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A Hair From Breaking

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Tony had a very strange idea of personal space. Bruce had made something of a small study of it. Mostly by necessity. Working in the same space as Tony, you had to get used to ... certain rules, it seemed.

The first and foremost being, that there were a very limited number of people who could touch Tony with impunity. And by 'very limited', Bruce meant Pepper. Pretty much exclusively. Possibly also this Rhodey, whoever he was, but Bruce had never seen Tony with him, so he couldn't tell. Almost literally everyone else, Tony projected a very expansive field of 'don't touch, too expensive', backed up by roughly a thousand words a minute until whoever the interloper was backed the hell off. Nobody, but nobody, outside of his chosen few, got to touch him uninvited.

Tony himself, though ... he got up into people's space. Nose to nose, toe to toe, like a cocky little bantam, all flash and dazzle, raring to go. Particularly people Tony was afraid of. Yeah, Bruce noticed that one. Particularly people who could smush Tony like a bug, and particularly if Tony knew it. Thor, Steve. Fury. Possibly also Bruce himself, in the early days. (Not Natasha, oddly enough. Bruce suspected that Tony had a bad case of crossed wires, when it came to her - a stew of 'lethal', 'hot', 'I'm dating Pepper' and 'scary, smirking lady', leading to, for possibly the first time in Tony's life, 'better safe than sorry'). If Tony was afraid of you, or you were in charge of him, the first thing Tony did was swarm up in your face and let you know, very pointedly, that he wasn't going to let that stop him, no sir, you can sing for it.

"You're tip-toeing, Big Guy," Tony'd said to him once. "You need to strut." And that was Tony in a nutshell, really. If you're going to be weak, be fantastically, extravagantly weak, throw it right up in people's faces, so it's their problem, not yours. And if they can't handle it, can't handle you, well. That's on them, isn't it?

And if they're going to hurt you for it, well, that's on them too, and you know what? Fuck them too, and say goodbye to their money/plan/limbs/life, because genius, here, do you know how many things in this room can be made to explode?

Tony essentially swaggered through life with a shit-eating grin on his face, and the casual expectation that sooner or later, pretty much everyone he met was going to attack him, one way or another. And that was fine, that was totally fine, because you know what? Tony could handle that. He could roll with the punches, and hit back harder than you'd ever believe, just watch him.

And there were times Bruce envied that, times he envied it so much, and others where he ... wanted to catch the man, take him aside, and show him that it was okay to duck, sometimes. It was okay to be terrified, okay to just placate them once in a while, let them have what they wanted, okay to not always shove up in their faces and dare them to hurt him. Because some of them did, and fuck, Tony, sometimes you didn't have to take the hit, okay?

(If there was one person on this team Bruce was grateful to more than any other, when it came to that, it was Steve. Because if there was one face Tony got up into more than any other, it was Steve's, for a range of complicated reasons that Bruce only vaguely understood, but had a lot to do with Tony's dad, and Steve didn't slap him for it. Okay, a few times, at the start, because when Tony decided to push buttons, he damn well went all out, but Steve had ... understood, eventually, and Steve could roll with the punches too, maybe better than Tony, and Steve could also not hit back. Because Steve understood what strength was, and what control was, and why you didn't have to hit people who were hurting just because they hit you first. Steve was ... someone Bruce could really grow to like, actually. Definitely respect).

All told, with Tony, it added up to a general impression of 'I touch you, you don't touch me, and I am not afraid of you' that ... well, to be honest, occasionally made Bruce's chest clench up in a surge of protective fury. Because Bruce was afraid of people, lots of them, and more to the point lots of people were afraid of him, and watching Tony swagger up to people with that grin on his face, daring them to smash him, when there were people that would, when they both knew that ...

He asked Tony, finally. After a ... well. After a very hard day. For both of them. Tired, and wrung out from the change, and having watched Tony, armourless at the time, get right up in a terrorist's face and all but spit in his eye. After ... well. After too much.

"Is there no-one you won't defy, just to prove you can?" he asked. Not even snappishly, though if it had been anyone but Tony, they probably would have shied away regardless. Just ... tiredly, leaning against the man's shoulder, the pair of them sitting together, a little away from the clean-up, waiting for the adrenalin to finish ebbing. Watching Tony tap absently at the arc-reactor, lingering on the cut under Tony's eye where someone had hit him before the rest of the team had managed to get through, get the civilians under cover. Lingering on the blood, under dark, exhausted eyes.

(The Hulk had caught Tony, Steve had told him that, the Hulk had slung an arm in front of the man in time to catch two bullets for him, and that was the only reason Tony was alive. Bruce ... wasn't sure he could bear that. That the man's life had been so literally in his hands. That it ... almost hadn't been enough).

Tony looked at him. Surprised, at first. Confused. Then, taking in Bruce's strained, tired expression, and the shake he hadn't quite managed to get out of his hands ... still surprised, really. Still confused. But also ... grateful, somewhere under the exhausted shadows in his eyes. Smiling lopsidedly.

"There was, once," he said, dropping his eyes, dropping his hands into his lap. Deliberately holding them away from the reactor. And leaning a little more heavily against Bruce. Not looking at him. "There was someone I didn't ... Couldn't. I couldn't."

Bruce ... stiffened, beside him. Feeling the sluggish stir of a hollow, distant anger, a slow, fearful leviathan. Because he'd seen Tony spit in Loki's eye, just because, and what would someone have to do, to make Tony not ... He stiffened, and felt Tony grow still beside him in turn. Felt the man quiver. Afraid.

"... Why?" he asked. Not who. He didn't dare ask who. Because then ... then he'd have to kill them, and that would be ... complicated. With the Hulk, he was on sufferance as it was. That would be ... very messy.

Tony ... bit his lip. Tried a smile. Let it go, when it didn't quite pass muster. But he didn't lean away from Bruce. He stayed ... there. In contact. Touching. And that ... All on its own, that nearly broke Bruce's heart. Because Tony was afraid, now, he was still afraid, and he still ... didn't back away. Even if he'd stopped fighting his way into Bruce's space a long time ago, even if that wasn't what it was about, now. Tony still didn't back down.

"You know about Afghanistan, yeah?" he asked, softly. Shoving his hands between his knees, pinning them away from ... wherever they wanted to go. Around himself, maybe. Over his chest. "You heard about ... that?"

"Yes," Bruce said. Over the white buzzing in his ears. "Yes, I did."

Tony did manage a smile, then. Wonky, and only barely there, but he did. "They wanted something," he explained. "I said no. That ... didn't go so well, but I was dying, so that was fine. No reason not to keep ... You know. Defying, yeah?" Bruce managed a nod. "But ... there was a man. Yinsen. He was with me. He said ... Well. Just because I was dying, that was no reason to just give up, was it? And I thought, yeah, okay. I can do that, too. Fuck them. I can beat this." And there, the smile, it was more real. A hint of smugness, of cockiness. Of pride.

Bruce felt that surge. In his chest. Something desperate and fierce. The anger, it was always with him, now, always part of him, but there were times ... when it peaked, not as the Hulk, but as something sharp, and clear, and savage, as something Bruce thought was ... a lot like love, in some ways.

"So I faked them out," Tony said, staring at his hands. "Me and Yinsen. I built the reactor, and bam, not dying anymore, much anyway, and then ... Made with the co-operative face, and yes, yes, building your missile for you, absolutely, you have a wonderful persuasive manner, did anyone ever tell you?" He grinned lopsidedly. For a second. "And it was all fake. All of it. I was building the Iron Man, not their missile, I was lying straight to their faces. I wasn't backing down, not for anything. Yinsen was right, I was going to beat them, I was going to fuck them up so bad. You know? And it got me through ... weeks. It carried me through weeks of it, of them. But then ..."

He stopped, pale and shaking, now, the cut livid under his eye, his gaze fixed on his hands but probably not seeing them. Too distant to see them. Bruce ... breathed. Very carefully. And did not Hulk out.

"They got suspicious," Tony said, eventually. "They finally got suspicious. And when they came that time, they ... didn't go for me. They went for him. For Yinsen. They ... went for him."

He stopped. Again. Fought with himself, for a long second. Fighting for some measure of control, and Bruce ... broke, a little bit. At that, at that echo. Bruce broke a little and, not really caring that people weren't supposed to touch Tony, that Tony didn't let people touch him, not really ... he slipped an arm around Tony's shoulder, tugged Tony into his chest. Lightly, so Tony could break free if he had to.

Tony ... didn't. He didn't move, stiff as a board, in shock, maybe, his hands still locked between his knees and not moving for anything. He locked still. But he didn't draw away.

"It was the closest they ever came to breaking me," Tony said, at last. Hollow and flat. "The closest. I practically begged them to let him up. He didn't tell them anything, he never said a fucking word, not even with a fucking coal in his face, and I ... would have said anything. Done anything. I couldn't have ... If they'd asked the wrong thing then, if they'd been even a little more suspicious than they were ..." His voice snapped off. Shattered. "I would have done anything," he whispered, and it was full of shame.

Bruce felt his eyes flare green. Saw it run, a shudder along his limbs, a tint of green flaring along his skin. He saw it. Tony saw it too. And Tony ... did not flinch from him.

"I won't do that again," Tony said, very quietly. Leaning into him, stiff and shaking, dark eyes staring out into something only he could see. "They let him go, they let him up, and we broke them, me and him. We broke them open, but he died, and I won't be that again. Not ever. I won't ..."

His voice broke, crumbled into the silent shaking in his shoulders, but Bruce heard the rest anyway. I won't back down. I won't bow my head. I won't fucking break, not again. Not ever again. I'll spit in the eye of the whole fucking world, and I will never. Break. Again.

"... No," Bruce said, holding him close, pulling him tight, with the Hulk singing under his skin, the rising tide of green that wasn't blind rage, this time, but that peak of clear, bright fury, that savage love. "No, you won't."

Because Bruce did bow his head. He did step aside, and capitulate, when he had to, when they at least asked first. He did that, not because he was afraid of them (though he was, oh, he was), but because he feared for them. Because refusing the things they asked was rarely, so very rarely, worth the Hulk. But this? Tony? This was worth the monster inside him. Tony, like Betty, was worth it. Every. Damn. Time.

"You broke for him," he whispered, hoarsely, while Tony shook silently against him. "Not for you. You didn't break for you." Holding Tony to him, touching something he shouldn't be allowed to touch, while the green sang in his veins, livid against the soft, blue glow of the arc reactor. "I would, though," he whispered, leaning close. "I would break for you. But that's okay." He grinned, a little, into Tony's hair. The Hulk's grin. "Because I don't think ... they would like me, when I'm broken. I don't think they'd like me at all."

And Tony ... laughed, then. A brittle snap, but he laughed, and his hands finally slipped from their white grip between his knees. Came loose, and wrapped instead around Bruce's arm, reached up to grip tight, to hold on, white-knuckled against the faint green still coursing over Bruce's skin. Control, both of them, a hair from breaking. A hair from being broken.

And oh, but oh, the world had best hope it never did. They two. It had best hope they never were. Bruce ... could promise them that.

The world wouldn't like them, when they were broken. Not at all.

"I will keep you safe," Bruce promised, quietly. While Tony slumped a little against him. While Tony ... let go, a little bit. "The other guy and me. We will ... keep you safe."

"Yeah," Tony said. Smiling, letting Bruce touch him without leave, with impunity. "Yeah," he said. "I know."

And that ... oh, and that. That was worth ... everything.