The first time Tony Stark meets Dr. Bruce Banner, on the deck of the helicarrier, he thinks, I would marry the shit out of that guy. Which is really very profoundly strange, because he’s never, ever thought that about anyone.
It probably isn’t true, that he would marry him, and even if it were, he doesn’t actually want to get married. He’s got Pepper, and she’s awesome, a perfect Morning to his Evening. (Actually, he jokes on a regular basis, he isn’t so much an Evening as a Midnight, but obviously everyone knows that moiety isn’t like that.) There are legal ties between them, even unrelated to the company--she’s his authorized medical representative and vice versa--but nothing more romantic than that. Pepper knows how he feels; he knows how she feels; that’s enough.
Bruce, if he’s not mistaken (and he really never is), is a Morning, except . . . he frowns at him across the room. Maybe not. Ew. Except--no, Morning, definitely. So they’d need a fourth, an Evening woman, and . . . yeah, no. The only Evening woman he would consider, who knows all parties involved, is Natasha, and she’s pretty well not interested.
Also, he’s not getting married.
Also, he should maybe pay attention to the current discussion instead of, you know, Bruce. Dr. Banner. Whatever.
* * *
It’s only after he meets the big green rage monster--okay, the other guy--that he knows what the confusion is: the Hulk is rather clearly an Evening . . . man. Dude. Whatever. How, exactly, does that work?
* * *
Tony doesn’t have a chance to ask until some time later, well after the Battle of New York or whatever they’re calling it. He’s offered Bruce a place to stay, and Bruce has tentatively taken him up on it, and they’re in the lab one day when he just asks, straight out. “So, you’re Morning, the Other Guy is Evening: does that make things weird?”
Bruce looks at him over his microscope, his glasses sliding down his nose, hair sticking up where he’s been running his fingers through it. He’s ridiculously adorable, even if the next words out of his mouth are, “I don’t really think that’s any of your business.”
“I am a scientist,” Tony says, with particular emphasis on the last word. “Everything is my business.”
“You’re an engineer,” Bruce says, “not a geneticist or an anthropologist, so no, it’s not.” He bends down to peer into the microscope, and sighs.
“We’re friends,” Tony tries. “You want to know anything about me, just ask.”
Bruce straightens again, and raises an eyebrow. “If I want to know anything about you, I can ask Google.”
Tony is inexplicably hurt for a moment, but then rallies. “I can give you more information than that crap-tastic search engine.”
“I know,” Bruce says, his tone softer, “but I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay,” Tony says, because contrary to popular notion, he does occasionally know when to quit.
* * *
Surprisingly, Bruce takes him up on his half-assed offer, one random afternoon when they are both waiting for JARVIS to generate results. “Tell me about your family,” Bruce says, and then backtracks. “I mean, if you want to.”
“Didn’t find enough on Google?” Tony says, hopefully dry enough that Bruce knows it’s a joke.
“I didn’t look,” Bruce says, and shoots a glance Tony’s direction.
“Ah,” Tony says. “Well, Google would be happy to tell you that my parents are Howard Stark, Maria Stark, Obadiah Stane, and Maureen Compton--the first two were my biological parents. They had a giant, high-society wedding--everyone who was everyone was there. Mimi--Maureen--died when I was six. Mom and Dad died when I was a teenager, and Obi--” Tony shrugged. “Died a couple years ago.”
“Not from the marriage. Obi had a kid with another woman after Mimi died. We don’t really talk about that much.” Tony taps his fingers on the table. “You want to know what Google can’t tell you? Google can’t tell you what I remember. I remember Mimi being quiet and sad a lot of the time. I remember Maria being very different after she died. I remember Obi being more of a father to me than Howard ever was, until--” He stops. “You know, until a couple years ago, I believed that Howard was the source of all the unhappiness in my family, and he really probably wasn’t.”
Bruce doesn’t say anything, but somehow the set of his shoulders looks sympathetic.
“Well, hey, want to tell me about your family?” Tony says.
Bruce’s shoulders tense. “Not really,” he says, but continues. “The short version is that I was raised by a widowed aunt.”
Which likely meant that the rest of his parents’ marriage had either died or been deemed unfit to raise a child. “Ah,” he says. “Where were you born?”
“Dayton, Ohio,” Bruce says, still looking away, shoulders hunched.
Tony knows that, actually; it’s in Bruce’s file, but they are sharing, here, so he asks questions like, “And where did you do undergrad?”
“In New Mexico,” Bruce says, “although I did a year at Penn State.”
“And your grad stuff was at CalTech.”
“Yeah, you know, where we have a real particle accelerator.”
Tony drops his screwdriver. “Oh, now, them’s fighting words.”
Bruce laughs, and his shoulders finally drop from his ears.
* * *
Tony thinks about asking about Bruce’s moiety problem again a few weeks later, a few weeks in which Bruce and Pepper have become absolutely inseparable, talking about weird exotic teas together and placing epic orders from overseas. Whenever he needs to find one of them, and it’s an evening or weekend, he tries the kitchen first, because Pepper has developed a hitherto-unknown passion for making Indian food from scratch. He’s found paneer draining in his sink more times than he can count, and there are forty-three kinds of curry blends above the microwave, crowding out more normal spices like salt and pepper.
They aren’t in the kitchen, that evening, though; they’re in the living room, sitting together on the couch, drinking tea and smiling. It’s weirdly domestic, and he likes it, doesn’t want to interrupt them . . . so he doesn’t, until he hears what they’re talking about. “The only way I can deal with it,” Bruce is saying, “is to pretend that my love life, such as it is, doesn’t exist when the other guy is around.”
“Such as it is,” Pepper echoes, and her voice is warm and a little teasing.
Bruce flushes and looks away, and Tony backs out of the hallway and goes back to the lab.
Such as it is? Is there someone? Because Tony would definitely like to know about that. A little bit--okay, well, a lot--of unethical-if-not-illegal searching results in no additional information, and Tony is almost frustrated enough to ask.
* * *
He doesn’t, though. Not that the questions aren’t rattling around his head, but before he can find a good time to ask, the first disaster happens. Tony’s project du jour explodes; he’s wearing protective kevlar but Bruce isn’t. He yells for Bruce to duck and throws himself at him, but Bruce isn’t paying attention, ends up twisting to one side, and gets hit with a rather large piece of shrapnel in the neck.
“Oh, shit,” Bruce says, and throws Tony off of him. He pants a few times, and Tony watches the tops of his shoulders ripple.
“That way, big guy,” Tony says, and points through the door that leads to the sealed lab, just for this purpose. Well, and also for blowing up things that are supposed to blow up.
Bruce--no, now he’s mostly the other guy--growls at him, and Tony says, “No, come on, if you go in there you can smash all you like.”
“HULK SMASH,” the other guy agrees, and heads for the door. He turns around, though, and pats Tony on the head carefully before he leaves.
A couple hours later, Bruce reappears, looking exhausted. “I’m going to--” He gestures listlessly to the elevator.
“Yeah, go get some sleep,” Tony says. “You okay? No medical attention needed?”
Bruce shakes his head no, and pauses. “You’re really not afraid of him, are you.”
Tony can hear the of me underlying it and says, “No more than I need to be.”
“It’s--but--” Bruce sighs. “I’m too tired for this.”
“Hey,” Tony says. “Trust me.”
“I’m working on it,” Bruce says, with a half-smile, and leaves.
* * *
After that, Bruce is weirdly more tense and more relaxed. Tony’s not really sure how to fix it, so he just keeps doing what he does. It seems to work.
* * *
One night after dinner while Tony and Pepper are still sitting at the table, she says, “Can I ask you a question without you freaking out?”
“Always,” he says.
She raises an eyebrow, but declines to comment. “What exactly are your intentions toward Bruce?”
Tony raises an eyebrow back. “I intend to make an awful lot of money patenting things he invents in my labs,” he says mildly.
It takes about fifteen more seconds before Tony capitulates. “I don’t know,” he admits.
She nods. “Okay.”
“Okay?” he says. “That’s it?”
She shrugs. “You might want to search for Elizabeth, or Betty, Ross.”
He blinks. “General Ross’s daughter?” He doesn’t particularly like General Ross. Neither does anyone with brains.
“Yes,” she says.
* * *
It only takes him about thirty seconds to find her, and figure out why it matters. She’s flying under the radar, living in London and doing research at the University thereof. It matters because apparently she’d co-authored a paper with one Banner, R.B., and Tony is smart enough to read between the lines.
It’s obvious to him--something about her bearing, or maybe her cheekbones, or maybe just like calling to like--from the blurry security photo of her in the file that she’s an Evening woman, a good match for Bruce. Of course, that information is also in the SHIELD file, and he’s met General Ross so he could probably guess, but nonetheless, he knows.
He sends Pepper an email: i see what you did there. should i hire her or just send her a plane ticket?
Do neither, she sends back. Let me handle this one.
* * *
A month later, he comes home from a meeting with Nick Fury to find Pepper standing outside one of the spare bedrooms, pretending that she isn’t eavesdropping. What’s going on? he mouths at her, and she shakes her head.
Tony waits impatiently, barely refraining from tapping a foot--he can’t actually hear anything, because Pepper is in his way--but less than a minute later, the door opens and Bruce pops his head out. “I don’t--” he starts to say, and then shakes his head. “Thank you.”
Pepper gets a quick kiss on the cheek, but Tony--Bruce grabs him by the front of the shirt, fingers barely glancing over the arc reactor, and pulls him in for an actual kiss. It’s fast, but hard and definitely on the lips and clearly not just in gratitude.
Bruce lets go and disappears behind the door again, and Tony blinks a few times before saying, “Well. That was unexpected.”
“Was it?” Pepper says, and Tony turns to look at her.
He doesn’t really have an opportunity to say anything in response before the door opens again, and--Christ, she’s taller than Pepper, Tony thinks, as he watches a very pretty brunette woman, fairly obviously Dr. Ross, throw herself into Pepper’s arms. A moment later he’s the recipient of a rather similar full-body hug and a breathed, “Thank you,” in his ear.
She’s gone a moment later and Tony is still a little shocked when Pepper leads him away. It’s not really the hug (or the kiss) that’s got him so unsettled; it’s the weird, unfamiliar feeling of contentment that they provoked.
He’s sitting at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, before Pepper says, “Did you figure it out yet?”
He looks at her and says, “I figured it out the first time I met him,” and it’s the absolute truth, even if he’s been trying to avoid it.
“Oh,” she says. “Well, no wonder you’re a little out of it. You usually like to have time to ease into things.”
“I do not,” he starts to say, but then remembers the ten years it took him to get around to noticing that Pepper was more than superficially attractive (well, okay, nine years--the tenth year was her dragging her feet. For good reason, as she regularly reminds him), and stops after just the “I.”
“I don’t even know if I want to get married,” he says, a full minute later. “But here I am, presented with the rest of my damn marriage, and you all are perfect.”
Pepper smiles. “It’s okay,” she says. “You’ve got time. We don’t need to make any decisions any time soon. We really might not all work as a group, either, although . . .”
“Although?” Tony says, prompting. “Let me guess--you’re rather fond of our new Dr. Ross.”
“Oh, my God, I want to rip her panties off with my teeth,” Pepper says. A moment later, her face turns bright red, and she claps her hands to her mouth.
Tony just laughs.
* * *
In his more lucid moments--at four in the morning, with possibly more coffee running through his veins than blood--he can acknowledge that he has absolutely no desire to be the Howard--or the Obie, which might be more likely--of his marriage.
Easier just to avoid marriage.
* * *
A day or two later, Betty gets her own lab where she makes cells divide or something like that--Tony doesn’t know enough about biology, but he’s learning fast, and it’s fascinating to listen to her talk.
It’s also fascinating to watch Pepper pretend that she doesn’t want to--oh, what was it that Pepper said? Something about panties and teeth, and yes, Tony absolutely has JARVIS replay that line whenever he needs a moment of amusement. She’s being the consummate hostess, though, helping Betty transition to living in New York. After living in Boston, the D.C. area, and London, it’s different, but not that different. Pepper makes a few phone calls, drops Tony’s name a few times, and wrangles Betty a visiting faculty position at Columbia, starting in January, at which Tony wrinkles his nose but Pepper smacks him on the arm and tells him to stop being such a snob.
It takes a couple weeks, but Tony finally realizes that he’s seeing Bruce relax, possibly for the first time in years. It’s slow going, but he’s happy to watch. Tony attributes it to Betty’s presence.
Unfortunately, other than work--her work--he has no idea what to talk to Betty about. They have one uncomfortable conversation about, ahem, various alma maters and certain delicate experiments that might have been interrupted by the pranks done by people who were, admittedly, ten or so years younger than he was, and then schooling appears to be off the table. Betty doesn’t drink other than wine, and only socially, so there goes another line of conversation. She’s been almost as out of it as Bruce, so movies, music, and television shows are out.
And then one afternoon (morning? no, afternoon) he comes downstairs to find her sitting in front of a television that is playing a NASCAR race, and he stands stock-still for a moment before running out of the room to find Pepper. It’s a Sunday, so Pepper isn’t really busy when he invades what she calls the ‘home’ office. “Pep, did you sell the F1 team?” he asks.
“No,” she says. “Well, I reduced it to a forty-nine percent interest, like you asked. I thought about selling it altogether but that’s yours, not SI’s.”
“Are we racing this month?”
Pepper checks on her tablet. “Yes, next weekend, in Austin.”
“Good,” he says. “I’m going. And I’m taking Betty, because she’s watching NASCAR and needs to know what real racing is like.”
“Maybe she likes NASCAR,” Pepper says.
“So she’ll probably like Formula One, too,” he says.
“You are not allowed to leave the box, you understand?” she says, and her voice gets hard.
“No, hey, Pepper, don’t worry,” he says, holding his hands up. “No palladium, no death wish. You don’t particularly like car racing, didn’t even before the--and Bruce, I bet he doesn’t either; he won’t even watch baseball. So either I take someone who doesn’t want to go, or I take someone I don’t really want to spend time with, like, I don’t know, Nick Fury--although Clint would be a better choice, I’d think; he probably likes NASCAR already. But if it involves me converting a NASCAR fan into an F1 fan, then I’d rather take Betty.”
“Okay,” she says, “but you’re taking Happy and the Mark V suit and if you even think about doing something stupid I’ll have JARVIS lock you down inside the suit.”
Tony thinks about doing stupid things every five seconds; it’s just how his brain works. Also, he’s pretty sure that JARVIS, being his AI, wouldn’t lock him in the suit, but still. He knows what she means, though, and says, “We’re going to fly to Austin, and we’re going to eat a nice lunch, and we’re going to watch a car race, and maybe we’ll go drool over the car before but that’s as close as we’ll get. I promise. Besides,” he adds, “she might say no.”
“Okay,” she says again, and she still looks worried.
He still doesn’t know what to say to chase that worry off her face, but he isn’t sure that anything will, so he kisses her, repeats, “I promise,” and leaves to go find Betty and convince her that Formula One racing is infinitely superior to NASCAR.
* * *
It’s more difficult than it sounds. He starts out with the obvious, saying, “So, it looks like you like racing.”
She nods. “It’s relaxing,” she says, which is not what he expected.
“Relaxing?” he says, and frowns, but then says, “Okay, relaxing. I can work with that.”
“Excuse me?” she says, but it’s polite.
“So I own part interest in a racing team, and there’s a big race next weekend. Did you want to come watch it? It’ll be even more relaxing in a nice box,” he says.
She blinks at him, and he watches her piece it together. “You own part interest in a racing team,” she says. “I can’t imagine that you’re happy with the strict engineering rules of either NASCAR or IndyCar, so that leaves Formula One?”
“Correct,” he says. Of course, she would also know that if she’d Googled him, but apparently she hasn’t. Polite of her.
“Hm,” she says. “Formula One. I don’t know.”
“It’ll be fun,” he says. “I promise. Nice box, people serving alcohol right to us whenever we want it, a nice meal, anything you want.”
“I’ll think about it,” she says, “but thank you very much for the invitation.” Again, it’s polite, and a little distant; her outer shell, he thinks irrelevantly, is thicker than Bruce’s--what happened?
Oh, right. He knows--well, some of it--what happened with Bruce. But it’s none of his business, and he’s trying very hard to ignore things that aren’t his business, so he just says, “Well, you’re the only one who likes racing here other than me, so,” and smiles at her before leaving.
It’s difficult, this other-people-are-allowed-to-make-their-own-decisions thing. If she were anyone other than Betty Ross, he’d probably just grab her and a pile of clothing and jump into a jet. But Pepper talks a lot, and sometimes he listens--no, that’s not true; he always listens. Sometimes he listens and it sinks in.
He orders the jet for Friday morning anyway.
* * *
Betty sends him an email about six hours later, saying she’ll go. He punches the air.
* * *
The race is, like all races, exhilarating; his team doesn’t win but Betty is, nonetheless, fully engaged. On the way home, after it is all over, she turns to him and says, “Thank you,” again, with the same intensity as when they’d first met. “My father, he liked--likes--NASCAR. This feels better, somehow.”
Oh. Right. There’s some father-related stuff there. Tony knows all about daddy issues, and can sympathize. He holds out an arm and she leans up against him. He drops a kiss on top of her hair, and listens to the muted roar of the jet’s engines.
He doesn’t know why it feels as good as it does, to find something--finally--to share with her. Something that makes her happy. But it does.
* * *
It’s been a full six months since all four of them have been, ha, assembled in Stark Tower, and they’ve definitely developed a routine. Tony fulfills his part of the routine by walking into the lab at about ten in the morning--well, at least, he’s pretty sure it’s morning--with two cups of coffee; he sets them both down before poking Bruce in the side.
Bruce catches his hand, like he does most mornings, and turns to glare at Tony, like he does only when he’s feeling indulgent, or conversely less like being interrupted. Tony grins at him, and then half a second later, they’re kissing, pressed together, Bruce’s back against the table, hands and mouths everywhere.
It’s just getting to the point where Tony’s wondering about clothing and how to escape it when Bruce pulls away. “Wait, wait,” he says, and he sounds so wonderfully breathless that Tony groans. “Pills, I have pills.”
Tony looks down pointedly between them, where Bruce is already hard, and back up.
“Not--oh, no, not that kind,” Bruce says, laughing. “The opposite, actually. Alpha blockers.”
“Alpha blockers?” Alpha radiation is blocked by a piece of paper. Or maybe he means the blood pressure pills?
“Adrenaline inhibitors,” he says. “Beta blockers have too many side effects. The other guy doesn’t like them.”
“Oh,” Tony says. He doesn’t know a damn thing about pharmaceuticals but he can learn. “So the alpha blockers mean--”
“Safe sex. Well, that part, at least.”
“Good,” Tony says, and leans back in to kiss him again before his head clears--just a little--and he says, “Other than--” Other than what, though? It’s not as if what they’re doing--what they’re about to do--is somehow wrong or unexpected. It’s pretty much the opposite, which is, he realizes, what scares him.
“You do know I have an agreement with Pepper and Betty, right?” Bruce says, tracing the outline of the arc reactor through Tony’s shirt. “The minute this happens,” and he gestures between them, “I have to tell them, so they can have their fun.”
“They’ve been waiting on me?” Tony says, because it’s about the last thing he expected.
“But I don’t even know if I want to get married,” Tony says, and it sounds ridiculous, even to him.
“We don’t have to get married,” Bruce says patiently, “but it would be really nice if we could balance all the relationships properly.”
And that’s what he’d been forgetting, apparently. “Oh,” he says. It’s not about marriage, it’s about balance, and he’s the one who has been pulling them out. Hell of a genius he is. “So where are those little pills of yours?”
Bruce smiles. “In my room. You can text Pepper.”
* * *
you know why not being the ceo is awesome? because i can take time off in the middle of the day to get laid.
IT’S NOT POSSIBLE TO EXPLAIN HOW MUCH I HATE YOU. I HAVE MEETINGS ALL DAY. ALL. DAY.
love you too, pep.
* * *
He and Bruce are still in bed--or, more accurately, in bed again--when Betty and Pepper get home, some nine or ten hours later. “Oh!” he hears, and a thump against the door.
They both lift their heads, and hear a giggle shading into a gasp. Bruce says, “That’s Betty.”
“Oh?” Tony says, but another muffled noise comes through the door and he recognizes that noise. Rather intimately. “And that’s Pepper.”
“Mmm, good for them,” Bruce says, and rests his head back on Tony’s shoulder.
Tony smiles and threads his fingers through Bruce’s hair.
“Hey, I liked those!” Betty’s voice comes through the door, again. “But--ohhhh.”
“Get a room!” Tony calls out. “This one’s occupied.”
“Huh, I thought they’d be in our room,” Pepper says, and the sounds disappear.
* * *
A couple days later, when he is finally able to peel himself away from Bruce--and Pepper is finally able to peel herself away from Betty--they’re curled up together in bed, eating leftover rice and saag paneer and he asks, “Did you ever get Bruce to talk about his family?”
Pepper nods and says, “Did you?”
“No,” Tony says, “but I found the news reports.” Dr. Banner Senior had, apparently, gone on a murderous rampage and killed the rest of his spouses. There were intimations of a history of abuse, as well. “I don’t understand why he’s not more afraid of--of this.” He gestures around, at them, and toward the bedroom on the other side of the wall, where Bruce and Betty are (possibly) sleeping.
“I think,” she says carefully, spearing a cube of cheese, “he’s working on knowing that being the other guy doesn’t mean he’s turning into his father.”
“Well, of course not,” Tony says. “Genetics and family don’t dictate--oh.” Again: some genius he is. “Good,” he says, a moment or two later.
He takes their plates and sets them aside and wraps his arms around Pepper, careful not to crush her into the arc reactor, and breathes in and out. The warmth growing in his chest--he’s pretty sure it’s not from his hardware. “You know I love you,” he says, and she nods against his shoulder.
“You love all of us,” she says. “So do I.”
“Good,” he says again.