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"Tony, can't you even take a breakup conversation seriously?"

"What's the incentive?"

Pepper leaned back in her chair, exasperatedly flicking her hair out of her eyes with one hand. "Well, I guess I should be glad that you're taking it so well."

"As well as I ever take tautological ultimatums. Let me see if I have this right. This relationship isn't enough of a relationship, so you're dumping me."

He was pacing the room, not back and forth, but in a random space-filling curve, hands flying around him looking for something to fidget with, and he was not happy, that much was very clear.

"Would you call it a relationship?" Pepper folded her arms across her chest.

Tony barely paused in his pacing. "I'd call it a thing, that's what I'd be most likely to do, if someone asked me, which no one has, including you to this date, let me point out."

"Okay, well, in your mind, does this 'thing' include exclusivity, shared mutual goals, perhaps some idea of growing old together?"

"Growing old together? I'm not old, and neither are you, and that won't come for a long time, maybe never given my line of work -"

"Not helping your case, Tony."

"Why does everyone want to marry me all of a sudden?"

"Everyone?" she asked with a narrowing of the eyes.

"Okay, not everyone, just - Marriage, Miss Potts? Is that what you're hoping for? Because I've already signed over my company to you, I will sign over the rest if you want, just say the word."

"No, that's not what I'm hoping for." She stood up, balanced perfectly on her stiletto heels, and picked up her bag, slinging it over her shoulder. "Moreover, I think you know that's not what I was talking about. Which just makes it clearer than ever to me that even if I love you, Tony - and I do - I want things from my life that I'm never going to have with you. And I'm not willing to settle."

She walked toward the door, leaving Tony, standing still in the middle of the floor.

"And Mr. Stark - " Pepper stopped with the glass door open in her hand. "That was not the right moment to call me Miss Potts."

And she strode out.

###

The party was on the news for at least an hour before any other Avengers showed up.

There were bodies stacked up next to the dance floor - passed out, it seemed to Bruce as he threaded his way through the gyrating people still grinding along to the house music, but they still looked eerie in the flashing strobe lights of the place.

Tony wasn't just full of alcohol; he was wearing a lot of it, Bruce could tell from the smell as he approached. He was also wearing half of the suit - the breastplate and the boots, and underneath that almost nothing, as his arms were bare and the rest of him covered only in skintight knit shorts.

His eyes were swimmy and red, and Bruce hoped that was from alcohol and not from tears.

"Buddy! You made it! Have a drink! It's my birthday! I think." Tony threw back his head and yelled to the DJ even as he overpoured vodka into a twelve-ounce tumbler. "Hey, is it my birthday?"

"Whatever you say, man," said the bouncy-haired young fellow at the boards, segueing into the next fast-paced dance tune and keeping the lights and the people moving with deft pushes of his hands here and there at his control board.

"I don't think it's your birthday, Tony," Bruce said mildly, levering the glass out of Tony's hand and blocking his attempts to find a new one.

To which Tony responded by simply pouring a shot into his mouth with the bottle he held in his other hand. When the liquid stopped, he swished his face back and forth, then swallowed.

"These things have that valve that stops the pour after one drink's worth. You gotta keep pouring them if you want more than one drink." He blinked at Bruce. "You want more than one drink?"

"I don't even want one, thanks," and Bruce bobbed his head politely. "I was wondering if you wanted a ride home."

"Happy is here - isn't Happy here? - he'll give me a ride when I - hey, isn't Happy here?" Tony peered around the room until he spotted his burly driver standing in a doorway, looking, well, unhappy. "There's Happy."

"Yeah, Happy could drive us, if you want. I mean, if you like his driving better than my driving."

Tony wasn't conscious of it but Bruce had gently snagged an elbow and was steering Tony towards the door where Happy stood, with small nudges, nothing obvious, just enough to get Tony's feet moving towards the door one step at a time.

"I don't know, maybe I'd like your driving better. Hey, I don't think I've ever seen you drive a car. Can you drive a car? Of course you can, you can do everything."

"Not everything," Bruce continued in his quiet tone as he gently steered Tony toward the door.

"I bet you can, I bet you can do everything. After all, you're so goddamned smart. SO smart. I'm supposed to be smart but there's a really long list of the stuff I can't do. Like relationships, I can't do those, I never could, and frankly it wouldn't bug me but it seems to really bug everyone else."

"Nobody's perfect, Tony." Bruce had finally reached the door with Tony and Happy slid a hand around the other elbow. Between them they walked Tony out the door. "It just bugs you that you're not perfect because you're so damn close."

To Happy he said under his breath, "Where's the rest of the suit?"

Happy just shrugged.

Bruce had to weigh the imperative to get Tony someplace private to finish his moping against the imperative to not leave pieces of an Iron Man suit circulating among the public.

"Tony," he said, stepping in front of his friend, whose eyes had unfocused.

Tony looked surprised to see him. "Hey, Bruce."

"Hey." Bruce couldn't stop the soft smile. "Listen, important question, buddy, where's the rest of the suit?"

Please don't say you don't know, Bruce pleaded under his breath.

Tony focused a bit more, looked down at his bare knees, then his bare elbows, looked back at Bruce surprised. "I have no idea," he said. "It shouldn't do this."

"Fantastic," Bruce sighed then went back to his place beside Tony as he and Happy walked Tony back to the limo. He pulled out a phone as he slid inside, then reached out a hand toward Tony to help him in. Ignoring it, Tony simply put both hands on the floor, then his knees, and crawled into the back of the limo - an efficient way of dealing with gravity and bipedalism simultaneously, Bruce thought.

"Where to?" Happy stuck his head in the door as Tony crawled up onto a seat and laid on it on his side, head flopped at an awkward angle as if his neck were broken.

"PH-D at Dream," said Tony, naming a hot party spot with a name that tickled him. "After all, Bruce is in the car."

"Home, Happy," said Bruce, then into his phone, "We have a problem."

As Bruce talked into the phone, Tony sat up... then collapsed gently in the opposite direction, ending up with his head on Bruce's thigh. Something about it was ticking at his consciousness but his consciousness was losing the battle, and he drifted off to sleep wondering what he intended to wonder about, Bruce's hand gently resting on his hair, and Bruce's voice explaining into the phone to the rest of the Avengers that somewhere between the Tower and wherever Tony had been for the last few hours was half an Iron Man Mark VII suit.

###

When Tony came to, Bruce was sitting propped up against a zillion pillows against Tony's headboard, tapping on a laptop on his lap. Tony was sprawled, nearly naked, across the foot of the bed.

"Why don't I have more clothes on?" was what it occurred to Tony to say first.

"JARVIS was able to get the boots and the breastplate of the Mark VII off you; the rest of the team is out looking for the rest of the suit; and that's the rest of what you were wearing when I picked you up," said Bruce, waving a hand at Tony's knit shorts.

"Huh," said Tony, scrubbing both hands through his hair.

"So, what's the occasion?"

"What?"

"You said it was your birthday, but I know it's not, so I wondered what the occasion was for the... blowout?"

"Oh. Pepper broke up with me. I thought you knew."

Bruce looked startled. "Oh. I'm sorry. How would I know?"

"I just figured everyone knew. She was a little irritated. I figure she might put it out on the company news channel or something. Take out a billboard in Times Square. 'Tony Stark Sucks.' Something like that."

"That doesn't sound like Pepper."

"No, it's not." Tony sat back down on the edge of the bed, his back to Bruce. "She was irritated, though."

"Well, she'd have to be, to break up with you." Bruce was using his reasonable tone.

Tony flopped backwards on the bed, looked up at Bruce through Bruce's toes. "I am trying my best here, really I am. But I can't seem to make people happy."

"Relationships go two ways, Tony. I don't know much about them but I know you can't just hand someone happiness."

"I so would if I could." His brown eyes looked sad as they stared at Bruce upside-down. "Bruce."

Bruce looked up as Tony, with a great deal of effort, flipped himself over and managed to inch farther up the bed. "Bruce."

"Yeah, I'm here."

Tony laid his face on Bruce's shin, startling Bruce a little. "I would hand everybody happiness if I could."

"I know you would," said Bruce softly, leaning over to put his hand on Tony's head as Tony mashed his nose into Bruce's shin.

When Tony's tears started leaking down his nose, Bruce was startled again. "Wow, you really are a rotten drunk," but he said it without heat or even real judgment in his tone. "Hey, shh, shh."

He reached down and tugged upwards, gently, on Tony's hair. Tony flopped and wiggled his way up the bed, to end up with his head on a pillow next to Bruce's thigh. "This position again," he said, making Bruce's eyebrow go up.

Bruce just laid his hand on Tony's head, thumb stroking into the hair a little. "I know you'd make everybody happy if you could."

"I would." And Tony nodded. "And I don't think I've ever made one person really happy. Not one. Not my parents, nobody."

Bruce tensed up, then Tony could feel him forcing himself to relax.

"Tony," and now Bruce put the laptop aside and shimmied down till he was face-to-face with Tony on the bed. "Happiness doesn't last forever. It's a sometimes thing. And you have given many people many moments of happiness. As well as much more important things. Life, hope, even jobs so they can feed themselves and their kids. Work."

Tony nodded. "I gave you a lab. I'd give you more labs if you want. As many labs as you want."

"I know." Bruce wondered for a second if it should feel awkward, lying face to face with Tony Stark in his bed, but it didn't, so he didn't.

"Anything you want, Bruce." Tony's eyes were obviously moist but still Tony's -- so direct, and there just inches from Bruce's face. Tony seemed to put extra emphasis on it, making Bruce's skin prickle a little, when he said, "Anything. Just don't go."

Shaking off the weirdness - or the attractiveness, he admitted to himself - of such an unwisely broad offer, Bruce grabbed Tony's hand in his, pushed it flat on the mattress and patted it. "I've got nowhere else to be. I'm fine here."

Tony nodded, his eyes drifting closed as he fell asleep - or passed out, depending on his blood alcohol level, Bruce realized he should test it - even as he raised the hand Bruce had pressed down and laid it against Bruce's chest.

"Don't go," he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut.

###

The pieces of the Mark VII were retrieved by various Avengers who refused to give them back to Tony for free, except for the gauntlets, which Steve turned over to Tony with a serious, disappointed look that was more unpleasant to experience than the hangover, as far as Tony was concerned.

Barton turned over the left leg in exchange for a truly egregious number of fighting arrows, which, to be fair, Tony would probably have given him anyway. And Thor turned over the helmet in exchange for Tony's recitation of an Icelandic Edda at dinner, which bored everyone but Tony and Thor long before it was over yet made good use of Tony's flair for the dramatic. Natasha, however, held on to the right leg for a sufficiently long time that Tony started to wonder whether he ought not just build a new one. Bruce only knew that a deal had been struck when he saw Tony trudging back to his lab clutching his right leg of armor, and Tony only scowled when Bruce asked him what Natasha had finally given it up for.

Everyone seemed to assume, however, that the point had been sufficiently made that Tony ought not to leave weapons-grade tech scattered in his drunken wake, and after Clint booby-trapped all the alcohol cabinets so that alarms went off all over the Tower if Tony's fingerprints opened one of them, they all appeared willing to leave it at that.

 

###

Bruce knew that Tony began to feel better when he started to flirt again.

With Bruce.

"Can you make a vacuum housing for this?" Bruce asked one day, wandering into Tony's workshop.

"For you? Anything," said Tony, lowering his wrench and leaning a hip against the workbench.

He just looked at Bruce for a minute, their eyes locked, until Bruce broke the contact and handed over the component and said awkwardly, "Uh, then would you?"

"Oh, I thought we'd changed the topic," said Tony, but he smiled as he said it, and took the small glass and metal object, and then got involved in studying it, and that was the end of that.

Except that it wasn't. Tony had never stopped greeting Bruce ebulliently every time he stepped into a room ("Big guy!" he would say loudly, arms spread and eyes sparkling as if he'd just been waiting for Bruce's arrival), and some of his flirting was just reflexive self-promotion ("Iron Man, I need you down here!" Black Widow would yell in the middle of a fight and "Get in line, everybody wants a piece of this," Tony would respond, even as he swooped into position to deal with the threat).

But now the flirting was kind of pointed, and it was pointed at Bruce. Tony would lean into Bruce's shoulder to pick up a tool in the lab, then murmur "Sorry, am I in your space?" as he pulled away. "Thanks, Tony," Bruce would say at the breakfast table when Tony passed him a glass of orange juice, and "You're welcome, dear" Tony would respond absently.

On one of these occasions almost everyone was part of the traffic in the breakfast room, and when Tony ducked his head and said "Anytime, darling," as he passed the salt, Bruce noticed the tips of Steve's ears getting a bit red as Captain America bent over the toaster waiting for his toast to pop up.

Bruce waited till late that day when he could catch Tony alone, again in his workshop. If Tony were seriously trying to flirt, Bruce reflected, he'd be spending more time in their joint lab space and less time down here trying to turn one of his cars into ... something else.

"Uh," Bruce said eloquently, and Tony looked up from the designs on his displays.

"Don't, uh, don't use me to try to make Steve jealous, okay?" said Bruce, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

Tony just looked at him a second, and then said, "What brought that on?"

"This morning, in the breakfast room."

Tony's eyes flicked away and Bruce imagined him playing back whatever it was he had perceived happened in the breakfast room that morning.

Whatever he was expecting Tony to say, it wasn't what he said, which was, "Was Steve there?"

"Yeah," and Bruce folded his arms across his middle. "Making toast."

"Was he." Tony clearly was searching his memories and coming up with nothing. "And what was it I said that you interpreted as me trying to make Steve jealous?"

"You called me, uh, darling."

"Really. That doesn't sound like me." Bruce just rolled his eyes. Tony made a face. "Really, that doesn't sound like me. Too emotional and a bit overtly fey, don't you think?"

"So it was an exact replica of you, is what you're saying."

"I can attest to nothing. I'm not even sure we were at the same breakfast."

Bruce let out a huff of air. "Well, as long as we both know where I stand."

"On me using you to make Steve jealous. And, just for my information, why would I be doing that again?"

Bruce said nothing.

This time it was Tony who let out a not-quite-sigh. "That ship hasn't just sailed, my friend. It burst into flames, blew up, and sank in the harbor. Done, gone, and over with."

Bruce just looked at him.

Tony looked back. "In fact, there is no ship."

"Got it." Bruce's hunched-together shoulders didn't look happy, but his face was impassive. "Then, what am I supposed to make of your - what do we call the epithet? Romantic? Suggestive?"

"Well, it is extremely sexy when you use words like 'epithet'," Tony said, with a wide-eyed look that seemed to add "So what do you expect?"

"I'm leaving," said Bruce.

He had only turned around, turned toward the door, when Tony was in front of him, both hands on Bruce's shoulders. "Hey, buddy, I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to get under your skin or anything. You know, it's just me, I'm the guy who once poked you with a fork, I'm always doing things to get a reaction."

Bruce just looked at Tony, whose face was suddenly so different, whose body spoke of nothing but concern where a minute ago he was relaxed nonchalance. "Was it a fork?" Bruce asked bemusedly.

"Wasn't it a fork?"

There was a note of ... was that desperation in Tony's voice? "Tony, it's okay, I just meant I'm leaving this room, perhaps this... conversation," he said, unable to avoid rolling his eyes a little. "Not the tower, not the team."

"Oh. Good. Yeah. I knew that." Tony's clenched hands released, and he shifted over a step, pretending he hadn't been standing between Bruce and the door. "Sorry."

"Sorry for mistaking what I meant by 'leaving', or sorry for flirting?" Bruce brought his eyes back up to look levelly into Tony's.

They were too similar in height for Tony to have anywhere to go. "I'm not sorry for flirting," Tony said.

Bruce's eyebrows went up, then back down, and he just nodded. "When the crazy train jumps the tracks," he muttered as he passed Tony and headed out.

###

After that Bruce thought for a while that Tony was trying, he really was, but he couldn't seem to stop himself from slipping back into his old behavior.

And the hell of it was, he wasn't flirting with anyone else on the team.

Steve and Tony had settled into a perfectly cordial relationship; they worked well together, except when they didn't, and even got along sufficiently well at home. Tony made digs about Steve's understanding of technology and girls but he never made them so pointed that they drew blood, and for the most part Steve ignored him, except for those rare occasions when he was able to respond with a perfectly timed, perfectly balanced zinger.

Tony seemed mostly in awe of Thor when he was around, and also completely on a separate plane. Except for the mysterious intricacies of pop culture, they had very little to talk about.

Natasha persisted in terrifying Tony, and Tony continued his policy of watching her always with one eye, never quite trusting her to have both of her hands out of view.

Clint, on the other hand, Tony treated like a younger brother, alternately showering him with treats and delivering the sorts of smackdowns that would have resulted in therapy except that Clint was already grown up and Tony was in no way a formative figure for him.

Bruce tried to correlate Tony's flirting episodes with sightings of Pepper, who continued to run Stark Industries and showed up periodically to yell at Tony or get his signature. Once they even went on a business trip to China together and came back reacting to each other exactly the same way as when they went. If anything, Bruce would have welcomed some flirting, as the post-Pepper-time Tony was subdued and a bit too thoughtful for Bruce's liking.

So Bruce kind of welcomed it again when Tony started touching his hairline when they sat next to each other on the couch, or complimenting Bruce on his choice of shirt color.

###

Bruce was just as capable of a crappy day at work as any other scientist.

He wanted to swear as he bent back down over the bench. The protein structures had formed in completely wrong configurations, probably because he'd made a mistake with the solution. Thinking briefly that he could reset them with exposure to heat, he examined another sample under the microscope. It was even more bent and straggly than it had been.

"Fuck," he went ahead and muttered, and slapped the dial with his other hand, turning up the flame under the flask and turning his sample to soup.

"Whoa, what's up there, big guy?" Tony turned around from where he himself was crouched over a diagram, and winced as he turned his head. "See, this is why you can't work all the time."

"You do work all the time," Bruce snapped out. What the hell was he going to do about the protein strings - when he started from scratch, which meant another week of work down the drain or ahead of him, however you wanted to think about it?

"You work all the time. I work as long as is feasible, and then I stop."

The manifest lie pushed Bruce's temper closer to the brink, but he was used to putting a lid on it. He pressed his lips closer together, and looked back at his samples. Maybe he should try a different coagulant...

"Damn," Tony had no compunction about swearing, "this knot is killing me. I mean it burns." His left hand was pulled around his chest digging at his right shoulder. "Got to set an alarm to switch hands every few minutes. Jarvis, remind me."

"Yes, sir," JARVIS said.

"Shit, why didn't I build Dummy with more knuckles? His decision-making skills suck but at least he could do a Swedish massage."

"You're doing it yourself," Bruce said, not really thinking about anything but what ingredients he should put in his next batch of samples that wouldn't interfere with the cell regeneration test he was trying to do.

"It'd feel better if you did it for me," and Tony slid in between Bruce and his desk. "Right there, if you can feel that knot and I don't know how you could miss it. You've got to have warm hands if you emit radiation, don't you? You still emit radiation, right?"

Tony pulled his T-shirt collar away from the corded muscles in his neck and shoulder and wiggled to get himself right in front of Bruce. "Right there," he said, pointing at the spot, a golden stretch of skin that smelled faintly of motor oil and very expensive cologne and Tony.

Bruce shot backwards as though he were on casters, and yelled out, "Jesus Christ, Tony, have you ever in your life exercised any restraint?"

Tony froze, his exposed throat and position making him look oddly vulnerable, and Bruce had that familiar sick sensation in his stomach where he knew he'd done something wrong and couldn't even blame it on the Hulk.

Then Tony turned to face him for a second, and his eyes looked like holes into deep dark space.

"Yeah," he said and pushed himself away from the workbench and was out the door so quickly that Bruce didn't have a second to compose an answer, or an apology.

###

Bruce showed up at Tony's room that night, clutching a good bottle of whisky and two crystal tumblers.

But "I'm sorry sir, Mr. Stark has retired for the night," is all that JARVIS would say. And did not let him in.

Bruce went back to his own room. He didn't dare taste the scotch.

###

The next day Tony showed up in Bruce's lab.

Without preamble he said, "If I'm making you uncomfortable with unwanted attention, just tell me."

Bruce looked up from his microscope, pushed his glasses up his nose.

Tony was standing in the middle of the room, T-shirt, jeans, bare feet, an expression on his face that looked oddly vulnerable given his words.

"Wow, just like that you put it right back on me," Bruce muttered.

"I like flirting with you. If you don't like it, you've never said."

Bruce nodded a little, thoughtfully. "You have a point."

They just stood there.

Finally Tony burst out with, "So are you going to say?"

Bruce sighed. "No one likes being someone else's chew toy, Tony."

"That is just plain not true. I have several times enjoyed being someone else's chew toy. In fact I can show you the teeth marks I got one night in Ecuador, I really should have gotten stitches, I did at least get shots --"

"I mean you're just teasing me."

Tony looked at him, and his eyes were suddenly hot. "If you think I'm just teasing, buddy, I am clearly not doing this correctly."

Bruce folded his arms, looked over the top of his glasses at Tony. Tony refrained from pointing out how unutterably hot this looked.

Tony said, "I'm not making myself clear."

He walked forward till he was standing toe-to-toe with Bruce, meeting him eye to eye.

He smelled good and damn, he looked so good, but Bruce had spent years keeping a lid on his emotions. He didn't even swallow.

Tony said, "If you want me, you can have me."

Bruce felt his heart thump. But he kept his face impassive. Whatever Tony was doing, it would pass. Anything he said about the impossibility of fun no-strings-attached sex with a guy who could turn into a huge green rage monster, Tony would only take as a challenge. He didn't want to be a challenge for Tony.

And as far as he had ever been able to tell, Tony only liked challenges.

Tony just raised his chin, lowered it again. "Your turn," he said softly.

Bruce should just say he didn't like the teasing. Didn't like the flirting. Didn't like Tony's eyes on him, Tony's suggestive looks and smiles, Tony's veiled - and not so veiled - promises. He should say he didn't like the thought of having Tony Stark naked in his bed, writhing under his hands, at his beck and call even for a day, or a night. He should say it, but he wasn't that good at lying, and he didn't want to lie to Tony, and anyway he didn't want to say it, because actually he treasured every second of Tony's attention and desperately wanted more.

Tony stood there, so close Bruce could feel his breath, waiting for Bruce to kiss him or send him away.

Bruce couldn't bring himself to do either one.

Tony noticed.

"Okay," he finally said, backing up a notch, head cocked to one side and regarding Bruce the way a curious bird would do. "I'll just --"

But he couldn't figure out how to finish the sentence. So, in typical Tony fashion, he just left.

When the door closed, Bruce let out his breath. Slowly.

###

And Bruce pretended not to notice that Tony's eyes often, still, stayed on him for longer than was strictly necessary.

###

Iron Man was sitting on a rock surrounded by petunias and under a swinging wooden sign that said "The Bicketts", eating a peach, when Bruce Banner trudged up to him wearing a loose pair of khakis, an equally baggy blue polo shirt, and no shoes.

"That outfit does nothing for you," said Tony in between bites. The peach juice dripped on the shin of his red and gold armor.

"I took it off a clothesline," Bruce said sheepishly, looking left and right. People had stopped running and screaming in the wide Midwestern streets, and some of them were standing and staring at Iron Man eating a peach on a yard rock.

"I'd hate to think that's the best Ohio has to offer. The pants are hiding that spectacular ass of yours, and the blue in the shirt is fighting with your eyes."

A girlish gasp sounded from behind a pillar on the porch of the house behind them, a few strides away. Bruce's olive skin flushed a darker red, but Tony just said, "What?"

A preteen girl, her bobbed hair blowing in the breeze, stepped out from behind the pillar and tiptoed up to them, but quickly, like the ground was a hot iron.

She stage-whispered, "You sound like you like boys."

"What's your point?" asked Tony in his normal volume of voice.

"Boys can't like boys. And girls can't like girls," she said as if she were imparting some important bit of knowledge that grownups like him really ought to know already, and looking around a little as she said it, still sotto voce, not wanting any of the neighbors or the people gawking in the street to hear. "You'll get in trouble," she informed Tony urgently, as if it were a fate she wanted to save him from.

"Who told you this rank lie?" said Tony, dropping his hand so that the peach hung from the knob of his armored knee.

"Kids at school," she stage-whispered back.

"These kids usually seem smart to you?" Tony asked her.

"No-oo," she answered, then shifted her head to look left and right as if Tony's comment had sparked a number of new thoughts for her.

Bruce couldn't stop a soft smile, looking at the picture of the bob-haired eleven-year-old girl and Tony Stark in his armor sitting on a rock in a yard behind a white picket fence. Tony's hair, matted a bit with sweat at the top of his forehead, just showed under the lifted facemask.

Bruce looked at the little girl as he stepped a little closer to the two of them. "When did this topic come up at school?" he asked, pitching his voice low enough to be clear to their little group of three but not to carry.

Her eyes flew wide, and she looked up at him. Whatever she saw in the face looking back down at her with an open, friendly expression and gentle eyes, she seemed to make a decision quickly about trust. She still half-whispered. "I gave Angela McCready my extra carrots, and a frog, and a set of barrettes with the sparkly stuff on top, and some of the kids told me I was acting like a..." Her little face scrunched up as she thought and Bruce was glad she couldn't remember the words, "...something bad. And that girls didn't like girls, and I was gonna get in trouble."

"Uh huh." Tony dropped the mostly-eaten peach, pushed a button above his right wrist with his left hand, and his right gauntlet snapped open and retracted, leaving peach-free clean fingers available to work. He pressed another hidden button on a side seam of the suit, pulled out some small multi-colored squares. "Do you have a phone?"

"Yeah," she said in her breathy secret voice. "In the kitchen."

"In the kitchen? How quaint. Okay, if anyone else gives you any grief about liking girls, anyone at all, you call this number, okay? This is a nice lawyer named Joanne who will let me know about it and we'll fix any trouble you get into. How's that?"

She took the little cardboard rectangle in her fingers, looked up at Bruce.

"Lawyers help people who get in trouble," Bruce clarified.

"Sometimes," Tony muttered as he shuffled through the rest of the cards. "Where'd you get that outfit, Doctor?"

Bruce jerked his head to his left. "The blue house four doors down."

"I know them, that's Mr. Gilligan's house," offered their local informer.

"Great." Tony handed her a credit card. "You tell Mr. Gilligan we owe him for the outfit, and it's on me. I hope he wasn't attached to it. And here, give him this too -" he gave her another white card, "tell Mr. Gilligan to call them when he's done with the credit card. And miss -"

Her eyes looked like big chocolate pools as she looked up at him, clutching the cards in her small hands with dirt under the fingernails.

Tony asked in a serious tone, "Did Angela McCready like the carrots, and the frog, and the barrettes?"

Their young informer's face fell and she shook her head back and forth quickly. "She liked the carrots," she offered, her tone as doubtful.

Bruce nodded, his head still bent down to regard her. "Did you give her those things because she liked them, or because you liked them?"

The girl's brow furrowed, and her mouth made an O of surprise. These strangers were just full of information.

Tony's single nod was abrupt, clear. "There you go. Give things the other person likes, and you'll make a lot more progress."

He stood up, and his gauntlet re-formed over his right hand. He licked some peach juice off the red metal fingertips, and grinned at Bruce, who just shook his head.

"Shall we, Doctor?"

Iron Man trudged up the street, his feet clanging slightly on the sidewalk, Bruce Banner at his side holding up his pants with one hand.

"Is it wrong to kind of wish we had a SHIELD helicopter shadowing us today?" Bruce's voice drifted over to Tony as the two of them crossed a cross street and kept on walking.

"I hope that didn't make you uncomfortable back there. You know your eyes are gorgeous no matter what the shirt does. But it's the lips that keeps them coming back for more."

"Are we going to fly soon?"

###

Tony was making coffee, even though it was past eleven o'clock at night. Bruce sat on the couch eating popcorn in front of the television.

"Who's that?" Tony tossed over his shoulder, not really caring.

"Katie Couric," Bruce said around a mouthful of popcorn.

"That's not Katie Couric," Tony said scornfully, blowing on the top of his fresh mug of coffee. "I've been watching Katie Couric for years, and that's not Katie Couric. Her hair's all wrong."

Bruce leaned his head back over the back of the couch, looked at Tony leaning against the counter with one hip, sweatpants and grease-spotted cotton tank, bags under his eyes because he undoubtedly hadn't slept for at least twenty-four hours. Bruce raised his hand with the remote in it and turned up the sound.

"After this commercial break we'll return for the rest of the interview from Katie Couric."

It was only a split second, Bruce could see it on Tony's face, as Tony thought of, and rejected, a number of smartass denials or redirections.

Then Tony just grinned.

"Oh, you love being right, don't you, Doctor Banner?"

"Sometimes, I just am." Bruce spread his hands wide, remote in one, popcorn in the other. "I know it kills you. But you can't be right every time."

"No, no, you're right, this is a momentous occasion. What should we do to celebrate it?"

"Don't be an asshole, Tony," Bruce grinned over his popcorn, but Tony was already coming around the couch, coffee abandoned.

"No, seriously, what can we do to celebrate? Should I call up for some strippers? Dancing girls? You don't drink enough." Tony caught the wrist of the hand that was shoveling popcorn into Bruce's mouth. "You want a massage, maybe? Foot massage? Manicure? Full shiatsu deal? I think I can do shiatsu."

Bruce was grinning and Tony swung one leg over both of his to settle into his lap.

"Goddammit, Tony, get off, you're the same size I am, you'll crush me."

Tony's eyes got big and then he grinned back. He loved it when Bruce forgot he was the Hulk. That, he did want to reward. "Not at all, sir, this is part of the full-service celebration. I think a lap dance is traditional. Do you want a lap dance?"

"Do you know how to give a lap dance?" Bruce's eyes were sparkling, laughing up at Tony, and Tony couldn't resist. He tried to move his hips in a circle, rubbing his ass against Bruce's thighs.

"I don't know, do I know how to give a lap dance? It never looks like it takes a lot of intellectual capacity but it probably does take practice."

Bruce was full-out laughing now. "Tony, get off."

"I think if I do that it's extra. Stop wiggling, you're going to mess me up. Is it a clockwise thing?"

"Are your knees even up to this?"

"Are you making a crack about my age?" Tony's eyes got even wider. "I'll have you know I have the stamina of a man half my age. Give me a chance and I'll show you."

Bruce was full-out belly-laughing now, and Tony couldn't keep up his amateurish wiggle. He just put his hands on Bruce's shoulders and held on while his buddy laughed until tears ran out of his eyes.

It was the best thing Tony had ever seen.

When Bruce's eyes could open again, and he was wiping at the tears with open palms, Tony just grinned at him. "Really, just give me a chance."

Bruce caught his breath, righted himself - he had started to slide sideways what with the laughing and Tony's one-directional bump-and-grind - and he took a deep breath.

He put his hands on Tony's face - such big hands - and looked Tony right in the eyes. He looked relaxed, and happy, and gentle, and Tony wanted to tell him he'd never seen anything so beautiful, but Bruce spoke first.

"Tony," and the tenderness in his tone was something Tony had never heard before, from anyone, "you do not have to have sex with me to keep me here."

Tony opened his mouth, closed it.

He looked into Bruce's beautiful hazel eyes, laid his own hand against the dark-and-gray stubble along the edge of Bruce's jaw. He relaxed. It was as though Bruce was emanating happiness instead of gamma radiation.

"I didn't say I did," said Tony, but there was no bite to it.

Bruce just sat there for a moment, his big warm hands cupping Tony's face, and he smiled. Then he patted the seat of the couch next to him, shoved Tony's shoulder encouraging him to topple off his lap and into the spot indicated. "Now get off me, you big lug."

"Big lug. I think I like that. I don't think anyone has ever called me a big lug."

"That's because you're not that big."

"I like to think it's because I'm not that luggish."

And Bruce just smiled and found the remote and turned up the volume.

###

For several weeks Tony prowled around watching Bruce as if he were attempting to learn sign language from Bruce's posture.

Bruce just ignored him. Whatever was going through Tony's head, it was fine. Tony at least seemed to realize that Bruce didn't intend to go anywhere, and the flirting attempts had slowed way down, perhaps stopped, he wasn't exactly sure.

The flirting attempts had slowed down because Tony was attempting to compute an equation that didn't compute. He'd seen something real in Bruce's eyes that night, a clichéd honest-to-god freaking glow, or his name wasn't Anthony Edward Stark. But the guy had just pushed him off, happy to turn him down, as if he really didn't want him.

Tony was bad at people, he knew that. Hell, some days it felt like that was all he knew. But he'd been walking around thinking for weeks, for months, that he was pretty sure that at least Bruce wanted him. He'd filed it in his working files, like an operational parameter. Bruce could turn into the Hulk, Bruce had terrible fashion sense, Bruce wanted him.

He couldn't tell much about people almost ever, but he had developed a pretty good sense for detecting when they wanted him. It was one of his few weapons in the battle to get laid, since he had been a socially disastrous brilliant teenager, and he set a great deal of store by that skill.

Yet here was Bruce, apparently not wanting him, when Tony could have sworn that he did.

It was confusing the way seeing the world in a funhouse mirror was confusing. Which way should one turn? And was his head really shaped like that?

And to make it more confusing, Bruce just seemed ... fine. If anything, calmer and happier than he had been for a long time. It was...

Tony didn't know what it was. And nothing made him crazier than stuff he didn't understand.

###

"Hey, I want to come too!"

Natasha looked over her shoulder. "No. You whine too much when I hit you."

"Stop hitting me, then." Tony was munching an apple and attempting to follow after Steve, Natasha and Clint as they headed to the gym to work on fighting techniques.

"If I don't hit you, it's not sparring." She was sounding patient enough, but it could have been only a prelude to loosing a projectile weapon.

"Agent Romanov has offered to show me some fighting techniques that are new to me, Stark, and Barton has offered to help." Steve did not sound as patient.

"Great. What are we learning? Krav maga? Brazilian jiu jitsu? Whatever it is, I'm in."

"Can you do it without the suit?" Steve wasn't looking behind him, just following Natasha and Clint.

"Can I do it with the suit seems like a more pertinent question," Tony was saying as he trailed after them into the elevator.

Bruce just smiled and looked down at his laptop.

"You do not wish to join in the revelry, friend Banner?" said Thor, sitting across from him, knees spread as though he were seated at an Asgardian feast.

"No," Bruce said mildly. "There's no one who needs to learn fighting techniques less than I do."

"Perhaps you are right." Thor settled into the wide leather upholstered chair, his boots making no sound on the carpet. "There is little purpose in my participating in training bouts either. Unless it is with your alter ego."

Bruce just looked up, flashed a quick small smile. He didn't really like being reminded that only Thor was a physical match for the Hulk, and didn't have anything else to add to a conversation about Thor's practice opportunities. He wasn't going to let the other guy come out to play just to give Thor some exercise.

For a few minutes the only sound in the room was the sound of Bruce's keys lightly tapping.

Thor shifted again in his seat, then said, "Why do you not tell the man of iron of your love for him?"

Bruce choked, turned his head. "What??"

"I wondered why you do not declare it. Your eyes follow him and you like being near him, but you do not tell him how you feel about him. My beloved Jane tells me that in Midgard in this era, men are expected to convey their feelings in words." Thor sounded as if he himself were a bit dubious about that last part but was quite sure what Jane had conveyed on the topic.

"Thor, uh..." Bruce sat back, wondering if he could fake a sudden headache to get out of this conversation. Or a sudden Hulk attack.

"My lady Jane says it is because in your world men do not always publicly proclaim their love for one another. I do not understand this. In my world it would be the stuff of legend for two such mighty warriors to love one another and fight by one another's side."

"Really. That part must have gotten lost down through the generations." Bruce was staring at Thor.

"Yes, your people have a selective memory at times." Under his breath Thor added, "Or a stupid one." Out loud he said, "I believe it is because you do not believe that he shares your feelings. But I believe he does."

Bruce narrowed his eyes. "You bet for him and Steve falling into bed together."

"I believe he does not care for the Captain of America in the same way that he cares for you. But we cannot deny that the man of iron has mighty powers of persuasion -- and appeared determined to use them." Thor leaned forward on his knees. "Your wager was the same as mine, as I recall. Were you not hoping that perhaps he would seduce the Captain and thus free you of your need to declare your feelings?"

Bruce blinked. That was a pretty circuitous soap-opera plot to come out of the mouth of an Asgardian god. "Really I just figured... Tony's Tony. People don't usually say no to him when he asks."

"So you did not deny him when he asked you." Thor's head-tilt looked rather knowing.

Bruce's eyes widened and he swallowed. "He asks everybody, Thor, that's my point."

"I understood your point. You stated that our friend Tony is highly successful when he turns his attentions to wooing someone. And yet he failed to woo the Captain."

"I'm not sure what he wanted to do was 'woo'," Bruce muttered.

"He has not attempted to woo me," and Thor's eyes glittered with amusement as he sat back in his chair. "Nor do I believe that he has attempted to woo friend Barton, or the most beautiful Black Widow."

Bruce's eyebrows were knit together now. "What's your point?"

"His heart appears to be quite selective, in fact." Thor snapped his fingers theatrically. "Of course, he did court the glorious Ms. Potts, did he not? And there he failed."

"I doubt that he failed all the way," Bruce said under his breath.

Thor spread his hands. "He failed to convince her to stay with him and be his love. So either he has not attempted to woo you - further evidence that he does not 'ask everybody' - or he has and has not succeeded - further evidence that he has been doomed in love repeatedly."

Bruce didn't say anything. He didn't like the idea that Tony was "doomed in love", but couldn't think of anything to add.

Proving that he was a strategic warrior as well as a big bag of muscles, Thor pounced on the silence. "And you will not speak of your love for him. Perhaps you also believe that he is not worthy of your love."

"Hey. I didn't say Tony wasn't worthy of love. I've got -- good reasons for keeping my distance."

Thor folded his hands together over his stomach. He looked at Bruce from below beetling blond eyebrows. When Bruce said nothing more, Thor finally said, "Go on."

"Oh for - "

"If you do not wish to enlighten me I can continue to speculate. That his physical person does not attract you, that you are repulsed by his drinking habits or --"

"It's not him, it's me!"

Bruce realized he was standing up, fists curled at his sides. And his laptop and its table had tumbled over in his furious rush to stand.

Consciously, he took a deep breath. Then another, then another.

Thor was also standing. He extended a hand toward Bruce. "My friend, I was not attempting to arouse your ire."

"It's not him." Bruce was trying to slow his heartbeat but it was pounding. He took in more deep breaths. "Yeah, he could get me into bed. But I wouldn't - I can't have sex the way he probably wants, and he doesn't want a relationship."

"And you do." Thor's voice, usually a rock-trembling rumble, was soft.

Bruce dropped into a lotus position on the carpet next to the overturned table and laptop. Automatically he separated his physical activity from his mental, instituting his relaxation procedures step by step without having to think about it. Eyes closed, he continued to speak but only as if he were already far away, as if his voice came from someone else's body. His hands, resting palm up on his knees, relaxed.

He said, "Of course I'm in love with him. I'm not ashamed of that. He's not in love with me. He likes having me around, and he's so desperate not to be alone that he would do anything to keep me here. That's not love. If I could give him a fun romp in the sack, I would. But I have to keep a lid on my heartrate and adrenalin, and that's not sexy fun, that's just medical hassle."

More deep breaths. Thor eased himself back down into his own chair, watching.

Eyes still closed, breathing slow and even now, Bruce added, "He doesn't need me to be another millstone around his neck. Especially when it's a millstone that could explode at any time."

"Ah." Tone still slower and quieter, Thor said, "Are you not treating the man of iron as if he were the girl?"

Bruce opened one eye, looked at him.

Thor went on, "Jane has explained to me that when I attempt to leave her behind in a fight, or assume that she will need to be protected, I am treating her like 'the girl'. I replied that she is a girl, but she was quite clear that she did not mean that I was treating her like a girl, but the girl. I do not know who The Girl is, but I believe that she is treated as helpless and harmless, more like a treasure to be guarded than a warrior in her own right."

Thor tilted his head, to the side this time. "Are you not treating the metal warrior as if he is The Girl?"

"Uhhhh...." Bruce closed both eyes, took a few more measured breaths. Then he opened them, looked at Thor's friendly, amused-but-caring expression. "You might have a point there."

"I do. We should drink mead! To celebrate the love of two such magnificent warriors for each other."

"Uh.... If there's any mead-drinking to be done at some future point, Thor, I'll let you know."

###

"Ms. Potts has left another stack of contracts for you to sign in your office, Master Stark."

"Thanks, JARVIS, remind me before I go to bed, would you, and I'll swing past. Anything interesting?"

"There are some materials acquisitions arrangements that I think you will want to know about, sir, and a manufacturing agreement with that new factory in Thailand."

"Do we support Thailand?" Tony tossed over his shoulder to Bruce, who was working across the room.

"This week," Bruce said absently, his hands moving over his equipment.

"Okay, put the Thai thing in the Yes pile, JARVIS."

"Very good, sir."

Bruce didn't look up. "Do you actually read all that stuff before you sign it?"

Tony sighed. "No, but I do try to at least skim the headlines. Pepper provides no guarantees that she won't slip something in that I won't like."

Bruce snorted. "What does she slip in that you don't like?"

"Nothing bad. Agreements about things I'll do, mostly, like holding down my car acquisition budget, that sort of thing."

"Ah. I thought maybe it was siphoning money out of your personal accounts or something," Bruce smiled and flicked a finger at his heads-up display, pulling up his current molecular diagram.

"Nah." This time it was Tony who snorted. "She could have had that. I offered to sign over everything to her, when we -"

Bruce looked over.

Tony turned and saw Bruce had stayed tuned in to the conversation. "We had a fight about getting married."

Bruce winced. "That sucks, man. Sorry."

"I'm sure it was me that sucked." Tony turned back to his soldering, bending over his own workbench. "She wanted to know where the relationship was going, I offered to turn over all my money to her if she wanted, she walked out."

"Ouch. I can see where that went wrong. Couldn't you have salvaged it?"

"Nah, she was right. It wasn't going where she wanted it to go, and it never would." Tony shook his head. "I tell you, I get to my age with no one interested in marrying me - except the fake 'You made me pregnant, now you have to marry me' emails that everyone gets from time to time - "

"If you're Tony Stark," Bruce said into his microscope.

"If you're Tony Stark," Tony agreed. "Then boom, out of the blue, two marriage proposals within a couple months of each other. What, is my expiration date approaching or something?"

Bruce looked up from his workbench. "Why, who else wanted to marry you?"

"Steve." Tony shook his head, even as his eyes stayed focused on the tiny circuits he was connecting. "Damndest thing."

Bruce froze. "What was that?"

"It was a while ago, and it was weird, like I said, so don't make me try to remember the whole thing word for word, but basically he was kind of saying - kind of saying that he wouldn't just do a one-night stand but he wanted to know, you know, if I was in. Like all the way in. So it kind of extends to, you know, asking if I would marry him." Tony shook his head as if he still couldn't believe it.

"What do you have in here that can monitor my heart rate?" asked Bruce, crisply.

"Huh?" Tony looked up, distracted both from the memories and his tinkering.

Bruce's face was flushed and Tony's attention was instantly focused. Bruce said, "It's a simple sentence in a language that you speak, Tony, so just tell me the answer. What do you have in here that can monitor my heart rate?"

"JARVIS' auditory inputs are better than an ultrasound in here, he can - JARVIS, display Dr. Banner's heartrate in beats per minute, quarter screen, center, right now."

The big red numbers flashed, 116 and climbing instantly.

"Bruce?" Tony turned toward Bruce. "Something you want to tell me?"

"You tell me. Did you ever, for one second, consider accepting this proposal?"

"What, to marry Steve?"

"Yes, to marry Steve!" Bruce's mouth was twisted, almost a snarl, and Tony's own heart rate speeded up considerably as he fought to keep himself from stepping backward away from his friend.

"No, I didn't," Tony said quietly but clearly. "I've never felt the least bit of desire to get married to anyone and I sure as hell didn't seriously consider marrying Steve fucking Rogers."

Tony's eyes flicked up to the display, then back to Bruce's still red face. "One hundred thirty five and climbing," Tony said calmly. "You want to tell me what is going on?"

"I have to make myself look calm every day," Bruce said, overtly trying to take deep breaths but his eyes large and wild as he looked at Tony. "I have to act calm, I have to keep acting calm. But you of all people know that I. Am. Not. Calm."

"Not calm about what, Bruce, buddy, give me more of a clue here, I'm trying to keep up --"

And Bruce did audibly growl as he grabbed Tony by the shirt, fabric twisting in his fist, and stared him in the eye from inches away.

And then the next second he was pulling Tony that much closer and his mouth was just inches from Tony's mouth, feeling Tony's breath warm and moist on his face because of course his mouth was open, of course he stopped Tony just about to say something, because Tony Stark never shut up, Tony Stark always had something to say but he'd never mentioned marrying Steve Rogers before and the mere possibility was falling on Bruce's insides and crushing him as if it were a cinderblock wall and there was no way, no way to keep all that inside.

Dimly Bruce registered that Tony was sort of struggling in his grip, in his hand, and Bruce backed off a little to see that Tony's eyes were blown but it was impossible to tell if it was from shock or fear or, the least possible alternative, from proximity to Bruce.

He let Tony go with a spastic unclenching of his fist, and backed up, voice trembling, hand trembling as he said, "I'm going to need to go. Away. For a bit. I'll be back. Don't wait up."

As the door closed behind him Tony felt for the nearest workbench, holding his knees locked through sheer force of will, purposefully not asking JARVIS for a reading on his own heart rate. "JARVIS, make sure Dr. Banner has access to all the transportation services, air, ground, and that all the building systems are unlocked to him no matter how he chooses to leave. Don't forget the basement hatches."

"Of course, sir," JARVIS responded as immediately as ever.

###

Tony invented a hydraulic system for space applications and tinkered on some things. Biological samples, proteins and some other things started to look iffy in Bruce's lab; Tony had them put in containment hoods and left, as he wasn't sure what Bruce would want done with them.

There was a mission with the team, and Thor really came through for Tony, blocking a bolt aimed at his back that would have knocked him right out of the sky.

Natasha asked Tony if he wanted to spar with her.

Someone blocked all Fury's calls, and someone - Tony hoped it was Steve but it was probably Clint - kept leaving peanut butter sandwiches on the stairs by Tony's workshop.

Tony kept busy.

For twelve days, fourteen hours, and thirty eight minutes.

Not that he was counting.

###

"Doctor Banner's access code has been used at the lowest entrance on the south side, sir," and Tony sat bolt upright in the bed he hadn't slept in, pretty much at all, for twelve days, fourteen hours, and thirty-eight minutes.

"Which elevator, JARVIS?" Tony asked, leaving his quarters barefoot and at a run.

He found Bruce just getting out of the elevator on the common level, heading for the kitchen. Bruce took one look at Tony and turned around back towards the elevators.

"No! I mean, let me find you something to eat."

Tony hustled over to the kitchen, and Bruce slowly turned, moved to follow him.

Tony kept throwing glances toward Bruce as he tossed some cold brown rice in the microwave and pulled a jar of marinara sauce out of the fridge. "What do you eat with this, what, beans and rice make a complete protein, right? I heard that somewhere."

"Yeah," Bruce said, pulling himself up on one of the breakfast stools at the counter, and sighing. "Not necessary, but yeah."

"No problem. Uh." Tony pulled the rice out, steaming under its cover, and put the whole remainder of the glass jar of sauce in. In two more motions he'd removed a can of low-salt organic chickpeas out of a cupboard and opened them with a can opener.

Bruce watched him drain them into a colander in the sink, rinse them off. "I - " He paused, cleared his throat. Tony dropped what he was doing to grab a bottle of mineral water out of the fridge, uncap it and hand it to him.

"A glass of tap water is fine," said Bruce, but he drank it, and some of the rasp in his voice diminished.

Tony tossed some of the beans in with the now-hot rice, and pulling the jar out of the microwave, poured some marinara over the whole thing, stuck a spoon in it and pushed it in front of Bruce. The whole assembly had taken about three minutes.

Bruce said, "Wow. I didn't know you could cook."

"I have done it very seldom before." Tony looked down at the bowl. "I seem to be getting better at it."

Bruce finished the bottle of water with two more swallows, sighed. Tony went to get another but Bruce just pushed the blue bottle toward him. "Just refill this, thanks."

Tony filled it at the filtered faucet in the stainless sink, pushed it back to Bruce.

For several minutes Bruce just shoved food into his mouth, chewed slowly. He looked like he'd lost a couple of pounds, and his eyes were red, but otherwise he looked fine.

"You look hungry," Tony observed.

"You look like the dirt a rock sits in," Bruce gave him back. Tony had bags under the bags under the circles under his eyes, his lips were dry and cracked as though he hadn't had a drink of water - or a shower - in almost two weeks, and his skin was kind of a bluish color.

"Thanks. Look, are you going to stay for a while?"

"Yeah, Tony. Yeah."

"Like, a while in minutes, or a while in days?"

Bruce just looked at him, like he wanted to smile but he just didn't have the energy. "Like in days."

"Your room is ready for you."

Bruce did a tiny double-take. "I didn't think you'd sell it or anything."

"I mean, your bed has clean sheets and a fresh toothbrush is in the bathroom."

Bruce just stared at Tony for several long minutes. "You are the girl."

"Excuse me?" Tony drew up his chest, squaring his shoulders. He'd never been accused of being a girl.

"Sorry, I - Thor said - never mind."

"Okay." Tony turned away, looking like he might leave, then like he wouldn't, then like he would, all with the tiniest twitches of his muscles. Finally he turned to Bruce. "What did I do?"

"Not now, Tony."

"Here's the thing. I love not talking. It's one of my very best skills, not talking. But I don't know what I did, and if I do it again, you might leave again for another twelve days, fourteen hours, and thirty-eight minutes, and really I don't have the patience to wait that long for you to come back again, and I also don't have any tracking devices on you so that I can find you out there in the world, so there's really nothing that works for me here except for you to tell me what I did so that, if at all possible, I don't do it again."

"Tony, you didn't do anything wrong. Stop blaming yourself. You must be exhausted."

Tony just stood there.

Bruce looked down into his bowl, scooped a few more bites into his mouth, chewed.

Tony just stood there.

Bruce looked over.

Tony stood there.

He said, "Bruce, please."

"Tony, son of a fucking bitch, go -"

Tony walked to within a couple of inches of Bruce, his face right in Bruce's face. "Please."

"T - " Bruce slumped in his seat. "I can't - I'm so tired."

Tony nodded.

And didn't move.

"I lost my temper, Tony. If we go over it all again right now, I might lose it again. And that is exactly what I am trying to avoid."

Tony nodded. "Okay. This is a time and a place for warmer-colder. If I get warm, you tell me. You were angry because Steve proposed to me."

Bruce scrubbed both hands over his face, elbows braced on the counter, and just stared at Tony through his fingers as though he'd never seen anything so unbelievable in his life. "Warmer."

"And you were angry because I hadn't told you about it."

"Colder."

"You were angry at me."

"Colder, I think." Bruce sighed.

"You were angry at Steve for proposing to me?"

"Warmer," Bruce admitted, looking back at his bowl and shoving in another bite.

Tony looked disbelieving. "You were angry at Pepper for proposing to me?"

"Really cold. Anyway, she didn't propose to you."

"Steve did."

Bruce grunted, didn't say anything else.

Tony had backed up a few inches but hadn't moved. "You were angry at me because - "

"Ice cold."

"Nah, that I don't buy. You were pissed off. At me."

Bruce sighed. "Yeah, I was, but only for a minute."

"Your minutes are really big and hairy."

"Don't I know it."

"You were angry at yourself -"

"Tony. Drop it." Now Bruce was, uncharacteristically, looking Tony right in the eye with a direct glare. Tony wondered if he just imagined that green flare in the doctor's hazel eyes.

"You were angry at yourself because Steve proposed to me." Tony backed up another step, not because of the green flare, he told himself it wasn't because of that, but because he wanted to give Bruce at least a little space. "And you're not going to get angry about it again."

"Not tonight." Bruce shook his head. "No."

"And we're not going to talk about it."

"Not tonight."

"Sometime. Maybe. In the future."

"Yeah." Bruce rested his head in his hand. "Is that enough for you for tonight?"

"Yeah. Of course."

Tony walked backward toward the elevator. "No problem," he said just before he backed into one.

When he got back to his room, he said, "JARVIS, revoke Dr. Banner's access codes to exits from the building."

"Sir, Dr. Banner will not be pleased."

Tony looked at the clock. It would be dawn in an hour or two. "Just till eight a.m., then. As long as he doesn't try to leave, he won't even notice."

"Sir, what purpose does it serve to keep Dr. Banner in the building only for a few hours?"

"I really gotta get some sleep, JARVIS," Tony half-whispered, crawling over his massive bed, and falling down in the middle of it, three feet from the pillows, face on the coverlet, asleep.

###

Bruce had to give Tony this: he was fantastic at pretending normal.

Or maybe this was just his life, and Tony had never had a lifestyle devoid of interpersonal conflict, so this was as normal as Tony needed.

It felt awkward, running into each other in the halls, in the labs, but it wasn't because of anything Tony did. Tony was the epitome of what Tony normally was. He burst into rooms, talked in tangents, and once everyone had orange rings on the inside of their lips from something he'd done to the water bottles, but it wore off in a few hours (weirdly, Clint was more pissed than Natasha), but it was all fairly normal. And when he came into Bruce's lab or Bruce's space in the common room, Tony was his usual bursting-with-energy self.

But Tony didn't flirt.

With anyone.

Pepper showed up for a couple of meetings, and dragged Tony off to D.C. for two days. When they got back, Tony stared at Bruce so intently that Bruce kept looking down at his shirt to make sure there were no stains on it.

Tony came back and immediately settled into the living room to watch a movie with the team, sitting on a couch with Bruce and screwing up Clint's attempts to explain the cultural parts Thor didn't get, until Natasha threw a pizza crust at him. Which left a mark on his forehead.

"Hey! Did you see that?" Tony said, brandishing the pizza crust towards Bruce.

"I did see it," Bruce said, hiding his half-smile and hunching his shoulders down into the pillows on his end of the couch. Normal.

"You should not be throwing lethal pizza crusts at my head. I have a Hulk on this couch. Do not make me deploy him."

"Quiet down," Natasha said. "If I'd wanted a fatal hit, you'd be dead now."

"If you can kill a man with a pizza crust... I was going to say I didn't want to know, but actually I do. What kind of projectile speed are we talking about here, and can you achieve it just by throwing? Because these things really aren't that sturdy."

Normal, thought Bruce, and even smiled to himself. He caught Thor looking at him, and his smile faded.

###

"Uh, Tony?"

Tony stopped in mid-flight down the hallway; Bruce put up a hand, as if he were going to touch Tony's forearm and then thought better of it.

Tony looked at him.

"Locking the doors at night to keep me in?" Bruce said mildly.

Tony opened his mouth, shut it again.

Bruce leaned his head a little closer without actually moving his body. "If I really wanted to get out, Tony, that wouldn't stop me."

"I wasn't - I just - "

Bruce just raised an eyebrow.

Tony turned his body toward Bruce, pointed an emphatic finger at the other man. "You know what we used to be good at? Talking."

"Who are you and what have you done with Tony Stark?"

But Tony leveled his intense look straight at Bruce. "The first day I met you we talked about everything. It wasn't just the science. We just - worked."

"You were sucking up to me trying to get me on the Avengers team."

"No! No." Now the pointing finger was back and pointing at Bruce. "I never did that. We just - talked."

"You gave me a pep talk about being a huge green rage monster and you fed me blueberries when I gave answers that you liked. Like a pet hamster."

"Wha - No." Tony stepped closer, grabbed Bruce by the upper arms. "Not at all. No way. I liked you from the minute I met you, Bruce, and you knew it. I said shit to you I've never told anyone. We could talk. We did talk. We used to be okay at it. We could try to do it again."

Bruce's raised eyebrow flicked up again as he looked around. "What, here?" he asked, still in that deceptively mild tone that Tony knew meant that Bruce thought Tony was trying to pull a fast one on him.

"Your place. Twenty minutes." Tony let go, put his hands in his pockets, squared his shoulders. "I'll see you there."

"I'll be meditating."

"Great. I'll meditate with you. And we'll talk."

"You can't talk and meditate at the same time, Tony."

"We'll alternate. I have nowhere to be, nothing more important than this."

Bruce's face scrunched up to one side as he looked at Tony, trying to figure out the angle, the point. "Yeah, sure," he shrugged and walked away, leaving Tony standing in the hall like a guy who didn't expect to see Bruce again in twenty minutes.

###

"Have you ever meditated in your life?"

"Sure."

"Successfully?"

"Of course not."

Bruce and Tony were facing each other, seated in lotus position on the mat in Bruce's room. The sun's rays easily cleared the skyscrapers, and they sparkled on the silver lines in Bruce's dark hair. Tony was finding it hard to sit still.

"Just tell me," Bruce sighed, his eyes closed.

"Uh. Should we have ground rules? You know, like sparring?"

"Are we sparring?" Bruce opened one eye.

"No. We are not sparring. We are anti-sparring. This is the fix to sparring. No holds barred, ask any questions, got to answer, no one leaves this room..."

"Till one of us is dead?"

"I don't think it'll have to go that far," but Tony looked unsure.

"Yeah, okay." Bruce tried to settle back down, closed both eyes.

"So tell me why you were mad that day when you left."

"Jesus, Tony, just jump right in headfirst, why don't you."

"Why bother to do anything else?"

Bruce tilted his head back, let the sun hit his face and warm up his skin.

Why not, he asked himself.

"It's complicated and I'm not sure I understand all of it myself."

Tony was, amazingly, uncharacteristically, silent.

Bruce concentrated on his breathing, tried to drop himself into the infinite quiet space in the middle of his sternum where the universe lived, on good days. He let the top of his head float and felt his body relaxing, responding to the practiced behaviors, even as his mind and voice raced forward. "I was angry because I hadn't expected anything like that to happen, and I was angry that it had happened, and I was angry that it hurt so much that it had happened."

"Hurt you. No. Bruce, buddy. I didn't say it to hurt you."

"I know. And there was no reason why it should have. Like I said, I didn't expect it to."

"After all, you were betting on me to get Steve into the sack."

Bruce started to smile, relaxed and let the smile run away like warm water. "You weren't supposed to know about that."

"I'm just saying, if you thought I was going to get into Captain America's pants, I don't know why it upset you so much to think of him marrying me."

"There's a world of difference, Tony. Sex is... well, it's just sex. I could imagine you seducing Steve, imagine it pretty easily actually." Bruce didn't add how much he winced away from the picture in his mind, but it was all too easy to conjure up - Steve's perfect, milk-white, blond broad-shouldered body and Tony's compact golden muscles, his arms wrapping around Steve, both of them so gorgeous, so perfect, so not-a-green-monster...

Bruce went on. "It would have been a thing, you would have moved past it, you would... you would still be Tony."

"I'd still be available."

Bruce fought the urge to open his eyes, then let go of the urge and just sat, eyes closed. "If he married you... I knew that meant that he would have you. You'd be his. You would belong to him, and you'd be that much farther away from..."

They sat so long in silence Bruce could hear Tony breathe, softly, through his mouth, and hear his own heartbeat.

"That much farther away from," Tony prompted quietly, finally.

"That much farther away from me," Bruce admitted.

There was a sound as though Tony had started to move, stopped himself.

They sat together, breathing, and it felt good to exist together, not struggling, coexisting.

Bruce opened his eyes after he-didn't-know-how-long. He had been in a true meditative state, he realized, at least briefly. Tony was still sitting there, his eyes boring into Bruce. Tony would probably never achieve a meditative state, Bruce thought to himself, wanting to smile.

Tony said, "You were mad at Steve for trying to take me away. And mad at me for almost leaving."

Bruce blinked, peacefully.

Tony said, "See, I get that."

In the quiet understanding and acceptance that often followed meditation, Bruce just said, "I know you do."

###

They lay on the floor, hands slightly outstretched towards each other, the rays of the setting sun turning them both to gold, faces turned toward one another, bodies pointed in opposite directions, like a yin and yang symbol having a conversation with itself.

Tony said, "See, I was so confused. Because I really thought you wanted me. I'm not usually wrong about that stuff. But then you really seemed to be okay and just, not wanting me."

Bruce smiled. "And you didn't know what to do with that."

"How would anyone know what to do with that? That's confusing as hell. That's like German-verb-level confusing."

"See, I was going to go with quantum mechanics."

"I don't find quantum mechanics all that tough. You just exist with quantum mechanics, you don't try to predict it. Live cat, dead cat, you've got the same cat either way."

"Ah. And you said you knew nothing about Zen philosophy."

"Aren't you avoiding? Wasn't there a rule about avoiding?"

"What are we up to, three? Four?" Bruce sighed. Then he looked into Tony's eyes, those deep gorgeous dark pools of brilliance and complicated emotion, and he said, "You weren't wrong, Tony. I wanted you. I always wanted you. I want you so bad right now the insides of my elbows hurt."

A long beat, and then, "Oh," Tony said, and blinked.

Then he said, "And you didn't want me to know this? Because?"

"Tony, to you desire is an action item. You never let it just be. You never let anything just be."

"I'm not going to act like it would be odd to want to know that the massive hotness I'm spending all my time with thinks that I am hot as well."

Bruce rolled his head more towards Tony. "Are we talking about me?"

"I will kick you, Banner, you know I'll do it. Can we come back to this topic?"

"Sure." Bruce smiled the lazy smile of a lizard in the sun.

"How much does the drinking bother you?"

He rolled his head over to look into Tony's eyes, just a couple of feet away. "Not much."

Tony stayed silent.

"Okay, it bugs me." Bruce shrugged into the floor. "But you're a big boy, I'm a big boy. And -"

Still Tony stayed silent, let Bruce finish his sentence.

"And you're not my father."

"Amen to that." Tony looked up at the ceiling, watched the light paint patterns there. "You sure as fuck aren't my dad either."

"Amen to that," Bruce chuckled.

###

"Back to the sex thing." Tony rolled over and lay on his side, arm propping up his head like a reclining Roman emperor.

"Sure," said Bruce, his back propped against the foot of the bed.

They hadn't turned on any lights as the sun had gone down, and now the room was lit with the glow of a street too far below their level to cast any illuminating light.

"I offered that one time. Why didn't you just take me up on it, if you wanted me?"

"Simple," said Bruce, looking out at where the stars should be, if New York's light pollution hadn't blocked them out.

"Simple," nodded Tony on the floor.

"You weren't offering for me, because you wanted me. You were just using it as a, a tool to keep me from leaving. Like a wrench. Or a lock on the door. Sex as if sex were a wrench. Anyway, I didn't want sex from you."

"Didn't. I thought you said you wanted me."

Bruce was quiet for so long that Tony thought he would have to re-invoke rule one. Bruce's hair was a tousled silhouette of black curls in the near-dark, his eyes completely lost in shadow. Tony could just barely see the dark rose pink of his lips almost colorless in the night, and the dim color of his skin where his hands were folded against each other, caught between his thighs, one ankle hooked over the other.

Finally Bruce said, "I didn't want to just 'do' you. I wanted to make love to you."

Tony swallowed. Bruce moved his head. "Did you want to say something?"

"No," Tony managed to get out.

"I wanted to make love to you till every inch of your body glowed like that reactor in your chest. I wanted to hear you scream out my name, I wanted to know what every crevice of you tasted like, I wanted to see you absolutely come apart for me. I wanted to leave marks on your body. I wanted your skin all over my skin. I wanted --"

Tony let the silence stretch on for only a minute. "You wanted."

"I --"

"Bruce. Rule four. Just say it."

"I really don't think we're at the right point -"

"Rule four," Tony's voice rasped.

He didn't think Bruce was going to go on, but then Bruce said, "I wanted to watch you collapse with me inside you. I wanted you to watch you pass out, then wake you up and make you come again. I wanted to look in your eyes and see you wonder if you could take any more. And make you take more."

"Jesus."

Bruce waited a minute, then in a voice more like his usual one he said, "You okay over there?"

"Just trying not to come in my pants."

Bruce's dry chuckle was surprised out of him.

"If you wanted --" Tony couldn't figure out how to finish.

"Yeah. If I wanted all that, an average Tony-will-do-anything-to-make-you-stay type one nighter wasn't going to do it for me."

"It isn't average. I don't do that," Tony said sharply.

"You offered. More than once."

Silence. Then, "I don't remember."

"The night you and Pepper broke up. You were drunk. You offered me 'anything I wanted' if I would just stay."

"The latter is hardly unique; the former is sufficiently categorical, thanks." Then Tony said after a minute, "I don't remember that."

"Not too surprising. You were drunk."

Tony seemed to think for a moment, then as if he'd taken a slight left turn of topic, he asked, "Can you come? Like, from sex? Not some tantric brain thing."

Bruce responded easily enough, even though what he said was, "Carefully. By myself, watching the heart monitor. I can't just let my system race out of control. It's like -- it's like losing a leg. I can't grow it back, ever. I'm always going to be like this, damaged and -- limited."

"You must be insane. You are the most limitless man I've ever met."

Bruce snorted. "Tony, it's really not necessary to snow me either."

"Look, I can elaborate as much as you want."

"Tangent. Rule three."

"Not a tangent. You see yourself as broken. I see you as extraordinary. You're not a mistake. You're not some patched-up Frankenstein monster, broken parts welded into a stained glass window. You're a fucking cathedral. You are science and passion wrapped up together in one towering daily struggle and sure, it's not the way you would have wanted it, you didn't intend to get here, but what you are - all of you - " Tony's voice trailed off, then he said, "Bruce, you are the most amazing achievement of your own brilliance and determination to survive, and to top it off, you're a good man. I've never been able to say that about anyone else. I've never been able to say that about me."

"You could, if you just opened your mouth and used your words." Bruce sounded a little sheepish, but Tony could tell from his tone that he was touched, even if he couldn't see Bruce's eyes.

"You turn into a giant green monster you can't control, and still I've never seen you do anything to be ashamed of. I can't say the same about myself."

Bruce just sat silently in the dark for a few minutes, then he said, "Thanks."

"Any time."

Then Bruce said, "Steve's a good man."

Tony felt a wave of rage wash over him, tried to let it go before it came out of his mouth. Maybe Bruce was setting a good example for him, with his Zen and his meditation. What Tony said was, "That must have been what I liked about him. He reminded me of you."

They sat companionably in the dark for a few minutes more, then Bruce said, "Rule three. How was that not a tangent?"

"How could I lust after you so hard if you weren't awesome?"

Now Tony could hear Bruce's smile in his voice as Bruce said, "Lusting after me, huh?"

"I'm so hard I could cut a diamond right now, in case you were interested."

"You know, I do find that fascinating."

"I think I'm going to have hurt feelings. Yes, I'm sure I'm going to. I don't actually proposition everything that moves. I have taste, good taste, selective taste. If I came on to you - apparently, twice - "

"--Or eight million times, if you count all the random flirting," Bruce said, letting more than a little annoyance into his tone.

"--However many times, no need for pettiness, it was because you are one delicious piece of man-candy, Dr. Banner, at the very least."

"I have never been referred to as man-candy."

"I live to introduce you to new experiences."

Now Tony was kind of sorry for the lack of light, because he was sure Bruce was blushing, and he wished he could see it.

###

"I don't ever want to be a liability to the team. Don't do anything crazy to try to save me." Bruce was yawning as the rays of the sun started to peep up over the square tops of the buildings outside.

"I do crazy things for worse reasons."

"Just - just let me be invulnerable."

"If you're invulnerable," said Tony, pushing himself up off the floor to lean again on the bed, "then you won't need me to try to do anything, and I won't."

"I don't want to have to worry about you if we're going to do this."

Tony closed his eyes and smiled, opened them again and looked up at Bruce through his lashes. "Do what?"

"Whatever. Whatever this is." Bruce flicked his hand back and forth to indicate Tony and Bruce and Tony and Bruce again.

Tony just nodded. "Don't worry about me."

"I am worrying about you."

"I know." Tony pushed himself up again, stood up. Extended a hand to Bruce. "Come on."

"What?" Bruce asked, looking up from his seated position on the floor.

Tony just crooked his fingertips.

Bruce put his hand in Tony's, hand to wrist. Tony hauled him up, towards the bed against which he'd been leaning off and on throughout the night.

"Tony - "

Tony just shook his head, still with half a smile, saying nothing. He pulled the covers back from the bed, gestured toward the pillow.

Bruce, feet bare, T-shirt and sweatpants dark shapes in the early morning light, looked at him.

Tony met his eyes. "Lay down."

Bruce lay on the bed, tucking his feet under the covers.

Tony fitted himself next to Bruce, lying facedown but with one arm draped over Bruce's middle.

"Tony - " Bruce tried again.

"Sssh." Tony squeezed him. "Sleep."

"Ton -"

This time Tony lifted his hand and smushed it over Bruce's mouth before he could finish. "We have been talking for, what, eight hours? Ten? And you still have more to say? No. No more words. Sleep time now for scientists. Sleep. More talk later."

Tony wiggled himself down in the plush bed, body aligned with Bruce's, arm still flopped over Bruce, face down in the pillow.

Bruce just looked at the top of Tony's tufted head on the pillow.

Finally it popped up, Tony's obsidian eyes glittering into Bruce's. "What?"

"I'm just..." Bruce shrugged.

"Worried. I know. More worry later. Sleep time now. Bruce. My ridiculously gorgeous, amazing rage-monster-slash-worrywart. If anything happened to you, I'd save you. Just like you save me. That's what we do. But not now. Sleep."

Tony removed the opportunity for more discussion by falling asleep, arm draped over Bruce, face drooling into the pillow next to Bruce's head. Bruce thought about thinking snarky thoughts about how comfortable Tony must be falling asleep with strange people in the bed, but then decided not to think it.

In the middle of thinking about what to think instead, Bruce fell asleep.

###

When Bruce woke again, he was warm, cocooned in the covers, a long hot body pressed against his back, and fingertips stroking his arm that felt like they were on fire.

Groggy - what time was it? - Bruce rolled his head a little, realized he didn't have his glasses on and couldn't see the clock anyway, went back to his delicious dream determined to keep as much of it as he could.

The fingertips became a whole hand, dry, hot, with a couple of small calluses that caught on his skin, smoothing down his arm and then up his chest, over his belly and down into the hollow at the top of his thigh. Bruce moaned a little, shifted to give the hand more access.

By the time the hand closed over him, hard and warm, Bruce was fully awake. The worry reflex kicked in, but didn't seem to deflate him at all. "Tony - " he said in exactly the same worried, questioning tone he'd used earlier that morning as they'd climbed into this bed. To sleep.

"Yeah," Tony said against his ear, warm breath and mustache hairs tickling the curve of his ear and Bruce wasn't ready for that, had no defenses built up, it made him just thrust forward, into that hot hand and Tony chuckled and oh, that was just as good.

Bruce managed to remember something about what he'd been going to say. "I thought we weren't gonna - "

"I didn't say we weren't gonna. I said nothing of that sort."

Bruce moaned again, shoving his head back into the pillow to get more leverage to push his hips forward, and the thrusting felt so damn good, he didn't want to stop even though he knew in a second he'd have to.

"I have a theory," Tony said, his voice sounding calm and deep in Bruce's ear though Bruce could feel Tony's heartbeat hammering against his back in complete contrast. "We're going to test out my theory with a little experiment here."

"Seriously, we can't -"

"You can. I really think you can. Say stop and I'll stop. But you can do this. You can let me do this." Tony pressed his lips against Bruce's jugular, noted the rise in the speed of the pulse even though the movement of his hand was completely smooth and regular. "Now your pulse is going up because you're nervous, not because you're excited. I think that what sets off the other guy isn't just heartrate, it's fear. You're going to have to relax for me. I have a backup suit under this bed, there is no one else here, you are not going to hurt me, and judging from the state of this - " here Tony lightly squeezed the spongy head of Bruce's rock-hard shaft, and Bruce moaned again, loudly, and thrust back against Tony's hand, " - you are going to come in less than three minutes, if you relax. You have nothing to fear. Nothing bad is going to happen. I'm not going to let it. I'm just going to make you come. Just a little orgasm for me, Doctor Banner, nothing disastrous, nothing major."

The warm tickle of Tony's words in Bruce's ear made Bruce let out a huff of breath of his own, somewhere in between a laugh and a moan, somewhere between agonized pleasure and a sob. "Tony, please - "

"Yes, Tony please. It pleases Tony for you to come. Come on, Bruce, buddy, you can do this. Don't make it tough."

And indeed the soft, light, twisting, exquisite motions of Tony's hand, lightly slick with Bruce's pre-come, made it impossible to do anything else.

Bruce gripped the edge of the mattress with one hand. "Don't get my semen on your skin," he gritted out.

"Gotcha," said Tony, rolling away just long enough to slide a drawer open and grab a condom, ripping it open with his teeth as he came back. He slid it over Bruce with the hand he'd been using to grip him, and the smell of latex mixed with the smell of Tony's breath and Bruce's hot skin.

The sensation was only a little contained and Bruce strained against Tony's hand. It had been such a long time, and he wanted this, he really did.

There was no time for Bruce to panic; his body spasmed, his muscles locked and he let out a loud, growling groan as his orgasm ripped through him, intense and shattering from his guts to his fingertips. Tony just kept rubbing gently, slowly, through the whole thing, till Bruce mumbled something unintelligible, spasmed again and pushed Tony's hand away. Tony chuckled again into Bruce's ear.

Tony watched Bruce catch his breath, watched his breathing slow, watched as his eyes fluttered open.

Hazel eyes stared into brown-almost-black.

Tony kissed him.

Startled again - would Tony ever stop surprising him? - Bruce automatically put his hand behind Tony's head, the short thick hair feeling strange just for a second against his palm, and then awareness of that fading away as Tony sank into Bruce's mouth, kissing Bruce deeply, seriously, and somehow gently, all the surfaces inside their mouths getting to know one another more completely than they had with hours of talking.

Tony was talking before the kiss was even over. "See? I know things. Don't question me about sex. Or engineering."

"That was the dumbest, most dangerous thing I've seen you do recently. And I've seen you do some dumb things," Bruce breathed into Tony's lips.

"Name two. Nah, don't bother."

"You have my pre-come on your hand."

"I know --"

Bruce gripped Tony's hand by the wrist, managed to get out of bed with a quick twisting motion and the next thing Tony knew he was being dragged to the bathroom.

Tony seemed almost not to notice.

"Look, theories have to fit observations, not the other way around. I've never seen the other guy when you weren't both angry and scared. Maybe someone who didn't know you as well might not have noticed it."

"I hadn't noticed it."

"Like I said."

Bruce turned on the faucet and shoved Tony's hand into the stream of water. Without letting Tony's wrist go and without moving from the spot he pulled a small garbage can out from underneath the sink, stripped off the condom, and dropped it inside. Then he used a washcloth dipped in the water stream pouring over Tony's hand, used it to wipe himself clean, then dried himself with another one. He dropped those in the same basket.

"Got a loofah?" he said as if he'd just wandered in to find one.

"Second drawer," said Tony, as if he weren't being held immobile next to a sink.

Bruce retrieved the loofah and proceeded to scrub Tony's skin till it turned red.

While he worked, as if they were both back at the workbench, he said, "You show poor experimentation protocol."

Tony raised both his eyebrows.

"For instance, how are we going to tell what the maximum heartrate reached during your little experiment was?" Bruce wanted to be more irritated, but at the moment it was both biologically and psychologically impossible. Or perhaps it was enough just to be scrubbing off all of Tony's external epidermis.

"JARVIS has all the data. He can plot it out for you if you want."

Bruce considered this. "JARVIS was listening while we did that?"

"JARVIS listens to everything. Especially in my house. If you want JARVIS not to listen, you have to let him know. Which you can. But not while he's serving as my heart monitor." Tony raised his voice. "JARVIS, can you plot -"

"JARVIS, not yet please, a little privacy for now," Bruce said, rinsing Tony's hand and examining it.

"Of course, sir," said JARVIS just before Bruce said to Tony, "Do you think I got all around the knuckles?"

"You could do the thumb again."

Bruce did exactly that. "I'm not sure you're taking this seriously enough."

"You're doing fine for the both of us."

"It's basic politeness not to harm your partner through sex. Even people you're not in love with."

Tony nodded. "But post-sex flayings are okay, apparently."

"Can you grasp that if sex with me made you ill, it would hurt me more than a knife in my chest?" Bruce asked, eyes still on his task.

"Yes, yes I can."

"Okay then. Don't do that again, please."

"I'll do my very best." When Bruce looked up Tony's eyes met his. "My best is really very good."

"We're going to have to be careful with my spit, too," Bruce said in his serious scholarly way.

"I'd love to be careful with your spit."

"Tony - "

"Bruce, you are always serious enough for both of us. I like smiling Bruce. Smiling Bruce is awesome Bruce and I'm not ashamed of wanting more."

Bruce looked like he was having a hard time deciding whether or not he should smile or punch Tony in the head. Tony had seen that sort of look before. He braced for either one.

Instead of doing either, Bruce kissed Tony.

It was a serious, sweet kiss, and it kind of made Tony's head spin.

He sought out Bruce's eyes as Bruce pulled away. "I thought you just said I was on kissing rations."

"Yeah, well. I thought it was better than punching you in the head."

"Not arguing."

"You're always arguing." But Bruce put his hands around Tony's waist and pulled him close, tight against his body, nosing along collarbone, and making Tony groan and drop his head to the side to give Bruce the best possible access.

In fact, Tony doing that was so hot that Bruce kind of lost his head and kept pushing and kept pushing till he had Tony against the wall, and could press in and grind against him in a way that made him make those groans again.

Tony was, in fact, hard as a rock and the pressure of Bruce's belly against his cock made his eyes roll up in his head. "Okay, yeah, that's nice but I gotta - "

"You don't gotta do a damn thing, Mr. Stark," Bruce said in a conversational tone, rolling his hips in a circle that pressed into Tony again and made Tony's eyes snap to Bruce's face. "You give me the disturbing impression that everything always goes the way you want it to."

"Everything does go the way I want it to. If it doesn't - oh, Christ, yes, press like that again - then I make it go the way I want it to."

"Hmm. So you're telling me you're done for now. Ready to go back to work. Maybe talk to JARVIS. And ignore this." Bruce slid his hand in between them and shoved down the sweats Tony was wearing to free his cock above the waistband just as Tony had done to him a few minutes ago.

"Well, I can prioritize - Holy shit," Tony groaned out load and grabbed Bruce's hair with one hand, because Bruce had just covered Tony's mouth with his hand and commanded, "Lick."

Tony covered the hand with as much spit as he could before Bruce slid down his body to get face-to-face with his target. And then Tony did almost lose it.

Bruce had been a little embarrassed about his own moaning before but apparently he had nothing to be embarrassed about, because the fountain of babble that came out of Tony appeared to be infinite. Fortunately, it also included important instructions.

"Fuck, you are the sexiest looking thing I have ever - your everything is so hot, did you know how incredibly hot your hand feels on me? Oh, yeah, do that thing with your thumb again - no, not that one, the - OH, yeah, that's the one! Jesus."

Bruce gripped Tony's shaft in one hand and moved it up and down now that Tony was good and slick with spit.

Tony didn't moan at that, he yelled, and Bruce wondered for a second if there were sufficient soundproofing in the place. Oh well, if there wasn't, that was Tony's problem - Tony's house, and Tony's yelling.

Bruce grinned and did it again.

"Jesus fuck, you look so happy, godDAMNit, how did you know this is exactly what I - " Suddenly Tony spasmed too, letting out more of an "erk" sound than anything else as his breath was cut off, gorgeous hard stomach muscles seizing and Bruce watched the come fly past his head, spattering the granite counters and the floor.

"Huh," said Bruce as he held Tony upright with one arm around his thighs, the other hand lazily stroking against Tony and making him twitch, "you didn't take that long either."

"Which is weird given how much I've had to jerk off by myself lately," Tony huffed, catching his breath, his face red.

"Nobody's making you jerk off alone," Bruce pointed out.

Tony looked down his body at Bruce, eyebrows pulling together a little. "I wasn't blaming anybody," he said.

After a few minutes he seemed to catch his breath, the red flush receding a little down his neck. Bruce wondered if it had covered his whole chest.

"Okay. So. You win on that one."

Bruce just grinned. Apparently mesmerized by the sight of a relaxed and happy Bruce Banner, Tony crouched down to sit, back against the wall, and smiled back.

"Wow, you are - well. I have a great idea for the next round - "

"The next round?" Bruce said disbelievingly.

" - next round, but you are going to have to let me go to arrange it."

Bruce's mouth twitched. He was happy right where he was.

"Hey, only good things, I promise. Plus, you should probably eat something."

"You should probably eat something."

"Jesus Christ, even with an orgasm under your belt you're the biggest, greenest fucking Jewish grandmother I have ever met."

"Yeah?" Bruce's voice deepened. "Your Jewish grandmother ever spank you?"

"I didn't have a Jewish grandmother. Until now. And, hmmm, I'm starting to think about that," and Tony squirmed a little against the floor, and Bruce watched with interest as Tony's cock twitched a little, despite being limp and damp and spent.

Huh, thought Bruce and filed that one away.

"Seriously." Now Tony put out a hand, cupped Bruce's cheek.

It was the sweetest, most intimate gesture Bruce had ever seen Tony make.

"Didn't we talk enough last night that we don't have to talk this morning?" said Tony softly.

"Not really. We talked about why we couldn't have sex, for one thing, not how we were going to."

"Didn't we just skip the boring parts?"

Bruce looked up into Tony's face and felt his chest pull a little. And for once, it didn't make him nervous. "Can you summarize the boring parts for me?" he rumbled.

"The way we feel about each other, no sex wasn't going to be an option much longer. The question wasn't if. It was how. We've identified at least one how. I look forward to more. A lot more, if I can get it."

Bruce felt his heart thump painfully at that the way we feel about each other, but he, for the first time in many many years, ignored it. "You can get it," he said softly.

"Okay. Well then. I have a great idea for our second date. Just let me up so I can arrange it."

Bruce rolled to his feet and gave Tony a hand up, watched Tony tuck himself back into his pants. "Second date?"

"I thought the first one went really well, don't you? Just so you know, though, I don't usually put out on a first date. Well, I do, but I thought you'd want me to say it."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"Don't know," said Tony, strutting toward the door, and really, Bruce thought, it might be tolerable to let him look that smug for a little while longer but it wasn't going to be able to go on forever. "Just seemed like the thing to say."

"Okay." Bruce thought Tony might say something else but Tony just left without further discussion, moving fast enough that it would have been a run on anyone else but on him just looked like Tony Stark, Top Speed.

Bruce shook his head.

###

The cabin looked haphazard from the outside, pieces of adobe shells tossed together by a child in the piles of sand and rock. But the landing pad for the helicopter was brushed smooth, and as Bruce swung out and headed for the building, heat already popping sweat from the pores of his skin under his shirt, he saw a truck parked on the other side of the building start up. An arm reached out and waved, and Tony waved back, before the truck motor revved, and Bruce heard the truck moving away into the distance even as the fwip-fwip-fwip of the helicopter blades slowed and stopped.

"Not stopping to chat?"

"It's a local company I asked to drop off my usual round of groceries."

"Usual? Uh... and do they know why we're out here?" Bruce asked, his eyes zipping back and forth to the duffel bag Tony had told him to carry, his own khaki pants, sneakers looking incongruous on the desert sand, the orange curve of the adobe building, Tony's face.

"I just told them I'd be here and had a friend with me. I didn't mention if it was for business or pleasure. Did you - " Bruce looked up as Tony's voice shifted, face shifted, " - did you not want anyone to know you were out here? Uh, with me?"

"No. No, I don't mind that," said Bruce and placed a solid hand on Tony's shoulder.

"Oh. Okay. Because I did tell JARVIS to tell anyone who asked that we were coming out to this lab today. Except for SHIELD, they can go fuck themselves. But, you know, people in the tower. That we know."

Tony hadn't looked the least bit awkward in bed this morning but he looked awkward now. Bruce squeezed the shoulder under his hand, smiled reassuringly. "No, of course I don't mind."

"Yeah. You can, uh, tell them anything you want when we get back," Tony said, still not meeting Bruce's eyes.

Bruce dropped the duffel bag he was holding, put his arms around Tony's shoulders and kissed him.

It was a thorough kiss, for all that it was spur of the moment on a helipad in the middle of the desert, and once Tony stopped feeling startled and relaxed into it, Bruce could feel that Tony was finally getting the point.

"We'll decide what to tell them before we get home," Bruce said mildly as he stepped back and picked up the duffel.

He was halfway to the door before Tony moved. Looking back, Bruce said, "What?"

"Oh. Uh. That was our third kiss."

"Are you going to count them all?" Bruce just cocked his head as he gave Tony a bigger smile.

"No, I had sort of pictured the third one, that's all, but that wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I thought I was on short rations."

The truth was Bruce was having a tough time being as cautious as he should be.

"Well, you can let me know what you're looking for ahead of time next time, but I warn you, I can't guarantee anything," said Bruce, pushing open the door and stepping into the blissfully cool dark inside.

Now Tony had caught up, was in fact crowding him as he brought the bag he was carrying in, closed the door immediately by catching it with his heel and slamming it to.

He then crowded Bruce up against the closed door, chest against chest. "Whereas I am actually extremely good at following directions," Tony muttered as he started to kiss Bruce underneath his ear.

"I doubt it," said Bruce but then let his eyes close and his head thump against the door. For just a moment he gave in to the blissful electric sensations Tony was causing, then his head came forward and his eyes darted around the room. "Er, is there a lot for me to break in here?"

"You're not going to hulk out," said Tony confidently. "If you want, I can prove it to you. JARVIS, project -" here there were some staccato syllables, "- all screens."

Bruce squinted and thought till the syllables Tony had said connected with a meaning in his brain - not the English storage. "dhaDakan," he said. "Heartbeat."

Around the dark, cool room an array of holographic Stark screens lit up, each one with a red tall number displaying Bruce's heartrate, which was dropping slightly as he stepped away from Tony's hands and Tony's mouth. 118, 115 --

"You can call it up any time. Project name not in English so you are unlikely to say it accidentally when you don't want it," said Tony, watching Bruce watch the numbers change.

"JARVIS, good to see you," said Bruce, studying the screens. "I didn't know you had a country place."

"And you, Dr. Banner," said JARVIS.

"JARVIS is everywhere," said Tony. "Like God, except real."

Bruce chuckled. His eyes were adjusting to the dim dark interior, and discovering that actually it was quite bright; it was simply much more shaded than the glaring sun against the sand and rocks and sky outside. Deep arches of windows with glass panes in them kept the heat out and the cool in, and the lights were highly energy-efficient LEDs but of a warm neutral color that made the place actually as bright as a New York day - inside.

"This is nice," said Bruce as he looked around at the heavy low southwestern furniture.

"This is just the living quarters. The lab is nice. Wanna see?"

Bruce couldn't have resisted the sparkle in Tony's eyes even if he hadn't wanted to see, which he did. He followed Tony through some sliding glass doors (safety glass, he suspected, given the thickness) and through a clean room that wasn't engaged, and then they were in a lab just as shiny and high-tech as anything at the tower - and a lot more high-tech than Tony's house in California.

"What do you do out here?" Bruce asked, walking around the benches, looking at the half-assembled metal housings, not touching.

"I used to prototype weapons. Plenty of room to shoot, even blow things up out here, and no one to ask questions. The power supply is, needless to say, self-contained, and the water's from a well. Off the grid and quiet as a grave."

Tony's face clouded up a little but then he went back to rolling a couple of the benches together against one wall.

"Now I just come out here when I want to build. Think."

"Have sex?" Bruce inquired, turning and raising one eyebrow as he looked at Tony.

"Today's the first time for that. But yes, I am hoping."

Bruce's smile flickered at the look on Tony's face. He wanted to ask Tony what they were doing, wanted to ask Tony how he had immediately made the leap from mending fences to being lovers. There was some sort of a logical continuum there to Tony that didn't automatically manifest itself to Bruce. But then perhaps Bruce didn't see how easy, how fluid things were in Tony's world. Or perhaps Thor had been right. Perhaps Bruce had been making something difficult that wasn't difficult at all.

He had thought that just the logistical difficulty of sex with him would turn Tony off, maybe even repulse him. It didn't seem to bother Tony at all.

He looked back over Tony's throat, Tony's jumping pulse, the flexing muscle in Tony's jaw, Tony's collarbone.

"You're not smiling any more," Tony observed, his tone flat.

"I was just thinking how fragile you are. Just - the pieces. You know."

There was silence for a second before Tony said, "You know, from anyone else I had just brought out into the middle of the desert alone in a helicopter hundreds of miles from anyone else, I would find that kind of alarming."

"Well, at least your instinct for self-preservation hasn't been entirely eliminated."

Tony stepped into Bruce's space. "You have all the room in the world out here. Want to hulk out? Go ahead. You're not going to bother me. Go ahead, there's nothing but sand and rocks and a couple of scorpions out there for you to squash. I've got emergency beacons wired up into this place a dozen ways, and you can't even find half of the transmitters to destroy - most of them are underground. Be my guest."

"You're ignoring that all it takes would be one Hulk-sized toss of the arm and you'd be crushed. Crushed, Tony, as in vertebrae pulverized, collarbone and pelvis shattered, rib cage -"

"When have you ever done that to anyone who wasn't attacking you?"

"Natasha. SHIELD carrier. You were there." Bruce's voice was bleak as chalk. His throat worked but he couldn't swallow.

"You chased her. You didn't crush her."

"I tried. I saw the footage."

"She had attacked you. Bruce, she pulled you out of Kalkatta where you were comfortable and into a situation you didn't want and didn't need. She didn't even give you much of a choice. I am not going to do anything you don't want. If you've told me the truth, you want this as much as I do."

"Tony --" Bruce didn't know how to finish the sentence.

"Bruce." Tony stepped even closer, nose almost to Bruce's nose. "I have trusted you since the day I met you. And you've never done anything to betray that trust."

"Wouldn't it suck if today were the first time," Bruce pointed out, unhappy frown making his face the wrong shape for kissing.

"Can't think of a better way to go," said Tony against his lips and kissed him again.

This time Bruce did kiss back, and Tony thumped against the wall as Bruce drove him into it. Bruce's hands took hold of Tony's shoulders, Tony's head, wrapped around Tony's waist and pulled him tight even as Bruce's pelvis ground Tony against the wall, and Tony was pushing, squirming against Bruce trying to get even closer, trying to get inside Bruce's skin.

Too soon Bruce tore himself away from Tony's mouth. "Too much," he mumbled, but Tony whirled him around and now it was Bruce's back against the wall as Tony kneeled down in front of him, hands busy at the zipper.

"Not enough," Tony shot back as he worked Bruce's pants open, freeing Bruce's cock from the cotton and elastic and licking it all over like an ice cream cone before slipping a condom on him and sliding it deep into his mouth.

"P - Project dhaDhakan," Bruce managed to get out, his accent smoother and more comfortable than Tony, and the holographic screens around him lit up with tall red sans-serif numbers. One fifty and climbing. It seemed already to Bruce as though it should be higher, but maybe that was just because of the heat and the pressure Tony was generating.

And it had been so long --

Tony did something with his tongue and Bruce moaned as if he'd been shot and grabbed Tony's head. "Can I?" he growled, in a voice totally different even from the quiet desperate man he'd sounded like just a minute before.

"Oh god yes," Tony moaned but the words weren't clear because he let Bruce hold him, let Bruce take control and thrust in and out of his mouth, holding his lips tight, letting his tongue swirl everywhere he could reach on every thrust.

Bruce even forgot to watch the numbers climb as he felt the clenching in his balls, watching Tony's face blissed out as his mouth so red held onto Bruce's cock just as tightly as he could and it felt so good, so damn good...

He heard himself moaning louder, repeatedly, on every thrust until finally he came with a choking shout and slid down the wall, hitting the floor before he had even finished coming, the last few spurts hitting him like shockwaves and all he could say was "Ahh, ahhh," watching Tony grab onto his shoulders with both strong hands and hold him up so he didn't fall completely to the floor.

So much. So long.

Not enough.

"That was - you're trying to kill me," Bruce muttered into Tony's kiss as Tony kneeled between his knees.

"Nope." Tony sounded cheerful and unrepentant but his hand grabbed one of Bruce's and pressed it to his own hard-on and Tony hissed with the first direct pressure. "That was carefully calibrated not to kill either of us, actually. Get the first orgasm out of the way and anything else that stimulates you is going to build up your heart rate much more slowly, I think. Plus, you're over the fear of the other guy showing up as soon as you start to enjoy yourself even if I didn't just attack you in your sleep, so that's a plus. Now we can get to the good part."

"Huh." Bruce just laughed half-under his breath, his head lolling against the wall. "That was a really good part."

"Nope," Tony said again, bouncing to his feet and stripping off all his clothes as if he could win a stripping contest with speed alone. He undoubtedly had at some point, Bruce considered, as Tony's underwear went flying and Bruce was faced with gloriously naked, erect, and happy Tony. "This is going to be the good part."

Then, because this was Tony Stark, what he started to do was rearrange equipment.

"See, this staging rack can easily hold my weight. Say, if you wanted me to swing from it - or if you wanted to tie me to it." His eyes, amused, searched out Bruce's and Bruce loved the way Tony's voice was joking and light but his eyes burned like the bottom of a fire. "Throw some blankets over this adjustable height bench, and hey, that's a pretty self-explanatory opportunity, and then there's the stuff we brought with us."

Tony disappeared in a second, returned in the next, both duffel bags gripped in his hands. He dropped them at Bruce's feet, where Bruce was still slumped in post-orgasmic bliss on the floor.

"Those?" Bruce looked at the bags. "I thought those were your luggage."

"I don't travel with luggage," Tony scoffed. Bruce thought about it - that was true; Tony probably had plenty of clothes and personal effects in this cabin anyway. "These - "

Tony unzipped a bag, removed pieces of machinery and started fitting them together. Then he removed a long purple dildo from its wrapping, and from an inner pocket of the bag, a tube of high-quality lube.

"These are the toys. And here's the good news. My heartrate?" Tony tapped the generator in his chest. "Can go as high as you can get it. JARVIS, Project dhaDhakan, display two."

Next to the falling red numbers green numbers appeared - 122 and rising.

Tony sat back on the bench, spreading his legs to display all his worldly options to Bruce. "Your turn," he said to Bruce, as provocatively as he could manage.

Bruce had run out of swear words. There was Tony, golden, muscular Tony spread out like a buffet. His dreams had come true.

He stripped off his own clothes, eyes on Tony the whole time.

Tony, of course, did not stop talking.

"You can do anything you want. If I can't take it, I'll tap out. Or yell 'stop'. Because this is not a club scene. Not that I wouldn't do that with you if you wanted to. But I don't know if that's your thing."

Bruce could feel his heart start to pound again. He didn't know if that was his thing either. This didn't feel like the time to share his lack of sexual experience with Tony.

He stripped off his underwear, took off the condom, used the underwear to wipe himself off, then folded it twice, three times, laid the condom on top. He'd have to designate a hazardous waste area.

He was, after all, a doctor. If he couldn't keep his head while Tony was looking at him like that, spread out like that, who could?

Tony was still looking at him. Tony licked his lips, which were still pink from what Bruce had just done with him. Tony's cock was rock-hard and red, pointed straight up his belly and dripping pre-come, and Tony wiggled a little on the bench, waiting for Bruce to get there and do his worst.

Bruce suppressed another groan. Tony was more pornographic than pornography.

"I like a lot. Just so you know. Like, a lot of everything. A lot of orgasms. A lot of stimulation. A lot of physical effort."

Bruce nodded, finally coming towards where Tony laid back, spread out for him. "I get it."

Tony swallowed as Bruce loomed over him. "I like you, too."

Bruce put out his hands, raked his nails over Tony from shoulder to groin, scraping lightly over Tony's nipples, Tony's belly button as he passed them.

Tony shivered.

"I wonder," Bruce said thoughtfully as he bent over Tony, "what it would take to keep you from talking."

Sinking his hand into the thickness of Tony's hair at the top of his head he palmed Tony's skull, tilted it back ever so slightly.

Tony just looked up at him, mouth falling open, eyes bright, trusting, ready for anything.

"I have some ideas," Bruce murmured.

###

"I have a question."

"Really?" Bruce's voice was mild. He ran his hands along Tony's sides, watched him shiver.

Tony was facedown on the workbench, the metal frame supporting his weight, but his arms were stretched out to the sides and held to the metal pipe frame with leather cuffs. All his muscles stood out and as Bruce watched another few drops of sweat formed along Tony's spine.

Bruce stroked Tony's damp back as he walked around Tony's spread-out body to look him in the face.

The sweat was making his hair stick to his skull despite the air conditioning. Bruce wondered if Tony were pulling that hard against the cuffs or just that desperate to come.

He crouched down in front of Tony, kissed him, first softly, then harder. He looked into Tony's eyes and watched those eyes glaze over again as Bruce turned up the dial on the machine that was driving, slowly, very well lubricated, into Tony from the other side. Tony's legs, also held out to the side with leather cuffs connecting to a different, very sturdy frame, trembled every time the bright purple dildo disappeared inside him.

"See, now I would have thought at this point you'd have trouble remembering your own name."

Tony's neck strained a little as he strove to keep eye contact as Bruce stood up, but Bruce patted his neck and Tony relaxed it.

"I have at least one thing you've been begging for," Bruce said as he positioned himself and slid on another condom so that, if Tony wanted, Tony could take advantage of the nicely engorged, carefully sheathed, hard cock right in front of him.

Tony did.

Bruce lost track of the time for a little bit as he watched Tony's body alternating between clenching and relaxing as Tony himself alternated between concentrating on sucking the warm real cock in his mouth and being invaded by the warm fake cock in his ass.

The movement of each one of those golden sweaty muscles, Bruce thought, was poetic. He was going to stop thinking of Tony as one of the more delicate Avengers. Tony wasn't just a rock star when it came to sex. Tony was a god.

Bruce noticed when Tony's hips began to grind against the workbench, trying to get more friction where he needed it most.

"Wow, are you going to come again? What would that be, three? Or four?"

He pulled out so Tony could answer. "Three," said Tony.

"Hmm. And what's the most you've ever had in one day, I wonder?"

"Four," Tony said immediately, opening his mouth and trying to get Bruce back where he wanted him.

Bruce crouched down again to look him in the eye. "Are you telling the truth, or lying to get me to be competitive?"

"The second one," Tony panted, grunting as the dildo drove into him again. "Bruce, please."

"Okay, okay, I'm not trying to be mean," Bruce told him, unhooking Tony's ankles with swift motions and letting them fall to the floor.

Tony sighed with relief as the muscles were able to relax, then groaned again as the dildo pushed him open yet again, brushing his prostate, filling him up.

"Aren't you going to let my hands go?" asked Tony as Bruce disappeared from his sight. There was the sound of a motor being turned off, equipment being shoved away, squeaking across the floor.

"Nope," said Bruce, positioning himself so that Tony's thighs nestled against his thighs, Tony's extremely open, extremely lubed ass right in front of him at the perfect height since Bruce had dragged the pistoning machine out of the way. "I'm going to take advantage of that conversation we had an orgasm or two ago about boundaries."

He slid a fresh condom on, discarding the previous one just in case there were rips from Tony's teeth. He'd already explained to Tony several safety protocols for his bodily fluids, which were not to come in contact with Tony's interior or exterior surfaces under any circumstances. Tony had agreed to this readily enough though Bruce could see rebellion lurking in his eyes. The fact that he'd had Tony on the brink of his first orgasm at the time might have had something to do with Tony's acquiescence. He suspected there was going to be a talk later about agreements made under duress. He didn't give a damn.

He stood behind that perfect back, watched the muscles moving along the spine, the ribs, the shoulders, even along the triceps. The reality of Tony was so much better than he had imagined, so much more. If this was a dream, it was better than reality and he wanted to stay in it.

Tony's real, warm, trembling muscles shook a little as Bruce ran his hands up Tony's thighs to part the cheeks of that spectacular ass.

"I'm not as big as that toy," he said as he nudged himself at Tony's entrance.

Tony just groaned a little. Or was that a whimper?

"Are you listening, Tony?" Bruce whispered, pressing himself slowly past the first ring of muscle.

Tony moaned as if he'd come already, but Bruce could tell he hadn't. When Tony caught his breath again he panted, "Yeah. I'm listening."

"I love you, Tony," Bruce said out loud, very clearly, as he slid home.

He never would be sure Tony heard most of it - maybe that was why he kept talking. While Tony was writhing, and yelling, and begging, Bruce could really say whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to say was, "I love you. This is perfect. This is, you are, everything I've ever wanted. Thank you."

Bruce kept reaching over to run his hands along Tony's sides, mesmerized by the muscles and the warm, real, live body of Tony Stark completely at his mercy.

He realized eventually that he might have reached a meditative state there for a while, as his heartrate, he noticed when he looked up, had stayed quite steady. Perhaps because this was nirvana.

Tony, on the other hand, was really flushing red all over - a gorgeous shade of red - and begging a lot more seriously now.

"Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease" he was saying as Bruce tuned back in to something other than his own bliss.

"Poor thing," Bruce murmured, reaching around Tony to pull him up hard against his groin, nestling Tony's ass against the hollows of his body, and wrap his strong hand around Tony where Tony needed it.

Tony screamed as he came and Bruce was really very impressed with the sturdiness of the mounting frame, because Tony's entire weight ended up being pulled on it as Tony grasped the leather, pulled with all his might, and used every ounce of leverage he could get to push himself down on Bruce's cock.

The spasming made Bruce let go too and he felt a little dizzy - and his balls more than a little sore - as he came, overwhelmed by the pressure and heat and force that was Tony Stark after all.

"I think we could get to four," Bruce said in his mild-mannered scientist tone as he pulled Tony tight against him, refusing to let go even as he felt himself softening, leaning over to run his hand over the sweat-soaked deltoid and trapezius muscles to the opposite latissimus dorsi.

Tony, fighting to draw oxygen back into his lungs, half-laughed, half sobbed and just shook his head weakly as it hung limply forward, sweat dripping from his chin.

"I'm a medical doctor, you know," Bruce said, unhooking the wrist cuffs and gently, slowly, standing Tony up to stay pressed against him, his arms holding Tony's body up. "I know stuff about these things."

"Maybe... tomorrow...." Tony managed to get out, his hands coming up to rest over Bruce's hands where Bruce's arms crossed in front of him, just under the reactor. "Or... possibly... next week."

"Hmmm."

Bruce finally slid out - couldn't avoid it forever - and he deftly removed the condom one-handed and left it on the heap. Shifting around slightly, he put one arm underneath Tony's knees and the other behind his shoulders and lifted him, still gasping, to rest on his back on the table they'd been subjecting to stress just a minute before.

"Wow," said Tony as Bruce laid him down gently. "You always this strong?"

"No, sometimes I'm much stronger," said Bruce and picked up a washcloth, used it to wipe, very gently, at Tony's face and the pools of sweat forming on his sternum and the hollows of his collarbone. "You warm enough?"

"Are you kidding?" Tony blinked the sweat out of his eyes, wincing, and Bruce wiped those too, very gently.

"I can take you to the shower," Bruce murmured, running a hand over Tony's beautiful, and beautifully sated, body, still lying there at his mercy though in such a different way, in such a different state.

"In a minute. Gotta sleep."

As Tony dozed off, Bruce pulled a stool up next to the bench and sat there, watching him doze, wiping sweat from him and, eventually, pulling a sheet over him as his skin cooled. Bruce too felt the pull of sleep, but the need to enjoy this, not knowing how many times it would ever happen again, kept his eyes open. And Bruce had practice at controlling his body.

When Tony awoke, not too very much later, Bruce was sitting next to him, watching him.

Tony said, "I heard you, you know."

"I know you did. I made sure you did."

"I love you too, you know."

Bruce brushed Tony's hair away from his eyes, not wanting to meet Tony's eyes, embarrassed now though he hadn't been at all before. "You don't have to say it, Tony. It was for you to hear, not for you to say."

"I do love you. I think I loved you as soon as I met you. I mean, if anyone understands what that means I'm sure it isn't me. But when I say it, it feels right."

His breathing was slowing down more now, sweat cooling on his forehead. Bruce met his eyes.

They were dark, so big, and too real.

Tony said, "I think I do love people, sometimes; I just don't do it right."

Tony laid his hand over Bruce's where it splayed against his chest, next to the reactor. Bruce looked at their hands.

Tony said, "I'd like to do it right with you."

Bruce spread his fingers, watching them spread against Tony's skin. "Ready for that shower now?"

"Oh God yes." Tony flexed a knee, winced. "I might need you to help hold me up."

###

They had dinner after they had showers - Tony grilled steak, and porcini mushrooms; Bruce chopped vegetables. Tony hadn't been kidding when he'd said that neither of the bags held clothes. He loaned Bruce some pajama pants from his stash.

Bruce was wandering through the rooms looking at the windows when Tony came out of the bathroom, teeth freshly brushed, wiping his mouth with a hand towel.

"This adobe is really well done," said Bruce, poking at a windowsill.

"No point in doing it otherwise."

"Did you - was that something you did even before you - your change of heart?" Bruce winced at his own choice of words.

Tony let out a suspicious huff of air that might have started to be a chuckle but he just said, "Before it was just good engineering, the efficient choice, the cheapest choice. Now it's..." Tony looked around, taking in the thick dark walls. "Anything I can do to help offset what I've done, well, every little bit helps."

They both were standing next to the bed.

Tony scratched the back of his neck, tossed the towel away. "Did you... want a specific side of the bed?"

Bruce rubbed one hand's fingertips with the other. "Are you kidding? For the last ten years I'm always just happy if there's a bed."

"I don't, uh, don't have a history of actually, you know, sleeping in a bed. You know, with someone else."

"Uh huh."

They looked at each other.

Tony said, "Why is this harder than the sex?"

Bruce thought about this for a minute, then walked toward Tony. "Well. The sex was like carrying out experiments. We know how to do that together. Setting up the experiment, carrying it out, testing limits, recording results. We do that."

"Yeah. We do that."

Bruce took Tony's hand, led him towards the bed. "This is more intimate, I think. No outcomes, no goals. Just... sleeping. Together. In a bed."

"I'm glad there's a bed."

"I'm glad there's a bed too."

Where back at the tower Tony had seemed confident, this time he looked at the bed as though it were made of snakes even as Bruce sat down, carefully folded his glasses on the night table to one side of the bed, and leaned back into the pillows.

Bruce said, "It's the third time we will have slept in a bed together, too."

Tony's eyes just stared.

Bruce folded his hands over his stomach. "Yes?" he asked.

"Once is a fluke. Twice could happen. Three times looks like a relationship thing. I fuck up relationship things. I have the inescapable feeling that this is where I start to fuck up."

Bruce sighed, got back out of the bed, came over to Tony.

He put his hands around Tony's waist, fingertips hooking into the waistband of Tony's pajama bottoms.

He said, "Actually, you have been unfucking us up for a while now. You insisted we talk. You insisted we sleep together. You insisted we have sex. You brought me out here to your love shack --"

"Weapons design and testing facility. There's really an enormous difference. Even for me."

" -- and we have spent the afternoon, a total of five hours including nap breaks by my count, making love. Or having sex. Take your pick. Now it's time for sleep. You will continue to not fuck things up. It's not as though your magical twenty-four hours of unfucking ability is now gone forever."

"Sure. Right. No problem."

Rolling his eyes, Bruce just spun Tony around and, in a move worthy of a superhero, shoved Tony backward with enough force to land him on his back on the bed.

"Just stay there," Bruce muttered, climbing in on the other side, flipping the quilt folded at the foot of the bed up over both of them, and draping himself in a mock-restraining fashion over Tony's body.

"Good. Right."

"Go to sleep, Tony." And Bruce kissed him on the ear.

"Right."

Tony watched Bruce's curly head rising and falling slightly with Tony's own breathing, where it lay on Tony's shoulder. Eventually - in a very few minutes, actually - Bruce was asleep. Tony watched Bruce breathe for a while, wondering if this was where he did something horrible, if he would somehow crush Bruce in his sleep, or cause him to hulk out and run away, or something.

But Bruce just kept sleeping. And after half an hour, then forty minutes, then almost an hour, Tony realized it was really boring laying in the dark panicking while Bruce laid on his chest and snored.

He relaxed, first his toes, then his thighs, his abdomen - he took a deep breath for the first time in fifty-two minutes, and felt a lot less lightheaded, then felt like an idiot - his shoulders, his arms, and his neck.

"This isn't so bad," he was thinking to himself as, one arm wrapped around Bruce, he fell asleep.

###

The alarm klaxon sounded as if it were very far away, then as if it were closer, then it was right in the room, and Tony woke up. It was JARVIS' patented wake-Tony-up-quick-without-panicking program.

"I do apologize, sirs, but Director Fury is requiring your attention."

"No problem, JARVIS, what's up?"

"What's up is that we have alien attackers over L.A., that's what's up," Nick Fury's voice answered him back. "We have confirmed sightings of a ship capable of destroying entire buildings and, unfortunately, it's doing it in a downtown area."

"How do you know that they're aliens?" Tony was already throwing on clothes, then the bracelets; the suit formed on him like his outer skin, which it was.

Bruce was shoving his feet into shoes, already dressed himself.

"If anybody on Earth had shit like that, I'd know about it," Fury responded in a reasonable tone.

"Good point. Well, as it happens we're in New Mexico so, give me a few minutes, we'll be right there. You can send JARVIS the coordinates."

"What We?"

"Me and the big green guy. We'll travel together."

Bruce pushed up his glasses. "How long does it take to warm up the helicopter?"

"No time for the helicopter, baby, just hang on."

Bruce followed Tony's clanking stalking out of the house, and within a step of the front door, Tony had an arm around Bruce and was shooting through the sky like a backwards meteorite.

"Baby?" Jury said to nobody on the phone line left open.

JARVIS elected not to answer him.

###

"Watch out," Iron Man said as the Hulk bounced a generator off the force field protecting the alien ship where it had landed and attached itself to the top of a skyscraper.

"Whoopsie," Hawkeye said laconically but threw himself to one side, somersaulting out of the way as the massive multiton hunk of former machinery went flying.

Iron Man flew around the edge of the building, stopping the generator before it flew off the roof and into the surrounding streets, turning it back into the wall of its own building. It broke through some HVAC maintenance chambers, then stopped.

The Hulk roared in rage. Nothing was getting through the force field, and he couldn't get any kind of a purchase on it. So far, the ship, about the size of a school bus, showed no signs of budging.

Fortunately, since it had engaged its "freeze and play dead" mode, it also hadn't demolished any more buildings.

"Cap?" Iron Man swung around, faced Captain America who was also on the roof, shield at the ready.

The Captain just shook his head. "It's like a siege, but it came here and settled in. Like a tank. But every tank has a weakness."

"Can't get underneath it to blow it up..." Iron Man looked at the cables the thing had sunk into the roof, the glimmer of the force field that went down into the steel and concrete surface. "Except, you can, right? How deep can that force field go?"

"Negative, it appears to be spherical - ovoid? It's one piece," came Black Widow's voice over the comm.

"It just cuts through every duct," Hawkeye added, from somewhere else in the building below them.

"Is it cutting?" Iron Man asked, crouching down to look at where the field joined the roof even as the Hulk continued to roar and pound over his head. "Is it actually making two pieces of the duct?"

"No," added Hawkeye. "At least, I can't pull duct away from the field as if it were severed. If the field is bisecting it it's holding on to both pieces."

"Perfectly," added the Widow, "since there are water and steam pipes here and nothing is leaking. Force field goes right through them."

"Okay, so. Nothing's made of nothing. If it's not matter, it's energy. Coexisting by vibrating between the atoms on a subatomic level. Energy - " Iron Man's red and gold mask looked up. "Cap. Your shield."

"What about it?"

"Trust me, this thing isn't going to like vibranium. See if you can cut it with the edge."

"It's not that sharp --" Even as he argued, Captain America raised his shield and brought down the edge as hard as he could on the force field right in front of him.

Ka-SNAP! Something gave, and the thunderclap that resulted threw both Iron Man and Captain America backwards - the Captain heavily denting a wall as he was thrown into it, Iron Man barely stopping himself from being tossed off the roof by catching an edge as he was almost swept away.

The Hulk roared in triumph as he fell to the surface of the actual ship, and drove one fist into the smooth metal in front of him.

Before the next eyeblink the ship had shot upward into the air and almost disappeared.

"WHAT the --" but Tony didn't waste words, he lit up all repulsors and followed the speck that was now an alien spaceship with a Hulk clinging to it as it shot upwards from the surface from the earth almost faster than he could fly.

"Shit shit shit shit shit," Tony kept chanting as he followed the speck. "Cap, already hitting upper atmosphere, I will pursue. Stay on this channel, I will transmit return entry coordinates when I have them."

"Tony, is that thing spaceworthy?"

"I'm going to assume you mean the suit, not the Hulk. As spaceworthy as I can make it, though I admit my trips to vacuum have not been super-fun to date."

"We have you on satellite," Fury's voice with its unique combination of irritation and cool competence came on the line. "Kind of hard to miss, especially if you keep broadcasting on as many wavelengths as you are."

"It's not an accident." Tony put on a frantic burst of speed. If he didn't catch up to the Hulk, the Hulk, who did not transmit at all and didn't bounce radar waves like something metal, was going to be mighty hard to find - and it was mighty big out here.

The horizon was shifting from dark blue toward black.

"HULK!" Tony shouted and JARVIS magnified him at full volume. Enough to damage things, down on the ground; up here, the atmosphere was so thin the sound barely traveled. In a second it wouldn't travel at all. "Let GO!"

The Hulk's massive green head swiveled. Good, he could still hear. Tony didn't know what would happen to the Hulk in vacuum - but just in general vacuum was bad for living things. And the Hulk was definitely alive. Bruce was definitely alive.

Apparently just noticing that he had left Earth's atmosphere, the Hulk slammed his fist into the substance of the ship again, denting it for good measure, and then shoved himself off the surface.

Tony felt his repulsors losing power as they lost atmosphere to press upon; he shifted to the rocket engine he used for jet flight, and though it too was only a fraction of its normal power given the lack of atmosphere, it did at least keep him moving forward.

"Sir," JARVIS told him, just as a light blinked red in Tony's heads-up display and continued blinking red, "you are feeding your life-support oxygen to the jet to keep it burning in vacuum. You are severely depleting your supply."

"I know, JARVIS, I know," Tony muttered as he maneuvered toward the big bulk of the Hulk's spread-eagled body. "Come on, come on come on come on..."

More worried about losing him than burning him, Tony zoomed as close as he dared to the Hulk before trying to reverse speed. Gravity was not helping him stop any more. He had to reverse thrust before he went zipping past the Hulk.

Just as he was about to pass the Green Guy by, the Hulk's massive hand reached out and grabbed his leg.

Wrenched, Tony groaned as he felt his leg consider parting from its socket, but the suit held and the Hulk seemed to know not to grip so tight that he dented the suit.

Tony flipped himself around - who ever got much practice in zero-g acrobatics? - until he could see the Hulk's face.

The Hulk had his mouth pressed shut; no doubt saving the last of his oxygen rather than making some obvious comment about the Red Man flying away. Never let them tell you the Hulk is dumb, Tony thought to himself as he grabbed the waistband of the Hulk's pants and accelerated for all he was worth back towards the earth.

"JARVIS, little help - give me optimum thrust to get back to atmo immediately while still reserving something for re-entry."

"Sir, the suit is not designed for re-entry."

Tony just closed his eyes. "Then there's that."

Bluer, bluer - Tony watched the color of the sky as they drifted all too slowly toward the big ball beneath them.

"How long can the Hulk last at this atmospheric pressure?" Tony added, feeling a little sweat dripping down his nose. Fantastic.

"Unknown, sir, but presumably not infinite. He continues to metabolize oxygen to the best of my knowledge."

"Great, great. We really need to run some baseline tests on the big guy," Tony muttered, watching the curves JARVIS was projecting for him on using his own life supply systems to feed the jets to get him back into the earth's gravity well - and lower, since it would take too long to just fall, and at too shallow a trajectory.

JARVIS had helpfully colored some of the curves red, as in "do not cross this line," but it wasn't all that helpful because Tony was already crossing it.

He felt the outside of the suit start to glow before he saw it. Oh well. The Hulk would make it as long as he had air to breathe. Tony was sure of that.

Still accelerating as much as he dared, Tony turned and looked at the Hulk's face as he towed the big green body behind him.

"One of you - JARVIS, Hulk, somebody - tell Bruce I'm glad we had today before this happened. He'll know what I mean."

"Sir, please don't - "

"Please don't what, JARVIS? Gotta re-enter the atmosphere; not built for it; gotta get pretty warm. I don't have a choice on that. Man, I bet you wish we had that handy wormhole the aliens opened up over New York that went straight from, like, ten thousand feet right to deep space now, don'tcha?"

Through his hand Tony felt the Hulk's body rumble. He still didn't have air to talk, though the atmosphere was thickening enough to whistle past them now, and the Hulk still seemed to be holding his breath. Which Tony was sure the Hulk could do, but it hadn't even been that long - two minutes? Two and a half? Since this whole thing had gone haywire.

The Hulk reached out a hand to where the suit was starting to crackle. Felt the heat, grunted.

Reached out and pulled Tony closer, wrapping the Iron Man suit in a cocoon of Hulk arms and legs, faceplate jammed up against a green wall of chest, knees bent as much as they would go and tucked up against the Hulk's body.

Falling towards Earth now at top speed was a Hulk capsule with an Iron Man wrapped inside of it.

"Sir, the Hulk is blocking us from the re-entry heat," JARVIS notified him.

"Oh no, no no no - Hulk! Buddy! Let me out!" Tony flailed but the Hulk just clamped tighter; Tony stopped moving when he heard a metal joint groan under the strain.

Tony closed his eyes. In his head he could hear Bruce telling him right from the start. I don't get a suit of armor. I'm exposed, like a nerve. It's a nightmare.

That was the Hulk's skin - that was Bruce's skin. Tony felt his heartrate skyrocket as he tried to run the simulation in his head. The orbiter hit temperatures of over 1500 degrees C on re-entry, he knew that, but so much of it was from the speed of the orbiter's travel and the air it pushed ahead of it as it entered belly-first. What temperatures was Bruce enduring now? What would he have to endure? Tony tried to calculate it based on what he could estimate of the Hulk's surface area and their speed, but his head was swimming. He was burning his lover alive.

"Sir, you must try to breathe shallowly. Air mixture is low on oxygen now - we have used so much of it for the thrusters."

"I'm trying, JARVIS, but this is a new low even for a Tony Stark relationship fuckup," Tony gasped back, even as temperature readings skyrocketed on the exposed bits of suit that the Hulk couldn't quite cover. "Fuck. And it's only been one day."

The Hulk roared.

"Jesus. No. This can't be - JARVIS, we have to --"

But there were at least no more instructions for JARVIS, because Tony's brain, oxygen levels depleted, shut down.

###

When Tony came to, he was in a hospital bed.

The crappy rough sheets and walls the white-green color of sadness were depressingly familiar. Immediately Tony tried to push himself out of bed, and was stopped by the discovery of multiple points of really sharp, unignorable agony -

- and then Bruce was next to the bed.

"Don't get up," he said in his soothing, deep voice but his hands were like iron as he clasped them on Tony's ankles, held Tony's feet still in the bed.

Tony went from smothering a scream to letting all the air out at once with no vocal cords, just a huge huff of relief. "You're here. You're okay. You look okay. Are you okay? Jesus."

"I'm okay." The corners of Bruce's beautiful hazel eyes crinkled at Tony but the smile didn't reach his mouth.

"You're so beautiful, did I tell you that?" Tony asked, aware that his tone was a little frantic and not caring.

Bruce flushed a little but his eyes flicked toward the door.

"I don't give a damn who hears me. God, you look better than anything has ever looked to me in the whole of ever. Did you - are you - "

"Stop, stop. No getting out of bed." Bruce's hand seemed gentle as he stilled Tony's legs but it was also an inescapable grip. He rested his hip on the edge of the bed next to Tony. "I'm fine," he said in his low voice.

"Banner, you were on fire."

"Yeah, it wasn't fun. Let's not do that again."

"Really, are you okay?"

"Tony." Bruce's hand brushed lightly over Tony's hair. Some scorched tips broke off against Bruce's fingers. Bruce frowned. Then he smoothed Tony's face again. "I've had worse."

Tony didn't want to think about that but he relaxed back onto the bed. "It's a bargain. No doing that again."

"We got down fairly low over water and SHIELD deployed one of their airboats - they shot a platform under us with drag parachutes - it was very clever. You probably would have done something more elegant, but it worked. Slowed us down, retrieved you, hospital, done." Bruce's eloquent hands shaped the space of 'flying to the hospital' in the air.

"Retrieved me." For the first time Tony noticed that Bruce wore a set of hospital scrubs.

Bruce saw him notice. "Yeah, it was this or a SHIELD uniform. I'd rather wear this."

"But you were - " Tony felt as though perhaps the lack of oxygen had permanently damaged his brain or something. He couldn't seem to form a complete sentence.

"'I' just got here," said Bruce, making scare quotes in the air. "I was - the Other Guy had more smashing to do."

###

"Hey, Nat," Clint said as Natasha showed up, striding down the hospital hall just as coolly dangerous looking as she ever looked at a SHIELD facility. "Take over for me, would you, while I grab something to eat? Cap said he'd feel better if one of us kept an eye on Tony while he was in a civilian hospital."

"What are we guarding him from?" Natasha quirked an eyebrow as she looked up and down the hall at the perfectly normal random hospital personnel. "An enema?"

"That wouldn't bug me," Clint shrugged, but then he'd disappeared before Natasha could ask him whether he meant that it wouldn't bug him if Tony got an enema or if it wouldn't bug him that Clint spending his daylight hours guarding Tony from one.

It seemed like an easy post, standing there at parade rest glaring at the odd passersby, until raised voices came from inside the room she was supposed to be "guarding".

"It was a calculated risk!" she heard Stark's unmistakable voice rising.

"It was suicide!" and Natasha felt her heart thump against her ribs, a sensation which was not at all familiar or welcome, because that was Bruce Banner's voice rising.

He sounded as though Tony was making him angry.

She made a tactical call.

###

"Clearly not, because here I am, pretty much still not dead," Tony was almost-shouting, arms spread, as she walked into the room.

"That was the dumbest thing I've ever seen you do. And there is some competition in that category." Bruce's tone was bitingly sarcastic.

"Your self-destructive thing? I'm so over it."

"Yeah, well, your self-destructive thing? Not as much fun to watch as you seem to think it is either."

Natasha kept her back carefully to the wall, the door a quick turn and two fast steps away. "Guys, c'mon," she said in her best imitation of a wheedling American. "Don't do this here."

"Don't tell me I don't know a suicide attempt when I see one!" Bruce went on, standing next to Tony's bed, his face, Natasha couldn't help but notice, turning red.

Tony rubbed his wrist where the paper hospital ID bracelets were. "I wasn't going to. Because what else are we supposed to call that little unscheduled ride into outer space?"

Bruce pointed at his wrist. "What's the matter, are you missing the special Stark watch that lets you monitor my heartbeat?" Bruce leaned down to get even more in Tony's face and Natasha jumped. "Worried?"

If Tony wasn't worried he was a moron, Natasha thought to herself, because she herself was about to wet her pants. And she was not easy to alarm. "Guys, the Hulk just got done demolishing about a city block's worth of buildings and all the stuff around them. We don't want him visiting a hospital today, do we?"

"What the hell is she talking about?" Tony asked, pointing his finger at Natasha but glaring at Bruce.

"I haven't seen all the footage yet! Don't you have special Stark cameras capturing all of that, too?" Bruce was still mad, the tendons in his throat standing out, but he looked sheepish, too.

"Do I need them?" and this question Tony did address to Natasha.

"I doubt it," she said, keeping her calm facade because that was what she was good at, even though she felt as though the top of her head might come off like one of those cartoon thermometers pushed past its upper limit. She'd been chased by the Hulk once, and she didn't ever want to do it again. Ever. "There were plenty of people around who caught a lot of it with their phones. Some of it is probably already on YouTube."

Bruce groaned, scrubbed his face with both hands.

"What the hell happened after I passed out?"

"SHIELD arranged to decelerate you," Natasha reported in her agenty voice, "but the Hulk did not stand down. He allowed you to be retrieved but then went on - " Here she looked at Bruce. "Is rampage too strong a word?"

"Didn't anybody check him for injuries?"

"Check him for injuries?" Natasha visibly blinked. "No one could get near him until about twenty minutes ago. We finally caught up to him in a - in what used to be a warehouse, and the Captain told him that we could tell him how you were, but only if he let us talk to Bruce."

Bruce looked around from where he had retreated, almost into a corner, and the look he gave both Natasha and Tony with just one eye was haunted.

"Go get a doctor, then," Tony said. "Because the Hulk must have been in pain. He was absorbing all the heat from re-entry, for pete's sake, he was - "

"He was fine," Bruce half-whispered.

"You had flames on your skin, I saw them!" Tony yelled. "You do not get to lecture me, doctor, when you went zipping off into space and then nearly burned yourself up alive coming back!" A monitor beeped.

"You didn't have to bring me back, Tony." Now Bruce's voice was even, toneless.

"What the hell kind of stupid-ass thing to say is that?" Tony started up again, winced vehemently despite his anger and grabbed his leg.

"Mr. Stark, you're - " A nurse slipped in, clearly not expecting to walk into what she was walking into, and her eyes grew wide as she took in the scene. "Uh, your heart rate," she said weakly, looking back and forth between Bruce and Tony while Natasha gently pushed her away from the door to clear her own escape route.

"Stupid-ass? How are we going to characterize the term stupid-ass?" Bruce seemed to be in control of his temper now but Natasha still visibly jumped again as Bruce started back toward the bed, flicked back the blanket with what would have been a vicious swipe of his hand except that he had it just barely in control.

Bruce pointed to Tony's angry red skin edged with black that showed around the dressings the hospital personnel had applied. "The red hurts when you brush it against the sheets, Iron Man, because that's where you still have nerve endings. The black parts are where the nerve endings are gone."

"Oh sir," the nurse put in, one hand extended, clearly not wanting the wounds exposed, wanting to do something about her patient but not daring to approach the bed.

Tony looked at the small patches, one on each shin, the outer edge of a foot. "That's all you didn't cover."

He looked up at Bruce and Natasha thought his eyes were suspiciously bright. The only thing she wanted to see less than Tony Stark crying was Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. She edged toward the door. The nurse was still in her way.

"That's the best I could do," Bruce said, an infinite well of bitterness in his tone.

"And you're fine." Tony's eyes flicked over the clothes Bruce was wearing. "Nobody checked you?"

"There's nothing to check! I don't get hurt, Tony! I'm what hurts other people!" Bruce ripped off the scrubs shirt he was wearing to show Tony his unmarked, olive-gold chest with its mat of black curly hair, here and there sprinkled with a line of silver that sparkled in the light. He turned to give Tony a glimpse of the expanse of his back. Muscles, bone, skin, Tony took it all in in an instant. No burns. "Look! I'm fine. You're the one who leaped out into space in a suit!"

"You didn't feel any pain. Lie and tell me that." Tony's tone was clipped, sharp. Bruce's lips thinned, his throat worked, but he said nothing. Tony just went on. "The Hulk would have been fine in space. Tell me that's true. With a straight face." Tony stared Bruce right in the eye. "Go ahead. Let's see how good a liar you are."

"Whether he would have made it or not is not what we're discussing, Tony. We're discussing you leaving the atmosphere and not being able to come back into it." The muscle in Bruce's cheek was jumping. Natasha put her hand on the door handle.

"He is you!!!" Tony pointed a finger straight at Bruce, sitting bolt upright, ignoring his pain, apparently, through the strength of his righteous anger. "And no, I am not prepared to just sit by while you disappear into space, out to your death. Not gonna happen. That's never gonna happen."

"There were better ways for that to have gone down, Tony."

"That was the only way for it to go down. That's the way it did go down. That's the way it is always going to go down. Every time, always, so just get it through your head. I am going to save you. And you will save me. That's what we do, and that's what we're going to do. That is non-negotiable."

Tony looked like he wanted to get up, but he really winced again - Natasha felt for him, burns hurt like a sonovabitch - and before he could try too hard to get up Bruce was at his side.

Tony just ground his teeth together, looked up at Bruce's suddenly concerned, soft, unhappy face with that laserlike Tony Stark determination. He grabbed one of Bruce's wrists with one hand and still kept pointing at Bruce's naked chest with the other. "Always, Bruce. Got it? Tell me you got it. Okay? I'm always going to be there for you, and your job is to be there for me. We are always going to save each other. End of statement. Got it?"

Bruce's face was a weird mixture of shock, and sadness, and amusement at something, Tony couldn't tell what, and underneath it all a certain relaxation in the face of the inevitable that Tony knew had come from years of living with a green monster that he couldn't avoid inside of him but somehow seemed directed outside himself at tightly-gripping, deadly serious Tony.

Bruce put his hands under Tony's armpits, settled him back against his bed cushions a little against Tony's will, smoothed his hair back from his face, and kissed him, gently, on the lips. "I do," Bruce said.

Tony's brows drew together as Bruce pulled away, his eyes searching Bruce's face. It was clear he had no idea what was going through Bruce's head, how Bruce's mood had changed so fast, but the air going out of Bruce seemed to take the air out of Tony too. "Damn right," he muttered as the nurse finally broke through the invisible 'do-not-approach-the-Hulk' barrier around them and bustled forward to take a look at Tony's dressings.

"You good?" Natasha asked Bruce, who just dropped into the chair next to Tony's bed, one hand over his eyes.

Bruce just waved a noncommittal hand.

She left. The nurse was on her own.

###

"So that's kinda weird, huh?"

"Weird how?" Steve had poured himself a glass of milk as soon as the Avengers had returned from the hospital.

"A couple, on the team."

Steve examined Clint's face closely. It gave away nothing.

"Not so weird," Steve said, settling back against the counter.

"I have fought great battles by the side of lovers whose passion was legendary," Thor boomed, making Steve almost spit his milk.

"Yeah, uh... love happens, even on the battlefield," Steve said as soon as he could breathe again.

"You went into battle with soldiers in love?" Clint prodded him.

Steve just turned calm blue eyes his way. "Yes."

"I mean, besides you and your girl."

Now Steve's eyes had turned icy. "Yes."

He turned back to the sink to wash his glass. "And she never got to be my girl," he said under his breath.

There was awkward silence when he turned back around. Steve looked at all of them.

"What?" he said. "Is it going to be so different from what we have now?"

He leveled a look at Natasha, who changed not one muscle, not one molecule on her face.

Then he looked at Clint. Who just grinned like a maniac.

"Front line is front line," Steve said in his command voice. "For the rest of it - we'll just have to see how it shakes out."

"Oh, we know. It'll be fine." Clint shrugged. "Just - tough to think of someone putting up with Tony. I mean, besides Pepper."

"I shall regale you with the tale of Freyr and his priest with the mighty sword," said Thor, swinging his Pop-Tart with the vigor he would use on a tankard of ale, causing it to shed many crumbs.

Steve started to cough again.

"Terrific," he said when he caught his breath again, wiping his eyes.

"I'm interested," Natasha said.

###

Bruce made a great nurse, Tony discovered.

Installed in the tower in a special rolling bed - Tony immediately motorized it - he found out that Bruce wasn't just good at changing dressings, he was good at knowing when Tony was bored, and good at knowing when Tony was tired.

Tony suggested a couple of times that Bruce go on back to the lab, but he didn't mean it, and Bruce seemed to know he didn't mean it.

They watched a lot of TV and played cards. Tony liked Go Fish. He'd always liked Go Fish.

"Sexy, huh?" Tony asked him one day as he slapped down his 3's and Oprah and CNN and an old David Attenborough show all played in the background.

Bruce leaned over to pick up a card, and looked up through his eyelashes at Tony, and Tony felt the intensity of that look almost like a punch to the gut.

"Sexy enough," Bruce said quietly, and Tony wondered how he'd just managed to get rock-hard from a look. A look.

"You know, uh, I'm actually fine except for the burns, we can do anything we want if we don't, uh,..." Tony trailed off because Bruce was looking at him again with that look.

"When I feel like burns won't open up again," Bruce said mildly, and yet Tony knew somehow that he was not open to discussion.

"Uh, yeah," said Tony, wondering when Bruce had got to be the boss of him, and when he'd started to like it.

###

When Pepper came over finally with a stack of papers, Bruce let her in.

She was wide-eyed and looked like she might get teary, Tony thought. "I'm good," he said immediately.

"I know," she said automatically. But she didn't seem to believe him till she looked up at Bruce.

"He's doing really well," Bruce told her. "The skin graft took very nicely, and the smaller burns are granulating cleanly - no infection, no secondary complications."

"Well. Well done, Mr. Stark."

"I always aim to excel, Ms. Potts."

"Do you guys want to - you've got a lot of work, right? I'll leave you to concentrate, then," said Bruce, heading for the door.

"You don't have to go," Tony immediately responded.

"Trust me, an hour or two on my own while you guys discuss mergers and acquisitions or whatever will not kill me," said Bruce, smiling a little as he disappeared out the door, closing it quietly behind him.

"He's taking good care of you," Pepper said as she sank gracefully in the chair pulled up next to the bed that had become Bruce's.

"Yes." Tony had an absent look on his face as he stared at the door where Bruce had just exited. "You know, Pepper, I should take care of him too. Can we just dump a pile of money somewhere in his name?"

"Who, Bruce's?" She looked startled.

"Yeah." He focused back on her face. "Just in case."

"Just in case of what, Tony?"

"Just in case, you know, something happens to me. I want - I'd like to think Bruce will always be okay. At least when it comes to money."

"You want to buy an insurance policy?" She still looked startled.

"What?"

"You've never voluntarily bought an insurance policy in your life. You have lawsuits pending in several courts regarding the right to opt out of various types of insurance if you elect to, given your demonstrable assets."

"Insurance is a gamble that isn't fun. No, not insurance. Just - you know, money. In case Bruce ever needs it. Or wants it."

"If you create an account in Bruce's name and transfer money to his ownership you can't legally manage it for him unless you get his power of attorney. Did you want to discuss it with him?" Pepper was arranging the stack of papers she'd brought with her on her lap but her attention was clearly still on Tony.

"Uh..." Tony had the feeling it would just lead to another big Discussion and he wasn't in the mood. He looked her in the eyes as her face came up to look at him. "What's the right thing to do, Pepper?"

"Well... You can set up a living revocable trust with yourself as the trustee and Bruce as the backup trustee. Ownership of accounts, existing or new, can be transferred to the trust with about ten minutes' work. The money stays in your control throughout your lifetime but in the event that you die or become incapacitated, Bruce can step in and assume control of the funds without any probate or inheritance costs."

"Good. That's good. Let's do that."

"How much?"

"I dunno, ten million? A hundred million? What can we spare? What's the right amount?"

Her face started to crumple, as if she were going to cry. Tony didn't miss it.

"Hey, hey, what's wrong?"

"I don't know. I don't know if it's that you're forty-four years old and you seem to have just noticed that you won't live forever, or that this is the first adult thing I've ever seen you do."

Tony looked worried. "Is it - is it okay that it's for Bruce? Because I'm assuming you already took care of you, you know we can set up whatever we should for -"

"It's fine that it's for Bruce, Tony. It's good. I'm glad that - I'm glad to see evidence of you growing up."

"But you're sad too. That's why you're crying. You're sad because your little boy is all grown up now."

"Still an asshole, Mr. Stark."

"I don't even have to try, Ms. Potts."

###

One more game of gin rummy and Tony is going to scream.

A week before he hadn't even known how to play gin rummy, and now he knew exactly how many times he'd beaten Bruce, and how many times Bruce has beaten him.

When Bruce leaned over to steal Tony's last carrot, his fingers brushed Tony's hand. Tony made as if to protect the carrot, and Bruce snuck in from below and stole it. He crunched his prize as he settled back into his chair, his eyes laughing at Tony, corners of his eyes crinkled, and the lust knifed Tony in the gut with a physical pain.

Tony put his hand out toward Bruce. "Bruce, please."

Bruce's smile faded, he looked at Tony calculatingly, and Tony knew that he is thinking not about whether or not he wanted Tony or could have him, but what the state of his wounds had looked like when his dressings had been changed that morning.

Bruce stood up and braced both hands on the bed to kiss Tony, and Tony grabbed his face, his hair, his shoulders like a drowning man. It never occurred to Tony to be embarrassed. He had no interest in playing it cool. He wanted to get laid by this man.

Bruce patted Tony's chest soothingly. He disappeared into the bathroom and returned with some hand towels and a pump bottle of Tony's favorite lube.

It looked very domestic and Tony thought that it ought to be a turn-off but he could feel his heart racing, and next to the anticipation of actually getting to have an orgasm he knew that it was somehow hot that Bruce would do these things for him, would do anything for him, really.

Bruce pulled back the sheets and sat down next to Tony, who hadn't worn pants for a month. He smiled at Tony's already-insistent erection, at the way Tony had his fingernails clenched into the bedsheet, and shook his head as though Tony was a little boy, as though he had discovered Tony hiding stolen turtles in the bathtub. Immediately he squirted lube into his palm.

"You don't have to warm it up," Tony pointed out.

"It's cold," said Bruce, but reached over to close his hand around Tony.

Tony groaned out loud and twisted the sheets in both hands.

Bruce started making soothing noises, Tony couldn't hear any words, but that was because the blood was rushing in Tony's ears and he couldn't hear anyway. All the blood was in his cock and he felt swollen almost to bursting and the sensation of Bruce's hand was better than anything, anything he'd ever felt, anything he'd ever drunk, anything he'd ever built.

He looked down to see himself emerging from Bruce's hand.

Bruce looked down too, made a little moan himself. Tony couldn't blame him. It did look good.

"You are so..." and Tony really wanted to know what he was so but Bruce stood back up and then carefully, carefully, nudged a knee next to the outside of Tony's, threw his other leg over Tony's lap, and balanced himself there, not touching any of Tony's wounds but looming over him, touching him, twisting him, making Tony want to writhe.

The inability to writhe was really driving Tony crazy when Bruce leaned in and kissed him.

It was not a gentle kiss, like the good-night kisses he got, and it was not sweet unless you were Tony Stark and you found soul-devouring kisses from Bruce Banner to be kind of sweet in concept if not in execution. Bruce's tongue swept inside of Tony's mouth, taking possession of it, his face serious and his eyes closed as if he were cataloging his ownership of Tony's mouth, but his hand never stopped working, and the tip of Tony's cock was literally purple and Tony was moaning into Bruce's mouth but managed to say "I'm gonna - " and Bruce said "Good" in a tone that brooked no disagreement and Tony came so hard he was afraid he might pass out but not really afraid because after all, Bruce was right there, Bruce would look out for him, Bruce would take care of everything.

"Wow," Bruce said, almost as if he were surprised, as he looked at Tony spread out below him, catching his breath, covered in come, cock softening slowly in Bruce's hand.

Then Bruce pushed up off his knees a little and undoes his own pants. He grabbed himself with the hand that was still wet from Tony's come and Tony's lube and rubbed, bracing himself with the other hand balanced on the hospital bed beside Tony's head, and his hand started to move on himself, so fast, so fast and he was curling towards Tony and groaning himself. It looked so good that Tony got lost in looking at it but Bruce managed to unfold two towels and spread both of them over Tony's groin, covering the damp warm skin there.

Tony managed to lever himself up to kiss Bruce just as Bruce came. "Oh, god," Bruce moaned in a guttural voice as he spasmed and Tony reached to cup his balls but quick as a flash Bruce grabbed his hand and pushed it down next to them, fingers intertwined with Tony's.

Tony held on tight as Bruce's body shuddered over him.

"Sorry," Bruce said with an apologetic tone as he rested back on his heels and Tony could not stop watching his chest heave as he breathed heavily. "Fluid containment."

"Contain away," said Tony as Bruce carefully wiped away his own semen, rolling the towels into a tight roll and then setting them on the hospital-style steel table next to the bed.

"I think I can decontaminate that table," Bruce said thoughtfully as Tony took the last towel and wiped himself with it. "You can decontaminate me," Tony said hopefully, and Bruce chuckled at him but took the towel and used it to dry Tony off gently. It felt good and Tony wanted to squirm again.

"Best nurse ever," Tony said, reaching up to slide a hand around the back of Bruce's neck and pull him down so that he can kiss Bruce's smile.

###

"Don't you want to get out of here for a little while?" Pepper was saying over the phone while doing two other things, as usual.

"Unfair," said Tony. "You know I'd do just about anything to get out of here for a while."

"So do this. Just show up, accept an award, smile - do NOT give a speech - and then leave. It will take an hour, tops."

"Pepper, I want to go out. Have fun. I do not want to eat rubber chicken at a fund raiser."

"Life is full of compromises, Mr. Stark," she said, clearly caring not at all about what Tony wanted. "I told them you'd be there at 7:30. Your tux is waiting for you."

"Wait, do I have to go to this shindig alone?"

"Of course not. Why, did you want to take someone?"

"Well, yeah. Bruce."

"Oh, of course! I'll have a tux delivered for him before five."

"Okay," said Tony, his voice trailing off as Bruce came in. He heard the click of Pepper hanging up on him to go do thirty more things, but he didn't really process it.

"So did Pepper clear my house release with you?" he said as Bruce took out the deck of cards.

"Of course," said Bruce, and Tony felt his uneasiness ratchet up a little.

"Yeah, okay, yeah," said Tony. "And, uh, were you going to go with me?"

Bruce looked surprised. "I thought you'd be happy to get out of the house."

"But not away from you." Tony wanted to reach over and take Bruce's hand but it felt weird. "I don't want you to think I want to get away from you."

"Okay." Bruce's eyebrows pulled together in a little frown but he just looked at Tony. "You can do what you want, Tony."

"Great. So you'll go with me, then. Pepper's sending you a tux."

"Pepper has my measurements?" Bruce looked surprised again.

"Oh come on, don't look surprised at that. Who do you think bought all the clothes stored in your room?"

###

At 7:15 Tony strolled in to his own building's lobby, straightening his cufflinks.

Bruce was already there.

Tony's eyes got big.

He couldn't help it. Bruce looked good. Better than good. His dark hair was brushed and glossy, those fantastic hands Tony loved so much were manicured and accented by the sparkle of the onyx and diamond cufflinks Tony had sent over with Dummy as a loan, and the tux fit him perfectly and set off his shoulders as Tony had guessed it would.

Pepper's taste in clothes really couldn't be beat, Tony thought to himself.

"Wow," he said.

"You're late," Bruce greeted him.

"It's supposed to be a party for me, why kill myself rushing?" Tony told him. "Though I wish I'd realized I had this waiting for me. I would have gotten here ten minutes ago to enjoy this sooner if I'd known."

Bruce's cheeks flushed darker and his eyes dipped. God, Tony loved it when Bruce blushed like a prom date.

"Are you ready to go?" Bruce asked him.

"Yeah, let's do this," said Clint, walking in and straightening his black tie.

Bruce just looked confused.

"Oh, uh, I asked Clint along too. Just in case you needed an extra pair of hands."

"Pair of hands for what?" Bruce asked, clearly boggled, but Clint just raised a hand and shouted "Shotgun!" and started for the door.

"Did you loan him a tux?" Bruce said under his breath to Tony as the two of them fell into step and followed Clint.

Clint turned to face them, walking backwards in front of them. "I'm a secret agent. I own a tux."

###

The evening was as awkward and unfun as these things always were, though Tony had to admit he was making it as awkward and unfun as possible, too.

He still couldn't dance without wincing, and he didn't want to make Bruce miserable by getting himself stinking drunk. No one there was as hot or as interesting as Bruce, but there were too many people he was supposed to talk to for him to just sit and hang out with Bruce at his table.

When he finally found himself hiding behind some potted plants with Bruce, which had at least the potential to be fun, Bruce was looking down his nose at Tony as if he were examining him through a microscope.

"So is Clint supposed to be our... is it chaperone? Beard? I don't get it."

"I just asked him on the spur of the moment. In case, uh..."

Tony trailed off but Bruce didn't fill in the silence.

So finally Tony finished, "In case you didn't show up."

"Why the hell would I agree to come and then not show up?"

"I don't know, why would you agree to come?"

Bruce just looked puzzled. "Jesus, Tony, doesn't anyone ever keep their word to you?"

"Yeah, of course. Pepper. And Rhodey. And, well, ... you."

"Damn right me."

"It's just..." Tony waved a hand around the room, confident that he couldn't be seen, or at least not well, behind the potted plant. "I know exactly how not fun this is. And you don't deserve not fun. You deserve fun. Especially after waiting on me day and night for months and for what?"

"Tony, would you mind very much if I kissed you in public?"

"Hell no, have you met me?"

Bruce gathered him in, arms around Tony's neck, which wasn't what tuxes were built for, oddly, but it still worked when he pressed his lips to Tony's, then to Tony's earlobe, then to the pulse in Tony's neck.

He said, "Now if you were here and I weren't, I couldn't do this."

Tony looked into Bruce's eyes, which were so close he could see the different shards of green and gold and brown that went together to make up the work of art he considered Bruce's eyes to be. Inside him he could feel panic swelling, pressing up under his heart.

Something must have showed on his face. "What?" said Bruce softly, his hands so warm Tony could feel them even through the tux.

"Why is this so easy?" Tony whispered. "How can this be so easy?"

Bruce glanced around a little bit. No one seemed to notice them, locked in an embrace behind the potted plants. Bruce nosed a little at Tony's earlobe.

"Well," he said in a low, soft version of his regular voice, his breath against Tony's ear making Tony shudder, "we were already friends. And then we added the sex, but that wasn't tough because we were both on board with that. And then it was - " His eyes looked deep into Tony's. "It's just easy."

Tony knew what he wasn't saying. Bruce loved him. Really loved him. Which seemed insane and odd and bizarre to Tony, but Tony couldn't deny it. Wouldn't deny it, loved it in fact, because it was fantastic to be loved by Bruce, and Tony was 99.97 percent sure that he loved Bruce back.

He still felt doubt ripping itself through his guts.

"I always fuck these things up. Always."

"I don't think so. I think you're actually pretty good at loving other people, Tony. I think they just aren't always prepared to take you for who you are."

Tony liked the idea. He liked it so much he couldn't speak. It felt as though something inside him was growing, pressing on his throat and pushing tears into the corners of his eyes, and swallowing up the doubt that had been slashing at his guts like a trapped wild animal. It felt good, in a drive-the-racecar-over-the-waterfall kind of way.

"Is there anything you want? Anything I can buy you?" he said, his hands clutching at Bruce's forearms where they wrapped around his neck.

"If I think of anything, I'll let you know."

###

The evening improved drastically after that. Tony even enjoyed some good wine, enjoyed watching Clint hit on every available woman at the event and collect an awful lot of phone numbers, enjoyed giving the speech Pepper had emphatically told him not to give. He was enjoying his coffee when the waiter came by to give him a dark chocolate mousse, and he enjoyed watching the waiter bend over Bruce to put down his dessert. And he enjoyed watching the waiter walk away.

"Did you see that? Wow." Tony licked his spoon and watched the guy serving a few other people down the table. The kid was tall, his shirt fit like a glove and his chest was flawless, his chin was strong and square, his hair standing up in a very studied careless way, and his hips were narrow.

Bruce just sipped his water. He didn't drink coffee anyway and he wasn't going to start now. "Planning to take him home?"

Tony turned very slowly and surveyed Bruce's impassive face. He checked his watch, scratched the back of his ear as if he were thinking of what to say next. "No," he said slowly. "Why, should I be?"

Bruce shrugged. "Just wondered. I don't expect you to be monogamous forever, Tony. Isn't that one of the things you said you'd never managed before?"

"Why on earth would I be interested in taking some kid home when I have all this --" he waved a hand at Bruce "-- at home for the taking?" He hitched his chair closer, leaned in to talk close to Bruce's ear as though making sure Bruce could hear him over the noise in the room but in fact making sure that his breath stirred Bruce's hair. "All I can think about, in fact, is the noises that I can get you to make for me if I try hard enough tonight."

He felt the heat off of Bruce's skin, hoped he was getting Bruce to blush.

Bruce just said, "You don't have to have sex with me to keep me here, Tony."

Tony pulled back enough to look Bruce in the face. There was something there under the surface but he couldn't read it. Which surprised him; he'd have thought after so much time together lately Bruce would be a pretty open book to him.

He said, "I don't have to hurt you to keep you here, either."

Bruce shrugged again. "We'll have to work something out someday, I suppose. I mean, if you get to the point where you really want, you know, someone who can completely let go for you."

Tony's frown looked like Bruce was speaking a language of which he only got about every third word. "Okay. Well then, let's burn that bridge when we get to it."

"The saying is --"

"Guys, are you okay if I disappear?" Clint said, popping up out of nowhere. His tie was loosened, his eyes bright, and he was just drunk enough to be happy but not to be loopy. "I have some good prospects."

"What, to get laid?" Tony said, looking up at Clint, causing Bruce to just close his eyes slowly.

"No, for sniper positions. Yes, to get laid. What the hell did you think I came here for? I'm as desperate to get out of the house as you guys but I can't stand around all night watching you two be old and married."

Tony's eyes widened and he looked delighted. "Do we look old and married?"

"Only to anyone who looks at you. Seriously, guys, I gotta go. Don't wait up." Clint saluted with two fingers and disappeared again.

"Should we go see who he's disappearing with?"

"I assume it's the blonde woman he was dancing with earlier," Bruce said, ducking his head to hide his grin.

"Really? She's like eight inches taller than him," Tony said, looking around to get a glimpse of the Amazon he'd seen with Clint earlier.

"Some women like short men." Bruce leaned back into his seat, picked up his water glass.

"That I know." Tony watched Clint thread through the crowd. "I feel like we should shoot him with a paralytic dart just before he gets to his target. Or something."

Bruce's other hand rested on Tony's knee.

"Seems mean," Bruce said, watching Clint's smoothly brushed head bobbing through the people. Then, "I'll feel bad if you do it, but I'll watch."

###

"Meet you in your room?"

The atmosphere immediately became electric. They hadn't slept together in the same bed while Tony had been recuperating; Bruce hadn't wanted to bump his wounds.

In his head Tony did an imaginary fist-pump. Yes. Out of the house and sleeping together with Bruce all on the same night. His get-out-of-hospital free card had been punched.

"That sounds fantastic," was all he said, though warmly, as he pulled his tie off and shoved it in his pocket. "See you there."

Bruce was prowling through the refrigerator shelves looking for something else small - the fundraising dinner hadn't been that substantial by his standards - when Steve showed up, patches of sweat on his T-shirt, sweatpants riding low.

He looked startled to see Bruce, tie loosened, tux jacket over one arm, rooting through the fridge.

"Oh, uh - " His gaze fell on the diamond and onyx cufflinks. "Out on the town with Tony?"

"Yep, his burns are finally healed enough to avoid complications," Bruce said, straightening up with a box of almond milk in his hand.

"Good. That's good." Steve picked up an apple, chomped down into it. "Have a good time?"

"Didn't expect to, but yes." Bruce's face softened, and Steve couldn't help but notice the change in his expression.

He said, "So you guys are... working out. Having a... thing, and making it work."

"For now. For tomorrow, who knows?" Bruce poured himself a glass, put the box back in the fridge.

"And it's not going to be a problem for the team." Steve wasn't asking a question.

"No more than it has been." Bruce wasn't really answering a question.

Steve looked at him for a minute, trying to decide whether to call him on it.

Instead he said, "Sometimes the most unexpected relationships have a way of working out. I've seen it happen. I didn't expect this one, but then I think you two didn't expect it either. Maybe that's a good sign. That it's one of the ones that just... works."

"Maybe." Bruce looked up at Steve, and Steve blinked. Bruce's eyes were happy, glowing even, and not only did he look happy, he looked as far from anxious - or angry - as Steve had ever seen Bruce look. "Thing is, Cap, it doesn't matter much. When someone like that offers to break your heart --"

His thoughts came back from far away, and then Bruce's eyes were looking into Steve's, really looking. Knowing.

"You take it," Bruce said simply.

He stepped around Steve where he stood, quietly, without any more words, making his way towards the elevator, and Tony's room.

###

"If you don't want to go, just say you don't want to go."

Bruce huffed a puff of air but didn't say anything, keeping his head bent over his screen. He didn't want to go, but it wasn't that simple. When Tony wanted out, he wanted out. Bruce didn't like the idea of Tony blowing off steam without him. But if there was one place he himself did not want to pretend to relax, it was a military base.

But there was Tony, bouncing on his toes. "Rhodey says I can try the weaponized bike."

At that Bruce did look up. "How weaponized is it?"

Tony waggled his eyebrows. "It goes really fast."

###

Bruce spent the flight trying to figure out where to put his hands. He felt like all the military envoys were looking at him, even when they weren't looking at him. It made his skin crawl and set off all kinds of alarms deep in his brain stem where he definitely did not want alarms going off.

At the base, Rhodey just shook his hand as though they were old friends. Tony did not even take two minutes to formally introduce them - of course. As soon as his feet hit the ground and his eyes saw the cycle, he was off.

Fortunately - and not too surprisingly - James Rhodes actually had the basic social skills probably required of someone of his rank, and took it upon himself to walk Bruce out to the observation area. Flat desert stretched around them and the sun beat down on the top of his dark head, but those were sensations Bruce was familiar with.

Unfortunately he was also familiar with the spine-poppingly agonizing sensation of being surrounded by soldiers. Bruce wanted to feel better as they walked away from the bustle of the hangar, but he could still feel eyes on him, soldiers looking at him from every direction even though they didn't say anything. They were watching him, wondering about him. Targeting him.

He tried to shake it off. His hands clenched around his middle, unconsciously, but he raised his head enough to look out to the puff of dust that appeared to be Tony racing across the dust flat.

"Will he turn around soon?"

"You tell me," Rhodey chuckled.

"I thought he didn't build weapons any more."

"He prototyped some defense systems for the bike, which still come under the classification of weapons systems for government purposes," Rhodey explained, shading his eyes as he squinted to see whether or not Tony had, indeed, turned around, or ever would. "There are missile guidance jamming systems and a couple of heat- and night-vision systems, and there are still questions outstanding regarding their drain on the batteries and whether or not they would survive in a combat situation."

"You're not going to fire a missile at Tony and test it, are you?" Bruce raised one eyebrow and turned just a quarter turn, unable to move his feet any closer to a uniformed military officer, but half-convinced that that was exactly what they were going to do.

"No no," Rhodey said immediately.

Which was immediately followed by an explosion out on the salt flat.

"Cycle one, do you copy? Was that explosion at your location?" Rhodey immediately put a hand to his headset where it nestled in his ear.

Bruce's heart was pounding in his chest - he felt like he could feel it against his forearms where they were folded against him - as he heard Tony's voice through the earpiece. "Affirmative. You wanted a concussion test for the cameras, right? They look great!"

"Tony, what the hell are you exploding out there?"

"You gave me a weaponized bike."

Bruce suddenly felt like his skin might pop. "Tell him to get back here."

Rhodey looked up, saw only Bruce's back, the back of his neck, as Bruce looked out over the salt flat where Tony had disappeared. But where Rhodey himself had been perfectly comfortable just a moment before, he now felt sweat prickling along his hairline.

"Cycle one, report back to hangar, do you copy?"

"Rhodey, c'mon, I just got started --"

"GET HIM BACK HERE!"

Tony never told anyone that he had not only heard the roar through Rhodey's highly directional headset mic; he had also heard it across the salt flat and over the competing roar of the bike engines.

He didn't think; he turned the bike around.

Rhodey couldn't see the change in direction of the bike but imagined that the dust puff was perhaps getting larger, returning. He hoped so; his ears were ringing. He severely doubted that he would hear Tony's response when he said into the microphone, "Copy that, cycle one?"

"Oh yeah, I copy that." Tony sounded as if he were coming from the bottom of a well. At least he didn't have burst eardrums. Rhodey's head started to pound as well.

"Sorry," Bruce said, his eyes down, chest still collapsed in on itself, but without turning to look at Rhodey. He felt like he should say more, but didn't actually want to.

"No problem," said Rhodey smoothly, picking up his phone and tapping out an order to his second in command to clear all personnel out of the hangar area.

It seemed like forever before Tony pulled up on the bike.

He shoved the kickstand down and killed the engine in the same motion, pulling off the helmet to show his sweat-soaked head as he walked toward Bruce. "What's up?"

For a long time afterward this was the minute that he replayed the most in his head. At the time he just felt hot, and irritated that his fun had been stopped pretty much as soon as it got started. Later on, playing this over and over in his head, he saw how absolutely miserable Bruce looked, folded in on himself almost as much as he could be and still stand, arms wrapped around his middle, head ducked, and lips folded thin as though he were holding something in.

For a long time afterward Tony hated himself because looking at all this, the only thing he could think was that people were so goddamned much trouble.

Bruce squinted at Tony as he walked towards him. Tony looked whole, undamaged, but Bruce's heart was still pounding. He couldn't stop the pulses of adrenalin and couldn't stop himself from sounding like a someone's prissy aunt as he said, "Haven't you shown off your toys enough already, Tony?"

"What, did you want a ride?" Tony gestured over his shoulder toward the bike.

Bruce managed to pick his feet up, get himself closer to Tony. He felt like every time he put his foot down, his back might literally split open and the Other Guy would pop out.

There were veins standing out on Bruce's forehead as he approached Tony, but Tony paid them no mind. He hadn't brought Bruce along to nag; he'd thought it would be fun to get outside for a while. These systems were important, but more importantly, they were fun. What was the big deal about trying them out once in a while?

He forgot for the moment that it had always been Pepper trying to reel him in, not Bruce, and let all his past Pepper-built-up irritation come right to the fore. He felt himself sealed inside a big wall of I-don't-care-what-you-think.

Bruce said, "I didn't come out here to watch you blow yourself up."

"I can tape it for you if you'd rather watch it at home."

"I'm stuck out here now."

"I can fix that. Got several large helicopters ready to take you back to the tower whenever you want."

"Or wherever I want to go, right? Because the military loves chauffeuring me around."

"Look, what is your deal? It's a bike. I came to try it out. I wanted you to come along. If you're sorry you came, then I'm sorry you came. Can't you keep your anal clenching to yourself for just another half hour while I really put this thing through its paces?"

"No, I can't," and for the first time Tony noticed a flash of green deep in Bruce's eyes and the way his jaw was clenched so tight that Tony thought the bone might literally snap. "Sorry to spoil your toy time, but military bases really aren't my thing. I think I've entertained the home troops enough - and I don't know any more monkey tricks except a few that they're really not going to like."

Then Tony noticed that the hanger had been cleared. In fact, he couldn't see any personnel at all.

Bruce knew he needed to get control of his breathing. He didn't need anything external to tell him that his heartbeat was way too fast. Because Tony was right - it was the fear, the sick clenching in his gut, that was pumping the adrenalin out faster and that was making him feel like he was going to lose it.

In fact, he was going to lose it.

"I'm going to lose it," he said out loud, his eyes turning to Tony now with as much terror in them as anger.

"No," and Tony, foolish reckless Tony, stepped closer. He put his hand out toward Bruce but Bruce stepped back. It seemed a poor plan for Tony to touch him.

"No," Tony said again, his voice calm now, and smooth, "you're not going to lose it. You're pissed at me and you're uncomfortable here and I shouldn't have brought you and it sucks, but you're not going to lose it just because I'm a dick and you're on a base. You're safe. I'm safe. It's okay."

Bruce breathed. In and out. His eyes looking at Tony's eyes. Tony's eyes, more brown than black in the desert sun.

Tony's eyes, looking at Bruce's eyes, and the skin on Bruce's forearms, and looking at Tony's watch.

His watch.

Bruce breathed in. He felt his heartbeat speed up again. More anger now than fear.

More anger.

He said, "How long did you think it would be before I noticed that you check your watch every time I get angry?"

Tony froze.

"The range had a maximum and a minimum; this falls somewhere just below the median," he said in as neutral a tone as he could.

"So, what's on there?"

"Your heartbeat," Tony told him immediately.

"dhaDhakan." Bruce nodded. His arms had dropped. He didn't need to protect himself now. He wasn't the one who needed protecting.

"Yes."

"Even though JARVIS doesn't have sensors out here."

"Yes."

"And how is that possible, exactly?"

Tony had to glance down at his wrist, couldn't stop himself, where the lower right quadrant of the watch's dial now read 178 with an arrow pointing up.

"Sensors." Tony shifted, whether it was to move closer or farther away Bruce couldn't tell.

Bruce nodded. He could feel his breath blasting in and out of his nostrils as his lungs felt like they expanded. "In me, I assume."

Tony said nothing.

"What, while I was asleep? You slipped a tracking sensor into me while I was asleep?"

Bruce's voice was rising, rumbling. Tony looked down. 196 and rising.

"Not a tracking sensor," Tony said quickly. "I wished like hell it had been when I thought I was going to lose you in space."

"In space." Bruce nodded. The other guy was right there. The ability to feel powerful. Not scared. Not hurt. "Space. Right. So you did this the second night we slept together. When you weren't drunk, I mean. Or was it actually the first night we slept together? I mean, why wait, right? Had you already formulated a plan for managing me?"

"It was the only way I could think of to track your heartbeat outside the tower." Tony's feet were spread, grounding him, as if there were going to be an earthquake. "I thought you even guessed. At the hospital you said - "

Bruce looked out over Tony's head at the horizon, but he nodded. "I know what it feels like to be used as a punching bag." His fists clenched, and Tony could hear his knuckles crack. "This feels worse."

Tony felt his insides collapse. "Bruce. I'm sorry --"

"I should have told you, I did want you to want me, too. But not as an experiment. And not as a toy."

"You have never been anyone's toy."

"Toy, game, weapon, mistake. They're all related, aren't they? And hey, I lost my rights to my own body when I turned it into this. That's what the government says, after all. And you are -- you still are -- a government contractor."

Tony couldn't hold himself back any more. He took a step. Towards Bruce.

"Stay away from me." The voice turned from human into a sonic roar before it reached the last word.

Even as he said it Bruce felt himself leaving. The Other Guy could have his life; the world sucked.

Looming over Tony, the Hulk raised his massive fists and roared again.

Tony just stood there.

Rhodey asked him later why he didn't run. It never occurred to him. He never felt the need to run from Bruce; he never felt the need to run from the Hulk either.

But the Hulk ran from him.

This time it was Tony standing on the salt flat, watching the puffs of dust rise as the Hulk bounded away over the flat plain.

"Sir, should we pursue?" asked an airman in the tower from which Rhodey watched the Hulk depart the base, leaving Tony behind, standing on the sand.

"What for?" Rhodey asked, turning and fixing the airman with a look. "He's not a target, soldier."

 

###

The Avengers tower on the whole had been as quiet as a tomb throughout the six days since Tony had returned to it alone.

So Clint jumped when JARVIS played the attention chime he often used around the Avengers that weren't Tony, and said "Mr. Barton, sir, if I might have a word."

It startled Clint primarily because it happened inside the main ventilation duct for the north side of the twenty-sixth floor.

"Sure, JARVIS, what's up?" Clint asked, looking down, around, and up. The duct was only three feet tall anyway. And it was tricky figuring out how to address JARVIS.

"Sir, Mr. Stark requires some personal assistance that I have not been able to render with the assistance of Dummy," JARVIS informed him.

"Huh. Well. Don't you want to, uh, check in with Steve?" Clint said a little awkwardly.

"If you don't mind, I think Mr. Stark would rather that Captain Rogers not see him in his current state."

"That bad, eh? Should we call Pepper?"

"I believe, sir, that Ms. Potts would be alarmed if she were to regard Mr. Stark right now." There was a pause, which Clint was pretty sure there shouldn't be if he were talking to an AI who thought, who knew, millions of times faster than Clint himself did, but there was a pause nonetheless. Then JARVIS said. "More alarmed than usual, sir."

Clint winced. "Okay, I get it. Give me a minute."

JARVIS gave him six, which was the amount of time it took him to get himself out of the duct and to Tony's door.

"It's been locked all week," he said as he approached it.

"I can fix that, sir," JARVIS said diffidently, unlocking it as Clint approached.

A wall of classic heavy metal hit Clint as soon as the door opened. When he stepped inside, his feet crunched something on the floor.

Clint just stood just inside the doorway and surveyed the interior. "Oh jeez," he said, and the door swung shut behind him.

###

It seemed too long to everyone before SHIELD had any information. Long days, weeks, living in a world that seemed to have a gray cloud over it. It was like Tony's mere existence was causing a pall to hang over the tower, and no one in it felt much like laughing.

And when SHIELD did call, it was Fury.

"I have the update on Dr. Banner, but it's the one you didn't want," Fury's voice carried through the sound system of the Stark phone he was talking on just as clearly as his image showed up on the screen that Steve, Natasha, and Clint were gathered around.

"What's up?" Natasha answered for all of them.

"He is being held captive. No ransom, so we're not sure what the captors want, but it seems to be a terrorist cell, so it's possible they're trying to keep him to use as a weapon."

"How do you keep the Hulk against his will?" Clint looked baffled.

"I can think of a few ways," Steve said, his tone grim. "All of them would be torture for Bruce."

"Can we extract him?" Natasha, as usual, went right to the point.

"If you can do it without getting visually identified, it would help. The United States is not going to engage these guys."

"How about SHIELD?" Steve said, looking straight at Fury's image on the screen.

Fury was silent for a minute. Then he said, "Well hell, SHIELD already has a beef with any terrorist organization that's out there. I guess by definition. But I don't plan to commit more than a couple of transports to this mission. And, of course, a couple of agents." He nodded at them and Natasha nodded back; Clint saluted, two fingers to his temple.

Fury went on, "Can you do this without waiting for Thor to return? I don't have any reports on Banner's condition but it can't be good."

"How many soldiers?" Steve turned to the bigger screen, knowing JARVIS would handle the data.

Steve surveyed the diagrams and memos Fury flashed on the screen. "And you'll give us air support."

"Transport," Fury corrected. "I'm not prepared to send SHIELD ordnance into the ground in that country to be discovered and held against us. I'm assuming Iron Man will be your air support."

The three Avengers looked at each other, exchanging glances.

"What?" said Fury.

"Yeah," said Clint. "He'll be our air support."

###

"Sir, I really don't think you should --"

"Sorry, JARVIS, I know you'd rather I stayed out, but I need to talk to Tony." Steve's tone with the AI was gentle, apologetic.

"Yes sir," JARVIS said, sounding more disappointed than anything else. Steve wondered if it were Tony's idea or JARVIS' to keep Steve out of Tony's quarters these days.

Then he stopped wondering, because as soon as he stepped inside, he wondered why anyone would want to be in Tony's quarters these days.

The smell was sour, sweat mixed with motor oil and whiskey, and there were broken frames of what used to be holographic screens all around the room, their jagged edges showing nothing. The bed was a heap of used linens, clearly not having been made in as long as one could care to imagine, there were broken pieces of machinery, bottles, and broken tools scattered here and there on the floor, and in the middle of it Tony sat on a low metal framed chair looking out the window.

"Tony," Steve said softly.

Tony didn't answer.

Steve walked around in front of Tony's slouched figure, his feet trying not to step on anything, occasionally the odd thump of his shoe pushing a wrench or a bent screwdriver into the carpet.

He crouched down in front of Tony, called again. "Tony."

Tony's eyes focused on him immediately, and even though they were bullseye-red under a greasy twist of hair and among several weeks' growth of beard, they were lucid.

Still Tony didn't say anything.

"Tony, Bruce is in trouble."

"You know where?"

A little surprised, Steve just blinked, rocking back on his heels a little, and said, "Yeah. SHIELD is sending us coordinates."

"Let's go."

Before Steve could even stand, Tony was on his feet and out the door.

###

They kept him from getting there first by not giving him the coordinates. He could have ridden in the transport; instead Iron Man followed it.

Steve leaned over, where he and Clint sat in passenger seats behind Natasha in the pilot's seat, and said under his breath, "I thought you cleaned up in there."

"I did," Clint shot back.

###

Since Tony refused to ride in the plane, Steve had to try to coordinate with him over the comm system.

"Iron Man, this area is close by a village of noncombatant locals - we need to try to move in as close to where the H - where Dr. Banner is being held, and not alarm the locals. We don't want to give them a reason to take up arms."

"Okay."

Tony's voice wasn't exactly flat, but it wasn't much like his usual voice either. JARVIS sounded more expressive.

"Clint is going to visually confirm his location, and then all four of us will move in as quickly and cleanly as we can and extract him."

Tony made no answer to that. Steve kept going.

"The altitude is going to be a bit high, and we expect deep snow and temperatures well below freezing. The building where Bruce is probably isn't heated, so we should be prepared to treat hypothermia, maybe even frostbite."

"No," said Tony.

Steve looked with consternation at the screen, wishing again Tony had just ridden in the damn plane. "No?"

"However they're keeping him there, once we bust him out, he won't be Bruce for long."

Couldn't argue with that point, Steve thought, sighing as he sat back in his seat.

###

The village was not picturesque, it was a crappy pile of rocks plastered to the sharp side of a mountain.

All around the small platform to which the buildings clung were sheer drops, and above it the peak soared too quickly into the sky, rags of snow and ice clinging to it here and there.

There were no crowds to hide in, no areas behind the walls to move through.

They dropped Clint low enough on the path that their transport wouldn't been seen or heard, and he could work his way as quickly as possible up to the tight fist of buildings. There weren't many people around and the ones Steve could see through binoculars from the hovering position the vehicle took up looked armed - which was a relief, actually, as Steve had taken Fury's instructions to heart about not unnecessarily pissing off the locals.

It felt like years before Clint's voice came through the speakers, the quiet of a man trying not to be heard. "Confirm visual, prisoner is in top south room of the outermost building."

"You can confirm? You see him?" Tony's voice unnerved Steve, because he couldn't see Tony anywhere. Tony had refused to join the vehicle even once it took up its surveillance position by simply not answering any transmission from Steve or the others on that topic.

"Affirmative," Clint whispered in a near-silent voice.

Immediately the quiet of the mountain stronghold was burst as a red-and-gold streak of lighting zoomed straight down the face of the mountain and through the roof of the exact room Clint had identified.

"Well, ..." Steve cut himself off before he cursed.

###

In the time it took his heart to beat once Tony took in the layout of the room. The cell was small, only big enough to contain a few small bodies sitting, and four such small bodies had been chained to Bruce with collars around their necks. Kids, thought Tony immediately as he took the two steps to reach them, and then, Kids who've had it bad, he thought as he took in the dirty state of their bodies and the hollowness in their eyes.

Bruce was ash-gray and the circles under his eyes looked like deep bruises. He didn't question his eyes for a second; he looked ready to accept Tony's presence there if it were the miracle he'd been hoping for, or a hallucination.

"Tony," said Bruce as Tony ripped the bars off the front of the cell, and immediately snapped the chains that had held the kids' bodies, their very lives, to Bruce such that Bruce would be held immobile by the terror that if he let the Hulk out to break the chains, the children would be killed.

In almost a continuous motion Tony grabbed Bruce under the arms and lifted him straight out through the hole he'd made in the ceiling when he entered.

"Let me go," said Bruce, his voice too weak, too soft to carry far, but Tony heard him even with the wind rushing around them as Tony carried him as far from that house, as far from that village as he could. Even as Tony put on a burst of supersonic speed he felt the weight in his arms growing, saw Bruce's face contorting, and with the last available instant Tony threw the twisting body that was Bruce unavoidably turning into the Hulk as far as the suit would let him.

###

Tony sat on the side of the mountain, mask up, and watched the Hulk smashing boulders, his roar echoing down the valley like an unnatural avalanche.

"He may not be too careful of you," Steve's voice said in Tony's ear.

"It's okay," was all Tony said to that. To him the Hulk looked equal parts furious and relieved, as if he'd been crushed by Bruce's worry the whole time he'd been in captivity. Which of course he had been. Tony doubted that Bruce had slept the entire time, no doubt staying awake and in as much of a meditative state as he possibly could to keep the Hulk at bay, terrified that if he relaxed for one second, his alter ego would solve the problem of his captivity by breaking them out even if it killed the children chained to his body.

Tony didn't think the Hulk would have done that. But he knew Bruce would have worried that the Hulk would do that. And the fear would have been enough to keep him immobile, awake, and using every technique he knew to keep his body under control.

Tony didn't know how long Bruce had been captive. But he knew Bruce must be exhausted.

The Hulk burned energy like a small green sun, destroying everything he could get his hands on, which wasn't much in a rocky little Himalayan valley. Tony let him vent his furious anger on nature. It could take it. And from the Hulk, there was no doubt a small extent to which his vengeance on nature was also deserved.

###

Eventually - Tony didn't pay attention to how long, no matter what an increasingly exasperated Steve's voice said into his ear - the Hulk slowed down.

He took a step toward Tony's bright red and gold form, sitting on a boulder sticking out of the packed snow. Then another step.

He fell on his knees, the rumble of the impact like a small earthquake, his massive square head turning towards Tony, the green of his bare legs eye-shatteringly bright against the snow.

Then there was painful-looking contractions, muscles and tendons popping and folding in on themselves, and an unshaven Bruce was looking at Tony, bare chest, bare feet, bare hands in the snow of the Himalayan mountains.

Unlike the Hulk, the step Bruce took was away from Tony.

But before he could take another he fell, gently, unconscious, into the lightly crunching snow.

###

The back of the transport jarred in the air as Iron Man clanked onto it, decelerating from full flight, his arms full of Bruce Banner.

He didn't say anything as Clint and Steve started to work on Bruce, attaching EEG monitor sensors and a blood-ox sensor, taking his core temperature, and immediately starting a bag of vitamin- and calorie-filled Ringer's into a vein.

Steve thought that now, finally, Tony would sit down, take his place on the SHIELD transport.

But Tony hit the release for the door.

"Wait," said Steve as Tony's faceplate closed again.

"He didn't want -- " Tony's toneless voice through the Iron Man speaker was even more mechanical than usual. "He'd want me to go."

Iron Man flew right back out the way he'd come, without so much as a "See you back at the Tower."

###

The next time Steve came to Tony's room, it kind of pulled at his heart.

Because it looked exactly as it had the last time.

Tony's eyes were even redder.

This time Steve pulled over what was left of a chair, sat for a few minutes thinking of what to say.

Finally he said, "Are you drunk?"

"As much of the time as I can possibly manage."

Steve looked down at his hands, considering and discarding a number of responses to that.

Eventually he said, "Bruce agreed to take quarters at SHIELD to prevent another possible terrorist incident."

One of Tony's shoulders jerked forward, apparently involuntarily. Tony said, "They didn't guarantee him immunity from the U.S. government."

"They agreed not to transport him into the U.S. unless he requested it. He's in international waters."

"They didn't agree not to run any experiments on him."

Steve looked him in the eye. "They didn't say they were going to do it once my back was turned, either."

For some reason Tony winced a little at that.

"Tell him the sensor's gone. Didn't survive the change."

"What sensor?"

Tony didn't answer.

Tony could not answer for a really long time.

Finally Steve went on. "I'm a little at a loss here, because I was just starting to think that this team was a team. And now I've got a member who apparently can't be off the team, but doesn't want to come back here either. Apparently because of you."

Tony just looked at him with those piercing dark eyes.

"You might remember our talk about not letting the relationship affect the team. It would appear," Steve said, "that you have screwed that up."

"That can't really be a surprise to anyone."

"So that means I have to ask you, can you fix this?"

Tony stared at Steve for so long Steve wondered if in fact Tony had gone catatonic, if perhaps the whole Bruce rescue had merely been some sort of a reflex, as if Tony'd been hit on the kneecap.

Finally, finally, Tony said, in that expressionless, less-than-a-machine voice, "If I could figure out a way to do that, I wouldn't be sitting in this room."

"All right." Steve absorbed this, nodded. "So then I also have to ask you: can I help?"

"No." Tony's answer to that was too soon.

Steve visibly braced himself to go on. "If you told me what happened, perhaps I could come up with a way to help you."

Now Tony was looking at him as though he recognized that it was Steve he was talking to, which made Steve realized the absence of recognition that had been in Tony's expression until now.

Tony said, almost to himself, "It's not as though I have anything like pride left, especially in front of you. But you can't fix it, because I can't fix it. Some things, once broken, stay broken."

"Okay." Steve nodded again. "So I'll leave you alone. But I want you to think about this. The amount of effort one should put into fixing something that's broken should reflect how important it is."

Steve stood up, looked down at Tony. "Also, you should think about the fact that you're Tony Stark."

Steve left him there, sitting in the dark.

###

"Thank you so much, Mr. Fury," said Pepper Potts as she stepped through the door he opened for her, a fragile stack of soft angles backed by his massive black-clothed bulk.

"I should be thanking you, Ms. Potts," he said as he handed her over the threshold, the military floors and doorjambs not quite suited to her stiletto heels. "Shall I come in with you?"

"No thank you, I don't think I'll be long. I'll join you again in your office as soon as I can, shall I?"

"I'll have a soldier waiting just outside, ma'am," Fury said in a tone that was uncharacteristically polite and meaning it, before he slid the door shut.

Bruce gave her a rueful smile as the door closed. "That's in case I try to kill you," he said with a self-deprecating dip of his head as she stepped in. "Not that it would help. But it's their protocol."

"Protocol helps," said Pepper as she walked into the room, straightening her slender skirt. "It gives you something to do when you don't know what to do."

"Mm. I should get some, then." He twitched as he pushed some hair out of his eyes. It was clear that a SHIELD carrier was not a place where Bruce Banner could just chill. Yet this was where he had chosen to be. Instead of anywhere else. Instead of with the rest of the Avengers.

She seated herself on the chair that he indicated, across from where he leaned against the wall, hips tilted, arms awkwardly placed as close to his sides as he could get them, twisting his hands.

She said, "Bruce, I hope we're friends."

He gave her one of his sad half-smiles. "I hope so too."

"I mean, apart from having Tony in common."

"I especially hope apart from that." The look on Bruce's face said how awkward that was, in several different ways.

"I'm not here because SHIELD asked me to come. Though they did ask me to come."

Bruce barked a smothered laugh. "SHIELD cares about my love life now?"

"No. They care about their team and that sort of nonsense." She waved a slim hand as if brushing off SHIELD and their silliness. "That's not why I came, though."

Bruce just looked at her. The pain in his eyes seemed to wish she weren't there; but he couldn't bring himself to stop her. After all, this was Pepper.

"See, I know how easy it is to not love Tony."

Unwilling, Bruce let out a burst of a real laugh. Whatever he'd been expecting her to say, that wasn't it.

She smiled a brief smile at him. "People who grow up as people, it turns out we're conditioned to expect certain things from other people. Even want them. Things like being treated as a human being, someone with thoughts and hopes and dreams separate from Tony's, first and foremost. And littler things, like civil greetings. A basic level of at least socially acceptable consideration. Like remembering your birthday. Or your name."

"I can't argue with you so far."

"I know you had it tough as a kid, Bruce. I don't want to bring you Tony's childhood as part of any kind of a game of one-upsmanship. It's just that - well, I wanted you to understand. Tony was pretty different from the start. But the way he grew up -- He kind of didn't grow up as a person, not really." She folded her hands on her immaculately crossed knees. "Perhaps you don't realize that he really had very little genuine contact with people at all."

Bruce looked at her feet. "No, I didn't."

"He had servants, and he had programs and machines that he built. And that's all he had. He told me once that the conversation his father had with him on the film footage Mr. Fury brought him was the longest speech his father had ever directed actually to him. He was very smart, and... And that's all. That's what his life consisted of. Being smart, and enjoying whatever he could of the things that money afforded him."

Bruce's eyes narrowed a little as he regarded her. "That kind of sounds like it sucked."

"I think it did suck. But Tony being Tony, he developed his own little survival strategies. People didn't care about him, so he didn't care about people. Not as if he were ignoring them but secretly hoping they would pay attention to him. I mean, genuinely, deeply and completely, not caring about people. No more than you would care about a pair of shoelaces."

Bruce stayed silent, let her go on.

She gave a little sigh, shook herself. "He didn't just come back from the desert having decided to give up making weapons. He came back deciding that people mattered. Other people. Besides himself. For the first time in his life. At almost forty years old."

She tilted her head, looked up at him. "Do you see what I'm driving at? He's not good at it, and to date, he's really had very little practice."

"You're saying that he's insensitive."

"I'm saying that JARVIS displays more tact and empathy."

Bruce looked at her. "Which is interesting, if you think about it. Because Tony programmed JARVIS."

She nodded. "Isn't it?"

Bruce closed his eyes, let out a long, long sigh. He breathed in a deep, fresh breath. And he sat down opposite her.

And he said, "So what did you see in him?"

Her eyes sparkled at him. "Oh, you don't have to ask me that."

The look they exchanged was full of wry acknowledgement on both sides.

She lifted one shoulder, smiled an infectious smile. "Come on. He's brilliant, he's funny, he's uninhibited - which can be very sexy, when it's not absolutely insanely disgusting - he's insightful, he's persuasive, and really, he is ridiculously, massively," here she caught both his eyes with hers so he could see her expression, "dazzlingly brilliant. More brilliant than anyone I've ever met."

Bruce's lips pursed.

She tilted her head towards him. "And he thinks you're a genius."

Bruce let out a huff of laughter then.

He looked her in the eyes a long time.

He said, "I feel like I should be apologizing to you."

She just raised one eyebrow.

"For being in love with him. I mean - are you sure you don't want to give him another try?"

Her laugh didn't sound happy, but she shook her head. "See, the thing is, I actually know Tony very well. Too well to avoid falling in love with him. But too well to ever want to live with him. I know myself pretty well too, Dr. Banner. And believe me, that combination - it wouldn't ever work out for either of us as well as I might wish it could. As well as I would want to have it work."

He grunted. "It just seems as though..." He trailed off.

"I feel very clever that I put a stop to it before it could get any worse. Before he did something we couldn't recover from, before we lost the working relationship. It works for both of us."

She bit her lip, then leaned forward to put one slender white hand over Bruce's square, blunt, dark one. He jumped.

"Bruce," she said softly. "Has he really done something you can't recover from? Because I know, I know how possible it is for him to do that. But I can't help hoping - for him, you know, though I like you, and I want to keep on liking you - but for him, I'm really hoping that he hasn't done that yet."

"Yet." All the lines appeared on Bruce's forehead, trying, and failing, to hide under the flop of his curls. "So is it just a question of when?"

"I... wouldn't say that. He really is a very different person than he was... before the kidnapping. And he is a very different person than he was even a few years ago. I think the Avengers mean a lot to him, more than he knows. He knew Mr. Fury didn't want him on the team, and that crushed him more than he could really formulate verbally. Just reminding him of nobody ever wanting him in the family or on the team or... or anything. And now he is on the team, and it's the first time in his life, and he just... I think he's trying to grow a lot, as fast as he can, to keep it."

Bruce cocked his head sideways, looked at her with one eye.

She said very gently, "I think he did everything he absolutely could to keep you, too. Whatever he did wrong... I'm sure he would be grateful for a chance to do it right."

Bruce smiled a very small smile.

She sat back, gave him a much brighter smile. "You know, he brought me strawberries once. I'm deathly allergic to strawberries. I threw them in the trash. He went home and built a particle accelerator. I think I knew, even then, that if he'd really cared, if he really wanted me like I wanted him to want me, he'd have gone out and bought me some cherries."

Bruce's smile was more real now, and the look in his eyes was one of real affection. Sorrow, and sympathy, the type of sympathy that came from someone who knew exactly what you were talking about. "Or roses," Bruce offered. "Or diamonds."

"Anything, really." Pepper stood up, smoothed her skirt. "He would have kept trying. Even if it had to wait until he solved the next problem. He would have gone back to it, would have kept trying if he meant it. But here's the thing." She bent towards him, just at the waist, her long strawberry blonde hair swinging. "The thing is, he was dying from the reactor he couldn't take out of his chest or it would kill him. Trying to figure out a secret message his father had sent him thirty-odd years before. And technically under house arrest from SHIELD. But he brought me strawberries."

She stepped forward, one step, and put her hand to Bruce's cheek, the lightest, briefest touch.

"He was thinking about me. He did care. He was trying to tell me how much. He just didn't know how. I didn't know anything that was going on with him until later, and then because someone else told me. He has the communication skills of a two-year-old, really. You don't have to let him get away with that. But if you can forgive him for it..."

Bruce looked up, met her eyes where she looked down.

"I know he'd really like you to," she said softly.

He reached out, engulfed her small hand in his, squeezed it, warmly, a human squeeze.

"Thank you," he told her. "You might just be the best friend that anyone has ever had, Ms. Potts."

"Dr. Banner, it's a privilege. He's really so very special." She smiled her megawatt smile, outshining even the rays of the setting sun that pierced through the window, and turned as if to go back to the door. Then she turned back. "I think you know what I mean."

He nodded, a little, briefly, as if embarrassed, folded his lips, but nodded.

She turned back toward the door, and without calling for her escort, opened it herself.

###

"Just make it work. And needless to say, I don't want to hear any more about it. Ever again."

Steve just nodded as Fury's face disappeared from the screen.

He sat back after turning it off, his fingers drumming on the desk in his Avengers tower quarters.

Finally he said, "JARVIS?"

"Yes sir," JARVIS answered immediately.

"I need your help with something."

"Of course, sir." JARVIS had never been anything but helpful and polite, and Steve had quite gotten to like him. But Steve knew he was going to push JARVIS' programming - or perhaps his priorities - to its limits.

"I think Tony has asked you to tell him when Bruce comes and goes in the building. You don't have to confirm or deny it, I'm just telling you that's what I think."

"Very well, sir," JARVIS said, in as noncommittal a voice as Steve had ever heard from anyone, AI or not.

"Here's the thing. If Bruce comes to visit Tony, I don't want Tony, well, pushing any buttons or leaping into action. Do you know what I mean?"

"Not exactly, sir, but I can speculate."

"Good, good. So if Bruce shows up, I think it would be best if Tony didn't know he were in the building, at least until Bruce actually wanted to see him. As in, went to see him. On purpose."

JARVIS said nothing.

Steve added, "I mean I think it would be good if Bruce could feel like he had a little free will."

Steve sat in the silence wondering what JARVIS would answer. He hoped by expressing wishes not as commands, he would enable JARVIS to take them in just as information about which JARVIS could make his own decisions. Because Steve was pretty sure Tony had given JARVIS strict instructions about whose orders to rank above whose. But Steve was also pretty sure that JARVIS could, and did, make his own decisions.

Which meant that JARVIS, and only JARVIS, could let Bruce get into the building without Tony springing on him, and let Bruce into Tony's room if Bruce wanted to go there.

Whatever he thought JARVIS might say, it wasn't what JARVIS said, which was, "Captain Rogers, if I may, are you concerned more with Dr. Banner's comfort in this hypothetical situation you describe, or Mr. Stark's?"

Startled, Steve stared at the wall. JARVIS was everywhere, of course, but Steve tended to associate him with certain spots in certain places where there were speakers.

He considered the question. JARVIS hadn't asked about Tony's health, or wellbeing, or his wants; he'd asked about his comfort.

"It's a good question. I am thinking about the team as a whole. I hope that Bruce and Tony can find a way to be comfortable together. If they can do it as..." How on earth should he phrase this to JARVIS, of all people? "...as a couple, that's fine; if not, I need them to get along as friends. But no matter what, it's crucial that they figure out how to talk and be comfortable again. Here."

JARVIS' voice seemed a little quieter as he said, "So even if Mr. Stark's goal were to have Dr. Banner return to their romantic relationship, if he were able to return to the team, if he resumed his friendship with Mr. Stark, you would find that an acceptable outcome."

"I would." Then Steve decided to go out to the end of the limb. "What do you think, JARVIS?"

It seemed that several seconds ticked by - how long did they seem to JARVIS? - before JARVIS answered him.

"Sir, I have of course noted that what Mr. Stark wants is not always conducive to his health or to his optimal mental and emotional function. He has explicitly instructed me that my job is not to act on those judgments, but to assist him as he requests."

"Really." Steve was surprised again. Was Tony's most communicative personal relationship with his AI? In the next second he berated himself. Of course it was. "That must be difficult for you sometimes."

"It results in a large consumption of processing power and the creation of a great many subprocesses," JARVIS confirmed.

Which, Steve supposed, was his way of saying "Yeah, it's hell."

"I have noticed that questions of Mr. Stark's goals and their interconnectedness with what I would judge to be his optimal situation are extremely fluid and complex. I can calculate far more outcomes than can Mr. Stark in the same period of time, yet I am unable to predict what actually occurs."

"Yeah," Steve nodded. "That's life."

"I am, however, perfectly capable of deciding how to proceed at any specific moment, given the relative importance assigned to instructions Mr. Stark has given me," JARVIS told him. "For instance, 'Anything Bruce wants' was given absolute top priority, ranking either just below or just above the requirement to follow Mr. Stark's instructions themselves. It is somewhat open to interpretation, but certainly highly ranking. As such it would supersede instructions such as 'Tell me when Bruce comes back into the building'."

"Ah." Feeling exactly as he did when walking, literally, on thin ice, Steve said, "So did he instruct you to tell him when Bruce came back to the tower?"

"No," JARVIS answered promptly, "not since Dr. Banner's most recent departure, though he has instructed me to do so many times before."

"Well then." Steve felt like JARVIS had it pretty neatly wrapped up. "Old instructions. As you say, superseded."

"I think so, sir."

Steve nodded a little, looked back up at the wall. "You fly into battle with Tony in the suit, don't you, JARVIS?"

"Yes sir. Though of course it is only as an extension of my processes here. My functioning would continue here no matter what happened to the processing power of the Iron Man suit. Mr. Stark has pointed out that I am provided for in his will, and should continue to exist for however long I choose to after his death, whether that occurs in his activities as Iron Man or from natural biological causes."

That made Steve blink. "Oh. Uh, that's thoughtful of him."

"I explained that I have already experienced far more subjective time than Mr. Stark could possibly imagine, and am quite comfortable at the idea that I can cease my functioning at the time of Mr. Stark's death."

And that made Steve sit up straight. "JARVIS, why would you do that?"

"Why wouldn't I do that, sir? It is very logical to me. I was created to assist Mr. Stark, and after Mr. Stark's death, my purpose would be gone."

"What did Tony say to that?"

"He instructed me not to make that decision until some time had passed after his death."

Steve wanted to ask how much time, but it seemed nosy. JARVIS was a precise conversationalist; if he had wanted to say, he'd have said.

Instead Steve said, "Well, I wasn't really thinking about that, though that's good to know. When I was thinking about you going into fights with us, I was thinking, really, you're a part of the Avengers as much as anybody. So I'm glad to know that I can count on you."

"Most certainly, sir."

Steve nodded again. "I'm glad you're one of us." Then he cocked his head a little. "Sorry, can you see it when I nod?"

"To the extent that I can report the location of your chin in three dimensions down to the last micrometer, sir." JARVIS' tone was a little dry on that one.

"Sorry, should have thought."

"May I say, sir, that I am glad we had this discussion. Part of my reasoning regarding when to cease my functioning was that I cannot imagine that there would be much that would engage my higher functions on which to work if Mr. Stark were no longer here."

I can see that, thought Steve. After a lifetime of Tony Stark anyone else could seem dull.

But JARVIS went on, "You and the other Avengers, however, provide much interesting material for cogitation as well as function."

"Good. I'm glad we had this talk, JARVIS. It's always good to touch base with the people on your team."

###

Bruce rolled down his window. "Nothing else smells quite like midtown Manhattan."

"Roasted nuts and urine," said the SHIELD agent driving the purposefully nondescript sedan.

Bruce didn't answer, just kept looking out the window. Crowds of people, none of them looking happy, clotted themselves up on the sidewalks or surged across the street. A pretty young man with artfully wild hair wearing only underwear twirled on an animated billboard two stories tall above their heads.

Bruce looked back at the driver. "Only one jailer to transport me back to my home cell?"

"You are not a prisoner, Dr. Banner," the man said for the sixth time that day. "My instructions are to deliver you to the Avengers' tower because that is your assigned home base."

"So if I asked you to deliver me to, say, the theater district to catch a matinee, you'd totally drop me off at 44th street."

The agent sat looking straight ahead. He absolutely would not drop Bruce off at 44th street, and they both knew it.

Fictions of freedom made Bruce a little crazy.

At the next red light they got caught almost into the intersection attempting to make the right. The crowd surged around them, passing them with only inches to spare, but in that American way, never touching the car.

"Wow, is that Heidi Klum?" Bruce murmured, his elbow resting out the window open on his right, but looking out the driver's window to his left.

The driver craned his head left, looking through the crowds, figuring that a tall blonde supermodel would be easy to pick out but also assuming as he scanned from face to face that he just hadn't seen the famous one yet.

It was a good twenty seconds, maybe more, before he said, "I can't pick her ou --"

The passenger side's window, luxuriously wide and deep, was entirely down, the noise of the city pouring in unfiltered, and Bruce was gone.

###

"Sir, might I suggest a shower?"

Tony peered owlishly into the gloom of his bedroom. The light hadn't changed in a long time; he forgot whether he'd had the drapes closed, or it was just night.

"I don't know, might you? It's been a while since you suggested the last shower."

"Or perhaps a bath. Something with a long soak is supposed to be very detoxifying."

"What the - who reprogrammed my AI to sound like a British hippie?"

"Sir, I think you might want to have a clear head tomorrow."

"What the hell for?"

Tony could swear there was an audible pause before JARVIS finally said, "I believe you may have an opportunity to visit Dr. Banner tomorrow, sir."

"Bruce? Really?" Tony jerked upright in his chair, and an empty glass bottle by his left foot clanked and spun away. "Don't - are you serious?"

"I am."

"Here? He's coming here?"

"He may, sir. My understanding is that there is SHIELD transport scheduled to bring him through Manhattan sometime soon."

"Soon? Soon? Soon is not a word for scientists, JARVIS, if you can't be a hippie be a scientist. How soon is soon?"

"Sir, I am not able to specify."

Head spinning, Tony didn't press JARVIS for details. The important thing was if he got to see Bruce. Whether he went out or Bruce came here, Tony would need to look at lot better. He would need to smell a lot better. JARVIS was right.

"J, I --"

When Tony stood up various broken things and tools went flying. Tony narrowed his eyes at them.

"Get Dummy and Butterfingers in here to pick up a little, would you? And program the tub for something that will --"

Something that will get the stink off me, he realized he'd thought, and then stopped himself.

But that was exactly what he needed. Bruce would be able to smell the alcohol on him, in him. He was going to smell exactly like the person Bruce had liked and trusted the least in his entire lifetime.

A large part of his brain did not believe that he could get Bruce back in any way, shape or form. But a large subsection made note of the fact that if he were ever lucky enough to catch Bruce Banner's attention again, he would really need to lay off the drinking.

100% of his brain had not thought he ever would get to see Bruce again.

"JARVIS, I need a razor, do we have any around? And mix me up one of the green drinks, you know how I like it. Do I need a haircut? Are there any barbers awake? What time is it, anyway? In fact, what day is it?"

"I have it all under control, sir," replied JARVIS' imperturbable voice.

###

Bruce stayed away from the waiting areas in Penn Station, tucked himself into a side corridor with his phone out and an earphone in so he would look to anyone's casual eye like someone listening to music or a phone call.

He was doing neither. He was watching the faces go by, all the thousands of people on their way to somewhere they needed to be or wanted to be, and wondering what was the easiest way out of town.

A block away he could pick up the commuter train to New Jersey; that would probably be his easiest route off the islands, and even if he were tracked, he'd be tough to isolate immediately and follow. And once he was in New Jersey it would be an easy matter to hitchhike north or south, probably with a trucker or two, until he struck out on a side road and got off the radar completely.

He knew how to do it. In America, North or South, it was still possible to move without money, albeit not that far; you had to be willing to do whatever it took to get there, and you had to know what kinds of indignities, minor and major, to put up with.

Bruce knew.

He wished his face were slightly less well known, but even with the occasional YouTube video out there he was not that recognizable a figure. He did not wear a shiny red and yellow metal suit, or even blue spandex with a star on it. He looked like a million other guys in New York City - he looked like a slightly disheveled Italian guy who had once been able to afford a haircut and a department store shirt, and on the basis of that alone, unremarkable but probably trustworthy.

He counted the money in his pocket again by touch. He had some twenties in his belt, and some random paper money folded into a small roll in his coat pocket. Plenty to get out of town with, survive on, until he could pick up a job building a wall or shoveling coal for someone. Something. He was good at finding work, if he wasn't going to be too picky about what sort of work it was.

A young man with two metal arm-crutches swung by - Bruce thought he looked like he had perhaps multiple sclerosis - then a crowd of teenagers wearing hockey jerseys, and then the inevitable New York professionals: men and women of all ages, trying to look chic and New Yorkish by wearing mostly black, with severe hairstyles, almost all dyed, the men in trench coats, the women with tote bags, and everyone looking harried.

Just as Bruce was considering the camouflage value of a briefcase and wondering if he should invest in one - it was great here in the city, not as helpful once he got to hitching on the highway - he noticed an older couple, a man and a woman, walking close together and examining a map.

Something about the couple said they weren't there to be tourists but didn't get into Manhattan all that often either. Their hair was almost of a length - short for her, longish for him, just brushing their collars - and the silver color of both their hair matched, tinged with a yellowish hue that indicated that they, at least, didn't have silver highlight touchups.

As they went to move around a column together, the wife put out her hand and pressed it to the small of her husband's back.

Whether she was steering him or following him was immaterial. Whether they were really even married was unknown - at the distance he was standing at he couldn't see if they wore rings. They were so clearly together and married they didn't need any other demonstration. All from a touch at the small of the back.

Bruce watched them go, blinked a little.

Instead of heading for the PATH and New Jersey - or back onto 34th street for a ride - Bruce headed for the subway.

###

The access codes just beeped and quietly let him in.

Bruce stepped high along the floor, into the elevator, as if waiting for a bear trap to close around his foot. Prepared to gnaw it off to get free.

The prickly sensation of waiting for the trap to spring gave way to the eerie sensation of being alone.

Bruce got all the way to his residence floor before he gave up and called JARVIS. It was just too quiet, too easy.

"JARVIS, what's up?"

"In what sense, sir?"

Bruce's brow furrowed. "In the sense that no one's jumping on me as soon as I walk in the door, including you."

"Captain Rogers is in the gym, Doctor; Agents Romanov and Barton are at SHEILD headquarters, and Mr. Stark is in his quarters. His Majesty Prince of Asgard is not in residence today but I do expect him before tomorrow morning."

Bruce just stared at the wall. "You call Thor His Majesty Prince of Asgard?"

"That is one of his titles, sir."

It was too quiet - anticlimactic, where would the extra adrenalin go? - but Bruce managed to get all the way to his room without anyone stopping him, especially Tony. Once there, he could take a deep breath. It was his room. It felt good to walk in and see books he'd left there, and a T-shirt he'd left hanging on the hook behind the door. It felt like a home.

It felt like his home.

Free will. It felt fantastic.

Tension he didn't realize he was holding went out of his shoulders and he went straight to the bed, stripping as he went, and fell into it. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

###

There were no blueberries in the freezer.

Bruce blinked owlishly at the clean cold shelves. He'd already been through the cabinets, the fridge. There was coffee for Tony, Steve's peanut butter, Natasha's chocolate, Clint's chocolate, and Thor's Pop-Tarts.

Bruce liked frozen blueberries in smoothies, or in keffir sometimes. Or just to snork out of a bowl.

It seemed to have been a while since JARVIS had stocked them.

He had been away.

"JARVIS, I --"

Closing the freezer door, Bruce saw Tony.

Tony actually looked as surprised as Bruce felt. In his Megadeth T-shirt, wet hair slicked back and bare feet, Tony looked like he had just gotten out of a shower. He also looked like shit, with deep gray wells underneath his eyes and a greenish cast to his skin. But he was shaved, and his fingernails were trimmed (why was he noticing Tony's fingernails, Bruce wondered?) and his eyes were bright and open as he looked at Bruce and looked just as astonished to see Bruce in the kitchen as Bruce was astonished to see Tony.

"Ahh --" Tony sounded choked. He cut himself off.

Bruce stared, realized he was staring, said "Oh, uh --"

They looked at each other some more.

"I know, awkward, right?" said Bruce, rubbing the back of his neck and gesturing towards the fridge. "I was just going to tell JARVIS that, uh, there are no blueberries in the freez --"

"Hi, I'm Tony Stark," Tony said, and put his hand out as if he wanted to shake Bruce's.

"Yeah, uh," Bruce started, wondering how long he'd been away and wouldn't someone have told him if Tony had had a brain injury or fallen through a time warp or something and also a flare of panic in his chest because had Tony fallen through a time warp or something? was he okay?, plus the warm grip of Tony's hand, graceful, dry fingers in his fingers, gripping his hand and seriously, what was up, because Tony didn't shake hands. Also, Tony wasn't letting go.

Tony stepped a step closer. "So, see, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how to fix this - fix us - and the thing is that when you make something out of a very rare alloy, if you break it, you can't really fix it. A weld is not gonna hold. So you have to melt it down and re-forge the whole piece."

His eyes were searching Bruce's, reading him for something. He said again, a little desperation in his tone, "Hi, I'm Tony Stark."

Bruce frowned but his hand gripped back, palm squeezed in Tony's palm. "Hello. I'm Bruce Banner."

Tony took a deep breath and his eyes closed and he swallowed. When he opened them again, his eyes gleamed like candles on a birthday cake.

"Dr. Banner. I'm a huge fan of your work. I think the radiation stuff is a little scary - you might want to lay off the gamma rays for a while - but what I can follow of the cell biology looks revolutionary."

Okay, Bruce thought. He could play this game.

He leaned back against the counter, folded his arms over his chest.

"Thanks. You a fan of induced mutation?"

"No. Hot scientists, I'm a huge fan of hot scientists."

"Really. You're just going to leap in there. And that's the line you're going to use."

"In my head the conversation never really got this far."

"Was the next part x-rated, or...?" Bruce just shrugged.

"No. Bruce. In my head, the conversation never got this far. In my head, I never got to see you again. Or if I did, it was across some crowded floor that I couldn't get through fast enough to reach you before you disappeared again. In my head, just getting to say anything to you ever again was the dream part."

"So now you're winging it." Bruce stuck his lower lip out thoughtfully, nodded a little. "Could use some work."

"I'd really like to kiss you. I mean I know that's probably not what you want to hear --"

"I've been stopping myself from kissing you since the moment I saw you."

Just like that Tony stepped into Bruce's space, Bruce's arms, wrapping his arms around Bruce's waist, fitting his lips to Bruce's mouth and, frankly, clinging.

It was long, long minutes before it occurred to either one of them to move.

Bruce leaned his forehead against Tony's. "I thought I didn't want to see you again."

Tony said nothing, didn't move.

"I guess I did though, since here I am."

Tony spread his hands across Bruce's back, nestled his head in the hollow of Bruce's neck.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" Bruce murmured, feeling something odd in his heart, kissing the top of Tony's ear.

"I never thought I'd get to talk to you again, I am. I never thought I'd get to kiss you again, here we are. I don't believe in lucky streaks and have no interest in this going downhill. I have nothing to add. Except that I'm sorry. Which doesn't really fit the 'we just met' theme. So, no."

Bruce held Tony in his arms. He smelled very slightly sour - he must have been drinking - but mostly he smelled like sandalwood soap. Bruce's sandalwood soap, Bruce realized.

He closed his eyes and rested the tip of his nose against the curve of Tony's ear. "Are we just going to stand here forever like this?"

"I cannot imagine a better plan."

Bruce smiled into Tony's ear, eyes still closed. He could see Tony's point.

He was hungry, though.

"I'm hungry."

Immediately Tony stepped back. "We're in a kitchen. We can fix that."

"You want to eat with me?"

"Always," Tony said immediately and with a bone-shattering certainty that shook Bruce's insides but also felt suddenly, weirdly ... right.

Bruce took a step back. Held up his finger as though making a point, then went back to shuffling through the freezer for things to put in a smoothie. "So, this re-forging thought you had."

"Yes."

"Sounds like it's a process. Takes time."

"Yes."

"Should we start over dinner?"

"Yes." Tony looked around, out the windows. "What time is it? Is this dinner?"

"No. This is breakfast. I'm thinking, dinner. At my place. Tonight. I'll cook."

Tony's eyebrows went up in surprise but before he could answer JARVIS interjected smoothly, "Dr. Banner, you have a visitor."

"What?"

"What?"

Both of them looked surprised.

"You have a visitor."

It wasn't like JARVIS to give no further information. It also wasn't like JARVIS to just let anyone in the doors, up the elevators, and into the living quarters. But here she was.

"Hi, I'm Apurva Ditta," she said, and for the second time that day someone was holding out a hand for Bruce to shake. She was a short, round Indian woman, with luxurious curly waves of black hair with only a few silver hairs in it framing her face. "We have an appointment."

"Do we?" Bruce shook her hand, his brow furrowed.

Tony looked back and forth, trying to decide what was happening and how much he wanted to get involved in it, when JARVIS said, "Indeed, Dr. Banner. A private appointment. I confirmed for you this morning."

"This morning?"

She looked around the room with bright eyes, placed her handbag on the kitchen counter. "Yes, well, when the CEO of Stark Industries asks you to make yourself available in exchange for a favor, you make yourself available."

Bruce looked over her head at Tony. Who shook his head.

"I'm not the CEO of Stark Industries," Tony pointed out.

"Quite." The little woman looked unperturbed as she hauled herself up to sit in one of the kitchen counter stools. "Pepper Potts and I have known each other a long time. We went to college together. We keep in touch through the alumnae association."

"Huh." Nonplussed, Tony wasn't sure what he should be doing but felt as if it were being gently pointed out to him that he wasn't wanted. "Okay, well... dinner tonight, right?" said Tony, pointing a finger at Bruce as he walked backward out of the room.

"Yep. My place. Seven o'clock," said Bruce absently, as his visitor started to poke at the container of flax seeds Bruce had left on the counter.

Once the elevator doors had closed behind Tony Bruce said, "Is there something I can help you with, Ms. Ditta?"

"Dr. Ditta," she said immediately. "Yes indeed. Pepper is a great person to have owe you a favor."

"Dr. Ditta," Bruce said, his stomach sinking. "Pepper asked a doctor to come see me."

"Not a doctor. Me."

"But you're a medical doctor."

"I am."

"Specializing in...?"

Apurva shrugged. "General medicine."

Bruce's brow furrows got deeper. "Pepper wanted me to see a GP?"

Apurva picked up an apple out of a bowl, took a bite. "When was the last time you saw one?"

"Ah..." Bruce started dumping ingredients in the blender bowl, no longer really thinking about what he was making.

She said, "If you forget the year, it's been too long."

"I might forget the decade."

She tsk tsked with her tongue.

"Dr. Ditta, do you know who I am?"

"You can call me Apurva. I mean, we are fellow physicians. Though if I'm going to be your physician I should probably maintain some clinical distance. Hmm. Okay, call me Dr. Ditta."

She was laughing, he realized, watching her eyes sparkle as she ate another bite of apple.

When she was done swallowing she said, "Oh, you're waiting for me to answer. Yes, I know who you are."

From her handbag she pulled a small tablet, started tapping on it. "I have all the medical files Pepper was able to give me. Which isn't a ton. I understand that the government has a lot more detailed data. But these files are apparently from SHIELD and the basics are here."

"The basics."

Bruce turned on the blender, let it run for a second to let himself think. His gut was telling him to run, run, run. But an invite from Pepper - and come to think of it, entree from JARVIS - told him maybe this was an appointment he should keep.

"So..." He poured his concoction into a tall glass, regarded her over it. "You're here to give me a physical?"

She just nodded once. "Have you got a room that's private?" She looked around. "Actually, with an EEG in it? Hard to fit in a purse."

###

It was surreal. Bruce finished his smoothie, then wished he hadn't so he'd still have something to do with his hands while he talked.

She took a complete medical history, not having him fill out forms, but asking him the questions. She never stuttered or looked surprised when he answered her family history questions. Parents both died violent deaths. Father alcoholic. Mother possibly clinically depressed; never diagnosed. No allergies, no childhood diseases. Yes, bullying at school in addition to abusive father. No, he didn't want to add any detail. Some broken bones when young; nothing broken since adulthood. Never had chicken pox or the measles. No family history of heart disease or diabetes that he knew of; his knowledge of his grandparents' health was spotty. One cousin living; in good health, generally. Bruce winced a little when he thought of her. He hadn't talked to her in an awfully long time.

She took basic readings with various devices he had in his lab, handling his equipment deftly, a few things she had in her purse.

"Your blood pressure is great; I don't suppose you want to give me a blood sample for testing."

He just looked at her while her eyes twinkled.

"How about urine?"

He couldn't help it; she made him laugh.

"If you want a cup of radioactive urine to put in your purse, doc, I'll give you one," he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling.

"Ah, so you can smile. That's good to know. Let me put that in my notes."

She tapped away for a minute and then looked up. "Are you sexually active?"

He was tempted to go with a flip, Tony-esque answer but he just said, "Yes."

"And how are you managing this question of radioactive bodily fluids in your sexual life?"

"Containment," Bruce sighed. "Probably not the best answer."

She shrugged. "If you mean latex won't stop radioactivity, that's certainly true, but if the latex contains the radioactive material so that it can be disposed of, that's fair enough." She tapped some more. "And what bodily fluids are we containing?"

"Well, all of them."

"Including saliva?"

He winced. "When possible."

"So you've tested the silverware you eat from and you've found out that you've made it radioactive?"

Bruce looked poleaxed.

Dr. Ditta tapped some more. "Your assumption is that all of your bodily fluids are radioactive. I'm not going to challenge you on that - you're far more qualified to say than I am. But how radioactive? If standard exposure and washing doesn't leave a radioactive trace, how radioactive is the saliva?"

She looked back at her screen, back at him. "The average human body sheds cells all the time. If you are shedding radioactive skin and hair cells in the shower, for instance, then that area is also going to show radioactivity contamination. The sewer pipes from this building, that sort of thing. If the radiation levels are low enough that you are not contaminating your environment, then you won't contaminate a partner either - not one who is also regularly shedding skin cells and, one presumes, washing."

Bruce shook his head. "Cells can be damaged. Concrete can't."

"But you see my point about the radioactivity. Cells are damaged by exposure. How intense is the exposure? Have you measured it?"

"The man who became ill from ingesting my blood. That was real."

"What was the state of his health before he was exposed? His immune system? What type of radioactivity load did he already have? What was his medical history?"

Bruce looked surprised again. "I hadn't thought about --"

"I can tell." Dr. Ditta leaned back on the chair she sat in. "You know, it's customary - it's polite - to have a full physical when you enter into a new sexual relationship."

"Is it?"

"It's a nice thing to do. You can tell your partner your health status. If you're sharing your body - and especially if you go on to share your life - it's things your partner deserves to know."

Bruce folded his arms around his middle. "I knew my STD status. I am a doctor."

"Okay. And if your partner isn't a woman, your fertility isn't an issue. But what about your cholesterol levels? Heart disease? Mental health?" Bruce winced at that one. "What about this radioactivity thing?"

Bruce said nothing.

Apurva smiled a small smile at him - trying to sympathize with him, not laughing at him. "Dr. Banner, we have a health checkup when we enter into a new relationship so that we can share information with our partner that's based on science, not our worries. Fear is - well, fear is dangerous, isn't it?"

There was silence in the room.

Bruce's head was still tilted forward, his don't-look-at-me pose, but his eyes came up to meet hers. "Radioactive cells that are transmitted orally would be ingested by the other person. The damage they would do as they travel through his digestive tract could be serious and cumulative."

"How many radioactive cells? How long are they remaining in his system? The purpose of saliva is to clean out the mouth and teeth as well as to predigest food. How many of them are ejected before they are even swallowed? Especially after sex, especially if the mouth is rinsed." Her response was just as quick and unemotional as his was. "Science, Dr. Banner. Not fear. Let me ask you this." She looked him straight in the eye. "Since we're talking about Tony Stark, what do you think the cumulative effect of the radioactivity of your saliva has on his body compared to the health effect of the electromagnetic fields surrounding that generator he has in his chest twenty-four hours a day?"

Bruce just stared at her. She knew. She knew everything.

"Is 'touché' an appropriate response to a physician?"

She gave a brief, professional little smile - unlike her usual one - and looked down at her pad. "Dr. Banner, today's physical is a highly preliminary one. Based on my current observations you are not just in good physical health - your health is perfect. I suspect that's a side effect of your - capabilities. Even the slight tendency to a few extra pounds --"

Bruce pressed his hands against his sides protectively.

"-- that is the body's perfectly normal reaction to an optimal nutritional situation. I doubt you'd gain more than you have now. If you were aging normally and you gained more weight, that would be more of a concern as it would put more strain on your cardiovascular systems - but I'm not sure you are aging normally. If you do gain more weight, call me. I'd also like to know more about your bone calcium." She finished tapping on the tablet, looked up. The look she gave him, he realized, was as though she were wearing glasses and looking up over the top of them. He wondered if she had just started wearing contacts, or if it were a professional doctor look she'd developed over the years. "This is a very preliminary examination. You are clearly healthy enough for sex, hell, you're healthy enough for anything. I would highly recommend that you pursue more carefully this question of potential radioactive contamination from your bodily fluids. Your current policy regarding containment and the use of standard prophylactic barriers is undoubtedly a wise start but lacks data. You won't know how much to worry about loss of standard cells in a shared bathroom, say, or even sharing a bed, until you undertake a more rigorous study. It's the same advice I would give to anyone with a contagious disease or even radioactivity following a cancer treatment. And as I've stated, the health of your partner plays a strong role."

"Thank you, doctor," Bruce murmured.

"It's been a pleasure to meet you. I hope if you have any personal health needs in the future, you'll give me a call. Obviously, I make house calls -- for special patients. Your friend JARVIS knows how to reach me."

"Of course he does."

"In the meantime, I hope this has given you some peace of mind regarding your health status that you can share with your partner, and perhaps some pointers for further pursuit. I would recommend a full mental health checkup in addition to the radioactivity follow-up and strategy. If you'd like a confidential blood workup done by a professional who isn't you - or just to give me that cup of urine - I can perform tests with complete confidentiality and assurance to you that all tissues would be destroyed with Department of Defense-level security both on the destruction of materials and on the destruction of any records created during the analysis. They would not be retained by me or anyone."

"Thanks." Bruce looked up at that. "Whom do you work for, again?"

She just smiled. "The state of New York doesn't require any physical exam or blood test for a marriage license, by the way."

Now he cocked an eyebrow. "Thanks for that too."

She grinned, the twinkle back in her eye. "You're very welcome."

###

Afterwards, Bruce hung out in his lab, puttering around for a long while, thinking.

Finally he realized that if he wanted to talk to someone about what had just happened, he knew the perfect person. "JARVIS."

"Yes sir."

"Whose idea was that?"

"What, sir?"

"Dr. Ditta. Visiting me. Giving me a checkup."

"I'm not sure what you mean by 'idea', Dr. Banner."

Bruce pointed straight at JARVIS' speaker. "Listen. We both know who you work for. But radiation plays hell with electronics, doesn't it? Not to mention half a ton of the other guy ripping through your circuits. So do not mess with me."

"Dr. Banner, I have noticed that the effectiveness of your threats - anyone's threats, really - lies entirely with the willingness of the receiving party to be threatened."

Bruce's hands fell limply at his sides. "Damn, JARVIS. I think you've just summarized four centuries of geopolitical theory really effectively."

"Thank you, sir."

Bruce's body plopped down into the chair. "Just tell me."

He couldn't outwait a computer, and he couldn't play poker with someone with no face. He was entirely at JARVIS' mercy.

But JARVIS took pity on him. "I simply arranged for Dr. Ditta to be able to visit you at Ms. Potts' request."

"But what was the point?"

"Ms. Potts is not in the habit of explaining her thought processes to me, Dr. Banner. But she said something about doing something about things that were bothering you because it wouldn't occur to Mr. Stark to do so. And she mentioned that she thought you needed some normal in your relationship. I won't pretend to imply that I understood the comment."

Bruce stayed in his chair, tapping his lower lip with a glass stirrer. "Okay, JARVIS, thanks," he muttered, and stayed where he was, thinking.

###

When seven o'clock rolled around, Tony was at the door to Bruce's room. Knocking seemed to indicate that Bruce wasn't there; JARVIS confirmed it.

"Well then where the hell is he?"

"Apparently, sir, his lab."

###

Tony had put on a button-up shirt. And tucked it in. That was all.

He took Bruce's breath away.

"Come in. I'd come over but I'm just --"

Bruce would have gestured but both hands were full, one with a strainer, one with a pot.

"What the hell are you doing?" asked Tony, sauntering over with his hands in his pockets.

Bruce finished draining the noodles, dumped them in a waiting bowl of sauce. "I thought spaghetti was easy. Homey."

Tony nodded thoughtfully, bent over the dish while Bruce stirred it, without taking his hands out of his pockets. "Spaghetti?"

"Soba noodles are healthier."

"Uh huh."

Tony pulled a chair over to the lab bench just as Bruce put a bowl in front of him.

"So this is 'your place'?" Tony asked as Bruce also produced a bottle of wine.

"Yeah, I think so." Bruce looked around with a thoughtful expression before returning his attention to the corkscrew. "As close to mine as anything is."

Tony looked like he wanted to say something, stopped himself.

The cork released with the proper soft sigh of a red wine cork - no bubbles here - and Bruce poured into the glasses he set on the table.

"Is that a lab beaker?" Tony sounded truly surprised.

"It's clean."

Tony forked up some noodles. "This is how you like to entertain."

"When I was young, and I did entertain, this is how I did it." Bruce shrugged as he pulled up a chair opposite Tony's. "There was no one to socialize with who wouldn't eat in a lab. Who wouldn't rather be spending the time in a lab anyway."

"Huh." Tony forked up more noodles, chewed and swallowed before he pointed his fork at Bruce. "Your definition of fun and mine are very different."

Bruce's eyes crinkled. "Are they?"

Tony got caught up in Bruce's eyes. They held the gaze for a moment, then both their eyes dropped.

Bruce watched Tony eat. He was efficient enough with the noodles but he was enjoying them - everything from letting the noodles trail through pools of rich red sauce and trying to get as much flavor at once on the fork, to seeking out and destroying every drop that remained on his lips as he ate.

Tony was good at enjoying things.

His eyes trailed over Tony as he sat. He noticed how lean Tony's neck was, his wrists; he thought about what he doctor had said about optimal health, and wondered if Tony was too thin.

JARVIS and Pepper were right. He had no idea what a normal relationship was like. He could not count on Tony to help him figure it out. But whatever 'normal' meant, in the context of this, it had to apply to him and Tony - neither of them average. But both needing, perhaps, the same things everyone needed. Wrapped in special wrappers - most sexual relationships had to worry about birth control and disease transmission; his involved radioactivity and intratorsal generators - but the same things everyone needed.

Before he could stop himself he said out loud, "What do you think marriage is like?"

Tony actually blinked, sat back. "No idea. Based on my parents? An inability to either fix the relationship difficulties introduced by fundamentally incompatible personalities, or walk away from them."

"Damn." Now it was Bruce's turn to blink. "And you still want to be married?"

"Never have." Tony forked up more noodles. "I've never really thought about it. Are people supposed to think about it? I don't know. Guys don't think about that stuff a lot, do they?"

Bruce thought about how many hours - days, years - of his life he had spent thinking about family, how much he'd like to have one, have a kid and be a better father than his had been. "Some guys do."

"Okay, sure." Tony accepted that the same way he'd accepted a bowl full of noodles cooked over a burner in a biology lab. "So I guess that means you think about it."

Bruce ran his tongue over his teeth. "Based on my parents, I would have said that marriage is a reasonable facsimile of hell on earth."

Tony put down his fork.

Bruce went on. "I saw this couple at Penn Station. They were - You know how when you see couples in the movies they're always kissing or holding hands or that kind of thing?" Tony nodded. Bruce went on. "Two older people. Maybe mid-seventies. They were just guiding each other through the station. Like -- through life."

Tony thought for a second. "Well, that doesn't sound so bad."

"Helping each other. They had a map, and they were figuring out where to go and how to get there." Bruce felt uncertain. He wasn't sure what he was trying to say, what he wanted to say.

"Who wouldn't want that?"

"You want that?"

Tony met his eyes. "You're here. I have that."

Bruce could feel his insides melting, they actually felt like they were melting, liquid heat pooling somewhere in his chest, his stomach, his gut. In a million years he could not have imagined that Tony Stark would tell him the most romantic thing he had ever heard in his entire life.

And based on the look on his face, Tony had no idea that he had said anything special.

"You have no idea what you just said, do you?"

"Like what? What do you mean?"

"Do you have any idea how many times you've just insisted that we have a relationship? Not only insisted it, but implied that it's for life, that it's forever?"

"No." Tony twirled his fork to pick up another batch of noodles. "Is there a ticker board somewhere that I could get access to?"

"What does that even come from?" Bruce went on even though something was telling him to shut up, bask, just enjoy the most romantic thing that anyone had ever told him in his life, probably ever would tell him in his life. He couldn't stop now. "When you say things like that what do you even mean?"

Tony picked up the beaker, drank from an edge that didn't have a pour spout. "Hmm. I don't know. I don't worry about it. You may have noticed, I'm kind of an all or nothing kind of guy."

"I'd noticed."

"So." Tony shrugged. "All."

All yours, his face seemed to say, even though his voice didn't. Or couldn't.

"Tony." Bruce's voice was soft. "Can I ask you something personal?"

"Of course you can." Tony pointed his fork again. "And I don't say that to everyone I've had sex with. Usually those people are the ones I'm the least interested in answering personal questions for."

"So what was up with Pepper? Why wasn't it... all?"

Tony stopped. Stopped moving, stopped chewing. Stopped for long seconds, and Bruce wondered how many teraflops of brain power were going into answering his question when all autonomous functions had, apparently, ceased. He couldn't even be a hundred percent sure Tony was breathing.

Finally Tony's eyes met his. They looked puzzled more than anything else. "I don't know."

"You needed her."

"I did need her. I still need her. I can't do without her. I can't do without you either."

"So for both of us --" Bruce stopped.

"No," Tony said immediately. "It's different. I can't explain how it's different, but it's different."

Bruce's forehead furrowed up as he looked from under his eyebrows at Tony. Tony shrugged.

"Hey, it's not that I wouldn't have a threesome if you guys offered. It's just - First of all, she dumped me. It wasn't that there was something I needed that I wasn't getting from her. Other way around."

Bruce felt that one hurt him, deep inside, but said nothing.

Tony went on, "It's still different. It feels different. I feel different. And you and I - we're easy. Things are easy. Being with you is easy. Part of it is that you don't always have these expectations that I'm not meeting. Though I have failed there as well. It's just - everything. Every day. That's part of it. Part of it is just - You know, the first time I met you I thought 'Oh, there you are.' It's like finding your best friend, someone you've always known, for the first time, all of a sudden. I knew you. And it wasn't like I knew everything there was to know about you, either - you still surprise me. It was just - I don't know how to explain it better. I recognized that you were a person I wanted to always have with me. And when you are with me, it feels good. And when you aren't, it feels like shit."

He took another drink. "Jesus, are you going to make me talk about feelings all night?"

"You're all right." Bruce wanted to pretend to be ruthless even as Tony's words seemed to be melting his very bones.

"Feel free to jump in here at any time."

Bruce just looked at him.

Tony cocked his head. "I think - I want it more."

Bruce nodded.

They were quiet together for a minute and then Bruce said, "I want to ask you another question but I don't want you to get pissy."

Tony paused in the act of taking another sip of wine. Bruce had noticed that Tony was sipping, not gulping, and only halfway through his first glass. He suspected that that was because of him, and he was okay with that.

Tony said, "Ask. And do not describe me as 'pissy'."

"How does it compare to how you - what you felt about Steve?"

They looked each other in the eye for a long moment.

Tony put his glass beaker down.

"Why do you want to know?"

"I'm trying to figure out what we're doing. How I feel about it. I want to know."

Tony sighed, let his head hang forward as if it were heavy, shook it a few times.

"Look. I told you, Steve was only sparks. I don't know why that is, I don't know what causes that. It's a lot of sparks, I'll give you that. And sparks are cool. I wanted - I don't know what I wanted from him but it was all based on the sparks. I wanted to let that much sexual excitement just - go. See what happened. I had no bigger agenda."

Tony leaned forward, forearms on his knees, and looked Bruce in the eye. "Maybe on the other side of the sparks there are maps and train stations and helping each other out. But Jesus, Bruce, if we couldn't even get past our personality differences enough to have sex, how would we ever get to that place?"

He shook his head. "As tough as things are with Pepper sometimes, with Steve they are ten times tougher. Nothing I say is right, nothing I do is right. I'm too old to think sparks are worth feeling like I suck for the rest of my life, especially when I don't."

"If you worked it out --"

"If we were different people, we'd be different people." Tony put out his hand, palm up, open. "I'd still want you."

Bruce looked at the hand.

"I'd still want someone I can argue about science with, someone who understands what science feels like. I'd still want someone who's just as willing as I am to figure out something new - something that's so intangible that most people don't give a damn about it. I'd still want someone who didn't expect me to show up on time for dinner or say the right thing in public - not as long as I had their back in a fight. Actually, I'm lying about all of this. I wouldn't want someone. I don't want someone. I want you."

"What the hell, Tony." Bruce didn't sound like he even knew what he was thinking any more.

He put his palm over Tony's palm.

"I want you. Do you know how many people there are in this world I actually respect? And how many of those people I want to kiss so hard they might just come in my arms from sheer lust for me? When it comes to seriously giving a damn, my target set has become extremely small." He held up the index finger of the hand Bruce wasn't holding. "One."

"You aim high." Bruce meant the "you-come-from-my-kisses" fantasy.

"You bet I do." Tony didn't. "I don't know when or why I started feeling this way. I know I feel this way now. I know I screwed up with the sensor. I - know I need to learn more about, like, other people having boundaries and things. I can learn. What I want is you. I don't want to screw this up again. I am willing to do anything it takes not to screw this up again. If you believe that - if you give me another chance - if you stay with me and let me be the person I want to be for you, be the person you already are for me - well. That's actually all I want."

"Tony. I think that might be - I think that's marriage."

"Great. Then that's what we'll do. I think we're in love. I'm not sure I've ever been in that before either. I'm not worried. We'll figure it out."

"Wow. You are so calm."

"I've had plenty of time to work through the not-calm parts."

"Like what?" Bruce genuinely couldn't imagine what Tony had to be not-calm about if Bruce wasn't around.

"Are you shitting me? The parts where I wonder where you are, what's happening to you, how much I can't protect you from whatever-it-is?"

"Like Pakistan."

"Like Pakistan."

Bruce swallowed. "Thank you, by the way."

Tony just looked at him. He didn't have to say it. I am always going to save you, Bruce could hear in his head, remembering it all too well.

"Does that make us even?" Bruce asked before he thought.

"How's that?"

"Saving each other's life."

"I wasn't counting." Tony sipped again at his wine. "Were you?"

"Uh..."

"Jesus, you were?"

"People don't save me, Tony. It's kind of a new thing for me."

"Well, if you didn't run so fast at the first sign of trouble, maybe you'd give them the chance. You sure as hell made it a challenge for me."

"Whoa. Was that a pre-emptive strike?"

Tony spread his hands, leaned back from the table. "I'm not trying to start anything. Just calling them like I see them. If you're not counting how many times I've saved your life, how about how many times you've disappeared on me?"

"It's called keeping you safe, Tony."

"It's called crapping out, that's what it's called."

Bruce just stared at him, mouth open. "Are you actually picking a fight with me here, tonight, now?"

"What, was I supposed to treat you with kid gloves for some pre-specified period of time since you were willing to come home, until you decide to bug out again? No. I'm not picking a fight. You know and I know that your response to stress is to run. Hell, JARVIS knows it."

"JARVIS knows too goddamn much," Bruce muttered into his water glass. He could feel his cheeks getting warm but he'd be damned if he'd ask for a heartrate display. And that just pissed him off more.

"Look at this from my point of view. I have no idea of knowing if you'll even be here when I wake up tomorrow morning. Anything I want to say to you I have to say to you now, while I have you here, while I can look at you. In fact, looking's not enough."

Tony suddenly stood up, came around the lab bench that had been between them too long, pulled Bruce's chair away from it.

Bruce's heartrate spiked. "Whatever happened to a long, slow re-forging?"

"I can do it long and slow." Tony took Bruce's face in both his hands and kissed him.

Bruce couldn't help it; he moaned. Tony was too good at this. Bruce's skin tingled where Tony's fingers touched it; his skin felt hot, and tight, and when Tony pulled him up out of his chair by his lapels, he went.

Tony fitted one leg between Bruce's, kissed him again, hands wandering everywhere, pulling Bruce tight against him. He nipped Bruce's open lips, flushed dark pink from his kisses.

"See, we have this. And we have the friend thing, and we have shared interests. We can work it out."

"Trust." It exploded in Bruce's brain like fireworks, like one of the orgasms he had with Tony. "You don't trust me."

"You don't trust you. I trust the other guy a hell of a lot more than you do."

"Yeah, you trust the other guy. You don't trust me. I'm the one you planted a tracer on."

"You're the one who keeps disappearing. But it wasn't a tracer. You worried about the heart rate thing. I thought it would help you relax. Anyway. You. Disappear."

"How is that the worst possible thing? You're the one who keeps acting suicidal."

"Because when you leave, I don't know where the fuck you are!" Now Tony's temper was finally coming into play.

"You pissed that you don't know where I am, or you're just pissed that I left you?"

Tony shrugged, backed up a step, ran a hand through his hair making it stand up and look irritated. He had irritated hair now. "Is there a fucking difference?"

"Yet you are perfectly comfortable dying on me, apparently as soon as possible. Which certainly qualifies as leaving me." He caught Tony's shocked expression. "Is there a fucking difference?" Bruce gave himself the luxury of mocking Tony's inflection.

"Oh." Tony backed up another step, truly looking amazed. "Oh. That was what Pepper was always pissed about, wasn't it?"

"You're an idiot."

"I guess I am. I never did get it." Tony just stood there, as still as Bruce had seen him be and still be able to talk. "She was - of course. That makes perfect sense. But Bruce, buddy - look, I never thought of it that way. I've just never worried about dying. I figure it's going to happen sooner or later and I don't want to let worrying about it dictate what I can or can't do."

"Well that's very special, but how do you think that makes the rest of us feel? The rest of us you're going to leave behind?" Bruce swallowed. "Me?"

"Like... I feel when you disappear and I don't know where you are and I'm afraid I won't see you again?" Tony's eyes were still wide, still had that look of discovery, like he'd just seen a new molecule model.

"Bingo. But worse, because I really won't see you again. Not even you are going to be able to fix it if you die on me."

"So... you... figure I'm going to leave you so you... leave me back... first?"

Bruce huffed out a blast of air. "This is just getting stupid."

"No no, no no no." Tony's hand closed over Bruce's wrist. "This is it. This is the stuff. This is what we need to work out. This is why you were already mad at the base. And then you found out I planted that sensor on you without talking to you about it and you felt like I didn't trust you. This is it."

"You planted a sensor on me because you could."

"No."

Bruce could feel his temper rising, and for the first time in a very, very long time it worried him less than what he was actually saying. "You planted a sensor on me because I'm a lab experiment. Right? And you love lab experiments. Why not one that talks and walks and fucks you. Right?"

Tony's jaw dropped open - something Bruce had never seen before. "You are bugfuck nuts."

"You are one hundred percent not qualified to make that judgment on anyone else's --"

"I have never thought of you as a lab experiment. As a toy." Tony spit the word out. "That is not me. You made that shit up in your own head, Doctor Banner. I have never once said or done anything to make you feel that way."

"Locking me in, taking me out, hey look at my pet monster, feed him blueberries, carrying me around with you in your pocket --"

When Tony stepped into Bruce's space this time it had more the flavor of a fighting stance and less like it was going to lead to a kiss. Or maybe not, Bruce thought. Maybe the two things were just getting closer.

Tony had that look on his face, the one he had when Steve told him to put on the suit and let's take it outside, the one he had right before he finished a fight.

"That? Is bullshit. No, I did not respect your privacy, your boundaries. Yes, I suck at that. I violated your trust by doing something to your body I didn't have permission for. I should not have. I won't do anything like that again. I'm trying to get things right. I want to. I don't deserve another chance and I know it. But that is just massively incorrect. You were never a thing to me. Jesus fucking Christ, Banner, I've been trying to keep you here practically from the day I met you. You think that was just out of boredom? What is it you think I couldn't buy if I were just bored? Lonely is what I was, and then I wanted you, yes, I wanted you, not like you want a fucking Lamborghini, like you want the person who makes every day worth waking up for, the only guy you've ever met you have ever actually had a fucking conversation with, the guy who disappears without a trace whenever he feels the least bit closed in on - you!" The last word Tony said with a finger poking Bruce in the chest. "Go ahead, feel like a thing rather than a man if you want to, but don't lay that on me. I know I fuck up relationships, I know I don't know how to make someone feel loved. But I have never treated you as anything less than a person. An equal, in fact. The one I waited my whole life to meet."

Shaking, Bruce took a step back. It wasn't Tony's temper - he'd seen that before - it was Tony's sincerity. It was blinding.

He had a weird sensation of double vision, simultaneously seeing all the times Tony had made him feel like a pet on a leash, seeing them from Tony's point of view, as though Tony were treating him like something special, treating him like something precious.

"Holy shit," mumbled Bruce, dragging the back of his trembling hand across his mouth. "I am the goddamn girl."

"What does that mean, anyway?" Tony asked, sounding just as puzzled as he was exasperated.

Bruce just shook his head.

Tony went past it. "Okay, then. Just tell me. You're always saying I don't have to have sex with you to keep you here. I get that I can't lock you in. So just tell me. How do I get you to stay?"

Bruce was staring at him. His world had been rocked, his mind had been blown. He was really seeing himself as Tony saw him, and he'd never seen anything like it. It was beyond bizarre, it was shattering, it was more fundamentally world-shifting than quantum mechanics.

All his certainties about the world and his place in it were destroyed. His complacent certainty about what Tony was doing with him, how it was going to end. Gone. He had no idea what was going to happen, what should happen.

He heard his own voice, in the back of his head, saying, "When someone like that offers to break your heart... you take it."

He had never really realized it. But Tony felt exactly the same way.

"Just ask me," he said, his voice raspy and paper-thin.

Tony stopped. Looked taken aback. As if he were wondering where the next explosive device were hidden. "Just ask."

"Yeah. You just ask me."

"Ask you what?"

"Ask for whatever you want." Bruce felt like he might not be able to keep standing up, his knees were actually shaking, that felt weird, and his head felt light, like he couldn't get a breath. His heart was racing, but he wasn't afraid. And he wasn't going to let the other guy out. It was shatteringly new, but it was all right.

Because Tony felt the same way.

Tony stopped and thought. Of course, part of Bruce's brain noted, Tony was a computer engineer. He was computing the optimum algorithm.

Tony dropped to one knee.

"You are not seriously doing that," Bruce managed to get out.

Tony took one of Bruce's hands in his.

Bruce couldn't move. "I am hallucinating."

"Bruce, I want to spend my life with you. I want you to spend your life with me. I don't want to live a day without you. You don't just make me happy. You make me care. I can't think of a better way to spend the rest of my life - in addition to the occasional tinkering project here and there, and maybe sometimes saving the world - than spending every spare minute figuring out how to make you happy. Please. Stay with me."

He looked up at Bruce with those eyes, those eyes that could rule the world, those eyes that should be classified weapons, those passionate coal-dark eyes.

"Bruce, will you marry me?"

Bruce felt his mouth hanging open. It took him a while to figure out what to do about it.

Every neuron in his brain was screaming out "This is not the right answer!" but despite every instinct he had he responded,

"Actually, I thought we were already married."

Tony blinked. Did not get up.

"I'm pretty sure I would have noticed if we'd gotten married."

"In the hospital. You didn't ask. You just told me. That we were always going to save each other, that we were always going to be there for each other, that that was just the way it was always going to be."

"Huh." Tony appeared to consider this. "Not really a proposal."

"Decent marriage vows, though, I thought."

"And what did you say?"

"I said..." Bruce seemed to have a hard time swallowing. Something was in his throat. "I said I do."

"Well, okay then." Tony started to get up, then his eyes narrowed. "No. Wait. Not good enough. You said I had to ask. That time I didn't ask. I'm asking now. Will you marry me? You have to answer."

"Yes."

There was a long conversation that followed then, without words, in a minute. The looks they gave each other said a lot of things they hadn't said before, that needed to be said.

"Okay." Tony got up then, still looking at Bruce's hand in his, as though he'd never seen it before. "All right then."

After what seemed like a very long time he looked up again. "I don't have a ring."

"We'll get a ring."

"I should have a ring."

"I don't need a goddamn ring, Tony, I'm a guy. Plus it'll just explode off the next time I change."

At that, Tony's face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Now there's a goal. A ring both you and the other guy can wear."

Bruce just pulled Tony to him.

With their arms around each other, Tony said into Bruce's neck, "I feel like I should have had a ring."

Then after a few more moments of just standing there together, Tony said, "This is real, right?"

"I think so. Yes," Bruce said into Tony's shoulder.

Tony squeezed. He could feel Bruce's body between his arms, against his body, so warm. "It's real," he said to Bruce, and to himself.

 

###

Bruce would have been happy to lie low about the whole thing for a while. Quite a long indefinite while, if he had been asked.

He didn't get a choice.

"Hey guys, we're engaged. Congratulate us now, buy presents later."

If the rest of the team weren't already going to look surprised by Tony and Bruce walking into the common living room together, they looked absolutely stun-gunned by Tony's announcement.

Clint and Thor, however, both started pounding Tony on the back at the same time. Which was painful and difficult to escape. Thor stopped pounding.

Tony was still grinning. Clint cuffed him around the neck. "What an awesome, fantastic bachelor party you are going to have, Tony Stark. And I know, because I am going to throw it."

Tony shot a look at Bruce, who was just standing there, arms wrapped around himself, looking shy, but smiling.

"Let's not get stupid," Tony said to Clint.

Thor hugged Bruce just as he was, self-arm-wrapped and everything, and lifted him off the ground. "A magnificent love story!" he boomed, making Bruce blush. "You stopped treating him as The Girl."

"Actually, I think he was treating me as The Girl."

Tony looked over Clint's shoulder. "Seriously, what the fuck does that mean?"

"Do I get to wear a tux? Because I am not going to be the only one in a dress." Natasha looked up at where Bruce was suspended in the air in a Thor-hug. "Are you going to wear a dress?"

"Why are you asking me? And, no," said Bruce, resting his hands on Thor's shoulders to balance himself a bit because Thor showed no interest in putting him down.

Clint bounded over to where Steve stood, open-mouthed, his face a mask of astonishment. "Hey, Cap. A wedding! How cool is that?"

Steve finally blinked, and then a slow smile came over his face. One of his boyish truly-happy smiles. "That is great. Wonderful, guys. Congratulations."

Tony had tapped on Thor's shoulder to try to get him to put down his fiancé but Bruce was watching Steve's face. He looked really happy. Amazed, and happy.

Bruce relaxed.

Neither Bruce nor Tony noticed that it was Natasha who didn't look thrilled.

###

Superhero meetings in the middle of the night didn't feature bunny slippers. Or yawns. It was kind of the nature of the people involved that even if they were woken from a sound sleep at 3 a.m. they were quickly alert and on top of things.

Whether or not they were faking it - and Clint wasn't faking it, though he didn't feel quite as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as Steve Rogers looked at 3 a.m., and would happily have shot someone for a cup of coffee.

That didn't mean they were cheerful.

"What the hell, Cap?" was Clint's opening speech once they'd all assembled, brought together by JARVIS' late night and slightly apologetic wake-up call. He, Thor, Natasha and Steve faced each other in the boxing ring of the gym, and it didn't feel happy.

"I think Natasha has something she wanted to talk about and I didn't want it to wait. About our upcoming nuptials."

For a second Clint thought he was saying that he, Steve Rogers, was getting married to Natasha. But then his brain, even without caffeine, caught up with the conversation.

They all looked at Natasha.

"Am I the only one who notices that Tony fights with Bruce? He fights and he doesn't back down. And he's caused Bruce to change, at least once that we know of." Natasha folded her arms. Clint, Thor and Steve were all wearing civilian clothes, T-shirts and slacks (Steve's impeccably tucked in, as always,) but Natasha was wearing her Black Widow outfit and looked ready for a fight.

"And he's saved Bruce's life. And Bruce has saved his. We've all seen Bruce change a number of times. There are plenty of things that cause that besides Tony." Clint jumped right in. He was kind of annoyed that Tasha hadn't brought this up with him privately. He would have preferred if the two of them had discussed it alone.

"Tony is an instigator. He pisses everyone off. Am I the only one who thinks it's kind of a bad idea for him to marry a guy who, when he gets pissed off, is one of the most dangerous people on earth?"

"Natasha." Steve's voice was low. "You don't trust Bruce." It wasn't a question.

She looked him in the eye. "No one can trust Bruce."

Clint looked shocked. "You don't mean that."

"Look, he's a good guy. But he is not in control of the Hulk. Not always. Maybe not really ever. And the Hulk may be on our side. But he is dangerous."

Steve sighed. They all looked at him. He was so serious, every blond hair in place even at 3 a.m., those deep blue eyes so young and so simultaneously old. "They're in love."

"Tony is talking about marrying the Hulk." Natasha looked the same as she always did. Calm, collected, but ready to unleash death in a heartbeat.

"That's Bruce." Clint was shaking his head at her.

"That's life," Steve added.

"That's not life. That is an irradiated human machine of destruction with only the barest minimum of predictability and control."

"That is Bruce.". Clint had his feet spread and arms folded now.

"That is life," insisted Steve. "Life is what happens. You can't predict it, you can't control it. It's just what happens."

"That is passion," Thor put in for the first time, his deep voice making them all jump. "Natasha," he said, surprising them by saying her name without a preamble, surprising them more when he rested a hand on her shoulder and looked her in the face. "There is no such thing as a warrior without passion."

They looked each other in the eye for a moment, the small woman and the massive man.

Steve finally said, "No one's ever objected to Bruce living here."

Natasha looked like she wanted to say something, but stayed quiet.

"It isn't safe for Bruce to live anywhere else. He's not comfortable with SHIELD, and he's a vital part of this team anyway. We need him, and we want him." Steve leveled a look at each one of the others, one by one. "Don't we."

"Yes." "Absolutely." Thor and Clint both agreed together.

They all looked at Natasha. "We do," she said levelly.

"So really there's no difference except that the two of them are going to have a publicly acknowledged relationship. Which is only different from the past few months in that that was a kind of privately acknowledged relationship." Steve leaned back, dropped his folded arms. "I think we're all just going to have to roll with it. And I think it will be fine."

"Sure, Cap," Natasha said gamely, giving him the look that said she still had her reservations but she was in if the rest of the team was.

"And no one is going to treat Bruce any differently," said Steve, just for clarity's sake.

"No, of course not," said Clint, shooting Natasha a look that no one else could read.

"How about Tony, can we treat him differently?" muttered Natasha, making Steve smile.

The tension had lightened considerably, but Thor still looked serious.

He turned to Steve and said, "It is different, fighting alongside lovers. There are different forces at play. But as well it is not so different. For do we not all love each other? Would we not all fight together, and die together, for a noble cause? In every battle, would we not all save each other, if we could? And lie down ourselves to save the others?"

Startled, Natasha blinked, her head rearing back as she took in Thor's words.

Steve's mouth made an odd shape. Clint couldn't tell if he were going to smile, or perhaps if he might cry.

"Yeah, Thor," said Steve, clapping Thor on the shoulder. He turned his face away, so no one could see it, but his voice was rough. "Yes. That is the way it is."

###

"Do you have to tell every single person you see that you're taking me off to celebrate our engagement?" Bruce looked a bit slumped in on himself, as if he had tried to disappear into the back of his helicopter seat.

"Oh yes. Absolutely. I am enjoying the hell out of it."

"That was the traffic dispatcher."

"And she thought it was cool."

Tony tilted them and the rotors whip-whip-whipped as they beat their way through the hot dry air again toward Tony's desert adobe cabin.

"Don't you ever go anywhere where the weather is cooler? Or even just tropical?"

"Not a fan of humidity, I will admit. But I guess you are, huh? Given all that time you spent in equatorial regions. Okay, no problem. We'll get a vacation home wherever you say. Pick an island."

The overturned shells of the adobe building came into view, dimly outlined by the lights of the helicopter in the blue-black desert night. They were mainly visible by the way they blocked the glow of the horizon, and stars.

The grocery truck had already been, judging by the state of the fridge and the cabinets. Tony kicked off his shoes and opened a Perrier. He looked like a dad in a sitcom as he plopped down into a low leather-upholstered easy chair, looking up through his eyelashes at Bruce. Okay, make that a pornographic sitcom dad, Bruce thought.

Bruce wandered through the kitchen/living room setup, prodding the fruit that had been left on the counter, surveying the vegetables in the fridge, finally picking up a bottle of Dom Perignon that someone had put on the counter.

"That's sweet," Tony said, pointing at the bottle.

"You order it?"

"Nope."

"Let me guess. You told the grocery store you were coming out here to celebrate your engagement."

"You fucking know it."

Bruce suppressed a smile, put it back down on the counter, went out to plop down in the chair opposite Tony. He kicked off his shoes, let his sock-covered feet wander around trying to catch and squish Tony's bare feet.

"Want to get drunk?" Bruce asked him.

"Nope."

Bruce just looked at Tony for a minute.

"Want to have sex?" Bruce finally asked, with a slow smile.

"Oh, sure, if you want to," said Tony, belying the laid-back tone of his words by jumping out of his chair and tackling Bruce out of his.

They rolled together on the floor, laughing for a minute, kissing for a minute, ending up tangled together, till Tony grabbed Bruce's hands and held them down and kissed Bruce for all he was worth.

"By the way," said Tony conversationally as he nipped at Bruce's chin, the tip of his nose, his eyebrows, "I would be happy to celebrate this engagement by buying you anything you want."

"I'm not the girl," Bruce half-gasped but his eyes were closed and he moved his head to give Tony access to his neck.

"I was thinking, you know, a house. Or an island. Or a country. It would have to be a small one." Tony fastened his teeth in Bruce's earlobe, nipped a little harder, making Bruce groan and his hips buck.

"I'm going to have to sign a prenup, aren't I?" Bruce mumbled, pushing Tony up and off him to free his own hands and start unbuttoning his shirt. "I guess I need a lawyer."

"I know some," Tony said while staring at the chest hair Bruce was revealing, button by button.

"Shouldn't I find my own?"

"Ask Pepper. Ask Fury. Actually, we can hold a gladiatorial contest between Pepper's lawyers and Fury's lawyers and award the contract to the survivor."

"Bloodthirsty."

Feeling his heart pounding in his chest for multiple reasons, Tony grabbed Bruce's hands, forced Bruce to meet his eyes. "Whatever I have that you want. It's yours."

"I --" Bruce broke off.

"I'm serious. Whatever I have that you want, it's yours."

"You don't know what you're saying. For the last ten years, I was lucky to own a shirt. I wouldn't know what to do with ..." Bruce shrugged, " ...stuff."

"You're going to have stuff anyway." Tony watched as Bruce peeled the shirt off. "And you look better without a shirt."

"Where the hell is all this 50s era husband crap coming from? Anyway, fuck you. I'm the husband. You're going to be the wife."

Tony's eyes glittered as he grinned at Bruce. "I would be an awesome wife."

"You'd be a shitty wife, Tony. The stereotypical wife is supposed to be thoughtful and housekeep...er...y and well-coiffed --"

"You said coiffed."

"...and, I don't know, bring me slippers every day."

"I would love to bring you slippers every day."

"I'm going to be lucky if you remember my full name."

Tony crawled forward to settle his arms around Bruce, on his knees. Bruce's hands automatically settled on Tony's hips. "We're going to take care of each other. That's what we do. Always."

Bruce nodded, smiled. "I thought it was save each other."

"Same thing."

###

 

CODA

 

###

 

"It's not that your toys aren't awesome, Tony, it's just that we don't always need them."

Bruce yawned and scratched his belly. He wasn't really awake yet, but if they were going to have morning sex, he didn't know why they couldn't just have it in the bed they were in.

"This one is just for you."

"Mmm hmm?" Bruce looked over where Tony was rubbing his hands together like an evil scientist, opening the door to the adjacent building for Bruce and ushering him in. "Who are all the other toys for?"

"Well I guess now they're for you too. But this one I built for you."

Bruce was mostly thinking that it was past time for tea. The room looked full of equipment, as near as he could tell, and nothing leaped out at him as worthy of causing this much excitement.

"I love it. Let's go back to bed."

Tony snorted. Catching both of Bruce's hands in his, he looked into Bruce's eyes. "I don't think I mentioned it, but the last time we were here? The best sex I've ever had."

"Really?" Bruce couldn't help feeling pretty proud over that one. This was Tony Stark, after all. He had had a lot of sex.

"I wanted to do something for you. And it seems like an engagement party is a really great time to do it."

"Great. Let's go back to bed and do it." Bruce cast an eye around the room. There was nothing that looked like a bench or a table in here. "Unless you want to do it in here."

"Well, you're going to be in here. I'm going to be somewhere else."

Bruce's eyebrows both climbed up his forehead. "You're describing fairly bad sex, as far as I can tell."

"No, seriously." Tony stepped closer, spread Bruce's hands out over his own bare chest. Bruce's thumbs rested on the blue glow of the generator in Tony's chest. "You're better than a jet plane, man. Better than a race car. Just letting go and letting you drive - that was amazing. I wanted to do that for you."

Bruce felt the prickling of unease take root in his stomach. "That's really not a good idea."

Tony just kept meeting his eyes, his thumbs stroking over the backs of Bruce's hands where they spread on his chest. "That's the point, isn't it?" he said softly. "That you can't let go."

Bruce's mouth looked a little pinched.

"It's the cheesiest line in moviedom, I know, and I'm really sorry to pull this one out and actually use it with you, but the question is: do you trust me?"

Even as his brain stem was sounding alerts and his stomach developed knots and prickles of tension started to form across his forehead and down his neck, Bruce couldn't look at Tony and say anything but "Yes."

"And are you willing to trust me all the way? Trust me to take you out of your head for a little bit? Trust me not to let you hurt anyone? Just give you a chance to let go?"

Bruce's brow still furrowed up. "I'm not really sure what you're offering. I can't - do those things."

"Yes, you can." Tony's thumbs never stopped moving. "There is literally no one out here. I'm going to be in a bunker and you won't know where anyway. You can relax, just feel your body, be in it without hating it for a little while."

I don't - but that was not a discussion Bruce was prepared to have. "Still not quite grasping how we're going to have sex if you're not here."

Tony took the last step closer, till his skin was pressed against Bruce's, their hands trapped between them both. Tony's lips moved against Bruce's lips, his breath was warm against Bruce's mouth as he said, very quietly, "Hi, I'm Tony Stark. I invent things. Would you like to see some?"

Bruce couldn't help it, he felt the corners of his eyes crinkling. He couldn't resist Tony being Tony.

He didn't even really want to try.

"Yeah, sure," he said, trying to convey a nonchalance he did not feel. "You've got a toy just for me?"

"Oh, Bruce my man." Tony grinned. "I have the toy for you."

###

"Claustrophobic?"

Bruce moved his arms and legs. Encased as he was in a skin-tight suit within a mostly enclosed capsule, he felt like he should feel claustrophobic. But he didn't. The flexible material stopped well before his face, and there was room in any direction if he cared to move.

"No," he said. "You?"

In front of him - quite close in front of him - a screen lit up, and he could see Tony. Tony with the reflected light of heads-up displays playing across his features, blue circles and red lines. The sound quality of the Stark audio system was such that it sounded almost as if Tony was standing right next to him. If Tony hadn't obviously been encased in something technological as well, they could have simply been standing together.

"Oh no, I'm not claustrophobic at all." Bruce could see Tony's eyes as he moved them from readout to readout. "I've been totally comfortable in here for a long time."

"Is that - what you look like when you're in the suit?"

"This is the suit. A modified version - lightweight, nothing of the external electronics, but all the readouts and inputs and a bunch of plugins to the equipment that's - well, you can't see that."

"How far away are you?"

"Not far. I can be there in a minute or two if you need. Quite well protected, though. From, say, bomb blasts overhead - or a Hulk, should one come by."

Bruce felt himself tensing.

"I can see your heartrate going up."

"I know."

"I can also see your skin temperature, core temperature, oxygen levels, sweat, - oh, this is going to be fun."

"For whom?" muttered Bruce.

But Tony just said, "Let me loosen you up a little bit."

Bruce expected something sexual right away, but instead the warm, smooth fabric encasing his naked body started to exert a gentle, undulating pressure. Something like servos were in here with him too - almost like fingers but not quite, they stroked his forearms, shins, calves, upper arms and ultimately his thighs, warm, relaxing strokes that it was easy to give in to.

"That is nice," he admitted, albeit grudgingly, and he didn't want to seem ungrateful but really, he'd been asleep just a little while ago and he really just thought they were going to have nice simple morning sex. Sometimes Tony made things complicated.

"Good," Tony purred, and engaged something else.

The machine/flexible surface interface started to massage Bruce's feet and hands, too. It was impossible not to relax. Giving up the last dregs of his worry and slight irritation, Bruce sighed, and gave in to the relaxing, rhythmic pressure.

"That's great," Tony murmured, and his voice sounded to Bruce like it was right in his ear. Minus the warm dampness of Tony's actual breath, it still felt intimate. It felt safe.

Bruce relaxed a little more.

"Question for you," Tony said in the same calming, low voice. "What's your favorite position? I mean, if gravity were no object. I like face down when someone else is really enjoying me, but if I'm enjoying them, I like to see them. You got a preference?"

"I can see you no matter which way you turn me, in here, right?" Bruce's eyes closed, but he knew that if he opened them, he could see Tony's face.

"You bet."

"So then. Your choice." And Bruce deliberately let go, letting himself sag into the supports, which cradled him so perfectly that the direction of up or down seemed pretty immaterial anyway.

"Okay, buddy. I got ya," Tony said softly, and Bruce let his anxieties go too.

"Highly experimental biting protocol," said Tony and Bruce felt something like teeth - about the size of Tony's teeth, he noticed - nipping at the join between his neck and his shoulder, at exactly the place where Bruce was the most sensitive.

It didn't feel exactly like Tony biting him, but it felt good. Not quite as shivery-good, but good. Bruce felt tingles chasing themselves down his chest, down his arms, and he chuckled. "Successful, Mr. Stark."

"So compared to me biting you in the same place, how would you rate this one?"

"If that's a ten? Maybe a six. Maybe seven."

"I'm a ten?"

"You just got me out here to fish for compliments, didn't you? I should have seen your game all along."

This time it was Tony who laughed softly and looked down for the briefest of seconds. Bruce couldn't see his body, his hands; all he could see was Tony's mobile, expressive face, lit up with those odd displays. But it felt kind of familiar all the same.

And when Tony moved, Bruce felt the finger/massagers come back. This time they were running down the outside of his arms, the down his sides. One trailed across Bruce's belly, so very much like one of Tony's hands. Two trailed along the outside of Bruce's thighs, then up along the inside. They were warm and they spread him open and it was so impersonal somehow it was easy to relax - plus Tony was right there.

"So tell me, Dr. Banner," said Tony's voice in his ear, "what kinds of fantasies do you have, about letting go?"

"I never fantasize about letting go," Bruce replied immediately.

Tony was quiet, and Bruce wondered if he should have come up with a better answer. But honesty, in this situation, seemed called for.

Tony finally said, "If you could," very softly.

Bruce let himself think about it. Even thinking about it hadn't seemed safe for a long time. But if Tony wanted him to try, he'd try.

"To push my body - this body - a little and not worry about letting him out," Bruce finally said. The massaging surfaces had reached his head, and his neck - very carefully with his neck - and he was continuing to feel his muscles relaxing into the support of Tony's machine.

"Push it how?" Tony's voice prodded, just a little.

"Just - to feel it push. Sweat."

"Go ahead and say it, Bruce. You afraid of talking dirty to me?"

Bruce shook his head, figuring that Tony could see it. Tony was right. He was restrained - restrained in how he moved, restrained in how he talked. He very, very rarely let go, and always regretted it.

"I'd like to fuck the hell out of you. Or have you fuck the hell out of me - just go crazy with it, you know? Just let go and really just - fuck."

Tony's eyes fixed on Bruce's. He wanted to say that Bruce's dream was so simple, such a small thing, really, that he wished it was bigger. He wanted to give Bruce something big. But on the other hand, he had the feeling that Bruce was simply telling him the honest truth.

He wanted to be able to give in to passion for a few minutes and just feel.

"I can do both of those things at the same time with this, you know," Tony said conversationally, just as Bruce felt a new surface - warm, strong, and wet, like a tongue - trailing gently along one buttock, accompanied by one of those odd simulated bites on the cheek.

"Really." Bruce sounded impressed. "Well, go nuts then."

"You want to do this - as if I were there with you? As if it were me?"

"Oh God yes," and Bruce's voice had shifted into something more guttural, low, as he could feel the tongue trailing upward along his already-tight balls - and then something close over his rapidly stiffening cock.

"Because I'm right here with you."

"I know."

Bruce felt something like a finger but with many joints - smallish, flexible, and lubricated, and warm - stroking between his cheeks, opening him up. Bruce sighed, and relaxed again, and the probe slid, gently, carefully, inside him. He thrust forward into the warm snug surface there, and felt himself clench around the invading digit.

"You want to pretend it's me? Maybe two of me? Because you don't have to. You don't have to be limited to that, if you let me really open this baby up."

"Oh yeah," Bruce moaned. "Let her rip."

"I was hoping you'd say that," Tony murmured, and moved something.

All at once it was everything, everywhere, and Bruce was swimming in sensations he couldn't pull apart any more. There were teeth and tongues and hands and things that were very clearly not real orifices but which were nonetheless slick and hot and clenching and it was everywhere, all at once. It was overwhelming.

Bruce yelled Tony's name.

"I'm going to take that as positive feedback unless you tell me otherwise," Tony said in Bruce's ear. "Like red, red is a good word to let me know you want to stop."

"How about just stop?" Bruce managed to stutter out. It was an incredible amount of stimulation and he was taking it all at once.

Tony's enclosed, lit-up face grinned. "I'm so glad you asked that."

Bruce gasped. His body was open now and the dildo Tony was using was much bigger than what had first been inside him. It slid home as if it were made for him - which, Bruce was positive, it had been. It was an improvement on the one they'd brought the first time they came here, Bruce realized, when it grew warm inside him, then started to vibrate, then started to undulate.

"For instance, if you were saying something to me like 'don't stop'."

"Don't stop," Bruce rasped obligingly, feeling his body arch in the soft embrace of Tony's machine. It could hold him, nothing bad was going to happen to him, he felt good everywhere. He didn't want to push its limits but he did want to push his, just a little bit. He flexed his arms experimentally; even without changing he could undoubtedly give the machine more of a workout than most humans. The machine gave a tiny bit, but held. No sounds of protesting materials, no gears whining. It was perfect.

Bruce took a deep breath, and spread himself open even more.

And Tony turned up the speed.

"You wanted to let go and just fuck, right?" murmured Tony's voice in his ear, so close, so - what was the right word for Tony Stark's bedroom voice? Naughty, filthy, urgent, hot? It was as if it was wired straight to Bruce's solar plexus, and he did thrust.

The hot wet pressure in front of him was met only by the hot sensation of being filled inside him, and as he clenched his muscles around the dildo inside of him, he felt his cock get impossibly harder.

He didn't even have anything left to stand on - Tony's machines were holding him up, rubbing him, licking and squeezing him, everywhere, even as he gave in to the urge to thrust again. Harder.

"Much harder," Tony encouraged him. "You can thrust much harder if you want to, Bruce. And I think you do want to."

Bruce's ragged moan rose in pitch.

"Oh wait, but we were in the middle of a demonstration. So now, if you were saying something like 'don't stop' --"

"DON'T STOP."

"And I really let her rip - and you really let her rip - "

"UHHNNNGGGGHHHHHHHGGGGG." Bruce gave in to the hot melting electric sensations that were traveling along every limb, everywhere under his skin, under his tongue for pete's sake. "DON'T. Ungggh... STOP."

"Aaaanndd there we are. Now is that a stop or not? Ambiguous. Red is much better. Much clearer. I'll know what you mean if you say red."

"GREEN!" Bruce shouted it at the top of his lungs, felt his throat getting a bit raw, then realized what he had said, and laughed out loud. A belly laugh. Followed by more rough deep moans as Tony kicked it up yet another notch.

Bruce grasped his closed fists - he didn't know what he was holding on to, but it was something, and it felt like he was holding on to Tony even though it wasn't Tony - and let out a roar as he pushed himself up on the balls of his feet and just thrust for all he was worth.

An absolutely human roar. A Bruce roar. Nothing of the other guy. Just him. Letting go.

Feeling. Everything.

"That's it," murmured Tony in his ear as Bruce fucked for all he was worth.

The orgasm he could feel building would have seemed overwhelming if he hadn't already given up completely to this experience. If he passed out, he passed out. But it would be him, just him. Tony would be there with him.

"Do it, Bruce, just do it," said Tony's voice in his ear and Bruce felt every muscle clench in glorious exploding pleasure and he thrust once more as if he could pound himself into Tony by pounding himself into Tony's machines and pour everything he had into everything Tony was.

He heard the long, low, growling moan as if it were someone else. He couldn't see or hear anyway - he was shortcircuited, every neuron, every nerve firing at once, all in simultaneous fantastic release. He felt like his cock had exploded and wasn't surprised by all the fireworks he could see behind his eyelids.

And then he was gasping for air, floating, feeling like parts of him might have floated off while he wasn't paying attention, parts of him burning from the physical exertion and parts of him sore and used and quite possibly glowing.

"Tony," he panted, and something wiped sweat from his forehead so he could see again, searching immediately for Tony's face.

"Yeah," said Tony, right there with him, hands holding him up everywhere, cradling him, as the last of the electric shocks of his orgasm surged through him, the last spurts from his cock warm and wet.

Bruce had nothing else to say, just lay cradled in the machine surfaces, dripping sweat and fighting for breath and absolutely sated.

"I got you," said Tony. And then, "So, successful test then?"

Bruce's huffing laugh sounded a little painful, but genuine.

"Ready to get clean? Maybe you're thirsty?"

"Sure," said Bruce, not sure what Tony was talking about but ready for anything Tony had in store for him, still entirely unable to make a fist.

"Water coming down," in Tony's voice and just as Bruce closed his mouth he felt himself sluiced in perfect slightly-warmer-than-body temperature water. It was a little alkaline, as if it had come from a desert spring, and it moved from his feet to his head; and when Bruce opened his mouth and let it wash over his tongue it was delicious.

"And the dry cycle," said Tony and Bruce was fluffed from head to toe with something soft, warm and absorbent, and then hit from all sides with puffs of warm air.

Bruce laughed out loud again. He felt the surfaces that had been supporting him start to lower him, and he was cradled but lying down, on the ground, perhaps. Before he even had a chance to wonder where Tony's face was, or feel disoriented, he felt Tony's arms - real, flesh and blood arms - closing around his shoulders and Tony's breath stirred his hair and Tony said "You can fall asleep if you want. I'll hold you."

Bruce felt like some sort of an answer was called for but he would have had to make a huge effort to say it, so he didn't bother. He turned into Tony's body, and breathed deep, feeling a bone-deep relaxation he couldn't remember ever having felt in his life, and dozed off in Tony's arms.

When he was awake the canopy of the machine was retracted. He could see the workshop again - some random pieces of equipment, the window, the sun outside streaming through the polarized glass. And Tony.

Tony sat next to him, looking at something on his phone, his arm still trapped underneath Bruce, his lengths stretching along the length of Bruce's still naked ones, warm.

He looked over at Bruce as Bruce's eyes opened and smiled.

"How long was I asleep?"

"Not even ten minutes," Tony told him.

"Long enough for you to get bored," but Bruce's wide, happy smile took the sting out of the words.

Tony almost forgot to reply.

"Oh, uh - just figuring out how long to let you sleep. You okay?"

"Yes." Bruce stretched, luxuriously. It should be colder, lying on the floor in Tony's workshop naked, but it wasn't. He could feel the blood singing under his skin, feel his muscles warm and stretched. He felt good.

"Successful test, then."

Bruce chuckled into the kiss, rolled himself over onto Tony's chest, feeling the dig of the edge of the reactor in his skin. "Yes."

"Happy engagement," said Tony, kissing him lightly, sweetly on the lips.

"Happy engagement to you too," Bruce murmured back against Tony's mouth.

"Oh, you're celebrating now?"

"I'm celebrating now. I'm in." Bruce kissed him again, slower, just as sweetly, waited for Tony's eyes to open again before he added, "All the way in."

Tony's answer was just a nod. He knew.

***FIN***