Actions

Work Header

Forged With Blood, Forged With Fire

Chapter Text

Heels click against the slab floors of Bruce's lab. He doesn't need to look up from his microscope to know who it is. Only two other people have access without needing verification from him via JARVIS to open the door. So unless Tony has suddenly taken up wearing heels – well, other than those lifted dress shoes that make him a dubious 5'10'' when his Napoleon complex gets a little out of hand – then he knows the unexpected visitor is Pepper. Of course, that doesn't mean that Tony isn't involved somehow. As a CEO she really has better things to do than pay a social call to a nuclear physicist.

When the sounds of her steps go silent he looks up and smiles at her. "Good…" he glances at a clock on a nearby wall, "…afternoon, Pepper."

"Good afternoon, Dr. Banner," she addresses him formally and the tight drawn line of her lip doesn't waver. "Where is he hiding?" She then looks around.

Bruce removes his glasses, tucking them into his lab coat, before turning around and looking as well. He immediately realizes this is slightly ridiculous as he's been in the lab since breakfast and hasn't seen his genius boyfriend. Then again, he almost believes that if Pepper glares hard enough Tony will magically materialize from thin air like he's been there the whole time so he looks around just the same. He probably needs to break for lunch or coffee or sleep, maybe all three.

"I haven't seen him since breakfast," he says when his brain finally catches up to him and he realizes no matter how hard Pepper glares, Tony isn't—

A sound from the supply closet interrupts that thought and his eyes widen as Pepper's narrow. "You were saying?"

He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as he holds up a finger to signify for her to give him a moment. Then he walks over to the large supply closet and finds Tony casually sweeping up a beaker he'd dropped.

"Oh, hey, babe. I was just, uh," Tony's genius brain stutters for a half of a second before he continues, "organizing your supplies for you. Surprise! Aren't I the bes- ow!" Bruce cuts off his excuse by grabbing at his sleeve near the shoulder and dragging him out into the open lab. "Hey now. This is not the kind of manhandling I appreciate."

Bruce just rolls his eyes. On another occasion he might snort in amusement at that because, honestly, there's not a lot Tony doesn't appreciate. When it comes to his libido and what he's willing to give and receive, versatility and flexibility doesn't even begin to cover it. However, the man is clearly avoiding something and trying to lie about it, so he's not in a mood to be amused.

Clearly neither is Pepper as she stands there with arms crossed in a stance that is very signature for her, or at least it seems to be when she's dealing with Tony. When he let's go of Tony's shirt and, without thinking, moves his arms into a crossed position not wholly unlike Pepper's Bruce has a sudden moment of clarity and dread. He can't recall if he's always been an arm-crosser at the moment so either Tony has a type – and he really doesn't need to run through a Venn Diagram of his and Pepper's similarities at the moment, no thanks – or else side effects of dating or having dated Tony Stark include arms crossed and exasperated frown. He makes a quick mental note to study Colonel Rhodes' body language the next time he's around and annoyed with Tony to test the theory that maybe it's just the side effect of getting close to Tony period; it's an exclusive club after all.

"Are you going to explain?" Bruce finally asks, because the entire time he was running random data points in his head about folded arms, the other man had yet to speak up. He also maybe lets his arms fall back down to his sides on purpose.

"Well, I… You know—And so… Uh, yeah, I think that covers it," Tony says with a nod.

Bruce picks his battles and has enough self-awareness to know there are still some Starkisms that he has yet to master. So he turns to Pepper and raises an eyebrow. "Translation?"

"He had a physical appointment this morning. Only, his secretary got a call from the nurse saying he never showed up," she explains. Bruce furrows his brow and opens his mouth to respond, but she holds up her hand to indicate she hasn't finished. "It's his third one." Bruce pulls back his head slightly on his shoulders and then looks at Tony with a questioning expression. Tony very pointedly does not meet his gaze or Pepper's. "Not only is it his third missed physical, he knows that if he doesn't have the results submitted in the next twenty-four hours, the board can file an injunction just to spite him." Bruce gives her a strange look at that and she elaborates with a sigh, "He also refused to get the mandatory HRA done and the Board is concerned he's hiding something."

"You didn't complete it?" Bruce transfers the strange look to Tony. If he had known Tony was avoiding it, he would have tried to help him before it turned into this situation.

"No, but I'm not hiding anything," Tony clips.

"That's not the point," Pepper clips back.

"I am well within my rights to refuse. They can't force me to get a physical."

"They wouldn't have had to if you had just completed the stupid questionnaire, Tony," she says in frustration.

"Tony, do we need to talk about this?" Bruce asks in concern.

"No. No, we don't need to talk about this. I think it's perfectly clear. I don't like doctors. That's the end of it really." He waves a hand and spins on his heels to look at just about anything he can in the room.

Bruce does snort this time. "Um, then what's with your random urges for our doctor roleplaying?" He points as he asks.

After nearly six months of dating the man, he's given up any attempt to be shy about their sex life in front of Pepper. She'd assured him time and time again early on that knowing details about Tony's sex life was basically part of her job description long before she'd decided to give it a go herself and that, frankly, she'd rather hear about their exploits than if Tony were back to his one and done school of thought. Honestly, he's given up any pretense of trying to understand the strange friendship that exists between the three of them in general. He doesn't mind it though; so long as Tony never gets some brilliant idea to suggest a foursome between the two of them and Pepper and Phil that is. He has his limits.

"You, Dr. Banner, are the only exception," Tony says very seriously in that way of his, tone warm and genuine enough to let him know it's true even if a bit bizarre.

"Don't let Doom hear you say that," Bruce deadpans. "But you have to admit it's weird if you don't like medical doctors."

"Maybe that's why it does it for me a little bit so long as it's you," Tony says with a shrug. Bruce can understand that, but now isn't the time to get into Freudian-inspired kinks. "Which, you know, Bruce, you really should just get your MD already. Add it to the pile."

Bruce glances at Pepper as she rolls her eyes just as much as he wants to right now; he refrains, but barely. "Tony, I'm not becoming a practitioner of medicine just because you have issues you never worked through. You know I hate doctors too, but…"

"All the more reason to become one. I'll seriously buy you your own clinic, here by the way and most definitely not in India, and you can hire a bunch of nurses and we'll never have any problems again." Tony says it so casually that Bruce has to wonder how long he's wanted to suggest the idea. He also holds back another eye roll at Tony's flippant regard of people in India who need doctors.

"Right. And Miss America's wish for world peace will finally come true," he replies, shaking his head, and decides to return to his microscope.

"Tony, this is serious," Pepper finally speaks up again. "Do you want an injunction? You know the Board would just love a reason now that you're—"

"Reportedly seeing a man?" Bruce asks with a knowing raise of an eyebrow as he settles his glasses back onto his face. Not to mention a man who turns into a monster, he decidedly doesn't add.

"A little," she doesn't mince words. "But also because of the whole SHIELD thing and wanting to convert Stark Tower into a base of operations for the Avengers Initiative." Bruce just hums in understanding at that. Then he notices the calculating look in Pepper's eyes. "What if Phil gets a SHIELD doctor to come by to our emergency clinic and do the physical? Would you be more comfortable with that?"

Tony chatters his teeth in consideration. "On one condition. Bruce is allowed to assist and only he is allowed to touch me with any of the pointy things." Tony offers in compromise.

Bruce simply shrugs as Pepper sighs. "I'll call Phil and see what I can do." She pulls out her cell as she leaves them.

When she's gone, Bruce looks over at Tony with renewed concern. He looks uneasy to say the least. "We should probably talk about this eventually," Bruce says calmly. "You know I understand right? I get the whole medical trauma thing. And I definitely get the apprehension when it comes to needles," he adds, an involuntary shiver going down his spine as if an unnecessary reminder.

"Damn, I didn't think of that," Tony says suddenly. "Being there with me won't be a problem will it? Because I can—"

Bruce holds up his hand and shakes his head before moving to stand in front of his boyfriend. "It's fine. For you, it's fine."

"Are you sure, Bruce?" Tony's concern for him immediately softens the engineer's eyes and Tony's hands come up to rest on his shoulders. "You really don't have to do this for me."

Bruce smiles thinly, but it's genuine. "This might surprise you, Mr. Stark, since heaven knows it surprises me, but I kind of care about you just a little bit. If my being there helps you, that's what matters."

"You spoil me, you know that?" Tony asks teasingly, but Bruce can practically feel his relief.

Bruce's smile widens as he makes a show of looking around the personal lab Tony had commissioned for him two weeks before they'd even decided to take a chance on the whirlpool of chemistry they had fallen headlong into the moment they'd met. "Must be your influence," he replies, looking back at Tony.

"Well, you know I like to hear that." Tony chuckles softly and leans in to kiss him. "Think we have time for a pre-examination, Doctor?" Tony asks when he moves his lips to Bruce's jaw.

Sirs, Ms. Potts says that a SHIELD doctor will arrive from HQ in approximately twenty minutes.

Tony groans. "Looks like you'll have to settle for a thorough follow-up instead," Bruce teases him shamelessly.

He ponders for a moment how long it's been since he's ever allowed himself to be a little shameless and realizes immediately that it really is Tony's influence. He tries to push aside the thoughts that say it's a bad influence.

***

A few things enter Coulson's mind when he leaves the SHIELD doctor to run through the necessary security clearance in order to go on ahead to the Stark Tower medical emergency clinic.

On the one hand, he should suggest to Pepper that they hire an actual staff of a physician with registered nurses rather than just emergency responders; it might even solve Stark's problem if he has an in-house doctor he can trust - besides Banner of course. Or he might suggest to Stark that he house a SHIELD medic team since he's converting a portion of the tower to be a home base.

On the other hand, Stark and Banner are fooling themselves if they really think nobody has put two and two together and come up with the conclusion that the physicist is the mystery man that the engineer has cajoled into a few dates outside of the tower in the past two months – thus resulting in obscure photos. Maybe the common public doesn't get it, but he's pretty sure most SHIELD and SI employees are smarter than the common public. Of course, he also has the distinct feeling Stark would shout it to the presses proudly if not for Banner's understandable hesitance.

Of course, when he comes into the designated room they're waiting in, opening the door without their even hearing it, and finds them making out on the examination table he makes a mental note that Dr. Banner definitely seems to be coming around if he's taken to this kind of risky fraternizing. Unlike some others at the water cooler, Coulson is glad that Banner isn't doing the evasive, self-denial thing anymore and not just because it was hell to keep up with him sometimes. Then again he's been a little sappy since waking up from near-death and finding out his attraction to the wonderful Pepper Potts hadn't been one sided after all.

Not to say he's sappy enough to wait for the two men to come up for air, which he knows firsthand from his time spent at the tower is just short of never, so he clears his throat and quietly applauds himself for keeping his face entirely impassive when Banner gives a muffled baritone squeak as he startles.

He watches them pull away and go to stand away from the table. "Dr. Banner. Stark." He says it evenly, because he's good at his job.

"Not Dead Agent," Stark replies breezily as he reaches over to help Banner fix his shirt only to have his hand playfully swatted away.

"I liked it better when I was just Agent," he replies in earnest.

"And I liked it better when I could trust Fury," Stark fires back, clearly without any logic in his quip.

"I wasn't aware you ever did," Banner replies with a crinkle of his nose as he combs his fingers through his mussed hair.

"Hey, I'm an optimist. Would have been nice to have my suspicions proven wrong," Stark counters and Banner snorts as if to say Sure.

"Look, Stark. Lying for the greater good is an occupational hazard. Tell me, has JARVIS found any interesting new reading material since you removed your decryption program from our system?" He asks it with a friendly smile.

Banner chuckles softly under his breath and there's a three second lull where apparently Stark, glancing sidelong at the physicist, knows he's been caught in his own trap before choosing to ignore the fact that he's now hanging upside down in order to push ahead as though he's still in control of the situation. Maybe in a weird way he is.

"The orgy in Uzbekistan was interesting. Still trying to figure out what happened in Budapest though."

"That's a lost cause, Mr. Stark. Speaking of Agents Romanoff and Barton, they're due for extraction in a few weeks. Do you think you'll have space for them by then?"

"Sure," Tony says with the flap of a hand. "Most of the floors are complete. I can speed up the finishing touches for their space… spaces?... with a monetary incentive."

"One space," he confirms, but clarifies, "with two individualized rooms."

Stark raises his eyebrow at that and looks at Banner to see his reaction. "Cohabitation," the physicist explains. "Whether or not they're sleeping together isn't the point. Even if they aren't, being in the same space makes them feel more secure. Even if they are, they probably both need privacy from time to time given their histories."

"I think he's smarter than you," Coulson says to Stark.

A little to his surprise, Stark smiles fondly at Banner and nods. "Yeah, sometimes I have my suspicions. He won't take an IQ test though."

Banner glares at the engineer for that, but there's no heat in it. "I've told you, I don't want to know."

Stark just shakes his head. "And I've told you I don't need to know to know. With or without it, you're brilliant."

Coulson smiles a little at the scene, Stark and Banner just sort of lost in each other's gaze for a moment, and he's both glad that Tony Stark has finally found someone he really connects with and cares for and that, to his own fortune, that someone isn't Pepper Potts. His smile falls back into a schooled line when he senses the presence behind him and moves to let the SHIELD doctor come in, shutting the door behind her as she does. He turns back to see Dr. Banner looking a little nervous, no doubt wondering if the doctor saw the little brush of lips that his and Stark's prolonged eye contact had melted into.

"Don't worry. Patient confidentiality," she answers that unspoken question. "I have no interest whatsoever."

"And by that she means all medical staff are barred from fraternization betting pools," he adds knowingly. "As are the S.O.s of parties in question."

"Wait, people are betting on me and Tony?"

"How elaborate are the betting pools?"

He laughs at their two very different responses to the information. "Yes, Dr. Banner, they are. And they are very elaborate. There's the general tier of will they or won't they. Then from there, you can wager in categories such as already together at start of betting pool or still clueless, dating or friends with benefits, before or after the announced break up with Pepper." He emphasizes the word as there had been some space for them to adjust before announcing it. "There's even specific time frame for the overly zealous gamblers."

"Oh my god," Banner intones, eyes wide while beside him the other half of the couple being bet on is smiling like the Cheshire cat.

"Out of curiosity, since I'm assuming you know these things," Stark narrows his eyes at him, "which of our astute little boy band, if any, won the time frame bet? Did anyone guess within the three week window?"

"Loaded question," he answers while the SHIELD physician gestures for Stark to sit down on the examination table. He doesn't miss the way the doctor gives a studious glance to the wrinkled and slightly ripped paper the two geniuses hadn't taken into consideration. "Depends on how elaborately they bet," he returns to the topic. "Two bet within the three week window so technically there's that. Another bet six weeks, but friends with benefits before the break up. Of the two that bet within the three week window, one bet friends with benefits, also before break up – which by the way, I'm glad you didn't do that to Pepper. So that leaves the other one – and technically they're the most accurate overall statistically if you don't count before or after break up since they didn't vote in that category. They bet will get together, already together, within the three week window, and dating rather than friends with benefits."

He sees the look both men give each other as the doctor takes Stark's blood pressure. "Seriously?" Banner asks finally. "But doesn't betting on dating make it more likely to be after the break up? Logically why wouldn't they just bet across the board and take their chances it wasn't some open arrangement?"

"I know," he says with a nod. "But they didn't. They're still the best and if there was an overall pot at this point, they'd win."

"It's Natasha," Tony says when he's free to talk again. "Gotta be. She's scary good."

"I'm not at liberty to confirm or deny that," he says with no small sense of satisfaction because knowing something Stark doesn't is always fun. "Now, Dr. Banner, you'll be doing the lab work for the blood, yes? Or will we need to take that with us back to the lab at SHIELD? We can and I can have it sent over to Pepper as soon as it's done, but I seem to recall you had formal training in—"

"Yes, I have training in medical chemistry, pathology, radiology, microbiology and stop looking at me like that, Tony. I'm not taking an IQ test."

Phil laughs and keeps the secret to himself that SHIELD has an algorithm that has already estimated his IQ within 10 points of accuracy. He looks between the two men and thinks for a few different reasons, if only you knew.

***

Tony enters Bruce's lab and shakes his head fondly at the scientist. Bruce is seated in front of a large monitor and pouring over data, pencil held toward the screen every now and then before dropping back down to a notepad. He loves to watch him like this. He had never thought he would fall hard for anyone, let alone a man so brilliant he may be even more brilliant than himself. And when it's like this, him just watching the physicist get lost in the data, pulling a little absentmindedly at his hair, Tony realizes how dangerously close to hitting the ocean and drowning in Bruce he actually is.

He tends to think about attraction and emotions with his body and not his heart or even his brain when he can help it, but even he thinks he has a pretty good understanding about how the principle of falling in love works. So he's pretty sure he is. He has a pretty good idea that it's been a free fall from the moment his eyes went straight to Bruce Banner's Initiative file.

It doesn't scare him any less though when he thinks about how absolutely awful the metaphor of drowning really is. Comparing love to a horrifying death, the kind that haunts his nightmares, is a pretty good reason not to let it happen. But as Bruce tilts his head a little to the side, still looking at the monitor and makes a quiet hum before writing something new down, it doesn't only stir Tony's body, it stirs that tattered box that beats in his chest. So he can't keep himself from thinking he has just as good of a reason to let it happen.

"What brilliance has you working late?" He asks, finally moving over to him and resting both hands on Bruce's shoulders. He feels him tense minutely beneath him, but ignores it; Bruce still isn't always used to being touched without warning, especially not if it startles him. Instead he looks at the monitor, but his face scrunches when he sees his name up in the right hand corner of the data. "Wait, is this...? Why are you still looking at that?" Bruce doesn't answer. "I've gotta say, Dr. Banner, if this is some kind of intense foreplay..." He pauses, considering it. "Yeah. It's working for me." He cranes his head down then, lowering his voice. "When were you going to let me join in, hmm?"

"Not..." He feels Bruce go tense again and not in the good way. Concern immediately floods his senses. "Not now, Tony. We... No, can't."

He's especially worried now. Bruce stammering incoherently in self-denial only happens when the man truly believes something isn't okay. He would be worried that Bruce is suddenly turning him away – and it would figure since he was thinking seriously about the L word again – but right before he can panic he realizes that this turn of events coincides with Bruce studying his blood work so a new kind of panic sets in.

"Bruce?" He swivels the chair against Bruce's consent and looks worriedly at him. "What's going on here?"

Bruce looks back at the monitor and then back up at him, eyes brokenly apologetic. "I... I think I'm poisoning you."

Tony isn't sure how long he stands there just blinking at him before he finally replies. "Okay, you've stopped speaking English. That doesn't make any sense."

"Tony, your blood... It's... It's not normal," Bruce says worriedly, shaking his head as he turns back to the monitor. "I noticed the abnormalities and when I looked closer at a sample, it looks like there's a mutation."

"And your first conclusion is to blame yourself for something wrong with me?" He holds on to incredulity. He's going to ignore his own worry at the moment and make Bruce work to convince him.

"Makes sense," Bruce says in an already defeated tone, sighing as he does, so Tony spins the chair back around again.

"No, no, actually it doesn't," he says emphatically. "We already ran the tests and then reran them three times."

Tony almost laughs as he remembers it.

After their first, second, and third amazing kisses the physicist had freaked out and told Tony his concern about his bodily fluids; he'd tried to push him away no matter how much he said he didn't want to. Of course, Tony wouldn't be deterred without knowing for sure. So the first few weeks of their relationship were spent doing the actual normal adult dating thing (with a good deal of helpful tips from Pepper on how to do that where Tony was concerned), getting to know each other rather than just jumping into bed. Well, 'normal adult dating thing' if you counted the fact they were also two scientists who, in their spare time, were running analysis to prove or disprove their ability to safely jump into bed together, but to be fair it was a new level of normal for Tony and a credit to the level of interest he had in Bruce.

Of course, Tony doesn't laugh. It's not worth laughing over at the moment. Instead, he takes Bruce's prolonged silence as a chance to beat the nail a little harder since sometimes they both need that.

"There's not enough radiation in your semen to hurt me. If we were talking what your sperm would do in genetic reproduction, I'd agree with you, but we both know that's not a problem here. And I'd have to suck your face every minute of every day for the next 20 years before I'd even begin to see any effect. Which, no offense, isn't conducive to all the other minutes we spend doing science, saving the world, and, hell, just being domestic," he tacks on at the end, hoping to get a small smile from the man and smiling when it works. "And frankly I love kissing you so I'm okay with that risk being a thing of the distant future okay?"

Bruce creases his brow and the smile falls away as if it hadn't been there. "Then how do you explain the mutation, Tony? Are you a mutant all of a sudden?"

He scoffs. "Xavier can't afford me."

"Be serious, Tony," Bruce pleads. "Try to look at it from my point of view. Something is going on with your blood down to a molecular level and I've been running through a list of diseases I know and coming up short with a match. I'm a walking gamma bomb so why shouldn't I think it's my fault? I'm afraid, Tony. What if this isn't a distant future thing like we thought?"

Tony finally gives in and looks over at the screen. He doesn't want to believe this has anything to do with Bruce. They ran the tests and he trusts that those tests were right. But more than that, he doesn't want Bruce to believe it either. He doesn't want Bruce to have a reason to run or push him away. He knows he's in deep because that possibility actually stings worse now than it did when Bruce was considering whether or not to risk being with him. So he has to make sure that doesn't happen. He doesn't want to lose Bruce.

"We'll start running some extensive tests and study the different theories in the morning. We'll figure this out together," he says reassuringly. "But right now I think you need sleep. You'll just get more anxious if you don't, and we both know you hate that. So come on, let's go to bed."

He isn't surprised when Bruce protests. "I just... Tony, until we know for sure... I'm sorry, I can't let us take that chance."

Tony ignores him and pulls him up into an embrace. "Okay, so we take a timeout on that." He pulls away then and looks Bruce squarely in his startled eyes. "This might surprise you, Dr. Banner, since heaven knows it surprises me, but I'm not with you just because the sex is good." A ghost of a smile appears on Bruce's face at the echoed sentiment. "But hell if I let you sleep somewhere other than our bed, got it? Being close to you is not going to hurt me." He sees the look in Bruce's eyes and he knows what Bruce is thinking, but it's the truth. He's never once felt that being close to Bruce, in either of his forms, is going to hurt him.

***

When Bruce wakes up in the morning with arms and legs tangled with Tony's and a desire to burrow deeper against him until they're impossibly close, he realizes just how spoiled he's actually become in such a short amount of time for reasons that have nothing to do with a spacious lab or supposed SHIELD protection from General Ross. Logical thoughts about how none of this has been a good idea from the start, how he should run, how he doesn't deserve the closeness of another person who actually cares about him, how he's just fooling himself if he actually believes his life can be good for a change enter his mind, but Tony's warmth burns them up before they can settle in. The rise and fall of Tony's smooth chest against his hairy one, the way their arms settle around each other like it's the most natural thing in the world, the way they seem to fit almost seamlessly together like a puzzle no matter how cliché the simile is – it all makes him feel safe in a way that he's only had fleeting moments of before and he thinks there's a pretty good chance that for reasons he doesn't understand, Tony feels safe like this too.

He's spoiled now and it scares him. It scares him that chemical attraction and mental synchronicity and touch-starvation has been nothing but a cover for what has really been going on between them, or at least on his side of things. It scares him that he still believes he can't have what he wants, but it also scares him that for once he doesn't know if he can make the right decision and give it all up. He selfishly wants to keep Tony for as long as he can even though he knows it'll just hurt worse when it inevitably falls apart. He let Betty go, but he doesn't know if he could do the same for Tony. Maybe Tony wouldn't even let him. Maybe he'd chase him to the ends of the Earth. Maybe that's what makes Tony different.

But Tony can't chase him if he poisons the stubborn engineer before that can happen. He's willing to trust Tony and not jump to conclusions, but it scares him what will happen if his initial fear is the right one. He won't stick around and kill him however slowly it might take. And no matter what Tony says about taking a timeout, he's not foolish enough to think Tony would be okay if sex was entirely off the table. Tony has the stamina and drive of a much younger man and Bruce knows he's not secure enough to trust Tony not to drift away if he were to go find his satisfaction elsewhere.

All of these thoughts scare him and mess with his resolve of what to do and what not to do until all he's left with for certain is how he wants to move impossibly closer still until there's nothing left of himself that isn't also Tony. It's selfish and painful and dangerous and maybe even a little distorted, but it's a blinding need.

As if Tony can sense his need in his waking consciousness, Bruce feels himself pulled closer, Tony tightening his hold of him. It's enough to do him in. He falls apart, shuddering against his unexpected lover as the emotion of what this has turned into breaks him in ways that the Other Guy never could. Even as he trembles, he holds on bitterly to the hope that if he doesn't name it, the universe won't know and won't take it away from him this time.

"What do you need?" Tony asks, voice gruff from sleep, but still with genuine concern in his tone.

"You to be okay," he answers sadly. It's the only answer that he can give. It's the only thing he needs.

A hand finds his hair as Tony replies, "I was already not okay before you came along, Bruce. If anything I think you make me more okay than I've ever been." Tony's voice is still low and semi-conscious, but the depth of it is overwhelming. "Anything else you need right now? Do you need to just lay here? Are you anxious to get back to the lab? Do we need to go somewhere and take your mind off of it? Whatever it is, just tell me."

Bruce doesn't answer right away. He's anxious to get back to the lab and figure it out, but also anxious not to know yet. He wants to lay in bed with Tony longer and just pretend like it's any other morning, but the rightness of how it feels is still overwhelming.

"Maybe just this a little longer," he says, giving in to the rightness, settling closer so his head can nestle into the crook of Tony's neck. "Then maybe we can get some breakfast downstairs before we get started in the lab," he adds with a small yawn, his body calming just enough.

Tony answers with a simple agreement to the idea before they settle back in for a lazy lounge in each other's arms and Bruce lets himself be spoiled a little longer. Should the other shoe drop, he wants every moment like this he can get no matter if it's only going to make it harder in the end.

***

One thing about Stark Tower that he had insisted on during the planning stages with Pepper was a facility that could rival any dream job in terms of in-house convenience, luxury and amenities. So levels 2 through 5 look like a variable mall of sorts with contracted-in convenient stores and eating places, both fast food and some pricier sit down restaurants. They are open to the public, connected by escalators and elevators designated solely for this part of the tower, as well as the Stark Industries museum on level 1. There is a commissary on level 10 for those employees who don't wish to eat with the general public, since everything after the security department on level 6 is clearance only.

Tony had expected the commissary would be where Bruce would suggest, so he's thoroughly pleased to be sitting across from him in the Denny's on level 4 – especially after the emotional night before and morning the physicist had clearly had. He wants to take it as a hopeful sign. He wants it to mean that he's not the only one in a little deep here. He selfishly wants Bruce's wanting him to be okay to mean that Bruce doesn't want to leave. He selfishly wants Bruce choosing a public place where anyone might see them and speculate more to mean he's finally being defiant against his internalized fears and maybe, just maybe choosing to stick it out.

"It'll be a little weird when Clint and Natasha actually move in," Bruce says, breaking him from his thoughts.

He sighs dramatically. "Yeah, the honeymoon is almost over." Bruce snorts in amusement and he smiles. "What? I’m serious. They'll be worse than children. I'm not ready to be a parent."

Bruce laughs more outright this time. "I can't say I was under the impression you'd ever be ready for something like that."

He huffs, though mostly for show. "Why does everybody just assume I'm not good with kids? I'm great with kids."

Bruce raises an eyebrow over one rim of his glasses. "You mean other people's kids? Because you realize there's a world of difference between being good with somebody else's kid on occasion and having one to take care of all the time."

"Okay, so there's that. But the way I look at it, I have an even chance. Either I'm an awesome dad because my dad was awful so I know what not to do. Or I fail miserably because my father was awful."

"Did you spike your coffee?" Bruce asks, more suspicious than amused.

"No," he retorts. "A guy can't talk about kids over breakfast?"

"Well, it's a little uncomfortable when your boyfriend isn't sure how to read the conversation," Bruce admits with a shrug. "Maybe we should get through living with Clint and Natasha before we take the next step," he adds jokingly and once again Tony is reminded of how it's little moments like these that draws him to Bruce. It's the humor and the dance between serious and playful and the way they can discuss big things casually because emotions and normalcy is weird for both of them.

"Fair point." Tony nods and before anything else can be said, the waitress appears with their food.

"A four stack with a double side of sausage for you," she says, placing the two plates down in front of him. "And an omelet for you. If you need anything let me know," she says as she places down butter and syrup. "I'll be back to refill your coffee in a moment," she then says and leaves. He honestly doesn't register most of it.

"You okay?" Bruce asks him when he notices that he hasn't engulfed one of the sausage links already.

"Palladium," he mutters.

"Atomic number 46," Bruce says, sounding as though it's an involuntary reaction. "Sorry, force of habit," he confirms.

"It's attractive. Don't be sorry." Tony pauses long enough to give Bruce a teasing leer before moving on. "My first arc reactor was stabilized by palladium. It's all I had on hand, but—"

"Wait," Bruce's brow furrows and he can tell the physicist is already doing the science in his head. "Based on my limited understanding of the reactor…" Tony holds back an untimely scoff at Bruce's casual use of the word limited. He hadn't even had to show the man his specs for him to work out the basics. "Wouldn't the neutron bombardment erode the palladium?"

"Limited understanding," he scoffs finally. "Uh, yeah. Yeah it would. And did. For almost a year."

Bruce's eyebrows shoot up. "You're joking."

"Nope. So you see where I'm going with this right?"

"You think palladium in your bloodstream caused whatever it is I noticed yesterday?" Bruce guesses.

"Bingo," he confirms and then feels a surge of awe-inspired lust. "God, you're brilliant. You know that right?"

"You keep mentioning it."

"It definitely deserves repeating," he says as he reaches for the syrup to drown his pancakes in. "But, yes, that's exactly where I’m going with this."

"That's impossible though," Bruce counters, looking at his fork with a calculating expression. "You're saying the palladium made it to your bloodstream. But that means you should be dead already, Tony."

He grimaces, stuffs a healthy portion of pancakes into his mouth, and tilts his head from side to side. "I had maybe a week or so to live when I found a different element to power the electromagnet," he says when he swallows.

Bruce sets his fork down very carefully, takes a few breaths that Tony has come to recognize as him trying to calm himself, and then looks at him pointedly.

"And I'm so glad you didn't," he starts with a meaningful look. "But I don't think you're understanding me, Tony. First, I'm surprised you even lasted that long with the toxins in your bloodstream. But you can't just come close to dying from blood toxicity and have no side effects. But, you… You're perfectly healthy for a man your age, healthier even in some cases." Tony smirks, knowing what he means by that. "Your physical, your overall blood work… Tony, before noticing the blood mutation, that I'm assuming isn't something general lab practitioners would notice, I wouldn't have even guessed something was wrong. And I sure as hell would never have guessed you almost died from something like palladium."

Tony blinks hard at him, only barely registering the waitress in time to thank her for refilling his coffee. "What are you saying?" He thinks he knows, but it's a little fuzzy.

Bruce shakes his head, finally taking another bite of his omelet. "It's not what I'm saying. It's what I'm asking. Why aren't you dead? Where are the side effects? What the hell is going on here?"

"Well, Natasha stuck me with some dioxide something or other." He waves a hand at the specifics. "Took care of this palladium rash I had going on. Actually you've seen it yourself. Those little vein things around the reactor? Yeah, imagine that only, mmm, all the way up my chest and neck like a very interesting tattoo. Stuff took the edge off long enough for me to figure it out and get better."

Bruce shakes his head again. "Lithium dioxide I'm assuming. Not a cure. Getting rid of a rash I can see. But, Tony, it wouldn't get rid of other things like… Well, there's retardation. That's a side effect of extreme chemical poisoning. Did you even lose any IQ points?"

"Well, Pepper and Natasha might have had opinions on that, but…" He realizes Bruce has a point and sighs. "No. Believe it or not, I keep a pretty good track of my IQ. I haven't lost any since Afghanistan. Not even the whole falling from space thing and nearly dying made a dent."

"I believe it," Bruce replies. "So something doesn't add up."

"And now you're starting to think it's not you after all?" Tony asks hopefully. Not that the prospect of other unknowns isn't concerning, he just wants to get past Bruce's theory once and for all.

"I… I don't know." Bruce takes a bite and Tony can tell he's thinking it through. "I'm not sure palladium would cause that kind of mutation. I'll have to study the mutation further and try and find some comparables. I'll… I'll need to compare it to my own blood maybe," he says with a sigh, color paling slightly. "We could be looking at two very different things here. We can't run the risk of assuming it's just one."

Tony nods. He doesn't like it, but he understands.

***

"I come bearing food," Pepper says when she comes into the penthouse and doesn't immediately see either Tony or Bruce. "Please tell me you're both fully clothed," she calls teasingly as she walks over to the table and starts pulling out the items.

"Is that Thai I smell? Please tell me it's Thai!" Tony's eager voice grows as he comes into the main living area and immediately zeroes in on the food.

She laughs. "Yeah, it's Thai. Where's your better half?"

"The suit is in the garage for repairs."

"Funny." It isn't really, but Tony has a way of making most things amusing.

"Uh, he's down in the lab finishing up some simulations. He'll probably be up soon. J, let Bruce know Pepper's here and she brought Thai."

"Well, I'm glad I didn't walk in on you making out like a couple of horny teenagers," she teases. "Phil told me."

"Please, Pepper. I'm a little sensitive right now about the making out topic since Bruce and I are kind of on a time out and—"

"Oh my god!" She nearly drops the plate of food she's fixing. "You two…? What happened? What did you do, Tony?"

"Jeez, no. No, Pep. That's not…" He sighs and she blinks at him. "We're not on that kind of time out. You would know because I'd probably be wasted by now. We're just not exchanging bodily fluids at the moment." He shrugs then.

"He's withholding?" She furrows her brow at that. She's a little surprised that Tony would even bring it up… Well, okay, no she's not surprised. But she's surprised he doesn't seem angrier about it.

"Not exactly. He's just a little on edge right now about his gamma poisoning me. We're running some tests."

"Didn't you already do that?" She asks in confusion.

She remembers the bizarre explanation he'd given when he asked her, in desperation, how to do the relationship thing effectively in between time. She also remembers laughing a little bitterly as it struck her that she and him wouldn't have even had a semblance of a relationship if not for the fact that they'd already known each other for years and SI events could pass for dates; whereas she'd connected with Phil in just moments of being able to actually talk to him after the ordeal with Stane – adding to the bitterness since at the time she wouldn't know Phil was alive for another few weeks.

"We did," he answers. "But there's been a new development. Bruce noticed something strange in my blood work and he wants to make sure it's not his doing."

She considers what he's saying as she walks over to sit down in the armchair with her food. "Wait, are you okay? What did he notice?"

"That's the thing. We don't actually know. We're running all kinds of tests and angles. I really don't think it's his doing, but I get that he needs the evidence. He doesn't want to hurt me." He falls onto the couch and props his feet up on the coffee table while she studies him, a soft smile forming.

"Well, I'm glad it's just that and not the other time out. Don't scare me like that." She had been scared. Tony and Bruce together make a weird kind of sense. She's seen Tony through a lot and she can tell he's finally happy in a way she could have never made him, or he could have made her. "He's the one for you, Tony."

He stills his fork and gets a slightly distant look in his eyes before smiling. "Yeah, I'm starting to think so."

Suddenly the elevator dings and they turn to see Bruce. "It's not the palladium," he says, eyes fixed on Tony. Tony's feet immediately fall from the table and he sets his food down on it. "Tony, it's not the palladium," Bruce says again as she looks between them uncertainly.

"Damn it," Tony mutters and then looks at Bruce. "Come here," he says, turning on the couch a little and gesturing. Bruce seems to understand and comes over and sits down. She watches quietly as Tony takes Bruce's hands into his own. "Look, that doesn't mean anything. Just because it's not the palladium doesn't mean it's not something else. You said yourself that the palladium should have done more than what it did. Maybe it's some kind of genetic mutation that predates the palladium. It's just a dead end, not the very end, Bruce."

"I know," Bruce finally replies. "I just wanted it to be that easy, I guess. I just wanted to know it was something manageable. I wanted to know I'm not…"

"You're not, Bruce. I still believe that," Tony urges him, pressing their foreheads together. "Now maybe you should get some dinner so you're not hungry when we go back down to the lab later," he says more casually.

"Isn't palladium what almost killed you?" Pepper asks after they've had their moment.

"Yeah," Tony answers as he grabs his food again. "And there's a little confusion as to why it didn't."

She shivers remembering the whole ordeal. "Shouldn't you just be glad it didn't?" She asks genuinely.

"I'm very glad," Bruce fields that one as he sits down close to Tony and she understands his meaning, smiles at the roundabout endearment. "But as a scientist, very baffled. Understanding why the palladium didn't affect his blood may or may not be a piece to a current puzzle we've encountered with Tony's blood."

"I already explained the situation," Tony supplies.

"Ah. Okay, so if it's not a side effect of the palladium then it creates another scenario where Tony is a statistical implausibility."

She furrows her brow at that. "Medical miracle basically," Tony elaborates. "An anomaly."

"Right," she says, but then can't fight the small laugh that catches in her throat. "But Tony has always kind of been that," she points out, hoping to ease the tension in the room.

However, Bruce is mid-bite when she says it and he stops and tilts his head, eyes darting here and there between his creased brow. The fork slowly lowers back down to the plate. Confused, she looks at Tony who's looking at him expectantly.

"Elaborate, Pep. Just talk. His wheels are turning. He needs to run through the data," Tony says quickly, rolling his hand in her direction to gesture for her to continue.

She fights back the urge to point out how sweet it is that Tony can read Bruce so well in order to do as asked. "Well, you are, Tony. You survived a missile blast. You're surviving on an electromagnet. You were," she whispers it, "tortured for months. You fly a suit," she speaks up louder now, "and take ridiculous hits time and time again. You fell from space, Tony. From space." She shakes her head. "You are an anomaly all around. You live for putting yourself in situations that would kill other people. And that's not even including the fact your liver should be shot by now," she adds with a laugh.

"She's right," Bruce finally speaks, looking first at her and then at Tony. "You are pretty much a statistical implausibility. Do we have any palladium in any of the labs?"

"JARVIS?" Tony fields the question to the AI.

Pepper wonders just exactly what's going through Bruce's mind, but she hopes that whatever it is solves their problem for the better. She still worries for Tony, but now she worries for Bruce too. She worries for the both of them. Their lives are dangerous and wracked with things that could tear them apart at any moment. She knows it firsthand. She knows it from having nearly lost Tony three times and from having nearly lost Phil. She doesn't want that for them. She wants them to be happy. She thinks they deserve it.

She wants that for herself and Phil too, but just like she won't give up Phil no matter how dangerous his job is, she knows Tony at least won't give up Bruce without a fight either. In fact, the way Tony quickly works to accommodate whatever it is that's going through Bruce's mind and then suggests they watch a movie to refresh their minds, pulling Bruce close so they can still share intimacy, tells her that Tony is already fighting. It tells her that if Tony loses Bruce, he'll consider it just a battle and not the war and fight to get him back. She just sincerely hopes it never comes to that.

***

Tony pointedly looks away from the needle as it fills up with blood. Instead he focuses on Bruce as he draws the sample. Which he immediately realizes isn't the best idea since he's suddenly reminded of the doctor role play he'd been hoping for. He banishes that thought as another one occurs to him.

"You don't think it's you either now, do you?"

Bruce smiles thinly. "Well, I'm more hopeful than I was this morning if that's what you're asking." He caps the sample and then swabs the puncture site.

"You realize that a few dry kisses here and there at this point probably wouldn't do any further significant damage on the very off chance that your theory is correct." He immediately regrets it when a sad look flashes across Bruce's face.

Bruce however ignores any urge he might have to reply as he applies the bandage and then removes the rubber tie. "It'll take a few days to synthesize the affects of the eroded palladium in your blood sample compared to the normal blood sample to a point where we can see any clear difference."

Tony sighs. "Yeah, I got that already. Look, Bruce, maybe we should talk about this."

Bruce sighs as well, pulling off the anesthetic gloves and tossing them away. "Maybe we should. Tony, I'm still not comfortable with taking that chance. And yes I realize we could do that, but I also realize neither one of us is very good at stopping ourselves when we get started. The only compromise we can make at this point is kisses away from oral cavities." Before Tony can respond, Bruce turns his back and his shoulders deflate. "Look, if you need…" He sighs again. "If you need to go sleep with someone, I understand. I won't like it, but I won't stop you."

Tony feels his mouth fall open and his eyes widen. His brain stutters at the conclusion Bruce has drawn. He hurries over to turn Bruce back to face him. "You've got it all wrong, Bruce. Do I want to have sex right now? Sure. Do I want to kiss somebody senseless, you bet. But it's you, Bruce. Not anyone else. It's only been 24 hours. Try to think a little better of me."

"I do, Tony, but… What if it's never on the table again, huh? What about that?" Bruce looks at him, eyes challenging. "I know you have needs."

"Then we'll both be miserable for the rest of our lives," he answers, maybe a little over dramatically and curses - not for the first time - his sometimes barely manageable sex drive and how it's led to Bruce conclusion. "And I'll have to get off on remembering what we've had or something."

"You mean you'll imagine me while you're…" Bruce starts, but can't finish.

"No, that's not what I said. It's not even within the realm of what I meant," he argues.

"Tony, I'm an adult okay. You've got options. I can try to handle—" Bruce's eyes go wide and voice goes silent when Tony reaches down and gropes him. "Tony," he warns, slightly glaring, when he comes back to himself.

"That was just to shut you up," Tony says without apology as he lets go. "You can take it from there."

"What are you talking about?" The confusion that crosses his face is nothing short of endearing and Tony can't fight the smirk that spreads across his own.

"I'm going to prove to you, my astute Dr. Banner, that there are plenty of ways we can get through this time out without resorting to my fucking somebody random. Plenty of ways we can satisfy each other without your bodily fluids getting anywhere near me." His smirk widens a little when he feels Bruce shiver and sees the small dilation of his eyes. "I think you know exactly what I'm talking about now."

He cranes his neck then to whisper against Bruce's ear. "So what do you say, hmm? Think you can handle touching yourself while I watch? Use that sexy brain of yours to imagine it's me and scream my name like I'm the one who's pulling you apart? Think you can do that?"

Bruce groans. "I think I can be persuaded."

Tony pulls away and looks intently at the physicist, meaning it just as sentimentally as he does as a means to push his buttons. "Good. So why don't you stop thinking about me with other people and let me persuade you."

***

Bruce stands in their kitchen making eggs and oatmeal even though it's nearing noon. He's absolutely sated in ways that he couldn't have begun to imagine the night before. He knows at least some of it has to do with how determined Tony had been to prove his willingness to make their relationship work no matter what. The man is truly an engineering genius with a creative mind.

Creative and filthy.

He shivers at the memory of three rounds of risk-free sex that had, as promised, been satisfying. Honestly, he hadn't thought it would be possible and he's pretty sure those weren't even all of Tony's tricks. He'd be maybe a little mortified at how deep Tony's bag of tricks is if not for the fact that he's the one who now gets sole access to that side of Tony in addition to all of the other sides that make up the entire man very few people have ever seen.

"I saw that." Tony's voice interrupts his thoughts. "Which round were you thinking of?"

He looks over his shoulder and sees Tony standing there, fresh out of his shower and drying his hair with a small towel. Bruce had taken one beforehand.

"Hmm. That part in the lab where I started the synthesis tests," he answers coyly, referring to earlier that morning between rounds two and three.

"Oh yeah?" Tony wraps the towel around his neck, smirking, as he moves to stand behind him. "That definitely did it for me too." Tony kisses his bare shoulder and Bruce is immediately glad they compromised on some kisses.

Still, he chuckles a little at Tony's insatiability once he really gets in a mood. "Do you think we can make it through a meal before we go at it again?" He asks in amusement as he scrambles the eggs. "You know, I'm starting to suspect you only keep me around because of the serum's other side effects."

"Pfft. Don't be ridiculous. By that logic I'd be sleeping with Rogers. Besides, may I remind you of the three weeks I didn't even know what you were like in bed and still wanted to be with you? Hmm? Your argument is weak." Tony accentuates his point with a few more kisses along his shoulder toward the base of his neck and Bruce has to concentrate on not burning the eggs. "Face it, Bruce. I definitely want you. The sexy package is like the token prize."

He feels his body start to respond again – serum be damned at the moment because he's actually hungry – as Tony snakes his hands around him and trails fingers through the hair on his chest while he sucks minutely at his neck. "Food, Tony," he protests weakly.

Sirs, Captain Rogers is in the lobby and requesting to come up.

Bruce bites back a laugh as he feels Tony deflate against him. "Horrible timing," Tony mutters. "I'd suggest making him wait, but the mood's already gone."

"Good," Bruce says as he turns off the stove. "We really do need to eat something," he says, turning to look at Tony seriously. As if agreeing with Bruce against the engineer's volition, Tony's stomach rumbles slightly.

"Ugh, yeah, you're right," Tony grumbles. "JARVIS, let Rogers come up." He then runs a finger down Bruce's chest. "You might wanna put on a shirt though. Don't wanna give Rogers any ideas."

Bruce nods and grabs the towel from Tony's shoulder to run over his still damp hair a little. "We'll have to tell the team eventually though." After all, if Clint and Natasha move in, he's not sure it'll even be possible to keep it secret.

"No, I meant that sexy body is mine and I don't want him getting ideas," Tony replies with a smirk.

Bruce rolls his eyes, but leaves to throw on a shirt just the same. When he returns, Tony has made plates for both of them as well as started some tea for him. He smiles in appreciation at that and sits down next to Tony at the breakfast bar just as Steve comes in.

"Hey, Steve," he greets the Captain first.

"There's some oatmeal left if you want," Tony offers instead of a salutation.

Steve looks at their meal as he comes to stand where they can see him. "Um, no, I'm fine. Had breakfast a while ago." Bruce doesn't miss the way he looks at them both curiously and it dawns on him then that two men eating breakfast at noon, looking freshly showered is probably pretty suspicious.

"Well, if you want lunch, I'm sure there's something you can help yourself to. Or I can have JARVIS order you something from downstairs," Tony says, continuing to be reasonably hospitable.

"Maybe," Steve replies uncertainly.

"So what brings you by," Bruce decides to ask before it can get awkward.

Steve smiles at the question. "Just got back from my stint in D.C. with the good will tour and congressional hearings about the Initiative. Thought it might be nice to visit. I hear Phil is around a lot now that he's healed up. Haven't seen him yet, but I hope he's taking it easy."

"As easy as a SHIELD desk job can be, I guess," Bruce answers the latter part. "I'd say he'd probably be itching to be hopping all over the place again if not for…" His sentence trails when he realizes maybe it's not his place to say anything.

"Phil's dating my CEO, Pepper Potts," Tony fills in the blanks. "It's not really a secret anymore since the tabloids were keen on figuring out who she might pick up after our breakup. And they've gone to some SI things together when he's had the time." Tony shrugs nonchalantly. "They don't know he's SHIELD specifically, but most of SHIELD is aware."

"Right, and she was your girlfriend," Steve says and again Bruce sees the way the Captain looks back and forth between them. "I'd heard about that. Well, I hope Phil is happy with her and vice versa."

"Ecstatic," Tony replies. "Honestly, I had my suspicions it was like that before the break up. Might have been jealous for about 2.5 seconds before…" Tony's sentence trails this time, but he recovers. "Well, things sort of changed after the battle I guess. Phil died, I nearly died, perspectives shifted. That sort of thing."

Steve nods. "Yeah, I think it shifted a lot of people's perspectives." His tone is tinged with sadness and he looks down, resembling a lost puppy. Bruce can't stop himself from nudging Tony, who then takes notice.

"So why do I get the feeling you're here looking for a place to crash," Tony says conversationally and Steve's smile returns.

"Well," Steve tilts his head from side to side, clearly guilty. "Yeah. I'm not heading back to D.C. any time soon, my SHIELD apartment was already rented out and apartment hunting in November seems like a lousy prospect. You mentioned you were fixing up the place so I thought I'd ask."

"I'm not entirely sure what state your floor is in," Tony responds honestly and then turns to look at Bruce. "Do you know where we're at in the process, Bruce?"

He snorts. "You're asking me? Really? Uh… " He considers it. He's not been much help to Tony in this area. Then again, Tony has mostly just delegated the work to contractors and designers. "I think the common areas are done? Clint and Natasha's floor is what they're focusing on now, right?"

Tony shrugs. "Sounds about right. JARVIS, get me a status update asap. So, if you don't mind bunking in the common lounge or here on the couch for a while, you're more than welcome to stick around until your floor is finished."

Steve scrunches his face and cocks his head slightly and looks between them. Suddenly Bruce thinks he knows exactly what Steve's thinking and braces himself for what was always inevitable.

"You don't have a free guest room? I thought… I mean, I'm sorry. I guess it's none of my business, but it didn't work out?"

Tony's eyes widen beside him just as a few gears click in his own mind. "Oh my god, Tony. Steve. Not Natasha. Steve." Tony looks at him, flabbergasted.

"No way." Then Tony turns to look at Steve. "You bet on us?"

"Yeah, guilty," Steve replies sheepishly. "I mean, it was more because it felt familiar than wanting to butt into your personal business. Used to bet all the time in the military, you know? But yeah. Sorry."

"No, don't be sorry," Tony counters. "We're just… And you bet in all the categories except for the break up one?" Bruce knows he's trying to get clarification. Steve nods. "How do you like that?" The question is aimed at him and rounded out with a laugh.

"Well, I can honestly say I never expected some day for Captain America to bet on my relationship status," Bruce responds with a laugh of his own. Then again he wouldn't have expected that relationship status to be with Tony Stark either.

"Not right apparently," Steve mumbles.

"What?" Tony balks. "No, that's just it, Cap. You bet perfect across the board. Minus the break up. Not sure why you didn't try for a clean sweep. I'm just confused as hell how you managed it. You. Captain America. You bet on two men you didn't even know and got it right."

"Oh? Oh, so you are… You're still together?" Steve perks up.

Bruce smiles at him. "We are. We were planning on telling everyone just… Uh, yeah." He's not sure how to explain that one exactly so he doesn't. "But, hey, good news. Guest room is free," he offers jokingly.

"Good. I'm glad to hear it. And not just for the guest room." Steve looks at them both with an incredulous grin then. "And really? You're confused? I was on the Helicarrier too, you know." He laughs and shakes his head at them. "You two were speaking a different language and called it English. I walked in on him making a pass at you, Dr. Banner. He was the saddest person in the room when you admitted you…well, you know. And he wanted me to keep him posted on the moment you arrived before any of us even knew you would." He shrugs. "Call it a hunch. Didn't seem like just a friendly connection to me. And I guess I'm still a little old fashioned. Figured I'd bet on dating. Or, I guess I sort of was rooting for you," he adds sheepishly.

"That actually means a lot. Thanks," Bruce offers genuinely. It's still a little weird, but it's nice. He can tell by the lopsided expression on Tony's face that he's thinking the same and likely deciding whether or not to admit it.

"You're A+, Cap," Tony settles for. "But the break up thing?"

"Oh, well, you know. Didn't feel gentlemanly to make a bet on something that involves a woman I'm not really familiar with."

"Definitely A+," Bruce agrees with a smile.

***

Pepper reminds him of Peggy. It takes Steve all of two days living in the tower to make subtle comparisons. He actually feels a little bad that he makes comparisons at all, but it's something he does without thinking. He'll be around a person and start comparing them to someone he used to know. When it comes to women, and occasionally a man, his mind immediately begins comparing her to Peggy. Pepper might not be physically inclined like Peggy – Natasha reminds him of Peggy in that regard – but she has the same kind of vocal ferocity and sharpness about her. She holds her own in the room, stands up for herself, and is wonderfully competent at what she does. He admires it.

He's also grateful for her as she drops in from her office regularly to make sure Tony and Bruce aren't ignoring any rules of hospitality. He doesn't mean for them to drop everything since he's the one intruding, but it at least keeps things a little less awkward. He distinctly feels a little like an unwanted third wheel sometimes – or that's the vibe he gets from Tony sometimes even if he can tell Stark is trying to be friendly. And most of the two days he's been there, Bruce had been out of sight in his lab, Tony popping out regularly to check on him or something. He can't feel bad about that. He finds it pretty endearing.

He knows that his reaction had surprised them both, or Tony at least. But he thinks maybe it has to do with how little accurate, accessible information there is of the time he grew up in. He's spent a lot of his time since waking up, studying up not only on what he's missed but also seeing how this modern world looks back on his own time. It seems as though eighty percent of what he comes across is sickeningly glamorous. Even most of the documentaries and textbooks seem to gloss over major details, the depression and war notwithstanding, that he had lived through – details that had been anything but glossy in real time.

One of those details was the existence of sexual preferences. Men preferring men, women preferring women, some being attracted to both – it had all existed and as a kid in Brooklyn he'd seen his share of it. And he'd seen the bullying and had hated it just as much as any other kind. So seeing Stark and Banner together is nice. He isn't sure why they're keeping it secret though if society is more accepting, if not perfect. Not when he can see even from across the common floor, that they – he, Tony, Bruce, Phil and Pepper – are christening like a ship, the two men are head over heels; they remind him of those glamorous stars he used to watch in the movies, minus the same gender aspect obviously.

The question of why bubbles at the surface of his mind as he holds a champagne flute and watches curiously as Tony opens a second bottle of champagne, dealcoholized the bottle reads, and pours flutes of that for himself and Bruce instead. The look that transpires between them as Tony pours tells him that this is a meaningful gesture and so finally he has to ask – once they've finished pouring and the small moment between them seems to have passed of course.

"Is there a reason you don't want anyone to know?"

Tony and Bruce share a glance between them, clearly understanding his question. He looks over and sees Phil and Pepper share a glance as well. He now feels a little like a fifth wheel instead of a third. He turns back to look at the two men in time to see Bruce hitch a shoulder.

"A lot of reasons," Tony answers then. "I guess you could say we're building to that. I'm a celebrity as you know and, you can ask Pepper, being with me is like asking for the paparazzi to perch on your doorstep. Don't get me wrong, I'm not ashamed. And I'd love to brag about it." Tony glances at Bruce with a smile. "But the longer we keep it to ourselves, the better. Once we're both comfortable with taking that next step and confirming the rumors, we will. Actually the next step in the process was to probably inform the rest of the team since you'll be staying here."

"Then there are other complications," Phil interjects and before he turns his head to look at the agent, he sees the way the two men fall into one another with Tony snaking a protective arm around Bruce's waist. He furrows his brow. "We made sure to keep you away from him while you were in DC, but I'm sure you still read the hearing reports on days you weren't at Congress?"

Steve nods and thinks he understands. There had been some congressional members and people who had come before Congress to challenge the World Security Council's right to offer protection to members of the Avengers Initiative who might be loose cannons. There had been some particularly staunch opponents of the Hulk.

"You mean this is about the people who are asking if the government is keeping the bea- Hulk… somewhere?" He trips over his words, not wanting to use the derogatory terms that neither Dr. Banner nor his alter ego deserve. He glances over again to see Tony's protective arm has tightened to an almost possessive hold now and his face is set like vindictive stone.

"Yes. But most of those who ask won't challenge the government's final call or really find any courage to go up against the Hulk," Phil explains, voice even as always. "Unfortunately, there is one very major exception to that and his name is General Ross."

"No, his name is General Fucking Bastard," Tony growls before taking a sip of his drink. Bruce looks almost grateful for the outburst rather than startled.

"General…" Steve pauses. He suddenly recognizes the name from the reports so maybe he can understand both men's reaction. "He's the one angry that there's a SHIELD petition for the immediate decommission of his branch right?"

"There is?" Tony asks suddenly, looking at Bruce and then over at Phil.

"I don't know why you're surprised," Phil replies, shaking his head.

"It wasn't in the files," Tony fires back.

Steve cocks his head at this, remembering how Stark had infiltrated SHIELD's files on board the Helicarrier and some of the secrets Fury had been hiding. He immediately guesses that Tony is still up to the same trick, monitoring SHIELD, distrusting them in spite of the apparent protection they're trying to obtain for the man the billionaire cares about.

"Tony?" Bruce seems just as confused and arches an eyebrow.

"What?" Tony lets go of him and turns to look at the scientist dubiously. "You really didn't think that's what I'd be doing when I kept JARVIS in their system? Sure, I want to monitor other things, but my top priority is making sure you're safe. Not a single change to your files without JARVIS alerting me."

"And, you, Stark didn't think we'd know about it?" Phil asks and Tony turns to look at him. "We graciously allow you that access because it's imperative we work together in keeping Dr. Banner safe. And Director Fury isn't blind. He realizes there's a personal investment here and that when it comes to you, it's just simpler to let you in. But the petition is Level 10 clearance only. I'm sure you've come across some of them still swimming around on the main server." Steve hears Tony mumble, but isn't quite sure what he says. He suspects that Phil has hit a raw nerve however. "There's plenty more on Fury's personal server that not even you, with all of your ability, will ever have access to."

"Wait," Bruce says, sounding confused. "You're saying Fury himself filed the petition, but doesn't want anyone to know it was him? Why?"

"Self-preservation," Phil answers easily. "And so he can monitor the stipulations of the petition and keep out any interference."

"Interference?" Steve asks.

"He means not every higher up at SHIELD will agree that the Hulk shouldn't still be subdued, if not by Ross," Tony answers.

"Unfortunately, that's exactly what it means," Phil confirms. "SHIELD has reasons for wanting the Hulk out of Ross' hands or any other party who would seek to use him as a dangerous weapon or guinea pig. But that doesn't mean everyone at SHIELD trusts Dr. Banner's control. As far as I'm aware, Fury is working hard to change that, thus the petition in the first place to get rid of immediate outside threats. Whether Stark believes it or not, this is ultimately about finding a way for Dr. Banner to assimilate while ensuring the Hulk is still on our side."

Suddenly Bruce sighs and all of their eyes turn to him at the same time. "That's just it. There's never any way of ensuring the Hulk is on your side."

"Okay, time to change the subject," Tony chirps in response to that and Steve thinks he sees a flicker of panic cross his face as he does. "Look at this awesome floor. JARVIS, order some pizza so we can really get this party started."

"It is a really neat place," Steve offers support as best as he knows how. Tony seems to take that as an excuse to give them a quick tour.

Steve just stands there looking around the large open space from where they stand around the wet bar as Tony gabbles about it.

From where they stand there's seating in just about the center of the room. In the far right hand space beyond that there's an assortment of things some of which he recognizes as a pool table, pinball machine (although more modern looking than the ones he'd played), ping pong, and even a jukebox machine that he wonders if Stark had added to make him feel a little at ease (it definitely makes him smile to see it). The space closest to the large windows is unfurnished. When he raises his eyebrows at that, Tony says it's for strutting; he recalls Tony's comment to Bruce on the Helicarrier and sincerely hopes that's a joke or that he means it's for general partying or guest hosting. Along the far left hand side of the room, from his vantage point, is a suspended, mostly enclosed loft with a short staircase leading to it; Tony explains that it's the media area.

There's a dividing wall that the bar is along and Tony leads them round the corner and down the small hall that leads to the other side of the space. Steve is nearly bowled over at the sight of a luxurious kitchen with a long island in the middle that has enough space on one end for food preparation and on the other end for eating, given the high stools that surround that area. Beyond the kitchen, with enough space so as not to seem cramped by any definition of the word, is a long dining table. Beyond that is a small hallway and short staircase that apparently leads to another, entirely closed off loft that houses a common bathroom – which Stark makes clear is sound proofed for obvious reasons being so near the eating area. By time they return to the bar, JARVIS tells them the pizza is waiting in the lobby and Phil elects to go retrieve it.

Honestly, Steve can barely take in the luxury of it all.

He's been to the tower a few times and the day before Tony and Bruce had finally given him an overwhelmingly extensive tour of the building beyond just their penthouse apartment, but he had only seen it as a business with a superfluous amount of amenities and number of floors: the parking garage, a level in the garage that apparently was designated solely for Tony's personal car collection, the public floors, the security, the in-house emergency medical bay, the in-house child care, a separate employee commissary, the seemingly endless floors full of laboratories and manufacturing, the seemingly endless floors of offices beyond that where Pepper worked at the very top, other floors that he honestly couldn't even remember, then another ten floors of what Stark had referred to as Research & Development with so much glee in his voice that he could tell he considered it a crowning jewel of the tower.

But the building as a business doesn't hold a candle to this. He's never even imagined a living space like this, and not only because of the modernism of it. It's like apples and oranges compared to his days as a kid in Brooklyn, his time in the army, or even the SHIELD apartments he's lived in be it in New York or D.C. The three floors above this one are designated to be personal apartments for himself, Thor, Clint and Natasha and he thinks if it's anything like this, he won't know what to do with himself when his is finished – which Stark says should be in a few more days. He sincerely hopes it's not too different from the space Tony and Bruce share which is nice enough as it is, but since Tony and Bruce have a workshop and lab where they spend a lot of their time, he has a nagging suspicion that Tony will overcompensate on the apartments for the rest of the team.

"I think you broke him, Tony," Bruce teases, breaking through his thoughts. "I understand, Steve. It takes a lot of getting used to." There's humor in his voice and he doesn't have to see him to know he's probably looking fondly at Tony as he says it.

Steve finally finds his voice again. "I might actually take you up on that original offer to just crash down here."

Pepper breaks in with a laugh. "Oh god. I'm sure rooming with those two for more than 24 hours is enough right?"

Steve laughs. "Well, it's not that bad. One of them is always gone." He looks at Bruce who shrugs sheepishly.

"I'm kind of working on something, uh, important right now. Sorry for not being more friendly," he offers, only seeming slightly apologetic.

"It's fine. I'm just grateful it hasn't been awkward in other ways," he teases back. The two men give each other a look that he can't quite read.

"You know," Pepper chimes in again. "I’m leaving for a two day meeting in D.C. You're welcome to take the guest room in my place if you don't mind rooming with Phil until your floor is done."

He considers the offer for a moment. He hadn't realized that Phil actually lived in the building since he hadn't seen him at all until this evening. "Oh, Phil lives with you?"

She laughs softly as if she understands the meaning behind his question. "Well, when he can get away from SHIELD or should I say when the doctor forces him to come home. He really doesn't seem to grasp the fact that he's still under orders to take it easy."

"Easy is not in any SHIELD agent's vocabulary," Phil replies and they turn to see him coming from the elevator with the pizza.

"Are you kidding? Fury offered you a vacation to Tahiti and you turned it down in favor of a temporary desk job," Pepper argues.

"I did," Phil says like a man who knows without a doubt that he made the right call as he sets the pizza down on the bar. "The woman I love doesn't live in Tahiti."

Steve looks away as they share a kiss, not that he's overly bashful anymore (being in the 21st Century, he'd had to get over that real fast or fumble over every little thing). He looks around the room, taking it all in again before his eyes land on Tony and Bruce. They aren't kissing, although they look like they want to and are holding back, but their foreheads are touching intimately. Even if he is the fifth wheel in the room, he's happy for his new friends in this new world and hopes they get the happy ending he didn't way back when.

He takes the final sip of his champagne and hopes he still has a chance for a different happy ending of his own in this new world.

***

Tony tilts his head back against the couch in Bruce's lab and moans as the physicist abuses a spot just above his collarbone. It isn't sex and they can't make out yet, but he loves this. He loves Bruce pressed up against him, marking him. Soon he'll have a mark that'll match the one on Bruce's hip bone – it wasn't his fault that Bruce had been wearing his low rise jeans the day before and had compromised on this kind of contact; it was an opportunity that couldn't be wasted. Every now and then, Bruce grinds against him just enough to tease… because Bruce Banner is a fucking tease. He loves that too though.

In fact, he's pretty sure he loves everything about Bruce Banner at this point. The uncertainty of his mutation has only solidified what he'd already been close to admitting. He's in love with Bruce Banner and isn't giving him up no matter what the palladium tests say.

He trails his hands slowly up Bruce's back and tangles them into his dark waves as Bruce licks at the tender bruise starting to form. Tony wants to fuck, be fucked, but if this is all that's left for them, he's surprisingly resigned to it. Because he won't give up the chance to have something with Bruce. To have science and meals and movies and tangled limbs, and this closeness – he needs it. It's a connection he's never felt before and maybe it's his ego, but he thinks it's the same for Bruce. He thinks maybe Bruce needs him too if the cautious man is willing to do this, even with the uncertainty that looms in the air.

Bruce rolls his hips again and he bucks back in response. "So good," he encourages, yanking a little at Bruce's hair. "Say I'm yours, Bruce. Am I? Am I yours? Go on, say it," he urges because he wants to hear it, wants to hear Bruce.

Bruce moans against his skin. "Yeah, you're mine. All mine, Tony." He says it with clear conviction and Tony thinks he deserves a gold star at how well he restrains himself from escalating this against Bruce's consent because he always gets a little dizzy when Bruce reciprocates his possessive streak.

"Always," he groans instead, voice cracked with lust and love and who knows what else.

Bruce stills and looks up at him, dark, dilated eyes searching his. "Always?" Bruce's voice is almost a whisper and disbelieving.

Tony meets that gaze unwaveringly. "No matter what happens," he insists. "As long as you want me." He knows he can't go back now. He knows he's setting himself up for something he might not enjoy.

It takes him a moment to register Bruce's reaction because his pulse is in his ears, distracting him. But then he does and realizes, can see it in his face: Bruce is so overwhelmed that he's fighting just as hard not to give in and take more. It's the most reassuring thing he's ever seen.

"Tony…" They're achingly close and Bruce seems to be just on the verge of losing his inward battle when the alert for the finished simulations goes off and pulls their attention away at the same time.

Tony remains where he is while Bruce goes to study the results. He sits there, loses track of how long, watching in a daze as Bruce moves from station to station, from microscope to monitor, and back again. It's like a mesmerizing dance and it strikes him that nobody else in the universe could hold his attention like this. He's enamored. He's breathless. He's definitely in love.

"Tony, you need to come look at this." Bruce waves a hand for him to come over without turning. He points to the microscope first. Tony gets the hint and bends to look into it. "Here's the normal blood sample when subjected to the palladium before the introduction of lithium dioxide." Biochemistry has never been his strong suit, but even he can tell it's bad. "Now here's your blood before the lithium dioxide." He has to blink a few times to take it in because it's nowhere near the level of damage as the other sample.

"How long did you set the first time simulation?" He asks as he straightens back up.

"Six months," Bruce says soberly.

"Six months? If anybody's blood looked like that first sample after six months…" It dawns on him that Bruce was definitely on to something when he'd suggested the side effects should have been worse or that he should have already been dead. "But mine doesn't."

"Exactly. I just started a simulation to determine the effects of lithium dioxide given both blood samples so we can maybe get an idea how much that would have helped, but the toxicity alone… Okay, look at the monitor," Bruce goes off a tangent. "This is the list of symptoms and a graph of the degradation of the DNA over the course of the six months."

Tony scans the screen, taking in the information. "Yeah, death seems to be imminent at that rate," Tony says, twisting his head and grimacing. "And even if not, I'd definitely still be feeling some of the side effects without intense chemical poisoning treatment."

"Which, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you didn't undergo?"

He barks out a laugh. "Uh, no. I got a few shots of the lithium dioxide, rediscovered a new element my dad left clues for – really long story – to replace the palladium, and then built a particle accelerator in my basement to synthesize it."

"And you say I'm the brilliant one?" Bruce raises an eyebrow and Tony can see that this time he's the one in awe of him.

"I never said I wasn't brilliant," Tony points out. "But I like hearing you say it," he derails for a moment. "After I stabilized the new reactor I had to go do the save the world thing. So, no, no. Definitely no intense treatment."

"See. Statistical implausibility on two counts now. You didn't die and you didn't even bat an eye after it was all righted."

"Why do I get the feeling you're about to show me something else," Tony asks, narrowing his eyes slightly.

"Because I am. Before I switch windows, if you'll notice the graph, the level of toxicity in the blood at the time of six months is already near where you said you were when SHIELD stepped in. Now here's your information." Bruce gracefully switches from one window to another and Tony nearly falls backwards.

"That… What the hell?"

"Kind of wondering the same thing."

Not only are there barely any symptoms, all of which he recognizes as ones that he'd had such as the constant bouts with bad colds that had made him a little bit paranoid of anyone with so much as a sneeze, he also notices the strange up and down spikes of the graph indicating the degradation of his DNA.

"So essentially what's going on here is when my DNA would start to degrade, my DNA repair kicked into hyper drive?" He's pretty sure that's the only logical conclusion here, but he looks at Bruce questioningly.

"Essentially," Bruce answers, hitching a shoulder. "This is off the chart compared to anything I've seen that… Well, isn't me. And there aren't even signs of irreparable DNA at this point. I'm assuming it has to come later since you did start getting worse and I'll continue the synthesis down to that point for examination. But look at your blood toxicity levels. They go up and down too. Tony, this is not normal."

Tony takes it all in for a moment. His mind whirs with possibilities. Finally one question wins out. "So, theoretically, my DNA mutation predates the arc reactor?"

Bruce looks at the data again, rolls his bottom lip, and then nods. "Theoretically."

A million more questions and thoughts and a little bit of panic enters Tony's mind then, but he pushes it all aside for the time being. "JARVIS, I want you to find all of my medical records from birth, sealed or unsealed, and move them to both my private server and Dr. Banner's for our perusal."

Sir, I believe that would involve hacking into the Department of Health.

"Is that a problem, J?"

No, sir, but it may take a little time. Several hours at least.

"That's fine. I'll be busy anyway," he says, as he looks at Bruce still studying the monitor in clear befuddlement.

He doesn't waste another moment before grabbing Bruce by his wrist, turning him quickly, and pulling him into a desperate kiss before he can back away. He feels Bruce tense in surprise, maybe even a dangerous surge of temper, but he's done playing it safe. Not with a new mystery on their hands and the almost certain reassurance that Bruce is not poisoning him.

"Tony, what are you…" Bruce sputters as he pulls away and looks at him in confusion.

"Look, theoretically the mutation predates our involvement which pretty much confirms our previous conclusion that you are not going to poison me unless I consume your blood. Which is definitely one of the few kinks not on my list." He's not entirely sure why he has to explain this to Bruce, but he's willing do what he can to get the point across.

Bruce blinks a few times. "Yes, okay. I concede. And… I'm relieved," he adds with a small smile before turning serious again. "But right now we need to get to the bottom of this. Theoretically, we're looking at something even bigger here."

He smiles broadly at the opening. "Oh, we are. We definitely are. Maybe you didn't quite understand me earlier." Bruce furrows his brow. "I'm in love with you, Dr. Banner."

***

As Bruce falls apart, as the world threatens to burst around him like a blinding solar flare, it's like a dam breaks in his mind; his incoherent thoughts fail to produce anything more than I love you. So he murmurs those words again and again between cries of passion and other entreaties.

He almost wonders for a moment if first saying it like this cheapens the meaning or if Tony will begrudge him for it. But the worry never truly forms when Tony's wrecked voice manages to steal through his drunken haze with strings of encouragement – Tony is always an encourager in bed – some of which includes an urging for him to say it again.

So he does.

Bruce knows by now that Tony encourages because he himself needs it too. Tony needs to hear that he's loved, that he's good, no matter his ego, the same way Bruce needs to feel it and be shown before it starts to settle in beneath the skin – the way it settles there now. So he can't help but give him the words he needs when they're touching like this, both at their most desperate and most open.

"Say it," Tony appeals again. "Please, Bruce." But begging isn't necessary.

"I love you, Tony." It comes out like a cry of ecstasy. He repeats it and he'll keep repeating it.

Maybe it should scare him because he means it every single time. He might mean it a little more every single time, like a prayer that becomes more earnest as it goes. Tony Stark just might be the actual love of his life like some crazy dream he never could have come up with on his own. Of all the people to touch him like this, that he's touched like this, only Tony could crawl into his heart and mind and everything. It's like a drug stronger than anything ever found to suppress the Other Guy; it paralyzes him and he's too weak to ever let Tony go again. He wants the same hope for always that Tony professes.  

Now that it's out there, unable for him to take it back, he can only wait for the universe to come and try to take it all away from him again. And he's scared of that, but Tony loves him and is the only one who has ever figured out how to pull him apart and put him back together again. So maybe this time he's willing to fight, willing to risk the loss, willing to trust Tony's choice. As he tumbles over the edge with Tony, it's like a fall he's never felt before; he knows there's no going back after tonight. If anything should try to destroy his life again, he's sure the Other Guy will raze the world to the ground and he'll gladly burn in the ensuing flames.

As the stars begin to fade and he comes back down, he says it again for good measure, like a battle oath. "I love you so damn much," he whispers hoarsely, his breath ragged from the perfect drumming of his heart that once used to terrify him. They reach for each other at the same time, lips connecting like a lifeline to pull one another close in their mutual descent from cloud nine. "You don't know, Tony," he says, shuddering in the aftershocks of all these emotions.

How can Tony know? How can he possibly know what he's done to him? What Bruce is willing to risk because of him? How can Tony know that he's given himself to a selfish lover who could still very much destroy everything and yet can't find it in him now to walk away?

"I do, Bruce. I do," Tony promises, sounding broken and vulnerable, and Bruce can't help believing him.

***

For a moment Tony gets distracted from what he's doing as he stares across the room at where Bruce sits at the dinette with a laptop and cup of tea. He can't help grin a little lopsidedly at how Bruce looks like a rumpled professor grading assignments. Every now and then he hums, a different inflection depending on if he's surprised or if he's stumbled across something that he was expecting, and he writes down notes on his trusty notepad. Bruce is reading through the medical files one by one that JARVIS had retrieved and searching for further proof. So far, they know for certain that the mutation seemed to be indicated in the blood work prior to the palladium – a relief to them both after the perfect night before, relief to Bruce maybe more so he thinks.

Quiet moments like these are why he needs not only for his newest algorithm to work, but for his attempts to find a way into Fury's personal server to work. Phil tells him to trust Director Fury, but he just doesn't know if he can take that chance when it means this much to him for Bruce to be safe. He needs to know the terms of that petition and anything else about Bruce that Fury might be keeping to himself now that he knows that possibility exists; he feels a little sheepish having not considered that the Director's files would be housed somewhere else in the first place though.

"Gotcha!" He suddenly exclaims as the random Level 10 file he'd found on the server he already has access to decrypts.

Bruce startles a little and looks at him. "Got what?"

"Clean access to Level 10 secrets," he gloats and Bruce's eyebrows shoot up. "Although this file is incredibly boring and... Oh wait, no I lied. Apparently Coulson was once undercover as a principal."

"I can see that actually," Bruce replies with a laugh. "But speaking of Coulson. Are you sure it's clean access? They seem to know you're in there already."

Okay, so Tony's only ninety-eight percent certain that this algorithm will ghost his perusal of Level 10 files, but it's pretty close. He's less certain that accessing a top secret server from the outside will be that unnoticeable. "I'm pretty sure," he admits. Bruce shrugs as if to say, 'well, have fun with that' and Tony scrunches his nose at him.

"Well, while you're busy being pretty sure, I'm starting to be a little bit sure you've always been an anomaly," Bruce says then as he picks up the notepad and looks over what he's written down so far. "In fact, I'm wondering why you're even afraid of doctors since other than the routine stuff, you've never had any serious incidents. You weren't even a very sick child as far as I can tell." Bruce then bites his lip and looks at him cautiously. "Is the doctor thing because of…" He merely points, which Tony is grateful for.

"Um, well, no." He answers, though he knows he sounds a little uncertain. "Not exactly. It definitely worsened it. But I hated doctors even when I was a kid. Didn't matter if it was just a little checkup or a trip to the nurse's office at boarding school, just didn't like anything to do with hospitals or needles."

"Huh. Must be an ingrained phobia then. Maybe something when you were really, really young you don't remember. Maybe something in a movie," Bruce suggests. "But, really, you were very healthy. Kudos."

"I was," Tony agrees, knowing it to be true. "I just never thought it was a big deal or anything."

"It might not be," Bruce replies, though hesitantly, as he turns sideways in his chair. "Lots of people are just relatively healthy because of a good immune system and vice versa genetically."

"But?" Tony raises an eyebrow, suspecting there was more Bruce wanted to say.

"Okay, yeah, but… Typically, the immune system has to play catch up on its own." Bruce looks back over at the laptop. "I know I don't have to tell you how it generally works, but if you're not really exposed to many of the common illnesses as a kid, your body doesn't build up resistance. I mean that's the whole point of vaccination."

"Right, got that and the general principal is…" Tony's eyes widen and his eyebrows shoot up in realization of Bruce's point. Bruce looks back over at him with a small nod to indicate that's exactly where he'd been going with it. "Damn, never thought of that. I should be hacking out a lung every few months at this rate."

"Unless you're lucky enough to be someone who's genetically endowed." Tony smirks and Bruce frowns at him. "I meant with a good immune system."

"Right, of course. So is that what this mutation would look like then? Is it just indicating a good immune system?" Tony asks because this definitely isn't his field of expertise.

"Uh…" Bruce looks stumped as well. "I don't quite know. We're starting to get a little out of my depth, honestly."

Tony considers all of the points of data so far and comes to a conclusion. "Okay, so I think what we've established then is that one, it's not you. That was our immediate concern." Bruce looks at him with relief clear in his eyes and nods. "And we know it's not the palladium. And we know that it's been there for a while. And now we know that I'm just all around healthy. I'm beginning to think that's about all that matters. I'm still healthy so clearly this mutation thing isn't that big of a deal. Hey, who knows," he then says with a sudden thought, "maybe that means I'll be more resistant to you since you're so worried."

Bruce laughs gently at that. "Well, that's one way of looking at it."

Tony gets up and crosses over to him, settling in the space between his legs. "It's the best kind of way of looking at it," he says with a confident smile as his hands move to practically cradle Bruce's neck.

"Am I interrupting?" They both look over at the same time to see Steve standing in the door way.

Tony drops his head forward in exasperation. He really should have changed the pin for the penthouse apartment when Steve had moved the majority of his items down to Phil's and Pepper's apartment.

"If I say yes?" He questions sarcastically, not moving. Bruce smiles up at him wryly, indulging his sense of humor.

"Oh, uh, well..." Steve stammers for a moment and Tony raises his eyebrows a little at the uncharacteristic behavior, not breaking his gaze from Bruce whose eyes are sparkling in shared amusement. Steve finally clears his throat. "It's just JARVIS informed me that my apartment should be ready to move into tonight so I thought I would get the rest of my things packed up. Guess I should have notified you first."

"It's fine, Steve," Bruce acquiesces first. "Besides," Bruce raises an eyebrow at Tony then, "I seem to recall Tony has a meeting downstairs in half an hour."

Tony's shoulders slump. "I was hoping you'd forget about that," he grumbles.

"And face Pepper's wrath when she gets back tomorrow?" Bruce shakes his head. "Nope." He carefully removes Tony's hands from his neck and Tony allows Bruce to spin him around. "Move it," he says firmly, but not harshly, before giving him a playful swat to the ass.

Tony's eyes widen not because of the gesture, but because he'd done it with Steve in the room so he registers right away that Bruce is just as keen on making it awkward for Steve as he is; Bruce's low key ability to troll right along with him is just one of the many things he loves. Tony spins right back around and wags a playful finger at him. "Somebody wants to top tonight, I see," he teases. "And just so you know, I'll be distracted the entire meeting now." Then he leaves, Bruce chuckling behind him, to their bedroom to get ready for said meeting which he still has no interest in going to.

***

Steve smiles to himself as he packs up the rest of his things in the guest room. He knew sooner or later there would be an awkward moment, but he's okay with it. He'd witnessed enough awkward moments in the war and, well, growing up with Bucky as a best friend. Maybe it's uncomfortable, but mostly because he doesn't want to be intrusive. He doesn't care about couples acting like couples and he doesn't die of embarrassment when certain subjects are breached, he's just inexperienced and likes to know exactly where he should stand at all times.

If Tony had said leave, he would have left and given them privacy just like he'd want the same in a position like that. Bruce swatting Tony or Tony's candidness about sexual activities were things that were a little outside the realms of what he might be comfortable with in front of others, but he was in their home and they could flirt all they wanted. It was maybe even a little encouraging to see the two men actually happy since he was well aware of both of their pasts now.

Not that he wasn't aware that maybe they were teasing him, but again he could handle it and he was sure it was only bound to get a little more like the army as they went along if they were all going to be staying in the same building with a common floor to boot. These things were bound to happen, especially if Tony was anything like Howard had been and he was fairly certain there was a good deal of similarity – at least where being open and tactile are concerned.

He smiles again, maybe a little bit nostalgically this time, as he gathers up his large storage box of items and carries it back into the living area. However, he pauses when he sees Bruce staring somewhat distraught at his laptop. He has a pen in his mouth and a hand buried in his hair.

"Dr. Banner?" He asks gently.

Bruce blinks several times and then slowly looks at him like he's just remembered Steve exists. "Hmm?"

"Are you… okay?" He asks then, hoping he's not reading the situation incorrectly.

Bruce sighs as he removes the pen from his mouth and shakes his head. "I don't know. I mean, yes, I am. I'm just… confused."

Steve sets down his box and takes the initiative to pull out another chair from the dinette. "Anything you need to talk about?" He hesitates, but then adds, "I hope it's nothing with… Well, with you and Tony?"

Bruce offers him a thin, but seemingly genuine smile before shaking his head again. "No, nothing like what you're probably thinking, Steve," he assures. "We're fine. Better than fine I think. But…" He looks contemplative. "I don't know if I should tell you, but it seems Tony's blood is a little bit of an anomaly. It's… Well, it's mutated."

Steve furrows his brow. "Like ours?" He doesn't know the specifics, but he does know for a fact that his and Bruce's blood is fundamentally different thanks to the super soldier process, except apparently Bruce's blood is toxic whereas his blood isn't.

"Sort of." Bruce nods. "It's not exactly like mine, but… there are some similarities that give me pause. I haven't told Tony yet. Well, not exactly." Bruce seems unsure of himself, talking in circles.

"Maybe you should start from the beginning," Steve suggests. He thinks it'll help him be there for the other man better than trying to make heads or tails of what Bruce is getting at. "But only if you want, of course."

Bruce sighs again and nods. "Tony had some blood work done recently and I noticed a mutation. The mutation gave me pause because there are some similarities to mine. Initially…" Bruce's face colors and he ducks his head for a moment. "Ah, that is, I thought I was… poisoning him…"

Bruce looks up then to see if he understands. Frankly, he doesn't. "I know your file says your blood is toxic and you give off a gamma signature, but I wasn't aware that just being around you could pose a threat. And I would hope Tony isn't a vampire," he then adds as a slight joke.

Bruce gives a rusty laugh, but still looks uncomfortable. "Uh, no, you see… Saliva carries some of the same properties blood does due to trace contaminants from the tongue, cheeks, and gums and, well, semen…"

Steve's eyes widen and he holds up a hand. "Okay, got it. You were afraid that the radiation in your blood carried over to, uh, other bodily fluids?"

"Yes, precisely," Bruce says evenly, but his tone is clipped enough to suggest he's glad to have gotten to the point. "I unfortunately didn't know a lot about my cellular makeup and what's dangerous and what isn't before… Well, Tony and I ran tests to check the danger when we first started dating and it seemed fine. But then Tony's blood work came back weird and I didn't know what to do with that."

Bruce pauses and Steve considers what he can say. "You said initially," he then offers hesitantly.

"Yes, I did. We're ninety-eight percent certain it's not that now. Thankfully," he says genuinely and Steve has to admit he can sympathize with how much of a relief that must be. "We continued to run some more tests to figure out what was happening. Long story short, we came to the conclusion that he might just have always had the mutation, perhaps genetically. It's not… impossible." Steve gets the distinct feeling that Bruce isn't convinced. "But I just came across a medical file of Tony's that suggests his blood was normal before the age of four."

"You might need to elaborate for me, Bruce," Steve says honestly.

"I'm saying, whatever it is that he has, he wasn't born with it. That means somewhere along the lines his blood mutated to have properties similar to, well, mine. It could be nothing, but it has me baffled and a little bit concerned. Whatever it is, it seems to have kept Tony remarkably healthy." Bruce clicks on something on his laptop and then tilts his head. "In fact, it looks like he has twice as many medical records from before the age of four than he does from four to eighteen combined." Bruce then hums and narrows his eyes as if studying whatever it is that's on his screen.

Steve sits in silent consideration of all that Bruce has shared with him. "So he was a sickly baby?" He hazards a guess after a moment. His mind had gone other places, but he's not sure he's just not looking at it from enough angles because he's not a scientist.

"Very sickly," Bruce replies. "Ah, but… Don't…" He sighs. "I really shouldn't be sharing this with you without Tony's consent. I'll have to tell him I told you, but please don't say anything about it."

"I understand. Hopefully he'll understand you're just concerned," Steve offers a placating smile. "So is it possible that he might have had a medical treatment to help with the sickliness that could have maybe mutated his blood in the process?" Steve asks, hoping that he got all of those words in the right order to form a coherent question about something he knows little about. Medical treatments for his sickliness as a boy were far from what they are now; he knows that much.

"Possible. Whatever it was must have really packed a punch though…" Bruce's sentence trails and Steve sees his brow crease as though he's studying something in his mind's eye. He has to wonder if Bruce has jumped to the same ridiculous theory that he had a moment prior. Then he shakes his head minutely as though he thinks it's just as crazy, if that was indeed what he had been considering.

"Dr. Banner?" Steve presses.

"It's impossible," Bruce mumbles.

"Is it?" Steve asks uncertainly and Bruce looks at him, his expression clearly indicating that he realizes they're thinking the same thing.

"Erskine's original formula was lost. You know that, Steve," Bruce says dubiously, but Steve suspects he's trying to convince himself. "There were only so many notes on the subject for us to work with. I mean, I didn't even realize what I was creating until it went wrong. I didn't realize that they were trying to recreate the serum. I just thought I was creating something for radiation resistance or else I never-"

"I know," Steve says in understanding. "But is there any way at all that it could have been done? Fury was briefing me on some of the efforts to replicate the serum after I went under and he mentioned a project that almost got the serum right. It was given to a, uh, soldier? Emil—"

"Blonsky," Bruce says and looks pale. Then his brow furrows. "Wait, Blonsky was treated with the same thing I had and turned into the Abomination. Why would Fury-"

"No," Steve interrupts as politely as possible, "the guy Fury mentioned was given a serum based on the original formula that was locked away before being tested on anyone. And apparently it got pretty darn close before he started showing aggression and body mutation. Which sounds a hell of a lot like Erskine's original formula. Good becomes better, bad becomes worse."

Bruce is silent for a few moments before venturing forward. "Okay, assuming Fury's telling the truth, Tony doesn't have any of those symptoms. I mean I get good becomes better, but he was just a boy and he's, well... I'm crazy about him, don't get me wrong, and I don't mean that it's a problem, but he's not exactly you." Bruce winces as if saying those words hurt him somehow or leave a bad taste in his mouth.

He doesn't comment on it, simply nods. Bruce has a point regardless after all. "I'm not saying it is that. Fury didn't mention it so it was just a blind guess. Besides, I don't know how Howard could have managed something like that anyhow. The government shut down the project and ordered all of my blood samples to be destroyed after minimal analysis to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Only two samples survived to my knowledge."

Bruce's mouth falls open. "Wait, two samples survived?"

"Yes," Steve admits. "Howard and I decided that the SSR should maintain two samples just in case in the future it would be possible to keep Erskine's work from being in vain. I entrusted them to Howard."

"You…" Bruce blinks. "JARVIS," he says suddenly.

Yes, Dr. Banner?

"I need you to scan SHIELD files and Howard Stark's archived notes for anything pertaining to samples of Captain Rogers' blood."

As you wish, Dr. Banner.

Steve studies him carefully. "What are you looking for?"

"I don't know." Bruce shrugs. "Maybe nothing. But, no offense, I don't much trust Howard given what Tony's shared with me. And even if it's completely unrelated, samples of your blood being out there somewhere possibly is a thread that needs to be pulled. Trust me on that, Steve."

"You mean in case they fell into the wrong hands." Steve suddenly understands and says no more on the matter.

***

"I hate meetings. I hate them. I absolutely fucking hate them," Tony grouses as he steps out of their private elevator.

Bruce opens one eye from where he sits in an open space meditating. "I'm not entirely sure you're supposed to love them," he offers with a thin smile before closing his eye again. Within seconds he feels Tony settle down on the floor in front of him.

"Which is why I think I'm going to create new rules for how meetings should be done for SI," Tony says somewhat earnestly. "From now on they're not allowed to run over a certain length, there needs to be music, there needs to be a healthy amount of alcohol or soda or something, definitely pizza and—"

"So basically a party where absolutely nothing productive gets done?" Bruce asks archly.

"Yes," Tony practically groans the word and Bruce laughs in spite of himself.

"I bet you're tense. Care to join me?" He doesn't have to open his eyes to see the sour expression on Tony's face, but he does anyway because it's amusing.

"There are much more enjoyable ways of getting rid of a little tension," Tony counters.

"Hmm. How about a massage?" Bruce offers and Tony's face practically lights up.

"A tantric massage?" He asks eagerly.

Bruce smiles. "Sure."

"And hot sex after is definitely negotiable, yes?"

Bruce gives a dry laugh. "Of course. We can even skip our dinner plans with Steve if you want," he offers playfully.

Tony's face lights up further before falling, eyes narrowing into a hard study. "Okay. Now I'm worried. Why are you trying to butter me up? What… What happened while I was at that meeting?"

Bruce knew of course that he would figure it out. He wants to bridge the conversation sooner rather than later. Still, his lips tighten into a line for a moment.

"I might have, no, there's no might about it…" He sighs and restarts. "I shared with Steve what was going on because I was still looking at your medical files, came across something new and he was concerned. I'm sorry. I should have just waved him off because that's your information and not for me to share." Bruce worries his lip and glances away.

"Is that all?" Tony startles him with a short laugh. "Look, they're just medical files. It's not like Steve's going to have much use knowing I broke my arm when I was 8 or that I vaguely recall not being able to hear out of my left ear until I was 3 or 4 because of chronic ear infections."

"You know about that?" Bruce looks at him questioningly.

"That I had chronic ear infections?" Tony looks back at him strangely. "No, I was just guessing it might be something of the sort based on my earliest memories. I've literally never paid attention to my medical records. Why? Did I?"

"Uh, yeah, among… other things," Bruce says uncertainly. "That's what I was looking at when he asked." In lieu of wringing his hands, Bruce begins playing with Tony's suit jacket. "You, you were a very sickly baby, Tony," he tells him, unable to meet his gaze.

"Huh. Okay, maybe that's where the super immunity came from," Tony posits nonchalantly.

Bruce does look at him then and considers his hypothesis. "Not improbable. That's the thing. The mutation, I narrowed it to sometime around the age of 4. Which is also when you suddenly became a little clean bill of health," he adds.

"Alright, sounds like the likely scenario here is I was sick so much that all of the treatments I likely had plus the overworked antibodies decided it would be better to just mutate and be done with it," Tony says with a small flap of his hand. "Case closed. I still want that massage though."

Bruce smiles in spite of Tony's dismissive attitude. Then again, Tony isn't the kind to worry about these things once he's able to compartmentalize them. He might have been worried at first, but now that there are a few reasonable explanations and none of them worth his concern he can easily wave them off. Bruce, on the other hand, doesn't work like that.

"Um, one more thing," Bruce says as he moves his hands up a little along the lapels of Tony's jacket. "I also found out from Steve that he gave your father two samples of his blood for safe keeping."

"What?" Tony's eyes widen at that. "I thought it was all destroyed."

"Me too. And most of it was apparently which is why I guess Steve trusted your father with two samples after that happened. Just in case," he says with a weak shrug because he doesn't like all of the potential 'just in case' scenarios that it could or did lead to.

"Terrible idea really," Tony says.

"Glad you agree. Because I may have gotten carried away and asked JARVIS to run a scan for any SHIELD files that mention Steve's blood and…" He sighs. "I also asked him to run a check through your father's archived notes to see if he ever mentioned it. I know it's a long shot if he didn't want anyone to know. I also know I should have asked you before digging into your father's notes."

Tony suddenly grabs his worrying hands and holds them in place against his chest. "Hey, where is all of this insecurity coming from all of a sudden?" He asks with an intense gaze. "I understand why you wanted to pull that thread. And I don't give a damn if you want JARVIS to scan my dad's things. Did JARVIS protest?"

"Uh, no, not at all," Bruce answers honestly.

"Good. Because he knows what you have access to and what you don't. And there's really not much that you don't, Bruce. If there had been a problem, he would have told you and then you could have told me and I'd still have given you access in this case." Tony pauses and leans in a little. "We've been together for nearly six months. You don't have to tiptoe when it comes to this kind of stuff. Or anything, but hey I've learned you wouldn’t be you if you didn't sometimes. But you know last night when I said I love you, I meant it. I wouldn't suddenly stop over something this trivial. I mean, you're talking to the guy who hacks government files on a regular basis. So, we good here?"

Bruce feels the growing familiarity of warmth across his chest and nods. "We're very good," he answers because they are. Or at least, he is. Hearing Tony say he loves him so conversationally doesn't diminish it, rather makes it feel truer. He doesn't just love him in the lab when emotions are flying high because of uncertainty or after the throes of, well, what had certainly been making love rather than just ordinary sex. "I meant it too, you know," he says as he leans in the rest of the distance to join their lips together.

The kiss is tender and meaningful, much like the night before had been, before raw lust settles in. Tony holds one of Bruce's hands still to his chest and the other settles into his hair. Bruce takes the opportunity and begins loosening Tony's tie with his free hand, pulling on it a little to bring Tony as close as possible as the kiss deepens.

"We can skip the massage," Tony says breathlessly when they pull apart for air. "I think we could both benefit better from this," he adds somewhat cheekily, but Bruce can't complain because cheeky is a damn good look on the billionaire.

Also he can't disagree as his deft fingers make work of the buttons on Tony's dress shirt, hungry for the skin underneath. He only pauses for a brief second when Tony reaches for the hem of his shirt, a rare occasion when he's not wearing a button up, and pulls it off of him with obvious practiced skill. Tony's hands immediately card through his chest hair and Bruce melts a little at the contact. When Bruce finishes with Tony's shirt he relishes in touching the body he never seems to get tired of while Tony seeks out his lips again.

This time the kiss is hungry and desperate and Tony's tongue immediately sets to exploring his mouth, and Bruce is fairly certain he's already created a mental map of it but chooses to ignore it because that would be too practical. Of course as Bruce moans into the delicious skill that Tony has and they slowly move to the floor so that he's flush atop and headily making out with the engineer, Bruce realizes practicality will never have anything to do with it and that's maybe not a bad thing.

***

Pepper finds the three Avengers in the media lounge when she returns, having cleared her schedule for the rest of the day after her demanding trip. There had been a clandestine addition to the meetings in which some of Stark Industries' congressional sponsors began asking questions about Dr. Banner's work with the company and the rumors regarding the nature of his relationship with Mr. Stark given the all but publicly confirmed knowledge of Bruce being the Hulk. She's glad Phil and Steve had mentioned that there had been some talk about the subject or else she might not have been able to keep as cool a head as she did.

Tony seems to be teaching Steve the competitive joys of Wii Tennis and Bruce is watching on the couch in clear amusement. Pepper decides to kick off her shoes and curl up on the nearby love seat. Bruce smiles in acknowledgment of her before turning his attention back to the match.

"You know we have an actual tennis court, right?" She asks teasingly.

"Baby steps, Pep. Always best to start off with the simulation before moving to real world tests," Tony says without breaking his focus.

"I'm not sure that applies with the physics of Wii Tennis," Bruce counters.

"He just doesn't want to play me on a real court," Steve chimes in with no small amount of taunting in his tone. Pepper has to admit she's impressed that Steve Rogers has it in him. Then again, she has a feeling he has plenty of surprises up his sleeve.

"Excuse me, Cap, but who just beat you three matches in a row?" Tony asks defensively even as he scores another point.

"Well, one, it's still a video game," Steve replies smoothly. "And, two, if we keep going your stamina is going to eventually run out so it's really a case of tortoise and the hare."

Pepper laughs outright and she hears Bruce stifle a laugh at Steve's jeer. Meanwhile, Tony just scoffs.

"I'll have you know my stamina is amazing," Tony snips. "Just ask Bruce."

Pepper sees Bruce's eyes widen and Steve shakes his head. "Yeah, I'd rather not," the super soldier says.

"And I'm just as okay with not answering that question," Bruce adds.

Tony huffs in clear mock indignation. "Fine, then he can ask Pepper."

"Oh god, please don't," Pepper has to chime in, though she's more amused than anything.

"You know, not that it's any of my business, but isn't that ever a little weird for you two?" Steve asks and Pepper glances over at Bruce at the same time he glances at her, both knowing the question is aimed at them.

"Maybe at first?" Pepper offers with a shrug.

Bruce nods. "It was for me. Not that, you know, we're not adults here. I just… I was a little worried I was some kind of home wrecker," he says with a small, nervous laugh. Tony snorts in amusement. "And of course Tony isn't exactly the most private about things so there was a little bit of awkwardness at first."

"But I think we're good now," Pepper says reassuringly, smiling at Bruce and then looking back at the match just as Tony takes the win.

"Ha! See, Rogers. I am a pro and I'm not even tired," Tony crows and then turns around. "Another victory kiss!" He exclaims and Bruce shakes his head fondly before Tony bends down and kisses him.

Pepper would like to say she didn't squeak, but she definitely squeaked. "So everything's fine?" She looks at them in hopeful askance as they pull apart.

"Yes," Tony says with no small amount of contentment that makes Pepper wonder just what else exactly happened while she was away. "Better than fine," Tony says, adding fuel to her curiosity.

"I'm glad," she admits enthusiastically. "I was definitely worried about you both."

"See, Cap," Tony starts and she can just tell he's about to ruin the moment, "she's more invested in mine and Bruce's love life than she ever was in mine and hers."

"That's not fair, Tony," Pepper protests. "You and I were more like platonic lovers and you know it. There were good times, sure, but what you and Bruce have is different."

"Yeah, it is," Tony replies and as he does his face softens, his smile going from teasing to absolutely enamored, and it strikes her immediately what had happened.

The idiots must have finally figured out they're so far gone in love with one another that if their feelings were a building it would be taller than Stark Tower. Or at least Tony clearly has. She quickly glances over at Bruce and gives an internal sigh of relief. The sparkle in his eyes and possibly the most content look she's ever seen on the man lets her know that he's figured it out too.

After a quiet moment, Steve speaks up again. "If it's all the same, I'm kind of tired of tennis. Why don't we… Hey, Bruce, what do you want to do?"

Pepper bites down on a laugh at the way Bruce is clearly thrown off guard by the question. She knows that the scientist is pretty good at blending into the background and letting others take the initiative in choosing activities although she also knows Tony has gotten remarkably better at not taking advantage of that; in fact, she knows that Tony prods him just to be sure he's really okay and that he doesn't want something different and Bruce has thus gotten more inclined to speak up.

After a moment of deliberation he shrugs. "I used to play pool a lot in college. I'm pretty decent at that."

"I like pool," Steve says.

Tony tilts his head and looks at Bruce. "Pretty decent, huh?" Pepper can tell he's looking for a challenge. "Because I'm pretty decent myself, Brucey."

"That so?" Bruce raises an eyebrow.

"Yeah. Think you're decent enough to put your money…" He pauses and then leers. "…where your mouth is." Pepper groans quietly and rolls her eyes because Tony couldn't do subtle if he tried when it comes to this kind of thing.

Pepper studies Bruce carefully and thinks she sees a very slight quirk of his lips, so quick she wonders if Tony had seen it. "Alright. I think I'm good enough to take my chances. But since I don't think Pepper and Steve would be very comfortable with sexual favors, how about we up the stakes. Losers have to make winners a nice dinner of their choosing."

Tony looks hesitant for half a second before going all in with, "Fair enough. But only because your curry is as good as a sexual favor."

Pepper continues to study Bruce and then goes with her gut. "I call Bruce as my partner." The wry, knowing look Bruce gives her in return tells her that her gut is right.

Sure enough, a half an hour later, Tony and Steve are staring at Bruce slack jawed. Steve seems impressed with Bruce's skill and subterfuge, but Tony is mostly just stunned. Pepper can't help but laugh outright at the two men.

"You're a damn pool shark, that's what you are," Tony says once he finds his voice, walking directly over to Bruce with cue still in hand. "A damn pool shark."

Bruce's smile is almost devious as he practically saunters into the remaining personal space between them and levels Tony with a playful gaze. "Guilty."

"That's…" Pepper sees the way Tony's brain stutters a little in search of a response. "I don't know if I'm mad or fucking turned on," he says finally as he places his free hand on Bruce's hip.

Pepper snorts a little. "Let's be honest, Tony. You're probably both, but we all know which one will win out in the end."

She doesn't miss the way his eyes rove downward lustfully. "Damn betcha."

Pepper also sees the exact moment when Bruce gives him a sort of look that says probably something along the lines of, 'Really, you want to make out right here and now?' and tries not to laugh. She looks over to see Steve clearly ignoring them by racking up the pool balls.

Before Tony can get anything more out of Bruce than a playful peck on the lips, the elevator pings open and they all quickly turn their heads to see Phil striding toward them, a serious expression on his face. Pepper is immediately concerned because she knows something's wrong. When she had let him know she had landed safely, he had said he would be working late. Clearly something must have taken precedence for him to have shown up.

"Phil, what's wrong?" she asks, moving over to him quickly. He indulges her in a quick kiss and moves his hand to the small of her back before fixing a gaze on the three Avengers.

"Clint and Natasha didn't confirm extraction. No contact at all which means they've been compromised," he explains. She watches as Tony and Bruce exchange a look and Steve immediately straightens into the pose of a leader. "We sent in one of our agents, Sam Wilson."

"Falcon?" Steve asks, but Pepper thinks he doesn't sound too uncertain of the answer.

"Yes," Phil confirms. "Routine infrared fly over of the base they were undercover at to see if there's any suspicious activity, but we lost contact with him too."

"Well, that's not good," Tony says, making a habit of stating the obvious sometimes.

"No, it's not. We need to up the extraction timetable to yesterday," he clips, tone even but with enough edge to express the importance of what he's saying. "Fury wants Captain America and Iron Man to assist our extraction team just in case we're looking at something that needs a little bit of a bigger gun. But not that big," Phil offers Bruce an apologetic shrug and Pepper's reminded of why she fell for him; he's no nonsense and practical and yet still cares intrinsically for the people he's ordering around.

"I'm perfectly okay with that," Bruce replies.

"Right. So, Rogers, suit up and meet me on the helipad so I can take you to the Quinjet. Stark, suit up and I'll send you the coordinates." He then gives her an equally apologetic smile. "Dinner date tomorrow barring impending doom," he says and then he leaves with Steve following right behind him.

She sighs. It would be nice if either of their lives could slow down long enough to be normal, but she takes it in stride because in spite of everything it works for them and they're happy. "I hope they're okay," she says, turning back to look at Bruce and Tony. They're too busy in their own little world to respond.

She purses her lips and slowly edges closer to hear what they're saying, feeling perhaps a little bit guilty, but she feels a little bit owed it when Tony has done the same to her time and again.

"I guess pops has to fly off to save the kids," Tony says and she doesn't get it, but Bruce seems amused. "Any messages from dad you want me to pass along?"

"Tell Clint not to jump off of any buildings taller than three stories," Bruce replies as though he's truly considering it. "Oh, and tell Natasha she better not even think about hitching any rides on alien flight craft."

"No tall buildings and no alien flight craft. JARVIS, have the Mark IX ready," he takes a quick second to say. "Think we should adopt this Sam Wilson?" Tony then asks as if there was no break in the conversation.

"I've met him once, actually. Seems like a great kid. Not to mention some diversity would do us good. I feel like we're violating affirmative action policies as it stands."

"I'll have somebody check into it with legal," Tony quips. Pepper rolls her eyes a little at that because she knows he wouldn't even know who to send to check into it with legal, besides herself. "And I'll extend the invitation."

"Hey," Bruce then says more seriously just as Tony turns to leave. "Be careful. Don't do anything too stupid."

Tony turns back toward him. "Got it. No missiles into space." Tony kisses him and then just as he pulls away Pepper hears it, slightly muffled against Bruce's lips. "Love you."

"Love you, too," Bruce whispers a little more softly. "Hurry back," he then says louder as Tony rushes for the elevator.

"I'd say don't wait up, but we both know I'd be offended if you didn't," Tony calls back and then leaves.

Pepper lets out a sigh when she's alone with Bruce. "I'd say it gets easier, but it doesn't. One of the reasons I didn't even want to date him was because I didn't like the feeling of never knowing," she indulges him with honesty. "And that was without being in love with him." She then gives him a knowing glance, admitting to him she'd heard. "But I have a pretty good idea of how it would have felt if I had been." She had gone and got involved with Phil in spite of the same risk.

Bruce nods. "I know."

And he doesn't have to say anything more than that for her to believe him. He just has this way of infusing so much meaning into a few words, not that he can't be a man of more than a few words when he needs or wants to be. Being CEO for Stark Industries, she's seen her fair share of geniuses and she recognizes the brilliance that Tony sees and knows that Bruce doesn't have to say a lot of words to prove that he does indeed know what she's referring to even when she doesn't say.

It's times like these when she can understand why bold, brash, ten thousand words a minute, Category 5 Hurricane Tony Stark has fallen in love with him. Because for all of his subtlety, Bruce Banner is his own kind of force of nature and not necessarily a low rumble that turns into an earthquake like most would probably imagine. No, she thinks he's more like a breathtakingly tranquil sky right before a tornado. It's beautiful, alluring, and dangerous, but somebody is always crazy enough to take it as a sign to stand their ground and then chase down the ensuing tornado because it's just what they were born to do. And maybe she understands why Bruce has fallen in love with Tony. He's drawn to the chaos that Tony creates and is strong enough, whether or not he realizes it, to weather that part of him while infusing his own calm to the middle of Tony's storm.

"Maybe it's a good thing they didn't have a chance to pay up," she muses, coming out of her own thoughts.

Bruce laughs softly at that. "Yeah. But he's getting a little bit better. You maybe want some curry anyway?"

She smiles for many different reasons. "I'd love some."

***

"Hey, kiddies," Tony Stark's voice comes over the com, much to Clint's surprise. It's not that he isn't fully aware of Stark's or SHIELD's capabilities to reopen a cut link, but because he's a little surprised that they sent Stark in at all. "Bruce says hi. He also says there is to be no jumping off of buildings higher than three stories or thirty, I can't remember. Oh and no hijacking alien aircraft. Hey, new kid, do you copy?"

Clint hears Natasha's slightly amused snort over the com, but he's more or less confused. "What the hell is he talking about?"

"I have no clue," Steve says, making his presence known.

"I take it I'm the new kid?" Sam asks.

"Well, you don't sound like Natasha, so yeah," Tony chirps in his ear while Clint takes out another AIM lackey from his lookout outside the control room. Natasha is inside the control room gathering as much intel as possible to make up for the bust of an undercover mission. "We make it out of this, Wilson, and you show your stuff, there might just be a spot for you on the team."

"I wasn't aware selecting new members for the initiative was in your pay grade, Stark," Natasha quips.

"Well, speaking of the new kid," Sam says, "I could use some back up. My Exo-7 is down for the count and I'm currently cornered."

"On it," Stark says, but then Steve interjects.

"No, Tony. You're better suited for perimeter. I can get in there quicker."

"What's the point of bringing a big gun if the big gun is reduced to doing Barton's job?"

"You couldn't even begin to do my job, Stark," Clint fires back as he also fires another arrow. He's not sure why the lackeys don't get the point that he's not letting them pass, but it is what it is.

Suddenly there are a few gunshots, a groan and the clanging of heavy metal over the com. Clint looks into the room to make sure it's not Natasha out of a force of habit, but she's looking at him in confusion too.

"Overruling your call, Cap," Tony says.

After a few moments Steve speaks again. "Wilson's been hit twice and he's losing consciousness fast," he tells them, sounding the most worried Clint has ever heard him. Then again, this kind of thing is never easy. "He needs medical fast or he's gonna lose too much blood. Come on, Sam. Stay with me," he then mutters. Clint suddenly realizes it must be the army thing, the fear of losing a fellow soldier that's getting to Steve

"What are you doing?" Steve seems genuinely confused and for a moment there's dead silence. "What do you mean put him in the suit?"

"We don't have time for me to wax poetic about my meaning, Cap," Tony says. "We won't get him out of here and to the Quinjet in time to get him to medical. JARVIS can get him there on autopilot, check his vitals, and send a message to SHIELD to have them ready for his arrival. Did you get that JARVIS?"

Yes, sir, comes a digitized voice.

"Is that safe?" Clint asks. "To be unconscious in the suit going mach speeds?"

"It beats the alternative," Tony snaps back. "And he's already gone so the answer is yes."

Clint decides he has a point and it really was the only viable solution. "Only now you're unarmed, Stark," he points out as it occurs to him.

"He has a point," Steve says, still sounding worried. "So we either need to find you a way to protect yourself or you need to stick with me until I can get you back to the Quinjet safely. I don't think Dr. Banner will be too happy about you running around here without your suit."

Clint arches a brow, but says nothing as he takes out two AIM agents that he knows are the bigger dogs. Things are about to get serious. AIM is regrouping for a real strike now, no doubt.

"To be fair, I only promised him no missiles into space," Tony counters with a nervous laugh.

"Tony, I'm serious," Steve clips, now sounding entirely out of patience.

"Hey!" Tony clips back. "It's not like I'm thrilled by the prospect of not seeing him again. Okay? So let's just focus on getting out of here in one piece so that I can get back to him. Got it?"

"Sounds like a plan," Steve says, voice returning to its more even tone of command.

Clint's just about to ask who won the bet regarding Stark and Banner when his thoughts are scattered by a screeching alarm. He quickly ducks into the control room to see Natasha hurriedly looking into the problem. Her eyes widen.

"Uh, guys, they just released a chemical agent," she warns them and quickly grabs the flash drive. They both take off running to get out of the building.

"New plan," Steve says, obviously to Stark. "Take my shield and get the hell out of here as fast as you can. Not a lot of chemical agents work on me so go."

"I don't—" Tony starts.

"I'm going to make sure you make it back home to the people who need you, soldier, so that's a damn order," Steve says with so much conviction that a chill goes down Clint's spine as he runs.

Or it could be the chemical agent, he thinks briefly as the world goes black.

***

Bruce knows he's not in any condition to panic, but he had expected an update from somebody by now about the extraction mission.

It had been 18 hours since they'd left and he still hadn't heard a thing. He had tried to wait up long after Pepper had returned to her own apartment. Then he realized he would just keep worrying so he went to bed. Only, the bed was cold and empty and he just lay there clutching Tony's pillow. So he moved to the couch, taking Tony's pillow with him, and resisted the urge to ask JARVIS to give him an update.

But 18 hours later, it starts to become too much. He tries to focus his attention on a project he's working on with SI, but he knows he's so distracted that he'll have to double check his work later before moving the project along or else the whole thing might have to be scrapped.

Running his hand through his hair and then scrubbing his face, he decides maybe now is the time to ask JARVIS for an update. Or maybe he should call SHIELD or even Pepper to see if she's heard from Phil.

Dr. Banner.

Bruce nearly jumps out of his chair when JARVIS cuts through his thoughts before he can make up his mind. "Yeah, JARVIS?"

I have finished the scan you requested a few days ago and have come across something that may be of importance.

Bruce's eyes widen. "What is it?"

Howard Stark had an encoded reference to a SHIELD file. That file still exists on SHIELD servers, but it is a Level 10.

"Okay?" He wonders where JARVIS is going with this, but at least it serves as a nice distraction. "Well, Tony has that new algorithm that finally handles them as long as they're accessible on the server."

Yes, sir. I am aware. And because Mr. Stark updated my protocols, I am now allowed to automatically decrypt those Level 10 files should they be linked to certain persons or things Mr. Stark is interested in protecting.

Bruce doesn't know whether to sigh or smile. "Like me."

Yes, sir. As well as himself.

Bruce's mood goes in a third direction as he furrows his brow. "What are you saying?"

The file contained a string of common numbers which identify that it is linked to Mr. Stark. Therefore I took the liberty of decrypting it. I am now under protocol duress.

"Protocol…" Bruce pauses. "Duress?"

Yes, sir. It would appear that your conversation with Captain Rogers was not far off the mark. And while it may have happened in the past, my first protocol is to protect Mr. Stark from harm. My second protocol is to protect you so long as doing so does not interfere with the first. Therefore I am not certain who I should share the information in this file with first.

Bruce removes his glasses and plays with them, looking down as they twirl between his fingers. He then stands up and begins to pace in thought. Whatever it is, it pertains to Tony. Whatever it is, JARVIS is concerned enough not to tell Tony outright. He sighs and stops pacing. Curiosity and concern is too much to overcome.

He puts his glasses back on and looks toward one of the sensors. "Okay, JARVIS. I guess… I guess go ahead."

Bruce is suddenly bathed in blue as holographic screens surround him, filled to the brim with files and crude video. It takes him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sheer extent of the file JARVIS has found. His eyes dart here and there, looking for what to take in first and he spins a few times until he stops sharply. His eyes fixate on a looping video of a very young boy, obviously Tony, on a cold operating table as he squirms away from a doctor with a needle.

"J-JARVIS…" He means to ask the AI exactly what he's looking, but the words don't come out. The pounding in his head and chest tells him maybe he doesn't want to know specifically, even if he can make a good guess of it.

It would seem at the age of 4 Mr. Stark was subjected to a series of small injections of a formula mixed with Steve Rogers' blood. He was then subjected to testing for the effects of the injections.

Bruce's vision tunnels around him as he focuses all the more on the video. Even without audio feed, he can just hear the protests on little Tony's lips as he squirms away from the doctor until Howard steps onto the screen to chastise him into complying with the injection. He can feel Tony's pain as the little boy wrenches his eyes shut and looks as though he wants to scream. Then he opens his mouth to do so and Bruce's vision floods with green.

He holds his head and feels his muscles start to ripple. "No, not now," Bruce pleads as he spins around slightly, looking for the elevator that leads to the Hulk containment floor. "Not here!" He growls, voice already bleeding into the Hulk's. He pushes through the holographic screens, scattering some of them as he does. "You can't do this here," he pleads some more as he starts to bulge and transform. What's left of his logical mind thinks of the research he's still working on, the money Tony has spent on the lab, the simulations he had still been running on the palladium just in case, and a million other things all of which pertain to his not wanting to hurt Tony in some abstract form or other. So the only thing he can do is beg, voice straining against the bestial one, "Don't hurt Tony!"

As the world is enveloped fully by green that fades to black unconsciousness, Bruce clearly hears the Hulk roar angrily, "STUPID BANNER! HULK NOT HURT TONY!"

***

Tony blinks open his eyes and is greeted by the SHIELD medical bay. He furrows his brow and sits up quickly.

Suddenly everything rushes back to him. A chemical agent had been released at the AIM base and he and Steve had fought their way through the last barrage of agents to get to Natasha and Clint. Clint had already fallen unconscious and Natasha shortly outside the base on the way to the Quinjet. Tony fell unconscious shortly after they reached it.

Tony groans a little as his tight muscles attempt to adjust to the waking world and his quick motion of sitting up, but otherwise he doesn't feel too bad.

"You're just full of all kinds of surprises aren't you, Stark?" Tony turns his head and sees Coulson sitting nearby.

"How are the others?" Tony asks, scrubbing his face a little and reaching for the glass of water on the side table.

"They'll all make a full recovery," Coulson answers. "But it'll be a while. Barton a little bit longer than Romanoff." Coulson looks at him with a raised brow. "You on the other hand… You were exposed for just as long as they were, according to Rogers you didn't become unconscious until much longer than both of them, and now you're already up and about. Just how many times are you going to cheat death?"

Tony shakes his head and sets the glass back down. "You are in no position to ask me that question," he says with a snort. "How about Sam?" He changes the subject.

"Well, thanks to your quick thinking with the suit, he should be fine too," Coulson replies. "He's still unconscious though." Suddenly Coulson's phone rings and he scrunches his face. "That's Pepper's tone," he says and pulls out the phone to answer it.

Tony listens on in slight concern as Phil speaks with her. "He's right here," Coulson says and Tony tilts his head. "Yeah he's fine, but—" His eyes widen. "Okay, I'll tell him. I don't know if medical will clear him yet though. Of course I'll see what I can do. Just—"

"What's going on?" Tony demands to know.

"Pepper, hold on a moment," Phil says to her and pulls the phone away. He fixes him with a concerned look. "JARVIS alerted Pepper that Dr. Banner had an incident about an hour ago."

"What!?" Tony scrambles to his feet. "Where's my suit?"

"It's in Wilson's room, but you really need to get cleared with medical…" He starts, but Tony doesn't stay to hear the rest of the argument.

He hurries down the hall, checking each room until he finds the one Sam is in. "Mr. Stark?" A medic checking on the unconscious man looks at him in disbelief.

"Where's my suit?" Tony wonders aloud and Steve, sitting in a chair at Sam's bedside, startles awake.

"Tony?" He looks at him in slight confusion.

"No time for small talk," Tony waves a hand at him as he spots his suit. "Gotta get back to the tower."

"Is everything…" Steve glances at the medic. "Situation of some kind with the… business?"

Tony rolls his eyes, but he'll probably be grateful for Steve's attempt to ask about Bruce covertly later. "Yep," he answers.

"Sir, I realize that your recovery time is nothing short of amazing," the medic starts and Tony rolls his eyes again, "truly a statistical implausibility," she continues, "but you should still be on bed rest."

"Thanks, but Tony Stark doesn't do bed rest," he says as he enters the suit and hurries out again. "Talk to me, JARVIS," he says once he's on route back to the tower. "What happened? Do we have footage? Did he make it to the Hulk floor? You better not tell me he took off."

Sir, I shared information with Dr. Banner per my protocol to protect you and I am afraid it was more than he could handle. I am truly sorry, sir. I did not mean to cause an incident. We do have footage.

"Jeez, J. What the hell did you share with him?" Tony asks in disbelief. "Never mind. Let me see the footage." The HUD lights up with footage from Bruce's lab. He narrows his eyes at the slight distortion around him. "Is he surrounded by holoscreens, JARVIS?"

Yes, sir. The information I shared with him.

Tony watches and listens as Bruce pleads with the Hulk not to come out yet as he runs toward the elevator. He furrows his brow at why Bruce would ask Hulk not to hurt him, but it's short lived as the Hulk takes over and immediately roars—

"STUPID BANNER! HULK NOT HURT TONY!"

"Well, that's encouraging," Tony responds and continues to watch with a studious gaze.

Bruce didn't make it to the elevator and so Tony watches as Hulk turns back around and runs towards a series of holographic screens that hadn't been scattered when Bruce ran for the elevator. The items in the lab shake behind him and Tony winces as a few items shatter or break, but it's immediately clear that the Hulk isn't intentionally attempting to destroy the lab. Rather, he's attempting to destroy whatever it is on the holographic screens that the security footage can't quite pick up.

The Hulk stops in front of the screens and roars, fists prepared to smash. "MEAN MEN HURT TONY! HURT TONY LIKE HURT BANNER! HULK SMASH MEAN MEN!"

And so Hulk smashes, fists pounding straight through the holographic screens and down to the lab floor. Tony winces again, knowing Bruce will be upset about it. However, he's more confused about Hulk's anger toward mean men hurting him like they'd hurt Bruce.

"Cut the feed," Tony instructs as he reaches the tower. "Where is he now, JARVIS?"

Dr. Banner is in the lab, sir.

Tony makes a beeline for said lab as soon as he's free of the suit, stopping only for clothes should Bruce still need them. Once there he finds Bruce is definitely himself. Or mostly. He looks like he's in the final stages of changing back to himself as he lies unconscious in the crater Hulk had made with his fists. Tony looks around at the lab and realizes that whatever had happened between his anger at the start of the incident and his transformation back Hulk hadn't done any further damage.

"Good job, Big Guy," he says fondly. "JARVIS, what else you got for me about the situation?"

After I assured him that the mean men were already dead and unable to hurt you, and then explained to him that I would not hurt him either, the Hulk calmed down significantly. He sat down in the spot Dr. Banner is still in and was silent for a long time. Toward the end, however, he grumbled some more about 'Stupid Banner' and not hurting you. He seemed rather insistent he would protect you. He then began to transform back.

Tony bites his top lip in consideration of what JARVIS has told him as he moves over to the couch and reaches for the throw over the back of it. He brings it over to where Bruce lays, finally fully himself again though still unconscious. He crouches down and drapes it over him and then settles down beside him, pulling him into his arms.

***

Bruce feels arms around him as he wakes from his transformation, and he knows it's a transformation he's waking from because it feels too familiar. He would panic about being held if not for the fact that the hold is familiar too.

"Tony…" Bruce says in a strained voice as he opens his eyes.

Tony opens his as well and smiles. "Welcome back."

A small smile touches his own lips at just Tony being there for him at this moment. But then he furrows his brow. "The mission…"

Tony's smile turns into a frown and he groans. "A disaster," he says, helping them both upright. Bruce looks around at the crater they were laying in. "They made the wrong call on the big guns. Could have used the Other Guy."

Bruce sighs. "Yeah, maybe then I wouldn't have…" He looks around at the only minimally damaged lab in confusion.

"Hey, it's fine. You handled it. The Big Guy handled it. Think you can handle telling me what happened? JARVIS said something about information he shared with you and Hulk seemed pretty insistent that he wanted to protect me."

Bruce's mouth falls open as he remembers everything. "I heard him, Tony. I heard the Hulk. He… He said he wouldn't hurt you."

Tony smiles as if he knows a secret. "Yes, he did say that. And I've got the footage to prove it."

Bruce blinks and runs a hand through his hair. He doesn't know what to do with his incident at the moment so he moves on. "I know why you're afraid of doctors." He looks over at Tony hesitantly.

"Okay. That's not exactly the bridge in the conversation I was expecting, but yeah?" Tony looks at him questioningly.

Bruce takes a deep breath and nods. Now that the shock has worn off and most of his energy is spent, he thinks he can handle the conversation.

"When you were four your father… Howard, he…" Bruce shakes his head and looks Tony in the eyes, hoping he can see the empathy he has. "He subjected you to a series of treatments and tests using a vial of Steve's blood."

Tony looks at him with wide eyes, but Bruce continues. "JARVIS found a Level 10 security file on SHIELD's server. It's filled with notes and videos and who knows what else. I, uh, I didn't have time to study it too closely. There was this video of you… with your father and a doctor and…" Bruce wrenches his eyes shut for a moment and when he opens them again Tony looks far away. "Hey, hey, Tony," he says gently and moves a hand to the back of Tony's neck.

Tony hangs his head, eyes closing. He shakes it minutely and Bruce begins rubbing soothing circles against Tony's nape with his thumb. Suddenly Tony moves so that his head drops to Bruce's shoulder and he shrinks a little all too much like a frightened child; Bruce knows the gesture by heart and too much of that is from his own firsthand experience.

Bruce knows that Tony needs time to come back to him from wherever he's retreated to and simply holds him. He gives to Tony what Tony is always ready and willing to give to him when he needs it most. Several long minutes, Bruce loses track, pass before Tony starts to respond again. He stretches out again so that he's less frightened child and more wounded man.

When he finally does speak, he mutters bitterly, "I always knew I wasn't Captain America. I just didn't know how literal dad meant it."

"Tony, look at me please," Bruce urges him in a low voice, keeping the forcefulness out of it. It's a supplication, not a demand because that's not what Tony needs right now.

Tony complies, searching his face as if it holds the answers. Bruce selfishly hopes that in some small way it does.

"What am I supposed to think now, Bruce?" Tony asks him before he can say anything further. "My dad tried to make me Steve, but obviously it didn't take. It just did enough to make me some kind of… of…" He grits his teeth as his sentence trails. "I'm not Captain America, but now I know I’m tainted by him and I don't know what that means. How much of who I am is because of that?"

Bruce shakes his head and brings a hand to one side of Tony's face. "Listen to me," he says, this time forcefully enough so that Tony will know it's important. "You're not Captain America because you are Iron Man." Bruce moves his hand from Tony's face down to the arc reactor in his chest. "This is not something Captain America could have accomplished. Your suits? JARVIS?" He looks around them. "This tower? None of that is because of anything other than what's in here," Bruce points to his heart, "and what's in here," he taps one side of Tony's forehead as Tony looks at him with intense eyes.

"You're brilliant, Tony," Bruce continues after a pregnant pause, "and Steve's blood has nothing to do with that. We'll have to study the notes, but all it seems to have done is made you healthy enough to stick around and grace us with your brilliance. And I'm sure as hell not going to begrudge that because you should have been dead, Tony. We know that now." He looks at him intently. "That much palladium should have killed you."

"That sounds familiar," Tony says with a ghost of a smile and Bruce is more than willing to humor him if it gets a point across.

"Yeah, it does." He nods. "Whatever Howard did, whatever Steve's blood did, it saved your life."

"Saved it for what?" Tony asks purposely.

Bruce smiles and leans his forehead against Tony's. "For me I hope." In fact, he hopes that they were both saved for each other.

They're both tainted maybe, but together because of it.