuli. Too much noise. Too much stupid.

“Which is exactly why we’d like you to stay here with us. Maria and I have already discussed it. The basement level of the mansion houses labs that should be more than adequate for your work for SI and your own research.”

Bruce feels his pulse jump at the words and hurriedly takes a gulp of his drink. Howard says it like it’s so sure, like it’s a done deal that he’ll live here and work for SI, like Howard has actually even considered all the ways this could go wrong.

Dangerous. Killer. Monster. Out of control.

The words echo through his head, but instead of saying any of them, Bruce forces a smile. “I’m not going to be a freeloader. You probably get enough of that as is, and you’ve done more than enough for me. You took me in after my father-- after he--” Bruce chokes on the words, the memories too strong.

His father, yelling. His mother, dead. Him, helpless. The blood, the blood, the blood.

“It’s hardly freeloading when my company gets access to one of the greatest scientific minds of a generation,” Howard interrupts, calling him back to reality. Howard eyes him curiously but with none of the wariness Bruce knows should be there. ‘Science mode’ is practically written across his face. Maria, on the other hand, has her glass in a white-knuckled grip.

Bruce quirks a sad smile at her. “It’s the eyes, right? They’re damn creepy.” He’s seen them in the mirror before, electric green just before he blacks out with the transformation. “Like I said, I’m not safe to be around. You two have a kid now, a family you need to protect, and taking me in like a rabid stray isn’t the way to do that. I’m not thirteen and helpless with one parent dead and the other in an asylum. I’m an adult, and it was my own hubris that got me into this situation.”

“And it’s a situation in which I feel I can offer some assistance. The sub-levels are structurally engineered to withstand a direct nuclear strike on Manhattan. I think they can take you.” Howard straightens, moving into Bruce’s space. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? A place where you can withdraw, cut yourself off from humanity but still research how to save it, pessimistic futurist that you are?”

“I broke Harlem!” Bruce says, louder than he’d intended, and sucks in several calming breaths-- a touchstone of sorts he’d developed over the last three years.

Maria shifts, setting her glass aside and folding onto the sofa next to him. A gentle hand runs over his cheek, and Bruce can’t help leaning into it. It’s been so long since he’s felt even the most basic human contact, and her touch reminds him so much of being thirteen and safe for the first time in a long time.

“Stay,” she says softly, and he doesn’t resist when she pulls his head down to her chest.

“Okay.”

~*~

5

Tony is also five when Bruce speaks to him for the first time.

Bruce has seen Anthony lurking around corners or being shuffled about by the nanny of the week, but he’s never spoken to him. The house staff have told Bruce about him, “genius” and “menace” being the most common adjectives used. Quite frankly, Bruce goes out of his way to avoid Anthony. Even after a month and a half of living at Stark Mansion, he is still adamant that he shouldn’t be here, especially not around a child.

So it’s a surprise when Bruce walks into the basement lab to find the young boy perched on a tall stool at one of the worktables, soldering iron in hand. The Whoplay softly in the background, and Anthony hums along slightly off-key.

Bruce stops just inside the doorway. “Hello,” he says, warily drawing out the word. His voice sounds rusty from disuse, even to his own ears.

Anthony looks up from the circuit board only briefly before dismissing Bruce’s presence. “Hey.”

“What’re you doing here, Anthony?” Bruce asks carefully. “Isn’t it a little late?”

“It’s only eleven-fifteen,” Anthony says dismissively. “And the nannies aren’t allowed down here.”

Bruce cautiously steps further into the lab. He’s read the articles that Maria secretly saves, but it’s an entirely different thing to see it up-close. Against his will, his feet carry him closer so he can peer over the boy’s small shoulder.

He watches, jaw slack, as Anthony weaves a gridwork of connections, tiny fingers masterfully manipulating metal and silicon.

Anthony is the first to break the silence. “You don’t like me,” he says, not looking away from his work. He doesn’t sound upset about it, just a bit miffed, like Bruce is an anomaly he can’t account for.

“I- I’m sorry, what?” Bruce fumbles.

“You. You don’t like me, which is dumb. I haven’t even done anything to piss you off yet.”

Reflexively, Bruce chides, “Language,” because that’s the easiest part of that statement to deal with.

Anthony does turn then, setting the soldering iron aside and looking up at Bruce in irritation. “What, ‘piss’? Not you, too. If I’m old enough to be left alone with power tools and molten metal, I’m old enough to swear.”

Bruce can’t help the concerned face he makes. “Yeah, well, just don’t say it in front of your parents.”

“Who do you think I learned it from, the maid?” Anthony rolls his eyes theatrically. “She swears in Spanish.”

Bruce stares, gobsmacked, at this boy with his young face, old eyes, and a smart mouth. Somehow, when everyone said ‘genius,’ he had heard ‘savant.’ Instead, Anthony’s speech and social skills seem almost as rapidly developed as his mind. He speaks more clearly than most other five-year-olds, and while Bruce suspects elocution lessons are part of it, there’s something innately off about his speech pattern.

Anthony stares back, unblinking.  “People find me disconcerting. I mean, it’s okay. I’m used to it.”

“That could be because you just used the word ‘disconcerting’.”

“Look, if it bothers you that much, don’t talk to me. Sometimes monastic silence is the unwilling lab partners’ best friend,” Anthony says with an exasperated huff that does, in fact, befit a five year old.

Bruce can’t help it-- he starts laughing, howling with it the way he hasn’t for years. It’s a ragged laugh, almost like he’s forgotten how, but it shakes his entire body and forces him to clutch the lab table for support. The young boy stares at him like he’s lost his mind, but that only makes Bruce laugh harder.

Monastic s-silence,” is all the he manages to wheeze out between bouts of laughter. It’s not even something that would normally earn more than a chuckle from him, but from a five-year-old it’s just too ridiculous. Not only is Anthony being sarcastic, he’s utilizing it for humor, by all accounts is something he should be at least three years too young for, and Bruce can’t help cataloging the information for later perusal.

After a moment, a suppressed giggle escapes Anthony, and then he’s laughing, too, high and boyish. “You think-- think I’m funny,” he giggles. “No one ever thinks I’m funny.”

“Yes, Anthony, I think you’re funny. And I’m not surprised no one does if you’re talking to people your own age.” Bruce says, straightening his glasses and running a hand back through his bangs. “And it’s not that I don’t like you.”

“Then why won’t you come near me?” Anthony wines, like Bruce is a shiny new toy being kept just out of reach. “And why do you keep calling me Anthony? It’s Tony. ‘Anthony’ is my great uncle.”

“Okay then. Tony, if you prefer.” Bruce drums his fingers against his leg and considers his next words, unsure how honest to be with a five-year-old. “It’s not safe for you to be around me,” he says at last.

“Mom wouldn’t let you stay here if that was true.”

“I’m dangerous,” Bruce confesses. “I’m not exactly good for anyone who values self-preservation.”

Tony looks dubious as he goes back to his circuits. “You don’t look dangerous.”

Bruce hesitates before saying slowly, “No, I suppose I don’t. But a lot of dangerous people don’t look dangerous.”

“That’s what Dad meant by your ‘situation,' right?” Tony asks, and then more intently: “Are you really one of the greatest scientific minds of your generation?”

Huh, Maria was right; he had been listening. Bruce scratches the side of his head. “Uh, I mean, it’s been said.”

“But is it true?”

“Yes,” he says honestly. Of course, there’ve been some bumps, but modesty aside, Bruce is well aware of just how capable his mind is.

“And you’ll be doing your research here? What on?”

“Gamma radiation, mostly, but there are also some things for the company your dad wants me to take a look at.”

Civilian applications only, he’d been promised. Working for a company with military funding still doesn’t sit entirely right with him, but Bruce can’t deny the good Stark Industries does in the humanitarian sector. Howard want him to look into remote clean water technology, and if his research is also used to get water to troops and not just orphans in Africa? Well, at least it’s not guns.

“I can still work down here, too, right? Every time I try to go somewhere else, I get in trouble for scratching the tables or singeing the carpet.”

Bruce hesitates. That… wasn’t part of his arrangement with Howard. Trying to worry about a kid while running tests hardly seems like a good idea. But then, this is Tony’s home first.

“I won’t get in the way, and I know proper lab safety and procedure,” Tony pleads.

And Bruce knows he can say no, knows that that’s probably what Howard expects him to do, but instead he says, “Okay. Yeah.”

“Good. Would you please tell the nanny that. She keeps saying I’m too young to be down here.”

“One thing, okay Tony?” Bruce waits until Tony meets his eyes and then points to the door. “If I tell you to run, you run. Got it? No standing around to watch what happens.”

Tony’s brown eyes are serious as he says, “Okay.”

~*~

5

Tony is still five when he convinces Bruce to leave the lab for the first time.

But then, “convince” might not be the right word.

“Come on!” Tony says, springing up from his chair, cereal forgotten.

Bruce looks from the New York Times spread out over the kitchen table and raises his eyebrows. “It’s seven AM, and I’m only on my first cup of coffee. It’s going to take a lot more than that to make me move.”

Tony points at the half of the newspaper he’d commandeered for himself. “The Museum of Modern Art has an exhibit on the art of the elements. It opened last week. Let’s go!”

Bruce takes a long drink of his coffee. “The MoMA? I thought you were more the Museum of Natural History type.”

“And I thought you were the tea type,” Tony says, snagging the mug from Bruce’s hand. He takes a sip and makes a face. “That’s really gross. What is that?”

“Decaf,” Bruce deadpans and tries to ignore how incongruent that gesture and joke are for a five-year-old. “Why don’t you ask Jennet?”

Tony scoffs. “Jennet quit last week. It’s Susan now, and she’s even more boring. Even if she would take me-- which she won’t-- she’d be impatient and wouldn’t enjoy it like you. She can’t even name all the elements; I checked.”

In the six months he’s lived at Stark Mansion, Bruce has found that one of the constants of life is that no nanny stays for more than three weeks. Ever. Before he’d gotten to know Tony, he assumed this was because the child was the stereotypical rich brat. “A terror” is what he was told, but now Bruce realizes that Tony is less a terror in the sense that he’s a spoiled brat and more in that things tend to explode around him.

A lot of things.

Sharing a lab with Tony has been far more eventful than Bruce ever anticipated. He’s taken to keeping a fire extinguisher within arm’s reach at all times, a fact that says way too much about his new normal.  And that right there is the crux of it: Despite the fact that their lab sounds like an ammunitions test site half the time, it never disturbs his equilibrium. There’s never any risk of Tony bringing out the Other Guy.

If there had been, Bruce would’ve disengaged from the situation, but it's almost impossible to get angry when he sees Tony’s chagrined smile and singed bangs through a cloud of smoke. He wishes too much that he’d had the opportunity to blow things up until he got it right when he was a kid, to experiment without consequence.

Bruce is rarely a fan of the women hired to care for Tony. It’s not personal, not really. He can sympathize with the women’s frayed nerves, he really can, but they way they act around Tony never sits right with him. Most of them treat him like a normal five year old, and worse still, some of them act like Tony’s higher intelligence means he must have lower social skills. It’s no wonder Tony gets bored enough to start blowing things up.

Bruce learned early on that Tony neither needed nor wanted to be talked to like a child. A quick way to make Tony storm out of the lab in a huff, Bruce found, is to dumb down his speech the way he would with other children.

Few of the nannies even try to understand how Tony’s mind works, which is even more the pity. Tony Stark has the most amazing mind Bruce has ever seen. Even at only five years old, Tony can challenge him intellectually and give him a new perspective on experiments.

The lack of stability bothers him most, though. In some bout of cosmic humor, Bruce has become the most stable fixture in Tony’s life. And Bruce knows it’s not his place to say anything against the revolving door of nannies, but sometimes he has difficulty holding his tongue.

That’s what perplexes him, if he’s honest. He understands Howard-- Howard was the hands-off type even when Bruce lived with the Starks nearly a decade and a half ago, but Maria always took time out of her schedule for Bruce. Bruce wasn’t her son, and she never tried to act as a replacement for his mom, but she still loved him and taught him how to trust again, how to channel his anger at life into his innovations.

That she’s so rarely around for her own son confuses Bruce, especially when Tony clearly cares so much for her. That much is evident by the way he talks about her. But Bruce is a guest in this house, hardly more than a temporary interloper, so he says nothing.

“Come on, Bruce,” Tony pleads, dragging the older man back to the present. “You’re going to wilt without fresh air.”

“I’m not a houseplant. And there’s nothing fresh about Manhattan air,” Bruce protests, but a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. Maria used to always say that to him when he spent too many days in a row curled in a corner of the library lost in his own head.

“Fine then. We’ll go to Central Park after.” Tony tugs on his wrist. “Please?

“And how, exactly, do you plan on us getting there?” Bruce covers his smile with a disapproving shake of his head. “I can’t ride the subway.”

“I’ve got money for a cab.”

“Of course you do,” Bruce says with a sigh and stands. “Well, that’s all I’ve got for token protests. You’re sure your parents won’t mind?”

“Dad won’t notice, and Momma’s out today.”

That’s not what he asked, but Bruce figures it’s the best he’s going to get. Realistically, they could be gone all day, and everyone would probably just assume they’re in the lab. Still, he scribbles a note on some scrap paper and leaves it on the counter. Because really, the nanny-- Janet? He’s forgotten already-- should at least know where her charge has disappeared to.

He changes into the only pairs of slacks he owns without frayed hems and makes a mental note to go shopping. As much as he hates the press of crowds, he has a stable income working for a Fortune 500 company, and he might as well dress like it when he’s in public.

Sometime and one slightly too eventful cab ride later, Bruce staggers out onto the curb of 53rd Street. “Do not ever say ‘step on it’ to the cabbie when I’ve got to ride with you, got it? Jesus, we’re walking back. I haven’t come this far to die in a cab on 5th Av,” he says as he tries to regain his sea legs.

Tony drags him by the hand up two flights of stairs, barely sparing a glance for anything else.

“Aren’t we at least going to look at the Warhols?” Bruce asks as Tony pulls him around a corner.

“After,” Tony says, intent on his target.

He leads them into a smaller partitioned area, and Bruce looks around in surprise. A different piece represents each element. Carbon is a glass box, barely larger than Bruce’s thumbprint, with a tiny “6” printed in the top center. A perfectly cut diamond shines inside at its heart. Argon is a set of purple neon lights reading “18”. Closest to them, a red balloon floats in front of a cream background, a neat black “2” printed on its face.

Bruce watches as Tony leans forward slightly, toes barely touching the black line on the floor. His brown eyes shine bright with excitement, and warmth blooms in Bruce’s chest. This was worth the cab ride from hell.

As they make their way through the rest of the gallery, Bruce tells Tony what little he knows of the pieces and their stories. Art history was never one of his strong points, but he’s had an elective or two on the subject. Once in a while Tony interjects with his own stories about the artists themselves at Maria’s fundraisers. The storytelling distracts Bruce from the crowd and the push of unfamiliar bodies against his.

When the honey-slow movement of tourists becomes too much and his chest starts to tighten with the feeling of being caged in, he steers them into a dark, cool room. The noise from outside is muted, and a projector cycles through a series of seemingly random black and white photographs. The click of the slide change is the only noise apart from the distant rumble of people.

The exhibit is empty apart from them, and for once Tony doesn’t rush him, apparently sensing Bruce’s distress. “Are you okay?” Tony whispers.

“Fine,” Bruce manages as he tries to get his breathing back under control. “Too many people.”

“Are you claustrophobic?”

“Something like that,” he says.”You ready to go?”

Bruce decides to make good on his threat to walk back to the Mansion despite Tony’s very vocal insistence that they hail a cab. They make it to 61st before he ends up on Bruce’s shoulders, tiny fists clenched in his hair like reins. The dark humor of a child riding on the back of a latent rage monster doesn’t escape Bruce. Maybe that should worry him, but despite his earlier bout of claustrophobia, he knows he’s got a lid on the Other Guy.

“You can’t actually steer me like a pony, you know that, right?” Bruce says resignedly when Tony gives a particularly sharp tug on his curls.

Tony doesn’t dignify that with a response. “Where’re we going?” he asks when Bruce veers off 5th.

“You said we could go to Central Park, and if I put up with Midtown for three hours, I’m getting my park.”

Rather than protesting, Tony clambers off his perch, managing to knee Bruce in the side on the way down.

He walks backwards down the path and motions for Bruce to follow. “Come on!” he calls as he trots ahead. “I know a spot.”

Bruce follows at a leisurely stroll, hands in his pockets and suit jacket folded over the crook of his arm, and takes a deep breath, holding it for a five count before exhaling. It was nice to leave the mansion, but Midtown makes him antsy. Maybe next time they could go to the Botanical Gardens.

Next time.

Huh. That… sounds like a bad idea, but now that he’s thought it, Bruce can’t shake the notion that there will be a next time, especially not as he follows Tony off the path towards a large formation of rock.

Tony scrambles up the side with the fearless zeal of youth, too young to be afraid of the height. His wild grin reveals a missing a tooth, and it’s maybe the first time he’s really seemed like a child to Bruce. The snarky boy who builds circuits seems so far removed from this child with arms outstretched for balance as he climbs across a crest.

“Careful,” Bruce warns.

“Come on!” Tony motions impatiently before disappearing over an embankment.

Bruce resigns himself to losing his last presentable pair of slacks and does his best to follow, knees scraping across the stone as he tries to find purchase. At the top Tony is already sitting, ignoring Bruce in favor of watching the people pass on the path below.

Bruce gingerly takes a seat next to him and listens as Tony begins to point out the various bizarre breeds of city dogs. He toes off his shoes and settles in for the long haul, enjoying a rant about the absurdity of corgis.

After that, weekly day trips to museums and libraries become  a part of their routine, and once more Bruce watches his new normal shift to fit around Tony Stark.

Chapter Text

6

Tony Stark is six the first time Bruce walks into the lab to finds him working on a gun.

They’ve been sharing the lab for nearly seven months when it happens. Bruce watches with a mix of horror and fascination as Tony’s small hands expertly strip the gun down to its components.

“What’re you doing?” he asks slowly.

“Don’t worry, it isn’t loaded. I’m not dumb,” Tony says without looking up.

“I didn’t say you were,” Bruce murmurs as he moves closer.

It makes sense, really. A small shooting range is adjacent to the lab, and Tony mentioned being listed on several patents for the company, but somehow Bruce never expected... this. Naively, he assumed they were all for civilian tech.

A chill crawls up Bruce’s spine at the sight of a child assembling and disassembling a gun with careless precision.

“I’m working on the grip.”

“Grip?” Bruce echoes numbly.

“Yeah. The testers report that the balance feels off.”

“Your dad knows you’re working on this?” he asks, even though he already knows the answer.

Tony shrugs. “It’s more patents for the company. My dad doesn’t care.”

The sad part is, Bruce doesn’t doubt it. He knows Howard isn’t as apathetic as he appears and that the man cares about Tony’s wellbeing, but his version of love has less to do with affection and more with ensuring that the company his son will one day inherit is as profitable as possible. Howard Stark is nothing if not practical, and while Bruce understands the logic to some degree, it makes him a little queasy to see Tony handling guns to get his father’s approval.

Because it is approval Tony’s after, that much Bruce recognizes from his own childhood. Howard has the family Bruce can never hope to have, and yet here is his son in the basement perfecting guns in the company of a monster.

But while that doesn’t sit right with Bruce, he knows there are worse parenting techniques than Howard’s apparent apathy. He has the scars to prove it.

“Dad says you’re a pacifist,” Tony says, pulling him out of his own head.

“I wouldn’t go that far. I just don’t like guns. Or, more accurately, I don’t like the type of situations that tend to call for guns. The military and I have a rocky history.”

Bruce forces his hands not to shake as he picks up the pistol and slots a full magazine into place. A paper target already hangs at one end of the shooting range, off-center holes littering its edges.

He tries very hard not to think about Tony putting them there.

“Cover your ears,” he orders.

Tony claps his hands over his ears and watches as Bruce takes aim. He fires off the rounds one after another, and every round sends a spike of adrenaline coursing through his system. He keeps unloading rounds into the center of the target until the gun clicks empty and there’s sweat pooling at his collarbone.

Bruce’s ears ring as he sets the pistol back on the table.

“The grip is too thick. It forces the shooter to rotate their wrists out, reducing stability,” he says, and his voice shakes even if his hands don’t. The heart rate monitor on his wrist reads 173.

“You shoot really well for someone who doesn’t like guns,” Tony observes.

“Not liking them doesn’t mean I can’t use them.” Bruce says and hesitates before checking his eyes in the glass separating the lab from the range.

And he knows he shouldn’t be in the same room as a child if he has to check, but he feels in control despite the surge of adrenaline. It’s been years since he’s gotten an adrenaline rush without feeling like he’s about to lose it.

Tony tilts his head as he watches. “Your eyes look normal to me. What do they look like when you’re about to change?”

“You’re not supposed to know about that,” Bruce says, but there’s no heat behind the words. He feels old as he answers, “Green. They look green like something poisoned. Radioactive green.”

“Sounds pretty awesome to me.”

“You say that now, but I won’t have to tell you to run the first time you see them.”

There will be a first time; of that Bruce has no doubt.

He opens the drawer where he keeps his personal research and pulls out a syringe. He can’t look at Tony as he draws 10 ccs of blood, not after what he just did. What was he thinking, taking a risk like that with Tony in the room?

Tony watches, rapt, as Bruce dates the sample, and that makes it worse. So much worse. He’s blissfully unaware of how much danger the man he trusts just put him in.

“See this?” Bruce holds the vial up between his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t mess with it. I mean that, Tony. My blood is toxic to you.”

“Because of the gamma sickness?”

Bruce sighs. “Yeah, because of the gamma sickness. I take it you read all of my files?”

“They weren’t locked,” Tony says.

The drawer has a lock, but Bruce doesn’t bother with it anymore. He’s seen Tony teaching himself to pick locks for fun and knows that a lock is like a dare for the kid. Part of Bruce, the annoying self-destructive part, wanted Tony to read the files. He wanted Tony to read them and be frightened enough to stay away from him, because clearly he isn’t rational when it comes to Tony.

Each week Bruce tells himself that he’ll pack his shit and take the first flight to anywhere before Tony gets hurt, or worse, more attached to the monster in the lab coat.

And before Bruce becomes more attached to Tony, is the part he tries not to think about.

“How much did you understand?”

“Most of it.”

Bruce shakes his head. “If that were true you wouldn’t still be sitting here.”

Defiance flares in the young boy’s eyes. “If you get scared or angry your body shifts, at least quadrupling in size and power. You can’t always remember what happens during that time. Sometimes you go on rampages, and you’re almost unstoppable because you’re basically invulnerable. It’s like roid rage but with blackouts.”

“Like roid rage but with blackouts,” Bruce repeats, bemused. “I guess that’s one way of putting it.” He scrapes a hand back through his hair. “You need to understand, Tony: I’m dangerous. People have died because of me.” He takes a grounding breath. “I’ve hurt people, some of them people I cared about.”

“I know. You wouldn’t be so afraid of yourself if you hadn’t,” Tony says bluntly. “I’ve heard Mom and Dad talking, and they think it’s fine for me to be around you. I’ve read your notes, though. I probably understand what you’re capable of better than they do.”

Bruce decides arguing that point is a losing battle, so he asks, “There are other labs. Why do you stay here with me even if you know it’s not safe?”

“Why don’t you kick me out?” Tony challenges.

“Because it’s your house,” Bruce says, then adds honestly, “And because I like your company.”

“And you have your answer,” Tony says, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair-- which should look ridiculous considering his feet don’t even touch the ground, but somehow the gravitas isn’t lost on his small frame. “I always feel safe with you, Bruce. It doesn’t matter what you or those papers say. I like you, and I trust you.”

Bruce rubs the bridge of his nose under his glasses. “That might turn out to be a bad decision.”

“And it might not. Either way it’s my decision.”

Yes, Bruce thinks uncharitably, it is, but it’s not his alone. It’s also Howard’s decision and Bruce’s decision. Men old enough to know better have also chosen the ill-advised route, so how can they expect the child to pick anything better? A child who works on guns to please his father can hardly be expected to avoid the man whose approval he already has just because he’s dangerous.

Tony holds out his hands. “Friends?”

Bruce tries not to see the way Tony fidgets slightly as if expecting rejection, and clasps the proffered hand in his own larger one. “Alright. Friends.”

~*~

6

Tony is also six when a housekeeper clucks in a soft Puerto Rican accent over how good Bruce is with him.

Bruce is washing dishes at the kitchen sink when he first meets her. He’s mulling over a new data set as he scrubs, not really paying attention to his surroundings, when suddenly there’s a presence directly behind him.

“You don’t have to do that,” she says, wresting the plate from his hands.

Bruce takes an automatic step back, startled by the sudden influx of tiny Puerto Rican woman in his personal space. No one other than Tony ever willingly enters his personal space. The house staff knows about the Other Guy by virtue of gossip and a Hulk-shaped hole in the wall that Bruce promised to pay for but Howard laughed off.

And god, he’s living in a place that has staff. Last time that happened, he was living out of a Motel 6 off I-75.

One time one of the maids accidentally ran into him in the hall, and she nearly had a panic attack apologizing. Trying to talk someone through breathing exercises when it’s you they’re afraid of isn’t an experience Bruce is eager to repeat. Most of the house staff avoids him and he tends to avoid them, so the older woman’s forthrightness is a pleasant surprise.

“That’s my job, Dr. Banner,” this woman says, nudging him out of the way and taking his place at the sink. “You’ll put me out of work.”

“I can’t help it,” he manages, knowing he has to say something. “I feel so useless in this house sometimes. And Bruce is fine, Ma’am.”

“Very well, Bruce. Call me Lorena, then. ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel old.”

“You’re not old,” he says automatically, even though she must be at least fifty. Laugh lines ring her mouth and the hair pulled back from her face is more grey than black, but she’s aged with grace.

“Older than you,” she says.

At that moment Tony barrels into the kitchen, socked feet sliding on the tile. His school uniform is rumpled; navy shorts dull with dirt, oxford wrinkled beyond recognition, and tie just plain gone. Bruce catches him by the shoulders before he skids into the cabinets.

“Bruce!” he says, unfazed by his near-crash. He holds up a piece of paper “Look!”

“Good afternoon to you, too,” Bruce says, but his smile keeps it from being a reprimand.

He pulls his glasses out of his pocket and takes the proffered flyer. New York Hall of Science is printed at the top along with a picture of a circular building and a rocket.

“And how do you propose we get there, huh?” Bruce asks, tapping the address.

“Dad won’t care if we take one of the cars,” Tony says.

“Gee, Manhattan traffic in $100,000 worth of Italian leather and German engineering. That sounds like a much better idea than the subway.”

“Please?” Tony pleads. “It’s just Queens, and tomorrow’s Saturday.”

Bruce sighs, because car or no car, he’s going to give in. For all that Tony has the upbringing of a spoiled brat, he makes very few requests of Bruce-- or anyone else, for that matter-- so Bruce doesn’t mind humoring his quest to visit every museum in the tri-state area. Not that Tony ever voiced that desire, explicitly, but considering they visited the Cloisters last month, Bruce is pretty sure that’s his intent.

Because really, who goes to a museum of medieval art unless they’re trying to make a point?

“Okay, okay. Fine. We’ll figure transportation out tomorrow. How was school?” Bruce asks perfunctorily, even though he knows what answer he’ll get.

“Boring.”

“Thought so,” he says and ruffles Tony’s hair. “Go change before you make more of a mess of your uniform, and we’ll find something interesting to do. I got a new data set from R&D earlier.”

“Awesome!” Tony calls as he takes off towards the stairs. Bruce grins after him and shakes his head. He never used to smile this much, even before the Accident. Something about Tony’s bright, brilliant enthusiasm makes it impossible not to, though.

“You don’t talk to him like a child,” Lorena notes, still watching Tony as he disappears down the hall.

“No,” he agrees, “I don’t think it would do him any good, and I know he wouldn’t appreciate it.”

“It’s good. He’s had so few people to talk to since Mrs. Stark got sick.”

That brings Bruce up short. “Maria is sick?” he asks, but it makes sense: her absence around the house, her apparent lack of involvement in her son’s life, her constant coughing. He should’ve put the pieces together sooner.

“Yes. On and off since Anthony’s birth, but it seems to be getting worse now. The doctors say it’s a poor immune system,” she says, drying the plates and putting them in the cabinets. “It’s why she rarely leaves her room, but I know being cooped up makes her depressed. It is a blessing that Anthony visits her each day.”

“Tony goes to see her?” Bruce asks numbly.

“You didn’t know?” Lorena asks, genuinely surprised. “Yes. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night, but he always makes time for her. I doubt she would even be as strong as she is if it weren’t for him.”

Bruce feels like he should’ve known that. He remembers odd nights when Tony had lacked inspiration and forced a brittle smile, but at the time he’d attributed it to ennui and Howard's particularly shouty brand of parenting. He should have known, goddamnit.

It leaves him breathless to realize that Tony, as young as he is, is silently carrying this sort of burden. Bruce feels like a complete ass for thinking that Maria might not care about her son. He wishes Tony had told him, confided this piece of sorrow.

“Ever since Ms. Maria fell ill it has been nothing but nannies and nurses who care nothing for Anthony and treat him like a normal child,” Lorena says, shutting a cabinet door with more force than necessary. Her accent gets thicker as she becomes more agitated. “A child like that-- smart beyond his years-- requires more care, not less. He’s not a terror because he is bad, he’s a terror because he is bored and lonely.

“I try to tell the nannies, I say to them, Anthony doesn’t have friends his age, no one to play with or talk to because he is too smart. But do they listen?” She spits something in Spanish that makes color rise in Bruce’s cheeks.

He’s thankful that someone else in Stark Mansion understands. Her words stir memories of Bruce’s own childhood, memories of being shunned and despised for being “too smart” for his age.

“I’m just glad that you are here now, Dr. Banner. Someone who understands him,” Lorena continues. “I try to entertain him, to relate to him, but sometimes it is like we’re speaking different languages. What can a gifted child like him get out of making cookies with an old woman?”

“The days you let him help you in the kitchen are the days when he smiles the most,” Bruce says. “I’ve never seen him willingly walk away from a half-finished project except for when you ask him to help in the kitchen.”

Because this Tony does confide. He tells Bruce with animated motions how Lorena lets him put extra chocolate chip in the cookies and lick the mixing bowls once they’re done.

She laughs, and the years melt away from her face.  “And here I thought I was stealing him away from his fun. It is always Bruce this and Bruce that every time he helps,” she says, rolling the R of his name. “I bet I know more about what you two work on than Howard does.”

“Sometimes I don’t think I should be around him,” Bruce says, because Lorena seems like the listening type and he has to tell someone. “I consider packing my bags and running at least once a week. Understanding him intellectually doesn’t make up for-- the rest of me.”

She lays a hand on his shoulder. “You are a gentle man, Bruce Banner, the sort that child needs in his life. Whatever else you might be, you are among those who care for Anthony’s wellbeing.”

“Care or not, I thought the goal was not to let kids play with the monsters under their beds,” Bruce scoffs.

“I believe Anthony’s monsters look far scarier than you, Bruce. You would do well to remember that. Sometimes it takes a monster to chase away the monsters.” On that cryptic note, Lorena pats his shoulder and says, “I have to get back to work, and you shouldn’t leave Anthony waiting. It was good to talk with you finally, Dr. Banner.”

Later that night, when Tony is asleep with his head next to a whirring centrifuge, Bruce goes silently upstairs to knock on Maria’s door. Maria is his friend, and her illness isn’t a burden their family has to weather alone.

~*~

6

Tony is also six the first night Bruce wakes to find him curled in a ball on top of the covers next to him.

“Tony?” he asks blearily. He fumbles to find his glasses on the bedside table and click on the lamp.

Tony wakes with a start. “Bruce,” he says, eyes widening even as the pupils shrink from the light. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“What’re you doing here?” he asks, not awake enough yet to make sense of the situation

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll go,” Tony repeats, crab-crawling backwards across the queen bed. Bruce grabs his ankle before he can fall off and tries very hard not to think about how few times he’s heard Tony Stark apologize.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Bruce says in his most soothing voice. “It’s okay. I just need to know what’s going on. Is something wrong?”

“It’s nothing. Just a stupid nightmare.” Tony sounds nonchalant, but his shoulders hunch unconsciously. “Your room is closest, and you usually don’t wake up.”

That’s when Bruce’s brain finally decided to come back online. “Hold on-- This isn’t the first time you’ve come here?”

“No.” Tony blushes and looks away. “I don’t want to wake you up, so I sit on the floor.”

Bruce’s chest clenches at the image of Tony leaning against the bed frame alone in the dark, too embarrassed or afraid of rejection to wake Bruce up. Bruce can only imagine how terrifying a big, echoing house like this is to a six year old. He wonders what dreams could be frightening enough to send Tony through its halls in the dead of night.

“How often do you have nightmares?” Bruce asks.

“Every couple nights," Tony says "I’ve tried telling the nannies, but they don’t-- They never listen. They think I’m making things up to get attention.”

Anger burns through Bruce‘s veins. These people are the people trusted with Tony’s welfare, and yet they dismiss him so easily. What’s the logic? ‘Oh, spoiled rich kid who spends all day in a lab? What’s there to have nightmares about?’

Bruce knows firsthand that children aren’t always as simple as people would like to believe.

“Do you-- want to tell me what they’re about?” Bruce asks and stifles the urge to wince. He is so not this kind of doctor.

“Things,” Tony says vaguely. “I don’t remember most of them.”

“But you do remember them sometimes?”

Tony nods. Not night terrors, then. Bruce rubs his wrist reassuringly, letting the spot of contact be an anchor.

“They’re not real,” Tony says. “They’re not memories. And I know I shouldn’t be this afraid. I know how dreams works-- REM sleep, the brain processing excess information-- but I’m scared no matter how much I tell myself it wasn’t real. That Mom’s safe, that you’re safe.”

Dread sinks into the pit of Bruce’s stomach, and he drops Tony’s wrist, leaning away. He should’ve known. He runs a hand over his face.

“You have nightmares about me-- from the file you read,” he says, and there’s pain in his voice even to his own ears. Tony read about how Bruce turns into a fucking monster and levels city blocks in lovingly graphic detail, for god’s sake. Of course that’s enough to give a kid nightmares.

Bruce should be relieved. Finally, some sign of rational fear from Tony. He should be, but he’s not. And fuck knows it’s irresponsible and selfish of him, but he liked never seeing that spark of fear in Tony’s bright eyes.

“Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have read it,” Tony says, edging closer to the older man. “I’ve read way worse in books and Dad’s files. It just never--” He pauses looking for words. “It’s never seemed real before. The things that that general did to you-- I don’t understand how anyone could do that to you. You didn’t do anything to deserve it!” Tony says with all the outrage of the innocent. Tears well up in his eyes, and he scrubs a fist across them angrily.

And Bruce… Bruce has no idea what to do with this. Any of it. A crying Tony or the fact Tony’s crying over the way the military treated him.

Tony makes the decision for him. He winds his arms around Bruce’s neck and clenches the fabric of his t-shirt in tiny fists, pressing his tear-damp face into Bruce’s chest.

“You-- have nightmares about the military experimenting on me?” Bruce asks even as his hand come up to pet Tony’s hair. Jesus, he never thought one crying child could be so terrifying. He’s seen crying children in Indian slums and African shanties, but never once did it inspire this level of full-on panic in him.

“Yeah. Of course. What did you think I--” Tony cuts off, face scrunching up against Bruce’s shirt. “You thought you were the nightmare.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything, but that’s enough for Tony. The boy squeezes him tighter, and presses his face into the crook of Bruce’s neck. “For someone so smart, you can be awfully dumb, some-- sometimes,” he says on a yawn.

Tony makes a blurred, mumbling noise and snuggles closer to him, arms loosening as his eyes drift shut. Bruce is considering the logistics of carrying Tony back to his own room when Tony blinks awake enough to slur, “Can I stay here tonight? You’re warm.”

Bruce bites back a laugh because yes, one of the side effects of internalizing enough gamma radiation to turn you into a rage monster is a slight increase in baseline body temperature.

“Okay,” he says, because giving in to Tony is starting to seem like a running theme in his life.

He carefully lowers the boy onto the spare pillow on the other side of the bed and pulls the covers up to his shoulders.

After Bruce lays back down, it takes less than thirty seconds for Tony to migrate back to him, turning Bruce’s arm into a pillow as he curls into the Bruce’s side.

He stares down at Tony’s mess of hair and thinks that he’s definitely going to have to talk to Howard or Maria about this. An underage child sleeping in the hermit houseguest’s room could sound pretty bad if the Starks find out about it through the house gossip.

For now, though, he doesn’t protest or move Tony away.  Maybe they could both use some comfort.

And if Tony shows up in his room more nights than not after that, well, it doesn’t actually bother Bruce. It’s nice to be the one who comforts nightmares instead of inspiring them for once.

Chapter Text

7

Tony Stark is seven the first time anyone tells him to call Bruce “sir.”

“That’s ‘yes, sir,’ Anthony. Not ‘yeah, Bruce,’” the newest nanny scolds. “Apologize to Mr. Banner for your rudeness.”

Tony makes a face. “It’s just Bruce. No way am I calling him ‘sir.’” He looks to Bruce for affirmation.

And yeah, Bruce has to agree. Being addressed as “sir” by Tony would be weird.

“He’s fine.”

“Mr. Banner, the child has to be taught manners at some point,” she says.

Bruce knows his eyes flash green as he says, “The child spends an average of three hours a day in a lab with me operating equipment that costs more than a year’s salary for the average American. He can call me the Jolly Green Giant for all I care.”

Tony yes-sir’s and yes-ma’am’s the house staff and tour guides at museums, so where, exactly, does this woman get off implying that he has no manners? Quite frankly, Bruce thinks that Tony could give this woman a few lessons in the polite mode of addressing other people like they’re human beings instead of furniture.

Word of his ‘condition’ must not have trickled down to this woman yet, because she doesn’t react to his evident irritation. And that just irritates Bruce more. He takes a deep breath. Time to remove himself from the situation.

Bruce stalks off towards the labs, motioning for Tony to follow. Later, he’d realize how ridiculously risky it was to take Tony with him when he was so close to the edge, but at that moment all Bruce could think about was getting him away from that woman.

Tony smirks over his shoulder at her. “And he’s Doctor Banner to you.”

That particular nanny sets the land-speed record for fastest to resign, but somehow Bruce can’t bring himself to feel guilty.

~*~

7

Tony Stark is seven when Bruce finds him in the basement turning a paper silhouette into confetti.

The sound of rapid gunfire meets Bruce’s ears as soon as he opens the lab door, and Bruce suppresses a sigh. Even if the gunfire doesn’t make him go green anymore, he still prefers to be somewhere else when Tony works on weapons testing. The sight of a child firing a gun is no less distasteful to Bruce than it was a year ago.

He steps towards the shooting stall at the far end of the room, and the sight that meets him makes his brow furrow.

Spent casings litter the floor at Tony’s feet-- at least three magazines worth. Tony is wholly focused as he sights down the barrel of a standard military issue handgun, and Bruce can’t imagine that anything on that piece needs work.

Bruce waits until Tony flicks the safety on and ejects the magazine to reload before he approaches. Bruce pulls one side of the ear muffs away from Tony’s head to ask, “What did that target do to you?”

“Nothing,” Tony says tersely.

Bruce flinches as he viciously snaps a new magazine into place.

“Why do you hate guns so much, anyhow?” Tony snaps.

“It’s less the guns and more what I’ve seen them used for,” Bruce says and motions for him to hold fire. Carefully, he reaches out to take the gun from Tony’s small hands, flipping the safety back on with his thumb. “Tony, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Bruce raises his eyebrows disbelievingly. “Yeah? The silhouette you’re turning into Swiss cheese would beg to differ.”

Tony only shrugs.

“Oh, come on,” Bruce says. “Stop it. You’re too young for teenage angst.”

Tony’s lips curls. “That’s always the problem, isn’t it? Too young. Too smart!”

It’s the closest Tony has ever come to shouting at Bruce, and Bruce doesn’t know what to say to that.

He remembers all too well the pain of being too smart for his age. He remembers a ‘childhood’ of bruises and yelling and fear. He remembers being a small, bespectacled target both at school and at home.

He remembers it in age-stretched scars and residual helpless anger.

“Come here,” Bruce says. The possibility of Tony knowing that same fear makes his hands shake with rage, but he keeps his hands gentle as he plucks the ear muffs from Tony’s head and leads him to a lab stool, hoisting him up on it and crouching down until they’re eye to eye. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

Tony bites a nail nervously before finally saying, “I don’t want to go to boarding school!”

Relief floods through Bruce, and he bows his head silent thanks. This is the first he’s heard about Tony leaving New York, but it’s not as awful as the possibilities that had been flooding Bruce’s mind.

“What are you talking about?” Bruce asks.

“Dad told me yesterday that I have to go to a boarding school in Massachusetts. Massachusetts! I don’t want to go, Bruce! I really don’t want to go,” Tony pleads, obviously working himself up to either a tantrum or tears.

Bruce rubs Tony’s arms reassuringly. “Hey, hey. Calm down. It’s okay. It’ll be okay,” he says, even if, selfishly, he doesn’t want Tony to leave, either.

“No it won’t!” Tony says, still more agitated. “No one in my grade likes me because I’m younger than them and still smarter.”

“Tony, you can’t rub it in their face that you’re smarter,” Bruce says, because he has no doubt Tony is.

“I don’t try to, but sometimes I can’t help it! They don’t understand some of the words I use, and it’s not like that’s my fault. I try talking about the things they like but I really don’t like kid’s shows and Captain America is the only comic I read,” Tony says.

“And when I get to Massachusetts the other kids still aren’t going to like me, but then I’ll be stuck living with them! And I’ll have to leave Momma, and what if she gets worse? Please don’t make me go, Bruce,” Tony begs. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“Because no one would be around to take me on my weekly Vitamin D walk?” Bruce asks, trying to lighten the mood.

“Because you’re my best friend,” Tony says desperately. “Because you’re the only person who listens to me and is smart enough to understand.”

The unabashed sincerity of the statement blindsides Bruce. He’s known, realistically, that this was the case, but Tony never said it in so many words.

Bruce also knows that something has to give.

At the moment Tony’s only friends are Bruce, Lorena, and Jarvis, the elderly butler with eternal patience for the explosions that follow Tony around like flies. The housekeeper, the butler, and the kept scientist are not enough socialization for a small child.

“We’ll figure it out, okay?” Bruce pulls Tony into a brief hug and ruffles his hair. “You’re my best friend, too.”

And the kick in the ass of Bruce’s life to date? He means it. His best friend is a mouthy seven-year-old genius.

~*~

7

Tony Stark is also seven the first time Bruce intentionally intervenes in his upbringing.

Bruce knocks on the carved wood of Howard’s office door, rocking onto the balls of his feet anxiously. Coming to his boss about this seems like a breach of protocol, and he only really sees his employer-cum-godfather once every couple weeks to go over his work for Stark Industries.

Somehow, despite having set foot in the New York offices a grand total of three times, Bruce has because an ad-hoc third in command for the humanitarian division. He tries not to think how much he’s saved in taxes for a Fortune 500 weapons company through innovation in sustainable, affordable nutrition, and clean water.

“Come in,” Howard’s gruff voice calls.

Bruce moves to stand in front of the oak desk, hands clasped behind his back to keep from fidgeting. “I need to talk to you about Tony.”

One of Howard’s eyebrows quirks, but he doesn’t look up from his papers. “What’s he done now?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Bruce says immediately. “It’s about-- He says you’re sending him to boarding school in Massachusetts.”

“I am,” Howard confirms, shuffling through the paper before him. “He refuses to spend any time with his classmates, and I thought perhaps having to live with them might inspire him to be a more tractable student.”

“I’m sorry if I’m overstepping,” Bruce starts, taking a deep breath to tamp down his irritation. He’s balancing on the edge of of losing his temper, perched precariously between forced-polite-calm and about-to-start-yelling. “But I don’t think shipping him out of state against his will is the way to do that.”

Howard does look up now. “I thought you’d be happy to have him out of the labs.”

And the hell of it is, Bruce isn’t. He should be happy not to have to worry about Tony’s safety or listen to the same Aerosmith album on repeat or fight the constant encroachment of engine parts onto his side of the lab, but he isn’t. Not at all.

He likes Tony’s dry humor and the way Tony steals his coffee when he thinks Bruce isn’t looking. He likes that Tony isn’t afraid of him, and he likes that Tony challenges him intellectually. But he says none of this.

Instead he says firmly, “There are plenty of day schools around New York that can give him just as good of an education.”

“He needs to be socialized with other children,” Howard says. “Clearly that’s not going to happen as long as he’s here. He’d rather polish the silver with Jarvis or bake with the maid.”

“Lorena,” Bruce corrects automatically. “And he’s socialized just fine around adults. Make him join a competitive coding team or a soccer club if you want him to have more diverse social interactions, but shipping him off to an academy to live 24/7 with kids who’ll resent him for his intelligence is not the way to do it.”

Howard’s eyebrows travel higher, and Bruce swears his mustache twitches in irritation. “And you’re suddenly an expert on child care?”

“No more than you are,” Bruce says, and he knows he’s out of bounds. “But I am an expert at being beaten up for being the kid who broke the curve. Maybe the kids at this this boarding school would accept his intelligence, but Tony’s your son and you know he won’t get along with anyone as long as he doesn't want to be there.”

Howard looks down at his desk in consternation, and Bruce takes the chance to go for his final shot.

“Please, Howard. He’s scared that something’s going to happen to Maria while he’s gone.”

It’s a low blow, and Bruce knows it, but it seems to work.

“Fine,” the elder Stark says with a sigh. “We’ll find a school in New York. But he joins extracurriculars of some kind, Bruce. It’s up to you to make sure of that.”

Bruce nods and swallows a sigh of relief. He feels lucky not to have been kicked out of the house.

~*~

7

Tony Stark is still seven when Bruce realizes that he isn’t going to leave Stark Mansion any time soon.

Bruce stares at the book carefully laid on his pillow. It's bound in purple leather that Bruce somehow doubts is the product of mass-market printing. He hooks a finger under the front cover to reveal the title page of Contact.

In the blank space below Carl Sagan's name, Tony’s slanting scrawl read, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. But since that’s not on the table, here’s to another year of working backwards to find the recipe. Happy 30th, Tony.”

Bruce trails his fingers under the words. Three weeks ago he mentioned offhand that Contact is one of his favorite books after Tony caught him watching the Jodie Foster movie, but he never expected this. Tony must have custom ordered the beautifully bound edition, and Bruce tries not to dwell on how much it probably costs.

And after all the trouble Tony has to have gone through to get the book, he didn’t even give it to Bruce himself, instead just left it on his pillow like a five cent paperback he found at the junk store. Not out of disregard for the book’s value, Bruce knows, but out of some misplaced modesty.

No one would ever call Tony shy, at least not around strangers or at formal events. But in private when it means something, Tony’s shyness manifests in subtle ways, like he doesn’t know how to show affection without ostentatious gifts.

After the Rolex and the platinum cufflinks, Bruce had to put his foot down. “Flashy” isn’t exactly his speed, and he told Tony as much.

“But how about if it’s not flashy?” Tony wheedled. “What if I see something that screams ‘Bruce Banner?’”

“Tony, for the last time, you’re not allowed to dress me or take me to your tailor or have your tailor brought to the house,” Bruce told him, punching the bridge of his nose. “Buy a Barbie Doll.”

“Fine,” Tony whined. “What if it’s not clothes?”

“Only if it isn’t expensive.”

“Isn’t what you consider expensive or--?” Tony led.

“Tony.”

“Alright, alright.”

Somehow, staring down at the beautifully bound book, Bruce rather doubts Tony stuck to that last condition, but he thinks he can overlook it this one time. The thought and care that Tony must have put into it outway the gift’s price tag.

Bruce traces the loopy Y of Tony’s name with his index finger, and it hits him for the first time that this isn’t temporary. Every time he looks in the mirror and says he’s going to leave, he’s lying to himself. No matter how much he says it would be for Tony’s safety, it’s only half the truth.

He let Tony in, let Tony get close to him the way he hasn’t let anyone for over five years, and that scares Bruce nearly as much as the thought of hurting him. But leaving would hurt Tony-- maybe not like fractured bones and spilt blood, but it would hurt.

Tony needed a friend, and for better or worse he found that in Bruce. Bruce knows he can’t leave, not after his little stunt with Tony's schooling. He made his bed, and now he has to lie in it-- not that spending time with Tony is ever a chore.

“Bruce!” Tony’s voice echos from down the hall, interrupting his thoughts. “We’re going to be late if you don’t get your butt in gear.”

“Coming!” Bruce calls back, and if his voice sounds thicker than usual, he doubt Tony notices.

He vouched for Tony to stay in New York, and he’s going to to see it through.

Last month Tony opted to join a chess team made up of local high-schoolers, and while he’s still the youngest by far, they don’t seem to mind, preferring the edge of victory Tony provides. Bruce watches them compete in Bryant Park every Friday, and seeing Tony happy with people his own age-- well, closer, anyhow-- has become one of the highlights of Bruce’s week.

Tony stops in the doorway. “You don’t even have shoes on yet! We’re going to be late for the tournament.”

Bruce looks up, the book held tight to his chest, and blinks hard. “Thank you,” he manages.

Tony scuffs his foot on the rug. “It’s nothing much.”

It’s the first gift Tony has been nervous about, and Bruce can't help it. He pulls Tony into a brief hug. “Thank you,” he repeats.

Tony shrugs against Bruce’s embrace even as he returns the hug.

Chapter Text

8

Tony Stark is eight when he reaches around Bruce to snags the sandwich off his plate.

Most days sharing food, coffee, and space with Tony is second nature for Bruce, but sometimes Tony’s willingness to get up in his personal space still catches him off guard. Bruce has taught himself not to dodge physical contact the way he used to, but even after three years the unselfconscious way Tony playfully tugs at his curls before stealing his food still surprises Bruce.

Bruce shakes his head indulgently as Tony steals his lunch-- or is it dinner? Bruce can't remember, and he knows Tony won’t volunteer the real time for fear of being sent to bed for the night.

"I thought food in the lab was against safety procedures," Tony says, taking a bite of Bruce's turkey sandwich.

"Not dealing with chemicals or biological hazards today," Bruce says absently as he types notes.

"Yeah, and what's your excuse for the bare feet?" Tony asks around a mouthful. "You almost never wear shoes in the lab."

"I don't scar anymore and can't be critically injured."

"Uh-huh," Tony says disbelievingly. "I say you're just a hippie."

Bruce laughs but doesn't bother arguing. He blames his preference for going barefoot on too many years of fruitless meditation. Apparently, what Bruce actually needed to keep the Other Guy locked down was a little less Vipassana and lot more overly-tactile genius.

“Seriously,” Tony continues, apparently encouraged by his friend's amusement. “Is that your trick for staying calm-- Crosby, Stills & Nash and a big bag of weed?”

Bruce stares at him in mock disbelief. "You're eight. You're not supposed to know about stuff like that yet."

Tony shrugs and takes another bite of the pilfered sandwich. "Drugs, sex, violence, and rock'n'roll," he says. "I'm pretty well informed on all of the above. Functionally alcoholic father, weapons manufacturer, and killer taste in music. Check, check, and check."

Bruce snags his sandwich back before Tony eats all of it. "Yeah, what about the sex part?"

Another shrug, this time accompanied by a shifty expression. "I read."

Bruce sighs and takes a bite of his own. He gets the feeling that this is going to be something he’ll have to deal with. Howard and Maria Stark hardly seem the type to sit their son down for a thorough sex talk. Bruce can imagine a terse 'be safe and don't knock anyone up' from Howard, but that's all. While books are a good resource, they’re no substitute for a proper discussion with a knowledgeable adult.

Tony breaks into Bruce’s thoughts. “I have a question.”

Bruce swallow hard and hopes this isn’t to do with his previous train of thought-- he’d rather have a bit more time to prepare for questions like that. “Alright.”

“You’re staying permanently, right? You’ve started taking your shoes off when you get to the lab and you’ve quit putting your shampoo bottle back in your duffle bag after you shower.”

Bruce hesitates before answering. “I made my decision to stay a while ago.”

“Good,” Tony says, relief audible in his voice. “I mean, about time you made yourself at home.”

Guilt gnaws at Bruce’s stomach. He never considered that his indecision about remaining with the Starks could be worrying Tony. Absently, Bruce reaches for his coffee cup and only succeeds in spilling it the counter.

"Fuck," he says without thinking and then claps a hand over his mouth.

Tony looks distinctly unimpressed as he gathers file folders and reaches for the roll of papertowels. "You can stop trying not to swear around me," he says. “I don’t care.”

“It’s not a matter of you caring,” Bruce says. He takes the proffered paper towels and starts mopping up the mess.

“What?” Tony scoffs. “You think you’re going to be a bad influence on me?”

Bruce doesn’t answer. He glances at the computer clock-- 9:52. “Time for you to get to bed.”

“But Bruce,” Tony whines.

Bed,” Bruce insists, then pauses to run a finger over the smear of grease on Tony’s cheek. “Okay, shower then bed.”

“Can I at least stay in your room tonight?”

“Of course you can,” he says. “You know you don’t have to ask.”

Tony grins mischievously. “I know.” He loops an arm around Bruce’s waist in a brief hug. “‘Night. Come to bed soon. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Bruce responds automatically.

Tony is out of the lab before the significance of those words hits him. He’s never doubted that Tony loves him, even if their lives might be simpler if that weren’t the case, but he’s never said it straight out before.

It’s a little heartbreaking to realize that Tony could have been waiting all this time for confirmation that his best friend isn’t about to walk away.

~*~

8

Tony is eight when Bruce puts an end to the revolving door highly trained and even more highly paid nannies.

It’s also the second time Bruce Banner actively intervenes in his upbringing.

It happens like this:

Tony still sleeps in Bruce’s room more nights than not. Bruce may be many things, but dumb has never been one of them. He knows Tony doesn’t have nightmares as often as he used to, but he can never bring himself to broach the subject, and it’s not as if Tony is disturbing him. He knows that if he calls Tony out, Stark pride would dictate that he stop cold turkey, and somehow that thought bothers Bruce.

Tony rarely starts off sleeping in Bruce’s room. Like clockwork, he sneaks in between midnight and one in the morning. If Bruce is asleep, he rarely wakes when Tony clambers onto the bed, all sharp elbows and knees as he grasps at the comforter for purchase. Bruce usually wakes up the next morning to find Tony curled peacefully on the opposite side of the bed.

Many nights, though, Bruce isn’t asleep when Tony creeps into his room. He has his own demons to keep him awake, but he usually tries to be in bed by the time Tony shows up, even if he isn’t tired. They talk on those mutually sleepless nights, voices little more than low whispers as Tony asks Bruce for explanations. One week they’ll cover the history of the big bang theory, the next Bruce’s limited knowledge on code breaking.

On bad nights, the nights when Tony’s overactive mind is haunting him, Bruce doesn’t say anything when Tony curls into his side and clutches at his worn-thin t-shirt. He loops an arm around Tony’s thin shoulders and pets his head where it’s pillowed against Bruce’s chest.

It’s roughly one in the morning, and Bruce is still awake, reading by the dim light of the bedside lamp. His glasses have been steadily slipping down his nose for the past half-hour, but he doesn’t have a free hand to push them back up. One hand is balancing the battered paperback and the other is threaded through Tony’s messy hair.

Tonight was a bad night, bad enough that Tony poked Bruce awake with shaking hands and a murmured apology. Bruce never asks what the nightmares are about because Tony always shares eventually-- sometimes that night, sometimes in the morning, and sometimes a week later, but he always tells Bruce what’s troubling him. On nights that are this bad, it’s almost always to do with Maria’s worsening health.

But Tony never cries, no matter how bad his dreams. Bruce is thankful for that because despite having seen many crying people over his years on the run, he’s never gotten good at dealing with tears. Part of him, however, finds it worrying. Tony is eight-- he’s young enough that crying is normal to a degree, and seeing him bottle up his emotions like an adult who’s heard the phrase “superheroes don’t cry” one too many time makes that angry side of Bruce itch. Because Bruce knows-- better than any child ever should-- that superheros may not cry, but frightened children do.

Tony is finally asleep, his head pillowed on Bruce’s thigh and breaths coming in steady sighs. It’s a far cry from the dry sobs and near-hyperventilating two hours ago. Tony wasn’t quite to tears, but it was a near thing. So when the bedroom door bangs open with all the subtlety of a gunshot, Bruce is less than pleased, and that’s before the nanny of the month comes stomping in.

“Anthony,” she barks, making her way around to Tony’s side of the bed. “You’re supposed to be sleeping in your room, not bothering the other residents.”

“Ghu?” Tony says, blinking blearily awake. “Had a nightmare.”

“You’re eight,” the unpleasant woman says. “That’s too old to be running to your uncle when you have a bad dream.”

“He’s not my uncle,” Tony corrects, yawning.

“Excuse me,” Bruce starts, trying to hold on to the thin shreds of his patience. “You shouldn’t be in here unless there’s an emergency.”

“Anthony is my charge, and it’s my job to break his sleeping crutches,” the nanny says.

Tony curls tighter into Bruce’s side, evidently not caring what the woman thinks about it.

She gives a pompous huff and grabs Tony by his forearm, yanking him towards the edge of the bed. The motion sends a phantom of remembered pain through Bruce’s arm. Nursemaid’s elbow, he knows it’s called, but he remembers Brian Banner’s rough hands tossing him aside the same careless way.

Bruce’s hand shoots out instinctively, fingers latching around her wrist like a vice. He can feel the bones grind together, and he knows she’ll have a bruise there in the morning.

Bruce is too far gone to care.

“Get out,” he says-- with a surprising amount of calm for the homicidal rage coursing through his veins.

The green snaking up his neck is enough warning. The nanny backs towards the door as quickly as she can, eyes only leaving Bruce to flick briefly to Tony. Evidently her own safety means more to her than that of her ‘charge’ because she’s out of the door and down the hall without another word.

Small arms wrap around his waist. “Bruce,” Tony says in a muted voice. He looks shaken, but not afraid-- never afraid. “Bruce, stop. She’s gone.”

Slowly, Bruce comes back to himself. His chest is heaving; beads of sweat dot his forehead. He almost changed with Tony in his arms, and that terrifies him. But what makes him freeze, one arm still looped around Tony’s shoulders, is that it’s the first time he’s ever stopped mid-transformation.

Somehow his desire to keep Tony safe and whole stopped the single most destructive force in his life. He can still feel the other guy right on the edge of his consciousness like a physical presence looming over him, but the tatters of his self-control remain intact. Maybe it’s because he was perfectly relaxed before the disturbance, or-- more frightening still-- maybe it’s because he finally found the right motivation.

He’s seen so much evil-- both in humanity and in himself, but he’s also seen the good and the selfless and the selfish being selfless. Bruce knows he isn’t a bad person, isn’t evil, but he stopped believing long ago that he’s one of the good guys. The Other Guy made sure of that. But maybe, and it’s a very big maybe, anger isn’t the only driving force for Frankenstein's monster. For Bruce, this is the first point of hope in a very long time that maybe some of that goodness extends to the creature inside him.

Bruce’s hands shake as he carefully disengages Tony’s hold. “Stay right here,” he orders.  

He doesn’t bother putting on shoes before marching downstairs to where he knows Howard will still be awake. Bruce shoulders past the office doors without knocking, and Howard looks up, eyebrows arched in surprise.

Bruce cuts him off before he can speak. “We need to talk about Tony and your staffing decisions.”

“Your eyes turn a fascinating color when you’re upset.”

“Would you focus on your son for two goddamn minutes!” Bruce exclaims. Even as the words leave his mouth, the reality of his situation hits him, and he abruptly sees how easily Tony could be taken from him.

But Howard, far from looking angry, merely leans back in his chair. His expression oozes poorly veiled amusement, and that only serves to irritate Bruce more.

“And what trouble do you have with my parenting this time, Bruce?”

“No more nannies.”

“Come again?”

“I mean it, Howard. No more of this new-nanny-every-week bullshit,” Bruce says, bare feet padding across the rug as he paces anxiously. He can feel the monster inside banging against the bars of its cage.

Howard’s expression darkens. “Tell me what happened.”

“You and Maria know Tony still sleeps in my room when he has nightmares. And do you want to know what that woman did tonight after I finally got him to calm down enough to go to sleep? She tried to pull him out of my bed.

“I’m done with it,” Bruce continues, not giving Howard time to respond. “Done. I’ll take care of Tony myself if I have to-- I already do half the time anyhow.”

“And you’re willing to take on that kind of responsibility?” Howard asks, expression unreadable. “Match his clothes each morning? Make his lunch? Get him ready for bed?”

“I already do! Lorena, Jarvis, and I already do all of that!”

“Lorena?”

“The maid, Howard,” Bruce snaps, “The woman who has worked for you for the past five years.”

“I thought her name was Loretta,” Howard says absently.

“Look, Lorena already cares for Tony. If you offered her a bit of a raise, I'm sure she wouldn’t mind taking a more active role. She and I can handle Tony without a nanny.”

“Alright,” Howard says simply.

“Alright? That’s it? Just like that?” Bruce asks skeptically.

“I must admit, ending the parade of unknown women through this house is a benefit. Background checks don’t always show a propensity to take bribes or speak to the press, after all.”

“Oh,” Bruce says, beginning to feel rather foolish. He tries very hard not to think about the fact that he’s standing in front of his employer in his nightclothes. “I’m just going to--” Bruce jerks his thumb towards the door. “Tony… He’s asleep upstairs. Or at least pretending to be.”

Howard stops him when he reaches for the door. “I know you’re good for him, Bruce,” he says, smiling.

Bruce stares. He can’t help it. Howard almost never smiles except in dated photographs and corporate schmoozing.

“Thank you,” he manages before fleeing the Twilight Zone for the safety of his bedroom.

~*~

8

Tony is eight when he sings along with The Police while Bruce prepares dinner for the two of them.

Howard and Maria are out of town for their anniversary, and Lorena is taking a well deserved day off. Lorena happily accepted Howard’s offer of a raise in return for officially taking over as Tony’s nanny, but chasing after an eight year old genius who hates sleep is exhausting, even for her.

She and Bruce rapidly came to an agreement: during the week, she gets Tony out of bed and ready for school, and Bruce is in charge of making sure he’s actually in bed on any given night since apparently Bruce is the only one with the magic necessary to convince him to take a shower. On weekends Bruce watches Tony while Lorena catches up on her lost sleep.

The Police play through the kitchen speakers as Bruce minces garlic for vodka pasta. Tony solders a circuit board at the kitchen table while he sings along to Roxanne.

“I didn’t know you could sing,” Bruce says.

“I didn’t know you could cook,” Tony shoots back.

“Really,” Bruce insists, “you’re good. You should sing more often.” He pauses. “Just maybe not this particular song.”

Tony snickers and kicks up his volume up a couple notches. “‘Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light. Roxanne.’

‘Put on the red light, put on the red light,’” Bruce choruses, smiling as he begins chopping shallots.

Tony laughs happily. “I hope your cooking is better than your singing.”

“Gee, thanks,” Bruce says without any real ire. He’s well aware of how bad his singing voice is. “Do you need anything from the store? I’ve got to run to Food Emporium for parmesan afterwhile.”

Tony groans. “You know Whole Foods delivers, right? Say the name Stark, and they’ll probably airdrop you some cheese.”

“You don’t have to come,” Bruce says. “Besides, I need the practice. Where better to brush up on my people skills than a Manhattan grocery store?”

Bruce’s control is better than it once was, and he can’t keep hiding in the mansion forever. He’s not living solely for others anymore-- he’s living for himself, too. He’s built a life for himself, and if he wants to live it properly, he has to start adjusting to the size and scale of the first world.

“You know I’m going with you,” Tony says. “What if you get claustrophobic?”

“You’re my friend, not my service dog,” Bruce says. “I don’t need to scratch you behind the ears every time I feel anxious.”

Tony sticks out his tongue. “I know, but admit it: You feel better when I’m around.”

Bruce forces a chuckle but doesn’t bother denying it. “Do you need anything from the store?” he asks before he can over-think Tony’s words.

Chapter Text

9

Tony Stark is nine when Bruce looks in the mirror and realizes he’s no longer ageing as he should be.

Bruce touches his cheek lightly before pressing his fingers to the glass of the ensuite bathroom’s mirror. At thirty-two he looks almost the same as he did four years ago.

Grey flecks Bruce’s hair, but no more than when he was twenty-eight and on the run. Whether the premature grey was brought on by stress or predetermined by genetics, Bruce hasn't had solid black hair since grad school. It’s hard to know how old he should look-- by his mid-twenties life had taken its toll and he looked more like he was in his late thirties-- but he doubts the face in the mirror is as it should be.

Between his research and what he estimates from his appearance, Bruce guesses he’s ageing at half-speed.

His studies of his own cells suggested that he might age slower than normal humans, but he hadn't wanted to believe it. His life up until the past four years has been long and difficult enough, and he has no desire to prolong it unnaturally.

Bruce sometimes wonders if he can die. Not the way he did five years ago-- he doesn't want to test it again, but he does wonder, in a scientifically curious, borderline-cartoonish way. ‘If a piano fell on my head, would it kill me, or would the Other Guy chuck it aside like a toy?’-- stuff like that.

Since the accident his healing is accelerated and he doesn’t scar. His old scars remain, though. Bruce still carries the marks of his childhood smattered across his torso. He more than has a will to live these days, and the scars on his chest no longer have a hold over him.

He meets his own gaze in the mirror, and stares at the brown of his eyes for a long minute. Sometimes he needs to remind himself that they're not always green.

A knock breaks the stillness.

“Bruce?” Tony says through the bathroom door. “Are you coming to bed sometime tonight?”

“Yeah,” Bruce calls. “Just a second.”

He hastily pulls a faded Caltech t-shirt over his head before opening the door. The old scars would raise questions Bruce doesn't particularly feel like answering tonight, and Tony’s nightmares don’t need more fuel.

~*~

9

Tony is nine when he finds Bruce jogging on a treadmill at one am.

Bruce almost doesn’t hear the door open over the whirring of the treadmill and The Kinks playing through the lab speakers. Wires trail from under his shirt, monitoring his heart rate among other things.

“What’re you doing here?” Bruce calls over the refrain of ‘Juke Box Music’.

Tony shrugs nonchalantly. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Bruce hears what he doesn’t say: And you weren’t in your room.

“I’m sorry. I had a few tests to run before I went to bed. Go on up. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Tony steps closer, ignoring the instructions. “Why are you running? I thought yoga was more your speed.”

“Just testing an idea,” Bruce says breathlessly. “You shouldn’t be here for this one in case it goes wrong.”

“You’re testing your control at the upper edge of your heart rate limit,” Tony guesses, examining the monitor. “You’re already at 188, and nothing’s happened. Your eyes aren't even green. I bet it’s a false correlation. Your heart rate is always going to go up if you’re scared or angry. Symptom, not cause.”

“Yes, but I mean it, Tony. You shouldn’t be in here while I find out. Last time I got over 200 BPM, your kitchen got an open floor-plan remodel.”

“You wouldn’t hurt me, and I can’t sleep anyhow.”

Bruce starts to protest that Tony’s never met the Other Guy, but per-usual, Tony’s confident logic and earnest eyes override his better judgment. He’s sure now that Tony is doing the eye thing on purpose.

“Fine,” Bruce concedes. “You can stay, but keep a clear path between you and the door. If I start to go green, put the lab on full lockdown from the security panel outside.”

Tony apparently takes Bruce’s words as an open invitation to meddle. He checks the display on the treadmill. “You’re only going eight miles per hour,” he says.

“I’m stepping up the speed gradually. If it feels like I’m getting close to the edge, I pull the plug.”

Tony’s huff suggests that he finds that a distinctly boring approach, but he clambers to sit on the counter of Bruce’s workstation without further protest. Curiously, he starts poking through Bruce’s things. The top drawer obligingly produces a granola bar and an origami strawberry.

“I didn't know you could do origami,” he says, holding it up to the light to examine it. It’s a piece of printer paper roughly colored in green and red gel pen.

“My old university lab partner taught me,” Bruce says. Min Young was a gorgeous lesbian with a love of strawberries and the greatest deadpan fucking-with-you expression Bruce had ever seen. They’d been lovers for a couple months despite her insistence that she was only attracted to women and Bruce’s own 4.5 on the Kinsey Scale. Their encounters were almost more fun for the lack of sexual tension, all laughs and no pressure.

“There’s a story here, isn’t there?” Tony breaks in.

“Ask me again when you’re fifteen.”

“So it’s a good story.” He turns the paper strawberry over consideringly as they lapse into silence. The music fill the space between their words. “What is this?” Tony asks, twirling his finger to indicate the speakers in the ceiling.

“The Kinks. My mom used to play them on days when it was just us in the house,” Bruce says. And maybe it’s the first time he’s brought up his childhood, because Tony’s curiosity is piqued.

“Your mom? I didn’t know-- I mean, I knew you had one, obviously, but you never mentioned-- What’s she like?”

The question is enough to make Bruce’s heart rate jump to 190.

“She died a long time ago,” he says slowly. “She was-- amazing. The strongest person I’ve ever known. She used to dance with me around our living room every time 'A Rock 'n Roll Fantasy' came on the radio.”

And Bruce really tries not to dwell on the significance of his mom dancing to a song about escapism and the end of an era. He can still remember the old AM radio and the breeze that would blow through the house during the spring. He doesn’t know what else he can tell Tony without shining a light on the darker corners of his past.

One day he might tell Tony how she stayed to protect him, how she did her best to give him happy memories in a childhood with very few. Maybe he’ll explain how she saved a few dollars every time she went grocery shopping, just enough that Brian wouldn’t notice, slowly saving up for the day she could take her son and run.

One day, but not tonight.

If Tony sees the memories on Bruce’s face, he doesn’t ask. He’s learned by now that Bruce will tell him everything eventually. Instead he asks, “Does it bother you that I still sleep in your room?”

“What?” Bruce says, because that’s not what he was expecting.

Tony scratches the back of his neck self-consciously. “I should be old enough to sleep by myself.”

“‘Should be’ is relative. You never need to worry about that, okay Tony? You never bother me,” Bruce says. “And I’ll tell you a secret: It helps me sleep better.”

It’s Tony’s turn to look confused. “Huh?”

Bruce lets out a long breath as his feet continue their rhythm. “You’re not the only one who has nightmares.”

It’s more than that, though. He sleeps better with Tony’s presence next to him, like his sleeping mind accepts the sign that Tony is alive and safe. He almost never dreams of running without direction when Tony sleeps beside him. Tony is warmth and safety and the closest thing to family Bruce has had in a long time.

“Oh,” Tony says. He checks the heart monitor before he pushes himself off the counter. “Okay, fuck gradual.”

“Language,” Bruce chides before Tony’s words sink in. “No. No fucking gradual!”

Tony ignores him, reaching around Bruce to speed up the treadmill up to eleven mph. Bruce struggles to keep up with the pace and reaches to adjust the speed, but Tony catches his wrist. “You can manage it,” he reassures. “I trust you.”

Bruce lets his hand fall, and the heart monitor beeps a warning as his heart rate breaks 200.

Worry and anticipation well in Bruce’s chest, but the claws of anger are thankfully absent. The monitor kicks up to 202, then 205, then back down to 201 as relief wins out over worry. Heart rate alone isn’t enough to trigger an incident, and Bruce laughs with the relief of it. It’s freeing, like shrugging off an anchor he’s been carrying for eight years.

Tony smiles delightedly. “That feeling you’ve got in your chest? That’s the feeling of running when you’re out of shape. Your eyes are still brown.”

Bruce grins and clicks the treadmill back down to zero.

“Why are you stopping?” Tony asks indignantly. “Nothing’s going to happen-- You’ve already proven that.”

“Thank you for the flattery, but you’re overestimating my stamina,” Bruce pants out, clutching his side. He has a stitch that burns like a motherfucker.

Tony passes him a bottle of water. “Mind if I--?” He holds up the granola bar he found in Bruce’s drawer.

“Go for it,” Bruce says, fishing out another for himself as he drains the bottle. Since the accident his metabolism goes on a rampage every time he exercises. He has to triple his caloric intake just for basic physical activity, and Tony likes to use him as a cold feet warmer thanks to his elevated core temperature.

Tony takes a bite of the bar and makes a face. “This is disgusting,” he says around his mouthful. “How long has this been in your desk?”

Bruce finishes his and makes grabby hands. “Give it here. Mikey will eat anything, especially after running six miles with an overactive metabolism.”

Tony gives him a blank look. “What?”

Bruce stares at him for a long moment. “Generation gap,” he says at last.

~*~

9

Tony is nine when Maria tells Bruce the truth.

Afternoon tea with Maria has become a daily event for Bruce whenever they’re both free of prior engagements. At five Bruce abandons whatever he’s working on and makes his way to one of the upstairs sitting rooms. Often, Tony joins them, but some days he visits earlier or later than Bruce.

Maria looks up from her book and smiles welcomingly when Bruce knocks on the doorframe. She’s sitting on a sofa, propped against one arm in a manner that suggests repose but that Bruce knows is a sign of her fading strength.

“No Tony?” he asks.

“He stopped by earlier,” Maria says. “He couldn't wait to tell me how his tournament went this morning.”

“He’s one of the best. He’ll make grandmaster before he turns sixteen.”

Maria pours him a cup as he takes the wingback chair opposite her. He accepts the teacup with a thanks, carefully taking a sip. Bruce always feels like he’s going to break the delicate little cups Maria prefers. In the lab he drinks out of thick mugs specifically picked to withstand high-velocity-Tony impact.

Today’s china pattern is pansies. Yesterday it was tulips, and tomorrow, he suspects, will be hydrangeas. The hydrangea teacups are Maria’s favorite-- an anniversary gift from Howard-- and she  likes to save them for Fridays, a “suitably happy day” as she calls it. Likewise, she saves the horrid rose-printed ones Obadiah gave her last February for Tuesdays and days the world in general has disappointed her.

Bruce furrows his brow at the chess board laid out on the coffee table. He’s sure it’s the remnants of Tony’s earlier visit, but the pieces aren’t in any formation he recognizes or can even make sense of.

Maria laughs ruefully at his expression. “Checkers,” she says. “Not chess. Tony got tired of beating me in under three minutes, so he switched to a game I could hold my own in.”

“Ah,” Bruce says, reevaluating the board. “In that case, you’re winning.”

“Only because he’s letting me.”

“If it makes you feel better, he lets me win sometimes, too.” Bruce takes another sip of his tea. It’s one of his favorite mint blends.

“Have you thought about dating again?” Maria asks, apropos of nothing. “Now that you’re more settled, I mean. Howard and I wouldn't mind if you brought someone around from time to time. God knows we both had our fun when we were young. After all, it’s New York. There are plenty of men who’d be lucky to have you.”

“Men?” Bruce chokes out.

“Am I mistaken?” she asks, not sounding at all like she believes she is.

“No. I just-- didn’t think you knew.”

“Bruce, I was your primary care provider for two years before you left for college,” Maria says, not unkindly. “I’ve known since you were thirteen.”

“Oh, um-- Oh,” Bruce manages eloquently. “I knew Howard was aware but...”

“You were trying to spare my delicate sensibilities?” she asks with raised eyebrows.

He laughs awkwardly. “Something like that.”

The most embarrassing day of Bruce’s life had come a month before he left for college, when Howard called him into his office for a terse inservice on safe sex being mandatory, even for homosexuals. Embarrassing though it might have been, in 1986 that was potentially life-saving advice that few people were willing to give to a fourteen-year-old.

“How is Tony doing lately?” Maria asks. “He rarely tells me the whole truth when I ask him. Are his nightmares getting any better?”

“Better than they were last year,” Bruce says before reluctantly adding, “But he still stays with me most nights.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Not for me; I don’t mind. I just... He’s about to turn ten, and I don’t--” He gives her a worried look, unsure how to approach what’s on his mind.

She does it for him. “Don’t know how Howard and I feel about our child sharing your bed four nights a week?”

Bruce nods mutely.

“For one, I doubt Howard has any feelings on the matter. Things like that, they don’t tend to concern him the way they should. It’s not that he doesn't care about Tony’s well-being,” she adds hurriedly. “He just doesn’t consider it a matter of concern, at least not with you.”

“And you?” Bruce asks tentatively.

“There is no one I trust with my son more than you.” Her expression takes on a steely edge. “And if you think that I’m narrow-minded enough that you being attracted to men alters how I trust you with my son, you insult my intelligence. We may not share blood, but you are as much my family as Howard and Tony.”

A series of coughs wrack Maria’s frame, and Bruce passes her a tissue off the end table. He can’t help noticing how thin her shoulders have gotten over the past year.

“And how are you doing, Maria?” he asks gently.

She clears her throat. “As well as can be expected.”

“Don’t do that,” he says, carefully taking her hand. “Don’t deflect. How are you, really?”

“I’m sorry. It’s an old habit,” she says. She traces the delicate pattern of her teacup with one well manicured finger. “When people ask you how you’re doing at a charity gala, they don't want to know that the prognosis is ten years at best.”

“Maria...” Bruce says, because he doesn’t know what to say to that. He’d suspected, but hearing it for certain hurts worse than he’d imagined. Maria never tried to take the place of his mom, but she’d still been more of a parental figure than his father.

“Howard’s been drinking worse than usual since we got the news,” Maria says. “I think he’s trying to catch up with me by pickling his liver all the way to an early grave. This morning he poured himself a cup of coffee and promptly poured two fingers of whisky into it.”

“Does Tony know yet?”

“Not yet.”

“You have to tell him,” he tells her softly. “It’s only going to make it worse if he has to find out for himself.”

She stares sadly into the dregs of her tea. “I know,” she says.

The rest of their tea passes in subdues small talk.

After he leaves Maria, Bruce doesn’t see Tony all afternoon. He’s not in the lab, his room, or Bruce’s room.  When nine o’clock rolls around without so much as a minor mechanical explosion, Bruce makes the command decision to go look for him.

It doesn’t take long. Bruce knows as soon as he opens the door to the library that something is wrong. Soft hiccuping sobbs echo through the room. All the lights are off, but the ambient light filtering through the tall window illuminates the figure huddled in the corner.

Slowly, Bruce crosses the room and sits on the floor next to him. He doesn’t say a word because there’s nothing he can say to make this better. Instead, he wraps both arms around Tony’s shaking shoulders and pulls him to rest against his chest. He makes soft shushing noises as he rocks Tony, desperate to comfort the only way he knows how.

Tony doesn’t cry, so the tears in his eyes shake Bruce to his core. Since that first night Tony spent in Bruce’s room, Bruce has only seen him cry twice, and both occasions involved Howard shouting.

“It’s not fair,” Tony sobs into Bruce’s collar. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair!”

“I know it isn’t,” Bruce sooths. “It isn’t fair at all.”

He doesn’t say that life isn’t fair, because that’s the most useless thing any child can be told. Tony has an alcoholic father and a dying mother-- he knows life isn’t fair. Sometimes, though, it makes you feel better to say it aloud.

“It isn’t fair,” Bruce agrees again.

He doesn’t know how much time passes before the sobs quiet. Tony’s eyes are still open, but the tears have stopped. He doesn’t try to disentangle Tony, scooping him up as he stands. He lets Tony cling on to his chest all the way to Bruce’s room and pretend to be asleep once they get there.

Bruce gently lays him on the bed and crosses to the bathroom to wet a washcloth. He runs the damp rag lightly over Tony’s face, wiping away the tear tracks. After a change of clothes, Bruce settles in bed and doesn’t even try to keep Tony at arms length. He pulls Tony securely against him, one arm around his small waist, and holds him until they’re both finally able to sleep.

When Bruce has tea with an abnormally reserved Maria the next day, the teacups are covered in sickeningly pink roses.

Chapter Text

10

Tony Stark is ten when Bruce teaches him to ice skate.

"What are we doing here?" Bruce asks, staring up at the exterior of the Chelsea Pier ice rink.

Tony pushes through the double glass doors. "You said you'd teach me to ice skate."

"So your solution was to rent out the entire Sky Rink?" Bruce asks before shaking his head. "What am I saying? Of course it was."

"The Bryant Park rink is always too full. No way am I going to fall on my butt in front of that many people."

"Fair enough," he concedes. Truth be told, he'd rather not try to teach Tony to skate with tourists pressing in on all sides.

"You do know how to ice skate, right? You were serious about that."

"Yes," Bruce says, chuckling. "I was serious. I know how to skate. Or, well, I did ten years ago."

Tony doesn't look reassured. "And you don't mind teaching me?"

"When have I minded teaching you anything?"

Tony shrugs. "I don't know. There's probably better things you could be doing with your time."

"There's nothing better I could be doing with my time," Bruce says. He likes that Tony doesn’t consider himself too old for Bruce to teach him things.

Tony's cheeks color, but he holds the door to the rink open without further protest. "Now what?" he asks, stalling just inside.

"Now we rent skates," Bruce says, leading him forward with a hand on the small of his back.

"Rent?" Tony wrinkles his nose. "As in shoes other people have worn?"

Bruce stifled a sigh. "You can't skate in new skates, especially not when you're learning. They'll hurt your feet."

"If you say so," he says, expression skeptical.

As they approach, the girl behind the counter gives them a pleasant if slightly confused smile. "Mr. Stark. Mr Banner," she says, and it sounds more like a question than an address.

"Yes," Bruce says.

He’s glad they have a legitimate reason to rent skates because Tony has had to buy three new pairs of school shoes in the last year alone. Keeping Tony in fitting clothes has become a full-time team effort for Lorena, Bruce, and Maria thanks to his most recent growth spurt. He’s grown at least two inches in the last year, and he’s at height with Bruce’s shoulders now.

He trades the attendant their shoes for two pairs of figure skates. He hands a pair to Tony and leads them to a series of benches. The white leather of the skates is discolored and cracking in spots, and Tony's expression only gets more dubious.

"Trust me," Bruce says, shrugging off his backpack. He fishes through it, and playfully tosses a balled up pair of socks at Tony's head. "Put these on. They're thicker than the ones you have on."

Bruce quickly cinches up the laces of his own skates before kneeling to help Tony with his. "Too tight?" he checks.

Tony shakes his head, and Bruce fishes in the backpack once more, producing knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards. Tony groans dramatically. "Bruce," he whines, drawing out the name. "That'll looks stupid."

"There's no one here but us and the attendant, and you'll thank me when you're not black and blue in the morning. Be happy I'm not making you wear a helmet."

"But you don't have to wear them."

"I know how to skate," Bruce reasons. He stands, balancing easily on the blades, and offers Tony his forearm for stability.

Tony takes it and lets Bruce pull him to his feet. He takes a shaky step, and then another before looking up at him. "You made walking in these look easy," he says with a note of accusation.

They make their wobbly way to the edge of the rink, Tony never loosening his death-grip on Bruce's arm. At the edge of the rink, Bruce steps onto the ice while Tony clutches the side. Bruce slips over the ice for a moment before muscle memory kicks in.

He warms up by making several small loops, just to make sure he really hasn't forgotten. He slides to a graceful stop just in front of Tony, who’s grinning enthusiastically.

Bruce offers a hand. "Ready to try for yourself?"

Nodding, Tony takes a hasty step onto the ice and almost immediately loses his balance. "Slowly," Bruce says as he rights him. "We're not in a rush. Watch how I move my feet."

He keeps hold of Tony's hand and carefully leads him a few feet. After several near-slips, Tony begins to move more confidently, making strides without faltering. He looks to Bruce for affirmation, and Bruce squeezes his hand encouragingly.

"See, you're getting it," he says, speeding up a little bit. Tony keeps up with some effort. His hand is warm in Bruce's, and his grin is giddy. "Want to try on your own?"

After a moment of hesitation, Tony nods. "Okay."

Bruce lets go but follows close behind him, hands hovering just off his shoulders. They make a full circuit of the rink like that. Tony slips once or twice but catches himself on the rink wall before he can fall far. Bruce is impressed at how quickly he's picking up skating.

It's going great until Tony looks away from his feet to say, "This isn't that ba-- Whoah!"

He drifted out of reach of the edge as he spoke, so when he loses his balance, there's nowhere to go but down. His arms windmill, but it's no use. Both feet slip out from under him.

Bruce catches him by the jacket, holding him up off the ice, and almost slips himself in the process.

"Sorry," Tony says as Bruce pulls him to his feet.

"Hey, no apologizing," Bruce says.

"Maybe I'm not destined to be good at anything athletic," Tony says wistfully. "Maybe my skill allotment for this lifetime has been used up already."

"You've been learning for less than a day."

"No, like, I'm actually a genius," Tony insists. "Would it really be that bad if we deemed sports a lost cause?"

"I fell on my ass twelve times the first day I started learning. Compared to that, you're doing amazing. I don't expect you to pick it up perfectly in an hour."

"Dad expected me to pick up riding a bike that fast," Tony mumbles.

Irritation spikes through Bruce. Howard may be many things, but a patient man isn't one of them. So much for Bruce’s hope that he could make an exception for his only son.

The night after Howard tried to teach Tony to ride a bike, Bruce had found Tony in the lab banging on a much abused piece of metal. He had scrapes running the length of his left arm and sported an impressive goose egg on his forehead. After much prodding-- including a bit of literal prodding to check for a concussion-- Bruce managed to pull the story of the afternoon out of him.

Evidently, Howard had tried to teach riding a bike the same way he explains engine mechanics: once, concisely, and without a demonstration.

"Your father doesn't understand that you're not going to learn everything as quickly as programming and engineering," Bruce says instead of voicing any of his frustrations.

After that, Tony is reluctant to let go of Bruce again, but he steadily improves until he can keep a decent pace with Bruce's longer strides. He eventually gains enough confidence to skate tight circles next to Bruce, keeping one hand out ready to grab Bruce at a moment’s notice.

By the time another hour passes, both of them are well and truly exhausted. When they step off the ice Tony can barely lift his feet enough to walk properly. Bruce takes his skates and goes to get their shoes.

"Thank you," Tony says, taking the proffered tennis shoes.

"Welcome," Bruce says automatically. It's only two, but he's already planning to fall asleep as soon as they get home. Or maybe food first, then sleep.

Tony blinks sleepily up at him. "I meant for teaching me. Thank you."

"Any time," Bruce says with a smile.

It’s not quite rush hour yet, so Bruce has an easy time hailing a cab. As they navigate traffic, Tony shifts uncomfortably in the seat next to him. His face is tense with nerves despite him being on the verge of dozing off.

Bruce doesn't press. Years of practice have trained in in the art of dealing with Tony’s I-have-something-I-need-to-tell-you-but-I-really-don’t-want-to face. Usually, it accompanies broken lab equipment and white lies.

At ten Tony is more adept at hiding problematic emotions than any child should be. Around anyone else, Tony can hide his nervous tics with ease and lie with the poker face of a master, but he never makes much of an effort around Bruce. He never lies to Bruce, at least not flat-out, and even lies through omission come spilling out in a guilty rush fifteen minutes after being told. It’s really not something Bruce should find so endearing.

“Bruce?” he mumbles, unable to hold back whatever’s bothering him. “I didn’t just rent out the entire rink because I thought I’d embarrass myself.”

“What?” Bruce asks softly.

Tony looks up from where his head is resting on Bruce’s shoulder, brown eyes nervous. “I know I’m crap at sports, and I thought trying to teach me might be--” He bites his lip. “--too frustrating for you.”

The words go a long way to bringing Bruce screeching back to wakefulness. He’s not sure whether to be concerned with the fact that Tony willingly put himself in a situation he thought might bring out The Other Guy or indignant that Tony thinks teaching him something would annoy Bruce.

Bruce goes with the latter. It seems the safest option in the back of a Manhattan taxi.

“Teaching you things you want to learn will never be too frustrating,” he says. “Never be afraid to ask me things.”

“I wasn’t afraid,” Tony says with a yawn. “I just thought maybe you underestimated how annoying I can be to teach. Seriously, just ask any of my teachers.”

And okay, yes. Bruce can see how Tony’s school teachers might feel severely undercompensated for their job, but Bruce’s sympathy is limited by the knowledge that the Starks pay more for Tony to go to grade school than Bruce paid to go to Caltech.

Bruce wraps a reassuring arm around Tony’s shoulders. “It’s not annoying, at least not to me. I would tell you if you were doing something that would push me too far,” Bruce says, because that honesty is the foundation their friendship is built on. Toney doesn’t lie to him, and he returns the favor. For good or ill, Bruce is honest with Tony, and in a world where very few people are, that means everything.

The words must ease Tony’s mind, because he’s sound asleep by the time they get to the mansion, head lolling onto Bruce’s shoulder and one hand clutching Bruce’s jacket. The car horns and chaos of the city are muffled inside the car, almost hypnotizing in their predictable irregularity.

Bruce pays the fare with a murmured thanks and scoops Tony out of the backseat with some effort. Soon Tony will be too big, but for now Bruce can carry him.

~*~

10

Tony is ten when Bruce and Obadiah Stane draw their battle lines.

Obadiah Stane has never been Bruce’s favorite among the myriad of SI employees flitting in and out of Tony’s life. He plays well enough with Tony, but he’s always given Bruce a distinctly slimy feeling. The distaste has always been mutual. Stane has never approved of Bruce living with the Starks, and Bruce vividly recalls the words “mooching” and “charity case” being bandied around more than once.

So running into Stane in the otherwise deserted kitchen was never going to be the highlight of Bruce’s week.

For a moment he considers turning on his heel and retreating back to the lab. There are enough dubiously colored potato chips in his desk drawer to last him the afternoon, after all, but Bruce holds his ground. He refuses to be driven off by this unpleasant man.

He takes a deep breath and pointedly ignores Stane as he fishes the sandwich meat out of the refrigeration. He reaches to get a plate from the cabinet only to find Stane blocking his way.

“Excuse me,” Bruce grits out, determined to be civil. Whether or not he likes it, Stane is a part of Tony’s life.

“Am I in your way?” Stane asks with feigned surprise.

Bruce doesn’t dignify that with a response, instead shouldering past him. Having to touch Stane makes him want to cringe.

“I don’t get you,” Stane says. He leans against the kitchen counter to watch Bruce spread mayonnaise on a piece of bread.

Bruce closes his eyes and takes a deep breath through his nose. And then another. “I’m sorry?”

“I don’t understand what you're looking to accomplish with Tony. I mean, I can see your interest, but I can’t see what you think you’ll accomplish by grooming him into some sort of tree-hugging pacifist like yourself. You might as well face it: Tony will always want to please his father more than he wants to please you. He’s always going to run off and play with guns.”

Bruce doesn’t answer. He’s not going to be a part of whatever mind games Stane has decided to play, especially not when Tony’s stuck in the middle of them. Instead, he lays the butter knife down on the plate. The less temptation, the better.

Stane steps into Bruce’s space, towering a good six inches over him, and Bruce refuses to look up to maintain eye contact. Physical intimidation is the wrong game to play with a man who turns into an eight foot rage monster.

“Or maybe that’s not the only thing you’re grooming him for,” Stane says in a low voice like slick oil.

“What exactly are you insinuating, Mr. Stane?” Bruce asks, staring fixedly at a point on Stane’s shoulder.

“Oh, come on. He’s ten and still sleeping in your bed. You can’t call that nightmares or whatever you’ve got Howard fooled into believing. Lucky for you, he’s shit at the whole parenting shtick.”

Rage and adrenaline flood Bruce’s system.

Yeah, he’s considered how bad his and Tony’s situation might look from the outside, but he’d dismissed it after his talk with Maria. Where Tony spends his nights is a closed matter for the Stark household, and Bruce knows that includes him, even if maybe it shouldn’t. He loves Tony. Maybe not as a son or a brother, but as a dear friend and a member of his patchwork family.

There’s no explaining that to a man like Obadiah Stane. As far as Bruce can tell, Stane’s only goal is to antagonize him, like a bully poking a dog with a stick to see if it will bite. Bruce refuses to rise to it. If Stane wants the monster, he’ll have to come back another day.

“Your concern is appreciated, Mr. Stane,” Bruce says, face and anger tightly controlled, “But I would never hurt Tony.”

“Maybe you haven’t hurt him, but you like it. You get off on him trusting you and looking up to you and needing you,” Stane sneers. “Just don’t fuck him up too much. He’s the golden goose of this company, after all.”

And that, the idea that the goddamn company is what Stane is worried about instead of Tony, is what finally pushes Bruce over the edge. He can feel his control slipping, and he strides towards the door.

“That kid’ll never be fit to run SI, and Howard’s bad parenting is his own damn fault. If he trusts his son with a freak like you, that’s his problem. He’s the one who let the monster out of its cage,” Stane says, halting Bruce mid-escape. Stane leers at him. “Just how many kinds of monster are you, huh Banner?”

Clocking Stane is the last thing Bruce remembers before the world tilts on its axis and the green mist descends. Everything past that is a blur of pure destruction.

Afterwards, he's fairly certain he remembers throwing Stane out a window.

Several hours later, when a chagrinned Bruce tells Howard that he’ll pay for the damage to the kitchen, Howard simply laughs, waves his hand, and asks, “What on Earth did Obie say to have that effect on you?”

Bruce hesitates long enough for the humor to drain from the Howard’s face. “Tell me,” he says, and Bruce does, haltingly.

Anger blooms over Howard’s features, his face rapidly reddening in a way that has nothing to do with alcohol consumption. He sits, silent and stone-faced, and Bruce never realized he could look so dangerous without a weapon in sight.

“Howard, I would never-- You can’t believe I’d ever-- Yes, it’s true that Tony sleeps in my room a lot of nights, but you already knew that! I’d never hurt do anything to hurt him. Goddamnit, Howard, there’s a lot of things wrong with me, but that isn’t one of them. Jesus, the thought of it alone--” Bruce chokes on the end of that sentence.

“I’m aware, Dr. Banner,” Howard said, rising from his chair, glass of bourbon forgotten. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find Mr. Stane to have words. Strong, job-threatening words.”

Howard stalks towards the study door and pauses, one hand on the handle. “And Bruce? Understand that there is no one I trust more than you with my son’s well-being.”

~*~

10

Tony is still ten when Bruce lays awake in bed, forearm tossed over his eyes and Obadiah’s words echoing through his head.

Bruce knows he shouldn’t let the accusations get to him, especially coming from someone whose opinion he doesn’t give a damn about, but it does. Stane's words have eaten at him for three days. Even just thinking of the word ‘grooming’ sends a wave of nausea through Bruce. Tony is ten, for fuck’s sake.

This is the first night since his and Stane’s knock-down, drag-out-a-window that Tony has slept in his bed. Bruce is intentionally not touching him, scooted as far to his edge of the bed as he can reasonably get without one leg falling out.

What troubles him more than anything is the Stane wasn’t entirely wrong. He does like how close Tony is willing to get to him-- definitely not in the way Stane implied, but he enjoys how Tony never shies away from him. No one else touches him, especially if they know what he is. Even when there’s no way they can know, strangers instinctively go out of their way to avoid him, like the has the mark of a rabid dog.

Bruce tries to rationalize that Howard knows everything, but in reality he knows that he is one of Howard’s poor parenting decisions. All it took was a few goading remarks, and years of self-control went out the window in favor of tossing Stane out of one. But whatever Stane might say, at least he’s the visible kind of monster. His jagged edges can’t be hidden, and everyone can see exactly how dangerous he is.

Tony rolls over to look at him. “Can’t sleep?” he asks.

“No,” Bruce says, low in the darkness. “Can’t stop thinking.”

“About what Obie said?”

Bruce jerks like he’s been shocked. “How do you know about that?”

“The staff talk, and they don’t really notice who's listening,” Tony says. “Most of them are on your side, for what it’s worth, and Mom doesn’t want Obie around the house anymore.”

“Oh,” Bruce says dully.

“Is that what’s bothering you?”

Bruce blinks at him in the dark. “Doesn’t it bother you?” he asks, because it should. Tony is old enough to understand exactly what Stane was implying.

Tony scoots closer across mattress. “I’m mad that he said something like that, but I know it’s a lie. You wouldn’t,” Tony assures him. “I love you, and I know you wouldn’t.”

Bruce wants to tell him that that’s not how the world works-- loving someone doesn’t make them a good person-- but he can’t as Tony wraps one small arm around his waist.

Fuck it, Bruce thinks and rests his cheek on Tony’s disordered hair. If Obadiah wants to turn something innocent into something dirty, that’s his prerogative. This thing between them isn’t a sexual thing. It’s just… nice.

The warmth of Tony at his side is comforting, and he basks in the physical affection-- they both do. Maybe it isn’t good, maybe it isn’t quite normal, but it’s what they both need.

Chapter Text

11

Tony Stark is eleven when Bruce has lunch with Jarvis.

Bruce and Jarvis are sitting in a little cafe across from Tony’s school, waiting for class to end. The place is small enough that the lights actually dimmed when the barista ground the coffee beans, and it’s full of the type of clientele who simultaneously order an espresso and a gin when they come in for their daily dose of writer’s block.

After school Bruce is taking Tony ice skating again. Since their first trip, Tony has convinced Bruce to take him at least once every couple weeks. His skill has improved to the point that he no longer feels the need to stay within arms length of Bruce at all times, and he’s apparently decided that maybe sports aren’t as crap as he’d originally thought.

Jarvis offered to drive the pair of them to the ice rink once school let out, which was strange in and of itself. Bruce almost never asks Jarvis to drive him, partially because it’s a luxury he’s still not used to and partly because Jarvis deserves a break at his age. Bruce doesn't know much about Jarvis other than that he’s been cleaning up Howard’s messes for fifty-plus years. The man must be in his late seventies if not older, and Bruce doesn’t understand why he hasn’t just retired yet. Yes, he’s invaluable to Howard, but surely Howard would understand.

Either way, Jarvis’s considering gaze is enough to make Bruce suspect his motives for volunteering to drive them aren’t wholly altruistic. Whatever the reasons are, Bruce wishes he’d spit it out instead of just staring at him.

Bruce takes a sip of his tea to have something to do with his hands other than fidget.

“Bruce?” asks a familiar voice.

Bruce looks up to see one of his coworkers from SI holding a to-go cup, poised to walk out the door.

“Allen,” Bruce says, trying not to look as relieved as he feels to have a reprieve from Jarvis’s scrutiny. “It’s good to see you.”

“You too, man,” Allen says, making a beeline for their table. “What’re you doing here? I didn’t think you got out much.”

Allen is a SI lab tech with unironically thick glasses and a thicker Jersey accent. He’s also Bruce’s preferred lunch companion on days he goes into the main New York labs. Allen knows enough about Bruce to realize that there’s a lot more to his story, but he’s reliably too polite to ask more than Bruce offers.

“I leave the lab every third Tuesday,” Bruce jokes.

“But today’s a Friday.”

Bruce nods at the school visible through the window. “Today I’m picking Tony up from school.”

“Tony,” Allen echoes slowly. He glances at Jarvis. Despite his age, Jarvis is a known figure among SI employees, periodically sent in to collect paperwork, knock heads together, and retrieve his wayward boss. “As in Tony Stark. Your Tony is Tony Stark.”

Bruce winces. Up until now he’d managed to avoid Allen connecting the Tony in his stories with Tony Stark, their CEO’s son. Bruce still only goes into SI a couple days a week, but it’s often enough that he occasionally trades stories with the other scientists over mediocre Mexican food. Most of them are mid-thirties first-time parents who like swapping their favorite kiddie entertainment apps over the lunch table, so sometimes Bruce’s stories about Tony growing up are relevant.

Allen seems to take the information in stride. “What even is your job? But no really!” he says, shaking his head exasperatedly. “You’re the most brilliant man I’ve ever worked with, everything in your personnel file save your cell number is sealed to executive clearance, and now you’re telling me the kid I assumed was your nephew is actually Stark’s kid.”

Bruce isn’t sure what to say. The omission wasn’t an accident, and Allen is smart enough to know that.

Thankfully, Allen doesn't appear to expect an answer because he says, “You know what, you just-- keep up the crazy. I’ve got to get back to work before Samson notices I’m late with the éclairs and starts sulking again. Last thing we need is a repeat of the October Incident when we have a deadline to meet.”

Bruce laughs because yes, Samson is a gifted chemical engineer, but a rather eccentric one who runs off pastries and an obscure brand of Czech cola. “We can’t have that. I’ll see you next week.”

Bruce lifts a hand in farewell as Allen leaves. Jarvis watched the entire exchange wordlessly, a faint expression of amusement on his face.

“What?” Bruce says, finally losing his patience. In another life Jarvis would have made a fantastic interrogator.

“I wasn’t aware you had friends outside the Stark mansion,” he says simply.

“Yes,” Bruce bites out, “I have friends.” Because for all that Allen and Samson are work friends, they are, by some definition, friends.

“I was aware you had friends. I just wasn’t aware you had friends other than Tony, Lorena, and Maria.”

Bruce knows Jarvis is right, but that doesn’t mean he has to dignify that with a response. Instead, he pours himself the more tea. Bruce can wait until he’s ready to explain what he wants.

Jarvis’s eyes track the movement of the teapot. “If I may speak out of turn,” he says, accent even more pronounced than usual. “You would do well to be careful with Tony.”

“Excuse me?” Bruce says, because if this is going where he thinks it’s going, he needs to leave while he still had the option.

“No,” Jarvis says, “I’m not referring to the indecencies Obadiah Stane so crudely implied, nor do I mean the way you fear yourself.”

Bruce swallows hard. “Then what are you saying?”

“I’m merely saying that you are a very important person to Tony, and whatever happens, you cannot get scared by that and run.”

“I’m not going to just up and leave him,” Bruce says.

Jarvis arches an eyebrow. “Really? Because you seem like the type of man to either run from his fears or squash them. You know that you’re important to Tony, but I doubt you’ve ever stopped to consider just how so,” he says, speaking slowly like he’s choosing his words carefully. “I think that the day you finally do, it will scare you more than a physical threat ever could.”

“It scares me now,” Bruce says honestly. “It terrifies me, but that doesn’t mean I’m about to leave.”

“Good.” Jarvis leans back in his chair, apparently satisfied with that answer.

Bruce refills Jarvis’s empty cup with the last of tea from the teapot, and Jarvis’s face softens, apparently taking the gesture as the peace offering it is. Bruce understands the instinct to protect Tony. He’s not about to hold a grudge because Jarvis voiced a very legitimate concern about Bruce’s place in Tony’s life.

“Jarvis, can I ask you a personal question?” Bruce asks as he sets the teapot back down.

“Dr. Banner, after a certain number of years working with Howard Stark, one no longer remembers that there still exist questions which aren’t.”

“Fair point,” Bruce allows. “Why do you still work for the Starks? I mean, excuse me for saying it, but you’re a little past retirement age.”

“Over a decade past,” Jarvis agrees. He looks down at his folded hands. “My wife died some years back, and we never had kids of our own. Howard-- and Maria, once he finally settled down, have always been good to me. More than good-- they have been my family.”

Jarvis clears his throat and takes a sip of his tea before continuing. “After Anna’s death, I couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving the only family I had left. The Starks offered to let me stay with them even in retirement, but then I would merely be an old man living with his former employers. Frankly, I would much rather be the ancient butler still dutifully serving his family.”

“Oh,” Bruce says dumbly.

Jarvis smiles. “Not the answer you were expecting?”

“No,” Bruce agrees. “It really wasn’t. But I think I understand what you mean about the Starks being your family.”

“They do seem to have an affinity for picking up strays,” Jarvis says, smile widening into a grin.

The bell above the cafe door tinkles.

“Bruce! Jarvis!” Tony calls, forgetting all semblance of an inside voice. He picks his way over to their table, backpack bouncing dangerously, and one Hemingway-in-training pulls his gin closer with an annoyed huff.

Jarvis gives Bruce a bemused look that he interprets as ‘Starks-- what can you do?’

~*~

11

Tony is eleven when he sets off the hazard alarms in the lab.

Tony insists the toxic fumes aren’t his fault, but Bruce knows he wasn't working on anything capable of inciting this level of chaos. Either way, the incident culminates in the pair of them sitting aimlessly in the kitchen while the lab filtration systems do their job. Damage assessments will come later when the smoke has literally cleared and the orange mildly-hazardous-but-might-not-kill-you lights are no longer flashing.

Lorena is bustling around the kitchen making lasagna from scratch. Bruce offered to help, feeling useless just watching her work, but she politely declined. However, by the third time he offers, her rejection is decidedly less polite. When she turns to grab something from the refrigerator only to find Tony standing on tip-toe to see what she's doing, it's the last straw.

"Out!" she cries. "Out while I am trying to cook. If you two boys cannot sit still for five minutes, then get out of my kitchen. There is a library; there is a television! Go find them!"

As if to make her point, she bats Bruce out of his chair and herds both of them out of the kitchen with spread arms. Once in the hall, Bruce and Tony exchange identical chagrined looks before Tony shrugs.

"The lab can't be that toxic. It was only the orange alarm, not the red one," Tony says, echoing Bruce's thoughts. His brow furrows. "But then, maybe the red one is only for nuclear strikes."

Lorena's frustrated growl proceeds her out of the kitchen. "Three hours," she says, shepherding them further down the hall towards the living room.  "That's all it takes before the lab is safe again."

She urges them into the room and blocks the doorway, preventing them from making a break for it. "Do not move from here unless it's to go outside. Lord knows the pair of you could use fresh air, but since I doubt you'll take that advice, sit still and watch TV." She turns a menacing look on them as she turns to leave. "I'll know if you try to get back into the lab early."

Tony looks at Bruce. "Tuesday midday programming it is," he says, "because I am not going out in that heat."

Bruce has to agree. This morning the weather forecast predicted record-breaking temperatures for June, and all the concrete and glass makes the city feel like one giant Easy Bake Oven during the summer.

"What's even on TV at this time of day?" Bruce asks. He wonders if he can retrieve a book from the library without Lorena duct taping him to the couch. Probably not.

It's not that Bruce never watches TV, but Mythbusters and Code Lyoko are the only two shows he really bothers paying attention to. Even then, he mostly follows those because he knows Tony likes to recreate the more ill-advised experiments and obsessively talk about Code Lyoko to anyone who will listen.

Most nights he reads while Tony watches the latest episode of-- whatever else he normally watches, and when Bruce reads, the world could be burning down around him and he'd never notice. Even though he's present while the TV is on, that doesn't mean he's actually watching it.

"Let's find out," Tony says, retrieving the remote. He turns on the power, and immediately the overdone chimes, dings, and yelling of The Price Is Right fill the room. Tony squints at the too-excited crowed like they're a new species to be studied.

Bruce winces as Bob Barker’s voice fills the room. Gingerly, he pries the remote out of Tony's hand and presses the channel up button. He doesn't care what he's putting it on as long as it's not this. Daytime game shows are pretty near the top of his 'Things To Be Avoided' list, right after military brass and being shot at.

The screen changes to a man in a tux standing in front of a line of equally well-dressed women, a single rose in hand. He's saying-- something. Bruce thinks it might be about a beautiful smile and a charming laugh.

"Is this the Bachelor," Tony asks slowly, "...in Spanish?"

Bruce nods as he watches, oddly fascinated. His Spanish is rusty, but it's good enough to understand most of the proceedings.

Tony takes the remote back. "Vetoed," he says firmly, changing the channel.

This time the screen stops on a news broadcast, and Bruce is momentarily satisfied before he notices the Fox News logo in the bottom corner. Worse, behind the two bickering men on screen is a stock chart headed SRI-- the New York Stock Exchange sign for Stark Industries.

"Nope," Tony says right as Bruce orders, "Change the channel."

Bruce is ready to give up daytime tv as a bad job and propose a game of I Spy or something equally terminally boring when the channel changes one last time. He slumps back into the couch in relief.

Ellen DeGeneres's smiling face fills the screen, and the camera pans to a dancing crowd. "Here," Tony says, face brightening.

Bruce hadn't realized Ellen DeGeneres had a talk show. He remembers the Ellen of 90s sitcoms and the media buzz it made when she came out. Even living out of a one-room apartment in South America, he'd heard the news from another ex-pat. For a moment, there on a couch in the Starks’ living room, it hits him how far the world has moved since he was Tony’s age-- or, for that matter, since he went on the run in ‘93.

One rerun bleeds into the next, and Bruce smiles at how happy the talk show makes Tony. He leans into Bruce's side even though there’s enough couch for both of them, occasionally interjecting to fill in pop-culture references Bruce has missed over the past decade. Maybe-- and that's a very big maybe-- daytime TV isn't as terrible as Bruce thought, at least with Tony to keep him company.

Bruce hardly notices the three hours passing, and it's a surprise when Lorena sticks her head into the room. "Your time is up," she says like they’re being let out of time out, words half-amused, half-exasperated. "You should be able to return to the lab without asphyxiating. Dinner will be ready in forty-five minutes." She brandishes a tea towel at them. "Be on time."

Tony grins, bouncing off the couch. "Thanks, Lorena!" he says. He grabs Bruce's hand, tugging the older man up.

"Thank you," Bruce says, letting himself be dragged along.

Lorena smiles in response, but there's something he can't interpret underneath it. Her eyes linger on them as Tony leads Bruce down the hall by the hand, and her expression takes on a considering edge that Bruce has never seen on her before.

~*~

11

Tony is eleven the first time Bruce Hulks out in his direct vicinity.

It's a kidnapping attempt gone wrong. Bodyguards rarely accompany Tony when he's with Bruce because the blank-faced, gun-toting men make Bruce edgy and it's assumed the giant green rage monster will go after the threat. Bruce has never liked that gamble, but regardless of what he likes or doesn't like, he's trusted to get Tony safely back and forth from chess tournaments and ice skating and even the occasional game of pickup soccer.

So when a loud crack breaks the still fall air as they're walking across the mansion's front lawn, Bruce's first instinct is to shove Tony behind him and yell, "Run!"

The sound isn't gunfire. Bruce has been in too many warzones and handled too many guns to make that mistake. But he's also been shot by too many tranq darts not to recognize the sting in his left shoulder.

He prays that the attackers didn't know they had to dose for 1060 pounds, not 160. He prays that Tony makes it to the safety of the house. He prays, despite not believing, and he for the first time in his life, he prays for the change will take over soon.

Higher power intervention or no, the tranq dosage must not be enough because the change comes. Bruce's world tilts and blurs, and last thing he sees clearly is the pale panic writ on Tony's face.

~*~

Bruce wakes in a pile of rubble that might once have been the fountain in front of Stark Mansion. His limbs feel like they're made of lead, and hunger gnaws at his stomach like it always does after a rampage. Apparently gaining and losing four-hundred pounds in an hour takes a lot out of him.

The previously pristine courtyard is now strewn with the wreckage of uprooted shrubbery and what might have once been a Toyota Corolla. Mounds of broken concrete litter the area, and Hulk-sized footprints mar the lawn. His head is pounding, and he raises a hand to his forehead automatically.

"At least your pants stayed on," Tony says from somewhere overhead.

Bruce looks up to see Tony perched impossibly high in a tree, legs swinging happily like he hasn't just encountered a massive green monster.

"Don't worry, Jarvis went to find a ladder," Tony says, but that does fuck all to explain why they need a ladder in the first place. "I told him I could just jump, but he said to wait because I'm not actually made of rubber. I could probably come up with some kind of impact-absorbing shoes, though. It might take a couple weeks, but--"

"Why are you in a tree?" Bruce asks slowly. It feels like a dumb question, all things considered, but Bruce's brain-to-mouth filter tends to be the last thing to come back online after the change.

"Because better up in a tree than down there with them." Tony points in the direction of the worst of the destruction.

Bruce’s stomach drops as he realizes that two of the mounds aren’t rubble at all but a pair of bloody and beaten men. He can’t tear his eyes away from them. One’s arm is twisted at an unnatural angle and the other is smeared with a nauseating amount of blood.

All he can think is that he finally did it. He finally killed someone, and Tony was here to witness it. Bruce can’t even look at him. Perhaps it was foolish, but he’d always held on to the hope that The Other Guy preferred property destruction to actual murder. Apparently he was mistaken.

Bruce can feel the blood draining from his face as his blood pressure drops and hear the roaring in his ears, and he clenches his abdomen to keep himself from passing out. If there was anything in his stomach, he’d be sick.

“They’re still alive,” Tony says from his perch. He’s watching Bruce closely, like he can tell he’s on the verge of losing consciousness. “Jarvis checked. They’ll recover.”

Relief washes over Bruce like a physical force. “Oh,” he says, and it’s barely more than a breath. He resists the urge to flop back into his rubble pile in relief.

“Do you remember what happened?” Tony asks.

“Some of it. Did someone call an ambulance?”

“Jarvis called SHIELD. He thought it would be better than having to explain to the police and getting it plastered all over the news.”

“I don’t know that attempted kidnappings are SHIELD’s preview,” Bruce says. He runs his fingers back through his curls only to find them matted with bits of concrete and blood he doubts is his. He wipes his hand on the grass.

“So you do remember,” Tony says.

“Only up until I yelled for you to run. I have no idea how that--” Bruce gestures halfheartedly at the bloodied men, “--happened.”

"They tried to attack me, so you attacked them," Tony says simply.

But yeah, that did absolutely nothing to explain how Tony ended up in a twenty foot tall oak tree. "How--?" he asks vaguely, nodding at Tony's perch.

"The guys tried to shoot me with the same tranquilizer darts they got you with. Hulk-- That's what he likes to be called," Tony says, then cocks his head. "Or, well, that's what he kept calling himself every time he bellowed."

Bruce knew this already, but he’d never wanted to dignify his inner tantrum by calling it by its preferred name.

"Anyhow," Tony continues, "Hulk put me up here to keep me away from the fighting. Which, mind you, there wasn't much of. Two dudes with underdosed tranq darts didn't stand a chance."

"Did he hurt you?" Bruce asks, horrified at the idea of that monster actually picking Tony up.

"Nope," Tony says, swinging his legs again. "He wouldn't have done that."

"I think you're putting too much trust in a mindless monster."

"And I think you're not putting enough trust in yourself. He isn't mindless, and he isn't a monster. He wouldn't hurt me because you wouldn't hurt me."

Bruce stares at him, agape. "You have the self-preservation instincts of a squirrel," he says at last. "You're supposed to be afraid of a thing like that, not befriend it."

"Am I seriously supposed to be afraid of him when he calls me 'Little Engine Man'?"

Bruce blinks. He runs over that sentence in his head another time for good measure before asking, "I'm sorry, what?"

Tony puts on a fake snarl."'No hurt Little Engine Man!'" he mimics, beating a fist on his tree branch. "'Little Engine Man good. No take Little Engine Man!'"

Bruce resists the urge to bury his face in his hands. Because of course The Other Guy would have a nickname for Tony. Of course. All this afternoon needed was that particular side-order of embarrassing ridiculousness.

A door slams, and Jarvis appears from the garden shed holding a ladder and looking far more composed than anyone in his situation should. But then, after fifty-plus years of dealing with Howard, maybe a little property damage is simply a minor inconvenience. He leans the ladder against the tree, holding it steady as Tony clambers down.

Bruce stands gingerly, keeping a hand on the stretched fabric of his pants. He looks down at himself and is suddenly unspeakably grateful for the dirt and debris covering his body. The sheer amount makes him wonder if The Other Guy decided to roll around in the yard like an overgrown green mutt, but at least the grime is successfully hiding the worst of his scarring from view. All Tony needs to top off his completely stress-free day are disturbing revelations about Bruce's childhood.

Once Tony is down, Jarvis turns to Bruce. Wordlessly, he holds out the fluffy teal bathrobe he has folded over one arm, and Bruce is too grateful to do more than smile bemusedly.

Jarvis quirks a knowing eyebrow. "I thought it best if expediency trumped pride and fashion," he says in an undertone.

"I think I lost all pride the moment I woke up mostly naked in a destroyed fountain," Bruce says, taking the proffered robe.

He ties the sash with quick, economical motions, and in the distance a black MDX turns into the driveway, unmistakably a SHIELD response vehicle. Bruce has always wondered how many interns Acura had to sacrifice to secure that contract.

As they walk up the mostly destroyed garden path to meet the suite-clad SHIELD agents, Tony heaves a heavy sigh. "I missed my match," he says forlornly. And yes. Yes, indeed. That's definitely a pout twisting his lips.

The laugh that escapes Bruce edges on hysterical. "I think 'failed kidnapping attempt' is a legitimate excuse to reschedule a match," he says, slinging the arm not preoccupied with holding up his pants around Tony's shoulders.

Chapter Text

11

Tony is eleven when Christmas actually goes as planned for a change.

Tony is sitting on the floor in front of the tree, wrapping paper strewn around him like the aftermath of a battle. Bruce is curled in the armchair closest to him, one shin pressed to his back, while Howard and Maria have taken up residence on the settee. Jarvis is humming along with the Frank Sinatra Christmas album playing through the mansion’s speakers, and the absurd level of picturesque makes Bruce smile.

Christmas is always a trying time of year for Bruce's nerves, what with the Christmas rush and trying to decide what to get the family that has everything, but this year he thinks it was worth it. It’s the first Christmas in years that Howard hasn’t retreated to his office as soon as the presents were opened, and Bruce suspects that it has something to do with the way Maria is currently asleep on his shoulder.

Bruce, with all his originality, got Howard a tie pin. He has the sneaking suspicion that he would have preferred to find Bruce's reports under the tree, but Bruce wasn’t going to be the one to drag work into Christmas. The research reports can wait until tomorrow. Who knows, maybe he'll even wrap them.

His attempts at Christmas presents went slightly better with Tony, if Tony’s delighted babbling was anything to go by. A signed vinyl copy of the Chess soundtrack is hardly seemed like an appropriate gift for an eleven year old, but then Bruce can’t imagine that most eleven year olds would pick a musical about a Cold War chess match as their favorite piece of theater.

"It's even signed by the Tim Rice and West End cast," Tony babbled excitedly.

Bruce had given an internal sigh of relief. A vinyl record had been a gamble, what with Tony's love of all things tech. He already had a digital copy of the album, which he insisted on playing in the lab at least once a week. Bruce has yet to figure out if this is tail-end of his 80s music phase or the start of a Broadway phase.

Bruce sincerely hopes it's not the start of a Broadway phase. He's not sure his nerves can take 24/7 show tunes on loop in the lab. The terrible techno phase was bad enough. Hopefully Chess isn't part of a music phase at all, but instead part of Tony's ongoing WWII through Cold War history phase. The late seventies skew a bit later than Tony's typical area of fascination, but it's still plausible.

The whole fixation started with Captain America, because with Howard, Tony, and Bruce, it's always going to start with Captain America.Tony apparently inherited Howard's obsession with the super soldier, which is at least better than him inheriting Bruce's obsession with the super-soldier serum.

"He feels responsible, you know," Tony had said one day, apropos of nothing.

Bruce looked up from his microscope. "What?"

"Dad. For your accident. He thinks you wouldn't have started researching the supersoldier serum if it hadn't been for his fixation on Captain America."

"I'm the dumbass who tested it on himself," Bruce said, and that was the end of that conversation. Bruce's former hubris isn't something Tony asks about, and for that Bruce is eternally grateful. He might not be the great man Tony believes he is, but neither is he still that fool with too much conviction in his own superiority.

Thankfully, instead of leading to gross violations of lab safety protocol, Tony's interest in Captain America led to trains and planes and tech which then led to Alan Turingand the Enigma code which led to post-war history and the Cold War. On one memorable occasion, model airplanes had even been built at the kitchen table before Tony deemed them 'too boring.' To absolutely no one's surprise, the little model Grumman F6F Hellcat was flying around the house two days later despite the fact that its only moving piece out of the box had been the propeller.

Bruce, hoping-begging-praying that they're on a Cold War kick and not a Broadway kick, also got Tony the entirety of the 1978 limited run of Captain America Vs the USSR. It had taken lots of searching in a drafty Brooklyn comic shop and more than one sketchy Craigslist rendezvous, but it had been worth it. Tony lit up like Christmas, Easter, and four birthdays had all been rolled into one.

Both presents had read 'From Santa' on their tags, but Tony knew exactly who they were from without being told. If Tony ever believed, it was before Bruce came into his life.On his first Christmas in Stark Mansion, he wrote ‘Santa’ on the tag because, far be it from him to know what normal childhoods look like, but didn’t most five year olds believe in Santa? Tony had feigned exasperation that Bruce thought he was that gullible, but still glowed with happiness at the effort. Since then Bruce has always written ‘Santa’ in the From field of his presents just to watch Tony’s amused smile.

"Oh, I do love this one," Jarvis says, dragging Bruce out of his reverie. He sways from side to side in time with “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Jarvis technically has the day off, but Howard requested his presence for "moral support." In reality, Bruce knows it was because Howard didn't think the butler would accept an outright invitation to Christmas with the family. He suspected Maria's hand in the consideration initially, but when he asked, she said it was all Howard's doing. Small gestures like that occasionally remind Bruce that Howard isn't as callas or as oblivious as he sometimes thinks.

Lorena took the week off to spend with her son and new grandchild in Queens, and surprisingly, none of them have successfully burned down Stark Mansion in her absence. Yet. They still have to survive four more days without her once the Christmas cheer evaporates.

Bruce playfully pokes Tony with one socked foot. “You want to help me make hot chocolate?”

“Yeah!” Tony says, jumping up excitedly. He's all coltish limbs and newly long legs. His frame borders on too skinny, like all excess energy is going into fueling his latest growth spurt. His shoulder blades stick out in startlingly boney lines under his t-shirt, and his pajama pants are at least three inches too short.

“Do you want any?” he directs at Howard, voice low so as not to wake Maria.

In answer, Howard lifts his glass of eggnog. And if Howard’s eggnog is higher octane than is entirely appropriate, well, at least it keeps him in a good mood.

Bruce raises an inquiring eyebrow at Jarvis, who looks surprised to be asked if he wants a drink instead of being asked to prepare one. "That sounds excellent," he says.

The first thing Bruce does when he enters the kitchen is check the digital thermometer trailing out of the over. He clicks on the stove light and leans down to peer in through the glass.

"What're you cooking?" Tony asks, boosting himself up to sit on the counter. Lorena would chide him and chase him off of her counters with a swat, but he knows he can get away with it with Bruce.

"A standing rib roast," Bruce says. "It takes hours to cook, but it'll be worth it."

"Ohhh," Tony says with dawning comprehension. "That's where you went this morning-- playing Suzie Homemaker. I thought you disappeared to play Santa."

Bruce laughs because yes, he felt distinctly like a homemaker when he got up at 5:30 to put the roast in the over. Maria, for all her many skills, never mastered cooking anything more complicated than a grilled cheese, and both Howard and Tony are helpless without Lorena. Bruce is fairly certain that Howard can cook; he just thinks feeding himself is a waste of time.

Bruce remembers the first month of failed kitchen experiments when he moved in with the Starks, neither one entirely sure what you fed a thirteen year old boy. That was before Howard and Maria felt a cook was a necessity, and Bruce, hardly used to a steady diet to begin with, had been baffled by the odd mix of take out, burnt toast, and ice cream he’d been presented with. He'd figured out early on that cooking for himself was probably his best bet.

Bruce resets the timer on the stove. "The options were either I cook,” he says, “or we order catering, and that's just sad on Christmas day."

"Jarvis can cook," Tony says.

"Jarvis is eighty-one, and he deserves the day off after putting up with us for a week without backup," Bruce says, reaching up to ruffle Tony's hair.

A blush spreads over Tony's cheeks at the gesture.

The blush gives Bruce a moment of pause. Despite being right in the middle of the don’t-hug-me-in-public phase, Tony has never shied away from Bruce’s affection. But it’s not a groan of embarrassment or an outright rejection, so Bruce assumes their usual casual touches haven’t made the list of Unacceptably Embarrassing Behavior just yet.

Tony looks down at the floor, and his eyes catch on Bruce’s feet. A snicker escapes him. “I can’t believe you’re actually wearing those.”

“They’re warm,” Bruce says defensively, following Tony’s gaze down to the ridiculous slippers on his feet. He knows Tony meant them as a gag gift, but they’re pretty damn comfy.

“Freudian slippers,” Tony had said with a laugh as Bruce unwrapped them. Each foot has a likeness of Freud on it, and Bruce wonder where Tony even found the things. As gifts go, it’s about standard for them. Tony learned years ago that their senses of humor are close enough that he can get away with giving Bruce all of the gag gifts that make other people blink in confusion.

Bruce is fairly certain that, gag gift or not, Tony just enjoyed dressing him up like some kind of overgrown, nerdy Ken doll. He also got Bruce a deep blue collared button-down finer than any Bruce would buy for himself and a matching pair of slack. Bruce doesn’t think he wants to know how Tony got his measurements.

He’s been refusing Tony and Howard’s pleas for him to visit a tailor-- ‘please, Bruce, you’d look much better in clothes that fit you properly’-- ever since he moved into the mansion. Tony takes full advantage of Christmas and birthdays as the only time he’s allowed to buy Bruce nice clothed.

Tony hops down from the counter. “Be right back,” he says, and before Bruce can do more than look up, he’s scampering out of the kitchen.

Bruce watches him go, and a feeling of unreality hits him like a physical blow. Tony is almost twelve. Twelve. Bruce has been living with the Starks for nearly seven years, and somewhere along the lines he found the family he never thought he could have. Bruce hasn’t been naive enough to imagine himself with a significant other and 2.5 kids since he was twenty-four and living in a rundown flat in South America. That’s not what he has now-- Tony isn’t like a son to him, and he doesn’t particularly long for a significant other-- but they are his family.

The smart-mouthed child who wanted to know why Bruce didn’t like him is growing into an, admittedly, equally smart-mouthed young man with a penchant for explosions and groundbreakingly innovative designs. He’s matured not only physically-- though his sudden gain in height still staggers Bruce-- but also emotionally. Even though he’s only eleven, Bruce can’t seem to apply the label of ‘child’ to him anymore, even in his head.

It hasn’t been all good, though. Tony’s occasional fights with Howard have gotten more frequent and much louder as he learns to hold his own and fight for his opinions. Tony has never been anything other than his own person, and he’s going to fight until Howard accepts that. Bruce knows that shouldn’t make him as proud as it does.

Muffled footfalls precede Tony into the kitchen, and he intentionally slides across the hardwood on socked feet as he rounds the corner, free hand outstretched for balance. In his other hand is a lumpy present wrapped in what Bruce is sure is the gaudiest wrapping paper he could find. It’s covered with different kinds of cats wearing horribly patterned Christmas jumpers, and it’s exactly the type of wrapping a mostly blind eighty-three year old grandmother would pick out.

Bruce can’t help his grin.

“I have one more present for you,” Tony says, proffering the small package. His free hand clenches and unclenches at his side, and he bounces nervously on the balls of his feet. Bruce takes the present and carefully slides a finger under the tape, making Tony roll his eyes. “Just tear it!”

Bruce does as he’s told, ripping at the paper until the object underneath is visible. He carefully disentangles a pair of purple handled needle-nose pliers from the paper and turns them over in his hands. The grip is the perfect size for his hand, and the metal of the tips shines with a faint gold edge.

"I designed them myself,” Tony says, rocking on his heels. “They’re made of a gold-titanium alloy, and the handles have a small tracking chip built in that way you can find them. I've already linked them to the lab’s sensor array, so you don't have to worry about that. If you lose them, just click the new application on your laptop called 'find me'."

Bruce lets a wide grin spread across his face. He’s perpetually losing his pliers, somehow always managing to misplace them in the chaos of his desk or accidently carry them to the library, or, on one memorable occasion, put them in the dishwasher.

“Tony, this is amazing,” Bruce says.

Tony waves a hand dismissively. “You don’t have to worry about breaking them. They’re waterproof, heatproof, and Hulkproof,” he says. “I even made a matching pair for myself. Yours have the Purple handles, mine have the red. I kind of want to make a whole series of tools like this now."

“Thank you,” Bruce says sincerely. He resists the urge to clutch the pliers to his chest like a maiden with a bouquet of flowers.

“Don’t mention it. Merry Christmas,” Tony says, looking at a blank spot on the far wall. The older he gets, the less he knows what to do with gratitude. He covers it with snark and sarcasm, but his awkwardness at being thanked is still obvious to Bruce. He gives gifts because he likes to, not because he wants the thanks. Bruce finds it both endearing and a little sad. “You said something about hot chocolate?”

Bruce slips pliers into his back pocket and lets Tony redirect the subject for now. He fishes the heavy whipping cream out of the fridge and grabs the whisk and mixing bowl he preemptively put in the freezer earlier this morning. They have a perfectly good mixer they could make whipped cream with, but Tony enjoys whipping it himself. Bruce figured out some time back that it’s a good way to burn off the excess energy on some of Tony’s more restless days. He sets Tony to work as he pours milk into the frother and adds the hot chocolate powder.

“Is this good?” Tony asks after several minutes, holding the bowl out for Bruce to see. Bruce catches some of the whipped cream on his index finger and pops it into his mouth. Tony’s eyes track the movement, his expression unreadable.

“Perfect,” Bruce says just as the milk frother beeps. He adds the vanilla and the sugar to the whipped cream himself because he learned his lesson about letting Tony decide what an appropriate level of sweet is. “Grab three mugs down, please.”

Tony leans up on tip toes to grab the mugs from the cabinet, shirt riding up to reveal too-thin hips. Bruce has a moment to worry if Tony is eating enough, then shakes it off. Tony already has Lorena to mother-hen; he doesn’t need Bruce nagging at him. Still, Bruce thinks he’ll put a bit more effort into making them leave the lab for regular food. His body can take the joke of a few missed meals, but Tony is growing and shouldn’t skip meals in the name of science.

Bruce pours Irish cream into his and Jarvis’s mugs and finishes each drink off with a dollop of whipped cream. He pushes the unspiked mug towards Tony, but Tony ignores it in favor of taking a sip of Bruce’s, a cheeky grin on his face. Bruce gives him a stern look, but takes his hot chocolate back without saying anything.

When the make it back to the living room hot chocolate in hand, Howard is absorbed in something by Kafka, turning the pages one-handed while his other hand combs idly through Maria’s hair. Jarvis takes his mug with a murmured thanks. In the silence that follows, Bruce realizes Frank Sinatra's singing had come to an end. “Do you want to play your record?” Bruce asks.

Tony grins in reply, grabbing the record off the end table. He sinks down in front of the cabinet housing the more outdated electronics that remain wired into the mansion’s media system. The VCR and laserdisc player have done nothing more than attract dust for the past ten years, but Maria uses the record player enough that Bruce has faith in it. It’s an old Zenith that has to be from the late seventies, but Maria refuses to let Howard trade it in for a newer model.

Tony carefully takes the record out of its sleeve and stares speculatively at the aged record played. Experimentally, he lifts the plastic cover and pokes at the slipmat before giving Bruce a pleading look. “Okay, so I don’t actually know how to do this,” he says.

“I thought you’d seen us do it before?” Bruce asks. Tony normally has a good memory for technical things like this.

“Yeah,” Tony says, drawing out the word, “but it’s not like I was paying attention.”

“Fair enough.” Bruce huffs a laugh and pushes off the couch, moving to kneel next to Tony. He takes the record from Tony’s hand and places it on the turntable.  “Thirty-three RPM is the normal speed for 12” records,” Bruce says, indicating the little switch. He turns the main power knob and adjusts the volume before pulling another switch towards him to start the table spinning. Finally, he nudges the needle over the edge of the record and lowers it.

“That’s a lot of work to play half of an album,” Tony observes over the opening of “Merano.”

“It’s worth it,” Bruce assures him. “Music sound better like this if it was originally recorded for record for vinyl.”

Records were an impractical luxury Bruce never allowed himself during his years on the run, but now their warmth and depth remind him that he has a home. Not just a place to live, but a home with a family. Maybe they’re a dysfunctional family, but they’re his family.

And maybe “One Night in Bangkok” isn’t the usual Christmas tunes, but as Bruce watches Howard tap his foot in time to the music, he thinks that it works for them.

Chapter Text

12

Tony Stark is twelve the first time he wakes Bruce from a nightmare.

Bruce stares down the yawning expanse of the main hall of his and Tony's wing of the mansion. All light is sapped from the wood paneling, the usual windows mysteriously absent. A small boy is huddled at the far end of the hall, no older than six or seven, and his sobs echo through the hall. Concerned, Bruce takes a step forward, but the boy only cries harder, burying his face in the sleeves of his overlarge shirt and scooting himself blindly backwards across the hardwood floor into the corner.

Bruce takes in the child's appearance-- his unkempt curly black hair, his bent glasses, the bruise blooming across his cheek-- and fear settles into the pit of his stomach. Around him, the walls start to curve in, caging him in on all sides, or maybe he's just getting bigger.

The boy cries still louder, and his face shifts on the sob, rounding even as his hair straightens somewhat. Ragged, secondhand clothes turn into designer children's wear, and the glasses fade into nothingness in the blink of an eye.

The bruise on his cheek remains.

When Tony looks up, betrayal and fear distort his young face. "Bruce," he says, and Bruce can't tell if it's a cry for help or a plea for mercy.

"Bruce!"

Bruce wakes with a jolt, head snapping up off his desk. A piece of paper sticks comically to the side of his face, and he bats it off with a confused hand. "Wha--" he manages, the word sticking in his dry throat.

Tony is standing right next to him, shoulders arched like an angry cat and breath is coming in ragged pants, and he looks-- not fearful, exactly, but nervous. He's older than the imitation Tony in the dream, and that goes a long way to grounding Bruce in reality and calming his frantic mind.

"You were getting really worked up. I've never-- You don't usually--" Tony says, and understanding clicks into Bruce's mind.

Tony has never seen him have a nightmare. Or, at any rate, hasn't known that that's what he was seeing. Bruce long ago learned not to let the turmoil of his dreams seep into his physical state lest The Other Guy show up. He guesses it was something about falling asleep in the lab, a break in his usual routine, that made the difference today.

He swallows several times around the roughness of his throat. "Was I--" He clears his throat, swallows, and tries again. "Was I screaming?"

And god, it's humiliating to have to ask that. He'd quit waking up screaming by the time he was thirteen. After he went on the run, he had plenty of nightmares about the destructive wake of The Other Guy, but he never thrashed, never screamed. He always lays perfectly still, frozen in his terror.

"Snoring," Tony says. "Before the nightmare."

"Oh, sorry."

"'S fine. You snore most nights."

"Sorry," Bruce repeats, because that's news to him.

Tony shrugs. “Not badly. It’s kind of relaxing.”

The silence stretches, and Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" fills in the gap. Tony is still visibly shaken, and Bruce thinks he can understand. Bruce has been his touchstone over the past six years, the one he ran to for comfort from his own sleeping mind. Seeing that perceived strength-- no matter how built up in his head-- disrupted by reality must be a jarring experience.

"Hey, it's okay," Bruce says, soothingly, and somehow, saying the words makes it true. He's okay. It was a nightmare, nothing more. His father can't hurt him anymore, and he would never hurt Tony. It was just a nightmare. He repeats that to himself like a mantra. "I'm okay."

Bruce holds out a hand, and Tony takes it without hesitation, letting Bruce pull him into a brief hug. Or, well, Bruce intends it to be brief, because he's not sure how long his neck can take this angle with Tony standing and him sitting, but Tony doesn't let go, arms wrapped firmly around his neck. Bruce half-expects Tony to attempt to crawl onto the chair with him like an affectionate toddler.

Opening piano bars of "Life On Mars" filter across the lab speakers, and Bruce suppressed a grin. He knows exactly how to take Tony's mind off his worries.

"'It's a god-awful small affair,'" Bruce sings in a horribly fake English accent, "'to the girl with the mousy hair.'"

"Stop that," Tony says, pulling away from the hug to hide his face in his hands.

"'But her mummy is yelling ‘no,’ and her daddy has told her to go.'

"You seriously need to quit."

Bruce grins. "What, am I embarrassing you?"

"You're ruining a perfectly good song. It's never done anything to you," Tony says, but he's smiling at Bruce's terrible singing despite himself.

"How do you know?" Bruce says, mock-indignantly. "David Bowie songs and I have a long history that goes back further than you've been alive."

Tony looks both disbelieving and curious.

"No, really," Bruce insists. "I had my first kiss to 'Suffragette City'-- which actually, come to think of it, is an incredibly inappropriate first kiss song."

"’Wham bam thank you ma'am,'" Tony quotes, smirking, and Bruce groans.

"I never should have introduced you to glam rock," he says.

"You let me watch Velvet Goldmine," Tony says, laughing. "You officially don't get to get onto me about anything I say short of it being about Ewan McGregor's dick."

"Tony," Bruce says sternly, but be can't bring himself to mean it because, yeah, he had let Tony watch that movie. Or, moreover, didn't stop him when he found him watching it in the library at one am, which is more or less the same thing.

Bruce had walked into the library, drawn by the faint glow of the laptop screen and concern about what mischief was keeping Tony awake, only to find Tony right in the middle of the scene where Ewan McGregor bounces around the stage naked and covered in glitter. He's stood for a minute, attention caught by both the movie and Tony's rapt expression of what-the-fuckery. When Bruce cleared his throat awkwardly, Tony jumped so hard he nearly knocked his laptop to the ground. Only quick reflexes on Bruce's part saved the machine from landing screen-first.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't just find you watching this movie," he had said, eyeing the remarkable shade of red Tony was turning in the light cast by the laptop and turning to leave. It's a good movie-- one of Bruce's favorites, but he was not watching it with Tony, at least not at that point in his life. Maybe once Tony was over fifteen, but until then Velvet Goldmine was one homoerotic adventure Tony was going to have to embark on by himself.

Tony huffs and reaches for the cold cup of coffee on Bruce's desk. Bruce is 90% sure it's from the past twenty-four hours, so he doesn't protest. Tony gulps it down in three long swallows and makes a face.

"Day old?" Bruce questions.

"Decaf."

Bruce huffs a laugh. "If you don't like it, go upstairs and get your own," he says. "Besides, you shouldn't be drinking so much caffeine at your age. It'll stunt your growth."

Tony rolls his eyes. "That's an old wives’ tale."

"Is not," Bruce insists. "Why do you think I'm this height? At least two cups of day before I was seventeen."

Tony laughs, and Bruce doesn't bother telling him it's not entirely a joke. He'd made it through undergrad at fifteen on enough coffee to fuel a team of insomniac college students for a week. He's still not convinced that the coffee isn't the reason he's below average height.

"Do you--" Tony starts. "Do you have nightmares often?"

"Not as much as I used to," Bruce says.

"That's not a real answer," Tony says, seeing through the deflection.

Bruce slighs and rubs his eyes under his glasses. "Sometimes. A couple time a month," he admits. What he doesn’t admit is that it happens mostly on the nights when Tony isn’t there. "They're not as bad as they used to be."

"You know you can talk to me, right?" Tony asks, and he looks suddenly older, maybe older than he's ever looked to Bruce. "This arrangement we have isn't a one way street. You can wake me up if you need to talk about it or even if you just don't want to be awake by yourself."

"Thank you," Bruce says, because he doesn't know what else to say. "I will next time."

And there's even a chance that Bruce means it.

He knows it isn't an offer made lightly or thoughtlessly, and it hits him that the Tony standing before him isn't the same Tony of a year ago. Sometimes Bruce forgets that under the snark and the mischief is a boy who's both older than his age and younger than his intellect. He's grown so much over the past year, transitioning seamlessly from child to young adult and reaching an age where he wants to give back some of the emotional support Bruce has provided over the years. What he doesn’t know is that he’s given that back to Bruce from the beginning without even knowing it.

Tony looks mostly reassured now, only the barest traces of unease lingering around the line of his mouth. Clearly they're on a David Bowie playlist, because the song shifts from "Underground" to "Let's Dance." Bruce stands and stretches, determined not to fall back asleep. He paces the length of the lab in an attempt to restore blood flow to his legs and bobs his head thoughtlessly to the opening of the song.

"Let's Dance" is a song that Bruce has never been able to help dancing to, and he doesn't even try today. He lets his shoulders move in time with the music, swaying his hips and snapping his hands from side to side in a good example of what Tony calls "dad dancing." Unlike singing, Bruce can dance well; it's just easier to distract Tony from his worries if he doesn't.

The dancing is half for Tony's benefit, a subtle attempt to push aside all concerns of nightmares, and half for Bruce's own mood lift. He lets himself get more into it, bobbing and weaving across the lab in increasingly wide loops as Tony laughs openly. On a whim, he pulls Tony into the open space between their work tables.

And this is such a moronic idea-- they're surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of highly breakable lab equipment, but the goofy grin on Tony's face as he joins in the bad dancing is enough to make Bruce forget to care. He grabs Tony's hand and spins him in an uncoordinated approximation of a twirl.

Bruce forgets momentarily that he's supposed to be dancing like a thirty-five year old nerdy scientist, letting his movements smooth out and his hips sway to the rhythm. His eyes drift shut, and his head nods loosely from side to side. He never quite got the dancing out of his system in his twenties, the prime club and bar years of his life successfully interrupted by his obsession with his work and the monster it created. He's sure even his good technique is long outdated, so Tony will probably find it funny regardless.

Tony's movements slow as his eyes track the sway of Bruce's shoulders and hips. He watches, mouth slightly open.

Bruce ignores him, because he knows his dancing isn't that bad.

As the song fades, Bruce huffs a laugh, trying to catch his breath. "Now if only isolating the growth markers of this latest batch of samples was as easy as aging myself with my dance moves," he says. He runs a hand back through his disheveled curls only to find them damp with sweat.

Ton visibly pulls himself back to the moment. "Have you tried isolating the stagnant markers first to eliminate them?" he suggests.

Still giddy from their improvised dance session, Bruce grabs Tony by the sides of his head and plants a quick kiss on his unbrushed mop of hair without thinking.

"You are a genius!" he says, raising his arms in celebration.

"T-that's me," Tony stutters, color rising up his neck, "a literal genius."

~*~

12

Tony is twelve when he says, “Can I ask you something?”

Bruce pauses in his reading and looks down at the top of Tony’s head over his glasses. The pair of them are sprawled on a sofa in the Starks’ library, Bruce’s head resting on one arm of the couch and crossed ankle propped on the other. He’d been here less than an hour when Tony found him and crawled onto the couch without asking. He hadn’t hesitated to splay himself half on top of Bruce and read the book from between his arms.

He’d never admit it out loud-- can barely admit it to himself-- but Bruce secretly likes that Tony never hesitates to get into his personal space. Tony understands better than anyone exactly what Bruce is capable of if his control slips, but it never deters him, despite having encountered the Other Guy firsthand.

Now, Tony looks up at Bruce from where his chin rests against Bruce’s chest, eyes liquid brown in the bright sunlight filtering in through the bay windows.

“Not like you to ask permission.”

“It’s kind of personal,” Tony adds, voice soft, and Bruce resists the urge to ask for which one of them. Tony has never been one to be shy about asking questions, personal or not. The sudden bout of bashfulness sets off warning bells in Bruce’s head. The last thing he’s expecting for Tony to ask is, “How do you feel about homosexuals?”

Bruce stills before taking a deep breath and setting aside the medical journal he’d been idly perusing. He turns his full attention to the boy lying against his chest.

“Why do you ask?”

A shrug and inarticulate grumble answer him.

“I guess-- I guess I haven’t given the matter much thought in the last several years,” Bruce says, clenching and unclenching the hand Tony hasn’t put to sleep. He wills his pulse back down into a normal range.

Tony’s eyes dart sideways away from Bruce’s as he asks, “Would it bother you if one of your friends was?”

“Was?”

“Gay.”

“Ah.” Bruce was afraid that was the question.

His sexuality has never seemed important since he came to Stark Mansion. Relationships, even ones only lasting a single night, have been out of the question thanks to the Other Guy. Bruce sucks in another steadying breath as he thinks of how to respond.

“I’m making you uncomfortable,” Tony says, looking back up at him. He looks-- guilty, is the only way Bruce can think to describe it.

He furrows his brow, and Tony makes an aborted gesture towards this chest and throat. “The breathing thing. You always do it when you’re upset,” he says. He’s folding in on himself, all of his overblown swagger suddenly gone. “You don’t have to answer.”

Abruptly, the situation clicked in Bruce’s head. This isn’t about him and his opinions on social issues, not really. The uncharacteristic dart of Tony’s eyes tells him that much. He’s nervous, and of course he’s fucking nervous. He’s twelve and trying to come out to his best friend. He’s probably terrified.

At least that goes a long way to explaining his sudden fascination with 70s glam rock.

Tony makes to slide off the couch, but Bruce stops him with a hand on his back. “Hey, it’s okay,” he says softly, brow creased with concern. He pushes himself into a sitting position but doesn’t let Tony flee further than the cushion next to him.

Bruce leans over, resting his elbows on his knees, and looks down at his clasped hands. “To answer your question, no, it wouldn’t bother me,” he says, then looks over to the boy next to him. With shoulders hunched and confidence gone, it’s the youngest Tony has looked in years.

Bruce waits for Tony to meet his eyes before continuing, “It would be very hypocritical of me to be bothered by homosexuals. Also very difficult to get a date. Well, would be, if the Other Guy didn’t take care of that for me.”

That bit of information takes a moment to sink in, but when it does, Tony’s eyes widen comically. “You-- You’re--? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Bruce holds his hands out, chagrined. “I didn’t think it mattered. I would’ve said something if I’d realized you needed someone to talk to. So, are you--?” he hedges, not wanting to push, but also not wanting to make assumptions.

“Um, yeah. I am,” Tony says, some of his self-consciousness forgotten in the face of his surprise.

Bruce blows out a long breath. “Okay. Okay, good. I mean-- not good, or well, no more good than you liking women, which is fine, too.”

A strained laugh escapes Tony. “I like women a little bit, too, I think. Mostly men, though,” he says. Fear and nerves still tinge the edge of the words, even in the face of acceptance. Bruce is willing to bet that this is the first time Tony has voiced any of this, and it makes him want to pull the boy into a fierce hug. “But how could you think it didn’t matter?”

“I never mentioned liking men because it’s irrelevant,” Bruce says.

In reality, Bruce somewhere between forgot to tell Tony about his sexuality and didn't tell him out of habit. He’s never been the vocally out and proud type-- couldn’t be if he wanted to keep his research grants during the late eighties. Between his childhood and the civilian version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Bruce had learned to keep his head down and his mouth shut when it came to his sexuality.

His sexuality hardly makes a difference in his life anymore, but he’s also spent too many years not telling more people than necessary to break the habit easily. He knew rationally that Tony wouldn’t care, but old paranoias die hard. He wishes he could have a better outlook, but by the time the world had changed enough that he could walk down the streets holding a lover’s hand, a lover wasn't an option.

Tony is young enough that he’ll never know firsthand what it was like to live through the eighties as gay man. He’ll know discrimination and that small jolt of worry the hundreds of times he has to come out in his life, but the world has moved forward over the last twenty years. He’ll never need to fear for his career because of his sexuality or watch the men like himself waste away by the hundreds.

One day Tony will understand why Bruce never said anything, but not today.

“You can always come to me if you need to talk about something, okay?” Bruce tells him. He wants Tony to have every resource he grew up without. “You can ask me anything.”

Embarrassment and happiness war over Tony’s answering smile. “Why do you think I’m telling you now?”

Bruce pauses, considering his next words carefully. Finally, he says, “You know you can tell your parents, too, right? I would never tell them for you, but you should know that you can, when you’re ready.”

Tony’s jaw sets. “I’m not giving my father one more thing about me to be disappointed in. Mom-- I think she might already know, but there’s no way I’m telling Dad.”

“He won’t care,” Bruce insists, because as much as Tony’s words break his heart, he knows Howard won’t. Bruce knows what a father who cares looks like-- knows it in insults and scars and nights spent wishing that part of himself away. He takes a long breath, considering how much to tell Tony.

“I was thirteen when I came to live with your parents,” he says at last. “That was 1982, and fears and myths and lies about gay men and gay sex were running rampant. It wasn’t a subject most ‘decent’ people talked about, even if they were liberal and accepting. I was terrified, and I had no one to turn to. I thought maybe if I just ignored liking men, it would go away.”

He huffs a dry laugh and doesn’t have to say that it didn’t. Tony watches him, transfixed, and Bruce know it’s the first time anyone has talked to him like this-- like being attracted to men is common ground they share and not an abstract concept. He remembers how exhilarating that first open conversation can be, like a dam fracturing after spent holding back.

“One afternoon about a month before I left for CalTech, Howard called me into his office. I was fourteen at the time. He didn’t ask questions, didn’t pry. He just told me what he thought I’d need to know. It was possibly the most awkward hour of my life, but I came out of it knowing how to keep myself safe and not feeling like something in me was broken.

“He told me in plain words that it was natural and that it wasn’t something that could or should be changed,” Bruce says, voice barely above a whisper. “Maybe a safe sex talk and a reassurance that I wasn’t crazy doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it helped keep me alive and keep me sane.”

“Have you--” Tony starts, then cuts himself off. “Never mind.”

“What? It’s okay,” Bruce reassures. “Ask whatever you need.”

“Have you ever been in love?” Tony makes a face like the words leave a bad taste in his mouth.

“A couple times,” Bruce says with a sad, soft smile. “A couple men, one woman.”

“Have you ever thought about trying again?”

“No,” Bruce says. “That part of my life is over, and I’ve made peace with that.”

Tony furrows his brow. “Why?”

“I can’t date.”

“You don’t date. There’s a difference.”

“Yeah, risk level,” Bruce says shortly. “Look, Tony, even forgetting the innate risk of being around me, a physical relationship is out of the question for me.”

“Because of your heart rate?” Tony asks, blunt as he is.

Bruce looks at him, incredulous. “Those files were encrypted.”

Tony doesn’t even have the decency to look chagrined. “Use encryption you know I can’t break if you don’t want me reading them.”

Loathe as Bruce is to admit it, Tony is right. The encryption wasn’t for Tony’s benefit. Bruce has seen Tony breaking through encryption of that caliber since he was nine.

“But you tested that. An elevated heart rate isn’t enough to make you lose it-- there has to be stress or fear,” Tony presses. "Pretty sure that if you're stressed or afraid during sex, you're doing it wrong."

Bruce would be exasperated by how quickly their sharing-and-caring moment went to the wayside except that Tony’s face looks less pinched and his shoulders are slowly uncrumpling. Apparently Bruce’s myriad of issues is enough to distract Tony from his discomfort.

“Can you masturbate without changing, or is there something about an orgasm that affects you?” Tony asks, kicking into full-on Science Mode.

“Okay, this is officially not an appropriate topic of conversation.” Bruce might be beginning to regret that open invitation for Tony to ask him anything.

Tony, blunt as he is, ignores Bruce’s discomfort. “What, did you, like, Hulk out in bed once?”

“This isn’t scientific trial and error,” Bruce says testily, trying to make Tony understand. “This is putting another person’s life on the line for my pleasure. That’s not a risk worth taking.”

“So, wait. You’ve never tried?” Tony visibly does the math. “You’re seriously telling me you’ve been celibate for the last ten years?”

“Eleven, actually. There was a nice dry spell where I was focused on work before the Other Guy,” Bruce says before he thinks about it.

Then his brain-to-mouth filter kicks in and he claps his hand over his mouth. Sometimes he has trouble remembering that Tony isn’t as old as he seems and that jokes like that are hardly appropriate to tell a twelve year old.

Tony looks unimpressed. “I basically just asked you when the last time you had sex was. I think you’re okay.”

“This is not a conversation I need to be having with you,” Bruce says, taking his glasses off and rubbing at his eyes.

Tony crosses his arms huffily to cover the blush blooming over his cheeks. “Well then, who are you going to have it with, the centrifuge?”

And that right there is Bruce’s situation in a nutshell. A twelve year old genius with a smart mouth is the only person in Bruce’s life he can talk to about personal matters. God, he needs some adult friends. Not work friends or other people living under this roof, but someone he can have beers with and tell off-color jokes.

Bruce lets out a long breath and runs a hand back through his hair.

“It’s not just about the physical transformation.” He swallows and hesitates, trying to pick the right words. “My blood is poisonous,” he says finally, because sad jokes about lead-lined condoms aren’t going to cut it.

Tony’s brow furrows, because of course he’s smart enough to understand. “Wait, seriously? Have you tested that? I mean, obviously not all of your bodily fluids carry the gamma sickness. We’ve been sharing food for years, and your saliva hasn’t affected me.”

“Tony, there’s a big difference between saliva and-- that,” Bruce says with a vague wave of his hand.

“It’s radiation, Bruce, not an STD. Radiation that, may I remind you, turns you into a giant green rage monster. I don’t think the normal rules apply. It’s not like you’re leaking radiation.”

Bruce starts to reply, but Tony points a sharp finger at him.“And don’t even try to tell me you haven’t held a Geiger counter up to yourself at least once.”

Bruce lets out a muffled laugh because yeah, alright, he has done that. More than one, actually. He sobers, though, fixing Tony with a serious look. “I’m not going to risk endangering the person I’m with.”

“Then don’t. Test it. Work out the variables. Grab some porn mags, and hook up some electrodes. Get a sample, and run every test known to man,” Tony says. “You’re paying penance when you probably don’t have to. You don’t have to live like a monk because you made one mistake. You deserve the chance to be happy, and don’t you dare think otherwise.”

Bruce stares at him, speechless for a long moment, before he gives into the impulse to pull Tony into a tight hug. When they part, Tony squirms in embarrassment, eyes fixed firmly on a point over Bruce’s right shoulder.

“So, do you want to watch War Games tonight?” he asks, pushing off the couch. “We could make popcorn.”

Bruce lets him get away with the deflection. “You want to watch a movie about Soviet era video games?”

“It’s a good movie!” Tony protests, indignant.

“I never said it isn’t,” Bruce says. “It’s just strange for me that you like watching a movie that came out when I was fourteen.”

“We could always watch--”

“Tony, no. I'm still not watching Velvet Goldmine with you,” Bruce says, then falters, because would it be better for Tony to at least watch a movie like that with someone he can ask questions? “Unless you really just want me to.”

Tony grins mischievously, and Bruce has the sinking feeling he's in for an awkward two hours of gay Ewan McGregor and glitter. He should’ve just taken the 80s Cold War movie.

~*~

12

Tony is twelve when he tells Bruce, apropos of nothing, “I need you to teach me how to dance.”

Bruce finishes chewing his bite of pizza and raises his eyebrows at him across the kitchen table. “Come again?”

“I need you to teach me how to dance,” Tony repeats impatiently. And there's something there, something hiding under the words.

“That’s what I thought you said. And what makes you think I know how to dance?” Bruce asks.

“Because you’re you and you know how to do weird stuff like that. I’ve got to go to a charity ball for the company this Friday, and everyone’s going to assume I can at least waltz.”

“You shouldn’t have given up on the ballroom dance lessons so quickly.”

Tony huffs. “Don’t remind me.”

That had been one of the few full-on temper tantrums Tony ever threw as a child, but there had been enough stomping and yelling to make up for lost time. Three hours into his first lesson-- and right there was the start of the problem; a tired and bored Tony is never a pleasant Tony--  he had made his feeling on the subject incredibly and loudly clear to all within a ten mile radius.

After that, no amount of cajoling from Bruce or Maria could persuade him to take the lessons up again. Maria assumed Tony naturally hated dancing that much, but Bruce knows for a fact that it was because he had been too embarrassed by his tantrum to face the instructor again.

But failed dance lessons or no, Bruce is fairly certain that Tony already knows how to dance at least something as basic as a waltz.

“Will you help me or not?” Tony says, and there it is again-- a dissonant note that rings false to Bruce. He doesn't think Tony is lying, not outright, but he's concealing something.

For now Bruce decides to play along. "You think my dancing is terrible," he points out.

That catches Tony off guard. "What?" he asks.

"When I dance in the lab you always look at me like I've lost my mind."

Tony blinks, visibly considers the words, and then blushes all the way to the roots of his hair. "I-- No, I don't think your dancing is terrible. You dance-- very well. That's why I'm asking you," he says, the last words tumbling out in a rush.

If possible, Tony's face colors even more. Bruce tries not to be suspicious-- he really does, but Tony is acting odd. He pushes that aside for the time being.

"It there-- I can't believe I have to ask this," Bruce interrupts himself, "but is there a ballroom or something like that here?"

Even after seven years, there are many rooms in Stark Mansion he's never entered. Namely, the entire east wing where the rooms meant for entertaining are located. Howard avoids that side of the mansion, as best Bruce can tell, and Maria's expression gets pinched around the eyes if it comes up in conversation.

"Yep! Come on," Tony says, standing.

"Now?" Bruce asks in bewilderment. "I'm still eating," he says, but it's a token protest. He finished his leftover pizza in two quick bites and stands, brushing his hands off on his pants. He follows Tony through the house, and as predicted, he leads them to the east wing.

"Here we go," Tony says, and his voice cracks slightly on the words. Over the past two months his voice has started changing at a rate that Bruce finds almost dizzying. Now, under the voice he's grown so familiar with, he can hear traces of how Tony will sound in a year, two years.

He pushes open the double doors, leading Bruce into a large room filled with covered furniture and a wide, empty expanse of hardwood floor. The space speaks of disuse and feels more like a dusty photograph than any other part of the mansion Bruce has been in.

"It wasn't always like this," Tony explains, pulling a sheet off of a chair as he passes. "I can barely remember it, but they used to host balls and galas here."

Bruce takes 'they' to mean Howard and Maria. He watches as Tony slowly paces the edge of the room, letting his fingers trail through the dust on an uncovered table.

"When Mom got sick, they stopped," he continues. "They started renting out spaces in other parts of the city, that way she wasn't as obligated to put in an appearance if she wasn't feeling up to it." A sad smile crosses his face. "There's no missing a party when it's in your own home."

A record player and a small stack of records sit on a long table at the far end of the room, the only sign that Tony prepared for Bruce to say yes. Since last Christmas, he’s fallen in love with vinyl records. Nothing can replace the beauty of digital in his eyes, but vinyl, he concedes, is better for the songs designed for it.

That sneaking suspicion nags at Bruce again, and he walked over to the record player and flips through the records stacked next to it. As suspected, none of the record are the type of music you teach someone to dance to. The Kinks. AC/DC. Tom Petty. Black Sabbath. Robert Palmer.

Bruce looks back at Tony. "Why are we here, Tony?" he asks, not unkindly. "I'm pretty sure you know how to waltz."

Tony fidgets. He doesn't look surprised to be called out, but he does look like he's struggling for an answer. He looks up at Bruce through dark lashes, swallowing visibly. "Teach me to follow?" he asks softly, and there’s something underneath that question that Bruce can’t quite parse

"What?"

"I know how to lead a when dancing, but I don't know how to follow," Tony clarifies, and Bruce can hear the slight tremor to his voice.

His meaning clicks in Bruce's mind. The subterfuge, Tony's nervousness-- this is Tony asking the only person he knows to how dancing works when another man is leading.

Bruce doesn't say that following easy. He doesn't laugh or brush it off. Instead, he fishes through the stack of records until he finds the one he's looking for. He pulls Damn the Torpedoes out of its sleeve and puts it on the turntable. Tom Petty isn't really dance music, but then, that was probably never Tony's intention.

"Okay," Bruce says, stepping closer to Tony, who's bouncing on the balls of his feet where he stands. This close, Tony has to look up to compensate for their height difference. "Hand."

Instinctively, Tony holds up his left hand, and Bruce does his best not to smile. "Other hand," he instructs. He grasps Tony's right hand in his own and guides the other to his shoulder. Tony is a solid shade of red, and Bruce sort of wishes he could take a picture. It's a rare enough occurrence that Tony blushes at all, much less so profusely.

Bruce tries to set the pace in time to the music, but really, the dance doesn't fit, not at all. That's not really why the music is here this time. The music is meant to calm Tony, take away that nervous edge that has him almost vibrating.

"Relax. Quit trying to lead," Bruce says, squeezing Tony's hand reassuringly. "Following isn't passive. Feel what I'm doing, and try to move with it."

It takes another song, but eventually Tony relaxes, movements smoothing out and syncing up with Bruce’s. They drift closer together until Bruce's breath is ghosting over the side of his face.

“That’s it. You’re getting the hang of it,” Bruce says. He hesitates before adding, “Thank you for trusting me with this.”

"Who else would I ask? You're my best friend," Tony says, and then scoffs. “Besides, I’ll probably always end up dancing with women anyhow.”

Bruce is quiet for a minute, trying to figure out how to say what’s on his mind, and as he considers his words, the slow opening beats of “Casa Dega” crackle over the speakers.

“One day you’ll find someone you can dance with like this,” Bruce says at last. Maybe he never found that person for himself, but times are different now, and Tony’s life won’t be interrupted the way his was-- he won’t let it be so long as he’s alive. “I know you always have to dance with shareholders’ daughters at SI events, but one day you’ll be able to go with a man you love on your arm and dance for everyone to see. Mark my words.”

For just a moment, there's something sad lurking behind Tony's eyes. Whatever it is, it's flat and resigned, and Bruce is caught staring at it for a long second as Tom Petty’s voice echoes through the room.

I think I'm starting to believe the things I've heard, 'cause tonight in Casa Dega I hang on every word.

Then the moment breaks, and Tony leans his head on Bruce's shoulder, nose almost pressed to his neck. They’re not really dancing anymore, but Bruce enjoys the moment as they sway from side to side in time with the languid pace of the song until the record runs out.

Chapter Text

13

Tony Stark is thirteen when he convinces Bruce to go with him to Coney Island.

"Keep up!" Tony calls over his shoulder as he practically runs down the boardwalk.

Bruce deliberately makes no effort to do so just so he can watch the exasperated roll of Tony's eyes as he fights the wind for control of his hair.

Tony’s hair is in the artful rumple of overdramatic teens everywhere, but Bruce can't really see the difference between this and its normal state of disarray other than a bit of hair gel. Apparently Tony hit his teens and decided it was time for one massive three month sulk. All that’s missing is the requisite pop-punk, but luckily for Bruce’s sanity, he hasn’t yet sprouted a sudden fondness for Green Day or Blink-182. Granted, AC/DC and Pink Floyd are now played several notches louder in the lab, but Bruce can live with that. After all, ear plugs are a possibility if the Sulk Soundtrack gets any louder.

Despite the ongoing sulk, a smile lights Tony's face as he strides down the boardwalk, Bruce trailing behind him at a slower pace, hands in his pockets. Bruce turns his face up to the summer sun, soaking up the warmth, and he has to close his eyes against the glare it throws on his glasses.

"What's with you today?" Tony asks, walking backwards so he can face Bruce.

"Nothing," Bruce laughs. "Is it so strange that maybe I just want to enjoy the sun?"

"If you say so." Tony gives a small skip to avoid a loose board that's warping up, still not facing the direction he's walking. "You just seem a little low."

"I'm thoughtful, not low." Bruce says. He lets out a thin breath that might try to be a laugh. "I think you'll know if I'm low."

Because no, 'low' isn't the right word for what he's feeling. Wistful, perhaps; even a little melancholy, but never low. He's had his ups and downs, but he hasn't dipped low in his years with the Starks. He wishes he could say that he's forgotten what it feels like, but that's not a feeling you ever forget. The bone-deep hollow ache, the desire to cry when there're no tears left, the loneliness that burns deeper than any physical pain-- that's low.

Today isn't low.

Today Bruce is wrapped up in his own thoughts as he watches Tony grin his way down the boardwalk, grey henley sticking to him with sweat. Just over two years-- that's how long before Tony leaves for college. It feels both forever away and so painfully close. For eight years Tony has been the fixed center of Bruce's world, a steady axis of rotation. He hardly even thinks about the easy way they orbit each other anymore.

Watching Tony transition seamlessly from a boy into a young man feels simultaneously so foreign and like the most natural thing in the world. Bruce watches as Tony jumps over an accumulated sand dune and almost wants to laugh at the fact that three years ago Tony didn't think he was good at sports. Maybe he isn't good at sports, per say-- teamwork, Bruce thinks, will never be Tony's strong suit-- but he's definitely athletic. As his motor control improves and his proportions slowly balance out, he's all smooth grace and reserved strength.

"Hey, look," Tony says, pointing.

Bruce follows his gaze and smiles nostalgically. Right in front of an Italian ice stand sits a battered photobooth, its red curtain faded by the sun and black exterior scratched with initials. "Christ, I haven't seen one of these since I was a teenager," Bruce says.

"Come on!"

Bruce lets himself be led towards it, Tony's enthusiasm pulling him forward like a physical force. He follows Tony into the cramped little space and watches as Tony counts out his pocket change.

"Ready?" he asks, feeding the last quarter into the machine. Bruce nods, and Tony slings an arm around his shoulders. "One serious one."

Smiling for the picture isn't a chore for Bruce, and he thinks maybe for once he won't come out looking awkward and pained. The flash goes, and Bruce has to blink against the spots it leaves on his vision. Tony grins brighter.

"Okay, now a goofy one," Tony says. Bruce puts bunny ears up behind him because it's the only thing he can think to do, and that makes Tony hiccup with a laugh. "You're such a dork."

"That's why you love me."

When the picture flashes on the display screen, they're both wearing matching squints, expressions goofier than anything they could have done on purpose. Tony turns to looks at Bruce. He bites his lip for a moment, considering, then gets a resolved expression. The flash goes again, and the picture is a nice view of Tony in profile.

“Bruce, look here,” he says.

And Bruce looks, wondering what Tony is about to do. Tony eyes the display, waits until the timer ticks down to one, and leans in towards Bruce. Bruce doesn't have time process before Tony's lips are on his in a finessless kiss and the flash is blinding him like a stunner.

After a second of horrified stillness, Bruce jerks back, and his arms come up to hold Tony away from him. All he can do is stare at Tony-- his friend, his best friend-- as alarm bells go off him his head.

The flash blinds them both one last time.

Tony is up and tearing past the red curtain like he's being chased, leaving Bruce to sit, frozen in shock. Bruce wants more than anything to chase after him, but he forces himself to wait for the pair of photostrips to print. He knows he can’t leave photographic evidence of what just happened where anyone could walk by and pick it up.

As soon as they pictures print, Bruce snatches them up and takes off after Tony.

“What was that?” Bruce asks, jogging down the boardwalk to catch up with him. “What did you just-- Why did you--?”

Bruce can’t even finish the sentence, brain working feverishly to keep up with the sharp turn of the day.

“I think the ‘what’ is pretty obvious,” Tony grits out, not turning and not slowing down. “As for the ‘why,’ I think that’s pretty damn obvious, too.”

"No, it isn't," Bruce says, and his voice reaches an unfortunate pitch.

The look Tony turns on him clearly questions if he's brain damaged.

"Look, I just had to get it out of my system. It's no big deal-- won't happen again." He catches one of the photostrips Bruce has in a death grip. “Burn the other one, if you want. I don’t care.”

“We need to talk about this,” Bruce insists, pacing him.

“No,” Tony says, still avoiding looking at him. “We don’t.”

“You can’t just do something like that and expect me not to be concerned.”

Concerned,” Tony echoes flatly. He shakes his head. “I’m taking the subway home.”

“Tony,” Bruce says seriously, catching the teen by the shoulder.

Tony jerks free of his grip. “I can find my own way back. I get around the city fine when you’re not with me, you know.” With that, he takes off at a clipped pace down the boardwalk. His hands are clenched into fists, and his shoulders hunch in a defensive slouch that could be mistaken for nonchalants by the uninitiated.

Bruce curses under his breath and runs a hand back through his hair. “That’s not the way to the station!” he calls.

“I’m taking the Brighton Beach train!” Tony yells over his shoulder. “I want chak-chak.”

He sets off down the boardwalk and shoves his hands into his pockets, apparently preferring a walk next to the parkway over admitting Bruce is right. Bruce watches him go and hopes the Russian pastries are worth the extra twenty minutes of walking.

Standing there, watching Tony’s form shrink in the distance, the reality of the situation hits him like a body blow. He feels like he’s been punched in the gut-- unable to breath and aching sharply.

But then, the later might just be from the nerves settling into the pit of his stomach.

Bruce moves blindly, setting off down the sand in the opposite direction of Tony. He takes off his shoes, trying to make himself relax enough to think properly. The waves lap at his feet as the tide comes in, but he barely notices over the tumult in his head.

He can’t help wondering if he did this. Somewhere in all of his good intentions, did he do something that would cause this? He thinks about Tony still sharing his bed and about the way he sometimes wakes to find Tony curled into his side after one of them has a nightmare. He worries for one long, irrational second that he’s somehow become the monster Stane accused him of being.

Bruce banishes that thought with a rough shake of his head.

He didn’t do this, at least not intentionally. He isn’t capable of making Tony gay or bi or whatever he considered himself. That was an act of nature, and nothing Bruce could have done can change that. Tony is his friend, his best friend. Just his friend. Thinking otherwise-- even experimentally as he tries to figure out what was going through Tony's head-- makes Bruce want to take a shower.

And alright, in hindsight Tony’s crush is pretty fucking obvious, but Bruce never even considered the possibility that Tony thought of him as anything more than a friend. He thinks back to the afternoon Tony asked him to dance, and the knot in this stomach tightens. Even if it was unintentional, so many of his actions could be seen as encouraging Tony’s feelings, leading him on even.

Maybe all that affection was platonic, but he should have know that it would lead to less than platonic feelings on Tony’s part, what with the hormonal teenager thing. As a young queer man learning to accept his emotions, it’s natural that Tony would latch on the closest queer role model he has, especially when said role model is also his primary source of affection.

But twenty-three years.

Bruce knows that attraction over large age disparities aren’t as uncommon as society would have them believe, but fuck. Tony is thirteen. He’s thirty-six. He can’t figure out what Tony thought he would accomplish by kissing him like that, because no matter how indulgent some of Bruce's actions could have seemed, he can’t have deluded himself into thinking Bruce returns his feelings. At best, their easy camaraderie turns tense and awkward. At worst, Bruce is forced to move out of Stark Mansion.

And yeah, Bruce has to forcefully remind himself for the fifth time that he can’t be sent to prison for Tony kissing him.

Bruce thinks about the way Tony’s eyes track his movements and the sad look Tony gets sometimes while watching him, and he knows he has to address this. How, though, is a different matter entirely.

It’s dark by the time he gets back to the mansion, and he’s unspeakably grateful when he doesn’t run into any of the house’s other occupants. Tony’s bedroom door is closed, but a sliver of light filters out from under it. Bruce hovers outside for several minutes, poised on the edge of knocking, but he doesn't know what he'd say even if Tony answers.

In the end he chickens out and goes to take a shower, resigning himself to a sleepless night of worrying.

~*~

13

Tony is still thirteen when Bruce decides to put an end to the mother-of-all teenage sulks.

“Tony?” Bruce calls. He knocks lightly on the ajar door to Tony’s room. When no response is forthcoming, he nudges the door open with the tips of his fingers just far enough to stick his head inside. It’s been over a week since Tony’s little stunt at Coney Island, and Bruce has barely seen him.

Tony’s continued presence in the lab is marked only by occasional shifts in the mountain of debris and chaos on his worktable. Legal pads cramped full of notes in his messy, slanting scrawl keep magically appearing, and Bruce has the creeping suspicion he’s been sneaking down there in the dead of night to work rather than sleeping.

Two nights ago Bruce woke to find Tony asleep on his floor, apparently having snuck into the room somewhere during the night. He was gone by the next morning, and Bruce tried his hardest to ignore the thought that this is starting to feel unnervingly like an angry, sexless marriage.

“Tony?” he repeats, walking slowly into the room.

He can count the number of times he’s been in Tony’s room. It’s bland, reserved-- all beige colors and neat corners-- and the décor lends it the feel of a disused guest room rather than the room of a teenage genius. The only personal touches are three tightly packed bookshelves and a vintage Captain America poster he suspects Tony liberated from his father’s collection.

The lack of personality makes Bruce’s stomach clench. He’s seen Tony’s personality for years, overflowing from lab tables in dismantled engines and sarcastic Einstein sticky notes littered with reminders.

A breeze drifts through the room, stirring the sheer curtains lining the far wall, and Bruce realizes that the French doors to the balcony are open. He edges further into the room, bare feet soundless on the thick carpet.

Tony is sitting on the edge of the balcony, arms and legs threaded through the railing as he stares unseeingly at the tree line of Central Park. His school blazer lays abandoned on the ground next to him, and the cuffs of his oxford are unbuttoned and rolled up past his forearms. His forehead is pressed to the gap between the wrought iron spindles, and smoke wafts up around his head.

Bruce stares incredulously.

“Are you smoking?”

Tony doesn’t look up. “No,” he says even as he takes another drag of the lit cigarette.

Bruce pinches the bridge of his nose. “Cut the sullen teenager act. You’re thirteen. Leave some of the drama for the next six years. And give me that,” he says, striding forward to catch the cigarette from between Tony’s nimble fingers.

Tony shrugs loudly, and Bruce never realized it was possible for a sulk to be audible.

Bruce leans his elbows against the rail next to Tony’s head and takes a drag of the cigarette. Nicotine seems very necessary if he has to deal with his adolescent best friend’s Mood.

“You’re smoking,” Tony points out.

“I’m over eighteen and nearly impossible to kill. I think I’m allowed. If lead bullets and gamma radiation can’t kill me, I don’t think a few carcinogens stand a chance.” He reaches down to flick Tony’s ear. “You, on the other hand, are thirteen and have a family history of substance abuse.”

“Quit reminding me that I’m thirteen. It’s not going to make it stop.”

“Make what stop?” Bruce asks. He’s genuinely curious.

It,” Tony spits. “Whatever this thing I have for you is.”

“Ahh,” Bruce says, nodding his head. “So that’s what the sulk to end all sulks is about.” He looks towards the park and watches a family with a picnic basket as he flicks ash from the end of the cigarette. “For the record, I’m not reminding you that you’re thirteen; I’m reminding me.”

Tony snorts derisively. “Yeah? I was under the impression that you’re very well aware of how old I am.”

With one final inhale, Bruce snubs out the butt and flicks it over the rail. “Tony, you’ve known me for eight years. In that time I’ve barely aged four. I am literally the most constant thing in your life. We’re--”

Bruce hesitates, picking his words carefully.

“Close,” he says at last. “We always have been. It’s-- normal that’d you’d start to develop feelings for me--”

Tony groans, cutting off whatever he was about to say next. “Save it, please. Spare us both the ‘it’s natural’ speech that I’m sure you’ve rehearsed very well.”

“I’m trying to say that it’s all right, okay? It isn’t a problem. I’d just never thought about it until you…” Bruce trails off.

“Until I what? Can you even say it?”

“Until you kissed me,” Bruce says sharply, starting to lose his patience with Epic Sulk 2005. “I never considered that you might think about me like that until you kissed me. I gave you the sex talk; of course I never considered you romantically. Now will you please quit being an ass about it?”

Tony side-eyes him, but a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “Don’t know. I think ‘ass’ might be spelled out somewhere in my genetic code next to the name Stark.”

Bruce smiles at that and reaches over to card his fingers through the back of Tony’s messy hair, brushing lightly against the grain at the base of his skull. The gesture is familiar, reassuring, and Tony leans into it automatically.

“I have my own agency,” he says softly. The edge is gone from his voice, now. “I’m in high school-- I’ve been exposed to way worse already. I know what I want, a lot more than most people my age.”

“Look, Tony,” Bruce starts, “Sulking like it’s an Olympic sport because I don’t feel the same way isn’t going to help me view you as an adult with agency.”

“I wasn’t sulking because of you. I knew before I did it that you didn’t feel the same. It was stupid and selfish to surprise you like that,” Tony says, and Bruce knows that’s as close to an apology as he’s going to get. “Knowing you, you probably angsted over it worse than I did, and you have nothing to feel guilty about.”

Bruce opens his mouth-- to say what, he doesn’t know-- but it’s Tony’s turn to interrupt.

“No,” Tony says, “I know you. You have the crippling self-esteem issues of an adolescent girl. You’d blame yourself for third-world hunger if you could find a way to rationalize it.”

Tony lets out a long breath and rests his forehead back against the railing, closing his eyes. Suddenly he looks so much younger than the overdramatic boy with the cigarette.

“I was sulking because of me. It was dumb, you know? But I wanted you to be…"

“Be what?” Bruce prompts, fingers still running though the back of Tony’s hair.

And maybe this kind of touch isn’t entirely appropriate for this discussion, but they’ve always been like this-- overly tactile and affectionate with each other. Bruce ignores the thought that that’s probably what led to this discussion in the first place. He’s very good at that, ignoring his own thoughts.

“Be my first kiss,” Tony says forcefully, like he has to get the words out before they bite him.

Bruce’s hand stills. “Come again?” he chokes out.

“Don’t make me repeat that.”

There’s a long silence, and Bruce still doesn’t pull his hand back, because now it would just feel like a slight. He has no clue what to say to that, both that he was Tony’s first kiss or that that’s what Tony intended.

Tony’s the first to break the quiet. “It doesn’t feel weird to me-- wanting you, I mean,” he says softly, “It feels as normal as breathing or building an engine. You’re not my brother. You’re not my father. You’re Bruce, and that means a hell of a lot more than either of those.”

Once more Tony renders Bruce speechless. No response he can come up with feels right answer to the pain and love in those words. Instead, he stands, and Tony flinches like he expects him to just walk away.

Open surprise covers his face when Bruce hauls him to his feet by the upper arm and pulls him into tight, wordless hug. He relaxes almost immediately into Bruce’s arms, pressing his face to the taller man’s shoulder.

Bruce wants to say that it’ll be okay, that they’ll figure this out, that it won’t change things; but he doesn’t.

Those aren’t promises he can make.

Chapter Text

13

Tony Stark is thirteen when Virginia “Pepper” Potts enters his life.

The Clash fills the lab like a solid wall of sound, and Bruce is beginning to suspect that he’s going to lose his hearing before he reaches forty. Somehow, Tony’s glam rock phase has given way to a punk rock phase. Bruce doesn’t mind; it’s music with history, the politically charged anthems of an era, but he’s beginning to think they need to have a discussion about how many decibels is too many. The chime of the automatic lock on the lab doors is almost lost to the sound of Joe Strummer belting “London’s Burning”.

“Who’re you, and what are you doing in our lab?” Tony asks drolly without looking up from the intake manifold he’s reworking.

Bruce glances up from the spectral analysis he’d been studying and straightens in surprise.

A tall woman with strawberry hair hesitates momentarily before striding into the room with obviously feigned confidence, smart heels clicking on the concrete floor.

“Dr. Banner,” she says. She stops in front of his work station, elbows pulled in tight to avoid the myriad of files handing half-off the tabletop. She holds out a manila folder. “Mr. Stark asked me to deliver these to you. They’re the field report for the latest round of tests for the latest filtration system. He told me to tell you that the results look very promising. Outbreaks are down 34% in test populations.”

“That’s wonderful. Thank you,” Bruce says, taking the folder. “You must be Howard’s new secretary.”

She’s younger than him, probably around twenty-nine, well dressed in a professionally cut blouse and pencil skirt. Tension and nerves thrum through her like a beacon, but it’s little wonder considering Howard has gone through four secretaries in the last month and a half alone.

“Yes,” she says with a tight smile. “Virginia Potts.”

“Well, Ms. Potts, a bit of advice, if I may?” Bruce says with a soft smile. “Relax. Breathe. The first week is going to be hell, but you’ll get used to his leaps of logic soon enough, and his filing system will start making sense eventually.”

Tony leans backwards over the back of his chair, gazing up at her upside-down. “If it makes you feel any better, you look way less ditzy than the last three.” He rights himself and clambers to his feet. “Stanford? Stern? Columbia? No, it was Dartmouth. Definitely Dartmouth. You’re from the Northeast and wouldn’t have wanted to go too far from home.”

“Tony,” Bruce says sharply. “A round of ‘let’s guess your personal life’ is hardly conducive to a pleasant first week.”

“Yeah, and Nine Inch Nails isn’t conducive to a peaceful working environment, but you play them all the time,” he says with a smirk. He raises his eyebrows at the woman and mouths ‘all the fucking time’ at her with a roll of his eyes.

He plucks a spectroscopic slide off Bruce’s table and holds up to his eye. “If she’s focused on me being an ass, she’ll quit stressing over how many lumps of sugar Dear Ol’ Dad likes in his coffee, or whatever she’s hung up on.” He points at her over the white rim of the slide. “Trick question. He takes his coffee black. So what’s really bugging you, Ms. Potts?”

“Where does he keep the 1968 tax filings for Humanitarian R&D?” she blurts frantically. “He said to find them, but I looked in the file room, and only 1976 to current are in there. And I know the humanitarian branch still files as for profit because some of the research is funneled into other branches, but--”

“Breathe,” Bruce reminds her, laying a steadying hand on her shoulder.

“Seriously, you’re gonna’ make me hyperventilate,” Tony adds. He sets the slide back on the lab table with a pointed click and sighs. “There isn’t a 1968 tax filing. Stark Industries didn’t develop a humanitarian branch until after the Vietnam War. The company needed an image boost, and fixing third-world problems was the way to do it.”

“But why would he ask me to get it if it doesn’t exist?” Virginia says pleadingly, her hair starting to slip from its neat bun.

“I can’t rightly say,” Tony says. “Chances are, he forgot. Better chances are, he’s an ass.”

“Tony,” Bruce chides, but it’s half-hearted at best. Bruce knows the truth behind Tony’s words firsthand.

Tony looks at him, and there’s something hiding behind his veneer of humor. “What? It’s true. You and I both know it.”

Bruce sighs, but doesn’t object except to say, "He's your father."

The younger man looks back at the frazzled secretary. “The first month is a hazing process with him. Remember that. He does it to make sure you won’t crack under pressure, that way he knows you won’t flake out when he needs you most.

“He’s an ass, yes, but after the first month he’s fine to work for. You never have to worry about ass-grabbing or mind games with him,” Tony says. “Do your job, do it well, and he’ll treat you accordingly. Or at least give you a hefty bonus after he yells at you for something that isn’t your fault.”

“Okay, that’s--” She takes a deep, steadying breath and straightens to her full height. “That’s good to know. Thank you. I was beginning to think I’d taken the job from hell.”

This time it’s Bruce who chuckles. “Oh, it’s still the job from hell. But it’s the reasonable job from hell that pays a small fortune.”

A genuine laugh escapes her, and she holds the remaining paperwork up to cover it. “I should get back.”

Tony cocks his head as she makes to leave. “Ms. Potts,” he calls. “Good luck.”

She smiles, open and real this time. “Call me Pepper, both of you. Thank you.”

“I like her,” Tony says once the door closes, sealing off sound from the stairs. “I hope she makes it.”

“Me, too,” Bruce says, and it surprises him how much he means it. He brushes a light hand over Tony’s shoulders. “I think that was the kindest thing I’ve ever heard you say about your father.”

Tony scoffs. “Don’t get used to it.”

~*~

13

Tony is thirteen when he lays a ticket on the edge of Bruce's lab table.

"I've got an extra ticket for the opera tomorrow night. Come with me," Tony says.

Bruce looks up from his paperwork, and he can feel his hair sticking up where his hand's been buried in it for the past hour.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," he says. Once upon a time he'd loved symphonies and operas, loved the music and the elegance, but now the idea of being trapped in the middle of a stagnant crowd for that long sets his teeth on edge.

"The ticket is already paid for, and it's just going to go to waste if you don't come." Tony leans his elbows on the tabletop and gives Bruce his best pleading look. "Dad bailed for a conference in LA, and it's just pathetic to go alone."

Bruce can feel himself giving in despite his better judgment. Tony always seems to have that effect on him. "I don't have any clothes nice enough for that," he says, but it's a token protest.

"Let me handle that."

"Tony, no."

"Come on, you'll shame the Stark name if you don't let me get you a good suit," Tony wheedles.

And Bruce knows he means it as a joke, but he also knows the truth behind the words perhaps too well. The Starks have an image to maintain in the society circle of New York, and Bruce-- Bruce will never blend in there. No amount of tailoring or finery will change the fact that he's a stray being paraded among the Kennel Club.

Tony's eyes widen as he reads something of these thoughts on Bruce's face. "No, no! I'm just kidding," he says hurriedly. "You can go in jeans and a t-shirt for all the difference it makes to me. As long as you come with me, I don't give a shit. I just want you to have something nice to wear if you want it."

Bruce forces a chuckle. "What's your obsession with dressing me?"

"You'd look hot in a well cut three piece suit." Tony shrugs like the answer is obvious. "Or, well, hotter."

Bruce gapes.

"Don't look at me like that. It's not 'a thing' if it's true," Tony says, and Bruce can hear the air quotes around the words, Tony's way of lightening a serious subject that they still haven't entirely figured out how to navigate. "Maybe you don't see it, but you're attractive-- the kind of attractive that would look smokin' in a good suit. It would be a waste not to dress you up."

Under the words, Bruce hears what he isn't saying: Bruce lives with the Starks, works for them, loves and is loved by them. He might as well look like it in public.

Bruce has long suspected that the clothes are an unintentional form of possessiveness, a way for Tony to lay claim. Not in a controlling way-- not the way an obsessive lover would. Tony doubtlessly means every gift purely as a kindness. He gives and gives with no thought of getting something in return, but that in and of itself ties Bruce to him. Small gifts thoughtfully yet thoughtlessly given weave a web, blanketing Bruce and holding him in this place that's become his home. Every gift is another tie he'd have to break if he ran.

Tony straightens and says, "It's settled, than. This afternoon we're going to see Mr. Hardi, and you're getting a real suit that doesn't need an inch less cuff. Seriously, they don't make off the rack suits in anywhere near the correct measurements for you."

"The pains of being below average height," Bruce says.

Tony's answering smirk is enough of an agreement. He cups Bruce's jaw and leans in, pushing himself into Bruce's personal space. For the first time in years it takes an effort for Bruce not to flinch back.

But instead of doing something they'd both come to regret, Tony scratches Bruce's two day stubble against the grain. "Don't forget to shave," he says, his breath coming in warm puffs against Bruce's ear.

~*~

Bruce fidgets with the cuff of his tux. The material feels tight, restrictive, but he's pretty sure that's just because he hasn't worn professionally fitted clothes in a decade and a half. "People are staring at us," he says.

"They're staring because you clean up nicely. Very nicely."

And really, that sentiment is laughable coming from the young man next to him. Even in a three piece suit, Bruce looks just as out of place as if he'd shown up in a dressing gown. He knows it's all in how he holds himself, confidence and ease made painfully noticeable by its absence. Bruce keeps reminding himself not to hunch his shoulders, but standing up straight just makes him look stiff and robotic, as five minutes spent staring at the bathroom mirror had proven.

Tony, on the other hand, looks just as comfortable in tux and waistcoat as in grease-stained sweatpants and a henley.

Bruce had insisted on paying for his suit himself, even knowing that the price tag would probably have at least three zeros. When the price he was quoted turned out to be far less than he'd expected, Bruce suspected Tony's hand, but he couldn't rightly accuse the small Kurdish tailor of charging him too little, especially not as the man had blinked kindly at him through Coke-bottle glasses. Mr. Hardihad been nothing like what Bruce expected-- small, patient, and quietly kind. He never made Bruce feel out of place, never treated him like he probably couldn't afford the majority of the shop's contents.

"I can't tell if we're overdressed or underdressed," Bruce muses.

"Bruce, we're fine," Tony says, stilling Bruce's nervous fidgeting with a hand on his wrist. "I wouldn't let you show up looking dumb. Have a little faith."

"I have faith in you; you know that. I'm just-- nervous. I'm nervous, and it's making me twitchy and paranoid."

"Really? I hadn't noticed," Tony says, eyes wide with mock surprise. He runs what Bruce suspects is supposed to be a comforting hand down his arm. To Bruce it feels more like being guided like a lost child. "Relax. Breathe. No one's even looking at us except to check out how hot we look. I really didn't bring you along to make you miserable; I thought you'd like this kind of artsy stuff."

"I do. Or, well, I used to. What are we seeing?" Bruce asks, feeling remarkably foolish. He'd been so worked up over getting ready that's he'd forgotten to check the tickets to find out what they were seeing once they got here.

"Marriage of Figaro," Tony says, no hint if he's surprised by Bruce not knowing. He glances at the honest-to-god pocket watch he's carrying. "Come on. We should take our seats."

Unsurprisingly, Tony leads them to a pair of perfectly positioned seats, the view of the stage magnificent and the acoustics stunning. The curtain lifts, and the preference begins, instantly captivating Bruce.

Even as Bruce's nerves dissipate as he relaxes into the narrative of the performance, Tony's seem to ratchet up. He keeps glancing at Bruce out of the corner of his eye, expression what Bruce only knows to call guilty. His leg bounces out of time with the music, a ceaseless tic of movement that makes the elderly man next to them huff in disapproval and does little to sooth Bruce's nerves.

After fifteen minutes of relentless bouncing, Bruce lays a steadying palm on Tony's knee to quiet the movement. Tony stills immediately under the touch and throws Bruce another guilty look. Satisfied, he takes his hand back.

Bruce gets approximately eight minutes of fidgeting before the leg bouncing starts up again. Torn between amusement and exasperation, he covers Tony's knee once more and this time doesn't remove his hand until intermission. When the house lights come back up at the break, the first thing Tony does look around like he wants an exit to flee through.

"Tony, are you alright?" Bruce asks, beginning to feel genuinely concerned.

"I lied," Tony says in a rush.

"What?"

"The ticket was always for you. I just felt stupid asking. So, I lied. Sorry," he says, and he looks it. He's staring at the empty stage opposite them, legs crossed and shoulders back, but an air of tense regret surrounds him. "I thought you'd say no unless you thought a ticket would go to waste, but now you're uncomfortable, and you're not enjoying yourself, and I'm sorry."

And maybe Tony is right. Maybe Bruce wouldn't have agreed unless he thought the ticket would be wasted otherwise. The pomp and expense of the Met Opera has never appealed to Bruce, even if the art itself does.

"It's alright," Bruce says. "Next time just ask me, okay? You don't ask me for much, and you know I rarely tell you no when you do. And I am enjoying the show. The show makes the pomp and circumstance worth it. As long as you don't make me go back out there to mix and mingle, we're fine."

"Deal," Tony says, tension draining from his posture.

The remainder of the performance goes much better for Bruce's nerves. Tony actually seems to be enjoying himself now, smile wide on his face as he leans forward in his seat. More than once Bruce finds himself watching the younger man rather than the actors, a small smile curving his lips at how happy Tony looks. Bruce can't help but think that he'd do all of it-- the tailor, the awkwardness, the crowd-- over again if it would keep that expression on Tony's face.

"What'd you think?" Tony asks as they file out with the rest of the crowed.

Bruce hesitates just a moment too long. "It was-- good."

Tony laughs. "Okay, now that the polite answer is out of the way, what's you really thing?"

"It was long," Bruce says delicately. "I still enjoyed it, though."

"Yeah," Tony says, drawing out the word. He holds the door open for Bruce. "I usually entertain myself by pretending Cherubino really is a woman, and that they're caught in one giant lesbian love triangle."

That startles a laugh out of Bruce. Even though he knew that women often played younger men in operas, the page's rather obvious breasts had still been a bit distracting for the first couple scenes.

"You feel up to walking back?" Tony asks. "It's not too far if we cut through the park."

Bruce considers that for a moment, evaluating just how badly his dress shoes are bothering his feet. "That sounds good," he says, deciding that his feet will survive. The crisp Februaryair sounds like a welcome relief after two and a half hours of sitting still.

He follows Tony up and over a handful of blocks, thankful for the relatively thin crowds. Tourist season hasn't hit yet, and the people they pass are mostly locals out enjoying their night. The beautiful thing about New Yorkers is the way they pointedly ignore even the strangest of passersby. Two people in evening wear don't even ping their radar.

Well, apart from two exceptionally drunk women practically holding each other up. They can't be over twenty-two, and Bruce is willing to bet at least one of them is working off a fake ID. The drunker of the two-- or at least the one requiring more bodily support-- actually does a double take to stare at them. "Hot damn," she stage whispers to her friend. "Look at curls and glasses back there."

Bruce resists the urge to look around for another man with curls and glasses as both girls look over their shoulders. He keeps his eyes trained on the path ahead of him, just to the right of Drunk One and Drunk Two, and pretends he doesn't hear the words. Tony, however, has no such reservations.

"Is it still catcalling when women do it?" he asks, loud enough for them to hear. He elbows Bruce in the side. "See, I told you you'd be hot in a suit."

"The nerdy ones are always better in bed," the woman slurs, undeterred.

Bruce has to muffle his smile behind his hand, and he wishes he couldn't feel his ear reddening. It's flattering in an odd way.

"He's hot, but damn, he's got to be ten years older than you," Drunk Two says.

"Fifteen," Tony singsongs under his breath. Bruce abruptly realizes that the women have started following them like pair of drunk pigeons, probably too wasted to even register that they're doing it.

"So?" the first asks belligerently.

"I am too drunk to deal with your old man thing tonight."

Tony snorts gracelessly, and Bruce feels mildly insulted. He's only thirty-six for Christ's sake, and he can't look older than thirty-one thanks to the Other Guy.

"Fine Miss-- Miss Age Is Everything, what're you after in a man?"

"The other one," she says definitively. "No one that short should look that good in a suit."

Tony stands up a little straighter at the words, and Bruce bumps her shoulders together. "You do look good tonight."

"I know that," Tony says, but his forced nonchalants comes out almost defensive. "But I doubt she's be quite so enthusiastic if she was sober enough to realize I'm not even fourteen yet."

The words carry an underlying tension that Bruce tries not to think too hard about.

"Where the fuck's this club, anyhow?" Drunk Two says.

"69th."

"Aw fuck, 69th was two blocks back," she says, making an ungraceful U-turn and pulling her companion along with her. They leave an awkward silence in their wake.

"Were we actually just followed by a pair of drunk college students?" Tony asks.

"Pretty sure we were," Bruce says, leading them into Central Park. Even this late, people still dot the paths, mostly couples and the odd night jogger. It's quiet, though-- quieter than it ever is in the daylight. The trees muffle the sounds of the city, and for just a moment Bruce can imagine that they're not in the center of a metropolis.

"You know what I love about New York?" Tony asks.

Bruce makes an inquiring noise.

"The anonymity. My family is splashed over tabloids every other week, but those two didn't even recognize me," he says. "People here just don't care. They don't think anything of it when a dude walks past with a cat on his head. It's some of the largest crowds in the world, and sometimes you might as well be standing in the middle of the tundra."

"That also makes it very lonely," Bruce says, voice soft.

Tony shrugs. "People are lonely. Crowds aren't."

"What do you mean?"

"Lonely is keeping on a public face with people who don't know you but that you have to pretend to get along with," Tony says. He turns his face up towards the permanent twilight of the city sky still visible through the trees. "A crowd of random people knows you better than an acquaintance ever will. A crowd sees you laugh at something dumb. A crowd sees you trip on the curb when you're waiting at the crosswalk. A crowd sees you cry over a bottle of Advil in Duane Reade."

"Do you that often-- cry in the pharmacy section?" Bruce jokes, because he thinks he understands a little too well what Tony means.

"It's New York. If you're going to cry, there's like a ninety percent chance that it's going to be in a public place."

The silence lengthens, and Bruce stops pretending that they're actually taking the short path back to the mansion. He leads then down a winding side trail as he considers his next words.

"I hated that at first," Bruce confides. "I hated the city period. When I moved in with your parents as a teenager, I didn't know how to deal with it. I'd never been in a place where you could always be surrounded by people but always be alone. I had to learn to like it, but when I did, I fell in love with it. I could lose myself in a crowd-- forget who I was, where I came from, and what my problems were. No one knew those things, and no one cared.

"When I came back-- when you were five-- I used to stay in the lab all the time. Maria even asked me once if I was agoraphobic." He takes a deep breath and watches a rat dart under the roots of a tree. "It wasn't that simple. I wasn't afraid of going outside; I was afraid of what I'd lose again if I did. For years I'd run from place to place. I always chose cities with large populations, places where I could lose myself in the crowd. I learned to forget my problems by giving myself away piece by piece, because doing that felt like atonement."

Bruce doesn't know why he's telling Tony any of this. Maybe because it feels like giving something back, maybe because he knows Tony's soft spot-- knows that he's Tony's soft spot, or maybe he's saying it just because he can.

"I stayed inside because I was afraid that if I went out into a crowd, I'd never come back. Sometime I still get this paranoia that if I look at my own reflection in the windows of a subway train for too long, I'll lose myself completely. Just forget everything, and never find my way back home. I don't know if you even remember it, but the day you dragged me to the MOMOA was the first day I knew I'd come back. It was the first day I had something to bring me back."

"I did that?" Tony asks.

He did a lot more than that, but Bruce doesn't know how to explain, not properly. He spares Tony some details, leaving out things that even eight years out feel too raw, too painful. He doesn't mention falling low. He doesn't mention the old fear that he would try to step in front of that train.

For so long he was afraid that the desire to end his own life wouldn't end with him getting back to New York. Refusing to go outside wouldn't fix that, but he thought that maybe if he buried himself in enough work, he wouldn't notice the hollow ache of depression and desperation in his chest. In the end, work became just one more way of losing himself.

But the urge to jump never came, and Tony slowly taught him how to keep hold of both his sense of self and desire to live. The desperation faded, and the depression stayed within manageable levels. He still feels the hollow wash of it some days, but he's learned how to cope, the same way he knew how to cope before the Other Guy. The process might look different now-- fewer Dallas reruns than when he was in grad school and more Ellen on the couch with Tony-- but it worked for him.

Even if Tony can't read between the lines to know the things Bruce is omitting, he still knows Bruce, and he knows him well enough to read the tired lines Bruce can feel forming around his eyes.

Tony loops his arm through Bruce's, leaning their shoulders together in silent comfort. And maybe he shouldn't, what with the revelations of the past six months, but Bruce is too selfish not to lean into the familiar contact.

"Let's go home," Tony says.

The statement strikes Bruce the way it does occasionally. The ease of it, the surety of it-- it's not just Tony's home, it's Bruce's too.

"Yeah," he manages. "Let's."

~*~

It's past eleven by the time they get in, and Tony automatically follow Bruce into his room, not even making the pretense of going to his own first. Several pairs of his night clothes live in Bruce's spare dresses drawer, and more nights than not he showers in Bruce's bathroom instead of his own. Bruce thinks it should worry him now that he's aware of Tony's feelings, and the very fact that it doesn't worries him even more.

Tony shucks off his suit jacket as soon as they're in the room, tossing it carelessly over the foot of the bed, and the thoughtless treatment of such expensive clothing is almost enough to make Bruce wince. He looks away sharply as Tony's hands move to work on the buttons of his waistcoat.

Tony muffles a scoff. "I'm still wearing, like, two layers. It's fine."

Bruce doesn't say anything to that, doesn't acknowledge that there's anything strange about his behavior. He just moves to closet to hang up his own jacket, silently passing Tony a hanger. The awkward sideways comments are the closest they ever come to acknowledge the feelings that Tony no longer bothers keeping a secret, at least whenever it's just them. He doesn't bother covering the soft look he sometimes gets around Bruce. He doesn't hide the way his hand lingers a little too long after a hug, or maybe he's not even aware of it anymore.

By all means Bruce shouldn't even be letting him sleep here, but Tony has kept to his word. He hasn't tried anything else, clearly doing his best not to make Bruce uncomfortable with his affections. Nothing has changed between them, at least not on the surface. If anything, Tony's more guarded with his affection than before. Some of the careless ease that's always existed between them is stifled now, tense. He never emerges half dressed from his showers, never wanders around in only boxers and a t-shirt stolen from Bruce.

Tony thinks he's being subtle, but since the kiss Bruce has become hyper aware of him, constantly mindful of anything that could be considered 'inappropriate' for both of their sakes. Even a whiff of scandal could endanger Tony's future career, and with Obadiah sniffing around the mansion even more than usual, that's not a risk Bruce is willing to take.

"I'm going to go take a shower," Bruce announces. He knows Tony will already be in bed by the time he gets out, feigning sleep but made obvious in the attempt by his absolute stillness. He doesn't stay with Bruce every night, but Bruce knows on the nights he does, he rarely falls asleep before Bruce himself goes to bed.

With a quick movement, Tony's hand catches his wrist.

"I enjoyed tonight. Thank you for agreeing to come, even if I did bully you into it," Tony says. He looks up at Bruce, and a wealth of unspoken meaning lurks just below the words. "I know crowds and fancy clothes aren't your thing, but thank you."

"I had fun. Thank you for inviting me," Bruce says, hoping the words don't come out as stiff as they feel in his mouth. He gently disengaged from the hold and tries to pretend the depth of the emotion in Tony's eyes doesn't shake him.

Chapter Text

14

Tony Stark is fourteen when Bruce teaches him to love speed.

“You drive like a granny,” Tony says on a groan, lolling his head back against the headrest with an exaggerated thump.

“We’re on the Washington Bridge,” Bruce says through clenched teeth. “This is as fast as we’re going unless you want me to drive over the car in front of us.”

“You could at least drive more aggressively. This is boring.”

“This is a very rare, very expensive car, Tony. You don’t want my anywhere near ‘aggressive’ right now,” Bruce says. His white-knuckled grip stands out against the dark steering wheel.

Whatever Tony was going to say next is forestalled by traffic inching forward. Bruce takes a calming breath and thinks that stop-and-go weekend traffic in a McLaren SLR was not what he had in mind when he proposed a relaxing day trip upstate.

“Woo-hoo, three whole feet,” the teen deadpans when they come to a stop. “Where’re we going, again?”

“The Catskill Mountains.”

“And when we get there we’re going to… what? Commune with nature?” Tony says with a dubious look. “I know you’re secretly a hippie and all, but I didn’t think bugs and dirt were your idea of a good time.”

“This coming from the person who dragged me to a museum of medieval art when he was six,” Bruce scoffs. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Oh, I trust you. I trust you with my health, my safety, and my sanity. What I don’t trust is your ability to pick vacation destinations. Forgive me if you spending the lion’s share of the past eight years living in our basement doesn’t inspire confidence.”

“I had a life before I was the Stark family’s kept scientist, you know. It’s a national park; it can’t have changed that much in the last decade,” Bruce says. “And I work in your basement. I live in your guest room.”

“Bruce, after this long, I think it officially qualifies as your room,” Tony says. “Remind me why this trip sounded like a good idea?”

Bruce grins. “Come on, you know you jumped at the chance as soon as I said ‘three hour drive’ and ‘just us’.”

Beside him, Tony stills, and it takes a moment for Bruce to process what he’s just implied.

“Oh, shit. Tony, I didn’t mean it like that,” he says in a rush.

Tony forces a nervous laugh. “Nah, we both know it’s true.”

Mercifully, Bruce is saved from having to respond by that by another surge in traffic. This time the slow migration of cars holds steady until they’re most of the way across the bridge.

Bruce is honestly impressed with their cumulative ability to ignore their situation-- and this coming from the man who has trained himself to ignore perpetual blinding anger. The only hints that Tony still feels anything other than affectionate friendship towards him come in the form of awkward, sideways jokes and the occasional lingering look when he thinks Bruce is absorbed in his work.

At least four nights a week Tony still appears in his bed, and as Tony’s senior year of high school looms on the horizon, Bruce is beginning to wonder what the fuck they’re even doing. It’s still platonic, even on the younger man’s side as far as Bruce can tell-- no different from when he was seven or ten or twelve. He still sleeps mostly on his side of the bed, arms wrapped around his pillow like a life preserver.

The occasional night still finds him curled into Bruce’s side with his head pillowed on the other man’s arm, but that’s nothing new. Bruce considers putting an end to Tony’s continued presence in his bed on a near daily basis, but he can never come up with a reason that doesn’t ring hollow. There’s no tension to it, no undercurrent of ulterior motives, and Bruce has almost managed to stop worrying how their relationship would look from the outside.

“Blessed, blessed freedom!” Tony exclaims several minutes later as they clear the bridge. “Jesus Christ, I thought I was going to have my retirement party on that thing.”

“You are a drama queen, Mr. Stark,” Bruce says, but he can’t help smiling.

Tony pulls a face. “Eww, ‘Mr. Stark’ makes me sound like my father. You can blame him for all the melodrama; I do. And you know you think I’m adorable.”

Bruce smiles but doesn’t say anything to that. Any honest answer would probably only encourage the feelings Tony has for him, and although it may be a moot point, all things considered, Bruce really does try to avoid doing that.

“You should hold on to something,” he says instead.

“Why?” Tony says, completely ignoring the advice.

Instead of answering, Bruce checks an open stretch of highway before flooring the gas, upshifting as the whine of the engine rises in pitch.

Tony is yanked back in his seat. He sprawls automatically, open palms grasping for purchase on the door and center console.

“You should listen to me once in a while,” Bruce says over the sound of the engine and the tires on the road. “Your head alright?”

In answer, Tony lets out a breathless, gleeful whoop.

Encouraged, Bruce pushes the car harder, watching as the speedometer passes 110 and 115 then 120 and 130 effortlessly. He wants to keep going, push the gorgeous car as far as it can go, but he’s not willing to risk it with Tony next to him.

“Where’d you learn to drive like this?” Tony asks, grinning.

“It’s amazing what skills three years as a fugitive will teach you,” Bruce says. And okay, maybe he’s showing off a little bit. He pushes down the small voice that says this is encouraging. “If you want, we can go to a track one day, and I’ll teach you.”

Because, yeah, Bruce would much prefer teaching Tony with a helmet involved, never mind that he himself learned this particular skill set by being chased by cars with pretty flashing lights. That’s also how he learned to drive a right-hand drive.

The rest of the drive is uneventful, and Bruce tries to keep it below ninety. Tries, but mostly fails. He slows down once they get into the mountains, but the curvy mountain two-lanes are too appealing for him to stick entirely to the speed limit.

Tony all but has his nose pressed to the glass as they ride, taking in the riotous green of the new leaves in the valley, and Bruce rolls down the windows so they can feel the spring breeze.

Tony leans his head against the side column, briefly closing his eyes as the wind ruffles his dark hair. “Okay,” he concedes. “So maybe you are allowed to pick daytrip spots.”

“We’re not there, yet,” Bruce says. He tilts his head. “You’ve really never been up here before?”

Tony shrugs, eyes still shut. “Dad isn’t really big on vacations unless there’s a business trip on the other end.”

Bruce remembers. Trips to Paris, Florence, Hong Kong, and Prague where Tony, armed with a bodyguard, is left to his own devices while his father attends conferences.

“Besides,” Tony adds, “Can you imagine him and me stuck in a car together? We’d need to have it reupholstered to get rid of the blood stains.”

Bruce laughs despite himself as he turns down a side road. It’s actually quite sad if he thinks about it too long.

He pulls into a small parking area that’s really just a disused patch of gravel with some weeds poking through. Tony follows him out of the car and looks around the shabby clearing skeptically.

“Well,” Tony says, scuffing the gravel with his foot. “This is underwhelming.”

“It’s the trailhead,” Bruce says blandly. “We have a two mile walk to the good part.”

Tony’s eyebrows creep up incredulously. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Bruce garbs the small backpack he packed and swings it over his shoulder. “That is, unless you’re really not at all curious what’s at the end of this trail.”

Predictably, Tony breaks almost instantly. “Fine,” he says. ‘More curious than wise’ has always been one of his most reliable traits.

He follows Bruce onto the trail without any more complaints. The damp leaves under foot muffle their footsteps as they make their way down the narrow path. It’s an easy hike, nothing to give either of them difficulty. The trail is flat, if rather poorly maintained. Fallen trees spot the path every couple hundred feet, and Bruce has the stop several times to confirm that yes, that discolored spot on the tree is indeed the trail marker.

“You’ve gotten us lost, haven’t you?” Tony says the third time he has to do this.

“Not lost. I’m just making sure we’re still on the right trail,” Bruce answers. “Considering this backpack isn’t hiding a tent and some sleeping bags, I’d hate to accidentally end up on one of the backpacking trails we cross.”

At that, Tony’s eyes get a slightly glassy look, and Bruce realizes that yes, he has just inadvertently sparked a new fantasy. Quite possibly one involving huddling for warmth under an emergency blanket.

Tony remains disconcertingly quiet for the rest of the trek, following Bruce single file down the narrow path.

After another half hour, the trail opens up onto a sheer mountain ledge, trees giving way to grey rocks of all shapes and sizes. Tony slows.

The gap in the trees faces precisely west, perfect to watch the sun sink lower on the horizon. The afternoon sun hangs orange above the mountains, still over an hour from setting.

“Wow,” he breathes, eyes wide. He trails his fingers over one of the larger rock formations protruding vertically from the ground. “This is amazing.”

Tony walks to the edge of the clearing where the large, flat slab of rock under their feet drops away into nothingness. “That’s got to be at least a hundred foot drop,” he says, peering down over the side of the cliff.

Bruce snags the back of his shirt. “Let’s not test it,” he says. He lowers himself onto a relatively smooth patch of rock and motions for Tony to join him. He wishes he’d remembered to grab a blanket to sit on, but there’s no helping it now. “I thought we could watch the sunset from here. You can never see so many colors in the city.”

A light spring breeze stirs the leaves, and Bruce rolls down the sleeves of his light jacket before rifling through the backpack. Triumphant, he pulls out two bottles of water and a Ziploc containing two sandwiches he’d thrown together earlier.

“You packed a picnic?” Tony says disbelievingly as he sprawls out next to the older man. “Jesus, I don’t know whether to call you an old soul or just old.”

“Two sandwiches and a pack of M&Ms is hardly a picnic,” Bruce says, tearing open the packet and dumping a few into his hand.

Tony plucks two of the candies from Bruce’s palm and pops them into his mouth. “Dinner and a sunset…” he trails, and there’s something soft under the words.

And okay, when he says it like that, maybe this whole outing does sound like a harebrained idea.

They eat in silence for several more minutes until Bruce toes off his shoes and crosses his feet out in front of him, weight leaned back on his arms and elbows locked.

“Hippie,” Tony says affectionately.

“Not wanting to wear shoes all the time does not make me a hippie,” Bruce protests, but he’s smiling as he says it.

Tony shrugs and shivers slightly as he finishes the last of the M&Ms. The cricket chirps have slowed, and the breeze has turned slightly less pleasant now that the sun is going down.

“Are you cold?” Bruce asks. The stone under them is successfully sapping any and all excess heat.

“I’m fine,” Tony says, but goosebumps cover his arms and legs.

Bruce sighs. ‘Stubborn’ is Tony’s second most reliable trait, located right between ‘curious’ and ‘willfully obnoxious’. He shrugs off his jacket and drapes it across the younger man’s shoulders.

Tony shakes his head in protest. “No, Bruce, I’m fine. Really. You’ll get cold.”

“I’ll be alright,” he huffs. “I’ve got long sleeves and an elevated metabolism.”

Tony doesn’t argue, just pulls the collar of the jacket tighter around his neck and sways into Bruce’s side slightly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce sees Tony sniff not-so-subtly at the collar of the jacket.

“What, do I smell bad?” Bruce asks with an arched eyebrow. “I swear I washed it last week.”

Color instantly floods Tony’s cheeks at being caught. “No, I-- You smell fine,” he mumbles. “I like the way you smell.”

“Seriously? I smell like Dial soap and chemicals.”

“No.” Tony shakes his head, blushing harder. “I mean, you do, but you also just small like you. Like vanilla shampoo and that herbal tea you drink.”

It dawns on Bruce then how they must look sitting out here, Tony wearing his jacket and pressed to his side.

A blush creeps up his cheeks, because holy shit, if he didn’t want to encourage Tony’s feelings, this was definitely the wrong way to go about it, in retrospect. He brought the teenage boy with a crush on him to a remote rock to watch the sunset and eat dinner. If they were any two other people, this would totally be a date.

“Tony,” Bruce starts warily, but Tony shakes his head rapidly.

“No, it’s not one of ‘those things.’ It’s not something I notice because I-- you know--” he says, gesturing vaguely. “Have a thing for you, or whatever. I’ve always liked how you smell, even when I was a kid. It’s, I don’t know, comforting.”

Silence falls again, and the sun starts to make its descent below the mountains. Riotous shades of orange, pink, and yellow color the sky, casting a sepia glow on the entire clearing.

It’s nice, relaxing, sitting here with Tony pressed against his side. Part of Bruce is still screaming, ‘Hello, encouraging, right here,’ but another, quieter part reminds him that they’ve always been like this-- a little too close, basking in each other’s affection like cats in the sun.

“Sometimes I don’t think I really want to take over the company,” Tony says into the quiet. His voice is soft and confiding. “I know I have to. ‘Responsibility’ and all that.”

Bruce stays silent, afraid he’ll break the trance by opening his mouth, and because he doesn’t know what to say to that.

Tony tilts his face up towards the sunset. “I daydream about it a lot,” he continues, even quieter now. “I plan it all out in my head. I’d run away, change my name, and get a job as a mechanic in some no-name town in the Midwest. I always imagine that you come with me. You, I don’t know, research world peace, and I work on cars, and no one knows who we are.”

Bruce hears everything he isn’t saying, the happily ever after he dreams up for himself with Bruce at his side.

Tony bites his lip. “It’s stupid, I know.”

“It’s not,” Bruce says gently. He places his hand reassuringly over the back of Tony’s where it lays at his side. “Tony, you don’t have to take over the company if you don’t want to. There’re other options.”

Tony turns a sad smile on him, and the light from the setting sun haloes his profile. “You know you’re the first person to ever tell me that?”

He turns his hand over under Bruce’s. When the older man doesn’t move, he interlaces their fingers, running his thumb over Bruce’s wrist, and something warm settles in Bruce’s stomach at the motion.

Tony looks up at him, and a mix of emotions Bruce can’t to name lurks behind his eyes. Contentedness and longing and sadness all rolled into one.

It strikes Bruce how beautiful Tony is like this, backlit by the sunset as the last light disappears below the horizon. His chocolate eyes shine in the fading glow, bright and sparkling as ever but edged with sadness.

Raw panic surges through Bruce.

He pulls away from Tony’s grip like he’s been shocked, and the last of the sun sinks behind the mountains, leaving only a burnt orange glow in its wake.

He pulls his shoes towards him, hurriedly forcing his feet into them before standing. “We should go,” he says, unable to meet Tony’s gaze. He can’t look at the hurt and longinghe’d see there, not right now. “It’s already going to be dark before we get back to the car.”

“I--” Tony starts, voice rough, before redirecting. “Yeah. Yeah, sounds smart. I’d hate for you to get us lost, again.”

Tony is quiet for most of the walk back. It’s not the peaceful silence of the hike in, but a tense, heavy silence that makes it hard to breath.

But then, maybe that’s the guilt sitting on Bruce’s chest.

Darkness descends quickly, and they’re almost back to the trailhead when Tony says, “I’m sorry.” His voice comes out choked and hoarse. “I thought-- just for a moment. But I was wrong. I made you uncomfortable, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

Bruce stops abruptly, and Tony bumps into him, nearly toppling over until Bruce grabs his forearm steadying. They’re mere inches apart, Tony looking up at him with eyes that gleam with remorse and something that could be challenge in the near-total darkness.

Bruce takes a blind step backward and looks away.

“Don’t apologize. It’s fine. I shouldn’t have--” He breaks off, shaking his head like a dog trying to rid itself of gnats.

I shouldn’t have brought you out here. I shouldn’t have let you take my hand. I shouldn’t have looked at you like that. I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t--

“Let’s get back to the car,” he finishes lamely, words conveying none of the panic bubbling up his chest like a scream.

They pull out of the parking lot without another word spoken. Tony is silent as Bruce drives-- much slower this time-- back out of the mountains, and he’s asleep before they reach the highway. His head lolls sideways against his seatbelt, the headlights reflected off the asphalt lending his face a soft blue glow.

The quiet ride back gives Bruce plenty of time to dwell on what he’s feeling. He’d hoped it was a one-off, the combined effects of isolation and an arguably romantic location.

But now that he’s seen it, he can’t unsee it.

Even asleep in the seat next to him, Bruce can still see now how beautiful Tony is. The sharp jut of his cheekbones; the soft curve of his lips; the dark shadow of his eyelashes.

He looks away sharply.

And he wishes, wishes like a prayer to an unseen god, that it was all physical. He wishes he only noticed how beautiful Tony is now that he’s growing into himself, because if that were the case, he could go out to a bar. He could charm some willing stranger for the night, roll the dice and relieve some stress. He could feel the intimate press of another body for the first time in years, indulge until he’s satisfied, take until he no longer wants.

But it’s more than that. It’s not physical, as much as he’d like it to be. Just the thought of Tony and sex together sends a squeamish, guilty roil through his insides.

No, it’s emotional, the kind of intimate connection born of years sharing the same space, inhabiting each other’s minds. Nearly nine years spent sharing coffee cups and trading ideas has coalesced into something Bruce never predicted but should have anticipated.

It’s the kind of bond that Bruce wouldn’t hesitate to act on if Tony were an adult but here, now, is beyond inappropriate.

Bruce swallows past the lump in his throat and glances briefly at the sleeping teen next to him.

And yes, below the knotted mass of guilt, confusion, and anger, he still feels the warm tug. Desire more than want, yearning more than need, care more than carnal.

Bruce’s fists clench white on the steering wheel, and he forced himself to focus on the empty highway before him, to let the constant flow of white dashes become his only thought.

Tony Stark is fourteen when Bruce realizes they have a problem.

Chapter Text

14

Tony is fourteen when Pepper orders, “Talk,” over the noise of the bar.

Bruce shakes his head like a dog coming up out of water. “Huh?”

You,” she says. She gestures emphatically enough at him that some of her drink sloshes over the rim of her glass. “You’ve been moping all week.”

She says it jokingly, but there’s a note of genuine concern in her voice. They’re in a dive bar somewhere east of 4th and south of 20th that Pepper managed to drag him to. The noise and cigarette fog of the place should put him on edge, but it seems to be having the exact opposite effect.

They’re each on their third beer, and that’s more than Bruce almost ever drinks. He has no doubt that if it came down to it, Pepper Potts could drink him under the table, accelerated metabolism be damned. Bruce takes a long drink of his beer to buy time before answering.

“I’m fine,” he reassures her. “Just have a lot on my mind these past couple weeks.”

Pepper’s eyes are knowing. “Is it about Tony?”

“You could say that,” he allows. He leans his weight onto the table, letting his shoulders hunch in.

“His crush on you?” she asks.

Bruce’s head snaps up. “What?”

Pepper shakes her head with a fond grin. “Oh come on. There’re maybe some indigenous tribes in South America that don't know about his crush on you. Maybe.”

“Right. Of course.” Bruce says, slumping back in his chair.

“Don’t tell me you just figured it out, and that’s why you’re pouting.”

“I knew,” Bruce says more defensively than he meant to. He isn’t that oblivious. And okay, the problem did sort of have to kiss him in a photobooth a year ago before he noticed, but still.

“Because it’s gotten worse?” Pepper looks at him seriously over the rim of her glass. “Bruce, he’s a teenager. It was bound to happen if he’s attracted to men. Give it six months and he’ll move on.”

It hits Bruce then that Pepper hasn’t even been around them for a year. She's become such an integral part of their lives and their little puzzle-piece family that he sometimes forgets. She hasn’t seen how long Tony’s ‘crush’ has been going on. Hindsight being what it is, Bruce is confident in guessing that Tony's had it since he was at most twelve, maybe even younger. Bruce feels like a moron for not seeing it sooner.

“It’s perfectly normal,” Pepper continues, taking Bruce’s silence as acceptance. “He’ll move on eventually, and things will go back to the way they were.”

Bruce isn’t nearly drunk enough to explain that Tony’s emotions aren't problem, so he nods mutely. Things will never go back to the way they were; Bruce knows that now. Even if Tony moves on, Bruce isn’t sure if he can.

And that-- that thought right there is proof that he’s either drank too much or not enough. He chooses to think it's the latter and downs the remainder of his glass to remedy the situation.

The Budweiser clock on the wall says it's well past one in the morning, and Pepper yawns, stretching wide enough that a sliver of skin shows around her midriff. Bruce idly tracks the movement, but he looks away abruptly when her eyes catch his. She huffs a laugh and takes a sip of her beer.

“I still can’t figure out if you’re polite or just gay,” she says.

For a long moment Bruce draws a blank on what to say to that, and that only makes her smirk.

“If you want the truth,” she starts, drawing out each word, “I dragged you out here tonight to see if you were any less polite or any more interested in women with a few drinks in you. But apparently not.” She sighs and looks at him with one raised eyebrow.

He gives a wan smile. “Sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize.”

He really does, though. Pepper is exactly the kind of woman he would have gone for were he not two and a half weeks into a moral crisis. She’s brilliant, snappy, and fully capable of proverbially kicking his ass. Pepper is good. She’s sane and stable, and Bruce needs more of those things in his life. He wishes he could want her as more than friend to sip beer with.

He’s established through more tests than he can even count-- and okay, that’s a lie; it’s 32-- that he isn’t toxic. Short of there being an unexpected attack, it’s perfectly safe for him to take another person to bed. The thing is, he just doesn’t want to. Apparently his conflicted feelings about Tony have driven away what little libido he had to begin with. He’s sure he could, but he’s not about to do that to Pepper. She deserves better than being used as a tool to assuage Bruce’s guilt.

Bruce's fingers trace the rim of his empty glass. “A little bit of both,” he says.

“Hmm?”

“You asked if I’m polite or just gay-- A little bit of both.”

That makes her laugh. “Ah-well. Probably for the better. Tony would hate me.”

Bruce forces a chuckle because while Tony probably wouldn't outright hate Pepper for stealing Bruce, he’d be more than a little sour about it. The loud, drunken part of Bruce’s brain supplies that he wouldn't just be sour, he’d be heartbroken.

Something in the same vein must go through Pepper’s mind, because they both signal for another round of drinks at the same time.

~*~

Bruce shuffles as quietly as he can down the hall-- which, considering how thoroughly plastered he is, isn’t very. He shoulder-checks the doorframe as he enters his room and is very proud of himself for not tripping over the rug. In the dark, he can just make out the outline of Tony sprawled diagonally across the bed.

The smell of cigarette smoke is radiating off of him like a heat haze, and he knows he’ll regret tonight even more in the morning if he doesn’t take a shower. He opens the dresser drawer and stares into it blankly, momentarily forgetting what he was doing. He stands there, frozen staring at his socks, tonight's conversation echoing through his head next to the memory of that evening in the Catskills.

He can still see Tony’s smile in the sunset, hear his voice shaping the daydream that they could run away together. Bruce’s mind has started drifting back to that day more and more these past weeks. He shakes himself out, forcing his hands into motion. He grabs a shirt and a pair of sweatpants before shutting the drawer with more force than necessary.

On the bed, Tony shifts, and Bruce glances over.

Tony sighs, lips parting, and turns his face into the pillow. His limbs are a graceless sprawl, somehow managing to take up the entire queen bed. He’s tangled in the covers with one leg kicked out of the blankets entirely.

Tony isn’t half as coltish as he was a year ago, sharp edges now smoothing out. His jawline is more filled out, and even in the dark, Bruce can see the sweeping lines of neck and shoulder and collarbone, both more defined and more graceful than they once were. His limbs still have the lankiness of youth, but every day Tony grows more into them, bone and muscle finally starting to reflect the mind underneath.

Tony’s Kiss shirt is hiked up to expose a wide strip of skin to the night air, and Bruce's eyes catch on it. It’s an eerie echo of the earlier moment with Pepper. The difference is, this time Bruce feels the warmth of attraction in his chest as his eyes skate over the skin.

And no. Nope. His mind is not going there, even drunk. The only thing holding the fractured pieces of his peace of mind together lately is the knowledge that it’s not physicality that attracts him to Tony.

Blindly, Bruce takes a step back and promptly trips over an abandoned pair of shoes. “Fuck,” he hisses.

“Bruce?” Tony mumbles. His voice is lower low, a sudden change Bruce still hasn't gotten used to. He stretches, shirt riding up even more, and scrunches his nose blearily. “Wha--? You reek like the bottom of an ashtray.”

“Shower,” Bruce slurs in response. He doesn’t trust his voice any further.

Time for a very long, very frigid shower. He intends to stay there until his metabolism burns through the alcohol and then maybe try to catch a few hours of restless sleep on the library couch. Maybe his mind will start making sense again once he’s sober.

He doubts it.

~*~

14

Tony is fourteen when Bruce tells him he should sleep in his own room.

“What?”

“You heard me,” Bruce says, still staring down at his work so he doesn’t have to see the hurt in the younger man’s eyes.

“But why? Bruce!” Tony circles Bruce’s work station, ducking his head to force Bruce to meet his gaze.

Bruce finally looks up-- because Tony deserves that much, at least-- and he sees exactly what he was afraid of. Even angry and hurt, Tony is beautiful, all passion and righteous indignation and flyaway black hair against tan skin.

He glances back down.

“I’m sorry, Tony, but we have to stop being naïve about this,” is all he says.

Because how do you explain to a fourteen year old that you’re noticing things like the shine of his lips or the careless flop of his hair over chocolate eyes? How do you tell him that it makes your stomach knot up when he looks at you like you hung the moon and wrote the laws of thermodynamics all in one day?

The right answer-- the responsible answer-- is that you don’t.

The black humor of it is that Bruce never got off on Tony sharing his bed, never got anything other than platonic comfort from it, even after his little revelation, but he can’t in good conscience allow Tony to continue, wholly unaware that Bruce now wakes from dreams of him drenched in sweat and nauseous from guilt.

“Look, I’m not going to molest you in your sleep,” Tony bites out, and his flinch says that he knows it’s the exact wrong choice of words as soon as it leave his mouth.

Bruce looks up, beginning to lose his patience. “No, I think the general opinion is that it’s the other way around you should be worried about. People will start to talk. The house staff already do, and how long before it gets into the media? We don’t live in a vacuum.”

The lie comes easy. Bruce knows they’re safe from the media, at least for now. Yes, the staff talk, but no amount of money is worth the wrath of SI’s legal department.

“Since when do you care what people think, huh?” Tony says disbelievingly.

“Since it could hurt you.”

A sneer twists Tony’s. “No, you’re just uncomfortable because I have a thing for you.”

Bruce can feel a tension headache building. He takes a deep breath and forces his voice softer. “It’s not that, Tony. I just don’t think it’s a good idea anymore. Whatever feelings you have for me aren’t the reason.”

“You’re a fucking liar,” Tony says as he bangs out of the lab.

Bruce stares after him and tries to ignore the wave of despair that washes over him. He and Tony have never fought before. Bickered, yes. Argued, yes. Sat through hours of chilled, sulky silence, yes. But never fought. Not like this. That privilege was always reserved for Howard.

That night Bruce doesn’t sleep.

He stares at the wall for nearly an hour, cursing his own overactive brain. Most nights like this, when sleep isn’t elusive but impossible, he’d give up and go back to the lab; but if the menacing clang of metal on metal is anything to go by, Tony was still in there.

And right now, facing Tony is the last thing he needs to do.

Bruce will give in. He knows it as sure as he knows he isn’t going to sleep any time soon. By now Tony will have constructed a perfect argument of fact and sentiment guaranteed to crumble Bruce’s defenses.

Hence why Bruce is still awake constructing counter arguments as he studies the wallpaper.

A small part of his inability to sleep-- loathe though he is to admit it-- is the total lack of Tony. It’s not like Tony is in his room every night, but there’s always the expectation that he could be, the knowledge that if he’s not there, he’s still tinkering in the lab or reading in the library. The room feels lonely without him, like Bruce is trying to readjust to sleeping alone after a divorce.

Bruce flops onto his back, just for a change of scenery. The ceiling is no more sleep-inducing than the wall.

When fifteen minutes trickle by without even the hope of sleep, Bruce decides to try another tactic.

He takes a deep breath, centering himself, and lets one hand drift down to the waistband of his sweatpants. Normally this is something he takes care of in the shower-- less mess, less restriction, less chance of Tony magically appearing in the doorway halfway through-- but honestly, if the endorphin rush of getting off will help him relax enough to get some sleep, he’s not above trying.

He rests his palm flat against his lower belly, letting the warmth seep through the cotton of his t-shirt. His breathing keeps a slow, deep rhythm. Inhale, one, two, three. Exhale, one, two, three.

He doesn’t think about anyone as his hand moves lower to brush against his thigh. Fantasies rarely play a role in him getting off. The touch of his own skin is usually enough for him, the pure physical sensation of it, the pleasure for pleasure’s sake.

Finally, he wraps a hand around himself, grip too loose for anything more than the barest friction. He wills himself to relax into the touch, focuses on the heaviness of his extremities. His grip gradually tightens as he moves his hand.

Pleasure arcs up his spine, and his pace speeds.

Of its own volition, his mind drifts to soft hair under his fingers and a face pressed to his neck, soft skin and patchy stubble against his cheek.

His movements falter for a moment.

It’s not that he never fantasizes, but it’s been a long time. Even thinking of the faceless press of skin against skin is a rarity for him. A lack of sex isn’t something he ever really considered a loss, not something he particularly missed.

He knows thanks to his barrage of tests that his semen isn’t dangerous, and elevated heart rate alone can’t make him change. Theoretically, sex isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but he’s not ‘lacking’ sex so much as not seeking it.

Even so, fantasies of a nondescript man or even the occasional woman pressed to him aren’t unheard-of. He lets his pace even out again, and his free finger wander, exploring and pressing.

He thinks of a body pressed against his, of wrapping his arms around a narrow waist and letting warmth flow between them.

A moan escapes his lips, unbidden, and he arches up into his own touch.

He thinks of kissing soft lips, slightly chapped from a nervous habit of biting them, and he’s too far gone to wander where he got something that specific.

His pace turns frantic, and one of his feet is planted against the mattress for leverage.

He thinks of a mouth warm and damp against the underside of his jaw. He thinks of that mouth turning up into a sly grin. He thinks of a breathless, unabashed laugh and long lashes shadowing sharp brown eyes.

Horror shoots through Bruce, and he comes, pleasure contracting his muscles.

He’s staggering up and out of bed before the aftershocks have even dissipated, nausea and regret chasing the pleasure like venom. He clings to the edge of the bed, knees unsteady as his world tilts on its axis.

He staggers into the en-suite, flipping on the light and sinking to his knees on the tile. He blinks as his eyes adjusts and stares at the toilet as another wave of guilt threatens to make him sick.

He’s dreamed of Tony before, dreamed of kissing him, of holding him, but those were dreams. They were always relatively chaste, and he could assuage the guilt by reminding himself that he had zero control over the images his mind conjured while he slept.

This, though-- this is a new low. This is somewhere he’s never allowed his mind to venture while awake. The thought of Tony like that feels like a betrayal. Of trust. Of love. Of everything they’ve been to one another through the years.

He thinks of leaving, of running, of finding an understaffed refugee hospital somewhere on the other side of the globe. He thinks of giving himself away piece by piece until he loses himself completely, until there’s nothing else to give and he becomes a shadow of the man he is now.

He could leave tonight. Pack his duffle and take a red-eye from LaGuardia to nowhere he knows.

He thinks about it long enough that it begins to form into a plan-- a plan that will start as soon as he works up the nerve to push himself up off the bathroom floor.

But of course that’s the moment that the bedroom door bangs open.

“Okay, I know you said I couldn’t sleep here tonight, but I’ll sleep on the fucking floor if I have to. I can’t sleep in my room, and two nights without sleep is overkill even for me. Bruce? Where are--” Tony stops short as he rounds the corner into the bathroom.

The too bright light filtering through the doorway casts his shadow back into the dark bedroom, the worry writ on his features standing out in sharp relief.

“Bruce, are you alright?”

“Fine,” he manages.

“What, do you have a stomach bug or something?” Tony asks, concern instantly replacing the agitation in his voice.

Bruce can’t look at him. “Yeah. You should probably leave.”

“I can bring you Gatorade or saltines or--” He cuts himself off as his eye track over Bruce, taking in the full picture. The dark stain on the front of his undone sweatpants. The pale, clammy skin. The scent of sex in the air. “Oh. Really? I didn’t think--”

Tony,” Bruce pleads, “For once in your life will you please do what I say and leave.”

It’s humiliating. This isn’t an image he ever wanted in Tony’s head, him kneeling on a bathroom floor, broken and busted and wrong.

If he had to pick a low point of the years since he came to Stark Mansion, this would be it.

Tony crosses his arms over his chest. “No.”

Bruce can’t tell if he wants to scream, cry, or throw up. He needs space. He needs separation. He needs Tony not to be standing in the doorway with that knowing look.

He doesn’t get any of those things and doesn’t suspect he’s going to.

“You got off thinking about me,” Tony says, and god, since when can his voice even go that low? “This is why you wanted me out of your bed. Because you’re attracted to me now.”

“It’s not what you-- I don’t-- It won’t--” Bruce starts, cutting himself off each time. Because what’s he going to say?

‘It’s not what you think?’ It is.

‘I don’t think of you like that?’ Apparently I do.

‘It won’t happen again?’ Who’s to say it won’t?

Instead he settles on, “How?”

Tony takes a step into the room, biting his lip absently. “Your pants are undone, you’re hanging over a toilet like you’re waiting to be sick, and you’re wearing your guilty face. It doesn’t take a genius. Grown men aren’t normally guilt ridden about jerking it.”

“It doesn’t matter. I can’t--”

Tony ignores him and steps further into the room, bare feet soundless on the tile floor. “Look at me. Please.”

Reluctantly, Bruce obeys and looks up, finally meeting his eyes. And yes, those are definitely the same eyes he was thinking about. The thought makes him look away almost immediately. “It’s past midnight. You should go to bed,” he says.

Instead of listening, Tony sits on side of tub and says softly, “Do you know that I don’t sleep on the nights I’m not here?”

Bruce glances up, brow furrowed. “What?”

“I figured you’d want some alone time, so I made a point not to sleep in here every night and alternate which nights I show up. I didn’t want to bother you. But you see the thing is, I can’t sleep when I’m not with you,” Tony says.

He picks idly at the hem of his overlarge sleep shirt and continues, “I’m a chronic insomniac. The nights I’m not here, I either work in the lab or sit in the library reading. Sometimes I can doze off on the library couch, but not often. I didn’t want you to find out. I didn’t want you to let me stay with you out of pity. Some nights I’d sit outside your bedroom door hoping that that’d be enough for me to get some sleep.”

“When you were little?” Bruce asks despite himself.

“No, last month. Fucking creepy and codependent, right?” Tony’s laugh is short and hollow. “What I’m getting at is that me staying in your bed isn’t something sexual. Yeah, I have a thing for you, but it’s not--”

Tony breaks off and tilts his head back, searching for the right words.

When he finds them, they come slowly. “Yes, maybe there are nights when I enjoy being next to you a bit too much, but it’s not about that. That’s not why I stay. Around you I can relax enough to shut my brain off for a while. I’m comfortable with you like I’m not with anyone else.”

Tony reaches out a hand to run his thread through Bruce’s messy hair.

Bruce flinches from his touch, but Tony pays no heed, scritching lightly at the curls. The touch is comforting, and it’s a comfort Bruce doesn’t deserve.

“Tony,” Bruce breathes, “You really should go.”

“Shut up, and let me finish talking before you have the rest of your freak out,” he says. “Us sharing a bed doesn’t have to be something sexual. Clearly you’re not comfortable with whatever you feel towards me, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be a factor.”

“It’s always going to be a factor, Tony. Whether you want it to be or not. You’re fourteen. I’m thirty-seven. There’s a big difference between you being attracted to me and me being attracted to you. It’s not right that I-- thought about you like that.”

“Why?” Tony challenges. “Do you plan on doing something about it?”

The blood drains from Bruce’s face at the thought. “Tony, no. I would never-- Fuck, I’d never do that. I couldn’t hurt you that way.”

“Okay, then,” Tony says like that’s the end of it. He’s silent for several moments, eyeing Bruce’s legs where they’re folded awkwardly under him, before he asks, quieter now, “Do you ever wonder why on the rare occasion we actually talk about this, I always say I have ‘a thing’ for you instead of a crush on you?”

He lets the question hang, obviously not expecting an answer.

“’A crush’ is what preteen girls get on pop stars. ‘A crush’ is what I felt when I was eleven and you’d ruffle my hair.” Tony looks down at his clasped hands and licks his lips. “’Crush’ isn’t nearly a big enough word for what I feel for you, but I’ve always been 99.3% sure you’d freak right the fuck out if I say I’m in love with you. So, I say it’s ‘a thing’.”

Bruce runs a tired hand over his face. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why?” Tony asks, voice like an ice razor. “Because you don’t think I’m old enough know what I want? What I feel?”

“That’s the problem, Tony. I think you are, and sometimes I forget that maybe you aren’t,” Bruce says. His voice sounds hoarse and haggard, even to his own ears.

“I know you do. I know what I feel, I know what I want, and I know my limits. I wouldn’t do anything I couldn’t handle, even if you asked.”

“That does make me feel a bit better,” Bruce says, forcing a small smile. “But that still doesn’t address the main problem here.”

“And what will? You leaving?” Tony asks, voice hard. Bruce opens his mouth to answer, but Tony points a finger at him accusingly. “And don’t you dare take that to mean you should leave.”

“But I should,” Bruce says, and the words come out like a plea, like he’s begging Tony’s permission to run from this, to run and run until his own desires are lost in a haze of exhaustion and selfless acts. “I should’ve left seven years ago when I realized you were starting to get attached to me. I should’ve, but I was too selfish.”

“And where do you think I’d be if you’d left back then, huh? At some boarding school resenting my father while acting like an over privileged ass-lamp. I’d have no one, and no one but myself to blame.”

“You trust me, and you shouldn’t. That’s what I can’t make you understand.”

“Why, because you turn into the Jolly Green Giant? Tough luck, but that excuse is invalid. The one time you lost it around me, you saved my life. There’re pictures of me riding on the Hulk’s shoulder. Argument officially null.”

“That’s not what I--”Bruce shakes his head. “Yes, but that’s not what I mean.”

“Because you’re attracted to me?” Tony asks, and his eyes soften, a hint of sadness creeping in. “You can’t just stop yourself from being attracted to someone, no matter how inconvenient. And trust me, as someone who’s been queer, closeted, and twelve, I’ve tried. Beating yourself up over it isn’t going to make it any better.”

He slides off the edge of the tub to kneel next to his friend. “I trust you, Bruce, and unless you give me a real reason not to, nothing has to change between us.”

He wraps an arm around Bruce’s shoulders in a loose hug and cups the back of his neck, pulling his head down to rest against the crook of his neck. And maybe it’s more comfort that Bruce deserves, but he takes it anyway, allowing himself to enjoy it, just for a moment, to relax into the embrace and bury his face against the juncture of skin and t-shirt.

His breath is warm on Tony’s neck, and Tony's skin smells like grease and stale coffee and the aftershave he stole from Bruce. But the feelings it provokes aren’t inappropriate, not by any stretch. Bruce feels warmth and affection and compassion.

This is familiar-- Tony’s arms around his chest, Tony’s face pressed to his hair. This Bruce knows. Tony’s slim frame is a solid reassurance against him, a reassurance that everything will be okay.

After a minute he tries to disengage from the embrace, but Tony catches his wrist and burrows closer. “You’re not leaving, right?”

“I don’t think I can,” Bruce says against his shirt.

They sit like that for several more minutes, Tony idly rubbing circles into Bruce’s neck and Bruce letting him. His back is getting very insistent in its objections to the floor, but he ignores it.

“Come on,” Tony says after a while, pushing to his feet and motioning for Bruce to follow suit.

Reluctantly, Bruce stands, and his knees pop audibly.

Tony raises his eyebrows. “I would so totally make a joke about you being old right now, but that’s poor timing even for me,” he says, then gives Bruce a quick once-over and grimaces. “Yeah, let’s find you some new pants.”

A faint blush slides up Bruce’s cheeks. He fumbles out a weak protest as Tony makes for the dresser, but the teen ignores him, sifting through the drawers two at a time. Bruce doubts he leaves a single shirt unwrinkled or sock paired, but after a moment he returns holding a pair of grey shorts.

“Put these on,” he says, pushing them to the taller man’s chest. Bruce hesitates, and Tony rolls his eyes with an exasperated hiss of breath. He turns his back to Bruce and holds his hands out at his sides. “Happy now? My innocent little virgin eyes won’t be violated. But seriously, it’s not like those sweats are hiding much without underwear.”

Bruce’s face heats even more, and he puts his back to Tony, shucking out of the ruined pants with quick, economic motions and pulling the shorts on, knotting the drawstring for good measure.

“Virgin, maybe, but innocent, I highly doubt,” Bruce quips, trying to defuse the tension.

A surprised laugh escapes Tony. “You got that right.” He turns to face the other man again and gives what Bruce can only call a leer. “And yes, I am a virgin, if that’s relevant to your fantasies.”

Bruce gives a squawk like a scandalized maiden aunt. “That’s not a--”

“The next word out of your mouth had better not be ‘appropriate’. Nothing about tonight’s topic of conversation has been remotely appropriate. Our conversations rarely are. I’m not going to start censoring myself around you just because you thought about me with your hand on your dick,” Tony says frankly. “It doesn’t bother me what you think about when you get off. God knows I’ve thought about you enough times.”

Another pained noise escapes Bruce.

“Don’t be such a prude. If we’re talking about this finally, we’re doing it thoroughly. In for a penny, and all that,” Tony says. He catches Bruce’s hand, tugging him towards the bed.

Bruce balks, digging his heels in as his last memories from that bed come back in lurid detail. “Tony, no,” he says. He intends it to sound stern, but the words only hang tiredly.

“Oh, come on. I’m not going to try to seduce you,” Tony says incredulously, adding in a muttered undertone, “You might implode from guilt.”

And Bruce gives in like Tony knew he would, like he always does, because he’s too tired to argue and maybe a little too caught up in the young man next to him to care. He lets himself be pulled onto the bed after Tony, as if not going under his own power somehow makes him less culpable.

He lays down on his back as Tony settles next to him, not quite touching but still close enough for Bruce to feel his warmth. He wants to go to sleep, wants this night to be over already, but he can tell Tony’s gearing up to say more.

“Okay,” Tony starts, propping himself up on an elbow beside Bruce. “I need to ask you something, and I don’t want you to get weird about it.”

Bruce turns his head on the pillow to look at him. “Whatever you need to know,” he says, because it’s the least he can give and it’s not like anything Tony asks can make this night any less appropriate.

Tony runs his teeth over his lower lip nervously. “How long have you been attracted to me?” he asks. “Whatever the answer is, it’s fine.”

So, Bruce was wrong. So utterly and completely wrong. It can definitely get less appropriate. Something of his thoughts must show on his face.

“Jesus, Bruce, I’m not asking you if you’re a goddamn pedophile,” Tony says with no small amount of venom. “I’m not giving you carte blanche here. I know you. If you had--” He waves his free hand vaguely before letting it flop back down to the duvet. “’Ill intentions’ towards me, I wouldn’t be sitting here because you wouldn’t be you.”

Tony lets out one long exhale, and it’s the first time in all of this that he’s sounded tired, like this is a conversation he’d rather not be having. He scoots closer to Bruce until the few inches of mattress left between them are closed, pressing to Bruce’s side from toe to chin. His ankles curl around Bruce’s leg, feet pushing the hair there against the grain.

Bruce wants to feel ashamed about how reassuring the gesture is, but he can’t summon the energy.

“I know you in all your beautiful pansexual objectivist glory. No matter when you became attracted to me, it was to me, not my age,” he says. He lays his head on Bruce’s chest, ear pressed flat to his t-shirt like he’s listening for a heartbeat. Bruce wonders if he can hear how fast it’s beating.

The silence lengthens, and Tony doesn’t push for an answer. At last Bruce says, words catching in his throat, “The hiking trip right before your birthday.”

“Okay,” Tony says simply. “That’s all I needed to know.”

Bruce swallows, and after several breaths he says. “If I can ask, how long have you--?”

“Since I was ten. It terrified me at first,” Tony says. Bruce tenses at the words, and Tony thumps him on the chest. “Not like that. I was scared because I was ten and realized I had a thing for my much older male best friend. I couldn’t talk to anyone-- you were the only person I told stuff like that, and obviously that wasn’t an option. I didn’t know what to do.”

“I never realized,” Bruce whispers. “Not until Coney Island.”

“I know you didn’t,” Tony says, and something in the words feels like a blessing. He looks up at Bruce in the dark. “Go to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Maybe it’s cowardly, but Bruce doesn’t protest. He falls asleep with his arm curled around Tony’s shoulders.

~*~

When Bruce wakes the next morning, it’s to find Tony still burrowed against his chest, not an inch further away than he was the night before. Bruce gingerly disentangles himself from Tony’s octopus hold, careful not to wake him.

He washes his face at the bathroom sink and stares at his reflection for a long minute. It’s been three days since he shaved, and his bedraggled curls look like he hasn’t washed them in a week. Last night feels surreal-- like the memory of alcohol-fueled celebrations during his grad years. And like some of those nights during grad school, mortification tinged with regret colors the memories.

When he steps back into the bedroom, Tony perched on the edge of the bed. “Done hyperventilating in the bathroom?” he asks.

“I wasn’t hyperventilating,” Bruce says.

“Having a moral crisis, then.”

Bruce sits down next to him, leaving a good two feet between them. He wasn’t having another freak out in the bathroom, but he doesn’t tell Tony that. The truth is, he moved past the point of crisis last night, and even after a solid night’s sleep he’s too tired to process the full implications of their situation. He feels old-- much older than thirty-seven.

“Thank you,” he says simply, pulling Tony into a brief one-armed hug. “You’ve handled all of this very maturely.”

Tony’s expression darkens, and Bruce knows immediately that he chose the wrong words. “That sounds like you’re trying to say goodbye again. It sounds like you’re trying to push me away and say goodbye.”

“I’m not,” Bruce assures him. “I’m not going to leave unless you want me to, but last night changes things. I don’t know how to move forward from here.”

“Well, you can start by treating me the same as you’ve always treated me and by giving me a real hug instead of some half-assed one,” Tony says. “If I’ve got to put up with your angsting, I’m getting a real hug.”

Bruce can’t help his rusty laugh and doesn’t protest when Tony loops both arms around his neck. Tony’s warmth is as comforting as its always been, but Bruce wishes he couldn’t feel the markedly non-platonic way Tony nuzzles at his neck.

“Tony,” he says warningly.

He’s not surprised when Tony doesn’t listen. He places a light kiss behind Bruce’s ear.

“Tony, stop,” Bruce says, and this time he pushes Tony back. “If you want me to treat you like nothing’s changed, you have to start acting like it.”

“I’m in high school, you know,” Tony says petulantly. “I leave for college next fall.”

“I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t do this.”

“Because I’m too young?” Tony asks.

“Because I’m too old,” Bruce says.

“You’re not old.”

“My knees pop every time I stand up, and my back hurts when I sit too long. I’m old.”

“You’re really not,” Tony repeats.

“I am compared to you,” Bruce whispers emphatically. “Your parents trust me with your safety. They’ve vouched for me, given me a roof over my head and a second shot at a career. I can’t betray their trust or the trust you place in me.”

Tony runs a hand over Bruce’s stubble. “You wouldn’t hurt me,” he says.

“I could hurt you so easily without even meaning to, and I don’t think you fully comprehend that. We’re too close. We’re each other’s best friends, and for years we’ve lived out of each other’s pockets. To act on what I feel for you, even if you feel the same-- Tony, that would be emotional manipulation verging on abuse.”

Bruce saw too many kids with that haunted look in their eyes during his time in Kolkata, and he can’t bear to be one to make Tony’s eyes lose their shine.

“Abuse,” Tony scoffs. “You really think--”

“I need to show you something, okay?” Bruce says, cutting him off. Before he can second guess his actions, he strips his t-shirt over his head. Tony never sees him without a shirt, and that’s no happy accident. Bruce isn’t self-conscious, per-say; he just never wanted to answer the questions he knew Tony would ask, never wanted to see the worry and pity in Tony’s eyes.

Whatever Tony is expecting, it evidently isn’t this. He stares in shock for several moments. The scars are blurred and stretched with age, but still visible. At least six mottle his chest and back, varying from thin, clean lines to the remnants of jagged gashes.

“Bruce,” he breathes. He reaches towards the scar arcing along Bruce’s ribcage but hesitates, glancing at Bruce for permission. Bruce nods almost imperceptibly. Tony’s fingers trace the raised length, delicate like he expects Bruce to shatter, and Bruce can’t help the twitching involuntary under his touch.

“If you’re trying to put me off, it’s not working. Quite the opposite,” Tony says, forcing a smirk. Despite the attempt at levity, Bruce sees Tony’s brain filing through all of the possible sources of the scars. “Did General Ross-- No, wait. You couldn’t scar by then,” Tony murmurs, beginning to piece the truth together. Bruce lets him work it out on his own.

Open horror crosses Tony’s face for the first time. “How old were you when you got these?” he asks, touching one of the more obviously stretched marks.

“Five. Seven. Ten. Twelve. A couple in between that I’ve forgotten. Or blocked,” he adds as an afterthought.

“Who did this to you? Where are they?” Tony says. And fuck, Bruce never knew that Tony could look like this-- like he’s two steps from ordering a hit on some unknown entity.

“Wasting away in a padded cell,” Bruce says.

That’s the way he likes it. Death is better than Brian Banner deserves.

Who?

Bruce swallows. He started this conversation, and he has to see it through. “My father,” he says after a moment.

“Your father?!” Tony shouts. “How could-- What--?”

“You know that your parents are my godparents and that I lived with them before I left for college, right?” Bruce says, staring down at his clasped hands.

Tony nods.

“I came to live with them after my father killed my mom in front of me. She was trying to protect me, and he bashed her head in for it. He’d abused both of us for years-- thought it was unnatural how smart I was, among other things.” Bruce says the words blandly, a nearly emotionless statement of fact.

Tony is visibly shaken, but he steels himself, asking, “How? How did he-- What did he do?”

“No,” Bruce says sharply. Then kinder, “No, Tony. That’s not something you need to know right now. What he did… It was a long time ago.”

Tony doesn’t need to hear the specifics about how the scar on his shoulder came from a flight of concrete stairs or the one on his side from a broken vodka bottle. Not all Bruce’s wounds show up on his skin, but they’ve all scared over with time.

Bruce will never tell Tony how many of those unseen scars he’s helped heal. He’ll never know how he helped Bruce reclaim the sense of self he gave away in refugee hospitals or the way he taught Bruce that some things are worth staying in one place for.

“Did he ever…?” Tony trails, looking scared of the answer, and Bruce can guess what he’s trying to ask.

He shakes his head. “Brian Banner was a monster, but not that kind.”

Tony looks like he wants to say something. Bruce can see the apology forming on his lips, so he shakes his head. “Don’t apologize,” Bruce says. “You don’t even have to say anything. It’s just something you need to know to understand.”

“Understand what? Why are you telling me this now?”

“Understand why I have to be so careful with you, Tony. Understand why I’m telling you no. I was abused for most of my childhood-- if it can even be called that. I spent nearly thirteen years afraid, and I can’t do that to you. Never. Maybe you don’t see it now, but acting on my attraction to you would be taking advantage of your feelings. Abuse.”

Carefully, like he thinks he’ll startle him, Tony stands and move to stand next to Bruce where he sits on the bed. He reaches out to take Bruce’s hand.

“You will never be like him,” Tony says deliberately. “You’re not a monster, even when you’re green and rampaging.”

He slowly leans forward to press a kiss to a scar arching across Bruce's shoulder before wrapping his arms around the older man’s waist. This time there’s nothing sexual about the embrace, just comfort and caring, and the press of Tony’s body is so familiar that Bruce automatically brings his arms up to return the embrace. Their breathing syncs up after a minute, and the platonic affection is painfully familiar. Even with Tony’s added weight, Bruce’s shoulders feel lighter.

Bruce can almost pretend everything is alright-- that flames aren't licking at his hard-won peace.

Tony pulls back from the embrace. “Hold still,” he says. “Please. Just this once.”

Slowly, deliberately, Tony sways towards him. He kisses Bruce softly on the lips, and while Bruce doesn’t kiss back, he doesn’t move away, either. He holds still and lets himself be kissed, the hand on Tony’s waist frozen in the movement of pushing him away.

“That was all me,” Tony says when he moves away. His hands tremble, but a giddy smile threatens to overwhelm his nervous expression. “No coercion, no abuse, and don’t you dare insult my by arguing. I’m old enough to know what I want.”

Bruce opens his mouth, closes it, and flounders. He’s spent all these years treating Tony like he’s old enough to make his own decisions, and he can’t abandon that just because it’s inconvenient. This whole situation would be easier if he told Tony flat out that he’s too young to make this sort of decision, but Bruce knows that isn't true.

Tony is old enough to make his own choices, and it’s up to Bruce to make his independent of what Tony chooses.

Finally, he asks helplessly, "I suppose I can’t convince you to stay out of my room at night?”

“If you really don’t want me in here, lock your door,” Tony tosses over his shoulder as he walks out.

Bruce knows he won’t. He knows it would be best for both of them if he did, but he’ll never lock Tony out of his room. Bruce can see through the bravado covering both Tony’s nerves and his delight, and he knows that he could never shut him out.

Chapter Text

14

Tony is fourteen when Bruce pretends not to hear the arguing for the fourth time in as many weeks.

Bruce leans his elbows on the lab table and tries not to make out the words. They're muffled through two sets of doors and half a house, but Howard and Tony have carrying voices. The argument has been going on for ten minutes, rehashing all of the old hurts not covered in the last month's worth of shouting.

"I got into MIT. MIT!" Tony yells. "And I don't even get a 'congratulations' from you. Just a curt nod and a grunt."

"That's because I wouldn't expect anything less from you. I know what you're capable of, Anthony, and anything less than MIT isn't it." Howard isn't shouting, per say. His voice is a cool boom echoing through the mansion.

"Is that supposed to be a compliment? I can never tell with you."

"Then run back to the lab to the only person you bother making an effort with."

"At least Bruce bothered to tell me 'good job!'" Tony shouts. "And maybe you don't put in enough effort to know it, but I have friends besides Bruce. I have an entire life that you just don't care about because it doesn't do anything for the company!"

Bruce knows the argument isn't about him, not really, but it shakes him to hear his name dragged into this. He worries that Tony's feelings for him are just because Bruce shows him normal human affection without using it as a bargaining chip, and he really doesn't want to think about the implications of that. Tony has other friends now, friends who have gradually shown him how normal relationships function. Bruce knows this, but he still worries.

"You want to talk about effort?" Tony's voice continues. "Tell me the last time you asked me about something that wasn't a patent pending. When was the last time you showed up to a chess tournament? I'm a grandmaster. Did you know that? I mean, I know I told you, but that doesn't mean anything with you. Not like you give a shit what I say."

"Get out."

"With pleasure."

Predictably, Tony's footfalls make a beeline for the lab, and he hits the handprint scanner with more force than necessary. He pauses when he catches sight of Bruce leaning on the table.

"You heard that, then?" Tony asks, not quite making eye contact.

Bruce only nods mutely.

"Sorry."

"Don't," Bruce says. "You don't have to apologize to me."

Tony lets out a humorless huff. "He was plastered, you know? Must have been quarter of a bottle down by the time the shooting started. He can't even do me the courtesy of being sober when we have it out. At least he's functional enough to remember it tomorrow. Father of the year, right there."

Bruce stays silent, opting to let Tony talk off the residual anger. This isn't a fight he needs to get in the middle of. Instead, he takes a step closer and puts a comforting hand on Tony's shoulder.

"You know I can count the number of times he's said he loves me on one hand? Two fingers of one hand, actually." Tony says. He's still avoiding looking directly at Bruce. "And forget him saying he's proud of me. That's never going to happen. Nothing I do is ever going to be good enough to live up to the Howard Stark legacy."

"He is proud of you, Tony," Bruce says. "He does love you. He might not say it in as many words, but he does."

Bruce knows it's true. The pressure and the expectations are Howard's way of showing that he cares, but Bruce can't help agreeing with Tony.

"He has one hell of a way of showing it," Tony says. "He should be the one telling me that, not you. You shouldn't have to. It's not your job to make up for his lack of parenting skills."

"I don't have to," Bruce says and ducks his head until Tony is forced to meet his eyes. "I'm proud of you. Never forget that." He takes a breath because the next words stick in his throat now the way they never did before last year. "I love you."

He means it to be affectionate, comforting, reassuring, but that's not how the words sound when they leave his mouth. Bruce is probably the one who's said those words most to Tony over the years. Little 'I love you's before bed and long trips, praise when Tony does well on an exam or reassurances when he does poorly-- for years those have been Bruce's purview, not Howard's.

He's said those words plenty of times, but they've never come out in that tone before-- the 'I'm in love with you' tone.

Tony evidently hears it too, because he asks, "In what way?"

Bruce rubs his eyes. "I don't even know anymore," he says hoarsely, because saying 'all of them' is definitely out of line. There’s no use lying, not to Tony. Tony, who sees through his deflections better than anyone he’s ever known.

"I love you," Tony says. He takes a step closer. "But you already knew that."

"Tony," Bruce warns.

Predictably, Tony doesn't listen. He leans in and traces his nose up Bruce's neck, his breath ghosting over the sensitive spot just behind his ear.

"We can't do this," Bruce says with an effort. All he wants to do is put his arms around Tony and give him what he wants.

"Why? My daddy issues?" Tony prods, still prickly from the fight. "You can say it. You think I've fixated on you because I don't get love from him or some psychoanalytical bullshit like that."

"You're upset, and you're not thinking clearly."

Tony makes a frustrated noise. "Yes, part of the reason I have feelings for you is because you're good to me, but that has nothing to do with Howard Stark. He could be the best father ever, and I'd still feel the same for you. You're a good man, Bruce. A kind man. That's why I love you."

Bruce wants to protest that a good man wouldn't have this kind of conversation with a teenager, but Tony is close enough that they're sharing breath. A good man would lean away when Tony leans in, but Bruce isn't as good of a man as Tony believes.

He lets Tony close the distance between them and holds still as Tony kisses him without much coordination. He raises a hand to push him away, but somehow ends up cupping the side of Tony's neck instead-- not pulling him closer, but not pushing him away, either.

For just a moment, Bruce kisses back. He gives in to the gravitational pull, and lets his lips move against Tony's. He kisses back before he remembers all of the Very Good Reasons he's not allowed to do this.

Bruce pulls back so their foreheads are pressed together. "We can't. Not now," Bruce says, and desperation tinges the words.

Tony gives a watery smile. "I know." He presses his face into the juncture of Bruce's neck and shoulder, and Bruce wishes he could do something about the dampness of Tony's eyes. "But... can you just hold me for a while? Nothing wrong with that."

Bruce disagrees, but he doesn't let go. He lets Tony pretend he isn't crying into his shoulder and rubs circles into his back. Bruce hopes Tony can hear everything he doesn't know how to say.

~*~

14

Tony is still fourteen at half past ten the night of May 28th, 2007.

Bruce hovers at the edge of the ballroom, eying chatting businessmen and twirling heresies. As he watches, feeling roughly as out or place as a stray dog, the thought occurs to him that he wasn’t this awkward at his high school prom. At least he dances at prom.

He clutches a champagne flute close to his chest like a lifeline, because at least it’s something to do with his hands that isn’t trying to unravel the hem of his suit jacket. He recognizes some of the SI employees that pass, but most are well above his pay grade. None of his little hodgepodge research team are present, and he gets the distinct feeling that none of them would want to be.

A man he identifies as the head of legal throws him a curious glance, and Bruce can read lips well enough to know that he’s asking the hedge fund manager next to him if he knows who Burse is. Predictably, the other man doesn’t.

Bruce moves to take another sip of his champaign and is dismayed to find the glass empty.

As if summoned, a smartly dressed waiter with a tray of champagne materializes at his elbow.

“You are a godsend,” Bruce murmurs, just low enough for the man to hear.

The waiter’s lips twitch. “I do my best,” he says before vanishing as quickly as he appeared.

Another curious glance from an employee making her way to the dance floor, and Bruce has to grit his teeth and remind himself he’s here for Tony. The birthday-cum-graduation party is far from the ‘small affair’ Tony requested, and Bruce is ninety percent certain that he’s Tony’s only real friend here.

It doesn’t matter that none of the assembled crowd know who he is to the Starks. That’s what he wanted-- anonymity, and having it known that he lives in Stark Mansion is certainly not that. One or two of the general science staff might have put the pieces together, but most people with enough clout to be here tonight are clueless as to what his place in Tony’s life is.

The discomfort must be plainly visible on his face, because Tony catches his eye over the shoulder of the stockbroker’s daughter he’s dancing with and raises his eyebrows in silent question. Bruce nods minutely and tries to give a reassuring smile. He doesn’t suspect it works.

Tony’s People Pleasing face is out in full force, and Bruce thinks wildly that he’d do just about anything to make it go away. These days, Howard almost never loses his public face, and Bruce can’t help fearing that that will happen to Tony, that the pleasantly interested expression will stick like a mask he’s forgotten how to take off. Bruce can hardly recognize the most familiar person in his life.He doesn’t normally come to these events because he hates seeing Tony so miserable while everyone else think he’s having fun, hates seeing him paraded around like a prized walking horse in preparation for the day he takes over as CEO. A day which, at least in Howard’s mind, is a foregone conclusion.

As soon as the waltz ends, Tony makes a beeline for Bruce’s patch of wall, nimbly dodging every person set on waylaying him. He sidles up to Bruce, one hand in his trouser pocket, the other holding a glass of sparkling water.

“Do I look that uncomfortable?” Bruce asks in lieu of greeting.

“Nah,” Tony says dismissively. “Just like the hors d'oeuvres have given you a stomach ache.”

“Because that’s so much better.”

Tony merely shrugs. “You should be proud of me.”

“Oh?” Bruce asks. “And why’s that?”

“Because I’m A-- deathly board and B-- dead sober,” Tony says. “Usually at these things it’s ‘if A then not B’. I just thought that me getting drunk off my ass might worry you.”

“Tony--” Bruce starts.

“Yeah, yeah. I know.”

The silence that follows isn’t awkward, not quite, but it’s a near thing. Bruce casts around for something, anything, to say and lands on, “Are you nervous?”

“About what?” Tony asks.

“Tomorrow.”

“Of course not. What do I have to be nervous about?” Tony smirks easily, and the expression is so much a part of his Public Face that Bruce’s chest tightens.

“You graduate tomorrow-- valedictorian speech and all,” Bruce says. “You’re allowed to be nervous.”

The Public Face flickers, then dies, and suddenly it’s the Tony that Bruce recognizes standing before him.

“Okay, maybe a little nervous,” he allows. He looks out over the crowd, considering. “You know I’ve danced with almost every woman here under thirty? Most of them are okay, but a couple of them? Jesus, I’ve never been so aggressively hit on in my life. I can’t tell if they just want to marry someone with more money than daddy or if there’s some kind of bet on about who can deflower me.”

Bruce chokes gracelessly on the sip of champaign he’d been in the process of taking, and the bubbles burn his nose. “Please tell me you’re joking,” he croaks, swallowing against the urge to start coughing.

“I wish.” Tony looks sideways at him with a lazy smirk. “Don’t worry; I’m not going to take any of them up on it.”

“It’s your choice if you do,” Bruce says and tries his best to ignore how the words burn worse than the champaign.

The look Tony gives him is considering. “I’ve danced with almost every woman here under thirty, and you know what? I can’t dance with the only person in this room I really want to.”

Tony looks away, back out over the crowed, and Bruce has nothing he can say to that. Tony evidently doesn’t expect a response, because he continues, “I could ask for just about anything I want for my birthday, and yet somehow the only thing I actually, honest-to-god want is to dance with you, and that’s the one thing I can’t have.”

Bruce downs the rest of his champagne in two quick swallows, feeling suddenly wreckless. “Come on,” he says. He moves purposefully towards the exit, trusting that Tony will follow, for all the world like he had any idea what he’s doing. One in the empty hall, his dress shoes squeak on the marble floors.

Tony jogs to keep up, the fabric of this suit jacket rustling as he speeds. “What’re we doing?” he asks.

“Something amazingly stupid,” Bruce says, grinning. He takes Tony’s hand to pull him further down the hall, and as the warmth seeps into Bruce’s palm, he blames it on that last glass of champagne.

Bruce tries doors at random intervals as they walk, jiggling handles uselessly until one finally gives way. The room inside looks to be where disused microfiche and old slide projectors on wheeled carts come to die, but it will do. Bruce unsubtley pokes his head out to look either direction in the hall before shutting the door, more for show than actual practicality.

Tony laughs at the ridiculous show, but there’s an edge under it. “Okay, really, what are we doing? Or have you suddenly developed a fascination with 80s office tech?”

“I,” Bruce announces, shrugging off his suit jacket and draping it over a dusty filing cabinet, “am giving you the one thing you’ve ever asked me for for your birthday.”

He doesn’t bother to turn on the light. The curtains are drawn back from the window, and the ambient city light is more than enough to cast a sepia glow over the room. Faint strains of classical music and chatter are still audible from the ballroom.

Bruce holds a hand out to Tony, and Tony takes it and shakes his head, grinning. “You lead. I’ve led enough for one night, thanks.”

Bruce steps closer, putting his hand on Tony’s waist. He ignores every siren in his head blaring out how amazingly terrible this idea is, because Tony’s face is nothing short of elated. There’s not much space among the office detritus, but there’s enough room for a slow waltz.

To Bruce’s surprise-- and, if he’s entirely honest, disappointment-- Tony holds himself in check. He’s the picture of decorum, as if they were dancing in from of the assembled crowd rather than a dusty closet. He doesn’t press closer than he would on a formal dance floor, doesn’t do anything to betray just how much he wants this dance save leaning ever so slightly into Bruce’s touch.

They dance for an immeasurable amount of time; maybe minutes, maybe hours. They dance through the pauses between pieces, and they dance like every dance might be the last.

It’s an eerie echo of two and a half years ago, when he first danced with Tony in the Starks’ disused ballroom. This time, though, Tony is almost at height with him, and unlike before, he’s painfully aware of the yearning in Tony’s gaze when he looks up. His hand warm on Tony’s waist through the fine material of his dress shirt, and Bruce’s own sudden awareness of that fact makes him breathe in sharply.

“Happy birthday,” he whispers against Tony’s cheek.

Tony angles his head so they’re eye to eye, eyes liquid and longing in the washed-out light from the street. They’ve stopped swaying to the faint threads of music that still drift down from the main hall. They’re inches apart, noses almost brushing, and Tony licks his lips, either nervously or in anticipation, Bruce doesn’t know, but the movement draws his gaze.

This time it’s Bruce who leans in.

It’s so easy, like falling or flying or maybe a bit of both. All he has to do is sway in those last couple inches until their lips brush, and then Tony is there, surging up into the kiss. It’s soft and graceless, and his hand on Tony’s waist feels like the only thing keeping him upright. Tony’s hand clings to the fabric of his collar, and Bruce can’t even care about the wrinkles.

The kiss is slow, lips barely moving against each other as they learn the feel of each other’s skin and bask in the momentary closeness. Tony exhales through his nose, and the breath brushes over Bruce’s cheek, warm and intimate.

Bruce wants to hold on and never let go, but that’s exactly why it’s what he has to do.

Bruce takes a step back that’s more like a stagger. “We should get back before people start to notice you’re gone.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, and he looks off-balanced. “Yeah.”

Bruce collects his jacket and attempts to dewrinkle his collar even as guilt claws at his throat. This time there are no excuses, no pretending that he is blameless. This time, he kissed Tony.

The silence is heavy between them, and they exit the storage room together, which Bruce realizes a moment too late is careless bordering on stupid. They’re three steps down the hall when a too-familiar voice booms out, “Tony, there you are!”

Bruce jumps minutely at the voice while Tony only closes his eyes as if in prayer before turning to face Obadiah Stane. He looks far from surprised to see them, and his fingers drum a staccato rhythm on the sleek cell phone he has clutched in one hand.

“Obie,” Tony says, pleasant smile reaffixed to his lips, “What’re you doing here?”

“I was just wondering where the birthday boy disappeared to. Evidently Bruce was keeping you occupied.” Stane eyes both of them appraisingly. “Very occupied by the look of it.”

Bruce resists the urge to check his clothes for wrinkles.

“The crowed was getting to me. Snuck a little too much champagne, you know?” Tony says with an impressive show of feigned ignorance.

“I thought a bit of a walk might help him sober up,” Bruce puts in.

“A walk in the coatroom?” Stane asks with mock innocence.

“The outdated tech room, actually,” Tony says without missing a beat. “It was amazing-- I’d never seen a real Xerox machine before.”

The panic tightening Bruce’s chest momentarily gives way to childish satisfaction as Stane’s pleasant expression threatens to twist into an irritated sneer. Instead, Stane forces his smile wider even as the phone in his hand buzzes. He glances down at it briefly.

“Well, you can tell me all about it later. Right now I’ve got to go catch my ride,” he says hurriedly. “Happy birthday once again, Tony.”

With that, Stane is striding off down the hall, a great deal quicker than the situation calls for. Bruce has the sinking feeling that he’s just missed something. Tony, evidently, agrees.

“Okay,” he says, drawing out the word. “Tell me I’m not the only one who found that strange.”

“I wish you were,” Bruce says.

Tony takes a deep breath and straightens his tie, visibly preparing himself to rejoin the party. Bruce just tries to breathe past the guilt. He feels like everyone will see it on him just as easily as Stane had, that he kissed a fourteen year old in a storage room. Or was Tony fifteen by then? Bruce had long since lost track of time, and suspects that midnight passed by without either of them noticing.

“Relax,” Tony says. “It’s fine. We’re fine. It was one kiss, not a sordid tryst on the slide projector.”

Bruce swallows hard and nods.

Tony’s answering smile is sad around the edges. “Blame it on the three glasses of champagne in three hours that your elevated metabolism absolutely had not burned off if you have to.”

“Tony--” Bruce starts, but Tony cuts him off.

“I know, I know-- it won’t happen again,” he says, but he catches Bruce’s wrist, running warn fingers over the delicate skin there. He smiles again, and this time there’s genuine warmth in it. “But thank you, for giving me the one thing I really wanted for my birthday.”

“What was that?” Bruce asks, because he can see the opening Tony is leaving him.

“You.”

And with that, Tony plasters on his People-Pleasing grin and strides confidently back out into the party, leaving Bruce to watch him go with a mixture of guilt and longing tightening his chest.

As he reenters the ballroom, Bruce swears he can feel Howard’s eyes on him.

Chapter Text

15

Tony Stark is fifteen when Howard calls Bruce into his study.

Bruce takes a steadying breath, bracing for impact, before pushing open the door. He’s sure that somehow the elder Stark knows about the kiss. It didn’t matter how, but he knows. Bruce doesn't know what he should brace for-- being evicted or being arrested.

Howard's expression is unreadable as Bruce faces him across the desk. Bruce stands with his shoulders back and hands clasped behind his back. No matter how edgy Bruce feels, he knows looking cowed in front of Howard won't do him any good.

Whatever Howard intends to do, Bruce hopes he does it calmly and subtly, because he doesn't know how the Hulk will react to being separated from his friend "little engine man."

To Bruce's surprise, Howard says, apropos of nothing, "You look more confident now."

Bruce blinks. "I'm sorry?"

"You don't stand like you're afraid of yourself anymore," he says. "You're more comfortable walking around the city and going into SI headquarters when necessary."

Bruce considers this. "Yes, I suppose I am."

Howard nods as if this is the answer he was hoping for. "And how much of that confidence is because of Tony?"

"I don't know if I understand what you're asking."

"He isn't afraid of you, just as I'm not. He knows you would never hurt him, even as 'The Other Guy,' as you like to call him." Howard drums his fingers on the desk and continues, "Tony has shown you your limits, and you've been there for him in ways I've never known how. The two of you have a bond that I can't begin to understand."

Bruce remains silent because he really can't tell where Howard is going with this.

"I know I messed up with Tony. A child, no matter how brilliant, is still a child, and I always forgot that. I put more expectations on him than most adults can even imagine, yet most days I still treat him like a toddler. He resents me for it."

Howard runs his finger around the rim of the empty tumbler on his desk. "You never had that problem. You never treated him like a child, but you never gave him more than he could handle. You've always done what you thought was best for him, even when it went against my wishes."

Bruce doesn't bother to disagree, and silence fills the room.

"I haven't been the greatest father, but I haven't been as careless as Tony likes to think, either," Howard says. "I went to several of his chess tournaments. I was there the night he made GM."

Bruce furrows his brow. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"Because I know how Tony gets around me. He tenses up and acts like he always has to prove something. I didn't want to ruin the evening for him."

"You wouldn't have," Bruce says.

"We'll have to agree to disagree. That being said, I'm not the best father, but I'm certainly not the worst," Howard says and gives Bruce a significant look. "Most people would consider letting the thirty-seven year old man who allows your teenage son to kiss him stay in your house ‘bad parenting,’"

The blood drains from Bruce's face. "Howard, it won't happen again. Whatever this thing is between us, I'm putting an end to it. I was already considering leaving."

"I'm not telling you to put an end to it, and I'm certainly not asking you to leave," Howard says. "I'm asking you to do what's best for Tony, and I don't believe that ending your-- relationship with him, is for the best."

And Bruce-- Bruce is lost. There's no playbook for your boss-cum-godfather telling you to continue your less than platonic relationship with his son.

"You're going to have to explain," Bruce finally says.

"I've been aware of Tony's feelings for you for well over three years," Howard says. "When he was twelve I considered it a harmless crush that would fade. At thirteen I thought of it as an unrequited infatuation. At fourteen, puppy love. Now... Now I can't pretend that this is something that will go away anytime soon.

"He knows his feelings aren't unrequited, and he's not going to stop until he gets what he wants or you make him. Maybe that's for the better. As long as he's fixated on you, he's not out screwing anything that will stand still and ruining his chances of inheriting Stark Industries at eighteen."

"The company," Bruce says, growing angry. "That's what this is about, the company?"

"No," Howard says, standing and beginning to pace the well-worn length of his rug. "This is about my son, and the fact that I've never seen him look at anyone or anything the way he looks at you."

Howard runs a hand back through his thinning hair. "And you... You look at him like he's the most amazing thing you've ever seen. You always have, but there's more under it now."

"Are you out of your mind?" Bruce asks before he can really think it through. "You can't seriously be telling me you want me to-- to what? Lead him on? Seduce him? Sleep with him?"

“I’m saying I want you to follow the natural progression of your relationship, wherever that may lead. In the past you've always been what's best for him, and I don't believe that will change now.”

Bruce shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you. Tony is fifteen. Fifteen. There are very good reasons why what you’re suggesting is illegal.”

Howard looks up, eyes sparking. "Do not mistake me, Bruce. If you harm my son, I will lock you in a pit so deep SHIELD won't find you for a decade," he says. His shoulders fall, and with that small change he looks older than Bruce has ever seen him. “You wouldn’t be under this roof if I thought you could hurt Tony.”

Bruce doesn’t know how to respond to that, so he turns on his heel and walks out of the office before he do anything rash. Namely, telling Howard Stark to go get checked for signs of early dementia.

The slam of the door is definitive, but Bruce swears he can feel Howard smirking from the other side.

~*~

15

Tony is fifteen when he finds Bruce with his head in his hands, hair sticking out at gravity-defying angles from running his fingers through it.

Tony’s voice breaks Bruce’s reverie. “What, did he offer you some goats as a dowry? Maybe a research grant or two?”

Bruce jumps slightly. He didn’t realize Tony knew about this place, but of course he does. Bruce doubts there’s a single hidden passage, freight elevator, or back stairwell Tony hasn’t discovered over the years. Bruce is sitting on the steps of a service passage in the back wing of the house. There are only five non-security staff members in the mansion, and none of them apart from Lorena and Jarvis know about this spot. Light filters in through a small stained glass window, and Bruce has always found it a calming place to sit and think.

“How much did you hear?” he asks without much hope. He’s sitting with his elbows on this knees and chin in his hands, staring up at the multicolored patterns the window casts.

“Enough to get the gist,” Tony says. He takes a seat next to Bruce, and they sit in silence for several minutes. Finally, he prompts, “You have to tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Honestly?” Bruce looks over at him. “I’m thinking that your father’s lost his mind.”

Tony snorts inelegantly. “You’re not that lucky.”

“I’m thinking that I want to be angry. I want to be angry that he thinks his blessing somehow makes this better instead of worse, but,” Bruce swallows hard, “then I’m also glad I’m not about to be evicted or arrested. I could go to jail for what he’s suggesting, you know. I mean, of course you know, but has that ever fully registered for you?”

“Kissing isn’t considered sexual contact by New York law,” Tony says, shaking his head.

“Tell me it wouldn’t be for you,” Bruce says. Tony always acts like things are so straightforward and simple, like this is a decision that should be easy for him to make. “They can take you away from me at any time, Tony. I have no legal place in your life-- I never have.”

“You turn into a giant green rage monster,” Tony says dismissively. “The entire US army couldn’t keep us apart.”

“Yes, but the CEO of the largest weapons tech corporation in the world could.”

“And he’s not going to, so what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that you should be in the 9th grade!” Bruce exclaims.

“But I’m not.” Tony says, beginning to get irritated. “I leave for college is less than four months, and I’ve earned the right to make my own decisions about what I can handle.”

“I could accidentally hurt you in so many ways. I’m not going to-- to--” Bruce stutters over all the possible ways that line could end, “--do this just because your father gave me his permission! This is not the 1700s, and you are not a bride that comes with some goats and a hope chest. This isn’t Howard’s decision to make.”

Tony’s face hardens. “No, it’s not. It’s ours. Yours and mine. I’m perfectly capable of making my own choices independent of my father or my mother or even you. I probably would have walked away if you’d come out of his office suddenly fine and dandy with this thing between us. I am not my father’s to give away, and I’d lose respect for you if you ever forgot that.

“For the last ten years you’ve treated me like I’m capable of making my own decisions, and that had better not change now,” Tony continues, eyes locked onto Bruce’s. “I know you want me back. I know this isn’t all in my head. You love me, and maybe you're even in love with me. Either way, I think you would have made the same decision regardless of what my father said.”

“And what decision is that?” Bruce asks, dreading the answer because Tony won’t let him get away with the lies he tells himself.

“The one that you know we both want. I kissed you, and you didn't pushed me away. Why? Did you feel sorry for me?”

“No,” Bruce says automatically.

“Then why? Say it,” Tony says, and it sounds less like an order than a plea. “Say it so we both know for sure.”

Bruce speaks past the tightness in his throat because Tony deserves the truth. “Because I never wanted to. I never pushed you away because I never wanted to, but that doesn’t mean we should-- be romantically involved. You’re capable of making your own choices, but we both have to make the choice that won’t break us in the long run.”

“Maybe we will get hurt,” Tony says. “Maybe this will end in heartbreak, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

Tony looks like he’s expecting a response, but Bruce doesn’t have one. It’s not just his own heart he’s risking. He’s afraid for himself, but he’s more afraid for Tony. He also knows Tony wouldn’t thank him for making the choice to ‘protect’ him, however. Tony was right-- this is their decision, not Bruce’s or Tony’s but both of theirs, together.

“Look, I know this thing between us isn’t normal,” Tony starts, biting his lip. “You probably think I’ve got some short-sighted view that magically simplifies everything, but here’s some news for you: I don’t. I’m not ignorant or naive.”

“I know that. I do,” Bruce insists. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if I thought either of those things were true.”

Because if Bruce honestly believed Tony was ignorant or naive, he would be able to walk away. If he viewed Tony as anything less than his equal, Bruce wouldn't be attracted to him.

“If it’s my virtue you’re worried about, it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to sex.” Tony smirks and leans in conspiratorially. “The only reason I’ve never had any is because I want my first time to be with you.”

Bruce groans and holds his holds his hands. “You can’t say things like that!”

“Why, because you like it?” Tony shoots back. “You like hearing that I want you, that I’ve never done anything because you’re the one I want, and it makes you feel possessive.”

Bruce doesn’t respond because those are things he doesn’t like to admit, even to himself. “You’re a teenager,” he says instead. “You’re supposed to make mistakes and have bad sex.”

“Would you rather my first time be bad?” Tony raises his eyebrows. “Would you finally want me back if I let other people have me first?”

Bruce’s eyes flash green, and he beats the monster inside back down. “It’s not a matter of wanting you back,” he forces out. “It’s a matter of not wanting this to end in heartbreak for both of us.”

“So you do want me back.”

“You’re not listening to me!” Bruce shouts, losing his patience.

“I am!” Tony yells back. “I just think your arguments are dumb. You think I’m better off fucking someone my own age who only wants me for my last name? Getting hurt by someone doesn’t hurt any less when they’re the same age as you, and that’s always going to be the stakes I’m playing with. I'm the heir to a billion dollar weapons tech conglomeration-- I don’t get the luxury of low-stakes teenage puppy love.”

"Give it two years, and fifteen is going to seem so young to you. You're going to wonder what you were thinking,” Bruce says quietly. He runs a hand back through his curls. “You're going to wonder what I was thinking."

And that right there was the concession Tony was looking for. It's as close to an admission that they're really going to do this as Bruce has given so far.

Tony moves to crouch in front of Bruce. “Maybe it will, but I'll never question your motivations, and I'll always remember mine. I know you can hurt me, Bruce. I know why this--” He motions between them. “--is illegal. But you’re not tricking or seducing me, no matter what you’ve guilt-tripped yourself into thinking. I trust you. I trust you more than anyone else in my life.”

Slowly, deliberately, Tony leans in to close the distance between them. When their lips meet it's barely more than a brush, just breathing each other's air. Tony pulls back an inch. "Kiss me," he says, breath ghosting over Bruce's lips. "Don't make me figure this on my own."

It hits Bruce that Tony probably hasn't kissed anyone else before. He barely has any idea what he's doing. This time when Tony closes the distance between them, Bruce cups his cheek. He keeps Tony in control, but he kisses back this time, guiding Tony with his lips and the tilt of his head.

And god knows he shouldn't, but Bruce loves the feel of Tony's lips against his. He loves the way Tony slowly figures out how to kiss back. He loves the way Tony isn't quite sure what to do with his hands.

He loves Tony, and maybe that doesn't scare him quite so much anymore.

Tony's hands hover just off Bruce's shoulder, Bruce catches hold of them, guiding one to his neck and the other to his chest. He lets Tony set the pace, lets him have all the leverage. Bruce's arm comes up to wrap around his waist, loose enough to leave him plenty of leeway to move away.

Tony parts his lips slightly, and they slot together like they were made to. His tongue darts out to trace Bruce’s bottom lip, not daring to go further. Bruce wants to smile at the lack of finesse. It shouldn’t be as endearing as it is. Or as attractive. Bruce opens his mouth against Tony’s, an invitation, and coaxes Tony to deepen the kiss with a teasing flick of his tongue. Tony follows the hint, and warmth settles low in Bruce’s stomach, so abruptly that it almost startles him.

Bruce pulls back to pepper light kisses over the column of Tony’s neck, giving himself a moment to think. It’s been long, interminable years since he’s done anything even this basically physical with another person, and the shock of it-- the sizzle of it through his nervous system-- burns hotter than he’d expected. And he knows that if this is almost overwhelming for him, it must be for Tony, new and massive.

Bruce slows the kisses to a slow trail of lips and breathes in the scent that’s so uniquely Tony. His glasses get in the way as he traces his nose across Tony’s jaw line, bumping against his skin. Bruce holds him close, letting the warmth of Tony seep into his cheek as he presses one final kiss just behind his ear.

A shiver runs through Tony, and he reaches up to trail his fingers down the curve of Bruce’s jaw line, expression open and disbelieving, like he never thought he’d actually get this. His fingers are unsteady where they scrape against Bruce’s stubble.

Bruce catches Tony’s fingers between his palms, and no, the slight tremor wasn’t his imagination. "You're trembling," he observes with some alarm. "Tony, if you're afraid--"

Tony shakes his head emphatically. "Just nervous," he says. “I’m afraid I’m going to screw something up.”

And Tony actually admitting he's nervous is startling in and of itself. For years he's perfected the bravado of his father, and seeing such a large crack in the facade is simultaneously alarming and reassuring for Bruce. At least it doesn't seem like Tony is set on pushing things beyond what they're both comfortable with.

“This is something you should wait until you’re ready for,” Bruce says, and the words are an effort. Tony’s warmth in his arms is like a drug. Even having just this much of Tony, it’s hard to contemplate letting him go again. But Bruce will. If that’s what it takes to keep Tony’s heart and well-being intact, he will.

"I want to wait until I'm ready with you." Tony leans his head on Bruce’s shoulder, and Bruce’s loose embrace turns into a hug. “This-- what we were just doing, it’s not too much. It’s just a bit new.”

“If we’re going to do this-- if we’re really doing this, there are things you need to know,” Bruce say. He swallows hard. This is a discussion they have to have now before this can get out of hand, because it has to be said. “It’s alright if you want to call this-- whatever it is between us-- off. If you ever don’t want to do this anymore, it’s alright. I’ll never be mad. Please, know that.”

Tony sighs against Bruce’s neck and nuzzles closer. “I’m not going to want to.”

“Tony, please look at me. I need to know that you understand.”

Tony pulls away to meet Bruce’s gaze. “I understand,” he says with a nod.

“I also need you to understand that even if we’re doing this, we’re not doing it all at once. We’re taking this slow. Very slow. Glacially slow.”

Another nod of understanding.

“In the future there might be some things that you’re ready for but I’m not,” Bruce continues. “And yes, that is partially because of your age. I’m not going to risk doing anything that could put either of us in a bad mental state.”

“I’m over the age of consent in New York State,” Tony says.

“Not with someone more than four years older than you,” Bruce corrects.

Tony levels a flat look at him. “If I’m old enough to build weapons and go to college, I’m old enough to consent.”

“Your age isn’t the only reason,” Bruce says. “I haven’t had anything resembling a relationship since before you were born. Maybe all those teenage hormones make it hard for you to empathize with me on this one, but it’s going to take time for me to be comfortable, both with our age gap and with romantic physicality in general.”

“I get it. I won’t push,” Tony says. Bruce gives him a disbelieving look, and he bites his lip to hide a smile. “Fine, I’ll try not to push.”

Bruce resigns himself to the fact that that’s the best he’s going to get.

“Okay. One last thing,” he says softly. “I’m never going to tell you you can’t sleep in my room, but if you’re going to continue to, we have to set boundaries.”

“Yeah, that-- makes sense,” Tony agrees reluctantly.

“For now let’s just act like nothing has changed. If that doesn’t work, we’ll reevaluate where the boundary needs to be.”

“Is it okay if I kiss you sometimes? In bed, I mean?” Tony asks. “Not like heavy petting or anything but just-- kiss you.”

Bruce wants to say yes-- wants to so badly, but he thinks maybe that’s exactly why he needs to take a step back and consider this. They’ve been sleeping like a pair of lovers for longer than he wants to think about, and as soon as they add kissing to that, all traces of plausible deniability go up in smoke. But then, plausible deniability is already thinner than an overinflated balloon.

When Bruce is quiet for too long, Tony says, “I’m not fishing for anything with that. Really. It’s just--” He ducks his head in a vain attempt to hide his blush. “It’s something I think about sometimes, being able to kiss you before I go to bed and when I wake up. It’s the sort of sappy shit I daydream about when I can’t sleep.”

“Alright,” Bruce says because he can’t say no to that without a good reason, and maybe that was Tony’s intention.

“Bruce?”

Bruce hums in acknowledgement.

“Can I kiss you again?”

Chapter Text

15

Tony is fifteen when Bruce takes him out on their first real date.

It’s a Saturday midway through July, and they’re eating breakfast at the kitchen table, Tony lounging across both his and Bruce’s chairs in a careless slouch. One bare foot rests against Bruce’s thigh, making small circles against the fabric of his sleep pants. It’s the sort of casual intimacy they’ve grown accustomed to over the month since they started doing this-- whatever it is their doing.

The light brushes and casual closeness are barely a step beyond what they had before, but now there’s intent behind it, an acknowledgement of what they both feel. They kiss now, casual and light most of the time. They kiss in the empty lab and the quiet stillness of the library.

Bruce is still cagy about anything remotely physical, and he knows it bothers Tony that he’s “so goddamned paranoid,” but he can’t help it. Physicality feels new and forgotten and some part of his brain still insists that he shouldn’t be doing this, that he should leave before they both end up broken. He firmly pushes that part down, because listening to it now will only hurt them both more.

“If we’re doing this,” Bruce starts, twirling his fork over his knuckles, “If we’re really, honest-to-god doing this, then I’m taking you out on a real date.”

Tony looks up from breakfast. “What, seriously?” he asks around a mouthful of cereal. “Like, not a science date, but a date, date?”

“We’re doing this right,” is all Bruce says.

“Do I get a corsage?” Tony quips, but his words don’t entirely cover his spark of interest at the prospect of a real date.

“If you want one,” Bruce deadpans. “But we’ll have to pick it up on the way. I wasn’t sure what would match your dress.”

Tony laughs around his spoon, and the smile lights up his face. “Come on, you should be able to guess by now that it’s red,” he says, but sobers as a thought occurs to him. “So, what? Like an actual date in public?”

Bruce tries to shrug nonchalantly, but the motion comes out stiff and mechanical. “We’re seen together often enough. I doubt we’ll raise any eyebrows as long as we keep the public displays to a minimum. I mean, I think we’re safe to be a little affectionate, just not anything that would--” He breaks off, unsure of how to finish that sentence with a modicum of tact.

Tony takes care of it for him. “Just not anything that would make the cover of the gossip rags or get you arrested,” he says, nodding understandingly. “So keep it to our usual levels of codependent and overly tactile, then.”

“Um, yeah,” The older man shifts awkwardly in his chair, rubbing nervously at the back of his neck. “I mean, if you’re comfortable with that. I kind of wanted to do this right considering, you know, you haven’t really had a relationship before. It’s probably a dumb idea, but--”

Tony cuts off his babbling with a kiss, catching his lips as he leans over the corner of the table. He tastes like Rice Krispies with too much sugar, and it shouldn’t, but it makes Bruce smile.

“Did you always ramble this much when you asked people out?” Tony asks against his lips.

“I wasn’t good at this two decades ago. I’m sure as hell not good at it now,” Bruce says honestly, leaning his forehead against Tony’s.

~*~

Ten hours later when he and Tony are led to their seats at some French restaurant in the Upper West Side, Bruce remembers exactly how bad he is at dating.

They’re both dressed, if not to the nines, then at least presentable enough for a night out, and the last time Bruce felt this awkward he was the loose dog in a conference of his peers, trying to make a reappearance in the world of academia after years of being alternately a recluse and a destructive green ball of rage.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” the waitress asks perfunctorily.

“Sparkling water, please,” Tony says.

Bruce gives his best I’m-harmless-I-swear smile. “A glass of wine for me.”

“Anything in particular?” she asks patently.

And Bruce freezes. He draws a complete and total blank. Do you order a merlot or a cab with French food? Hell, do you do red or white? Dry? Or does it depend on the food? He can’t even remember what the basic French dishes are.

Because this, this is something he’s forgotten. This is something that was never necessary to survive the past decade and a half of his life. Alcohol is an indulgence he scarcely allowed himself until the past couple years, until he was confidante in his own limits and self-control.

“He’ll have Château-Grillet,” Tony says smoothly. His smile is all charm and competence, and it’s completely and utterly fake.

Bruce’s stomach drops.

Here, now, Tony conducts himself with perfect aplomb, sliding easily into a veneer of refined manners and superficial charm. It’s alarming how easily he wears them like a second skin, like armor, while the young man Bruce knows slips out of sight. Smooth, economic movements replace his normally enthusiastic gestures, and Bruce can’t tell if he even knows he’s doing it or if the façade is so practiced that it falls into place naturally.

Bruce rarely sees this side of Tony. He knows it’s there, sees it in still images from charity galas, but he rarely accompanies the Starks to formal company events to see it firsthand. It's like the pain of having to watch Tony at his unasked for and unwanted birthday party all over again.

And okay, this dinner was a horrible idea. Anything that makes Tony wear his public face unnecessarily is a terrible, horrible, no-good idea.

Because Tony hates schmoozing at charity balls and pretending to welcome the day he becomes CEO, and right now he’s wearing the exact same expression of careful reserve. The last thing Bruce wanted was for him to wear a façade.

“Not the kind of place I expected you to pick,” he says, tracing his pinky over a fork that Bruce can’t name.

“I wanted to take you somewhere nice,” Bruce says honestly. He lowers his voice. “Somewhere worth going on a first date.”

“You don’t need to try to impress me,” Tony says, understanding in his eyes. The tailored image slips, and his smile turns genuine and flirtatious as he leans in closer over the table, forearms folded on the white linen tablecloth. “I’m basically a sure thing.”

Bruce’s eyes skitter away. “I’m not trying to--”

“Get into my pants?” Tony says, raising his eyebrows. “I know that.”

“Jesus, no,” Bruce says, glancing around hurriedly to make sure no one overheard. “I mean yes, that’s not what I’m trying to do, but that’s not what I was going to say.”

Tony gives him a moment, letting him gather his thoughts. And yeah, if Tony is giving him a moment, then his own discomfort with this level of finery must be painfully obvious as he fumbles through a menu written in one of the few common languages he never acquired.

“I’m not trying to impress you,” he says. He clasps his hands and presses his thumbs to the bridge of his nose. “I’m just trying to, I don’t even fucking know, keep you in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed.”

Tony laughs at that, and Bruce has the sneaking suspicion it was as much at him swearing as at the statement’s general ridiculousness. “I’ve followed you into a literal hole in the wall on St. Mark’s with a B health rating for udon. You can’t seriously think I care at this point.”

And just like that the tension dissolves. If Tony still sits up a bit straighter and enunciates a bit too clearly, well, at least his laugh is real and the shutters over his eyes are gone.

“I don’t dislike places like this,” he says, gesturing at the cloth napkins and buttoned-up wait staff, “But I’m not particularly attached to them, either. Like you said, this is what I’m used to, but I like places you take me better. It’s always something new and interesting and potentially terrible when you carry me to those dives you like. Exploring word cuisine one dingy restaurant at a time.”

Their drinks arrive, and Bruce takes a longer sip than is probably publically acceptable. As soon as he sets the glass down, Tony’s fingers wrap around the stem, index finger brushing Bruce’s momentarily before he takes a sip.

Bruce levels an amused look, and Tony shrugs. “It’s a French restaurant in Manhattan. No one actually cares.”

“I know,” Bruce says. He rests his chin in his hand in an attempt to half-cover his smile.

He must fail, though, because Tony laughs, “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Bruce shakes his head and doesn’t reply. The only response he can come up with is three words, eight letters, and entirely a bad idea.

He gives up on deciphering his menu, setting it down and resigning himself to Tony ordering for him. As if summoned, the waitress appears. “Would you like another glass?” she asks, indicating the now mostly empty glass.

“I’m alright, thank you,” Bruce says, but Tony overrides him, “He would.”

Bruce looks at him, unimpressed, and Tony doesn’t even have the decency to looks chastised. The waitress giggles into the back of her hand. “The two of you are adorable,” she says, looking between them.

Bruce’s eyes widen. “I’m sorry?” he says, and he hopes the frantic edge to his voice is just his imagination.

“I always love seeing parents spending time with their children,” she says earnestly.

Tony’s controlled façade shatters, breaking into an expression of barely contained horror. Bruce sighs in resignation, because clearly this date was never fated to end well.

“You’re not old enough to be my father,” Tony blurts, two steps from frantic. “My father is, like, sixty.”

“I was twenty-three when you were born, Tony. I kind of am,” Bruce says thoughtlessly.

He assumed this was something Tony knew, something he accepted as fact. Clearly not, though, because the younger man looks visibly shaken, like he’s on the verge of a full-blown freak-out.

Suddenly the warm air of the restaurant feels stifling, like a physical pressure bearing down on them. Bruce can see that he needs to get Tony out of here-- get himself out of here, too, if his heart rate is anything to go by. They both need space to breathe and time to think. He stands and fishes in his pocket for a wad of crumpled bills. The younger man follows, worryingly silent.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” the waitress says weakly.

Bruce gives her a polite smile and presses the money into her hand. “Keep the change,” he says in a low voice as they pass. He shepherds Tony out the door, hand hovering at the small of his back but careful not to touch.

The dank smell of the dank city heat and subway grates and exhaust fumes hits them like a physical force. It’s still hot, hotter than inside the restaurant, but at least there’s room to breathe between the press of strangers on the street. Bruce trails wordlessly as Tony makes his way down the street at a near jog, trying to give him time and space to process.

They walk without clear direction. They breathe in against the sharp breeze of a Manhattan summer and cross whichever direction the lights allowed. They're a dozen blocks south before Tony slows to a more reasonable pace, falling into step beside Bruce. The frantic edge is gone, now, replaced by a thoughtful expression.

“Maybe you’re old enough to be,” Tony says at last, “But you're not. You never have been, literally or figuratively.”

“I know. We wouldn’t be doing-- whatever this is, if that was the case,” Bruce says. He shoved his hands into his pockets and looks around, absorbing the influx of sensory input as twilight creeps over the city. “This wasn’t how I pictured this evening going. Maybe we should call it a night.”

Tony looks sideways at him. “That’s not what I want,” he says, and Bruce is pretty sure they’re not just talking about giving this night up as a bad job.

Bruce falls silent, considering how to phrase what he wants to say next. “We can wait,” he says finally, words kept secret by the mass of tourists and business men. “I can wait. I’ll wait if you want to give it couple years and try the whole-- us thing again once you’re older.”

“Is that what you want?” Tony asks, expression unreadable.

“This would honestly be a lot easier if you were three years older,” Bruce says, and Tony looks a little hurt but entirely unsurprised.

“Yeah, I know,” he says softly.

“But,” Bruce forces himself to continue, “I like what we have. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. Tonight hasn’t gone as smoothly as I hoped, but--”

“You’re not ready to give up, and neither am I.” Tony pins him with a sharp look. “No way I'm letting this be how our first date ends.”

Bruce knows that’s his answer. They’re doing this, awkwardness and sore spots aside. Tony bumps his shoulder playfully, and Bruce nudges him back, hands in his jacket pocket. It’s a small comfort, but it’s reassurance enough that maybe this night isn’t a complete waste of time.

“Do you have any clue where we’re going?”

“Not really,” Tony says as he loops his arm through Bruce’s. “But I’m still hungry, and you look like you could use some food and a beer, so here’s an idea: How about you take me somewhere you’ll enjoy, too.”

Bruce gives a weak shrug. “None of the places I like to eat are exactly first date material.”

“Fuck first date material,” Tony says vehemently. “Give me Bruce and Tony material.”

“Okay, okay," Bruce says. "I think I know a place.”

He leads then through the streets, taking them further and further into the thick of the crowd. As they circle ever closer to 42nd and Broadway, Tony gives Bruce a dubious look. "If you're taking me to the Time Square Olive Garden, I might have to reconsider my decision to continue this date."

Bruce laughs at that even as he folds his shoulders in to avoid the brush of strangers. "I thought you had more faith in me than that," he says. He pushes open a poorly marked door, and immediately they're enfolded by the scent of fresh ramen and shouts in Japanese.

"Two?" a bustling waitress calls as she passes, the word lightly accented. Bruce nods, and she points them to an empty table on her next dash past.

As they sit, Tony looks around the small restaurant with muted interest. It's small, but not unmanageably so. The cooks and wait-staff call orders back and forth over the kitchen counter, and haggard-looking businessmen perch around the bar, nursing beers and slurping down ramen like it'd been their only motivation to get through the day.

"This," Tony says eyeing a ramen bowl the size of his head, "is more like it."

It’s dark by the time they leave the restaurant-- or, as dark as it ever gets in Midtown-- and the radiant heat of the city has turned more pleasant than stifling. They walk, not really having a goal but not ready to call it a night. They talk. They talk about nothing and everything. They talk about the weather and politics and the mortality of advanced artificial intelligence and what makes humans human. After ten years together Bruce wonders that they haven't exhausted every possible topic, but they always find something to talk about. He never finds the conversation dull or boring or repetitive the way he would with most people.

They drift down 6th Avenue until they reach Bryant Park, its trees aglow with strings of lights and filled with the hum of carousel music.

"God I love this place at night," Tony says, and Bruce has to agree. Bryant might not be the biggest or the most interesting of the New York parks, but there was something captivating about it at night. They stand for a minute, watching a dad jog around the carousel to take pictures of his twin daughters as they pass.

"You know I've never been on a carousel before?" Bruce says idly. That was one of many things that got lost in his childhood, along with sleepovers (too many bruises), lemonade stands (not that kind of neighborhood), and pickup soccer (required both teamwork and athleticism-- no).

Bruce glances over to find Tony wearing his best "plotting" expression.

“Tony, no,” Bruce says, backing away even as a grin breaks over his face. “The only people on that thing are kids with their parents, couples on cheesy dates, and stoned college students. No.”

Tony’s look of malicious glee only intensifies. “Oh, we’re doing this,” he says, catching Bruce’s wrist. “We are so doing this.”

Bruce digs in his heels. “You don’t want me to be mistaken for your father, and I can guarantee you that that’s the only way us getting on that thing can end.”

"Fuck it. Let 'em think what they want."

And that is how Bruce ends up seated on what might possible be a donkey. Or maybe just a rabbit with hooves? He can't tell, but it was worth it for the way Tony grins. He willingly leans in when Tony holds up his phone to take a picture. Bruce takes the phone from him, using his longer reach to get them both in the picture. There's some amnesty granted by them looking like relatives. No one notices the way Tony leans in a little too close for the picture or how Bruce's hand lingers on Tony's shoulder.

Tony looks young and happy as the carousel turns, and Bruce finds himself caught up in the expression, captivated by its openness. This is something most people don't get to see-- the Tony Stark buried under the glitz and snark.

When they stumble away laughing, heady with the silly romance of the night, Bruce wraps an arm around Tony's shoulders, because fuck it. They’re just two more nondescript faces in a sea of thousands.

Tony tosses him cheeky smile as they climb the steps to Stark Mansion. “So, are you going to invite me up to your room for coffee?” he asks.

“That’s not what I’m-- Tonight wasn’t a ploy to-- to--” Bruce’s stuttering gets cut off as they enter the house. He’s still not even comfortable thinking about them having sex as an eventuality.

“I know that,” Tone says, voice not nearly quiet enough with the echo of the hall. “I was just messing with you. Does thinking about me like that really bother you so much?”

Bruce sucks in a breath through his teeth. “It bothers me that it doesn’t bother me more,” he says. “It’s something I do want, eventually, and I don’t know how to be comfortable with that yet.”

“I want a kiss goodnight, at least. We can start with that,” Tony says, following Bruce towards his room. “If you really want to be weird about it, I can leave after, but I’m getting my kiss.”

Bruce suppresses a sigh. “You know I’m not going to make you leave.”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees, shutting the door to the room. Its click sounds like a promise Bruce doesn’t know how to accept. “I know.”

Bruce hesitates, wary to make the first move, but Tony doesn’t. He crosses the distance in two short strides and pushes up on his toes, catching the older man’s mouth in a heated kiss. It’s not slow or reluctant the way most of their kisses are, and that catches Bruce off guard.

He opens his mouth automatically, letting Tony kiss him as if he’s starving for it. Bruce forces himself to stay passive, not to push too far. He reminds himself not to kiss too hard or ask for too much. He’s gone so many years without this that he’s almost forgotten what to do, but his body hasn’t. Whatever reservations Bruce has about Tony’s age, his body has no such compunctions, and he has to fight the muscle memory that tells him to pull, to push, to hold too tight and not let go.

Tony presses closer with a breathy sound of encouragement, a hand threading into Bruce’s curls as he leans more of his weight into him. Bruce wraps both arms around his waist instinctively, and the warm sensation of Tony against him from thigh to chest sends a shiver up his spine.

Tony licks into his mouth with shameless strokes, coaxing the kiss deeper, and Bruce’s tongue slides against his tentatively. Tony’s gotten so much better at this-- at melting Bruce’s good sense into a puddle at their feet with searingkisses. He's gone from kissing like he barely knew what he was doing to kissing like he knows exactly how to drive Bruce insane, and Bruce has to fight to keep his own instincts in check, because no matter how confident Tony may seem, he’s still new to all of this.

Abruptly, Tony breaks the kiss, eyes fluttering open as he frowns up at Bruce. “You’re holding back,” he says, looking perturbed. “I can feel you keeping yourself reigned in.”

“I-- What?” Bruce manages, head still fuzzy.

“You. You always let yourself be kissed. Take control. I’m not going to fucking break.”

Bruce shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I can’t-- I don’t want to push this too far.”

“I’ll stop you if it gets to be too much,” Tony says, voice lowered to a whisper. His eyes soften, and he leans in for another brief kiss, barely more than a press of lips. “Please,” he murmurs against Bruce’s mouth. “Kiss me like you’re not afraid to.”

And Bruce says the only thing he can say to that: “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

The arm around Tony’s waist tightens as Bruce’s other hand comes up to cradle the back of his neck, tilting his head back for better access. This time it’s Bruce’s tongue that dives into Tony’s mouth, sliding and licking possessively. He steals the younger man’s breath until there’s nothing left but the scrape of Tony’s hands as he clings to Bruce’s shoulders for purchase.

Bruce systematically undoes everything he’s done to keep Tony in control, off-balancing him and drawing himself up to his full height. Bruce might still be physically taller, but he always made an effort not to seem so. Now, however, he shifts his stance, still holding Tony’s weight until he has to wind his arms around Bruce’s neck for balance.

They’re presses together from chest to ankle, and that’s new, too. Usually this is the point where Bruce pulls away, slowing things down when he feels the burn of arousal low in his belly. This time, though, Tony shifts one foot between Bruce’s, and the sudden feel of Tony’s erection against his thigh almost makes him gasp.

It sends a jolt of hot arousal through Bruce. He wants to arch, to press, to take, but he allows himself none of that. He shifts his grip on Tony, pressing their torsos closer together, but angling their hips apart. He basks in the warmth of the young man in his arms, not asking for more but also not pushing him away as he has before.

Tony takes a blind step back, and Bruce instantly loosens his grip, worried he pushed too far. But Tony doesn’t let go, instead pulling Bruce back with him until the backs of his legs hit the bed and they toppled backwards.

One of Bruce’s hands disentangles from Tony’s hair in time to stop his full weight from landing on him. Bruce braces his knees against the side of the bed, doing his best to keep his growing hard-on from pressing against the young man beneath him.

Tony keeps kissing him, and Bruce kisses back for a long second before his better judgment kicks in. He breaks the kiss, and Tony tugs on his shoulder in an effort to get him further on the bed rather than just half-kneeling on it. Bruce pulls back, realizing what Tony wants.

“We shouldn’t do this on a bed. The implications--”

“Fuck the implications,” Tony says vehemently.

Bruce shakes his head emphatically. “Tony, I’m not comfortable with the idea of-- of us-- now.”

“Hey, hey. I know that. It’s okay.” Tony brings a hand up to cup Bruce’s jaw, thumb grazing lightly over the stubble there. His glasses are smudged and fogged, and Bruce is relying mostly on sound and touch to confirm that yes, that moving blur is indeed Tony. “We can slow down if it’s too much-- I’m not trying to have sex with you. I just want to keep kissing you, and that angle was starting to make my neck hurt.”

A choked laugh escapes Bruce. “How-- How do you want to do this?” he finds himself asking.

In answer, Tony reaches up take Bruce’s glasses, setting them carefully aside on the night stand. He maneuvers them until Bruce is sitting on the edge of the bed. Bruce thinks he sees what’s coming next, but it still surprises him when Tony swings one agile leg over his thighs, settling easily on top of him.

“Tony,” he starts to protest. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“It’s fine,” Tony murmurs, pressing a brief kiss to Bruce’s cheek. “You’re fine. This is good. You can let yourself have this. I just want to kiss you-- nothing else.”

Bruce thinks it should be humiliating that he knows exactly the right thing to say. He stares at Tony for a long minute, just taking in the curve of his jaw and the sweep of his lashes where he’s perches above him. Bruce runs light fingers over the patchy stubble on Tony’s cheeks. He’s so beautiful, even if he would be annoyed at Bruce for thinking it. Bruce can feel himself falling further, wrapping his heart even more securely around this brilliant young man.

Tony leans in to kiss him again, and this time it’s slower, more exploratory as Tony runs searching fingers over his neck, chest, and shoulders. They catch on the curve of Bruce’s collarbone and the rise of his Adam’s apple. Bruce lets him explore at his own pace, keeping the pace languid. Banked embers still burn in the pit of his stomach, but Bruce lets himself enjoy the feeling.

He basks in the near-physical burn of it. It’s been so long since he’s wanted anything this much--- viscerally, almost painfully-- so long since he’s wanted anything for himself. It's not just the physicality, though that desire burns like a brand, bone-deep and aching like he’d forgotten lust even could. No, it’s also the desire to keep Tony by his side, and the possessive pull of that scares him even more than the physical longing.

Because that? That’s how stalkers and madmen are created and how a man like himself is broken so thoroughly that there's no hope of being glued back together again.

He feels himself teetering on the edge of something terrifying. He’s loved before, love deeply and passionately, but he’s never loved like this. He’s given himself away before in careful hands sewing stitches under tin-roofs and in soft whispers between sheets, but some piece of his heart was always his.

Loving so wholly, so completely feels like it has as much of a chance of breaking him as it does at remaking him.

Tony shifts closer, moving from straddling Bruce’s thighs to straddling his hips, and a gasp escapes him. Bruce knows he must feel the growing bulge in his slacks, and he presses a hand to Tony's chest. He means to put some space between them, but he can’t make himself push Tony away, palm resting warmly over the rabbit-fast thump of his heart.

“Sorry. I’m sorry,” Bruce breathes against his cheek. He places a soft kiss just below his ear. “It’s just a physical response. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

Tony kisses him in reply and loops his arms around Bruce's neck so they're pressed flush from hips to chest. It takes all of Bruce's effort not to rock into the contact, and that, he thinks, is definitely a sign that they should slow this down. Tony must be in agreement, at least to some degree, because he breaks the kiss to rest his face against the crook of Bruce's neck. He places damp kiss on the skin there but doesn't make an effort to do anything more.

Bruce kisses his cheek, warm and affectionate as he cards fingers through his tousled hair. Tony moves in for another kiss, but this time Bruce doesn't let him deepen it. Tony takes the hint, allowing Bruce to cool them down. He pushes himself back to standing with a graceless ease that still manages to hold Bruce's gaze, and Bruce can't help but notice the the tent in his pants.

Tony grins shamelessly when he catches Bruce staring.

"I'm going to take a shower. A long shower. You should do the same, not sit here and angst." He leans in to mutter in Bruce's ear. "And I'd like to think of you thinking of me and know that you're getting off on it."

With that, he turns to leave the room, smirking back at Bruce over his shoulder.

And Bruce-- Bruce thinks he might just take him up on that advice.

Chapter Text

15

Tony is fifteen when Pepper says, "Tell me you want Italian. You want Italian, right?"

"I, what?" Bruce asks, looking up from his paperwork as she enters the lab.

"You want Italian," she says with a firm nod. "Howard is being insufferable, and Tony is in Albany for that-- that genius thing."

Pepper flaps her hand to punctuate this statement, and Bruce can't help his smile. "Young engineers conference," he provides.

"That," she agrees. "I want Italian from that little place on 24th, and I want someone with discerning taste in wine and decent social skills to go with me."

Bruce takes a moment to process this, but apparently a moment is too long, because Pepper adds, "I will go alone if I have to, but a thirty-two year old woman finishing a bottle of pinot noir on her own at lunch is just pathetic, and you probably haven't eaten in at least twelve hours without Tony here."

Bruce raises his hands in mock surrender, because really, he was on board at 'pinot noir'. His weekly lunches with Pepper remind him that there is a world outside of Tony and work.

An hour later he is sitting across from Pepper, pleasantly relaxed from half a bottle of wine, and animatedly telling a story.

"--so then Tony goes on to pretend that he only speaks French and looks at me expectantly, but I only know how to do three things in French: order food, count to twenty for the sole purpose of ordering food, and ask someone to sleep with me," Bruce says, counting off on his fingers.

Across the table, Pepper's hand comes up to cover her smile. "You did not say 'voulez-vous coucher avec moi' to a reporter."

"Oh god no," he says. "I asked her for the number seven and a bowl of soup."

That startles a surprisingly indelicate laugh out of her. She rests her hand on her chin and looks at him, considering. Over the course of their conversation, her expression has become more and more speculative. She still laughed in all the right places, but there was something under it.

"Bruce," she says, and it comes out gentle enough that he tenses instantly. "Tony is fifteen and leaving for college in less than a month. You remember that, right?"

Bruce forces his breathing to stay even. "I can't exactly forget, considering I'm the one driving him to Massachusetts."

"Please don't insult both of our intelligence by playing dumb," she says, still gentle. "I know Tony's not the only one with a crush."

Bruce sucks in breath to protest, but she cuts him off.

"I'm not accusing you of anything, I'm just saying be careful," she says.

He looks away from her to trace the lines of a spare fork with his finger. He considers denying it, just for a second, but he doesn't. Pepper doesn't know that he's involved with Tony already; that much he can tell. All she suspects Bruce of is having feeling for him.

He looks back at her, a wry smile twisting his lips. "Is it that obvious?"

Pepper must have expected a fight or a denial, because she relaxes back into her chair. "Only because I know you. Or like to think I do after nearly two years," she says. "I know you want what's best for Tony, but I also know you forget that he's barely more than a kid. We all do.

"But he's fifteen. Don't let his crush or your own make you do something you'll both regret," she says. "I'm telling you this as your friend and as someone with a vested interest in your well-being. Please be careful."

The words hit like a body blow, preying on his insecurity about his relationship with Tony, but he forces himself to hold her gaze. It's nothing Bruce hasn't thought himself a hundred times, but he knows with a terrifying conviction that whatever this thing is between Tony and himself, it is much more than a 'crush.'

No matter how well she knows him, Pepper is missing vital pieces of their story. Bruce doesn't care to fill her in, not least because it would entail admitting that his relationship with Tony has progressed far beyond what she suspects. All he says is the truth.

"I would never do anything to hurt him, not on purpose."

She takes a steadying breath and says, “It’s not just Tony I’m worried about getting hurt.”

~*~

15

Tony is fifteen when he throws a folder at Bruce’s feet, scattering its contents across the floor of the lab.

“Have you fucking seen this?” Tony all but shouts. "Obie has really outdone himself this time."

Bruce stoops to pick up a page that's lodged itself under his foot. It takes him less than thirty seconds to understand what he's looking at.

The page stares up at him accusingly. "This is..." he starts.

"Surveillance," Tony spits. "Reports from fired nannies. Pictures. Psych evals from when General Ross had you. Anything that slippery bastard could trump up."

Tony looks ready to kick the nearest stationary object. Instead, he clutches at the lab table with white-knuckled fingers. "He shouldn't even be able to get his hands on those. SHIELD had your military files sealed, considering they were complete bullshit."

"This is bad." Bruce picks up another sheet, this one a full page gloss photo of him and Tony-- dancing, he realizes. It must have been taken the night of Tony's birthday party, through the window of the little storage room, from the look of it. The photo shows the pair of them pressed unmistakably close, Tony's nose tucked into the curve of Bruce's neck with clear intent.

"No shit." Tony runs his fingers through his hair. "Sorry, it's not you I'm mad at."

"Maybe it should be," Bruce says. He can't tear his eyes away from the damning tableau, black and white evidence of the true nature of his relationship with Tony. Pepper's warning echoes in his head. "I knew this was going to happen, but--"

"No. Don't start that," Tony says. He begins pacing, strides long and angry even in the confined space. "Not now."

Protests hang on the tip of Bruce's tongue, but he holds them in. Right now dealing with this comes first. Later can come the panic and the guilt. He reaches down to gather the rest of the scattered pages.

"Stane is planning to burn you, and he's going to use me to do it," Bruce murmurs as he thumbs through the rest of the pages, almost without thinking.

Tony halts mid-stride.

"What?"

Bruce looks up at him, at a loss for what to say. Obadiah Stane never made a secret of his disdain for Bruce, but he has at least put up an amicable front around Tony. Still, Tony has never exactly been fond of Stane, not since he accused Bruce of having malicious intentions toward him when he was ten, but Bruce doesn't think Tony knows about the crux of that argument all those years ago, how Stane belittled Tony and made him out as nothing more than an asset for company.

Now, Bruce doesn't know what to say or how to explain. He doesn't want to be the one to tell Tony how Stane views him, how Stane despises him for things he can't help. Tony puts on a strong front, but having someone out to get you for no apparent reason hurts, even as an adult. Tony is a teenager, and for the first time in a long time, Bruce feels their age difference.

"He wants to discredit you," he says at last, "make it look like you're unfit to run the company."

Betrayal flashes across Tony's face before anger takes its place. "Why? Why would he--?" He breaks off. "Because he's next in line to take over if I can't," he says, voice flat.

Reluctantly, Bruce nods. "He never wanted you to take over. I--" Bruce swallows past his protective urge to keep the truth from Tony. "I've known for a long time, but I never thought he'd do something about it."

"You knew," Tony says almost in monotone. "You knew, and you never said because you didn't think I was capable of running the company to begin with."

"I never said anything because I knew you could," Bruce says. "You've always been capable of taking over Stark Industries. Whether or not you do is your choice. And now Stane sees that-- sees that you're fully able to take your father's place-- and he's going to use me against you to make sure you don't."

In some sick bout of hindsight, Bruce wonders if that hasn't been Stane's plan for the past five years.

"What the fuck did I ever do to him?" Tony spits. Despite how angry he sounds, his eyes reflect the hurt he's never learned to hide from Bruce.

"You're everything he's never going to be," Bruce says. "You're smart and capable and rich and happy. If you choose to, you're going to inherit SI because you earned it, not because of nepotism, and that eats him up."

"But what does he think he's going to gain?" Tony asks before shaking his head. "You know what, it doesn't matter. If it's the money or the power or if he just wants to fuck me over, it doesn't make a difference."

"Tony, he's made the connection between us, and he's not going to quit making it as long as we keep doing this."

"Doing what?" Tony asks stubbornly.

Bruce suppresses a sigh. "You know what."

"Nothing has changed on the outside."

"Yes, it has. You're just too close to see it. The more Stane looks, the more dirt he's going to find." He takes a deep breath and adds, "The more dirt we're going to hand him gift-wrapped."

Tony's lip curls in an unintentional imitation of his father. "What we have isn't 'dirt'."

"Every day I spend with you is more ammunition for him," Bruce says, and the words hurt. "Maybe we need to take a step back.”

"Do you want us to?"

"It doesn't matter what I want. This is your future we're talking about."

"Do you want to or not?" Tony shouts, fists clenched at his sides, and it's the first he's ever yelled at Bruce.

"NO!" Bruce shouts back, temper flaring. Not flaring like when the Other Guy is close to at hand, but the sharp, bright spark of normal human temper. Bruce always had a short fuse before the accident; ironically, he's much more even tempered now, no longer able to afford the slips in his control. Even when rage bubbles just below the surface at ridiculous thing like a forgotten mug of tea or the maids moving his shower gel, he keeps his calm on the outside.

It's been long years since he's felt a surge of anger without the accompanying rage.

"No, okay? Of fucking course I don't," he says. He takes another steadying breath. "But this is your life and your future, and you leave for college soon. I'm not worth risking everything for when you have a new chapter of your life ahead of you. If Stane plans to use me to damn you, that means we need. To take. A step. Back."

"I'm not going to let this be the excuse you're looking for to run away." Tony shakes his head. "Like you say, this is my life and my future we're talking about, and you belong in both of those. As my lover, as my friend-- either way, you're there.

"I'm not letting you go because I'm leaving for college, and I'm sure as hell not doing it because Obadiah Stane is stupid enough to try to use you against me. What he's doing to us is his own mistake-- and it will be a mistake; I'll make sure of that," Tony says vehemently. "If you regret getting involved with me, or if you're too scared and want out, then say it. Say it, and I'll drop it. But until you decide that we're not what you bargained for, that I'm not what you bargained for, stay with me.

"Obadiah can't touch us. And if he does, if he so much as tries, I'll burn Stark Industries to the ground match by match myself before I let him have it. SI is mine to run, and I'm going to do it with you at my side for as long as you'll stay."

Silence rings through the room following Tony's words. His chest is heaving by the time he finishes speaking, and his hands are in fists at his sides.

Bruce takes a moment to appreciate the fact that by trying to prevent Tony from taking over SI, Stane has set Tony on the path to do exactly that. Before now, Tony has never sounded sure about running the company, like it was something he had to do, rather than wanted to do. This is the first time Tony has sounded like he wants to run SI-- possibly, Bruce suspects, because it's the first time that he's been told he might not.

Tony isn’t a child any more -- not that Bruce has thought of him as one since that night in the Catskills, but this is the proof Bruce hadn’t known he needed. This is Tony taking control of his future, irrespective of what Howard, Obadiah, and even Bruce himself think he should do. Bruce can’t help but see how much he's matured in the past year, and for better or worse, he knows he’s part of the reason.

"Tony..." he says at a loss. “I'll be with you for as long as you want me here."

"Then quit trying to convince me to abandon you," Tony says. "I know you don't trust that this won't fall apart around you, but trust me even if you don't trust anything else."

Bruce doesn't even register the intention to move before he's crossed the space between them, hands on either side of Tony's face. The kiss is deep, a heady mix of sweet and hot that makes Bruce's head spin. Tony's hands find his ass through his slacks, and instead of making him falter, the touch makes Bruce grin into the kiss.

Bruce feels drunk on Tony, reckless and stupid because god, he loves him. He loves Tony like he's never known it was possible to love, and he wants him so viscerally that it's almost a physical ache.

And maybe, just maybe, the thought of wanting Tony doesn't scare Bruce as much as it once did.

Before he can over-think it, Bruce grasp Tony by the back of his thighs and lifts until he has Tony up on one of the lab tables. Tony's legs hitch up loosely around his waist, just enough to press them together from hip to sternum.

Something tumbled to the ground with the crack of breaking glass, but neither of them pays attention.

Tony fumbles blindly at the top buttons of Bruce's shirt, deftly opening the first three. Bruce pulls back from the pale length of Tony's neck to catch his wrist in warning.

Tony rolls his eyes. "Oh come on," he wines. "Is this a thing? Like, is this some sort of hang up of yours?"

"Tony," Bruce says, unable to hide the smile in his voice. "We are A, not having sex; and B, definitely not having sex on a lab table."

"So, if there's no 'definitely' attached to stipulation A, does that mean--"

"We are definitely not having sex, period," Bruce amends, before rethinking his pressing. "We are definitely not having sex any time soon."

"Fine," Tony says, sounding exasperated but not surprised. He runs his fingertips through Bruce's exposed curl of chest hair. "But the top buttons stay undone. You have very nice clavicle. Is that weird to say?"

Tony cocks his head to the side, considering, before leaning down to nip at said clavicle.

"Tony," Bruce repeats, but this time the name comes out on a poorly suppressed moan as Tony finds a particularly sensitive spot. Without thinking, he presses on the back of Tony's head, encouraging.

Tony leans up to grin at him, more similar to the Cheshire Cat than should be possible. "I'm going to go with not weird," he says.

Rather than dignify that with a response, Bruce presses closer, basking in the warmth of Tony's thighs at his hips. He's glad for the cold edge of the lab table, both relieved and-- in all honestly-- frustrated to be pressing his growing hard-on into it rather than against Tony.

Bruce trails his nose along the line of Tony's neck, and the familiar scent of Tony's skin fills Bruce's nose, instantly recognizable from all the years Tony has spent curled by his side at night. It's so painfully familiar but somehow also so foreign, mixed with the tang of arousal and breathed through kiss-swollen lips.

Bruce gives into the urge that's itched at him since that night in the surveillance photo now crumpled under Tony's thigh and kisses at the side of his neck, open and messy. He tastes salty with sweat and so, so perfect.

The sound that Tony makes is indecent and loud, low and pleading as his legs tighten at Bruce's waist. He weaves his hands into Bruce's curls as Bruce kisses up the column of his neck with single-minded focus.

"Leave a mark," Tony murmurs against his ear, and Bruce is too lost in the scent and taste of his skin to do anything other than comply.

He sucks at the side of Tony's neck, grazing his teeth over the spot when Tony wraps encouraging arms round his neck to pull him closer. The younger man arches into the contact, breath warm against Bruce's ear. He leans fully against Bruce, and his legs wind more securely around his waist, hips coming off the lab table as he tries to get closer.

That's the moment it registers for Bruce that this is getting out of hand.

He takes an unthinking step back, away from the press of Tony's hips. Tony's legs grip tighter for purchase, but it's not enough. The grip only serves to drag him forward off the counter. He clings to Bruce's back with blunt nails even as he slips down, back knocking harshly against the edge of the table. He gets his legs unwound just in time not to land on his ass on the concrete floor.

They stare at each other for a beat of stunned silence before they both lose it. Tony hiccups with it as he winds his arms around Bruce's waist, pressing his face against the other man's chest to muffle his laughter. Bruce's shoulders shake as he laughs, and it feels cathartic.

"That's going to leave a bruise," Tony says. He squeezes Bruce's waist reassuringly.

Bruce tries to quit laughing; he really does. "Are you okay?" he asks even as another bubbles up.

"Fine," Tony says, and he snorts into front of the other man's shirt. "The bruise on my neck will probably be worse, by the feel of it."

Bruce squints through smudged glasses at the mark livid against Tony's skin. It's not a hickey, singular, but a series of spectacular red and purple marks running the length of Tony's neck. Most of the red one will fade in a couple hours, Bruce knows, but there are at least three purple splotches that are going to stick.

"Oh god," he manages, still trying to suppress a laugh. "It looks like I tried to maul you."

He pulls off his glasses to wipe them on his shirt before replacing them, finally managed to reign in his laughter. The marks somehow look worse with clear vision. The wild, possessive thing that lurks in his chest purrs at the marks, at odds with the protective instinct still crying for him to get as far away from Tony as possible.

In the end, he runs careful fingers over the line of bruises, and Tony turns his neck obligingly to let him inspect the damage. Bruce swallows as he traces the edge of the marks. "Okay?" he asks.

"Better than okay," Tony says, leaning into the touch. He tips his head back to meet Bruce's eyes. "Now what?"

"Well," Bruce starts, "Now that we've talked out my commitment issues and flaunted lab safety protocol, we need to suck up what's left of our bruised pride."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning we have to talk to Howard."

Tony groans, a very different sound from the ones he was making only minutes before. "Can we not?"

"As much as I truly relish the thought facing your father after I've spent the past five minutes kissing his underage son," Bruce says, voice dripping sarcasm, "we've got to. If Stane is in contact with Ross, this means trouble. We need to talk to Howard before this can get any more out of hand, especially if you don't want it to end with me in prison."

In answer, Tony leans up to catch Bruce's lips in a brief kiss. "I know," he says, sighing against Bruce's lips. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

"You don't have a turtleneck you can put on, do you?"

Tony stares at him blankly. "Do I look like I own a turtleneck? No one except librarians and middle-aged professors own turtlenecks tall enough to cover this."

"A scarf?"

"It's the middle of August," Tony says. "Besides, he'll know. He just sort of knows shit like this. He doesn't know when my birthday is, but he's got some freaky sixth-sense for me trying to seduce you." He pauses, considering. "Plus you look like we've been fucking on a lab table."

Bruce ducks from Tony's embrace to catch his reflection in a nearby monitor. His lips stand out brilliantly kiss-swollen, and his curls stick up in a frizzed cloud. He's happy, so unspeakably happy, that Pepper is out of town on business for the next four days, because he has no doubt she'd put the pieces together instantly.

General Ross is still haunting him, Obadiah Stane is out for blood, and Bruce does indeed look like he's been fucking a teenager on a lab table.

All he can do is start laughing again and hope the hysterical edge is only audible to his own ears.

Chapter Text

15

Tony is fifteen when Bruce drops him off at college in Massachusetts.

The summer feels interminable, like a hormone-fueled dream that will never end. Bruce hasn't felt this reckless in-- well, ever. He's never been one to be ruled by his desires, but something about Tony makes him break every rule he's set for himself.

He knows the sweltering months will live in his memory as a series of freeze-frames-- Tony, blinking awake first thing in the morning; Pepper, threatening them at heel-point to come out of the lab for food; himself; himself, flooring the accelerator like a showy teenager just to make Tony whoop.

They go on the occasional date, and they bicker over coffee in the lab, and they just sort of work. They work together in a way Bruce never imagined possible. It's not simple, but it's as close to perfect as Bruce has ever had. He can't remember ever having been this happy, not even at the height of his manic, research-fueled years just out of grad school when military research grants buoyed his conviction in his own brilliance.

That, more than anything, is what terrifies him-- the fear that the happiness can't last, the paranoia that he doesn't deserve it-- but he pushes it aside. Losing himself in self-pity and fear will do nothing for Tony and only serve to topple the very happiness he fears losing.

Some days Bruce forgets altogether why Tony's age is a problem or how college looms ever closer. Slowly, the guilt and hesitation are fading. Waking up to Tony snuggled against his side or finding him eager for a kiss when an experiment meets success makes Bruce's chest tight with affection rather than worry.

But the end of August does come, and Bruce soon finds himself loading a car in preparation to drive Tony to MIT for his freshman orientation.

"No REM," Tony says as he stows his bag. "Seriously, driver picks the music, and said driver vetoes any damn more REM."

"We're listening to my music precisely because you're driving," Bruce says, tossing Tony the keys. "Driver doesn't pick the music when Passenger has a volatile relationship with stress. There's a very good reason why I wasn't the one to teach you to drive. A very good, very green reason that doesn't want to listen to Guns N' Roses all the way to Massachusetts."

Tony sighs as he starts the car. "Fine, but if I've got to drive in Boston traffic, you gotta' give me anything except REM," he says, then adds as an afterthought, "Or U2."

Bruce doesn't protest. Instead, he plugs in his mp3 player-- a 38th birthday present from Tony-- and holds the display up for Tony's approval.

Tony grins and throws an arm behind Bruce's seat so he can back the Audi R8 out of the garage. The low chords of "Wheel In the Sky" thrum through the impressive stereo, and Bruce settles in for the ride.

"That's more like it," Tony says. "Road trip music."

It's barely seven AM as they make their way out of the city. Bruce tenses every time Tony has to stop for a red light, foot instinctively slamming on an imaginary brake peddle. He's almost regretting the decision to drive rather ran fly by the time they hit the interstate. Almost, but not quite. Bruce plus a pressurized metal tube thousands of feet above sea level just sounded like a horrible idea, even if the SI private jet is an option. Most of Tony's things have already been shipped; he could have easily flown on his own, but Bruce couldn't stomach the idea of sending Tony away to college alone.

The four hour drive passes quickly-- quicker than it should and quicker than Bruce wants it to. Tony drives with a lead foot as they belt along to Journey and the Eagles, astonishingly off-key in Bruce's case, but Tony doesn't seem to mind. He just drums along on the steering wheel, his singing voice more than making up for Bruce's lack thereof.

When they pull up to the hotel where Bruce has a room for the night, less than fifteen minutes from MIT, he resists the urge to tell Tony to keep driving. If they keep going, they can make the Canadian border before nightfall. For a second, there in the parking lot of the Sheraton, Bruce toys with Tony's old fantasy of them running away together, changing their names and living like two regular people.

Instead, Bruce guides Tony as he parks and opens his door with less relief than one would expect given that he's been riding with an adrenalin-junkie fifteen year old.

"I'll be right back," he says, hoping the implicit 'wait here' comes across.

If it does, Tony chooses to ignore it, because he hops out the driver's side and follows Bruce through the lobby. At the reception desk, Bruce fights the urge to sigh.

"Um, hello," he says awkwardly to the receptionist. "I'm needing to go ahead and check in."

"All right. Name, please?" she asks smiling, professionally indulgent of his awkwardness.

"Banner. One night."

She types something into the computer then pauses, the hitch of movement so subtle it's almost imperceptible. "A single?"

He nods curtly. "Correct."

Her eyes flick to Tony, who's bouncing on the balls of his feet as he fiddles idly with the business cards stacked on the counter. She hesitates, assessing, and Bruce decides to head her off.

"He moves into MIT this afternoon," Bruce says. He's aiming for 'proud parental figure,' but the words come out sharp and discordant under the forced enthusiasm.

The receptionist blinks once but remains otherwise unfazed. She nods in acceptance, handing Bruce a keycard as if he didn't just have to reassure her that he isn't a sexual predator picking up an underage boy. How far from the truth but close to home that is forces him to take a deep breath through his nose.

"What was that?" Tony asks as soon as they're back at the car.

"That," Bruce says, hefting his overnight bag from behind his seat, "is what happens when a single middle-aged man tries to check into a single with a minor in tow."

Tony snorts. "At least she didn't have us tailed because she was 'concerned for my wellbeing,'" he says, giving the words his best imitation of Stane.

Bruce scoffs in response. When they went to Howard with the surveillance Stane gathered on them, Howard had been duly irate. He'd been swift in ensuring that all evidence of Tony and Bruce's relationship was destroyed, but the troubling part was that he seemed to believe Stane's insistence that he only had Tony's best interest at heart.

Stane fed him some line about being concerned for Tony's wellbeing, and Howard, apparently, believed him. More than anything, that sets Bruce's teeth on edge. Howard is edging ever closer to eighty, and despite some disparaging remarks regarding his sanity when he condoned Bruce's relationship with Tony, Bruce has always believed he was in full control of his faculties. But now, for the first time, Bruce is starting to question that, and the worst part is that Tony is, too.

There hadn't been a fight when Howard called the pair of them into his office to tell them that he'd had words with Stane. Tony had been unusually quiet, only nodding in acceptance. It was only once they were back in the privacy of the lab that he looked at Bruce and said, "He believed him. Bruce, Dad actually believed Obadiah without question when he said he was worried about me." Tony bit his lip. "If Obie can convince him of this, what else has he made him believe? I mean, if Dad believed him on this, how many other things is putting under Obie's control? What is he trusting Obie with?"

There was genuine fear under the words, but whether it was fear for his relationship with Bruce of fear that Stane might be pulling the company's strings from the shadows as Howard got older and drunker, Bruce didn't know.

"I know," was all Bruce said. He couldn't offer more reassurance than that. This mess with Stane would be something they would have to keep an eye on, especially since General Ross had gotten involved.

The hotel elevator dings, dragging Bruce back to the present, and he follows Tony down the hall.

"Stop it with the worrying," Tony says, shouldering open the room door. "I can hear you over-thinking."

Bruce flips on the light. "One of us has to."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean you have to do enough thinking for both of us."

To make his point, Tony takes the duffle from Bruce's hand and sets it on the dresser before taking a step closer. He places a hand on the back of his neck, combing his finger up through the hair there. His eyes meet Bruce's, gaze searching and warm. Apparently satisfied by what he sees, he hums through a small smile and pulls Bruce down for a kiss.

It's slow and sweet, and Bruce tries not to think of how it feels like a goodbye. He wraps an arm around Tony's waist and brings him closer until they're sharing body heat in the over air-conditioned room. Taking this as permission, Tony leads them back towards the bed without breaking the kiss, and this time Bruce doesn't protest when he's pushed down onto the edge.

The kiss takes on a desperate tinge as Tony climbs into his lap, and Bruce knows he isn't the only one who feels it. He sucks at Tony's bottom lip until the younger man groans and shifts closer, hips rocking.

Bruce gasps in surprise and pushes on his hips until there's space between them once more. "Tony," he says, aiming for warning but ending up closer to breathless.

Tony sighs in exasperation. "Do you ever intend to touch me, or are we both going to have a perpetual case of blue balls until I turn eighteen?" he asks. "Because I can feel that you want this just as much as I do."

To illustrate his meaning, he looks pointedly down at the erection obvious through Bruce's pants.

Bruce starts to reply, but Tony overrides him. "It's not going to make a difference, you know," he says. "It's not like some magic switch flips when I turn eighteen. 'Age is just a number'-- that's a cliché for a reason."

Bruce sighs and leans his forehead against Tony's shoulder. "It's not just that," he confides. He looks back up to meet Tony's eyes. "This isn't somewhere I want to go before you leave for college because you're about to start a whole new chapter of your life. You're going to grow so much and learn so much about yourself."

He swallows hard before continuing, "And you might find that I'm not what you want, anymore. Maybe you'll find someone closer to your own age, or maybe you'll just get tired of the distance."

Tony starts to protest, but something in Bruce's expression silences him.

"Either way," Bruce says, carefully pronouncing every word. "I don't think I can handle never having this again once I know what it's like to be with you like this."

He runs a gentle hand down Tony's side and hopes that Tony understands what he means under the words, how it might just break him to have Tony as a lover only to lose him over distance or fickle teenage hormones.

Tony's expression softens. "Whether it's now or when I'm eighteen, I'm going to want you just as much," he says. "No one could ever replace you, and I'm never going to get tired enough of the distance to give this up." He smiles before adding, "No matter how bad the case of blue balls."

"You can't know that."

"Maybe, but what I do know is that I love you, and that's not going to fade so easily," Tony says. "You know this isn't just a crush. You wouldn't be doing this if you thought it was."

Bruce has nothing to say to that, so the wraps his arms tighter around Tony's back, holding him close. Maybe it's selfish, but he's going to take this much for himself.

Tony kisses his forehead. "I'll prove it to you," he promises.

Bruce looks away sharply, unable to meet Tony's eyes. He thought he'd lost the ability to cry by the time he turned thirteen, but the stinging in his eyes tells him otherwise.

"Hey," Tony ducks his head to catch Bruce's gaze. "What's the matter?"

"I'm just going to miss you; that's all," Bruce lies.

Tony's arms squeeze him tighter. “Do you have a clean button-up you can wear tomorrow?”

“Um, yes?” Bruce’s brow furrows in confusion at the non sequitur. “Why?”

In answer Tony leans down to suck at the juncture of Bruce’s neck and shoulder. He nips and sucks until Bruce has to bite back a noise of pleasure. When he shifts back to look at his handiwork, a purple-red bruise discolors Bruce’s skin, tingling pleasantly.

"Souvenir to remember me by." A pleased smirk turns up Tony’s lips, and he leans back in to start on a spot on Bruce’s shoulder. It hits Bruce that Tony's never done this before-- left a mark on a lover. The feel of Tony experimenting, figuring out what works, sends a thrill through Bruce.

Tony gives an experimental nip with teeth, then another, and when Bruce shifts encouragingly under him, he bites down harder than should be pleasant. The gasp Bruce lets out is entirely involuntary and absolutely obscene.

Tony hesitates. “Good or bad?” he asks, leaning back to catch Bruce’s eye.

“Good,” Bruce says, reluctantly honest. “Very good.”

Tony grins before leaning in to bite his way up Bruce's neck, teeth pulling at the delicate skin there. Bruce makes a noise more like a growl than a moan as Tony returns to sucking the mark just above Bruce's collarbone. He places a feather-light kiss on it, followed by the lightest of licks.

Bruce takes a hysterical moment to wonder if prolonged blue balls can cause permanent physical damage before embarking on the Herculean task of convincing Tony to tone things down.

~*~

It's six in the afternoon by the time they get Tony situated in his dorm, and there's nothing more Bruce can do to help. Tony has boxes to unpack, and that's something Bruce can't help with without looking like the helicopter parent-- a term that Tony throws out with a sarcastic smirk.

Bruce has already made two coffee runs, a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond, and written instructions on how to properly do laundry, but there's nothing more he can do to stall. Outside the entrance to the dorm, Tony faces him, MIT student ID clutched in one hand. Bruce tries not to see how glassy his eyes are.

Abruptly, Bruce has no idea how he's supposed to tell Tony goodbye. He wants to kiss him, to hold him, but he can't. Instead, he pulls him in for a brief hug, just long enough to whisper "I love you" against his cheek.

"Love you, too," Tony says, wrapping his arms around Bruce's neck. "I always will." He pulls away to stare Bruce down with sharp brown eyes. "I'm going to prove it to you," he reiterates before turning to walk back into the building with one final hug.

And just like that, the chemical makeup of Bruce's world shifts. Watching Tony walk out of reach feels like watching his world stop spinning.

Bruce feels the hollow ache of depression and desperation, and he has to close his eyes against the force of it. It's like the ground is opening to swallow him, dragging him lower than he's been in years, and he wants to dive into it, to go down willingly before it pulls him down.

And that, that right there is the line. Even as he waves goodbye to Tony's retreating figure through the glass door, he fumbles his cell phone out of his back pocket. He has one friend on whom he doesn't feel as guilty inflicting himself-- one friend aside from Tony who seems to genuinely enjoy his company outside of work. She knows him well enough not to ask too many questions. He knows too well that he shouldn't be left alone tonight to wallow in his own haunting thoughts.

Pepper answers on the third ring. "Hello, Pepper Potts."

"Hey, Pepper." Bruce sucks in a breath. "I need a favor."

~*~

15

Tony is fifteen when he stops calling Bruce.

Maria looks at Bruce over a steaming cup of tea, her face drawn and pale but her brown eyes just as sharp as they've always been. It was his mistake to think Tony had inherited Howard's eyes. He resists the urge to shift in discomfort under the too-familiar gaze.

"I thought I was never going to pry you out of the lab," she says, taking a delicate sip.

Bruce's answering smile is apologetic. "I keep losing track of time," he says, half-truthfully. "The work I'm doing with SI has the potential to help so many people."

"Your work has always been important," she says, "but you're worse now than when Tony was here."

Her sharp gaze tells him that her bluntness isn't unintentional. He kicks self-preservation to the curb and asks what he's been wondering for the past month.

"Have you spoken to Tony lately?" He tries to sound casual, but the words come out stilted and choked.

"We spoke on Monday." Maria hesitates for half a second. "He calls every week."

The words knock the wind out of Bruce.

It's mid-November, and it's been nearly a month and a half since he's exchanged more than a cursory text with Tony. His first month away, Tony had called twice a week and texted multiple times per day. Bruce expected that number to taper off as Tony adjusted to college and the homesickness faded, but he hadn't expected all communication to end, full stop.

He'd suspected that he was the only one being cut out of Tony's life. He'd suspected, but he hadn't known for sure until now.

If you'd asked him two months ago, he would have said that even if Tony could get over his romantic interest in him, their friendship would last a lifetime. Bruce had, in all honesty, assumed he wasn't so easily forgotten. A worse possibility echoes through his head-- the all too real possibility that Tony has finally come to his senses and realized how fucked up is is that Bruce is in love with him.

And Bruce is in love. In the week after he got back from dropping off Tony, he's watched the red-purple bruise on his shoulder fade day by day in the mirror. Sometimes he's pull the collar of his shirt aside, run his fingers over the discolored skin and wish there was some way to make the mark stay. It would be one mark of good memories among so many of bad on his body. He's so in love that sometimes it burns when he breathes, sharp and searing. The loss of Tony feels like fire in his chest, as likely to consume him as it is to keep him moving forward.

"You haven't done anything wrong," Maria says, too accurate to Bruce's thoughts by half. "Tony's infatuation with you isn't something you can help, and you can't take it personally if he's trying to get over it."

Bruce drains the rest of his tea, ignoring the stray leaves.

"I've got to go," he says. He sets down his empty cup with a clatter of china. "Time sensitive experiments, and all that."

Maria's eyes are sad as she watches him leave, but he can't look at them right now. They're too familiar.

Bruce is out of the house and into the nearest subway tunnel before the despair and panic has time to paralyze him and trap him in the lab for another endless blur of time. He's on the train before he even thinks to send a warning text.

To Pepper:

            20:21 Movie night tonight?

            20:22 Preferably something mindless with explosions.

The pair of messages sit on his phone, unsent, until he hits a spot of service somewhere around the Time Square stop. As soon as he sends them, he rests his head against the cool of the support pole as the train sways. She'll know the plea for help when she hears it.

His phone buzzes with the response.

From Pepper:

            20:37 Sure.

            20:37 As long as you don't expect me to put on real clothes.

Bruce smiles almost against his will, forehead still pressed to metal.

The drive back from Boston had been torture. While the drive up had given him more time with Tony, the drive back to New York felt interminable. He drove the four and a half hours through the night after he left Tony, unable to bring himself to stay in an empty hotel room even if it was already paid for. He'd had to remind himself to breathe through the crush of depression in his chest, the way it stole his breath and hope all at once.

Twice he'd had to pull into a gas station and call Pepper. She hadn't said anything when his voice broke as he described how shitty Boston traffic was, just for something to say, and she didn't complain when he called again close to midnight, needing to hear a friendly voice along the endless stretch of dark interstate.

When he shows up the doorstep of her apartment holding popcorn and a six pack of beer fifteen minutes later, she steps aside to let him in.

"You could at least pretend you sent that text before you were halfway here, "she says, but she's already reaching for one of the Heineken. She's in her pajamas, worn tartan pants and a Garfield shirt that would be too large on him.

"Hey, I at least stopped off at a bodega to kill six minutes."

"Such thoughtfulness." She tosses him the bottle opener, and he catches it on instinct. "Too bad you've already learned that beer and Movie Theater Butter is the way to this girl's heart. Or at least her TV."

In the living room Crank is already queued up to the menu. Bruce sinks into the corner of Pepper's lumpy, stained sofa and folds his legs under himself. He suspects that she can afford to buy a new couch, one that looks less like it belongs to a college student, but the overstuffed burlap monstrosity is comfy enough to make up for its ugly.

Pepper flips off the overhead light before splaying on the couch next to him. She takes up two-thirds of it, her bare feet pressing against his thigh. She shovels popcorn into her mouth by the handful, messy and inelegant, and it's almost enough to make Bruce smile as he watches her out of the corner of his eye.

The glow of the TV illuminates her in faint blue. Her strawberry hair is pulled back into a messy bun, and the peak of her breasts makes it clear that she meant what she said about not putting on real clothes.

She's beautiful.

It's not the first time he's realized it, but here, now-- loose and relaxed in her living room, inhaling popcorn like it's going to run away-- she seems real in a way that she usually doesn't in mascara and heels.

Bruce swallows hard and looks back at the screen.

The self-destructive part of him wants to see if she's still as interested in him as she was a year and a half ago. He idly wonders if she'd kiss back if he leaned over, if she'd pull away from his touch on her neck, his lips on her skin. He wonders, but he cares for her too much to find out.

He wishes he could feel that kind of desire for her. Maybe he would, if he tried, but Pepper is too smart to let him get away with that. Too smart and too kind. She won't let herself be the tool by which he destroys what's left of his hope. He hasn't given up hope, not completely, that Tony is just busy and that things will go back to normal once he's home for winter break.

"Are you sleeping here tonight?" she asks. There's no judgment under the words, just the offer of a friend. He's barely slept in the months since Tony left, only sleeping soundly on the nights he passes out in the lab from exhaustion. Even then, his dreams are haunted by brown eyes and a cheeky smile.

"Yeah," he says, and the word comes out rough. "Thanks."

Pepper has become one of his closest friends. Maybe his best friend if Tony's radio silence is anything to go by. She didn't say 'I told you so' when he sobbed into her shoulder in late September, lower than he'd been in over ten years. She didn't point fingers or look at him strangely for being depressed over a fifteen year old, even if maybe she should. All she said was, "You really loved him," as she twirled one of his curls around her finger.

It was true, so Bruce hadn't bothered replying. He hadn't bothered to correct the past tense, either.

So, she invites him over for dollar pizza and reruns of shows she's almost too young to remember and that he grew up on. Some days it feels like she's all that's keeping him together since Tony left. Bruce never knew he could be so wrecked over one person. He was so afraid that he would accidentally break Tony's heart that somehow he forgot about his own.

Chapter Text

15

Tony is fifteen when he sees Bruce for the first time in four months.

Maria and Bruce sit at the kitchen table anxiously awaiting Tony's arrival home for winter break. They trade mundane conversation, but Maria's easy speech belies the anxious tic of her finger against her cup, while Bruce's tea remains untouched. When the front door opens, they both spring up from the table, Maria moving to the foyer as fast as her weakened state will allow. Bruce trails behind her, trying for a leisurely pace but giving off a distinct woodland-creature-peering-out-from-behind-tree-and-waiting-to-be-shot vibe.

There, in the Stark's foyer, stands Tony. He's knocking the grey city snow off his boots on the mat when he looks up at their approach. He's a little taller, a little thinner, and his hair is in severe need of a cut, but it's still Tony.

There's a moment of stillness before Tony drops his bag at his feet to enfold Maria in a hug.

"Mom," he says through a warm grin.

"I missed you," she says against his mop of hair.

"Missed you, too."

At last he turns his gaze to Bruce, and Bruce's stomach bottoms out. Tony might as well be looking at a stranger. There's no warmth in his eyes, no sign of anything other than cursory recognition, and Bruce already knows what to expect before he opened his mouth. "Hello."

"Hey," Bruce manages. He fights back the instinctive urge to hug him, knowing for the first time in nearly a decade that it wouldn't be welcome.

Tony reaches down to grab his bag and holds it with both hands in a way that confirms a hug isn't on the table. Whatever hopes Bruce held about Tony's distance being a misunderstanding are dashed against the insincerity of Tony's smile.

~*~

Three days.

That's how long Tony drifts through the mansion like a particularly antisocial ghost. He never shows up up in the lab, never sets foot in Bruce's room. Once, Bruce comes across him in the library, but other than that he does a remarkable job of making himself scarce, at least where Bruce is concerned.

It's almost ten o'clock on the third night when he finally visits the lab. His steps falter as soon as he sees Bruce hunched over a stack of paperwork, but be crosses the room in several long strides.

"Sorry, I just need--" He gestures vaguely to the tornado-aftermath that is his desk, untouched since he left. He fishes through it, shifting screws and circuits and tools until he digs out the red handled set of trackable pliers identical to the purple pair he gave Bruce so many Christmases ago. He turns to go without another word, and Bruce watches him walk away with mounting desperation.

"You need a haircut," he says before he loses the courage.

Tony halts in his retreat. "What?"

Bruce pointedly looks him over, brow furrowed. "A haircut. You're a step away from impersonating Cousin Itt."

"Oh, fuck you," Tony spits, indignant color rising. "I'll grow it out to my shoulders if I want to."

"You did not just have an 'I do what I want' moment," Bruce says incredulously."What, are we in the seventh grade?"

"Look, what you think about my hair matters fuck-all to me."

Bruce's face crumples in confusion. This isn't about hair anymore, but hell if he knows what they're really talking about. "Grow a mullet, for all I care. All I'm saying is that you've got a halo of frizz from all the split ends."

There's a long, still pause because yes, yes indeed. That might just be the gayest thing to ever come out of Bruce's mouth, and he's been known to sing "Relax" at inappropriate times.

Tony makes a noise like he's trying to swallow a laugh whole. It doesn't work.

"Says the master of the ignored-curls afro. You used to only cut your hair once it started obscuring your vision," Tony manages. "Have you started watching TLC while I was gone or something?"

"Oh, What Not to Wear is my favoritest show," Bruce says, giving it the affectation of a pre-teen girl and swaying slightly, hands clasped in front of him.

The huff Tony gives might be a laugh or it might just be exasperation at Bruce's brand of humor. Bruce can't tell anymore, and that makes his throat feel tight.

"It's been a while," he says quietly.

"Yeah," Tony says, voice distant. "Sorry I never made it home for fall break. I got wrapped up in work."

"Work, right." Bruce doesn't try to hide the dryness in his tone, lets the dryness hide the myriad of emotions cycling through him-- disappointment, that Tony's feelings for him really were so short lived; grief, that possibly the best relationship of his life is over; fear, that their friendship is lost as well.

"How've you been?" Tony asks. It's stilted, forced in a way it never would've been four months ago.

"Been keeping busy," Bruce evades. "I've started making Pepper come out to eat with me. She doesn't have quite the tolerance for low health scores you do, though."

"That's good," Tony says, and he sounds even more distant now. "How are you guys doing? You and Pep, I mean."

"Good, I guess," Bruce says, furrowing his brow at the collective. "We've watched a lot of action movies since you've been gone."

"That's good," Tony repeats.

They lapse into awkward silence.

"I went on a date," Tony says abruptly.

Bruce thinks that the pain in his chest might be his heart hitting the floor. He'd guessed as much, but having it dropped into conversation so flippantly stings even worse than he'd braced for. A wave of sorrow washes over him, and for one wild second, he considers running, throwing away everything he's built for himself, because if this is what Tony can do to him, maybe this isn't where he needs to be anymore.

But he's done running from his choices. He made the decision to get romantically involved with a teenager, and now he has to live with the consequences. Knowing how far down rock bottom is still scares him, but in the end, he thinks that maybe the happiness that came with loving Tony is worth the low of losing him.

"That's good," he says and even manages to force a smile.

Tony nods, not making eye contact. "I thought you'd think so," he says, but Bruce can hear the forced nonchalance in his voice.

"Tony, I won't-- I don't expect anything from you," Bruce says, aiming for reassuring but ending up closer to pleading. "I don't blame you, and I'm not angry. You've grown out of your feelings for me while you were at school, and it's good that you found someone. I can't say I didn't expect it. I just hope we can go ba--"

"' Grown out of my feelings.' You think I've ' grown out of ' it?  Tony interrupts, face contorted in a pained sneer. It's the most emotion he's shown since the conversation moved away from hair. "I'm trying here, Bruce, I really am. I want us to still be friends, and I'm trying to drop this shit in a box and duct tape it shut and shove it under the bed and ignore how much I want your arms around me again--"

Tony's voice cracks on the last word, and he looks sharply at the other side of the room. "But it fucking hurts, okay? I didn't need to find someone because I already had someone. Or at least that's what I though. You think I want to see you and Pepper together? No, but I want you to be happy, and if she's what does it, fine."

"Hang on, hang on." Bruce holds up both hands in a 'stop' gesture. Somewhere along the way he's completely lost the thread of this conversation. "Let me get this straight, you think I'm what? Dating Pepper? Fucking her?"

Tony shrugs and shoves his hands into his pocket in a convincing imitation of a careless teenage slouch. "Pick one. Or both."

"Pepper and I aren't together."

"Look, it's fine. Really. Can we just not talk about it?"

The pieces slot into place with horrifying clarity. "Why didn't you come home from fall break?"

"Like I said, I was busy."

"The truth," Bruce orders, voice brooking no argument. "All of it."

Tony slouches even further. "I was busy, and you had Pepper. I didn't want to be some obligation that you had to worry with or listen to you try to explain things."

"I told you, I'm not with Pepper. I've never been with Pepper," he says, letting his incredulity seep into his tone.

"But you were sleeping together," Tony says, sounding less sure of himself now. "I called at, like, one AM, and when you answered, she was in the background half-asleep asking who the hell was waking her up."

Bruce blinks. He remembers the night in question, right before the distance between them grew larger than the space between Boston and New York.

"That's why you stopped returning my calls. You thought she and I-- We weren't--" Bruce struggles to find the right words. "I went to her apartment to watch a movie, and she fell asleep next to me on the couch."

Tony looks skeptical, but Bruce can tell he wants to believe.

Bruce takes a deep breath and decides to lay all his cards on the table. "After you left, I... had trouble coping. It's not your fault," he adds hurriedly. "I've had trouble with depression for as long as I can remember. It's been awhile since it was so bad, but I still know the rodeo. I knew I shouldn't be alone, but I didn't tell you because-- because I didn't want you to feel like you had to stay romantically involved with me."

Bruce takes another steadying breath. "So, I hid it," he admits. "I should have told you, but I didn't want to put you in that kind of position. I couldn't stand the idea of giving you one more thing to worry about. So, I went to pepper. She didn't ask many questions and let me practically live off her couch for the first week you were gone."

Tony deflates like a punctured balloon, and without the indignation to fuel him, he looks painfully, wretchedly tired.

"Oh," is all he says. "Well, I'm a moron."

Bruce wants to be happy, wants to feel relieved that Tony still wants him, but he can't. Instead the hollow ache in his chest just gets bigger.

"So you thought I was dating Pepper, and now you're dating someone." Bruce swallows hard and nods to himself. "A fine mess."

"I had a date, singular," Tony says, "One lousy, uninteresting date that ended when I headbutted the guy in the nose because he tried to kiss me while I was caught up thinking about you."

Hope swells in Bruce's chest, drowning out the anger at the thought of someone else trying to kiss Tony. "Does that mean you still want--"

"Yes."

"--us?" Bruce finishes.

He can't tell if he wants to laugh or cry. He nearly lost the best thing in his life over bad communication and a night spent on Pepper's couch. He was so convinced that Tony wouldn't want him after he gained the clarity of distance that Bruce never even considered the possibility that maybe he wasn't the only one with insecurities about their relationship.

He feels ashamed of himself for putting someone so young in such a complicated position, but that's not enough to stop him right now.

There's so much Bruce wants to say, like that he loves Tony or that he missed him, but all he says is, "I'd really like to kiss you, if that's okay."

"Oh god yes," Tony says, and his smile is still tired, but it's real. He holds out a hand in invitation.

Bruce steps forward, takes it, and interlaces their fingers. For a moment that's their only contact, the warm caress of a thumb over his palm, before he brings a tentative hand to Tony's waist.

Carefully, Bruce places a feather-light kiss on Tony's cheek, and Tony practically falls into him, burying his face in Bruce's collar and wrapping his free arm around his neck. He's at height with Bruce now. He's still smaller, slender and thin-shouldered with youth, but having Tony enfold him so effortlessly feels surreal.

Bruce thinks that he could stay just like this-- nose and lips tracing Tony's cheekbone, one hand intertwined with Tony's while the other anchors him close-- but Tony has other ideas. He cups the back of Bruce's neck, guiding him until their lips meet.

Tony doesn't close his eyes, just holds Bruce's gaze with soft brown eyes as his lips tease Bruce's. It could be awkward or hot, and maybe on some level it's a bit of both, but Tony's open eyes feel more like a plea for Bruce not to leave him, for all the world like he expects him to disappear if he closes his eyes.

So, they kiss, open-mouthed and open-eyed.

Tony leans further into him until Bruce is taking all of his weight. With a pang Bruce realizes just how tired he is, how tired they both are. His arm secured around Tony's waist is all that's keeping the younger man on his feet.

"You're exhausted," Bruce says, pressing kisses to the shadows under his eyes to soften the words.

Tony huffs a tired sound that wants to be a laugh. "I've barely slept for four months," he says.

"We should start a club," Bruce says, then snorts. "Or a support groups."

"CSA-- Codependent Sleepers Anonymous." Tony nods sagely, then runs a hand down Bruce's chest. " How about you take me to bed and see if we can fix that ?"

Bruce chooses to ignore the double entendre, even if the blush spreading across his cheeks undermines the effort. He resists the urge to ask if Tony is sure. The rapid swing of emotion tonight has left him feeling wrong-footed, skeptical of where they stand even though Tony's hand in his answers that for him.

Tony must read something of this in his expression, because he says, "If you say you've got more work or some other dumbass excuse not to come to bed, I'm going to knock your crap off the lab table and and sleep there. I will use your file folders for a pillow, just watch me."

That gets a real laugh from Bruce.

"No, I--" he starts. "I'd like that."

Sleep-- real sleep, not unconsciousness brought on by thirty-six hours spent working-- sounds unspeakably wonderful. He squeezes Tony's hand and doesn't object when Tony leads him towards the stairs. As they make their way to his room, Bruce feels like he's forgotten how to do this, like he has to relearn intimacy all over again, both emotional and physical.

But for all Bruce feels lost, Tony apparently doesn't. He kisses him, warm and yielding, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world to follow him when he backs onto the bed. Bruce lets himself he pulled forward, one knee landing on the mattress between Tony's.

Tony pushes himself up the bed and pulls Bruce along with fingers twisted in the hair at the base of his skull. He follows, kissing the delicate skin of Tony's neck as they go until he's braced on his forearms above him. It's the first time he's let himself be over Tony like this, and the heat rolling between them is intoxicating.

Even so, it doesn't feel like it's leading towards sex. They're both exhausted, near delirious with it, and right now Bruce wants nothing more than to bury his face in the familiarity of Tony's scent and fall asleep like that.

Bruce sits back on his heels, Tony's thigh caught between his knees. "Tony, I don't know if--" he starts, and it comes out breathless, halting. "What is this? What're we doing?"

"Just this," Tony says softly, propping himself up to run a careful finger over the shell of Bruce's ear. He gives a tired chuckle. "Pretty sure we're both too tired for anything else right now."

Bruce's stomach flips at the implications of that, the idea that when they're not both shaky with lack of sleep, 'anything else' is on the table. There's no hesitation from Tony, no uncertainty that this is-- that they are-- what he wants.

"Yeah." Bruce swallows hard. "Yeah."

Tony reaches out to tug at the hem of Bruce's shirt. "Off."

"But you just said--"

"I said we're not having sex tonight," he says. "That doesn't mean I'm ready to stop kissing you."

Bruce raises skeptical eyebrows. "And that requires my shirt to come off?"

"I want to touch you," Tony says. He skims the hem of Bruce's shirt up just enough to trace circles into the skin above his waistband, and damn if that doesn't send heat rocketing up Bruce's spine, exhaustion or no.

Still, he says slowly, "I'm not sure if that's a good idea."

"Would you stop trying to preserve my virtue?" Tony says, clearly going for mock-outraged but sounding legitimately put-out.

"I'm not," Bruce says.

Tony looks disbelieving.

Bruce runs a tired hand down his face and makes a note to shave in the morning. "Really, I'm not. I just-- I think maybe you're forgetting that me shirtless isn't the most appealing sight."

Bruce isn't self-conscious about his scars, not exactly. Whether or not people find him attractive hasn't particularly bothered him since he was in his early twenties; he just knows that some people are more put off by scars than others, and eleven at night when they're both drop-dead tired isn't the best time to figure out if Tony is among that number.

Tony blinks, hand stilling in its caress. Bruce expects him to back off, to reconsider, to dismiss the subject. What he doesn't expect is for Tony to lean up, strip off his own shirt, and says, "Tell me no if you don't want me to."

He grip the edges of Bruce's shirt, giving him just enough time to understand what he intends, then tugs his off over Bruce's head.

Tony looks him over with dark eyes and a-- most likely unintentional-- lick of his lips. After an endless second, he brings up both hands to run over Bruce's chest. They skim over the line of his shoulders and down his sides, feeling the curve of Bruce's ribcage under curious fingers.

Bruce, meanwhile, is too distracted by the sight of Tony's bare chest to even remember why this was supposed to be a bad idea. Tony shoulders are corded with lean muscle tapering to a narrow waist, something Bruce has only felt through clothes up until now. He's seen Tony shirtless countless times over the years, but not since they started this, not really. Ever since the bloom of his attraction to the younger man, Bruce always guiltily averts his eyes at the slightest hint of bare skin.

Now, though, exhaustion wars with arousal as he allows himself to look for the first time. His breath catches at the dusky nipples and the sparse chest hair adorning Tony's olive skin.

Tony watches Bruce watching him, patient with his hesitation. Finally, he takes one hand off of Bruce's chest to curl around his wrist, guiding it to the bare plane of his chest, just over one nipple.

"Touch," he says, and Bruce does. He runs a tentative hand down Tony's front, stopping just short of his waistband. He pulls Tony closer with his other hand on his bare back. His fingers trail over the divots of his spine and around to the curve of his waist.

He's half-kneeling over one of Tony's thighs, legs shaking with the effort of holding the position with tired muscles as he leans in to kiss the side of Tony's neck. Tony tilts his head, back arching, and brings his free leg up to Bruce's waist.

He's gorgeous, asking without words for Bruce's touch, but Bruce makes the command decision to rearrange them before one of them loses their balance and they go crashing down in an unsexy tangle of limbs. He guides Tony's back down to the mattress with a steady hand and the press of his body, finding him surprisingly pliant for someone who's usually anything but. Bruce moves to lay on his side so they're lying next to each other, his body curving around Tony's like it has on so many decidedly more platonic occasions.

"Wait," Tony says when he sees what Bruce is doing. He plants his shoulders on the bed, hips arching up as he works on the button of his pants. "I'm not sleeping in jeans, and I'd prefer it if you didn't, either."

Bruce doesn't have it in him to protest. Tony in boxers isn't a new sight, far from, even if Tony half-hard in boxers is. Bruce rolls off the bed to shuck off his own slacks, lacking the energy for Tony's level of flexibility. He folds his glasses, already smudged beyond visibility, and places them on the bedside table.

He stands next to the bed in black boxer-briefs for a moment, caught in indecision. He feels like he should so put on some sort of sleep shorts, something to add another layer between them, but that idea is almost laughable at this point. They've come this far, and Bruce is too tired to actually give that much of a fuck. And if he's honest, he doesn't want to. He wants this level of intimacy with Tony.

Bruce crawls back onto the bed with less grace than he would like, and Tony takes the opportunity to ogle him shamelessly, eyes roaming over the stretched black fabric. Bruce lays out along his side so they're pressed together from ankle to chest, one forearm resting above his head, and Tony inches closer without waiting for an invitation.

They lay side by side, legs intertwined but hips apart. Tony curls his fingers in Bruce's chest hair, much more liberal than his own, and Bruce arches into the tough with a pleased hum.

"God you're gorgeous," Tony says.

Bruce raises an disbelieving eyebrow, but he's not vain enough to argue for the sake of having Tony elaborate-- though he's sorely tempted. 'The heart wants' and all that, and if Tony wants a rapidly-approaching-middle-aged scientist with old scars and enough chest hair to twine his fingers through, well, who is Bruce to argue?

Bruce skims a delicate finger over Tony’s collarbone. He traces the dips and hollows of his clavicle almost absentmindedly, marveling at Tony’s skin under his fingers. Tony’s hands roam over the ridges of Bruce’s ribs and down his side. He caresses a pale scar, face clear of any reserve. There’s none of the hesitation Bruce remembers from previous partners. The exploration is languid and relaxed, the intimacy burning without the expectation of sex.

Bruce runs his hand up the side of Tony's neck, feeling the curve of it under his palm. He knows he doesn’t have to be this delicate with Tony, but the intimacy warms him more than the arousal. Bruce cups the back of Tony's head, and the tousled hair tangles under his fingers. Tony’s wide pupils shine in the low light, and his breath puffs warm against Bruce’s lips for just a moment before he leans in for a kiss.

Tony anchors Bruce against him with an arm around his bare waist. He kisses Bruce slowly, tongue coaxing, and Bruce can feel how tired he is as he sags against his chest. Tony shifts closer still, like a cat curling for warmth. He presses their hips together but doesn’t ask for more, physically or verbally. Bruce can feel the hard line of his erection pressed against his own, but it feels more like intimacy than sex. The kiss breaks, and Tony’s eyes stay closed. Bruce cups his jaw, tracing his sharpening lines with his fingers, and says, “Sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Tony buries his face against Bruce’s neck. “M’kay,” he says. “Night. Love you.”

“I love you, too,” Bruce says, almost so soft as not to be heard.

Tony’s slight smile says he heard, anyhow.

~*~

Bruce comes back to consciousness gradually after the best night's sleep he's had in four months. He wakes warm and safe and cocooned in the scent of Tony's skin. He doubts he's ever woken so tangled with another person before. They're pressed together from ankle to chest, still shirtless from the night before, and Tony is spooned back against him. One of Bruce's arms is slung around Tony's waist, the other cradled under his neck. They're close enough that his breath ghosts over Tony's bare shoulder.

Bruce wants to lay like this indefinitely, holding Tony as close as they can physically get. He wants to peel away the layers between them until they're skin to skin and he can feel the warmth of Tony radiating from his toes to his head. It's not even sexual, just intimate.

Okay, well, maybe it's a little sexual. Admitting that to himself doesn't scare him as much as it once did.

Bruce knows Tony's awake by the speed of his breathing and years of experience, and the desire to kiss him almost overwhelms Bruce. Then he realizes, he can. This is something he's allowed to have. Maybe it shouldn't be, but for once Bruce is determined to take what life has offered.

He barely has to lean forward to place an open-mouthed kiss at the base of Tony's neck. Tony makes a low, content sound, and Bruce takes it as encouragement. He kisses up Tony's neck with slow, damp kisses that make Tony squirm closer, closing the non-existent space between them. Bruce noses at the hollow beneath his ear and leans up slightly to kisses his jaw. The patchy stubble there scratches against his lips and makes him smile.

"You're hard," Tony says, shifting his hips back against Bruce to make his point.

Bruce resists the instinct to grind his hips forward. He's probably been hard since he woke up, but Tony's words make him suddenly aware of his own body with aching clarity.

"Sorry," Bruce murmurs into Tony's hair. He shifts on the mattress in an attempt to put some space between them, but Tony reaches blindly back to catch his hip under the covers.

"Don't," he says. "You're fine."

Tony punctuates the statement with a less-than-subtle roll of his hips, and it's an effort for Bruce to hold himself still and not rock against the curve of Tony's ass.

"Tony," Bruce warns, but he thinks it might come out half as a groan.

Per usual, Tony does the exact opposite of listening. He rolls so they're facing one another on the bed, breathing the same air. He twines their legs together, and Bruce can feel that Tony is just as hard as he is where his erection presses to the hollow of Bruce's hip.

Bruce's eyes search Tony's sleep-slack face, watching for any sign of discomfort or unease, but Tony only looks back through dark eyes, black pupils almost entirely consuming the brown of his irises. His neck and cheeks are red with stubble burn, and Bruce slowly rubs the pad of his thumb over kiss-swollen lips.

Tony looks thoroughly debauched, and knowing that he did that makes something primal in Bruce purr possessively.

Bruce wants to kiss Tony's lips but holds back out of consideration. Instead, he leans forward to press a careful kiss to his forehead. Tony tilts his face up, asking without words, but Bruce murmurs, "Morning breath. You really don't want to kiss me right now."

"I don't care," Tony says with a certainty that betrays his inexperience, but Bruce is rescued from further thought by lips soft against his. They kiss slowly at first, just the press of morning-chapped lips, before Tony deepens the contact. Objectively, the sleep-stale kiss should be disgusting, but it's Tony -- his Tony, close and warm, and the kiss is perfect.

Still sleepy and relaxed, Bruce doesn't bother trying to keep their hips apart. He arches into the hand on his neck and the erection riding against his thigh. He's less reserved this morning, and maybe it's a function of not being fully awake yet, or maybe he's just past caring about propriety. He breaks the kiss to lick down Tony's neck, sucking as he goes, and Tony tilts his head for better access as a low moan escapes him.

The noise sends a shiver of arousal up Bruce’s spine.

Suddenly, he's desperately aware of the aching need of his own body, shaking with it and desperate for contact. It's been so long since he's been with anyone like this, and now it's Tony arching into his every touch. Tony, who he's loved all the way from boy to teen.

And that thought right there is what halts Bruce. Tony is still a teenager, and this is the first time he's been in a situation like this-- been with anyone like this .

"Wait," Bruce says, putting a firm hand against his chest when Tony does anything but. "This is going..."

"I know exactly where this is going," Tony says, voice tinged with both desperation and frustration. "And it's not 'too far,' if that's how you planned to end that sentence."

"Tony."

"I turn sixteen soon," Tony says, like that’s a viable excuse.

Bruce runs an absent hand down his arm. "That’s not nearly as reassuring as you seem to think it is."

"The age of consent in New York is sixteen." He sounds like he thinks this is news that Bruce might have missed. Or might now have googled quite extensively.

Bruce doesn’t bother wasting his breath on the fact that that only matters if the other party is under twenty-one.

"The legality of this is what concerns me least," he says on a sigh. "Your well-being and the situation I'm putting you in are what worry me."

"You’re not ‘putting’ me in any situation. That implies that I wasn’t the one who started this. I know that I could tell you no," Tony says. "But it doesn't matter how old you are or how young I am; I know what I want, and I want you. I want this with you."

Bruce knows he should protest, knows that he should put up more of a fight and end this altogether before it goes somewhere they’ll both regret, but instead he says, "You say stop, and we stop. I won't be angry, not about this. Never about this, okay?"

"I know," Tony says. He's already in the process of insinuating himself impossibly closer. One hand is fisted between Bruce's shoulder blades, keeping them pressed chest to chest, and the other comes up to rub the stubble on his jaw against the grain.

Bruce pulls back to look into Tony's eyes, checking for any doubt. When he finds none, he runs a hand over Tony's ribs, feeling each ridge and still marveling that this is something he gets. He reaches between them and rolls one nipple lightly between his fingers, only the barest of pressure as his eyes track the movement, and Tony makes breathy noise deep in his throat.

Bruce glances up. "Do you like that?"

And god, he'd meant that as an objective question, but it comes out low and rough, like it's halfway to dirty talk.

"Yeah," Tony says, equally breathy. "Yeah, keep doing that."

Bruce complies, increasing the pressure just to feel the way Tony presses into the touch with his whole body. His leg curls up around Bruce's, and Bruce can feel the press of Tony's erection against his own. Bruce considers for a moment before ducking his head between them. The angle is hell on his neck, but he's got just enough room to suck Tony's other nipple into his mouth.

The noise Tony makes is obscene. He hitches his hips impossibly closer as Bruce swirls his tongue around the nub. He rocks rhythmically against Bruce's hipbone, and there's no longer any doubt of where this is headed, if there ever was before.

Bruce rolls onto his back beneath the sheets, letting the momentum carry Tony with him. His legs splay open to accommodate Tony between them, and they shift, searching for purchase, until Tony is half-straddling Bruce's thigh. He urges Tony's weight down onto him with a hand at the small of his back.

Tony takes the hint immediately and without hesitation. His hips rock into Bruce's with abandon, and "Bruce" falls from his lips on a low exhale. His fingers curl over Bruce’s shoulder, his biceps, his forearms, tracing the muscles in each spot like he’s looking for a place to hold on. Bruce can feel Tony learning as he goes, finding the right rhythm of his hips and discovering how his hands curve perfectly along Bruce's body.

Bruce almost feels ashamed at the jolt of heat Tony's youthful exploration sends through him, but he's too far gone to linger on it. There will be time to freak out later. The thin stretch of their underwear is the only barrier left between them, but he thinks that without it he might lose his grasp on good sense completely.

Bruce angles his head to catch Tony's mouth with his and lets out a breathy hiss as Tony's pace increases. There's little finesse, but Bruce can't remember ever having enjoyed another person so much. He savors the feel of Tony's mouth against his, warm and slick, as he strokes the flat of his tongue against Tony's.

When the kiss breaks, a red flush not entirely from arousal dusts Tony's neck and cheeks. He trails his nose down Bruce's neck before pressing his face into his shoulder, successfully hiding his face as he loses himself in the sensations. Bruce lets him for several long seconds, almost getting lost himself in the press of their bodies, before he nudges insistently at Tony's head with his chin, arms still wrapped around Tony's back.

"I need to see you," he says. And he does need to, both for his own peace of mind and out of selfish desire to see Tony's expression.

Tony tilts his face up. Desire is writ plainly on his face, and his lips are parted wetly. His glazed eyes hold Bruce's for an intense second before flicking away, unable to hold his gaze in the face of embarrassment and the overwhelming intimacy.

Bruce understands the response instantly, and it's almost enough to make him hesitate. Tony hasn't been with anyone before, doesn't know how to let another person see him like this. He's trapped between desire and the instinctual shame of sexuality handed down at an early age.

"Hey," Bruce says. He slows the steady rock of his hips and cups Tony's face in his palms, forcing him to meet his eyes. Bruce wants to tell Tony that he doesn't need to be embarrassed and that he's beautiful, but he doubts the reassurance would be welcome. "It's okay. If you want to stop or keep going, either way it's okay."

"Keep going," Tony says, and now he holds Bruce's gaze without reserve, as if the words have anchored him. Bruce reminds himself that some degree of nerves is natural and that they don't negate the consent Tony is giving. The enthusiastic, rather wiggly consent.

Slope of Tony's shoulders and toned lines of his muscles are more pronounced than ever as he moves against Bruce, and Bruce thinks he could easily spend days on end watching him lose himself to pleasure. He's beautiful-- beautiful in a way that has nothing to do with age and everything to do with him being Tony.

One particularly perfect roll of Tony's hips brings makes Bruce bites down on a moan.

"Don't," Tony says, kissing the underside of his jaw. "Let me hear. I want to know when I do something you like."

Bruce thinks that what he likes amounts to just about everything at this point. The rough drag of Tony's cock against his is intoxicating, even through the layers of fabric. He knows he isn't going to last much longer, but neither is Tony, if the breathless abandon in his voice is anything to go by.

As if in conformation, Tony's rhythm starts to fall apart. His body presses harder into Bruce's, seeking release with wanton abandon

"Bruce, ah -- Bruce--" The words spill over Tony's lips, rough and desperate.

Bruce's name on his tongue is so painfully familiar, but hearing it said like that , so desperate and trusting and wrecked, shreds what's left of Bruce's reserve.

"Yeah, Tony," he encourages, gripping Tony's ass and pulling him tighter. "That's good. So good."

Tony ruts against him, wordless nonsense falling from his lips as he hurtles towards the edge. When he holds Bruce's gaze with adoration in his eyes and moans, " Bruce ," one final time, it steals the breath from Bruce's lungs.

Tony stills under his hands. He sucks in ragged, open-mouthed breaths as pleasure washes over his features. His eyes flutter shut, and he rests his head against Bruce's neck while his breathing evens back out. Bruce holds him close, hands skimming reassuringly up and down his back.

Bruce can feel the dampness of more than sweat seeping between them now, and it sends a heady jolt of arousal coursing through his body. He did that.

There's an ache of guilt buried somewhere under the rush endorphins, but he's too turned on to pay it much heed.

Bruce backs his hips away as carefully as he can so as not to overstimulate Tony lying spent and loose-limbed against him and places a feather-light kiss on Tony's forehead. He’s not sure where to go from here. He wants to get off-- wants to more than he’s wanted in at least a decade-- but he doesn’t want to push Tony any further, and he’s not willing to move out of Tony’s grasp long enough to go finish himself off in the bathroom.

Tony solves the dilemma for him. Clever fingers trail down Bruce's stomach to his waistband, and Bruce's breathe catches in his throat. He holds perfectly still as Tony explores teasingly, skimming across the line where skin and elastic meet. His fingers hook briefly under the edge of fabric and graze just low enough to reach the top of coarse hair before Bruce grabs his wrist.

"You don't have to--" he starts, uneasy all of a sudden. Somehow, this feels like another line in the sand, one he doesn't want to push Tony across.

"I know I don't have to. I want to," Tony says. He twists his hand to grasp Bruce's wrist in return, steadying and grounding. His eyes meet Bruce's without reserve. "Can I?"

Bruce releases his wrist before he's fully processed the intent to do so. "Yeah, Tony," he says, low and dry. "Yes."

A shiver runs up Tony's spine at the words, and he presses his hips to Bruce's thigh, even if there's no hope of his cock regaining interest so soon.

"You're voice is--" Tony cuts off, swallowing hard. He pressed his forehead to Bruce's chest as if trying to find equilibrium.

"What?" Bruce asks, looking down at him.

"Nothing, it's just-- y our voice is always hot. I don't know if you know that, but it is. But god, you sound amazing like this." Tony presses a kiss to one pectoral. "I've spent years imagining what you sound like in bed, and it's amazing . Say my name again?"

"Tony," Bruce agrees. He peppers kisses along Tony's hairline. "Tony, Tony, Tony."

Bruce repeats the name like a prayer and a plea and a mantra all in one as Tony's hand dips lower over the fabric of Bruce's briefs. Tony moves slowly as if not to startle Bruce. His palm is flat and his fingers splayed, and he doesn't try to dip beneath the fabric again, as if sensing that might be too much for Bruce.

Finally, after an agonizingly slow journey, Tony cups Bruce's erection through his underwear. The warmth of the touch radiates through the thin cotton and makes Bruce gasp. There's barely any pressure at first, just Tony feeling Bruce's weight against his palm.

Tony's nimble fingers skim lightly over him, unaccustomed to touching another person, and fuck if that isn't almost enough to finish him off. Tension thrums through the older man's body, not all of it the good kind.

"Relax," Tony breathes in his ear.

Bruce huffs a laugh, shoulders loosening. "I thought you were supposed to be the nervous one here."

"I am," Tony admits, and the tension in Bruce ratchets back up. Feeling the sudden shift, Tony elaborates, "The more nervous you get, the more I'm afraid I'm doing something wrong. So, just relax, kiss me, enjoy it."

Bruce tackles the easiest on the list and leans up to meet Tony's lips. Tony hums into the kiss, pleased, and that goes a long way to draining Bruce's tension. When Tony starts moving his hand again, applying pressure in all the right places even through the fabric, Bruce doesn't stop his hips from bucking up into the touch.

" Tony ," Bruce says, letting gravel slip into it just to feel Tony shiver. He tightens his hold ever-so-slightly, and it's enough to push Bruce over the edge.

His orgasm crashes over him in breathtaking waves, pleasure stronger than it's been in so many years. It washes through him and steals his breath. His hand at Tony's back clenches, dragging them impossibly closer just to feel the slide of Tony's skin against his own.

Tony is murmuring an incoherent garble of reassurance and praise, for all the world like Bruce is the one experiencing something entirely new. Then again, maybe he is.

In the aftermath Tony lays with his head pillowed on Bruce's chest, one of Bruce's arms thrown around his leanly muscled shoulders. He tilts his head up to catch his eye. "Are you freaking out?"

"A little bit," Bruce admits and forces a smile. "I'm trying not to, though."

There's silence, and Bruce lets his fingers comb through Tony's hair.

Finally, he says what he's wanted to say for so long. "I love you."

"Love you, too," Tony says automatically.

"No, I mean--" Bruce stumbles. He swallows past his nerves. "I'm in love with you."

Bruce knows that Tony knows as much-- has known since he was fourteen-- but saying the words aloud, distinguishing them from all of the other I-love-you's they've shared, feels like giving away the last piece of himself he's held back for fear of losing it.

There's still so much for them to learn and explore with one another, both physically and emotionally, but for now, this is Bruce laying all of his cards on the table.

He doesn't know what he's done to deserve this-- suspects, privately, that he could never do anything to-- but he knows now that he's going to fight to keep it for as long as he can. For better or worse, he's done second-guessing this.

Bruce has made his choice; now it's time that he sticks to it.

The compassion in Tony's eyes says he understands the significance, even if he doesn't know everything Bruce is thinking. "I know you are," he says, taking Bruce's hand once more. "But thank you-- for saying it."

The cooling mess is going to get amazingly uncomfortable in about two minutes, Bruce estimates. They're both sticky and really need to clean up, but Bruce can't bring himself to care. He just wants to keep Tony in his arms for a while, mess be damned.

So, that's what he does. He ignores the nagging worry that he's fucked up and the anger at himself for not being able to stop worrying and the worry that he should be worrying more, and just holds Tony.

Or maybe Tony holds him.

Probably, they hold each other.

Chapter Text

16

Tony Stark is sixteen when Bruce's phone rings.

Bruce fumbles his phone until it's trapped between his ear and shoulder. "Hello?"

"Did I catch you in the middle of an experiment?" Tony asks, hearing the strain in his voice.

"Of sorts," Bruce answers. He hesitates for a moment before stepping onto the moving sidewalk, the lurch of motion disorienting for a moment before he regains his stride. "I can talk. Hearing you helps, actually."

A pleasant chime sounds. "The local time is 10:45 PM," the overhead announces in a smooth female voice.

"Bruce, where are you?"

"I," he says, readjusting his duffle and backpack so he has a hand free for the phone, "am in the Minneapolis airport."

A beat of silence hangs over the line.

"Why?" Tony asks carefully.

"There's a conference." Bruce chuckles low in his throat. He's well and truly exhausted from the flight, but he's too happy with himself to be grumpy. "No, I didn't decide to run away to Minnesota. The Other Guy isn't the only one who prefers warm climates."

"A conference," Tony echoes, and his voice is heavy with the significance of that. "You're in an airport. You flew coach!"

"Business class, actually, but yes, I took mass transit."

The flight had been an almost empty red-eye, but it still counted. He suspects Howard's hand in the distinct lack of passengers on the common connecting flight, but he doesn't say as much.

In the months since Tony came home for winter break and-- his stomach still flips at the thought, even if they've repeated the experience a couple times since-- they became intimate on whole new level, Bruce has found some semblance of balance in his life. He's driven to Boston no fewer than four times over the past months, and even if that's less frequently than he'd like, it's still infinitely better than the physical and metaphorical distance of last semester.

Bruce still worries about Obadiah's apparent interest in their relationship, but he's given up second guessing Tony's decision to stay with him. If he's what Tony wants, then he's in this for the long haul, because Tony is what he needs.

"Cap says hi, by the way," Tony adds.

Bruce grins at that. When Tony came home for spring break, Bruce gave him a Captain America plushie he'd seen in the window of a children's consignment store. Its colors were muted pastels and its features just distorted enough to land on the right side of cute. He can almost see Tony sitting on his dorm bed, knees and plushie pulled up to his chest.

"Give him a hug for me," Bruce says.

"I'll do you one better and give him a kiss." There's the sound of an overdramatic smooch over the line.

"Hey," Bruce says in mock-outrage. "Those are mine."

"Well, you're not here to claim them," Tony says. "But I guess a conference is a good enough excuse. Why didn't you tell me you planed to go on an adventure without me?"

Bruce hears everything Tony isn't asking-- the offer for support being extended. "I was afraid I'd lose my nerve at the last minute, and I didn't want to disappoint both of us." Bruce says honestly. "Besides, you'll be home for the summer in two weeks."

"Yeah, but it's been almost a month since I've seen you. You know I'd jump at the chance to get out of Boston for the weekend."

Bruce huffs a laugh as he joins the queue for a taxi. "And I'm sure your eagerness to get out of the city has absolutely nothing to do with your finals next week."

Tony groans. "Don't remind me. I'm trying not to think about it."

"Too stressed to sleep?"

"Yeah. Babble me to sleep?" Tony asks on a sigh, always loath to ask for help.

And that's just what Bruce does. For the whole ride to his hotel, he tells Tony about his research and lunch with the other SI employees and Allen's daughter's dragon-themed birthday party.

They've fallen into a routine of sorts. When Bruce sent Tony back to MIT at the end of January, he did so with an order for Tony to call any time he wanted. They discovered more or less by accident that the same banal talk that comforted Tony when he missed Bruce could also put him to sleep.

When the car stops in front of his hotel, Bruce takes his bags with a mouthed 'thank you' and tips the cab driver generously for tolerating his incessant yammering. Tony has fallen silent, and Bruce pauses outside the revolving door for a moment to listen to the soft rustle of his breathing.

Finally, he makes himself break the spell by saying, "I kind of need to go check in to my room."

"Bruce?" Tony murmurs, just at the edge of sleep.

"Hmm?"

"I'm proud of you."

The words settle like a warm weight on Bruce's chest, and he can't help the small smile that settles over his face. "Goodnight, Tony."

~*~

16

Tony is sixteen when he, Pepper, and Bruce sprawl over the Stark's couch for movie night.

"I'm going to go get more popcorn. Who wants what?" Bruce asks, pushing to his feet.

"White cheddar," Pepper says.

"Same," Tony puts in.

Bruce shakes his head disparagingly as he disappears into the kitchen. "Heathens, both of you."

The three of them are settled into the Stark's living room, Chronicles of Riddick playing on the ridiculously large tv that rarely sees use. They learned that Pepper's apartment doesn't work for hosting movie nights with all three of them. Two weeks and one minor fire was all it took for Pepper to put her foot down.

At least she finally has an excuse to buy a new couch.

Bruce zones back in time to realize that he's almost forgotten about the popcorn. He opens the microwave before the last pops fade, duly pleases when nothing smells burnt.

This week they're at the mansion for "Mandatory Movie Mondays," as Tony had taken to calling them. Secretly Bruce is grateful, if for no other reason than because the AC at Pepper's place has trouble keeping up with the June heat. Well, that and the fact that he and Tony tend to get more affectionate as the night wears on, and if they stay at her place until two am again, they're likely going to give themselves away.

Bruce was pretty sure that Pepper knows, on some level, that he and Tony were involved. His sudden mood shift after last December was probably the last evidence she needed, but Bruce wants to give her all of the plausible deniability he can.

"Tony, you have no idea how relieved I am that you're home for the summer," Pepper says conspiratorially when Bruce reemerges with two bowls of popcorn.

"I mean, that's natural, but why, specifically?" Tony asks with a-- hopefully-- mock preen that's eerily reminiscent of his father.

Pepper laughs. "Because with you here Bruce will watch something other than rom-coms. I swear, if I have to see one more Ashton Kutcher movie, I'm going to smother him with a pillow."

That startles a laugh out of Tony. "The real question is, Bruce or Ashton Kutcher?"

"Bruce." Pepper continues, "If it was anyone else, I'd feel like I'd been on a dozen failed dates with disappointing endings."

Bruce tense for a moment, afraid the joke will hit too close to home, but Tony just laughs harder. He throws Bruce a conspiratorial look. "I bet."

They watch the rest of the movie in silence, due mostly to Pepper's strict policy on no talking during movies she hasn't seen before. Tony is situated between Pepper and Bruce, and they're two-thirds of the way through when Bruce has to flatten Tony's hand against his thigh to keep it from wandering.

Tony, far from being perturbed, shoots Bruce a smirk.

Bruce pulls out his phone and opens a text to Tony. Pepper's stance on monastic movie silence means that the workaround is common enough not to look suspicious.

To Tony:

            22:07 No wandering hands.

            22:07 Terrible time for inappropriate erections.

It takes less than thirty seconds for Bruce's phone to buzz with a response.

From Tony:

            22:08 Why?

            22:09 Because mother bear is watching?

Bruce snorts.

To Tony:

            22:09 She will have you for dinner if she finds out you called her that.

            22:10 But yes. Pretty sure this is what it feels like to have adult supervision while watching a movie with your boyfriend.

From Tony:

            22:12 Does this mean we get to roll around on the couch after she goes to bed?

Bruce stared blankly at the movie for a minute to compose himself. Finally, he types,

To Tony:

            22:15 We are not sexting with Pepper in the same room. No.

He slips his phone back into his pocket, willfully ignoring the buzz of the incoming response message.

Before long, the credits roll, and Bruce has absolutely no idea what just happened on screen. He's about to suggest a second movie when Tony drags one knee up on the couch, spinning to face Pepper while keeping contact with Bruce for support. Support for what, though, he doesn't know, but he recognizes the signs of Tony gearing up to say something.

Bruce hopes to god Tony isn't about to out them, because Pepper might just beat the Other Guy out of him with the nearest blunt object.

"I need your help," Tony tells her frankly.

"Okay," Pepper says slowly, more an acknowledgement than an agreement. "What with?"

"I need to take the company back from Obadiah Stane."

Pepper blinks. "Stane doesn't run to company; your father does."

"No, you run the company. My dad just signs what you put in front of him," Tony says. "I couldn't figure it out at first-- why an Ivy-educated woman with a specialization in project management is working as an assistant."

"But you're not just an assistant," Bruce finishes.

"I am," Pepper insists, then admits, "I'm just an assistant with slightly more power than most."

"Obie has been gradually taking more and more power for himself within the company. I thought Dad hadn't noticed or minded because he's so caught up worrying about mom and, let's face it, he's not a young anymore. I had my suspicions about who was actually running Stark Industries, so I wrangled my way into SI's central database.

"I expected to find Obie's executive access all over the things Dad clearly isn't doing," Tony continues. "But loandbehold, what I find is that there's a third person with executive access I never knew about-- you."

Tony leans forward towards her, like this is a conspiracy meant to stay between the three of them. But then again, maybe it is.

"Obie still has his fingers in too many company pies for my liking, but you're the one doing the heavy lifting. You've been taking control of things where my father can't anymore to keep those tasks from falling into Obadiah's hands, and I think you've been doing it on purpose," he says. "You know something. Or at least suspect."

Pepper hesitates, and Bruce knows the look of someone weighing their options. Finally, a sigh escapes her, and she visibly resigns herself to the truth.

"Howard authorized me to. Obadiah--" She breaks off, shaking her head. "I don't trust him, and I'm not sure Howard does, either."

Bruce sits back as that sinks in. He tries to piece that together with Howard's response to Stane's surveillance of them. He'd assumed Howard was taking Stane at his word out of a sudden bout of gullibility, but Bruce should have known better. Howard is too much of a cunning old fox to be fooled so easily.

Tony's expression reflects the relief Bruce feels. Howard isn't losing control, isn't placing loyalties where they shouldn't be. He has an endgame, and all three of them are too close to see it.

"Why doesn't he just cut Stane if he's so concerned?" Bruce asks. He knows there must be a reason, but he can't parse it.

"If anything were to happen to Howard before you're ready to take over the company, Obie would take over as acting CEO in the interim. Without proof against him, there's nothing to be done about that," Pepper says. "Right now, no one else is capable of bridging that gap, and the board adores him."

"So help me," Tony says with an almost fevered look in his eyes. "Help me fix that. Teach me what I need to know. I already have the experience with R&D; I need you to teach me what it takes to run Stark Industries from a business standpoint.

"I know I'm asking a lot of you, Pep, but I need to be able to take over as soon as I turn eighteen, in case Dad decides to step down to be with Mom. You said it yourself-- the board adores Obadiah, and they're not going to want to choose a kid as CEO over him. But let's give them no other option. Obadiah will never be able to design like me, and if I have the business skills to match, the board won't have a choice."

Pepper runs a hand back through her hair. "Why are you asking me this now?"

"Obadiah doesn't plan to cede power when it comes time for me to take over, probably never has. He wants to discredit me so I never get the chance. He's trying to use Bruce against me. He's trying to--" Tony flatters momentarily before continuing, "--make my relationship with him into something dirty."

Bruce has to cough to hide an ill-timed smirk. It was a masterful evasion, he had to give Tony that. Tony never denied having an inappropriate relationship with Bruce, but rather only that it was dirty.

Pepper, for her part, looks entirely unsurprised.

"Not news to you, I take it?" Bruce asks with raised eyebrows.

"It's not much of a stretch," Pepper says with an apologetic glance between them. "If he's trying to oust Tony, you're the obvious soft spot."

"Oh, it gets worse," Bruce says with a sardonic smile. "Stane seems to have gotten in contact with an army general known as Thunderbolt Ross and dug up the details of my past. Ross is an old ghost of mine who would've been more than happy to scoot Stane some classified files under the table if it means screwing me."

Bruce still feels a sharp stab of anger at the thought of Stane planning to bury Tony under the weight of Bruce's past. They'd found Stane's data on them hidden on the SI servers when Tony went looking for which operations Stane was overseeing.

Accessing the SI servers without leaving digital footprints everywhere required a direct link to the company's system, so less than a week after he returned home for the summer, Tony had made his excuses to visit the New York offices-- alone, much to Bruce's irritation. In the process of parsing out what tasks Stane had diverted to his own control, Tony stumbled across what they suspected was only a fraction of the information Stane had gathered on them. Stane undoubtedly had more copies of the information squirreled away, so destroying them would only tip their hand.

In the two weeks since Tony described the level of detail in the surveillance files to Bruce, Bruce has taken to combing the lab and his-- their-- bedroom for bugs. AT this point there's nothing he wouldn't put past Stane.

Pepper does look perplexed this time. "What would classified files have to do with your past?"

Bruce realizes abruptly that Pepper doesn't know. Despite having worked for Howard Stark this long, she's still wholly unaware of Bruce's history and condition. He hasn't had an incident since she came along, so she wouldn't know if Howard hasn't told her.

Guilt sinks into Bruce's stomach.

She's been a friend to him-- cared for and laughed with and comforted him, all while being oblivious to the existence of the Other Guy and the danger Bruce was putting her in.

He feels dishonest, like he's lied to her through omission. His meaner, greener half isn't something he ever forgets about, not entirely. His control over his condition has gotten better, sure, but the nag of irrational rage is always there. He still has to take a deep breath when Tony scrapes the kitchen chair across the tile or walk away when the payroll staff get that poor-pitiful-agoraphobic-scientist look when he reports the number of hours he works from home.

For one long moment Bruce considers telling her everything, but it's already edging towards eleven. This is a discussion that requires more suspension of disbelief than Pepper can likely muster so close to midnight.

Bruce licks his lips. "Straight out of grad school I got recruited for a military project meant to recreate the super-soldier serum used on Captain America. We-- I thought radiation might be the key."

Pepper's eyebrows arch. "You worked for the military? You, Mr. Do Not Use My Innovations For Weapons Tech?"

"I was barely more than a kid," Bruce says, even though he doesn't believe that's an excuse, not anymore; can't let himself believe it, not now that he has Tony. He holds her gaze steadily. It's an old debate between them-- the military's place in the world. "I was twenty-two and high on my own genius. I honestly thought I could make the world a better place. That was before I had the foresight to think about what an army of super-soldiers would mean to the world."

"I take it by the lack of super-soldiers that you failed?" Pepper asks, clearly aiming for humor.

"Failed explosively," Bruce agrees. "Ross never liked me, and when the project almost literally blew up in our faces, he pointed all of the blame in my direction, saying that I lied and manipulated him. We all shared the blame-- the whole team-- and me more than most, but that doesn't change the fact that he pushed an over-eager twenty-something for impossible results at threat of discreditation.

"He demanded a human test or my job, but I wasn't willing to put anyone else in that situation. I was so sure it would work, but even I wasn't overconfident enough to jump right into human testing." Bruce rubs his palms on his slacks, trying to dry the sweat that was gathering at the memory. "So, I made myself the guinea pig."

Pepper's hand comes up to cover her mouth. "Bruce."

"I know, it was stupid, but I was so convinced I had the answer," Bruce says with a slow shake of his head. "The resulting failure left me-- changed."

Beside him, Tony's eyes are wide. He's read the files, bland and emotionless and to the point, but he's never heard Bruce talk about the accident.

"There's an issue in my life that still haunts me because of the decision I made that day. I can't go into detail about the ramifications, not right now, but the results of the accident are why I came to live with the Starks eleven years ago."

Pepper leans back into the couch, processing the sudden influx of personal information. She looks shocked and borderline disbelieving, but she knows Bruce well enough to realize he's telling the truth.

"I'll help Tony prepare to take over the company," she says at last. "You know I will. There was never really any question in that. God help me, but the pair of you are two of the closest friends I have."

"You're going to be the next target if you help," Tony warns. "Dad won't let him fire you, but--"

"But Howard has made it very clear that if he keels over sooner than expected, I'm to be your assistant, not Stane's," Pepper interrupts.

That halts Tony. "Come again?" he asks, bewildered.

"Once Howard realized I was good for more than filing paperwork and bullying vendors, he rewrote my employment contract. I'm still considered an SI employee, but I'm employed solely under him. He wrote the contract so that in the event of his death or incapacitation, I report to you, not SI or Stane."

A grin spreads across Bruce's face. "So no one else can fire you."

"Exactly," she says with a nod. "I do have one question, though."

"You're allowed more than one," he huffs.

"Why does this general have it out for you?" Pepper asks. "Obviously this is about more than a failed military project."

Tony's brow furrows, and he glanced at Bruce. Clearly this isn't something he ever thought to ask.

Bruce scratches the back of his neck. "I-- well, I kinda' almost, um, eloped," Bruce says, making a face. "With his daughter."

"You eloped with Thunderbolt Ross's daughter?!" Tony screeches.

Bruce thinks as he covers his ear with a pained wince. "Almost eloped with," he corrects.

Tony gives him a look that very clearly says 'We Are Talking About This Later' as they lapse into silence. All three of them radiate exhaustion, thoroughly drained by the night's conversation.

"Another movie?" Tony asks without much hope.

Pepper gives a tired snort. "Not for me," she says as she begins gathering her things. "I still have a train ride back to my apartment and work tomorrow."

Bruce stands, stretching with a wide yawn. He ejects the DVD from the player and hands it wordlessly to Pepper. She waves goodbye at the front door and kisses each of them on the cheek in a sudden burst of affection. "I'm glad you're doing better. Both of you," she says before taking the front steps at a steady trot.

"So," Tony starts as he and Bruce climb the stairs. "Thunderbolt Ross's daughter."

"Betty," Bruce provides.

"Betty," Tony echoes, and Bruce hears the jealous note he tries to suppress. "What's the story?"

Bruce waits until the door to the bedroom clicks shut behind them to answer. The whole truth is what Tony deserves, even if it makes him envious of a lost love from a decade and a half ago.

"I was twenty-three, twenty-four years old. I met her a couple months before you were born," Bruce says quietly. "It was a whirlwind romance-- those kind you see in the movies where people fall in love so fast you doubt it's even possible. Two months in, and I was crazy for her."

Bruce sits on the edge and tugs Tony towards him. Tony goes willingly enough, letting Bruce skim him out of his shirt with fingers that only shake a little. The idea of being the one to undress him still scares Bruce, but this much he can do.

"But not every romance is like the movies," Bruce continues, and he hears the sorrow in his own voice.

He traces a kiss along Tony's shoulder and lets himself get caught in the taste of Tony's skin. His lips on Tony's skin and his hands on Tony's waist say the things Bruce doesn't know how-- that Tony is his love now, that how much he loved Betty doesn't change the ferocity with which he loves Tony now.

"Ross never approved of me," Bruce says into Tony's neck, breath ghosting warm across his skin. "Didn't want his daughter spending time with 'some brainiac coward who never learned how to throw a punch.'"

Tony twined the fingers of one hand in Bruce's curls and scritches. "You have your merits," he says in a low voice that promises things that send a shiver down Bruce's spine.

"We were going to elope after the final test for my serum," Bruce says. "I had one last demonstration for the military, and then she and I were going to make a break for it."

"You make it sound like a prison break," Tony scoffs.

Bruce looks down at his hands resting at the waistband of Tony's jeans. "It practically was," he says softly. "As much for her as for me."

He doesn't elaborate, doesn't explain how Ross slowly took control of Bruce's life, how he tried to rule Betty's and was thwarted by her willful streak, but he suspects Tony understands.

"You know how that test ended. Betty--" Bruce swallows around the tightness in his throat before continuing, "Betty got hurt in the process. I don't remember it, but apparently I-- the Other Guy broke her arm."

Tony visibly is at a loss for what to say, so he lays his head on Bruce's shoulder, anchoring him with an arm around his waist.

"I still don't know how. I think-- I hope it was collateral damage and not--" he stammers, "not intentional."

"It wasn't," Tony says fiercely.

"Tony."

"No," he says. "I've met Hulk, and he's big and angry and likes smashing things, but he's not bad. He wouldn't hurt someone you love, not on purpose."

Bruce wants to believe him. Wants to, but isn't willing to take that risk.

He gives Tony a quick kiss on the lips. "Go brush your teeth," he says when he pulls away.

Tony pushes out of bed with a halfhearted grumble. "It's not your job to remind me of stuff like that anymore, you know"

"Tony, if I have to remind you, it's still my job, even if by choice."

Chapter Text

16

Tony is sixteen when he joins Bruce for yoga.

Bruce tried yoga in the nineties, back during that brief period when VHS tapes of tie-dye-clad hippies saying 'om' got inexplicably popular.

While he was on the run, yoga had never been entirely satisfying. The slow movement and deep breathing had proven more boring than relaxing or physically strenuous enough to calm him. Bruce had found himself zoning out to unsavory thoughts more often than banishing them.

However, when Pepper convinced him to join her for her daily routine several months ago, desperate for anything that would calm his Tony woes, Bruce discovered that he must have been doing something wrong back then. Discovered it painfully.

By the time they finished the workout, Pepper had been glistening attractively with the excursion while Bruce panted for dear life and tried to get his heart rate back under control. She was kind enough to wait until he caught his breath to rib him about the sweat matting his curls and pooling in unattractive stains. Even in the near-perfect climate control of Stark Mansion, the Manhattan heat was something to be reckoned with.

"Is this right?" Tony asks, snapping Bruce back to the present.

Bruce takes in Tony's attempt at bridge pose, shoulders on floor, back arched, and swallows hard.

"Yeah," he says roughly before averting his eyes. "That's it."

With Tony, the same beginner's poses Pepper had walked Bruce through feel decidedly less innocent. Bruce can't help the way his eyes and mind wander, taking in the breathtaking curve of Tony's body and conjuring all the other ways in which that same pose could be used.

After Pepper's introduction and a month's worth of tutorial sessions, Bruce had taken to practicing on his own when Pepper wasn't available. He does it as much for the exercise as the relaxation, because while he's not that out of shape, he's as fit as he once was. And really, if there's one thing keeping up with his teenage-- friend? boyfriend? lover? Tony.-- requires, it's keeping in shape.

And god, that thought came out dirtier than he intended.

Of course, the image of Tony bent double with both hands on the floor and one leg stretched out behind him wasn't helping anything.

As Tony's summer break draws to a close, both of them are desperate to eke out every second of time together they can reasonably manage. After skipping his routine three days in a row and feeling sluggish and off-kilter because of it, Bruce invited Tony to join him without much hope he would be interested.

Instead of giving the bemused scoff and rejection Bruce had been prepared for, Tony had been more than happy to don painfully short-- for Bruce-- running shorts and a too-tight black shirt made of sort of space-age fabric that clung to him flatteringly. Only now as Bruce watches Tony mimic his own pose with his ass in the air does Bruce understand why Tony agreed so enthusiastically-- the tease.

Bruce swallows forcefully as he takes a deep breath and switches positions to a pose that put less pressure on is faintly interested cock.

He and Tony haven't progressed any further than that hazy morning over winter break. They've had stolen moments together when Bruce visits Boston for the weekend or when Tony finds an excuse to spend a couple days in New York under the pretense of learning the company's ropes, but underwear and often the rest of their clothes have always stayed on.

Nudity isn't something that's ever bothered Bruce before now, his own or others'. He knows keeping layers between them makes him no less culpable for getting off with a teenager, but somehow that one last barrier feels insurmountable, like total nudity is a line he doesn't know how to cross.

When Bruce's phone chimes pleasantly to mark the end of an hour, Bruce isn't sure if he's relieved or disappointed.

Tony's eyes roamed over Bruce shamelessly as he straightens, catching on the slight tent in the fabric of his shorts. "I need to start doing this more often. I'm not nearly flexible enough to keep up with you."

His slow drawl leaves no doubt in what he means.

Bruce ducks his head. "Thanks for joining me today," he says awkwardly. "I'm going to go take a shower."

"No, no." Tony smirks. "Thank you."

He watches Bruce as he makes his way towards the en-suite bathroom, a considering look in his eyes. Bruce tries to ignore it and not hunch over as he walks. The idea of Tony knowing just how badly he want him still terrifies Bruce a little, but he made his decision. It's Tony's right to know, and clearly the information doesn't scare him as much as it does Bruce.

As soon as he's in the bathroom, Bruce strips out of his clothes and lets them fall in a careless and vaguely smelly pile on the tile. He sets his glasses on the counter with a click and kicks on the shower, adjusting the temperature until it's nearly scalding. Once upon a time not so long ago, he would have turned the water to freezing rather than run the risk of encouraging his body's desires, but his self-punishing routine helped no one, least of all himself or Tony.

He's about to step under the water when the bathroom door opens and Tony peers around it. Startled, Bruce grabs at a towel in a pointless attempt to preserve some modesty as Tony slips the rest of the way in and shuts the door.

"Is everything okay?" Bruce manages, clutching the towel to his front.

Tony hums in asset as he crosses the room. "Give me that," he says softly, covering Bruce's hands with his own. Bruce staunchly refuses to release his white-knuckled grip.

"I-- what?" he asks dumbly, because hello-- gorgeously disheveled Tony in his personal space while he's lacking clothing.

Tony sighs and gives up on trying to wrest the towel from Bruce's hands. Instead, he shucks off his own shirt and pants, and oh god, he wasn't wearing anything under those too-short shorts.

Bruce looks quickly away before he can notice anything other details.

"Tony, what are you doing?" he asks the far wall.

"Joining you for a shower," Tony says, then hesitates. "If you'll let me."

Bruce is instantly torn between pointing out how much of a terrible idea this is and saying of course he'll let him. Instead he settles on leaving the choice with Tony. "Are you sure?"

Tony huffs. "If you're not going to Hulk-out from embarrassment."

The towel slips through Bruce's fingers to the floor, a silent answer, and Tony smiles, genuine and bright.

Bruce turns his back to check the water, still resolutely not ogling Tony and the gorgeous picture he presents. As he steps under the drizzle of the rain shower head, he's unsurprised when Tony follows him. Still, the warmth at his back and hand on his shoulder are a reassuring presence.

"Hey," Tony says, lips moving against Bruce's shoulder as the water coats them both. "We don't have to do this if you're too uncomfortable."

And oh, Bruce is plenty uncomfortable, but he wants this intimacy with Tony enough to ignore it. He makes himself turn to face Tony, and the water gathering on his lashes only highlights his eyes.

"I'm fine," he says. His eyes catch on Tony's Mediterranean skin and linger on the water droplets pooling at his collarbone. He watches, transfixed, as a drop slides over the plane of his chest, down past his navel, tantalizingly closer to dark curls of hair and--

Bruce averts his eyes, suddenly finding a spot on the ceiling very fascinating.

"Then look at me," Tony says. He puts a steadying hand on Bruce's lower back and lets his fingers trace circles just above the curve of his ass. "You don't need to keep looking away. I wouldn't have followed you if I had a problem with you seeing me naked."

Hesitantly, Bruce does. He takes in Tony as a whole, letting his eyes roam over strong thighs and sharp hips and a half hard cock. Opposite him, Tony is studying the new view of Bruce's skin with just as much intensity.

Bruce feels painfully exposed and vulnerable in a way that has nothing to do with nudity and everything with the emotion in Tony's eyes. He looks curious and wanting and borderline overwhelmed, but under all of it are love and devotion and trust the likes of which Bruce doubts he could ever deserve. But god, he'll try. For Tony, he'll try.

Arousal and nerves suffuse Bruce when Tony's hand curls around his hip, thumb tracing the seam of his thigh as his eyes wander over Bruce's cock. It hits him, as it periodically does, how new this is for Tony. It's the first time he's seen another man naked in a semi-sexual situation outside of the free internet porn he watched for 'research', as he puts it.

Bruce's hands flutters over the younger man's shoulders, unsure how far Tony is comfortable taking this. In the end, Bruce settles on cupping the nape of his neck and letting his fingers rub water into his skin.

"You can touch me," Tony says, eyes fluttering shut. "Anywhere-- everywhere. I want you to."

"We're supposed to be taking a shower," Bruce murmurs even as he leans in to kiss Tony's temple.

Tony tilts his head into the contact when Bruce noses along his hairline. "We are."

"With soap," Bruce adds. He runs his hands down the curve of Tony's back, water trailing his fingertips, and cups Tony's bare ass with only minimal second guessing. The skin under his hands is soft and yielding, muscular without losing its curve.

Tony groans encouragingly.

Bruce's fingers knead as he allows himself a moment to be greedy. Tony has a gorgeous ass. Even through layers, Bruce has thought so for as long as he's allowed himself such thoughts-- and perhaps a little longer-- but seeing it like this, without the layers of fabric, makes his knees go soft and his cock go the exact opposite.

He guides Tony forward until they're pressed together from knee to shoulder. Fire ignites in his belly as Tony's bare cock brushes his upper thigh. Then, one very purposeful cant of Tony hips later, their cocks are brushing between them. Tony's is velvety and solid against his own, and the intimate contact staggers Bruce for a moment. He has to put one hand on the wall behind Tony for support.

A gravely humm escapes him, and he buries his face against the Tony's shoulder, feeling younger man's wet hair sticking to his forehead. Tony's breath comes in warm bursts against Bruce's neck, and it's the heave of his chest that finally brings Bruce back to the task at hand.

"Showering," he says nonsensically. "With soap."

Tony lets out a noise halfway between a laugh and a groan of frustration, but he pulls away, anyhow. "Who knew: all it takes to make the great Bruce Banner go stupid is getting him naked."

"No," Bruce says with a wry smile as he reaches for the shampoo. "All it takes is getting you naked."

Tony makes grabby-hands for the bottle. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"You take everything as a complement."

"I resent that. That was most definitely a compliment, no doubt about it," Tony says. "Lean down."

"Why?" Bruce asks, but does do obligingly. In answer, Tony squeezes a dollop of shampoo into his hand before transferring it to Bruce's hair. Bruce huffs a half-laugh. "You know the whole bathing each other thing isn't nearly as sexy as the movies make it look, right? Someone's always either cold or falling on their ass."

"Let me have my fun," Tony says. He scritches lightly at Bruce's scalp, and Bruce has to close his eyes to keep out a drip of bubbles. "You already vetoed sex on a beach."

"A, You only do that once before you learn your lesson, and I've already had my once," Bruce says with a hum of approval. Despite his objections, Tony's deft fingers carding shampoo through his hair do feel wonderful. "B, You have to be having sex, first, to have sex on a beach."

"Are we not?" Tony asks, genuine curiosity under the slight belligerence in his voice.

Bruce bites his lip and immediately regrets it when he tastes soap. "That... depends on your definition."

"So where's the line? Is it not sex until I bend over for you?"

"Tony!" Bruce admonishes.

"I'm just saying--" Tony amends. "Whether we're having anal sex or just rubbing off together, it's the same. Call it sex, call it fooling around; we're still doing this-- us."

"It's not about that," Bruce says as he lifts his head to rinse out the shampoo. "It's just semantics. This isn't be trying to make myself feel better about having sex with a minor."

And that's maybe the first time Bruce has admitted that aloud while not in the midst of a moral crisis. But then again, if he's admitting it, the time for moral crises probably passed three exits ago.

"Do you consider what we're doing sex?" Bruce asks. At risk of being too cliché, he gives into temptation and sets about returning the favor of hair washing.

"I mean, I guess, but maybe that's because I don't really have any experience to compare it to." Tony shrugs. "I think it counts as sex as long as you're not a Catholic school girl abstaining until marriage."

"I did go to Catholic school," Bruce admits with a sheepish smile.

Tony blinks. "Well that explains a whole fucking lot."

"It really does, doesn't it?" Bruce says. He brushes Tony's bangs, white with suds, back out of his face and holds his gaze. Once hand cups his cheek, palm warm against his skin under the spray of water. "Can I ask you something?"

"No," Tony says, and the sarcasm comes out as hardly more than a whisper.

Bruce kisses the cheek not cupped in his palm. "Do you feel like you've lost your virginity?" He swallows hard, adding, "To me?"

For once Tony hesitates.

"I don't know," he admits at last. "I've had so many firsts with you, but things start to get-- fuzzy when it's two guys. There's no dividing line, you know? No clear sign saying 'cross here to lose virginity!'"

Tony breaks Bruce's hold to rinse his hair. "I don't... I don't really feel like anything's changed, but maybe it's like turning sixteen-- not everyone feels it the way they expect," he says. "All I know is that whatever constitutes a loss of virginity, I want it with you. I want all of my firsts to be with you."

Bruce wants to say something poignant back, he really does, but he's rarely that eloquent when it matters. Instead, he joins Tony under the spray and admits, "I want that, too."

He wraps his arms around Tony's chest and waist from behind. Tony's hands come up to cover his own as he relaxes back into the hold, and they stay like that for a long minute under the water, swaying slightly. It's so warm and intimate and perfect, and Bruce is tries not to breathe too hard for fear of breaking the spell.

Tony doesn't seem bothered by the partial erection nudging at the backs of his thighs, so Bruce doesn't let himself be, either.

Silently, Bruce snags a bar of soap and turns it between his hands until they're thoroughly soaped. He starts with Tony's neck and shoulders, massaging lightly as he goes. The contrast of their skin is hypnotizing, olive hands on soft skin that rarely sees sunlight. Slowly, methodically, he lets his lathered hands drift over Tony's chest and stomach and thighs, scrubbing gently-- touching everywhere apart from exactly where Tony wants him to touch.

Finally, Bruce sucks in a bracing breath and ghosts his hand over Tony's mostly hard cock. He doesn't try to get him off, but his movements aren't exactly economical, either. He washes the length of Tony's cock lightly, letting his fingers linger momentarily on the smoothness of the head.

Tony is beautiful, so beautiful that Bruce wonders what he sees when he looks at their bare bodies so close together.

When Bruce takes his hand away, there's a slight tremor to his fingers. Tony catches it. "You're shaking," he says, an echo of Bruce's own words from so long ago.

Bruce lets out a long breath and blinks water out of his eyes. "I'm nervous."

"Don't be." Tony turns in his arms. "I'm not. Excited, yes. Jittery, yes. Nervous, no. Not with you."

He kisses Bruce's lips before reaching for a travel-sized bottle of unscented lotion that's found its way in among the myriad other shampoos and soaps. Bruce eyes him, aghast.

"You planned this," he accuses.

"I planned for it," Tony agrees cheerfully. "And fantasized about it."

He holds up the partially empty bottle for emphases, and Bruce only boggles harder.

"What do you expect? I'm sixteen and one of the few college students not fucking every other member of their friend group," Tony babbles, then tilts his head. "Not that Rhodey or Carol is interested. Not sure either of them bats for my team--"

Bruce cuts off the avalanche of words with another kiss, deftly silencing Tony with a nip at his bottom lip. Without looking, Tony uncaps the lotion and squeezes some into his palm. What little doubt Bruce had had about the purpose of the bottle is instantly erased as Tony maneuvers a hand between the press of their bodies.

Tony breaks the kiss to watch his own progress, leaning his head against Bruce's clavicle as his eyes track the movements of his hand. At the first touch of graceful fingers to his cock, Bruce lets out a stuttering half-moan against Tony's ear.

Tony's hand is curious on his cock, running up and down the length before circling the head. He holds the weight of it in his palm, letting the warmth seep between them. Bruce knows he's feeling how it differs from his own, thicker and circumcised-- and, the reluctantly honest part of brain adds, a grown man's cock rather than a teenager's.

Bruce brings them closer with an arm looped around Tony's shoulders and rests his other at his hip.

Tony strokes down the length of Bruce's cock several times, testing more than trying to finish him off. His hand drifts away to ghost over Bruce's inner thighs and run light fingers through the dark curls of his pubic hair. From there the hand moves to cup his balls, feeling their weight and tracing them with maddeningly slowness.

The languid exploration leaves Bruce breathless and wanting and desperate to give Tony every piece of himself he's kept guarded for so long. He murmurs encouragements and reassurances into Tony's skin, even though he's sure Tony needs neither.

Tony's fingers drift to the cleft of Bruce's ass, curious. He looks to Bruce for permission through bashful lashes, and Bruce nods his approval. Emboldened, Tony skims his fingers further down between Bruce's cheeks and presses into the sensitive skin behind his balls. Deft fingertips skate over the surface, only the barest of pressure, and Bruce resists the instinct to press back into the touch. He forces himself to let Tony explore at his own pace.

Tony's chest heaves with quick breathes, and his cock nudges insistently at Bruce's upper thigh. Bruce moves a hand towards it but freezes the instant fingers snatch his wrist, afraid he's pushed too far.

Tony evidently reads this on his face. "I definitely want that, but you first this time, okay? I want-- I want to see."

Bruce makes a noise somewhere deep in his throat at that, and Tony takes it as the approval it is. The finger leave the space between his cheeks to circle his cock once more. This time, Tony is done teasing. He strokes Bruce with confident, sure strokes even as he tries to find the right angle.

Bruce gives into it, canting his body to give Tony better access and relaxing into the sensation with a moan he doesn't even try to stifle. Tony's eyes follow every movement, as if he doesn't want to miss a moment, and Bruce understands completely. The view between their bodies somehow manages to be both pornographic and too beautiful for words.

Bruce reaches down, taking hold of Tony's wrist. He adjusts the angle before interlacing his fingers with Tony's around his cock. He tightens the grip and shows him without words how to make it better. At that, Tony breaks his observation for long enough to capture Bruce's mouth in a searing kiss.

Tony thrusts against Bruce's hip in time with the tug of his hand. It’s devastating and massive and shattering in the best way, like Tony is remaking him with every press of his hips and curl of his fingers.

Bruce's breath begins to hitch audibly as he feels himself coming closer to the edge. "T-Tony," he moans, all reserve abandoned. "Oh, yes, Tony-- that-- that's it. Like that. Just like that."

His words fail him as pleasure stiffens his muscles. He wants to close his eyes on instinct and let the pleasure wash over him, but instead he forces them to stay open, watching himself finish in Tony's grasp. He coats their tangled fingers, a brief, obscene display before the mess is washed away by the water.

Tony looks up at him, lips parted for breath and eyes bright with desire as Bruce's cock begins to soften between them.

Bruce ducks his head, embarrassed at the momentary lapse of control. It's been a decade and a half since anyone has seen him like that, and he feels suddenly exposed under the want and love of Tony's gaze. He untangles his fingers from Tony's, thankful they're not shaking this time.

Rather than let go, Tony continues to cup Bruce's now fully soft cock even as his own nudges insistently between them. He nuzzles at the underside of Bruce's chin until Bruce obligingly tilts his head, allowing Tony to mouth at his neck even as his eyes drift shut.

Tony's fingers delicately trace the over sensitive skin. He holds Bruce's cock in his palm, exploration more careful now than it had been earlier, and the quiet intimacy of it makes Bruce's throat tighten.

"Okay?" Tony asks.

"Perfect," Bruce admits. "So perfect."

Tony takes Bruce's hand in his free one and guides it downwards. Seeing his intentions, Bruce says, "Wait, wait. Like this."

He maneuvers then so Tony's back is pressed to his chest, careful to keep either of them from slipping. He braces his feet on either side of Tony's for better balance and holds him with an arm across his chest. Tony hums breathily and bucks his hips at the air in front of him.

"Oh god, I love it when you do that," Tony says, voice in tatters

"Do what?" Bruce asks.

"Hold me tight when you already know I'm not going anywhere," Tony says. He brings a hand up to the muscle of Bruce's forearm for emphasis. "I love the strength hiding under that nerdy exterior."

Guilt rises in Bruce's throat. "You shouldn't. You know why it's there."

"The Other Guy's not going to come out to play," Tony reassures. "He probably finds all of this squishy human stuff very boring."

Bruce wants to object, but he really can't-- mostly because he has a hunch that Tony might be right. The Other Guy has more reasoning ability than Bruce used to give him credit for, and as long as there's nothing exciting to smash, he doesn't seem to want to get involved.

Bruce pushes those thoughts aside when Tony gives an insistent gyration of his hips. He takes one last deep breath and slides his hand down over the flat of Tony's stomach, feeling the way the underlying muscles contract at his touch. He rests his chin on Tony's shoulder and watches as he takes Tony in hand.

His grip is loose at first, hardly more than a teasing brush. Bruce feels more reluctant about this now that the burning arousal has dissipated slightly, but no matter how nervous he feels, he still wants to make this good for Tony, still wants to feel Tony fall over the edge under his hands and make sure Tony knows that he'll be there to catch him.

Tony is beautifully responsive, arching and moaning as Bruce learns the lines of his cock. Even standing back to front so the angle is more natural, it takes Bruce a few moments to even out his stuttering strokes. As he gains confidence, he can't stop cataloging every feature of the skin under his fingers-- the slim shape, the slide of Tony's foreskin, the smoothness of the head.

Bruce mouths along the soft skin of Tony's shoulder, sure there will be a line of marks there but unable to care. It's been nearly two decades since he's had the kind of refractory period necessary for two goes right in a row, but a low thrum of desire hums through him even if there's no chance of him getting hard again. Tony is perfect under his lips and finger, and he tells him so in a low, rough litany as he coaxes him closer to the edge, remembering what Tony said about liking his voice.

It only takes a handful of strokes before Tony stutters out, "Close."

Bruce chuckles throatily in his ear. Despite everything, Tony still has the stamina of a teenager. "I've got you. I'll always have you. Let go. I'm right here," Bruce says. As he speaks, he brings the hand at Tony's waist to cover the head of his cock while his pace increases.

With a jerk of his hips, Tony leans his head back on Bruce's shoulder, choking out "Bruce" on one final moan. Bruce watches, rapt, as Tony spills into his hand. He cups his release in his palm for moment, keeping it from the shower spray, his own private pleasure.

Bruce breaths against the tightness of his chest at just how much seeingthe evidence of their actions turns him on. It feels selfish, wanting Tony's pleasure for himself. He opens his hand and lets the water wash it clean before Tony regains enough coherence to notice.

Tony is putty in his arms, and Bruce kisses up the back of his neck, nosing at the hollow at the base of his skull. Tony's eyes flutter open, and he lolls his head back enough to catch Bruce's eyes. "That was amazing," he says, a broad smile blooming over his features.

Bruce cracks a small smile in return as he cuts off the water, still not letting go of Tony. "It really was, wasn't it?"

Tony looks down at his hands, then examines Bruce's in turn. "God, we look like a pair of prunes."

"I feel like your father is going to know from the water bill," Bruce says blandly.

Chapter Text

16

Tony Stark is sixteen when Maria finds out.

"I'm glad to see you," Tony says. He flops back onto the living room couch with a dramatic huff, suitcase abandoned at his feet. "So fucking glad."

Bruce chuckled warmly where he stands directly in front Tony, shins pressing into the couch cushions. "I missed you, too."

"God, I can't believe it's only fall break. This has been a long semester. Good," Tony hastens to amend, "But long."

Bruce reaches forward to run a hand through Tony's travel-mussed hair. "You need another haircut." It's a parody of the same conversation nearly a year ago, and Tony clearly hears it, too.

"But that would require time and effort," Tony says, smiling. He catches Bruce's hand and twines their fingers together. "Besides, Mom will make me get one before the gallery opening Friday."

Bruce hums noncommittally and holds his ground as Tony attempts to pull him onto the couch. He can see what Tony's trying to do, and there's nothing platonic about it. "Tony," he warns. "We're in the livingroom."

"Come on, I haven't seen you in nearly a month."

Bruce is supposed to be the mature one. He's supposed to be the one to call bullshit on bad ideas, but all that goes out the window when Tony looks up at him, eyes all but pleading. Against his better judgement, he lets himself be pulled forward, bending at the waist until he has to brace an arm on the back of the couch. Tony reaches up and fists his hands in the collar of his button-up, dragging Bruce down into a searing kiss.

It's slow and deep, and Bruce swears he can taste how much Tony missed this. Or maybe he's just projecting. The hand not balancing his weight comes up to cup the back of Tony's neck, tangling in the unruly hair there. Tony's fingers trace his ear,his jaw, the line of his neck--

A hiss of indrawn breath startles them apart, Bruce half-jumping back from Tony.

Maria stands in the doorway, eyes wide and face ashen. Bruce doesn't know if the latter is because of her illness or what she just walked in on, and he's not sure he wants to think too hard about it. Her hands clench and unclench rapidly at her sides. For a long moment her eyes hold Bruce's-- shocked and confused and something that might be betrayed.

"Maria--" he starts, the single word stuttering out like a plea, and the spell breaks.

Her hand comes up to cover her mouth, and she turns, fleeing the room.

"Fuck," Bruce swears, but the word holds none of the vehemence it should. He runs a nervous hand back through his hair and tries to think over the den in his head.

"That's about the measure of it," Tony says, a hint of a tremor under his usual bravado.

"Stay here," Bruce orders.

Tony pushes off the couch and follows Bruce towards the door. "Like hell."

Bruce doesn't have time to protest, and if he's honest, he doesn't want to face Maria alone, even if Tony's presence will only make the situation worse. He strides down the hall and takes the stairs two at a time, Tony trailing behind him. He hopes Maria is in her room-- preferably not on the phone with the police or SI security.

"Maria!" Bruce calls as they reach the top of the stairs. The door to the drawing room is ajar, and Bruce pushes through without waiting for a response.

Maria is hunched over on an ottoman, elbows on her knees and hands rubbing anxiously at her mouth. She's pale and drawn and looks on the verge of tears. Her breath comes in short, shallow gulps, and she's swaying side to side as if trying to hold on to consciousness.

"Mom!" Tony calls. He rushes over to her side and steadies her with a hand on either shoulder. "Breath steady for me. That's it. Good," he soothes.

Bruce unfreezes from where he's stuck in the threshold. "I'll go get a glass of water," he says weakly. It feels cowardly, leaving Tony to deal with his hyperventilating mother, but Bruce isn't at all sure his presence is welcome at the moment.

Down the hall, he fills a glass with cold water from the bathroom tap, then sets it aside as the tap continues to run. Bruce splashes his face several times, trying to regain some semblance of coherent thought between the fear of losing Tony and his rage at the prospect.

When he looks up in the mirror, his eyes gleam green.

He grips the edge of the marble counter hard enough that he fears it might crack. It feels like a catch 22-- he knows that if he doesn't go back to that room and say something in his own defense, he's going to lose Tony. But if he goes back and loses himself, he's also going to lose Tony. He wants so badly to be what Tony needs, but doesn't know how to be at times like this-- when being what Tony needs might cost both of them.

The fear makes him want to run, but it's also fear that makes him stay.

Bruce dries his face on a hand towel and takes a deep breath before making his way back to the drawing room.

"--'s not hurting me, not pressuring me. I started this. I pushed for it," Bruce hears Tony saying. "You have to believe me, Bruce would never hurt me or pressure me."

Maria gives a weak noise that could be a laugh or could be a sob in response.

Bruce clears his throat awkwardly from the doorway. The look Tony throws him is at once helpless and pleading, and Bruce makes himself step further into the room. He kneels down in front of Maria and carefully puts the glass into her hands. She looks up at him, eyes sharp even under the brightness of unshed tears.

"I knew... I knew you would, eventually. I just can't--" She takes a shaky breath only to start coughing.

A wave of guilt washes over Bruce. She's sick, and now he's given her yet another reason to worry about her son's well-being.

"I saw the way you looked at him, and I knew you would give in. You always give in when it comes to my son. I thought-- I knew I should separate you, but I could never bring myself to hurt the two of you like that. I thought maybe I was wrong. I hoped maybe you'd be able to wait--"

"I'd never hurt him, Maria. I told you that nine years ago, and it's still true," Bruce interrupts. "I'm not trying to hurt him or use him. That's not what this is."

"What is it, then?" she asks, voice sharp.

Bruce swallows past the words stuck in his throat and decides the truth might be their best chance. "I love him; I've always loved him. Maybe not the way I do now, but I've spent so many years loving him that I don't think I remember how not to."

That seems to be what finally pushes Maria over the edge. She curls in on herself, arms wrapping around her stomach as she dissolves into tears.

Tony turns a terrified look on Bruce, and Bruce wishes he knew how to fix this, how to comfort either of them. Seeing your mother cry is always bad, but watching helplessly as your mother cries over something you had a hand in-- well, there's little worse.

"Bruce, you've forced me to have to make a choice that no mother should ever have to make," Maria says, rough and low. "You're making me choose between breaking my son's heart and doing what society says a mother should to protect him."

She watches him, gaze searching, and seems to find what she’s looking for in his expression. She places one well manicured hand on Bruce's cheek where he kneels before her. "The way you always looked at each other-- I always knew we'd end up here one day, but I never thought it would be so soon." She looks up at her son. "You're so young, Tony."

"You were nineteen when you married dad."

"I was," Maria agrees, "But nineteen is much different than sixteen. Or..." She takes in Tony's tight expression, so easy to read around her. She audibly chokes back another sob. "Fifteen, I suppose."

Bruce clears his throat guiltily but doesn’t try to contradict the assertion. Tony’s expression is just as much of an admission of guilt as his own. “What’re you going to do?” Tony asks.

Maria smiles, and if it’s tinged with sorrow, well, Bruce tries not to feel any more guilty. “I’m not going to take him from you, if that’s what you’re afraid of. How can I after all these years? You would hate me, and it wouldn’t do anything to protect you.”

Tony takes her hand in his and places the other on Bruce’s shoulder. “Thank you, Mama.”

"Aren't you going to tell me not to hurt him?" Bruce asks, unable to resist.

"You forget, Bruce: you've always been as good as my son," Maria says. “I worry for your heart and safety almost as much as his, so I'll advise you to be mindful-- for both of your sakes. For someone so painfully careful, you can be remarkably impulsive when it comes to my son."

Bruce is silent, and Maria’s gaze falls on Tony. “I know you hate hearing it, but you’re so much like your father. He was so impulsive with everything except me. He treated me like I was something to be approached with the utmost consideration, just like how you treat Bruce.”

She pets a hand down her son’s curls, flattening out the disheveled patch where Bruce’s fingers had been tangled earlier.

"Howard is eighteen years older than me. I was a teenager when we met, and I thought my father was going to murder him before I could make an honest man out of him," Maria says. "Your grandfather didn't believe I ever would. He thought I was being duped-- doomed to a life of betrayal and turned into some trophy for a rich man to show off like a car."

Her brow furrows like something has occurred to her, and she looks between the two of them. "Does Howard know?"

Bruce and Tony exchange a glance before Bruce hesitantly says, “Yes.”

“Did he encourage it?” Her expression threatens thunderstorms and the murder of her husband.

“You can’t seriously be surprised by that,” Tony says.

Maria pushes herself to her feet and says, “No, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to strangle him.”

Chapter Text

16

Tony is sixteen as he stares up at the library ceiling.

"God, I love spring break. Fuck Florida, this is all the view I need," Tony says. His head in Bruce’s lap, feet crossed over the arm of the library couch and hands folded over his chest as he stares up his lover. An unseasonable heat wave has overtaken Manhattan, and Bruce’s clothes cling to him where Tony is pressed to his side.

“Are you worried?” Bruce asks, running the knuckle of his index finger over Tony’s cheekbone.

“No.”

“You’re awfully quiet for someone who isn’t worried,” Bruce says, stroking the side of Tony’s neck. He can’t bring himself to care that it’s damp with sweat. “It’s okay to be nervous. You have your first your first speech in front of the SI board of directors tomorrow.”

Tony quirks a small smile up at him. “Okay, a little worried.” The smile turns into a smirk as he turns his head to press a kiss just below the older man’s navel. “Take my mind off it?” he murmurs into the fabric of Bruce’s button-up. Tony's fingers curl loosely around the back of his neck, pulling him down slightly as he runs fingers through the curls at the base of his neck.

Bruce almost protests that they're in the library as a kneejerk reaction. Almost.

Instead, he leans forward, bending at an awkward angle until he can catch Tony’s lips in a lingering but light kiss. The fingers at the nape of his neck tighten instantly, and Bruce pulls back.

“I can’t bend like that,” he says with a wry smile.

In answer, Tony pushes himself up, one hand planted on Bruce’s upper thigh for leverage. His face tilts towards the older man, but he doesn’t close the distance, instead looking up at him through dark eyes. It’s an invitation as much as it’s a test.

Bruce manages to lean into Tony’s lips without over-thinking. The kiss deepens as Bruce opens his mouth, bolder than he would have been a year ago. He moves his lips against Tony’s in broad, hot strokes, letting the kiss turn warm and passionate and reassuring.

He’s getting better at this-- kissing Tony without reserve.

His fingers tangle in Tony’s hair, tilting his head further back and angling him so he can lick into his mouth. His other arm wraps around Tony’s waist to keep him from overbalancing from his precarious sprawl across the couch and Bruce’s lap.

Tony moans throatily into Bruce’s mouth, and the sound sends a shock of arousal up the older man’s spine. The hand Tony is bracing himself with moves inward, the very tips of his fingers pressing between the warmth of Bruce’s thighs, and Bruce is suddenly, achingly aware of his cock straining against his slacks.

Instinctively, Bruce’s legs spread slightly, and Tony pulls back, a mischievous glint in his eye that can only mean trouble for both of them. He leans forward to suck at the spot behind Bruce’s ear, and it’s almost enough to distract Bruce from the hand attempting to unbuckle his belt. Almost.

“Tony--” he starts warningly.

“Just turn that very impressive brain of yours off for a little while, okay?” Tony looks up at him with liquid brown eyes that are the worst kind of temptation. “Please?”

Bruce nods wordlessly as Tony gives up on the belt and starts working the buttons of Bruce’s shirt open. Tony shifts so he’s straddling one of Bruce’s thighs, kissing lightly over his chest. His tongue traces the curve of clavicle up so he can scrape blunt teeth over his shoulder.

Bruce leans down to nip at the tempting stretch of neck before him, and Tony grinds down on his thigh in response, moaning obscenely. He arches back to better expose the column of his neck, and his eyes flutter shut. He blindly trails a hand down Bruce’s arm until his fingers circle his wrist.

Tony guides Bruce’s hand to rest over the heat of his denim-covered erection, and Bruce fights against his instinct to jerk back automatically. It’s not the first time he’s touched Tony so boldly, but it is the first time they’ve done anything like this so blatantly in the daylight.

Tony leans forward to rest his forehead against Bruce’s, eyes boring into the older man’s. He doesn’t ask if it’s okay, and for that Bruce is unspeakably grateful.

He’s not entirely sure the answer is yes.

Bruce’s heart pounds in his chest, the fear of discovery mixing with his arousal. Tony’s hand still covering his applies the barest pressure, and Tony bucks forward into Bruce’s grip.  Bruce swallows hard and leans forward to catch Tony’s mouth in another kiss. Tony kisses harder as his hips move more insistently, and the kiss loses finess until Tony is just panting against Bruce’s lips.

Bruce trails feather-light kisses over his cheek, letting Tony take what he needs. And Bruce thinks that he’s okay with this, that this isn’t something he’ll feel guilty about tomorrow. He’s just managing to relax when Tony plants his hands on the grey fabric stretched across his thighs and slips back off the couch.

Tony’s intent doesn’t occur to Bruce until he goes for Bruce’s fly.

“We can’t,” Bruce says, catching his wrist.

Tony looks a little hurt staring up at Bruce from the floor, but he covers it quickly. “If you actually don’t want to-- if you’re too uncomfortably, tell me. Tell me, and I won’t push, I swear,” Tony says, eyes sparking as he shakes his head, “But don’t give me some vague, half-hearted ‘We can’t.’”

“You’re sixteen.”

“So what, it somehow makes what we're doing better ifwe’re between sheets? I suddenly turn not sixteen?” Tony asks with a sharp sarcastic edge. “I’m emotionally invested enough that giving you a blow job in the library really won’t make much of a difference at this point. It’s not like we haven’t gotten off together before.

“I have issues with your whole self denial schtick,” Tony  continues, voice cutting. “I can’t tell if you’re denying yourself because of my age or because you think you need to pay some some kind of fucked up penance.”

Bruce flinches as the words hit home.

Tony’s eyes soften, evidently reading the misdirected guilt on Bruce’s face. “You told me to say if you ever did something that made me uncomfortable. This is what makes me uncomfortable, this self-flagellating attitude,” he says earnestly. “Every time we’re together it makes me scared that you’re going to regret it and leave.”

The open words cost Tony, and Bruce says the only thing he can. “I’m not going to leave you, not until you tell me to. It’s just going to take me some time to get comfortable with the idea of us doing this.”

“And I get that-- I really do,” Tony says. “But you’ve got to give me more to go on. Tell me what’s going on in that big brain of yours. Tell me what you need. Tell me no when you want to say no and yes when you want to say yes. I’m not ashamed that I want you-- fuck what anyone else would think. So either tell me ‘no’ flat-out like you mean it, or let me suck you off.”

Bruce licks his lips nervously. “Anyone could walk in,” he says slowly. It’s a token protest, but Tony knows it for the concession it is. Anyone could have walked in for the past twenty minutes, and that didn’t stop them. Tony swings himself off the couch with more agility than grace and crosses the room in four long strides.

The lock clicks audibly across the room.

He turns back to Bruce pointedly. “Feel better?” he asks with an overdone wave of his hand. He’s standing in the center of the room, hip cocked, in a faded grey Metallica tee and nicely fitted jeans that do wonders for his ass. He’s visibly rumpled from the smooshed hair to the kiss-swollen lips to the partially turned-up cuff of his pants.

And god, he’s beautiful, Bruce thinks. All swagger and confidence with that edge of vulnerability he never quite loses around Bruce, guard fully down. Bruce doesn't think he’s capable of speaking, so he nods once. Tony’s ability to impair his higher brain function still amazes him.

Tony doesn’t so much walk back to Bruce as sashay, easily making room for himself between Bruce’s knees. The way he’s swaying slightly, Bruce half-expects him to try a lap dance, but he sinks to his knees without preamble.

And god, Bruce could probably do with a bit more preamble right about now.

Tony looks up at him knowingly. His fingers deftly unfasten Bruce’s pants and curl around his half-hard cock. He breaks eye contact as he strokes Bruce back to full hardness, watching his hand sliding over Bruce’s skin.

He leans forward, kissing the line of Bruce’s hipbone before trailing his lips down over the fabric still covering his thighs. Tony’s palm presses warm against his knee, and Bruce complies with the silent request to spread his legs further.

For the first time in all of this Tony looks uncertain, like he’s not quite sure what angle to approach from, and it hits Bruce full-force that Tony’s never done this before. Bruce suspects that he’s been hiding whatever nerves he has under a veneer of bravado.

Paradoxically, that realization dissolves the last of Bruce’s personal misgivings. If Tony is determined to do this, Bruce is going to be here for him, guiding him.

He cups Tony’s cheek, tilting his head until their eyes met. Bruce doesn’t say any of the saccharine reassurances on his tongue, but Tony understands. He smiles softly, and some of the tension thrumming through his neck and shoulders drains away as he leans into Bruce’s touch.

Tony trails his lips along the length of Bruce’s cock, and the minimal sensation is enough to make Bruce gasp. Taking that as encouragement, the tip of Tony’s tongue appears to test the skin. He tentatively licks up Bruce’s length before moving to the head. He presses his lips to the smooth skin he finds there, reveling in the new sensation.

Bruce doesn’t rush him, doesn’t push. He lets Tony explore at his own pace.

The part of Bruce that hasn’t entirely abandoned good decision making prompts that they really should be using a condom, but the other, larger part that’s apparently fully committed to doing this all out insists that he wouldn’t be letting Tony get anywhere near him if he didn’t know exactly what was pumping through his bloodstream.

He’s run more tests on his own semen than any one man should ever have to-- tests he really doesn't want to think about and a few he was almost too embarrassed to record properly. Almost. Needless to say, he’s fully confident that it’s not dangerous the way his blood is and, more to the point, is non-toxic.

Besides, the last condoms Bruce bought expired over a decade ago, and he doubts Tony put enough forethought into this to make a trip to Duane Reade. They could probably find some in the house if they had a spare hour, but Bruce doesn't much like the thought of Tony picking through Howard and Maria’s things. Or, even more mortifyingly, sending Jarvis to the store. That man puts up with enough without adding two pm condom runs to the mix.

Tony’s eyes flick up to Bruce, not quite questioning, but still seeking reassurance. Bruce makes himself maintain eye contact, makes himself hold Tony’s gaze while the beautiful young man’s mouth is on his cock.

It’s obscene, and that maybe makes Bruce want it even more.

Bruce cards his fingers through Tony’s hair, reassuring and encouraging all at once. Tony licks his lips,eager and nervous, and gives Bruce a wicked smile.

He bends back down until his mouth covers the head of Bruce’s cock, one hand bracing himself on Bruce’s knee. He sucks lightly, and the warmth and sensation make Bruce’s breath stutter and his fingers clench momentarily in Tony’s hair. Tony pulls back long enough to catch his breath, then sinks back down, further this time.

Once upon a time, Bruce was not unfamiliar with blowjobs. They’d been a quick, safe-ish way to hookup with men, one that didn’t force him to leave too much of himself exposed-- physically or emotionally. He’d been decent at giving them, and he’d gotten a good few fantastic ones in return. But none of that could compare to the sensation of Tony learning how to give a blowjob on him.

It’s messy, and there’s more teeth than are strictly considered pleasant, but Bruce is too far gone to care. There will be plenty of time for him to discover technique later. Right now, this is more than enough for Bruce.

Tony draws back for breath again, and Bruce resists the urge to tell him to slow down. He doubt Tony would appreciate that, though.

When Tony sinks down yet again, he pushes himself even further down Bruce’s length. His tongue swipes over the head, but when he tries tosuck, his throat convilses, and he has to pull back, coughing.

Tony pants, eyes fixed on where he’s kneeling on the rug. His fingers brush through the curls at the base of Bruce’s cock, but he doesn’t look back up.

Bruce cups his cheek, making Tony’s slightly watery eyes meet his own.

“You’re doing so good,” he says. “Don’t force it. Only take what you can. Here, like this.”

Bruce guides Tony’s free hand to the base of his cock. He wants Tony to wait until he’s caught his breath, but Tony being Tony, that doesn’t happen. He leans back down with no preamble, eager to try out the suggestion. This time goes smoother, with Tony’s hand covering what his mouth can’t.

“Fuck,” Bruce gasps out. He tries not to think about a time when he did his best not to swear around Tony.

Bruce cups his cheek, letting himself reven in the way it hollows as Tony works. He’s close to coming, painfully close. He gently nudges Tony’s head back, and Tony looks up with an expression of mild irritation, like he’s annoyed to have been disturbed when he was finally getting the hang of things.

“I’m close,” Bruce mumbles.

Tony gives a pleased smirk and makes to bend back down, but Bruce catches him by the chin.

“Not today,” Bruce says, because telling Tony that’s too much for someone so new would only encourage him. He wraps his hand around Tony’s still on his cock, stroking lightly.

In less that thirty seconds, he comes, spilling over his and Tony’s crossed fingers. Bruce keeps his eyes open, taking in the sight in all of it’s dirty beauty. Tony looks up at him, breath coming in excited huffs. In a move straight out of Bruce’s dark fantasies, he darts out his tongue to taste the semen covering Bruce’s index finger.

He immediately makes a face at the flavor.

“Okay,” he says, “Pretty glad you didn’t let me try swallowing.”

Bruce laughs a rusty laugh. “That’s me, ever the good sense barometer.” He leans forward to grab the box of tissues from the coffee table and sets about cleaning them up. Tony’s hand is still cupping his softening cock, and there’s something terribly gently in the action.

Bruce kisses Tony on the forehead, then the cheek, then the neck until he finally catches his lips. The kiss is only a shallow press of damp lips, chaste compared to their previous actions. Bruce swipes his tongue into Tony’s mouth long enough to taste himself, long enough to prove that he really was there.

“Come here,” Bruce says, and there’s a warmth under the roughness of his voice. He stands long enough to shuck is stained slacks before arranging them so Tony is sprawled against the arm of the couch. Bruce fits himself between Tony’s knees, hands moving to undo his jeans.

He glances up and asks, "May I?"

Tony huffs. "How long before you learn to quit asking every time and take what you want? You know I'll always say yes."

"Blanket permission is a dangerous thing," Bruce warns him as he sprips off his jeans.

"Well, you have it. Dangerous or not," Tony says. He runs a hand down Bruce’s chest. “So use it.”

Bruce frees Tony’s erection from his boxers, not letting himself second guess what he’s about to do. He noses at the base of Tony’s cock, taking in the scent of his lover. And it hits him, not for the first time, that Tony really is his lover. Even if their intimacy hasn’t moved further than this, they’re lovers, learning and relearning love together.

Bruce takes Tony into his mouth without any further preamble. He tastes the salt and the distinct maleness of him, He feels the weight of Tony’s cock on his tongue, lets it’s size and shape register in his memory.

Tony cries out, reaching back to grasp the arm of the couch. “Bruce,” he pants. “Oh god, Bruce. That-- ah-- that’s amazing. I’m not going to last-- oh-- last any time.”

Tony is just as vocal as Bruce always imagined e’d be, when he did let himself imagine such things. He guides Tony’s hand to his hair, Tightening his grip until Tony understands. Tony grips the curls uncertainly at first, then rougher as he loses himself in sensation.

“Bruce,” he warns. “Off.”

Bruce ignores him.

Tony spills over his tongue, bitter and hot and perfect. Bruce doesn’t back off until Tony’s cock begins to soften in his mouth. He leans back on his heals, swiping the back of his wrist inelegantly across his mouth.

“Holy shit,” Tony says in a stunned, post-orgasmic haze. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

Bruce coughs slightly. “You can’t believe it? I can’t believe it. I haven’t done that in nearly two decades, and even then, not many times.”

Tony laughs. “Maybe I just inspire you.”

“You do,” Bruce says, and it comes out much more serious than he’d intended. “We really should have talked about this before, you know, just doing it.”

Tony shrugs. “What’s there you talk about?”

“Condoms.” Bruce raises his eyebrows in challenge. “You actually do need to use a condom for blow jobs.”

“You’d know if you had anything.”

Bruce sighs, but he doesn’t really have the energy to care. “It’s a bad habit to fall into. You know, in case you ever--”

“La la la, not listening to your angsty stupid,” Tony says, covering his ears. “There’s never going to be anyone else, so just suck it up and deal with it.”

Bruce moves so his head is on Tony’s chest. He thinks maybe he’s putting too much of his weight on the younger man, but he thinks maybe he can take it. “I love you.”

Tony puts an arm around Bruce’s shoulders, “I love you, too, angst monster.”

Chapter Text

Tony Stark is seventeen when the peace finally breaks.

“Give it!” Tony yells, standing on tiptoe. He nearly trips over the rug hiding the ugly carpet of Pepper’s apartment loor.

“Nope.” Pepper twirls so the bottle of red wine is out of his reach. “You have to earn it first.”

“Pepper,” he whines, drawing the name into four syllables.

Pepper’s smile is gleeful and slightly tipsy. “Not until you tell me! What was your first kiss like!”

Bruce runs a hand back through his hair. “Pep, he doesn’t have to tell you that if he’s not comfortable.”

“No, he doesn’t. But he does have to if he wants wine.” Inspiration dawns across her face. “Or are you telling me the Great Tony Stark kas never been kissed.”

Heat rises automatically in Bruce’s cheeks, and Tony lets out a derisive snort. “Oh, I’ve been kissed,” he says.

“Than tell me!” Pepper cries.

“Fine. My first kiss was when I was thirteen in a Coney Island photo booth. Happy?”

The blood drains from Bruce’s face, but he tells himself that there’s no way Pepper can know from that little bit of detail.

“Ooooh!” Pepper says. “That sounds like a good one.”

“It was,” Tony agrees. “Now, the wine, if you wil. I believe I’ve earned it.”

Pepper obligingly hands him the bottle, but rather than refilling his own glass, he takes a large swig directly from the bottle. After a good ten seconds of Bruce and Pepper both looking on in horrified rapture, he lowers the bottle and says, “And that’s what I learned in college.”

Bruce can’t do anything except gape like a stunned fish.

“Tony,” he says at last, scandalized.

“That had better not be empty now,” Pepper says.

Bruce, deciding there’s nothing better to do at this moment, takes the bottle from Tony’s grip and downs the last quarter in one go. “Now it is,” he says.

Tony and Pepper both stare at him in silent shock for a long moment before Tony doubles over laughing.

“Oh my god, you’re ridiculous,” he says.

“So much for us having a lesson on the business of Stark Industries tonight,” she says.

Bruce raises his eyebrows. “You’re the one who brought out the wine.”

For a glass, ” she emphasizes. “You two are the assholes who decided we should play truth or dare like we’re in grade school.”

“That would be Tony’s doing,” Bruce says, just as Tony raises his hand and says, “Me.”

“Look,” Tony says. “We’ve done great. We’re working towards making sure Stane can’t take over the company. But we’re still allowed to take a night off now and then.”

Tony has been home from MIT for three weeks, and as of yet his sessions with Pepper have been a success. She teaches him about things that only an insider would know-- who is who in the company, what the internal business structure is, what internal accounting methods are used, where all of the debt is-- and so far, it’s been more productive than any of them could have imagined.

Bruce feels like he’s watching Tony absorb years of college in a record-breakingly short amount of time. Pepper brings Tony to SI with her most weekdays for hands-on learning and so, as she puts it, he won’t be an unfamiliar face who's never worked in the company when he takes over as CEO.

The only downside-- and indeed, it’s a rather selfish downside-- is that it leaves Bruce and Tony with little time to themselves. By the time they collapse into bed at night, they’re too exhausted to exchange more than chaste kisses. That is, what nights they don’t sleep on Pepper’s sofa.

Bruce and Tony didn’t see each other in the month before Tony came home for summer break, and while they both adore Pepper, she’s not so great to have around when you want to “catch up,” as it were.

They’ve been half-living out of Pepper’s apartment for nearly three weeks, and in that time there’s been nothing more than stolen kisses and not-as-platonic-as-they-look cuddles. The nerves brought on by constant scrutiny are not conducive to Bruce’s definition of relaxation.

While Tony seems to get a thrill out of the secrecy, the whole thing makes Bruce feel uncomfortably like a teenager again. Howard and Maria condone their relationship, and in a place as large as Stark Mansion, getting caught has never been a worry. But here in the confines of Pepper’s apartment with walls like cotton candy, getting caught isn’t as much a worry as an inevitability.

“We need dinner. I’m not letting you two drink half a bottle of wine on empty stomachs,” Pepper says decisively. “There’s nothing but Fiber One, popcorn, and instant miso soup in this appartment.”

Tony raises his eyebrows. “Sounds like dinner to me.”

Pepper scowls. “I’m also down to only three clean dishes, and I’m not eating miso soup out of a scotch glass.”

“We don’t all have to eat like we’re in college just because you are,” Bruce adds with a grin. Just because he’s spent too many years living off quick meals in labss care about small things like dubiously colored potato chips and a lack of proper utensils doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate real food when it’s an option.

“Delivery or picking up ingredients?” Pepper asks.

“Delivery,” Bruce says, because he doesn’t exactly relish the idea of cooking in Pepper’s four-square-feet kitchen. And he will be the one doing the cooking. He only made the mistake of taking up Pepper’s offer to cook once, but he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to eat bananas again.

“But Bruce,” Tony whines. “I haven’t had your vodka pasta in so long.”

“It’s nine PM,” Bruce protests.

Pepper shrugs. “You don’t have to cook if you don’t feel like it. It’s Manhattan-- everything delivers.”

Tony catches his eyes from behind her back and slowly shakes his head. He mouths, ‘cook’.

“No, wait,” Bruce says, not entirely sure what’s going on. “I-- I can make dinner. Tony’s right; it’s been a while.”

“We’ll need to go to the grocery store,” she says.

“Not it,” Tony says, putting his finger on his nose. “Plus I’m not old enough to buy the vodka.”

Pepper gives Bruce a pleading look.

Tony raises his eyebrows. “Bruce is cooking for us, so he shouldn’t have to go.”

“It’s a block away,” Pepper protests, but she sighs, resigned. “Fine. I hate you both.”

“But you love Bruce’s vodka pasta,” Tony says, and here’s a hungry gleam in his eye that has nothing to do with food.

Suddenly, his insistence that Bruce cook makes sense.

“So true.” She grabs her purse and keys from the coffee table. “Be back in twenty.”

Tony waits one minute exactly after the apartment door closes before he pushes Bruce back onto the couch and straddles him.

Honestly, he’s surprised Tony had the patience to wait that long.

“She’ll take at least a half hour in the grocery store,” Tony says as he fumbles with the first few buttons on Bruce’s shirt. “That was genius. Seriously, I’ve really gotta hand it to myself.”

“I can’t believe you,” Bruce says.

“You played along.” Tony blindly tugs Bruce’s shirt free of his waistband as he leans in to catch the older man’s mouth. The kiss is open and messy and contains none of their usual finesse. Bruce pulls back just far enough to suck biting kisses along Tony’s jaw line.

“What can I say?” Bruce says against Tony’s ear, and Jesus, his voice sounds ragged. “I’ve been around you too long.”

“Too long, but not long enough,” Tony mumbles into Bruce’s neck before capturing him in another bruising kiss.

It’s simultaneously weird and wonderful, foreign and familiar. Physicality has never been quite like this between them before now, hot and rushed and frantic and so, so desperate. Bruce doesn’t think he’s ever felt this young, not even when he was a teenager. And god, he’s going to try not to think about that again, because that makes Tony sound like some kind of midlife crisis.

Instead, he catches Tony’s hips and pulls him even closer. He rests his hands on the younger man’s waist and lower back, letting the warmth seep through his worn AC/DC shirt. Rather than being in the way, the extra layer between them seems to add another dimension of intimacy, insulating the warmth of the contact, and Tony arches into Bruce’s touch like a cat seeking affection.

Bruce thinks that maybe he should tell Tony to slow down, that it's not worth rushing and pushing him unnecessarily close to The Other Guy, but god, Bruce doesn’t want to slow down. It’s been a month, and he knows it’s all in his head, but he swears Tony’s weight sits different on him now, like he’s grown in the short span of time since they’ve done this.

Part of him aches with guilt at that, the way it always does at reminders of how young his lover is, but another, more feral, greener part of him purrs possessively at the thought. And fuck, he really should slow them down.

Instead, Bruce rocks his hips up and lets his hands slide down to the curve of Tony’s ass. Tony moans in approval and threads a hand in his curls.

The front door slams, and they both freeze. “I got half-way thought and realized I forgot the company card. Like hell am I putting your groceries on my accou—”

She comes to a dead stop, one hand still in her purse and mouth partially open.

And yeah. Bruce knows there’s no mistaking what they were doing. Tony is astride him with one hand halfway up his untucked shirt, and Bruce feels the way his hair is sticking up at the odd angles and the stubble burn on his neck.

He swallows thickly.

“Let’s be real,” Tony says. “This isn’t the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”

Pepper strides into the room, furry lending a terrifying gleam to her eyes, and snatches a newspaper off the coffee table. She shoves Tony unceremoniously off Bruce’s lap before hitting the older man over the head with the rolled up paper.

“You. God. Damn. Idiot,” she yells, punctuating each word with a whack of the newspaper. Bruce’s arms instinctively move to cover his head, but that doesn’t slow her down. He has a moment to be unrepentantly grateful that she chose the paper and not the heavy vase next to it. “He. Is. Six. Teen.”

“Seventeen, actually,” Tony interjects from where he’s still sprawled next to his boyfriend looking mildly shell-shocked. “And can we maybe, you know, stop hitting the guy who turns into a giant green rage monster? That’d be lovely.”

The smack of newsprint on skin pointedly doesn’t stop.

“He didn’t coerce me or force me, if that’s what you’re worried about!” Tony says frantically, ineffectually grabbing at her wrist.

She turns on him now, splotches of angry color high on her cheeks. The newspaper makes contact with his shoulder with a dull whump.

“You think I don’t know that?! Believe me, I know whose idea this was.” She swings the paper once more for good measure but with notably less force this time. “I’d be doing a lot worse than smacking him with the Times if I thought otherwise. Luckily for Bruce’s balls, I’m pretty sure I know exactly who started this.”

Without warning, Pepper tosses the paper into an empty armchair and flops down on the couch between them. An exasperated, exhausted growling noise a bit like a wounded water buffalo escapes her as she leans her head back.

“Attractive,” Tony remarks, also leaning back into the couch.

“Shut up,” Pepper says, glaring at the ceiling like it threw a rock at a puppy. “Just don’t even talk right now.”

“Pepper,” Bruce hedges.

“Aah. You, too, Banner. Zip it,” she says pointing one perfectly manicured finger at him. She takes a deep breath, either gearing up for another round of shouting or suppressing one. Finally, she says in a voice of barely controlled calm, “For a pair of geniuses, you two are spectacularly stupid. I mean, I knew you two had some serious tension going, but I honestly assumed you weren’t stupid enough to act on it. Apparently I was wrong.”

Bruce sinks further into the couch, feeling like a chastised child.

“Seriously, you’re what, thirty-eight?”

“Forty,” Tony says, still looking at the ceiling.

“Not helping, Tony,” Bruce says.

“You should be way past the age of thinking with your dick,” Pepper continues, building up to a lecture.

And Bruce can’t help feeling affronted at that. “This has nothing to do with my dick.”

Tony lets out a graceless snort between them. “I’d say it has at least a little to do with your dick.”

Pepper and Bruce both glare at him, and he holds up his hands placatingly. “Sorry, but if we’re talking about my age, I thought I should act it for once. You know, instead of trying to finish college and inherit a Fortune 500 company .”

“Message received,” Pepper says. “You’re capable of making your own choices.”

“Really, though,” Tony starts, “I could make worse life choices.”

“And Bruce could make better,” she says, “Seriously, you might be an emancipated minor but you’re still technically undera—” she breaks off, teeth snapping shut with an audible click. “On my god. This is why you fell into such a funk after he left for college, isn’t it? He was fifteen . Jesus, how long has this been going on?”

“Pep, don’t ask question you don’t actually want the answer to,” Tony says, deathly serious now. “I’m happy. We’re happy. Please don’t mess that up.”

And those last five words hold a desperate note that makes Bruce’s chest hurt. For maybe the first time Tony sees the full legal implications of what they’re doing. He sees that Bruce could so easily be taken from him, that one wrong word from Pepper could put his lover behind bars and out of his reach.

“Tony,” she starts, looking more upset be the second.

Please , Pepper. Please. I know I ask a lot from you, but please, just this once. Don’t, okay? Don’t tell anyone,” Tony pleads. He leans back into Bruce’s side and grasps his hand.

Bruce doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say he loves Tony. He doesn’t try to explain that this isn’t about sex or that sex is the part he’s still getting comfortable with. He doesn’t try to explain the way Tony’s eyes smile first thing in the morning or how he’d do anything to keep him safe.

He doesn’t explain, but he thinks Pepper might understand anyway, because her eyes soften and some of the tension drains out of her body.

“Okay,” she says softly. “Okay, but I still need to know the truth. How did this start, and how long has it been going on?”

She doesn’t pull the endangering-the-company card, and for that Bruce is eternally grateful. He’s sure her mind is flitting through the potential media shit-storm as they speak, but she doesn’t mention stocks or reputation or coming up with a plan to cover their asses. And maybe she sees it, too-- that Tony has spent seventeen years coming second to the business he’s meant to inherit.

Either way, Pepper deserves the truth if she’s putting her neck on the line by keeping their secret. Wordlessly, Bruce pushes himself up off the couch.

He grabs the worn duffle bag that still holds most of what he owns-- much to Tony’s horror-- because he never entirely broke the habit of traveling light. The bag is much fuller than it used to be, difficult to zip now, and some of his personal effects are still at Stark Mansion, but most of the important things are here.

Or, well. Maybe that’s not as true as it once was, Bruce realizes. Because he now has a room that holds the small things he cherishes, because he has a half-dozen books in languages neither of them speak and a line of colorful, useless knick knacks on his dresser. Tony learned long ago that the best way to make Bruce accept a gift was to make it cheap and strange. A Doctor Who novel in Hungarian; a pair of speckled origami turtles; an eraser shaped like an erlenmeyer flask; an art nouveau-style coaster of Einstein.

Bruce fishes through the duffel's contents until he turns up the copy of Cosmos Tony gave him ten years ago. Inside the front cover, Tony’s slanting scrawl reads, “ ‘If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’ But since that’s not on the table right now, here’s to another year of working backwards to find the recipe. Happy 30 th , Tony S.”

He’s fairly certain that with every book, every knick knack, every perfectly cut suit jacket Tony gives him, the young man is trying to stake his claim. He knows Bruce has money he doesn’t spend, but maybe Tony hopes that if he weighs Bruce down with enough tiny meaningful gifts, Bruce won’t float away while he’s at MIT.

Bruce doesn’t know how to tell him that he couldn’t leave now if he tried. He hasn’t been able to leave since Tony was seven and in the basement turning a silhouette into papier-mâché.

He flips through the book and pulls a folded sheet of paper from between the pages before passing it over to Pepper. Tony raises his eyebrows when he catches sight of the yellowing paper “You’re kidding me, right? You keep your PhD folded-up in your duffel. Seriously? That shit needs to be framed and hung somewhere important or something.”

“I keep it somewhere important,” Bruce says with a small smile.

Still visible confused, she gingerly unfolds it to reveal a small square of photograph. It’s a single frame of he and Tony in a grimy Coney Island photo booth. “So?” She looks back up at him, brows furrowed. “I’ve seen this at least a dozen times. Tony keeps a copy in his wallet.”

“You do?” Bruce asks.

A blush creeps over Tony’s cheeks. “Just a photocopy of the first three. I’m not dumb enough to keep the real thing there.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

Bruce gestures for Pepper to pick up the picture, and as she does, it unfolds accordion-style to reveal the other four snapshots. She smoothes it out on her thigh, and both men watch anxiously as her eyes track down it, taking in the shift from innocent to mischievous to kissing.

Bruce doesn’t have to look to know exactly what the picture shows. It shows a Tony younger than she’s ever seen in-person kissing a Bruce who looks much the same as the one before her.

Pepper’s voice shakes as she says, “Thirteen. You first kiss happened in a Coney Island photo booth when you were thirteen.”

She looks up at them, horrified. “You’re telling me this started when you were thirteen?” she says, splotches of angry red beginning to rise in her cheeks.

Tony tilts his head from side to side. “Sort of. I kissed him in that picture. It didn’t actually start for another year.”

“So fourteen,” she says, words breathless.

Bruce looks down at his socked feet.

“Yeah,” he says, finally. “Yeah, it did. I could tell you the circumstances, the series of events, the thought processes we both had, but none of it is going to change that number. Fourteen.”

Pepper swallows thickly.

“Was it coercion?” she asks, blunt.

“No,” Bruce says, because it wasn’t. His eidetic memory can play all of the events over again like a movie, and he’s used that to reassure himself of that fact more than once.

“Only on my part,” Tony says.

“No,” Bruce protests, firmer this time.

“But it was!” Tony shouts. “ I pressured you. I kept pushing.”

“Only as far as I’d let you. I was just as complicit.”

Pepper stands and raises her hands over her head. “I can’t deal with you two right now. I’m going to bed.”

“Do you--” Bruce clears his throat and tries again. “Do you want us to leave.”

“It’s fine. You’re here; you’re stuff to stay the night is here.” She sighs heavily. “Just-- give me a while, okay?”

Bruce nods. He watches as she grabs the box of Fiber One from the kitchen, then retreats to her room with a firm snap of the door.

Tony waits a beat before he says, “I guess that means no vodka pasta tonight. Can we just drink the vodka?”

Under the attempt at humor, Bruce can hear the way Tony’s voice shakes. Bruce sits next to him and puts an arm around him, squeezing his tense shoulder reassuringly. Tony leans into the touch without hesitation. “I’m so sorry,” he says.

“Don’t apologize,” Bruce says. “We both should have known better. It was reckless and dumb for both of us.”

“I just--” Tony shakes his head. “Sometimes I wish this could be like a normal relationship, you know? One where making out on a friend’s couch is and getting caught is just embarrassing. I hate worrying all the time. I just wish people could know-- I want everyone to know what you are to me.”

“Tony--” Bruce starts.

Tony thumps Bruce’s knee. “No, no apologizing from you, either.”

Bruce swallows. “Do you really worry all the time?”

Tony shrugs. “Not all the time, but a lot. We’re not as careful as we used to be, and with Stane on the hunt for dirt, well-- I just don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” His face is crumpled in concern, and he doesn’t look at Bruce.

Bruce wonders if he means something worse than prison, but he can’t bring himself to ask. Instead, he pulls Tony down so they’re laying on the couch.

“Look at it this way, at least one of us doesn't have to sleep on the chase tonight,” Bruce says, and that earns him a tired laugh. “Go to sleep. Everything will be alright.”

And he doesn't think it’s a lie, either.

Tony’s breathing even out within minutes, but for once his presence isn’t enough to lull Bruce to sleep in the aftermath of his fear and adrenalin. His thoughts tumble in anxious circles, considering everything from Pepper’s initial reaction of frustration to her final resigned look as she fled to the normalcy of her room.

Normalcy.

Tony is right-- that’s something they could use more of. Their relationship has lived in the closed world of Stark Mansion for so long that sometimes Bruce manages to forget how ab normal all of this is. He wonders how they could ever go public with their relationship, even after Tony turns eighteen. People will guess the truth, after they know where to look. Tony would face backlash personally as well as professionally.

Bruce will gladly stand by his side, if he chooses to make their relationship public one day, but he thinks he’s also greedy enough to stay there even if their relationship stays in the shadows. He’s not sure how he feels about either of those options. The idea of Tony going into adulthood with the stress and stigma of either option makes Bruce’s jaw clench.

Bruce doesn’t know how long he lays there, basking in the steady rise and fall of Tony’s breathing as he considers the future-- their future.

Because they do have a future together. They’re irrevocably intertwined as lovers and friends.

A throat clears.

Bruce looks up to see Pepper standing just outside her bedroom. Instinctively, the arm around Tony’s shoulder tightens. He thinks of how they must look to her, Tony asleep on top of him with his face pressed to Bruce’s ribs.

Pepper takes a deep breath. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says, taking a step back into the doorway.

Bruce wants to stop her from going, feels that if she leaves now, it’s the end of this-- their easy companionship, their late night movies, their lack of boundries. Even if she doesn’t turn them in, she’ll never be okay with their relationship, and Bruce can’t stand the idea of losing her friendship.

He beckons her closer with one hand. “You’re not interrupting. He’s just sleeping.”

Pepper steps closer, eyes darting around the room to settle on anything other than the pair before her.

“Are you uncomfortable?” Bruce asks.

Pepper raises her eyebrows. “What gave it away?” she deadpans, then shakes her head. “I still don’t know how to deal with this. You two getting together had started to seem inevitable, but--”

“--But you don’t know how to handle the fact that we already are and have been?”

She runs a hand over her face. “This has been going on almost as long as I’ve known you. I think that’s the part I don’t know how to handle. I have a lot of trouble imagining the two of you getting it on.”

“Then don’t imagine it,” he says, more sharply than he’d intended. “This relationship didn’t start because of sex. The year you first arrived was the year I fell in love with him.”

“And that rationale was enough for you?”

Bruce laughs, and it comes out bitter and wrong. “No, it wasn’t. I tried to run once I realized. I would have if it wasn’t for Tony.”

“Oh Bruce,” Pepper says, and there’s so much sympathy in it. She moves to sit on the edge of the coffee table. After a beat, she reaches to card her fingers through Bruce's curls. “I know you. I know you’re a good man, I do. I know you didn’t do any of this to hurt or use Tony. But it’s still going to take me a while to be okay with it.”

“I know,” Bruce says. “I didn’t expect anything else.”

There’s silence for a long moment. Pepper watches the rise and fall of Tony’s breathing, her expression between fondness and concern.

“I’ve never seen him like this. He seems so much younger,” she murmurs, then blanches. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything by that.”

Bruce swallows and shakes his head. “It’s always scared me how young Tony looks when he’s asleep. He used to sleep on the library couch with me like this as a kid. He still does it sometimes when he’s stressed.”

Silence falls once more as Pepper considers that. She reaches out to brush a strand of hair out of his eyes but startles back when Tony nuzzles at her hand. Bruce chuckles. “He gets affectionate when he’s tired. I’ve always thought he’d be like that all the time if he wasn’t so busy trying to prove himself.”

“Was he like that as a kid?” she asks.

“Yeah. He was a pretty clingy child. He’d always climb into my lap and insist I do something more interesting every time he found me doing paperwork.” A smiles lights Bruce’s face at the memory. “He’s still like that, when no one’s around to see. Affection isn’t about sex with Tony.”

Beside them, Tony hums sleepily.

“I resent that statement,” he says, voice muffled into Bruce’s stomach. “At least some of the affection is about sex.”

In direct contradiction of his statement, Tony takes Pepper’s hand and presses it to his cheek, hugging it like an awkward teddy bear.

Pepper laughs. “I can’t tell if you two are awful or amazing together.”

Tony looks up with her, expression growing serious. “Are we good?”

“Yeah, Tony,” Pepper says, throwing Bruce a small smile. “Yeah, we’re good.”