Actions

Work Header

Fine and Fierce

Work Text:

Los Angeles was eighteen million degrees, weeks too early for it. Tony was sweating. It was good, it was his city, he loved it, he was basically part of it, but—on days like this, if he couldn’t be positioned directly in front of, and behind, and to the side of, air conditioning units, or at least fans, then there just wasn’t much point, was there, in existing in a corporeal three-dimensional form. The sun was beating down without mercy on the concrete and Tony folded his arms.

“I don’t know what we’re even doing here,” he whined to Pepper, who smiled at him with the arch patience of a saint. She was wearing linen. It was uncreased. Unwrinkled. She wasn’t sweating through it—or at all. It was uncanny.

“You’ll live, Tony,” she said.

“This ice cream can’t be that good. I mean, it’s ice cream. It’s just some fat, water, sugar, hey presto—”

“You’re treating me. That can be a good enough reason.”

“I wouldn’t need to treat you if we had anything resembling a normal, healthy employer-employee relationship.”

“If we had one of those, you wouldn’t actually need me.”

“Are you insinuating something about my functionality? I’m very functional. Fully functional, actually—”

“No Star Trek jokes and no sex jokes.”

“I don’t remember that being part of the deal for today. Was that part of the deal for today? I suppose I could have overlooked something when I was reading the contract—”

“I’m adding it in. If I’m going to enjoy some artisanal, small-batch, hand-crafted ice cream, I’m going to do it without listening to you make inappropriate or frankly dated attempts at jokes.”

“Pep. I’m hurt. I’m so hurt. Inappropriate, sure, fine, you can always sue me, that’s fine, but dated? Star Trek is timeless. Its appeal is limitless. Why, there are children growing up today watching Voyager, enjoying it.”

“Do they tweet at you? They’re not supposed to.”

“Well, no, but their parents do. It’s amazing how engaged and involved geek parents really are in the twenty-first century, downright inspiring.”

The line finally inched forward. They were getting closer to the glass doors of the ice cream place, which were, horrifyingly, being propped open by the chain of bodies so the air was probably no cooler inside than out. But at least once they got in through the doors he’d feel like he was a little bit closer to obtaining the desired goal: a fat-sugar-water suspension sufficient to make Pepper feel appreciated. Particularly in light of her disastrous attempt to take the previous Saturday night off to spend it with her (new, red-haired, drop-dead gorgeous) girlfriend (and the drop dead in there was not strictly figurative; she’d introduced herself to Tony with a predatory smile that made him wonder about Krav Maga). He hadn’t meant to end up in a Twitter fight with Neil Degrasse Tyson. He just... kind of had. She had spent the better part of the week fielding angry e-mails and phonecalls about how dare Tony go after an American legend like Neil Degrasse fucking Tyson.

It wasn’t personal! Neil was a good guy. They’d been on panels together before. But Neil had a habit of waving his arms all big like he was going to have an epiphany about something and Tony had never been able resist the urge to try and deflate that.

How Tony’d ended up a “science ambassador” was a matter for conjecture. It was official, Time had done a cover story on him and subtitled it that. Sure, there was Twitter, and the blog (Sufficiently Advanced Science, which he thought was hilarious and Pepper thought was hackneyed), but why people tuned in, that was for the sages of the future.

But the point was, if Pepper wanted the finest ice cream Los Angeles had to offer to compensate her for the endless tribulations involved in being Tony’s PR rep and utterly necessary link to sanity, he would provide. And if part of the satisfaction, for her, was watching him get progressively sweatier and more uncomfortable, he would provide that, too.

He adjusted his sunglasses. The line scooted forward another inch.

“Think I should tweet about this?” he asked. “I mean, this has to be some kind of phenomenon, right? Lines around the block for a product that’s probably only marginally better than the competition if at all. Think the social softies would tell me if I asked?”

“I think social scientists might tell you where to go if you call them that on social media again,” Pepper said sweetly. They were getting close enough to the doors to touch.

“I can’t help what they are! Social sciences are soft sciences! Have you seen the kinds of ridiculous statistics they have to run just to get some kind of result out of a data set? And they wonder why no one takes them seriously. It’s impossible to. Least significant differences my—”

“There are children in this line.”

“Anyway, I’m going to tweet about this.” He pulled out his phone and started tapping briskly, both thumbs going. “Trying out new artisanal ice cream place, look at this line! Be jealous? I guess?

“That has nothing to do with science.”

“It doesn’t have to. It’s my charm. I’m charming. I charm people by introducing them to both the higher mathematic elements of my work and the mundane details of my life.”

“You tweeted about your dry cleaning once.”

“They got a stain out that should have been impossible. I’m a physicist. I know these things.”

“You’re a jumped-up engineer.” They finally made it through the doors. It was, very slightly, cooler. He sighed in relief, before fully registering what she’d said.

“I am—what!”

Pepper shook her head, but by the time he’d worked up a full head of steam she was already ordering, and it would have been churlish to interrupt. She went for the lavender-black pepper-honey.

He craned his neck to get a better look at the display case tags. “I’ll try the—uh, you know what, two scoops, half and half each, so I want one scoop that’s half the blueberry and half mango-basil, and one scoop that’s half Elysian stout and half espresso-chocolate-pudding. On a waffle cone.”

“Coming right up,” said the sulky-looking (grimly attractive) man behind the counter, compressing his lips in a thin line of disapproval.

“You know you can sample these,” said Pepper.

“I don’t want a sample! I want them! I just want all of them.” Tony was swiping his card and clucking with distaste at the barely-functional card reader. He should really look at designing—

“When someone murders you in your sleep, I hope you understand that you’ll deserve it.”

“Of course I will, Pep. I’d hate to think any differently. If you haven’t inspired at least a couple of people with the desire to see you dead, you’re not having a meaningful impact on your field.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that.” She accepted her bowl—no cone for her, too many carbs, probably—gracefully, and dug in with the little pink plastic spoon. “Oh, this is good.” She smiled at the blond man who’d handed it to her and he smiled back, fair skin flushing a little with pleasure.

“Wrong tree, pal,” murmured Tony across the counter as she turned away. The guy looked at him blankly for a minute before turning much, much redder. “I’m not saying you’re not—” Tony gestured at him, up and down—“but she’s got a girlfriend who could probably model. No, scratch that, could definitely model. Might actually be a model, for all I know.”

The guy stared at him for another minute before edging away, back through the double doors to the kitchen. The guy who’d taken his order finally finished putting the half-scoops together and shoved the cone at him.

“Here you go,” said that guy, in a tone of voice that said fuck you.

“Thanks, Sunshine, keep that chipper mood up,” said Tony, and went off to follow Pepper, who had somehow magically found them two seats at the long wooden bar that looked out over the street.

She was glancing at her phone. “Anything good?” he asked.

“Well, you’ve got an indecent proposal—”

“Interesting!”

“—from a woman in her 80s.”

“Still interesting,” he said firmly.

“She wants to—” Pepper made a series of complicated gestures, but because Tony was a genius he could follow, and he recoiled in horror.

“I take it back! I take it back!”

“A university in Canada wants you to come talk.”

“I could do that!”

“They’re… oh, dear. Funded in part by an evangelical organization.”

“So much the better.”

“Not if you get sued again.”

“They should know better than to ask me if they don’t want to have to sue me.”

“You got a few messages from someone who wants to argue about your take on baryon asymmetry.”

“That sounds fun!” He leaned over her shoulder, peering down.

“The username is angryprof141.”

“Oh, yeah, they reply to my tweets sometimes—been doing it for a while—what’d they say? Let me see—oh, this is very disappointing, they’re so wrong, there’s no—oh. Hmm.”

Pepper sighed. “You don’t need to answer them right now.”

“No, you’re right, but—”

“And definitely not on my phone.” She slipped it back into her clutch purse. “Tony. Focus. We should talk about the plan for your interview on Monday.”

“What plan? I’ll show up, be charming, it’ll be great.”

“Tony.”

“Fine, fine. Feed me your list of pre-programmed talking points and I’ll spit them out like a good little robot.”

“I’d love to see the day,” she said, dryly, and started going through things he was allowed to say, things he was not allowed to say, and things she would personally skin him alive if he said.

 

When he got back to his office at the university, where he spent at least a day a week—blissful, blissful air-conditioned office, so cool and bone-dry he was chilled in minutes—he sat down and checked angryprof141’s tweets.

Most of the people who attempted to respond to his more technical tweets were so wrong they weren’t worth responding to. Some were just wrong enough to get a smack-down, although he would have preferred to call it a thorough explanation of their misconceptions, but observers disagreed and who was he to tell them how to define these interactions, really. But this particular tweep had the nagging habit of being close enough to right that Tony had still, somehow, never answered them, but kept turning things over in his head. First the collapsars, then Alfvenic turbulence, now baryons.

Tony gave in to a moment’s unworthy curiosity and actually checked his profile. The pictures were generic—the user icon was actually just a rendering of a quasar—and there wasn’t any biography. It looked like mostly retweeted posts about physics, but as he read further down the page, there were a handful of original tweets mixed in.

Student today: could I turn this in after my hangover? Said no. So cruel.

Tried to explain to department why funding matters. While we were talking got cut 10%.

Today got called a confirmed bachelor of science.

Tony scrolled back up to the tweets on baryons and finally dedicated some time on his office whiteboard to demonstrating why, exactly, angryprof141 was wrong. It took him hours. When he finished, he snapped a picture and posted it, tweeting it back: close but no cigar, check me on it @angryprof141 #StarkSciencesStuff

The guy (girl? guy? confirmed bachelor? how confirmed, exactly?) had kept him entertained for a while. And the smell of the markers might be old-fashioned, when more often than not he worked on his tablet these days, but it was satisfying.

 

Bruce rolled his neck out. He was dripping with sweat. The AC had been broken for two ungodly, hellish, forsaken days, global warming was clearly globe warmed, and he was slowly approaching a point where misusing liquid nitro from the Selvig labs downstairs was starting to sound good.

A bead of sweat rolled down the back of his neck. He blinked furiously, trying to concentrate on the grant application.

He could work somewhere else. He could take his laptop and go outside. He could sit on the quad, in the shade of some trees, which might be at least a little less stifling.

With the undergrads. Who were having a good time, enjoying the unseasonable warmth, talking with their friends, loudly, incessantly, about things he as a forty-mumble-year-old had stopped caring about back before he’d finished his first doctorate.

He sighed and shifted, and his back peeled away from the office chair with a truly unfortunate wet noise.

He succumbed to the temptation to waste a little time. He clicked over to Twitter to complain about the heat. Think my office is actually currently located in Hell, from the temp, he posted, and then noticed that he had a reply to a tweet. Given that he had about twenty followers at any given time and half of them were spambots, he didn’t have high hopes for it, but he clicked over to that anyway.

It was from Tony Stark—Tony “theoneandonlytony” Stark—which was not something he’d been expecting. He double-checked the username, but yes, that was Stark’s icon and Stark’s little blue verified checkmark, and it was a picture of a whiteboard. Covered in equations, documenting in irritatingly precise detail that Bruce had been wrong about one of the elements of the tweets he’d sent earlier.

He’d never—he hadn’t expected Stark to answer. Good God. As he looked, somebody liked it; then somebody else; somebody else replied. The notifications started rolling in.

Thanks, looks like I’m on blast now, he replied before he could think better of it.

sorry, said Tony Stark, replying just to him. want me to take it down?

Nah, that’s fine. After a second he added, My day is pretty boring.

so what do you think? am I wrong?

Don’t know yet, said Bruce, getting progressively more uncomfortable with every little pop-up notification as the likes and retweets poured in. Have to think about it.

tell me what you think when you do

He pulled his glasses off and rubbed at his eyes. When he put them back on, there was another new message.

AC broken?

Yes. Couldn’t picture a better day for it.

Tony tweeted back a link. Against his better judgment, Bruce clicked on it, and found himself listening to “California Dreaming.”

That is the opposite of what I need.

I bet, said Tony, and sent a link to “Hot in Herre.” Bruce shook his head, smiling. He didn’t reply.

He kept finding himself humming if I were in LA later, though.

 

Bruce finished his grant application the next afternoon. The AC was still busted, and he was swapping out ice packs that he’d been sneaking into some of the sample freezers downstairs every couple of hours, just laying them across the back of his neck.

When he sent the grant off to a colleague to look it over, he paused for a minute. He didn’t really have anything exceptionally urgent to work on. He could—he probably shouldn’t, but he went ahead and pulled up the picture from the day before.

Tony’d been tweeting that morning. He tweeted almost nonstop, at least since Bruce had started following him a few months ago; Bruce was starting to think you could tell when Tony was sleeping, because that was the only time when his feed would die down. Otherwise it was incessant, little bits and pieces of trivia and pop culture and then the occasional piece of beautifully, briefly framed math. Which was what Bruce had started following him for in the first place, before he’d realized that theonlyandonlytony whose account he was following was the Stark kid, Howard’s kid, to physicists and engineers alike. Tony Stark from the JPL who’d been on CNN last fall talking very emphatically about the importance of letting kids work with potentially hazardous materials as long as there were responsible adults around. “Look at me,” he’d said, “I had appropriate supervision and I made it to adulthood with all my limbs intact. Still are! Kind of a rarity at the JPL, actually, have you heard the stories about our illustrious founders,” and then he’d been off on an anecdote about ill-advised explosives that had left the anchor’s eyebrows up in their hairline.

(Not that Bruce had been paying attention.)

Tony had apparently had a boring meeting (can you choke yourself w a conference phone cord?) and gone out for lunch (a picture of an artfully arranged tuna nicoise salad) and then—well. Tweeted at Bruce.

AC still out today? is frying alive what’s taking you so long?

Before he could talk himself out of it he fired back Some of us have real jobs. With grants to apply for.

He wasn’t really expecting much, and he’d gotten half the equations from Tony written out on his own whiteboard before he noticed that he’d already gotten a response.

what kind of grants? Tell them you’re working on something for me

Nice try, he said. I’m working on our problem now, anyway. No AC still.

He got a thumbs-up emoji in response to that, followed by not the AC though

He got a little lost in the problem after that. He didn’t really notice how lost until he finally straightened up and realized that his shirt was completely soaked through and it was dark outside.

But he had something to show for it. He took a picture of his own whiteboard and sent it back to Tony, and started gathering his things to head home. God, he needed a shower.

He was not going to stay up waiting to see if—the notification icon popped up, and Tony had tweeted back a series of what could be either clapping or praying hands.

Don’t start working on that now, said Bruce. You need to sleep.

I’ll sleep when I’m dead, Tony replied immediately.

If you die in your office no one will find you for days.

cruel. have you been talking to my PR rep? she says things like that

She may be on to something.

you might too said Tony, and then nothing else after that.

Bruce made it home and took a long, lukewarm shower, rubbing shampoo lather circles into his scalp with his fingertips, trying not to think too much about the fact that Tony Stark was tweeting him. He knew he was on a reasonable track—of course he was, he hadn’t gotten his degrees from one of those websites that sold doctorates to cats—and he hadn’t really intended to pursue it, since it wasn’t really relevant to his work. But it was still somehow viscerally satisfying to have Tony’s attention.

He had trouble falling asleep. That wasn’t new.

 

Tony spent most of the night alternately pacing, standing, and crouching in front of his whiteboard, frowning at it. angryprof141 had to be wrong somewhere; there had to be a flaw in this, because it was too clean, too simple, for what it had to be. If it had been this easy all along, someone else would have figured it out by now.

And Tony had no false modesty—he just knew what easy looked like, and this wasn’t it.

This guy had to be a physicist, or the best and least-likely catfish Tony had ever seen; that was obvious. A physicist somewhere with a heat wave, which, unfortunately, didn’t narrow it down much at the moment, since most of the country was roasting like a chicken on a spit.

He paused in the middle of clenching a whiteboard marker cap in his teeth to tweet at him, where are you that’s so hot, anyway? I’m in hell, it’s like I’m living in a broiler

But there was no response, which he should have expected, since it was four in the morning.

At around six he sent back the picture with the newest calculations.

 

When Bruce got back from his lecture that morning he checked Twitter. Tony had been awake at—that was terrible—and… wanted to know where Bruce was.

Well, that wasn’t going to happen. He had a reputation. His students would never have believed that he was on social media (and he barely was, anyway), and he’d complained about the university enough that it would be unwise to confirm where he worked. Therefore, where he lived.

I can’t believe you were awake, he said.

Tony replied immediately. I can’t believe you were sleeping while I was working on our little problem

I had a class to teach. Don’t you ever teach?

when you get this famous, it’s like one Astronomy 101 class a year

Remind me to get famous.

start by solving this thing with me

Bruce sighed, rubbing at his cheekbone with one knuckle. I have a final exam to write.

There was no reply.

 

“See,” said Tony to Pepper, “I legit think this guy could be on to something, and he’s just—what, bowing to his responsibilities?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “How inconsiderate of him, to keep up with his actual obligations.”

“You say it like you’re joking, but come on! His obligations are, what, to a room full of kids who are taking this to fulfill a requirement before they go play lacrosse and get shit-faced, and we could be on the verge of solving something huge—a real and actual problem of theoretical physics—and, anyway, what I’m saying is that he needs to get his shit together and abandon everything but science.”

“Easy to say when you own a Ferrari,” Pepper said.

“Hey, what—are you insinuating that I would love science any less if—”

“It didn’t put out for you?” She raised an eyebrow.

“I can’t believe you’re judging me like this.”

“It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. I can’t believe I’m having to set boundaries for you in your attempt at human interaction with a Twitter follower.”

“What—I can’t—Pepper. Come on.”

“Boundaries. Tony. Learn to respect them.”

“I respect them just fine! I haven’t even badgered him about where he lives, even though he wouldn’t tell me—”

“Tony.” She slapped down the contract she’d been trying to read him on top of the stack of paperwork on her desk. “You asked him where he lives? Why does it matter?”

“We could collaborate! He could come by the lab—”

“You do not pay me enough for this.”

“I don’t even know what it is I’m not paying you enough for!”

“Right now you’re paying me not to talk about whether this contract for public appearances promoting this thing you invented—”

“I’m calling it the Starkinator—”

“Are you trying to make my job more difficult than it needs to be, Tony?”

 

There was a surge of excitement when he cracked open Twitter the next time to see angryprof141 in his mentions, though.

It was another board, kind of rough-sketched, only about halfway there. Too busy to finish it today, he’d said, fill it in for me.

Tony had a meeting he shouldn’t actually miss. He twitched, fingers tapping the arm of his chair.

you know I’ve got somewhere to be, he said. it’s just cruel to send me this now

Maybe I’m cruel.

God damn it.

what are you busy with, anyway? hot date?

Staff meeting. No hot dates on the horizon.

see that’s just ridiculous. evolutionarily speaking that big brain of yours should have them running.

Tell them that.

I won’t have to when we have a joint profile in Discover

 

Bruce was leaning forward at his desk, his chin in his hand, when Carol knocked on the door.

“Hmm?” he asked, glancing up at her.

“Are you going to the department meeting?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You look like you forgot.”

“Must have.”

“You never forget. Are you all right?”

He shook himself. “It’s this heat. I feel like I can’t think straight. I might just go run through the sprinklers on the lawn.”

She made a face. “I think the undergrads beat you to it, and they’re drunk.”

“It’s ten a.m. on a workday.”

“That’s never stopped them. You know we have fraternities.”

He sighed heavily. “I’ve tried to forget.”

“Not going to happen as long as you still have to teach any Physics for Non-Majors classes, ever.”

“Maybe if I murder Richards they’ll let me be chair and I can get away with passing the buck.”

Carol pursed her lips like she was trying not to smile. “They might let you get away with the murder, but not with sticking them with the classes.”

“Go figure,” he muttered under his breath.

“Anyway, come on. We’re going to be late.”

He picked up his mug of stone-cold coffee and followed her. He couldn’t quite stop himself from checking his phone during the meeting—under the table, like a student trying and failing to be subtle about it—and Tony had asked, what’s the 141 for? The year you were born? a grumpy methusela?

The proof of rum it takes to make it through grading. He paused, then added, And staff meetings.

No one was watching his feed, and this was a personal phone. He could say what he pleased.

grading? don’t they give you grad students? strike for minions

Tony sent him a link to “Future So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades),” which just seemed cruel, in context.

It’s been a long time since I cared about how much beer my salary bought.

the important takeaway of the song is that you gotta wear shades

I wear glasses.

ouch, so your shades are clip-on or do you carry them around in a little box?

I refuse to dignify that with a response.

 

“Tony,” said his dad. “It’s been a while.”

“It’s been a week, and you survived.”

“That’s true.” Tony had seen photographic evidence that in his youth, Howard Stark had had a sense of humor. It was difficult to imagine it at this point. Howard, with his still-thick hair snow-white and always carefully styled, with his legacy lab full of the most expensive equipment grant money could buy, Howard, whose patents had paid for Tony’s Ivy League education up front and had gotten a building named after him at Yale (forget that Tony’s own patents were already starting to out-earn Howard’s): that Howard had once disassembled a car for the sole purpose of reassembling it as a rocket on the roof of a professor’s house. And launched it.

“Your mother was wondering whether you’d be joining us for Thanksgiving this year.”

“Dad, that’s months away. I have no idea what my schedule is going to look like in November—”

“I told your mother you probably couldn’t plan out the time.” His dad’s voice was cold.

Tony sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “I’ll—I’ll try, okay, Dad? I’ll talk to Pepper about it and see if I can get the university to clear it.”

“I doubt they’d try to make you teach a class on a federal holiday.”

“Not that it ever stopped you,” Tony snapped, and then took a deep breath. “I’ll look into it.”

After he hung up the phone, he tweeted angryprof141. I need a geneticist to explain the fundamentals of filial guilt

I’m probably not the best resource. angryprof141 sent him a link to a song along with that. It went When I clone a human being, it will want to hold my hand.

Tony tweeted it out to his followers with the note high-quality rec, grade A songwriting

Then he added to the world at large think I’m going to watch a movie tonight

Anything in particular? angryprof141 said.

Dunno, he said back, just to him. I could live-tweet it, I take requests

Sunset Boulevard?

oh, that’s a good one, very classic

So he ended up settling in for a comfortable evening on his couch, tweeting out a pic of his feet stretched out in front of him and the screen in the background, all sweet rotting LA glamor, a familiar vintage even in 1950.

never become a kept man, he advised his followers. sure the pay’s great but there’s no pension

Sweet gig if you can get it, said angryprof141.

It’s a trap. You think you’re just selling your body but it turns out you’re also going to get shot in the back

Spoiler alert, said angryprof141.

new rule: if a movie has been out longer than you’ve been alive, you may not complain about spoilers

Very well.

oh oh and when you like an engaged girl don’t fuck up her engagement

Not a relevant problem for all of us.

older women may just be vamps or may actually be murderous

There are more options than that.

not in Hollywood buddy, and this is LA

 

“How’s the baryon project going?” asked Pepper, staring out into the darkened ballroom. It was a very nice party, if by nice you meant full of rich people who are convinced that everyone is fascinated by them because they’re rich, with a heaping helping of scientific personalities scattered throughout trying to wow the rich people into donations.

“Good, good. We’re making some progress.”

“I’m glad. I was starting to think he was an imaginary friend.”

“You think I’m boring enough that even my imaginary friends would be physicists?”

“Do you want a truthful answer to that question?”

“I am friends with actual models, I can’t believe I have to remind you of that. Several of them! But yeah, we’re having fun with it. I keep making jokes about the Nobel but honestly, it’s not that far-fetched; if we came up with a high-quality solution to this, we could really make our mark on modern history.”

“You sound like you’re having fun.”

“Of course I’m having fun! I spend—you know, I spend a lot of time on either practical tech applications or on educational stuff, and don’t get me wrong, I am great at those things, but it’s been fun to have a chance to flex my theoretical muscles.”

She chuckled.

“Don’t even say it! Don’t even make that joke. My actual muscles are more than theoretical, you book my trainer, you should know. Actually, you should tell the Internet about them.”

She raised her eyebrows, smirking. “Oh, you want the Internet to know that you work out?”

“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”

“Not one specific person on the Internet? Maybe a physicist?”

“Okay, now I refuse to know what you’re talking about.”

She smirked at him as she swirled her glass; the ice cubes clinked in it. Bill Nye was across the room, taking animatedly to an executive from Disney.

“Of course you do,” she said.

“Look,” he said, “let’s do an actual dinner. Catch up. Bring Nat, we’ll have in-person fun.”

“That sounds nice.” She actually looked a little touched. It wasn’t that Tony didn’t like Natasha, she was just objectively terrifying.

“Tony!” said somebody at his elbow, and he was turning, smiling into it, leaving himself no time to think.

He paid for it later, lying in bed that night staring up at the ceiling. He’d sent his last work before heading off to the fundraiser; the alleged professor was probably working on it.

He grabbed his phone off the nightstand, the wireless charger, and opened up Twitter. He followed angryprof141 and DM’d him, what’s your name? I need to know for our Nobel prize

 

Bruce pushed his hair out of his eyes, tacky with sweat even at midnight. His phone vibrated on his desk.

He glanced over it, warily. No one would text him. Not at this hour.

It was a push notification from Twitter. He had—he had a new follower. Oh, God. It was Tony. And a message.

He stared at it for a long time.

Finally, he said, I’ll tell you when we win it. I’m working on it.

It was only a few seconds before he got a response: I’m going to start guessing

John

james

Jimbo? is it Jimbo? it’s Jimbo isn’t it

Hey autocorrect capitalizes Jimbo it knows that but not james I guess

Bruce frowned at the mostly-done equations in the yellow light of the desk lamp he’d left on while he worked. Looked back down at his phone.

Albert. bob. Carl. Dale?

Edward. frank. I can do this all night.

Bruce shook his head. Will you keep doing it in alphabetical order?

if you like it that way. George. Harold. Indiana.

Before he could think better of it, he said, Indiana was the dog’s name

jack. Kristof. lenny. Then wait did you make a joke? you did you sly minx you

Bruce set the phone down for a minute, went back to one piece that was bothering him. He could almost see how he’d need to—maybe if he went back, took it back to—

The phone buzzed again.

please?

And how was he going to hold out against that, really, so he sighed and said, Bruce

The phone was silent for a long time, until he’d almost fit the piece he needed into place, and then it buzzed again.

thanks, said Tony.

And just like that, when he looked back up at the board, he knew what he needed, and he wrote it in and took a picture. He didn’t notice until he was sending it that his hand was in the shot—he had put his hand on the frame of the board to lean on it.

Nice, said Tony, don’t judge me if I get up and work on this

I am definitely judging you. Go to sleep.

how am I supposed to sleep with a present like this?

Sleep, said Bruce, just that.

After a long minute Tony said, fine

He stopped tweeting after that. Bruce kept an eye on his phone on the way back to his apartment. Nothing new from Tony, at least not by the time he’d climbed into bed.

His apartment was so quiet.

 

When Tony opened his eyes, his first thought was New equations to work on, and then he shook his head briskly to remind himself that he had other things to do, goddamn it. He had a talk to give to a company that was working on renewable energy, something upbeat and chipper about the future of the industry. Pepper had reviewed his first draft and corrected everything that would have been a fucking disaster for him to say out loud.

But maybe if he just took a couple of minutes. He could—Pepper called him when he was ten minutes late to meet the car. “Shit!” he said, and she sighed heavily.

“Be in the car in ten minutes or I’m going to come up there,” she said.

“I’ll be naked!” he yelled, starting to strip as he headed for the shower.

“I’ll survive.”

In the car on the way to the talk, as he frantically wrote up a blog post, just throwing out some thoughts on the future of quantum computing that nobody would really be able to argue with because it was all pure conjecture, she said, “You’re not sleeping again.”

“It’s not that.”

“You’re sleeping?”

“No, I mean, you’re right. Mostly right. I did sleep last night, though. But I got sidetracked when I woke up.”

She groaned softly. “Not the tachyon project with your secret science BFF?”

“It’s not tachyons—oh, that’s very mature. And descriptive.”

“If you want me to call him something else, you’ll have to tell me what.”

And he could have told her, couldn’t he, because he had a name now, whether it was the real name or not.

But he didn’t feel like sharing it, somehow. And maybe that was the first time he felt a little thrill of panic that radiated to the toes of his very expensive shoes. Since when was this something to hold on to like a secret? He’d talked to other physicists and engineers before; you got to know someone, how they thought, when you spent quality time sorting through their work. Especially handwritten work, scrawl starting out messy and getting messier the more involved and excited they got.

And that reminded him of Bruce’s hand on the frame. So casual, just long fingers gripping the edge of the board. (No ring.) He’d maybe stared at it longer than he should have.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. But as long as we’re talking about me and my dance card, it’s been a while since I had time,” he said. “For a personal life, making friends, whatever. Can’t you, I don’t know, use your extensive network of executive contacts to find me a date with someone?”

She blinked at him. “I—maybe. Let me think about it. I don’t know—”

“If it’s a good idea to blur personal and professional boundaries like that? Yeah, good point, I’m making things awkward, aren’t I—”

“No,” she said, “I don’t know whether I want to sic you on anyone I consider an actual friend.”

“I am hurt! So hurt.”

“Rate yourself as a boyfriend.”

“Extremely exciting.”

“Scale of one to ten. No descriptors.”

“Now you sound like a social—”

“Just do it. Unless you can’t.”

He went back to staring out the car window. Traffic was really appalling.

“It’s not that I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I just don’t like to depress myself this far ahead of cocktail hour.”

Pepper made a noncommittal noise, pushing a non-existent escaped strand of golden hair back behind one ear. She had the courtesy to go back to her phone, at least. Tony finished up his blog post and published it. He really needed to build up a queue.

 

Bruce was driving in the next morning, thinking longingly of his office. It might be a sweltering hell-oven, but at least it wasn’t fucking San Diego traffic.

He hadn’t heard back from Tony but Tony had tweeted about giving a talk: renewable energy should be on all of our minds, he said, it’s beyond ridiculous that we’re stuck relying on dinosaur juice for our ever-growing power needs and maybe it came off wrong to respond to those, like he was paying too much attention, but Bruce went ahead and favorited those tweets. Christ, he’d started out as a Twitter follower, hadn’t he?

He wasn’t waiting for Tony. That would be ridiculous. Any day now Tony would get caught up in something else, would get busy, get wrapped up in a new project and he’d stop responding to Bruce, and that would be that. You didn’t make friends on Twitter. Not with science pseudo-celebrities. Which was for the best, when you came right down to it, because Bruce had been nothing but honest when he made his account. He was a professor. And he was angry. He was so angry there were days when it was difficult to breathe; he’d shattered a mug on the kitchen floor in the middle of reading a reviewer’s comments a few months ago, alone in his house.

No one needed to know about that. No one signed up for it. It was fine.

He hadn’t been waiting for someone to ask about the 141 so he could tell them the joke in it.

Tony sent him a link instead of a picture. It was a remix of California Girls with dialogue from the Golden Girls interspersed.

He listened to it with his headphones in, trying not to laugh.

Tony DM’d him a minute later. I can turn this into a playlist at the drop of a hat

I don’t doubt it. Bruce glanced at his phone, at his computer, and finally settled on taking a picture of himself—well, just his hand, giving the thumbs-up in front of the screen with just the YouTube window showing. He sent it back.

Tony shot back a picture almost immediately. It was himself, at an angle that showed he was lying on a couch, light gray carpet clearly visible off to the side of his head; he was giving a thumbs-up and grinning lazily. His earbuds were in.

Bruce jumped when it came through, knocked over a pile of papers on his desk. Tony wasn’t wearing sunglasses or glasses at all, and his eyes looked warm and kind in the sunlight slanting across his face, a rich deep brown like varnished cherry wood.

next up, said Tony, and sent another link, and this time it was Lana del Rey, Hollywood.

You’re supposed to be working on our Nobel, remember? said Bruce.

That got him another picture, this time Tony making a little distressed moue.

That still doesn’t look like work.

come on don’t tell me it’s not work to maintain this, said Tony. my trainer would be crushed. and my dermatologist

Bruce found himself rolling his eyes and trying not to smile.

Get off the couch and do some real work. Unless you’re too busy listening to One Direction.

ugh fine said Tony and a minute later sent a picture of himself crouched in front of his whiteboard, wearing the wire-framed glasses Bruce recognized from Tony’s interviews on tv, squinting intently and stroking his chin. It was ludicrous for so many reasons, not least of which that he must be holding the phone out to the side himself to get that angle.

Has all the publicity damaged your brain? You know it takes more than glasses to be a scientist.

That got him back a picture of a middle finger. He did laugh out loud that time. There was a smear of ink from the whiteboard across the side of Tony’s hand in that pic, at any rate, so he was getting closer to working.

you’re just jealous bc your glasses aren’t this cool. I have to assume said Tony.

Excuse you. Bruce took his glasses off and laid them on his desk, careful not to include too much, and sent a quick picture.

thanks for making my point for me

 

It was turning into a thing. A thing they did, starting about the time Bruce got in to work every day, and running late most nights, at least until Bruce got home and more often than not past the time he went to bed.

A lot of it was about the math they were hammering out, slowly and painfully, because every time Bruce thought he saw a shortcut Tony was right back pointing out where they were going wrong. But Tony tended to shut it down too soon, so Bruce would have to say, did you look at this, and Tony would get excited and spend hours working it out. And scattered through it there would be cracks about the news, or questions about Bruce’s day, stories about Tony’s, songs (We can live young, die free, free, free) that were almost entirely about California and surfing and sunshine and beaches.

Bruce wanted to say do you realize I’m also in California, I don’t need the sales pitch but he couldn’t. If Tony was just—it wasn’t helping that Tony kept sending him pictures of his mundane day, pictures Tony never posted on Twitter, pictures that felt like they were just for Bruce. Little, shuttered moments, quiet and bright, mostly, his kitchen counter covered in a mess of take-out containers; his face and the view out the window of his car, the ocean stretching out endlessly behind him; once, Pepper smiling into the camera with what looked like fond exasperation.

Every once in a while Bruce would return a picture. The mess covering his desk. Doodles from a staff meeting—stick figures enacting violence. Nothing too identifiable. Once, his ceiling when he couldn’t sleep, the ceiling fan spinning in muted judgment. Nothing that made his location obvious. Nothing with his face. Nothing to regret, when this fizzled out and the messages stopped coming.

 

My interview on CNN is airing today Tony said. you should watch, see how an expert does it

Studying up for the Nobel talk show circuit? asked Bruce tartly.

sure, why not

All right.

He watched it—streaming it over his computer on his lunch break, half-heartedly stabbing at his leftover pasta salad—and it was good to see Tony, in a way that made him feel itchy and pathetic at once. But if someone asked you to, well. Then it was fine. It would have been fine anyway. He was a celebrity. Tony was supposed to be on TV, he was supposed to be watched, that was the point.

About ten minutes into a heated discussion of the future of human travel in the solar system (Tony was arguing strongly in favor of aiming even higher; the dour-faced man opposite him was talking about money and the importance of small steps), the nominal opponent became a real opponent in a matter of seconds when he said, “And after all, Mr. Stark, I think we’re all familiar with the rumors about your private life; it’s not like you can hold yourself up as a paragon of judgment—”

The host made an alarmed squeaking noise, and Tony leaned forward, looking intently at the asshole. “No, no, back up,” said Tony. “You’re going to have be a little more clear about what you mean by that.”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to offend,” the host choked out.

Tony gave her a sharp-edged, humorless smile. “Of course. Maybe he’d like to tell me what he did mean?”

The asshole sat there in awkward silence. Tony let it stretch, propping his chin on his hand carelessly, never losing the unpleasant little smile. The host broke in again to try to drag the conversation back to space travel. Tony let her succeed after a few pitiable volleys.

After that, Tony was sharper, but still funny. The other guy fell apart.

What an asshole, Bruce messaged Tony.

you have no idea, said Tony. he’s been saying shit like that to me for years at conferences. about time he was caught on tape

No one uses tape anymore, Bruce couldn’t help saying.

he knows my dad. knew my dad. back in the day, so he still thinks I’m like. Stark Junior and that’s it

I think anyone who’s read your father’s work would find it difficult to confuse you.

is that a compliment? I hope it’s a compliment

It is.

Tony sent Bruce a link to a One Direction song, presumably in gratitude. Then, baby, I’m perfect for you.

It was things like this—things like this.

Bruce hesitated, but he ended up sending a link to “Shower” by Becky G, which. Well. Tony could take that however he wanted to. Couldn’t he? He could.

 

Tony called Pepper.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I have a problem.”

“You’re going to have to narrow it down more than that.”

“Hah, hah. Very funny.”

“This isn’t about the interview? We already talked about that.”

“No. Sort of. No.”

“Tony. You’re usually a little more verbal than this.”

He sighed, grinding the heel of his palm into his eye socket. “I just… how do you ask someone personal questions that might, maybe, potentially, be invasive, but in a non-invasive way, and also make them tell you?”

“Oh, no. You are not dragging me into this.”

“Come on, you’re the closest thing to a normal person I know. If I ask Rhodey he’ll tell me to hack a spy satellite.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Don’t tell me to hack a spy satellite. That’s not even how it works.”

“I’m honestly more surprised that you haven’t yet.”

“It’s not—” he sighed explosively. “If he doesn’t tell me—”

“You’re actually—you’re trying to respect his boundaries? Oh, my God, you didn’t tell me it was serious.

“It’s not! Right? It’s just. It’s on the Internet.”

“How much are you talking?” She sounded more intrigued now. He bitterly regretted calling her.

“A couple of times a day, sometimes, sometimes less, sometimes more, I don’t know.”

“A day? Is it all business?”

“No. It—no. It isn’t.”

“Just ask him.”

“Okay. That’s—you know what, that’s not the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. That might actually be decent advice.”

“I’m flattered.”

He sighed, tipping his head forward against the window glass. “Why is this so hard?”

“I have no idea,” she said, with a certain softness in her voice.

“Is Nat there?”

“She’s sleeping in the other room.”

“If you want to throw a wedding, you know I get to veto the DJ, right?”

“Tony.”

“Just saying.”

“Well, don’t. Do you want to talk about your panel at San Diego Comic Con?”

“Oh, God, I’d forgotten about that.”

“Don’t forget. You’re on with Bill again. Don’t piss him off again.”

“It wasn’t intentional!”

“And yet.”

So after he got off the phone with her, he messaged Bruce. hey seriously where are you?

The reply came through almost immediately. My office. He was coming to know Bruce’s office by now from pictures, since that was where Bruce seemed to live, the institutional beige walls, big wreck of a scarred-up ancient wooden desk, unfortunate tan carpet. It’s three in the afternoon. Where else?

that’s not what I meant, he said.

There was a very long pause. He had already started worrying about it before he’d even sent the message, so this was really just time to stew in it, properly appreciate how fucking stupid he was being, how unlikely it was that Bruce—

Well, said Bruce, I am also a California girl. West coast represent, we’re unforgettable.

The rush of relief was dizzying. daisy dukes, bikinis on top, Tony sent back on autopilot.

Only on casual Fridays.

That didn’t narrow it down that much. California was a big damn state.

But it was the same state.

Tony sent him a link to a three-hour long mix of California Girls that included a not-insignificant amount of dialogue from Clueless and then he leaned down and put his head between his knees.

 

Tony mentioned offhand that he was going to be a panelist at SDCC.

That’s great, said Bruce.

what really? I thought you’d be too refined for this

Speak for yourself.

are you going?

Bruce stared at that for long enough that he could feel the silence getting weird, and he ended up setting his phone down carefully, too carefully.

He’d had his ticket since they went on sale. Of course he was going. He went every damn year. It was one of the perks of living in San Diego. He already had a colleague lined up to do his Thursday and Friday lectures for the summer classes he was teaching.

Tony was going to be there. They could be in the same room, for the first time. It was a recipe for disappointment, of one kind or another. And he’d been enjoying this. It had very obviously bled over from work into something else, and if sometimes he got the impression that Tony would like to meet him—if he spent too much time thinking about what it would be like to meet Tony—that was nobody’s business but his. Would Tony go for a handshake? Probably. On the other hand, Tony was a visibly physical man. He had a habit of hugging hosts. In pictures with fans he was always putting an arm around them. That left the option wide-open for a hug, for his arms coming around Bruce, and—

He slowly opened the app again and sent Tony a link to Futurist by Golden Coast. He figured that counted as an answer.

(Everybody knows I’m a futurist)

Tony didn’t say anything for a long time, either.

 

“He’s going to be there,” Tony said without preamble.

Pepper sighed deeply.

“I can’t tell Rhodey. I really can’t. You know that just leaves you.”

“You have to tell me what we’re talking about.”

Bruce,” he said urgently. “He’s going to be at ComicCon.”

There was a moment’s pause. “Oh,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised.

“I didn’t ask if he wants to meet.”

“Well, you should.”

“Should I?”

“Do you want to?”

“Yes. Maybe. No. Yes.”

“Okay, I can see why you might want to think it through a little.”

“You see?” he said, desperately grateful. “I’m not usually like this! I’m a mess. Okay, so I’m usually a mess, but I’m not usually a mess in this particular uncomfortable and undignified way.”

“That much is true.”

“I just—I can’t stop thinking and here’s what I’m thinking about: what if it doesn’t go well?”

She paused again before she said, “As your friend, which is how I’m speaking now, if you don’t go for that it, that’s just stupid.”

“Hey!” he protested. “We’ve got something good going on here. What if I ruin it? Despite my genius, I remain human and, arguably, flawed. You know I can ruin things, I’m specifically and uniquely talented at ruining things, I am legendary in the world of ruining.”

“Stupid.”

“Your tender caring support is greatly appreciated.”

“If you call me as a PR rep, we’ll have a different conversation. If you call me as a friend, this is what you get.”

“Remind me not to ask you things.”

“Tony,” she said, almost but not quite gently. “You don’t have so many friends that I would encourage you to alienate any of them, but it’s just meeting up. Right? You could get a cup of coffee.”

“Coffee? Whoa, whoa. I don’t know if I’m ready for coffee, that might be more of a commitment than I can really—”

She sighed and said, “I’m hanging up now.”

“Love you too, Pep.”

 

so, said Tony.

Bruce blinked down at it. The last round of corrections he’d done were already back with Tony; usually that would have kept him busy for a while.

After a minute, with nothing more forthcoming, he said, So?

I’m thinking about costumes for SDCC

You’re going to wear a costume?

aren’t you?

Yes, but I’m not a panelist.

oh my god you are? as what? what what what

This was getting into perilous territory. Maybe he should—

please? with a cherry on top

He said, Master Chief

oh nice very classic

What are you thinking about for yours?

not sure. panel topic is detecting exoplanets

Isn’t that so last year?

it is but they were very excited about it. what do you think about Sherlock Holmes?

Classic or BBC?

classic. deerstalker, the whole nine yards

I’d have to see it.

you’re much too cautious

It’s served me well so far.

we’re going to solve one of the mysteries of the universe together and I know your first name and state of residence.

After a few seconds, Tony added, maybe too cautious, is what I’m saying.

Bruce rolled out his shoulders, took a deep breath. Was there a specific question there?

yeah actually you want to meet up at SDCC?

Well. That was a question, wasn’t it.

Bruce didn’t answer right away. After about a minute there was a rush of messages:

look if that crossed a line I’m sorry

I have been told I don’t always do boundaries all that well

but look I’ve been good I haven’t even Googled you

and you know there’s got to be a limited number of physics profs named Bruce in CA

probably telling you about how creepy I could be isn’t helping

even though I’m just trying to assure you I’m not

being creepy

I hope

Bruce took a deep breath and just said, Maybe.

Of course Tony, being Tony, couldn’t leave well enough alone—immediately responded, maybe to meeting up or maybe to how creepy I am?

Maybe to meeting. Let me think about it.

you’re always thinking, you’ll give yourself a headache

I have you to do that for me, Bruce retorted without thinking about it and then froze.

I live to serve, said Tony, and then, thank sweet Jesus, he finally left it alone.

Well, almost alone. He sent Bruce a link to an entire playlist on 8tracks called “Summer for Power Bottoms.” Bruce stared at it blankly, but it turned out it… wasn’t terrible. At least as terrible as one might expect.

 

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Tony said.

Pepper said, “I’m hanging up. It’s three in the morning. I’m still hanging up, but I want you to understand why.”

She did hang up, too. Very unsatisfactory. Now who was he supposed to talk to? Rhodey was right out; he was a good friend, but his response to this, in light of his extended history with Tony, would have been most likely unhelpful and possibly inhumane. Downright counterproductive. No one in the grip of what could only be described as a crush (and how terrible was that? he’d escaped this for years, years, and it just seemed unfair to be blindsided by it now) wanted to listen to mockery.

He pulled up the app. He messaged Bruce pep doesn’t take me seriously.

He wasn’t really expecting anything back, but he fell asleep holding his phone anyway.

In the morning, a Saturday where he woke up slowly and a little disoriented, Bruce had replied, You probably need cooler sunglasses.

Shortly followed by, Please tell me you didn’t call her at that hour.

might have. might have gotten immediately hung up on

Tony, you have got to respect that humans sleep. Yourself included.

sleep is for the tenured

Ouch.

hey what other games do you play? I’m thinking about getting online and killing some time

Because your schedule isn’t busy enough?

never is. wanna quest with me?

 

And that was a terrible idea, but.

Ok

great, my username is thewizardstark

Of course it is.

look I was into this before most people took it as a GoT reference

Of course you were.

Mic up, said Tony.

It had been a while since he’d logged in, but it didn’t actually take that long to get in and find Tony. Bruce adjusted his headset.

“Hey,” said Tony. Hearing the voice he’d never quite gotten used to on the television in his ear, warm and low and intimate, was—Jesus Christ.

“Hey,” said Bruce back, brain too occupied to think about how he sounded until a second later.

Tony laughed. It was a good laugh.

“Ready to kick some ass?” asked Tony. “I have to warn you, I’m fantastically good at this, not unlike everything else I turn my hand to.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Bruce dryly.

“Then suit up, man, come on, let’s go, let’s get a quest on.”

It turned out Tony hummed under his breath a lot, more Beyonce than Bruce would have expected from the songs he’d sent, and talked in long rushed bursts, and apparently could not physically stop himself from shouting in excitement

“Kicking ass,” Tony sing-songed, climbing atop a pile of skulls of their foes.

Bruce couldn’t help laughing at the image of the wizard, bony arm lifted in victory.

“So you do laugh,” Tony said, quietly and fast. “I was starting to wonder.” Then, a little louder, “After all, you never say ‘lol’ or send me the applicable emoji, and I make some really spectacular jokes.”

“I never say ‘lol.’”

“Why? Something against it?”

“No. It just doesn’t work for me.”

“So, look, no pressure, but if you want to hang at SDCC, my panel is on Saturday and that’s when I’m coming in—well, technically I’m getting in at around eleven forty-five Friday night, but then my panel is Saturday morning. Oh, are you going to my panel? You should go! I’m told I’m very entertaining.”

“You are entertaining,” said Bruce. “I’ll think about it.”

“Okay, great! We could get lunch afterwards, do you know if there’s any good shawarma around there? Still no pressure! I’ll eat shawarma either way.”

Bruce said, “I think there’s a place. It was there last year, anyway.”

“So you go every year? I think I make it about half the time.”

“I make a point of it.”

“Are you always Master Chief or do you switch it up? You have to switch it up, right? Does the helmet get sweaty?”

Bruce laughed a little, explosively. “I usually go as Master Chief. I drilled in some additional ventilation.”

“Nice, did you do your own costume?”

“Nah, pre-fab, just modified a little. I’m not that crafty.”

“Me either, I’m trying to get Pepper to take care of the Sherlock costume for me.”

“Can you even do a British accent?”

Tony gave it a valiant try, but what came out—“Watson, come ‘ere, I want you!”—was so far off that it had Bruce laughing helplessly into his mic.

“That’s not even Doyle,” Bruce said. “That’s Alexander Graham Bell.”

“Damn. Well, I’ve got time to perfect it before the panel.”

“You’re doomed.”

“Hey, I have Pep to say things like that to me.”

“She clearly doesn’t say them enough if you’re still trying to do accents.”

“Oh, shit, they’re attacking us.”

Conversation dropped off for a while, back to the quest, but Bruce felt wonderfully light, sitting in front of the computer in his sweatpants on a lazy Saturday, sunshine flooding the room and the soft background hum of the AC, with Tony periodically singing Top 40 hits into his ear or yelling in shock.

 

When Bruce said, “I’ve got a stack of grading to take care of, I should go,” Tony just sighed.

Fine, I guess I should probably—well, I’d say work but let’s be honest, I’m going to eat a Hot Pocket and argue with people on the Internet.”

Bruce said, smiling, “I think that counts as work for you. I’m going to try not to check the Internet while I’m grading. We’ll see if I succeed.”

“Yeah, you never know, there might be something fascinating on there.”

“Might be,” said Bruce, and if his voice came out warmer than he’d meant, well. That was all right.

Tony just hummed softly into the mic. “All right, man, good time, hit me up any time you want to execute some imaginary magical creatures.”

“Will do.”

There was a brief pause before Tony said, “Bye.”

“Bye.”

Bruce did finally disconnect then.

He took off the headset slowly. He hadn’t lied. He did have work to grade.

 

Tony pulled off his headset and dropped it on his desk in one motion, and it clattered off the glass surface.

“Shit,” he said out loud. “Shit.”

He could call Rhodey, this had reached sufficiently emergency levels that he might be able to put up with the shit he’d get for it, but—was there any point in even talking to someone about this? Probably not. Either Bruce would meet up with him at SDCC or not. And if he did, what happened then?

“Shit,” he said one more time, for emphasis.

Bruce had a great voice. No way around that one. He sounded like he should be on radio; voice rich and low, a little hard East Coast something in there. There was no way he’d have a face that could live up to that voice, and it was maybe embarrassing how much time Tony had dedicated to wondering what he looked like. His avatar in the game had been a nine-foot-tall ogre, and was totally useless for helping Tony dial it in.

Do blonds have more fun? Tony tweeted at his followers. Discuss.

A few hours later, there was one reply in particular he had to stop to check. If fun is a zero-sum game, they must, said Bruce.

Okay. Okay. That was fine. Bruce wasn’t blond, probably. That was fine and not breaking his brain because he was suddenly considering every possible alternative hair color, artificial and natural.

SDCC was a week away.

He DM’d Bruce found a costume, hope you’re ready to be amazed by my skillful portrayal of S. Holmes

That’s exciting.

yeah it’s getting on short notice for the con, wanted to be sure I was ready

Got my armor out of storage today.

polishing it up?

I try to treat it right.

thought you were going to try to be off the twitternet tonight

Intent and action are different.

you’re telling me, said Tony.

 

(Bruce didn’t say I was wondering what you were up to. He didn’t say please stop talking to me. He didn’t say of course I’ll meet you.)

Bruce went with For instance, I intended to teach, but I have failed.

what did you get?

Bruce snapped a picture of some particularly egregious—well, calling it “math” would be an insult.

oh dear god, said Tony. I went into education because I thought it was fun

And is it?

well, the version I mostly do is. ngl I get great reviews

They’re just dazzled by your fashion sense.

you could work on it, try to stun your students with yours. makeover time!

I would objectively rather be tortured.

you say that now but I’m telling you a sufficiently large and shiny belt buckle will make you a new man

Bruce snorted a little, shaking his head. He picked up another paper and skimmed it, sighing heavily as he realized right away that this student had made the obvious mistake he had done everything but point to with a neon arrow labeled this is a mistake don’t do it.

Tony sent him a song. It was Beyonce. Partition. He blinked very hard and tried to make it through the whole thing with his composure intact, but it cost him making any progress at all on the grading.

 

Okay, said Bruce.

Tony was typing in seconds. okay to what? you’re going to have to be more specific big guy

Shawarma.

awesome!

It wasn’t like Tony to go for short answers when longer answers would do, but before Bruce could start wondering whether Tony regretted suggesting it, he got another message: !!!

If only to see you in a Sherlock outfit in public.

come on it’s SDCC I’m sure all the restaurants for miles are used to it

They are. It will still be funny.

hey if laughing at me is what you need to get through the day

It doesn’t hurt.

look I feel like I should warn you I talk a lot

I know this.

like a lot a lot. more when I’m nervous

Do I make you nervous?

no, it’s the rotating column of meat, it looks too much like an X-Files monster of the week

It’s funny that you can’t hear me laugh.

There was a long silence after that one.

looking forward to it, said Tony, finally.

Me too.

 

Tony said, “So the thing is, he said yes.”

Natasha raised her eyebrows. “What?” she asked, in a voice that perfectly conveyed her simultaneous lack of knowledge about the non-sequitur, and lack of interest in it.

Pepper sighed. “I should have known you didn’t invite us out just to have dinner.” She craned around, peering past Natasha. “Do you think we can just get up and leave?”

Natasha put a hand on Pepper’s arm. “They have shchi,” she said, “and Stark already ordered the wine.” (It was three hundred dollars a bottle. It had been a tactical decision, as Pepper had let slip that Nat was actually a secret huge wine snob.)

Pepper subsided, sighing. “All right, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Warn me about what?”

“Tony’s crush.”

“Oh, you have a crush?” Her voice was flat, but she was smirking at him. “That’s adorable.”

“It’s not adorable. It’s not a crush. I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“It sounds like you’re doing something, though,” said Natasha. “What did he say yes to?”

“Shawarma.”

“So not pledging eternal love.”

“No. None of that.” He was twisting the cloth napkin between his fingers, fidgeting relentlessly. Her eyes flicked to it and then up to his face; she still looked much too amused.

“So you’re freaking out.”

Pepper sighed. “He’s concerned that he’s going to ruin everything by being himself.”

Natasha sized him up ostentatiously. “Seems reasonable.”

“Thank you. I think.” He shook his head a little. “How do I not ruin everything?”

Natasha pursed her lips. “You’re probably not the only one worried about this.”

“What, you think he’s nervous?”

“Does he have a crush on you, too?”

Tony groaned, tipping his head back against the booth. “I don’t know. Maybe? I hope so? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure whether he’s queer.

“He’s gay, and interested in Tony,” said Pepper to Natasha sotto voce. “There is no way he would put up with Tony’s… habits otherwise.”

“If you’re meeting for shawarma, you don’t have to know whether he’s into men.”

“Yeah, but if I want to, I don’t know, ask him on an actual date—oh God do I want to do that? Should I do that?”

“See how shawarma goes,” said Nat. “Then make up your mind. If he’s a friend and you decide you don’t want to date him, he can stay a friend.”

“She’s right,” said Pepper, darting in to give Nat a quick kiss on the cheek. Nat’s smile in return was downright predatory; Tony got the sense that no one else would have survived doing that.

 

They were having a perfectly nice, normal discussion about Star Wars that night, watching Episode IV together, when Bruce said, I always felt like Darth Vader.

what? for real? the obvious villain?

Yes. Not everyone is cut out to be a good guy.

yeah but there’s a long way between good guy and vaporizing a planet

Bad childhood.

How bad is bad enough to cut off your own son’s hand??

There was another really long pause, and then Bruce finally said, Bad.

shit I’m sorry. ignore me, I’m insensitive, even People said that

It’s ok.

sometimes I forget that “emotionally distant dad with a legacy to live up to” isn’t the worst thing

Mine was worse.

was?

He’s dead.

I’m sorry to hear that? if you want me to be sorry? or not if you don’t?

You don’t have to be sorry.

look big guy if you want to talk or whatever, my number is 510-555-4766

Thanks but I’m good.

anyway I guess I can see the appeal of Darth Vader in that light

Don’t get me wrong though. Kylo Ren is a douchebag.

 

Wednesday night Tony said want to quest?

Bruce sighed, glancing at the stack of lab paperwork he’d brought home—he really had to get this submitted or the department was going to be on his ass about it. He’d already missed two deadlines.

Yes, but I can’t.

ok, no worries. what are you up to?

Recertifying my lab space.

oh, that sounds like buckets of fun.

You have no idea. Fifteen pages of forms.

being a scientist can’t be all fun and explosions. for you anyway. for me it pretty much is.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

hey tell me something about you

Anything in particular?

surprise me

It took a long time for Bruce to decide on I have two doctorates.

that’s awesome! what in?

The diplomas hung on his office wall. He had to make sure they didn’t show up in pictures he sent. There wasn’t a lot else he had to be careful to crop out, no galleries of photos like some of the profs had. Astrophysics and applied physics. Materials.

wow, you really are the whole package. do you sing? dance?

Neither of those things.

do it for the vine

Literally never, and that joke is already old. He was smiling a little, shaking his head.

I am really not looking forward to the flight

It’s not a long one.

I know, but I don’t love lines. or petty tyrants. TSA has both

I don’t like being in a pressurized tin can.

claustrophobic?

Something like that.

I would ask if you’re flying but I’m guessing you wouldn’t say

You’d be right.

at least the panel isn’t on pluto again

God. I know.

it’s done! it’s over with! Pluto is no longer a thing

I really do have to work on this. Bruce set his phone down, turning back to the paperwork, sorted into stacks around him on the couch. Not that that stopped the messages.

no no you do you, it’s all good, I’ll just be here

being vastly more interesting than paperwork

being an excellent conversational partner

ok I guess you were serious about getting work done

anyway look just wanted to say I’m really looking forward to this

goodnight

When he finished working and read them, Bruce had to pinch the bridge of his nose for a minute, leaning forward onto his elbows.

Then, on impulse, he said, If you’re still awake, feel like playing some Halo?

shit yeah said Tony instantly.

It was a work night. It was late. He’d regret this in the morning.

He got on the headset.

 

Tony had noticed that Bruce had a tendency to waste ammo, firing with more vigor than precision.

“Watch out, big guy, you’re going to run out of ammo sooner or later, and at this rate it’ll be sooner rather than later.”

Bruce just snorted in his ear and peppered the enemy with another volley.

“I feel like this is catharsis for you, am I right?”

“You’re not wrong,” said Bruce.

“Anger issues?”

“You have no idea.” Bruce sounded detached. He was obliterating a squadron, turning them into red mist.

“You should probably listen to more Taylor Swift. Very upbeat. Lots of encouragement for booty-shaking, if that’s something you’re into.”

“It is definitely not something I’m into.” But there was a smile in Bruce’s voice.

“Hey, I was going to ask, I’m starting a new project, wondering if it would be cool if I ran some of the work past you—”

“Sure,” said Bruce. “If you think it would be useful.”

“I’m sure it would! Come on, look at us, we’re a fucking dream team. Wonder twins. Powers, activate. We’ll change the face of modern physics.”

Bruce laughed very quietly. “We’ll see.”

“Damn right we will. Oh, oh! Hostiles!”

“I see them.” Bruce was already laying down round after round of fire.

“Look, I don’t want to, uh, be creepy—”

“Again,” interjected Bruce.

“—yeah, again, but where’d you grow up? No way it was Cali.”

“Dayton, Ohio.”

“No way. I would have figured New York.”

“I did my grad work there.”

“Well, damn. At least I’m partially right. I’ll take that over being totally wrong any day.”

Bruce chuckled. “You would.”

“So I’m vain. What do you expect? I’m a short queer guy with spectacular hair and excellent fashion sense. And I’m a physicist, we’re not renowned for our modesty or subtlety.”

“You’re not that short,” Bruce said. He sounded absent-minded. “I think I’m about as tall as you.”

“I’m five eight and a half, what about you?”

“Five eight.”

“Well, I stand corrected. Clearly we’re both totally respectably tall guys.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“So I can stop wearing platform boots? That’ll be a relief for the ol’ arches, I’m sure my plantar fascia take it hard.”

“I don’t know,” said Bruce, sounding like he was smirking. “That might be a good look on you.”

“Oh, and what are your fashion credentials? I’ll need to see some bona fides if I’m going to take advice from a physics professor of self-confessed uncoolness.”

“I never confessed to any such thing.”

“You did. Your glasses are like if Buddy Holly said, no, you know what, I under-committed there.”

“That’s ridiculous. They’re very hip.”

“No one even says hip anymore. Honestly, haven’t you been listening to any of the music I’ve been sending you? I expect you to be more up to date on pop culture references than this.”

“All of it,” said Bruce. “God knows why. Some of it is just awful.”

“You take that back about Tay-Tay! Or. Well. Whoever it was in reference to.”

“I’ll let you stew on it.”

“You could at least pretend to be nervous about meeting a celebrity.”

“When I meet one, I will.”

“Oh, ouch! Burn, bro, sick burn.”

“Don’t call me bro. Ever.”

“Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Any two men playing Halo have to call each other bro. It’s like a performative masculinity thing.”

“I thought being gay meant we didn’t have to bother with that.”

“I don’t think that got written into the rules.” Invisibly, Tony took a moment to pump his fist in victory, before almost dropping the controller as the ramifications sank in.

“Hm.” Bruce took down an enemy in another hail of bullets. “Shitty rules.”

“No one’s going to argue that.”

 

When they logged off for the night, Bruce sat on the edge of his bed for longer than he could have defended.

 

Thursday was going to take a million years. Tony wasn’t particularly looking forward to Friday, for that matter, but Thursday he had a lecture to give—which, normally, he enjoyed; he was hilarious, he was informative, the students loved him—but today it just felt like everything was conspiring to make the day drag on as long as possible.

He messaged Bruce on his way in to his lecture I would give my left hand to be playing Halo right now

That’s more what happens in Halo.

how’s the costume? all set?

I’m on my way in. Wearing it already.

what do you wear under it? I can’t imagine it doesn’t get hot

That’s part of the mystery.

seriously though are you just roasting alive in there every year? how do you get the smell out?

Mystery.

Bruce sent him a link to a song that went I am California, drugs fall out of diaper bags as Midwesterners stare.

That’s good, said Tony, and tweeted it to his followers. He found himself humming it on the way into class. (Truck stops and the symphony, I’ll be here when I die)

The lecture was good. Of course it was, Tony was at his best on stage, and if you approached a lecture hall as a stage where the audience members were each coughing up a few dozen grand a year for the privilege of listening to you, it was very motivating. One of his favorite students—well, one he could actually recognize without prompting—had a good question that set him off on a tangent he managed to cut short in time to drag the class back on topic.

That night he said, what are you up to?

Bruce said, Crashing. It was a long day.

at a hotel?

Bruce ignored that and sent a link to a shaky video of a couple of cosplayers who were both going as Kate Beaton’s Fat Pony.

that is amazing and I think I’m in love, said Tony.

There were some good times. Also some sweaty people.

did that include you? camo is very butch but it’s actually hotter than the surface of the sun out there right now and he added a link to Haim, “Falling,” to underscore it.

Bruce sent him back a picture of an upraised middle finger. He couldn’t tell, from the plain white tile of the background, whether it was Bruce’s house or not. It would be too easy, wouldn’t it, if Bruce lived in San Diego—okay, not as easy as if Bruce was actually in LA or San Francisco, but he’d probably have met Bruce, then, at some physics conference or public event or dinner with colleagues, and he would have remembered that. He was sure of it. Those big fucking black plastic rimmed glasses, fucking hipster chic, not that he had any intention of revealing that to Bruce.

And San Diego wasn’t, wasn’t intolerably far away. Was it? If—and his mind skittered away from it for the hundredth, thousandth, time that day.

 

Friday, Bruce gave up on the costume and went in street clothes. He felt like he was cheating, but it really was roasting. Even with the additional ventilation he’d drilled in, even with his jury-rigged swamp-cooler built in at the back of the neck, he had been uncomfortably warm. He’d pulled off the helmet any time he felt like he could get away with it.

On some level he’d felt paranoid, like he expected Tony to leap out from around a corner and say I’m here a day early! But he knew that wasn’t going to happen; Tony had his tickets, and besides, he had a lecture to teach.

And Bruce had agreed to lunch. Not a date. Probably.

Jesus Christ. What was he doing? There was no way this didn’t end badly.

He found himself ducking into a booth of an artist whose work he didn’t recognize, but it was good, damn good, very compelling—it looked like she’d made her own comic book, and he ended up forking over the cash with a minimum of debate.

“Thanks!” she said, lighting up. She was young enough to still be in braces.

He smiled, holding up the comic. “Looking forward to it,” he said, and she blushed.

He checked Twitter probably every twenty minutes or so. Half the time (more) there was a message from Tony. A picture of an opened suitcase, stuffed with clothes haphazardly; hope the hotel has an iron. ing service. A picture from the window of the car. The latest was a picture from the airport, where he was making a face, adding so bored you have no idea oh dear god I’d even take grading

You’re welcome to mine, said Bruce, smiling a little down at the phone.

Tony’s flight was supposed to leave in half an hour. They’d have to start boarding soon.

He went and got an overpriced cucumber-and-kale smoothie, and took it outside, even though it was still broiling hot. God, he hoped it cooled down for Saturday.

He was halfway through the comic he’d just bought (it was good, really good) when his phone buzzed. There was a notification—huh, not from Tony. And another one. He cracked open Twitter and felt his heart start to sink.

Tony, it seemed, had fallen prey to the mistake that had taken down Eliot Spitzer—no, not a dick pick, but he’d forgotten to make the message a direct message instead of a general tweet, and it was visible to everyone. And his followers were already talking about it, responding to it.

It had been pretty innocuous, as these things went: just a picture of Tony and the empty seat next to him in first class, and the words, just saying, you can’t beat the view from here, sweetheart, you should join me next time which—okay, from Tony, you had to expect those things, those random endearments, those moments of inappropriate intimacy. But to Tony’s followers that looked an awful lot like he was saying he was in a—like the person he was tweeting at, Bruce, was supposed to be there. Because, yes, it was @angryprof141, and yes, Tony’s followers were starting to ask, wait what? Are you dating? Is this an announcement? Who is angryprof141?

And there was going to be a limited window of time before somebody scoured his feed too well, before somebody made too big a deal about it. That was how things like this went.

Bruce stared at the notifications, continuing to roll in, already into the fifties.

He clicked over and deleted his account without pausing.

 

Tony didn’t realize until he got off the plane.

It was late. He was tired, and sweaty, and smelled like airplane, and even in first class they couldn’t make it fun, and he just wanted to say hi to Bruce. And he opened up Twitter and the absolute fucking avalanche of notifications hit him in the face like a sledgehammer. Is this somebody we should know about? There were words like girlfriend and fiancée and of course she’s a professor.

Jesus Christ. Had he—oh, Christ, he had. How bad was it? How bad—he saw the words account is already deactivated hope we didn’t scare them off and oh no oh no oh no

But yeah. angryprof141 was gone.

Bruce, he thought, goddamn it, you paranoid asshole.

He had—what, this and a handle in a couple of games. No phone number. No email. Nothing.

He sat down heavily as soon as he got a taxi, and tipped his forehead to rest against the cold window.

He didn’t call Pepper. He didn’t call anybody. There wasn’t any point to it. He ground the heels of his palms into his eyes and when he got out he tipped the driver generously.

He slept like shit. He didn’t like hotels and he didn’t like that he couldn’t complain to Bruce about not liking hotels, and every time his thoughts veered too close to Bruce it was like a white-hot wash of pain in his brain.

The next morning Tony’s alarm went off, like a curse. He fumbled his phone out from under the pillow. No new messages—he’d been hoping that Bruce would make a new account, message him, laugh about hey what a crazy thing that was. Or text him. No such luck.

But he was a professional, whatever Pepper believed or pretended to believe, so he got up. He took a shower. He got dressed. He made his way to the con.

 

Bruce slipped the helmet on as soon as he got in sight of the building. This, of all days, was not a day to be missing any piece of armor.

There were more than a few people dressed as Master Chief. There always were. It gave him a certain level of comfort, but maybe not enough.

They’d never gotten around to concrete plans for lunch. Hadn’t settled on the name or the time. They’d figured they’d just hash it out day of. Tony’s words.

Tony’s Twitter feed had been eerily silent since the night before. (Now that he wasn’t following Tony, he had to just leave the public feed up to see, which felt stalker-y but what the hell. Lean in.) No tweets, no responses to the people wanting to know what that meant. The post had vanished around the time Tony’s plane was supposed to get in—more than enough time for people to start speculating. Hell, practically enough time for them to get bored.

Tony finally tweeted, as Bruce was on his way in to the con, Panel on exoplanets coming up! Look for me as Sherlock. Because detection.

There was a chorus of people announcing that they’d be there. Bruce looked at them—squinting at his phone through the mirrored dome of the helmet—and sighed.

Maybe he could still. Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea.

(That’s a bad influence talking, he thought.)

He slipped in just a couple of minutes before the panel was due to start, found a seat behind a Diva Plavalaguna cosplayer near the back who rendered him practically invisible. Besides, there were so many people there. He was just—one more fan.

Too far away to see how Tony looked, although the deerstalker, good Lord, that was hilarious. The authors on the panel got to talking about what it meant for science fiction that there was finally a focus on location planets that might, with some refinements, be capable of supporting life.

And although Tony had been unusually quiet at the beginning, after introducing himself (“the Crown Prince of publically indefensible statements about astrophysics,” to a rippling chuckle through the crowd), he did get into it. He started getting into it with one of the authors about whether it was unrealistic to look at planets outside of a very Earth-like class as potentially habitable.

“Look,” Tony said, “I’m saying, if you watched that great, hilarious special they did with Stephen Hawking about alien life, there’s more diversity out there than we’re really currently prepared to address—hell, look at deep-sea life here on Earth, we’re seeing organisms that are just not at all what we would have predicted—”

“Yes,” a biologist jumped in, “but you’re talking in large part about microorganisms—”

“But if we look at where macroorganisms come from, which is microorganisms, I think it’s not impossible that we’re going to run into an infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters kind of situation, where there are so many planets that can kind of support life that sooner or later we’ll run into one where there are macroorganisms.”

“I don’t disagree,” said the biologist, and the killjoy author huffed into his microphone.

At the end of the panel, there was vigorous clapping, and Bruce sat for a few minutes to let some of the people between him and the exit filter out.

 

Tony knew he shouldn’t be looking. He shouldn’t—it was a recipe for driving himself insane, peering out into the audience to see if he could spot any Master Chiefs among them.

And he could. He did, almost immediately. The one in the front row was about 5’4” and had a killer rack, though, so he figured that probably wasn’t Bruce. Probably.

Over the course of the panel he picked out a few more—five or six, he thought, though there were parts of the audience he really couldn’t see.

And what was he going to do about it? Nothing. Obviously. Because he was a giant fucking coward, was what he was.

He managed to get into the discussion. Said some stupid optimistic shit about life on other planets. Nobody came to these cons to hear that they were probably alone in a vast and uncaring universe. He didn’t get into the fundamental difficulty of distance, that even if there were aliens there was very little chance we’d get to talk to them, let alone meet them, because just sending information at the speed of fucking light would take millennia, and the profound loneliness of existing in this universe was probably an incurable condition—oh, shit.

He grinned wolfishly at another panelist and didn’t pound his head on the table. Because he was a professional.

The panel finally ended, and Tony knew he should stay for at least a minute or two, should shake hands, chit chat, but he just shot up from the table. “Sorry,” he said, “gotta go.” The other panelists glanced over at him in surprise as he took off.

He made it through the startled crowd starting to mill around with a pair of sharp elbows, repeating “excuse me, excuse me,” until he got to the first Master Chief he’d spotted.

“Bruce?” he said.

“What?” asked the person in the costume, in a voice that was way too high—probably a teenager.

“Shit, sorry,” he said.

And then he was on to the next one; he made it through about five of them, rejected a couple for being visibly wrong, before he spotted one of them—about the right height—pushing through a door that he happened to know led to a stairwell, not a clear shot back to the rest of the con.

He’d gotten into worse trouble following his gut before.

He made a beeline for the door, pushed it open.

The Master Chief was standing, one hand on the railing. Obviously hadn’t moved since he’d walked in, at least twenty seconds ahead of Tony.

“Bruce?” said Tony. He hated how his voice sounded, thin and reedy, miles away from the way he sounded on stage.

There was a long silence, very long, too long, really, before the Master Chief blew out a heavy sigh.

“Yeah,” said Bruce.

“Okay. Holy shit. Okay. Look, I have some things to say, if that’s okay, if you’ll—if you want to listen to them.”

Bruce was still just standing there, one hand on the railing, other hanging loosely by his side. It was good armor, after all. Bruce took in a breath and then turned around to face Tony, as much as he could be facing Tony when his face was completely hidden by the helmet, and how was that for making a tense situation worse. They were standing so close.

“Shoot,” said Bruce grimly. He sounded—Jesus. He sounded exactly like he did on the mic.

“I was—you were there, you saw me on the panel, but I was having kind of a moment, up there, thinking about things like distance and communication, go ahead and laugh if you need to, but it’s true. And look, I know I should have been more careful about that tweet, I should have checked that I wasn’t broadcasting that, but you know what? I meant it. I mean it. I think we could be a good team. A good—and I don’t just mean a good science team, because that’s obvious, I’d want to talk to you even if all I had to say was that. We should stay in touch just to finish the problem and get credit for it. But, uh, no, I have, I think I have feelings for you, and you know maybe this is actually easier to say when I can’t see your face, because I don’t care what you look like, I want to, I want to date you, I want to go on dates with you, Jesus,” he said, wiping his sweaty palms on his slacks. Bruce was (presumably) staring at him. “So what I’m saying is,” and as Tony was talking Bruce reached up and he was taking off his helmet shit shit shit “we should at least trade actual phone numbers and if you want to leave it at professional collaboration that’s fine, but if you,” and Bruce pulled off the helmet and Tony said, staring in blank shock, “okay, great, you’re excessively hot, that’s fine, that’s not making this harder at all, Jesus Christ,” and then he got to stop talking. Because Bruce, Bruce who had curling dark hair clinging to his forehead, who was clenching a jaw with a line like a marble statue, who it turned out had brown eyes with a vertical line between them where his eyebrows were drawing inward and up in a mix of what looked like annoyance and confusion and concern, put a hand on the back of Tony’s neck and dragged him in and kissed him.

Tony couldn’t help it; he made a noise, half a groan, half a sigh, and leaned in, hands on Bruce’s hips over the clunky armor. The kiss didn’t start chaste and it sure as hell didn’t stay that way, Bruce biting Tony’s lower lip, Tony letting the tip of his tongue flicker against Bruce’s.

Bruce broke the kiss first. “Jesus,” he said, looking startled, winded.

“Yeah,” said Tony. He turned his head in, kissed the point of Bruce’s jaw, felt it jump under his lips. “You okay?” he said, without looking up.

“I—” Bruce laughed a little, shakily. “I think so, yeah.”

“Where do you live?”

“Here. San Diego.”

Tony nodded, pulling back far enough that he could carefully rest his forehead against Bruce’s. “Okay, good. I was hoping. I mean, at least this is civilization.

“I can’t believe I’m making out. In costume.

“Hey, you’re just living the dream,” said Tony. Bruce laughed.

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Of course it’s true! That’s what literally everyone in a costume at a con is secretly hoping for: to make out. Preferably with me, probably.”

Bruce shook his head minutely, but there was still a little smile on his lips. “You still want to get lunch?”

“If you’re not ashamed to be seen in public with me.”

“Only because of that hat. I thought you said you had fashion sense.

“All bets are off in costumes!”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

Tony was staring again, head cocked a little. Bruce raised his eyebrows.

“What? Something on my face?”

“No, just trying to figure out what the fuck happened,” said Tony. “You’re—I mean, look at you, how are you here? With me?”

“You’re not Humphrey Bogarting me,” said Bruce, clearly torn between a desire to laugh and actual embarrassment.

“What, like—oh, Rick and Elsa, no, no. Just saying.”

“Let’s get—let’s get some fucking lunch,” said Bruce. He kept running his fingers over Tony’s face, like he couldn’t help himself.

“It’s early.”

“We’ll get early lunch.”

“We could get coffee, or—”

“I’m hungry.”

“Lunch it is! We’re off to lunch. I’m following you, I have no clue where we’re going.”

Bruce rolled his eyes heavenwards.

 

Bruce put his helmet back on before they left, even though they managed to stay out of the main thoroughfares.

“Just for privacy,” he said, and Tony flinched and nodded.

Bruce kept sneaking glances at Tony—it was easier with the helmet on. It was—it was still insane. Tony had just, had found him, and had said those things, like it was easy, effortless, and people talked shit about Tony Stark for being glib and having a smart mouth but there was something to be said for it, because Tony Stark might be flippant and kind of an asshole sometimes but he wasn’t a coward.

The restaurant was a hole in the wall a few blocks away. They walked in silence for the first couple of minutes, but then Tony grabbed Bruce’s arm and said, “Check out that cosplay!” and it was a really spectacular Dorian Red Gloria, complete with a dour-looking Klaus, which.

Bruce raised his eyebrows, even though Tony couldn’t see his face. “You recognize that?”

“Dude. Gay character in manga? During my formative years? You bet your sweet ass I knew it.” There was a second where a hilarious warring mishmash of emotions passed over Tony’s face.

“It is pretty sweet,” said Bruce.

Tony burst into near-hysterical laughter. “Yeah, well, I’ll reserve judgment for the appropriate time.”

“Tony Stark?” asked an overly chipper teenage boy who materialized out of nowhere on the street. “Can I get your autograph?”

“Sure, why not,” said Tony. He didn’t look at Bruce while he scribbled it out.

Once they were on their way again, Bruce said under his breath, “This is why I worried.”

“Oh, and you were absolutely right to worry! No argument about that here. I am, at least nominally, a public figure.”

“You kept sending me pictures,” said Bruce. “It was driving me nuts. Trying to figure out what—what you meant.”

“I was trying to flirt. If I were a better person, which I’m not, FYI, you should probably be aware of that, everything you’ve read about me is true, anyway, if I were a better person I would have said something sooner. But I just—I don’t know. I find a way to fuck things up. Every time.”

Bruce laughed, a short ugly noise surprised out of him. “I might have you beat there.”

“Hey,” said Tony, “you know what just occurred to me? With two experts in fucking things up and science, maybe we can figure out how to not fuck up.”

“That seems unlikely.”

“Call it optimistic.”

Bruce laughed again.

When they got to the restaurant, Tony held the door for him with a flourish. “Age before beauty,” he said.

“Hardy har,” said Bruce, and pulled off his helmet. They ordered with a minimum of fuss—Tony was staring at the menu.

“God, you know,” he said, “I didn’t realize I was hungry, but I skipped breakfast, and it turns out I’m fucking starving.”

“Most important meal of the day.”

“Breakfast?” Tony glanced sideways at him quickly.

Bruce rolled his eyes. “No, shawarma.”

Once they sat down, Tony said, leaning forward, “Okay, crash course in you, go.”

“What?”

“You heard me.” Tony waved his free hand vaguely. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and I fly back out tomorrow night. I assume you’ll want to spend a significant amount of that time at the con, and I want to get the getting to know you in while we have time.”

“You already know me.”

“Not enough. Dayton? To New York?”

“Yeah,” said Bruce, and found himself giving Tony something of an encapsulated and highly edited life story.

He looked at Tony while he talked; really looked at him, silhouetted in the late morning light, filtered by the posters in the windows advertising the specials that hadn’t changed in a decade. Tony was wearing a waistcoat. He’d pulled the hat and the cloak off and they were in a rumpled pile next to him in the booth, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked pale, nervous, and there was the way his eyes met Bruce’s, steady and aware.

 

They went back to the con after that. Tony was supposed to show up for a Q & A about careers in hard science. “Meet me after?” said Tony at the door, soft and quick, almost under his breath. He hadn’t mentioned phone numbers again. It was a way out, if Bruce wanted one.

“Yeah.”

So Bruce came back, after all. He waited outside the door, trying to be as unobtrusive as a man in a suit of black and green plastic armor could be, watching them milling around on their way out. He could hear Tony talking, saying something to someone in a voice that had to be much louder than he realized, full of a laugh.

When Tony walked out, still talking to a woman Bruce thought might work at NASA, from her buttons, his eyes were scanning the space. When they lit on Bruce it was like somebody’d pushed him: he actually wobbled back for a second before recovering himself, turning to smile and say something to her, and then peeled off and headed for Bruce.

“Hey,” said Tony, voice low and warm. He was wearing the stupid hat again, a pocket-watch tucked in his waistcoat pocket.

Bruce said, “Hey,” and Tony maybe couldn’t see his smile, but he could probably hear it.

“Did you find anything fun to do?”

“Enough. How was the group?”

“Good, good! There might be some actual future scientists in there. I have hopes.” Tony rolled out his neck, and it cracked alarmingly. “I have got to do more stretches before these things, though, I was twisting one way or the other the entire time.”

Bruce watched Tony.

“Do you have anything else tonight?”

Tony frowned into space. “No. I don’t have any commitments. Tomorrow I’ve got a thing in the afternoon, it’s why I’m flying out late.” His eyes snapped back to Bruce, and he didn’t say anything, but his hands were hanging at his sides, preternaturally still.

“Great,” said Bruce. “Show me your hotel room.”

 

They didn’t make out in the elevator, not so much because they were adults as because Bruce was still wearing his helmet and there were other people in it.

When they got through the door, Tony was on him immediately, tugging at Bruce’s armor in between short, sharp kisses. “Christ,” he said, “how do you get this off?”

“Series of—here, like this,” and Bruce showed him, and after that it was easy for Tony to pop it one piece after another, boom boom boom, until Bruce was standing there in a black long-sleeved Under Armor shirt in the air-conditioned chill of the room.

Tony raised his eyebrows. “So I was right, is what I’m seeing,” he said, and Bruce laughed.

“I wasn’t going to admit it.” Bruce tugged the collar of Tony’s old-fashioned shirt. “Get rid of this. I’ll work on my legs.”

Tony said, “Such sweet talk,” but he started in on his buttons.

“If you were looking for romance,” said Bruce, pulling off the shinpads that gave his armor the right line over his leggings, “maybe you shouldn’t have gone for a physicist.”

“Hey, I’m a physicist and I’m full of romance!”

“You sent me a song called ‘I Wanna Fuck Jean-Luc Picard.’”

“I was trying to hint.”

“Are you saying I remind you of Patrick Stewart?” asked Bruce, without pausing in stripping off his shirt, and then he was standing there, half-naked and hot as hell in Tony’s hotel room, looking Tony right in the eyes, smirking a little.

“I don’t remember Patrick Stewart being that ripped,” said Tony. He wrenched his shirt off and then kissed Bruce, because he could.

Bruce kissed back, and this was so much better than the stairwell, than the tense expectant distance between them since. Bruce wrapped his hands around Tony’s waist above both hips, fingers digging in; Bruce buried his face in Tony’s shoulder and took in a huge, shuddering breath, grinding his cock into Tony’s leg. Tony whined, painfully hard.

Bruce shocked him by grabbing him and actually hoisting him up, shoving Tony back against the wall. Tony tightened his thighs around Bruce’s waist. “Fuck,” he said.

Bruce was sucking hard on the tendon of his neck, and didn’t seem to mind.

Tony dug his fingers into Bruce’s biceps. “Hey,” he said, “big guy. No offense, but bed.

Bruce glanced up at that, raising his head with wet, swollen lips; looked over at the bed, which was, to be sure, the kind of bed Tony always liked when he stayed in hotels, large enough that it could comfortably accommodate a smallish soccer team.

And he actually very literally threw Tony onto it, and Tony bounced, and tried not to make any embarrassing noises. In a second Bruce landed on the bed, too, bouncing up on his knees.

“Blowjob?” asked Tony hopefully, and he’d meant it as an offer, but Bruce didn’t stop to clarify for whom before grinning and giving Tony a soft push back onto the mattress, ducking his head and pulling Tony’s boxers down far enough to get at his cock. He just let his lips go slack and took the whole thing at once, so there was a wave of wet heat, shocking pleasure.

“Jesus!” said Tony, thumping his head back against a mound of pillows before lifting it again to watch: Bruce approached the situation with a level of abandon he had not been expecting based on the cautious, careful math and the personal reticence.

Bruce hummed softly in pleasure around his cock, and he groaned deeply in response, hips twitching forward.

“I, ah, I actually,” he said, and Bruce lifted his head for a minute to glare at him.

“Do you ever stop talking?”

“I was just going to—oh!” and there was no use trying to talk about it, really, if Bruce was going to do that with his mouth, swirling his tongue around the head, and Tony’s head went back against the pillows again.

But it was a good idea, he thought, and after a minute he started scooting to the side. Bruce didn’t notice at first, but then he frowned, lifting his head. “Hey, what—”

Tony, halfway to goal, lightly smacked Bruce’s ass. “Come on, bring it around.”

“What are you—” Bruce propped himself up on one elbow.

“I’m telling you, we could be way more efficient—”

“If you’re thinking about efficiency when—oh,” said Bruce. Then inhaled raggedly through an open mouth. Tony had finally gotten to where he could reach Bruce’s cock. “Really?” Bruce managed after a second. “What are we, college kids?”

“You’re flexible enough for this and don’t even try to tell me two blow jobs aren’t better than one.”

“I—ah,” said Bruce, and his grip on Tony’s cock tightened almost painfully as Tony finally got his mouth on Bruce’s cock. “It’s a cliché—”

Tony’s mouth slid off with an obscene pop. “For a reason. Keep up. Next time I’ll bring toys, we’ll be twice as effective.”

Bruce muttered, “I can’t believe I’m fucking an engineer.”

“Believe it,” said Tony brightly, and then went back to sucking. Bruce’s hips bucked and Bruce moaned, low and long and throaty, and it went straight to Tony’s cock. And after that, it was like everything either of them did reverberated, building back and forth between them, until Tony had to stop for a second and rest his head on the bed, gasping, and Bruce did the same, and they went on like that, the tension building until they couldn’t take it, until they’d pause just long enough to back off from the edge.

Finally Tony said, “I’m—I’m going to—”

“Yeah, do it,” said Bruce breathlessly, and pressed a knuckle up behind Tony’s balls as he sucked hard. When Tony came, he came screaming around Bruce’s cock in his mouth. Bruce moaned heavily; Tony had the presence of mind to close his lips again just in time for Bruce to thrust into his mouth and come, still swallowing.

After a long, shaky moment, Tony said, “Jesus Christ. We’re so good.”

“Oh, we?” said Bruce dryly, or as dryly as he could covered in sweat, hair sticking to his face, cock slowly softening six inches from Tony’s mouth. “You’re not waiting for my review?”

“I think we’re on the same page,” said Tony comfortably. “I think I can read you on this one.”

Bruce sighed softly, but with a little smile on his mouth. “Yeah, you probably can.”

“You want to take a shower, get room service, and then see if we have the energy to do something like that again?”

“Hell, yes.”

 

It was a little past midnight when Tony said, “So, uh, I—so the sex is spectacular.”

“Yeah,” said Bruce, kissing the back of Tony’s neck, fingers just idly sliding over his sternum.

“And, uh, I don’t know what your thoughts on, you know, doing this again sometime would be, and also, maybe, dating, I’m just saying,” he went on.

“I’m in favor.”

That brought Tony up short. He’d expected this part to be harder, somehow—to have to work harder for it.

“Yeah?” he said.

Bruce hummed quietly into his neck. “Yeah. I’ll do this. Long-distance. Why not.”

“Okay, great,” said Tony, suddenly feeling weak with relief, and possibly potassium depletion. “I should probably get your actual phone number.”

“Gimme your phone.”

Tony had to reach under the bed to pull his pants out and fish in the pocket. Bruce squinted at the screen in the darkness, tapping in his number with great care; Tony twisted back around to watch him do it.

Bruce hit the button and a minute later something lit up on the floor across the room, buzzing loudly.

“Works,” said Bruce, and handed Tony the phone back.

“This day turned out a lot better than I thought it was going to.”

Bruce laughed, dark and velvety. “You and me both.”

They fell asleep between one half-told story and another.

 

Tony woke in the morning in the middle of the bed, which meant—no one next to him. He started to sit up, heart suddenly hammering.

“Easy,” said Bruce.

And there he was, sitting at the desk, wearing his boxer briefs but nothing else. There was a hint of a smile on his face. He was doing something on his phone.

“Can I assume you’ve taken compromising photographs of me?”

“Not quite,” said Bruce, and tapped something out on his phone. “There. You’ve got a new follower.”

Tony dug his phone out from under the pillow and pulled up Twitter.

“RageMonster1971?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s close enough.”

“What even is your icon?”

“It’s… Oscar the Grouch.”

Tony laughed out loud.

“Oh, that is fucking delightful. Fantastic. Are you going to be hungry soon? Because I’m already starving, and we have options, we could do room service again, we could go out, what are you in the mood for?”

Bruce grinned slowly.

“Room service,” he said, standing up, walking deliberately toward the bed.

“Okay, great, the menu’s still over there, toss it to me—oh. Oh. You know I’m serious about being hungry—”

“So order. We can be done before they get here.”

They were, but Tony did have to get the door with a sheet wrapped around his hips. The server managed to keep a bland, polite face.

 

They made it to the con that afternoon. Bruce insisted on going home first, for fresh clothes; he bundled his costume pieces into a bag and carried them, in his leggings and shirt like a morning-after badge of honor, Tony walking out to the taxi with him, getting one last quick kiss.

“See you there!” he yelled as the door shut.

And maybe he was feeling a little, just a little, nervous, tense, concerned, worried, but he texted Bruce a couple of minutes later, are you going to wear the costume today?

No, said Bruce, I only have one set of clothes to go under it. I usually wash them overnight.

well you were occupied, didn’t really have time for that

Very occupied. He could hear it in Bruce’s voice. He had to stop smiling, he was going to alarm the nice woman in the elevator.

But at the con, they had enough time to circulate together a little bit, and Bruce went to another panel while Tony did another science outreach thing, and then they met up after that and got smoothies.

“I, uh. I have to get to the airport soon,” said Tony, staring into space while he knit his fingers through Bruce’s under the table they were sitting at.

Bruce breathed heavily out through his nose. “Yeah.”

“When—do you know your schedule? When should I come back down?”

“Why wouldn’t I come up?”

Tony’s head turned quickly, and he stared at Bruce. “You would?”

Bruce was carefully examining his smoothie. “LA could be interesting. I hear there’s an ice cream place that’s a big hit right now.”

Tony started to smile again, in spite of himself. “It’s Pep’s favorite, I’ll take you and you can get a load of some of the ridiculous flavors. The line is frankly ludicrous but I’m told that’s the price you pay for high-quality ice cream, in addition to the actual price.”

Bruce smiled, slowly, down at the table. “Sounds good.”

They sat there with their smoothies, Bruce’s thumb gently stroking the back of Tony’s hand, for as long as they could, with the sky slowly going pink and purple and a wild, dark, teal-green blue above them.

 

Epilogue

“I think we’re going to be the first married couple to win a Nobel,” said Tony, fussing with his tie.

Pepper slapped his hand away from his tie and started working on it herself. “You have to ask him first.”

“Or he could ask me. I’m a liberated, modern guy.”

“Can today, just today, be about me?

“Pep! Half my life is about you!”

She rolled her eyes dramatically and stepped back, gesturing for him to look at himself in the mirror. His tie was flawless.

“Your toast better improve on that theme.”

“My toast is absolutely epic in both scope and quality!”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“You knew what I was when you asked me to do it.”

“That I did.”

Natasha’s best man put his head in. “Hey,” he said, “is Pep almost ready? Nat’s looking a little tense.”

“She is,” said Tony, just as Pepper said “I am.”

“Okay, great,” said Clint. “Places in five minutes.”

Pepper nodded, taking a deep breath.

Tony stepped back for a minute. “Pep,” he said. “Pepper. I have got to get a picture of this. Do you mind?”

She shook her head minutely. He pulled out his phone and snapped the picture—her gown, a structural Marchesa, had been his gift; he’d insisted, she’d agreed with no hesitation. It floated around her, backlit by the window, and she glowed like an angel. (Nat, in her infinite wisdom, had gone with a Naeem Khan that would be perfectly juxtaposed: covered in small soft gleaming pearl beaded flowers, setting off her red hair.)

“You look like a fairy-tale princess,” he said, “only, you know, more perfect,” and she smiled and smacked his arm.

“Stop it, I don’t want to cry before we even get started.”

“Your lash extensions are waterproof!”

“The eyeshadow isn’t. Now shut up and hold my train down the stairs.”

He grinned at her, something tight and hot behind his own eyes, through the joy in his chest.

Downstairs, Bruce would be seated—front-row, Pepper had insisted in one of her wild-eyed late night wedding planning sessions, he’s practically family, don’t you think, in a dark gray suit that made his eyes look somehow lighter. He’d be waiting for Pepper to walk in from one side and Nat from the other, and if Tony was right, he’d be clenching his jaw to keep from doing anything so gauche as showing a feeling.

There was a little box in the inner pocket of Tony’s suit. Today wasn’t the day, probably. Today was Pepper’s day.

But maybe tomorrow.